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Author Information: Adam Riggio, Royal Crown College, serrc.digital@gmail.com.

Riggio, Adam. “Belief in a Weird World: A Review of Bernard Wills’ Believing Weird Things.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8, no. 3 (2019): 1-5.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-470

H. P. Lovecraft’s creation, Cthulhu, is one of the world’s most famous symbols of the weird.
Image by Chase Norton via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Weird is a strange word. The idea of weirdness itself is rather strange, as suits the subject I suppose. Bernard Wills has written the essay anthology Believing Weird Things, in part, to explore what weirdness is. The book itself, however, is rather weird. Or at least, it’s weird to an academic audience.

Let me explain. While I write quite a few book reviews for SERRC, over the last while, the amount of time between my receiving a review copy and actually writing and submitting the review of the book has lengthened from a flexible to a messianic duration. So my reviews often end up being informed by other reviews of the same book, where others have gotten around to it before me.

So this review is also, though in small part, a rebuke to Matthew Dentith’s earlier review of Believing Weird Things published late last year.[1] Although it remains far from perfect, Wills has written a book that is both challenging and accessible to a wide audience. Believing Weird Things is a popular book of philosophical thought, in the tradition of Bertrand Russell’s public philosophical essays. For some audiences of researchers, a book of that character may be too weird to understand at first.

What Is Weird? The Weird? Weirdness?

Whether something is weird is not a matter purely of ontology. There is no weird in itself, since weirdness is a relational property. Something is weird only in comparison to something else, relative to surroundings, wider environments, or the expectations of people regarding those surroundings and environment.

Weirdness is most fundamentally an epistemological concern. When a sudden disturbance appears in the smooth flowing of a natural process, that disturbance is simply disruptive and destructive. We as self-conscious observers may call it weird, but regarding the process and its disruption in themselves, there are matters of fact alone.

Science-fiction and horror literature has probed the nature of weirdness in more nuance than many philosophical arguments. The weird unsettles expectation, which creates an immediate fear and a profound fear. Speaking immediately, a weird encounter is a sign that presumptions about the reliability of the world to sustain your own life are in doubt. That causes fear for your life.

The more profound fear of the weird inspires is that, more than just your life being at risk, the fundamental nature of reality is at risk. It would be extremely dangerous to encounter creatures like the Shoggoths of Lovecraft’s “At the Mountains of Madness,” one of the stories that helped forge the genre of weird fiction, but their nature is weird enough such an encounter would call into doubt everything you believed about reality itself.

To be weird is to have a character or nature that is such an anomaly for your expectations of how and what the world is, as to be unnerving. A natural process cannot be unnerved, only a self-conscious subjectivity. What is, is; what is weird must be understood as weird.

Weirdness, therefore, is in the eye of the beholder. At least that’s what I would say if I were disposed to cheap clichés. Different people with different histories, cultures, moral and aesthetic values will consider different things weird.

The Relative Relativity of Weirdness

Wills himself describes it well in his essay on Rastafarian religious beliefs, one of the best in the volume. Rastafarianism is a Caribbean religious minority, its people marginalized in the faith’s Jamaican birthplace. The religion’s cultural influence far outshines its size because of the global fame and historical influence of Rastafarian musicians in reggae, such as Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, and Lee Scratch Perry.

But to someone raised in a generally Christian culture, some Rastafarian beliefs are genuinely strange, even though much of the religion is a clear outgrowth of the Abrahamic tradition. The Rastafarian Jah is the same God as Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. Rastafarianism recasts the Jewish concept of the chosen people to refer to all Africans who suffered from colonization and the Atlantic slave trade, their Exodus being the ongoing process of decolonization. Like Islam, the moral principles of the religion incorporate rituals of worship into everyday social life, and it roots those moral principles in the shape of world history.

Rastafarian parallels with Christianity are, as Wills and I agree, rather weird. Rastafarianism has a Messiah figure that operates according to the same metaphysical principles as Christ. Haile Selassie I, Ethiopian Emperor from 1930 to 1974, is the living incarnation of God for Rastafarians.

