Overthinking Mental Incapacity

Sometimes, a simple explanation is better.

A recent article in Alternet asked an important question: Why are some people so resistant to science and evidence?

Currently, there are three important issues on which there is scientific consensus but controversy among laypeople: climate change, biological evolution and childhood vaccination. On all three issues, prominent members of the Trump administration, including the president, have lined up against the conclusions of research.

This widespread rejection of scientific findings presents a perplexing puzzle to those of us who value an evidence-based approach to knowledge and policy.

Agreed. So far, so good.

The author of the piece, a psychologist, then notes that many people resist complexity and shades of gray; they live in an either-or, black or white universe, and are extremely uncomfortable with “non-dichotomas” thinking. He notes that this characteristic is a factor in depression, anxiety, aggression and, especially, borderline personality disorder.

In this type of cognition, a spectrum of possibilities is divided into two parts, with a blurring of distinctions within those categories. Shades of gray are missed; everything is considered either black or white. Dichotomous thinking is not always or inevitably wrong, but it is a poor tool for understanding complicated realities because these usually involve spectrums of possibilities, not binaries….

In my observations, I see science deniers engage in dichotomous thinking about truth claims. In evaluating the evidence for a hypothesis or theory, they divide the spectrum of possibilities into two unequal parts: perfect certainty and inconclusive controversy. Any bit of data that does not support a theory is misunderstood to mean that the formulation is fundamentally in doubt, regardless of the amount of supportive evidence.

Similarly, deniers perceive the spectrum of scientific agreement as divided into two unequal parts: perfect consensus and no consensus at all. Any departure from 100 percent agreement is categorized as a lack of agreement, which is misinterpreted as indicating fundamental controversy in the field.

The article goes on to explain that people whose minds work this way will latch onto any anomaly or disagreement, any “non-consistent” factoid, as confirmation that the entire theory–evolution, climate change, the efficacy and safety of vaccination–is bogus.

Where I part company with the author is his willingness to see this “conceptual approach” as a sign of a mental mal-adaptation, an indicator of other (generally mild, but troubling)mental illness. Although I’m certainly willing to concede that this may sometimes be the case, a couple of other explanations are more consistent with Occam’s razor– the principle that, when presented with competing hypothetical answers to a problem, one should select the answer that requires the fewest assumptions.

In other words, simpler is likelier.

Among the elected officials who dismiss climate science, for example, are a significant number whose campaign coffers are regularly replenished by fossil fuel companies. I suspect these lawmakers’ expressed opinions are more convenient than real.

And if I may be permitted a decidedly un-politically-correct observation, a genuine inability to understand the difference between the scientific method and religious dogma–the inability to recognize the difference between empirical evidence and a preferred and comforting world-view– may be a sign of limited intellectual capacity.

In other words, these people aren’t mentally ill. They’re just not very smart.


  1. Those willing to believe in “Magic” are less likely to believe in science. They sure like to pray, but thinking is too stressful.

  2. Lifelong learning stops at high school and picks up on the television for too many Americans. It’s why we’ve made all the wrong assessments of our problems. If we cannot grasp the cause, how can we possibly propose an intelligent remedy?

    But then again, Western medicine does the same thing because of the profit motive. We don’t invest in the prevention of diseases because it would reduce beds occupied in the hospital and people wouldn’t need pharma’s products.

    If 85% of diseases are preventable, wouldn’t it make more sense to focus resources on prevention? 😉

    It would, but we don’t.

    Our entire society is based on winning or losing. If you win, that’s all that matters. As Einstein pointed out, that is the flaw in our educational system and basically our whole society…competition within “free markets”. Winning is an A/B…losing is a C/D. Our obsession with sports over the arts seems to confirm Einstein was on to something.

    And speaking of intelligence, guess who the hottest leader is on the world’s stage?

    Vladimir Putin.

    First Merkel, now Macron. The West is breaking up thanks to Trump smashing the Iran Nuclear Deal. The big bully is losing.

    Things are going to get physical…

  3. “And if I may be permitted a decidedly un-politically-correct observation, a genuine inability to understand the difference between the scientific method and religious dogma–the inability to recognize the difference between empirical evidence and a preferred and comforting world-view– may be a sign of limited intellectual capacity.

    In other words, these people aren’t mentally ill. They’re just not very smart.”

    Sheila; there is no place in this current Trump administration, our Congress and SCOTUS to apply any politically correct observations…so permission granted, full speed ahead!

    “This widespread rejection of scientific findings presents a perplexing puzzle to those of us who value an evidence-based approach to knowledge and policy.”

