Interview: Skeptic Michael Shermer Answers (Part I)

1. Bad Reactions?

[teece] I’d be curious to know if Dr. Shermer gets any really nasty reactions
from some of the folks who make outlandish claims.

I saw the 20/20 interview, and it was great. The Edwards guy is a
tremendous fraud — I feel sorry for the people that believe him. But Dr. Shermer is
hitting people like that where it really hurts — their wallets.

Do they ever react in a threatening way?

– Timothy Klein

[Shermer] Rarely, but I do occasionally receive nasty letters, pejorative
descriptions of my personality, and even questioning my parentage (as in “son of a bitch”),
but never a death threat. The Holocaust deniers assumed I was Jewish (as in “Shoymer”),
because who else would write on the Holocaust, but when that didn’t pan out they accused
me of being a public front for a behind-the-scenes Jewish cabal of academics and
intellectuals (such as Stephen Jay Gould and Jared Diamond) who have convinced me
to do their bidding (as if these intellectuals have hidden their light under the
proverbial bushel). I receive the most mail from my Scientific American column
(a couple a day on average). Most pick nits (Dylan Thomas was Welch, not English,
RU-486 is the abortion pill, not the morning after pill, and so on), some bemoan my
blatant pro-scientism and anti-deconstructionism, and, amazingly (considering the source),
whenever I critique creationism I get deluged with defensive missives. At first I
assumed this was an orchestrated write-in campaign from creationist non-readers
who were tipped off to my column’s subject, but more and more I now think that
a lot of readers of Scientific American are creationists.

2. How widespread is this?

[apsmith] Dr. Shermer – your writing seems to focus on what I would call
“extreme” examples of people’s gullibility, things that to any well-informed person
are obviously nonsense. But the gullibility and wishful thinking extend very far into
the rest of our society too. This covers a very wide range – the logic of investing
and shopping, gambling, news media decisions on what to report, legislation that sounds
good but often does nothing effective, or even the opposite of what it purports;
conflating people like Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, etc.

Do you think this is just because the natural human state is one of laziness and
real wishful thinking? Or is it because people are actively rejecting rationality?
Or are we facing a conspiracy of obfuscation from a cabal that really does know what’s
going on? Or perhaps all three?

I have recently read extensively in the areas of environment and energy policy,
and I have been just astonished at the poor level of exposition of the real issues.
People like Amory Lovins and Jeremy Rifkin seem to have either lost the capability to
think clearly in their ubiquitous communications, or else are engaged in deliberate
obfuscations. It’s just as bad or worse on the anti-environmentalist side, with the
right-wing “debunkers” of global warming, ozone, and all those environmental regulations
that hamper free enterprise. The whole hydrogen economy proposals make no rational sense
to me, unless the intention is to expand fossil fuel and nuclear power plants… is
hydrogen really the best way to store electric energy? What about extending the grid
to the streets so our cars can run like electric trams and train cars? But no, they
attack the “conventional electric power grid” as being “only 33 percent efficient” but
that’s not the grid, that’s the thermal to electric conversion efficiency of any steam
turbine generator and it’s going to be there whether you turn it into hydrogen at the
power plant or transmit the electricity over wires (the wires themselves are typically
well over 90% efficient in delivering power). And they attack the grid in other ways
and advocate for distributed power production – which makes no economic or reliability
sense to me. Rifkin writes an entire book on “entropy” that preaches doom and gloom in
a way that no scientist should recognize as reality – a perfect counterexample to
Rifkin’s argument is life itself, successfully recycling its own elements with the
energy input of the sun, for hundreds of millions of years, but it doesn’t seem to
have occurred to him. Well, I could go on and on here…

So are we just becoming increasingly susceptible to hucksters and the rhetoricians
out there? Is it because they don’t teach rhetoric in schools any more, so people don’t
recognize when they’re being deceived? I don’t want to get too paranoid here, but frankly
the level of discourse on policy and substantive issues in the world today scares me…

[Shermer] As Woody Allen said, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean “they”
are not after you. Yes, we do cover most of the standard paranormal claims, in Skeptic,
Jr. Skeptic, and in my Skeptic column in Scientific American. But how many
articles does one need to read – with such titles as “Water Dowsing: Does it Really Work?” –
before it becomes apparent one need not read past the title? At least half of our space,
if not more, is allocated toward more mainstream scientific controversies, such as the
environment, on which we have devoted two special issues. The problem here is that extreme
claims on both ends – the environment is fine, leave it alone; the environment is collapsing,
fix it now – are almost certainly exaggerated and little more than political rhetoric.
Bjorn Lomborg, whose book The Skeptical Environmentalist we recently excerpted
in Skeptic (as well as provided a critical review to balance out the section),
rightly (I think) notes that the environmental movement has become a political tool for
which little hard science is presented. Of course, as his critics have pointed out, there
are some factual errors, along with questionable interpretations of reliable data
(the data never speak for themselves, remember), so we should be skeptical of the
skeptical environmentalist as well. On the other side, I find Jeremy Rifkin and his
ilk so repulsive, so anti-science and anti-technology (and, really, anti-progress,
anti-capitalism, anti-freedom, and anti-life) that it is hard to take anything he says
seriously, which is a shame because he probably does occasionally make a good point,
but it is so awash in rhetorical nonsense that it gets lost. When in doubt, push both
ends of the extreme termini toward the middle. This does not guarantee one will find
truth (creationism is a counter example because it is just plain wrong on every point),
but for complex issues like global warming, we need much more data and far less politics.

