The Believing Brain, by Michael Shermer

2012 Book 133: The Believing Brain, by Michael Shermer (9/13/2012)

Reason for Reading This book is longlisted for the Wellcome Trust Prize which “aims to stimulate interest, excitement and debate about medicine and literature, reaching audiences not normally engaged with medical science.”

My Review: 
In The Believing Brain Michael Shermer, the founder and editor of Skeptic Magazine, shows the reader how and why we believe. He begins the book with a discussion of religious beliefs, providing a few examples of life-altering religious (or irreligious) experiences, including his own. I found these stories engaging and enjoyed Shermer’s philosophical discussion. Then Shermer defines “agenticity”–the tendency to assume patterns have meaning and intention (an outside agent) instead of seeing them as non-intentional or even random events. He describes the cellular mechanics of our brains and why we would have evolved “agenticity,” and then provides many examples of how we see patterns even when they don’t exist. This part was pretty funny. I enjoyed his examples. Shermer describes how we can become convinced that our own beliefs are accurate and unbiased, how confirmation bias leads to unconsciously ignoring data that contradict our ideas while noticing in minute detail all the examples in which the data confirm our ideas. This leads to a political discussion of liberals versus conservatives versus libertarianism (because, after all, we simply MUST hear about Shermer’s libertarian beliefs!). The final third of the book describes the progress of scientific beliefs from world-is-flat to the multi-verse (again, Shermer inserts a commentary about what HE believes, which seemed a small digression from his main point). This third of the book also describes how the scientific method works. I found the final third of the book less interesting than the first two thirds. It seemed a little less organized than the first two parts, but that may have been because my mind was wandering since I was already familiar with the material he covered. In the end, this was a fun and interesting read, but nothing I’m going to read again. 

This is the first book I’ve read on the Wellcome Trust Prize longlist, so I can’t say how it compares to the other books. I think it made medicine fun and interesting and would make medicine more accessible to fresh audiences. However, I think this book might not be the BEST choice because many people in the general public (at least in the US) are offended by skepticism. And Shermer expresses no qualms about his skepticism. Therefore, I think his message about medicine won’t reach much of the general public because they will be too stuck on his “offensive” skepticism. Mind you, I’m not saying he WAS offensive, IMO. But I am only offended with skepticism when it is mixed with judgmental comments about those who believe. Shermer was very respectful of those who believe, he just poo-pooed their beliefs. 😉

Abraham, by Bruce Feiler

2012 Book 105: Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths, by Bruce Feiler (7/11/2012)

Reason for Reading: It fit into Reading Globally’s Middle Eastern literature theme. 

My Review 3.5 stars
In this short work, Feiler reviews the Biblical story of Abraham and then describes how the myth of Abraham has changed over time and between the Abrahamic religions. It is well-written and interesting, and its length is well-suited for the amount of information Feiler wishes to convey. (There were no lengthy speculations in order to add bulk!) I enjoyed it and learned a little bit, too!

Religion Explained, by Pascal Boyer

2012 Book 92: Religion Explained, by Pascal Boyer (6/24/2012)

Categories: Other

Reason for Reading: Science, Religion, and History group read with the 75ers

My Review 2/5 stars
The intent of this book is to use anthropology and cognitive science to “explain” why religious beliefs developed (and are still common) in humans. I started reading this book with the expectation that it was intended as popular science; but it assumed that the reader already had a background in anthropology and cognitive science. Boyer made his explanations using terminology that was unnecessarily complex; and although the meaning could be discerned from the context, it made the narrative into very heavy reading. Furthermore, he made many bold statements without providing evidence, possibly because he figured his readers had a background in this area and knew where he was coming from. The examples he did provide often fell short for me as a scientist–I felt there were too many obvious loopholes to the experiments described, and it was unclear whether these loopholes were addressed. Overall, I think this book may be interesting to someone who has already read a lot of literature in this field, but I wouldn’t recommend it to someone with a casual interest, nor as introductory material.

Revelations, by Elaine Pagels

2012 Book 85: Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation, by Elaine Pagels (6/17/2012)

Reason for Reading: General interest in Church history and apocalyptic literature

My Review: 4/5 stars
In her newest book, Pagels explores the history of John of Patmos’ Book of Revelation. She outlines what we know about John of Patmos, what he was trying to say with his preaching, and how contemporaries may have responded. The second half of the book covers the history of Christianity in the first two centuries C.E., with emphasis on Pagels’ favorite topic of disparate beliefs among early groups. She completes the book with a description of how the Bible Cannon was chosen, with some suggestions about why John of Patmos’ Book of Revelation was the only apocalyptic literature included. Pagels’ writing is clear and interesting, though a bit repetitive–especially if you’ve read some of her earlier works. If you’re interested in early church history, especially the disparate groups of Christians, then this is the book for you. If you’re interested in apocalyptic literature in early Christian history, then the first half of this book, and the tail end, is for you.

