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Michael Shermer: The Importance Of Skepticism

user profile picture Adam Taggart Aug 03, 2016
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As humans, the way we process and react to information is influenced by both the biology of our brains as well as our social and cultural norms. We've talked many times here at about the influence — conscious and subconsious — that our beliefs exert on our actions. Our past podcasts on behavioral economics have delved into this in detail.

But just because we believe something, that doesn't make it true. Which is why the scientific process is so important: when followed without bias, it enables us to understand reality as it truly is. And such accurate understanding of the facts allows us to make more useful decisions.

In this week's podcast, Chris speaks with Michael Shermer, monthly columnist for Scientific American and founding publisher of Skeptic magazine, about the importance of cultivating a questioning mindset:

By skeptic, I just mean the scientific approach to claims and most scientists are skeptical by nature. Not by human nature, but by dent of their training because science starts with the hypothesis. It starts with the idea that whatever your claim is it’s not true until you prove to us otherwise. An example I use that everybody is familiar with…if you think you have a drug to cure AIDS or cancer or whatever, you can’t just send it to the FDA and ask for their approval without submitting your studies. Where are the peer-reviewed studies? Where are the journal articles? Where is your epidemiological evidence? Where is the controlled double blind experiments or something? You can’t just assert that something is true; you have to actually prove it. The FDA will not grant you permission to sell your drug until you prove to them that your drug is real. It’s always like that. You think Bigfoot is real? That’s nice, prove it. Show us the body. You want to name a new species in biology, you actually have to have a physical specimen that we can all look at. Grainy photographs, blurry videos and anecdotes about things that go bump in the night…that’s not evidence in science.

We start skeptical and then we go from there. It’s not like skeptics and scientists are curmudgeons and don’t believe everything. Just watch any science show, pick up any science book, there’s tons of things that scientists believe from the Big Bang Theory to quantum mechanics, to evolution germ theory of disease, plate tectonics in geology…tons and tons of theories that are believed in that sense because the evidence is there. Another analogy I make is are you a global warming skeptic or are you skeptical of the global warming skeptics, which would make you a believer? Skepticism is not just you go into it and you don’t believe anything period. It just depends on the particular claim and the evidence for it. I might be skeptical of global warming; I once was. Now I lean towards skepticism of the global warming skeptics because I think the evidence for global warming is pretty strong so that’s kind of a way to think about it.

By reason and science, I mean that the idea that we should try to solve problems in a rationale, systematic way…that really began with the scientific revolution and the enlightenment. It begins with Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Newton and the idea that the universe is knowable…it’s governed by natural laws we can understand. From there it just trickled down into biology and economics. The original economists were really scientists working in areas unrelated to the economy. Francois Canet, the advisor to King Louis XIV in France, he’s the guy that coined the term “laissez-faire”…leave them alone. He said the economy is like blood flowing through the body; it needs to flow openly, freely, and if there’s too many obstructions it’s causing disease. Too many taxes cause disease of the economy. That’s where that idea comes from. The idea that an economy or a colony is governed by principles that we can understand and apply…that’s what we’ve been doing for centuries.

Click the play button below to listen to Chris' interview with Michael Shermer (35m:41s).

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