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I spent most of the past weekend lazing about reading a book I picked up on impulse. I haven’t done a book review before but I thought I’d give it a shot because I think many atheists and skeptics could benefit from some of the insights in it. The subtitle of the book is certain to appeal to those two groups, “Adventures with the Enemies of Science,” and the first chapter, which starts out among creationists, is certain to appeal to skeptics. Later in the book, there is a chapter in which skeptics themselves come in for a great deal of criticism. Although I think Storr has taken a subset of skeptics and had them stand in for all skeptics and his criticism, while not entirely off base, is a little harsh on that account. Yet many of his insights would be especially beneficially to skeptics and movement atheists, who often identify with skeptics, so reminding oneself to not give in to our initial emotional reaction and become highly defensive might be necessary in order to give his ideas a fair hearing.

One of the things I liked most about Storr as an author was his readiness to doubt his own opinions. He starts out by asking why some people believe things that are easily disproved. The list is diverse, creationists, UFO abductees, people who object to western medicine, homeopaths, believers in past lives, ritual Satanic child abuse, and a couple of other items I’m missing. By passing the easy answers, that they’re charlatans or fools, he looks into more general questions of why people believe the things they do. In doing so, he discovers that human beings are, in general, unreliable narrators.

I consider – as everyone surely does – that my opinions are the correct ones. And yet, I have never met anyone whose every single thought I agreed with. When you take these two positions together, they become a way of saying, ‘Nobody is as right about as many things as me.’ And that cannot be true…. So I accept that I am wrong about things – I must be wrong about them. A lot of them. But when I look back over my shoulder and I double-check what I think about religion and politics and science all the rest of it… …. – it is usually at this point that I start to feel strange. I know that I am not right about everything, and yet I am simultaneously convinced that I am….

It is as if I have caught a glimpse of some grotesque delusion that I am stuck inside. It is disorienting. It is frightening. And I think it is true to say that it is not just me – that is, we all secretly believe we are right about everything and, by extension, we are all wrong.

I, myself, have experienced many times just this sense of disorientation. In fact, it was the main reason I started writing down my memories. It is clear that a great many people don’t believe as I do on many subjects, often people I estimate to be perfectly rational and intelligent. I started writing my memories down to explore how my own biases came to be in place.

At another point later in the book, he explores the question of how it is possible to be a journalist if a person believes he might be an unreliable narrator.

Storr is, by his own accounting, an atheist. Much as I would myself, I would call him a skeptic, but not a Skeptic. In other words, he seeks and expects naturalistic explanations for events but he does not belong to any organized skeptical organizations. As a Brit, he makes the distinction between the two groups by using the British spelling. A detail which has its own interest to me that I’ll get back to later.

In between episodes talking to people who believe hard to believe things, Storr paints a picture about how our minds work. That picture is one of a brain that is not always rational and works to deceive us. He introduces the reader to “situational psychology.” Giving well-known examples such as the Stanford Prison Experiment and the work of Stanley Milgram, he explains that individuals are far less in control of themselves than we believe ourselves to be.

According to Zimbardo, there is a kind of recipe for creating evil. ‘How did evil come about during the prison experiment?’ he asks. It was people playing a role…. Although you start off thinking those roles are arbitrary and not the real you, as you live them, they become you. the second thing is the power of the group…. Groups can have powerful influences on individual behavior…. You take away somebody’s individuality. You make them anonymous. The next process is called dehumanisation, where you begin to think of other people as different from you and then as different from your kind and kin, and then as less than human.

Later, he describes how the brain makes an interior model of the world. When we look, at any given moment we are not seeing as much as we think we are seeing. As our eyes dart around a room, for instance, the brain fills in the gaps and we think we are seeing more than we are at any given moment. As Storr phrases it, our senses are “fact-checkers.” However, that model must be good enough that we can function in the world.

The next point Storr brings up is tribalism. We have a strong tendency to divide ourselves into “us” and “them.” We will do this even if we are assigned to arbitrary groups.

“Cognitive Dissonance” is uncomfortable feeling we have when we are introduced to facts that don’t fit our interior models of how the world works.

We find ourselves chewing over something that we have done or heard or experienced. It can last for hours, days or sometimes longer. That upstairs agony, that bickering between the warring voices in our head – that is what it feels like to have your brain taking apart an experience and rearrange it in such a way that it doesn’t have to rebuild its models.

The next factor Storr introduces is another one my skeptical friends will recognize, “Confirmation Bias,” which Storr describes as the “makes sense stopping rule.”

