Skeptics & Debunkers

— Michael Shermer Preaching to the TED Converted
John Smith—07/2011
Skepticism is just another form of religious fanaticism — a rejection of anything that threatens established orthodox belief systems. Skeptics are individuals intolerant of new perspectives, and therefore enemies of progress and discovery.

MICHAEL SHERMER is an American science writer, historian, professional debunker and and publisher of Skeptic magazine. You used to be able to see a photo of this skeptic's smirk on the Skeptic page in Scientific American magazine every month, although the editors have now changed his photo to a drawing that does not portray the same smirkiness. But that does not mean that his monthly articles are any less dismissive of anything remotely outside the orthodox science paradigm.

Here is a video of Shermer giving a brief lecture at a TED conference (TED being a nonprofit educational organisation):

He is certainly an entertaining speaker, but to be frank, it is easy to be entertaining if you focus on the more outlandish beliefs that some people have. In this presentation he dismisses anything outside the boundaries of orthodox science by taking uproarious potshots at a string of straw men he presents as representative of non-scientific beliefs — a $900 marijuana detection dousing device, a flying saucer picture he made using a Buick hubcap, a fake Photoshopped crop circle of his Skeptic magazine logo, the face on Mars, reverse speech satanic messages, and images of the Virgin Mary on a toasted cheese sandwich, a tree bark and a glass window. The TED audience showed no sophistication in joining in the hilarity… or perhaps they were just being polite.

If these oddball beliefs really were representative of anything outside the worldview of orthodox science, then most of us who currently investigate alternative models of reality would be squarely in the orthodox camp. But they are not representative, and were deliberately selected for this talk because they are easy to ridicule and dismiss: cheap laughs for a cheap audience, all in the name of education. Talk about closed-minds and sheep-mentality.

Science is a map of reality — a realitymap — which allows us to accurately predict a subset of human experience. That subset deals with what we generally label as "the objective world", and the size of that subset within our individual experience depends upon our general worldview. If that worldview is more materialistic, then that subset is going to be assigned to a larger proportion of our total experience. Being able to accurately map what we "objectively" experience allows us to make predictable physical systems called technology. The computer you are reading this on, or the printer which printed it out, are technological products conceived and built using these accurate physical realitymaps.

However, just because a realitymap works well in one area, does not mean it works well in all areas. After all, a London tube map is not going to be very helpful if you walking or taking a bus. If we use the wrong map then we will get lost.

[I have written about this in greater detail in How to Defend Yourself Against a Scientist -]

The mistake so many make, including Shermer, is that they confuse their maps for the territory, so that the scientific realitymap becomes "Truth", and everything that it does not or cannot map, by definition, does not exist and is therefore labelled illusory. This is a bit like saying that because our London tube map does not show the streets above ground, that they therefore do not exist, and that anyone who thinks they do exist is either deluded or deliberately deluding others.

The scientific map, at this time in history, only represents those aspects of our experience/reality that are physical, repeatable, humanly observable, mathematically describable, AND which fit together in a mathematically cohesive whole with other such aspects of our experience. ALL these characteristics need to be observed for any experience to be included in the official scientific realitymap. However, if we reflect on this, we quickly come to the conclusion that most of our experience does NOT conform to ALL of these conditions, and therefore most of our experiences cannot be mapped using the orthodox scientific realitymap. Does this mean that most of our our experience is an illusion? And what do we mean by the label "illusory" anyway?

Here are some of the definitions of illusion by The Free Dictionary:

  • An erroneous perception of reality.
  • An erroneous concept or belief.
  • The condition of being deceived by a false perception or belief.
  • A false appearance or deceptive impression of reality.
  • A perception that is not true to reality, having been altered subjectively in some way in the mind of the perceiver.

But all these terms have one thing in common: they imply that there is a correct perception of reality by which to make the call that an experience is an incorrect perception of reality. Illusion implies non-illusion. But how do we ever know what non-illusion is when:

  1. all experience contains a fundamental subjective component
  2. what we define as real or non-illusion is a belief — it can never be anything more

The scientific method tries to remove the subjective component of experience by objectifying things as much as possible using careful measurements and controlled conditions. It does this because it is based on the beliefs that:

  1. there is an objective reality entirely independent to subjective experience
  2. this objective reality is observable, measurable, mathematically modellable, logical, time-invariant and predictable
  3. this objective reality is real (is defined as "reality") whereas all subjective experience is a distortion of this reality

These are beliefs that every scientist accepts, in exactly the same way that every Christian believes that Jesus died for their sins. There is no experiment or mathematical proof that can confirm or deny any of these beliefs. They are matters of faith.

Of course, that does not stop proselytizers like Shermer and other debunkers trying to sell the scientific realitymap as a one-size-fits-all explanation for all aspects of human experience. Not only do these skeptics make a living doing so, but with each convert and each interaction with the already-converted they mitigate some of their own insecurities regarding the scientific realitymap. For we only attack those ideas that are different from ours if we feel they challenge our treasured beliefs in some way.

