Nonfiction Notes: Michael Shermer: WHY PEOPLE BELIEVE WEIRD THINGS

Michael Shermer: Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time. (W.H. Freeman, 1997)

Here’s one of the earliest books that address human irrationality in terms of both the evidence against various pseudoscientific beliefs, and the psychological motivations that lead people to believe things that aren’t true. It wasn’t the first such book to do this; Nicholas Humphrey’s LEAPS OF FAITH (SOUL SEARCHING in the UK) did a good job the year before in 1996, and Thomas Gilovich did something similar in HOW WE KNOW WHAT ISN’T SO in 1991. For that matter, Shermer’s book here is as much a collection of  *what* weird things people believe, as much as it is about why they believe them; thus it aligns more with Martin Gardner’s FADS & FALLACIES IN THE NAME OF SCIENCE from 1952 than the other two titles just mentioned. (The weird things are mostly different; the pervasive credulousness hasn’t changed. I’ll have to glance back through Gardner to see if he had any speculations about *why*.)

The book was the first by Michael Shermer, at the time, and for many years following, the editor of Skeptic magazine, and later author of a dozen more books, about religious belief, pseudoscience, Darwin, free markets, morality, and on and on.

Revisiting this book last year, over 20 years since its first publication, I noticed it has similarities with Carl Sagan’s 1995 THE DEMON-HAUNTED WORLD, yet another book about the crazy things many people say they believe. But that’s both because of their themes, and because both books are composed mostly of what were originally separately published magazine articles, and so neither has a through-line argument from beginning to end. Both books are overly-preoccupied with subjects that were concerns of the authors at the time: Sagan’s, by claims about UFOs and alien abductions; Shermer, here, by Holocaust Denial, for 70 pages of a 280 page book.

Sagan had just died when Shermer published his book, which is dedicated to Sagan.

So here as usual are my read-along notes as I took them (some 4500 words), prefaced by bulleted take-away points.

Fun facts not otherwise noted: Shermer in his youth was a religious believer, before he grew up; and for a period in his early adulthood was a competitive bicyclist.

Take-Away Summary

  • The author, through various TV appearances, has learned that people *want* to believe (things like psychics), and sometimes get angry when frauds are exposed.
  • Skepticism is not cynicism; it’s a method, not a position. It’s embodied in the scientific method, a method to arrive at provisional conclusions. It’s not being close-minded; it asks for evidence. Science can be fallible, but its strength is self-correction.
  • The Western world is a monument to the scientific revolution of the past 400 years, despite which large percentages of the population believe in astrology, ESP, witches, ghosts, and so on. The common ingredient in pseudo-sciences is lack of supporting evidence and of plausibility. Science does change, but usually by expanding earlier theories to wider scales. Science doesn’t depend on creators, the way art does.
  • Chapter 3 outlines “how thinking goes wrong” and presents and describes a (now-familiar) list of logical and rhetorical fallacies, psychological biases and errors.
  • The middle of the book, for some 200 pages, reviews various pseudo-scientific topics and case studies: Edgar Cayce, near-death experiences, encounters with aliens, witch crazes, Ayn Rand.
  • Then three chapters on evolution and creationism, with author’s experience debating Duane Gish; a thorough list of 25 arguments creationists make, with the author’s rebuttals; and a review of the Supreme Court case concerning the teaching of creationism.
  • Then four chapters about pseudohistory, with again the author’s personal experience debating Holocaust deniers, and presenting evidence that the Holocaust actually happened. With a chapter about Hernstein and Murray’s racial theories.
  • (The one obvious missing topic in this book is religion, but Shermer addressed that in his second book, How We Believe, in 2000.)
  • A closing chapter wonders if some scientists aren’t prone to weird beliefs, or simply wish-fulfillment, with a focus on Barrow and Tipler’s anthropic cosmological principle, and Tipler’s Omega Point. The lessons are to beware theories that are attractive just because they are beautiful, or because they seem to correspond to ancient wisdom.
  • And the final chapter summarizes: why *do* people believe weird things? It feels good to believe them; they provide immediate gratification; they offer simplicity in a complex world; they imply morality and meaning; they offer comfort and hope.


