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What is Seen and What is Unseen

The Hidden Price of Immoral Acts

I’ve been reading Tyler Hamilton’s new book, The Secret Race: Inside the Hidden World of the Tour de France: Doping, Cover-ups, and Winning at All Costs, co-authored by Daniel Coyle, a journalist and author with considerable literary talent. It’s a gripping story about how Tyler Hamilton, Lance Armstrong, and all the other top cyclists have been doping for decades, using such advanced scientific programs of performance enhancement that estimates show the benefit could be as much as 10%, in races won by fractions of 1%. After nearly two decades of racing with both dope and no dope, Hamilton concludes that although a clean rider might be able to win a one-day race, it is not possible to compete in, much less win, a 3-week event like the Tour de France.

The lengths these guys go to win are almost beyond comprehension. All you do is train, eat, and sleep. And dope. The drug of choice is (or was—now that the drug testers have caught up riders use other drugs that have similar effects) EPO, or erythropoietin, a genetically modified hormone invented by Amgen that stimulates the body to produce more red blood cells, a life-saver for anemic patients undergoing chemo or suffering from other long-term ailments. Also on the menu is testosterone, human growth hormone, steroids (for injuries, not bulk, since cyclists get as skinny as they can), and others. Tyler nicknamed his EPO Edgar, as in Allen Poe. The drugs worked, he says, but only if you do everything else necessary, including logging in 5–6 hour daily training rides, reduce your body fat down to 5% or less, and program your entire life to doing nothing but racing bikes. If you are not riding, rest. Don’t walk when you can sit. Don’t sit when you can lie down. And don’t ever climb stairs. You are either a bike rider or a couch potato. If you are genetically gifted, train your ass off, starve yourself down to a skeletal frame with bird-like arms and Schwarzenegger-size legs, can ride as fast as the wind, and get on a professional team invited to the Tour de France, then and only then will the drugs give you the edge to boost yourself from barely finishing stages to contending for a top finishing spot. From what Hamilton (and others) write on this topic, I estimate that doping is worth somewhere between 50 and 100 places in the Tour de France. Yes, you might survive the race on “pan y agua” (bred and water—the riders’ euphemism for non-doping diets), but if you want to feel better than death you have to take the drugs.

Okay, so everyone does it and the playing field is level, right? Wrong. First, there’s a serious science behind proper doping, and if you don’t have the dough to hire the best dope—and doping doctors—you’re left fumbling around with dosages and frequencies and wondering if the needle or bag of blood is contaminated, or if you screwed up and overdosed and thus are still “glowing” when the drug tester pops in for an out-of-competition surprise drug test. The top pros pass hundreds of drug tests because they have the top doping docs to show them how to do it properly. According to Hamilton, the top doping doctor in the world, Michele Ferrari, was at one point paid by Lance for exclusive services. Hamilton says he spent anywhere from $50,000 to $100,000 a year for doping products and services. Most riders in the peloton cannot afford anything like such a specialized and professional doping program. So, I estimate that at most 25% of the peloton are doping professionally. Another 50% or so are doping unprofessionally; that is, procuring their doping products catch as catch can, guessing at the proper dosages and frequencies, and hoping they got it right, which they often did not. The rest of the cyclists are riding pan y agua, and suffering beyond belief. Not a level playing field. The moral equivalency argument on Lance’s behalf that, “the best guy won anyway because they were all doping” (an argument I’ve made myself) is bullshit. We have no idea who the best riders were in those seven tours (or the equally doped up tours before and after). What is seen are the champion dopers. What is unseen and forever unknown is whoever the best athletes might have been.