…when confronted by a new fact, we first feel an instantaneous, emotional hunch. It is a raw instinct for whether the fact is right or wrong and it pulls us helplessly in the direction of an opinion. Then we look for evidences that supports our hunch. The moment we find some, we think ‘Aha!’ and happily conclude that we are, indeed, correct. The thinking then ceases.

When we arrive at that point of “that makes sense,” when our cognitive dissonance is eased, the reward center in the brain is activated. Storr quotes Carole Tavris and Elliot Aronson: “Dissonance reduction operates like a thermostat, keeping our self-esteem bubbling along on high.”

One point Storr hammers over and over again is that we are all subject to these effects. It’s an inherent part how the human brain works to which none of us are immune. To some extent, I believe he underplays the positive role of this. We make countless decisions everyday, most of which are far more mundane than whether or not UFOs exist. If we had to stop and wonder about how we know the things we know, we would be paralyzed. Sometimes, when we skeptics and atheists criticize the “argument from authority,” I pause and think to myself that much of what I believe I believe based on “authority.” I think eggs, spinach and bananas are healthy things to eat, and that if you’re exercising bananas are really important. Why do I think this? Because my competitive speed skater grandmother told me so.

Another important element of the picture is “the spotlight effect,” which I always think of as “the candle effect.” The best description I’ve read of this effect is in George Eliot’s Middlemarch. She describes a table covered in a million random scratches with no pattern. Yet, if you hold a candle up to it, the light will make it appear as if the scratches are in concentric circles around the point of the light. So our own egos lead us to believe that the world revolves around us. Of course, everyone else is thinking the same thing.

The roles of cognitive dissonance, confirmation bias and the spotlight effect are summarized:

Our prejudices and misbeliefs are invisible to us. The form in childhood and early adolescence, when our brain is in its heightened state of learning, when it is building its models, and the  they disappear from view.

These models of the world we build, they are the stories we tell ourselves to explain how the world works.

This notion that we are all deluding ourselves all the time leads to the uncomfortable acknowledgement that the line between the sane and the insane is not as clear as we would like to believe. Studies have shown that even perfectly sane people have unreliable memories. Healthy people can have false memories implanted.

Professor Loftus was interested to see whether it was possible for a therapist to generate a memory of an event simply by suggesting it. In a further study, she gave twenty-four adults a brief description of four past events that they were told had been supplied by a close family member and asked to write about them. Unbeknown to them, one of these events was false. Six of them – 25 per cent of the croup -= actually remembered the false event. When asked to choose which of their memories was fiction, five got it wrong.

Another important aspect of how our minds work is that our emotions guide our behavior. I, myself, have long thought this to be true and the tendency for skeptics to downplay the importance of emotions in our thought processes has always bugged me a bit.

If you are about to do something that your models predict will be good, you will get a subtle encouraging hit of pleasure. If you are about to do something inadvisable, you will feel bad.

Of course, one of the funny things about reading a book like this is that it makes you doubt your own ability to judge the contents of the very same book. Storr just confirmed my own model. Of course, I had that satisfying sensation of “yep – makes sense.” Is Storr making sense or do I only believe he makes sense because he agrees with me?

When my grandmother was going senile, we would catch her doing odd thing. Digging out her old ice skates in the middle of the summer and heading out the door with them. Walking around in odd clothing. When my mother would confront her, she would momentarily look confused and then come up with an “explanation.”

“My friend is coming to pick me up and we’re going skating.”

Then my mother would get furious and start yelling, “Why are you lying. It’s summer. No one is going skating! What friend are you talking about? No one is coming!”

My grandmother would look confused and start crying.

This is a funny trick our brain plays on us. Sometimes it makes up explanations.

There appears to be a lack of consensus on exactly how much of our conscious reasoning is confabulation. Opinions range from those of Professor David Eagleman, who says that ‘the brain’s storytelling powers kick into gear only when things are conflicting or difficult to understand,’ to those of Harvard Professor of Psychology Daniel Wegner, who argues that even our sense of having free will is a confabulation….

The final chapter is titled “Hero-Maker.” According to Storr, the key elements of a story are crisis, struggle and resolution. Our brains take in the chaotic events in the world and, in order to make them understandable, weave for us a narrative, and in our narratives we are the heroes of our own lives and our own stories. We do not weigh the evidence objectively, even though we may believe we do. We fact check them against our models. When the evidence conflicts with the models, we experience negative emotions. We search for more evidence. We must either rebuild our models, a very difficult thing for adults, or find evidence that fits our preexisting models. That is the struggle. When we finally have a resolution, we feel good.

