September 27, 2014

Michael Shermer, meet Barbara Ehrenreich: two self-flunked not-so-#skeptics

Mr. & Mrs. Michael Shermer; not a ghost of a chance?
I've already blogged about Ehrenreich and her new book on alleged teenage mystical experience, starting with a long book review and then adding blogging thoughts about the psychological struggles I see lying behind both the teen and the modern Ehrenreich.

Well, now, Michael Shermer, at a minimum, leaves himself open to the criticism and interpretation of seeming to have dived even deeper into the ex-skeptic pool, but all based on recent adult experience.

He married the loverly Jennifer Graf (more related to this further down) just a few months ago. Shermer notes that she was raised by her mother, and describes her late grandfather, Walter, as "the closest father figure she had growing up, but he died when she was 16."

Anyway, Ms. Graf is a native of Germany. Before their marriage, they had her possessions shipped over here to the States.

Among them was one item of sentimental value once owned by her grandfather, an old radio.

Shermer gives the details:
His 1978 Philips 070 transistor radio arrived safely, so I set out to bring it back to life after decades of muteness. I put in new batteries and opened it up to see if there were any loose connections to solder. I even tried “percussive maintenance,” said to work on such devices—smacking it sharply against a hard surface. Silence. We gave up and put it at the back of a desk drawer in our bedroom.
OK, so Shermer admits he's not a professional electronics repairman, while also letting us know that he could have hit the radio hard enough to jiggle something loose.

Moving on ...

We're at their at-home wedding and reception, when this:
Being 9,000 kilometers from family, friends and home, Jennifer was feeling amiss and lonely. She wished her grandfather were there to give her away. She whispered that she wanted to say something to me alone, so we excused ourselves to the back of the house where we could hear music playing in the bedroom. We don't have a music system there, so we searched for laptops and iPhones and even opened the back door to check if the neighbors were playing music. We followed the sound to the printer on the desk, wondering—absurdly—if this combined printer/scanner/fax machine also included a radio. Nope.

At that moment Jennifer shot me a look I haven't seen since the supernatural thriller The Exorcist startled audiences. “That can't be what I think it is, can it?” she said. She opened the desk drawer and pulled out her grandfather's transistor radio, out of which a romantic love song wafted. We sat in stunned silence for minutes. “My grandfather is here with us,” Jennifer said, tearfully. “I'm not alone.”
First, we have a clearly emotional situation for both, which he later admits. And, doubly so for her.

However, he seems to "recover" with this observation:
What does this mean? Had it happened to someone else I might suggest a chance electrical anomaly and the law of large numbers as an explanation. ... In any case, such anecdotes do not constitute scientific evidence that the dead survive or that they can communicate with us via electronic equipment.
All would be fine and dandy if he ended there.

Next, he tells us:
Yet the eerie conjunction of these deeply evocative events gave her the distinct feeling that her grandfather was there and that the music was his gift of approval. I have to admit, it rocked me back on my heels and shook my skepticism to its core as well. I savored the experience more than the explanation.
Seemingly, he wants to believe. Not just wanted to believe, then, past tense, but wants, present tense, a couple of months later. Note the "had it happened to someone else" caveat from the previous pull quote. And, add to it that, even with others, he "might suggest a chance electrical anomaly." Not "would suggest," but "might suggest."

And, we're still not quite done.

But, he doesn't.

First, though, I want to go to the first sentence from the paragraph where the last pull quote came from, which says:
Jennifer is as skeptical as I am when it comes to paranormal and supernatural phenomena.
Sounds great, right? Also sounds like a typical "pitch," with the pitchman establishing his alleged bona fides before making the sale.

Now, let's go to his last sentence:
And if we are to take seriously the scientific credo to keep an open mind and remain agnostic when the evidence is indecisive or the riddle unsolved, we should not shut the doors of perception when they may be opened to us to marvel in the mysterious.
Boy, is that laden with loopholes, both stated and unstated.

First, true scientific investigation would have taken the radio to a repairman. Note that Shermer said he HAD changed batteries, so a normal power source for the radio was in place. Change in humidity or other things could have caused a connection to be made. A transistor radio would then have played for what? About a day, that's what, until the batteries died.