This is the real harm to those athletes who did not want to dope, who were given the choice to dope and opted out, who pulled over to the curb on the boulevard of broken dreams, stripped off their race number, and packed it in to go home, in most cases back to menial jobs or to finish high school or start college. Who are these cyclists? Tyler names a few in his book, but in most cases we have no idea who they are because they are the unseen ones, those whose potential was never realized because they never had the chance to compete cleanly against their peers. We’ll never know how they might have done against the very best in the business because the best cheated to get there. Could Cyclist Joe from Hannibal, MO beat Lance Armstrong from Austin, TX? We’ll never know. Cyclist Joe is now Joe the Plumber, Mr. Everyman, while Lance is still glowing.

It’s so easy to be the hero when you’re the champ. All the accolades flow to you, along with media coverage, paid endorsements and speaking engagements, private jets and celebrity dinners, and lots and lots of money. It is so easy to be generous to others when you’re on top, funding your own and others charities, becoming the good guy who is going to defeat cancer. It’s all so glamorous when you’re on top. This is what is seen. What is unseen are the non-dopers, the moral ones who were robbed of the possibility of being champ, of starting their own charities, of being generous and inspirational to others, of basking in the glory, of being the hero. They will never have the possibility of that experience because it was taken away from them by the cheaters.

This is the problem with cheating across the moral landscape: it’s robs others of their possibilities. The Wall Street inside trader who drives in limos and flies in private jets is what is seen. What is unseen are the little investors who play by the rules and as a consequence of the cheater drive crappy cars, fly commercial coach, and watch their 401K’s shrink. We can see the deceptive co-worker who pinches the company here and there; what we don’t see is how those limited resources might have been allocated toward the benefit of honest employees. The cheating spouse is seen, the possibly unfulfilled dreams of the children of broken homes is unseen. The corrupt politician who wrangles a deal to extract taxes from a general fund to build a bridge to nowhere in his district stands for photo ops and basks in the glory. He gets to be the hero. What is unseen is where our money might have been spent otherwise, as we see fit. And, finally, on the grandest scale of all, wars and terrorism steal the possibilities of what might have been for those who paid the ultimate sacrifice. What is seen are flag-draped coffins and flower-strewn graves. What is unseen are unfulfilled relationships and the unborn children of the soldiers and victims, those who, with a nod to Neil Young, “will never go to school, never get to fall in love, never get to be cool.”

What is seen are immoral acts. What is unseen is the hidden price of those acts. What is seen are the champions and the cheaters. What is unseen are the honest ones who had the courage and the character to walk away with their morality. This is the larger lesson of cheating. It robs everyone of what might have been. With cheating, what might have been is now what never was. It erases history. What is prologue is past.

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The Colorado Massacre, Gun Control, and the Law of Large Numbers

It is too soon to tell what the motive was behind the accused James Holmes’ mass murder in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, especially now that he has stopped talking to the authorities in charge of his case. Reports about his personality, thoughts, and behaviors from friends, fellow students, professors, and the police are conflicting. He was smart, brilliant in fact. No, he wasn’t; he was a sub-standard student who dropped out of his doctoral program at the University of Colorado after failing a preliminary exam. He was a quiet man who said nothing to indicate he was on the verge of cracking. Also not true; he left an incoherent and rambling voice message on the phone service of a gun club he wanted to join, the owner of which noted: “It was this deep, guttural voice, rambling something incoherent. I thought, ‘What is this idiot trying to be?’.” He rigged his apartment with explosive devices but then warned the police about them after his capture. Initial reports described the event as spontaneous and random, but he mailed a notebook to his psychiatrist at his university describing in detail with diagrams precisely what he (pre)planned to do.

It may be months before we have any clue to his mind and motive. And short of something obvious like a brain tumor pressing against his amygdala (the brain’s emotion center)—similar to that in the brain of Charles Whitman, the University of Texas bell tower shooter who in 1966 killed 14 people and wounded 49, including himself, after leaving a note to authorities to autopsy his brain because he felt there was something wrong—we may never know the motive behind James Holmes murderous actions.

