(Impress Your Friends with Latin

Why We Believe Weird Things Logical Fallacies Critical Thinking

Science and Superstition

X-Files: Weird Things
• • • • • • • • UFOs and the Bermuda Triangle Ghosts, demonic possession Bigfoot, Loch Ness monster Alternative medical therapies Astrology, Feng Shui, palmistry Cults, unorthodox religious beliefs Urban myths and conspiracy theories ESP, déjà vu, alien abduction

Why do we believe in them? What does science have to say about them?

Why We Believe Weird Things

Because everyone else does
• argumentum ad populum (many people)
– Because beliefs are shared by others

• argumentum ad antiquitatem (tradition)
– Because we have long believed so

• argumentum ad verecundiam (authority), argumentum ad baculum (power)
– Celebrities, politicians, even some scientists subscribe to weird beliefs, help propagate them

Why We Believe Weird Things Bad Logic
• Because you can’t prove them wrong: Argumentum ad ignorantiam (argument from ignorance) • Whoever makes a claim has the Burden of Proof
– Carl Sagan: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof”

• “Emperor’s New Clothes” argument:
– “It only works if you believe in it.” – “You don’t have the gift (or don’t cultivate it), so you can’t see the spirits.”

• Some beliefs are unfalsifiable (remember K. Popper?). Ex.1:
– – – – Palm reader, iridologist: “You are prone to diabetes, so be careful.” If you get diabetes, they’ll say, “See? I told you so.” If you don’t get diabetes: “I see you heeded my warning .” Ex.2: Recently from US cabinet official: “Terrorists are going to attack inside the US this summer.”

Why We Believe Weird Things: Bad Logic
• Because they seem true: cum hoc ergo propter hoc (with this, therefore because of this) • Ex. “Drinking green tea prevents shark attacks.” “I don’t see any sharks around here.” “See how well it works?” • Fact: US counties that consume more wine have more cancer cases. Therefore wine causes cancer.
– Wine consumption (A) is associated with high cancer incidence (B) not because (A) causes (B), but because (A) and (B) have the same ultimate cause. Wealthier people drink more wine and live longer; living longer increases chances of getting cancer.

• In general, many health fads seem to work because
• People who follow them can afford better health care • Health fanatics take better care of themselves. • Many health fanatics are hypochondriacs

• Explain these: (1) Humans with bigger shoe sizes have higher IQs. (2) Apr 07 phone survey: Mike Defensor will win easily

Why We Believe Weird Things

Because it is easier to believe than to verify
• Many phenomena poorly understood, difficult to explain
– Ex. Schizophrenia explains demonic possession: collective stress reaction (mass hysteria) explains group demonic possession – Déjà vu: malfunction in dentate gyrus in hippocampus weakens ability to differentiate between two similar but different situations – Alien abductions: delusions, or fake implanted memories

• Statistical Innumeracy: We often have a poor grasp of how likely something strange or fantastic occurs by pure chance
– Ex. The Bermuda Triangle; dreams or predictions that come true; strange coincidences

• Simple explanations exist, but they can never refute a claim
– Ex. UFOs, apparitions cannot be disproven



Ateneo Football Field, Feb 2007, 6PM Ateneo Football Field, Feb 2007, 1AM

Monkey Face Monument on Martian Surface?
Humans are predisposed to look for familiar patterns

Why We Believe Weird Things

There is a Belief Industry
• Because cranks (fortune tellers, cold readers, spirit mediums) can be very persuasive and skilled
– Make general statements about a person: “You have a loved one living or working abroad.” – Make specific-sounding statements to a group: “I am hearing from a spirit whose name starts with J, like Jim or Jason.” – Make ambiguous statements: “You’re not from here, are you?”

• Famous crackpots: Galileo, Edison
– All other crackpots are just crackpots: Dingel, Escosa, the late Ernie “Walking Encyclopedia” Baron

Why We Believe Weird Things

There is a Belief Industry
• Magic + spiritual content = mystical experience
– Cranks wrap weird beliefs with religion to enhance legitimacy – Why professional magicians are noted skeptics and debunkers: Houdini, Amazing Randi, Penn & Teller

Why We Believe Weird Things
• Because people lie, even people you don’t expect to
– No reason to lie? Other than money: boredom, fame, tourism, fanaticism – People who make fantastic claims sound smart, special, gifted or holy – Claims from FOAF: sources have no reason to lie because they’re not sure either

• Bigfoot, crop circles: people continue to believe even AFTER the hoax is admitted

Why We Believe Weird Things
• Because we underestimate our capacities to be deceived
– People can be mistaken, even those who should know better – Memories are selective, testimonies often faulty: why courts require material evidence – Delusions and hallucinations can be very real to schizophrenics and their audience – Strange events at night: solitude, darkness, sleepy witnesses often explain them – If it’s on TV/newspapers/internet, it’s gotta be true

• Michael Shermer, Why People Believe Weird Things (2002): People simply hate changing their minds

Why We Believe Weird Things
• Conspiracy theories: wild beliefs that persist because they’re interesting (e.g., Historians hide the fact Adolf Hitler was Jose Rizal’s son) • . . . Or are fueled by public anger
– Oil companies suppress technology that allow engines to go 100 km/l, or the water-powered car – Big drug companies suppress natural cures – We know little about UFOs and aliens because the U.S. Government is hiding data – Deeper truths lurk behind the JFK assassination, death of Princess Diana, 9/11

