Skeptic: Examining Extraordinary Claims and Promoting Science Skeptic: Examining Extraordinary Claims and Promoting Science

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The Myth of Learning Styles

While certain content may benefit from being presented in a particular way, there is no evidence that learning is enhanced by changing the mode of presentation to match students learning preferences.  DNA Origami by Alex Bateman, Image © Duncan Hall, used under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license, via

Looking at how students study, it is obvious that people approach learning in different ways. Some students like to read the textbook once through, some highlight and annotate the textbook extensively, some write and rewrite their notes, others record and play back lectures, others still make and review flashcards, and so on… But what do these differences in study strategies reflect? There are many possibilities. They may reflect variations in the way that people learn, or it may reflect differences in work ethic or learned habits. Researchers have mistakenly interpreted these differences in preference to reflect differences in the way that people learn and learning styles has become a popular and widespread pedagogical approach.


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The Forgetfulness of Skepticism


Skeptic Joseph Rinn, demonstrating mediumistic trickery for a press syndicate in 1920. (From Daniel Loxton’s collection.)

Scientific skepticism has a long history—roughly 40 years in its most modern organized form, and centuries (arguably millennia) as a more or less recognizable tradition. (See my “Why Is There a Skeptical Movement?” for a discussion of this lengthy intellectual thread—PDF.)

We’ve learned a lot in that time. Generations of skeptics have devoted themselves to understanding paranormal and pseudoscientific claims, beliefs, and impostures. But even with those efforts, the fringe has remained radically under-examinded. Because this realm is so vast while the scholars and activists interested in exploring it are so few, our work has often had something of a scrambling quality. In our rush, skeptics have tended to neglect, or at least to set aside for some future time, some of the improvements of better-established fields.


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Skeptic magaine 19.4 (Diet Myths: What Science Knows (and doesn't know) about Food and Nutrition), available digitally in our App, and in print from Shop Skeptic

Skeptic magazine 19.4
Diet Myths

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Weekly Highlights

INSIGHT at sheds light, offers critical perspective, and serves as a broadly accessible, evidence-based resource on mysteries of science, paranormal claims, and the wild, woolly, wonderful weirdness of the fringe. This week’s highlights are:

Donald Prothero
Flawed Scientific Geniuses on the
Big Screen

Donald Prothero reviews two recent biographical films about scientists Alan Turing and Stephen Hawking.

Read the Insight

Mike McRae
Beware the Dystopian Visions of
Celebrity Scientists

Mike McRae considers artificial intelligence, and critiques physicist Stephen Hawking’s opinions on the topic as “expert creep”—the phenomenon of scientists celebrated within one discipline choosing to make public statements on matters outside of their field of experience.

Read the Insight

Ferguson protest in downtown St. Louis

Ferguson protest in downtown St. Louis. Credit velo_city, via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0), no changes

About this week’s eSkeptic

Psychologists have known for decades that memory does not operate like a video camera, with our senses recording in high definition what really happens in the world, accurately stored in memory awaiting high fidelity playback on the viewing screen of our mind. In this week’s eSkeptic, Michael Shermer discusses how the fallibility of memory can cause eyewitness testimony to contradict the evidence.

Dr. Michael Shermer is the Founding Publisher of Skeptic magazine, a monthly columnist for Scientific American, a regular contributor to, and Presidential Fellow at Chapman University. His new book is The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity Toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom. He is also the author of The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies—How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths; The Mind of the Market, on evolutionary economics, Why Darwin Matters: Evolution and the Case Against Intelligent Design, and The Science of Good and Evil.

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What Really Happened in Ferguson?
When eyewitness testimony collides with contradictory evidence

by Michael Shermer

Psychologists have known for decades that memory does not operate like a video camera, with our senses recording in high definition what really happens in the world, accurately stored in memory awaiting high fidelity playback on the viewing screen of our mind. Instead, fragments of scenes are processed by our senses, filtered through our emotions, biases, and prejudices, and put into context created by earlier memories, subsequent events, and the interpretations of our social group and culture. The world-renowned memory expert Elizabeth Loftus, in her 1991 book Witness for the Defense—a critical analysis of eyewitness testimony—explained the process this way:

As new bits and pieces of information are added into long-term memory, the old memories are removed, replaced, crumpled up, or shoved into corners. Memories don’t just fade…they also grow. What fades is the initial perception, the actual experience of the events. But every time we recall an event, we must reconstruct the memory, and with each recollection the memory may be changed. Truth and reality, when seen through the filter of our memories, are not objective facts but subjective, interpretative realities.

Loftus turned her research acumen to this problem when, in 1987, she was asked to testify for the defense of John Demjanjuk, a Ukrainian-born Cleveland autoworker who was on trial as “Ivan the Terrible,” the Nazi who murdered tens of thousands of Jews at Treblinka during the Second World War. But was Demjanjuk really Ivan? A witness named Abraham Goldfarb initially recalled that Ivan was killed in a 1943 uprising, but when he saw Demjanjuk he changed his story, now identifying him as the mass murderer. On the heels of Goldfarb’s testimony another witness named Eugen Turowski changed his original story of not recognizing Demjanjuk, now fingering him as the killer. The prosecution presented five witnesses who positively identified Demjanjuk as the man they had seen at Treblinka, but the defense countered with 23 other survivors of the concentration camp who could not positively ID Demjanjuk as Ivan the Terrible. An initial guilty verdict was overturned when another man was found guilty of the crimes.

In the 1990s there were two eyewitness-driven moral panics—the Recovered Memory Movement and the Satanic Panic—both of which involved court cases that turned entirely on the memories of eyewitnesses to satanic ritual abuse and sexual abuse claims, all of which unraveled before the facts (or the lack thereof), but not before destroying the lives of countless innocently accused. The Innocence Project, founded in 1992, uses DNA evidence to exonerate people on death row who were wrongfully convicted, the vast majority of which based on faulty eyewitness testimony—a total of 321 so far.

This process of mixing fantasy with reality to such an extent that it is impossible to sort them out is called confabulation, and Loftus has conducted numerous experiments showing how easy it is to plant false memories in people’s minds through simple suggestion and repetition, until the fantasy becomes a memory of reality. She famously concocted a story for little children about how they were once lost in a mall but rescued and returned to their parents—an event that never happened to any of her child subjects—and by merely asking them to recall details of the incident her child charges were able to recollect rich details. It was a chilling reminder of the frailty of human memory.

These historical examples should be kept in mind when assessing current events, most notably what really happened between 12:01pm and 12:03pm on August 9, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri when police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed teenager Michael Brown during a physical altercation after Wilson confronted Brown who had shoplifted cigarillos from a local market. When a grand jury failed to indict Wilson for murder, moral outrage trumped rational analysis and rioting ensued. When the documents reviewed by the grand jury were made public, however, it became clear why an indictment was dropped. The eyewitness accounts that would have indicated criminal wrong-doing on the part of the police officer were inconsistent, unreliable, provably wrong, changed over time, and even fabricated.

One woman, for example, reported that there was a second police officer in the passenger seat next to Wilson, a white “middle age or young” man in uniform. Wilson was alone. A number of bystanders said Wilson shot Brown in the back, including Brown’s friend standing next to him, Dorian Johnson. Johnson’s initial story that Wilson’s shot “struck my friend in the back” contradicted his grand jury testimony that the shot caused Brown’s body to “do like a jerking movement, not to where it looked like he got hit in his back, but I knew, it maybe could have grazed him.”

Another eyewitness said Wilson shot Brown in the back and then “stood over him and finished him off.” Under oath in front of the grand jury, however, he admitted that he made it up “based on me being where I’m from, and that can be the only assumption that I have.” His recantation was classic memory redaction based on new information. “So it was after you learned that the things you said you saw couldn’t have happened that way,” a prosecutor pressed him, “then you changed your story about what you seen?” The witness responded, “Yeah, to coincide with what really happened.” Whatever really happened we know what didn’t happen: the autopsy report concluded that Brown was not shot in the back.

