Why Do People Believe In Pseudoscience?

Why Do People Believe In Pseudoscience?

It’s difficult to change someone’s mind if they have anything like a strong opinion on the risks of vaccination, or the usefulness of orbs and essential oils in the treatment of late-stage liver cancer. But if you’re ever going to stand a chance of doing so, you’re going to need to wipe the rage-spittle off your face and set about the hard, not especially rewarding work of trying to understand these people. And so for this week’s

Corinne Zimmerman

Professor, Psychology, Illinois State University

and Emilio Lobato

Doctoral Student, Cognitive and Information Sciences, University of California, Merced

We argue that we don’t need to appeal to any special psychological mechanisms to understand why people believe pseudoscientific claims or reject scientific claims.

Every person relies on an assortment of mental shortcuts that make getting through the day easier, but we do so at some cost to accurately understanding the world. Many of these mental shortcuts are known as “cognitive biases” and pseudoscientific beliefs often exploit common cognitive biases that we all engage in from time to time.

For example, a common bias involves what’s called “teleological thinking,” which just means that people look out into the world and try to understand things they experience in terms of functions or purposes. This makes sense when you realise that our lives are filled with people who do things for purposeful reasons and whose behaviours often serve some function. So, it is easy to think that biological or physical phenomena also exist for some purpose rather than as a consequence of how physical, chemical, or biological processes just happen.

Clouds don’t exist “for raining,” but that is an easier concept for most people to grasp than the description of energy exchange and matter transformations involved in “the water cycle.” And most people don’t need to understand the water cycle to live their lives, so there’s very little pressure to accurately understand why clouds exist. Likewise, understanding the myriad processes and mechanisms of biological evolution is far more complicated than a belief that life was purposefully created by some powerful being, so the collection of pseudoscience beliefs under the umbrella terms “creationism” and “intelligent design” are common despite all scientific evidence to the contrary.

Another cognitive bias that we all share is a tendency to engage in “essentialist thinking,” which is a bias to try to understand categorical differences as being due to some fundamental and unchanging essence of the categories. This tendency makes sense sometimes, because there are essential differences between, for instance, animate objects and inanimate objects and between living and nonliving entities. But some pseudoscientific claims take advantage of our bias to engage in essentialist thinking and claim essential differences between, for instance, the mathematical capabilities of men and women, or immutable differences in intelligence between various racial categories. In fact, most “scientific racism,” or the pseudoscientific belief that there are intrinsic differences in the superiority or inferiority of particular racial groups, rests largely on taking this common bias towards essentialist thinking to support logically and scientifically absurd conclusions.

We also have a bias to trust in the testimony of others that develops early childhood, and continues into adulthood. As adults, we tend to take the default position that what we are being told is truthful unless we have reason to assume someone is lying or trying to deceive us. All cognitive biases allow people to end up with a “good enough” understanding of their world rather than a sophisticated understanding of the world. And there are a lot of cognitive biases — we have only mentioned a few. Because cognitive biases do make navigating the world easier, even at a cost to accuracy, many pseudoscience beliefs tend to be examples of an extreme version of one or a combination of cognitive biases.

Dean Keith Simonton

Distinguished Professor Emeritus, Psychology, University of California

People may have many different motives for subscribing to pseudoscientific beliefs. Sometimes the purpose is to defend a more fundamental belief system, as when biblical literalists find themselves obliged to support creationism. Other times the anti-scientific ideas ensue out of wishful thinking, or even a desperate hope. Too many tragic examples can be found among the numerous miracle cures for cancers that as yet have no cures. Perhaps a personal belief in astrology often has a similar if more mild function: the desire to exert control over the uncontrollable. At the very least, the daily horoscope gives life meaning that it might not otherwise enjoy.

As a scientist, I find another manifestation of pseudoscientific beliefs far more fascinating, namely, when scientists themselves believe them! Isaac Newton may be more famous today for his path-breaking contributions to physics and mathematics, but he devoted a considerable part of his life to alchemy, including the quest for the Philosopher’s Stone that would convert base metals into gold or silver. Johannes Kepler was not only a great mathematician and astronomer, but also a notable astrologer who earned money casting horoscopes. Linus Pauling may have won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, yet he also advocated mega-doses of vitamin C to cure cancer. Although I am personally sceptical about the empirical support for parapsychological phenomena, many reputable scientists have not shared that scepticism, including psychology’s own William James.

