APW | Astronomy Pix of the Week for July 24-30, 2011


The Galaxy

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APW is a weekly installment, published each Saturday between 7:31 and 8:30 am EDT, of links to each daily entry on NASA’s website Astronomy Picture of the Day. I hope you enjoy looking at these often breathtaking images as much as I do.

TWX | The Week’s XKCD for July 29, 2011


This is the first installment of a new semi-regular feature on this site, posted on Friday, and featuring the popular webcomic xkcd, which I’ve recently become a big fan of.

May you find it just as interesting commentary as does this nerdulent guy!

Speculation

Days of the Week (Click To View Full)

Not to make light of a serious disease, having lost both friends and people I admire to it, this next is something you don’t often hear on cancer from the mass media, and why there is often such uncertainty and resulting anxiety by many survivors.

Lanes

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.5 License.
This means you’re free to copy and share these comics (but not to sell them). More details.

[Book Review] “The Believing Brain” by Michael Shermer


Historian of science and Skeptics Society foun...

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I just finished my first reading of Mike’s new book, “The Believing Brain” and this, like Shermer’s other works, such as “Why People Believe Weird Things,” and “How We Believe,” this shows his characteristic highly readable writing style and careful choice of words.

It’s the culmination of some 30 years of his work as a research scientist in attempting to understand, as the title blurb says, “how we construct beliefs and reinforce them as truths.”

In it, he lays out and describes the concept of Belief-Dependent Realism, how our concepts of reality hinge on preexisting beliefs both true and false…

The basic thesis of the book is simple: Belief comes first, reasons for belief come after. Each chapter elaborates on this with study after study confirming that we are not the strictly rational logic machines envisioned during the Enlightenment, but emotional beings who all too often rationalize what we already believe, with the smartest of us supporting our belief in weird things with rational explanations for what we believe.

In Part I: Journeys of Belief, the first three chapters highlight the paths taken by two believers, Emilio D’Arpino, and biologist Francis Collins, and Shermer‘s own path as a skeptic. All three are good illustrations of how people often come to believe what they do, weird, and not-so-weird things, alike.

We often wind up believing weird things because we need to believe the not-weird as well…

Part II: The Biology of Belief, Shermer describes the concept of Patternicity, the tendency to seek and find patterns in both meaningful data and meaningless noise, but which is absolutely essential to our ability to learn, as well as the idea of Agenticity, the tendency we have as storytelling and pattern seeking animals to attribute meaning and causal or intentional agency, both where it exists and where it does not, and a good description of the neural mechanisms of belief which dispenses with dualistic terminology in favor of the monistic model of ‘mind’ being simply and succinctly something the brain happens to do.

Some may disagree with the neurological model strongly, but it is well-supported by the data and scientific literature.

Part III: Belief in Things Unseen, using the science described in part II, Shermer goes into detail on various beliefs in an afterlife, in God or gods, in aliens, and in conspiracies, and presents the claims, and where applicable, the arguments and evidence for and against these things.

Mike does a good job, I think, in presenting the claims with his usual scientist’s care, and nowhere does he seem to sneer at believers, but he also doesn’t dance around the issues in pointing out the lack of compelling data for aliens and an afterlife, good reasons for the ultimate insolubility of the ‘God’ question, and in noting that while real conspiracies do happen, pointing out the distinctions between probably real and likely imaginary conspiracies.

In Part IV: Belief in Things Seen, deals first with political beliefs, the cognitive biases that can skew our perceptions and thinking, making our beliefs impervious to disproof, and the power of theory and paradigm in shaping our understanding of data, to make us see, not always what is actually there, but what we expect to see.

Finally, the epilogue, The Truth Is Out There, describes the Null Hypothesis and Burden of Proof as they relate to science, as well as two alternatives to the Experimental method in science, the Convergence and Comparative methods, both widely used in the historical sciences, and just as useful as laboratory experimentation.

He elaborates on the need for positive evidence for scientific claims, and why properly meeting the burden of proof hinges on this.

He wraps up by concluding that the book only begins the journey toward a fuller understanding of how and why we believe the things we do, and why it is a Good Thing™ that we are not and should not be strictly, completely rational, and why science is the best means we have for finding out what’s true, and revealing what’s not.

Personally, I found the book informative, interesting, and eye-opening with a lot of good science packaged just right for a popular audience. Shermer’s outdone himself here as a scientist and popularizer of science.

It’s definitely on my “must read again list” along with Carl Sagan’s “Demon Haunted World,” and James Randi’s “Mask of Nostradamus.