the official site of Michael Shermer

top navigation:
Scientific American

The Electric Universe Acid Test

published October 2015 | comments (0)
Discerning science from pseudoscience
magazine cover

Newton was wrong. Einstein was wrong. Black holes do not exist. The big bang never happened. Dark energy and dark matter are unsubstantiated conjectures. Stars are electrically charged plasma masses. Venus was once a comet. The massive Valles Marineris canyon on Mars was carved out in a few minutes by a giant electric arc sweeping across the Red Planet. The “thunderbolt” icons found in ancient art and petroglyphs are not the iconography of imagined gods but realistic representations of spectacular electrical activity in space.

These are just a few of the things I learned at the Electric Universe conference (EU2015) in June in Phoenix. The Electric Universe community is a loose confederation of people who, according to the host organization’s website, believe that “a new way of seeing the physical universe is emerging. The new vantage point emphasizes the role of electricity in space and shows the negligible contribution of gravity in cosmic events.” This includes everything from comets, moons and planets to stars, galaxies and galactic clusters. (continue reading…)

topics in this column: , , ,

Forensic Pseudoscience

published September 2015 | comments (16)
How trustworthy are DNA and other crime scene tests?
magazine cover

The criminal justice system has a problem, and its name is forensics. This was the message I heard at the Forensic Science Research Evaluation Workshop held May 26–27 at the AAAS headquarters in Washington, D.C. I spoke about pseudoscience but then listened in dismay at how the many fields in the forensic sciences that I assumed were reliable (DNA, fingerprints, and so on) in fact employ unreliable or untested techniques and show inconsistencies between evaluators of evidence.

The conference was organized in response to a 2009 publication by the National Research Council entitled Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward, which the U.S. Congress commissioned when it became clear that DNA was the only (barely) reliable forensic science. The report concluded that “the forensic science system, encompassing both research and practice, has serious problems that can only be addressed by a national commitment to overhaul the current structure that supports the forensic science community in this country.” Among the areas determined to be flawed and in need of more research are: accuracy and error rates of forensic analyses, sources of potential bias and human error in interpretation by forensic experts, fingerprints, firearms examination, tool marks, bite marks, impressions (tires, footwear), bloodstain-pattern analysis, handwriting, hair, coatings (for example, paint), chemicals (including drugs), materials (including fibers), fluids, serology, and fire and explosive analysis. (continue reading…)

topics in this column: , ,

The Meaning of Life in a Formula

published August 2015 | comments (14)
Can science help us overcome the terror of existence?
magazine cover

Harvard University paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, who died in 2002, was a tough-minded skeptic who did not suffer fools gladly when it came to pseudoscience and superstition. Gould was a secular Jew who did not believe in God, but he had a soft spot for religion, expressed most famously in his principle of NOMA—nonoverlapping magisteria. The magisterium (domain of authority) of science “covers the empirical realm: what is the universe made of (fact) and why does it work this way (theory),” he wrote in his 1999 book Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life. “The magisterium of religion extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral value.”

In part, Gould’s motivations were personal (he told me on many occasions how much respect he had for religion and for his many religious friends and colleagues). But in his book, he claimed that “NOMA represents a principled position on moral and intellectual grounds, not a merely diplomatic solution.” For NOMA to work, however, Gould insisted that just as “religion can no longer dictate the nature of factual conclusions residing properly within the magisterium of science, then scientists cannot claim higher insight into moral truth from any superior knowledge of the world’s empirical constitution.” (continue reading…)

topics in this column: , , , ,


published July 2015 | comments (32)
Why cops kill
magazine cover

The ongoing rash of police using deadly force against minority citizens has triggered a search for a universal cause—most commonly identified as racism. Such soul searching is understandable, especially in light of the racist e-mails uncovered in the Ferguson, Mo., police department by the U.S. Department of Justice’s investigation into the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown.

To whatever extent prejudice still percolates in the minds of a few cops in a handful of pockets of American society (nothing like 50 years ago), it does not explain the many interactions between white police and minority citizens that unfold without incident every year or the thousands of cases of assaults on police that do not end in police deaths (49,851 in 2013, according to the FBI). What in the brains of cops or citizens leads either group to erupt in violence?

An answer may be found deep inside the brain, where a neural network stitches together three structures into what neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp calls the rage circuit: (1) the periaqueductal gray (it coordinates incoming stimuli and outgoing motor responses); (2) the hypothalamus (it regulates the release of adrenaline and testosterone as related to motivation and emotion); and (3) the amygdala (associated with automatic emotional responses, especially fear, it lights up in response to an angry face; patients with damage to this area have difficultly assessing emotions in others). When Panksepp electrically stimulated the rage circuit of a cat, it leaped toward his head with claws and fangs bared. Humans similarly stimulated reported feeling uncontrollable anger. (continue reading…)

topics in this column: , ,

Scientia Humanitatis

published June 2015 | Comments Off on Scientia Humanitatis
Reason, empiricism and skepticism are not virtues of science alone
magazine cover

In the late 20th century the humanities took a turn toward postmodern deconstruction and the belief that there is no objective reality to be discovered. To believe in such quaint notions as scientific progress was to be guilty of “scientism,” properly said with a snarl. In 1996 New York University physicist Alan Sokal punctured these pretensions with his now famous article “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” chockablock full of postmodern phrases and deconstructionist tropes interspersed with scientific jargon, which he subsequently admitted were nonsensical gibberish.

I subsequently gave up on the humanities but am now reconsidering my position after an encounter this past March with University of Amsterdam humanities professor Rens Bod during a European book tour for The Moral Arc. In our dialogue, Bod pointed out that my definition of science—a set of methods that describes and interprets observed or inferred phenomena, past or present, aimed at testing hypotheses and building theories—applies to such humanities fields as philology, art history, musicology, linguistics, archaeology, historiography and literary studies. (continue reading…)

topics in this column: , , , , ,
next page »