Friday, May 09, 2008

Why People Believe Weird Things

Shermer discusses and dissects some weird beliefs in this text, dealing with such things as Holocaust denial, alien abduction and young earth creationism*. These case studies are quite alarming, particularly the Holocaust deniers, but fascinating.

I liked that Shermer tackled the idea of why intelligent people can form weird (at least to outsiders) beliefs, which is often dismissed in debates (or at least online ones): believers can be treated as though they are stupid, when clearly they are not. His contention, that they are best able to rationalise their beliefs and build complex defences of them although they are just as likely to have acquired the beliefs for "non-smart" reasons, seemed plausible.

It is perhaps counter-intuitive to realise that "smartness" has no relevance to gullibility, or actually can work disproportionately the other way: an audience of highly-educated people can make the illusionist and cold-reader rub their hands with glee; for once you've got them, it's hard to unconvince them and they'll work to help him or her prop up the illusion.

He puts forward explanations and suggests some reasons why such beliefs can take such hold, such as attribution and confirmation biases, which is where it got really interesting to me. However, this was very much towards the end of the book and it ended rather abruptly as though he had a deadline either in word-count or time and I felt a bit cheated by that.

*Talking of young earth creationism, I read someone online saying that to accept a metaphorical reading of Genesis would be to throw out huge swathes of the Bible and therefore render the whole thing meaningless. Which reverses the point that I would perhaps make that to throw out evolution is to throw out paleontology, geology, biology and many more -ologies. It seems strange to me that a single book outweighs everything we can learn from the natural world in some people's minds. Yet I suppose if you are coming from the perspective that the Bible is God-breathed, etc, then all human efforts are compromised and subject to an almost conspiracy theory outlook.

I am increasingly of the opinion that it is impossible to convince anyone of anything they don't actually have an active desire to accept. This would seem to be borne out by what Shermer says of the way that people apparently fail to register/remember arguments against what they already believe to be true. Perhaps what has frustrated me in the past about the circular nature of online debate and how people whose arguments in my opinion got totally shot down one day will be back the next day repeating the same stuff should not annoy me so.

They would say the same about me.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hmm, interesting, and along similar lines to the programme I watched on Channel 4 on Friday. Those likely to swallow enormously bizarre theories are likely to have trust issues, be alienated from society, and jump to quick conclusions, apparently.

Personally, I've never understood why creation and evolution have to be mutually exclusive, and I really don't give a toss about the subject, but that's far too grey for the people who need to think in black and white, and have a desperate need to be right about everything.