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TNI's Interview with Michael Shermer

TNI's Interview with Michael Shermer

10 Mins
March 17, 2011

Michael Shermer, as head of one of America’s leading skeptic organizations, and as a powerful activist and essayist in the service of this operational form of reason, is an important figure in American public life,” wrote the late evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould.

Gould’s praise for this advocate of reason and science is well deserved. Dr. Shermer is founding publisher of Skeptic magazine, executive director of the Skeptics Society, a monthly columnist for Scientific American, host of the Skeptics Distinguished Science Lecture Series at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), and co-host and producer of the thirteen-hour Family Channel television series Exploring the Unknown.

As if that weren’t enough, Shermer is a prolific author. Among his notable titles are Why Darwin Matters: The Case Against Intelligent Design, and How We Believe: Science, Skepticism, and the Search for God, in which he presents his theory on the origins of religion and why people believe in God. Shermer also wrote Why People Believe Weird Things, which takes on pseudoscience, superstitions, and other confusions of our time. The Borderlands of Science explores the fuzzy land between science and pseudoscience, and Denying History dissects Holocaust denial and other forms of pseudo-history.

A popular speaker, he has appeared as a skeptic of weird and extraordinary claims on such shows as 20/20, Dateline, Charlie Rose, Larry King Live, Tom Snyder, Donahue, Oprah, and Unsolved Mysteries (but never Jerry Springer, he proudly notes). He also has been interviewed in countless documentaries aired on PBS, A&E, Discovery, The History Channel, The Science Channel, and The Learning Channel.

But Michael Shermer is not just a professional debunker. His The Science of Good and Evil: Why People Cheat, Gossip, Share, Care, and Follow the Golden Rule explores the evolutionary origins of morality and how to be good without God. He also penned a biography, In Darwin’s Shadow, about the life and science of Alfred Russel Wallace, co-discoverer of natural selection.

Dr. Shermer received his B.A. in psychology from Pepperdine University; his M.A. in experimental psychology from California State University, Fullerton; and his Ph.D. in the history of science from Claremont Graduate University. He served as a college professor for twenty years (1979−1998), teaching psychology, evolution, and the history of science at Occidental College, California State University Los Angeles, and Glendale College.

Recently, Dr. Shermer met with The Atlas Society’s executive director, Ed Hudgins, for a wide-ranging interview on reason, science, pseudo-science, politics, and much more.


TNI: Let’s start with an obvious question. What is a skeptic or skepticism?

Michael Shermer: Skepticism is not a particular position you take on some specific issue. It’s really just an approach to any particular claim. It’s a scientific approach. A skeptical approach means looking for the logic, reason, and the evidence for a particular claim.

For example, you could be a skeptic concerning global warming. Or you could be a skeptic of the global-warming skeptics, in which case you’re a global-warming believer, I suppose. Some Holocaust revisionists felt that they had an ally in me because I was a skeptic, and they were skeptical about whether the Holocaust occurred. But when I ended up being skeptical of them, they were not too happy. In that case, I became a Holocaust believer, although I’m not fond of the word “belief” in the context of scientific topics.

What is important is that my belief was based on the application of logic, reason and evidence. So, a skeptical approach is really no different from a scientific approach. Scientists are skeptical. Science is skepticism. It’s one and the same.

TNI: Now, this approach would tend to reject religious faith or revelation as an approach to knowledge, correct?

Shermer: Yes.

TNI: What about the postmodernist approach? This school of thought has been very influential in recent decades. Its tenets suggest that everything we believe is really a matter of interpretation. Have you looked at this approach, and do you find some problems with it?

Shermer: Yes, we did look at it and we see a lot of problems. The postmodernist approach is just as bad, if not worse, than an approach to knowledge based on faith or revelation. British ethologist and evolutionary theorist Richard Dawkins calls it—I like his term—“continental obfuscation,” since most of the leading advocates of this approach are continental European philosophers. It’s just obfuscation with language. The Sokal hoax blew that approach wide open in the Social Text spoof. As Richard likes to say, show me a postmodernist philosopher at 30,000 feet and I’ll show you a hypocrite.

