13 September 2013

Mass delusions

Cracked had an entertaining article this week called The 6 Most Humiliating Public Failures by Celebrity Psychics. It's a great read just to see a lot of these sham artists exposed for the frauds they are, but I was particularly struck by one particular video which I had originally seen on Sam Harris' blog in which a martial arts 'master' apparently kicks the crap out of a room full of students without so much as touching them:



This is appended by another video showing the same old man getting the crap kicked out of him by an unnamed "MMA fighter" who subjects martial arts mysticism to the roundhouse kick of skepticism. 

The above video caught my interest because of the mass participation. These students appear to be completely absorbed in the delusion. It's entirely possible that they were all just humoring the old fart, but I think that's the vastly less likely scenario. There are far too many documented cases of mass delusions to simply dismiss the students' behavior as a deliberate charade. More likely, they were completely convinced of his supernatural marital arts powers – something that occurred with a gradual and insidious infection of self-deception.

We humans are primed to trust others. That may seem somewhat counter-intuitive, but we generally want to believe people are telling the truth and, unless their claims are flagrantly false, will generally give them the benefit of the doubt. Add to the mix a culture of supernatural mysticism, and we can trust people even when they're making claims that are patently ridiculous. Witness the flocks who kept John Edwards in business for so long, or the masses who fall over as if 'slain in the spirit' and miraculously healed at Benny Hinn conventions (less miraculously, the healings always conspicuously lack rigorous documentation). It's no different at Pentecostal or evangelical churches where people speak in 'tongues', attribute their woes to demon possession and undergo exorcism, or who seem to fall to the ground at the slightest touch or gesture of the preacher. Suggestion is a powerful thing.

But this bothers me, especially having come from an evangelical church which practiced speaking in tongues, faith healing, being 'slain in the spirit' (that's when you get all trance-like and fall down... often accompanied by tongue-speaking), casting out demons, and even (supposedly) resurrecting the dead (it was believed a prominent member had brought his wife back from death through prayer). Why on earth would we have any reaction but, "Riiiiiiight" when someone makes grandiose supernatural claims? Well, the unfortunate truth is that humans are terrible at skeptical thinking. How terrible? Well, the blog "Unnatural Acts that can improve your thinking", though now retired, is an outstanding and humbling resource.

I'm sure there's some evolutionary reason we have these deficiencies. I don't know. What I do know is that being an atheist or a self-proclaimed 'skeptic' does not stop one from having such biases and lapses in judgement. I've caught myself being guilty of confirmation bias in touting misinformation that supports my belief rather than being properly skeptical. I've found myself being less patient with believers than I am with non-believers. I've even noticed that I tend to react more defensively if I think a critical comment is coming from a believer rather than a fellow non-believer.

But, I can at least say that I'm more skeptical in general. I've gotten better about not taking claims at face value before researching them. I'm more aware of my biases than I've ever been which, while that may not eliminate them, certainly helps to mitigate them. And given the old saying that getting atheists together is like herding cats, I'm reasonably confident that I've avoided any mass delusions such as those in which I partook back in my religious days. But why people are so prone to engaging in such thinking and behavior is something with such a complex answer that I'm far from understanding it. But I feel that if I do – if we do – we'll get better at preventing it.

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