Human Nature: Skepticism and Gullibility
This phenomenon extends across all social and political persuasions, and seems to fulfill a need that people have to feel that they are in the know and others are deluded, or have been fooled. Hey, who doesn’t want to feel like they know more than someone else, especially someone outside your group?
You have Holocaust deniers – believing themselves to be skeptical about the historical record regarding the slaughter of the Jews and other minorities by the Nazis, but being gullible to a lunatic with a book, a website, and a few bad calculations. (Incidentally, you never hear about neo-Nazis that insist that Hitler killed more Jews than claimed “6 million Jews? Hell! He did better than that! It was 20 million, easily!” Why is that?)
There are the 9/11 conspiracy theorists. (I’ve got an extended post on this coming up.) While I don’t believe the official story in its entirety, I also don’t believe that it was done with pre-planted, controlled detonations, radio controlled planes, switched planes, etc. One even insists a low-yield hydrogen bomb brought the towers down! Why go through all the trouble with the planes if you could just set off a nuke in Manhattan? Christ! That would’ve been enough.
Then there is the evolution/creation conflict. The creationists are totally skeptical about the physical evidence in biology, paleontology, genetics, cosmology, and geology, but are totally gullible regarding a few pages in some text written by ignorant desert dwellers a few thousand years ago, before there was even the most rudimentary scientific knowledge about the world. That’s all the evidence they need. Intelligent Design is the sneaky incarnation of this, where they try to convince the gullible that, no, really, now it’s a science!
The Chariots of the Gods/Ancient Astronauts folks are also interesting. These people are extremely skeptical that humans (especially non-white humans, it seems) could figure out mathematics and build huge monuments. However, they have no problem believing that ancient aliens manipulated human societies in the past, but have left us alone in recent centuries. (However, I do give them credit for inspiring Stargate.)
Medicine is an interesting area; some people are totally skeptical of Big Pharma and modern medicine, but are totally willing to give up their hard-earned money to quacks and “traditional” healers for treatments that have been shown to be ineffective. (Funny how it never occurs to them that, yes, Big Pharma is profit-driven, but so is your local herbalist!) On the other hand, you have people totally believing that there is a pill or a surgery out there that will take care of their problems, without having to do any work on themselves, such as lifestyle changes or self-examination.
Another aspect of the skepticism/gullibility phenomenon is a manifestation of the need to believe that there is some kind of intelligent cause behind everything; that shit doesn’t just happen. This falls into two categories: humans did it, and God did it:
Humans did It: Examples: the idea that the US caused the Indonesian Tsunami by setting off an atomic bomb (in order to kill Muslims, of course); or that AIDS must be a genetically engineered disease; or that the Gulf Coast hurricanes were caused by some nefarious organization by manipulating the weather through scalar waves.
God did it: God caused the tsunami in order to punish people for their sins (either Muslims, or vacationing gays, or tolerating heathen vacationing Australians and Swedes); that God sent AIDS to kill the homosexuals (and presumably promiscuous, though heterosexual Africans); or that God sent the Gulf Coast hurricanes to punish people for gambling, prostitution, and, of course, tolerating homosexuality. (Of course, suggest that Poseidon caused the tsunami for poisoning the oceans and no one will take you seriously.)
Believers of both of these points of view think the other is gullible to believe such outlandish tripe, but both of them are also skeptical of the truth that is that sometimes, shit just happens. Nature is a motherfucker. Plate tectonics explain tsunamis. The geologic and historical records provide rock solid evidence of previous events. Human history is full of diseases and plagues. Only in this relatively recent age of vaccines and antibiotics have we begun to expect to survive many illnesses, or to not get them in the first place. Right now, there are new diseases evolving. Hurricanes have always happened, and always will. Geologic time scales are long, humans have short memories and build things quickly, especially on coastlines, it seems. Sooner or later, a big ass asteroid or comet is gonna come smacking down, and it won’t be God or humans that did it. It’ll just be because the orbits of the rock we call Earch and that of some chunk of rock or ice crossed. We overestimate our importance in the Universe.
So, how can we tell what is true and what isn’t? Evidence can help us sort out what is real and what isn’t, but people tend to ignore or discredit evidence that refutes their point of view, and emphasize evidence that reinforces it. Astrologers and psychics are still in business because of this tendency. Tell people ten things about themselves and they’ll remember the one or two things that apply, and forget the rest.
Here are some sites about science and skepticism to get you started. I’ve added them to the Daves Big Links section in the sidebar.
Carl Sagan’s Baloney Detection Kit
The Crackpot Index
Good Math, Bad Math
James Randi Educational Foundation
The Panda’s Thumb
The Skeptic’s Dictionary