Michael Shermer – The Believing Brain

June 06, 2011

Our guest this week is Michael Shermer, the publisher of Skeptic magazine and head of the Skeptics Society, and a longtime commentator on issues relating to science, critical thinking, and the paranormal.

Chris asked Michael on to discuss his new book, which is entitled The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies, How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them As Truths.

Clearly, much of what Shermer has to say here will be of great relevance to skeptics and freethinkers—and along the way, Shermer also discusses his views on global warming (real, but not such a big deal) and how to promote evolution in a religious America.

In addition to publishing Skeptic, Michael Shermer is  a monthly columnist for Scientific American, the host of the Skeptics Distinguished Science Lecture Series at Caltech, and Adjunct Professor at Claremont Graduate University. His other books include Why People Believe in Weird Things and Why Darwin Matters.

This is point of inquiry for Monday, June 6th, 2011. 

Welcome to Point of Inquiry. I’m Chris Mooney. Point of inquiry is the radio show and the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs. And at the grassroots. My guest this week is Michael Shermer, the publisher of Skeptic magazine and head of the Skeptic Society and a longtime commentator on issues relating to science, critical thinking and the paranormal. I asked Michael on to discuss his new book, which is entitled The Believing Brain From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies How We Construct Beliefs and reinforce them as Truths. Clearly, much of what Shermer has to say will be of great relevance to skeptics and free thinkers everywhere and along the way. I also got to discuss with him some of my pet issues like global warming and how to promote evolution in a religious America. Michael Shermer, welcome to Point of Inquiry. 

Good morning. 

It’s great to have you on. Strange beliefs have been a lot in the news lately. We had Harold Camping’s predictably failed prediction of the world ending. We had the birthers finally getting the birth certificate and still not changing their minds, at least the hardcore ones. In your new book, The Believing Brain, you say we’re all carrying around a, quote, belief engine on our shoulders were hard wired for this stuff. So what we’re seeing is what we should expect to see. 

Exactly. Right. The belief comes first, the reasons for believe, the data, the evidence, whatever it comes second. And that’s the case for everybody. Politicos and religious people, religious faith, economic ideologies, even scientific theories are a form of belief. 

And scientists are no different than anybody else. They have their pet theories that they prefer. And they’re they’re as likely as anybody else to only remember the hits and forget the misses that support it and all that. That’s true. 

But in the believing brain, the point to make is that science is the one tool we have to help us get out of that trap. When I called a belief dependent realism trap, that is our reality is this. But our understanding of it is filtered through our beliefs. But science at least has the benefit of having self-correcting machinery and devices to help us work around those cognitive biases. So that’s what sets it apart, I think, from economic ideologies, political beliefs, religious faith and so on. 

One obvious question that arises from all this is, would you say that all beliefs are equal? In other words, you know, I believe in God. I believe in chiropractic. I believe in the Democratic Party. Do we hold them all in the same way? And do they act as a perceptual screen in the same way or as or some different than others in some inherent way? 

On a general level, they’re all beliefs and they all match my thesis that the beliefs come first. The reasons for belief come second. They aren’t equally true. And that’s the one saving grace for science, is that it provides us a means of of stepping out of our own brains and this objectivity of our own perceptions and at least having some corroboration between brains, even if the original holder of the theory refuses to change his mind. But the community as a whole will shift from one world view to another, from one paradigm to another, to one belief to another as the evidence mounts. So global warming would be a good example of this. You know, the whole movement started in the 1970s and there were lots of skeptics and there were skeptics through the 80s. And the scientific community was reasonably split on it until the late 90s when the evidence started, a mountain in the community began to shift. And yes, of course, you’re still holdouts. There’s a few global warming skeptics that are, you know, real climate scientists, but there are many left and they may never change their mind. But that is a matter because the community as a whole has shifted enough that that the world view directs our politics and economics in response to it and that sort of thing. So I do think I think there’s hope for us in that sense. I mean, another example would be evolution. I mean, it was reasonable to be skeptical of Darwin’s theory for a while. You know, there wasn’t that much evidence. The fossil record was pretty spotty. There was no mechanism for how it could work until DNA was discovered. And there were there are plenty reasons to challenge the specifics of the theory intel, you know, the mid 20th century or so. And then and then things began to shift pretty dramatically, where now virtually nobody’s a skeptic of evolution. 

