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E-SKEPTIC FOR AUGUST 31, 2001 Copyright 2001 Michael Shermer, Skeptics Society, Skeptic magazine, e-Skeptic magazine ( and Permission to print, distribute, and post with proper citation and acknowledgment. We encourage you to broadcast e-Skeptic to new potential subscribers. Newcomers can subscribe to e-Skeptic for free by sending an e-mail to: --------------------------------- UNION OF CONCERNED SCIENTISTS Correction and apology: Last e-Skeptic I slammed a number of environmental organizations in frustration at their inability to come up with an environmental scientist to debate Bjorn Lomborg at Caltech. I should not have included the UCS, since they are, in fact, working to find me someone. Turns out that apparently almost no one in the environmental studies business is a generalist. Most are specialists narrowly focused in one area, whereas Lomborg, as a statistician, sweeps across all different fields, and thus I need a generalist to match that scope. Hopefully by next week we'll have someone. I did get David Pimentel of Cornell to agree to review Lomborg's book, which should be good since he's featured (critically) in two entire sections in the first chapter of The Skeptical Environmentalist. -------------------------------- SHERMER INTERVIEWS AT EDGE.ORG AND SALON.COM

John Brockman's interview with me can be accessed at, and the interview at:

Excerpts below, followed by some entertaining letters to the editor t ------------------------------- Edge 89 - August 23, 2001 EXCERPT If you know of people who would be interested in receiving EDGE editions on this basis, please point them to


The one thing we've learned from the last three decades of research is that science is socially and culturally embedded and thus biased. Still, it's the best system we have for understanding causality in all realms, in all fields. So despite the fact that it's loaded with biases, there is a real world out there that we can know and the best way to know it is through science. The reason for that is because there's at least a method, an attempt to corroborate one's own subjective perceptions. There's a way to find out if you and I are seeing the same colors when we see red. There's actually a way to test these things, or at least try to get at them. That's what separates science from everything else.

EDGE: Why are you playing the edges; why bother to debunk, why spend your time exposing people that are outright frauds, phonies, or who are merely self deluded?

MICHAEL SHERMER: Because it gives us better insight into Karl Popper's discussion of the demarcation problem; that is, where do we draw the line between science and non- or pseudoscience. It turns out that it's a very complex problem. Popper's answer to that question was that of false viability, what is the result when you put something to an empirical test? Well that's nice, but what do you do with string theory then? It's never been tested, probably can't be tested, yet it's mathematically elegant and theoretically beautiful. Is that science? How about consciousness research? The kind of thing that people like Dan Dennett and Pat and Paul Churchland do - is that philosophy, metaphysics, or science? That kind of research is in a gray, borderland area. How about hypnosis? There's a whole range of claims that people don't really question as to what they are and analyzing those claims helps us gain insight into how science works.

EDGE: How is this implemented in your public communications?

SHERMER: We do two different things at Skeptic. We are social activists who don't believe that intellectuals should just remain cloistered in their ivory towers (though those who want to do so certainly can). And we believe in Darwin's dictum, as I like to call it, that all observations must be for or against some view if they are to be of any service. To take it even further, what are you going to do with those observations? You must communicate it to people. If there's no communication to the general public, then doing science or anything else is an utter waste of time. So I'm very discouraged and disheartened when I hear scientists disparage science writing or fall into the trap of propagating the pecking order, with physics and mathematics at the top and the social sciences at the bottom, if present at all. I think that such infighting is unnecessary.

The debunking stuff that we do is, as Stephen Jay Gould said, like trash collecting, a dirty job but somebody's got to do it. That's our job. But to me, that's secondary. It's not particularly interesting to know and to expose phony psychics. In general, the expose of out and out fraud is not that interesting, because it's just somebody lying. What's more interesting is self-deception; how leaders of cults come to believe that they can actually do what they think they can do. How does someone believe in cold fusion or zero point energy, or any of those wildly speculative alternative energy theories? Obviously there's pretty good room for skepticism on a lot of these claims yet these people really believe that this stuff is there. How do they become such fervent believers? Scientists of course do the same thing, they are passionate believers in their theories, and the interesting question is why? Thus, the second thing we study is why people believe weird things, have certain belief systems and how those systems work. Including in science.

