Why Do Smart People Believe Dumb Things?


Is it smart to be dumb?

Copyright 2010


            When I say, "smart people," I pejoratively mean everyone so that this essay can be inclusive. However, make no mistake, all those individuals with IQs in the superior range are included. You would think that only dumb people would believe dumb things but that is not true. In fact, it is frequently the case that individuals who are more intelligent believe the dumbest things of all. They are smarter so they can figure out more intricate and complex dumb things to believe.

            When I say, "believe dumb things," I mean stuff like the following:


     acupuncture, Alien abductions, ancient astronauts, astral projections, astrology, Atlantis, Ayurvedic medicine, Bach's flower remedies, Bermuda triangle, bigfoot, black magic, Blondlot's N-Rays, bottled water that is healthier than tap water, brainwashing, Chakras, channeling, charms, chelation therapy for coronary artery disease, chi, chiropractors, clairvoyance, cold readings, conspiracy theories, craniometry to predict human traits, crop circles, crystal balls, crystal therapy, cupping, devil(s), Dianetics, dowsing, ear candling, Easter Bunny, EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing), ESP (extra sensory perception), evil spirits (well, any spirits for that matter), faith healers, flying saucers, Freemasons that conspire to manipulate governments, ghosts, God(s), high colonics, holistic and alternative medicine, Holocaust deniers, Homeopathic medicine, intelligent design, iridology, Loch Ness monster, MacDonald's food that is unhealthy, magnetic therapy, Mars (the face on), medicine men, mediums, Men in Black (MIB), mind control, mysticism, Naturopathic medicine, Noah's Ark, Nostradamus' astrological predictions, numerology, oracles, orgone energy, Ouija boards, oxygen or "ozone" therapy, palm readers, past life regressions, phrenology, Piltdown Man, plant perception, poltergeists, psi, psychics, reflexology, reiki, reincarnation, Santa Claus, séances, Shrines to miracles such as Our Lady of Guadalupe, Fatima, Lourdes or about a million other places, spells, spontaneous human combustion, star children, tarot cards, telekinesis, telepathy, transcendental meditation, trepanation for mental illness, Turin (the shroud of), UFOs, Urantia Book, urine therapy, vaccines that cause autism, vampires, vitalism, vitamin C that cures the common cold (it works even better if you add mega doses of zinc), Voodoo, warlocks, werewolves, witches, wizards, yeti, Zener cards, zombies, and last but not least, The Force from Star Wars.


      God, what a list!

      And I cut it short for the purpose of this essay. Can you believe what people believe? And the complexity of some of these things. You have to be a genius just to understand some of this stuff.

      OK, just to make sure you understand, Santa is real...but everything else on this list is total bullshit!

      Despite the fact that almost everyone who sees this list will pick out at least one thing that they think is real, this list is 100% fiction in its entirety. Nothing on this list is even in the grey zone. Every item is complete fantasy. Certainly, there are many things in this world that we can debate as to whether or not they are real but those things are not on this list. This is a list of pure unadulterated bogus and false things that billions of people think are real.

      C'mon...you don't think that even one single little tiny crop circle on the outskirts of Winchester could possibly have been made by a visitor who would necessarily have traveled here through the space-time continuum at a rate many times greater than the speed of light to make designs in wheat fields on the English countryside?

      It is possible. You can't absolutely prove it didn't happen.

      Why are there so many things for which there is zero evidence but people rationalize that you can't prove the contrary so it must be real!

      Wait just a minute ... isn't there at least a small possibility that vaccines cause autism?  Since we don't know exactly what causes autism, you can't say that vaccines don't, right?

      OK ... OK ... so we actually had to waste our time and money demonstrating that vaccines do not cause autism.  But we did and people still think they do.  Really?

      Sure, and in addition to that you can't really say with absolute certainty that pancakes don't cause autism. Or eggs. Or Twinkies. Or steaks. Or antibiotics. Yeah, those bad antibiotics must cause it. Notice how I left the Twinkies alone out of pity for all the hell they catch.

      OK, everything else on the list is questionable but what about acupuncture? It has been used for thousands of years. Also, it was totally made up without any empirical evidence what-so-ever. Doesn't that make it true?

