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Why do believers believe silly things? The function of denialism

Last updated on 20 Feb 2014

Bishop Butler wrote in a sermon in 1729:

Things and actions are what they are, and the consequences of them will be what they will be: why, then, should we desire to be deceived? [Sermon 7]

It’s an interesting question. Why should we seek to be deceived about the consequences of our actions and the world? And yet, many people do. Current conservatives take it as a measure of ideological purity that climate change is either not real or something out of our control. They deny evolution. They deny the minuscule danger in marijuana and most drugs and ignore the major danger of tobacco and alcohol. What is going on here?

A long time ago I worked with a member of the Exclusive Brethren, a sect of the Plymouth Brethren, who are as fundamentalist as it is possible to be. I would try to talk to him about his beliefs, but he simply refused to engage. The Exclusive Brethren have withdrawn from all conversation with the secular world (which, in their view, includes all other Christians) except for business. I wondered at how a clearly intelligent person could believe what he believed, and then it hit me: he couldn’t speak to outsiders, because they just looked at him with their jaw open and shaking their head. His beliefs isolated him from those outside his community, and therefore, by implication, strengthened his involvement within the community. If you believe silly crap, then the only people you can talk to are those who have the same silly beliefs.

This might help explain why it is that no amount of reasoned argument with evidence can sway such folk. Think of this as a kind of investment: one spends a long period developing one’s beliefs and social connections. If you are challenged in your beliefs, you put at risk your social networks with those who use the silly beliefs you hold as a test of inclusion, and therefore risk your social connections. To start again will cost you time, effort and resources that could be better spent. It takes a real crisis of faith to be forced to reconsider these core beliefs. Few people will find themselves challenged when they are honest, costly and hard to fake signals of community inclusion.

In the case of climate denialism, or creationism, it is not the content or topic of the beliefs that matters, but the fact that in order to hold them and assert them, you have isolated yourself from the external community as a show of faith. To abandon them simply because they are false would cost too much. And so you face up to the cognitive dissonance and rationalise your beliefs and the facts that challenge them.

What does this mean for practical purposes? How do we counter these false beliefs? There is no simple answer. In the short term we can insist that our functional bureaucracies and social institutions do not give credence, but that will only harden those who deny the facts in their beliefs. At best it will slough off the fence sitters, and reduce the core denialists to a rump. That is one good thing, but we want people to face reality when it really matters. A better, but longer term solution is to insist that education teaches not the facts, but the methods by which we understand those facts, in order that people can develop their cognitive stances appropriately. This denies the next generation of denialists their replacements, until they become at best an extremely small minority. Education is the solution, which the denialists well understand. This is why we have objections to even discussing these “controversial” matters in schools, and why the denialists (whether of evolution, global warming, or whatever) continuously try to insert their agenda into public education. An uneducated community is more easily controlled and manipulated.

The development of beliefs is not merely a metaphor: it is a literal developmental process. Just as an organism that has been fed a nutrient poor diet will not fully recover as an adult even if their diet is improved, neither will a conceptually poor education be entirely overcome once someone has reached a reflective equilibrium in their beliefs. If contrary core beliefs cause a crisis in a person such that they do abandon their silly beliefs, they are just as likely to replace them with other silly beliefs rather than more educated and rational beliefs. So the answer in the long term is to ensure that we do not educate people into the wrong beliefs.

As I said (and as I have argued in my paper “Are creationists rational?”) simply teaching facts, which are themselves seen as competing belief claims by the believers, will not do. They are just a matter of competing authorities. I will prefer my authorities over yours, no matter how credible they are in objective terms. Instead, we need to give developing minds confidence in the facts, and the way to do this is to show that the methods used, by scientists and other disciplines, work. The way to do that is to have the students do the work themselves and see that they work. After all, of all the inbuilt heuristics we have, we believe our own experience over the reports and instruction of others. Give developing believers confined that the methods work, and they will have confidence in the results of those methods.

I believe, from my own experience, that it would be best to simply make children observers and experimenters, and ignore teaching to tests until they reach mid-adolescence. If they don’t have confidence by then in the propriety of science, it will no longer matter, but if they don’t have that confidence at all, no amount of science education will change the silly beliefs. Nor will science communication (which, being a form of journalism, is largely about the manipulation of attitudes than information impartation), nor campaigns of this or that kind. The silly belief-holder can rationalise these approaches as being the preaching of a competing (and therefore false) religion or ideology.

