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Book review: ‘The Believing Brain’

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Michael Shermer is a fascinating guy. What has he done? The way he describes it, one of everything. I’d love to buy him a beer and pick his brain. But he failed to channel his allure into his new book The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies—How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths.

Shermer’s thesis, that we form beliefs first and justifications second, is dead on. But when he tries to apply this thesis to biology, politics, God, aliens, conspiracies, the afterlife and space, he swerves off track. Shermer spends little time discussing how we construct beliefs about Topic X and lots of time discussing Topic X itself. If I wanted to learn about Topic X, I would have read a book on it. I wanted to learn about misguided beliefs.

The Details

The Believing Brain
By Michael Shermer
$28
One and a half stars

“We see faces everywhere we look,” Shermer writes in a section about our brains’ facial recognition networks. And then, to prove his point, he shows us pictures of mars craters that look like faces. Problem is, he picks craters that objectively look like faces, which doesn’t prove his point. What would prove his point? Showing craters that objectively don’t look like craters, but subjectively do.

I agree with many of Shermer’s individual arguments. And because I loved his chapter on conspiracy theories and 9/11 Truthers, I can’t say he’s the wrong messenger. I can only say that this particular book is the wrong message.

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