Interview with Michael Shermer


Dr. Michael Shermer is the Founding Publisher of Skeptic magazine and the Executive Director of the Skeptics Society. He is an author, speaker, and producer, about whom Stephen Jay Gould said the following:

Michael Shermer, as head of one of America’s leading skeptic organizations, and as a powerful activist and essayist in the service of this operational form of reason, is an important figure in American public life.

—from the foreword to Why People Believe Weird Things

Dr. Shermer is a contributing editor and monthly columnist for Scientific American, and is the host of the Skeptics Distinguished Lecture Series at Caltech. He is also the co-host and producer of the Fox Family television series, Exploring the Unknown, and serves as the science correspondent for KPCC radio, an NPR affiliate for Southern California.

Dr. Shermer is the author of Science Friction: Where the Known Meets the Unknown, about how the mind works and how thinking goes wrong. His book The Science of Good and Evil: Why People Cheat, Gossip, Share Care, and Follow the Golden Rule, is on the evolutionary origins of morality and how to be good without God. He also wrote Why People Believe Weird Things, a book that was widely and positively reviewed, and landed on the Los Angeles Times bestseller list as well as the New Sciences science books bestseller list in England. How We Believe: Science, Skepticism, and the Search for God presents his theory on the origins of religion and why people believe in God. Dr. Shermer's books also include In Darwin’s Shadow, a biography of Alfred Russel Wallace, the co-discoverer of natural selection, The Borderlands of Science, which explores the fuzzy boundary between science and pseudoscience, and Denying History, which takes on Holocaust denial and other forms of historical distortion. Dr. Shermer is also the author of Teach Your Child Science and co-author of Teach Your Child Math and Mathemagics.

Dr. Shermer received his B.A. in psychology from Pepperdine University, M.A. in experimental psychology from California State University, Fullerton, and his Ph.D. in the history of science from Claremont Graduate School. He worked as a college professor for 20 years (1979–1998), teaching psychology, evolution, and the history of science at Occidental College, California State University Los Angeles, and Glendale College. Since his creation of the Skeptics Society, Skeptic magazine, and the Skeptics Distinguished Lecture Series at Caltech, he has appeared on such shows as 20/20, Dateline, Charlie Rose, Tom Snyder, Donahue, Oprah, Sally, Lezza, Unsolved Mysteries, and more as a skeptic of weird and extraordinary claims. Dr. Shermer has also appeared in documentaries aired on A & E, Discovery, PBS, The History Channel, The Science Channel, and The Learning Channel.


Noneucidean Cafe spoke with Dr. Shermer in February, 2007



Noneuclidean Cafe (NC):  I know a lot of people have negative connotations with the idea of being a skeptic.  So I was wondering if you could give me the positive intention behind being a skeptic.

Dr. Michael Shermer (MS):  Well, skepticism is not a thing, it's not a position you take, it's an approach to claims, a scientific approach.  You can be skeptical of a particular claim, or you can be skeptical of the skeptics of a particular claim.  So for example, holocaust revisionists consider themselves to be skeptical of the holocaust, they're skeptical it happened.  And I'm skeptical of them, which I guess makes me a holocaust believer.  Or there are global warming skeptics, they don't believe global warming is human caused.  And most people are skeptical of those skeptics.  So it all depends on the specific claim.  There's nothing particularly positive or negative either way.  It's just like science, let's see what the evidence is.


NC:  Say a coach or therapist has a given process—for example, a way to cure patients of compulsive behaviors—and though there’s no scientific studies proving that it works, the therapist says he has the evidence of his experience—time and again he’s seen the process works.  What, if any, problems are there with depending one’s personal experience with patients to judge that something works?


MS:  It depends on what is being claimed, or what your goal is.  On the one hand, if your patient takes extract of seaweed, or dances three times to the left, and feels better, then who cares what happened.  Placebo effect, real effect, who knows?  To that extent I suppose it doesn't matter.  As long as someone says they feel better, and they seem to, then what the heck? 


But in science, that's not enough.  We need more than that.  If you are writing about it in a scientific paper, or recommending other therapists use the technique, then people are going to want to know if it really works.  If I do this and this and this, will I always get this result.  Sixty percent of the time.  Ten percent of the time.   Then it matters what the testing methods were, and whether it really works.


Especially if there are consequences.  A good dangerous example of this, in the early 1990s, was the whole recovered memory phenomenon.  Adults, mostly women, went into therapy for whatever reason:  depression, eating disorder, sleep disorder.  And they were diagnosed as having been molested as children.  And none of them had any memories of this.  So they had to coax the memories out of them through hypnosis and guided imagery.  And then the next thing you know, you got guys in jail, old men, fathers of these women, relatives of these women, convicted for molestation based on nothing more than one of these therapy-induced recovered memories.  Well, now it does matter whether it really happened or not.  And whether that technique actually works or not, because there's somebody sitting in jail because of it.  There were actually hundreds of men out on trial for this.  So there it does matter.


NC:  And as a follow up on this question, in terms of judging whether something works, you hear the term "confirmation bias."  What does that mean?


MS:  That's where you look for and find confirmatory evidence of what you already believe, and ignore disconfirmatory evidence.  You remember the hits, and forget the misses.  Everybody does it.  It's what explains how psychics and astrologers and tarot card readers work.  If people already believe that it works, they'll just remember the unusual coincidences: Oh, he got the name of this, and he knew that.  They forget the two hundred other things the psychic or astrologer said that had no bearing on their life, and they simply filter those out.   


So everybody does it.  It's what fuels conspiracy theories.  Someone connects the dots and remembers all the hits that appear to be there, and ignores the rest that don't fit.