Full Summary with some [[ comments ]]

Foreword by Stephen Jay Gould

Skepticism has a bad reputation, but it’s needed in the interests of explaining, not as a nihilistic exercise.

Prologue: Next on Oprah

Author appeared on Oprah, Oct 2, 1995, when a psychic, Rosemary Altea, was a guest. She was bombing until she got one right. Author explained how she did it—‘cold reading’ with general, vague questioning at first, on likely topics. She probably wasn’t dishonest; she’d honed her skills through trial and error. Author also saw James Van Praagh, and how he chatted with the audience during breaks. Subjects want to believe. When author explained how he works to the audience, most were uninterested, some angry. So is this all innocent fun?

This book is about distinction between science and pseudoscience, history and pseudohistory. Chapters can be read independently. Humans evolved to make connections—but there are false positives (a waste of time only) and false negatives (that could get you killed).

Skeptic is not cynic; skepticism is a method, not a position.

Why people believe weird things: 1) hope springs eternal; 2) thinking can go wrong in general ways; 3) thinking can go wrong in particular ways.

Author founded Skeptic magazine 5 years before; most of these chapters began as essays there.

Part 1: Science and Skepticism

Epigram by Malinowski

1, I Am Therefore I Think: A Skeptic’s Manifesto

Author wrote for a cycling magazine in 1979, took up cycling himself, and heard about all sorts of diets and supplements and therapies to improve performance. Author tried many of these, though some were painful, and most apparently ineffective. He finally gave them all up. Performance came from much practice and a balanced diet…

What Is a Skeptic? A day in 1983, he gave up the supplements his nutritionist was supplying, discovering his school was nonaccredited.

Skepticism goes back 2500 years; modern from Martin Gardner’s 1952 book (FADS AND FALLACIES IN THE NAME OF SCIENCE), from James Randi’s challenges, from work of Paul Kurtz. Skepticism is embodied in the scientific method, a method to arrive at provisional conclusions. The flaw is pure skepticism would require you to be skeptical about skepticism. Skeptics are not cynical or close-minded; they just ask for evidence. Example: author heard of the Hundredth Monkey phenomenon, p17, which gave rise to books by Lyall Watson and others. But reading closely, author found the writer simply made up or presumed evidence from anecdotes or ‘bits of folklore.’ Turned out there was no phenomenon to explain.

Science and Skepticism. Definition, 18b. Science involves induction, deduction, observation, verification. It can result in hypotheses, theories, facts. In contrast to a construct, a statement that can’t be tested, like “God made them.” Objectivity is favored over mysticism. It tries to avoid dogmatism, believing something just because someone told you so. (Example of why the Earth is round, 20b).

The Essential Tension Between Skepticism and Credulity. Science can be fallible, but its strength is self-correction, which in time will flush out the mistakes and the fraud. Kuhn discussed the tension… Darwin is a good example. The tension is between being so skeptical that revolutionary ideas pass you by, and so open-minded that flimflam artists take you in. Author’s experience is that most weird claims simply don’t happen; you don’t need to explain why they couldn’t happen, e.g. astrology, which simply doesn’t predict anything.

The Tool of the Mind. Vincent Dethier discusses the rewards of science, especially the natural curiosity of humans, to share in the sublimity of Knowledge, 23t. Children have the natural ability to ask questions and to explore. We think to remain alive. We can reverse Descartes, who said I think therefore I am; I am therefore I think.

2, The Most Precious Thing We Have: the difference between science and pseudoscience

The western world is a monument to the scientific revolution, begun over 400 years ago. Most scientists who’ve ever lived are alive today, they increase so much. Transportation speeds have increased enormously, p26. And yet look how many people believe in astrology, ESP, witches, ghosts, etc, 26b. And dowsing, biorhythms, creationism, faith healing, and on and on, 27t.

