Basically, people believe first and decide why later, oftentimes ignoring contradictory facts and finding support in illogical places. It’s called the confirmation bias and it has been demonstrated by psychologists repeatedly. Back in the days when a person needed to believe that the rustling sound in the trees was an unseen predator, it helped us out. But now people are genetically predisposed to see connections where there are none, and it results in some rather strange beliefs.
I really liked this book and i agreed with most everything in it, and that made me rather uncomfortable just because of what the book is about. Michael Shermer covered a wide range of topics that interest me, from politics to psychology to religion, and i believed every word of what he argued. But… I don’t think it’s that he convinced me, i think it’s that i already held those beliefs going into it, and as the book proclaims repeatedly, i as a human being pay special attention to arguments that support what i already believe.
When i was about halfway through the book, i read a review on Goodreads that warned me not to fall victim while reading it to the very trap that the book is about; believing so-called “facts” just because i want to believe them. So, i tried and failed to see fault with Shermer’s logic, and it made me feel like i’m obviously no different form people who hold the opposite views.
I wish this book had been shorter and more focused, even though i loved everything in it. Shermer couldn’t resist the temptation to single out specific popularly held beliefs—such as the 9/11 conspiracy theory, the idea that extra terrestrials have visited Earth, and the existence of God—and argue their invalidity. And before he does this he admits that it’s possible that he sees things the way he does because he, too, is only human and believes what he wants to believe, but he goes ahead and knocks other people’s beliefs anyway. Science reveals the truth in any situation, he says, but then he also shows that scientists’ findings are sometimes colored by their beliefs, too. So what’s a girl to believe? Well, whatever she wants to, it seems. It would’ve been interesting to learn even more about the believing brain, specifically, rather than what the believing brain tends to believe.
Maybe if the tone of the book had just been a little more humble, i would’ve been able to read it with more confidence. Shermer introduced the book by saying that what was to follow was going to be more “huh, isn’t that interesting?” and less “these are the facts and this is how it is,” but i think the latter is a better representation of the book’s attitude. Shermer doesn’t just talk about how people form and reinforce their belief in God, for example, but he also essentially declares that God does not in fact exist, and gives his reasons. And as an atheist i’m normally more than fine with that, just not in this particular context. Shermer also apparently likes to take the ideas of actual scientists and coin catchy new terms for them, and it makes him come across as a little overconfident about his stature in the scientific community.
I would’ve liked to have seen Shermer deal with more concrete stuff, like the political topics. I felt like he only touched on politics, and it was mostly to tell me why i should be a libertarian. And i didn’t mind that, but i thought that section of the book could’ve been more in-depth. And while i’m criticizing, i must say that i found the anecdotes at the beginning of the book to be quite unnecessary.
Having said all of that, i do think people should read this book. It will shake your belief in whatever you believe in, even if it’s nothing. And if it doesn’t, well, it should still make you wonder what that says about you and your beautiful brain.