In The Believing Brain, Michael Shermer has succeeded in making a serious analysis of the human brain both highly entertaining and informative.
If you are a baseball fan you will never view the curious antics of a hitter entering the batter's box in quite the same way again after reading Michael's book. You will likely be reminded of the pigeon in a Skinner's Box learning pigeon patternicity: the learning of a superstition.
If you are a Liberal and you cannot understand how those crazy Conservatives can actually believe the things they do, it will be explained to you in Michael's book. The same goes for Conservatives who think that Liberalism is some kind of mental disorder....they will understand why Liberals believe what they believe. Michael also explains why neither Liberal nor Conservative is likely to change: it's all based on the way the human brain works.
The first two sections of the book, comprising 135 pages, pretty much lay the scientific foundation for the remainder of the book. Reading it requires some attention to detail, but you will learn quite a bit, and the writing is accessible to the non-scientist, and the author is mindful of his audience and avoids scientific jargon, explaining such jargon when it is impossible to avoid, and reinforcing the explanations when jargon must be used again after the reader may have forgotten the meaning a few pages later. I found this very helpful.
Part 3 of the book is devoted to examining Belief in the Afterlife, Belief in God, Belief in Aliens, and Belief in Conspiracies, using the scientific facts from Parts I & 2 of the book. I was tempted to skip one or two of these Beliefs, but I got sucked in. They are handled quite interestingly. I learned, for instance, that Albert Einstein carried on a correspondence with a lowly ensign named Guy H. Raner aboard the USS Bougainville in the Pacific during World War II regarding the existence of God. I thought I knew a good deal about Einstein, but I hadn't known this! It blew my mind. And the correspondence is included for your reading pleasure.
Even the Alien stuff and the Conspiracy stuff sucked me in. I couldn't put it down.
The final parts of the book bring us back once more to the science behind it all, but more to the history of the science. It is all quite fascinating. There were issues I wish that Michael had examined further: for instance, on p. 274 Michael mentions "The Consistency Bias"...the tendency to recall one's past beliefs as resembling present beliefs, more than they actually do. There is the implication here that we DO change our beliefs over time despite the primary idea behind the book being that we first construct beliefs and then reinforce them as time goes by. I would have liked an explanation of how this sometimes changes. I can see that as children we may have believed in Santa Claus and the tooth fairy etc., and have learned to discard these beliefs along the way, but I would have appreciated an examination of the mechanisms involved. If Michael happens to read my review I would like him to know that I too missed the gorilla. (this won't make sense to anyone who hasn't read the book...sorry.)
I want to thank Michael Shermer for his work. I shall be returning to his book again when I've finished reading some other books on my must read list. Five Stars...Easy.
There's just something about reading Shermer that is unique, classy, inviting, and very educational. He's been plugging away against superstition for decades in his books, sharing top notch research that informs us all about the value of science and how we should use it to think about things. This is the value Shermer exemplifies and is greatly needed in our era. He doesn't berate believers. He wants to understand them better, having been one himself. He doesn't attack the Bible either, just the paranormal basis for it.
He simply talks science. We need to understand science and Shermer is our guide. Science is the antidote to superstition, agency detection, and the flimsy anecdotal evidence for beliefs that modern scientifically literate people do not accept. "70 percent of Americans still do not understand the scientific process defined in the National Science foundation study as grasping probability, the experimental method, and hypothesis testing." (p. 4) So his goal is to share how science works and what it can accomplish. He writes: "What I want to believe based on emotions and what I should believe based on evidence do not always coincide. I'm a skeptic not because I want to believe, but because I want to know. How can we tell the difference between what we would like to be true and what is actually the case? The answer is science." (p. 2)
"Belief systems are powerful, pervasive and enduring," he rightly says. (p. 5) "The brain is a belief engine." "Once beliefs are formed, the brain begins to look for and find confirmatory evidence in support of those beliefs, which adds an emotional boost of further confidence in the beliefs and thereby accelerates the process of reinforcing them, and round and round the process goes in a positive feedback loop of belief confirmation." (p. 5) Full stop. Think about the implications of this. Again: "Once beliefs are formed, the brain begins to look for and find confirmatory evidence in support of those beliefs...."
