A scientific study of overvalued ideas

Corpus Callosum points us to a review in science entitled Childhood Origins of Adult Resistance to Science (Chris at mixing memory also has coverage of the article). This is a perfect study to emphasize a critical aspect of denialism and crankery, that is, the central role the overvalued idea plays in the evolution of a crank.

Denialism, in a nutshell, is the rhetorical strategy used to protect an overvalued idea from things like facts and data. The denialist or crank is trying desperately to hold on to a concept that is important to their self-identity or ego, and is in conflict with well-established scientific observations. Examples of overvalued ideas and the denialists that hold them include racial superiority for holocaust denialists, biblical literalism for young earth creationists, or having a scientific basis for deities in the case of intelligent design creationists. Sometimes the central truth being protected is more ephemeral or based on egotism or guilt or fear. Global warming denialists I believe are mostly fearful of economic consequences or lifestyle changes that may be forced by broad acknowledgment of the threat of some aspects of climate change (those who aren’t being paid to shill that is). People who insist autism is caused by mercury/vaccines are emotionally invested in finding someone to blame for their children’s illness or are harboring a fundamental distrust of medicine (often complaining of some terrible experience with doctors).

But how do people latch onto these overvalued ideas in the first place? Why do people develop these and refuse to relinquish them? This paper provides insights into some sources of anti-scientific ideas, but sadly isn’t comprehensive. The ones it does cover though (I’d say creationism and Deepak-Chopra kinds of woo) are absolutely hysterical to read about.

For instance, I couldn’t help laughing as I read this paragraph:

The examples so far concern people’s common-sense understanding of the physical world, but their intuitive psychology also contributes to their resistance to science. One important bias is that children naturally see the world in terms of design and purpose. For instance, 4-year-olds insist that everything has a purpose, including lions (“to go in the zoo”) and clouds (“for raining”), a propensity called “promiscuous teleology” (15). Additionally, when asked about the origin of animals and people, children spontaneously tend to provide and prefer creationist explanations (16). Just as children’s intuitions about the physical world make it difficult for them to accept that Earth is a sphere, their psychological intuitions about agency and design make it difficult for them to accept the processes of evolution.

Then they go on to describe why Deepak Chopra still hasn’t escaped childish thinking.

Another consequence of people’s common-sense psychology is dualism, the belief that the mind is fundamentally different from the brain (5). This belief comes naturally to children. Preschool children will claim that the brain is responsible for some aspects of mental life, typically those involving deliberative mental work, such as solving math problems. But preschoolers will also claim that the brain is not involved in a host of other activities, such as pretending to be a kangaroo, loving one’s brother, or brushing one’s teeth (5, 17). Similarly, when told about a brain transplant from a boy to a pig, they believed that you would get a very smart pig, but one with pig beliefs and pig desires (18). For young children, then, much of mental life is not linked to the brain.

The strong intuitive pull of dualism makes it difficult for people to accept what Francis Crick called “the astonishing hypothesis” (19): Dualism is mistaken–mental life emerges from physical processes. People resist the astonishing hypothesis in ways that can have considerable social implications. For one thing, debates about the moral status of embryos, fetuses, stem cells, and nonhuman animals are sometimes framed in terms of whether or not these entities possess immaterial souls (20, 21). What’s more, certain proposals about the role of evidence from functional magnetic resonance imaging in criminal trials assume a strong form of dualism (22). It has been argued, for instance, that if one could show that a person’s brain is involved in an act, then the person himself or herself is not responsible, an excuse dubbed “my brain made me do it” (23). These assumptions about moral status and personal responsibility reflect a profound resistance to findings from psychology and neuroscience.

These are actually very nice explanations for why people won’t let go of intuitive ideas when presented with scientific information that’s contrary. Not only are ideas like creationism tied to things like self-image and authorities people respect, but they fit with hard-wired intuitions about the world that are difficult to escape. The problem is, the way our brains intuit things isn’t necessarily correct – the authors provide many examples – and a major aspect of science is correcting our built-in intuitions with experience, data, and observations about the natural world.