Pirsig’s Paradox. From the Zen novel, a discussion about how the law of gravity is no more real than a ghost—because there wasn’t any such thing before Isaac Newton. This reflects the debate about whether science is internalist—progressive, culturally independent, objective—or externalist—socially constructed and subjective. George Sarton dissses the former; Kuhn’s book suggested the externalist. Richard Olson struck a balance. We can recognize that while science is influenced by culture, its results are cumulative and progressive, 31t. Example: Hobbes’ Leviathan was the result of applying principles from Euclid to ideas of culture and government: basic notions and logical deductions, 32m. A scientific law is “a description of a regularly repeating action that is open to rejection or confirmation.” 33.4 Ghosts have never been confirmed; gravity is all the time.

Pseudoscience and Pseudohistory. The pseudo’s lack supporting evidence and plausibility. How do we know historical events happened? Example of Afrocentric claims and their rebuttals, 34-35; proponents were indifferent to errors of history (Aristotle and the Library of Alexandria). We need to test our hypotheses. We can do that in, e.g. paleontology by predicted what will be found next when the first part of a fossil is uncovered, and it can be deduced how a herd of animals died and left their bones in certain positions.

How Science Changes. One idea is the paradigm shift. Paradigms can be sociological, psychological, epistemological, or ontological. The latter would allow any paradigm to be as good as any other, but it’s not useful to think of astrology and astronomy as equally useful. Science is progressive, in ways myth, religion, and art are not; the latter don’t improve, they just invent new styles. The changes in science don’t require abandoning old theories; rather, as Einstein emphasized, the new theory offers a wider view.

The Triumph of Science. On the other hand, we have no place outside science to verify it. Yet science doesn’t depend on creators, the way art does; one scientist’s achievements might easily be discovered by others. Western culture accumulates cultural traditions and artifacts, but it ignores or returns those necessary for progress of science and technology. Progress should not have a pejorative meaning involving superiority. Science and technology are double-edged swords…

3, How Thinking Goes Wrong: twenty-five fallacies that lead us to believe weird things

Author was on TV show The Other Side several times as the token skeptic. Most believers are not hoaxers or lunatics; they are normal people who’s thinking as gone wrong. Here are 25 ways..

Hume’s Maxim. Hume wrote several versions of his famous book, with its credo “A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence.” And his maxim, that no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the falsehood would be more miraculous that the claim, 45b. It’s easier to believe people are deceived, than that e.g. a dead man is restored to life.

Problems in Scientific Thinking

  1. Theory influences observations. As in the Copenhagen interpretation, the theory in part constructs the reality. Or how Columbus perceived where he landed as Asia.
  2. The observer changes the observed. Studying an event can change it. Applies to physics, to anthropologists, psychology. That’s why blind and double-blind experiments are necessary.
  3. Equipment constructs results. Thus the sizes of our telescopes change our theories of the universe. Example of using a net to capture sea life.

Problems in Pseudoscientific Thinking

4, Anecdotes do not make a science. It doesn’t matter how many anecdotes you have, without physical evidence or controlled experiments.

5, Scientific language does not make science. Examples of creation science, or vague ideas about higher energy frequencies.

6, Bold statements do not make claims true. As in the introduction to Dianetics; Reich; even the cold fusion guys.

7, Heresy does not equal correctness. Just because they laughed at some who were later proven right, doesn’t make you right. Schopenhauer’s three stages of truth don’t actually apply to all truth. Most lone scientists turn out wrong and are never heard from.

8, Burden of proof. The person making the extraordinary claim has the burden, not others to prove him wrong.

9, Rumors do not equal reality. I read somewhere, I heard that… Rumors may be true, but usually are not. A lot of urban legends, 52t.

10, Unexplained is not inexplicable. Examples. [ this is also the argument from personal incredulity ] Yet most people find it comforting to have certainty, rather than to live with unexplained mysteries.

11, Failures are rationalized. Scientists know that failures will be discovered by others; pseudo-scientists rationalize failures in various ways.

12, After-the-fact reasoning. Post hoc, ergo propter hoc. Correlation does not mean causation.

13, Coincidence. We see meaning in coincidences, having poor understanding of probability.

14, Representativeness. We remember hits and ignore misses; psychics depend on this.

Logical Problems in Thinking

15, Emotive words and false analogies. Using phrases like raping the environment; this is just rhetoric.

