Tag Archives: Michael Shermer

The Existential Angst of Denialism

And this week’s award for the most ridiculous quote goes to Shawn Laurence Otto in his article entitled “America’s Science Problem”:*

“By turning public opinion away from the antiauthoritarian principles of the nation’s founders, the new science denialism is creating an existential crisis like few the country has faced before.”

Huh? Who’s turning away whom from the antiauthoritarian principles of our founding fathers? Did our founding fathers actually hold to antiauthoritarian principles? What exactly is “denialism”? I’m not certain denialism is a word in any current dictionary I own, but if it exists in one of yours (or his), I would be quick to admit that all humans must suffer from it for the sake of their mental health. But, honestly, I would like to know what the difference is between a sceptic and a denier and, although I could scrap together a fairly good critical comparison, why should I, when I have Michael Shermer to do so for me in his article “Living in denial: When a sceptic isn’t a sceptic”?**

“What is the difference between a sceptic and a denier? When I call myself a sceptic, I mean that I take a scientific approach to the evaluation of claims. A climate sceptic, for example, examines specific claims one by one, carefully considers the evidence for each, and is willing to follow the facts wherever they lead.

A climate denier has a position staked out in advance, and sorts through the data employing “confirmation bias” – the tendency to look for and find confirmatory evidence for pre-existing beliefs and ignore or dismiss the rest.”

Ah, thanks, Mr. Shermer for giving us the low down. Scientists, it seems, are Lockean clean slates–or, on a deeper philosophical level, they are re-birthed each time they set about to scan and interpret data, their slates cleaned at each birthing experience. They are virtual chalkboards, cleaned and shined daily by command of Mrs. Prue, the English marm, who is scrupulous in the realm of detail and cleanliness. But, wait, don’t climate deniers often come packaged as scientists? They do, and I’m left to conclude that their slates haven’t been overseen by Mrs. Prue, or, at the very least, their boards haven’t been tacitly written over by their scientific authority figures. Tsk-tsk. These credentialed deniers must be scientists with messy psychological worlds, too messy to untangle a web of data from their own anxieties or hopes.

I actually (gasp) agree with Michael Shermer on his definitions, even though he has allowed himself a position of authority by being master of such, and then subtly–or not–applying them to whom he sees fit. Indeed, in a perfect world, a scientist would interpret data without bias. Does that also mean a scientist must leave out the biases of his science colleagues and educators, or other established science authorities? This question leads me directly to the absurdity of Otto’s quote: Our forefathers weren’t antiauthoritarian. In fact, they weren’t all one way or another. Essentially, they were English and loyal to the crown until, well, they decided not to be (to gloss over a lot of history). At that point, they (Ben Franklin, to be exact) worked an alliance with France because the colonies needed the monetary assistance of one monarchic authority in order to defeat another monarchic authority, as well as his lackeys, the Redcoats. After helping the Americans, the French went ahead with their own Revolution, deposing their own grand monarch. What is the point of this oversimplified version of American/French history? Ah–the point–I have trouble with that sometimes. Humans, including our forefathers, tend to have shifting paradigms of what constitutes authority.

Aside from Otto’s quote simply being bullshit (existential crisis?), he doesn’t seem to understand human beings very well. Most people are swayed by authority. Most are tied to authority, whether they wish to be or not. I may claim (somewhat sardonically) that I’m an anarchist, but this doesn’t loosen my ties to my actual, larger-than-life authorities. Most people hold to their authorities because they have to, because it gives them a feeling of security, or because they can’t comprehend the difference between their own ideas and the ideas they’ve been taught by their authorities. Who’s to say that a non-science-denier isn’t simply holding fast to the authority he chooses, while denying the authority he doesn’t? Um, well, yeah, that’s exactly what true-blue loyalists to fill-in-the-blank-with-whatever-is-mainstream do.

I would go so far as to say, despite my tentative approval of Shermer’s definitions, that a non-biased human is impossible to find. Humans cling to authorities; they discard them; they create new ideas that change the mainstream authority’s talk points. In short, humans are in a never-ending process of personal evolutions, in which they can’t shed their pasts. But most humans love authority because they’re like children. Oh, yes, I only have my experience and observation to lend credence to the former proclamation–no evidence, sorry. However, to finish my non-evidenced assertion, conflict arises when we the people–so like children–hold to disparate authority figures. And that’s a good thing. If we all held to the same “thus saith so and so” we would have no comparisons to make, and in no sense could we make sound judgements based off critically mulling over the options, and casting off the ones that make no sense based off evidence.

I am NOT a scepticalist involved in scepticalism, nor am I a denialist involved in denialism. I’m a sceptic shaped by the world around me and the unending wealth of information found therein, and sometimes I deny the truth that my authority figures impart to me because it’s wrong.

*from Scientific American, November 2012
**from New Science, May 2010


Part III: Some Stories Must Be Believed

I had never really meant to tell this as a story, so says Julia, until I, of course, did mean to. And then I heard from certain portions of the creative writing community–Cecilia, are you reading this?–that stories are to be shown and not told. As a logical thinker, I can’t fathom this idea. Stories are told. This seems one of those instances in which excessive rule-following has rendered creative writing graduates illogical, as well as lacking in true skepticism. Whatever one says about me, it is never Julia does things by the book because Julia doesn’t. I don’t do things by the book, lest anybody believe me schizophrenic.

