Dr. Michael Shermer
Interview by Logan Kaufman
"Dr. Michael Shermer is the Founding Publisher of Skeptic magazine and the Executive Director of the Skeptics Society...a scientific and educational organization of scholars, scientists, historians, magicians, professors and teachers, and anyone curious about controversial ideas, extraordinary claims, revolutionary ideas, and the promotion of science."1
Dr. Shermer is a prolific speaker and author, having written such books as Science Friction: Where the Known Meets the Unknown; The Science of Good and Evil: Why People Cheat, Gossip, Share Care; and Follow the Golden Rule; Why People Believe Weird Things; How We Believe: Science, Skepticism, and the Search for God; and Teach Your Child Science. He writes regularly for Scientific American, and is host, co-host, producer, lecturer, and correspondent for a variety of media companies throughout the world. In addition to receiving his Ph.D. from Claremont Graduate School in 1991, Dr. Shermer was also educated by Pepperdine University, California State University, twenty years of teaching college, and, eventually, the real world.
1 - From Skeptic.com
Logan: When did you first become what you would consider a skeptic? Was there a defining moment or did your general philosophy evolve with time?
Michael Shermer: No particular defining moment, but an evolution over time of my critical thinking skills, honed by scientific training, applied to more and more topics. With the paranormal, for example, in the 1970s when I was in a graduate program in experimental psychology, I thought that there might be something to ESP, telepathy, and such, because there was a paranormal lab at UCLA run by Thelma Moss, psychics were being tested at labs around the country by Ph.D. psychologists, and Uri Geller was all the rage and had been declared the real deal by some scientists, so I figured there might be something to it since these guys were smarter than me.
Well, then I saw James "The Amazing" Randi on television duplicating everything these psychics could do, but he was doing it with magic tricks, and made the point that scientists are not trained to detect intentional deception on the part of their subjects, and that's when I realized that science is not a perfect system and that scientists can be duped as easily as anyone else.
Logan: Were you always interested in writing?
Michael Shermer: I wanted to be a writer since I was an undergraduate in college, but I was a terrible writer. I was so bad, in fact, that for a psychology course I was taking, the professor had all of us students write two short essays, one well-written and one intentionally poorly written, so that he could attach pictures of attractive or unattractive faces to them to measure the subjective ratings of the essays by subjects, with the idea that attractive people essays would be ranked higher, even if they were poorly written. Well, it turns out that my "well-written" essay got picked by the professor to be one of the intentionally poorly written essays!
Essentially I overcame my lack of training in writing in high school and college by doing what all good writers do: I read the books of good writers, and I wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote. I wrote every chance I had. I practiced the "10,000 hour" rule: if you want to get good at something you need to invest about 10,000 hours at it. By the time I wrote Why People Believe Weird Things (my bestselling book) in 1997, I had already written tons of material, so although it was technically my first science book, I was hardly a rookie writer.
Also, I don't have writer's block. I don't believe in it. I'm a professional, and professionals in other fields don't get blocked. Can you imagine calling a plumber to come to your home to fix your pipes, and he shows up and says "Sorry, I can't fix your pipes, I have Plumber's Block." Or you take your taxes to your accountant, and he says, "Sorry, I can't do your taxes, I have H & R Block"....
Logan: Did you have an idea on what you would be writing, or did you just tend to write what interested you at the time? You've published books on cycling, and of course were once a student of theology...
Michael Shermer: I always wanted to write science books. Science is my passion. What I have been building up to in my series of books is applying science and skepticism to more and more fields. In Why People Believe Weird Things I tackled science and pseudoscience and the nature of belief systems. In How We Believe I explained why people believe in God. In The Science of Good and Evil I explained why we are moral, that is, the evolutionary origins of morality. My next book, tentatively titled Evonomics, is on evolutionary economics, in which I aim to explain the evolutionary origins of trade and commerce and markets and, ultimately, economies, and the evolved psychology of how people behave so irrationally in modern markets. The book after that will deal with Darwinian politics. So as you can see, I'm broadening the scope of my interests.
