man with conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns
away. Show him facts and figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic
and he fails to see your point… presented with evidence - unequivocal and
undeniable evidence - that his belief is wrong, he will emerge not only
unshaken but even more convinced of the truth of his beliefs than ever before.
Indeed he may even evince new fervor about convincing and converting others to
Leon Festinger, author of When Prophecy Fails
it often happens that scientists say, you know that's a really good argument;
my position is mistaken, and then they actually change their minds and you never
hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as
often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes
painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like
that happened in politics or religion”.
- Carl Sagan
are all capable of believing things which we know to be untrue, and then, when
we are finally proved wrong, impudently twisting the facts so as to show that we
were right. Intellectually, it is possible to carry on this process for an
indefinite time: the only check on it is that sooner or later a false belief
bumps up against solid reality, usually on a battlefield.
- George Orwell (1946)
Occasionally You Have to Look at the Results of Your Theories
Gary Kasparov to Condoleeza Rice Who Kept pursuing Policies no Matter How Much Evidence Mounted that they were Harmful.
Facts are such horrid
Lady Susan at the close of the epistolary novel that bears her name by Jane Austen
They deem him their worst enemy who tells them the truth.
don't wish to see turn against those who turn on the light.
I am certain there
is too much certainty in the world.
I have watched my
friends on the left, whose ideas created an empire of inhumanity, survive the
catastrophe of their schemes to go on to unexpected triumph in the ashes of
their defeat. Forced to witness the collapse of everything they had once dreamed
of and worked to achieve, they have emerged unchastened and unchanged in their
destructive illusions... I cannot explain this dystopian paradox except by
agreeing with my interlocutor that politics is indeed irrational, and socialism
a wish deep as any religious faith... I am persuaded that a lie grounded
in human desire is too powerful for reason to kill.
People Believe What they Want to Believe
The truth is out there – right out there in the grass, visible from behind the
bars of our preconceptions and ignorance. It just takes the courage and the
desire to go where the truth sits, and sit there too, rather than doing the
intellectual and rhetorical somersaults needed to try to get the truth to come
to you. The truth doesn’t care about where we sit. It sits where it sits. You
have to go to it; it won’t come to you.
Attempts to change people's minds is often met with hostility. The video below is one example. A few Christians went to Dearborn Michigan to try and attempt to change Muslim minds about Islam and to bring them toward Christianity. The following video shows what happened.
The quote, "People believe what they want to believe" has very frightening implications. Most if not all people want to feel good about themselves. One would expect that desire to translate into good actions on behalf of other people. However, if they believe want they want to believe, then the desire to feel good about themselves is no longer a barrier to immoral behavior. They can simply convince themselves that what they are doing is not immoral. Such rationalization generally entails convincing themselves that their victim deserves to be victimized. A person who steals from a corporation might rationalize that the company has so much money anyway that it's not a problem. A person who steals from another ethnic group may rationalize that, that group is evil in some way. Where there is immoral money to be made rationalizations will be made. The Arab oil countries are the richest in the world. Businesses all over the world are eager to get their hands on that oil money. Steven Emerson in a book called the American House of Saud wrote how the Saudis made business dealings conditional on American businesses lobbying against Israel and how the American businesses complied. Suddenly American businessmen became Middle East "experts" who made speeches against Israel. The tremendous pressure these businessmen put on their Senators and Congressmen caused the Senate and Congress who originally were overwhelmingly against the sale of AWACS planes to Saudi Arabia to reverse themselves and support the sale. Conscience did not stop these businessmen or for that matter the Senators and Congressmen whose election campaigns depended in part on corporate funding. It is likely that the businessmen who lobbied against Israel convinced themselves that they were doing the right thing.
One would hope that evidence would alter people's views. One would hope that if any of these businessmen started to follow what was going on in Saudi Arabia they would have become appalled by Saudi behavior and begin to question whether the Arabs may be at fault in the Middle East. The problem is that then they have to admit that they were wrong and immoral and worse yet they might have to stop engage in activity that is making them money.
One of the people described in Steve Emerson's book was John West formerly a governor of South Carolina. When Mr. West was governor he opposed the death penalty even though there was widespread support for it in his state. Years later after he had become corrupted by Arab oil money PBS put together a documentary called Death of a Princess. That documentary told the true story about a Saudi princess who fell in love with a commoner and didn't want to marry the husband chosen for her by her family and so was executed by the Saudis. The Saudis did not want that documentary shown in the United States and John West argued that they were right. Steve Emerson wrote:
The same man who as governor had so courageously vetoed the proposed South Carolina death penalty as a “barbaric, savage concept of vengeance which should not be accepted, condoned, or permitted in a civilized society” now fiercely defended the Saudi regime that had shot a nineteen year old princess and beheaded her lover for committing adultery.
The total transformation of the Honorable John C West serves as testimony to the irresistible allure of the Petrodollar…
It also serves as testimony to John West believing what he wanted to believe and being unwilling to admit that he was wrong.
One reason people hold on to Muslim beliefs is because they are afraid to let go of them. Danushka Goska wrote:
Moliere wrote a wonderful play which spoofed the way people hold on to beliefs despite contrary evidence called Tartuffe. Part of the charm of Tartuffe is that it so well describes behavior that everyone has encountered in people in real life. Why do people hold on to beliefs despite contradictory evidence? Self esteem clearly plays a role. No one wants to admit they are wrong. They'd rather think that who ever presents contradictory evidence is deceiving them because of evil intentions. Melges F. T. and Freeman A. M. (1975 Persecutory delusions: a cybernetic model. American Journal of Psychiatry 132, 1038-1044) suggest that disconfirmatory evidence is dismissed because individuals view it instead as instances of the deviousness of the persecutors.
