In this article I interview professional skeptic Dr. Michael Shermer the founding publisher of Skeptic magazine monthly columnist for Scientific American and the author of several New York Times bestsellers.
- What it means to be a skeptic
- Skepticism vs Pseudoskeptism
- Science vs Pseudoscience
- The Baloney Detection kit
- How to overcome Confirmation bias
What it means to be a skeptic
Michael Frank: I want to start by defining some terms and let’s state the obvious:
What does it mean to be a skeptic?
Why is it important to be skeptical?
Michael Shermer: Well a skeptic is someone who has an open inquiring mind, that is looking for evidence before they believe something, and is willing to proportion the confidence in their beliefs based on the evidence available for it. Principle proportionality says you should assess the trueness or falseness of a claim based on its evidence. So skeptics tend to be open minded that way. But of course you don’t want to be so open minded that you believe everything. So there’s a balance there.
Skepticism is really just the scientific way of thinking. In science, we start with the null hypothesis, that is your hypothesis about whatever, is not true until you convince us otherwise that it is based on evidence, and if the evidence is good, we will believe. So skepticism is not just denialism or cynicism or not believing anything, that would just be nihilism or solipsism and that just gets you nowhere. There’s lots of things we believe. I believe in the Big Bang theory of the creation of the universe. I believe in the theory of evolution, the germ theory of disease, plate tectonics, I believe in climate change, and so on, because the evidence is there. If the evidence wasn’t there, I wouldn’t believe it. So that’s kind of the core of it.
If you say Bigfoot is real, I say, well that’s fantastic. Show me the body. And if you have a body, and we do a DNA test and so on, and it’s clearly not a guy in an ape suit, and it’s not a bear or a dog, yeah, then I’ll believe. If you believe aliens have come here, show me the actual spacecraft. But if all you’ve got are blurry photographs and grainy videos and stories about things that go bump in the night, I’m going to be skeptical, because that evidence is not very high quality evidence. So much of what we call “Baloney detection” is really asking about the evidence, and who’s making the claim, and where they got that idea, and so on.
Skepticism vs Pseudoskepticism
Michael Frank: I’ve also heard the term pseudoskeptic. What’s the difference between a skeptic and a pseudoskeptic?
Michael Shermer: Hahahahaha. That term, pseudoskeptic is kind of used as a pejorative against people like me that believe certain things. So someone like a creationist would say: “Oh Shermer, you believe in the theory of evolution, you’re just a pseudoskeptic”. Or climate deniers will say the same thing: “You believe that climate change stuff? You’re a pseudoskeptic! A real skeptic would be skeptical of climate change!” Okay, this is a misunderstanding of the word skeptic. It’s almost as if you’re just supposed to doubt everything just for the sake of doubt. Well that’s not a productive way of belief formation and knowledge acquisition. We want to believe things if they’re true, or if the evidence is strong that they’re probably true. If not, then not. And so that’s a misnomer.
Michael Frank: Skeptics often get accused of simply being closed minded don’t they
Michael Shermer: Yes, and we’re not. Again that word skepticism, it doesn’t mean denialism, it doesn’t mean nihilism, it doesn’t mean cynicism, it’s just being open minded enough to accept ideas that have a preponderance of evidence for them, but not being so open minded that you believe things for which the evidence is weak or nonexistent. And really it’s a virtue to be a skeptic. It’s hard to be a skeptic. I mean the tendency is we mostly want to believe, and when you tell me you have some way for me to get rich, I’d like to believe that. Are you telling me I get to live forever in this wonderful place called heaven? I’d like to believe that my consciousness continues on after the death of my body. I would like that to be true. But I also want to know what’s actually true, not just what I’d like to be true, because I know from past experience there’s things I would like to be a be true that have turned out not to be true. So it’s good to be skeptical.
Science vs Pseudoscience
Michael Frank: You said that being a skeptic is taking a scientific approach, and another word that we hear a lot is pseudoscience. Can you talk us through the difference between science and pseudoscience.
