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Scientific American

Sovereign Insanity

published November 2013 | comments (34)
How weird beliefs can land you in jail
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When I was in college, my friend and I attended a tax seminar in which we were told that paying taxes was unnecessary because the Sixteenth Amendment—empowering Congress to levy an income tax—was never legally ratified. After a long and detailed history of the IRS, we were advised not to file a tax return and given instructions on what to do and say when the feds come a-knockin’. The slick presentation seemed internally coherent and logically plausible in the room, but later, after some reflection, I figured it couldn’t possibly be true because no one would pay taxes if it were. In contrast, my friend went for it and got away tax-free for years, until the IRS caught up with him and he got his comeuppance.

I was thinking about this incident in August, when I appeared as an expert witness on the psychology of why people fall for such schemes in a Portland, Ore., court in the case of USA v. Miles J. Julison, a house flipper who neared financial ruin after the housing-market meltdown. That year he reported $583,151 in “other income” to the IRS on his tax return, claiming that the entire amount was withheld as income taxes. Submitting eight IRS 1099–OID (Original Issue Discount) forms, Julison requested a refund of $411,773. (According to the IRS, an “OID is a form of interest. It is the excess of a debt instrument’s stated redemption price at maturity over its issue price.”) The IRS sent him a check in that amount, which he spent on a home loan, personal debts, a car and a boat. Emboldened by his success, the next year he demanded a refund of more than $1.5 million. This time, however, instead of a refund check he got a trip to court and, after a guilty verdict, jail. (continue reading…)

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When Science Doesn’t Support Beliefs

published October 2013 | comments (43)
Then ideology needs to give way
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Ever since college I have been a libertarian—socially liberal and fiscally conservative. I believe in individual liberty and personal responsibility. I also believe in science as the greatest instrument ever devised for understanding the world. So what happens when these two principles are in conflict? My libertarian beliefs have not always served me well. Like most people who hold strong ideological convictions, I find that, too often, my beliefs trump the scientific facts. This is called motivated reasoning, in which our brain reasons our way to supporting what we want to be true. Knowing about the existence of motivated reasoning, however, can help us overcome it when it is at odds with evidence.

Take gun control. I always accepted the libertarian position of minimum regulation in the sale and use of firearms because I placed guns under the beneficial rubric of minimal restrictions on individuals. Then I read the science on guns and homicides, suicides and accidental shootings (summarized in my May column) and realized that the freedom for me to swing my arms ends at your nose. The libertarian belief in the rule of law and a potent police and military to protect our rights won’t work if the citizens of a nation are better armed but have no training and few restraints. Although the data to convince me that we need some gun-control measures were there all along, I had ignored them because they didn’t fit my creed. In several recent debates with economist John R. Lott, Jr., author of More Guns, Less Crime, I saw a reflection of my former self in the cherry picking and data mining of studies to suit ideological convictions. We all do it, and when the science is complicated, the confirmation bias (a type of motivated reasoning) that directs the mind to seek and find confirming facts and ignore disconfirming evidence kicks in. (continue reading…)

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The Dangers of Keeping an Open Mind

published September 2013 | comments (15)
Why great scientists make great mistakes
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“Alien abductors have asked him to probe them.” “Sasquatch has taken a photograph of him.” The “him” is the “Most Interesting Man in the World,” the faux character in the Dos Equis beer ad campaign, and these are my favorite skeptical lines from a litany of superfluities and braggadocios. (“In a past life, he was himself.”)

My candidate for the most interesting scientist in history I’d like to have a beer with is Alfred Russel Wallace, the 19th-century naturalist and co-discoverer (with Charles Darwin) of natural selection, whose death centennial we will marking this November. As I document in my 2002 biography of him— In Darwin’s Shadow (Oxford University Press)—Wallace was a grand synthesizer of biological data into a few core principles that revolutionized biogeography, zoology and evolutionary theory. He spent four years exploring the Amazon rain forest but lost most of his collections when his ship sank on his way home. His discovery of natural selection came during an eight-year expedition to the Malay Archipelago, where during a malaria-induced fever, it struck him that the best fit organisms are more likely to survive and reproduce.

Being open-minded enough to make great discoveries, however, can often lead scientists to make great blunders. Wallace, for example, was also a firm believer in phrenology, spiritualism and psychic phenomena, evidence for which he collected at séances over the objections of his more skeptical colleagues. Among them was Thomas Henry Huxley, who growled, “Better live a crossing-sweeper than die and be made to talk twaddle by a ‘medium’ hired at a guinea a séance.” (continue reading…)

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Five Myths of Terrorism

published August 2013 | comments (19)
Why terror doesn’t work
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Because terrorism educes such strong emotions, it has led to at least five myths. The first began in September 2001, when President George W. Bush announced that “we will rid the world of the evildoers” and that they hate us for “our freedoms.” This sentiment embodies what Florida State University psychologist Roy Baumeister calls “the myth of pure evil,” which holds that perpetrators commit pointless violence for no rational reason.

This idea is busted through the scientific study of aggression, of which psychologists have identified four types that are employed toward a purposeful end (from the perpetrators’ perspective): instrumental violence, such as plunder, conquest and the elimination of rivals; revenge, such as vendettas against adversaries or self-help justice; dominance and recognition, such as competition for status and women, particularly among young males; and ideology, such as religious beliefs or utopian creeds. Terrorists are motivated by a mixture of all four. (continue reading…)

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Gods of the Gaps

published July 2013 | comments (12)
Arguments of divine intervention—alien or otherwise—start with ignorance
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According to the popular series Ancient Aliens, on H2 (a spinoff of the History channel), extraterrestrial intelligences visited Earth in the distant past, as evidenced by numerous archaeological artifacts whose scientific explanations prove unsatisfactory for alien enthusiasts. The series is the latest in a genre launched in 1968 by Erich von Däniken, whose book Chariots of the Gods? became an international best seller. It spawned several sequels, including Gods from Outer Space, The Gods Were Astronauts and, just in time for the December 21, 2012, doomsday palooza, Twilight of the Gods: The Mayan Calendar and the Return of the Extraterrestrials (the ones who failed to materialize).

Ancient aliens theory is grounded in a logical fallacy called argumentum ad ignorantiam, or “argument from ignorance.” The illogical reasoning goes like this: if there is no satisfactory terrestrial explanation for, say, the Nazca lines of Peru, the Easter Island statues or the Egyptian pyramids, then the theory that they were built by aliens from outer space must be true. (continue reading…)

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