TED talk: Skeptical of Skeptics

I actually heard this guy a while ago as an undergraduate at USC. He is the editor of Skeptic magazine. This particular talk talk is about non-scientific beliefs and perceptions (which he somewhat combatively labels self-deception) and the science surrounding them.

Shermer says we are conditioned to be a little irrational (Pavlov, Skinner, ect) and thus find patterns where they may not be any. From there, we make two kinds of errors – we believe something is real when it’s not true (false positive) or believe something is false when it’s actually true (false negative). These two events are related. Often times false positives have little cost (you hear a noise and see a predator, then in the future you instinctively run when you hear the same noise) while false negatives can have tremendous costs (you eat a berry, get sick, but then eat again later because you thought the water that day made you sick. Then you die because you gorged yourself on the berries). His claim is that false positives kept us safe evolutionarily. Given their low cost, they don’t often materially affect survival, so the default response is to generate patterns - to be pattern seeking people. 

He shows several slides of minimalistic images to demonstrate we can all see the same thing if primed (faces in a cloud for example). He has many more examples. This portion of the video is entertaining, but as he highlights later (but apparently forgets), visual processing occurs in a specific portion of the brain and does not necessarily mean all of our other cognitive abilities are suspect.

Other experiments showed severely degraded images and those individuals who most frequently identified an object were also the most likely (even though they were still inaccurate) to believe in the ESP. Increases in dopamine also tend to result in more pattern finding behavior . He also talked about how certain activities and electrical stimulation can produce out of body experiences.

He did show some useless bomb-detecting device that was sold to Iraqi government based on nice sounding words (but no real science) that might have potentially cost human lives. However, outside of this example, I was not able to see a compelling case for why it actually matters if people believe dumb or incorrect things (he doesn't say that is his point - but his opening and tone certainly makes it seem like he is on a mission to rid the world of "inferior" thinking). I think he does give plenty of evidence to suggest that many reported phenomena can be independently created, but again I see no harm in seeking these pleasurable experiences out (even if they are incorrectly labeling them as divine). Though I guess he has made me a little more skeptical.

On a related note I would like to ask him how is this any different that someone seeking out an adrenaline rush at the expense of their own health – or even more so about the wasted resources used in these pursuits that could be used to reduce physical suffering in the world. Is he equally outraged by this behavior? It seems clear to me have a right to pursue happiness in the way we see most enjoyable, even if it is misguided (so long as it doesn't harm anyone else).