Michael Shermer, who I introduced at the beginning of this book, in the context of the Hundredth Monkey Story calls himself the world’s only professional septic. In his role as chief skeptic, he spends a lot of time debunking fringe ideas. You can see an example of his debunking in this video in a talk he gave at a 2006 Ted Conference. Michael Shermer on strange beliefs
Belief is a recurrent topic of Schremer, appearing in the title of two of his books including his new book , The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies: How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truth.
In The Believing Brain, Schemer presents us with his opinion about beliefs themselves.
We form our beliefs for a variety of subjective, personal, emotional, and psychological reasons in the context of environments created by family, friends, colleagues, culture, and society at large; after forming our beliefs we then defend, justify, and rationalize them with a host of intellectual reasons, cogent arguments, and rational explanations. Beliefs come first, explanations for beliefs follow.
In order to support these ideas, he includes a section in the book called The Biology of Belief. He summarizes his theory on his website:
Dr. Shermer also provides the neuroscience behind our beliefs. The brain is a belief engine. From sensory data flowing in through the senses the brain naturally begins to look for and find patterns, and then infuses those patterns with meaning. The first process Dr. Shermer calls patternicity: the tendency to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless data. The second process he calls agenticity: the tendency to infuse patterns with meaning, intention, and agency.
We can’t help believing. Our brains evolved to connect the dots of our world into meaningful patterns that explain why things happen. These meaningful patterns become beliefs. Once beliefs are formed the brain begins to look for and find confirmatory evidence in support of those beliefs, which adds an emotional boost of further confidence in the beliefs and thereby accelerates the process of reinforcing them, and round and round the process goes in a positive feedback loop of belief confirmation. Dr. Shermer outlines the numerous cognitive tools our brains engage to reinforce our beliefs as truths and to insure that we are always right.The supporting evidence for this sweeping theory are several anecdotal conclusions derived from studies in neuroscience. Upon closer inspection, the evidence proves to be little more than a series of pop psychology simplifications. Examples include the characterization of a brain part called the anterior cingulate cortex as the brain’s Where’s My Waldo? Detection Device and the neuro-transmitter dopamine as the “belief drug.”
Shremer also states quite flatly
There no such thing as “mind” per se, outside of brain activity. Mind is just a word we use to describe neural activity in the brain .
While the book presents itself as the inside scoop on the biology of belief, in actuality is Shremer’s opinion about how belief in the brain might work, a set of notions themselves untested by scientific studies, yet presented as science.
Shremer made an appearance on the Colbert Report, promoting his book. Here is a video of the segment, in which the world’s greatest debunker is himself debunked a bit:
Skeptic Shermer attacks what he calls irrational beliefs and asserts that only science is our salvation from false beliefs. Colbert points out that science is itself a belief system.