Tigers, Gut Feelings, and Idiot America

Posted by on September 25, 2011 in Quick Note, Thoughts | 4 comments

My friend @SwearyGeek pointed this article out to me earlier in the week, titled “Belief in God Boils Down to a Gut Feeling“, which I found quite interesting, and thought I’d share some ideas around the topic. The article talks about “thinking styles”, and the idea that those who trust their instincts more closely will be more likely to have a deeper belief in God. Those who tend to analyse things before they come to a conclusion are less likely to be religious.

And this makes perfect sense too. From the article:

“Some say we believe in God because our intuitions about how and why things happen lead us to see a divine purpose behind ordinary events that don’t have obvious human causes,” study researcher Amitai Shenhav of Harvard University said in a statement. “This led us to ask whether the strength of an individual’s beliefs is influenced by how much they trust their natural intuitions versus stopping to reflect on those first instincts.”

Michael Shermer often talks about false positives, the rustle in the grass (is it a tiger, or is it just the wind?) and the perils we can face if we make a false positive assessment of the situation. In his article on Agenticity in Scientific American in 2009, he writes:

“The problem is that we did not evolve a baloney-detection device in our brains to discriminate between true and false patterns. So we make two types of errors: a type I error, or false positive, is believing a pattern is real when it is not; a type II error, or false negative, is not believing a pattern is real when it is. If you believe that the rustle in the grass is a dangerous predator when it is just the wind (a type I error), you are more likely to survive than if you believe that the rustle in the grass is just the wind when it is a dangerous predator (a type II error). Because the cost of making a type I error is less than the cost of making a type II error and because there is no time for careful deliberation between patternicities in the split-second world of predator-prey interactions, natural selection would have favored those animals most likely to assume that all patterns are real.”

Some people immediately think the rustle is a tiger, others think it’s the wind. But those who think it’s the wind, making a type II error are no longer around to tell us about it, they are just tiger food. It’s natural for us to trust our gut in situations like the tiger/wind scenario, after all it’s better to be alive and wrong than to be dead and wrong and dead, right?

Interestingly enough, in the Charles P Pierce essay “Greetings from Idiot America” published in 2005 in Esquire magazine, he talks about the idea that people in the United States are trusting their “gut” more and more, and this is a significant reason why the religion peddlers and misinformation merchants are so successful right now. From the article:

“In the place of expertise, we have elevated the Gut, and the Gut is a moron, as anyone who has ever tossed a golf club, punched a wall, or kicked an errant lawn mower knows. We occasionally dress up the Gut by calling it “common sense.” The president’s former advisor on medical ethics regularly refers to the “yuck factor.” The Gut is common. It is democratic. It is the roiling repository of dark and ancient fears. Worst of all, the Gut is faith-based.

“It’s a dishonest phrase for a dishonest time, “faith-based,” a cheap huckster’s phony term of art. It sounds like an additive, an artificial flavoring to make crude biases taste of bread and wine. It’s a word for people without the courage to say they are religious, and it is beloved not only by politicians too cowardly to debate something as substantial as faith but also by Idiot America, which is too lazy to do it.”

If all this is true, and the gut feelings of many people is more powerful than their brains when making decisions about life, the universe and everything, it’s no wonder we as skeptics come up against so much opposition when we push against their pillars of faith which prop up their god.

So which is it? A tiger in the grass, or is it just the wind? Do you go with your gut, or do you wait around to see if it is actually a tiger?

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