The Anthill

Anthill 7: On belief

The Antill 7: On belief. The Conversation, CC BY-ND46.9 MB (download)

In this episode of The Anthill, a podcast from The Conversation, we’re taking a critical look at the idea of belief. You might not consider yourself to be religious or have a particularly clear cut belief system. But, make no mistake, belief permeates everything we do.

For most, the simple belief that the sun will rise every day means not living in fear of the apocalypse. Yet this isn’t the case for everyone. History is replete with doomsday cults, predicting or ushering in the end of the world. To find out why these cults and others are so effective at sucking people in, we speak to psychologists Linda and Rod Dubrow-Marshall who have spent years investigating their popularity.

Similarly, for some people conspiracy theories can be easier to believe than the truth. Was 9/11 an inside job? Did the British government run Princess Diana off the road? Is climate change a Chinese invention, geared toward making US manufacturing less competitive? Stephan Lewandowsky shares his thoughts on the logic employed by conspiracy theorists – and the prospect of having one in the White House.

If there’s one thing that we would not consider to be driven by belief, it’s science. As our science editor, Miriam Frankel, finds out, however, even scientific discovery has been shaped by certain ways of seeing the world. David Papineau, a professor of the philosophy of science, explains how religious ideas have driven scientific discoveries throughout history and neuroscientist Gina Rippon ponders the pervasive effect of gender biases in her field today.

From embedded beliefs shaping scientific research, we switch to attempts by scientists to change what people believe. Our society editor, Gemma Ware, speaks to Colin Holbrook about his experiment using a technology called transcranial magnetic stimulation, which he suggests can temporarily shift people’s attitudes toward the afterlife and immigrants. But ethicist Nathan Emmerich says we shouldn’t be too worried yet about this technique being used on mass to control our minds.

And finally we hear from a researcher who’s investigated the effects of trauma on people’s belief systems. Karen O'Donnell, who has researched post-traumatic stress disorder, explains how belief is both rocked by trauma and plays a fundamental role in recovery.

Click here to listen again to any of The Anthill podcasts – which each take a theme and ask academics from a variety of disciplines to talk about their research. Listen to some of our previous episodes, such as Into the darkness, Rebooting, Fuel and Underdogs. Subscribe via iTunes or Soundcloud.


The Anthill theme music is by Alex Grey for Melody Loops. The music for the conspiracy theories section is called channeling (johnny ripper remix), by sun mix. Music in the segment on the way that belief shapes scientific discovery is Waltz For Django by Wall Matthews. Music in the segment on transcranial magnetic stimulation is called Philae, by Simon Matthewson and music. All were found on the Free Music Archive. The earthquake sound effect in the segment on trauma and belief is by uagadugu and the choral music by Capella Dulcis, recorded by klankbeeld.

A big thank you to City University London’s Department of Journalism for the use of their studios.