Finally, note that the real reasons people hold the beliefs they do is rarely due to careful consideration of the facts and arguments. This is a form of rationalisation, that which Marx correctly called “false consciousness”, and it is usually a matter of social function serving the interests of those who hold the reigns of power. Parenthetically, Marx’s own solution was just as much a false consciousness as that which he critiqued. If we want reasonable people holding true beliefs, because things will be what they will be and we will all be bitten in the arse eventually by reality, then the real solution is to make rational people who can find out and think for themselves.

Late note:

I posted the following on PZ Miskatonic’s Pharyngula as a reply, which may clarify some of the things I have said here:

It wasn’t about the Plymouth Brethren as such. That was just how I came by the insight.

This is part of what I think of as the Developmentalist Hypothesis of Belief Formation (the capitals make it true). We do not just acquire our beliefs in one step, but accrue them as we develop into adults. There is a cost to this, and so to move someone from their core beliefs and values, you have to make it something that would outweigh the costs involved in acquiring and maintaining those beliefs.

Denialism has a strong function in making communities of those who hold a particular belief more cohesive. As such, one has to ask, why does that community exist in the first place? As a proto-Marxian I think the reason is about the social and economic functions such beliefs play. Those whose sociopolitical interests are served by denying the facts, either because some influential class benefit, or because there is a deeper underlying fear of modernity or change the community represents, need these beliefs to defend their own (imagined?) way of life. The reason, for example, why many conservatives vote against their objective interests, has to do with their loss of community and cognitive investment if they change. The “narrative” they have developed to justify their beliefs is what Marx called “false consciousness”, and so pointing out the harm they do to themselves will not be effective. If we want to shift what the population believes to make it more reality-based, simple engagement, as valuable as it is, will not be widely effective.


  1. DiscoveredJoys DiscoveredJoys

    The difficulty I foresee is that beliefs appear to be first developed without words and beyond the access by the rational mind.

    Accepting the argument that the ‘self’ is at least in part created by reflecting to behaviours of those socially connected with you, is it any wonder that when young Jimmy notices that his parents, peer group, other kin and people in authority, act as if God is alive and well, Jimmy goes on to act as if God is alive and well himself? No facts have to be expressed to ‘ape’ behaviour as if facts have been expressed. Social coherence has been given a boost and young Jimmy’s chances of leaving descendants has been boosted.

    Then of course the confirmation bias works to (mostly) maintain the ‘success’ of Jimmy’s beliefs.

    By the time somewhat older Jimmy can manage facts and rational thought, he already has a semi-propositional set of beliefs which are ‘set’. No wonder beliefs are so difficult to change; they have been learned by a subliminal social process far stronger than conscious learning.

    I guess this means that we are unlikely to educate many people out of their beliefs. We need to change their culture, or their social connections… a much tougher task.

  2. Well argued as usual, John. Your suggestion that we focus on the “how” of science is well-taken, and in the “education biz” in which I find myself embroiled, is often referred to as “inquiry-based” or “discovery-based” instruction. We are encouraged in the science areas to refrain from simply telling students answers, and instead, encouraging them to figure out the answers.

    Obviously, this requires some guidance (the buzzword for this is “scaffolding”: you provide the intellectual frame, they fill it in, and then the frame can be gradually taken down), but at the secondary level – in the US, this is grades 9-12, roughly age 14-18 – this seems to be effective. It requires a ramping-up period, however: you can’t just dump kids into a room with stuff and say, “experiment!”, and expect good things to happen (although, interestingly enough, I think this DOES work well with much younger kids, who are prone to experiment whether we tell them to or not). I’ve been teaching biology to 15-16 year old kids for the last five months, and we are taking off the training wheels gradually. They now have to compose their own questions of interest, frame their own hypotheses, design their own experiments and data logging, and interpret their own results. It’s something they would have been completely unable to do at the start, and even now they’re pretty amateurish – but they CAN do it. I count that as a triumph. Not teaching them all the cool things scientists have found out, but rather, HOW they found them out, and how YOU can do it too.

    Granted, this is at a school populated by the children of educated parents. One might expect different results in the wilds of Louisiana or [insert your backwater here].

