Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Why is pseudoscience so appealing?

This weekend I borrowed Beth's copy of The Demon Haunted World by Carl Sagan. Lynnea and I sometimes read to each on car trips, and neither of us have read it in several years. Since Lynnea has been watching "Cosmos" on Netflix, it seemed like a good book to revisit. Also, one of the most common questions we at the Atheist Experience receive is: "As a new atheist, what books should I think about reading?" I always, always recommend Demon Haunted World first. It's not a book about atheism, it's a book about critical thinking, and in my opinion that is the first tool that recovering theists need to have no matter what their ultimate philosophical bent will be.

It's fun to revisit an old favorite. Reading chapter one, I read Carl Sagan's story about meeting a taxi driver who was full of wonder and enthusiasm in learning about the natural world... but unfortunately it was all misdirected into pseudoscience. Crystals, Atlantis, horoscopes, faith healing...he believed it all. Sagan suggest s that the man's passion for pseudoscience could have been -- should have been -- channeled into scientific curiosity from an early age. But unfortunately, his teachers failed to inspire wonder and excitement for science, which ultimately led him to swallow all these nonsensical claims in the thirst to feed his quest for "knowledge." Sagan waxes poetic about astronomy and biology, and he wonders why the driver hadn't ever managed to get so turned on by these real scientific subjects

Of course I love Carl Sagan's work and enjoy hearing his thoughts again, but after so many years of dealing with callers' misconceptions about science on a one-on-one basis, I was surprised to find the question a little bit naive. Actually, I think that it's easy to understand why pseudoscience beats real science, if you just think about the two concepts as competing memes.

Like all memes, concepts within both science and pseudoscience are in constant competition for brain space, and "try" (in a metaphorical sense) to infect as many minds as possible, and to stick in those minds in the long term. But the strategies they use are different. Science has one set of rules for survival, and pseudoscience has a different set. To put it another way, their fitness algorithm is different.

On one hand, a scientific meme lives or dies based on how closely it matches reality. If the meme is untestable, or if it directly conflicts with some known principle of reality, then it dies a gradual death. Researchers don't find it useful; don't propagate in their work; don't refer back to it in other peer reviewed papers; don't insert it as a critical fact in textbooks; and it is eventually forgotten (or else, like Lamarckian inheritance, it is remembered as a contrast to a meme that won).

On the other hand, a pseudoscience meme does not have any such restriction. Since there is no peer review in the world of pseudoscience, the concepts can only survive based on how many people like them. In other words, they survive solely by being compelling and interesting to a lot of people. So in the battle for headspace in the "wow that's cool" part of the brain, science is not going to win.

Of course I'm not saying that real science can't be exciting and interesting. Once you have a grounding in scientific inquiry, the process of measuring things against reality and studying all the complex information about the world we've accumulated can be very appealing. But I am saying that being exciting cannot be the criterion for judging science. if we threw out all the science it wasn't sexy then we'd lose a lot of important discoveries. Science is in the business of figuring out what's true, regardless of whether the facts are fun or not.

By contrast, pseudoscience is free to follow what TV Tropes calls "The Rule of Cool." If you are writing a novel, a show, or a movie, you create your own reality. In this reality, it doesn't matter whether something is scientifically accurate or not. All that matters in your own universe is what looks good on screen or in readers' heads. That's how you sell more books, tickets, and advertising space. Fake science is the same way.

How does this tendency to obey the Rule of Cool show up to the average follower? One thing that I notice about pseudoscience is that it personalizes concepts which, in science can be very difficult to relate to:

  • Astronomy allows you to chart the positions of the stars, painstakingly mapping their locations with mathematical formulas applied over centuries of data collection. Astrology tells you that if you know what month somebody is born in, you can know more about the personal qualities of yourself and your friends!
  • Evolution tells us that life, including human life, evolved due to complex but consistent patterns which only emerge after studying thousands of generations. Creationism says that a magic man in the sky created you special, because he wanted to love and care for you for ever and ever!
  • Neurologists study the movement of neurons and synapses on a microscopic level. Sylvia Brown says that I can talk to my dead love ones, even though their brain activity stopped decades ago!
  • A novel about what life was like in Atlantis? Cool! An investigation of the Mediterranean Ocean Sea showing that there was no such place? Not so cool!