I use the present tense because Rastafarians hold that Selassie is alive in some form, despite his 1974 assassination in Ethiopia’s communist uprising. In all seriousness, I expect there eventually to be a theological schism in Rastafarianism over how to reconcile their faith with the fact that Selassie was murdered and his body stuffed under the toilets of a palace bathroom, discovered decades later, long after that palace had been converted into government offices.

I can talk about this with an air of humour, as though I’m joking from a position of relative privilege at the expense of Rastafarianism and Rastas. The detachment that allows me to dehumanize Rastafarian culture with this smirking bemusement is rooted in my attitude toward the faith: it is alien, a culture I know only through song lyrics and cultural stereotypes. I find the Rastafarian faith’s messianism weird, but only because I was not raised a Rasta or near any Rastafarian communities.

In Wills’ best essays, he uses these extended philosophical case studies to uncover the epistemic, political, and moral implications of who considers what weird, and why.

Bernard Wills - Believing Weird ThingsA Disjointed Path to Its End

The only real problem I have with the book is that not all of its essays are as good as its best. If I can use terms that more often describe albums, Believing Weird Things is a little front-loaded. The book is divided roughly in half. The first essays explore weird ideas and beliefs as a philosophical historian building a book of fascinating case studies. The second half of the book describes different ways in which weirdness has been weaponized, how difference and strangeness become no longer guides to fascinating places, but targets to be destroyed.

If I can take a couple of examples to illustrate what I mean, consider this. The best essay in the first half of Believing Weird Things is “Why I Am Not a Rastaman.” The best essay in the book’s second half is “Portrait of an Islamophobe.”

Yet I don’t want to linger too long on praise for the actual best essay in the volume, where Wills insightfully and incisively identifies the dynamics of racist discourse that show how Islamophobic ideology merges the dehumanization of colonial racism with the paranoia and massification of classical European anti-Semitism.

That’s all I really need to say other than that “Portrait of an Islamophobe” alone is ethically worth your buying Believing Weird Things at its affordable price, expressly for the purpose of rewarding Wills with one more purchase in his next royalty payment.

So when my biggest critique of a book is that some essays aren’t as good as others in an essay collection, you can be pretty sure that I don’t have a significant problem with what he’s doing. Believing Weird Things ends with two essays that originally appeared in earlier forms at SERRC, two analyses of the nationalist turn in Western conservatism.

Those essays offered quality insights on the true nature of conservatism as a tradition of English political philosophy whose classical works were the landmarks of Thomas Hobbes and Edmund Burke, and how the nationalism that dominates today’s right wing itself betrays many of the principles of those great thinkers.

However, they make for an odd fit with the other essays of the book, all of which explicitly experiment with our concept of the weird to develop a new philosophical insight. These last two essays are fine in themselves, but as they appear in Believing Weird Things, they amount to filler tracks that stand apart from the main themes and style of the book.

Misunderstanding the Will to Weirdness

My last point is a soft rebuttal to Matthew Dentith’s earlier review of Believing Weird Things. I couldn’t help but find Dentith’s critiques a little off the mark, since they were rooted in a conception of the weird that Wills didn’t share. This conception of the weird is rooted in Forteana, the study and archiving of generally weird and strange phenomena, rumours, objects, folklore.

There are two central organizing concepts in the work of Charles Fort, as he first developed his project and how it has continued since. They are anti-systematicity and skepticism of skepticism. Fortean catalogues of weird things and events make no attempt to understand these departures from the norm as expressions of some underlying order. This is anti-systematicity, which parallels skepticism of skepticism, the refusal to doubt that something exists or occurred merely because its existence contradicts or is contrary to established knowledge.

Any system of knowledge based on these principles of anti-systematicity and skepticism of skepticism will regularly produce weirdnesses, because if you hold them, you will accept without much trouble radical departures inductively valid expectations about what is and is not possible. But these principles do not exhaustively define what is weird or what weird is. Fortean epistemology is openness to the weird, but does not itself define that which is weird. Dentith’s analysis of Wills’ work conflates the two.