People hate to admit that they are wrong. It hurts their self esteem. The more they have invested themselves in a set of beliefs, the more foolish they would have to admit themselves to be if they admitted that they were wrong. In addition if politicians promote a belief then their careers can become dependent on that belief being shared. Frank Gaffney of the Center for Security Policy in his article "Moment of Truth" (Freeman Center Broadcast 12/5/01) wrote that:
some of Israel's neighbors to the teeth – notably, Egypt and Saudi Arabia,
whose true colors are evident in the fact that their government-controlled
media are allowed incessantly to broadcast venomous denunciations of Israel –
is an inducement to renewed hostilities with the Jewish state, not conducive to
a genuine and durable peace. The pending sale of lethal, land attack-capable
Harpoon II missiles to Egypt is a case in point.
Of course, it will appear to be easier not to acknowledge these realities or other unpleasant truths. Too many people – including past and present senior U.S. officials – have much invested in the falsehoods that vest legitimacy in Arafat and his ilk and the "peace process" that has made the latter a far more dangerous threat to Israel.
The Jerusalem Post editorial "Labor's Day of Reckoning" (12/5/01) discussed the investment of Israel's labor party in their beliefs regarding the Oslo process as follows:
of course, has a great deal invested politically in trying to salvage what
remains of the defunct Oslo process. Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, the de
facto Labor leader, was the architect of the Oslo Accords and is responsible
for bringing Arafat back to the region and agreeing to the establishment of the
PA. As a result, hundreds of Israelis have been killed and thousands of others
wounded by Palestinian terrorists. Israel withdrew from large portions of
Judea, Samaria, and Gaza, dividing the nation as never before and allowing the
PA's armed forces to deploy alongside cities such as Kfar Saba and Jerusalem.
That Oslo has now proven unworkable has nevertheless failed to budge Peres, who continues to insist that Arafat is a partner for peace. For Peres and Labor to acknowledge that the PA is, in fact, a terrorist entity would be tantamount to an admission of failure on their part, and that is something they seem stubbornly unwilling to do.
It stands to reason that anyone who dismisses all contradictory evidence to his beliefs as the product of people with evil intentions is not evaluating his beliefs objectively. If one doesn't evaluate one's belief objectively the odds are that it is wrong. Politics is full of vilification by one side of the other side in order to advance their cause. On June 15, 2004, Bill Clinton was honored by President Bush in the White House. At the ceremony President Clinton made a speech there where he said:
I hope that I will live long enough to see American politics return to vigorous debates where we argue who's right and who's wrong, not who's good and who's bad.
If President Clinton's hopes would be realized people would evaluate events a lot more objectively than they do now and as a result would be able to make better political decisions. It is ironic that President Clinton made this very praiseworthy statement in the presence of his wife who, when accusations were made that he was philandering announced that an evil vast right wing conspiracy was making these false accusations in order to discredit her husband. Later on it was determined these accusations were not false at all.
A humorous example of vilifying those who oppose one's point of view is Harun Yahya's vilification of those who believe in evolution. Harun Yahya is an Islamic creationists and author of a book titled The Evolution of Deceit who argues that the creation story in the Koran is the literal truth and calls the theory of evolution
"Nothing but a deception imposed by the dominators of the world system".
It is easy to understand why people would want to believe beliefs that bolster their self esteem and would want to believe that they are right since being right bolsters ones self esteem. What if they believe bad things about themselves? If someone came along and praises them how will they react? Will the desire for self esteem lead them to believe the praise or reject it? If they accept the praise that would bolster their self esteem but it would contradict their view that they are no good. That would hurt their self esteem since it tells them that they are wrong. It also genuinely seems wrong since it doesn't fit with their beliefs that are constantly confirmed by how they interpret everything that happens to them. Carol Travis and Elliot Aronson wrote a book, Mistakes Were Made (but not by me) in which they discussed this situation. They wrote:
Our convictions about who we are carry us through the day, and we are constantly interpreting the things that happen to us through the filter of those core beliefs. When they are violated, even by a good experience, it causes us discomfort. An appreciation of the power of self-justification helps us understand, therefore, why people who have low self-esteem , or who simply believe that they are incompetent in some domain, are not totally overjoyed when they do something well; why , on the contrary, they often feel like frauds. If the woman who believes she is unlovable meets a terrific guy who starts pursuing her seriously, she will feel momentarily pleased, but that pleasure is likely to tarnished by a rush of dissonance: "What does he see in me?" Her resolution is unlikely to be "How nice; I must be more appealing than I thought I was." More likely it will be "As soon as he discovers the real me, he'll dump me."
I quoted Leon Festinger as saying that if you provide evidence that someone is wrong they will question your sources. An example of this is the people who say that the CIA committed the attacks of 9/11 and claimed to have technical proof. When these people are presented with the article that appeared in Popular Mechanics that debunked their conspiracy theories they reacted by attacking Popular Mechanics as an unreliable source since they couldn’t argue with the facts presented by Popular Mechanics. There are those who argue that Popular Mechanics is part of the Hearst empire and Hearst was friendly to Hitler therefore Popular Mechanics can’t be trusted. Then there are those who argue that the people at Popular Mechanics are Zionists and therefore they can’t be trusted.
Here is what the editor of Popular Mechanics James Meigs had to say (New York Post 9/12/06).
James Meigs has written an excellent article titled The Conspiracy Industry. In it he identified “ the key techniques that give conspiracy theorists their illusion of coherence.” This is in my opinion how they also fool themselves into holding these beliefs.
1. Marginalization of Opposing Views
2. Argument by Anomaly
4. Circular Reasoning
6. Guilt by Association
James Meigs wrote in regard to Demonization: “One of the chilling things about 9/11 denial is how blithely its adherents are able to accuse their fellow citizens of complicity in evil.”
If there is no evidence that will change one's mind about a belief than that belief may be a delusion. The reason I say it may be and not that it is, is that one may already have overwhelming evidence supporting one's belief. If one doesn't though than the belief is probably a delusion. Paul Johnson wrote an article in which he discussed the believers in global warming. He wrote (Forbes 10/6/2008):
Too much sun? "Global warming." Too little sun? "Global warming." Drought? "Global warming." Floods? "Global warming." Freezing cold? "Global warming."