But based on your account of how the brain works, it’d be one thing for the scientific community as a group of individuals to eventually shift, then be quite another thing for average citizens who aren’t scientists, who are perceiving snippets of what scientists know to make their minds up one way or another, whether it’s true. 

Yeah. So that’s the problem we have is how do we move the country to one position or another when we know we’re right or we’re pretty confident we’re right? Like on the global warming issue. I mean, I get a lot of mail from global warming skeptics a lot either through Scientific American or through skeptic and especially skeptic, because I feel like, well, if you’re a skeptic, you’re a real skeptic. You’d be skeptical. Global warming. So what is skepticism? Is it skepticism of global warming or skepticism of the global warming skeptic, which makes you a believer, which is sort of weird. But so in that sense, the idea of the the IPCC, a consensus of sorts, is to try to tell a public, look, these are complex models, not very many people understand, but we have here a committee of people who do understand them and their, you know, the checks and balances and they’re competitive with each other. And if there were problems, they would find them. Like with the East Anglia disaster that turned out to be much ado about nothing, there was just nothing in there. Although the skeptics out there must be. Here’s the smoking gun of the cover up and so on. It just wasn’t there. And even that recent report of the one of the last holdout, scientific global warming skeptics who changed his mind, he said, you know what, the evidence to so overwhelming. It’s just there. And the idea that is by publishing that is to try to to send a signal to the marketplace of ideas. Look, here is where the people who know what they’re talking about are at and then try to influence social policy that way. 

You know, it’s funny. I want to I want to go more into the brain and the belief engine. But since we are since we’ve gotten into global warming, you know, I have on my blog I said I’m interviewing Michael Shermer and all these people want me to press you on global warming. Actually, you sound to me like you’re agreeing with all of the basic science, but there’s still a perception out there that you are a skeptic. 

Why you don’t? Because I do find that a little disturbing, that if you don’t toe the line at every single point, you’re you’re a global warming skeptic. 

I completely accept that the fact that the earth is getting warmer and that that’s is incontrovertible and that it’s probably mostly human caused, although I do think there is plenty there is room for some cyclical activity that could have some kind of an effect. Although, you know, I think we can we’re safe to say that it’s largely human caused. So that’s the first two of the five points that I bring up. So the third point is, well, how much warmer is you going to get? Well, which what time horizon in the next 50 years? Hundred years. Five hundred years. Thousand years. You know, the further out on the time horizon you go, the wider the error bars get. So I think it’s reasonable to say, well, you know, somewhere between perhaps half a degree and two degree centigrade. And and therefore, point number four, what will the consequences be of the earth getting warmer? That depends on which point. On the on the air bar you’re at the low end of the prediction model, say, half a degree of Senate centigrade. I don’t think it’s going to be too consequential. Maybe, you know, there’s some changes, but nothing that we can’t deal with in the normal way of letting market forces work their magic and so on. But if it’s, you know, two to three degrees centigrade, well, then that that may be hugely consequential. So let’s pay attention and keep track of what’s going on as time unfolds. And then five, finally, what should we do about it? Well, here I here is probably what what the mail is you’re getting directed at. That is, I’m not too crazy about a top down government program like a Manhattan Project. And we can we spend a trillion dollars in that sort of thing. First of all, we don’t have a trillion dollars. We don’t have any money to spend. We’re broke. 

So and I I believe that market forces work better than anything. You just raise the price of gas and people will really shift almost instantly their driving preferences. We’ve seen that just in the last six months. I mean, the fastest selling cars now are these four cylinders. Almost nobody is making eights anymore already. Just instantly you see shifts like that. That’s what I’ll drive. People people are motivated by incentives and and they do better when they their bottom up financial incentives, tax breaks, things like that, versus top down government controls. And I you know, I’m out here in Palm Desert this weekend and, you know, we have wind farms out here. They’re everywhere. It’s fantastic. It’s amazing. The winds just rifling through these canyons and there’s these gigantic wind farms. It’s great. But it’s so I’d like to think, you know, if we had solar panels everywhere and wind farms would be great because that’s in the long run. That’s where we have to go, renewable sources of energy and get off fossil fuels. But for everything I’ve read, that’s not going to do it. We can’t get off fossil fuels. We’re a long ways from that side. You know, I don’t know what I want to say. That’s just how I read it. So I can’t hardly think that that makes me a global warming skeptic by any means. But, you know, there it is. 

No, you’re not. You’re not a skeptic by the standard definition based on what you said. Let’s do a little more of this and then go back to the book. But what I think the the point of contention is, is probably in what I hear the point of contention would be that you seem to think that it’s going to be likely on the low end of warming. And I think the uncertainty could cut in a very, very bad way. I mean, it’s uncertainty, right, in that we know it’s going to be the lesser of the bout goes rather than the most grave of the outcomes. So given the possible gravity. 

Right. That’s the precautionary principle. Well, I’m I’m skeptical of the precautionary principle. And many are not just with the global warming thing, but in many areas. I think it’s too easy to push the panic button and spend a lot of money in one area when you really don’t know if you need to or not. And it’s. It’s easy to make the case for the precautionary principle. In one particular area. But there’s so many places in society where we need to spend money on all kinds of problems. You know, let’s start with health care. I think Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, these are hugely pressing issues are going to far surpass anything global warming will ever do to us in the next 50 years. That I’d rather see change come about in those areas. 

Yeah. Big government shift. That’s where I’d like to see it. 

I’ll just leave one more people. People are. Want me to debate you on that. Right. I don’t really want you, but. But actually, no, I think that global warming is is really the unique problem because if the worst case scenarios are right, then you’re losing land based ice on Greenland and coastal cities are going to be submerged. And then then you’re really talking trillions of dollars of impact. 

Well, that’s true in the long run, right? You’re talking maybe by 20, 100. 

Well, the you know, the projections differ. We don’t know how vulnerable Greenland. If we knew we’d be maybe we would know what to do. 

Yeah, maybe. Again, I just. I just think it’s. Yes, OK. You can make the case. Well, OK, if Greenland collapses in the next century or something. But I don’t see that from what I’ve read. I think we’re talking like 500, 1000 years from GLE for Greenland to melt. Right. 

I think we don’t know. We don’t know. OK. So. All right. So let’s just wait and see more of the wait and see kind of camp. I just I’m just not worry about it. 

I will. Let’s move on. One thing that I think is really interesting about your book, but I also have a question. 

You talk about the evolutionary origins of Y. You know, belief is such a central part of human nature, why we see patterns, why we ascribe agency to things that are inanimate. 

What I think is still hard to understand is why evolution would create creatures that make lots of mistakes. Because you would think that we would have evolved to be accurate because being accurate would help us survive. 

Right. So the argument is that the default rule of thumb is to make one kind of error over another. It’s not that. It’s it’s a slightly different argument that we were pattern seeking primates. We connect the dots, A is connected, B and B is connected to C and and often we’re good at that. And that’s called Learning Association learning, whether it’s classical conditioning or operant conditioning. And so our brains have altered all animals. Do it from C. elegans to sapiens. You know, this is how animals survived the genomes, not variable enough to deal with a rapidly changing environment. So we have brains. Now, the problem is, you know, you hear the rustle in the grass to a dangerous predator. Is it just the wind in my thought experiment? Well, if you assume that it’s it’s a dangerous predator, but it turns out it’s just the wind. You’ve made a type one error, false positive. But that’s not so bad. You just become more cautious and vigilant and you move around the bush or whatever. But if you make the other kind of error, you assume that the rustle in the grass is just the way in and turns as a dangerous predator. You’re lunch. Congratulations. You’ve just been given a Darwin award for taking yourself out of the gene pool that before in reading and passing your genes on. So I claim as a natural selection to make more of one kind of air than the other, more false positives than false negatives, more of the evidence based on Hamilton’s rule of who are more likely to support and be and be altruistic, too. And so it depends on the cost of the behaviors factor by the benefit in the genome in the long run. So I’m claiming the same kind of formula applies, that the cost of making one kind of error over the other is much lower and therefore we’re more likely to make it so. 

The default rule of thumb is just assume most rustles in the grass are dangerous predators and not the wind. If you have to make that choice, especially because those kinds of decisions have to be made in a split second, there’s not enough time to gather more data and consider the evidence and so on. In fact, that does that is gel well with what we know from like the behavioral economists who say that the people at a study decision making, that we rarely make decisions based on evidence gathering, collecting more data, weighing it, laying it out on the table and looking at it carefully and then weigh in are our options and then deciding we don’t. 

