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How to argue with silly thing believers

Last updated on 20 Feb 2014

Orthodox apocalypse
The apocalypse in an Orthodox church. Source: Wikimedia

[Apologies this took a while; I’ve been rather sick]

So, given all this [Why believers believe silly things, why they believe the particular silly things they do, and the developmental hypothesis of belief acquisition], how can you change a believer’s mind? It is tempting to say that you cannot, or to take a more rationalist perspective and think that more argument is all that is needed, and both views are often put. But, as we might expect, the situation is a bit more complex than that.

First of all there are two distinct questions here. One is the individual question: how can we change a particular individual’s beliefs? The other is the communal question: how can we change the overall reasonableness of a given group or population? These are different questions with different answers.

The individual question has no general answer: it depends upon the individual’s belief-set, and how coherent it already is, and whether or not they are sensitive to experiential challenges (that is, if they are in a crisis). A believer who has a relatively well-cohering set of beliefs, with no real internal conflicts of note, but who is in no personal position of challenge by experience, is relatively immune from rational argument. If they face empirical challenges (their beliefs do not match with the world they are experiencing, as in the classical study of the failed millennialists by Leon Festinger and colleagues (Festinger et al. 1956)), one solution is to deny the facts, another is to to reinterpret the peripheral or less weighted beliefs to save the core beliefs, and a third is to reinterpret the core beliefs so that they are not challenged by the facts. All three strategies can easily be found. For example, global warming denialists will challenge the facts. Creationists will allow some facts but reinterpret them or the ways they are handled by creationist thinkers. And my favourite case of core reinterpretation is the reaction of the Catholic church to Daltonian atomism and chemistry: change the interpretation of a core belief in substance in the doctrine of transubstantiation from a physical reality to a metaphysical reality (thereby partly conceding to their Lutheran critics of 400 years earlier).

When these things happen, believers will usually deny that they have happened (Schmalz 1994), like the historical revisionism in Nineteen Eighty-Four, where the state goes to war with a new enemy and now tells its pliable population that “We have always been at war with Oceania”. These three strategies are increasingly schizoid. Reinterpreting the core beliefs to accommodate new facts is a healthy response to the world, leaving only questions of group identity marking (we do not agree with those Lutherans, they are heretics!). The Church has accepted (belatedly) the scientific virtue of Galileo, Dalton and Darwin.

The revision of peripheral beliefs is more strained. When [honest] creationists spend time trying to accommodate the facts of biogeography, biodiversity, genetics and dating techniques, they may find their “hypothesis” dying what Flew called “the death of a thousand qualifications”, but so too do defenders in science of outmoded hypotheses, and there is no threshold at which it becomes irrational to hold those beliefs. Nevertheless, like pornography, we can recognise irrationality when we see it. The rationalist approach to argument, however, behaves as if there is, or ought to be, a line that one should not cross. This leads to interminable “debates” of claim and counterclaim, which rarely result in any resolution.

The third approach is to simply deny the facts. This can be achieved by adjustments to the reliability of those who we disagree with (ad hominem attacks, for instance, on the probity of climate scientists). Both believers in pseudoscience (like Bigfoot or homeopathy) and anti science (such as creationism or anti-vaccination) find methods of calling into question the facts themselves.

Now as the response becomes less grounded in the empirical, reasoning becomes much more difficult, until you reach a stage where no reasoned argument is possible. But this is determined by the strategies adopted by the believer, not by the subject or belief they hold. Homeopaths can be argued out of homeopathy, and Catholics can still hold stubbornly onto the view that the Host really is blood and flesh, and that chemists are just anti-Catholics. So it depends upon the individual. If the core beliefs are cognitively entrenched, then they are less likely to undergo any kind of rational or empirical revision. [As a side note, one often anecdotally hears of a believer in homeopathy or some other “complementary medicine” who abruptly adopts empirical medicine when it is their child or loved one who is suffering. This is a very personal crisis. However, it can also drive the believer deeper into the silly belief, as Festinger noted.]

