(Note: Originally Posted 10-2-04)
Two weeks ago, I stumbled across the PBS two-part series "The Question of God," contrasting the thoughts of C.S. Lewis, the writer transformed from atheist to theist to Christian, and his contemporary, Sigmund Freud, who never wavered from the path of atheism.
The show's format included historical dramatizations plus a panel of guests assembled to shed light on the existence of God. As the camera panned the guests, out of the corner of my eye, I glimpsed an unsettling sight... The Smirk.
Seated on the panel was the ubiquitous skeptic Michael Shermer, sporting the sarcastic demeanor that permeates his writings like hot syrup on soggy french toast.
“Of course,” I muttered to myself, “one could not possibly stage a dialogue on the subject of God without inviting naysayer Shermer. It wouldn’t be fair. It wouldn’t be sporting. After all, hadn't God created Shermer in His quest for a fair-and-balanced universe?"
In spite of such divine designs, I was not pleased to find Mr. Shermer gracing the panel. His column had previously aborted my valued relationship with Scientific American. By the third appearance of his column "Skeptic," it was clear Scientific American had ceded its mandate to highlight the frontiers of science and was now publishing skeptic rants. So much for the enlightened exploration of the unknown.
How could I trust the magazine to deliver valid science news when each issue led off with unreasoned polemics? With a modicum of sadness, I phoned the subscriptions department and delivered my cancellation notice.
Watching "The Question of God" and becoming reacquainted with The Smirk, I wondered if I had not been overly hasty. Perhaps something ingenious, something previously unnoticed, motivated Shermer. It became difficult to suppress the nagging suspicion that even Shermer himself did not believe his own bad-boy rhetoric. Thus, the smirk.
Shermer had written Why People Believe Weird Things, hadn’t he? That was the important clue which launched a "gedanken" investigation that would make Columbo proud. The clues just did not add up...
Shermer could not really believe matter created matter out of nothing; there was no scientific evidence, none at all, and, at best, the logic was tortured. The concept was downright weird.
He could not really believe excited neurons created consciousness; no scientific evidence supported the idea, and such speculation was counterintuitive. It was simply another "weird idea."
And the theory that complex life spontaneously combusted in a prehistoric pond, the Grand Accident Theory—well, that weird idea also lacked scientific evidence. (As Hoyle noted, the idea was analogous to a tornado assembling a 747 from parts strewn about a junkyard.)
It was clear that Shermer, the smirking paragon of reason, could not possibly believe in such unsubstantiated weirdness. It would be against his creed to do so. What was he up to?
Slipping into my threadbare Columbo overcoat, I paced and cogitated. In the language of poker, the smirk was a “tell.” What move did it broadcast? A bluff?
Then it dawned on me: Shermer, with a background in psychology, had conjured up an ingenious experiment and had garnered the unwitting complicity of Scientific American. The experiment shared a lineage with the carnival shell game.
Using classic misdirection, the skeptic noisily points to “believers” and dubs them the unreasoned ones. This noisy misdirection encourages self-proclaimed rational men and women to ally themselves with the carnival man and to abandon critical thinking.
Lowering their guard, the gullible assume they are impervious to Shermer's sleight-of-hand. As the carnival man knows, when the mark can be persuaded to turn his knowing and disdainful glance upon believers, he can be manipulated.
Bright people nod sagaciously as Shermer trots out one weird idea after another. No one objects to the lack of scientific evidence or logic; after all, everyone is having fun at the expense of silly “believers.”
Eventually, however, the game plays out, the experiment comes to a conclusion, and a paper is published. Scientists and other readers of Scientific American, those who proclaim themselves to be rational and reasoned, those who rest their case on the foundations of observation and evidence, those who posture as keepers of reality, are exposed— victims of a brilliant ruse.
Their gullibility and willingness to abandon sound principles in order to sustain biases is laid bare for all to see. Shermer brilliantly concludes his Why People Believe Weird Things ruse, having demonstrated the best and the brightest are prone to a failure of reason. (The follow up book should be titled "Why Scientists Believe Weird Things.")
As I replay the scenario in my mind, I’m certain I’m on to something, as the idea brings a smirk to my lips. It’s the same smirk that graces the features of the famous skeptic. I’ve broken through my earlier prejudice and found the beauty in his plan (or is it His plan?).
Shermer, one of God’s creatures, has brilliantly played his assigned role of Doubter. Native Americans might recognize the Trickster in his methods. Buddhists recall the story of Mara tempting the Buddha with illusions; they recall the Buddhist precept that as long as we cling to weird ideas, we will ride the illusion train.
I'm beginning to appreciate Shermer as a fellow traveler on the illusion train. Will re subscribe to SA to see how the experimentt turns out.