He is the author of New York Times bestsellers Why People Believe Weird Things and The Believing Brain, Why Darwin Matters, The Science of Good and Evil, and The Moral Arc. His new book is Heavens on Earth: The Scientific Search for the Afterlife, Immortality & Utopia.
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.
- Critical thinking
- Why smart people believe stupid things
- The best arguments and evidence for the existence of God
- The backfire effect – and how to overcome it
This is part 2 of a 2 part series.
Part one is here: How to spot bullshit: Interview with Michael Shermer
How to improve your Critical thinking skills
Michael Frank: Michael, if someone asked me: “How do you improve your critical thinking skills?” I would say:
- Question everything
- Learn about cognitive biases and logical fallacies
- Check out your baloney detection kit
What are some other ways that we might improve our critical thinking skills?
Michael Shermer: Well at Skeptic we have quite the resource of free materials under our Skepticism 101 page. There’s tons of free articles on there and essays and booklets to download for free, class course syllabi on skepticism in science and pseudoscience also. I have a podcast The Science Salon Podcast which has tons of really interesting conversations with scientists, most of which we discuss these kinds of issues. And of course Carl Sagans great book The Demon Haunted World. I use my own books Why People Believe Weird Things and The Believing Brain and Carol Tavris great book Mistakes were made (but not by me). I assigned that book to my class because it’s a great book on self-deception, and we have a whole library of books by lots of people that are all focused on these particular issues. The Baloney detection kit is also available cheaply at Skeptic.
Why smart people believe stupid things
Michael Frank: Michael you speak a lot about smart people believing stupid things: a flat earth, Illuminati, conspiracy theories, that kind of thing. Why do smart people believe stupid things? And I guess you might say: “Well they don’t apply critical thinking to their sacred cows”. But why is that? And what can be done about it?
Michael Shermer: Well of course they think they’re applying critical thinking to their sacred cows. As I said before, no one thinks they’ve joined a cult or a pseudoscience belief system. And the short answer is that smart people believe weird things because they’re really good at rationalizing beliefs they’ve arrived at for non-smart reasons. Which is to say that all of us form our beliefs for a variety of reasons. Evidence is usually low on the list. There are social, cultural, family reasons, personal reasons, emotional reasons, we’re raised to believe this, or it had some influence on me when I was young, or it was a teacher, or a particular book, or something leads you to a belief system… and then you go about justifying and rationalizing the belief for a whole bunch of apparently rational reasons. But of course as we mentioned before, this is confirmation bias at work, and smart people, educated people, are even better at finding clever arguments and reasons than non-smart, non-educated people.
In a God debate I did recently, Frank Turek was tying himself up in knots to justify these religious beliefs that are clearly faith based. I mean if they were really good arguments and there was really good empirical evidence for say the resurrection, why don’t Jews believe in the resurrection? I mean, I can see why you’d say: “Well atheists don’t believe because they’re atheists”. But what about Jews? I mean they believe in the same God as Christians, they even believe in the same book, at least the first part of the book, the Old Testament, and they even believe that there is going to be a messiah, they just don’t think it was that carpenter from Nazareth. So if the arguments are so good why don’t Jews believe it? And the answer is obvious. Because they’re Jews. Because they were raised in a Jewish culture. Or they converted to Jewish culture for various reasons that have nothing to do with science and reason, and everything to do with emotional need and comfort and family and culture and community and all that stuff. And that’s how most of these things work. We back into them after the fact. So to that extent, our brains are more like lawyers than scientists, you know, just marshaling evidence in favor of your client. In this case, the client is the belief system.
Michael Frank: This is known as motivated reasoning. Correct?
Michael Shermer: That’s right. So the general category that cognitive psychologists use is called motivated reasoning of which the cognitive biases such as the confirmation bias and the hindsight bias are part of that. You know, after the fact, we reconstruct what happened in a way that makes it seem inevitable, when in fact before it happened it wasn’t inevitable at all. That’s the hindsight bias. And there’s a whole slew of these. Wikipedia has a list of 50 of them. There are quite a few, but all under that umbrella of motivated reasoning, you’re motivated to reason your way to a certain belief whether it’s true or not.
The rise of atheism
Michael Frank: Michael, I’ll share some of my personal beliefs with you:
- I believe that most people are not truth seekers. They’re approval seekers, comfort seekers, pleasure seekers, but not truth seekers.
- I think that most people believe whatever they want to believe, regardless of the evidence, and they form their beliefs based on convenience and preference, not on logic, facts or evidence.
- I think that most people are intellectually lazy and dishonest. They don’t follow the evidence where it leads, they have double standards for evidence, and they frequently misrepresent and straw man their opponents arguments instead of dealing with their real arguments and evidence.
