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Bestselling author Michael Shermer delves into the unknown, from heretical ideas about the boundaries of the universe to Star Trek's lessons about chance and time
About the Author:
A scientist pretends to be a psychic for a day-and fools everyone. An athlete discovers that good-luck rituals and getting into "the zone" may, or may not, improve his performance. A historian decides to analyze the data to see who was truly responsible for the Bounty mutiny. A son explores the possiblities of alternative and experimental medicine for his cancer-ravaged mother. And a skeptic realizes that it is time to turn the skeptical lens onto science itself.
In each of the fourteen essays in Science Friction, psychologist and science historian Michael Shermer explores the very personal barriers and biases that plague and propel science, especially when scientists push against the unknown. What do we know and what do we not know? How does science respond to controversy, attack, and uncertainty? When does theory become accepted fact? As always, Shermer delivers a thought-provoking, fascinating, and entertaining view of life in the scientific age.
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Michael Shermer is the author of The Believing Brain, Why People Believe Weird Things, The Science of Good and Evil, The Mind Of The Market, Why Darwin Matters, Science Friction, How We Believe and other books on the evolution of human beliefs and behavior. He is the founding publisher of Skeptic magazine, the editor of Skeptic.com, a monthly columnist for Scientific American, and an adjunct professor at Claremont Graduate University. He lives in Southern California.
Why Not Knowing
Science and the Search for Meaning
That old Persian tentmaker (and occasional poet) Omar Khayyám well captured the human dilemma of the search for meaning in an apparently meaningless cosmos:
Into this Universe, and Why not knowing,
Nor Whence , like Water willy-nilly flowing;
And out of it, as Wind along the Waste,
I know not Whither , willy-nilly blowing.
It is in the vacuum of such willy-nilly whencing and whithering that we humans are so prone to grasp for transcendent interconnectedness. As pattern-seeking primates we scan the random points of light in the night sky of our lives and connect the dots to form constellations of meaning. Sometimes the patterns are real, sometimes not. Who can tell? Take a look at figure I.1. How many squares are there?
The answer most people give upon first glance is 16 (4 x 4). Upon further reflection, most observers note that the entire figure is a square, upping the answer to 17. But wait! There’s more. Note the 2 x 2 squares. There are 9 of those, increasing our count total to 26. Look again. Do you see the 3 x 3 squares? There are 4 of those, producing a final total of 30. So the answer to a simple question for even such a mundane pattern as this ranged from 16 to 30. Compared to the complexities of the real world, this is about as straightforward as it gets, and still the correct answer is not immediately forthcoming.
Ever since the rise of modern science beginning in the sixteenth century, scientists and philosophers have been aware that the facts never speak for themselves. Objective data are filtered through subjective minds that distort the world in myriad ways. One of the founders of early modern science, the seventeenth-century English philosopher Sir Francis Bacon, sought to overthrow the traditions of his own profession by turning away from the scholastic tradition of logic and reason as the sole road to truth, as well as rejecting the Renaissance (literally “rebirth”) quest to restore the perfection of ancient Greek knowledge. In his great work entitled Novum Organum (“new tool,” patterned after, yet intended to surpass, Aristotle’s Organon), Bacon portrayed science as humanity’s savior that would inaugurate a “Great Instauration,” or a restoration of all natural knowledge through a proper blend of empiricism and reason, observation and logic, data and theory.
Bacon was no naive utopian, however. He understood that there are significant psychological barriers that interfere with our understanding of the natural world, of which he identified four types, which he called idols: idols of the cave (peculiarities of thought unique to the individual that distort how facts are processed in a single mind), idols of the marketplace (the limits of language and how confusion arises when we talk to one another to express our thoughts about the facts of the world), idols of the theater (preexisting beliefs, like theater plays, that may be partially or entirely fictional, and influence how we process and remember facts), and idols of the tribe (the inherited foibles of human thought endemic to all of us—the tribe— that place limits on knowledge). “Idols are the profoundest fallacies of the mind of man,” Bacon explained. “Nor do they deceive in particulars . . . but from a corrupt and crookedly-set predisposition of the mind; which doth, as it were, wrest and infect all the anticipations of the understanding.”
Consider the analogy of a swimming pool with a cleaning brush on a long pole, half in and half out of the water—the pole appears impossibly bent; but we recognize the illusion and do not confuse the straight pole for a bent one. Bacon brilliantly employs something like this analogy in his conclusion about the effects of the idols on how we know what we know about the world: “For the mind of man is far from the nature of a clear and equal glass, wherein the beams of things should reflect according to their true incidence; nay, it is rather like an enchanted glass, full of superstition and imposture, if it be not delivered and reduced.” In the end, thought Bacon, science offers the best hope to deliver the mind from such superstition and imposture. I concur, although the obstacles are greater than even Bacon realized.
