Skeptic Viewing the World with a Rational Eye

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  • Format: Hardcover
  • Copyright: 2016-01-12
  • Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.

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Collected essays from bestselling author Michael Shermer's celebrated columns in Scientific American

For fifteen years, bestselling author Michael Shermer has written a column in Scientific American magazine that synthesizes scientific concepts and theory for a general audience. His trademark combination of deep scientific understanding and entertaining writing style has thrilled his huge and devoted audience for years. Now, in Skeptic, seventy-five of these columns are available together for the first time; a welcome addition for his fans and a stimulating introduction for new readers.

Author Biography

Michael Shermer is the author of The Moral Arc, Why People Believe Weird Things, The Believing Brain, and eight other books on the evolution of human beliefs and behavior. He is the founding publisher of Skeptic magazine, the editor of Skeptic.com, a monthly columnist for Scientific American, and Presidential Fellow at Chapman University. He lives in Southern California.

Table of Contents


Introduction: Viewing the World with a Rational Eye 1

I. Science
1. Colorful Pebbles and Darwin’s Dictum: Science is an exquisite blend of data and theory 9
2. Contrasts and Continuities: Eastern and Western science are put to political uses in both cultures 12
3. I Was Wrong: Those three words often separate the scientific pros from the posers 16
4. The Shamans of Scientism: On the occasion of Stephen W. Hawking’s sixtieth trip around the sun, we consider a social phenomenon that reveals something deep about human nature 19
5. The Physicist and the Abalone Diver: The differences between the creators of two new theories of science reveal the social nature of the scientific process 23
6. A Candle in the Dark: Instead of cursing the darkness of pseudoscience on television, light a candle with Cable Science Network 27
7. The Feynman-Tufte Principle: A visual display of data should be simple enough to fit on the side of a van 30
8. The Flipping Point: How the evidence for anthropogenic global warming has converged to cause this environmental skeptic to make a cognitive flip 34
9. Fake, Mistake, Replicate: A court of law may determine the meaning of replication in science 37
10. Wronger Than Wrong: Not all wrong theories are equal 40

II. Skepticism
11. Fox’s Flapdoodle: Tabloid television offers a lesson in uncritical thinking 45
12. Baloney Detection: How to draw boundaries between science and pseudoscience, Part I 49
13. More Baloney Detection: How to draw boundaries between science and pseudoscience, Part II 52
14. Hermits and Cranks: Fifty years ago Martin Gardner launched the modern skeptical movement. Unfortunately, much of what he wrote about is still current today 55
15. Skepticism as a Virtue: An inquiry into the original meaning of the word “skeptic” 59
16. The Exquisite Balance: Science helps us understand the essential tension between orthodoxy and heresy in science 62
17. The Enchanted Glass: Francis Bacon and experimental psychologists show why the facts in science never just speak for themselves 65
18. Fahrenheit 2777: 9/11 has generated the mother of all conspiracy theories 68

III. Pseudoscience and Quackery
19. Smart People Believe Weird Things: Rarely does anyone weigh facts before deciding what to believe 73
20. Mesmerized by Magnetism: An eighteenth-century investigation into mesmerism shows us how to think about twenty-first-century therapeutic magnets 76
21. Show Me the Body: Purported sightings of Bigfoot, Nessie, and Ogopogo fire our imaginations. But anecdotes alone do not make a science 79
22. What’s the Harm?: Alternative medicine is not everything to gain and nothing to lose 82
23. Bunkum!: Broad-mindedness is a virtue when investigating extraordinary claims, but often they turn out to be pure bunk 85
24. Magic Water and Mencken’s Maxim: Social critic H. L. Mencken offers a lesson on how to respond to outrageous pseudoscientific claims 88
25. Death by Theory: Attachment therapy is based on a pseudoscientific theory that, when put into practice, can be deadly 91
26. Cures and Cons: Natural scams “he” doesn’t want you to know about 94

IV. The Paranormal and the Supernatural
27. Deconstructing the Dead: “Crossing over” to expose the tricks of popular spirit mediums 99
28. Psychic Drift: Why most scientists do not believe in ESP and psi phenomena 102
29. Demon-Haunted Brain: If the brain mediates all experience, then paranormal phenomena are nothing more than neuronal events 105
30. Codified Claptrap: The Bible code is numerological nonsense masquerading as science 108
31. The Myth Is the Message: Yet another discovery of the lost continent of Atlantis shows why science and myth make uneasy bedfellows 111
32. Turn Me On, Dead Man: What do the Beatles, the Virgin Mary, Jesus, Patricia Arquette, and Michael Keaton all have in common? 114
33. Rupert’s Resonance: The theory of “morphic resonance” posits that people have a sense of when they are being stared at. What does the research show? 117
34. Mr. Skeptic Goes to Esalen: Science and spirituality on the California coast 120

