Coincidences, Patterns, Beliefs and Baloney-Detection: A Call for Humane Education

As readers of our blog know, I’m a skeptic. To the best of my ability I base my beliefs on scientific, rather than anecdotal evidence, and I am fairly demanding of substantiation when people make unvalidated claims and assumptions or present belief systems as facts. I’m particularly uncomfortable with some of the overarching generalizations I hear about the nature of reality. For example, I’ve heard the statement “Everything happens for a reason” more times than I can count. Whenever I hear it, I think of victims of the Holocaust or the Rwandan genocide, the trillion animals treated cruelly and killed for food every year, those in Hurricane Katrina’s path, the millions of children who are trafficked and sold into slavery, or the one billion people who don’t have regular access to clean water or food. It is painful for me to think that others believe that the victims of such atrocities or suffering are part of some greater plan.

Another arena where I often wish for substantiation of supernatural claims revolves around coincidences. Merriam-Webster includes this definition of the word coincidence: "The occurrence of events that happen at the same time by accident but seem to have some connection." There are those who believe that there are no coincidences and that any such “accidents” are part of a greater plan and/or replete with consequence and message.

My husband, a former scientist and now a veterinarian, began recording coincidences about two years ago. It’s been quite interesting to notice how often they occur. Here are just a few of them:

“I'm listening to French language tapes on my iPhone through the car radio. I remove the iPhone from its holder, which stops the transmission. Normally I hear static because I’ve relied on an unused radio station to connect to the iPhone but this time I hear a French station.”

“I’m listening to senate hearings on the car radio. On the radio I hear a car door slam. This occurs simultaneously with a woman slamming her car door on other side of Main Street where I am driving.”

“I do a crossword puzzle in the morning and one of the answers is Yahtzee. That afternoon, I get out of the car at the supermarket and there by my foot is a card with the word Yahtzee on it.”

“Yesterday’s dictionary word of the day was juju. Today I saw a dog whose name is JuJu.”

Some of these seem rather remarkable. Yahtzee? Juju? It’s no wonder people ascribe so much meaning to coincidences or claim that there’s no such thing and that all such occurrences have meaning outside of what we might personally ascribe to them.

Why would so many of us be inclined to see meaning in these coincidences? Because we are pattern recognizers who have evolved to pay attention and respond to patterns.

As Michael Shermer writes in his new book, The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies – How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce them as Truths:
“The brain is a belief engine. From sensory data flowing in through the senses the brain naturally begins to look for and find patterns, and then infuses those patterns with meaning. The first process I call patternicity: the tendency to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless data. The second process I call agenticity: the tendency to infuse patterns with meaning, intention, and agency. We can’t help it. Our brains evolved to connect the dots of our world into meaningful patterns that explain why things happen. These meaningful patterns become beliefs, and these beliefs shape our understanding of reality.”
This patternicity is very helpful when we hear a rustle in the woods and assume it is a threat rather than the wind because we’ve created a pattern in our minds between a rustle of unknown origin and danger. If we’re wrong, there’s no harm done, but if we haven’t created such a pattern in our mind and there is indeed a threat, we’re in trouble.

Shermer goes on to say:
“There is the basis for the evolution of all forms of patternicity, including superstition and magical thinking. There was a natural selection for the cognitive process of assuming that all patterns are real and that all patternicities represent real and important phenomena. We are the descendants of the primates who most successfully employed patternicity. ... This is not just a theory to explain why people believe weird things. It is a theory to explain why people believe things.”
The problem is that “Unfortunately, we did not evolve a baloney-detection network in the brain to distinguish between true and false patterns. We have no error-detection governor to modulate the pattern-recognition engine.” The scientific method, he points, out, is quite new in our evolution as a species.

This is why we often believe in scientifically unsubstantiated things, like the inherent (rather than created) meaning in coincidences. We notice when coincidences happen, but we don’t notice the millions of times they don’t, and we fail to realize that the laws of probability will inevitably supply us with many events that seem correlated but which are actually accidental. The pleasure and power of these events lies in our capacity to create meaning around them, which is why I like to ask the question, “What can I learn from this occurrence?” rather than “What is the universe (or God or Spirit) trying to teach me?” thereby embracing my own agency to learn, grow, and act anew.

There are massive, entrenched, threatening problems to solve in the world. Without the scientific method to validate claims as true or false, we are at the mercy of our beliefs, and these beliefs can often determine our actions, or lack thereof. For example, there are some who, because they believe in the blanket statement “Everything happens for a reason” or “We create our own reality” question the need to work to end poverty or disease, which are (according to these belief systems) either meant to be or the responsibility of the victim. Others believe that they are absolved of the responsibility to work to end classism and poverty because poor people's fate is determined by a previous life. And then there are some who believe that God is sending one natural climate-related disaster after another to punish the wicked, and therefore that global warming is not our purview to address. There are many positive responses elicited by our belief systems, too, of course, as evidenced by the generosity, loving kindness, and service often practiced by people of faith whose religions urge compassionate action on behalf of others.

But whatever our belief systems, however meaningful and powerful they may be, it’s so important to cultivate and teach the second element of humane education: fostering the 3 Cs of curiosity, creativity, and critical thinking. Curiosity leads us to question and explore and use our minds; creativity provides the innovative push for new thinking and connections and ultimately solutions to problems, and critical thinking provides the skepticism and clarity of thought that enables “baloney-detection” and hence the discovery of truths. Without these, we may infuse patterns with meaning where there is none to our detriment; rely upon belief systems that potentially demotivate our impulse to right wrongs, and possibly fail in the important roles we must play in creatively addressing global challenges.

There’s an excellent YouTube video to help people understand and better utilize critical thinking. While it begins with a proverb that I find worrisome in a world that has exploited and destroyed so much sea life, it’s a very helpful film in explaining and encouraging the use of critical thinking for problem-solving. I hope individuals and educators will use it both personally and with others so that we can raise a generation of clear-thinking solutionaries for a better world.

For a thinking world,

Zoe Weil, President, Institute for Humane Education
Author of Most Good, Least Harm, Above All, Be Kind, and The Power and Promise of Humane Education
My TEDx talk: “The World Becomes What You Teach"

Image courtesy of v8media via Creative Commons.

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