One logical fallacy unites creationists and conspiracy theorists

Creationists believe that every aspect of reality was planned. Conspiracy theorists think that major socio-political events were planned. We now know why there is an overlap between the two groups.

Many of us have claimed “everything happens for a reason” or “it was meant to be” when presented with less-than-desired outcomes or random occurrences. Some of us see a great plan at work when we look at nearly everything; others see vast plots afoot every time they watch the news.

This kind of thinking is called teleological thinking. It is characterized by pointing to random or natural events and seeing them as caused by an intelligence or as part of a larger plan. Lots of people do it, and it is a key part of the intellectual development of children

In some cases, like business ethics, it is a useful way of thinking. Until the scientific revolution, it defined a great deal of western thought about the natural world. Today, however, it is a scientific no-no.

Less positively, it is associated with the teleological fallacy, where the incidental use of something is taken as evidence of it being designed to fulfill that purpose. 

A person who thinks this way might say things like “we have large noses so we can fit glasses on our faces” or “it is dry in the desert so cactus plants have a place to live.” Both statements assume a grand purpose for noses, or areas with low rainfall, that doesn’t exist or are unsubstantiated. It is an unscientific worldview that can get in the way of finding the real causes at work.   

A tendency to teleological thinking is correlated with a belief in creationism. This is intuitively reasonable since a tendency to think everything is part of a plan lends itself to trying to impose divine order on random biological events. Somehow, studies have not been carried out to see if the same correlation exists with similar beliefs—not until now, anyway. 

Some people find meaning and larger purposes everywhere

Researchers in France have published a new study showing the relationship between teleological thinking and a belief in conspiracy theories. Their study, published in Current Biology, involved more than 2,000 test subjects from the general public and university student bodies.

Their study consisted of online and pen-and-paper questionnaires consisting of 100 questions. In the first part of the test, respondents were asked to answer true and false questions designed to determine how inclined they were to teleological thought. The statements were simple, such as “Bats hunt mosquitoes to control overpopulation.” In this case, a person answering “true” would reveal their tendency to teleological thinking. 

The rest of the questions focused on how well the subjects could judge an explanation’s plausibility and determined any biases in their answers.

The next part of the test focused on grand conspiracy theories of a general nature. Participants had to rate the likelihood that statements such as “The government is involved in the murder of innocent citizens and/or well-known public figures, and keeps this a secret” were correct. They then did the same thing for specific conspiracy theories, such as ones revolving around the assassination of President Kennedy.

Lastly, subjects were asked to rank images shown to them consisting of black and white squares on a grid on a scale of “certainly not random” to “certainly random.” As this picture shows, the answers are rather clear and can be used to determine if a person tends to assign meaning to random data.

As you can see in this chart. The images were both simple and complex, and either had a structure or were randomized. A person who thinks that there is a pattern to the top row's pictures is likely to ascribe meaning to random data. (Wagner-Egger et al.)

The second iteration of the experiment asked the same questions but added the subject’s belief in creationism to the analysis. The final version added a section to better asses how being good at correct teleological thinking (e.g. thinking that pasta comes in different shapes to hold different sauces) factored into the conspiracy mindset.

What did they find?

As you might have guessed, the people who scored high on the teleological thinking test, those who see things as having a purpose even when they don’t, were more likely to believe in the general grand conspiracies. This held true, to a lesser extent, for those who only scored high on “correct” teleological thinking as well.

Subjects who believed in any of the conspiracy theories tended to believe in multiple others, too, supporting previous studies that hinted at a “conspiracy mentality,” a frame of mind that drives some people to see conspiracies everywhere. The authors suggest that the correlation between the three scales of teleological thinking they tested for; test, true and false casual, suggests “the existence of a teleological mentality, that partly overlaps with the conspiracist mindset.”

What about the creationists?

When the belief in creationism was factored in, the researchers found a strong correlation between a belief in creationism, the conspiracy mentality, and teleological thinking. The results held true even when accounting for demographics, political views, and religious tendencies. 

These findings expand on previous studies into how and why people come to hold extreme beliefs. They are also conceptually backed by the philosophy of Karl Popper, who suggested long ago that grand conspiracy theories were motivated by this kind of thinking, and even suggested that “Illuminati” conspiracy theories are the modern incarnation of divine intervention claims.

What use might this study have for us?

The authors remind us that “teleological thinking has long been associated with creationism and identified as an obstacle to the acceptance of evolutionary theory.”

With this in mind, they propose that we can start viewing conspiracies as creationistic, in that an intelligence purposefully created every socio-political event, and that we can view creationism as a grand conspiracy; in that it assumes everything was purposefully designed for specific reasons.

The findings could also be used to understand how anti-scientific worldviews are formed and how to best communicate with the people who hold them. It can also explain why both creationists and conspiracy theorists are both seemingly immune to evidence that refutes their worldviews- even the evidence against them can be viewed as part of a plan thanks to the power of teleological thinking.

Teleological thinking is a common thought process that we all use every once in a while. When it gets out of hand, however, it can cause some people to see patterns where none exist and to reject the idea that some things might not be the result of a master plan. While it might be some time before we finally learn how to educate people out of fallacious teleological thinking, we do have a better understanding of how it alters the way some people view the world. 

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In truth, so much of what happens to us in life is random – we are pawns at the mercy of Lady Luck. To take ownership of our experiences and exert a feeling of control over our future, we tell stories about ourselves that weave meaning and continuity into our personal identity.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Ashes of cat named Pikachu to be launched into space

A space memorial company plans to launch the ashes of "Pikachu," a well-loved Tabby, into space.

GoFundMe/Steve Munt
Culture & Religion
  • Steve Munt, Pikachu's owner, created a GoFundMe page to raise money for the mission.
  • If all goes according to plan, Pikachu will be the second cat to enter space, the first being a French feline named Felicette.
  • It might seem frivolous, but the cat-lovers commenting on Munt's GoFundMe page would likely disagree.
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