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Michael Shermer

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Michael Shermer (born 1954) is an American historian of science, writer, professional skeptic, and ex-professional cyclist.

He is a noted "skeptical agnostic non-theist," the author of many writings on skepticism, and the founder of the The Skeptics Society.

A modern Paul[edit]

During adolescence Shermer became a born again, fundamentalist Christian and later even got a theology degree at a Christian university. Later still Shermer studied psychology and became more skeptical about Christian belief, finally becoming an atheist/agnostic/skeptic.[1] Shermer stated the final end of his Christian faith was when a girl was paralyzed in a motor accident. Shermer prayed to God to heal her. She remained paralyzed.[2]

Like Paul, Shermer found his way on the long (bike) road to Damascus Mt. Elbert, in Colorado, when he realized that all the pseudoscience, (prayer, New Age pyramids, meditation, and homeopathy) would not take the pain of 10 years of cycling away, and that these remedies and the philosophies behind them were bunk. Like Paul, Shermer began to preach and teach, writing for Scientific American in the Skeptics column, writing books like Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time[3] (as well as the far more exciting Cycling: Endurance and Speed[4]), and lecturing across the US on topics ranging from Holocaust denial to creationism (which he aptly calls Evolution Denial).[5]

Useful comparisons to John, George, and Ringo are less forthcoming, however.

Shermer's recent spooky experience with a radio initially suggested he was wavering in his commitment to skepticism. This was later shown to not be the case.

Inverse stopped clock?[edit]

Shermer leans heavily towards libertarianism and is known to be less than introspective where economic issues are concerned; occasional hilarity results with the rest of the skeptical community (one incident featured a thoroughly inept attempt to map economic freedom onto the Kardashev scaleWikipedia's W.svg).[6]

While Shermer's other work has been well received, his book Mind of the Market has been widely criticized in skeptical circles for being mostly full of bullshit pop evolutionary psychology used in order to rationalize his libertarianism.[7] The book is also considered over emotional and insufficiently logical.[8] This has led some to say there are "two Michael Shermers," "skeptical Shermer" and "libertarian Shermer." Others contend he never really stopped drinking the Randroid Kool-Aid. Of course, he has denied these charges.[9]

Initially an "environmental skeptic," Shermer returned to the warm embrace of reality, saying that "data trumps politics."[10]

Shermer argued that science denialism exists equally on the left as on the right. Chris Mooney took issue with this in two articles that Mother Jones published. Mooney has shown that, for example trying to include unscientific ideas in mainstream education is a problem among Republicans rather than Democrats. Higher proportions of Republicans believe creationism and global warming denialism than do Democrats. Vaccine denialism and suspicion of genetically modified food affect Republicans and Democrats equally. Mooney cites Michele Bachmann and Donald Trump as prominent conservative vaccine skeptics. Decades of research show that conservatives tend more to resist new ideas and have a greater need for beliefs which they subjectively feel are unchanging and certain.[11][12] Science by contrast frequently challenges traditions previously considered certain. Just 6% of American Association for the Advancement of Science members are Republicans.[13] [14] Rebecca Watson also disagrees with Shermer over this.[15]

One of Shermer's longstanding opponents in the skeptic community has been PZ Myers, who wrote several blog posts personally critical of Shermer, arguing that he was egotistical,[16] sexist,[17] and irrational.[18]

In March 2016 Shermer seemed to endorse Donald Trump for president of the U.S.,[19] Later Shermer corrected himself and admitted he gave disproportionate credence to, "snippets from an interview". He just "liked some aspects of Trump (...) [Shermer has] since grown concerned about some of Trump’s other positions, however (...) [Shermer is] not publicly endorsing anyone".[20] This serves to underscore the fact that Shermer, not unlike any intelligent human being, is at great risk of sometimes being swayed rather much by his emotions.[21]

Spooky radio[edit]

For those lacking a fundamental comprehension of how science works, the siren song of pseudoscience becomes too alluring to resist, no matter how smart you are.
—Michael Shermer[22]

