Pathological Disbelief and Intellectual Terror

“The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds the most discoveries, is not “Eureka!” (I found it!) but “That’s funny…”  ~ Isaac Asimov

One of the great obstacles to progress in scientific understanding was well described by Nobel Prize-winning Cambridge emeritus professor Brian Josephson as “pathological disbelief.” Josephson used the term in a lecture he gave that mirrored a lecture called “Pathological Science” given by chemistry laureate Irving Langmuir.

In the abstract to the lecture Josephson noted:

Langmuir discussed cases where scientists, on the basis of invalid processes, claimed the validity of phenomena that were unreal. My interest is in the counter-pathology involving cases where phenomena that are almost certainly real are rejected by the scientific community, for reasons that are just as invalid as those of the cases described by Langmuir.

Josephson cited the example of Alfred Wegener’s theory on continental drift, proposed in 1912, which hypothesized that the continents slowly drift around the earth. Wegener was unable to come up with a convincing mechanism to explain this movement and though his theory was correct, it was not generally accepted until 1950. What is most interesting about Wegener’s experience was the vehemence of the attacks launched against him and the outright dismissal of his theory, despite the overwhelming evidence in its favor.

Josephson also noted that:

In such situations incredulity, expressed strongly by the disbelievers, frequently takes over: no longer is the question that of the truth or falsity of the claims; instead, the agenda centres on denunciation of the claims. …In this “denunciation mode”, the usual scientific care is absent; pseudo-arguments often take the place of scientific ones.

Fanaticism reigns supreme when intellectual terror usurps the place of honest scientific enquiry. The same holds true in religious circles, for every time that blind faith supplants gnosis, man is imprisoned by his so-called understanding.

I’ve been following the current vitriol aimed at anyone who dares to suggest a link between vaccination and autism. The phenomenon of pathological disbelief is present in the medical community and you needn’t look further than the treatment Dr. Andrew Wakefield received after publishing his 1998 study of the MMR vaccine. The press constantly stated that Dr. Wakefield claimed that the MMR vaccine caused autism, but even a layperson reading the study could see that he never made such a claim. What he did claim was that children with autism often suffer from bowel disease, a hypothesis with an abundance of evidence in its favor.

Will we get to the bottom of what has caused Autism’s 60 fold increase in just 30 years? If we find a way to set aside the pathological disbelief I am confident that we will. If not, I fear for the future health and wellbeing of our children’s children.

Josephson noted that the unscientific attitude he called “pathological disbelief” is embodied by the attitude “even if it were true, I wouldn’t believe it.” When it is put that way it is a little scary, isn’t it?

Science without conscience is the soul’s perdition.” ~ François Rabelais

12 thoughts on “Pathological Disbelief and Intellectual Terror

  1. Colin

    You see this type of attitude whenever there is a scientific question that would greatly change the status quo. There are examples in every area of scientific endeavor. They run the gamut from questions with little significance to the majority of people, to the things that might affect everybody’s future. Thinking about it, there seem to be many possible reasons: pride, power struggle, ego, economics, etc. Humanity has to be able to see above the vitriol that surrounds these types of issues, and suss out the facts that are being obfuscated by various special interests. It’s funny that you mentioned gnosis, because I think that might be the key to a lot of these issues. If we learn to hone our sense of the truth of things, we will be better able to see what the scientific reality is with some of these questions.

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  3. strawberryfields

    This post stopped me in my tracks. When we reject any idea by intimidating or berating the author we can bet there is more to it. We should seek to find answers not justification for our presently held ideas.
    Thanks for the information.

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    1. Gregg Hake

      Intimidation and berating others to make or prove a point is evidence of weak-mindedness and I agree, there is typically something worth noting on the other end of it.

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  4. Jordan

    So interesting Gregg. Just yesterday in my homeopathy course (yes, a homeopathy course at a state college… Can you believe it?) we had a discussion about the autism epidemic and the closed mindedness of the general scientific/medical community. The whole topic arose out of a conversation concerning the disbelief in homeopathy because we have failed to be able to put it in the box of the scientific method, and prove by such means that it is “valid.” How could our world change if we were willing to take a look from a different angle; if we were willing to overcome pride for the sake of solving these mysteries? I only hope that an insatiable curiosity could instead replace this “pathological disbelief” so that truth may be revealed. Thank you again for your inspiring and thought provoking words!

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    1. Gregg Hake

      That must be a fascinating course, as much for its renaissance in modern education as for its content! It’s terrible when curiosity and genuine scientific inquiry play second fiddle to ego, institutionalized self-interest and fiduciary priorities. Thanks for commenting, Jordan!

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  5. JMc

    The earth is flat,bathing causes colds,women aren’t capable of rational thinking; all of these were concepts that required long tough battles before they could be seen as untrue. It seems ridiculous to think that people would have a hard time entertaining the truth about these ideas but they each were attached to so much more. The more is usually wrapped up in money, power and control. Will the new thought unbalance who currently controls them? In many cases the truth isn’t the goal. It is tragic for humanity when this is the case.
    Compelling post. The current Autism epidemic should be an open season for research, open discouse and unity.

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