Why I sometimes don’t believe in the stuff that scientists tell us

All the time, I’ll see someone on my Facebook feed be like, “Oh, I can’t believe someone doesn’t believe in global warming / evolution / the moon landings, can’t they see the obviousness of the SCIENCE?!?!”

And I’m like, “Err…I do believe in all three of those things, but I have no trouble understanding those peoples’ skepticism.”

I’m not from the sort of socioeconomic background that leads someone to disbelieve in evolution or global warming, but I absolutely do share those peoples’ reflexive distrust of what we’re told by authority.

Even in my short life, I’ve noticed that the world just lies to you all the time. Like…I mean…there are examples that are so obvious that we ignore them, but the scope of them is still breathtaking. There were no WMDs in Iraq. And the August 4th Gulf of Tonkin attack that was used as a justification to broaden the Vietnam War? It didn’t even happen.

And scientists don’t quite lie, but there is a long history of false doom-and-gloom prognostications. For instance, in 1968, Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb was just the most famous of a huge number of manifestos re: how the world was going to be overwhelmed by overpopulation and there’d be global famine and the majority of the world’s population would die. Ehrlich (a professor at Stanford) gave a very specific date. It’d happen by the year 2000.

But it didn’t. Norman Borlaug and a bunch of other people figured out how to feed the extra four billion people and nowadays global hunger is at a lower level than it was in 1968. Most reputable people believed in this. In the book, Ehrlich wrote, “  “I have yet to meet anyone familiar with the situation who thinks that India will be self-sufficient in food by 1971.”

However, by 1971, India was doing much better than it had been doing just 3 years earlier, and the statement disappeared from the book.

And the world lies when it tells you about how to live your life. Like, take Alcoholic’s Anonymous. Literally every movie or television show about alcoholism will include an AA meeting. If you ask anyone, any doctor or mental health professional, about how to quit drinking, they will tell you to go to AA. And in the meeting itself, they will basically say, “This is the only way to quit drinking.”

And that’s not true. By any definition of alcoholism, I was one in 2010. My first meeting was literally a year after I quit drinking (I went to one on my first year anniversary, in the hopes of getting a one year chip). And up until two weeks ago, I’d gone to less than ten meetings in 3.5 years.

AA is fine. It’s certainly not evil. It does good work. But it does perpetuate a lie. And this is a lie that’s been uncritically bought into by almost all of the very responsible and very well-educated people whose job it is to tell us–based on the available science–about the best way to live our lives.

The list of lies goes on and on. Like, uhh, how the healthiness of fat people? You’ll never go to a doctor who won’t tell you to lose weight, but being fat is actually associated with better mortality outcomes.

Also, none of these diets actually work. Like, doctors–medical health professionals who went to school for like twenty years–will tell you to do shit that has been scientifically shown to not work.

Or quitting smoking. The internet and TV are full of ads for cigarette replacement: nicotine patches, nicotine gum, e-cigarettes. And all that stuff is fine…but it’s still the same stuff as you’re addicted to. The world has an incentive to sell you a quit-smoking aid; it does not have an incentive to tell you that most ex-smokers quit cold turkey.

So, I have no trouble understanding it if someone doesn’t believe in some piece of government / corporate-sponsored information that doesn’t jibe with their personal experience, because I do exactly the same thing.

    Like, yeah, I have trouble believing in concepts like:

  • sociopathy — (it just seems like an excuse to demonize criminals and pretend like we don’t all have antisocial and amoral tendencies)
  • books are good for you
  • achieving things is the way to become happy
  • [XXX] will lead to a global disaster that causes society to collapse
  • helping people will make you happy
  • some people are night owls who work better at night and some people are morning people who work better in the morning (I think everyone is more alert right after they wake up)
  • meditation will make you happier (to me, it just seems like the mind cannibalizing itself)
  • you need ten thousand hours of practice in order to achieve mastery (obviously false, I’ve seen so many examples of people who didn’t practice very much before becoming successful)

And I can maybe find evidence for lots of that stuff, but at a basic level, it’s just that some things don’t jibe with my experience of the world. And I wouldn’t even say that I am a skeptic or a rationalist, because it feels like even those people try to feed you lies: they tell you to evaluate the world in some rational, evidence-based way, but what they’re really telling me is that I should believe these highly-educated authority figures who claim to have evaluated the world in a rational, evidence-based way. And I find it hard to do that. Because I know that sometimes those authority figures are lying to me.