For example, do you see a young woman or an old woman in figure I.2?
This is an intentionally ambiguous figure where both are equal in perceptual strength. Indeed, roughly half see the young woman upon first observation, and half see the old woman. For most, the young and old woman image switches back and forth. In experiments in which subjects are first shown a stronger image of the old woman, when shown this ambiguous figure almost all see the old woman first. Subjects who are initially exposed to a stronger image of the young woman, when shown this ambiguous figure almost all see the young woman first. The metaphoric extrapolation to both science and life is clear: we see what we are programmed to see—Bacon’s idol of the theater.
Idols of the tribe are the most insidious because we all succumb to them, thus making them harder to spot, especially in ourselves. For example, count the number of black dots in figure I.3.
The answer, as you will frustratingly realize within a few seconds, is that it depends on what constitutes a “dot.” In the figure itself there are no black dots. There are only white dots on a highly contrasting background that creates an eye-brain illusion of blinking black-and-white dots. Thus, in the brain, one could make the case that there are 35 black dots that exist as long as you don’t look at any one of them directly. In any case, this illusion is a product of how our eyes and brains are wired. It is in our nature, part of the tribe, a product of rods and cones and neurons only. And it doesn’t matter if you have an explanation for the illusion or not; it is too powerful to override.
Figure I.4, the “impossible crate,” is another impossible figure. Can you see why?
All of our experiences have programmed our brains to know that a straight beam of wood in the back of the crate cannot also cross another beam in the front of the crate. Although we know that this is impossible in the real world, and that it is simply an illusion created by a mischievous psychologist, we are disturbed by it nonetheless because it jars our perceptual intuitions about how the world is supposed to work. We also know that this is a two-dimensional figure on a piece of paper, so our sensibilities about the three-dimensional world are preserved. How, then, do you explain figure I.5, a three-dimensional impossible crate?
This is a real crate with a real man standing inside of it. I know because the man is a friend of mine—the brilliant magician and illusionist Jerry Andrus—and I’ve seen the 3-D impossible crate myself. Like other professional magicians and illusionists, Jerry makes his living creating interesting and unusual ways to fool us. He depends on the idols of the tribe operating the same way every time. And they do. Magicians do not normally reveal their secrets, but Jerry has posted this one on the Internet and shown it to countless audiences, so as a lesson in willy-nilly knowing, figure I.6 provides the solution to the 3-D impossible crate.
Buried deep in our tribal instincts are idols of recognizable importance to our personal and cultural lives. As an example of the former, note the striking feature in the photograph from Mars in figure I.7, taken in July 1976 by the Viking Orbiter 1 from a distance of 1,162 miles, as it was photographing the surface in search of a viable landing site for the Viking Lander 2.
The face is unmistakable. Two eye sockets, a nose, and a mouth gash form the rudiments of a human face. What’s that doing on Mars? For decades this feature (about a mile across), as well as others gleaned from eager searchers perceptually poised to confirm their beliefs in extraterrestrial intelligence, claimed it was an example of Martian monumental architecture, the remnants of a once-great civilization now lost to the ravages of time. Numerous articles, books, documentaries, and Web pages breathlessly speculated about this lost Martian civilization, demanding that NASA reveal the truth. This NASA did when it released the photograph of the “face” taken by the Mars Global Surveyor in 2001, seen in figure I.8.
In the light of a high-resolution camera, the “face” suddenly morphs into an oddly eroded mountain range, the product of natural, not artificial, forces. Erosion, not Martians, carved the mountain. This silenced all but the most hard-core Ufologists.
Such random patterns are often seen by humans as faces, such as the “happy face” on Mars “discovered” in 1999 (figure I.9). If astronomers were romantic poets would they find hearts on distant planets, like the one in figure I.9, also from Mars?
We see faces because we were programmed by evolution to see the expressions of those most powerful in our social group, starting with imprinting on the most important faces in our sphere: those of our parents.
We also see at work Bacon’s idols of the cave in the peculiarities of religious icons that often make their appearances in the most unusual of places, such as the famous “nun bun” discovered by a Nashville, Tennessee, coffee shop owner in 1996. The idea of seeing a nun’s face in a pastry provokes laughter among most lay audiences (it was featured on David Letterman’s show, for example). But some deeply religious people flocked to show their reverence when the nun bun was put on display at the Bongo Java coffee shop. (An attorney representing Mother Teresa forced the bun’s owner, Bob Bernstein, to remove her name from the icon.)
