Tag Archives: Michael Shermer

Michael Shermer: The pattern behind self-deception

Michael Shermer says the human tendency to believe strange things — from alien abductions to dowsing rods — boils down to two of the brain’s most basic, hard-wired survival skills.

Watch on YouTube …

Conspiracy Theories – Who Believes Them, and Why?

How Can You Determine if They are True or False?

conspiracy box secret package_250pxVia Skeptic.com

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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When People Talk Backwards

Some people believe that your brain encodes its actual meaning in reverse within everything you say.

Brian Dunningby Brian Dunning via skeptoid
Read transcript below or listen here

Just when you thought there was nobody in the world crazier than yourself, along come people who believe that we all subconsciously say what we really mean in reverse, through the unconscious but deliberate choosing of careful words which, if played backwards, say what we actually mean. Get it? ear_180pxThe idea is that I think some coffee is really horrible but I still want to be polite, my brain will subconsciously choose words to make my polite compliment that, if played backwards, would say: This coffee stinks.

Proponents of this hypothesis call it Reverse Speech, because they were really creatively inspired on the day they named it. This is a small group of people — I believe there were six of them at last count — who take this completely seriously and believe that a whole world of secret information and opportunities is waiting to be unlocked by analyzing peoples’ speech in reverse. They turn first to world leaders, play their speeches backward, and listen to learn what they believe is the truth underlying the speech.

A leading advocate for reverse speech, also called backward masking, is David John Oates, an Australian. He’s written several books on the subject and even used to have a syndicated radio show promoting his theory. backward masking_250pxJust about any time a reverse speech expert is interviewed on television, it’s David John Oates. His web site is ReverseSpeech.com, and it’s loaded with all the examples you could ever hope to hear, as well as quite a few products and services he’d like to sell you if you believe his claims. He believes strongly that the human brain secretly encodes its actual meaning in reverse into a person’s normal speech. You can use this to your advantage in business, by decoding what the people across the table are actually telling you; and you can even use it in personal development by listening to your own speech backwards and learning more about what you really want. One of the examples from ReverseSpeech.com is of this man giving a talk:

And when you play it backwards, turns out he was trying to comfort you with the message “You’re frightened, lean on me”:

Pretty interesting, but not necessarily convincing to a skeptic. A skeptic is more likely to dismiss these guys as conspiracy nuts and laugh at what paranoid delusionals they are, but it’s actually way cooler and more interesting (and more constructive) to ask if there is any science behind what they’re claiming. backwards masking_300pxI’m not talking about science supporting the claim that people say what they actually mean in reverse; I’m talking about science behind the perception of order from chaos. And, it turns out, there is good science behind it. The journal Science published an article in 1981 by Remez, Rubin, Pisoni, and Carrell called Speech perception without traditional speech cues. By playing what they called a “three-tone sinusoidal replica”, or a complicated sine wave sound, they found that people were able to perceive speech, when in fact there were no traditional speech sounds present in the signal. So rather than laughing at a reverse speech advocate, instead appreciate the fact that there is good science driving their perception of what they’re hearing. They’re not making anything up, they’re just unaware of the natural explanation for their phenomenon.

To better understand what these authors did in their experiment, listen to this brief cue consisting of nothing but sine waves:

It almost does sound like speech, doesn’t it? But it’s not quite clear what it’s saying. Well, suppose someone told you that it says:

Now listen to it again:

This time, it’s almost impossible not to hear the words that you’ve been preconditioned to hear. Let’s play another one, this one is harder . . .

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The Science Behind Why People See Ghosts

why-people-see-ghosts

The Science Behind Why People See Ghosts (and gods, angels, demons, and aliens and why they float, fly, and travel out of their bodies)

via Skeptic.com

Do you know someone who has had a mind altering experience like the examples that we list in this FREE PDF booklet? If so, you know how compelling they can be. A life can be changed or an entire religion founded on the basis of a single brain-generated hallucination. These phenomena are so powerful that throughout history seekers of knowledge have sought to induce them. They are one of the foundations of widespread belief in the paranormal. But as skeptics are well aware, accepting them as reality can be more than a waste of time and energy. It can be dangerous for both the individual and larger society.

While science has made considerable progress in discovering how the brain is hard-wired to produce these illusions, the public is largely unaware of much of this research. This is where your Skeptics Society comes in—we provide the scientific explanation.

DOWNLOAD the free PDF

Michael Shermer: The pattern behind self-deception

Michael Shermer says the human tendency to believe strange things — from alien abductions to dowsing rods — boils down to two of the brain’s most basic, hard-wired survival skills.

Watch on YouTube …

Is Leftist Science-Denial The Most Dangerous Kind?

Science Denial Is Not Exclusive To Right Wing Fundamentalists

By David Jerale via The Libertarian Republic

Michael Shermer

Michael Shermer
“The Liberals’ War on Science.”
(click to download PDF)

In a column for Scientific American January of last year, Michael Shermer, the founder of The Skeptics Society, exposed what he calls “The Liberals’ War on Science.” Shermer observes that, while it is true that Republicans are more overwhelmingly opposed to well-established scientific consensus like anthropogenic climate change theory and evolution, the problem of science denial also reaches epidemic proportions on the left.

