Book Review: The Believing Brain

Posted in Atheism, Science with tags , , , , , on June 15, 2011 by neandergal

       Michael Shermer’s recently published book, The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies — How we Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths, discusses how we believe rather than why we believe. The Believing Brain is not just another book explaining that it’s easier to believe than to question or a rant on religious dogma. The book delves into the neuroscience and psychology of how we believe. The book describes in great detail the types of biases that believers and non-believers can easily fall prey to and commit in their reasoning — including researchers and scientists. The premise of the book is that beliefs come first and the reasons for a particular set of held beliefs come second.

       One of the many mechanisms of belief is what Shermer calls, “patternicity.” “Patternicity” is another word for associated learning. The Human brain is a pattern-recognizing machine. Humans have evolved to connect dots and create links by association. Humans are more sophisticated at patternicity because they have larger and more complex brains than other primates. Recognizing and forming patterns has survival value. Modern humans inherited the genes of their ancestors that were best at pattern recognition because they were more likely to survive and reproduce passing their genes to offspring. However, what humans did not evolve is good “filter systems” that easily detect false patterns. In other words, the brain will see patterns that are either real or unreal. In the face of danger, erring on the side of caution and committing a cognitive Type I error has a greater survival value than committing a Type II error. A type 1 error, or false positive, is a belief that something is true that turns out to be false and a Type II error, or false negative, is a belief that something is false that turns out to be true. The mechanism behind “false patterns” is the same mechanism for detecting real or true patterns. We evolved to see patterns such as face recognition. Our ability to recognize faces at various angles and expressions serve us well from a survival value because we can better detect friend or foe. Our ability to see patterns is the reason why some of the faithful will “see” Jesus or other prophet of their belief system on a piece of burnt toast. On the other hand, patternicity, or associated learning is the reason why humans have progressed scientifically. Associated learning is instrumental to all animal behavior as demonstrated by the behaviorist B. F. Skinner with his experiments with pigeons and rats. Shermer contends that the best tool we have for distinguishing false patterns from true patterns is science. Shermer illustrates the dangers of Type 1 patternicity with a powerful description of the tragic story of 10 year old Candace Newmaker who died in 2000 during an alternative therapy called (attachment therapy) for attachment disorder. Not only do we see patterns, but we also apply purpose or meaning to patterns in what Shermer calls “Agenticity.”

       Shermer suggests that it is our sense of self as to why we ascribe purpose or meaning to events. Agenticity is the cognition that entities outside of ourselves control the universe, what and how we do things and that there is somehow a grand-plan. Agenticity is also responsible for belief in new age nonsense and even in elaborate conspiracy theories. Our sense of self “resides” in the left hemisphere temporal lobe of our brain and can actually be tampered with to induce feeling of spirituality similar to those experienced by people having out of body experiences (OBEs) by using magnetic fields to stimulate “microseizures.” Shermer even plays the role of lab rat to undergo the same type of temporal lobe stimulation by neuroscientist, Michael Persinger. Shermer shares an account of his experience and a fuller neuro-scientific explanation of OBEs and spiritual experiences. Shermer both entertains and dismays us with examples of agenticity including how the CIA and military blew $20 million over a 25 year span on their Stargate psychic spy program. The purpose of Stargate was to hone peoples’ supposed psychic abilities to locate missiles, read minds and even telepathically kill enemy soldiers. Patternicity and agenticity explain the mechanisms behind beliefs, but neurons are the root cause of beliefs.

       The sense of self is why people tend to view the mind and body as separate entities. The mind and body is the same thing. The brain comprises the mind which is a result of neurological connections — lots of them. Shermer blinds us with mind-boggling neurostats that should impress anyone geeky enough to listen at a cocktail party. For example, the brain comprises of approximately a quadrillion neurological connections. A quadrillion is an astronomically large number; 10 to the 15th power (10^15 or 1,000,000,000,000,000). Shermer introduces us to an interesting brief history of neuroscience from Henri Bergson’s élan vital (vital force) to understanding to the physiology of the firing of neurons as a result of a set of action potentials. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter guilty as charged for amplifying the ability to find patterns in randomness through increased firing which results in new neural connections that form long term memory. This sounds like a good thing except that too much dopamine can result in auditory and visual hallucinations. Shermer tells an amusing tale of his close encounter with Nobel Prize winner Kary Mullis (developer of Polymerase Chain Reaction which is a method of replicating sequences of DNA). Mullis reveals his contact with extraterrestrials to Shermer after a few beers… Even brilliant people are also subject to the fallacy of finding patterns in randomness and giving meaning to their false patterns.