3. Usefulness of Weird Beliefs

[Sweetwind] Stephen Jay Gould once wrote “tangential thinking by combination
of unexpected items may be a more important component of creativity than logical deduction,”
and I think of that every time I do a Tarot reading to try to solve a problem :-)
I’m definitely a skeptic, and I don’t expect to find any solutions in the cards that
aren’t already somewhere in my head. But I often find that reading the cards helps me
plumb the depths of my mind and come up with novel insights and approaches.

Do you think that some weird beliefs provide advantages to their holders? And
that these beliefs could prove to be useful tools, even if wielded by a skeptic? Or
should they all be dumped? (And for full disclosure, I admit to occasionally sneaking
a glance at my horoscope in the morning paper… astrology is total bunk, of course,
but the horoscope usually gives good advice which it would behoove anyone to take on
any given day!)

[Shermer] Holding so-called weird beliefs provides a number of different
benefits to the holder, depending on the belief itself. To the conspiratorialist,
there is the exciting sense of getting an inside track to secret knowledge and hidden
forces at work in the world. To the member of a cult, there is a feeling of exclusive
power and prestige from being a member of an (the) in-group who will be saved at the
end of the world, or will save the world from whatever cause the group supports
(environmental disaster, economic ruin, etc.). To the believer in UFOs there is a
sense of connection to a transcendence beyond the earth, to a power greater than human,
to god-like entities who reside beyond but care enough to visit (and in many claims,
to intervene to save us from ourselves, ala The Day the Earth Stood Still). Beliefs
have utility. To understand their power, one must understand their usefulness to the holder.

4. Skepticism and Religion

[Drog] This is sure to be controversial, but here goes.

You have often exposed self-proclaimed psychics as frauds, presumably to enlighten
(and thus protect) the public. But there are many cult leaders that also prey upon the
susceptible, with much more harmful effects. One could also argue that many accepted
religions in the world preach beliefs that cannot be backed up by any scientific evidence,
and that some religions are indirectly harmful to people on a global scale, often leading
to bigotry, hatred and even war. While many religious institutions undoubtedly have a
genuine desire to do good in the world and have helped those in need, there have certainly
been numerous allegations and proven instances of religious institutions being highly corrupt.
So while many (or all) psychics are hustlers, cult and religious leaders could similarly fit
that bill.

So in addition to debunking beliefs in the paranormal, how have you and the Skeptics
Society tackled religious beliefs (if at all)? The right to be free from religious
persecution is enshrined, as it should be. Yet how does one promote critical thinking
when most people in the world believe in a faith that seems to belie critical thinking?
How many of us were indoctrinated into our parents’ religion, attending Sunday bible school
classes, without once being told that there isn’t really any proof behind what they were
teaching. It’s bad enough that we were not encouraged to think for ourselves, but we were
actively encouraged not to think for ourselves–to instead “have faith”.

How can we encourage our academic institutions to promote critical thinking while
our religious institutions seem to promote the opposite?

[Shermer] With 90-95 percent of the nearly 300 million Americans proclaiming
belief in God, it would be hard to argue that so many people are simply ignorant,
irrational, or blind. In fact, in Ed Larson’s and Larry Witham’s 1996 study published
in Science, they found that 39 percent of American scientists believe in God.
Presuming that working scientists with Ph.D.’s are unlikely to be ignorant, irrational,
or blind, there is clearly something else at work here. That something else is explained
in the new edition of my book, Why People Believe Weird Things, in which
I answer the question of why smart people believe weird things. The short answer
(if you don’t want to read the 15,000 word chapter!) is: Smart people believe weird
things because they are better at rationalizing beliefs that they arrived at for
nonsmart reasons. That is, most of us believe what we do for a host of psychological
and social reasons that have nothing to do with reason and evidence. However, because
we live in the age of science and reason, we have been trained to justify our beliefs
with evidence and logic. Some beliefs are simply not subject to rational and empirical
defense, however, and religious beliefs fall into this category. In my opinion, if one
examines one’s personal religious beliefs very deeply one is faced with an uncomfortable
choice: (1) abandon those beliefs or (2) bury them in a logic-tight compartment isolated
and protected from such rational and scientistic analysis. Or, just don’t think about
it too much.

