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Scientific American

The Believing Brain

published July 2011 | comments (14)
Why science is the only way out of the trap
of belief-dependent realism
magazine cover

WAS PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA BORN IN HAWAII? I find the question so absurd, not to mention possibly racist in its motivation, that when I am confronted with “birthers” who believe otherwise, I find it diffcult to even focus on their arguments about the difference between a birth certificate and a certificate of live birth. The reason is because once I formed an opinion on the subject, it became a belief, subject to a host of cognitive biases to ensure its verisimilitude. Am I being irrational? Possibly. In fact, this is how most belief systems work for most of us most of the time.

We form our beliefs for a variety of subjective, 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 my new book The Believing Brain (Holt, 2011), I call this process, wherein our perceptions about reality are dependent on the beliefs that we hold about it, belief-dependent realism. Reality exists independent of human minds, but our understanding of it depends on the beliefs we hold at any given time.

I patterned belief-dependent realism after model-dependent realism, presented by physicists Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow in their book The Grand Design (Bantam Books, 2011). There they argue that because no one model is adequate to explain reality, “one cannot be said to be more real than the other.” When these models are coupled to theories, they form entire worldviews.

Once we form beliefs and make commitments to them, we maintain and reinforce them through a number of powerful cognitive biases that distort our percepts to fit belief concepts. Among them are:

book cover

ANCHORING BIAS: relying too heavily on one reference anchor or piece of information when making decisions.

AUTHORITY BIAS: valuing the opinions of an authority, especially in the evaluation of something we know little about.

BELIEF BIAS: evaluating the strength of an argument based on the believability of its conclusion.

CONFIRMATION BIAS: seeking and finding confirming evidence in support of already existing beliefs and ignoring or reinterpreting disconfirming evidence.

On top of all these biases, there is the in-group bias, in which we place more value on the beliefs of those whom we perceive to be fellow members of our group and less on the beliefs of those from different groups. This is a result of our evolved tribal brains that lead us not only to place such value judgment on beliefs but also to demonize and dismiss them as nonsense or evil, or both.

Belief-dependent realism is driven even deeper by a meta bias called the bias blind spot, or the tendency to recognize the power of cognitive biases in other people but to be blind to their influence on our own beliefs. Even scientists are not immune, subject to experimenter-expectation bias, or the tendency for observers to notice, select and publish data that agree with their expectations for the outcome of an experiment and to ignore, discard or disbelieve data that do not.

This dependency on belief and its host of psychological biases is why, in science, we have built-in self-correcting machinery. Strict double-blind controls are required, in which neither the subjects nor the experimenters know the conditions during data collection. Collaboration with colleagues is vital. Results are vetted at conferences and in peer-reviewed journals. Research is replicated in other laboratories. Disconfirming evidence and contradictory interpretations of data are included in the analysis. If you don’t seek data and arguments against your theory, someone else will, usually with great glee and in a public forum. This is why skepticism is a sine qua non of science, the only escape we have from the belief-dependent realism trap created by our believing brains.

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14 Comments to “The Believing Brain”

  1. Tim Fletcher Says:

    Fascinating stuff! But I’m curious…you coined a new term here. Was there really no word for belief dependent realism? Amazing that no one has noticed the effect of such a collection of biases before.

    That in group bias is the coolest part. Where can we find out more about that?

  2. Jeff Says:

    I think the Buddhists already worked all this out.

  3. Mohammed Hussein Says:

    One needs to define what realism is?

    Is it what you see your self a reality ? or fact based on research and anylisis.

    Also what can be fact remains unagreed.

    Sure I will read he whole.

    //M Hussein

  4. Reza Varjavand Says:

    Dear Dr. Shermer, I studied your book inquiringly. You have presented compelling scientific analyses on belief-dependent realism. The only suggestion I have, I wish you could say more on costs and benefits of believing – in God – and especially with reference to what appears to be a clever reasoning by a French philosopher, Blaise Pascal, in line with your argument on patternicity, agencticity, and avoiding to make Type II error.

  5. ed Says:

    It seems that many statements made by Mr.Shermer are not susceptible of the double-blind studies he affirms as our way out of belief-dependent realism. How can he know his assumptions are reliable? Also, Immanuel Kant pointed out some time ago that there is reason to suspect that reality does not exist in an absolute manner independent of our perceptions, but rather the very structure of our consciousness shapes the way we perceive the external world. Things are not so simple as Mr. Shermer presents them, but perhaps he has his own belief-dependent realism that has yet to be subjected to skeptical examination.

