Collected essays from bestselling author Michael Shermer's celebrated columns in Scientific American
For fifteen years, bestselling author Michael Shermer has written a column in Scientific American magazine that synthesizes scientific concepts and theory for a general audience. His trademark combination of deep scientific understanding and entertaining writing style has thrilled his huge and devoted audience for years. Now, in Skeptic, seventy-five of these columns are available together for the first time; a welcome addition for his fans and a stimulating introduction for new readers.
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About the Author
Michael Shermer is the author of The Moral Arc, Why People Believe Weird Things, The Believing Brain, and several other books on the evolution of human beliefs and behavior. He is the founding publisher of Skeptic magazine, the editor of Skeptic.com, a monthly columnist for Scientific American, and Presidential Fellow at Chapman University. He lives in Southern California.
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Viewing the World With a Rational Eye
By Michael Shermer
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 2016 Michael Shermer
All rights reserved.
Colorful Pebbles and Darwin's Dictum
Science is an exquisite blend of data and theory
In 1861, less than two years after the publication of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species, in a session before the British Association for the Advancement of Science a critic claimed that Darwin's book was too theoretical and that he should have just "put his facts before us and let them rest." In a letter to his friend Henry Fawcett, who was in attendance in his defense, Darwin explained the proper relationship between facts and theory:
About thirty years ago there was much talk that geologists ought only to observe and not theorize; and I well remember someone saying that at this rate a man might as well go into a gravel-pit and count the pebbles and describe the colours. How odd it is that anyone should not see that all observation must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service!
There are few thinkers in Western history with more profound insights into nature than Charles Darwin, but for my money this is one of the deepest single statements ever made on the nature of science itself, particularly in the understated denouement. If scientific observations are to be of any use, they must be tested against a theory, hypothesis, or model. The facts never just speak for themselves, but must be interpreted through the colored lenses of ideas — percepts need concepts.
When Louis and Mary Leakey went to Africa in search of our hominid ancestors, they did so not based on any existing data, but on Darwin's theory of human descent and his argument that because we are so obviously closely related to the great apes, and the great apes live in Africa, it is here that the fossil remains of our forebears would most likely be found. In other words, the Leakeys went to Africa because of a concept, not a percept. The data followed and confirmed this theory, the very opposite of the way we usually think of science working.
If there is to be an underlying theme in this column — a substrate beneath the surface topography (to continue the geological metaphor) — it is that science is an exquisite blend of data and theory, facts and hypotheses, observations and views. If we think of science as a fluid and dynamic way of thinking instead of a staid and dogmatic body of knowledge, it is clear that the data/theory stratum runs throughout the archaeology of human knowledge and is an inexorable part of the scientific process. We can no more expunge ourselves of biases and preferences than we can find a truly objective Archimedean point — a God's eye view — of the human condition. We are, after all, humans, not gods.
In the first half of the twentieth century philosophers and historians of science (mostly professional scientists doing philosophy and history on the side) presented science as a progressive march toward a complete understanding of Reality — an asymptotic curve to Truth — with each participant adding a few bricks to the edifice of Knowledge. It was only a matter of time before physics (and eventually even the social sciences) would be rounding out their equations to the sixth decimal place. In the second half of the twentieth century professional philosophers and historians took over the profession and, swept up in a paroxysm of postmodern deconstruction, proffered a view of science as a relativistic game played by European white males in a reductionistic frenzy of hermeneutical hegemony, hell bent on suppressing the masses beneath the thumb of dialectical scientism and technocracy. (Yes, some of them actually talk like that, and one really did call Newton's Principia a "rape manual.")
Thankfully, intellectual trends, like social movements, have a tendency to push both ends to the middle, and these two extremist views of science are now largely passé. Physics is nowhere near that noble dream of explaining everything to six decimal places, and as for the social sciences, as a friend from New Jersey says, "fuhgeddaboudit." Yet there is progress in science, and some views really are superior to others, regardless of the color, gender, or country of origin of the scientist holding that view. Despite the fact that scientific data are "theory laden," as philosophers like to say, science is truly different from art, music, religion, and other forms of human expression because it has a self-correcting mechanism built into it. If you don't catch the flaws in your theory, the slant in your bias, or the distortion in your preferences, someone else will. Think of N-Rays and E-Rays, polywater and the polygraph. The history of science is littered with the debris of downed theories.
