"Single, With Complexes" and "Science, Semi-Science and Nonsense"

Readers respond to Gavin McNett's review of two dating books and Suzy Hansen's interview with skeptic Michael Shermer.

Published August 31, 2001 7:00PM (EDT)

Read "Single, With Complexes."

As an online editor and Salon subscriber I'd like to commend you on a great piece of writing here. Bravo.

Bring on more articles like this one. Gavin McNett's writing is wonderful. (I had a couple of good belly laughs!)

Keep up the good work.


-- Ethan McCarty

That was probably the most erratically written, confusing story I've ever read on Salon.

-- Don Knapp

Read "Science, Semi-Science and Nonsense."

Your interview with know-nothing Michael Shermer was appalling. Anyone who can produce the sentence "All skeptic stuff is science" clearly hasn't read any of the skeptics. He should start with Hume, and by the time he's finished his blind faith in empiricism may have lost its fanatical, sectarian edge.

-- Matt Norwood

Like Professor Frog living in a well, trying to imagine the size of the Pacific Ocean, this man thinks all the wonders of the world should fit into his tiny brain. What a joke!

-- Paul Howard

Michael Shermer's interview by Suzy Hansen left me personally disappointed because once again the untouchable subject of UFOlogy was left untouched. Shermer's label as "non-science" was simply referenced and that was that. There are 400 respectable people who have evidence and who, with the help of Steven M. Greer, M.D., want to at least have an opportunity to bring their case to the border of science and testify to Congress. Shermer's personal experience with hypnotism puts the subject on the border only because of his personal experience. Am I to guess that UFOlogy is not on the border because he has not personally experienced it?

-- Pete Priel

So, Michael Shermer says history is scientific in that we can see from the massive slaughters perpetrated during the "Soviet experiment" that Communism is bad, yet Skinner and behaviorism "just kind of went away and something else came in." Never mind the decades of research and theory development in linguistics, psychology and computer science that have sought to explain what behaviorism cannot. This is but one example of Shermer's shaky grasp of (the philosophy of) science. He blithely banters about evidence and the checks and balances that give him confidence "that science really works" without explaining what evidence is, how it supports theories differentially, or what it means for science to work. Far greater minds have tried, and failed, to demarcate science and nonscience. Simply adding a third category doesn't solve the problem. The true test of his "boundary detector kit" is whether or not the bullshit alarm goes off when the kit is applied to itself.

-- Noah Silbert

Michael Shermer's ideas in the interview with Suzy Hansen were interesting, if a bit obvious. But when he was quoted as saying, "Once you start down the road using science and technology, you just have to keep going," his extreme bias became obvious.

Why do we have to keep going? This whole concept of the assumed positive value of "progress" is a relatively recent one in human cultural history, and while there may be evidence to support the value of learning how to better interact with our environment, there is no real evidence to support the assumption that there is never a place to stop and say, "That's about enough!"

That's the problem with operating in a vacuum of values, as Shermer seems to advocate. Checkers of checkers of checkers don't do a damn bit of good if they operate in an environment in which the only value is to keep on moving, no matter whether we know where you're supposed to be going, ultimately, or why you're going there.

There is a time to move, and a time to stop and say we have arrived, and this is a good enough place, and why is it we aren't happy with the abundance we have created? And it is always important to consider that question, and not just keep moving forward to assuage the anxiety resulting from a lack of meaning in our lives and our souls.

-- Charles A. Richardson

While Michael Shermer's skepticism is laudable, his own thought seems to lack the scientific rigor he so obviously prizes.

During his wide-ranging interview with Suzy Hansen, Mr. Shermer failed to make a distinction between migrating Homo sapiens who populated the Western Hemisphere and those Native American civilizations that subsequently arose. He dismissed the notion that corporate funding can color scientific research, although this danger is already documented. He ridiculed organic agricultural practices and their commitment to natural processes as "laughable," apparently mistaking an opposition to chemical intensive farming and its corrosive effects upon the environment for some sort of neo-Luddite resistance to breeding.

"Once you start down the road using science and technology," says the author, "you just have to keep going." Are we to believe this trip is a sacred pilgrimage, brooking no rational restraint nor the type of healthy skepticism for which the author is so well renowned?

When I was teaching science, I instructed my students that the discipline was a wonderful human tool, but that it was invariably limited to what it can verifiably measure, failing to confer legitimacy upon those phenomena that it can't. Perhaps the next time Mr. Shermer is enjoying cocktail chatter with Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould he might pause for a moment to contemplate physicist Niels Bohr's observation that science doesn't tell us what nature is; it only tells us what we can say about nature. It is a useful, if humbling, point.

-- David Seppa

Regarding your review of Michael Shermer's book, "The Borderlands of Science: Where Sense Meets Nonsense," it would seem to me that, if anything, Shermer is not skeptical enough. Shermer fails to discuss the influence of Janis' groupthink-type phenomena on the scientific method. It is entirely likely that everything we believe now about superstrings, quarks and dark energy will prove to be complete blind alleys in the next hundred years. Physics, in particular, appears to be based on increasingly minute variations in scientific data. Think of the grand cosmic theories today being spun out of small variations in the cosmic background radiation or red shifts. Never mind the influence of corporate dollars on science, the name of the game in science is conformity: to follow the accepted wisdom of one's peers in order to be hired, get grants, tenure at a desirable university and travel allowances. Or sell books. What Heidegger called "the business of science" actually slows down scientific progress, and is a flaw in what we today call "the scientific method."

Another point: Shermer notes that the Soviet system can be judged a failure because "they had to kill 40 million people to make it work." But since the collapse of the Soviet Union, like numbers of people continue to die there due to the inefficiencies in their healthcare, even though one could call their current political system somewhat more market-based. Could it be that this has nothing to do with the failure of socialism, but simply that Russia is a uniquely large, cold, basically landlocked country where life is grim because of the climate and lack of resources? Can it be that the communist system failed because it was defeated in a propaganda war in the 1980-90's, and the collapse followed because the people were demoralized and simply lost their will to continue? Perhaps the Soviet system was just the best that could be done under the circumstances with the resources available, and that their system made possible a population that could not be supported under capitalism? Imagine if 150 million people were plunked down and suddenly forced to survive in Canada! Would it not be logical then to assign the blame to Ronald Reagan for engineering a Russian Holocaust of massive proportions, much like the European conquerors are today given the responsibility for the decimation of the Native Americans?

Of course, all science is ultimately based on dollars. Economically, Freudianism would probably still be active if there were enough healthcare money for it, and HMOs today would still be funding free therapy for everybody. If that were the case, I'm sure there would be a lot fewer random shootings than there are now, but we evidently can't afford that while keeping a massive senior citizen population alive. Ultimately, however, Shermer shares a trait with the Holocaust skeptics he's so critical of. If you listen carefully to what he's saying, you see he has a subtext, and that is just defending the status quo. He's saying: Accept what the scientists are telling you because they're respected members of the scientific community. But obviously, this is really pretty circular, and not particularly enlightening, because most of the really important scientific advances were made by complete heretics. And certainly, not a good excuse for independent thought.

-- Martin Lerner

By Letters to the Editor

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