16, Ad ignoratiam. Arguing that if you can’t prove something doesn’t exist, it must exist. Santa Claus?

17, Ad hominem and to quoque. To the man and you also. [[ the latter phrase informalized in 21st century as “But what about…?” ]]

18, Hasty generalization. E.g. an improper induction, or a prejudice.

19, Overreliance on authorities.

20, Either-Or. Or, the false dilemma.

21, Circular reasoning. Begging the question, or tautology.

22, Reductio ad absurdum and the slippery slope. Sometimes taking an argument to its logical end is useful, but not necessarily.

Psychological Problems in thinking

23, Effort inadequacies and the need for certainty, control, and simplicity. Thinking is hard work and takes training and practice.

24, Problem-solving inadequacies. E.g. people pick a hypothesis and then look for confirming evidence, and are slow to change their minds even when shown their idea is wrong. [[ Analysis of these ideas has become much more sophisticated in 21st century ]]

25, Ideological immunity, or the Planck Problem. People are reluctant to change their core presuppositions. Thus Planck pointed out that new idea eventually wins when the resistors die off and the new generation grows up with the idea. The higher the IQ, the greater the ideological immunity, the willingness to consider new ideas; it’s built into science as a guard against welcoming every new idea with open arms.

Spinoza’s dictum

It’s better to understand others’ fallacious reasoning, not merely to ridicule and debunk them. P61.

Part 2: Pseudoscience and Superstition

4, Deviations: the normal, the paranormal, and Edgar Cayce

[[ When I was a teenager in Illinois there was a popular book circulating about Edgar Cayce, which some family friends [the Irelans] seemed to take quite seriously… ]]

Most of us misunderstand statistic and probabilities. Case is Edgar Cayce, whose research facility is in Virginia Beach VA. Cayce was a famous ‘psychic’ who gave thousands of ‘readings’ about all sorts of paranormal events, p66. Author and friend visited the facility and participated in an ESP test. Scores higher than 7 were said to be evidence of ESP. But what of the expected number of hits? Author explains normal distribution. And how the instructor wouldn’t take the test himself.

5, Through the Invisible: near-death experiences and the quest for immortality

Author attends a seminar in Klammath Falls OR to learn mind control through meditation. Author never experienced what other, more fantasy-prone perhaps, people did.

What is an altered state of consciousness? Randi thinks hypnosis is just fantasy role-playing. Author disagrees; there are different states, with quantitative not qualitative differences. Sleep. Consider…

The near-death experience. NDEs convince some there is an afterlife. Example of floating above the bed, etc. What can be explained? Aren’t these just wishful-thinking hallucinations? Influenced perhaps by cultural knowledge of the Judeo-Christian worldview. Or is it a memory of birth? Or the effects of a dying brain? Ask Hume’s question.

The quest for immortality. No one knows, and everyone seems to want to know. That’s why so many religions.

Science and Immorality. Will discuss Tipler later in the book. Discussion of life expectancy and life span. Cloning. Cryonics.

Historical Transcendence—Is it so small a thing? Choose wisely because something you do could change the course of history.

[[ some of the themes in this chapter Shermer would return to in his 2018 book Heavens on Earth: The Scientific Search for the Afterlife, Immortality, and Utopia. ]]

6, Abducted!: encounters with aliens

Author describes how he was abducted and lost 90 minutes of time. Then explains: he was a cross-country bike race and deprived of sleep. Clearly such a reason doesn’t explain all supposed alien abductions. The notion of aliens is quite plausible. Yet the footage of an alien supposedly at Roswell NM is implausible for many reasons, p92ff.

Encounters with alien abductees. Author met a group from an NBC tv show and found them perfectly sane. But what did they experience? Whatever it was, they interpreted the events in a culture replete with alien imagery from such tv shows, science fiction, etc., in a feedback loop. That’s why the details of such encounters are so similar, despite the unlikelihood of aliens being humanoids like us. Again Hume’s maxim.

7, Epidemics of Accusations: medieval and modern witch crazes.

