Epistemology Psychology

Why We Believe The Things We Believe

Ten years before the “Fake News” phenomenon made us think we were living in a post-truth world author and editor John Brockman had the confidence (or should I say audacity) to call this era “The Age of Certainty”.

The book was “What We Believe but Cannot Prove ~ Today’s Leading Thinkers on Science in the Age of Certainty” (Harper Collins, 2006).

The title caught my attention at the local library and its contents did not disappoint.

The book contains contributions from dozens and dozens of great minds who related some of the things they believe but cannot prove.

Some are beliefs which I think are shared by many people. For example plenty of people believe that the earth is round but don’t know how to go about proving it.

Other beliefs though were quite original. For example the idea that ravens call out in a different dialect depending on where they live.

It was interesting to see so many great thinkers still have beliefs which cannot be proven, some even bordering on the irrational.

I think it is quite common for people in all walks of life to believe things that they cannot prove.

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Things People Believe But Can’t Prove

Here are some examples of the type of beliefs included in the book.

These were either ideas which the contributor didn’t know how to prove, or knew that it would be impossible to prove, and yet they still held it to be true:

  • That evolution has purpose and direction
  • That it will someday be possible to exceed the speed of light
  • That life is common throughout the universe
  • That nothing is true if it cannot be proved
  • That the existence of an omni-god cannot ever be proven
  • That knowing what it is like to be dead can never be resolved
  • That reality exists independent of its human and social constructions
  • That the universe is ultimately determined, but we have free will
  • That morality is the natural outcome of evolutionary and historical forces, not divine command
  • That it is possible to live happily and morally without believing in free will
  • That people gain a selective advantage from believing in things they can’t prove
  • That faith is important far beyond the realm of religion
  • That there is a God
  • That religious experience and practice is generated and structured largely by a few emotions that evolved for other reasons: Awe, moral elevation, disgust, and attachment-related emotions.
  • That deceit and self-deception play a disproportionate role in human-generated disasters
  • That in less than a generation, kids will be amusing themselves and each other in ways we never dreamed of.

Do you share any of those beliefs?

Most of those are hard if not impossible to prove.

Culture, Necessity, and Convenience

So how do these non-provable beliefs find a way into our minds?

How do we choose to believe in one thing over another even in the absence of solid proof?

Culture and Conformity

There is no doubt that beliefs and opinions are often derived from the absorption of ideas tossed around in popular culture. The way a subject is handled in film, television, books, fiction, non-fiction, news, or in the course of a discussion with friends, imparts many subtle undertones.

There is a pseudo-logical idea floating around that if many people agree on something then surely they can’t be too far of the mark.

In 2004 journalist James Surowiecki attempted to make a case for this in The Wisdom of The Crowds (Doubleday; Anchor). He scraped together a collection of anecdotes in support of this argument. The problem is that it can be proven mathematically that crowds are no better at making decisions than individuals.

You may have examples where decisions made by a group were better than those made by an individual. But think about how many times a committee got less done than a determined individual.

I’d go so far as to say that an idea’s inherent validity should be independent of how prevalent it is.

Just because something is popular shouldn’t affect our estimation of the idea, logically speaking, that is.

But we know it does.

We really can’t help falling into the trap of this logical fallacy.

It’s so easy to assume that in the cumulative brain power of a crowd surely between them they thought of everything. Or at least enough to make a better decision than one person would.

It is inevitable that individuals will look to the crowd for wisdom.

We, as beings, do not function well in isolation.

We therefore continue to rely on the wisdom of crowds. Few people have the time, acuity, or nerve to establish their own independent stance on every topic they come across.


There often arises a necessity for something to be true.

As strange as it sounds sometimes we simply need something to be true.

This of course does not make it true.

The truth is under no obligation to be anything.

It’s just that the alternative is problematic. So we go along with an idea and start finding little ways here and there to support our choice.

But the truth is under no obligation to be anything.

When you put it that way it seems kind of obvious. But there are so many subtle ways and a variety of circumstances people find themselves in where they feel that one thing just has to be true.


