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TED2006

Michael Shermer: Why people believe weird things

February 23, 2006

Why do people see the Virgin Mary on a cheese sandwich or hear demonic lyrics in "Stairway to Heaven"? Using video and music, skeptic Michael Shermer shows how we convince ourselves to believe -- and overlook the facts.

Michael Shermer - Skeptic
Michael Shermer debunks myths, superstitions and urban legends -- and explains why we believe them. Along with publishing Skeptic Magazine, he's author of Why People Believe Weird Things and The Mind of the Market. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
I'm Michael Shermer,
director of the Skeptics Society,
00:24
publisher of "Skeptic" magazine.
00:27
We investigate claims of the paranormal,
00:28
pseudo-science, fringe groups and cults,
and claims of all kinds between,
00:30
science and pseudo-science
and non-science and junk science,
00:34
voodoo science, pathological science,
bad science, non-science,
00:37
and plain old non-sense.
00:40
And unless you've been on Mars recently,
00:42
you know there's a lot of that out there.
00:44
Some people call us debunkers,
which is kind of a negative term.
00:46
But let's face it, there's a lot of bunk.
00:49
We are like the bunko squads
of the police departments out there --
00:51
well, we're sort of like
the Ralph Naders of bad ideas,
00:55
(Laughter)
00:58
trying to replace bad ideas
with good ideas.
00:59
I'll show you an example of a bad idea.
01:02
I brought this with me,
01:04
this was given to us
by NBC Dateline to test.
01:05
It's produced by the Quadro
Corporation of West Virginia.
01:09
It's called the Quadro 2000 Dowser Rod.
01:12
(Laughter)
01:15
This was being sold to high-school
administrators for $900 apiece.
01:17
It's a piece of plastic with a Radio
Shack antenna attached to it.
01:22
You could dowse for all sorts of things,
01:26
but this particular one was built
to dowse for marijuana
01:28
in students' lockers.
01:32
(Laughter)
01:33
So the way it works
is you go down the hallway,
01:35
and you see if it tilts
toward a particular locker,
01:39
and then you open the locker.
01:42
So it looks something like this.
01:44
I'll show you.
01:45
(Laughter)
01:48
Well, it has kind of a right-leaning bias.
01:49
Well, this is science,
so we'll do a controlled experiment.
01:52
It'll go this way for sure.
01:55
(Laughter)
01:57
Sir, do you want to empty
your pockets, please, sir?
02:01
(Laughter)
02:03
So the question was, can it actually
find marijuana in students' lockers?
02:05
And the answer is,
if you open enough of them, yes.
02:09
(Laughter)
02:11
(Applause)
02:12
But in science, we have to keep track
of the misses, not just the hits.
02:14
And that's probably the key lesson
to my short talk here:
02:17
This is how psychics work, astrologers,
tarot card readers and so on.
02:21
People remember the hits
and forget the misses.
02:24
In science, we keep the whole database,
02:27
and look to see if the number
of hits somehow stands out
02:29
from the total number
you'd expect by chance.
02:31
In this case, we tested it.
02:34
We had two opaque boxes:
02:35
one with government-approved THC
marijuana, and one with nothing.
02:36
And it got it 50 percent of the time --
02:40
(Laughter)
02:42
which is exactly what you'd expect
with a coin-flip model.
02:43
So that's just a fun little example
here of the sorts of things we do.
02:46
"Skeptic" is the quarterly publication.
Each one has a particular theme.
02:50
This one is on the future of intelligence.
02:54
Are people getting smarter or dumber?
02:56
I have an opinion of this myself
because of the business I'm in,
02:57
but in fact, people, it turns out,
are getting smarter.
03:00
Three IQ points per 10 years, going up.
03:03
Sort of an interesting thing.
03:06
With science, don't think of skepticism
as a thing, or science as a thing.
03:08
Are science and religion compatible?
03:11
It's like, are science
and plumbing compatible?
03:13
They're just two different things.
03:15
Science is not a thing. It's a verb.
03:17
It's a way of thinking about things.
03:19
It's a way of looking for natural
explanations for all phenomena.
03:20
I mean, what's more likely:
03:24
that extraterrestrial intelligences
or multi-dimensional beings
03:25
travel across vast distances
of interstellar space
03:28
to leave a crop circle in Farmer Bob's
field in Puckerbrush, Kansas
03:31
to promote skeptic.com, our web page?
03:34
Or is it more likely that a reader
of "Skeptic" did this with Photoshop?
03:36
And in all cases we have to ask --
03:40
(Laughter)
03:42
What's the more likely explanation?
03:44
Before we say something
is out of this world,
03:46
we should first make sure
that it's not in this world.
03:48
What's more likely:
03:51
that Arnold had extraterrestrial help
in his run for the governorship,