In the TED lecture video above, Shermer shows a cartoon of a man writing a set of complex mathematical equations on a blackboard and an arrow between in the middle of the deduction with the words "Miracle occurs here". Shermer points out that this cartoon is sums up how to dismantle intelligent design arguments. But the irony is that orthodox science also has the "miracle occurs here" step in its deductive processing: the miracle is the blind faith in objective reality. And it even has "miracle occurs here" steps in its own logical structure: for example, the mathematics of quantum mechanics needs renormalization (fudging) in order to avoid the infinities (a process Nobel laureate Richard Feynman called "hocus-pocus").

So everyone is fudging their worldview to force legitimacy — playing the game of "my belief is true whereas yours is false". And that applies both in the church and the lab — both are places of worship — one to an anthropomorphic God of Justice and the other to a mathematical God of Objectivity.

The God of Objectivity gives us the miracle of technology whereas the God of Justice gives us the miracle of redemption. There are many other gods as well, each a contrived absolute reality to give some aspect or other of our lives perspective. It depends on what we are looking for in the moment. We worship at different altars depending upon our needs, mood and personality. Sometimes we are fervent worshipers; sometimes we are relatively agnostic.

We must not forget that the God of Objectivity is also a jealous god, just as the God of Justice was described in the Old Testament. And so the priests of the God of Objectivity, like Michael Shermer, make it their duty to trash the name of every other god, desperate to support their own fanatical monotheism.

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In the May edition of Scientific America this year, Shermer takes aim at the PSI research undertaken by psychologist Daryl J. Bem which show evidence for precognition (responses in the brain to neutral, negative and erotic pictures being flashed on a computer screen). Bem shows that subject responses showed some awareness of what was about to come up just before the image was actually displayed.

He states in his dismissal of Bem's work that "Historically such phenomena eventually are either accounted for by normal means, or else they disappear under controlled conditions." This may be true for some PSI research, but certainly not all, and is no doubt wishful thinking on Shermer's part, hoping that PSI will simply go away.

Shermer gives five reasons for rejecting Bem's experimental findings, and those of psi experiments in general:

  1. Dozens of studies, over the past century, "proclaiming statistically significant results in PSI research have turned out to be methodologically flawed, subject to experimental bias and nonreproducible."

    Author's comment: A huge percentage of orthodox science studies over the past century (a lot more than a dozen) have been methodologically flawed, subject to experimental bias and nonreproducible. Does this mean we reject science… or do we look at ways of setting up better experiments?

  2. If studies determine that something is not happening by normal means, paranormal means cannot then automatically be assumed.

    Author's comment: By definition, anything that is not happening by normal means has to be happening by paranormal means! The question is whether all possible "normal " explanations can be dismissed, and that is a subjective call because we can always hold out indefinitely for a "normal" explanation of things we do not understand. And there is no fixed demarcation between normal and paranormal — what is considered paranormal can become normal. For example, if it turns out that a new force is discovered that explains mind to mind effects then what is paranormal will be considered normal. Shermer is playing with vocabulary.

  3. Paranormal effects are "so subtle and fleeting as to be useless for anything practical."

    Author's comment: That was the also general opinion about quantum effects when they were first discovered. Many scientific revolutions are born from "subtle and fleeting" effects that seem insignificant, but which end up changing our entire worldview and bringing in unimaginable new technologies. Shermer seems remarkably ignorant of the development of his own discipline.

  4. Studies tend not to have consistent effects.

    Author's comment: If the mind is involved in PSI, then of course the effects would be inconsistent. A whole now set of experimental protocols would have to be set up to try to normalize out the inconsistencies. This happens with orthodox drug trials when those most susceptible to the placebo effect are filtered out so as to avoid too much inconsistencies in the results. Where minds are involved results are notoriously inconsistent.

  5. Studies are often plagued with "experimental inconsistencies".

    Author's comment: Complaining about the experimental inconsistencies of a PSI researcher calls for suggestions on how to do the research better, not to just dismiss what is being researched entirely. Experimental inconsistencies could easily have been used to dismiss orthodox science, but fortunately the scientific community had enough imagination to refine experimental technique and not to throw out the baby with the bath water. The researcher Shermer is dismissing in this article — Daryl Bem — does respond to the criticisms leveled against him on this front: see All Shermer can do is weakly joke that he has "a premonition his precognition was a postcognition." [Are we really interested in Shermer's personal beliefs… because that is all he can eventually come up with in trying to dismiss Bem's research?]

Overall, a predictable attempt by a priest of science to dismiss PSI phenomena. Shermer is preaching to the converted, denouncing results that challenge his personal worldview. He believes his god has been insulted, and so he is striking out in the only way he knows how.

