Tuesday, May 22, 2012

I Believe

You may have seen this story about a woman who died attempting to live on sunlight.  She saw a documentary on some guru who claimed that's all he needed.  She wasn't the first to die this way.  It reminded me of a movement I heard about years ago--breatharians--who said they could live on air alone since it had all the nutrients your body required.

If it weren't so tragic, it'd be funny.  Yet, this sort of thing is all too common.  In fact, according to Michael Shermer's latest, The Believing Brain, if anything, it's symbolic of how all of us think.  Sure, we don't usually go to such extremes, but we've got a brain set up to believe almost anything if the conditions are right.

First, we're pattern-seeking animals.  Living in nature, noticing patterns can save your life.  But the point is false positives (that sound in the grass is a snake) don't cost too much, while false negatives (these oddly colored berries aren't harmful) can kill you. And once they've got the pattern, humans will seek causes, and thus impute agency even to natural or coincidental actions.  They'll even make up things to fit their world view.

Shermer then looks at research into brain activity and shows how our brain acts diffferently toward things we believe and those we don't.  And also there seem to be certain types who are more disposed to believe than others, and some of this difference appears to be genetic.

The book is a sort of follow-up to Shermer's Why People Believe Weird Things, with some new research that's been done since then.  It's written in a popular style, which Shermer says is more important than academic work.  (He also claims social sciences are "hard" because they take into account so much, while hard sciences are "easy" because the domain is limited and filled with certainty).

Shermer also goes on to look at how people can build up various belief systems. For instance, based on certain assumptions we have (and, it looks like, our genetics), people tend to identify with what we today call the liberal or conservative side of politics.  Once they do this, they're much more amenable to confirmations of their beliefs and will naturally caricature the other side.

I'd recommend this book though, ironically, I don't think it'll change any minds.  At least not about beliefs beyond how our brains work.  Knowing how we can fool ourselves doesn't necessarily change our feelings.  And, as the story above shows, some people would rather die than question their beliefs.  Unfortunately, intensity of belief has nothing to do with how correct the belief is.


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