    A personal observation here (as usual for me); having watched Trump in the news for 40 years or so, it is not a “perplexing puzzle” to me that Trump’s presidency is much like his lengthy business career. He does have an “evidence-based approach to knowledge and policy” regarding his business acumen. His career is based on his own (The Art of the Deal) tried-and-true tactic of NOT paying many contractors who worked at constructing his many egotistical towers and golf courses, knowing if they do take him to court (many cannot afford to due to not being paid), he MIGHT have to pay 30 cents on the dollar. He has worked these criminal business tactics into a science.

    If the psychologist you quoted is not included in “The Dangerous Case Of Donald Trump”, they certainly should have been. The term “borderline personality disorder” fits but Trump appears to have a combination of “borderline personality disorders”; when does this move into mentally unbalanced diagnosis level? Or does it? The prohibited by the American Psychiatric Association collection of diagnoses due to the “Goldwater Rule” runs the gamut from “Sociopathy” to “The Issue Is Dangerousness, Not Mental Illness”. Haven’t we seen him run through the entire gamut of these qualified “opinions” of professionals over the past two years? Many of their projected outcomes have proven to be true; we are dealing with the results now.

    “Where I part company with the author is his willingness to see this “conceptual approach” as a sign of a mental mal-adaptation, an indicator of other (generally mild, but troubling)mental illness. ”

    Agreeing totally with you on this observation; do we also apply this to Congress and SCOTUS who are supporting and allowing whatever title you want to apply to Donald Trump’s antics endangering this country and the world at large. They are deliberately ignoring all research and factual outcomes as well as our history, tradition and accepted behavior for their own financial and political reasons and don’t give a flying-you-know-what for Trump’s reasons or any diagnosis applied to him. I grew up with a seriously mentally ill younger brother who was, at age 15, arrested and placed in the only hospital in the state qualified to hold a criminally insane person who had never been legally diagnosed, he was undiagnoseable at that time. I recognize a nut-case when I see it; but I loved my brother and learned at an early age how to deal with him.

    Sheila; hope it is OK if I add more family history regarding questionable behavior which is in keeping with this 500 Mile Race, Memorial Day Holiday Weekend. After this week of Trump and serious issues on this blog; I feel a need to lighten the mood a little. In 1935, my Dad, Uncle Harold and a friend went to the track for race qualifications. Uncle Harold kept complaining about the low speeds, bragging he could do better. He left on a beer run but didn’t return; meanwhile everyone was watching the ambulance racing around the track. With no communication possible around the track, no one knew who had called for the ambulance or why. Then the police cars appeared with lights and sirens chasing the ambulance. Yep; it was Uncle Harold trying to qualify the ambulance for the race. I met 500 Mile Race Historian, Donald Davidson, a few years ago; he had talked with the ambulance driver who simply stepped away to get a cold drink and Uncle Harold took the ambulance for a qualification run. The judge sentenced him to 45 days at the Indiana State Farm.

    Again; I wish everyone a great holiday weekend, we are due some relief from Trump & Associates.

  4. looking back, and now remembering a funny look at life,from today,on yesterday. vox had a article a few days back,where i was reminded about abook that was front and center in my little world, amuzing ourselves to death… like orwell, maybe some refelction on both thoughts,ahead of,it time,are now conclusive. as i read more about trumps inability to to deal,,,er deal,er,,,,well it seems his vacination program may have dented his mind,,(i take little stock in vacs a problem) but, as i see his sso called art of the deal, is BS. someone actully stamped a coin? said nobel? held his temperment to this,deal? axtully what i see is a world stage he cant deal with. it up front,public,and damn if he losses,,hold that thought.. actully this illusion everyone who voted for this punk,is still waving a American flag over his head,while the one chance we get,is under his guise as president. Pompaeo in the senate meeting yesterday on c span,said he had the negotiations done,and kim was agreeing..we could at least made the attempt to forego the rehetoric,and focused on the issue,and meet.
    instead comander and flunky,decided he didnt have the last word.heres a scerio i beleive is working its way through aisa.. if the truce is made into a wars end,korea,then china has the o.k. to deal direct with n korea,and s.korea gets its nieghbor in arms back. many people will thrive and become self reliant. give it a few more years to settle,and they kick pur sorry asses out of aisa,and china becomes dominate force in west pacific. trumps a looser,and he just blew the world a way to end this crap that has no end.. thanks for helping south korea,and china,at least you guys had decent intent on lifting millions back into a world where they to,can eat everyday… maybe a coin for for trump, two a,,holes one on each side.