Michael Shermer: Yep, so the term pseudoscience is one that we use to describe a claim that sounds scientific. It’s filled with scientific sounding jargon. It claims to have experimental evidence or empirical evidence or data and so on. But when you look into it, if it turns out there’s nothing to it at all related to science, so we call that pseudoscience. I would call creationism pseudoscience. They’re not doing any science. They’re not doing research. They don’t go on paleontological digs. They’re not running DNA tests to compare the DNA genetic similarity between species and so on, there’s nothing like that going on. They don’t even have labs. All they do is troll scientific papers looking for anomalies that they think evolutionists can’t explain, and therefore God did it. So that’s pseudoscience. Now to be fair, it can be used in a pejorative way. That is, no one in the history of the world has ever self-identified as a “pseudo-scientist”. That is, no one gets up in the morning to go to their pseudo lab, to collect some pseudo facts, to support their pseudo theory, that’s part of their pseudoscience. Of course, people think that they’re doing something that they really believe in that’s good.
In the same way I like to say that no one in the history of the world has ever joined a cult. They join a group that they think is good, it’s productive, it’s going to be helpful to society, or themselves personally, and it only becomes a cult in retrospect, with hindsight and some distance they realize, oh my gosh, I got sucked into this group, and they took all my money or whatever. And so it’s like that. It’s the kind of thing that is often described by philosophers of science as the demarcation problem. How do you demarcate between science and pseudoscience? Where would you draw the line between the theory of evolution and the theory of creationism, and why is one acceptable science and the other is not? And that turns out to be not that easy to answer, because it depends on each particular claim where they’ve gone off the rails, or if they have it all.
Examples of Pseudoscience
Michael Frank: You’ve used creationism as an example of pseudoscience, what might be some other examples of pseudoscience?
Michael Shermer: Oh, all the cancer quackery for example. People that they claim they have cures for cancer, and they have websites with testimonials, and they have charts and graphs, and it looks like they have scientific evidence that their particular thing, whatever it is, the extract of seaweed, or some weird concoction that they’ve made, not approved by any medical associations, and you have to go to the Philippines or something to get the treatment. But when you look into it you see there is no clinical trials, there’s no epidemiological studies, there’s no control group, experimental group comparisons, and the concoction or treatment they’re using has never been tested, that sort of thing I would then say “Yep, that’s pseudoscience”. Astrology is pseudoscience. Astronomy is science. The SETI community, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, these are astronomers and physicists looking for signals from space to indicate that intelligent beings are out there somewhere, that’s science. The whole UFO community, that’s pseudoscience. They claim they have evidence, but they don’t. So those are just a few. I mean, pretty much every issue of skeptic deals with this issue, this demarcation between science and pseudoscience.
Should we automatically and reflexively dismiss any claim for which there is no evidence?
Michael Frank: Should we automatically and reflexively dismiss anything for which there is no evidence? Is that the benchmark? We don’t believe if there is no evidence full stop?
Michael Shermer: Yes. Well, okay, so it starts out by you give me the claim and I’ll just simply ask. I mean the default position is I’m skeptical. And the reason for that is because most new ideas that people come up with are wrong. And that includes scientists. I mean when you actually work in science, mostly what scientists are doing at the beginning of a research project is they’re just spitballing ideas. Could be this, could be that, you know, they sit around and think of like a dozen different explanations and then they start to test them and weed them out one by one, and the last one standing is the least likely to be false or the most likely to be true. There’s no truth in science with a capital “T”. We could always be wrong. The theory of evolution might be wrong. The germ theory of disease might be wrong. The Big Bang theory of the universe might be wrong. You know, it’s possible. I mean those examples are very doubtful because there’s so much evidence, but we would never say for sure it can’t be wrong.
So you have to have some criteria, some testable measure of how we know it’s likely true or likely false, that doesn’t depend just on me, you can test it, or somebody else in some other part of the country or the world can test it. And that’s why scientific papers have very specific methodology sections. Here is exactly what I did so that you can do it. And if you get the same results our confidence goes up. And if you don’t get the same results our confidence goes down. And you know it’s a really useful method of answering questions and solving problems, because we know from cognitive psychology that all of us are biased. We would all like our most cherished beliefs to be true. And therefore the confirmation bias kicks in where you look for and find confirming evidence for what you already believe. You ignore the disconfirming evidence. You remember the hits, you forget the misses, and so on. Everybody does it including scientists. But in science, you have a built in self-correcting machinery that says you better look for the disconfirming evidence of your belief, because if you don’t someone else will, and they’ll debunk you in a public published journal article. And so you’ve got to be super careful. The Feynman principle as we call it, Richard Feynman’s quote is “The first principle of science is that you must not fool yourself, and you’re the easiest person to fool.”.
The Baloney Detection kit
Michael Frank: I want you to take us through your Baloney detection kit. What is the purpose of the Baloney detection kit? We could call it a bullshit detection kit. How does it work?
Michael Shermer: Yeah, so the cleaned up word for bullshit is Baloney. So this term was coined by Carl Sagan in his great book The Demon Haunted World and he has a whole chapter on Baloney detection. And so we kind of ran with that. We loved the idea, and so we republished parts of that in a little booklet called the Baloney detection kit, which I added a bunch more questions to Carl’s original questions.
Basically, they’re the kinds of questions that anybody should ask about any claim, not just what kinds of things scientists ask, but for example:
“How reliable is the source of the claim?”
I mean, some people are very cautious, careful, conservative, and if they say something or endorse a new claim or something, you know that gets my attention. But if it’s the kind of person who believes everything, you know, they believe every conspiracy theory they’ve ever heard, I think the source is not so reliable because they’re endorsing things that often turn out to be not true.
The second question is: “Does this source often make similar claims?”
Again, you know surveys show that people that think Princess Diana was murdered in a conspiracy plot by the royal family, or the high five, or the Arabs or whatever, are also more likely to tick the box that she faked her death and is still living somewhere. Well, those can’t both be true, but you know people that think conspiracies are true, believe most of them are true. People that believe in astrology are also more likely to believe in palm reading and Tarot cards and psychics talking to the dead and that sort of thing. So sources that are not reliable and often make similar extreme claims, therefore we should be skeptical of.
The third question is: “Have the claims been verified by another source?”
So this is what I was talking about before, that it shouldn’t just be based on what I believe, because I could be wrong. I have to be able to point to something and say: “Do you see it? There it is. You check it yourself. Don’t take my word for it.” And so claims that have not been verified by another source, we should be skeptical of. Like back in 1989 Pons and Fleischmann, these two chemists thought they had discovered cold fusion, that is, basically free energy on your table top with this device that they built, and they held a press conference before anyone had replicated it, and you know they were good enough to say here’s exactly what we did, so labs scrambled around the world to set up and do the exact same experiment and nobody was able to replicate it. A big problem for them that the skeptical alarms went off.
Number four: “How does the claim fit with what we know about how the world works?”
So extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. And so what makes an extraordinary claim extraordinary is, is if it doesn’t quite fit with the way we know the world works, if it’s just a tiny little tweak on some particular story, the Great Pyramids and the Sphinx were built you know about 3000 BC, and I have a new theory that says that this particular break here was added later, something like that. That’s not a particularly extraordinary claim. But if someone comes along and says: “Okay, I think the entire traditional mainstream theory about these things are wrong and that the Great Pyramid and the Sphinx were built 20,000 years ago”. Wow, okay, that doesn’t fit at all with the way we know the world developed in terms of the history of civilization. It would imply that there has to be other forms of civilizational development also 20,000 years old for which there is no evidence, and so we should be skeptical.
Number five: “Has anyone gone out of the way to disprove the claim or has only confirmatory evidence been sought?”
So this is what I mentioned earlier, the confirmation bias. So if you only look for evidence to confirm your belief, you’re likely to find it, and you’re also likely to be wrong. How can you find evidence in support of your claim and still be wrong if there’s evidence for it? Because there maybe counter-evidence or disconfirming evidence that overwhelms the few pieces of evidence you think you found. And that’s what gets people into trouble. So the core of science is to do an end run around this confirmation bias, to try to find people to disconfirm your claim, to test it, and go out of your way to find the problems with your arguments, because you’re likely to have deceived herself. So you mentioned self-deception, it’s a great term. We all do it.
Michael Frank: Could you give an example of a disconfirming evidence and briefly explain the concept of falsification?
