The Rationalistic Fallacy

If
you are of the lot who is stubbornly trying to improve critical thinking skills
around the world and feels a bit frustrated by the wave of nonsense that
regularly hits the airwaves, you are not alone. If you insist in thinking that
all you need to do is to explain things just a little bit better and people will
see the light, you are committing what is knows as the “rationalistic
fallacy.”

It
is probably true that better knowledge and understanding of science improves
one’s ability to grasp the real world; if that were not the case the entire
education system should be thrown out, a step that only a minority of right
wingers is prepared to take in the US at this moment. But it is also undeniably
true that explaining science to many people does not make them any less true
believers in pseudoscience.

For
example, John Moore reports in an article in The Science Teacher (May
2000) that subjects were surveyed for their beliefs in the paranormal,
UFOs and astrology before taking a course which dissected the evidential bases
for all these pseudosciences. While skepticism had marginally increased toward
the end of the course, credulity had returned with a vengeance only a year after
the test!

It
seems to me that we should try to understand what causes the rationalistic
fallacy if we hope to make any progress in fighting the rampant irrationalism
that manifests itself in countless forms. It might save us a lot of misdirected
efforts and a trip or two to the psychotherapist when the depression hits.

The
first thing to realize is that many people who believe in all sorts of weird
things are not stupid; at least, not in the generally accepted sense of
the term. Sure, if we define intelligence as the ability to grasp the real
world, then anybody who does not understand quantum mechanics is an idiot. But
remember the immortal words of physicist Richard Feynman: “If you think you
understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics.”

No,
the fact is that many people who believe in pseudoscience live successful lives.
Some are college graduates. They can understand very well the reality of
everyday life; sometimes they even successfully make complex decisions such as
investing their money or planning a career. The answer must therefore lie
elsewhere.

I
think the problem is in what we mean by “understanding reality.” Thomas
Henry Huxley, the 19th century scientist known as “Darwin’s
bulldog,” was very successful in lecturing to the general public, to an extent
that neither Richard Dawkins nor Stephen Gould can dream of today. Huxley’s
fundamental philosophy was that science is common sense writ large. Since most
people are equipped with both an innate curiosity and a moderate dose of common
sense, if we explain things appealing to their already existing mental tools
they will understand. Indeed, this is the philosophy behind most science
documentaries.

The
problem is that most modern science is not a matter of common sense at
all! On the contrary, from physics to cosmology, from evolutionary to molecular
biology, our current scientific understanding of the world is extremely
counter-intuitive. The reason for this is that science’s realm of
investigation now literally spans the whole of creation, from the beginning of
time until now (roughly 20 billion years) and from the subatomic level to
the largest aggregates of galaxies. Let us remember that in Huxley’s time most
scientists thought the earth was a few million years old, the existence of
galaxies was yet to be discovered, and nobody had the foggiest idea of what an
atom or a gene was.

Evolutionary
psychologists such as Steven Pinker suggest an explanation for this state of
affairs. According to the standard Darwinian theory, our brains are at least in
part the result of natural selection to improve our fitness; but the question
is: to what kind of environment? Obviously, the one that we have
inhabited for most of our evolutionary existence: forests and savannahs, where
“reality” meant being able to procure food and mates while carefully
avoiding predators. Is it any wonder, then, that we simply can’t understand
quantum mechanics?

If
we add to this mix the fact that people still want answers to the fundamental
questions of life (probably an annoying byproduct of being self-aware), it
doesn’t take much to understand why evolution and the Big Bang are discarded
in favor of all-powerful and all-good imaginary friends who watch over every
detail of our lives (especially the sexual scenes). Even the much-touted fact
that Europeans accept evolution and are less religiously fundamentalist than
Americans has, I would argue, a far less flattering explanation than it is
usually assumed. It is not that Europeans are smarter or know more science (this
is demonstrably not so); rather, it is probably that through history they have
had their fill of religious wars and witch hunts and they are putting their
current trust in another category of priests, the scientists (at least until
these, too, screw things up in some major way).

So,
what do we do about it? Unfortunately, identifying the causes doesn’t
necessarily cure the disease. We are in no position to reshape the human brain
to bring it up to speed with the current human environment. We can, however, get
more familiar with the large literature on human cognitive neuro-sciences;
getting to know how the brain works has to be the first step toward designing
better tools and arguments to educate people.

We
can also be more understanding when we do confront an irrational position, and
not dismiss our interlocutor as a simpleton (at least, not too quickly).
Demonstrating sympathy and reaching out to the “right brain” may be a better
way to get to the left one. But that is subject matter for another column.