How Sex, Politics, Money and Religion are Killing Planet Earth

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Science of Belief

I should be working instead of blogging...

I’ve been reading a book called The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies by the famous skeptic Michael Shermer for my independent research at Harvard.

In my research, I am trying to get to the bottom of the stubborn trend in public opinion regarding global climate change. On the one hand, scientific consensus is becoming increasingly solidified. As it now stands, there is not a single, peer-reviewed climate study that refutes that the climate is warming at a rate unprecedented in the past million years (as far back as we can accurately measure), and that humans are responsible. Inversely proportional to scientific consensus is public opinion, which is becoming increasingly skeptical about the science of global climate change. How can this be?

The book is very informative on many fronts. Shermer succinctly summarizes the evolutionary neurological and sociological mechanisms by which Homo sapiens has evolved to be a “believing” organism.

When our genetic ancestors were out romping across the savannas of Africa, the world was a dangerous place, Shermer explains. A rustle in the grass could be the wind blowing the blades, or the same rustle could be a predator crouching stealthily, waiting for an opportune moment for dinner. In the first case, if the wind actually is rustling the grass, our ancestor suffers no harm from assuming the rustling is a predator. But on the other hand, if our guileless hominid assumes wind is moving the grass and it turns out to be a predator, he will likely be handily removed from the gene pool.

In general, in a dangerous world, false positives are benign, but false negatives can be deadly. Consequently, Homo sapiens evolved (by virtue of the removal of those with a stubborn habit of reading false negatives from the gene pool) as a species inclined towards false positives.

Our tendency towards false positives is coupled with a few other qualities that reinforce our propensity for developing beliefs. A primary mechanism for belief formation is called “patternicity,” which describes the human tendency to see patterns or connections in both meaningful and meaningless events. This phenomenon is particularly prevalent among modern sports fans and athletes. A sports fan on his couch at home wears a particular hat while watching the game on TV and his team wins. He then wears the hat every time he watches a game. Baseball players are notoriously superstitious in this regard. Some don’t shave or wash their uniforms if they are on a winning streak, thinking there is some magical connection.

The human tendency towards patternicity has been tested repeatedly in laboratories. In these experiments, subjects are told to push buttons or pull levers to accumulate points. In reality, the points are randomly given, so the subject cannot actually do anything to determine the number of points he or she receives. Subjects will automatically develop rituals of button pushing, lever pulling and even dancing around the room to emulate the conditions that occurred when points were first delivered, even if those rituals do not result in further point accumulation.

We also have a habit of imbuing seen and unseen phenomena with agenticity. In other words, the lion in the grass on the savanna may just be taking a nap, but then again, he might be very hungry. In our evolutionary history, it has been in our interest to assume the latter, which has led to our making a lot of assumptions about things we really cannot know for sure.

Putting all of the above quirks of the human mind together, it is easy to see how vast mythologies to explain unknown phenomena evolved with our species. Once solidified, beliefs are very difficult to mutate. Thus, although we know and can prove that the earth is several billions of years old, a large percentage of the population holds steadfast to the idea that it was created in 6 days about 6,000 years ago.

Adherents to mythologies that have long been disproved by science are then faced with a conundrum of reason. If their beliefs are “true,” then the scientists and science must be wrong. While science is actually the best tool we have for weeding out false beliefs, because of the way our minds work, science itself has become suspect. This leads to another round of mythologies to explain why science is “wrong,” even though to all reasonable observation it is actually correct. Thus is born the conspiracy theory.

Today science finds itself mired in a cloud of doubt, conspiracy and international intrigue that has been masterfully woven by the purveyors of fossil fuel. With few exceptions, all of the “research” (none of it peer reviewed) that has been performed by scientists skeptical of climate change has been funded by Exxon and other oil and coal industry giants. Their aim has not really been to disprove or find fault with climate science. That would be a welcome addition to the scientific community, which by definition is in a perpetual state of self-scrutiny. If that was their aim, they would open their “research” to the scrutiny of peer review. In truth, they simply want to plant the seeds of doubt. As long as public opinion is divided, we can be sure that policy makers will do nothing, which maintains the status quo and Exxon’s status as the most profitable corporation on earth, ever.

Given the dynamics of belief, I am not sure that science is going to be able to succeed in this fabricated debate, which is unfortunate for the world.

On a final note, although I found Shermer’s assessment of belief to be informative, I also found his sterile world of objective physicality somewhat lacking. Shermer is the ultimate skeptic. He believes in nothing that cannot be physically measured or assessed. To me, his attitude reduces the richness of the human experience in the world down to binary code.

After reading the book, I needed to get the blood flowing, so I went for a run. It was the kind of gorgeous summer day in the Southern Appalachians that happens nowhere else on earth. The elderberry bushes are just coming into flower (along with the kudzu), and the air was heavy with the fragrance of sweet nectar and the rich dirt that fills the valleys. As I plodded along, a few crows called out in their secret language to their kin to alert them of my activities. A pilated woodpecker tapped stubbornly on a gnarled old black walnut. I listened to Jane Siberry and K.D. Lang's “Calling All Angels” on my iPod.