The one thing we've learned from the last three decades of research is that science is socially and culturally embedded and thus biased. Still, it's the best system we have for understanding causality in all realms, in all fields. So despite the fact that it's loaded with biases, there is a real world out there that we can know and the best way to know it is through science. The reason for that is because there's at least a method, an attempt to corroborate one's own subjective perceptions. There's a way to find out if you and I are seeing the same colors when we see red. There's actually a way to test these things, or at least try to get at them. That's what separates science from everything else.

EDGE: Why the increase in Darwinism, which seems to have happened in the last 10-15 years?

SHERMER: First, Darwin was right. In the realist sense, he is the only one of the big three - Darwin, Marx and Freud - who is still alive. Marxism has shown itself not to work and Freud was wrong about much of his ideas. Modern evolutionary biology, on the other hand, is showing that Darwin was right. Culturally and socially, the nature-nurture pendulum is swinging back and forth and I think that ever since Wilson's sociobiology, it's become acceptable to construct evolutionary models to explain human behavior and society. I think evolutionary psychology folks, with a few extreme exceptions who are telling just-so stories, have it right. Since their research is pretty good, the combination of good science and cultural trends goes a long way towards explaining the recent popularity of Darwin.

EDGE: Can you explain what you mean by just-so stories?

SHERMER: As examples or over-reaching, the just-so stories, sometimes the reconstruction of what life would have been like in the paleolithic era, in the environment of evolutionary adaptation, or EEA, will focus on why the particular thing that you're studying would have been advantageous. A good example of this was in a recent book in which the author was talking about how the origins of religion came about when men were on the hunt; at some point, they realized that life was completely meaningless. They had an existential crisis and realized there was no point to life at all, and that whether they were successful or not in the hunt didn't make any difference in the long run. So they created God, to sort of snow everybody else into realizing that there is a meaning and purpose to life.

Well that's a nice story; now prove it. How do you prove that? There's no possible evidence of this phenomena. That's a typical just-so story that the critics of evolutionary psychology would justly nail them for. The harder thing to do is to find ways to test very specific claims. That's why the research that Pinker is doing is so good; he's very narrow and focused, and takes just one particular thing and tries to test it. It isn't the big questions which are of interest, why are humans the way they are, why is or isn't there a God or whatever - but very specific things. That's where the good research is.

EDGE: Let's talk about Skeptics.

SHERMER: If we're going to accomplish our goals of science literacy, which is one of the primary goals of the Skeptic Society, you have to reach as many people as you can. You do it through print, the magazine and books, plus mass communication, television and the radio. You absolutely have to do it, and that's what we do.

EDGE: But you don't get invited to appear on major television shows if you are only talking about ideas. The general public like confrontation.

SHERMER: The best you can hope for is getting in three or four points. Like with Larry King - he constantly interrupts his guests. So I just said, right off the bat, well, Larry there's three points to this answer, one... Now he can't interrupt because the guy's got to make his three points. He tried, but I made my three points anyway. It's like being a politician who's trained to stay on message. I have my message and I'm going to get it across, even if I only have two minutes to do it. And the message is that science is the way that we find out about the world, and that all kinds of other stuff is anecdotal and fun and interesting, but it doesn't get us any closer to understanding reality; for that, we have to use science.

Why Oprah is so much more successful than PBS shows; people want a quick fix, the simple answer, how they can improve their love lives and their health. Health, money, love and career; that's the big four. We're not in that business. Science and ideas are ultimately much more important. One's whole life is grounded in ideas. Our mission then, instead of complaining and whining about it, is to make those ideas more interesting. To market it better. We're simply selling people that these ideas are actually more important than the little self-help stuff.

In terms of getting the word out, we just have to sell publishers on the idea that it is really important that they publish this kind of work, much more important in fact than doing other books. One of the things that will motivate them to do that the bigger advances for books by scientists, which in turn forces the publishers economically to do something about it. This development has been is one of the most important things that's happened to science in a long time.