At a group level, however, things are even more complicated. Here what counts includes the institutional structure of the belief-group. The plasticity of the group itself will help determine whether the group adapts or digs in further: the more authority-driven the group, and the more exclusionary it is to those who deviate even slightly from the approved belief-set, the less it will change. And another issue is group size. The Catholic Church, for example, while supposedly hierarchical (indeed, the very term hierarchy was taken from its military-style structure of command and constraint; it means “rule of priests”), has been very fluid in its interpretation of its core beliefs. In large part this is because the Church is not small and there are many de facto command structures apart from the clerical. The Jesuits, for instance, played a great role in adopting, refining and making viable scientific acceptance within the Church, even as others were pushing for a return to older, conservative, beliefs. Christian, Jewish and Islamic doctrine has been in various ways able to adapt to new science and new social conditions (as Harnack showed in great detail in his classic History of Dogma in the late nineteenth century).

But some generalisations can be made. One is, that the more a belief-group is reliant upon authority figures to tell believers what they should believe, the less fluid the tradition. This is, as I argued in the paper on rational creationism [mentioned in the last post], due to a kind of doxastic [that is, belief] division of labour. Most of us have little time to test and become familiar with the technical ideas of science, for instance, and so we rely upon authorities. But the authorities we select to rely upon depends a lot upon what belief-group we are in. We choose to believe our authorities over theirs. As I argued, this is because, evolutionarily speaking, they aren’t dead yet. Having their beliefs may have a cost, but that is offset by the benefit of savings in time, effort and resources of taking ready-made ideas off the shelf. We have a disposition to adopt the views of those we grow up around, because it is economic to do so, and adopting those views won’t likely kill us. Only when we reach a crisis state do we challenge those authorities, and even then we will tend to do so piecemeal until we reach a (personal) threshold of incredulity.

Another depends upon the degree of engagement we have with the wider society in which our belief-group is located. Even the Plymouth Brethren must deal with teachers, the media, and popular culture that is right there on the shelf in the bookshop. Messages that conflict with our belief-set can reach another (personal) threshold that we find challenges our core beliefs. When that happens, we may find a crisis that causes a rapid conversion (or de-conversion) in core beliefs.

This is why one of the major areas of battle between belief-groups lies in the control and amelioration of these challenges in education. If you can introduce some doubt about the strength of, say, evolutionary biology among younger children, it is rational (in a bounded sense) for them to stick with the core beliefs of their belief-group. Only if evolutionary biology (or whichever other topic is at issue) is presented firmly and without competing beliefs in educational contexts will it begin to undermine the authority structure of the student’s belief-group. As I argued in the creationism paper, sufficient challenges will tend to sway the average developmental trajectory of a believer away from the hard-core or exclusive belief-set of the belief-group. The population as a whole becomes more accommodationist.

This leads to my final point: herd immunity. In vaccination, when a sufficiently high number of the population has been immunised, the epidemiology of the disease being vaccinated against reaches a point at which the likelihood of infection among the unvaccinated (the very young, for instance) is very slight. Beliefs behave like pathogens (a metaphor that has been widely abused, in my view) in that since we take our belief cues from the experienced social norms, when those norms are reasonable ones, unreasonable beliefs tend to founder, and so this sets up a selection pressure in the evolution of beliefs for beliefs to be not too weird, or they isolate the believer too greatly from the social context in which they live. Sufficient education in reasonable beliefs forces many silly beliefs, or at any rate those that have real world consequences, to become less silly.

Anyone who understands population genetics will realise that this does not mean that the entire population will become reasonable as such. In genetics and in epidemiology, the ratio of beneficial to deleterious variants will reach a tradeoff point, called an evolutionarily stable strategy. In economics, this is called a Pareto optimal point. To increase one variety will lower the average fitness of the population, and so the two variants will remain in a set balance until external conditions change. It is for this reason, for example, that I do not think religion will “disappear” as many rationalists think it will. There are group benefits to religion, and even in the most secular society, until the costs of being religious exceed those benefits, religion as an institution will persist.

So in order to ameliorate the supposed evils of religion (or conservatism, pseudoscience, radicalism, etc.), the best strategy that those whose ideas are empirically based can take is, in my view, to resist attempts to dilute science and other forms of education. This sets up a selection pressure against extremist views. Similar approaches might be taken in what Americans call “civics” classes to deal with political extremisms, and so on.

To conclude, I should make the following point: I am not suggesting that I alone am ideologically pure and coherent in my beliefs. Anything I say in general must apply to me also (this is why one of the objections to Marxism is that somehow Marx exempts himself from false consciousness). So I assume that I, too, will have conflicting belief subnetworks, and so one of the reasons why I put these thoughts out here is to get the same kind of correction from the wider community that I expect those I have used as examples here require. I am a radical (increasingly as I age), conservationist, small-l liberal of the Millian variety, agnostic and very, very, pro-science. I expect I have more than a few of my own shortcomings. As a friend once said of me, I am like a hunchback who cannot see his own hump, but sees everyone else’s. I expect this. But I think this analysis is roughly in the right region.


