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Why People Believe the Unbelievable

Posted in Skepdude by Skepdude on August 18, 2009

I recently published a guest entry titled “Why People Believe in Astrology and the Stars” by Adrienne Carlson. I feel the subject needs to be broadened and elaborated on a bit further. As a seasoned (that’s how I like to think of myself) skeptic I generally tend to be less, what’s the right word to use here…nice, to people that believe the unbelievable, which is really not  a very good trait for a skeptic to have, I admit. While Adrienne touched on some reasons why people believe in this stuff, I think there are others that need to be mentioned as well. And it goes without saying that these reasons are shared by all believers in woo, and do not apply solely to Astrology. So here is my rough, not so nice, take on some other reasons people believe the unbelievable.


Let’s face it, as  a species we’ve come very far, but as individuals we’re still very, very gullible! Otherwise why would we believe in flying alien ships, and lake monsters and such? Now some people are plain stupid, and there’s no nice way around that one. But most, in my experience are  not! Most are, in fact, quite intelligent, but have fallen prey to a quack meister or to bad reasoning.

We love easy answers

And this applies to almost all humans, as far as I can tell, not just the woo victims. Who wouldn’t like a quick one line answer that explains everything versus “I don’t know”? “I don’t know” is not a satisfying asnwer for most, it leaves you with an emptyness and a dread, a fear of the unknown. Knowing, on the other hand gives you peace of mind, and happiness, truth be damned. Most people would cling to a beautiful lie rather than an ugly truth.  Many things lack a rational explanation, yet we yearn for answers. Any answers is better than no answer, for many.

Lack of critical thinking skills

Not to be confused with lack of education, although critical thinking skills can only be acquired through education, formal or not!  There are many, many educated people that end up believing one nonsense or another. Critical thinking is a skill that, in my opinion, must be acquired and cultivated. We’re not born with it and “common sense” is a very poor substitute for it! Critical thinking requires open mindedness of the kind that you are not only aware of the possibility that you and your sacred cow could be wrong, but that you’d be far more intrigued by being shown to be wrong than most anything you believe to be true momentarily.

People are NOT open-minded!

Regardless of what any proponent of woo says, they are the ones that are not open minded. Open mindedness most definitely should not mean that others must accept my unsubstantiated beliefs as true without questioning! Open mindedness means that one will not dismiss out of hand new and fantastical ideas. Open mindedness means that one cannot entertain the idea that we know everything there is to know, or that we’ve reached the limits of what can be known,  and the rest is forever out of reach shrouded in cloud of dark matter. Open mindedness requires lack of absolute certainty and an aknowldegement of our individual limitations, and a thirst for input from others, less limited in any given area. Open mindedness requires a committment to give up dearly held “truths” once they’re shown to be worthelss. Open mindedness requires one to give up dogmatic thinking. Do you know any believer of woo who fulfills such requirements? I do not!

Many do not understand the Scientific Method and why it’s the best way we have right now to discover truths.

This one I think is a major reason. Many people do not understand how powerful the scientific method is. And this does not mean that science has all the answers or that is is infallible. Quite the contrary every good scientist or science enthusiast will be the first to acknowledge that there is much we don’t know. It is precisely the awareness of our fallibility that has created the need for higher standards of evidence in science. It is this awareness that cautions against leaping to conclusions based on limited data, that requires peer review, that requires replicability. The Scientific Method has all the checks and balances one could think off, to reduce the probability of bad conclusions being reached. So far, it is the single best tool we have to investigate reality.

This is just a short, of the top of my head list and I am sure I am missing many, but feel free to add to my ramblings with your own on the comments section.