But Dentith’s error is a learning opportunity for us in who the best audience for Believing Weird Things would be. Dentith’s misinterpretation flowed from his prior experience in academic research. Earlier in his career, the study of Forteana and the works of Michael Shermer, particularly his 1997 Why People Believe Weird Things, was important to his intellectual development.

In the introduction, Wills frames his own Believing Weird Things as a response to Shermer’s arguments from the end of the last century. Dentith critiques Wills for having chosen an apparent interlocutor from more than 20 years ago, seeing this as an attempt to restore Shermer’s ideas to a place in contemporary philosophical debates in the spheres of academic publication. But Wills never justifies such a restoration in his own book. Indeed, Wills never refers to Shermer in as much detail in the rest of the book as he does in the introduction.

Such a use of Shermer appears sloppy, and I do think Wills should have been a little more explicit in explaining the role that Shermer’s work plays in his own thinking. A figure who plays such a major role in an introduction, but disappears throughout the main body of the book makes for poor academic writing.

But Wills’ only mistake here was having given Dentith the opportunity to make his own mistake. Wills does not aim to restore Shermer to some more prestigious position in academic philosophical debates. Engaging with Shermer’s ideas has a more personal meaning for Wills, because a chance encounter with Shermer’s work was the inspiration for a trilogy of books that explore the nature of weirdness, of which Believing Weird Things is the second.

Wills refers to the work of Shermer to invoke him as an inspiration for his in-progress trilogy. Invoking an intellectual ancestor is not a reason that can inspire most academic writing, especially that based in paywalled research journals. Dentith did not understand this aspect of Believing Weird Things because he kept his analysis inside the context of the academician’s writing.

Conclusion: Life Is Weird

Bernard Wills has written a book for a general thinking audience, a contribution to the social and ethical antidotes to rouse the red-pilled from their dogmatic slumbers. Believing Weird Things asks readers to re-evaluate what they consider reasonable and strange, that weirdness is a category without a simple definition or clear boundaries.

Contact details: serrc.digital@gmail.com

References

Dentith, Matthew R. X. “Between Forteana and Skepticism: A Review of Bernard Wills’ Believing Weird Things.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 11 (2018): 48-52.

Wills, Bernard. Believing Weird Things. Montréal: Minkowski Institute Press, 2018.

[1] Okay, that makes me sound way, way too late.

Author Information: Nuria Anaya-Reig, Rey Juan Carlos University, nuria.anaya@urjc.es.

Anaya-Reig, Nuria. “Implicit Theories Influencing Researchers: A Field for the Psychology of Science to Explore.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 11 (2018): 25-30.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-42K

From the 2014 White House Science Fair.
Image by NASA HQ Photo via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

This essay is in reply to:

Wylie, C. D. 2018. “‘I Just Love Research’: Beliefs About What Makes Researchers Successful.” Social Epistemology 32 (4): 262-271, doi: 10.1080/02691728.2018.1458349.

What traits in a student do researchers believe characterize a good future scientist? To what degree do these beliefs influence the selection of candidates? These are fundamental questions that resonate in the work of Caitlin Donahue Wylie (2018). As part of a qualitative ethnographic study, an interview was given to two engineering professors working as principal investigators (PIs), as well as to their respective groups of graduate students, most of whom were already working as new researchers. The total sample consisted of 27 people.

Results indicate that, among this class of researchers, interest, assertiveness, and enthusiasm for one’s own field of study are commonly regarded as key signs of a good future researcher. Moreover, the interviewees believe enthusiasm to be related to a desire to learn and a strong work ethic. Lastly, the research suggests that possible, unintentional exclusions may occur during candidate selection due to biases on the part of the PIs, reflecting preferences for features belonging to majority groups (such as ethnicity, religion and gender). This essay offers some ideas that may help minimize such biases.

Implicit Theories Undergirding Research

Essentially, the work of Wylie (2018) demonstrates that experienced scientists base their selection process for new researchers on implicit theories. While this may at first appear to be a rather modest contribution, the core of Wylie’s research is substantial and of great relevance to the psychology of science for at least three reasons.