  5. The adherents of these policies might not be very smart, but the proponents of these policies are smart enough to know which side their bread is buttered on. It’s the side that says “Koch.”

  6. Ms Kennedy, I love reading your blog, first thing every morning. Thank you.

  7. There is another important factor that accounts for our collective flight to simplicity. It is Future Shock. Alvin and Heidi Toffler thought it would arrive in 1984 and made revisions to this book in publications subsequent to this book published in 1972. They predicted much of what is happening today because of the rapid evolution of change. They also predicted that it would be increasingly difficult to keep up. My personal example of this is my nearly obsessive reading of Stereo Review magazine and other audiophile magazines in my thirties. If it was new and better, I knew about it even though I could not afford it. Now I know I cannot keep up and when I buy a technological device, I will be “cramming” to learn the latest developments before I buy it. We are all struggling to keep up with the pace of change, not just in the Trumpian driven news cycle but in most aspects of our lives. Many of us flee to simplicity and authoritarianism to know what to think rather tha make the increasingly difficult effort to make discernment’s about the muddy middle.

  8. Cannot argue with this statement…..

    “the inability to recognize the difference between empirical evidence and a preferred and comforting world-view– may be a sign of limited intellectual capacity.”

  9. Personally and respectfully, I don’t think characterizing those “others” as filled with hate (yesterday) or not very smart leads us anywhere. And they have names for us as well.

  10. Having been raised in a family where my father was a complete black and white person, I know this scenario all too well. For me, it is the inability to admit there is something you don’t know. I once came home from school and at dinner, mentioned that I had learned that a tomato was actually a fruit, not a vegetable. After a severe argument at dinner, my father wouldn’t speak to me for days…..

    His inability to admit there was something he didn’t know caused this. My goal is to learn something new every single day. Generally I learn more than one thing. My grandmother used to say, “you can build a whole new world with all the things I don’t know”, and that is pretty much true for me.

  11. Sheila: Thank you for the insightful article. I agree with much of what you wrote or quoted today, but I still see Trump’s wave rising and the public and media providing greater support to his destructive actions and “policies”. I listened to an NPR interview with McConnell yesterday after his briefing by DOJ at the closed meeting re: FBI infiltration in the Trump campaign; he is at total peace with Trump as are many more members of congress. The wall between the public and democracy continues to be built, at an ever-increasing pace. What we used to call our government has become a group of hired guns, available to espouse any argument or take any position as long as it (Koch, Walton, Mercer) pays them. They don’t even seem to need plausible lies any more to cover their real motives. And as others have pointed out, the people with the most to lose sit by and aren’t even disturbed by the erosion of the underpinnings of fair and equitable governance. I predict Trump wins a second term and there is no blue wave in November 2018.

  12. Unfortunately the science of natural selection doesn’t seem to be culling these people quickly enough from the gene pool.

  13. I don’t know, politically speaking these people might be plenty intelligent. I mean, they’ve found and stuck to a formula to win – which is certainly a non-trivial type of being smart. They may obsessed with their own legend, money, accolades, power, etc – but I think assuming anyone is stupid is a fundamental error.

    Underestimating your opponent will get you beaten 9 times out of 10.

  14. Terry,

    We changed the rules of Darwinism by inventing morality. We now work very hard to make sure everyone can live and reproduce. That is why humans are now the most populous mammal on Earth. Natural selection would have killed us of centuries ago if we hadn’t figured out how to defeat it.


    Yes. It’s not a matter of innate intelligence as it is intellectual sloth that makes the science deniers so pitiful. Basically, it’s just too much work to have to think through something on one’ own. Just look at what’s being advertised and how it is presented. Paradoxically, humans work very hard to make things and devices that make it easier to live and not have to work so hard.

  15. I have to say I’m with John Neal and Dirk Gently here. My guiding rule is: People do things for their own good reasons. I believe very few people want to do bad things. What I struggle with here is developing the insight and empathy to see what good those ordinary people who support Trump and who had those beliefs long before him, frankly, see themselves protecting. That’s the productive challenge. The Kochs, Mercers, etc., ? Maybe pure greed and arrogance in a Calvinist cloak of righteousness. I don’t know.

  16. Let’s see if I have this right. A lot of people in this country do not believe in some things because the verbal support is too complicated. So a lot of other people (who are well versed) are annoyed that the people in group number one are too lazy to learn things right. But the folks in group number two seem to take great pleasure in using long, multi-syllable words to explain what’s really what.

    That undoubtedly makes sense to some people … one of whom doesn’t happen to be me. The Flat Earth Society would still be alive and kicking if some really well-educated people hadn’t taken the time to explain why the Earth is round. It is round isn’t it?

