Allan Mazur – Implausible Beliefs

August 08, 2008

Allan Mazur, a sociologist and an engineer, is professor of public affairs in the Maxwell School of Syracuse University. Previously a member of the social science faculties of MIT and Stanford University, he is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He has published over 150 articles in the social science literature and is especially interested in biosociology; research methods; and in controversies over science, technology, and the environment. Among his books are Biosociology of Dominance & Deference, True Warnings and False Alarms about Technology, 1948-1971, and Global Social Problems. His new book is Implausible Beliefs: In the Bible, Astrology, and UFOs.

In this conversation with D.J. Grothe, Allan Mazur discusses his interest in skepticism, and lists various criteria for disbelief, defending “closed-mindedness” about various implausibilities. He explores similarities in the credulity throughout the United States versus Europe and Asia. He details the implausibility of various beliefs about the inerrancy of the Bible, UFOs, and astrology, and explains how there is nothing unique about religious beliefs that make them more implausible than other unsupportable claims. He examines the origins of implausible beliefs, including social influence, and how one’s social milieu may be a stronger factor in determining one’s beliefs than evidence or one’s education. He also examines personality characteristics and emotional comfort that certain implausible beliefs may bring the believer as further explanations for the roots of implausible beliefs.

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This is Point of Inquiry for Friday, August 8th, 2008. 

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Thank you. Professor, I wanted to kind of start off our discussion. You’re a professor of public affairs. Why did you write a book on skepticism? It doesn’t really seem. It’s not an obvious direction for a professor of public affairs. 

Well, two things came together. One is my long term interest in scientific disputes. But more directly, I, as I often do, have a Christmas dinner with close family friends and found a young man there who questioned whether evolution or the Genesis story of creation were differentially valid. He thought they were both just guesses. 

And I could not believe that. Or I know the public opinion rejecting evolution is considerable. I really haven’t met anyone who had that position. And this is a very intelligent, well-informed, well educated young fellow whom I’ve known for years. And so I started probing the notion how could he possibly hold Genesis on an equal plane with a scientific theory of evolution? 

The Bible says that eternity is written in the hearts of men. Isn’t it also true that gullibility is people almost seem hard wired to be gullible? You said you hadn’t personally experienced that kind of gullibility in people, but while the circles you run in your college professor, you hang out with moderately well educated people, right? That’s right. But the swaths of people who aren’t running with college professors, aren’t they kind of destined to be more gullible? 

No, I don’t think so. I think they’ve simply been socialized in different directions. College professors can be quite gullible as well. 

So let’s get into the book. What exactly do you mean by the phrase implausible beliefs? You’re just meaning things for which we have inadequate evidence right now. 

Not really. I mean, belief that are contradicted by logic. And the best science that we have at hand. If I were more emphatic, I would say I am. Possible beliefs, but I don’t want to be that authoritarian about it. So I refer to beliefs that by all sorts of scientific and logical criteria are just simply almost certainly not correct. 

Let’s get into some of these criteria. These are really listings of characteristics of beliefs that would make them implausible to you. So what are some of these criteria? 

Well, one of them would be logical inconsistency. For example, the first two chapters of Genesis each contain. Story one is about seven days, one is about Adam and Eve, and the two stories are internally inconsistent. One of them has two humans at the end in the six days of creation. The other one starts with Adam being created before there is any other living thing. One of them has birds created before land animals and the other one has them created at the same time. So even if one has no interest in scientific evolution, just on logical terms, the stories are inconsistent in themselves. 

Before we get into the specific implausible beliefs, let’s stick with some of these other criteria. One you say is that if a belief contradicts science, it’s implausible. But what gives science that status of kind of being the deal breaker when it comes to a belief? 

Well, you know, that has been a long debated issue. And even among college professors, it remains debated. Does science represent some special way of knowing that is in some way superior to other ways of knowing? I think the weight of opinion, even in academic conversation and argument, is that surely it does in some way. I mean, it did, after all, get us to the moon. We understand that there are microbes that cause diseases. Science over the long run works pretty well and is within its domain of empirical investigation. 

Mm hmm. Professor, you say another criteria for an implausible belief is that if a claim requires extraordinary expertize or kind of secret knowledge, esoteric knowledge. But there are whole domains in science that require extraordinary expertize. That doesn’t make them implausible. 

