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False beliefs held by some of the smartest people in history

Updated: Oct 27, 2023

Even many of the smartest people that have ever lived convinced themselves of false things, just like the rest of us.

For instance:

1️⃣ Linus Pauling ☮️⚗️

Pauling won two Nobel prizes - one in peace and one in chemistry. Unfortunately, he eventually became obsessed with and widely promoted the false (and sometimes still repeated) idea that high-dose vitamin C cures or combats many diseases, including cancer, HIV and even snakebites.

2️⃣ Alan Turing 💻🤖

Often considered to be the father of theoretical computer science and artificial intelligence, Turing was seemingly convinced of the existence of extrasensory perception. He wrote: "The statistical evidence, at least for telepathy, is overwhelming." To be fair, telepathy (which is the alleged communication of thoughts by means other than the known senses), had not been studied as thoroughly at that point as it has been today. On a number of occasions, scientists who believed in the effect claimed they had found evidence for it, but when an independent team then tried to replicate those results, they failed to find evidence for telepathy. A relatively recent example is Bem's feeling the future experiments failed to replicate,

3️⃣ Isaac Newton 🍎🔭

Newton co-invented calculus and discovered the laws of gravity, but he also spent a lot of time on alchemy - the pseudoscientific predecessor to chemistry that included attempts to transmute base metals into gold using a mythical substance known as "the philosopher's stone".

4️⃣ Marie Curie ⚛️🧪

The two-time Nobel laureate who pioneered research in radioactivity believed that radiation was beneficial to human health and did not recognize the dangers associated with radiation exposure. Unfortunately, this belief likely contributed to her death from aplastic anemia, a condition believed to be caused by her long-term exposure to radiation. She wasn't being stupid, and yet she was dangerously wrong - it wasn't, of course, until well after she began working with radioactive substances that scientists figured out their dangers.

5️⃣ Lord Kelvin 🌡️🧊

The distinguished physicist and engineer who developed the absolute temperature scale (Kelvin scale) and significantly contributed to the second law of thermodynamics, famously stated in 1895 that "heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible", and continued to express skepticism even as experiments with flight were being done. Just eight years later, the Wright Brothers made their first powered flight, proving him wrong.

Of course, we're not suggesting that the people listed above were stupid. Actually, they were far smarter than most of the people that have ever lived (by at least some reasonably common ways of thinking about intelligence).

Our point is that intelligence is not enough to avoid false beliefs and, at the end of the day, we all believe false things.

Thankfully, we can come closer to the truth by honing our thinking. Learning about how our minds work, as well as the rules for how evidence works, and the techniques of rational thinking. Rationality also involves actively working to disprove your own beliefs to make sure they hold up to scrutiny - something which highly intelligent people sometimes do but often do not.

Fortunately, we at Clearer Thinking have developed more than 75 free tools, many of which are designed to help you improve aspects of your critical thinking.

Since we have so many tools, we recommend using the filter on the left to find the one which most suits your needs and time availability.

Remember that rationality is not a state or end goal you can arrive at; it’s a process that you can always be engaged in and always seek to improve. Even those who are most engaged in those processes aren’t able to reason perfectly all the time. Rationality isn't about perfection but progress.

“Discovering you were wrong is an update, not a failure, and your worldview is a living document meant to be revised.”

Julia Galef, author of The Scout Mindset

1 Comment

Aug 06, 2023

Telepathy, although not proven by science, is believed to be possible for individuals who have been dedicated long-term meditators. The article focuses on pure physics and however certain metaphysical phenomena can only be supported by evidence from quantum mechanics.

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