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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  • http://www.dialdoctors.com Dial Doctors

    It’s sad that Americans are paranoid which leads to the creation and use of pseudoscience. We’ve uncovered many times when we’ve been misled by people in power so when someone like Jenny Mcarthy starts ranting we listen. Now this isn’t government or pushing for either party. We are trained into believing that there are magical or too good to be true cures that are being kept from us. Listen as a doctor we only have your best interest at heart so trust me when I say that vaccines will help your child avoid many complications throughout his life.

  • SteveSC

    Don’t forget that scientists and ‘skeptics’ can also be ‘evidence-resistant’. How long did it take for the microbial origin of gastric ulcers to become accepted?

  • http://www.pacificpsych.com/ pacificpsych

    No different, I must point out, from psychiatric pseudo science, despite how much it is couched in pseudo-scientic jargon. For one example, look here http://bit.ly/kzXkYA

    >>A single trial by Keck et al. represents the entirety of the literature on the use of aripiprazole for the maintenance treatment of bipolar disorder. Although careful review identifies four critical limitations to the trial’s interpretation and overall utility, the trial has been uncritically cited in the subsequent scientific literature.<<

  • SquibGirl

    This also explains those who still question the birth location of politicians long after evidence has been presented, and those who believe that the destruction on 9/11 was fabricated.

    Of course I’m still looking for Hogwarts so I can’t throw any stones.

  • The Skeptical FP

    “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…” And Religion.

    People hold their beliefs, even in the face of contrary evidence. Reasonable, rational thought is not used. When those beliefs are challenged, they interpret that as a personal slight. This applies to vaccines, midwife home births, Christianity, Astrology, UFOs, etc. Incredible assertions require incredible evidence and when you ask for evidence, they translate their frustration and anger in to ever stronger faith, which they perceive as the ultimate virture.

    Muslim terrorist killers really believe they are going to be rewarded by Allah. Christian fundamentalists really believe God caused Katrina on purpuse due to the sin of New Orleans. Try convincing them otherwise, it’s like trying to convince Jenny McCarthy she’s wrong on her assertion about vaccines.

    • Molly Ciliberti, RN

      I wonder if they cling to their beliefs because they so incorporate those beliefs into their idea of self that they can’t see it as merely a belief. My best example is religion. They become blind to the many holes in their beliefs and almost cling more strongly because of them. For example Catholics who want to make the past Pope a saint despite his actions and inactions about the priests who abused children.

  • buzzkillersmith

    But you must admit that all this rationality does get tiresome. I thoroughly enjoy nutty people (in small doses). Heck, most of my relatives are nutty people. Heck, my wife….

  • http://zdoggmd.com ZDoggMD

    Buzzkillersmith, I agree wholeheartedly! Irrationality is highly entertaining (even if it can be a menace to public health). We did a couple of parody rap videos about vaccine-related irrationality; here is our latest: http://zdoggmd.com/2011/04/immulies/

  • ninguem

    Dial Doctors – “…..It’s sad that Americans are paranoid which leads to the creation and use of pseudoscience…..”

    I hope you’re not implying that this is a uniquely American phenomenon?

    For vaccine pseudoscience, we will have to go a long way to match the Brits and Dr. Wakefield. Though I believe Dr. Wakefield has moved to the USA, maybe we have a chance to catch up.

    I read the UK General Medical Council revoked his license, do we still call him “Doctor”?

  • Finn

    “Don’t forget that scientists and ‘skeptics’ can also be ‘evidence-resistant’. How long did it take for the microbial origin of gastric ulcers to become accepted?”

    As long as it took to produce sufficient evidence to support it. Scientists and skeptics didn’t resist evidence; they simply didn’t leap to belief in a paradigm-changing hypothesis until the evidence was produced. The microbial origin of most gastric ulcers and plate tectonics are the two ideas most often trotted out as examples of scientists and skeptics stubbornly refusing to accept new ideas when that is not the case. These ideas weren’t rejected; they were simply not accepted as science until enough evidence was produced to support them. (And no, developing a gastric ulcer after swallowing a beakerful of H. pylori isn’t enough evidence. One case is an anecdote, not data.)

    Science is ideas supported by evidence, so scientists don’t resist evidence; they demand it. Until it’s produced, ideas are just ideas in need of further investigation.

  • http://www.TheHealthCulture.com Jan Henderson

    Excellent post. This is a much superior approach to understanding the appeal of alternative therapies than simply saying they’re not scientific compared to medicine.