Michael Shermer, Skeptic

Air Date: 
Thursday, January 19, 2012
Tom Shipka

Michael Shermer is a psychologist, historian of science, columnist for Scientific American, and public intellectual. (1) His most recent book is entitled The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies – How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths. (2) It draws from extensive research over the past thirty years.

According to Shermer, "We form our beliefs for a variety of subjective, personal, emotional,and psychological reasons in the context of environments created byfamily, friends, colleagues, culture, and society at large; after formingour beliefs we then defend, justify, and rationalize them with a host ofintellectual reasons, cogent arguments, and rational explanations." (3)

In a nutshell, "beliefs come first, explanations for beliefs follow." (4) Shermer calls this theory "belief-dependent realism." (5)Shermer is not merely repeating what we've heard from other psychologists for decades, namely, that all of us are victims of a variety of cognitive biases. (6) What he argues is that one bias, the confirmation bias, is "the mother of all biases." (7) The confirmation bias is our tendency to seek and find evidence which supports our existing beliefs and to tune out (or reinterpret) evidence which does not. (8) According to Shermer, it explains why so many people prefer unsubstantiated or discredited claims (e.g., ESP) to well-established ones (e.g., evolution). (10)

Shermer sees the origin of cognitive biases in the way our brain functions. The brain, he proposes, is a "belief engine." (11) It generates beliefs as it looks for patterns, real or imagined, and causal agents, real or imagined. For this we have evolution to thank. He writes:Our brains evolved to connect the dots of our world into meaningful patternsthat explain why things happen. These meaningful patterns become beliefs, andthese beliefs shape our understanding of reality. (12)

Once beliefs are formed, we look for evidence to confirm them. As we find what passes for evidence, our confidence in the beliefs deepens. (13) Simultaneously, we tend to form coalitions with those who share our beliefs and demonize those who don't. (14)

Is Shermer endorsing epistemological relativism? Is he saying that all beliefs are equal and "everybody's reality deserves respect"? He is not. On the contrary, he insists that there is a reality out there but that "it is rarely obvious and almost never foolproof." (15) So, how do we discover reality? What is the antidote to belief-dependent realism? It's called science. Shermer sees science as a human baloney-detection machine which tells us the difference between "what we would like to be true and what is actually true." (16) Science is "the best tool ever devised" for finding truth (17) and "the only surefire method of proper pattern recognition." (18) And why is this? Mainly because science demands skepticism. In science "a claim is untrue unless proven otherwise." (19)

The Believing Brain sends us two important messages: We're not the rational and objective creatures that we like to think we are, and If we hope to acquire knowledge - true, justified belief - we need to value skepticism much more than we do.


  1. Shermer is founder and editor of Skeptic magazine, producer and co-host of the TV series Exploring the Unknown, founder and head of the Skeptics Society, which has 55,000 members, director of a speakers series at the California Institute of Technology, a blogger (Skeptic.com), a prolific author, turning out a new book every two years or so, a regular lecturer on campuses across the nation, an interviewee on TV documentaries, a guest on a variety of TV shows, among them Donahue, Oprah Winfrey, Penn and Teller, Dennis Miller, Larry King Live, the Colbert Report, Dateline, 20/20, and Nightline, and an adjunct professor at The Claremont Graduate School. Also, Shermer was a competitive long-distance bicyclist from 1979 to 1989. During that same decade, he co-founded the Race Across America, a 3,000 mile event in which he competed five times. He also produced a series of documentaries on cycling. A neck disorder common to long-distance bicyclists is named after him – Shermer's Neck. (See michaelshermer.com and Michael Shermer, Wikipedia.)
  2. Times Books, 2011, 385 pages.
  3. The Believing Brain, p. 5. He restates this thesis in many parts of the book. This is from page 36:The Enlightenment ideal of Homo rationalis has us sitting down before a table of facts, weighing them in the balance of pro and con, and then employing logic and reason to determine which set of facts best supports this or that theory. This is not at all how we form beliefs. What happens is that the facts of the world are filtered by our brains through the colored lenses of worldviews, paradigms, theories, hypotheses, conjectures, hunches, biases, and prejudices we have accumulated through living. We then sort through the facts and select those that confirm what we already believe and ignore or rationalize away those that contradict our beliefs.
  4. Ibid., p. 5.
  5. Ibid., p. 5, p. 21.
  6. Shermer discusses the self-justification bias, the framing effect, the sunk-cost bias, the status quo bias, the endowment effect, the anchoring bias, and others, which he says, are offspring of the confirmation bias. See Chapter 12, "Confirmation of Beliefs," pp. 256-279.
  7. Ibid., p. 259.
  8. Ibid., p. 259.
  9. Ibid., p. 259.Ibid., pp. 2-4. In the same pages, Shermer cites a 2009 Harris Poll of 2,303 Americans which revealed that more people believe in angels (72%) and the devil (60%) than believe in evolution (45%). Surveys elsewhere show similar trends. For instance, in England, a 2006 Reader's Digest survey of 2,006 people found that 43% believe they can read other people's minds, over 50% believed they had a dream or premonition of an event that later occurred, nearly 70% said they could feel when someone was looking at them, 62% said they could tell who was calling them before them picked up the phone, 20% said they had seen a ghost, and 26% said they could tell when a loved one was in trouble.
  10. Ibid., p. 5.
  11. Ibid., p. 5.
  12. Ibid., p. 5.
  13. Ibid., pp. 6-7.
  14. Ibid., p. 2.
  15. Ibid., p. 7.
  16. Ibid., p. 7.
  17. Ibid., p. 62. Shermer is quick to point out that scientists, as the rest of us, are subject to "the whims of emotion and the pull of cognitive biases..." (p. 6) This is why scientists must critique their own and one another's findings.
  18. Ibid., p. 135.

© 2012 Tom Shipka