Book Review: Skeptic
by Michael Shermer
Henry Holt, 2016
At one point in his new book, Michael Shermer, founding publisher of Skeptic magazine and columnist for Scientific American, quotes from the great Carl Sagan:
We’ve begun at last to wonder about our origins, star stuff contemplating the stars, organized collections of ten billion billion billion atoms contemplating the evolution of matter, tracing that long path by which it arrived at consciousness here on the planet Earth and perhaps throughout the cosmos. Our obligation to survive and flourish is owed not just to ourselves but also to that cosmos, ancient and vast, from which we spring.
Shermer calls this “spiritual gold,” and rightly so, although the presiding influence over the seventy-five short essays collected in Skeptic (all culled from the pages of Scientific American) isn’t so much Sagan as it is Stephen Jay Gould. Like so many of us, Shermer was enamored of the “This View of Life” column Gould wrote for twenty-five years in the pages of Natural History magazine, and in his own column in Scientific American, he attempts to create a close cousin to Gould’s particular blend of literary scientific humanism.
He succeeds to a greater degree than most die-hard Gould fans might initially expect. It’s true that he can often be found simply filling out column-inches with bloated platitudes (“The human capacity for self-delusion is boundless, and the effects of belief are overpowering,” he informs us at one point, “Thanks to science we have learned to tell the difference between fantasy and reality”), but it’s worth remembering that Gould could sometimes be found doing the same thing, and not always to better effect. And Shermer is an unfailingly snappy writer, weighing in on a wide variety of junk science from UFOs to Sasquatch to spiritualism to creationism and always reminding his readers both of their communal human proclivity for believing nonsense and, doggedly, their communal potential to think things through despite their natural predilections:
Most of us most of the time come to our beliefs for a variety of reasons having little to do with empirical evidence and logical reasoning … Rather, such variables as genetic predisposition, parental predilections, sibling influences, peer pressure, educational experiences, and life impressions all shape the personality preferences and emotional inclinations that, in conjunction with numerous social and cultural influences, lead us to make certain belief choices. Rarely do any of us sit down before a table of facts, weigh them pro and con, and choose the most logical and rational belief, regardless of what we previously believed.
Skeptic is by its very nature a scattershot, sporadic reading experience (not something, it must be said, that was ever true of any of Gould’s many column-collections), but in a world represented, for example, by the ongoing American presidential in which significant portions of the adult population are most certainly not applying any kind of rationality – let alone skepticism – to their candidate-choices, Shermer’s call to think and assess is as badly needed as it ever was while these columns were originally being published.