TNI: Tell us about that hoax.

Shermer: To show up the foolishness of the postmodernist approach, New York University mathematical physicist Alan Sokal wrote an article using all the postmodernists’ deconstructionist language on the topic of gravity, quantum mechanics, and physics, and how these are all relatively equal ways of knowing truth. He said that no one really has the hegemonic dominance over knowledge—essentially implying that physics and all of its discoveries are simply subjective and matters of interpretation. He used all the language of physicists and philosophers of the postmodern tradition, in which he really said nothing at all. He just made it up, and the article was accepted for publication in 1996 in Social Text, a postmodernist journal. Sokal then blew the whistle on his hoax in a competing journal, Lingua Franca. It became a delicious spoof to demonstrate the folly of this approach. The only regret I had is that I didn’t think of doing it.

"The brain emotionally reinforces beliefs we already hold."

What that hoax also told us is that you can actually just b.s. people with scientific language without bothering to use the scientific process. That is what we ultimately mean by “pseudo-science.” It isn’t just whatever you or I or some committee thinks is not science. Pseudo-science is the intentional misuse of scientific jargon in order to portray oneself as having some scientific perspective or taking a scientific approach. The reason we find a lot of practitioners of pseudo-science is because we live in the age of science, and so people realize—particularly on the margins—that to be taken seriously, they at least have to appear scientific.

TNI: Ayn Rand calls that the “stolen concept,” where you affirm the validity of something—in this case, supposed scientific results—while rejecting the reality on which the concept arises—in this case, the scientific approach.

Shermer: This is the whole impetus of the Intelligent Design movement. They realized that the old-style creationist arguments based on Genesis, the Bible, and religion to support this view were not going to work, and that they had to ground those beliefs in the pure language of science. And, of course, they’re not scientific in any way, but it’s their intention to appear so.

TNI: In most of your writings and talks you stress the importance of a skeptical or scientific approach to claims, whether about creationism, Holocaust denial, UFOs, or whatever. But could you speculate a little bit on the motivations, rather than the intellectual or methodological errors, that help explain—in the words of your book—Why People Believe Weird Things.

Shermer: Right. Well, the short answer is that most of our beliefs are arrived at for non-intellectual reasons, that is, for emotional and psychological reasons—the way we were brought up or raised, the influence of our parents, peer groups, mentors, and so on. So, some particular configuration of those factors gives rise to many beliefs for most people; and then, psychologically, people backtrack, work their way backwards and create seemingly rational arguments for those beliefs.

And I’m convinced this is true for most beliefs, including political attitudes, whether someone is a liberal or a conservative. They’ll give you rational reasons why they are liberal or conservative; but, in fact, they actually hold those beliefs for a bunch of emotional and psychological reasons that work for them, and then they employ the after-the-fact reasoning fallacy. They say, “Well, this is why I believe it, and this is how I arrived at it.”

And that explains why many smart people believe weird things. They’re so smart that they are even better than most at creating really clever rationalizations and logical reasons for their prior beliefs. Such individuals think to themselves, “Well, I’m smart; so if I believe this, well, it must be true.”

TNI: Interesting. That suggests that people can believe the right things, but for wrong reasons or a mix of reasons. It also helps explain why both conservatives and liberals can believe very inconsistent things—favoring individual liberty in some arenas, opposing it in others.

In a recent Scientific American article you talked about certain things that go on in the brain when our beliefs are reinforced. Could you comment on the research that you discussed?

Shermer: Right. Research shows that when you are exposed to facts that tend to support a belief that you already hold, there’s a little reinforcement boost right in the hypothalamus of the brain—the reward system. The brain’s wired so that addictive drugs, chocolate, all sorts of “feel good” chemicals, falling in love, and other pleasurable things tap into and stimulate that part of the brain. Researchers find that this part of the hypothalamus also lights up when a preferred candidate who seems to let down his supporters gives a rational reason for it; people feel as if they’ve been rewarded for hanging in there with that candidate. But the same explanation from an opponent will not have that effect.

