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Me, Myself and Why: Searching for the
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POPULAR SCIENCE WRITER Jennifer Ouellette has tackled math in The Calculus Diaries and physics in both The Physics of the Buffyverse and Black Bodies and Quantum Cats. In Me, Myself and Why she turns her attention to the science of the self and delivers a fascinating survey of the forces that shape who we are and why we act the way we do. Ouellette acts as both journalist and subject, as she takes a battery of personality tests, has her genes sequenced and an MRI brain scan done, and even goes on her first and only LSD trip, all the while taking the reader along for the ride. As an adoptee, with basic information about her biological parents, Ouellette considers what traits she undeniably has inherited through genetics and what traits she has in common with her siblings (also adoptees) and her parents, which leads to a fascinating discussion on synapses and how the brain is wired and continues to change as we grow older.
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Test For Intelligence?

This week on Skepticality, Derek interviews Keith E. Stanovich, a CSI fellow, and the Canada Research Chair of Applied Cognitive Science at the Department of Human Development and Applied Psychology, University of Toronto. His work in critical thinking and how science goes about measuring intelligence has won him many awards. Derek wanted to find out a bit more about his work and what areas of research he has been working on in recent days.

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About this week’s eSkeptic

Ideas change, and the times we live in change. Perhaps the biggest change today is the rate of change. What established scientific idea is ready to be moved aside so that science can advance? In this week’s eSkeptic, we present Michael Shermer’s answer to the Annual Question for 2014: “What Scientific Idea is Ready for Retirement?” Shermer was one of 174 contributors this year.

Michael Shermer is the Publisher of Skeptic magazine, a monthly columnist for Scientific American, and author of 12 books, including The Believing Brain: From Ghosts, Gods, and Aliens to Conspiracies, Economics, and Politics—How the Brain Constructs Beliefs and Reinforces Them as Truths.

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Hard-Wired = Permanent

by Michael Shermer

We should retire the scientific idea that a hard-wired trait or characteristic of an organism is a permanent feature. Case in point: God and religion.

Ever since Charles Darwin theorized in his 1871 book The Descent of Man that “a belief in all-pervading spiritual agencies seems to be universal” and therefore an evolved characteristic of our species that is hardwired into our brains, scientists have been running experiments and conducting surveys to show why God won’t go away. Anthropologists have found such human universals as specific supernatural beliefs about death and the afterlife, fortune and misfortune, and especially magic, myths, rituals, divination and folklore. Behavior geneticists report from twin studies—most notably twins separated at birth and raised in different environments—that 40–50% of the variance of God beliefs and religiosity are genetic. Some scientists have even claimed to have found a “God gene” (or more precisely, a “God gene complex”) that leads humans to have a need for spiritual transcendence and belief in a higher power of some kind. Even specific elements of religious stories—such as a destructive flood, a virgin birth, miracles, a resurrection from the dead—seem to appear independently of one another over and over again throughout history in a wide variety of cultures, implying that there is a hard-wired component to religion and God beliefs. I have held this theory myself. Until now.

The Believing Brain: From Ghosts, Gods, and Aliens to Conspiracies, Economics, and Politics -- How the Brain Constructs Beliefs and Reinforces Them as Truths (cover)

The Believing Brain

Dr. Michael Shermer presents his comprehensive theory on how beliefs are born, formed, nourished, reinforced, challenged, changed, and extinguished. We form our beliefs for a variety of subjective, personal, emotional, and psychological reasons in the context of environments created by family, friends, colleagues, culture, and society at large; after forming our beliefs we then defend, justify, and rationalize them with a host of intellectual reasons, cogent arguments, and rational explanations. Beliefs come first, explanations follow.
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If and when we establish a permanent colony on Mars, if its members consist of nonbelieving scientists with a purely secular worldview it would be interesting to check in 10 (or 100) generations to see if God has returned. Until that experiment is conducted, however, we have to consider the results of natural experiments run here on Earth. In the Western world, for example, a 2013 survey of 14,000 people in 13 nations (Germany, France, Sweden, Spain, Switzerland, Turkey, Israel, Canada, Brazil, India, South Korean, and the UK and US) conducted by the German pollster Bertelsmann Stiftung for their Religion Monitor found that most of these countries showed a declining trend in religiosity and belief in God, especially among the youth. In Spain, for example, 85% of respondents over the age of 45 report being moderately to very religious, but only 58% of those under 29 years of age so report. In Europe in general, only 30–50% said that religion is important in their own lives, and in many European countries less than a third say that they believe in God.

