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

top navigation:

Wednesday, January 5th, 2005 | ISSN 1556-5696

eSkeptic: the email newsletter of the Skeptics Society

Share this eSkeptic with friends online. Subscribe | Donate | Watch Lectures | Shop


New Book from Michael Shermer
Science Friction: Where the Known Meets the Unknown

We are pleased to announce the release this week of Michael Shermer’s new book:
Science Friction:
Where the Known Meets the Unknown.

(Times Books, New York, 2005.
ISBN 0-8050-7708-1).
Available at all bookstores (Barnes & Noble, Borders, etc.), www.amazon.com, and, of course, www.skeptic.com

What follows is praise and a review of the book, followed by an excerpt from the Introduction.

A scientist pretends to be a psychic for a day—and fools everyone. An athlete discovers that good-luck rituals and getting into “the zone” may, or may not, improve his performance. A historian decides to analyze the data to see who was truly responsible for the Bounty mutiny. A son explores the possibilities of alternative and experimental medicine for his cancer-ravaged mother. And a skeptic realizes that it is time to turn the skeptical lens onto science itself. In each of the fourteen essays in Science Friction, psychologist and science historian Michael Shermer explores the very personal barriers and biases that plague and propel science, especially when scientists push against the unknown. What do we know and what do we not know? How does science respond to controversy, attack, and uncertainty? When does theory become accepted fact? As always, Shermer delivers a thought-provoking, fascinating, and entertaining view of life in the scientific age.


Praise for Science Friction

“You may disagree with Michael Shermer, but you’d better have a good reason and you’ll have your work cut out finding it. He describes skepticism as a virtue, but I think that understates his own unique contribution to contemporary intellectual discourse. Worldly-wise sounds wearily cynical so I’d call Shermer universe-wise. I’d call him shrewd, but it doesn’t do justice to the breadth and depth of his inspired scientific vision. I’d call him a spirited controversialist, but that doesn’t do justice to his urbane good humor. Oh just read the book. Once you start, you won’t stop.”

—Richard Dawkins, author of The Ancestor’s Tale and The Selfish Gene

“It is both an art and a discipline to rise above our inevitable human biases and look in the eye truths about how the world works that conflict with the way we would like it to be. Michael Shermer reminds me of the guy in the dorm in college who made a career of standing his ground for the truth in the face of everyone else on the hallway who insisted on prattling the cozy wisdoms. In Science Friction he shines his beacon on a delicious range of subjects, often showing that the truth is more interesting and awe-inspiring than the common consensus. Bravo.”

—John McWhorter, author of Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America

“Michael Shermer challenges us all to candidly confront what we believe and why. In each of the varied essays in Science Friction, he warns how the fundamentally human pursuit of meaning can lead us astray into a fog of empty illusions and vacuous idols. He implores us to stare honestly at our beliefs and he shows how, through adherence to bare reason, the profound pursuit of meaning can instead lead us to truth—and how, in turn, truth can lead us to meaning.”

—Janna Levin, author of How the Universe Got Its Spots

“Whether the subject is ultra-marathon cycling or evolutionary science, Michael Shermer—who has excelled at the former and become one of our leading defenders of the latter—never writes with anything less than full throttled engagement. Incisive, penetrating, and mercifully witty, Shermer throws himself with brio into some of the most serious and disturbing topics of our times—the intellectual tyranny of religious fundamentalism, the logical absurdity of ‘scientific creationism’ and the tragedies that befall a society when its people are not free to think for themselves. Like the best passionate thinkers, Shermer has the power to enrage his opponents. That’s because he’s so damn good at putting his side of the argument. Even those who don’t agree with him will be sharpened by the encounter with this feisty book.”

—Margaret Wertheim, author of Pythagoras’ Trousers

“From breast implants to Captain Bligh, Michael Shermer examines the way we humans perceive news and history. He’s given a lot of things a lot of thought. If your perceptions have ever rubbed you the wrong way, you’ll find Science Friction fascinating.”