It's possible to influence people's decision-making process. That's what marketing and advertising is all about. Now scientists, instead of looking at popular books as a necessary evil or something to do on the side, are considering it one of the most important things that they can do. If you look at the history of science, with few exceptions, revolutions and change have been triggered by books. Not journal articles. Books have done far more than anything else. Think of THE ORIGIN OF SPECIES, NEWTON'S PRINCIPIA, etc.; the entire evolutionary synthesis came about through a number of important books.

Scientists need to take writing seriously. It's a skill, like anything else they've already developed. It's an art and a craft that takes practice. It's not just throwing down ideas, you have to do it in a way that's appealing. You have to market ideas. A few scientists can do it: Gould is great at it and Dawkins is an elegant writer. But hardly any others are like that. More scientists need to read those kind of books and work their own writing. Some of the books that come down the pipeline are just awful. It's like they were penned it in two nights or something as if it wasn't important. I've got news for you: it's the most important thing they can do. If you're not writing to get the ideas out to everybody, then it's just a waste of time. ------------------------- SALON.COM INTERVIEW EXCERPT

Science, semi-science and nonsense

A professional skeptic talks about what's real science (evolution, the Big Bang), what's balderdash (ESP, Creationism) and what lies between (hypnotism, superstring theory).

By Suzy Hansen

Aug. 27, 2001 Michael Shermer, editor in chief of Skeptic magazine and author of "Why People Believe Weird Things," spends much of his time casting Holocaust revisionism, UFOology, creationism and astrology out of the realm of possibility and into the intellectual netherworld of "nonscience." Yet there are ideas being floated around that, while falling short of fully proven, aren't quite as kooky as the belief in alien abductions. Shermer dubs these "borderlands" sciences, theories that -- for now, and in his eyes -- land somewhere between firm-footed disciplines (evolution, quantum mechanics) and faddish bunk (Freudian psychoanalytic theory).

Shermer has a method for diagnosing this semi-madness. In his latest book, "The Borderlands of Science: Where Sense Meets Nonsense," he applies a "boundary detector kit" to such vexing issues as racial differences among athletes; the belief that, unlike Europeans, indigenous peoples live in harmony with nature; and cloning. Shermer's 10 boundary detectors include some obvious questions -- for example, have the scientist's claims been verified by another source? -- but what's remarkable is how open-minded Shermer remains during his assessment. In one chapter, Shermer looks at the life of Carl Sagan who, in his relationships with UFOlogists and SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) people, managed to strike an admirably "exquisite balance" between curiosity and doubt. With wit, grace and skepticism, "The Borderlands of Science" does the same -- and dishes on the behind-the-scenes head-butting and gentlemanly agreements that have molded much of what we believe about science and nonscience today. --------------- The Borderlands of Science: Where Sense Meets Nonsense By Michael Shermer Oxford University Press 319 pages Nonfiction --------------- Shermer spoke to Salon about the myth of genius, hypnotism and Tiger Woods from his office in Los Angeles.

Why do you think that science is the best lens through which to view the world?

There are checks and balances in science. There's somebody checking the people doing the science and then there's somebody who checks the checkers and somebody who checks the checker's checkers. Personally, I don't have time to run all these experiments so there's a certain amount of confidence that I put in this system. The fact that I understand how the system works gives me confidence that if someone's claim is incorrect, then somebody else is going to nail him on it.

Take superstring theory. I don't understand it. Almost nobody does! But I can go down to my buddies over at Caltech and say, "Hey, what's the story with this?" And they'll give me the terms of the debate and say there's this guy at New York and this guy at Chicago who believe this and this. I get a feeling that they are watching each other.

What about when big business funds science? How can you be so sure that there isn't an agenda behind someone's research?

