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When being unfalsifiable is a good thing

Laboratory FunCommon knowledge says that you believe what you’re taught, or what your gut tells you is right, or – better yet – what the facts tell you is true. We say that we believe things because we have reasons to believe them, and common knowledge says that if the facts change, our beliefs will change, too. This idea is called falsifiability. The problem is that a lot of our beliefs are unfalsifiable, which means there's no way to test whether they’re right or wrong. And this can be a problem, particularly if it leads to extremism and dogmatism. So unfalsifiability is often seen as a bad thing. But could it actually be a good thing when unfalsifiable ideas unite a community or nation?

To test this idea, Troy Campbell, a social psychologist now at York University, Troy Campbell, a doctoral candidate in marketing at Duke University, and Aaron Kay, a social psychologist at Duke, looked at how people’s confidence in their religious and political views would change depending on whether the topic was falsifiable or not. Their theory is that unfalsifiability is a factor in what’s called motivated reasoning. This is when you believe something to be true because it’s how you wish it was, regardless of what the facts say. Anyone who’s had a friend deny that their boyfriend or girlfriend is cheating on them despite the ample evidence that it’s true – or, more likely, seen this story on TV – is familiar with motivated reasoning. What this means is that people don’t always base their beliefs on facts. People believe things for psychological, spiritual, social, emotional, and existential reasons, too, and sometimes these reasons are more important to them than the facts.

The researchers hypothesized that unfalsifiable beliefs could be useful both offensively and defensively. By offensive, they meant that people will become more convinced in their religious or political beliefs. By defensive, they meant that unfalsifiable reasons protect a belief from contradictory facts.

The researchers performed four experiments, each with the same general form. First, people either rated how religious they were or gave their opinion on a political issue. This was important, since it was expected that people’s positions coming into the study would influence their results. Second, they read one of two passages, which differed typically only in how their conclusions framed the issue as falsifiable or not. Finally, the participants answered some survey questions. The analysis focused on how people’s answers to these questions would change depending upon which passage they read and what their stance was going into the experiment.

In the first experiment, the passages were fake articles about a conference on science and God. The “unfalsifiable condition” passage ended saying that the existence of God will never be proven or disproven, while the "falsifiable condition" said that eventually there’ll be evidence to settle the debate. Subjects were then surveyed on how strongly they believed some religious statements. As expected, more religious people believed more strongly in the statements overall. What’s interesting is that the more religious participants reported more conviction after the “unfalsifiable condition” passage. The authors suggested that, in strongly religious communities, unfalsifiability has an important offensive function, making people more committed to their beliefs.

In experiment two, unfalsifiability’s offensive use was tested with political beliefs. After surveying people’s support of President Obama in 2013, the subjects read a passage about five criteria that someone could use to judge whether the president was doing a good or bad job. In the “falsifiable condition,” it was pointed out that for two of the criteria, it was possible to find data about would help you decide. In the “unfalsifiable condition,” this reminder was missing. The subjects were then asked to judge the president on those criteria. Again, people who supported President Obama rated him as doing a better job than those who didn’t, but also again, the passage changed people’s responses. In this case, non-supporters rated the president as doing a better job after the falsifiable condition. The researchers took this as evidence that unfalsifiability is a factor in backing up people’s political opinions. In this case, they said that people use unfalsifiable beliefs as the foundation for their attacks on their political foes.

The last pair of experiments tested the defensive use of unfalsifiable beliefs. In experiment three, subjects read a passage about the discovery of the Higgs boson. For half, it concluded that the discovery undermined religion’s validity (”threat”). The rest read that the scientific discovery was consistent with religious beliefs (”no-threat”). The survey for this experiment involved rating the personal importance of ten common reasons that people give for why they believe in God. Seven of the ten reasons were unfalsifiable or less testable. For example, one said, “Living a moral life would be impossible without God.” The remaining were falsifiable, such as “Scientific evidence demonstrates that God exists.” What they found was that as more religious people found the unfalsifiable reasons to be more important, a defensive move which would make the Higgs boson’s discovery irrelevant to why they believe in God. There was no change in the falsifiable reasons.

Finally, people gave their stance on same-sex marriage before reading a passage about children raised by same-sex parents. The passages ended by saying that children of same-sex parents had either the “same outcomes” or “worse outcomes” as children raised by opposite-sex parents. The survey then asked if opposition to same-sex marriage and belief in the equal fitness of same-sex parents were more or less unfalsifiable. The results showed that same-sex marriage and parenting supporters used unfalsifiable reasons after reading the “worse outcomes” passage. Similarly, marriage equality and same-sex parenting opponents used more unfalsifiable thinking after reading the “same outcomes.”

Overall, the authors believe that the prevalence of unfalsifiable beliefs in a religion or political ideology can explain how it spreads and increasingly attracts the loyalty of its believers. They go so far as to suggest that unfalsifiable beliefs over time become the central tenets of new religions and political ideologies, and that this historical trend explains the increasing polarization in American politics and could even be part of science denialism.

This study is important for being the first to give empirical evidence for the hypothesis that we accept unfalsifiable beliefs because we can use them to support our religious and political worldviews. And if others take up the authors’ many suggestions for future studies, it may one day prove to be a powerful theory in the psychology of belief. In fact, the authors are so confident in their hypothesis that they suggest that the ideas that form the core beliefs of a religion or political ideology are characterized by their unfalsifiability. How this plays out or not and how unfalsifiability relates to other ways of knowing and believing are topics of future studies – unless this research is falsified first.

For more, see The Psychological Advantage of Unfalsifiability: The Appeal of Untestable Religious and Political Ideologies in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

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