—Bill Nye, The Science Guy

Publisher’s Weekly review of Science Friction

Shermer, a skeptic by nature and trade (he founded Skeptic magazine), reveals how scientific reasoning can remove blinders in any field of study and why some biases are, nevertheless, unavoidable. The book’s first essays are highly engaging and will have readers re-examining their own ways of thinking about the world. The introduction, for instance, demonstrates with optical illusions and anecdotes how the mind can be tricked into believing the untrue. “Psychic for a Day” has the author using psychology and statistics to become a medium. “The New New Creationism” refutes the claim that intelligent-design theory is a bona fide scientific theory. When Shermer (Why People Believe Weird Things) makes his essays personal, as in “Shadowlands,” in which he describes trying unproven treatments to help his dying mother, he draws readers in. Unfortunately, data often take precedence over prose, as in “History’s Heretics,” which includes 25 lists of the most and least influential people and events of the past, including the author’s top 100. Shermer furthers the cause of skepticism and makes a great case for its role in all aspects of human endeavor, but he’ll lose many readers in a bog of details.


Science and the Search for Meaning:
excerpts from the Introduction to Science Friction

by Michael Shermer

That old Persian tentmaker (and occasional poet), Omar Khayyám, well captured the human dilemma of the search for meaning in an apparently meaningless cosmos:

Into this Universe, and Why not knowing, Nor Whence, like Water willy-nilly flowing; And out of it, as Wind along the Waste, I know not Whither, willy-nilly blowing.

It is in the vacuum of such willy-nilly whencing and whithering that we humans are so prone to grasp for transcendent interconnectedness. As pattern-seeking primates we scan the random points of light in the night sky of our lives and connect the dots to form constellations of meaning. Sometimes the patterns are real, sometimes not. Who can tell?

Our observations are further clouded by the subtle psychological biases we harbor. Consider the confirmation bias, in which we look for and find confirmatory evidence for what we already believe and ignore disconfirmatory evidence. For my monthly column in Scientific American I wrote an essay (June, 2003) on the so-called “Bible Code,” in which the claim is made that the first five books of the Bible—the Pentateuch—in its original Hebrew, contain hidden patterns that spell out events in world history, even future history. A journalist named Michael Drosnin wrote two books on the subject, both New York Times bestsellers, in which he claimed in the second volume to have predicted 9/11. My analysis was very skeptical of this claim (I told him in a personal letter that it would have been nice if he would have alerted everyone to 9/11 before the event instead of after). He wrote a letter to the magazine (and had an attorney threaten them and me with a libel suit), which they published. In response, I received a most insightful letter from John Byrne, a well-known comic book writer and illustrator of Spider Man and other super heroes. I reprint it here because he makes the point about this cognitive bias so well.

Reading Michael Drosnin’s response to Michael Shermer’s column on the Bible “code” and its ability to accurately predict the future, I could not help but laugh. I have been a writer and illustrator of comic books for the past 30 years, and in that time I have “predicted” the future so many times in my work my collegues have actually taken to referring to it as “the Byrne Curse.”

It began in the late 1970s. While working on a Spider-Man series titled “Marvel Team-Up” I did a story about a blackout in New York. There was a blackout the month the issue went on sale (six months after I drew it.) While working on “Uncanny X-Men” I hit Japan with a major earthquake, and again the real thing happened the month the issue hit the stands.

Now, those things are fairly easy to “predict,” but consider these: When working on the relaunch of Superman, for DC Comics, I had the Man of Steel fly to the rescue when disaster beset the NASA space shuttle. The Challenger tragedy happened almost immediately thereafter, with time, fortunately, for the issue in question to be redrawn, substituting a “space plane” for the shuttle.

Most recent, and chilling, came when I was writing and drawing “Wonder Woman,” and did a story in which the title character was killed, as a prelude to her becoming a goddess. The cover for that issue was done as a newspaper front page, with the headline “Princess Diana Dies.” (Diana is Wonder Woman’s real name). That issue went on sale on a Thursday. The following Saturday…I don’t have to tell you, do I?

My ability as a prognisticator, like Drosnin’s, would seem assured—provided, of course, we reference only the above, and skip over the hundreds of other comic books I have produced which featured all manner of catastrophes, large and small, which did not come to pass.

In short, we remember the hits and forget the misses, another variation on the confirmation bias.