More memory confabulation was apparent in another eyewitness who told a federal investigator that when he heard the first shot fired he looked out the window to see a police officer with his gun drawn and Brown “on his knees with his hands in the air. I seen him shoot him in the head.” When later told by the investigator, “What you are saying you saw isn’t forensically possible based on the evidence,” the man admitted that he based his account on what someone else told him because he was in a stairwell at the time and didn’t see it.

The moral outrage is understandable if Brown had his hands up or was face down in surrender, which would imply that Wilson executed him in cold blood. Knowing that is not what happened, however, should give us all pause before we dial up our moral modules to 11 and seek self-help justice in the form of rioting and looting, rather than the criminal justice system that, flawed as it is, still insists that indictments be based on facts instead of emotions, which are fed by long-simmering prejudices and all the cognitive biases and memory distortions that come packaged in the human mind. END

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Flawed Scientific Geniuses on the Big Screen


Benedict Cumberbatch, left, portrays Alan Turing in The Imitation Game (Image: STUDIOCANAL); Eddie Redmayne, right, stars as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything (Image: Liam Daniel / Focus Features)

A review of two new movies: the Stephen Hawking biography The Theory of Everything, and the Alan Turing biography The Imitation Game.

2014 has been a relatively good year for science in the public eye. At the beginning of the year, we had Bill Nye’s victory over creationist Ken Ham, and two outstanding TV series, Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos, and Neil Shubin’s Your Inner Fish. In all three cases, leading American popularizers of science managed to get a lot of publicity for good science. They also were successful in striking blows against various forms of pseudoscience, which are still pervasive in the media (especially on basic cable channels like Discovery and TLC, which ran “fake-umentaries” this year about living gigantic sharks, living mermaids, killer yetis, and even a guy promising to let an anaconda swallow him—then reneging). Now the year is coming to an end with two outstanding biopics about two of the most brilliant British mathematicians and scientists of the mid-late twentieth century, cosmologist Stephen Hawking (The Theory of Everything), and mathematician/cryptanalyst/computer pioneer Alan Turing (The Imitation Game). In both cases, the movies are outstanding, not only in their acting, writing, directing, and cinematography, but especially their relatively accurate and sympathetic portrayal of science and scientists, with all its struggles and triumphs.


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Genetic Park: Engineered Crops Run Amok on a Tycoon’s Island

Genetic Park: Engineered Crops Run Amok on a Tycoon's Island (Carbon Comic by Kyle Sanders in Skeptic magazine issue 19.4)

“Genetic Park: Engineered Crops Run Amok on a Tycoon’s Island appeared in Skeptic magazine 19.4 (2014).

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Gregory Hickok, On Demand
The Myth of Mirror Neurons

Dr. Gregory Hickok

IN THIS MYTH-BUSTING TALK based on his new book, U.C. Irvine cognitive scientist Dr. Gregory Hickok calls for an essential reconsideration of one of the most far-reaching theories in modern neuroscience and psychology. Ever since the discovery of mirror neurons in macaque monkeys in 1992 there has been a stream of scientific studies implicating mirror neurons in everything from schizophrenia and drug abuse to sexual orientation and contagious yawning. Drawing on a broad range of observations from work on animal behavior, modern neuroimaging, neurological disorders, and more, Hickok argues that the foundational assumptions fall flat in light of the facts. Read more…. Order The Myth of Mirror Neurons from Amazon.

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A message from Michael Shermer (photo by Eduard Pastor)

Be part of bringing the Skeptics Society’s Distinguished Science Lecture Series at Caltech to the world

Fellow skeptics,

Since 1992, the Skeptics Society has sponsored the Distinguished Science Lecture Series at Caltech, one of the premiere scientific institutions in the world, hosting over 350 of the biggest names in science. This series of lectures has covered the most advanced, leading-edge discoveries, and controversial topics in all of science, and enabled students, educators, and the general public to hear what’s new in science and skepticism. These lectures have helped people learn how to think critically about claims made in the name of science.

