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When Facts Backfire

Why worldview threats undermine evidence
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Have you ever noticed that when you present people with facts that are contrary to their deepest held beliefs they always change their minds? Me neither. In fact, people seem to double down on their beliefs in the teeth of overwhelming evidence against them. The reason is related to the worldview perceived to be under threat by the conflicting data.

Creationists, for example, dispute the evidence for evolution in fossils and DNA because they are concerned about secular forces encroaching on religious faith. Anti-vaxxers distrust big pharma and think that money corrupts medicine, which leads them to believe that vaccines cause autism despite the inconvenient truth that the one and only study claiming such a link was retracted and its lead author accused of fraud. The 9/11 truthers focus on minutiae like the melting point of steel in the World Trade Center buildings that caused their collapse because they think the government lies and conducts “false flag” operations to create a New World Order. Climate deniers study tree rings, ice cores and the PPM of greenhouse gases because they are passionate about freedom, especially that of markets and industries to operate unencumbered by restrictive government regulations. Obama birthers desperately dissected the president’s long-form birth certificate in search of fraud because they believe that the nation’s first African- American president is a socialist bent on destroying the country.

In these examples, proponents’ deepest held worldviews were perceived to be threatened by skeptics, making facts the enemy to be slayed. This power of belief over evidence is the result of two factors: cognitive dissonance and the backfire effect. In the classic 1956 book When Prophecy Fails, psychologist Leon Festinger and his co-authors described what happened to a UFO cult when the mother ship failed to arrive at the appointed time. Instead of admitting error, “members of the group sought frantically to convince the world of their beliefs,” and they made “a series of desperate attempts to erase their rankling dissonance by making prediction after prediction in the hope that one would come true.” Festinger called this cognitive dissonance, or the uncomfortable tension that comes from holding two conflicting thoughts simultaneously. Two social psychologists, Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson (a former student of Festinger), in their 2007 book Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) document thousands of experiments demonstrating how people spin-doctor facts to fit preconceived beliefs to reduce dissonance. Their metaphor of the “pyramid of choice” places two individuals side by side at the apex of the pyramid and shows how quickly they diverge and end up at the bottom opposite corners of the base as they each stake out a position to defend. (continue reading…)

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At the Boundary of Knowledge

Is it possible to measure supernatural or paranormal phenomena?
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The history of science has beheld the steady replacement of the paranormal and the supernatural with the normal and the natural. Weather events once attributed to the supernatural scheming of deities are now understood to be the product of natural forces of temperature and pressure. Plagues formerly ascribed to women cavorting with the devil are currently known to be caused by bacteria and viruses. Mental illnesses previously imputed to demonic possession are today sought in genes and neurochemistry. Accidents heretofore explained by fate, karma or providence are nowadays accredited to probabilities, statistics and risk.

If we follow this trend to encompass all phenomena, what place is there for such paranormal forces as ESP or supernatural agents like God? Do we know enough to know that they cannot exist? Or is it possible there are unknown forces within our universe or intentional agents outside of it that we have yet to discover? According to California Institute of Technology physicist Sean Carroll in his intensely insightful book The Big Picture (Dutton, 2016), “All of the things you’ve ever seen or experienced in your life—objects, plants, animals, people—are made of a small number of particles, interacting with one another through a small number of forces.” Once you understand the fundamental laws of nature, you can scale up to planets and people and even assess the probability that God, the soul, the afterlife and ESP exist, which Carroll concludes is very low.

The postmodern belief that discarded ideas mean that there is no objective reality and that all theories are equal is more wrong than all the wrong theories combined.

But isn’t the history of science also strewn with the remains of failed theories such as phlogiston, miasma, spontaneous generation and the luminiferous aether? Yes, and that is how we know we are making progress. The postmodern belief that discarded ideas mean that there is no objective reality and that all theories are equal is more wrong than all the wrong theories combined. The reason has to do with the relation of the known to the unknown.

As the sphere of the known expands into the aether of the unknown, the proportion of ignorance seems to grow—the more you know, the more you know how much you don’t know. But note what happens when the radius of a sphere increases: the increase in the surface area is squared while the increase in the volume is cubed. Therefore, as the radius of the sphere of scientific knowledge doubles, the surface area of the unknown increases fourfold, but the volume of the known increases eightfold. It is at this boundary where we can stake a claim of true progress in the history of science.

