The dangers of justification

by | Jan 22, 2015

When our beliefs are threatened by facts, we turn to unfalsifiable justifications

On being told physics could undermine religious claims, believers said faith was more about living a moral life. It’s great to have facts on your side. The fundamentalist is delighted by the archaeological find that tallies with scripture, just as the atheist seizes on the evidence that contradicts it. But when the evidence goes against us, we’re less likely to change a belief than to criticise the validity or provenance of the evidence. Now, research suggests that the mere prospect of a factual threat leads us to downplay how much our belief depends on such evidence at all. We become attracted to other, less falsifiable reasons for believing.

Justin Friesen and his colleagues conducted a series of studies each with a hundred or more participants. The first presented participants with a summary statement from a conference on science and God. When it suggested that science could one day settle the question of God’s existence, religious participants wavered in their religious conviction, rating it significantly lower than those told that science was not armed to answer such questions. The very possibility that the religious belief was falsifiable made it vulnerable.

A subsequent study presented the discovery of the Higgs Boson as either a threat to or unlikely to affect matters of religion. Asked what reasons underpinned their belief, religious participants gave more importance to unfalsifiable statements such as “living a moral life would be impossible without God” when told the particle was a threat, and relatively less to evidence-linked statements such as  “historical and archaeological evidence shows how God intervened in the world.”

This effect wasn’t restricted to religious belief. In another study, supporters and opponents of same-sex marriage were shown data on life outcomes of children raised by same-sex couples; by presenting these outcomes as either positive or troubled, participants were exposed to data that either supported or undermined their position. When the facts were on their side, they rated the issues of same-sex marriage and child-rearing as a matter for evidence to decide; when the facts were against them, they saw it as more a matter of opinion.

The authors speculate that this tendency to revert to unfalsifiable justifications may mean that many beliefs, over time, shear off their evidential component and become increasingly unchallengeable. But they also note that unfalsifiability may have important psychological value, for instance in making inviolable beliefs such as “love is real” or “genocide is wrong”, whose compromise could otherwise be deeply distressing and disorientating.  Cherish or bemoan it, our belief systems are laced with unfalsifiable aspects that won’t be budged by evidence alone.


Thank you to: and Friesen, J., Campbell, T., & Kay, A. (2014). The Psychological Advantage of Unfalsifiability: The Appeal of Untestable Religious and Political Ideologies. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology DOI: 10.1037/pspp0000018