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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 deny global warming 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]

Accusations of sexual misconduct[edit]

On August 8, 2013, PZ Myers posted a message on his Pharyngula blog at Freethought Blogs from an unnamed woman later identified as Alison Smith claiming that Michael Shermer had raped her.[22] Smith alleged, "at a conference, Mr. Shermer coerced me into a position where I could not consent, and then had sex with me." She also stated that "I reached out to one organization that was involved in the event at which I was raped, and they refused to take my concerns seriously," that "5 different people have directly told me they did the same to them," and that she was sharing this information in order to warn others. Myers later updated his blog entry with an account from another woman, who claimed that Shermer plied her with drink at an atheist event and "was very flirty."

Double standards[edit]

Assuming the above accusations are correct did Michael Shermer need help to understand the distress involved?[23] Before the PZ Myers grenade exploded Shermer understood the harm rape and adultery causes. He wrote the following in Feb 2013.

How do we know that rape and adultery are wrong? We don’t need to ask God. We need to ask the affected moral agent—the rape victim in question, or our spouse or romantic partner who is being cuckolded. They will let you know instantly and forcefully precisely how they feel morally about that behavior.
—Michael Shermer [24]

Double standard suspected anywhere? Or perhaps the power of wishful thinking enticed him into the conviction that only forcible incidents count as rape.

Reactions[edit]

Bloggers in the atheist/skeptic/feminist community reacted quickly and took sides. It soon became the blogosphere's drama of the week, rehashing many of the divisions endemic in the atheist community since the "Elevatorgate" affair.[25]

Shermer denied any wrongdoing and issued a cease and desist order against Myers, threatening defamation action unless Myers removed the offending blog entry and issued a full retraction and apology.[26]

Shermer got legal funds without asking on a fundraiser page built by Emery Emery, the “Ardent Atheist”.[27] The fundraser included a rape joke with generous contributors offered a bottomless glass of wine, with Emery “who will not be drinking but keeping your glass full.” This was a reminder that one woman complained Shermer repeatedly refilled her glass. Myers also got an offer of legal help from Popehat who is experienced with online libel trouble.[28]

The fundraiser for Michael Shermer’s legal action raised a total of $8,289. Emery Emery stated that Shermer “has no choice” but to sue PZ because the post was still up. By August 9th, 2014 the statute of limitations in California ran out without Shermer suing Myers.[29] As of 2017 the rape allegation is still up.[22][30]

Things blew up after 11-Sept-2014, when NY Times contributor Mark Oppenheimer wrote a very long, detailed highlights-reel on the harassment campaigns being run within the atheist and skeptical movements, including naming three victims of Shermer’s alleged predations. This piece alone contains several bombshells which had not been public before Oppenheimer's article appeared, including:

  • The person in the “Grenade” post by Myers was Alison Smith, a known figure in the skeptical community.
  • Shermer has actively changed his story from what he reported at the time in his rebuttal statement:
    • Original statement: Two unknown people (one with “dreadlocks”) were upset that Shermer was talking with Smith and was preventing them from “getting into her pants”, so they started spreading rumors.
    • Later statement: Shermer and Smith had had sober consensual sex that night, initiated by a cold proposition by Smith in a bathroom.[31] (Shermer admits adultery which he knows harms the cuckolded partner, see above.)
  • Ashley Miller apparently had a several-minute-long conversation with Shermer while he was actively massaging his thing through his jeans, and trying to arrange himself such that she had to see it and notice.
  • James Randi was aware of complaints, and because Shermer wasn’t violent, ignored them:
Shermer has been a bad boy on occasion — I do know that[.] I have told him that if I get many more complaints from people I have reason to believe, that I am going to have to limit his attendance at the conference. His reply, […] is he had a bit too much to drink and he doesn’t remember. I don’t know — I’ve never been drunk in my life. It’s an unfortunate thing … I haven’t seen him doing that. But I get the word from people in the organization that he has to be under better control. If he had gotten violent, I’d have him out of there immediately. I’ve just heard that he misbehaved himself with the women, which I guess is what men do when they are drunk.
James Randi
[32]

Adam Lee accused Randi and others of working to silence Shermer's critics; further, Lee accused some of trying to pressure victims into silence. Lee compared this to Roman Catholic and other religious organizations that seek to cover up other wrongdoing, notably predatory sex by their members. Lee accuses some atheists who condemn religiously motivated coverups while acting similarly of double standards.[33]

Emery Emery gave the money from the fundraiser to Shermer’s lawyers, which, since they didn’t sue Myers, leaves the fate of those funds in question. What did they pay for, and/or how much was returned to Shermer or Emery? Was any returned to the donors?

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[34]

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.[35] Later Shermer seemed to backpedal by rejecting the supernatural and reaffirming his skepticism.[36]

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.[37][38] 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"[39] 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. [40]
  2. But what about the spooky way the radio happened to be tuned to a station playing a "love song"? [39] 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.[41]
  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."[42] 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.[43]
  • 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[44]

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[46] and PZ Myers wonders why the Scientific American keeps him as a columnist.[47]

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. 22.0 22.1 PZ Myers, "What do you do when someone pulls the pin and hands you a grenade?", Pharyngula, August 8, 2013.
  23. The creep list
  24. Towards a Science of Morality
  25. Some examples: [1], [2], [3], [4], [5]
  26. A copy of the cease and desist letter
  27. [6]
  28. [7]
  29. [8]
  30. It does not need psychic power to predict that the grenade is likely to stay up for the foreseeable future.
  31. Smith claims witnesses that she was not sober. Alison Smith clarifies a few matters
  32. As a side note, this might make a good argument against trusting teetotalers and their sense of judgement.
  33. The Wall of Silence Around Michael Shermer
  34. MichaelShermer.com - Smart People Believe Weird Things
  35. I just witnessed an event so mysterious that it shook my skepticism
  36. Do Anomalies Prove the Existence of God?
  37. 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?
  38. Is Michael Shermer becoming a believer??
  39. 39.0 39.1 Do Anomalies Prove the Existence of God?
  40. 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.
  41. Love still dominates pop song lyrics, but with raunchier language
  42. Shermer has a woo experience, admits there may be something to it
  43. The Believing Brain: Why Science Is the Only Way Out of Belief-Dependent Realism
  44. [9]
  45. 45.0 45.1 Taking life with a grain of salt
  46. Michael Shermer: Murdering the facts about Homo naledi?
  47. Read the paper, Shermer