He's not just interested in why people believe weird things, but why people believe anything at all. His answer:
"We form our beliefs for a wide variety of subjective, personal, emotional, and psychological reasons in the context of environments created by family, friends, colleagues, culture, and society at large; after forming our beliefs we then defend, justify, and rationalize them with a host of intellectual reasons, cogent arguments, and rational explanations. Beliefs come first, explanations for beliefs follow. I call this process belief dependent realism, where our perceptions about reality are dependent on the beliefs that we hold about it. Reality exists independent of human minds, but our understanding of it depends upon the beliefs we hold at any given moment." (p. 5)
Shermer simply talks science to the non-scientific mind and does this very well. You cannot be an informed believer if you have not read this book. This book is the culmination of 30 years of his research and we are all in his debt. It is timely and well written. He makes his points well. I just don't see how anyone can disagree. Shermer is clearly one of the best voices for reason in our world today.
This is Shermer at his best.
The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies by Michael Shermer
"The Believing Brain" is a fantastic and ambitious book that explains the nature of beliefs. Mr. Shermer provides his theory of belief and with great expertise and skill provides compelling arguments and practical examples in explaining how the process of belief works. He applies his theory to a wide range of types of beliefs and does so with mastery. This excellent 400 page-book is composed of the following four parts: Part I. Journeys of Belief, Part II. The Biology of Belief, Part III. Belief in Things Unseen, and Part IV. Belief in Things Seen.
1. A fascinating topic in the hands of a master of his craft.
2. Well-written, well-researched, engaging and accessible book. Bravo!
3. Great, logical format. Good use of illustrations.
4. Great use of popular culture to convey sophisticated concepts in an accessible manner.
5. Establishes his theory early on and then proceeds like a great architect building his masterpiece.
6. Great quotes from many great minds, including some of his own, "What I want to believe based on emotions and what I should believe based on evidence do not always coincide. I'm a skeptic not because I do not want to believe but because I want to know".
7. Answers the question of "Why we believe" to complete satisfaction.
8. A thorough explanation on what the brain is.
9. The first of four parts of this book starts off with three distinctly different routes to belief, including his own revealing journey to beliefs.
10. The concept of patternicity defined. A great take at why our brains evolved to assume that all patterns are real.
11. Insightful and thought-provoking, consider the following "The problem we face is that superstition and belief in magic are millions of years old, whereas science, with its methods of controlling for intervening variables to circumvent false positives, is only a few hundred years old".
12. Where would we be without evolution? Great use of science from the best scientific minds.
13. The concept of agenticity defined and how patternicity and agenticity form the cognitive basis for various "spiritualisms".
14. The evidence that brain and mind are one is now overwhelming. Great examples in support of the aforementioned assertion.
15. Great tidbits of knowledge throughout, "what people remember happening rarely corresponds to what actually happened".
16. Provides four great explanations for the sensed-presence effect found in the brain. With plenty of fascinating examples.
17. The mind in its proper context.
18. In order to understand beliefs you must understand neurons.
19. Dopamine...the belief drug. A lot of interesting facts.
20. Great explanation on why dualism is intuitive and monism counterintuitive.
21. The theory of mind and agenticity.
22. Enlightening look at why belief comes quickly and naturally while skepticism is slow and unnatural.
23. The afterlife chapter is one of my favorite chapters of this book...worth the price of admission.
24. Six solid reasons why people believe there is life after death.
25. The case for the existence of the afterlife around four lines of evidence and the thorough debunking that follows.
26. Compelling explanations for Near-Death Experiences (NDEs).
27. Ditto for Out-of-Body Experiences (OBEs).
28. A compelling explanation of, why do so many people believe in God?
29. Three lines of evidence that supernatural beliefs are hardwired into our brains. Great stuff.
30. The compelling evidence that humans created gods and not vice versa.
31. Great explanation on the difference between agnosticism versus atheism.
32. Mr. Shermer's last law, an interesting take. I will not spoil it here.
33. Interesting tidbits on Einstein who is always fascinating.
34. The supernatural in proper context.
35. Science as the best tool ever in devising how the world works.
36. Interesting chapter on aliens.
37. Conspiracy theories and what characteristics indicate they are likely untrue.
38. Fascinating look at the 9/11 "conspiracy".
39. How conspiracies actually work.
40. Mr. Shermer even delves in the world of politics. Liberals versus conservatives.
41. A realistic visions of human nature and why it would help understand one another.
42. A dozen essentials to liberty and freedom. Democracy a different perspective.
43. Interesting look at how our brains convince us that we are always right.
44. Explanation of a series of biases: confirmation bias, hindsight bias, self-justification bias, attribution bias, sunk-coast bias, status-quo bias, anchoring bias, representative bias, inattentional blindness bias, and more...
45. Why science is the ultimate bias-detection machine.
46. Awesome belief history on exploration: Columbus, Galileo, Bacon...
47. Astronomy...beliefs and historical debates.
48. Good use of previous knowledge of biases to help understand data.
49. Red shifts and other astronomical hypotheses explained, and the photograph that changed the universe.
50. The greatest unsolved mystery.
51. Links worked great!
52. An intellectual treat from cover to cover!
1. Having to buy extra copies to share with close friends.
2. Having to wait for Mr. Shermer's next book.
In summary, this may be Michael Shermer's greatest book. This book feels like a labor of love in which Mr. Shermer is able to match his accumulation of prodigious knowledge and his lucid thoughts in total harmony. This book not only met my high expectations it exceeded it, I couldn't put it down. Thought-provoking, enlightening and a joy to read. I can't recommend this book enough, kudos to Mr. Shermer for a great accomplishment.
Further suggestions: "Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100" by Michio Kaku, "SuperSense: Why We Believe in the Unbelievable" by Bruce M. Hood, "Human: The Science Behind What Makes Us Unique" by Michael S. Gazzaniga, "Hardwired Behavior: What Neuroscience Reveals about Morality" by Laurence Tancredi, "Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality" by Patricia S. Churchland, "The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature" by Steven Pinker and "The Brain and the Meaning of Life" by Paul Thagard.
on June 23, 2011
I'm a high school psychology teacher, so I'm always looking for books that will expand my knowledge base but not be so technical as to be over my head. This book was really disappointing in almost every respect. It was probably my fault for assuming that a book titled "The Believing Brain" would actually go in some depth discussing the neuroscience behind our brain's construction of beliefs. The actual neuroscience in the book could be summarized in about five pages. In fact, the neuroscience covered in this book is covered in the survey text used in my high school class. Very simplistic, not very original science. The rest of the book is more information about the author's personal beliefs, pet peeves, etc. Interestingly, when discussing theories he is critical of, the author holds studies to a very high standard, but when discussing his own theory, he references studies and concepts that often do not reach the same level of rigor. In fact, some of his discussions about certain regions of the brain being responsible for highly complex thought patterns is the exact type of modern phrenology that makes most modern neuroscientists cringe.
I actually agree with the author's general premise about beliefs. I am equally skeptical of the existence of god, likelihood of discovering extraterrestrial life, and the various pop conspiracy theories that are out there. I just think the book could have been written in 50 pages. Or better yet, it could have been shortened to a magazine article and not lost any of its basic premise.
on June 11, 2011
Where do I even start? I guess with the brain, since that is my speciality. The book is called "The Believing Brain", so one might expect the book to be about how the brain constructs beliefs. There is actually very little of that, and when Shermer does invoke neuroscience it is maddeningly simplistic - of the 'activity in area X, which is involved in Y' variety. There are many examples of bad pop neuroscience in this book, so I will just pick a couple: the anterior cingulate cortex as a 'Where's Waldo detection device'?? "Dopamine - the belief drug?" While Shermer does cite a couple studies on the effect of dopamine on belief, to suggest that dopamine is somehow the key player, worse yet 'the belief drug', is absurdly simplistic and misleading. If we are going to pinpoint a neuromodulator, what of the serotonergic system, the common target of most hallucinogenic drugs? Schizophrenia, which Shermer mentions, affects far more than the dopaminergic system, e.g. cortical NMDA receptors. Anyone interested in a serious discussion on how the schizophrenic brain forms beliefs should seek out the Bayesian perspective of Fletcher and Frith. I won't get into the anterior cingulate, for the simple reason that I don't think anyone has a coherent view of it yet, but it most certainly is not a 'Where's Waldo detection device.' That's an uncritical and bad pop adaptation of a poor theory. With such simplistic and superficial treatments, Shermer misses an opportunity to discuss how the brain actually forms beliefs - that is by probabilistic and hierarchical neocortical inference of sensory and subcortical inputs.
