Shermer has a woo experience, admits there may be something to it

UPDATE: I’ve heard from Michael, who emphasizes that he does not think that the experience implies the supernatural or the paranormal, and he points to a clarification (mentioned by a reader) that Shermer recently published in a “Big Ideas” piece on Slate.  Distressingly, that piece is part of a discussion/advertisement sponsored by the John Templeton Foundation (subject: “What is the future of religion?”), and the discussants are well remunerated by the Foundation. (I loathe these “Big Questions” pieces, which are really ads, not articles in Slate or the New York Times.) But the point of Shermer’s piece stands: he affirms clearly that he doesn’t accept the supernatural, and he’s going to add the update to his original Sci. Am. post.

But this sentence still remains in his text: “I have to admit, it rocked me back on my heels and shook my skepticism to its core as well.”  Bad choice of words.

UPDATE 2:  Michael has written a clarification of his piece for me to put up, and here it is:

I read your commentary, Jerry, and as usual with your critiques in your blog I agree with all your points about my Scientific American column. To clarify matters please see this further explanation of my interpretation, which is that my experience in no way implies something paranormal or supernatural. As I’ve always said (and repeat here), there’s no such thing as the paranormal or supernatural; there is just the normal, the natural, and mysteries as yet unexplained by natural law and chance/contingency.
Much has been made of the subtitle of the original column (stating that my skepticism was shaken to the core), a variation of which was used for the Online title of the essay. As is common in all magazine and newspaper articles, essays, and opinion editorials, the editors write the title and subtitle in a way that will make the article seem more compelling to read, and that is the case here. My Scientific American editors give me much freedom in choosing my own titles and subtitles, but when they have done rewrites for previous columns I have always felt they were better than my original, and this one seemed good to me at the time. But now I see that many readers took it in a way I had not intended. My skepticism is in fine shape.
Hopefully this clarification in Slate will clear up matters. I guess if I had to sum it up even briefer it would be this: Weird things happen. We can’t explain everything. Enjoy the experience. But don’t abandon science or the natural worldview.
Michael

My only response besides expressing relief, is the one above: the title and subtitle were actually taken from Shermer’s own words. But again, his stand is clear, and that’s what we should take away from this (besides the lesson to be careful with words!).
__________________________

When a reader sent this to me, I was naturally curious, and so went over to Scientific American to see what all the fuss was about.

Screen Shot 2014-12-03 at 5.57.26 PM

There I found Michael’s piece, “Anomalous events that can shake one’s skepticism to the core,” which recounts a story that happened to him when he got married. It’s a short piece, so you can read it yourself, but a brief synopsis follows. Before the wedding, Shermer’s fiancée Jennifer received a box of stuff that belonged to her beloved grandfather, stuff that included his broken 1978 transistor radio. It was busted, and Shermer tried to fix it, even putting in new batteries and banging it about, but no dice. The radio was kaput.

But it came back to life, and at a weird time. Shermer tells the rest:

Three months later, after affixing the necessary signatures to our marriage license at the Beverly Hills courthouse, we returned home, and in the presence of my family said our vows and exchanged rings. Being 9,000 kilometers from family, friends and home, Jennifer was feeling amiss and lonely. She wished her grandfather were there to give her away. She whispered that she wanted to say something to me alone, so we excused ourselves to the back of the house where we could hear music playing in the bedroom. We don’t have a music system there, so we searched for laptops and iPhones and even opened the back door to check if the neighbors were playing music. We followed the sound to the printer on the desk, wondering—absurdly—if this combined printer/scanner/fax machine also included a radio. Nope.

At that moment Jennifer shot me a look I haven’t seen since the supernatural thrillerThe Exorcist startled audiences. “That can’t be what I think it is, can it?” she said. She opened the desk drawer and pulled out her grandfather’s transistor radio, out of which a romantic love song wafted. We sat in stunned silence for minutes. “My grandfather is here with us,” Jennifer said, tearfully. “I’m not alone.”

Shortly thereafter we returned to our guests with the radio playing as I recounted the backstory. My daughter, Devin, who came out of her bedroom just before the ceremony began, added, “I heard the music coming from your room just as you were about to start.” The odd thing is that we were there getting ready just minutes before that time, sans music.

Spooky, no? Even spookier is that the radio then played through the night, but went dead the next day and has never worked since.

What can we conclude? Shermer, I believe, has published on the fact that such coincidences happen; and with stuff like broken watches restarting when Uri Geller appears on television, you can actually calculate the probability that it would happen among thousands of people watching. It’s not miniscule. Further, as Shermer has pointed out, incidents like the above stick in one’s mind as anomalies, and can be interpreted as miracles, but what does not stick in our minds is the vastly more numerous times when these coincidences do not occur.  

The parsimonious conclusion, given our lack of evidence that the dead somehow live on and try to communicate with us, is that the radio’s new batteries and getting whacked somehow turned it on. Indeed, Shermer asserts that that’s the logical explanation had it happened to someone else:

What does this mean? Had it happened to someone else I might suggest a chance electrical anomaly and the law of large numbers as an explanation—with billions of people having billions of experiences every day, there’s bound to be a handful of extremely unlikely events that stand out in their timing and meaning. In any case, such anecdotes do not constitute scientific evidence that the dead survive or that they can communicate with us via electronic equipment.