I wonder if there is a threshold of conviction beyond which it is impossible to reason with someone. I have had political debates with people with opposing views and have found some totally impervious to any evidence I present to them. Although any evidence I present that makes my case is rejected, they will totally believe any statement that supports their point of view. They trust what supports their point of view and distrust what doesn't. In the case where they do deal with facts some of them draw illogical conclusions from those facts if those conclusions are what they want to believe. When a person reaches that stage I think it is highly unlikely that anyone will succeed in changing their mind. There is a joke about a man who believes that he's dead who goes to see a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist has a nurse prick the patients finger and it bleeds. The patient says, "funny, I didn't know that dead men bleed". This joke is an example of how once someone is convinced something is true to the point where he'll reject evidence or draw illogical conclusions from it, is is very difficult if not impossible to change his mind with logic. He may have crossed a threshold of no longer being open to reasonable argument. Ali Sina believes there is always the possibility of bringing someone to the truth, his arguments are given later on this page. It may be that emotions are creating a wall against reason and if those emotions are pacified a person would become more open to reason. In the case of the mentally ill, tranquilizers may help in this way.
An example of how people find ways to cling to beliefs was told by Leon
Festinger and his associates (in Festinger et al. When Prophecy Fails 1956).
They chronicled the story of a Chicago housewife, Mrs. Marion Keech, who had
mysteriously received messages in her house as "automatic writings" from alien
beings on the planet Clarion, which revealed that the world would end in a great
flood before dawn on December 21. Reflecting the degree of commitment to this
fanciful notion, the group of believers, headed by Mrs. Keech, had taken
concrete behavioral steps -- they had left jobs, college, and spouses, and had
given away money and possessions to prepare for their departure on the flying
saucer, which was to rescue the group of true believers. However by 4:00 A.M. on
the appointed day -- Festinger and his researchers who infiltrated and studied
Mrs. Keech's group -- observed that she and her followers were sitting in
stunned silence. When a few attempts at finding explanations failed, Mrs. Keech
began to cry. However by 4:45 A.M. another mysterious message by automatic
writing was sent to Mrs. Keech. It stated, in effect, that the God of Earth had
decided to spare the planet from destruction. The cataclysm had been called off:
"The little group, sitting all night long, had spread so much light that God had
saved the world from destruction."
Why did Mrs. Keech cry? One would expect a person to be happy when they find out that the world is not going to end in a great flood. It was because her beliefs were threatened and not only that but because she was surrounded by people who gave up everything because of their faith in her and who were now starting to question. She had to find a way out and she did.
People have a strong tendency to believe what they want to believe even though the consequences of their beliefs may be quite harmful to them. George Santayana once said:
Most people would rather die than think -- in fact, they do.
The above quote reminds me of a discussion I had with a radical Arab who said he was willing to die to liberate Palestine from the evil oppressor Jews. No matter how I reasoned, no matter what arguments I made, no matter what evidence I gave him, he would not change his mind. He dismissed all evidence against his beliefs as "Jewish Propaganda". He is likely to die fighting the "evil oppressor" some day. He is an example of a person who would rather die than think. Many people cling to beliefs with amazing tenacity. Many believe they are right and believe that any evidence against their beliefs are the result of a conspiracy to deceive them.
There is circular reasoning in this logic that I have diagrammed below:
Believe that all people who present evidence refuting one's beliefs are evil liars
Believe firmly in one's belief despite all evidence to the contrary.
Conclude that any facts they present to argue against one's point of view are evil lies.
Reject all evidence against one's belief
Jamie Glazov in an interview of Robert Spencer for Frontpage Magazine discussed the question of why Muslims hold on to the belief of how wonderful and peaceful Muhammad was and how wonderful and peaceful Islam and deny anything that makes their religion look bad even if it’s in their own Koran and Hadiths. Jamie Glazov asked Robert Spencer:
Kindly explain the following phenomenon:
I have had an infinite amount of conversations with various Muslims in which many of the ingredients of Muhammad’s life are denied. For instance, numerous Muslims have told me, emphatically, that Muhammad was not a military man and never touched the hair on one person’s head. They emphasize that he only preached and practiced peace. They look completely mystified and alarmed when I tell them about, for instance, the massacre of the Jewish tribe, Banu Qurayzah, and they tell me that this either never happened or that I am mistaken in one way or another. And they do this with tremendous anger.
Yet these are all facts. Facts, which you demonstrate, that are in the Qur’an and a Hadith.
So what am I missing here? Do many Muslims themselves know nothing about their own Prophet? Or are they pretending they don’t know?
Spencer: ... I have many
times encountered the phenomenon to which you refer. Just a few days ago I
received an acrimonious email from a prominent moderate Muslim spokesman whose
writings have been featured in FrontPage. He accused me of "shameless
lies" for reporting that Muhammad married his daughter-in-law. Of course,
this incident is referred to obliquely in the Qur'an (33:37), as well as in the
Hadith collection of Bukhari, the writings of the historian Tabari, the Qur'an
commentary Tafsir al-Jalalayn, and other Islamic sources.
When I noted this, the spokesman called me an idiotic liar and heaped scorn on my invoking Tabari, whom he claimed was unreliable. He didn't say anything about Bukhari or Tafsir al-Jalalayn. …
Instead of working in constructive ways
for reform, they prefer to demonize and vilify those who bring such material to
light -- as if I really did make up the incident in which Muhammad married his
daughter-in-law and somehow, through my black Zionist arts, made millions of
Muslims believe it.
FP: So why is it that the reaction to your book from the Islamic world is primarily filled with insults at best and death threats at worst? Where is the tradition to actually counter with scholarship and argumentation for an honest and meticulous diagnosis of Muhammad’s life? Why do so many Muslims not embrace a close scrutiny of their Prophet’s life to get to the truth of who he actually was?
