MICHAEL SHERMER PH.D.: AN HONEST SKEPTIC WORTH LEARNING FROM
Melvin L Morse MD FAAP (spiritualscientific.com)
Michael Shermer has a great smirk! As well he should. He is a rare writer who can eviscerate his opponents with wit, style, and compassion. In fact, one reason he is so effective as a skeptic is precisely because he understands the underlying issues which make people believe weird things, and he uses those understandings when he reviews, for example, a phone device designed to help us to communicate with the dead. He writes a great column for Scientific American, he quotes Carl Sagan, Stephen Jay Gould writes the Foreword to his book Why People Believe Weird Things. What’s not to like about Dr. Shermer, who has a real Ph.D. in the Philosophy of Science, but does not pretend to be a scientist, but rather promotes himself as the journalist and great writer and thinker that he is.
Dr. Shermer has made two enormous contributions to my own thinking about near death experiences and spiritual visions:
1. He does an outstanding job of outlining and defining the numerous ways that we fool ourselves into believing what we want to believe, and think we are being rational and logical.
2. He has true understanding and compassion for the human condition, which is to try to make sense out of the chaotic and incomprehensable universe we are all faced with. I say compassion, as that is what is so often lacking in the “skeptic”. My work is primarily with grieving parents. When a child dies, one of the worst tasks of grieving is to deal with a Universe which has suddenly become meaningless. One’s sense of god and the natural order is frequently obliterated by the death of a child. So often, our sense of god and the natural order define what it means to be alive. Dr. Shermer does as outstanding job of illustrating and defining this issue.
When a parent has a spiritual vision such as a child returning from death to reassure them, they themselves will often agonize over whether or not the experience was “real” or a trick of the mind to help them understand and reinterpret the death of their child. We all face this issue at one time or another in our lives. Is there a “real” god out there who can provide a sense of meaning for us, or do we simply create order and meaning in an otherwise random and chaotic universe.
With regards to his first contribution:
Our research on parents having premonitions of the sudden unexpected death of their child had a prospective control group in which we asked parents for an entire year to record any and all premonitions, dreams, and feelings they might have about their child. We did this after I read one of Dr. Shermer’s books, as we wanted to make sure that we documented how often premonitions of death occur in the normal population, that are not followed by a sudden death. I was surprised to learn that such premonitions were far more common than I realized. About 5% of our control patients has vividly real premonitions that a child or even a parent was going to die, and yet it did not actually happen. Our SIDS group had a 33% rate of such vivid premonitions, a statistically significant finding.
My favorite example of humans believing weird things comes not from the world of the paranormal that Dr. Shermer likes to expose, but from the world of conventional science. Back at the turn of the last century, the scientific world was astonished to learn about X-rays, invisible rays that had important medical and scientific effects. Soon, other scientists discovered “N” rays, thought to be a cousin to X-rays. There were numerous articles published about these mysterious N rays, in prestigious medical and scientific journals, until finally it was sadly recognized that N rays were simply a product of overactive scientific imaginations.
Even in modern times, medical science has had such false beliefs. As a young physician, I was taught to use a drug called theophylline for asthma. It was important to monitor drug levels, and we all had the experience of seeing patients come in with low drug levels, giving them boluses of the drug, raising their levels and seeing the patient improve. Unfortunately, solid research came out showing that theophylline in fact did not help in the treatment of asthma, and overnight it disappeared from hospitals.
With regards to his understanding of the human need to create myths and stories which explain our lives: I cannot emphasize the importance of this contribution enough. This is in fact the core issue with regards to understanding the role of spirituality in our lives. We don’t want to be duped by con artists, and we want to know if our spiritual understandings which define our lives simply come from our own minds, or from “out there”. This issue resonates in almost every aspect of consciousness research, from understanding if we can see a “real” god by taking LSD, to understanding Andrew Newburg’s work on areas in the brain which are associated with perceptions of “god”, to understanding if NDEs are real.
My only criticism of Dr. Shermer is that I wish he would apply his high powered intellect and considerable resources to the issues with regards to spirituality and consciousness. Come on Dr. Shermer, exposing frauds who are selling phones to talk to the dead, and debating the afterlife with Depok Chopra? Okay, you’ve done it. Now I would like to see you go toe to toe with Paul Smith, Remote Viewer and Ph.D. candidate in the Philosophy of Science at the University of Texas, or let me visit you and learn your real opinion of random event generators. The literature demonstrating that the human mind can effect the data stream of a quantum based random number generator is pretty weak, but I would like you to see my two year old daughter shout “down, down” at the machine, and see it instantly organize its data stream to the 99% and explain what all that means. Now its time for you to step up your game and tackle some of the more difficult issues in consciousness and spirituality research.