Intellectual black holes
Wacky and ridiculous belief systems abound. The Heaven’s Gate suicide cult promised members a ride to heaven on board a UFO. Advanced students of scientology are taught that 75 million years ago, Xenu, alien ruler of a “Galactic Confederacy”, brought billions of people to Earth in spacecraft shaped like Douglas DC-10 airplanes and stacked them around volcanoes which he then blew up with hydrogen bombs. Even mainstream religions have people believing absurdities. Preachers have promised 72 heavenly virgins to suicide bombers. Others insist the entire universe is just 6,000 years old (extraordinarily, polls consistently indicate this belief is currently held by about 45% of US citizens – that’s around 130 million individuals). And of course it’s not only cults and religions that promote bizarre beliefs. Significant numbers of people believe in astrology, the amazing powers of TV psychics, astrology, crystal divination, the healing powers of magnets, the prophecies of Nostradamus, that the pyramids were built by aliens, that the Holocaust never happened, and that the World Trade Centre was brought down by the US Government.
How do such ridiculous views succeed in entrenching themselves in people’s minds? How are wacky belief systems able to take sane, intelligent, college-educated people and turn them into the willing slaves of claptrap? How, in particular, do the true believers manage to convince themselves that they are the rational, reasonable ones and that everyone else is deluded?
This book identifies eight key mechanisms that can transform a set of ideas into a psychological fly trap – a bubble of belief that, while seductively easy to enter, can be almost impossible to reason your way out of again.
Cosmologists talk about black-holes, objects so gravitationally powerful that nothing, not even light, can escape from them. Unwary space travellers passing too close will find themselves sucked in. An increasingly powerful motor is required to resist its pull, until eventually one passes the “event horizon” and escape becomes impossible.
My suggestion is that our contemporary cultural landscape contains, if you like, numerous intellectual black-holes – belief systems constructed in such a way that unwary passers-by can similarly find themselves drawn in. While those of us lacking robust intellectual and other psychological defences will be most easily trapped by such self-sealing bubbles of belief, even the most intelligent and educated of us are potentially vulnerable. Some of the world’s greatest thinkers have fallen in, never to escape. If you find yourself encountering a belief system in which several of these mechanisms feature prominently, be wary. Alarm bells should be going off and warning lights flashing. For you may now be approaching the event horizon of an intellectual black hole.
As the centuries roll by, such self-sealing bubbles of belief appear and disappear. When the conditions are right, several may fizz into existence all at once. Occasionally, one may grow huge, perhaps encompassing an entire civilization before dividing or deflating or popping or being subsumed by another bubble.
One of the greatest threats an intellectual black hole faces is the flourishing of a culture that promotes reason and encourages individuals to subject both their own and others’ beliefs to critical scrutiny - with none deemed off-limits. However, bubbles of irrationality are certainly able to survive and flourish even within such a society. Intellectual black holes are, perhaps, an ineradicable feature of human civilization. Which is not to say we should not do our level best to keep them under control.
Aim of this book
The central aim of this book is to help immunize readers against the wiles of cultists, religious nutcases, political zealots, conspiracy theorists, promoters of flaky alternative medicines, and so on by clearly setting out the tricks of the trade by which such self-sealing bubbles of belief are created and maintained. We will see how an intellectually impregnable fortress can be constructed around a set of even patently ridiculous beliefs, providing them with a veneer of “reasonableness” and rendering them immune to rational criticism.
Most of us will have at some point experienced the frustration and of trying to change the convictions of someone powerfully committed to a ridiculous set of beliefs, and will have come up against at least some of these kinds of strategy. My aim here is to provide an overview of eight key strategies, which I call:
1. Playing the mystery card
2. “But it fits!” and the blunderbus of crap
3. Moving the goal posts
4. Going nuclear
5. ” I just know!”
7. The Amazingly Persuasive Power of Accumulated Anecdote (TAPPAA)
8. Pressing your buttons
In each case I (i) explain the strategy, (ii) diagnose exactly what is wrong with it, and (ii) provide illustrations of how it is applied. We will find out exactly how quacks peddling dubious medicines, cultists promoting nutty dogma, conspiracy theorists who insist we’re ruled by aliens apply these techniques, so you’ll be better able to spot them. Or, if you want to set yourself up as chief guru of your own cult, start your own conspiracy theory, or whatever, how you can employ the techniques in order to dupe others (a the end of the book are a series of letters illustrating just how charlatans can deliberately can and do use them).