But it happened to Shermer, so, as he says below, it “shook his skepticism to the core.”

Jennifer is as skeptical as I am when it comes to paranormal and supernatural phenomena. Yet the eerie conjunction of these deeply evocative events gave her the distinct feeling that her grandfather was there and that the music was his gift of approval. I have to admit, it rocked me back on my heels and shook my skepticism to its core as well. I savored the experience more than the explanation.

The emotional interpretations of such anomalous events grant them significance regardless of their causal account. And if we are to take seriously the scientific credo to keep an open mind and remain agnostic when the evidence is indecisive or the riddle unsolved, we should not shut the doors of perception when they may be opened to us to marvel in the mysterious.

Sorry, but the emotional resonances of such events don’t give them any greater credibility than possible scientific explanations, if that’s what Shermer means by “significance.”

And I’m not sure why it should shake his skepticism to the core simply because it happened to him. After all, if it happened, it had to happen to someone!

Shermer’s last paragraph is a bit distressing to me, for he made no attempt to gather more evidence—by looking at the radio, for instance.  The “evidence” he has is a one-off event, so is he really going to remain agnostic about the possibility that the dead grandfather was somehow trying to communicate with his wife? After all, people have rare experiences seeing or talking to God, so is Shermer going to remain agnostic about God as well? I don’t think so.

Yes, if there were repeated evidence for the dead trying to reach their descendants (and, after all, why didn’t Grandpa simply speak to them?), we should indeed discard our tentative conclusion that the dead don’t communicate with us. But this is a one-off event—certainly not enough to make scientists and skeptics revisit our provisional rejection of communication from the dead.

But it’s no wonder that Shermer got so much mail about this. For those who believe in an afterlife, this somehow buttresses their delusions, and for Scientific American readers like the one below, Shermer is allowing a personal experience to shake his skepticism so severely that he now becomes an agnostic about communicating with the dead. That’s just weird.

Take-home lesson for all skeptics: one off coincidences like this should not suddenly make us agnostic about the numinous and the supernatural, especially when they aren’t repeated or investigated thoroughly.

Here’s one comment on Shermer’s piece—a comment that’s on the money:

Michael,

I was embarrassed to read your concluding paragraph. What are we to keep an open mind about? That Jennifer’s dead grandfather maybe fixed the radio? Did he even know how to fix radios? Wouldn’t there be an easier way for the dead to communicate with the living? It would be mildly interesting to have an electronics expert determine exactly what is wrong with the radio.

Regards,

–Mark

h/t: Barry

190 Comments

  1. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted December 4, 2014 at 8:28 am | Permalink

    Shermer has believed many weird things over the course of his life.

  2. Nadabupkis
    Posted December 4, 2014 at 8:32 am | Permalink

    I have a simple explanation: bad solder joint. The presumed warmer temp it California may have had some effect, too. You might be able to fix the radio by putting it in a low temp oven and just leaving it there for a few days.

    • Genghis
      Posted December 4, 2014 at 8:56 am | Permalink

      That occurred to me too, and he had already put in fresh batteries.

      • Posted December 4, 2014 at 10:59 am | Permalink

        Now if it came to life with the original batteries, that would be cool. It’s odd how miracles always seem to require conditions that allow natural explanations, however unlikely.

        I maintain computers and networks for a living. On one occasion I was called to rescue a dead computer that wouldn’t boot. I turned it on and it booted fine. I did a successful backup and turned it off to check for the puffy capacitors that have become commonplace in recent computers. I didn’t see anything, but the machine never started again. It came to life just long enough to rescue my reputation.

    • Bernie
      Posted December 4, 2014 at 9:30 am | Permalink

      Not clear that a radio of that vintage would respond well to the oven treatment. I have a mid-70’s vintage Telefunken, and it’s hand soldered with rather excessive amounts of solder by today’s standards. You might just introduce some shorts along with the closing of cracks.

      • Posted December 4, 2014 at 11:46 am | Permalink

        My wife’s iPhone died and wouldn’t complete the recovery process. Since it was dead anyway, I tried the anonymous internet advice of freezing it. the rationale is that lowering the temperature allows stuck memory bits to unstick.

        Oddly enough, it worked. Might have been coincidence. It’s been working a couple months now.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted December 4, 2014 at 10:07 am | Permalink

      Yeah, I had that happen with a computer once right in the middle of writing an essay. If you flexed the board, it worked. The CPU had bad soldering done to it.

      • Canoe
        Posted December 4, 2014 at 10:14 am | Permalink

        Or maybe that was god telling you how to write your essay………

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted December 4, 2014 at 11:01 am | Permalink

          Or that He hated my essay.

  3. GBJames
    Posted December 4, 2014 at 8:32 am | Permalink

    Sheesh.

  4. sgo
    Posted December 4, 2014 at 8:32 am | Permalink

    Feynman’s clock story comes to mind, about how the clock at his wife’s bedside “stopped working” at her time of death.

    • Filippo
      Posted December 4, 2014 at 5:15 pm | Permalink

      sub

  5. Posted December 4, 2014 at 8:33 am | Permalink

    I was hoping his comments regarding being shaken to the core were just hyperbole.

  6. Posted December 4, 2014 at 8:33 am | Permalink

    Loose wire, in more ways than one.

