Why do clever people believe in stupid ideas?

This is one of the most important questions raised by Cassidy’s book How The Irish Invented Slang.  Why did so many people support this nonsense? I am not talking about those who were friends or relatives of the author. The fact that they praised it is no surprise. It is harder to explain why so many people who have no obvious vested interest in Cassidy or his ideas supported this book and continue to support it. This is an important question. Why do reasonably clever people believe in stupid things?

Firstly, you have to consider the psychology of belief. People are hard-wired to look for patterns in things. This is why people see the face of Elvis in pancakes. There is probably some evolutionary advantage to finding patterns but there is no doubt that it needs to be tempered with some kind of scepticism and reason. Many people don’t use reason in choosing their beliefs. They will choose a theory because it suits them rather than because it fits the facts, because it is flattering to them, because it makes them feel privy to arcane and secret knowledge, and because it allows them to feel superior to the ‘blinkered’ and ‘narrow-minded’ academics.

All too often, people (especially those who choose flaky theories) find that the facts contradict their beliefs. People find it hard to live with conflicting views of the world. It makes them uneasy. Psychologists call this unease cognitive dissonance.

So they then have a choice. Rational people tend to look at the facts and alter their theory to conform with them, or even abandon the theory altogether if it cannot be mapped onto the landscape of reality.  However, a great many people react in the opposite way. So, when their beliefs conflict with the facts, these people start to find specious reasons to deny those facts (http://www.politics.ie/forum/culture-community/208192-phrases-words-weve-given-english-language-22.html), like this person responding to criticism of Cassidy’s work on the grounds that Cassidy’s made-up phrases don’t make any sense in terms of Irish grammar:

‘I would expect grammatical errors if the origins were found in illiterates and near illiterates interacting with other illiterates and near illiterates, these wern’t Galway College grads, they were peasants interacting with other peasants..’

The idea that illiteracy means that you can’t retain even the most basic grammar is ridiculous but this person is determined to clutch at any straw to avoid changing his mind.

These people also use ad hominem arguments (arguments based on the character of the people making the argument), such as this piece of stupidity from an Amazon review:

‘Also, I don’t need so-called professional scholars to approve what I will or will not believe. It’s obvious, for instance, that any book with the title “Oxford English Dictionary” is necessarily going to be prejudiced against admitting any kind of Irish influence, if it can be avoided, especially when one considers the time period in which the OED was originally formulated.’

Why necessarily? Is this fool saying that nobody in the Oxford University Press is Irish, or that that they are all WASPs who went to Eton? This might have been true a hundred years ago. It’s not true now, and even if it were, would this necessarily mean that all of them would twist the facts to reject derivations from the Irish language rather than do their job properly?  

It is interesting that there are plenty of people on Amazon and other review forums who have spotted the flaws in Cassidy’s arguments. It is obvious that many of them have no specialist knowledge of Irish or linguistics. The difference between these people and the flat-earthers who believe in Cassidy is probably not primarily one of intelligence, or even of knowledge. It’s about psychology. There are some people who are rational and want to find out the truth, whatever that truth is (note that rational doesn’t necessarily mean unemotional – anger or admiration are fine as long as they are based on reason.) And there are others who just believe in what they want to believe. It doesn’t matter how much proof there is, or how ridiculous the ideas are, or how big the gap between the theory and the reality. Once they’ve made their minds up that the world is ruled by lizards in rubber suits or that the government is putting LSD in the water supplies because the Freemasons and the Zionists told them to, or that American slang was influenced by a fictitious dialect of Irish which left no trace anywhere until it was ‘rediscovered’ by Daniel Cassidy, that’s it and no amount of intelligent argument will make them doubt themselves.

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