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Thursday, June 26, 2014

Why People Believe Weird Things and How We Believe by Michael Shermer

This is a joint review of this book and How We Believe

Shermer postulates that humans have evolved a belief module that helps us find patterns in what appears otherwise to be a meaningless universe. (Why we feel compelled to find meaning in everything continues to puzzle me.) Until about four hundred years ago, when the process of science gave us a method to determine the difference between patterns that are real and those that are mere illusion, the tautologies myth and religion, (a tautology) explained the relationship of man to the universe. Despite the rise of science, humans continue to hold all sorts of unsupportable beliefs: 90% believe in heaven, 72% believe in angels, 67% believe they have had a psychic experience (Wall Street Journal, January 30, 1996). Mostly we have adopted the fruits of science, i.e. technology, without teaching or employing the principles of scientific thinking.

The reason, Shermer suggests, lies in the evolution of the “ module.” Several million years of evolution were required to change the fist-sized brain of Australopithecines to the cantaloupe-sized brain of the Homo sapiens sapiens, and civilization as we understand it has been around for only about 13,000 years. Evolutionary psychologists believe the conditions of our existence shaped the brain. The brain is basically a collection of computational devices that evolved to “solve” problems regularly encountered by our huntergatherer ancestors.” Shermer argues that “belief” evolved to help interpret patterns. Recognition of patterns has survival value, e.g., being upwind of an animal means one is more likely to be discovered, etc. These are meaningful. Other patterns such as drawing images and magical thinking may reduce anxiety but are essentially meaningless or irrelevant from a survival standpoint. In short, we developed two kinds of thinking: type 1, believing a falsehood or rejecting the truth and type 2, not believing a falsehood and believing a truth.

Magical thinking evolved as a necessary corollary to causal thinking, a spandrel, if you will. (A spandrel is the space formed by the intersection of two arches — it looks to be structurally essential but are not) between seeking answers through magic, i.e., religion and other nonevidentiary- based beliefs and fact-based conclusions. That magical thinking and making mistakes in order to eventually correctly interpret patterns is undeniable. Shermer cites several examples of superstition and magical thinking among indigenous peoples to support his hypothesis. For example, among the Yanomamö peoples of South America superstitions and taboos related to the Jaguar even when incorrect serve a useful purpose because the jaguar is the only animal that hunts people, and the superstitions help to convey the power and danger of the animal that presents a very real danger.

Bronislaw Malinski, in his study of the Trobriand Islanders, found that rituals and superstitions increased as they ventured farther out to sea. He drew the conclusion that thinking derived from environmental conditions finds magic wherever the elements of chance and accident are present. “The emotional play between hope and fear have a wide and extensive range. We do not find magic wherever the pursuit is certain, reliable and well under the control of rational methods and technological processes. . . There are no peoples however primitive without religion and magic.” During the Middle Ages, given the uncertainties and vagaries of daily life, and that almost 90% of the people were illiterate, superstition and belief in magic were ubiquitous. Plague was believed to be caused by a misalignment of the stars, and when a person died, all the water in the house was discarded lest the soul of the departed drown, etc. (For more see Keith Thomas's Religion and the Decline of Magic "Only religion could rival astrology as an all-embracing explanation for the vicissitudes of life."

The rise of rationalism and science following the sixteenth century did much to replace superstitions as an explanation for the unknown or uncertain. The twentieth century is not immune to superstitious belief, and the more uncertain an activity, the more likely there are to be superstitions associated with it. Take baseball. Hitting a baseball is so difficult that even the best players fail to get a hit seven times out of 10 at bats so many hitters have harmless superstitions associated with their batting. Fielders, on the other hand, who succeed catching a fly ball almost nine times out of ten have few — until they come bat. In France there is a company that provides emergency guests for any dinner party of triskaidekaphobes who discover that they number thirteen at table. Bad things happen to good people, and good things often happen to bad people. Conspiracy theorists are simply trying to bring order to a complex world containing such dissonances. It's a way of bringing order to what appears random. Surely JFK could not have been killed by a lone gunman. It's impossible! (G. Gordon Liddy said that two elements were required for a conspiracy: competence, a rare commodity, and secrecy, a secret can be kept among two people only if two of them are dead.)

Almost any kind of bizarre unrelated event then becomes "evidence" for the conspiracy. Our belief modules in action. Shermer argues the best "regulator" of the Belief Module is science. It is the best method for determining the difference between falsehood and truth. "Does extract of seaweed really cure cancer? All the anecdotes in the world will not answer the question. You need 100 people, all properly diagnosed as having the same type of cancer. Then have 50 of them eat extract of seaweed and 50 take the placebo." If none of them knows what they are taking and none of the experimenters knows (double-blind) and the results show a statistically significant difference then you might have something.
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