The Psychology of Mass Delusions

Why do two diametrically opposed ideas like Darwinism and Intelligent Design have such vociferous and vitriolic combatants on both sides of the divide?  How can otherwise reasonable and rational people be so entrenched in an ideology that they are willing to mount the battlements and fight to the ideological death for their point of view?  I don’t have answers I’m fully content with, but I would like to see some comment on the issue.  

To be clear, I’m not looking for comment on the ID/Evolution debate.  What I’m trying to understand is how people in general can become so enslaved to the psychology of the crowd they run with, that they develop a kind of acute blindness to opposing viewpoints.  

The most famous mass delusion, of course, is the belief that the Sun revolved around the moon.  When Copernicus, and later Galileo said otherwise, both came close to losing their lives over it.  Copernicus died before they could get around to killing him (although they did kill his assistant, if memory serves), and Galileo was forced to recant.  

I suspect the phenomenon owes its existence to  the fact that we invest so heavily in an ideology that the pain of adopting a competing ideology is just too great. 

Michael Behe is a good example.  He dared to tall his colleagues in the biochemistry world that he no longer believed that Darwinian evolution could explain the complexity that exists in even the simplest of cells.  He said that in Darwin’s day, the cell was thought of as a simple gelatinous glob, whereas today we know that it is so extraordinarily complex that id defies the laws of probability to attribute it to chance.  A single strand of DNA, unknown to Darwin, is now thought to contain code (think computer code) that’s so complex that it could not have as much as a one chance in trillions of occurring without some guidance from an outside agent.  

He was blasted by his colleagues in the scientific community, and today, more than 10 years later, still generates hate-filled yelling, breast-beating angry condemnation from scientists in his own field.  Yet the arguments themselves do not address the questions he asked:  If it looks like it was designed, and if the odds of it happening by any other means than design, why are we not pursuing the possibility of design?  

Other biochemists, witnessing what happened to Behe, for the most part have been unable to summon the courage to take sides against the prevailing view.  They would rather die with their friends and colleagues, were Darwinian evolution to be widely discredited, than to die on their own, without the succor and sympathy they would provide.  So they defend the lie, and in so doing perpetuate its wide acceptance.

So, weigh in!  Tell me what you think the reasons are.  Why can’t we discuss and debate such contentious issues without yelling and screaming?  

And before you yell at me, remember the all the yelling in the world will not change the validity of your arguments.  So think about the question, decide what position you’d like to defend, state it clearly, along with well-reasoned arguments, and let the rest of us try to find chinks in your armor.  If we can’t, maybe you solve a puzzle that’s stumped many people for many years.

Maybe you change the world!

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12 thoughts on “The Psychology of Mass Delusions

  1. Jorg

    Mmm…no. Behe’s arguments were dealt with in detail. Specific examples he used were debunked, and pathways he claimed did not exist were found. The funny thing is that Behe himself is refusing to admit that he had made a mistake, at least in choosing examples.

    And, of course, my acceptance of evolutionary theory is based on mountains of evidence: from paleontology, genetics, microbiology and virology; consilient with our knowledge of geology and planetary sciences, astrophysics and cosmology.

    And my rejection of ID is not due to any prejudice, or even to a bleief that we could not possibly have been desinged. Sure we could, but none of the ID theorists (Dembski, Behe, Meyer, Gonzalez) has provided any good method of detecting design. We are just supposed to take their word for what is designed and what is not. Their spiel is largely a mish-mash of appeals to authority, ignorance and personal increduity: and that is where they are not factually wrong…;)

    1. Again, I was not looking to debate ID – see my reply to bobxxx – but I’d like to read a reasoned argument that Intelligent Design as a theory has so little merit that it cannot even be debated. The fact – if indeed it is a fact – that none of the ID theorists have provided any good method of detecting design is indicative at least in part, of a culture that is so aligned against them that it significantly inhibits their ability to do any work at all. Again, the question in effect is, why can’t we disagree without being disagreeable?

  2. Evolutionary biology is not an ideology. It’s a branch of science.

    There’s no debate in the scientific community and among educated people about the basic facts of evolution.

    The reason why biologists have so much disdain for evolution deniers (also known as creationists because they believe life was magically created), is many of these creationists (like Behe) try to dishonestly disguise their supernatural magic to look scientific. Even worse, they try to force biology teachers to teach their childish magic.

    It’s obvious you’re part of the problem. You might try educating yourself but I doubt you will ever do that.

    “And before you yell at me, remember the all the yelling in the world will not change the validity of your arguments.”

    Arguments? Scientific facts, including the facts of evolution, are not arguments. They are not opinions. They are facts backed up by evidence that people like you don’t even know about, and probably couldn’t understand even if you did know about it.

    “A single strand of DNA, unknown to Darwin, is now thought to contain code (think computer code) that’s so complex that it could not have as much as a one chance in trillions of occurring without some guidance from an outside agent.”

    From what hat did you pull out the number “trillions”? You don’t know what you’re talking about.

    Why do you call your magic god fairy an “outside agent”? Do you think calling it that makes it any less childish?

    It’s interesting that scientifically illiterate people like you talk about science as if you knew anything about it.

    1. And you think I’m part of the problem? You seem incapable of even a modicum of civility. I said “To be clear, I’m not looking for comment on the ID/Evolution debate. What I’m trying to understand is how people in general can become so enslaved to the psychology of the crowd they run with, that they develop a kind of acute blindness to opposing viewpoints.” Yet your anger so warps your mind that you feel compelled to lash out at the very thing I said I was not looking to debate. Interesting.

