Monday, July 23, 2018
The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies: How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths
Book Review: The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies: How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths – by Michael Shermer (Henry Holt, 2011)
This is an excellent book spanning the psychology, biology, and neuroscience of belief. Shermer has gone the rounds through religious and political belief and broke through to an appreciation of the science of belief itself. Shermer is a psychologist, the founding publisher of Skeptic magazine, and has a Ph. D. in the History of Science.
Shermer sees the post-modernist media-reinforced idea of ‘truth is relative’ being taken too far and out of context to allow more possibilities than is realistic. As the X-Files had it – we want to believe. ‘The truth is out there.’ He agrees but intervenes saying that science is by magnitudes the best method of discerning truth. Many or most people believe in the supernatural and the paranormal when asked. Perhaps it is the persistence of life’s mysteries that leads to this or as he says, a misunderstanding of the scientific process. But why do people still believe regardless of what science says?
“Belief change comes from a combination of personal psychological readiness and a deeper social and cultural shift in the underlying zeitgeist, which is affected in part by education but is more the product of larger and harder-to-define political, economic, religious, and social changes.”
He notes that after we form our beliefs we defend, justify, and rationalize them. So, belief comes first, and our conception of reality is based on that belief. He calls this idea belief-dependent realism and the idea is modelled on the ‘model-dependent realism’ theory of the reality of physics put forth by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow in their book, The Grand Design (also reviewed in this blog). He takes the idea a step further to say that all scientific models, including model-dependent realism are in essence belief-dependent realism.
Our brains interpret sensory data to find patterns and then infuse those patterns with meaning:
“The first process I call patternicity: the tendency to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless data. The second process I call agenticity: the tendency to infuse patterns with meaning, intention, and agency.
The meaningful patterns become beliefs and shape how we view reality. Once beliefs are formed we look for confirmatory evidence which strengthens beliefs with emotional support. It is rare, he notes for humans to change their beliefs. We tend to hold onto them even in light of new evidence, probably because we have invested in them.
He begins with the story of retired bricklayer Chick D’Arpino, who had a mystical experience at 4 A.M. in 1966 where he heard the clear voice of the “source” (not determined whether God or some other) that was just 13 words involving love – the source knows us, loves us, and we can have a relationship with it. However, he won’t tell anyone the 13 words and says he never will. Why? I don’t know. He thought for sure the experience came from outside his mind but Shermer, who became friends with D’Arpino, thinks otherwise.
He talks about his undergrad experience in an Abnormal Psychology class where he visited clinics and hospitals for mental illness and had to read the famous experiment of psychologist Davis Rosenhan where his associates clandestinely entered mental hospitals as patients after reporting hallucinations. Seven of the eight were diagnosed as schizophrenic and one as manic depressive. The hospital staff ‘believed’ the diagnoses were correct, treated the patients accordingly, and interpreted their behavior as symptomatic. However, quite a few of the real patients, suspected the ruse which is interesting. The power of expectation is significant. Part of the issue is the assumption that since the patient is there then he or she must have mental health issues – so the diagnostic bias or label is already in place. Rosenhan tried the experiment in reverse – to see if insane people would be judged sane under opposite circumstances. He told an institution that he would send fake patients. However, none were actually sent. Even so, the institution judged about 20% of newly admitted patients fake and suspected many others – so, yes, the bias worked both ways, though not as well.
“What you believe is what you see. The label is the behavior. Theory molds data. Concepts determine percepts. Belief-dependent realism.”
Shermer describes himself as a materialist. He thinks mind is generated solely by the activities of the brain.
Next, he tells the story of an atheistic scientist, a geneticist, Francis Collins, M.D. Ph. D., who had an epiphany and became a born-again Christian. He was influenced by the writings of C.S. Lewis. After his epiphany his belief was formed and then his new reality unfolded – remember, belief-dependent realism. He was the head of the National Institutes of Health. He wrote a best-selling book called The Language of God in 2006 where he concluded that it is more rational to believe in God than to not believe in God. He is well-versed in science, supports evolution, and debunks intelligent design theory. He was raised very secular, noticed that some people found comfort in religion and faith, and was swayed by Lewis’s arguments at a critical point in his life, apparently. He calls himself a theistic evolutionist. He describes his conversion as a choice – Lewis said one needed to make a choice – and a leap. Shermer, a once-believer now non-believer, gives parts of his interview with him, a once non-believer, now a believer. Shermer sees his conversion as having intellectual and emotional components. Collins even came to agree with Shermer who thinks its becoming clear that our moral sense evolved along with our tendencies to be social, cooperative, and altruistic – they all increase our fitness. They agree to disagree with Collins seeing our inner voice or moral sense as deriving ultimately from God and Shermer seeing it derived solely from evolution.
Shermer also points to evidence that more educated people with higher IQs are more skilled at rationalizing beliefs. This leads to his rule of thumb:
“smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for nonsmart reasons.”
