Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Michael Shermer Update

In October last year I reported that one of the world's most renowned skeptics was having doubts about his position. Michael Shermer became interested in the paranormal when he had a mystical experience while taking part in a bicycle race. This led him into the study of anomalous psychology, and in 1992 he founded the Skeptics Society, an international organization which today has over 55,000 members across the world. It publishes the quarterly journal Skeptic which Shermer edits and it has featured columns by Richard Dawkins, James Randi and many other heroes of Skepticism. Shermer has organized conferences, outings and activism. He has written seventeen books, including Why People Believe Weird Things, The Skeptic Encyclopaedia of Pseudoscience and The Believing Brain. He's one of the most regular lecturers at skeptic events and is a sought after media pundit on all skeptic matters. He is among the last people on Earth I thought would ever question the House of Skeptic. However, he did. Exactly a year ago, on the 16th of September 2014, Michael Shermer published an article in the magazine Scientific American entitled: Anomalous Events That Can Shake One’s Skepticism to the Core, and it was subtitled: I just witnessed an event so mysterious that it shook my skepticism. Two months earlier he had married his German sweetheart Jennifer Graf at his home in Beverly Hills, California USA. Several months before that Jennifer moved into his house and had her luggage shipped over from her previous home in Cologne, Germany. Her father had died when she was very young and so her mother had brought her up with Jennifer's grandfather Walter. However when she was sixteen Walter died leaving her devastated. For this reason she deeply treasured an old transistor radio that Walter had owned. It was a Philips 070, made in 1978, and it didn't work; but Michael decided he'd have a tinker with it to see if he could get it going. He failed, so the couple put the old radio in a desk drawer in Michael's study and forgot all about it. Then a few months later it was "The Big Day" of their wedding and just before the ceremony began Jennifer told Michael how badly she was missing her family and friends back in Germany. She lamented that her grandfather was dead and so couldn't give her away. The ceremony began and just at the moment when they said their wows and exchanged rings the sound of music made everybody stop and look around them. Everybody checked their mobile devices, but they had politely turned them all off. Then they realized the music was coming from Michael's study, specifically a drawer in his desk. It was the old radio, the one that wouldn't work. It was not only working, and had started working at the very climax of the wedding ceremony, but it was playing a romantic love song that Jennifer's grandfather really liked. After that the radio broke down again and has never played since. Shermer says in his article that if he'd heard it from somebody else he'd never have believed it; and he has heard it from other people and hasn't believed them, many many times. More than anybody else, he knows the implications of questioning a "rational explanation" for an anomalous event. His new wife was as much a skeptic as he is (how could she put up with him otherwise?), but she feels the same way he does about what happened. Shermer goes on to say: "I have to admit, it rocked me back on my heels and shook my Skepticism to its core... The emotional interpretations of such anomalous events grant them significance regardless of their causal account. And if we are to take seriously the scientific credo to keep an open mind and remain agnostic when the evidence is indecisive or the riddle unsolved, we should not shut the doors of perception when they may be opened to us to marvel in the mysterious". See here for the full article: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/anomalous-events-that-can-shake-one-s-skepticism-to-the-core/. This is an extraordinary statement for a skeptic to make. What if Michael Shermer has actually ceased to be a skeptic?

I decided I would monitor Michael Shermer's activities closely to see if there was any change in his behaviour to suggest that he was integrating his mysterious experience. He has a website which he doesn't do much with except post links to his Scientific American column, see: http://www.michaelshermer.com/. This column is the best source for his ongoing thought narrative. In the following issue, November 2014, Shermer published an article which predictably stuck a bell with me: Why Do People Believe in Conspiracy Theories? He said therein: "Encouragingly, Uscinski and Parent (psychological researchers) found that education makes a difference in reducing conspiratorial thinking... Even so, that means more than one in five Americans with postgraduate degrees show a high predisposition for conspiratorial belief. As an educator, I find this disturbing." This must mean he has not begun thinking alternatively, at least on a conspiratorial level. Then in February of this year he asked: What Can Be Done about Pseudoskepticism? in which he riles against "climate change deniers!" and how the tobacco industry used to tell people smoking wasn't really unhealthy. His latest article, put online only yesterday, is the cherry on the cake as far as I'm concerned, and it has been given an almost textbook title for Shermer: The Difference between Science and Pseudoscience. Here he critiques Wal Thornhill's electric universe theory, 9/11 conspiracy theories and, most relevantly, Prof. Gary Schwartz and his work on afterlife communications. "(Prof. Schwartz) explained that the brain is like a television set and consciousness is like the signals coming into the brain. 'You need a brain to be conscious, but consciousness exists elsewhere. But TV studios generate and broadcast signals.' 'Where', I inquired, 'is the consciousness equivalent to such production facilities?' No answer." This must mean that Shermer has not entertained the possibility that the incident at his wedding with the radio was a genuine supernatural contact with his dead grandfather-in-law. See here for Michael Shermer's SA column links: http://www.scientificamerican.com/author/michael-shermer/. Shermer's focus has changed somewhat during the last year. His latest book is called The Moral Arc and is a departure from his previous writings. It is more a work of philosophical ethics and has clearly been inspired by Stephen Pinker. Pinker himself described it as a "sequel" to his own book The Better Angels of our Nature. It paints an optimistic and philanthropic view of mankind as becoming a kinder and less aggressive species as time moves on. Human rights of all varieties are now better regarded than they used to be. (I don't completely agree with either Shermer or Pinker, see: http://hpanwo-voice.blogspot.co.uk/2013/08/savages.html, but that's beside the point right now.) This shift in attitude began before his wedding experience though. The book was published just six months after the radio came to life. As somebody who has written books myself, I know that means he had to have been writing or editing it at the time. Shermer has also made a few video appearances and he has posted links to some on his website. He spoke at TEDx Ghent, see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-qP0xUNYzXc. He's also done a dialogue with a rather battered-looking Richard Dawkins, see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0bkDgmqrvg0 (Maybe Dawkins was beaten up by some Indian street-cleaners, see: http://hpanwo-hpwa.blogspot.co.uk/2015/09/richard-dawkins-patronizing-git.html) In conclusion, I'm afraid it looks as if Shermer has not changed his mind about the skeptic worldview. In fact after his "anomalous event" which "shook his skepticism to the core", he has simply picked himself up, dusted himself off and carried on walking down Skeptic Avenue without even breaking his stride. Does this mean all hope has gone? No. Very rarely do people change their minds overnight about something very fundamental to their worldview. Sometimes it can take even longer than a whole year. As I say in the background posts above, I never expected Shermer to have a road to Damascus conversion. He's a man who had an amazing experience at his wedding that might have begun a process in his mind. If so then the process could be a long one, with fits and starts, doubts and wrong turns. He may still yet become a "buh-leeva". There will be many obstacles in his wake, and not all of them will be internal. The defection of one of their top superstars will be a massive blow to the skeptic community and they will not let Shermer out of the gate with goodwill; and he knows this very well. Will Jennifer join him in his transformation, and if she won't could that spoil their marriage? As before, I can only say that time will tell. I once again wish Michael Shermer all the best and will defend him against his potential detractors to the fullest extent of my abilities.