In recent decades experimental psychologists have discovered a number of cognitive biases that interfere with our understanding of ourselves and our world. The self-serving bias, for example, dictates that we tend to see ourselves in a more positive light than others see us: national surveys show that most business people believe they are more moral than other business people. In one College Entrance Examination Board survey of 829,000 high school seniors, 0 percent rated themselves below average in “ability to get along with others,” while 60 percent put themselves in the top 10 percent. This is also called the “ Lake Wobegon effect,” after the mythical town where everyone is above average. Lake Wobegon exists in the spiritual realm as well. According to a 1997 U.S. News and World Report study on who Americans believe are most likely to go to heaven, for example, 60 percent chose Princess Diana, 65 percent thought Michael Jordan, 79 percent selected Mother Teresa, and, at 87 percent, the person most likely to go to heaven was the survey taker!

Experimental evidence of such cognitive idols has been provided by Princeton University psychology professor Emily Pronin and her colleagues, who tested a generalized idol called “bias blind spot,” in which subjects recognized the existence and influence in others of eight different specific cognitive biases, but they failed to see those same biases in themselves. In one study on Stanford University students, when asked to compare themselves to their peers on such personal qualities as friendliness, they predictably rated themselves higher. Even when the subjects were warned about the “better-than-average” bias and asked to re-evaluate their original assessments, 63 percent claimed that their initial evaluations were objective, and 13 percent even claimed to be too modest! In a second study, Pronin randomly assigned subjects high or low scores on a “social intelligence” test. Unsurprisingly, those given the high marks rated the test fairer and more useful than those receiving low marks. When asked if it was possible that they had been influenced by the score on the test, subjects responded that the other participants were negatively influenced, but not them! In a third study in which Pronin queried subjects about what method they used to assess their own and others’ biases, she found that people tend to use general theories of behavior when evaluating others, but use introspection when appraising themselves; but in what is called the “introspection illusion,” people do not believe that others can be trusted to do the same. Okay for me but not for thee.

The University of California Berkeley psychologist Frank J. Sulloway and I made a similar discovery of an “attribution bias” in a study we conducted on why people say they believe in God, and why they think other people believe in God. In general, most people attribute their own belief in God to such intellectual reasons as the good design and complexity of the world, whereas they attribute others’ belief in God to such emotional reasons as it is comforting, gives meaning, and that they were raised to believe.

In identifying all these different factors influencing (and often determining) what it is we see and think about the world, it calls into question how we know anything. There are many answers to this solipsistic challenge—consistency, coherence, and correspondence being just three devised by philosophers and epistemologists—but for my money there is no more effective Reliable Knowledge Kit than science. The methods of science, in fact, were specifically designed to weed out idols and biases. Some patterns are real and some are not. Science is the only way to know for sure.

Cancer clusters are a prime example. As portrayed in Steven Soderbergh’s 2000 film Erin Brockovich, staring Julia Roberts as the buxom legal assistant cum corporate watchdog, lawyers can strike a financial bonanza with juries who do not understand that correlation does not necessarily mean causation. Toss a handful of pennies up into the air and let them fall where they may, and you will see small “clusters” of pennies, not a perfectly random distribution. Millions of Americans get cancer—they are not randomly distributed throughout the country; they are clustered. Every once in awhile, they may be grouped in a town where a big industrial plant owned by a wealthy corporation has been dumping potentially toxic waste products. Is the cancer cluster due to the potentially toxic waste, or is it due to random chance? Ask a lawyer and his clients hoping for a large cash settlement from the corporation, and they will give you an unambiguous answer: cluster = cause = cash. Ask a scientist with no stake in the outcome and you will get a rather different answer: cluster = or ≠ cause. It all depends. Additional studies must be conducted. Are there other towns and cities with similar correlations between the chemical waste product and the same type of cancer cluster? Are there epidemiological studies connecting these chemicals to that cancer? Is there a plausible chemical or biological mechanism linking that chemical to that cancer? The answers to such questions, usually in the negative, often come long after juries have granted plaintiffs large awards, or after corporations grow weary and financially drained fighting such suits and opt to settle out of court.

