Believing All The Wrong Things

In light of the ongoing measles outbreak within spitting distance of my new home, I’ve become more fascinated than ever about the human capacity to believe wrong things.

To be more precise, I’m not referring to believing things that seems obvious to a casual observer, like the Sun going around the Earth, or things we believe because we were informed incorrectly, like the myth that the Columbine shooters were “loners” who’d been bullied. The former requires centuries of scientific exploration to debunk; the latter was fed to us for years before reason and facts regained supremacy. No, I’m speaking of believing things that have been known to be false for generations, things for which the preponderance of evidence points in the opposite direction.

There is no shame in children believing in fairy tales if their parents present them as true. There is nothing inherently wrong with misunderstanding something complex or with being fooled by a trickster. The list of cognitive biases we’ve been saddled with by both evolution and our respective cultures is long and truly horrifying to a person promoting rationality.

But there should be shame in deliberately ignoring what amounts to an unassailable fact; for example, the fact that high vaccination rates prevent the spread of the particular malady against which we’re being vaccinated. There IS something inherently wrong with believing the wrong thing even when (1) the truth is easily available AND (2) the truth is obvious to casual observers. And there is something evil about putting children in danger due to parents’ intentionally wrong beliefs.

In Clark County, Washington, vaccination rates lag behind the state average, with only 78% of kindergarten students beginning school with the “required” immunizations. I put “required” in quotation marks because it turns out that the “requirement” is a sham. It turns out that in the state of Washington, just as in many other states, a parent can simply state his or her “belief” in falsehoods and thus bypass the requirements. In some school districts — just across the river from me — measles vaccination rates are as low as 72%. This for a disease that requires about a 95% rate to achieve herd immunity.

It’s not the children’s fault. Their parents have to sign the forms, stating a “personal” or “religious” reason to put their children at risk (and, by extension, to put other people’s children at risk). Note that “religious” and “personal” amount to the same thing here. There is nothing, and should be nothing, more inherently valuable about a religious belief than a personal belief.

With more than 50 cases of measles sprouting in our region, suddenly vaccination rates are soaring — by 500%! This means those personal/religious beliefs weren’t very strong after all. They only seemed like strong beliefs when measles wasn’t on the doorstep.

Now, I’m going to make a prediction. Within my lifetime, a lot of people who didn’t believe in global warming are going to be working very hard to combat its effects. But today, despite the overwhelming evidence, they’re going to do nothing. They’re still driving their 18-mile-per-gallon cars, even for walkable tasks like checking the mail or picking up kids from the bus stop. They’re still running their air conditioners at 65°F in the summer. (My new Portland friends won’t understand that unless they’ve visited homes and businesses in the warmer southern states, where you have to bring a jacket everywhere you go in the 100-degree summers because you’re going to end up someplace intentionally causing more global warming by running their A/C units at high power.)

Of course, the relative weight of the consequences makes a difference as to how wrong it is to believe a wrong thing. If you hold a false belief about the rules of a board game, the worst that’s going to happen is a minor argument among friends. It’s not important to me whether you ever correct that belief or why you held it in the first place.

But when your wrong belief can lead directly to the infection of dozens of children with measles or some other preventable disease, or when your intentionally wrong belief is currently leading toward a dystopian future world, then there is something fundamentally wrong with you for believing it.

Again, these are not topics over which there is legitimate debate. It’s not a “maybe” that vaccinations are effective; it’s a definite. It’s not a “well, we think” situation on climate change.

Above, I linked to a list of known cognitive biases, the ways our brains function that often mislead us. And there might be others as of yet undiscovered. I’m sure I’m susceptible to as many of them as you are. But it simply is not that difficult to come to the correct conclusions on massively important topics like disease prevention or combating climate change. The evidence is overwhelming and the paths forward are fairly clear. There is no excuse.


11 thoughts on “Believing All The Wrong Things

  1. So long as there are jerks like Alex Jones who make their living by spreading pure and unadulterated *crap,* you will have people who “believe all the wrong things.” Religion and its promoters are bad enough, but the twisted stories of the conspiracy advocates provide fodder for people who never set foot in a church.

    You’re totally correct about “wrong beliefs.” In the current situation, it’s affecting innocent children. In the long range, it’s going to affect everyone. But that sand around their head helps keep out the truth.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. >>There is no excuse.<< I appreciate this conclusion, but it's not a real answer to the question: how to we build a culture/society that is inclined to believe rational truth? I think about this all the time, and I don't know the answer either.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I would have written “there is no *defensible* excuse”, perhaps. And you’re correct that it isn’t an answer.

