Why People Believe Weird Things: Michael Shermer

Photo: Michael Shermer (Robert Bernstein)

By Robert Bernstein

Michael Shermer is well known as a skeptic and publishes Skeptic Magazine. From 2001 until the beginning of this year he had a regular Skeptic column in Scientific American. One of his books is “Why People Believe Weird Things”.
He recently gave a talk on this subject here for a joint event by the Unitarian Society and the Humanist Society.

In this talk he wanted to focus on the difference between science and pseudoscience. Philosopher Karl Popper called this the Problem of Demarcation. There are various theories, but nothing definitive.
Shermer noted that no one in history has ever self-identified as a pseudoscientist! Everyone thinks they are a scientist.
We don’t directly see black holes or quarks. They are inferred from a mixture of observations and theories.
We ask if a claim can be tested. And whether it is open to change. Nobel laureate physicist Feynman noted that if a theory disagrees with experiment it is wrong.
Shermer took out a device that was sold for $40 as a golf ball finder. It is a kind of dowsing rod.

It can dowse for whatever you want. It was later sold to high schools as a purported cannabis finder! When sold for that purpose the price was $900!
The creator was arrested for mail fraud. After 9/11 it was resurrected as a bomb detector.
In this case there was a way to test the efficacy of the device. Put the object you are seeking under one of two opaque cups. See if it detects the correct cup at a better than chance (50%) rate.

But not everything is so easy to test.
Mysticism lacks external validation. It is about something personally experienced.
He talked of a Joe Rogan podcast about a place in Costa Rica where it is possible to take supposed mind-enhancing substances like Ayahuasca.
The people who have taken the substances feel certain that they have traveled to another place or even to another dimension of reality. But there is no way externally to validate the experience. You could take the substance and “validate” the experience but that would not validate it for anyone else.
How do we know it is true? Some things are subjective truths. Dark chocolate is better than milk chocolate. “Stairway to Heaven” is the greatest rock song ever. Meditation makes me feel better. Can we measure that?
He refers to Deepak Chopra as his friend. He said that Chopra did this meditation experience at a delightful retreat center. It would be difficult to separate out the delights of the retreat from the meditation effects.
Shermer noted that there is no such thing as “alternative medicine”. If it is tested then it is just “medicine”.
Some things seem difficult to measure at first. The date of the last dinosaurs. The time of the Big Bang. But we have a convergence of evidence from different kinds of measurements.
He was once skeptical of climate change but came to understand the increasing body of convergent evidence from different sources. At this point climate change or the Big Bang could be disproved, but it is not very likely.

Someone might claim Bigfoot is real based on a grainy video. In biology the standard for a new species is a type specimen. “Bring me a body.”
Shermer challenged 9/11 conspiracy theories that it was an inside job. He noted that Wikileaks released millions of documents. He suggested that somewhere in there should have been a clue if it really happened that way.
“Lack of evidence is evidence of lack.” A 9/11 inside job would involve hundreds if not thousands of people. A lack of any leaks makes it unlikely to be true.
He told of Carl Sagan’s Dragon. A man claims he has a dragon in his garage. Someone comes to see it and just sees paint cans, a bicycle and such. Ah, but the dragon is invisible!
OK. Let’s sprinkle dust on the floor to catch its footprints. Oh, but it hovers above the floor. Let’s try an infrared camera. Oh, but it is cold-blooded. What about the fire it breathes? It is a special cold fire. At some point it raises the question: What is the difference between that undetectable dragon and no dragon at all?

He moved on to the subject of religion and miracle claims. By definition a miracle is something that happened just once. The philosopher David Hume said that no testimony is ever sufficient to confirm a miracle. Science needs the ability to repeat an experiment to replicate it.
Consider that extraordinarily unlikely events happen every day. The odds that you will win the lottery may be 300 million to one. But the odds that someone will win the lottery are nearly 100%.
It is estimated that 100 billion people have lived since the beginning of humans. As far as we know, not one has come back from death. Except that one claim about Jesus.
Isaac Asimov talked about the Relativity of Wrong in a book by that name. Consider the shape of the Earth. To say the Earth is flat is wrong. To say the Earth is a perfect sphere is also wrong. But not as wrong as it being flat. We make progress!
Dawkins noted that if there are multiple theories, we don’t just average the results. If geologists estimate the Earth is 4.6 billion years old and the fundamentalist Christians say it is 10,000 years old, we don’t just split the difference and say the Earth is about 2.3 billion years old!
Shermer has been on the Joe Rogan show five times. He feels Rogan is getting more skeptical over time.
Rogan had Bob Lazar on the show claiming he saw fifty aliens at a military base. Through the Freedom of Information Act we know he was never on base. Lazar also claimed to have attended MIT or Caltech. No, he didn’t. “Sometimes people just make s**t up.”
The Three Christs of Ypsilanti is a case study of three schizophrenics who each thought they were Jesus. When they were put together, they each thought the others were delusional.
The same happens with UFO conspiracy people who think the other UFO conspiracy people are crazy.
No one joins a cult thinking it is a cult. Jim Jones was a real civil rights leader who went on to believe nonsense things with tragic results. It is possible to be very smart and to believe nonsense things.
Most of us know little about climate science. We have to rely on those who are experts. They argue amongst themselves and come to consensus.
A climate crisis denier is not really making climate claims. He is sending a “signal” that he is a Republican and against regulations. It is a tribal thing. It gives him credit within the tribe.
Just the same, anti-vaxxers know little about vaccines. It is painful to listen to Robert Kennedy, Jr on the subject.
In “Why People Believe Weird Things” Shermer has a chapter “Hope Springs Eternal”. Humans by nature are forward thinking. This can cause people to grasp at crazy things. But it has also given us reason and science which can truly help us understand our world.
The audience had a chance to ask questions

