How do we reach people with ridiculous beliefs?

Oct 16, JDN 2457678

One of the most unfortunate facts in the world—indeed, perhaps the most unfortunate fact, from which most other unfortunate facts follow—is that it is quite possible for a human brain to sincerely and deeply hold a belief that is, by any objective measure, totally and utterly ridiculous.

And to be clear, I don’t just mean false; I mean ridiculous. People having false beliefs is an inherent part of being finite beings in a vast and incomprehensible universe. Monetarists are wrong, but they are not ludicrous. String theorists are wrong, but they are not absurd. Multiregionalism is wrong, but it is not nonsensical. Indeed, I, like anyone else, am probably wrong about a great many things, though of course if I knew which ones I’d change my mind. (Indeed, I admit a small but nontrivial probability of being wrong about the three things I just listed.)

I mean ridiculous beliefs. I mean that any rational, objective assessment of the probability of that belief being true would be vanishingly small, 1 in 1 million at best. I’m talking about totally nonsensical beliefs, beliefs that go against overwhelming evidence; some of them are outright incoherent. Yet millions of people go on believing them.

For example, over 40% of Americans believe that human beings were created by God in their present form less than 10,000 years ago, and typically offer no evidence for this besides “The Bible says so.” (Strictly speaking, even that isn’t true—standard interpretations of the Bible say so. The Bible itself contains no clearly stated date for creation.) This despite the absolutely overwhelming body of evidence supporting the theory of evolution by Darwinian natural selection.

Over a third of Americans don’t believe in global warming, which is not only a complete consensus among all credible climate scientists based on overwhelming evidence, but one of the central threats facing human civilization over the 21st century. On a global scale this is rather like standing on a train track and saying you don’t believe in trains. (Or like the time my mother once told me about where an alert went out to her office that there was a sniper in the area, indiscriminately shooting at civilians, and one of her co-workers refused to join the security protocol and declared smugly, “I don’t believe in snipers.” Fortunately, he was unharmed in the incident. This time.)

1/4 of Americans believe in astrology, and 1/4 Americans believe that aliens have visited the Earth. (Not sure if it’s the same 1/4. Probably considerable but not total overlap.) The existence of extraterrestrial civilizations somewhere in this mind-bogglingly (perhaps infinitely) vast universe has probability 1. But visiting us is quite another matter, and there is absolutely no credible evidence of it. As for astrology? I shouldn’t have to explain why the position of Jupiter, much less Sirius, on your birthday is not a major influence on your behavior or life outcomes. Your obstetrician exerted more gravitational force on you than Jupiter did at the moment you were born.

The majority of Americans believe in telepathy or extrasensory perception. I confess that I actually did when I was very young, though I think I disabused myself of this around the time I stopped believing in Santa Claus.

I love the term “extrasensory perception” because it is such an oxymoron; if you’re perceiving, it is via senses. “Sixth sense” is better, except that we actually already have at least nine senses: The ones you probably know, vision (sight), audition (hearing), olfaction (smell), gustation (taste), and tactition (touch)—and the ones you may not know, thermoception (heat), proprioception (body position), vestibulation (balance), and nociception (pain). These can probably be subdivided further—vision and spatial reasoning are dissociated in blind people, heat and cold are separate nerve pathways, pain and itching are distinct systems, and there are a variety of different sensors used for proprioception. So we really could have as many as twenty senses, depending on how you’re counting.

What about telepathy? Well, that is not actually impossible in principle; it’s just that there’s no evidence that humans actually do it. Smartphones do it almost literally constantly, transmitting data via high-frequency radio waves back and forth to one another. We could have evolved some sort of radio transceiver organ (perhaps an offshoot of an electric defense organ such as that of electric eels), but as it turns out we didn’t. Actually in some sense—which some might say is trivial, but I think it’s actually quite deep—we do have telepathy; it’s just that we transmit our thoughts not via radio waves or anything more exotic, but via sound waves (speech) and marks on paper (writing) and electronic images (what you’re reading right now). Human beings really do transmit our thoughts to one another, and this truly is a marvelous thing we should not simply take for granted (it is one of our most impressive feats of Mundane Magic); but somehow I don’t think that’s what people mean when they say they believe in psychic telepathy.

And lest you think this is a uniquely American phenomenon: The particular beliefs vary from place to place, but bizarre beliefs abound worldwide, from conspiracy theories in the UK to 9/11 “truthers” in Canada to HIV denialism in South Africa (fortunately on the wane). The American examples are more familiar to me and most of my readers are Americans, but wherever you are reading from, there are probably ridiculous beliefs common there.

