The Skeptics Society & Skeptic magazine

Liars and Lovers Lecture at Caltech Tomorrow

The next Skeptics Distinguished Lecture Series at Caltech is tomorrow, Sunday, December 14th, at 2:00pm at Caltech’s Baxter Lecture Hall. We originally had scheduled to speak Dr. Craig Stanford, on his new book Upright, about the role of bipedalism in human evolution, but due to a death in his immediate family this week he is understandably unable to give the lecture.

In his stead we are grateful to Dr. Steven Quartz, a philosopher and neuroscientist at Caltech, for coming in to lecture on his book, just out in paperback, entitled Liars, Lovers, and Heroes: What the New Brain Science Reveals About How We Become Who We Are (co-authored with neuroscientist Terry Sejnowski). The book, and Dr. Quartz’s lecture, is choc-a-block full of experimental research on how brains change during social interactions. For example, fMRI scans of subjects while they interact in the Prisoner’s Dilemma game model, show that different areas of the brain light up during cooperation v. defection. He also discusses the role of hormones in social interactions; e.g., oxytocin is released during sex, especially orgasm, as well as during breast feeding, and is believed to play a powerful role in bonding and attachment (couples, and mother-child, for long-term care of helpless infants, would have evolutionary adaptive value).

This is going to be a great lecture. Don’t miss it. (For those unable to attend, the video and DVD will be available in a couple of weeks.)

ABC 20/20 Show, Edward V. Shermer

On his web page John Stossel, co-host of 20/20, wrote this kind remark:

Thank goodness for the Skeptics Society, which offers a more rational explanation for [psychic John] Edward’s hits, and continually uses science to challenge claims of the paranormal.

Overall I am very pleased with the show. The producer (Michael Pressman) and host (Bill Ritter) did a very professional job. This was investigative journalism at its best. It reveals the striking difference between a news department and an entertainment department, the latter of which Larry King Live is in, and it shows. I personally called Pressman, Ritter, and Stossel to thank them on behalf of the skeptical community for a job well done. Of course, as they realized as well, it really doesn’t matter how hard hitting and clear we make it that psychic mediumship is a parlor trick, people will still flock to the show and buy their books. But that fact should not prevent us from doing the right thing in exposing the fraudulent nature of the con. By the way, when John Edward suddenly turned to the ABC crew and got the name of the wife of producer Michael Pressman, as the show correctly pointed out, that was only one hit out of 41 guesses, and even that it was just a name, “Laura,” and, most interestingly, when I called Pressman’s home to thank him for a great show, Laura answered! She is very much still on “this side” of the great divide. So where Edward was getting his information is, well, “beyond” me. —Michael Shermer

Doomsday Is Nigh

eSkeptic reader Greg Palmer in Rockford, IL sends us this latest doomsday prediction:

Some lady in Wisconsin claims to be in contact with aliens who are telling her about the impending doom of Earth. Apparently she (and her followers) believe there’s a so far unaccounted for planet that’s going to pass within a few thousand miles of the earth and tip it on it’s axis in the very near future. Nuttery at it’s finest!  For info straight from the horse’s mouth, check out as well as, a yahoo group where many of her followers claim storms, power failures, building collapses, are all evidence of this “planet x”. Funny stuff. And easy debunking material if I ever saw it.

Being No One Review

Long-time Skeptics Society member and Skeptic/eSkeptic subscriber David Voron, provides this week’s editorial contribution to eSkeptic, a review of Thomas Metzinger’s new book, Being No One (MIT Press, 2003). Enjoy, and thank you David.

About the Author: David A. Voron, M.D., has been in private practice of dermatology in Arcadia, California since 1974. He is past president of the Los Angeles Metropolitan Dermatological Society. Dr. Voron is a Clinical Professor Emeritus at the Keck USC School of Medicine and is certified in dermatology and dermatopathology by the American Boards of Dermatology and Pathology. He is a media spokesperson for the American Academy of Dermatology and has been a reviewer for the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. Dr. Voron is the author of 14 medical publications. ([email protected]).

You’re Nobody

a book review by David Voron

You, reader, are a nobody! Actually, worse than that — not only are you a nobody, you are no one! At least that’s what Thomas Metzinger says in his provocative and appropriately titled tome, Being No One. The title that Metzinger chose is not a “bait and switch” trick — it means what it says. On the very first page, Metzinger tells us that his “main thesis is that no such things as selves exist in the world: Nobody ever was or had a self.”

Metzinger’s point is that what we think of as “the self” is a representation generated by the brain, as is the representation of “the world.” The two representations are integrated into a “self in the world” mental construction. Your subjective experience of “being someone” emerges from this physical neural process. Although the sense of self arises from this process, the process itself is invisible to us. We experience through this process, which is itself transparent. We do not experience ourselves as the contents of this representational process but, as Metzinger says, “simply as ourselves living in the world right now.” It is the transparency of the self model which causes our neural operating systems to “assume their own existence as individual coherent entities” and “generate the self as a fictitious fixed point.”

According to Metzinger, selves evolved as weapons, “developed in a cognitive arms race. Conscious selves are like instruments or abstract organs, invented and constantly optimized by biological systems.”

If you find yourself having difficulty accepting Metzinger’s line of reasoning, don’t feel badly–you can’t help it. Evolution has irrevocably hard wired your sense of self into your brain. You cannot be convinced that your “self” is a “fiction,” because in doing so you would have to dissolve the very self that is being convinced! BUT, and this is one of Metzinger’s key points, just because you cannot be convinced of something does not mean it isn’t true. The dilemma is that pure cold-blooded reasoning leads to a conclusion that just doesn’t feel true. As Metzinger says, we are possessed and driven by the “emotional self model” that “burned itself into the inner motivational landscape of our biological ancestors.” Because of this self model, any theory of selfhood “that was maladaptive would be intuitively implausible and emotionally unattractive.” That we therefore can’t, on a gut level, buy Metzinger’s theory, is, in fact, a crucial component of his theory. We intuitively reject the notion that our selves are fictions, just as we reject the idea that gravity is a curvature of space-time. We just know it can’t be true, or maybe…

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