So overall, this is a very nice paper but it only really scratches the surface of how people develop overvalued ideas. I don’t think, for instance, that things like HIV/AIDS denialism, or global warming denialism can be explained with this model of behavior. Cranks that will not accept the proof that HIV causes AIDS have a variety of different types of overvalued ideas that have little to do with intuition (which I think would favor a viral hypothesis in this instance). Some of these cranks have some kind of major defect in their ability to acknowledge error. Peter Duesberg, in particular, seems to have developed his overvalued idea that the proof for HIV causing AIDS was too correlative when he first wrote this paper in 1987. At the time there was already powerful evidence that HIV was not like the other retroviruses he was comparing it to and was clearly the causative agent of AIDS. Instead he blamed things like diet and recreational drug use, so another overvalued idea involved here is a desire to blame the victim for their suffering. As evidence continued to pile up his idea was given serious consideration and ultimately rejected, but he could not let it go. He had emotionally invested himself in this idea and was going to be right no matter what. The people who continue to back him appear to suffer from the same flaw (with an undercurrent of homophobia/desire to blame the victim). However HIV/AIDS denialism also includes people like Christine Maggiore who are HIV positive and simply don’t want to believe they have a fatal and often stigmatic illness.

With global warming denialism you often see intuitive arguments used – usually conflating weather with climate – but the origin of the overvalued ideas seems to mostly be resistance to change for economic or other reasons. The same goes for anti-vaccination denialism, holocaust denial, and denialism about animal experimentation. These overvalued ideas emerge from a variety of sources that are very different from each other and represent very different human motivations spanning the range from fear to bigotry to an excess of compassion. Hell, some cranks just like being “iconoclasts” or “contrarians” (beware people who use those terms to describe themselves – it’s almost always a sign of a crank) because they think believing in contrarian opinions makes them seem special or smart. *cough* Fumento *cough*.

So I’d conclude that this is certainly an interesting read in terms of understanding the origins of some unscientific ideas, but by it is by no means comprehensive. Many of these ideas are coming not just from misunderstandings of the physical world, but also from deeply personal motivations. It’s not just a matter of making errors of intuition, it’s even more critically a failure of personal insight into how one’s beliefs are formed.


18 responses to “A scientific study of overvalued ideas”

  1. That’s brill. I agree the paper only scratches the surface, but it does a slap-up job as a lit review. Can’t wait to chase down some of those references.

    What stood out to me from a global warming standpoint was the bit about how children learn early on to trust some sources over others, and that resistance to science may be triggered when scientific claims clash with their rudimentary common sense.

    Replace “common sense” with “indoctrination against liberals and tree huggers” and I think you begin to sense something of the development of a global warming denier. All that’s needed to complete the process is a passable “alternative” science. Enter JunkScience.com to wild applause.

    This might also explain why “sincere” denialists link only to their fantasy web sites. The cognitive dissonance they would feel in even looking at the clearly greenie IPCC is too much.

  2. Don’t make the same mistake that Jake Young made in interpreting what B&W are saying as implying that adults who still think theistically, teleologically, in terms of ID/creationism, etc. are thinking childishly. It implies no such thing, and putting that spin on it is, well, unscientific.

  3. Paul Bloom also wrote the excellent piece, “Is God an Accident?” in the Atlantic Monthly Online a few years back.

  4. Oh yes, take away all my fun Chris.

    That wasn’t what I was trying to say, although I realize that’s how it came across because of my Chopra-snark. I just wanted an excuse to call Deepak Chopra a moron.

  5. Mark, I don’t mean to take your fun away, but since Jake Young wrote an entire post based on the misinterpretation that B&W were arguing that our intuitions are childish, I’m a bit oversensitive to that claim.

  6. Ohh. I get it now. No worries. I was thinking more along the lines that it’s childish not to realize that your intuitions can be wrong.