Now we want to take the Distinguished Science Lecture Series to a whole new level. While ticket, book, and DVD sales have provided enough funding to bring these cutting-edge ideas to tens of thousands of people, we would like to make them available to a much broader audience—to millions…to the world.

Following the TED model (I have given two TED talks that have been viewed by almost six million people), we are looking for a major donor/sponsor to reach this goal. Our speakers are just as prestigious as TED speakers—and our speakers’ talks are more in depth at full hour-long lectures—so there is every reason to believe that we too can reach millions of people around the world with our remarkable speakers and lectures.

A quality product on the Internet is, of course, a means to this end. We want to make our lectures available to everyone in the world who has Internet access by live streaming the events and then posting them shortly thereafter at for viewing in the future. We would like to make this service available for free for viewers. To this end we have a detailed line-item budget available upon request and look forward to working with a major donor/sponsor to help take the Distinguished Science Lecture Series to the next level. We want to change the world, and in order to do that we need to make science and skepticism available to everyone in the world.

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Conspiracy Theories Booklet page one illustration by Pat Linse

Conspiracy Theories
Who Believes Them, and Why? How Can You Determine if They are True or False?

What is a conspiracy theory, why do people believe in them, and why do they tend to proliferate? Why does belief in one conspiracy correlate to belief in others? What are the triggers of belief, and how does group identity factor into it? How can one tell the difference between a true conspiracy and a false one? For the answers, download this free booklet, created by Michael Shermer and Pat Linse, the founders of Skeptic magazine and your Skeptics Society.

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Ant Art copyright 1996 by Pat Linse
About this week’s eSkeptic

In this week’s eSkeptic, we draw from the archives of Skeptic magazine issue 4.1 (from 1996) in which Bernard Leikind posits the ant-thropic principle: the principle that the Universe somehow exists for ants and that ants are an expression of its purpose.

Dr. Bernard Leikind is a plasma physicist familiar to skeptics for his pioneering work in explaining the physics of firewalking, as well as his personal participation in dozens of firewalks. Dr. Leikind has also lectured for skeptics on “strange and unusual atmospheric phenomena,” as well as on the physics of sports, dance, and ballet. He has taught physics and researched at the University of Maryland, UCLA, the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, and General Atomics. He may be the only sensible firewalker, although some consider this an oxymoron.

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What is the Ant, Sir?

by Bernard Leikind

God sits in the captain’s chair in the Universe’s control room wearing a virtual reality helmet. Angels waft gently from one flickering control panel to another, adjusting the knobs and peering at computer screens. Are they PCs or Macs? Wouldn’t you like to know? They are running a pre-creation simulation of the Universe. The knobs control the fundamental properties of the Universe. Time has not yet been created so nobody is in a hurry, or maybe everything is happening at once. “What’s the matter with you?” God snaps at one of the angels. “The speed of light is much too slow. I thought we agreed on 300,000 kilometers per second.” An angel spins a dial to a new setting and carefully adjusts the vernier. “That’s much better,” God says as he relaxes back into his chair. “Let me see. Didn’t we agree that in order to achieve my purpose for the Universe the fine structure constant must be precisely 1/137.07? Where are my notes? Yes. Here it is: 1/137.07, exactly.” An angel drifts to the electromagnetic field section and carefully adjusts a control until the display shows this peculiar number. Following God’s instructions the angels set all the other fundamental numbers. God removes the helmet which has displayed simulations of the Universe-to-be. “It looks good to me.” In a moment commemorated on T-shirts, God gazes at a blackboard with Maxwell’s equations on it, and commands, “Let there be light!”

Suddenly a tiny universe appears. Expanding at breakneck speed, it thins and cools. Galaxies form and stars flicker on. Around a minor star in an average galaxy a planet congeals. Do you get the picture?