Indeed, he didn't even have to start by taking the radio to a repairman. A scientific investigation, or a semi-scientific skeptical investigation, would have started with carefully, carefully removing the old, dead batteries from the radio -- carefully so as not to jar again whatever loose wiring, or loose crud that can build up on batteries and connections -- Shermer presumably jarred loose with banging the radio in the first place. Then, replace the batteries with fresh ones! If it plays, voila! Solution and answer.

Second, both a true skeptic and a true scientist wouldn't operate off "sample size = 1." That's even more so when a true skeptic or a true scientist recognize that when that "1 = yourself," you don't have single-blinding, let alone double-blinding.

Third, a true skeptic, and a true philosopher, would recognize the logical fallacy or fallacies being committed. I could argue that they include shifting the burden of proof, appeal to authority, the regression fallacy (since he claims the event's importance is what it is, without looking at its cause), and the bull's-eye fallacy, also called the sharpshooter fallacy (relates to that "sample size =  1).

Fourth, you can't tell me that the phrase "the doors of perception" isn't a deliberate play toward Aldous Huxley's book of that name. Fifth, the phrase "marvel in the mysterious" also tells me Shermer wants to believe.

Thus, I have to agree with the current top commenter on the story page; the last paragraph is an embarrassment.  Next thing, Michael Shermer will join Barbara Ehrenreich in writing a book about his teenaged mystical experiences. And, per that note, and feedback I've gotten, if I'm misinterpreting this piece, I'm not alone; I may be taking my interpretation up a step from that commenter, but we're in the same neighborhood.

Barbara Drescher, maybe it's time you write about your new boss as part of blogging about why smart people do (or believe) stupid things. Beyond her, I wonder what Jim Lippard, Daniel Loxton and others at Insight think about this. I know I'm not alone in my interpretation. Besides the scornful first commenter on the piece, another person, on the place on Facebook where I saw this shared, invokes Marcello Truzzi, who fell out of the modern skeptical movement precisely because he wanted to treat the study of paranormal phenomena with too much use of intellectual kid gloves.

Does Shermer actually "believe"? I don't think so. But, the eagerness of his degree of "wanting to believe" is, in itself, highly anti-skeptical and strong enough to leave him open to the charge that he does appear to actually believe, at a minimum.

And, if Shermer didn't want to leave himself open to critique like this, at a minimum, he didn't have to write the piece he actually did write, since he had a couple of months of reflection time since the wedding. At a maximum, he didn't have to write anything.

Also, is Scientific American now embarrassed by this? No Tweet and no Facebook post about it, though it does a lot of other stuff on both its social media.


Sidebar: Now that he's married, that puts up another (theoretically) obstacle to his (alleged) pantsitis, which I discuss in moderate depth in this post about the James Randi Educational Foundation's problems with finances, alleged sexism, and apparent founder's syndrome, and with a more narrow focus, this piece about Shermer's alleged sexual behavior problems.

Also, per that "pantsitis" issue, which I discuss in those two blog posts linked two paragraphs up, that picture of the Mr. and Mrs., while not quite cradle robbing, seems to indicate a full decade of age difference, at least. If there's fire behind the smoke of sex-related allegations against him, the picture's a partial explainer.

So, arguably the three biggest leaders in movement skepticism today are an ill-healthed octegenarian with founder's syndrome (Randi), a mystic pseudoskeptic with a pants problem (Shermer), and a libertarian-leaning lawyer with his own baggage (Ron Lindsay of Center for Inquiry). Seriously, who would want to be involved with that until the Augean stables are cleansed?

At the same time, an overall good roundup here of why PZ Myers has no business criticizing anybody else's sexual behavior. Liquor him up as much as Shermer may have been at times, and the yucky behavior toward women he sometimes has shown himself would probably be at the level of rumors of criminal behavior on his own part.


Sidebar 2: If it's all for the sake of love, then surely the irrationality of love had Shermer ready to feel this way before the wedding, and will do so in the future, too. And, that's probably another reason I'm single. It's not romantic idealism about marriage or other romantic partnerships; it's compatibility idealism.


Sidebar 3: I don't think that most people at a skeptics' group who are commenting on my posting this there are actually reading through to read all of this.

No comments: