This is a guest post by Katie Hartman. She is a student at Missouri State University and the organizer of Skepticon 4.
When was the last time your belief structure on a topic important to you shifted significantly?
Yes, I can see all you ex-theists out there. Put your hands down! That one doesn’t count.
I mean, isn’t it a little too easy? Yes, there’s probably no god. You’d think anyone who didn’t sleep through their science classes could get that one, assuming they were fortunate enough to reside in one of the many states sane enough to teach science.
Okay, okay, credit where credit is due. If you were once a True Believer™, your brain was actively protecting your faith. You were likely a victim of the bandwagon effect. The illusion of control and your ability to form illusory correlations played right into your evaluation of your own prayers. After a few months of churchin’ – and especially after years – irrational escalation was pinning you to your committed beliefs. The promise of an unimaginably wonderful afterlife fed your wishful thinking.
And all of these innate obstacles were blanketed in the pixie-dust of confirmation bias, providing a neat little barrier against all that nasty evidence.
If you managed to drag yourself out of that hole, you deserve a little recognition. And if you’re reading this blog, you’ve probably also cleanly avoided all sorts of other supernatural woo: psychic powers, astrology, homeopathy, etc.
Rationality needn’t hit the brakes when we exit the realm of the supernatural. We live our daily lives based on an elaborate constellation of beliefs, and we should not allow them to escape our scrutiny. Which careers, possessions, and relationships will make us happiest, and what strategies will most efficiently get them for us? Which social and political structures will make the world a “better” place, and what does that even mean? What ought we eat? To whom should we donate our money? How should we spend our free time? Why?
As Julia Galef and Massimo Pigliucci discuss in their Rationally Speaking Podcast, the beliefs that surround these important aspects of our lives—happiness, eating, and charitable giving, for example—are often quite misinformed.
And really, that’s no surprise: if you can train a populace to fill the Church coffers on a weekly basis in return for a promise that is on its face ridiculous, why couldn’t you manipulate the same psychological weaknesses to sell larger houses, more gratuitously expensive weddings, factory-farmed meats, bigger breasts, incoherent political ideologies, fantasies of sexual purity, Reeboks?
Cue Spencer Greenberg with The Good News:
“The exciting thing about truth discernment is that it is not just a genetic ability (though genetics is surely a contributing factor). It is an ability that we can improve a great deal if we take the time to hone our thinking. We can familiarize ourselves with the logical fallacies to the point where our brain notices them occurring in real-time. We can learn the cognitive biases so that we know the ways our brains are likely to fail us and can consciously correct for these failures. We can learn to prevent unhelpful emotions from derailing our logic too often. We can practice our reasoning by drilling in LSAT questions. And we can learn the methods of rationality, or at least read about another person using them.”
So, here’s your homework: when was the last time your belief structure on a topic regarding the natural world or your own lifestyle shifted significantly? Did it affect your behavior? How? To what end?