Of course, it doesn't really matter, since this is not a book about the brain. It is really a book about Michael Shermer - e.g. what he believes and doesn't, what television shows he's been on, how much hate mail he has received, how many times he has biked across the country. He evidently has a very high opinion of himself, constantly referring to common hypotheses as 'my theory', 'my thesis' and citing his prior books as though they were major scientific treatises. A trivial corollary of Clark's Law is even referred to as "Shermer's last law" (any sufficiently advanced extra-terrestrial intelligence is indistinguishable from God). For what does he hold himself in such esteem? For simple smackdowns of alien abductees and 9/11 truthers? For his "realistic vision" of human society that "acknowledges that people vary widely both physically and intellectually... Therefore governmental redistribution programs are not only unfair to those from whom the wealth is confiscated and redistributed, but the allocation of the wealth to those who did not earn it cannot and will not work to equalize these natural inequalities." But don't worry, Shermer assures you that he is fair and balanced - after all, he "doesn't even listen to Rush Limbaugh anymore." Shermer cites Stephen Pinker's 'The Blank Slate' as brilliant, but given his simplistic links between human nature and politics one has to wonder if he even read the book. Since his thesis concerns how humans believe irrationally, it would be nice if Shermer held his own naive libertarianism up to some scrutiny.
Neuroscience, self-promotion, and politics aside, this book misses a fundamental point. Many people continue to believe in God and the afterlife because of the unexplained mystery of inner existence. The term 'hard problem of consciousness' may be unfamiliar to most, but many are intimately familiar with it intuitively. Why do "I" exist as a conscious experiential entity apart from my neurons? People are wired to search for explanations of their observations, and here we have the most intimate of all observations completely unexplained by modern science. It is no wonder that people confabulate non-scientific answers to this most important of questions.
on July 8, 2011
Shermer says this is the culmination of 30 years of work - but almost none of it is his work. Most of what is written here has been published elsewhere with better coverage. Better books on the topic are "Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality" By Patricia S. Churchland, "Brain Cuttings" By Carl Zimmer, "The Religion Virus: Why we believe in God: An Evolutionist Explains Religion's Incredible Hold on Humanity" By Craig A. James, and even some parts of "Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain" By David Eagleman, but the recent best is "The Tell-Tale brain: A Neuroscientist's Quest for What Makes Us Human" By V. S. Ramachandran.
The original part of this book is where Shermer talks about his political views, which are misclassified and, to me, nauseating.
This is the fifth book written by Shermer that I have read and every one has had its disappointments.
on May 29, 2011
Michael Shermer's new book is an inside look on why people believe what they do and how they reinforce that belief. Whether talking about ghosts, gods, conspiracies or politics, this book will not disappoint.
The author explains that we look for patterns in world events or beliefs. People then associate these patterns with "agents", or unseen beings or powers that seem to control the world. Once we form beliefs and make commitments to them, we maintain and reinforce them through what the author calls "a number of cognitive heuristics that guarantee they are correct". For example, conspiricies. Some people believe that our govenment was behind the 9/11 attack. They point to issues such as melting steel melts at 2,777 degrees when jet fuel burns only at 1,517. This is debunked by an engineering professor who states that steel loses 50 percent of its strength at 1,200 degrees, along with other combustable items which in turns caused the horizontal trusses to sag, which caused the angle clips that hold the vertical columns. This causes one truss then another to fail, until you have a pancake effect that caused the 500,00 ton building to collapse. Pure simple facts, not a controlled demolition carried out by a hidden agent---our government.
In general, conspirices are likely to be false if: 1)The agents behind the pattern of conspiracy are elevated to near superhuman power to pull it off. Human behavior is flawed and have a tendency to have flaws. 2) The more complex the conspiricy and the more people involved, the less likely people would keep silent and to have the event unfold successfully. 3) Extreme hostility about and strong suspicions of any and all government agencies or private organizations in an indiscriminate manner indicates that the conspiracy theorist is unable to differentiate between true and false conspiracies.
Another area covered is God. God is considered the ultimate pattern that explains everything that happens, from the beginning of the universe to the end of time and everything in between. God is the ultimate intentional agent who gives the universe meaning and our lives purpose. In reality, such beliefs are hardwired into our brains and behaviorally expressed in consistent patterns throughout history and culture. This evidentiary lines come from evolutionary theory,behavior genetics, and comparative world religions, all of which support the larger thesis of the book that the belief comes first and the reasons for the belief follow.
