Thursday, September 13, 2007

The Things We Believe

Monday is generally protest day at the I ride the escalator up from the Metro station and emerge into the daylight, there are usually anywhere from two or three to a few dozen protesters lined up behind the police barricades. Most just stand there quietly holding up signs, and there are one or two Buddhist monks beating on their little drums and chanting. Occasionally things get more...interesting. On dates like Good Friday and the anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing, there are sometimes much larger and far less well-behaved crowds trying to surge past the barricades, shouting insults at us as we go to work, and occasionally throwing bags of animal blood and such, then denouncing the police for denying them their right to free speech when they get arrested and hauled away.

What constitutes Freedom of Speech is sometimes a matter of who is doing the speaking.

This past Monday, there was a fellow at the protest line holding a sign that read "9/11 was an inside job." He was clearly one of those fringe persons who believe, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that the U.S. government planned and carried out the attacks of 9/11 in order to provide an excuse for going to war. There's also a small and vocal sub-group that insists that the Pentagon was struck by a missile fired from an Air Force fighter, rather than a hijacked airliner.

Some people will believe anything. I have long wondered why people are willing to believe some of the things they do, clinging in the face of all logic and evidence to some amazingly stupid concepts of vast conspiracies and downright silly ideas. From 9/11 conspiracy theories to Holocaust denial to the belief in "creation science," people cling to some very strange ideas. Why?

There's a fascinating book by Michael Shermer titled Why People Believe Weird Things, and it's worth reading if you have the time and inclination. The entire book is good, but if you only have time to read part of it, read chapter 3, "How Thinking Goes Wrong: Twenty-five Fallacies That Lead Us to Believe Weird Things." Shermer divides the fallacies into four general categories: problems in scientific thinking; problems in pseudoscientific thinking; logical problems in thinking; and psychological problems in thinking. A full description of all these is beyond the scope of this short post, but if you're interested, read the book or e-mail me ( for more details. Taken together, these 25 fallacies paint a very convincing picture of why people will cling to the most bizarre and outrageous beliefs.

Commentator Thomas Friedman once said that if you can't explain something to people in the Middle East without using a conspiracy theory, they won't believe it. Part of that is a result of inadequate education based on narrow religious constraints, part of it is the desire to blame someone else for their problems, and part of it is the lack of a tradition of skeptical, logical thinking. One of my recurring themes in this blog is this: don't let anyone do your thinking for you...least of all me. Weigh the evidence, consider the alternatives, and make up your own mind. As Mr Shermer says, cogita tute - think for yourself.

And don't waste everyone's time standing in front of the Pentagon with a sign advertising how stupid you are.

Have a good day. More thoughts on this topic tomorrow.



John said...

It always amazes me at the things that people are willing to believe about magic effects. It seems that the more outlandish an explanation is, the more likely they are to accept it.

As for the protesters, I like the inside job theory. It means that the only people that we have to look out for

The Mistress of the Dark said...

The things people believe frighten me. Not only them but the radical religious group that started it all, because I don't believe that in any religion God tells anyone to kill themselves or anyone for him.

Ian Thal said...

I've found the book Michael Shermer co-authored with Alex Grobman, Denying History: Who Says the Holocaust Never Happened and Why Do They Say It? to have been very useful in researching the phenomenon of the Holocaust denial movement.

I've found it quite interesting how much overlap there is between the 9/11 "truthers" and the Holocaust deniers.