For example, I don't worry that the American Medical Association is heavily influenced by drug companies. You know, it is. Drug companies give a lot of money for research. If you go to conferences sponsored by the AMA, the drug companies are there giving away stuff. Recently, I was paid fairly well to give a talk at a Pasadena medical association. The whole thing was sponsored by a drug company. There they were, handing out samples. And before I spoke, the guy from the drug company was up there plugging his wares! But, while I worry about that, there are a lot of medical researchers out there -- post-docs and Ph.D. and M.D. students -- who are not influenced by the drug companies. They would love nothing better than to show that, in fact, a particular drug doesn't do what the company claims. Those are the checks and balances that keep me confident that science really works.

The difference between science and nonscience is somewhat subjective. You have a boundary detection kit. I'm wondering if other scientists agree with your methods of assessment of what's science and what isn't.

The questions that I ask -- the quality of evidence, who's doing the research, what else do they believe, what else have they done, have they tested their own claims -- is the way of science. All skeptic stuff is science. Scientists are skeptics. It's unfortunate that the word "skeptic" has taken on other connotations in the culture involving nihilism and cynicism. Really, in its pure and original meaning, it's just thoughtful inquiry.

Next page | "Creationists don't do science" ------------------------------ SALON.COM LETTERS

Your interview with know-nothing Michael Shermer was appalling. Anyone who can produce the sentence "All skeptic stuff is science" clearly hasn't read any of the skeptics. He should start with Hume, and by the time he's finished his blind faith in empiricism may have lost its fanatical, sectarian edge. -- Matt Norwood

Like Professor Frog living in a well, trying to imagine the size of the Pacific Ocean, this man thinks all the wonders of the world should fit into his tiny brain. What a joke! -- Paul Howard

Michael Shermer's interview by Suzy Hansen left me personally disappointed because once again the untouchable subject of UFOlogy was left untouched. Shermer's label as "non-science" was simply referenced and that was that. There are 400 respectable people who have evidence and who, with the help of Steven M. Greer, M.D., want to at least have an opportunity to bring their case to the border of science and testify to Congress. Shermer's personal experience with hypnotism puts the subject on the border only because of his personal experience. Am I to guess that UFOlogy is not on the border because he has not personally experienced it? -- Pete Priel

So, Michael Shermer says history is scientific in that we can see from the massive slaughters perpetrated during the "Soviet experiment" that Communism is bad, yet Skinner and behaviorism "just kind of went away and something else came in." Never mind the decades of research and theory development in linguistics, psychology and computer science that have sought to explain what behaviorism cannot. This is but one example of Shermer's shaky grasp of (the philosophy of) science. He blithely banters about evidence and the checks and balances that give him confidence "that science really works" without explaining what evidence is, how it supports theories differentially, or what it means for science to work. Far greater minds have tried, and failed, to demarcate science and nonscience. Simply adding a third category doesn't solve the problem. The true test of his "boundary detector kit" is whether or not the bullshit alarm goes off when the kit is applied to itself. -- Noah Silbert

Michael Shermer's ideas in the interview with Suzy Hansen were interesting, if a bit obvious. But when he was quoted as saying, "Once you start down the road using science and technology, you just have to keep going," his extreme bias became obvious.

Why do we have to keep going? This whole concept of the assumed positive value of "progress" is a relatively recent one in human cultural history, and while there may be evidence to support the value of learning how to better interact with our environment, there is no real evidence to support the assumption that there is never a place to stop and say, "That's about enough!"

That's the problem with operating in a vacuum of values, as Shermer seems to advocate. Checkers of checkers of checkers don't do a damn bit of good if they operate in an environment in which the only value is to keep on moving, no matter whether we know where you're supposed to be going, ultimately, or why you're going there.

There is a time to move, and a time to stop and say we have arrived, and this is a good enough place, and why is it we aren't happy with the abundance we have created? And it is always important to consider that question, and not just keep moving forward to assuage the anxiety resulting from a lack of meaning in our lives and our souls. -- Charles A. Richardson

While Michael Shermer's skepticism is laudable, his own thought seems to lack the scientific rigor he so obviously prizes.

