Skeptic, by Michael Shermer



Three and a half stars. Read in October 2016.

An excellent collection of essays from Shermer’s Scientific American column. I especially liked Turn Me On, Dead Man, which I think is just a really good summary of why skepticism is necessary.

What we have here is a signal/noise problem. Humans evolved brains that are pattern-recognition machines, designed to detect signals that enhance or threaten survival amid a very noisy world. Also known as association learning (associating A and B as causally connected), we are very good at it, or at least good enough to have survived and passed on the genes for the capacity of association learning. Unfortunately, the system has flaws. Superstitions are false associations—A appears to be connected to B, but it is not (the baseball player who doesn’t shave and hits a home run). Las Vegas was built on false association learning . . .

Anecdotes fuel pattern-seeking thought. Aunt Mildred’s cancer went into remission after she imbibed extract of seaweed—maybe it works. But there is only one surefire method of proper pattern-recognition, and that is science. Only when a group of cancer patients taking seaweed extract is compared to a control group can we draw a valid conclusion . . .

The problem is that although true pattern-recognition helps us survive, false pattern-recognition does not necessarily get us killed, and so the overall phenomenon endured the winnowing process of natural selection. The Darwin Awards (honoring those who remove themselves from the gene pool “in really stupid ways”), like this essay, will never want for examples. Anecdotal thinking comes naturally; science requires training.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. lghiggins says:

    I agree with the author, but my reactions are:
    1. How left-brained!
    2. Where is the magic and hope in that kind of thinking?
    3. Given points 1 and 2 above, why did I marry a scientist/engineer?


    1. Gwen says:

      I think the idea is that there ISN’T any magic in that kind of thinking. 🙂 That’s exactly what I like about it. And hope, well, that’s another question altogether.


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