*Smart People Believe Weird Things*

Rarely does anyone weigh facts before deciding what to believe.

By Michael Shermer


In April 1999, when I was on a lecture tour for my book /Why People
Believe Weird Things/, the psychologist Robert Sternberg attended my
presentation at Yale University. His response to the lecture was both
enlightening and troubling. It is certainly entertaining to hear about
other people's weird beliefs, Sternberg reflected, because we are
confident that we would never be so foolish. But why do /smart/ people
fall for such things? Sternberg's challenge led to a second edition of
my book, with a new chapter expounding on my answer to his question:
Smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending
beliefs they arrived at for nonsmart reasons.

Rarely do any of us sit down before a table of facts, weigh them pro and
con, and choose the most logical and rational explanation, regardless of
what we previously believed. Most of us, most of the time, come to our
beliefs for a variety of reasons having little to do with empirical
evidence and logical reasoning. Rather, such variables as genetic
predisposition, parental predilection, sibling influence, peer pressure,
educational experience and life impressions all shape the personality
preferences that, in conjunction with numerous social and cultural
influences, lead us to our beliefs. We then sort through the body of
data and select those that most confirm what we already believe, and
ignore or rationalize away those that do not.

This phenomenon, called the confirmation bias, helps to explain the
findings published in the National Science Foundation's biennial report
(April 2002) on the state of science understanding: 30 percent of adult
Americans believe that UFOs are space vehicles from other civilizations;
60 percent believe in ESP; 40 percent think that astrology is
scientific; 32 percent believe in lucky numbers; 70 percent accept
magnetic therapy as scientific; and 88 percent accept alternative medicine.

Education by itself is no paranormal prophylactic. Although belief in
ESP decreased from 65 percent among high school graduates to 60 percent
among college graduates, and belief in magnetic therapy dropped from 71
percent among high school graduates to 55 percent among college
graduates, that still leaves more than half fully endorsing such claims!
And for embracing alternative medicine, the percentages actually
increase, from 89 percent for high school grads to 92 percent for
college grads.

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The siren song of pseudoscience can be too alluring to resist.
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We can glean a deeper cause of this problem in another statistic: 70
percent of Americans still do not understand the scientific process,
defined in the study as comprehending probability, the experimental
method and hypothesis testing. One solution is more and better science
education, as indicated by the fact that 53 percent of Americans with a
high level of science education (nine or more high school and college
science/math courses) understand the scientific process, compared with
38 percent of those with a middle-level science education (six to eight
such courses) and 17 percent with a low level (five or fewer courses).

The key here is teaching how science works, not just what science has
discovered. We recently published an article in /Skeptic/ (Vol. 9, No.
3) revealing the results of a study that found no correlation between
science knowledge (facts about the world) and paranormal beliefs. The
authors, W. Richard Walker, Steven J. Hoekstra and Rodney J. Vogl,
concluded: "Students that scored well on these [science knowledge] tests
were no more or less skeptical of pseudoscientific claims than students
that scored very poorly. Apparently, the students were not able to apply
their scientific knowledge to evaluate these pseudoscientific claims. We
suggest that this inability stems in part from the way that science is
traditionally presented to students: Students are taught what to think
but not how to think."

To attenuate these paranormal belief statistics, we need to teach that
science is not a database of unconnected factoids but a set of methods
designed to describe and interpret phenomena, past or present, aimed at
building a testable body of knowledge open to rejection or confirmation.

For those lacking a fundamental comprehension of how science works, the
siren song of pseudoscience becomes too alluring to resist, no matter
how smart you are.

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Michael Shermer is publisher of "Skeptic" magazine (www.skeptic.com) and
author of "In Darwin's Shadow" and "Why People Believe Weird Things",
just reissued.

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