Tuesday, March 19, 2013
Review: The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths
The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths by Michael Shermer
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Why do people believe in...anything? Well, mostly because we are wired to believe in stuff -- any stuff. The only thing we can do to help ourselves is be more scientific.
That's the basic message I got from this book. It's an interesting trip, this skeptic's journey. I can't really say a lot about it because, well, most of it is right up front there. Schermer goes into a lot of detail about the various little heuristics and mechanisms in our brains that lead us down the path to belief, but the gist is that we are set up for it and it's hard work not to go with that.
Much of what he said I found myself agreeing with. However, I could have accepted his arguments much more readily if he hadn't, more than once, defaulted to the "If you don't agree with me, you're an idiot" stance. And, occasionally, he just fell right off the scientific method platform he holds up as the only method for getting around our limitations. For instance, in listing a variety of current theories about the origins of the universe, he says (referring to the "many-worlds multiverse" theory, he says "The idea of their being multiple versions of me and you out there -- and in an infinite multiverse model there would be an infinite number of us -- just seems prima facia absurd and even less likely than the theistic alternative." (bold is mine) It "just seems"? That's an opinion, and an opinion is a belief (per other areas of the book). Even when you put a Latin phrase behind it, it doesn't meet the standard of logical argumentation he promotes. The lack of the phrase "to me" behind that word "absurd" is a trick to make the statement look like it isn't an opinion.
He does this in several places in the book, even at times tossing insulting descriptions at those whom he classifies as being ruled by their beliefs. Of course, he does state that not believing and basing everything on fact is difficult, and he demonstrates that frequently enough. I understand what he's doing in this book, but it seems to me to be a stance fraught with conflict. That is, one doesn't get to climb up on the platform of scientific method, pure logic, and experimental data to hurl insults at those you do not see as agreeing with your platform, or whom you accuse of misusing the platform.
When he sticks to listing researched data and how knowledge is derived from his particular platform, the book is very good. But those little divergences nagged at me like flies. It isn't even that I agree with the conflicting information or that he stepped on any of my personal beliefs. It was the failure to maintain a non-personal stance throughout rather than taking it on and off like a lab coat. The verbal ju-jitsu he used, trying to phrase his authorial statements of opinion as if they were incontrovertible fact, chipped away at my acceptance of everything. Yes, I could do the research and test what he has said for myself, but that certainly wasn't the intention with which he wrote this book, and in any case I don't have the time to do that for myself, which is why I read the book and others like it.
That just nagged at me, even as I was learning and wondering at other things in the text. I think this book has much of interest in it, but it isn't a last word, or even a penultimate word, on the understanding of why humans belief.
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