Friday, April 29, 2011

The Default Option

"Belief is the natural state of things, it's the default option." - Michael Shermer, publisher, Skeptic Magazine

I grew up believing a lot of things – that my parents loved me; that Catholicism was mandatory and there was an all-powerful and loving “Super-Daddy” somewhere out in space that would protect me. But as I began more to observe the natural world, I encountered things I couldn’t explain. I believed in ghosts, telekinesis, UFOs and my mother’s reliance on Astrology. I believed that certain special people had unique and unexplained powers.

Aside from my parent's love, I don’t believe any of those other things today. But those changes didn’t happen overnight, it required decades of effort and study; work which I continue to do. It was only recently that I fully accepted my status as an Atheist, advancing from Agnostic. What I have discovered is that it is simple to believe; but Knowing requires effort.

As a child I was fascinated by Science. The country was all about advancing in science and technology; in school I learned about the natural world. Things began to make sense; it could be quantified and measured and therefore explained. We had entered the Space Race; new discoveries were advancing the body of science on an almost daily basis. And some of what I discovered was sometimes uncomfortably contrary to some of my previously held beliefs.

As a young man following college I began to wonder about consciousness on the fringes of science. I recall subscribing to a magazine called “The New Age Journal”; a periodical for spiritual seekers, I guess one could say. Although it contained some thoughtful articles regarding developing habits to deal with life stresses (such as meditation), it also offered horoscopes and suggested that crystals (pretty rocks) had remarkable healing properties. But by this point in my maturity I had also developed a latent personality trait – Doubt.

The “New Age Journal” subscription expired, replaced now with “Skeptical Inquirer” magazine published by the Center for Inquiry (formerly Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal). Each month there were articles about lake monsters, UFOs, ghosts and myriads of other paranormal phenomena. The underlying premise of the organization was to ask (and often answer) the question: is there another alternative, and most importantly, “rational” explanation?

SI led to other books which reinforced my trust (not faith) in science and allowed me to hold my own beliefs up to the light. Then in 1980 I watched Carl Sagan’s 13 episode series, Cosmos on public television. I was riveted. I was then working in the business world, but to indulge my yearning for science, I volunteered as an “Explainer” at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI). I felt like a kid in a candy store.

Eventually, I became weary of the repetitive analysis of lake monsters and alien abductions. By now, I felt they all had been thoroughly discredited – my interest turned instead to trying to comprehend why so many WANTED to believe in these things. I discovered “Skeptic” magazine published by Michael Shermer of “The Skeptics Society”. Shermer had written books such as “Why People Believe Weird Things” and “How We Believe” and other titles on scientific skepticism. I needed to understand the thinking processes and influences going on within the human mind which caused people to justify holding onto strongly-held beliefs, even in the face of diametrically opposing factual information.

As luck would have it, I was fortunate to become friends with skeptic, inventor, poet and magician, Jerry Andrus. Jerry was the creator of some truly remarkable optical illusions. He was also well known among the world of professional magicians for his unique sleight of hand and magic. Though most magicians learn their trade from other magicians, Jerry did not want to be influenced by others; all of his illusions are ones he developed on his own. Jerry was one of the few men who could actually fool other magicians!

But Jerry had a purpose in his magic; he dedicated his life to teaching people that the conclusions we conclude from the patterns we arrange in our minds, even if they are WRONG, is a completely normal, natural and remarkable result from the evolution of our magnificent brains. Jerry recognized that for humans, “belief is the default option” – but or brains also have the capacity to question our perceptions in order to fully appreciate the wonders of this universe in we live.

Next: Why do we hold on to certain beliefs and why don’t we believe science?

Trailer from my documentary, “Andrus; the Man, the Mind & the Magic.”


DJan said...

It's fascinating to see what has led to your skeptic's outlook, Robert. I look forward to the next chapter.

It makes sense that we are programmed to believe but since we are given the ability to question, it's curious to me that some people shy away from it.

Paul said...