Even more curious is how many Muslims insist that their religion is about peace and yet, upon others’ disagreement, they become violent. What just happened with the Pope is a perfect example. Muslims get outraged that an implication has been made that their religion is one of violence, but then they react to this supposed defamation of their religion, and of their Prophet, by threatening and perpetrating violence.
What is the logic here?
I have myself received several death threats over the years from certain Muslims. Paradoxically, these death threats were preceded, in almost every case, with the perpetrator of the threat trying to insist to me that Islam is a religion of peace. This is how it would go: I get an email from a Muslim reprimanding me for some kind of comment or argument I made about Islam having a tenet of violence. The writer insists to me that Islam is a religion of peace. I respond by asking about and referring to the verses in the Qur’an that promote violence (i.e. 9:5). Then, within two or three exchanges, I start getting threatening emails – from the same individual who started out telling me that Islam is a religion of peace.
It is somewhat of a bizarre and tragic comedy, no?
Spencer: Yes it is,
Jamie. In fact, the same bizarre and tragicomedy recently played out for me. I
recently received several death threats from a Muslim who claimed that somehow
I had insulted Islam by writing this biography of Muhammad. In one of them, he
insisted that Islam was a religion of peace:
“I am coming to America to hunt down Spencer. Very soon he will be delivered!
I will be violent against anyone who hurts Muslim feelings about Prophet.
It is a religion of peace for everyone until some duckhead sprews out his damn saliva on a senstive topic as this. Spencer will be delivered.
He will be killed for sure. Tell you FBI and CIA. You don't know Muslims. They will rip apart U.S. you know why? because America has insulted their religion.”
I have come to expect this kind of furious reaction even from Muslims who don't threaten my life, but I have to say that it has been somewhat disappointing. When I first began to do this work publicly and published my first book, Islam Unveiled, I assumed that some thoughtful Muslim would deal with the questions I raised in it in the spirit in which they were offered, and map out a path by which the violent elements of Islamic teaching could be mitigated. Today I am no longer so naive.
Jamie Glazov mentioned the tremendous anger with which Muslims react to anyone who points out inconsistencies with their beliefs. In a Frontpage symposium on 4/6/07 he recounted:
I have had a few mind boggling conversations with a few Muslims who insisted to me that Jews are descended from apes. I was told that Allah made them into apes and that the Jews then descended/evolved from them back into human form. This is why I am asking the question because I am wondering how widespread this thinking is among Muslims.
In my conversations, I asked: when were the Jews supposedly turned into apes? In other words, how many years ago? A few thousand? Six thousand? Ten thousand? When exactly did this happen? Now, how many generations have occurred since then that the apes evolved into monkeys? Was this happening while there were already humans around? Yes, because, according to the verses, Allah had made human Jews into apes. So humans were already around. Then some Jewish humans were made into apes and then these apes gradually evolved back into humans? How does this square with the Muslim belief system in creation – and also with how long evolution supposedly takes?
Now you can roll your eyes and just scoff and say how ridiculous this all is. But the fact is that this is a very wide-held assumption within the Arab and Muslim world. They actually believe and teach it. So I am disturbed by, and fascinated, in the thinking here.
The particular Muslim individuals I was posing these questions to, who believed Jews descended from monkeys, didn’t answer my questions. Instead they looked very confused and also became very very angry. What intrigues me is the psychology here. It appears that they had never even thought this through. Why did it take me to ask a question that they themselves had never thought of -- a question that is crucial to their belief system? Also, when presented with these questions and with the reality that they couldn’t answer them, they continued to believe in what they believe in, and were simultaneously very angry – not at the fact that they had no answers to my questions, but at the fact that I had asked them.
Perhaps this anger arises in part because an attack on their beliefs hurts their self esteem and their inability to answer it hurts their self esteem. Perhaps also this anger stems from the fact that beliefs that they want to believe are being challenged. Wanting to believe is why Muslims can hold beliefs that contradict each other. Dr. Kenneth Levine pointed out that:
the more persistent invoking of denigrating characterizations of Jews and Christians has reflected in part an effort to bolster Muslims' sense of self and of Muslim superiority. Peter Raddatz rightly points, however, to the implicit contradiction of Muslims seeing themselves as superior and yet outdone by pigs and monkeys. Consequently, one observes the emergence of a different contradiction: The characterization, particularly of Jews, as at once inferior beings, animals, and yet beings possessed of a daunting but infernal power, children of Satan, controllers of the world's wealth and power, authors and enforcers of the "Protocols." The two characterizations are contradictory but both serve to bolster the image of Muslim - and even more particularly Arab - superiority: Their foes are intrinsically inferior, animal-like, and have been successful against them only because they possess infernal powers. The logical contradiction is an example of what Freud called primary process thinking - primitive thinking dating back to the earliest stages of childhood and characterized by simultaneously holding logically inconsistent beliefs but doing so in the service of trying to satisfy intense desires.
One can see the same inconsistency in Nazi characterizations of Jews. They were at once depicted as vermin, grossly inferior beings, and yet as powerful, demonic beings posing a dire threat to Germany.
An apostate to Islam at the University of California Irvine, wrote why she held on to Islam when it didn't make sense to her. She wrote:
Before, if something didn’t make sense to me. I simply made the justification that we were mere mortals, and there are certain issues that are just beyond our realm to solve and realize.
I have heard this type of rationalization before. The reasoning goes, "if God says it it must be true even if it doesn't make sense to us" instead of "it it doesn't make sense to us maybe God didn't say it or maybe he or she doesn't even exist."
The apostate wrote:
I started a blog as way to express myself. Word finally got around that it was me and my family got threats that if I didn’t shut up something might happen. I didn’t want them to suffer for something I had done. So I deleted everything.