Even in the über religious United States, the pollsters found that 31% of Americans say they are “not religious or not very religious.” This finding confirms those of a 2012 Pew Forum survey that found that the fastest growing religious cohort in America are the “Nones” (those with no religious affiliation) at 20% (33% of adults under 30), broken down into atheists and agnostics at 6% and the unaffiliated at 14%. The raw numbers are stunning: with the U.S. adult population (age 18 and over) at 240 million, this translates into 48 million Nones, or 14.4 million atheists/agnostics and 33.6 million unaffiliated. There were also generational differences that reveal a significant trend toward unbelief, with the “Greatest” generation (born 1913–1927) at 5%, the “Silent” generation (born 1928–1945) at 9%, the “Boomers” (born 1946–1964) at 15%, the “GenXers” (born 1965–1980) at 21%, the “Older Millennials” (born 1981–1989) at 30%, and the “Younger Millennials” (born 1990–1994) at 34%.

At this rate I project that the Nones will reach 100% in the year 2220.

It is time for scientists to retire the theory that God and religion are hardwired in our brains. Like everyone else, scientists are subject to cognitive biases that tilt their thinking toward trying to explain common beliefs, so it is good for us to take the long-view perspective and compare today to, say, half a millennia ago when God beliefs were virtually 100%, or to the hunter-gatherer tribes of our Paleolithic ancestors who, while employing any number of superstitious rituals, did not believe in a God or practice a religion that even remotely resembles the deities or religions of modern peoples.

The Believing Brain: From Ghosts, Gods, and Aliens to Conspiracies, Economics, and Politics -- How the Brain Constructs Beliefs and Reinforces Them as Truths (cover)

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This indicates that religious faith and belief in God is a byproduct of other cognitive processes (e.g., agency detection) and cultural propensities (the need to affiliate) that, while hard-wired, can be expunged through reason and science in the same manner as any number of other superstitious rituals and supernatural beliefs once held by the most learned scholars and scientists of Europe five centuries ago. For example, at that time the prevailing theory to explain crop failures, weather anomalies, diseases, and various other maladies and misfortunes was witchcraft, and the solution was to strap women to pyres and torch them to death. Today, no one in their right mind believes this. With the advent of a scientific understanding of agriculture, climate, disease, and other causal vectors—including the role of chance—the witch theory of causality fell into disuse.

So it has been and will continue to be with other forms of the hard-wired = permanent idea, such as violence. We may be hard-wired for violence, but we can attenuate it considerably through scientifically tested methods. Thus, for my test case here, I predict that in another 500 years the God-theory of causality will have fallen into disuse, and the 21st-century scientific theory that God is hardwired into our brains as a permanent feature of our species will be retired. END

Lisa Randall, On Demand
Warped Passages: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Universe’s Hidden Dimensions

Lisa-Randall (photo by Phil Knott)

The concept of additional spatial dimensions is as far from intuitive as any idea can be. In this lecture, based on her book, Dr. Randall employs creative analogies to explain how our universe may have many unseen dimensions. Randall works hard to make her astoundingly complex material understandable, providing a great deal of background for recent advances in string and supersymmetry theory. As coauthor of the two most important scientific papers on this topic, she’s ideally suited to explain these ideas. Although physicists do not yet know if there are extra dimensions a fraction of a millimeter in size, dimensions of infinite size, or only the dimensions we see, Randall shows how these theories will be tested in coming years.

