The Problem of Credulity

The Problem of Credulity

Piers Benn
Piers Benn
11 min read

What is credulity, and what – if anything – is wrong with it? And if credulity is a fault, might it be a fault not only of judgment but also of character? These questions strike me as important, in the light of certain recent events, but they are also surprisingly hard to answer. We know roughly what credulity is: a tendency to give too much credence to certain claims or appearances; to be too ready to believe things we should not believe. Hence, someone who is habitually taken in by con-artists is prone to believe the stories used to part him from his money. Someone who tends to believe insincere apologies is too ready to believe that those apologising are sorry for what they have done. We could come up with any number of examples. But is there any more to be said, other than that it is a disposition to be irrational?

If we want to be pedantic, we could say that these examples also illustrate incredulity. Being too ready to believe that the person asking for money is honest entails being too ready to disbelieve that he is a scammer. But it is closer to the mark to say that, at least in these cases, credulous people are too ready to believe what others want them to believe. Hence, the person who falls for the scam shows credulity about people’s honesty. His judgment about other matters may be mostly good, but he has this blind spot. Other people have other blind spots. They might be credulous about their partner’s fidelity, the promises made by the political party they support, the stories run by their favourite sources of information (hence the rise of ‘fake news’), or the advice given by their investment analysts.

We all believe things we should not, and this arises from numerous faulty tendencies, including wishful thinking, fearful thinking, cognitive bias, or merely intellectual incompetence such as a tendency to misjudge probability. All these sources of error can lead us to lend excessive credence to appearances, which can have deleterious social or political repercussions.

Irrationality and Credulity

However, there is a difference between simple irrationality and credulity. Irrationality per se is not a character flaw, but when it takes the form of credulity, it often is. The 19th century essayist W. K. Clifford famously wrote: “It is wrong always, everywhere and for everyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.”1 By “wrong” he meant morally wrong, but this is an overstatement. The belief might be about something trivial. It might arise because the believer cannot reasonably be expected to see the truth. It is silly, therefore, to condemn everyone who has unfounded beliefs – especially given that we all do. Besides, Clifford’s notion of evidence is too crude. If every belief requires evidence, then what of the belief that the evidence itself exists? What is the evidence for that belief? And so on, ad infinitum. Still, there are obviously many beliefs for which we rightly require evidence, so we should not be too distracted by these finer points of epistemology.

More to the point, Clifford also wrote in the same essay that, “The credulous man is father to the liar and the cheat.” Mindful of this, much ‘sceptic’ literature debunks ‘alternative medicine’ (or ‘alternatives to medicine’), the paranormal, and weird cults.2 Credulity about many of the claims made in these areas provides endless opportunities for charlatans, who divert trusting and sometimes vulnerable people away from what might do them good, and instead hook them on useless and faddish ‘remedies’ that often leave them much poorer. Their dupes tend to think they are ‘open-minded’ and that this should lead them to believe in such things. They regard scepticism as a sure sign of closed-mindedness. In fact, it is usually the other way around; open-mindedness – impartial sensitivity to the available evidence – should usually lead to scepticism, while belief is more likely to be a sign of closed-mindedness. But this looks wildly paradoxical and it is almost impossible to persuade convinced believers of its truth.

But there is still a difference between honest irrationality, or ignorance, and credulity. For example, if we badly want to believe something, we often end up doing so. We might deliberately fail to look for reasons not to believe it, or place trust in people of whom we have reason to be wary. Of course, for such self-deception to work, we must contrive to be unaware that we are engaging in it, and the philosophical literature about the apparent paradox this involves is complex.3 That said, self-deception is a familiar phenomenon, which often operates when we direct our attention away from things that might cause us discomfort and allow the natural process of forgetting to take hold.

I am interested here in the credulity that does indicate a flaw or vice, especially when it operates in controversial social, political, and religious disputes. It is found across the political spectrum and in people of different faiths and none. In the late nineteenth century, rationalists and agnostics about religious creeds took heart from Clifford’s strictures against believing contrary to evidence, because they felt that this was exactly what religious apologists were constantly demanding: believe in Christianity because if you don’t, you demonstrate hardness of heart and an unwillingness to acknowledge your sins – you prefer the darkness to the light! Hence, we are manipulated into religious belief: we know we have moral flaws, but we also want to think we are better than those who do not admit it.

I suspect that in the contemporary secular world, something similar is going on, and its ability to inhibit honest discussion can be alarming. Advocates of highly questionable claims can press a ‘guilt button’ in their listeners, insinuating that if people don’t believe them, that is because they won’t admit their complicity in something terrible. If a sense of guilt – or, in some cases, fear or indignation – is induced, the result can be credulity of astonishing proportions.

