Why do people believe things that science has proved untrue?


When a parent who refused to vaccinate due to the autism link, who spoke out publicly on the topic and even criticized his friends for following the schedule, is faced with overwhelming evidence that there is no link at all, he may determine that "evidence" to be the product of a far-reaching medical, governmental and corporate conspiracy to maintain high pharmaceutical-industry profits.

Creating a conspiracy is one of the easiest ways to reject evidence. Conspiracies by nature are irrefutable. It's all happening in secret. Anybody can be in on it. The data is faked. The photos are re-touched. The corporate-funded media will say anything.

It's not the only way, though, to validate a threatened belief. The collection of techniques that enable what has come to be called denialism is a varied bag of tricks.

In the case of Festinger's cult, the technique was "reinterpreting the evidence." This involves analyzing any new facts in such a way as to support the original belief. Before Dec. 21, the truth of their faith would be proved by the flood; after Dec. 21, the truth of their faith was proved by the absence of the flood. Similarly, when Andrew Wakefield's seminal study linking vaccination to autism was published in 1998, its presence in the prestigious British Medical Journal was proof of its legitimacy. In 2011, its retraction by that journal was proof of its legitimacy -- obviously, the pharmaceutical industry was frightened enough by the truth of the study to start throwing its weight around [source: CNN]. (Conspiracy can work in tandem with most other denial techniques.)

One can create standards of proof that science can't possibly meet, such as, "I'll believe that climate change is a result of human actions when I see proof that Earth has never undergone a temperature increase before."

One can seek out "experts" who support the irrational belief through pseudoscience, misinterpretations, misrepresentations and logical fallacies, as in "If smoking really caused lung cancer, everyone who smokes cigarettes would get lung cancer."

Pretty effective on their own, these (and all) belief-perseverance techniques have received a tremendous boost with the advent of the Internet. Those looking to maintain an irrational viewpoint need only perform a simple search to locate fellow believers, entire communities of them, and the "experts" who back it all up with appropriate jargon.

In the end, it's not about science at all. It's about avoiding the stress of unlearning, the possibility of regret or the shame of having been wrong. And so, in the interest of cognitive harmony, otherwise reasonable individuals believe vaccines can cause autism, human actions have nothing to do with climate change, smoking doesn't cause cancer, and the test, obviously, was wrong.

For more information on belief perseverance, denialism, and other theories of modern psychology, check out the links below.

Author's Note: Why do people believe things that science has proved untrue?

When I began addressing this topic, I was reminded of a conversation I had in college with a guy I would now call an extreme relativist. The discussion, which didn't produce much, did plant the seeds of what my mind would turn into this: A person can both believe, absolutely, in science, and still (at least tentatively) acknowledge that this belief may not be so very different than one in God. It's a potentially problematic position from which to write an article about the "irrational" rejection of scientific evidence, and my attempt to solve the conflict is in the introduction:

The thinking might be rational in people who don't buy science at all -- no germs leading to illness, no evolution or genetic code, no "heat-retention" nonsense. But in those who do believe in the principles of science, in the scientific method and in most of its conclusions, how does this happen?

I hope my readers feel this did the trick and that I carried distinction through to the end of the article -- that it is not the rejection of scientific evidence that is pathological but instead the inability to hear (let alone integrate) any new or conflicting evidence into one's belief system.

To read about a heartening example of the opposite, check out this Guardian article. That's courage (and good science).

Related Articles


  • Arnold, Carrie. "Diss Information: Is There a Way to Stop Popular Falsehoods from Morphing into 'Facts'?" Scientific American. (Oct. 31, 2012) http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=how-to-stop-misinformation-from-becoming-popular-belief
  • Castillo, Michelle. "CDC: US Whooping cough cases rising at epidemic rate." CBS News. July 19, 2012. (Nov. 2, 2012) http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-504763_162-57475858-10391704/cdc-us-whooping-cough-cases-rising-at-epidemic-rate/
  • Diethelm, Pascal and Martin McKee. "Denialism: what is it and how should scientists respond?" European Journal of Public Health. Vol. 19, Issue 1. P. 2-4. 2009. via EuroPub. (Oct. 31, 2012) http://eurpub.oxfordjournals.org/content/19/1/2.full
  • Duggar, Celia W. "Study Cites Toll of AIDS Policy in South Africa." The New York Times. Nov. 25, 2008. (Nov. 2, 2012) http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/26/world/africa/26aids.html?pagewanted=all
  • The Flat Earth Society. (Nov. 1, 2012) http://theflatearthsociety.org/cms/index.php
  • Gross, Liza. "Doubt and Denialism: Vaccine Myths Persist in the Face of Science." QUEST. Aug. 8, 2012. (Oct. 31, 2012) http://science.kqed.org/quest/2012/08/08/doubt-and-denialism-vaccine-myths-persist-in-the-face-of-science/
  • Lehrer, Jonah. "Why We Don't Believe in Science." The New Yorker. June 7, 2012. (Oct. 31, 2012) http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/frontal-cortex/2012/06/brain-experiments-why-we-dont-believe-science.html
  • McLeod, Saul. "Cognitive Dissonance." Simply Psychology. 2008. (Oct. 31, 2012) http://www.simplypsychology.org/cognitive-dissonance.html
  • Mooney, Chris. "Made-up minds." The Week. May 13, 2011. (Nov. 2, 2012) http://theweek.com/article/index/215257/made-up-minds
  • "Retracted autism study an 'elaborate fraud,' British journal finds." CNN Health. Jan. 5, 2011. (Nov. 2, 2012) http://www.cnn.com/2011/HEALTH/01/05/autism.vaccines/index.html
  • Rettig, Jessica. "Fewer Americans see climate change a threat, caused by humans." U.S. News & World Report. Aug. 26, 2011. (Nov. 2, 2012) http://www.usnews.com/opinion/blogs/on-energy/2011/08/26/fewer-americans-see-climate-change-a-threat-caused-by-humans
  • Strickland, Jonathan. "Top 10 Space Conspiracy Theories." HowStuffWorks. (Nov. 2, 2012) https://science.howstuffworks.com/space-conspiracy-theory.htm