Michael Shermer


“You’re so fucking skeptical.”

How many times have I heard that one? Hundreds? Thousands. And it’s true. I’m skeptical about Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio. I’m skeptical about George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Whenever I take out money from the bank, I’m skeptical whether they’re not actually keeping an extra buck or two. I am, in a happy-happy-happy world, a skeptic.

But I’m not The Skeptic. That title belongs to Dr. Michael Shermer, founding publisher of Skeptic Magazine, executive director of the Skeptics Society, a monthly columnist for Scientific American, and the host of the Skeptics Distinguished Science Lecture Series at Caltech. Shermer is the Babe Ruth of skeptics, which means he’s probably skeptical about being called the Babe Ruth of skeptics.

He also happens to be the author of several riveting books (He’s surely skeptical whether I’ve read them), including Why Darwin Matters: Evolution and the Case Against Intelligent Design and The Science of Good and Evil: Why People Cheat, Gossip, Share Care, and Follow the Golden Rule. You can learn more about Shermer at his website, and by following his Tweets.

To the Quaz, I skeptically welcome Dr. Michael Shermer …

JEFF PEARLMAN: I’m not an expert in skepticism, but I am a skeptic (as my wife reminds me quite often). One of my primary theories on religion is, simply, this: People turn to it because they’re afraid. Not for faith, not for family, not for love. But because they’re afraid of death. Of being dead. Of not existing. Of nothingness. How off or on do you think I am on this one? And does the inevitability of eternal nothingness scare you, too?

MICHAEL SHERMER: Fear of death is one reason that people often give for why other people believe in god, but not themselves. Almost no one lists that as one of their reasons. Now, of course, they could be self-deluded, and most of us most of the time have very limited access to our internal mental states that drive most of our choices in life. In my research on religion and why people believe in god I would put fear of death far down the list of causes. And, no, eternal nothingness doesn’t scare me in the least because there’s nothing to experience if you’re dead. Before you were born there was eternal nothingness for you, and that doesn’t seem to bother anyone, so why should eternal nothingness after death bother anyone? No, religion and belief in god has other causes, which I expound upon in my latest book, The Believing Brain, having to do with our need for belonging to a social group, for society’s need for social cohesion and enforcement of the rules of conduct and morality (religion), with our brain’s capacity for dualism, essentialism, and what I call agenticity (the tendency to infuse patterns we see with intentional agents: ghosts, gods, demons, angels, aliens, etc.)

J.P.: How does one become a professional skeptic? Like, what was your path to this point? And are you ever skeptical of skepticism?

M.S.: First get a Master’s degree in experimental psychology, then become a bike racer, then get a Ph.D. in the history of science, then found a magazine called Skeptic. If you do all these things you will become a professional skeptic. Well, that was my journey anyway. But I don’t recommend it for others because bike racing is a very very hard sport! Seriously, I was always interested in science, especially the borderlands of science, such as the paranormal, the supernatural, science and religion, and the big questions generated by cosmology, evolutionary theory, etc. But science is the one reliable method we have for generating knowledge about the natural world, so I gravitated toward that and stick close to it as the best source we have for understanding cause and effect relationships.

J.P.: When I was growing up, my mother used to say, “A person needs to have faith.” I’d ask “Well, why?” and she’d sorta stammer, then reply with, “Because, you just do.” As an adult, I’ve turned anti-faith. Why do I need to have faith? Why can’t I just believe in the harsh, oft-beautiful, oft-cruel reality before me? Where do you fall on this?

M.S.: I fall on the side of harsh, beautiful, and cruel reality every time!

J.P.: If ignorance is bliss, and bliss is nice, what’s wrong with ignorance?

M.S.: Ignorance can kill. Other than that …

J.P.: In Denying History you devote a good amount of time to Holocaust deniers—and the mentality of the movement. I’m Jewish, and my great-grandmother died in a camp, but I’ve always been irked by people merely ignoring/silencing the deniers, instead of trying to understand their thinking. So I ask you: What the hell are these people thinking?

M.S.: It’s the same cognitive process as denying evolution, denying Obama’s birth certificate, etc. Denial is denial is denial. But in the case of the Holocaust deniers, as I got to know them it became obvious that they do have something of an obsession with all things Jewish, most particularly they seemed irked by the fact that Jews are so small in number but so large in influence (political, economic, cultural, etc.), and the matter of Israel and Palestine and the whole Middle East mess comes up a lot, which they believe Jews in America influence U.S. policy overseas. By removing the Holocaust moral rug out from under Jews, the deniers hope to pull the political power rug out from under them as well.

