Explaining why belief in pseudoscience is often evidence resistant

What links belief in tarot cards, UFOs and vaccine rejectionism? Yes, they are all forms of superstitious or magical thinking, but are there characteristics that predict who will believe in such nonsense? That’s one of the questions that psychologists Marjaana Lindeman and Kia Aarnio seek to answer in their paper, Superstitious, magical, and paranormal beliefs: An integrative model.

Lindeman and Aarnio postulate that believers in superstition, paranormal phenomena and pseudoscience make similar cognitive errors, errors that can be characterized as a holdover of the immature errors of reasoning made by children still learning about the natural world. They label these errors “ontological confusions.” The authors explain:

“According to developmental psychologists, there are three major sorts of knowledge that determine children’s understanding of the world: intuitive physics, intuitive psychology, and with certain reservations, intuitive biology…

Developmental studies show that core knowledge of physical entities includes the notion that the world is composed of material objects, which have volume and an independent existence in space. The core of intuitive knowledge about psychological entities, in turn, consists of knowledge that animate beings are intentional agents who have a mind… In addition, small children understand that the contents of mind, such as thoughts, beliefs, desires, and symbols, are not substantial and objective but non-material and mental, and that they do not have the properties they stand for…

As regards biological phenomena, it seems that at least notions like contamination and healing can be characterized as core knowledge…”

The authors argue that belief in superstitions, paranormal phenomena and pseudoscience conflate this knowledge across categories and constitute ontological confusions. Therefore:

“… [M]ental contents … have the attributes of physical or animate entities, resulting in the possibility that a thought can touch objects (psychokinesis) and move by itself (telepathy).

… Moreover, in superstitions a force is an equally important factor as in lay physics but here force is regarded as a living and intentional entity. For example, feng shui teaches us that erroneous furnishings may absorb vital force .., and astrologers suggest that planets have living energy, which pushes and pulls on human beings … Thus, in superstitious thinking biological and physical processes are no longer non-intentional but they are seen as having a purpose, that is, as directed toward certain goals …”

These cognitive errors can be found in a variety of alternative health treatments that are predicated on the belief that thought can alter health outcomes and that touch can convey healing powers. Similar cognitive errors underlie homeopathy (“like cures like”), reiki, acupuncture and healing by touch (invoking healing “forces” or “energies”), belief in herbs (“the natural form of the molecule differs from the synthetic form”), and distance healing and birth affirmations (the belief that thoughts can modify physical events).

Errors in intuitive thinking are usually corrected by giving preference to analytical thinking. While belief in healing “energies” or healing thoughts may have intuitive appeal, such beliefs are clearly contradicted by what we know about physics and biology. But those who give priority to intuition, and those who lack understanding of physics and biology, are far more likely to accept superstitions, paranormal beliefs and belief in pseudoscience.

The authors investigated the beliefs and thinking styles of 250 individuals, divided evenly between those who were superstitious and those who were skeptics.

“… Compared with the skeptics, the superstitious individuals assigned more physical and biological attributes to mental phenomena. Thus, they understood such notions as a mind that can touch objects and an evil thought that may be contaminated more literally than the skeptics. Superstitious individuals also assigned more mental attributes to water, furniture, rocks, and other material things than skeptics did and accepted that entities like these may — literally, not only metaphorically — have psychological properties such as desires, knowledge, or a soul…

The results also showed that various manifestations of the beliefs, for example beliefs in astrology, feng shui and paranormal abilities of human beings, were associated with ontological confusions and with higher intuitive thinking … The discriminant analysis indicated that the best measures to distinguish believers from skeptics were ontological confusions, and secondarily intuitive thinking…

Believers in pseudoscience don’t hide their reliance on intuition. Indeed, they are quite clear in giving preference to intuition over analytical thinking and represent intuition as an equally valid way of knowing about the world. Jenny McCarthy bases vaccine rejectionism on her intuition. Many natural childbirth advocates exhort reliance on intuition to justify risky childbirth choices. Yet far from being beneficial, this overt reliance on intuition leads to a plethora of false beliefs including superstition, belief in paranormal phenomena and belief in pseudoscience.

“… [S]uperstitious individuals’ knowledge about the world is inaccurate in that their early, as yet undeveloped intuitive conceptions about psychological, biological, and physical phenomena have retained their autonomous power and co-exist side by side with later acquired rational knowledge…

This goes a long way toward explaining why belief in pseudoscience is often evidence-resistant. In addition to the fact that believers in pseudoscience lack knowledge of science and statistics, they often give priority to intuition above analytical thinking. Even after a deficit of empirical knowledge is remedied, advocates of pseudoscience persist in relying on intuition.

Amy Tuteur is an obstetrician-gynecologist who blogs at The Skeptical OB.

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