And I guess this leads me to a couple of questions:
- How many people, and we can’t give an exact percentage of course, but would you say really change their mind through reason and evidence?
- How do we go about countering belief perseverance and the backfire effect?
Michael Shermer: The percentage is 23.7%. That’s hard evidence. You can believe it. Have faith my son. Hahahaha. Well we don’t have hard evidence on that. Generally it would depend on the particular claim. So for example, we could look at polls that ask people if they believe in things like astrology, Tarot card reading, psychics, general paranormal claims etc. and they have gone down a little bit over the decades, but not dramatically. Believe it or not, most interestingly here in America, the fastest growing religious cohort or population, are the nones, the people that tick the box under the various religions for no religious beliefs. And that’s changed pretty dramatically in the last 25 years, particularly since, well you could tag it to 9/11, but really it’s gone dramatically up in the last decade or so.
So amongst the general population, it’s 25 percent that have no religious beliefs at all. And among millennial’s, those born 1981 or after, it’s 33 percent, a third, and we don’t have the data yet on the generation Z, the people born 1995 or after, because they’re just coming online now. They’re in college now and we’ll get polling data on them soon, but I suspect their religious beliefs have gone down even more. Whereas a century ago it was like less than one percent. So, I mean, that’s a dramatic increase in the abandonment of a particular belief. So for whatever that counts in terms of answering your question, that’s some hard numbers for that particular claim. Others come and go, like believe in exorcism is dependent on if there’s a cool spooky horror movie out that involves exorcism that can drive the numbers up. A lot of those are context dependent. UFO’s depending on if there are sightings or not cause beliefs to go up or down.
But the idea that you can’t reason people out of something they didn’t reason their way to in the first place, that that’s not true. I get a lot of mail from people saying: “I read your book, I read your Scientific American column, it changed what I used to believe, I used to believe in this, now I don’t, I believe in evolution whereas I used to be a creationist” etc. You know this happens all the time, pretty much every day I get letters from people about that. And the polls show there are some strong indications like that. On the religious one there’s a great debate about why. Because in Europe it’s even more so. I mean Europe has gone from 90 percent believers to like 10 percent. I mean it’s really declined dramatically. I forget what else was in that question.
How to counter the backfire effect
Michael Frank: I was asking about the backfire effect. And that is when people are countered with arguments and evidence against their beliefs, they tend to double down on what they believe, instead of changing their mind
Michael Shermer: Yeah, that’s right. Let me give you some pointers I cited in my Scientific American column about this. So the backfire effect, just again for your listeners, that’s when you present facts countering a claim, and not only do people not change their mind, they double down and believe it even more. The reason for that is because facts aren’t the primary reason for the beliefs. It’s for other reasons. For example, like with climate change, ever since Al Gore became strongly associated with that field due to his Academy Award winning film An Inconvenient Truth, it then got labeled as a left wing liberal cause, and therefore you lose half the country right there, half the believers are conservative so they say well, if that’s an Al Gore thing, then I’m not going to believe it. So there you can give all the evidence you want of CO2 carbon emissions, ice core drilling, glacier melting, you know, whatever, it’s irrelevant because that’s secondary to what the real reason is. So first of all, you have to disengage or disconnect or decouple the particular claim from these other non scientific factors like religion or politics.
Specifically when you’re talking to people one on one, I give six little pointers in a column I wrote on the backfire effect in Scientific American
1. Keep emotions out of the exchange. If you attack people, if you tell them that they’re idiots, or stupid, or their beliefs are all bullshit and delusional, they’re not going to be listening anymore. The conversations over. So you’ve got to keep emotions out of it.
2. Discuss. Don’t attack. No ad hominem and no ad Hitlerum! If you tell somebody they’re Hitler for their beliefs, again, you’ve lost them. And that’s not even right. I mean there was one Hitler. In America anyway, these days every other person walking around is Hitler because they believe something different from you. Okay. It’s not useful. It’s not logical. It’s not part of the armamentarium of how to talk to people.
3. Listen carefully and try to articulate the other position accurately. This is a very old debating technique where you have to reiterate your debating partners position before you debunk it or refute it. The term for this is steel manning. Instead of straw manning your opponent and setting up a simple argument to debunk so that he responds to you by saying: “But that isn’t what I believe!” Steel manning is when you reiterate the other person’s position in such a way that they would say: “Yep, that is my position. Exactly.” And then you go ahead and try to refute it or counter it or respond to it or whatever.
