A married couple spend much of their free time investigating various Conspiracy theories, with a particular concentration on the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Having reached the conclusion that there was some kind of conspiracy and a massive government cover-up, they brook no disagreement, accusing their opponents of being either complicit in the cover-up, dupes, or just plain old fashioned deaf, dumb, and blind idiots. Conspiracy theory thinking colors much of their thought on many subjects, such as the relative value and influence of various ethnic groups, and their argument and even conversation becomes more and more irrational, varying from ad-hominem attacks and accusations to illogical speculation and shrill unreason.
An elderly gentlemen becomes interested in the predictions of psychic Edgar Cayce, and is soon convinced that ‘the sleeping prophet’ was legitimate and unexplainable by science. He develops an abiding interest in all things ESP, believing that young children and animals have great powers of clairvoyance waiting to be discovered and developed. ‘Give me a classroom of first graders,’ he claims, ‘and within 30 days I’ll show you some amazing examples of psychic powers.’
A man from New York believes that all the major events of the second half of the 20th century were caused by a conspiracy carried out by a single man and his followers, from Pearl Harbor to the Kennedy assassination (again?) to the Vietnam War to the downing of TWA flight 800. He also believes that all of human history can be explained by the human brain’s desire for serotonin. He’s writing a book about the conspiracy, believing that he may be stopped from investigating further.
None of those stories should be surprising to you; after all, stories like them grace the pages of this and other skeptical newsletters and magazines, and are the subject of lecturers and conferences all the time. What is surprising is that all of these people expressed these opinions while they were active members of skeptical organizations like our own, professing to be students of rationalism, claiming to be applying the methods of critical analysis we are always professing and demanding be applied to extraordinary claims.
Many people these days seem to embrace superstition and magical thinking, whether it’s Oprah peddling daily doses of spirituality and positive thinking, Nancy Reagan consulting an astrologer, or the average consumer of homeopathic or herbal remedies. Television abounds with images of UFO’s and psychic powers, and mediums (media?) consult with those ‘on the other side.’ Many reject the hardest core of wild beliefs while still being willing to accept a few ‘out of the mainstream’ ideas here and there – for instance, many believe that ESP is at least possible, or take coincidences to be examples of psychic links, or avoid black cats and the number 13. Maybe they’ve got a lucky bowling shirt or a lucky pen, or some other talisman or amulet. These are all familiar to us, and some of us may have a few guilty secrets of our own, but how do we explain it when one of ‘ours’, a critically thinking skeptical machine, seemingly goes off the rails into the mysterious land of nutty notions?
This is hardly a new phenomenon – the following is the first paragraph of the 1956 preface to Martin Gardner’s excellent book ‘Fads & Fallacies in the Name of Science:’
The first edition of this book prompted many curious letters from irate readers. The most violent letters came from Reichians, furious because the book considered orgonomy alongside such (to them) outlandish cults as dianetics. Dianeticians, of course, felt the same about orgonomy. I heard from homeopaths who were insulted to find themselves in company with such frauds as osteopathy and chiropractic, and one chiropractor in Kentucky “pitied” me because I had turned my spine on God’s greatest gift to suffering humanity. Several admirers of Dr. Bates’ favored me with letters so badly typed that I suspect the writers were in urgent need of strong spectacles [NB: Dr. William Bates told those with poor vision to ‘throw away their glasses’ and rely on eye exercises instead’], Oddly enough, most of these correspondents objected to one chapter only, thinking all the others excellent [Emphasis added].
When asked about this recently, Mr. Gardner replied:
I can’t think of anything about why people have these blind spots…. There is a strong compulsion to believe in things paranormal and extraordinary that I suppose is related to a general decay in traditional Christian beliefs. And lack of knowledge about science surely plays a role. Gilbert Chesterton, for example, was a brilliant writer who converted to Roman Catholicism. I suspect this would never have occurred had Chesterton known anything about science. He rejected the theory of evolution, writing numerous embarrassing essays defending creationism and the Fall of Man in Eden. I wrote a book a few years ago about a bizarre cult called the Urantia Movement. I find it almost impossible to imagine any intelligent person taking the views of this cult seriously, yet I have met many Urantians who seem perfectly sane and intelligent in every respect except this one set of beliefs. Sorry I’m no more help!
