[Paleopsych] Skeptical Inquirer: Why Bad Beliefs Don't Die

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Why Bad Beliefs Don't Die
Skeptical Inquirer November 2000

    Because beliefs are designed to enhance our ability to survive, they
    are biologically designed to be strongly resistant to change. To
    change beliefs, skeptics must address the brain's "survival" issues of
    meanings and implications in addition to discussing their data.

    [42]Gregory W. Lester

    Belief Because a basic tenet of both skeptical thinking and scientific
    inquiry is that beliefs can be wrong, it is often confusing and
    irritating to scientists and skeptics that so many people's beliefs do
    not change in the face of disconfirming evidence. How, we wonder, are
    people able to hold beliefs that contradict the data?

    This puzzlement can produce an unfortunate tendency on the part of
    skeptical thinkers to demean and belittle people whose beliefs don't
    change in response to evidence. They can be seen as inferior, stupid,
    or crazy. This attitude is born of skeptics' failure to understand the
    biological purpose of beliefs and the neurological necessity for them
    to be resilient and stubbornly resistant to change. The truth is that
    for all their rigorous thinking, many skeptics do not have a clear or
    rational understanding of what beliefs are and why even faulty ones
    don't die easily. Understanding the biological purpose of beliefs can
    help skeptics to be far more effective in challenging irrational
    beliefs and communicating scientific conclusions.

Biology and Survival

    Our brain's primary purpose is to keep us alive. It certainly does
    more than that, but survival is always its fundamental purpose and
    always comes first. If we are injured to the point where our bodies
    only have enough energy to support consciousness or a heartbeat but
    not both, the brain has no problem choosing-it puts us into a coma
    (survival before consciousness), rather than an alert death-spiral
    (consciousness before survival).

    Because every brain activity serves a fundamental survival purpose,
    the only way to accurately understand any brain function is to examine
    its value as a tool for survival. Even the difficulty of successfully
    treating such behavioral disorders as obesity and addiction can only
    be understood by examining their relationship to survival. Any
    reduction in caloric intake or in the availability of a substance to
    which an individual is addicted is always perceived by the brain as a
    threat to survival. As a result the brain powerfully defends the
    overeating or the substance abuse, producing the familiar lying,
    sneaking, denying, rationalizing, and justifying commonly exhibited by
    individuals suffering from such disorders.

Senses and Beliefs

    One of the brain's primary tools for ensuring survival is our senses.
    Obviously, we must be able to accurately perceive danger in order to
    take action designed to keep us safe. In order to survive we need to
    be able to see the lion charging us as we emerge from our cave or hear
    the intruder breaking into our house in the middle of the night.

    Senses alone, however, are inadequate as effective detectors of danger
    because they are severely limited in both range and scope. We can have
    direct sensory contact with only a small portion of the world at any
    one time. The brain considers this to be a significant problem because
    even normal, everyday living requires that we constantly move in and
    out of the range of our perceptions of the world as it is right now.
    Entering into territory we have not previously seen or heard puts us
    in the dangerous position of having no advance warning of potential
    dangers. If I walk into an unfamiliar building in a dangerous part of
    town my survival probabilities diminish because I have no way of
    knowing whether the roof is ready to collapse or a gunman is standing
    inside the doorway.

    Enter beliefs. "Belief" is the name we give to the survival tool of
    the brain that is designed to augment and enhance the
    danger-identification function of our senses. Beliefs extend the range
    of our senses so that we can better detect danger and thus improve our
    chances of survival as we move into and out of unfamiliar territory.
    Beliefs, in essence, serve as our brain's "long-range danger

    Functionally, our brains treat beliefs as internal "maps" of those
    parts of the world with which we do not have immediate sensory
    contact. As I sit in my living room I cannot see my car. Although I
    parked it in my driveway some time ago, using only immediate sensory
    data I do not know if it is still there. As a result, at this moment
    sensory data is of very little use to me regarding my car. In order to
    find my car with any degree of efficiency my brain must ignore the
    current sensory data (which, if relied on in a strictly literal sense,
    not only fails to help me in locating my car but actually indicates
    that it no longer exists) and turn instead to its internal map of the
    location of my car. This is my belief that my car is still in my
    driveway where I left it. By referring to my belief rather than to
    sensory data, my brain can "know" something about the world with which
    I have no immediate sensory contact. This "extends" my brain's
    knowledge of and contact with the world.