The Case of ‘Nick

In November 2014, an illustrative case in the UK became something of a media sensation. A middle-aged man known only as ‘Nick’ claimed that, as a child, he was sexually abused by several prominent men, including Edward Heath, a former Prime Minister; Leon Brittan, a former Home Secretary; Harvey Proctor, a former Tory MP (who resigned his seat in 1987 after being charged with gross indecency with males who were under-age according to the law at the time); Lord Bramall, a former head of the Army; and two former heads of the UK’s intelligence services. Nick claimed that these men were members of a larger ‘VIP paedophile ring’ operating in clandestine locations during the 1970s and ’80s. He also claimed that members of this group had murdered three children.

In December 2014, Detective Superintendent Kenny MacDonald announced that experienced officers regarded Nick’s allegations as “credible and true.” A police investigation known as Operation Midland was set up, which eventually cost £2.5 million. Operation Midland was controversial. A BBC Panorama documentary casting doubt on Nick’s claims was criticised by the police, who claimed that the broadcast would deter victims from coming forward in future. This was an odd complaint, since the truth or falsity of Nick’s allegations did not necessarily imply the truth or falsity of any others. But there existed a prevailing view that scepticism about allegations of abuse was a sign of unwillingness to trust the testimony of all complainants in any and all such cases. By the time Operation Midland came to an end in 2016, the police were forced to admit that they could find no corroborating evidence for any of the claims.

There can be no doubt that, in the past, many allegations of sexual crimes were not taken seriously by the authorities. I would not be surprised if, even now, some such allegations are not properly investigated. Justifiable anger about this state of affairs led to the ‘Believe the Survivor’ movement, the influence of which is now highly visible in the UK mainstream media. But this anger has generated credulity in some people rather than incentivising a more rigorous search for truth. Complainants are routinely referred to as ‘victims’ or ‘survivors,’ terms which pre-suppose the very thing that is supposed to be under investigation. Commentators and even the police regularly avoid using the legally correct term ‘complainants,’ for fear that its neutrality casts doubt on their allegations. Referring to them as ‘victims’ or ‘survivors,’ on the other hand, is meant to show that their allegations are being taken seriously, and this is becoming almost synonymous with believing them. Nevertheless, ‘complainant’ is the correct term. Complainants may or may not be telling the truth (and, to be clear, I believe they usually are) but this term does not suggest that they are not telling the truth. Yet this is increasingly how people interpret it. This makes it difficult to suspend judgment before hearing the evidence, without attracting suspicion that you are an abuse ‘denier’ or ‘apologist.’

Now that Operation Midland has closed, Nick is being investigated for perverting the course of justice with false allegations. More sensationally, he has recently been charged with making indecent images of children. And, as with all serious crimes, the only proper test of the evidence will be in court. Do bizarre episodes like this tell us anything about credulity in general? In this case, people’s willingness to believe Nick was probably caused, in part, by their desire to believe in, and display, their own moral rectitude. Something similar happened with the American ‘Satanic panic’ of the 1980s.4

Perhaps it is rationalised like this: “Abusers proclaim their innocence and say their accusers are lying or deranged. We should do the opposite and believe the accusations, to distinguish ourselves from such criminals. In fact, a failure to do so only adds insult to injury for victims.” The truth, of course, is that it is not only the guilty who proclaim their innocence, but also the innocent. Such an acknowledgement, however, seems to align the speaker with guilty abusers, who will invariably say the same thing. With such rationalisation comes groupthink, which moves from the correct judgment that the crimes alleged are terrible, to the questionable judgment that the crimes must have taken place. It is easy to see the non-sequitur when laid out like this, but interests and passions can easily get in the way.

Sentimentality and Moralism

Sentimentality and moralism are vices related to credulity in highly politicised contexts such as the case described above. Understanding their operation can help us to understand credulity in general. Sentimentality is a perversion of the genuine virtue of compassion. It is multi-faceted and hard to define precisely, but it is a close cousin of hypocrisy and vanity. It undermines both compassion and truthfulness. Oscar Wilde defined a sentimentalist as “one who wants to have the luxury of an emotion without paying for it,”5 though, as Roger Scruton has pointed out, they are all too happy to have others pay for it. The sentimentalist also wants to be admired for his supposed compassion, especially when the suffering he claims to care about has been inflicted by the forces of injustice. Of course, it is not sentimental to be outraged by the suffering of victims of serious crime. Often, suffering really is the result of wrongdoing on the part of others. But justice, unlike sentimentality, makes truth the focus of enquiry. It eschews automatic belief in anything about a supposed offender or victim, and examines the evidence impartially, mindful of how appearances can mislead. Such scruples are an annoyance to the sentimentalist, since they threaten his entitlement to display his compassion unimpeded.

It is here that the vice of moralism also does its work. It might seem odd to twin moralism with sentimentality, since they seem natural opposites. For example, the moralistic individual is harsh and unwilling to hear excuses, whereas the sentimentalist is all too willing to indulge them. But, although they are often mutually opposed, there are times when they fit neatly together. Carl Jung noticed this and remarked that, “Sentimentality is the superstructure erected upon brutality.”6 More generally, one who is sentimental about the suffering caused by a real or imagined injustice is often driven by a vengeful hatred of the supposed offender and will tolerate no evidence or arguments in his defence. The feelings aroused are granted ultimate authority.

