By Michael Shermer via latimes.com
With the passing of the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy last week, and the accompanying fusillade of documentaries purporting to prove there was a conspiracy behind it, we might expect (and hope) that cabalistic conjecturing will wane until the next big anniversary.
Don’t count on it. A poll this month found that 61% of Americans who responded still believe that JFK was the victim of a conspiracy, despite the fact that the preponderance of evidence points to Lee Harvey Oswald as the lone assassin.
Why do so many people refuse to accept this simple and obvious conclusion? The answer: psychology.
There are three psychological effects at work here, starting with “cognitive dissonance,” or the discomfort felt when holding two ideas that are not in harmony. We attempt to reduce the dissonance by altering one of the ideas to be in accord with the other. In this case, the two discordant ideas are 1) JFK as one of the most powerful people on Earth who was 2) killed by Lee Harvey Oswald, a lone loser, a nobody. Camelot brought down by a curmudgeon.
That doesn’t feel right. To balance the scale, conspiracy elements are stacked onto the Oswald side: the CIA, the FBI, the KGB, the Mafia, Fidel Castro, Lyndon Johnson and, in Oliver Stone’s telling in his film “JFK,” the military-industrial complex.
Cognitive dissonance was at work shortly after Princess Diana‘s death, which was the result of drunk driving, speeding and no seat belt. But princesses are not supposed to die the way thousands of regular people die each year, so the British royal family, the British intelligence services and others had to be fingered as co-conspirators.
By contrast, there is no cognitive dissonance for the Holocaust — one of the worst crimes in history committed by one of the most criminal regimes in history.
A second psychological effect is the “monological belief system,” or “a unitary, closed-off worldview in which beliefs come together in a mutually supportive network,” in the words of University of Kent researchers Michael J. Wood, Karen M. Douglas and Robbie M. Sutton in a 2012 paper titled “Dead and Alive: Beliefs in Contradictory Conspiracy Theories.” A conspiracy theory, they wrote, is “a proposed plot by powerful people or organizations working together in secret to accomplish some (usually sinister) goal.” Once you believe that “one massive, sinister conspiracy could be successfully executed in near-perfect secrecy [it] suggests that many such plots are possible.”
With this cabalistic paradigm in place, conspiracies can become “the default explanation for any given event.” For example . . .
Nearly half of Americans are sure that life began no more than 10,000 years ago [Diethelm]. This would have humans and dinosaurs co-existing, make carbon-dating a fraud and outright dismiss any evidence of evolution.
Creationists are not alone. About one-fifth of Americans believe vaccines can cause autism, even after the discovery that the study data used to make the connection was faked [Gross, CNN]. A 2010 Gallop poll found that half of the U.S. population thinks human actions have nothing to do with climate change, despite the countless studies linking the effect to CO2 emissions [Rettig].
Don’t forget these, either: Smoking does not cause cancer; sex positions can help you conceive your gender of choice; raw milk can’t really do any harm.
The thinking might be rational in people who don’t buy science at all — no germs leading to illness, no evolution or genetic code, no “heat-retention” nonsense. But in those who do believe in the principles of science, in the scientific method and in most of its conclusions, how does this happen?
Psychologists call it “belief perseverance,” and it’s a widely studied phenomenon. All of us fall prey to it to some extent, but some people are more prone to it than others.
What exactly is at work here? To put it very simply, the human mind will go to great lengths to keep the peace.
Now That’s Perseverance
At the Flat Earth Society Web site, an open membership list reveals a group about 500 strong, all of whom apparently believe the society’s core theory: “Earth is a flat disk centered at the North Pole and bounded along its southern edge by a wall of ice, with the sun, moon, planets, and stars only a few hundred miles above the surface of the Earth”
On Dec. 22, 1954, some of those cult members felt pretty foolish. But, to the shock of psychologist Leon Festinger, who had been studying the cult, others went the opposite way: They believed even more strongly than they had before the prophecy failed. In fact, to these true believers, the prophecy had not failed at all. They, the cult members, had managed to stop the flood with the power of their faith [Mooney]. That there was no flood was proof that they were right to believe.
In 1957, Festinger coined the term cognitive dissonance to describe what he had seen.
Also See: the Flat Earth Society
- Are there secret messages in da Vinci’s ‘The Last Supper’? (illuminutti.com)
- Fill Thy Vat of Knowledge! (stressingoutcollege.wordpress.com)
We all do it. In fact, we are generally very good at it. Smart and educated people are better at it.
Rationalizing is a daily practice, part of the “default mode” of human thinking. We make up reasons to justify believing what we want to believe. Often we are only dimly aware of why we want to believe something, the calculus largely occurring in the subconscious depths of our brains.
We defend beliefs because they are pleasing to our egos, because they minimize cognitive dissonance, and just because they are our beliefs. They resonate with our world-view, our internal model of reality.
We have at our disposal a long list of logical fallacies that we can marshal to the defense of our beliefs. Notions that are based on solid evidence and logic do not require such vigorous defense. Those beliefs that cannot be defended by logic and evidence require that bad logic and bad data be invoked to defend them. Luckily we have no problem distorting and cherry picking facts and twisting logic into pretzels.
One very common bit of bad logic is called special pleading. I think it is common because it is so insidious – it creeps up on us unaware. Special pleading is the process of inventing a special reason to explain away inconvenient evidence or the lack of predicted evidence.
Take, for example, ESP research.
Keep reading: NeuroLogica Blog » ESP Special Pleading.