Why Do People Believe in Pseudoscience?

By Daniel Kolitz on at

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 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.


Robert MacDougall

Associate Professor, History, University of Western Ontario, who studies the history of science and pseudoscience in nineteenth-century America

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 called the Koreshan Unity, dedicated to the proposition that the earth is hollow—and we live on the inside. It is hard to see just what benefit the Koreshans got out of this belief, until you dig deeper to find that they also called for the strict equality of the sexes, and for permanent celibacy for all. “Believe in the hollow earth and you never have to have sex again.”

Not all ideas are created equal. History and psychology both suggest that we cling most tenaciously to our beliefs, even the false ones, when they support some narrative about who we think we are. That’s why there is always a bull market for ideas that seem to justify injustice, like the racist pseudoscience of the 19th and early 20th centuries or, I would argue, climate change denialism today. Slaveholders, and CEOs, want reassurance that they’re not bad people. This goes for those of us who believe in good science, too. I have seen a few scientific theories tested first-hand; I find aeroplanes and penicillin pretty convincing. But let’s be honest: I also believe in science because I see myself as the kind of person who believes in science. This confirms my own view of myself as rational and well educated, and it conforms with the views of people I respect. A twenty-first century flat earther (there are no Koreshan-style hollow earthers today, that I know of) is drawn to that belief because of their own self-concept, as an iconoclast who cannot be fooled by authority figures like science teachers or experts on TV. I remain confident the earth is round. But the flat earthers and I are both motivated less by our view of the planet than by our views of our own ourselves.

That’s why you can’t fight flat earthers or anti-vaxxers or any other brand of pseudoscience with arguments from authority. If you want to combat false belief, you have to ask, “What work is this belief doing for the person who holds it?” Then you start from there.

“It would be lovely to think that we believe things because they are true, and disbelieve them because they are false... But it’s hardly the only criteria that makes an idea stick or spread.”

Christopher French

Professor of Psychology and Head of the Anomalistic Research Unit at Goldsmiths University, who specialises in the psychology of paranormal beliefs and experiences, cognition and emotion

Most people do not have a good understanding of real science, and can therefore be taken in if a claim is presented in ‘science-y’ language. Thus purveyors of medical pseudoscience will freely use terms like energy, vibrations, frequencies, resonance and so on in describing their interventions but none of these terms are being used in the precise way that a physicist would use them.

Many pseudoscientists will also refer to the latest ideas in real science to imply that their claims are derived from the latest cutting-edge theories. One example would be claiming that homeopathy is consistent with quantum mechanics despite the fact that, in reality, homeopathy is not consistent with any accepted scientific theory and, furthermore, there is no convincing evidence that it has any therapeutic value over and above that of a placebo.

This highlights another feature of pseudoscience: its supporters choose to completely ignore all evidence which undermines their claims, often providing spurious reasons for doing so. These reasons often include the following: (a) your so-called science is too crude to measure the effects involved, (b) your test was based upon a flawed understanding of the pseudoscientific theory, and (c) you have to get the conditions just right for the effects to occur and you failed to do so. In fact these reasons are simply in-built loopholes that allow the pseudoscientist to avoid any possibility of claims being falsified.

Some pseudosciences are inherently non-falsifiable. A good example would be so-called Scientific Creationism. To allow the dismissal of all scientific evidence suggesting that the earth is much older than the few thousand years that Young Earth Creationists believe, the claim is made that God created the earth with that evidence of a prior existence already in place (e.g., fossils in rocks, light in transit from distant stars, rings in trees in the Garden of Eden). Such inherent non-falsifiability is a guarantee that one is dealing with a pseudoscience.

Finally, pseudosciences are popular so because they often provide people with beliefs that they would like to be true—anything from miracle cures to the existence of a benevolent God to life after death and much else besides. Confirmation bias, the most ubiquitous and powerful of all cognitive biases, combined with poor critical thinking skills does the rest.

“If you want to combat false belief, you have to ask, ‘What work is this belief doing for the person who holds it?’ Then you start from there.”

Corinne Zimmerman

Professor, Psychology, Illinois State University

and Emilio Lobato

Doctoral Student, Cognitive and Information Sciences, University of California, Merced

We argue that we don’t need to appeal to any special psychological mechanisms to understand why people believe pseudoscientific claims or reject scientific claims.

