Science, semi-science and nonsense

A professional skeptic talks about what's real science (evolution, the Big Bang), what's balderdash (ESP, creationism) and what lies between (hypnotism, superstring theory).

Published August 27, 2001 7:06PM (EDT)

Michael Shermer, editor in chief of Skeptic magazine and author of "Why People Believe Weird Things," spends much of his time casting Holocaust revisionism, UFOology, creationism and astrology out of the realm of possibility and into the intellectual netherworld of "nonscience." Yet there are ideas being floated around that, while falling short of fully proven, aren't quite as kooky as the belief in alien abductions. Shermer dubs these "borderlands" sciences, theories that -- for now, and in his eyes -- land somewhere between firm-footed disciplines (evolution, quantum mechanics) and faddish bunk (Freudian psychoanalytic theory).

Shermer has a method for diagnosing this semi-madness. In his latest book, "The Borderlands of Science: Where Sense Meets Nonsense," he applies a "boundary detector kit" to such vexing issues as racial differences among athletes; the belief that, unlike Europeans, indigenous peoples live in harmony with nature; and cloning. Shermer's 10 boundary detectors include some obvious questions -- for example, have the scientist's claims been verified by another source? -- but what's remarkable is how open-minded Shermer remains during his assessment. In one chapter, Shermer looks at the life of Carl Sagan who, in his relationships with UFOlogists and SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) people, managed to strike an admirably "exquisite balance" between curiosity and doubt. With wit, grace and skepticism, "The Borderlands of Science" does the same -- and dishes on the behind-the-scenes head-butting and gentlemanly agreements that have molded much of what we believe about science and nonscience today.

Shermer spoke to Salon about the myth of genius, hypnotism and Tiger Woods from his office in Los Angeles.

Why do you think that science is the best lens through which to view the world?

There are checks and balances in science. There's somebody checking the people doing the science and then there's somebody who checks the checkers and somebody who checks the checker's checkers. Personally, I don't have time to run all these experiments so there's a certain amount of confidence that I put in this system. The fact that I understand how the system works gives me confidence that if someone's claim is incorrect, then somebody else is going to nail him on it.

Take superstring theory. I don't understand it. Almost nobody does! But I can go down to my buddies over at Caltech and say, "Hey, what's the story with this?" And they'll give me the terms of the debate and say there's this guy at New York and this guy at Chicago who believe this and this. I get a feeling that they are watching each other.

What about when big business funds science? How can you be so sure that there isn't an agenda behind someone's research?

For example, I don't worry that the American Medical Association is heavily influenced by drug companies. You know, it is. Drug companies give a lot of money for research. If you go to conferences sponsored by the AMA, the drug companies are there giving away stuff. Recently, I was paid fairly well to give a talk at a Pasadena medical association. The whole thing was sponsored by a drug company. There they were, handing out samples. And before I spoke, the guy from the drug company was up there plugging his wares! But, while I worry about that, there are a lot of medical researchers out there -- post-docs and Ph.D. and M.D. students -- who are not influenced by the drug companies. They would love nothing better than to show that, in fact, a particular drug doesn't do what the company claims. Those are the checks and balances that keep me confident that science really works.

The difference between science and nonscience is somewhat subjective. You have a boundary detection kit. I'm wondering if other scientists agree with your methods of assessment of what's science and what isn't.

The questions that I ask -- the quality of evidence, who's doing the research, what else do they believe, what else have they done, have they tested their own claims -- is the way of science. All skeptic stuff is science. Scientists are skeptics. It's unfortunate that the word "skeptic" has taken on other connotations in the culture involving nihilism and cynicism. Really, in its pure and original meaning, it's just thoughtful inquiry.

I was interested in one of your boundary detectors -- the intentional and unintentional distortion of facts. You use Holocaust deniers as an example of people who distort facts to fit their agenda. But did you ever think that there were Holocaust skeptics out there who didn't have some sort of agenda?