Fast forward about five billion years. God’s plan is working. At about the same time that the most advanced nation on Earth produces humanity’s crowning achievement—the Golden Arches— physicist Wolfgang Pauli dies. An angel ushers him into God’s study. “Wolfgang,” God says, “I liked your work about the exclusion principle. You really figured out what I was up to. And I especially admired how you deduced the existence of the neutrino. I did my best to hide it. I gave it hardly any properties at all. I invited you to visit me because I thought that you might have some questions for me.”

Pauli asks the question that every physicist would ask given the chance: “I always wondered why the fine structure constant is 1/137.07.”

“A good question.” God walks to his blackboard and begins filling it with differential equations and geometric diagrams. Finally he finishes the proof and brushes the chalk dust from his hands and robe. God turns to Pauli and smiles.

“It’s a beautiful and clever proof,” Pauli declares. “Certainly up to your usual standards. But over there, on the third line from the bottom, I believe that minus sign should be a plus sign. Let’s see. That changes the result to 1 over 32 times 42 or 1/144.”

“Gee willikers.” God is dismayed. “I wonder why no one ever noticed that before?” Reaching to the control panel, God adjusts the fine structure constant to 1/144. “At least its a round number. That .07 always bothered me.”

But suddenly the universe begins to change. Electromagnetic forces weaken, the stars shrink and their cores heat. The higher temperatures increase the rate of nuclear fusion, heating the stars even more. Gradually they became more brilliant. The Earth, which has already changed radically as chemical forces adjusted themselves to the new value, rapidly roasts to a crisp, barren rock.

Physicists know many numbers like the fine structure constant that seem to have a precisely set value. Even the tiniest change in any one of these numbers would change the Universe so radically that life as we know it could not exist. If there were only a few of these numbers, or if they didn’t have to be so precisely tuned, they wouldn’t intrigue physicists so much. But there seem to be many of them. Those inclined to seek purpose in the Universe point to these remarkably adjusted numbers as evidence that there must be a plan.

Quantum physics teaches us that observers contribute to the results of measurements that they make. Since the Universe is a quantum system, some distinguished physicists have argued that, in a sense, we create the Universe by observing it.

These two streams of thought converge to produce the Anthropic Principle; that the Universe somehow exists for us and that we are an expression of its purpose. Humans, so some thinkers would have it, are so remarkable that we must be the fruition of some grand design. Of course, a world that contains Geraldo, the OJ trial, Mozart, the Hillside Strangler, Rembrandt, the Bosnian war, Newt Gingrich, Shakespeare, and Einstein seems to some a chaotic madhouse. Seekers for purpose, like the author of Job, often propose that God must have inscrutable goals.

Blinded by parochial interests and supposing that what interests them must also interest God, proponents of the Anthropic principle have, nevertheless, almost got it right. They suppose that our wonderful achievements in art and science, our vast numbers, our large brains, our major effects upon the Earth are proof of our importance. I announce here, for readers of Skeptic, the true principle, the Ant-thropic Principle.

During the age of dinosaurs, our ancestors were small insignificant creatures. Fortunately, a passing asteroid wiped out the competition, creating ecological space for our development. Can that asteroid have been a random event? Think of how carefully it must have been aimed. What if it were slightly too big and wiped everything out, or too small and too many lizards survived? It may surprise you to know that during the age of dinosaurs, ants were relatively insignificant. There were only a few primitive species. The asteroid didn’t smash into the Earth to allow the evolution of primates and humans, but to allow for the evolution of ants. How do I know this? Well, look at the results.

There is only one species of humans and even counting all of the primates we have only a few dozens of relatives. There are at least 9,000 species of ants and entomologists are still finding new ones. Entomologists estimate that there may be 10 quadrillion ants in the world, more than a million ants for every man, woman, and child. Many of you, no doubt, believe that you have met your personal ants.

Now, a million ants only weigh a few kilograms, so we outweigh them, but no ant ever needed liposuction. Do we want to claim superiority based upon adipose tissue?

Some humans might claim superiority based upon our achievements such as agriculture, civil society, architecture, and art. We should not feel so confident.

