Last Fall I took an exciting class by Dr. Larry Zimmerman, called Lost Tribes and Ancient Astronauts. It was an absolutely excellent class and a good end to my last semester in college (for a while). I took it mainly so I could better address this blog, and I got good feedback and good ideas on how to expand the scope of the material here. So with that, let’s start with another look at why people believe weird stuff.
Here’s the secret to this question; we all believe some weird stuff. Each and every one of us has some strong belief, unsupported by facts, that we believe about the world, ourselves, or the unexplained. It’s a natural human state. Michael Shermer argues that it’s an evolved trait to keep us alive. Neurologists see it as faults in our brains. Anthropologists see it as a way of creating group cohesion and society. There’s probably a bit of truth to all of those as they can all produce verifiable evidence to support their ideas. Where the belief in weird things becomes an issue is when those holding the beliefs refuse to modify said beliefs in the face of facts and evidence.
So why do people hold onto weird beliefs when all else is stacked against them?
There are a variety of reasons, from the flippant (It’s fun, makes them feel special, provides escapism, allows a rich fantasy life, etc) to the more serious (Mistrust or misunderstanding of science, poor or improper education, willful ignorance, cultural or societal pressure, blatant lies and purposefully misleading information, etc). The more flippant reasons are hard to address because they are personal and individual choices. Often I’ve noticed these are attached to one person or small group of people. Many times the believer is aware they have a weird belief and can weather social pressures to change it because it’s a choice to believe and they’ve accepted it. They respond with humor, or by ignoring the questioner, sometimes they do respond with anger, but not often. Examples are the beliefs that the Cubs will win the World Series in my lifetime, or the Bears will ever go to the Super Bowl again, I believe it can happen…someday.
The second set of reasons, the more serious ones, are easy to address but very hard to correct. These lead more into the identity of an individual, so by questioning the belief you are attacking the individual. This almost always gets a angry or hostile response because no matter how delicately you try to word it, nonacceptance of the believers’ belief is equivocated with nonacceptance of the believer as a person. Again, we’ve all been here, rejection is not a pleasant feeling, especially when its based on something that we hold important to our idea of Self. Challenges to an individual’s religion, political persuasion, belief in the supernatural, or a particular conspiracy almost always result in an angry response. These are often a long lecture on why the individual believes such things, and why you are the one who is wrong for even questioning that in the first place. These individuals I call True Believers, because in my experience there is nothing that will be said that will ever change their mind, often they are happy to be confrontational and make a show of the disagreement.
These two sets of reasons for belief can and often do overlap. It can complicate how to respond, but more and more often a response is needed. Sometimes it’s easy to just shrug and say, Live and Let Live, increasingly it is not. The difficult part is learning to tell the two situations apart, and this often comes down to personal choices.
That said, there are definitely correct ways to respond and wrong ways. When we engage the True Believer, it is tempting to get angry and try to point out their errors with sarcasm and snark. Its irritating to answer the same question over and over, it’s insulting to have your credentials questioned, I get it, I do. There are several replies to comments on my blog where I gave in to that urge. But, as relieving as it was, it’s not the best way to respond.
The reason for this is that I’ve found that no matter how you respond to a True Believer, they will nit-pick your words and twist them in any way possible to fit their needs. The best response here is to simply stay cordial, and when the times comes (you’ll know when you get there), disengage with grace. The worst that is going to come from this is the True Believer will crow about how they’ve beat you with their logic, the best that will come from it is you being nice to someone with an honest question.
This latter part is the most important!
There is so much bad information out there these days, and there are lots of individuals who are out there simply to take advantage of the misinformed by presenting themselves as authorities (*cough cough History Channel cough cough Graham Hancock *). This creates a situation where people with honest questions are trying to find answers and they are turning to people who they think they can trust. Those people are often us, we the “educated”, we the “professionals”, we the “authorities”. When we respond to these questions with arrogance and snark, it turns people away and they turn to other sources of information, often getting sucked down a rabbit hole of bad reasoning and no evidence. So be nice, answer honestly, and if you don’t know, just say so. We don’t know everything.
Is it ever ok to respond with Sarcasm?
Well…yes, and no.
See, I have a very low opinion of the media right now. So if there was ever a time I would say “Go forth and Snark thy Enemies” it would be when dealing with reporters et al. The problem here is that they will repeat what you say and publish it for everyone to see. They will blow it way out of proportion and make you sound like an arrogant jackass. If you’re good with this, then go forth! If you’re not, then hold your tongue and either turn down the interview (best option IMO) or try to give the most innocuous response possible. Keep in mind, whatever brush the media paints you with, they paint us all with, just fyi.
This all said, it is important that we begin to aggressively address misinformation and pseudoscience. The Age of Information is also the Age of Misinformation packaged as actual information. It’s difficult for us as busy professionals to combat the crap that TV and popular books spew at the curious and uninformed. However, it is also the exact reason we need to combat it! So let’s blog, let’s tweet, let’s podcast and You Tube and Tumblr! Let’s get out there and reach out!