Yes, indeed. In fact, when I first met some of these guys, they seemed like pleasant, thoughtful people. And I thought, OK, these guys don't seem like raving anti-Semites. But then, when I got into it more, I saw that their motives were complex. I did listen pretty carefully; there were several nights that I went home thinking, Oh my God, maybe this whole thing was exaggerated. But if you probe deep enough, you really get to the core of it.

What do you do in that situation -- ask them very personal questions to see where they might be coming from?

Oh, yes. Particularly over beer and pizza. When they're off the record and chatting, that stuff tends to come out. And it does, you know, the stuff about the Jews. That kept coming up and I thought, aha, there really is something here. They all say that they're not David Irving and some of their best friends are Jewish and all that. However, then they continue, "but there's this cabal and those Jews and the media and the power" ... and it starts coming out.

What about Thomas Gold, the Deep Hot Biosphere guy? [Gold suggests that oil is not a fossil fuel but a by-product of massive amounts of bacteria living in rocks.] You said that no one thinks he's a crank. But no one necessarily believes in his theory. What's the shelf life for someone like that?

Here's a good example of science at work. It does matter who you are, at least initially. It gives you a hearing. Thomas Gold is a prominent scientist at Cornell and was right about enough big stuff.

In Hollywood, a studio can spend any amount of money they want on promoting a film. That will at most buy them about a week to a week and half of good sales. After that, it either sails or tanks on its own. Having a Nobel Prize or being a famous scientist will get you a week to a week and a half, metaphorically speaking, of a hearing for your new idea, but after that it's going to tank if you don't have the evidence and support for it.

A good example is the emergence of cold fusion. At the same time, in the spring of 1989, superconductivity really started to take off. Today, superconductivity continues to flourish -- it's a huge area of physics -- yet almost nobody is doing cold fusion. What happened? They were both exciting ideas, both proposed by prominent, respected scientists, but in the end, you have to have the evidence in corroboration or it's no good.

So it seems that scientists should have a certain background. They should submit to peer-reviewed journals. But there have to be mavericks out there who don't do these things.

Oh, there are. Freeman Dyson is huge, and he's completely self-taught. He didn't take the normal path at all. People like him are rarer now because science has become mechanized in its system of processing and producing scientists. Before World War II, there were lots of self-made scientists, but after that science became Big Science, it became government-funded and all the state universities started Ph.D. programs that produced Ph.D.s.

Creationists aren't scientists, but they do sometimes use science to support their idea, like the Rare Earth Theory, which states that what happened on Earth was unique in the universe. Where does that put them in the scheme of things?

They use whatever science they can find that they think supports their belief. But creationists don't actually do science. What they do is rummage through scientific journals and books and try to find holes in theories or find what looks like corroborative evidence for creation. That's not doing science. They're not trying to answer any questions about nature. They already have their answers and then they're trying to find evidence to support it.

Which violates a rule in your detector kit.

It's true that scientists are biased. They have agendas. You do go in search of evidence in favor of an idea that you like and that you were trained in under your professor. But again, with the checks and balances, you can't get away with that for very long.

Why do you consider ideas like objectivism -- Ayn Rand's doctrine that emphasizes individualism and self-interest -- or socialism to be borderlands science?

Most political and social systems are difficult to test scientifically because it quickly reduces to political philosophy. That's why America has a democracy -- we just vote on our personal preferences. People have tried rather unsuccessfully to marshal evidence for a particular political position, but it never seems to work very well. In that sense, I'm not terribly confident that political science is very scientific. Political scientists, when they do science, are measuring people's voting behavior. When they do that, they're being rigorous.

But yet political science is a borderlands science? It doesn't fall into the category of nonscience?

No. Political systems are testable. We can learn lessons from history and treat history as a science. We should. We can take the 75-year Soviet experiment and learn, well, they had to kill 40 million people to make this work. That can't be good. Let's scrap that and try something else.