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  1. Donald Bryan says:

    I have always held that what is hard wired in the human brain is the human need to know the “why” of something and the ability to “reason by logic” to come to a conclusion. Without the ability to prove a theory by established scientific proofs, humankind inserts the “mystical reason” to make the case, thus religion. As scientific proofs are accumulated they are inserted in the space previously taken by mystical reason and religion is taken down a notch.

    • Bad Boy Scientist says:

      Interesting. I agree that the need to find causes for effects is hard-wired in humans. Those ID’ers whose theory is “God Did It” are seeking for causes just as much as researchers are. But there is a fundamental different in the kind of explanations.

      In fact, I find this is the #1 difference in my science students (especially in my observational course): some are content with ‘black-box’ causality (e.g. God Did It), and others seek to tear off the cover to see the mechanism inside (Biological Evolution ). They show this predilection in their studies, too… most students are content to know simply that “X causes Y” but a few want to know the details… the _how it works_ part.

      Note: Some of this ambivalence of the mechanisms of the case and effect can be attributed to a lack of interest in the topic [Who among us thirsts for knowledge of how EVERYTHING works – from black holes to brewing beer… from sequencing genes to sewing shirts…]. But there are a disturbing number of students who seem to lack that curiosity about anything. They only ask IF it works, never HOW it works.

      These are the ones who want to live in the Harry Potter universe but never ask “If magic is so effortless, why do they enslave all those house elves?”

  2. as says:


  3. Ken says:

    You know the more I read your newsletter the more I see the sane game your running as those who you “skepticize”. Charging for information that if you really cared wouldn’t cost $5 to find information that you counter profess. There really isn’t any difference between you two other than which side one is on.

    • Bob Pease says:

      I think this means that there isn’t much difference between Skeptics and people who like to argue with Skeptics .

      sort of like
      The Preacher who Preaches to the Choir and the Choir have their own world .

      In my opinion , it would be a very sad world where nobody was interested in
      discussing Opinions by Skeptics..


    • Bad Boy Scientist says:

      I, too, am a bit concerned by all the merchandizing in Skeptics’ groups (note: this one is not the worst – by a large margin).

      On one hand, people have to make a living.

      On the other hand, there are science literacy groups who distribute their materials for free (as PDFs, but also hard copies) as well as hold affordable conferences … and even offer scholarships. They make the resources available to K-12 teachers, museum directors and community service groups (i.e. anyone operating on a shoe string).

      How do they provide all of this at low (or no) cost? They get donations from corporations, government agencies and others who see the value of boosting science literacy in America.

  4. Bob Pease says:

    Personally, I would like to see Reviews of books that merit Skeptical attention,
    pro or con.

    Regarding Today’s column.

    “We should retire the scientific idea that a hard-wired trait or characteristic of an organism is a permanent feature.”

    This statement, taken by itself , does not seem very “scientific”
    If by “hard-wired” is meant “Determined by the RNA” instructions,
    then it sure looks to me that this is “Permanent” until the DNA changes.

    I think that the article today is examining a very different question
    vaguely along the lines of

    “if an organism does not have some mechanisms for for protection, does it have much potential to survive and reproduce?”

    Another point..

    “At this rate I project that the Nones will reach 100% in the year 2220.”

    If real money were wagered on this premise I think it would be easy to find a lot of takers .

    I would consider 10 -1 against “less that 20% by 2020 ”
    would have folks “Standing in line for blocks” to be takers, Especially
    SBC types who don’t think that betting is a sin.
    They might get in a fight with the many Atheists who would also be standing in line!!

    Anyone wanting to bet on this should consider the point spread of “Broncos lose by 40” in the Spectacle next Sunday as generating more traffic . ( gg)

    Dr. S

    • Bob Pease says:

      2200 might get better odds than 2010

      Anyway I think that in 2200 ther might still be a lot of SBC types milling around .

