Saturday, November 05, 2011

Book Review: The Believing Brain

All is quiet on the Truther front, at least until another one of them gets arrested, so I figured I would do a post on a related subject the Michael Shermer book The Believing Brain, which I recently finished.

The book discusses the biological reasons, mostly evolutionary, that the human brain has for believing things, in this case he mostly focuses on things which are an article of faith such as religion, superstitious beliefs and, of course, conspiracy theories. The rest are interesting, even though I consider Shermer to be somewhat self-absorbed and meandering as a writer, but outside of the scope of this blog.

Shermer, who is well known for his skepticism and criticism of 9/11 conspiracy theorists, and conspiracy theorists in general, is actually somewhat kind to them, in much of the same way that Jonathan Kay was in his book, pointing out that people who hold these fringe beliefs are not idiots, but may actually be fairly smart, it is just their brains are hardwired to act this way. Shermer's thesis is essentially that the brain is built around recognizing patterns (see Jeff Hawkin's excellent On Intelligence for an in-depth examination of this) and "conspiracies" are the ultimate patterns.

The problem, Shermer argues, is that we have to recognize patterns to survive, he uses the famous example of a caveman recognizing the rustle of grass made by an approaching predator, but we are extremely bad at detecting fake patterns. And, as he points out, this is worse among certain people, especially when they are stressed or feeling insecure, which is something that has been proven through experimentation. For example when made to feel stressed test subjects are more likely to recognize objects in a completely random pattern of dots than control subjects.

Anyway, so what the thesis basically ends up arguing is that conspiracy theorists aren't necessarily dumber than the rest of us, and some may even be geniuses, but that they have an overdeveloped sense of recognizing patterns and making connections, even when they do no exist. For example a Truther who insists that there must be a reason that Michael Chertoff, the former head of the Department of Homeland Security, and Benjamin Chertoff a former junior editor at Popular Mechanics share the last name. It can't just be pure random chance. Or that there must be a reason that Flight 77 crashed into the part of the Pentagon that was being remodeled, it is not just that this happened to be the side of the Pentagon the plane was approaching from.

This thesis makes a lot of sense, especially when you consider that the people who have absolutely no filter for being able to detect patterns, who completely detect patterns which do not exist at all, are schizophrenics. As in the famous case of the Nobel Prize winning Mathematician John Nash, this ability to recognize and create comes in handy, even though it leads to insanity and destroys their lives.

Overall, although Shermer really needs to focus as a writer, a good book. It does give an interesting insight into why otherwise intelligent people believe in weird things.

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21 Comments:

At 05 November, 2011 09:20, Blogger Ian said...

we are extremely bad at detecting fake patterns

Yup. Everyone has seen a casino being imploded in Vegas on TV. Then WTC 7 collapses in a way that looks (on TV from a distance to the north) like one of those Casino implosions. The fake pattern is detected, and now it's part of a conspiracy.

I don't think there's a truther alive who doesn't think the collapse of all 3 towers looked like a controlled demolition. Think of how many times Brian has babbled about "the baffling aspects of the collapse, including speed, symmetry and totality". It's a fake pattern being detected.

It's probably a lot like people who find images of the Virgin Mary in a bowl of oatmeal.

And, as he points out, this is worse among certain people, especially when they are stressed or feeling insecure

Hmm, that wouldn't happen to describe the legions of unemployed scrawny 20-something virgins in black t-shirts who make up the truth movement, would it? Not to mention burnt-out leftovers from the SDS era that make up the other demographic profile of truthers.

 
At 05 November, 2011 10:34, Blogger John said...

As in the famous case of the Nobel Prize winning Mathematician John Nash, this ability to recognize and create comes in handy, even though it leads to insanity and destroys their lives.

I just saw a documentary on Bobby Fischer 2 months ago. He was the same way - although one of the greatest chess players, he wound up being a huge conspiracy theorist: anti-semitism, tin foil and all.

 
At 05 November, 2011 10:36, Blogger GuitarBill said...

"...Hmm, that wouldn't happen to describe the legions of unemployed scrawny 20-something virgins in black t-shirts who make up the truth movement, would it?"