All things that are now considered science were once nonscience or borderlands science. Does that hang over your head when you're thinking about new ideas?

Sure, I always wonder if what I believe is going to be bunk next year. But "I was wrong" is a big part of science. Those are three really important words. I would be totally shocked if some things turned out not to be true -- like the theory of evolution. Big bang is now pretty solid as the origin of the universe. I'm much shakier in the social sciences. What ever happened to [B.F.] Skinner and behaviorism and Leon Festinger and cognitive dissonance?

They're in Psych 101.

Well, nothing really happened, they didn't get debunked, they just kind of went away and something else came in. The social sciences are mushier.

What does it take for something to get locked down in the science category of things?

For example, when Alfred Wegener first proposed continental drift in the 1920s, he had a lot of interesting evidence. You could see that Africa and South America fit together like pieces of a puzzle. He marshaled quite a bit of data, but no one believed him. How the hell would continents move? Come on, they're huge! They're heavy and hugely big! Then, in the 1960s, geologists discovered plate tectonics -- continents sit on massive plates that are driven from underneath by these big vortices of moving lava.

If we asked, what would it take for me to believe in ESP? Would it take a single experiment? How about 10 statistically significant experiments in which the guy picked the right playing card? That still wouldn't quite do it because there's no way to understand how this could possibly happen in the brain. We understand how neurons and brain centers work but we don't know how something would transmit through space out of your skull into somebody else's skull. So those guys need to come up with some mechanism to explain it.

That brings to mind the passage about hypnosis. That seems pretty hard to pin down as science, yet you have been hypnotized.

Yes, hypnosis is one of those great examples because there's much dispute about what it is. In my mind, there's clearly something going on. Enough experiments lead me to believe that there are different levels of consciousness or layers of subconscious. That will remain a borderlands science until we understand how the brain works. We just don't know. I was with a bunch of neuroscientists this weekend at this scientific conference in Seattle. These were the big experts, and I was pumping them for information. They only know, just to pick a figure, something like 10 percent of how the brain works. There are a lot of gaps to fill in about the brain.

They did have one experiment that was illuminating the mechanism in the brain that might enable hypnosis, right?

Yes, the brain scan stuff is really interesting because it's starting to show things lighting up. One big problem is that there are brain centers that light up when you read. People who have brain damage to these areas can't read, but they can talk and listen to words and process language. The reason why this is perplexing is that in an evolutionary model there hasn't been enough time -- reading is only 5,000 years old -- for there to have been a selective advantage for some populations to survive because they can read while others cannot. We know this hasn't happened. Reading and writing has to be close to something else that evolved in the brain for some other reason.

When considering the impact of science and humans on the environment, what is dangerous about the idea that Europeans ruined some long-lost Utopian paradise?

If we want to understand and save our environment, we have to understand that all humans destroy their environment. The evidence is now even more overwhelming that all the megafaunal extinctions throughout the last 50,000 years were human-caused or human-triggered. In the North American invasion by Native Americans, there were at least a dozen mammal groups hunted to extinction. You can track it in Papua New Guinea and New Zealand and Australia too. The danger is to think that some groups live in harmony and maybe if we adopt their lifestyle we'd be better off. No. All humans are self-centered and short-term thinking. We need to be aware of that and cautious of what the consequences are of our actions.

You write a little bit about the way the government approaches science. It's interesting because of the Kyoto Protocol and the greenhouse effect. The greenhouse effect is science, isn't it? Are there scientists who would tell President Bush that it hasn't been proven?

Yes, there are. The debate is over the range. The legitimate scientific debate might be: Is the Earth going to warmer by 1.5 degrees centigrade or 5.5 degrees centigrade over the next 100 years? But even the most skeptical environmentalists that I've met don't deny that the world is warming. The evidence is pretty overwhelming.