Shermer wrote how in 2014, he tried unsuccessfully to restore a transistor radio that had belonged to the deceased grandfather of his new wife and among other things, installed fresh batteries. He stashed it in their bedroom, located at the back of their home. Three months later, the radio "inexplicably" started playing just when his wife needed grandfatherly reassurance. This mysterious event 'shook [Shermer's] skepticism', he appeared to hint that he was "keeping an open mind" about the possibility of supernatural influence.[23] Later Shermer seemed to backpedal by rejecting the supernatural and reaffirming his skepticism.[24]

Did Michael Shermer weigh up the evidence carefully and follow the scientific method over the radio? Below are some points that he could do well to consider.

Explanations[edit]

To vintage electronics geeks, old transistor radios with "intermittent" circuits are no mystery at all. Varying humidity, temperature and mechanical movement on old copper contacts found in switches and battery compartments, as well as the effect of aging capacitors and resistors on circuits, are well-known causes of maddeningly intermittent functionality. Tiny temperature-induced contractions or expansions of small metal or plastic parts over time can cause otherwise dead circuits to come to life suddenly.[25][26] Yet, to the uninitiated, this well-understood but arcane electronic quirk resembles magic.

  1. But what about the spooky timing of this one? Again, there is a boringly conventional explanation. According to Shermer's account, he and his wife would not have discovered the radio playing had they not retreated to the bedroom located at the back of the house where the radio was stored. Equipped with fresh batteries and left "on"[27] with the volume slightly turned up, Shermer's radio had very likely already been playing by itself, probably during rising daytime temperatures, but not when anyone was nearby to hear it. That the Shermers happened to first discover the radio playing at a particularly emotional moment was a remarkable coincidence, but well within the realm of pure chance. [28]
  2. But what about the spooky way the radio happened to be tuned to a station playing a "love song"? [27] Since the subject of love and relationships literally dominates popular music, it isn't at all unusual for a radio station to be playing a song about love.[29]
  3. It is possible to speculate that the radio could have been altered, for example modern components could have been put into the casing of the 1970's radio so a remote signal could start it. However, the coordination of a small-scale conspiracy involving costly parts and services by an electronics technician seems unlikely (except to those who feel Shermer would spare no effort to accomplish evil to prevent his new wife feeling bad about him).

Jerry Coyne regrets that Shermer made no attempt to get more evidence, for example by looking into the radio. Coyne further reprints a post which includes, "It would be mildly interesting to have an electronics expert determine exactly what is wrong with the radio."[30] Since Shermer and his wife did not provide the radio for investigation we will quite likely never know if there was more to it than a 1970's vintage radio.

Readers are left to apply Occam's razor (remember, make the minimum necessary assumptions!) Which is more likely?

  1. That the story we have been told is not complete, i.e. Shermer deliberately held something back, or it is not fully accurate i.e. Shermer lied about some detail. Possibly he felt guilty about accusations of sexual misconduct or feared their effect on his new wife. So he secretly engineered a technologically complex illusion that would emotionally bond his new wife to him.
  2. That the radio was not entirely the way it seemed, i.e. it was covertly modified to be more technologically advanced by multiple conspirators at CFI who took part in a coordinated illusion in order to ensure Shermer would stick with his new wife and avoid sexual misconduct that might cause them further embarrassment.
  3. That the 1st Law of Thermodynamics is wrong and spooky things really happen like the dead communicating with the living through some unknown but very powerful force.
  4. That it all was just a remarkable coincidence.

Readers are invited to answer this for themselves.

