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Farsight


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Posted Thu Aug 20th, 2009 12:13pm Post subject: The Psychology of Belief (for intellectual heavyweights only)

I was reading a New Scientist feature on Stephen Fry, and thought I'd check this website out. Hmmmn. Looking at Science/technology/gadgets, I saw a thread called The Psychology of Twitter, so in a mischievous moment, I thought I'd lay this on you for your delectation, amusement, and intellectual challenge. Are you free from conviction? Oh really? LOL. Enjoy:

THE PSYCHOLOGY OF BELIEF

When I analysed my basic concepts, I found things that weren’t real, that don’t exist, that we never actually see. But we assume they’re real, we take them for granted, and we believe in them. Because we have holes in our understanding, holes that we’ve all grown up with. We’ve lived with them for so long that we don’t know they’re there. We cover them up with ignorance of our ignorance, with blindness of our blind spot, and we shield ourselves with a peer pressure that persuades us there are no alternatives to consider. We do it because we are social animals, we follow the herd, we're prey to groupthink. That’s the way we are. So much so, that we even place our faith in negative carpets.

What’s a negative carpet? Well, let’s say that the wife is so impressed with the new lounge carpet, that she now wants a new carpet for the baby's bedroom. The room is square, and we need sixteen square metres. What’s the square root of sixteen? There are two solutions, four and minus four. So wise guy that I am, I opt for the latter solution, and get down on my hands and knees to cut a big fat square out of our brand new living room carpet. I roll it up, put it over my shoulder, and take it to the carpet shop, walking backwards for dramatic effect. I hand it over to the proprietor and pay him a minus ten pound note, which I stick in my pocket, then go back home to crack open a bottle of wine and greet my guests. We're standing in the living room talking about my negative carpet and discussing its negative mass when the wife walks in. She stands there open-mouthed for a heartbeat or two as I begin to explain the merely technical details of relocation to the baby’s bedroom. Then all hell breaks loose.

The thing about all this, is that a solution is sometimes crazy, but it's not always plain. People just don't spot it. So we talk about it quite seriously without examining whether it’s a real solution. We end up taking it for granted and using it to search for further solutions. Then when we struggle, we forget to track back to the beginning and look at the things we took for granted. We don’t realise we’re riding a negative carpet to never-never land, and that’s why we’re getting nowhere. What it all boils down to, is that a negative carpet doesn’t exist. It isn’t real. It’s just a figment of our imagination, an abstraction, a belief. And beliefs can cause all sorts of problems. Some people believe in Santa Claus, and some people believe in fairies, despite that fact that there is absolutely no material evidence to support the existence of these things. We smile at the gullibility that foolish people show, but we forget that we too believe in things for which there is no material evidence. Things like time travel, unseen dimensions, and parallel worlds.

We’ve all got our beliefs. That’s the way we are. I’ve got them, and so do you. It was Feynman who said “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool”. This is more true than you realise. It’s true because when you’ve fooled yourself, you don’t know it. You convince yourself that you haven’t fooled yourself, and you develop a conviction, a faith, a belief about it. You'll be quite irrational in defence of this belief. You won't test your belief in an empirical scientific fashion. Instead, when challenged, you'll become defensive or incredulous. If you don’t behave this way, that’s fine, you’re not a believer. You merely have an opinion, and an open mind. But let me demonstrate something: You don’t have an open mind. You’re fooling yourself. At which point I imagine you're bristling already. See how it works? If you really believe something and I challenge it, it's all too easy to construe the challenge as an insult, and then become hostile and unreasonable. That's human nature. Everybody likes to think they have an open mind, and very few understand that about some things at least, they don't. The truth is this: you’re not quite as open minded or as rational as you think. This is hard to accept, but that’s the way it is. It’s like that because if you believe something, you don’t need to think about it. Because you already know the answer. Hence you're less receptive than you should be. And so you don’t look at the out-of-the-box solutions that solve the problems that have troubled you all your life.

Stop a minute and think about it. Why do you think we have suicide bombers? What on Earth possesses them to think that there’s seventy two virgins waiting for them in paradise? What possesses them is something called The Psychology of Belief. And they don’t think, that’s just it. This thing is far more powerful and far more prevalent than you know. There’s a whole spectrum of belief out there. Think about Young Earth Creationists and their Intelligent Design friends. You can talk to these people until you’re blue in the face, but they're totally immune to logic because they believe that they're right. You can say anything and everything, but they duck and dive and dismiss every last scrap of evidence you throw at them. Everything you say goes whoosh, in one ear and out the other. They just aren’t listening. They just aren’t thinking. The weird thing is that they don’t know they’re immune to logic. These guys aren’t lying to you. They don’t have a rational open mind, but they don’t know it. They think they’re being perfectly rational, and you’re just some crazy fool who just doesn’t know.

It doesn’t stop at religion. There’s ideology, Kafkaesque bureaucracy, and dynastic communism, all the sorts of things that can end up with starvation, murder, and Nazi death camps. There’s racism, tribalism, and insane conspiracy theories, all leading to enmity and hate and violence. There's heroin, crack, and alcohol addiction where people die before their time. Moving down the scale there's anorexia and obesity, and the dieting that makes you fat as your body sets store for a rainy day. Then there’s gentler symptoms like fashion, where folk let themselves be brainwashed into thinking purple is the new black. Or swaggering around with some eco cotton bag containing the keys for the 4x4 and the plane tickets. It affects everybody to some degree, even people who consider themselves to be utterly rational and totally open minded. Everybody’s got some kind of belief about something. When you find it and hit it, whoosh, everything you say goes in one ear and out the other. They just don’t listen. They just don’t think. It’s like the shutters are down and there’s nobody home.

Would you like to put yourself to the test? This will show you what I mean. This will demonstrate that you're not immune to The Psychology of Belief. Nobody is, not even me. Take a look at the picture below:

http://web.mit.edu/persci/people/adelson/checkershadow_illusion.html

OK, here’s the deal: squares A and B are the same colour. They’re the same shade of grey. Oh no they’re not, I hear you say. Oh yes they are I insist. Oh no they’re not, you answer back. We could do this all day, but I’m afraid I'm right and you’re wrong. They really are the same colour. Squares A and B are the same shade of grey. The apparent difference in colour is the illusion. Let me prove it. It's very simple: just look at it from a narrow angle. Another method is look through a small hole to remove the context that fooled you into fooling yourself. You can even download the image and check it out with photoshop. Satisfy yourself. Be empirical, test yourself, find a way to stop fooling yourself. Then you realise that A and B really are the same colour.

Don’t be surprised. I told you The Psychology of Belief is powerful. More powerful than you ever dreamed. What’s surprising is just how common it is, even amongst scientists. If you don’t believe me, you should look up paradigm on Wikipedia, and read The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn. Conviction is a hard nut to crack, and it applies to scientists too. It’s the way we are, the way we think. Why do you think Bruno got burned at the stake? Why do you think it took Einstein seventeen years to get a Nobel Prize for the wrong thing? And why do you think there’s that saying: catch ‘em young? It’s because there are people out there who are quite fully aware that if you instil children with a belief they’ll carry on believing it come heaven or high water. These children remain so utterly convinced, that they grow up to become adults who will fight and die for it. But we’re not going to fight and die for something like The Capacity To Do Work are we? Because we are rational, we have an open mind, and we listen and we think.

Yes, The Capacity To Do Work. Einstein said you don't really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother. Can you explain energy to your grandmother? You might believe you can, but the chances are you’re fooling yourself, and your explanation is no explanation at all. Your grandmother will peer at you over her bifocals, suck on her false teeth, say Thank you Dear, and then she’ll carry on with her knitting. She’s too polite to say it, because butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth. But what she really meant is: Capacity To Do Work my arse.

Come on now, The Capacity To Do Work is no explanation at all. You swallowed that when you were young and gullible, and you haven’t looked at it since. Energy is a simple basic concept that you really ought to understand, but you don’t. And you don’t know that you don’t. Because Donald Rumsfeld was right. And what you also don’t know, is that The Capacity To Do Work is merely a label that covers up a hole in your understanding. A hole that you’ve grown up with, that’s been there so long it’s like a blind spot, all grown over with such thick skin that you don’t even know it’s there any more.

I’ll show you the holes in your understanding. I’ll peel back those labels and fill the holes with concepts that are crystal clear. Then you can stop fooling yourself. But remember this, it’s important: the basic concepts I will give you are better than the concepts you hold now. But don’t ever think they’re perfect. Don’t fool yourself that you’ve stopped fooling yourself. Keep that open mind open.

Buckle up. Here we go.


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Nitro


Member

Posted Thu Aug 20th, 2009 1:32pm Post subject: The Psychology of Belief (for intellectual heavyweights only)

Really? Wow.

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exoskeleton


Member

Posted Sat Aug 22nd, 2009 5:17am Post subject: The Psychology of Belief (for intellectual heavyweights only)

this is pleasingly good writing, and very easy to read.
not sure what Donald Rumsfeld has to do with my high school physics class though. why bring up idea of energy, I'm so curious...I would have thought the ability to do work existed first, and energy was the label slapped on, not that energy existed and then we had to figure out how to define it in a phrase.

also, I definitely don't have an open mind. I'm aware when I get pushed into the edges sometimes, and other times I'm sure it happens and I don't even know. I can tell it best when comedians or shows I usually enjoy suddenly feel unfunny. I'm also not an intellectual heavyweight by any stretch.

nevertheless, all this interests me particularly as a problem in science, because challenges to scientific consensus (or so-called consensus depending on who you ask) are either annoying time and energy wasters or really important ideas that are being smothered, and how do you know without duplicating experiments or analyzing the same data for yourself? I tend to stick with the scientific mainstream because I really don't want to get suckered by some fancy new ideas. I try to keep up with evolutionary biology, which I think is often hampered by beliefs, not of the religious sort, but about mechanisms and processes.