Consider architecture and urban planning. Long ago ants achieved things that we have reached only recently. Their houses are air cooled, well-drained, structurally sound, and clean. They don’t burn and they don’t collapse in earthquakes. The streets don’t need traffic lights and they don’t have pot holes. They are safe for females at night.

What about agriculture? Some ants remain in the stage of primitive hunter-gatherers, but others have highly specialized agricultural or garden societies. These ants gather leaves as nutrients to grow a specialized fungus or mushroom. Other ants are herders. They tend aphids. They herd them on my orange tree leaves, protect them from enemies, and milk them for food. Ant agriculture is all natural, renewable, and does not pollute the environment.

I don’t want to make ants out to be saints. They raid one another’s nests, steal food, carry off babies, and take slaves. They form vast armies that march cross country destroying everything in their paths. But in a final analysis, ant pluses far outweigh ant minuses.

Do humans create the Universe by observing it? Maybe ants do the job. They are known to navigate by guiding on the sun and they can use polarized sky light to help them locate it.

Ants communicate by taste. They send chemicals back and forth to recognize nestmates or interlopers, express their feelings, and guide their sisters to food. Ants spray noxious chemicals on their enemies.

Ants share many other interests with humans. Some like eating out at picnics and restaurants, while others prefer cocooning at home.

Ants have achieved remarkable social organizations by assigning each to the tasks for which they are most appropriate. Males eat and make love. Females run the show and do all the work. Perhaps that’s why things run so smoothly in the ant world.

All of us would like to know the meaning of life. In Kurt Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titan, a distant galactic civilization created humanity so a spare part for one of its rocket ships would get to Titan, a moon of Saturn. In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the crucial answer to the question is 42. Why do we require that our existence have a cosmic significance? What if ants are the answer? Are we to fall into despair and nihilism? Or should we find our own purpose? The ability to create our own purposes is what sets us apart from all other creatures. And it is by our choices that our peers and descend-ants will judge us. END

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Alan Turing: The Enigma

Dr. Andrew Hodges

IT IS ONLY A SLIGHT EXAGGERATION to say that the British mathematician Alan Turing (1912–1954) saved the Allies from the Nazis, invented the computer and artificial intelligence, and anticipated gay liberation by decades—all before his suicide at age 41. In November a major motion picture starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Turing will be released, based on the classic biography by Dr. Andrew Hodges, who teaches mathematics at Wadham College, University of Oxford (he is also an active contributor to the mathematics of fundamental physics). Hodges tells how Turing’s revolutionary idea of 1936—the concept of a universal machine—laid the foundation for the modern computer and how Turing brought the idea to practical realization in 1945 with his electronic design. Hodges also tells how this work was directly related to Turing’s leading role in breaking the German Enigma ciphers during World War II, a scientific triumph that was critical to Allied victory in the Atlantic. At the same time, this is the tragic story of a man who, despite his wartime service, was eventually arrested, stripped of his security clearance, and forced to undergo a humiliating treatment program—all for trying to live honestly in a society that defined homosexuality as a crime.

A book signing followed the lecture. Order Alan Turing: The Enigma from Amazon.

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Beware the Dystopian Visions of Celebrity Scientists

Stephen Hawking

Stephen Hawking’s future: doomed singularity or invading aliens? Image by J. Nathan Matias, via Wikimedia Commons Commons. Used under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic license.

Several years ago, eminent British cosmologist Professor Stephen Hawking made headlines by speculating that first contact with sentient aliens probably wouldn’t end in high-fives and tribble-cuddles. “If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out well for the Native Americans,” he suggested.

As if that rosy idea wasn’t enough, Professor Hawking has now claimed the invention of artificial intelligence (AI) could precipitate the end of humanity. “It would take off on its own, and re-design itself at an ever increasing rate,” he recently told the BBC. “Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete, and would be superseded.”

Intergalactic robots landing on his lawn must surely be nightmare-fuel.

