Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Why People Believe Weird Things

My atheist friend and occasional fellow blogger Roo told me I should read Michael Shermer's The Believing Brain  as part of my series on atheism.  While I wait for the lovely people in the Brisbane City Council library service to buy it and lend it to me (yes I am a cheapskate, and besides, I pay my rates!) I've been whetting my appetite with one of his earlier books, Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition and other confusions of our time.

It's a little unfair in some ways to include Shermer in a series on atheism given that he makes it clear in this book that he is an agnostic.  Nonetheless, it's worth looking at the light he sheds on various belief systems and why they come into being. 

Shermer is something of a minor celebrity in the US, a regular guest on TV chat shows where he appears as the token skeptic in episodes about the various "weird things" he discusses in this book.  He has degrees in psychology and the history of science, but in fact he is a professional skeptic, editing his own magazine called Skeptic as well as writing for Scientific American, hosting a radio show and writing numerous books. 

These various encounters form the basis of this book, with chapters dealing with ESP, alien abduction, recovered memory, near death experiences, racial prejudice and the notion that a future supercomputer will bring about the resurrection.  There are also two longer sections, one dealing with young earth creationism and the other with Holocaust denial, bookended by some more general chapters about the art of skepticism and why people believe weird things. 

Of course, one man's weird is another man's normal, but by sticking largely to fringe beliefs Shermer is able to avoid offending too many people.  He also comes across as a gracious critic, ready to praise the believers when praise is due, and genuinely interested in and willing to explore the beliefs he debunks.  Dennett, Harris and Dawkins could learn a thing or two from him. 

The result is a lot more than an interesting romp through the outer reaches of the American psyche.  In the process he provides a guide to the scientific method as she is practiced.  His constant search is for verification, for evidence, for falsifiability.  People say they have been abducted by aliens.  Is there any evidence of these aliens apart from these people's testimonies?  People say there was no Holocaust.  How do they account for the converging threads of historical evidence that tell a consistent story of deliberate genocide?  People say they can read each others thoughts.  Does their ability to do so lie outside the statistical probability of a correct guess?  Everywhere we see behind his stories of individual beliefs the footprints of scientific method - the gathering of evidence, examination of possible explanations, testing of these explanations, repetition of experiments, peer review and accountability.  All of these, he says, are missing in the world of pseudoscience and pseudohistory.

Apparently, his response when asked "why should we believe you?" is invariably, "you shouldn't!" Of course he's picked easy targets and this inevitably makes him look smart.  Still because he's so open and engaging, I'm going to take him at his word.   So let me get to what I see as some questions posed by his version of rationality.

First of all, Shermer is very interested, as a psychologist, in the mental processes of belief.  He describes, for instance, the idea of "confirmation bias" - we automatically look for facts which confirm our already held views, and unconsciously filter out those that don't.  He also talks about the role played by images and ideas from our early training and wider culture.  Joe Firmage's aliens bear a remarkable resemblance to the angels that appear in the beliefs of the Mormon faith in which he was raised.  The appearance of other aliens matches that in early science fiction films.  And so it goes on.

What strikes me about this is the same thing that struck me about Dennett's discussion of memes.  Both writers seem to act as if these processes don't apply to themselves.  Those poor deluded people are subject to confirmation bias and unconcsious childhood images.  We, on the other hand, are scientific and rational. 

Following on from this is Shermer's persistent naturalist assumption.  This follows from what he calls "Hume's Maxim", taken from the words of the 18th century Scottish philosopher David Hume:  "...no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavours to establish".  This means that Shermer will explore all "natural" explanations for a phenomenon before he considers the "supernatural" ones.  Does this not strike you as a procedure wide open for "confirmation bias"?  Perhaps, perhaps not, but somehow he always seems to find the naturalistic explanation he seeks.

In this respect Shermer is, in general, highly conservative.  In any scientific question, he is likely to be on the side of the majority.  This, of course, means that he is likely to usually be right.  I couldn't help agreeing with him on the beliefs he discussed here - most of them seem highly unlikely to me.  The test of his method will come when he takes on something more controversial, something for which the evidence, or lack thereof, is not so clear-cut.  Then we will see....

PS - I did eventually get to read The Believing Brain and you can read my review here.

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