Michael Shermer in Toronto

So here I was, ready to do my first Skeptic North post about the Philosophy of Skepticism, when out of the blue, Michael Shermer flies into Toronto to give his “Why People Believe Weird Things” talk (based on his book of the same name) at my university. Because of this, I decided to do a brief write-up of the talk instead.

Michael Shermer

Let me start by saying that I was impressed with the quality and scope of the talk. He gave straightforward, albeit familiar explanations of the evolutionary origins of weird beliefs with concepts like “patternicity” (the ability to find meaningful patterns in meaningless noise) and “agenticity” (the tendency to assign agency to everything — a clever re-formulation of Dennett’s intentional stance). The talk was well thought out, and worth seeing. You can check out an abridged version of the talk on the TED Website.

I was introduced to the skeptical movement backwards, by any reasonable standard. Most people I know can point to one (or a few) influential people or works that struck a chord with them, and caused them to go out in search of more. I, on the other hand, discovered the movement in a more general sense, through blogs and podcasts, and I’m now in the process of going back and exposing myself to material that brought other people into the skeptical movement. For example, it was suggested by a friend that Carl Sagan’s Demon Haunted World was an excellent introduction to the world of skepticism (and it is). My overall impression of Dr. Shermer’s talk was how much it resembled Sagan’s book — not in the sense that the material was copied, so much as how both tended to hit on the same major topics in skepticism and provide a great overview of the movement. It’s now evident why Shermer’s presentation is still in demand, more than a decade after the publication of his book, Why People Believe Weird Things.

Michael Shermer

A point in the talk that really jumped out at me was Shermer’s “God of the government” slide, equating the common argument for government intervention with the God of the gaps argument. In it, we get some insight into Dr. Shermer’s libertarian leanings, though in a way that’s still very much grounded in skepticism.

“We don’t know how X could occur naturally; therefore it must have occurred supernaturally.”
“We don’t know how to solve X privately; therefore we must solve it through government.”

I believe this argument suffers from a practical problem. Whereas scientists are allowed to say “I don’t know”, matters of the economy tend to be rather urgent and a sloppy solution is often better than deferred action. However, I do think that the “God of the government” argument has merit. While it’s true that a government solution can often be necessary (due to market failure) or even superior to a private solution (as is the case in certain insurance markets), very few people seem to be able to articulate why this is the case. For example, I’m confident that most people reading this post believe that government-provided universal health insurance is a superior option to private health insurance. I’m less confident, however, that most people reading this have thought about why they believe this to be the case, aside from a weird type of national pride, or anecdotal evidence of the success and failures of both schemes (both, rather un-skeptical reasons for holding a belief). Whether or not you are a libertarian, there’s always value in questioning why you hold the beliefs that you do, and whether they are correct.

Overall, though I had seen parts of the talk before, they were worth seeing again. If you haven’t seen it yet… well, you should, because I posted a link to it earlier. Here it is again: http://www.ted.com/talks/michael_shermer_on_believing_strange_things.html

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  • Mitchell Gerskup

    Mitchell Gerskup recently graduated from the University of Toronto with a degree in Economics and Philosophy. An avid atheist and skeptic, he has served as the President of the University of Toronto Secular Alliance, helping to promote science, reason and critical thinking around Toronto. He also volunteers with the Centre for Inquiry’s Ontario branch, and currently sits on the CFI’s Committee for the Advancement of Scientific Skepticism. Mitchell is also an accomplished competitive debater, having debated all across Canada. In addition to issues of economics and philosophy, Mitchell is interested in the fields of science and technology.