Mike McRae's Tribal Science: Brains, Beliefs, and Bad Ideas is short, sweet, often humorous and to the point. It's also pithy and full of quote-worthy sentences:
"Since most of the face-like patterns Mary sees every day are indeed faces, her brain's gamble usually pays off. In addition, making the mistake of thinking there is the face of Jesus on her iron isn't costing her much (except a new iron. Nobody likes to do housework with the face of God)."
McRae covers all of the ground traditionally covered in books like this, such as Shermer's The Believing Brain, but he does without tons of jargon and in about half the words. He covers facilitated communication, Wakefield, homeopathy, and more. While readers who are familiar with much of pseudoscience's territory will find all of this familiar ground, it's still worth the read because this is the book you want to hand to friends who are not familiar with skepticism and critical thinking. This book is damn good reading and might reach them. Might, but as McRae himself writes,
"Not only do we learn what to believe from our tribe, we learn how to go about forming our beliefs with a bias about what constitutes good evidence. Changing minds, therefore, is far more challenging than simply substituting conclusions or debunking beliefs. It requires a person to change their fundamental epistemology" (emphasis mine).
And there you go: how obvious that the back and forths that occur on many posts, especially like those on facilitated communication, or vaccines and autism, or for goodness sake, parasitic worms being introduced into autistic children's bodies in the misguided, erroneous belief that autism is an auto-immune disorder arising in the gastrointestinal tract, are completely a waste of time. People who have bought into a pseudoscientific idea will not be persuaded by someone else--if change comes for them, it will arise because they grow: "According to Kuhn, progress doesn't come as a result of persuasion or lecturing in a belief. You cannot explain to somebody a process of thinking and expect them to embrace an evaluativist epistemology. Rather it comes with exploring ideas and arriving at conclusions that later appear to be self-evident" (okay, there is some jargon, but in prior paragraphs, McRae explains the terminology very well, so it will not be a barrier).
So what are we, a skeptical, scientific community, to do with that awareness that arguing, debating, engaging those who uphold pseudoscientific beliefs has little pay off when it comes to changing the belief systems of these individuals? Do we pack up our toys, shrug and march off the playground, harrumphing in a hissy? Probably not. I think we keep doing the same things, but that we know when to walk away from a discussion that is going nowhere--that we don't act like right-fighters, always insistent on having the last word, because I don't know if you've noticed--those true-believers are pretty motivated to keep coming back and trying to wear us down. I think we pick our battles, we face these individuals with realistic expectations that at times what we are doing is little more than pissing into the wind.
McRae closes his excellent book with this thought: "The question of how to engage citizens in science must move beyond a focus on the dictation of facts, figures, beliefs and theories, and have as a greater priority the ability to engage with others in the community to evaluate the knowledge they encounter." I would add that without also instilling a sense of humility and a willingness to remain open to contradictory evidence, we'll still be doing the same old tango, as people already believe that they are qualified to evaluate evidence even when they are far from it.
McRae doesn't really break any new ground or say anything that other scientists and science writers like Shermer, Stephen Law, or David Eagleman haven't already said. He just says it in a refreshing way and one that's completely appropriate for handing over to our friends, family members, or students. He's engaging, entertaining, and perhaps, most importantly given how fractured our attending abilities appear to be today, short and to the point.
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