And I thought. I don’t want to live in a world without wonder. My agenticity imagines the trees caught up in their own communications, feeling ecstasy in the summer sunlight. I see them and feel them, and I like the idea that they see and feel me too.  I like the idea that when I come face to face with a bird, and we stare at each other, that there is connection. I love the living world, but science is impotent to describe the things I feel in nature. Belief is often wrong, but it is also an agent of creativity and profound joy. What a conundrum.

If you haven't filled out the questionnaire on global climate change, please do so. Thanks!

Friday, July 15, 2011

Global Climate Change Questionnaire


The following questions on global climate change are designed to determine the scope of public opinion on the subject. Please see the previous post explaining why I am doing this. I would be very appreciative if you would copy and paste the questions into an email message, answer them, and send them to me. Or, leave responses as comments below. Please rest assured that all information will remain anonymous, and all opinions are welcome.

1-         Please describe your beliefs on global climate change. Do you think the planet is getting warmer? And if so, do you believe this is occurring because of human activities?

2-         Please describe your religious beliefs.

3-         How would you describe your political views?

4-         How do you obtain news and information? Is there a particular media source that you watch or read regularly?

5-         Are you familiar with the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change? If so, what is your opinion of the group?

6-         What is your level of education?

7-         What do you do for a living?

8-         What are your views on environmentalism?

9-         What is your age group? 15-25? 26-35? 36-50? 50-65? 65 and above?

10-       If you do not believe humans are contributing to global climate change, why?

11-       How serious do you believe global climate change is? Not serious at all? Slightly serious? Very serious? Or critical?

12-       What is your opinion of people who have views different to your own? And how would you describe your willingness to communicate with people with opposing views?

13-       Do you believe that the climate change issue is a scientific one or a political one? Why?

14-       Do you think that regulation and investment in alternative energy will be good or bad for the United States? Why?

15-       How adamant are you about your views? Could any information change your mind?

16-       Do you have anything else to add?

Friday, July 1, 2011

Imaginary Boundaries and Their Impact on Planet Earth

There are no boundaries in nature. Where one habitat butts up against another, rather than demarcation, unity takes place. Where the lapping waves brush against sand or the low expanse of prairie rises abruptly to the linear heights of woodland, ecological values are amplified rather than diminished. The margins, or “ecotones,” as they are known scientifically, are places where ecological magic happens.

In nature, everything is connected to everything else. A Kirtland’s warbler flies out of a temperate forest and travels thousands of miles to spend the winter on a tropical island. A molecule of water from a deep ocean trench traverses the expanse of the globe, evaporates into the air, rains down onto land, flows into a river, is absorbed by the roots of a sycamore tree, eaten by an insect, and so on. A mahogany tree in the Amazon forest exhales oxygen that is breathed in thousands of miles away in New York City by a Wall Street banker. Increased radiation levels from a nuclear bomb test in Nevada are detected in Mumbai. Humans unearth and combust fossilized carbon, raising atmospheric carbon dioxide to levels unseen in hundreds of thousands of years.

There are no boundaries in nature. Even the visual distinctions that separate the individual from the rest of the world are merely an optical and egotistical delusion. The envelope of skin gives the illusion, but not the reality of containment. Everything that comprises a body is in a constant state of flux with the outside environment. Food, water and air are consumed. The energy contained within the bonds of carbohydrates are metabolized with oxygen and then expelled as carbon dioxide. The nutrients from the animal, vegetable or mineral ingested are incorporated into tissue and bone. Byproducts are released in breath, urine excrement. What we were last week, we are not today, and next week, we will yet again be something else.

Just as matter and energy pass in and out throughout individuals and ecosystems as casually as water flows downstream, it is again picked up, used and reused in an endless, repeating cycle. There is no beginning and no end, no straight lines, in nature.

There are no boundaries in nature, but for some reason, one species Homo sapiens, is intent on creating them. In a brilliant paper “Rubbish and Racism,” Timothy Weiskel (one of my professors this summer) outlines the human cultural phenomenon of boundaries. Weiskel describes the human paradox, “While nature draws no boundaries between elements in an ecosystem, a human society which occupies a particular niche within the total system has no meaning without them.” In other words, we define ourselves in terms of boundaries. We are Americans, Christians, Muslims, atheists, Afghans, male or female, contained within lines drawn on a map and within our own minds.

The problem with boundaries is that they define separation, marking all that fall outside the accepted lines as “others.” Western Civilization exists upon the earth rather than within it. We put up fences, walls and cities, keeping nature and savages out and protecting that within from the pesky intrusion of the world. We stockpile arms, draw lines in the sand, demonize and despoil to protect the boundaries of our imaginations. Any breach threatens to undermine our very identity.  

But we can’t escape our real connection to the outside. We require nature for our very survival, so we expand beyond our boundaries and consume. We consume and consume and consume, until there’s nothing left. When we are done, we toss the garbage over the wall, imagining our phony boundary will protect us from the evils of our own spoils. And then we move on to the next location. But, there are no boundaries in nature.

We have dumped our crap into the oceans, and they are dying. Where are we going to get more fish and oxygen? We have belched our exhaust into the skies that now threaten to smother us with heat and smog. Where are we going to get more air and a decent climate to live in? We have closed up our minds with dogma and mythology so tightly that we are blinded by our own folly. Where are we going to get solutions to solve the problems we have created from within our sequestered minds? We need to dwell in the ecotones.

There are no boundaries in nature.