We're Lucky that Error Isn't Eternal


How did I ever find anything out before social networking?

Here's a great link I picked up from a Facebook friend, on Why Bad Beliefs Don't Die. Pretty fascinating and enlightening stuff:

As far as our brain is concerned, there is absolutely no need for data and belief to agree. They have each evolved to augment and supplement one another by contacting different sections of the world. They are designed to be able to disagree.... When data and belief come into conflict, the brain does not automatically give preference to data. This is why beliefs-even bad beliefs, irrational beliefs, silly beliefs, or crazy beliefs-often don't die in the face of contradictory evidence. The brain doesn't care whether or not the belief matches the data. It cares whether the belief is helpful for survival. Period.

Don't skip the section on "Implications for Skeptics," which is mainly a really thoughtful guide for how to talk to true believers. It doesn't make it sound easy:

Skeptics will only win the war for rational beliefs by continuing, even in the face of defensive responses from others, to use behavior that is unfailingly dignified and tactful and that communicates respect and wisdom. For the data to speak loudly, skeptics must always refrain from screaming.

But there's considerable comfort and responsibility in all the difficulty:

it should be comforting to all skeptics to remember that the truly amazing part of all of this is not that so few beliefs change or that people can be so irrational, but that anyone's beliefs ever change at all. Skeptics' ability to alter their own beliefs in response to data is a true gift; a unique, powerful, and precious ability. It is genuinely a "higher brain function" in that it goes against some of the most natural and fundamental biological urges. Skeptics must appreciate the power and, truly, the dangerousness that this ability bestows upon them. They have in their possession a skill that can be frightening, life-changing, and capable of inducing pain. In turning this ability on others it should be used carefully and wisely. Challenging beliefs must always be done with care and compassion.


Wait, so is the author suggesting that thunderstorms *aren't* brought to us by invisible flying gremlins?

Seriously though, that's a fantastic article. I too liked the last part that made skepticism sound like a super power.

So after feeling good about myself for having a "higher brain function," I had to enter my comment twice because I failed to enter the right numbers and letters for your comment spam gatekeeper thing the first time around.

Hey JonJon--

Yeah, I felt really special after reading the article too. Every time I get into a conversation with a true believer, especially someplace like Facebook, I'm going to say "I have a super power and s/he doesn't, so I have to be nice," at least 50 times before posting a comment, so I have a better chance of being all respectful and patient, like the guy advocates.

We'll see if it works.


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This page contains a single entry by Holly published on March 1, 2011 7:29 AM.

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