I hope you see the point. Science can be cool, and often is cool. But pseudoscience has to be cool, or else it has no other reason to exist.

I'm not just trying to be negative. I think learning should be fun. I admire what Carl Sagan did in bringing real science to amateurs like us, and I think that education is always more effective when it's entertaining. At the same time, I think we shouldn't kid ourselves about what science is up against. People like to feel special. They like to feel connected. And for many people, it's much easier to believe in an exciting falsehood than in a less exciting well-tested theoretical framework.

Edit: In this post, I may have conveyed the mistaken impression that the ideas brought up were mine alone. This was clearly a case of my runaway ego. In reality, many of the points about the survival qualities of science vs. pseudoscience were brought up originally by Lynnea, without whom this post would not have been possible, as we discussed the book. In writing this, I may have unintentionally pre-empted a similar post that she was planning to put up on her own blog, which undoubtedly would have been excellent.


  1. Besides being "cool," something that all those pseudosciences have going for them is that they're related with stories. My kids are 14 and 10 now, and for the last several years I've realized that if you're telling kids something, facts are hard to relate to, but if you can spin the info into a story, it sinks into their heads much better.

    We have data that immunization cannot be the cause of autism (to any significant degree), because we have statistics from hundreds of thousands of immunized and non-immunized kids to compare, and both groups get autism at the same rate. You can tell people this until you're blue in the face, and it will be held in their brains up on an out-of-the way shelf where stats are kept. But if they hear a story about how some real people got their kid immunized and then the kid developed autism after that, that data goes right into the core of their brain - it's a story that they can relate to. One anecdote with a story completely overwhelms tons of hard cold data, unless that person has trained himself in the art of critical thinking, maybe not even then.

    The challenge is to figure out how to present skeptical info as a story. Carl Sagan was good at that - the part of that book that dealt with the invisible fire-breathing dragon is an excellent example of how to do it.

  2. Awesome post but... Mediterranean ocean? Most of my life living by its shore and never knew it got promoted from sea to ocean! ;-)

  3. I have thought the same thing when reading that part of the book (and hearing others say similar things). Science is full of fascinating stuff, but it is based on reality, not fantasies that were generally created to intentionally fill and provoke our human desires.

    I had a friend who literally cursed at me for introducing him to some skeptical podcasts because, while he was rational enough to reconsider a lot of his pseudo-scientific beliefs, he was very disappointed to have to do so because he loved so much of it.

  4. Corrected the post just for you, Xairo.

  5. But science is such hard work! Woo is much easier--and faster.

  6. Yep, getting away from reality by suspending disbelief is a wonderful rest from the world. The more unreal and enveloping the fantasy, the farther it takes you from the everyday, the better (as long as it's internally consistent. See Tolkien, J. R.) There's absolutely no need or desire for scientific accuracy.

  7. More than anything, I think that people want to be victims. They want to feel special, yes, but they love being the minority.

    Christians have a constant persecution complex. People see ads on TV that go, "Do you get dizzy sometimes? Do you ever get hungry in the middle of the day? Have trouble sleeping? THEN YOU HAVE DIZZY HUNGER SLEEP SYNDROME! BUY THIS PILL!" And people go, "YES I HAVE A DISEASE! I SUFFER FROM DHS!"

    People (white people) pretended to be more offended than black people when Imus called the Rutgers Women's Basketball team 'nappy headed hoes'

    And on and on. People want to be victims. And as Hitchens has said, religion is full of contempt for mankind. People WANT Judgement day. They WANT the apocalypse, because they were told that this life is meaningless.

    People want to be the victim, and that's why they love being anti scientific.

  8. "And for many people, it's much easier to believe in an exciting falsehood than in a less exciting well-tested theoretical framework."

    Easier? It doesn't require any critical thinking at all. That's why it's popular.

    It's wrong to define these things as "pseudoscience." They're just escapist fantasy. People would rather feel good than actually devote the time and effort it takes to really think about something.

  9. The point of this post is a key factor in my misanthropic nature. The preference for comfort over truth is a poison that too many people swallow, and frankly I can't help but feel more than a little frustrated by it.

  10. Great post. I recently bought the box set of Cosmos and am thoroughly enjoying watching it. I'm also in an ongoing discussion with my brother who is a creationist. It's frustrating work because his arguments always sound more emotionally appealing despite being ridiculous. I showed him some of Sagan's Cosmos, the part about the Haikke crabs with the faces of Samuri's on their shells. He had no explanation but assured me he would look into how to shove the data into his ideology (maybe my words here, but you get the idea). Keep up the great posts. One day I hope to be as fluent in rebuttals as you guys at TAE. But I'm pretty sure those JW's that knocked on my door last weekend won't be coming back.

  11. "Creationism says that a magic man in the sky created you special, because he wanted to love and care for you for ever and ever!"

    I have a hard time reading it. Should it be worded, 'a magic man in the sky created you specifically because he wanted to love and care for you for ever and ever!'?

  12. The Demon Haunted World is one of my favorite books! I like it so much that I recommend it to all my friends who are curious about atheism or skepticism. I find that it is a good introduction to a different way of thinking.

    I had never before thought about scientific and pseudoscientific memes this way. It makes me wonder if the key to turning science into "popular science" is in making the meme more interesting for the public.

  13. Good post. Demon Haunted World was a great book, and I loved its subtitle, "Science as a candle in the dark". I haven't read it for years, but I enjoyed it when I did.

    I think what drives irrationality is a bunch of different things. Part of it is the "cool" factor Russel referred to in his post. Part of it is the fact that it requires no thinking at all. But I can't help but feel that what is at the root of much of this is simple anthropomorphism. It seems to be hard-wired into us to make sense of the universe in a personal way, creating gods, demons, and destiny.

    Another issue is that people long to know that the world is fair, and things will work out somehow. Neither of these things are true, but most of us are desperate to believe that they are. Religion, mediums, and pseudo-science of all types thrives because it exploits this human weakness, and I doubt this is likely to change much in the future. Change form? Yes. Change in substance? Probably not.

  14. I'm a Ukrainian-born American citizen. I stopped believing in god about 6 months ago. I used to be a hardcore pentacostal nutjob. I believed the bible and I genuinely thought I was going to hell for shit I had done. There were always these 'temptations' I experienced every day and I felt like a hypocrite living two lives. At church I'd repent start fresh and feel on fire for jeebus once again. Then sometime in the week I'd fuck up again big time. I developed several paranoia's, one being that I would never be forgiven for certain sins I wasn't sure I had committed. It was a living hell, the tormenting thoughts, the 'thought battles' in my head fighting what I thought was satan. So of course the prospect of going to heaven and leaving all this behing sounded unbelievably great. I was as ignorant a fundie as they come. I'm in my mid 20's and part of my mind/character has been scarred big time because of this religion. I feel like the biggest dumb ass for all these wasted years on judging others and making a fool of myself to the real world. Only now am I relearning about how science really works and the benefits its given society. I don't know if I could ever reveal to my parents, especially my mother about my de-conversion. It would surely kill her. I know myself, what I used to be, how religion works and how hard it is to escape from its clutches... because of this understanding I don't hold much hope for mankind (just look at all the crazy people who died and continue pointlessly dying in the name of their religion and that's not mentioning those caught in the crossfire) Like George Carlin I am distancing myself from the bullshit and mostly can't help not giving a fuck about what happens to humanity, it seems like a fight that's already been lost... but if all you awesome atheists still care, keep fighting to show the truth to these hardheaded religious nuts. They can't help being what they are. I couldn't help being what I was. I even considered myself open-minded. I was fortunate enough to feel abandoned by god and the church community before the real truth slowly became clear. Metal music also helped clear up some misconceptions I had about this world (you know how they preach rock/metal is devil's music). When I went to my first metal concert I realized what I load of shit the 'devil's music' sermon was. It got me asking questions about my religion. Gradually over time certain events transpired, one thing lead to another lead to another and the rest is now history I don't believe there is a god/gods. I can't help but carry a resentment and even hatred for religion and the religious. Maybe this experience will help someone and maybe not. Goodnight.