Books[edit]

Published works include

  • The Believing Brain This has similar but not identical material to RationalWiki articles: "List of cognitive biases", "Argument from authority", "Confirmation bias", "Groupthink" etc. Shermer values the scientific method and peer review for limiting bias and recognises that scientists are not immune.[31]
  • The Mind of the Market – on evolutionary economics, whatever that is
  • Why Darwin Matters: Evolution and the Case Against Intelligent Design – about evolution, evidence for evolution and ways of testing the theory
  • Science Friction: Where the Known Meets the Unknown – how thinking works and goes wrong
  • The Science of Good and Evil: Why People Cheat, Gossip, Share Care, and Follow the Golden Rule – How morality evolved and being moral without religious belief
  • In Darwin’s Shadow – on Alfred Russel Wallace who also discovered natural selection.
  • The Borderlands of Science – what is not clearly science or pseudoscience
  • Denying Historyholocaust denial and more pseudohistory
  • How We Believe: Science, Skepticism, and the Search for God – This is Shermer’s theory about the origin and reasons for religious belief.
  • Why People Believe Weird Things – on pseudoscience, superstitions, and other contemporary confusion
  • The Soul of Science – co-edited (with Pat Linse and ) about belief on science the soul and afterlife
  • The Skeptic Encyclopedia of Pseudoscience – analyzing supposedly scientific controversies[32]

Quotes[edit]

Shermer as a scientist[edit]

Shermer has been accused of overlooking important evidence in his attempt to analyze a large find of 'homo naledi' bones in a cave. He suggested murder or sacrifice. John Hawkes suspects Shermer failed to read the published work carefully as there is no evidence of violence in the bones. Hawkes suspects Shermer's copious study of the dark side of human nature led him to overlook other possible explanations for the bones being in that cave[34] and PZ Myers wonders why the Scientific American keeps him as a columnist.[35]

See also[edit]

External links[edit]

References[edit]

  1. A sceptical take on Michael Shermer
  2. Michael Shermer Interview
  3. Why People Believe Weird Things
  4. Cycling: Endurance and Speed (Sportsperformance)
  5. MichaelShermer.com
  6. http://articles.latimes.com/2008/jul/22/opinion/oe-shermer22
  7. Massimo Pigliucci's beef with Shermer, Skeptic's Dictionary review of Mind of the Market
  8. Review Of Michael Shermer’s The Mind Of The Market by Dan Schneider, 11/22/07
  9. How I Became a Libertarian
  10. The Flipping Point
  11. Van Hiel, A., Kossowska, M., & Mervielde, I. (2000). The relationship between openness to experience and political ideology. Personality and Individual Differences, 28(4), 741-751. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0191-8869(99)00135-X
  12. Gerber, A. S., Huber, G. A., Doherty, D., Dowling, C. M., & Ha, S. E. (2010). Personality and political attitudes: Relationships across issue domains and political contexts. American Political Science Review, 104(1), 111-133. http://doi.org/10.1017/S0003055410000031
  13. There's No Such Thing As the Liberal War on Science
  14. Stop Pretending That Liberals Are Just As Anti-Science As Conservatives
  15. Is There a Liberal War on Science?
  16. The delicate ego of Michael Shermer
  17. An experiment, why do you despise feminism
  18. Shermer's false equivalencies
  19. Michael Shermer Supports Trump, Because Skepticism is a Joke
  20. Michael Shermer: I’m Not Endorsing Donald Trump http://www.patheos.com
  21. His motions swayed him, especially on the dance floor
  22. MichaelShermer.com - Smart People Believe Weird Things
  23. I just witnessed an event so mysterious that it shook my skepticism
  24. Do Anomalies Prove the Existence of God?
  25. UK Vintage Radio Repair and Restoration Lots of reasons radios play or don't play by themselves. Notice how it's never caused by a ghost?
  26. Is Michael Shermer becoming a believer??
  27. 27.0 27.1 Do Anomalies Prove the Existence of God?
  28. For how people come to imagine there is agency behind something like an old radio turning itself on see The pattern behind self-deception. That has a very good explanation which Shermer could do well to note.
  29. Love still dominates pop song lyrics, but with raunchier language
  30. Shermer has a woo experience, admits there may be something to it
  31. The Believing Brain: Why Science Is the Only Way Out of Belief-Dependent Realism
  32. [1]
  33. 33.0 33.1 Taking life with a grain of salt
  34. Michael Shermer: Murdering the facts about Homo naledi?
  35. Read the paper, Shermer