03:52
or that the "World Weekly News"
makes stuff up?
03:55
(Laughter)
03:58
The same theme is expressed nicely
here in this Sidney Harris cartoon.
03:59
For those of you in the back,
it says here: "Then a miracle occurs.
04:04
I think you need to be more
explicit here in step two."
04:07
This single slide completely dismantles
the intelligent design arguments.
04:10
There's nothing more to it than that.
04:15
(Applause)
04:16
You can say a miracle occurs,
04:17
it's just that it doesn't explain
anything or offer anything.
04:19
There's nothing to test.
04:22
It's the end of the conversation
for intelligent design creationists.
04:23
And it's true, scientists sometimes throw
terms out as linguistic place fillers --
04:27
dark energy or dark matter,
something like that --
04:31
until we figure out what it is,
we'll call it this.
04:34
It's the beginning of the causal
chain for science.
04:36
For intelligent design creationists,
it's the end of the chain.
04:39
So again, we can ask this:
what's more likely?
04:43
Are UFOs alien spaceships, or perceptual
cognitive mistakes, or even fakes?
04:45
This is a UFO shot from my house
in Altadena, California,
04:50
looking down over Pasadena.
04:53
And if it looks a lot like a Buick
hubcap, it's because it is.
04:55
You don't even need Photoshop
or high-tech equipment,
04:59
you don't need computers.
05:01
This was shot with a throwaway
Kodak Instamatic camera.
05:03
You just have somebody off on the side
with a hubcap ready to go.
05:06
Camera's ready -- that's it.
05:09
(Laughter)
05:11
So, although it's possible
that most of these things are fake
05:13
or illusions or so on,
and that some of them are real,
05:16
it's more likely that all of them
are fake, like the crop circles.
05:20
On a more serious note, in all of science
we're looking for a balance
05:23
between data and theory.
05:26
In the case of Galileo,
he had two problems
05:28
when he turned his telescope to Saturn.
05:32
First of all, there was no
theory of planetary rings.
05:34
Second of all, his data
was grainy and fuzzy,
05:38
and he couldn't quite make out
what he was looking at.
05:40
So he wrote that he had seen --
05:42
"I have observed that the furthest
planet has three bodies."
05:44
And this is what he ended up
concluding that he saw.
05:48
So without a theory of planetary
rings and with only grainy data,
05:50
you can't have a good theory.
05:54
It wasn't solved until 1655.
05:56
This is Christiaan Huygens's book
that catalogs all the mistakes
05:58
people made trying to figure out
what was going on with Saturn.
06:01
It wasn't till Huygens had two things:
06:04
He had a good theory of planetary rings
and how the solar system operated,
06:05
and he had better telescopic,
more fine-grain data
06:10
in which he could figure out that
as the Earth is going around faster --
06:13
according to Kepler's Laws --
than Saturn, then we catch up with it.
06:16
And we see the angles of the rings
at different angles, there.
06:20
And that, in fact, turns out to be true.
06:23
The problem with having a theory is that
it may be loaded with cognitive biases.
06:25
So one of the problems of explaining
why people believe weird things
06:31
is that we have things, on a simple level,
06:34
and then I'll go to more serious ones.
06:36
Like, we have a tendency to see faces.
06:38
This is the face on Mars.
06:40
In 1976, where there was a whole movement
to get NASA to photograph that area
06:42
because people thought this was monumental
architecture made by Martians.
06:46
Here's the close-up of it from 2001.
06:50
If you squint, you can still see the face.
06:53
And when you're squinting,
06:55
you're turning that from fine-grain
to coarse-grain,
06:57
so you're reducing
the quality of your data.
07:00
And if I didn't tell you what to look for,
you'd still see the face,
07:02
because we're programmed
by evolution to see faces.
07:05
Faces are important for us socially.
07:08
And of course, happy faces,
faces of all kinds are easy to see.
07:10
You see the happy face on Mars, there.
07:13
(Laughter)
07:15
If astronomers were frogs,
perhaps they'd see Kermit the Frog.
07:16
Do you see him there? Little froggy legs.
07:19
Or if geologists were elephants?
07:22
Religious iconography.
07:25
(Laughter)
07:28
Discovered by a Tennessee baker in 1996.
07:31
He charged five bucks a head
to come see the nun bun
07:33
till he got a cease-and-desist
from Mother Teresa's lawyer.
07:36
Here's Our Lady of Guadalupe and Our
Lady of Watsonville, just down the street,
07:39
or is it up the street from here?
07:43
Tree bark is particularly good
because it's nice and grainy, branchy,
07:45
black-and-white splotchy and you can
get the pattern-seeking --
07:48
humans are pattern-seeking animals.
07:51
Here's the Virgin Mary on the side
of a glass window in Sao Paulo.
07:53
Here's when the Virgin Mary made
