Something good came from watching Penn & Teller’s little presentation “The Bible is bullshit!” (I feel obliged to give the link, but please, don’t mistake it for a recommendation) Penn & Teller brought on Michael Shermer, founder of the Skeptics Society and editor of Skeptic magazine, to support various points of their humble assertion. An insight made near the end of this presentation reminded me why I’ve always liked Shermer. It’s an observation explained in detail in his book Why People Believe Weird Things, which I intend to pick up and read one of these days.
For those of us in the business of debunking bunk and explaining the unexplained, this is what I call the Hard Question: why do smart people believe weird things? My Easy Answer will seem somewhat paradoxical at first:
Smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons.
Those reasons can include family influences, societal pressures, educational experiences, emotional inclinations, etc. We are all baptized almost at birth with a myriad of such prejudices which are not easily thrown off. Smart people are particularly adept at defending and rationalizing the ones that they keep. They may be unaware of the cognitive biases at work in their favor.
It’s a common mistake of many atheists, skeptics, and debunkers to assume that belief in religion, superstition, or the paranormal can be attributed to lack of intelligence on the part of the believer. In fact, as Shermer has explained, intelligence is orthogonal to belief. Never assume that because somebody you know believes in something irrational that he/she must be stupid. It may be that the opposite is the case.