A similar problem was seen in the silicon breast implant scare of the late 1980s and early 1990s. I distinctly recall the advertisements placed in the Los Angeles Times by legal firms, alerting any women with silicon breast implants that they might be entitled to a significant financial award if they exhibit any of the symptoms listed in the ad, which was a laundry list of aches and pains connected to a variety of autoimmune and connective tissue diseases (as well as the vagaries of everyday life). A hotline was also established: 1/800-RUPTURE. Women responded…in droves, and the litigant attorneys paraded their clients in front of the courthouse with placards that read “We Are the Evidence.” In 1991, one of these women, Mariann Hopkins, was awarded $7.3 million after a jury determined that her ruptured silicone breast implant caused a connective tissue disease. Within weeks, 137 lawsuits were filed against the manufacturer, Dow Corning. The next year another woman, Pamela Jean Johnson, won $25 million after a jury linked to her implants mixed connective tissue disease, auto-immune responses, chronic fatigue, muscle pain, joint pain, headaches, and dizziness, even though the scientists who testified for the defense said her symptoms amounted to nothing more than “a bad flu.” By the end of 1994, an unbelievable 19,092 individual lawsuits had been filed against Dow Corning, shortly after which the company filed for bankruptcy.

In the end, the confirmation bias won out and Dow Corning had to pay $4.25 billion to settle tens of thousands of claims. The only problem was, there is no connection between silicone breast implants and any of the diseases linked to them in these trials. After multiple independent studies by reputable scientific institutions in no way connected to either the corporation or any of the litigants, the Journal of the American Medical Association, the New England Journal of Medicine, the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, the National Academy of Science, and other medical organizations, declared that this was a case of “junk science” in the courtroom. Dr. Marcia Angell, the Executive Editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, explained that this was nothing more than a chance overlap between two populations: one percent of American women have silicone breast implants, one percent of American women have autoimmune or degenerative tissue diseases. With millions of women in each of these categories, by chance tens of thousands will have both implants and disease, even though there is no causal connection. That’s all there is to it.

Why, then, in this age of modern science, was this not clear to judges and juries? Because Bacon’s idols of the marketplace dictate that scientists and lawyers speak two different languages that represent dramatically different ways of thinking. The law is adversarial. Lawyers are pitted against one another. There will be a winner and a loser. Evidence is to be marshaled and winnowed to best support your side in order to defeat your opponent. As an attorney for the prosecution it doesn’t matter if silicone actually causes disease, it only matters if you can convince a jury that it does. Science, by contrast, attempts to answer questions about the way the world really works. Although scientists may be competitive with one another, the system is self-correcting and self-policing, with a long-term collective and cooperative goal of determining the truth. Scientists want to know if silicone really causes disease. Either it does or it does not.

Marcia Angell wrote a book on this subject, Science on Trial, in which she explained how “a lawyer questioning an epidemiologist in a deposition asked him why he was undertaking a study of breast implants when one had already been done. To the lawyer, a second study clearly implied that there was something wrong with the first. The epidemiologist was initially confused by the line of questioning. When he explained that no single study was conclusive, that all studies yielded tentative answers, that he was looking for consistency among a number of differently designed studies, it was the lawyer’s turn to be confused.” As Executive Editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, Angell recalled that she was occasionally asked why the journal does not publish studies “on the other side,” a concept, she explained, “that has no meaning in medical research.” There is “another side” to an issue only if the data warrant it, not by fiat.

The case of Marcia Angell is an enlightening one. She opens her book with a confession: “I consider myself a feminist, by which I mean that I believe that women should have political, economic, and social rights equal to those of men. As such, I am alert to discriminatory practices against women, which some feminists believe lie at the heart of the breast implant controversy. I am also a liberal Democrat. I believe that an unbridled free market leads to abuses and injustices and that government and the law need to play an active role in preventing them. Because of this view, I am quick to see the iniquities of large corporations.” What’s a disclaimer like this doing in a science book? She explains: “I disclose my political philosophy here, because it did not serve me well in examining the breast implant controversy. The facts were simply not as I expected they would be. But my most fundamental belief is that one should follow the evidence wherever it leads.” Francis Bacon would approve.