    • docbill1351
      Posted December 4, 2014 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

      Not as strange as the Country & Western computer.

      A friend of mine told me she thought she was going crazy. Occasionally, when working at her desk she could hear country music playing, faintly.

      I told her I didn’t know “faintly” but if she hummed a few bars I’d try to fake it.

      Apparently, she wasn’t in a humorous mood so I went up to her office and listened carefully. Sure enough, country music. Why is it always country music or talk radio and never Classic Rock & Roll?

      Well, it’s because a lot of country stations and talk radio are on the AM band and a little corrosion in your computer speakers can turn them into a crystal radio. That was it. We swapped out her speakers and the problem went away.

      Check out “foxhole radios” for even more interesting and inventive radio stories.

      • Posted December 4, 2014 at 6:58 pm | Permalink

        Ah, thanks for this excellent explanation, DocBill!

        I find it even stranger that the folks left the radio playing all night. Why?

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted December 5, 2014 at 2:58 am | Permalink

        “Why is it always country music…”

        Maybe that should be punctuated “Why is it always country music???!!!”

        Reminds me of the story about Buddy Rich: Shortly before he died, he was in the UCLA Medical Center critical care unit, hooked up to all kinds of apparatus and poked with IV drips of powerful painkillers. A critical care nurse peeked in on him and asked, “Anything causing you discomfort, Mr. Rich?” Said the great jazz drummer: “Country music.”

        So, maybe there was corrosion somewhere in all that wiring?

        • Posted December 5, 2014 at 9:24 am | Permalink

          Before I got special filters from Bell I used to get faint country music on my landline only during certain times of the year. Think it was winter. I could even hear the call letters of the radio station.
          Very annoying when you were trying to talk to someone.

          • Ken Kukec
            Posted December 5, 2014 at 10:57 am | Permalink

            I recall Lucille Ball telling Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show that, when driving through a certain canyon above L.A., she could pick up an AM radio station on her dental fillings — although I’ve heard that her claim has since been debunked.

            • Posted December 5, 2014 at 11:05 am | Permalink

              I had heard about those fillings claims:-)
              My phone music was actually acknowledged by Bell. Somehow that radio station’s transmitters were so powerful that the signals got picked up in the phone lines, I think especially in winter ( fewer trees?).
              Anyone remember Reverend Ike, broadcast from
              Tijuana, whom you could pick up all the way along Hwy 99 in Calif valley? “God WANTS you to drive a Cadillac…”

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted December 5, 2014 at 11:35 am | Permalink

                Probably AM radio.

              • Posted December 5, 2014 at 11:48 am | Permalink

                Yes, AM. CFRB or something equally lame.

  7. imil42
    Posted December 4, 2014 at 8:35 am | Permalink

    Here’s how a truly open mind works.
    A quote from Richard Feynman’s memories:

    Arlene died a few hours after I got there … I looked at the clock I had given her seven years before, when she had first become sick with tuberculosis. It was something which in those days was very nice: a digital clock whose numbers would change by turning around mechanically. The clock was very delicate and often stopped for one reason or another — I had to repair it from time to time — but I kept it going for all those years. Now, it had stopped once more — at 9:22, the time on the death certificate!

    Arlene had kept this clock by her bedside all the time she was sick, and now it stopped the moment she died. I can understand how a person who half believes in the possibility of such things, and who hasn’t got a doubting mind — especially in a circumstance like that — doesn’t immediately try to figure out what happened, but instead explains that no one touched the clock, and there was no possibility of explanation by normal phenomena. The clock simply stopped. It would become a dramatic example of these fantastic phenomena.
    I saw that the light in the room was low, and then I remembered that the nurse had picked up the clock and turned it toward the light to see the face better. That could easily have stopped it.

    • Posted December 4, 2014 at 9:01 am | Permalink

      Nice one!

    • Reginald Selkirk
      Posted December 4, 2014 at 9:07 am | Permalink

      Alternative explanation: The clock was already stopped, and the “time of death” was read from a broken clock.

      • Posted December 4, 2014 at 9:32 am | Permalink

        Brilliant! Sherlock Holmes in da house!

        • Doug
          Posted December 4, 2014 at 7:57 pm | Permalink

          I can’t resist quoting from the song “Grandfather’s Clock:”
          “It was bought on the morn of the day that he was born,
          It was ever his treasure and pride,
          But it stopped
          -Short-
          Never to go again
          When the old man died.”

          My father was always singing that song. Speaking of whom, after he died in the hospital, I went home and was surprised that my dog didn’t come out to greet me as he usually did. I heard him barking and found that he somehow got shut in a bedroom, something that never happened before (or since). I admit that my first reaction for a second was to wonder if there was a connection–on his way to the Great Beyond, did my father’s spirit swing by the house and accidentally shut the door? I could see how easy it is to convince yourself of something like that.

      • imil42
        Posted December 5, 2014 at 1:08 am | Permalink

        Good idea, I haven’t thought of it.

        However, the clock needed to have stopped at a plausible time: say, no more than 20 minutes before actual death. A half hour difference is obvious for most people.

        So, if we consider two options: a) the clock stopped on its own in this particular time window, and b) the clock stopped because of being moved by the nurse, I believe b) looks more plausible.