There are also times when it’s simply more convenient to go along with an idea because to fight it is too exhausting. This is related to the two previous points of conformity and necessity.

Here is an example of this:

Acknowledging that pollution destroys the very things that make life possible is inconvenient for industries that profit while polluting. By extension all the people working in those industries will by necessity lean toward arguments showing that the pollution is not really that bad.

They won’t see any gain to be had from admitting that the pollution is doing more harm than good. Because in a sense they are experiencing a short term gain from the polluting activities and therefore it would inconvenience them to do anything about it.

So they start justifying their work and find ways of supporting the beliefs that are associated with their choices.

How Beliefs Are Formed May Still Be Unproved

In a beautifully poetic twist of irony the explanation which I found to be the most compelling as to why we believe the things we believe comes from Sam Harris’ contribution to “What We Believe But Cannot Prove”.

Harris suggests that belief is a content-independent process.

false statements may quite literally disgust us

Sam Harris

“The neural processes governing the final acceptance of a statement as true, ” says Harris, “rely on more fundamental, reward-related circuitry in our frontal lobes.”

He is saying that he believes the same regions of the brain that judge the pleasantness of tastes and odors are engaged when discriminating what is acceptable and what is not.

Truth, he goes on to say, may be beauty, and beauty truth, in more than a metaphorical sense. And false statements may quite literally disgust us.

Sources and further reading

Criminology Epistemology Psychology

7 Signs That Someone Is Lying

Lie detection is both an art and a science.

Many of these tell-tale signs are fairly common, though compulsive liars can get away with lying for a long time, sometimes indefinitely.

It’s extremely rare for anyone to be able to completely fool everyone all the time. Even the best liar will eventually slip up in one way or another.

As a polygraph proves, lies always come out differently to the truth.

Then it’s up to you to interpret the crumb trail they’ve been leaving behind the whole time.

A Liar Will Often:

1. Jump Into Present Tense

  • Common: somewhat to very
  • Reliability: medium to very
  • Exceptions: retelling someone else’s experience; telling a rehearsed story

When someone is fabricating a story they are much more likely to speak in present tense than to use past tense.


Police, lawyers, and judges often see how differently a person responds when they are lying as opposed to a person telling the truth.

Let’s say if one person has been a witness to an assault in an elevator and the other had not they would each have quite different ways of expressing this.

In the first case the person was not a witness to anything.


Interviewer: What happened in the elevator?

Answer: Nothing. I got in the elevator. It went down.

In this next example the person was a witness to a crime, but doesn’t want to let on.


Interviewer: What happened in the elevator?

Answer: I get in the elevator. There’s people talking. I get off. That’s it.

The person’s brain is creating a new event and as it is being created is being relayed into words.

There are times though when someone will use present tense to talk about something that may in fact be true, but since it didn’t happen to them will be relayed in the present tense.

Another exception could be where a person has rehearsed a story and it is in effect “in the past” having already created the event in their mind previously. In this case they may be able to stick to the past tense in the retelling.

2. Require Additional Lies

  • Common: very
  • Reliability: very
  • Exceptions: some people manage to draw on real memories related to a different event, though this is extremely rare as small details can trip them up.

As soon as a person is quizzed on a lie they have just told they are likely to require additional lies to support the first lie.

If someone says they were somewhere at a certain time when they really weren’t they are inevitably going to have to back that up with more lies.

If they are asked who was with them, well, they are going to have to make something up.

Just about any detail is going to be a fabrication.

If every lie needs, say, 4 or 5 lies to support it, well the amount of invention is going to grow exponentially under sustained questioning.

two women talking
Photo by Mimi Thian on Unsplash

3. Be Short on Certain Types of Detail

  • Common: very
  • Reliability: very
  • Exceptions: pathological liars may sometimes know to add these type of details as “convincers”.

A person making stuff up is obviously not going to recall smells, or any other sensory experience as the event they are relaying never happened.

Their story is naturally going to lack those types of detail.

