Bring Your Questions for Skeptic-in-Chief Michael Shermer

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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.

Cor Aquilonis

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.


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.

Cor Aquilonis

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.)


It is very easy to point out flaws in religious thinking. I do it myself all the time.

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?

Cor Aquilonis

"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.

Science FTW!

Dave Roberts

Yes, I have read about that, and it does not answer the question.

I agree that a big bang event happened, but...

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


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.

Humans have a hard time going through life disbelieving everything and remaining non-committal about major worldview matters. At some point must reasonably commit a certain worldview/philosophy, and to constantly question its basic truths would probably lead to paralysis...and perhaps insanity.


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.")



"Scientists" is a pretty generic term; you can find many good ones who believe in all the major origins theories. What do you do when smart people disagree? I find most people choose an outlook earlier in life, and then spend the rest of their lives defending that outlook and attacking the others as idiots & morons.

The problem with "smart" people is that they can get us into the craziest messes because we trust them - and perhaps we should not. Smart people created a worldwide economic crisis by creating central banks, removing the gold standard, inventing Keynesian economics, and creating asset bubbles which must eventually collapse, with the tab paid by the middle-class and poor. Smart people told us in the 1970s that we were entering a new ice age, and that by the year 2000 the earth could no longer produce enough food for its inhabitants. We elect smart people to Congress. Smart people have said the electric car would be viable any day now...and they've been saying that since 1901 or so. Smart people repeatedly get us into wars. Smart people devise better ways to remotely kill people without risk of harm to themselves.

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.

Take from me the smart people, and give me wise ones instead.



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?


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.



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?


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.


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.