It’s easy to dismiss the famous author’s pessimism as the harmless speculation of a respected intellectual (or, for those inclined, to accept his opinions with alarm). Yet given the challenges involved in engaging the public in the realities of science, the sci-fi musings of a world famous scientist might be less than helpful.


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INSIGHT at banner

Weekly Highlights

INSIGHT at sheds light, offers critical perspective, and serves as a broadly accessible, evidence-based resource on mysteries of science, paranormal claims, and the wild, woolly, wonderful weirdness of the fringe. This week’s highlights are:

Donald Prothero
Fake Pterosaurs and Sock Puppets

Donald Prothero considers the marginal story of the "ropen"—an allegedly pterosaur-like cryptid—and the man who has led a one-man crusade to promote it using an army of sock-puppets.

Read the Insight

Follow Michael Shermer on Twitter, Facebook, and Skepticblog

Conspiracy Central: Who Believes in Conspiracy Theories
—and Why

President Barack Obama has been a busy man while in office: he concocted a fake birth certificate to hide his true identity as a foreigner, created “death panels” to determine who would live and who would die under his health care plan, conspired to destroy religious liberty by mandating contraceptives for religious institutions, blew up the Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling rig to garner support for his environmental agenda, masterminded Syrian gas attacks as a pretext to war, orchestrated the shooting of a tsa agent to strengthen that agency’s powers, ordered the Sandy Hook school massacre to push through gun-control legislation, and built concentration camps in which to place Americans who resist.

Do people really believe such conspiracy theories? They do, and in disturbingly high numbers, according to recent empirical research collected by University of Miami political scientists Joseph E. Uscinski and Joseph M. Parent and presented in their 2014 book American Conspiracy Theories



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The Martian

In this episode of Skepticality, Derek chats with National Laboratory programmer turned hard science fiction author Andy Weir about his popular book The Martian (a story, based on real and near-future technology, about an astronaut stranded on Mars after a tragic accident). Find out what inspired Andy to write the novel, and learn about his journey from working for free, to having his book turned into a major motion picture (to be released in 2015).

About this week’s eSkeptic

In this week’s eSkeptic, we draw from the archives of Skeptic magazine issue 2.1 (from 1993) in which the late, great Steve Allen (1921–2000), shared his observations on genius.

Steve Allen was a comedian and creator of the Tonight Show and the Steve Allen Show. He was a composer, singer, producer, conductor, a songwriter of more than 4,000 songs, and the author of 38 books. He was a political activist, a Humanist Laureate for the Academy of Humanism, and the producer of the award-winning PBS-TV network series Meeting of Minds, a talk show with some of history’s most significant figures, with Mr. Allen acting as host. His tireless efforts on behalf of the promotion of science, skepticism, and humanism have kept these movements on the cutting edge in the media and popular culture. His book Dumbth was a national bestselling social commentary on the state of U.S. education.

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Observations on Genius

by Steve Allen

The answer to the riddle of genius remains elusive. When it is at last discovered it may prove to be closely related to another of psychology’s deepest mysteries, that of the idiot savants, those peculiar individuals who are mentally handicapped, with the exception of one aspect of creative behavior, at which they are superior. What both genius and the puzzling abilities of the idiot savants have in common is that such praiseworthy factors as hard work, practice and determination would appear to have nothing whatever to do with the matter.

Nor—and this is fascinating—does the unadorned factor of high intelligence account for genius. We all know people who are extremely intelligent and yet do not in any way distinguish themselves.

The puzzle is further complicated by the fact that intelligence itself is not one factor but may be manifested in a variety of forms. In my own case the manipulation of words, ideas and their inter-relationships comes easily; unfortunately I cannot say the same for mathematical symbols. As for the broad field of science itself, what may be called the philosophy of it intrigues me, but I have no gifts for the nuts-and-bolts aspects of such disciplines.

I am confident enough about one relevant insight to predict that when the mystery is finally resolved its location will be either solely or mostly in genetics. Thomas Edison is reported to have said that genius was one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration. While that may have been true in his case, I doubt if it has universal application since I have the impression that for many true geniuses, their work comes easily.