  3. The biologists at Lehigh University, where the creationist Behe has tenure, are ashamed of Behe because he has ruined their reputation. Please read their statement about Behe. If you carefully read between the lines, you will notice they are calling Behe a liar, without using the word “liar”. They have good reason to think Behe is dishonest. Behe knows every single one of his ideas was refuted at the Dover trial (where Behe made a fool out of himself), but he continues to spread the same lies to his gullible non-scientific customers.

    Lehigh University
    Department of Biological Sciences

    Department Position on Evolution and “Intelligent Design”

    The faculty in the Department of Biological Sciences is committed to the highest standards of scientific integrity and academic function. This commitment carries with it unwavering support for academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas. It also demands the utmost respect for the scientific method, integrity in the conduct of research, and recognition that the validity of any scientific model comes only as a result of rational hypothesis testing, sound experimentation, and findings that can be replicated by others.

    The department faculty, then, are unequivocal in their support of evolutionary theory, which has its roots in the seminal work of Charles Darwin and has been supported by findings accumulated over 140 years. The sole dissenter from this position, Prof. Michael Behe, is a well-known proponent of “intelligent design.” While we respect Prof. Behe’s right to express his views, they are his alone and are in no way endorsed by the department. It is our collective position that intelligent design has no basis in science, has not been tested experimentally, and should not be regarded as scientific.

    1. I’m all for the “highest standards of scientific integrity and academic function”, and I too support “academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas”. Then they tipped their hand: saying that they were “unequivocal in their support of evolutionary theory” is code for ‘we really didn’t mean that nonsense about academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas’.

      At least they were civil.

      Seriously, can you not see the inflammatory language you use? By deriding my faith as “magic”, you divert the discussion away from meaningful and constructive dialogue, and make it a street fight. Do you personally know even one person of faith who you consider intelligent, articulate, and well read? There are plenty of them out there, I can assure you. I know several hundred of them myself. I don’t know many scientists. I do know a few atheists. So, can you set aside your rude accusations and actually have a respectful conversation with me? I would love to know what signposts, what clues you trust the most to assure you that you are right.

  4. “If it looks like it was designed, and if the odds of it happening by any other means than design, why are we not pursuing the possibility of design?”

    Translation: If it looks like it was MAGICALLY CREATED, and if the odds of it happening by any other means than MAGIC, why are we not pursuing the possibility of MAGIC?

    This is what bugs me about creationists. They make these pathetic attempts to make their childish belief in magic look scientific by using code words like “design”. It’s not design. It’s some invisible fairy waving its magic wand and saying abracadabra. It’s childish nonsense and it deserves nothing but contempt.

  5. John Andrew, to help you understand why I said you’re part of the problem, just please read my previous comment about how creationists like you disguise their magic with code words like design.

    it’s nothing personal. There’s are millions of people like you. You all need to educate yourselves because you are disgracing the human race.

  6. “I’d like to read a reasoned argument that Intelligent Design as a theory has so little merit that it cannot even be debated.”

    The debate is over. It ended at the Dover trial. Debating the breathtaking stupidity of intelligent design, also known as magic, would be like debating whether or not the earth is flat.

    Please join us here in the 21st century. There’s more important things than your medieval belief in magic.

    I could present evidence for evolutionary biology, or I could list the thousands of reasons your intelligent design magic is childish, but why should anyone do that when you can use google and do your own research.

    There is no debate about evolution. It’s a fact. There is no debate about intelligent design magic. It’s [expletive deleted].

  7. Jorg

    The problem with ID is that it is not science: it makes no testable predictions, it does not stand or fall by observed evidence,a nd in fact, it cannot even make up its mind on exactly how to tell the evidence for it from that agianst it. The appearance of design is a non sequitur, since it is precisely the result of applying the evolutionary algorithm.

    And, of course, “free exchange of ideas” is a code word: are we going to have the same free exchange about astrology, geocentrism or racism? There are concepts that had been thoroughly discredited, and the discussion of which does not belong in a science class anywhere, and ID is one of those concepts.

  8. Jorg – What is your definition of science? In my latest post I suggest two. There are probably others. Point being that if you are trying to learn something about the mysteries of life, you should be willing to use all the tools in the bag. Science is one, but I would not limit myself to just science. I would consider philosophy, metaphysics and theology as well. Epistemology is knowing how we know what we know, and it encompasses all of these. Further, if the meaning of science excludes all but the naturalistic, it hamstrings itself more than it knows. Philosophy exists because we as beings are more than naturalistic. We have a dimension that provides for and requires the use of creative thought. I doubt that the existence of any creative thought was ever proven by the scientific method, yet we all know instinctually that we do think creatively.

    Free exchange of ideas means just that. It is not code for anything. Should we have a free exchange about astrology? I guess so, if you can find anyone who really wants to seriously represent it as real. Geocentrism? Again, nobody wants to seriously challenge the consensus on that. Racism? Not sure why you threw that one in there, but I do want to point out that it was Christian belief that motivated William Wilberforce deny his birthright to a life of luxury and ease and to wage a 40 year fight against the evils of the African slave trade, which was as important to his economy as gasoline is to ours. It is not hyperbole to say that Barack Obama is my President and not my slave due to Wilberforce’s unflagging efforts against enormous odds.

    So what you have from ID, and/or from Christianity, is a belief system that more people in the world claim than any other. In fact, if we lump Secular, Nonreligious, Agnostic, and Atheist together, we still outnumber you by about two to one. So, we are not fringe lunatics, we are not flakes, and we are not going to go away. Most Christians who have really though about it (sadly a minority) believe ID to be a much more robust and promising basis on which to explore the unknown dimensions of life than Darwin’s. To paraphrase Barack Obama, ‘You cannot outlast us.’

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