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Scientific American

Smart People Believe Weird Things

published September 2002 | comments (22)
Rarely does anyone weigh facts
before deciding what to believe
magazine cover

In April 1999, when I was on a lecture tour for my book Why People Believe Weird Things, the psychologist Robert Sternberg attended my presentation at Yale University. His response to the lecture was both enlightening and troubling. It is certainly entertaining to hear about other people’s weird beliefs, Sternberg reflected, because we are confident that we would never be so foolish. But why do smart people fall for such things? Sternberg’s challenge led to a second edition of my book, with a new chapter expounding on my answer to his question: Smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons.

Rarely do any of us sit down before a table of facts, weigh them pro and con, and choose the most logical and rational explanation, regardless of what we previously believed. Most of us, most of the time, come to our beliefs for a variety of reasons having little to do with empirical evidence and logical reasoning. Rather, such variables as genetic predisposition, parental predilection, sibling influence, peer pressure, educational experience and life impressions all shape the personality preferences that, in conjunction with numerous social and cultural influences, lead us to our beliefs. We then sort through the body of data and select those that most confirm what we already believe, and ignore or rationalize away those that do not.

This phenomenon, called the confirmation bias, helps to explain the findings published in the National Science Foundation’s biennial report (April 2002) on the state of science understanding: 30 percent of adult Americans believe that UFOs are space vehicles from other civilizations; 60 percent believe in ESP; 40 percent think that astrology is scientific; 32 percent believe in lucky numbers; 70 percent accept magnetic therapy as scientific; and 88 percent accept alternative medicine.

Education by itself is no paranormal prophylactic. Although belief in ESP decreased from 65 percent among high school graduates to 60 percent among college graduates, and belief in magnetic therapy dropped from 71 percent among high school graduates to 55 percent among college graduates, that still leaves more than half fully endorsing such claims! And for embracing alternative medicine, the percentages actually increase, from 89 percent for high school grads to 92 percent for college grads. We can glean a deeper cause of this problem in another statistic: 70 percent of Americans still do not understand the scientific process, defined in the study as comprehending probability, the experimental method and hypothesis testing. One solution is more and better science education, as indicated by the fact that 53 percent of Americans with a high level of science education (nine or more high school and college science/math courses) understand the scientific process, compared with 38 percent of those with a middle-level science education (six to eight such courses) and 17 percent with a low level (five or fewer courses).

The key here is teaching how science works, not just what science has discovered. We recently published an article in Skeptic (Vol. 9, No. 3) revealing the results of a study that found no correlation between science knowledge (facts about the world) and paranormal beliefs. The authors, W. Richard Walker, Steven J. Hoekstra and Rodney J. Vogl, concluded: “Students that scored well on these [science knowledge] tests were no more or less skeptical of pseudoscientific claims than students that scored very poorly. Apparently, the students were not able to apply their scientific knowledge to evaluate these pseudoscientific claims. We suggest that this inability stems in part from the way that science is traditionally presented to students: Students are taught what to think but not how to think.”

To attenuate these paranormal belief statistics, we need to teach that science is not a database of unconnected factoids but a set of methods designed to describe and interpret phenomena, past or present, aimed at building a testable body of knowledge open to rejection or confirmation.

For those lacking a fundamental comprehension of how science works, the siren song of pseudoscience becomes too alluring to resist, no matter how smart you are.

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22 Comments to “Smart People Believe Weird Things”

  1. Kenn Says:

    The objective is to be objective.

    Is that possible?

  2. Vulcan Tourist Says:

    Kenn: Nope, it’s not possible if your mind is wired to reason emotionally. Most are, but I believe it will eventually be shown that a very few aren’t… perhaps the result of some small speciation event at work? I’d personally like to see a variant of H. sapiens with the VMPC region of the brain completely atrophied.

    It’s one thing to have emotions, but quite another to let them trump or replace observed reality in making decisions. I dearly wish I could find my return ticket home from this delusional place!

  3. Robin Collins Says:

    One thought on the “alternative medicine” numbers: You may need to narrow down the definition a bit if the concept is to have any meaning. Does alternative medicine include vitamin approaches someone outside the standard medical model, hypnosis or acupuncture? I think the case can be made that some or all of these elements have some merit is some circumstances. Are they “alternative” forms of medical intervention?

    R.

  4. Robin Collins Says:

    One thought on the “alternative medicine” numbers: You may need to narrow down the definition a bit if the concept is to have any meaning. Does alternative medicine include vitamin approaches someone outside the standard medical model, hypnosis or acupuncture? I think the case can be made that some or all of these elements have some merit in some circumstances. Are they “alternative” forms of medical intervention?

    R.

  5. Robin Collins Says:

    typos in the above corrected here:

    One thought on the “alternative medicine” numbers: You may need to narrow down the definition a bit if the concept is to have any meaning. Does alternative medicine include vitamin approaches outside the standard medical model, hypnosis or acupuncture? I think the case can be made that some or all of these elements have some merit in some circumstances. Are they “alternative” forms of medical intervention?

    R.

  6. Peter Johnson Says:

    my two cents, “alternative medicine” is not the best term, I think it is misleading, a better term would be “unproven medicine” or maybe “disproven medicine”.

  7. Jim Stewart Says:

    The claim that “Students are taught what to think but not how to think.” is hardly scientific. Also what they [& we, as life-time learners] learn is all that really matters.
    Scinece has proved that the first things we learn include recognition within the womb of our mothers’ voice and even her use of language!

