Norm has an interesting comment on Ron Aronson’s ‘Choosing to Know’ – but I take issue with it. I wonder if that’s because weird beliefs are more abundant over here, where Aronson and I live, than they are over there, where Norm lives. I wonder if people who believe weird things are more familiar to us than they are to Norm. Lucky Norm if so.

I’m not sure that asking in a general way why people hold weird beliefs – or, otherwise expressed, why they believe things that aren’t true – can yield a single and satisfying answer.

I take issue with that because I think holding weird beliefs and believing things that aren’t true are two different things, which raise different questions and issues. It’s perfectly easy and (often) reasonable and commonplace to believe things that aren’t true without the beliefs being weird. It’s easy just to get things wrong, to remember incorrectly, to misread, to misunderstand, to lack information; but none of that is by itself weird. (It may become weird if people try to point out the misunderstanding or offer information only to meet obstinate resistance – but that doesn’t always happen.) I think what Aronson has in mind in the article are genuinely weird beliefs and that that entails a certain element of perversity or willfulness or resistance to correction – I think that’s what is meant by ‘weird’ beliefs. Weird beliefs aren’t just mistaken beliefs, they’re beliefs that one is surprised to find in apparently reasonable adults.

Norm continues:

Bad faith can certainly play a part in someone’s refusing to recognize a truth which they have in some sense perceived; there is such a thing as wilful ignorance. At the same time, to make this a major explanatory cause for beliefs that are very widely held strikes me as a form of wishful thinking: as if to say that all these millions of people really know the truth already but won’t own up to it; or that the reality of things is always there before us and seeing it takes no effort.

Sure. But for weird beliefs that are very widely held…it’s a different matter, I think. Weird beliefs, as opposed to merely false beliefs, do (perhaps by definition) partake of willful ignorance. Though I suppose one could divide weird beliefs…into, say, weird beliefs that rest on mistaken but extensive and plausible webs of pseudo-argument and pseudo-evidence and pseudo-data and the like, and weird beliefs that rest on hokey tv shows and books by Sylvia Browne and other nonsense that no one over the age of 6 should find convincing. In that case the former type of weird beliefs would conform to Norm’s claim while the second type would conform to Ron’s.

It’s a large and complicated task, categorizing the types of false belief. Where are Bouvard and Pécuchet when we need them?

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