        Filtering systems are another mechanism that filters out information that fails to match an idea or set of ideas because we naturally seek out information in the form of patterns that confirm and reinforces the belief or set of ideas; i.e., conformation bias. Shermer contends that the belief in elaborate conspiracy theories such as those of 9/11 truthers or the fans of a losing side of a sporting team are individuals whose “pattern-detection filters are wide open” Conspiracy theorists make patterns from randomness and add an agent such as the government in the case of 911 truthers, or a biased referee in the case of a losing team to add meaning or purpose to their claims. Shermer dismantles the conspiracy theories of holocaust deniers, 911 truthers and the assassination of John F. Kennedy by the CIA by highlighting the fallacious arguments given by conspiracy theorists and provides evidence for how these events unfolded without the agents of government. The list of cognitive biases described in the book read like a basic psychology course, but illustrate where we cognitively fall over in the way we view the world no matter how rational we perceive ourselves.

       Shermer concludes by reiterating that science is a tool that can help control our filtering systems. It is not enough to argue from ignorance and apply an agent to what we don’t know or understand. We must require evidence using science as the tool to find answers to our questions. The burden of proof must lie with the person or group of people making a claim. Science has various mechanisms that help to identify and breakdown biases. Shermer describes how even the scientific method is not perfect, but it is the best tool yet for understanding the natural world.

Source:

Shermer, Michael. The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies – How we Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths. New York: Times Books, 2011. Print.

The way from Utopia to Aipotu? A Proposal

Posted in Atheism, Politics, Religion, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , on January 4, 2011 by neandergal

        Thomas More’s Utopians assumed that people without a belief in a deity could not possibly have moral values because their ethics stem from religion. Utopians contend that a person cannot be virtuous without a belief in an afterlife or a god because rewards and an eternal life depend on how a person lives in his or her mortal life. Conversely, Aipotutian society recognizes that highly religious societies are more war-like, subjugate women and reduce personal freedom by dictating what people should think and how they should live their lives. Aipotu sees religion as the root cause of many of its societal problems. Aipotu wants to increase public awareness of science and philosophy in the hope that people will discover that faith is not necessary for leading a productive and ethically good life. In order to achieve these goals, Aipotu needs to adopt a secularist agenda that stems the influence of religion in its society. The way to reduce the influence of religion in Aipotu is to limit religious institutions’ power by gradually dismantling them through public policy.

        Since the last major war, Aipotu has witnessed an inverse relationship in the decline of the knowledge and acceptance of science and an increase in religion. Aipotutians increasingly put their lives at the mercy of their faith. They give alternative medicine, astrologers, psychics and religious leaders more credence than scientists and medical doctors. A reduction in the number of scientists and the amount of funding for research is a result of the publics’ distrust of science. The fact that it is financially more lucrative (and intellectually easier) to be a TV evangelist or a quack peddling the latest woo-woo on popular TV shows than becoming a researcher working on a cure for a prevalent disease like cancer or Aids is indicative of how little Aipotutian society values science and reason. The process of increasing Aipotutian’s acceptance of science and reducing their dependency upon religion must begin in childhood, since this is where people learn beliefs. Therefore, the first step is to banish religious indoctrination of children in the schools.

        Although Aipotutian society has no established state religion, the process of religious indoctrination has become increasingly covert. There is a hidden agenda among some educators to teach intelligent design. Intelligent design assumes that because life is so complex, there had to be a designer. Many in the scientific community claim that intelligent design is creationism in disguise. This theory without evidence has found its way into some science textbooks. This method, dubbed the “wedge strategy,” refers to how organizations purporting to promote science push their doctrines into scientific texts. Publishers of biology textbooks omit the theory of evolution to avoid controversy with religious organizations that have a very powerful voice because they represent a growing number of Aipotutian believers. The Aipotutian scientific community blames the omission of evolutionary theory from text books on the country’s appalling lack of understanding of the sciences compared with other nations. Fifty percent of the Aipotutian population believe that the world was created in seven days. According to Aipotutian scientists, evolutionary theory forms the basis of educational curriculum because it is fundamental to understanding the biological sciences and provides the evidence that evolution eliminates the need for a creator. Awareness of the conflict between science and religion can only take place by allowing discussion in school classrooms. This will encourage the development of a healthy skepticism among young minds. A more skeptical mind is more likely to demand explanations for “religious phenomena” and to reject pseudo-science. However, the government recognizes the important of teaching non-denominational religious studies for gaining an understanding of religion’s historical and literary significance rather than for spiritual guidance.