      Uh hum...

      Can I make one final attempt?


      Tap water. You can't possibly think that tap water is healthier than bottled water. Can you?

      Yes, I can. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) invests millions of dollars and hundreds of millions of man hours to make sure that we have clean and healthy water to drink. Tap water is run through very large and expensive treatment facilities. Believe me, if our drinking water was not clean we would hear about it loud and clear on the evening news.

      Bottled water, on the other hand, is regulated by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Needless to say, they have better things to do than regulate bottled water. The FDA only cares that it is safe. It is totally legal, for example, for the contents of a bottle of water to be 100% tap water because tap water from anywhere in the United States is very safe. Perhaps, they might bottle it in May and claim on the label that it is "Spring" water. That way you won't get stuck having bought a bottle of Late Fall or Early Winter water.

      Surprisingly, when you randomly test bottles of water you find that a lot of them are actually no different than tap water. But that's OK...tap water is pure and clean and very healthy. It's especially clean here on the front range in Colorado where the tap water is, in fact, Rocky Mountain Spring water.

      How can PepsiCo make millions of dollars per year selling Aquafina, which is bottled from the tap in Tucson, Arizona, to people who live in Denver?

      My biggest fear in writing this essay is that everyone will ignore its main point. I think that most reviewers will focus on the one thing from this list that they are certain should not be on the list. Therefore, I am tempted to cover each item individually but, alright, I'll move on.

Why do people believe so many dumb things?

      First, IQ is not the issue. Many individuals with superior IQs believe this stuff and it is often the case that people with low IQs do not. My wife, who's IQ is in the superior range, believes about 20% of this list. She was familiar with about 60% of the items on the list and believed about one third of those things. Furthermore, she is unwilling to change her beliefs even when presented with undeniable proof to the contrary. The reason she believes is because she wants to believe. It is not because she is stupid. And she is a scientist. She has a degree in geology from Moscow State University. The best university in Russia. And she has an MBA from an American university that she obtained at a time when she could barely speak English.

      No, IQ has nothing to do with it.

      Second, there is a lot of information about our environment that we simply can't know. What is real versus what is not real is often surprising to us. We are constantly bombarded with things that don't seem real at first but, then, turn out to be real. It keeps us a little off balance.

      For example, Einstein says, "Time and distance are the same thing."

      I say, "Really...huh...yeah, I kinda knew that, I think?"

      Our experience is that seemingly incredible things are shown to be true on a regular basis. So, we tend to be willing to accept and believe stuff that does not sound real.

      Third, we feel embarrassed if it is demonstrated that there is something we are wrong about or something we did not know. Especially if we think that everyone else knows it. Therefore, we may agree so that we don't appear stupid or out of step. Perhaps, this is why all you skeptics out there will agree with me on this stuff.

      Fourth, groups of humans who generally trust each other survive better than those who don't. We have survived so we must have inherited genes that confer an inclination to trust others that belong to our in-group. We tend to trust our brothers. "If Sam says it's so, then it must be so."

      Or, if you belong to the Tea Party you might think, "Whatever Sarah Palin says I will believe and I don't need no stinkin' evidence."

      Fifth, it takes some amount of time and energy to investigate every claim. It's much easier to just believe it, even if it doesn't sound particularly plausible. Especially if Sam says it's so.

      Sixth, there is often secondary gain involved in believing these things. If someone tells you that they are scared to drink tap water because it contains trace amounts of arsenic, then you might see an opportunity to sell them water in a plastic bottle. You might say, "Yes, absolutely, I agree. Want to buy some bottled water?"

      Seventh, once we decide to believe something we have a tendency to stick with our initial beliefs. Individuals who are confident in their beliefs tend to survive better than those who must question everything. It can take a scientist many years to learn to adequately question everything. Many still can't do it. This is why we have review boards. Review boards who will never see this essay...hey....hey.

      Critical thinking is not natural for a human. And most of us don't even want to do it.

      Eighth, we did not evolve to play chess. This is the final point and for this one I will expand.

      We tend to believe dumb things but our tendency to think this way may not be so dumb. The way humans think is intelligently illogical. We evolved to be like this in order to survive. If survival had required purely logical brains, then that is what we would have.

