Why we Believe Weird Things

What is the more likely explanation

In science we need to track the misses along with the hits. The same is true for business —we want to prove and disprove reality. We call people who do that skeptics.

Psychologist and science historian Michael Shermer is director of the Skeptics Society. He publishes Skeptic magazine. The job of the Skeptic Society is to investigate claims of the paranormal, pseudo-science, fringe groups and cults, and claims of all kinds between —science and pseudo-science and non-science and junk science, voodoo science, pathological science, bad science, non-science,and plain old non-sense.He says, “unless you've been on Mars recently, you know there's a lot of that out there.” They see their mission as trying to replace bad ideas with good ideas. For example, when we buy something based on the marketing promise that it will do something, we should test it keeping track of both the hits as well as the misses. If it is 50 percent, then we're in the same situation we would be with a coin flip.

Each issue of Skeptic magazine has a different theme. In a recent issue, they tackled the future of intelligence, as in “are people getting smarter or dumber?” And the answer is we're getting smarter when we measure IQ points at the rate of 3 points per 10-year span.

Says Shermer:

With science, don't think of skepticism as a thing, or science as a thing. Are science and religion compatible? It's like, are science and plumbing compatible? They're just two different things. Science is not a thing. It's a verb. It's a way of thinking about things. It's a way of looking for natural explanations for all phenomena.

For example, what is the more likely explanation to the image above? Did extraterrestrial beings take the time to advertise the magazine, or did someone create the image with Photoshop? Before we go ahead and share information, we at least should make sure it is likely.

And then a miracle occurs

We can say “and then a miracle occurs,” but it doesn't explain anything. There is nothing to test and learn.  Though the cartoon is accurate as sometimes scientists throw terms out as linguistic fillers, until they figure out what it is they agree to call “dark energy, or dark matter.”

In all of science we are looking for a balance of data and theory. For example, he says:

In the case of Galileo, he had two problems when he turned his telescope to Saturn. First of all, there was no theory of planetary rings. Second of all, his data was grainy and fuzzy, and he couldn't quite make out what he was looking at. So he wrote that he had seen: “I have observed that the furthest planet has three bodies.”

And this is what he ended up concluding that he saw. So without a theory of planetary rings and with only grainy data, you can't have a good theory. It wasn't solved until 1655.

Christiaan Huygens's book, Systema Saturia, catalogs all the mistakes people made trying to figure out what was going on with Saturn. It wasn't till Huygens had two things: He had a good theory of planetary rings and how the solar system operated, and he had better telescopic, more fine-grain data in which he could figure out that as the Earth is going around faster –according to Kepler's Laws — than Saturn, then we catch up with it. And we see the angles of the rings at different angles, there. And that, in fact, turns out to be true.

The problem with having a theory is that it may be loaded with cognitive biases. When we're called to make decisions, we want to make sure we fact check our beliefs.

For a more humorous example, we are programmed by evolution to see faces, and we do see them in the most unusual places, like Mars. When we look at something that is grainy, like Galileo, and add our tendency to seek patterns, our theory becomes difficult to resist. This is the case with religious icons —we see what we expect to see, says Shermer.

Watch the short video below to hear an example of looking for what we expect from a song and learn about fact-checking our lyrics. The revised version may not pack a punch, but it is more accurate.


Michael Shermer is the author of The Moral Arc: How Science Makes us Better People, The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies—How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths, Why People Believe Weird Things and The Mind of The Market on evolutionary economics, Why Darwin Matters: the Case Against Intelligent Design, and The Science of Good and Evil: Why People Cheat, Gossip, Care, and Follow the Golden Rule.


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