Another way he says it is that “reason’s bit is in the mouth of belief’s horse,”
Shermer became ‘born again’ while a senior in high school so he recounts his journey from there to skepticism. He was a “Jesus freak,” or “bible thumper” for seven years. He hung around with others like him. He recounts his slow and gradual ‘deconversion,’ becoming ‘unborn’ again. When at college he was among others more secular. That along with philosophy classes, secular and behaviorist professors, science, and seeking a masters degree in experimental psychology helped him deconvert. Nowadays, Shermer doesn’t even believe in the existence of mind. He sees it as a form of dualism innate to our cognition – perhaps a convenient (and functional) illusion. In grad school he studied ethology (one precursor to evolutionary psychology) and cultural anthropology. Once deconversion was unstoppable he realized what a pain in the ass he must have seemed trying to evangelize and convert others. He understands the worldview of religious indoctrination because he was once under its spell. Perhaps that gives him great perspective to study belief. Again, he notes that reality follows belief. We choose a way to believe and our reality tends to accord with it. Everything one encounters is put through that belief framework – one sees through the lens of belief. The final straw for him was the problem of evil which he could not reconcile. He wrote a book about it called The Science of Good and Evil. He also found that morality is not at all dependent on religion.
Continuing his own skeptic’s journey, Shermer turns to politics. Similar to his religious conversion he had a political conversion sparked by the writings of Ayn Rand. He now acknowledges that Rand developed a cult-like following. She was venerated like a cult leader and thought to be right without question. He is still a fan of Rand’s ideas but not of her infallibility. He began a study of economics and capitalism. He is basically a free market advocating libertarian.
He says that science has three legs: data, theory, and narrative. He splits narrative into formal (narrative of explanation) and informal (narrative of practice). The informal narrative of practice is messier, like life. While Shermer is a skeptic who does believe in science he does acknowledge that he might be wrong. He says, “Maybe. But I doubt it.” Regarding religion he does mention the absolute absurdity that belief in a specific supernatural scenario could be the dividing line between intense joy and intense suffering in some afterlife.
Next, he addresses patternicity. The main example involves a hominid in the savanna encountering a rustling in the grass. It could be a dangerous predator or it could be the wind. Successful prediction could be a life and death matter. If one assumes predator but it turns out to be wind then that is called a ‘false positive,’ or Type I error in cognition. No major harm done. If one assumes wind but it turns out to be a dangerous predator then that is called a ‘false negative,’ a Type II cognitive error, and death or serious injury could be the result.
“Our brains are belief engines, evolved pattern-recognition machines that connect the dots and create meaning out of the patterns we think we see in nature. Sometimes A is connected to B; sometimes it is not.”
This is patternicity or ‘association learning.’ Our success in interpreting meaningful patterns aids our survival so natural selection strengthens it via our evolution through time. All animals do it to some extent. He defines patternicity as “the tendency to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless noise.” An earlier version of his theory (as he says) was presented by biologists Foster and Kokko (from Harvard and Helsinki respectively) in their 2008 paper “The Evolution of Superstitious and Superstitious-Like Behavior,” and was based on Hamilton’s idea of inclusive fitness and kinship. They determined that “whenever the cost of believing a false pattern is real is less than the cost of not believing a real pattern, natural selection will favor the patternicity.” Thus, they concluded that the evolutionary rationale for superstition is that “natural selection will favor strategies that make many incorrect causal associations in order to establish those that are essential for survival and reproduction.” True pattern recognition helps us survive but false pattern recognition does not necessarily have negative consequences, so it tends to stick around. Shermer states it this way: “people believe weird things because of our evolved need to believe nonweird things.”
He notes that anecdotal association is an example of patternicity that often leads to “faulty conclusions.” Anecdotal thinking is part of our history and folklore and likely our biology too so it competes with the methods of science, which are a few hundred years old and far more learned than biological. Shermer mentions B.F. Skinner’s experiments to explore the superstitious behavior of pigeons when presented with a variable feeding schedule after a period of a regular feeding schedule. Skinner concluded that the pigeons were attempting to mimic their body positions and orientations during the previous feeding to bring on the next. Did they first scan for a pattern then attempt to recreate it? Skinner was wholly convinced that their gestures were performed in order to get the food via pattern matching, albeit imagined pattern matching (aka superstition). The false connections have also been termed “accidental learning.” Shermer notes that superstition can be extinguished in pigeons but that it is much more difficult to do so in humans.
Learning by imprinting as many animals do involves forming fixed and lasting memory patterns. This is what Shermer calls ‘hardwired patternicity,” our instinctual imprinting. These are mostly stimulus response sequences among animals, to recognize a pattern and act according to the imprint learning or other associative learning. Responses and response-tendencies evolve. Facial recognition learning occurs early in humans and, he says, is likely a Sign Stimulus-Innate Releasing Mechanism-Fixed Action Pattern (SS-IRM-FAP) process as first described in herring gulls feeding their young by ethologists Tinbergen and Lorenz in the 1950’s. Recognizing faces offered evolutionary advantages to early humans. It also has an unconscious aspect – we actually recognize and begin to react to faces (and other hardwired patterns) unconsciously before we do so consciously. Our intentions appear to be acted upon before we are aware of a conscious decision to act – suggest some experiments using EEG.
Another form of patternicity is when an insect-eating predator may avoid insects with colors similar to stinging insects. Thus, evolution has influenced our tendencies to consume or avoid. Evolution also favors non-poisonous snakes that resemble poisonous ones. What we look for in potential romantic partners is also evolutionarily hardwired to some extent. We tend to respond to ‘super-normal’ stimuli like unusual or enhanced features. These are examples of preprogrammed patternicities.
