In a world dominated by magical thinking, superstition and misinformation, give yourself the benefit of doubt. This is one skeptic's view of the Universe; natural wonders and supernatural blunders.

"Tell people there’s an invisible man in the sky who created the universe, and the vast majority believe you. Tell them the paint is wet, and they have to touch it to be sure."

-George Carlin

“If people are good only because they fear punishment, and hope for reward, then we are a sorry lot indeed”.

-Albert Einstein

“Skeptical scrutiny is the means, in both science and religion, by which deep thoughts can be winnowed from deep nonsense.”

-Carl Sagan

The person who is certain, and who claims divine warrant for his certainty, belongs now to the infancy of our species. It may be a long farewell, but it has begun and, like all farewells, should not be protracted.

-Christopher Hitchens

 

10 Weird Ways Your Brain Is Tricking You

7 Moral Dumbfounding

…Research has not yet explained why this response occurs. It may be that society’s taboos are simply ingrained into our consciousness so deeply that we feel a powerful moral drive against them even though we cannot logically explain why.

4 Sympathetic Pain

…The part of the brain responsible for this is called the “mirror area” and scientists believe we have something called “mirror neurons,” which are responsible for creating a sympathetic response. Essentially, humans are hardwired to think we are feeling the same things as other people—essentially a very strong version of instinctive empathy.

3 False Memories

…In one experiment, researchers convinced a woman that she had been lost in a mall when she was young. Not only did she believe them, but she started making up details about an old woman who had helped her and talked about looking at puppies. The researchers were able to convince her so well that when they told her the memory was false and it had all been an experiment, she didn’t believe them until she had called her parents to confirm that she hadn’t been lost in the mall.

1 Hypnagogia

Many of us are under the impression that only those under the influence of drugs are likely to experience hallucinations, but nothing could be further from the truth. Hypnagogic hallucinations occur in that span of time when you are falling asleep but not actually asleep, whereas hypnapompic hallucinations occur when you are waking up. Both forms of hallucination can be either auditory or visual in nature….

Internet Echochambers

I recently came across a post on the skeptic subreddit pointing to the rules of the 9/11 truther subreddit:

Welcome to 911truth! The purpose of this subreddit is to present and discuss evidence showing that the US Government’s version of the events of 9/11 cannot possibly be true. Submissions or comments supporting the official version, including links to sites purporting to “debunk” the 9/11 Truth Movement (depending on context), are considered off-topic here.

Rules:

Stay on topic. Off topic comments are subject to removal.
Rule #7 also made me smile:

7. No caps lock.

This is the double-edged sword of the internet – it allows for unprecedented on-demand access to incredible information, but that information is biased.

This is nothing new. We can only sample a tiny amount of all the possible information about the world. Whatever process is used to filter, organize, access, and digest that information will be biased. Part of the skeptical endeavor is to study such biases, at every level, so that we can have some sense of how that affects the information that ultimately gets into our brains, and perhaps compensate for them.

Pre-internet perhaps the primary sources of bias were the gatekeepers of mass media: TV producers, journal editors, newspaper editors, and book publishers. They still have a tremendous influence, but are rapidly being eclipsed by the internet.

Social media has the benefit of bypassing such gatekeepers and allowing individuals or small organizations to place their ideas in the public domain, and to create spaces where groups can discuss and share information. It’s all good – but we have to recognize that this creates the easy opportunity to erect new biasing filters.

It is not surprising, given what psychologists have discovered about human nature, that we tend to sort ourselves into like-minded groups. This can also be a positive thing, in moderation. We need a sense of community, even if it’s virtual, and such groups can facilitate finding information we wish to seek out.

The glaring downside, however, is that such groups will tend to be insular and to provide access to information that confirms our existing beliefs and biases. This phenomenon is often referred to in derogatory terms as an “echochamber.”

It’s rare to see such a blatant expression of it, as in the 9/11 truther subreddit – don’t post anything here that will challenge our basic assumptions, or it will be removed. This policy is justified with the extremely thin argument of labeling such challenges as “off topic.”…

The brain seems to have internal theories about what the world is like. It then uses sensory input – which tends to be patchy and disorganized – to choose between these. In some sensory situations, different theories come into conflict, sending our perceptions awry.

thenewenlightenmentage:

Human brain subliminally judges ‘trustworthiness’ of faces
Finding from brain scans adds to evidence that we make spontaneous, largely unconscious judgments of strangers
The human brain can judge the apparent trustworthiness of a face from a glimpse so fleeting, the person has no idea they have seen it, scientists claim.
Researchers in the US found that brain activity changed in response to how trustworthy a face appeared to be when the face in question had not been consciously perceived.
Continue Reading

thenewenlightenmentage:

Human brain subliminally judges ‘trustworthiness’ of faces

Finding from brain scans adds to evidence that we make spontaneous, largely unconscious judgments of strangers

The human brain can judge the apparent trustworthiness of a face from a glimpse so fleeting, the person has no idea they have seen it, scientists claim.

Researchers in the US found that brain activity changed in response to how trustworthy a face appeared to be when the face in question had not been consciously perceived.

