Avoiding the trap of belief-dependant realism

The Believing Brain: how we construct beliefs and reinforce them as truths by Michael Shermer. Times books, New York. 386pp. ISBN 978-0-8050-9125-0. Reviewed by Martin Wallace.

Aa a member of NZ Skeptics I have become increasingly aware of the huge and ever-growing list of unsubstantiated beliefs in our society, including religion, alternative medicine, alien abductions, ESP, flying saucers, vaccination refusal, and so on and on. Why are there so many of them and their adherents, and so few of us skeptics?

In his new book Michael Shermer sets out the reasons for this situation. It is our believing brains, evolved hundreds of thousands of years ago, that are responsible. Belief without evidence is a salutary behaviour when facing a trembling bush behind which a predator may be lurking. Don’t wait for evidence – just go! Survival is selected for by belief.

Michael Shermer is the founding publisher of Skeptic magazine in the US, writes a regular column in Scientific American, and is an adjunct professor at Claremont Graduate University. He lives in Calfornia.

In this book he explores beliefs in many fields, and how we select data after forming the beliefs, to reinforce them. He describes how deeply inherent is our desire to detect patterns in our sensory information, and the evidence from neurophysiology and behavioural genetics which shows how and where this occurs. Religion for example exists in all cultures and can be called “a universal”.

Dr Shermer explores the history of empiricism and the extraordinary prescience of Francis Bacon (c 1620) in his recognition of those human behaviours which inhibit the determination of reality, and the need for a new approach.

He makes a strong argument for the teaching of scientific method in our schools as well as teaching the nature of the world revealed by that process. It is the unwillingness to apply that method which has resulted in the perseverance of our plethora of beliefs. We are not endowed by evolution with that aptitude, which after all is only 400 years old. We have to learn it.

Unsubstantiated beliefs have been part of our nature for a million years. This is why there are so many of them, and why they are so widespread. Shermer writes: “Science is the only hope we have of avoiding the trap of belief-dependant realism. It is the best tool ever devised to determine: does belief equate with reality?”

The prologue is available on Shermer’s web page (www.michaelshermer.com) and gives some idea of what lies within. There are liberal notes for each chapter and a comprehensive index.

I would recommend this book to anyone, sceptic or not, who wishes to better understand our human nature.

Martin Wallace is a retired physician who is resuming his education in literature, natural history, and in trying to understand human behaviour.

Belief and knowledge: a plea about language

Alison Campbell looks at some words that cause scientific misunderstandings.

I suspect that for many of my first-year Biology students, the sheer weight of new terms they come across is perhaps the most daunting thing about the course. In some ways learning biology is rather like learning a new language, with several thousand new words swamping the page (and the brain).

But there’s more than just the new words – there’s the meaning of the words to come to terms with. This is the focus of Helen Quinn’s paper in Physics Today (2007): Belief and knowledge – a plea about language. There are many words whose meaning to a scientist may be quite different from what they mean to a layperson. Quinn feels, and I agree, that some words “are the root of considerable public misunderstanding about science: belief, hypothesis, theory and knowledge.”

‘Belief’ isn’t really a word that sits well with science. As Quinn says, it can be “an article of faith” ie religious belief. Or – conversely – in the phrase “I believe he is coming at 5pm”, you get the meaning “but I’m not really sure.” So how are we to take those news stories that begin “Scientists believe”? A statement like “most biologists believe in evolution” could be used to claim that evolution is as much faith-based as organised religion. (I tell my students that I don’t ‘believe’ in evolution, but accept it as the best available current explanation for life’s diversity. This can engender some interesting discussions…)

But what the statement “most scientists believe” means – to scientists – is that most scientists agree that the weight of evidence favours a particular interpretation. Quinn suggests we should say “scientific evidence supports the conclusion that…” I like this – it leaves open the possibility that this conclusion could change, if sufficient evidence to the contrary comes to light. Which is a much better reflection of the nature of science. Unfortunately there tends to be a perception that scientific ‘facts’ don’t change. (Also unfortunate is the fact that if scientists do change their interpretation of the data, they’re accused of not really knowing what they’re talking about. Sometimes I think we just can’t win!) Like Quinn, I feel that as scientists we shouldn’t be using the ‘b’ word – it gives the appearance that science is “just another belief system.”