Logan: What do you think made you want to share your passion in science, versus being someone who just reads and enjoys skeptical and scientific works?
Michael Shermer: I am, first and foremost, a writer and teacher, and that's what we do: share our passion for our subject, which in my case is science. Of course, I am a voracious reader, but that is also part of my research as well as continuing to improve my skills as a writer (good writers read good writers for inspiration and edification). Also, I would like to make the world a better place, and in order to do that I need to reach as many people as possible. As a college professor I could only reach so many people: a couple of dozen to a couple of hundreds students in any given semester. But as a writer and public intellectual making appearances on television, radio, newspapers, magazines, etc., I can reach millions of people with the same message. More people reached means more chances for changing the world.
Logan: How did you go about beginning the Skeptics Society and magazine? I assume these were early outlets to the goal of teaching a wider audience?
Michael Shermer: The society and magazine were nothing more than a side hobby to start, just something fun to do on the side while I was teaching full time and pursuing a career as an academic. There was no plan to make this a career, but eventually it got big enough that I had the opportunity to leave the comforting womb of the ivory tower and go into the real world to make a difference. This was the best thing I could have done because academics live in a very isolated and protected world. Most of them haven't a clue what it is like to live and work in the real world. A typical academic career involves K-12 education, then four years of undergraduate college, then 4-6 years of a Ph.D. program, after which they get a job at a university, where they spend the rest of their lives. Most only see what other people do, and the risks they take and the insecurities they live with, on television and in books. Most academics have no idea what it actually feels like to be unprotected in the motherly womb of academia. If I were king, before I deposed myself I would require all academics to work in the real world for a minimum of 5-10 years before being allowed to pursue a tenure-track position. Oh, I would also abolish tenure, the worst idea ever invented.
Logan: Was your writing actually making you enough money when you quit, or was it just a matter of having to dedicate yourself to one or the other, and not both?
Michael Shermer: My first book, Why People Believe Weird Things, did very well in terms of sales and so brought me in a much bigger advance on my next book, How We Believe, which helped me make the financial bridge from depending on my teaching salary to depending on my salary from the Skeptics Society. It all happened gradually over many years.
Logan: A lot of big names were contributing even at issue one. How did you get writers and articles for the magazine to begin?
Michael Shermer: Because I had a lifelong interest in science, and because I tend to be a friendly and gregarious fellow, I always made it a point to meet the most interesting and important scientists and scholars whenever I encountered them at talks and conferences, and I befriended many of them. I did this because I enjoy it, not with some future purpose of networking, but that was the long term effect, so that when it came time to put together a board of advisors, I could call on them and they responded positively, not just because they were my friends, but also because they could see that there was a need for what we were proposing doing with the Skeptics Society and Skeptic magazine, in terms of combating pseudoscience and superstition.
Logan: How did those early issues do?
Michael Shermer: Early issues sold quite well, in the range of 70 percent sell through, which in the magazine business is quite good, but that was for bookstores only. Newsstand sales were dismal, as you might expect since we are not exactly People magazine to appeal to general audiences with pictures of sexy celebrities who forget to wear underwear. Still, for such an intellectual magazine, we have done well, and our sales have steadily climbed throughout the years where we now print about 50,000 copies of each issue.
Logan: On a lot of online reviews of your work, specifically Why People Believe Weird Things, you'll find people agreeing with a portion of your work, but attacking the specific thing they believe in. Do you applaud them for questioning at least some of what is out there, or do you think they are missing the overall point?
Michael Shermer: Virtually everyone who writes says something like "I too am a skeptic and agree with you on everything but..." followed by the particular belief that the reader holds dear. That's okay, I could certainly be wrong on a number of things given how many different things we investigate, but I do aim for an overall message of not telling people what to think about this or that particular claim, but how to think about any claim from a scientific perspective. In that sense, it doesn't make any difference what I think; it matters how rigorous the claim is by the exacting standards of science.
