Common Threads

Everyone reading this is probably already aware that humans are pattern seeking animals. This ability of ours has helped us throughout our history. Patterns underly nearly every scientific discovery (the best example, IMHO, is the periodic table). Since I’m a human (or so I’m told), I’m no different. I too enjoy finding patterns in my life. If I see a movie I enjoy, I will immediately seek out other movies made by the same director, and that form of pattern seeking usually pays off better than picking a movie at random. Other than movies, another interest of mine is skepticism. What patterns exist in skepticism? Sure, if I read a good science book, I’ll read more from the same author. But what I’m interested in at the moment are the patterns that exist within the various areas that we tend to speak out about as skeptics. What do conspiracy theories have to do with ghosts? What do psychics have to do with Bigfoot or UFOs (other than their obvious connection)? If you’re a skeptic, the easy answer is that they’re all lacking in evidence or even plausibility. While that may be true, I’m curious as to what other commonalities these beliefs have. Maybe if we find ‘the’ (or ‘a’) common thread underlying all of these ‘bogus’ beliefs, we can be more effective at spreading skepticism. Here’s a brief list of some of some common threads I’ve just thought up.

Scientific Illiteracy
There should be no surprise that the skepticism movement/outlook is so tied into science. Nearly all of the kooky beliefs we question are founded on at least one fundamental misunderstanding of science. I created a game at one of the local Ottawa Skeptics meetings last year. We went around the table and each person had to name a branch of science and a skeptical issue that violates that science. For example: Homeopathy violates chemistry (H20 cannot have a memory), Bigfoot violates zoology, perpetual motion violates physics, etc. The game went on for quite a while since there was no shortage of sciences and their evil twin pseudo-sciences. It was as if we were transported right into the classic episode of Star Trek “Mirror, Mirror“, but without the goatees.

Teleology is the belief that there is a reason behind observed phenomenon. To many believers, everything has a reason, or some kind of purpose. The human brain may in fact be hard wired to assume intention when experiencing an unexplained event. It’s easy to imagine our ancestors out on the savannah, when suddenly there’s a rustle in the bushes, is it just the wind or is it a dangerous and hungry lion? It may have been safest to assume intention in the rustling. Back then our ancestors may not have had the luxury of safety to go investigate the anomaly to determine if there was in fact a lion or if it was just the wind. They just grabbed their spears. By the way, this isn’t just idle evolutionary psychology musing on my part, a study published last year found that both children and adults have a preference for teleological explanations. In that study researchers found that people had a preference for explanations that gave natural occurrences purpose, e.g. rain falls so that plants can grow.

Examples: Conspiracy theorists see human intention behind anomalies (WTC7 didn’t just fall because of damage). Astrologists see purposes in the position of celestial objects. Many promoters of alternative medicine believe that all diseases are caused by some kind of underlying reason (bad thoughts, negativity, etc.). Many psychics and religious people claim that everything happens for a reason and are pre-ordained.

Villify Authority/Science
If someone’s kooky ideas are not accepted by the mainstream, it’s easy for them to blame the experts that don’t accept their ideas. Yes, I’m aware that “argument from authority” is a logical fallacy, but the vilification or dismissal of experts and qualified authority figures is just as equally unacceptable. People will vilify their opponents to cover for the fact that they have no ground to stand on. “If you don’t accept my claim, it’s because you’re evil or stupid, not because my claim is lacking in evidence.”

It is also very popular to vilify large organizations like the government and pharmaceutical companies. Sure, they have their numerous failings but their opponents can go way overboard and end up accusing them of things without any basis in fact.

Examples: Promoters of alternative medicine vilify doctors and Big Pharma. Conspiracy theorists vilify the government. Creationists vilify evolutionary scientist.

The Unknown
It seems that for some people, once they know how something works it is no longer interesting. It could be that they find Bigfoot interesting, but not the Orangutans of Sumatra , is because a lot is known about Orangutans. Maybe if Bigfoot were discovered, after cryptozoologists stopped partying, they’d just get bored with it and move on.

The irony of this is that there are plenty of mysteries of the universe that can be investigated and are much more plausible. New species are still being found on a regular basis, just not in the remote forests of Canada. Instead of looking to the skies to find UFOs, people should be looking for strange new galaxies and stars, or even radio signals from distant planets.

This was just the tip of the iceberg of attributes that different pseudo-sciences and paranormal topics have in common. I just wanted to get people thinking about what the varied topics in the world of skepticism have in common beyond just being ‘humbug’. If you can think of any more, please share in the comment section below.

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  • Jonathan Abrams

    Jonathan Abrams is the latest founder and president of the Ottawa Skeptics. He organizes local events, makes media appearances as the token skeptic, and is one of the website maintainers. He is the host of the skepticism podcast The Reality Check. When he’s not thinking about science and skepticism, he’s working as a computer engineer, playing pinball, or doing the dishes.