In this, his magnum opus, the world’s best known skeptic and critical thinker, Dr. Michael Shermer—founding publisher of Skeptic magazine and perennial monthly columnist (“Skeptic”) for Scientific American—presents his comprehensive theory on how beliefs are born, formed, nourished, reinforced, challenged, changed, and extinguished. This book synthesizes Dr. Shermer’s 30 years of research to answer the question of how and why we believe what we do in all aspects of our lives, from our suspicions and superstitions to our politics, economics, and social beliefs.
In this book Dr. Shermer is interested in more than just why people believe weird things, or why people believe this or that claim, but in why people believe anything at all. His thesis is straightforward: 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.
Dr. Shermer also explains 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. 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.
©2011 Michael Shermer (P)2011 Michael Shermer
“The physicist Richard Feynman once said that the easiest person to fool is yourself, and as a result he argued that as a scientist one has to be especially careful to try and find out not only what is right about one's theories, but what might also be wrong with them. If we all followed this maxim of skepticism in everyday life, the world would probably be a better place. But we don't. In this book Michael Shermer lucidly describes why and how we are hard wired to 'want to believe'. With a narrative that gently flows from the personal to the profound, Shermer shares what he has learned after spending a lifetime pondering the relationship between beliefs and reality, and how to be prepared to tell the difference between the two.” (Lawrence M. Krauss, Foundation Professor and Director of the Origins Project at Arizona State University, author of Quantum Man: Richard Feynman's Life in Science)
“The Believing Brain is a tour de force integrating neuroscience and the social sciences to explain how irrational beliefs are formed and reinforced, while leaving us confident our ideas are valid. This is a must read for everyone who wonders why religious and political beliefs are so rigid and polarized—or why the other side is always wrong, but somehow doesn't see it.” (Dr. Leonard Mlodinow, author of The Drunkard’s Walk and The Grand Design with Stephen Hawking)
The Believing Brain starts strong, delivering on its title promise about why people believe such strange things. Then the author begins to wander. By mid-way the book starts becoming a recap of material from other books.
The section on politics particularly wanders. For an extended section it's about the author's own political beliefs, and subtly why those beliefs are rational, implying others' beliefs are not.
From there the book goes on to discuss cognitive biases, the history of science, and the scientific method. All of these topics are much better covered in other books specific to those subjects.
I was skeptical of this book at first. Then I really got into it. And found myself nodding along as I listened. Perhaps I was merely subdued by my innate confirmation bias... ;-) Good stuff.
Yes, I probably will. There's a lot of information to grasp, and listening to a second time will help me recall the information in discussions on these topics.
Non-fiction, no characters.
A lot of science history is presented (maye a little too much, to be honest).
I enjoyed the part on religion, which is my big personal point of interest.
Dr. Shermer does an excellent job of cutting through the noise and laying out the argument for skepticism. I really enjoyed this book, but here are my few thoughts as to what prevented it from getting five stars:
1. I tend to be more liberal than Dr. Shermer, so his section on politics ruffled my feathers a bit. He didn't work overly hard to present an unbiased view, instead laying out a basic arguement for civil liberarianism. It was still a good section, but I found myself wanting to argue with some of the things that were written there.
2. Dr. Shermer does the *funniest* voices sometimes when he is quoting people, and I'm pretty sure he doesn't realize it. Even when quoting someone he really respects, he does this funny mock impersonation that sounds like he is making fun of them. I actually really enjoyed that, so it didn't ding my rating at all.
3. The book ran a little unneccessarily long at points, especially at the end. I feel like Dr. Shermer could've said everything he wanted to say in half the words, but then some editor came and prodded him into making it longer to maximize profits. I think this book could've almost succeeded better in the micro book format used by Sam Harris.
Overall, still well worth the read! I intend to get more books by Dr. Shermer soon.
Good book but the Narrator sounds to much like Kermit the frog. Extremely distracting. I will be watching out for books read by him.
I expected this to be somewhat of a diatribe against having a belief in God.
I was impressed by the high degree of professional integrity. He constrained his personal biases primarily to anecdotal and incidental comments. Instead, he employed an abundance of scientific studies regarding how our brains function to deceive us and then deceive us about much we have been deceived.
This book is a worthy read regardless of your personal beliefs about God. If you actually use your brain to think about anything, then you would benefit from this material.
Unlike The Moral Arc, Shermer gave this a strong ending. Arc went into his "feelings" and "beliefs" about libertarianism at the end, rather than a "purely" scientific realm. Trying to "prove" libertarianism is somewhat farfetched after all the books I've read on both sides. It's not like there is any consensus as there is in the scientific community for Global Warming... I was more excited about science in Believing Brain at the end. Overall it was a good learning experience. RTC
Underhand's chief engineer
It's a good listen. Shermer has a great rhythm that keeps almost the entire narration from feeling tedious. The arguments he presents are compelling and based on his decades of research. However, the one chapter he dedicates to political ideology seems a bit too biased. He plainly states his views and after discouraging stereotypes, seems to imply that political leanings are one area where reason can't trump impulse. Indeed, the chapter almost feels like a justification for his own political beliefs.
The main detractor... Despite all of his evidence, he never addressed whether behavioral traits are really inherent or encouraged through social norms.
I very much enjoyed this audiobook! There were some odd mistakes and mispronunciations, but it didn't detract from the content too much. Even if one disagrees with Shermer's beliefs or messages, which even I do on occasion, there is plenty to be garnered from this book, and that is due in large part to how accessible Shermer wrote this book to be. I highly recommend it!
I really did not enjoy this book. I have a rule that I listen all the way through every book that I get -- and I was glad this one was over. His ultimate premise -- that science is great and everything that cannot be proven by the scientific method is a trick of the mind and cannot be trusted -- is all well and good, but the book could have been half as long and make the same point. There was a whole section on the history of science that seemed forced in toward the end of the book and didn't seem to contribute at all to the thesis. In fact, there was a number of times throughout the book that I was left thinking: so what's the point? Why is this discussion here? In short, it may just be my "believing brain" --- but I believe that I should have passed on this one.
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