Bring Your Questions for Skeptic-in-Chief Michael Shermer

(Courtesy of Skeptic.com)

Michael Shermer is perhaps the world’s only professional skeptic. As the founding publisher of Skeptic magazine and executive director of the Skeptics Society, Shermer has turned his innate skepticism into a full-time job. In our recent podcast “The Truth Is Out There…Isn’t It?” Stephen Dubner talks to Shermer about the evolutionary basis for our tendency toward “magical thinking” and why humans are conditioned to see threats often where none exist. Here’s an excerpt:

SHERMER: Our brains are designed by evolution to constantly be forming connections, patterns, learning things about the environment. And all animals do it. You think A is connected to B and sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t, but we just assume it is. So my thought experiment is, imagine you’re a hominid on the plains of Africa, three and a half million years ago. Your name is Lucy. And you hear a rustle in the grass. Is it a dangerous predator, or is it just the wind? Well, if you think that the rustle in the grass is a dangerous predator and it turns out it’s just the wind, you’ve made a Type 1 error in cognition – a false positive. You thought A was connected to B, but it wasn’t. But no big deal. That’s a low-cost error to make. You just become a little more cautious and vigilant, but that’s it. On the other hand, if you think the rustle in the grass is just the wind, and it turns out it’s a dangerous predator, you’re lunch. Congratulations, you’ve just been given a Darwin award for taking yourself out of the gene pool before reproducing. So we are the descendants of those who were most likely to find patterns that are real. We tend to just believe all rustles in the grass are dangerous predators, just in case they are. And so, that’s the basis of superstition and magical thinking.

Shermer’s latest book (his twelfth) is called The Believing Brain. Considered his magnum opus, the book synthesizes Shermer’s three decades of research to present a comprehensive theory on how beliefs are born, formed, nourished, reinforced, challenged, changed and finally extinguished. Shermer ranges across politics, science, sports and economics  to look at how the brain manufactures beliefs first, then goes about building up explanations for them.

Shermer has agreed to answer your questions. So, as always, fire away in the comments section, and we’ll post his responses in due course (here). To get you started, here’s the table of contents from The Believing Brain:

Prologue: I Want to Believe

Part I: Journeys of Belief
1. Mr. D’Arpino’s Dilemma
2. Dr. Collins’s Conversion
3. A Skeptic’s Journey

Part II: The Biology of Belief
4. Patterncity
5. Agenticity
6. The Believing Neuron

Part III: Belief in Things Unseen
7. Belief in the Afterlife
8. Belief in God
9. Belief in Aliens
10. Belief in Conspiracies

Part IV: Belief in Things Seen
11. Politics of Belief
12. Confirmations of Belief
13. Cosmologies of Belief

Epilogue: The Truth is Out There

This post is no longer accepting comments. The answers to the Q&A can be found here.

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  1. Cor Aquilonis says:

    Ooh, ooh, I have a question!

    So it’s a natural human inclination to manufacture beliefs then rationalize them, which can lead to a large number of false beliefs. I think holding false beliefs is a bad thing, and I would prefer to have true beliefs, but examining all my beliefs in detail for truthfulness would be an epic undertaking. How would you suggest one prioritize beliefs to examine? I would naturally go by potential for harmful outcomes if incorrect (in a Pascal’s Wager-y way), but there are flaws with that method. What would you suggest?

    Thanks! Also, you do good work – please keep it up. :)

    PS – I wouldn’t actually use Pascal’s Wager, since that would be stupid. I’m thinking about it in a harmful versus beneficial outcome of the belief sense.

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    • James says:

      To me it’d be more interesting to figure out why so many humans go from rational assessment of potential risk – that rustle in the dry grass might be a predator, so take care – to a belief so fixed that even when some brave fellow tribesperson goes and looks in the grass and says “hey, no predator here”, they’ll still believe that there is. And indeed, can be convinced that the grass is full of predators even when there’s no rustle.

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      • Cor Aquilonis says:

        I would chalk up something like that to “Crazification Factor” (~27%), but I’m pretty sure the population that would think such a thing is larger than 27%. There’s a pretty big membership in The Church of The Rustling Grass. (Motto: There Is Always A Predator, So Say We All.)

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  2. Dave says:

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    • Cor Aquilonis says:

      “if there is not intelligent design, how did all of the elements that make up our universe get here in the first place?”

      Google “Big Bang.” Ignore all results that reference a sit-com. You’ll notice no intelligence need be postulated.