Noted psychologist Thomas Gilovich, author of ‘How We Know What Isn’t So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life,’ had this to say:
You’ve asked a very intriguing question. Most psychological theories deal with uniformity and consistency of belief systems, so to the psychological community at least the phenomenon you’re talking about is a real anomaly. I’m afraid I can’t think of any work that addresses the issue very effectively. I’ll ask around and see if anyone else knows of any relevant work, but I’m not optimistic.
So, what the heck is going on here? Well, I don’t pretend to be on the same level as the esteemed gentlemen named (and stumped) above, but I can think of a few possibilities:
The holder of the outlandish belief is not really a skeptic. Perhaps the person in question does not really use reason and critical thinking as much as we are led to believe. Perhaps, underneath the skeptical veneer, there are more examples of irrationality than just the one which brings the person to our attention, and maybe they are merely paying lip service to rational inquiry while hosting a veritable X-file cabinet of ‘True Beliefs.’ In this case, abandonment of reason isn’t surprising, since it really isn’t abandonment at all, but rather an overall non-rational outlook.
The believer is attempting to affirm the belief by acquiring, implicitly or explicitly, the ‘imprimatur’ of the skeptical community. By associating and conversing with skeptics, by the very act of bringing their topic up for discussion, believers can attempt to steal some credibility for their ideas by claiming that because they are members of a skeptical group, their beliefs must by definition have been rationally evaluated and have passed the test of skepticism. These first two possibilities are very closely related, with the first providing an explanation for why the believer believes, and the second the explanation for why they associate with skeptics. Of course, the first may be present without the second, and vice-versa, but these two points seem often to travel hand-in-hand.
The believer is so emotionally invested in the belief that the application of skepticism is overwhelmed. This must surely be the most powerful reason for acquiring a ‘blind spot’ in a skeptical outlook – after all, we all have powerful ideas to which we have varying degrees of emotional attachment, and it is a difficult task to shine the light of cold, hard reason into the shadows of our most cherished beliefs. Perhaps, also, investigation itself can create an attachment. If we spend many years studying a phenomenon, might it not be hard to conclude that there is really nothing there? At risk might be fame, credibility, even the moral and ethical basis of our lives. Consider Rene Blondlot, a famous turn-of-the-century French physicist, so desperate to compete with Roentgen’s newly discovered X-rays that he convinced himself (and many others) that he had discovered a new kind of ray – N-rays. It took an American scientist, Robert W. Wood, just a few minutes in Blondlot’s lab to discover the sad truth. Martin Fleishmann and Stanley Pons, the erstwhile ‘discoverers’ of cold fusion, continue to work on the problem today, insisting that their basic idea was correct.
In the end, we all hold some beliefs dear, and some of them are frankly very interesting and would seem to make the world more fun, or secure eventual glory, vindication, or even redemption and salvation for ‘True Believers’ who hold fast without doubt or real critical examination. Perhaps each of us needs to periodically (if not constantly) reevaluate our personal prejudices and superstitions to be sure that we aren’t hiding behind our skeptical surfaces in order to protect our own brand of irrationality. Do you have a blind spot? Think about it.
1) All of these examples are taken from personal conversations with self-avowed skeptics.
2) Gardner, Martin, ‘Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science,’ Dover Publications, New York, NY 1957.
3) Personal communication.
4) Gilovich, Thomas, ‘How We Know What Isn’t So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life’, The Free Press, A Division of Simon and Shuster, New York, NY 1991.
5) Personal Communication.
6) An excellent discussion of both N-Rays and Cold Fusion appears in A.K. Dewdney’s ‘Yes, We Have No Neutrons,’ John Wiley and Sons, New York, NY 1997.