Once one has reached the stage where one is impervious to logic. wishful thinking can be self reinforcing. An example of this is shown in the vicious cycle below
Believe that appeasing the aggressor will get him to go away
Desire to stop the aggression increases. The desire to avoid the sacrifices associated with fighting the aggressor combined with the desire to stop the aggressor from hurting oneself makes one want to believe that appeasing the aggressor will make him peaceful. Desire to believe that one's own policies did not contribute the terrible situation one is in lead one to continue pursing those same misguided appeasement policies
Yield to the demands of the aggressor to make him go away.
One's situation becomes worse.
Aggressor increases aggressive actions
Aggressor learns that aggression pays
A classic example of this, is Israeli appeasement of the Arabs with territorial concessions. Increased terror has followed successive concessions as has increasing pressure from the world to make more concessions to the oil rich Arabs yet in spite of this overwhelming evidence that appeasement of the Arabs doesn't work. Israelis such as Shimon Peres believe that further concessions will bring peace.
The Bush administration does not learn from it's failures in the Middle East. One reason for pressuring Israel to make concessions to Abbas, such as withdrawing from Gaza, was to help Abbas gain support among the Palestinian Arab population. The U.S. views Abbas as preferable to Hamas. Hamas won the elections anyway or perhaps because people saw Israeli concessions as a proof that the violence of Hamas worked. The United States sent large quantities of arms to Abbas so that Fatah would fight Hamas. Hamas seized those weapons. In spite of this the United States wants to send even more arms to Abbas (U.S. Contemplating More Weapons to the Palestinians, WND.com 6/15/07) and wants Israel to make even more concessions to bolster Abbas.
Captain Dan Gordon wrote an article about the security threats facing the United States during the Obama administration and that:
This is an administration (Obama administration) that tends to view the world as
it wants to see it rather than how it is, and is very ideological and when the
facts go against their worldview they tend to go with the policy that represents
It can be quite amusing to observe how people who believe strongly in the wildest theories become extremely skeptical and full of clever deductions to prove that evidence against their beliefs is wrong. For example when Israel started circulating a taped phone conversation of a wife of a Hamas leader who didn't want her son to be a suicide bomber, members of Hamas claimed the taped conversation was a fraud because she would never have had such a phone conversation because of a lot of clever reasons that I have forgotten. Yet Hamas accepts without question that strapping on a suicide bomb and blowing up innocent people will send Moslems to heaven.
If people are convinced that something is true they can come up with the most incredible reasons to ignore evidence to the contrary. For example consider the following paragraphs from John Podhoretz in his article Amnesty's Calumny (New York Post 4/24/02) about Amnesty International's bias against Israel.
Amnesty also has the unmitigated gall to state baldly that the lack of evidence of war crimes in Jenin should actually be considered proof that war crimes took place. Consider this unbelievable statement from its report:
"Commenting on his preliminary findings following the autopsies he carried out in Jenin Hospital, Professor Derrick Pounder said: ‘What was striking is what was absent. There were very few bodies in the hospital. There were also none who were seriously injured, only the walking wounded. Thus we have to ask: Where are the bodies and where are the seriously injured?' "
It never occurs to Professor Pounder that because of the efforts of the Israelis to avoid killing civilians there were not that many injured. Amnesty International also accused the Israelis of unnecessary damage to property even though a glance at an aerial picture shows that majority of property in the Jenin camp was untouched. Since they have a preconceived belief that Israelis would do unnecessary damage, evidence to the contrary is ignored.
Many Frenchmen viewed Operation Iraqi Freedom as an American imperialist grab for oil. When pictures of jubilant Iraqis celebrating their freedom came to their TV sets one Frenchman dismissed the TV images as (Frances Change of Heart on War?, CBSNews.com 4/10/03):
A lot of propaganda.
While people have a tendency to be very skeptical of evidence that they are wrong, they often don't bother to question the reliability of questionable evidence if it suggests that they are right. For example regarding the Israeli efforts to rout terrorists out of Jenin, Amnesty International said:
The delegation received credible evidence of such serious violations including . . . allegations of extra-judicial executions.
John Podhoretz's response to this is:
Wow! Credible evidence of allegations! That's enough to convict an entire country for the commission of heinous war crimes, isn't it? Whatever happened to the key doctrine of all fair investigative inquiries - the notion that an accusation is not true until it is proven true?
Too often people will believe the most incredible things because they want to believe them. In reality the more incredible the belief the more demanding we should be of evidence before believing it. The astronomer Carl Sagan once said:
Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.
According to a French saying people do not treat extraordinary claims this way in fact they do just the opposite. Jaques Chiraq in response to a question from Christiane Amanpour about whether his campaign had received money from Saddam Hussein said
In France we have a saying, the taller the tale the more people will believe it.
Ali Sina wrote an essay called "Why Rational People have Irrational Beliefs". He wrote:
Faith is intense belief. It is the state of being absolutely certain of things for which one has absolutely no evidence...
In the early stages of our evolution we needed to think magically. We needed fairytales. We needed to believe in a powerful, omnipotent, omniscient heavenly father who looked over us, who provided for us, who loved us and even sometimes punished us if we were not good enough. We needed to believe in the power of prayers. In our moments of loneliness, despair and troubles, we needed to believe that we are not alone; that there is an amorous father somewhere in the Heaven who loves us and who cares for us. We needed to believe that he would never let us down. When we could no more rely on our own resources, we still could rely on God. When we were oppressed and could not reclaim our rights, we could believe that there is going to be a Day of Reckoning when the wronged ones would be rewarded and the oppressors would be punished....
The good news is that beliefs though very stubborn are not invincible. There is a point that even the most fanatical and zealot believer finds hard to accept. This is what could be defined as the critical point of the faith of the believer. All faiths are based on beliefs without evidence. But the believer can find something in his belief system that does not make sense to him. This point is different for each person and it depends on the sensibility and the fair mindedness of that individual. It could be ephemeral yet it is the straw that will break the back of the camel and it will start a domino effect that will breakdown his entire belief system. Once the believer finds one point in the doctrine in which he believes that he has difficulty to surmount, soon he will find other points that makes no sense to him. He will start to doubt even those points were he had no difficulty to believe prior to that and the whole sand castle of his faith will come down. Depending on the nature of the belief and its intensity, the believer goes through different phases of denial, confusion, shock, dismay, anger and finally the last phase, which is enlightenment. The process is painful, yet the reward is immense...