      For example, most decisions that we need to make require information that isn't available. In order to use logic the Intel needs to be accurate. Since it isn't, logic is not the type of brain function that will best insure survivability.

      We need brains that take in more information than we can consciously comprehend. We need brains that can network with other brains in order to maximize cognitive output from the small space our brains occupy. Also, we must categorize things in a bias way for easier access. We must make fast decisions based on limited alternatives and we should not over analyze or pick things apart. In other words, we need to have "gut instincts" to survive.

      Our brains need to be good at estimating probabilities and erring on the side of safety. For example, if you see a group of men with sticks you might assume that they want to kill you.

      You might want to run.

      If it turns out that these guys were on their way to a baseball game, then you have lost nothing by running. If they wanted to kill you, then you have survived. Let's say, for the sake of argument, that there is an 80% probability that a group of guys with sticks want to kill you. Your decision to run most likely saved your life and helped you pass your genes to future generations.

      Of course, us skeptics will criticize you for your decision. We will point out that there was no evidence to suggest that these men meant you any harm. You should have taken more time to investigate and ask questions. You should have used a logical thought process to eliminate possibilities. You should have noticed that there were hundreds of alternative explanations. You should not have simply believed what you heard without questioning it.

      Also, you most likely hurt others by being stupid and running away from a group of baseball players. You and your friends, who ran with you when they saw you running, will lose any chance that they would have otherwise had to get tickets to the American League Championship Series (ALCS). Now they won't get to see the Rangers beat the Yankees.

      (This was written on 10/21/10 after game 5 but I am using my human gut instinct to predict a Ranger's series victory.)

      (I am inserting this extra comment on 10/23/10 after the Ranger's sent the Yankees packing, as I predicted.)

      (Notice that I am not posting anything on 11/04/10 after the Giants sent the Rangers packing.  Oh, well, they did pretty damn good anyways.)

      On the other hand, if the guys you thought were going to beat you up were from New York, then the chances of this being correct increase to about 95% even if, no...especially if, they were baseball players.

      The logical little Jewish chess champion is probably going to get beat up either way. 


      Eighth and a half, I mean 8.5, or something like that.  I'm squeezing this one in after the fact.  The problem is that the first line of number ten contains humor related to it being number 10.  So, I didn't want to screw up the numbering.  Also, I didn't want an 11.  I am a human and I like lists of 10.

      Locus of control.  This is a psychological concept.  It is a bit complex so I hope I am able to adequately simplify it.  It refers to the human characteristic of having a sense that things happen either because, A. something inside you causes it (internal locus of control) or B. something outside you causes it (external locus of control). 

      For example, I believe that we live in a big house due to my decision to work hard and my ability to make smart financial decisions.  My wife thinks it is because the numbers in our street address are the same as the number of the month that each of us was born.  My sense of control tends to be internal and her's tends to be external.

      Generally speaking, the more an individual has a sense of an external locus of control, the more likely that this individual will maintain fanciful beliefs.  However, some fanciful beliefs such as ESP support the notion of an internal locus of control.  People who think that they are in control of all events often like this one a lot.

      Gambling is often appreciated by people with a strong sense of an internal locus of control.  I have an intelligent friend who has a degree in statistical analysis and a strong internal sense of control.  He claims to know better but he still thinks he has the power to predict which number the roulette ball will fall into.  

      Since both internally controlled and externally controlled dumb things can happen, it is best to be somewhere in the middle on this one.


      Ninth, there is one more thing. I honestly forgot about this one until now. Well, I alluded to it but I think it deserves to be presented in its own right.

Humans are herd animals.

      We run in herds and the integrity of the herd is vital to our survival. Those who run alone will be significantly less likely to pass their genes to future generations.

      The entire herd needs to move as one.

      Therefore, we need to be really good at following a leader and we need to act the same as everyone else in the herd. If all the other horses suddenly turn and run in unison, then you had better be running right there in the middle of them. And you need to be running at the same speed and in the same direction.

      It matters less where we are going than the fact that we are all going together.

      If you find yourself separated from the herd you will feel lonely. You will still want to dress and behave like everyone else in the herd. You want to continue to feel like you are a part of the herd. This is why a Texan wears a cowboy hat when visiting Paris, France.

