Secular VIP of Week: Michael Shermer

Dec 17, 2013

This week we are joined by Michael Shermer, the Founding Publisher of Skeptic magazine, the Executive Director of the Skeptics Society.

He a monthly columnist for Scientific American, the host of the The Skeptics Society’s Distinguished Science Lecture Series, author of several books, including; The Believing BrainThe Mind of the Market, and Why Darwin Matters: Evolution and the Case Against Intelligent Design.  

He is also an Adjunct Professor at Claremont Graduate University and Chapman University.

RDF: Michael, you're one of the most prominent skeptics in the world, but you got your start at Pepperdine University, a Christian College.

Michael Shermer: I wasn't raised in a religious family: I became religious due to peer group influence. That was part of the early 70s Born-Again Evangelical movement that was really taking off, and I just sort of got into it with my friends. But I took it pretty seriously. From high school I went to Pepperdine, which is a Church of Christ school, and I wanted to study theology. What I really wanted to be was a college professor, because that seemed like a great gig. My field would be theology and so, to do that, you have to get a Ph.D. to be a college professor, and to get a Ph.D. in theology you have to master Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic, and Latin. And I could barely get through Spanish, so I had to switch fields, because at some point, I knew I had to get a job. I switched majors to psychology, and that has a fairly rigorous scientific methodology to it, especially experimental psychology. So there I learned to think like a scientist, and that changed everything. I discovered that there's a way of thinking in science that's quite different from the way theologians think, and that really turned my head, made me think about how we know that anything is true.


RDF: Your article this month in Scientific American is, "Is God Dying?" That's brave for a science magazine to dip a toe into atheist thought. Are skeptics the audience for your monthly articles in Scientific American, or do you write to reach out to believers in Bigfoot?

Michael Shermer: I'm really teaching people how to think about any claim. So that, even if I tell you how to think about Bigfoot, maybe next week you'll see a show on something else, on the History Channel or something, and instead of Bigfoot it'll be about something else, and you'll believe it because you don't know how to think about claims in general. So the mission of the column is to do two things: to address some particular topic and think about whether the claim is true or not–what we know, but also, how to apply the principles of skepticism to any and all claims. And by "Skepticism" I really just mean science–skepticism is just a scientific way of thinking.

RDF: What's your advice for how to talk with someone who really does believe in Bigfoot?

Michael Shermer: I think the best approach is to try to find out why somebody believes something. Ask, "Oh, that's really interesting, why do you believe that?"  They'll usually tell you, "Oh, I saw it on this show".  You say, "Really, what did they say?"  They say, "A couple guys were out in the middle of the night and they heard spooky things."  I find that this method of just asking questions possibly leads people to arrive at their own conclusions. As opposed to just telling them, "You're wrong and here's why". Leading people to figure it out on their own–the Socratic method– is a more permanent way of changing their minds and getting them to think rationally, rather than just telling them, "Here's what you should think:  I'm right and you're wrong." Even if that's true — you're right and they're wrong — and even if they accept it, they may not then be able to apply the principle to some other claim, whereas if you teach them how to think about it, they'll hopefully arrive at the same conclusion and be able to apply it to other claims. So, it has that added advantage.

RDF: How do you separate unhealthy beliefs from the necessary shortcuts that help us make decisions in world too complex to analyze completely?

Michael Shermer: Ideally the way to think skeptically and scientifically should apply to any area. Ideally, we'd like to be able to apply science and reason and logic and rationality to all areas of our lives. There really should be no area that is untouched by that. Because what alternative do you have? I mean, people talk about intuition or feelings or "gut feelings" or that kind of thing… But what does that really mean? It's just sort of a fuzzy way of talking about thinking. So the question is, do you wanna use your thinking process in a reasonable way or an unreasonable way? Because, you know, one is a better, superior way of getting at the right answer than another one is. Calling it intuition, or whatever, doesn't really do anything.

RDF: Can you tell us about your book and how beliefs are formed in the brain?

Michael Shermer: My latest book is The Believing Brain, which has to do with how we derive our beliefs first and then we back into them reasons why we believe. This is true for scientists, as well, of course, but science has a different methodology that requires you to look for your biases — like the confirmation bias, for example — and try to work around it before somebody else busts you for it, particularly once you go into print. This is true with not just religious beliefs, but political beliefs and even scientific theories. We're all raised in certain cultures and we go to certain schools and we end up in an graduate program working for a certain professor who already has a research paradigm going and they just plug you into it as a graduate student. So, it's not like you're just walking into a fresh set of data with objective eyes; you're interpreting the data with models that your professor is working from. So it does take some effort to break out of that, but we have some confidence that the system works, because other people who are knowledgeable in that field provide checks and balances to biases that are inherent in it. Even though we're all biased, science is still the best method we have for determining what's true and what's not.

RDF: Is there an academic legacy here from Freud and Marvin Minsky that we have more than one personality in our heads?

Michael Shermer: The science behind the idea comes from evolutionary psychology and that the brain is modular. There're a lot of different known networks operating… and this explains why people can believe conflicting ideas.
Michael Shermer: And what appears as hypocrisy to the rest of us, inside somebody's own head, seems consistent by the use of rationalization. It explains how somebody could, say, be a scientist during the week and go to church on Sunday, like Francis Collins: super smart, totally rational, and then he just dives into the whole Jesus thing and the supernatural and the resurrection and all that. It's the same thing with Ken Miller, who pretty much in every walk of life is as skeptical as they come and as good a scientist as you can get. But he accepts Christ as the savior and that he was resurrected, and all that stuff, because he's Catholic. How do people do that? Well, because of what I call logic-tight compartments. A logic-tight compartment is like a water tight compartment on a ship: it keeps conflicting ideas separate.

RDF: What do people get and help with when they join The Skeptics Society?

Michael Shermer: We are a nonprofit science education organization, devoted to promoting science and critical thinking. What you get when you join is a subscription to Skeptic magazine, and a "Decoder Ring" and all our stuff. It's a good cause, but you actually really do get something, but of course you're also contributing to promoting a rational society. There's also Junior Skeptic. We're reaching now to the next generation, and my editor Daniel Loxton is writing for kids: middle school, high school, and even college. Junior Skeptic is tipped into every issue of Skeptic Magazine.

RDF: What's coming up for The Skeptic Society that people should leap onto before they miss it?

Michael Shermer: First of all, the issue that's out on the stand now is for the 50th Anniversary of JFK. We published what I think is the best piece ever done on JFK Conspiracy Theory: debunking them all in one fell swoop.
Michael Shermer: And then the issue that comes out next week — so the next quarter — is on ancient aliens, and those kinds of theories, which are kind of a conspiracy theory under the same principle that makes people think, "I don't accept the prevailing theory. Therefore my pet theory about what happened must be right." So there's a deeper principle there: the argument from personal incredulity. I believe it was Richard that coined [the phrase that goes], "Because I don't believe in it, it must not be true, or because I can't figure it out it can't be true." And therefore, your pet theory about what is true must be right. Well, not necessarily so. That marvelous article is now up online for free at

For more about The Skeptics Society and Skeptic Magazine, see, which you can follow on Facebook and Twitter.  Also, see our TAM 2013 interivew with Michael Shermer.

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