The Age of Gullibility
How do you know what to believe?
Posted Jun 26, 2018
"Do not be so open-minded that your brains fall out." –G. K. Chesterton
Many people–including psychologists–think that humans are, as a rule, stupid or mean or self-absorbed, and thereby declare a state of national or global crisis. Individual human beings can certainly be flawed, and perhaps a case can be made for the idea that humans as a species are compromised by design. Those who support this kind of argument rarely extend it to non-human species. We are generally comfortable with the idea that nonhuman animals are fine the way they are. Evolution has shaped them to survive and reproduce in their natural habitat; and they are equipped with instincts and capabilities they need to achieve their goals, but no more, because there would be no evolutionary pressure to bring that about. A rat that can read Dickens has no biological advantage. One possible interpretation of this idea is that human psychology might have been well adapted to an ancestral environment, perhaps in the Pleistocene, but that the rise of culture has, while bringing much progress and advantage, resulted in a misalignment between our psychological capabilities and processes and the human-made ecology that we now inhabit.
The narrative of humans as the only flawed species runs deep in some religions (e.g., the Abrahamic ones) and some scientific circles. Some paradigms (e.g., certain bias-focused approaches to judgment and decision-making) ask us to look for the deepest insight into human nature in evidence for errors and lapses of reasoning. One idea coming out of this diagnostic approach is that humans are excessively gullible The psychological literature offers many examples. For example, there is much research on the effects of propaganda, fake news, conspiracy theories, and para-scientific claims (Greenspan, 2009). At the same time, however, we see that humans can be quite stubborn when a change of mind or attitude is attempted or desired. Political and ideological convictions, in particular, are notoriously resistant to change (Krosnick, 1991).
As an illustration of this dialectic of gullibility on the one hand and resistance to evidence on the other, consider this example. A friend reports that she is planning her next trip to Bosnia and Herzegovina. There, near the town of Visoko not far from Sarajevo, the land shows some unusual formations that look like pyramids. Semir Osmanagić, who lived in the area before moving to Texas in 1992, claims that these formations are in fact pyramids, older and bigger than what the Ancient Egyptians were able to erect. Sam Osmanagich, as he calls himself now, has a social science doctorate, but no academic credentials in geology or archeology. He has, however, worked in marketing. Teams of academic archeologists and geologists have visited the site and they unanimously reject his claims. The hills are natural "Flatirons," they say, and there is no evidence of human intervention, least of all the pouring of an ancient form of concrete stronger than anything known today. Meanwhile, Osmanagić’s digging has done considerable damage to legitimate archeological sites from the ancient and the medieval periods; yet, his permits have not been rescinded. There is some gain in the regional economy because of tourism. There are also "psychic gains" to the locals brought by the idea that their early ancestors were capable of astonishing feats of engineering and knowledge of the sciences needed to accomplish them.
Visits to the site have reinforced my friend’s acceptance of Osmanagić’s claims. She gathered further material supporting Osmanagić’s claims among other literature on pre-historic pyramids and structures of uncertain origin. My response rests on two considerations. First, there is the fact that many credentialed scientists have taken the trouble of evaluating Osmanagić’s claims, and they emerged with a negative consensus. I regard consensus in a panel of independent scientists as strong currency in the shaping of belief in matters where science has a say. Second, if the pyramid hypothesis were true, many other beliefs regarding European (and human) history would have to change and many new puzzles would arise. To illustrate this conservative principle of not overthrowing an entire belief system rashly with another example, consider Ötzi the Iceman of the Tyrolean Alps. Ötzi is estimated to have lived 5,200 years ago. Carrying a copper axe, he single-handedly moved back the onset of the European copper age by several centuries (Artioli, 2017). A tabloid newspaper, not ready to grasp the significance of this find, announced that a ‘stone-age man was found with a copper axe’ (cited from memory). Ötzi’s copper axe modified existing beliefs within a credible envelope. Suppose, in contrast, Ötzi had been found with an axe of alloyed steel. Now, the possibility of evidence tampering would be a reasonable concern, for if true, the find would have forced a radical re-write of European pre-history and it would have raised many new questions beyond our ability to answer.