her appearance on a cheese sandwich --
07:57
which I got to actually
hold in a Las Vegas casino --
08:00
of course, this being America.
08:03
(Laughter)
08:04
This casino paid $28,500
on eBay for the cheese sandwich.
08:06
(Laughter)
08:10
But who does it really look like?
The Virgin Mary?
08:12
(Laughter)
08:14
It has that sort of
puckered lips, 1940s-era look.
08:16
Virgin Mary in Clearwater, Florida.
08:20
I actually went to see this one.
08:22
There was a lot of people there.
08:24
The faithful come in their wheelchairs
and crutches, and so on.
08:26
We went down and investigated.
08:31
Just to give you a size, that's Dawkins,
me and The Amazing Randi,
08:32
next to this two,
two and a half story-sized image.
08:36
All these candles, thousands of candles
people had lit in tribute to this.
08:38
So we walked around the backside,
to see what was going on.
08:42
It turns out wherever there's
a sprinkler head and a palm tree,
08:44
you get the effect.
08:48
Here's the Virgin Mary on the backside,
which they started to wipe off.
08:49
I guess you can only have
one miracle per building.
08:52
(Laughter)
08:55
So is it really a miracle of Mary,
or is it a miracle of Marge?
08:58
(Laughter)
09:02
And now I'm going to finish up
with another example of this,
09:03
with auditory illusions.
09:07
There's this film, "White Noise,"
with Michael Keaton,
09:10
about the dead talking back to us.
09:12
By the way, the whole business of talking
to the dead is not that big a deal.
09:15
Anybody can do it, turns out.
09:18
It's getting the dead to talk
back that's the really hard part.
09:20
(Laughter)
09:23
In this case, supposedly, these messages
are hidden in electronic phenomena.
09:24
There's a ReverseSpeech.com web page
where I downloaded this stuff.
09:28
This is the most famous one
of all of these.
09:31
Here's the forward version
of the very famous song.
09:34
(Music with lyrics)
09:37
If there's a bustle in your hedgerow
don't be alarmed now.
09:38
It's just a spring clean
for the May Queen.
09:44
Yes, there are two paths you
can go by, but in the long run,
09:50
There's still time to change
the road you're on
09:56
Couldn't you just listen to that all day?
10:03
All right, here it is backwards,
10:05
and see if you can hear the hidden
messages that are supposedly in there.
10:07
(Music with unintelligible lyrics)
10:12
(Lyrics) Satan!
10:25
(Unintelligible lyrics continue)
10:27
What did you get?
Audience: Satan!
10:41
Satan. OK, at least we got "Satan".
10:43
Now, I'll prime the auditory
part of your brain
10:44
to tell you what you're supposed
to hear, and then hear it again.
10:47
(Music with lyrics)
10:50
(Music ends)
11:17
(Laughter)
11:18
(Applause)
11:19
You can't miss it
when I tell you what's there.
11:25
(Laughter)
11:28
I'm going to just end
with a positive, nice little story.
11:31
The Skeptics is a nonprofit
educational organization.
11:35
We're always looking for little
good things that people do.
11:38
And in England, there's a pop singer.
11:41
One of the top popular singers
in England today, Katie Melua.
11:43
And she wrote a beautiful song.
11:47
It was in the top five in 2005, called,
"Nine Million Bicycles in Beijing."
11:48
It's a love story -- she's sort
of the Norah Jones of the UK --
11:54
about how she much loves her guy,
11:57
and compared to nine million
bicycles, and so forth.
11:59
And she has this one passage here.
12:01
(Music)
12:04
(Lyrics) We are 12 billion
light-years from the edge
12:05
That's a guess,
12:10
No one can ever say it's true,
12:13
But I know that I will always be with you.
12:16
Michael Shermer: Well, that's nice.
At least she got it close.
12:22
In America it'd be,
"We're 6,000 light years from the edge."
12:25
(Laughter)
12:28
But my friend, Simon Singh, the particle
physicist now turned science educator,
12:29
who wrote the book
"The Big Bang," and so on,
12:33
uses every chance he gets
to promote good science.
12:35
And so he wrote an op-ed piece
in "The Guardian" about Katie's song,
12:37
in which he said, well, we know exactly
how far from the edge.
12:40
You know, it's 13.7 billion light years,
and it's not a guess.
12:45
We know within precise
error bars how close it is.
12:49
So we can say, although not absolutely
true, it's pretty close to being true.
12:54
And, to his credit, Katie called him up
after this op-ed piece came out, and said,
12:57
"I'm so embarrassed.
I was in the astronomy club.
13:02
I should've known better."
13:05
And she re-cut the song.
13:06
So I will end with the new version.
13:07
(Music with lyrics)
13:09
We are 13.7 billion light years
13:10
from the edge of the observable universe.
13:13
That's a good estimate
with well-defined error bars.
13:16
And with the available information,
13:20
I predict that I will always be with you.
13:23
(Laughter)
13:28
How cool is that?
13:29
(Applause)
13:30

