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21/12/2014

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A scientific view of non-scientific beliefs

Craig Cormick, Manager of Public Awareness and Community Engagement for the Australian Department of Innovation, explains where irrationality comes from

Craig Cormick, Manager of Public Awareness and Community Engagement for the Australian Department of Innovation, explains where irrationality comes from.

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What are we to make of the fact that 40 per cent of people in the UK believe that houses can be haunted? Or that about 20 per cent believe aliens have visited the Earth?

Fringe beliefs become an issue when widespread support for them impede a society’s ability to function, or compete, in an increasingly complicated and science and technology-driven world.

Before we can counter these beliefs, we need to understand where they come from.

How we think

When information is complex, people make decisions based on their values and beliefs, rather than on facts and logic. Because the world is complex and fast moving, and we are inundated with vast amounts of information, we have a habit of making mental shortcuts when we need to process information quickly. And an easy way to do this is to sort it according to our existing belief systems or values.  Thus we see an aligning of anti-GM sentiment with the value of ‘naturalness’, and climate change scepticism with the belief that human beings are the most important things on the planet. And, also, people most trust those whose values mirror their own.

In fact, public concerns about the risk of contentious science or technologies are almost never about the science, so scientific information does little to influence those concerns.

Confirmation bias

People seek affirmation of their attitudes or beliefs, no matter how fringe, and will reject any information that runs counter to them.  Traditionally we have tried to counter anti-science beliefs by providing alternative perspectives, but Brendan Nyhan at the University of Michigan has found that, when people are shown information that proved that their beliefs are wrong, they actually become more entrenched in their original beliefs. What’s more, highly intelligent people tend to suffer from this more than less intelligent people do, making them immune to any facts that run counter to their strongly-held beliefs.

You can see this confirmation bias operating in any dispute. We seek out information that supports our world view, and reject that which does not. And in the internet age, no matter what fringe belief you have, you’ll find affirmation on the internet. Elvis is alive. Aliens abduct people and sexually abuse them. You name it, it’s there.

Superstition

Added to this is the fraught problem of our intuition, which has served us well for tens of thousands of years, stopping us from stepping out of the safe caves into the dangerous dark of night and so on. However, it can easily lead to false beliefs such as superstitions, paranormal phenomena and pseudoscience, because we are wired to look for patterns and explanations in mysteries around us.

Finnish Psychologists Marjaana Lindeman and Kia Aarnio have gone one further and described this as immature errors of reasoning which are on par with children still learning about the natural world. They say there are three major sorts of knowledge that determine children's understanding of the world: intuitive physics, an understanding of the physical world; intuitive psychology, an understanding of how people think and behave, and intuitive biology, an understanding of the principles and forces of life.

When we mix these up, they argue, such as investing physical objects with powers, like healing crystals, we are suffering from ‘ontological confusion’. 

And here comes another maxim about the way we think: Attitudes that were not formed by facts and logic are not influenced by facts or logic.

So what can we do?

The best solution appears to educate people about evidence-based concepts before their attitudes and beliefs are strongly formed. So, when it comes to science education,  it is more important to teach school children how to think than what to think.

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Dr Craig Cormick
Dr Craig Cormick is Manager of Public Awareness and Community Engagement for the Australian Department of Innovation
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