‘Theory’ is another word that means different things to different people. “I’ve got a theory about that” really means, ‘I’ve got a hunch or an idea, a guess.’ But to scientists ‘theory’ means a well-established explanation for a large body of data: the theories of relativity, plate tectonics, evolution… These are definitely not guesses (nor are they belief systems!), but comprehensive explanations that have strong predictive power and have been tested time and time again. They are also incomplete, but that again is the nature of science. Scientific theories may well be modified if new evidence comes to hand: Newton’s laws are an example. (Quinn notes that Newton’s laws still hold, under certain well-defined conditions.)

It’s worth repeating Quinn’s description of how scientific theories are developed, because this is a valuable description of how science operates and what sets it apart from ‘other ways of knowing’:

When we seek to extend and revise our hypothetical frameworks, we make hypotheses, build models, and construct untested, alternate, extended theories. These last must incorporate all the well-established elements of prior theories. Experiment not only tests the new hypotheses; any unexplained result both requires and constrains new speculative theory building – new hypotheses. Models … play an important role here. They allow us to investigate and formulate the predictions and tests of our theory in complex situations. Our theories are informed guesses, incorporating much that we know. They may or may not pan out, but they are motivated by some aspects or puzzles in the existing data and theory. We actively look for contradictions.

A tribal occasion

When Richard Dawkins made a flying visit to New Zealand in March he attracted people from all over the country – including three from this household. Tickets to all events were quickly snapped up, but fortunately friends in the Auckland Univeristy Alumni Association put some aside for us.

The information content of a one-hour lecture (with about 20 minutes for questions) is not that great. And there wasn’t much in his presentation that anyone familiar with his work wouldn’t have encountered before, although he concluded with some ideas on the origins of religion that were new to me. For not much more than the $30 admission fee (less than half what Kelvin Cruickshank charges for an evening, I had to note) you could buy one of his many books, which would keep you busy for days.

But the evening wasn’t really about learning new stuff. It was a gathering of the tribe, of sorts, though admittedly it’s a rather odd tribe. It’s one that doesn’t really have leaders, but to paraphrase Terry Pratchett, Richard Dawkins is one of the most highly regarded of the leaders we don’t have. It was just good for one’s cosmic energy levels, to be in the same room, and breathe the same air for a while.

One gratifying feature of the evening was the age range in attendance. Grey, balding heads and beards would once have overwhelmingly predominated at an event like this, but there were good numbers of university age in the audience, and a much more even gender ratio than would have prevailed 20 years ago. Our 19-year-old daughter received jealous comments when she had to graciously decline an invitation to a steampunk party the same night.

And as a bonus, we picked up several free copies of The Origin of Species – the edition with the “Special Introduction” by New Zealand-born creationist Ray Comfort, which were being handed out on the street nearby. He’s gone out of his way to make Darwin’s words inaccessible: I didn’t know they made typefaces that small, although of course his introduction is impeccably laid out, with lots of amusing 19th century caricatures of Darwin. But I can’t help thinking that distributing this book to people who otherwise would never go near a copy is not a brilliant strategy, especially now he’s been made to call in his original version that was missing crucial chapters. Poor old Ray was never the sharpest knife in the drawer – check out his clip on YouTube about how the banana is an atheist’s worst nightmare. This latest stunt of his will no doubt create further amusement, but few converts, unless they’re in an unintended direction.

Apocalypse soon: Unwarranted skepticism and the growth fetish

The dire predictions of the Club of Rome’s 1972 report on The Limits to Growth have supposedly been refuted by subsequent studies, but the refutations have serious shortcomings. This article is based on a presentation to the NZ Skeptics 2009 conference in Wellington, 26 September.

We belong to a species that dominates the planet. After millennia of steady growth which have altered regional environments and killed off many species, the human population has exploded during one lifetime. Whereas it took millennia to reach the first billion, the human population tripled in 140 years to three billion by 1960, and is currently trebling again in just 80 years, to nine billion in 2040. We have become a plague.