NC:  What about arguments of the form: Well, there might not be any studies showing that something works, but there aren't any studies showing it doesn't work either?


MS:  Well, that's part of that post modernist way of thinking, if you can't prove it's not true, than it must be true.  No, you actually have to have positive evidence in favor of your claim.  The entire intelligent design movement is based on that very premise.  I don't accept the explanations given by evolutionary biologists for X, whatever X is: the eye, DNA, whatever.  Therefore it must have been intelligently designed.  No.  Even if evolution is completely wrong, and Darwin is wrong, that has nothing to do with whether intelligent design is true of not.  You have to actually present positive evidence in favor of your claim.  That's how it works in science.


NC:  Since you used the term post modernist in that answer, I'll jump to this question, as it follows that theme.  What do you say to someone who positions science as one belief system among many, and says that while the scientific community values certain kinds of methodologies and evidence, that doesn't mean there aren't other equally valid ways of knowing?


MS:  Well, on one level, it's true by definition.  Science is not art, for example, or music appreciation.  But they go further than that, as you suggested, that it's just one among many equals.  But equal to what?  What's the purpose or goal of your enterprise.  If your goal is to appreciate classical music, then science probably isn't going to say much one way or the other.  But if you want to get a spacecraft to Mars, astronomy really does work better than astrology.  You can't get a spacecraft to Mars based on astrology; you need astronomy for that. It actually works.  If you want to cure diseases, there's only two kinds of medicine:  tested scientific medicine, and everything else that hasn't been tested yet. 


NC:  Does the fact that the scientific community changes its mind on various issues over time in any way undermine that view?


MS:  No, in fact it strengthens it.  It is a vibrant, open, active enterprise, in which you're willing to change your mind based on new evidence.  It's always based on new evidence.  Scientists don't just change their mind willy-nilly for the hell of it.


NC:  One of the insights I've always found very powerful is the unity of science, or what E.O. Wilson in his book [Editor: Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, by E.O. Wilson] called the consilience of science.  And I was wondering if you could talk about what is meant by the unity of science, and why, because of that, scientists can be so confident when they rule out a claim like remote viewing?


MS:  Well, they are only confident to the extent that there is experience or data to support a claim.  Or if it fits in the world the way we think it works, or if it doesn't.  So the less data you have, and the less likely it seems to fit in the world, the less likely it is to be true.  So you have degrees of confidence, or lack of confidence, in an idea.  There are no facts in science, in the sense of one hundred percent certainty. 


NC:  And one of the powerful aspect of this unity is that the findings of physics fit with the findings of chemistry which fit with the findings of biology which fit with the findings of other sciences.  So if you just try to introduce this one new element, which doesn't fit with the current view, it has a big mountain of evidence to climb. 


MS:  That's right.  The creationists have the idea if they can just find one fossil that doesn't seem to fit or one oddity, somehow this brings down the entire enterprise of evolutionary biology.  And it doesn't, because that's not what it was based on in the first place.  It doesn't hinge on one particular factoid, and if you can debunk that, the whole thing will collapse.  It's based on tens of thousands of pieces of evidence from thousands of sources, all converging together to this conclusion.


NC:  Moving from the provider side to the consumer side, there are things that at any given moment science won't be sure about.  Yet even without that scientific knowledge, we still have to make choices about what we will do to live happy, healthy lives.  Any suggestions on how people can navigate that? 


MS:  Well, you have to weigh the quality of the evidence based on your experiences.  But also understand that science is a social process, and there is a vetting, screening process called the peer review system.  So when someone makes a claim that is completely outside of any peer review, any university or research institute, it's just some guy in his garage...  That doesn't make him wrong.  But it does signal our baloney detection alarm to go off that maybe there's something not quite right with this guy, and we should maybe hold his claim to a higher standard.  Because, with the other system in place, somebody else is checking.  In other words, there needs to be fact checkers, just like in journalism.  Science has the same kind of fact checking, called the peer review system. 


NC:  Those were the questions I wanted to ask.  Is there anything you'd like to add?


MS:  Well, one last thing I'd want to add is what a scientist wants to know about any self help programs, twelve-step programs, life coach programs is, do they work?  Not anecdotally.  You had one hundred clients, and twenty-five of them got rich and happy, so you parade them in a brochure to sell your product.  That isn't science.  It's completely meaningless.  It's just cherry-picking the successful examples.  It's like all the people who've tried the alternative cancer treatments and it didn't work.  You don't hear their stories, because they're gone.  Their data is gone.  And the same thing with the self help movement. 


The only way you know it works is if it really works.  You have a control group and experimental groups.  So one group gets to try a twelve step program, one group gets to try another twelve step program, and the third group does nothing.  And you look to see if any of them work any better than any of the others, or better than nothing.  And to my knowledge, having looked into this, none of them are any better than doing nothing.  Or just doing something with a friend.  And it's not just the self help movement, the entire psychotherapy movement is the same way.  Except for cognitive-behavioral therapies for specific things, like phobias or  OCD, none of the talk therapies are any better than any of the other talk therapies, and none of them are any better than just talking to your friend.  In terms of a scientific outcome.  I hate to say it, but that's what the data shows.  There are no studies showing that any talk therapy is any better than talking to a friend.  And it's a lot cheaper.


I did write a column about this in Scientific American, based on that book SHAM, by the former editor of self help books for Men's Health, Steve Salerno [Editor: SHAM: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless, by Steve Salerno].  He covered all the literature on this, and basically the same people buy the same self help books, and take the same self help courses, over and over and over.  And that shows us they don't really work.  Or they only work temporarily.  So you get into an addiction to twelve step programs.  What we need is a twelve step program for addiction to twelve step programs.


NC: Thank you.



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