Superstition, belief in the unreal and belief in thoughts being made reality have always been human characteristics. We humans are far more inclined to believe something that fits with our existing view of the universe than something that doesn’t. When I knock on wood, I believe on some level that this act is having an actual effect on the world – that it can determine whether or not my hope comes true. This made sense once upon a time, when we didn’t know enough about the universe to know otherwise, to know better.

Literacy was supposed to change this, to make all of us better people, more credulous and more capable of critical thinking. It did not. Public education was supposed to do what literacy could not, but likewise did not. Improved access to higher education was supposed to succeed where widespread literacy and public elementary education failed, making us less superstitious, less gullible, less prone to believing we can will reality. It did not. And the internet was supposed to open up the world so that information would be democratized and we could all reach our potential as smart, rational, critical thinkers. So far it has not resulted in that world. (#Dontreadthecomments)

Though each of us has access to more information than ever before, it feels like anti-intellectualism is as strong a human characteristic as it’s ever been. Some superstitions might be dying out, but they are being replaced by more widespread beliefs in fanciful nightmares about how the world supposedly works. Conspiracy theories have been around for a long time, but they appear more widely believed than ever before (though that could be just a result of the echo chamber that is the internet).

Why is it that, when we have more information at our fingertips than any previous generation could have even imagined, most of us still believe nonsense? Many of us cannot figure out the difference between a fact and an allegation, between the truth and an appealing lie, between a verified story and an unsubstantiated rumour?

The Need to Believe in a Just World

In the 1960s, a group of psychologists led by Melvin J. Lerner wanted to know why otherwise smart college students could be so dismissive of the less fortunate, to the extent that they would actually blame the poor for being poor. This was not a new phenomenon; Lerner and his colleagues were among a a new breed of psychologists studying human behaviour that didn’t appear to fit traditional notions of human morality. These social psychologists were principally inspired by the Holocaust: How could normal people become concentration camp guards? How could normal people become seemingly willing victims of mass incarceration and extinction? Though Lerner was investigating something seemingly less similar, the motivation was the same: How could intelligent, “rational” people fail to understand the systemic reasons for poverty? Why do human beings dehumanize each other? How can a person dehumanize himself or herself?

Through a series of studies, Lerner and his colleagues discovered that the reason why people blame victims for their own suffering. They determined that people carried with them the inherent notion that the universe is just and fair, and suffering human beings offend this idea of a fair and just universe.  When confronted with suffering that is inexplicable – or, which is a direct result of something we do not want to address – we tell ourselves that the sufferers deserved it. This is the only way we can resolve the conflict between our beliefs and our reality.

It’s the same with knowledge. So much of what we learn about the world (perhaps all of it?) offends our idea that the world is a fair place. That is because the world is not fair or unfair – it merely exists. The world predates human concepts of justice of fairness. We’re never going to learn, one day, that the world is actually fair. The accumulation of human knowledge about our planet and our universe is, in a sense, the amassing of proof in a universe that is nothing if not indifferent to fairness.

 

The Just World Fallacy and the Denial of Evidence

Take the beliefs of climate change deniers in the face of the scientific consensus on climate change for example: The reality of climate change offends people. People don’t deny climate change because they look at the evidence and rationally decide that they don’t believe the scientific consensus. I mean, there might be a few people who do that, who have legitimate objections to the current scientific consensus. 1

But most deny climate change is happening without even looking at the evidence. (Or, by looking only at counter-evidence presented to them by people they already know agree with them that climate change is a hoax.) People deny climate change because it’s offensive. God would never have created a world where this could happen, a world where human beings could actually put their own species at peril through negligence, absentmindedness and the routine behaviour of consuming energy to live. (2. Why some people are more receptive to nuclear war as a danger is an interesting question. My sense is that nuclear war was once a more immediate fear, more immediate than climate change could ever be for my generation, it’s a fear they can feel. Try as Hollywood might, this is not true of climate change.) A fair universe would not allow human beings to harm not only their species but their entire planet this way. Climate change cannot be happening because we do not deserve it.

