Creationism and Conspiracy Theories Arise From an Error in Thinking

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Cognitive biases – essentially errors in thinking – plague humankind. Spending money or exerting effort on some activity in the past corrupts our decision making about that activity in the future (sunk cost fallacy). We tend to be overly optimistic about our own chances of success, assuming that nothing bad will happen to us (optimism bias). We prefer stories and opinions that confirm our beliefs (confirmation bias). In short, all humans are irrational and error-prone.

Two belief systems – creationism and conspiracism – seem to arise from flawed thinking. According to a new study published in Current Biology, people who ascribe to those beliefs disproportionately succumb to one particular cognitive bias more than others.

Conspiratorial ideation and creationist beliefs are linked to teleological thinking, a cognitive bias defined as "the attribution of purpose and a final cause to natural events and entities."

Statements like "the sun rises in order to give us light" or "the purpose of bees is to ensure pollination" are examples of teleological thinking, author Sebastian Dieguez of the University of Fribourg explained in a press release.

But these sorts of statements are inherently flawed and unscientific, implying purpose that doesn't exist. As Star Trek's Spock might explain in a logical and very Vulcan sort of way, the sun "rises" because of Earth's rotation. Bees pollinate as a byproduct of looking for pollen or nectar which they can use to sustain their colonies.

For their study, the Dieguez and his colleagues conducted a survey of 157 French college students designed to ascertain conspiratorial thinking, teleological thinking, as well as their abilities to analytically reason. They also analyzed a survey of 1,252 members of the general French population to look for a link between creationist beliefs and conspiratorial thinking. Lastly, the researchers recruited 733 more subjects to complete an online questionnaire to test whether creationism, conspiracism, and teleological thinking are correlated.

The net result of the surveys: Teleological thinking was associated with conspiracist and creationist beliefs. Moreover, creationism and conspiracism were also directly correlated.

This makes intuitive sense. Conspiracists tend to see nefarious designs at the heart of significant events, which more often than not are simply combinations of coincidence. The same goes for creationists, who prefer life that's intelligently designed or created rather than a collection of chance mutation and natural selection.

"The 'everything happens for a reason'... intuition at the heart of teleological thinking not only remains an obstacle to the acceptance of evolutionary theory, but could also be a more general gateway to the acceptance of anti-scientific views and conspiracy theories," the authors conclude.

Source: Pascal Wagner-Egger, Sylvain Delouvée, Nicolas Gauvrit, Sebastian Dieguez. "Creationism and conspiracism share a common teleological bias." Current Biology. Volume 28, ISSUE 16, PR867-R868, August 20, 2018

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