By Bill Frayer

Why Do People Believe Weird Things?


In my former life, I was a professor at a community college. I have had a long-standing interest in rationalism and critical thinking. I was active in the “critical thinking movement” in education. This was an effort to transform education from the “lecture and regurgitate” model of learning to a pedagogy which insisted that students learn how to think and reason, how to decide for themselves what to believe. Our goal was to teach students how to learn, how to think, not what to think. So that’s my bias.

When I attended a college graduation in Maine one spring, the commencement speaker was an eminent educational reformer. The first words from his mouth were as follows: “The purpose of a college education is to teach you to be a good crap detector!” It shocked the audience a bit, but I think he was right. The purpose of being an educated person is to be able to decide what to believe and what’s just a bunch of crap.

Why do so many otherwise intelligent people believe so many weird things? An example: I have met a number of people who really believe that George Bush ordered the destruction of the World Trade Center towers on September 11, 2001. They point to “evidence” that he was in cahoots with the Saudis, that scientists claim that the towers were sabotaged, that he needed a crisis to revive his presidency, etc. Now I just don’t find this plausible. I may be proven wrong, but from what I’ve read so far, I doubt it.

Some people believe that eating a particular Chinese herb will single-handedly prevent illness and extend their lives. Others believe that your dead relatives are trying to communicate with you, that wearing a takionic headband can improve your thinking, that psychics can predict the future, and that planning their lives around astrological configurations will bring them prosperity and happiness.

These are some examples of what I consider to be “weird” beliefs people have. If I haven’t alienated all my readers by now, I’ll consider why I think such beliefs persist.

First, I think the world is a confusing and scary place. Bad events may affect any one of us at any time. So because we fear the unknown and the randomness of events, we are always looking for ways we can stay in control. As a result, we are vulnerable to those who claim to provide easy solutions to problems which may, by their very nature, be insoluble. If I believe I can avoid problems by looking at the configuration of the stars, then that’s comforting. If I convince myself that I can avoid a random illness by ingesting a particular herb every day, then I will feel safer.

The root of our anxiety, I think, is fear of the randomness of life. We look for ways to “control” our lives. We are susceptible to claims that promise to protect us from illness, unhappiness, or loss. We look for explanations which make us feel in control of our lives. The reality that we often have little or no control, or that our loved ones are gone forever, is a frightening prospect.

The problem is that instead of basing our beliefs on clear evidence, we sometimes base them on what we want to be true. We want to control our health and make ourselves happy. Unfortunately, most of these so-called solutions are ineffective. Conspiracy theories are popular because they explain, and assign blame. In reality, we cannot control many things in our lives. We need to become good “crap detectors” and make sure when we decide what claimto believe, that we first carefully examine the evidence.

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