Why Do People Develop "Religious" Beliefs About Secular Issues?:

This New York Times story related to the debate over the meritless theory that autism is caused by mercury exposure raises a broader issue that has been troubling me lately: why do people develop such strong beliefs about particular things that no amount of evidence, or for that matter common sense, is enough to sway them? Do take one particularly egregious example example, why do millions of people around he world people believe that water can retain a "memory" of materials diluted away, such that homeopathic remedies that may contain no detectable trace of the supposed "medicine" work?

Inaccurate "Religious" Beliefs About Secular Issues:

David Bernstein asks: "Why do people develop 'religious' beliefs about secular issues?" In this article, I provide an answer: Because, in most such cases, there is little incentive to learn the truth. The article focuses on political beliefs, where it is rational to be ignorant because there is so little chance that any individual vote will determine the outcome of an election. As a result, those citizens who do bother to acquire political information often do so for reasons other than the pursuit of truth. For example, they enjoy having their preexisting prejudices reinforced, "rooting" for their political "team" (much like sports fans enjoy rooting for the Red Sox or Yankees), or the like.

But the lesson applies more broadly. As I point in the article, polls show that large numbers of people hold irrational beliefs about nonpolitical subjects too. Thus, large numbers of people believe that we are being visited by UFOs piloted by extraterrestrial beings, believe in ghosts, and reject the theory of evolution. Wildly inaccurate beliefs about these subjects - like inaccurate political beliefs - don't harm most people in their daily lives, and they can be enjoyable and emotionally satisfying. It's fun to believe in UFOs or ghosts, emotionally satisfying to believe that God "specially created" you, and so on. Thus, for many people, it is perfectly rational to let considerations other than rigorous truth-seeking guide their belief-formation processes on many issues.

Unfortunately, individually rational behavior can often lead to collectively harmful results, as when flawed political beliefs lead to harmful government policies.

In an entirely different category are the relatively rare people who actually act on wildly inaccurate beliefs in ways that harm them personally. For example, Timothy McVeigh blew up the Oklahoma Federal Building because of his highly implausible belief that doing so would lead to the overthrow of the federal government by white racists, as depicted in the idiotic Turner Diaries. Obviously, McVeigh's actions instead led to stronger security measures, and to his own capture and execution. Such people are, however, very rare compared to the millions who hold foolish beliefs that do not directly harm them.

NOTE: I assume that, by "religious," David means something like "based on faith without any evidence," rather than based on belief in a God or gods. So defined, even atheists can (and often do) fall for foolish religion-like beliefs about secular matters.

Testing My Rational Ignorance of Pop Culture:

Looking at Forbes' list of the top 100 celebrities (as measured by pay and media exposure), it turns out that there are 26 of these people that I've never heard of, and another 10-15 whom I vaguely recollect but don't really know what they do. If you take out the 20-30 athletes (I am a big sports fan), my ignorance of the actors and pop stars would really be evident. I suspect that the average American could identify a significantly higher percentage of the nonathlete celebrities on the list than I could.

Just as the average American is rationally ignorant about politics because it doesn't interest him much, I am rationally ignorant about Hollywood and pop music stars because most of them don't interest me much (other than the ones who co-star with Randy Barnett, of course!).

The lesson to be learned, if there is one, is that rational ignorance is a universal phenomenon, not limited to the "stupid" unwashed masses. We are all inevitably ignorant about a wide range of topics. Unfortunately, however, popular ignorance about politics probably causes more social harm than academic geeks' ignorance about pop culture.

The highest-ranking celebrity I'd never heard of: Jay-Z, ranked no. 9.

More Evidence that Most People Don't Find Politics Interesting:

In my last post, I discussed my ignorance of many of the people on the Forbes list of top 100 celebrities, as measured by their income and media exposure. As far as I can tell, only four of the 100 people are political leaders or commentators (in the sense that such activities are their primary claim to fame): Bill Clinton, Rush Limbaugh, Barbara Walters, and Alan Greenspan. And Clinton's fame is partly due to his sex scandals.

This provides additional evidence that most people don't find politics as interesting as pop culture, sports, and other forms of entertainment. Indeed, there are almost as many Formula One race car drivers (2) and cooking gurus (2-3, I think) on the list as political figures (4). Why are people rationally ignorant about politics? In part because it's more fun for them to pay attention to other things.

Finally, I have to take my hat off to Alan Greenspan. Not only is he one of just four political figures on the list. He also made it despite the fact that his main claim to fame was a job that the average man in the street doesn't have the slightest understanding of. Moreover, Greenspan certainly didn't make it on the basis of good looks or charisma. Last, but by no means least, Greenspan is a libertarian and a one-time member of Ayn Rand's inner circle. Alan Greenspan: giving hope to libertarian public policy nerds everywhere.