Continue Reading

wildcat2030:

The social origins of intelligence in the brain
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A study of brain injuries in vets showed that brain regions that contribute to optimal social functioning are also vital to general intelligence and emotional intelligence
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By studying the injuries and aptitudes of Vietnam War veterans who suffered penetrating head wounds during the war, researchers have found that brain regions that contribute to optimal social functioning are also vital to general intelligence and emotional intelligence. This finding, reported in the journal Brain, bolsters the view that general intelligence emerges from the emotional and social context of one’s life. “We are trying to understand the nature of general intelligence and to what extent our intellectual abilities are grounded in social cognitive abilities,” said Aron Barbey, a University of Illinois professor of neuroscience, psychology, and speech and hearing science. Barbey, an affiliate of the Beckman Institute and he Institute for Genomic Biology at the University of Illinois, led the new study with an international team of collaborators.

Studies in social psychology indicate that human intellectual functions originate from the social context of everyday life, Barbey said. “We depend at an early stage of our development on social relationships — those who love us care for us when we would otherwise be helpless.”

Social interdependence continues into adulthood and remains important throughout the lifespan. “Our friends and family tell us when we could make bad mistakes and sometimes rescue us when we do.

“And so the idea is that the ability to establish social relationships and navigate the social world is not secondary to a more general cognitive capacity for intellectual function, but that it may be the other way around. Intelligence may originate from the central role of relationships in human life and therefore may be tied to social and emotional capacities.”

(via The social origins of intelligence in the brain | KurzweilAI)

3 Inherent Human Traits that Religion Exploits

Whether religion is overrated or underrated is difficult to answer. But it’s intensely important to the personal lives of billions of people. I thought for a while about why this might be, and came up with three inherent weaknesses in human beings that religion exploits.

1. Fear

Probably the most basic emotion of all life on Earth. We’re no exceptions. If there is one thing that unites us all, it’s the fear of death – or more precisely, the state of ‘not living’. Religion gives us deliverance from that fear. Nothing to worry about, it says, your time here on Earth is nothing more than a prelude to eternal life in a different plane.

What evidence do we have of this? Absolutely none. But we believe, because for most of us, it’s unimaginable that our consciousness will one day cease to exist. Even though we only have to think of the vast stretch of time before our births to realize that it’s not only possible but is the norm.

2. Pattern and meaning seeking

Human beings are meaning-seeking animals. All external evidence suggests that the universe is essentially meaningless, and yet our minds tell us that there must be something to it after all. We think our lives follow a narrative, that everything happens for a reason, that there are such things as fate and destiny, that the future can be altered and controlled.

So we pray to our gods to keep us safe. We bribe them to make us richer or more successful. We thank them for the good things in our lives. We cajole, chide and blame. We worship.

3. Territorialism

To put it kindly, we’re natural classifiers. In this we’re no different to other primates, but thanks to our larger brains, we’ve taken it to a whole new level. Country. Skin colour. Gender. Appearance. Self versus the other. My kind of people versus your kind of people.

There are evolutionary reasons for this. In a hunting-gathering world where tribes often competed fiercely for resources, people had to be segregationist in nature. Brotherhood towards members of your tribe. Enmity towards members of the other tribe. We did it to survive. It’s built into our genes.

Religion stokes this trait by preaching universal love and unspeakable violence in the same sentence. The former is for within the group. The latter is reserved for the other groups.

A couple of quotes

I will leave you with two quotes. One by Epicurus:

‘Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?’

And another by Voltaire:

‘Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.’

Source

There is by now evidence from a variety of laboratories around the world using a variety of methodological techniques leading to the virtually inescapable conclusion that the cognitive-motivational styles of leftists and rightists are quite different. This research consistently finds that conservatism is positively associated with heightened epistemic concerns for order, structure, closure, certainty, consistency, simplicity, and familiarity, as well as existential concerns such as perceptions of danger, sensitivity to threat, and death anxiety.

Social Psychologist John Jost (and fellow scholars)

(Source: alternet.org)

Religious Children Struggle To Separate Fact From Fiction

The ability of young children to distinguish fact from fiction varies considerably with exposure to religion, two new studies have found. Children who did not attend parochial (religious) schools or church were significantly better at identifying characters in religious or fantasy stories as pretend than those who did. The studies have been published in Cognitive Science.

Why we should celebrate the rise of atheism and secularity

Yes, the growth of atheism, agnosticism, skepticism, humanism, and other various manifestations of secularity in both the USA and around the world over the past 25 years is a decidedly good thing, for the following reasons:

1. We need more humans guided by reason rather than faith. We’re facing serious problems in the world today: global warming, increasing inequality, growing forms of fundamentalism, extensive human enslavement, international sex trafficking, impending genocide in places like the Central African Republic, corporation-led corrosion of democracy, violence against women, depletion of the rain forest, human rights violations, etc., etc. — and all of these problems can only be solved through rational understandings of their causes, solutions based on unbiased data and empirically-sound mechanisms, human creativity and compassion, international cooperation and willpower, and smartness, ingenuity, and know-how.

