How Can So Many People Believe Such Weird Things?
Beliefs contradicted by evidence are the norm, not the exception.
Posted Feb 03, 2021
"Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast." —Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland1
A longtime patient of mine, whom I like very much, recently shared his views with me on the COVID-19 pandemic.2 He expressed how disappointed he is with most people for being such unquestioning “sheep,” believing everything the government tells them about the virus. "I'm just so disappointed in people. They can't think for themselves." He, in contrast, does not trust the authorities and does his “own research.” He told me about how he had watched YouTube videos of certain experts on COVID-19, who disagree with the views and advice of public health officials. These “experts” explained that COVID-19 is no more dangerous than the flu, that widespread mask-wearing is unwarranted, and that mass quarantines and lockdowns are unjustified and are just intended to serve particular political interests.
My patient does not suffer from any form of psychosis; he is not delusional or clinically paranoid. He is an anxious guy prone to bouts of depression, and also struggles to maintain focus. All this has resulted in underachievement relative to his potential and aspirations, a longstanding source of frustration for him. He unfortunately does not have a postsecondary education, but he is an intellectually curious person who strives to be informed about important current events.
Factors that contribute to conspiracy thinking
Many factors are known to contribute to conspiracy thinking, including stress and the need to feel in control over one’s life, a need for certainty and the need to make sense of a highly complex world, a desire to be uniquely knowledgeable, an overestimation of one’s level of knowledge on the subject, the sense of belonging to an in-group (of fellow believers possessing the special knowledge), and having an urgent sense of purpose.
Mistrust of authorities and experts is obviously a big factor, often going far beyond healthy skepticism, with misplaced and unquestioning trust in self-serving leaders and less credible "experts."
Credulity, science illiteracy, a lack of analytical thinking (lack of critical thinking), and an over-reliance on intuitive thinking (“gut feelings”) also contribute heavily. Less education is certainly a factor, but higher education does not on its own inoculate people from conspiracy thinking.
Certain cognitive biases to which we are all prone also contribute greatly, including confirmation bias, hindsight bias, motivated reasoning, and the human brain’s tendency to over-identify patterns and agency (intention) in randomness. All these natural cognitive biases require conscious overriding by critical thinking.
A strong association has also been found between a conspiracy mindset and greater belief in supernaturalism and paranormal phenomena, believing that unseen, intentional forces exist — and believing that history is driven by a Manichean struggle between good and evil.3
People who believe in one conspiracy theory are more likely to believe in other conspiracy theories.
In some individuals, a propensity toward mild psychotic symptoms may also be a significant factor, but most people who believe weird things are not delusional in the clinical sense.4
Conspiracy theories increase in prevalence in periods of widespread societal anxiety, uncertainty, or hardship. Deliberate political manipulation by unscrupulous leaders serving their own egotistical and power interests (the more so in such periods of societal uncertainty) can sway large swaths of a population through the dissemination of deliberate misinformation and propaganda.5
Social media, and internet algorithms, have made it easier to propagate conspiracy theories and easier for people prone to conspiracy theories to find each other and to find additional conspiracy theories. But it remains unclear whether or to what extent they have increased people’s propensity toward conspiracy thinking and irrationality.6 The internet also makes it easier to find information debunking conspiracy theories, for those possessing critical thinking skills. But information overload and a chaotic information environment are factors too. Many people over-rely on information shared on social media by friends and others they trust, as their main news source, rather than traditional mainstream media where there is at least more fact-checking and curation.
Widespread prevalence of conspiracy theories
Studies have consistently shown that very high percentages of the general population believe in conspiracy theories. In the United States, for example, this statistic typically exceeds 50% for political conspiracy theories, and the numbers are also high for belief in medical conspiracy theories. While increased media attention to conspiracy theories in recent years leaves one with the impression that they have been increasing over time, and has highlighted that they are not a fringe phenomenon,7 the evidence suggests they have always been this high (and possibly were even higher in the past).8
The even more widespread prevalence of other kinds of beliefs contradicted by evidence
Belief in implausible conspiracy theories is only one manifestation of the tendency of most of us to hold implausible beliefs that are totally contradicted by evidence, driven by many of the same factors listed earlier that contribute to conspiracy thinking.9 A small sampling of the kaleidoscope of such widely prevalent beliefs includes (in no particular order) astrology, numerology, synchronicity, clairvoyance, telepathy and other supposed psychic/paranormal phenomena, UFO abductions, homeopathy, acupuncture/life-energy Qi channels, reflexology, Reiki/energy healing, vaccines causing autism and other anti-vax beliefs, anti-GMO beliefs, climate change denial, creationism, supernatural beliefs in gods, devils, angels, miracles, mystical experiences, spirits/ghosts, afterlife, reincarnation, near-death experiences, and all manner of superstitious and other magical beliefs.
