Belief: What it Means to Believe and Why Our Convictions are so Compelling

Belief  is an important new book by James E. Alcock. An extensive review of the book by Harriet Hall can be found on the Science-Based Medicine website.

Alcock explains the biological and psychological reasons convictions are so powerful that people will believe outrageous claims and obvious lies that conform to their convictions while dismissing clear evidence that contradicts them.

In the final chapter, A Firewall to Folly, Alcock offers ideas for mitigating the power of beliefs. These ideas can also be described as a how-to guide for becoming a healthy skeptic. They fall into two categories: dispositions (D) and critical thinking strategies (CTS), particularly parsing. Dispositions are mindsets or attitudes that open the mind to flexible and critical thinking. Each of the items below are labelled with its category.

  1. Remember that we can all be fooled (D).
  2. Be wary of your intuitions (D).
  3. Be wary of the Fundamental Attribution Error, attributing people’s behavior to their characters and intentions while overlooking the power of the situation (CTS).
  4. Be wary of validation by personal experience (CTS).
  5. Don’t rely on a single source of information (CTS).
  6. Don’t over-interpret correlations (CTS).
  7. Ask “compared to what?” – a wine was rejected because it was found to contain two million asbestos particles per liter, but the concentration of asbestos particles in the city water supply was higher than that (CTS).
  8. In the face of inadequate evidence, suspend judgment rather than jumping to conclusions (D).

Finally, he reminds us that critical thinking means we should be prepared to disagree with ourselves (D). In other words, question our beliefs and be open to changing them when presented with new information or evidence.

Alcock’s ideas complement the ideas in HOT Skills. Adults can model these dispositions and demonstrate the strategies, name and explain them to students, and, when opportune, teach them in developmentally and culturally appropriate ways.