Robert, I believe in slow curve balls over the outside corner, full moons and the beaches of Oahu...:-)

Rain said...

I wrote a comment on this... way too lengthy and even had my husband look at it to be sure from his scientist viewpoint it was true and lost it all when blogger wouldn't post it. I will try once more but just say-- don't trust anything too much. And a lot of real science has no purity. It's aimed at a predetermined conclusion or to get a paper in a prestigious magazine. Trust and verify and in the case of science, just kind of take it all with a grain of salt when it impacts your own life. It might be safe... that thing they claim is... then again...

Mary Witzl said...

I was born questioning the things I was taught; Sunday school teachers used to get really sick of me. I still question what I hear, but I have an inner core of belief that I can't dislodge. Maybe I'm just too lazy to challenge it, or maybe I've simply grown comfortable with it over the years, but I'm at peace with it.

Here's something interesting: why do we love our children and our parents? We don't need to. In order to survive, all we need is to have our physical needs met; the minimum of nurturing would do that. Where does the instinct to love and the desire to be loved come from?

Jayne said...

As a young girl, I was never very interest in Science. I thought is was so kooky. That's probably because it intimidated me. But I loved magic. Who cannot love magic? In any form. As an adult I find that I am oddly becoming more attracted to the science of things. It fascinating material--and it all started with reading Richard Feynman. Now I want more!
What an inspiring and comforting post. :)

Robert the Skeptic said...

DJam In my next essay I will explore just that, why people reject science, or any factual information, for that matter.

Paul I don’t “believe” in those things… but I sure enjoy them.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Rain I would strongly disagree with your generalization that “…a lot of real science has no purity. It's aimed at a predetermined conclusion or to get a paper in a prestigious magazine.”

When any scientific paper is published promoting a theory, it then becomes “fair game” for the scientific community to rip it to shreds. This is the biggest strength of the scientific method, it is self-correcting. Any scientist who puts out “junk” science, “sloppy” science or research presented it in a biased manner risks being discredited. No scientist wants that.

Take for example the huge amount of science about Global Climate Change; there are contradictory theories which have been published, but often funded by corporations or others having a vested interest in discrediting the theory. But, once they put it out there, they are subject to critical review of the scientific community. There are far more independent studies which support GCC than not. If you listen to the media, one would think that there is 50/50 disagreement between scientists. Not! This is why the FDA conducts “independent” studies of a pharmaceutical, for example, and doesn’t just accept the findings of the company researchers who might be influenced because they have something to gain in promoting the drug.

Louis Pasteur long ago warned scientists, who experimented with the intent of proving a foregone conclusion, that they may overlook results they were not expecting, when he said “Chance favors the prepared mind”.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Mary You asked, ”Where does the instinct to love and the desire to be loved come from?”

Likely you have observed that many highly evolved species of mammal, birds even reptiles, instinctually nurture and protect their young. The results of not doing so diminish survivability. There is extremely strong evolutionary basis for nurturing our young.

In the news recently are stories of parents who have harmed and killed their children. In most of these cases we know that their minds were not working properly, normally. We naturally react in horror when these things happen.

Recently neuroscientists are increasingly finding an evolutionary link to concepts of morality; that we do not embrace morals because they are handed down by a supreme being, but that it is in our common interest to have empathy, charity and recognition of the needs of others. We can and have figured out on our own that moral behavior benefits us individually as well as within social constructs.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Jayne Unfortunately my enthusiasm for science is/was mostly from the sidelines, I worked in banking for half of my career and in social services the other half. The “language” of science (mathematics) has always been my weak point and remains difficult for me.

However, you have chosen well by learning about Feynman, what a remarkable person. I would also HIGHLY recommend Carl Sagan’s “The Demon-Haunted World”. Sagan had a remarkable gift in presenting science in a warm and understandable manner. If I had my way, his 13-episode “COSMOS” would be required study in every school. (You can Netflix it, actually)

KleinsteMotte said...