7 comments:

Steve Trueblue said...

100,000 subscribers each paying $20 every 3 months is a very healthy income which would be threatened if he ever looked like becoming a believer. He likely sees himself as like James Randi, an actor on the public stage providing denialist & strident unbeliever magazine articles because that's what brings the money in. He simply forgot that business requirement momentarily when he got married and dashed off that article without considering the potential consequences..

Recall his Phd was for doing a dissertation on Alfred Wallace co-inventor of Darwninian Evolution who also certified mediums as genuine. Thus Shermer likely sees himself really just an author of a particular literary genre.
Dawkins seems to be the same, simply a salesman lobbying, mouthing the same old lines that he is repeatedly unable to rationally defend when questioned. But his show goes on.No matter what.

Steve Trueblue said...

Shermer on Electric Universe and criticisms of Einstein from mathemetician Crother,

"I understood none of what he was saying, but I am confident he's wrong" LOL

That's his signature pseudo-scientific method. Vintage Shermer ! If one knows nothing about a subject and one must write something, then a block denial of the subject is a safe way to say nothing while knowing nothing, but sound like an authority.It goes down well with his pseudo-skeptic readers that pay him so much.

Admittedly Electric Universe is an overwhelming rewrite of so much we learned at school. Astronomy geology, and even religious beliefs. For non Electrical Engineers, lay people, its a giddying paralysing roller coaster . But for electrically qaualified people its all very obvious.And satisfying. Suddenly so much more comes clear to us that gravity alone could never explain. Its too much to take in all at one lecture for beginners.
And Shermer could have said that.......
Shemer's past life is built around once being a born again christian selling religion door to door who came to realise how gullible he must have been and became a professional lifelong unbeliever, a pseudsoskeptic.

In particular EU re-invigorates many dismissed religious biblical cataclysms and gives them new credence. We are talking Old Testament fire and brimstone stiff that suddenly is explicable in very modern electrical scientific terms This could make Shermer the born-again skeptic very very uneasy. Reminding him of what he once believed.And the trauma associated.

Steve Trueblue said...

Rule No 1 for pseudoskeptics is that they always shoot themselves in the foot while confabulating their pseudo arguments.
Shermer performs identically to the shallowest anonymous pskeps online.

From his criticism of Crother the EU mathemetician.

"A SELF TAUGHT mathematician named Stephen Crothers riffled through dozens of PowerPoint slides chockablock full of equations related to Einstein's general theory of relativity, which he characterized as “numerology.”

Er.... Newsflash Michael- YOUR HERO EINSTEIN WAS A SELF TAUGHT MATHEMATICIAN working in the Swiss patent office when proposing his relativity at age 23.
he was only promoted to Engineer, still working there after.

And also Charles Darwin was SELF TAUGHT. Never a trained scientist.
His only vocational training was for the priesthood. LOL.
Evolution theory was created by a wannabe priest LOL.

LMAO.


Master Sgp said...
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Darren P said...

To be fair Ben in Mat 2012 when I met him in Las Vegas he had doubts then. I remember him saying to me that you cannot take away the physical side of sightings so 'it's not in your head'.
He said to me then that he had witnessed things he could not explain and he was adament they were ET.

Ben Emlyn-Jones said...

Hi Darren. I didn't know that. Thanks for the info. I recall Franky saying he was a much nicer man than she expected. Have you heard my interview with her?

Master Sgp said...
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