This phenomenon is seen in both conservatives and liberals. This does not show that irrationality is hard-wired into us, but that the brain emotionally reinforces beliefs we already hold.

TNI: This raises the question of just how far this mechanism biases, influences, or actually determines behavior.

" Objectivism is perfectly sound. It’s the best thing going out there."

Shermer: Oh, I think it just influences us. But we can override it. It does help to know, in a way, that we can think to ourselves, “All right, I know this bias is going on, I know I’m employing the confirmation bias and thus ignoring evidence that does not confirm my bias.” Knowing that this process is going on helps you overcome it, and we know we can overcome these biases because this is how science works. Every scientist in the world would love his theory to be right, and he would prefer to collect and sort out just the data that support his theory. But he knows that if he does that, he’s going to get nailed by his colleagues; so he has to go out of his way to try to debunk himself. If he fails to find data that contradict his theory, then he knows that it might be on firm ground.

TNI: Well, this suggests that not only does one need to follow an epistemology that we would call the skeptical—the scientific or the rational approach—but one also must cultivate a certain psychology as well. I will give a personal example, both as a libertarian and as an Objectivist. I find that in any circle, I’m going to probably disagree with people on many matters. So, even if I get a little bit of boost from someone who is good on free market economics, I know that the next thing they talk about, I’m probably going to disagree with.

Shermer: So, you consider yourself both an Objectivist and a libertarian?

TNI: Yes. I maintain that all Objectivists are libertarians with a small “l.” Not members of the Libertarian Party. In America, someone who believes in individual liberty, limited government, and free markets can’t really be described as a liberal or conservative. But all libertarians are not Objectivists. While lots of libertarians are Objectivist-friendly, there are the religious libertarians and even some postmodernist libertarians. That’s one reason Ayn Rand didn’t like libertarians. Too eclectic!

Shermer: I see.

TNI: But returning to the issue of psychology: Your point is that to take a skeptical or scientific approach to any issue, we can and must hold ourselves back and understand that our brains might be giving us a little chemical boost when we’re exposed to evidence that confirms our opinions. Thus, we must look deeper and not be victims of our biology.

Shermer: The late Caltech professor and Nobel Prize winner Richard Feynman talked about that. He noted that there’s sort of a habit of acting morally in science. What he means by “moral” is that we must really try to be honest about our own biases, and thus go out of our way to be extremely open about how we actually ran an experiment. In this way, our colleagues can fairly assess our work. And the system of scientific review is built up in such a way that if we don’t do that, somebody will gleefully do it for us, usually in print, and we will look really bad. So there is kind of an impetus to go out of our way and develop good habits in science.

TNI: Right. Now, let’s turn to postmodernists. You did a great job in your books and speeches in explaining what goes on in the minds of people who believe weird things—Holocaust deniers, creationists, UFO-believers, and so on. Do you find any difference in how the postmodernists, or those kind of ultimate skeptics and relativists, manage to hold onto their beliefs? Are the errors with them more intellectual, or is there something else going on there as well?

Shermer: Well, most of them are academics, so they’re smart, they’re intelligent, they’re well educated, and they’re good at couching arguments in terms of logic and reason and so on, flawed as those arguments may be. But also, I think there’s a strong influence in the academy of Karl Marx, which we cannot deny. This goes a long way in accounting for why academics tend to be so liberal in the leftist sense. Marxism does have an intuitive feel to it that seems right to at least some academics, because surely culture has an influence on how we think.

Many such academics, I guess, see themselves as working-class intellectuals. They’re not wealthy. This then becomes self-reinforcing, and I think that does infuse a lot of their ideas. The postmodern stuff is just very sophisticated Marxist thinking, but it’s still along those same lines. Basically, what they’re doing is pulling the rug out from under any notion of objective knowledge and science. They go so far as to say that science is actually no different from any other knowledge tradition, a product of society. And that’s a very egalitarian way of looking at it, but wrong.

