Shermer tries to figure out why people believe what they do

Harriet Hall does a review: The Believing Brain.

A common question of skeptics and science-based thinkers is “How could anyone believe that?” People do believe some really weird things and even some obviously false things. The more basic question is how we form all our beliefs, whether false or true.

Michael Shermer’s book Why People Believe Weird Things has become a classic. Now he has a new book out: The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies: How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths It synthesizes 30 years of research into the question of how and why we believe what we do in all aspects of our lives.

There are three “takeaway lessons:”

  • Beliefs come first, reasons follow.
  • False beliefs arise from the same thought processes that our brains evolved to enable them to learn about the world.
  • Our faulty thinking mechanisms can’t be eliminated but our errors can be corrected by science.

This review at Science-based Medicine is underscored by a couple of posts on vaccination. Measles outbreaks, 2011 takes a look at how the anti-vaccination ethos is causing harm by resulting in measles outbreaks. A bit of history of this ‘movement’ is provided in Smallpox and Pseudomedicine.

In the U.S. we have had thus far this year 118 cases of confirmed measles, the most cases since 1996. Of these cases, 47 resulted in hospitalization and 9 in pneumonia. Fortunately, none had encephalitis, … As reported in Nature and the MMWR report cited above, measles was in essence eliminated from the U.S. in 2000. This was not easy to do;

but negligence to protection is taking its toll.

Smallpox was “the most terrible of the ministers of death.” It began at least several thousand years ago and rapidly spread wherever its human carriers traveled, eventually to the entire populated world. In endemic regions, it wiped out 1/4 to 1/3 of children in epidemics that occurred every few years. In epidemics among people who had not previously seen it, such as the natives of the Western Hemisphere during the early years of European explorations, it wiped out as many as 90% of everyone.

You’d think experience like this would make an impression but belief systems are strong.

Opposition to smallpox vaccination (the name comes from the Latin for “cow”) began almost immediately after Jenner’s reports and remained substantial for more than 100 years. Some opposition was explicitly religious; some was based on disbelief in the method or, later, in the Germ Theory; some objectors claimed that vaccination caused terrible diseases, including smallpox itself; some voiced a political objection to state mandated vaccination programs. … They’ve since learned to be somewhat more subtle about the issue, possibly because of the 1968 failure, but their distaste for vaccinations in general persists

In the early days of vaccinations, they could indeed be dangerous. The risks were high enough so that cost benefit analysis could be uncertain. Such problems occur in new technologies even today. The choice is about whether to use this phenomena as a reason to support a predilection or to see it as a problem to be solved. Modern health and welfare is based on the problem solving approach. That is critically dependent upon people being able to ‘mature’ beyond their belief systems to be able to examine what they believe and why and how well such beliefs are actually congruent to reality. That isn’t easy and that is why Shermer has so many examples to examine.

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