The Skeptics Society & Skeptic magazine

Why We Lie:
The Evolutionary Roots of Deception
and the Unconscious Mind

presented by Dr. David Livingstone Smith

Sunday, October 24th, 2:00 pm

Photo of Dr. David Livingstone Smith

Deceit, lying, and falsehoods lie at the very heart of our cultural heritage. Even the founding myth of the Judeo-Christian tradition, the story of Adam and Eve, revolves around a lie. Our seemingly insatiable appetite for stories of deception spans the extremes of culture from King Lear to Little Red Riding Hood. These tales of deception are so enthralling because they speak to something fundamental in the human condition. The ever-present possibility of deceit is a crucial dimension of all human relationships.

Philosopher and evolutionary psychologist David Livingstone Smith elucidates the essential role that deception and self-deception have played in human—and animal—evolution and shows that the very structure of our minds has been shaped from our earliest beginnings by the need to deceive. Smith shows us that by examining the stories we tell, the falsehoods we weave, and the unconscious signals we send out, we can learn much about ourselves and how our minds work. Book signing to follow lecture. Videos of the lecture will be available at in 6 to 8 weeks.

The following is Michael Shermer’s recounting of some of the details of his appearance on the Art Bell Show. The story is accompanied by several letters that Michael Shermer received the next day.

Responses to the Art Bell Show Appearance

by Michael Shermer

I was on Art Bell’s late night/early morning Coast-to-Coast radio show Sunday night. It was an interesting experience. I found Art to be a very polite and thoughtful man, both on the air and in our conversations during the commercial breaks.

Photo of Art Bell

One odd thing happened: in the middle of the show he announced that the wife of Whitley Strieber had collapsed the night before, right when Whitley was about to come on the show to discuss aliens or some such thing, and now Art was going to interview Whitley to find out how his wife was doing. Well, apparently she had a brain aneurism and was going in for surgery the next morning, and he understandably sounded very upset. Art then asked his audience to please pray for Whitley’s wife.

He then came back to me and asked me my opinion of the scientific evidence for the efficacy of prayer to help heal people (he meant what is called “distant intercessory prayer” in which unknown believers pray for someone without that person knowing that they are being prayed for, thus allegedly eliminating the placebo effect). I was stunned that he would put me in such a position of looking like an evil denier of aid and comfort to his friend, so I said something to that effect (“oh, gosh, well, this is a little awkward to ask me this in the context of your friend’s tragedy…”) so I just offered a generic summary of the methodological flaws in the prayer and healing studies, as outlined in several highly reputable medical journals (and the subject of my next Scientific American column).

Later in the show a caller who was a Boston Red Sox fan asked if Art would cajole his listeners to pray for the good Lord to override the curse of the Bambino. Bell begged off from so doing, but maybe God was listening because, wouldn’t you know it, the Sox subsequently swept the Yankees four straight games, after being down three zip, pulling off what no team has ever accomplished in professional baseball—coming back from being down 3-0 to win a best of seven series! I know I am suppose to be skeptical of such matters, but I must say that this is the closest thing I’ve seen to a miracle in a long time.

Other than that, the experience of doing the Art Bell show was a fun one, and I share with you herewith some of the letters I received the next day. Note the first one, whose subject line was written to make certain I would read the letter, which had opposite meaning! The second one is even less equivocal, and he didn’t even bother writing a letter. The third one was a letter to Art and cc’d to me. The fourth one is a Remote Viewing drawing presented as a mystery, which I solved for the person and include below. I also include a letter from an alien abductee. — Michael Shermer

Responses from Viewers

Subj: You’re Great

You don’t stand for anything. You criticize everyone. What do you contribute? You’re a phony. —William, B.A., M.A. UC Irvine

Subj: no subject
From: JD Stephens <[email protected]>

arrogant asshole, u dont know shit

Subject: Dr: Michael Shermer – Wow!
To: [email protected]

Dear Art:

At last, a guest who makes sense. Despite your condescending and sometimes adversarial attitude toward Dr. Shermer, he was able to effectively puncture the hysterically comical paranormal balloons routinely floated by your usual “Professor Irwin Corey” types. Instead of wasting money on your “After Dark” drivel, your regulars would be well served to purchase his trilogy and subscribe to his magazine. Don’t stop the UFO/ paranormal comedy though, it’s hilarious and the only reason many people listen. We know why you could never do that stuff on TV … you couldn’t possibly keep a straight face. —Bill