There are exceptions to this.

For example some people may work particularly hard at being convincing and make special effort to include sensory details.

This may be due to the fact that they are aware that sensory details are generally lacking in fabricated stories.

However for the most part sensory details are not going to be included in a description that is being made up on the spot.

three women talking
Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

4. Have Unusually Slow Responses

  • Common: very
  • Reliability: very
  • Exceptions: pathological liars can sometimes be very fast at making stuff up.

If a person has the answer to a question their brain will usually access that information instantly.

If they do not want to provide a truthful answer they will need to make something. It will take a second for their brain to go through the unlimited range of answers available, gauge the consequence of the best one, and furnish that reply.

Some people with very fast language processing skills can use stalling tactics while they select the best answer. This is an attempt to cover up the delay in response.

But it’s extremely rare for anyone to be able to avoid a slight delay altogether.

Especially when fielding a surprise question which they do not want to answer.

Which leads us to the next point.

graffiti  of the words What Do You Mean?
Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

5. Stall With Questions

As explained in the previous point the brain needs a little time to process the possible consequences of the unlimited options available if the truth is to remain concealed.

In order to prevent looking suspicious a liar will use stalling tactics.

This can either give them extra time to think about the answer or derail the interviewer.


  • Sorry, could you repeat that?
  • Are you asking if I [ and repeats the question ] ?
  • How could you ask that?
  • Do you realize what you are asking?
  • What’s this all about?
  • What do you mean?
  • Are you asking about me personally, or in general?
  • Is this really necessary?

There are some exceptions to this, of course. There may be a case where someone is resentful of being interrogated and is being difficult because they like playing games or messing with people. Or they may be afraid of accidentally incriminating themselves due to some previous bad experience and are extra cagey as a result.

6. Use Physical Barriers

  • Common: somewhat
  • Reliability: fair
  • Exceptions: some people may be nervous due to the setting and their body language may come across as being reticent. Some people’s normal body language shows they are cautious or fearful in general.

Psychologically a person will feel like getting away from the discomfort of being interrogated. This discomfort will be greater for a person who has something to hide.

A person may unconsciously begin placing barriers between themselves and the interviewer.

For example they may cross their arms, or shield their throat or face with their hands.

They may unconsciously place a chair between themselves and the interviewer, or find themselves sitting facing the back of the chair.

If seated at a table facing their interviewer they may find themselves shifting items on the table to create a small barrier between themselves and the interviewer.

Sometimes the attempt to reduce vulnerability is very subtle, like excessive blinking, or leaning away.

7. Offer an Alternative

  • Common: very
  • Reliability: very
  • Exceptions: some people may not know what happened and could be trying to figure it out too.

If a person is offering ideas as to what might have happened it is often a sign that they are in creative mode and are trying to deflect from the truth.

A person who suggests that “maybe this happened”, or “maybe that happened”, is not necessarily being helpful. It is quite likely they are hoping a few red herrings will throw doubt on themselves as a suspect.

A person who has no knowledge of what happened has nothing to offer.

It is only if they are also trying to investigate that they will begin coming up with different hypothetical scenarios. Most people won’t do that unless they are invested in the outcome.

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On The Reliability of Physical And Verbal Clues

These clues, while extremely common due to human nature, are not always guaranteed to expose a liar. Sometimes a person may look suspicious for a different reason than is assumed, too. This is why it’s important to remember that lie detecting is an art as well as a science.

Polygraphs are much more reliable, some would say practically infallible, because there are certain physical reactions that happen automatically. Sure in film and television shows you have people beating the polygraph, but it’s so unlikely as to not just be improbable but impossible.

Articles with titles such as “How to Beat a Polygraph” have steps that are virtually impossible to follow. Don’t count on advice in those types of articles to give someone enough ammunition to actually beat a polygraph. At best they can provide muddled results as to make the test inconclusive. But that’s not beating the polygraph. That’s just rendering the results unusable, which could be seen as a sign of guilt in any case.

Sources and further reading: