Christian Long

Michael Shermer: Strange Beliefs

In TED Talks on April 17, 2010 at 11:18 pm

Reflection by JACKSON H.

Original TED page w/ speaker bio, links, comments, etc:

Michael Shermer:   Strange Beliefs

When Michael Shermer came on stage and began talking about the Skeptics Society, I was skeptical of the merits of the organization. In my opinion, having an organization dedicated to a certain topic dilutes the ideas of the topic, because the organization is often so caught up in being a society that they fail to really concentrate on the ideological focus of the group.

However, after Shermer talked for a while, I was convinced that the Skeptics Society is filled not only with good critics, but also (if Shermer himself is any judge) people with a fantastic sense of humor. While I’ll admit that the dry humor helped to win me over, he strikes on solid ideas that really dismantle most sensationalism and other forms of mass media mania. His talk really illustrates several points that I’ve had issue with concerning sensationalism in the media.

Point #1 – People lie. Shocking, I know.

The fact is, people will lie for just about any reason, including for almost no reason at all. Most of the time, this is to either (a) get out of trouble, or (b) get more attention, or (c) make money. Shermer, right off the bat, illustrates the monetary value of falsehood immediately. “This,” he says, while holding up a strange device, “is the Quadro 2000 Dowser Rod. It was being sold, for $900, to high school administrators apiece.” After explaining that the gizmo is simply a construction of cheap electrical parts, he explains that “[it] dowses for marijuana in high school students’ lockers.” He proceeds to demonstrate the device, with little success, all the while showing that anyone can make claims, but it takes a good bit of dowsing in itself to find the true claims amongst the heap of lies.

Point #2 – People only care about success.

After demonstrating (or, more arguably, failing to demonstrate) the dowsing rod, Shermer points out that the device does indeed work – if one opens enough lockers. But any high school principal that had shelled out 900 bucks for a slab of plastic and metal would certainly contend that the device wasn’t perfect, and look! We caught this guy. No, Mr. Principal, you used the process of elimination. Simon & Garfunkel said it best in The Boxer: “Still, a man hears what he wants to hear, and disregards the rest.”

Point #3 – Occam’s razor is not only useful; it should be your first recourse.

Occam’s razor is a philosophic guideline that requests that when multiple explanations are present, use the simplest one unless/until it is proven wrong; at that point move to the next simplest. When you start with the simplest ideas, instead of the most complicated, you end up with much more plausible explanations, and in most cases, these are the explanations that are proven correct. As Shermer demonstrates, when the choice has to be made between believing in extraterrestrial intelligent life or believing in the power of Photoshop, Occam’s razor dictates that Photoshop is the culprit – and indeed, it is. Almost any “paranormal” events can be explained by a combination of points 1 & 3.

Point #4 – You are human. Therefore, you are biased.

As a human being, you are caught up in the whirlwind of connection. We want to understand what all our friends are laughing about, so that we can laugh too. We want to be able to share an emotion, be it happiness, love, humor, surprise, or even sadness. Because of this, we want to believe that there really are aliens, or that there really is a “face” on Mars, or that psychics can really predict your future. In this way, we get caught in the trap of disregarding what we don’t care about so that we can focus on the success – the thing we do care about (See point #2).

Point #5 – People will see whatever you tell them to see.

Shermer points this out quite remarkably with his “hidden message” contained in Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven. After he plays the song in reverse for the first time, no one in the audience can hear a thing – just a mass of gibberish. However, after he produces what you’re “supposed” to hear, it’s incredibly clear – Led Zeppelin is simply a channel for the whims of Satan. How on earth could you have missed this? Here’s a wild notion – it wasn’t there in the first place. This is why lawyers aren’t allowed to prompt a witness in court – it’s one of the strongest ways of getting a person to see something your way. Simply get the first strike in, and whoever you’re talking to will see whatever you want them to – because they expect to see it.

***

After Shermer points all these out, it’s an easy thing to wonder how anyone could be dumb enough to actually purchase a dowsing rod for marijuana, or believe the existence of aliens. While there’s no easy answer to this question, my best guess is that we fabricate stories and ideas so that we can introduce a little bit of insanity into our lives. With all the masses of upstanding, rigorous, sane procedures of life, it makes us feel a little bit better to believe that there are things that are just unexplainable.

And I’d trade complete knowledge of everything for a bit more happiness any day of the week.

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