The fuzzier areas are things like species extinction. No one's out there counting. There are projections based on E.O. Wilson's curve, which has to do with the area of a rain forest and the number of species in it. If you destroy 90 percent of the area, you destroy 50 percent of the species. But it's very difficult to count every single species. There's been some attempts to fog an entire tree and all the little bugs fall out of it and they get down on the ground and count them all. It's amazingly hard. E.O. Wilson was at this conference recently, and Richard Dawkins was there and we're sitting around the bar having a beer talking about how many species there are. You know what? They don't know how many species there are! I'm amazed! But that's what makes these environmental issues so difficult.

So maybe Bush is being a good skeptic?

Well, his motives involve economic consequences, that's obvious. There are economic consequences, and we have to be careful about the decisions we make. You really have to prioritize and do a cost-benefit analysis of the change you want to implement for how many lives you want to save.

First, you have to establish what kind of criteria you're going to base this on. Is it lives saved? Is it quality of life? Is it life five generations from now? That isn't settled. If you want to invest money in lives saved, you wouldn't bother with global warming, you'd go straight for feeding Third World nations. That's the No. 1 cause of death in the world. And you can go right down the line; 50,000 people die per year in automobiles. That would make a good investment. Somebody was talking about guardrails on curvy roads -- but that doesn't get much press. Global warming gets a lot of press, but I'm not sure if it's best to spend trillions of dollars cooling the world off. What if you spent it on guardrails, air bags, seat belts and a campaign to get people to quit smoking? Right there, that would save a lot of lives.

The U.S. government had to weigh in on cloning, too. Why did you decide to devote a chapter to it in this book?

It pushes all those frontiers of big questions about where science butts up against theology and philosophy -- the meaning of life and how it begins and where you define it.

How did you feel about how Clinton first handled that?

Governments are always too cautious. I mean, that's good when considering whether to go to war. Let's not just go kill people. But when it comes to science, they err on the side of too much caution. They fall into the slippery slope argument: if we carry this to the extreme, everybody will be cloning themselves and we'll have an overpopulation problem. Come on. In the surveys that came out when the Dolly story broke, almost nobody said they would clone themselves. You get a handful of goofy people like the guy in Chicago who wanted to be the first to clone himself, but that's it.

But this particular slippery slope argument does seem scarily slippery. It's way too easy to imagine what evil humans might do with the possibility of making new evil humans. And maybe there are more goofy guys out there than we think.

In any case, cloning is such a meaningless concept. You can't clone an individual. You can have his DNA pattern, maybe, and that's it. Now, since I've written that chapter, it looks like the genome is not where the action is, it's the proteome -- the proteins that are constructed by the genome. This is a far more complex system. The proteome project will be much bigger and take much longer than the genome project.

What's the difference?

We are made of proteins. All of our cells are made of protein chains. DNA dictates how those things are constructed, but there's an interactive feedback loop involved in the construction. How the developing organism interacts with its environment -- from the womb to its present existence in the environment -- affects how the genes interact and construct proteins.

We have to get off the idea of genes on a string that we can see. What was interesting about the Human Genome Project was that everyone was so surprised that there were only 30,000 genes ... or is it 29,000? Why can't you just count them up? Because they aren't beads on a string. A gene is defined by what it does and what it does is produce proteins. Now it looks like certain environmental conditions turn genes off. They don't always operate. We still don't understand what's going on in development. The genome project is important, but it's only the first step.

To get controversial, you can't say that certain populations of blacks from Western Africa are good at sprinting and others from Kenya are good at marathon running and the big, husky white guys from Sweden are good at the strong man competition -- all because of genes. Although that certainly sets the pattern, the training and interaction with the environment matters, starting with the prenatal environment all the way to what you're doing this afternoon.

So before we worry about people running off and cloning a bunch of Hitlers, we need to know a lot more. So just let these guys do their research. Same thing with stem cell research. I've yet to hear a good secular argument against it. It's always the right-to-life argument.