It is always small incidents that trigger the spark of doubt in the believer’s mind, something that she may find illogical or unjust. But once the seed of doubt is sown, it will eventually grow, sometimes inconspicuous to the believer and the arduous and painful journey to freethinking begins. From the time that the seed of doubt is sown to the moment that it actually comes to fruition in some people could take many years. It depends on our emotional maturity and the level of risk we are willing to take to get out of our comfort zone and leave home.
Ali Sina was a believing Muslim who believed that Islam was wonderful until he read the Koran. In his testimony in Ibn Warraq’s book, Leaving Islam, Ali Sina wrote:
After reading the Koran I was overtaken by a great depression. It was hard to accept all that. At first I started denying and seeking esoteric meanings to the apparent verses of the Koran. But it wasn’t possible. The weight of the proof was too big. I found out that Khomeini was right, that the Taliban believe in the real Islam, that what I used to think of Islam was not the real Islam at all. I found out that Islam teaches nothing but hate, that the whole message of Islam is to believe in a deity without any proof, a deity who despises reason, who loves killing innocent people, who is expert in torture, who is ruthless, and who does not know elementary scientific facts about the universe that he allegedly created. This was hard to swallow, and I did not want to accept what I came to learn.
The passage from belief to freethinking and enlightenment has its stages. The first stage is shock, followed by denial. If one can overcome the denial one goes through confusion, guilt, dismay, anger, and finally enlightenment. The majority of Muslims are trapped in denial. They are unable or unwilling to admit that the Koran is a hoax. They desperately try to explain the unexplainable, to find miracles in it, and are not ashamed to bend all the rules of logic to prove that the Koran is right. Each time they are exposed to a shocking statement in the Koran or a shameful act performed by Muhammad they retreat in denial. This is what I was doing. Denial is a safe place. It is the comfort zone. In denial you are not going to be hurt, everything is okay; everything is fine.
Truth is extremely painful, especially if one has been accustomed to lies all one’s life. It is like telling someone that his father is a murderer, a rapist, or a criminal. This might be true, yet the child who adores his father will not be able to accept it. The shock is so great that the first thing he will do is deny it. He will call you a liar and he will hate you for hurting him. He will curse you, hold you as his enemy, and may even discharge his anger at you by physically attacking you.
This is the stage of denial. It is a defense mechanism. If pain is too big, denial will take that pain away. If a mother is informed that her child has died in an accident, the first thing she will do is to deny it. People who have lost a loved one often believe that this is all a bad dream and that when they wake up everything will be okay. But unfortunately, facts are stubborn and they will not go away…
Muslims are cocooned in lies. Because speaking against Islam is a crime punishable by death, no one dares tell the truth…
After reading the Koran, my perspective of reality was jolted. I found myself standing face to face with the truth and I was scared to look at it. This was not what I was expecting to see. I had no one to blame, to curse and call a liar. I had found all those absurdities of the Koran and the inhumanities of its author by reading the Koran itself. And I was shocked. Eventually this shock made me come to my senses and face the truth…
Even as a man, I was shocked when I read that Muhammad instructed his followers to beat their wives and called women “deficient in intelligence” (IV.34). Yet I have come to know many Muslim women who have no difficulty accepting these derogatory statements uttered by their prophet. Not that they like to be beaten, agree that they are deficient in intelligence, or believe that the majority of the inhabitants of hell are women, as the Prophet used to say, but they simply block out that information. They read it, but it doesn’t sink in. They are in denial. The denial acts as a shield that covers them, that protects them, that saves them from facing the pain of shock and disillusionment. Once that shield is up, nothing can bring it down. It is no use to repeat to them the same things over and over. At this point they must be attacked from other directions. They must be bombarded with other shocking teachings of the Koran. They may have a weak spot for one of them, and one of those stupid teachings may shock them. That is all they need: a good shock. Shocks are painful, but sometimes they can be lifesavers. Shocks are used by doctors to bring back to life, clinically dead patients.
Ali Sina’s advice about getting Muslims to face the truth may be applicable to other people who hold on to other erroneous beliefs. If they have built a shield against a certain argument against that belief their may be other shocking evidence that will cause them to let go if they are exposed to enough of it. They may not let go immediately, but if the seed of doubt is planted it may grow.
Everyone knew that Moshe the Beadle was wrong when he warned about what was happening to the Jews in Europe during World War II. But they were wrong. Elie Wiesel writes about this in his book "Memoirs, All Rivers Run to the Sea". He writes:
In 1941 more than a thousand "foreign" Jews--those unable to document their Hungarian citizenship--were expelled from Hungarian territory to Polish Galicia. I remember going to the station to say goodbye. Everybody was there. We thought we would see them again someday, but only one managed to escape, and that was Moshe the beadle. Dazed, madness in his eyes, he told a hair-raising story: Those expelled (they were not yet called deportees) had been slaughtered and buried naked in ditches near Kolomyya, Stanislav, and Kamenets-Podolski. He talked on and on about the brutality of the killers, the agony of dying children, and the death of old people, but no one believed him. The Germans are human beings, people said, even if the Nazis aren't. The more convincing Moshe the beadle tried to be, the less seriously he was taken. He has suffered too much, people said, so much that he doesn't know what he's saying. Then he would lose his temper. "Listen to me!" he would shout. "I'm telling the truth, I swear it! On my life I swear it, and on yours! If I'm lying, how come I'm alone? Where is my wife and our children? What about the others, your former neighbors? Where are they? I'm telling you, they killed them. If you don't believe me, you're crazy." Poor guy, everyone said. Raving mad. Which only made him angrier: "You're irresponsible, I'm telling you! What happened to us will happen to you. If you want to look away, go ahead! But if I'm lying, why do I say Kaddish morning and night? ...People were deaf to his pleas...I told myself..If what he's saying were true, we would have heard.