      Here is another example. When you go to a biker bar you will see a large number of individuals who all dress like they are rebels. They all dress like they are rebels. All of them dressing the same. That makes them not rebels. They don't get that.

      Humans are content to believe dumb things because it makes us a cohesive unit. It binds us together. The real "Force" that binds us is our ability to accept and believe dumb things without question. It enables us to work together and to survive.

      A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away...OK, I'll stop doing Star Wars...I played high school football in Texas. One day before a big game Coach Wilson yelled, "Take a knee!!"

      We all took a knee.

      Then, Coach Wilson said, "You men are one. If you want it bad enough, we will win. Play like you mean it. There is no obstacle you can't overcome. Think like a team and you will play like a team. You play to win. You play the game to win. Are you with me? OK, let's kick some ass!"

      I'm thinking, "What bullshit. A bunch of over-used and trite expressions. He thinks, for some reason, that saying these things will motivate us. Does he really think we are that stupid?"

      I looked around and saw the other players standing and yelling and totally buying into this line of bullshit. I stood and yelled and bought into it also. I figured, "What the hell."

      We won the game.

      Here is another example. There is a baseball player named Mark Teixeira who used to play first base for the Texas Rangers. His nickname is Big Tex. What a cool nickname if you are a Ranger. Why did he leave? Why does he now play for those damned Yankees?

      There were reports that he wanted to swing his bat when his manager wanted him to take pitches. I agree with him. I don't think the manager was correct in this situation. However, playing on a team is less about doing things that are technically correct and more about following a leader and doing things together in the same way as the other players. All the other players were taking pitches. Hey, Big Tex, "You should have taken pitches."

      Two days ago he pulled his hamstring trying to beat out a ground ball to first base against the Rangers in game number three of the ALCS. HA....HA....

      In conclusion, the next time you hear someone say, "I won't let my child get vaccinated," or, "There's no way that humans have made every single crop circle," or "We're thinking about making a pilgrimage to Our Lady of Fatima next year," try not to be condescending. It may be the case that these people are intelligently illogical and you are moronically logical. They will thrive in this life and you will mope around and get left out.

      Tenth, hmmmm...well, there isn't really a tenth inning but I guess I can make up something stupid. Isn't that what Ken Burns did?

      The fact is that the world is cold and hard and real and unforgiving. There is no God and no afterlife and no Nirvana and no Easter Bunny. Remember that there is a Santa, thank God. See, sometimes ya just gotta believe.

      You get born and you struggle and if you bat .300 you are way above average. You die and they bury you and in two or three billion years our Milky Way Galaxy collides with the Andromeda Galaxy.

      Wouldn't it be nice if there were spirits and angels and mystical connections?

      I guess number ten is the real reason that you should believe dumb things if you are smart. It is because we are a small brained impotent little species that survive briefly in fragile bodies and we fear death.

      So, the real question should not be, "Why do humans believe dumb things?"

      The real question should be, "Why do some morons fail to believe dumb things themselves and actively criticize others for believing dumb things?"

It ain't dumb to believe dumb things.

      Actually, we now live in a world in which some of us have figured out how to do science. We figured out how to think critically. We figured out that most things in this universe live on a bell shaped curve and not in a white or black neighborhood. (I mean that both literally and figuratively.) We figured out that deducing conclusions from premises is a more reliable way to find the truth than is inducing premises from conclusions. We figured out that evidence and observation are important to understand what is real. We found a prescribed plan for evaluating novel claims that usually eliminates the logical fallacies that humans are prone to make. We are now able to differentiate what is real versus what is not real. As a result we have been able to fundamentally change our world.

      Because science has changed our environment too quickly, our biology may no longer be appropriate. Maybe, at this time in history, we need to try a little harder to question and investigate and think independently. Being bias and dichotomizing everything and making fast decisions and being unwilling to think critically is now hurting people.

      Our brains have evolved to at least have the capacity to do critical thinking. And to be able to understand why it's a good idea. Maybe we should all start doing it?

      What do you think?

      If you said, "Fuck you," then you are beginning to catch on.