Skepticmagazine founding publisher Shermer (The Mind of the Market: Compassionate Apes, Competitive Humans, and Other Tales from Evolutionary Economics, 2007, etc.) writes entertainingly about the scientific basis of belief.
The author cites a 2009 poll in which more Americans admitted to a belief in angels and devils than in the theory of evolution. Shermer seeks to answer the question of why "so many people believe in what most scientists would consider to be the unbelievable?" While admitting that scientists often believe in unproven hypotheses—e.g., the origin of our universe and what might have preceded the Big Bang—the author holds firmly to the "built-in self-correcting machinery" that is inherent in the scientific method: e.g., double-bind controlled experiments which are replicable, testing results against the null hypothesis, etc. Shermer takes gleeful potshots at conspiracy theorists, including the 9/11-truthers, giving a detailed refutation of their claim that planted explosives brought down the Twin Towers, and the belief in extrasensory perception demonstrated by the apparent abilities of psychics and other mediums, which have been replicated by magicians. Nonetheless, the author fully recognizes the importance of belief in our lives. Jumping to false conclusions is an outgrowth of pattern recognition, an essential function of our brain that evolved to allow birds as well as mammals to anticipate danger and respond to their environment. "An emotional leap of faith beyond reason is often required," writes the author.
A timely, reasoned reflection on the nature of belief, offering a level-headed corrective to the divisiveness of extreme partisanship.
“Michael Shermer has long been one of our most committed champions of scientific thinking in the face of popular delusion. In The Believing Brain, he has written a wonderfully lucid, accessible, and wide-ranging account of the boundary between justified and unjustified belief. We have all fallen more deeply in his debt.” Sam Harris, author of the New York Times bestsellers The Moral Landscape, Letter to a Christian Nation, and The End of Faith.
“The physicist Richard Feynman once said that the easiest person to fool is yourself, and as a result he argued that as a scientist one has to be especially careful to try and find out not only what is right about one's theories, but what might also be wrong with them. If we all followed this maxim of skepticism in everyday life, the world would probably be a better place. But we don't. In this book Michael Shermer lucidly describes why and how we are hard wired to 'want to believe'. With a narrative that gently flows from the personal to the profound, Shermer shares what he has learned after spending a lifetime pondering the relationship between beliefs and reality, and how to be prepared to tell the difference between the two.” Lawrence M. Krauss, Foundation Professor and Director of the Origins Project at Arizona State University and author of The Physics of Star Trek, Quantum Man and A Universe from Nothing
“Michael Shermer has long been one of the world's deepest thinkers when it comes to explaining where our beliefs come from, and he brings it all together in this important, engaging, and ambitious book. Shermer knows all the science, he tells great stories, he is funny, and he is fearless, delving into hot-button topics like 9-11 Truthers, life after death, capitalism, Barack Obama, Sarah Palin, and the existence of God. This is an entertaining and thoughtful exploration of the beliefs that shape our lives.” Paul Bloom, author of How Pleasure Works
“The Believing Brain is a tour de force integrating neuroscience and the social sciences to explain how irrational beliefs are formed and reinforced, while leaving us confident our ideas are valid. This is a must read for everyone who wonders why religious and political beliefs are so rigid and polarizedor why the other side is always wrong, but somehow doesn't see it.” Dr. Leonard Mlodinow, physicist and author of The Drunkard's Walk and The Grand Design (with Stephen Hawking)
“We might think that we learn how the world works, because we take the time to observe and understand it. Shermer says that's just not so. We just believe things, and then make our world fit our perceptions. Believe me; you don't have to take my word for it. Just try clearing some space in your own Believing Brain.” Bill Nye, the Science Guy ©, Executive Director of The Planetary Society
“The Believing Brain is a fascinating account of the origins of all manner of beliefs, replete with cutting edge evidence from the best scientific research, packed with nuggets of truths and then for good measure, studded with real world examples to deliver to the reader, a very personable, engaging and ultimately, convincing set of explanations for why we believe.” Professor Bruce Hood, Chair of Developmental Psychology, Bristol University and author of Supersense: Why We Believe in the Unbelievable