Strategies of Communication on Climate Change

Thursday, September 5, 2013

The Will to Believe

In 1896, William James argued that in some cases the will to believe is a good thing, even in the absence of evidence. He said, actually, that "belief will create the fact". This may be an excellent attitude for many things in life, when it is question, for instance, to decide that life is worth living. Unfortunately, however, this idea can be perversely turned into disaster. Believing that - say - free energy can be produced on one's desktop won't create a free energy device. And it is the same with catastrophic climate change: disbelieving it won't make it go away.

The more I read, the more I understand how important is the "belief filter", probably hard wired in human minds. The human tendency to believe the unbelievable, provided that it is comforting, is fantastic. And, unfortunately, it is one of the reasons for the disaster we are facing.

Antonio Turiel provides new evidence for this human tendency in his blog, "the oil crash". In a post titled "Scream, but nobody will listen to you", he presents two movie clips; in the first, a guy plays some mumbo-jumbo with electric wires, pretending that he can obtain infinite energy out of a multi-outlet strip. In the second video, the same guy explains the trick: absolutely trivial.

The point that Turiel makes is that a lot of people have watched only the first video and just a few the second, despite the fact that in the first video the protagonist invites watchers several times to go see the second. The couple of videos, in fact, was intended as a way of debunking the many bogus claims of infinite energy, desktop nuclear fusion and the like. It didn't work; actually it backfired. So strong is the human will to believe.

Here are the two clips. They are both in Spanish, but the action and the images should be clear enough for everyone


  1. I think this post is just NOT fair to poor old William James! Believing that life is worth living can indeed in some instances (though not all) create the fact. Since part of that "fact" is the belief itself. I don't think he meant to say that believing the second law of thermodynamics does not exist would make it exist any less or any more. But fair enough, I got the point anyway.

    I am however quite curious to know what percentage of the people who watched the first video actually believed it according to the comments they then posted or according to some other method of determining that. (other than connecting their brains to one of those devices and turning the switch to the on position and seeing whether some eureka lamp lights up or not) .

    The answer to that key question could provide a) policy guidance to the relevant governments to open more insane asylums; b) policy guidance for deep and extensive elementary education reform; c) provide work to lots of unemployed headshrinkers or d) allow many factories to go into massive mass production of the devices and then distribute them to all the needy households who cant pay their electricity bills because of all the austerity. (while of course also providing employment for many unemployed workers)

    And I would be interested in any guidance about the right kind of guidance.

    (and the videos were really good and the whole thing was really funny)
    (though it could also plunge reasonable persons into catatonic depression depending on the answer to the critical percentage question above)

    1. Some commenters of the first video make negative remarks, but they are vastly favourable. It is exactly the opposite for the second video. As sad as it sounds...

    2. I didn't mean to disparage William James, not at all! Indeed, I said that his idea may be excellent in some circumstances. But the will to believe that the cliff doesn't exist doesn't even help the coyote in the Warner Bros cartoons

    3. The "Will to Believe" has been used by charlatans since the first shaman understood that his gift was a mirage. Prior to that it was employed only by the deluded.

    4. Thank you both for your replies:

      To AMT's reply I can only say "INCREDIBLE" ! (but I am sure it's true)

      To Ugo's... I did understand that you were not at all trying to disparage William James. But as far as the Coyote -and his many fellow traveler Coyotes- (is it about 7.1 billions now?) perhaps he / they just didn't believe HARD enough? Or perhaps when one is in a large enough group with enough solidarity it's easy enough to say "I believe I can fly" and then soar away ?

    5. And thanks also to Terry who posted his comment while I was drafting my thank you reply to AMT and Ugo but before I could post it !

      Perhaps my thanks to Terry (if his comment was also to me) could simply acknowledge the "very likely and strong explanatory connections" between the charlatans and the mirage and the delusions he so helpfully refers to, and my own fairly operational but otherwise unexplained and unexplainable notion of "group solidarity" mentioned in my reply to Ugo above? So again thanks !