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TED Tuesday: Ideas worth spreading for the week of 6/29

June 29th, 2010

A while back when I was a little more gung ho about updating, I posted Michael Shermer’s last TED lecture on strange beliefs.  This time, we’ve got a bit more from the editor of Skeptic Magazine as he discusses the patterns behind self deception.  Filmed at TED2010 in February 2010, Long Beach, CA.

Shermer’s works irks some new atheists in that he accepts the reality of and makes an effort to understand of religious beliefs (being squarely in the skeptic/agnostic column).  I’m not sure I jive with the criticisms, as I feel Shermer’s supposed ambivalence as permitting him the characteristic of empathy.  He tries to not only learn, but also understand why people believe what they experience.

Click through to read more.

In this talk, Shermer goes into everything from cognitive bias to the reasons for wanting to see patterns.  This is very real and very interesting stuff.  It’s not just about why people believe things irrationally, it’s why our brains are wired to allow that.

Compare that talk with the examination of what appear to be the fully irrational beliefs that Michael Specter discusses in railing against science denial.  Filmed at TED2010 in February 2010, Long Beach, CA.

Specter’s talk focuses not on the rationale behind seeing patterns where none really exist.  Instead he discusses completely bizarre, fear-based beliefs that are widely accepted without any real reason or basis.  Specter seems to take greatest offense at the anti-vaccination activist such as the supremely ill-informed Jenny McCarthy (who’s rack is far better than her science).

The anecdote of the infirm child and our desire to find a reason for misfortune is the only way to explain the continued allegations regarding autism that lack any scientific or empirical basis and yet manage to find traction in modern media.  We’ve also seen that impact of pity in MedMal courtrooms where causation is that last speed-bump — a speed-bump that was intended once to be a hurdle.

Specter also talks about genetically modified food and the fears thereof.  GM food protest is bizarre.  Despite the fact that we’ve simply moved from pure agricultural speciation (the same process performed by bees for hundreds of thousands of years) to molecular and laboratory genetic modification, one might think that we’re playing Dr. Frankenstein with the fear-mongering that occurs, especially in Europe.  Above all else, these laboratory GM foods are the same ones that kept the Indian sub-continent from starving and the same type of scientific force that has pushed back crippling disease, and yet a large segment of society refuses to trust them.

Whether our failures to grasp and trust scientific progress or any phenomena are hard-wired or purely inexplicable, irrational behavior remains a fascinating study.  So much of modern higher education deals with the theoretical concept of the rational actor, even though we know and understand that so many factors can inhibit rational behavior — be those intervening forces mob mentality or emotion or some other such thing.  Trying to grasp the dangers and rationale behind those failures of human thought are incredibly interesting to me and are well grasped in these two lectures.

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