"Belief comes naturally and quickly; skepticism is slow and unnatural"


The March issue of Scientific American contains an article by Michael Shermer that cites a study published in the December 2007 Annals of Neurology:

This research supports Spinoza’s conjecture that most people have a low tolerance for ambiguity and that belief comes quickly and naturally, whereas skepticism is slow and unnatural. The scientific principle of the null hypothesis—that a claim is untrue unless proved otherwise—runs counter to our natural tendency to accept as true what we can comprehend quickly.
Shermer is a professional skeptic, and perhaps takes his skepticism farther than I would; I'm not sure that he is necessarily a fan of religion in general, for example. That being said, I think if it is the case that most people have a low tolerance for ambiguity, then he raises an interesting point, one that explains a great deal about the appeal of religious fundamentalism, with its lack of tolerance for ambiguity, metaphor, uncertainty and symbolism. But with Easter just around the corner, I think it also explains how it is that many people can come to believe that 2000 years ago a corpse was resuscitated, walked around for 40 days, and then apparently without even so much as a jetpack on his back was lifted vertically off the earth into the sky into a heavenly realm that is physically located above the clouds.


Jaume said...

This is very strange. The scientific principle of null hypothesis is not what Shermer says, but the opposite. As the Wikipedia says, "the null hypothesis is presumed true until statistical evidence, in the form of a hypothesis test, indicates otherwise — that is, when the researcher has a certain degree of confidence, usually 95% to 99%, that the data does not support the null hypothesis." So it is not veracity that needs to be proved, but falsehood (of course, the question must be also "provable", otherwise it cannot be proved in either way).

Danny said...

Statistic are always so complicated. Things like the null hypothesis are important, and I wish people would not throw statistics around so often like it "proves" on of their theories. Numbers are easily manipulated, and I do think we need to be carefully how quickly we trust them.

Gary said...

I thought about this post as I was visiting a conservative evangelical church I used to attend. It was a strange experience, akin to eating food you once enjoyed but no longer find pleasing - you recognize the flavour, but it's just plain bland. Same old recycled words and songs. Ambiguity, metaphor, uncertainty and symbolism had no place there.

Mystical Seeker said...


I'm not sure what to make of the Wikipedia article as it applies to the author's comments. Perhaps he is arguing that the alternative hypothesis, the one that requires 95% confidence, is the one that people accept easily?


Once you've moved away from a conservative evangelical world view, it does indeed seem a little bit bland to the taste. Once you've let the genie out of the intellectual bottle, it is hard to go back (how's that for a metaphor?)