Belief: What It Means To Believe And Why Our Convictions Are So Compelling by James E. Alcock (book review).

I think James E. Alcock’s book, ‘Belief: What It Means To Believe And Why Our Convictions Are So Compelling’ will be one of the most important books you will read this year. Mostly, if not entirely, because it will make you think about how you rationalise things and are persuaded by others.

The page count is actually 100 pages in the indicia is too long as those are just note references at the back. Considering that he starts by looking at beliefs around the world, showing that we have a lot in common, there’s a lot of research going on and if you want to cross-check the information, then you can use that.

We all have beliefs, not just in religion but in all kinds of things from our learning experience when young. Our brains then make the connections without further investigating. If a dog barks, we don’t go and see which breed of dog or specific dog is doing so, well, unless he or she is your organic burglar alarm. Mind you, if I hear a loud aircraft flying overhead I do like to go out and see which sort is disturbing my peace but that might be the geek in me.

Alcock’s opening chapter looks at how various people’s belief system will make them commit suicide for a variety of reasons. In some respects, having a somewhat downer seems an odd way to start the book but we all seem to share an interest in depressing news so maybe that’s not a bad choice. It’s also a chapter that you don’t want to put down until the end. Alcock pointing our world-wide examples also means it doesn’t happen to just one culture.

Although he doesn’t use the Gaussian statistical bell curve, some nation’s people are more extreme than others, especially where honour is concerned. When religion comes in it, we also have aspects of terrorism we see today, more so with some people who don’t even belong to such organisations but purely want to act in accordance with them. Thinking about that, I think that applies to other subjects as well. For those of you who don’t subscribe to, say, a political party, think how often your choices tie into a particular one through thick and thin. Although Alcock doesn’t use the term ‘herd instinct’, you should be able to recognise patterns here.

Now that is something Alcock says humans are very good at, seeking patterns in things and categorise and make sense of the world. It makes us all look like librarians. The fact that we can do so easily persuaded tells something about our psyche and how we can be manipulated which should send a shiver down our spines. I’m thankful, to some extent, that my General Semantics background tends to kick in when it questions belief against reality although I doubt if I’m totally immune.

The discussion on visual illusions will certainly make you think, more so as he includes some and explains how they work. I wish Alcock had explored more as to why we like to be fooled but I haven’t even reached a fifth of the way through the book yet. Looking at the Shepard tabletop illusion where our horizontal and perspective attitudes are fooled should make you think, although I tend to think that the edge of the tables gives it away but that’s my artist’s eye at work and I’m used to looking at perspectives and patterns.

Mind you, his example of jumbled letters in words but still make sense will show you how quickly your brain can make sense of things. Let’s not even dwell on how inattentive we really are. No wonder I was thought odd at school by questioning a lot but Alcock has fun with this, even from the Bible, asking if there was only three people alive in the world, Adam, Eve and Cain, where did the Cain’s wife come from? My own response is maybe Cain needed to count his ribs. It’s possible to turn the entire book of ‘Genesis’ into Science Fiction by equating cloning before natural birth.

Looking at the flaws of ‘recovered’ memories will make you think twice about believing them without supporting evidence. Although Alcock missed out on mentioning the UK amongst the example of this, it does look like we weren’t the only ones prone to using it.

The look at one of the core ‘conspiracies’ that man has never walked on the Moon and how much we trust in others to tell the truth is always going to look contradictory. More so, as further in, Alcock shows how some of the connections we think make sense don’t. I do wonder if all people depend on only a couple pieces of evidence to support a supposition when they should gather more information. Going back to the Moon, the fact that telescopes can spot the remains of the Apollo missions there should be enough for people to forget belief and go by evidence. Well, unless they believe all telescopes have been tampered with. The best thing to do is always question childhood beliefs as they might be carry-overs from your parents’ fears.

If betting is your game, Alcock’s views on odds are something I’ve discussed when reviewing other books, oddly mostly from Prometheus’ own stable, and what gambling houses use to get money off of you. If anything, it’s interesting how we are susceptible to small odds to be in favour when most of the time they aren’t simply because we don’t tend to remember all the times we’ve lost. The more I read, the more flawed I think the human psyche actually is.

Don’t be surprised that the more you read, the longer it takes to digest the information given so don’t rush your read. You’ll also come across a lot of names for all kinds of beliefs which surely could have done with a glossary of their own for quick reference. You will also get some insight into various mental conditions, including the top five personality traits, two of which relate to imagination.

