Skeptic magazine founding publisher Shermer (The Mind of the Market: Compassionate Apes, Competitive Humans, and Other Tales from Evolutionary Economics, 2007, etc.) writes entertainingly about the scientific basis of belief.
The author cites a 2009 poll in which more Americans admitted to a belief in angels and devils than in the theory of evolution. Shermer seeks to answer the question of why “so many people believe in what most scientists would consider to be the unbelievable?” While admitting that scientists often believe in unproven hypotheses—e.g., the origin of our universe and what might have preceded the Big Bang—the author holds firmly to the “built-in self-correcting machinery” that is inherent in the scientific method: e.g., double-bind controlled experiments which are replicable, testing results against the null hypothesis, etc. Shermer takes gleeful potshots at conspiracy theorists, including the 9/11-truthers, giving a detailed refutation of their claim that planted explosives brought down the Twin Towers, and the belief in extrasensory perception demonstrated by the apparent abilities of psychics and other mediums, which have been replicated by magicians. Nonetheless, the author fully recognizes the importance of belief in our lives. Jumping to false conclusions is an outgrowth of pattern recognition, an essential function of our brain that evolved to allow birds as well as mammals to anticipate danger and respond to their environment. “An emotional leap of faith beyond reason is often required,” writes the author.
A timely, reasoned reflection on the nature of belief, offering a level-headed corrective to the divisiveness of extreme partisanship.