      Also, pay special attention to discussions of cosmic microwave background radiation. Notice that the theoretical model for background radiation was confirmed by later observation and measurement to such a degree that the graphed curve of the theoretical model obscures the graph of the observations and error bars. I think the scientists know what they are talking about. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Firas_spectrum.jpg

      Science FTW!

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      • Dave Roberts says:

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      • Gabriel says:

        @Dave

        That question deserves an answer. However, the answer “An intelligent designer magicked them into existence” isn’t any more intellectual fulfilling than the answer “We don’t know yet and may not ever know.”

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      • nobody.really says:

        “Google ‘Big Bang.’ Ignore all results that reference a sit-com. You’ll notice no intelligence need be postulated.”

        Ouch! Ok, maybe this season’s episodes haven’t been the best, but I think they’re still darned clever. You try writing something funny week after week….

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      • Cor Aquilonis says:

        @ Dave Roberts, prev.:

        “How did all of the gas, dark matter, cold matter, warm matter etc. get there?”

        What you are asking is not some unknowable conundrum, and I am not your Google. Do you realize you can type that entire question above into a search box and then… find the answer? The answer from real experts in the subject. I bet you can even find illustrations and video to help you understand.

        Not only that, but if you’re skeptical of the easy-to-understand layman’s-terms explanation, you can also use the amazing internet to drill down even deeper to further understand how the universe began and where matter came from. There are a wealth of books and scientific papers on the formation of matter, and there’s probably an expert (at a university, they call them “professors” there) near your very home. All available to you for free through the internet or a nearby library or telephone. You have no excuse to not find out.

        So, if you are hoping that the formation of matter after the Big Bang will provide a gap for your fancy of a designer to hide in, you are woefully mistaken.

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      • Dave says:

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      • Cor Aquilonis says:

        @ Dave (December 6, 2011 at 11:06 am)

        “One, I did not ask you to be my Google.”

        You asked the group how all of the elements that make up our universe got here in the first place. I, thinking you may not be familiar with the Big Bang, provided a link and brief explanation. You then *directly responded to my comment* with: “How did all of the gas, dark matter, cold matter, warm matter etc. get there?” Do you see how I could think that you were asking me to answer your question, and so do all your research for you?

        “You took that upon yourself, and from all of your comments, you probably do that a lot. Your hubris is very telling.”

        Dave said as he looked over his glasses and down his nose at Cor Aquilonis, a slight sneer of disgust trembling on his lip. He gave a dismissive sniff and continued:

        “Two, science is your god and your religion. You are no different from a bible thumper. You simply chose a different book(s)”

        Let me tell you a story. Do you remember when the Apple iPad came out a year or so ago? My co-worker got one. She was all over that thing, showing it off at work and at social occasions. She loved to tell anyone who would listen about all the apps and how convenient it was and so on. Now, would is it reasonable for me to believe that her enthusiasm for her new tool was akin to religious reverence, and that she was worshiping it as a god? No. It’s far more likely that she was enthusiastic about it because it worked so well for her. That’s why I’m enthusiastic about science. I love science because it’s, to the best of my knowledge, the only way to know if a statement about the world is true or false. That’s why science is awesome! It’s a highly effective tool for sorting truth from falsehood, and if you care whether or not your beliefs are true, I highly recommend science for checking.

        Also, it’s pretty unfair to compare Science to Religion like they’re Mac v. PC. It would be a more apt to say Mac v. Bag of Rocks, but, whatever.

        Finally, we’re flying far away from relevance here, so unless we’re going to get back on the main topic, I’m not going to go any further in the Dave/Cor Aquilonis discussion. Feel free to have the last word.

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    • MW says:

      “…if there is not intelligent design, how did all of the elements that make up our universe get here in the first place?”

      It isn’t clear quite what question you are asking. Here are three possible interpretations.

      1) How do the laws of our universe lead to the elements we observe? Go read some popular science books on physics and cosmology, and this question will be answered for you in great detail. (Except the bit where there is much more matter than antimatter. We haven’t got that figured out yet.)

      2) Why are the laws of our universe such that they allow for complex chemistry and intelligent life? This is a topic of much debate. The most satisfying answer is that if there are many universes with different laws, the only ones in which such a question could be posed are the ones which allow intelligent life. However, this supposes multiple universes with differing laws, which is very much hypothetical. Another point is that when we consider how our laws could have been different, and how these differences would prevent intelligent life, we may be too hasty. Even with a real universe to examine, determining how a set of laws will play out in practice is hard, yet we dismiss these possibilities as unable to support intelligent life with barely a glance.

