Six impossible things before breakfast

Heaton Hill mist 008

Dr Denys Tucker was an ichthyologist who once worked at the Natural History Museum where he was chief scientist and an acknowledged expert on eels. In 1959 he publicly announced that he was now convinced that the Loch Ness monster existed, and furthermore was an aquatic dinosaur known as a plesiosaur. For this, among other reasons, he lost his job at the museum and never obtained another academic post. As far as I know he remained faithful to his belief in the monster for the rest of his long life. Of course many people still find the existence of a large animal within Loch Ness to be perfectly credible, but before it is acknowledged there are huge obstacles that would have to be explained away. Some of the photographs on which the theory rests have been revealed as fraudulent. Clearly sightings going back many decades could hardly be of a single animal but would require there to be a breeding population; so where are the dead bodies? What would a population of large air breathing reptiles eat in this deep, dark, cold, rather empty, freshwater lake. The loch cannot be older than 11K years since the Great Glen fault, in which it sits, was occupied by a glacier during the last Ice Age. Where did the creatures come from originally? Since no other dinosaurs have survived unchanged since the end of the Cretaceous period why locate a candidate within an environment subject to such severe fluctuations?

So, what troubles me is how a clever and dedicated scientist could ever have been so very positive about his theory. In short: why do clever people sometimes believe things which, if not actually impossible, are desperately implausible? Several years ago my eldest child gave me a book by Michael Shermer called ‘Why People Believe Weird Things‘ (2002). If you are interested in scepticism then this is certainly the book for you. The author’s view is that clever people can very ably defend beliefs which they arrive at by very un-clever methods. I think what he means is that the clever people are unwilling, or unable, to judge between competing theories but are behaving like barristers and ably presenting the best possible case for their own point of view. They certainly are prone to adopt one forensic trick, that is to provide only evidence that is favourable to their ‘side’. One of the attractive aspects of Shermer’s book, and one I have tried to emulate, is his determination not to ridicule believers in the unbelievable, but rather to understand them. Many do not seem to have an obvious motive for their convictions and certainly not one which brings them any great profit. I imagine that the impossible belief becomes firmly integrated into the personality of the believer with the result that a criticism of the belief is, regrettably, likely to be interpreted as a personal attack.

I appreciate that valuable progress in many areas of knowledge has been initiated by those totally unprepared to accept the established orthodoxy of thought. For example Andreas Versalius’s unwillingness to believe that Galen had said the last word on human anatomy, or Galileo considering that he knew more about the practical effects of gravity than Aristotle. But being a heretic does not ensure that you are correct. So we have a subsidiary problem nicely illustrated by a quotation from Marx, Groucho that is rather than Karl: ‘they said Newton was mad, they said Einstein was mad, they said uncle Louis was mad; of course uncle Louis was mad‘. So how do we distinguish the highly implausible from the unexpectedly correct?

Some believers in the impossible, of whom Dr Tucker may well have been an example, are completely orthodox in their views with the exception of one restricted area of knowledge. But a particularly interesting group are those people generally obsessive amateurs, usually with little or no higher education, who assert that a mainstream area of knowledge has taken a completely wrong turn, and devote themselves to constructing alternative theories of reality. Those that believe that the earth is flat or hollow, should any still remain, would be examples. I sympathise with their insistence that the deepest secrets of the universe ‘ought to be understandable by an ordinary person, who’s willing to do some thinking’ but I don’t share this view. Fields of knowledge such as physics, mathematics and medicine are now difficult enough to require rather gifted individuals to undertake original work, and even those need years of specialist training first. Inevitably the rest of us must take most of their conclusions on trust. Independent thinkers almost invariably portray themselves as lone heroes contending against academic orthodoxy. Personally I consider that if people wish to put themselves up as experts on, let us say, Chinese culture then it is incumbent on them to learn Mandarin first. To insist on this is not to impose an unreasonable restraint on unconventional thinkers from a position of privilege, but rather to require that a committed enthusiast takes time to undertake necessary background research before informing the world in general of arcane truths.