TNI: So you, a skeptic, come down squarely on the side of objective knowledge and that there is an objective reality?

Shermer: Absolutely.

TNI: And that reason is the methodology for determining what it happens to be.

"Darwin is not a threat, he’s your best friend."

Shermer: Oh, definitely. We make the assumption that there’s a reality that exists—A is A—and we can know something about it with great confidence even if the asymptotic curve never actually gets to the ceiling of absolute knowledge. It’s always this cumulative search for it to try to get there; and so I do believe that absolutely. Flawed as it may be, conducted by humans with our biases and flaws, science is still the best thing going, because it has a self-correcting approach and because it is cumulative.

TNI: Right. Let’s turn now to the practical realm. Some people might listen to this and say, “Gosh, this is a high philosophical discussion. What does this have to do with the real world?” And yet you’ve written eloquently on why this skeptical approach is absolutely necessary for the real world and for a good society. The weird beliefs of some people aren’t mere personal foibles. Can you say a few things about that?

Shermer: Certainly. Whether somebody reads his horoscope might seem relatively harmless. But the concern is that people who tend to do that sort of thing also tend to accept uncritically other claims that probably are more important, that do have policy implications—like whether Intelligent Design should be taught in public schools as a counter to evolution, or even on matters of economic policies.

I remember when the whole business about the weapons of mass destruction was in the news, before the invasion of Iraq, and the question of where they might be. I remember the Bush administration making the argument that the lack of evidence was, for them, evidence that they existed and were moved. This reminded me exactly of what the conspiracy theorists say about their lack of evidence for their weird beliefs about government plots. Well, of course there’s no evidence of the kind of government cover-ups these people posit. And so, that’s exactly the same kind of sort of ass-backwards reasoning that is deeply flawed and that anybody could fall into if they don’t think critically.

So, this is why reason and critical thinking are important in a democracy, and why little things like believing in UFOs or astrology should be a concern. They do matter. Individually, by themselves, they probably won’t cause civilization to collapse; it’s the irrational thinking in other areas that does matter.

TNI: You have an example about the 9/11 conspiracy theories versus the evaluation many people have of George Bush.

Shermer: Yes, I find this amusing. A recent survey found that somewhere between 25 and 30 percent of Americans accept that Bush had something to do with the 9/11 terrorist attack, that he orchestrated it. And these are the same people that hate Bush and think he’s an incompetent boob and he’s so stupid that he could never pull off anything like this.

Well, wait a minute. Either he’s the most incompetent conspiracy leader of all time, or he’s not. And so, how do we hold those two contradictory beliefs? Well, we have these logic-tight compartments in our brain; and that’s a nice metaphor of just holding competing beliefs, which people do all the time. They just simply set them aside, because it works at that moment.

TNI: You’ve been a skeptic and writing on these matters for some time. Do you observe any trends concerning beliefs in pseudo-science and the scope of such irrationality? Is the situation getting better or worse over time?

Shermer: Well, the actual data show that it’s pretty bad and staying at about those same levels over the last four or five decades. Gallup and others have been polling on how many Americans believe in UFOs, astrology, and the like for some time.

"We do have a ‘purpose-driven life.’ It doesn’t come from top down, though."

What does in fact change are the particular irrational beliefs. For example, belief in exorcism, demons, and Satan spiked after The Exorcist movie came out. And then that died down, and then crop circles created by aliens from other planets were big. And then crop circles died down until Mel Gibson made a movie about crop circles, and then there were more Americans believing in crop circles. Such beliefs are very much driven by pop culture. But the overall principle remains the same—that people tend to be superstitious and to use magical thinking.

However, if we step back and take the historian’s perspective and say, “What’s the trend over the last five hundred years?”—well, gosh, things are much better than five hundred years ago! I mean, science is winning hands down. The overall level of superstition and magical thinking infused in all culture is way better than it was, say, half a millennium ago.

