Why We Believe Wacky Things, (Part III)

This is Part III of Billy’s previous blog

As I write this morning two monsters, brothers named Said and Cherif Kouachi, are holed-up in a French printing factory with a hostage, insisting that they want to die as martyrs and thus experience the bliss of Allah’s blessing upon them for avenging Mohammed’s name. And how do they believe they so pleased God? By murdering 12 Charlie Hebdo staff members in cold blood in their Paris office. Perhaps the standoff will be over by the time I post this. On the surface, it seems astonishing that such evil and misguided people can genuinely view themselves as the “good guys” in a conflict. But Osama Bin Laden, too, was certain that he was righteous and that Allah was thrilled with his choice to murder thousands of innocents on 9/11. Adolph Hitler, too, declared,

“I often feel that we will have to undergo all the trials the devil and hell can devise before we achieve Final Victory….I may be no pious churchgoer, but deep within me I am nevertheless a devout man. That is to say, I believe that he who fights valiantly obeying the laws which a god has established and who never capitulates but instead gathers his forces time after time and always pushes forward – such a man will not be abandoned by the Lawgiver. Rather he will ultimately receive the blessing of Providence. And that blessing has been imparted to all great spirits in history.” (Albert Speer, Inside the Third Reich: Memoirs. Bonanza Books; Distributed by Crown Publishers, 1982).

Similarly, members of the KKK through the decades earnestly and insanely declared that their belief system was endorsed by God and scripture. Liberal American pastors openly praised Fidel Castro, Daniel Ortega, Che Guevara, and Hugo Chavez from their pulpits, somehow overlooking thousands of summary executions, sanguinary rhetoric, mass imprisonments, the repression of civil rights, racism and forced starvations those evil men employed. I am fascinated by the universal tendency to resist truth and fact (no matter how obvious the evidence might be to the contrary) in order to cling to unsubstantiated, if not absurd or even evil beliefs.


The frightening fact is that we all tend to carry crazy beliefs in our heads, and those wacky views flow from us in words and actions that can have seriously negative repercussions. Note the following examples:

1) On March 26, 1997, thirty-nine members of the Heaven’s Gate cult in San Diego, California donned identical pairs of Nikes, drank cyanide and arsenic, and died. Each of them was convinced that they were thus evacuating a doomed planet Earth and that their souls would be taken aboard a spaceship hidden behind the Hale-Bopp comet. Almost 40 lives were ended and wasted.

2) Years ago I knew well a man who had only a high school diploma and didn’t make much money, but he had 13 children. His wife’s body was broken down. She was obese and had trouble walking due to the toll more than a dozen pregnancies over a twenty-year span had taken on her health. As you might have already suspected, my friend is deeply religious and his faith forbade him the use of birth control. As a result, he, his wife and 11 children (two of the older kids had moved out by the time I knew him) lived crammed into a tiny two bedroom dilapidated home hovering right around the poverty line.

3) On September 1, 2010, James J. Lee walked into the Discovery Communications building (home to television’s Discovery Channel) in Washington DC with bombs strapped to his body and took three people hostage. He had become alarmed after watching Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth, and decried what humans were doing to the Earth. He declared Discovery’s reputation for caring about the environment to be a sham, and demanded that the television network renounce its greed and begin to air programs sounding the alarm and proposing solutions. Fortunately, no one was injured.

4) Shannon “Duffy” Peterson, a rural Minnesota mother of newborn Abby, was persuaded by her daughter’s pediatrician in 1995 to forego the normal regimen of childhood vaccinations. Perhaps the doctor was one in four Americans now believes that autism, a baffling neurological disorder that afflicts more than 1% of babies in the USA (and that number has apparently been rising rapidly in recent decades), is caused by vaccines. Maybe he accepted the claim that childhood vaccines contain hundreds of toxins. He reportedly told the young mother that vaccines actually prevent the child’s immune system from developing. Sadly, just weeks shy of her sixth birthday, little Abby became simultaneously ill with chicken pox and pneumonia. The unprotected child was unable to fight off both infections at once, and died. Similarly, hundreds of thousands of children fail each year to receive inoculations against such wasting diseases as hepatitis, measles, smallpox, rubella, and polio. Some of them, too, will sadly pay with their lives for their parents’ unsubstantiated (and almost certainly untrue) acceptance of anti-vaccination mythology.

