A wide-ranging if tepid collection of 14 essays by the publisher of Skeptic magazine.
In his introduction, Shermer (The Science of Good and Evil, 2004, etc.) cites various biases that prevent us from understanding the world around us. He agrees with Francis Bacon—who first identified these “personal barriers”—that only the scientific method can insure a true picture of reality. In that spirit, Shermer undertakes to apply the scientific method to such questions as the validity of “scientific” creationism and the likelihood of such far-out notions as time travel. One essay recounts the author’s experiences while posing as a psychic for a TV show. With little study, he managed to convince four subjects of his extrasensory powers by using a few generic buzzwords and telling them what they wanted to hear. Another reports the results of asking focus groups to rate various names proposed for the skeptical movement; they found “critical thinkers” among the least offensive, “unbelievers” the most negative. Turning to history, Shermer uses evolutionary logic to show that the most likely causes of the Bounty mutiny were sexual frustration among the generally young, all-male crew and authority issues arising from Bligh’s low status at the Admiralty. History is also the focus of an article ranking the most important scientific discoveries of all time; evolution (no surprise) tops the list. The final two pieces celebrate a pair of cultural icons: Star Trek, which Shermer first watched as a teenager, and the late paleontologist and scientific essayist Stephen Jay Gould. The author sees each as a model in its individual way of the elevation of reason and science to heroic status. Shermer’s active skepticism is intellectually stimulating, but you might wish he would occasionally get excited—or perhaps just show it more often. Instead, he hits all the right notes without quite making them sing.
Full of light, but short on fire.