SCIENCE AND THE PSYCHOLOGY OF BELIEFS

Michael Shermer [8.23.01]
Topic:

The one thing we've arned from the last three decades of research is that science is socially and culturally embedded and thus biased. Still, it's the best system we have for understanding causality in all realms, in all fields. So despite the fact that it's loaded with biases, there is a real world out there that we can know and the best way to know it is through science. The reason for that is because there's at least a method, an attempt to corroborate one's own subjective perceptions. There's a way to find out if you and I are seeing the same colors when we see red. There's actually a way to test these things, or at least try to get at them. That's what separates science from everything else.


MICHAEL SHERMER: SCIENCE AND THE PSYCHOLOGY OF BELIEFS

Introduction

Michael Shermer is mainly interested in understanding how science works as a system of thought, as a social system and as a psychology of beliefs. His general field of study is in the social sciences, and particularly how belief systems work. As the man behind SKEPTIC Magazine, and Director of the Skeptics Society, he notes that his "engagement with the paranormal, pseudoscience, fringe groups, cults and all sorts of wacky, X-files stuff is not just to debunk, but to understand belief systems on the fringes work, in order to understand how science works, and how mainstream beliefs work. Shermer works the edges, the fringes, what he calls " the borderlands and the nonsense stuff."

In 1992 he founded Skeptic Magazine with a circulation 1,000, and now it's up to about 40,000. Ultimately Shermer wants to reach half a million readers, like Scientific American, but, he notes, "that's a bit of a reach because selling ideas is much harder than selling personalities and celebrities".

— JB

MICHAEL SHERMER is the Founding Publisher of Skeptic magazine, the Director of the Skeptics Society, a monthly columnist for Scientific American, the host of the Skeptics Lecture Series at Caltech, and the co host and producer of the 13-hour Fox Family television series, Exploring the Unknown.

Shermer is the author of How We Believe: The Search For God In An Age Of Science; Why People Believe Weird Things; and Teach Your Child Science. He is the coauthor of Denying History: Who Says The Holocaust Never Happened and Why Do They Say It? and Teach Your Child Math And Mathemagics.

He has appeared on such shows as 20/20, Dateline, Charlie Rose, Tom Snyder, Donahue, Oprah, Sally, Lezza, Unsolved Mysteries, and other shows, as well as on documentaries aired on A & E, Discovery, and The Learning Channel.

Click Here for Michael Shermer's Bio Page

THE REALITY CLUB: Helena Cronin, Piet Hut respond to Michael Shermer 


 

SCIENCE AND THE PSYCHOLOGY OF BELIEFS

EDGE: Why are you playing the edges; why bother to debunk, why spend your time exposing people that are outright frauds, phonies, or who are merely self deluded?

MICHAEL SHERMER: Because it gives us better insight into Karl Popper's discussion of the demarcation problem; that is, where do we draw the line between science and non- or pseudoscience?

It turns out that it's a very complex problem. Popper's answer to that question was that of false viability, what is the result when you put something to an empirical test? Well that's nice, but what do you do with string theory then? It's never been tested, probably can't be tested, yet it's mathematically elegant and theoretically beautiful. Is that science? How about consciousness research? The kind of thing that people like Dan Dennett and Pat and Paul Churchland do — is that philosophy, metaphysics, or science? That kind of research is in a gray, borderland area. How about hypnosis? There's a whole range of claims that people don't really question as to what they are and analyzing those claims helps us gain insight into how science works.

EDGE: How is this implemented in your public communications?

SHERMER: We do two different things at Skeptic. We are social activists who don't believe that intellectuals should just remain cloistered in their ivory towers (though those who want to do so certainly can). And we believe in Darwin's dictum, as I like to call it, that all observations must be for or against some view if they are to be of any service. To take it even further, what are you going to do with those observations? You must communicate it to people. If there's no communication to the general public, then doing science or anything else is an utter waste of time. So I'm very discouraged and disheartened when I hear scientists disparage science writing or fall into the trap of propagating the pecking order, with physics and mathematics at the top and the social sciences at the bottom, if present at all. I think that such infighting is unnecessary.