Festinger, Leon, Henry W. Riecken, and Stanley Schachter. 1956. When prophecy fails. Minneapolis, MN, US: University of Minnesota Press.

Schmalz, Mathew N. 1994. “When Festinger fails: Prophecy and the Watch Tower.” Religion 24 (4):293-308.


  1. Pansophia Pansophia

    if we find God we’ll won if we’ll find it nothing we’ll loose at nothing too 🙂

  2. Richard Peachey Richard Peachey

    Sorry to hear about your illness, John. Hope you’re feeling much better.

    You suggest: “First of all there are two distinct questions here” [regarding how to change people’s beliefs].

    But perhaps there should be a prior question: “Why should we try to change someone’s beliefs?”

    Especially since you allow (and I appreciate your forthrightness) that you yourself (like all of us) are not “ideologically pure and coherent” in your beliefs.

  3. Richard Peachey Richard Peachey

    By the way, John, you allege in passing that creationism is “anti-science.” If you mean creationists are anti-science in toto, I have disputed that charge in detail, with documentation. See my article here:

    But if you mean anti-science in part only — well, we’re all free to be selective about what we accept from “scientists.” It’s called critical thinking. (I was interested to see your reference to “creationist thinkers.”)

    • Michael Fugate Michael Fugate

      Richard, deciding on the answer and then finding authorities to confirm your answer is not science. Based on the Bible, you have decided creationism is true and evolution is false. Given this decision, you have gone about finding sources to back up your belief without any regard to their accuracy or contrary evidence. You have brought up evolution = nihilism at least twice. John, who is a philosopher, has told you that is a mistaken notion, yet you ignore his well reasoned arguments. Why, because you are engaged in apologetics – not science and certainly not critical thinking.

      • Richard Peachey Richard Peachey

        You’re bluffing, Michael, since you don’t know my personal history.

        I was an atheist. I began considering the claims of Jesus Christ and eventually accepted them (short version of the story). Some months later, I was challenged by the Bible to consider the question of origins. I recognized that the Bible (taken in its plain sense) seemed to conflict with the evolution I had accepted up till then — but that did not determine the question for me. The Bible provided the challenge — but my investigation was then conducted on the basis of scientific information. After some time, I concluded that the evolutionary worldview had significant weaknesses, and moved toward creationism.

        Regarding John’s arguments, I have not ignored them, but then I’m under no compulsion to simply accept a philosopher’s verdict that I’m mistaken. Whether John’s arguments are adequate is for each individual reader to decide. As a critical thinker, I need to be persuaded, not just contradicted. (I assume you feel the same.)

        • Michael Fugate Michael Fugate

          Sounds like I got it right.

        • Michael Fugate Michael Fugate

          Richard, I am just wondering – do they teach you to say these things in apologetics 101? Almost every creationist I have read, starts out with the line “I was an atheist and an evolutionist …..” Then there is the line “I studied the evidence, I used science and critical thinking to arrive at creation….”

          I am not part of your congregation so apologetics is lost on me. I am not impressed that you were once an atheist or accepted evolution. What I always find comical about these statements is they are rarely much more than a rhetorical ploy. I don’t know your story, but when I have investigated others – they are so typical – Christian upbringing, Christian colleges, perhaps they once doubted god for a weekend – who knows.

          The science is almost all against you, the Bible is so vague about creation that there is very little with which one can develop working hypotheses. Not to mention that creationists rarely if ever do actual science on creation. It is also interesting that Christians practicing science at Christian universities were the ones who dumped Biblical creation. But we have covered this all before – no hypotheses, no testing, no science. You can’t know the answer you want and just discard any evidence that doesn’t conform to that answer and claim you did science. You know better than that.

          The last bit about critical thinking – which you repeat and repeat – (trying to convince yourself of its truth?) is shown to be dubious by John’s reply to your global warming/Nature comment. You see something that nominally confirms your belief and – whammo – you are touting it like mad. You are not putting forth arguments – except from authority. What was the chain of evidence that makes you conclude the Bible is the ultimate authority on creation? It can’t be that Genesis is a hodgepodge of other middle eastern stories about gardens and floods or that a god took a rib out of a male, shaped it into a female and somehow altered the genetic makeup to have two x chromosomes instead of an x and y. Wouldn’t a female make much more sense as the first human?

        • Richard Peachey Richard Peachey

          I won’t go into my personal history any further, since you’re in a scoffing mood about that. Suffice it to say you’re mistaken.

          “the Bible is so vague about creation that there is very little with which one can develop working hypotheses” …. “Christians practicing science at Christian universities were the ones who dumped Biblical creation.”

          This pair of statements seems oxymoronic. If it’s that vague, what’s to dump?

          “You can’t know the answer you want and just discard any evidence that doesn’t conform to that answer and claim you did science. You know better than that.”

          That strikes me as just patronizing ad hominem condescension, not worth answering. If you have any substantive issues to raise, I would enjoy discussing those. Enough of trying to psychoanalyze me.

          “The last bit about critical thinking – which you repeat and repeat – (trying to convince yourself of its truth?) is shown to be dubious by John’s reply to your global warming/Nature comment. You see something that nominally confirms your belief and – whammo – you are touting it like mad.”

          I have responded to John’s reply (which see). “Confirms your belief … whammo … like mad” — this is just more ad hominem noise.

          “What was the chain of evidence that makes you conclude the Bible is the ultimate authority on creation?”

          Ah, now you’ve given me a reasonable question to work with. The chain of evidence was, for me, something like this: (1) The Bible is a unique and impressive book within our culture, something worth investigating. (2) The Bible’s key theme is Jesus, about whom some amazing and significant claims are made. (3) A central claim about Jesus is that after having died, he rose from the dead. (4) Jesus’s character, teaching, claims, predictions, and other factors mesh with the claimed resurrection. (5) Alternative explanations of the resurrection fail. (6) If the resurrection really happened, Jesus is Lord and his teaching is true. (7) Jesus strongly supported the authenticity and historicity of the Old Testament Scriptures. (8) The New Testament writings in general, written by authorized apostles of Jesus (or close associates of apostles), strongly support the authenticity and historicity of Genesis, in particular chapters 1 to 11 which are so often disputed.

        • Michael Fugate Michael Fugate

          I know I should take what you say seriously, but it is difficult at times; that last section is just a “cut and paste” from an apologetics text – it couldn’t be more impersonal.

          If it is true, you really should get out more, read some history – especially history of religion. Did you know that in the Bagler sagas written in the 13th c. that Odin made an appearance and helped win an important battle – there are eye-witness accounts. Gods appear all the time – why this one from a middle-eastern desert?

          I must admit I am partial to trickster gods – they are all over the place – Coyote in the American southwest, Raven in the northwest, Loki in Scandinavia, Prometheus in Greece, Anansi in the Caribbean, Renard the Fox in Europe. Why not gods in animal form?

          How do you pick one over the other – if you haven’t sampled them all?

        • Gerda Peachey Gerda Peachey

          “I know I should take what you say seriously ….”

          Yes, Michael, you’re right.

          “… that last section is just a ‘cut and paste’ from an apologetics text – it couldn’t be more impersonal.”

          Impersonal or otherwise, it is the line of argumentation I find convincing. Truth is more important than originality.

          “How do you pick one over the other – if you haven’t sampled them all?”

          In your examination of worldview claims, perhaps begin by giving first preference to the one that:
          (1) has had major influence in the world, and
          (2) will cost you the most if you ignore it and it turns out to be true.
          But beyond those things (and here’s something very personal for you), give serious attentive consideration to the person, deeds, and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. Could this man have been made up?

        • Yikes. My wife’s name inadvertently got onto the above comment. Don’t blame her!

    • Jeb Jeb

      Richard. Link at the bottom of you’re post to a podcast. Anti-Science, Unpacking a Vague and Distorted Label

      I would note that perfectly valid academic terms can take on a very different life different in public discourse.

      Here is an example of a term I use. Note that in public political discourse it has negative associations in academic usage its a technical term.

      I could only listen to half the podcast, if this is bias on my part I would be happy to be proved wrong but I suspect at no point will the podcast attempt to explore any possible difference between academic usage and its usage in public political discourse, (the only aspect mentioned in the large chunk I listen to).

      I would suggest its not in its interest to do so but to present any academic usage as entirely political and an attempt to hijack a genuine debate by evil immoral godless liberals ( a common anti-science ploy)

    • Will Holz Will Holz

      From your article. . .

