How Sex, Politics, Money and Religion are Killing Planet Earth

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Science of Belief

I should be working instead of blogging...

I’ve been reading a book called The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies by the famous skeptic Michael Shermer for my independent research at Harvard.

In my research, I am trying to get to the bottom of the stubborn trend in public opinion regarding global climate change. On the one hand, scientific consensus is becoming increasingly solidified. As it now stands, there is not a single, peer-reviewed climate study that refutes that the climate is warming at a rate unprecedented in the past million years (as far back as we can accurately measure), and that humans are responsible. Inversely proportional to scientific consensus is public opinion, which is becoming increasingly skeptical about the science of global climate change. How can this be?

The book is very informative on many fronts. Shermer succinctly summarizes the evolutionary neurological and sociological mechanisms by which Homo sapiens has evolved to be a “believing” organism.

When our genetic ancestors were out romping across the savannas of Africa, the world was a dangerous place, Shermer explains. A rustle in the grass could be the wind blowing the blades, or the same rustle could be a predator crouching stealthily, waiting for an opportune moment for dinner. In the first case, if the wind actually is rustling the grass, our ancestor suffers no harm from assuming the rustling is a predator. But on the other hand, if our guileless hominid assumes wind is moving the grass and it turns out to be a predator, he will likely be handily removed from the gene pool.

In general, in a dangerous world, false positives are benign, but false negatives can be deadly. Consequently, Homo sapiens evolved (by virtue of the removal of those with a stubborn habit of reading false negatives from the gene pool) as a species inclined towards false positives.

Our tendency towards false positives is coupled with a few other qualities that reinforce our propensity for developing beliefs. A primary mechanism for belief formation is called “patternicity,” which describes the human tendency to see patterns or connections in both meaningful and meaningless events. This phenomenon is particularly prevalent among modern sports fans and athletes. A sports fan on his couch at home wears a particular hat while watching the game on TV and his team wins. He then wears the hat every time he watches a game. Baseball players are notoriously superstitious in this regard. Some don’t shave or wash their uniforms if they are on a winning streak, thinking there is some magical connection.

The human tendency towards patternicity has been tested repeatedly in laboratories. In these experiments, subjects are told to push buttons or pull levers to accumulate points. In reality, the points are randomly given, so the subject cannot actually do anything to determine the number of points he or she receives. Subjects will automatically develop rituals of button pushing, lever pulling and even dancing around the room to emulate the conditions that occurred when points were first delivered, even if those rituals do not result in further point accumulation.

We also have a habit of imbuing seen and unseen phenomena with agenticity. In other words, the lion in the grass on the savanna may just be taking a nap, but then again, he might be very hungry. In our evolutionary history, it has been in our interest to assume the latter, which has led to our making a lot of assumptions about things we really cannot know for sure.

Putting all of the above quirks of the human mind together, it is easy to see how vast mythologies to explain unknown phenomena evolved with our species. Once solidified, beliefs are very difficult to mutate. Thus, although we know and can prove that the earth is several billions of years old, a large percentage of the population holds steadfast to the idea that it was created in 6 days about 6,000 years ago.

Adherents to mythologies that have long been disproved by science are then faced with a conundrum of reason. If their beliefs are “true,” then the scientists and science must be wrong. While science is actually the best tool we have for weeding out false beliefs, because of the way our minds work, science itself has become suspect. This leads to another round of mythologies to explain why science is “wrong,” even though to all reasonable observation it is actually correct. Thus is born the conspiracy theory.

Today science finds itself mired in a cloud of doubt, conspiracy and international intrigue that has been masterfully woven by the purveyors of fossil fuel. With few exceptions, all of the “research” (none of it peer reviewed) that has been performed by scientists skeptical of climate change has been funded by Exxon and other oil and coal industry giants. Their aim has not really been to disprove or find fault with climate science. That would be a welcome addition to the scientific community, which by definition is in a perpetual state of self-scrutiny. If that was their aim, they would open their “research” to the scrutiny of peer review. In truth, they simply want to plant the seeds of doubt. As long as public opinion is divided, we can be sure that policy makers will do nothing, which maintains the status quo and Exxon’s status as the most profitable corporation on earth, ever.

Given the dynamics of belief, I am not sure that science is going to be able to succeed in this fabricated debate, which is unfortunate for the world.

On a final note, although I found Shermer’s assessment of belief to be informative, I also found his sterile world of objective physicality somewhat lacking. Shermer is the ultimate skeptic. He believes in nothing that cannot be physically measured or assessed. To me, his attitude reduces the richness of the human experience in the world down to binary code.