Logan: Is writing a bit more difficult when you know there will be people checking every bit of punctuation, or trying to catch you slip up? Some of the articles regarding the recent Grand Canyon article error almost seemed to be "See, we told you they couldn't be trusted..." Or should this just be the standard all writers keep to?
Michael Shermer: No, I've always been very careful about documenting my research. Mistakes always slip through, but I'm fairly rigorous. And, yes, this should be the standard all writers keep to, but many slip over the years, especially as they get more famous and productive and overcommitted, and they rush things through, don't properly fact check, forget which items are notes in their own words or someone else's words, and that can lead to accusation of plaigarism, which is what I suspect happened with Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Godwin.
Logan: Do you see Skepticism gaining ground at all? You mentioned increased sales of your magazine, and recent books by yourself and others like Richard Dawkins have done quite well - but at the same time, religious titles are being sold at stores by the millions.
Michael Shermer: Here I am reminded of Henny Youngman's reply to the question,: "How's your wife?": "Compared to what?" In the historian's perspective, things are much better. So here I will end with a slightly more formal answer, one that I composed for the Edge.org web page on this year's question about what we are optimistic about:
A 2001 Gallup poll found that 45 percent of Americans agree with the statement “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so.” A 2005 Pew Research Center poll found similarly distressing results: 42 percent of Americans believe that “living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.”
Scientists are understandably pessimistic about what such findings say about the future of science and education, and the situation is even worse when we examine other superstitions, such as these percentages of belief published in a 2002 National Science Foundation study:
Lucky numbers 32%
Magnetic therapy 70%
Alternative medicine 88%
As the publisher of Skeptic magazine I am routinely asked if I am optimistic or pessimistic about the state of superstition and magical thinking today. The question reminds me of when the comedian Henny Youngman was asked, “How’s your wife?” He would reply, “Compared to what?”
Out of context, such belief percentages in the teeth of so much contradictory scientific evidence could easily make one pessimistic. But because I am a historian of science I take the long view, and compared to what people believed before the Scientific Revolution, there is much cause for optimism.
Consider what life was like and what people believed a mere four centuries ago, just as science began lighting candles in the dark. In 16th- and 17th-century England, for example, populations were sparse, with 80 percent living in the countryside, and the bulk of those engaged in the production of food. Cottage industries were the only ones around in this pre-industrial highly stratified society, in which one-third to one-half of everyone lived at subsistence level and were chronically under-employed, not to mention undernourished. Food supplies were unpredictable and plagues decimated weakened populations. In the century spanning 1563 to 1665, there were six epidemics that swept through London, each of which annihilated between a tenth and a sixth of the population. The figures are almost unimaginable by today’s standards: 20,000 in 1563, 15,000 in 1593, 36,000 in 1603, 41,000 in 1625, 10,000 in 1636, 68,000 in 1665. Childhood diseases were unforgiving, with 60 percent of children dead before the age of 17. As one observer noted in 1635, “We shall find more who have died within thirty or thirty-five years of age than passed it.”
The 17th century political philosopher Thomas Hobbes was wrong in his assessment of man in a state of nature before civilization (people lived longer and healthier lives before the Agricultural Revolution), but his description of life was apropos for his own time: “continual fear and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
Since magical thinking is positively correlated with uncertainty and unpredictability, we should not be surprised at the levels of superstition given the grim vagaries of pre-modern life. There were no banks for personal savings, insurance companies for risk management, or any of the other security measures we take for granted today. With houses constructed of thatched roofs and wooden chimneys in a night lit only by candles, fires routinely devastated entire neighborhoods. As one chronicler noted: “He which at one o’clock was worth five thousand pounds and, as the prophet saith, drank his wine in bowls of fine silver plate, had not by two o’clock so much as a wooden dish left to eat his meat in, nor a house to cover his sorrowful head.”
