A Skeptic Speaks

Wednesday, September 30, 1998

From the archives: Resurrecting content from my first personal website, InterViews. Presented for historical reasons only. Not all links work.

An Online Chat with a True Disbeliever

Our first guest for this new series of online interviews is Michael Shermer, director of the Skeptics Society and publisher of Skeptic magazine , a journal praised by a crowd so disparate as to include Penn Jillette of "Penn & Teller," who says "Skeptic kicks ass"; and by distinguished Harvard science historian Stephen Jay Gould, who writes the forward to Shermer's latest book. That book--just out in paperback--is "Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time" ($14.95, W. H. Freeman and Company; ISBN: 0-7167-3387-0). He e-mailed the answers to Charlie Meyerson's questions on September 28 and 29, 1998.

CM: Do you regret not being able to include a chapter on President Clinton's relationship with Monica Lewinsky?

MS: Actually, in my next book, WHY PEOPLE BELIEVE IN GOD, I do have an explanation of the Clinton mess, from an evolutionary perspective. Here is an Op-Ed piece I wrote about it that summarizes my position.CM: How'd you come to be a skeptic? How did you know you WERE a skeptic? And weren't you a little skeptical about it?

MS: I became a skeptic gradually. It was an evolutionary process, in contrast to how I became a born-again Christian (recounted in my next book), which was a sudden conversion experience. My deconversion into skepticism and out of Christianity came slowly, with my slow immersion into science. I realized I was a skeptic when I tried a lot of New Age gimmicks and beliefs in the late 70s and early 80s. I realized that most were total bunk. I also discovered James Randi and his revelation that a lot of these folks lie and cheat, which was a real let down, but enlightening. I also discovered the scientific method. In fact, I had 30 units of statistics and research methodologies in an experimental psychology graduate program, so I was well-versed in the ways of finding answers to questions scientifically. New Age beliefs don't hold up.

CM: How do you define "weird things"?

MS: Weird things are what I say they are :)
Well, no, this is a democracy, so every year the Skeptics Society board votes on what the year's weird things were :)
Okay, seriously, weird things are like pornography--I can't define it operationally but I know it when I see it.

CM: Is the belief in "weird things" stronger or more prevalent now than it's been at other times in human--or American--history?

MS: Oh, no, not even close. If you compare today to, say, 15th Century Europe, then things are much better than before. But, compared to, say, 50 years ago, then definitely the belief in weird things is on the rise, especially during and after the 60s.

CM: What do you consider the most dangerous of the "weird things" widely believed today?

MS: Moral panics and mass hysterias that result in people being thrown in jail, like the Satanic Ritual Abuse scare of the 80s and the Recovered Memory movement of the late 80s and 90s.

CM: For those who consider themselves skeptics--and who'd like to bestow more skepticism on their friends and relatives--what do you consider the key tools at their disposal?

MS: Science and reason. More specifically, empiricism and logic. More specific still, experimental methods, correlational methods, the rules of logic and reason, etc. But mainly being from Missouri: SHOW ME the evidence. When we hear an outrageous claim, we say "THAT'S NICE, PROVE IT."

CM: Does the Internet compound the spread of belief in "weird things"? Do you see it--in the long run--as an aid or a hindrance to rationality?

MS: In the worst possible way. The reason is that there is no filter, no screening process, no editors and fact checkers, no peer review system, no checks and balances. Anyone can say anything about anyone or anything and, essentially, publish it. Everyman his own publisher. As a civil libertarian I am against any and all attempts to censor the internet, but this is one of the negative by-products.

CM: Has your work debunking beliefs so strongly held by others ever put you in danger? Have you ever been threatened by True Believers in some cause or another?

MS: Danger? Threatened? Naw. Some people get mad, but I'm a fairly conciliatory fellow and I like to give people a chance to have their say (I justify in my mind as a form of data collection about why people believe weird things).

CM: Tell us about Skeptic magazine: What is it? How did it come to be? How can people check it out?

MS: Skeptic magazine is the quarterly voice of the Skeptics Society, founded in 1992, that has a 4-color cover and runs about 112 pages per issue. Each issue features a special section on a particular theme with several articles pro and con (e.g., False Memory Syndrome v. Repressed Memory Syndrome, the AIDS Skeptics, Holocaust Revisionism, Race and IQ, Cosmology and God, Conspiracy Theories), plus an array of news items, forum letters (more than any other magazine we know of) discussing all manner of subjects demanding skepticism, long and short book reviews (e.g., The Bell Curve), an interview with an influential scientist (e.g., Richard Dawkins, Stephen Jay Gould, Charles Murray, Martin Gardner, Frank Sulloway), and much more. Skeptic has a WWW page at http://www.skeptic.com/ and an FTP site at: ftp://ftp.skeptic.com/pub/skeptic. SKEPTIC MAG HOTLINE is the new weekly [e-mailed] voice of Skeptic magazine and the Skeptics Society. [It] will include media updates, critiques and commentary on current events, ongoing investigations, upcoming lectures at the Skeptics Society Caltech Lecture Series, updates on our annual conference, what's scheduled for the next issue of the magazine, and other timely events.
To subscribe: just send an e-mail to: join-skeptics@lyris.net (to "unsubscribe," send an e-mail to: leave-skeptics@lyris.net)
Note: we do NOT release the e-mail addresses of members to any other organizations.
Skeptic, P.O. Box 338, Altadena, CA 91001. Phone: 626/794-3119, Fax: 626/794-1301, E-Mail: skepticmag@aol.com

CM: What do you see as the New Frontier for Skepticism? What weird new beliefs do you see on the horizon, begging for deflation from you and your fellow skeptics?

MS: Alternative medicine.

CM: Why is it on the rise? What dangers do you think it poses? What can or should skeptics do about it?

MS: Because medicine isn't perfect. In fact, it was not until well into this century that it was better NOT to go to the doctor than it was to go. Therefore, worthless remedies like homeopathy seemed to work because they did no harm. But today they are appealing because medicine still can't cure things like cancer, so people feel they have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

CM: For all the skepticism that (we must conclude) pervades your being, do you care to 'fess up to any "weird beliefs" of your own--things you wished you DIDN'T believe?

MS: Sharon Stone.

CM: Thanks for your time.

MS: You're welcome. And remember, nothing is certain. But I'm not sure about that.

Charlie Meyerson is an award-winning Chicago journalist.
Check out the Chicago InterViews archive web page at http://www.meyersonstrategy.com/search/label/Interviews-archives

Entire contents Copyright 1998 by Charles Meyerson. All rights reserved.
This material may be freely transmitted to others if it's transmitted in full, including copyright and subscription information.

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