I want to suggest six common motives for the adoption of beliefs which I find impossible to accept, before breakfast or at any other time. I don’t expect that readers will agree completely with me, that would indeed be impossible! I should say at once that I don’t consider that faith in God, if defined as a creative and supportive presence working outside the physical universe of mass, energy and time, is intrinsically one of these impossible beliefs. As I get older I find I am increasingly sympathetic to those who struggle to find answers to important problems such as free-will, how we should behave to each other, what is our place in the universe and the origin of human suffering. But impossible belief type 1 will be held by an individual who has a deep faith, usually but not exclusively a religious faith, which simply will not let them admit to a truth which the rest of us find obvious and unexceptional. I once met a physicist who accepted, as such an article of faith, that the world was created in October 4004 BC. Inevitably this resulted in a struggle with radioactivity which she understood, up to a point, much better than I did. Radioactivity decay has been used to provide igneous rocks with ages of hundreds of millions of years. Radiocarbon dating can be used to prove that human bone, charcoal, and other organic remains were originally living tens of thousands of years ago. My physicist’s solution to this paradox was to consider that radioactive decay once happened at a far faster rate than it does now. That is as unlikely as believing that gravity was once a repulsive rather than an attractive force. Sadly her faith simply did not allow her to accept something which 99.9% of those in her own profession considered fundamental knowledge. For what it is worth I feel strongly that her sacrifice in thought is also a totally unnecessary one. There is nothing in the NT about the age of the universe and creationist beliefs would surely have acted as a barrier between herself and those colleagues who might otherwise be receptive to what she had to say about living a good life in general, or the specific ethical problems posed by physics.

A second error is the refusal to apply science to a problem which is clearly scientific in type. Designing a safe bridge is a problem in engineering, materials science and computer modelling; it cannot be done by faith alone. One small part of the complex therapeutic system known as homeopathy involves the successive dilution of various chemical substances in water. It can easily be demonstrated that the final remedy can contain not a single atom of the original substance. So I am left with the view, which I share with most conventionally trained doctors, that homeopathy is biologically and chemically implausible. Most doctors perhaps, but not all. I have discussed homeopathy with physicians who have turned to it after completing their ordinary medical training. If I can summarise their views these are along the lines of ‘I don’t understand it but it works’; but is this simply a placebo effect? The acceptance of anecdotal evidence like this would take me to a place I have no wish to visit, but readers will have to decide for themselves. I have always considered that exceptional beliefs require exceptional evidence, and on the far from exceptional evidence available I must reject homeopathy. In justice I should add that it was probably a welcome development in the nineteenth century when conventional medical treatment was often deadly. Also people may have all the right motives to be ‘healers’ but find the 10-20 year commitment of modern medical training unattainable. Under these circumstances their search for a more accessible therapeutic system is understandable.

Impossibility type 3 occurs in those who espouse a theory on what they consider to be scientific grounds but are not prepared to expose the belief to disciplines like publication, peer-review and falsification. Type 4 is held by those with such a profound love for another individual that this relationship cannot be tainted by exposure to rationality or common sense. A mother who vigorously maintains a son’s innocence of a crime, despite compelling witness and forensic evidence, would be an example of this. Interestingly what I might call type 4b involves a person you have never met or who is long dead. The uncritical adulation once received by Joseph Stalin, or now by King Richard III, may be examples of this. Both 3 and 4 are illustrated in the following case history.

A highly intelligent young woman suffers from extreme fatigue which developed while she was at university; she is now effectively bed-bound. She was originally cared for within the NHS but investigation has revealed no organic cause for her symptoms. She has been diagnosed as ‘chronic fatigue syndrome’ (ME). Her devoted mother is sure that there is nothing ‘psychologically’ wrong with her daughter. She has searched the internet where she has learned about Lyme disease, a bacterial infection acquired from a tick bite. The patient gave a history of a skin problem which made it possible to entertain this diagnosis, but blood tests were negative and routine antibiotic treatment for the disease was unhelpful. Despite this her mother remained convinced in the diagnosis of Lyme disease and eventually found a doctor in Europe who looked at her daughter’s blood under the microscope and found Lyme disease bacteria. She is now being treated privately with a new antibiotic and she reports ‘some improvement’.

