Skeptic Michael Shermer Answers Your Questions

Last week, we solicited your questions for Michael Shermer, founding publisher of Skeptic magazine, and executive director of the Skeptics Society. He was featured in our recent podcast “The Truth Is Out There…Isn’t It?”. He now returns with answers to some of your questions. As always, thanks to everyone for participating.

Q. How would you suggest one prioritize beliefs to examine? -Cor Aquilonis

A. All of our beliefs are influenced by our own priorities, but obviously some are more important than others. My rule of thumb is figuring out to what extent something affects your life. It doesn’t really matter if you read your astrology column in the newspaper for amusement. The important thing is: does it affect your job, your marriage, your close relationships, your family? That’s the criteria we use for our personal lives, as well as for society. I mean, to what extent does the Flat Earth Society affect public education? Zero. But creationists on the other hand are trying and in some cases succeeding in altering public education. So we need to take them seriously. And that’s basically how I judge it.

Q. 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? -Hester

A. It’s not so much the evolution of life, but asking how it all get started that’s the harder question to answer. And the science is still under development, compared to Darwin, which has been uber-tested, and which we have a really good understanding of. But back to the question of elements and where they came from. Well, we know that they came from the interiors of stars and evolved through nuclear fusion to create more complex elements, and then were spewed out when the stars exploded. The harder question though is how you go from inorganic chemistry to organic chemistry, and then from organic chemistry to protein chains to simple cells with walls to complex cells with organelles, and all the way up the great chain of being. When it comes to the science on the origins of life there are about half a dozen competing theories of how this could have happened—several different hypothesis. But even there I think we have a pretty good understanding that there is going to be a bottom up emergent theory without the input of an intelligent designer. But even if there was an intelligent designer, even if it’s some extra-terrestrial genetic engineer, you still need an explanation for where those extra-terrestrial intelligent designers came from. All that does is pushes it back one more step. 

Q. So let me get this straight: Shermer is a professional skeptic, has written a book about it, and yet he believes in evolution. I would be very interested in how he came to believe in evolution’s veracity: was it because of evidence? I doubt it, because good evidence exists for several “origins” hypotheses.-Geoffrey Bard

A. First of all, you’re confusing origins of life theory with the theory of evolution. In my case, I was a creationist when I was at Pepperdine. I was an evangelical Christian. I doubted the evolution story. I thought it was supposed to be a creationist story. I had read that literal interpretation and I was pretty sure that I didn’t buy evolution. When I went to grad school, just for fun I took a class on evolutionary biology taught by this brilliant scientist named Bayard Brattstrom. I sat there and was like holy crap, this stuff is real; they have a ton of evidence to back it up. I was stunned. I was a first year grad student; I was 21. This was at Cal State Fullerton.

Every week the professor would bring in trays of animals and rodents and fossils. I can see it now. The class ended at 10pm on Tuesdays. Afterward we would go down to a local bar and sit there talking about all the big questions that you do when you’re that age: God, free-will, meaning of life. That’s really where I worked out in my head a lot of the big questions I was having.

Q. If smart people are so great, why are the world’s messes not getting any better when we put them in charge? Because they, like we, are fallible. They, like we, are prone to hubris. -Geoffrey Bard

A. Actually I do think things are getting better and that people are getting smarter—it’s called the Flynn effect, which shows IQ scores going up by 3 points every ten years or so since about the end of World War I. The strongest gains are being made in abstract reasoning tasks, not vocabulary and algebra; not in stuff you can memorize and learn, but in our basic ability to reason abstractly. When you start to think about why that might be, you realize that we have so much more exposure to literature and travel than we used to, and exposure to other people and other ideas, and in general our thinking outside of ourselves has increased dramatically in that time. Especially when you look at the rise of the internet and television. As to why do smart people screw up anyway? Well, they are no less subject to all the subjective biases than the rest of us. We all have the same brains. The only thing smart people are better at is rationalizing their dumb ideas to other people.

Q. 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? -nobody.really

A. If by faith you mean beliefs for which you have no evidence, then the short answer is yes. Most of the beliefs we hold we have no evidence for. Having faith is just the natural way of being for us. It’s much harder to be skeptical. You first need to understand the claim and then challenge it. That takes an extra cognitive load to carry, and requires greater effort. I do think that religions are adaptive in the sense that we’re a tribal species. One thing religion does is that it unites people into closely-knit cohesive tribes with shared rituals and beliefs. The rituals are important to signal to your fellow group members that you’re reliable. It creates this sense of having a band of brothers. If I see you every week doing the same thing that I am doing– sitting in the pew on Sunday, or wearing a yarmulke, or not eating meat- then I know that I can count on you in a very basic way, and therefore I should be nice to you. If you’re tithing then when you’re in trouble, I’m more likely to help you out. There is very good evolutionary theory behind that. Life is hard alone, but in a group it’s made much easier. Religion taps directly into that.

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  1. 164 says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

    Disliked! Like or Dislike: Thumb up 14 Thumb down 64
    • tj says:

      Your logic so confounds me.
      Not being able to disprove “something” doesn’t mean that “something” must true.

