Lies photo.

Faulty findings, real appeal: the psychology of pseudoscience

Today we take a look at what pseudoscience is and why people turn to it.

Lies photo.

Image credits Ged Carroll / Flickr.

Whether you’re one of our long-time readers or you simply put the effort into Googling your way to this article, chances are that you have an appetite for (if not a background in) science. I find that this academic bend, given time, tends to instill a certain way of thinking. A particular way of reporting one’s self to the world around us, one that stays with us throughout our lives. A certain mental discipline, if you will, based on a few shared principles:

  • We listen to facts over opinion. That doesn’t mean we’re always right, or that we’re free of our own biases. Overall, however, we tend to mold our opinions from facts, rather than the other way around.
  • We maintain a critical mindset. We double-check. We scour libraries or the Internet for data, but we also pay mind to the source of that data.
  • Despite this, we trust in the (provable) competence of others. There’s no fast solution to be had online that substitutes years spend in academic study and research. We do our best to weed out shady sources of information, but we also understand that unrestrained skepticism can be as toxic as no skepticism. After a certain point, you simply have to defer judgment to those whose entire job is to know what they’re talking about.

Now help yourself to some of this tasty text:

Climate change is a Chinese hoax designed to steal jobs. If it were truly happening, how could I hold this ball of snow up in Congress? (a senator actually asked this).

As we all know, vaccines cause autism — because mercuryI only use natural products for my kid, none of those chemicals for him, no sirree.

To round it all up (pun intended), the Earth is flat. There’s simply no other explanation to fit what so many of us have observed. Spherical planets orbiting around the Sun?! Go away with that mumbo-jumbo; that’s what the Government wants you to think, man! We’re living on a flat world and we will get to the bottom of why NASA is hiding it from us!

Inhofe holding snowball.

“Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) has, once and for all, disproven climate change,” the Washington Post sarcastically reported on the event.
Image via Wikimedia.

It kinda gets the hairs to stand up on the back of your neck a bit, doesn’t it? I don’t blame you. These views feel so blissfully unencumbered by basic fact, so fundamentally opposed to how we order our thoughts, that they’re actually scary; almost insulting, too. For you and me.

Yet, to a (sadly) growing number of people out there, these words spell enlightenment and a release from outside manipulations. They’re the battle cry of those who aren’t afraid to question the unquestionable, those who would seek for themselves the truth that others are hiding away. The brave, the bold, the explorers. Something inspiring like that.

Which I find quite puzzling, to say the least.

I’ve spent the last few weeks armed with a sturdy wifi and a sturdier drink in hand delving into the deep, dark, and often confusing corners of the Internet that these conspiracy theorists and pseudoscience aficionados have claimed for themselves. I wanted to understand what makes some people actually believe a theory so bonkers that it causes most others to recoil. I bore the few chuckles and many more groans (the drinks helped) this elicited so that today, we could talk about the flat elephant in the room. Namely:

What is pseudoscience?

Flat Earth map.

This, among others.
Image via Wikimedia.

The line between science and pseudoscience is generally tricky to clearly delineate. ‘Science’ isn’t a sum total of information wholly beyond critique. Researchers have repeatedly disproven theories that seemed undeniable once evidence to the contrary became available. On the other hand, some theories that seemed to be pure fantasy were later proven to be true.

Science is a process — namely, the process via which we obtain that information. It’s a set of methods, of checks and balances, that we apply when verifying theories. Sticking to these rules is the best way that we know of to tease out relevant data from our own biases and preconceptions.

Pseudoscience in all its forms uses ‘facts,’ methods, and bits of data that wear the trappings of science but not the essence. Pseudoscience sounds genuine but doesn’t follow the set of accepted scientific standards, most notably the scientific method, falsifiability of claims, and the Mertonian norms. It’s part of non-science and it’s not the same as bad science — an error made while trying to follow the scientific method, but otherwise in good faith.

In other words, pseudoscience is a body of claims built on shaky reasoning and quite a bit of cherry-picking — but it still wants you to call it ‘science’.

How sure are we?

Completely. We deal with this baloney every day.

Why write this?

Stop me if I’m going too fast here, but we write about science. While it’s undeniably awesome that we can make a living out of it (thanks, guys and gals), we’re not in it for the money.