So yeah, I mostly accept evidence-based science when it feels true to me, but when it doesn’t, I still give plenty of weight to my own intuitions, observations, and experience of the world.

This probably means that I believe lots of stuff about the world that’s wrong. But…I’m not a policy-maker or a political actor. My possible wrongness about global policy type stuff doesn’t really harm the world. However, when it comes to things about my own life and my own goals, I think I tend to achieve much better results than average, because I don’t persist in doing things when they’re obviously not working. I am pretty much willing to do anything, as long as it works. And I will stop doing anything, if it doesn’t seem like it’s working.


Obviously, the rejoinder here is that I should just accept that some things work for me and some things work for other people. And I mostly do that. But in many cases, I wonder, “Do these things actually work for other people? Or is all their pain and misery and sense of alienation caused by believing in an untruth?” Because I’ve gone through long periods of believing in things that were untrue about myself, and maybe in some cases the problem is that people accept that there’s more variation between different human beings than there really is.



10 thoughts on “Why I sometimes don’t believe in the stuff that scientists tell us

  1. John Nelson Leith

    The problem I see with a lot of science, particularly when dealing with statistics, is that people too quickly move from a majority statistic to a general conclusion.

    Take a room full of test subjects and one researcher pretending to be a test subject (the plant), draw two lines of clearly different lengths on a white board, ask the test subjects whether the lines are the same length BUT have the plant speak up first with the wrong answer, and you’ll find ~80% of the people who follow will also give the obviously wrong answer. The conclusion: human beings bend to social pressure even when they know it’s wrong. (This is a darling of the recent “irrational behavior” trend in pop psychology, and a range of experiments result in a similar ~4:1 split.)

    But, what about the ~20% who didn’t cave? Who are these people and how can we best take advantage of their ability to see and speak the truth despite pressure to conform? Majoritarian thinkers are mum on this, because they focus on statistical trends rather than the whole picture, so we end up with the second-stage discussion of the research dominated by the “humans are hopelessly irrational” stereotype, where the rational minority are simply invisible. It’s not true, and it’s not good science.

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      I sometimes wonder if the 20% are really, somehow, strong-willed people who know what’s what…or if they just differed from the majority in some aspect of their background that made them unwilling to go along.

      I wouldn’t say that this experiment proves that humans are irrational. I’d say that it’s generally pretty rational to assume that if other people believe something very strongly (like that these two lines are equal), then they’re probably right. It’s not irrational to distrust your own faculties (although it’s not something that I recommend, obviously).

  2. GuessHandsOn

    Concepts you don’t believe in: “achieving things is the way to become happy”

    Can you expand on this?

    Wouldn’t you be happy if you made it as a successful writer?

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      No, I’ve found that the rush of joy from any success as a writer (selling stories, getting into grad programs, getting an agent) fades within a few days and then I’m back to baseline.

      1. GuessHandsOn

        Still though – isn’t that the best feeling in the world?

        Sex also, arguably, provides fleeting joy but that’s no reason not to pursue sex.

      2. GuessHandsOn

        Thanks for your answer.

        I mean I guess I agree with your point but still I feel that if only one were successful enough, the joy would be more permanent. I could be wrong but achieving (or ‘winning’ as I’d like to call it) is my favorite feeling in the world.

        Also, have you given any thought to what increases your baseline happiness? If you could blog about it, I’d be interested to read.

        1. R. H. Kanakia

          I don’t know. Don’t get divorced. That definitely decreases it, at least for a while. Don’t become addicted to drugs or alcohol. That’s also not good for happiness. Other than that, I can’t really say. Oh, also sleep debt, that’s no good either

  3. David

    Nitpicking time: I am a zombified wreck when I get up in the morning (if I get up in the morning at all) and it takes me literally hours to get into any kind of groove where I can focus and be productive. This is independent of how much sleep I get the night before, the quality of the sleep, whatnot. With enough practice I can maybe push my most focused hours a little closer to when I wake up, but it’s certainly not right at the start.

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      Yep, it’s totally possible that you’re different. The reason I am skeptical of night owldom is that before I started waking up at 7 AM every day (even on weekends), I was also really unproductive in the morning. But now I experience a level of alertness in the morning that is more consistent and deeper than what I was used to experience at any time of the day, previously.

Comments are closed