This précis on knowing and not knowing introduces this volume, a collection of thirteen research articles and personal essays that I have written over the past decade—most (but not all) published in various journals and magazines (but none appearing in my other books)—about how science operates under pressure, during controversies, under siege, and on the precipice of the known as we peer out in search of a ray of light to illuminate the unknown. I have grouped them into four general sections, each of which embodies science on the edge between the known and the unknown, in that fuzzy shadowlands that offers a unique perspective on both knowing and not knowing, and how science is the best tool we have to discern which is which.

Part I, “Science and the Virtues of Skepticism,” begins with chapter 1, “Psychic for a Day,” a first-person account of an amusing and enlightening experience I had spending a day as an astrologer, tarot card reader, palm reader, and psychic medium talking to the dead. I did this on invitation from Bill Nye (the “science guy”) for an episode of his television series, Eyes of Nye. With almost no experience in any of these psychic modalities, I prepared myself the night before and on the plane flying to the studio, then improvised live-to-tape in studio, managing to completely convince my sitters that I had genuine psychic powers, reducing several subjects to tears when we “connected” to lost loved ones. It was at this point that I realized the emotional impact that psychics can have on believers, and the immorality of the entire process and industry that has built up around these claims.

Chapter 2, “The Big “Bright” Brouhaha,” presents in narrative form the results of an empirical study I conducted (I include data charts as well) on the skeptical movement and the attempt to unite all nonbelievers, agnostics, atheists, humanists, and free thinkers under one blanket label—The Brights—and why, in my opinion, all such attempts will ultimately fail. The movement began at the Atheist Alliance International convention in 2003, and I was the first to sign the petition. The “Bright” movement gained momentum when myself and such luminaries as the evolutionary theorist Richard Dawkins and the philosopher Daniel Dennett came out of the skeptical closet through opinion editorials. The reaction was swift and merciless—almost no one, including and especially nonbelievers, agnostics, atheists, humanists, and free thinkers, liked the name, insisting that its elitist implications, along with the natural antonym “dim,” would doom us as a movement. The entire episode afforded a real-time analysis of how social movements evolve.

Chapter 3. “Heresies of Science,” presents six heretical ideas that promise to shake up everything we have come to believe about the world: The Universe is Not All There is, Time Travel is Possible, Evolution is Purposeless, Oil is Not a Fossil Fuel, Cancer is an Infectious Disease, and The Brain and Spinal Cord Can Regenerate. With each heresy, I consider the belief it is challenging, the alternative it offers, and the likelihood that it is correct. Since this is cutting edge science my conclusions are necessarily provisional, as in most of these claims the data are still coming in and resolution is not final. In the case of the first two claims, it may be some time before we can detect other universes, and unless we receive visitors from the future, time machines will likely remain the staple of science fiction for some time to come (pardon the pun). Evidence is mounting, however, in support of the fact that evolution is purposeless (and designless as well, at least from the top down—evolution is a bottom up designer), that some forms of cancer are caused by infectious viral agents, and that parts of the brain and spinal cord can regenerate under certain limited conditions. As for oil not being a fossil fuel, here we would be wise to be skeptical of the oil skeptics. Even though the proponent of this claim is a renowned scientist, reputation in science only gets you a hearing. You also need reliable data and sound theory.

Chapter 4, “The Virtues of Skepticism,” is a brief history of skepticism and doubt, the relationship between science and skepticism, and the role of skeptics in society. This essay began as a tribute to my friend and colleague—the venerable Martin Gardner, one of the fountainheads of the modern skeptical movement—but as I try to do in nearly all of my writings I also impart larger lessons for what we can learn about how science works through examining how it doesn’t work. In this case, I examine skepticism itself, with some embarrassment for my own lack of initiative and insight for not doing this in 1992 when we founded the Skeptics Society and Skeptic magazine. In selecting these names for the society and magazine, one would imagine that we would have carefully thought out their linguistic and historical meaning and usages, but it was not until the late Stephen Jay Gould wrote the foreword to my book, Why People Believe Weird Things, in which he discussed the meaning of “skepticism,” that I got to thinking about what precisely it is we are doing when we are being skeptical.

