Things we believe, despite mountains of data disproving them

10 May

by Kristy

Birthers believe that Obama wasn’t born in the US, Creationists believe in a divine story of why humans walk the Earth, conspiracy theorists conspire, psuedoscientific claims abound, alien watchers scope the skies, and people spend fortunes on psychic chat lines.  Why do we want to believe so badly, that we ignore the convincing evidence to the contrary?  Sure, this is a controversial topic, and my list could be a top 500 instead of a top 5, but here we go…

Top things we believe, despite mountains of data disproving them:

1. Psychics, Aura readers, Reiki practitioners and the like.  The most troubling aspect of these beliefs is the money they cost.  All these treatments are expensive (as are any “medical” treatments that may accompany them – see #5 below), and despite centuries trying to prove that the supernatural is super natural, there is not an inch of data to support it.  The most outrageous claim?  Psychic water, of course.  One interesting aspect of these examples is the phenomenon where people cling even tighter to beliefs when they are challenged, or when their doubts are raised.

2. Where are we in the solar system?  As the film “A Private Universe” uniquely displays, many intelligent children can’t wrap their minds around the solar system, how seasons occur, and what causes an eclipse. Is it a failure of the educational system?  A short-circuit in our cognition?  Or is it exemplary of our willingness to believe what is comfortable and easy, instead of what is real?

3. Aliens visit our planet.  This site does the debunking better than I ever could. While I appreciate that there are many unanswered questions in our universe, I prefer to live by the tenet: You don’t use science to show you’re right, you use it to become right.

4. Conspiracy Theories.  The popularity of conspiracy theories has to be because they are so intriguing by nature.  Of course we want to ponder over riddles and try to solve the puzzle ourselves…Who was behind the assassination of JFK?  Was 9/11 a government conspiracy? Is the fluoride in the drinking water killing us? Check out two of my favorite rock-star skeptics, Michael Shermer and James Randi, talking about conspiracy theories and other pseudoscientific claims.

5. Homeopathy and other dangerous medical beliefs.  At a recent party (with mostly people I did not know), I was enveloped in a conversation with someone whose outfit I had complimented.  As a result, we were thrust into a conversation during which I learned that she is in the medical profession, and believes that tapping ‘meridian zones’ on someone’s head will shrink their brain tumors.  How do I possibly respond to something like this?  We had already discussed exciting research into how stress affects our health, the power of meditation in recovery, and the new science of the ‘exposome’ (or the chemicals we are exposed to in our lifetime which could interact with our genetic predisposition, thereby leading to disease).  These are all areas deserving greater inquiry before they become part of accepted medical knowledge, but they are promising aspects of what is often termed complimentary/alternative medicine. On the other hand, it would be incredibly simple (and relatively inexpensive) to test the hypothesis that tapping on someone’s head shrinks brain tumors.  Cancer scientists are not as averse to complementary medicine or thinking-outside-the-box as the public would like to believe, and they surely would have tested this if there was a way it could relieve suffering or make neurosurgery any easier.  On the ride home from the party, I nearly subjected my friends to a tirade about quack medical beliefs, but I resisted.  Why do I care so much?  Because false beliefs like those in this list are dangerous and contagious.  Scientists rarely sell their ideas, only pseudoscience is avidly marketed and advertised, so it travels farther, and faster. Isn’t it better to understand what has been investigated and tested, and what the current state of knowledge looks like?  To me, this is far preferable than blindly choosing a belief system, on either side of the debate.

{I find homeopathy to be the most outright quack claim.  See the book Suckers, for a great account of these false medical beliefs, and the “not an inch of data” link under #1 for a James Randi video about homeopathy.}

A few additional thoughts:

– acupuncture and meditation are two so-called ‘alternative/complementary’ practices which DO have a lot of data to support them.  Reputable sources of evidence-based alternative/complementary medicine:

Andrew Weil’s Center at University of Arizona

National Institutes of Health NCCAM

the best drug out there: no side effects, low cost, extremely effective at combating many ailments

** A great list of Skeptic web resources can be found here


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2 responses to “Things we believe, despite mountains of data disproving them

  1. Don

    May 10, 2011 at 6:06 pm

    Noun: An adherent of an ideology, esp. one who is uncompromising and dogmatic

    Just because you have never experienced something doesn’t mean it’s not possible for it to be experienced.

    When an ostrich sticks it’s head in a hole, the world doesn’t disappear just because she can’t see it.

    Go read Plato’s Allegory of the Cave.

  2. tyrannosauruslists

    May 10, 2011 at 6:11 pm

    ha! Was waiting for you to be the Yin to my Yang, Donald… thanks for pulling through.

    I would argue that the true ‘adherents of an ideology’ are people who believe #1-5. I, on the other hand, am eager to look critically and understand reality, not fantasy. (this is not to say I understand everything, because obviously I am as ignorant as the next chum…I’m just eager for the search)

    Love that we’ve sparked a debate… ’twas my intent!


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