Taking life with a grain of salt

Taking life with a grain of salt

Michael Shermer is a scientist and a skeptic. A professional skeptic.

He founded a magazine of the same name, and has built a career debunking popular myths, superstitions and urban legends.

Generally, Shermer says, Americans aren't very good at differentiating truth from myth, and the Internet has only served to feed that tendency.

"Our critical-thinking skills are reasonably low. I'm still surprised at things that take off and get cultural legs like they do in the media," he said, from those who question President Obama's birthplace to "truthers" who believe the Bush administration orchestrated or knew about the 9/11 attacks.

Shermer, adjunct professor at Claremont Graduate University in California, will speak at the University of Illinois on Tuesday as part of his latest lecture tour. His talk is scheduled for 7 to 8 p.m. in Room 100 of the Materials Science and Engineering Building, 1304 W. Green St., U.

His books cover everything from Charles Darwin and Holocaust revisionists to the way biology and psychology shape our economic choices. He also wrote "Why People Believe Weird Things" and, besides publishing Skeptic magazine, is a monthly columnist for Scientific American.

His latest book, due out in late May, is "The Believing Brain."

In an interview Friday with The News-Gazette, Shermer said the book is about "not so much why people believe weird things, but why people believe things at all how the brain works, how we form our beliefs, how our brain works mightily to defend them as true and find social support for those beliefs."

Studies have consistently shown two-thirds of Americans believe in "pseudoscience" ghosts, haunted houses, psychics, aliens, the paranormal, "the general pantheon of what we consider to be weird beliefs," Shermer said. "The specifics depend on what's hot in popular culture a new movie, a new claim."

"On the deepest level, our brains are wired up to believe just about everything we encounter," he said.

It's sort of a default setting to "believe all patterns real unless proven otherwise," he said. He calls it "patternicity, the tendency to find meaningful patterns in random noise. That is how learning occurs -- 'a' is connected to 'b.' All animals do it. We have to do it to survive. And often the patterns are real."

How do you tell the difference between true and false patterns?

"Our brains are really bad at that. Science evolved as a mechanism to get past all that.

"Science is the best tool we ever devised. It's the only hope we have," he said. But "it's counterintuitive. People are not naturally inclined to think skeptically and scientifically."

So they believe what they hear on the news or read on a blog or Facebook page. For every website like http://www.skeptic.com or http://www.snopes.com that debunks myths, "there's a hundred more that promote" them.

"The problem with the Internet is that there's no fact-checkers. There's no editors," he said.

Shermer, an aethist, said he was a "pretty serious" Christian through his college years at Pepperdine University and hoped to become a theology professor. But he had more facility for science than Greek, Latin or Aramaic. Halfway through graduate school in psychology at Claremont, he gave up religion.

When he studied cultural anthroplogy and comparative religions, he realized they all had competing claims to truth.

"The creator of the universe wrote a book. Unfortunately, he wrote several of them that don't always agree. What are we supposed to do?" he said.

He liked the "open-endedness and uncertainty" and "non-elitist" nature of science.

"It's not that the answers are out there and sombody's going to get them to you. The answers may be out there, you're not sure if you will get them, and anybody can do it," he said.

Shermer's talk is sponsored by the Illini Secular Student Alliance, which is also leading a nationwide "Ask an Atheist Day" on Wednesday with more than 50 campuses across the United States. Organizers said it's an opportunity for people to learn more about the nonreligious community.

UI student Rebecca Tippens, a member of the alliance, said the idea is to counter stereotypes and "misconceptions people have about atheists."

She said she often gets questions like, "How can you be a moral person without God?" or "Do you hate God?"

"No. We don't believe in him, but we're not bitter," said Tippens, a physics major, adding that most members were raised with religious backgrounds. "We're just like anyone else."

Participants will wear stickers saying "Ask an Atheist" and be willing to answer questions all day, she said.

For information, check the event's Facebook page at http://on.fb.me/gGlCbu or the Illini Secular Student Alliance's blog at http://uiucatheists.blogspot.com/.

For information about Michael Shermer, visit http://www.michaelshermer.com/.

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