Our beliefs should be solid enough to challenge

Dubious beliefs, from the cause of stomach ulcers to ear candling, are frequent and resilient


‘There’s no use trying,” said Alice, “one can’t believe impossible things.” “I dare say you haven’t had much practice,” said the queen. When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

While we may not believe too many impossible things – leaving aside many religious beliefs – we do carry with us a range of dubious beliefs we rarely, if ever, question closely. Beliefs have potentially serious implications in that they inform and often determine our behaviour.

Our beliefs arise from many sources, including: revelations via sacred texts; authority via our parents; powerful public figures and acquaintances; intuition via “gut feelings” or vague sensations; anecdotes and testimonials; and science, the most structured and accurate source we have developed. What differentiates scientific beliefs is that they are constantly challenged and put to the test and ultimately change over time.

An example of a mistaken belief within science was that stomach ulcers were caused by stress and spicy foods. So for years, ulcer treatment involved relaxation training and stress reduction, coupled with a diet of bland foods, which had a limited impact on the condition. In the 1980s, Barry Marshall and Robin Warren discovered that ulcers were caused by a bacterium and could be eliminated by antibiotics. They won a Nobel Prize for their work. This new finding was initially resisted, as is common when embedded beliefs are challenged, but mounting positive data finally won the day.

Another tragic consequence of mistaken belief was the demise of Steve Jobs, the Apple chief executive. Jobs was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2003. Pancreatic cancer often progresses rapidly, but the variant Jobs had was treatable. However, for nine months he resisted medical recommendations while he pursued alternative interventions that included diets, herbal remedies and acupuncture. His biographer reports his later regret at having pursued this line of “treatment”.

The mistaken belief that a homeopathic MMR vaccine can protect against measles, mumps and rubella may result in parents avoiding mainstream vaccination, thereby potentially exposing a child to contracting measles, which can result in measles encephalitis and death. Because vaccination programmes have been so successful in the virtual eradication of the disease, it is easy to forget how dangerous measles can be.

Religious resistance

Interpretations of scripture that have led to resistance to medical interventions have come from Jehovah’s Witnesses who refuse blood transfusions and Christian Science practitioners who believe illness can be cured by faith and prayer. Such beliefs have resulted in much suffering and deaths. Both groups have somewhat softened their stances in recent years.

Other less-dangerous beliefs include the interpretation of out-of-body experiences as evidence of an afterlife, rather than a consequence of neurological responses to trauma, and the belief that “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks”. The latter belief can cause people to resign themselves to inevitable decline in old age. Prof Ian Robertson, from the Institute of Neuroscience in Trinity College Dublin, argues convincingly that we can postpone and perhaps avoid cognitive deterioration as we age by taking constructive action.

A number of factors contribute to better functioning in old age, including education, social networks and emotional enrichment, and engagement in mentally challenging work and leisure activities.

I visited the Mind Body Spirit festival in the RDS last month. It’s a Mecca for believers in a plethora of strange practices from iridology and ear candling to angel- card and tarot reading. One stallholder sold magnetic devices to cure all kinds of ills. The mechanism of action was clearly explained: blood contains iron, magnets attract iron, and so magnets will increase blood flow and healing. Next time you find a handy drop of blood, dangle a magnet above it and observe what doesn’t happen.

Beliefs are insidious and it is in our interests to become more cognisant of those we hold and to weigh them against the facts. Working overtly to develop an attitude of doubt and encouraging this in the young would be an excellent starting point.

Paul O ’Donoghue is a clinical psychologist and founder member of the Irish Skeptics Society. Contact@irishskeptics.org