Subj: Emailing: Snow gauge
Remote Viewing Sketches

The other night you say something to the affect the Remote Viewing sketches were very “subject.” I have session after session results much like the one that I have attached. Not subject at all … Perhaps you might find this interesting —Alex

Michael Shermer’s Reply


What I said on Art Bell’s show was that the drawings made in “Remote Viewing” experiments are “subjective” in terms of whether they constitute hits or misses of the target image. Your drawing makes my point. Assuming the photograph on the left was the target image, your drawing certainly could be construed as a hit. However, it could also be a hit had the target image been a rocket, or a grain silo, or virtually anything cylindrical in nature. (In fact, RV subjects all draw the same general shapes: squares, rectangles, triangles, and cylinders. There are only so many variations on a theme.)

What you are doing here (and not just you, but everyone in the Remote Viewing field) is retrofitting, a type of after-the-fact reasoning. “Let’s see what the target image was and then look through the drawings to see which ones came closest.” For RV to be considered real, you would need to not only make a drawing, but tell us in advance of seeing the target image what it is suppose to be. It is here where RV fails.

Letter from Bart

I just had to drop a line and say how great Michael Shermer was on the Art Bell show last night! Clearly Art Bell was impressed with him, which was surprising. I ended up listening to the whole thing. It was a home run for Skeptics. —Bart

Letter from Spooky

I am a devout listener to Coast to Coast am. I was just reading your little spiel they have on there web site about you and you had said, “Quantum science, suggesting that it is not connected with the thought process because quantum effects are happening at the subatomic level and the mental process occurs on a molecular lever.” How do you know from what depth thought comes? Did you ever stop to think that if you tapped into the “subatomic level” with your mind which you seem to claim we cannot do, but in fact we can that we might find the answers to a lot of unanswered questions?

After all, if it is there, we were meant to use it or he (God) would not have put it there. It all works TOGETHER. You need to unblock your mind and you will see a whole new world. Subatomic and all! I believe that is what gave Jesus (God’s Son) his ability to heal and raise the dead, he went beyond the “molecular level” and healed from the “subatomic level.” Remember, he did walk on water, can you walk on water? Have a great day. —Spooky

Subj: coast to coast

Listened last night and must say it seems to me that you have far too large an ego and far too much arrogance and far too little wonder…’s okay though…it might all come down to what we are plugged into and nothing more. That leaves very little for you, I am afraid. It seems the height of arrogance to act like you know the tests it would take to make anything true or not true. I am skeptical of your skepticism. Blessings anyway…..Cara

Subj: Something to Think About

I am listening to you on Coast to Coast AM. This is just a brief note to say that I am a DOCUMENTED UFO abductee. There are quite a few “coincidences” in my life that point to my connection to “space aliens” (ETs). Most of these facts are documented. Starting even BEFORE my BIRTH, the connections are profound. I have a website. It is called MINDBOGGLER. The URL is:

My life cannot be “debunked”. There may be other people in my situation as well. However, I have not met any yet. I am a retired teacher. I have not written a book, but I do have the website. I do not give any information for money. Money spoils the information. I just want my situation to be known. I am hoping that government disclosure on the existence of UFOs/ETs will happen in my lifetime. —Barbara

Subj: Coast to Coast AM

Dr. Shermer…..really enjoyed your discussion with Art Bell on Sunday night. I work late in my home office many nights and find the Coast to Coast program sort of “mind candy” that doesn’t distract me from doing stock analysis. The most disturbing thing about the program to me is the lack of skepticism on the part of Bell and George Noory…now I don’t expect these guys to pee in their “rice bowl” but some of the mindless bilge that they let pass without challenge is really mind-boggling. You did an excellent job with Bell…I particularly like your discussion of origins of religion and the value of religion to history and society. Of course, I relished your comments on “remote viewing”, UFO’s etc. Sometimes I feel that we are more superstitious and ignorant today than when were living in small villages with no modern communication. Thank you for your presentation. —Stern

Subj: coast to coast show

I heard you on Coast to Coast AM. I thought you did a fantastic job! Thanks for being such an articulate voice of reason in a world of superstition. Keep up the good work. Thumbs up! —Ben

Subj: Well Done, Thank You

I just finished listening to you on the Art Bell show, and I want to congratulate you on disconnecting every single booby trap they set for skeptics in forums like that. It seemed to me that you were very aware of tone, and of coming off sounding like an eminently reasonable, relaxed, humane person. They dangled all of the bait in front of you that every skeptic jumps at, but you kept your eyes on the prize. I think a lot of skeptics are so in love with critical thought, that they assume that critical thinking and logical argument is the gold standard for everybody else too, and in arguments they tend to forget that people make a lot of decisions socially, based on whether the interlocutor seems reasonable and well-adjusted.

When the skeptic pounces on the weak spots in their opponent’s arguments, seeming just a little too happy (in the opponent’s eyes) that the opponent has been proven wrong, the believer makes an inference from the skeptic’s personality to the likelihood of the skeptic’s arguments. You nailed it, though, and for once the skeptics came out looking as good as their reasoning merits. Thanks again. I’m buying your new book. Well done. –for once I listened to the WHOLE Art Bell show! —Mike

Subj: Paranormal Experience

I was pleasantly surprised this morning to hear a calm voice of reason on my radio during the broadcast of Coast-to-Coast AM. In fact, this is so far outside my normal range of experience, I can only describe it as paranormal. Kudos from a listener in the 40%-that-don’t-hate-you segment of the audience. — Adam

Subj: Coast to Coast Interview Feedback

Thank you, Thank You, THANK YOU!!! Finally, someone who will talk sense to that idiot Art Bell and his legion of ET, Elvis, Area 51 chasers. I caught the interview when you were trying to get through to that idiot Art to tell him that praying served no real purpose other than to comfort the family member of the patient. I also love your explanation of the divining rod idiots. I also believe that patients should be given truthful information regarding their conditions and dishonesty by a doctor is completely unethical.

Art seemed upset many, many times and of course made a conscious effort whenever he could to change the conversation just as you were making a point and trying to explain yourself — He just simply would not have it. What truly pissed me off is how he closed out and introduced the segments by making you out to be the bad guy. He kept saying the word “Skeptical” over and over—of course leading his audience of degenerates to side with him. This really infuriated me because on just about a daily basis this show showcases one idiot after another without any objective scientific evidence to backup these individual’s claims. He has never questioned any of his degenerate remote viewers, ex-area 51 scientists, time travelers, out of body idiots about their claims, but he went out of his way to emphasize your skepticism as this was an evil trait.

You were excellent on the show because you had a well thought out, thorough, and very logical answer for his silly supernatural notions as well as making sure you did not come off as combative in terms of relating to the host. This of course means more of his legion of idiots will be more likely to seek out your books because you got your point across without embarrassing their idol. Its sad how some people need to believe in something and people like that Art Bell will give them whatever they want regardless of the damage they are doing to their psyches. From what I’ve gathered in the last few months, this Art retires every year or so, which seems to be a “Love me” cry to his audience. Thank you for the great and very informative show. —JG

Subj: evolution-C-C AM

On COAST TO COAST you said evolution was —fact? Science has basically disproved it. As far as I know no one has made a single cell by placing a bunch of chemicals together. If you are talking about natural selection, It is a possible theory. All of mankind has been shown, through mitochondrial ? DNA, to be traced to one woman not too long ago. This gives rise to Adam & Eve in the Bible. Therefore God is has more science for fact than evolution. —John

Subj: Comments on your Art Bell Interview

Regarding your interview with Art Bell: I think you did very well. I was glad to hear you let him know that there is no problem talking to the dead, but there IS a problem hearing from them! I was also glad you made it clear to him that on this subject there is no gray area because it is all fraud.

I listen to Art Bell because I like science fiction. He provides a lot of it. I also listen because I like comedy. I can remember some real “side-splitters.” I remember the time a tape of OJ Simpson was run backwards. Immediately, you could hear him say, “I did it,” “I did it.” Then, I heard Art say: “ I heard that very clearly, I heard that very clearly.” By that time I was laughing so hard that I almost fell out of bed. When he brought up the “voices from the graveyard” and you said it sounded like hearing tapes running backward, I was ready for another big laugh because I had never heard of this before. I will have to tune him in again for more laughs.

I especially enjoy it when Art asks for “Time Travelers” to call in. some of those callers are pretty sharp. If I were Art, and one called in, say, from the year 2017, I would ask him the following questions very quickly: “Who was president in 2004, 2008, 2012, 2016?” If he was prepared, he might say quickly: “George Bush, Hillary Clinton, Hillary Clinton, and Jose Gonzalez.”