Michael Shermer: Yeah. So the falsification process is finding evidence that disconfirms your claim. So let’s say I’m skeptical of Bigfoot, another way to say it is: “What would it take to change your mind?” Well, in that case, you show me a body of a bipedal primate, that’s not a bear, it’s not a dog, it’s not a guy in an ape suit, it’s an actual primate, a great ape, that’s different from all the other great apes. It’s not a chimp or a gorilla or an orangutan, it’s not a human, and it’s not fake. Then I would change my mind. That would be an example of running a kind of counter-evidence to the claim that would lead me to change my mind, to falsify my skepticism in that case.
Or in astronomy for awhile in the fifties and sixties, there was sort of a competition between the steady state theory and the Big Bang theory for the origins of the universe. But more evidence accumulated for the one than the other, but there had to be some kind of tests that astronomers could run. And there were. Hypotheses predict that if the Big Bang theory is true and there should be this background radiation from the explosion, all the galaxies should be expanding away from one another, and so on. And it turns out when they collected that data, ran that experiment, in essence, that turned out to be true. So that rejected the steady state theory and supported the Big Bang theory. So falsification is key. If there’s no way to falsify it, then it’s not science, it’s just an internal truth.
So another way to think about it is there are objective truths, and there are subjective truths. An objective truth would be something that I can see, you can see, anybody can see, and we can verify it. You know, if I say to my class last night that I taught: “There’s 25 students in this class.” That’s an objective claim and we can test it by simply counting. And we counted, and there were 23, two of my students were absent yesterday apparently. And so that falsified my claim. But if I say something like: “I took Ayahuasca and I discovered that there is a whole other spiritual world in existence at the end of this multidimensional place where angels live”, or some such thing. And people that take Ayahuasca that’s what they swear up and down. Now if I did it and said: “You got to believe me, this is incredible, if you take this drug…” Nope, that’s not a testable claim. That’s just saying it’s another internal part of an internal state. There has to be some way to get at it and test it. And that’s the key to science.
Michael Frank: re: Ayahuasca I heard you say on the Joe Rogan podcast that Graham Hancock had invited you to try Ayahuasca. Are you still going to do that Michael or have you changed your mind?
Michael Shermer: Um, I am tempted to do it. My wife definitely does not want me to disappear for a week in Costa Rica and take drugs. Sorry. Medicinal plants. I’m also not crazy about that it apparently makes you violently vomiting for awhile, every episode that you take it so that doesn’t appeal to much. Other people encouraged me to try something a little lighter. Just kind of ease into it. I’m fascinated by it because I’m a psychologist in part, and I’m interested in consciousness and altered states of consciousness and how the brain works. So these medicinal plants, these drugs, whatever, these hallucinogens are fascinating. The fact that they can even work at all tells us that there must be chemicals, there must be molecules in the brain for which that lock and key mechanism is already in place by nature, or else the drugs wouldn’t work. That tells us a lot. Does it tell us about reality? This is a problem. You know, again, if I can’t point to it, you know, if I say I have a cure for AIDS or a particular cancer or something, it’s not enough for me to say: “I believe it”, “I really, really believe it”. For you to believe you have to say: “Shermer, show me the experimental evidence”. Like, you know, you had a thousand cancer patients, five hundred of them were put on your treatment. Five hundred of them got no treatment at all. Or maybe we divided up into three groups. One gets no treatment. One gets a placebo and it’s told it’s the treatment, and the other one gets the actual treatment, and we see what the effects are and that’s an example of falsification. If you can’t do that, it’s not science.
Michael Shermer: Number six:
“Where does the preponderance of evidence point?”
Does the preponderance of evidence converge to the claimant’s conclusion or to a different one? Climate science, for example, climate change, that is, is global warming real and human caused or not? That’s a legitimate question. And for awhile I was skeptical back in the eighties and nineties when this first came on my radar, you know the evidence wasn’t that good, it wasn’t converging to an obvious conclusion, so I withheld judgment. But by the mid 2000’s enough evidence had accumulated, not from any one lab, or any one line of research, but independently of each other, different labs, scientists in completely different fields were all coming to the same conclusion. And so my confidence in its claim went way up. And this is what we mean by a consensus.