A cultural relativist might say that my friend and I both rely on a set of background beliefs and expectations. Each of us points to a consensus among sets of "witnesses," and each believes that his or her set is more credible. Each of us charges the other with gullibility. How may such stalemates of he-said-she-said be overcome? The question of how the term gullibility can be protected from losing all meaning depends on the identification of criteria that both parties can agree on. In this particular case, I offered an appeal to sense experience, the mother of all empiricism. Responding to my friend’s claim that there is an "energy machine" inside the pyramid hill, I declared that I would accept the pyramid hypothesis if I could see the energy machine (playing on the trope of "free energy," Osmanagić speculates that the pyramid will "break a cloud of negative energy, allowing the Earth to receive cosmic energy from the center of the galaxy" (cited in Wikipedia). My friend countered by calling me a "materialist," a label to which I do not object. But I am troubled by the implication that the existence of an energy machine need not be held to any kind of evidence other than belief itself. In short, the quest for a common criterion failed, and the impression of the gullibility of the other remained.
How might one proceed? One promising criterion on which "believers" and "skeptics" might be able to agree is a condition or set of conditions sufficient to prompt a change of belief. A discussion of such a criterion forces each side to grant that they are, in principle, open to evidence. Anyone who declares that he or she is not willing to consider a change in attitude under any circumstances agrees that his or her ideas are ideological or faith-based as opposed to empirical. But there is still a difficulty. Existence claims create necessarily an asymmetry. If the believer claims the existence of something and the skeptic doubts it, the skeptic can describe what an acceptable proof of existence would look like. In contrast, the believer will find it difficult to produce a clear description of what an acceptable proof of non-existence would look like. This is a weakness, but it is often reframed as a strength. Believers might proudly declare that you can’t find evidence of absence and that the absence of evidence (lack of existence proof) will not do. But this is a weakness because the believer is enabled to hold on to unsupported ideas indefinitely.
Recall the energy machine. If the pyramid hill is opened and no machine is found, only the materialist hypothesis is refuted. The machine, the believer continues, may be made of "subtle matter" instead of the "gross matter," which is the stuff of physics. The pragmatic question then becomes whether a believer can be moved to agree to the pointlessness of clinging to an idea that cannot possibly be refuted. A willingness to respond to evidence and lack thereof is built into the scientific ethos, but it is not necessarily a property of ordinary reasoning, especially when beliefs are concerned that satisfy needs other than the epistemic one (i.e., the need to know). The same logic unfolds when we ask about the nature of the pyramidal energy. The skeptic may ask about measures, while the believer notes that there are energies outside the measurable spectrum. Science may chase such claims forever. With each possible charge that the extraordinary claim has been ruled out, there is always space to which the believer can retreat.
I have referred to proofs and refutations, but this is putting too strong a point on the argument. Philosophers of science, from verificationists to falsificationists, caution that science-based belief can only approach certainty regarding empirical questions of existence or non-existence, but they can’t reach it (Ayer, 1936). With certainty being unattainable in empirical matters, gullibility and the will to believe have an opening. When a claim is false with a scientifically estimated probability of say .98, believers can treat probable falsity as a lack of proof of falsity and equate a lack of proof of falsity with potential truth. It is a short step from "potential truth" to "probable truth." These simplifications are seductive and misleading. They categorize a probability space into two distinct regions. Here, the region from p(true) = 0 to p(true) = .02 is set against the region of p(false) = 0 to p(false) = .98. Once the two regions divide the probability space between them, it is easily forgotten how immensely different they are in size. What remains is the idea that the claim is either true or false. Neither has been proven, so we are free to believe what we want.
The way we endorse or reject beliefs reveals an underlying epistemology, however implicit or unconscious it might be. A closer look is sobering. If we are ready to retreat and defend a particular belief against all challenges, we must answer the question of whether we would do this for any belief. If the answer is "yes," our nihilism is exposed. If the answer is "no," we must discover the criteria we use to tell the difference, and this might tell us something about ourselves.
Artioli, G., Angelini, I., Kaufman, G., Canovaro, C., Dal Sasso, G., & Villa, I. M. (2017). Long-distance connections in the Copper Age: New evidence from the Alpine Iceman’s copper axe. PLOS ONE 12(7): e0179263. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0179263
Ayer, A. J. (1936). Language, truth & logic. London, England: Victor Gollancz.
Greenspan, S. (2009). Annals of gullibility. Westport, CT: Praeger.
Harding, A. (2007). The great Bosnian pyramid scheme. British Archeology, 92. https://web.archive.org/web/20070712211737/http://www.britarch.ac.uk:80/ba/ba92/feat3.shtml
Krosnick, J. A. (1991). The stability of political preferences: Comparisons of symbolic and nonsymbolic attitudes. American Journal of Political Science, 35, 547-576.
Osmanagich, S. (2012). Pyramids around the world. Houston, TX: The New Era Times Press.