So, I tend to be an ameliorist on this. I think things are good and getting better, and are going to continue to get better. Vigilance is the watchword of freedom, right? And so, we have to fight for a free, liberal democracy and our freedoms. And, as long as we stay on this track, it’s inevitable that things will get better.

TNI: Well, being that we’re in Washington, a few blocks from the White House, it’s always nice to hear that from somebody who’s not from here.

Shermer: Everything is rosy and warm in California.

TNI: No problems with weird thinking there!

Shermer: I remember in Arnold’s inaugural State of the State Address, he said, “You know, last year—before I was in office—we had 297 days of sunshine. This year we had 316 days of sunshine. So under my administration, we have had an increase in sunshine.” It was great. It was a very California thing.

TNI: I love it! Speaking of the importance of critical thinking to society, you have a new book out, Why Darwin Matters. Give us the short version of why exactly does Darwin matter.

Shermer: Well, Darwin matters because his theory of evolution turned out to be right. Of the big three intellectual influences of the late nineteenth century—Darwin, Marx, and Freud—only Darwin still matters, because he was right. So ultimately, truth does win out, and that’s what matters.

On a deeper level, evolutionary theory represents something larger—that is, the scientific worldview, a rational perspective, a materialistic, naturalistic approach to answering questions about nature. And so, at some point, you bump up against traditional theological questions about origins; that’s what makes people nervous.

The average person doesn’t care one whit about bacterial flagellum or the complexity of DNA or the irreducible complexity of the eye—the kind of issues that Intelligent Design advocates argue about. What the average person cares about is, “If my kid learns this Darwin stuff at school, is he going to be an atheist? If he’s an atheist, is he going to lose all his morals? Will reading Darwin lead to sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll, and America going to hell in a hand basket? Is that what’s going to happen?” That’s what people care about.

So, the idea is that we have to keep this Darwin guy in check because, if we don’t, there’ll be this cascading collapse of our civilization. That’s the belief.

What I’m trying to say in this book is that these concerns are completely wrong. You’ve been sold a bill of goods, and here’s what evolution actually means. Darwin’s theory gives us a moral nature. Evolution explains the moral sentiments, for example. And most of the beliefs that conservatives hold are well supported by Darwinian mechanisms. So, not only is Darwin not a threat, he’s your best friend.

TNI: Can you amplify on that? I know that recently you did a major book, The Science of Good and Evil, and you wrote a short booklet, The Soul of Science. I found The Soul of Science intriguing because it seems that one of the problems a lot of people have with a skeptical or scientific approach is that it undermines our nature as moral beings. Some people see that approach as implying that anything goes—that there’s no reason why we shouldn’t go out and kill, rape, and pillage if we can get away with it. But in that essay, you’re making an argument that too few humanists have made about the importance of the soul—not understood in the mystical sense, but in the sense you discuss in The Soul of Science. Could you tell us a few things about that?

Shermer: Well, this is one of the great myths of evolution: “You mean it all happens randomly?” No. “We came from apes?” No. “Darwin means complete, total selfishness in the sense of ‘anything goes,’ kill my neighbor—that’s what evolution is?” No. So when people say they don’t believe in evolution, that’s really what they don’t believe in. And I say, “Well, I don’t either!”

One of the new areas that I and others are exploring is how we can get morality out of a Darwinian worldview. And in fact, people are pro-social, they’re reciprocally altruistic, they’re cooperative, they’re nice. Most of the time, most people are good; but we also have a nature in which we’re xenophobic, tribalistic, and fairly nasty against people whom we consider to be members of an out-group.

Darwin explains all that—why we have these tendencies and capacities. So, it isn’t far from there to then extrapolate how we can achieve a sense of a purpose and meaning in our lives, based on a scientific, Darwinian perspective. As I say in The Soul of Science, we evolved a purpose. We are purposeful beings. It is inherent in our natures to strive to survive each and every day, to eat, to get our genes into the next generation, to protect ourselves and our family and social circles from predators and perceived enemies in other groups.