Many scientists, including myself, have been concerned with this picture. There is considerable evidence describing an overpopulated world, threatened by food and water shortages, a shortage of oil supplies, and huge changes due to global warming. Consider the message in the figure on the right, which adds more recent data to the Limits to Growth forecasts of Meadows et al (1972) for the Club of Rome’s Project on the Predicament of Mankind. World population may hit a peak around 2040-2050 and then rapidly decline. My own research, including work with a number of international forecasting projects, suggests that the peak will happen sooner, around 2030.

This model was based on a considerable body of research and is supported by many other more detailed studies. Here we have a picture of a world in which population may plummet following an overshoot-and-decline pattern when limits are passed.

I looked at this some 35 years ago with the eyes of an applied mathematician. I had seen that a model can capture the essence of a situation and provide realistic guidance, just so long as the model is based on the key aspects of a greater complexity. The thought of possible global collapse within one lifetime impressed me and I set off on a new career. I have found that the picture based on physical science can readily be fleshed out by reference to past historical events. It is easy to foresee the repetition of population collapse, social breakdown and war.

So here am I proclaiming apocalypse in just 20 years. What do you make of it? Either I am mistaken or society is just a little bit crazy. J B Priestley made this point in relation to William Blake:

And no doubt those who believe that the society we have created during the last hundred and fifty years is essentially sound and healthy will continue to believe, if they ever think about him, that Blake was insane. But there is more profit for mind and soul in believing our society to be increasingly insane, and Blake (as the few who knew him well always declared) to be sound and healthy.

I introduce this point as I have been treated as a pariah for taking up an extremely important scientific endeavour. Should you be sceptical of those like me who talk of impending catastrophe? Certainly, but consider the alternative which is to put your faith in those who have dismissed the reality of a finite Earth. The Limits to Growth was the subject of widespread denunciation by the supporters of status quo economic growth. Let’s look at the validity of some of the critics; we at the DSIR considered many and found some bizarre arguments.

One key critique was a 1977 Report to the United Nations, The Future of the World Economy, by a team headed by Nobel Prize- winning economist Vassilly Leontief. The Dominion reported that:

Among the most significant aspects of the study are its rejection of predictions by the Club of Rome that the world will run out of resources and choke on its pollution if it continues to expand its economy.

The summary of the report emphasised this theme:

No insurmountable physical barriers exist within the twentieth century to the accelerated development of the developing regions.

Read that carefully. It says “in the twentieth century”. The Limits to Growth‘s authors made a forecast of a possible calamitous population collapse around 2050 – not within the twentieth century. By stopping their model 50 years before, in 2000, the UN team made quite sure that they avoided any possibility of such an event. In fact, as far as they went, their forecasts are very similar to those of The Limits to Growth.

Such sleight of hand is not uncommon. In 1978 I worked for six months with the OECD Interfutures project. While I was able to study an extensive collection of input information, I had no real part in the analysis, which was dominated by a small core group. The 1979 report includes a claim that would be satisfactory to the clients, the wealthy nations of the world:

Economic growth may continue during the next half-century in all the countries of the world without encountering insurmountable long-term physical limits at the global level.

There are two reasons why this statement is misleading. Firstly, all their many computer model calculations stopped in 2000 and did not reach out that far, so this is not in any way based on the work of so many of us in this project. Secondly, they look ahead for just 50 years, thus stopping short of 2050, the forecast time for crisis. It is always easy to dodge a crisis by stopping short of the due date, like the fellow falling off a building who felt that all was well as he sailed down, before he reached the pavement. They knew what The Limits to Growth forecast; they knew what they were doing.

These are examples of the way in which organisations employ expertise to generate desired results and make unjustified claims. Many readers will be sceptical of the warnings of approaching limits. Such scepticism may be better applied to many of the arguments for continuation of growth; here is a New Zealand example.

In 1990 the Planning Council published a report, The fully employed high income society (Rose 1990), which received nationwide publicity due to its suggestion that sustainable full employment with full incomes was possible by 1995 due to high rates of productivity increase – but otherwise continuing current policies.

When I read the document carefully I found some very questionable points:

(a) Estimates of employment requirements commenced in 1988 and ignored the significant loss of jobs between that date and 1990.

(b) Modelling of productivity increases commenced with modelling which has proved unrealistic and overly optimistic, and assumed a further doubling of productivity.