 

The Just World and Invented Dangers

It’s much the same thing with the supposed link between vaccines and autism. One study, now long discredited, is published and thousands if not tens of thousands of parents in the English-speaking world think their kids shouldn’t be vaccinated because there’s a chance of autism. Why is that?

Well, autism likely feels like a punishment to many parents. What could they have done so wrong? It must have a cause; it cannot just be random chance. Accepting that autism isn’t a punishment, or taking the blame upon oneself (which isn’t accurate, but which is certainly understandable), are both less appealing than blaming someone else. Scientists play god. They are infecting humans with little bits of viruses. Autism is a punishment for transgressing the rules of nature. Unfortunately, that punishment is being meted out on children. (Children!)

Similar nonsense is widely believed around Genetically Modified Organisms, or GMOs, where the genes of crops and other foodstuffs are modified to increase yield, disease resistance and the like. A lot of people (myself included) are tempted to see this practice as problematic at the very least or downright dangerous. I mean, fish DNA in tomatoes? That can’t be good.

But there’s no science to suggest that each and every GMO is dangerous for human consumption. (Quite the opposite.) And, if we do discover that a particular GMO is dangerous for human consumption, it doesn’t mean the practice of creating GMOs is thereby wholly dangerous, it just means one particular GMO is . But we want to believe they’re dangerous and a threat to our health because we view such genetic modification as transgressing the rules. And so we expect punishment, for ourselves and for others, regardless of what the science says.

The same is true with the hysteria around stem cell research. As my girlfriend said to me the other day, “Stem cell research is the closest thing we have to a miracle.” She meant that the wide-ranging medical possibilities of stem cell research are as close as we have to finding a general, miraculous panacea. And yet numerous people think the very act of investigating the medical benefits of utilizing these stem cells is transgressing some unwritten moral code.

The effectiveness of “natural” medicine is another widely held belief that relies on belief in a just or fair universe. This might seem like a bit of a stretch at first, but the ideas that underlie the fears of vaccines, GMOs and stem cell research are again at play. If the earth was really, truly built for us humans, it would provide us with everything we need to live healthy, fulfilled lives. By embracing modern medical science and technology, we’ve lost the natural cures that were given us to by (insert your favourite benevolent creator here!). Proponents of naturopathy believe we need to get back to those healthier times, and that modern medicine cannot cure us, as it violates the rules of the universe.

Homeopathy, the ridiculous cousin of naturopathy, wherein infinitesimal amounts of naturally occurring minerals and compounds are mixed into innocuous solutions, supposedly to cure all ills, is popular for similar reasons: The earth is god’s gift to us. The truly healthy way to be a pure human being is to take of the earth’s bounty – albeit in the right doses – not to play god by creating new chemical (chemical!) medicines that weren’t created by god.

 

The Just World Fallacy and Evolution

Another example is disbelief in the “Theory of Evolution”TM, which is scientific fact but is widely disbelieved in many religious communities, most famously in much of the United States, where they even have a “museum” proposing an alternative history of humankind.

Evolution reveals the nature of the world to us. It’s offensive to us because we learn that our beliefs about how the world exists and operates – that it was created for us by a (usually) benevolent god, that there is a system of rewards and punishments – are false. Creationists will say that believing human beings evolved from apes is offensive. But that’s not really what’s offending them. 2 What offends them is the idea that life is meaningless, that the faith they have in an ordered, ultimately fair universe is completely, totally misplaced. And so they ignore the overwhelming evidence that humans merely evolved out of other animals.

 

Comfort in Justice

But the most enduring belief that rejects all evidence is superstition, the idea that if you don’t do something (usually a very small thing) a certain way, you’ll be punished. Most who do this would agree there’s no evidence to support their actions having any impact; yet it’s the rare person that has no superstitious tendencies. We selectively pick things out to tell ourselves that we need superstition. Look, I do it. I still catch myself knocking on wood, knocking on plastic, knocking on metal, knocking on whatever I can find. I tell myself I do it as a joke, but that’s only half true. There’s a part of me that believes it works. A part I have yet to subdue.

