Snelson’s Ideological Immune System


I just read the current eSKEPTIC, the newsletter of the Skeptic Society (publisher of Skeptic magazine). The featured article is from a 1992 edition of Skeptic and was written by Jay Stuart Snelson. It is titled “The Ideological Immune System: Resistance to New Ideas in Science.” According to eSKEPTIC:

In this week’s eSkeptic J. S. Snelson discusses how our biological immune system protects our bodies from an invasion of foreign agents and pathogens, and, in the context of the historical discovery and treatment of malaria, how our ideological immune system protects our minds from an invasion of foreign ideas and doctrines.

The article begins:

As our biological immune system protects our bodies from an invasion of foreign agents and pathogens, so does our ideological immune system protect our minds from an invasion of foreign ideas and doctrines. The history of the creation and disclosure of scientific ideas shows us that the more important, profound, and revolutionary a new idea, the more likely educated, intelligent, successful adults will resist understanding and accepting those new ideas. All of us have one: Our ideological immune system resists acceptance of any new ideas that would overturn any of our old basic ideas. Science is forever forging outrageous heresies that rock the boat of convention. It is the nature of science to give birth to foreign ideas that are alien to our sheltered ways of thinking. Should we allow our ideological immune systems to protect us? Or can we somehow suppress our ideological immune systems and embrace those ideas that are new and revolutionary. Do we have a choice, and if so, can science guide our choice?

This is great article! I encourage all to click on the link and read it. It is long—almost 10,000 words—and should be read thoroughly (in other words, not when you are almost asleep).

I mention it for several reasons.

1. It is just a great read for anyone interested in thinking critically.

2. The most common question I am asked is: “If what you are saying is true, why do all those scientists still use animals to predict human response to drugs and disease?” I hate that question as: a) my lecture was about science hence the science I discuss should be judged on its own merit not on who (dis)agrees with it; and b) it is hard not to come across as jerk when you say that everyone else is wrong and you are right because everyone else is focused on ego and money. I like Snelson’s article because he says what I say, but much better.

3. The principles he discusses can be applied to many situations.

4. The article once again explains why the argument from authority is a fallacy. (See Argument From Authority. Part I, Part II and Part III.)

Of course Snelson is not the only one who questions the argument from authority. Massimo Pigliucci writes in Nonsense on Stilts:

A recurring theme of this book is that one cannot simply trust authority no matter how, well, authoritative it may appear to be. There is, unfortunately, no shortcut to using one's brain and critical sense and doing some background research before taking a position. (Pigliucci 2010) p90

And Carl Jung said the following about people who take things at face value:

These people are lacking not only in criticism but in the most elementary knowledge of psychology. At bottom they do not want to be taught any better, but merely to go on believing—surely the naivest of presumptions in view of our human failings. [as quoted in (Sagan 1996) p187-88]

I thank Michael Shermer and the Skeptic Society for posting this article. I recommend that readers of this blog and anyone interested in science, critical thinking, social change, or animal issues read the article. It is worth the time!


Pigliucci, Massimo. 2010. Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Sagan, Carl. 1996. The Demon-Haunted World. Science As A Candle In The Dark. New York: Ballantine Books.


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