130401FestingerApril 1, 2013

“Suppose an individual believes something with his whole heart; suppose further that he has a commitment to this belief, that he has taken irrevocable actions because of it; finally, suppose that he is presented with evidence, unequivocal and undeniable evidence, that his belief is wrong; what will happen?

“The individual will frequently emerge, not only unshaken, but even more convinced of the truth of his beliefs than ever before….”

– From “When Prophecy Fails” by Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken and Stanley Schachter (1956)

The three social psychologists studied the refusal of a cult of UFO believers to accept that their belief in an imminent apocalypse had been proven false. Seth Mnookin usefully dusts off this case in “The Panic Virus: A True Story of Medicine, Science and Fear,” his 2011 expose of the groundless claim that childhood vaccination causes autism.

Before the day-care ritual-abuse mania ran its course, its theorists and trophy hunters clung ever more tightly to a belief system with no rational means of support. Long after the phoniness of the Little Rascals prosecution had become clear to the world, Nancy Lamb managed to conjure up an unrelated abuse charge against Bob Kelly. And even today