  17. I noticed that several commenters were concerned about the use of the word “smart” — not “PC” , underestimating others, kowtowing to the uber-rich, etc. There are different kinds of “smart” — I don’t think we are talking strictly about IQ numbers here. I remember when Trump said during a debate “If I didn’t pay taxes that makes me smart.” He’s right — to a lot a people scamming the system is smart & a lot of his supporters are in total agreement with him on this (although they recoil at the thought of scammers on the low-income side of the scale). Intelligence is found in various forms – the ability to think on higher levels about complex subjects (Einstein, Hawking et al) all the way to idiot savants (Rain Man). Trump & his supporters aren’t smart about things that matter to me — and that’s not name-calling, that’s just my evaluation of the evidence.

  18. Kathy,

    “There are different kinds of “smart” — I don’t think we are talking strictly about IQ numbers here. I remember when Trump said during a debate “If I didn’t pay taxes that makes me smart.” He’s right — to a lot a people scamming the system is smart & a lot of his supporters are in total agreement with him on this (although they recoil at the thought of scammers on the low-income side of the scale).”

    Agreed. Trump and many of his supporters don’t give a damn about democracy. They want it all. Like your earlier statement, I don’t think we’re talking strictly about IQ numbers in this example either. Unfortunately, at this moment in history, especially in the West, populism is ascending, not democracy.

  19. I love Paul Raikes’ humor and Sheila’s immense capacity to find, read, comprehend, snd communicate a very wide range of interesting and important topics. Bless them both.

  20. I believe that it was Sheila who introduced us to the concept of a liberal –>authoritarian spectrum and that has become my go to concept for trying trying to assess the pathology of our electorate. There are many causes of authoritarianism but a shortage of cures. People who have accepted a culture of class order have observed that people like them use unthinking emotions to get their way, and feel entitled to a privileged position.

    Once they are there it makes complete sense to them. There is no cognitive dissonance between ego and reality. They are superior and entitled to the privileges that that “earns” like imposing what’s best for them on everyone, which becomes their reality. Real is whatever they want. They become extremists seeing only monochrome instead of nuance.

    They don’t see the problem with pre-war Germany. Order was restored to the world by Germany assuming its rightful place among the countries of the world. Oh there was some collateral damage but you can’t make an omelette without breaking the eggs, right? The plight of the poor here is of no concern because it’s merely those “others” getting what they have earned.

    Of course people who depend on authoritarian behavior don’t need elitest science or elitest learning to understand what’s important and that is having their needs fulfilled. In fact many collect guns to insure that they will win any important disagreements. Many collect women too.

    While I suppose that this year we will out vote them that only bandaids a few of the problems that authoritarianism creates. Ultimately their influence, because it is so in conflict with modern overpopulated, 24/7 connected, entertainment media besotted, resource limited reality, has to be given a much less influential role in our lives. Some say death will do that because they are leftovers from different times.

    Is that enough and soon enough to unclasp their hands from the world’s throat? The aristocrat history of the world says that once they get power they desperately hang on and become slaves to the curruption power creates.

  21. The problem is that we reach conclusions irrespective of fact. I once asked a classmate why she was voting for Trump and she replied: “One word – abortion.” Mind closed. Party over. Next. . .
    Under such a non-Aristotelian view of reality, facts don’t matter since some theorists say we vote not on the basis of fact but on emotion whether liberal or conservative, though fact and emotion are not necessarily incompatible. Thus we may as liberals dislike Trump’s chaotic governing style on the basis of fact and dislike him personally as a matter of emotion, seizing upon any new Trumpian atrocity as proof that we are right and that anyone who supports or votes for him lacks civic virtue and is dumb, deranged, a single issue voter etc. Thus we may be guilty of the same faulty reasoning (?) we decry in others – but not quite. Our conclusions already reached and to be reached were and are, I would argue, based upon an understanding of history and with “the bestest for the mostest” as our rule and guide and the preservation and expansion of our democratic values the common goal. That future is one my classmate’s blind obedience via her vote based on single issue passion leading to authoritarianism cannot achieve. On the other hand, a vote is a vote, however motivated, so our task where practice eclipses theory is simple – outvote ’em this fall and every fall!

