Believing is Seeing

In his important new book, “The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies – How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths,” prominent skeptic Michael Shermer makes a strong, science-informed case that the human brain is a “belief engine.” By which he means that our gelatinous CPU of 100 billion neurons and a thousand trillion connections virtually compels us to believe all manner of things – some true, many false; some banal, many bizarre. According to Shermer’s persuasive analysis, we have evolved into compulsive pattern-seekers, adept at finding patterns in all kinds of sensory input. He has labeled this brain process “patternicity,” the first stage in the formation of beliefs. Unfortunately, the intelligent designer who guided evolution (just kidding) forgot to calibrate the processing unit, so, like a sorcerer’s apprentice, it compulsively finds patterns everywhere, even when they are absent from the real-world data. This innate response no doubt served us well during the era of evolutionary adaptation, but the resulting mischief and harm are incalculable in today’s world: we are inundated with toxic, false beliefs. It takes more than pattern-recognition to make a belief. In the second stage, after we have found, or constructed, a pattern, we infuse it with meaning, or intention, through a process Shermer calls “agenticity” (i.e., attributing intentional agency to natural events). These meaningful patterns, both real and constructed, form our beliefs about the nature of reality; and once they are formed, we cling to them tenaciously. In other words, beliefs come first, then we find reasons to support them and to reject arguments and evidence that contradict them. And, somewhat ironically, the smarter we are, the better we are likely to be at coming up with elaborate rationalizations to support our faulty beliefs. We can’t pass off all deluded true believers as ignoramuses.

I am inclined to accept the great majority of Shermer’s analysis, in part because he makes a good case and also because he reinforces points I have been making in my columns about the conflicts between various ideologies and scientific rationality. In one column I characterized humans as natural-born ideologues, citing recent studies showing that disconfirming facts actually strengthened subjects’ false, ideologically-based beliefs!

If Shermer’s synthesis of research and cultural observations is correct, then there is no anchor in reality for many widely held, influential beliefs and belief systems, which means they are free to drift off into ever greater absurdities. True believers, individually and collectively, follow the dictates of their ideologies, ignore contradictory evidence, and cherry-pick what passes for supporting evidence. (Remember: they are motivated to continue to believe what they already believe for emotional and social reasons.)

With several ideologies approaching critical mass, we are now experiencing in this country a veritable epidemic of science/reality denial. I sense growing hordes of ideologues rejecting reason and evidence in favor of spin, propaganda, dogma, and lies. And why not lie? After all, if you not only believe in your ideology but feel certain that it is the one, true way to save humanity, then deception becomes a justifiable tactic, as it is in warfare. Which is precisely how so many of them view their role – as warriors in the great culture war.

In the U.S., leading ideologies are well financed and well organized and able to employ effective techniques of mass persuasion. On the other side, the reality-based community and concerned scientists are at a huge disadvantage trying to combat opponents who hold no respect for the constraints of reason and evidence. Ironically, the disadvantage stems from what were once considered virtues – i.e., rigor and integrity. Scientists eschew oversimplification, sensationalism, distortion, character assassination, and all the other methods so successfully employed by ideologues. Lamentably, those are the very techniques that have proven so effective in advancing right-wing causes. I offer Fox News as exhibit number one.

By comparison, scientific explanations are often complex and difficult, and understanding requires concentration and effort. This is not a level playing field in a country dominated by slogans and populist drivel.

And yet, as Shermer says, science remains our best hope of counteracting our innate, faulty-thinking mechanisms. Dr. Shermer, who may be the world’s best known skeptic, defines his skepticism as follows: “When I call myself a skeptic I simply mean that I take a scientific approach to the evaluation of claims.” And early in “The Believing Mind” he writes, “I’m a skeptic not because I do not want to believe, but because I want to know. How can we tell the difference between what we would like to be true and what is actually true? The answer is science.”

To bolster his point, he quotes the great theoretical physicist, Richard Feynman:

“If it disagrees with experiment, it is wrong. In that simple statement is the key to science. It doesn’t make any differenced how beautiful your guess is, how smart you are, who made the guess, or what his name is. If it disagrees with experiment, it is wrong. That’s all there is to it.”

(If I may be so presumptuous, I would add “observation” to Feynman’s “experiment.” After all, advanced sciences like astronomy and paleontology are observational rather than experimental. And there’s nothing wrong with that as long as the observations meet high standards of scientific inquiry.)

Anyway, as one reviewer put it, “[Shermer] is . . . aware of the fallibility of intuitions, and willing to take steps to minimize them.” Those steps – the skeptical, scientific approach – demand a disciplined frame of mind that runs contrary to the compulsive “belief engine” in our brain.

Realistically, what is the alternative to skepticism? It’s certainly not believing everything we’re told: just about everyone thinks their false beliefs are true, and we are all skeptical to some degree; but most of us do not have the training to see through faulty logic and spurious claims. After all, there is a highly sophisticated, well-financed persuasion industry out there devoted to exploiting our vulnerabilities in order to promote points of view. Meanwhile, no one seems to be teaching disciplined, critical thinking. As Dr. Harriet Hall says in her review of “The Believing Brain” at Science-Based Medicine, “Our schools tend to teach what science knows rather than how science works.” They teach the content of science but not the method. And we shouldn’t be surprised that even the few students who receive extensive science education are not very good at generalizing the methods of science to real-world problems. Shermer puts it best:

“Our most deeply held beliefs are immune to attack by direct educational tools, especially for those who are not ready to hear contradictory evidence.”

That, I think, is the challenge: to persuade people to listen to contradictory evidence and evaluate their own beliefs accordingly. I would argue that in a nation that respected evidence and reason (unfortunately now receding faster than the most distant galaxies) those whose minds couldn’t be changed by evidence would not have a credible platform in the marketplace of ideas. I mean what is the point of participating in discussion or debate with intransigent ideologues who are essentially salespersons for their respective dogmas? (Mr. President?)

As Dr. Shermer says, the answer to so many of our problems has to lie in education, teaching people how to recognize and thus resist the tactics of often-malevolent snake-oil salesmen who are poisoning our cultural and political atmosphere.

Finally, I would like to recommend several organizations that are doing excellent work in the promotion of science, reason, skepticism, and critical thinking. I urge you to visit these web sites and make use of their information and materials. Most of all, support them so they can take their work to the next level of public awareness. I will list additional sites in future columns.