Thoughts on God in scientific research

In The God Issue of New Scientist, there was an article by Stenger which claimed that because science has not proven that God exists, God must not exist. After reading this, I pouted. I felt that it’s not very good science to claim that because experiments designed to prove the existence of God yield non-significant results, these non-significant results prove God doesn’t exist. I’ve had plenty of experiments with non-significant results. If that proves that the opposite is true, then I’ve made some pretty awesome negative discoveries! I’d better get those published!

The next few weeks have had many letters-to-the-editor about The God Issue. Mainly, they seemed offended by the articles which did not firmly proclaim God’s non-existence–few of them had any problems with the article by Stenger. So I laughed when I saw this letter about the article that annoyed me:

Stenger confidently states that prayers have not been shown to have been answered. For some time now, I have been praying for other people’s prayers not to be answered. Could this explain these findings?
                -From Les Hearn; London, UK

I am so thrilled that I’m not the only one who found this article ridiculous!

In his article, Stenger’s main “proof” that God does not exist is that a study to determine whether intercessory prayers help recovery of surgery patients had non-significant data. Like the writer of the letter, I was amused that Stenger came to such strong conclusions based on non-significant data from one study. This is not good science. I was even more amused because the first time I heard about this study was in a book called The Spiritual Brain, by Mario Beauregard (reviewed here). Beauregard claimed the same exact studies were indicative that God DID exist. He pointed out that there was a (albeit non-significant) data trend, and talked around experimental design and data analysis jargon to make himself sound more convincing. Isn’t it amusing that two scientists find their own personal beliefs so important to them that they take exactly the same study and (unconsciously) twist it to help them prove contradictory points?

Because of human errors exactly like these, I have long felt that science was rather like a religion—perhaps it is impossible for emotional humans to stick rigorously to the scientific method? Here are elements that science has in common with some of the oft-criticised aspects of organized religion:

Indoctrination/faith: scientists start out learning and accepting a set of “facts” laid out by those older and wiser than us (teachers/professors). Sometimes these “facts” are rather difficult to stomach—like an object that can move from point A to point B without moving anywhere in between??? (electron tunneling)

Ideology: Scientists (hopefully unconsciously) twist the experimental design or data analysis in order to fit our personal hypotheses. We ignore or discard data which is contradictory to our hypotheses (usually with a rationalized reason). We see what we want to see. This type of interpretation is unfortunately natural to humans and generally not a purposeful act, but it happens more often than we’d like to admit.

Heretics: Scientists ostracize other people from the scientific community if they suggest a hypothesis or provide data which is contrary to widely accepted (dogmatic) beliefs. These people sometimes turn out to be right, but generally after it’s too late for their ruined careers.

I like to be aware of these issues so that I can avoid falling into traps in my own work. I also think it’s a good idea to be cautiously skeptical of dogmatic beliefs, and to accept that perhaps they could be wrong–entirely, or partially. I am also skeptical of models, whether they be quantum physics models or cell signaling models. Although I appreciate the amount of work scientists go through to develop these models, and I also appreciate the fact that these models can accurately predict the physical world most of the time, I think it’s good to recognize that these really are just MODELS for the real world. The real world is almost always more complex than we could ever fully predict.

A History of the End of the World, Jonathan Kirsch

2012 Book 45: A History of the End of the World, by Jonathan Kirsch (3/10/2012)

Reason for Reading: Out of a vague interest in eschatology. And by that, I mean I’m interested from a sociological point of view why everyone is so fascinated with the end of the world.

My Revew 3.5/5 stars
This book surveys how the Book of Revelation has influenced culture throughout time. It provides a basic idea of how apocalyptic rhetoric has been used and developed with time. However, I didn’t learn much history from this book. In fact, Kirsh mostly assumes that the reader is either familiar with the history or willing to look up the interesting bits elsewhere. It is also very dense, since much of the text is direct quotes or paraphrases from other writers. Kirsch has a strong bias against apocalyptic rhetoric, and his book implies a direct influence of Revelation on pretty much everything bad that has ever happened. Personally, I think the case is over-stated. Apocalyptic rhetoric certainly impacts everyone’s lives in the same way as Shakespearian rhetoric does, but Kirsh implies a more active influence. I had the uneasy feeling that Kirsh was quoting people out of context; and I noticed one time he left important facts out of a historical example, thus misleading the reader. Kirsh also has a distinctly un-Christian leaning (I’m GUESSING he’s a secular Jew), and his views might offend conservative or fundamentalist Christians. Overall, I’m happy I read the book because it provided a broad survey. But I’d like to read others to get a more in-depth look at specifics.

A Preface to Paradise Lost, by C. S. Lewis

2012 Book 41: A Preface to Paradise Lost, by C. S. Lewis (2/29/2012)

Reason for Reading: Wanted to better understand Paradise Lost. I’m not very good at poetry.

My Review: 4/5 stars
In this preface, Lewis first outlines what an epic poem is and what Milton was trying to do with Paradise Lost. Then he discusses his views on how Milton’s theology played a role in this epic. Lewis debunks the view that Milton had compassion for Satan. It was a good introduction, which I read before the poem because I thought it might help me comprehend the poem while I’m reading it. It was helpful, though it managed to make me more skeptical that I’ll comprehend Paradise Lost.