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Why are unscientific beliefs increasing among millennials?
We don’t have to stop inquiring or wondering about the far-flung vistas of reality, we just need to do it with some good old-fashioned logic.
We live in a strange and magnificent world. Throughout our species' time on Earth, humans have looked to the stars and the world they inhabit for answers. Babylonian mathematicians, Mayan astronomers and the vast enterprise of scientific and philosophic inquiry endemic to Greco-Roman society—these were just some of the many cultures and civilizations throughout the ages that dared to question and learn about the cosmos around them. It is because of these intellectual giants through antiquity and beyond that we know so much about the world.
Isaac Newton said: "If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants."
That is by and large how our understanding of the world grows beyond our first feeble grasp of it in all areas of logical inquiry. Whether it be science, history or philosophy, we build on the knowledge of our past. Yet there has always been an undercurrent of superstition, illogical thinking and general quackery afoot that's ready to chip away at what we have gained.
Now, we're all entitled to our fair share of weird ideas and mishaps; Newton himself was an alchemist and spent years of his life trying to decode the Book of Revelations in the Bible. But don't forget, the man also created calculus and threw us into a scientific period of understanding, which coined the Newtonian worldview before Albert Einstein usurped him. But he was also simply a product of his time, so we can excuse him for any lapse in ecclesial judgment.
Portrait of Sir Isaac Newton in old age by James Thornhill, 1709-12. (Wikimedia Commons)
Today, we have the entire wealth of human knowledge literally at our fingertips. You'd think that'd pave the way for a cultural renaissance of sorts that might eclipse our 15th-century Florentine forefathers. But that hasn't quite been the case.
Many of our millennial cohorts have entered into a strange unscientific and irrational milieu. Astrology is gaining steam as a theory of personality; flat-Earthers are actually growing in number, and you don't even have to stray that far from your local street-corner preacher anymore to hear wild denials of the moon landing and other unqualified pundits propagating absurd conspiracies.
So what got us into this mess and why do so many people—millenials and other generations included—believe in such nonsense? Let's start with the stars.
Astrology is finding a growing audience among millennials
Astrology as a system of belief has been around for thousands of years. It implies that the location of the stars and planets at the time of someone's birth determines their personality and life course. Those astrologers dedicated to the process write horoscopes and claim that they can predict your fate and reveal your true nature through zodiac charts.
Astrology has always been alluring to youth movements and has featured in youth culture from the 1960s onward. In a time when the younger generations are less religious, but still considered spiritual, it's no surprise that astrology has become so popular again with the youth.
Stuart Vyse, psychologist and author of Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition, has written on the subject of millennial astrology:
“The rise of a generation that is not as traditionally religious as previous ones but still seeking a kind of spiritual satisfaction, combined with the vanquishing of liberal politics in the United States and abroad, has created a fertile environment for this form of superstition and unreason."
Vyse, citing a Finnish Study that gave questionnaires to people signed up for adult education classes, explains that those signed up for astrology courses were more prone to have recently experienced more crises in their life.
His takeaway from this was that: “So, it appears that when people lose their footing and are shaken by the world, astrology provides a sense of order and control."
It seems that in the absence of religion people are more willing to believe in other non-scientific and unreasonable ideas.
“Over the past two years, we've really seen a reframing of New Age practices, very much geared toward a Millennial and young Gen X quotient," Lucie Greene, the worldwide director of J. Walter Thompson's innovation group, a consumer trend think tank, says to The Atlantic.
'Unreality', a 2016 trend report by the J. Walter Thompson innovation group, found that: "Astrology apps, psychic consultations over Skype and online tarot readings for those seeking direction are on the rise, apparently mirroring an increase in the diagnosis of anxiety disorders in young women. Clinical psychologist Jessamy Hibberd claims the link between the two is due to uncertainty about the future and a desire for a more directed destiny."
Astrology is arguably an inane and harmless belief. Aside from you wild Scorpios butting heads with a quick-tempered Aries, it's safe to say that astrology isn't that big of a problem. Rather, it's the underlying mindset that leads to trouble. Carl Sagan said that "Science is more than a body of knowledge. It's a way of thinking," then, worryingly, perhaps unscientific reasoning is a way of thinking too.