Indeed, that’s true. But what I did say actually was unsubstantiated claims of extraordinary expertize. Quantum theory is well substantiated and faith healing isn’t. 

Hmm. So, for example, quantum theory, you know, the average Joe on the streets not going to immediately understand quantum theory. And Lassy has extraordinary expertize. But you’re saying it’s just not an unsubstantiated claim. 

There’s a lot of the quantum theory. For example, quantum electrodynamics is considered to be the most accurate, predictable theory in all of science. Richard Feynman got a Nobel Prize, among others, for it. It’s been well tested empirically. That’s certainly not the case for a faith healer who claims to reach through your stomach and pull out a tumor. 

I loved your chapter in the book about how widespread, implausible beliefs are in the United States. Is it just a matter of the better in education you get, the less likely it is that you’ll believe the unbelievable. 

Well, there is a relationship between education and and not having what I would call implausible beliefs. But it’s not a very good one. It’s a fairly weak one. It’s very clear that very highly educated people, for example, come from a fundamentalist religious background, are still quite likely to believe in a literal Bible and to reject evolution. So I don’t think education is really an important key to this sort of thing. 

Mm hmm. So in Japan, you show in your book only 10 percent of the people there don’t believe in evolution, whereas 60 percent of people in the U.S. don’t. But you’re saying it doesn’t follow that people in Europe and Japan are better educated than in the U.S. since more people believe in astrology in Europe and Australia, let’s say, than in the U.S.? 

That’s right. You can find rather surly beliefs in virtually any country. I don’t really know Japanese culture that terribly well, but evolution was creationism was never a terribly big thing in Japanese culture. They don’t follow our beliefs except for new converts. They don’t really follow the Bible. Christianity, Judaism and Christianity. So it’s hardly surprising that they don’t reject evolution on those grounds. But certainly they believe in other kinds of things. It wasn’t, I don’t forget, until the end of World War Two that they gave up the idea that the emperor was God. 

Mm hmm. One plausible belief that you zero in on in your book is the inerrancy of the Bible. You’re saying that there’s absolutely no good reason to take the Bible, the Jewish and Christian Bibles, literally. Right. That seems like a statement that should be made by an expert on the Bible. And you’re a professor of public policy, not an expert on the Bible. 

I am not an expert on the Bible, but I can see features of the Bible that are clearly incorrect, like a logical inconsistency between the two stories of creation and therefore follows that the Bible in total cannot be correct. There must be at least some errors. 

Mm hmm. Well, at least some errors. That seems like a much softer push than kind of the conclusions you make in your book, which is that, you know, there’s really just no good reason for believing the Bible. 

There’s no good reason for believing the Bible, literally word for word. The claim that I made, you might find many things in the Bible that are reasonable to believe. For example, when we get to the historical treatment of ancient Israel from the king’s word, it probably is a reasonably good account of what really happened. So I would not suggest that there is absolutely nothing in the Bible either factually or morally that should be rejected. What I am saying is that one cannot really sustain the view that the Bible literally word for word is true. Mm hmm. 

The implausible ways that you talk about in the book don’t only center on religion. You’re like a skeptic across the board. But is there anything special about religious belief that makes that implausible? Or is it the same kind of stuff that makes other beliefs implausible as well? 

I do not believe there’s anything special about religious beliefs that set them apart from beliefs about politics or economics or daily life. A belief is a belief, and they pretty much all come from the same sources, whether they’re plausible or whatever. 

Hmm. Let’s talk about UFOs. That’s an area you treat in the book. It’s one of what you called the secular implausibilities. 

Yes, that’s right. I try to make the equivalence between the secular implausibilities and the religious ones. And my main point is that they’re not fundamentally different. You can just believe in a lot of weird and strange and implausible things, and it doesn’t make any difference in which particular avenue of belief they are. 

The fact that so many people report seeing UFOs. Doesn’t that make it a very worthwhile thing to examine scientifically? You’re not just being a closed minded academic here who’s denying the possibility of alien life, are you? 