If you found yourself saying, “Whoa! Wait a minute! How can belief X be included in this list?!” rest assured, you are in the comfortable majority believing at least one of the beliefs on this (incomplete) list. I've believed a few myself. You are entirely normal. People who believe none of these are in the rather small minority of rigorous devotees to evidence and science. Hang onto your cherished belief, if you wish. Just recognize that you are positioning yourself diametrically opposed to science on that topic.
The desire to believe that one’s worldview is firmly compatible with science
For people who simply reject science, there is no discussion to be had. Best of luck to them getting by in this world (though of course almost none of them will give up their technology, medical treatments, and all the other products of science on which their lives and lifestyles depend).
But for most people, the centrality of science to societal success, and the spectacular success of science in dramatically advancing our quality of life, is self-evident and beyond debate. Therefore most people would like very much to believe that their worldview is firmly compatible with science and that scientific evidence will eventually vindicate and confirm their beliefs. My patient is convinced that there are “two sides” to the COVID-19 debate and that the small number of experts championing his views is correct; the rest of the scientific community is mistaken and will eventually be persuaded by the “evidence.”
Many who hold pseudoscientific, paranormal, or supernatural beliefs try to persuade themselves that there are scientific experts who support their belief, or that their belief is compatible with, or at least not contradicted by, science. (See footnote10 addressing the central question of science-religion compatibility.)
Scientific paradigm shifts
The argument is often made that there have been many scientific theories overturned in the past by better theories and new evidence, producing paradigm shifts. People who subscribe to one of the implausible beliefs listed earlier often assert that their theory will in the future become accepted science, the way that, say, continental drift theory was initially dismissed by most scientists as implausible but became mainstream science.
Science is a self-correcting methodology, proceeding through a process of conjecture and refutation, and by independent well-controlled replication of experiments. When the weight of evidence supports overturning an old theory in favor of a newer, contradicting hypothesis, then scientists adjust their views.
No scientifically credible evidence has emerged for any single one of the beliefs listed earlier, and many of those theories are beyond implausible, running so fundamentally counter to the foundations and entire accumulated evidence of modern science that for them to be true would require that practically all of the rest of science must be false.11
Critical thinking skills and scientific literacy are essential for success in today’s economy.
People who lack an understanding of how to rationally and systematically appraise information, and how to rigorously evaluate evidence, are at high risk of being left behind in the increasingly competitive knowledge economy. Countries with lower levels of these skills and with larger numbers of citizens prone to believing implausible conspiracy theories, pseudoscience, and folk beliefs characterized by magical thinking will quickly fall behind countries with more educated, science-literate, information-savvy citizens.
Most people have only a superficial grasp of the scientific method. Science is hard. Intuitionist thinking (“gut thinking”), with all its attendant cognitive biases, is natural, whereas rigorous critical thinking has to be taught, and it cannot be taught quickly or easily. The widespread lack of scientific literacy and rigorous critical thinking skills in many societies reflects a failure of the education system. And it reflects a popular media culture that all too often glorifies celebrity, indulges shallowness, dumbs down complex concepts, expects too little of readers/viewers, assumes a short attention span, and generally prioritizes content that entertains and shocks, over content that informs and educates.
The great science popularizer Carl Sagan observed:
"People who are curious, intelligent, dedicated to understanding the world, may nevertheless be (in our view) mired in superstition and pseudoscience. You could say, Well, they ought to know better, they ought to be more critical, and so on; but that's too harsh. It's not very much their fault, I say. It's the fault of a society that preferentially propagates the baloney and holds back the ambrosia. The least effective way for skeptics to get the attention of these bright, curious, interested people is to belittle, or condescend, or show arrogance toward their beliefs. They may be credulous, but they're not stupid. If we bear in mind human frailty and fallibility, we will understand their plight […] They believe things for reasons. Let us not dismiss pseudoscience or even superstition with contempt." 12
Sagan also left us with this sober warning: gullibility kills.13
1. I don't mean to do injustice to Carroll's witty quote by placing it within the context of this article on implausible beliefs. I'm aware that the quote also has a positive interpretation, as a testament to the value of imagination—that one can only achieve impossible things if one believes in impossible things.
