Kellyanne Conway, in coining the phrase alternative facts a year ago, accidentally did the world a great service. See, she found a quick, easy way to encapsulate the weird and wacky world of Christian pseudoscience into two brief, easy-to-remember words. No wonder it caught on: the phrase might be new, but the worldview lurking within it sure isn’t. Pseudoscience has been a serious part of Christianity ever since Christianity was, well, Christianity, but it’s become more prominent with the rise of American fundagelicalism. And it wasn’t until recently that Christians’ rock pile of alternative facts got so unwieldy that it simply collapsed in on top of them. Today we’ll have an overview of pseudoscience–what it is and why it’s so important–because we’re about to head into that CPC manual again and it’s going to be relevant!
Pseudoscience: A Definition.
It’s time we [archaeologists] talk to the guy sitting next to us on the airplane.
Archaeologist Donald Holly, September 2015
Science is a catch-all term for the vast body of knowledge humans have developed over our existence, as well as the process of inquiry regarding the world around us. The scientific method is used by scientists and non-scientists alike to develop that body of knowledge and to direct that process of inquiry along paths that will get us to reality-based answers the most efficiently–and help us to prune out the stuff that isn’t true.
Pseudoscience is a set of ideas that look superficially like the results and processes of actual science, but are a far cry from that ideal. The relationship between science and pseudoscience almost resembles that of science-fiction movies’ conceptualization of matter and antimatter. (TVTropes Walkabout Warning!)
Pseudoscience takes many, many forms. Here are a few:
- descriptions of archaeological digs conducted to support ideas that trained, reputable archaeologists long ago discarded;
- biology experiments seeking to confirm an idea that the scientific consensus has rejected;
- investigations of a form of human history that is alien to actual historians;
- a vision of linguistics that flatly contradicts what we know (and know we don’t know!) about the history of human language;
- physics or metaphysics hypotheses that are flatly insupportable by anything that actual physics and metaphysics wizards have worked out; or even
- sociological and psychological papers that ape the scientific method to push a particular political agenda for a particular overly-politicized group or to advance a particular culture war.
And pseudoscience can look very convincing to people who don’t have a background in assessing and evaluating this stuff. That’s the whole point of it. It’s supposed to look impressive to people who are either ignorant of what science-y stuff is supposed to look like, or else are highly motivated to accept pseudoscience despite technically knowing better.
Worse, for a very long time real scientists didn’t really engage with pseudoscientists, despite their deep frustrations with the peddlers of pseudoscience and their understanding of what pseudoscience was doing to the public’s perception of both science itself and the issues of their day. Some scientists feared lending too much legitimacy to ridiculous claims; others didn’t always feel that they had the skills necessary to communicate clearly and understandably with people who weren’t literate in science. Hell, one interview I heard on the topic a few years ago involved someone saying that many people he knew had gotten into his scientific field in the first place because they didn’t speak People all that well–and now it was becoming all too clear to those in his field that they really needed to be able to reach out to the public before humanity descended into the chaos of another Dark Age!
Over time, it seems like scientists are coming around to the necessity of that social engagement. They might be coming late to the party, but they got here eventually–and they brought enough booze for everyone. Unfortunately, Christians are by now immersed in libraries’ worth of alternative facts–and the teachings they received are unlikely to change because of some distinct quirks in the Christian psyche.
Why Christians Love Pseudoscience.
Christians buy into pseudoscience for a lot of reasons, but two main ones stand out to me.
First, we all really want to think that we hold our beliefs for good, valid, and reality-based reasons. Christians just take that desire to extremes.
Sure, Christians might belong to a religion that prizes blind faith in dogmatic ideas far above rational reasons to believe in those ideas, but the reality of the situation is that they are well aware of how much better it is to believe something for a good reason. Moreover, Christians know how damaging contradictory evidence is to that oh-so-prized blind faith that they pretend to value above all else.
