Interestingly Steven Novella discusses an article which appears to offer insight into the mechanism behind our susceptibility to irrational claims:
The study looked at individuals identified as Christian and very religious (confirmed with a questionnaire) and non-religious controls. They were then exposed to speeches by a non-Christian, a Christian, and a Christian faith healer, while being examined by fMRI (functional MRI scanning looks at brain function by measuring blood flow to the various brain regions).
... two things appear to be happening here. The first is an increase in activity among the secular group when exposed to the speech of a Christian faith healer – this can perhaps be interpreted as a negative reaction, putting their critical thinking on alert. Further, Christians who believed in faith healing had the opposite reaction – they turned off their critical thinking.This may be due to something akin to Windows running multiple programs:
We may fall victim to simple resource limitations, and when we tax our brain function our performance – including critical thinking – diminishes.Another interpretation is:
Evolutionary psychologists speculate that our ancestors may have been selected for the ability to hand over their executive function to a charismatic leader. This allows for group cohesion, and it allows for the sacrifice of the individual for the good of the group. If the group is comprised largely of our genetic relatives, this self-sacrifice can make Darwinian sense.
This level of handing over may be necessary to do otherwise unthinkable acts, such as following your commander into a deadly (even suicidal) situation.
But there is a dark side to the monkey brains we inherited. Cults are the ultimate expression of this – turning over complete control to a charismatic leader. Cults then indoctrinate their members into a belief system that enhances this effect. They further cultivate an us vs them attitude, which makes them more pliable to their leaders and resistant to outsiders. Cults even manipulate their recruits with sleep and protein deprivation, to further stress their neurological resources.As I mentioned cult-like behaviour as characteristic of the anti-science crowd it looks like I was not that far off.
Update: Page, from The Gotham Skeptic, discusses the same study.