We are purpose driven, so, we do have a “purpose-driven life,” to paraphrase our friend, Rick Warren. It doesn’t come from top down, though. It comes from the bottom up. It’s built into the system by evolution.

And then, finally, I discuss at the end of Why Darwin Matters the perspective that science gives on spirituality. If spirituality means having a sense of something bigger than yourself, something grander, something awe-inspiring—well, there are lots of ways to get this. Religion is one, but it’s not the only one. Art and music can generate this. But science can do this as well. Looking at a Hubble space telescope photograph of the galaxies, for my money, is way more awe-inspiring of the creation than anything religion has to offer.

TNI: Obviously, I agree with you on that one. But this is interesting, and I want to parse your observations just a little bit.

You mentioned the word “altruism.” You said greater or larger than your self. But in a sense, doesn’t this ultimately come down to a form of self-interest? After all, it’s I who find studying astronomy to be amazing and fulfilling and so forth. So, ultimately, you’re not making a separation between the self and others, or the self and some larger universe. You’re saying that we are part of that universe, and that our good comes from participation in it. Would that be an accurate description?

Shermer: Yeah, as I think would be this notion of “ethical egoism.” I tip the waiter because it ultimately makes me feel good, or guilty if I don’t do it. It does really come back to me. Well, I don’t disagree with that. I think that’s probably right. What I’m after, though, is the deeper “Why?” question from an evolutionary perspective. Why should that make me feel good? It is selfish; okay, I feel good when I do that. But why? What does feeling good mean from an evolutionist point of view? There’s some pathway in the brain that’s generating this good feeling.

Feelings, emotions are materialistic—they’re in the brain. So, how does that happen? Why would that be there? It’s expensive, from a biological perspective, to run brains, so there must be a reason for it. The reason is that we’re a social primate species in which we have to cooperate and get along with our fellow group members, or else the group won’t survive and I won’t survive. And I even think there was, in our evolutionary history—although this is controversial—group selection.

"Postmodernists pulled the rug out from any notion of objective knowledge and science."

I think groups competed against one another, and that the groups were then either more or less successful. Then all the members of the group inherited this capacity for pro-social behavior. But even if it’s still for me, and for getting my genes in the next generation, it is as a byproduct we’ve developed a moral nature. We’re moral animals.

TNI: Speaking of self-interest brings us to the philosophy of Ayn Rand . I know that you have said that you’re an admirer of Rand, that among the pictures you have on your wall—Isaac Asimov and Darwin and others—you actually have Ayn Rand . But you’ve also been critical of the Objectivist movement or, I should say, certain Objectivists. Could you say a few words about what positive insights you get out of Rand?

Shermer: In fact, my daughter and I just listened to the entire audio reading of Atlas Shrugged , which you can download from Audible.com.

TNI: Yeah, we sell the MP3 of that now.

Shermer: I love the idea of personal responsibility and rugged individualism and all that. And the philosophy itself, I think, is perfectly sound. It’s the best thing going out there. Is it perfect? Well, I’m not a philosopher, but, for example, once you go down the path that there are objective truths and realities, particularly in the moral realm dealing with values, then it doesn’t take long for some people to go from there to judging other people fairly harshly.

I remember Dr. Leonard Peikoff saying something about being on the same page as the Catholics who condemn people, because though we Objectivists disagree with them on what the ultimate values are, I like their idea of the heavy-hammer approach. Well, that’s just not my style. I actually I like your approach, Ed, and the approach of your organization about what’s the larger goal here of my life. I like the big-tent and let’s-be-tolerant approach. If we’re close enough on the same page about many things, I think it’s more useful to cut people some slack, rather than going after them on some smaller points. I don’t see the advantage of saying, “You shouldn’t have liked that movie because ultimately, if you were an Objectivist, you wouldn’t have.” I guess it was those sorts of judgments made by some Objectives that I objected to.

And also, from studying science, I have a certain humility about how wrong we all are on many matters—that the discovery of truth is an ongoing process that means correcting lots of errors. So, it makes me nervous to think a system is giving us absolute truth in a way that can blind us to errors that we might need to address.

