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How human brains are wired for conspiracies

In our search for 'why,' we see patterns that don't exist and are

August 09, 2009|Trine Tsouderos

CHICAGO — Celebrities die in threes. The moon landing was a hoax. Climate change is a myth. And President Obama? Not born on U.S. soil.

Oh, how we love our conspiracy theories, our superstitions, our beliefs that fly in the face of facts, logic and science. When asked about climate change, half of Americans recently polled by the Pew Research Center and the American Assn. for the Advancement of Science said they didn't believe in it. (Nearly all scientists said they did.) And how many of us, when Michael Jackson died, thought yes, of course, he completes the Ed McMahon-Farrah Fawcett trio?

Scientists say this is no surprise. We're wired to do this. Our brains are great at solving scientific puzzles -- and leading us to believe that celebrities live and die under different rules of the universe than the rest of us.

"The human brain was built to look for patterns and causes, but you can be misled," said Leonard Mlodinow, a physicist at Caltech and author of "The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives."

"And you can start to not believe in science," he said.

Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic magazine and an author who has written about the topic, agreed.

"We are pattern-seeking primates," Shermer said. "We connect the dots, and often they really are connected. But we don't have a baloney detection module that says this is a true pattern and this is not. We just assume all patterns are real."

Basically, Shermer said, you can show people a random collection of anything and they will find a pattern.

This is a good thing. Connecting a rustle in the trees to, say, a predator that can eat you is a good cause-effect pattern to recognize. It's the basis of science too, in that we search for explanations for why things happen and why things are the way they are.

But it's also the foundation for all kinds of silliness and mischief.

"We don't intuitively grasp randomness," Shermer said. "We don't look for randomness and chaos."

Casinos bank on our attempt to find patterns where they don't exist, as in the spin of a roulette wheel. Will the marble land on red or black or one of the two green squares?

A long run of red would make it seem as if black is "due," but the reality is that the wheel has no memory. Every spin has the same odds as the spin before, and the spin after. And yet, we stand there calculating the chances that a certain number, a certain combination, will come up again. And the casino rakes in millions.

And sometimes, when patterns aren't obvious, we find it hard to believe they exist at all. Evolution and climate change, both theories supported by reams of data and legions of scientists, involve tiny changes over enormous periods of time that aren't readily apparent to, say, a Chicagoan shivering at a local beach on a 60-degree day in July.

Our confusion about patterns can make decision-making murky. A few weeks ago, my husband and I decided to do something about our dog, which has arthritis at age 7. Friends with older dogs told us to give her glucosamine, swearing the supplement had helped their pets.

But studies of glucosamine conflict and, in my mind, tilt toward its being ineffective. Two vets suggested we try it anyway. Glucosamine is not cheap -- hundreds of dollars a year. If we are going to spend that kind of money, I want to know that it works.

But how will we know? Our dog can't talk. Will signs of improvement jump out at us because we want to believe she is feeling better? Or will my skepticism cause me to downplay real signs of improvement? And if she gets dramatically better, will it be the glucosamine or just the natural ups and downs of arthritis?

How will we know that any pattern we may see reflects what is happening? I suspect we will never know.

And yet, as people slip their money into slot machines, and others search for signs our government was behind the Sept. 11 attacks, and still others scour the Internet for clues about Obama's birth, I will call my dog, tell her to sit, and toss her a glucosamine chew -- just another pattern-seeking primate trying to make sense of it all.

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ttsouderos@tribune.com

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