  6. Bill Storm Says:

    I read somewhere that there is a genetic aspect to all this, that some people (including me)”sense” a higher presence or power, while others do not. I believe that atheism is a bias just as much as theism. I do feel that people distort reality to support their own beliefs or non-beliefs. An atheist with take comfort in a barren room with nothing in it but whatever makes up a barren room. For me an empty room may be full of beings and a Supreme one as well. It is just as “urgent” for a skeptic to “break the bubbles” of believers as it is for the believers to “convert” the skeptic, in my opinion. The professional skeptic is the worst of all, of course they are never going to find something which would “discredit” their paycheck. But anyway I get tired of being lumped in with Creation Scientists and fundamentalists. I believe there is something higher than “us” or maybe “us” is the something higher, but I actually FEEL this presence like the touch of soft fur against my fingers or the acrid smell of tobacco smoke. The idea of death DOES scare me but I sense something beyond and the idea of death seems to be denying something real. One might say that belief is a “disease” of certain brains (like mine) but what if non-belief is something like being color-blind? If a person can’t tell the difference between red and green then either red or green or both does not exist to them?? Only some color that others might not see at all? I want my belief, I like my belief, but I would not try to push it off on others. As you can tell I’m not a scientist, I only have my subjective world to live in. Atheists seem to be happy with the idea of death, that is something I can’t quite oomprehend. Or they don’t have a fear of it anyway? Why else do they take such pleasure in rubbing believer’s noses in it?
    It seems like some kind of perverse pleasure for them to “torment” a believer.

  7. B. Paul Gilstrap Says:

    Dr Shermer,
    Although I agree with most of what you say in this article, I really think it would have been better to leave out the self-contradictory reference to racism: i.e., “not to mention racism” is mentioning it. It contributed nothing to the general content of the topic and is currently so emotionally loaded and abused a term as to be almost meaningless.
    But as to the topics treated in the article, it seems to me – from much study over many years – that one of the first and greatest steps to skeptical wisdom is to keep firmly in mind that reality, existence, science, God, logic, etc are essentially just words that are meant to represent certain concepts which, ideally, are shared commonly among humans with enough similarity for statements made by one human to be meaningful to another human of at least roughly equal intelligence. But we cannot even be sure that when one of us uses the term “red” as describing a ball, another human, on hearing the term, “sees” the same color in memory as does the speaker.
    This being the case, and bearing in mind millenia of human treatments of the subject of reality, it is ultimately an article of faith that there exists a reality independent of human conceptions and the perceptions on which they are based. It cannot be “proved” absolutely, mainly because there are no other conceptions more basic to use in establishing it. This article of faith may be the “best” (e.g., most useful) one on which to found all human reasoning, but even it is not beyond being questioned and investigated as to meaning,applicability, and certainty.

  8. Rod MacKinnon Says:

    ‘There are a thousand paths up a mountain, it’s just the view from the top that’s the same.’ Diversity of beliefs is the norm given the software we’ve been supplied with. Nothing particularly new has been said on this idea for a while now. Inventing new terms for old ideas is a real intellectual trap because it creates an illusion of new understanding while just being an old notion in a party-dress. All that really happens is that the view tends to get a bit more myopic and the ideas about the topic more compartmentalised. As I said, different beliefs are standard and that in itself isn’t a problem. A general understand and acceptance of this ‘idea of reality’ could do a lot to ease social, political, religious and racial tension. Beliefs aren’t a trap unless we imagine that what we believe is ‘real.’

  9. BillG Says:

    Ultimately, even our best scientific methods have a whiff of solipism – though much less than “belief-dependent realism”, or perhaps that’s my “bias blind spot”.

    To be safe, always hold a atom or two of doubt. It’s healthy for the soul – I mean, brain chemistry.

  10. ipodsmakezombies Says:

    Um….no one really mentioned this in the comments but although I look forward to borrowing this book at the library in the near future, this post leaves me a bit sad…

    Does this mean that we are doomed to kill and be killed? I know this sounds a bit strong but he says we have “evolved tribal brains that lead us not only to place such value judgment on beliefs but also to demonize and dismiss them as nonsense or evil, or both.”

    Does this mean that, short of some miraculous (hehe) evolutionary change, we are doomed to keep killing and being killed for reasons no greater than perceptual biases?

    I know this doesn’t shift our perspective by a great amount (we already know we kill each other … ALOT) but i always had hope that this would change (another belief) and this makes me feel like that hope will never be realized.

    Not that I am asking for world peace, but at least an end to wholesale slaughter….

  11. Andy Anderson Says:

    All of the comments made become somewhat irrelevant to the fact that virtually ALL of Obama’s life (& birth)records have been “buried.” If there are no “skeletons,” WHY?

  12. hicusdicus Says:

    Shermer, I am uneducated but I have read a lot of your articles and some of your books. What I have to say about you is this, You have put into words what I have always believed but did not know how to say it. Thank you I appreciate it. I wish you well and hope you continue to try and enlighten the shoe wearing car driving apes on this planet.

  13. Jandi Seron Says:

    Like this topic hasn’t been examined before. Eastern Philosophy and mysticism provides a far less shit-brained approach to questions of belief by actually understanding the nature of reality. Science can tell you pretty much nothing, as it is a process of interpretation… This free essay is far more enlightening (so don’t waste your money on a dumb book written by a ‘skeptic’)…

    http://www.odemagazine.com/doc/print/43/no_one_knows_anything

  14. Thomas Foster Says:

    Yes, we are born to believe. But why do we believe in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, insted of the possibility that there might be a reality that is not dependent on the human mind?