In future columns we will be exploring these borderlands of science where theory and data intersect. As we do so, let us continue to bear in mind what I call Darwin's Dictum: all observation must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service.CHAPTER 2
Contrasts and Continuities
Eastern and Western science are put to political uses in both cultures
In the fifth century BC, Siddhartha Gautama — better known to us as the Buddha — extolled the virtues of enlightenment through a middle path between extremes:
Avoiding the two extremes the Buddha has gained the enlightenment of the Middle Path, which produces insight and knowledge, and tends to calm, higher knowledge, enlightenment, Nirvana. This is the noble Eightfold Way: namely, right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.
Twenty-five centuries later the physicist Murray Gell-Mann constructed a subatomic model he playfully called the Eightfold Way, because it consisted of eight particles with eight possible rotations. It was a joke, he told a Caltech audience in a lecture, "Quantum Mechanics and Flapdoodle," that I attended, referring to the New Age fiddle-faddle about his theory presented in books whose authors didn't get the humor and thus constructed elaborate and imaginary links between Eastern mysticism and Western science. Such comparisons do tug at one's inner sense that the continuities between Eastern and Western worldviews should reflect some deeper structure, but is it really possible (in an analogy with the "uncertainty principle" in quantum mechanics) that the orbit of Mars, like the orbit of an electron, is scattered randomly around the sun until someone observes it, at which point the wave function collapses and it appears in one spot? No. Quantum effects wash out at large scales. Microcosms do not correspond to macrocosms. And the vague similarities between Eastern and Western models are the result of the fact that there are only so many variations on explanations of the world and, by chance, some are bound to resemble each other.
I was struck by such East-West contrasts and continuities on several levels during a recent trip to Beijing for the International Conference on Science Communication (which for much of China means such scientific basics as birth control, depicted in the natural history museum so graphically that captions, which I could not read, were not necessary). Held at the Chinese Association for Science and Technology in a sleek modern downtown high-rise, it was ironic that the overhead, slide, video, and PowerPoint projectors routinely broke down. Throughout the city bicycles far outnumber cars, buses, and taxis, while businessmen and -women, before cycling to their jobs in this rapidly developing technological society, flock to city parks to perform tai chi, the ancient art of adjusting one's spiritual energy.
Even at tourist attractions such contrasts abound. A tour of the Great Hall of the People at Tian'anmen Square (communism at its worst) forces visitors to exit through a basement filled with kitsch and crafts of the tackiest sort (capitalism at its worst). The Museum of Science and Technology featured an old and faded IMAX film (The Dream Is Alive) projected onto a water-stained, chipped-tiled ceiling; and a fabulously clever pneumatic bed of nails would have demonstrated the harmless distribution of mass over many points ... if only it worked. Even in the Forbidden City — where emperors and empresses, concubines and eunuchs, palanquins and peons roamed for five centuries — there could not have been a more striking contraposition in the only store I found in the palace interior: a Starbucks! Of course I had to imbibe.
For my yuan (eight to a dollar), however, the finest example of contrast and continuity was the Ancient Beijing Observatory, built in 1442 for the sixth Ming dynasty emperor, Zhengtong. Located on the main east-west corridor of the city (itself laid out according to celestial coordinates) on the roof of what was once a tallish building, this observatory contains a sextant, theodolite, quadrant, altazimuth, several armillae, and a celestial globe, allowing Chinese astronomers to track the motion of planetary bodies, record eclipses and comets, and mark the location of the Milky Way galaxy and the constellations. This was the Keck Observatory of its age, measuring, for example, the length of the solar year at 365.2425 days, off by only 26 seconds. Its beautifully crafted bronze instruments stand in stark contrast to the steel girders and scaffolding that abound in high-rises going up faster than McDonald's.
A closer examination of these astronomical instruments, however, reveals interesting contrasts through several East-West continuities. The rings of the armillary sphere, for example, are divided into 360 degrees — a European tradition adopted from Mesopotamian geometry — instead of 365.25 daily segments found in pure Chinese instruments. The celestial globe presents the Milky Way galaxy in dimpled metal cutting a swath across the globe, while rough cut metallica stars explode from the surface marking a most familiar constellation, Orion, with the three unmistakable belt stars pointing to Sirius, the brightest star in the sky, the large upper corner star marking the red giant Betelgeuse, and its diagonal opposite representing Rigel. I could even find the Orion Nebula represented as the middle of three small stars just below the belt.
