Faithful people everywhere texts

Why are people gullible?

Posted by Stephan on Oct 26, 2012 in Critical Thinking | No comments

I took seven showers last week. The day before yesterday I was in the cinema, in Alien 6. Yesterday a UFO landed in my garden, three aliens came out, kidnapped me, examined me and brought me back safely.

A month ago I was invited to God for coffee. Half a year ago I was with a shaman / naturopath / naturopath who cured my cancer with some device (or with homeopathy, acupuncture or the laying on of hands). This shaman / naturopath / naturopath has also cured 3 other people that I know and who told me about it, from their cancers and once even from AIDS.

These are six statements that each of us hears more or less on a daily basis. Which of them do you believe, then, do you consider to be true? Which of these really happened in reality?

How do you approach this question? You will think something to yourself when you imagine that these allegations are being made to you.

One might wonder how extraordinary which claim is and whether the claim contradicts what one knows about the world and what evidence and arguments speak for and against.

Let's go through the claims step by step:

I took seven showers last week.

This is not a particularly extraordinary claim. It is entirely possible to shower every day, it does not contradict any laws of nature and it does not have a major impact on my life, regardless of whether I think it is true or false. Of course, it can still be wrong because I was wrong or lied. Claims of this kind make relatively little difference whether they are true or not and whether one thinks they are true or not.

The day before yesterday I was in the cinema, in Alien 6.

This is also not a particularly extraordinary claim. It is possible to go to the cinema and does not contradict any laws of nature. It is also true here that in principle it does not matter whether this assertion is true or not and whether one thinks that it is true or not. This has no (great) impact on your own life. However, if you know that the film "Alien 6" does not exist at all, then you also know that it was never shown in the cinema and so you know that this statement is wrong. Through your own knowledge of the world, you have come to an incompatibility between the assertion and your own knowledge. If your own knowledge is true in this case, so “Alien 6” really does not exist, then this claim must be false.

Yesterday a UFO landed in my garden, three aliens came out, kidnapped me, examined me and brought me back safely.

Here things look a little different. This claim can be classified as very unusual. Why? In principle, it is possible that some life comes to us from somewhere in the universe, etc. This does not violate any laws of nature as we know them. The problem is that one implicitly makes several other claims with this claim, namely that there is other life in the universe and that these living beings have bridged the huge distances in the universe (to name just two examples). There is no evidence or evidence of any of this. Therefore, one would have to ask the person whether he can present evidence that aliens really landed on him. If he cannot do that and if you only have his statement and his word as the only proof, then that's too little to hold this statement true. Why? Because it's a very extraordinary claim, but the evidence to support it is far too weak.

The likelihood that this claim is false is much greater than the likelihood that it is true. Whoever makes this claim may be wrong, hallucinated, lied, or a cheat, etc. Personal experiences, narratives, and any stories or anecdotes are by far the weakest kind of evidence there is. It would be utterly frivolous, gullible, and unjustifiable to hold this claim true just because someone says it. It doesn't matter who it is who makes this claim, so it is absolutely irrelevant whether it is your own wife, your own husband, your brother or a complete stranger. To hold this claim justified and true, one would need exceptionally good evidence, something that can be independently investigated and verified. In the absence of this, the only rational decision is to consider this claim to be false.

A month ago I was invited to God for coffee.

The same applies here as with the claim with the extraterrestrials. If one accepts the classic meaning of the word “God”, that is, a personal being or a “higher force” that is transcendent, omnipotent, omniscient, all benevolent, etc., then one implicitly makes further assertions again. For example, through transcendence one asserts that there is a world behind / next to / above / below our world. The problem is that there is no evidence of this, not a single one! We stupid great apes have made immense strides in exploring the world over the past 400 years. We can make atoms “visible” and prove that these tiny atoms are made up of even smaller “particles”. We found things that are so sensational that you can hardly imagine them. But never and nowhere has anyone found evidence that there is a transcendent world or a "God"! Isn't that strange and shouldn't that make you think?

The burden of proof rests on whoever makes an allegation. He must obtain and present evidence that his claim is true. So one has to ask here what evidence is there that you were drinking coffee with “God”, what did you talk about and what did you do? This claim here is likely to be by far the most extraordinary that is under discussion. Hence, the evidence to hold it true must also be by far the best. Unfortunately, in this case too, it is usually the weakest conceivable evidence, namely personal stories and anecdotes. Conclusion: It is completely irrational to consider this claim to be true under these circumstances, i.e. to believe it.

Half a year ago I was with a shaman / naturopath / naturopath who cured my cancer with some device (or with homeopathy, acupuncture or the laying on of hands).

This claim is less extraordinary than the one with "God", but it is still quite extraordinary. Why? Because there is no evidence that cancer can be cured with "any device," homeopathy, acupuncture, or the laying on of hands. Above all, it has not been proven that the shaman or his device were the cause of the cancer cure. Maybe it was just a coincidence? Perhaps there was no cancer at all? Perhaps the cancer went away "by itself" (immune system)? The same applies here as with the other claims, namely that it would be unjustified and irrational to hold this claim to be true because there is no evidence for it.

This shaman / naturopath / naturopath has also cured 3 other people that I know and who told me about it, from their cancers and once even from AIDS.

Tales and anecdotes are not dates. Stories and anecdotes are not evidence. Believing stories and anecdotes to be true are the best way to be wrong. One should never believe such assertions, that is, take them to be true, never! It's like whispering mail, it cannot be verified and therefore the worst possible reason to believe anything. In order to be able to hold this claim justified to be true, one would have to prove that these three people really had the diseases and that it was really due to the treatment by the shamans that the disease went away.

Now that we have briefly analyzed these claims, the main question still arises, why are there still a significant number of people who hold claims of this kind to be true, i.e. believe, i.e. are gullible?

This is likely due to several factors. First, people may not want to contradict other people in a conversation because they find it impolite to say, “No, I don't think that's true.” You say yes by thinking that what the other person is wrong says. Many people take this as a criticism, even if one just considers the content of their statement to be wrong.

Second, many people are too unsure of when to consider an assertion to be true and when to consider it to be false. In case of doubt, they simply accept the claim as true and accept it because the other said yes, he will have thought something and he will be right. Such an approach of not thinking for yourself is extremely problematic and dangerous. This is a certain kind of (thought) laziness and laziness, with potentially extremely dangerous consequences.

There are certainly many other reasons why and in what situations people are gullible.

Finally, I would like to emphasize that you can and should of course have trust in people and not paranoidly doubt everything. However, I also think that the pendulum is way too far in half of gullibility and one should definitely be more critical and skeptical, especially when it comes to extraordinary claims.