“Try having a conversation with a liberal progressive about GMOs—genetically modified organisms—,” Shermer writes, “in which the words “Monsanto” and “profit” are not dropped like syllogistic bombs.”

Taken only at face value, this seems fairly innocuous– and critics like Chris Mooney were quick to point out, correctly, that science denial is predominantly right-wing.

Fair enough, but I offer this riposte: Rick Santorum and his ilk don’t teach science.

What-are-GMOs-and-How-Safe-Are-They-_250pxDiscovery News, on the other hand, does– and in June, they posted a YouTube video by Laci Green, a popular online social justice advocate, feminist and peer sex educator, about genetically modified organisms.  In this video, Laci doesn’t explicitly state her own opinion with regard to whether or not genetically modified foods are safe, choosing instead to present arguments for and against, with a heavy bias against, ending by asking viewers to post their thoughts on the matter in the comments section below the video.

This is a clear example of “false balance,” a tendency for media to overstate controversy in scientific matters.  Fox News has been criticized for this because their coverage of climate science greatly over-represents those who disagree with anthropogenic global warming theory while there is a strong consensus among climate scientists that the theory is correct.  As it happens, there is a similarly strong scientific consensus on the safety of genetically modified foods, but Laci conveniently ignores it for the sake of manufactured controversy– and she’s not alone.

SciShow, hosted by Hank Green, is a YouTube channel with over 1.5 million subscribers devoted to discussing scientific topics.  Last year, Hank posted a video wherein he discusses genetically modified organisms– what they are, why they exist, how they’re made, etcetera– which included some cherry-picked information and outright fabrications about the supposed dangers of genetic modification, in spite of the existing scientific consensus to the contrary.  It was later removed, and re-uploaded by another YouTube user– in the comments section there, Hank explains “We dropped it because we cited studies that have since been discredited.”

 Bill Nye “The Science Guy” - perhaps the most well-known science popularizer alive - supports the global warming theory while trying to scare people into thinking GMOs are harmful.


Bill Nye “The Science Guy” – perhaps the most well-known science popularizer alive – supports the global warming theory while trying to scare people into thinking GMOs are harmful.
Science education programming being used to spread pseudoscience?


But Hank and Laci Green are just a couple of online personalities– No real harm, right?

Enter Bill NyeThe Science Guy.”  Bill has been, for the most part, strongly against science denial– he has spoken against teaching creationism to children as well as climate change denial, but oddly, he breaks form when the topic is genetically modified organisms.

Let that sink in for a moment– perhaps the most well-known science popularizer alive, Bill Nye, trying to scare people into thinking GMOs are harmful.

That’s a far cry from some preacher doing the same thing because it conflicts with his religious dogma.  It’s science education programming being used to spread pseudoscience, and the consequences could be devastating.

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Skeptic Presents: Get Your Guru Going

Via Skeptic Magazine

In this video — the fifth in our series of videos that promote science and critical thinking through the use of humor, wit, and satire — we present a Con Academy mini course in the techniques of New Age Spiritual Gurutry.

If you missed our first four videos, check them out:

When Noam Chomsky says that’s an idiotic idea, he’s probably right

Sharon_hill_80pxby  via Doubtful News

One of the world’s most prominent intellectuals says it’s nonsense to buy into 9/11 conspiracy theories – get off the internet and think for yourself.

Noam Chomsky slaps down 9/11 truther: People spend an hour on the Internet and think they know physics | The Raw Story.

During a lecture on “Policy and the Media Prism” at the University of Florida a few weeks ago, 9/11 truth activist Bob Tuskin said the mainstream media had covered up evidence that Building 7 imploded in a controlled demolition. Tuskin asked Chomsky if he was finally ready to “jump on board with” 9/11 conspiracy theories.

“You’re right that there’s a consensus among a miniscule number of architects and engineers,” Chomsky replied. “They are not doing what scientists and engineers do when they think they’ve discovered something.”

“There happen to be a lot of people around who spend an hour on the Internet and think they know a lot physics, but it doesn’t work like that. There’s a reason there are graduate schools in these departments,” he continued.

Chomsky dismissed the claim that scientists and engineers hadn’t followed typical procedures because they felt intimidated by the government. He said publishing an article in an academic journal was virtually risk-free compared to other forms of political activism.

“There is just overwhelming evidence that the Bush administration wasn’t involved,” Chomsky added. “Very elementary evidence. You don’t have to be a physicist to understand it. You just have to think for a minute.”

Chomsky is advocating obtaining expertise and considering that the consensus view is most likely the right one. This is a good lesson – consider authorities who have specialized knowledge and see that it makes the most sense. Don’t rely on unrefereed stuff on Google. Anyone can publish crap on the Internet. Have some sense of reliable sources.

Michael Shermer has a piece that fits in well with this today. He talks about how people will want to subscribe to conspiracies anyway.

Conspiracy theories: Why we believe the unbelievable – latimes.com.

Why do so many people refuse to accept this simple and obvious conclusion? The answer: psychology.