Every person relies on an assortment of mental shortcuts that make getting through the day easier, but we do so at some cost to accurately understanding the world. Many of these mental shortcuts are known as “cognitive biases” and pseudoscientific beliefs often exploit common cognitive biases that we all engage in from time to time.

For example, a common bias involves what’s called “teleological thinking,” which just means that people look out into the world and try to understand things they experience in terms of functions or purposes. This makes sense when you realise that our lives are filled with people who do things for purposeful reasons and whose behaviours often serve some function. So, it is easy to think that biological or physical phenomena also exist for some purpose rather than as a consequence of how physical, chemical, or biological processes just happen. Clouds don’t exist “for raining,” but that is an easier concept for most people to grasp than the description of energy exchange and matter transformations involved in “the water cycle.” And most people don’t need to understand the water cycle to live their lives, so there’s very little pressure to accurately understand why clouds exist. Likewise, understanding the myriad processes and mechanisms of biological evolution is far more complicated than a belief that life was purposefully created by some powerful being, so the collection of pseudoscience beliefs under the umbrella terms “creationism” and “intelligent design” are common despite all scientific evidence to the contrary.

Another cognitive bias that we all share is a tendency to engage in “essentialist thinking,” which is a bias to try to understand categorical differences as being due to some fundamental and unchanging essence of the categories. This tendency makes sense sometimes, because there are essential differences between, for instance, animate objects and inanimate objects and between living and nonliving entities. But some pseudoscientific claims take advantage of our bias to engage in essentialist thinking and claim essential differences between, for instance, the mathematical capabilities of men and women, or immutable differences in intelligence between various racial categories. In fact, most “scientific racism,” or the pseudoscientific belief that there are intrinsic differences in the superiority or inferiority of particular racial groups, rests largely on taking this common bias towards essentialist thinking to support logically and scientifically absurd conclusions.

We also have a bias to trust in the testimony of others that develops early childhood, and continues into adulthood. As adults, we tend to take the default position that what we are being told is truthful unless we have reason to assume someone is lying or trying to deceive us. All cognitive biases allow people to end up with a “good enough” understanding of their world rather than a sophisticated understanding of the world. And there are a lot of cognitive biases—we have only mentioned a few. Because cognitive biases do make navigating the world easier, even at a cost to accuracy, many pseudoscience beliefs tend to be examples of an extreme version of one or a combination of cognitive biases.

“Isaac Newton may be more famous today for his path-breaking contributions to physics and mathematics, but he devoted a considerable part of his life to alchemy, including the quest for the Philosopher’s Stone that would convert base metals into gold or silver.”

Dean Keith Simonton

Distinguished Professor Emeritus, Psychology, University of California

People may have many different motives for subscribing to pseudoscientific beliefs. Sometimes the purpose is to defend a more fundamental belief system, as when biblical literalists find themselves obliged to support creationism. Other times the anti-scientific ideas ensue out of wishful thinking, or even a desperate hope. Too many tragic examples can be found among the numerous miracle cures for cancers that as yet have no cures. Perhaps a personal belief in astrology often has a similar if more mild function: the desire to exert control over the uncontrollable. At the very least, the daily horoscope gives life meaning that it might not otherwise enjoy.

As a scientist, I find another manifestation of pseudoscientific beliefs far more fascinating, namely, when scientists themselves believe them! Isaac Newton may be more famous today for his path-breaking contributions to physics and mathematics, but he devoted a considerable part of his life to alchemy, including the quest for the Philosopher’s Stone that would convert base metals into gold or silver. Johannes Kepler was not only a great mathematician and astronomer, but also a notable astrologer who earned money casting horoscopes. Linus Pauling may have won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, yet he also advocated mega-doses of vitamin C to cure cancer. Although I am personally sceptical about the empirical support for parapsychological phenomena, many reputable scientists have not shared that scepticism, including psychology’s own William James.