Ten million people praying ten million hours won’t do shit. Pleading to magic deities and invisible gods, or beseeching the spirits of dead ancestors, or fondling rosaries and misbaha, or anointing with oil and lighting candles, or performing exorcisms and slitting the throats of goats, or driving away the devil and ostracizing witches won’t help at all. Not one bit. So the more people we have who live their lives without such notions or entanglements, the better.

We need a humanity that relies most readily and most heavily upon scientific understanding, rigorous/critical thinking, and utterly sound reasoning, not faith. Now don’t get me wrong: religious faith has its place; it comforts many who have nothing else to rely upon, and it infuses the world with a mystical, spiritual, or, at least, quaint vibe. But it doesn’t help address social problems. For that, we need clear thinkers who don’t look to imaginary gods for assistance.

2. We need more cosmopolitansim and less tribalism/factionalism. Cosmopolitanism is the unflinching ideology that we are all one — that all racial, ethnic, national, linguistic, and other such groups actually belong to one single whole: humanity. And we are all bound together by a universal human morality. Secular humanism is deeply rooted in, and intractably wedded to, such cosmopolitanism. And this cosmopolitanism lends itself to a universalistic, global orientation that cannot divide between black or white, Brahmin or Dalit, Hutu or Tutsi, Turk or Armenian, Arab or Kurd, Thai or Hmong, male or female, etc., etc.

Religion — as history as well as today’s newspaper reveal — often divides humanity, unnecessarily and often savagely. Religion, more often than not, establishes deep us-vs-them fissures. Religion is truly one of the greatest creators and sustainers of in-group/out-group orientations. Christianity divides the world between the saved and the un-saved, those that believe in Jesus and those that don’t. Muslims are dangerously divided between Sunni and Shiite, and many believing Muslims consider all non-Muslims as something different (usually much lesser) than Muslims. Many devout Jews consider all non-Jews little more than, well, insignificant white noise.

Secular humanists, on the contrary, emphasize that we are all human, and that’s why it is more readily and logically cosmopolitan than religion.

Again, don’t get me wrong: many religions certainly seek to unify humanity (Bahai’ism is especially insistent on the one-ness of all humanity), and many secular movements have been far from humanistic or universalistic (hello Pol Pot) – and yet, the bottom line is that we need more humans who are not tied to the tribalism, particularism, and sanctimonious “we possess the Holy Truth and you don’t” embedded in most religious systems.

3. We need more humans who embrace the “here-and-nowness” implicit in atheist/secular consciousness. For those of us who don’t believe in heaven or hell, spiritual realms or magical kingdoms, past lives or planet Kolob, this world and this time constitute reality, in toto. This planet is our only possible home. This time is all we’ve got. Such an orientation fosters a deep attachment to and appreciation for the things of this world, and a hearty love for other people and other life forms sharing this blue orb along with us. Those who believe in or yearn for other realms (like the celestial kingdom) do not care as much about this earthly realm, which they see as merely transitory at best, or merely illusory, if not downright fallen. Such beliefs are certainly not helpful, and may in fact be quite harmful.

* * *

As a direct product of human culture, human psychology, and human experience, religion contains much that is noble, altruistic, just, and inspiring. It reflects many of humanity’s best aspirations and hopes. And the rituals, music, holidays, social bonding, family traditions, and all around heritage that one finds within religion are often wonderful, enriching, and enjoyable. But the actual tenets of faith of most religions — the supernatural beliefs, the gods, the messiahs, the prophets, the miracles — the sooner these wither and fade, the better. And so the fact that we see this happening today, in varying degrees, is a really good thing.

Memetics

Meme: an information pattern, held in an individual’s memory, which is capable of being copied to another individual’s memory.

Memetics: the theoretical and empirical science that studies the replication, spread and evolution of memes

Psychology explains why people are so easily duped

The science of “Truthiness”

True or false: “The Eiffel Tower is in France.” Most of us can quickly and accurately answer this question by relying on our general knowledge. But what if you were asked to consider the claim: “The beehive is a building in New Zealand.” Unless you have visited New Zealand or watched a documentary on the country, this is probably a difficult question. So instead of recruiting your general knowledge to answer the claim, you’ll turn to your intuition. Put another way, you’ll rely on what Stephen Colbert calls “truthiness” — truth that comes from the gut, and not books.

As a cognitive psychologist, I study the ways that memory and belief go awry: How do we come to believe that things are true when they are not? How can we remember things that never actually happened? I am especially intrigued by the concept of truthiness — how smart, sophisticated people use unrelated information to decide whether something is true or not.

For instance, in a classic study by Norbert Schwarz and Rolf Reber at the University of Michigan, people were more likely to think a statement was true when it was written in high color contrast (blue words on white) as opposed to low contrast (yellow words on white). Of course, the color contrast has nothing to do with whether the claim is true, but it nonetheless biased people’s responses. The high color contrast produced a feeling of truthiness in part because those statements felt easier to read than the low color contrast statements. And it turns out that this feeling of easy processing (or low cognitive effort) brings with it a feeling of familiarity. When things feel easy to process, they feel trustworthy — we like them and think they are true…..