Take our understanding of particles and forces, which Carroll says “seems indisputably accurate within a very wide domain of applicability,” such that “a thousand or a million years from now, whatever amazing discoveries science will have made, our descendants are not going to be saying ‘Haha, those silly twenty-first-century scientists, believing in ‘neutrons’ and ‘electromagnetism.’” Thus, Carroll concludes that the laws of physics “rule out the possibility of true psychic powers.” Why? Because the particles and forces of nature don’t allow us to bend spoons, levitate or read minds, and “we know that there aren’t new particles or forces out there yet to be discovered that would support them. Not simply because we haven’t found them yet, but because we definitely would have found them if they had the right characteristics to give us the requisite powers.”

What about a supernatural God? Perhaps such an entity exists outside nature and its laws. If so, how would we detect it with our instruments? If a deity used natural forces to, say, cure someone’s cancer by reprogramming the cancerous cells’ DNA, that would make God nothing more than a skilled genetic engineer. If God used unknown supernatural forces, how might they interact with the known natural forces? And if such supernatural forces could somehow stir the particles in our universe, shouldn’t we be able to detect them and thereby incorporate them into our theories about the natural world? Whence the supernatural?

It is at the horizon where the known meets the unknown that we are tempted to inject paranormal and supernatural forces to explain hitherto unsolved mysteries, but we must resist the temptation because such efforts can never succeed, not even in principle.

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The Awe Delusion

What does the magnificence of the universe
have to do with God?
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After 64-year-old Diana Nyad completed her 110-mile swim from Cuba to Florida in September 2013, she was interviewed by Oprah Winfrey on her Super Soul Sunday show in what was to be a motivational reflection on the triumph of will over age. When Nyad announced, “I’m an atheist,” Oprah responded quizzically: “But you’re in the awe.” Puzzled, Nyad responded: “I don’t understand why anybody would find a contradiction in that. I can stand at the beach’s edge with the most devout Christian, Jew, Buddhist—go on down the line—and weep with the beauty of this universe and be moved by all of humanity. All the billions of people who have lived before us, who have loved and hurt and suffered. So to me, my definition of God is humanity and is the love of humanity.” What Oprah said next inflamed atheists: “Well, I don’t call you an atheist then. I think if you believe in the awe and the wonder and the mystery, then that is what God is.”

This is the soft bigotry of those who cannot conceive of how someone can be in awe without believing in supernatural sources of wonder. Why would anyone think that? (continue reading…)

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Shermer on God’s Existence

Dr. Michael Shermer gives his argument against the existence of God at the Oxford Union. Watch more at

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God, ET, and the Supernatural

Why there cannot be a deity beyond the natural world
that science can discover

On Saturday, November 3, 2012 I spoke at the big atheists’ conference in Mexico City on The Believing Brain, my latest book in which I develop a theory to explain not just why people believe weird things, but why people believe anything at all, including and especially god beliefs. (I don’t know if the talk will be posted Online but it is an expanded version of my TED talk or this longer version.

In the audience was the biologist Jerry Coyne, the author of one of the best defenses of evolutionary theory ever penned: Why Evolution is True. He posted a blog about my lecture in which, surprisingly (given his staunch militancy for atheism), he expressed a difference with me in the possibility of there being a God. He writes:

While I respect Shermer’s view that invoking aliens or some unknown explanation avoids a “god of the gaps” argument for unknown and miraculous or divine phenomena, I still feel as a scientist that the existence of a true supernatural god is a theoretical possibility, and that there is some possible evidence that could convince me of it. (I’ve described that evidence before; needless to say, none has been found.) Yes, such miraculous evidence for a god might eventually be found to be due to aliens or the like, but my acceptance of a god would always be a provisional one, subject to revision upon further evidence. (We might find aliens behind the whole thing.) After all, every scientific “truth” is provisional.

Jerry’s allusion to alien gods is in reference to my brief summary in the Q&A of what I originally proposed in a 2002 Scientific American column entitled “Shermer’s Last Law” (title written with tongue firmly in cheek because naming laws after oneself is a sure sign of crankdom): “Any sufficiently advanced extra-terrrestrial intelligence is indistinguishable from God.”

