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Staff Reporter 

Shermer lecture shines light on closed minds

Expert 'skeptic' thoughts on debunking the bunk


November 16, 2017

Eastern Washington University

Dr. Michael Shermer speaks Nov. 9 at EWU's Hargraves Hall.

Dr. Michael Shermer did what he does best before a full house in the second-floor former library at Eastern Washington University's Hargreaves Hall last Nov. 9. Try to offer some light into the oft darkness of a closed mind.

Noted for his many appearances on the television programs from Dateline to Charlie Rose and Oprah - but never Jerry Springer - Shermer's visit was part of EWU President Dr. Mary Cullinan's "President's Forum for Critical Thought" and later saw him lecture in Spokane.

The author of the New York Times' bestseller, "Why People Believe Weird Things" plus many others, Shermer draws upon his 30 years as a psychologist historian of science to challenge the traditional thinking about how humans form their beliefs.

You might have heard about fake news and alternative facts, terms some may think as being new he told the audience. "There's nothing new about it."

"There's no such things as alternative anything," Shermer said. "It's the stuff we know and the stuff we don't."

As the publisher of Skeptic Magazine, a publication that celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, Shermer's job is to debunk the bunk - and there's plenty of the latter out in the world today.

He spoke, for instance, of people who join cults. No one ever purposely joined one but rather thought they were going to change the world.

"No one thought they were going to join a group they thought would destroy them," Shermer said.

Shermer touched on the "backfire effect" where in certain circles, when presented with information intended to change minds, the end result can be a doubling down of the previously held beliefs.

"Have you ever noticed, when you are in a conversation with somebody - climate change, evolutionary theory, something like that - that when you present them with the facts they almost always change their mind?" Shermer asked, but paused to remind the audience that almost NEVER happens.

Not only will they not change their mind when presented with contradictory facts, they will become even further entrenched.

Studies show about 90 percent of people, no matter what political persuasion, agree science is good he said, but not when it bumps up against strong beliefs.

Fear of the teaching of evolutionary theory, or accepting man-made climate change in some circles, it is thought, will corrupt morals, which leads to a slippery slope doom.

Or there's the anti-vaccination part of the population where the skeptics line up on either side: either Big Government is doing something bad or it's Big Pharma.

"It has nothing to do with vaccines, it's someone telling me what I'm going to do with my children," Shermer said. Government can't tell them what to do, nor can corporations make money on the practice.

He took jabs at both conservative and liberal views on topics such as the Zika virus. The right believed its spread was tied to immigration, while the left said climate change was the culprit.

"When one has a belief that is in conflict with the facts, something's got to go," Shermer said. "Either the belief's got to change or the facts have to change."

It happens with the end-of-the-world crowd where there always seems to be a mathematical error when the clock reached midnight on Doomsday.

It's similar, Shermer said, to the controversial search for weapons of mass destruction that perpetrated the invasion of Iraq, or belief in UFOs. The less evidence, the more concrete the convictions he said.

Shermer offered some practices to lighten the effort to prove a point to someone who is skeptical.

Be nice and don't attack. The moment you attack the wall goes up on a person who has a closely held, lifelong belief. Try to convey that there is an open ear - and mind.

And one of the key points is to immerse one's self in both sides of any argument or stance. "Read what other people write that you don't agree with," Shermer said.

"I force myself to listen to Rush Limbaugh every once in a while," Shermer said. "Tens of millions of people listen to this guy every day," and it's important to at least know what are the arguments of all segments of the population.

Paul Delaney can be reached at


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