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Scientists have concluded that the human capacity for believing in nonsense stretches slightly beyond infinity. Natural immunity prevents COVID-19? John F. Kennedy Jr. is making plans to appear at Dealey Plaza in Dallas? Pillow guy Mike Lindell has a big file of evidence of a “rigged election?” Donald Trump represents humanity’s hope of bringing to bay a cult of baby eaters?

It’s unnerving that people believe such baseless claims. The issue isn’t whether such assertions are true, but rather how we are to deal with the roiling mess of factors that transport a good American, one who might gladly lend a hand to help a neighbor in need, to believe them.

Acceptance by the group is a powerful motivator. Once you are in, the warmth of group approval keeps you there. However, question the authority or, worse, ask, “What’s the evidence?” and one’s place in the group may come to a quick end. Those who are searching for simple answers to complex questions, as well as those who struggle for social affiliation are, thus, vulnerable to cult-like thinking.

A Monitor on Psychology article by Kirsten Weir pointed to an additional reason that some of us latch onto fantasies. We tend to accept something as true if it supports what we already have come to believe, such as a moral value, as behavioral scientists cited by Weir have discovered.

For example, University of California researchers Drs. Peter Ditto and Brittany Liu found that people who were morally opposed to condom education were less likely to believe the well-established facts that condoms are effective at preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.

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Similarly, Dr. Tony Campbell and his research team at the University of Oregon sought out both the supporters of same-sex marriage and those who oppose it. Half of those in each group were presented with fictional data suggesting that children raised by same-sex parents will experience poor outcomes, while the remaining members of each group reviewed information suggesting healthy outcomes. The “evidence” tended to be seen as factual when it supported one’s side of the debate. But when the evidence did not support their view, the participants argued that their opposition was based on moral values, rather than on facts.

Perhaps there is a parallel to those who oppose COVID-19 vaccination but, when shown the evidence of vaccine effectiveness, mount moral objections, such as vaccines being an effort to reduce their freedoms.

Media, including the internet, play a role, too. The internet makes it easy to become enmeshed in the cadre who “confirm” what we wish was true. This week, the parents of several children who were murdered in the Sandy Hook school shooting successfully concluded their lawsuit against professional charlatan Alex Jones. On his show, Jones repeatedly had claimed that the shootings were a government “false flag” to justify greater gun control. Probably, the many listeners who agreed with Jones were already averse to gun control laws on moral or political grounds. Interestingly, rather than show up with evidence to defend himself, Jones defaulted on the parents’ lawsuit.

What can be done to stem the acceptance of demonstrably false beliefs? It is important to start with children, Weir says. A Stanford study shows that kids can be taught to pay attention to the source of information, to consider the possible biases of that source, to learn the motives of the source and to consider what might have been left out of a media report. Surely, grownups can cultivate those skills, too, if they aren’t already convinced it would subject them to governmental mind control.

Joseph Wyatt is a Gazette-Mail contributing columnist and emeritus professor at Marshall University. Reach him at wyatt@marshall.edu.

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