You can’t blame people for holding unscientific beliefs (except…)

I sometimes find myself arguing with people about something or other they believe in — and saying they should not believe it because it’s contrary to what has been scientifically proven, or even because the belief itself just hasn’t been proven scientifically. I have some experience of such debates and I try to use it to follow the other person’s point of view.

And you know what? Quite often what I see from that simulated point of view is that what I’m saying must not seem believable at all. I know why you must demand scientific proof for many things, and I have little doubt about that. But to ask the other person to think so? It will often seem like asking them to blindly trust authority in place of common sense or even their own eyes.

I remember a specific time when I accepted an unscientific notion when I was a kid. The way I thought about it and reacted to what evidence I had was perfectly reasonable. I watched some documentary (in hindsight, unreliable) about UFOs. I was particularly impressed by the story of a fighter pilot who had chased a bright, flying target that was moving at an incredible speed. How do you explain that? I was left with the idea that there’s something going on with these UFOs… not necessarily that they’re alien craft, but something unknown so far, something that would suffice to explain such extraordinary things.

Then my parents gave me this book about UFOs (in Finnish, called Katoavatko ufot?, by Ursa, the Finnish astronomical society). It went through alleged case after alleged case and… there was nothing to them. As the slightly ambiguous title seems to imply, the whole phenomenon basically vanished when looked at more closely. Proven hoaxes, known rocket launches, “abductees” only “remembering” anything after hypnosis, everyone seeing saucer-shaped objects after the term “flying saucer” was introduced after a sighting where the objects were not saucer-shaped, people even thinking the freaking Moon was a thing close by following them… Oh, and as for that fast-moving object chased by a pilot in the documentary, it was either in this book or elsewhere that I read about a similar case, which may have been the same one, where the pilot was probably trying to follow a bright star. After all that other stuff, it didn’t sound surprising.

But wait. Why did I believe all of those explanations? Don’t they sound even more unbelievable? Isn’t it just like the cartoon caricature of scientists seeing a spacecraft with aliens inside and saying it must be swamp gas? Not really, I must say, not when you read all the details, but suppose someone didn’t trust the writers? This is just the point I’m making in this article. Back then, a big part of why I believed it was probably my faith in science. I just assumed that if scientists asserted confidently they knew how things worked, you could trust them.

Well, at a guess, I was like ten years old then. But really… don’t a lot of anti-superstitious people think like that all their lives? You just dismiss certain kind of things out of hand, regardless of the evidence, because it doesn’t fit (your idea of) what science says. Witnesses must be delusional, evidence must be fake.

These people trust science, fine, but could they really give an argument as to why to trust some pronouncement by authorities more than your own eyes or common sense?

Of course, I could. I’ve been studying this for most of my life. It might have started in earnest with that UFO book. Trust in scientific authority was not the only reason I believed it. There was a lot there about psychology and perception, for example how we are bad at observing things when we’re excited and how memory is nothing like as reliable as we think and generally just works differently. I’ve read much more about such things since then, most importantly from the Skeptic’s Dictionary. Other factors such as cognitive biases also make people “see” things that are not there. Objective study might show that an “alternative” treatment works no better than a placebo, but they all always have supporters who “know” that the treatment works because their experience was that it cured them.

But if you try to tell this to people… why would they listen? Why should they? They saw something with their own eyes (they think), and some guy who wasn’t there is telling them that that’s not believable because their own eyes aren’t good enough, and because they’re actually really stupid in some ways and scientists would know better. You see something happening all the time? Nope, it’s just confirmation bias. You remember something clearly? Nah, most of that is probably later unconscious embellishment and your powerful feeling that you can remember properly is an illusion. Trust me, don’t trust your own clearest intuitions.

All of this coming from someone who probably wasn’t there, and who’s just repeating over and over again that it doesn’t count if it’s not scientifically proven and because you’re so dumb. Do you really blame people for not accepting such arguments?

Of course, that’s just the subjective view. People do have loads of defects as observers of just about anything else than familiar everyday things. Memory really is unreliable. Cognitive biases do exist. But I would not have sufficient grounds to assert this if I had not studied the matter extensively, and most people have not done that. Studying the matter has also involved studying the methods of science so that I can assert they do give more reliable results. Why this is so is really the topic of a whole other article that I almost wrote right at the beginning of this blog’s history but never got around to as of this writing. But briefly: scientists, at least as a group, know that they are “stupid” like everyone else. Because of this, they have methods that eliminate the possibility of doubt and reliance on human judgement as far as possible. (And yet they still doubt, just in case.) It is often not “scientists’ opinion on a matter against someone else’s opinion;” if you do something like a control group study, it’s about as close as you can get to eliminating all other possible reasons for the effects as the treatment (or whatever) that’s being tested. (I recommend reading that article to see why.) Further, even if you get a positive result from a control group study, there may be some room for doubt… but if you can only get positive results in uncontrolled conditions and never in the controlled ones, then nope, the phenomenon almost certainly just doesn’t exist.

Even when it comes down to judgement, scientists at least have the benefit of the experience of past generations, and they take care to examine the matter thoroughly. And the reason the thesis that humans are unreliable observers — in so many ways that they simply cannot be trusted in many situations and you need scientific study instead — the reason this is believable is that when scientists have looked at many things that have convinced people something extraordinary was going on, they have found there was nothing. If, for example, people are convinced that all sorts of “alternative” treatments work, but double-blind control group studies show that they do not work better than a placebo, this shows that people believing a treatment works does not prove anything. And this keeps happening: people keep being convinced of something that more objective evidence shows to be wrong. And psychology can explain why.

Further, scientists have been able to reproduce some of the effects that they claim to be behind many beliefs in the real world. Thus, they’ve been able to use made-up personality test results to show that people imagine such things (as also seen in astrology, for example) are accurate descriptions about them even when everyone gets the same results. Or they have been able to show that people can be given vivid memories that are known in advance to be false, or that existing memories can be altered by things as simple as asking about them differently (though there may have been some problems with that particular study, see the link).

Knowing all this, and more, and not just knowing but understanding it pretty well — all that given, I’m justified in asserting that people should in many cases not believe their own eyes and believe science instead. But to someone without this background? All I can do is try to get some of this through without sounding uncritical or dogmatic. And a lot of people probably are a bit uncritical about science.

Of course, people are uncritical, emotionally invested and biased about their unscientific beliefs too, and don’t listen to counterarguments and don’t want to be wrong. But it isn’t just that. They might act stupid and not listen to reason even if they were given perfectly good reason to believe what you’re saying… but often it’s hard to even get as far as actually communicating to them something that would give them reason to believe you based on what they know.

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