Skeptic magazine publisher explains why people believe hokum

Michael Shermer's presentation at TED2010 was one of my favorites. He started off his talk by showing an ADE 651 which is a dowsing rod gussied up to look like a fancy electronic detector.

This device, the ADE 651, was sold to the Iraqi government for $40,000 apiece. It's just like this one, completely worthless, in which it allegedly worked by "electrostatic magnetic ion attraction," which translates to "pseudoscientific baloney" — would be the nice word — in which you string together a bunch of words that sound good, but it does absolutely nothing. In this case, at trespass points, allowing people to go through because your little tracker device said they were okay, actually cost lives.

The Iraqi government has spent $85 million on these gadgets.

But the main part of his presentation was about human beings' evolved tendency to identify patterns even when there is no pattern.

An increase of dopamine caused subjects to see more patterns than those that did not receive the dopamine. So dopamine appears to be the drug associated with patternicity. In fact, neuroleptic drugs that are used to eliminate psychotic behavior, things like paranoia, delusions and hallucinations, these are patternicities. They're incorrect patterns. They're false positives. They're type one errors. And if you give them drugs that are dopamine antagonists, they go away. That is, you decrease the amount of dopamine, and their tendency to see patterns like that decreases. On the other hand, amphetamines like cocaine, are dopamine agonists. They increase the amount of dopamine. So you're more likely to feel in a euphoric state, creativity, find more patterns.

Dopamine, I think, changes our signal-to-noise ratio. That is, how accurate we are in finding patterns. If it's too low, you're more likely to make too many type two errors. You miss the real patterns. You don't want to be too skeptical. If you're too skeptical, you'll miss the really interesting good ideas. Just right, you're creative, and yet, you don't fall for too much baloney. Too high and maybe you see patterns everywhere. Every time somebody looks at you, you think people are staring at you. You think people are talking about you. And if you go too far on that, that's just simply labeled as madness. It's a distinction perhaps we might make between two Nobel laureates, Richard Feynman and John Nash. One sees maybe just the right number of patterns to win a Nobel Prize. The other one also, but maybe too many patterns. And we then call that schizophrenia.

Michael Shermer: The pattern behind self-deception