But then I noticed that something was amiss in the globe. Orion is backward. Betelgeuse should be in the upper left corner of the constellation, not the right, and Sirius should be to the left of the belt stars. Then I realized that the sky is inside out. According to archaeoastronomer Ed Krupp, all celestial globes are constructed from "the transcendental eye's view" of an outsider looking in. It turns out that this celestial globe (along with the rest of the instruments) was built in 1673 (during the Qing Dynasty) by a Belgian Jesuit named Ferdinand Verbiest (for measuring the altitudes and azimuths of celestial bodies), and, in Krupp's words, "blends a clearly Western pedigree with representations of traditional Chinese constellations."
The deeper purpose of this observatory reveals one final contrast and continuity of East and West, old and new. Such celestial precision was not needed for any scientific reasons in these early centuries. Rather, as Krupp explains in his insightful book on the politics of astronomy, Skywatchers, Shamans, and Kings, "as a truthful mirror of nature, astronomy was official business, a tool in the service of the social and political agenda of the state." Astronomical accuracy was "celestial certification of imperial power." The emperor was supposed to be the son of the celestial god Shang-di, and thus state-sponsored astronomy validated his link to the highest order and solidified the connection he represented between Heaven and Earth, sacred and profane, macrocosm and microcosm. China was the "middle land," the center of the world, with the Tian'anmen "Gate of Heavenly Peace" leading into the Forbidden City (itself aligned by the cardinal directions), followed by the "Hall of Supreme Harmony" due north on the cosmic axis, where the emperor held audiences to announce the calendar, New Year, and winter solstice.
In parallel fashion, during the conference on science communication a delegation of representatives of both Chinese and American scientific organizations had an audience with the vice premier of the State Department, which amounted to little more than a bureaucratic formality of tea and polite dialogue. As we sat patiently listening to the translation I was struck by the symbolism of the act: because science is now the royal road to reality, and communicating science is the connection between the sacred and the profane in a secular scientific society, it must be part of official state business — a certification of political power — be it monarchical Europe and imperial China, or capitalist America and Communist China. While some East-West comparisons, such as the Eightfold Way of physics, are chimerical, others are not, particularly those of a political nature, for as another ancient philosopher, this one from the West, observed, "Man is by nature a political animal."CHAPTER 3
I Was Wrong
Those three words often separate the scientific pros from the posers
My friend James Randi speculates — with only partial facetiousness — that when one receives a PhD a chemical is secreted from the diploma parchment that enters the brain and prevents the recipient from ever again saying "I don't know" and "I was wrong." I don't know if this happens to all PhDs, but as one counterexample I hereby confess that in my column on Chinese science in the July 2001 issue of Scientific American I was wrong in my conversion of Chinese yuan as eighty to the dollar (it is eight, as is noted in chapter 2 of this book). Even though I had just visited Beijing and had a Chinese colleague read the essay, the mistake still slipped through. Fortunately there was no dearth of readers who called my attention to it.
More serious was a statement I made in the June 2001 issue about the Fox program claiming that the moon landing was hoaxed. I said that the reason there was no rocket exhaust from the lunar lander is that there is no atmosphere on the moon. I was partially wrong. The lack of an atmosphere plays a minor role; the main reason is that the LEM engine used hypergolic propellants (dinitrogen tetroxide and Aerozine 50) that ignite upon contact and burn very cleanly (compare the space shuttle's nearly invisible rocket flame to the very visible solid rocket boosters' exhaust plume). Again, readers were kind enough to provide constructive criticism.
This process of critical feedback is the lifeblood of science, as is the willingness (however begrudgingly) to say "I was wrong" in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. It does not matter who you are or how important you think your idea is, if it is contradicted by the evidence it is wrong. (Of course, if your name is Einstein, Feynman, or Pauling you may initially receive a more favorable hearing, but as Hollywood pundits say about the extensive studio promotion of a film, that will only buy you a week — after that it stands or falls on its own merits.) By contrast, pseudoscientists typically eschew the peer-review process to avoid the inevitable critical commentary that is an integral part of healthy science. Consider, for example, Immanuel Velikovsky's controversial theory about planetary collisions first proffered in 1950. Velikovsky was not a scientist and he rejected the peer review process after submitting a paper to the prestigious journal Science. "My [paper] was returned for rewriting after one or two reviewers took issue with my statement that the lower atmosphere of Venus is oxidizing. I had an easy answer to make ... but I grew tired of the prospect of negotiating and rewriting."
Nearly a quarter of a century later, after a special session devoted to his theory was organized by Carl Sagan at the 1974 AAAS meeting, Velikovsky boasted that "my Worlds in Collision, as well as Earth in Upheaval, do not require any revisions, whereas all books on terrestrial and celestial science of 1950 need complete rewriting ... and nobody can change a single sentence in my books." The unwillingness to submit to peer review and the inability to admit error are antitheses of good science.