The debunking stuff that we do is, as Stephen Jay Gould said, like trash collecting, a dirty job but somebody's got to do it. That's our job. But to me, that's secondary. It's not particularly interesting to know and to expose phony psychics. In general, the exposé of out and out fraud is not that interesting, because it's just somebody lying. What's more interesting is self-deception; how leaders of cults come to believe that they can actually do what they think they can do. How does someone believe in cold fusion or zero point energy, or any of those wildly speculative alternative energy theories? Obviously there's pretty good room for skepticism on a lot of these claims yet these people really believe that this stuff is there. How do they become such fervent believers? Scientists of course do the same thing, they are passionate believers in their theories, and the interesting question is why? Thus, the second thing we study is why people believe weird things, have certain belief systems and how those systems work. Including in science.

The one thing we've learned from the last three decades of research is that science is socially and culturally embedded and thus biased. Still, it's the best system we have for understanding causality in all realms, in all fields. So despite the fact that it's loaded with biases, there is a real world out there that we can know and the best way to know it is through science. The reason for that is because there's at least a method, an attempt to corroborate one's own subjective perceptions. There's a way to find out if you and I are seeing the same colors when we see red. There's actually a way to test these things, or at least try to get at them. That's what separates science from everything else.

EDGE: Why the increase in Darwinism, which seems to have happened in the last 10-15 years?

SHERMER: First, Darwin was right. In the realist sense, he is the only one of the big three — Darwin, Marx and Freud — who is still alive. Marxism has shown itself not to work and Freud was wrong about much of his ideas. Modern evolutionary biology, on the other hand, is showing that Darwin was right. Culturally and socially, the nature-nurture pendulum is swinging back and forth and I think that ever since Wilson's sociobiology, it's become acceptable to construct evolutionary models to explain human behavior and society. I think evolutionary psychology folks, with a few extreme exceptions who are telling just-so stories, have it right. Since their research is pretty good, the combination of good science and cultural trends goes a long way towards explaining the recent popularity of Darwin.

EDGE: Can you explain what you mean by just-so stories?

SHERMER: As examples or over-reaching, the just-so stories, sometimes the reconstruction of what life would have been like in the paleolithic era, in the environment of evolutionary adaptation, or EEA, will focus on why the particular thing that you're studying would have been advantageous. A good example of this was in a recent book in which the author was talking about how the origins of religion came about when men were on the hunt; at some point, they realized that life was completely meaningless. They had an existential crisis and realized there was no point to life at all, and that whether they were successful or not in the hunt didn't make any difference in the long run. So they created God, to sort of snow everybody else into realizing that there is a meaning and purpose to life.

Well that's a nice story; now prove it. How do you prove that? There's no possible evidence of this phenomena. That's a typical just-so story that the critics of evolutionary psychology would justly nail them for. The harder thing to do is to find ways to test very specific claims. That's why the research that Pinker is doing is so good; he's very narrow and focused, and takes just one particular thing and tries to test it. It isn't the big questions which are of interest, why are humans the way they are, why is or isn't there a God or whatever ­ but very specific things. That's where the good research is.

EDGE: Let's talk about Skeptics.

SHERMER: If we're going to accomplish our goals of science literacy, which is one of the primary goals of the Skeptic Society, you have to reach as many people as you can. You do it through print, the magazine and books, plus mass communication, television and the radio. You absolutely have to do it, and that's what we do.

EDGE: What about the role of email?

SHERMER: I don't think the book will ever be dead, nor our magazine ­ but obviously you've got to be online. With e-skeptic, I reach, 12,000 people once or twice a week; it's a great resource and part of the future.

Perhaps instead of Skeptic we should call it "Ideas, the Magazine." The original Greek meaning of skepticism is thoughtful inquiry, which is really a part of science. True, the name is provocative, it has some negative connotations and people think that you're nihilists, or cynics, or whatever. But on the positive side, the name generates interest and grabs people's attention. It's something different.

EDGE: But you don't get invited to appear on major television shows if you are only talking about ideas. The general public like confrontation.