      At present , a lot of “Dominionist” religions, Christians and Muslims in particular,
      think that they will not only be around , but in charge as well.


  5. Roy Niles says:

    If, as John Wheeler pondered and Paul Davies among others suspects, the universe is likely to have been intelligently constructed, then what humans intuitively and even instinctively feel as giving us some form of intelligent direction, may well be a form of intelligence that has been evolving since its time, metaphorically, began. And thus, in 2200, we’ll no longer have any humans who believe we represent the only living things in an otherwise mostly dead universe.

  6. Fred Kohler says:

    The question of whether religion is hard wired is hardly answered by the projected Martian colony, because of the strong genetic selection bias. That is how new species are generated. There is little doubt in my mind that the hard wired tendency towards religion was once useful to the human species, the more pertinent question currently is whether this is still true.

    Shermer’s projection to the year 2200 is based on an equal reproductive rate of the religious & the non-religious, but religions make sure that their followers will always have more children. That will assure that the memes will not undergo much change. Aside from that I will cite a comment that Edward Gibbons made almost 250 years. I may have used that quotation in a previously submitted comment.

    So urgent on the vulgar is the necessity of believing, that the fall of any system of mythology will most probably be succeeded by the introduction of some other mode of superstition. — Edward Gibbon in The Decline & Fall of Rome in 1778

    • Roy Niles says:

      I’d agree that memes are certainly mythological.

      • Bob Pease says:

        Is this the same as Myths are memelogical?

        If something and its converse are both true, then they serve as alternate definitions


        • Roy Niles says:

          No, they wouldn’t. Unless you see true as the the converse definition of false.

          • Bob Pease says:


            The whole field of propositional logic has been
            Demolished with one swell foop !!

            Egad, sire!!!

            Dr. Latero Sidethink Hp.D

  7. Roy Niles says:

    Demolished? Not really. Since truth is more accurately defined as certainty and is reversely characterized as uncertainty.

    • Bob Pease says:

      also , belief is handy when you don’t want to look stuff up.

      It is sad when mystical flapdoodle trumps established Academic fact.

  8. Roy Niles says:

    Its sadder when established academic fact is discovered by our more logical processes to be flapdoodle. Evolutionary trial and error to be one example, where the trier has been said to operate at random with no ability to intelligently analyze the inevitable error.

  9. John Muir says:

    I think there is a relationship, though not a direct, cause and effect one, between the amount we find that we can do and our belief in God, who never does anything. As we have become able to codify living systems, cure diseases, communicate instantly and so on, it’s become more and more apparent that God isn’t needed to do any of this for us.

    It’s not so much that belief is dwindling as that there simply isn’t as much need for God as there was before. We all think paper books are great, but booksellers are shutting up shop everywhere. Why? We’re doing our reading online, as this article proves.

    God will disappear, not by changes in our belief system, but for lack of interest.

  10. Tim Oliver says:

    The scientific research on the psychology of conspiracy theorists is so relevant to this discussion. The exact same mechanism explains the unchangeable nature of peoples religious belief systems. The brainwashing of children with religious beliefs has been around for a very long time. Proverbs 22:6 “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it” I attribute the decline in religious belief to the decline in church attendance by children, the end of school prayer, the decline of prayer at meals and bedtime and the decline in belief reinforcement in the form of statements of authority figures other than the clergy.

  11. Jonathan Cutler says:

    While I do agree that perhaps the younger generation, like myself (born 1990s), are less religious (based on my observations. I don’t feel the actual belief in God will go away. Humans want to know things and have answers to life. And while science has helped in the progress of our knowledge, especially in understanding the natural world we live in, science has limits. And perhaps somewhere in our psyche, we will turn to a higher power, or at least hope that there’s something more transcendental to life.

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