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Skeptics and debunkers in the orthodox scientific world are an interesting breed of people. Personality-wise, they tend to have a lot in common with religious fanatics — indeed with anyone who dogmatically adheres to particular belief systems and defends them at all costs. They are generally unable and unwilling to look at alternatives, which is why they are either not usually working scientists (all successful working scientists need the mental dexterity to play with alternative theories), or they tend to be involved with softer sciences like psychology, biology and medicine which themselves are relatively pseudo-scientific, based as much on beliefs and procedural habits rather than scientific proof. (By comparison, on the other end of the scale, particle/string physicists tend to be quite open-minded.)

Skeptics tend to take it upon themselves to police what they consider to be to be Truth, fighting back against a tide of pseudo-scientific beliefs and general psychological chaos. And like all self-appointed police or vigilantes, they end up with a fervent belief in their own rightness or righteousness, so that paradoxically their own opinions and judgements are above the need for the scientific proof they give lip-service to. And they expect everyone else to take their opinions and pontifications as Gospel. How many skeptics do you know willing to admit that something unusual might be going on in any particular experimental setup, and rather than dismiss the researcher and/or the experimental protocol, recommend that more research needs to be done? None that I have come across.

These individuals would have dismissed quantum theory out of hand had they been alive in the early 20th Century, because their whole modus operandi is the reflex rejection of anything alternative and new.

Fortunately we live in a world where vigilantism is kept somewhat in check, so that these self-appointed priests of science are not able to stamp their intolerance too readily onto a relatively free society. Perhaps the greatest abuse of this intolerance is the medical profession, whereby category of treatment rather than efficacy of treatment seems to be the order of the day. So we have the ridiculous case today where doctors are allowed to push orthodox treatments like chemotherapy with their dismally low success rate (3% - 5% overall), ahead of alternative/ complementary protocols that have a higher overall success rate. All they need to do is opened their minds and take a serious took a look at them. The fact is that people are dying because of closed-mindedness in the medical profession, closed-mindedness that is bankrolled by the pharmaceutical industry. The the monopoly of medical treatment is very profitable; effectiveness is irrelevant. (This is changing as the current closed-minded model of treatment is becoming to expensive to maintain — money speaking far louder than deaths in our current culture.)

Skeptics and debunkers are fond of saying that extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. But what we consider to be extraordinary is dependant upon our worldview in the first place, and so this homily is not particularly helpful, and is used by skeptics as a blanket dismissal of even bone fide scientific research proving the reality of some PSI phenomena. The unfortunate truth is that no amount of research will ever be extraordinary enough for a skeptic to accept that something extraordinary is going on.

Today, we see a blossoming of new beliefs and paradigms in all areas of our experience. In a way, it is a lucrative time for any professional debunker. But society has reached a crisis point that demands alternatives, that requires a complete reframing of every aspect of society if it is to survive the challenges ahead — ecological challenges, health challenges, financial challenges and psychological challenges. The establishment is being forced out of their comfortable orthodox bunkers.

We are at a point of major transition; we are walking into uncharted territory — and that requires radically new maps of reality — of what is considered real. If we keep using the same old orthodox realitymaps, we will lose our way because what is traditionally labelled "There be Dragons" is where we actually need to head. On the new realitymaps, these are the locations of mind technologies and psi abilities, of natural health and respect for genome integrity — places that most orthodox scientists do not explore. (Those who are open to alternatives invariably find research funding into these areas difficult to procure.)

The future lies in our open-mindedness, and we have to learn to tolerate the most outlandish and ridiculous theories if we are going to move forward. It does not mean accepting every kooky theory that comes along, but it does mean not dismissing those theories out of hand because we believe we know the Truth. That sort of arrogance has no place in the world today; fundamentalism (religious and scientific) has to be put aside.

So Michael Shermer addressed the TED conference embedded above, he was certainly right in dismissing most of the crazy beliefs he presented, but by making those beliefs representative of the territory outside orthodox science, he does us all a great disservice in closing off possibility. Reverse speech and images of the Virgin Mary on pieces of toast are not representative of alternative systems of knowledge, and he would do well to swallow his pride and accept that "There are more things in heaven and earth… Than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

The smirk of those who believe they know the Truth has no place in a world hanging on the brink of potential destruction and transformation. Only those with fearless open-mindedness can open the doors to viable futures.




Update 19 July 2011

I just discovered that Michael Shermer is a former Fundamentalist Christian. This makes a lot of sense as fundamentalism, like addiction, tends to transfer from one form into another, and does not usually just disappear without some serious introspection, self-inquirey and emotional maturity. So Shermer has gone from pushing orthodox Christianity as absolute Truth to pushing orthodox science as absolute Truth. His vocabulary and perspective may have fundamentally changed, but the context, literalism and narrowness of his beliefs remain exactly the same. A science fundamentalist like Shermer actually has more in common with a religious fundamentalist than he does with a non-fundamentalist scientist.