Superstitious thinking and grand conspiracies
Challenging questionable status quos of history and scientific inquiry is good for the advancement of knowledge. Challenging settled, indisputable, immutable, historical events and observable—without a shadow of a doubt—natural phenomenon is an exercise in pure delusion.
Unfounded claims and arguments that we never landed on the moon and that Earth is flat have tired themselves out to any rational-minded person. There's really no need anymore to defend against these ridiculous claims. Just one study by Dr. David Robert Grimes puts into perspective what it would take for these and other conspiracies to remain hidden taking into account the sheer number of people that would be involved in one.
Rather than waste valuable time debunking the treadmill of conspiracies, we instead need to look at why these views are taken up in the first place.
Conspiracies, astrological love charts and the like stem from a feeling of powerlessness or the need to feel that you have special knowledge over others. Psychologist, Jan-Willem van Prooijen conducted a number of studies which correlated higher educational levels and feelings of control inversely with the belief in conspiracies.
That is to say, with increased education levels came a feeling of being more in control which then lead to lessened belief in conspiracies or other kinds of superstitious thinking.
Van Prooijen goes on to say that:
“By teaching children analytic thinking skills along with the insight that societal problems often have no simple solutions, by stimulating a sense of control, and by promoting a sense that one is a valued member of society, education is likely to install the mental tools that are needed to approach far-fetched conspiracy theories with a healthy dose of skepticism."
A lack of agency grasping at a need for stability
One reason for the pervasiveness of groundless ideas and theories is that they serve as a way to make sense of a chaotic world. People would rather believe that they're ill-fated by a bum roll of the astrological dice or that a secret order is the reason they can't get ahead in life.
Sometimes tragic events happen for no good reason. They're simply churning out of the chaotic pool of randomness. It's a much more comforting psychological function to believe that someone or some cabal is behind it all. Unfortunately, this leads many would-be skeptics away from solving real problems or even real political conspiracies that do occur.
Here's a prime example.
Robert Anton Wilson was an unconventional science-fiction writer and provocateur from the good old Age of Aquarius who was responsible for bringing back an old and defunct secret society into the cultural consciousness. In his Illuminatus trilogy, Wilson, who wrote in an unbridled and self-professed guerilla ontological manner, played hard and fast with the rules of storytelling and general conspiracy literature.
This lead to one of the many favorite conspiracies of millennials, the Illuminati, a secret cabal that's not only controlling the strings of hundreds of disparate countries and running the world but also taking the time to throw in some occult references in at the latest Super Bowl halftime show.
This alone illustrates a pertinent point about conspiracy and unscientific thinking. Wilson was a nuanced and general trickster when it came to writing. Not many people realize that this erudite and often ridiculous story was an in-joke that evolved into the grand conspiracy it is today amongst the youth.
A word of advice, when you're bordering on the edge on inquiry, you may find yourself in conspiratorial waters. Whether it be supposed messages from the stars or an insidious faction plotting your demise, one must be careful not to stray too far into tinfoil territory.
Ironically enough, ethnobotanist and psychedelic lecturer, Terence Mckenna, who had his own share of wayward ideas, put it quite eloquently when he said:
"Conspiracy theory is a kind of epistemological cartoon about reality. I mean isn't it so simple to believe that things are run by the Greys, or isn't it comforting to believe that the Jews are behind everything, or the communist party, or the Catholic Church or the Masons. I believe that the truth of the matter is far more terrifying that, the real Truth that dare not speak itself is that no one is in control."
Our current generations could use a good dose of Occam's razor among other sturdier ways of thinking. Lack of agency and not having a firm learned background or grasp of reality to fall back on can lead us astray.
We don't have to stop inquiring or wondering about the far-flung vistas of reality, we just need to do it with tact and some good old-fashioned logic.
Innovation in manufacturing has crawled since the 1950s. That's about to speed up.
Health officials in China reported that a man was infected with bubonic plague, the infectious disease that caused the Black Death.
- The case was reported in the city of Bayannur, which has issued a level-three plague prevention warning.
- Modern antibiotics can effectively treat bubonic plague, which spreads mainly by fleas.
- Chinese health officials are also monitoring a newly discovered type of swine flu that has the potential to develop into a pandemic virus.