      “The parts we are hesitant to accept are largely confined to the historical reconstructions, which are one or more levels removed from actual data. Things like molecules to man evolution. Speculative “origin of life” chemistry. The “Big Bang” model with its add-on “Inflation.”


      Your motivation in analyzing the topics in question makes you inherently less capable at separating what you want to believe with the evidence. That’s just how our brains work and if you’re not willing to work really hard to address that then you’re better off focusing your attentions elsewhere.

      I hope I don’t sound like I’m being a jerk about it, I firmly believe that all of us should be able to have as many personal beliefs as we want and nobody gets to say it’s wrong, but in exchange we all should have the responsibility to recuse themselves when trying to influence the lives of others (educating our children VERY included) if they find themselves arguing a minority opinion that conforms with a personal passion.

      That’d be better, right? You’re obviously absurdly bright and are capable of channeling a lot of enthusiasm into your work. You’re succeeding in arguing better than most would be capable from a position where quite literally our brains are designed to betray us in tricksy, tricksy ways, and that says a lot about your intangibles too.

      If we could (totally in theory, admittedly) raise that bar could we both agree to shy away from topics where our personal passions make us dangerous as enthusiastic amateurs and into less stressful but equally important pursuits, and leave these matters to people who don’t understand why all of us are arguing about this and are annoyed that we’re detracting from an awesomeness that really doesn’t need us to fight over it.

      • Will Holz Will Holz

        Err . . there was supposed to be a ‘Would you go with it?’ at the end there.

        I sometimes get ahead of myself. 🙂

        • Richard Peachey Richard Peachey

          Hi, Will. I appreciate your compliments about my being bright, enthusiastic, and a successful arguer. But I can’t agree with your unusual policy that only people who don’t really care that much about the truth should be able to discuss it.

          Fact is, we’re all “amateurs” when it comes to reality. We’re all finite, sinful, biased, ulterior-motivated, mere mortals. Yet those of us who live in free democratic societies have been accorded freedom of speech — and I, for one, see no reason (and have no desire) to surrender that important freedom.

          Furthermore, a “minority opinion” would be the very thing that’s most in need of the protection provided by such a freedom.

          You write that “nobody gets to say [I’m] wrong” but then you somehow feel it’s OK to suggest that I’m dangerous! I would much prefer you attempt to demonstrate that I’m dangerous by proving me significantly wrong. If I’m right, though (or at least, not demonstrably wrong), my being enthusiastic about it should be no issue.

        • Will Holz Will Holz

          Oh, don’t get me wrong we amateurs are a vital part of any science!

          We’re the lords of the lateral hop and our tendency to see new things through the lens of our past can provide values that somebody who’s always been part of the field sometimes cannot. Heck, I can credit much of my career success to the fact. (I had an odd career progression).

          However, what’s amazing when we’re just using that perspective to toss new ideas into an established pool (What if hallucigenia was a proto-echinoderm that lived like an early suspension feeding urchin? Are Arsenura sp. caterpillars fungus mimics? What if anti-matter repulses regular matter gravitationally, would that explain dark matter?) is kind of useless when we get stuck on one. Established scientists need us, but we’re idea shotguns, not lasers.

          Conformation bias is SOOO hard to fight, and our schooling is honestly horrible when it comes to teaching us to think like responsible adults (it’s DISCOURAGED! How the heck are we supposed to fight decades of that???). We’re more useful if we play to our strengths rather than our weaknesses.

          I get you want to believe, and maybe there’s some underlying truth, like a creator with a fast-forward button (wouldn’t YOU invent one right off?), but there are enough non-ideological scientists who are better as lasers that are trying to chip away at evolution or come up with their own theories because they just love breaking stuff and finding something neater underneath . . . THEY are the ones who we should toss our ideas to and if they don’t run with it we just need to accept that we either didn’t formulate it well or maybe we’re not right about everything, y’know?

          Why not take it in the awesome direction and turn ‘being wrong’ into a source of joy? That’s when we upturn conventions because we take to that agile thought process like a fish out of water. The same thing that screws us up when somebody pokes a hole in our pet theory and we’re too quick to discredit their argument can be very powerful when we turn every failure into an opportunity to become more powerful (insert nonevil laugh here!)