Regarding control of one’s environment, psychologists refer to an internal locus of control and an external locus of control. Those with a strong internal locus of control tend to think that they create their own situations and experiences while those with a dominant external locus of control tend to think more that things just happen to them. Skeptics, he says, tend to have a stronger internal locus of control while believers in the paranormal tend to have a stronger external locus of control, as measured by tests designed to do so. Where the environment is more certain (as in modern times in developed countries) the tendency for internal locus of control is higher. Anxiety and uncertainty are more prevalent in magical thinking. He also recounts experimental psychologist Susan Blackmore’s change from a believer in the paranormal to a skeptic and her experiments that showed believers were far more likely to see hidden patterns and messages, that led her and others toward skepticism. Believers and skeptics approach the data of experience differently. Perhaps it was uncertainty and lack of control that led to the conspiracy theories around the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Evidence suggests that negative events, especially unexpected ones, are more likely to be attributed to incorrect causes and conspiracies. Many of us have a tendency to make ‘illusory correlations’ or illusory pattern detections under certain circumstances. Experiments also suggest that a sense of control is also associated with positive health and feelings of well-being.
Patternicity can be useful or damaging. People indulging delusional conspiracies have committed murder. Quackery and pseudo-science can also occasionally be harmful or even deadly.
Agenticity often involves the presumption of an ‘other’ that is also an intentional agent. Shermer defines agenticity as “the tendency to infuse patterns with meaning, attention, and agency.” Belief in spirits, ghosts, souls, gods, demons, aliens, government conspiracies, etc. in most forms are examples of agenticity. Patternicity and agenticity make up the cognitive basis of shamanism, paganism, animism, monotheism, polytheism, spiritualism, intelligent design, and New Age-ism, he says – in most forms (I add) since he does not consider here the possible metaphorical and psychological aspects of such beliefs which may be given meaning without actually subscribing to the beliefs. He also considers and I agree that such ideas are or at least seem intuitive, that we often find patterns and ascribe agency to them in our everyday analysis of experience. Essentialism, or belief in a life force that can be transferred, strengthened, or weakened, is an example of such a seemingly intuitive idea as is animism. We all tend to do it sometimes. Shermer has spent some of his scientific career (as a professional skeptic) debunking the attribution of agenticity to meaningless patterns. He has participated in experiments and debates related to ‘sensed presence,’ magnetically-induced OBEs, and many psychic and parapsychology experiments. He has even had some bizarre experiences himself, one of a stress-induced and sleep-deprivation-induced alien-like visitation during a long cross-country bicycle race. Such experiences are also common with mountain climbers and other extreme sport enthusiasts. He relates these experiences as stress-induced ‘sensed presence.” He sees extreme conditions as the trigger-cause with deeper causes in the brain as follows:
“1) an extension of our normal sense of presence of ourselves and others in our physical and social environments; 2) a conflict between the high road of controlled reason and the low road of automatic emotion; 3) a conflict within the body schema, or our physical sense of self, in which your brain is tricked into thinking that there is another you; or 4) a conflict within the mind schema, or our psychological sense of self, in which the mind is tricked into thinking that there another mind.”
He goes into some of the possible neuroscience of these causes such as controlled vs. automated brain functions and the emotional circuits such as the amygdala fight-flight-freeze circuit and the autonomic nervous system. He also mentions things like phantom limb syndrome as a learned component of paralysis based on the expectations and habits of the past about our body schema. The sensed presence of another mind may have to do with our ‘theory of mind’ which concludes that there are other minds different from our own mind.
Shermer sees the mind as ‘what the brain does.’ It reduces to the level of the neuron. Here he reviews cognitive neuroscience, once referred to as physiological psychology. Neurons make excitatory and inhibitory post-synaptic potentials. They communicate information by firing frequency, firing location, and firing number. They are considered similar to the binary 1-0 digits of a computer. Electrical signals course through neurons until they reach the synapses where chemical transmitter substances (CTS) are the chemical signals that transfer information to subsequent neurons. Various drugs can effect CTS release and uptake processes. The CTS dopamine has been called the ‘belief drug,’ and is involved with the learning and reward systems of the brain (discovered by Skinner in his operant conditioning experiments). Skinner called the reward reinforcement and the sequence of operant conditioning as Behavior-Reinforcement-Behavior. The dopamine system is also involved. There is debate as to whether dopamine “acts to stimulate pleasure or to motivate behavior. The dopamine system is involved in addiction as the drugs or behaviors take over the role of reward signals. UCLA neuroscientist Russell Poldrack thinks that the dopamine system is more involved with motivation and the opioid system is involved with pleasure. He says that blocking the dopamine system (in rats) will stop motivation but not enjoyment. Experiments have suggested that increased dopamine boosts the signal, or rather the signal-to-noise ratio (SNR) which can aid ‘error detection’ and other patternicity. Dopamine can enhance our responses to patterns by boosting our pattern-detection abilities – by boosting SNR. Schizophrenics and creative people may also develop enhanced pattern-detection abilities.
