Why Bad Beliefs Don’t Die: A Skeptics' Nightmare
Because beliefs are designed to enhance our ability to survive, they are biologically designed to be strongly resistant to change. To change beliefs, skeptics must address the brain’s “survival” issues of meanings and implications in addition to discussing their data.
Because a basic tenet of both skeptical thinking and scientific inquiry is that beliefs can be wrong, it is often confusing and irritating to scientists and skeptics that so many people’s beliefs do not change in the face of disconfirming evidence. How, we wonder, are people able to hold beliefs that contradict the data?
This puzzlement can produce an unfortunate tendency on the part of skeptical thinkers to demean and belittle people whose beliefs don’t change in response to evidence. They can be seen as inferior, stupid, or crazy. This attitude is born of skeptics’ failure to understand the biological purpose of beliefs and the neurological necessity for them to be resilient and stubbornly resistant to change. The truth is that for all their rigorous thinking, many skeptics do not have a clear or rational understanding of what beliefs are and why even faulty ones don’t die easily. Understanding the biological purpose of beliefs can help skeptics to be far more effective in challenging irrational beliefs and communicating scientific conclusions.
This means that beliefs are designed to operate independent of sensory data. In fact, the whole survival value of beliefs is based on their ability to persist in the face of contradictory evidence. Beliefs are not supposed to change easily or simply in response to disconfirming evidence.
This means that even seemingly small, inconsequential beliefs can be as integral to the brain’s experience of survival as are beliefs that are “obviously” connected to survival. Thus, trying to change any belief, no matter how small or silly it may seem, can produce ripple effects through the entire system and ultimately threaten the brain’s experience of survival. This is why people are so often driven to defend even seemingly small or tangential beliefs.