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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.