Gonzo Science: Critical thinking for Dummies 

Book Review of Borderlands of Science: Where Sense Meets Nonsense, by Michael Shermeris.  

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A Column by Jim Richardson and Allen Richardson. The Anomalist (www.anomalist.com)  -  Reprinted with permission of the authors and The Anomalist.


Here is Michael Shermer's "Boundary Detection Kit" from his book Borderlands of Science: Where Sense Meets Nonsense:

1. How reliable is the source of the claim?

2. Does this source often make similar claims?

3. Have the claims been verified by another source?

4. How does this fit in with what we know about the world and how it works?

5.Has anyone, including and especially the claimant, gone out of the way to disprove the claim, or has only confirmatory evidence been sought?

6. In the absence of clearly defined proof, does the preponderance of evidence converge to the claimants conclusion, or a different one?

7. Is the claimant employing the accepted rules of reason and tools of research, or have these been abandoned in favor of others which lead to the desired conclusion?

8. Has the claimant provided a different explanation for the observed phenomena, or is it strictly a process of denying the existing explanation?

9. If the claimant has proffered a new explanation, does it account for as many phenomena as the old explanation?

10. Do the claimants personal beliefs and biases drive the conclusions, or vice versa?

       Shermer then offers up a system of normal, non and borderlands science, giving the following .9 highest to.1 lowest in relation to their level of scientific validity:

      Normal science--on the science side of the boundary:

      Heliocentrism .9
quantum mechanics.9
big bang cosmology .9
plate tectonics .9
neurophysiology of brain functions.8
punc eq .7
      sociobiology/ evolutionary pysch .5
chaos and complexity theory .4
intelligence and intelligence testing .3

 Nonscience--on the non , pseudo, or nonsense side of boundary:

      creationism .1
holocaust revisionism .1
remote viewing .1
astrology .1
bible code .1
big foot .1
ufos .1
freudian psychoanalytic theory.1
recovered memories .1

Borderlands science--in the borderlands between normal science and nonscience:

      superstring theory .7
inflationary cosmology.6
theories of consciousness .5
grand theories of economics (objectivism, socialism, etc) .5
hypnosis .5
chiropractic .4
cryonics .2
omega point theory .1

Shermer also has a chapter about the Piltdown Man and the self-correcting nature of science. Surely we could drive a bus through the holes in this little scheme.  

For instance, is it just us or are all of Shermer's very own beliefs given
the highest ratings? It must be very convenient for Shermer to have his own beliefs be so expertly derived that they are virtually beyond question at .9.   Has this mechanistically-minded arch-skeptic actually followed his own advice and attempted to disprove his own beliefs, or is he just taking things like "Big Bang Cosmology" on faith? Anyone even passingly familiar with critiques of the Big Bang theory would surely hesitate to assign it a .9. We're thinking it's even in the wrong category altogether--surely it belongs in the "borderlands" with other goofy, �math�-turbatory stuff like "superstrings."  Witness also the continued resistance to such innocuous ideas like acupuncture, so long ago demystified by Nobel Laureate Dr Robert Becker, among others.   

The placing of UFOs in the non-scientific category clearly indicates the assumptions and presuppositions that Shermer saddles the term with. Presumably he is referring to the "nuts-and-bolts" UFO hypothesis, which has all but been displaced by the earth-lights explanation of UFO phenomena in most serious modern UFO research (recently bolstered even further by the latest research on ball lightning and black auroras). This side of the UFO question ranks higher than the Big Bang if you ask us.

Shermer heaps praise on Martin Gardner, author of Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science. This book, a skeptical classic, is by the same Martin Gardner who in The New Age: Notes of a Fringe Watcher glibly treats the Big Bang-undermining career of astronomer Halton Arp in just over a page of text, as if a lifetime of discordant observations could be made to magically disappear. Shermer and Gardner share skepticism's worst tendencies: preserving their own beliefs behind a carefully applied screen of critical thinking, whilst ascribing logical fallacies to everyone else.

Shermer's book concludes with the thorough chapter "The Great Bone Hoax: Piltdown and the Self-Correcting Nature of Science." The Piltdown man affair remains an instructive episode. From the 1912 announcement of its discovery to the 1953 revelation of the hoax, this fraudulent "missing link" rode a wave of momentum that took four decades before Shermer's esteemed "knowledge filters" perceived the hoax.  

Shermer sums up: ". . .Piltdown is a painful reminder of the fact that
intelligence and education is no prophylactic against fraud and flimflam. In Piltdown we saw some of the most highly decorated and respected scientists in the world taken in by someone who was at most an amateur hoaxer. It shows that humans are pattern-seeking, storytelling animals, who seek and find patterns that fit a meaningful story. Once the story is found and a story developed around that pattern, additional confirming evidence is sought, and disconfirming evidence (or clues of a hoax) are ignored. 

It is a testimony to the confirmation bias, one of the most powerful explanatory models of cognitive psychologists who study flaws in critical thinking, and Piltdown shows that scientists--even world-class scientists--are not immune. It is one thing to wonder why people believe weird things, it is quite another. . . to understand why smart people believe weird things. One answer is that the belief engine that drives our perceptions is so powerful that. . .it is almost impossible to step outside one's culture to shed the belief baggage that comes with residence in a community of believers, to filter knowledge through the belief engine in order to see the evidence for what it really is--whether that be truth or hoax."

Applying this to the newly vindicated Kensington Runestone, Shermer's writing demonstrates the skeptics' inability to see through their own biases. The Kensington Runestone was mistakenly labeled a hoax for more than twice the time it took for Piltdown--an actual hoax--to be exposed. If the self-correcting nature of science does not work as well as Shermer would like, how much undiscovered reality languishes in "the borderlands"? How can the skeptics be trusted to guide us through such territory?



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