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Metro Pulse The Duke of Doubt

Michael Shermer is a skeptic in an age of credulity.

By Jesse Fox Mayshark

NOVEMBER 2, 1998:  Halloween doesn't mean much anymore. Unless you're a Wiccan or latter-day Druid or voodoo mystic of some sort, All Hallow's Eve is mostly a chance for dress-up and candy (or dress-up and booze, depending on your age). If you're really suburban, you can eliminate the last vestiges of threat from the night—taking candy from strangers—by marching the kids off to Trick or Treat at the mall. (Surely the great corporations of America mean no harm to our children.)

But all of the holiday's traditions have their roots in darker days, when the portals between the kingdoms of the living and dead seemed more permeable. Samhain—the original Celtic holiday—was a night of contacting the dead, of thanking the gods for this year's harvest and asking their blessings for the next. Jack o' lanterns (which the Irish originally carved out of turnips) were either to guide ancestral spirits home or scare strange ones away, or maybe both. The food on the doorstep was for their nourishment.

Maybe that seems silly now. But does it seem any sillier than UFO abductions or crystal therapy or faith healing or Noah's flood? Michael Shermer doesn't think so.

"If you take the last 500 years, compare modern America to medieval Europe, we're a lot less superstitious than they were," says the man whose best-selling book is called Why People Believe Weird Things. "But if you look at it over the last 100 years, since the 1960s, there has been a rise in all of it."

Shermer, speaking this week at the University of Tennessee, is a skeptic. Make that a capital "S" Skeptic. The Southern California resident, a professor at Occidental College in Los Angeles, is the publisher of Skeptic magazine and the director of the Skeptics Society.

"Skepticism has become really my full-time job," he says with a laugh.

And what a job it is. Skeptics have their work cut out in the fin de siècle. There are more things to doubt every day: the conspiracy to shoot down flight 800; Jerry Falwell's tapes "proving" Bill Clinton has had dozens of people killed; the healing power of magnets; touch therapy. You name it, Shermer's skeptical.

He wasn't always this way. "I've been interested in the paranormal and all those kinds of claims and religion my entire adult life, since my late teens," he confesses. "I went through a phase as a born-again Christian, like a lot of people did in the '70s."

But it didn't stick. The more he wanted to believe—in ESP or EST or chakras—the more trouble he had finding any foundation for his faith.

"Basically, I discovered science and got some training in it," he says. "I discovered there's actually a method to finding out whether these things are bogus or real. And the more I studied, the more skeptical I became."

Shermer eventually earned a doctorate in the history of science, which he teaches at Occidental. He founded Skeptic in 1991, publishing the first issue the next summer. Since then, the quarterly magazine's circulation has grown to 30,000, with each issue tackling a range of pseudoscientific and paranormal subjects. What's more, Shermer has become something of a media star, a designated voice of reason.

"I get two or three media calls a day now, which is interesting," he says by phone from his California headquarters. "I think people are interested now in hearing the other side."

The "other side" varies depending on the issue. Skepticism knows no ideology. On the right, it faces the looming forces of fundamentalism in its various guises. Creationists remain a major concern for organized skeptics, who see them as a threat not just to Darwin but to the whole body of science developed since the Greeks. If the earth is only 10,000 years old, everything scientists know about astronomy, geology, physics, and so forth would have to be wrong.

But they don't necessarily get much comfort from the left, where philosophical relativism has called the whole notion of objective knowledge into question—opening the door for wildly different theories of history, for example, each of them equally "valid."

And then there are the New Agers, the pagans, the channelers, the psychics. And, most worrisome to Shermer, the alternative healers.

"It's really scary stuff, because most of the stuff they're dealing with, there is no evidence of at all except for anecdotes," he says. "And medicine does not use anecdotes."

Wait a minute, though. What about all the people who say acupuncture or herbal treatments have eased their pain? Should you just dismiss them?

No, Shermer says—"You do more research. It may have something to do with a placebo effect. It may work, but for different reasons than the proponents say it does."

Shermer calls Los Angeles "a great market for skepticism. We need it here if we need it anywhere."

But Massimo Pigliucci, who arranged Shermer's UT visit, thinks it's at least as important in East Tennessee. A UT professor of botany and a founder of the Rationalists of East Tennessee, Pigliucci has staged something of a one-man assault on Bible Belt beliefs since arriving here five years ago. He has debated creationists, founded the Skeptics Book Club, and—maybe most provocatively—taken the "anti" side in a public forum on the existence of God.

"We have had a history even on campus of people coming in and talking about weird things," Pigliucci says. "I remember last year the issues committee organized a thing and spent a lot of money to bring in a guy who believed in UFOs and government conspiracies and those kinds of things. And there was very little critical discussion of the issues."

He hopes Shermer's appearance will at least provide food for thought to the legions of the credulous. "He's a pretty big gun in the skeptic community," Pigliucci says.

But if it's true that people everywhere are believing more and more "weird things," why is it? Shermer thinks it's a combination of forces.

For one thing, the counterculture revolution of the 1960s spawned widespread suspicion of authority. Starting with the Civil Rights movement and culminating with the bleakness of Watergate, social and political events gave people less and less reason to believe in "the establishment." The discovery and spread of Eastern religions opened the way for the New Age in all its permutations. The turn toward homeopathy bred a distrust of "conventional" medicine. Lingering suspicions about the Kennedy assassination gave rise to a whole host of government conspiracy theories. Meanwhile, the counterculture itself sparked an equally fervid rededication to evangelical Christianity, which had been quietly building strength since at least the 1940s. Now, all of it has been augmented by both the imminent millenial change and a technological explosion.

"I think in part this is driven by the fact that more TV shows publicize these kinds of things, because you have 500 channels or 100 channels or whatever," Shermer says.

And the Internet has made it possible to disseminate all sorts of unverified information internationally with the push of a button. "After JFK, the conspiracy theories didn't start for a few years, five years, eight years," Shermer says. "After Princess Di, the conspiracy theories started within hours."

But if the things people believe are silly, doesn't a skeptic risk looking silly himself in attacking them? Or worse, looking like a killjoy? Shermer acknowledges he runs into that perception. TV producers sometimes tell him, "We can't do a skeptical show. People don't want to know."

"Well, I think people do want to know," he says, "if it's fair and it's open and you tell people you're not trying to take something away from them."

He also balks at the notion that much modern superstition is essentially harmless. "When people read their astrology column, it seems harmless enough," he allows. "But when Nancy Reagan coordinates the president's travel schedule based on what some astrologer tells her, that's getting really serious."

Still, he knows convincing people to change firm convictions can be tough. That's why he targets fence-sitters—people who know a little about something and are curious to learn more. He also recently launched Junior Skeptic magazine, aimed at curious kids. "Reaching students is where it starts," he says.

Shermer insists he's not trying to take away anyone's sense of wonder. He thinks the universe seems more amazing, singular, and precious when understood from a scientific point of view that incorporates all of the complexities of life, matter, and energy. And, he says, skeptics do still make time for fun. Trick or treating, for instance.

"We do Halloween, we do Christmas," he says. "My daughter even believed in Santa Claus—until she figured it out on her own because she's a critical thinker. Once she understood flight, she realized that reindeer couldn't really fly unless they had wings. And she said this to me and I said, 'Yep, you're right.'"


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