Extremist Christians, in particular, are very eager to demonstrate that they came to their beliefs after doing the research, by which they mean that they carefully examined all available evidence on the topic. They want to prove to us that they’ve heard and adequately responded to criticisms of their beliefs; they want us to think that they’ve handled and discarded any potential contradictions with reasonable diligence.
In a lot of ways, this presentation of Christianity as the Last Ideology Standing–as literally the only reasonable belief remaining after all other beliefs have been thoroughly demolished, and indeed the only belief that does stand up to demolition attempts–forms one of the only universal tropes there are in these sales pitches. The Christians giving these testimonies must not only destroy other worldviews, but also present their own as impervious to destruction. And they need to craft their testimonies in this fashion precisely because they, themselves, agree fully with the idea that support for claims is of tantamount importance–regardless of their stated preference for blind belief for no reason and in the face of contradictory evidence.
Fundagelicals, in particular, are raised amid this bizarrely contradictory worldview that blind faith is prized so highly by their god, but then they’re told repeatedly OMG LOOK AT ALL THIS PROOF WE HAVE THAT MAKES BLIND FAITH TOTALLY UNNECESSARY, AIN’T WE LUCKY. It wasn’t until I was right on the edge of deconverting that I even noticed that whole crazymaking aspect to my religion.
Second, however, reality doesn’t really match up at all with their beliefs–so pseudoscience flows in like a sticky, oily sludge to fill those gaps and cover up those contradictions.
Every Christian has a line in the sand about exactly how far they take their literalistic urges. I once had a conversation with a Christian pastor who was trying to escape fundamentalism–but his line in the sand was that Jesus had to have literally existed, died, and gotten resurrected. He’d made peace with all kinds of other Bible myths being metaphorical or allegorical–but this, this detail here, was too important to be anything but literally true. Other Christians take that detail as metaphorical as well. Others still consider every single line in the Bible to be literally true. And others only take the existence of a deity to be what is literally true about their religion.
Almost none of them have actually landed upon the truth: Not one single supernatural claim made by Christians is based on reality or supported by real-world evidence. And that truth can be a little hard for Christians to face, especially when they’re taught that their eternal fates rely upon believing something untrue. The more extremist the flavor of Christianity, the more claims go into creating their body of beliefs, and the higher the stakes become for rejecting any of those claims. If even one single claim that makes up that body of beliefs gets discovered to be false, then the entire house of cards might just come crashing down.1
What to do, what to do….
Oh! They’ll just make stuff up! And because the stuff that they make up has the trappings of real science and confirms their beliefs, they’ll hold to it just as much as if it were real (maybe even more so, considering their reluctance to truly engage with doubt and contradictions).
Obviously, this list doesn’t cover all the Christians who believe in pseudoscience. For example, some of the less savory sorts love pseudoscience because it makes them feel superior not only to non-pseudoscience-believers but also and especially to the real scientists involved in those subjects. The first time you run across an argument between a real quantum
wizard physicist and a Christian who totally thinks that multiverses and quantum theory are evidence for their beliefs, or a debate between a Creationist and a professional biologist, you won’t forget it in a hurry! These can be really educational experiences, though sometimes it’s painful to hear the Christian’s self-delusions put on parade like that.
(Also I think some of them just love arguing. Back in college I heard literally hours of arguments about whether or not the Rapture would happen before, during, or after the Tribulation.2)
Let Them Count the Ways.
So that’s 32 days from around 730 total [to code a theoretical model]. What was all the rest of that time devoted to? Trying to anticipate every possible objection to our approach. Checking if those objections were valid. Trying to find examples of physically realistic parameters to test our model with. Seeing if the code was actually modeling what we thought it was. Making sure that our assumptions were valid. In summary, we were trying to prove ourselves wrong. [Spoiler: They ended up being wrong.]
Chris Lee, Ars Technica, July 2010
The people who believe in pseudoscience think they they are the heroes in the movies of their own lives, standing before a wall full of pictures and newspaper articles connected with push-pins and string. In reality, they’re a lot closer to the weirdos that those movie detectives capture at the end of the movies after entering the weirdo’s house and pushing past creepy rooms full of scrawled graffiti and layers of plastered-on, torn-out magazine spreads. And wow, there are a lot of those weirdos in Christianity, and wow, there are a lot of pseudoscience-based beliefs floating around in the Christ-o-sphere.