Shermer says he is a monist, meaning the brain is all, rather than a mind-body, mind-brain, body-soul dualist Descartes-style. Some researchers think we are intuitively dualists, seeing mind and body as separate. It just seems that way. This perhaps reaches into our views about life after death. It seems plausible to many that the soul/mind lives on somehow yet there is no evidence. Some have even said we have a belief instinct (see Jesse Bering’s book, The Belief Instinct). Neurologists like Oliver Sacks showed us that changes in the brain are often the cause of hallucinations, some of which are interpreted as real by the experiencer.
When we become aware that we and others have beliefs, desires, and intentions we engage in what is called Theory of Mind (ToM). ToM is the basis for agenticity. We realize we are an agent and taken to a higher level we realize others as agents. ToM evolved out of necessity to read the intentions of others to enhance our own survival. He says ToM is an automatic system that kicks in during social situations. ToM may be involved in learning through imitation, transferring the movements of others into our own movements when learning, possibly with the use of so-called ‘mirror neurons,’ that fire during imitation learning. Shermer recounts 2007 experiments by neuroscientist Sam Harris and colleagues that suggest that it is easier to believe than to reject a belief, to accept appearances until proven false. Those experiments also looked for neural correlates of belief and found activity in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex which links lower-order emotional responses with higher-order cognitive factual evaluations. Shermer says this supports “Spinoza’s conjecture: belief comes quickly and naturally, skepticism is slow and unnatural, and most people have a low tolerance for ambiguity.” Other experiments by Harris etal. suggested that there was no belief or disbelief module in the brain and that we can rely on feelings and convictions to support especially as they decouple from reason and evidence. Shermer hopes that we can use reason and evidence in counterarguments to re-couple to emotion and change beliefs.
He explores belief in an afterlife. After going through some stats he comes up with the following observations: 1) belief in an afterlife is a kind of agenticity; 2) it is also a kind of dualism; 3) it derives from Theory of Mind; 4) it is an extension of our body schema (we mentally project the body schema into the future); 5) afterlife belief is probably mediated by our left-hemisphere interpreter (this neural network/circuit is involved in creating narratives which is how belief in afterlife scenarios seem to work); 6) it is an extension of our normal ability to imagine ourselves somewhere else in space and time.
He also says we are intuitive immortalists. Jesse Bering noted that we have a hard time fathoming what it would be like to not exist as we have no basis for understanding so we just assume we will always exist in some way.
Shermer notes that there are four lines of evidence often given by those who believe in life after death: 1) information fields and universal life force – these are also intuitive notions without evidence; 2) ESP and evidence of mind; 3) quantum consciousness; and 4) near-death experiences. On the first point he goes through the work of Rupert Sheldrake regarding information fields and concludes that it is mostly bunk. He does the same with ESP and has done so in many experiments where he was the skeptic. It is the same with quantum consciousness and NDEs (and OBEs) – no real evidence. He talks about a 2009 episode of Larry King Live on which he appeared with Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Dr. Deepak Chopra, and Conservative Christian apologist (recently pardoned by Trump for illegal political contributions) Dinesh D’Souza (who also wrote a book arguing in favor of life after death). His “baloney detector” was going haywire. Their arguments were often simply – if one can’t provide a natural explanation then a supernatural one can suffice. Bull he says. Chopra, it appears, simply wants to verify fuzzy language New Age consciousness mumbo jumbo with some quantum mechanics and neuroscience thrown in. Shermer, for all his skepticism, says he would like to believe in some sort of afterlife but there is simply no evidence.
Most people in the world believe in God or gods or some higher power. According to surveys America has some of the highest percentage of believers. Darwin pondered whether evolution could account for the universality of religious beliefs. Shermer believes it is indeed a powerful influence, one of several. He defines religion as: “a social institution to create and promote myths, to encourage conformity and altruism, and to signal the level of commitment to cooperate and reciprocate among members of a community.” He thinks that as human bands coalesced into larger tribes and eventually city-states, that religion co-evolved with government to codify moral behavior into laws and principles. He thinks that specific human universals related to religion (belief in the supernatural, anthropomorphizing, ideas about fortune, etc.) are influenced by our genetic predispositions and this is why they have come to be recognized as human universals. He notes that small hunter-gatherer bands are often very egalitarian and that is likely because the needs of the group are favored over the needs of the individual by strong enforcing of moral rules with gossip, ridicule, shunning, and other forms of ostracization. Myths and supernatural beings are often employed to promote fairness in the social group which also becomes a moral group. While our own culture gives us the specifics of religion the desire to be religious itself is influenced by evolution. Studies of identical twins vs. fraternal twins have strongly suggested that genetics influences one’s religious activities and to a lesser extent their beliefs. However, it is doubtful that we possess a “God gene” as geneticist Gene Hamer’s book title suggests (apparently, he did not approve of the title chosen by publisher) even though we may have genes that make us more predisposed to engaging in spiritual activities.
Shermer notes that man created gods rather than the other way around. Da, this is obvious. Gods and myths often arise in response to the conditions and trials of the tribe. Shermer’s section – Theist, Atheist, Agnostic, and the Burden of Proof – goes through the various arguments for the existence of God. As an agnostic he favors the words of a bumper sticker he once saw “Militant Agnostic: I Don’t Know and You Don’t Either.”
Shermer asks the odd yet compelling question that determines what he calls Shermer’s last law: “any sufficiently advanced extraterrestrial intelligence is indistinguishable from God.” He relates this idea to evolution, to SETI (the search for extraterrestrial intelligence), and intelligent design theory. His arguments are interesting but inconclusive. He considers ‘Einstein’s God’ (which I see as more or less simply giving a name and creator rank to mystery itself) and whether Einstein meant his ideas literally or metaphorically. He considered God to be beyond comprehension. He was also influenced by his Jewish identity. Einstein favored Spinoza’s God that is the harmony of existence, however, he did not think that God was concerned with the fate or actions of humans.
Shermer describes the ‘supernatural’ as simply a term given to mysteries as of yet not understood fully. The history of science shows that we now understand many things naturally and scientifically that were once considered to have supernatural causes. Still mysteries enthrall us. Nonetheless, Shermer sees it this way:
“Flawed as they may be, science and the secular Enlightenment values expressed in Western democracies are our best hope for survival.” (I might add that many of those values are also expressed in many non-Western democracies as well)
Shermer next considers belief in aliens. As a skeptic he has debated several so-called alien abductees, including the famed Whitney Strieber. Shermer asked Strieber before the show what he does in his off time – he said he writes science fiction! He also considers other causes for perceived alien abductions including hypnagogic hallucinations, sleep paralysis, hypnosis, sleep deprivation, stress, and lucid dreams – especially since the “visions” recounted are often similar. His own view of ETs is that they could exist but their rarity combined with the vast distances make encounters unlikely. He recounts a conversation with Richard Dawkins about what ETs are likely to look like, assuming evolution occurs in a similar way in other parts of the universe. Sci-Fi writer Michael Crichton went to far as to describe SETI as a religion – having faith that there is ‘someone out there.’ While this may be case SETI is also science run by scientists to possibly answer a question that may end up being more religious than scientific.
Conspiracy theories are next considered. Conspiracy theories are different from actual conspiracies. They are often highly improbable, illogical, tend to snowball, and yet can be held onto even in the face of heaps of refuting evidence. Shermer thinks that they are believed due to not applying pattern detection filters and are aided by confirmation bias and hindsight bias – manipulating information to the narrative. There are patterns in the way they develop that are pretty easy to figure out. He goes through several in detail, including 9/11 conspiracies and JFK murder conspiracies.
Next is the politics of belief which also includes economics and ideologies. This part was good I thought. Psychologists have studied why people tend to lump into the liberal and conservative edges of the political spectrum. A 2003 Stanford study of conservatives concluded that they suffer from “uncertainty avoidance” and “terror management” and have a “need for order, structure, and “closure” along with “dogmatism” and “intolerance of ambiguity,” which lead to “resistance to change” and “endorsement of inequality” in their actions. Many conservatives did not agree and dissed the study which also associated some conservatives with Nazis. Shermer acknowledges that there has long been a liberal belief bias in academia which Harvard psychologist Stephen Pinker has written about and which bubbled up recently, especially in so-called alt-right circles. University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt considered that the standard liberal bias for why people vote Republican is that conservatives are “cognitively inflexible, fond of hierarchy, and inordinately afraid of uncertainty, change, and death.” Haidt encouraged his academic colleagues to move beyond such biases. Shermer changes the analysis to suggest what conservatives might say about liberals: ‘lack of moral compass, inability to make clear ethical choices, lack of certainty about social issues, a fear of clarity that leads to indecisiveness, a naïve belief in equal talent, and a belief that culture and environment are way more important than biological human nature influences (these last two mesh with Pinker’s “myth” of the Blank Slate – that we are all the same before culture takes over – not so says Pinker). So, both liberals and conservatives tend to be biased, especially about the other. The belief that “bleeding heart” liberals are more generous and that conservatives are “heartless” is not borne out by data that show conservatives give more to charity (although religious motives and being wealthier in general may account for some of that). One reason this might be the case is that conservatives think charity should be private – provided by individuals, companies, and non-profits while liberals think charity should be public – provided by the government.
A 2005 UCLA study suggested that the media have a liberal bias and the current period of Trumpism says the same in a much over-the-top version. Of course, with Fox News we have conservative bias strongly manifested. The more biased media sources are also the most predictable. Moderates and libertarians tend to be less predictable. Liberals and conservatives stereotype each other and such stereotypes tend to be emotionally-charged. Haidt proposed that our ‘moral sense’ is based on five innate psychological systems: 1) Harm/care (empathy and sympathy); 2) Fairness/reciprocity – reciprocal altruism evolved into our sense of justice and morality; 3) In-group/loyalty – social evolution based in tribalism; 4) Authority/respect – based on social hierarchies developed from our primate histories onward; 5) Purity/sanctity – we evolved to equate morality and civility with cleanliness and immorality and barbarism with filth. On Haidt’s survey liberals score higher on the first two and conservatives on the last three. In other words, liberals and conservatives emphasize different moral values.
Psychological experiments about generosity and rule of law suggest to Shermer that “in order for there to be social harmony society needs to have in place a system that both encourages generosity and punishes free riding.” Religion and government are two such systems, he says. When societies became too large for ostracizations such as gossip, ridicule, and shunning, then the institutions of government and religion developed to take over enforcement of moral codes. Conservatives tend to favor private regulation of behavior through religion while liberals tend to favor public regulation of behavior through government (Shermer adds – except for sexual mores where liberals tend not to want government to interfere). A perhaps confounding issue is that we also evolved tribally in-group and out-group biases that tend to make us competitive as ‘us vs. them’ team players. Shermer admits that he, as a civil libertarian, is conflicted politically. He hopes that identifying the moral values of liberals and conservatives will help bridge the political divide.
Shermer goes through economist Thomas Sowell’s ideas in his book, A Conflict of Visions, where he argues that conservatives have a constrained moral vision of human nature and liberals an unconstrained moral vision of human nature. The unconstrained vision is optimistic but perhaps overly idealistic. It suggests that all social problems can be solved with sufficient commitment. The constrained vision is pessimistic but also realistic in the sense that it acknowledges that all attempts to solve social problems have costs, can lead to other social ills, and there are always trade-offs. Stephen Pinker, in his 2002 book, The Blank Slate (which I plan to review here at some point) relabeled Sowell’s visions as the Tragic Vision and the Utopian Vision. The Tragic Vision emphasizes that things like bureaucracies can explode into self-interest for the implementers of the policies while the Utopian Vision seems to emphasize an increase in what is now invoked often as ‘social engineering.’ Issues like the size of government, the level of taxation, free trade vs. fair trade (oddly Trump and the conservatives who back him seem to have reversed this one). Shermer further alters this conflict of visions idea to say that it is more a spectrum. He calls it the Realistic Vision where on one end there is constraint and on the other no constraint and that in reality human nature is partly constrained – by genetics and evolution especially. It acknowledges that we have a dual nature of being both selfish and selfless, that people vary (ie. no blank slate), and that over-focus on equality could cause as many new problems as it would solve. He thinks political moderates on both left and right generally favor such a partially constrained Realistic Vision of human nature. He gives evidence in support of a partially constrained model: genetic differences among people that leads to different abilities, failed communist and socialist experiments, failed utopian experiments, the enduring power of family ties, the power of reciprocal altruism, the desire to punish cheaters, the ubiquity of hierarchical structures, and in-group/out-group dynamics.
Next, he explains why he is a libertarian. He invokes John Stuart Mill, who in his 1859 book, On Liberty, argued that it was democracy that defeated the tyranny of the magistrate characteristic of European monarchies, but that same democracy could also lead to the tyranny of the majority which can work against the rights of the individual. He notes that our Bill of Rights is intended to prevent a tyranny of the majority. He explains that libertarianism is based on the principle of freedom, without infringing on the freedom of others. He says that libertarianism incorporates moral principles embraced by both liberals and conservatives. He does not think Libertarians will ever be a viable third party in the U.S. though. I think he considers them a type of moderate, but one rooted in personal liberties. The party itself seems to produce both reasonable politicians and nutty ones seemingly overly obsessed with certain liberties such as gun rights or corporate rights, which is perhaps one reason it is not very popular.
Political beliefs are different than scientific beliefs. One might simply believe that a certain policy, at this time and place, is the most viable and useful. Timothy Ferris, author of The Science of Liberty, says that liberalism and science are methods rather than ideologies. Extreme Islamists and some fundamentalist Christians favor theocracies that restrict freedoms. Shermer has also written about free-market capitalism and offers this assessment of democracy and capitalism:
“Liberal democracy is not just the least bad political system compared to all others; it is the best system yet devised for giving people a chance to be heard, an opportunity to participate, and a voice to speak truth to power. Market capitalism is the greatest generator of wealth in the history of the world and it has worked everywhere that it has been tried. Combine the two and Idealpolitik may become Realpolitik.”
‘Confirmations of Belief’ is the next chapter title and is a summary of cognitive biases. He starts out with what he calls folk numeracy, a form of patternicity where we have a natural tendency to misperceive probabilities, to think anecdotally rather than statistically, and to focus on trends that confirm our own biases. Confirmation bias, where we tend to confirm our own beliefs by selecting data that conform to them, is, according to Shermer, the mother of all cognitive biases. We do this to confirm our beliefs. He defines confirmation bias as follows: “the tendency to seek and find confirmatory evidence in support of already existing beliefs and ignore or reinterpret disconfirming evidence.” Experiments have shown that people will often favor evidence that confirms their own beliefs over evidence that disconfirms them. He notes that confirmation bias is particularly powerful in political beliefs. We tend to have emotional reactions to data that conflicts with our beliefs (cognitive dissonance) and neuroscience has confirmed this somewhat. Our preconceptions about various subjects, people, and policies tend to be entrenched and the power of expectation is also in play – we tend to expect reality to fit our beliefs and if it doesn’t we tend to get emotional. Remember, in Shermer’s model beliefs come first, then reality = belief-dependent realism.
Next, the “hindsight bias is the tendency to reconstruct the past to fit with present knowledge.” After accidents or weather events and during war time the hindsight bias often appears. It is easy to conclude that we should have known or have been prepared for such events, that the clues were there. It can get conspiratorial. After 9/11 came much hindsight bias. A related bias is the self-justification bias. This is “the tendency to rationalize decisions after the fact to convince ourselves that what we did was the best thing we could have done.” Most biases involve “cherry-picking” data to conform to pre-existing beliefs. The justification bias is strong in politicians who spin things to depict themselves as seemingly right, in their opinions, even when they are wrong and have clearly made incorrect predictions.
