The Believing Brain: Notes & Review

the believing brain book cover

The Believing Brain reviews how, why, and what are the most pervasive irrational beliefs that humans believe in.
Shermer argues that the brain is a belief engine. Based on sensory data that flow in through the senses, the brain naturally begins to look for patterns, and then infuses those patterns with meaning, forming beliefs that are, sometimes, not really rational.

Bullet Summary

  • We are somewhat wired to believe in external, sentient forces despite the lack of any evidence
  • Skepticism means taking a scientific approach to claims
  • Scientists must be skeptical because most claims turn out false

The Believing Brain – Summary

About the Author: Michael Shermer is an American science writer, historian of science, and founder of The Skeptics Society.

Introduction

Michael Shermer identifies two major reasons why humans have a tendency to believe and act upon thoughts for which there is no empirical evidence and not much rational basis.

The two major factors are:

  • Patternicity (seeing meaningful patterns where there is only randomness)
  • Agenticity (injecting meaning into the patterns we see)

He then analyzes five major human areas of irrationality:

  • Afterlife
  • God
  • Aliens
  • Conspiracies
  • Politics 

Patternicity: How We Jump to Too Many Conclusions

There are good evolutionary reasons why we evolved patternicity. 

And it’s because, in spite, it made it more likely for us to fall into erroneous conclusions, it also helped us to stay alive.

Indeed it’s safer for us to over-detect patterns than not detecting any at all. 
Our ancestors who reacted quickly at noises from the savannah by predicting it might have been a predator stayed alive much more consistently than those who saw no patterns between “mysterious noises” and danger.

On the other hand, there was no equally dire and life-threatening punishment for those who saw too many patterns or who jumped to wrong conclusions.

High Patternicity Can Lead to Genius Discoveries

The author tells the story of his interview with Kary Mullis, a Nobel prize winner who believed in all kinds of weird things (that HIV/AIDS connection is a conspiracy, that climate is not changing and that astrology is real).

He notices that albeit he did sound like a lunatic, his awire system of seeing patterns everywhere led him to analyze claims and pursue tracks that nobody else would have seen or noticed. 

Agenticity: Why We Think There Must Be Someone Behind The Uknown

Humans do not sit well with the concept of randomness.
We don’t like to believe that things just happen randomly and we look for causes -or “beings”- who direct and stand behind all the mysteries we can’t readily solve.

The more science has progressed in its ability to explain causes, the more the agenticity of “mysterious forces” has disappeared.
We don’t believe anymore for examples that a storm is a punishment or that we can influence with a sacrifice or with random dances.

There are still countless events that people cannot readily explain though, and that’s why we still look to other sources (or beings) instead of accepting randomness or the fact that “unknown” doesn’t mean “some entity must be behind it”.

Beliefs Come First, Explanations Follow

We first form a belief, and then look for confirmation.

This is obviously the antithesis of the scientific method, which goes the other way around: experiment first, theory second.

When we look for confirmation our psychology focuses on the evidence that confirms our beliefs while discounting evidence for the contrary.
Anecdotal evidence often trumps scientific proof in people’s mind and, Michael Shermer says, this is why we are still debating evolution VS creation.

The Solution? Embrace The Scientific Method

The solution to our own mental shortcoming is to embrace the scientific method. 

Not just what it says, but how it works. 
Once we understand how it works, hopefully, we will have more faith in it. 
And we need it.
The author says that 70% of American still don’t understand the scientific process while 75% believes in heaven and 72% in angels (and only 45% believed in Darwin’s theory of evolution).

Anecdotal evidence comes natural. Science requires training.

Noteworthy Information

  • Skeptics have a higher locus of control

People who believe in external forces and influences, in God or astrology or “faith” tend to have a lower locus of control.

  • The principle of positive evidence

Having evidence that disproves a belief does not automatically make another belief right.

For a belief to be scientifically recognized as true there must be scientific evidence against the opposing theory and scientific evidence for your own theory. 

This is where, for example, creationists fall short: they lay a few claims against Darwinian selection and pretend that they prove creationism right.

  • It’s not true that the higher the education, the lower the belief

Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion famously said that the higher the IQ and the education, the lower the belief in God.

