Last Thursday (10/14/2010) I went to see Michael Shermer speak at the University of Minnesota’s Willey Hall (timely write-up fail!). Dr. Shermer was presenting ”Why People Believe Weird Things”. His visit was sponsored/organized by the Campus Atheists, Skeptics and Humanists (CASH) group at the U of M.
I liked the lecture hall set-up – the back wall is rounded and the room focuses the audience’s attention down to the center of the room where the speaker is presenting. But instead of having one screen and the people on the sides getting cruddy views, the room has two gigantic screens angled so that no matter where you sit you’ll have a decent view of the material.
Map of Willey Hall
Before the talk Dr. Shermer checked his set up, then hung around up front chatting with people. The presentation started about 15 minutes late, but that was okay because people kept streaming in. Dr. Shermer was introduced by the CASH activities director, and then we were off.
He started by telling us about Skeptic Magazine and the Skeptic’s Society and he did a quick review of the topics covered on the screens up front.
The pre-talk display was these six covers of Skeptic Magazine, of which Michael Shermer is the Founding Publisher
One of the comments that Dr. Shermer made early on really stuck with me. He presented the idea that smart people are very good at rationalizing their non-intelligent choices and beliefs. I think that, like anyone, skeptics can make poor choices when we weigh evidence against our personal beliefs, and we choose gut over facts (I’m still struggling with Penn and Teller’s BS episode on recycling). In the Q&A at the end of the talk, someone asked him to give some examples of the weird things skeptics believe. He chose politics – ask a liberal why they believe what they believe, and they’ll tell you it’s because they’re right about x topic, and that yes, they believe that 50% of Americans who vote for Republicans/conservativism are wrong. Confirmation bias, anyone?
Dr. Shermer showed this slide during his talk.
Dr. Shermer was all about using the humor to get ideas across. He was discussing the need for science education in America, and used this video got a LOT of laughs:
After that Dr. Shermer dug into some basic cognitive science topics like association learning and patternicity. He gave a broad-level overview of some neuroscience studies that have attempted to explain where and what in the brain may be responsible for patternicity. He showed some great illusions that illuminate how our brain handles facial recognition, and he presented his idea for how this might be related to the phenomenon of déjà vu. He demonstrated how granularity, shading and camera position in photos can be used to trick our brain into making assumptions about what we’re looking at, and even into seeing things that aren’t there.
Jerry Andrus’s 3D impossible crate
Our Lady of the Chicago Underpass
Next he discussed agenticity: the tendency to believe that the world is controlled by invisible intentional agents. This moved us further into the realms of conspiracy, skepticism and pseudoscience. Dr. Shermer believes that human agenticity is behind animism, aliens, the 9/11 Conspiracy, JFK’s assassination, etc. He discussed mind versus brain (“Mind is just the thing that the brain does”) and the brain’s role in creating near-death experiences and out-of-body experiences, as well as the phenomenon of sensed presence, or the feeling that someone is in the room with you.
He also demonstrated how the priming effect works with a fun example. Do you remember the hysteria in the 1980s when some people thought that if you played rock and roll records backwards you could hear satanic lyrics or chanting? Dr. Shermer played Stairway to Heaven forward and backward for us. When he played it forward he put the lyrics on the screen. Then he played the song backward – without lyrics. It sounded like a bunch of gobbledy-gook. Then he played the song backwards for us again, but this time with these devised lyrics on the screen:
So here’s to my Sweet Satan.
The other’s little path
Would make me sad,
Whose power is faith.
He’ll give those with him 666.
And all the evil fools,
they know he made
us suffer sadly.
And it sure sounded like they were singing those words when we listened to it again. Fun with tricking the brain!
Dr. Shermer managed to fit in a few more topics like why cold reading works (when someone goes to a psychic they’ll remember the hits (5-10 hits), but forget the misses (200-300), synchronicity, confirmation bias and expectation violation.
At the end of the talk we had about 30 minutes for Q&A. There was a good mix of Q&A topics – cognitive neuroscience, pseudoscience, belief, atheism. Nobody was too bumbling, although there were a few cringe-worthy seconds here and there while people rambled or struggled to get their question out. There were no confrontational questions.
A few of my favorite moments from the Q&A
- Dr. Shermer using Good Kirk vs. Bad Kirk to explain why emotions are necessary to decision-making. Good Kirk is pretty accurate portrayal of what would happen without emotions.
- “Don’t teach people what to think, but how to think.”
- Someone asked if we could we erase memories like in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The answer started out pretty party line (“We don’t yet know how we store memories, so we don’t yet know how to erase them), but somewhere along the line he managed to get to “Aliens are going to be so incredibly different from us.” I don’t remember how we got there, but in reading my notes it seems like a fabulous non sequitur.
I enjoyed the talk, both the material and the way Dr. Shermer presented. I’m really happy that the Campus Atheists, Skeptics and Humanists (CASH) were able to organize the talk and the $4 entry fee was very kind. Next year CASH is bringing Jen McCreight from BlagHag to the U of M – yay!