Since we all have a default option how can we ensure that witnesses give valid true input to what they saw? I believe our legal system needs a huge overhaul as does the way we educate our youth. And I feel that the media is messing with what we input but we do not stop it. What causes billions to watch a wedding all at the same time? Why do thousands dress up with hats etc. for this one event? Do we have an input that is common to us all? If so then it would seem some have found a way to manipulate it. Your posts are tops in my book. You get me searching my truths. Thanks.

billy pilgrim said...

i loved cosmos. carl sagan is the perfect narrator. there's just something about his voice that awakens the curiosity in me.

Rain said...

I had another glitch with your blog for some reason. I will try one more time here to post something but not sure it's going to work.

Science is no more infallible than anything else. It is as good as those who are doing the experiment and reading the data. I have been married to a scientist enough years and seen the pressure the guys are under to make sure their data stays honest. In my opinion don't make anything into the ultimate infallible god. The scientific method might make sense as a way to proceed BUT it is followed by men and men have their own purposes.. and yes, that includes global warming which I do believe is happening but right now it's guesswork as to what it means.

Antares Cryptos said...

It is interesting to see your journey into science and skepticism. You are fortunate to have met someone like Jerry.

All new scientific discoveries, some come about by sheer accident, do require a certain "belief" in the magic of imagination, before a paradigm shift occurs.

As to Astrology, it was the Astronomy of its time.
I often think about what will future scientists (centuries in the future) think about our current scientific beliefs.

Antares Cryptos said...

You'll find this interesting, watch it to the end:


Robert the Skeptic said...

KleinsteMotte Eyewitness testimony is extremely unreliable and prone to error. It is amazing that defendants have actually been sentenced to death based on eyewitness accounts. Subject for a future blog.

I too am disturbed by the amount of coverage for this royal wedding - to me the news is tragedy of America's embroilment in longest running war in our history completely ignored by the media.

Billy There is nobody really who can fill Sagan's shoes. I got the DVD of the COSMOS series for Christmas from my kids a while back. It still moves me deeply to tears.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Rain Maybe I am incorrect but You appear to characterize science itself as a belief system. Science is not a form of worship, it is a process and the only one we have to objectively and honestly evaluate the natural world. Yes, as I said, there has occasionally been "junk" science and "biased" science... which is predominantly discredited by others who challenge and retest those claims.

You say "Science is no more infallible than anything else." Science is not up for "interpretation", it is not gazing at tea leaves or rolling dice.

Science has sent man to the moon and back multiple times,
science has extended human life through the development of chemicals (and heart valves made from pigs),
science has multiplied agriculture production multiple fold,
science has revealed the origins of our existence in the universe, science has explained the basic components of individual atoms,
science has taken raw elements of earth and turned them into Camrys, washing machines and cell phones,
science has given us technology that once filled a room now able to be held in one's hand, instant communication anywhere in the world instantly,
science explains what goes up and why it comes down...
The list is long and growing because Science adds to man's body of knowledge every day!
Name "ANYTHING ELSE" that has done all these things if not science.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Cryptos That was a great video, everyone should watch it. There are, of course, evangelical preachers in THIS country doing the same sort of "faith healing" dog-and-pony show and gullible people close their eyes and suck it up. Sad.

John Myste said...

As a child I was fascinated by poker, flying, heights, and building houses made of sheets.

Science bored the hell out of me. Today, I am fascinated by science, subscribe to a semi-scientific science magazine, and yet, it still bores the hell out of me. If it was less obscure, more tangible, and more attainable, I would enjoy it more. It is fascinating in theory.

I do love flying, heights and building things, but I never do any of them. I read about science every week.

Rain said...

It depends on what you consider science to be. (Incidentally to make it clear, I am not talking about junk science but the so-called 'pure' science.) If you see science as a process by which information may be gained, then I believe it's a valid system. If you are talking about science as explaining the results of that and telling you what is safe to eat for instance or how something in nature has occurred, then I am more the skeptic for two reasons.