  7. Wow, this author should be the perfect candidate to read my post here, since he is so open-minded and willing to look at data which contrasts with his personal beliefs, lest he be a hypocrite! Regarding global warming, I have stood on the deck of the Kairakkum Dam on the Syr Darya river in Tajikistan, and seen the diversion of water to Tajik Cotton fields. I am worked on two dams on the Varzob River, which flows into the Amu Darya, and thence to the Aral Sea. Not far up the Amu Darya, is the Murghab river, which was dammed by the collapse of a mountain in the year 1911, creating a dam 550 meters tall, the tallest dam, manmade or natural, in the world, which obliterated the village of Usoy, which took over two years to fill, impounds 17 cubic kilometers of water, and forms lake Sarez. The Soviets dug the Kara Kum canal and diverted what was left of the Amu Darya to irrigate cotton fields in Uszbekistan. Yet Al Gore tried to convince us in his movie that the Aral Sea dried up because of Global warming! He KNOWS that is not true, but there it is in his movie. I went to see his movie, and I brought a copy of the readily available raw data with me; in the movie, he intentionally displays the data with the camera slightly to the right, which makes it more difficult to notice that CO2 LAGS temperature over the millenia by 400 years on average, and the only way he would have needed a lift for his CO2 projections in the movie would have been is he was using some kind of obscure inverted log scale.
    I liked the part where he implied the US was incapable of making efficient cars, worse even than China, but the table he was displaying was of average corporate fuel economy! Of course the CAFE numbers for Chinese and other third world countries are lower; no one there can afford a big car, and big cars and trucks can’t fit down the narrow streets. I have been driven around in a Soviet made Lada sedan, and I can assure you it is small, heavy, and gets much worse fuel economy than an American car of a similar size and weight. Some of these third world cars Gore was trying to convince us are better use smoggy two-cycle engines too!
    It was quite clever of him to show before and after pictures of melting glaciers, but forget to mention they have been steadily melting for thousands of years; this isn’t something which started recently. May I suggest you buy a plane ticket to New Zealand, and on the South Island drive up the valley to the Franz Josef Glacier. What you will find most interesting, is you will see signs at intervals as you drive the many kilometers up the valley which mark where the glacier was over the CENTURIES. (Long before mankind was on the island, and that Island is in a cold polar current.)
    Al Gore KNOWS all these things are true, yet there they are in his movie. I cannot get Chicago television stations, even though I am only 50 miles away, because a 300 foot high glacial moraine sits just Northwest of my house, left there by the two mile high glacier which carved Lake Michigan.
    There is other interesting data you could check if you have a belief that people can be open minded enough to actually look at data, rather than act on an emotional level after watching emotionally charged blather like Gore’s.
    Hunt around the internet until you find a chart which plots the natural eccentricities and precessions in the earth’s orbit around the sun, and compare to charts of global temperature over the millenia. Then hunt around until you find a government website or other reputable website which has the sunspot records, and compare the sunspot activity against short-term (on the order of decades as opposed to millenia) temperature swings, Take note of uniquely recorded events, like when the Nile River froze. If you don’t know what the Maunder minimum is, you are tragically na�ve.
    I have to really laugh at the people who want to save the environment by growing trees! A tree removes CO2 from the air, converts it to sugars, then converts the sugar to cellulose. If the tree burns in a forest fire, the cellulose is converted back to CO2, and the amount of heat liberated in the fire is equal to the energy that the leaves absorbed from the sun. Permit the tree to die, fall, and rot, then the aerobic bacteria on top convert the tree back into CO2 and heat (remember the warnings about spontaneous combustion?), and on the bottom of the rotting log, anaerobic bacteria are convering the tree to methane, an even worse greenhouse gas. Termite eat their feces to maintain anaerobic bacteria in their gut to break down cellulose, and they release methane. Mushrooms and other fungi which grow on the rotting log release CO2 and heat (I once installed chilling equipment at a mushroom farm, and it is amazing how much heat those critters put out as they munch on the mixture of sterilized composted straw and horsemanure, and grain.) The CO2 and heat released by rotting vegetation equal the amount absorbed from the air and the sun; as in all chemical reactions, it is a zero sum equation. Forget any silly notions about turning into coal; when was the last time you saw a peat bog?
    Want to sequester carbon? The cheapest and easiest way to do it is to prevent a tree from burning or rotting, so all of that CO2 and heat is not released. May I suggest you chop down a tree and sequester the carbon by building a house with it? (Of course plant another sapling to replace it; the best growth rate and maximum sequestration of CO2 will occur if you clear-cut and plant a large area.
    I am amazed every day by how na�ve people are.

    I am an engineer/scientist who designs international power projects. Whenever possible, I try to obtain original source materials on which to base my reasoning. I am somewhat at an advantage over the common folk at reading original source material since I can read German, Spanish, French and Russian.

  8. Is there a denialist card for terrible comment formatting? I can usually pick out a denialist (like the one above) without even reading — I just look for an overlong post with little or no use of line breaks.

  9. Isn’t this all just a longwinded explanation of the first step or two in my pseudoscientific method flowchart?

  10. With global warming denialism you often see intuitive arguments used – usually conflating weather with climate – but the origin of the overvalued ideas seems to mostly be resistance to change for economic or other reasons.

    I’m not sure – I think there is at least a component of the intuitive, childish idea that the world (and its capacity to absord pollution) is practically infinite. They just can’t accept that human actions could have a serious, long-term effect on the composition of the atmosphere.

