The Psychology of Heretics

I have been wondering why otherwise thoughtful, talented and highly educated people adopt beliefs which are difficult to defend.
This triggered by interest in a book by Will Storr called Heretics – Adventures with the Enemies of Science (London: Picador, 2013). The talented journalist and author looks at believers in homeopathy, deniers of climate change, those who believe hearing voices is a natural phenomenon and can be treated by listening to the voices and talking back rather than psychiatric treatments and many others. Why this book is interesting is because it seeks to understand the psychological process by which someone develops and clings to a view despite the fact that the evidence and science is against them.
Paul Krugman, the Nobel Prize winning economist, has also been exploring this theme in his New York Times blog site and in some of his columns. He wonders why, in the face of irrefutable evidence that they are wrong, those who support austerity in Europe continue to do so. He also wonders why economists who are convinced that quantitative easing as practiced by the US Federal Reserve will “obviously” lead to inflation when in fact there is no evidence supporting this view.
Storr suggests and discusses these conclusions:
  1. We each develop, for those issues in which we have an interest, a mental model of reality and truth – our map of salience. This map is based on a variety of things – education, experience, observation, the views of individuals who are significant to us, opposition to the views of those we dislike and so on.
  2. As we develop a map of salience, we seek out (consciously or unconsciously) evidence which reinforces our map and exclude or dispute that which does not. That is, we seek out selective evidence in support of our map of salience. This process in psychology is known as confirmation bias.
  3. The longer we build our map of salience, the more it becomes our “virtual reality” – the way we see this issue or range of issues. Those who believe in homeopathy cannot imagine their world view to be wrong – “homeopathy can cure cancer!” (it can not, and in several countries it is illegal to make this claim as a practitioner of homeopathy).
  4. We don’t stop just at selective evidence gathering. We also create evidence by telling ourselves or sharing stories we understand to be true, even thought they are not. For example, the stories told by those who have been abducted by aliens or have seen UFOs. These stories are powerfully held, told and shared and those who tell them are unshakable in their belief that they are true. This, we can refer to as “confabulation”  – defined as “to fill in gaps in one’s memory with fabrications that one believes to be facts”.
  5. But we are not finished. Individuals then begin to practice what we psychologists call the “sense stopping rule”.  We ignore everything that runs counter to our map of salience and our confabulated stories (confirmation bias) and we scrutinize evidence from our opponents more rigorously than we scrutinize our own claims, data, and stories – that is, we are simply unwilling to accept a different map of salience from our own.
Storr’s book is written as a narrative of his encounter with mavericks, heretics, and hucksters. Its not an easy book to read, but it is insightful. He suggests that “the world as we know it began in the 18th century” with the development of an understanding of the scientific method and process and the growth of the Enlightenment. Science rescued man from the tyranny of beliefs alone and enabled mankind to test their understanding of the world in systematic, thorough, and very focused ways. Through science, mankind has been able to develop a set of maps of salience which are routed in evidence which is independent of belief systems, confirmation bias , the sense stopping rule, and confabulation. At least we think it is.
When scientists begin to show signs of confabulation, confirmation bias, and the sense stopping rule – what do we now do? This is Paul Krugman’s point. When this occurs, our trust in the particular scientist (in this case an economist) and, more generally, in science begins to be eroded.
One of my own problems with some climate scientists is their growing use of confabulation; their clear bias on the basis of “consensus” and the evidence of sense stopping. Not all of the climate scientists can be seen to practice these things, but some significant players can. Just as Paul Krugman wonders what the “science” of economics will become when we have these behaviours occurring, so do I wonder what will become of science itself.
By Stephen Murgatroyd -