      It doesn’t matter if I can prove it to be true, you cannot disprove it. So by your logic, it must be true.

      Here you go disprove this: I believe “the square root of cup cake = a feather.”

      Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 19 Thumb down 8
      • 164 says:

        Actually tj my point is if you cannot disprove something (i.e. the existence of God) then it may be true and is not necessarily false. I’m feeling a little burised right now with all the thumbs down.

        Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 9 Thumb down 13
    • ML says:

      Just as absence of evidence is not proof of absence, an inability to disprove something does not mean I have any obligation to agree that something exists or is even worth discussing. I could similarly claim that there are flying purple hippos orbiting Alpha Centauri right now. I have no evidence that this is true, nor can I conclusively measure any effect from their presence. You can not disprove that statement, but you shouldn’t have to. You might tell me that there’s no way that hippo could ever survive in the vacuum of space, to which I reply “have you ever seen a flying purple hippo die in a vacuum? No? Then don’t tell me it can’t happen!” You would probably at this point get frustrated with my ignorance and tell me that there’s no point in even discussing the question as the result has no tangible impact on your life.

      This is the attitude of the true agnostic towards the question of God.

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      • MW says:

        Personally, I’d call that atheism rather than agnosticism. An atheist-via-skepticism can’t claim to have disproved the existence of all gods*. However, if your estimation of the odds of there being a god is so low that you in no way change your behaviour to account for the possibility of a god (e.g. when deciding whether to swear, you’re not even slightly influenced by the possibility that God might be offended) then by my reckoning, you’re an atheist.

        The classic statement of your flying hippos argument is “Russell’s teapot” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russell%27s_teapot.** Another famous presentation of the argument was the Invisible Pink Unicorn, although this seems to have morphed into a satire religion.

        * They can claim to disprove certain precise definitions of a god. For example, it is often claimed that the existence of an all powerful, all good, all knowing god is disproved by the existence of evil. Although disputed by theologians, this claim is compatible with atheism-via-skepticism.

        ** If I ever become so rich as to be able to spend fortunes on trivial things, I’m going to try to organize Russell’s ashes to be put in a teapot and orbited between Earth and Mars.

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      • ML says:

        I call it agnosticism only because I do not presume the odds of the existence of God to be low; indeed I don’t know a possible way to estimate such odds. The reason I don’t alter my behavior to account for a God is that there are infinite possible interpretations of what God is, so that even if I had some sense of a probability of God’s existence, I wouldn’t know how to adapt myself to His will. This is the weakness of Pascal’s Wager, in my view, and why I consider the existence of God not impossible or even unlikely, but rather irrelevant.

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      • MW says:

        OK, that sounds like agnosticism to me, now that you’ve clarified your position.

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    • James says:

      You seem to have missed an important point. The basic problem isn’t the existence or non-existence of God* considered as an intellectual question, it’s that the God-believers (or Allah-believers &c) typically insist that the rest of us rearrange our lives in accordance with the dictates of their unproven hypothesis.

      *Or Goddess: I myself prefer to celebrate Gaia in Her aspect as Epona.

      Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 2
      • TE says:

        The point is that Skeptics aren’t (and shouldn’t be) required to disprove the existence of a supernatural creator. There is zero evidence for the case that one exists, a skeptic should not have to disprove an extreme claim, it’s people who believe an extreme claim that should have to present proof. For example a person who believes in the same superstitions as a bronze age goat herder has the burden of proof, not the person responding.

        When @164 says,

        “From reading your observations, your thoughts are well reasoned until it comes to anything to do with religion. Then you dismiss all notions supporting the existence of God in the absence of any proof.”

        The key portion is, “in the absence of any proof” Without the need for proof all you have is conjecture. Anything may be asserted about anything, but it is the duty of the one making the assertion to prove their claim, not the listener to disprove it. This is why you have the famous examples of the teapot and the more recent flying spaghetti monster, each of them has just as much evidence for existence as the Judao Christian God, (as do Thor, Zues and Vishnu and Jack and the Beanstalk). There are literally thousands of creation myths from around the world, and because science can’t disprove a fairy tale doesn’t mean the fairy tale is true.

        @164 – I hope your ego is bruised a little by the thumbs down you received, because I hope that it will allow you to reexamine the fallacy of your thinking. It’s right to reason that there is no supernatural creator, because there is no evidence. It is right to accept the empirical fact of the evolution. It is rational to put the idea of faith outside purview of reason. To accept a claim without evidence is the very antithesis of reason.

        Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 3
  2. vimspot says:

    It’s incredible how few people know how much better the world is today then it was 50 years ago (Geoffary Bard for example), 100 years ago and thousands of years ago. Just because more bad news gets reported doesn’t mean that broader trends are negative. If you are still not convinced, check out
    http://www.ted.com/talks/steven_pinker_on_the_myth_of_violence.html
    and
    http://www.ted.com/talks/hans_rosling_shows_the_best_stats_you_ve_ever_seen.html
    It doesn’t mean that world is a fair, wonderful place; there are lots of problems that need to get addressed, but by any measure of well being, the world has gotten a lot better even in the non-western world.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 30 Thumb down 0
    • nobody.really says:

      HI-YO, HI-YO, DISCERNIBLE TODAY
      (A Song After Reading Toynbee)

      Has it come to your attention how the race of man
      Has been climbing upwards since time began,
      How it’s been climbing steady, and it’s climbing there still,
      But every time you notice it, it’s going down hill?

