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Wednesday, 20 March 2013


Michael Shermer is a psychologist with an interest in why human beings believe the things that we do. This book is a synthesis of his decades of research into why we hold certain beliefs.

The strongest impression I got from this book was that we as human beings have an almost unlimited capacity for believing things that are not true. In fact, truth and facts and logic are very far down the list of things that persuade us to believe something. Shermer takes a number of the processes by which we form our beliefs and examines each one to get to how these work.

The first, and most prominent process we use to form our beliefs is what he calls "Patternicity". As Shermer says, "our brains are belief engines, evolved pattern-recognition machines that connect the dots and create meaning out of the patterns that we think we see in nature."

Seeing patterns in nature is a useful skill, and has allowed us to survive as a species. If ancient humans heard a rustling in the undergrowth, it could have been the wind, but it also could have been a sabre-toothed tiger, ready to devour. Taking evasive action was sensible in that case. If the ancient human was right, he had just saved his life, if he was wrong, no harm done.

So we have evolved to connect the dots, to make connections between events that may not hold true, but which make us feel better as we don't like uncertainty. This is how superstitions evolve too, if we are watching our favourite sports team sitting in a certain chair, and the team wins, then our sitting in that chair has had a part in the win, and from then on it becomes "the lucky chair." The process is well understood and demonstrable, and it makes us form false conclusions from the evidence we get.

Another of his main points is that beliefs come first, then evidence. In other words we decide what we believe first, and then work backwards to find the evidence for this belief. And this leads to a very prominent phenomenon that reinforces our beliefs - Confirmation Bias. This is the process by which we interpret facts and evidence so that they confirm our beliefs. So for example, Columbus, when he arrived in the Americas, was convinced that he had found 'The Indies', because that was what he was looking for. Everything he saw, from the people he met to the plants and animals he encountered, he saw as conforming to various travellers' descriptions of Asia. Columbus visited the Americas four times, each time more and more convinced that he had found the route to Asia. That was his belief and he was sticking to it and everything he saw around him confirmed his false belief because he refused to consider that he was wrong.

The book is eye-opening, mainly in the way it points out how much we get wrong, how fixated we get on our beliefs, and how this fixation often leads us to hold on to things that are clearly untrue. The beliefs Shermer examines include belief in a deity, belief in the afterlife, belief in conspiracy theories, belief in the supernatural, belief in alien abduction and political beliefs. In each case he gets his readers to think again, to examine beliefs that are held often without question, to open the mind. It is a sceptic's charter, a reminder to go on questioning even in the face of things that seem obvious and self-evident.


  1. You mean all thet going to mass in Coleraine was not in fact to talk to God but actually to check out the local chics.

  2. I was young Dec, it was a phase!


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