Since human beings have been sentient, we’ve believed that if we don’t do something small properly, we will be punished. Today it might manifest itself as knocking on wood, not walking under ladders, avoiding black cats (okay, that one is only if you’re really, really superstitious), not opening an umbrella indoors, or the like. In the past and in other cultures it manifested itself in different ways, depending upon the society. But it’s eternal. And it’s wrong.

There is no power in the universe that is going to give me bad luck because I forgot to rap my knuckles on a table. I may believe there is. I may selectively look at my life (or the lives of others) and construct histories – simple or elaborate – to explain that there is this power. But there isn’t. Nobody has ever found any evidence that the universe operates this way. Ever.

We can say people are superstitious for any number of reasons, but it’s hard to ignore the obvious: punishment for not following a rule – even a small, silly one like not walking under a ladder – implies a just world. It’s a weird kind of justice, given that the smallest, most insignificant transgressions are punished extraordinarily disproportionately. (7 years bad luck? For walking under a ladder? Really?) But there’s still a strong belief in a form of justice, a form of justice that does not actually exist.

If there is one set of beliefs that perpetuates the just world fallacy and superstition, it is religion. But that’s a topic for another piece. Whether religiously motivated or not, the mass denials of scientific evidence above are all proof of the widespread belief that the world is fundamentally fair. It is this belief in fairness that motivates people to reject both mountains of data and rational arguments and theories based on that data.

  1. Though it’s worth noting that nearly every scientist who objects to the scientific consensus is not a climatologist…
  2. And if it is, well, taking offense at something is the worst argument you could muster that that thing is untrue. If anything it acts as a confirmation that it is true as the truth hurts, yuk yuk yuk
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4 thoughts on “Why We Ignore and Outright Deny Facts and Evidence

  1. So, some thoughts that have occurred to me while I was thinking about your piece. Lately I have been thinking about critical thinking both globally and how it has effected me over time. So, good job on timing this one for discussion!