Well, I hope I’m not. I think there has been a fair amount of investigation of UFO was and that there has been a fair amount of investigation of what you could call the social psychology of UFOs. I would point out that in some ways it’s very comparable to the guy who claims back office that he’s invented a perpetual motion machine. And there is a well verified principle of science. The second law of thermodynamics that says, no, you cannot really invent a perpetual motion machine possible. And to a considerable extent, we have the same situation with with UFO. I don’t think any of us would deny the possibility that there’s life elsewhere in the universe with the problem of getting from there to here. And that’s very, very difficult to think of doing in a way that’s consistent with our modern understanding of the distances and the limitations on travel. 

You mean between solar systems, between galaxies, between galaxies? 

You have the idea of traveling from some very distant galaxy to this particular one is difficult to handle and might becomes stranger in recent years as not only the notion that there are UFOs, but that there are aliens who have arrived and abducted people for sexual purposes. Mm hmm. The psychologist, Susan Clancy, as I think made the interesting point by saying it’s one thing to believe there’s intelligent life elsewhere in the universe and it has quite another to believe it is here examining your private parts. 

Tell me about Project Blue Book and how that figures into your understanding of all these people reporting their abductions. 

Yeah, the UFO phenomenon, at least in its modern incarnation, started in 1948 when a pilot thought he saw some strange objects in newspaper reports called The Flying Saucer. So they were like as if somebody had skipped saucers over the waves. The name pretty much caught on. And then, of course, we’ve developed the modern iconography of UFO. And the aliens that are in them and the attention and reports have gone up and down. With, you know, in waves associated with movies, with newspaper ideas, what has developed. More recently and there’s quite a bit more interesting, apparently sincere belief some some people show, obviously, that some people seem to be quite sincere in the belief that they’ve actually been visited and abducted and used in sexual experimentation. 

Well, with all these reports, what’s your explanation for that? And so many people are sincerely reporting these things that they honestly believe happened to them. What’s the scientific explanation? You’re saying it’s really a more of a cultural phenomenon than it is a kind of a factual thing that’s happening to begin? 

Those few levels of explanation, first of all, is to explain the aggregate of why sightings go up and down and why interest goes up and down. And that seems to be tied with, for example, major movies like Close Encounters of the Third Kind appearing. By the way, I really expected there to be a flap of these with X Files. And it turns out they really don’t feel much with extra terrestrials. 

You mean the recent movie, the recent movie that stop now? Yeah. The recent X Files was about everything but UFO. Right. 

They seem to have explicitly avoided UFO. Was it also obvious? Not terribly well. 

Didn’t have the impact of, say, Close Encounters of the third kind or one of the earliest ones was the day that the earth stood still. So you have a second issue that comes up here, and that is given that there are generally increased waves and attention and then decreases in waves, what becomes peculiar is why there are a few people who take this so seriously that they personally believe that they have been visited. Now, you get into another level of explanation. What’s what’s going on with those people? One thing is it seems to run in families, these beliefs, like all Alstyle beliefs, generally come out of your social media. The people who are around you. And if you grow up in a family that believes in UFO shows and including a relative who has been visited him or herself via an alien, that increases the likelihood that you personally will be visited by an alien. And many of these stories actually emerge when people go into counseling, talk to people, especially UFO believers. It’s rather like recovered memories of child abuse. Yes, satanic ritual admirers say manic rituals. It’s the same story in the process of talking to people, counselors and a group to support groups and whatnot, reading the literature. People become convinced that that they, in fact, were visited. Now, at this point, you’ve gotta go a little bit further. You’ve got to inquire about personality and particular circumstances of those people, whether their particular stressful time of their life or whether they are particularly vulnerable in some way. And I think I think women need to look at those factors and they tend to be relevant. That’s not to say these people are not they’re not they’re not psychotic in the conventional way, but they often tend to be a little bit extreme in their in their personal lives. What some people have called fantasy prone, yellow fantasy prone, they’re definitely hypnotizable because often you use that sort of technique in extracting these memories, sometimes even go back to early your lives and extract memories of abducted earlier before the present wife. 

So as you’re looking for explanations for these kinds of reports and you’re trying hard, it sounds like, not to just explain it all away, you’re taking it seriously, your you think the researchers should actually honor these claimants? You’re open minded. In other words, it sounds like. But so far, you’ve seen no compelling evidence of UFOs ever. 