One is what I mentioned. Those facts have to be interpreted. If you have faith in someone, who is a scientist, to do that for you (and mostly we have to do that as we don't have the information to do it ourselves) then you are dependent on their honor and their willingness to take into account the anomaly, the thing that didn't fit and figure out what that means for the conclusion).

Remember at one time 'science' said that the earth was flat based on perception at that time which was limited by what they could test or know (as well as what they were willing to know). When new information came up proving they were wrong, many scientists had too much at stake in holding onto the existing 'truths'.

That's where the second problem comes in with 'science' being dependable to always tell you the truth. Power and money. Too often there is something at stake in this or that theory and you can twist those test results or throw out whatever didn't fit as a way to get what you wanted done. Unfortunately in our country, with government money drying up (and this has been going on a lot of years) a lot of science has been co-opted by corporation needs even in universities.

Science in terms of results is not infallible and science in terms of method cannot figure out everything.

I don't have a problem with trusting science to a point, but I don't put my faith in anything to believe it is absolute and why would I need to? To be able to brag I know more about the earth than anybody else? Why would I need that? Would it be so I could have some 'ultimate truth' to hold onto? I don't need it.

I am glad we have the things we know today that have benefited our lifestyle and came from the scientific method, but so many things are out there and much more may yet be known to turn some of what we think on its head. We also don't know the results often on human beings from some of our 'scientific advances'. So where it comes to science I read it with interest but not blind faith. After living 67 almost 68 years, I don't have blind faith in anything! I do live with some assumptions though but am never totally shocked when they are proven wrong.

Robert the Skeptic said...

John You are facinated by science but it also bores you? I think if just presented with raw data it would be pretty droll. But science journalist distilling it into a continuum of easier to understand periodicals such as "Science", "Scientific American" to almost overviews like "Discover", I can usually find something interesting.

I have no clue how what will spew out of the "Large Hadron Collider" but it they say it has to do with how our universe came to be... I'm riveted.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Rain I agree with you, all science is not equal. Studies done by a pharmaceutical company (which may even be pure science as you categorize it) regarding a drug they intend to profit from, should be suspect - their findings confirmed (or not) by other independent studies. When someone has suggested to me that I try some dietary supplement, I research it online - if the studies are on web sites also SELLING the supplement, I disregard them. Not that I KNOW they may be skewed but there is that possibility.

So yes, power and money can play a role in science, but the beauty is ANY claim is subject to other scientists holding their feet to the fire. Nobody should accept the results of science on "faith" just because it was supposedly done in the name of science. But the accumulation of the preponderance of information from multiple sources can tell us a lot.

Remember the "Cold Fusion" fiasco... and the resulting discredit?

You are correct, science has been co-opted by special vested interests. But they run risk of being discredited by other objective researchers. When a scientists publishes, they are putting their necks out there - they better have it right.

You are right, science cannot figure out everything, it will never give us an "ultimate truth", but it will say that based on observation and study, we can say it is reasonable to accept that something is true. And the list of things continues to grow. No one will ever say; yep, we're done, we know it all now.

Skeptics like to say that we are open-minded... but not so open that our brains fall out. Skepticism is applied to everything, including (and sometimes, especially) scientific claims.

Rain said...

To add to this discussion, my husband was telling me this morning that science magazines are not created equal either even with the same basic name. He said you have the 'science' magazine on the newsstand, a bit lighter with more potential for hairball ideas, then the very 'pure' one aimed for the professors and researchers; but what goes into each is subject to an editorial board; so that what will be published will fit the predetermined philosophy of the publication. So if someone disagrees with that, has done experiments they want to put out that favor a different conclusion, they won't get in that magazine.

Now that doesn't mean the editorial board is trying to brainwash people but maybe they know what will sell to their purchasers, what will anger some enough to quit the subscription. Maybe they want to sell certainty and not ifs. All publishers, books, magazines, any of them, make money or they are finished. The end result though is you get one agenda not necessarily all that is out there.