There are three psychological effects at work here, starting with “cognitive dissonance,” or the discomfort felt when holding two ideas that are not in harmony. We attempt to reduce the dissonance by altering one of the ideas to be in accord with the other. In this case, the two discordant ideas are 1) JFK as one of the most powerful people on Earth who was 2) killed by Lee Harvey Oswald, a lone loser, a nobody. Camelot brought down by a curmudgeon.

That doesn’t feel right. To balance the scale, conspiracy elements are stacked onto the Oswald side: the CIA, the FBI, the KGB, the Mafia, Fidel Castro, Lyndon Johnson and, in Oliver Stone’s telling in his film “JFK,” the military-industrial complex.

A second psychological effect is the “monological belief system,” or “a unitary, closed-off worldview in which beliefs come together in a mutually supportive network,” in the words of University of Kent researchers Michael J. Wood, Karen M. Douglas and Robbie M. Sutton in a 2012 paper titled “Dead and Alive: Beliefs in Contradictory Conspiracy Theories.” A conspiracy theory, they wrote, is “a proposed plot by powerful people or organizations working together in secret to accomplish some (usually sinister) goal.” Once you believe that “one massive, sinister conspiracy could be successfully executed in near-perfect secrecy [it] suggests that many such plots are possible.”

A third psychological effect is “confirmation bias,” or the tendency to look for and find confirming evidence for what you already believe and to ignore disconfirming evidence. Once you believe, say, that 9/11 was an inside job by the Bush administration, you focus on the handful of anomalies that fateful day and connect them into a seemingly meaningful pattern, while ignoring the massive evidence pointing to Al Qaeda. JFK conspiracy theorists ignore the massive evidence pointing to Oswald while seeking deep meaning in trivial matters, such as the man with the umbrella on the grassy knoll, or the puff of smoke behind the picket fence, or the odd noises echoing around Dealey Plaza. Each become pregnant with meaning when the mind goes in search of cabals.

We are never going to not have people who believe in conspiracies. But we can make it embarrassing. There is no shame in telling people that their ridiculous conspiracy theories are RIDICULOUS NONSENSE. Belief in conspiracies take us off track and we waste our time and efforts on useless dead ends.


[END]

Conspiracy theories: Why we believe the unbelievable

Michael ShermerBy Michael Shermer via latimes.com

With the passing of the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy last week, and the accompanying fusillade of documentaries purporting to prove there was a conspiracy behind it, we might expect (and hope) that cabalistic conjecturing will wane until the next big anniversary.

conspiracy_theory 831_250pxDon’t count on it. A poll this month found that 61% of Americans who responded still believe that JFK was the victim of a conspiracy, despite the fact that the preponderance of evidence points to Lee Harvey Oswald as the lone assassin.

Why do so many people refuse to accept this simple and obvious conclusion? The answer: psychology.

There are three psychological effects at work here, starting with “cognitive dissonance,” or the discomfort felt when holding two ideas that are not in harmony. We attempt to reduce the dissonance by altering one of the ideas to be in accord with the other. In this case, the two discordant ideas are 1) JFK as one of the most powerful people on Earth who was 2) killed by Lee Harvey Oswald, a lone loser, a nobody. Camelot brought down by a curmudgeon.

The most powerful person on Earth was killed by a nobody. This doesn’t feel right. To balance the scale, conspiracy elements are stacked onto the Oswald side.

The most powerful person on Earth was killed by a nobody. This doesn’t feel right. To balance the scale, conspiracy elements are stacked onto the Oswald side.

That doesn’t feel right. To balance the scale, conspiracy elements are stacked onto the Oswald side: the CIA, the FBI, the KGB, the Mafia, Fidel Castro, Lyndon Johnson and, in Oliver Stone’s telling in his film “JFK,” the military-industrial complex.

Cognitive dissonance was at work shortly after Princess Diana‘s death, which was the result of drunk driving, speeding and no seat belt. But princesses are not supposed to die the way thousands of regular people die each year, so the British royal family, the British intelligence services and others had to be fingered as co-conspirators.

By contrast, there is no cognitive dissonance for the Holocaust — one of the worst crimes in history committed by one of the most criminal regimes in history.

A second psychological effect is the “monological belief system,” or “a unitary, closed-off worldview in which beliefs come together in a mutually supportive network,” in the words of University of Kent researchers Michael J. Wood, Karen M. Douglas and Robbie M. Sutton in a 2012 paper titled “Dead and Alive: Beliefs in Contradictory Conspiracy Theories.” A conspiracy theory, they wrote, is “a proposed plot by powerful people or organizations working together in secret to accomplish some (usually sinister) goal.” Once you believe that “one massive, sinister conspiracy could be successfully executed in near-perfect secrecy [it] suggests that many such plots are possible.”

With this cabalistic paradigm in place, conspiracies can become “the default explanation for any given event.” For example . . .

