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Michael Shermer

Michael Shermer: In favor of reason

American science communicator fights irrational thinking and fundamentalism

LÉO RAMOS CHAVES Writer is dedicated to spreading scientific explanations for supposedly extraordinary or supernatural phenomenaLÉO RAMOS CHAVES

Michael Shermer, a columnist for the American edition of Scientific American since 2001, is dedicated to spreading scientific explanations that refute the existence of supposedly extraordinary or supernatural phenomena, such as the possibility of resurrection, and to combating pseudo-scientific ideas. With a master’s degree in psychology and a doctorate in the history of science, the 63-year-old Californian is the author of books on science, morality, and religion, and the editor of Skeptic magazine. He also teaches a basic course on skepticism at Chapman University, a regional college in Southern California maintained by a Protestant denomination called the Disciples of Christ. Shermer, who was once religious and today is an atheist, was in São Paulo in early October to attend an event on science outreach.

Do you believe that being religious and doing science are incompatible?
A great many professional scientists are religious people. So apparently it is possible. But is it logical to do so? I think mostly not. Scientists who are religious adopt a strategy for dealing with science and religion: they put different subjects in different mental categories and don’t let them overlap. Most of the claims made by religion can be tested by science. If your religion says that the Earth is 10,000 years old and geologists say it’s 4.5 billion years old, you can’t just add these two ages and divide by two to find the truth. One of these statements is simply wrong. In this case, religion is just wrong. But when it comes to determining moral values, right and wrong, the meaning of life, and spirituality, most people think that this can only be obtained through religion. I don’t agree with that. I think we can use the scientific method to address these issues. We just need to work harder to solve them.

How can the scientific method help with this kind of question?
Let me give you an example. We can use science to determine the best political system for humans to live in. We have a lot of data on this, accumulated over the course of the last 500 years. Democracies are really better than theocracies, dictatorships, monarchies, communist states, and so on. We know that those are failed states. You can measure the consequences of political systems based on the survival and flourishing of the citizens there. It’s kind of a utilitarian argument. The societies in which these political systems were implanted are natural experiments that have already been conducted. We can look at North and South Korea for example, which at the start of their division after the Korean War [1948] were equal. Now they’re not equal anymore, not even remotely close to being equal. Why? Because they have different political, legal, and economic systems. Why was the former West Germany more developed than East Germany? These are questions that can and should be answered by political and economic scientists. That’s science.

Do you think that social science should be viewed with the same regard as the so-called hard sciences? Isn’t it more difficult to make predictions in the fields of social science than in chemistry or mathematics?
Yes. But in fact, I think the social sciences are the hard sciences, in the sense that they’re the more difficult to do because there’s so many more variables involved. Atoms, molecules of gas, objects like rocks, planets, and stars, they have a very limited number of variables, so they’re very predictable. Human behavior, the behavior of economies, has thousands of variables, making it much harder to figure out what the causal vectors are. But the science can be done. In fact, it has been done for centuries. Adam Smith [1723–1790] did this in his book An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. He was the Newton [1643–1727] of economics. That’s what I think, but I’m in the minority even among other scientists, because they don’t know anything about the “soft sciences.”

Why do people believe in supernatural powers and religious explanations for natural phenomena?
The human brain is biologically wired to believe in these things. People look for common patterns in certain events and try to establish causes and connections between them. People think that these patterns aren’t random or inanimate, but that everything happens for a reason. They believe that there’s some agency behind them, a spirit, a force; somebody is pulling the strings making things happen. From there it’s a small step to calling it something, a god, a spirit, a ghost, an alien, an angel, or a demon. And that was the world we’ve always lived in until science debunked those ideas. It’s not that people are ignorant or uneducated. It’s just easier to follow this path. Modern conspiracy theories are a form of that same logic.

Why is creationism so strong in the United States?
I think it’s twofold. We are the most religious nation of the industrialized West, by far. None of the European countries comes even remotely close. But it’s not any religion. In the United States, it’s Protestant, Baptist, that whole branch. Most Catholics, and Catholicism itself, even the pope, has made its peace with Darwin [1809–1882] and the theory of evolution. For them, evolution is God’s way of creating species. Newton also thought gravity was God’s way of creating solar systems and planets. But Protestants, especially fundamentalists, need to believe that the Bible is true. They read the Bible literally, not metaphorically. If the Bible says six days, they understand that it’s literally days—not a figure of speech that refers to periods of time. And even though we have separation of church and state, there’s always been a tension between religion and politics in the public square. For example, there isn’t a board of education, no set curriculum for all the schools in the entire country; it comes down to state by state, county by county, and even district by district, each having their own little school boards. Sometimes there’s a majority of religious fundamentalists on these boards and they decide to teach creationism alongside the theory of evolution, or even exclusively.