Something that struck me about the difficulty of how to change a dogmatic belief. Although Alcock didn’t use this as an example, I did wonder if it could be applied to smokers who give up smoking and get an abhorrence to it as being part of this. Rather amusingly, he does point out that when there is a general change about something, like the Earth rotating around the sun, it was the opposers dying off that ensured it was accepted more than their changing their minds.

What was more telling was a reminder of in WW2 of Joseph Goebbels use of telling a big enough lie long enough that people would believe it. In a roundabout fashion, he points out that the same tactic is used today by some politicians. I do wonder if it was the politicians who started using it again or their spin doctors but anyone reading this here should certainly not like this blatant manipulation and voice objections. Alcock goes even further when it comes to the validity of crime confessions to the police.

Oddly, he doesn’t mention plea-bargaining in the USA here where you are convinced to plead to a lesser offence to get a shorter sentence even if you were innocent. Don’t alibis work? As you can tell, I’m reading, digesting, thinking and reacting here. If a book such as this doesn’t do that, then you’re not actually reading it with your full understanding on. More so, as Alcock has even voiced comparisons to George Orwell’s ‘1984’ that I raised in one of my editorials a few months back. If you can’t control by mind games, then in dictatorial countries, you obliterate those who object.

I could discuss the chapters on con games with you but then you’ll not be sure if you trust me. ‘Trust’ is also the operative word because people like to trust other people until realising otherwise. Then again, I suspect most people apply the other sort from time to time as white lies. Higher on the list is believing in other people’s honesty. These Moon land shares are a good bargain after all and I have the certificates here to sell.

There are large chunks of this book that I agreed with and couldn’t raise comment. I’m not sure if I would call Alcock having ‘views’ on alternative medicine but more a case of providing evidence why it doesn’t work. When you see the absurdities of it when compared to other things we might have beliefs in, it should make you question it. Considering the power of the placebo and having someone there just to listen, you do have to wonder if it should be left in such hands and that aspect part of normal medical practice than let it be disguised as ‘alternative medicines’. As Alcock points out, any ‘alternative medicine’ that becomes part of the establishment is just medicine and then have proper control of.

Alcock’s views that people that people having clothes or other things from famous or infamous people shares whatever motivated them. He only looks at the disgust when, say, what happens if you were given a sweater belonged to Hitler, although I’m not sure I recall him ever wearing one. However, when you consider the recent auction of Hitler paraphernalia, I have to wonder if it works for those who want such things. There are at least two sides to such coins.

When it comes to superstitions that have still survived, an element of that comes from children picking up such fears from their parents. Saying that, my parents didn’t like crossed knives and berated me for it but it doesn’t bother me, nor does throwing salt over my shoulder to ward off the devil so either I’m very strong-willed (hmmm) or it shows you can overcome such things.

An interesting point that Alcock makes about God sacrificing Jesus Christ to be killed in atonement could have gone a stage further than he did, although he was comparing religions. I mean, Christ gets resurrected 3 days later, hale and hearty, so where exactly is the sacrifice? I could have a field day on this discussion even to the point that why would an almighty deity have only one son and no wife? Amazing what you can do with lumps of clay and the odd rib and can create anything from anything.

Anyway, as Alcock is comparing religions, his examples from 8 religions about caring for others is identical should make you stop and think what exactly makes any differences between them.

When it comes to his discussions on the paranormal, I did get a sense of déjà vu myself because much of it was very similar to another Prometheus author, the late Martin Gardiner. In that respect, Alcock doesn’t add much more from what I read then. My memory doesn’t remember quite that photographically, but more in line with previous comments I’ve made. Even so, if you haven’t read any of Gardiner’s books, then the information here is still valid. I do suspect that when most of other beliefs fade away, that the paranormal will still remain simply because things can appear more than coincidence when they happen often enough. From a statistical point of view, something that could happen can happen but so regularly does reduce the odds.

A lot of the time, the ESP tests are looking for statistical anomalies than real life events and I doubt if anyone could end up doing anything but guesswork at the end of the day. Considering so many religious people are swayed from early times by voices from burning bushes but such events have yet to happen in modern day times remains its own verdict.

The best lesson to learn is not to take anything for granted but get first-hand experience yourself.

As you can tell from the length of this review, I have a lot to say and I’m only really touching the tip of the material here. Be prepared to test your beliefs here and don’t be surprised if you find some wanting but at least you’ll know why.

GF Willmetts

April 2018

(pub: Prometheus Books. 638 page sparsely illustrated indexed hardback. Price: $28.00 (US), $29.50 (CAN), £22.00 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-63388-403-8. Ebook: $11.99 (US). ISBN: 978-1-63388-404-5)

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