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The Science Behind Why People See Ghosts

why-people-see-ghosts

The Science Behind Why People See Ghosts (and gods, angels, demons, and aliens and why they float, fly, and travel out of their bodies)

via Skeptic.com

Do you know someone who has had a mind altering experience like the examples that we list in this FREE PDF booklet? If so, you know how compelling they can be. A life can be changed or an entire religion founded on the basis of a single brain-generated hallucination. These phenomena are so powerful that throughout history seekers of knowledge have sought to induce them. They are one of the foundations of widespread belief in the paranormal. But as skeptics are well aware, accepting them as reality can be more than a waste of time and energy. It can be dangerous for both the individual and larger society.

While science has made considerable progress in discovering how the brain is hard-wired to produce these illusions, the public is largely unaware of much of this research. This is where your Skeptics Society comes in—we provide the scientific explanation.

DOWNLOAD the free PDF

Why People Believe Invisible Agents Control the World

A Skeptic’s take on souls, spirits, ghosts, gods, demons, angels, aliens and other invisible powers that be

Michael ShermerBy Michael Shermer via Scientific American

Souls, spirits, ghosts, gods, demons, angels, aliens, intelligent designers, government conspirators, and all manner of invisible agents with power and intention are believed to haunt our world and control our lives. Why?

Our human tendency to find meaningful patterns in meaningless noise causes us to see this face on Mars.

The answer has two parts, starting with the concept of “patternicity,” which I defined in my December 2008 column as the human tendency to find meaningful patterns in meaningless noise. Consider the face on Mars, the Virgin Mary on a grilled cheese sandwich, satanic messages in rock music. Of course, some patterns are real. Finding predictive patterns in changing weather, fruiting trees, migrating prey animals and hungry predators was central to the survival of Paleolithic hominids.

The problem is that we did not evolve a baloney-detection device in our brains to discriminate between true and false patterns. So we make two types of errors: a type I error, or false positive, is believing a pattern is real when it is not; a type II error, or false negative, is not believing a pattern is real when it is. If you believe that the rustle in the grass is a dangerous predator when it is just the wind (a type I error), you are more likely to survive than if you believe that the rustle in the grass is just the wind when it is a dangerous predator (a type II error). Because the cost of making a type I error is less than the cost of making a type II error and because there is no time for careful deliberation between patternicities in the split-second world of predator-prey interactions, natural selection would have favored those animals most likely to assume that all patterns are real.

But we do something other animals do not do. As large-brained hominids with a developed cortex and a theory of mind—the capacity to be aware of such mental states as desires and intentions in both ourselves and others—we infer agency behind the patterns we observe in a practice I call “agent­icity”: coincidences there are no_250pxthe tendency to believe that the world is controlled by invisible intentional agents. We believe that these intentional agents control the world, sometimes invisibly from the top down (as opposed to bottom-up causal randomness). Together patternicity and agent­icity form the cognitive basis of shamanism, paganism, animism, polytheism, monotheism, and all modes of Old and New Age spiritualisms.

Agenticity carries us far beyond the spirit world. The Intelligent Designer is said to be an invisible agent who created life from the top down. Aliens are often portrayed as powerful beings coming down from on high to warn us of our impending self-destruction. Conspiracy theories predictably include hidden agents at work behind the scenes, puppet masters pulling political and economic strings as we dance to the tune of the Bilderbergers, the Roth­schilds, the Rockefellers or the Illuminati. Even the belief that government can impose top-down measures to rescue the economy is a form of agenticity, with President Barack Obama being touted as “the one” with almost messianic powers who will save us.

There is now substantial evidence from cognitive neuroscience that humans readily find patterns and impart agency to them . . .

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Whatever Happened to Parapsychology?

Glenn McDonald, Discovery News via LiveScience

mind_body_225pxIt seems that stories of the paranormal sprout up every day, and everywhere, in pop culture and the media. Weird news websites number in the hundreds, and there are entire television series dedicated to psychic abilities, hauntings and paranormal investigation.

But that’s all showbiz, really. The actual academic study of parapsychology — the established term for phenomena such as clairvoyance, psychokinesis, telepathy and precognition — has seemingly disappeared since its heyday in the mid-20th century. So what happened to parapsychology?

It hasn’t gone anywhere, said John Kruth, executive director of the Rhine Research Center in Durham, N.C. It’s just become disorganized, underfunded and — in the realm of traditional science — largely ignored. The Rhine is one of a handful of privately funded groups in the United States still doing active research into parapsychology, sometimes called “psi phenomena.”

“People have never stopped doing research in these areas,” Kruth said. “But the skeptic community is strong and vocal, and they’re much better at working the media.” Kruth attributes much of the field’s decline in the United States, during the 1970s and 1980s, to media-savvy debunkers such as James Randi.

esp_200px“Certainly there are fraudulent practitioners out there, and we’re always watching for that,” Kruth said. “It’s like we have the frauds on one side and the debunkers on the other, and we’re in the middle, still trying to do science.”

Critics respond that, as a field of scientific study, parapsychology has much bigger issues. In short, the science has a fundamental evidence problem.

“It’s fallen into disuse due to the fact that there’s just nothing there,” said Michael Shermer, editor of the quarterly journal Skeptic and columnist for Scientific American. “Parapsychology has been around for more than a century. (Yet) there’s no research protocol that generates useful working hypotheses for other labs to test and develop into a model, and eventually a paradigm that becomes a field. It just isn’t there.”

MORE . . .

Why a Near-Death Experience Isn’t Proof of Heaven

Did a neurosurgeon go to heaven?

By Michael Shermer via Scientific American
1114In Eben Alexander’s best-selling book Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife (Simon & Schuster), he recounts his near-death experience (NDE) during a meningitis-induced coma. When I first read that Alexander’s heaven includes “a beautiful girl with high cheekbones and deep blue eyes” who offered him unconditional love, I thought, “Yeah, sure, dude. I’ve had that fantasy, too.” Yet when I met him on the set of Larry King’s new streaming-live talk show on Hulu, I realized that he genuinely believes he went to heaven. Did he?

Not likely. First, Alexander claims that his “cortex was completely shut down” and that his “near-death experience … took place not while [his] cortex was malfunctioning, but while it was simply off.” In King’s green room, I asked him how, if his brain was really nonfunctional, he could have any memory of these experiences, given that memories are a product of neural activity? He responded that he believes the mind can exist separately from the brain. How, where, I inquired? near-death-tunnel_200pxThat we don’t yet know, he rejoined. The fact that mind and consciousness are not fully explained by natural forces, however, is not proof of the supernatural. In any case, there is a reason they are called near-death experiences: the people who have them are not actually dead.

Second, we now know of a number of factors that produce such fantastical hallucinations, which are masterfully explained by the great neurologist Oliver Sacks in his 2012 book Hallucinations (Knopf). For example, Swiss neuroscientist Olaf Blanke and his colleagues produced a “shadow person” in a patient by electrically stimulating her left temporoparietal junction. “When the woman was lying down,” Sacks reports, “a mild stimulation of this area gave her the impression that someone was behind her; a stronger stimulation allowed her to define the ‘someone’ as young but of indeterminate sex.”

MORE . . .

What do conspiracy theories, religious beliefs and detoxifying proteins have in common?

By Ashutosh Jogalekar via Scientific American Blog Network

People who believe in conspiracy theories display the classic symptoms of patternicity and agenticity.

People who believe in conspiracy theories display the classic symptoms of patternicity and agenticity.

Why do people believe in God, ghosts, goblins, spirits, the afterlife and conspiracy theories? Two common threads running through these belief systems are what skeptic Michael Shermer in his insightful book “The Believing Brain” calls “patternicity” and “agenticity”. As the names indicate, patternicity refers to seeing meaningful patterns in meaningless noise. Agenticity refers to seeing mysterious but palpable causal ‘agents’, puppet masters who pull the strings and bring about unexplained phenomena. God is probably the perfect example of an agent.

Patternicity and agenticity can both be seen as primitive evolutionary features of our brain that have been molded into instinctive behaviors. They were important in a paleolithic environment where decisions often had to be made quickly and based on instinct. In a simple example cited by Shermer, consider an early hominid sauntering along somewhere in the African Savannah. He hears a rustle in the grass. Is it a predator or is it just the wind? If he assumes the former and it turns out to be the latter, no harm is done. But if he assumes it’s just the wind and lets down his guard and it turns out to be a predator, that’s it; he’s lunch and just got weeded out of the gene pool. The first mistake is what’s called a ‘Type 1’ or false-positive error; the second one is a ‘Type 2’ or a false-negative error. Humans seem more prone to committing false positive errors because the cost of (literally) living with those errors is often less than the cost of (literally) dying from the false negatives. Agenticity is in some sense subsumed by patternicity; in the case of the hominid, he might end up ascribing the noise in the grass to a predator (an ‘agent’) even if none exists. The important thing to realize is that we are largely the descendants of humans who made false-positive errors; natural selection ensured this perpetuation.

Before we move on it’s worth noting that assuring yourself a place in the genetic pool by committing a false positive error is not as failsafe as it sounds. Sometimes people can actually cause harm by erring on the side of caution; this is the kind of behavior that is enshrined in the Law of Unintended Consequences. For instance after 9/11, about a thousand people died because they thought it safer to drive across the country rather than fly. 9/11 did almost nothing to tarnish the safety record of flying, but those who feared airplane terrorism (the ‘pattern’) reacted with their gut and ended up doing their competitors’ gene pools a favor.

Patternicity: The tendency to find meaningful patterns in meaningless noise. – Michael Shermer

Yet for all this criticism of pattern detection, it goes without saying that patternicity and agenticity have been immensely useful in human development. In fact the hallmark of science is pattern detection in noise. Patternicity is also key for things like solving crimes and predicting where the economy is going. However scientists, detectives and economists are all well aware of how many times the pattern detection machine in their heads misfires or backfires. When it comes to non-scientific predictions the machine’s even worse. The ugly side of patternicity and agenticity is revealed in people’s belief in conspiracy theories. Those who think there was a giant conspiracy between the CIA, the FBI, the Mob, Castro and the executive branch of the government are confronted with the same facts that others are. Yet they connect the dots differently and elevate certain individuals and groups (‘agents’) to great significance. Patternicity connects the dots, agenticity sows belief. The tendency to connect dots and put certain agents on a pedestal is seen everywhere, from believing that vaccines cause autism to being convinced that climate change is a giant hoax orchestrated by thousands of scientists around the world.

