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Scientific American

Proof of Hallucination

published April 2013 | comments (56)
Did a neurosurgeon go to heaven?
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In Eben Alexander’s best-selling book Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife (Simon & Schuster), he recounts his near-death experience (NDE) during a meningitis-induced coma. When I first read that Alexander’s heaven includes “a beautiful girl with high cheekbones and deep blue eyes” who offered him unconditional love, I thought, “Yeah, sure, dude. I’ve had that fantasy, too.” Yet when I met him on the set of Larry King’s new streaming-live talk show on Hulu, I realized that he genuinely believes he went to heaven. Did he?

Not likely. First, Alexander claims that his “cortex was completely shut down” and that his “near-death experience … took place not while [his] cortex was malfunctioning, but while it was simply off.” In King’s green room, I asked him how, if his brain was really nonfunctional, he could have any memory of these experiences, given that memories are a product of neural activity? He responded that he believes the mind can exist separately from the brain. How, where, I inquired? That we don’t yet know, he rejoined. The fact that mind and consciousness are not fully explained by natural forces, however, is not proof of the supernatural. In any case, there is a reason they are called near-death experiences: the people who have them are not actually dead. (continue reading…)

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Dictators and Diehards

published March 2013 | Comments Off
Pluralistic ignorance and the last best hope
on earth
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In Tyler Hamilton’s 2012 book The Secret Race (written with Daniel Coyle), the cyclist exposes the most sophisticated doping program in the history of sports, orchestrated by Lance Armstrong, the seven-time Tour de France winner now stripped of his titles after a thorough investigation by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. Hamilton shows how such an elaborate system was maintained through the “omertà rule”—the code of silence that leads one to believe everyone else believes doping is the norm—and reinforced by the threat of punishment for speaking out or not complying.

The broader psychological principle at work here is “pluralistic ignorance,” in which individual members of a group do not believe something but mistakenly believe everyone else in the group believes it. When no one speaks up, it produces a “spiral of silence” that can lead to everything from binge drinking and hooking up to witch hunts and deadly ideologies. A 1998 study by Christine M. Schroeder and Deborah A. Prentice, for example, found that “the majority of students believe that their peers are uniformly more comfortable with campus alcohol practices than they are.” Another study in 1993 by Prentice and Dale T. Miller found a gender difference in drinking attitudes in which “male students shifted their attitudes over time in the direction of what they mistakenly believed to be the norm, whereas female students showed no such attitude change.” Women, however, were not immune to pluralistic ignorance when it comes to hooking up, as shown in a 2003 study by Tracy A. Lambert and her colleagues, who found “both women and men rated their peers as being more comfortable engaging in these behaviors than they rated themselves.” (continue reading…)

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The Left’s War on Science

published February 2013 | comments (14)
How politics distorts science
on both ends of the spectrum
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Believe it or not—and I suspect most readers will not—there’s a liberal war on science. Say what?

We are well aware of the Republican war on science from the eponymous 2006 book (Basic Books) by Chris Mooney, and I have castigated conservatives myself in my 2006 book Why Darwin Matters (Holt) for their erroneous belief that the theory of evolution leads to a breakdown of morality. A 2012 Gallup Poll found that “58% of Republicans believe that God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years,” compared with 41 percent of Democrats. A 2011 survey by the Public Religion Research Institute found that 81 percent of Democrats but only 49 percent of Republicans believe that Earth is getting warmer. Many conservatives seem to grant early-stage embryos a moral standing that is higher than that of adults suffering from debilitating diseases potentially curable through stem cells. And most recently, Missouri Republican senatorial candidate Todd Akin gaffed on the ability of women’s bodies to avoid pregnancy in the event of a “legitimate rape.” It gets worse. (continue reading…)

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Logic-Tight Compartments

published January 2013 | comments (21)
How our modular brains lead us to deny
and distort evidence
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IF YOU HAVE PONDERED how intelligent and educated people can, in the face of overwhelming contradictory evidence, believe that that evolution is a myth, that global warming is a hoax, that vaccines cause autism and asthma, that 9/11 was orchestrated by the Bush administration, conjecture no more. The explanation is in what I call logic-tight compartments—modules in the brain analogous to watertight compartments in a ship.

The concept of compartmentalized brain functions acting either in concert or in conflict has been a core idea of evolutionary psychology since the early 1990s. According to University of Pennsylvania evolutionary psychologist Robert Kurzban in Why Everyone (Else) Is a Hypocrite (Princeton University Press, 2010), the brain evolved as a modular, multitasking problem-solving organ—a Swiss Army knife of practical tools in the old metaphor or an app-loaded iPhone in Kurzban’s upgrade. There is no unified “self” that generates internally consistent and seamlessly coherent beliefs devoid of conflict. Instead we are a collection of distinct but interacting modules often at odds with one another. The module that leads us to crave sweet and fatty foods in the short term is in conflict with the module that monitors our body image and health in the long term. The module for cooperation is in conflict with the one for competition, as are the modules for altruism and avarice or the modules for truth telling and lying. (continue reading…)

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The Alpinists of Evil

published December 2012 | comments (4)
Nazis did not just blindly follow orders
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IN LAST MONTH’S COLUMN I recounted how my replication of Stanley Milgram’s shock experiments revealed that although most people can be inveigled to obey authorities if they are asked to hurt others, they do so reluctantly and with much moral conflict. Milgram’s explanation was an “agentic state,” or “the condition a person is in when he sees himself as an agent for carrying out another person’s wishes.” As agents in an experiment, subjects shift from being moral agents in society to obedient agents in a hierarchy. “I am forever astonished that when lecturing on the obedience experiments in colleges across the country, I faced young men who were aghast at the behavior of experimental subjects and proclaimed they would never behave in such a way but who, in a matter of months, were brought into the military and performed without compunction actions that made shocking the victim seem pallid.” (continue reading…)

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