One reason people did not accept what Moshe said besides the unlikelihood of it was because they didn't want to believe him. People have a tendency to believe what they want to believe and not believe what they are afraid to believe. It behooves all of us to ask us what we want to believe and what we are afraid to believe. This story and many other historical examples of people being convinced and being wrong can be found at the Anti-Closed-Mind Site.
Moshe did not accept the opinion everyone had that he was crazy and he was right not to. It was extremely important that he didn't accept it and that he kept warning them. People who are paranoid often feel a similar sense of urgency to hold on to what they believe.
Some of the experiences of the paranoid person may be real. If one is paranoid one is likely to treat others in a hostile way and they in turn are likely to become hostile. Even one's body language and the way one looks at people will be affected by paranoia and that will antagonize other people. Paranoid beliefs are self fulfilling and reinforce themselves. In addition there are plenty of hostile people out there. Some people feed their ego by getting away with harassing other people. A paranoid person is likely to be a social outcast and appear more vulnerable to hostile people who are looking to take advantage of others. A friend of mine told me how she saw some youth harassing a homeless person who was sitting on a sidewalk. They harassed the person because the person was vulnerable.
If paranoid beliefs can be just as real to us as true beliefs, how do we know what's true and what isn't. If a paranoid persons memories are just as real to him as Moshe's beliefs were to him, than how can he tell what is true and what isn't. One way is to consider the plausibility of what he believes yet that is not foolproof. The belief that the Nazis were gassing people was highly implausible even though it was true. David Kelley wrote a book "The Art of Reasoning" that addresses these questions. One approach to considering which explanation of events is the most plausible according to Kelley, is to consider which hypothesis requires the least number of new assumptions. Pipes writes in his book Conspiracy that the wrong conspiracy theories are distinguishable because they often require
A chain of deception so complex, an intelligence so formidable, and a cast of accomplices so large (and silent) that the whole scheme collapses becauses of its own implausibility.
In addition conspiracy theories often require the belief in additional conspiracy theories to explain away contradictory evidence. Conspiracy theorists for example, who claim that Kennedy was shot by multiple people explain the fact that there was only one bullet found by doctors as a conspiracy of the doctors.
Sometimes evidence contradicts conspiracy theories but often the believers rationalize that the evidence was tampered with. In the case of the mentally ill they may "remember" events that support their beliefs that never occurred or at least not the way they remember them. It can be impossible to test these memories. If someone heard people saying bad things about him 10 years ago and doesn't remember who they were it would be next to impossible to corroborate his memories. Even if he did remember who it was and that person denied it the mentally ill person might conclude the person was lying.
If we examine personal accounts of schizophrenics we can try and determine what it is in their accounts that makes it clear that they are delusional. These accounts are so implausible that we can reject them. Lori Schiller, the author of "Triumph over Schizophrenia" in an account of her schizophrenia wrote:
Sometimes, I'd be in my room and afraid to leave because there were creatures sitting on my bed and coming through my window.
She wrote about voices and sights.
I battled strange, ominous Voices and Sights in a forever tormented day-to-day nightmare. I couldn't get relief from my psychotic world.
Since no one else saw or heard these voices and sights we can discount them as well. What if Lori were to come up with an explanation? What if she were to say creatures from another planet were appearing in her bed and with their advanced scientific technology were hurting her? What if she said they had a telepathic connection to her mind and she was hearing their thoughts? Such an explanation, although extremely implausible, is possible. Since her experiences are real to her such an explanation would become plausible to her.
If Moshe and Lori had approached us and told us their stories how could we tell who was telling the truth and who wasn't? Both Moshe and Lori's stories are implausible. Moshe was giving sound rational arguments about existing evidence that supported what he was saying. Lori could only tell us about her experiences. Lori's continuing experiences of voices and visions of creatures could be tested simply by being with her and looking and listening. We could tell that Lori was delusional but how could Lori tell? If we told Lori that we didn't hear the voices she might suspect us of lying or that the aliens were just talking to her.
If someone whose beliefs are suspect says people are saying nasty things about him currently than one could test it. That doesn't mean that the test will convince the paranoid person that he is wrong. I knew someone who said people were doing this when he went on walks so I went on a walk with him. Three black men walked by us and one spit across our path. This became evidence for the person I was with that he was right. For me it was just a black man showing how tough he was by threatening white men. One time when I walked with this person nothing happened. That didn't become proof to him that he was wrong, he just believed that my presence somehow dissuaded people from saying nasty things about him.
If one believes something strongly enough one can always find a way to rationalize away evidence.
The world is full of clinically sane people who believe very strongly in different beliefs. Almost every terrorist believes he is a heroic freedom fighter. And almost every heroic freedom fighter is believed to be a terrorist by the people he is fighting against.
People of all levels of intelligence strongly hold opposing political points of view. Rarely does argument change their minds. An example of two brilliant people with opposing political views were Edward Teller, the father of the Hydrogen Bomb and Linus Pauling, a Nobel prize winner in chemistry who crusaded against nuclear testing.
Why is this? One reason is that once people believe a political point of view they are likely to listen to and read sources of information from other people with their point of view. These sources of information are likely to be slanted to reinforce that point of view creating the following reinforcing cycle.
Believe in the Cause
Become further convinced in the cause
Read literature written by the promoters of the cause
If one hears that the people one supports have done something bad one is likely to reject that information as propaganda because one believes that they are in the right thus creating another self reinforcing cycle supporting ones beliefs.