  15. In some cases, like homeopathy, the appeal of psuedoscientific medicine is still there despite it being declared unfit for animals!!!

  16. "Awesome post but... Mediterranean ocean? Most of my life living by its shore and never knew it got promoted from sea to ocean! ;-) "

    Sea and ocean are not mutually exclusive. An ocean is a body of water covering exposed oceanic crust. The Caspian Sea is an ocean, as is the Black Sea. And while we subdivide it into smaller units (Atlantic, Pacific, Indian, Arctic, and Southern), they are all actually part of a single ocean.

    The Mediterranean Sea is actually only an ocean at some points in time (due to tectonic activity).

  17. Pseudoscience let's you live in a playful, peaceful, secure, delusional world where anything good is possible and there is a master plan for your life/soul. I know people like this to include my best friend and almost all of them have bad experiences in life prior to living this path. I think it's a rejection and sometimes a way to explain the harsh cruelties and the unfairness of reality(functions like a security blanket). I think pseudoscience and religion have some similarities of how they function to comfort people or provide security. I figure mostly all people really want in life is to feel good, secure and believe they are divinely special.

    My friends ask me why I would want to believe in atheism because they say it provides no comfort, doesn't help the homeless or do anything positive for the world.

  18. Beyond the cool factor, I think pseudo-science has something else going for it. We seem to be programmed (culturally of physiologically) to want things to defy the day-to-day explainable reality.

    Experiencing the same 'real' world day in day out for our entire lives makes us yearn for something more. We want something outside understanding which cannot be explained by the workaday science which surrounds us.

    We want to be party to "hidden secrets" of the universe - part of an arcane fan-club.

    Familiarity breeds contempt, and what could be more familiar than reality?

    Many of us, of course, consider this mentality is borderline pants-on-head-retarded, as there is so much left for science to illuminate, and so many incredible wonders which arise from that "mundane" reality, but for a large part of the populace, mysterious=awesomesauce!

  19. "...there is so much left for science to illuminate..."

    So much *left*? Real science is only now in its infancy. The past 500 years was only an Introduction.

  20. This is the kind of thought I always try to express to friends attached to pseudoscience, and I've finally found some arguments that might help me.

    Now, totally off-topic, I've just started an atheits blog here in Brazil, and many of the things I've seen in the show have fed me with arguments whenever discussing religion with theists is needed. Thanks a lot! Of course my blog is in portuguese, but whenever you guys have time for a "google translator" time, please do stop by and comment. Regards, (that means pens against swords)

  21. Making stuff up as you go along is much easier to understand than real science.

    BTW kazim is teh bestest fur da lulz.

  22. Hannanibal, I hope I generate intentional lulz rather than accidental ones. ;)

  23. Pseudoscience gives one the feeling that they have some control over life. Astrology with its complicated charts, homeopathy with its long personal life histories, UFOs with all the cover-up conspiracies, religion with its prayer. They all give the user the perception that if they study hard enough and want something bad enough, they will have some control over the vagaries of life.
    Also the chicks are cute and are easily swayed to jump into bed.

  24. This was an excellent post. I've read the Demon Haunted World and although there was something that bothered me about that taxi driver anecdote I could never pinpoint what it was.

    I think you and Lennea have hit the nail exactly on the head and suddenly it seems so obvious to me. Love the meme illustration, that really made things more clear.

    BTW, have you thought about submitting this to PZ as a guest post? It's sure to be exposed to a much larger audience there and this seems the kind of thing he might like.


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