How are these apparent aberrancies even possible? As in the previous examples, the causes are probably multiple. To start with, the boundary between science and pseudoscience is often not absolute, and therefore it’s subject to individual interpretation. Moreover, that boundary frequently shifts over time, so pseudosciences can become sciences, and sciences can become pseudosciences. In the former case, alchemy evolved into chemistry, courtesy of Antoine Lavoisier and others.

In the latter case, Franz Josef Gall’s pioneering research in neuroscience, including the localisation of mental functions in the brain, eventually turned into the untenable enterprise of phrenology. Finally, we must admit that scientists are just people and accordingly may sometimes betray certain cognitive “blind spots” that prevent them from realising the unscientific status of their own ideas. Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theory offers more than one example. Just ask his mother!

Scott O. Lilienfeld

Professor, Psychology, Emory College, and the editor of Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology, among other books

Our minds tend to seek out and detect patterns; that’s basically an adaptive tendency, as it helps us to make sense of our often bewildering worlds and to avoid danger. We are prone to seeing order in disorder and sense in nonsense. For example, when we eat a meal and feel sick soon afterwards, we try to think about what we ate that might have given us food poisoning. That’s entirely reasonable. But the tendency to find meaningful patterns in data can also lead us to erroneous conclusions, such as vast conspiracy theories or the belief that vaccines cause autism. In these cases, we are usually perceiving systematic associations that aren’t there.

We also shouldn’t underestimate the role of emotion. Many of us are drawn to pseudoscientific beliefs, such as belief in spirit mediums, because we understandably yearn to make contact with our departed loved ones. Many of these beliefs also afford us a sense of control, even if this sense is illusory; for example, astrological horoscopes reassure us that we can forecast the otherwise unpredictable events of the forthcoming day. We all harbour deep-seated wishes for greater hope and control over our lives, so it’s not surprising that many of us are prone to these beliefs.

Britt Hermes

Former naturopathic doctor who became a critic of naturopathy and alternative medicine

In brief, I don’t think people believe in pseudoscience, so much as fall prey to it.

When it comes to medical pseudoscience, I think people get duped because charlatans use medical terminology and science-y sounding words that the average person cannot recognise as gobbledegook; patients turn away from medicine when they are feeling hopeless, lost, and frustrated with the medical system (there is research showing a correlation between cancer patients feeling hopeless and out of control and the embrace of alternative cancer therapies); and medicine does not (yet) deal well with hard to explain, or frankly inexplicable, medical conditions. This can leave patients feeling desperate and particularly vulnerable to alternative therapies. I think this is one reason why you have patients with chronic fatigue, as an example of a hard to treat chronic condition, turning to therapies like homeopathy and naturopathy. They are willing to try anything, and think, “what’s the harm?”

Unfortunately, alternative medicine can be quite dangerous. The therapies can be understudied, or not studied at all. When an alternative therapy has been researched, the research generally shows these alternatives are ineffective. Patients spending time and money on alternative therapies may be missing an important treatment window and diverting limited resources away from effective medical care. Sadly, patients with non-life threatening conditions, like eczema, have died from using alternative therapies [case] under the false assumption that if something is natural, it is safe.

Julia Shaw

Psychological scientist and the author of The Memory Illusion: Remembering, Forgetting, and the Science of False Memory

Some of the biggest reasons why we are misled include:

(1) Distracted by jargon. We are not well versed in how a particular kind of science works and so are misled by scientific sounding terms (like those used in homeopathy).

(2) Trusting the underdog. We have conspiratorial thinking about an area (like not trusting ‘big Pharma’) which makes us not trust the larger scientific body in that area, and instead place trust in who we perceive to be scientific underdogs (for example, anti-vaxxers).

(3) Wishful thinking. We really want something to be true, and our wishful thinking clouds our judgement (like wanting there to be a cure for an incurable disease).

(4) Never thought to check. We accept incorrect information because it comes from a source we generally trust—like a friend or relative or teacher—and we never check whether the information is correct.

(5) Trusting ourselves too much. When we struggle to understand something, particularly in an area where we feel we have some basic knowledge, we may assume that the others are wrong or dangerous (like assuming that GMOs are inherently bad).

We need to be careful not to assume that pseudoscientific thinking is limited to people who are not well educated or who are not intelligent, instead realising that almost all of us have at least a few of these beliefs and trying to actively rid ourselves of them whenever we can.

Do you have a burning question for Giz Asks? Email us at [email protected]