The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Posts Tagged ‘Michael Shermer’

Belief in the Supernatural is Natural

Posted by mattusmaximus on November 9, 2010

The more and more research I see on this particular topic, the more I become convinced that we skeptics are quite a freakish bunch.  I’m not referring specifically to the type of parties we throw (though there are some pretty trippin’ skeptic parties out there I’ve attended 🙂 ), instead I’m talking about what seems to be the fact that a belief in the supernatural & paranormal may be deeply embedded in many of us.  In short, the belief in the supernatural seems to be… well, quite natural.

This recent article by Discovery News go into much more detail, so I’ll just link to it below and pass it along to you…

Superstitious Beliefs Getting More Common

By Emily Sohn
Fri Oct 29, 2010

It’s that time of year again. Ghosts, goblins and other spooky characters come out from the shadows and into our everyday lives.

For most people, the thrill lasts for a few weeks each October. But for true believers, the paranormal is an everyday fact, not just a holiday joke.

To understand what drives some people to truly believe, two sociologists visited psychic fairs, spent nights in haunted houses, trekked with Bigfoot hunters, sat in on support groups for people who had been abducted by aliens, and conducted two nationwide surveys.

Contrary to common stereotypes, the research revealed no single profile of a person who accepts the paranormal. Believers ranged from free-spirited types with low incomes and little education to high-powered businessmen. Some were drifters; others were brain surgeons. …

The entire article is quite a fascinating read, and Dr. Michael Shermer of the Skeptic’s Society has a few revealing comments as well…

… Regardless of the person or the phenomenon, paranormal experiences are purely quirks of the human brain, said Michael Shermer, executive director of the Skeptics Society, an educational organization, and founding publisher of Skeptic magazine.

Whether it’s hearing creaks in an old house or watching dots move randomly on a computer screen, he said, people tend to look for patterns and meanings in everything.

“The default condition in brain is that all patterns are real,” Shermer said. “It’s just what we do.”

In learning more about how we seem to be hard-wired for such belief in what skeptics would call pseudoscience, flummery, or nonsense, I think there is a lesson for us all.  As skeptics, we need to be aware of this fact of our basic human nature in order to be more productive in our encounters with believers.  And I think we need to take it into account in those interactions – that doesn’t mean that we agree with the woo-woo beliefs, but it does mean that we at least understand the basic drive behind why many believe what they do.

Posted in ghosts & paranormal, psychology | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Prayer, Miracles, and Damned Statistics

Posted by mattusmaximus on April 7, 2010

We’ve all heard the line: There’s lies, damned lies, and then there’s statistics. The implication is that people can use statistics to deceive themselves and others.  But the opposite is also true: people often deceive themselves due to a stark ignorance of numbers & statistics (often referred to as innumeracy).

For example, at this time of year, at least in Christian circles, there is a lot of talk going around about prayer and miracles – usually in the guise of stories about supposedly “miraculous” healing.  And the media loves to give air time to these kind of anecdotal stories with nary a whiff of skepticism.  However, to its credit, ABC News did a segment recently with Elizabeth Vargas where she gave a fair amount of face-time to skeptic Michael Shermer.  Here are some excerpts from Shermer’s account of the interview at the really groovy SkeptiBlog…

Would I Ever Pray for a Miracle?

I really like how Shermer goes into the issue of large number statistics, confirmation bias, and believers counting the “miraculous hits” while discounting the enormous number of inevitable misses…

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in mathematics, religion | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Deepak Chopra Goes Off the Deep End of the Woo-Pool

Posted by mattusmaximus on January 3, 2010

One of the kings of New Age nonsense, Deepak Chopra, has written a widely read article at the Huffington Post (yet another reason to no longer take HuffPo seriously), and I felt that it deserved a bit of analysis.  The piece, titled Woo Woo Is a Step Ahead of (Bad) Science, is an interesting rant on the part of Chopra about why all things about the modern skeptical movement, “western” science (science is science folks, wherever it’s practiced), and Michael Shermer are off base, wrong, and just plain mean & nasty.  Chopra really seems to have had something stuck in his craw, and I suppose this was his way of getting it out…

There’s plenty of silliness to cover in Chopra’s article, so we might as well get started…

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

The Baloney Detection Kit

Posted by mattusmaximus on June 24, 2009

There is a video out from the Richard Dawkins Foundation featuring Dr. Michael Shermer called The Baloney Detection Kit. This is a quick 15 minute Youtube video which outlines the basics of skeptical & scientific thinking.  Give it a quick look and pass it on…

Posted in scientific method, skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Why Do People Believe in Woo & Superstition?

Posted by mattusmaximus on February 20, 2009

I have often wondered why it is that so many otherwise intelligent & educated people that I know buy into some of the weirdest woo that is out there. As famed skeptic Michael Shermer has said, “There are plenty of smart people who believe dumb things for non-smart reasons.” Why? What is it that makes so many of us so susceptible to accepting & believing in various kinds of woo and superstition?

A recent study from Northwestern University researchers may have found an answer, one which would corroborate the views of many skeptics who’ve pondered this question for years: control. The research was outlined at this Chicago Tribune article last October, and here are some key points of the study…

Now a new study by Northwestern University researchers has found that all such superstitions may have a common source: the feeling of a lack of control, which spurs people to concoct false patterns and meaning from the noise of life’s chance events.

The Chicago group found that making experimental subjects remember a time when they lacked control actually changed the way they viewed the world, and created a temporary need to see patterns where none existed.

The study in Friday’s edition of the journal Science represents the first experimental confirmation of a link that psychologists long suspected was behind superstitions, conspiracy theories, rituals and even some aspects of religious belief.

Conspiracy theories may be the most poignant example of the way lack of control can color perceptions and beliefs, said Jennifer Whitson, who co-authored the study with Northwestern professor Adam Galinsky as part of her doctoral thesis at the Kellogg School of Management.

For example, a universe of false conspiracy theories cropped up after the terrorist attacks of 2001, including the notion that the U.S. government masterminded the attacks. Whitson said the loss of power that terrorism can inflict on people helps explain the appeal of such theories.

As I said before, this study verifies the suspicions of many a skeptic. For example, renowned skeptic James “The Amazing One” Randi explains to a college class why it is that he thinks that so many people give the pseudoscience of astrology so much validity, despite the fact that it has been proven to be completely useless…

As Randi has said many times, when it comes to belief in woo & pseudoscience, for many people it’s not so much that they want to believe it, it’s that they need to believe it. And if you attempt to shake someone’s comforting worldview (even unintentionally) that gives them some sense of control, even if that sense of control is false & a complete illusion, they will often react negatively.

So, the next time you are discussing with friends or acquaintances some aspect of woo, take care how you come across with your skepticism. Be skeptical, and make your case, but also remember that you’re dealing with real people who have real emotional needs, some of which are satisfied with belief in woo, and tailor your message accordingly.

Posted in psychology | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

%d bloggers like this: