Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Believing Brain

Science magazine has a review of Michael Shermer's new book, The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies---How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths. Shermer is perhaps the best known skeptic writing today, working to pierce a wide variety of superstitions, false beliefs and outright stupidity. In this book he apparently seeks to summarize the research results to data about how and why the brain forms beliefs and how beliefs relate to evidence.

I haven't read the book, and the review is somewhat negative, but the issue is fundamental to this blog. One of the themes of the blog is that we think with our brains. Those brains have evolved, and evolution has worked well enough that there are some seven billion of us now. However, it is increasingly apparent that as successful as our brains are in perceiving patterns and attributing meaning to those patterns, they also all too often form false beliefs and misuse evidence.

I agree with Shermer that science is a superior communal process for the development of belief. Science is skeptical, and scientific beliefs are tentative and probabilistic. Science is based on the testing of hypotheses that can be negated by evidence, drawn from theory. Observations have to be duplicated by independent experiments or independent field work. Experiments and their analysis and interpretation are subjected to independent peer review.

However, scientific method does not serve for all circumstances; people have to act on beliefs often when they can not be tested or validated. Still, it would seem that we are learning how to better construct beliefs and how to better make decisions using our beliefs.

No comments: