Michael Shermer: The Life of a Skeptic
“I want to believe,” says the big screen towering over Michael Shermer as he gives his second TED Talk. The slogan comes from the hit TV series The X-Files, where Agent Fox Mulder and his partner, Dana Scully, investigate the supernatural. Shermer’s lecture, “The pattern behind self-deception,” is a hit too, amassing nearly three million views. (His first talk has over seven million.) Considering his choice of imagery, does Shermer, who has dedicated his career to debunking pseudoscience, really liken himself to UFO-obsessed Agent Mulder?
“I’m really more like Scully! Scully was the skeptic, Mulder was the believer,” argues Shermer. “Even though I'm a skeptic and more on the side of Scully, we don't want to be dogmatic about it because if the history of science has taught us anything it's that nature turns out to be surprisingly different than we ever thought it would be.”
Shermer has built a name for himself using his particular brand of skepticism: an apolitical, rational look at society’s most entrenched beliefs. The scientific method is repurposed to look at issues outside the lab, everything from flat-earthers to climate change deniers. He conducts most of these investigations in his magazine Skeptic, published by the Skeptic Society, where he is the executive director.
“Skepticism is just the default, null hypothesis position of science. That is, your claim isn't true until you prove otherwise, because everybody can think of half a dozen great ideas before breakfast, but so what? It doesn't mean they're true,” he explains. “Therefore skepticism is simply just science, writ large. We're applying those tools of rationality and empiricism to any claim: religious, political, economic.”
As a kid, Shermer had a religious bent. At Pepperdine University, he initially planned to study theology. But his worldview began to change after taking classes in psychology, the subject that he would go on to pursue. He found that science and reason provided a more convincing worldview than his past religious convictions, and this realization drove him to join a late 1980s coalition of scientists pushing back against the New Age movement of astrologers, card and palm readers, psychics and spoon benders.
These days, Shermer’s job consists of publishing Skeptic magazine, hosting his podcast The Michael Shermer Show, and, most recently, starting up a Substack newsletter. The weekly newsletter will serve as a revival of his former Scientific American column that ran from 2001 to 2019.
“I'd like to comment more on social, political, cultural, economic issues, ideological issues, and just see to what extent I can apply the tools of science and skepticism to any claims about the trans movement, or the BLM movement, or the Me Too movement, or immigration, or abortion, or any of these kind of hot button issues that pop up pretty much every day in pop culture,” explains Shermer.
In our current climate, misinformation seems to be running rampant. Each news cycle is filled with accusations of election fraud and “alternative facts.” Having studied conspiracy theories for a few decades now, Shermer knows that they’ve always been a staple in American culture. Who really assassinated John F. Kennedy from that grassy knoll? Is Elvis still alive? Rumours about lizard people and the Illuminati continue to proliferate.
While conspiracies are nothing new, the way they are disseminated is. What would have once fizzled out in fringe pamphlets or obscure chat rooms can now be shared instantly with millions through nothing more than a series of calculated Facebook posts. The role that social media corporations play in spreading false claims has many looking to curtail their free reign. Shermer, a libertarian at heart, doesn’t see this as the solution.
“I'm pretty skeptical of the extreme version that, you know, Facebook is the equivalent of the invention of nuclear weapons and it's an existential threat to our democracy. I don't think that's the case,” he says. “I'm not looking for the government, the antitrust department to break up the major social media companies into smaller companies or anything like that. I don't think it's that big of a threat.”
Instead, Shermer believes that the ideal way to counter misinformation is through public debate. He argues that we should leave it up to the marketplace to decide which ideas rise and which ones fall.
“I'm a pretty strong critic of creationism, and Holocaust denial, and climate denial, and anti-vaccination, and all that. But, I think the best way to deal with it is to just put their ideas out there and say, 'Okay, what's the evidence? What have you got?' Give us your best arguments and here's our counter arguments and just let it play out. That's the way to do it. Don't silence people.”
Whereas the Left was once the champion of free speech, Shermer contends that its defenders are now mostly on the right. Still, he says, both sides can fall prey to censorious instincts when an idea they disagree with takes hold. Critical race theory’s place in education, for example, has been hotly debated, and conservatives have been calling for its ban from public schools.
“Hang on for a second. You're a conservative calling for the government to ban ideas being taught? I thought conservatives were in favor of small government and autonomy and freedom of ideas?” challenges Shermer. “The moment you set a legal precedent for the banning of teaching of certain ideas that you don't like, well, what happens when the law turns around on you and decides you're the one with the dangerous ideas?”
FAIR, he argues, is the perfect organization to address these types of conflicts due to its nonpartisan stance. Shermer came to be involved with the group through his connection with fellow board member Bari Weiss.
“Her first job, I think, out of college was at the Wall Street Journal. And she would edit me when I would write book reviews for them,” he explains. “When she got involved in this organization, I was happy to support it. I didn't know Bion [Bartning], but he's just terrific. He's amazing. I do think they're on the right side of how to deal with these issues.”
Michael Shermer serves on the Board of Advisors for FAIR. He has appeared in videos and other content for the organization, examining FAIR-related topics from a scientific perspective. He is also at work on his new Substack newsletter, Skeptic, and a forthcoming book, published by John Hopkins University Press, titled Conspiracy: Why the Rational Believe the Irrational.
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Common Sense – Bari Weiss
The Truth Fairy – Abigail Shrier
Skeptic – Michael Shermer
Journal of Free Black Thought – Erec Smith et al.
INQUIRE – Zaid Jilani
Beyond Woke – Peter Boghossian
The Glenn Show – Glenn Loury
It Bears Mentioning – John McWhorter
The Weekly Dish – Andrew Sullivan
Notes of an Omni-American – Thomas Chatterton-Williams