Talking to a victim of an intellectual black hole can be a rather creepy experience. The intellectual abilities of such a person are strangely hobbled, but the victim is probably entirely unware that they have been hobbled. Point out to them the flaws in their thinking. Try to show them evidence against what they believe. You’ll find their minds will just continue to slide around it. It’s as if they have a mental blind spot. Not only won’t they “get it” even when “it” has been made as plane as the nose on their face, they will have no inkling that there’s anything they’re missing out on. Victims typically exhibit what has been termed the Dunning-Kruger effect – where a person’s lack of knowledge or expertise in an area not only makes them inadequate, but also keeps them from discovering their own inadequacy. Dunning draws a parallel between the Dunning-Kruger effect and peculiar medical condition called anosognostic paralysis:
An anosognosic patient who is paralyzed simply does not know that he is paralyzed. If you put a pencil in front of them and ask them to pick up the pencil in front of their left hand they won’t do it. And you ask them why, and they’ll say, “Well, I’m tired,” or “I don’t need a pencil.” They literally aren’t alerted to their own paralysis. There is some monitoring system on the right side of the brain that has been damaged, as well as the damage that’s related to the paralysis on the left side. There is also something similar called “hemispatial neglect.” It has to do with a kind of brain damage where people literally cannot see or they can’t pay attention to one side of their environment. If they’re men, they literally only shave one half of their face. And they’re not aware about the other half. If you put food in front of them, they’ll eat half of what’s on the plate and then complain that there’s too little food. You could think of the Dunning-Kruger Effect as a psychological version of this physiological problem. If you have, for lack of a better term, damage to your expertise or imperfection in your knowledge or skill, you’re left literally not knowing that you have that damage.
Someone sucked into an intellectual black hole will be increasingly unable to think straight, but their inability to think straight will mask from them their inability to think straight. They will continue to think they are thinking just fine, and consequently that we’re the ones whose thinking is screwy.
In fact, our inability to recognize the “truth” of their cult, conspiracy theory, or whatever, may lead them to suppose that it is our minds that have been hobbled, not theirs. If they are religious, they may suppose our thinking has been corrupted by sin, or has fallen under the demonic influence of Satan. Or, because we are not, like them, wearing protective tinfoil hats, that our minds have fallen victim to some sort of alien mind-control technology. That, they may suppose, is why we don’t see the evidence that the Earth is ruled by alien lizard people, while they do.
A sliding scale
Of course, the tinfoil hat brigade are an extreme example. It’s worth noting at the outset that intellectual black holes lie at one end of a sliding scale. The fact is, almost all of us engage in these eight strategies to some extent, particularly when beliefs to which we are strongly committed are faced with a rational threat. And in fact, under certain circumstances, there may be little wrong in using at least some of them in moderation (as I will explain). What transforms a belief system into an intellectual black hole is the extent to which such mechanisms are relied upon in dealing with rational threats and generating an appearance of “reasonableness”. The more we start to rely on these kinds of strategy to prop up and defend our belief system, the more black-hole-like that belief system becomes, until a black hole is clearly what we have got. Even if we have not fallen victim to an intellectual black hole, some of our belief systems may still exhibit an unhealthy reliance on the same strategies.
This book focuses particularly, though by no means exclusively, on religious examples of intellectual black holes. Why, given there are many non-religious examples from which to choose? My main reason for including many religious examples is that while plenty of belief-systems (e.g. political philosophies such as Marxism, New Age philosophies, belief systems involving dubious or bogus medical treatments, and belief systems centred on grand political conspiracies (such as those involving 9/11) also employ various combinations of these eight mechanisms to ensnare minds, religions typically employ a wider range. Historically, the established religions have had a great deal of time and huge intellectual and other resources to deploy in refining their own particular versions of these strategies. They have, as a result, also produced some of the most powerful and seductive versions. They therefore provide some of the best illustrations. Note also that one of the strategies – Moving the Goalposts – is almost exclusively employed in certain religious circles.
However, while the book contains many religious examples – from Young Earth Creationism to Christian Science – it’s worth emphasizing that I am not arguing that all religious belief-systems are essentially irrational. Several recent books have done that, including books by Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins. In fact, all three argue that the content of religious belief generally is not just nonsense, but often dangerous nonsense. My aim here is different. It is not the content of religious belief that I criticise, but the manner in which religious belief systems are sometimes defended and promoted.
Actually, any belief-system, including entirely sensible belief-systems, can be defended and promoted in much the same way. To point out that the defenders of a set of beliefs are employing such dubious methods is not yet to show that the content of those beliefs is false. Many of the same strategies can and have also been employed to defend and promote atheistic belief-systems (certain totalitarian regimes provide obvious illustrations).
