When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time. —Maya Angelou
What if I told you that the bra shown in the picture above was the latest style from Victoria’s Secret and we got a look at it months before it is scheduled to hit stores. Would you believe me? Some of you would without question. Some might think it a bit odd but would go along with the story. A few, definitely the minority, would know that I was full of shit because you were there when we shot these images.
The truth is that the bra is the creative work of one Sasha Starz, along with both the hair and makeup (if I remember correctly). She took one of Taylor’s old, ugly bras and completely revised it so that it would be photo-worthy. Pretty good work, isn’t it? So good, many of you would have no problem believing that it came from a major lingerie retailer. Cool, huh?
We find it easy to believe a lot of things, from who made a bra to the practicality of building a defensive wall along our Southern border. We like to believe things such as walking on water, that wafers become human flesh (ICK!), and a zombie apocalypse. We’ll believe a politician’s nonsense, that Wall Street predictions come true, and that anything the Internet says is unrefutable. In fact, we’ll even believe that aliens provided NASA with special secret technology. When you stop and think about it, we’ll believe some incredibly stupid shit. Are we just brainless about some things or is there a reason we believe such nonsense?
A Little More Than Science
We were in the car yesterday when the TED Radio Hour came on our local PBS station. I enjoy the TED Radio Hour because of the way they explore a topic from many different perspectives. I always end up learning something. Yesterday, they were talking about lying and one of the segments was a conversation with Michael Shermer discussing why we believe unbelievable things. Here, take nine minutes and listen:
Shermer is a professional skeptic. In fact, he is so involved in using science to challenge what people believe that he created a quarterly magazine on the topic. One can do much worse than spend some time on their website. He has delivered TED talks twice, but it is his 2006 appearance that is most appropriate to our topic this morning. In it, he makes a statement I find quite amusing in summing up some belief systems. He says:
Anyone can talk to the dead. That’s not a problem. The problem is getting the dead to talk back.
So, why do we believe in things like people rising from the dead and seances and fortune telling? Where do we get such nonsense?
The science, Shermer explains, is that our brains are hard-wired to believe everything. Believing things that we have not experienced, things we have not seen or heard for ourselves, is largely a self-defense mechanism. He uses the example of ancient hominids who hear the grass rustle nearby and have to make a quick decision: is it just the wind or is there a creature nearby waiting to eat them? To investigate increases the risks of becoming lunch. Therefore, they believe that the grass is hiding predators to keep safe. That belief system then spreads and might possibly become part of a larger religious system.
This Sounds Familiar
Listening to Shermer, I immediately think of the 1980 movie, The Gods Must Be Crazy. The premise revolves around a Coca-Cola bottle dropping from an airplane and hitting a bushman on the head. The bushman does not see the airplane nor does he have any concept of commercial flight. Therefore, he assumes that it is the gods who must have hit him on the head with this strangely shaped glass object. The consequences of that belief are what fill the remainder of the movie, often with humorous results. But no one from his tribe challenges his initial belief. A bottle fell from the sky. A god did it.
Since we are programmed to believe pretty much everything, we are often hesitant to challenge what we are told or what we read. Skepticism is something that has to be developed. If we grow up in an environment where we are encouraged to believe fantastic things then we are much slower to develop that skeptical need to step back and ask questions. In fact, within many belief systems, skepticism is actively discouraged. “Accept what we tell you on faith,” we are told. This early learning habit delays our ability to think critically and to apply reason to things we might not immediately understand. We create religions not based on factual information, but because we want to believe something even if there is evidence what we believe is not true.
Extrapolate that need to believe out to modern media. Why did our parents trust what Walter Cronkite told them each evening? Because in their need to know what was going on in the world they needed to believe what the man on the television was saying. When the Internet came along, we immediately applied the same need to believe and a huge problem was born.
Undermined By Our Own Biology
Since we are hard-wired to believe everything, re-wiring our brains requires some intent and intervention at an early age. When we encourage fantasy and fiction as a form of early childhood entertainment, such as fairies and Santa Claus, we discourage critical thinking, putting it off to an older age. There is little harm in believing a myth or two as toddlers perhaps but when we perpetuate mythology on top of mythology we end up with a tremendous lack of reasoning skills. As a result, people are likely to believe in the efficacy of electing someone as President whose corporate debt exceeds half a billion dollars. We might also believe that funding public education is wrong because it somehow defies freedom of choice. Someone might believe one race is inferior to another. Another might belive in rigid gender roles. The nonsense grows out of control.
At the bottom of it all, we’re not all inherently stupid, we just want to believe desperately in Santa Claus. We want to believe that everything is going to be okay. There are presents at the end of this life, aren’t there? Call it heaven, call it Nirvana, what it all comes down to is hoping there’s a giant Christmas tree on the other side of this life that is full of presents.
Maybe some people need that belief system. They need to believe that there is a reward for putting up with such a crappy shit-filled life. We believe in a Presidential candidate based on their ability to fashion the Santa Claus we want. People need to believe that life can and will be better, safer, and more comfortable. We believe in deity because we need to know that someone has a handle on all the fucking chaos.
Those Who Do Not Believe
Being skeptical is healthy. People who don’t believe, who have developed a lack of trust in the face value of any statement, don’t make the same mistakes as those who do believe. Skeptical people don’t invest with Bernie Madoff. Those who question everything are less likely to strap a bomb to their chest before attending a wedding. We live longer because people question things and are careful about what they believe.
Not that we shouldn’t believe anything. Believe in what can be proven. Vaccines work. Genetically modified foods save lives. The earth revolves around the sun. The speed of light is 299792458 meters per second. I like coffee. And scotch. And a good cigar. There is imperialistic evidence to support those claims.
But we need to not yell and scream, as I am prone to do, when a child asks “why?” for the 456,978th time this morning. We need to discourage the belief in myths that lead to unrealized expectations. There is no Santa Claus. There are no presents waiting for us after death. Person A is not better than Person B.
Don’t be just another hominid. Stop believing stupid shit. Evolve.