All of the people listed above did what they did because they believed what they believed. To this litany of false beliefs I could add the primitive practice of hurling virgins into volcanoes to appease the gods, doomsday cultists giving away all of their possessions to await the imminent end of the world or Moonies marrying complete strangers in mass weddings. Tragic consequences follow crazy beliefs as surely as night follows day.


Sadly, superior education and a high IQ actually tend to make us more susceptible to false beliefs rather than less so. Studies reveal that the higher one’s intelligence quotient is, the more able a person is to rationalize false beliefs. That is, a genius is much more adept than a person with average intelligence at finding supposed flaws in a contrary argument and is better equipped to research “evidence” to support already-held beliefs. A high intellect allows an individual the luxury of merely assuming that his or her position is the correct one (after all, since I’m so smart I must be closer to the truth than the dolt I’m talking to!). Brilliant scientists are tempted to ignore contradictory data, and elite doctors are reluctant to disconfirm their prior incorrect diagnoses. The Ivy Leaguer is better at finding “smart” reasons to support beliefs that were reached for decidedly dumb reasons. Galileo spent decades believing that Saturn was a large planet flanked by two smaller ones, viewing it hundreds of times through his telescope and always “seeing” what he had seen the very first time. It was not until a colleague pointed out that it was a single planet surrounded by rings that the great astronomer looked again and instantly saw what his eyes had denied all those years. Consider this conclusion from Jonah Lehrer in Wired magazine in an article entitled The Neuroscience of Screwing Up:

The fact is, we carefully edit our reality, searching for evidence that confirms what we already believe. Although we pretend we’re empiricists — our views dictated by nothing but the facts — we’re actually blinkered, especially when it comes to information that contradicts our theories. The problem with science, then, isn’t that most experiments fail — it’s that most failures are ignored.

Apparently high intelligence and education correlate positively with living in denial. Said another way, the smarter you are, the easier it is to stay fooled.

Take the Viet Nam War, for example. If one accepts the now widely held conventional wisdom that entering the war was a mistake (which was eventually conceded even by the architect of the war, Robert McNamara, as “terribly, terribly wrong”), an interesting dichotomy is revealed. In 1973, as pressure was mounting for Richard Nixon to withdraw American troops from that hellhole, Gallup polls revealed that college-educated Americans were far more likely to still support the war than those with only a high school diploma. In other words, those with elite educations were better able to ignore evidence, more likely to justify already-drawn conclusions, more hesitant to disagree with the “enlightened” view of their colleagues and less able to admit they had been wrong. Perhaps this is the reason William F. Buckley had quipped on Meet the Press in 1965, “I would rather be governed by the first 100 names in the Boston telephone directory than by the two thousand people on the faculty of Harvard University.” Rank and file Americans simply saw what was happening in Southeast Asia and concluded, “This was a big mistake.” Apparently unenamored with their own intelligence and academic credentials, average people were better able to see the handwriting on the wall and felt less of a need to defend earlier positions.


In the late 1970’s in Melbourne, Australia, a schoolteacher named Rosemary Crossley who specialized in working with severely disabled children became convinced that many of her students possessed far greater mental capabilities than they were physically able to demonstrate. Perhaps, she theorized, they are blessed with fully-functional intellects but lack the ability to communicate their thoughts without help (as physicist Stephen Hawking lives today). If you could only read the minds of the disabled, she postulated, you would find a fully-developed personality with normal intellectual capacity. Because her students were unable to speak, and lacked the hand to eye coordination necessary to write, she improvised a procedure known as “Facilitated Communication” (FC) in which she grasped the child’s wrist and held it suspended for support above a typewriter keyboard. Her assumption was that the children knew what they wanted to write, but lacked the motor skills to hit the correct keys. She believed the assistance of a facilitator would steady the child’s hand and improve accuracy. Amazingly, children with autism, mental retardation and other severe disabilities blossomed! They typed out answers to questions that far surpassed all prior assessments of their abilities. They wrote brilliant essays, performed well on standardized tests, and composed impressive poetry.