2. I've actually had a number of patients express similar sentiments. The case described here is a composite, to protect anonymity.
3. Oliver JE, Wood TJ. Conspiracy theories and the paranoid style(s) of mass opinion. American Journal of Political Science 2014; 58:952-966; Joseph Uscinski, "Conspiring For The Common Good," Skeptical Inquirer, July / August 2019.
[CLICK 'MORE' TO VIEW FOOTNOTES 4-13]
4. Ralph Lewis, “Controversies in Psychiatric Diagnosis: What Is a Mental Disorder? And When Are Irrational Beliefs Delusional?,” Skeptic, December 2013; Pierre J. M. Forensic Psychiatry versus the Varieties of Delusion-Like Belief. The Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law 2020; 48(3): 327–334. See also my blog post "Would You Know if You Held a Weird Belief?"
5. Pierre, J. M. Mistrust and Misinformation: A Two-Component, Socio-Epistemic Model of Belief in Conspiracy Theories. Journal of Social and Political Psychology 2020; 8(2): 617-641. Studies suggest that people on both sides of the left-right political spectrum are roughly equally prone to conspiracy theories and that political orientation mainly determines which conspiracy theories one will accept or reject (Uscinski, "Conspiring For The Common Good"). Extreme political conspiracy theories also often attract people with antisocial personality traits and sometimes violent tendencies. And, at least in the case of extreme right wing conspiracists, blatant racist tendencies are common too.
7. Belief in some recent political conspiracy theories has been absurdly high: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2021/01/15/new-poll-trump-gop-approval-authoritarian/
8. Joseph Uscinski, "Clear Thinking About Conspiracy Theories In Troubled Times," Skeptical Inquirer, Volume 45, No. 1, January / February 2021; Oliver JE, Wood TJ. Conspiracy theories and the paranoid style(s) of mass opinion; Oliver JE, Wood T. Medical conspiracy theories and health behaviors in the United States. JAMA Internal Medicine 2014; 174: 817-818.
9. Michael Shermer, Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time, rev. ed. (New York: Holt Paperbacks, 2002); Michael Shermer, The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies—How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths (New York: Times Books, 2011); Donald R. Prothero, Reality Check: How Science Deniers Threaten Our Future (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013); James E. Alcock, Belief: What It Means to Believe and Why Our Convictions Are So Compelling (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2018).
10. Religions have rich, intellectually sophisticated traditions. They make their strongest case when they present their beliefs in metaphorical terms, and when they present their teachings as the accumulated wisdom of philosophically-minded people (humans), rather than as the revealed word of a supernatural deity, or as factual claims about the origin of the universe, life and consciousness. Religious and spiritual believers undercut themselves when they try to argue that their supernatural beliefs are compatible with empirically established scientific knowledge. Such compatibilism may be appealing, but it quickly leads to contradictions that are all the worse for religious belief.
For example, theologians who accept the scientific evidence for evolution as the explanation for biological complexity frequently try to argue that God operates by means of evolution, seemingly unaware that this is fundamentally incompatible with the ad hoc way in which evolution actually works—evolution operates without any hint of foresight or planning. A more-than-superficial understanding of evolution would inevitably lead to the troubling and inescapable conclusion that a God who uses evolution to create living creatures can only be thoroughly cruel or indifferent, not to mention inefficient, tinkering, and bungling. On this point, the evolution-rejecting, science-denying literal creationists are probably more correct than the compatibilists: the teaching of evolution is deeply corrosive to religious faith.
To be sure, religion has many psychological and social benefits—as I discuss in my book. But that value can only be appreciated when the claims of religion are understood mythologically and metaphorically rather than taken seriously as factual claims about the nature of reality. In their factual claims about the nature of reality, science and religion are so radically incompatible and fundamentally contradictory that at least one of them (science or religion) simply has to be spectacularly wrong.
In my book Finding Purpose in a Godless World: Why We Care Even If the Universe Doesn’t, I address in depth the complicated relationship between science and religion, and how we know what we know about the origins of the universe, life, consciousness, purpose, meaning and morality.
11. In which case, it would be a complete mystery or fluke as to how most of our advanced technologies work at all, since their design and engineering are based on the very principles that would necessarily be entirely invalidated if such “alternative” theories were true.
12. Carl Sagan, “Wonder and Skepticism,” Skeptical Inquirer, January/February 1995.
13. Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (New York: Random House, 1995), p. 218.