And this gets back to my original thesis that we just form beliefs really fast. We just kind of have a hunch, a feeling and intuition. And we go with it and then we start collecting data. And rarely does anybody, you know, lay the data out on the table and go, huh, OK, let’s see. Is this one or that one, especially if you have any kind of vested interest? Some. So it’s you know, it’s my first book was Why People Believe Weird Things in this book. I’m interested in why people believe things. Period. Full stop anything. So it’s not just a pattern nicety that the word I coined Tennessee to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless noise is not like Parad Doyley or some of these other terms that just deal with. Why people see Jesus in the in a grilled cheese sandwich or the Virgin Mary on the side of a building. That that is explain this as city. But but why we find any patterns at all? Well, we have to. And because we’re not good at discriminating too from false patterns, we just tend to find all kinds of patterns. And so the key the rub here is in sciences that we develop these tools to help us tell the difference. And so, for example, that’s why we have blinded controls and double blinded controls, because we know that if the subject knows which condition he’s in, it’ll is a placebo effect that will affect how he acts if the experimenter knows which condition the subject’s in. That’ll affect how the data’s collected. So we have all those things because we know that even even professionally trained, these scientists are not objective. And that’s because of all these psychological, subjective, emotional cognitive biases that we have. 

I want to remind our listeners that Michael Shermer is new book The Believing Brain is available through our Web site Point of Inquiry, Dawg. You know, it’s really interesting. You start the book with a quotation from Francis Bacon. 

He was concerned about this kind of thing. Centuries ago, the birth of science is closely tied to trying to put some kind of control on all of our cognitive biases. It’s taken us this long to get inside of the brain and really understand the basis of those biases. 

Yeah, well, the Enlightenment vision of human nature as humans, as like homo economicus were rational calculators. We maximize our utility, we have free will and we make free choices. And when we make our free choices, we we calculate them out to maximize our happiness and so on. The entire, you know, Declaration of Independence and then the Constitution. All these things are based on this enlightenment vision of human nature that we’re rational and it’s just it’s taken us a couple centuries to figure out that we’re not really it’s only the last couple of decades that we figured out that we’re not because of the research in cognitive neuroscience that shows how irrational we are in a took two psychologists, Tversky and counterman, to show us that it’s a show Economists’ that we’re not rational calculators. I mean, all the way up until the 90s, economists were still assuming that humans make rational choices and we don’t. So what we’re bucking up against is, you know, three centuries worth of enlightenment, philosophy trickle down into academia and science, that humans are rational and we’re not. And that’s the problem. I mean, I like that. I like to believe we are. I like to think I am. But I’m pretty sure I’m not any any more than anybody else and that we’re not as a species. And, you know, that’s that’s sort of the point of the believing brain. The belief is everything and it’s very subjective. 

Yeah. Well, I certainly can contests that. I even want to try out a little area of this that I’ve been really interested in. I think you will certainly agree with this, but it’s not a term that you use in the concept is motivated reasoning. You don’t write about it explicitly in the book. But you cite a few studies on it, like Drew Westen, study of Democrats and Republicans who they see if they see that candidate they don’t like is hypocritical. And the candidate they do like is not hypocritical. Right. Even though they’ve both directly contradicted each other. 

What would what bugs people out about this? Right, is that this response is happening automatically and subconsciously and emotions are firing. If we have a negative feeling toward something that threatens our beliefs and we don’t even know we’re doing it. And so then we start rationalizing and then we commit any kind of cognitive error that will help us get where we want to go. So it’s almost like a reflex. It’s almost like we’re automatons. 

Yeah, absolutely. Exactly, yeah. 

These cognitive biases like the confirmation bias, this tendency to to look for confirming evidence, to support your theory and ignore the disconfirming evidence. Remember the hits, forget the misses. This happens very rapidly. Instincts. Instinctively, we don’t think about it. We just do it. Conservatives read The Wall Street Journal. They listen to conservative talk radio. They they don’t even pay attention to what the other side says. And liberals do the same thing. Everybody does it. And it’s easy to marshal the facts. I mean, this is where all this global warming skepticism comes from is largely driven by right wing talk radio. I mean, I occasionally listen to these guys and pretty much every any any given day of the week, you can find somebody citing some new study saying that global warming is not real. It’s all a myth or something then. And where do they get this stuff? Well, they just find the one guy left that like that Rich Richard Lindzen at M.I.T. who will say that he remains skeptical and they’ll cite him and ignore the thousands of other scientists on the other side. And that’s just what our brains do, especially in politics. But again, we like to think, at least in science, in principle, we should be able to get at the answer and work around those biases and not be affected by them. And so often we’re dependent on our authorities. I mean, I don’t really understand string theory and quantum physics and so on, so I can’t tell which one is pretty sound or which one isn’t from my own knowledge. So I have to go to my friends at Caltech. OK. So what’s the deal here with the string theory? And then they tell me now, how do they know? Well, I kind of trust them, not based on faith, but on experience that science is very competitive and that what one guys support of string theory is to boost his career will be countered by some other guy who’s going to boost his career by knocking it down. And so that’s why I like comp competition is so good, because it forces people to to be careful about what they publish and because they know somebody else is going to be checking on them. And that’s what I think keeps me confident in science. 