Just as alcohol and tobacco were essential anaesthetics for the easing of pain and discomfort, superstition and magic were the basis for the mitigation of misfortune. With an illiteracy rate approaching 90 percent, it is no wonder that almost everyone believed in sorcery, werewolves, hobgoblins, witchcraft, astrology, black magic, demons, prayer, and providence. “A great many of us, when we be in trouble, or sickness, or lose anything, we run hither and thither to witches, or sorcerers, whom we call wise men…seeking aid and comfort at their hands,” confessed Bishop Latimer in 1552.
Saints were worshiped. Liturgical books provided rituals for blessing cattle, crops, houses, tools, ships, wells, and kilns, not to mention the sick, sterile animals, and infertile couples. In his 1621 book, Anatomy of Melancholy, Robert Burton noted, “Sorcerers are too common; cunning men, wizards, and white witches, as they call them, in every village, which, if they be sought unto, will help almost all infirmities of body and mind.” Figure 1 below, from Tobias Schutz’s 1654 Harmonica Macrocosmi Cum Microcosmi, well illustrates the magical links between the microcosm and macrocosm.
Was everyone in the pre-modern world so superstitious? They were. As the great Oxford historian of the period, Keith Thomas, writes in his classic 1971 work Religion and the Decline of Magic (from whence many of these examples and figures come), “No one denied the influence of the heavens upon the weather or disputed the relevance of astrology to medicine or agriculture. Before the seventeenth century, total skepticism about astrological doctrine was highly exceptional, whether in England or elsewhere.” And it wasn’t just astrology. “Religion, astrology and magic all purported to help men with their daily problems by teaching them how to avoid misfortune and how to account for it when it struck.” With such sweeping power over people, Thomas concludes, “If magic is to be defined as the employment of ineffective techniques to allay anxiety when effectives ones are not available, then we must recognize that no society will ever be free from it.” The superstitious we will always have with us.
Nevertheless, the rise of science ineluctably attenuated this near universality of magical thinking by proffering natural explanations where before there were only supernatural ones. Before Darwin, design theory (in the form of William Paley’s natural theology, which gave us the “watchmaker” argument) was the only game in town, so everyone believed that life was designed by God. Today less than half believe that in America, and in most other parts of the world virtually everyone accepts evolution without qualification. That’s progress.
The decline of magic was not due solely to the rise of science, nor was it a linear descent. For example, and paradoxically, the new emphasis on empiricism led to a struggle to find evidence for superstitious beliefs that previously needed no propping up with facts. Consider the following comment from the early 17th century, from a book entitled The Trial of Mr. Darrell, that shows how even then savvy observers grasped the full implications of denying the supernatural altogether:
Atheists abound in these days and witchcraft is called into question. Which error is confirmed by denying dispossession and both these errors confirm atheists mightily…. If neither possession nor witchcraft (contrary to what has been so long generally and confidently affirmed), why should we think that there are devils? If no devils, no God.
This attempt to naturalize the supernatural, however, was ultimately unsuccessful. Yet the propensity to portend the future through magic led to more formalized methods of ascertaining causality by connecting events in nature—the very basis of science. As science grew in importance, the analysis of portents was often done meticulously and quantitatively, albeit for purposes both natural and supernatural. As one diarist privately opined on the nature and meaning of comets: “I am not ignorant that such meteors proceed from natural causes, yet are frequently also the presages of imminent calamities.”
Natural theology was wedded to natural philosophy. Science arose out of magic, which it ultimately displaced. By the 18th century, astronomy replaced astrology, chemistry succeeded alchemy, probability theory displaced luck and fortune, insurance attenuated anxiety, banks replaced mattresses as the repository of people’s savings, city planning reduced the risks from fires, social hygiene and the germ theory dislodged disease, and the vagaries of life became less vague. As Francis Bacon concluded in his 1626 work, New Atlantis: “The end of our foundation is the knowledge of causes and the secret motions of things and the enlarging of the bounds of human empire, to the effecting of all things possible.”
Sic itur ad astra—Thus do we reach the stars.