Book Review: The Believing Brain, Michael Shermer (2011)

Thursday, September 1st, 2011

We Want to Believe!

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free advanced review copy of this book through Library Thing’s Early Reviewer program.)

I requested a copy of Michael Shermer’s The Believing Brain through Library Thing’s Earlier Reviewer program on behalf of my husband, who – as a fellow libertarian skeptic – is a huge fan of Shermer’s work. (I’m also a skeptic and an atheist, but economically liberal – so still a fan, but not nearly as much as he!) In addition to owning most of Shermer’s books, he even had the good fortune to interview Shermer for his podcast, The Libertarian Dime, a few years back (during the Amazing Meeting, natch!). So he was rather enthusiastic when we snagged a review copy and it arrived in the mail a few weeks later. Busy as he was at work, it then sat around for a few months, gathering dust, until I finally picked it up and started leafing through…and quickly became engrossed.

The basic premise of The Believing Brain is that people form beliefs, and then the explanations for these beliefs follow. (Which is exactly the opposite of how things “should” work – or the opposite of how we’d like to think our rational human minds function, anyhow.) Far from being logical, unbiased, free-thinking agents, we are instead driven by minds that function as “belief engines,” designed by evolution to see patterns in the world – whether real or imagined – and to infuse them with meaning. Thus, beliefs are formed, and the (selective) gathering of (supporting) evidence is secondary. Of course, Shermer’s thesis is much more complicated than this, and draws from the fields of psychology and neurobiology, with a heavy emphasis on behavioral neuroscience (biopsychology) and evolutionary psychology. (Shermer has a bachelor’s degree in biopsychology and a doctorate in the history of science.) He cites a wealth of evidence to support his argument, including research examining the link between activity in different areas of the brain and the propensity to believe in pseudoscience, superstitions, conspiracy theories and other forms of “bunk.” (The book includes a generous, twenty-three page appendix.)

The Believing Brain is divided into four parts. Part I, “Journeys of Belief,” features profiles of skeptics-turned-believers and believers-turned-skeptics, including Shermer himself. Though perhaps unnecessary (the book does clock in at almost 400 pages, after all!), this is a nice, light read, and helps to guide the reader into the meat of the book: Part II, “The Biology of Belief,” which introduces the topics of patternicity and agenicity and discusses how the brain, through neural activity, is involved in each. Part III shows these principles in action: belief in the afterlife, god, aliens and conspiracies all serve as examples of false beliefs preceding valid evidence. Finally, we see in Part IV how beliefs manifest in politics, and how a whole host of biases (e.g., confirmation, self-justification, attribution, sunk-cost and status quo, to name a few) help to trick our minds into believing that we are almost always right (and, conversely, those who disagree with us are almost always wrong). (Those who’ve ever taken a social psychology course will find “Confirmations of Belief” reassuringly familiar.) Lastly, In “Geographies of Belief” and “Cosmologies of Belief,” Shermer illustrates how popular beliefs evolve over time, and positively so through the application of science and the scientific method.

Though I mostly enjoyed The Believing Brain, I do have a few quibbles. Since his thesis draws so heavily upon evolutionary psychology, I would have liked for Shermer to have at least acknowledged some of the criticisms of the field. Additionally, while the research discussed in The Believing Brain suggests that not all of the variations in belief can be attributed to biological factors – for example, environmental and social factors may also play also a role – Shermer doesn’t seem to want to touch either with a ten-foot pole! I found myself especially frustrated by one of the book’s parting chapters, “Cosmologies of Belief,” which draws upon the history of cosmology to demonstrate how beliefs can be changed. Since all of my knowledge about space and time comes from Doctor Who and Battlestar Galactica, I found myself struggling to understand the science in the chapter; science in action became the forest to cosmology’s trees. A more widely understood topic might make this chapter more accessible to a wider audience.

My biggest complaint, however, is perhaps the most minor of them all (well, “minor” inasmuch as it occupies the least space – less than a page, to be exact). Early on, in his introduction on patternicity, Shermer singles out celebrities Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey in order to chastise them for their crusade against vaccinations (supposedly because of their link to autism). My problem isn’t with the scolding – it’s well-deserved – but with how Shermer goes about it. He describes a 2009 Autism Awareness Day episode of Larry King Live: on one side of the debate, medical researchers. “On the other side of the table were the actor Jim Carrey and his ex-Playboy bunny partner Jenny McCarthy.” Not only is this an ad hominem attack (they’re celebrities! so they must be stupid and ill-informed!) and appeal to authority (misguided at best, given how Shermer spends the next 300 pages demonstrating how we’re all subject to irrational, misguided beliefs, education be damned), but in describing McCarthy as an “ex-Playboy bunny” – instead of an actress, comedian, or (more generally) a celebrity or entertainer – he engages in a pernicious, subtle bit of slut-shaming as well. Not only is she vacuous and gullible like her partner the actor – but she takes her clothes off for money, to boot! (The horror of it all!) Reductive and sexist. I nearly quit reading the book after choking on this tripe, but pushed on and am happy to report that it’s an anomaly. Still, I hope Shermer revises his choice of words in future editions of the book. (Mine is an ARC.)

Anyhow, given the complexity of the subject matter, it’s helpful if you have some background in biopsychology; while Shermer does a good enough job of explaining the basics of neural communication, I found myself pulling out my old college textbook for extra help (and especially illustrations!). Even so, The Believing Brain is an engaging – if not always easy and breezy – read for the layperson. Methinks this book will appeal most to those in the skeptical/atheist community, as well as those interested in popular psychology books.

(This review was originally published on Amazon and Library Thing, and is also available on Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you think it so!)