Has it become time for Scientific American to dump its resident ‘skeptic’ and columnist Michael Shermer? Shermer is the publisher of Skeptic Magazine, and frequently appears in the mass media as the advocate for the ‘skeptical’ viewpoint when it comes to claims of the paranormal. Scientific American gives him the ear of the scientific community, and the weight of its authority to the general public, via his regular column which is simply called “Skeptic”.
The trouble with Shermer is, he is not a skeptic. He is fixated with debunking alternative views, and he is neither objective nor fair in his treatment as a true skeptic should be. Despite warning readers in his book The Borderlands of Science (Amazon US) to be wary of the individual who “consistently ignores or distorts data not for creative purposes but for ideological agendas”, it is quite evident that Shermer himself fits into this category.
In his March 2003 column in Scientific American, Shermer cited a study led by researcher Pim van Lommel as evidence against the ‘Near-Death Experience’ (NDE). Published in the respected medical journal The Lancet, this research had gathered information from cardiac arrest patients regarding their experience (or not) during their life-threatening situation. What is exceedingly strange though is that Pim van Lommel concluded the exact opposite to Shermer. In reply to Shermer’s “Skeptic” article, van Lommel wrote:
Michael Shermer states that, in reality, all experience is mediated and produced by the brain, and that so-called paranormal phenomena like out-of body experiences are nothing more than neuronal events. The study of patients with NDE, however, clearly shows us that consciousness with memories, cognition, with emotion, self-identity, and perception out and above a life-less body is experienced during a period of a non-functioning brain (transient pancerebral anoxia).
One might think it fair enough if Shermer simply interpreted the data differently to the research team (although you would ask why, and on what credentials). However, this so-called ‘skeptic’ failed to even mention in his column that the researchers he was citing had arrived at exactly the conclusion he was trying to disprove. Pim van Lommel’s reply to Shermer shows who is thinking more objectively:
To quote Michael Shermer: it is the job of science to solve those puzzles with natural, rather than supernatural, explanations….for me science is asking questions with an open mind, and not being afraid to reconsider widely accepted but scientifically not proven concepts like the concept that consciousness and memories are a product of the brain. But also we should realize that we need a functioning brain to receive our consciousness into our waking consciousness. There are still a lot of mysteries to solve, but one has not to talk about paranormal, supernatural or pseudoscience to look for scientific answers on the intriguing relation between consciousness and memories with the brain.
In his latest column for Scientific American, Shermer has labelled the independent film on science and mysticism, What the #$*! Do We Know?!, as ‘quantum quackery’. His basis for this conclusion comes from the testimony of University of Colorado physicist Victor Stenger, who says that there is no crossover between the quantum world and consciousness/the brain. In Shermer’s words, therefore, “there is no micro-macro connection.” This despite the fact that earlier in the article he had pointed out that scientists of the calibre of Sir Roger Penrose, the late Sir John Eccles, and Stu Hammeroff, have seriously considered the idea worthy of further research. And yet Shermer feels moved to label such ideas as ‘physics envy’? Indeed, one can only quote his apparently ‘skeptical’ article and ask “what the #$*! is going on here?”.
It’s quite simple to see from the above that Shermer is selecting evidence and opinions that suit his worldview, and quoting them authoritatively, while ignoring or making disparaging comments about any non-conformist views. That is neither objective, scientific, nor skeptical. Then how can Scientific American print this rubbish?
These examples are not the limit to Shermer’s ineptitude at objective and critical thinking. In reaction to Rupert Sheldrake’s recent book The Sense of Being Stared At (Amazon US and UK), Shermer told USA Today that “the events Sheldrake describes don’t require a theory and are perfectly explicable by normal means”. When pushed on the details of his rebuttal, Shermer admitted he hadn’t even seen the book. Sheldrake has since proposed a debate between himself and Shermer on the subject, though Shermer is yet to accept.
In his August 2004 Scientific American column, Shermer attacked respected physicist Freeman Dyson over his comments that paranormal phenomena may actually exist based on the large amount of anecdotal evidence. Rebutting Dyson over his citing of anecdotal evidence Shermer baldly stated:
Either people can read other people’s minds (or ESP cards), or they can’t. Science has unequivocally demonstrated that they can’t – QED.
In actual fact, Shermer here is inventing the truth. There are many scientific studies which have shown positive results for ESP, and Shermer would be well aware of these (see Dean Radin’s The Conscious Universe – at Amazon US and UK – for a summary). Instead, he chooses to ignore them and blatantly lie. Shermer’s inability to argue on facts is a blot on the credibility of Scientific American.
Shermer is scheduled to appear in January 2005 at the ‘Amazing Meeting‘ in Las Vegas with uber-‘skeptic’ James “the Amazing” Randi. Together, they will be giving a workshop on “How to Communicate Skepticism to the Public”. Considering the history of both men involved, ‘skepticism’ is in bad shape and heading for worse. Critical thinking is a must in any alternative claims. But Shermer displays no ability to think critically or objectively, and it is high time that Scientific American questioned his credentials to talk authoritatively on such issues.
Further information concerning Michael Shermer’s ‘skeptical’ history is available at the Skeptical Investigations website – including some statements by critics of the substance and style of his arguments.
Update: Stuart Hameroff has responded to Shermer’s critique of his ‘quantum consciousness’ research.
Update #2: Rupert Sheldrake has responded to Shermer’s critique of his research in the November 2005 issue of Sciam.