Streams

The Believing Brain

Monday, August 29, 2011

Psychologist, historian of science, and skeptic Michael Shermer explains his theory on how beliefs are born, formed, reinforced, challenged, changed, and extinguished—from politics, economics, and religion to conspiracy theories, the supernatural, and the paranormal. His book The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies—How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths examines how humans form beliefs about the world. Once beliefs are formed the brain begins to look for and find confirmatory evidence in support of those beliefs, which accelerates the process of reinforcing them.

Guests:

Michael Shermer

Comments [36]

anonyme

PS If it doesn't fit in Shermer's "box" - it simply doesn't exist!
PPS: Is Henry a plant (guest's)?

Aug. 31 2011 08:14 AM
anonyme

PS If it doesn't fit in Shermer's "box" - it simply doesn't exist!

Aug. 31 2011 08:09 AM
E from NYC

Mr. Shermer appears to be just another faithless/hopeless "smart guy".

The point is: How can any human being ultimately know everything about our never-ending, ever-expanding universe (I ask rhetorically)?

Aug. 30 2011 12:41 PM
S, Fede from NYC

Michael Shermer appears to be just another hopeless, faithless "smart guy".

BOTTOM LINE: No matter how smart one is, humans are inherently fallible and limited in their cognition, knowledge and wisdom. How could he or any human being know everything about our never-ending, ever-expanding universe (I ask rhetorically)?

Just a few non-topic inquiries about Mr. Shermer: Is he married with children? And if so, what do they think about his beliefs? Also, when and why did he stop believing in any supreme/omnipotent being?

Aug. 30 2011 12:34 PM
anonyme

Only pharmaceuticals can afford to do the testing - that's also one reason our food supply is so harmful to us. Also I would say here is an evidence-based observation: You clearly haven't researched enough non-allopathic practitioners! Why are there so many MDs studying non-conventional medicine? You need to talk first to Donna Eden (famous healer) and her husband, David Feinstein (who taught at Johns Hopkins Med School) just to start. I've never heard such a smug and clueless person, a resident of the left brain. However did so many civilizations survive for so long without this "skeptical" wisdom? US Military in Pensacola see UFOs all the time, according to locals.

Aug. 30 2011 11:00 AM
Henry from Manhattan

@ Amy from Manhattan.
“On "alternative" medicine, the NIH now has an institute for studying non-conventional treatments. Does Mr. Schermer consider that such treatments can become confirmed through clinical studies?”

Shermer touched on this somewhat, but the study of non-conventional treatments is not a new thing. Most alt-med treatments have indeed been examined, many times. The reason they are so readily dismissed by general medicine is because they failed to deliver.

Your examples, (if correct, I’m not at liberty to verify your claims) should demonstrate that if alternative remedies do work, mainstream medicine willing to appropriate them.
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@ Amy from Manhattan
“Henry: Could be. Looks like we read/wrote the same "evidence" & reached different conclusions!”

I’ll expand then.

Even a religious person would not accept “God says so” as a court ruling, and for good reason, we know how that went down in past times with Massachusetts witch-hunts, etc. Christians don’t let offenders of justice go because they believe that they will get their comeuppance in the afterlife. Even Christians that believe in hell, believe in criminal law and punishment. Modern court procedure isn’t just someone else’s arbitrary rules we just follow, it’s what we (ideally) decided upon as a mixed community. It’s materialistically evidence-based and secular, because it needs to be.

I’m not here to make an argument for or against the existence of God (although I suppose Shermer went right ahead and did that). I’m suggesting that complaining about “materialism” when discussing aspects that effect us collectively is a bit odd, because we all accept agreed upon rules in our daily practical lives and in matters of grave importance.

• Did that person commit murder?
• What sort of laws should we pass?
• Is the climate changing due to human causes?
• How do we best interpret history?
• Is a medical treatment effective?
• What explanation works best with our observations of biology?
• What should we teach in schools?

We don’t (or we shouldn’t) inform these decisions on subjective experience that we have to ask others to accept on unadulterated faith. We have perfectly reasonable tools of evidence gathering at our disposal that we can all agree, for the most part, are fair game. If we don’t agree, we can at least get a hold of shared material evidence to debate it out. But “I plucked the truth from the cosmic ether” excludes the rest of society from having productive conversations

If people want to worship some God, they are welcome to. But once we start comparing notes on the material world so we can make some practical choices, leave your religious books at home, since it’s going to lead to arguing over whose divine scripture or supernatural notions to take seriously, something religious groups with shared identities can’t agree on. There’s enough to debate about regarding this world as it is, that we don’t need to drag in supernatural ones.

Aug. 29 2011 07:26 PM
Henry from Manhattan

@ Ed from Larchmounrt
“The conclusion of Darwin's theory being used is that we are the result of the cavemen.”

There’s a grain of truth in your statement. That is if you only want to base your understanding on a facile strawman description, than yes, but it’s so much more than that.

I have some sympathy towards those who don’t accept Darwin’s original conception or current modern synthesis that has added to and reinforces evolutionary natural selection. While I wasn’t ever a creationist, I once did have doubts informed by my own ignorance regarding the abundant and compelling evidence and what elegant explanatory powers evolutionary theory has. I can only suggest that one reads up on the subject in earnest.

While I can understand some of the erosive aspects towards Christianity that evolution presents, it’s seems somewhat petty in the grand scheme of things to object wholesale to such scientifically established subject. I don’t quite get why a religious person wouldn’t want to attempt to understand and embrace the natural world in all its complexity and magnificence. If there is a creator of everything, wouldn’t that being want us to strive to comprehend and exalt the mechanisms of the universe instead of relying on hobbled ancient and allegorical understanding of how we once conjectured things to be?
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@ glo from nyc
“Only those who have not personally experienced a session with a reputable healer or medium are "skeptics"...”

There experiences feel very real, but it’s important to understand that there are explanations as to why they seem so powerful and why they don’t carry over very well under controlled conditions

Some of the biggest skeptics are magicians, because when they were younger, they wanted to do real magic. Once they learned the tricks of the trade, and learned that all there was were tricks and no real conjuring, no magic, they become some of the most ardent skeptics. (Harry Houdini, Amazing Randi, Penn & Teller, many others.)
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@ Phoebe from Bushwick
“I would just like to point out that huge amount "conventional" medicine is also not evidence based, a fact that is raising quite a bit of controversy these days.”

This is to be expected and doesn’t necessarily imply that science is failing; quite the contrary really. Science is not a static set of knowledge; it’s an endeavor that seeks to self-correct, though, yes, it can take some time. Blind trails, peer review, statistical analysis, is there to minimize biases, but science is still done by humans with biases and motivations.

Reasonable skepticism should exist for all medical claims, however, it’s important to be even more skeptical of medical claims that have no basis in naturalistic processes whatsoever and aren’t vetted with bias reduction processes.

Aug. 29 2011 06:26 PM
Henry from Manhattan

@ Pauline Park from Queens
“The main problem is that Shermer doesn't recognize that the 'scientific method' is a social construction”

I very much doubt that Shermer wouldn’t recognize the scientific method as social construction. His point is that it’s the best we’ve got, not that the scientific method is devoid of any human bias or limitations of our own corporal existence.

It’s the transcendent forms of knowledge gathering that rely on far more untenable frameworks the Shermer takes to task.

However, not all unscientific knowledge gathering is pernicious. Literature, even untrue fiction, can inform us about a certain truths of human experience. Shermer is challenging the sort of insights like, “I know x,y,z because I have preconceived poorly supported ideas, “ regarding claims that are testable and demonstrate otherwise.
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@ Arthur from Astoria, NY
“Shermer misunderstands the postmodern schools of thought utterly.”

There are degrees of post modernism. The light kind that asks us to question our assumptions and the strong kind that blatantly states that science has absolutely nothing to offer over any other number of bizarre assumptions describing how the natural world works. If a group believes the Earth is flat, then that’s just as legitimate a claim as saying it’s round, and any gathered evidence (sailing ships, airplanes, satellites: going around the globe, astrological comparison to other planets, photos of the Earth, etc.) doesn’t hold any weight. That’s the type of post modernism Shermer thinks is unproductive.

The thing is we didn’t really need post modernism to question our cultural assumptions, as there have been plenty of other schools of thought that have influenced philosophy of science on exactly these constructions. The only “new” criticism post modernism makes is it’s more banal rejection of any and all knowledge.

Aug. 29 2011 06:21 PM
elaine from queens

@Becky
re: "The Truth from Becky
ELAINE...you would lose that bet...I don't believe in evolution and I have never had a flu shot."

Becky, i wrote "..most.." so you did not read what i wrote carefully enough.
i was not being an absolutist, as my experience informs me that probabilities work best 'most' of the time.
and relax, no need to use all capitals for my name. i can read lower case letters like everybody else.

Aug. 29 2011 04:48 PM
elaine from queens

@Becky
re: "The Truth from Becky
ELAINE...you would lose that bet...I don't believe in evolution and I have never had a flu shot."

Becky, i wrote "..most.." so you did not read what i wrote carefully enough.
i was not being an absolutist, as my experience informs me that probabilities work best 'most' of the time.
and relax, no need to use all capitals for my name. i can read lower case letters like everybody else.

Aug. 29 2011 04:45 PM
Amy from Manhattan

Henry: Could be. Looks like we read/wrote the same "evidence" & reached different conclusions!

Aug. 29 2011 02:32 PM
eli from Jersey City

In today's NY Times Paul Krugman has an article about Republican presidential candidates being against science.

And today's news also has President Obama appointing Alan Krueger as chief economist.

Alan Krueger has a book: What Makes a Terrorist: Economics and the Roots of Terrorism in which he writes that in contrast to the assumption that terrorists come from impoverished, uneducated environments, terrorists often come from middle-class, college-educated backgrounds.

So we should not be surprised if soon we see news about how Republican nominees defend any reductions in education spending as their patriotic duty against terrorism.

Aug. 29 2011 02:01 PM
Amy from Manhattan

On "alternative" medicine, the NIH now has an institute for studying non-conventional treatments. Does Mr. Schermer consider that such treatments can become confirmed through clinical studies? After all, smallpox vaccinations, quinine for malaria, & digitalis for heart problems were all originally based on "folk remedies."

Aug. 29 2011 01:59 PM
eligit from astoria

i like the cut of this guy's jib. good on him to buck the cultural norm and do his best to use his powers of critical thinking.

Aug. 29 2011 01:56 PM
brian from midtown

My co-workers who watch "Ghost Hunters" think that they use very scientific methods on the show. Help us all!!

Aug. 29 2011 01:56 PM
Elaine from Baltimore

I love authors like this .... as an orthodox Jew tell your guest, the same G-d he doesn't believe in, neither do I!
How superficial!

Aug. 29 2011 01:55 PM
Eric from bklyn


Can Michael offer his opinions on recent studies which report the mysterious statistical rise in the 'placebo effect'? This effect, which appears to be very real (statistically significant), may be at the edge of what is testable by science, in that the experiment can never be repeated. Thoughts?

Aug. 29 2011 01:55 PM
Henry from Manhattan

@ Amy from Manhattan

I believe we are making the same point, as I don’t see any contradiction to what I wrote.

Aug. 29 2011 01:53 PM
The Truth from Becky

ELAINE...you would lose that bet...I don't believe in evolution and I have never had a flu shot.

Aug. 29 2011 01:53 PM
elaine from queens

i'm willing to bet that most people who say they don't believe in evolution still get flu shots consistently, their kids vaccinated and want the fed gov't to protect them from bioterrorism
they probably misunderstand the use of the scientific use of the word 'theory' as it is based on evidence/facts derived from the scientific process (ongoing testing), from it's everyday use in the regular lingo where it isn't.
they let the man-monkey thing get in the way of everything else, and throw out the baby w/ the bathwater.

Aug. 29 2011 01:50 PM
Pauline Park from Queens

I have to say that I'm extremely skeptical of Michael Shermer. Like so many rationalists, he sets up a binary opposition between reason & skepticism vs. irrationality & prejudice; it's a false dichotomy, because there are non-rational methods of attaining knowledge that he is either unaware of or rejects out-of-hand. The main problem is that Shermer doesn't recognize that the 'scientific method' is a social construction, and one that itself requires examination; hypothesis testing can be useful in certain contexts, but its utility is relative to cultural context. Shermer speaks from a discourse of scientism, and the false scientism that he represents is intellectually mediocre & completely unpersuasive.

Aug. 29 2011 01:49 PM
Ro from SoHo

Wonderful interview!! Cogent, intelligent, persuasive. Go Mr. Shermer!!! SO glad I've found your site.

Aug. 29 2011 01:49 PM
Arthur from Astoria, NY

Shermer misunderstands the postmodern schools of thought utterly.

If anything, they followed his advice and took a hard look at so-called "established" truths about culture, meaning, power, language, etc. and found them completely lacking in a rational basis; rather they were designed to prop up those in economic, social and political power.

The seeming "relativism" that results doesn't mean that all ideas are equally factual, but that truths - not facts - are highly contextual and subjective. Facts may be incontrovertible, but subjective reality is made up of more than facts - beliefs tie facts together into a means of making sense of the world.

Aug. 29 2011 01:48 PM
Phoebe from Bushwick

I would just like to point out that huge amount "conventional" medicine is also not evidence based, a fact that is raising quite a bit of controversy these days.

Aug. 29 2011 01:48 PM
Amy from Manhattan

Henry: The difference between evidence of God's existence & the kind of evidence used in court cases is that everyone has a different idea of what constitutes proof that God exists, whereas a court system has established standards of proof that the participants have to follow.

