Bad Beliefs Don’t Die, So Why Try To Debunk Them?

I love this article by Gregory W. Lester, Why Bad Beliefs Don’t Die.

Please at least skim the article before reading here further. Here’s a brief quote:

First, skeptics must not expect beliefs to change simply as the result of data or assuming that people are stupid because their beliefs don’t change. They must avoid becoming critical or demeaning in response to the resilience of beliefs. People are not necessarily idiots just because their beliefs don’t yield to new information. Data is always necessary, but it is rarely sufficient.

Second, skeptics must learn to always discuss not just the specific topic addressed by the data, but also the implications that changing the related beliefs will have for the fundamental worldview and belief system of the affected individuals. Unfortunately, addressing belief systems is a much more complicated and daunting task than simply presenting contradictory evidence. Skeptics must discuss the meaning of their data in the face of the brain’s need to maintain its belief system in order to maintain a sense of wholeness, consistency, and control in life. Skeptics must become adept at discussing issues of fundamental philosophies and the existential anxiety that is stirred up any time beliefs are challenged. The task is every bit as much philosophical and psychological as it is scientific and data-based.

1. This is depressing because, say, ~80% of people are hardwired biologically to not be skeptical, to not be atheist, etc. They are literally hardwired to never even consider any facts that would challenge their world view.

2. So the Dawkins and Sam Harrises of the world are largely preaching only to the 20% of those who can be skeptics. They are preaching to either the converted choir or the potential choir member that is in the closet.


I used to think, well, if I hammer evidence, and reason, and systematically build my logical case, the listener has no choice but to agree.

Now, I think mainly that it is largely pointless.

Sure, try to debunk the obvious ripoff artists like Williamson and Martin do, that’s great work. (Two gents in Sarasota that debunked the Power Band craze at a mall here locally.)

Also, try to mobilize that ~20% who can be skeptical, mobilize and realize political power, do all we can to keep science in textbooks, keep state and church separate.

But beyond that, there’s 80% who will never buy a word of anything skeptical or atheist because their survival instinct tells them not to.

And Barbara G. Walker’s books are great, and we can only hope that they’ll reach the full ~20% of those who will be receptive. But more and more, I’m thinking that there is indeed a ceiling and 20% may be a generous estimate.

We stand on the shoulders of intellectual giants who came before us, and you can argue that Walker is one of our generation’s giants upon whose shoulders future generation’s giants shall stand even taller.

BUT, that 80% will not be affected one whit.

Is 80% to low of a number? Is it a fluid number, is it slowly creeping up from 5% in Puritanical American times? Are we slowly making progress?

I have no idea, but that 20% ceiling seems, to me, and although probably subjectively put there, lurking in the distance, and quite possibly immovable.

I’d love if anyone wants to chime in with a view or views, or to take my nihilism depressing take to task.

I’ll leave you with the end of Lester’s article.

Finally, it should be comforting to all skeptics to remember that the truly amazing part of all of this is not that so few beliefs change or that people can be so irrational, but that anyone’s beliefs ever change at all. Skeptics’ ability to alter their own beliefs in response to data is a true gift; a unique, powerful, and precious ability. It is genuinely a “higher brain function” in that it goes against some of the most natural and fundamental biological urges. Skeptics must appreciate the power and, truly, the dangerousness that this ability bestows upon them. They have in their possession a skill that can be frightening, life-changing, and capable of inducing pain. In turning this ability on others it should be used carefully and wisely. Challenging beliefs must always be done with care and compassion.

1 comment
  1. On the other hand – the british just did a study where almost 75% of the population admitted to being nonbelievers. So, I think yeah – people may be hard wired to not change their minds easily. On the other hand, they change their minds all the time.

    For me, I came to terms with this years ago. Don’t try to convert, try to promote goodness and for me that is Humanism. I asked this question at the first Humanist conference I spoke to. Would you rather have a world full of atheists or a world full of people who shared your values. For me, I choose the later. Because a) I don’t think it’s possible to convert people to atheism and b) I don’t think it would necessarily make the world a better place.

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