Trawling through the open lectures at Sussex this month, I practically swooned like a schoolgirl when I heard Michael Shermer would be giving a talk at the Brighton & Sussex Medical School. Apparently I wasn’t the only who has an intellectual crush on the American sceptic and historian of science; the lecture theatre was truly jam-packed.
Shermer became a born-again Christian in his adolescence and began his education with a bachelor’s degree in Christian Theology at Pepperdine University. He soon grew discontented with the subject, switching later to Psychology and continuing with a master’s in Experimental Psychology at California State University.
His studies in Psychology led him to forcibly throw off his strong Christian views and become an atheist. Shermer revealed in his book Why People Believe Weird Things that whilst on a gruelling cycling race across America, an experimental nutritionist used him to test a new type of vitamin therapy. The treatment was useless and Shermer resented being used to test the bogus therapy. He decided then that he had had enough of listening to fraudulent or poorly researched claims and has since become a supporter of sceptical thinking. Shermer now spends his time debunking everything from psychic mediums to marijuana detectors made of radio antennae.
Shermer’s talk was interesting if not original. Many of the ideas presented to his audience were recycled from previous work, often from his 2011 piece The Believing Brain. Though the talk was not exactly stale, it did not move as far away from his previous ideas as his fans would have liked. His attempts at presenting psychic powers were, however, refreshing and entertaining. Indeed, they were perhaps more entertaining (and accurate) than going to see a bona fide medium.
Shermer suggests that people form their beliefs first and look for the corresponding evidence afterwards. He points out that it is very likely we evolutionarily evolved to seek out patterns. The ability to detect patterns would have served us well in the past, when spotting parts of the world that repeat themselves was useful, for instance finding food and mates. It is this evolutionary process which may have led to our bias in recognising patterns, even when they are not there.
Interestingly, Shermer switches focus later in the talk and suggests that less scepticism should be applied towards the climate change movement. Is Shermer just picking and choosing what to attack with his sceptical research?
Some presenting themselves as sceptics have taken sceptical approaches to hot-button issues such as the Holocaust; these individuals will often cherry pick facts to support their supposed ‘sceptical’ positions, in a rather foolish and offensive fashion. Scepticism, it seems, must be used with care in its approach to deciding what to believe in.
So is scepticism a valid philosophy? Shermer is keen to dismiss what he calls pure or extreme scepticism, as being sceptical of everything, he points out, would lead you to deny the very field of scepticism itself.
Though charismatic and deeply interesting, after hearing a talk by Shermer it is hard not to question the audience he is trying to appeal to. Surely those who are interested in the work he has done on debunking pseudo-science are precisely those who did not believe in it in the first place.
The audience are merely seeking refuge in an academic who shares the same ideas as them, accepting it as gospel truth.
Those that do believe in absurd conspiracy theories, ley lines and alien abductions would probably rather just stay in and watch the sci-fi channel instead.
Michael Shermer runs Skeptics, a non-profit educational organisation at http://www.skeptic.com and his 2011 book The Believing Brain is available in all good book shops.