People have heard this with climate science that it’s a consensus, what do they mean by that? It’s not a democracy where all the climate scientists get together and vote. No. What they mean is that ninety-seven percent represents the number of papers, thousands of climate science papers published in peer reviewed scientific journals, ninety-seven percent of them conclude that global warming is real and human caused. Now these are people that don’t know each other, don’t work together, they’re not in the same conferences or even in the same fields.
Well what about the three percent? You know what if they’re right? Because sometimes you know, people in the minority turned out to be right and the mainstream scientists are wrong. That’s true. That sometimes happens. But the three percent, if you look at those papers, they don’t converge to anything. You know some of them say it’s sunspot activity. Well you look at the sunspot activity and it’s going down not up. So the energy from the sun is decreasing, not increasing, so it shouldn’t be getting warmer. But other papers that three percent, they don’t say that, they say no, it’s eccentricities in the orbit of the earth and that’s it.
No, that’s already been accounted for, and it’s not that. Or it’s the heat island effect from how the measurements are taken. No it’s not that. So whether they’re wrong or right, and there are specific ones, the point that they don’t converge to the same conclusion. They’re all over the place. Whereas the other ninety-seven percent, they all converge to this conclusion, so that that means our confidence should be high because of that convergence of evidence, sometimes it’s called the consilience of inductions by philosophers of science, but just thinking of it as convergence of evidence from multiple lines of inquiry from different fields. When that happens, then your confidence should be higher.
Number seven: “Is the claimant employing the accepted rules of reason and tools or research, or have those been abandoned in favor of others that lead to the desired conclusion?”
So for example, I mentioned the difference between the SETI scientists and the Ufologists. So SETI scientists search for extraterrestrial intelligence. These are physicists, cosmologists, astronomers, trained in science. They have criteria setup by which they would decide whether a signal from space was extraterrestrial intelligence or just a natural source. For example, in Carl Sagan’s contact in the film, you have Jodie Foster there with the cans on her ears listening to the signals, that’s not how it works but any case, let’s say all of a sudden the signal comes in, and it’s a series of prime numbers, numbers that are divisible by themselves or one, and all of a sudden she realizes there’s no stellar system galactic source that would pump out prime numbers. This has got to be a signal of intelligence. And that has happened before where astronomers have found some curious signals coming in that it seems like ooh, this might be extra terrestrial. And then they double check and turns out it’s not. So it’s also falsifiable. And then they look for other astronomers to check it. You know there’s been a few so called Wow! signals where an astronomer will find something, and you’ll contact some astronomers say down in Australia and go: “Hey can you check this when the sky comes up over Australia because I’m getting this really curious signal. I don’t want to announce to the world I’ve discovered aliens before somebody else has checked.” That’s the kind of thing that scientists really have to do.
The UFO community, they already believe aliens are here, so anything that would count that’s anomalous, weird, unusual, they just go ahead and count that, and there’s no way to falsify it. What would it take to change your mind about UFO’s as being extraterrestrial? They have no criteria like that. So they’re not playing by the rules of science. Same thing with creationists and evolutionists. Creationists don’t do science, they don’t play by the rules of science.
Michael Frank: So they start with their conclusion in mind and then use motivated reasoning to work backward. Is that fair to say?
Michael Shermer: That’s exactly right. That’s the perfect way to say it. Now it’s not to say that their brains are broken or they’re dumb or uneducated or anything like that, because we all do that. My point is that in science you can’t do that. Or if you do, you’ve got to be super careful not to fall for the confirmation bias because somebody else that doesn’t care about your theory is going to check and see if they can catch you up on that. I mean they’re going to try to replicate it. They’re going to test your claims. They’re going to analyze your arguments. And so therefore you have to go out of the way. So it’s the system of science that set up to prevent that.
Overcoming Confirmation bias
Michael Frank: How do we overcome confirmation bias? We’ve mentioned looking for disconfirming evidence. How else might we overcome our own confirmation bias?
