The goal of this Journey2Psychology project has been to capture conversations with influential Psychologists — those who have contributed scholarship, ideas, and activities that have helped to develop the field as it currently stands. From that perspective Dr. Michael Shermer, Founder of Skeptic magazine, is both ideal and curious as an important part of this project. As a writer and public figure he has consistently brought psychology and related sciences into the public forum. His books, his podcast (Science Salon) and, of course, Skeptic magazine have been used to serve up big, complex ideas relating to evolution, neuroscience, religious belief, morality, and much more, to public discourse. Whatever Psychology is, writ large, Dr. Shermer built a pulpit and sought to bring the evidence and its interpretations to the betterment of society. We can and should do better because of advancements in scientific knowledge and understanding; we are capable of being better because Dr. Shermer and others have engaged people to think more critically, to evaluate evidence more effectively, to challenge and grow our intellectual understanding more broadly.
Dr. Shermer introduces himself:
Skeptic magazine and Dr. Shermer’s related projects have been seminal materials for classrooms, his podcast and books have helped to close the gap between academic knowledge and real world dissemination. Hence his influence has been in giving voice to scientific issues and for creating a forum to promote free and open debate. Those contributions are meaningful but very different from the notable researchers that have largely been the focus of this project. Moreover, Dr. Shermer is not without controversy: he is an active media figure and an acknowledged member of the Intellectual Dark Web. Consequently Dr. Shermer regularly travels to speaking engagements to be lauded by some, criticized by others, and always doing his damnedest to get people to debate passionately, but civilly and openly. And, as is diminishingly possible in our current divisive climate, to get those who hear his message to avoid the pitfalls of pre-existing assumptions; to substitute rhetoric for actual scientific evidence; and not to treat their self-righteousness as morality. Finally, one might note that his masters in Psychology was capped by a doctorate in the History of Science, further marking Dr. Shermer’s uniqueness within this project. Well, it won’t be the first time nor the last time that Dr. Shermer stands out.
So let’s get to it, here he describes his parents and life growing up in greater Los Angeles. Baby Michael was born in 1954 and spent his early life largely in Glendale and La Crescenta:
As described in this excerpt, the teenager Michael wasn’t particularly academic, nor interested in intellectual pursuits. He was an athlete and a pretty good one. Like a lot of kids he was more likely to envision a future for himself in baseball than as an author and science writer. While he would become a professional athlete, that path was initially marred by an unexpected issue with his back. It’s a bit of a story, so I’ll give you over to his recounting in this next excerpt:
Serendipity and unexpected events. There’s always something right? In high school Michael has a minor fall at work and experienced some pain in his back. It blossoms. It debilitated him from continuing in baseball and pulled Michael from a heavily active life to wearing a brace and spending more time reading, thinking, and studying. Whatever his future was, as a teenager he was faced with early issues of serious pain and mortality. If that weren’t enough to radically change his life trajectory, there’s another important influence on Michael in high school. Famed skeptic, evolutionary science proponent, and agnostic Dr. Shermer had very different beliefs in high school.
He describes that other interest here:
I’m going to reiterate: today Dr. Shermer is at the forefront challenging pseudoscience and false belief. Consequently he regularly challenges religious belief and its associated dogma. Contrast that with Michael in high school when he was born again. He had determined not only that he was religious but, as he advanced in his education, he further determined that he might embrace theology both personally and professionally. Of course, after being born again the first time his friend immediately challenged his conversion: had he converted to the correct part of Christianity? How could he know? Also, why wasn’t there just one correct religion for a moral life and a single well-defined path to eternal sanctity? Haven’t we had thousands of years to get this straight? Accepting that there might be some bias in recollection, even as young Michael embraced his non-denominational-born again status, so too were the seeds of debate percolating. This need to challenge and engage in civil debate would be further stoked in college as he brought his religious beliefs to his favorite professor: Dr. Richard Hardison.
So how did Michael end up in Psychology? Well much credit goes to Dr. Hardison:
Michael graduated from Pepperdine University in 1976 and set forth planning to get into Psychology. He started on a Master’s at Cal State Fullerton embracing the major issues in experimental Psychology. In 1976 the central parts of Psychology included a lot of rat running and learning paradigms, an emerging bit of cognitivism, and social psychology in the shadow of WWII, Korea, and Vietnam. Michael was able to help fund his education by working in the labs for one of the faculty, thus keeping him fully involved with animal learning.
