The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

Monday, 3 August 2009

Deceiving Is Believing

In response to Simon Guerrier’s blog post about measuring the weight of evidence and how we take things like the dates of our births on trust... a couple of thoughts.

It’s human nature to opt for the simplest, most obvious answer to any question. You can see why; it’s important for survival to make a link between cause and effect – stop eating food which makes you sick, don’t go dancing barefoot in the part of the jungle where all your friends have been bitten by ground snakes, that sort of thing.

Problem is, the simplest, most obvious solution isn’t necessarily the correct one. Because, very often, the simplest, most obvious solution is ‘because god says so’. Which isn’t so very different from the explanation that parents give when telling their kids to behave without having a clear reason to hand; ‘because I say so’. So for years people believed the sun went up in the morning and went down at night because god designed it that way.

It’s also how magic tricks work. The audience takes everything at face value, that the suit the magician is wearing is just a suit, that the guillotine is just a guillotine. Except, of course, the suit isn’t a suit but a intricately-designed cloak of hidden compartments and the guillotine has been specially designed for the blade to invisibly retract into the wood. The audience is fooled because they assume that the onstage equipment works in a simple, obvious way – when the truth is much more complicated.

Simon’s right to say people should challenge their own beliefs; I’d add that it’s healthy to be sceptical of anything based on the ‘because I say so’ argument, whether it be religion, ghosts or mathematical statements that seem to hold true but which haven’t been proved.


  1. Interesting! But I'd argue that though the "because I say so" arguments *starts* simple, it can tie itself up in very complex knots once you start to question it. I have another idea about why it might have been useful to say "Because God says so", but I shall blog it myself sometime.

  2. How does human nature's preference for the simplest, most obvious answer to any question square with the love of a conspiracy theory? My current favourite bit of debunking is this piece about the lunatic fringe who can't bring themselves to accept that Barack Obama was elected:

  3. Kind of paradoxically, it squares with it pretty well. Take, for example, Diana being killed. Why did she die? Well, a combination of a driver taking drugs, poor driving, a lack of seatbelts and a complex web of coincidences. The reason 'why' is messy, complicated, and hard to understand. It's much simpler to say 'She was murdered and then it was all covered up'. The means of the assassination may be convoluted, but it addresses the 'why' part of the question in a reassuringly straightforward way. After all, we'd much rather live in a world where people died for a reason, because of bad people doing bad things, than a world where people die meaninglessly as a result of blind chance.

    Re: Obama. For those on the losing side in any election, it is always a simpler explanation to believe that the winner succeeded through some sort of conspiracy than it is to believe in the much more difficult and unappealling truth that lots of other people in your country didn't vote the same way as you.