Attribution bias is “the tendency to attribute different causes for our own beliefs and actions than that of others.” We might attribute the success of others to luck, circumstances, having connections, or to some innate disposition they have. In contrast we tend to attribute our own successes to hard work and/or some positive disposition. Shermer and a colleague, Frank Sulloway, discovered and presented new forms of attribution bias they call intellectual attribution bias and emotional attribution bias. They noticed when asking people why they believe in God people tended to give intellectual reasons for their own belief, such as the harmonious design of the universe, but when they asked the same people why other people believe in God the same people tended to give emotional reasons, such as the fear of death. We tend to do the same in political hot button issues where we give rational reasons for our own beliefs and attribute emotional reasons to the beliefs of others, particularly to those whose beliefs are opposed to ours.
Sunk-cost bias is simply “the tendency to believe in something because of the cost sunk into that belief.” This often leads to the fallacy that we cannot abandon an idea simply because we have invested considerable resources into it. This is one reason why beliefs are difficult to change. It may also be why politicians are so hard-headed.
Status quo bias is similar. He defines it as “the tendency to opt for whatever it is we are used to, that is, the status quo.” This rewards our laziness! It is likely another reason why people don’t like to change their beliefs. The status quo bias is influenced by the endowment effect. Economist Richard Thaler defined the endowment effect as “the tendency to value what we own more than what we do not own.” Evolution is likely an influence here. Certain animals tend to mark and defend their chosen territories, even when other ones are available. Shermer notes that “beliefs are a type of private property – in the form of private thoughts with public expressions – and therefore the endowment effect applies to belief systems.” I think that the sunk-cost bias, the status quo bias, and the endowment effect are much about the energy required to overcome or redesign the past and about laziness.
Next are framing effects – “the tendency to draw different conclusions based on how data are presented.” How data is presented or “pitched” can affect how we perceive it. This is one method of neuro-linguistic programming. It is also often used in behavioral economics and it is ubiquitous in sales.
The anchoring bias is “the tendency to rely too heavily on a past reference or on one piece of information when making decisions.” I see this in politics, among environmental activists, and among those opposed to environmental activists. They might overly rely on one particular study, or someone might reuse over and over a technique that once worked for them well in the past even though it doesn’t work so well now.
The availability heuristic refers to “the tendency to assign probabilities of potential outcomes, based on examples that are immediately available to us.” This is especially true of emotionally-charged situations. He gives the example that we especially notice every red light when we are late for an appointment. This is also a factor in how we tend to assess risk. If some disaster or epidemic happened recently, even though it is statistically rare, we will tend to see it as riskier than it really is.
Related to the availability heuristic is the representative bias, which was described by psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman as follows: “an event is judged probable to the extent that it represents the essential features of its parent population or generating process.” People tend to use shortcuts when they need to decide on something and those shortcuts often employ biases. We might throw out candidates for a job for biased reasons just to lighten the load.
Innattentional bias has more to do with our sensory perception and the automatic nature it has sometimes. Psychologists define it as “the tendency to miss something obvious and general while attending to something special and specific.” The classic experiment here has a guy in a gorilla suit walking through while the subjects are told to count the number of basketball passes by a team in black shirts and another in white shirts. A 1-minute video is shown and the gorilla walks in at 30-seconds, thumps his chest and walk out. Consistently (and amazingly) 50% of the subjects do not report seeing a gorilla-suited guy!
Shermer gives a long list of other cognitive biases which includes a bias to trust authority, to jump on bandwagons, to believe what seems believable, to over-rely on expectations, to conflate cause with correlation, to overvalue initial events, to overvalue events that are recent, and the ubiquitous overgeneralization known as stereotyping.
He also mentions the bias blind spot. This is “the tendency to recognize the power of cognitive biases in other people but to be blind to their influence upon our own beliefs.”
Shermer describes science as “the ultimate bias-detection machine.” Mechanisms such as double-blind controls in experiments are designed to weed out bias. The peer-review process is another bias-reduction technique. Skepticism and the ability to falsify are given importance in the scientific process. Scientists must defend their conclusions to the satisfaction of other scientists.
Science is our best means of separating meaningful patterns from meaningless ones. Shermer uses the model of exploration of new lands to explore the psychology of science here. Prevailing paradigms shape our perceptions. Explorers of the past used the prevailing paradigms of the past to describe their new discoveries. The set of beliefs about reality that make up science have changed as new discoveries have been made. Paradigms have shifted and will likely continue to shift. As Galileo found out, paradigms can be slow to shift when belief systems are entrenched. The shift from Aristotelian logic and deduction to Francis Bacon’s ‘observational method’ of induction took time but rewarded us with a less entrenched societal belief system. This is akin to what I call ‘cultivating the shiftable paradigm,’ or simply reminding oneself that what is or seems true today may be refuted at any time with better and more detailed experimental evidence. Of course, pure empiricism is not always perfect. We may be tricked by our eyes, even when great instruments are employed. If some new structure or function is revealed to us we might not recognize or value it if it doesn’t fit into our current paradigm based on empirical observation. Shermer notes Galileo’s mistaking of the rings of Saturn for three stars as an example. At the time there was no available concept of planetary rings and the resolution of the telescopes of the time was not enough to see to Saturn’s distance very well. Thus, even direct observation combined with the limits of the current paradigm, can fool us. He notes the triad data-theory-presentation as most important in combination for complete scientific understanding. Another way of expressing the triad is induction-deduction-communication, or what we see, what we think, and what we say. There is an interplay of the three. Stephen Jay Gould called this the ‘power and the poverty of pure empiricism.’ Observation can trick us into seeing something that is not really there but is partially based on previous paradigms. This is perhaps most true of the vast and the tiny – both of which are beyond our sensory ranges.