First, studying such matters offers different angle from which to investigate and attempt to understand the scientific psyche: studying the psychology of scientists is one of the central areas of research in this subdiscipline (Feist 2006). Second, although the research question addresses a well-known issue in social psychology and the results of the study are thus quite predictable, the latter nevertheless constitute new data and are therefore valuable in their own right. Indeed, they enrich theoretical knowledge about implicit ideas given that, in science and scientific reasoning, it is essential to differentiate between tests and theories (Feist 2006).

Finally, because in the way it is currently being applied, the psychology of science cannot turn a blind eye to the fact that if scientists’ implicit beliefs are mistaken, those beliefs may have negative repercussions for the population of current and future researchers (Wylie 2018).

In his role as psychologist of science (Anaya-Reig and Romo 2017), Ramón y Cajal mused upon this issue over a century ago. In “The Investigator as Teacher,” chapter IX of his work Reglas y consejos sobre investigación científica (1920), he noted:

¿Qué signos denuncian el talento creador y la vocación inquebrantable por la indagación científica?

[What signs identify creative talent and an irrevocable calling for scientific research?]

Problema grave, capitalísimo, sobre el cual han discurrido altos pensadores e insignes pedagogos, sin llegar a normas definitivas. La dificultad sube de punto considerando que no basta encontrar entendimientos perspicaces y aptos para las pesquisas de laboratorio sino conquistarlos definitivamente para el culto de la verdad original.

[This serious and fundamentally important question has been discussed at length by deep thinkers and noted teachers, without coming to any real conclusions. The problem is even more difficult when taking into account the fact that it is not enough to find capable and clear-sighted and capable minds for laboratory research; they must also be genuine converts to the worship of original data.]

Los futuros sabios, blanco de nuestros desvelos educadores, ¿se encuentran por ventura entre los discípulos más serios y aplicados, acaparadores de premios y triunfadores en oposiciones?

[Are future scientists—the goal of our educational vigilance—found by chance among the most serious students who work diligently, those who win prizes and competitions?]

Algunas veces, sí, pero no siempre. Si la regla fuera infalible, fácil resultara la tarea del profesor, bastaríale dirigirse a los premios extraordinarios de la licenciatura y a los números primeros de las oposiciones a cátedras. Mas la realidad se complace a menudo en burlar previsiones y malograr esperanzas. (Ramón y Cajal 1920, 221-222)

[Sometimes, but not always. If the rule were infallible, the teacher’s work would be easy. He could simply focus his efforts on the outstanding prizewinners among the degree candidates, and on those at the top of the list in professional competitions. But reality often takes pleasure in laughing at predictions and in blasting hopes. (Ramón y Cajal 1999, 141)]

Returning to Implicit Theories

Let us briefly recall that naïve or implicit theories are stable and organized beliefs that people have formed intuitively, without the rigor of the scientific method; their content can be accessed only with great difficulty, given that people are unaware that they have them. This makes not only modifying them difficult but also leads those who possess them to search for facts that confirm what they already believe or, in other words, to fall prey to confirmation bias (Romo 1997).

People tend to identify and organize regularities in their environment thanks to implicit or incidental learning, which is based on associative learning, due to the need to adapt to the varying situations with which we are faced. We formulate naïve theories that help us comprehend, anticipate and deal with the disparate situations confronting us in the best way possible. Indeed, we are surrounded by a such an overwhelming amount of information that formulating implicit theories, learning which things seem to appear together at the same time, is a very effective way of making the world more predictable and controllable.

Naturally, human behavior is no exception to this rule. In fact, the content of implicit theories is fundamentally of a social nature (Wegner and Vallacher 1977), as is revealed by the fact that a good portion of such theories take the form of so-called Implicit Personality Theories (IPT), a category to which the beliefs of the researchers under consideration here also belong.

IPTs get their name because their content consists of personal qualities or personality traits. They are idiosyncratic, even if there indeed are certain coincidences among members of the same social group.

Understood broadly, IPTs can be defined as those beliefs that everyone has about human beings in general; for example, that man is by nature good, or just the opposite. Defined more precisely, IPTs refer to those beliefs that we have about the personal characteristics of specific types of people. For example, we frequently assume that a writer need be a cultured, sensitive and bohemian sort of person (Moya 1996).

