The title of "Denying to the Grave: Why We Ignore the Facts that Will Save Us" pretty much sold me on the book. Even though the authors focus on medical myths, often the same factors that lead people to embrace health falsehoods are responsible for unfactual religious beliefs.
On page 5 we get a list of "healthcare beliefs that fly directly in the face of scientific evidence and that are supported by at least a substantial minority of people."
- Vaccination is harmful.
- Guns in the house will protect residents from armed intruders.
- Food containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are dangerous to human health.
- The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is not the cause of AIDS.
- Nuclear power is more dangerous than power derived by burning fossil fuels.
- Antibiotics are effective in treating viral infections.
- Unpasteurized milk is safe and contains beneficial nutrients that are destroyed by the pasteurization process.
- Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT, or shock treatment) causes brain damage and is ineffective.
Now, there is positive evidence that supports a rejection of these assertions.
I disbelieved in almost all of them before I read Denying to the Grave. My eyes were opened in a few areas, notably the effectiveness of shock treatment. One of the authors, Jack Gorman, is a psychiatrist who was on the faculty of Columbia University's Department of Psychiatry for 25 years, so his assessment of the scientific evidence about ECT is highly credible.
When it comes to religiosity, though, evidence-based research is almost non-existent. After all, it is very rare for religions to make testable assertions that can be falsified through experiment or observation.
Life after death, for example, is an unfalsifiable assertion. So is the existence of God. Here's a passage from the book pertaining to this.
Any scientific hypothesis must be falsifiable. This is why the statement "There is a God" is not a scientific hypothesis because it is impossible to disprove. The goal of scientific experimentalism, therefore, is to try to disprove a hypothesis by a process that resembles experience or empirical observation.
It is this line of thinking that informs the way hypothesis testing is designed in science and statistics. We are always trying to disprove a null hypothesis, which is the hypothesis that there is in fact no finding. Therefore a scientific finding will always be a matter of rejecting the null hypothesis and never a matter of accepting the alternative hypothesis.
For example, in testing a new medication, the technical aspects of acceptable modern experimental design frame the question being asked not as "Can we prove that this new drug works?" but rather "With how much certainty can we disprove the idea that this drug does not work?"
When it comes to God and all other theorized things in the realm of the supernatural, obviously there is essentially zero evidence in support of their existence. Prayer hasn't been shown to have any effect. Specific predictions about future events don't occur outside of what would happen by guesswork alone.
Yet people still cling irrationally to religious beliefs. Denying to the Grave is filled with reasons for this. Here's a few of them.
Dislike of uncertainty. The Gormans point out that "it is simply too frightening to accept the fact that we don't know what causes something or how to cure it...How can we live with uncertainty, even when that uncertainty extends to scientists who have not -- and never will -- figure out all the answers?"
Children love to ask Why? Seeking answers is an important aspect of our humanity.
So when a religious leader claims to have answers to why the world was created, what happens after death, or what God's plan for us is, we have a natural tendency to embrace those spurious answers, even though almost certainly they aren't true, since there is no demonstrable evidence for them.
Charismatic leaders appeal to emotions. Every religion is led by charismatic individuals, usually of the male variety (even Buddhism, which has the Dalai Lama). In various ways, they appeal to our emotions. Which makes sense, because there are very little, if any, factual reasons to say YES to a religion.
Denying to the Grave says:
As we have observed many times throughout this book, people respond more to emotional anecdotes than to population-based statistics, and this is in part an adaptation that allows us to have empathy and thus form functional societies... We argued in chapter 2 that charismatic leaders are in part so successful because they appeal to people's emotions.
...In general, charismatic leaders tend to share the following common characteristics: verbal eloquence, strong communication skills, a potent sense of an "us" versus "them," and a remarkable ability to elicit strong emotions.
...All leaders must create a sense of "us," but what is perhaps unique about the charismatic leader is that he or she not only creates a much stronger sense of an enemy "them" than any other type of leader but also formulates a sense of "us" that can be so potent it operates to the exclusion of other identities.
That is, the group's "us" becomes so strong that people in the group feel an allegiance to the group identity above all other aspects of their identities. This is especially true in cults, and we will examine whether some of this strong "us" branding has occurred in some of the health denialist movements under examination in this book.
People have trouble changing their minds. We dislike uncertainty. We're prone to accept emotional assertions by charismatic leaders, even if they don't have any factual basis. We enjoy feeling like we're part of a group that knows more than other groups, whether or not this is true.
Thus for these and other reasons, it is difficult for people to change their minds. The book says:
We set up beliefs that suit us, and then our brains work very hard to make sure we can resist anything that seems to challenge those beliefs.
Such is the power of cognitive dissonance.
It turns out that we are extremely resistant to changing our minds. We are reluctant to unlearn lessons we've learned and integrated. When we are confronted with information that conflicts with what we already believe, we experience cognitive dissonance.
Cognitive dissonance is extremely uncomfortable, and we do everything we can to dispel it. This is how people convince themselves that smoking is safe, that they do not need to eat vegetables, and that repeatedly skipping trips to the gym will not make a difference in their weight or health.
Or, that believing in the tenets of a religion will lead to eternal life in a heavenly realm.