Yeah, it’s sort of like after all this is done, it’s sort of the last thing we can panic is just compete with each other and hopefully they’ll ketso all the mistakes. 

I want to ask you more about the role of emotion in all this. You seem to say in the book. All right. So we have beliefs. We vigorously reaffirm them. It happens automatically and we commit all kinds of errors and biases in doing it. You say also that we get a thrill, not a thrill maybe, but we get good feelings for doing it. We get reinforced dopamine, neurotransmitters, fires. I would just say, in other words, a circuit builds up and we keep using and it feels good to use it. 

Yeah, that’s right. Exactly. So, I mean, it it begins really with the believing neuron, as I call it. It’s just basic internal connections. So you have about a set of neurons in there, you know, 100 billion of them. And they’re they’re not physically connected. There’s a little gap between each of them called the snap. And across that gap or release these neurotransmitter substances like dopamine and some others. And and that’s how they communicate with each other. They talk to each other through chemistry. And when you learn something, there’s a certain pathway of neurons that gets reinforced. Just more dopamine builds up in there. And the more they fire, the stronger the those patterns become. And that’s that’s called learning. So that process then scales up, you know, just patterns on top of patterns on top of pattern. So a really simple thing, like a Pavlovian conditioning. You ring the bell and you give the dog some food. This elevates hearing the Bellingham’s of Judy Salvaje during the Bellotti salivates. You know, he’s figured the pattern out so that it’s everything that’s that that describes everything we do. So the question is the rub here is which patterns are real and which aren’t? And that appears to be related to some substances like the opening. So here I am thinking of Peter Broilers Research Team, Christine Moore, where they gave subjects L dopa, which increases amount of dopamine in their brain. And those subjects that got that were more likely to see random patterns as meaningful, like there was something in it. In the pattern you use came a random thought pattern or a scramble of letters and words and things like that. And they they try to make sense of it. And our brains are pretty good at finding patterns anyway. But if you give Mel Dopa, they’re even more likely to find it. So and this is also more likely to happen in the right hemisphere than the left hemisphere. And we’re starting to kind of pinpoint where in the brain these sorts of processes occur. And again, it’s not the same pattern as he’s a bad thing. I’m just saying this is the way it is. And then the question is, how open minded should you be to patterns being real? And you don’t want to be too skeptical because then you’ll never see any new patterns and you’ll be, you know, an uncreative, boring person. But if you’re so open minded, your brains fall out. I like to say you think everything’s a pattern, then you’re paranoid schizophrenic. So by example, the book is, by contrast, Richard Feynman with John Nash or Richard. Wins the Nobel Prize for finding a new pattern in quantum physics about how subatomic particles interact. He describes his beautifully with these Feynman diagrams that are still used today and in well deserving of the prize. He saw something no one else saw in his mind and translated at individual images on the page with mathematical formulas. Beautiful. John Nash won the Nobel Prize of Mathematics for his discovery of game theory and Nash equilibrium in how subjects in a game contest interact with each other. But he also saw patterns that were not real, people that didn’t exist in government, cover ups and aliens and so on and is. Everybody knows who see the movie A Beautiful Mind. He was paranoid schizophrenic or schizophrenic. So that’s that’s seen too many patterns. And we don’t really know what the cause of schizophrenia is exactly, but it’s obviously a brain chemistry thing. So that tells us that these patterns are, you know, they’re in the mind, they’re influenced by brain chemistry. And what you want to do is find some balance there between, you know, seeing everything as a pattern and see nothing as a new pattern. And all of art and creativity, music and so on. These these are all just new patterns. People see that no one else has seen. That’s how you see create new things. And that’s that’s why there’s this interesting research on madness and and and artistic genius or creativity is, I think is a fruitful avenue of research, because I do think there’s a link there between seemed to many batters and being crazy and and just enough to be a creative genius, but hovering on that edge. Nancy Andreasen has a lot of interesting research on this. She’s got a big genius creativity project at the University of Iowa where she brings in all these creative juices, scans, brains and stuff. And she’s she’s finding evidence that for really super creative people, there’s a pretty good trend line, that they’re also manic depressive and have schizophrenia running in their family. And they’re they’re sort of hovering on the brink there. So, yeah, it’s it’s pretty it’s pretty interesting research. 

