Why Do People Believe The Da Vinci Code?

I hope that this post isn’t a mistake. I don’t intend to debunk The Da Vinci Code here; that work has already been done very well by others. I would instead like to consider a thorny question asked on the Commonweal blog, namely, “How did the most popular novel in history, which posits a ludicrous (yet epic) conspiracy protected by the Church, take off in the most “Christian” of industrialized nations?” Bill Cork has just drawn his readers’ attention to a rather alarming Reuters story on the novel’s credibility with British readers, entitled, “Reading Da Vinci Code does alter beliefs: Survey.” How can this be? Needless to say, I do not have sociological studies and lengthy compilations of anecdotal data at my fingertips, so anything I write will – at the very best – be incomplete. That said, let me begin with a conjecture: The premise of The Da Vinci Code is very much like other conspiracy theories.

When I was thinking about conspiracy theories a couple of years ago for completely unrelated reasons, I read a helpful article by Steve Clarke in the journal Philosophy of the Social Sciences (32 [2002]), “Conspiracy Theories and Conspiracy Theorizing.” Dr Clarke begins his article by borrowing another philosopher’s definition of a conspiracy theory: “a proposed explanation of some historical event (or events) in terms of the significant causal agency of a relatively small group of persons – the conspirators – acting in secret.” It might be imagined, he says, that believers in a conspiracy theory are attracted to it for purely emotional reasons and pay little attention to evidence. But, he notes that conspiracy theorists will actually try to overwhelm the unfortunate skeptic with evidence (the “Bizarre Facts,” perhaps, on Dan Brown’s website), and they will even account for any evidence proffered for the “received view” as proof of a cover-up.

Conspiracy theories, despite all the attention given to evidence, are examples of what the philosopher Imre Lakatos called “degenerating research programs.” All research traditions, to Lakatos, are built around paradigms, or core theories, and new evidence will either advance the paradigm or have to be accounted for by auxiliary hypotheses. A progressive research program advances as new evidence is discovered that has been expected or even predicted. Dr Clarke reminds us of Woodward and Bernstein’s investigations, during which the initial expectations that a number of individuals were complicit in the Watergate burglary for political reasons proved to be largely correct. A degenerating research program, on the other hand, must continually modify auxiliary hypotheses in light of new evidence to “protect the original theory from apparent disconfirmation.” One can think of how Dan Brown’s paradigm of the bloodline of Jesus Christ requires all sorts of protective auxiliary hypotheses, regarding everything from an expansive role for Constantine in the shaping of Christian doctrine to the existence of a Priory of Sion.

A conspiracy theorist, then, is similar to an “elderly holdout” in science who remains committed to a degenerating research program in astronomy or physics. But we can imagine why an aging scientist would not wish to renounce a theory that has guided a lifetime of research and established an academic reputation. The sheer ludicrousness of The Da Vinci Code seems to demand further explanation for its credibility. We cannot speak of indoctrination or brainwashing or even intense feelings of belonging, especially because The Da Vinci Code hasn’t yet generated, to the best of my knowledge, coherent subcultures or spiritual practices. Why do believers in the The Da Vinci Code cling to an obviously degenerating research program?

Dr Clarke introduces another factor that is “present in the overwhelming majority of cases of such conspiracy theorizing”: “fundamental attribution error.” I think that this will be helpful here. Social psychologists explain “fundamental attribution error” as the refusal to distinguish between situational and dispositional explanations of behavior. If someone is in a car accident, for example, a situational explanation would focus on the driving conditions while a dispositional explanation would blame the accident on the carelessness of the driver. Of course, slippery roads and a sleepy driver might both be at fault in a pile-up, but, practically, most people single out only one explanatory factor. Dr Clarke tells us that, according to most psychologists, people usually overestimate the importance of dispositional factors when they explain the behavior of others – thus the “attribution error.”

We can look at two well-known experiments. In a 1967 experiment, psychologists asked research subjects to make inferences about the authors of various essays and recorded speeches that they had been given. Even when they were specifically told that the authors had been instructed to argue for a particular side in a debate, the subjects continually inferred that the authors personally supported, say, the legalization of marijuana. The research subjects, we can say, exhibited a rather dubious (and stubborn) reliance on dispositional factors to explain behavior.

In another famous experiment (the Darley-Batson “Jerusalem to Jericho” experiment), a number of Princeton Theological Seminary students were told to give a presentation at a certain location. To get there, they would first have to walk past a person slumped in a doorway coughing and groaning. Who would be the Good Samaritan? 63% of the seminarians who were unhurried stopped to give assistance. No clear dispositional factor could be identified to distinguish those who stopped from those who passed by. But a situational factor made a very large difference – when the seminarians were told that they were late, the assistance rate dropped to 10%. The importance of a situational rather than a dispositional factor surprised both the psychologists and members of the public who were asked to predict the outcome of the experiment.