A middle school teacher expressed his frustration that students think everything is just a matter of opinion or perspective.
Shermer attributes this to the rise of post-modernism. The idea that there are no “privileged truths”. That Western science is based on oppression and patriarchy.
In hard sciences it does not matter your economic status or gender identification. Verification shows what is true. In the social sciences it can be more difficult.
Shermer claimed that there is no “correct” tax plan or economic theory. It depends what you want to achieve.
I challenged this claim and I side with Sam Harris in doing so. I argue that there is evidence for different economic systems and tax plans achieving better outcomes in terms of personal fulfillment, happiness and societal sustainability.
Shermer said that is the advantage of having many states. Each can experiment. He claims that on the divisive issue of abortion rights there are “complex” conflicts of rights. And he claims that on gun policy “we need more data”.
Another listener asked how Trump can spread delusional comments and his followers stay loyal. Shermer noted that evolution did not evolve our senses to be accurate. We evolved to spread our genes. We are safer when we stay with our tribe.
Shermer did a course for the Teaching Company on conspiracy theories. He noted that some are real. Corporations really do lie about their products. Governments really do lie. The CIA really did do mind control experiments on unwitting subjects in the 1950s and beyond.
But not everything is a conspiracy. Shermer told a joke about a man getting to heaven. He had a chance to ask questions that he had all his life. Who killed Kennedy? It was Oswald. The conspiracy goes even higher than I thought!
The US really did overthrow democratically elected governments. It makes it easy to imagine they do other bad things abroad even when it is not true.
A woman who helped organize the event wanted to know how we can be happy humanists rather than angry atheists? Shermer said he is optimistic by nature. A skeptic is not a cynic. The key is to know what you believe. What you stand for.
There have been several Humanist Manifestos written since the 1930s. Shermer wrote one himself. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is quite good and stands up today after seventy years. Things are getting better. And science helps!
This event was part of the new Science Salon series. This is a new joint effort of the Humanist Society and the Unitarian Society to bring in younger people. Part of this effort involves providing child care for young families. And there is a reception with food afterwards! Stand by for more Science Salon events!


Written by sbrobert

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  1. Factotum, the term “TRUTHINESS” was coined by Stephen Colbert on his 1st show, The Colbert Report in 2005 looong before Obama ran for president in 2008. Colbert was “pretending” to believe that he did not listen to facts, and that he always “went with his gut” ( or believed what he wanted to believe was true). These were clever digs aimed at Fox news, particularly Bill O’Reilly, Hannity & their ilk who bend the news to suit their own likes. … I find it ironic that you seem to have done the same w/your own statement 🙂

  2. Nice summary as always. Humanists offer their view of our circumstances just as religious people do. People almost universally select the view that comforts them most. While this is skewed by early life propaganda it is still true. None of us can prove we are correct–it is a matter of faith for all philosophies. What is the bad part is the need for some to impose their unprovable values on the rest. Let the liars and charlatans rant as long as they don’t get to make the rest of us support such nonsense.

  3. I believe that I can think and therefore I am. Beyond this limited precept I can know nothing for certain. It doesn’t matter. Accepting this limited jurisdiction for myself, I create my own limited philosophy in which I conclude that humans are created with inbred behaviors which include defense of family and known folks and also a somewhat contradictory empathy. I think the latter impulse is the preferable one but understand the other as a basic survival necessity. I have no reason to believe there is a creator with a plan that is just for us.

  4. Are you serious RHS? You really live life as if you know nothing except for your own existence? I seriously doubt it. But you seem to be avoiding your responsibility in the larger world. And you seem to be proving Shermer’s point about absurd post modern ideas.

  5. I believe it was the Obama administration who introduced us to “truthiness”. Alternate facts was not a statement in support of untruthfulness. But rather the recognition there can be other collection of facts, real facts, that put together creates a different or alternative narrative. Narratives are opinions, based upon one’s set of factual under-pinnings, And yes, there can be alternate narratives – each based on a particular collection facts. Absolutes can be squishy, but the need for bedrock in our everyday lives remains biblical, or rather these needs for certainty do call for an act of faith. Of course when the normative set of facts in this community is nearly always the “progressive narrative” and nothing else, what I just said can be written off as the ravings of a mad man.

  6. RHS so you would never do anything to protect the environment? To help other humans or other species? Because you don’t know that they exist? And because you don’t know that your actions would make any difference? Is that what you are saying?

  7. One cannot “know” anything beyond one’s own existence. The other stuff is “faith” as any religious protagonist will tell you. It is this “faith” nonsense that allows religions to deny pretty obvious evidence of the inadequacies of their moral views: I mean how many people has the Judeo-Christian-Muslim god allowed to die in the name of “his” validation?

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