“There is no utopia. There’s no perfect system. The world will always be a mess. The best we can do is use reason wherever we can, try to make informed decisions — and have eternal vigilance!”
Dr Michael Shermer is the founding publisher of Skeptic magazine, book author, a monthly columnist for Scientific American and general media spokesperson for thinking critically. Rocketday worked with Michael from 2005 through early 2009 as his webmaster, designing websites and publishing a weekly email magazine, watching it grow from 8,000 to 34,000 subscribers. We caught up with Michael last week, as he returned from presenting at this year’s TED, and asked him to introduce his work for our readers.
What can we do to promote critical thinking in our society?
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The process of education is what we do at Skeptic. We teach critical thinking and science. We grab people with things they’re already interested in — like the paranormal, big foot, ufos, conspiracy theories and all that — and then encourage readers to think about them critically. Of course that’s just our little niche, which is pretty minor compared to the larger education system.
Though I’m impressed by programs such as the KIPP program — I’m discouraged by the public school system in general. I think we need to change the whole school system towards individualized education and provide something like what The Teaching Company does — use the internet so that everyone is getting the best lectures from the very best professors in that field, regardless of where they live. iTunes U is a spectacular thing — great material posted online and it’s all free. Of course TED Talks does this too. Empowering the individual, through access to knowledge — that’s where the future is for education.
What does Skeptic magazine do to promote critical thinking?
There are pretty tried and true critical thinking methods that have been developed over the last couple decades. We follow some of that, but we also do some of our own thing. It’s just basic principles of writing clearly, and presenting evidence for and against claims.
I think we need to do more in electronic media — more on the web, more television, more radio. You can reach a lot more people with those media than with print. We’re not going to give up print, but one has to use more of the other media as well.
What are the limits of reason? When should it be used in conjunction with memory, intuition and imagination?
Teaching reason is what we do. But all of those other capabilities are important. In daily life, most of the decisions we make are under great uncertainty, using intuitive hunches.
Why is skeptical thinking important?
Well, just recently a bomb detector device was being sold to the Iraqi government by a British scam artist, basically the old “quadro tracker” from the 90s, reinvented to find bombs instead of finding golf balls or marijuana [see Michael demonstrate this in his 2006 TED video below]. But these new ones are being sold for $40,000 a piece to detect bombs. The guy behind it [Jim McCormick, who sold them to the Iraqi government for $85 million dollars] is in jail now for fraud. It was proven that it doesn’t work, and he knew it. It was a scam, a flim-flam. And this is an example of the harm when you don’t use skeptical thinking. These Iraqi soldiers let people by, based on whether this little tracker — just a little water dousing device — told them it was okay or not. And people died. People die with bad ideas.
I know you are friends with Richard Dawkins, who’s known for wanting less religion in the world. What would you like to see in the world?
Like Dawkins, we at Skeptic are fans of reason. But I’m not as worried about religion as Dawkins is. I mean, most religious people I meet are pretty nice. They’re not flying planes into the side of buildings or anything like that. It’s extremism in all walks of life that is the problem. So less extremism, more tolerance. And I think one of the grand solutions of that is just more exposure to other people and ideas. Research does show that travel makes people more tolerant, and open-minded toward different ideas. The internet and television are a great way to do that, if you can’t physically travel. For people of good will, who genuinely disagree with each other and aren’t going to change their minds — tolerance is our way forward.