Part II. “Science and the Meaning of Body, Mind, and Spirit,” begins with chapter 5, “Spin-Doctoring Science,” by demonstrating how science gets spin-doctored during explosive controversies, such as the anthropology wars over the true nature of human nature. This is an in-depth analysis of the fight among scientists over the proper interpretation of the Yanomamö people of Amazonia. Are they the “fierce” people, as one anthropologist called them, in constant battles with one another over precious resources, or are they the “erotic” people, as another anthropologist labeled them, passionately loving and sexual? The answer is yes, the Yanomamö are the erotic fierce people, or the fiercely erotic people. They are, in fact, people, just like us in the sense of possessing a full range of human emotions, and a complete suite of human traits, together for which they comprise our nature as Homo sapiens.

In chapter 6, “Psyched Up, Psyched Out,” I utilize my experiences in the 1980s as a professional bicycle racer, particularly my founding of and participation in the 3,000-mile nonstop transcontinental Race Across America—the ultimate test in the sport of ultra-marathon cycling—to consider the power of the mind in sports, what we know and do not know about its role in athletic performance, and what this tells us about the interaction between mind and body. Since I was an active participant in the race, hell-bent on winning as much as the next guy, I entered the fray not as an objective scientist curious about whether this or that diet or training technique or new technology worked, but as a competitor in search of an edge. The farrago of nonsense I encountered along the way ultimately led to my becoming a skeptic, because athletes are especially superstitious and vulnerable to outlandish claims, and I was among the gullible at this stage in my life.

Chapter 7, “Shadowlands,” is the most personal commentary in the book, as I recount the story of a ten-year battle with cancer I helped my mother to wage against brain tumors (to which she eventually succumbed), and what I learned about the limitations of medical science, the hubris of medical diagnosis and prognosis, the lure of alternative medicine, and the interface of science and spirituality. I was with my mom every step of the way, from initial diagnosis of depression in a psychiatrist’s office, to CAT scans and MRIs, to the surgery waiting room (numerous times), to her final hospital stay, nursing home, and, finally, when she breathed her last. How even a hardened skeptic deals with death, particularly that of someone as close as a parent, demonstrates, I hope, that skepticism is more than a scientific way of analyzing the world; it is also a humane way of life.

Part III. Science and the (Re)Writing of History, begins with chapter 8, “Darwin on the Bounty,” by demonstrating how science can be put to good use to solve an historical mystery—what was the true cause of the mutiny on the Bounty—and how evolutionary theory provides an even deeper causal analysis of human behavior under strain. Historians operate at a proximate level of analysis, searching for immediate causes that triggered a particular historical event. Evolutionary theorists operate at an ultimate level of analysis, searching for deeper causes that underlie proximate causes. In this case I am not disputing what historians have determined happened to the crew of the Bounty, and what in the weeks and months preceding the rebellion led them to take such drastic action against their commander. What I am looking for is an explanation in the hearts of the men, so to speak; not just how, but why, in the sense of what in human nature could lead to such actions. As such, in this study I am extending what I have done in my previous work as a professional historian. In Denying History, I analyzed the claims of the Holocaust deniers and demonstrated with rigorous science how we know the Holocaust happened. In my biography of Alfred Russel Wallace, In Darwin’s Shadow, I employed several theories and techniques from the social sciences to ground my subject in a deeper level of understanding of human behavior. I am not attempting to revolutionize the practice of history, so much as I am trying to add to it the tried and true methods of science, so often neglected (because of the Balkinization of academic departments) by historians.

Chapter 9, “Exorcising Laplace’s Demon,” applies the modern sciences of chaos and complexity to human history, showing how meaningful patterns can be teased out of the apparent chaos of the past. I have been thinking about how to apply chaos and complexity theory to human history since those sciences came on the scene in the late 1980s, while I was earning my doctorate in history. I have always been interested in the philosophy of history. Our flagship journal is History and Theory, and that title says a lot. History is the data of the past. But data without theory are like bricks without a blueprint to transmogrify them into a building. It is theory that binds historical facts into a cohesive and meaningful pattern that allows us to draw deeper conclusions about why (in the deeper sense) things happen as they do.

In a related analysis, chapter 10, “What if?,” I employ the always enjoyable game of “what if” history, suggesting that scientists too can play this game to useful ends to explore what might have been and what had to be. Here I am most emphatically doing history not just for history’s sake, although that is part of it, but for us. I believe that history is primarily for the present, secondarily for the future, and tertiarily for the past. It is great fun to ponder how the history of the United States might have unfolded after 1863 had General McClelland not received ahead of time General Lee’s plans for the invasion of the North. Lee most likely would have been victorious at Antietam/Sharpesburg, which would probably have led the British and French to recognize the South as a sovereign nation, which would have encouraged them to aid the South in breaking the North’s blockade of ships bringing valuable resources from Europe, which possibly would have led to the South’s ability to carry out war for many more years to come, which most probably would have led to Northern war weariness and perhaps a congressional decision to let their southern brothers and sisters secede from the union. Such speculation, however, is far more than merely amusing; it serves as an object lesson in historical causality: if this, then that; if not this, them perhaps that. And this and that object lesson may serve us well for both present and future.

Chapter 11, “The New New Creationism,” picks up the anti-revolution movement in America with the mid-1990s development of “Intelligent Design Theory,” or ID, in which these quasi-scientific thinkers shed the cloak of the old creationists from the 1960s and 1970s who demanded a literal biblical interpretation of scientific findings, and that of the new creationists of the 1980s who were more flexible in adapting the findings of science but still insisted on a divine hand in nature. The IDers are more sophisticated in their thinking, more professional in their presentations and publications, and more politically successful in their ability to gain a public hearing for their cause. That cause, however, is the same as it has always been: to promote a Judeo_christian biblical cosmology and workd view, to defuse any perceived threats to their religion (such as science and evolutionary theory), and to tear down the wall separating church and state in order to get their doctrines taught in public schools, including and especially public school science classes.

Chapter 12, “History’s Heretics,” is the oldest essay in the book, written initially while in graduate school in the late 1980s, and redacted over the years as I thought more and more about who and what mattered most in history. The germination of this project, in fact, dates back to the early 1970s when I was an undergraduate and one of my professors, Dr. Richard Hardison, introduced me to a book entitled The 100, by Michael Hart. In the book an attempt is made to rank the top hundred people in history by their influence and importance (not just fame or infamy). Ever since then I thought about this as I studied the great (and not so great) people of the past, and when the millennium came and endless commentaries were published to venerate (or scorn) those of the past thousand years, I revised the piece yet again. Through this survey of attempts to rank the people and events most influential in our past, I devised my own ranking of who and what mattered most.

The book ends with Part IV, “Science and the Cult of Visionaries,” including chapter 13, “The Hero on the Edge of Forever,” an examination of Gene Roddenberry, the Star Trek empire, and the continuing role of the hero in science and science fiction. This is the most indulgent essay in the book because I was a fan of Star Trek from September 8, 1968, the date of the first airing of the first episode, a date imprinted on my psyche because it was also my birthday. But Gene Roddenberry was a humanist, which I later grew into after my stint as an evangelical Christian, and his vision of the future was far grander than any I had previously encountered. A science fiction author once explained to me that one can get away with a lot more speculation and controversy the further in the future one’s narrative is set. Scientists are fairly skeptical and hard on shows like X-Files, because it takes place in the all-too-familiar present. But when Roddenberry put his characters into the twenty-third century, scientists were far more forgiving, and viewers glommed on to this vision of the way things could be. Still, this subject would still be too self-indulgent if I had not included an analysis of what we can learn about history and social systems from an in-depth analysis of one episode of the original series—my favorite, of course—“The City on the Edge of Forever”—and what it tells us about the role of contingency and chance in our lives.

Finally, chapter 14, “This View of Science,” is a comprehensive analysis of the life works of the evolutionary theorist Stephen Jay Gould, and how science, history, and biography come together into one enterprise of knowledge, understanding, and wisdom. Steve Gould was my hero, colleague, and eventually a friend, who was (and will continue to be, in my opinion), one of the most influential thinkers of our time. More than just a world-class paleontologist and world-renowned scientist, Steve was a brilliant synthesizer of data and theory—his own and others—as well as one of the most elegant essayists of our time, perhaps of all time. Although well grounded in history, as we all should be, Gould’s ideas were always on the edge of science, the primary lesson of this book, particularly well expressed in one of Gould’s (and my own) favorite quotes from Charles Darwin: “How odd it is that anyone should not see that all observation must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service!”


