Skeptic Investigates Extraordinary Claims

Curious skeptic Dr. Michael Shermer gave a talk last Wednesday, May 14 at UC Irvine to explore why people believe in weird things.

Dr. Shermer has a Masters in Experimental Psychology and a Ph.D. in History of Science. He is the founding publisher and current editor-in-chief of Skeptic Magazine, a journal devoted to investigating the validity of extraordinary claims. When he is not managing his own magazine, he is writing for Scientific American and appears occasionally on televisions shows like the Colbert Report and Oprah.

Over 300 students and faculty attended the event and received a free copy of Shermer’s latest issue of Skeptic Magazine.

Shermer began his discussion by addressing the importance of seeking out scientific evidence to test claims made about natural phenomena. To demonstrate his point, Shermer brought up a project he did for the National Geographic Channel where he showed how easy it is to fake your own UFO photos. The fact that our senses are easily deceived by forged photos explains why it is necessary to be skeptical among such claims that can obviously be false.

According to Shermer, there are lots of things we do not know about. Because our brain is a vacuum of knowledge that likes to fill the gaps in, we tend to believe practically anything.

“The brain is a belief engine. We are pattern seeking primates. We connect the dots — A is connected to B. And that is called association learning,” Shermer said.

Shermer explained that behaviors, in this case a pattern of thinking, can be repeated after continuous reinforcements. With us humans, random reinforcements that cause us to learn associations between random events is termed superstition.

“Just go to Las Vegas, and you will see lots of pattern seeking behavior; this magical, superstitious thinking,” Shermer said. “Like I had my drink on that side when I got the black jack, or I had my lucky shirt on. Whatever [association] it is, that is how superstitions work.”

Shermer pointed out that we are actually hardwired to engage in meaningless pattern thinking, which can be traced back to our evolutionary ancestry. In order to make life and death decisions in split second situations, it is faster for us just to assume the default rule of thumb that all patterns are real. This habit of thinking is why people believe in weird things. It just takes an extra effort for people to be skeptical of the brain’s superstition.

Shermer then discussed how people can be primed to see random meaningless patterns. He showed the audience pictures which at first seemed to be blotch of scattered black paint. Only after outlining a shape of a dog, could the audience see an apparent Dalmatian on screen.

The priming effect can also occur in the brain’s auditory system. When playing a song backwards, the audience at first is not able to comprehend the incoherent gibberish being played. But with lyrics on screen to accommodate the backwards song, the audience is able to associate the jumbled sounds with the specific words and meaning.

This priming effect for seeing can be attributed to a special region in the human brain called the fusiform gyrus, which is located right above our ears. Shermer claimed this area of the brain helps us recognize faces. Anything that slightly resembles a face will trigger the fusiform gyrus.

Nearing the end of his talk, Shermer warned the audience that they are all susceptible to falling into own confirmation bias — where the brain narrowly believes in a certain pattern, while only cherry picking specific evidences to support it. This type of bias can set one up for an expectation that in the end can turn out to be something entirely different and can be quite a surprise.