    The ability of belief to extend contact with the world beyond the
    range of our immediate senses substantially improves our ability to
    survive. A caveman has a much greater ability to stay alive if he is
    able to maintain a belief that dangers exist in the jungle even when
    his sensory data indicate no immediate threat. A police officer will
    be substantially more safe if he or she can continue to believe that
    someone stopped for a traffic violation could be an armed psychopath
    with an impulse to kill even though they present a seemingly innocuous

Beyond the Sensory

    Because beliefs do not require immediate sensory data to be able to
    feed valuable survival information to the brain, they have the
    additional survival function of providing information about the realm
    of life that does not deal directly with sensory entities. This is the
    area of abstractions and principles that involves such things as
    "reasons," "causes," and "meanings." I cannot hear or see the "reason"
    called a "low pressure zone" that makes a thunderstorm rain on my
    parade, so my ability to believe that low pressure is the reason
    assists me. If I were to rely strictly on my senses to determine the
    cause of the storm I could not tell why it occurred. For all I know it
    was dragged in by invisible flying gremlins that I need to shoot with
    my shotgun if I want to clear away the clouds. Therefore my brain's
    reliance on my "belief" in the reason called "low pressure," rather
    than on sensory data (or, as in the case of my car, my lack of it)
    assists in my survival: I avoid an experience of incarceration with
    myriad dangerous characters following my arrest for shooting into the
    air at those pesky little gremlins.

The Resilience of Beliefs

    Because senses and beliefs are both tools for survival and have
    evolved to augment one another, our brain considers them to be
    separate but equally important purveyors of survival information. The
    loss of either one endangers us. Without our senses we could not know
    about the world within our perceptual realm. Without our beliefs we
    could not know about the world outside our senses or about meanings,
    reasons, or causes.

    This means that beliefs are designed to operate independent of sensory
    data. In fact, the whole survival value of beliefs is based on their
    ability to persist in the face of contradictory evidence. Beliefs are
    not supposed to change easily or simply in response to disconfirming
    evidence. If they did, they would be virtually useless as tools for
    survival. Our caveman would not last long if his belief in potential
    dangers in the jungle evaporated every time his sensory information
    told him there was no immediate threat. A police officer unable to
    believe in the possibility of a killer lurking behind a harmless
    appearance could easily get hurt or killed.

    As far as our brain is concerned, there is absolutely no need for data
    and belief to agree. They have each evolved to augment and supplement
    one another by contacting different sections of the world. They are
    designed to be able to disagree. This is why scientists can believe in
    God and people who are generally quite reasonable and rational can
    believe in things for which there is no credible data such as flying
    saucers, telepathy, and psychokinesis.

    When data and belief come into conflict, the brain does not
    automatically give preference to data. This is why beliefs-even bad
    beliefs, irrational beliefs, silly beliefs, or crazy beliefs-often
    don't die in the face of contradictory evidence. The brain doesn't
    care whether or not the belief matches the data. It cares whether the
    belief is helpful for survival. Period. So while the scientific,
    rational part of our brains may think that data should supercede
    contradictory beliefs, on a more fundamental level of importance our
    brain has no such bias. It is extremely reticent to jettison its
    beliefs. Like an old soldier with an old gun who does not quite trust
    that the war is really over, the brain often refuses to surrender its
    weapon even though the data say it should.

"Inconsequential" Beliefs

    Even beliefs that do not seem clearly or directly connected to
    survival (such as our caveman's ability to believe in potential
    dangers) are still closely connected to survival. This is because
    beliefs do not occur individually or in a vacuum. They are related to
    one another in a tightly interlocking system that creates the brain's
    fundamental view of the nature of the world. It is this system that
    the brain relies on in order to experience consistency, control,
    cohesion, and safety in the world. It must maintain this system intact
    in order to feel that survival is being successfully accomplished.