5. Parapsychology

[Drog] It was in 1937 that Dr. Joseph Rhine published his book,
New Frontiers of the Mind,
containing the results of his experiments in ESP. His tests of card-guessing and
dice-throwing revealed ratios of correct guesses against incorrect ones with odds
over chance expectation sometimes as high as a million to one. The President of the
American Institute for Mathematical Statistics, after careful analysis of Rhine’s
mathematical procedures, stated, “If the Rhine investigation is to be fairly attacked,
it must be on other than mathematical grounds.”

In 1941, Rhine’s experiments were duplicated in England by Dr. S. G. Soal with a
subject who achieved billions-to-one odds against chance in card-guessing. Professor
of Philosophy at Cambridge, C.D. Broad, wrote, “There can be no doubt that the events
described happened and were correctly reported; that the odds against chance coincidence
piled up billions to one; and that the nature of the events which involved both telepathy
and precognition, conflicts with one of more of the basic limiting principles
(of physical science).”

Finally, in the late 1960’s, the Parapsychological Association achieved Affiliation
with the American Association for the Advancement of Science. American anthropologist
Dr. Margaret Mead, said, “For the last ten years, we have been arguing about what
constitutes science and the scientific method, and what societies use it. The PA
uses statistics and blinds, placebos, double-blinds and other standard scientific
devices. The whole history of scientific advance is full of scientists investigating
phenomena that the establishment did not believe were there. I submit that we vote in
favour of this Association’s work!” The vote was 170-30 in favour of the PA.

Since then, parapsychologists around the world have amassed a huge amount of
scientific evidence that they claim shows that paranormal phenomena such as ESP
definitely exist, even if they cannot yet explain the mechanism by which it manifests
itself. Dr. Shermer, what is your view on the work done in the field of parapsychology
over the past 70 years? Do the experiments show that there really is a strange phenomena
at work, or do you have issues with the methodology of the experiments? Do you think
that parapsychology is a genuine science, that research in this field shows promise
and should be continued?

[Shermer] Parapsychologists have been scientifically studying the paranormal
for well over a century now (the subject of my biography, In Darwin’s Shadow,
Alfred Russel Wallace, began conducting serious investigations into spiritualism in the 1860s),
and in point of fact they have not “amassed a huge amount of scientific evidence.” There
is hardly any evidence at all – just a handful of statistically significant studies,
cited over and over by paranormalists, and a couple of meta-analyses, in which loads of
nonsignificant studies were combined to force statistical significance. There are several
effects going on here: (1) the file-drawer problem, in which only significant findings
are reported and nonsignificant studies are filed away; (2) only final results are
published in journals, not the raw data that would allow one to see precisely how the
data were gathered in the first place; (3) when trained research scientists have investigated
such studies, such as Ray Hyman and Susan Blackmore, whom paranormalists and scientists
all agree are fair and balanced in their analysis of such claims, they inevitably find
serious methodological flaws. For example, the most famous significant paranormal study
was published in the prestigious review journal Psychological Bulletin in 1994 by
Daryl Bem from Cornell University and his Edinburgh parapsychologist colleague Charles
Honorton: “Does Psi Exist? Replicable Evidence for an Anomalous Process of Information
Transfer.” Conducting a meta-analysis of 40 published experiments the authors concluded:
“the replication rates and effect sizes achieved by one particular experimental method,
the ganzfeld procedure, are now sufficient to warrant bringing this body of data to the
attention of the wider psychological community.” (The ganzfeld procedure places the
“receiver” in a sensory isolation room with ping pong ball halves over the eyes, headphones
playing white noise over the ears, and the “sender” in another room psychically transmitting
photographic or video images.) Subjects showed a hit rate of 35 percent, when 25 percent
was expected by chance.

Ray Hyman from the University of Oregon found inconsistencies in the experimental
procedures used in different ganzfeld experiments (that were lumped together in Bem’s
meta-analysis as if they used the same procedures), and that the statistical test employed
(Stouffer’s Z,) was inappropriate for such a diverse data set. Hyman also found flaws in
the target randomization process (the sequence the visual targets were sent to the receiver),
resulting in a target selection bias: “All of the significant hitting was done on the
second or later appearance of a target. If we examined the guesses against just the
first occurrences of targets, the result is consistent with chance.”

Even if a study does pan out to be both significant and methodologically sound,
there is still no explanatory theory for how psi works. Until psi proponents can
explain how thoughts generated by neurons in the sender’s brain can pass through
the skull and into the brain of the receiver, skepticism is the appropriate response.
If the data shows that there is such a phenomena as psi that needs explaining (and I
am not convinced that it does), then we still need a causal mechanism.

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