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In this Gizmodo series, we ask questions about everything from space to butts and get answers from a variety of experts.
It’s difficult to change someone’s mind if they have anything like a strong opinion on the risks of vaccination, or the usefulness of orbs and essential oils in the treatment of late-stage liver cancer. But if you’re ever going to stand a chance of doing so, you’re going to need to wipe the rage-spittle off your face and set about the hard, not especially rewarding work of trying to understand these people. And so for this week’s Giz Asks, we reached out to a number of psychologists and historians who’ve studied the issue to figure out why people believe in pseudoscience.
Things - Truth - Quality - Idea - Advantage
It would be lovely to think that we believe things because they are true, and disbelieve them because they are false. And truth is, generally, a useful quality for an idea to have; it provides some competitive advantage in the battle for our hearts and minds. But it’s hardly the only criteria that makes an idea stick or spread. Beliefs persist when they perform some useful function for the individual or society that believes them. The work performed by a weird or false belief is often obvious when you think about it: People believe in get-rich-quick schemes because they’d really like to get rich quick. They believe in miracle cures because they want to be well. They believe in ghosts or séances because they don’t want their loved ones to be gone.
As a historian, the episodes that intrigue me most are the ones where the work performed by a given belief is not so obvious. In the 1890s, a few hundred Americans, most of them married women, left their homes and families to form a communal utopia in South Florida...
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