Notwithstanding these all too common pathologies of the pattern detection machine, it’s satisfying to find a common, elegant evolutionary mechanism in our primitive brain that would be consistent with generally favoring false positives over false negatives. What I find interesting is that this behavior even seems to exist at the level of molecules.

MORE . . . .

Michael Shermer discusses patternicity and agenticity.

Deepak, and the Emptiness of Spiritual Gibberish

Via The Skeptic’s Dictionary

CHOPRADeepak Chopra is a master of the vague, cognitively empty but emotively charged expression. Science and spirituality should be friends, says Deepak. Like Dick and Jane, I suppose. The only sensible thing he says in his entire article published in Michael Shermer‘s Skeptic magazine (vol. 16 No. 2, 2011) is “With no data to support the existence of God, there is also no reason for religion and science to close the gap between them.” Of course, he asserts this truism only to deny it.

Deepak gets aligned with reality by proclaiming that “God is inside the consciousness of each person.” (In each of us, I suppose, there is a divinity trying to escape.) Does this mean anything more than that God is a thought? Yes, according to the Master:

The physical building blocks of the universe have gradually vanished; that is, atoms and quarks no longer seem solid at all but are actually clouds of energy, which in turn disappear into the void that seems to be the source of creation. Was mind also born in the same place outside space and time? Is the universe conscious? Do genes depend on quantum interactions? Science aims to understand nature down to its very essence, and now these once radical questions, long dismissed as unscientific, are unavoidable….

It is becoming legitimate to talk of invisible forces that shape creation – not labeling them as God but as the true shapers of reality beyond the space/time continuum. A whole new field known as quantum biology has sprung up, based on a true breakthrough – the idea that the total split between the micro world of the quantum and the macro world of everyday things may be a false split. If so, science will have to account for why the human brain, which lives in the macro world, derives its intelligence from the micro world. Either atoms and molecules are smart, or something makes them smart. That something, I believe, will come down to a conscious universe.

Yes, the universe might be conscious, and Deepak might be giving it a giant headache with his frequent, noisy jabbering about quantum this and that. Deepak ought to . . .

. . . MORE . . .

Michael Shermer – What happens after we die?

Michael Shermer discusses the belief in life after death. (May 6th, 2013)

Via Michael Shermer » What happens after we die?.

My War on Hoaxes and Conspiracy Theories

My War on Hoaxes and Conspiracy Theories

Via Judy Rosen’s Pop Topics blog at NYU Silver School of Social Work

sherlock_holmes_57pxI am that annoying Facebook friend who can smell an Internet hoax a mile away. It’s a skill I had to develop as an entertainment reporter because I often ran across stories or received tips that were about as reliable as the R train on a weekend. My protocol is made up of a few simple questions:

  1. Is the headline particularly shrill?
  2. Is it just a picture with a caption and no news source?
  3. If there is a source, are they reliable? (AP: yes, Natural News: no)
  4. Are they telling me to “like” the picture or story?
  5. Are they telling me to “share this with everyone you know”?
  6. Is it being covered by any other reliable news outlet?
  7. And most reliable of all: is my gut telling me this is b.s.?
Thia photo purportedly showing

This faked image, purportedly showed hurricane Sandy hovering over New York City with the Statue of Liberty in the foreground, went viral in October 2012.

Depending on the answers to these (such as “yes” for 1, 2, 4, 5, and 7; and “no” to 3 and 6), I will pay a visit to Snopes or Hoax-Slayer. This usually settles the matter.

Internet hoaxes are often based on conspiracy theories, which I also can’t stand. They cause unnecessary anxiety ( “The entire city of Tokyo is evacuating!” “The world is going to end on October 21, 2012!”), they distract people from dealing with the real issues (“Why try to find the root cause of autism when we know it’s caused by vaccines?” “Why try to come up with effective anti-poverty policy when the shape-shifting lizard people control the Federal Reserve?”), and they can be downright deadly (“Why have the life-saving surgery when you can [insert quack “cure” here] instead?”)

Last week, Public Policy Polling released the results of their poll regarding American’s beliefs about various conspiracy theories. As usual, they asked a lot of wacky questions and some were downright vague. Heck, I’d answer yes to “Do you believe aliens exsit?” because I believe there is likely life somewhere out there in our vast universe. I don’t, however, think they’ve made it to our tiny little speck of a rock yet. But a surprising amount of people believe Obama is a Muslim, vaccines cause autism, and that global warming itself is a hoax. In an interesting twist, some of the people who say they believe Obama is the AntiChrist also voted for him. I’m hoping that means there were some survey respondents who were just goofing on the pollsters.

So why do people believe so fervently in conspiracy theories? Author and publisher of Skeptic magazine, Michael Shermer, writes in his book, “How We Believe,” that …

MORE . . .

