Announcing My Next Point of Inquiry Guest: Michael Shermer on The Believing Brain

By Chris Mooney | May 29, 2011 7:29 pm

Tomorrow I’m interviewing Michael Shermer, author of the hot selling new book The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies—How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths.

This will be for the show to air on Monday, June 6.

If you have any questions you think I ought to ask Michael, post them here.

I’m reading the book and it is really good so far, though I think I disagree with Shermer slightly–only slightly–about the psychologies of liberals and conservatives. But that’s probably no surprise, as I’m a liberal and he’s a libertarian.

You can order the book here.


Comments (14)

  1. Ask him about his Kurzweil love affair : and with “salvific technologism” in general

    Or how he accepts global warming, but, like Lomborg, downplays how much the “anthropogenic” part of it is:

    Or about Frank Miele and Vincent Sarich being contributors to Skeptic:

    That gives you plenty to ask him; also ask him if his fusion of libertarianism and skepticism isn’t potentially harmful to skepticism.

  2. Chris Mooney

    I looked at the global warming bit. Lomborg and Shermer agree with the science on human causation of global warming. What’s weird is Lomborg’s answer to the question, “How much warmer is it going to get?” Shermer characterizes his response as “Probably a little, very unlikely a lot.” Similarly on the consequences: “very likely the consequences will be minor”. Well, how does he know? And is it a gamble worth taking?

    Shermer continues with the following: “Lomborg (and myself) provisionally accept the estimate of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that the mean global temperature by 2100 will increase by around 4–5 degrees Fahrenheit, and that sea levels will rise by about one foot, which Lomborg reminds us is about the same level that sea levels have risen since 1860, without any major (or for that matter minor) consequences. In other words, man-made global warming will be moderate, causing moderate changes.”

    Even assuming this is right (which I question, there are many worse scenarios, and the IPCC’s sea level estimate is controversial), what about after 2100? Eventually the biggest risk is that land based ice melts from the polar regions–especially Greenland. We don’t know how fast this is happening, though there are troubling signs. If it happens, sea levels rise dramatically, potentially submerging many coastal cities. This is moderate?

  3. I’m a big fan of Shermer, but it saddens me a little on his unskeptical view on AGW. But I still think he’s tremendously valuable in promoting skepticism and science in areas such as Creationism/Evolution. I can’t wait for the interview.

    I enjoy your PoI interviews, and I just wanted to say that your George Lakoff interview from several weeks back was just really fantastic.

  4. I just ordered this book the other day on amazon. Shermer seems like an interesting chap.

    This may be a boring question, but I wonder what he thinks of the “new atheists” – is their approach psychologically naive? Do atheists need to take a more nuanced approach to prevent people from reflexively taking a polarized view on the matter? (i.e. just as staunch political partisans are more likely to become *more* convinced of their rectitude when they read conflicting dissonance-causing information, are theists more likely to recede into the cocoon of self-comforting delusions when faced with new atheists ramming reason down their throat?

    Also, I wonder if he has read Scott Atran’s book “In Gods We Trust”, and what he makes of the central argument, namely that “religion” parasites on a number of innate (psychological) modules that evolved for diverse, non-religious reasons, i.e. it’s an evolutionary byproduct.

    [Sorry if this gets posted twice]

  5. One more: ask Shermer what he thinks about a 4C, NOT a 2C temperature rise by 2100:

  6. Chris Mooney

    Let us quote Kerry Emanuel’s recent testimony before Congress:

    “3. Historically, scientists have tended to underestimate risk.
    4. Notwithstanding any of the above, there is universal agreement among scientists that current assessments of climate change risk are highly uncertain.
    5. There is no scientific basis for the confidence expressed by some that the effects of climate
    change will be benign”

  7. Stephen Goeman

    Hey Chris– I have a question as someone who has read Shermer’s other books. This sounds (from the title at least) to not be very distinct at all from his other books on the psychology of belief and skepticism. Can you ask him what’s new in this book, what will motivate readers of “How We Believe” or “Why People Believe Weird Things” to pick this one up?