  8. Posted December 4, 2014 at 8:36 am | Permalink

    As I posted on the Scientific American website,

    Why not take the radio to a repair technician for a diagnosis? Once the reason for its failure is established, one could then infer what might have caused the radio to spontaneously and coincidentally begin working. Depending on the problem, one possible cause could be an advantageous change in ambient temperature and humidity.

    • Posted December 4, 2014 at 9:02 am | Permalink

      That was exactly what I wondered… Shermer ought to have considered this first.

    • Susan
      Posted December 4, 2014 at 9:04 am | Permalink

      Why not take the radio to a technician? It depends on whether they want a low tech, monetarily worthless, out of date radio or proof that “grandpa loves me.”

      They won’t look for answers because the mystery feels good. But if you are going to write an article declaring Woo Is True, you need to first turn off the emotion and check out alternative explanations.

      • Posted December 4, 2014 at 9:35 am | Permalink

        It could also be a “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” letter to his wife. Love does funny things to our reasoning ability.

    • Posted December 4, 2014 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

      There are radio repair guys? Interesting. I haven’t seen a radio technician in many years. Nor any repair shops.

      There are a few computer repair shops, but we’re talking board swappers, not technicians.

      • John Scanlon, FCD
        Posted December 5, 2014 at 8:14 am | Permalink

        That sounds right to me. You’d have to live in a ‘developing’ country to get anything smaller than a car fixed for less than it cost to replace.

        • Posted December 5, 2014 at 11:41 am | Permalink

          I think I kept a small-appliances repair guy going about 15 yrs ago with Black-cat-Shaq-chewed iron cords. Shaq and the repair guy are sadly gone.

    • Craig Gallagher
      Posted December 4, 2014 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

      Why did he not just take the batteries out again? If it carries on playing then that’s odd. If it doesn’t then one can pretty much rule out supernatural explanations there and then.

  9. NewEnglandBob
    Posted December 4, 2014 at 8:36 am | Permalink

    It was stated that they were in that room moments before getting ready. Did anyone touch that desk? Opened and shut that drawer? Anything else mundane that would have been forgotten?

    • Posted December 4, 2014 at 9:37 am | Permalink

      Perhaps an iridescent, semi-transparent figure of a kindly old man shooting lighting from his fingers into the radio? No? Okay then.

      • slartibart
        Posted December 4, 2014 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

        I think NewEnglandBob is on it.

        The wedding is in a house, it’s crowded, festive, noisy. The last minute preperation and high excitement has Shermer and fiancé getting ready in the bedroom, perhaps opening and shutting drawers with some vigor, inadvertantly performing said “percussive maintenance”. The radio kicks on but isn’t heard in the hubub (it’s in a drawer, after all). The ceremony starts, the assembled take on a reverant hush, his daughter hears the radio. Perhaps.

        Then again, it’s a lovely, deep and meaningful little story.

        If you’re into that kind of thing

        • GBJames
          Posted December 4, 2014 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

          I don’t understand the use of the word “meaningful” in this context. What would such events “mean” exactly?

          • slartibart
            Posted December 4, 2014 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

            I was being snarky. I meant meaningful to him and his fiancé.

            To me the meaning is Shermer better bone-up on his critical thinking skills a bit.

  10. Posted December 4, 2014 at 8:37 am | Permalink

    It is easy to imagine savoring the emotional impact of the moment. How could you not?

    But at the same time how can you make the leap to thinking that it might actually be grandpa manipulating the radio? It would be spooky, sure, but how could a naturally skeptical person simply cease being skeptical? I guess Shermer’s skepticism must be a consciously adopted intellectual position, not one he came to naturally.

    • Mary Drake
      Posted December 4, 2014 at 10:16 am | Permalink

      My daughter, who is 30, believes in spiritual stuff. She tries to convince me and I try to convince her. We are both pretty stubborn, but she managed to get one concession from me: when I am dying, if I see a light in the distance, I have promised her that I will go to the light. I was laughing hard when I made the promise that she was a little offended, but I will keep my promise and will no doubt fall out of bed and crack my head on the bedside lamp as I reach for it.

      • ROBIN CORNWELL
        Posted December 4, 2014 at 11:33 am | Permalink

        You very well may see a light, but rest assured it is just your synapses shutting down due to lack of oxygen. Read Susan Blackmore’s work on near death experiences – nothing spooky at all.

    • Canoe
      Posted December 4, 2014 at 10:47 am | Permalink

      Agreed. But it’s not just the leap, it’s misplacing the burden of proof. Seems to me the burden is on the deists, since god is the most improbable thing of all, if you think about it, massively less probable than an old radio coming briefly back to life. So if we’re going to base the burden on the least probable event, as we should, the alternative explanation wins out every time.

    • Posted December 4, 2014 at 11:04 am | Permalink

      “but how could a naturally skeptical person simply cease being skeptical?”

      We’re all hard-wired to think spooky thoughts; the skeptic is just one who pushes that instinct to the side and engages the intellect.

  11. Posted December 4, 2014 at 8:38 am | Permalink

    Feynman always had the most logical takes.

    • Kevin
      Posted December 4, 2014 at 8:45 am | Permalink

      Agreed.

  12. bobkillian
    Posted December 4, 2014 at 8:40 am | Permalink

    Grandfather, like god, plays hide-and-seek. “I really want to send a message to my granddaughter, but let me disguise it a little first.” “Sure I could talk to the whole human race, in all their languages simultaneously, but that’s just not cryptic enough. I’ll just put my face on some toast.”

