From Occam’s Razor: A Scientific View of Pseudoscience

One of my favorite podcasts is Occam’s Razor, the science podcast of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s (ABC) Radio National. In a recent episode, A Scientific View of Non-Scientific Beliefs, Dr. Craig Cormick of Canberra does an excellent job of laying out a cogent view of how intelligent people come to and maintain unscientific beliefs despite powerful evidence against them. Though not as comprehensive a treatment of the subject as a book like Michael Shermer’s Why People Believe Weird Things, this short essay outlines some of the key issues, and points out some of the major challenges for those of us trying to counter pseudoscientific, or simply inaccurate, beliefs.

Dr. Cormick Begins with some frightening statistics (which are also oddly comforting only in that they challenge the assumption I sometimes make that the United States is the center of gravity for antiscientific thinking).

So what are we to make of the facts that in Australia roughly every second person believes in psychic powers such as ESP, one in three believes in UFOs and one in five believes in magic?

And a 2005 survey published in the Medical Journal of Australia stated that half of all Australians are taking alternative medicines with one in four not even telling their doctor they are taking them.

Other surveys conducted in Australia and in the USA indicate that about 80% of the population hold at least one paranormal belief which includes astrology. One in ten Americans said that astrology was ‘very scientific’, in the UK belief in UFOs is about evenly divided into thirds between those who say UFOs have visited the earth, those who say they have not and those who were undecided…

According to the US Centre for Disease Control, one in five Americans believes that vaccines can cause autism and two in five Americans have either delayed or refused vaccines for their children. And in Australia according to the Australian General Practice Network vaccination rates have been dropping over the past seven years, with now only 83% of 4 year olds covered which is more likely to lead to outbreaks of fatal, but preventable, diseases.

And in some areas, usually where there are high pockets of alternative lifestyle supporters such as south-east Queensland, the northern rivers of NSW and Adelaide Hills and the south-west of Western Australia vaccination rates are as low as 70%.

He then goes on to point out that providing facts and data which contradict unscientific beliefs doesn’t seem to be very effective in undermining these beliefs. As an example, he points out that despite the comprehensive disproof against the notion that childhood vaccines cause autism, and despite the retraction of the original paper by Andrew Wakefield and the revocation of ex-Dr. Wakefields medical license, belief in a vaccine-autism connection has not been much reduced. Dr. Cormick then gives examples of a number of factors that promote pseudoscientific beliefs based on current research.

The first on our list is scales of belief. People don’t divide into simple for and against camps on those things…There’s usually a wide scale, or a continuum of strengths of belief. So just because you believe in homeopathy and think that genetically engineered crops are unnatural it doesn’t mean that you don’t prescribe to a scientific view of the world on other things. But the further along the continuum you travel towards extreme anti-science thinking end, the more science-thinking is rejected and people at that end are very unlikely to ever shift their position.

It seems quite true that there are such scales of belief. I know of one prominent advocate for alternative veterinary medicine who seems reluctant to criticize the more mystical and obviously faith-based alternative approaches despite being an outspoken critic of religious belief (though I cannot say if the person is truly a believer in these spiritual forms of alternative medicine or is merely being politic). I know another perfectly rational person who proudly claims to be an advocates of evidence-based medicine and who also practices Healing Touch, a non-denominational form of faith healing. So it can be difficult to clearly identify exclusively pseudoscientific thinking because it is often accompanied by perfectly sound scientific thinking in the same brain.

However, as well as being a problem, this could potentially be an opportunity for those of us advocates of the scientific approach. Recognizing that promoters of approaches that are unscientific in some aspect may also me supporters of science in other domains might give us common ground and a common language, which could facilitate dialogue and perhaps education. Or am I being too optimistic?

Next, Dr. Cormick talks about heuristics, the “mental shortcuts” that lead us into false beliefs and keep us there. I have discussed these many times before, but Dr. Cormick takes a slightly different approach to the subject.

It’s the way we respond to rapid and complex information being fired at us. We need to quickly sort it into categories and an easy way to do this is to sort it according to our existing belief systems or values…the cultural cognition effect which put simply, argues that our values are more strongly going to influence our attitudes than any standard demographic like age, gender, race or socio-political status…And through ongoing affirmation and reinforcement of wacky ideas, they become values or beliefs and don’t easily move for anything. If you doubt this, just google “The Royal Family are Seven Foot Shape Shifting aliens’ and look at the sheer amount of confirmation on different sites about this.

Access to the enormous breadth of opinions on the internet has revealed that people, when swamped with information follow up by ‘motivated reasoning’ which means only acknowledging information that accords with our beliefs and dismissing information that does not accord with them.

The next item on Dr. Cormick’s list is the depressing reminder that because of this values-based, motivated reasoning, facts don’t change beliefs very often.

Brendan Nyhan at the University of Michigan undertook a study that found that when people were shown information that proved that their beliefs were wrong they actually became more entrenched in their original beliefs. This is known in the business as ‘backfire’. And what’s more, highly intelligent people tend to suffer backfire more than less intelligent people do, making us immune to any facts that are counter to our strongly held beliefs…

Dr Andrew Binder at North Carolina State University found that most people when faced with an issue related to science and technology fairly quickly adopted an initial position of support or opposition based on a variety of mental shortcuts and predisposed beliefs. Dr Binder stated ‘This is problematic because it suggests that individuals are very selective in choosing their discussion partners and hearing only what they want to hear during discussions of controversial issues.

Dr. Cormick then addresses the “fear factor,” the phenomenon by which the emotional content of issues, particularly those that generate anxiety or fear, impedes a reasoned judgement based on facts. When an alternative medical approach, for example, is marketed through fear, fear of toxins, chemicals, or other nebulous dangers, then people are more likely to accept it despite the evidence against it.

Lastly, Dr. Cormick touches on what I believe is one of the most important factors, one related to the issue of fear: control. Alternative approaches are especially attractive to those who feel a need for more control, over their health or other sources of fear. Simple, confident, direct answers are reassuring and appealing even if they aren’t consistent with the often complex and ambiguous nature of reality. Pseudoscience has an inherent marketing advantage over science in catering to people’s anxiety and need for control because it is not constrained by the true nature of reality.

At the heart of a lot of our non-science beliefs is control. We live in an ever uncertain and more out of control world, but superstitious beliefs and pseudoscience can give people a sense of control and certainty, providing simple answers, which reduces our level of stress which again is a necessary adaptive mechanism and something we tend to be wired to seek out. But here’s the cruncher – science is predominantly based on uncertainty and the simple answer to this simple statement is that unfortunately there is no simple answer.

So what to do? Well, Dr. Cormick doesn’t claim to have a comprehensive answer (which increases his credibility, since any such answer would likely be wrong), but he does have some sensible suggestions.

…good science education can help. There is some evidence that adults with more science training will more often reject astrology or lucky numbers and more often accept things like evolution. Likewise a 2002 PhD study by Alyssa Taylor in Queensland found that a course on critical thinking led to significant decline in belief in paranormal claims.

So we need to educate people before attitudes and beliefs are strongly formed and in this it is more important to teach them how to think than what to think. The only way to make people bullet-proof to pseudoscience is to effectively teach the values and ways of science thinking whilst still young before alternative belief systems have formed.






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