A letter sent to James Randi:

I awakened in the night (October 18th) at 2:30 am to discover (through earbuds) that Michael Shermer was on the American late-night paranormal radio talk show, Coast to Coast AM. He had a couple of hours of in-depth, no-holds-barred sparring with radio’s legendary “king of paranormal and supernatural idiocies,” Art Bell. What is so significant about this? I’ll try to be brief:

Coast to Coast AM (as you know) has had scores of terrific guests (even if making up less than ten percent of their interviewees — the other 90+ percent being paranormal hustlers and kooks). There have been many notable scientists; top S.E.T.I. astronomer Seth Shostak on numerous occasions; astronomer/skeptic Phil Plait (famous for his website) at least twice; repeat-guest, physicist Michio Kaku; robotics engineers; top fuzzy-thinking expert Bart Kosko; superstring theorist Brian Greene; various nanotechnology visionaries; Internet communications guru Howard Rheingold; many key experts in space and high technology too numerous to name (including several famous astronauts); and several top futurists. And now, the fellow Art Bell enthusiastically called “The founder of Skeptic magazine and the 800 pound gorilla of skepticism!” — Michael Shermer. Bell was totally ‘wired’ for this confrontation, to say the least.

Art Bell said from the outset that he was going to have a tussle with Shermer, and he said he was delighted to be able to spar with one of the world’s most eminent skeptics. A few random observations from what I heard in the night, perhaps half the interview, Bell challenged Shermer on several fronts: life after death, the efficacy of religion and importance of the bible, belief in Christ, out of body experiences, psychic phenomena, the UFO fracus, talking with the dead, belief in quantum mechanical explanations for mind and consciousness (leading to an alleged “explanation” for paranormal effects), and on and on.

Many of what I’ll disparagingly call “paranormally brainwashed” phone callers also challenged Shermer, and all such fanatics failed miserably to ruffle Shermer’s feathers. He held his ground: he pointed out what a skeptic is (or should be), he defined his position and that of the scientific community on paranormal and supernatural issues, he explained how fraud enters into most paranormal and mediumship claims, he even explained a few cold reading stratagems … in short, Shermer’s discussion overall, was brilliant!

I lost count of the numbers of times Bell would sputter such remarks as “Well I mostly agree with you there, BUT—” and “that may be true, BUT–” and “BUT what about THIS,” and “what about THAT?” At one point Bell even accused Shermer of being some kind of cold-hearted person who – God help him – believed in absolutely NOTHING. What is it about these skeptics, Bell scowled, who seem to believe in absolutely nothing at all? Shermer immediately and forcefully put that notion to rest by saying he actually believed in a lot of things, most notably provable tenets, such as science! The totally unperturbed Shermer smoothly and adroitly addressed all of Bell’s subsequent questions, challenges and endless reBUTtals.

At one point Bell said, “I’m getting hundreds of flash-emails here, and everyone is screaming how Shermer’s comments are making their blood boil! They can’t stand it!!” What they couldn’t stand, in fact, was that here was a skeptic very highly experienced in his field, and backed by a thorough university education in a wide diversity of social, theological, and psychological disciplines. And since most of the callers appeared to be the same tired old “cerebrally-challenged” believers and worshippers in all kinds of anti-science nonsense — they generally lacked the intellectual wherewithal to even understand, let alone “debate” the likes of ace skeptic Michael Shermer. As a result, all they could finally do (en mass) was hopelessly lash out with frustrated, emotion-laden emails to their fellow hero and guru of all things silly and unfounded, Art Bell. (Bell’s only ‘credentials’ involve the hobby of ham radio, a passion for all things electronic, and a formal professional background as a rock and roll disk jockey.) —Larry T.

Subj: Things Not Explained

I recently heard you on “Coast to Coast,” an Art Bell segment. I live in Chesapeake Virginia. I am a 54 yr. old male, married with 3 children, and working with the Virginia Department of Transportation for the last 29 years. I am a Traffic Control Supervisor with VDOT. There are three events that have occurred in my life for which I have no explanation. I was intrigued at the seeming arrogance of your over simplified explanations of virtually every unknown phenomena described to you on the show. I wondered how you could shrug off so many mysteries which still baffle so many skeptical, yet open-minded people in the world. I consider myself a skeptical person, and yet, the wonders of this world are not all easily explained in rational terms. I would like to describe the following events which happened to me. You may chuckle and wonder aloud, “what was he drinking!” As many have said to me. I assure you these things did happen to me:

