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EPISODE RELEASED 15th JUNE 2024

WHY DO WE HAVE THE TENDENCY TO BELIEVE THINGS JUST IN CASE? WHY DO WE PROJECT PATTERNS, AGENCY AND MEANING ONTO THE WORLD WHEN SOMETIMES THERE IS NONE?  HOW CAN WE CONSIDER THE PROBABILITIES OF CONSPIRACIES TO IDENTIFY THE ONES THAT MAY BE TRUE? HOW DO WE ENCOURAGE BRAVE JOURNALISM THAT CALLS OUT CONSPIRACIES EVEN BY POWERFUL INSTITUTIONS, IN SPITE OF THE PEJORATIVE TERM 'CONSPIRACY THEORIST'?

Today we have the uncomfortable topic of how our brains often believe things which aren’t true. The topic fits perfectly with our theme for series 4 of Self-transcendence vs Self-delusion. Our innate ability to notice patterns in systems, assign agency and find meaning in the world are among the reasons we’ve evolved to become so successful at predicting, understanding and creating meaningful collaborations in the world. But the issue with these abilities is that we might make the mistake of thinking what the brain assigns to the world for our own survival, is necessarily true of the world itself. Sure our brains do track the truth but truth is not always what’s needed for survival; so issues like negativity bias, confirmation bias and creating narrative stories that conveniently map onto our existing world view have become a deeply engrained part of our society. Add to this modern phenomena like the siloing of information by the internet into small echo chambers where only like minds come together; algorithmic amplification of memes led by the internet business model of “maximising engagement”; and decreasing trust in institutions, as economic inequality in the world increases exponentially, and you get a perfect storm of clashing beliefs about the truth.

 

Fortunately, our guest today is one of the most established sceptical voices in science who reminds us that we need to track closely the difference between what can be collectively confirmed to be true, and what our brains project to be true from the inside out. He is of course, New York Times best selling author and founding publisher of Skeptic magazine Michael Schermer; he wrote for 18 years for the Scientific American. He’s written nine books but today we’re going to focus on his books “The Believing Brain” and his new release “Conspiracy: Why the rational believe the irrational”.

 

What we discuss:

00:00 Intro

07:00 The philosophy of scepticism.

08:45 ‘Default to truth’ - trust what other knowledgeable people tell you.

12:00 Oppenheimer quote - the freedom to doubt dogma to progress science.

15:40 Moral truth VS moral relativism.

19:00 Scientific revolutions overturning consensus.

22:15 Copernican revolution - we’re not the centre of the universe.

24:30 ‘The Believing Brain’.

25:40 The ability to see patterns in the chaos, and assign agency to them.

26:50 Evolution selects for assuming more things are real than not, just in case.

30:10 Bayesian inference: levels of confidence in being right or wrong.

31:05 Never assign a 0% probability for something, just in case you’re wrong.

32:40 ‘Agencicity’, impugning patterns with intentional agency.

33:40 Most things happen randomly, and can’t be predicted.

35:50 Social science has limitations because there are so many variables.

36:50 Identical twin studies: differences come from many small differences compounded.

41:20 Assigning meaning to patterns in nature.

42:20 Purpose derived from persusing goals and pushing back against entropy.

43:50 Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

44:40 Teleology: goal directness in life.

47:50 Dennet - the intentional stance; hyper active agency detector.

48:50 Confirmation bias - cherry picking data to belong in groups with certain beliefs

51:35 Pathway dependency - you’re stuck with the route you’ve chosen.

54:00 Algorithmic amplification and siloed information echo chambers.

57:40 There are many real conspiracies.

01:00:20 Tribal, proxy and paranoid conspiracism.

01:03:35 Being overly suspicious - negativity bias.

01:05:35 “Losses hurt twice as much as gains feel good”.

01:07:50 Critical thinking - how not to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

01:16:50 Conflict of interest in media - shareholders vs stakeholder interest.

01:18:20 The pejorative term ‘conspiracy theorist’ demotivating brave journalism.

01:23:30 The collective action problem.

01:26:30 Reductionism and determinism evaluated.

01:28:30 Emergent properties are real.

01:32:20 Remote Viewing and psi phenomena: sceptics view.

01:40:00 The replication problem in social sciences.

01:41:00 P-hacking and the file drawer problems.

01:46:30 The UFO phenomena: sceptics view.

 

References:

Michael Schermer, “The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies--How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them As Truths”

Michael Scheremer, “Conspiracy: Why the Rational Believe the Irrational”

Michael Schermer, “The Moral Arc”

Scepticism 101 course: How to think like a scientist

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Dan Dennet, “The intentional Stance”

Hugo Mercier, Dan Sperber - ‘Why do humans reason?’ paper

Roy Baumeister, John Tierney “The Power of bad”

John Mackey, “Conscious capitalism: Liberating the Heroic Spirit of Business”

Remote viewing Stargate Program documentary “Third Eye Spies” 

Daryl J. Bem - ‘Feeling the Future: Experimental Evidence for Anomalous Retroactive Influences on Cognition and Affect’ paper 2011

Helene Cooper, Ralph Blumenthal, and Leslie Kean - ‘Glowing Auras and ‘Black Money’: The Pentagon’s Mysterious U.F.O. Program’, NYTimes article

Leslie Kean, “UFOs: Generals, Pilots, and Government Officials Go on the Record”

 

Quotes:

“There must be no barriers to freedom of inquiry. There is no place for dogma in science. The scientist is free, and must be free to ask any question, to doubt any assertion, to seek for any evidence, to correct any errors. Our political life is also predicated on open-ness. We know that the only way to avoid error is to detect it and that the only way to detect it is to be free to inquire. And we know that as long as men are free to ask what they must, free to say what they think, free to think what they will, freedom can never be lost, and science can never regress.” Robert Oppenheimer 1949.

 

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