Moralism is a distortion of morality; it exaggerates and over-simplifies the moral dimensions of situations and it is obsessed with apportioning blame. Moralistic individuals are not interested in complexity. And, in case I seem to be ‘siding’ with alleged perpetrators of serious crimes, note that moralism also works in the other direction. People who are prejudiced against complainants easily become moralistic about them, seizing on irrelevant aspects of their behaviour to cast doubt on their allegations. For example, UK prosecutors are, quite rightly, normally no longer allowed to make much of the lifestyles of complainants of sexual crime, what they were wearing, or whether or not they were drunk. Taking these things into account can easily lead to credulity about the stories told by defendants.

Sentimentality and moralism are just two vices that ease people into credulity. They are instances of a general human tendency to believe things that enable us to be seen in a good light, by ourselves and by others. And, of course, credulity arises from numerous other desires – many people want to be rich, healthy, popular, or attractive. Hence, people fall for get-rich-quick scams, dubious health advice, flattery, or worthless beauty products.

Credulity is an example of what philosophers call ‘epistemic vice.’ An excessive desire to conform to an ‘in-group’ leads people to adjust their beliefs to those of their group and often to demonise those who hold different beliefs. If we strongly sympathise with someone’s opinion on some issue, we can become credulous of everything else he says. If we know this person and desire his admiration, we may continue to believe what he says, for fear of falling out of favour. This fear is easily exploited by charismatic gurus – a fact which supports Clifford’s warning of how credulity helps liars and cheats. Conversely, personal dislike of someone can lead us to reject everything he says, perhaps because we assume his beliefs are reached in bad faith, when, in fact, it is our own bad faith that leads us to assume his.

Furthermore, credulity is not a sure sign of stupidity. Philosopher Susan Haack has wise things to say about how intelligent people end up making silly judgments.

For example, she notes that most American universities are now managed by professional administrators who have lost sight of what academic work is, and she expresses concern about the excessive trust professors place in the judgments of them. Professors, she says, are now over-impressed by surrogate measures of academic worth, such as citations, ‘prestige,’ and the puffery of blurbs and adulatory testimonials. The picture she paints will be familiar to academics, who feel under pressure to write hyperbolic references for colleagues and students, because this is the only way to give candidates a decent chance. This has now been normalised and extravagant promises that a candidate will one day be awarded a Nobel Prize (when in fact he or she averaged a B+) are, if not quite believed, not treated with the scepticism they deserve.

So why is credulity a vice? Certain vices cause us to become credulous, but more needs to be said. Haack rightly observes that credulity is a character flaw with respect to evidence, but can we identify that flaw, apart from noting its association with other flaws? I suggest that much of its work is in undermining important virtues. This is important given their interconnectedness. A central virtue is concern for truth and a consequent desire to believe only what is true. That may seem pompous, until we see how the lack of it undermines other virtues, especially justice and charity.

For instance, jurors should ask themselves whether the prosecution evidence has shown beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty as charged, not whether the defendant is a certain type of person. If, instead, jurors are guided by what they believe about the class of person to which the defendant or complainant belongs (be it social class or some other kind) then they sacrifice justice and charity to prejudice. More generally, when trying to form a judgment about anything of importance, we should honestly ask ourselves what we would prefer to be true and try not to let this cloud our judgment. And we should beware the lure of excitement – of believing something because it is fascinating or novel. Reality is often boring and does not exist to satisfy, or frustrate, our longings. We should not allow our impatience with banality to lead to belief in the bizarre and the extraordinary, especially when they harm others by undermining justice or charity.

We need to be able to suspend judgment. Often there is no way of knowing whether a claim is true, and this problem is sharpened when intelligent and knowledgeable people disagree. When we don’t know something, there can be a temptation to fill the gaps with confabulations. For writers of fiction, that is an excellent talent to have. But for those tasked with deciding matters of consequential importance in the real world, it engenders – as in Goya’s painting – the Sleep of Reason, which produces monsters.


1 Clifford, W.K., 1877 [1999], “The ethics of belief”, in T. Madigan, (ed.), The ethics of belief and other essays, Amherst, MA: Prometheus, 70–96.
2 For an informative and often amusing takedown of such ideas, see The Skeptic’s Dictionary by the late Robert Todd Carroll,
3 Simon Blackburn, What do we really know? The big questions of philosophy. London: Quercus (paperback) 2012 pp. 65-75.

4 Carol Tavris and Elliott Aronson, Mistakes were made, but not by us. Harcourt Inc. 2007.
5 Oscar Wilde, De Profundis. 1905; Fontamara 1993.
6 Carl Jung, The Spirit in Man, Art and Literature. London: Routledge, 2003, p. 143.


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Piers Benn

Dr Piers Benn is a Visiting Lecturer in Philosophy at Heythrop College, University of London, and an Adjunct Professor at Fordham University London Centre.