(c) The model run commenced in 1984 with these increases in productivity in order to generate an optimistic result in 1995, thus ignoring the negative experiences of 1984-90.

(d) The model was instructed to produce full employment by 1995 – this was not a consequence of the modelling based on policy changes as represented by input parameters.

(e) Full employment was completely generated by additional capital investment.

The model failed the most basic scientific test of forecasting even before it was published. In the four years from 1986, the date one model run commenced, to 1990, the date of the report, the model had suggested an increase in employment of 38,000, whereas the actual experience was of a fall of 90,000. Nor was that followed by a fully employed society – indeed unemployment was 11 percent in 1991.

The main feature of this work was a failure to produce the required result of full employment within realistic model parameters. The correct process would then have been to report that finding, which would have been in line with what actually happened, but they chose to tweak the model by the introduction of massive capital investment. This artificial process forced the model to say what was wanted and the result was then widely publicised.

Whereas the growth merchants have feet of clay, the limits forecasts from the 1970s hold up well when put to the test. When in 2008 the CSIRO (noted above) returned to the 1972 forecasts of The Limits to Growth and considered whether the real world had followed the forecast trends, the results were convincing. They considered measures of population (birth rates, death rates and population growth), food (and food per capita), services (basic education, electricity and suchlike), industrial output per capita, non-renewable resources and global pollution. All were tracking along the forecast paths towards the coming crisis.

The graph of population on page 3 is typical. These further graphs (right) of food and industrial output per capita, non-renewable resources and global persistent pollution show the same correlation between forecast and observation.

Data since 1972 follow the standard run closely, and do not deviate to follow alternative paths. This result echoes a study I carried out in 2000, when I found that my worrying picture built up around 1980 was robust. Trends have been intriguingly following the expected pattern, including more recently the 2008 oil peak and economic collapse, galloping global warming and the appearance of boat people off the Australian coast.

When I studied the futures literature back in 2000 I found two very different dominant themes. Each followed observed trends and each could describe features of the coming decades. Some of the articles suggested the possibility of food shortages, which would exacerbate the considerable inequalities observed today. That negative scenario may be exacerbated by water shortages and climate change. However a much more prevalent picture was of increasing human capabilities, new technologies and wealth.

No choice is needed; both sets of forecasts may prove robust, as existing trends take different regions or different groups along very different paths. There is then the possibility of the coexistence of two very different societies in the future. This is quite likely; after all it was like that in mediaeval times and in eighteenth and nineteenth century Europe, and this is the reality in many parts of the world today.

I have described the application of the scientific method to long-term forecasting. This is the way a scientist operates, in a search for the truth. An opposite process is followed in economics, where false analyses are widely publicised, and the fit of forecast to reality is ignored. New Zealand discourse is dominated by shonky science. The key work on global crisis comes from the Australian CSIRO while the DSIR, where I started my work, is no more. Here science is in a straitjacket of controls, totally gutted. In a recent round of grants eight out of nine applications were turned down, and initiative is killed as scientists waste time writing proposals for guaranteed results rather than asking questions and exploring the world. The human cost has also been enormous with the crushing of the lively, questioning spirit in true science. The fun of science is gone. Sadly the spokesman for the scientific community, the Royal Society (RSNZ) is quiescent.

Even in economics much more can be done. In 1989 I was able to foresee the collapsing system we have now. Sometimes I dream that we can recover the spirit of the 1970s when the debate was well-informed, when an initiative in the DSIR was supported and the Commission for the Future was set up. It is nowhere on the horizon. This is a country that is deep in denial, which can sign up to Kyoto and then do nothing as greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 to 2007 increase 39.2 percent for energy and 35 percent for industrial processes. Where is the madness here?

Ignorance goes nowhere. A people which faces the world with eyes wide open can gain a national spirit and decide to work towards a satisfying and full life for all, even in the face of adversity, rather than put up with the massive inequality introduced in 1984 and still touted as the way forward.

Graphs are reproduced with permission from Graham M Turner 2008: A comparison of The Limits to Growth with 30 years of reality, Global Environmental Change 18(3): 397-411.