(post-midnight posts are always suspect...tomorrow morning I'll probably be like, omg, what was I doing here...)

sockdolager.

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Farsight


Member

Posted Sat Aug 22nd, 2009 5:36pm Post subject: The Psychology of Belief (for intellectual heavyweights only)

Thanks exoskeleton. The Rumsfeld thing is to do with his “don’t know” quote from the Department of Defence news briefing of 12 February 2002:

"Reports that say that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns - the ones we don't know we don't know".

Most people don't understand what he was on about, but at the same time most people don't know that they don't know what energy actually is. It isn't "the capacity to do work". That's what it will do, not what it is. It's the effect, not the cause.

I imagine there are some beliefs at work in evolutionary biology, for example Lamarckism was rather dismissed but is now the subject of renewed interest. Re natural selection I was at a seminar last year where a guy (Jack Cohen maybe) gave a presentation where he said: think of a pair of frogs, where the female lays say 1000 eggs a year for ten years. Assuming a stable frog population, how many of these ten thousand eggs make it to adulthood? Answer: two. That's the terrible driving power of natural selection. Most of the offspring die.

It's nothing like what we see in physics, concerning energy, mass, charge, time, gravity, quantum mechanics, particles, black holes, and dark matter. People believe they understand these things, but they don't. And they don't know that they don't. I don't know if you looked at the chequer-shadow illusion, but it's a graphic example of how most people suffer from so much conviction that they refuse to examine evidence. Normally we consider this to be the preserve of religious folk, but actually it's a people thing. Things like creationism are an obvious exhibition of this trait, but there's a lot of it about. So much so, that once you've clocked it, it gets kind of scarey. Try explaining gravity to test yourself.

Meanwhile, a couple of other good illusions that highlight how you can't trust your brain are the Pac-Man illusion http://www.planetperplex.com/en/img.php?id=295 and the Big Spanish Castle http://www.johnsadowski.com/big_spanish_castle.php. Mind-blowing!


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Maxx England


Member

Posted Sat Aug 22nd, 2009 10:15pm Post subject: The Psychology of Belief (for intellectual heavyweights only)

I play improvised music. I know I don't know a fraction of what there is out there, and I have only a dim, hazy, stunted understanding of the size of the vast intergalactic cloud that is music. But I chip away and learn. Sometimes, I go into the wilderness of jazz and come back bearing nuggets of music, but so much unproductive rubble to sift through and so much good ore going unrecognised.

And that's just one facet of existence. Me? I know bugger all, but I'm having a go anyway.

The only way is forward. Now where's the bar?

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Nitro


Member

Posted Mon Aug 24th, 2009 9:34pm Post subject: The Psychology of Belief (for intellectual heavyweights only)

I've got a huge pond on my property and I challenge your theory that only two frogs ever make it from one female. Come talk to all the frogs down there about it

Beware the snapping turtle though: She's been around a while and she isn't taking shit from anyone.

Really? Wow.

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Maxx England


Member

Posted Mon Aug 24th, 2009 9:55pm Post subject: The Psychology of Belief (for intellectual heavyweights only)

Turtles all the way down, then?

The only way is forward. Now where's the bar?

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Nitro


Member

Posted Thu Aug 27th, 2009 9:55pm Post subject: The Psychology of Belief (for intellectual heavyweights only)

LOL Yerp!

They're pretty funny. They lay there at the edge of the pond, bulbous little eyes sitting atop the water. Very difficult to see if you don't know where to look, or how. They're jet black, having taken on the color of the muck in the shallow parts.

They're almost impossible to sneak up on. So I gave up and just stomp around. As you go, they make a tremendous leap into deeper waters and as they do, I swear on my on my own head, they all scream:

"EEP!!"

Funnier than all get out...

Really? Wow.

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Beira


Member

Posted Thu Sep 3rd, 2009 2:02am Post subject: The Psychology of Belief (for intellectual heavyweights only)

I always thought the whole thing about the human brain was that we can not possibly process the vast amounts of information that are available to us through our senses. So we screen out the unnecessary. Pick and choose what we process and make up the empty bits that are inbetween. So we have a continuous, yet highly fictional, model of the world around us.

That model, is basically a belief, but there is no way of changing the way our brains work, so we are trapped in that fictional world. BUT I for one, am quite happy in my fictional world because its slightly different from your fictional world, we all live on different planets.

I'm probably completely wrong and have my facts all mixed up.

Actually I'm totally immersed in the image of little turtles poking their heads out of water, cos I'm a girl and that sounds cute.

I don't have turtles, but I have an eagle, who's called Eugene, he can talk. See Eugene is really interested in beliefs as well, including the belief that consciousness is merely an illusion, are we only conscious when we ask ourselves "Are we conscious?" stuff like that...

Can you tell I'm having a loopy hour, stress plus lack of sleep plus BPD equals very strange and possibly garbled posts, also, it turns out, a complete lack of inhibitions.


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