Why Smart People Believe Weird Things

By Shermer, Michael | Skeptic (Altadena, CA), Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

Why Smart People Believe Weird Things


Shermer, Michael, Skeptic (Altadena, CA)


"When men wish to construct or support a theory, how they torture facts into their service!"--John Mackay, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, 1852

During the month of April 1998, when I was on a lecture tour for the first edition of my book Why People Believe Weird Things, the psychologist Robert Sternberg (best known for his pioneering work in multiple intelligences) attended my presentation at the Yale Law School. 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 as to believe in such nonsense as alien abductions, ghosts, Bigfoot, ESP, and all manner of paranormal ephemera. But, he retorted, the interesting question is not why other people believe weird things, but why you and I believe weird things; and, as a subset of Us (versus Them), why smart people believe weird things. Sternberg then preceded to rattle off a number of beliefs held by his colleagues in psychology-by all accounts a reasonably smart cohort--that might reasonably be considered weird. And, he wondered with wry irony, which of his own beliefs ... and mine ... would one day be considered weird?

Unfortunately, there is no formal definition of a weird thing that most people can agree upon, because it depends so much on the particular claim being made in the context of the knowledge base that surrounds it and the individual or community proclaiming it. One person's weird belief might be another's normal theory, and a weird belief at one time might subsequently become normal. Stones falling from the sky were once the belief of a few daffy Englishmen; today we have an accepted theory of meteorites. In the jargon of science philosopher Thomas Kuhn, revolutionary ideas that are initially anathema to the accepted paradigm, in time may become normal science as the field undergoes a paradigm shift.'

Still, we can formulate a general outline of what might constitute a weird thing as we consider specific examples. For the most part, what I mean by a "weird thing" is: (1) a claim unaccepted by most experts in that particular field of study, (2) a claim that is either logically impossible or highly unlikely, and/or (3) a claim for which the evidence is largely anecdotal and uncorroborated. Most theologians, for example, recognize that God's existence cannot be proven in any scientific sense, and thus I consider William Dembski's Intelligent Design Theory, Hugh Ross's "Reasons to Believe," and Frank Tipler's Omega Point Theory--all of which purportedly use science to prove God--as not only unacceptable to most members of their knowledge community but as uncorroborated because such proof is logically impossible. (2)

"Smart people" suffers from a similar problem in operational definition, but at least here our task is aided by achievement criteria that most would agree, and the research shows, requires a minimum level of intelligence. Graduate degrees (especially the Ph.D.), university positions (especially at recognized and reputable institutions), peer- reviewed publications, and the like, allow us to concur that, while we might quibble over how smart some of these people are, the problem of smart people believing weird things is a genuine one that is quantifiable through measurable data.

An Easy Answer to a Hard Question

It is a given assumption in the skeptical movement--elevated to a maxim really--that intelligence and education serve as an impenetrable prophylactic against the flim flam that we assume the unintelligent and uneducated masses swallow with credulity. Indeed, at the Skeptics Society we invest considerable resources in educational materials distributed to schools and the media under the assumption that this will make a difference in our struggle against pseudoscience and superstition. These efforts do make a difference, particularly for those who are aware of the phenomena we study but have not heard a scientific explanation for them. …

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