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.
- Though it’s worth noting that nearly every scientist who objects to the scientific consensus is not a climatologist… ↩
- 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 ↩