Even people who aren't particularly religious will give the knee-jerk response that some things are nature's business without realizing that what they're saying is that certain things are only "God's work."

They don't think it through. There's this idea that if it happens naturally, then it's OK. But we went off that road a long time ago when we began agriculture and tweaked the genome of plants and animals 13,000 years ago. The natural argument is like the organic food people. It's laughable. You wanna eat one of those ears of corn from a couple thousand years ago? They were about a half-inch long. How many starving people in a Third World developing nation are you going to feed on those natural little corns and potatoes? Once you start down the road using science and technology, you just have to keep going.

Back to the racial differences in sports and all the hoopla about blacks being better athletes than whites. In your book, you simply point out that blacks don't dominate all sports. Why are people obsessed with this though?

They don't. They dominate three of them -- track and field, basketball, football and maybe baseball, but they don't even dominate that anymore. It's like the Holocaust deniers: why are you so interested? What is it with you guys and the Jews? I ask them this all the time! Same thing with the guys who are into race and sports or race and IQ. It's not some innocent question. No one cares about Asians and Ping-Pong. But we live in a culture in which black-white differences are everything. There's no question that the Lakers of today are so much better than the Lakers of the '50s with those white guys. It's truly better basketball. But why are we so interested and what difference does it make?

That's why the reaction to Tiger Woods is so interesting: "See, now blacks are the best at golf too!"

And in tennis. But even there, the Williams sisters haven't completely dominated. They get beat all the time by those white girls. And anyway what is Tiger? Is he black?

He's a lot of things. He practiced a lot. I know that much.

That's the 10,000-hour question. I was talking to a scientist who studies creativity at this conference. What does it take to be a creative genius and reach the top of your field? First of all, there's a minimal 10,000-hour rule. If you want to master a sport or a skill or a subject, that comes out to about 60 hours per week for about three and a half years. That's true in all professions. It doesn't mean you'll make it. Good biology and genes help. But look at Mozart. He didn't just plop out of nowhere as some people think. He had the father and the training and did the 10,000 hours when he was 6, rather than 26, when most of us find our way in life. Earlier devotion, of course, does help the genius to come out.

So you do think he was a genius?

Oh, of course.

Who was a scientific genius?

Einstein, Richard Feynman, Darwin. Darwin always has been underplayed because he was a kindly old gentleman and seemed rather modest, but there are different kinds of geniuses who saw what no one else saw. It's been my great good fortune to meet really interesting and smart people. With almost all of them, I can say to myself, well, I'm half as smart as that guy, and if I keep working, I could get there. But every once and a while, I'll meet someone who is on a completely different plane. I can't even fathom how their brain works.

This weekend, I was at the Foundation for the Future conference sponsored by Walter Kistler. Richard Dawkins got the Kistler prize. There, I felt that I was where I belonged with my colleagues ... with everyone except Dawkins. Everything this guy said was on a different plane. When he spoke, it changed the whole dynamics of the discussion. Everyone referred to what he just said, for the rest of the day! Stephen Jay Gould is like that. He has to be one of the smartest people I've ever met. Murray Gell-Mann, Richard Feynman.

But not Freud.

No ... I think Freud was ... no.

Just because his theories were proven wrong? He was a pioneer.

You might say he was a creative genius in the area of literature. To be fair, he created a new field. Obviously, he's had a huge influence, but part of that had to do with the fact that he was "the first." People who are first set the stage for everyone else who comes later. Ever since Darwin, everyone has been a footnote. Even the big guns -- Ernst Myer, E.O. Wilson, Dawkins and Gould -- are just mopping up the big stuff. Thomas Jefferson was an absolute genius. I'm sure there've been many since him, but he and the other guys who set up the Constitution were first. Like Newton. He discovered gravity. That's been done.

By Suzy Hansen

Suzy Hansen, a former editor at Salon, is an editor at the New York Observer.

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