          And this particular battle? The whole design/evolution thing? Honestly it’s taking a topic that lots of very religious scientists had no trouble with and turning it into a mess . . that detracts from the awesomeness and wastes everyone’s time. We do not need any more people on this issue, it’s got enough people looking at it that nothing’s going to hide for long and there are WAY too many wind tunnels of support.

          Unlike ‘Rational Economic Theory’ . . . Now THAT is an ideology! *shudder*

        • Richard Peachey Richard Peachey

          “Honestly it’s taking a topic that lots of very religious scientists had no trouble with and turning it into a mess . . that detracts from the awesomeness and wastes everyone’s time.”

          Will, these kinds of arguments (if that’s what they are) seem very subjective. I’d much prefer to argue facts and issues.

          The question of origins is not a waste of time. Actually, a wrong answer to that question may logically lead to the view that everything is a waste of time. Our present value and our future destiny are tied up with our past origins. If evolution is true, God either does not exist or is unnecessary, and there are no ultimate foundations for ethics, freedom, human dignity, meaning, or purpose.

        • Will Holz Will Holz

          See what you did there?

          You said I was being subjective, and then you made the argument that ‘A wrong answer to that may logically lead to the view that everything is a waste of time’.

          That right there is somewhat subjective, is it not?

          Then not two sentences later you say ‘If evolution is true, God either does not exist or is unnecessary, and there are no ultimate foundations for ethics, freedom, human dignity, meaning, or purpose.’

          I know those are very subjective arguments. I personally believe that by focusing on a specific creator you’re blinding yourself to a more realistic creative force that doesn’t need to conform itself to our puny human brains to be awesome.

          While my argument is subjective too, I think you can see how I could ride that mindset pretty hard, right? Just as I can see how you’re doing just that.

          Our brains are minefields, they really are.

        • Richard Peachey Richard Peachey

          “Our brains are minefields, they really are.”

          You’re right, Will, if one views our brains as ultimately the result of unguided, naturalistic “chance” Darwinian processes, we have no particular reason to think of them as reliable.

          If, however, you would submit your reasoning to the “specific creator” revealed in the Bible, you would find that your thinking becomes progressively less of a minefield.

          “Anyone who chooses to do the will of God will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I [Jesus] speak on my own.” (John 7:17)

        • Will Holz Will Holz

          I think you made a bit of a leap there.

          I pointed out that our brains are minefields because you demonstrated it by falling into a fallacy trap.

          Instead of being rude to you and making fun or snark, I pointed out that our brains are complicated, as they are.

          The fact that I sometimes have to pay attention to the tricks my mind plays on me does not mean I feel the need to turn to a specific faith, I consider the need to ‘know’ things that by definition don’t need to cater themselves to our minds to be a flaw.

          I’m not a good target for proselytizing, if there is a somewhat anthropomorphic creator of any sort they wouldn’t require us to follow some specific and logically inconsistent religion (unless they were jerks, in which case they’re unworthy of my respect), nor would they depend on some old questionably translated book. That’s a silly thought and I don’t pile logic on top of silly.

          Silly is for fun, logic is for serious business. I don’t mistake the two.

        • Richard Peachey Richard Peachey

          “. . . nor would they depend on some old questionably translated book.”

          Will . . . Having some academic background in the Hebrew and Greek languages, I’m wondering: On what basis are you suggesting there is a significant problem with the translation of the Bible?

        • In point of fact if our brains evolved then we so have good reason to think our beliefs are true, because in holding them we do not die. I do not accept the Plantinga approach, which, by the way, applies (in Darwin’s original formulation, and logically) to beliefs that have no possible experiential outcome that could tell for or against them. In short, if our brains evolved, then we have no particular reason to think there is a God, but we certainly do have reasons to think there is a predator or a good food source, and that is sufficient to bootstrap all scientific beliefs.

          As always: I have a paper on this:

          Wilkins, John S., and Paul E. Griffiths. 2013. “Evolutionary debunking arguments in three domains: Fact, value, and religion.” In A New Science of Religion, edited by J. Maclaurin and G. Dawes, 133-146. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

        • Richard Peachey Richard Peachey

          “In point of fact if our brains evolved then we so have good reason to think our beliefs are true, because in holding them we do not die.”

          Based on your context, I’m interpreting that statement as applying only to beliefs that have a “possible experiential outcome that could tell for or against them.”