How are these apparent aberrancies even possible? As in the previous examples, the causes are probably multiple. To start with, the boundary between science and pseudoscience is often not absolute, and therefore it’s subject to individual interpretation. Moreover, that boundary frequently shifts over time, so pseudosciences can become sciences, and sciences can become pseudosciences. In the former case, alchemy evolved into chemistry, courtesy of Antoine Lavoisier and others. In the latter case, Franz Josef Gall’s pioneering research in neuroscience, including the localisation of mental functions in the brain, eventually turned into the untenable enterprise of phrenology. Finally, we must admit that scientists are just people and accordingly may sometimes betray certain cognitive “blind spots” that prevent them from realising the unscientific status of their own ideas. Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theory offers more than one example. Just ask his mother!

Scott O. Lilienfeld

Professor, Psychology, Emory College, and the editor of Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology, among other books

Our minds tend to seek out and detect patterns; that’s basically an adaptive tendency, as it helps us to make sense of our often bewildering worlds and to avoid danger. We are prone to seeing order in disorder and sense in nonsense. For example, when we eat a meal and feel sick soon afterwards, we try to think about what we ate that might have given us food poisoning. That’s entirely reasonable. But the tendency to find meaningful patterns in data can also lead us to erroneous conclusions, such as vast conspiracy theories or the belief that vaccines cause autism. In these cases, we are usually perceiving systematic associations that aren’t there. We also shouldn’t underestimate the role of emotion. Many of us are drawn to pseudoscientific beliefs, such as belief in spirit mediums, because we understandably yearn to make contact with our departed loved ones. Many of these beliefs also afford us a sense of control, even if this sense is illusory; for example, astrological horoscopes reassure us that we can forecast the otherwise unpredictable events of the forthcoming day. We all harbour deep-seated wishes for greater hope and control over our lives, so it’s not surprising that many of us are prone to these beliefs.

“When it comes to medical pseudoscience, I think people get duped because charlatans use medical terminology and science-y sounding words that the average person cannot recognise as gobbledegook.”

Britt Hermes

Former naturopathic doctor who became a critic of naturopathy and alternative medicine

In brief, I don’t think people believe in pseudoscience, so much as fall prey to it.

When it comes to medical pseudoscience, I think people get duped because charlatans use medical terminology and science-y sounding words that the average person cannot recognise as gobbledegook; patients turn away from medicine when they are feeling hopeless, lost, and frustrated with the medical system (there is research showing a correlation between cancer patients feeling hopeless and out of control and the embrace of alternative cancer therapies); and medicine does not (yet) deal well with hard to explain, or frankly inexplicable, medical conditions. This can leave patients feeling desperate and particularly vulnerable to alternative therapies. I think this is one reason why you have patients with chronic fatigue, as an example of a hard to treat chronic condition, turning to therapies like homeopathy and naturopathy. They are willing to try anything, and think, “what’s the harm?”

Unfortunately, alternative medicine can be quite dangerous. The therapies can be understudied, or not studied at all. When an alternative therapy has been researched, the research generally shows these alternatives are ineffective. Patients spending time and money on alternative therapies may be missing an important treatment window and diverting limited resources away from effective medical care. Sadly, patients with non-life threatening conditions, like eczema, have died from using alternative therapies [case] under the false assumption that if something is natural, it is safe.

Julia Shaw

Psychological scientist and the author of The Memory Illusion: Remembering, Forgetting, and the Science of False Memory

Some of the biggest reasons why we are misled include:

(1) Distracted by jargon. We are not well versed in how a particular kind of science works and so are misled by scientific sounding terms (like those used in homeopathy).

(2) Trusting the underdog. We have conspiratorial thinking about an area (like not trusting ‘big Pharma’) which makes us not trust the larger scientific body in that area, and instead place trust in who we perceive to be scientific underdogs (for example, anti-vaxxers).

(3) Wishful thinking. We really want something to be true, and our wishful thinking clouds our judgement (like wanting there to be a cure for an incurable disease).

(4) Never thought to check. We accept incorrect information because it comes from a source we generally trust—like a friend or relative or teacher—and we never check whether the information is correct.

(5) Trusting ourselves too much. When we struggle to understand something, particularly in an area where we feel we have some basic knowledge, we may assume that the others are wrong or dangerous (like assuming that GMOs are inherently bad).

We need to be careful not to assume that pseudoscientific thinking is limited to people who are not well educated or who are not intelligent, instead realising that almost all of us have at least a few of these beliefs and trying to actively rid ourselves of them whenever we can.

Featured image: Illustration: Elena Scotti (Photos: Shutterstock)