Why People Believe Wrong Things

Eugyppius | 19 Feb 2022

How so many people can believe demonstrably false things, and persist in their beliefs for years despite mountains of contrary evidence, is a great problem. There are of course liars and grifters, some of them in positions of great authority; and there are many others who are simply deceived or misinformed. A far worse problem, though, are all those who espouse obviously wrong things, while being well-informed and perfectly sincere. A great part of the maskers, the lockdowners and even the vaccinators, are like this. There are some cynical and evil voices, and there are some stupid people, but then there are all the others, who simply believe ridiculous things despite it all. There are social, psychological and emotional explanations, but being wrong is above all an intellectual problem, and it is so pervasive, because of our intellectual limitations.

A pervasive feature of human perception and cognition, is that it depends on what you might call models. We do not directly act on the information provided by our senses. Instead, our brains first process this information to build a running, constantly updated model of our environment. It is within this model that we act, and this model that constitutes our subjective sensory experience. Our eyes, for example, supply high resolution imagery for only a very small part of the visual field – far smaller than you realise. Our brains construct from this limited, disjointed information a broader theory of our surroundings, thus painting in the gaps and granting us the internal sensation of rich visual experience. This explains why unexpected events seem to come out of nowhere; why we can search the same room twenty times for a missing object, which all the time is in plain sight; and why witnesses often disagree about such elementary things as the colour of an automobile or the height of perpetrator.

Our intellectual processes are much the same. Many years ago, Thomas Kuhn wrote a book on The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, in which he argued that science does not advance through the accumulation of new discoveries and information. Scientists are not always and forever refining their repository of facts about the universe. Rather, scientific views change in fits and starts, through a kind of punctuated equilibrium.

Researchers agree on a basic set of assumptions and theories about the nature of their subject and the purpose of their work. These assumptions and theories, taken together, constitute a paradigm. Paradigms are simply intellectual frameworks, comparable to the environmental models your brain constructs on the basis of sensory information. All paradigms are necessarily imperfect, because natural phenomena are of untold complexity and our knowledge is very incomplete. Nevertheless, reigning paradigms are favoured because of their explanatory power; they fit the evidence and the research well enough, and they guide what Kuhn calls “normal science” – everyday research and inquiry within the paradigm, which aims to refine reigning theories and fit them ever more closely to reality.

Here and there, there are anomalies which the paradigm cannot explain. Researchers engaged in normal science will ignore or downplay these anomalies as long as they can, because they cannot be understood or processed with the intellectual tools that their paradigm grants them. These anomalies require a new paradigm, a different set of fundamental assumptions, and this is inconceivable, until there are so many anomalies, that the reigning paradigm is discredited and the field enters a crisis. It is at this point that you end up abandoning the miasma theory for the germ theory of disease, or setting aside the geocentric solar system for a heliocentric one.

Paradigms, then, not only make interpretations and predictions. They also establish the kinds of questions it is appropriate to ask, and how these questions are to be answered. When you are inside of a paradigm, it does not seem so much true, as unquestionable, or even invisible. This accounts for the strange ability of theories almost to make reality, and to form closed, inviolable worlds of thought unto themselves. Any set of data and observations can support multiple hypotheses, but under the spell of a theory, you see in the data only confirmations of what you already believe. Contrary, falsifying proofs don’t even seem disqualifying, so much as boring or bizarre, and above all unimportant.

Kuhn elaborated his concept only in the context of the sciences, but it is plain that paradigms govern everything, from political discourse to the study of Shakespeare. The sustained study of natural, historical or literary phenomena, doesn’t make you smarter or better at understanding the world. As the sophistication of theory and interpretation increases, the scope of inquiry narrows, and the possibilities for self-deception and absurdity only multiply. Hence the familiar jokes, about the ridiculous ideas that only someone with a doctoral degree could propagate. It is the same with Corona, and political matters, and everything else. There are errors and mistaken interpretations to which low-information observers are subject, but high-information, critical thinkers also build intellectual worlds that are subject to deeper, harder errors, and these people will never be convinced they are wrong.

Kuhn and others have noted that scientific knowledge does not advance so much by discovery, as by the deaths of prior scientists:

Copernicanism made few converts for almost a century after Copernicus’ death. Newton’s work was not generally accepted … for more than half a century after the Principia appeared. Priestley never accepted the oxygen theory, nor Lord Kelvin the electromagnetic theory, and so on. … Darwin … wrote: “Although I am fully convinced of the truth of the views given in this volume … I by no means expect to convince experienced naturalists whose minds are stocked with a multitude of facts all viewed, during a long course of years, from a point of view directly opposite to mine … ” And Max Planck, surveying his own career in his Scientific Autobiography, sadly remarked that “a new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”1

One of the biggest problems here, is that the error and the source of the error are not the same. People are most demonstrably wrong in their conclusions, but they arrived at these wrong conclusions via a broader intellectual framework that they leave mostly unstated, and that isn’t even subject to ordinary falsification.

It doesn’t help, that academics tend to surround themselves and their intellectual production with a lot of credentialism and gate-keeping, which serves to protect the reigning theories of consensus scholarship from criticism, and which the right-thinking public accepts as prerequisites for being right. Shallow political demands to Follow the Science will just tether the whole world to the eccentric, careerist intellectual production of a bunch of unaccountable academics, who cannot afford to be wrong and will never alter their views, whatever the evidence.1

Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, pp. 149–50.

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