Michael Shermer says that’s not the case instead. Intelligence is not a factor when we encounter claims we know little or nothing about.
Indeed, the opposite can be true: very intelligent people can better rationalize their own beliefs.
This means they are great at using smart logic to defend beliefs they acquired for non-smart reasons. And they can also sound more convincing in selling those ideas (also see Jordan Peterson, author of 12 Rules For Life).

Smart people believe in weird things because they are good at defending beliefs they acquired for non-smart reasons.

the believing brain book cover

The Believing Brain Quotes

Here are some great quotes from “The Believing Brain”:

I’m a skeptic not because I do not want to believe, but because I want to know

If there is a God:

If turns out I’m wrong, and there is a God, and it’s the Judeo-Christian God more preoccupied with belief than beavior, then I’d rather not spend the eternity with him and joyfully go to other places where I suspect most of my family, friends and colleagues will be

On Einstein and paranormal:

He’s one of the greatest minds of our time, so what he says is worthy of consideration.
But even the mind of a staggering genius cannot override the cognitive biases that favor anecdotal thinking.

On the situations in which our brains abandons rationality, the most Michael Shermer quotes Malinowski who notices that there is no superstition when outcomes are certain and under our control. But: 

We find magic wherever the elemnts of chance and accident and the emotional play between hope and fear have a wide and extensive range.

On how the inexplicable doesn’t mean we have proof of anything:

The fact that we can only explain 90% of UFOs seeings across the globe doesn’t mean that the other 10% represent actual visitations.
The fact that we can’t explain how some tumors recides doesn’t mean  divine intervention sometimes chooses to act. It just means that science has yet to catch up with the wonders of the human body.

On God and who created whom:

Humans created God, and not vice versa.

On the burden of proof:

The burden of proof is on the believer, not on the skeptic to disprove the belief.

On proving a negative: 

Althought we can’t prove a negative, we can just as easily argue that we can’t prove the existence of irrational beliefs.

On advanced ETs:

If we knew the underlying technologies, we’d call them “extra-terrestrial intelligence”. If we didn’t, we’d call them “God”.

On how culture dictates and directs our irrational beliefs (and how true):

Since they lived in a demonized world, they called those pressures “demons”. Since we live in an alienized world, we call them “aliens”.
Our culture dictates the label and meaning we assign to these anomal experiences.

And finally, on starting your own critical thinking journey on yourself:

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself. And you are the easiest person to fool.

CONS

  • Too Long on 9/11 Conspiracies

I found the book delving too long and too deeply on conspiracies. Especially on the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
I can understand that’s been such a huge tragedy and turning point of US life and culture, but in my opinion, the book is so good that it didn’t have to tie itself so deeply to a specific single event.

  • The Moore Law, Singularity & Omniscient Computers

The author talks about “singularity”, or the point at which the computational ability of our computing systems will grow so large that it will become indistinguishable from omniscience.

Wow, mind-blowing, I had never thought about it that way.

Yet, I couldn’t help but think that the idea that computational power will keep doubling and lead to omniscience to be flawed.
To begin with, it’s not written anywhere that computational power will keep doubling every year.
Second, computational power does not equate with the ability of acting and drawing inferences and conclusions on that data.

I do, however, agree with the principle.

  • It’s So Ethnocentric to Believe We Can Communicate With An Alien Form of Life

We cannot communicate with animals who developed with us on the same earth.
What makes us believe we’d be able to communicate with an alien civilization? 

  • Psychology of Conservativism A Bit Out of Place

I have found the part on the psychology of conservativism super interesting. 
But it felt somewhat like an offshoot of “The Believing Brain”. I prefer books that follow a more clear structure.

PROS

I’d call this the Bible of skepticism (and try to catch the irony in that sentence :).
Too much good stuff to only highlight a few “pros”.

The Believing Brain – Review

I enjoyed “The Believing Brain” through and through.

Most of all, the chapter on intelligent creators and how we can’t distinguish between an alien species able to potentially create planets and “God” was enlightening.

I also find Michael Shermer to be a sort of kindred soul as I found myself nodding and smiling across the whole book.

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