During his wide-ranging interview with Suzy Hansen, Mr. Shermer failed to make a distinction between migrating Homo sapiens who populated the Western Hemisphere and those Native American civilizations that subsequently arose. He dismissed the notion that corporate funding can color scientific research, although this danger is already documented. He ridiculed organic agricultural practices and their commitment to natural processes as "laughable," apparently mistaking an opposition to chemical intensive farming and its corrosive effects upon the environment for some sort of neo-Luddite resistance to breeding.

"Once you start down the road using science and technology," says the author, "you just have to keep going." Are we to believe this trip is a sacred pilgrimage, brooking no rational restraint nor the type of healthy skepticism for which the author is so well renowned?

When I was teaching science, I instructed my students that the discipline was a wonderful human tool, but that it was invariably limited to what it can verifiably measure, failing to confer legitimacy upon those phenomena that it can't. Perhaps the next time Mr. Shermer is enjoying cocktail chatter with Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould he might pause for a moment to contemplate physicist Niels Bohr's observation that science doesn't tell us what nature is; it only tells us what we can say about nature. It is a useful, if humbling, point. -- David Seppa

Regarding your review of Michael Shermer's book, "The Borderlands of Science: Where Sense Meets Nonsense," it would seem to me that, if anything, Shermer is not skeptical enough. Shermer fails to discuss the influence of Janis' groupthink-type phenomena on the scientific method. It is entirely likely that everything we believe now about superstrings, quarks and dark energy will prove to be complete blind alleys in the next hundred years. Physics, in particular, appears to be based on increasingly minute variations in scientific data. Think of the grand cosmic theories today being spun out of small variations in the cosmic background radiation or red shifts. Never mind the influence of corporate dollars on science, the name of the game in science is conformity: to follow the accepted wisdom of one's peers in order to be hired, get grants, tenure at a desirable university and travel allowances. Or sell books. What Heidegger called "the business of science" actually slows down scientific progress, and is a flaw in what we today call "the scientific method."

Another point: Shermer notes that the Soviet system can be judged a failure because "they had to kill 40 million people to make it work." But since the collapse of the Soviet Union, like numbers of people continue to die there due to the inefficiencies in their healthcare, even though one could call their current political system somewhat more market-based. Could it be that this has nothing to do with the failure of socialism, but simply that Russia is a uniquely large, cold, basically landlocked country where life is grim because of the climate and lack of resources? Can it be that the communist system failed because it was defeated in a propaganda war in the 1980-90's, and the collapse followed because the people were demoralized and simply lost their will to continue? Perhaps the Soviet system was just the best that could be done under the circumstances with the resources available, and that their system made possible a population that could not be supported under capitalism? Imagine if 150 million people were plunked down and suddenly forced to survive in Canada! Would it not be logical then to assign the blame to Ronald Reagan for engineering a Russian Holocaust of massive proportions, much like the European conquerors are today given the responsibility for the decimation of the Native Americans?

Of course, all science is ultimately based on dollars. Economically, Freudianism would probably still be active if there were enough healthcare money for it, and HMOs today would still be funding free therapy for everybody. If that were the case, I'm sure there would be a lot fewer random shootings than there are now, but we evidently can't afford that while keeping a massive senior citizen population alive. Ultimately, however, Shermer shares a trait with the Holocaust skeptics he's so critical of. If you listen carefully to what he's saying, you see he has a subtext, and that is just defending the status quo. He's saying: Accept what the scientists are telling you because they're respected members of the scientific community. But obviously, this is really pretty circular, and not particularly enlightening, because most of the really important scientific advances were made by complete heretics. And certainly, not a good excuse for independent thought. -- Martin Lerner

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-- Anonymous, September 04, 2001


Few people will understand your re-post. The mentally poverty stricken such as "tk" come to mind.

-- Anonymous, September 04, 2001

On the contrary, cpr.

Why are you playing the edges; why bother to debunk, why spend your time exposing people that are outright frauds, phonies, or who are merely self deluded?

I'd like to think that I have done some "debunking" right here at Poole's Roost II. Exposing so-called "experts" who really aren't, especially when they post under various handles to make it appear that there are others in agreement with their nutball BS.

-- Anonymous, September 05, 2001

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