4. Show respect to everybody. Everyone wants respect. No one wants to be disrespected. Just by listening and showing like you respect what this person is saying, and even saying: “Hey, I respect your position”, that right there that makes them sit up and go, oh, okay.
5. Acknowledge that you understand why someone might hold that opinion. That’s also another form of respect. Like I totally get it. I can see why you’re skeptical of climate. I used to be that way. If you can add that, it helps. And you acknowledge that this person has arguments, even if it’s obvious they don’t have good arguments, because in their mind they don’t think that, they think they do have good arguments. But just saying: “Hey, I totally understand why you feel that way.” That opens the door a little bit for them listening to what you have to say and then perhaps changing their mind later.
6. Try to show how changing facts does not necessarily mean changing world views. So again, if you tell somebody that they have to give up Jesus to accept Darwin, you can forget it, it’s not going to happen, they’re not giving up Jesus for Darwin. But if you say: “You know Darwin himself said that it’s perfectly logical to think of evolution as God’s way of creating the diversity of life”. That’s not what he believed, but you know he made the point that in Newton’s time, clerics did not freak out about the theory of gravity and think: “Oh my gosh, this refutes religion and God!” No. They just said: “Well gravity is how God creates solar systems”. So why can’t evolution be God’s way of creating the living diversity of life?
So that’s the kind of thing where if you say you can believe this without having to give up your most cherished beliefs, that’ll get them there, to just accept the science. Now they may get there later on their own. You know people rarely change their mind right on the spot, like “Oh my God, that’s such a great argument. I’m going to give up my religion”. You know that almost never happens. It might, but it does happen later when they’re quietly thinking about what you said. Or to conservatives I might tell them: “Accepting climate science is a great way to conserve the environment, and it’s a great way to make money on green technology, and you don’t have to give up capitalism. You can still believe in free markets and have a green environment”. That may not always work, but it does work sometimes. I have evidence for that. So give it a try.
The best arguments for the existence of God
Michael Frank: Michael, you’re an atheist. But what would you consider to be the best argument or evidence for the existence of a God?
Michael Shermer: So you want me to steel man the other side’s position?
Michael Frank: Yes
Michael Shermer: Well, okay. Their best argument I think is the argument from design to fine tuning argument that the structure of the laws of nature are such that it can give rise to matter, and I’m talking as basic as it gets, just subatomic particles and atoms from which we can get molecules, and then just scale up from there to a protein chains and living organisms and so forth. If the laws of nature weren’t a certain way, we wouldn’t even have atoms or stars for example, the laws of nature that give rise to hydrogen and then ultimately to helium and the other elements, because of how stars operate. If the laws of nature, were just slightly different then we wouldn’t even have stars. So it’s not like a life that would be different from ours, there just wouldn’t be anything. There wouldn’t be any kind of structure in the universe. So that’s probably the best argument they have. The other ones that they use like the first cause prime mover or the cosmological argument and those are just pretty much just pure theology, those are not as strong as the fine tuning argument. So the way I characterize it is that if you already believe in God, these are pretty good arguments to justify your belief. They won’t get you there if you don’t believe, and we know this for a fact because professional philosophers who know these arguments inside and out and have read every paper ever published and every book on these subjects, and know the counterargument to the counter counter argument to the counter counter counter argument and so on back and forth, well most professional philosophers are atheists. So obviously if the arguments are good, people would accept them, but they’re not that good. So that’s basically it.
Michael Frank: Michael to Christians and Muslims who maybe afraid to go to hell, what would you say to those people? They might think: “Well you make a good argument, but I think it’s too risky to entertain it, or to follow the evidence where it leads, or to question the words of Jesus or Mohammed because I don’t want to burn in hell for eternity.” What would you say to those people?
Michael Shermer: Well, this is what I do say because I get that all the time, and at that debate with Frank Turek two weeks ago, that was one of the arguments that somebody brought up in the Q&A afterwards. And the answer is which religion is the right one? You think you have the right one so it’s a simple choice. You either accept the right religion, or be an atheist, and if there is a God, it’s going to be my God that enforces my religion, and if you don’t accept it then you’re going to hell. That’s the bet, the so called Pascal’s wager. But the problem is there are other religions that believe just as strongly as Christians do, that theirs is the one true religion, like Muslims believe that Christians are going to hell for not accepting Muhammad and the Islamic religion. So which is the right one? So it’s not a choice of believe or not believe, it’s a choice between don’t believe or the 20 other or the 200 other are the 2000 other religious options on the table, most of which are exclusive of one another. And if one of them is right than the other ones are wrong. And yet they believe just certainly as Christians do that theirs is the right one.
Michael Frank: Michael Shermer, thank you for your time.
Michael Shermer: You’re welcome.
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