Box Office for Diamond Lecture to Open Early

Jared Diamond Photo

As we anticipate a large number of attendees arriving extremely early for this Sunday’s Jared Diamond Lecture, we have arranged for the box office to open a half hour early, at 12:30 pm.  The box office will be located at the west side of Beckman Auditorium.  Doors will open at 1:15 pm.  Dr. Diamond’s books and a number of other skeptic-related titles will be available outside the auditorium before the lecture.

Edge Website Addresses Skeptical Queries

Website edge.org postulates: “To arrive at the edge of the world’s knowledge, seek out the most complex and sophisticated minds, put them in a room together, and have them ask each other the questions they are asking themselves.” The site boasts contributions from Dawkins, Diamond, Steven Pinker, Michael Shermer, and hundreds of others.  The question currently being addresses is “What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?”

Share this eSkeptic with friends online.
Click the + for more sharing options.

get eSkeptic
our free newsletter

Science in your inbox every Wednesday!

eSkeptic is our free email newsletter, delivered once a week. In it, you’ll receive: fascinating articles, announcements, podcasts, book reviews, and more…


Popular Articles
on skeptic.com

Here are the articles that people have been sharing over the last few days.

Carbon Comic

Carbon Comic (by Kyle Sanders)

Carbon Comic, which appears in Skeptic magazine, is created by Kyle Sanders: a pilot and founder of Little Rock, Arkansas’ Skeptics in The Pub. He is also a cartoonist who authors Carbon Dating: a skeptical comic strip about science, pseudoscience, and relationships. It can be found at carboncomic.com.

Help the
Skeptics Society
at no cost to you!

Planning on shopping at Amazon? By clicking on our Amazon affiliate link, which will open the Amazon Store in your Internet browser, the Skeptics Society will receive a small commission on your purchase. Your prices for all products remain the same, yet you’ll provide essential financial support for the work of the nonprofit Skeptics Society.

amazon.com

See our affiliate links page for Amazon.ca, Amazon.de, Amazon.co.uk, iTunes, and Barnes & Noble links.

FREE PDF Download

The Science Behind Why People See Ghosts

The Science Behind Why People See Ghosts

Do you know someone who has had a mind altering experience? If so, you know how compelling they can be. They are one of the foundations of widespread belief in the paranormal. But as skeptics are well aware, accepting them as reality can be dangerous…

Reality Check

Reality Check: How Science Deniers Threaten Our Future (paperback cover)

How Science Deniers Threaten Our Future

The battles over evolution, climate change, childhood vaccinations, and the causes of AIDS, alternative medicine, oil shortages, population growth, and the place of science in our country—all are reaching a fevered pitch. Many people and institutions have exerted enormous efforts to misrepresent or flatly deny demonstrable scientific reality to protect their nonscientific ideology, their power, or their bottom line…

FREE PDF Download

Top 10 Myths About Evolution

Top 10 Myths About Evolution (and how we know it really happened)

If humans came from apes, why aren’t apes evolving into humans? Find out in this pamphlet!

FREE PDF Download

Top 10 Things You Should Know About Alternative Medicine

Top 10 Things You Should Know About Alternative Medicine

Topics include: chiropractic, the placebo effect, homeopathy, acupuncture, and the questionable benefits of organic food, detoxification, and ‘natural’ remedies.

FREE PDF Download

Learn to be a Psychic in 10 Easy Lessons

Learn to do Psychic “Cold Reading” in 10
Easy Lessons

Psychic readings and fortunetelling are an ancient art — a combination of acting and psychological manipulation.

Copyright © 1992–2014 Skeptic and its contributors. For general enquiries regarding the Skeptics Society or Skeptic magazine, email skepticssociety@skeptic.com or call 1-626-794-3119. Website-related matters: webmaster@skeptic.com. Enquiries about online store orders: orders@skeptic.com. To update your subscription address: subscriptions@skeptic.com. See our Contact Information page for more details. This website uses Google Analytics, Google AdWords, and AddThis tracking software.
‚Äč