In certain cases, the beliefs at the centre of an intellectual black hole may be true. In fact, it’s possible that those beliefs could be given an entirely reasonable justification. However, if those defending and promoting those core beliefs can’t come up with a decent justification, and instead rely increasingly on the kind of dodgy strategies described in this book, then their belief system still qualifies as an intellectual black hole. In other words, two belief systems could have at their core the very same set of beliefs, yet one could be an intellectual black hole and the other not.
So, when I talk, as I do, about an intellectual black hole being a bullshit belief system, I’m not suggesting that the content that’s bullshit. Rather, it’s the manner in which the core beliefs are defended and promoted that marks out a belief system as bullshit.
According to the philosopher Harry Frankfurt, whose essay On Bullshit has become a minor philosophical classic, bullshit involves a kind of deliberate fakery. A bullshitter, says Frankfurt, is not the same thing as a liar. The bullshitter does not knowingly tell a fib – he does not assert something he himself knows to be false. Rather the bullshitter just says things to suit his purposes – so as to get away with something – without any care as to whether or not what he says is true.
I don’t entirely agree with Frankfurt’s analysis. Frankfurt’s definition, it seems to me, is in at least one respect too narrow. People regularly talk about astrology, feng shui or Christian Science (discussed in chapter xx), and so on as being bullshit, and their practitioners as bullshit artists, even while acknowledging that those who practice these things typically do so in all sincerity. Not only do the practitioners believe what they say, it really does matter to them that what they say is true. They care about truth.
What nevertheless marks out astrology, feng shui, Christian Science as bullshit is, I’d suggest, is the kind of faux reasonableness that their practitioners generate - the pseudo-scientific gloss that they are able to apply to their core beliefs. They create the illusion that what they believe is reasonable, while not themselves recognizing that they have conjured up only an illusion. They typically fool not only others, but themselves too.
Victims need not be stupid
Those who fall victim to intellectual black holes need be neither dim nor foolish. The sophistication of some of the strategies examined in this book demonstrates that those who develop and use them are often smart. They are, in many cases, ingenious strategies – sometimes very ingenious indeed. Nor need those who fall foul of intellectual black holes be generally gullible. The victims may, in other areas of their lives, be models of caution, subjecting claims to close critical scrutiny, weighing evidence scrupulously, tailoring their beliefs according to robust rational standards They are able, as it were, to compartmentalize their application of these strategies.
So if, after reading this book, you begin to suspect that may yourself have fallen victim to an intellectual black hole, there’s no need to feel particularly foolish. People far cleverer than either you or me have become ensnared.
Why do we believe what we do?
This book examines eight key mechanisms by which a belief system can be transformed into intellectual black hole, into a bullshit system of belief. It doesn’t attempt to explain why we are drawn to particular belief systems in the first place, or why we are often drawn to using kind of mechanisms described in this book in their defence.
Why, for example, is belief in a god or gods, and in other supernatural beings, such as ghosts, angels, dead ancestors, and so on, so widespread? Belief in invisible, supernatural agents appears to be universal, and there is some evidence that a predisposition towards beliefs of this kind may actually be innate – part of our natural, evolutionary heritage. The psychologist Justin Barrett (REF XX), for example, has suggested that the prevalence of beliefs of this kind may in part be explained by our possessing a Hyper-sensitive Agent Detection Device, or H.A.D.D,
The H.A.D.D, Hypothesis
Human beings explain features of the world around them in two very different ways. For example, we sometimes appeal to natural causes or laws in order to account for an event. Why did that apple fall from the tree? Because the wind blew and shook the branch, causing the apple to fall. Why did the water freeze in the pipes last night, because the temperature of the water fell below zero, and it is a law that water freezes below zero.
However, we also explain by appealing to agents – beings who act on the basis of their beliefs and desires in a more or less rational way. Why did the apple fall from the tree? Because Ted wanted to eat it, believed that shaking the tree would make it fall, and so shook the tree. Why are Mary’s car keys on the mantelpiece? Because she wanted to remind herself not to forget them, so put them where she thought would she spot them.
Barrett suggests we have evolved to be overly sensitive to agency. We evolved in an environment containing many agents – family members, friends, rivals, predators, prey, and so on. Spotting and understanding other agents helps us survive and reproduce. So we evolved to be sensitive to them – overly sensitive in fact. Hear a rustle in the bushes behind you and you instinctively spin round, looking for an agent. Most times, there’s no one there – just the wind in the leaves. But, in the environment in which we evolved, on those few occasions when there was an agent present, detecting it might well save your life. Far better to avoid several imaginary predators than be eaten by a real one. Thus evolution will select for an inheritable tendency to not just detect – but over-detect – agency. We have evolved to possess (or, perhaps more plausibly, to be) hyper-active agency detectors.
If we do have an H.A.D.D, that would at least partly explain the human tendency to feel there is “someone there” even when no one is observed, and so may at least partly explain our tendency to believe in the existence of invisible agents – in spirits, ghosts, angels or gods.
