Thursday, July 16, 2009

(Relatively) Sublime Shermer

Note: a friend has brought it to my attention that I probably praised this piece too highly. Sublime is... far too strong. I still think it's a good article, but it's sublime only relative to Shermer's other work.

I'll come right out and say it: I'm not the world's biggest fan of Michael Shermer's work. While I loved his TEDTalk, I think his libertarian views are silly, I wasn't impressed by his book Why Darwin Matters, I've taken on one of his Scientific American columns at length, and so on. Shermer's most recent SciAm column, though, is just sublime very good and you should go read it. Srsly.

An excerpt:
The postmodernist belief in the relativism of truth, coupled to the clicker culture of mass media where attention spans are measured in New York minutes, leaves us with a bewildering array of truth claims packaged in infotainment units. It must be true — I saw it on television, at the movies, on the Internet. The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, That’s Incredible, The Sixth Sense, Poltergeist, Loose Change, Zeitgeist the Movie. Mysteries, magic, myths and monsters. The occult and the supernatural. Conspiracies and cabals. The face on Mars and aliens on Earth. Bigfoot and Loch Ness. ESP and PSI. UFOs and ETIs. JFK, RFK and MLK — alphabet conspiracies. Altered states and hypnotic regression. Remote viewing and astroprojection. Ouija boards and Tarot cards. Astrology and palm reading. Acupuncture and chiropractic. Repressed memories and false memories. Talking to the dead and listening to your inner child. Such claims are an obfuscating amalgam of theory and conjecture, reality and fantasy, nonfiction and science fiction. Cue dramatic music. Darken the backdrop. Cast a shaft of light across the host’s face. The truth is out there. I want to believe.

What I want to believe based on emotions and what I should believe based on evidence does not always coincide. And after 99 monthly columns of exploring such topics (this is Opus 100), I conclude that I’m a skeptic not because I do not want to believe but because I want to know. I believe that the truth is out there. But how can we tell the difference between what we would like to be true and what is actually true? The answer is science.

And a great quote:
If there is one thing that the history of science has taught us, it is that it is arrogant to think we now know enough to know that we cannot know.


  1. Thanks for the link. Agree with your sentiments re: crazy libertarian thinking & other strange things of Shermer's. This was an interesting one though.

  2. Libertarians are so obviously biased when it comes to economic matters that it's laughable. Did you listen to his POI interview? Really quite shocking IMHO.

  3. Shermer argues that "knowledge" is something you "discover", that "knowledge" (or at least the reason we discuss those matters we deem important) is divorced from human emotions. And unfortunately, his desire to cleave passionately to this arid logos leads him to argue that "mystery" is useless merely because it is not "scientific". Marx and Engels said something along these lines way more effectively in The German Ideology. So when Shermer argues there is no social or psychological function of mystery, he neglects to see how he is constructing a further mystery himself--the mystery of scientific possibility--which, if pursued like the White Rabbit, he hopes and yes, FEELS will contribute to the improvement of the human race. There is no "belief" without the involvement of BOTH emotions and reason. Ancient Greeks figured out how this works millenia ago. It's called "rhetoric" and Shermer is extremely effective in conveying (inviting to participate in) the bitterness and condescension toward that he deems "unscientific", while using pithy maxims--"If there is one thing that the history of science has taught us, it is that it is arrogant to think we now know enough to know that we cannot know"--in order to restate this bitterness as justified by the evidence of history. History which, as we all know, was written not by the facts themselves but by men and women with investments--emotional, political, psychological, social. In the end, you can't be a proper skeptic and profess the ability to sometime "know." He's not a skeptic, he's a debunker. And I have no respect for that.

  4. I'm not sure it is Shermer's position that reason is entirely divorced from emotion; he doesn't seem to take a position on that in this piece. (C.f. Damasio, 1994). Yes, he does think it's a bad idea to believe something (just) because you want to believe it. But that seems uncontroversial.

    If by "proper skeptic" you mean "philosophical skeptic" then, yes, you can't claim to know anything. But Shermer is a so-called scientific skeptic. (As am I).

    I'd quite like to see a justification for your contention that Shermer is "bitter".