We do know something for certain, however, and that is that this will happen again…and again and again. The reason is the law of large numbers that I will outline below that are disturbing enough that it really is now time to rethink our gun-control laws to include the prohibition of semi-automatic assault rifles like those Holmes’ allegedly used to murder 12 and wound another 58 in a matter of seconds. Had he not had such weapons—possessing, say, only a pistol purchased for self-defense—the tragedy would surely have been lessened. Thus, even though I am a life-long libertarian who champions freedom in all spheres of life and has previously opposed gun-control measures in principle (I do not personally enjoy hunting or recreational gun shooting), I now believe that the freedom of a few people to own WMMs (Weapons of Mass Murder) conflicts with the freedom of the rest of us to enter the public sphere without the chance of our ultimate freedom of life itself being cut short. Here are a few figures that should give even the most freedom-loving libertarian and conservative pause.

First, there’s a good chance that James Holmes is schizophrenic, suffered from severe depression, or is a psychopath. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, Schizophrenics account for about 1.1 percent of the U.S. population over the age of 18, with the onset of occurrence most likely in the early to mid 20s. Major depressive disorders strike about 6.7 percent of Americans over the age of 18. Psychopathy is a personality disorder characterized by lacking empathy and guilt, shallow emotions and cold-heartedness, impulsivity and antisocial behaviors, and most notably criminality. According to University of Cambridge psychologist Kevin Dutton, author of the forthcoming book The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers Can Teach Us About Success (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, October 16, 2012), whom I queried for this article, “estimates of the incidence of psychopathy tend to vary from 1–3 percent in men to 0.5–1 percent in women,” and in prison populations “around 50 percent of the most serious crimes on record—crimes such as murder and serial rape, for instance—are committed by psychopaths.”

As a back-of-the-envelope calculation, let us employ a figure of 2 percent across these three disorders (Schizophrenia, major depression, and psychopathy) for men only (since such mass murders are almost always committed by men)—by the law of large numbers the following calculations indicate that the Aurora tragedy is by no means a one-off event and that it will happen again:

The current U.S. population is approximately 314 million, about half of which are males, so if 2% of the 157 million American men suffer from one of these severe disorders, this results in a figure of 3,140,000. Most of these men are not violent; in fact, recent studies on psychopathy, for example, show that many are successful CEOs, politicians, and Wall Street traders and executives who employ their psychopathic personality traits of tough-minded and emotionless impulsive decision making to great effect in the rough-and-tumble world of business and politics. And most Schizophrenics and sufferers of severe depression are not violent. So let’s conservatively estimate that if only 1% of these 3,140,000 men commit any kind of violent act, this results in 31,400 acts of violence per year, a nontrivial number.

If only 1% of those violent acts involve murders, this leaves us with 314 unnecessary tragic deaths caused by psychopaths. And, finally, if only 1% of those murderous violent acts involves killing multiple people at once, this results in a rate of 3.14 Aurora-size mass murders per year in America, which is actually lower than the rate of around a dozen per year that we have been averaging the past half century, depending on what constitutes a mass murder (school-shootings alone that amount to more than one killed in one event happen on average once a year in the U.S.).
 
Again, it’s too early to say whether or not Holmes was a Schizophrenic, suffered from severe depression, or was a psychopath, and the specific figures of how many mass murders there are per year vary across different data sets, but my point is a larger one: A large-numbers analysis allows us to understand on a societal-level scale why such events happen randomly and without any specific cause common to all (drugs, gangs, bullying, depression, psychopathy, psychosis, violent video games, and the like). History and population demographics for rates of mass murder show that Aurora-size events are going to happen again and again and again, and there is no way to predict who is going to do it, where, or when. (With the possible exception of a national database that tracks and alerts authorities to the purchase of mass quantities of guns and ammunition by private citizens.) All we know is that it will happen again—for certain.

Thus, damage control is the only option we have, if we want to do something about this tragic social problem. And by damage control I mean gun control. Specifically, I mean outlawing all automatic and semi-automatic assault rifles for anyone who is not in law enforcement or the military. When the Second Amendment was written stating that citizens have a right to “keep and bear arms,” rifles took over a minute to load one bullet at a time. The most crazed 18th century American could not possibly commit mass murder because no WMMs existed at the time.