And there are ways of figuring out which end of that equation we’re on, with perhaps the strongest of those ways being to ask if the belief we’re investigating is one we are truly and really willing to drop if the evidence leads us to an unthinkable conclusion. But only rarely will someone ask those important questions of themselves if they’re involved in a group that simply punishes that behavior, which even Christian pastors themselves concede happens often.
People naturally gravitate to information that confirms their belief. Confirmation bias is one of the most pervasive cognitive biases of them all, and it can be difficult to root out and defeat–especially because so much of the modern world is built around catering to someone’s pre-existing opinions and, not coincidentally, reinforcing them. Especially when that pre-existing opinion regards something that makes the believer feel fear or disgust, or make them revel in their imagined superiority to others (or both; no reason it can’t be both), it’s going to be a struggle for them to push past their feelings to engage fully with criticisms of that opinion.
In addition, I’ve personally noticed that people who buy into pseudoscience tend to invest a lot of their own egos and self-image into their buy-in of the idea–so when the idea is criticized, they inevitably see that criticism as an attack upon themselves and react accordingly. That criticism becomes a perceived aspersion cast on their judgment and discernment, and they are stung by the idea that someone, somewhere, thinks that they are fools or–far worse even than that–that their entire ideology isn’t believable. It can be very difficult to discuss their belief or what they feel supports that belief without them simply shutting down in self-defense.
And that one-sided engagement can make it incredibly difficult to engage with someone who believes nonsense, even as the need for that engagement has never been greater. The effort that Christians put into creating these bias-reinforcing (and ego-defending) systems can be simply incredible. They amass false ideas like Magic players collect cards, and if the false idea supports their ideology then it is added to an ever-growing pile and then never discarded. Pushback to the false idea is ignored–in fact, the shields of antiprocess will ensure that the person holding that false idea won’t even fully recognize, much less engage, with that pushback.
It can be hard for anybody to escape a false belief based upon pseudoscience. The web that these pseudoscientists weave can start looking an awful lot like any regular ol’ conspiracy theory. Because pseudoscience hucksters freely borrow from cognitive biases and logical fallacies alike, people who aren’t aware of those pitfalls can end up sucked in for a long time. If those people were very young when first exposed to the pseudoscience, too, they often will believe it for many years simply out of a misplaced trust in their authority figures.
That said, there is hope.
If someone’s going to school, they might learn how to distinguish real science from pseudoscience. They might even learn how to think, rather than getting told simply what to think. Otherwise, they might get some pushback from non-believing friends, or see something online or through media that contradicts the belief and hits them at just the right time.
Or they might be confronted, as I was, by a sudden inescapable and insurmountable influx of new information that they realize can’t possibly be true, mixed in with the pseudoscience they already believe in.
The awesome part of Christian pseudoscience is that they believe that if one thing about their beliefs is wrong, chances are that all of it must then be thrown in the trash can. That’s an incredible strength in a way, because if they can start questioning any part of their beliefs and figure out why the belief is wrong, not just that it is wrong, then they might do what I did and apply that process of inquiry to their other beliefs, ending up with something a little closer to reality.
We’re going to be tackling the pseudoscience involved in Sender’s Crisis Pregnancy Manual next, and I want y’all to be thinking about why the pseudoscience in it is being presented where and how, and what the effects of that presentation are hoped to be. See you next time!
1 This is why Christians have a tough time accepting that in real science, we find out that we were wrong about stuff all the time. Being wrong isn’t a bug of the system in reality; it’s the biggest and best feature of it!
2 My general reaction: OH MY GOD YOU GUYS PLEASE STOP BEFORE I EXPLODE WITH BOREDOM. (They never reached a consensus; everyone involved always ended up thinking that they were still right. I don’t remember a single person who changed their mind about a single doctrinal stance in that entire time.)
It turns out I am not a morning person after all.
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