      Chorus
      Going downhill is the natural way,
      For the old folks work and the young folks play,
      And the pioneer morals universally decay -
      Yet definite improvement is discernible today!
      Hi-yo, hi-yo, discernible today!

      Now there’s been a quite demonstrable and healthy gain
      In higher mathematics and the size of the brain,
      Between us and the oyster there were great strides made -
      But every time you look at us, we’re slipping down grade.

      Chorus
      Going downhill is the natural trend,
      For the old folks gather and the young folks spend,
      Yet line up all our forebears on the path that we descend
      And a definite improvement is apparent at this end!
      Hi-yo, hi-yo, apparent at this end!

      The Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Greeks and Romans, too,
      Hung up some fancy records when their world was new,
      And some they hung so high the boys are shooting at them still -
      But they saw themselves continually going down hill.

      Chorus
      Going downhill is the way things run,
      For the old have illusions and the young have fun,
      And our manners and religions everlastingly decay,
      Yet astonishing improvement is discernible today!
      Hi-yo, hi-yo, discernible today!

      Maxwell Anderson, The New Yorker (May 8, 1948) at 26.

      Thumb up 2 Thumb down 4
  3. Miko says:

    Thank you Michael for responding to these questions. I only wish you could have answered more of them!

    It amazes me to see how close minded many of the readers here are – it still surprises me how people reading the Freakonomics blog (a book that’s essentially founded around the ideas of questioning what you think is true and looking for data and evidence) can ask questions in such an ignorant way.

    Thumb up 8 Thumb down 5
  4. Cor Aquilonis says:

    Thanks for answering my question, and thanks for promoting skepticism – it makes lives better.

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  5. caveat bettor says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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    • gb says:

      …science will still require theory, conjecture, hypothesis … fancy words for faith.

      You forgot…

      testing the hypothesis, rejecting it if the test fails, coming up with a new hypothesis…repeat until it ” is measurable and repeatable”. You know..keep working on it until you get it right, and even then it can probably be refined (note the furor when scientists found results which may challenge the speed of light limit proposed by Einstien).

      One of the key elements of ‘the faith’ in many religions is that this is the one and only truth and it is a sin to question that.

      Saying a scientific theory is a fancy word for faith ignores the evolving nature of science.

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      • caveat bettor says:

        Then we agree that the tests for Jesus Christ being the Son of God and Standard Model for particle physics are currently still under construction?

        Thumb up 2 Thumb down 3
  6. danny says:

    why is it that we get a cool dude who answers the question, and all the questions are lame as hell from creationists who need confirmation of their beliefs?!?!

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 18 Thumb down 4
    • nobody.really says:

      why is it that we get a cool dude who answers the question, and all the questions are lame as hell from creationists who need confirmation of their beliefs?!?!

      Whoa whoa whoa! You may think my question was lame, but Shermer sure made it dance! Perhaps we’ve witnessed a miracle?

      I appreciate Shermer’s answer. I’m intrigued by the various instances in which it may be adaptive to believe things that aren’t accurate. Consider optical illusions: For some reason, human perception has evolved to draw false conclusions. More generally, humans suffer from a variety of cognitive biases, including biases in affective forecasting. Because I subscribe to the theory of evolution, I suspect all these biases are adaptive. I acknowledge that the conclusions I’m prone to draw are false relative to one model of the world, but presumably true relative to the model of the world that I carry in my head, and that has proven to be adaptive in the past. Which model is more relevant to any given circumstance? That probably depends on the circumstance.

      If I fail to understand how my beliefs and motivations about other people are influenced by my sex drive, for example, you may say that my beliefs and motivations are delusional and false; alternatively, you may say that my beliefs and motives reflect real phenomena that simply exceed my understanding. Similarly, if I fail to understand how a drive for group cohesion influences my beliefs and motivations about religion, you may say that my beliefs and motivations are delusional and false; alternatively, you may say that my beliefs and motivations reflect real phenomena that simply exceed my understanding. God is not false per se; rather, my understanding of God may be incomplete.

      I don’t want to put words into Shermer’s mouth, but he hints that the near-ubiquitous drive for God reflects a drive for group cohesion: an adaptive attitude that manifests itself in a longing to find meaning and companionship in our fellow man. Many atheists embrace this view as well. Perhaps we really are all the children of “God” – appropriately understood.

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  7. Eric says:

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    • EJ says:

      If you believe in a god and you believe he setup a very intricate system which we continue to understand more and more of each day. You’re combining faith and science in a rational way. You’re more speculating on the starting point or intervention point.

      If you need to litereally interptret a book or several written before our scientific understanding of well anything. It’s hard to really call yourself a skeptic isn’t it? That’s just faith. Remember many of those books frown on lying.

      Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0
  8. If I agreed with you we’d both be wrong.

    Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1