This is at least consistent with the assumption of a genetic base for dramatically superior ability. If that hypothesis becomes established, it will have cleared up a bit of mystery but created a great deal more. With genius it seems we have truly entered a scientific Twilight Zone if it is indeed the case that some almost invisible blob of physical matter is literally responsible for Einstein’s ability to conceive of the theory of relativity, for the paintings of Leonardo, the symphonies of Beethoven, the plays of Shakespeare, or dazzling proficiency in any of the arts.

It has long been self-evident that there is a physical basis for bodily features and characteristics. Whether one had brown or blue eyes, one skin color or another, long legs, large bones or a particular color of hair—all of this was recognized as traceable to physical factors, which we now know are genes. But in recent decades, remarkable discoveries have demonstrated that what might be called character traits, too, have a genetic basis. Within the last year a gene for the personality trait known as shyness has been discovered.

In contemplating the lives of those rare individuals who are so morally superior that they are considered saints, it has occurred to me that they might be better referred to as geniuses of virtue and that, moreover, the explanation for their moral good fortune might also lie in the accident of genetics.

Whatever the relevant realities, we may safely consider them astonishing. If any or much of this becomes established, interesting philosophical questions immediately follow. There is something rather sweet about being Jeffersonian and believing that on some level all human creatures are born equal. But it is clear, even to children, that not all of us are born equal physically. Since Americans particularly are not comfortable with the concept of class, we experience some discomfort in considering the possibility, or fact, that there are superior and inferior individuals.

When the inferiority is dramatic and undeniable, we respond charitably and generally treat the handicapped, of whatever sort, with at least a minimum degree of compassion, although it often requires the early work of solitary thinkers and doers to encourage us to such generosity of spirit.

The genius is, by definition, superior to the rest of us. We would like to think that by adjusting the environmental circumstances of all but the physically handicapped we could perhaps create geniuses by the proper sort of education. I believe this cannot happen, although God knows the formal process of education leaves a great deal to be desired.

Although it is reasonable to assume that there have always been individuals of genius, it was not until the 17th century that the word assumed its modern meaning. We can see in the first syllable of the word a clue to its original Roman meaning, which survives in such words as gene, genetics and genealogy. The fact that to the present day the term is still not susceptible to precise definition of the scientific sort is only one aspect of the ageless mystery of creativity itself. After centuries of attention by philosophers, theologians, psychologists and brain specialists, we still cannot explain why certain individuals can produce poems, plays, novels, stories, jokes, paintings, sculpture, music, or scientific theories when the great majority of the human race cannot. That even the still-revered philosophers of ancient times were at a loss in this regard becomes clear when we consider the two classical explanations for remarkable talent.

One attributes such work to beings called muses, but that is nonsense since there are no such things. They are a purely hypothetical conception. The other explanation, equally groundless, is that all creative works have God as their true father. Simply stepping over the ancient debate concerning the existence of God, and assuming, in fact, that there is a creator of the universe, it hardly seems fair to attribute to him all the poetry, music and literature in the world for the simple reason that most of it is dreadfully inferior. There is also, of course, the difficulty as to why God would trouble himself to add a helpful line or two to one of his creature’s poems while not exerting himself to save the lives of the millions who daily suffer in the most hideously painful and unjust ways—children dying in orphanage fires, nuns struck down by cancer, and other instances too depressing to long consider.

So we are back where we started and little the wiser for our search.

My own theory as regards the long-held beliefs about the origin of genius is that a combination of envy and the contempt said to result from long familiarity engendered the idea that the gifted individual himself could not possibly be responsible for his abilities. And indeed such puzzlement is understandable since it is perfectly possible for a person to be (a) a genius and (b) something of a disappointment in other regards. Some geniuses have appeared less than bright during their early years—Aquinas, Newton and Einstein being classic examples. Others have left a great deal to be desired morally. And Havelock Ellis, in Study of British Genius, observed that muscular incoordination, physical awkwardness and difficulties with speech were characteristic of both idiots and geniuses. END

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