  22. There’s a point to be made here about the joyful life of many dichotomous thinkers. For my mother, the world contained no gray tints, only absolute certainty. Self-doubt was never a problem for her. All Republicans were good, all Democrats the personification of what’s wrong with this country. The fact that our family was able to stay together only because of FDR’s social programs and the job she found after America went to war were not, to her, disturbing evidence that perhaps some of her positions needed rethinking. She went to her grave a happy woman, confident in her infallibility. Curiously, she raised one son who, despite a high math aptitude and a life-long career as a state senator, fell perfectly in line with her eccentricities and another who completely disagreed. Perhaps because it is so ubiquitous, I don’t find gray an unpleasant hue in the least. But occasionally I envy her certainty.

  23. Why live in a high contrast B&W world when reality really is brilliantly colored and hued and diverse.

  24. Multi-syllabic words are the gift from a fertile brain that tries to communicate accurately and completely. Those that show disdain for “big” words, or are intimidated by them make my point about intellectual sloth. Our brains are hard-wired for language. That’s how our original tribes managed to survive.

    Trump and his minions talk to the “base”. The base is not just un-educated white guys, but educated, professional white guys…and, sadly women. His use of language is that of second or third grader. Guess what? So is advertising. That’s to my point also: people want the easy route to learning. Anything that requires thought or appreciation of abstract or uncomfortable concepts is anathema to these people. You want to talk about tribalism? It starts with language.

  25. Vernon, my experience in teaching climate science to (very often) authoritarians who feel entitled to deny science, mirrors your remarks. People who study science for the beauty and challenge of its complexity revel at the universe life is a tiny part of.

    People who call themselves skeptics when in fact they are merely cynics often latch onto one detail that they don’t really understand as their reason to conclude that not having invested in learning science should not hamper their credibility.

    That’s is a foreign language to me, but as authoritarians they are sure that they are entitled to an ill founded opinion regardless of our collective knowledge which can tell reality from fantasy.

  26. In the 1990s, an Earlham College professor published an article about black and white thinking as opposed to seeing shades of gray. He gave upbringing with overly strict and rigid parents as one of the reasons for no-gray thinking. I wish I had that article still.

    He felt there was some hope that some in each generation would break loose from the strictures of their upbringing. In the early 90s we couldn’t have foreseen the way instant communication and mass media could help groups reinforce and preserve their thinking.

  27. Pete,

    As a fellow educator of science, I agree and appreciate your comments.

    It broke my heart when high schools students would come up to me, thank me for a good class or lesson, then tell me that their minister told them that all science teachers are the spawns of Satan. I think this is child abuse, because it slaps a massive guilt trip on the kids preemptively. In my book, “A Worm in the Apple: The Inside Story of Public Schools”, I cover this topic at length.

  28. Occam’s Razor can sometimes be useful. If you start your car and it does not move, rather than calling a tow truck – you might want to check it is in drive.

    For Evaluation or the Big Bang, it does not take knowing all the science details, i.e., the complex physics, or chemistry that back up these Theories.

    The Evangelical Bible Thumpers can apply Occam’s Razor. These Evangelicals accept the simplest explanation, which is found in genesis to verify their beliefs. The socialization process they go through, is constant reinforcement of biblical infallibility.

    The other mistake the thumpers make is with words. Science treats the word Theory as Fact. A supposition is a hypotheses.

    It is not only our own bible thumpers, who want to protect young minds from evolution, it happens elsewhere.

    Turkey to stop teaching evolution in high school . The new curriculum will go into effect for the 2017- 2018 school year. “The curriculum change in its entirety is taking the education system away from scientific reasoning and changing it into a dogmatic religious system,” Yigit, a board member of the secular education union Egitim-Sen, said in a phone interview with CNN. “The elimination of the evolution unit from classes is the most concrete example of this.”

  29. When I began teaching elementary school it was 1983. The next August, 1984, before the students returned, all of the district teachers went to an inservice on the brand new idea for teaching – HOTS – Higher Order Thinking Skills. We were going to concentrate, as a district (and statewide) on teaching children to apply HOTS to everyday concepts in the classroom. Analysis, synthesis, comparison, evaluation, etc, were going to be applied across the board to classroom learning. By January, 1985, after we returned from Christmas break, HOTS was out. The group of fundamentalist preachers had convinced the state legislature to stop the program & they did! We never heard about it again. I left teaching in 2000.

  30. Ignorance has always been contagious like a pathological virus. So is knowledge though thanks to those who parent and who teach. It’s an arms race. The referee that separates the pathological from the beneficial is culture.

    We’re stuck now with a cultural divide due to the fact that we never let entertainment media be more than an arms length away and oligarchs own the airwaves and are very skilled at advertising/propganda/fake news/brainwashing.

    So far those minds bought are a minority but this year will be another vote testing that.

  31. Paul, the earth is round, but it is flat–a disc. Photos taken from the moon show this.

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