Michael Shermer is a psychologist, historian of science, columnist for Scientific American, and public intellectual. (1) His most recent book is entitled The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies – How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths. (2) It draws from extensive research over the past thirty years.
According to Shermer, "We form our beliefs for a variety of subjective, personal, emotional,and psychological reasons in the context of environments created byfamily, friends, colleagues, culture, and society at large; after formingour beliefs we then defend, justify, and rationalize them with a host ofintellectual reasons, cogent arguments, and rational explanations." (3)
In a nutshell, “beliefs come first, explanations for beliefs follow.” (4) Shermer calls this theory “belief-dependent realism.” (5)Shermer is not merely repeating what we’ve heard from other psychologists for decades, namely, that all of us are victims of a variety of cognitive biases. (6) What he argues is that one bias, the confirmation bias, is “the mother of all biases.” (7) The confirmation bias is our tendency to seek and find evidence which supports our existing beliefs and to tune out (or reinterpret) evidence which does not. (8) According to Shermer, it explains why so many people prefer unsubstantiated or discredited claims (e.g., ESP) to well-established ones (e.g., evolution). (10)
Shermer sees the origin of cognitive biases in the way our brain functions. The brain, he proposes, is a “belief engine.” (11) It generates beliefs as it looks for patterns, real or imagined, and causal agents, real or imagined. For this we have evolution to thank. He writes: Our brains evolved to connect the dots of our world into meaningful patterns that explain why things happen. These meaningful patterns become beliefs, and these beliefs shape our understanding of reality. (12)
Once beliefs are formed, we look for evidence to confirm them. As we find what passes for evidence, our confidence in the beliefs deepens. (13) Simultaneously, we tend to form coalitions with those who share our beliefs and demonize those who don’t. (14)
Is Shermer endorsing epistemological relativism? Is he saying that all beliefs are equal and “everybody’s reality deserves respect”? He is not. On the contrary, he insists that there is a reality out there but that “it is rarely obvious and almost never foolproof.” (15) So, how do we discover reality? What is the antidote to belief-dependent realism? It’s called science. Shermer sees science as a human baloney-detection machine which tells us the difference between “what we would like to be true and what is actually true.” (16) Science is “the best tool ever devised” for finding truth (17) and “the only surefire method of proper pattern recognition.” (18) And why is this? Mainly because science demands skepticism. In science “a claim is untrue unless proven otherwise.” (19)
The Believing Brain sends us two important messages: We’re not the rational and objective creatures that we like to think we are, and If we hope to acquire knowledge - true, justified belief - we need to value skepticism much more than we do.
© 2012 Tom Shipka
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