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Don't Rush Me


Critical thinking and why we believe what we do


Reviewing Michael Shermer's The Believing Brain



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August 03, 2011 - I have often professed in this very spot in your community newspaper, that we really need to spend more time promoting critical thinking.

When we hire a new reporter I try to cram in a lifetime's worth of thought into one little lesson and it goes something like this:

"Even if somebody you admire, respect and agree with all of the time -- even the President of the United States -- tells you something, don't just report verbatim. If, the President tells you that 9,500 kids in America die every 12 hours of every day because they . . ." (I don't know) "don't have the money to buy a new toothbrush once every three months, and that is why we have to raise the debt ceiling . . ." don't just report verbatim, do the math.

If my young cub reporter were to be given the above quote and then reported verbatim without doing the math, I would give feedback with snarky commentary: "9,500 kids multiplied by 365 days, times two equals, 6,935,000 kids die a year due to poor oral hygiene, brought upon by poverty, which, if you'd done the math, you would have found the number to be what it is, hogwash."

Then I usually follow that lesson with this quote, "Don't be a sheep. Think."

I must have typed the buzz words "critical thinking" enough, that at least one reader thought it would be a good idea for me to read the latest book written by Mr. Skeptic, Michael Shermer, The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies—How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths.

I got it on loan from the (gulp) library, cause I didn't want to shell out an Andrew Jackson for the hardcover version. Now that I have read it, I might buy it. (And, that is a mighty big "might" as I am the cheapest guy this side of Rio Grande.) Shermer has actually put together a solid case for how humans (and some pigeons) come to believe things, all the while being entertaining.

I came away with two basic premises . . . one, we humans are hard-wired to connect the dots and see patterns in the world about us. Even if those patterns are not really there. And, two, belief (in aliens, conspiracies, Republicans, Democrats, socialism, theology, just pick your poison) comes first to humans, and then we sift through information to shore up said belief. In other words, "Belief comes quickly and naturally, skepticism is slow and unnatural, and most people have a low tolerance for ambiguity."

I think I used to call this "selective hearing." But, don't believe me, I'm just a 'paperboy, Shermer's the scientist.

Shermer uses science analogies to illustrate why we are hard-wired to connect the dots, see patterns and believe. My favorite was about our ancestors, out there in little bands across the African plains. It is night and dark out. Our ancestor is awakened by a rustling in the grass. Is it just the wind or a hungry, ancestor-eating critter?

Those ancients who chose to believe it was the wind, went back to sleep when it was really a lion, didn't survive to pass on their DNA. They became nobody's ancestor. Those who believed it was a lion, even if it was the wind, lived-long, procreated, etc., etc. I think scientifically, this fits somehow, somewhere in there with Darwin's theory of evolution. I could be mistaken and that wouldn't be the first time!

One interesting chapter had do to with politics. Shermer went to considerable lengths to explain through science, neurology and the make up of the human brain (is that physiology or biology? -- as you can see this is was way above my pay grade) why we, today in America often say of the "other" political side, "Why don't they get it?"

I won't spoil it for you . . . you'll have to get the book and read it.

Back to some of the lessons I try to foist upon those who will listen to me. Regardless of whatever side of the, for example, political spectrum you are on, you owe it to yourself to listen to the other side. In other words, if you are a Democrat, watch Fox News; if you're a Republican, listen to NPR.

What are they telling themselves, what facts do they bring, how are they shoring up their beliefs?

Challenge yourself. Grow.

Don is Assistant Publisher for Sherman Publications, Inc. He has worked for the company since 1985. He has won numerous awards for column, editorial and feature writing as well as for photography. He has two, sons Shamus and Sean and resides in the area. To read archived copies of his columns, click on his name, just under his picture up top . . . He can be e-mailed at: don@dontrushmedon.com
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