The leading medical journal The Lancet recently published yet another analysis of trials of homeopathy. After examining 110 such trials, the Swiss researchers concluded that there was no convincing evidence that homeopathy was any more effective than placebo. In the accompanying editorial, the editor, Dr Richard Horton, made a comment which has an uncanny, and no doubt intentional parallel with the views of the founder of homeopathy over two hundred years ago:-

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Chinese Voyages Head into Realms of Fantasy

1421: THE YEAR CHINA DISCOVERED THE WORLD, by Gavin Menzies. Bantam, $54.95.

Zheng He is not a name that is well known in the west. However, his seven voyages from China, through the Indian Ocean to Africa between 1405 and 1435 would place him among the world’s great explorers. Yet retired submarine captain Gavin Menzies is convinced Zheng He’s feats were even greater. He believes a massive Chinese fleet conducted four simultaneous circumnavigations of the world between 1421 and 1423, during which they discovered the Americas, Australia, New Zealand, even Antarctica. But while they were away, the Chinese emperor turned his back on the outside world and, when the ships returned, had all mention of them erased. Why the records of Zheng He’s other expeditions were kept, Menzies does not explain.

As Menzies tells it, he was set on his own personal voyage after viewing some early European maps. He claims these have details that could not have been known to Europeans at the time, and concludes only the Chinese could have mounted expeditions to map these areas. The Europeans then copied the Chinese charts. One is the Piri Reis map, which Erich von Däniken made so much of, with different conclusions. Another, the Jean Rotz map, shows land stretching to the south and east of Australia. Menzies argues this was solid ice stretching from Tasmania to the Auckland and Campbell Islands. What appear on the map to be rivers, Menzies interprets as harbours on these islands, which were, he claims, “at the normal limit of the pack ice that links them in midwinter.” Of course, they’re actually ice-free year round.

After mapping this region, Menzies says the Chinese sailed north to New Zealand, pausing in Fjordland (sic) to drop off some giant ground sloths (which have been extinct for 10,000 years), collected in South America. A teak ship was then wrecked on Ruapuke Beach, south of Raglan, “near the mouth of the Torei Palma River”. Further evidence cited includes a brass bell found in the area which bears a Tamil inscription (a Tamil ship must have joined the fleet for trading purposes, he says), some rocks with Tamil inscriptions on them, and a carved stone duck which resembles a Chinese votive offering. European cartographers then somehow got hold of the charts drawn by the expedition before the Chinese authorities destroyed them, and copied down the ice sheet to the south of Australia, but left out New Zealand, and, for that matter, most of China itself.

It doesn’t take much research (using the same sources that Menzies consulted) to establish that the Ruapuke wreck (which originally came to light in the 1870s) was actually made from totara, the bell was found in the central North Island, the rock inscriptions are Maori, and the duck’s provenance is dubious, but unlikely to be Chinese.

The whole book is like this. There is no logic whatever as he leaps from one piece of “incontrovertible” evidence to the next. The only mystery is how a reputable publisher could lavish such attention (the book is beautifully produced) on the kind of writing that is usually found in cheap pulp paperbacks. There’s talk of a TV series too.

A version of this review originally appeared in the Waikato Times

Devil’’s Chaplain an Eloquent Advocate

A DEVIL’S CHAPLAIN: Selected Essays. Richard Dawkins. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2003. ISBN 0 297 82973 4.

We Dawkins fans have been waiting since “Unweaving the Rainbow” in 1998 for this. Unlike its predecessors, it is not written around a single theme, but is a collection of Dawkins’s comments and reviews of the past 25 years, on a variety of topics, reflecting his wide-ranging interests and passions. His editor, Latha Menon, has arranged 32 of these into six groups and a final letter to his ten-year-old daughter on “Belief”. In addition to a general Preface, Dawkins has written a short introduction to each group.

The first essay in group one, which gives its name to the title of the book, is based on a quotation from a letter of Darwin’s: “What a book a Devil’s Chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering low and horridly cruel works of nature”. This is a mixed bag of topics, ranging from the lunacies of crystal gazing and postmodernism to an enlightened public school headmaster of 100 years ago, with, between these extremes of sense, the Great Ape Project.

In the second group, collected under the title, ‘Light Will Be Thrown’, we are back with Darwin and evolution. ‘The Infected Mind’ is a passionate denunciation of monotheism, after which Dawkins cools down by means of four eulogies for friends and heroes.