Once one is convinced that one side is right and the other wrong one is likely to interpret events to reinforce ones beliefs. If a Jehovah's witness or Christian Scientist believes that faith will prevent illness and one of their members gets sick their conclusion is not that they were wrong but rather that their member did not have enough faith. If a political group advocates appeasement policies and the enemy does not become more peaceful, the political group is more likely to conclude that there wasn't enough appeasement instead of that appeasement didn't work. Dr. Steve Plaut of the University of Haifa, in Israel, wrote an excellent parable about this.
If we are expecting to see something often we see it even if it isn't there. Gombrich in Art and Illusion (1976) commented that
Intelligence officers intent on the reading of aerial reconnaissance photographs, X-ray specialists basing a diagnosis on the faintest of shadows visible in a tissue, learn in a hard school how often "believing is seeing."
This isn't just true with people. This is true in with signal processing by computers as well. If one is trying to detect a signal for substance a and it is hidden by noise (other overlapping signals) one can use prior information about characteristics of the signal one is looking for in order to aid in detecting it. If one's prior information is correct one will be able to quantify lower amounts of what one is looking for. However if one is wrong, the prior information used may give a result of substance A being present when it is not. Then one may keep using the prior information that substance A is present since one's results "confirmed" to oneself that substance A is present.
Garety et. al. have written about this process in mental patients (Schizophrenia Bulletin, 26(1):73-86, 2000):
Where delusions and beliefs about voices are well established, they are typically maintained by repeated misinterpretations of specific events, by ongoing anomalous experiences, and by cognitive and behavioral patterns that preferentially seek out confirmation and prevent disconfirmation of existing beliefs (Garety and Hemsley Delusions: Investigations Into the Psychology of Delusional Reasoning, Maudsley Monograph, Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1994)
Misinterpreted supporting data increases one’s convictions that one’s beliefs are right.
Conviction that one’s beliefs are right make one more likely to intepret data as supporting one’s beliefs and more likely to reject data that contradicts one’s beliefs
Reject data that demonstrate that one’s beliefs are wrong. Uncritically interpret data as supporting evidence that one’s beliefs are right
I know a computer programmer who believes that Nazis are creating bugs in his computer programs. He believes there is no hope in getting his program to work because they keep putting in new bugs. As he programs he keeps coming across new bugs in his programs. The more bugs there are the more evidence he has that the Nazis are putting the bugs there.
People's emotions become involved in their political beliefs. If one identifies with a group one wants to believe that group is in the right. If one perceives the group one identifies with is threatened by another group one is going to feel hostility to the other group. These emotions will make it more likely that one will reject anything that justifies the behavior of the other group. So one reason one holds on to one's beliefs is a defensive reason.
If another group is making a claim to territory that one feels is important for the security of one's own group one will have the motivation to to view the other group as bad and the claims of the other group as invalid. On the other hand if one beliefs that territorial concessions may lead to peace than one may develop the motivation to view the other group as good. In both cases one has defensive reasons for one's political beliefs. Sometimes clinging to a belief for defensive reasons may not result in an increase in one's security. If one's group really is in the wrong and is taking territory that belongs to someone else and one is refusing to see that for defensive reasons, one may wind up in a war. Likewise if one clings to the beliefs that territorial concessions will bring peace one may weaken one's group to the extent that the other group will use those territorial concessions as a military base against one's own group.
If a friend or someone one identifies with becomes hurt by the opposition than one's emotions become very strongly involved in favor of the people who one identifies with and against the opposition. That is a very strong motivation to belief in the cause one identifies with. If one's friend did something to the opposition that bought on their retaliating against him one is not likely to feel the opposition was justified but rather that they deserved it and that he was right to do it.
There is a tendency to agree with the views of those one perceives to be the winner. During the 2000 campaign of Gore against Bush, for example, the media became much more favorable to Gore after polls showed that public opinion was shifting in favor of Gore. Perhaps the reason for this is that people may believe that if someone is a winner they are superior to the loser and therefore their opinions are superior as well.
Emotional Evidence Creation for Beliefs:
When one is in a paranoid emotional state paranoid interpretations of events become much more plausible and those events become evidence in one's mind that one's beliefs are real. The mentally ill feel physical deterioration and that can also reinforce their paranoia since they are likely to interpret their deterioration as a sign that they are being poisoned. As one accepts paranoid beliefs other more paranoid beliefs become plausible and organize themselves into a self reinforcing paranoid theory. A person in a paranoid emotional state is likely to interpret things he or she barely hears as hostile statements. These hostile statements then become evidence for a conspiracy theory. It may be that this persons memory of events becomes distorted over time so that it fits the conspiracy theory.
The same applies to depression. A depressed emotional state makes pessimistic beliefs plausible. These beliefs in turn feed the depression and a cycle is created. Although all these explanations are probably valid I am not sure they are the whole story. It seems that depression does more than make depressed beliefs more plausible. It seems to convince the person so that they dismiss evidence to the contrary.
Sometimes we can test our beliefs with experiments. Such experimentation has actually contributed to the cure of at least two paranoid schizophrenics. Experiments involve making predictions about what will happen in certain situations. If we want to evaluate whether an opinion is correct about an issue one approach we can use is to see if predictions made on those beliefs in the past came true. If we believed we would be fired from our job because our boss hates us and we weren't then maybe our boss doesn't hate us. The same principle applies for evaluating political beliefs. For example, the Israeli left made predictions in 2000 about what would happen if Israel withdrew their forces from Lebanon. Dan Margalit of the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz forecast that it would "spur Syria to come back to the negotiating table." Novelist Amos Oz boldly predicted about Lebanon's most aggressively anti-Israel organization: "The minute we leave south Lebanon we will have to erase the word Hizbullah from our vocabulary." Neither prediction has come true instead by May 22, 01 Hizbullah attacked Israel seven times, attempted many infiltrations, abducted three Israel soldiers and killed two others and is threatening rocket attacks. Syria has not come to the negotiating table.
Persuading People to Give Up Delusional Beliefs
Approaches to doing this are discussed on the persuasion page of this web site.
Table of Contents