Yeah. I just it makes me remind there’s this figure nut figure image in your book and you say that the skeptics don’t see patterns in it. Then people are less skeptical. Look at the image and do see a pattern. I didn’t see a pattern. I guess I guess we differ on that. 

Yeah. Well, so maybe you need more dopamine. 

I know if you fired now, if you fire me up. Right, you know, give me a BINYA maybe a new idea. And let me let me remind listeners again that Michael Strummer’s new book, The Believing Brain, is available through our Web site Point of Inquiry Dawgs is two more things I wanted to hit on. You know how we change beliefs. But even before that, let’s talk maybe about the political beliefs in particular, because I found your chapter on that really interesting. We had George Lakoff on the show recently and we’ve had some other shows in sort of that vein. 

And you were kind of criticizing George Lakoff, John Joester, NYU, those who’ve said that, you know, liberals and conservatives differ. 

But you’re also agreeing with Jonathan Height. The liberals and conservatives differ. I kind of feel like they’re all saying the same thing. 

I would agree with you. I think it’s the sense I get of a moral judgment against conservatives by Lakoff and just that I don’t get from Jonathan Height. I feel like Jonathan’s stepped out of the political realm, at least while he’s doing that research, although I guess he’s he’s says he’s just a standard liberal, more or less. But Lakoff and just I get the sense that they’re treating people being conservative like it’s some sort of disease, like we’re asking as social scientists. Why did Nazis do what they do? Let’s let’s try to understand the mind of the Nazi. That’s kind of the sense I get when they’re talking about conservatives. And it’s not that I’m a conservative. I’m I’m not I’m a libertarian. So I’m fiscally conservative and socially liberal. But even even so, the labels are kind of problematic. But so I’m not that I’m offended personally. I just think it’s so lopsided. And when you look at the data on scientists, academics in general, they’re pretty left leaning. I mean, it’s it’s hugely slanted toward the left and the rest. The country is not that country is pretty much divided left and right. And according to Jonathan, right, most of the world is divided, pretty much left and right, even in European countries where they have many political parties. He says that they kind of cluster toward the left or the right. And you can easily kind of costume into two big sets, either like, you know, liberal leaning or conservative leaning. And so I tend to think I actually think that’s probably even hardwired in the sense that, well, there. Then I talk about Steven Pinker and his blank slate research. And you know that that we have certain political preferences based on our temperament and by temperament, some people this is the Joester argument, except he’s he’s just too judgmental, I think. But that. Conservatives prefer a certain kind of world view, an orderly, hierarchical world view. But there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s actually a good world view to have in some instances. You know, we live in a really tribal world. And there’s there’s is I used from that my favorite movie, A Few Good Men were Jack Nicholson and schooling Tom Cruise on the way the world really is. You know, it’s a dangerous world, a tribal world, a world with Walden. And on those walls are men with guns. And somebody has to stand opposed and sleeping in a very blanket. The freedom I provide and then question the manner in which I provide it. Yeah, that’s right. You see, when when liberals when conservatives say liberals don’t get it. That’s the ad they’re talking about, that there’s a value in group cohesiveness and tribalism is a nasty word. But in fact, tribalism is what makes us human. It’s how we get people to the moon and do these fantastic, amazing, huge, bigger than life projects that, you know, that no individual or even corporation could do requires a huge tribe to do it. Well, that’s that’s a good part of tribalism. And so I’d say let’s just pull back and be less critical of which left or right is morally right or wrong, that that itself is a byproduct of tribalism. By the way, we don’t just assess somebodies idea politically is wrong. We think it is evil, wrong, bad, wrong, morally wrong. And I think that gets us into trouble. So that’s the point I was trying to make in that chapter. 

That’s fair enough. I guess what we’re saying here is sort of like if you call conservatives authoritarian, you’re being judgmental. If you say conservatives respect authority more than liberals, you’re just saying the obvious as far. Well, OK. Yeah, that. 