Medium

via The Skeptic’s Dictionary

“Death is a part of life, and pretending that the dead are gathering in a television studio in New York to talk twaddle with a former ballroom-dance instructor is an insult to the intelligence and humanity of the living.” –Michael Shermer

“…we [psychics] are here to heal people and to help people grow…skeptics…they’re just here to destroy people. They’re not here to encourage people, to enlighten people. They’re here to destroy people.” —James Van Praagh on “Larry King Live,” March 6, 2001

“I’ve never heard of a skeptic helping anybody with their skepticism. To a large degree, they just want to shame somebody so they can feel greater than them. But they’re not going to shame me. I’m very proud of what I do.” —Allison DuBois in an interview with Allen Pierleoni

“…nearly all professional mediums are a gang of vulgar tricksters who are more or less in league with one another.” —Richard Hodgson

psychic 920_250pxIn spiritualism, a medium is one with whom spirits communicate directly. In an earlier, simpler but more dramatic age, a good medium would produce voices or apports, ring bells, float or move things across a darkened room, produce automatic writing or ectoplasm, and, in short, provide good entertainment value for the money.

Today, a medium is likely to write bathetic inspirational books and say he or she is channeling, such as JZ Knight and the White Book of her Ramtha from Atlantis. Today’s most successful mediums, however, simply claim the dead communicate through them. Under a thin guise of doing “spiritual healing” and “grief counseling,” they use traditional cold reading techniques and sometimes surreptitiously gather information about their subjects to give the appearance of transmitting comforting messages from the dead. Subjective validation plays a key role in this kind of mediumship: The mediums rely upon the strong motivation of their clients to validate words, initials, statements, or signs as accurate. The clients’ success at finding significance and meaning in the sounds made by the medium are taken as evidence of contact with the dead.

[…]

GeorgeAnderson_124pxGeorge Anderson, a former switchboard operator and author of Lessons from the Light: Extraordinary Messages of Comfort and Hope from the Other Side (2000), got his own ABC special featuring celebrities who wanted to contact the dead. Some mediums even get their own syndicated television programs, such as John Edward and James Van Praagh, although the latter’s show was canned by Tribune Media Services after only a few episodes.

John_Edward_150pxJohn Edward established himself as the first clairaudient to have his own show that featured deceased loved ones contacting audience members: “Crossing Over with John Edward” on the Sci-Fi Channel. Edward has been described as a fraud by James Randi [Skeptic, v. 8, no. 3] and Leon Jaroff [Time, March 5, 2001] to no avail. He may be a fraud, but he is an attractive and impressive one. Edward’s show was syndicated and for some time he joined Xena the Warrior Princess and Jerry Springer on the USA Network. Trey Parker and Matt Stone, creators of the animated series South Park, named Edward the Biggest Douche in the Universe in episode 615.

james_van_praagh_200pxJames Van Praagh is a self-proclaimed medium who claims he has a gift that allows him to hear messages from just about anyone who is dead. According to Van Praagh, all the billions and billions and billions of dead people are just waiting for someone to give him their names. That’s all it takes. Give Van Praagh a name, any name, and he will claim that some dead person going by that name is contacting him in words, fragments of sentences, or that he can feel their presence in a specific location. He has appeared on “Larry King Live,” where he claimed he could feel the presence of Larry’s dead parents. He even indicated where in the room this “presence” was coming from. He took phone calls on the air and, once given a name, started telling the audience what he was “hearing” or “feeling”. Van Praagh plays a kind of twenty-questions game with his audience. He goes fishing, rapidly casting his baited questions one after the other until he gets a bite. Then he reels the fish in. Sometimes he falters, but most of the fish don’t get away. He just rebaits and goes after the fish again until he rehooks. The fish love it. They reward Van Praagh’s hard work by giving him positive feedback. This makes it appear to some that he is being contacted by spirits who are telling him that being dead is good, that they love those they left behind, and that they are sorry and forgive them everything.

Michael Shermer of Skeptic magazine calls Van Praagh “the master of cold-reading in the psychic world.” Sociologist and student of anomalies, Marcello Truzzi of Eastern Michigan University, was less charitable. Truzzi studied characters like Van Praagh for more than 35 years and describes Van Praagh’s demonstrations as “extremely unimpressive.” (“A Spirited Debate,” Dru Sefton, Knight Ridder News Service, The San Diego Union-Tribune, July 10, 1998, p. E1.) Truzzi said that most of what Van Praagh gives out is “twaddle,” but it is good twaddle since “what people want is comfort, guilt assuagement. And they get that: Your parents love you; they forgive you; they look forward to seeing you; it’s not your fault they’re dead.”

MORE . . .

psychic-john-edward-2012-events_02

Faith Healing

A torrid tale of quackbusting in 1920s America sheds light on modern medical scares
By Michael Shermer via michaelshermer.com

A review of Pope Brock’s Charlatan. America’s Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam.

A review of Pope Brock’s Charlatan. America’s Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam.