A splendid example of honorable science can be found in the May 11, 2001, issue of Science, in the report "African Origin of Modern Humans in East Asia." A team of Chinese and American geneticists sampled 12,127 men from 163 Asian and Oceanic populations, tracking three genetic markers on the Y chromosome. What they discovered was that every one of their subjects carried a mutation at one of these three sites that can be traced back to a single African population some thirty-five thousand to eighty-nine thousand years ago. Their modestly worded conclusion that "the data do not support even a minimal in situ hominid contribution in the origin of anatomically modern humans in East Asia" is, in fact, a major victory for the "out of Africa" hypothesis that suggests all modern people can trace their heritage to Africa. It is also a significant blow against the "Multiregional" hypothesis that argues modern human populations had multiple origins dating back many hundreds of thousands of years. The finding corroborates earlier mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) studies, the fossil record, and a remarkable discovery that Neanderthal DNA shows no signs of interbreeding with humans living contemporaneously.
Excerpted from Skeptic by Michael Shermer. Copyright © 2016 Michael Shermer. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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Table of Contents
Introduction: Viewing the World with a Rational Eye
1. Colorful Pebbles and Darwin's Dictum: Science is an exquisite blend of data and theory
2. Contrasts and Continuities: Eastern and Western science are put to political uses in both cultures
3. I Was Wrong: Those three words often separate the scientific pros from the posers
4. The Shamans of Scientism: On the occasion of Stephen W. Hawking's sixtieth trip around the sun, we consider a social phenomenon that reveals something deep about human nature
5. The Physicist and the Abalone Diver: The differences between the creators of two new theories of science reveal the social nature of the scientific process
6. A Candle in the Dark: Instead of cursing the darkness of pseudoscience on television, light a candle with Cable Science Network
7. The Feynman-Tufte Principle: A visual display of data should be simple enough to fit on the side of a van
8. The Flipping Point: How the evidence for anthropogenic global warming has converged to cause this environmental skeptic to make a cognitive flip
9. Fake, Mistake, Replicate: A court of law may determine the meaning of replication in science
10. Wronger Than Wrong: Not all wrong theories are equal
11. Fox's Flapdoodle: Tabloid television offers a lesson in uncritical thinking
12. Baloney Detection: How to draw boundaries between science and pseudoscience, Part I
13. More Baloney Detection: How to draw boundaries between science and pseudoscience, Part II
14. Hermits and Cranks: Fifty years ago Martin Gardner launched the modern skeptical movement. Unfortunately, much of what he wrote about is still current today
15. Skepticism as a Virtue: An inquiry into the original meaning of the word "skeptic"
16. The Exquisite Balance: Science helps us understand the essential tension between orthodoxy and heresy in science
17. The Enchanted Glass: Francis Bacon and experimental psychologists show why the facts in science never just speak for themselves
18. Fahrenheit 2777: 9/11 has generated the mother of all conspiracy theories
III. Pseudoscience and Quackery
19. Smart People Believe Weird Things: Rarely does anyone weigh facts before deciding what to believe
20. Mesmerized by Magnetism: An eighteenth-century investigation into mesmerism shows us how to think about twenty-first-century therapeutic magnets
21. Show Me the Body: Purported sightings of Bigfoot, Nessie, and Ogopogo fire our imaginations. But anecdotes alone do not make a science
22. What's the Harm?: Alternative medicine is not everything to gain and nothing to lose
23. Bunkum!: Broad-mindedness is a virtue when investigating extraordinary claims, but often they turn out to be pure bunk
24. Magic Water and Mencken's Maxim: Social critic H. L. Mencken offers a lesson on how to respond to outrageous pseudoscientific claims
25. Death by Theory: Attachment therapy is based on a pseudoscientific theory that, when put into practice, can be deadly
26. Cures and Cons: Natural scams "he" doesn't want you to know about
IV. The Paranormal and the Supernatural
27. Deconstructing the Dead: "Crossing over" to expose the tricks of popular spirit mediums
28. Psychic Drift: Why most scientists do not believe in ESP and psi phenomena
29. Demon-Haunted Brain: If the brain mediates all experience, then paranormal phenomena are nothing more than neuronal events
30. Codified Claptrap: The Bible code is numerological nonsense masquerading as science
31. The Myth Is the Message: Yet another discovery of the lost continent of Atlantis shows why science and myth make uneasy bedfellows
32. Turn Me On, Dead Man: What do the Beatles, the Virgin Mary, Jesus, Patricia Arquette, and Michael Keaton all have in common?