        The teaching of religion is important to maintain an understanding of how people evolve culturally because it provides an insight into how peoples’ attitudes change over time. It is only through the promotion of science and a critical analysis of religion and philosophy that clarifies why the foundation of thought should not rely on faith. Therefore, it is now necessary to ban private faith-based schools in Aipotu.

        Aipotu will purchase private religious schools and turn them into public schools. Teachers previously employed by these schools have the opportunity to continue their teaching careers. The state will rehire these teachers once they become certified by the state to teach in public schools. There is no need to waste human resources. A mandate by the state will forbid the teaching of religious instruction for the purpose of spiritual guidance. Any infringement of this mandate is a case for dismissal from the school. The offending teacher is struck off the state certification register in much the same way a doctor is for gross medical misconduct. It is important for the Aipotutian government to send a clear message that it has zero tolerance for the religious indoctrination of children. The next problem that the Aitoputitian government has is dealing with families that impose their faith on their children.

        The Aipotutian government needs to adopt a firm stance against religious customs, teachings and practices imposed upon children. Aipotutian society considers the religious indoctrination of children by parents tantamount to child abuse. Ancient customs, such as baptism, confirmation and arranged marriages at birth, fall into part of the indoctrination process when imposed upon children. More barbaric customs that involve any kind of bodily mutilation, such as, female genital mutilation, male circumcision (for reasons other than medical), self-flagellation, exorcism rituals, body piercing and tattooing, are punishable by imprisonment of the parents and subsequent removal of the child from its current environment. These types of practices are considered cruel and detrimental to healthy cognitive development because of the physical pain and mental trauma inflicted upon children. The reason is that a child does not have the cognitive development to consent to these practices. Children have a right to a healthy cognitive development and an education that helps them to think freely. The Aipotutian government needs to send the message that children are not chattels. Barbaric religious practices, along with their doctrines, affect not just one country, town or village, but marginalize millions of men, women and children around the world. However, Aipotu is also concerned about not infringing upon personal freedom, despite its long-term agenda in eradicating the imposition of religious doctrine upon others.

        It is imperative to maintain adult individual freedom in Aipotu by not passing legislation that would undermine citizens’ freedoms. There should be no punishment for adults practicing their faith or the bizarre traditions that come with them. If a person makes claims of conversing with some deity or the dead, then their mental health should certainly be called into question. Visual or audible hallucinations are symptoms of mental illness should be treated as such. As in the case of other mental illnesses or delusional concepts, family or individual counseling will have access to mental health services if they want help. It is the hope of Aipotutian society that religious practices will die out with each generation, so there is no need for overly draconian measures for adults. However, Aipotu views conflicts between religious ideologies as a major cause of wars and terrorist activity that eventually lead to the breakdown in the infrastructures of society. The destruction of infrastructures destabilizes whole regions and prolongs conflicts and human suffering. Aipotu can prevent these human catastrophes in their country by dismantling its religious institutions.

        Aipotu needs to seize all religious and sect organizations, and then redistribute the finances between non-governmental agencies and find other functions for the remaining buildings. People previously employed by religious organizations are encouraged to work for non-governmental agencies or other non-church related organizations that work for the common good of society. The religious buildings used by these institutions should become historical artifacts, since they are significant from an anthropological perspective. Churches, cathedrals, synagogues, mosques and temples are not destroyed, but become state properties and are valued for their aesthetic and historical appeal. Some of these beautiful buildings have wonderful acoustics and will become prestigious concert halls. Other buildings will become parts of more sophisticated culture, such as art galleries, theaters or opera houses, and their religious significance will eventually become a thing of the past.

        One day, Aipotutians will view religious thought and rituals as archaic as those buildings. Future generations will view religious practices as bizarre and often inhumane. They will read with dismay about long gone societies that forbade the use of birth control and the termination of unwanted pregnancies, even in the case of rape. They will read with dismay when they learn how women in some societies were forbidden to show their face or expose any part of their body in public and were cruelly punished for doing so. They will read with dismay about the horrifying day when religious fanatics who believed in the promise of an eternal life as a reward for murdering thousands of people by flying two planes containing hundreds of people into buildings containing thousands of people. They will read with dismay how children were taught in those religious relics how an eternal life of damnation would await them upon death for misbehaving. Adults will find it ironic how the faithful viewed sex only for the purpose of procreation. Adults will be amused by the irony of poverty, pollution and overcrowding caused by overpopulation while the poor were told that abortion and the use of contraception was a sin. Most of all, future generations will find it astonishing when they learn how their ancestors believed in almost anything they were told without question. And they will wonder why and how 7th century belief systems existed in a sophisticated 21st century scientific and technological society?

