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Does Belief Help Us to Survive?

written August 2009 | comments (17)

I don’t think religious beliefs are different from any other kind of beliefs: political attitudes, commitments to political parties, or economic ideologies, for example. These are all forms of belief. I think at the base of it is this whole idea that we’re pattern-seeking primates. We connect the dots — A connects to B connects to C — and often, they really are connected, and that’s called associative learning. All animals do it. It’s a biological imperative; we grow new synaptic connections when we learn something.

The problem is that there’s no baloney detection module in the brain that says, “That’s a true pattern; that’s a false pattern” with some consistent algorithm that helps us discriminate those. We tend to assume all patterns are real and that they’re infused with intentional agency. And that’s where I think the belief in spirits and ghosts and souls and gods and God and conspiracy theories and so forth comes in. (continue reading…)

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Confessions of a Former Environmental Skeptic

written April 2008 | comments (61)

In his 1964 Republican presidential nomination acceptance speech Barry Goldwater gave voice to one of the most memorable one-liners in political punditry: “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”

These are stirring sentiments, to be sure, and once in a great while they may even be true. But for most human endeavors, moderation is a virtue and extremism is a vice. The reason is clear: all extremists think they are defending liberty and pursuing justice, from Timothy McVeigh and the 9/11 terrorists to Torquemada and abortion clinic bombers. One country’s terrorist is another country’s freedom fighter.

Extreme environmentalists are a case in point. Members of environmentalist groups who vandalize Hummer dealerships, destroy logging equipment, or torch scientific laboratories see themselves not as the terrorists that they are, but as environmental freedom fighters. And environmental groups who paint doom and gloom scenarios and exaggerate, distort, or even fabricate claims in order to keep the donations flowing only hurt their cause in the long run when doomsday comes and goes without incident or the claims turn out to be baseless. (continue reading…)

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Scientology, Anonymous

written February 2008 | comments (121)

Imagine reading the following press release:

Hello, Jews. We are anonymous. Over the years, we have been watching you. Your campaigns of misinformation; suppression of dissent; your litigious nature, all of these things have caught our eye… Anonymous has therefore decided that your organization should be destroyed. For the good of your followers, for the good of mankind — for the laughs — we shall expel you … and systematically dismantle Judaism in its present form…

The rantings of crazed neo-Nazis, right? No. Substitute “Jews” and “Judaism” with “Scientologists” and “Church of Scientology” and you are reading from a statement issued by a group of anti-Scientologists calling themselves “Anonymous.” This statement was released Jan. 21 (read in a YouTube video by a Stephen Hawking-like computerized voice). It was followed by another on Sunday Feb. 10 that coincided with demonstrations at Scientology centers around the world at which protesters donned masks (the Guy Fawkes variety from the movie “V for Vendetta”) and waved posters that read, among other things, “Honk if you hate Scientology.” (continue reading…)

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Why People Don’t Trust Free Markets

written January 2008 | comments (144)
The new science of evolutionary economics offers an explanation for capitalism skepticism

In his magnum opus on the power of free markets, Human Action, the Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises noted: “The truth is that capitalism has not only multiplied population figures but at the same time improved the people’s standard of living in an unprecedented way. Neither economic thinking nor historical experience suggest that any other social system could be as beneficial to the masses as capitalism. The results speak for themselves. The market economy needs no apologists and propagandists. It can apply to itself the words of Sir Christopher Wren’s epitaph in St. Paul’s: Si monumentum requires, circumspice.” If you seek his monument, look around. (continue reading…)

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Why We Should Trade with Cuba

written January 2008 | comments (5)
The new science of neuroeconomics offers
new insights into old political problems

The 19th-century French economist Frederic Bastiat expressed a principle applicable in the 21st century: “Where goods do not cross frontiers, armies will.”

In my new book, The Mind of the Market, I describe in detail how in the modern world of nation states, economic sanctions are among the first steps taken by one nation against another when political diplomacy fails, as when the United States enforced them on Japan after its invasion of China in the 1930s, and these became a prelude (among other factors) to Japan’s retaliatory bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941 and our involvement in the greatest war in history. More recently, economic sanctions were imposed by the U.S. and Japan on India following its 1998 nuclear tests, and more recently by the U.S. on Cuba, Iran, and North Korea. (continue reading…)

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