This interview was conducted during Dr. Shermer’s visit to Nebraska Wesleyan University on October 28, 2010. He was the invited speaker for the annual Fawl Psychology lecture, which is held in honor of former NWU Psychology Professor, Dr. Cliff Fawl. We thank Dr. Shermer for allowing time in his schedule for this interview.
Student: Thank you for allowing us to conduct the interview this morning. Could you start with some facts about yourself?
Shermer: I am the Executive Director of the Skeptics Society, a monthly columnist for Scientific American and the publisher of Skeptic Magazine. The last magazine I mentioned investigates paranormal claims and fringe science among leading experts while promoting critical thinking. I am a science educator and researcher on belief systems. We question why people will believe in almost anything.
Student: When did you decide to start publishing Skeptic Magazine, pursuing that route instead of education or research?
Shermer: In the past, I was teaching at Occidental College full time. I had just earned my doctorate in the history of science from Claremont Graduate University (CA) and started a lecture series at Cal Tech on Skeptical type topics: science, pseudoscience, and other related topics. At that time, it was simply a hobby, but it started growing over the years. We started the magazine in 1992, and I started doing it full time around 1998. My first book was Why People Believe Weird Things, and that was in 1997, which gave me the impetus to write more books and run the society as a full-time job. So that’s my day job now. I also teach one class a year for doctoral students at Claremont Graduate University called evolution economics and the brain.
Student: When did you become a skeptic? When did you start questioning everything?
Shermer: When I was a psychology student, there was an interest in the paranormal in some psychology circles. The one person who made me question what people are capable of doing in regards to the paranormal was Uri Geller (an Israeli psychic). Geller claimed he could bend spoons with his mental powers and received quite a bit of attention in the 1970’s. Geller was on the cover of magazines and made his way onto popular television shows. Then, I saw the former magician, James Randi (The Amazing Randi), basically replicate Uri Geller’s abilities using magic tricks. At first, with Uri Geller, I thought there might be something to it. But then when I saw Randi doing his tricks, I started questioning the validity of what Geller claimed to be true. The point Randi wanted to make was that scientists are not trained to detect intentional deception on the part of their subjects. Randi theorized that scientists would not be able to differentiate between deception and truth. For example, when Randi sent a few kids as trained magicians into paranormal laboratories, they fooled the scientists consistently. The students were told by Randi, "If they ever ask you, ‘Are you doing these things with tricks?’ you are to say ‘yes, I am,’ but the scientists never asked.
Student: Speaking of superstitions such as the paranormal, why do people believe in weird things even after they've been disproven?
Shermer: Well, first of all, people don’t necessarily educate themselves with the material where pseudo-science is debunked. However, if they do, it is not hard for individuals to rationalize their way around the facts. Individuals who continue to believe weird things find the devices that reinforce those beliefs and only focus on those small pieces.
Student: Is there a reason people are so captivated by wanting to prove pseudo-science, such as magic or ghosts?
Shermer: Yes, this is probably related to a sense that there is something else out there, a nonphysical, an extension of our bodies, or a sort of a dualism. I think many individuals assume there is not just brain, but mind; not just body, but soul. So all these kinds of claims (out of body experiences, near death experiences, psychics, ESP, etc.), are ideas about there being something else, something that extends beyond me. The answer is that many pseudo-sciences portray themselves as the answer to that something else.
Student: When a theory is formed, pseudo-science or not, how many holes have to be poked in the theory before the public can say that theory doesn't hold?
Shermer: There’s no formula. There will always be the residue of unexplained anomalies in any theory of science. For example, no theory of economics explains everything, and no theory of science explains everything. The fact that there are anomalies does not mean the theory is invalid. Conspiracy theories must bring factual evidence to support their claim. Theories have to stand or fall on their own, with evidence, in favor of their theory, not just against the other theory. Conspiracy theorists use circular reasoning and negative evidence. The best example of this is UFO conspiracies: they do not provide any positive evidence. For example, when asked how they can prove the existence of UFOs they say, " I can’t because the government covered it up.” I ask "Where’s the evidence for that?” An individual cannot prove a theory by saying that the same theory was covered up. Just like an individual cannot prove a theory by disproving the opposing theory.
Student: Thinking about how theories are formed, do you have any advice
on how we should look at the world or do research?
Shermer: I guess in general, there is the whole skeptical movement as advised in Skeptic Magazine and others. There’s quite a bit of research now about how the brain works in terms of fooling yourself and being fooled. So, look for alternative explanations and look for parsimonious explanations the—simplest answer. For example, how do you explain near death experiences? How do you explain big-foot sightings or UFO and alien abductions? They could be supernatural events, or they could be caused by natural phenomena. Try to find the natural explanations first before you leap to conclusions like, "it’s unexplained or supernatural.” I like to say, before saying that some phenomena is out of this world, make certain it is not in this world.
Student: What would you say to someone being skeptical
of the skeptic or questioning why some pseudoscience is not viable?
Shermer: We should be skeptical of the skeptics, we should be skeptical of everything: it should not be any other way. That’s what science is: skepticism. Skepticism is not a special thing, it is just what scientists do and should do. So, science, by nature, is skeptical simply because there are so many wrong ideas. Scientists have to be conservative and assume that your claim is not true. In science, we look at the null hypothesis: we assume that your hypothesis is not true and it probably isn’t. Go ahead and run the experiments, let’s see if we can find evidence for it and we’ll see. Keep an open mind, but most likely it’s not true. Most claims are not.
Student: What do you think our future is in terms of critical thinking?
Shermer: The Internet has and will continue to be a significant influence on our thinking. The Internet is like an impressive text book: it’s good and it’s bad. It’s good in that we can have instant access to information, but that allows the quacks to promote their quackery much easier, cheaper, and it is made more available. September 11 conspiracy movements are completely Internet-driven because of that ease of access. There’s a movie called Loose Change that promotes that the events of September 11 were the result of a government conspiracy. People watch this movie and are impressed. However, there’s nothing to it, because somebody just cleverly used Apple software to make a movie. But on the other side, we don’t want to practice censorship, right? And so we just have to combat bad ideas with good ideas.
Student: Is there any career advice you would give to psychology students?
Shermer: It’s a tough job market now in the recession, but I think the sciences will be crucial: it’s where the economic power will be for countries. I’m glad Obama is pushing through more funding for science education. I think the brain sciences (i.e., neuroscience) are the most exciting area to study, personally. Behavioral psychology is important, but we now have some very sophisticated research tools to get inside the ‘"black box”’ such as PET, MRI, and fMRI brain scans. It’s really very exciting to see what’s going on inside the human brain; I think that is a good area to go into.