I’m a true skeptic, as it were, of the unShermer camp of true skepticism. The Shermer camp, which nearly all scientists and university graduates squat in, is the one where the official story is always accepted, unless the evidence demonstrably proves the official story false. My camp, which waves its own lonely flag, is one where the few inhabitants, lacking the necessary evidence, mistrust even the official stories. By extension, I haven’t yet seen any evidence that one must show-rather-than-tell a story outside the theater and, therefore, showing is simply another unproven official story propagated by the creative writing community, with the ironic twist that it happens to be a story told about stories.

Good God, my head is pounding after working through all that. I’m a geneticist, by the way. Some geneticists claim they’re just shy of discovering a gene linked to migraines with auras. This isn’t my field of study, however, and my migraines don’t glow with such radiative properties. Rather, they’re preceded by premonitions of extreme stupidity, which I am, needless to say, skeptical of, even though life has taught me I should pay attention to these warnings.

Years after high school graduation, while I was living in the lush silicon valley, far, far away from my Washington home village, I bumped into Oso at the supermarket. I had a pending headache, an empty refrigerator in my 300 sq ft apartment, a few dollars in my bank account, and a premonition that my life was about to take a turn for the worse. I was debating whether to buy oranges and Greek yogurt on credit–not the sale oranges, either, because they were round and even in color, which caused yet another flare of disbelief in my overtaxed mind. I just couldn’t believe in those oranges. Surely they couldn’t be real, or at least not as authentic as the misshapen, mottled Valencias that cost twice as much per pound.

Smell is a fair indication of the quality of fruit, and of men, I have to add. The Valencias sent forth the molecular fragrance of orange grove, and I filled a bag with them, and then stared at the food I’d picked, still uncertain about purchasing groceries on credit. And then I smelled the molecular fragrance of man–an authentic odor devoid of the cheap imitations Oso and the other boys had doused themselves with in high school. I felt a presence, too, an energy force that vibrated the air around me. I turned around. Oso.


Before I could utter an appropriate response, he engulfed me with his arms and pressed my face against his burly chest. Oso was stocky in high school; now, he was simply large.

“Dinner. With me,” he said. “You have to.”

Would he let me go if I told him yes? “I’m broke,” I said, and he released me.

“It’s on me.”

Because I’d walked to the store to save gas, he loaded my paltry groceries in the trunk of his rattletrap vehicle. Perhaps he hadn’t made his fortune yet. But, no, he reeked of pure confidence, rather than bravado. The car was surely a sign that Oso enjoyed making money, but not spending it. He took me to a cheap Indian restaurant, where he ordered a vegetarian dish, and this went some way toward confirming my suspicion (later, I discovered he would only eat at Indian restaurants because it was comfort food. His parents were vegetarian hippies.) I ordered chicken because I was starving and had just bought groceries on credit.

“Did you end up at Stanford, after all?” I asked him over chai. I knew the answer, though. I knew the answer because I’d heard our village gossip.

“No, I told you I didn’t need to. I work for a microelectronics company, heading an engineering team.”

“But you don’t have an engineering degree.”

“I’m not a rule-follower,” he said. “You can’t make money that way. And you, Julia? I hear you’re working on your dissertation at Stanford.”

Ah, so I was the rule follower. Huh. “Yes. On the genetics of autism.”

“A long time ago, I suggested you become a behavioral scientist. I thought you needed a little help so you wouldn’t be stunned by people’s stupidity. I never dreamed you’d study the genetics of autism so you could understand yourself.”

“I’m not…” He was grinning at me, and I decided it wasn’t worth it. To a man like Oso, anybody less extroverted than he was might be autistic. I say less extroverted because, honestly, I wasn’t all that introverted. It was all by degree.

As promised, he paid the bill. Then he drove me home, carried my paltry groceries upstairs, and found my only bottle of wine (saved since Christmas) and uncorked it. My headache was still pending, but the warmth of a good dinner spread to my heart. Why shouldn’t I share my wine?

“To making money and discovering beautiful things in dissertations,” he toasted with a coffee mug.

“Genetics isn’t all that beautiful when you get right down to it. Complex, maybe, and a little frightening, but not beautiful.”

“I’d roll my eyes at you, but they might get stuck in my head. From a biological standpoint, is that possible?”

“I’d like to see you try.” I raised my mug and drank to that.

The wine tasted like blackberries. Imagine the chemistry that turned grapes into blackberries! The next morning, my headache was no longer pending. It pounded. Thanks to Oso and wine with hints of blackberry. Thanks to Oso, who slept beside me. Such was the answer to my stupidity premonitions–nights with Oso, followed by headaches. And, eventually, followed by our first child.

Oso didn’t go by the rules. And neither did I, but I wasn’t so sure about breaking the relationship sort. For a start, I didn’t have that particular rule book in my library, and something told me I would end up the loser. I could hear my mom’s voice in my head, “Societal rules must never be ignored; they’re there to guide us.”

Or maybe that thought sprang from Oscar Wilde. How would I know? I ditched the humanities too long ago to remember. If I hadn’t, maybe I would understand men who oozed confidence, rather than frustrated autistic people who followed their own strict rule codes and told me the same things, ad infinitum, even if I didn’t always want to hear those things. They told, and they showed, and they were still a conundrum to me. And so–Cecilia are you reading this?–some of us are too obtuse to be shown things. We need a little more direction.

Oso Part V
Oso Part IV
Oso Part II
Oso Part I