We do it because the world is an incredibly beautiful place, and science is how we explore it. This passion to know and understand is what drives us forward. We write about science because we truly believe that we were privileged to be born into families and broader societies that could afford to educate us. It shaped us profoundly, molding us into the people we are today.

Everyone, everywhere, has the right (an argument can be made that they have also have the responsibility) to access the sum of human knowledge; to an education, be it formal or informal, in school or university, in libraries or on the Internet. We were fortunate enough to be handed that. We want to honor that debt by helping others educate themselves, in turn.

There’s a reason I started off this discussion with the three principles I think all of us here share. We tend to point the finger at adepts of pseudoscience and criticize them for breaking the first two — we reprimand them for what we perceive as a preference of opinion in face of facts, and we bemoan their lack of critical thinking.

We ridicule them for their buying into these fairy tales. Which isn’t particularly nice of us.

After my wayward weeks through their blogs and forums, however, I don’t think that’s the real issue anymore. Sure, there are some really unhinged individuals lurking about these sites — that’s true in every setting. But most members of these communities strike me as quite capable of both critical thinking and of taking in new facts and integrating them into their belief systems.

What then?

All others we monitor.

The motto “In God We Trust; All Others We Monitor” is displayed in the foyer of the Air Force Technical Applications Center’s radiochemistry laboratory at Patrick AFB, Fla. Surprisingly appropriate for the issue at hand, though.
Image credits U.S. Air Force Civil Engineer Center.

The real issue with pseudoscience, I feel, lies in that third item on my list — trust. Members clump around these wild theories because they simply cannot find it in themselves to trust outside competence or outside information.

Karen Douglas, a Professor of Social Psychology at the University of Kent who specializes in social psychology and belief in conspiracy theories, largely agrees with me on this:

“I think you are spot on regarding the lack of trust,” she told me in an email.

Needless to say, I liked her instantly. I was still very much confused about the whole affair, however. The readiness of the people I chatted with to blame conspiracies, cover-ups, and shady groups that pull on society’s strings was simply too poignant to overlook. Do adepts of pseudoscience distrust… everything? Or do they just have a burning white hate for The Gov’ment / Big Pharma / NASA / mercury? I asked Prof. Douglas if what we’re seeing is a focused or more generalized lack of trust — be it against researchers or authority in general.

We were discussing the topic of flat earthism, but this largely applies to all conspiracy theorists and pseudisciences out there:

“Whether this is generalized mistrust or not, however, is an open question,” she told me. “As far as I can see, flat earth believers tend to mistrust scientists/NASA etc. and argue that they are providing false information.”

“It’s not clear whether these people also mistrust other sources such as their friends, neighbours, the police, and other institutions.”

Pseudoscience disseminates this lack of trust. It is, at its nature, so completely opposed to what science is and stands for that it’s corrosive to it. Just like matter and anti-matter, science and non-science seem to cancel each other out with a bang. But the effects of such ‘theories’ are much more widespread and insidious.

This is why we’re writing this. To internalize the more high-profile pseudoscience currents out there is to toss all trust out the window and replace it with single-minded empiricism (e.g. “how can the Earth be round when I don’t see a curvature?”). It is to constantly question the motives of others and to always assume they’re out to get you (e.g. “big pharma hides that vaccines kill”). Pseudoscience requires some impressive leaps of mental dissonance and cherry picking because it requires that you only look at certain bits of data, lest the whole theory falls apart (such as the ‘snowball in Congress‘ move, a classic and one of my personal favorites).

It instills in those exposed to it the mindset that destroys confidence in researchers and, by extension, all other professionals. It breeds skepticism bordering on paranoia and fosters distrust in others while definitely making you right because, hey — everyone who says otherwise is probably part of the conspiracy.

This pattern of discussion is so prevalent among followers of conspiracy theories and pseudoscience that there’s even an essay on Wikipedia to help editors ‘defuse’ it.

Once you believe one thing based only on a feeling or a hunch, and you persist despite overwhelming evidence pointing against it, it’s easy to believe the next one.

It’s a very slippery slope.

