Rationally Speaking

A monthly e-column by Massimo Pigliucci
Department of Botany, University of Tennessee

N. 1, August 2000 - "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.


Next Month: "The Place of Science,"
a critique of religionist Huston Smith

© by Massimo Pigliucci, 2000