After reading the book, I needed to get the blood flowing, so I went for a run. It was the kind of gorgeous summer day in the Southern Appalachians that happens nowhere else on earth. The elderberry bushes are just coming into flower (along with the kudzu), and the air was heavy with the fragrance of sweet nectar and the rich dirt that fills the valleys. As I plodded along, a few crows called out in their secret language to their kin to alert them of my activities. A pilated woodpecker tapped stubbornly on a gnarled old black walnut. I listened to Jane Siberry and K.D. Lang's “Calling All Angels” on my iPod.

And I thought. I don’t want to live in a world without wonder. My agenticity imagines the trees caught up in their own communications, feeling ecstasy in the summer sunlight. I see them and feel them, and I like the idea that they see and feel me too.  I like the idea that when I come face to face with a bird, and we stare at each other, that there is connection. I love the living world, but science is impotent to describe the things I feel in nature. Belief is often wrong, but it is also an agent of creativity and profound joy. What a conundrum.

If you haven't filled out the questionnaire on global climate change, please do so. Thanks!


  1. I apologize for getting the initial mis-identification of the Jane Siberry Song. I hope you all like it.

  2. What an awesome post.

    Pure poetry couldn't get it any better. I double-dawg dare you to try, Rhymer. Madeleine? Shakespeare? T.S. Eliot? No offense, though. After all, love is not love where it alteration finds.

  3. Tsisageya, well why do you ask
    that I try an impossible task?
    ...For Shakespeare, I'm not;
    ...I write limericks, a lot,
    when five lines makes the hidden unmask.

    As usual, I'll summarize:
    killing Mother gives words for the wise, know what you feel, shows what is real,
    ExxonMobil gains profits through lies.

  4. tsisageya, I am glad you liked the post. Did you check out the Jane Siberry song? I think it says it all.

  5. Rhymer, once again you humble me with your turn of phrase. Poetry (including limericks) are for those who can stretch beyond the need to have everything explained to them. Thanks!

  6. I was drawn to writing limericks when I realized how much information can be put into five short lines. Limericks usually tell a short but complete funny story. I think that even people who disagree can usually see the humor in a limerick.

    Thanks for your acknowledgement, and good luck on your project.

  7. Rhymer, my most humble apology. Thank you for proving me wrong. Again. I simply love it when that happens.

    On the other hand, I'm right, as well. Pure poetry's arc is long but it bends toward understanding, to paraphrase Dr. King (one of my heroes). It bends toward justice, as well.

    One golden rule I've learned while studying poetry is that brevity rules over all things. The goal of the art of poetry is to express itself, powerfully and evocatively, in the fewest words possible. Maybe even with no words but dance and music instead.

    I ramble because I'm a doddering old fool. Don't tell my daughter I said that. She would not approve.

    What Rhymer said.

  8. Tsisageya, you are not a fool,
    though sometimes, emotions may rule,
    ...but I'll do what I oughta
    ...and won't tell your daughta,
    she knows better than I that you're cool.

  9. It seems that I have cast myself as too "emotional".

    I beg to differ. I haven't yet even begun to fight!

  10. Obama came up with a deal
    with terms that are harsh and surreal,
    ...since blackmail works
    ...for Republican jerks,
    we are sure to repeat this ordeal.

  11. Sad but true Rhymer. It's enough to make one think democracy no longer exists in the United States of America. No matter what you vote for, you get the corporate candidate.

  12. "No longer exists in the United States of America."
    Did it ever, really...or is that a belief problem instilled through education, media and television 'entertainment' programming?
    They don't call it programming for no good reason.
    Questions that have been asked and comments made around the topic are numerous. Here are a few choice selections
    Heaven only knows what you'd get it you tried my Diigo bookmarks via tags. Youtube responds well to queries about 'progressives', Council for Foreign Relations, Bilderbergers,Illuminati,Skull and Bones, secret societies, Masons and more.
    Here's a place I stumbled upon yesterday which seems about as close to the fringe as I care to go :

  13. Thanks Opit. The links you post are certainly mind-stretching.

  14. opit, you appear to be a geek with opinions.

    Not that there's anything wrong with that.

    Perhaps we should try to turn killingMother's blog into a 9-11-theory blog. (I agree with them ALL, by the way.) Seriously.

    But no.

    I am killingMother's older sister who believes, like you, that democracy never happened here.

    The stuff we've memorized is just a bunch of bullshit.


  15. Obama came up with a deal
    with terms that are harsh and surreal,
    ...since blackmail works
    ...for Republican jerks,
    we are sure to repeat this ordeal.


    Rhymer, Rhymer, Rhymer.

    You have that particular thing about the republicans inside-out and backward.


    You have no one to vote for. I'm sorry.