Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Magic Feather

"... People gravitate toward information that confirms what they believe, and they select sources that deliver it." - Charles Taber

In my previous blog post I revealed a brief history of my personal journey from being a Believer to becoming a Skeptic. It was a long and sometimes difficult process; but I can never go back. I often think of the scene toward the end of “The Wizard of Oz” where Dorothy and company are terrified of the specter of the great and all-powerful OZ – until little Toto pulls back the curtain, revealing the hoax. We Skeptics are Toto.

Recently the curtain was pulled back on the widely-held belief that President Obama is not a legally born US Citizen. Up to this point, facts had not dissuaded the “Birthers” strongly held beliefs. So will the stark confrontation from presenting Obama’s actual birth certificate settle the issue once and for all? Not likely – people tend to hold strongly to their beliefs, and even more surprisingly, tend to grip them even tighter in the face of contradictory facts. What’s going on here?

As I pointed out previously, belief is the “default option”. Evolution has favored the tendency for humans to generally believe what we presented. Belief can, and often does, exist outside of the truth of that belief.
From the Encyclopedia Britannica:
“[Belief is] a mental attitude of acceptance or assent toward a proposition without the full intellectual knowledge required to guarantee its truth. Believing is either an intellectual judgment or, as the 18th-century Scottish Skeptic David Hume maintained, a special sort of feeling with overtones that differ from those of disbelief. … Belief in someone or something is basically different from belief that a proposition is true.
“Seeing is believing” is a common idiom, though the belief may be incorrect. In the case of performance magic, magicians deliberately make use of this causality to our delight by making us think that the laws of physics can be suspended. The same impressions can also be employed by people, such as convicted swindler Bernard Maydoff, to cause us to part with our money to disastrous result.

Our eyes and brain, fortunately, are not movie cameras which objectively record and retain every image. I say “fortunately” because, without our outward awareness our brains sort, prioritize, evaluate and weigh for significance, all of millions of bits of input we experience every day. Most of this information is discarded; your brain has forgotten the number of traffic lights you went through on your way to the mall, the faces of the people in the store, and the Musak tunes played as you shopped. What we do remember are those things that have significance and value to us – and for this we require an emotional component.

Emotions, how we “feel” about what we experience, are a strong influence on the conclusions we derive from our perceptions. We weight these experiences against our values and decide if they are worthy of acceptance, of belief.

Internal conflict arises within us when we are confronted with information contrary to our beliefs. This can create discomfort and stress and can even feel threatening when one’s values are at stake. There are few alternatives available to us; acceptance of the belief, rationalize it, or outright dismissal. The surprising research is that, when confronted with opposing input, we often reinforce the original belief.
"[People] retrieve thoughts that are consistent with their previous beliefs... and that will lead them to build an argument and challenge what they're hearing." In other words, when we think we're reasoning, we may instead be rationalizing.
... People rejected the validity of a scientific source because its conclusion contradicted their deeply held views... And that undercuts the standard notion that the way to persuade people is via evidence and argument. In fact, head-on attempts to persuade can sometimes trigger a backfire effect, where people not only fail to change their minds when confronted with the facts—they may hold their wrong views more tenaciously than ever.” [1]
- Charles Taber, Stonybrook University
Skepticism is a process which requires effort if we are to ensure we are correct in our assumptions, something few people do. Without exercising that extra effort, we can continue to expect that half of the conservatives in this country will believe our President is a Muslim and a significant number, even in the face of outstanding proof, will continue to believe that he was not born a US Citizen.

Many hold certain beliefs, primarily religious beliefs, because they find comfort within them. But is the comfort and confidence in these beliefs not unlike that of Dumbo, holding onto our “magic feather” falsely convinced that it is the reason we can fly? But I think there is something of greater value to be gained by venturing outside one's comfort zone, in questioning one's beliefs. For me it is never enough to just believe; I have to "know". The Truth - I can deal with the truth.

Next: Can we separate emotions from our decisions and beliefs?
1. The Science of Why We Don't Believe Science, Mother Jones, April 18, 2011
Finally for a bit of fun: Can you trust what you're seeing to be true?
Watch this Japanese magician pull a salt shaker through a solid glass table top:


Orhan Kahn said...

We're all beautiful walking contradictions. Except for the sand people. Because they're brown and have lots of oil.

TechnoBabe said...

Just keeps proving that the sheep are being led.

DJan said...

One of the reasons that I appreciate your blog is that you do cause me to question my long-held assumptions about the way I see the world. You really made me think with your comment explaining the difference between atheism and believing.

You have done the same thing here. How does one get outside our internal reality to see what is real? Or is here even a "real"?

We're not in Kansas any more, are we?

Rain said...

A lot of people do think if they say something often enough, it'll prove to be true or they will get credit for it-- whether it worked or not. I don't think there's any changing their minds either because often fear is at the base of it.

I tried to think, after I read this, if there is anything 'spiritual' that I totally believe I know. I can't think of anything but I can think of things I have reason to believe or don't disbelieve even though I cannot physically prove it. It's like wireless that I can see the results of when my computer turns on but I cannot see it. But it has to regularly work that way, cannot be once in a ten year cycle for me to think there is something there. I'm kind of right now in one of the places where I don't think much about any of it either way. I have no need to prove to friends things they believe are not so. I do think there are some types of 'faith' that can be very damaging and not just in religions. Those are the ones I'd do more to try and convince people were not so and they can be from new agey things as much as standard religions. Anything that limits full living of life, that's what is not good and worth trying to get people to see for what it is. The unfortunate fact is though you usually cannot...

Paul said...

Who really knows what is true Robert ? All that I can know for sure is between my ears in the gray matter and we all view the world from our own unique perspectives. My truth today may not be my truth a year from now. And the human mind can take us only so far. I mistrust worldly wisdom.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Orhan Contradictions we are indeed. We sure rely heavily on that oil, don't we!