The book covers other areas of interest, but what it really boils down to is this. If we truly want to seek out the truth, not what we would like to be true but what actually is true, science is the answer. It is the best guide we have and the most reliable. The rest is just wishful thinking.
on March 30, 2012
In this book, Shermer draws together 30 years of research on belief. Disappointingly, he doesn't really have anything new to say. His primary thesis is as follows: beliefs come first, then explanations follow. He calls this "Belief-Dependent Realism." In other words, our perceptions of reality are dependent on our beliefs about reality. We look first at the patterns of the world and then infuse them with meaning. He uses two terms to further break his thesis down. 1) patternicity = the tendency to find patterns in both meaningful and meaningless noise, and 2) agenticity = the tendency to infuse patterns with meaning, intention, and agency. The best part of the book was where he analyzes the biology of belief in chapters 3-5. He gives some good neuroscientific explanations about the brain and how beliefs are formed. In addition, he gives a quite comprehensive presentation of the common skeptic/atheist arguments, presenting them in a compelling way. Other than that, the book is a strange conglomeration of Shermer's research on conspiracy theories, politics, mind/brain issues, evolutionary sociology, and even a short history of cosmology. All of this, of course, is related back to why we believe certain things (and why Shermer's beliefs are right).
The reason Shermer doesn't present anything new is that this is really just presuppositionalism from a neuroscientific perspective. Anyone who has studied philosophy would recognize that his thesis is not groundbreaking in any way. His avid evangelism for a naturalistic worldview with science as our savior seems to blind him to this. When he states that "Science is the only hope we have of avoiding the pitfalls of belief-dependent realism," he shows how little he understands of the philosophical assumptions that underlie the very process of science. I'm not saying that those assumptions are wrong. I just would have expected him to admit this fact.
This book is dangerous. But not in the sense of giving any new arguments against God's existence or the other random things he attacks. It's actually dangerous for Shermer. Anyone who describes how we form beliefs and then proceeds to argue that his beliefs are right and others are wrong is asking for criticism. So, let's turn Shermer's explanations onto his own work and see if it holds up.
1) Patternicity. Shermer has some very helpful things to say on this concept. It is fascinating that the primary difference between creativity and madness is how we form patterns out of the meaningless noise about us. A certain level of ability to see patterns in the world is essential for survival. But we become wackos when we see too many patterns and become utterly useless if we see too few of them. In a sense, skepticism is simply an approach to the world that refuses to see patterns in the world unless those patterns happen in repeatable, testable ways (although no one can live absolutely consistently with this). For Shermer, evolutionary naturalism is the master pattern in his worldview. The answer to everything that mystifies us is the narrative of evolution. He even makes "patternicity" an essential part of evolution when he says, "We are the descendants of those who were most successful at finding patterns."
So maybe evolution is the ultimate pattern. Is he then justified in seeing it everywhere? It would seem logical to answer yes. But then the whole point of his book seems to falter. If there are ultimate patterns then we are justified in seeing them almost everywhere. The most his warnings can do for us is make us cautious of assuming too many (or too few) patterns.
2) Agenticity. Again, Shermer has good things to say here that should give us pause as we form beliefs about our world. But he fails to fully apply it to his own beliefs. A good example where he makes this error is in his discussion of morality. When describing our inherent sense of right and wrong and how it was programmed into us he says, "Of course, organisms do not consciously make such calculations. Natural selection made them for us and imbued us with moral emotions that guide behavior." (61) What does this even mean? Natural selection is a theory that explains why certain things exist rather than others: they just didn't have the necessary adaptations. That's not calculation; it's random. In his worldview, natural selection is what accounts for the appearance of design. Natural selection is not an agent and therefore it cannot do anything. But Shermer falls headlong into the very pitfall he criticizes. Maybe he was just being careless with his language, but it seems ironic he would make this mistake in a book like this.