  13. Posted December 4, 2014 at 8:40 am | Permalink

    I think the problem is that Shermer’s article is ambiguous. He recounts a tale that seemed to have a particular significance, and pointed out that it shook his scepticism to the core.

    I think that’s the point – these events DO seem to have significance, particularly for those who experience them – and for some people that’s enough to blindly believe that grandpappy was in the room making the radio work.

    Shermer is perhaps making the point that when something happens to YOU, it’s more difficult to simply set it aside. Because YOU have had the experience.

    “The emotional interpretations of such anomalous events grant them significance regardless of their causal account.” This is absolutely true – from a personal perspective.

    I might have it wrong, but I think that if Shermer had written the article more carefully, his point might have been clearer.

    Or maybe he’s just gone all woo. 🙂

    • Posted December 4, 2014 at 8:55 am | Permalink

      I think you may be right. This sentence stood out:

      I savored the experience more than the explanation.

      It could be a meditation on the power of the first person perspective.

      There is something compelling about a subjective experience that cannot be communicated objectively. I’ve often wondered what I would believe if the clouds parted and an enormous white bearded man boomed at me to repent. Now, objectively, I hope I would take myself to the nearest psychiatric unit because the chances that the natural laws had been suspended and ‘God’ had spoken to me seem a lot less than that I was simply hallucinating.

      Nevertheless, mental disturbances leave people convinced of all sorts of strange things, plainly, and I don’t see why I should be any exception (please cart me off if I ever do report such events!).

    • Alex Shuffell
      Posted December 4, 2014 at 8:58 am | Permalink

      Have you ever read a story defending a paranormal event occurring in reality that is unambiguous and carefully written? I’m not sure they exist.

      • Reginald Selkirk
        Posted December 4, 2014 at 9:09 am | Permalink

        Yes. Sometimes such accounts are unambiguous and clear – but factually incorrect.

    • Posted December 4, 2014 at 11:54 am | Permalink

      I think that that is indeed what Shermer tries to say: when it happens to somebody else it is easy to dismiss supernatural causes, but when it happens to you it shakes you (although his ‘shaken to the core’ appears a bit over the top formulation).
      Naturally these synchronic things ‘shake’ one, might even give one second thoughts for a while.
      However, it is clear Michael remains as sceptic as ever, hence not really what one would call ‘shaken to the core’.

  14. Somite
    Posted December 4, 2014 at 8:43 am | Permalink

    Over the years Shermer has been a libertarian, outright denied climate change, and still peddles Björn Lomborg; and this is what brings on criticism?

    • Posted December 4, 2014 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

      Does he deny climate change?? I’ve missed that. I’d think that with his dedication to debunk all kind of conspiracy theories, he would have debunked denialist conspiracy theories about climate change too. If so (his denial), it would really be kinda odd.
      Have a link?

      • Keith
        Posted December 4, 2014 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

        Shermer had been taken in by the pseudo-skeptic position for years regarding anthropogenic global warming, without ever seriously looking at IPCC summaries or seeking out primary literature. His position was certainly consistent with that of the denialist (i.e.ideology masquerading as science/skepticism). Then he wrote this Sci Am column in 2006: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-flipping-point/ . Progress, to be sure, but even his revised position suggests he really doesn’t understand the science behind AGW, and he still champions discredited hacks like Lomborg.

        • Posted December 5, 2014 at 6:56 am | Permalink

          Due to your reply, I looked up Bjorn Lomborg He is not a denialist, he definitely accepts anthropogenic global warming. He just thinks that the measures proposed (such as carbon taxes, government interventions, biofuels, etc.) will not make a difference, are even counterproductive. In all fairness, that may make him a discredited hack on a political level, but not a climate science denier.

          • Keith
            Posted December 5, 2014 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

            I didn’t mean to imply that Lomborg was a AGW denier. I agree that he is not and I should have been more clear. Lomborg does, however, use data in highly selective and therefore misleading way in order to promote his Ayn Randian/free market ideology. His book the Skeptical Environmentalist was thoroughly debunked by scientists who understand ecology, evolutionary biology, and how ecosystem processes work.

            Lomborg’s approach was basically that the market should decide the best course of action, without any acknowledgement that not all issues are amenable to free market and cost/benefit solutions. Nature doesn’t give a shit about the human economy.

            • Matt G
              Posted December 5, 2014 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

              Which is why scientists must oppose ideologies, whether they be religious, economic, political or otherwise.

  15. JohnE
    Posted December 4, 2014 at 8:45 am | Permalink

    I have to agree with David Hume that, based upon our own human experience, ANY natural explanation must be regarded as substantially more likely than nature going out of its course — i.e., a “miracle.” But, of course, such other explanations aren’t nearly as interesting (and don’t make for good stories).

    • rickflick
      Posted December 4, 2014 at 10:47 am | Permalink

      “such other explanations aren’t nearly as interesting (and don’t make for good stories).” And don’t drive traffic to your column.

  16. moleatthecounter
    Posted December 4, 2014 at 8:47 am | Permalink

    Shermer – “Jennifer is as skeptical as I am when it comes to paranormal and supernatural phenomena.”

    “My grandfather is here with us,” Jennifer said, tearfully. “I’m not alone.”