Bacteria under microscope
needpix.com<p>Today, bubonic plague can be treated effectively with antibiotics.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Unlike in the 14th century, we now have an understanding of how this disease is transmitted," Dr. Shanthi Kappagoda, an infectious disease physician at Stanford Health Care, told <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health-news/seriously-dont-worry-about-the-plague#Heres-how-the-plague-spreads" target="_blank">Healthline</a>. "We know how to prevent it — avoid handling sick or dead animals in areas where there is transmission. We are also able to treat patients who are infected with effective antibiotics, and can give antibiotics to people who may have been exposed to the bacteria [and] prevent them [from] getting sick."</p>
This plague patient is displaying a swollen, ruptured inguinal lymph node, or buboe.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention<p>Still, hundreds of people develop bubonic plague every year. In the U.S., a handful of cases occur annually, particularly in New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado, <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/plague/faq/index.html" target="_blank">where habitats allow the bacteria to spread more easily among wild rodent populations</a>. But these cases are very rare, mainly because you need to be in close contact with rodents in order to get infected. And though plague can spread from human to human, this <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health-news/seriously-dont-worry-about-the-plague#Heres-how-the-plague-spreads" target="_blank">only occurs with pneumonic plague</a>, and transmission is also rare.</p>
A new swine flu in China<p>Last week, researchers in China also reported another public health concern: a new virus that has "all the essential hallmarks" of a pandemic virus.<br></p><p>In a paper published in the <a href="https://www.pnas.org/content/early/2020/06/23/1921186117" target="_blank">Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences</a>, researchers say the virus was discovered in pigs in China, and it descended from the H1N1 virus, commonly called "swine flu." That virus was able to transmit from human to human, and it killed an estimated 151,700 to 575,400 people worldwide from 2009 to 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.</p>There's no evidence showing that the new virus can spread from person to person. But the researchers did find that 10 percent of swine workers had been infected by the virus, called G4 reassortant EA H1N1. This level of infectivity raises concerns, because it "greatly enhances the opportunity for virus adaptation in humans and raises concerns for the possible generation of pandemic viruses," the researchers wrote.
So far, 30 student teams have entered the Indy Autonomous Challenge, scheduled for October 2021.
- The Indy Autonomous Challenge will task student teams with developing self-driving software for race cars.
- The competition requires cars to complete 20 laps within 25 minutes, meaning cars would need to average about 110 mph.
- The organizers say they hope to advance the field of driverless cars and "inspire the next generation of STEM talent."
Indy Autonomous Challenge<p>Completing the race in 25 minutes means the cars will need to average about 110 miles per hour. So, while the race may end up being a bit slower than a typical Indy 500 competition, in which winners average speeds of over 160 mph, it's still set to be the fastest autonomous race featuring full-size cars.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"There is no human redundancy there," Matt Peak, managing director for Energy Systems Network, a nonprofit that develops technology for the automation and energy sectors, told the <a href="https://www.post-gazette.com/business/tech-news/2020/06/01/Indy-Autonomous-Challenge-Indy-500-Indianapolis-Motor-Speedway-Ansys-Aptiv-self-driving-cars/stories/202005280137" target="_blank">Pittsburgh Post-Gazette</a>. "Either your car makes this happen or smash into the wall you go."</p>
Illustration of the Indy Autonomous Challenge
Indy Autonomous Challenge<p>The Indy Autonomous Challenge <a href="https://www.indyautonomouschallenge.com/rules" target="_blank">describes</a> itself as a "past-the-post" competition, which "refers to a binary, objective, measurable performance rather than a subjective evaluation, judgement, or recognition."</p><p>This competition design was inspired by the 2004 DARPA Grand Challenge, which tasked teams with developing driverless cars and sending them along a 150-mile route in Southern California for a chance to win $1 million. But that prize went unclaimed, because within a few hours after starting, all the vehicles had suffered some kind of critical failure.</p>
Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Indy Autonomous Challenge<p>One factor that could prevent a similar outcome in the upcoming race is the ability to test-run cars on a virtual racetrack. The simulation software company Ansys Inc. has already developed a model of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on which teams will test their algorithms as part of a series of qualifying rounds.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"We can create, with physics, multiple real-life scenarios that are reflective of the real world," Ansys President Ajei Gopal told <a href="https://www.wsj.com/articles/autonomous-vehicles-to-race-at-indianapolis-motor-speedway-11595237401?mod=e2tw" target="_blank">The Wall Street Journal</a>. "We can use that to train the AI, so it starts to come up to speed."</p><p>Still, the race could reveal that self-driving cars aren't quite ready to race at speeds of over 110 mph. After all, regular self-driving cars already face enough logistical and technical roadblocks, including <a href="https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-53349313#:~:text=Tesla%20will%20be%20able%20to,no%20driver%20input%2C%20he%20said." target="_blank">crumbling infrastructure, communication issues</a> and the <a href="https://bigthink.com/paul-ratner/would-you-ride-in-a-car-thats-programmed-to-kill-you" target="_self">fateful moral decisions driverless cars will have to make in split seconds</a>.</p>But the Indy Autonomous Challenge <a href="https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5da73021d0636f4ec706fa0a/t/5dc0680c41954d4ef41ec2b2/1572890638793/Indy+Autonomous+Challenge+Ruleset+-+v5NOV2019+%282%29.pdf" target="_blank">says</a> its main goal is to advance the industry, by challenging "students around the world to imagine, invent, and prove a new generation of automated vehicle (AV) software and inspire the next generation of STEM talent."