“Trust always appears as one of the strongest predictors of conspiracy theories, but conspiracy theories also make people more mistrustful,” Douglas explained. “That is, when people are experimentally exposed to conspiracy theories […] they become more mistrustful of the relevant institutions.”

“Another very strong predictor of conspiracy theories is paranoia.”

“It is also the case that conspiracy believers tend to believe in paranormal phenomena (e.g., life after death, extrasensory perception), and that they tend to be superstitious (e.g., believing in good luck charms). These are correlational relationships, so the higher the conspiracy belief, the higher the paranormal or superstitious belief (i.e., it’s not a one-one relationship and we cannot tell which one causes the other).”

So why do people believe it?

Banana Earth.

via Banana Earth Society / Twitter.

It’s hard to say. Obviously, everybody has their own reasons for doing the things they do. There is also precious little literature looking into the psychological going-ons behind pseudoscience. However, a paper that Prof. Douglass co-published in 2017, “The Psychology of Conspiracy Theories” can help get us a general idea as to why pseudoscience holds such a strong appeal.

“Conspiracy theories appear to provide broad, internally consistent explanations that allow people to preserve beliefs in the face of uncertainty and contradiction,” the paper reads.

“[Conspiracy theories also] have attributes that set them apart from other types of causal explanation. […] They are speculative in that they posit actions that are hidden from public scrutiny, complex in that they postulate the coordination of multiple actors, and resistant to [the scientific process of] falsification in that they postulate that conspirators use stealth and disinformation to cover up their actions — implying that people who try to debunk conspiracy theories may, themselves, be part of the conspiracy.”

“It also appears to be stronger when events are especially large in scale or significant and leave people dissatisfied with mundane, small-scale explanations.”

They’re very appealing because they provide an unassailable barricade from which to defend one’s beliefs. The (false) context that pseudoscience and conspiracy theories provide completely shut down any avenue of debate. And that’s just dandy with us since humans totally Do Not Like having their beliefs questioned or criticized (see here and here).

Motive can be attributed to the shadowy and obscure interests of the conspirators (‘actions that are hidden from public scrutiny’); the purpose of any institution can be called into question (‘the coordination of multiple actors’), and its claims — no matter how valid — quickly dismissed (‘stealth and disinformation’).

This mechanism is what gives pseudoscience its staying power — but what exactly draws people to it in the first place? Sure, it helps “provide broad, internally consistent explanations that allow people to preserve beliefs in the face of uncertainty and contradiction,” — but that sounds like sticking your head in the sand, doesn’t it? I don’t think there’s anyone, anywhere, that would genuinely want to knowingly lie to themselves.

There has to be more at play here.

Writing for The ConversationHarry Dyer recounts attending the first Flat Earth Convention in the UK. This three-day-long event paints a very different image of the adepts of pseudoscience than most of us would likely attribute them.

“The weekend in no small part revolved around discussing and debating science, with lots of time spent running, planning, and reporting on the latest set of flat earth experiments and models,” he recounts. “Indeed, as one presenter noted early on, flat earthers try to ‘look for multiple, verifiable evidence’ and advised attendees to ‘always do your own research and accept you might be wrong’.”

“While flat earthers seem to trust and support scientific methods, what they don’t trust is scientists, and the established relationships between ‘power’ and ‘knowledge’.”

“The level of discussion however often did not revolve around the models on offer, but on broader issues of attitudes towards existing structures of knowledge, and the institutions that supported and presented these models.”

Dyer argues — quite compellingly at times, definitely give him a read — that this recoiling from anything perceived as ‘mainstream’ starts from the way freedom of thought is twisted and bent in recent times. It’s laughably easy for anyone, anywhere, to create and share any type of content with virtually no moderation. For the first time in our history, people can pick what narrative they want to believe. People for whom the official explanation will never satisfy simply because it is ‘the official’ one will lap up any alternative, no matter how hollow, because they want to believe.

Liar sign.

This is how some people treat any and all authority.
Image credits Alan Cleaver / Flickr.

We’re also seeing dramatic social polarization around key issues: energy, climate change, politics, fake news. These topics always breed a certain level of animosity and resentment among participants. Such emotions can be spun and manipulated — ironically — by outside interests.

In the end, however, adepts of pseudoscience movements genuinely believe that they ask the questions others want them not to ask; that they are opposing censorship from ‘those in power’.