  3. Cultural conservatives complain that college profs are all a bunch of lefties determined to brain wash the kids. It seems to me that the main reason that so many people change their politics when they go to school is not indoctrination—the same profs have a hell of a time teaching the students calculus or German, for example—but that going on their own releases them from from the social mechanisms that enforce orthodoxy at home. Which is why you sometimes encounter the children raised by liberals who become right wingers when they go to the university—what we have here is an equal opportunity sociological mechanism. Of course the situation isn’t symmetrical, at least here in America, because liberal families don’t put as much of an emphasis on loyalty and obedience as conservative families for whom ideological heresy is often treated as treachery.

    Changing your mind isn’t just a matter of acquiring new information. You have to do renegotiate your relationships with friends and family. That’s why when people do change their minds, they often know all the arguments for the new position their taking. They learned ’em when they were disagreeing with them. And it’s entirely easier to convert when you change locations.

  4. Ron Van Wegen Ron Van Wegen

    I recently bookmarked your blog and read a few articles. Then you wrote this…

    “Current conservatives take it as a measure of ideological purity that climate change is either not real or something out of our control. They deny evolution. They deny the minuscule danger in marijuana and most drugs and ignore the major danger of tobacco and alcohol. What is going on here?”

    That has got to be one of the most pig-ignorant paragraphs I’ve read in a long time. Each sentence is risible. Reading further is not worth my time.

    • Rick Rick

      The rejection of climate change science and of evolution are two of the pillars of the modern conservative movement. Are you simply denying that? Perhaps we should survey the most conservative states and the efforts in these states to redefine what “science” is so it aligns with their politically preferred results?

      Do you have an actual counter-argument or is your argument just name-calling?

      Mind you, the point here isn’t that all conservatives are anti-science. But certainly the so-called conservatives that dominate the Republican party these days are.

    • tim tim

      Just look at the state of Florida. The Republican governor banned state employees from uttering the phrase “climate change”. Millionaires dump their money into campaigns against the decriminalization of marijuana. They passed a law banning doctors from discussing the health impacts of guns (read: risk of suicide) with children. You can’t buy a growler of beer from a local brewery, because the large alcohol coporations would prefer you support their pre-existing structure of middlemen.

      All this shit is utterly disgusting, motivated by greed, and absurdly unconstitutional.

      All this from the Republican party, self-proclaimed defenders of the Constitution and the Free Market.

  5. Everything you say about religious beliefs is true, but in terms of anthropogenic climate change it is the pro-AGW alarmists who have closed their ears and minds to argument. The broadest and most comprehensive coverage of the AGW debate can be found on the WattsUpWithThat website, which provides a forum for people on both sides of the debate: contrast this with the much less popular alarmist sites that vigorously censor comments that disagree with their views and pointedly ignore evidence suggesting flaws in their theories.

    If you really think that climate change sceptics are ignoring the evidence, then you’re not really looking hard enough.

    • Jonathan Jonathan

      Climate science is quite clear on the matter: global warming is real, anthropogenic greenhouse gases caused it, and the consequences are noticeable. The uncertainties of, for example, the exact figure of sea level rise make it difficult for governments to come to terms about what should be done, in addition to all other political considerations, but the researchers have by now drawn their conclusions about cause and effect.

      AGW is the current paradigm, and it was reached by what Kuhn would have called, rather euphemistically, ‘good reasons’. The argument has come from two sides. There was the ‘abductive’ approach, which suggested that greenhouse gases would cause the warming we see today, and the ‘inductive’ approach, which suggests that other possible causes of warming cannot be modelled in such way to have likely been the cause. These have been integrated in the big picture years ago.

      There is of course a possibility that the current paradigm is far from the objective (Popperian) truth. But that in itself does not change what Wilkins wrote here. If scientists have done their work and arrived at a conclusion, then reasonably that conclusion should be accepted; it’s the best we have. That is the case for AGW. The reasons for denying what has withstood the most rigorous testing are not rational, and I think a good point has been made that it has more to do with social communities.

      To the points made in the blog I would like to add that the typical debate about creationism and global warming can possibly be understood in terms of Eric Berne’s transactional analysis. Why mention this here? Because it seems that a game is played in any debate between a denialist and the person representing science, a game in which the object seems to be the drawing of lines between communities. The denialist’s goal is to get the other ‘player’ to react in such a way that shows they come from completely different backgrounds, thus reassuring that the denialist is part of his own group. The science person is drawn in by the lure of ‘we are going to stick to the facts,’ giving him the impression he can ‘win’ the debate because (s)he has such a big tradition of established science to back him/her up.

