I propose “Shermer’s Law” for this observation by Michael Shermer: “Smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons.”1
This observation makes an important distinction between (1) how someone came to their beliefs and (2) how they later defend those beliefs. People often come to their beliefs for poor reasons—for example, they may be racist or religious simply because they were raised in that environment.
Few will admit as an adult, “Oh, yeah—I don’t believe that for any better reason than that I was steeped in that environment, and I’m now just an unthinking reflection of that environment.” Instead, they use their intellect (much more formidable now that they’re an adult) to marshal a defense of their beliefs. The belief comes first, and the defense comes after. And this isn’t just to save face with an antagonist; it’s to save face with themselves.
We can come up with a defense for just about anything. It may not be a very good defense, but it’s something, and it may be sufficient to avoid cognitive dissonance (“Surely I believe this for a good reason, right??”). The smarter you are, the better the defense you will come up with.
All of us do this, and (this may be consolation) the smartest people can do it more spectacularly than the rest of us. Isaac Newton wasted time in alchemy, Nobel laureate Linus Pauling in vitamin C research, and Nobel laureate William Shockley in eugenics.
Try to uncover this by asking, “You’re giving me an argument for Christianity, but is this what convinced you? If not, why don’t you give me the argument that made you a Christian?”
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1 Michael Shermer, Why People Believe Weird Things (Freeman, 2002), p. 283.
- See all the definitions in the Cross Examined Glossary.
- “Shermer’s First Law of Intelligence,” Urban Dictionary.