Why We Believe Weird Things

Cognitive Science
• Confirmation Bias: Tendency to reinforce false beliefs by using (consciously or subconsciously) only the little information that supports the belief, blindly ignoring overwhelming non-supporting data
– Believers assign greater weight on gossip, anecdotes, personal experiences, crackpots than cold, hard facts

• Rational Choice Theory: Seemingly crazy choices are actually rational in that they provide benefit
– Plaintiffs vs. Dow Corning breast implants: believing can rationalize an illness, earn big payback for some – Vaccines cause autism: Believing may help find a cure

Why We Believe Weird Things
• Social Psychologist P. Leman on Conspiracy Theories: people believe that major events should have major causes
– Death of Princess Di, JFK assassination, 9/11 just can’t have simple explanations – If big events can have minor causes, ordinary life seems unacceptably random and unpredictable – Time Magazine (11 Sep 06): “There is something perversely comforting about the idea that some great malevolent force is behind global events”

Why We Believe Weird Things
• Because sometimes believing works – the Placebo Effect
– People can get better when they believe they will: endorphins, immune systems kick in – Doctors know many illnesses go away by themselves, with or without treatment, whatever the treatment

• Because we remember better when beliefs come true: selective memory
– We tend to remember events that are remarkable – Beliefs become “proven” by selective memory, and strengthened by repetition

Why We Believe Weird Things
• Because sometimes they’re true
– Many medicines are based on herbs used by traditional healers
• Aspirin from willow bark, Tamiflu from star anise

– “Healers” recommend conventional wisdom, which is usually right: “Eat well, exercise, avoid fatty food, don’t smoke or drink” – Cranks know enough science to give themselves and their ideas some credibility – Feng Shui: some recommendations make sense:
• Don’t put a toilet over your dining area; choose a home that faces east; stagger doors in hallways, etc.

Why We Believe Weird Things
• Because it makes life much more interesting
– Where will books and movies get their material? – There must be more to reality than science – How sad it would be if they’re not true (Santa Claus effect)

• Because we fear the alternatives of not believing
– Blaise Pascal’s Wager modified: Believing promises immense rewards at little expense, not believing means certain loss and winning nothing – So why tempt fate? Why mess with tradition?

Why We Believe Weird Things

Because We’re Human
• Beliefs provide comfort, apparent control of our fates – a deeply human quality
– Alternative therapies for the desperate – Talking to dead loved ones – Justice: “sumpa,” “kulam” or karma – Water-powered car, unlimited ocean energy from deuterium – Pyramid schemes, Nigerian internet scam: “You cannot cheat an honest man”

Why We Believe Weird Things
• Because there’s no harm in believing
– Most quack cures don’t work, but at least they don’t make things worse
• Urine therapy, megavitamins, homeopathy

– Horoscopes: Reassuring, sound advice, even if generic or trivial

• Because some beliefs can have enough unintended benefits to be promoted
– Ex. Animism helps protect the environment; vegan lifestyle can be healthy

No Harm?
• You can hurt yourself
– Professional wrestling: Do not try at home – Judiel’s legacy: Agoo “Dancing Sun” Blindness – Amulet failure: the massacre of Lapiang Malaya, PBMA followers

• You can deny yourself good health
– “Prayer alone heals” – Scientology: Psychiatry is fake; vitamins cure depression

• Kids can die from simple health problems (appendicitis, internal injuries, diarrhea, infection) when parents refuse conventional treatment

No Harm in Believing the Fantastic?
• You can look stupid • You can lose money: pyramid schemes, excessive donations • You can die: doomsday cults • You can hurt others: basing your choice of mate on horoscope signs; choosing an employee based on handwriting • Other side effects: naiveté, gullibility, fatalism, fanaticism, helplessness, bigotry

Why We Believe Weird Things
Because Science is Hard • Skeptical scientists sound dismissive, arrogant
– Believers complain scientists have closed minds – Scientists are not trained to communicate well, or rarely have time to investigate fantastic claims

• Science and learning is expensive
– Conventional medicine is expensive – So are books, education, culture

• Scientific consensus changes all the time
– – – – Makes it hard to trust or accept scientific opinion New findings modify, contradict, overturn old ones Self-correction is part of science’s strength Requires scientists to interact, stay updated, keep learning

Why We Believe Weird Things
Because those who know better fail us • Media doesn’t help
– Newspapers prefer simple catchy answers, titillate rather than educate – Too willing to repeat claims rather than test them – RP: Popular, pro-poor, anti-establishment edge sells

• Governments generally tolerate unfounded beliefs
– Alternative medicines are classified as food supplements, not drugs, and are therefore tested for safety, not effectiveness – Many alternative drugs are labeled “No proven therapeutic claims” but few read it – Govt. steps in only if something poses harm

What about Religious Claims?
• Conflict is really between crackpots and fundamentalists vs. scientists
– i.e., Bad science vs. good science

• After centuries of conflict, Catholic church and scientists now agree on many fronts
– Even the Vatican relies on science: evolution, cosmology, testing miracles and claims (e.g. Shroud of Turin) – However, religious authorities often tolerate some popular unfounded beliefs if they reinforce faith – Remaining sources of conflict: uses of S&T

• Beyond Science: human life’s meaning and purpose

Thinking Clearly
• Have faith in science and common sense • Read good books, be informed, seek many sources • Apply Occam’s Razor: among many possible explanations, the simplest is most likely to true • If a fantastic claim is too good to be true, it’s false • Be a skeptic: Life is no less exciting, special, purposeful, or mysterious without delusions

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