the official site of Michael Shermer

top navigation:
Scientific American

Infrequencies

published October 2014 | comments (23)
I just witnessed an event so mysterious that it shook my skepticism
magazine cover

Often I am asked if I have ever encountered something that I could not explain. What my interlocutors have in mind are not bewildering enigmas such as consciousness or U.S. foreign policy but anomalous and mystifying events that suggest the existence of the paranormal or supernatural. My answer is: yes, now I have.

The event took place on June 25, 2014. On that day I married Jennifer Graf, from Köln, Germany. She had been raised by her mom; her grandfather, Walter, was the closest father figure she had growing up, but he died when she was 16. In shipping her belongings to my home before the wedding, most of the boxes were damaged and several precious heirlooms lost, including her grandfather’s binoculars. His 1978 Philips 070 transistor radio arrived safely, so I set out to bring it back to life after decades of muteness. I put in new batteries and opened it up to see if there were any loose connections to solder. I even tried “percussive maintenance,” said to work on such devices—smacking it sharply against a hard surface. Silence. We gave up and put it at the back of a desk drawer in our bedroom. (continue reading…)

topics in this column: , , ,

Surviving Statistics

published September 2014 | comments (6)
How the survivor bias distorts reality
magazine cover

When I purchased my latest vehicle, I was astonished to get the license plate 6NWL485. What are the chances that I would get that particular configuration? Before I received it, the odds would have been one in 175,760,000. (The total number of letters to the power of the number of letters on the plate times the total number of digits to the power of the number of digits on the plate: 263 x 104). After the fact, however, the probability is one.

This is what Pomona College economist Gary Smith calls the “survivor bias,” which he highlights as one of many statistically related cognitive biases in his deeply insightful book Standard Deviations (Overlook, 2014). Smith illustrates the effect with a playing card hand of three of clubs, eights of clubs, eight of diamonds, queen of hearts and ace of spades. The odds of that particular configuration are about three million to one, but Smith says, “After I look at the cards, the probability of having these five cards is 1, not 1 in 3 million.” (continue reading…)

topics in this column: ,

ClimeApocalypse

published August 2014 | comments (9)
Or just another line item in the budget?
magazine cover

In the year 2393 a historian in the Second People’s Republic of China penned a book about how scientists, economists and politicians living in the 21st century failed to act on the solid science they had that gave clear warnings of the climate catastrophe ahead. As a result, the world experienced the Great Collapse of 2093, bringing an end to Western civilization.

So speculate historians of science Naomi Oreskes of Harvard University and Erik Conway of the California Institute of Technology in their book The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future (Columbia University Press, 2014), a short scientific- historical fantasy. During the second half of the 20th century— the “Period of the Penumbra”—a shadow of anti-intellectualism “fell over the once-Enlightened techno-scientific nations of the Western world…preventing them from acting on the scientific knowledge available at the time and condemning their successors to the inundation and desertification of the late twenty-first and twenty-second centuries.” (continue reading…)

topics in this column: , , ,

The Myth of Income Inequality

published July 2014 | comments (74)
The American dream is not dead yet
magazine cover

One of the best-selling books of 2014 is Capital in the Twenty-First Century by French economist Thomas Piketty, a 696-page doorstop tome on economic history. Why is a data-heavy treatise from the “dismal science” so appealing? Because it is about income inequality and immobility, which in a December 2013 speech President Barack Obama called “the defining challenge of our time,” concluding that it poses “a fundamental threat to the American dream.” But does it? Maybe not.

The rich are getting richer, as Brookings Institution economist Gary Burtless found by analyzing tax data from the Congressional Budget Office for after-tax income trends from 1979 through 2010 (including government assistance). The top-fifth income earners in the U.S. increased their share of the national income from 43 percent in 1979 to 48 percent in 2010, and the top 1 percent increased their share of the pie from 8 percent in 1979 to 13 percent in 2010. But note what has not happened: the rest have not gotten poorer. They’ve gotten richer: the income of the other quintiles increased by 49, 37, 36 and 45 percent, respectively. (continue reading…)

topics in this column: , ,

Nuclear Nada

published June 2014 | comments (3)
Does deterrence prohibit the total abolishment
of nuclear weapons?
magazine cover

When I was in elementary school in the early 1960s, we were periodically put through “duck and cover” drills under the risibly ridiculous fantasy that our flimsy wooden desks would protect us from a thermonuclear detonation over Los Angeles. When I was an undergraduate at Pepperdine University in 1974, the father of the hydrogen bomb, Edward Teller, spoke at our campus about the effectiveness of mutual assured destruction (MAD) to deter war. He said that by stockpiling many weapons neither side has anything to gain by initiating a first strike because of the retaliatory capability of both to send the other back to the Paleolithic.

So far MAD has worked. But as Eric Schlosser reveals in his riveting 2013 book Command and Control, there have been dozens of close calls, from the Cuban missile crisis to the Titan II missile explosion in Damascus, Ark. And popular films such as Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 Dr. Strangelove have played out how it could all go terribly wrong, as when General Jack D. Ripper becomes unhinged at the thought of a “Communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids” and orders a nuclear first strike against the Soviet Union. (continue reading…)

topics in this column: , ,
next page »