He recollects his thesis and grad school experience in this next excerpt:
That excerpt deals a fair bit with the Matching Law, psychophysics, and animal learning. Dr. Shermer explains it well, but for many I’ll venture that low-level mathematical learning principles are somewhat dry and not the easiest to follow. Dr. Shermer was pretty clear about this — it didn’t thrill him either. He wanted to go after big ideas like morality, evolution, etiology, good and evil. Nonetheless, I think this thesis is important and want to take a moment to clarify the attraction of this approach. The kinds of animal learning experiments he completed require a meticulous and mechanistic approach to understanding behavior. Details are critical because one percent more sucrose in a solution, one centimeter of travel distance in a Skinner box creates a large scale difference in the behaviors of rats (and can ruin an experiment). Later Dr. Shermer would move into tackling big ideas, but he relied on a mastery of innumerable small data points to solidify his arguments. If the big ideas are not founded on a collection of well-supported evidence, then they tend to quickly collapse under scrutiny. Animal research makes that point overtly. Dr. Shermer would have grown in his scientific scrutiny and precision from that training.
Michael finished his masters in 1978 ready to look at doctoral programs, to teach, to work. Importantly his back had now fully healed and he was once again pushing his body with thoughts of professional athletics. The next step was a big one, and so here is his recollection:
From Santa Monica Pier (LA) to the Empire State Building, NYC = close to 3000 mi/ 4800 km. Michael, in his continuing search for autonomy and professional fulfillment, moved from writing bicycle copy to selling ads to gaining sponsorship and emerging as a professional endurance athlete and founding rider/producer of the Race Across America (originally titled “The Great American Bike Race“). To fully grasp this event and what Dr. Shermer and his fellow racers did, let’s compare this to the world’s most famed endurance bike racing event, the Tour de France. The Tour is a long, grueling race and incredibly tough. Racers cover nearly 2200 mi/3500 km over 22 days. They push their bodies daily to exhaustion, rest each night, and then get back at it the next day. Over mountainous regions, summer heat, time trials, and both individual and team events the Tour is punishing and the competition is fierce.
By comparison the RAAM is longer and it is non-stop. During this race, Michael took a 3-hr catnap the first day, fell way behind, and then committed to just not sleeping. He finished the race in third place and did the entire distance in just about 10 days!!! That means riding nearly non-stop through weather, in the middle of the night, over the Rocky mountains, over the Appalachian mountains, through searing heat, and total bodily depletion — complete with hallucinations and other symptoms of massive sleep deprivation. The RAAM may be the most punishing endurance event in the world and typically riders will do the entire race in less than 2-weeks, often sleeping an average of 1.5 hrs daily, rarely stopping for any reason. The fastest time (set in 2013) is just over seven days.
It was the early 1980’s when Dr. Shermer and his cohort ran the RAAM and while it is incredible how does that lead to Dr. Shermer the skeptic?
Dr. Shermer describes the journey from athlete to professor to publisher in this final excerpt:
There are several important acknowledgements in this excerpt, from the important people who facilitated Dr. Shermer’s creation of Skeptic Magazine (Paul McCready, Pat Linse), to the very real financial pressures to find sustainable employment, to the many emerging forces in Skeptic societies (e.g., Carl Sagan, the Amazing James Randi). Then as now, Dr. Shermer has used Skeptic magazine and his associated platforms to address critical, big ideas. In this excerpt he recalled the opportunities and motivations that drove him to move from Michael Shermer, athlete, to Dr. Shermer, science advocate, writer, and editor/publisher.
The outlet wasn’t necessarily what he first envisioned for himself, but the kernel of seeking a life with autonomy, a chance to engage with people in open, civil debate, and a drive to pursue hot button issues were all realized. There is, of course, much more to Dr. Shermer and incredible public debates in which he’s been involved (on Morality, Evil, Self-Deception, many others). If you disagree with Dr. Shermer or the positions he’s taken on issues — then great! You can and should disagree with him! The key is to do so with an openness to ideas, a commitment to evidence, and a willingness to engage civilly. No matter what you believe, if you are willing to challenge ideas with those principles in mind, then he’s done his job!
For much more on Dr. Shermer, including a complete listing w/links to his writing, I strongly recommend visiting his website:
(*Final note on the Intellectual Dark Web. Some people have very strong feelings about this movement, and the people with whom it is associated. Furthermore, it is important to acknowledge that, at its worst, there are people who would use the ideas of people associated with this movement to justify some hateful beliefs. At its best, the Intellectual Dark Web is designed to carve out a space where people from very different belief systems engage to each other. Dr. Shermer voiced an important concern that I will reiterate here: if we only speak with people who believe the same ideologies as us, if we limit our openness and civility only to those with whom we share political and/or philosophical positions then our society will become more divided. More intolerant. Obviously, Dr. Shermer is committed to speaking to people with very different beliefs than his own. That doesn’t excuse the idiots and bullies. Rather it means that disagreement might effectively serve as the start of an open and civil discussion and not the end of a conversation.)
Pictured is Dr. Shermer at his home.