That’s fair enough. Right. But but I mean, if you say conservatives, you know. Yeah. They like a thought there. They like authority. Well what does that mean. They like law and order. OK. As opposed to what I mean. So liberals what they don’t. They like a Lucy Goosey, wishy washy, mamby pamby kind of system where criminals get away with crime. I mean, you know, they just flip it around and be judgmental on the other side. 

And then the liberal calling people spineless. You’re being judgmental. Yeah. If you say they’re spineless, you’re being judgmental. If you say that they are actually, you know, their cognitive style is more characterized by uncertainty. Yeah. Yeah. 

You’re not. I mean. And so I get it. But I think the core point is that, you know, these differences are real. They can explain a lot about our politics. 

I think so. Absolutely. 

So how do you change somebodies mind? I mean, you give a couple examples of people, including yourself, change. And it seems like it’s closely tied to big life changes. It’s not tied to rational arguments as much. 

Yeah, it’s hard to shift people, although, you know, there’s pretty good research on this now, like Robert Shiller Downey’s research on influence, but he’s just reflecting research that’s catching up with what marketing people have been doing for decades. That is shifting people’s preferences. And yeah, you have to pretty much do that emotionally. Well, that’s seen a Lakoff and the other guy that wrote The Political Brain Western West. Yeah. So they talk about that. You know, that like, I think it’s Western that talks about Gore versus Bush. And Gore’s got all his charts and graphs and his laser pointer and his data in Bush is telling jokes and talking about the evil two, Ursin. And so, you know, it’s like the one is shifting people’s preferences because of an emotional connection. And that’s how it’s done. I agree with W on that front. That’s how you shift people emotionally, worldviews based on preferences and emotional, subjective preferences. I mean, you can you can tell a creationist first till you’re blue in the face about the fossil record in the DNA and know that matters. They don’t care about that. What they want to know is, I mean, I have to do I have to give up. God do have to give up all my religious friends and go to that place. I feel really good at every weekend. You tell me I have to give all it up because of this fossil record stuff. Forget it. You know, they’re not going to shift. He has to. You have to. That’s why in the why Darwin matters, I argued that conservatives should embrace Darwinism because of anything. It supports their view of human nature, that we do actually have a kind of an evil, sinful nature based on our tribalism and all that. And so they they should embrace it. No, give it up. And then in any case, science is just revealing that God’s creation or some such thing. I mean, I don’t believe that. But that’s you know, we have to sell it that way. Otherwise, I’d you know, if you give people a choice between science and their family and friends and what feels good. They’re going to they’re going to reject science every time. 

Well, you know, you’re walking up close to a big controversy that’s often on this show and on the blogs in the freethinker skeptic atheist humanist movement, which is the, quote, accommodation ism issue. 

And I’ll note that in the book you profile Francis Collins, who is a really excellent scientist, who is also a Christian. You profile him very sympathetically and talk about his you his views based on based on all this. Do you agree that someone like Francis Collins is going to be the person who’s going to be able to move a creationist rather than someone like Richard Dawkins? 

Yes, that’s right. Exactly. Well, so my my perspective on that whole controversy. I’m very well aware of it. I mean, the word itself accommodationists it again. It’s like accusing a liberal being a flip flopping, namby pamby, wishy washy bedwetter. 

It has a moral value. The moral assessment to it. Well, you know, we live in a very pluralistic world in different approaches, work for different people. Thought that Dawkins approach, the Harris approach. You know, there’s a lot of people who really like that. 

