Thursday, 31 May 2012

Lie to me, please!

The more I observe people's keenness to believe patent nonsense, the more I realise that the nonsense is less the problem than the desire to be lied to. Whence comes this desire? What could be its roots?

It is noticeable that certain beliefs seem to "go together" in the same individual. By "belief" I mean the act of accepting some idea as entirely true without sufficient evidence to support it. I would add to that the reluctance, or even active resistance, to research the question at all. The sort of alliance of weird beliefs would typically include the following: fringe medicine, conspiracy theories, cryptozoology (it's never cryptobotany, is it?), alien-operated UFOs and alien-created crop circles, psychic powers, ghosts and life after death generally, political movements which are new and sometimes extreme, cult and other whacky beliefs. Oh, and let's not forget Atlantis!

This list is not exhaustive. And many perfectly rational people embrace at least one of them, or find them credible to some degree. But there are many who buy into the whole lot - or most of it. They seem to have a certain "mindset" which is nourished by outlandish concepts. Why? They frequently harbour a deep mistrust of science and conventional medicine (that is, medicine that works).

The question is, what is so appealing about the weird beliefs? Why are they embraced when science and logic are rejected with a sort of visceral spasm? And does it matter?

It seems to me that common threads which run through the whacky are "total answers", certainty and, ironically, the illusory empowerment of those who embrace whatever weird idea is being proposed. It is the promise of certainty which is the most seductive, I think. Being certain removes a deep anxiety in the psyche and history shows that people can place certainty above everything, including morality and even their own survival.

In contrast, what can skepticism offer? Hard work, thoroughness, self-criticism, vigilance, and, of course, uncertainty! Skeptics live in a mental world of questioning and enquiry where there are few simple answers and no total answers. Skeptics enjoy this. However, for those who crave the comfort of certainty, and easy, if ridiculous, answers, this is hardly attractive. Possibly the reason they often react to skeptical challenges with such vituperative fury is that they feel such challenges are fundamental personal attacks, which in a very real sense to them, they are. They feel afraid because the foundation of their mental life is being undermined and the deep anxiety which comes from uncertainty awaits them. Their very world is threatened with destruction. No wonder they get so angry and reject all reason. No wonder they resort to vicious personal attacks on the skeptic.

No wonder they want to be lied to.

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