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The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and… (2011)

by Michael Shermer

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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6562327,418 (3.91)19
Shermer demonstrates how our brains selectively assess data in an attempt to confirm the conclusions (beliefs) we've already reached. Drawing on evolution, cognitive science, and neuroscience, he considers not only supernatural beliefs but political and economic ones as well.

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» See also 19 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 23 (next | show all)
This is a book that would have benefited from just slightly tighter editing. The book opens really strong, and it ends pretty strong. In the middle Shermer goes on tangents that detract from the tone, voice, and focus of the book. For example, he does a step-by-step walkthrough breaking down 9/11 conspiracies. It wasn't bad. But it felt deeply out of place - we're looking at why people believe it, not debunking one of a million conspiracy theories (especially one that had gotten so much debunking attention as this). There's also a libertarian screed thrown in there after bitching about how most scientists are democrats. It really comes off as he's the only smart one in the room, he's the one that's got it all figured out, you guys. Libertarian talking points are just sort of thrown in there and not backed up. For example, he carefully, subtlety implies that welfare programs are just helping the lazy mooch and are otherwise worthless. (Which is not borne out in data at all, but since liberals have apparently biased science, it makes it difficult to provide acceptable evidence to the contrary - see what he does there?)

When he swerves back to the good stuff and talks about biases towards the end, it almost feels like a professor that got distracted in class and is rushing through those final few slides. Some biases he just labels, defines, and moves on, when I really wanted to get into the meat of them. ( )
  kaitlynn_g | Dec 13, 2020 |
With this book, the author delves into what makes people believe things, even things that might be fallacious or ridiculous to any other person. The human brain is remarkably capable of creating scenarios that explain almost anything one could wish to describe. Mr. Michael Shermer has enough experience on the side of belief to possess some authority on the subject and discusses his personal experiences with his own faith as well as that of a number of others. Mr. Shermer has spoken to the outspoken born-again Dr. Francis Collins, a man whose academic chops are first-rate. Shermer also spoke to a retired brick-layer that thought a voice told him to speak to then-President Richard Nixon on an urgent matter. He was institutionalized, which is pretty much what one would expect in this situation.

Shermer covers a wide swath of things that people believe in and talks about all of it in a frank manner. Shermer is reductionist in his beliefs, so all there is is pretty much in your own skull. This is an idea that I can accept pretty well since I don’t particularly believe in an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent God that cares for us and loves us on a personal level. Since there is no personal God, there is no afterlife; and if there is no afterlife, there is nothing to go to an afterlife, therefore, there is no such thing as a Soul. Now a lot of people might disagree with me, and this is fine. I just like to have total and complete evidence of something, since “magical thinking” is precisely the thing that is dangerous.

Such thinking is easily capable of killing people. Shermer gives plenty of examples of magical thinking and how the reasoning was taken step-by-step. Take Christian Science for instance. I don’t know for sure, but I know my great-grandfather was a Christian Scientist and they believed in the Power of Prayer. Prayer for everything. God has a plan and his plan is that either you get better or you die. Well, my great-grandfather had some kind of heart failure and his wife, my great-grandmother told him to go to see a doctor or else she would leave him since she didn’t want to watch him die. So he went to a doctor and they removed a huge amount of fluid from him and saved his life. That story isn’t in the book, but I can relate to it because of that.

The book mostly takes a point of view that not all things can be explained by our current level of science, but insists that this is no reason to go and invent things to explain them. Take Dark Energy and Dark Matter for example. At the moment, they are considered placeholders for an idea that does not yet have an explanation. Science changes over time; religion really doesn’t. Sure there were Schisms and various factions were created, but Christianity is still basically the same for all that regardless of the flavor you choose. Certainly, there are disagreements among scientists about some details, but once evidence comes out, everyone agrees on it. We do not still have people arguing over the Theory of Gravitation.