Come on, Ian, give those "scrawny 20-something virgins in black t-shirts who make up the truth movement" a break. After all, I'm sure they've had sex thousands of times...with themselves.

 
At 05 November, 2011 11:52, Blogger snug.bug said...

I guess James doesn't know about Jonathan Cole's excellent Youtube "Expert vs. Expert" or Cole's devastating review of Jonathan Kay's book.

 
At 05 November, 2011 13:00, Blogger GuitarBill said...

Trying to hijack another thread, goat fucker?

Of course you're trying to hijack the thread.

Cole's "Expert vs. expert" has about as much credibility as you have--zero.

Cole's entire argument is based upon straw man arguments ("melted steel") and outright distortions (citing firefighters and "experts" who never performed an assay on the alleged "molten steel").

Go play in the freeway, Mr. Bogus "scientific reputation."

 
At 05 November, 2011 13:08, Blogger Ian said...

I guess James doesn't know about Jonathan Cole's excellent Youtube "Expert vs. Expert" or Cole's devastating review of Jonathan Kay's book.

Nobody cares about Jonathan Cole, and nobody cares what you think, since you're a failed janitor who believes in invisible engineers.

 
At 05 November, 2011 13:39, Blogger James B. said...

What does that have to do with a book by Michael Shermer?

 
At 05 November, 2011 13:45, Blogger snug.bug said...

James, it has to do with your erroneous claim that all is quiet in the Truther front.

 
At 05 November, 2011 13:49, Blogger GuitarBill said...

James wrote, "...What does that have to do with a book by Michael Shermer?"

The short answer: Nothing.

The goat fucker is up to his old thread hijacking tricks. After all, thread hijacking is his SOP. Can't you see that he's trying to turn SLC into the Brian "goat fucker" Good All The Time Show?

Of course, there's a simple and very effective solution to the problem: Delete his comments if they don't relate to the OP's topic.

 
At 05 November, 2011 13:52, Blogger GuitarBill said...

The goat fucker dissembles, "...James, it has to do with your erroneous claim that all is quiet in the Truther front."

A likely story. You're just trying to hijack the thread because you want to derail every discussion from the topic presented in the OP to you and your insane ideas.

 
At 05 November, 2011 14:06, Blogger Richard Gage's Testicles said...

James, it has to do with your erroneous claim that all is quiet in the Truther front.

Truthers preaching to other Truthers is not significant. James is correct.

 
At 05 November, 2011 15:02, Blogger paul w said...

Excellent post, James.

 
At 05 November, 2011 15:16, Blogger Highland Host said...

Shermer's co-written book on Holocaust Denial seemed fairly well-written to me, but maybe that was the co-author element.

 
At 05 November, 2011 15:49, Blogger roo said...

Off Topic: Is anyone else hearing truthers take claim to Occupy (insert location here) as being the beginning of the end of the NWO, and the sheeple waking up to the lies of 9/11 and other issues?

 
At 05 November, 2011 15:59, Blogger GuitarBill said...

roo,

Thanks for your post.

I have a suspicion, however, that the troofer's real goal is to discredit the OWS movement.

There's no question that the troofers were used to discredit the anti-war movement.

 
At 05 November, 2011 16:18, Blogger M Gregory Ferris said...

"There's no question that the troofers were used to discredit the anti-war movement."

Yup.

Brian Goode is actually 3 NSA guys at the Blue Cube at Moffet Field.
Why 3 people? Because no one person can be that stupid.

 
At 06 November, 2011 10:50, Blogger snug.bug said...

Nah. Somebody would have talked. 3 spooks can't keep a secret--didn't you get the memo?

 
At 07 November, 2011 11:56, Blogger WhyAskQuestions said...

3 spooks can't keep a secret--didn't you get the memo?

Now when you say "spooks" you're referring to the black people?

 
At 07 November, 2011 19:51, Blogger snug.bug said...

Wouldn't you like to think so.

 
At 10 November, 2011 10:15, Blogger ConsDemo said...

No doubt twoofers do have problems with critical thinking, but they also have ideological motivations for believing what they say they believe.

 
At 10 November, 2011 12:57, Blogger snug.bug said...

In these times, Richard Clarke noted, facts are controversial.

 

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