Archive for Michael Shermer

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.


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 New Age of Comfort

Posted in Atheism, Religion, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 13, 2009 by neandergal

Breakthroughs in science and technology make the world a better place for a large part of humanity. We are within an information and scientific age that provides us with information and sophisticated technology that only an elite educated few had access to twenty years ago. Better quality of life and life expectancy are a result of improvements in medicine, sanitation, air quality, public health and safety. Sixty years of medical history has witnessed the eradication of smallpox. The discovery of DNA allows us to map genomes that help us diagnose and treat disease. The relatively new sciences of molecular and cell biology led to the creation of the biotech industry that continues to develop drugs and vaccinations that fight and control disease. The reduction in infant mortality and morbidity rates are due in part to the development of vaccines that protect children from childhood diseases that once maimed and, or killed. Despite an endless list of scientific progress, there is another endless list of pseudoscience, junk science and superstitions that extend beyond the boundaries of mainstream religion and in turn discredit science leading to harmful ramifications.

The likes of TV shows such as The Oprah Winfrey Show have served as platforms to help, albeit perhaps unwittingly, to propagate quack remedies and other types of misinformation. According to a recent article in Newsweek, in 2007, Playboy model and actress Jenny McCarthy appeared on Oprah Winfrey’s show to tell of her experience with autism. Jenny went on to explain how she was convinced that the MMR (Measles Mumps and Rubella) vaccine caused her son’s autism. This is one example in a long line of unfounded claims regarding the link between the MMR vaccine and autism. Pediatrician Paul A. Offit, author of Autism’s False Prophets that featured in a January article, in the New York Times discusses the scientific evidence in favor of the vaccines. The vaccine provides protection against these diseases to millions of children. However, Measles is now endemic within the population and it is increasing. The June issue of Skeptic magazine features an article by Harriet Hall, MD who discusses the history of how the “manufactroversy”, evolved. Despite the overwhelming scientific evidence that shows no link between autism and the MMR vaccine, the “manufactroversy” continues highlighting a general distrust in medical science. As a result, measles is now endemic and we’re losing the herd immunity we once achieved through mass vaccination.

More recently, the UK Guardian reported that British Scientists called upon the World Health Organization to condemn homeopathic remedies for treating serious diseases such as HIV, malaria and influenza in poor developing countries. Homeopathic remedies have served as cheaper ineffective substitutes for effective medicines. The promotion of homeopathic alternatives to conventional medicine compromises the health of others, undermines science-based medicines and propagates misinformation and ultimately results in more untimely deaths.

Despite huge advances in scientific progress, why are the vast majority of people in the richest nations of the world walking around with their minds in the 12th or 13th century? People reject the boundaries of religious doctrine in exchange for not reason and science, but a different kind of faith such as psychic powers, astrology, faith healing, alternative medicine and other new age nonsense. Michael Shermer, the founding publisher of Skeptic magazine and author illustrates the extent of these beliefs and attempts to answer in his book, “Why People Believe Weird Things.” Shermer cites a 1990 Gallup poll that shows a staggering two-thirds of the 1,236 adults surveyed believe that they have, “Actually had a psychic experience.” 42% believe in “communication with the dead.” A similar 2001 Gallop poll shows significant increases in belief in every category of the paranormal over a decade. So, shroud some scientific terms in mysticism and you have a perfect recipe for nonsense that fits most people’s psyche like a glove. Quack medicine uses the language of science lending it more credence to the claims that its proponents make.

Shermer speculates that belief in weird things stems from a need for instant gratification. For example, seeing a psychic offers instant comfort in the face of grief or other life stressors such as faulty relationships or jobs. People seeking psychic guidance hear things that make them feel good and they return for more reassurance. The reassurance is the reinforcement which prompts them to return for more readings. It’s a similar effect of playing slot machines. Slot machines are designed to reward enough times to keep people playing. This psychological process is a form of learning called operant conditioning. The behavioral psychologist BF Skinner’s Skinner box experiments with rats demonstrated the behavior of reward and punishment with positive and negative reinforcement. Reinforcement is the reward that keeps people coming back for more of what provides them with comfort. It is why people continue to seek quack medicine, psychics and astrologers. Skinner demonstrated that “organisms tend to repeat those responses that are followed by favorable consequences.” All this may be an over simplified answer to a complex question. What does seem clear is how simple explanations to complex problems are more comforting to people because they’re easier to understand and offer definitive answers. Science offers no definitive answers. The complexity of the science behind natural phenomena requires more effort to understand and requires people to think.

The vast majority of peoples’ beliefs stem from their place of birth and the religious doctrines of their parents. Unfortunately, it appears that loss of mainstream religious faith is not synonymous with more reasoned thinking but replaced with a new age of comfort found within pseudoscience, astrology, psychics and probably the most dangerous of all, quack medicine.

What is more troubling with the new age of comfort is the concept that all ideas are equal and that science is just another alternative. Science is not an alternative and alternative medicine is not science. Science is based on empirical evidence and is apt to change based on new evidence. Pseudoscientific “evidence” is generally testimonial evidence and does not change. Testimonies do not constitute evidence because they are not the result of the scientific method of experimentation.

It is hard to imagine a solution to combat the proliferation of medieval remedies and other superstitious nonsense when the power base lies in a whole industry geared to play on people’s desires and needs. It is self-evident to see what sells. Go to any bookstore and look at the books that sell, self-help, astrology, special diets, peoples’ testimonies to their battle with [insert name of disease here]. The list is endless and unfortunately so is the road leading to reason, healthy skepticism and science. We should not be content with a new age that promotes comfort without reason.