      3) Why is there something rather than nothing? Nobody knows. An intelligent designer doesn’t answer this question, because they would be ‘something’, so why do they exist rather than nothing?

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    • James says:

      “…if there is not intelligent design, how did all of the elements that make up our universe get here in the first place?”

      If there is intelligent design, how did the intelligent designer get here in the first place?

      Same question, really, and the only proper answer is “Gee, I don’t know.”

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    • Hester says:

      “The question that I can’t get past is if there is not intelligent design, how did all of the elements that make up our universe get here in the first place?”

      The question that I can’t get past is if there is intelligent design, how did the intelligence that designed our universe get here in the first place?

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  3. Geoff says:

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    • Julie says:

      I’d say that’s true. Certainly I believe things that I personally have not verified. I believe that Texas is somewhere south and west of my home city of Montreal, even though I’ve never been there. I believe that there are sound structural principles that went into designing my office building, even though I’m not an architect. I believe there are two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom in every molecule of water, even though I’ve never personally done the experiment that proves this.

      I believe these things because there are smart people who have done research into them, and based on scientific, empirical, repeatable evidence, they have shown that these things are true. If I had enough time and the inclination, I too could do those experiments and prove or attempt to disprove these believe.

      Honestly, I don’t know very much about the science behind evolution. But I believe it, because if I were so inclined, I could go talk to scientists and they could tell me all about the hypotheses and experiments that went into the current scientific consensus on the issue.

      Scientific beliefs are, at their very core, subject to being disproven. There are a set of conditions that, if fulfilled, would make them untrue. (If my coffee cup fell UP when I dropped it instead of down, we’d have some work to do on the theory of gravity.) Religious belief, in contrast, is often tautological. There are no circumstances that could negate it. (“If God is all-good, he would have created only good in the world. God is all-good. There is evil in the world. Therefore… God is still all-good. Evil is a test.”)

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      • Geoff says:

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    • Eric M. Jones. says:

      Geoffrey,

      Here’s why you should believe in evolution:

      Get down on your knees and measure out 1 mm. Let’s call this a thousand years. Now measure out 1 meter; let’s call this a million years. Slowly crawl 65 meters, watching those millennia fly by. When you get there, that will be 65 million years ago when the age of dinosaurs ended…65,000 millennia ago.

      But the age of dinosaurs started 250 million years ago. So crawl on your knees to the 250 meter mark while imagining the changes that nature could slowly make, millenia by millennia.

      If you were to stand on the Grand Canyon’s rim, you would find no land-based fossils below you, because at that level of strata, they had not yet appeared. (And you wouldn’t see any above you because they are all eroded away…until you get to the Colorado plateau).

      But we’re still down on our knees. So in the period 250 million years ago (250 meters) to 1.2 Billion years ago (1.2 kilometers) there are fossils of various species of sea creatures. At the bottom there is only the schist and granite made from the metamorphosed mix of limestone from the simplest creatures, sand and other rocks.

      There was life on earth before this time, but only very simple creatures, and further back, only single cell creatures beginning at 4 billion years ago (4 kilometers!). Crawl THAT on your knees and understand how very long ago it was.

      But the point is that the time span of life on Earth exceeds the comprehension of the human brain. This Meter=Million Years method is a good way to see where we are.

      Evolution? There was PLENTY of time. No matter how astonishing the claims of evolutionists are, there was plenty of time to do it, just by random changes and survival of the fittest.

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      • Jeff says:

        Thanks for this, Eric! It’s a great visual and a wonderful way to explain earth’s timeline compared to the timeline of human history! Have you blogged this/written it anywhere else or did you get it from a source somewhere? I’d love to have it to reference (something that’s not an Internet comment, I mean).

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      • Geoff says:

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  4. nobody.really says:

    Is faith adaptive?

    If not, how can I reconcile the fact that the great majority of people profess a faith with the idea of evolution?

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    • James says:

      I really doubt that any large number of people have “faith” in evolution, any more than they have faith in structural engineering or electronics. It’s out there, some people understand it even if I don’t, and if your bridge falls down or your smart phone doesn’t work, you can sue them :-)

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  5. AaronS says:

    First, I enjoyed your book “Why Darwin Matters.” Yes, I’m a (almost) conservative Christian, but I also believe that evolution is one of several methods God used (e.g., supernatural creation, guided evolution, and open evolution)…and I also wanted to understand the whole thing better.

    I have two things I want to mention in terms of questions for you….

