skeptics v mystics

The Believing Brain

by Michael Shermer

This book is an interesting mix of anecdote, psychological theory, politics, history of science and conspiracy debunking – all connected to beliefs and human tendencies toward irrationality and partisanship. While it jumps around quite a lot, there is a good middle section on psychological theory, particularly relating to variable interval reinforcement and pattern recognition and how these can lead to superstition.

The author – who himself admits to a change in belief from very religious to atheist as he discovered science – is clearly coming from a skeptical viewpoint, but at the same time shows balance. While noting that the gullable might tend to see patterns or effects where there are none, he admits the possibility that the skeptical may in turn fail to recognise new patterns that do actually exist. Similarly, in describing the tendency for political beliefs to polarise based on core values he asks why we can’t share some of both sides’ approaches.

Science is seen as our best response to the cognitive biases we may show and Shermer illustrates this in an entertaining history of astronomical discoveries, such as Saturn’s rings and the island universe. The examples prove quite nicely how scientists my exemplify both open-mindedness in admitting new knowledge, but also bloody-mindedness in hanging on to theories that are rapidly losing traction!

Here are some notes I made while reading the book:

My Sketchnote on Flickr

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