V. Aliens and UFOs
35. Shermer’s Last Law: Any sufficiently advanced extraterrestrial intelligence is indistinguishable from God 125
36. Why ET Has Not Phoned In: The lifetime of civilizations in the Drake equation for estimating extraterrestrial intelligences is greatly exaggerated 128
37. The Chronology Conjecture Projector: Time machines, extraterrestrials, and the paradoxes of causality 131
38. Abducted!: Imaginary traumas are as terrifying as the real thing 134

VI. Borderlands Science and Alternative Medicine
39. Nano Nonsense and Cryonics: True believers seek redemption from the sin of death 139
40. I, Clone: The Three Laws of Cloning will protect clones and advance science 143
41. Bottled Twaddle: Is bottled water tapped out? 146
42. Quantum Quackery: A surprise-hit film has renewed interest in applying quantum mechanics to consciousness, spirituality, and human potential 149
43. Hope Springs Eternal: Can nutritional supplements, biotechnology, and nanotechnology help us live forever? 153
44. Full of Holes: The curious case of acupuncture 156
45. Airborne Baloney: The latest fad in cold remedies is full of hot air 159
46. Eat, Drink, and Be Merry: Or why we should learn to stop worrying and love food 163

VII. Psychology and the Brain
47. The Captain Kirk Principle: Intuition is the key to knowing without knowing how you know 169
48. None So Blind: Perceptual-blindness experiments challenge the validity of eyewitness testimony and the metaphor of memory as a video recording 172
49. Common Sense: Surprising new research shows that crowds are often smarter than individuals 175
50. Murdercide: Science unravels the myth of suicide bombers 178
51. As Luck Would Have It: Are some people really luckier than others, or is it all in their heads? Both 181
52. SHAM Scam: The Self-Help and Actualization Movement is an $8.5-billion-a-year business. Does it work? 184
53. The Political Brain: A recent brain-imaging study shows that our political predilections are products of unconscious confirmation bias 187
54. Folk Science: Why our intuitions about how the world works are often wrong 190
55. Free to Choose: The neuroscience of choice exposes the power of ideas 193
56. Bush’s Mistake and Kennedy’s Error: Self-deception proves itself to be more powerful than deception 196

VIII. Human Nature
57. The Erotic-Fierce People: The latest skirmish in the “anthropology wars” reveals a fundamental flaw in how science is understood and communicated 201
58. The Ignoble Savage: Science reveals humanity’s heart of darkness 204
59. The Domesticated Savage: Science reveals a way to rise above our natures 207
60. A Bounty of Science: A new book reexamines the mutiny on the Bounty, but science offers a deeper account of its cause 210
61. Unweaving the Heart: Science only adds to our appreciation for poetic beauty and experiences of emotional depth 213
62. (Can’t Get No) Satisfaction: The new science of happiness needs some historical perspective 216

IX. Evolution and Creationism
63. The Gradual Illumination of the Mind: The advance of science, not the demotion of religion, will best counter the influence of creationism 223
64. Vox Populi: The voice of the people reveals why evolution remains controversial 226
65. The Fossil Fallacy: Creationists’ demand for “just one transitional fossil” reveals a deep misunderstanding of science 230
66. Rumsfeld’s Wisdom: Where the known meets the unknown is where science begins 234
67. It’s Dogged as Does It: Retracing Darwin’s footsteps in the Galápagos shatters a myth but reveals how revolutions in science actually evolve 237
68. Darwin on the Right: Why Christians and conservatives should accept evolution 241

X. Science, Religion, Miracles, and God
69. Digits and Fidgets: Is the universe fine-tuned for life? 247
70. Remember the 6 Billion: For millennia we have raged against the dying of the light. Can science save us from that good night? 250
71. God’s Number Is Up: Among a heap of books claiming that science proves God’s existence emerges one that computes a probability of 67 percent 253
72. Miracle on Probability Street: The Law of Large Numbers guarantees that one-in-a-million miracles happen 321 times a day in America 256
73. Mustangs and Monists: The dualist belief that body and soul are separate entities is natural, intuitive, and with us from infancy. It is also very probably wrong 259
74. Flying Carpets and Scientific Prayer: Scientific experiments claiming that distant intercessory prayer produces salubrious effects are deeply flawed 262
75. Bowling for God: Is religion good for society? Science’s definitive answer: it depends 265

Acknowledgments 269
Index 271

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