The scientific method is the tool that human have developed to break the dominion of the narrative. It has been designed specifically to dissolve anecdote, to strip out emotion and to leave only unpolluted data. It is a new kind of language, a modern sorcery, and it has gifted our species incredible powers. We can eradicate plagues, extend our lives by decades, build rockets and fly through space. But we can hardly be surprised if some feel an instinctive hostility towards it, for it is fundamentally inhuman.

The more I think about this book, the more I like it. Who among us hasn’t had an argument in which he or she felt fairly confident about the facts and then came across someone making a statement that was easily refutable. You go, you get link. You have what you feel is nice solid proof to refute the assertion, and the person will not accept it. I had that just the other day with a comment that someone made about affirmative actions and quotas. As it happens, quotas are illegal in the United States. That was a fairly straightforward bit of information, I thought. I wasn’t arguing the pros or cons of affirmative action because that a far more involved argument and I wasn’t in the mood. I just wanted to correct the record about one smallish fact, quotas. The response of the other person was to move the goal posts. It was, to say the least, maddening and frustrating.

Of course, it wasn’t about facts. We had opposing stories. Or at least he had a story into which my facts didn’t fit. I, myself, am ambivalent about affirmative action. He, however, had a story about how affirmative action was put in place to hurt white people. In his story, he was bravely standing up to the PC establishment that won’t admit the truth. I got frustrated and gave up.

I think atheists, skeptics and liberals need to be more sensitive to the narratives we tell. One of the most brilliant pieces of propaganda I’ve ever read was Uncle Tom’s Cabin. As literature, I only enjoyed it intermittently. The Victorian sentimentality was hard to take. I couldn’t wait for that fucking little Eva to die. Apparently, the Victorians had a think about sweet, innocent girls suffering bravely. Me, I was sick of it after five pages, shouting, “Die already!” at my paperback. Still, I had to marvel at Harriett Beecher Stowe’s talent as a propagandist. The most brilliant move she makes is that she gives everyone someone with whom he or she can identify and still feel good joining the abolitionist cause. I believe that it was important to the effectiveness of the book that there were sympathetic slave owners. Instead of insisting that all slave owners are inherently evil, Stowe reassuringly says, “Of course, you are a good person, but you should oppose slavery because everyone is not as good as you.” If you are Northerners who would like to stay out of the question, you have the Birds. In later years, the name “Uncle Tom” would become a slur because African-American activists would view Tom as too passive. However, the novel is a carefully constructed piece of propaganda that was clearly effective in its day.

One of the reasons I object so regularly to people who say that Americans are dumb, and other negative things, is because it is a statement that, while satisfying to the speaker, undermines any larger goals of getting Americans, those people you just called dumb, to agree with you. This is part of a narrative that many people on the left enjoy, especially in the United States. They live beset on all sides by ignorance and prejudice, superstition and complacency. The US is evil, possessing as it does the original sin of slavery, or if that doesn’t suit you the original sin of conquest, evil that can never be expiated. However, they are “fighting the good fight,” out numbered on all sides. In order to bolster their ego, they exaggerate the threats. No country is as awful as the U.S. No people are as religious. None is as poorly educated. Hell, we’re even the fattest.

Personally, I don’t like this narrative because it requires that we lose. We fight nobly, but we lose.

People do sometimes change their minds and I wish he had explored a little bit more about why that happens.

I may write some more posts inspired by this book in the future.

One last thing, the Skeptic vs. sceptic question. Storr, being a Brit, writes “sceptic,” not “skeptic.” He notes that many of the organized skeptics, even in Britain, prefer the American spelling. It becomes a weird little bit of us vs. them. Storr, the sceptic, vs. the Skeptics. Storr’s writing about skeptics had an air of “both sides do it.” As Paul Krugman famously quipped, if George Bush said the Earth was flat the headlines the following day would read, “Shape of Earth, Views Differ.” Likewise, Storr writes, “Psychic Phenomenon, Views Differ.” Storr’s own story is that of an irrational, messed up teenager and young adult who somehow got his shit together to become a reasonable, well-balanced person. There are the fervent people, the extremists, and in this view Skeptics and UFO abductees are on the same side, and then there are the adults in the room, like Storr and Jonathan Haidt, a professor he frequently quotes. Generally, Storr is pretty aware of his own biases, but he seems to miss this one, so I found it amusing.

(The British edition of the book appears to be called “The Heretics.”)

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I tried to post a comment on someone’s blog a minute ago and received an error message. Then I realized that it might make a decent short post all on its own. The post, entitled “Atheist by Default“, was on the The BitterSweet End.

For me personally, when I think of my non-belief in a formal fashion and think of all the different -isms out there, I have to be honest.  I can relate to all of them, and to a degree they all define me.

I am all the above skeptic, atheist, agnostic, free-thinker. humanist.  Ignostic, non-theist, anti theist.  I am all of the above by definition, but no one defines me.