He uses this fact of our belief-forming functions in the brain primarily against the belief in God. Religious people see God as the "ultimate intentional agent," seeing his actions in everything. We even naturally form these beliefs: "We are naturally born supernaturalists." Superstitious people see an agent behind every random event. As the level of uncertainty in our lives increases, so does the level of superstition. When he makes these statements, he clearly confuses superstition with religion. Superstition sees agenticity everywhere, but religion (or maybe better, theism) does not necessarily produce superstition. The belief in a higher being does not automatically relegate someone to a God-of-the-shrinking-gaps theory. There is no reason not to think that a creator would primarily let his creation run according to the orderly laws on which it was founded while communicating with his creation through existential needs, intervening occasionally through miracles, and leaving hints of design throughout the cosmos.
But let's circle back to his original argument. The statement that beliefs come first and then the evidence for them seems obvious enough, but it doesn't tell the whole story. Otherwise, how would Shermer have been able to change his beliefs? He would be stuck forever in the beliefs he grew up with. Shermer's solution is merely "science is the best tool that we have to limit belief-dependent realism." I agree that science can be more reliable than mere thinking, but if he thinks this simple assertion can get him out the epistemological hole he just dug, he's wrong. Why? Because the very method of science has implicit assumptions about the world built into it. I would go on about that but this review is long enough.
I don't think these failures make reading the book an utter waste of time. On the whole, this book was interesting, but after the first half it seems to descend into a book of Shermer's opinions. He has interesting opinions but I was hoping for more neuroscience and less of a narrative approach to belief. Is this review too hard on Shermer? Maybe, but anyone who writes about belief and makes the same mistakes they accuse others of is begging for it.
on September 1, 2011
I requested a copy of Michael Shermer's THE BELIEVING BRAIN through Library Thing's Earlier Reviewer program on behalf of my husband, who - as a fellow libertarian skeptic - is a huge fan of Shermer's work. (I'm also a skeptic and an atheist, but economically liberal - so still a fan, but not nearly as much as he!) In addition to owning most of Shermer's books, he even had the good fortune to interview Shermer for his podcast a few years back (during the Amazing Meeting, natch!). So he was rather enthusiastic when we snagged a review copy and it arrived in the mail a few weeks later. Busy as he was at work, it then sat around for a few months, gathering dust, until I finally picked it up and started leafing through...and quickly became engrossed.
The basic premise of THE BELIEVING BRAIN is that people form beliefs, and then the explanations for these beliefs follow. (Which is exactly the opposite of how things "should" work - or the opposite of how we'd like to think our rational human minds function, anyhow.) Far from being logical, unbiased, free-thinking agents, we are instead driven by minds that function as "belief engines," designed by evolution to see patterns in the world - whether real or imagined - and to infuse them with meaning. Thus, beliefs are formed, and the (selective) gathering of (supporting) evidence is secondary. Of course, Shermer's thesis is much more complicated than this, and draws from the fields of psychology and neurobiology, with a heavy emphasis on behavioral neuroscience (biopsychology) and evolutionary psychology. (Shermer has a bachelor's degree in biopsychology and a doctorate in the history of science.) He cites a wealth of evidence to support his argument, including research examining the link between activity in different areas of the brain and the propensity to believe in pseudoscience, superstitions, conspiracy theories and other forms of "bunk." (The book includes a generous, twenty-three page appendix.)
THE BELIEVING BRAIN is divided into four parts. Part I, "Journeys of Belief," features profiles of skeptics-turned-believers and believers-turned-skeptics, including Shermer himself. Though perhaps unnecessary (the book does clock in at almost 400 pages, after all!), this is a nice, light read, and helps to guide the reader into the meat of the book: Part II, "The Biology of Belief," which introduces the topics of patternicity and agenicity and discusses how the brain, through neural activity, is involved in each. Part III shows these principles in action: belief in the afterlife, god, aliens and conspiracies all serve as examples of false beliefs preceding valid evidence. Finally, we see in Part IV how beliefs manifest in politics, and how a whole host of biases (e.g., confirmation, self-justification, attribution, sunk-cost and status quo, to name a few) help to trick our minds into believing that we are almost always right (and, conversely, those who disagree with us are almost always wrong). (Those who've ever taken a social psychology course will find "Confirmations of Belief" reassuringly familiar.) Lastly, In "Geographies of Belief" and "Cosmologies of Belief," Shermer illustrates how popular beliefs evolve over time, and positively so through the application of science and the scientific method.
