Most of us like to believe that our beliefs are well-founded. It's the other guy who isn't looking at the evidence, is drawing false conclusions, has his or her head in the sand while we're staring straight at reality.
Well, that's an unfounded belief.
Each of us, everyone on Earth, is prone to making wrong conclusions. Michael Shermer explains why in his new book, "The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and God to Politics and Conspiracies -- How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths."
The brain is a belief engine. From sensory data flowing in through the senses the brain naturally begins to look for and find patterns, and then infuses these patterns with meaning.
The first process I call patternicity: the tendency to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless data. The second process I call agenticity: the tendency to infuse patterns with meaning, intention, and agency.
We can't help it. Our brains evolved to connect the dots of our world into meaningful patterns that explain why things happen. These meaningful patterns become beliefs, and these beliefs shape our understanding of reality.
Once beliefs are formed, the brain begins to look for and find confirming evidence in support of those beliefs, which adds an emotional boost of further confidence in the beliefs and thereby accelerates the process of reinforcing them, and round and round the process goes in a positive feedback loop of belief confirmation.
I'm fond of calling religious people "true believers." But actually we all are. Even scientists.
...scientists are people too, no less subject to the whims of emotion and the pull of cognitive biases to shape and reinforce beliefs.
However, scientists and the scientifically-minded, of whom I consider myself to be one, recognize the siren song of true belief: how alluring it is, how easy it is to fall into the arms of a beautiful belief, how difficult it is to pull away from falsehood's warm embrace.
Even though I'm only a few chapters into Shermer's book, I've already learned the broad outline of how we navigate the treacherous waters of blind belief.
In the final chapters we will consider how we know any of our beliefs are believable, which patterns are true and which are false, which agents are real and which are not, and how science works as the ultimate pattern detection device that allows us a few degrees of freedom within belief-dependent realism, and some measurable progress away from its psychological trappings.
There's a good short summary of "The Believing Brain" by Shermer in Scientific American. He ends with:
This dependency on belief and its host of psychological biases is why, in science, we have built-in self-correcting machinery. Strict double-blind controls are required, in which neither the subjects nor the experimenters know the conditions during data collection.
Collaboration with colleagues is vital. Results are vetted at conferences and in peer-reviewed journals. Research is replicated in other laboratories. Disconfirming evidence and contradictory interpretations of data are included in the analysis. If you don’t seek data and arguments against your theory, someone else will, usually with great glee and in a public forum.
This is why skepticism is a sine qua non of science, the only escape we have from the belief-dependent realism trap created by our believing brains.