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Before the last presidential and congressional elections ended in the U.S.A., residents had the opportunity to witness a plethora of advertisements where fabrication of facts and personal histories had become an unquestioned habit, and manufactured images and themes had been sold as reality. At the finishing line, 'etch a sketch' strategies did not score well, as facts and surrounding realities managed to transpire through the echo chamber of personality-seeking media whose depth of analysis is typically comparable to the shallow water of a drying creek. The question that one might ask is whether manufactured narratives and personas unraveled because of the quality of the messages disseminated by badly administered campaigns or because of the relentless exposure to conflicting information. Although one might hope that the latter was the actual culprit, both were probably responsible. Consequently, uncomfortable questions regarding the human mind might arise: How could anyone (e.g., political campaign managers, consultants and advisors) have so much confidence in the gullibility of the human mind? For instance, could mere repetition of misleading information in a variety of media lead people to believe it? Could an accurately constructed personal profile be expected to be so credible to the point of leading audiences to ignore missing or conflicting information? Could impending 'catastrophes', which are contrived for the purpose of instilling fear, be successful?
The gullibility of the human brain is exposed in Tribal Science: Brains, Beliefs, and Bad Ideas by Mike McRae. In this text, beliefs and belief systems arising from ostensibly scientific (i.e., unbiased) endeavors are scrutinized and revealed as being the product of social organisms whose culture and societal fabric define the interactions upon which knowledge is developed and preserved. The book contains eight chapters that review scientific evidence as the product of a collective enterprise, not only casting doubt on the validity of evidence, but also acknowledging past and current limitations of the process through which evidence is obtained.
Although scientists' desire is to create scientific evidence that endures the passage of time, a large portion of evidence is impermanent, either redefined or entirely changed by further research activities and new technological advances. Scientific progress typically involves solving problems or re-conceptualizing such problems in ways that make them easier to tackle. Thus, critical thinking is an essential component of how scientists operate, which along with exact and systematic replications of research dictate whether consensus regarding interpretation of evidence and support for specific theoretical accounts exist. Yet, change in the sciences, McRae argues, is a social endeavor where consensus lies not necessarily on reliable and valid evidence, but too frequently on extraneous factors. The latter are exemplified by the work and misadventures of the physicist René Prosper Blondlot and of many other scientists whose 'discoveries' have failed further scrutiny, which the passage of time typically grants.
The most valuable aspect of Tribal Science: Brains, Beliefs, and Bad Ideas is that its portraying of science as a collective endeavor illustrates not only lessons to be learned, but also hopes to be held. Namely, bad ideas might be an inevitable byproduct of the process of discovery, persisting for more than it would be desirable, but ultimately, falsity or unfeasibility is likely to be exposed. As the history of medical practice illustrates very poignantly, the sad aspect of this hopeful reality is the number of victims bad ideas seduce before errors and false beliefs are exposed.
Of course, the key question is how bad ideas are created in the first place and then permeate our knowledge base even for a short period of time. The text portrays science as the product of a human brain whose evolutionary history is its artist, shaping human responses to phenomena that are beyond immediate comprehension and yielding answers to the unknown that are often intrinsically imperfect and in most cases temporary. Most importantly, the artist has de-emphasized rational, conscious deliberation and promoted fast and unconscious processing. In doing so, evolution has equipped the human brain with the ability to produce hasty solutions to immediate environmental phenomena, but has also made it susceptible to biases, less penetrable to rational inquiry, and more comfortable with quick fixes than long-term perspectives. For instance, human beings are very good at responding to sudden changes in their physical environment by means of fight or flight responses that mobilize the entire organism, yet they are not as prepared to postpone gratification or to consider different viewpoints before an overt response is expressed.
McRae's narrative is engaging and informative. Tribal Science: Brains, Beliefs, and Bad Ideas is not a book merely filled with interesting historical cases of how the scientific process of data collection and interpretation might go astray. McRae's work is a reliable and well-researched case study of how beliefs and belief systems might develop, travel to encompass diverse communities, endure across time, and, in some instances, fail under the mounting weight of contradictory evidence. The book is an interesting read for a variety of audiences, including college students and science history buffs. At the college level, the text could be added to the required readings of research courses, making student understanding of research endeavors less dry and more engaging, or of history of science courses, offering a critical analysis of the progress and pitfalls of the scientific process based on an evolutionary perspective.
Of course, although the thought that ultimately incorrect scientific knowledge might be rectified is comforting, countless examples to the contrary exist. The human brain continues to be gullible, especially when utterly false or misleading evidence contains the promise to fulfill people's needs and desires. Consider, for instance, the marketing of miraculous diet products, which respond to people's desire to be thinner, or treatments, mostly involving creams or simple mechanical devices, which promise people younger selves. Both feed on societal and cultural stereotypes and related norms regarding what is desirable, weakening the exercise of critical thinking skills in those for whom such stereotypes and norms define identities and lifestyles. Of course, taken as a whole, the marketing of new 'necessities', which cultivates greed and inequality, is a successful enterprise whereby critical thinking is overridden by primitive survival impulses arising from the most ancient parts of the human brain. The only tools that might protect the human brain from its intrinsic gullibility are one's awareness of the rules and parameters of information processing, including weaknesses and strengths, and a relentless critical analysis of the information processed every day. Yet, although the brain's executive functions are highly valuable, too often, human beings rely on them less than would be advisable! Are 'stop and think' and 'examine all available evidence' more likely to be neglected or discarded as New Year's resolutions than dieting and other standard fads?
© 2013 Maura Pilotti
Maura Pilotti, Ph.D., Ashford University