TNI: Now, in the past, the movement that we generally call humanism or skepticism—the movement that has accepted and defended Darwin and a scientific approach in general—has, since the beginning of the twentieth century, tended to be on the political left.

But in recent years, maybe even decades, we’ve seen a bit of a shift. We’ve seen more people in that camp who are self-described libertarians. I recall that you have described yourself as a libertarian. Certainly, part of this shift came from Objectivism . Objectivists, of course, favor free markets and political liberty, but don’t come from a religious perspective. How do you evaluate the movement today that we call humanism or skepticism, say, compared to a couple of decades ago?

Shermer: I’ve described myself as a libertarian since I was eighteen or nineteen years old. I just never publicly spoke out on it; I was busy doing other things. I didn’t feel confident saying anything about it.

Well, the humanist movement was largely founded by academic Marxists in the 1930s. That’s how the whole thing got started, so there’s certain momentum there; and it’s largely generated out of the active academy, which tends to be fairly left-leaning anyway.

I don’t think there’s anything inherently liberal or leftist about humanism at all, and it’s just a cultural thing that is shifting, thanks to people like [magicians] Penn and Teller, who are libertarians, and myself. And sometimes it just works that way. It just takes somebody that other people admire to speak up and say, “Hey, it’s okay to be a libertarian!” And because so many people admire him and love him, when Penn says this, I’ve seen people say, “Really? Oh, in that case it’s okay!”

Richard Dawkins makes this point in his new book. One of the reasons he wrote his book The God Delusion is that he wanted to say it’s okay to be an atheist. And there are a lot of people who think, “Really? Wow, okay. Maybe I’ll try it or I’ll let that come out now.” I think such personalities speaking up will help shift the humanist movement to a bigger tent. For gosh sakes, it’s small enough as it is, right? We don’t want to nitpick and kick people out because you checked six of the seven boxes, but, I’m sorry, you voted the wrong way on this one, you’re out. Atheists can be just as bad as theists on such matters. “What, you’re an agnostic and not an atheist? How can you be an agnostic? You’re not part of our club.” Well, you’ve just whittled down your club.

TNI: So, you find that the humanist or skeptic movement is more accepting now of libertarians?

Shermer: The feeling, especially among younger people, is “Yes!”

TNI: And, by the way, one of the things I was very pleased to see was that your organization sponsored a debate, “Environmental Wars”; and you had the people who believed global warming is a serious problem, and you had some people who would be called global-warming skeptics—Ron Bailey from Reason magazine; Jonathan Adler, formerly of Competitive Enterprise Institute, now at Case Western.

Shermer: And John Stossel and Michael Crichton.

TNI: Yes. How did that event go, and how is that sort of thing received in the skeptic community?

Shermer: There was much hand-wringing over this. “Oh, Shermer is up to something, he’s bringing those libertarians in.” And I said: “Guys, the whole point of what we do is to have open debate and conversation, and not just sit around and agree with each other. And usually you like that because we all agree on religion or UFOs or whatever. But that stuff is getting boring. We’ve got to get into the action where there’s a hot debate on things that really matter politically, economically, and socially. I can’t stand to do one more article on ‘Bigfoot: Is It Real?’ No, it isn’t. Okay, so can we move on to the next thing now?”

TNI: The pleasure circuit is being stimulated.

Shermer: Yes, so let’s move on. Next year I want to do a conference on war and terrorism, and see what scientists, anthropologists, sociologists, and political scientists have to say about this, and find out what the different perspectives are. To me, that’s where the action is. That’s where it’s really fun!

TNI: That brings me to my next question: Where are the frontiers for skeptics? We’ve done Bigfoot and UFOs. Unfortunately, challenges to evolution are still around. But when you look at society in general today, where are the areas of opportunity? Where should people who believe in a rational society—a society based on individual liberties—where are the challenges into which we should put our resources and do a little more work?