      As for education, I think a lot can be done if authorities of groups of denialists can be moved to represent science. This is what caused a lot to change in the Netherlands during the ’50s.

    • Michael Fugate Michael Fugate

      Jon, it is because the denialists don’t have a leg to stand on. Why listen to people like you who would rather stick their heads in the sand than face facts? This is so easy that a child can figure it out – carbon dioxide absorbs IR and heats up the atmosphere – burning fossils fuels increases carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. See how easy that was? Perhaps a review of the carbon cycle would be helpful – with a excursion into sources and sinks.
      What part of the chances in the carbon cycle do you deny are happening?

  6. “A better, but longer term solution is to insist that education teaches not just the facts, but also the methods by which we understand those facts, in order that people can develop their cognitive stances appropriately.”

    I have inserted a couple of words that you seem to have inadvertently left out.

    Teaching “methods” alone and not also a good-sized body of facts to which to apply them is a recipe for abysmal ignorance.

    • Point taken, but it would seem to me that you cannot teach methods without the students inadvertently learning a great deal of facts. Method is not something that exists in the abstract, I think.

      • Rick Rick

        Method cannot be taught in an absence of facts. There needs to be a balance between learning methods and learning facts. I am concerned that education reformers focus too much on teaching methods to the exclusion of the basics. Budding scientists asked to come up with hypotheses while lacking basic knowledge are going to flounder in the void.

        • Jonathan Jonathan

          As someone who is studying to become a teacher, I want to remark that knowledge transfer is currently the primary goal of education in my country (the Netherlands), more than education of skills and methods. However, what we really want to teach is how to apply the knowledge gained: for example, I don’t just want pupils to be able to reproduce the knowledge about climate change, but to actually make rough predictions about climate if CO2 in the atmosphere rises. In my book, that still counts as knowledge of facts because the facts are essential to it. I just aim for a higher level of understanding than repetition.

          The majority of the population is not going to do science, nor will it actually understand the scientific method in a profound way. That’s fine, but I do believe that critical reading and information gathering skills should be so common that people are able to inform themselves about scientific subjects and recognize what is the modern consensus. As it is, many feel that there is a dividing line in society, where science is part of some people’s communities and not of others’. I think that if we can teach non-scientists to gather and reflect on science responsibly, they will feel that scientists are part of their world, too, and not out to ‘get them’. A sense of involvement would be the overall goal, and quite an achievement too, because it is also important to note that most people are simply unable to understand the greater part of science.

  7. Jonathan Jonathan

    “As a proto-Marxian I think the reason is about the social and economic functions such beliefs play. Those whose sociopolitical interests are served by denying the facts, either because some influential class benefit, or because there is a deeper underlying fear of modernity or change the community represents, need these beliefs to defend their own (imagined?) way of life.”

    I disagree with this part, because of my impression – for what it is worth – that conservatism and denialism are popular among groups of people who have very little to gain from it in social and economic terms. If you start analyzing what they ‘get out of it’ the picture might very well become even more incomprehensible. Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway had some remarks of that kind in Merchants of doubt.

    • Not what they get out of it but what purposes the institutions and behaviours serve and whose. Many conservatives vote against their own interests (and in the interests of balance, so too do many radical, progressives and conservationists).

  8. John B John B

    John S Wilkins: before you ask the question of others, you should ask it of yourself, making sweeping generalisations about an undisclosed number of members of a labelled group, ‘conservatives’, the beliefs of each member you cannot possibly know, yet you assign them jointly and severally averaged characteristics, based on your own prejudices and silly beliefs.

    Eye, beam, speck, remove… make well known phrase using these words.

    • Right, because a statement of the form “Current conservatives believe X” plainly requires that the beliefs of every single conservative be known, and a single counter-instance proves such a statement false. That’s just basic logic, isn’t it?

      Whoops! No, I was thinking of the strictly universal form of expression “Every current conservative believes X.” Don’t know how that mix-up occurred.

  9. fuzzmello fuzzmello

    wow. that’s a lot of presuppositional swagger. not very much substance, unfortunately.

    “So the reason why (or if you prefer a pluralist approach, a major reason why) religions have these silly beliefs is that they serve to honestly signal identity” seriously? you really believe that? it’s really that simple?

    i think you’re funny, and not in the generous, conspiratorial sense.

  10. Genghis Genghis

    PZ Miskatonic’s Pharyngula>/i>? The curse of autocorrect strikes again.

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