Aug. 29 2011 01:44 PM
glo from nyc

Only those who have not personally experienced a session with a reputable healer or medium are "skeptics"...

Aug. 29 2011 01:44 PM
MichaelB from Morningside Heights

Humans do the same thing with almost all of their political beliefs ... they seek out reinforcing information and patterns...

Hell, even if they find information that contradict their beliefs, if their beliefs are strong enough, they will twist what they hear/read to conform to their own ideas. We see this often, for example when we hear messages from listeners to Leonard's show and interpret what guests say in diametrically opposite ways (both sides usually complaining about bias in favor of the opposing side!)

Don't believe this happens? Read the blogs on any controversial segment!

Aug. 29 2011 01:41 PM
Gi from Brooklyn, NY

Not black & white and the brain is not the only force we utilize when responding... i.e intuition.
And there is indeed explanation for why miracles do not occur- obviously you describe superficially but have not studied quantum physics, mind/body or energy medicine and the corresponding scientific findings.

Aug. 29 2011 01:41 PM
Tom from Upper West Side

I'm always amazed at baseball players who dod something wonderful and then visibly give "props" to God. However, when they srike out or fly out or are tagged out, they never do.....when I would think that their momentary failure is also part of God's plan/will at that time.

Aug. 29 2011 01:38 PM
Ed from Larchmont

One conclusion of Freud would be that the adult is the result of his or her childhood experiences. The conclusion of Darwin's theory being used is that we are the result of the cavemen. Upside down.

Aug. 29 2011 01:35 PM
NS from Brooklyn

One small correction -- the guest mentions the "God-talk" in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. There is some in the latter document, but the Constitution is notably -- amazingly, for that era -- devoid of any mention of a creator or deity, aside from use of anno domini to refer to the date of signing. It's a truly secular document.

Aug. 29 2011 01:35 PM
Geo from astoria

Why do alot of Americans beleive that climate change is not real?

When 95% of scientists tell them the data and science shows climate change is real.

This beleif is going to hurt everyone.
Whats the benefit of this beleif?

Aug. 29 2011 01:28 PM
Henry from Manhattan

@ sanych

It wasn’t Shermer ‘s list.

It was from the 2009 Harris Poll basically polling belief in ideas as a general matter, not as a means of associating them.

Explained here:
http://www.skepticblog.org/2011/05/31/demographics-of-belief/

Shermer notes:
“Wow. More people believe in angels and the devil than believe in the theory of evolution. That’s disturbing.”

Aug. 29 2011 01:19 PM
sanych

Michael Shermer starts his book with "The Demographics of Belief". He lists God, miracles, heaven, Jesus, angels, survival of soul after death, Jesus' resurrection, hell, virgin birth, the devil, Darwin's theory of evolution, ghosts, creationism, UFOs, astrology, witches, and reincarnation - all in this order.

Question - how the hell the theory of evolution got on this list? Why has not he included the multiplication table?

Aug. 29 2011 12:57 PM
Henry from Manhattan

@ Ed from Larchmont

“We decide what to believe or not” is as explanatory as creationism is regarding biology. Meaning, it’s no explanation at all. More importantly it doesn’t advance our understanding.

Unless there is some good evidence of a soul, it would be prudent to avoid talking about it in any sort of science-base discussion.

It’s okay to speculate on souls as a theological or even philosophical topic, but until we have some sort of MRI image of a soul there’s not much point in making conjecture of what souls do or do not do. For example, most of us (Westerners) aren’t going to accept that our beliefs are shaped by past lives experiences in the vein of a Hindu perspective, unless there is some very good evidence to support this idea (there isn't).

The reason materialist discussion is prevalent, is at no time will it be necessary to have faith that what a book author is telling is true because he "knows." No, we all expect -- even devoutly religious people expect -- that the topic will stem from documented evidence-based knowledge that can be replicated by others in their respective fields.

It’s very similar to how we expect a court of law to operate. At no time can the judge or jury say, “Oh, I know you are guilty.” Lawyers present evidence, evidence that has to stand up to certain standards, and juries and judges deliberate on that evidence and come to a conclusion. We do not accept religious faith-based convictions as evidence because we all don’t share the same religious views, even Christians disagree on many theological issues. We need common ground based on a naturalist world that we all have the same access to.

Aug. 29 2011 12:30 PM
Ed from Larchmont

As usual, this is examined from a materialist standpoint. Of course belief and thinking have reflections in the brain, since the brain is the tool our soul uses to think in this world and to take in sense impressions, but the soul is the place of free will and intellect, which decides what to believe or not, and which is where grace is received. We decide what to believe or not.

Aug. 29 2011 06:31 AM

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