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Smart People Believe Weird Things 
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Post Smart People Believe Weird Things
from here

In April 1999, when I was on a lecture tour for my book Why People Believe Weird Things, the psychologist Robert Sternberg attended my presentation at Yale University. 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. But why do smart people fall for such things? Sternberg's challenge led to a second edition of my book, with a new chapter expounding on my answer to his question: Smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for nonsmart reasons.

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.

This phenomenon, called the confirmation bias, helps to explain the findings published in the National Science Foundation's biennial report (April 2002) on the state of science understanding: 30 percent of adult Americans believe that UFOs are space vehicles from other civilizations; 60 percent believe in ESP; 40 percent think that astrology is scientific; 32 percent believe in lucky numbers; 70 percent accept magnetic therapy as scientific; and 88 percent accept alternative medicine.

Education by itself is no paranormal prophylactic. Although belief in ESP decreased from 65 percent among high school graduates to 60 percent among college graduates, and belief in magnetic therapy dropped from 71 percent among high school graduates to 55 percent among college graduates, that still leaves more than half fully endorsing such claims! And for embracing alternative medicine, the percentages actually increase, from 89 percent for high school grads to 92 percent for college grads.

We can glean a deeper cause of this problem in another statistic: 70 percent of Americans still do not understand the scientific process, defined in the study as comprehending probability, the experimental method and hypothesis testing. One solution is more and better science education, as indicated by the fact that 53 percent of Americans with a high level of science education (nine or more high school and college science/math courses) understand the scientific process, compared with 38 percent of those with a middle-level science education (six to eight such courses) and 17 percent with a low level (five or fewer courses).

The key here is teaching how science works, not just what science has discovered. We recently published an article in Skeptic (Vol. 9, No. 3) revealing the results of a study that found no correlation between science knowledge (facts about the world) and paranormal beliefs. The authors, W. Richard Walker, Steven J. Hoekstra and Rodney J. Vogl, concluded: "Students that scored well on these [science knowledge] tests were no more or less skeptical of pseudoscientific claims than students that scored very poorly. Apparently, the students were not able to apply their scientific knowledge to evaluate these pseudoscientific claims. We suggest that this inability stems in part from the way that science is traditionally presented to students: Students are taught what to think but not how to think."

To attenuate these paranormal belief statistics, we need to teach that science is not a database of unconnected factoids but a set of methods designed to describe and interpret phenomena, past or present, aimed at building a testable body of knowledge open to rejection or confirmation.

For those lacking a fundamental comprehension of how science works, the siren song of pseudoscience becomes too alluring to resist, no matter how smart you are.


--Michael Shermer

Edited by: ZachSylvanus at: 3/27/04 11:40 pm



Sat Mar 27, 2004 11:38 pm
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Post Re: Smart People Believe Weird Things
That's just it, isn't it.....

It would be so easy to explain away the motivations behinf religion by saying, "All religious people are idiots".

But it simply isn't true!
I still cannot fathom how so many, otherwise intelligent people, actually decide to believe this rubbish.

I guess this book would be a place to start! I'll get around to reading real soon!

I am 100% behind the suggestion that science should be taught, not with emphasis on the discoveries and theories, but on the method.

So when a creationist is telling me that evolution should be taught in classrooms as a theory...in a perverse way I would agree with him!...but I think that EVERYTHING should be taught as a theory! That way the students would realise what a theory is, and would simply laugh in the fact of an argument as feeble as "evolution is 'only' a theory".

Without an emphasis on method, what is science education? It consists of "here is a collection of claims, told to you by a bunch of guys in white coats".
'Contrasted' with pseduoscience:
"here is a collection of claims told to you by a bunch of priests/mystics/quacks/whatever".

Without an understanding of the method behind these claims (rational enquiry, double blind tests, evidence, falsifiability, etc. vs. authority, tradition, revelation, etc.), science seems no more convincing than mysticism/religion.

I think that having a solid understanding of the philosophy of science is many times more important that knowing the atomic mass number of Argon.

If it's not worth doing, it's not worth doing well.

Edited by: CSflim at: 3/28/04 4:58 pm



Sun Mar 28, 2004 4:55 pm
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Post Science
''We suggest that this inability stems in part from the way that science is traditionally presented to students: Students are taught what to think but not how to think."

So they suggest that we teach philosophy to science students now? That'd be interesting to say the least.

Speaking as a psychology student, I'd have to say that inspite of the fact that psychology students are thought about the scientific method, it doesn't seem to affect their beliefs.

The problem with the philosophy behind science is that it isn't anywhere near bullet-proof. The scientific method likes to promote itself as being unbiased and thus, superior to all other ways of viewing the world. Of course that just doesn't hold water.

THe explanation offered is a typical scientific response to a 'problem' which is probably outside of its relam. There are always inarticulatable belief systems and pre-suppositions which determine the way that we view the world. THe mistake that many scientists make is that they believe that their view-point is objective, not just relatively objective, but ultimately objective. They think that they are capable of examining mind-independent reality using a method which is independent of the mind.

What is missed is that people approach the world with attitudes which are VERY different from those of the scientists. For a scientist, reality itself is defined as that which can be replicated and what is already reproduced. For most people, reality is a much more flexible concept. Most people accept the scientific method as a means to achieving goals. They do not accept it as a means to determining what our goals should be.

Everyone makes assumptions. Some comes to be recognised as principles. Calling something a principle is an easy way out. Everyone has core-principles. And then there are secondary principles. One's core principles determine what secondary principles one is capable of accepting. But no matter what, secondary principles are not capable of altering the status of core principles. I would speculate that, for most people, the acceptance of the principles which lead to the acceptance of the scientific method happens after the acceptance of ones core-principles.




Mon Mar 29, 2004 1:34 pm
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