Skeptic: Viewing the World with a Rational Eye by Michael Shermer

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Michael Shermer’s newest book is a collection of 75 of his earliest skeptical essays from Scientific American. Some of the articles include additional comments due to new information. In some cases, the original articles had to be trimmed for length to meet SA’s requirements, so extra material may be included in these versions.

I first discovered Michael Shermer when I found one of his books, Why People Believe Weird Things in a big pile of science fiction books at a science fiction convention (this is actually less strange than it sounds — many people who read science fiction also tend to be deeply interested in science, and consequently, skepticism). I simply devoured that book. I also strongly recommend Why Darwin Matters

As a casual reader of “Scientific American”, I was well aware of his column in that magazine — quite often, I would jump directly to it after receiving each new issue. The articles are always intelligent, and concise, mostly entertaining, and they tackle interesting topics, sometimes in ways that I had not anticipated. This collection includes articles covering a diverse set of topics, including human nature and psychology, intelligent design, medical quackery, religion, the parapsychology, and so on.

One of my favorite articles — one that really stood out because of how it related to a recent on-line conversation I had, was actually about probability and the Law of Large numbers. When people talk about miracles, they usually refer to things happening that are not impossible, just extremely unlikely. What Mr. Shermer does is that he uses the Law of Large Numbers to explain that such events aren’t actually unlikely at all, but are, in fact, inevitable.

For example, a common story (and actually, a friend told me of his own similar experience) is that a person has a dream about someone, and the next day, they receive a phone call telling them that the person has died. On the surface, this seems to be most improbable.

“…suppose you know of ten people a year who die, and that you think about each of those people once a year. One year contains 105,120 five-minute intervals during which you might think about each of the ten people, a probability of 1 out of 10,512, certainly an improbable event. However, there are 321 million Americans (in 2015). Assuming, for the sake of our calculation, that they think like you, 1/10,512 x 321,000,000 = 30,537 people per year, or 84 people per day for whom this improbable premonition becomes probable.”

The book is very fast reading, largely because of the brief and concise nature of each article, and because Michael Shermer can present his ideas (and those of others) in very entertaining ways. The articles are divided up into chapters, entitled “Science”, “Skepticism”, “Pseudoscience and Quackery”, “The Paranormal and the Supernatural”, “Aliens and UFOs”, “Borderlands Science and Alternative Medicine”, “Psychology and the Brain”, “Human Nature”, “Evolution and Creationism”, and “Science, Religion, Miracles, and God”. Overall, there’s something for almost everyone interested in science, skepticism and why we often stray away from logic and sensibility in our beliefs. I highly recommend it, and I look forward to future collections of his SA articles.

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