Once a week.
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
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.
How would the ability to genetically customize children change society? Sci-fi author Eugene Clark explores the future on our horizon in Volume I of the "Genetic Pressure" series.
- A new sci-fi book series called "Genetic Pressure" explores the scientific and moral implications of a world with a burgeoning designer baby industry.
- It's currently illegal to implant genetically edited human embryos in most nations, but designer babies may someday become widespread.
- While gene-editing technology could help humans eliminate genetic diseases, some in the scientific community fear it may also usher in a new era of eugenics.
Tribalism and discrimination<p>One question the "Genetic Pressure" series explores: What would tribalism and discrimination look like in a world with designer babies? As designer babies grow up, they could be noticeably different from other people, potentially being smarter, more attractive and healthier. This could breed resentment between the groups—as it does in the series.</p><p>"[Designer babies] slowly find that 'everyone else,' and even their own parents, becomes less and less tolerable," author Eugene Clark told Big Think. "Meanwhile, everyone else slowly feels threatened by the designer babies."</p><p>For example, one character in the series who was born a designer baby faces discrimination and harassment from "normal people"—they call her "soulless" and say she was "made in a factory," a "consumer product." </p><p>Would such divisions emerge in the real world? The answer may depend on who's able to afford designer baby services. If it's only the ultra-wealthy, then it's easy to imagine how being a designer baby could be seen by society as a kind of hyper-privilege, which designer babies would have to reckon with. </p><p>Even if people from all socioeconomic backgrounds can someday afford designer babies, people born designer babies may struggle with tough existential questions: Can they ever take full credit for things they achieve, or were they born with an unfair advantage? To what extent should they spend their lives helping the less fortunate? </p>
Sexuality dilemmas<p>Sexuality presents another set of thorny questions. If a designer baby industry someday allows people to optimize humans for attractiveness, designer babies could grow up to find themselves surrounded by ultra-attractive people. That may not sound like a big problem.</p><p>But consider that, if designer babies someday become the standard way to have children, there'd necessarily be a years-long gap in which only some people are having designer babies. Meanwhile, the rest of society would be having children the old-fashioned way. So, in terms of attractiveness, society could see increasingly apparent disparities in physical appearances between the two groups. "Normal people" could begin to seem increasingly ugly.</p><p>But ultra-attractive people who were born designer babies could face problems, too. One could be the loss of body image. </p><p>When designer babies grow up in the "Genetic Pressure" series, men look like all the other men, and women look like all the other women. This homogeneity of physical appearance occurs because parents of designer babies start following trends, all choosing similar traits for their children: tall, athletic build, olive skin, etc. </p><p>Sure, facial traits remain relatively unique, but everyone's more or less equally attractive. And this causes strange changes to sexual preferences.</p><p>"In a society of sexual equals, they start looking for other differentiators," he said, noting that violet-colored eyes become a rare trait that genetically engineered humans find especially attractive in the series.</p><p>But what about sexual relationships between genetically engineered humans and "normal" people? In the "Genetic Pressure" series, many "normal" people want to have kids with (or at least have sex with) genetically engineered humans. But a minority of engineered humans oppose breeding with "normal" people, and this leads to an ideology that considers engineered humans to be racially supreme. </p>
Regulating designer babies<p>On a policy level, there are many open questions about how governments might legislate a world with designer babies. But it's not totally new territory, considering the West's dark history of eugenics experiments.</p><p>In the 20th century, the U.S. conducted multiple eugenics programs, including immigration restrictions based on genetic inferiority and forced sterilizations. In 1927, for example, the Supreme Court ruled that forcibly sterilizing the mentally handicapped didn't violate the Constitution. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes wrote, "… three generations of imbeciles are enough." </p><p>After the Holocaust, eugenics programs became increasingly taboo and regulated in the U.S. (though some states continued forced sterilizations <a href="https://www.uvm.edu/~lkaelber/eugenics/" target="_blank">into the 1970s</a>). In recent years, some policymakers and scientists have expressed concerns about how gene-editing technologies could reanimate the eugenics nightmares of the 20th century. </p><p>Currently, the U.S. doesn't explicitly ban human germline genetic editing on the federal level, but a combination of laws effectively render it <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">illegal to implant a genetically modified embryo</a>. Part of the reason is that scientists still aren't sure of the unintended consequences of new gene-editing technologies. </p><p>But there are also concerns that these technologies could usher in a new era of eugenics. After all, the function of a designer baby industry, like the one in the "Genetic Pressure" series, wouldn't necessarily be limited to eliminating genetic diseases; it could also work to increase the occurrence of "desirable" traits. </p><p>If the industry did that, it'd effectively signal that the <em>opposites of those traits are undesirable. </em>As the International Bioethics Committee <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">wrote</a>, this would "jeopardize the inherent and therefore equal dignity of all human beings and renew eugenics, disguised as the fulfillment of the wish for a better, improved life."</p><p><em>"Genetic Pressure Volume I: Baby Steps"</em><em> by Eugene Clark is <a href="http://bigth.ink/38VhJn3" target="_blank">available now.</a></em></p>
Meteorologists propose a stunning new explanation for the mysterious events in the Bermuda Triangle.
One of life's great mysteries, the Bermuda Triangle might have finally found an explanation. This strange region, that lies in the North Atlantic Ocean between Bermuda, Miami and San Juan, Puerto Rico, has been the presumed cause of dozens and dozens of mind-boggling disappearances of ships and planes.
A unique exoplanet without clouds or haze was found by astrophysicists from Harvard and Smithsonian.
- Astronomers from Harvard and Smithsonian find a very rare "hot Jupiter" exoplanet without clouds or haze.
- Such planets were formed differently from others and offer unique research opportunities.
- Only one other such exoplanet was found previously.
Munazza Alam – a graduate student at the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian.
Credit: Jackie Faherty
Jupiter's Colorful Cloud Bands Studied by Spacecraft<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="8a72dfe5b407b584cf867852c36211dc"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/GzUzCesfVuw?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Scientists discover burrows of giant predator worms that lived on the seafloor 20 million years ago.
- Scientists in Taiwan find the lair of giant predator worms that inhabited the seafloor 20 million years ago.
- The worm is possibly related to the modern bobbit worm (Eunice aphroditois).
- The creatures can reach several meters in length and famously ambush their pray.
A three-dimensional model of the feeding behavior of Bobbit worms and the proposed formation of Pennichnus formosae.
Credit: Scientific Reports
Beware the Bobbit Worm!<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="1f9918e77851242c91382369581d3aac"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/_As1pHhyDHY?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The idea behind the law was simple: make it more difficult for online sex traffickers to find victims.