TechnoBabe But we don HAVE to be sheep, we can be consciously aware that, not only can others pull the wool over our eyes, we also do that to our selves. Being aware is what it's all about.

DJan "Solipsism" is the belief that only one's mind exists and the remainder of the real world is not real at all but a creation of the mind, imagination. Interesting philosophical argument but that flies smack into the face of physics.

What we percieve of as "real" is a combination of conclusions we come to from our observation and interaction within that reality. Touch a table top, for example - maybe it is not real, but your senses, your logic, your understanding of the physical world evaluate that it is indeed HIGHLY LIKELY that a table exists and you are touching it.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Rain I agree that anything that limits living a full life is not good. This is a strong argument against religion which is dogmatic, NOT democratic. And it is why those of use who reject religion call ourselves "free thinkers".

You bring up a good point about beliefs needing to regularly work. We see this in people who believe in the paranormal. For example, a dowser may be successful 2 out of 10 times - they regard the 2 successes as confirmation of their special ability. What they don't recognize is that randomly, with no special powers at all, they should be successful 5 out of 10 times. They delude themselves.

Paul I think it is just as dangerous to mistrust worldly wisdom outright as to accept it blindly. Perhaps you cannot 100% know what is true, but you can use your powers of perception and cognition to come to a reasonable assumption of what you believe is most likely to be true.

Kay Dennison said...

I've been a questioner all my life and while I call myself a renegade Catholic -- mostly because that's how I was raised -- I've always been the kid who raises her hand and gets in trouble because I ask questions that they don't want to hear. I suspect that that will not change. That said, I learned long ago that anything can happen and it probably will. There is a sense of righteousness on both sides that grates on my last surviving nerve.

KleinsteMotte said...

Feather makes me think of pillows.
I am wondering where our dream state fits into our ability to understand reality. Science.
I think if I had the ability to see more hues like other life forms I would not accept the illusions of magic. Limited visual ability allows me to be fooled.

Science mirrors a real world. It has taken centuries of studying to arrive at our ability to share ideas on this www about human limitations. People take in only what they wish to accept, are told to accept or are capable of accepting. But there is evolution.

The salt shaker video reveals one form of that evolution, a shift in linguistics.

billy pilgrim said...

as a rational anarchist skepticism is hard wired into my brain but i'm envious of those with true faith that a better life awaits us after we discard our shells and ascend to the heavens.

Eeshie said...

This was...this was just awesome.

The Mother said...

Skeptic that I am, I do have to wonder why, if we've known were Bin Laden was for months, the raid and assassination happened immediately after the birth certificate announcement, when Obama's approval ratings were tanking?

OR: is that just too non-skeptical???

Robert the Skeptic said...

Kay I started out Catholic as well. I think the terror from that Dark Ages religion probably drove me to Atheism faster than anything else. The Nuns did NOT like being asked questions which is probably why their answers were so full of s#*t.

KleinsteMotte Dreams are an entirely different thing... in fact during our conscious times awake, our minds are applying all these filters and scrutiny to what we perceive. Once asleep, our brains kind of have free reign to create without those restrictions. Dreaming is really interesting to me.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Billy Indeed isn't that totally cool for believers? They get to eat all the ice cream in heaven and never get fat! Praise the Lard.

Eeshie Glad you enjoyed it, thanks for visiting.

Dr. Mom I think clearly the two events you cite are the result of coincidence. This raid took months of planning and specialized training. They also had to wait for good weather and during a very dark moon. This operation was a long time in the making and very complex.

This president is starting to show some backbone, and frankly, it's about time.

Cognitive Dissenter said...

Excellent analysis.

I once posted about true believer syndrome. It is interesting how people will insist on clinging to their beliefs, the overwhelming evidence notwithstanding.

I think skepticism is synonymous with honesty and the courage to admit what one doesn't know. Initially it can be frightening but it's really a beautiful and liberating thing.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Dissenter I had never thought of skepticism as honesty or courage before, but there is indeed a freedom that comes from releasing mystical beliefs which are unpredictable and undependable.

Praying to god to cure your disease, for example... he either will or he won't, you never can know. I prefer to know the rate of cure for a particular treatment, THAT gives me something tangible.

GutsyWriter said...

I'm going to focus on the salt shaker which was a pretty unique and amazing magic trick. I believe the more you travel and live abroad, things don't have to be black and white anymore.

Jerry said...

It was an interesting test for me these past few days. My Value System, i.e. Belief System was challenged with the killing of Bin Laden. My Values dictate that he should have been captured and tried, although I understood the string of negatives in so doing. I could internally make strong arguments for both sides. I both understood the need for a 'Kill on Sight' order (which I am pretty sure it was), but I didn't like the idea that we could so blithely ignore such basic constitutional precepts.

In fact, the internal conflict was unresolvable -- so I just walked away from it with an "I accept it" conclusion and really didn't want to think about it anymore.

But -- I would appreciate your take on the whole thing....perhaps in a future blog post.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Gutsy I totally agree, foreign travel affords us a perspective that cannot be experienced any other way.

Jerry My thoughts on the bin Laden killing - I concluded immediately that capture and ensuing trial would be like chumming the water for sharks; it would cause untold and ongoing levels of unrest. Killing him eliminates all that "drama".

Our "war on terror" is not a declared war in the traditional sense; it is rhetorical, like the "war on drugs" or the "war on poverty". There is no one state to square off with as we had in WWII. But in a broader sense, it is a war at that. In that context, taking out bin Laden and any other person who conducts attacks against civilians, I feel falls within that context. He is not a citizen nor a supporter of the the rule of law. He therefore chooses his fate.