    This means that even seemingly small, inconsequential beliefs can be
    as integral to the brain's experience of survival as are beliefs that
    are "obviously" connected to survival. Thus, trying to change any
    belief, no matter how small or silly it may seem, can produce ripple
    effects through the entire system and ultimately threaten the brain's
    experience of survival. This is why people are so often driven to
    defend even seemingly small or tangential beliefs. A creationist
    cannot tolerate believing in the accuracy of data indicating the
    reality of evolution not because of the accuracy or inaccuracy of the
    data itself, but because changing even one belief related to matters
    of the Bible and the nature of creation will crack an entire system of
    belief, a fundamental worldview and, ultimately, their brain's
    experience of survival.

Implications for Skeptics

    Skeptical thinkers must realize that because of the survival value of
    beliefs, disconfirming evidence will rarely, if ever, be sufficient to
    change beliefs, even in "otherwise intelligent" people. In order to
    effectively change beliefs skeptics must attend to their survival
    value, not just their data-accuracy value. This involves several

    First, skeptics must not expect beliefs to change simply as the result
    of data or assuming that people are stupid because their beliefs don't
    change. They must avoid becoming critical or demeaning in response to
    the resilience of beliefs. People are not necessarily idiots just
    because their beliefs don't yield to new information. Data is always
    necessary, but it is rarely sufficient.

    Second, skeptics must learn to always discuss not just the specific
    topic addressed by the data, but also the implications that changing
    the related beliefs will have for the fundamental worldview and belief
    system of the affected individuals. Unfortunately, addressing belief
    systems is a much more complicated and daunting task than simply
    presenting contradictory evidence. Skeptics must discuss the meaning
    of their data in the face of the brain's need to maintain its belief
    system in order to maintain a sense of wholeness, consistency, and
    control in life. Skeptics must become adept at discussing issues of
    fundamental philosophies and the existential anxiety that is stirred
    up any time beliefs are challenged. The task is every bit as much
    philosophical and psychological as it is scientific and data-based.

    Third, and perhaps most important, skeptics must always appreciate how
    hard it is for people to have their beliefs challenged. It is, quite
    literally, a threat to their brain's sense of survival. It is entirely
    normal for people to be defensive in such situations. The brain feels
    it is fighting for its life. It is unfortunate that this can produce
    behavior that is provocative, hostile, and even vicious, but it is
    understandable as well.

    The lesson for skeptics is to understand that people are generally not
    intending to be mean, contrary, harsh, or stupid when they are
    challenged. It's a fight for survival. The only effective way to deal
    with this type of defensiveness is to de-escalate the fighting rather
    than inflame it. Becoming sarcastic or demeaning simply gives the
    other person's defenses a foothold to engage in a tit-for-tat exchange
    that justifies their feelings of being threatened ("Of course we fight
    the skeptics-look what uncaring, hostile jerks they are!") rather than
    a continued focus on the truth.

    Skeptics will only win the war for rational beliefs by continuing,
    even in the face of defensive responses from others, to use behavior
    that is unfailingly dignified and tactful and that communicates
    respect and wisdom. For the data to speak loudly, skeptics must always
    refrain from screaming.

    Finally, it should be comforting to all skeptics to remember that the
    truly amazing part of all of this is not that so few beliefs change or
    that people can be so irrational, but that anyone's beliefs ever
    change at all. Skeptics' ability to alter their own beliefs in
    response to data is a true gift; a unique, powerful, and precious
    ability. It is genuinely a "higher brain function" in that it goes
    against some of the most natural and fundamental biological urges.
    Skeptics must appreciate the power and, truly, the dangerousness that
    this ability bestows upon them. They have in their possession a skill
    that can be frightening, life-changing, and capable of inducing pain.
    In turning this ability on others it should be used carefully and
    wisely. Challenging beliefs must always be done with care and

    Skeptics must remember to always keep their eye on the goal. They must
    see the long view. They must attempt to win the war for rational
    beliefs, not to engage in a fight to the death over any one particular
    battle with any one particular individual or any one particular
    belief. Not only must skeptics' methods and data be clean, direct, and
    unbiased, their demeanor and behavior must be as well.

Related Information


About the Author

    Gregory W. Lester, Ph.D. is a psychologist on the graduate faculty of
    the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas, and in private
    practice in Houston and in Denver, Colorado. Address correspondence
    to: Gregory W. Lester, Ph.D., 111 Harrison St., Suite 1, Denver,
    Colorado 80206.


   42. http://www.csicop.org/si/2000-11/beliefs.html#author
   43. http://www.csicop.org/q/csicop/belief*

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