NS Book Review: The Believing Brain: From Ghosts, Gods, and Aliens to Conspiracies, Economics, and Politics - How the Brain Constructs Beliefs and Reinforces Them as Truths

The Believing Brain: From Ghosts, Gods, and Aliens to Conspiracies, Economics, and Politics—How the Brain Constructs Beliefs and Reinforces Them as TruthsIt seemed fitting that I read the latest book by Michael Schermer, co-founder of the transcontinental non-stop bicycle Race Across America, while guiding a series of bicycle tours with Dakota Bike Tours (www.dakotabiketours.com) through Badlands National Park, the Black Hills and Devils Tower regions.  Shermer’s thesis that belief comes first and supporting evidence follows provided plenty of food for thought as I cranked up some of the areas finest climbs.  Simply put, humans are hard-wired believing creatures ready to act on the faintest of evidence as long as it satisfies their previously held belief.   

Relying heavily on his experimental psychology training and augmented by a bewildering array of references, Shermer delineates his thesis with innumerable examples.   These examples span the breadth of human existence from prehistoric hominids to medieval philosophers and priests to present day cosmologists and show that no one is immune from their own tightly held beliefs.   

Shermer details the early Psychology graduate school students’ experience checking themselves into California mental institutes by only asserting that “I’ve heard voices” which got them promptly admitted. Once in the institute the students were instructed to act normal and get out using their own means.  The institute’s psychiatrists believed that the students were mentally ill going to great lengths to ascribe deviant behavior to the students’ normal routines.  Although the residency time for the students varied from about a week to nearly 8 weeks, some of the real crazies knew that the students weren’t nuts and wondered if they were college professors conducting an experiment. 

With a wit as sharp as his pen, Shermer’s well-written, fresh, authoritative and -- given the most recent events of the current century -- eminently relevant tome succinctly describes the evolution of belief in the human brain.   As a realist, Shermer isn’t afraid to say he doesn’t know the answers to questions that science currently can’t address, usually due to a lack of evidence (i.e., observations).  However, as an optimist, Shermer confidently confers that future applications of the scientific method, the only method of arriving at the truth of what really is knowable, will someday provide the answers to the questions that currently befuddle us mere mortals.   

Touching on subjects that are not to be brought up by bike tour guides  – from religion to politics to sexual orientation – Shermer dissects the beliefs by offering the evidence that, if considered with an open mind, leads the knowledge seeker to the truth.  Sprinkled throughout the text are references to Shermer’s monthly column in Scientific American, his website Skeptic.com as well as his personal and professional experiences.   These anecdotes humanize what could easily be a dry read.  Instead, Shermer’s masterpiece captures the essence of what it means to be a scientist – the ability to change your mind when confronted with facts that do not support your belief.   

As a rational thinker, scientist, economic conservative and social liberal, Shermer epitomizes the post-modern human.  Given all the books out there worth reading today I’ll go out on the proverbial limb and predict that Shermer’s latest, The Believing Brain, will go down in history as one of the most significant books of the 21st Century. 

Finally, since this is a nuclear energy website putting the principles of The Believing Brain into practice can be as easy as opening a recent Science Daily article and realizing that the hallowed Linear No Threshold Theory of Harm from ionizing radiation is as flawed as the belief in gremlins, ghosts and gods. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/09/110920163320.htm  

The Believing Brain: From Ghosts, Gods, and Aliens to Conspiracies, Economics, and Politics—How the Brain Constructs Beliefs and Reinforces Them as Truths 

Michael Shermer 

Henry Holt and Company, New York, 385 pp., First Edition, 2011.

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