Anyway, I really enjoyed reading this book. It didn’t really give me a new perspective or explain anything new to me, but it was quite illustrative of what it said and in the stories it told. ( )
  Floyd3345 | Jun 15, 2019 |
Though the subtitle promises an explanation of how humans construct beliefs, this topic is not the dominant focus in the book, and Shermer makes constant tangents into his own opinions on topics such as politics, extraterrestrial life, space exploration, etc. that do not clearly relate to his thesis. ( )
  RightToRead | Apr 25, 2018 |
I have read Shermer's columns in the Scientific American, and a previous book, and agree strongly with his stance as a skeptic, but have always thought he is a little dismissive and superficial in his approach. This was a more satisfying book, with a lot of information about psychological processes in the brain that make it likely that one will abstract a pattern from sense data, and assign preferentialy an agent to cause the phenomenon. Unfortunately, this argument forms only two or three chapters of the book, the rest being investigations of belief in god, the afterlife, alien abductions, conspiracies, and the like, and a last section on the formation of theories in astronomy. It will not convince people who are not skeptical in the beginning, but in an example of "confirmation bias" reinforces the belief of the skeptic in the correctness of his approach. ( )
  neurodrew | Nov 14, 2017 |
Comes across as a bit of a whitewash of believing dumb things.

A lot of excellent information, but all _condoning_ belief. Yes, some of the information adds valuably to what I knew about science, but he seems to think that science only started with Galileo and his telescope. This despite the fact that he quotes from Sagan's "Demon-Haunted World". Maybe he simply forgot some of the things Sagan wrote.

There's no acknowledgement of the social aspect of believing dumb things.

"I don't think science is hard to teach because humans aren't ready for it, or because it arose only through a fluke, or because, by and large, we don't have the brainpower to grapple with it. Instead, the enormous zest for science that I see in first-graders and the lesson from the remnant hunter-gatherers both speak eloquently: A proclivity for science is embedded deeply within us, in all times, places and cultures. It has been the means for our survival. It is our birthright. When, through indifference, inattention, incompetence, or fear of skepticism, we discourage children from science, we are disenfranchising them, taking from them the tools needed to manage their future." - Carl Sagan, "The Demon-Haunted World"

Without the lop-sidedness, I'd probably rate the book quite high, but as it is, I'll abstain from rating it at all.

Shermer doesn't even know that you CAN prove a negative.
  zangasta | Oct 4, 2015 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Michael Shermerprimary authorall editionscalculated
Abrams, MarkCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Levavi, Meryl SussmanDesignersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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For the mind of man is far from the nature of a clear and equal glass, wherein the beams of things should reflect according to their true incidence; nay, it is rather like an enchanted glass, full of superstition and imposture, if it be not delivered and reduced.  —Francis Bacon, Novum Organum, 1620
To Devin Ziel Shermer

For our small contribution—6,895 days or 18.9 years from birth to independence—to the metaphorically miraculous 3.5-billion-year continuity of life on Earth from one generation to the next, unbroken over the eons, glorious in its continguity, spiritual in its contemplation.  The mantle is now yours.
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I Want to Believe

The 1990s' uber conspiracy-theory television series The X-Files was a decade-defining and culture-reflecting mosh pit of UFOs, extraterrestrials, psychics, demons, monsters, mutants, shape-shifters, serial killers, paranormal phenomena, urban legends turned real, corporate cabals and government cover-ups, and leakages that included a Deep Throat-like "cigarette smoking man" character played, ironically, by real-life skeptic William B. Davis.
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Shermer demonstrates how our brains selectively assess data in an attempt to confirm the conclusions (beliefs) we've already reached. Drawing on evolution, cognitive science, and neuroscience, he considers not only supernatural beliefs but political and economic ones as well.

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Mr. D'Arpino's dilemma -- Dr. Collins's conversion -- A skeptic's journey -- Patternicity -- Agenticity -- The believing neuron -- Belief in the afterlife -- Belief in god -- Belief in aliens -- Belief in conspiracies -- Politics of belief -- Confirmations of belief -- Geographies of belief -- Cosmologies of belief -- Epilogue: the truth is out there.
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