One of my upsets with our country has been how we have gone away from pure research and have less room to let scientists just go where they will without an agenda that brings in dollars. I think it's a big loss to the future of knowledge. Universities are under tremendous pressure to get grants; and a professor, who is excellent at teaching but not good at getting grants, won't get tenure. It's all about money these days and that's sad and I think shortsighted.

[granted..there has been some long term 'crony support' of pure BS in the name of pure science.. just remember that it is people trying to satisfy themselves and "their" community that determines most of we have a chance to see or hear..EVERYWHERE. There is NO Purity!]..FB

I woke up this morning thinking about cognitive perception as we as humans don't all learn the same way and how often perception is manipulated by others. I am not sure what we can do about educating in a way that helps students gain the most potential to learn since we are in a culture that encourages superficiality and wants answers that please the masses. Little research for curiosity's sake and not educating children to think creatively. It's not encouraging for the future if it keeps on this way.

John Myste said...

I have a print subscription to Scientific American. I enjoy reading it, but even that is often over my head.

Paul said...

Robert, I am a believer in Jesus. That being said Mahatma Gandhi, the Great Soul of India, called Truth God. It seems fitting to me...:-)

Robert the Skeptic said...

Rain I will conclude with the suggestion that broad generalizations are often inaccurate and that exceptions to a position does not invalidate the whole. When evaluating any set of "facts" it is wise to consider the source but to also "not throw the baby out with the bathwater". Thanks for your comments.

Paul I was raised as a believer in Jesus as well. Over a lifetime of study I have found that there is far more validation that Gandhi existed than did Jesus. If one only accepts information that confirms one's beliefs, eschewing that which presents an alternative, then the "truth" will more likely be yours, but not everyone's.

secret agent woman said...

Skepticism was acceptable in the family I grew up in and now encouraged by me with my own children. I think we so often fail to teach our kids to be critical thinkers. I think faith in a supernatural being is comforting to many people, but it requires shutting down logic. I find it troubling that people ignore science in favor of mythology.

Jerry said...

Ahh - my younger teenage years were consumed with Edgar Cayce and his 'healings' and 'predictions'. I slowly worked my way out of that one. I think I still have the Cosmos tapes somewhere. My favorite program at the time.

I monthly visit the Skeptical Inquirer to learn of new investigations of paranormal claims. Truly fascinating.

Even now, though, if asked if I believe in ghosts and aliens among us, I will answer, "No -- but I kinda' wish it were so."

Robert the Skeptic said...

SecretAgent Though my parents were believers, and my mother a follower of Astrology, I ended up concluding and thinking as you do.

Jerry My mother was a believer in Edgar Cayce as well. Yeah, ghosts can be kind-a fun at times.

The Mother said...

I loved your Andrus documentary. And you were truly lucky to have him as a friend. The rest of us have had to learn the hard way.

Marylinn Kelly said...

I DO believe that when the student is ready, the teacher appears. Though he did not appear early in your life, Jerry Andrus seems to have been a teacher in the best sense, by his actions and his thoughts. And not every mind would have recognized the value of his lessons...I do not think we are intended to take everything presented to us at face value. We are intended to question, yet here we are...good to be reminded of your fine documentary.

Stafford Ray said...

“belief is the default option” – Of course the default option is accessed by those who would try to perpetuate a belief set no matter how nutty, starting with the new brains of children.
Those first beliefs are the hardest to shift and there are good reasons for that. Tribes needed total commitment to their integrity for survival and its myths and rituals gave it cohesion. They they still do.
Now, in our Global Village, all that primitive stuff is downright dangerous!

Jayne said...

Robert- Thank you for that suggestion. I've read some Sagan, but not “The Demon-Haunted World”. Adding it to my Amazon list!

Robert the Skeptic said...

Dr. Mom Jerry was indeed a remarkable man. I was luck to have him cross my path, even though it was a short journey.

Marylinn I have been lucky to have a few such teachers in my life.

Stafford It is very basic and primitive aspects of our thinking patterns, with us likely for millions of years. One can say, though, it certainly served us well to evolve us to this point.

Jayne Sagan is an easy read, he is so eloquent in his manner and mind.