Archive for August 11th, 2011

Belief engine running amok

| August 11, 2011 | 12 Replies
Belief engine running amok

In the June 23, 2011 issue of Nature (available online only to subscribers), A. C. Grayling reviews Michael Shermer’s new book, The Believing Brain (2011). He notes Shermer’s double-barreled explanation for why humans are so ready and willing to believe things that aren’t true:

One is the brain’s readiness to perceive patterns even in random phenomena. The other is its readiness to nominate agency–intentional action–as the cause of natural events. Both explain belief-formation in general, not just religious or super naturalistic belief.

I’ve written about Michael Shermer before at this website, mentioning, as does Grayling, that Shermer “gives the names ‘patternicity’ and ‘agenticity’ to the brain’s pattern-seeking and agency-attributing propensities . . .” Once these beliefs are somewhat established in one’s mind, it’s difficult to turn back, due to the confirmation bias, which blinds us to evidence contrary to our beliefs and makes evidence supporting our beliefs extra salient.

[caption id="attachment_19088" align="alignright" width="300" caption="Image by Erich Vieth using Dreamstime Image by FourOaks with permission"][/caption]

Shermer suggests that there is an evolution-based explanation for this over-eagerness to find patterns and to attribute agency, and it has to do with whether one should act quickly or not to the rustling in the bushes nearby, which might be a tiger.

Grayling also points out that the belief in modern religions could not possibly be a hardwired phenomenon given that these “God-believing religions are very young in historical terms; they seem to have developed after and perhaps because of agriculture and associated settled urban life, and are therefore less than 10,000 years old.”   There is thus no evidence for a “God-gene.”

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Meat is on the defensive

| August 11, 2011 | 4 Replies
Meat is on the defensive

Today I ate and much enjoyed a hamburger for lunch (it was grass-fed beef, the restaurant said).   I eat burgers about once every two weeks, and I eat chicken quite often. Once in a while someone will offer me a processed meat like hot dogs or bacon, and eat that sort of food about once a month.  I don’t buy pork or order it at a restaurant, but if it is offered to me by a host, though, I will gladly eat it. Two years ago I decided that pork would be a meat that I didn’t eat, after seeing and hearing a truck full of squealing pigs being taken to slaughter in the middle of Springfield, Illinois.  I eat fake meat about once per week: I typically use the popular brands of veggie burgers and fake sausage sold at the grocery story (such as Morningstar’s “burger” patties and “sausage” links).  If you haven’t seen these products cooked up, here are some photos.

At bottom, I enjoy eating meat, but I’m an ambivalent meat eater, and that ambivalence has been made all the worse with two recent articles I’ve recently read. One of the articles is by Neal Barnard, M.D., who brings this bad news:

At least 58 scientific studies have looked at the issue, and the jury has rendered its verdict, which is now beyond reasonable doubt. The more hot dogs people eat, the higher their risk of colorectal cancer. And it’s not just hot dogs. Any sort of processed meat — bacon, sausage, ham, deli slices — is in this group. And here are the numbers: Every 50 grams of processed meat you eat on a daily basis (that’s about one hot dog) increases your risk of colorectal cancer by 21 percent. And just as there is no safe level of smoking, no amount of hot dogs, bacon, sausage, ham or other processed meats comes out clean in scientific studies.

I’d like to know more about this study, but if this is accurate, it gives me serious pause about eating hot dogs and other processed food.

The other bad news comes from the Environmental Working Group, which warns of the harsh environmental impact of eating meat. Check out the damage caused by meat-eating in the at-a-glance brochure. There is a lot more information here. These brochures also mention studies indicating that high rates of meat eating are associated with high rates of cancer and heart disease.

If you’d like to take the first step to cut back on meat eating for yourself and for the planet, here’s an easy way to start: Meatless Mondays.

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