Describes a recent plague of ‘anesthetic prowler’ incidents in an Illinois town in 1944. One report triggered others, no evidence was found, and it blew over in a couple weeks. Such crazes have certain shared properties, p100, just like the medieval witch crazes of centuries ago. (e.g. accusers become accused; skeptics are accused). Similar recent events concerned supposed satanic cults committing sexual abuse on children. And the recovered memory movement can be seen as such a craze.

\\ in chapters like these Shermer spends more time recounting details of actual events than discussing the principles behind them. Here the point is how feedback loops can explain various social phenomena; currently, it might explain some of the rash of #metoo incidents…

8, The Unlikeliest Cult: Ayn Rand, objectivism, and the cult of personality

Projection is attributing one’s own attitudes onto others; thus some condemn science as just another cult. Another trap is when the idea of some truth becomes more important than the search for truth and the process of inquiry. This can result in a personality cult.

Thus Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, published in 1943, and then Atlas Shrugged in 1957, became perennial best-sellers. What were their ideas? Rand’s notion of Objectivism, p115, with objective reality and reason married to self-interest and capitalism. (Sounds reasonable) How did such ideas of individualism become a cult? Her followers venerated her. The flaw is the idea that absolute knowledge and final Truth are attainable and therefore the discussion is at an end. E.g., that Ayn Rand is the greatest human being who has ever lived, p118. It wasn’t a traditional cult, but a cult of personality. With a moral absolutism, e.g. about tastes in music. And justification of an ongoing affair. Which ended in 1968, and triggered disaster, as accusations led to dismissals, etc.

Lessons: criticism of individuals does not by itself negate any part of their philosophy. And, criticism of part of a philosophy does not gainsay the whole. Author finds much to admire in Rand’s philosophy. But morals do not exist in nature and cannot be discovered. Any more than there’s one correct music. Science is always about the tentative nature of its conclusions.

Part 3: Evolution and Creationism

9, In the Beginning: An Evening with Duane T. Gish

In 1995 author met Gish at UCLA for a debate. Author had once been a born-again Christian (!) and had read the Bible. Now he reviews various creation stories; how Gilgamesh influenced the Noah story. Such myths aren’t false; they have deeper meanings about the human struggle. To confuse science and myth misses the point. Noah’s arc isn’t feasible. Creationism requires denying so much existing knowledge, it is similar to holocaust denial. They both claim any error (in history or in science) invalidates the entire thesis; they quote scholars out of context; they claim honest debate means the story isn’t straight.

It’s important to note the science vs religion debate isn’t a ‘war’; Darwin didn’t totally reject god; Gould had no animosity against religion. Martin Gardner. The Pope. Creationists accuse evolution of being the root of evils, p134. Is this what frightens them? Four replies, p135 (social ills existed long before evolution, etc etc.). Author claimed not to be an atheist, but Gish called him one anyway and railed against atheism.

10, Confronting Creationists: 25 argument and answers

Author suggests three possible taxonomies for the relationship of science and religion: same-worlds (they deal with the same thing and science may one day replace religion by explaining it, 136b), separate worlds (they don’t overlap or conflict; Gould), and conflicting-worlds (one is right, the other wrong).

So, refuting creationism is not an attack on religion; but creationism is an attack on science, since for it to be true, multiple branches of science would all have to be wrong, in the same direction. Christians go out of their way to suppress science, e.g. doctoring books (of artworks too!).

What is evolution? One-page definition, p140. Notes that on several points gradualism is controversial, as is the notion that selection is local, p141.

Author then lists 12 religious arguments, with rebuttals. Creation-science is science; science can’t answer historical questions; both sides should be heard; the bible should be used in public school science courses; natural selection is tautological; there’s no evidence for evolution therefore creationism must be correct; evolution gave rise to communism, immorality, etc.; evolution and secular humanism are really a religion; many evolutionists find problems, so the whole theory must be wrong;  The Bible must be true; there must be a god; something can’t come from nothing.

And 13 scientifically based arguments: population statistics say only 2 people lived 6300 years ago; only microevolution is possible; no transitional forms; second law of thermodynamics. Organisms are too complex to come together by random chance; the flood explains fossil in geological strata; dating techniques; taxonomy; shouldn’t be gaps between species; living fossils; new features must form completely; homologous structures; history of science shows blunders means science can’t be trusted.