    Yep. She sounds really skeptical.

    • Posted December 4, 2014 at 9:11 am | Permalink

      Wish fulfillment maybe…

      • moleatthecounter
        Posted December 4, 2014 at 11:57 am | Permalink

        On both counts maybe!

    • Posted December 4, 2014 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

      In a sense, “grandfather is here with us” has a kernel of truth: “grandfather” is an artifact of the mind, and if one has vivid recollections of a person – living or dead – the sensation of presence can feel as real as if the person were physically there, all the more so in the presence of a physical reminder of the person, and that much more if the object seems “haunted” by the person.

      The correlary is that being in a person’s presence isn’t much more real than the memory, since that experience is manufactured inside one’s head as well. All that’s required to cancel out the woo in the bride’s statement is the preface “I feel like.”

      I have a little shrine of my late dad’s things and I like the way it has kept him “alive” in me over the decades.

    • Scientifik
      Posted December 4, 2014 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

      Rust Cohle was right, people are so goddamn frail…

      • Posted December 4, 2014 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

        Rust Cohle: what a great show that was!! Was so sad when I heard Harrelson and McConnaghey were not going to continue.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted December 4, 2014 at 6:21 pm | Permalink

        Then again, Rust wasn’t above pitching a bit of woo, himself — to Marty or to Mrs. Marty, either.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted December 4, 2014 at 6:38 pm | Permalink

          He didn’t seem to woo-y to me until the end when he confesses to Marty about how he felt with the death of his child, etc. Poor Rust.

          • Posted December 4, 2014 at 6:54 pm | Permalink

            Apparently mcConnaghey is a bit wooish himself. Did you see him at the Emmys? All Jesusy…Great actor, though.

            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted December 4, 2014 at 7:01 pm | Permalink

              You mean Alright alright alright alright!? 🙂

              • Posted December 4, 2014 at 7:16 pm | Permalink

                I thought there was some talk about the Almighty, too- lol

              • Ken Kukec
                Posted December 4, 2014 at 10:42 pm | Permalink

                Well, his career did experience a Second Coming, the so-called McConaughssance.

              • Ken Kukec
                Posted December 4, 2014 at 11:17 pm | Permalink

                Here’s the “McConaughssance” in Venn diagram schema.

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted December 5, 2014 at 9:21 am | Permalink

                That’s pretty funny! I love Venn diagrams.

        • Posted December 4, 2014 at 6:42 pm | Permalink

          Pitching a different kind of woo:-)

  17. Kevin
    Posted December 4, 2014 at 8:52 am | Permalink

    How strange for Shermer to want to reach for an explanation for an obviously peculiar event, when there are so many other unsolved mysteries in this world that would benefit from a solution that is worth thinking about.

    How about world poverty? The disparity of technology and health and wealth and education throughout the world? Shermer has spent more than several weeks, I imagine, considering the possibilities to explain one incredibly esoteric mystery. Why not use human faculties to think of solving other problems that are more meaningful.

    Shermer also appears, as others have mentioned, to lack the ability to see beyond the consequences of his untempered (by reason) conclusions. How would a transcendent world actually make contact with the real world? Interesting philosophical questions that I suspect, if given a reasonable opportunity will not involve radio repair but something exceptionally more profound.

  18. Alex Shuffell
    Posted December 4, 2014 at 8:53 am | Permalink

    There are hundreds of stories around the web of electronics spontaneously turning themselves on. Sometimes setting fires, exploding and doing serious harm. It is very strange how people very quickly turn to a supernatural explanation. Why jump so quickly to an invisible corpse (it is hard to take ghosts or spirits seriously when you try to express it in understandable words) messing around with your stuff? Maybe it her Grandfather was a fan of Arthur Clarke’s Space Odyssey series and was doing an impression of Dave Bowman from 2010? The emotional significance is significant only to the story teller. If anything it weakens their defence as rationality quickly fades when emotions and excitement get high.

  19. Gordon Hill
    Posted December 4, 2014 at 8:55 am | Permalink

    The mind is an awesome thing when faced.

  20. keithf4
    Posted December 4, 2014 at 8:55 am | Permalink

    Shermer wrote a followup in Slate to further explain himself due to the responses

    http://www.slate.com/bigideas/what-is-the-future-of-religion/essays-and-opinions/michael-shermer-opinion

    • Alex Shuffell
      Posted December 4, 2014 at 9:20 am | Permalink

      He spent as much time talking about the plot and ending of Interstellar as he did with rational explanations of his experience. The rest seemed to be more anecdotes, quotes from scientists saying the paranormal is possible, more defence of emotions and he even took Deepak Chopra seriously. He ended it by saying we should appreciate the mystery while scientists get on with trying to figure it out. That wasn’t fun to read. x

  21. Posted December 4, 2014 at 9:00 am | Permalink

    There could be quite a few reasons why the radio was not working. If it was working without batteries I would be impressed. There are alot of connections in the radio – perhaps some moisture in the atmosphere allowed a broken bit of circuit to re-connect. When it warmed up enough it evaporated & the radio died. The best bet would be get someone good with electronics to take a look. Shermer should know that – & it is probably fixable.

  22. Robert Seidel
    Posted December 4, 2014 at 9:01 am | Permalink

    Let’s collect our stories, folks!