In analysing these events I must say immediately that whatever is actually wrong with the young woman concerned it has effectively destroyed her life, and ordinary medical management has been tried and proved to be unhelpful. The mother loves her daughter deeply and would do anything in the world to help her. Both mother and daughter seem to take the view that a physical illness (like an infection) is somehow more ‘real’ than a psychological problem (like depression). I have to say that I cannot agree with this assessment nor do I think that the distinction is valid in any case. I could not say with certainty that Lyme disease is an impossible diagnosis, but the victim doesn’t seem to have lived in an area where it is common, there is no objective evidence for it now, and appropriate treatment has not caused her symptoms to remit. I propose that the patient’s mother is blinded by the love she has for her daughter and the perfectly understandable wish to see her restored to health. The investigation performed by the European doctor, which sounds so convincing, actually lacks scientific credibility and has never been subject to the process of publication in a peer review journal. I hope that the new doctor is not simply practising a cruel deceit on the vulnerable but has simply forgotten that he is an applied scientist with an ethical responsibility to ensure his investigation and treatment techniques are accepted as valid by those of his peers in a position to judge. In my opinion both mother and doctor are being ‘unreasonable’, though out out of perfectly comprehensible motives. I don’t find reason very easy to define but its elements are surely recognisable enough?

The refusal to accept stated facts without verification.

The application of principles of logic to a problem.

The readiness to change opinion in the light of new knowledge.

The separation of the truth of a proposition from the status of the proposer.

The recognition of the principles of probability when applied to a decision.

Rationality must involve probability and those who are utterly incapable of taking this step constitute type 5 impossibility. As an illustration I would ask you to consider immunisation against infectious diseases. I know that there are people living who have been harmed by medical immunisation. There are quite certainly children who have died because they had not received those immunisations that are available. Parents with responsibility for the care of small children have a choice to make and must ask themselves which situation is more probable when deciding whether to permit immunisation or not. It is sometimes difficult not to be swayed by personal experience even if this experience is highly atypical, but notoriously ‘hard cases make bad laws’.

The type 6 impossible belief is the conspiracy theory. In such a case one or more random events are linked together and identified as being caused by some powerful and often secret group who may later take extreme steps to conceal their machinations. For the moment I personally doubt that we are regularly visited by alien life-forms who write in wheat crops,  nor that the moon-landing was faked, nor that a dead Beatle (I forget whom) has been replaced by a simulacrum. There are difficulties in identifying this type of belief firstly because paranoid delusions are part of some severe mental health problems, and secondly because actual conspiracies of this type do occur. Conspiracy theorists are understandably trying to make sense of inexplicable and dreadful events in a world where governments seldom encourage their citizens with the complete truth. Conspiracy theorists may also have a duellist view of creation and see it as a struggle between light and dark forces in which they represent the light. If they succeed in convincing their neighbours of the correctness of their beliefs it is easy for events to attain an unstoppable momentum of the Salem witch trial type.

I don’t envisage that many readers would have reached this final paragraph without disagreeing with me in one respect at least: my guess is that it’s either the Loch Ness monster or homeopathy, or perhaps you feel I have been too accepting of the reality of the divine? Anyway if you’re still with me possibly I could just add a word on cults since they require you to believe a great many more than six impossible things. There are a great many of these, usually of a religious or political nature. They share common features such as an ‘infallible’ leader, the vehement suppression of any criticism, the separation of adherents from their former friends and lives, and the severe punishments meted out to heretics. So far I have avoided turning my U3A archaeology group into a cult, but the infallible leader aspect does, I admit, have its attractions.


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