Michael Shermer: First of all talking to other people. You know if you have a pet theory, it’s good to run it by some people and not just your friends and family that want to tell you what you want to hear. You got to run it by people who don’t already believe that, or think differently from you. That’s why diversity in a committee of any kind, in a corporation, in a university, in a military organization, you gotta have diversity. I’m not talking about skin color, diversity and gender diverse, I mean viewpoint diversity. People that think differently from you. That’s super critical for solving problems and coming up with new hypotheses that might explain the thing under question. And so personally, if you think you’ve come up with some new idea, you got it run it by other people, particularly people that aren’t going to tell you what you want to hear. I get letters all the time from people that think they’ve figured out some new theory of physics. Usually it’s cosmology and the nature of space and time and the origins of the universe, and it’s: “Newton was wrong and Einstein was wrong and Feynman was wrong and Stephen Hawking was wrong, and I’ve worked this whole thing out in my garage on the weekends, if you’ll help me publish it I’ll share the Nobel prize with you, blah, blah blah.” I’m like: “Oh my God, Dude, have you gone down to like the local high school physics teacher and just run this by him?” And they’re like: “Oh, they’ll never accept it. It’s too radical.”
I don’t want to tell somebody: “You don’t know what you’re talking about”. So I usually say something like: “Well, I’m not a physicist, so I can’t really assess your theory, but you know there are people that do this for a living, there are physicists and you know maybe this has already been proposed 100 years ago and you might want to double check on this before you make these grandiose claims about Newton was wrong and Einstein was wrong and so on.” And you absolutely have to do that by somebody who’s not in your circle. You know, your spouse is going to tell you: “Oh honey, I think this is the greatest idea I’ve ever heard”. Of course. Your kids are going to tell you nice things. Your friends are gonna tell you nice things. You gotta get out of your box. That’s really the biggest thing.
Michael Frank: Get out of your echo chamber, seek out people that will disagree with you, or that think differently…
Michael Shermer: Totally. This is the problem with politics today. It’s so divisive because people have moved away from the center toward the two extremes and they don’t talk to each other. So viewpoint diversity is super critical. If you’re surrounded by a bunch of liberals and you have no idea how a conservative thinks, it’s not going to help you to just stay in that bubble. You know what I mean? Like in the last election here in the states a lot of my liberal friends were like: “I don’t know a single person that voted for Trump”. You know dudes, sixty million people voted for Trump. If you don’t know one, you’re in a bubble! I mean obviously there’s something going on here that you know, there’s people thinking differently from you, and that’s not to endorse any politician or anything like that, it’s to endorse viewpoint diversity, which is why college campuses have gotten in a bit of trouble. They emphasize diversity, but that has traditionally meant since the seventies, race diversity, gender diversity, and now trans diversity, LGBTQ, diversity and so on, that’s all great. But if we don’t have viewpoint diversity we’re going to be in big trouble.
Michael Frank: Agreed.
Michael Shermer: Number eight: “Has the claimant provided a different explanation for the observed phenomenon, or is it strictly a process of denying the existing explanation?”
That and nine are also related.
Number nine: “If the claimant has provided a new explanation, does it account for as many phenomena as the old explanation?”
So let’s go back to my experience with Graham Hancock on Joe Rogan’s podcast. Almost four hours of this, where Graham has this idea that the pyramids, the Great Sphinx and other archaeological structures around the world, were built not thousands of years ago, but tens of thousands of years ago. Okay. So first of all, we have a lot of evidence that indicates they were built thousands of years ago, not tens of thousands of years ago, but if they were built tens of thousands of years ago, there would have to be evidence of the existence of these people then. Where are their tools? Where are their trash heaps? Where’s the remains of the food that they ate? I mean the kinds of things, the pots that they use, the tools that they made, these are the kinds of things that archaeologists find when they find an ancient civilization. So the point I was trying to make to Joe Rogan, because he hasn’t had the experience of talking to a bunch of alternative archaeology people. So he just has met Graham, and he loves Graham, which is totally understandable. Graham Hancock’s a super nice guy and he’s thoughtful and polite and nice, and it’s like yeah this guy comes off so reasonable, why won’t archaeologists give him a hearing? It’s seems like it’s only fair that the other side be heard.