    There was the time I was searching for a paper I needed for my BSc thesis, and when I finally found a copy of the relevant journal, the exact page the article should have been on, and only it, was blank – processing defect. Odds for that? Low.

    Perhaps one dead researcher wanted to keep me from citing that paper …

    • Launcher
      Posted December 4, 2014 at 11:23 am | Permalink

      My young son had a “talking” interactive map of the United States. One of the buttons was apparently broken, and at night the toy would wake us up by loudly declaring: “Nebraska, the Cornhusker State. State capitol: Lincoln.”

      I suspect that the cooler evening temperature of the house triggered the circuit connected to the Nebraska button by thermal contraction. But who knows? Even though we don’t know a single dead person from Nebraska, we’ve seen one or two people on television who claim to know someone from Nebraska. Perhaps they were trying to communicate with us.

      • Vaal
        Posted December 5, 2014 at 9:40 am | Permalink

        It’s unfortunate that the way Michael wrote his story was to give the impression that faced with such improbable-seeming occurrences, the lesson is that we ought to grant that it is a mystery and from that keep our minds open to the land of the mysterious.

        Instead of a possible teaching moment about skepticism, he gave woo-believers all they need to latch on to to say “See! See! You have to remain open to the things we believe caused OUR anomalous events!”

        Of course skeptics are always open to believing extraordinary possibilities; we just keep reminding people we need strong evidence. It leaves that door open to the common woo/supernatural thinking that if it’s merely logically possible – “you can’t show that my getting the loan wasn’t God answering my prayer!…you can treat it as plausible.

        Another part that seems innocently phrased enough, but which I think is a bit of a strategic mistake is Michael writing:

        “In any case, such anecdotes do not constitute scientific evidence that the dead survive or that they can communicate with us via electronic equipment.”

        I would actually have wished he didn’t insert the term “scientific” in there.
        Why? Because for the woo-believing portion of the audience, “scientific evidence” is often beside the point; they rely on personal evidence and talk about how science either hasn’t caught up to what they know through personal evidence, or that science just isn’t suited to establishing the reality of their experiences. So many already sort of mentally divvy up “scientific evidence” and “personal/whatever-it-is evidence” they ground their woo upon. Making the distinction as Michael does just keeps that wall up that many already have in their minds.

        Which is why I would have preferred his sentence to simply read…

        “In any case, such anecdotes do not constitute evidence that the dead survive…”

        Because then that challenges the woo-believer about the nature of “evidence” itself, since they do think they believe on “evidence.”

        The issue I’m getting at there is that it’s certainly valuable at the right times to talk about “scientific evidence” insofar as it is the gold standard of rigor for vetting empirical claims. But I think we have to keep emphasizing – as Jerry often does here! – that there is a continuum of our empirical thinking, not a division of it. That is, science is the ultimate expression of the type of empirical conclusion-making we rely on every day – to the extent you are doing a rational job of figuring out what caused the leak in your bathroom, you are consistently appealing to the same reasons one ends up doing science.

        Whereas, as we all know here, those prone to supernatural beliefs tend to use “science” as a demarcation, not on a continuum, a “different way of knowing” that you do with a lab coat on. And “that’s ok for doing science, but I’m uncovering reality in this other way…personal experience!”

        Admittedly, it might have been a bit tough to say both 1. Such occurrences aren’t evidence for the supernatural and 2. But nothing wrong in enjoying such occurrences for the emotions or ideas they evoke at the time.

        But like most here, I think Michael could have done it better.

  23. Posted December 4, 2014 at 9:02 am | Permalink

    I once made a comment that Dr Shermer’s book should really have been titled “Why Other People, Not Me, Believe Weird Things”. I always felt he hadn’t quite understood why people do fall into those traps. Seems like he’s been snapped himself.

    • Reginald Selkirk
      Posted December 4, 2014 at 9:13 am | Permalink

      As I pointed out on a previous occasion, Why People Believe Weird Things, 1st edition, 2nd printing, contained the following:

      “from an evolutionary viewpoint, 25 percent of a child’s genes come from each parent, about 6 percent from each grandparent, 1.5 percent from each great-grandparent, and so on.”

  24. Posted December 4, 2014 at 9:05 am | Permalink

    Without crossing-over between homologous pairs of chromosomes during the recombinative and reductive stage of meiosis in both of our parents, ever human conceptus is one out of 70 trillion recombinations of our parents’ chromosomes. Hopefully, we were created in a moment of passion and not a brief, lunch time ho-hummer! Panglossian paraphrasing: All for the most unlikely or most likely in this predictable, aleatoric world that tumbles around us. Best advice already given: the transistor should have been taken for a checkup at Radio Shack.

  25. pk
    Posted December 4, 2014 at 9:08 am | Permalink

    The statistician David J. Hand has written a book on the topic: The Improbability Principle: Why Coincidences, Miracles, and Rare Events Happen Every Day

    • Matt G
      Posted December 4, 2014 at 11:00 am | Permalink

      The odds of getting any particular bridge hand are somewhere near 26 million to one, yet they get dealt every hand!

      • Posted December 5, 2014 at 11:57 am | Permalink

        Matt G. See my post above yours about the odds for who you are chromosomally.

  26. Posted December 4, 2014 at 9:10 am | Permalink

    I’m putting an update in the post as I’ve heard from Shermer, who himself pointed out the slate piece that a reader highlighted above.

