There seems to be a resurgence of superstition and magical thinking in our society according to skeptic Michael Shermer. In his lecture series called Skepticism 101: How to Think like a Scientist, Shermer helps us develop awareness of the many mental tricks the mind plays on us and how being a skeptic can help us see through them. We tend to think of a skeptic as being closed-minded or cynical, but they’re actually curious but cautious. They find a balance between being curious about new information while being cautious enough to look for evidence to validate the new information before they believe it. He suggests that understanding the scientific method can help us be skeptics. But therein lies the challenge: the scientific method is messy and requires us to deal with uncertainty as we work through it. We do this instead of allowing the mind’s comfort-seeking motivation to seek certainty and avoid it. Skepticism helps us catch the mind when it doesn’t want to do the necessary work.
Shermer says that according to evolutionary psychologist Robert Kurzban, “the brain has evolved as a modular, multitasking, problem-solving organ—a Swiss army knife of practical tools. There is no unified ‘self’ that generates internally consistent and seamlessly coherent beliefs. Instead, we are a collection of distinct, but interacting modules that are often at odds with one another.” Each module can hold its own beliefs while other modules hold conflicting beliefs.
For example, our “scientific” module of the brain may believe in evolution, which creates a belief that the earth is billions of years old, while our “religious” module may believe in divine creation, which creates a belief that the earth is 6000 years old. We access and use the scientific module while doing experiments in the laboratory at work and then access and use the religious module when we go to church on Sunday. Both beliefs coexist to help us achieve our work and spiritual needs.
Shermer says, “We form our beliefs for a variety of subjective, personal, emotional, and psychological reasons in the context of environments created by family, friends, colleagues, culture, and society at large; after forming our beliefs, we then defend, justify, and rationalize them with a host of intellectual reasons, cogent arguments, and rational explanations. Beliefs come first; explanations for beliefs follow. The brain is a belief engine. Once beliefs are formed, the brain begins to look for and find confirming evidence in support of those beliefs, which adds an emotional boost of further confidence in the beliefs and thereby accelerates the process of reinforcing them; round and round the process goes in a positive feedback loop of converting beliefs into truths.”
A skeptic reverses this order: explanations for beliefs come first; beliefs follow. Thinking like a scientist, and understanding how the scientific method works, creates, in Sherman’s words, “a positive feedback loop of accurate information that create[s] beliefs more aligned with truth. We understand the scientific method as one that describes and interprets observed or inferred phenomena, past or present, aimed at testing hypotheses and building theories.” It includes the following four elements: induction, deduction, observation, and verification. We form a hypothesis from existing data; we make certain predictions; we observe and gather new data; and we test predictions to confirm or disprove the initial hypothesis.
Knowing that our beliefs come from our families, friends, colleagues, culture, and society helps us realize that we’ve adopted our beliefs rather than subjected them to our own process of inquiry. Therefore, rather than defend them, we apply the scientific method to convert limiting beliefs into ones more aligned with reality. We apply induction, deduction, observation, and verification first, to understand how we developed our beliefs and then modify them based on what we discover.
My existing belief: I have to achieve goals in order to enjoy climbing.
- Induction (create a hypothesis): My mind is tricking me into believing that I have to achieve goals in order to enjoy
- Deduction (make specific predictions): I predict that this belief is hindering my enjoyment of climbing. I predict that the learning process is important for enjoying I predict that focusing on learning, rather than just achievement, can create more enjoyment.
- Observation (gather information): I observe some climbers become upset when they fail and joyous when they succeed. I also observe some climbers remain curious and use their failures as learning opportunities and also enjoy their successes. The latter group of climbers seem to have more fun than the former
- Verification (test predictions): I test these predictions myself.
- First, I notice that sometimes I feel joyous when I succeed and upset when I fail. My level of enjoyment is dependent on
- Second, I also notice that sometimes it doesn’t bother me when I fail. I enjoy the process of learning from my failures. I experience joy when I succeed and can also enjoy learning from my failures. I also experience that I improve quicker when I enjoy the learning
- I contrast these two experiences and find that I enjoy my climbing more when I include a focus on learning as opposed to making my enjoyment solely based on achieving
This scientific investigation helps me change my existing belief to one that is more aligned with reality: My enjoyment of climbing can increase if it includes the experiences of learning and achieving goals.
The scientific method can seem complicated and difficult to remember and apply. There is something we can do that is even more basic and foundational to make sure we don’t become victims to the mind’s tricks: We simply slow down and be quiet. Doing this allows us to observe how the mind thinks and how it creates its beliefs. We learn that the mind is motivated by comfort. It’s constantly seeking what is easiest for us in order to survive. It’ll seek certainty in uncertain situations, even if that certainty is based on false information. The mind creates beliefs that give us comfort so we can survive at the expense of seeing reality clearly.
Knowing that the mind does this helps us hold our beliefs suspect. We develop an appropriate relationship with the mind by being skeptical of the information it tells us. We slow down and be quiet to observe the mind think. Doing that gives us space for awareness to develop and to use the scientific method to investigate ourselves and our world. Awareness grows as we slow down physically and mentally. Instead of rushing from one task to the next, we slow down so we’re present and focused completely on the current task. This slowing down helps us go deeper into the body and mind and helps us learn what beliefs are driving us. Doing this helps us notice our beliefs, find empirical evidence first, and then modify them accordingly. Instead of relying on superstition and magical thinking, we’re curious but cautious as we investigate our world.