    Surely a more relevant is how our early environments form our learning processes. Those processes expressed in language, particularly in our mother “tongue”, which is distinct from written “words” and text like these, seem to be settled before any institutional teaching by “authorities”.

  8. Kenn Says:

    Vulcan:

    Yep. In sales and marketing I find people will by-pass better deals to buy what “feels right.” The challenge is to make them feel good about what we sell. A greater challenge is to make them feel good after they buy.

    Reminds me of Shermer’s book.

  9. Kenn Says:

    Robin Collins:

    To air is human.

  10. Robin (not Collins) Says:

    It seems to me that saying “88 percent [of adult Americans] accept alternative medicine” is not a very… um… scientific way to talk about a category (alternative medicine) that could include such disparate practices as astrology, chiropractic, acupuncture, movement therapy, Rolfing, Reiki, Jin Shin Jyutsu — the list goes on and on. Let’s have a more disciplined approach to this particular measurement, which is probably several measurements in reality.

  11. Dr. Robert Galloway Says:

    I have literally sat through hours exceeding 100 in lectures on “scientific method”. These addressed how to set up double blind, controlled studies, worthy of funding, and using the appropriate statistical methods to accurately interpret the results of the studies. We learned techniques that work great to test a fuel additive or an antibiotic. How does one apply these techniques to societal policies? You end up reading opinion by individuals you respect and then going with your gut. How to structure a society is not really fully susceptible to the scientific method.
    Sincerely,

    RHG

  12. Dustin Says:

    One thing that is being overlooked is the possibility that many people, regardless of intelligence, have had at least one or more episode in their lives where strange things happened that they could not explain. Regardless of their origin, you can’t negate the possible impact such an event could have on a person. A possible way to answer this question would be to perform the study while also asking if the subject has ever had any of the aforementioned things (i.e., UFO sightings, treatment with alternative medicine, etc.) to look at their exposure to unscientific things. Does anyone know if this has been done yet?

  13. Steve Young Says:

    Smart people believe weird things because there are fewer of them, and any minority belief is ‘weird’. Any attempt to analyze deeper simply limits perspective and misses this obvious conclusion.

  14. vivek v raykar Says:

    Smart people believe weird things because they can bend their language, reasoning power and persuasive skills to better effect.Their skills are so great that they can deceive themselves.

  15. w_nightshade Says:

    Smart people believe weird things because they are PEOPLE. Everyone is susceptible to confirmation bias.

  16. Bounmee Says:

    I agree that intelligent people are more sophisticated in their thinking and can effectively ‘lie’ to themselves as well as others to justify beliefs.

    As for the use of the term, ‘alternative medicine’ – this is as vague and manipulative as some of the less intelligent people’s arguments to justify their beliefs.

    I would be really interested to know the percentage of educated or, simply, ‘thinking’ people who believe in ‘weird’ things but have had no empirical experience in that area.

  17. Deanna Says:

    Michael Shermer is a smart man, yet believes that three buildings collapsed into dust due to fire. He successfullly suspended reason for that particular event. It’s no surprise others have the same abilities for their ‘sacred’ events.

  18. John D. Says:

    Deanna has commendable interests (assuming she even bothered to read this article rather than just commenting on it) but she believes that there was – nay, there MUST – always be more to an event than the official explanation.

    Because, as it seems is the case with so many others, her emotional/psychological bias will not allow her to accept the fact that such monumentally horrific events can, and do, happen for the most mundane, simple reasons.

    It seems that there are a lot of people in the world who cannot live with the idea. Perhaps it’s too much to handle; too much to comprehend; too much to live with the notion that there really can be such mindless, directionless, pointless chaos in our lives, no matter how badly we feel the need to impose order on it all.

  19. Louie Says:

    Hey, John. I’m sure Deanna knows full well that horrendous events occur all over the planet. From Dachau to Hiroshima to the My Lai Massacre to the Oklahoma City bombing…there’s plenty of evidence that things like this happen and with alarming regularity. Yes, the world is full of ‘bad’. But, John, what does that have to do with 9/11? Deanna (and myself) do not have the capacity to suspend reason long enough to believe that three steel and concrete structures can collapse at near free-fall speed due to fire. There MUST be more to it than the official version of events, whether YOU want to go there or not! Physically, it’s impossible for it to happen the way we are told it happened, and …applying Occam’s Razor… impossible it is!! I believe YOUR fear and emotional bias is preventing you (and Shermer and others) from even letting the slightest doubt creep in. You doggedly adhere to 9/11 dogma. You are as devout as the religionist. You have blind faith.

  20. Louie Says:

    Furthermore, it has been duly noted that you attempted to attack Deanna’s character and mental state (totally without evidence) rather than addressing the content of her assertion. Nice way to deflect. A typical ploy of the faithful.

  21. Shadeburst Says:

    Relax John D., it’s just Deanna and Louie trying to prove that they’re smart :)

  22. corey Says:

    It’s funny to read people getting defensive about the use of the term “alternative medicine.” Lying just beneath the desperate and unfounded complaint is “but but but MY alternative treatment is REAL!” Lol, no it isn’t. Someone mentioned vitamins and acupuncture. Lol, if you think either of those is a sensible replacement for real medicine, then you are believing a stupid thing. Substituting alternative (unproven) therapies for proven ones is irrational. So now you’re responding emotionally to Shermer pointing this out? Oh do tell me more!