  11. Is there a denialist card for terrible comment formatting? I can usually pick out a denialist (like the one above) without even reading — I just look for an overlong post with little or no use of line breaks.

    Not that I know of, but there’s a nice gif for it here:


    – JS

  12. They just can’t accept that human actions could have a serious, long-term effect on the composition of the atmosphere.

    I suspect that’s indeed part of it; or in even simpler form – how could we change the climate – isn’t that part of nature/the way things are . . .

    In some quarters, there also seems to be a political/ideological component – it’s imagined (or people they trust told them) that it’s really a hoax or mistake meant to bring about socialism/more gov’t control/an elite or hippie utopia/ruin the U.S. economy and make everyone drive little cars . . .

    🙁 oy vey.

  13. I think sometimes what happens is that the crank-to-be has some insight which is valid as far as it goes, but is less novel and less far-reaching in its implications than they imagine.

    When they share the insight, they expect to be greeted with a chorus of wonder and self-questioning; instead people just yawn and say, “See this link here for a comprehensive discussion of your point”. At this point the immaturity kicks in, and instead of learning and adapting, the crank retrenches and becomes more strident in their attempt to get praise and attention.

  14. eric swan

    I don’t think anyone is immune to childish thinking. I once saw a vidio of a dog in a well structured triple blind experiment clearly demostrate knowing it’s masters intent to return home from remote places. Think ESP. And yet that field of research is widely ridiculed by SERIOUS scientific types. The thinking seems to go: even if its so it ain’t so. the reason this important is that the dog is revealing an aspect of conciousness that may have profound implications for every field of human endeaver.

  15. Think ESP.

    Can you explain to me how you go from “dogs seem to be able to recognize that their masters intend to return home” to “dogs have ESP”?

  16. Matilda Zuckerman

    I think your biases are creeping in here. I know of no reasonable scientific basis for denying the holocaust or believing in the literal interpretation of the Bible or for any of the crazy creationalist versions. Autism and vaccines have no scientific link that I know of.

    However, the issues of “racial superiority” and global warming and much more open for debate. I think in your case, your leftist politically correct sensibilities simply prevent you from seeing the politically incorrect “other side”.

    Although there is actually no such thing as “races”…we are all from the human race and all mongruls to some degree… there are clearly demonstrated differences in the average abilities of different human “breeds” just as greyhounds are fast dogs and German Shepherds are smart. With humans, there are many differences. East Asians on average have higher IQ’s than all the other major races. The average East Asian has a higher IQ than 99% of central Africans. This perhaps explains why asians represent 20% of the Ivy League population but just 5% of the US population. This is not pleasant to ponder, but it is solidly supported by science and goes a long way toward explaining many of the observed racial differences in the world. Also, blacks of West African origin on average can jump higher and sprint faster than other races but tend to rank at the bottom for distance running and swimming. Blacks of East African origin such as Kenyans, on the other hand, are poor jumpers and sprinters but are the world’s best endurance runners. This is obvious to scientists and also to anyone willing to look at the Olympics.

    Thus, some “races” are superior at some things. This is clear to anyone who is not a denialist. Of course, this doesn’t mean that there are a lot of stupid Asians and that some black guys are slow. But on average, the racial difference is clear.

    I don’t want this to be true. Most people refuse to even consider it but that doesn’t change the facts.

  17. David Harmon

    Matilda: You are completely ignoring cultural and opportunity differences. While I’m not qualified to discuss the details of the African sports situation (I do wonder about terrain!), I do have a more general example:

    The reason why South Americans have been kicking our USAdian butts in soccer has nothing to do with racial differences It has a great deal to do with a combination of widespread poverty (all you need is a ball) and available open spaces (as opposed to our own streetbound urban underclass.). When kids grow up playing a given game, that’s the game they’re most likely to excel in. Meanwhile we Americans have well-funded Little Leagues (baseball) all over the place….

  18. I would agree that some people use denial to filter out information they find threatening or unwelcome. As far as HIV is concerned, there are certainly people who use unanswered questions about HIV’s role in AIDS to ignore their health, or new information.

    However, there *are* still many unanswered questions about HIV’s connection to the immune deficiencies seen in many HIV positive people. Indeed, there is still no proven explanation of how HIV does it’s damage, although many theories are in circulation. Science being what it is, until a clear explantion of it’s causal role in AIDS arrives – one backed by proof, not just consensus – then looking beyond HIV for an understanding of AIDS causation and prevention is a scientific inevitability, not simple denial.

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