33. Rupert's Resonance: The theory of "morphic resonance" posits that people have a sense of when they are being stared at. What does the research show?
34. Mr. Skeptic Goes to Esalen: Science and spirituality on the California coast
V. Aliens and UFOs
35. Shermer's Last Law: Any sufficiently advanced extraterrestrial intelligence is indistinguishable from God
36. Why ET Has Not Phoned In: The lifetime of civilizations in the Drake equation for estimating extraterrestrial intelligences is greatly exaggerated
37. The Chronology Conjecture Projector: Time machines, extraterrestrials, and the paradoxes of causality
38. Abducted!: Imaginary traumas are as terrifying as the real thing
VI. Borderlands Science and Alternative Medicine
39. Nano Nonsense and Cryonics: True believers seek redemption from the sin of death
40. I, Clone: The Three Laws of Cloning will protect clones and advance science
41. Bottled Twaddle: Is bottled water tapped out?
42. Quantum Quackery: A surprise-hit film has renewed interest in applying quantum mechanics to consciousness, spirituality, and human potential
43. Hope Springs Eternal: Can nutritional supplements, biotechnology, and nanotechnology help us live forever?
44. Full of Holes: The curious case of acupuncture
45. Airborne Baloney: The latest fad in cold remedies is full of hot air
46. Eat, Drink, and Be Merry: Or why we should learn to stop worrying and love food
VII. Psychology and the Brain
47. The Captain Kirk Principle: Intuition is the key to knowing without knowing how you know
48. None So Blind: Perceptual-blindness experiments challenge the validity of eyewitness testimony and the metaphor of memory as a video recording
49. Common Sense: Surprising new research shows that crowds are often smarter than individuals
50. Murdercide: Science unravels the myth of suicide bombers
51. As Luck Would Have It: Are some people really luckier than others, or is it all in their heads? Both
52. SHAM Scam: The Self-Help and Actualization Movement is an $8.5-billion-a-year business. Does it work?
53. The Political Brain: A recent brain-imaging study shows that our political predilections are products of unconscious confirmation bias
54. Folk Science: Why our intuitions about how the world works are often wrong
55. Free to Choose: The neuroscience of choice exposes the power of ideas
56. Bush's Mistake and Kennedy's Error: Self-deception proves itself to be more powerful than deception
VIII. Human Nature
57. The Erotic-Fierce People: The latest skirmish in the "anthropology wars" reveals a fundamental flaw in how science is understood and communicated
58. The Ignoble Savage: Science reveals humanity's heart of darkness
59. The Domesticated Savage: Science reveals a way to rise above our natures
60. A Bounty of Science: A new book reexamines the mutiny on the Bounty, but science offers a deeper account of its cause
61. Unweaving the Heart: Science only adds to our appreciation for poetic beauty and experiences of emotional depth
62. (Can't Get No) Satisfaction: The new science of happiness needs some historical perspective
IX. Evolution and Creationism
63. The Gradual Illumination of the Mind: The advance of science, not the demotion of religion, will best counter the influence of creationism
64. Vox Populi: The voice of the people reveals why evolution remains controversial
65. The Fossil Fallacy: Creationists' demand for "just one transitional fossil" reveals a deep misunderstanding of science
66. Rumsfeld's Wisdom: Where the known meets the unknown is where science begins
67. It's Dogged as Does It: Retracing Darwin's footsteps in the Galápagos shatters a myth but reveals how revolutions in science actually evolve
68. Darwin on the Right: Why Christians and conservatives should accept evolution
X. Science, Religion, Miracles, and God
69. Digits and Fidgets: Is the universe fine-tuned for life?
70. Remember the 6 Billion: For millennia we have raged against the dying of the light. Can science save us from that good night?
71. God's Number Is Up: Among a heap of books claiming that science proves God's existence emerges one that computes a probability of 67 percent
72. Miracle on Probability Street: The Law of Large Numbers guarantees that one-in-a-million miracles happen 321 times a day in America
73. Mustangs and Monists: The dualist belief that body and soul are separate entities is natural, intuitive, and with us from infancy. It is also very probably wrong
74. Flying Carpets and Scientific Prayer: Scientific experiments claiming that distant intercessory prayer produces salubrious effects are deeply flawed
75. Bowling for God: Is religion good for society? Science's definitive answer: it depends