Will Aipotu become a “utopia” if any of these changes ever come to pass?

Tolerating the Intolerable: NPR Firing of Juan Williams

Posted in Politics, Religion with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 22, 2010 by neandergal

Opinion

This week, the publicly funded radio station, National Public Radio fired prominent news analyst Juan Williams for airing comments he made on Fox News. His “offense” was that he did not tow the liberal line of NPR while commenting on NPR’s conservative opponent Fox News. Williams made the comment to Bill O’Reilly how, “When I get on a plane and see people in Muslim garb, and I think they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get nervous…” NPR CEO, Vivian Schiller described in an email to other NPR stations how Williams had crossed a line between being an Analyst and a Columnist and not in compliance with NPR’s editorial style. The firing of Juan Williams’ raises the debate of the impact of political correctness upon free speech.

Political correctness has stopped debate of delicate or controversial issues in its tracks. In the wake of the September 11 attacks of the World Trade Center, comments like Williams’ would probably have been perfectly admissible in the media. The media would have been sympathetic to such a sentiment because they would have been aware that it would have resonated well with a fearful public that watched, read or listened. The media fed off of the “Islamaphobia.” During the time since September 11, Western media and governments entered a new era of placating to and appeasing to, in the name of political correctness to Islam. So much so, that legally binding Sharia courts now operate in the UK to settle civil disputes since 2008. The naive view of cultural relativism has facilitated a system of double standards.

There was nothing wrong with Williams’ statement. He was absolutely right in that “political correctness can lead to some kind of paralysis where you don’t address reality.” NPR played into the hand of the right wing media by firing Williams. Fox News immediately snapped up Williams with a $2m per year contract. It is disappointing to see the very things that progressives fought for, such as pluralism, and then watch them slowly dismantle such ideas by making delicate subjects taboo. In an attempt to foster tolerance, we’ve tolerated the intolerable; censorship and appeasement of an oppressive faith-based ideology.

“Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society… then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them… We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant.” ~ Karl Popper

Sources:

Telegraph UK: Sacking of Juan Williams sparks Muslim debate

Juan Williams on Fox

NPR CEO Email

Sharia Courts in the UK

Taxpayer Dollars to Promote Prayer..? You Better Believe it.

Posted in Atheism, Religion, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 24, 2010 by neandergal

When the emergency technician is about to apply CPR, nobody says: “Wait! Let’s pray first.” exclaims a quote from the Skeptic Dictionary

Well it turns out this may actually be the case in some instances. Biologist and science blogger PZ Myers reports on his blog post how the US government is funding metaphysical methods for promoting health and well being. It is hard to believe that a state department is advocating metaphysical baloney, but the evidence is loudly and clearly displayed on the US Department of Health and Human Services’ website.  

The Healthfinder.gov website content includes an article, Can Hands-on Prayer Help Heal? The article cites a bogus peer-reviewed study published in the September issue of the Southern Medical Journal. The peer reviewed study on “proximal intercessory prayer (PIP)” is the epitome of bad science at its worse. Proximal Intercessory Prayer is a euphemism for “abracadabra” and is a made-up term to describe incantations to the almighty for favors. The study on hearing and sight impaired subjects in Mozambique is bogus because it violated at least three basic scientific method protocols rendering it scientifically flawed. Miraculously, the study passed the peer-review process. 

A scientific experiment requires subjects to be randomized groups that include a control group and measurable variables.  The study was suppose to test the power of prayer on 23 non-randomized sight and, or hearing impaired subjects.  The so called improvements that resulted in prayer were anecdotal rather than empirically based. Anecdotal is testimonial and therefore subjective. 

The article on healthfinder.gov states, “And while they don’t discount that much of the results may stem from a placebo effect, benefits did seem to occur in some individuals.” The placebo effect is what clinical trials of treatments test for and compares it with the real drug for true effectiveness. Just because the placebo effect may work in some cases, does not make it effective treatment for all or anywhere near most individuals.

In the words of Richard Dawkins, “There are all sorts of things that would be comforting. I expect an injection of morphine would be comforting… But to say that something is comforting is not to say that it’s true.”

Sources:

PZ Myers: Pharyngula – Our Government at Work

PZ Myers – Pharyngula

Southern Medical Journal

 

Mosque Controversy is Obama’s Prop to Promote Religion

Posted in Politics, Religion with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 15, 2010 by neandergal

While the controversy surrounding the construction of a Community center/Mosque three blocks from Ground Zero in lower Manhattan, New York continues, the more fundamental issue of a President of a supposedly secular nation taking a positive stand on the issue goes largely ignored. To add insult to injury, President Obama had the audacity to announce his support for the Mosque and community center from a dinner at the White House celebrating the start of the holy month of Ramadan. By taking a far from neutral stance on the issue, Obama is clearly endorsing religion. Obama could have chosen to remain neutral stating that the issue of the mosque is a local issue to be resolved locally and not a matter for the administration to pass judgment. Diplomatically, this would have been the correct response. Instead, he used the issue as a platform not to give a speech on the right to religious freedom and non-belief of which neither is in dispute, but to covertly promote religion. This recent appeasement to the Muslim community is not a display of religious tolerance, but is testimony to the President’s stand on faith generally.

Let us take a look back to 2008 and review the most grandiose inauguration ceremony in history where Obama chose the Southern California Pastor of the well to do Saddleback mega church, Rick Warren to say the inaugural prayer. And let us be reminded that Rick Warren backed California’s Proposition 8 which was to prevent the right for gays to marry. Obama’s choice of Rick Warren to read a prayer should have set off early alarm bells ringing loud and clear to the media, but instead they fell on deaf ears.

In February, 2009, less than a month in office, Obama rekindled George Bush’s Office of Faith-Based Activities and Neighborhood Partnerships by executive order and appointed then 26 year old Pentecostal Minister, Joshua DuBois to head the federally funded department.

Close inspection of Christianity, particularly fundamentalist forms of the faith, Islam or any other religion are far from democratic because they marginalize women and suppress thought outside the realms of the said religion. Either the President is incredibly naive as to what these belief systems represent or he subscribes to them and views them as an integral part of a secular democratic nation.

It is one thing to promote the virtues of the right to practice faith, but to endorse it with speeches, government offices and appointing ministers to run them is quite another. The question has to be asked is that was this really just a glaring political gaff or is there another hidden agenda to promote rather than restate the country’s neutrality on religion?

Sources:

UK Telegraph: Barack Obama backs Ground Zero Mosque

Executive order 13199:

A Frog’s Evolutionary Tale

Posted in Science with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 10, 2010 by neandergal

Geologists are able to tell the timeline and sequence of tectonic plate movement by studying the genetics of a variety of 24 species of the Paini frog in Asia. Genetic analyses of the frogs allow scientists to determine their evolutionary trail along the Himalayas and Tibetan Plateau.

Formation of mountain ranges caused by movement of the Indian tectonic plate and climate change isolated populations of frogs. The different environments caused by geological changes led to different evolutionary changes in the frogs. From the genetic studies of the different frogs, it appears that the beginning of the mountain ranges of the Himalayas started in the Oligocene period some 34-23m years ago. Species divergences occurred in the Miocene period 5-23m years ago.

Scientists at University California Berkeley and Kunming in China analyzed the species of spiny frog that evolved muscular limbs to hold on tight to their mates in an amphibian grip known as the “Amplexus” (Latin for embrace) and rocks in the fast flowing rivers of their high altitude environment.

A Lousy Sense of Smell

Posted in Science with tags , , , , , , , , on June 24, 2010 by neandergal

Scientists have mapped the genome of the body louse (Pediculus humanus humanus) and found that it has a lousy sense of smell.

The louse contains 108 million DNA base pairs (bp) whereas their human host genome has three billion bp.The blood of their human host is the exclusive diet of the louse so they did not evolve to have a sense of smell. The louse is responsible for the spread of diseases like typhus and trench fever.

Scientists are itching to learn more about the genome of the louse as it may help to prevent epidemic outbreaks of these diseases among people who live in insanitary conditions.Analysis of DNA reveals that the body louse evolved from head lice when humans started wearing clothes some 190.000 years ago.The evolutionary process of louse will undoubtedly have entomologists scratching their heads for quite some time.

Source: Scientific American: Full genome sequence shows body lice have lousy sense of smell