My fellow libertarians are likely to see this as another loss of freedom, but I disagree. The principle of freedom states that all people are free to think, believe, and act as they choose, so long as they do not infringe on the equal freedom of others. But the freedom for me to swing my arm ends at your nose. The freedom for you to own any gun you like is in conflict with my freedom to interact freely with my fellow citizens in public spaces when so many madmen mingle among us. We should ban assault weapons of all kinds. We already disallow private citizens to own nuclear weapons, missiles, grenade launchers, and the like. WMMs that can be secreted into a movie theater should be categorized among those we can no longer tolerate. This is no loss of freedom. It is, in fact, an increase in freedom—the freedom to move about our living spaces without fear of being gunned down in cold blood.

If you think I am exaggerating, or that my calculations are nothing but mathematical hyperbole, just consider the case of Aurora victim Jessica Ghawi, who was almost gunned down in a shopping mall in Toronto in another public shooting the month before, after which she reflected on her blog: “I was shown how fragile life was on Saturday. I saw the terror on bystanders’ faces. I saw the victims of a senseless crime. I saw lives change. I was reminded that we don’t know when or where our time on Earth will end. When or where we will breathe our last breath.”

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Leaving Las Vegas … Rich

Report from the Front Lines at TAM and Freedom Fest

By “rich” I mean intellectually, of course, because as all skeptics know, the laws of probability are precisely employed by all Las Vegas casinos to insure that if you play long enough the money in your pocket will end up in their coffers. It is not for nothing that it is called Lost Wages.

Actually, there are two ways to win at gambling. You can do it the way I did after the final session at TAM Sunday: play for a brief period of time and quit when you are ahead. I started with $200 at a $5 minimum Blackjack table. For around 20 minutes I bounced around between $150 and $250 in chips artfully stacked in front of me as I pretended to be a big spender. The inevitable losing streak then kicked in and I was suddenly down below $50, then clawed my way back up to $228 when it was time to go, saving myself from the over-confidence bias that would have, in time, left me with nothing but green cloth beneath my empty palms. (The other way to win at gambling in Las Vegas? Be the owner of a casino.)

Wednesday afternoon the Skeptics Society photographer Dave Patton and I made the drive to Vegas after our annual bike ride to Mt. Wilson and subsequent Subway sandwich stop to assuage the guilt to come from eating and drinking too much in Sin City. Wednesday night I dined with Mark Skousen and guests at the world-famous Circo restaurant at Bellagio’s, a joint so pricey that the prices are not even printed on the menu. I got to sit next to John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods, who just completed his book entitled Conscious Capitalism (due out 12-12-12), in which he wants to rewrite the economic narrative of conservatives who have too long embraced the “greed is good” and “the virtue of selfishness” messages of conservatives and libertarians such as Milton Friedman and Ayn Rand. As he told me (I’m paraphrasing from memory, slightly cloudy from imbibing some very fine red wine), “Entrepreneurs, inventors, and creators don’t go into business just to make money. They go into business because they want to change the world, follow their passions, create something new. The money is nice but it isn’t the most important thing.” Conscious capitalism puts people and community and jobs and quality products and service first, money second. Mackey believes what he preaches, carefully selecting from the Circo menu a vegetarian dinner with only the healthiest ingredients, and he tries to do that in his grocery stores. Yes, eating super healthy can cost more, and in some cases some skepticism is appropriate as to whether or not those more expensive foods really make you healthier or not. (I went Vegan once—it started just after breakfast one day and ended at dinner that night.)