Debates and Truth. Gould quote about how debates are about winning arguments, not discovering the truth.

11, Science Defended, Science Defined: evolution and creationism at the supreme court

In 1986 the court took up a case about Louisiana’s law to team both evolution and creationism. Famous scientists attended and testified.

Equal time or all the time? About creationists. 47% of Americans believe God created man in the past 10,000 years. And, 99% of scientists take a naturalist view held by only 9% of Americans. The creationists are vocal. They’ve made three approaches.

1, Banning evolution, as various states tried to do in the 1920s. The Scopes trial. [[ It’s important to realize that these battles are not intellectual debates; it’s about the deep psychological motivations of the deniers to privilege their position in the world. This is obvious. ]] Mencken mocked the trial, but in its wake teaching of evolution declined. Decades later, Sputnik spurred a renaissance in American science education.

2, Equal time for Genesis and Darwin. Then in the ‘60s critics insisted evolution not be taught as fact, only theory. It went through the courts.

3, Equal time for creation-science and evolution-science. In the ‘70s, ‘creation-science’ was born. With demands of equal time, academic freedom, and letting students decide. More court cases.

[[ It’s also obvious that the creation scientists have their minds made up and filter evidence to win an argument, not to uncover truth; the essence of motivated reasoning ]]

To the Supreme Court. 1986. Rehnquist and Scalia argued intent didn’t matter.

Science Defended. Even Gould admired their arguments, even if he considered them indecent, 164m. The new tactic was to offer an agreed-upon definition of science, in what became an amicus brief. The idea to invalidate creation science as science.

Science Defined. The brief was 27 pages; it included the ‘statement of belief’ the Creation Research Society has members follow, preferring Biblical authority or any empirical evidence. The brief goes on to define science, the scientific method, etc. Theories become ‘robust’ and ‘reliable’ 167b. And always tentative, in contrast to the creationists’ certainty. Thus they are not doing science.

Creationists Respond. By asking for prayer; by insisting thousands of scientists were creationists, and so were Newton et al; people wrote letters to the Nobelists.

The US Supreme Court Justices Respond. They ruled 7 to 2 (against the creationists).

Science Unified. The entire process unified scientists who otherwise were at odds with each other. Not just because science was under attack, but because what the creationists were saying was “utter nonsense” 172.2.

Part 4: History and Pseudohistory

12, Doing Donahue: history, censorship, and free speech

In 1994 Donahue took on the holocaust deniers. Author participated. Donahue was in over his head, and unfamiliar with the debating style of deniers. Author was told to be more aggressive. The talk gets hung up on the issue of soap made from burned bodies (a myth says author). Some praised the author for keeping his cool; others criticized him for participating at all. Historians are reluctant to speak out.

Elizabeth Loftus, known for showing memory is not as reliable as people think, was asked to testify in a case about the identity of ‘Ivan the Terrible’; but to do so would betray her people. Deniers then accused her of covering up the truth.

Other examples. Fighting back against the deniers only proves the deniers’ case, they say.

Author concludes we should never hide or suppress anyone’s belief system. P186. Darrow quote: how if you criminalize one subject the fanatics will never stop…

13, Who Says the Holocaust Never Happened, and Why Do They Say It?: an overview of a movement

They deny the genocide, the gas chambers, and that 5 to 6 million Jews were killed; they don’t deny antisemitism, that Jews were deported and put in concentration camps and treated harshly.

Brief responses: it’s not about intent, but about what happened; physical evidence of gas chambers; the estimates follow from demographics. Most deniers seem pleasant enough. The movement started in the 1960s.

About the Institute for Historical Review; Mark Weber; David Irving; others. The Jewish agenda. Fascination with Jews. Germans are victims. Conspiracy streak. Parallels with creationists, p207.

[[ too much detail about this; the point should be, what is their motivations? Why so much about this and not other historical events? Same reason creationists battle evolution, and not, say, cosmology. ]]

14, How We Know the Holocaust Happened…

Methodology of denial, p212. They criticize opponents and avoid their own position; they exploit error made by scholars; they quote out of context; they mistake scholarly debate for evidence it’s all lies; they focus on what’s unknown and ignore what is known.

