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.
Labels: Michael Shermer