“At the same time as scientific claims to knowledge and power are being undermined, some power structures are decoupling themselves from scientific knowledge, moving towards a kind of populist politics that are increasingly sceptical of knowledge,” Dyer writes.

“[…] This can also be seen in more subtle and insidious form in the way in which Brexit, for example, was campaigned for in terms of gut feelings and emotions rather than expert statistics and predictions. Science is increasingly facing problems with its ability to communicate ideas publicly, a problem that politicians, and flat earthers, are able to circumvent with moves towards populism.”

Science is awesome, and it works, and it gives you the right answer — but the truth isn’t always comforting. Science gives facts, but sometimes, people just want hope, meaning, or a way to deflect blame; things that fall under the category of ‘feels’. Science doesn’t offer many of these emotional release valves. Pseudoscience offers them a-plenty.

We have an inbuilt need to make sense of the world around us. Pseudoscience offers us a way to make sense of the world “when information is unavailable, reducing uncertainty and bewilderment when available information is conflicting, finding meaning when events seem random, and defending beliefs from disconfirmation,” Prof. Douglas’ team write in their paper. They add that “people are likely to turn to conspiracy theories when they are anxious and feel powerless.”

Conspiracy belief is “strongly related to lack of sociopolitical control or lack of psychological empowerment,” and such belief “is heightened when people feel unable to control outcomes and is reduced when their sense of control is affirmed”, the team explains. Finally, subscribing to a pseudoscientific trend is a way of satisfying our “desire to belong and to maintain a positive image of the self and the in-group,” helping us “valorize the self and the in-group by allowing blame for negative outcomes to be attributed to others.”

Pseudoscience coughs up an explanation where we don’t really know what’s happening and makes you feel part of a group that values you. It gives medicine (that doesn’t work) for diseases we can’t cure.  For the patient that doctors can’t save, pseudoscience offers a way to cope; the fact that it’s false doesn’t matter. It gives hope, or the illusion of hope, where science doesn’t — and hope is a powerful soother.

For many of their adepts, then, pseudoscientific theories offer an escape from a world that’s often cruel, unfair, or just doesn’t make sense. And that’s what makes this whole affair tragic:

“Unfortunately, research conducted thus far does not indicate that conspiracy belief effectively satisfies this motivation,” the paper reads.

“On the contrary, experimental exposure to conspiracy theories appears to immediately suppress people’s sense of autonomy and control.”

The growth of pseudoscience in all its forms, I feel, is one of the most worrying developments of our modern times. Dyer takes it as “a product and sign of our time; a reflection of our increasing distrust in scientific institutions, and the moves by power-holding institutions towards populism and emotions”. In his eyes, such beliefs represent a rebellion of sorts against those ‘in power’ for faults that we may never know.

Science March in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Sign from the 2017 Science March in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Image credits Mark Dixon / Wikimedia.

For Prof. Douglas it’s a refuge; the safe place in our minds where we retreat to feel right, to hold our beliefs inviolate, to feel justified, to make our hardships mean something without facing our own faults.

For me, it’s a sign that something, somewhere, isn’t working right. By chance or design, not-insignificant groups of people choose to take refuge in ‘their own’ truth. Be it a refuge from segregation, abuse of power, a safe harbor in which to anchor their beliefs from the winds of fact — it does not matter. When people weave stories to insulate them from society, that society has failed them.

And perhaps it is time to take a good hard look at ourselves and how we helped push them into ‘alternative’ facts.

We’re facing real, significant climate change. We’re seeing the reemergence of diseases that our vaccines had almost wiped out. We’re trying to go to Mars while some people still insist the Earth is flat. We can’t afford to waste time and energy being divided on topics that are clear-cut. We can’t afford to doubt the experts and put those that make us feel good in power. We can launch world-ending nukes with a button — we can’t risk having people not listen to basic scientific fact, or judging life through a twisted lens.

Pseudoscience doesn’t work: real life has a way of knocking on your door no matter how far away you try to move. It does, however, make the things that do work, work a little bit less. It is, at its core, based on false information. It is a lie.

I, for one, think each and every one of us should work to weed out lies wherever possible — both our own and those of others.

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