For example, in his book Illusion of Conscious Will, Daniel Wegner points out what he believes is the most remarkable characteristic of those using a ouija board (in which the planchette – often an upturned shot glass – appears to wander around the board, spelling out messages from “beyond”):
People using the board seem irresistibly drawn to the conclusion that some sort of unseen agent... is guiding the planchette movement... a theory immediately arises to account for this breakdown: the theory of outside agency." (p.113)
Because the movement nevertheless seems inexplicable and odd, it is immediately put down to the influence of a further, invisible agent.
However, I am not here endorsing the H.A.D.D. explanation for widespread belief in such invisible agents (though I suspect there is some truth to it). The fact is that, even if we do possess an H.A.D.D, that would at best only explain the attractiveness of the content of some of the belief systems we will be examining. Many wacky belief systems - such as those involving crystal healing or palmistry or numerology – appear to involve no invisible agents at all. I mention the H.A.D.D, hypothesis only to illustrate the point that the eight mechanisms identified in this book are not intended to rival such psychological and evolutionary explanations for why we believe what we do. My claim is that once we find ourselves drawn to a belief system, for whatever reason, then these eight mechanisms may come into play to bolster and defend it.
Note that the H.A.D.D, hypothesis does not say that there are no invisible agents. Perhaps at least some of the invisible agents people suppose exist are real. Perhaps there really are ghosts, or spirits, or gods. However, if we suppose the H.A.D.D, hypothesis does correctly explain why it is that so many people believe in the existence of invisible agents exist, then the fact that large numbers hold such beliefs can no longer be considered evidence that any such agents exist. It will no longer do to say, “Surely not all these people can be so very deluded? Surely there must be some truth to these beliefs, otherwise they would not be so widespread?” The fact is, if the H.A.D.D, hypothesis is correct, we are likely to believe in the existence of such invisible agents anyway, whether or not such agents exist. But then the commonality of these beliefs is not evidence such agents exist.
Of course, I don’t deny that there was already good reason to be sceptical about appeals to what many of people believe when it comes to justifying beliefs in invisible agents, as well as many other beliefs of a religious or supernatural character. The fact that around 45% of the citizens of one of the richest and best-educated populations on the planet believe the entire universe is only about six thousand years old is testament to the fact that, whatever else may be said about religion, it undoubtedly possesses a quite astonishing power to get very many people – even smart, college, educated people – to believe downright ridiculous things. Nevertheless, if the H.A.D.D hypothesis is correct, it does add a further nail to the coffin lid to justifications of belief in invisible agents of one sort or another based on the thought: “Lots of people believe it so there must be some truth to it!”
The theory of Cognitive Dissonance
The H.A.D.D, hypothesis may explain why we are drawn to certain belief systems in the first place – those involving invisible agents. Another psychological theory that may play a role in then explaining our propensity to use the kind of strategies described in this book to defend such theories is the theory of cognitive dissonance. Dissonance is the psychological discomfort we feel when we hold beliefs or attitudes that conflict. The theory says that we motivated to reduce dissonance by either adjusting our beliefs and attitudes or rationalizing them.
The example of the “sour grapes” in Aesop’s story of The Fox and The Grapes is often used as an illustration of cognitive dissonance. The fox desires those juicy-looking grapes, but then, when he realizes he will never attain them, he adjusts his belief accordingly to make himself feel better – he decides the grapes are sour.
How might the theory of cognitive dissonance play a role in explaining why we are drawn to using the kind of belief-immunizing strategies described in this book? Here’s an example. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that our evolutionary history has made us innately predisposed towards both belief in supernatural agents, but also towards forming beliefs that are, broadly speaking, rational, or at the very least not downright irrational. That might put us in psychological bind. On the one hand, we may find ourselves unwilling or even unable to give up our belief in certain invisible agents. On the other hand, we may find ourselves confronted by overwhelming evidence that what we believe is pretty silly. Under these circumstances, strategies promising to disarm rational threats to our belief and give it at least the illusion of reasonableness are likely to seem increasingly attractive. Such strategies can provide us with a way of dealing with the intellectual tension and discomfort such innate tendencies might otherwise produce. They allow true believers to reassure themselves that they are not being nearly as irrational as reason might otherwise suggest - to convince themselves and others that their belief in ghosts or spirits or whatever, even if not well-confirmed, is at least not contrary to reason.
So we can speculate about why certain belief systems are attractive, and also why such strategies are employed to immunize them against rational criticism and provide a veneer of “reasonableness”. Both the H.A.D.D. hypothesis and the theory of cognitive dissonance may have a role to play.