Arguably the greatest religious icon in history (after the cross, of course) is the Virgin Mary, who has made routine appearances around the world and throughout history. In 1993, for instance, she appeared on the side of an oak tree in Watsonville, California, a small town whose population is 62 percent Mexican-Americans and whose dominant religion is Catholicism. In 1996 the Virgin Mary manifested on the side of a bank building in Clearwater, Florida. Once again, believers gathered around the icon, often in wheelchairs and on crutches, in some cases hoping to be healed.
A Christian group purchased the building in order to preserve the religious image, fencing off the parking lot, which is now chockablock full of candles lit in veneration. However, as I discovered in visiting the site in 2003, it turns out that there are several Virgin Marys on the sides of this building, appearing wherever there happens to be a sprinkler and a palm tree. The water, contrary to the name of the city, is not so clear. In fact, it is rather brackish, loaded with minerals that stain windows such as these (see figure I.10; the palm tree that originally stood in front of the window where the big Virgin Mary image appears has since been cut down by the owners).
The image is a striking example of the power of beliefs to determine perceptions. Instead of saying, “I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it,” we probably should be saying, “I wouldn’t have seen it if I hadn’t believed it.” As with faces, we see religious icons because we were programmed by history and culture to see those features most representative of those institutions of great power, starting with the religion of our parents.
Nowhere are such idols harder to see in ourselves than the subtle psychological biases we harbor. Consider the confirmation bias, in which we look for and find confirmatory evidence for what we already believe and ignore disconfirmatory evidence. For my monthly column in Scientific American I wrote an essay (June 2003) on the so-called Bible Code, in which the claim is made that the first five books of the Bible—the Pentateuch—in its original Hebrew contain hidden patterns that spell out events in world history, even future history. A journalist named Michael Drosnin wrote two books on the subject, both New York Times bestsellers, in which he claimed in the second volume to have predicted 9/11. My analysis was very skeptical of this claim (I told him in a personal letter that it would have been nice if he had alerted everyone to 9/11 before the event instead of after). He wrote a letter to the magazine (and had an attorney threaten them and me with a libel suit), which they published. In response, I received a most insightful letter from John Byrne, a well-known comic book writer and illustrator of Spider-Man and other superheroes. I reprint it here because he makes the point about this cognitive bias so well.
Reading Michael Drosnin’s response to Michael Shermer’s column on the Bible “code” and its ability to accurately predict the future, I could not help but laugh. I have been a writer and illustrator of comic books for the past 30 years, and in that time I have “predicted” the future so many times in my work my colleagues have actually taken to referring to it as “the Byrne Curse.”
It began in the late 1970s. While working on a Spider-Man series titled “Marvel Team-Up” I did a story about a blackout in New York. There was a blackout the month the issue went on sale (six months after I drew it). While working on “Uncanny X-Men” I hit Japan with a major earthquake, and again the real thing happened the month the issue hit the stands.
Now, those things are fairly easy to “predict,” but consider these: When working on the relaunch of Superman, for DC Comics, I had the Man of Steel fly to the rescue when disaster beset the NASA space shuttle. The Challenger tragedy happened almost immediately thereafter, with time, fortunately, for the issue in question to be redrawn, substituting a “space plane” for the shuttle.
Most recent, and chilling, came when I was writing and drawing “Wonder Woman,” and did a story in which the title character was killed, as a prelude to her becoming a goddess. The cover for that issue was done as a newspaper front page, with the headline “Princess Diana Dies.” (Diana is Wonder Woman’s real name.) That issue went on sale on a Thursday. The following Saturday . . . I don’t have to tell you, do I?
My ability as a prognosticator, like Drosnin’s, would seem assured—provided, of course, we reference only the above, and skip over the hundreds of other comic books I have produced which featured all manner of catastrophes, large and small, which did not come to pass.
In short, we remember the hits and forget the misses, another variation on the confirmation bias.
In recent decades experimental psychologists have discovered a number of cognitive biases that interfere with our understanding of ourselves and our world. The self-serving bias, for example, dictates that we tend to see ourselves in a more positive light than others see us: national surveys show that most businesspeople believe they are more moral than other businesspeople. In one College Entrance Examination Board survey of 829,000 high school seniors, 0 percent rated themselves below average in “ability to get along with others,” while 60 percent put themselves in th...
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