J.P.: I love, love, love that you write “Why People Believe Weird Things”—and especially that you delve into why smart people believe weird things. For example, whenever I hear Barack Obama or Bill and Hillary Clinton talk about their deep faith, I think, “Uh … really?” I sorta understand the idiot believing in nonsense … but presidents? secretaries of state? Why do you think so many intelligent people maintain unintelligent beliefs? For sport?

M.S.: First of all, never believe a politician when they say “God bless you all and God bless the United States of America.” They say it like a mantra because everyone believes that you have to say it to get elected and re-elected. Maybe some actually believe that God favors countries like he favors sports teams, but smart people I think are just echoing what they think they’re suppose to say as politicians. It is almost as common as “mistakes were made” and “I’m taking a brief leave of absence to check into rehab.”

J.P.: We’ve had this debate with a friend recently: My kids are little, and they both believe in the Tooth Fairy. The wife and I consider it fun and harmless. Our friend says why start nurturing bullshit at a young age. Where do you fall?

M.S.: I left cash under the pillow each time my daughter lost a tooth. She never believed in the Tooth Fairy but she sure did like the cash! I say have some fun and tell your friends to chill out about such harmless games.

J.P.: Leslie Kean recently wrote that “ [the belief that] UFOs are of extraterrestrial or interdimensional origin is a rational one and must be taken into account.” I believe in life on other planets, primarily because the universe is infinite and there’d be a level of arrogance in thinking we’re all alone. But why do so many people buy that we’ve been visited? Is it, like religion, a desire to erase life’s boredom?

M.S.: Aliens are deities for atheists. These are two separate questions: is ET out there somewhere v. has ET come here. The answers: very probably yes and very probably no.

J.P.: There have been an increasing number of studies about cell phone usage possibly causing cancer. There have been tons of studies on the earthy damnation that is climate change. Yet people will keep using cell phones and continue to ignore the signs of a dying earth. Why are we so stupid?

M.S.: We’re not stupid. We’re bad at analyzing data and understanding cause and effect relationships. Anecdotes are more important to the brain than epidemiological studies or long-term ice core data or tree-ring data or thousand-year trend line changes. The reason is that we evolved to perceive things at a middling size and speed: rabbits and lions and mountains and speeds between walking and running. You can’t see continents drifting or climates shifting because they take too long. So we naturally grasp instant stories about how Aunt Millie’s brain tumor might have been cause by her cell phone because it was on the side of her brain that she held the phone too, but 10,000 year climate shifts just don’t register.


• Who wins in a fight: Santa Claus vs. Big Foot?: Oh, no question, Big Foot would kick Santa’s butt. He’d kick ass on The Rock and Hulk Hogan combined. Only Andre the Giant stands a chance against Big Foot.

• Sports fans routinely pray for their teams to win? If you’re skeptical of, say, someone praying for a loved one to beat cancer, what do you make of praying for, say, the Pacers to beat the Raptors to cover the point spread?: I’m all for it. Prayer for healing cancer is a ridiculous superstition, but praying for the home team to win the big game, now that’s serious science, although even God can’t help the Cubbies.

Celine Dion or a handful of gravel in your mouth?: Fingernails on chalkboard please.

• Have you ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you remember from the experience?: Nope, thank God. Oops, I mean, thank Zeus.

• Did Jesus exist? In any way, shape or form?: Most likely a man named Jesus of Nazareth existed … in the shape or form of a human. There is nothing he did or claimed to have done, however, that has not been claimed for other mythical gods or god-like people who came before (virgin birth, raising the dead, turning water into wine, resurrection, etc.)

• Can a human being live to 150?: Certainly, with the right medical advances this will happen possibly in my lifetime; however, I only want to do so if the quality of life is decent. No one wants to live half a century in a nursing home with feeding tubes and oxygen masks.

• Will the earth be here 1,000 years from now?: The Earth will be here another 4.5 billion years. Do you mean humans on earth? By then we will need to leave the planet because the sun will expand into a red giant and engulf all the inner planets. In a thousand years we will be a Type 2 civilization with space colonization of the moon, Mars, and possibly other moons in our solar system, and we will be working toward space travel to other stars.

• Who would you rather dine with: Pope Benedict, MC Hammer or the kid who played Emmanuel Lewis’ best friend on Webster?: Pope Benedict. I would school him on epistemology and how we know that humans created god, not vice versa. I would give him an autographed copy of The Believing Brain.

• Will the Jets ever win the Super Bowl again? The skeptic in me says no.: With stem cell regenerative medicine and knee replacements I think Broadway Joe could make a comeback and so inspire the team that they could win it all again!