Convergence of evidence. Evolution involves many sciences; for the Holocaust we have written documents, eyewitness testimony, photographs, physical evidence, and demographics, p214. The deniers cherry-pick.

15, Pigeonholes and Continuum: an African-greek-german-american looks at race

The Bell Curve, 1994 by Hernstein and Murray, showed a 15 point difference in IQ between white and black Americans. Behind it, The Pioneer Fund; William Shockley. Mankind Quarterly and Roger Pearson. Worried that superior races aren’t having enough children, etc.

The End of Race. In contrast, genetic studies show race is biologically meaningless. Within-group variation is wider than between-group variability.

The End of Racism. The individual matters, not the group. Alfred Kinsey, who emphasized the fluidity between being heterosexual or homosexual. The same applies for most categorizations.

Part 5: Hope Springs Eternal

16, Dr. Tipler Meets Dr. Pangloss: can science find the best of all possible worlds?

Alfred Russel Wallace thought everything must have a purpose, and that there’s no evolutionary reason to have a large brain, therefore God. Theologians made similar arguments. Recall Voltaire’s Dr. Pangloss, who reasoned a ‘proof’ that ours is the best of all possible worlds: we have a nose to hold up spectacles.

Is science above wish-fulfillment? Maybe not. Fritjof Capra; John Polkinghorne; Paul Davies; Barrow & Tipler. The Anthropic Cosmological Principle claimed to prove an intelligent designer. And that everyone will someday be resurrected by a supercomputer. Frank Sulloway claimed that birth order was the strongest factor in intellectual receptivity to innovation in science 258t – that later-borns are more likely to accept a revolutionary idea. (Born to rebel.) Firstborns are more conservative and influenced by authority; laterborns more liberal. [ not in my family! ]

Tipler’s theory is actually ultra-conservative, reaching for the ultimate status quo of God and immortality; he was conserving his parents’ religion. Early in his career he wrote about the possibility of time travel. Barrow and Tipler developed two versions of the Anthropic Principle; the strong and Final versions contend life must come into existence and will then never die out. The Omega Point, a singularity, corresponds to eternity. They point out the coincidence of various ratios all being around 10^39. Two problems: there might be a multiverse of universes with slightly different laws of physics. Maybe even evolution of competing universes. Second, as Hume pointed out, we think our universe perfect because this is the only one we know. [[ key idea for sf ]] Also, it’s easy to find numerical coincidences if you look hard enough. Martin Gardner did this for the Washington Monument. Tipler’s second book was initially rejected. Argument summarized p266, with the defense that the universe would be a happier place if it were true.

Author describes five problems that alert us to exercise skepticism. 1, The only evidence for the theory is its beauty. “When a theory seems to match our eternal hopes, chances are that it is wrong.” [[ exactly ]] 2, It relies on faith that science will solve every problem. 3, There a whole lot of if propositions that need to be true for his theory to be right. [[ one of them about the universe being closed, which seems to have been disproven ]] 4, The claim that modern physics and ancient mystics have been talking about the same things (also in Tao of Physics). 5, Since memories are continually reconstructed, how can they be recreated? Which set of memories, from which age? 6, the problem of reconstructing the past. Candide again.

17, Why *Do* People Believe Weird Things?

Author participated in a fire walk for an episode of Bill Nye, in 1996. So what is a weird thing? Science is one criteria. Tony Robbins used fire-walking as the inspiration to achieving anything in life. Other examples, p274. What are the causes? Many ideas. No one answer. But there are some common motivations: It feels good to believe such things. Even Martin Gardner (who claimed religious faith because it made him feel better).. Immediate gratification. Like psychic hotlines. Simplicity. Simple explanations for a complex world. Morality and meaning. Traditional religions offer comforting ideas. Recalls feedback to the magazine from angry believers. (Science and skeptics could construct a meaningful and satisfying system of morality, perhaps) And: Hope Springs Eternal. By focusing on life to come, we miss what we have in this life: that human intelligence can solve our problems, enhance our lives, expand our understanding.

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