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Daily Archives: April 2nd, 2010

One of the most important lessons learned by me as a skeptic is the willingness to make a simple admission of human fallibility and fallacies, that our capacity for perception, reason and insight are limited. It is to recognize that what these and our memories tell us, while usually reliable, can often lead us into error and deception. It is to acknowledge the following recognition:

“I can be fooled, just like anyone else.”

This is one of the key differences between skeptics and many believers, the latter of which are often convinced that they cannot be fooled, for whatever reason, and in so being set themselves up to be just that.

The inability to admit one’s capacity for being fooled is a common weakness for many parapsychologists and was one of the major reasons for the infamous gullibility of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the credulity of many of the investigators of the paranormal from the 19th century onward.

Why can we all be fooled? Because our brains, working the way they do, not always the way they should, sometimes play tricks on us, and we may perceive, believe, or remember things that simply are not so, and often never were. Human reasoning, perception, and memory are not faithful transcribers of everything we experience.

Our perceptions and memories are constructive.

When we remember something, we are not looking at an exact recording of an event in our heads, accurate in all details — we are each time recreating the memory anew, often emphasizing or even confabulating some details at the expense of others, embellishing our recollection at the expense of the truth. This can result through suggestibility in the creation of entire memories of events that did not happen, though our confidence in their accuracy may be absolute.

One’s conviction of the truth of one’s memories is no guarantee of their accuracy, even with so-called “flash-bulb” memories.

Our senses can deceive us through many routes, particularly our prior beliefs and expectations, causing us to see what is simply not there. You do not have to have a psychiatric diagnosis or to be under the influence of recreational pharmaceuticals to hallucinate. Rene Blondlot’s N-rays, and likely many alleged miraculous occurrences and UFO sightings ‘witnessed’ by large numbers of people at once are prime examples of this.

Believing is seeing, and yes, collective hallucinations by those without a mental illness do happen, and are more common than you might think. We also sometimes do see things, but not as they really are, when we look at or hear one thing but our brains are trying to tell us something else, hence, optical or auditory illusions, including pareidolia.

Even our introspective ability, when coupled with the conviction that one is consistently honest with oneself and therefore immune to being fooled from that route causes the one concerned to lower his or her proverbial guard, and in so doing, be much more readily deceived.

Thus, even close scrutiny of one’s own thoughts, feelings and motives, while often reliable, is not infallible either.

Our ways of acquiring, storing, and recalling information have very real limits, as our evolution as a species has given us ways of knowing and interacting with the world that are merely adequate, not optimal from any competent design standpoint.

Any human engineer who would knowingly design our minds and bodies the way they are now would have been executed for failure upon first submitting his schematics.

Due to the aforementioned limits of perception and memory, and the fallibility of even usually dependable cognitive rules of thumb — heuristics, here, here, here, here, and other hidden persuaders — personal experience, while a compelling form of evidence for many, can be very deceptive.

No one is immune to deception, especially by oneself, and no form of deception is more effective, more pervasive, and more insidious than self-deception.

We live in a universe, and have a biology, including that of our brains, with very real limits, and are none of us possessed of godlike potential or manifest ability, despite the popular myth that we use only 10% of our brains.

It is important to recognize one’s limits, and to work within them to overcome them, for you cannot fight an enemy, much less defeat it, that you refuse to acknowledge even exists. Fnord.

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