Guy Leon Playfair

Michael Shermer’s Sense and Nonsense


Michael Shermer’s Sense and Nonsense


Review of Michael Shermer’s
“The Borderlands of Science: Where Sense Meets Nonsense”

by Guy Lyon Playfair


Confirmation Bias and Exquisite Balance

Michael Shermer’s The Borderlands of Science: Where Sense Meets Nonsense (Oxford University Press, 2001) contains a good deal of sense. The author is founder-editor of The Skeptic, director of the Skeptics Society, writer of a column on skeptical matters for Scientific American and organiser of skeptical lectures at California Institute of Technology. He also co-produces and presents his own skeptical TV programme. In short, he could be described as a professional skeptic. He is also an excellent writer who understands the true meaning of skepticism – examination and questioning rather than the debased form of blanket rejection of anything considered politically incorrect favoured by CSICOP, of which, incidentally, there is no mention in this book.

Subjects he examines and questions after thorough study of primary sources range from evolution, ecology, cloning, genius, sport and music to Holocaust denial and the Piltdown Man hoax. He is particularly good on the joint discovery by Wallace and Darwin of natural selection, giving Wallace long overdue credit as an equal partner in the historic breakthrough.

The book does however contain a chapter that comes closer to nonsense than to sense. When skeptics turn their attention to areas of parapsychology they tend to throw all their objectivity, balance and meticulous research out of the window and revert to blanket rejection mode. Shermer, as his chapter on Remote Viewing (RV) shows, is no exception.

He makes elementary mistakes, describing physicists Harold Puthoff and Russell Targ on page 2 as among “some of the world’s leading ‘psychics’ ” On the same page he dismisses Jim Schnabel’s well researched and documented Remote Viewers (Dell, 1997) as follows: “Schnabel’s tome recounts endless anecdotes, usually confirmed with additional anecdotes by believing eyewitnesses who were themselves in remote viewing” – as if obtaining first-hand testimony from primary sources were somehow unscientific.

One ‘anecdote’ of Schnabel’s describes how CSICOP member Ray Hyman was “effectively shut out of the remote viewing program” and “given no access to classified data” when attempting to gather material for the Army Research Institute’s highly negative report on RV. Shermer spins this into describing Hyman as “the only outside observer allowed to review the raw data” (p.3). In fact, Hyman reached his conclusions after seeing none of the classified material, which we can assume to be the best, and interviewing none of the military viewers.

Shermer then decides to have a go at RV himself, yet instead of seeking one of the recognised Stargate experts such as Ingo Swann (with whom Schnabel did a very successful test), Shermer chats for an hour or so with Courtney Brown, a civilian amateur RVer specialising in extraterrestrials, remote galaxies, and encounters with the likes of Jesus and Buddha, then attends a weekend seminar given by another civilian amateur whose name does not appear in any of the basic RV books. That seems to have been the total extent of his research. It is as if he wrote about natural selection without quoting anything from Wallace or Darwin or even mentioning them except perhaps as ‘famous psychics’.

Even so, for a first time viewer he does rather well, describing impressions of “people at a monument of some kind” in an English park. The target photo was of Stonehenge, where there are usually people to be found looking at the monumental stones. Not bad, you might think. However, Shermer then commits one of the basic errors of RV procedure and starts guessing instead of simply recording his impressions for others to interpret and evaluate. Since his guess (Rodin’s The Kiss) was wrong, Shermer concludes on the basis of minimal research and two brief encounters with amateur ‘experts’ that RV is ‘pseudoscience’.

“The confirmation bias,” Shermer writes (p.89), “holds that we have a tendency to seek confirmatory data to support our already-held beliefs, and ignore disconfirmatory evidence that might counter those beliefs.” Among the disconfirmatory evidence ignored by Shermer is the award to Joe McMoneagle of the Legion of Merit for his role as “one of the original planners and movers of a unique intelligence project” and for ”producing critical intelligence unavailable from any other source”. Also ignored were the authoritative writings of those most closely associated with the Stargate programme, from Puthoff, Targ , Ingo Swann and Edwin May to Joe McMoneagle, Paul Smith, Dale Graff, Jessica Utts and Skip Atwater, to name but nine.

Shermer quotes approvingly Carl Sagan’s appeal for “an exquisite balance between two conflicting needs: the most skeptical scrutiny of all hypotheses that are served up to us and at the same time a great openness to new ideas. If you are only skeptical, then no new ideas make it through to you” (p.235). And Shermer admits with typical disarming candour that “all of us are biased” (p.22), adding that “all scientists… hold social, political and ideological beliefs that could potentially slant their interpretation of the data”. This is not a problem in science, he explains, where the peer review system ensures that such biases and beliefs are weeded out. It is a problem, however, with skeptical literature which is peer reviewed, if at all, by other skeptics. Again and again one reads references in books and articles by skeptics to books and articles by other skeptics, with no questioning of the writers’ skeptical biases and beliefs. All too often we also read, as here, accounts of a paranormal phenomenon that are strong on skeptical scrutiny but wholly lacking in openness to any nonskeptical view.

How come this sharp contrast between Shermer the critical historian of science and Shermer the paranormal-basher? The former obeys all the rules of academic scholarship – thorough knowledge of the relevant literature, careful selection of material for discussion, and full disclosure of sources, whenever possible, primary sources. The latter has no time for the niceties of academic debate. He has a demolition job to do and will let nothing get in the way of his ball and chain.

Shermer himself provides the answer. In a word, it is television. His brief encounter with remote viewing was filmed for an episode in his ‘Exploring the Unknown’ programme on the very down-market Fox channel, as were a couple of other brief and unmemorable forays into paranormal areas. The show, he admits, could well be called ‘Debunking the Unknown’ were it not for possible difficulties in persuading people to take part in a programme with such an uncompromising title. You really have to give the man full marks for honesty.

Television at this level does not do scientific investigation, critical analysis, or anything like that. It does dumb-down entertainment with minimal factual information, zero peer-reviewing, but plenty of spooky background music and wobbly camerawork the sole purpose of which is to keep viewers awake between the commercials. Shermer justifies his descent to this level by the simple and undeniable fact that thousands more watch this kind of nonsense than read books. Like any sensible evangelist, he goes for the mass market.

To be fair, the nonsense in The Borderlands of Science is outweighed by far by the sense, which serves to give the nonsense more prominence than it deserves. Shermer at his best is very good indeed. It is unfortunate that he is unwilling to treat subjects like remote viewing that are not yet contained within the borders of science with the same objective thoroughness that he applies to more conventional matters.

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