          Considering only our competing beliefs in evolution and (biblical) creation:

          (1) If evolution is true, you will eventually die as all of us will, and be turned into compost. According to your own belief, you will not at that time have any “experiential outcome” that would either confirm or disconfirm your previous belief. The creationist will similarly turn to compost and will likewise not have any “experiential outcome” significantly distinguishing his belief from that of the evolutionist.

          (2) If (biblical) creation is true, after my physical death I will live in heaven with Christ; and unless you repent, you will (I say this with sadness and concern) suffer in the lake of fire. So at that time, both of us will have a “possible experiential outcome that could tell for or against” our earlier belief.

          I seem to remember a philosopher or theologian (was it John Hick?) noting that Christianity, if false, may never be falsified, but if true, it will be verified. That’s the kind of point I’m attempting to make here.

          (Yes, I tracked down the source of my thought. It was indeed John Hick and his concept of “eschatological verification.”)

  4. John McKay John McKay

    I’ve been fascinated by unorthodox and extremist beliefs since– well, before most of my online friends were born. For my first two decades, my approach was a mixture of butterfly collecting and opposition research. My years in grad school added the dimension of why and how to looking at belief systems.

    Now that I’ve given another two decades to thinking about that, I have some very strong ideas about belief acquisition and persistence. Every so often I whack out a thousand word essay (in metric, that’s a thousand words, but with a period instead of a comma somewhere) as a Facebook post or comment and have it completely ignored. I have a manifesto sized interpretive framework I’d like to share but, until I finish my mammoth book, I won’t have time to look up all the documentation.

    The short version is worldview, based on personal psychology (wherever that comes from); peer pressure; early adult group association choices; and personal cost-benefit analysis of the advantages of changing group association create the foundation on which visible belief systems are built and determine how mutable those systems are.

    Like I said, it needs a lot of documentation not to sound like pseudo-intellectual BS.

  5. I worked with a Jehovah’s Witness for many years. I found the most effective way to argue with her was to pretend to accept everything she said at face-value, then enthusiastically take it to its illogical conclusion. In other words, to act as barmy as her.

    In truth, it didn’t do much to convert her, but it was great fun—and I like to think I gave her occasional pause for thought.

    • jeb jeb

      My experience of working with religious extremists was that things had already been taken to illogical conclusions.

      When reluctantly accepting a dinner invite I made the mistake of sitting in a chair I should not have done.

      It was the chair God sat on when he came down and spoke to him at night.

      The moment when you rush to get you’re coat and leave very fast. I did get a description of him before I left and can confirm he has a beard and white hair.


  6. “As a friend once said of me, I am like a hunchback who cannot see his own hump, but sees everyone else’s. I expect this.”

    Good description of Bias Blind Spot (see sample citations below). Also see “Introspection Illusion” and “motivated reasoning” (as you well know)

    Pronin E, Gilovich T, Ross L. Objectivity in the eye of the beholder: divergent perceptions of bias in self versus others.
    Psychol Rev. 2004 Jul;111(3):781-99.

    Ehrlinger J, Gilovich T, Ross L. Peering into the bias blind spot: people’s assessments of bias in themselves and others.
    Pers Soc Psychol Bull. 2005 May;31(5):680-92.

    Pronin E. Perception and misperception of bias in human judgment.Trends Cogn Sci. 2007 Jan;11(1):37-43. Epub 2006 Nov 28.

    Pronin E.How we see ourselves and how we see others. Science. 2008 May 30;320(5880):1177-80. doi: 10.1126/science.1154199. Review.

    Fisher M, Keil FC. The Illusion of Argument Justification. J Exp Psychol Gen. 2013 Mar 18. [Epub ahead of print]

    Fernbach PM, Rogers T, Fox CR, Sloman SA. Political extremism is supported by an illusion of understanding.
    Psychol Sci. 2013 Jun;24(6):939-46. doi: 10.1177/0956797612464058.

  7. You could always try the French approach: “I burst my pimples at you and call your door-opening request a silly thing!”

    • I fart in the direction of your cited authorities, you silly American kahniggit!

  8. Mr. Wilkins, I speed read your article and found it very interesting. As a result of something you said, “For example, global warming denialists will challenge the facts”, I’d like to switch gears for a minute and recommend you read a book by John L. Casey, called ColdSun. As a climate predictor, he explains some things about Global Warming that might be of interest to you as they help explain why some folks believe Global Warming is not the threat to our civilization that some folks think. You may also read more about Mr. Casey and his organization at: I hope you have an opportunity to check this out.

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