John Mackey is an interesting contrast with Steve Jobs, a comparison I made at a Friday panel discussion at Freedom Fest on the late Apple CEO. I noted my concern that the popularity of Walter Isaacson’s biography of Jobs is an example of a selection bias in publishing: no one writes biographies of all the failed Silicon valley entrepreneurs of the 70s, 80s, and 90s. People scour through the personalities and developmental histories of successful entrepreneurs and CEOs in search of the (pick your number) X habits of highly effective leaders (and such). It’s all malarkey. Yes, optimism can be a good trait to have in order to overcome the normal obstacles that one encounters in building an organization or company, but pessimism might make one more realistic when it comes to risk taking, changing directions before it is too late instead of stubbornly pressing on when there is no hope of success. Yes, perhaps being tough minded makes for strong leaders who get more out of their employees by intimidating them or staring at them without blinking (Jobs’s tactic), but tender-minded leaders can also motivate employees through empathy and caring about their welfare. Open-mindedness is good because you are more likely to see the value of new ideas, but if you are too open-minded your brains might fall out and you’ll believe every wacky (and wrong) idea that comes your way. And so forth. You get the idea. There are lots of ways to be successful. Steve Jobs and John Mackey have (near as I can tell) radically different personalities, and yet both were and are successful entrepreneurs and CEOs.

I also sat on a panel with Charles Murray about his new book, Coming Apart, about the state of white America from 1960 to 2010. Murray argues that a cognitive elite has arisen as a result of the fact that our economy is now so dependent on science, technology, and information that requires cognitive skills learned in college and graduate school, and these needed skills under employment have led to a distinct two-culture system of those who live in Fishtown (blue collar) and Belmont (white collar). It’s a good book chockablock full of sociological data, so I focused my attention on his claim that the decline of religiosity and increase in secularism has contributed to the culture divide and the loss of values (so he claims). I disputed that premise that America is losing its religion, given that the polls consistently show that 90% to 95% of Americans believe in God, although I did acknowledge the fact that the fastest growing religious group in America is the “nones”—those who tick the box for “none” when asked by pollsters for their religion.

Murray holds that America’s Founding Fathers, while not especially super religious themselves, believed that religion was necessary for self-governance. That is, if moral controls are not imposed from above by government then they must be imposed from within through religion. Murray believes that the rise of secularism has led to a decline in morals. I asked him what he believes. He said, “I’m a reluctant agnostic who wishes he could believe.” I cited Gregory Pauls’ 2005 study published in the Journal of Religion and Society—“Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies”—that found an inverse correlation between religiosity (measured by belief in God, biblical literalism, and frequency of prayer and service attendance) and societal health (measured by rates of homicide, suicide, childhood mortality, life expectancy, sexually transmitted diseases, abortion, and teen pregnancy) in 18 developed democracies. “In general, higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy, and abortion in the prosperous democracies,” Paul found. “The United States is almost always the most dysfunctional of the developed democracies, sometimes spectacularly so.” Indeed, the U.S. scores the highest in religiosity and the highest (by far) in homicides, STDs, abortions, and teen pregnancies.

In fact, I sent this study to Murray before Freedom Fest so that he would have time to think about it and provide a thoughtful answer, rather than my trying to ambush him or trip him up. I made the point that I do not believe that religion causes these societal ills, and that in fact I am quite certain that each of them has a different set of causes. Sure homicides have one set of causes different from that of STDs, and the like. But, I noted, if religion is suppose to be such a powerful prophylactic against sin and other societal problems, why is it not working very well here in America, the most religious of all the Western democracies. As well, I pointed out, South American countries are 99% Catholic. All those South Americans accept Jesus as their savior, and yet crime rates are high, poverty is high, etc. By contrast, I concluded, Northern European countries such as Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Germany, etc. have some of the lowest rates of religiosity in the Western world and yet they have exceptionally low rates of homicide, abortion, teen pregnancy, STDs, etc.

Murray’s response surprised me: “Michael, to resolve these issues would best be done over a late night drink and long conversation. But in general my sense about your writings on religion is that you are unnecessarily harsh and unsophisticated and non-subtle in your analysis.” He then explained that even though he’s not a believer his wife is a deeply believing Quaker who takes her religion very seriously, and this impresses him and makes him respect religion.

