Irrational Beliefs As Blind Spots

I’d like to make something clear. I don’t think that religious believers or superstitious people are stupid. Far from it. In fact, contrary to what believers may feel, most atheists don’t think that religious people are stupid. They just think that they’re wrong about one particular thing.

Part of the reason this blog exists is my curiosity with the fact that intelligent people sometimes believe weird things. Intelligence doesn’t seem to be any guarantee that a person will be free of irrational beliefs.

elvis-glassesI’ve debated with people who believe a variety of apparently irrational things, from palmistry to faith healing. By and large the people I disagree with are not stupid, they’re usually pretty intelligent. I’ve even worked with people whom I’d judge to be more technically proficient than myself, only to be shocked to discover that they’re creationists who believe that dinosaurs and humans coexisted. It’s rather a staggering revelation, as if they’d suggested that Elvis was still alive or that photographed orbs were really spirits.

It seems this kind of weird belief coupled with intelligence is not unusual. I’m sure there are many more examples, but two spring to mind. Isaac Newton, one of the brightest minds in the history of science, spent less than half his time on the physics for which we remember him, the remainder of his efforts being devoted to Biblical study and alchemy. In more recent times, Larry Wall, the inventor of the programming language Perl, is reputed to be highly religious.

[As an aside, Rules 1 & 2 describing how Perl development takes place have an uncanny religious undertone, in my opinion.]

All of which makes me wonder – are these people not as smart as they seem, or are they right in their weird beliefs?  Is it me who is lacking something between the ears?

In considering why even intelligent people believe weird things, Michael Shermer concludes,

Smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons.


I suspect he’s right about that, but it raises further questions. Such as why smart people are taken in by “non-smart reasons” in the first place?

After Googling this subject it seems I may have missed the point. Intelligence is thought to be independent of rationality. Intelligent people can be irrational or not, likewise the less intelligent. For example, Kurt Kleiner examines Professor Keith Stanovich’s take on rationality and intelligence:

“[Stanovich] proposes a whole range of cognitive abilities and dispositions independent of intelligence that have at least as much to do with whether we think and behave rationally. In other words, you can be intelligent without being rational. And you can be a rational thinker without being especially intelligent.”

I’ve long thought that there are many functions of the brain which are outside of the traditional definition of intelligence. Physical co-ordination, the ability to understand and reproduce melodies and rhythms, social skills, observation skills, emotional control, personal motivation and probably many more. I don’t want to get into whether or not we should broaden the definition of intelligence to include these things. What I take from this is that rationality appears to be yet another aspect of the brain’s unrecognised work.

Pirate_eyepatch180I’m reminded of a guy I knew at school who was usually top of the class in all subjects. Certainly he was a gifted scientist and quite competent with languages. Anyone would’ve said the guy had a good brain. What was surprising was watching him try to play tennis. He could barely hit the ball – even when it was thrown slowly towards him. Apart from making the rest of us feel better about our mediocre academics, this shows how people with generally highly effective brains can have blind spots in their mental abilities. Similarly, other people might be tone-deaf , socially awkward or like me, slow with numbers. In the more obvious and severe cases these “blind spots” are diagnosed and given names such as Dyslexia or Asperger syndrome, but the gaps in people’s abilities are no less real for the lack of scientific names.

As you’ve probably guessed, I think that irrational beliefs such as religion, superstition or pseudoscience can be considered blind spots in a person’s thinking in the same way that having “two left feet” or never getting the joke can be. These things are independent of intelligence as it is usually defined.

I guess the next question is whether these blind spots are innate or something that can be developed or reduced. Some of us are probably innately more rational than others, automatically looking for all possible explanations. And perhaps certain irrational ideas are accepted at such a young age that they’re not given much critical thought. Nevertheless, critical thinking is something which can be improved with practice, so there’s still hope for those of us who don’t naturally think of all the alternatives.

I faired only slightly better than average on rationality tests recently, so it’s something I plan to work on.