The problem is there’s not just one other side, there’s a hundred people like Graham Hancock that have alternative theories of the past and archaeology and so on. So you know, these beleaguered archaeologists in Egypt who work at the Great Pyramid complex or the Sphinx, they’ve heard every one of these alternative theories. So when a new one shows up and says: “I want to tell you my alternative theory” they go “Bye!” You know we’ve heard a hundred of them, and none of them can account for all the evidence we already have, not just the anomaly. So you know in the Sphinx, there’s these anomalous erosions on the side of the Sphinx that implies that there was a lot of rain that caused this erosion. But when the Sphinx was built, when the Pyramids were built, there wasn’t that much rain, but 20,000 years ago there was a lot of rain because the weather was different. Okay. But that’s just an anomaly, and there are explanations for this. Perfectly cogent explanations that geologists say there was more rain than we thought, or this could be wind erosion or, I forget what the explanation is now, but the point is that you have to account for all the anomalies that the old theory doesn’t account for, as well as the stuff that the accepted theory accounts for. So when you’ve had some experience dealing with alternative sources of claims then you begin to see, oh, okay, so they’re just kind of throwing it out there. Like Michio Kaku for example has on his webpage, if you have an alternative theory of physics, here are the 12 things your theory has to explain that the current theory does explain, on top of the anomalies you think your theory explains. And they don’t. They never do. And so that tells us that is alternative theory is probably not true.
Michael Frank: Again it comes back to the word you like to use, the preponderance of evidence, not just evidence that might explain one thing here or there, but where does the preponderance of evidence point
Michael Shermer: That’s right. David Hume’s great treatise on miracles in particular, but more broadly how we know anything is true, sort of established this principle of proportionality. Whereas Sagan liked to say “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” and ordinary claims just need ordinary evidence. So for example, you take something like the resurrection of Jesus, and now I’m willing to agree that a man named Jesus probably existed and if he did, he was probably crucified if he was something of a radical Jewish teacher because you know, the Romans crucified everybody, so it’s not hard to believe. That’s not an extraordinary claim. And so we don’t need too much evidence for that.
But the resurrection is a different story because about one hundred billion people have lived before us. Seven and a half billion are alive now, a hundred billion lived before us. They’ve all died, not one of them has come back to life. So to have one out of one hundred billion, so it’s one hundred billion to one odds that one of them came back to life. Okay. That is an extraordinary claim. Is the evidence for it proportional to that extraordinaryness? No, it isn’t. No. We have only biblical sources. No extra biblical sources. Christians will say, well, there were five hundred eye witnesses. No. There is one story that says that there were five hundred eye witnesses. If we actually had five hundred different accounts of the resurrection, that would be much stronger, but we don’t. We just have one account written decades after the fact. The evidence for Jesus’ resurrection is way less than say any description of Pompeii being buried by a volcano, and that’s not even an extraordinary claim. You know that volcanoes erupt and destroy things that’s fairly ordinary in history, and we have the evidence right there. You can go to Pompeii and you can see the ash solidified into rock and the people buried in there, that’s an ordinary claim and it has ordinary evidence or extraordinary evidence for it. But the resurrection is an extraordinary claim and the evidence isn’t even ordinary. So that tells us we should probably be skeptical of that claim. So again, proportioning your confidence to the evidence is very important.
Michael Shermer: Number 10: “Do the claimant’s personal beliefs and biases drive the conclusions or vice versa?”
Okay, so obviously we all have personal beliefs and biases. I mean, scientists are Christians or they’re Jews or they’re Muslims or they’re atheists or whatever, they’re conservatives they’re liberals they’re libertarians, whatever. They have personal beliefs. So of course that’s going to influence their science. But the question is, is that’s what driving them to find these conclusions? So the accusation by conservatives, is that these climate scientists are all a bunch of liberals. Well, first of all, that’s not true. There are conservative climate scientists, but okay, I’ll grant that probably the majority of them are liberal. But it doesn’t matter. Because what they’re doing has nothing to do with their politics. I mean there’s either an increase in CO2 gases or there is not. There’s either a greenhouse effect due to the increase in CO2 gases or there isn’t. The glaciers are melting faster than they have in the past, or they’re not. And you can test that, and I can test that, and conservative, liberal, libertarian, atheist, a Jew, a Muslim, anybody can test that and it doesn’t matter. So the whole point of science is to get us out of those bubbles, those belief systems that can influence our beliefs, and see if they’re true or not, if they stand or not.
This is part 1 of a 2 part interview series with Dr. Michael Shermer
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