A history of astronomy and cosmology is perhaps a reminder that observations can change with new observing techniques (such as spectroscopy). Shermer gives a short history here which was unexpected and perhaps a bit of a digression but it is relevant to the philosophical aspects of astronomy. He notes Arthur C. Clarkes first law: “When a distinguished elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.” The history of science is one in which established theories have been upended to the astonishment of scientists and with much resistance. Orthodoxy can permeate science and this has been called “scientism.” However, the word scientism has also often been used as a charge, often a lame charge, by believers in the supernatural and less credible ideas to dis mainstream science. Time tends to resolve debates in science as new discoveries are made.
Mystery, paradox, and the inadequacy of language and the nature of meaning itself have kept us from uncovering the deeper picture of the nature of reality. Will it always be so? We don’t know but some mysteries have yielded little to no ground. Astronomy has meshed with philosophy to give us further curious angles to explore. There is what is called the fine-tuning problem – why our universe seems so finely-tuned toward certain conclusions including existence itself. The Big Bang is said to be “sensitive” to the ‘six cosmic numbers.’ (There are more but these are considered the most important). These are: 1) the amount of matter in the universe, 2) how firmly atomic nuclei bind together, 3) the number of dimensions in which we live, 4) the ratio of the strength of electromagnetism to that of gravity, 5) the fabric of the universe, and 6) the cosmological constant, or “antigravity” force. This fine-tuning has been dubbed the anthropic principle. There is a counter-principle known as the Copernican principle that concludes that we are not special. The universe’s apparent fine-tuning has given much energy to the intelligent design advocates, including biblical creationists. Shermer and many others argue that there can be many alternatives to the anthropic principle – as the notion that the universe was designed especially for us. Carl Sagan mentioned “carbon chauvinism,” the belief that life cannot be based on anything but carbon, and Shermer takes that a step further to call it “cosmic chauvinism,” the idea that the universe is not fine-tuned for us but rather that we are fine-tuned for it. There is still much not understood about relativity and quantum mechanics and the cosmic numbers may not be as constant as thought. They may also be all related in some other fashion. Shermer delves deeper here and mentions six types of theories of a multiverse of which our universe may be but one component. Stephen Hawking rejected any kind of intelligent design notion based on the anthropic principle. He and Leonard Mlodinow presented their ideas about this in the 2010 book The Grand Design (also reviewed in this blog). Their idea is called model-dependent realism. They stated that it is only useful to ask if a model agrees with observation. If it does, we may use it to describe reality. They model the universe with an extension of string theory called M-theory with eleven dimensions. If the universe is somehow determined to be finite, then M-theory would say the universe created itself. These ideas are conjectural, perhaps as conjectural as God. One may posit God but there is little reason to believe, especially in the case of the Gods of our typical religions.
In the epilogue he states simply that skepticism is science. Science has the null hypothesis which states that a hypothesis is false until proven true. In science the burden of proof is always on proving a hypothesis is true. The burden is not on the skeptics to disprove it. This is important to realize when dealing with the supernatural which has a history of claiming something is true simply because it can’t be conclusively disproven. Of course, in the final analysis many of the things we regard as true may not really be so, so much may be regarded as provincial truth in contrast to definitive truth. The opposite argument, from a perspective of negative evidence, might be something like – if you can’t prove it wasn’t God, spirits, UFOs, Jews, Rothschilds, Masons etc. etc., then it must have been them. That is a ridiculous argument.
Science might also proceed toward a ‘convergence of evidence.’ Here lines of inquiry from different inferential sciences converge to form the current scientific paradigm around a subject. This is typical of sciences that rely less on laboratory evidence and direct experimentation. It is called the convergence method. Geology, archaeology, and cosmology are examples where convergence of other sciences makes up their totality. History can often be tested through the ‘comparative method’ which was exemplified by Jared Diamond in his book Guns, Germs, and Steel, (also reviewed in this blog). By comparing the resources available to ancient peoples in different parts of the world and their geographical boundaries and constraints he realized that the variance of those resources and geographies accounted for much of the lopsided development. Both convergence and comparative methods are employed by paleontologists in testing hypotheses about evolution. “The principle of positive evidence “states that you must have positive evidence in favor of your theory and not just negative evidence against rival theories.” Thus, bunk creationist arguments are only against evolution as they have zero positive evidence of creationism. Shermer says man as homo rationalis probably never existed as we are never really purely rational but are always affected by emotion, pain, and the difficulty of life.
This is an excellent book – highly recommended. This is one reason I wanted to do a detailed review. I hope to read a few more of Shermer’s books as well. He also does short video segments on Big Think.