A new Harvard study finds that the language you use affects patient outcome.
- A study at Harvard's McLean Hospital claims that using the language of chemical imbalances worsens patient outcomes.
- Though psychiatry has largely abandoned DSM categories, professor Joseph E Davis writes that the field continues to strive for a "brain-based diagnostic system."
- Chemical explanations of mental health appear to benefit pharmaceutical companies far more than patients.
Challenging the Chemical Imbalance Theory of Mental Disorders: Robert Whitaker, Journalist<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="41699c8c2cb2aee9271a36646e0bee7d"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/-8BDC7i8Yyw?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>This is a far cry from Howard Rusk's 1947 NY Times editorial calling for mental healt</p><p>h disorders to be treated similarly to physical disease (such as diabetes and cancer). This mindset—not attributable to Rusk alone; he was merely relaying the psychiatric currency of the time—has dominated the field for decades: mental anguish is a genetic and/or chemical-deficiency disorder that must be treated pharmacologically.</p><p>Even as psychiatry untethered from DSM categories, the field still used chemistry to validate its existence. Psychotherapy, arguably the most efficient means for managing much of our anxiety and depression, is time- and labor-intensive. Counseling requires an empathetic and wizened ear to guide the patient to do the work. Ingesting a pill to do that work for you is more seductive, and easier. As Davis writes, even though the industry abandoned the DSM, it continues to strive for a "brain-based diagnostic system." </p><p>That language has infiltrated public consciousness. The team at McLean surveyed 279 patients seeking acute treatment for depression. As they note, the causes of psychological distress have constantly shifted over the millennia: humoral imbalance in the ancient world; spiritual possession in medieval times; early childhood experiences around the time of Freud; maladaptive thought patterns dominant in the latter half of last century. While the team found that psychosocial explanations remain popular, biogenetic explanations (such as the chemical imbalance theory) are becoming more prominent. </p><p>Interestingly, the 80 people Davis interviewed for his book predominantly relied on biogenetic explanations. Instead of doctors diagnosing patients, as you might expect, they increasingly serve to confirm what patients come in suspecting. Patients arrive at medical offices confident in their self-diagnoses. They believe a pill is the best course of treatment, largely because they saw an advertisement or listened to a friend. Doctors too often oblige without further curiosity as to the reasons for their distress. </p>
Image: Illustration Forest / Shutterstock<p>While medicalizing mental health softens the stigma of depression—if a disorder is inheritable, it was never really your fault—it also disempowers the patient. The team at McLean writes,</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"More recent studies indicate that participants who are told that their depression is caused by a chemical imbalance or genetic abnormality expect to have depression for a longer period, report more depressive symptoms, and feel they have less control over their negative emotions."</p><p>Davis points out the language used by direct-to-consumer advertising prevalent in America. Doctors, media, and advertising agencies converge around common messages, such as everyday blues is a "real medical condition," everyone is susceptible to clinical depression, and drugs correct underlying somatic conditions that you never consciously control. He continues,</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Your inner life and evaluative stance are of marginal, if any, relevance; counseling or psychotherapy aimed at self-insight would serve little purpose." </p><p>The McLean team discovered a similar phenomenon: patients expect little from psychotherapy and a lot from pills. When depression is treated as the result of an internal and immutable essence instead of environmental conditions, behavioral changes are not expected to make much difference. Chemistry rules the popular imagination.</p>