    1) I believe our minds are usually hardwired to either cause us to be able to accept that it all “just happened” without a God being needed…or we are hardwired to NOT be able to conceive that this all happened without a God. For lack of better terms, I will call this the Mathematical Mind vs. the Pondering Mind. Some people may be midway between these minds, and can thus be persuaded one way or the other (perhaps by logic, perhaps by tragedy, etc.). But others are simply not going to change no matter what.

    I have asked some Christians to tell me exactly what would have to take place for them to accept that evolution was true. They cannot offer any sort of scenario. As for atheists, if I were to ask them what it would take for them to believe in God, it’s usually something like, “He’d have to appear, etc.,” but I am convinced that they would explain this away as readily as they would any design argument–or perhaps just consider such a being some advanced alien. You get the idea.

    2) The reason I believe in a God has to do with, for me, Occam’s Razor. We have no problem believing that matter/energy has just “always existed.” We don’t question that. Ah, but let someone say that God has always existed and immediately we are told that this cannot be.

    Further, the universe has either always existed like it is…or it “began” at some point. If it began, then something HAD to have changed it from the state it was in the moment before. That is, if the whole of matter/energy was in some static state, then something had to take place to make it go Big Bang.

    Some argue that we have an infinite number of universes. Let’s talk about it. If we have an infinite number of universes, then it MUST be the case–since there are only so many ways to arrange the atoms in the universe–that there are an infinite number of IDENTICAL universes. That is, there is one right now where someone who looks and thinks like me is doing what I’m doing right now. No, wait! There’s not ONE right now–there’s an INFINITE number of identical universes. Besides, we don’t know if it’s even possible for every conceivable configuration to take place.

    In a nutshell (too late!), I can either believe that God is somehow behind it all…or I can believe that our universe just began without anybody pushing a lever…or I can believe that there is a multi-verse, and that there are an infinite number of identical universes existing at once.

    For me–again, back to Occam’s Razor–it’s just easier to believe that there is a divine/advanced intelligence behind it all. But then again, I’m not of the Mathematical Mind.

    Neither mind is superior to the other. Because it seems easily likely that EITHER could be dead wrong…and yet be unable to conceive of any other way.

    Just my thoughts. I look forward to your comments.

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    • Jeff says:

      It’s an interesting argument, and I appreciate you taking the time to write it out in a reasoned manner, but I have just one question. You say:

      “If it began, then something HAD to have changed it from the state it was in the moment before. That is, if the whole of matter/energy was in some static state, then something had to take place to make it go Big Bang.”

      So if you posit that, because the Big Bang happened, someone had to cause it to happen, and that someone is God, then we must also assume that if God happened, someone had to cause him/her to happen. In the same way you can’t accept that all the matter in the universe just always… was, how can you accept that God just always was? Who created God?

      Also: “For me–again, back to Occam’s Razor–it’s just easier to believe that there is a divine/advanced intelligence behind it all.”

      You shouild check out the most recent episode of Beavis & Butthead (Actually a smarter show than it gets credit for). The plot basically revolved around a religious group protesting the school teaching evolution, because (paraphrasing) “if it’s too complicated to understand, how can it be true?”

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  6. Fred says:

    Most people, when confronted with evidence challenging their beliefs, will try to rationalize said evidence and reinforce their beliefs. What is a good strategy to encourage people to accept evidence that contradicts their beliefs? (particularly, religious beliefs). Will this strategy change among 1st world countries and 3rd world countries?

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  7. Shego says:

    Due to a corruption of basic Christianity,(because any institution humans are charged with tending to or create, we distort or destroy) Christians now believe that evolution simply is not possible in conjunction with the existence of God.It is. God is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent, and yet we can’t believe that he was capable of anything not detailed in the Bible.The Bible is also more allegory than more people (believers & non-believers alike) will admit. How can we rectify this incredibly backward belief, because God created the universe(s) in its entirety and majesty, so his work is infinitely possible AND plausible, as science is a knowledge we are allowed through him? Science does not disprove God’s existence, despite the beliefs of athiests and the deeply religious.

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  8. vimspot says:

    Are we more irrational than we suppose, and should we work to reduce cognitive biases so that we can make better decisions individually and collectively? If so, are there situations where we should paradoxically be rationally irrational? For example, if you have a happy marriage you’re likely to believe your partner is more attractive, interesting, and intelligent than others. Interestingly, kids who are less likely to engage in unsafe sex widely overestimate the probability of sex leading to pregnancy and stds. In either case, attempting to correct the biases may lead to other negative outcomes.

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