Though I mostly enjoyed THE BELIEVING BRAIN, I do have a few quibbles. Since his thesis draws so heavily upon evolutionary psychology, I would have liked for Shermer to have at least acknowledged some of the criticisms of the field. Additionally, while the research discussed in THE BELIEVING BRAIN suggests that not all of the variations in belief can be attributed to biological factors - for example, environmental and social factors may also play also a role - Shermer doesn't seem to want to touch either with a ten-foot pole! I found myself especially frustrated by one of the book's parting chapters, "Cosmologies of Belief," which draws upon the history of cosmology to demonstrate how beliefs can be changed. Since all of my knowledge about space and time comes from DOCTOR WHO and BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, I found myself struggling to understand the science in the chapter; science in action became the forest to cosmology's trees. A more widely understood topic might make this chapter more accessible to a wider audience.
My biggest complaint, however, is perhaps the most minor of them all (well, "minor" inasmuch as it occupies the least space - less than a page, to be exact). Early on, in his introduction on patternicity, Shermer singles out celebrities Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey in order to chastise them for their crusade against vaccinations (supposedly because of their link to autism). My problem isn't with the scolding - it's well-deserved - but with how Shermer goes about it. He describes a 2009 Autism Awareness Day episode of LARRY KING LIVE: on one side of the debate, medical researchers. "On the other side of the table were the actor Jim Carrey and his ex-Playboy bunny partner Jenny McCarthy." Not only is this an ad hominem attack (they're celebrities! so they must be stupid and ill-informed!) and appeal to authority (misguided at best, given how Shermer spends the next 300 pages demonstrating how we're all subject to irrational, misguided beliefs, education be damned), but in describing McCarthy as an "ex-Playboy bunny" - instead of an actress, comedian, or (more generally) a celebrity or entertainer - he engages in a pernicious, subtle bit of slut-shaming as well. Not only is she vacuous and gullible like her partner the actor - but she takes her clothes off for money, to boot! (The horror of it all!) Reductive *and* sexist. I nearly quit reading the book after choking on this tripe, but pushed on and am happy to report that it's an anomaly. Still, I hope Shermer revises his choice of words in future editions of the book. (Mine is an ARC.)
Anyhow, given the complexity of the subject matter, it's helpful if you have some background in biopsychology; while Shermer does a good enough job of explaining the basics of neural communication, I found myself pulling out my old college textbook for extra help (and especially illustrations!). Even so, THE BELIEVING BRAIN is an engaging - if not always easy and breezy - read for the layperson. Methinks this book will appeal most to those in the skeptical/atheist community, as well as those interested in popular psychology books.
on May 13, 2014
Michael Shermer sticks to his role as skeptic and agnostic. If you are not both of those, you will find yourself in the book.
There is a chapter on alien abductions and ghosts are in there somewhere. This like other similar supernatural things did not interest me, so I only skimmed through it. The usual stuff.
The chapter on politics trashes both liberals and conservatives. The author thinks you somehow get hooked into this type of belief system and only later start sorting out what the beliefs of the group are. Liberals are spineless namby bambies lacking leader skills. This may be due to their inability to see things in black and white. I'm not going to support sending anyone to jail for getting caught with a couple of joints. The three strikes law is unpractical and even costly. I'm not here to support a prison industry.
The morals of liberals are questioned. Individual liberals may be very law abiding. But we don't want to set rules that most of the population will break at least once.
He is kind of missing the point of politics, being a libertarian. He may not want it to work. We liberals want a system that is practical. Sure there will be corruption. That needs an appropriate punishment. Ban politicians that are caught from further public posts! Politics has no right or wrong solution (conservatives will never admit to that). There is only success or failure in politics. Small failures can be fixed. We liberals are fully aware that some people abuse government benefits. We will fix it as much as we can. Use the system!
The biology of our learning patterns and the biology of neurons are given two chapters. The chemicals involved are briefly discussed. Areas of the brain and their functioning are discussed.
Religion is covered in a sensible way, but I don't think this book gets any closer to the believer's brain than Dawkins does. Maybe his other books have further detail. It has the usual items. Agency gets a few pages. (agents are the doers of things, primitive man saw agents or their acts everywhere). I think if religion is you thing, you are better off with a book on that subject alone.The best bits on religion were quotes on Collins and CS Lewis near the beginning of the book. His own deconversion from born again Christian comes out almost boring.