12 September 2014

The Believing Brain by Michael Shermer

I’m pretty sure this book ended up on my list after reading about it Scientific American, but it’s been quite a while so I can’t say for certain.

The Believing Brain examines the neurological and psychological origins of beliefs - not just religious beliefs, or political beliefs, though those are covered, too - but rather the epistemological underpinnings of our lives.

In other words, how we decide to accept anything as true.

Shermer had a real talent for translating pretty complex science into something that was approachable and, in fact, pretty fun. I enjoyed the book quite a bit, though I found it lacked the compelling narrative of a book like Columbine.

One of the best takeaways from the book was this quote by Shermer, repeated more than once, and it sums up his thesis quite succinctly:

Smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons.

The book is divided into several sections, examining how and why we form beliefs, then delving in to more specific kinds of belief, such as religious belief, belief in the paranormal, and belief in conspiracies. Another major section - and one of the most valuable - was a examination of cognitive biases and how they tie into belief. While I’ve read up on cognitive bias before, this was a fascinating angle to look at it from: how our belief-building structures feed in to those biases.

A chapter on political beliefs exposed what I think Shermer’s biases might be, as he made his case for his own libertarian viewpoints perhaps stronger than I think was warranted in an otherwise neutral book. It seemed like a really hard sell and I wonder how much he was aware he was doing it.

The final few chapters explored how science and belief intersect as it examined our changing view of the nature of the cosmos, and how science gradually shifted beliefs, from Aristotelian to Copernican models, and from the view of deep-space to being full of nebulae within our galaxy to the revelation that they in fact showed entire other galaxies millions of light-years away from our own.

Shermer’s examination of the scientific method was one of the most eloquent I’ve yet to read, and it may have been the crown jewel of the book.

Actually, after having sorted my thoughts out on the book, I find I liked it even more than I realized. I’m very glad I read it (even if I did have to interrupt it for a few days to read Noggin and The Magician’s Land).