Much is made, especially by biology’s enemies, of “hostility” between Dawkins and SJ Gould. A whole section of the book is devoted to this; reviews of Gould’s books, comments on his philosophy, and correspondence between them. It is a lesson in how to combine professional disagreement over details with warm respect and friendship in personal matters. The author grieves for Gould’s early death as for a fellow fighter for truth.

The final section has a geographical flavour. “Out of Africa” applies to Homo sapiens in general, and to Dawkins in particular, and he relishes that. Many of us parents must wish we could write as eloquently to our children as he does in the coda to the book. Fortunate Miss Dawkins!

Dummies Guide a Bit of a Parson’’s Egg

ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE FOR DUMMIES, by James Dillard and Terra Diane Ziporyn. Hungry Minds, Inc.

These books are all subtitled “A Reference for the Rest of Us!”. Perhaps I’m prejudiced but as far as I’m concerned, dummies is a better term for anyone who uses alternative medicine. Having said that, this book, written by a chiropractor and a science writer with a PhD in the history of medicine and science, is not as bad as I thought it was going to be.

I couldn’t be bothered grinding my way through the lot, but I did read the introduction, the chapter on chiropractic (because of the author) and those on homoeopathy and naturopathy. I then skimmed through various other chapters on Chinese and Indian traditional medicines, acupuncture, osteopathy, and aromatherapy. I guess the main problem with this book is that as part of a series, the objective is to sell books rather than to inform. In an effort to avoid offending anyone, including so-called conventional medical practitioners, it has a bob each way on just about everything.

The introduction is probably the worst example of this. Controlled, randomised, double-blind clinical trials are described as the “gold standard” of evidence. It makes the point that often alternative studies rely on anecdotal evidence or other less than perfect techniques. This is repeated in all the chapters that I studied, with the caution that if you have a serious physical illness, you should see an MD. Good sensible advice, which is then undercut in almost every chapter by saying that if you haven’t got a serious physical illness by all means go with what feels good, and that double-blind trials are not the be-all and end-all of medical evidence. Of course they’re not, necessarily, but in the section on acupuncture for instance; little evidence is offered other than the idea that “2500 years of History Can’t Be All Wrong”.

The section on chiropractic is the most interesting because one of the authors is both an MD and a chiropractor. It completely avoids the wild claims made in the past, explaining that it is only good for back pain and related problems, and then only for non-chronic types.

It goes on to explain that most back pain goes away no matter what you do, and that chiropractic is good for back pain largely because patients get “satisfaction” from it. (This satisfaction seems to be a major reason for indulging in almost any alternative therapy according to these authors, and in my mind shows one of the problems with conventional medicine, that perhaps not enough attention is paid to the emotional state of the patient.) Almost every treatment has a small section on possible complications, and in this case these are glossed over in that the problems associated with rapid neck twisting are not mentioned at all.

The authors are a little harder on most other types of treatment, for instance homoeopathy is called a science — in inverted commas. The points are made that it may delay or prevent treatment for serious illness, and that you are in fact taking nothing. To avoid offending the homeopaths too much, however, a couple of meta-analyses from the Lancet and British Medical Journal are thrown in which allegedly show effects more powerful than a placebo.

Naturopathy fares equally badly. To be fair though, the lifestyle changes promoted by naturopaths are represented as safe and good for you, and of course a healthy diet and regular exercise probably are.

One thing I do like about this book is that it invariably recommends seeing a conventional physician first to rule out a serious condition before you see an alternative medical practitioner. Alternative medicine in these cases is used as complementary therapy, and just involves extra expense.

Readers are also told to make sure they tell their physicians and their complementary therapists just what treatment they are receiving from each to avoid complications. Again sensible advice, but one wonders if it is done out of the sense of conviction or just to avoid litigation from the American market if someone reads the book, takes the advice, and has something horrible happen to them afterwards.

I must admit to being in two minds about this sort of book. On the one hand this is a series with some clout, I myself have used some of their sister publications, particularly those on computing, and I feel that this association gives it an authority it possibly doesn’t deserve. On the other hand it’s nice to see the book written by people who obviously support alternative treatments being relatively objective about them, and if I knew any dummies who were determined to seek out alternative therapies I would prefer them to read this book rather than any other.