It can be both entertaining and worrisome to hear about other people’s strange and sometimes downright dumb beliefs. Anyone, even smart people, can believe in such weird things as UFOs, paranormal phenomena, ESP, astrology, ghosts, hauntings, (and even God, for some reason), etc. We obviously have zero proof that ESP, for example, exists or can occur and yet many well-educated people believe that it does and can occur. Many well-educated people believe in God or that a supreme higher power made this terrestrial rock we live on called Earth. Why is this? People, including smart people, believe dumb things because they are skilled at defending these beliefs they arrived at for non-logical reasons.
We normally arrive at our beliefs for reasons other than rational, logical ones. We arrive often at our beliefs because we were either taught (or told) to believe such things, have been influenced by our peers or siblings, educational experiences, and due to genetic predispositions. Usually, we arrive at our beliefs without sitting and looking at the facts. We don’t always choose the most logical and rational beliefs to maintain, even regardless of what we believed before.
In psychology, we refer to believing in something by only examining the evidence that supports our beliefs and ignoring all other evidence that runs contrary to our beliefs as the confirmation bias. We are all guilty of this thinking error. The confirmation bias can lead down the road to making false conclusions or bad decisions whereas if we had weighed out all the evidence for something, we might have arrived at a different conclusion or made a different decision. With the confirmation bias, we look at only the evidence we like and ignore the ugly, pesky evidence that runs contrary to our belief. This is why using the scientific method in our daily lives is so crucial. We can weigh out bad decision making as much as we can and instead look at all the positive and negative evidence for what we believe or are asserting.
Sadly, as important as education is, it does not cure the problem of the confirmation bias, but only reduces it a little. According to Michael Shermer in his book Skeptic, a study was performed by the National Science Foundation (April 2002) on the overall state of scientific understanding across the U.S. This study found out the following of American adults: 30 percent believe that UFOs are space vehicles from other civilizations, 60 percent believe in ESP, 40 percent believe that astrology is scientific (how???), 32 percent believe in lucky numbers, 88 percent believe that alternative medicine is a viable means for treating illnesses, etc. Unfortunately, the study found that education did little to influence people’s beliefs, especially relating to the above-mentioned beliefs.
What’s even more disturbing is that 70 percent of Americans do not understand the basic scientific process, defined as embracing probability, the experimental method, and testing one’s hypothesis. Obviously, as people take more science courses, such as biology, physics, chemistry, etc., the greater the understanding of the scientific process there is. Additionally, many people feel distanced from the scientific process as they do not have a clear understanding of the scientific method. In order to attenuate this problem, we need to teach people that science is not a bunch of loose factoids, but a set of methods used to describe and interpret phenomena, both past and present, aimed at building a testable body of knowledge open to rejection or confirmation. Science is a way of thinking that recognizes the need to test hypotheses so that the process is not reduced to mere opinion mongering, that the findings of such tests are provisional and probabilistic, and that natural explanations are always sought for natural phenomena. Superstition and pseudoscience are not welcomed!
Using the scientific method, we can weed out the pseudoscientific beliefs we manage to believe, such as ESP, UFOs from other civilizations, lucky numbers, ghosts, hauntings, etc.