SHERMER: The best you can hope for is getting in three or four points. Like with Larry King — he constantly interrupts his guests. So I just said, right off the bat, well, Larry there's three points to this answer, one... Now he can't interrupt because the guy's got to make his three points. He tried, but I made my three points anyway. It's like being a politician who's trained to stay on message. I have my message and I'm going to get it across, even if I only have two minutes to do it. And the message is that science is the way that we find out about the world, and that all kinds of other stuff is anecdotal and fun and interesting, but it doesn't get us any closer to understanding reality; for that, we have to use science.

Why Oprah is so much more successful than PBS shows; people want a quick fix, the simple answer, how they can improve their love lives and their health. Health, money, love and career; that's the big four. We're not in that business. Science and ideas are ultimately much more important. One's whole life is grounded in ideas. Our mission then, instead of complaining and whining about it, is to make those ideas more interesting. To market it better. We're simply selling people that these ideas are actually more important than the little self-help stuff.

In terms of getting the word out, we just have to sell publishers on the idea that it is really important that they publish this kind of work, much more important in fact than doing other books. One of the things that will motivate them to do that the bigger advances for books by scientists, which in turn forces the publishers economically to do something about it. This development has been is one of the most important things that's happened to science in a long time.

It's possible to influence people's decision-making process. That's what marketing and advertising is all about. Now scientists, instead of looking at popular books as a necessary evil or something to do on the side, are considering it one of the most important things that they can do. If you look at the history of science, with few exceptions, revolutions and change have been triggered by books. Not journal articles. Books have done far more than anything else. Think of THE ORIGIN OF SPECIES, NEWTON'S PRINCIPIA, etc.; the entire evolutionary synthesis came about through a number of important books.

Scientists need to take writing seriously. It's a skill, like anything else they've already developed. It's an art and a craft that takes practice. It's not just throwing down ideas, you have to do it in a way that's appealing. You have to market ideas. A few scientists can do it: Gould is great at it and Dawkins is an elegant writer. But hardly any others are like that. More scientists need to read those kind of books and work their own writing. Some of the books that come down the pipeline are just awful. It's like they were penned it in two nights or something as if it wasn't important. I've got news for you: it's the most important thing they can do. If you're not writing to get the ideas out to everybody, then it's just a waste of time.

EDGE: Let's talk about the evolutionary wars.

SHERMER: We're currently witnessing one of the great intellectual debates of the last two centuries in the evolutionary wars. I mean Darwin and Wallace got the big prize; they figured out how it works. But now everything becomes contentious because of the possible applications to human society.

I think Gould's right. We have not fully experienced the implications of the Darwinian revolution, the pedestal-shattering implications have not yet been realized, in the sense that there still is, I think, a propensity among many evolutionary biologists to look for trends in the evolutionary record that somehow show that we aren't special and different. That yes it's true there is no God, and yes it's true the universe wasn't designed for us. However we still are special. If you rewound the tape and played it back we'd appear again and again. Maybe not exactly us, but some consciousness, a language- and tool-using species that would eventually have a World Wide Web and go into Space. That would happen over and over. Somehow that makes you feel that life is meaningful and special. I think we are exceptionally unique.

EDGE: What happens when a new technology comes along and we revisit our ideas about who and what we are, because of the technology?

SHERMER: Newton made analogies with tennis balls, Maxwell made analogies of these little machines that light pass through, how they're ether and like little wheels and cogs. Right now we don't have the right metaphor to under stand how neurons generate consciousness. At the moment, one of the limitations of understanding consciousness and how it arises is that we're using computer metaphors but our computers aren't sophisticated enough to figure out how to get this sort of self-organized complexity out of neurons . How do you get consciousness?

It's not working, that's the problem.

We're going to have to swap metaphors at some point. I mean consciousness is really still studied as much by philosophers as by cognitive scientists, and that tells you we're still in that borderlands area. We haven't figured it out yet.

EDGE: John Lilly had a fail-safe, foolproof method of changing consciousness: hit someone over the head with a baseball bat.

SHERMER: Things like hypnosis won't be explained until we understand how all these different modules are coordinated and how they interact. I think the explanation for hypnosis will be a dissociation theory of the mind where some modules are operating and some are suppressed. Like, for example, in Buddhist monks, part of the parietal lobes are suppressed which makes it more difficult for the individual to tell self from non self, and that's why people feel at one with the universe when they meditate. The whole brain's going to be like that, it's going to be a series of modules turning off and on, being suppressed and being stimulated, but there's still something else going on. There's a central processor underneath that runs it, because we do have pretty good data on G, or general intelligence. There is some general thing that's coordinating the whole thing.

EDGE: Are you still working on your biography of Wallace?

SHERMER: Yes. Alfred Russell Wallace is an interesting study because he's one of these borderlands scientists in the sense that he fooled around with fringe movements and beliefs, such as phrenology, spiritualism, land nationalization, anti-vaccination and women's rights. Some of these movements we might fully accept or reject, but in his time it wasn't clear. Again, it helps us understand a little bit better what science is when we look at movements during a historical period when it wasn't clear whether such ideas were science or nonsense.

For some people, like Darwin and Huxley, this spiritualism stuff was just plain nonsense, but Wallace actually had a number of prominent supporters who were completely in his league. Prominent physicists, physiologists, crooks, and others who founded a society for psychical research. Now we look back on it and it seems like pretty silly stuff, but a hundred years ago it wasn't. So how is it that these movement change? What happens to them? I think what happens is that data and theory interact within the context of a society. At some point, when there's not enough data to support it, the movement goes away, leaving only a handful of true believers. You can see that today. Cold fusion is a great example. About the same time cold fusion came out, same time superconductivity was taking off. Now superconductivity is still practiced, because the data ended up supporting it. However the data didn't support cold fusion, and now it's left to a handful of people who are the true believers and everybody else has given up. So that's how science works.

Wallace is interesting because of his co-discovery of natural selection with Darwin. The story is that it was not quite simultaneous but independent discovery. Wallace is younger than Darwin; Darwin was born in 1809, Wallace in 1823. When Wallace was in the Malay archipelago, he reasoned out that geographic isolation of species lead varieties to become permanently separated from their original kind.

He had a great moment in the archipelago, when he was on a little island called Arru and discovered there a variety of butterfly that has two green patches on the rear half of its wing with three black dots on the green patches. A nearly identical butterfly existed on Borneo but it had two black spots, and there was another one exactly like it on Papua New Guinea, but it had four black spots. His had three black spots. He writes all this down, he's reasoning his way through. Now if the Creator created one particular kind, then what's with these varieties? Clearly a creator would not create all these varieties; nature is doing that. Therefore, if nature can create these different varieties, why couldn't it create a new species, which is only just a little bit more different still? That's when he realizes that through natural selection, geographic isolation over time leads to permanent separation. So he pens this all down ­ it's a great story ­ in February 1858 in an essay on the steamer and probably on March 9th, he sends it to Darwin. Darwin gets it, and remember he had been working on the same problem for over twenty years, but he's very cautious, because of all the controversy over Robert Chambers' book The Vestiges, which was considered just theoretical and speculative with no supporting data. Darwin had been compiling blocks of data when he got the paper and so he was encouraged to publish right away.

The strange thing about all of this is that Darwin was very thorough. He kept virtually every letter anyone ever wrote him and he had copies of all the letters he wrote back, some 16,000 letters in all. And that particular letter and paper are missing. They're gone which lead some people to speculate that Darwin had not actually finished figuring out natural selection — maybe he didn't understand diversity or geographic isolation — and he got it from Wallace when he saw the paper. I don't think that's true. However, it's an interesting mystery in the history of science. What happened to this paper and this letter? We have everything Wallace every wrote him­except for that one item. It's rather strange.

So that's how Wallace and Darwin connect and they soon departed because Wallace became a hyper-selectionist, that is, he reasoned that if natural selection can't explain everything and there is no other mechanism in nature to account for it, then there must be an intelligent designer. This is what he ended up talking about regarding the mind. There's no reason why a human should have a brain that's any bigger than say 800 cc's, the size of a large gorilla's brain. Why would you need a 1500 cc brain? There's no reason for it in the natural environment. Ergo some intelligent designer created this big brain and mind. Darwin, of course, was a strict materialist and didn't accept this, and this was when Wallace and Darwin parted ways.