    Keep up the good work!

  8. Nullius in Verba

    “Eventually the biggest risk is that land based ice melts from the polar regions–especially Greenland. […] If it happens, sea levels rise dramatically, potentially submerging many coastal cities. This is moderate?”

    Estimates of the time it would take to do that are in the thousands of years. The central plateau is about 2 km high, which makes it around 12-20 C colder than sea level, which hardly ever gets above 10 C anyway. There would be some extra surface melting, but the net effect in central Greenland is still to accumulate snow faster than it can be lost (hence those ice cores), and it would take sustained and extreme warming to overcome that. Currently, as far as I know, the mass balance is dominated by precipitation versus gravity flow, and temperature has relatively little effect. However, it’s controversial, as you said, and the IPCC considered it too poorly understood to even estimate.

    And coastal cities are often on land that – if left to nature – rises and falls with the sea. Flood defences do cause problems with land subsidence, but they do anyway, irrespective of sea level. A slow enough rate of change can be handled easily with current technology.

    However, those are good questions to ask.

  9. He Chris…from my perspective, it would be interesting to know what Shermer thinks about the role of science education, both formal (classroom) and informal (museums/science centers/other media), on the formation of belief systems. What is the nature of its impact, and can it play a material role in modifying belief systems…Thanks

  10. Chris Mooney

    @9 Science education isn’t going to do much to unseat strong beliefs. Shermer and I will strongly agree about this I expect….

  11. Sean McCorkle


    A couple of reactions to the question in #9 and #10:

    What about science education at an age level before undesirable beliefs “set in”? Can something positive be said about early intervention? And what about the quality of education (not just the level)? I’m sure there are a lot of studies that back up #10, but do they treat education as a binary value: yes, person has it, or no they haven’t, tacitly assuming that all individuals have been exposed to the same level of instruction on average? If so, I think that’s a problem. Somewhere on Panda’s Thumb or someplace there was a survey that revealed a high percentage of HS biology teachers who didn’t believe in evolution themselves. So how can we expect their students to receive proper exposure to evolution? I know education quality questions are hard to deal with quantitatively, but I feel they are important, especially before we dismiss science education as a possible cure. Maybe its the disparity of quality of education that really needs to be addressed.

    I ask this in the larger context of a point that you have raised previously, that we need to reexamine the Enlightenment. That’s something that I find profoundly disturbing for many reasons, not least of which is that I fear you are correct. Among other worries I have about potentially abandoning principles that lifted the west out of the dark ages centuries ago, the issue for me here is the potential for institutionalizing a perception that some—maybe most—people will never reach a level where they can be counted on to make an objective evaluation of reality, and so will have to be treated differently, thus perpetuating a social subclass by an education process of low expectations (oh, we won’t bother teaching them that because they can’t really comprehend it anyway) rather than one which challenges the students to become more than they are.

  12. Chris Mooney

    Well the show is recorded. We got into it a bit about global warming. You’ll hear.

    We also did “accommodationism.” What fun.

    We didn’t get that into this last point, about education and beliefs. The point is not so much that we can’t learn, it’s that we can’t really be skeptical of deeply held beliefs and learning doesn’t protect us from biased reasoning in favor of deeply held convictions. Better education probably even makes that particular kind of problem worse.

    Sean, you raise much bigger questions….I may have to devote another post to them.

  13. Chris (and sidebar to Sean), this fits well your MoJo story on how (and why) we “reason.” To make statements to an in-group, and to fortify that in-group against out-groups, more knowledge is a plus indeed. So the idea that more scientific knowledge could increase AGW denialism isn’t surprising.

    OTOH, this doesn’t translate to everything. Witness many people who become atheists or agnostics precisely as a result of knowing more and more about the Bible.


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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.


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