By Andrew Komar
Michael Shermer, the founder and editor of Skeptic magazine and demi-god of the skeptic community, was in Montreal a few weeks back for a pseudoscientific symposium hosted at McGill. You can watch the whole lecture series for free online, also including David Gorski from Respectful Insolence, Ben Goldacre, and the Amazing Randi. I had the privilege of attending this lecture in person, and Mr Shermer even signed my book! The lecture itself was a classic skeptic lecture, and a little review of the basics of skepticism are never out of order.
The primary thesis was the fact that our brains are essentially pattern seeking organs, which has been a very successful adaptation in evolutionary terms. Shermer termed this tendency”patternicity“, which is our ability to find meaningful patterns in noise, both meaningful and meaningless. Patternicity leaves us open to two main types of errors in finding these patterns. Type 1 errors, or false positives, are when we think we see something that isn’t in fact there. From an evolutionary standpoint, this type of error is low cost, because you will be more cautious if you think a tiger lurks in the bushes, even when there is no tiger. The second, type 2 errors, are much more costly in these terms. This is the assumption that there isn’t a tiger when there is, which results in lunch for the tiger.
Our modern lives are far removed from these life-or-death errors, but we still have the same basic caveman hardware. This cranial ‘misfiring’ is what causes optical illusions, because our brain’s shorthand draws conclusions about what we are seeing, even if it is impossible. Patternicity gives rise to pareidolia, for example, seeing faces in meaningless noise.
More troubling, this patternicity can be primed with other information. If we are told to look for something, our brains can ‘edit out’ conflicting information, such as in the classic gorilla basketball experiment. Other times, we are virtually powerless to see other interpretations of the data.
This pattern seeking tendency seeps into our entire lives without us ever noticing it, and it often influences our decisions. More troubling, the more uncertain or random the data, the more likely we are to see patterns in the noise. This fact explains superstitious pigeons as well as our own, often bizzare superstitions. I have little doubt that the roots of many religions today have some part in this same basic brain error. Michael Shermer concluded, the first step in overcoming the screw-ups is knowing they are there in the first place.
The great Richard Feynman once said: ”Science is a way of trying not to fool yourself. The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.” With the lessons from Michael Shermer’s lecture, we are all better equipped to stop fooling ourselves.