      “How do we build a culture/society that is inclined to believe rational truth?”

      I have no idea. As someone who (for far too long) believed irrational things — and I probably still have some leftover baggage from that time — I know that a foundation of loving science and rational thought was of much assistance, even if it took me a while to apply it correctly.

      One (trite, but still true) answer is “education”. Obviously, there is an undercurrent of opposition to education in our country, but I think most of us support *better* education. Underlying that is research into what makes education better/more effective. I have family members who are opposed to *both* education AND research, and I’m ashamed to be unable to convince them otherwise. But I know I benefited from a public education (substandard as it was) that thousands of my ancestors died without ever having received. I think we can improve it going forward.

      Another good answer, perhaps less trite, is journalism. I’m working on a blog entry about the effects of corporate activity in the news media, but I’m not sure which angles to attack. The massive layoffs of good journalists in a variety of worthwhile news outlets is scary; I fear that my grandchildren will live in a world where our only information comes from corporate “news releases” (also known as “free advertising”) and party-controlled press conferences.

      The combined attacks on *both* the above have me pessimistic about the future. :-/

      Liked by 1 person

    2. — “the question: how to we build a culture/society that is inclined to believe rational truth?” —

      This is a question many thinkers have tackled, and I’m not sure I’m up to it. I like Wil’s responses about education/journalism, though of course that can’t be all of it. I think maybe it’s the “we” part that is in question. If “we” means “all of us humans”, then education/journalism would probably be enough, but currently there are enough of us on the other side (working *against* rational thought) that “we” only includes a certain percentage.

      I don’t know that there IS a way to build that society against the active attacks of the anti-rationalists. :-/


  3. “But it simply is not that difficult to come to the correct conclusions on massively important topics like disease prevention or combating climate change.”

    One cognitive bias, perhaps, tells us that “I figured this out; therefore anyone who hasn’t yet is stupid or wrong”. I don’t know which bias that is, but I’m sure it is one. I know it took me a while to be convinced of global warming (I have always been convinced of vaccinations’ efficacy). Part of the reason it took me so long was the preponderance of bad information (to which Nan referred, above). For every article I saw that assumed global warming was real, I would see another one casting doubt on it.

    I think this is one reason I come down so hard on misleading journalism these days, because I personally resent how often Forbes or the Wall Street Journal or whoever intentionally misled me by factually incorrect articles and op-eds.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Fair enough. I truly don’t know what it’s like to be raised in a sea of indoctrination and false “facts”. You certainly have more experience in that area than I do. (And I do admire you for working your way out of it.)

      Liked by 1 person

  4. And when such people are claiming “religious reasons” if we accept those, we are saying that it is just too much bother to contest them. I suggest that there be a form that needs to be filled out stating the scriptures or opinions being used to support their religious objection. In the absence of those, then attestations from religious leaders as to the policy being followed could be provided. If it turns out that the “opinion” being proffered is not religious, just made up locally, then I think we have a right to prosecute those “leaders” for peddling lies.

    When I was growing up (I remember standing in line at our high school for the Salk vaccine against polio) there was no such widespread anti-vax movement. There is now and it is due to bullshit being spread on the Internet. Since the bullshitten are endangering our children, we should prosecute them for quackery or whatever.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. “…a form… stating the scriptures or opinions being used to support their religious objection…”

      Oh, that would be interesting. I don’t know what kind of form they currently have, but I *would* like to add my support for your idea. And the same thing should apply to those anti-everything court clerks who claim the Bible says they can’t sign their name to a court document approving a gay marriage. Because I have now read the Bible from cover-to-cover and can attest there is *nothing* in there forbidding a court clerk from signing “Kim Davis” to a marriage certificate for two men, or two women, or even two Martians. In fact, I did find scriptures encouraging followers to obey the dictates of civil government.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I’m still thinking about this, Anderson. And I came across this piece on Neurologica, talking about teaching “media literacy” and critical thinking, which is similar to what I mentioned above (more and better education). The problem, of course, is going to be actually getting this information to students — especially in red states where ignorance is promoted and valued, and science is treated as the enemy. 😦

    Liked by 1 person

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