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Michael Shermer - Skeptic
Michael Shermer debunks myths, superstitions and urban legends -- and explains why we believe them. Along with publishing Skeptic Magazine, he's author of Why People Believe Weird Things and The Mind of the Market.

Why you should listen

As founder and publisher of Skeptic Magazine, Michael Shermer has exposed fallacies behind intelligent design, 9/11 conspiracies, the low-carb craze, alien sightings and other popular beliefs and paranoias. But it's not about debunking for debunking's sake. Shermer defends the notion that we can understand our world better only by matching good theory with good science.

Shermer's work offers cognitive context for our often misguided beliefs: In the absence of sound science, incomplete information can powerfully combine with the power of suggestion (helping us hear Satanic lyrics when "Stairway to Heaven" plays backwards, for example). In fact, a common thread that runs through beliefs of all sorts, he says, is our tendency to convince ourselves: We overvalue the shreds of evidence that support our preferred outcome, and ignore the facts we aren't looking for.

He writes a monthly column for Scientific American, and is an adjunct at Claremont Graduate University and Chapman University. His latest book is The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies—How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths. He is also the author of The Mind of the Market, on evolutionary economics, Why Darwin Matters: Evolution and the Case Against Intelligent Design, and The Science of Good and Evil. And his next book is titled The Moral Arc of Science.

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