Readers will recognize this as a variant of Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” I expanded on that column in my god chapter in The Believing Brain to address the claim by both theists and atheists that god’s existence is an empirical matter open to verification or refutation. I contend that it is not. Both Richard Dawkins (in The God Delusion) and Victor Stenger (in God: The Failed Hypothesis—How Science Shows that God Does Not Exist) have claimed as much in their books, and I believe that this is what Jerry Coyne means as well. My argument is that the most any natural science could ever discover in the way of a deity would be a natural intelligence sufficiently advanced to be god-like but still within the realm of the natural world. As I wrote in Scientific American:

God is typically described by Western religions as omniscient and omnipotent. Since we are far from the mark on these traits, how could we possibly distinguish a God who has them absolutely, from an ETI who has them in relatively (to us) copious amounts? Thus, we would be unable to distinguish between absolute and relative omniscience and omnipotence. But if God were only relatively more knowing and powerful than us, then by definition it would be an ETI!

The logic of this gambit is relatively simple:

  1. Biological evolution progresses at a glacial pace compared to scientific and technological evolution.
  2. The cosmos is very big and space is very empty, so the probability of making contact with an ETI who is only slightly more advanced than us is virtually nil. If we ever do find ETI it will likely be hundreds of thousands or millions of years more advanced than us.
  3. Apply Moore’s Law of the doubling of computing power every year to technology in general (as Ray Kurzweil has done in his book The Singularity is Near), and then imagine an extra-terrestrial civilization a million years more advanced than us. If in a mere century we went from crude rockets to manned-space flight, and from plant-breeding genomics (Gregor Mendel) to the creation of artificial genomes (J. Craig Venter), imagine what an extra-terrestrial intelligence could do in a million years of scientific and technological R&D?
  4. What would you call an entity a million years more technologically advanced than we are? If you don’t know the technology behind it you might call it a god, if you do you would correctly identify it as a sufficiently advanced extra-terrestrial intelligence.

On the matter of the supernatural, Jerry Coyne continues in his blog:

As always, I find the natural/supernatural distinction confusing, and see that it is possible in principle for some divine being who operates outside the laws of physics to exist.  To say there is no possibility of such a thing is an essentially unscientific claim, since there is nothing that science can rule out on first principles.  We rule out things based on evidence and experience, that is, we consider the possibilities of gods extremely unlikely since we have no good evidence for them. But it is close-minded to say that nothing would convince us otherwise.

I disagree. It is simply a matter of what philosophers of science call methodological naturalism, or the process of employing only natural explanations for natural phenomena. Science operates in the natural, not the supernatural. In fact, I go so far as to say that there is no such thing as the supernatural. There is just the natural and mysteries we have yet to explain by natural causes. Invoking such words as “supernatural” (and, in other realms, the “paranormal”) just provides a linguistic place-holder until we find natural causes (or we do not find them and discontinue the search out of lack of interest). I often employ the example of how cosmologists talk about “dark energy” and “dark matter” in reference to the so-called “missing mass” needed to explain the structure and motion of galaxies and galaxy clusters—they do not use these words as causal explanations. The words themselves are just linguistic place holders until the actual forms of matter and energy are discovered and described.

Similarly, when people use the word “mind” they tend to reify it into something that exists up there in the head in addition to the brain. It doesn’t, but let’s say I’m wrong and the “paranormalists” are right that consciousness exists separate from the brain in, perhaps, a quantum state, and that when your neurons fire they are capable of influencing the neurons in someone else’s head, and thus mind-reading or ESP is real. That would no longer be something “paranormal”; instead, it would be entirely within the realm of normal science—quantum neuroscience perhaps.

What Jerry Coyne (and, presumably, Richard Dawkins and Victor Stenger) is open-minded about is the possibility of a new and as yet undiscovered natural entity or force at work in the cosmos capable of creating, say, universes, stars, planets, and living beings (Freeman Dyson, Michio Kaku, and science fiction writers have speculated for years on how sufficiently advanced ETIs could create planets, stars, and even universes—it’s all really just an engineering problem to be solved).

A supernatural entity or force (something like the God of Abraham) that exists outside of nature is, by definition, unknowable to science. By contrast, if a supernatural being reaches into our natural world in order to act on it, He must stir the particles in some way (to, say, answer prayers for healing a cancerous tumor by reconfiguring the DNA of the cancerous cells, or to help one nation win a war over another by redirecting bullets and bombs, or to aid one football team defeat another in the Superbowl by deflecting a touchdown pass), and that action must in principle be measurable by science. If it is not measurable even in principle, then it is not knowable by science.

As correctly noted by Mssrs. Coyne, Dawkins, and Stenger, no such particle stirring (or stirrer) has been detected by scientists. But by the logic of Shermer’s Last Law, the only God that science could discover would be a natural being—an entity that exists in space and time and is constrained by the laws of nature. A supernatural God that exists outside of space and time and never interacts with our world is not knowable to science.


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