It should be noted that implicit theories, in contrast to those of a scientific nature, are also characterized by their specificity and incoherence, given that they are based on simple, linear coincidences, are composed of ideas that are habitually interconnected, and seek only verification and utility. Still, this does not necessarily mean that such ideas are necessarily mistaken or useless (Pozo, Rey, Sanz and Limón 1992). Although implicit theories have a limited explanatory power, they do have descriptive and predictive capacities (Pozo Municio 1996).

Some Reflections on the Subject

Scientists being led by their intuitions…what is going on? Then again, what is wrong with that? Why must researchers behave differently from other people when engaged in selection processes? Scientists behave as we all do in our daily lives when it comes to all sorts of things. Any other way of proceeding would not just be unprofitable but also would be, in cognitive terms, costly and exhausting.

All things considered, researchers, no matter how rigorously scientific they may be, are still people and as such intuitively seek out answers to problems which influence their labor in specific ways while not in themselves being the goal of their work.

Moreover, we should not be surprised either when different researchers, whether novice or seasoned, share identical beliefs, especially if they work within the same field, since, as noted above, although implicit theories reveal themselves in opinions or personal expectations, part of their tacit content is shared by many people (Runco 2011).

The above leads one, in turn, to make further observations about the work of Wylie (2018). In the first place, as for implicit theories, rather than simply suggesting that researchers’ selections may be guided by a perceptual bias, it must be affirmed that this indeed is the case. As has been noted, implicit theories operate with confirmation biases which in fact reinforce their content.

Another matter is what sorts of biases these are: Wylie (2018) suggests that they often take the form of a possible preference for certain features that are characteristic of the majority groups to which the PIs belong, a conclusion based on several studies showing that white, middle-class men predominate in the fields of science and engineering, which may cause them to react poorly to students who do not meet those standards and indeed may even lead to the latter giving up because of the discomfort they feel in such environments.

This is certainly one possible interpretation; another is that the confirmation bias exhibited by these researchers might arise because they have observed such traits in people who have achieved excellence in their field and therefore may not, in fact, be the result of a preference for interacting with people who resemble them physical or culturally.

It is worth noting here that implicit theories need not be mistaken or useless (Pozo, Rey, Sanz and Limón 1992). Indeed, this is certainly true for the beliefs held by the group of researchers. Aren’t scientists, especially the best among them, passionate about their work? Do they not dedicate many hours to it and put a great deal of effort into carrying it out? Are they not assertive? Research has conclusively shown (Romo 2008) that all creative scientists, without exception, exhibit high levels of intrinsic motivation when it comes to the work that they do.

Similarly, since Hayes (1981) we have known that it takes an average of ten years to master a discipline and achieve something notable within it. It has also been observed that researchers exhibit high levels of self-confidence and tend to be arrogant and aggressive. Indeed, it is known that scientists, as compared to non-scientists, are not only more assertive but also more domineering, more self-assured, more self-reliant and even more hostile (Feist 2006). Several studies, like that of Feist and Gorman (1998) for example, have concluded that there are differences in personality traits between scientists and non-scientists.

On the other hand, this does not mean that people’s implicit ideas are necessarily correct. In fact, they are often mistaken. A good example of this is one belief that guided those researchers studied by Wylie as they selected graduates according to their academic credentials. Although they claimed that grades were an insufficient indicator, they then went on to qualify that claim: “They believe students’ demonstrated willingness to learn is more important, though they also want students who are ‘bright’ and achieve some ‘academic success.’” (2018, 4).

However, the empirical evidence shows that neither high grades nor high scores on aptitude tests are reliable predictors of a successful scientific career (Feist 2006). The evidence also suggests that creative genius is not necessarily associated with academic performance. Indeed, many geniuses were mediocre students (Simonton 2006).

Conclusion

The psychology of science continues to amass data to help orient the selection of potentially good researchers for those scientists interested in recruiting them: see, for example Feist (2006) or Anaya-Reig (2018). At the practical level, however, this knowledge will be of little use if those who are best able to benefit from it continue to cling to beliefs that may be mistaken.