EDGE: Why is it that someone who is total nonspecialist like myself knows a lot about Darwin and barely anything about Wallace?

SHERMER: Because Darwin was really the first big thinker to synthesize the whole thing and put it in a book. See? You've got to write a book.

EDGE: Wallace didn't write a book?

SHERMER: No, he only wrote the paper. And as we discussed, people don't read papers. You've got to write a book that's readable. The Origin of Species is very readable. Granted a hundred fifty years later, it's a little dry as it's written in 19th century prose. Still it's quite readable by anybody.Technical papers, on the other hand, are so boring that no one reads them. That's why you have to write books. Also Darwin set out a whole research program, whereas Wallace never did. A research program creates other scientists who then get into the program, and then they create graduate students who become professors who have graduate students, and the program perpetuates.

EDGE: What do you hope to accomplish with this biography?

SHERMER: First, to put Wallace back on the map because he's an important thinker, but more importantly, to try and tease out the Wallace's influences the way a psychologist would. Wallace was heavily influenced by Herbert Spencer and the socialist, Robert Owen, and my own approach to biology is to use a lot of modern psychology, such as our understanding of family dynamics, sibling rivalry, peer group influence and the influence of mentors, to understand why people believe the things they do.

EDGE: How does Spencer fit into the picture?

SHERMER: Wallace was pretty much self-taught since he dropped out at the end of grammar school. His father died when he was 13, and he went away to London to live with his brother. In London there were night schools and mechanics institutes, which were like the modern-day equivalent of community college night programs for adults who want to get back to college. There he heard lectures about the radical writings of Owen and Spencer, the socialist movement, phrenology and all kinds of other heretical material. Now why would Wallace be so open to that while other people aren't? That's personality, temperament, openness to experience. That's being less skeptical and more credulous. Ultimately I think a person's acceptance or rejection of heretical ideas is really a personality thing. We have to understand human personality and temperament to get to the core of how science works. Because it ultimately comes down to the support of a single individual and as often as not, psychological factors are as important as empirical data.

EDGE: What have you learned in writing the book?

SHERMER: The approach I'm taking is to look at how Wallace as an individual attempted to synthesize all of his ideas into a grand theory. In reality none of us start off in our late teens or early 20s with the final goal in mind because we don't know what that's going to be. Later in life, you can look back and reconstruct how the ideas came to you.

This is an interesting process because in science when a paper gets published, it's always done in a linear way: first this happened, then this, then this, it's like some sort of polished, inductive process. First I collected the data, then I formulated the theory, etc. In reality, it never happens like that, the process is usually messy, and in the case of Darwin and Wallace discovering natural selection it wasn't linear at all.

In fact Darwin did not discover natural selection and have his epiphany in the Galapagos. It never happened that way. He actually pieced it all together when he was back in London a year and a half later. He had to go to Fitzroy and some of his other shipmates to reconstruct how it happened. Later, though, we have this myth of science that it all works in a linear fashion when it actually doesn't.

That's the interesting thing about Wallace; he lived to be ninety, almost ninety-one years. From 1823 to 1913, from the end of the Napoleonic era to World War I: that's a long lifespan. Late in life, he's writing autobiographies and piecing it all together, but in reality it didn't happen that way. It's been fun for me to try to reconstruct how his ideas did develop, and how they were heavily influenced by all these social and psychological forces, like the fact that he was the eight born or that his father died young. I'm applying many of Frank Sulloway's models on family dynamics and birth order, for example, being later-born makes you more radical, because you have to diversify to find new ways of doing things in your competition with siblings for parental attention. Wallace is a perfect case for this. In fact, according to Sulloway's model, Wallace had a 96% probability of accepting the theory of evolution. In actuality, even though he reconstructs it to make it look like the data led him to the theory of evolution, Wallace was already converted to evolution before he ever left for his very first voyage to the Amazon. He took two major voyages: four years in the Amazon, and eight years in the Malay archipelago, twelve years in total. But before he even stepped off the boat, he was already an evolutionist.