1) In September of 1985, my job title with VDOT was Police Lt. with the Elizabeth River Tunnels. I met a high school friend of mine in a local mall one day, and we decided to go fishing in the Chesapeake Bay. We met at the Willoughby Spit public boat ramp in Norfolk Virginia. It was a weekday, sunny, a few clouds, and warm. A beautiful day. We put my friends boat in and motored around and through the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel. At a point near Fort Wool (a manmade island adjacent to the Tunnel South Island) we stopped our boat and began drift fishing for flounder. The current was flowing outbound toward the ocean. We caught about 24 flounder. We were having a great time. Looking back toward Fort Wool, we observed something large roll over in an eddie (swirling water) covered with numerous items of garbage on the east side of the South Island. We could tell what it was, but continued fishing. About 10 minutes later, my friend looked over toward the North and observed what appeared to be a long neck protruding out of the water, looking toward the Northeast. It wasn’t moving, but stationary. My friend asked me, “what is that, a turtle?” I said “no! a turtle doesn’t have an 8’ft neck???” We were puzzled, not knowing what it was, but quickly discounting it. A short time after that, I was putting some squid on my hook, when my friend shouted at me! I looked up and saw his rod bent over double, his fishing line moving in the water from right to left in a steady motion. Suddenly, the water directly behind the stern of our boat exploded, a long necked serpent-like animal thrusting forward from our right to our left, about 15 feet behind our boat. It thrust two large flippers in the water. My friends fishing line must have been draped across its chest, between its flippers and its neck, panicking it. It’s color was a patchy greenish-yellow, with a number of barnacles on its body. I could not see the hind quarter of the animal. It looked much like many of the drawings of a dinosaur know as a plesiosaur. After my initial shock (I froze!), I jumped over the boat’s windshield to pull up the anchor, which wasn’t even down (we were drifting on the south side of the main channel). My friend almost immediately cranked up the motor and we motored away toward the shore as fast as we could go. He stopped the boat near the shore and looked at me. He asked what we should do, report this? I said, “no way!” You are a Virginia Beach Police Officer. What do you think our credibility would be if we reported this? We said nothing for 2 yrs. That’s when I notified the Smithsonian Institute (letter/drawing). For many years, I got goose bumps when recounting this incident to anyone else. It still boggles my mind to know it happened. Was it real? I’m not a skeptic on this animal! I know what I saw from 15 feet away, but also know I cannot expect anyone else to believe me unless they had seen the same animal.

2) While coming back home to Chesapeake Virginia in the late summer of 1998, I was between Richlands and Kinston N.C., traveling Northbound. It was about 4:00 p.m. in the afternoon, and sunny. I was looking down the road ahead of me and a large object caught my attention. It was silver in color, probably a 100’ ft. in length. It had no windows or markings, was silent, had no wings, and didn’t look like any civilian or military aircraft known or seen by me. The craft moved in a steady motion from my right to my left, probably several hundred mph. There was no exhaust. It was bullit-shaped, with the back end slopped back at about a 60 degree angle? The top of the craft was bullit-shaped to a point about two thirds of the way back, then a fin-like structure rose up at about a 60 degree angle, the width of the craft. It was incredible! I sped up to see if there was a field ahead where I might get another look at it, but it disappeared behind the tree line. I don’t think it was but about 150-200 ft. about the ground. What was it? I don’t know!

These events stay with me everyday. I do not escape them. They make me wonder about the nature of our world and what do we actually know? I too am a skeptic about many things. As for these two events, I am not skeptical, I know there are things stranger than we could ever believe out there.

Good luck in your work! May you not have to live with such encounters haunting you. —Willie M.

Michael Shermer’s Reply


Thank you for the very interesting letter. I haven’t got a clue what an explanation would be for the first story, except to say that it is very unlikely that a creature such as you described could exist solo for very long without a breeding population, which would mean there should be dozens of these creatures, which would mean someone else has surely spotted them. But who knows? As for the second story, I would speculate that it was probably an experimental aircraft with stealth technology. We see the Stealth B-2 bomber every year as it flies right over my home on the way to buzz the Rose Parade on New Year’s day. It flies in from Edwards’ Air Force Base. It is the spookiest looking thing I’ve ever seen–silent, flat black, reflecting no light, etc. Really weird. Of course, we know what this is so it generates no mysterious stories. But there are surely other experimental aircraft that are test flown for which the public has not been made privy to, so what you saw could be new experimental technology being tested.

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