Human cognition has a problem — anecdotal thinking comes naturally whereas scientific thinking does not. The recent medical controversy over whether vaccinations cause autism illustrates this barrier. On the one side are scientists who have been unable to find any causal link between the symptoms of autism and the vaccine’s ingredients. On the other are parents who noticed that shortly after having their children vaccinated autistic symptoms appeared. Anecdotal associations are so powerful that they cause people to ignore contrary evidence. In the vaccination case the imagined culprit for autism’s cause is the preservative thimerosal, yet it breaks down into ethylmercury that is expelled from the body too quickly to have a damaging effect (plus autism continues to be diagnosed in children born after thimerosal was removed from vaccines). The story holds power despite the contrary facts.

The reason for our cognitive disconnect is that the brain evolved to be cautious. We favor anecdotes because false positives (believing there is a connection between A and B when there is not) are usually harmless, whereas false negatives (believing there is no connection between A and B when there is) may take you out of the gene pool. Our brains are `belief engines’ that seek connections.

Even in the age of modern science, our faith in anecdotes can make us easy to exploit. Any medical huckster promising that A will cure B has only to advertise a handful of successful testimonials. Enter John R. Brinkley, one of the most notorious medical quacks of the first half of the twentieth century, and his nemesis Morris Fishbein, the quackbusting editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

MORE . . .

Michael Shermer: Baloney Detection Kit

With a sea of information coming at us from all directions, how do we sift out the misinformation and bogus claims, and get to the truth? Michael Shermer of Skeptic Magazine lays out a “Baloney Detection Kit,” ten questions we should ask when encountering a claim.

The 10 Questions:

  1. How reliable is the source of the claim?
  2. Does the source make similar claims?
  3. Have the claims been verified by somebody else?
  4. Does this fit with the way the world works?
  5. Has anyone tried to disprove the claim?
  6. Where does the preponderance of evidence point?
  7. Is the claimant playing by the rules of science?
  8. Is the claimant providing positive evidence?
  9. Does the new theory account for as many phenomena as the old theory?
  10. Are personal beliefs driving the claim?

via Michael Shermer: Baloney Detection Kit – YouTube.

Travis Walton’s Alien Abduction Lie Detection Test

by Michael Shermer, Aug 14 2012, via Skepticblog

Fire in the Sky (book cover)On July 31, 2008, I appeared on The Moment of Truth (watch Part 1 on YouTube. I appear at about 7 min. 35 secs. in Part 2.) The contestant was Travis Walton, arguably the most famous alien abductee in Earth history. I agreed to appear only if there were no sexual allusions (alien probes aside). My question for Mr. Walton: “Do you have any evidence to support your claim of being abducted?” Of course he answered in the affirmative, because for three decades Travis Walton has been telling people that on the evening of November 5, 1975, he was “zapped” into a UFO while working as a logger in an Arizona National Forest. His evidence? His co-workers said they saw it happen. Five days later Walton called from a nearby payphone to report that the aliens had let him go.

[…]

… Walton was once again in the polygraph hot seat. His affirmative answer to my question passed the truth test, because of course Walton believes he has evidence in the form of his friends’ corroborative story. The next question, for $100,000, was refreshingly straight-forward: “Were you abducted by a UFO on November 5, 1975.” Without hesitation he barked “Yes.” The voice in the sky once again boomed: “That answer is…”

False.” I couldn’t believe it. Neither could Walton, whose jaw dropped faster than a crashed flying saucer. At last, after a bestselling book and popular film about his abduction, Fire in the Sky, after countless UFO conferences and media appearances, it took a Fox reality television show to bring the case to a head. What does this mean? To be fair and balanced (!), possibly nothing, because the polygraph test is unreliable. In fact, I even thoroughly debunked it myself in a two-part special for the Fox Family channel (watch Part 1 and Part 2 on YouTube).

Given the shortcomings of both reality television and the polygraph, I wrote to Travis and asked him for his account of his experience on Moment of Truth. I had met Walton once before at my office in Altadena, California, where we filmed a segment for a television special on UFOs. I found him to be an exceptionally likeable man, a nice guy, and I found his account of this television show to be most illuminating. As he wrote me on August 21, 2009:

Keep Reading: Skepticblog » Travis Walton’s Alien Abduction Lie Detection Test.
Followup: What Really Happened on Fox’s TV show Moment of Truth:
Travis Walton responds to Michael Shermer

Why Do People Believe in UFOs? | SETI & Aliens

Ray Villard, Discovery News

I’m bemused that we are smart enough to land an automobile size payload on another planet, but still live in a culture where a significant percentage of people want to believe in implausible if not impossible things. The reality is that intelligence has nothing to do with believing in “weird things.”

A recent National Geographic Society poll reported that 36 percent of Americans — about 80 million people — believe UFOs exist, only 17 percent do not, and the rest of the people are undecided. The survey did not specifically equate UFOs with flying saucers or little green men, however.

[….]

It’s Fun to Believe in Weird Things

Contrary to conventional wisdom, people of all levels of education like to believe in “weird things,” says Michael Shermer of the Skeptical Inquirer. Shermer wrote that people tend to seek or interpret evidence favorable to existing beliefs and ignore or misinterpret evidence unfavorable to those beliefs.

Keep Reading: Why Do People Believe in UFOs? | SETI & Aliens | LiveScience.

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