Therefore, it is of great interest to keep exploring the implicit theories held by researchers in different disciplines. Making them explicit is an essential first step both for the psychology of science, if that discipline’s body of knowledge is to have practical repercussions in laboratories as well as other research centers, as well as for those scientists who wish to acquire rigorous knowledge about what inherent qualities make a good researcher, all while keeping in mind that the implicit nature of personal beliefs makes such a process difficult.

As noted above, subjects who are interviewed are often unaware that they possess them (Pozo, Rey, Sanz and Limón 1992). Moreover, modifying them requires a change of a conceptual or representational nature (Pozo, Scheuer, Mateos Sanz and Pérez Echeverría 2006).

Lastly, it may perhaps be unreasonable to promote certain skills among university students in general without considering the aptitudes necessary for acquiring them. Although it may be obvious, it should be remembered that educational resources, like those of all types, are necessarily limited. Since we know that only 2% of the population devotes itself to science (Feist 2006), it may very well be more worthwhile to work on improving our ability to target those students who have potential. Anything else would be like trying to train a person who has no vocal talent whatsoever to sing opera.

Contact details: nuria.anaya@urjc.es

References

Anaya-Reig, N. 2018. “Cajal: Key Psychological Factors in the Self-Construction of a Genius.” Social Epistemology. doi: 10.1080/02691728.2018.1522555.

Anaya-Reig, N., and M. Romo. 2017. “Cajal, Psychologist of Science.” The Spanish Journal of Psychology 20: e69. doi: 10.1017/sjp.2017.71.

Feist, G. J. 2006. The Psychology of Science and the Origins of the Scientific Mind. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Feist, G. J., and M. E. Gorman. 1998. “The Psychology of Science: Review and Integration of a Nascent Discipline.” Review of General Psychology 2 (1): 3–47. doi: 10.1037/1089-2680.2.1.3.

Hayes, J. R. 1981. The Complete Problem Solver. Philadelphia, PA: Franklin Institute Press.

Moya, M. 1996. “Percepción social y personas.” In Psicología social, 93-119. Madrid, Spain: McGraw-Hill.

Pozo Municio, J. I. 1996. Aprendices y maestros. La nueva cultura del aprendizaje. Madrid, Spain: Alianza.

Pozo, J. I., M. P. Rey, A. Sanz, and M. Limón. 1992. “Las ideas de los alumnos sobre la ciencia como teorías implícitas.” Infancia y Aprendizaje 57: 3-22.

Pozo, J. I., N. Scheuer, M. M. Mateos Sanz, and M. P. Pérez Echeverría. 2006. “Las teorías implícitas sobre el aprendizaje y la enseñanza.” In Nuevas formas de pensar la enseñanza y el aprendizaje: las concepciones de profesores y alumnos, 95-134. Barcelona, Spain: Graó.

Ramón y Cajal, S. 1920. Reglas y consejos sobre investigación científica. (Los tónicos de la voluntad). 5th ed. Madrid, Spain: Nicolás Moya.

Ramón y Cajal, S. 1999. Advice for a Young Investigator, translated by N. Swanson and L. W. Swanson. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Romo, M. 1997. Psicología de la creatividad. Barcelona, Spain: Paidós.

Romo, M. 2008. Epistemología y Psicología. Madrid, Spain: Pirámide.

Runco, M. 2011. “Implicit theories.” In Encyclopaedia of Creativity, edited by M. Runco and S. R. Pritzker, 644-646. 2nd ed. Elsevier.

Simonton, D. K. 2006. “Creative genius, Knowledge, and Reason. The Lives and Works of Eminents Creators.” In Creativity and reason in cognitive development, edited by J. C. Kaufman and J. Baer, 43-59. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Wegner, D. M., and R. R, Vallacher. 1977. Implicit Psychology. An introduction to Social Cognition. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Wylie, C. D. 2018. “‘I Just Love Research’: Beliefs About What Makes Researchers Successful.” Social Epistemology 32 (4): 262-271, doi: 10.1080/02691728.2018.1458349.