Shermer: Well, I do think political and economic issues, which are covered by many other organizations, really offer opportunities for disputation and argument in which I’d like to see skeptics involved. I like to see us ask of particular claims, “Wait a minute, let’s treat this claim as a hypothesis and see if we can test it. Does this system work better than that system, and what kind of data do we have?” That’s what Jared Diamond does in his work.

Your organization and groups like the Cato Institute are already doing things like this, looking at the data and the evidence. But most scientists, social scientists, and skeptics are completely unaware of this. They put that into a catalog of things completely different from what skeptics do. But I say to them, instead of just looking at religion and such matters, you can increase the circle in which to promote a rational approach by looking at political and economic matters.

Let’s just look at everything. Obviously, alternative medicine will always be a big issue for skeptics. Are such practitioners frauds? But shouldn’t we also debate the role of the Food and Drug Administration? The people who consider themselves skeptics would debunk a lot of alternative medicine, but they should appreciate that there are some pretty good arguments about the FDA being too draconian in their restrictions of experimental drugs.

TNI: Going back to the environmentalist issue, some people have said that environmentalism is a new kind of religion. There are some very striking parallels, even if you don’t get into the Gaia hypothesis and the doomsday scenarios, and notions of guilt and atonement. Is this a reasonable critique?

Shermer: It is a reasonable critique, yeah, because it’s true. I’ve written about the doomsday scenario. The most common ones are the religious-based ones; but, hey, the secular environmentalists, they’re looking forward to doomsday. In a sick kind of way, they hope Al Gore is right and that New York is flooded because now we’ll finally get to transition to the green world in which they want to live. They’ll say, “Oh, this is terrible, and we don’t want this to happen. We have to do something!” But I can tell that secretly they’re kind of hoping it happens. And of course, they’re sure that they are not going to be part of the drowning set. They’re going to be part of the survivors.

TNI: So, how is Skeptic magazine, which you edit, doing?

Shermer: I think it’s doing great. We’re up to about 50,000 for each print run, and we have extensive distribution in stores. And to me, this is encouraging in a larger sense. It shows there’s a market for these ideas. People are willing to subscribe and pay for it. We’re not the cheapest magazine on the stands, so that means people are hungry for this. They do want to know. Just like people love to know how the magicians do it. Well, they want to know, “So, what’s really going on here on this or that issue?” I think that’s a good sign. I take that as a positive trend in our society.

TNI: What exciting things are you planning for the future?

Shermer: Well, I am excited about my next book, which is about evolutionary economics, behavioral economics, and neural economics. I think that is where the sort of cutting edge of skepticism is. Let’s go into some new areas. When people ask me what’s the next book, and I tell them that, they’re like, “What?” Then I explain a little bit, and they say, “Oh, yeah. I guess you could be skeptical about economics or you can take a scientific approach to economic claims.”

TNI: By the way, a couple of years ago, someone told me that years before they had asked you why you didn’t include Marxists in the book about why people believe weird things, because Marx maintained that he was a scientific socialist. Surely that is one of the weird things that people believe, so you should put Marxism in there.

Shermer: I would have put it in there. I just couldn’t write about everything.

TNI: The socialists keep banging their heads against the wall, even though every time socialism is tried, it doesn’t work so well.

Shermer: I’d also have gone after Freudianism, too. It’s just that it’s already been done to death. So, what more is there to say about Freud?

TNI: Yeah, that’s true. I like what you said earlier: that of the three great thinkers that influenced the last century—Freud, Marx, and Darwin—Darwin is the only one who’s left standing.

Shermer: Yes!

TNI: Thank you for the interview and your fine work.

Edward Hudgins


Edward Hudgins

Edward Hudgins is research director at the Heartland Institute and former director of advocacy and senior scholar at The Atlas Society.

Edward Hudgins
About the author:
Edward Hudgins

Edward Hudgins, former director of advocacy and senior scholar at The Atlas Society, is the founder of the Human Achievement Alliance and can be reached at ehudgins@humanachievementalliance.org.

Religion and Atheism
Science and Technology