In the last article, I reminded us of  how important it is to our personal evolution to maintain a true open mind balanced with a healthy dose of real skepticism.  Today, I offer a cautionary tale of calling yourself a skeptic when that’s solely a disguise for dogmatically maintaining the current paradigm.

A website I monitor suggested watching a certain video from the TED website (link to TED website).  Many of you have probably viewed a TED video.  They’re usually uplifting talks with a lot of positive, future oriented messages.  I’ve generally found them entertaining and enlightening.

This video was a mildly entertaining talk by “Skeptic” magazine editor Michael Shermer.  His goal was to dismiss those at the fringes of science and reason who believe in UFOs and psi phenomenon by saying that holding such beliefs is simply a self-deception of our brain seeking to find patterns and meaning.  Unfortunately in this talk, Shermer not only makes leaps of logic but also falls prey to the self-deception he outlines.

Briefly, here are the main points from his talk — — our brains are hardwired to seek patterns.  Hence, there is a tendency within our brains to find meaningful patterns in both times when there is actually meaning and also when it’s just meaningless “noise”.  There is an evolutionary reason for this he says.  There are two errors that we can make when it comes to our ability to perceive patterns.  The first is believing a pattern is real when it’s not.  The second is not believing a pattern is real when it is.  Evolution has tended to eliminate those who make the second kind of error, as real threats not believed to be threats would lead to death and failure to pass along our genes.  Hence, survival of the fittest has tended to favor those of us who make the first kind of error — seeing patterns where they are not.  This is all very interesting and makes good sense.

Shermer then goes on to point out our desire to control life.  He says the more we feel out of control, the greater our tendency to seek patterns where they may not be.  Finding patterns gives us meaning and a sense of control.  OK, sounds reasonable.  He then cites some studies that have found a correlation between individuals who have a greater tendency to believe in the paranormal and their higher likelihood of seeing incorrect patterns in degraded images.

Shermer also describes some brain studies that have found certain drugs which impact areas of the brain that correlate to our ability to see patterns.  Our brains need a healthy balance of these drugs so that we can see meaningful patterns when they occur.  An imbalance can either lead to seeing patterns everywhere — leading us into madness – or an inability to see patterns – leading to a lack of creativity.

Finally he points out that what we are thinking about can influence the patterns we see.  No great surprise here.  He shows you that if you are thinking about sex already, that opens you to seeing sexual patterns where they may not be.  Pairing one clear idea with a nebulous one tends to direct how you perceive the second concept.  He then moves into a concept he calls “agenticity” — a tendency to infuse patterns with meaning, intention, etc. He says this explains our tendency to believe in angels, God, UFOs, conspiracy theories and the like.  Maybe, maybe not.

If you’re watching closely, then you can see that Shermer uses faulty logic.  Let’s review: (1) our brains are hardwired to seek patterns; (2) some people may see patterns where they are not; (3) in some studies people with a higher tendency to believe in the paranormal are more likely to see incorrect patterns; (4) an imbalance of certain drugs correlates to our brains inability to maintain a healthy balance of seeing patterns; (5) what we are already thinking about tends to determine what we see – therefore, paranormal things are incorrect patterns detected by people with a tendency to seek such meaning.

Excuse me?  Just because science shows our brains have an evolutionary purpose for seeking patterns and that our perception can be fooled into seeing patterns where they are not – this does not allow us to make the stupendously leap in logic to dismiss everything that does not fit your worldview.  One might consider that Shermer falls prey to the same desire to see a pattern where it’s not – some people believe in UFOs and other phenomenon (which I, Michael Shermer know aren’t real) while some people tend to see patterns where they are not – must be connected – a pattern!  Shermer even employs the not-so-subtle trick of using a visual of a UFO in attempting to link it with seeing appropriate patterns just as he had done with the sexual images.  It’s playful, but deceptive.

I don’t mean to pick on Michael Shermer.  He seems like a nice guy, somebody you could have a beer with and enjoy the conversation.  However, most of the time I’ve heard him speak he fights hard to maintain the status quo of a materialistic worldview and is not truly open to other possibilities.  I get it that he doesn’t believe in angels, God, UFOs, psi phenomenon or anything else that threatens his view of science and the material world.  He obviously has a great distaste for the fringes where things don’t fit his view.  And, let’s don’t forget—it’s in his economic best interest to continue to deny the reality of such stuff or he might lose his “skeptic’ s license”.  Afterall, this is his “shtick”.

I personally don’t care whether Shermer believes in any of this fringe stuff or not.  For much of it, I’m not always sure what I believe.  But I do think he offers us a cautionary tale about how we can be so stuck in the dogma of our current belief structure that we generate a gigantic blind spot that keeps us from growing.  Shermer’s a smart guy but he’s no real skeptic. In my opinion, he doesn’t truly have an open mind.

Someone with an open mind actually seeks out and reviews evidence that contradicts their current worldview.  They challenge themselves and their beliefs.  This is the exciting area of our growing edge where our existing beliefs create friction against a sense of newness and change.  This is where all of us who truly want to grow and evolve need to hang out.  I’ll see you there.

Next time… A recent book on UFOs raises some questions about why we cling to our limiting beliefs and offers us lessons on our evolution.

Mark Gilbert


Check out all of Mark Gilbert’s books—available at Amazon. Click here to visit his Author Page. This includes his recent one Our Spiritual Rights and Responsibilities. In this book, he offers what he suggests are the 5 basic rights we all possess by virtue of our being these spiritual beings on planet Earth — and our 2 responsibilities we all hold in relation to one another! Check it out!