EDGE: What does one do for eight years in an archipelago?

SHERMER: You collect data. It's a brutal life. It's hot, it's humid, it's teeming with insects, the transportation by steamship is slow. You spend a lot of time waiting, writing lots of letters, but also sorting and collecting specimens. Now Darwin had money but Wallace never did. He actually had an agent in London, a guy named Stephens, to whom he would ship his collections. Stephens sold them to museums and private collectors, and mailed Wallace the money. It's a great case of a self-made man — he's going from island to island, waiting for his shipment to arrive and the money to come back so he can keep going. Without that, he would never have made it. So he's completely self-made. It's an admirable story.

EDGE: Was he alone?

SHERMER: In the Amazon he was with Bates of the famous Batesean mimicry, a prime example of which is in moths that mimic each other's protective coloration. In the Malay archipelago he had a couple of young assistants, but mostly he was by himself. It's hard for us to imagine that. It would be lonely and boring, but it seemed to suit his temperament.

EDGE: We can glibly say eight years, but try to think about that...Was there any social life or love interests?

SHERMER: There's not a shred of evidence in anything he ever wrote about women or his love life until he got home. So I don't know what he did.

EDGE: Was there a human population?

SHERMER: There were some indigenous people that he studied. Before anthropology really became solidified as a science, Wallace was an anthropologist, writing ethnographies of the local people. There's whole sections in his books on birds and travelogues and about the people. Many of the people he encountered had hardly ever seen a white man before, if ever, and he was tall, over six feet, and very gangly, so you can imagine this sort of tall, gangly, white bearded Englishman amongst these short, dark natives. He writes about this, how he'd come around a corner, and they'd scream and run. This was in Borneo, Java, Papua New guinea, and so on.

Wallace is probably most famous for founding the science of biogeography. What Edward O. Wilson does is what Wallace created. The idea of studying island biogeography is one of the most important things you can use to understand evolutionary biology and evolutionary trends, because islands are little self contained communities separated by water. Water becomes a geographic isolating mechanism. Varieties that are separated long enough can't reconnect to their original gene pools. They become different enough through mutation and genetic drift that when they are reintroduced, they do not interbreed for whatever reason, or if they do, they don't have viable offspring. That constitutes a new species. Really it's Wallace who founded that field, not Darwin. Darwin gets more credit than Wallace for the overall program, but it's Wallace's biogeography that really lays the groundwork for understanding evolution.

EDGE: How does this fit in with the work of Jared Diamond?

SHERMER: Jared knows all about this stuff because he has retraced, just by chance, much of Wallace's route. Jared's new book with biologist Ernst Mayr about the birds of Papua New Guinea is exactly island biogeography. They're doing what Wallace did for eight years. By doing that you understand the evolutionary process, you understand the impact of changing an environment for a species. The reason why what Jared and Ernst are doing now is so important is because it's a form of environmental monitoring. We can look back at what certain species were like a century ago and half a century ago and today, and look at how the environment has been altered by humans and how that's mucking up the future of life.

EDGE: So there's a direct line from Wallace?

SHERMER: It's a perfect segue from Wallace, because Mayr bridges us from Wallace to today. Wallace died in 1911, and Ernst was born in 1904. So he was alive when Wallace was alive, which is incredible. Ernst, of course, is still going strong, and really, in a sense, he took the work of Wallace and Darwin and synthesized it. Mayr is one of the grand synthesizers of the 30s and 40s and his definition of a species is actually derived from Wallace's notion of biogeography. We've all had to memorize it: a species is a group of actually or potentially interbreeding natural populations, reproductively isolated from other such populations.

That's what a species is, which is not a linguistic artifact of human classification; it's real. The natives of Papua New Guinea identify the same organisms in the same way that Ernst and Jared do, almost without exception. They don't call them species, but whatever they do call them, they consider them to be different groups. The test is whether or not they interbreed. If they don't, they're separate species.

Overall, writing the biography of Wallace has proved to be one of the most interesting projects on which I have ever worked. I have learned so much about life — human and otherwise — and most importantly, about how science works.