Of course, the atheists that are already there like it because it feels good to have your champion stand up and kick some ass fight for your side. But but there’s even people on the fence who like that. So, OK, fine, great. And let’s have more of that. But there’s plenty of people who don’t like that. And we’ve heard from them, too. And they like some other approach. They like my approach or your approach or whatever. OK. So that works for them. So, you know, we live in a pluralistic, complex world. Let’s just have lots of voices with lots of different approaches. I just don’t find Francis Collins offensive in any way. He’s a super nice guy. He’s very bright. I love using his book to four Christians that I talk to and go, hey, this guy is in your tribe. He’s completely on your side. Please. Everything you believe any just wrote this chapter. I always reference the chapter in human evolution in the language of God. It’s one of the best summaries I’ve ever read of human evolution based on how we know human evolution happened based on genetics using both the fossil record, just genes. It’s it’s it’s a perfect argument. And and so that’s that’s what I point them to. So but personally, I like the guy and and effort for for your own critics. You can just point out that that he’s Christopher Hitchens oncologist. So Christopher likes him, even, Aaron, that the acerbity Christopher Hitchens likes Francis Collins. So come on, let’s just chill out about the guy. I mean, cut. He’s on our side. He likes science. You know, if we take more of Carl Sagan’s approach that, you know, we’re going to change the world, save the world from nuclear winter and global warming and all the other problems we have. We need the Christians and the Jews and the Muslims. We need these people. I mean, if we if you start off with alienating 90 percent of the world, it’s gonna be hard to to change it. That’s just my approach. The way I am by temperament. So I maybe I’m making an argument just because that’s the way I prefer to do things. But I just think there’s many approaches. I like Richard’s books. I love his approach. It’s fun to watch him and Hitchens and, you know, take these guys on and kick some butt. And it’s fun. I like them. I like them all. But that’s not the only way. 

Well, you know, I’m I’m with you on this. 

I just I think that I’m putting in the context of the psychology of belief helps us really understand the persuasion a little bit better in the deeply held beliefs that we’re trying to try to. 

I mean, the new atheists and stuff. There’s nothing really new in it. I mean, there was plenty of us talking about that same kind of stuff in the 90s. It’s just that culturally, no one really cared. It wasn’t a big thing when we started Skeptic magazine back in the early 90s. It never occurred to me that we should be hammaren on religion. No one really cared that much. We did a piece now and then on it. But now, since 9/11 and the Bush administration and the excess of religion and politics and all that, you know, we have people that would like every issue of skeptic to be the special let’s let’s hammer on religion issue. And it’s just culturally much more relevant now, I guess. And these these things go back and forth. 

Well, you know, just just to wrap up, you know, all of your whole book points to you. I think we’ve already said there’s two points to an unsettling conclusion for skeptics, rationalist reading, which is that, you know, humanity is not wired to be on our side. I mean, human nature, you call us natural born supernatural is at one point of human nature is the believe things and to believe things regardless of evidence and the twist the evidence. How do we know how do we keep going in the face of this? Why do we think we’re going to somehow succeed? 

Well, I am encouraged by two things. One, that in the last if we take the big picture, the last five hundred years, say, since before the Enlightenment, say since the late Middle Ages, early modern period when superstition was just rampant, there was no science at all, no controlled science, no institutes of science, or there was no hope. And it was just people guessing. We’ve come a long ways, you know, public education and mass reading the Internet. All this good stuff. I think there’s hope in that regard that that we can get more and more people on the science page. And then, too, I use this analogy. Democracies, there’s there’s nothing inherently appealing to anyone with any power at all to give it up. An institute, a democracy. And yet we’ve been getting there since the last 200 years. You know, in nineteen hundred, there were zero liberal democracies. Even the United States was in a liberal democracy. Women couldn’t vote till 1920. So now there’s something like. 19 liberal democracies just in the last 30 years. So this and again, there’s nothing natural about that. Anyone in power, as we’ve seen in the last couple of months with all the uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East and so on, that anybody with power is not going to give it up. They don’t want to give it up. That’s our evolved nature. But but. But it can happen. It can happen from the bottom up. If people stand up and go, damn it, I’m not going to take it anymore. And so that’s our job is to be. That’s what they say about freedom. Right. Eternal vigilance. Well, for science and us rationalists, eternal vigilance. We have to keep fighting for it step by step. And we’re getting there. I think I think we’re winning. Well, we’re not winning yet, but we’re getting there. And so I’m encouraged. 

Well, thank you for an uplifting note that you’ve ended on. I think that thinking about it in that broader context does help. And Michael Shermer has been great to talk with you and have you on point of inquiry. 

Thanks. Good interview. 

I want to thank you for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry to get involved in a discussion about Michael Sherman’s new book, The Believing Brain. Please visit our online forums by going to center for inquiry, dot net slash forums and then clicking on point of inquiry. The views expressed on point of inquiry aren’t necessarily the views of the Center for Inquiry, nor of its affiliated organizations. Questions and comments on this show can be sent to feedback at point of inquiry dot org. One of inquiry is produced by Adam Isaach in AMR’s, New York. And our music is composed by Emmy Award winning Michael Waylan. 

This episode also featured contributions from Debbie Goddard. I’m your host, Chris Mooney. 

Chris Mooney