Well, I don’t really want to give you the impression or I’m thoroughly open mind that my throughout my career, I studied scientific controversies, for example, over fluoridation, over global warming, over nuclear power, where one can make a plausible case for or against these things. And in this case, I’m looking at situations where I think one can’t make a plausible case on one side. So I should say that I’ve selected issues where my mind really is closed. Whether or not the factual claim is correct, I simply do not believe the Bible is literally correct word for word. And I don’t believe aliens have been here examining people’s private parts. And I don’t believe that you can predict the future from a horoscope. So on that level, I’m close by. But now I’m the level of why people believe these things that I consider to be a proper sociological investigation that I hope I am open minded, looking for explanation. 

So you actually don’t shy away from the charge that a lot of believers make against skeptics, that, oh, you’re just a cynical, close minded, knee jerk rejecting out of hand kind of skeptic? 

I acknowledge that. I reject these beliefs. Yes. I’ve on to some pains. By the way, to give reasons why they should be rejected. I think that the evidence to anybody open minded is pretty definitive. 

Another implausible belief that you focus on is astrology. Tell me just quickly about the Goslin experiments. Are many astrologers people who who believe that, you know, the celestial bodies influence their lives? Cite his research as evidence to support their beliefs. 

Yeah. They try to fairly. First of all, it’s very difficult to test astrological forecast because it’s so malleable. There’s so many features of a forecast that one can bring him to reach almost any conclusion one way. So it’s really hard to come up with a definitive prediction that you can test. But there have been attempts to do that. And he and his wife were among the most avidan looking at quantitative data. 

And what they did was conclude that nothing from conventional astrology worked empirically. Jim Underdown. 

Well, what was what he called the Mars effect? 

Yeah, that’s not predicted from conventional astrology. What he did say. After work was that even though nothing from astrology worked, there did seem to be a relationship between positions of Mars and Earth and whether or not people became eminent in certain areas like sports and athletics. So his claim was not a substantiation of astrology, but it’s been interpreted to support astrology because it did seem to be some connection between celestial happening and earthly lives, even though it wasn’t in the direction that you object predicted. Well, there has been subsequent evaluations of that, and it really does not stand up well. I mean, it does appear that the effect that he found was because of an apparently unconscious bias in his data selection. So even that really doesn’t doesn’t appear. But it still lives on Web sites all over the place. 

And it should be said that Goslin himself was a skeptic of astrology. 

He did not believe in astrology. What he thought he found was something separate from Australia. 

If you were a betting man, Professor, which of these three sets of implausible beliefs that you cover in your book is least implausible? I mean, is belief in UFOs, astrology in the Bible all equally unsupportable errors? 

I believe there are sufficiently implausible, right. I wouldn’t bet anything out. 

I want to finish up by talking about the why question you mentioned earlier. You’re fine with being close minded about these beliefs, but you’re open minded about why people believe them. People buy into this stuff really, no matter what. Even even though there are smart professors like yourself challenging the beliefs, people still swallow them hook, line and sinker. So why do people believe this stuff despite the lack of evidence? 

Well, I think people believe in plausible beliefs for the same reason they believe plausible beliefs. And that is we get almost all of our beliefs from our social theory, from the way we’re socialized as kids. And then from the social milieus we go into later, the spouse we marry and what not, by virtually everybody who rejects evolution and accepts the Bible in a fundamentalist way comes from a family that did that. When they do change, which is relatively rare, or someone going into that belief or someone going out of that belief. They usually do it because they’ve married someone of a different persuasion. So virtually all of our beliefs, whether you think they’re good or bad or right or wrong, virtually all come from the same the same source, the social values that we’re in. 

If you’re saying beliefs are coming from social influence, you’re kind of removing from the equation evidence that most people don’t believe what they believe based on evidence, but based on social influences. 

Yeah, that’s exactly right. I don’t mean to say that evidence is totally irrelevant, but all one has to do is look at a current issue, like the fella MAVEN’s who killed himself and is now considered perhaps to be the source of the anthrax radar display. You know, there is evidence which you can interpret one way or the other. If you’re sympathized with him, you interpret it one way. Jim Underdown. 

Yeah. If you’re a scientist, you’re skeptical of the scientific community has raised some doubts about the charges. And if your intelligence part of that community, you really think it’s a cut and dry case. 

Yeah. But I would make it very clear. I would imagine there are people in the intelligence community who, for one reason or another side that position or the other. For example, there’s a notorious opposition between the FBI, CIA and the FBI. Experts say something that’s true. Probably the CIA expert will say it’s true. But you find the same thing in virtually every scientific argument over global warming, over fluoridation, over nuclear power, over stem cell. People look at the same facts and they interpret them one way or the other. And based on social influence, it’s largely based. I don’t mean to indicate that there is no way that the rational mind can ever look at evidence and come to some conclusion because that surely occurs. 

But it’s a little bit like. Poker players, you know, are, you know, rationally that you’ve got four cards in their wallet, whether or not you should draw to an inside straight. You know, rationally that there’s virtually no chance she’ll get it. But you figure, what the hell? 

I’m trying. Yeah. Don’t talk to me about my gambling. 

But if you look at philosophers, for example, bioethicists, and they come from Catholic backgrounds, they’re almost certainly going to make some argument against the propriety of abortion. Or mean you could correlate those kind of backgrounds with the position one takes in the most high level philosophical debate. You make an argument that essentially defends the position you started out with in the first place. 

Professor, are you a skeptic of creationism, of the inerrancy of the Bible, of astrology, of UFOs because of your social mildew and not because the evidence? 

I would imagine that’s a factor, I think. Go over my long life. I’ve had lots of influences. And also I’ve tried to make some judgments based on evidence, but I think we’re all creatures of our social view. 

One explanation for why people adopt these implausible beliefs that you don’t touch on a great deal in your book. But I want your take on is that they work for people. They have payoffs. I mean, belief in ghosts and the immortality. This all seems to make people actually feel better about being dead when they’re dead as opposed to, you know, living on the edge. 

If I had a child, an infant that was dying, I think it would give me great comfort to believe they were going with Gone to Heaven. Then I’ll give you a more tangible example. If you believe in the efficacy of some weird alternative medicine, there is a very good chance that you’ll enjoy a placebo effect. 

The placebo effect is real. 

The placebo effect is real. And it requires that you believe in it. So if I make up a treatment that I know has no value, whatever, I convince the patient that it does and I give their treatment to the patient, that it’s something that, you know, is safe. Cancer is obviously there. But if it’s headaches or back pain or or nervousness or something of that sort. And I tell the patient and convince patients that this is a useful thing or that might touches useful. There are a fair number of patients who will indeed feel better. That’s right. 

Jesus said that the poor will always be with the second time I quoted the Bible in our conversation. Yeah. But what the hey, is it also true that the gullible will always be with us? In other words, do you think there’s any getting through to people about their implausible beliefs? 

I want to emphasize that I think all of us are gullible. I don’t want to make the distinction between those people and us. I mean, we all have these. Problems. It’s very human. Some people are perhaps more gullible than others. But once somebody is set in their belief and they have a social support that confirms that belief. It’s very hard to make a change unless you actually change the social value in which they are operating. 

So is there hope for doing that? 

Well, yeah, I think so. I mean, as the society mixes up as as education or if the mass media would turn to a more rational direction, there probably could be some improvement. It’s a little discouraging right now. Even our best news, Zarghun, sometimes produce the most ridiculous reports. And so in a movie like that, it’s kind of difficult to expect people to become what we would call intensely rational, even if you wanted them to be that. But, yes, I think that in some broad sense it’s true. I think probably the society we live on now is much less susceptible to various kinds of superstitions than that same Middle Ages where we don’t really believe in. Which is sort of that sort of thing. 

Thank you very much for joining me on Point of Inquiry, Professor Alan Mazer. Thank you. 

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Point of inquiries produced by Thomas Donnelly and recorded from St. Louis, Missouri. Executive producer is Paul Kurtz. Point of Inquiry’s music is composed for us by Emmy Award winning Michael. Contributors to today’s show included Sarah Jordan and Debbie Goddard. I’m your host DJ Grothe. 

DJ Grothe

D.J. Grothe is on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Science and Human Values, and is a speaker on various topics that touch on the intersection of education, science and belief. He was once the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and was former Director of Outreach Programs for the Center for Inquiry and associate editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He previously hosted the weekly radio show and podcast Point of Inquiry, exploring the implications of the scientific outlook with leading thinkers.