A recent article by Chris Mooney in Mother Jones, which you should all read in its entirety (here), considers the mysterious phenomenon of why people believe things for which there is no factual evidence. The most perplexing thing in Mooney's article, which he does an admirable job explaining but which I still can't quite comprehend, is the well-documented phenomenon of people's beliefs actually strengthening when they are presented with persuasive evidence contrary to their ideas.
I won't steal Mooney's thunder by repeating what he said -- he said it better than I could, in any case. But do want to give a brief example, described more completely in Mooney's article. He tells about a doomsday cult whose leaders were convinced that the world was going to end on December 21, 1954. A researcher went to join the cult members on the fatal day, waiting to see what was going to happen when the clock struck midnight. What you'd think -- that they'd all kind of blink, and look around them, and laugh and say, "Okay, I guess we were wrong. What a bunch of goobers we are," didn't happen. They came up with a cockamamie explanation of why the world hadn't ended -- that their faithfulness and belief had caused the alien overlords to issue Earth a reprieve. What it didn't do, amazingly, was cause anyone to question their root assumptions.
I came across a perfect, if rather maddening, example of this phenomenon yesterday. I'm always on the lookout for any news in the cryptozoology world, and yesterday morning I bumped into one I'd never heard of before. Dubbed "Slender Man," it's a tall, thin humanoid, dressed in black, with no facial features -- just a shiny, smooth, white face. Allegedly, it has been associated with a number of mysterious disappearances, often of children, and there is even a short documentary (also worth taking a look at, here) which contains video and audio footage showing appearances of Slender Man. It's quite creepy -- not recommended for watching at night. (Don't say I didn't warn you.)
The problem is, it's a fake. Not just the documentary; the entire story. A certified, up-front, yeah-okay-we-admit-that-we-made-the-whole-thing-up fake. Back in June of 2009, there was a "paranormal photograph" contest on the Something Awful forums, a site devoted to pranks, digitally altered photographs, and hoaxes. A fellow named Victor Surge sent in a submission, with the description of his creation, whom he dubbed "Slender Man." The original thread on the forum is still going, and runs to 46 pages. If you can bear to go back through it, you can read how the story developed, starting with a single digitally altered photograph, and finally blossoming into a whole cryptozoological "phenomenon," complete with a history.
The difficulty, of course, is that when you make up something convincing, people are... convinced. Lots of people. If you Google "Slender Man" you'll pull up hundreds of websites, and amazingly, many of them consider him a real paranormal phenomenon. (Upon realizing what I just wrote, I had a momentary thought of, "Implying that there's a difference between real and unreal paranormal phenomena? I'm losing my marbles." But I hope that my readers will understand what I meant by that phrase, and not think that I've turned into some kind of Sasquatch Apologist, or anything.)
At first, I thought that the owners of these websites simply hadn't heard that it was a hoax -- or actually, not even a hoax, because Surge had never really intended for anyone to believe him. The most astonishing thing is that a number of these websites state that they know all about Surge and the Something Awful contest -- and they believe that this story was invented, after the fact, to cover up the "research" that Surge had done on Slender Man and to keep the phenomenon a secret, to stop the public from panicking!
After reading that, and recovering from the faceplant that I experienced immediately thereafter, I thought about Mooney's article, and the desperation with which people cling to beliefs that are contrary to known fact. Why on earth does this happen? Aren't we logical beings, imbued with intelligence, rationality, and fully functional prefrontal cortices?
Sadly, Mooney's answer seems to be "only sometimes." Again, I won't go into tremendous detail -- you should simply read Mooney's article. But the basic claim is that when we've infused a belief with emotion, we meet contrary evidence with a physiological and neurological reaction that mimics our fight-or-flight response -- we either decide to fight ("what you're saying isn't true!") or we flee ("I won't listen."). What almost none of us do is to take that evidence, think about it clearly, and revise our basic core beliefs to fit.
All of which makes it abundantly clear to me that humans are, in fact, animals, and that we often respond to new situations with no more "higher thought" than your typical fluffy woodland creature does. It makes me wonder why we still see a fundamental divide between "human" and "animal" -- but of course, looking that assumption in the face is pretty likely to generate a fight-or-flight response, too.