Facilitator typing with disabled woman

Facilitator typing with disabled woman

As a result, a social movement was born that swept across North America in the 1990s. The Facilitated Communication Institute was established at Syracuse University in 1992. Thousands of facilitators were trained in all fifty American states, and millions of dollars were spent implementing the procedure. Hundreds of schools and centers for the disabled adopted the procedure. ABC News called it “a miracle.” The CBS Evening News said, “It could be a breakthrough.” One severely autistic fourteen-year-old child who had been unable to speak or write was suddenly, through FC, able to move directly into a normal seventh grade class. The estimated IQ of a student in Atlanta, Georgia, was raised from 35 to 106 after several months of facilitation. One mother exclaimed, “I feel that I loved a teddy bear for fifteen years, and suddenly I’ve met this young man who has everything I wanted my son to have.” There seemed to be no limits to the level of emancipation these disabled children might experience. But troubling inconsistencies, as it turned out, were being explained away or ignored.

When it was reported that some disabled children seemed to know the innermost thoughts of their facilitators, the children were deemed “exceptionally sensitive” to their surroundings, if not psychic. When skeptics asked how a child who had never been taught to read or write suddenly began to do so in flowing, grammatically-correct sentences with impressive vocabularies, supporters claimed the children were the beneficiaries of years of watching Sesame Street. When some noted that many of the children were apparently able to type the correct answers (through their facilitators) without even looking at the keyboard, suggestions were made that perhaps the autistic children were not merely brighter than expected, but actually geniuses. To this day, there is an active and ardent FC community, which any internet search will quickly reveal.

Sadly, the entire movement is an exercise in self-deception. It is a case study for the power of confirmation bias, the term used by psychologists to describe the universal human tendency to favor information that confirms our already-held beliefs while discounting or ignoring contrary evidence. In 2008, a 15-year-old autistic girl near Pontiac, Michigan – while typing through a facilitator – accused her parents of sexual abuse. “My father is f**king me” she repeatedly typed. Four police cars descended on the girl’s mother, Thal Wendrow, while she was visiting at her own mother’s home. Her husband, who was at the couple’s house a few blocks away, was similarly arrested. Though neither had a criminal record, their reputations were ruined, legal charges were filed, and the threat of decades in prison dangled above them even as the girl and her younger brother were shunted to foster homes. Sadly, this same scenario had been played out several times in homes across the nation during previous years, each with the same outcome: the charges were dropped when the truth about FC was learned anew by law enforcement.

When some of the abuse charges were proven false, objective tests were devised to evaluate whether the messages being typed were originating with the student or with the facilitator. The tests were quite simple. The child was shown a letter which the facilitator was not allowed to see, and asked to type that letter. There was a one hundred percent failure rate! Whenever the facilitator could not see the letter, the child “typed” the wrong letter every time. When the facilitator was allowed to see the letter, the result was correct every time. Only one conclusion could be reached: the facilitators were unconsciously guiding the students’ hands to type the messages, and the students were completely unaware what was being typed. The damning study has been repeated across the country, always with the same 100 percent failure rate. When presented with the results of one such study, a trained facilitator and ardent advocate of FC said, “I was devastated. I think I wished the floor would open up. When I looked at the piece of paper, and there was nothing to validate that communication, I had to believe it because there it was in black and white. But I couldn’t match it with the year of typing we had done with those individuals. It was just very upsetting.”

How could she and thousands more intelligent, sincere, and educated people have hoodwinked themselves for years, truly believing that they were passive “supports,” while they were actually typing all of the answers themselves? One might ask the same question about the millions who have huddled over a Ouija Board, bewildered as the planchette slides mysteriously to the “correct” letters and answers. In both cases, the users are both the perpetrators and the victims of their own hoax. The grifter and the mark meld together, communicating to themselves the very message they wish to hear but remain completely unaware of their complicity in the whole affair. As the physicist Richard Feynman once quipped, “The easiest person to fool is yourself.” FC and the Ouija Board demonstrate graphically that an established belief, no matter how inaccurate it may be, can be very powerful and persuasive. The purpose of this blog is not to embarrass or criticize proponents of Facilitated Communication, who were merely good and bright people trying to serve disabled children, or to shame those who genuinely believe in Ouija’s ability to communicate with the another world, but to underscore how all of us are deeply susceptible to self-deception. No one is immune. I certainly am not, thus I ruthlessly ask myself every day, “Am I just conning myself?”

In summary, be careful what you allow yourself to believe, and always be willing and eager to consider contradictory evidence. Be reluctant to trust your “feelings” that a certain proposition may be true or false. Demand empirical peer-reviewed evidence before you start a diet or supplement or medication. Don’t be too impressed by what “experts” say: almost all experts are eventually refuted. Live in harmony with the evidence, and you can thus avoid many of life’s pitfalls.


Written by billyriggs