Interestingly, Charles Darwin felt the same way. He called himself an agnostic (in the sense that his friend Thomas Huxley meant it when he defined the word in 1869 to mean “unknowable”) and noted: “In my most extreme fluctuations I have never been an Atheist in the sense of denying the existence of God. I think that generally (and more and more as I grow older), but not always, that an Agnostic would be the more correct description of my state of mind.” But his wife Emma was a deeply religious woman who bemoaned the fact that if her husband did not believe then they would not spend eternity together. Thus, Darwin avoided the subject when he could. For example, in 1880, Darwin clarified his reasoning to the British socialist Edward Aveling, who solicited Darwin’s endorsement of a group of radical atheists by asking his permission to dedicate a book Aveling edited entitled The Student’s Darwin, a collection of articles discussing the implications of evolutionary theory for religious thought. The book had a militant antireligious flavor that Darwin disdained and he declined the offer, elaborating his reason with his usual flare for quotable maxims: “It appears to me (whether rightly or wrongly) that direct arguments against christianity & theism produce hardly any effect on the public; & freedom of thought is best promoted by the gradual illumination of men’s minds which follow[s] from the advance of science. It has, therefore, been always my object to avoid writing on religion, & I have confined myself to science.” He then appended an additional hint about a personal motive: “I may, however, have been unduly biased by the pain which it would give some members of my family, if I aided in any way direct attacks on religion.” My sense is that Charles Murray is taking a page from the playbook of Charles Darwin in the interests of domestic tranquility and out of love and respect, admirable qualities both.

Nevertheless, I would have liked to get an answer to my question about why the über-religious America has so many societal ills, why über-Catholic South American countries are so socially ill, and why the practically non-religious northern European countries are so socially healthy. Inquiring minds want to know.

I’ll post more later on TAM and Freedom Fest, including an analysis of one of the most magnificent take-downs of a pseudoscientist I’ve ever seen when I arranged to have skeptic Steve Novella debate an anti-vaxxer at Freedom Fest. I’ll also summarize my own debate at Freedom Fest with a Catholic Thomist philosopher on the question: “Is Man a Machine, Animal, or Special Creation?” I think I did about as well as Novella did against the anti-vaxxer, but libertarians are a mixed bag when it comes to religion, with some super skeptical of Big Government but have not an ounce of skepticism when it comes to Big Religion. Likewise when it comes to corporations, which they adore, unless it is Big Pharma in cahoots with Big Government conspiring to make us all sick in the name of Big Profits. (Bill Maher, an anti-vaxxer himself, is the liberal doppelgänger of these libertarians, loving Big Government unless they are in cahoots with Big Pharma, in which case they’re all evil.) Stay tuned…

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A Weekend of Woo (Or why I love the Esalen Institute)

For the forth time in my life I journeyed north on Pacific Coast Highway along the ragged California coast line north of San Simeon and the Hearst Castle where the road turns twisty and the cliffs bend vertical. The Esalen Institute is nestled on the ocean side of the highway atop some bluffs dotted with buildings that include yoga rooms, Yurts, Spartan housing overlooking the ocean, a soup kitchen-like cafeteria serving spectacularly healthy food (lots of Tofu and veggies, no tri-tips or ribs), and workshops catering to just about every belief ever investigated and found wanting in the pages of Skeptic magazine.

Nevertheless, I loved my time there once again, not only for the breathtaking scenery and unprecedented views, or the invigorating cycling and hiking, or the natural hot springs pouring out of the mountain and into elegantly designed hot tubs (clothing optional, and most opt to go without), but for the apparent incongruity made congruous when we consider our mission as skeptics to take our message of science and critical thinking to those who need to hear it most.

