Belief in Disbelief


Alan Coughlan shows us why we must start to question the common beliefs around us

During the space race back in the 1960s, NASA was faced with a major problem. The astronaut needed a pen that would write in the vacuum of space. NASA went to work. At a cost of $1.5m they developed the ‘Astronaut Pen’. Some of you may remember it – it enjoyed minor success on the commercial market. The Russians were faced with the same dilemma. They used a pencil.

This story is both interesting and amusing – reasons why people repeat and enjoy the story. Versions of this email can be found all over the internet which take small pot shots at American engineers. The only problem, though, is that it isn’t true. The initial Soviet and American space missions both used pencils, and NASA never spent any money developing a space pen. American inventor Paul C. Fisher invented the pen independently as a writing device to work in extreme conditions of pressure and temperature, and on substances as diverse as butter and steel. He offered the pen to NASA, who promptly bought a batch of 400 pens for the small sum of $2.95 each. The Fisher space pen also offered greater safety, as broken pieces of pencil lead getting caught in the electronics could be hazardous.

Even when faced with evidence that has always been there, people choose to believe the myth. Naturally it makes for an amusing anecdote but like in many stories the truth in this case seems just as interesting. So what is it about urban legends, common misconceptions and conspiracy theories that capture people’s imaginations? Why do people in the face of contrary evidence choose to believe differently?

Ask anyone what the only man-made object is visible from space and they will invariably respond with the Great Wall of China. If we take space to mean ‘low earth orbit’ (160-350 miles up) then this theory fails as highways, airports and components of the Kennedy Space Centre are discernible. Further than low earth orbit, and nothing man-made is visible. Why then is this not common knowledge? Richard Halliburton wrote in Second Book of Marvels: The Orient that “the only man made thing on our planet visible to the human eye from the moon is the Great Wall.” Strangely, he wrote this in 1938 when no human had even travelled to space.

Wide belief in something false requires propagation of the myth, and Halliburton’s books were quite popular in the first half of the 20th century. Without any other evidence his assertion became common knowledge and thus the common ‘truth’ is believed over actual reality.

According to Michael Shermer, some common traits observed in those who tend to believe in myths are patternicity (the act of finding meaningful patterns in random noise) and hindsight bias (tailoring explanations to suit what we already know happened). When a person is stung with a nettle, a common response by most people is to rub the sting with a dock leaf. Both nettles and docks are perennial weeds with deep roots that take over recently disturbed ground. This is usually in areas not subject to grazing, which is why they grow alongside each other.

The practice of applying the dock to the nettle sting has apparently grown out of parents trying to calm young children who have been stung, seeking out something close to hand to solve the problem. Fascinatingly there is absolutely no scientific evidence to show that anything in a dock leaf neutralises the sting – nothing above the anecdotal has been proven. I will not postulate on what happens when a person rubs a sting with a dock leaf, but common belief is that it helps. Perhaps the mind in this case is powerful enough to make this myth true.

Another example. Body Mass Index (BMI) is a scale used to estimate a healthy weight for a person based on their height. Dieticians and many medical professionals use this scale to help gauge a person’s overall state of well-being.  A person’s weight in kilos is divided by the square of their height in metres to calculate the figure. The cut-off for a healthy weight is a BMI 25. It is true that some forms of heart disease can be linked to higher BMIs but a recent study of 33,000 adults have shown that life expectancy reaches a maximum at levels far higher than the supposed BMI of 22. Life expectancy is at its highest for men at 26 and at 23.5 for women.

According to current standards, this level for men is considered overweight. This belief is fairly prevalent, and those interested in fitness and their diet may actually be doing themselves more harm than good in the long run simply because they are adhering to what is presented as the ideal.

A certain level of trust in authority figures is required as we go about our daily lives but as we can see from BMI, questions should always be asked. In 1958 an Oscar-winning documentary by Disney entitled White Wilderness depicted a large group of lemmings partaking in natural behaviour by scampering of cliffs. Once committed to film, this long standing myth was given a visual backbone, and has become a commonly-held belief. The truth is that lemmings don’t commit suicide: the lemmings in the movie were actually launched off the cliff for use in the documentary.

Some of the strangest things in nature and indeed the universe seem almost impossible to believe, seemingly more like works of fiction than that of reality. Indeed, the first scientists to document the duck-billed platypus thought it so bizarre as to be a hoax – an animal stitched together from many specimens.

Perhaps the best mantra to keep in mind when dealing with any story or situation though is that known as Occam’s Razor, which states that “the simplest solution is usually the correct one.”