Smart People Believe Weird Things

Michael Shermer, author of Why People Believe Weird Things takes a quick look at the confirmation bias in Scientific American. He writes:

"Rarely do any of us sit down before a table of facts, weigh them pro and con, and choose the most logical and rational explanation, regardless of what we previously believed. Most of us, most of the time, come to our beliefs for a variety of reasons having little to do with empirical evidence and logical reasoning. Rather, such variables as genetic predisposition, parental predilection, sibling influence, peer pressure, educational experience and life impressions all shape the personality preferences that, in conjunction with numerous social and cultural influences, lead us to our beliefs. We then sort through the body of data and select those that most confirm what we already believe, and ignore or rationalize away those that do not."

Not that any of us are like that, it's just something worth reading for those other people that are like that.


I can see that. I'm a scientist (molecular biologist), I read plenty of scientific research, and believe evolution is a fact. The universe was created in a big bang, and someday will contract and crush everything.However, I'm also in awe of it all. I still believe in a Creator greater than any of us, with the rationale that everything is so wonderfully complex and simple all at once. And immense at the same time, so I've never understood why evolution and the universe pose such a threat to religion. I see it fitting in quite well.I also cannot see how life could not exist elsewhere in the universe, so I hold that aliens could certainly exist.Also, the world is flat. We all know it.

Oh, and I'd add that about 5% of the LISNews posters are aliens.

Dang! How on earth did you figure it out? I'm afraid we librarians have to silence you now.

Well, I'm not too paranoid, otherwise I wouldn't have my email out there. But this foil beanie has done a good job stopping the thought police from controlling my mind.

This is driving me nuts! Way back in the dark ages of the late nineties when I was an undergrad in political science, I know we talked about this effect in politics. It's a common view of how people interpret political information. You don't go to Project Vote Smart and research the facts on the candidates; you instead talk to your parents, friends, or spouse about who to vote for, and you assimilate political info and news based on the impressions of your peers, your life experiences and so on--not on its factual relevance or merit. And this has a name that I totally can't remember anymore. Professor Nowacki would be ashamed. If anyone knows what I'm talking about, let me know...I'm going to go get some ginseng or something.

While it is important to acknowledge the confirmation bias, I think
it is also fair to say that Shermer's account of belief formation is
rather distorted in a manner common to many scientists. Empirical
observation is crucial to rational living, and it is the bread and
butter of science (and should be). However, as we reason, the
greater danger is not failure to pay attention to facts or failure
to apply logic, but failure to be aware of of the presuppositions
underlying our reasoning, and the implications of these
presuppositions (I think this is what Socrates was getting at when
he admonished "know thyself!"). This danger affects scientists to
the same degree it affects everyone else.

(1) Strict empricism (and hence natural science) is
reductionistic. Consider the parable of Wittgenstein's

Wittgenstein uses an image of a group of researchers,
who are studying the size of fish in a certain pond. They use a net
with a 2 inch mesh to drag the lake, and then pile the fish on the
bank. Whereupon, they proceed to measure each fish VERY, VERY
carefully with a ruler, and come to the startling conclusion that
there are no fish under 2 inches long in the

The presupposition of methodological naturalism is the net in this
parable. Any sub-2-inch fish in the pond are supernatural
phenomena (phenomena for which the true explanation is
in part non-natural). By design, methodological naturalism
is ignorant of, and blinds itself to, the supernatural, since it
begins by assuming that there are no supernatural phenomena.
Therefore, it can never have warrant for saying that there are no
supernatural phenomena.

And yet
there are many scientists who have no qualms about inferring from
their belief in evolution that there is no God. Not only have they
failed to examine the proper implications of their methodological
naturalism, they have also tacitly allowed their methodological
naturalism to become a philosophical naturalism, a sort of
bait-and-switch tactic. From mcbride's posting above, he doesn't
seem to fall into this trap, since he doesn't find his science to
constrain him from believing in a supernatural Creator. His
own worldview is distinct from that which is methodologically
necessary to science.

(2) How we draw conclusions from empirical evidence (and from other
sources as well) is complex. Alvin Plantinga gives the following example of how contradictory
propositions can each be rational under different circumstances.
Let's say we know only the following:

  • Feike is a Frisian.
  • 9 out of 10 of Frisians cannot swim.

We are rational in thinking that Feike probably can't swim. But let'
s say we then learn

  • Feike is a Frisian lifeguard.
  • 99 out of 100 Frisian lifeguards can swim.

Knowing this, we are rational in holding that Feike probably can

(3) Much of what we believe cannot be inferred from empirical
evidence, but rather comes from some form of testimony that we
regard as authoritative. If someone ignorant of U.S. history
started turning up bullets, bayonets, and scraps of leather at
the site of the battle of Antietam, they would not be able empirically to infer the Civil War. They could
infer that a battle took place on that site at a particular time,
but without documentary evidence, they could do no more than that. The authoritative testimony of the documentary evidence
provides the context for any but the most trivial understanding
of the battle and the War.

If your epistemology is up for a challenge, I heartily recommend Alvin Plantinga's essay "Reason and Belief in God" in Faith and Rationality (Notre Dame, 1983). Plantinga's account of rational belief formation is excellent and rather more nuanced than Shermer's seems to be.

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