    In the second paragraph you speak of access to information as an improvement to our species. One thing that did cross my mind is whether or not it was or is actually intended to increase critical thinking. I was fortunate to attend a high school that was well funded and well equipped. It was also well staffed with some teachers who did have a genuine interest in equipping citizens, not graduating students. This is, I feel, a very unusual situation if we are honest with ourselves. Even if the point of public education (or to go further back literacy et.al) to raise a critical thinker, it is, like so many things only a tool. The internet is a tool. Literacy is a tool. What is done with that tool is ultimately up to the user. Use of that tool is also a learned skill. As I said before, my high school was fairly unique. I was able to take Critical Thinking as an elective. It was an introduction to Critical Thinking and introduction to philosophy as a means of examining things. The class existed because one teacher wanted it to exist. It was very much a class of getting what you put into it. If you wanted to coast, you very much could. The round about point I am trying to make here is: First and foremost critical thinking is something that a person needs to seek out. It is uncomfortable as it will challenge you and your beliefs. This discomfort and discord with world view is likely part of it. I would also tie in the need for education.
    Education in itself is definitely part of the problem here as well. The reason I tried to draw attention to the unique experience of my education is that I don’t feel our education system (K-12, Undergrad, Grad and Post Grad) is generally aimed at producing critical thinkers. It is aimed very much at producing the work force to drive the nation’s goals forward. Look at the business models of universities currently. The drive for teaching to standardised tests. (A caveat, I do beleive that you very much to have a base education from which to build a thought pattern. Learning rote math is important, or chemistry rules, but it is also extremely important to learn of the scientific method). Published papers in academic journals are more frequently using cherry picking of their data to ensure future funding. But I digress, the tl;dr here is Education is a tool the requires instruction and a willing student. That is not always the case. We have created too many incentives to standardised (broadly speaking) outcomes rather than the means of an education.
    I really enjoyed the just world fallacy. I should read more into the Lerner studies. This, and the subsequent section leads me to my second thought: There may also be an evolutionary construct that makes critical thinking uncommon.
    Taking the offered example of climate change denial vs nuclear apocalypse acceptance, I would very much argue the immediacy of nuclear destruction as being the likely cause of its acceptance. On an evolutionary scale, modern man is a pretty new beast and sure to have a lot of bugs. Modern civilisation is even younger. We can estimate this experiment of ours is roughly 4000 years?
    To think we have been able to out think biological directives is, I would argue, fool hardy. Some can and do, but we still do need to acknowledge their presence. (I would cite Birth rates here as an example).
    Our ancestors, going back father than the 4000 years of civiliization that developed our brain faced very different threats. The existential threat of a doomsday outcome for their day was not something they could comprehend. Their dangers were immediate (to generalise, danger close of seconds, minutes, hours & days). The faced concerns of animal attacks, starvation, shelter and so on. Societies evolved and moved forward. The danger changed generally slightly more distant (to days, months & years). TO be sure, famine and starvation were still concerns, but had been offset by farming, food storage techniques and an evolved society. It is only very recently (honestly I would argue less than 100 years, possibly closer 75) that the danger has moved from not just year but centuries. The dangers that may impact us now often include huge leaps of magnitude of time. We understand that dinosaurs extinction was likely started by an impact of an asteroid. To place that epoch into understanding, A T-Rex is closer is time to a pyramid than a stegosaurus. Humans don’t understand these longer time scales. How can we interpret a danger that will not effect us? To use examples from the US House, a 65 year old white male will not suffer from climate change. He (business interests) may suffer in the very near future if certain changes are made. He latches onto the danger he can face because of the lizard brain.
    The same of nuclear war. This is not only a immediate threat but one we have direct control and understanding of. Looking at it historically, man often also denied the impacts of nuclear war on the planet as well.
    Lastly, and I swear this will be my last thought and relates back to the education & the danger close idea, if you don’t see an immediate impact on you, why ultimately would you care?
    Without critical thinking you ultimately don’t care. Honestly how does a tribal war in another corner of the world affect me? I need to dig into that idea more.
    There’s not really a lot above there as to how we can turn the situation around and get people to start thinking critically about things, but hey, at least its something!

  2. Thanks Dave.
    When I spoke of literacy/education/access to information as supposed to have certain affects on people, what I meant is that people believed they would. In the early 1900s in the US, for example, there were a number of people (the philosopher John Dewey was one, I believe) who believed that universal literacy and education would transform the world. It has, but not in the way that they hoped. The same is true lately with the techie utopians – every once in a while, some Silicon Valley honcho says something ridiculous about the emancipating qualities of the democratization of knowledge. (Every time I hear this I think of what someone once said about smart phones, and I’m paraphrasing: “What would someone in 1900 say if they knew we had the world’s information at our finger tips but we used this device to get into fights and look at cat videos?”) So all I was trying to point out is that there was this belief, however erroneous.
    I’m with you about critical thinking. I believe it needs to be a major part of education. One of my big concerns with our education system, for example, is that people are not educated about how advertisements work. I think a course on why advertisements are effective would help people think critically not just about commercial ads, but about propaganda, about overly biased reporting and the like. And I think that this kind of education needs to happen at a young age.
    Unfortunately, I strongly believe that some beliefs are opposed to the very idea of critical thinking. Even if we target children at a really young age, there are always going to be some who believe too strongly in the views of their family or community. Also, the nature and size of the education system – even in a country like ours – means that there will always be more effective and less effective teachers, better and worse curricula, and better and worse applications of that curricula. I’m not optimistic that even mandatory critical thinking classes in Junior High or early High School can save us from our biases.

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