My workshop was entitled “Science, Spirituality, and the Search for Morality and Meaning.” First, I must say that the 24 participants in my workshop were already as skeptical as one might find at one of our Sunday Caltech lecture series meetings and dinners. All were well-read in the sciences and humanities to the point that I learned as much as I taught, and the ensuing conversations both during and after the lectures, along with at the meals, were exceptional.

Thus, I needed to trek down to the hot tubs in order to really sample the population of attendees at other workshops that weekend. What I heard was most entertaining, as well as educational in terms of why people believe weird things. To be fair, the workshop on couples massage sounded thoroughly grounded in the reality of how relaxing it can be to give and receive a massage, and I have no doubt that the couples in this class were probably brought closer to one another and learned a skill they could definitely take home with them.

But there were other workshops that sounded more like the touchy feely without the touchy. This goes by the generic descriptor of “energy work.” Lots of hot tub soakers waxed enthusiastic about getting their chakras adjusted, their Chi energy re-energized, the miracles of acupuncture, acupressure, and Chiropractic, and how this and that “natural healer” could cure everything from migraines and depression to pain and bowel ailments.

(A note parenthetical on the clothing-optional hot tubs: if you’ve never opted as such it probably sounds either positively off-putting or on-turning, depending on your imagination. It is neither. It is nothing, in fact. No one cares or stares. It actually does seem natural and normal in that environment. At night it’s pretty dark so you can’t really see anything anyway, and during the day people are discrete and polite. It’s all cool.)

If there is one work that best captures how people think (or miss-think) at Esalen it is “anecdotal.” Everything is couched in anecdotes. “I tried this” — “This worked for me” — “I know someone who said he used X for his headache” — “Ever since I started doing X my headaches have disappeared” and so on. No one ever discusses studies, experiments, control v. experimental groups, epidemiological studies, and the like. I heard one guy in the hot tub proclaim “I’m a skeptic, a man of science,” which was followed by a litany of anecdotes about the amazing wonders of this acupuncturist he’s been going to. Revealingly, someone asked him if the needles hurt. He pronounced without hesitation that the needles never ever hurt. And yet five minutes later he confessed that the ones in his hand, wrist, forearm, and shins all hurt like hell.

The problem with anecdotes is that 10 anecdotes are no better than 1, and 100 anecdotes are no better than 10. As I’ve repeated numerous times in numerous books and articles, “anecdotes do not make a science.” Or as a new trope going around these days (the source of which escapes me), “the plural of anecdote is not data.” (Who first said that? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?) Anecdotes are fun and interesting, and they may even lead one to construct an experiment to test a hypothesis (“does sitting naked in a natural hot spring tub lead to anecdotal thinking?”), but by themselves they are often worse than nothing because they lead one to draw conclusions that are more often than not misleading or wrong.

Thus it is that in one of my hot tub sessions I brought up the famous 1990’s “Emily experiment,” in which little Emily Rosa, for her 4th grade science project, tested Therapeutic Touch (TT, or the original touchy feeling without the touchy) by observing under controlled conditions if this “healers” could even detect her “energy field” behind an opaque screen in which they slid their hands through two cut out openings at the bottom. Emily flipped a coin to determine whether she would hold her hand a few inches above the TT therapist’s left or right hand, at which point they had to declare which hand detected the energy field. As a simple coin-flip model it’s a 50/50 guess. Emily’s subjects scored less than 50%, worse than chance, even though before the experiment began they all declared that they could with 100% certainty detect her energy field standing before her. After I recounted this experiment the other people in the tub said something to the effect of “um,” and “oh, uh, okay,” and “well…uh…um.” I have no idea, of course, if they went back to their rooms and revisited their deepest held beliefs about human “energy,” but I hope to have planted a small seed that may one day grow into a skeptical tree. Who knows?

Since so much of the Esalen Institute is experiential, I’ll let my iPhone pics speak louder than my words for what it was like experiencing Esalen, one of my favorite places on the planet. (Click any image to enlarge it and view the entire image gallery.)