It reminded me of another post I came across recently, the link for which I do not have at the moment and, being more spontaneous, for which I will not look. The other post also had a list of the names associated with atheism, however it went through them in a table.

It was an interesting way of breaking it down.

-Agnostic; By definition of epistemology I am an agnostic, because I don’t know if God exist or does not exist.  This is more of scientific and academic stance.  It would be ignorant of us to say I know for sure that God does not exist.  Even Dawkins admits of this.

Of course the ideological concept of God is not solely based on the… parameters of Christianity   But that does not mean a deistic God does not God, (even thought is no empirical evidence supporting this viewpoint.)  It could just mean, that I have wrong the wrong concept of God.  And that is why I don’t know either way.  But I typically like to stay away from agnosticism  because it comes off to some evangelicals as I am confused, and don’t know what to think and that I simply need to do is just accept Jesus into my life.  The issue I have with agnosticism, is that we can prove a Type of God does not exist.  For example, If Religion A, says their God created the world on the back of a turtle.  We can improve empirically that that type of God probably does not exist.  (And yes, that is a real creation story.)  Or that a God, with two conflicting characteristics, like God is Love and God is Wrath, then we could assume that that God probably does not exist.

I have the same understanding of the word Agnostic and used it for a long time, until I realized that it meant to many people that I was “undecided.” It wasn’t “evangelicals” who gave me a problem, however. In fact, the biggest pushes towards “would you like to come to my church with me this Sunday” were from Episcopalians. They actually thought they were being helpful and would have never been so pushy if I had said atheist. I realized this when one friend introduced me to another describing me as a “seeker.” I was suddenly taken aback saying, “Yo! Wait! No!” as the other person was making the usual offer to take me to her church on Sunday. That was the evening I became an “atheist.” Ironically, in retrospect I suspect that those mild-mannered, politically progressive, Protestants with a Platonic notion of God probably thought that I was an escapee from a fire-and-brimstone sect. In other words, the people most eager to convert me were those who least identified with the word “evangelical.”

My biggest difference with M. Rodriguez would be where he says, “I truly do lack a belief in god.  But this focus is more surrounding Christianity in that I am an atheist because I have rejected and come to the conclusion that the Christian God of the Bible does not exist.  And from there, why should I believe in any other god.” Since I grew up in a pluralistic society that was not dominated by Christianity, the existence of the Christian God was something that I never even considered with any seriousness. It seems just as obvious that it is not true as the fact that the world wasn’t created on the back of a turtle, a story I also heard at a young age. I gave them both the same degree of consideration, which is none at all. What I had to reject was all the more abstract and vague definitions of divinity. God is Love. God is Energy. God is the “creative force” in the Universe. By the time I was thirty, I was as likely to be invited to a sweat lodge ceremony or a Wiccan ritual as I was to be invited to church. Oddly, because I don’t identify with the word “skeptic” much, it was probably the position of skepticism that brought me to where I am today. At some point, I realized that even this abstract notion of a divine presence led inexorably to magical thinking that I see as very detrimental in people’s lives, and it was widespread.

Finally, I began to realize that I was a “materialist.” There’s no spirits, no ghosts, no magic, no witchcraft.

It was online dating that made realize that I, as I rejected non-material world views, had become utterly incompatible with the religious of any stripe. Since online dating involves filling out forms, I had to identify my religion, which I did as “atheist”, and I had identify whom I was willing to date. At first, I only nixed people who identified themselves as devout. A great many men who contacted me, the majority by far, called themselves “spiritual but not religious.” At first, I though it was okay. Eventually, I found that they were wedded to woo, a term I would not learn for a few years but which I have since found useful. Frequently, they would spout something on the order of the power of positive thinking, which I started conceiving as “the power of magical thinking.” “Good vibes” and complicated diets will not cure cancer, unfortunately.

I really liked what M. Rodriguez had to say about ignosticism.

-Ignostic; Ignostic is really the position that all conversations about God are meaningless unless is first defined.  And to a degree I agree with this, because my definition & perception of God will be different than someone else’s perception of God.  Therefore I would I rather not jump into the conversation of if God exist, until God is accurately defined.  Because if you say God is love, than I agree..God is an emotion, and emotions exist.  But if you say God is a celestial all loving and all powerful being who wants to have a personal relationship with me, but can’t physically talk to me, than I would say you are loco.

The only reason I don’t use Ignostic more often, is that I would probably spend half the time explaining Ignosticism, because most people are not familiar with it.

Maybe, I’ll comment on some of these other terms at a later date and explain why I don’t call myself a Humanist.