Rational Ignorance, Specialization, and Evolution

I have some quibbles with sourcreamus's post about why irrational beliefs exist. (S)he says:

I was reading some forum posts about Scientology the other day, and whenever that subect comes up my first thought is always "How could people believe something so stupid?" After some thought about it, I came to the conclusion the reason is not stupidity or irrationality, but specialization. It is irrational to learn how to fix my car, since if it ever breaks I can pay a specialist to do it for me, and the cost of paying for him to do it will be less than the cost of learning how to do it myself. Likewise, knowing too much about theology or the origin of the universe is irrational. There are people who spend their lives studying these things and the price I will pay to understand these things will generally be more than the benefit I derive from the knowledge. So I just choose an expert and believe what they believe. However, there are many experts out there and many say contradictory things. So how do I choose an expert? I could read their positions and research which is better. but to do that I'd have to become and expert which I have no desire to do. Another way is to pick an expert who is part of a group I already trust. To apply this to Scientology, one expert says that the reason you are depressed is because of an imbalance in the neurotransmitter levels in the brain. The other expert says that it is because of some spirits that attached themselves to you when your mother screamed during your delivery. The second expert also said that if you hold two cans in your hands while imagining past traumas you would feel good afterwards. The second expert was right about that so you decide to trust him about the reason for depression.

When you pay someone to fix your car, you get results that are immediately apparent: either you car is fixed, or it isn't. If it is, you might hire him the next time your car breaks down. If it isn't, you hire someone else next time. Because there is immediate feedback, it pays to be rational about who you hire. And because there is a market in mechanics, there is feedback in the system. Specialization does not result in irrational beliefs as long as there is adequate feedback and an ability to evaluate results. Markets promote feedback evaluation through the price system. Markets promote rationality.

The problem comes in the sifting of data, having adequate control groups, and overcoming innate biases to have proper feedback. For example, it's not easy to determine how much of a car's poor performance over many years is due to expected wear-and-tear and how much is due to poor servicing by mechanics.

The ease of data-sifting varies with different types of markets. The market for mechanics is more rational than the market for medical services, which is itself more rational than the market for legislation.

As an aside, the part about Scientology got me thinking what I'm sure others have probably already said somewhere but just occurred to me. How can a nation as prosperous as the US still have so many people who would rather subscribe to creationism than evolution? Simply, for most people, there are very few costs associated with creationism, and there is very little to gain with a belief in evolution.

Share this

"How can a nation as

"How can a nation as prosperous as the US still have so many people who would rather subscribe to creationism than evolution? Simply, for most people, there are very few costs associated with creationism, and there is very little to gain with a belief in evolution."

Yes, that's part of it. Here is an article that gives another element of the explanation:

http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/bloom07/bloom07_index.html

The idea is that certain mental habits that are highly conducive to effective behavior, especially in small children, actually tend to block acceptance of the correct scientific view of things. One of these habits is "promiscuous teleology," which biases the mind in favor of creationism.

Costs of belief

Data sifting in this context is next to impossible, however the costs of different beliefs are very high. By the time a scientologist has been told about the volcanoes and the nuclear bombs which caused all their problems, they have paid large sums to the "church". Creationism is generally associated with Christianity which requires giving at least 10% of one's money and refraining from certain behaviors. In contrast, belief in evolution and psychiatry are almost costless. Unless the creationists are right and there is a big cost at the end.