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Reason Rally Rocks

Shermer leading the Reason Rally Cheer (photo by John Welte)

Yours truly, leading the Reason Rally Cheer (photo by John Welte)

March 24, 2012 marked the largest gathering of skeptics, atheists, humanists, nonbelievers, and “nones” (those who tick the “no religion” box on surveys) of all stripes on the Mall in Washington, D.C., across from the original Smithsonian museum. Crowd estimates vary from 15,000 to 25,000. However many it was, it was one rockin’ huge crowd that voiced its support for reason, science, and skepticism louder than any I have ever heard. Anywhere. Any time. Any place. It started raining just as the festivities gathered steam late morning, but the weather seemed to have no effect whatsoever on the enthusiasm and energy of the crowd…or the speakers and performers. The organizer and host David Silverman and his posse of tireless staff and volunteers pulled it off without a hitch. Organizing big events can be an organizational nightmare, but they did it, marking what I hope is the first of many consciousness raising events in the civil rights movement for equal treatment for us nonbelievers and skeptics.

James Randi and I arrived well before our scheduled talk time and mingled among the crowds, swamped with well-wishers and camera-hounds and feeling the love from so many people that makes fighting the good fight for science and reason well worth it when you know there are people out there who care. Hanging out behind the stage and in the wings was an especially nice treat for me as I got to watch the speakers and performers and the audience together. Someone snapped this pic:

Shermer hang in out backstage

I think I was watching Tim Minchin, whom I have never met or seen perform live. It was clear from the start that he was a major headliner as the audience exploded in energy for him, cajoling him to remove his boots and perform barefoot, one of his trademark features, along with distinct eyeliner highlighting his radiant blue eyes (he says he uses make-up in order to highlight facial expressions for audiences because his hands are usually both busy on the keyboard). Here we are hanging out after his remarkable performance. He was brilliant, funny, witty, insightful, clever, and most of all inspirational. Minchin is a genius.

Michael Shermer and Tim Minchin

No less a showman in humor and poignancy was Mr. MythBuster Adam Savage, who quickly moved off his scripted comments to do stand-up commentary on why science is the coolest thing one can possibly do. Even though Adam said “I’m not a scientist, but I play one on TV,” I disagree. I think the MythBusters are doing science, at least provisionally in testing hypotheses by running experiments over and over and over until they get some result, often not the one they were expecting. The fact that they have fun doing it, and usually blow up the experiment at the end, should not distract us from the fact that the core principle behind MythBusters is testing hypotheses, which is the core principle behind science. Adam was absolutely loved by the crowd. Here we are back stage after his talk.

Michael Shermer and Adam Savage
God Hates Bags

One observation: there were rumors that the Westboro Baptist Church protestors were going to be there with their now-infamous signs declaring “God Hates Fags”, and in anticipation of this people decided to fight hatred and bigotry with humor and wit, pace signs that read “God Hates Figs” and this one (right) plastered on bags carried around: “God Hates Bags.”

I had 5 minutes to speak. It doesn’t sound like much, but consider the fact that the greatest speech ever given in American history, Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a Dream” speech, was only 17 minutes long, and most of his other famous speeches, such as his “How Long, Not Long” speech, were even shorter. I began my talk by inveigling the crowd to, on the count of three, yell out “Skeptics Rule,” then “Science Rules” then “Reason Rules.” I couldn’t resist filming it with my iPhone camera. Here it is, the loudest cheer I’ve ever heard for skeptics, science, and reason.

Michael Shermer next to Thomas Jefferson statue

Here I am with my hero, TJ.

I veered away from my written speech here and there depending on the response from the crowd, and I added this line, which was picked up by the press and published in many places:

“America was not founded on God and religion. America was founded on reason.”

I was especially motivated to make that comment because the day before I visited Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello, which is a monument to reason. In point of fact, the Declaration of Independence is a monument to reason, along with the country it created.

READ MY SPEECH AT SKEPTIC.COM

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