I could go on, listing more objectively ridiculous beliefs that are surprisingly common; but the more I do that, the more I risk alienating you, in case you should happen to believe one of them. When you add up the dizzying array of ridiculous beliefs one could hold, odds are that most people you’d ever meet will have at least one of them. (“Not me!” you’re thinking; and perhaps you’re right. Then again, I’m pretty sure that the 4% or so of people who believe in the Reptilians think the same thing.)

Which brings me to my real focus: How do we reach these people?

One possible approach would be to just ignore them, leave them alone, or go about our business with them as though they did not have ridiculous beliefs. This is in fact the right thing to do under most circumstances, I think; when a stranger on the bus starts blathering about how the lizard people are going to soon reveal themselves and establish the new world order, I don’t think it’s really your responsibility to persuade that person to realign their beliefs with reality. Nodding along quietly would be acceptable, and it would be above and beyond the call of duty to simply say, “Um, no… I’m fairly sure that isn’t true.”

But this cannot always be the answer, if for no other reason than the fact that we live in a democracy, and people with ridiculous beliefs frequently vote according to them. Then people with ridiculous beliefs can take office, and make laws that affect our lives. Actually this would be true even if we had some other system of government; there’s nothing in particular to stop monarchs, hereditary senates, or dictators from believing ridiculous things. If anything, the opposite; dictators are known for their eccentricity precisely because there are no checks on their behavior.

At some point, we’re going to need to confront the fact that over half of the Republicans in the US Congress do not believe in climate change, and are making policy accordingly, rolling drunk on petroleum and treating the hangover with the hair of the dog.

We’re going to have to confront the fact that school boards in Southern states, particularly Texas, continually vote to censor biology textbooks of their dreaded Darwinian evolution.

So we really do need to find a way to talk to people who have ridiculous beliefs, and engage with them, understand why they think the way they do, and then—hopefully at least—tilt them a little bit back toward rational reality. You will not be able to change their mind completely right away, but if each of us can at least chip away at their edifice of absurdity, then all together perhaps we can eventually bring them to enlightenment.

Of course, a good start is probably not to say you think that their beliefs are ridiculous, because people get very defensive when you do that, even—perhaps especially—when it’s true. People invest their identity in beliefs, and decide what beliefs to profess based on the group identities they value most.

This is the link that we must somehow break. We must show people that they are not defined by their beliefs, that it is okay to change your mind. We must be patient and compassionate—sometimes heroically so, as people spout offensive nonsense in our faces, sometimes offensive nonsense that directly attacks us personally. (“Atheists deserve Hell”, taken literally, would constitute something like a death threat except infinitely worse. While to them it very likely is just reciting a slogan, to the atheist listening it says that you believe that they are so evil, so horrible that they deserve eternal torture for believing what they do. And you get mad when we say your beliefs are ridiculous?)

We must also remind people that even very smart people can believe very dumb things—indeed, I’d venture a guess that most dumb things are in fact believed by smart people. Even the most intelligent human beings can only glimpse a tiny fraction of the universe, and all human brains are subject to the same fundamental limitations, the same core heuristics and biases. Make it clear that you’re saying you think their beliefs are false, not that they are stupid or crazy. And indeed, make it clear to yourself that this is indeed what you believe, because it ought to be. It can be tempting to think that only an idiot would believe something so ridiculous—and you are safe, for you are no idiot!—but the truth is far more humbling: Human brains are subject to many flaws, and guarding the fortress of the mind against error and deceit is a 24-7 occupation. Indeed, I hope that you will ask yourself: “What beliefs do I hold that other people might find ridiculous? Are they, in fact, ridiculous?”

Even then, it won’t be easy. Most people are strongly resistant to any change in belief, however small, and it is in the nature of ridiculous beliefs that they require radical changes in order to restore correspondence with reality. So we must try in smaller steps.

Maybe don’t try to convince them that 9/11 was actually the work of Osama bin Laden; start by pointing out that yes, steel does bend much more easily at the temperature at which jet fuel burns. Maybe don’t try to persuade them that astrology is meaningless; start by pointing out the ways that their horoscope doesn’t actually seem to fit them, or could be made to fit anybody. Maybe don’t try to get across the real urgency of climate change just yet, and instead point out that the “study” they read showing it was a hoax was clearly funded by oil companies, who would perhaps have a vested interest here. And as for ESP? I think it’s a good start just to point out that we have more than five senses already, and there are many wonders of the human brain that actual scientists know about well worth exploring—so who needs to speculate about things that have no scientific evidence?

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