In fact, a later experiment asked people to read about the Darley-Batson experiment and then make predictions. They still did not change their conventional beliefs. We tend to explain things according to dispositional factors. Conspiracy theories are extremely dispositional. For instance, Dr Clarke says that a situational explanation for the US military’s reluctance to discuss Roswell is that there simply is no incident to discuss. A dispositional – and conspiratorial explanation – would be that the US military leadership is secretive and covering up something involving aliens. Likewise, a confusing painting with a strange depiction of St John might be an example of Renaissance artistic conventions (situational explanation), or the artist’s desire to communicate “hidden symbolic meaning” (dispositional explanation).

As the psychologists Lee Ross and Robert E. Nesbitt have suggested, fundamental attribution errors occur much more frequently when we are outside contexts of familiarity, such as when, for most Americans, the Roman Catholic Church or Opus Dei are discussed. Furthermore, we may also tend to make fundamental attribution errors when we are fearful – “erring on the side of caution,” so to speak. As Dr Clarke writes, “If another person, with whom I am in close contact, is disposed to conspire against me then it is very important that I am aware of this. If I commit the error of mistaking their hostile dispositions for a situational factor then I potentially expose myself to much danger by continuing to interact with them.” And many Americans are still fearful around certain expressions of Catholicism.

So what to do about The Da Vinci Code? Obviously, if it’s entertaining, it’s entertaining, and it might be a fine book to take to the beach and read with a very large grain of salt. There is the disturbing matter of its credibility, though. Some readers might not know that Dan Brown’s novel is a quickly degenerating research program, and debunking is then quite useful. We can further prevent a good many fundamental attribution errors by trying to make the Roman Catholic Church seem more familiar and less forbidding. But we ourselves can also introduce situational factors, whenever appropriate, into the historical discussion of the Roman Catholic Church so that those alienated from the Church do not rely on extremely (and unremittingly negative) dispositional explanations to make sense of history and their own experiences.

Let us take Dan Brown’s ridiculous charge that the Catholic Church murdered five million women as witches. A completely dispositional explanation would suggest that the Catholic Church simply wished to destroy whatever the so-called witches represented. It can then be persuasively argued by the conspiracy theorist that the Church desperately hoped and still aims to suppress something of the magnitude of an esoteric “sacred feminine.” (And, finally, in light of this argument, the astounding number of five million becomes strangely credible.)

I am not suggesting that we make excuses in a defensive and self-serving way. I have already posted on the Jesuit priest Friedrich Spee, whom Karl Rahner placed alongside Peter Claver and Francis Regis as models for modern Ignatian discipleship. In 1631, Spee risked his own safety by writing a treatise entitled Cautio Criminalis, in which he described contemporary witch trials. He wrote, “I confess that I myself have accompanied several women to their deaths in various places over the preceding years whose innocence even now I am so sure of that there could never be any effort and diligence too great that I would not undertake it in order to reveal this truth … One can easily guess what feelings were in my soul when I was present at such miserable deaths.” We should be ready to repent for what our brothers and sisters, united to us in baptism, did to innocent women (and men), for their actions surely do not have just an individual relevance.

And it is perhaps only in the context of a disarming willingness to repent that the Church can credibly bring up situational factors to contextualize both the past and present. The International Theological Commission’s Memory and Reconciliation said

As John Paul II observes, “an accurate historical judgment cannot prescind from careful study of the cultural conditioning of the times… Yet the consideration of mitigating factors does not exonerate the Church from the obligation to express profound regret for the weaknesses of so many of her sons and daughters…” The Church is “not afraid of the truth that emerges from history and is ready to acknowledge mistakes wherever they have been identified, especially when they involve the respect that is owed to individuals and communities. She is inclined to mistrust generalizations that excuse or condemn various historical periods. She entrusts the investigation of the past to patient, honest, scholarly reconstruction, free from confessional or ideological prejudices, regarding both the accusations brought against her and the wrongs she has suffered.”

The solution, then, to the fundamental attribution error behind conspiracy theorizing is to invite others to a “patient, honest, scholarly reconstruction, free from confessional or ideological prejudices,” which can then take proper account of “cultural conditioning” (as I hope that my post on Spee did). But I think that the only way to offer a credible invitation is to first openly embrace “the truth that emerges from history” and “acknowledge mistakes wherever they have been identified.” We have not always been willing to do this, lacking the courage of our late Holy Father.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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