Reality Denialism and the Limits of Belief
There are a few crackpots out there who think we never went to the moon. I have identified two factors at play here. I call them the Technical Limit of Belief (TLB) and the Social Limit of Belief (SLB). When you cross both lines, you have a reality denier.
Getting to the moon was a tremendous technical hurdle. Some people think we weren’t up to the task. It’s beyond their comprehension that we humans were actually clever enough to surmount the massive scientific and engineering challenges. That’s the Technical Limit of Belief that their minds can’t cross.
You also have to remember that the moon landings were right around (slightly before, actually) the time of Watergate.
For you young saplings out there, you probably can’t comprehend just how demoralized the country was at that point. That also coincided with our humiliating defeat in
Iraq Vietnam (sorry, I sometimes type the wrong synonym). Inflation was raging. There was an Arab oil embargo, so you couldn’t buy gas. Being an American at that point just didn’t have the same uplifting feeling that it did at the end of WWII or the 1950s. People had had all of the optimism and hope beaten out of them. In that climate, being able to do something amazing like going to the freakin’ moon!! might have seemed out of place when measured against all of the other failures that were the Nixon era.
It was very easy to believe in a government conspiracy. After all, Watergate was a real conspiracy, and it was a big one. Nothing was as it seemed back then. You couldn’t trust the government, so believing the government when it said we went to the moon was beyond the Social Limit of Belief for some people.
When you cross somebody’s TLB and SLB, you create a denier of reality.
But what about deniers of other realities? I’m guessing that in every case, you’ll find both a TLB and an SLB at work. Interestingly, as I look at some of these cases, it’s the Social Limit of Belief that’s driving the denialism, and they’re merely using their Technical Limit of Belief as the excuse.
Take global warming for example. There are at least two types of deniers here, with a fair amount of overlap. In one camp are the economic and political conservatives. They like things to remain the same, because they’ve benefitted financially or politically. If society changes its behavior to fight global warming, their gravy train is threatened. They have a stake in global warming not being true. That stake is their SLB. Also, it is mostly liberals who are campaigning for aggressive measures against global warming. This also puts off conservatives, so that’s a second SLB for them. I was in the audience when staunch libertarian Penn Jillette said that he doubted global warming because Al Gore claimed it was real. Penn announced to the world what his SLB is.
Another camp is the religious and social conservatives. I’ve been having difficulty figuring out why these people insist that global warming isn’t real. The only explanation I have is that if the liberals say it’s true, then it must be false! I think by conceding global warming, they will have to go along with the liberal programs to combat it. They can’t let the liberals have that power. They might use it to push their other agendas as well. So for these people, giving in to the liberals is their SLB.
For both camps, then, the TLB is a mere afterthought. The social ramifications of global warming being real are too awful to contemplate, so the science must be wrong. It has to be. They can’t cross that SLB, so they paint a TLB line on the ground and refuse to cross it.
The evolution deniers are all in one camp. They’re religious ultra-conservatives. They believe that the Bible is true. They don’t want to live in a world that doesn’t fit that blueprint. They pretend that this is a Christian country founded upon the Ten Commandments. They pretend that morality is externally defined by a deity and handed down from on high. Living in a world where those things aren’t true is way too scary for them. That is their Social Limit of Belief. In order to make the SLB hold up, they decide that the science must be wrong. It doesn’t matter how much evidence you show them or how much you try to educate them. They cannot allow that information into their brain. They cannot cross that TLB, because that would make their SLB, and their whole safe worldview, collapse.
What about believers of “woo”, or all of the crazy anti-science things like astrology, homeopathy, dowsing, ESP, etc.? There’s probably a variety of explanations here.
For some, poor scientific knowledge and critical thinking skills mean that their Technical Limit of Belief is very close indeed.
Other people make decisions intuitively or emotionally, and don’t consider the logical side of things so much. There is nothing wrong with this! That’s just the way their brains are wired. But the result is that their TLB will be fairly close. It’s not so much a limit of belief so much as a place they just don’t visit often.
On the social side of things, consider medical scams (such as anything that uses the word “detoxification”!). Some people have had bad experiences with real medicine. As a result, they’ll say things such as “doctors don’t know anything” or “everything is controlled by the drug companies”. They don’t like the medical establishment and refuse to go there. That’s their SLB.
Or for another example, think of the paranormal. Ghosts, angels, “spirit guides”, etc. are appealing to many folks. They like the idea of a world that has those things in it. You can’t debunk a ghost photograph to those people. They want ghostly realms to be real, so crossing into the skeptical realm isn’t a place they’re willing to go. That is their SLB.
I suspect that if we explore this idea further, we’ll find that in every case of reality denialism, there are both Technical and Social Limits of Belief. One might weigh heavier than the other, and in some cases one is just there as a convenient rationalization for the other, but I think that you will always find both.
If you want to combat a particular reality denialism, you need to identify both the Technical Limit of Belief and the Social Limit of Belief that are at play. Find out which is dominant and focus your tactics against that one. If both are equally responsible for the belief, then you need to have tactics to fight both.