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“The Believing Brain” – My interview with Michael Shermer on How On Earth

1 June 2011

Yesterday I interviewed renowned skeptic and science writer Michael Shermer for How On Earth, the KGNU science and technology show. Shermer was in town promoting his new book, The Believing Brain: from Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies—How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths, which I read over the weekend.

"The Believing Brain" by Michael Shermer

"The Believing Brain" by Michael Shermer

Listen to the full episode of How On Earth
(Interview begins at ~16:00)

Despite having the longest subtitle ever, the book’s thesis is pretty simple. According to Shermer, “the brain is a belief engine” that cranks out split-second, snap-judgment, best-guess theories about the world with each passing second. But rather than consciously evaluating these beliefs to see if they hold up under the weight of future evidence, our default position is to assume that we are always right the first time. Shermer brings in evidence from neuroscience, psychology and sociology to show that on each of those levels, belief comes first—only afterward do we look for reasons to believe, and then we’re strongly biased in favor of supporting, rather than contradictory, evidence.

It’s a powerful thesis, both because of the substantial weight of evidence in favor of Shermer’s interpretation, and because it explains so much about human behavior on an individual and societal level. But what really impresses me about this picture of the brain is how frighteningly (and literally) counter-intuitive it is.

“The Believing Brain” forced me to confront the deeply unsettling idea that my brain is lying to me all the time—that I don’t think the way I think I think. And, by the way, neither do you. Neither does anyone. We’re all trapped inside this fantasy world where it feel like we’re in control, that there is a unified “I,” an essential core that defines our experience. While actually, the part of our brain responsible for that feeling is always out of the loop and several hundred milliseconds behind the neural systems that are actually running the show. The best “I” can do is pretend I have a good reason to act the way I’m acting, and hope that “my” reaction feeds back into the system somewhere downstream.

Shermer’s not just trying to induce existential crises in his readers, however. “The Believing Brain” is as much a manifesto for the scientific method as it is a book about cognitive psychology. Shermer takes on belief in the supernatural, belief in god, belief in conspiracy theories, and even belief in political ideologies—each of which is rooted in the cognitive biases we all share: to seek patterns whether they exist or not; to assign intentions and motivations to those patterns whether they are intentional or not; and to find confirming evidence for those patterns whether it outweighs contradictory evidence…or not.

“Science is our escape from what I call ‘belief-dependent realism,'” Shermer said during our interview. “The only way out of that trap is science.”

In science, he explained, the default position is that any idea is wrong until you find evidence to the contrary. But since the scientific method is so new (in terms of evolution, when compared to the millions of years we’ve had to develop our belief-generating brains), the process is counter-intuitive. It takes a lot more work to conduct good, thorough research and design rigorous experiments with control groups and double-blinded trials.

But the effort is necessary, he says, “to avoid all these cognitive biases that affect everybody, including scientists.”

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