  27. jacoxnet
    Posted December 4, 2014 at 9:10 am | Permalink

    I think the key sentence is the one just after Shermer says that his skepticism has been shaken to the core. He says: “I savored the experience more than the explanation.” This is why he didn’t examine the radio in more detail for a natural explanation. He didn’t want one. He chose to “savor the experience” because the experience made him feel good. That is why a lot of people choose to believe in the supernatural: it makes them feel good. Skepticism is rational but sometimes not as emotionally comforting.

  28. Posted December 4, 2014 at 9:11 am | Permalink

    A believer will use experience to confirm preconceived explanations. A skeptic knows that experience and explanation are different things.

    Those who believe in woo see “evidence” of woo everywhere. I just heard that prayer saved the hawaiian town threatened by the lava flow.

    My advice to my woo-inclined friends: never conflate experience with explanation. And to the mystics I offer Sam Harris’ new book.

  29. Posted December 4, 2014 at 9:14 am | Permalink

    If you see the brain as modular it’s not difficult to imagine that you can be disturbed by something even though you know there’s a rational explanation.

    The systems evolved for detecting threats work faster and have a more immediate effect on your emotions so even though the rational part comes up with a logical explanation it doesn’t have such an immediate effect and the low relatively low emotional response to a rational explanation can’t overrule the irrational thoughts.

    It’s like watching someone dangling from a cliff in a film you’ve seen before: your rational mind knows he won’t come to any harm but the fear for his life still has an effect.

    I don’t believe in ghosts but ghost stories scare me: same process.

  30. Randy Schenck
    Posted December 4, 2014 at 9:16 am | Permalink

    A twist in circumstances can end the imagination just as it stirs it up. What if the radio did the same thing but not on the wedding day. Then no Grandpa, just a magic radio.

  31. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted December 4, 2014 at 9:18 am | Permalink

    As is made clear, unlikely coincidences loom large when they happen to you. As beings who are evolved to believe that events are caused by ‘agents’ with a purpose, we naturally get this very deep, emotive feeling of purpose from chance events. This used to have survival advantages when a rustling bush might mean a sabre toothed lion. It is now the wellspring of woo.
    Even if one sees through it, I am sure that these experiences are something to have intense feelings about. I would still cherish an experience like his, even as I ‘knew better’.
    I wonder if there is a specific name for this kind of feeling that events have a deeper purpose?

    • Posted December 4, 2014 at 9:23 am | Permalink

      I wonder if there is a specific name for this kind of feeling that events have a deeper purpose?

      Depending on resistance to rational explanation: apophenia, paranoia or religion.

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted December 4, 2014 at 11:00 am | Permalink

        It’s not paranoia for me. The world IS actively trying to kill me. If it’s not the drivers with their hatred do being overtaken by cyclists, it’s the oxygen trying to wreck almost every bit of my metabolism.

        • Jesper Both Pedersen
          Posted December 4, 2014 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

          Life is basically cannibalistic to the core. Like a dog chasing its own tail.

          As to the feelings of deeper purpose I’ll add potential psychosis.

    • John Scanlon, FCD
      Posted December 5, 2014 at 8:21 am | Permalink

      Wasn’t it Slartibartfast who answered that question for Dent Arthur Dent? – “That’s just perfectly normal paranoia, everyone in the universe has that.”

  32. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted December 4, 2014 at 9:18 am | Permalink

    I thought this article was amusing, but didn’t read (or realize) the lame last paragraph til now. I am giving Shermer in the broad sense a benefit of a doubt for now, but clearly he knows better, or was trying to say something more articulate. That paragraph is worthy of being torn apart like a Deepak Deepity. Use your proofreaders, Shermer. keithf4 I’ll read that follow up…

    • Posted December 4, 2014 at 10:57 am | Permalink

      Deepak cingratulated Shermer for his “honest clear & reasonable” article … *gag*

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted December 4, 2014 at 11:08 am | Permalink

        Why am I quoting Julius Czar every few hours? “This was the most unkindest cut of all!
        Shermer may be suckling his toenails, but to be complimented by Deepakitty : horrors! Keep the man away from sharp keyboards for a while! He may do something Deepakitty would regret.

        • Posted December 4, 2014 at 11:28 am | Permalink

          Pleeeeeeease don’t insult kittehs everywhere, Aidan, by appending kitty to Deepfried’s name🐱

  33. Guestus Aurelius
    Posted December 4, 2014 at 9:23 am | Permalink

    “It’s not miniscule.”

    Agreed; it’s “minuscule.” 😉

    But seriously: criticizing Shermer for this misses his point entirely, which is that the “significance” he speaks of is an emotional and psychological one.

    Such uncanny coincidences are rare indeed, especially for inquisitive skeptics, and there’s nothing wrong with enjoying them when they come, indulging the feelings of mystery, awe, and cognitive dissonance they trigger, while knowing full well that there’s always a perfectly mundane explanation.

    Shermer is talking about a wonderful experience that humans can have, and he’s talking about it with a touch of poetic language. We’re not robots! The criticism strikes me as overliteral grinchery.

    • Posted December 4, 2014 at 9:36 am | Permalink

      The problem that was pointed out above was not that he enjoyed the emotion but that he apparently allowed the emotion to give supernatural propositions a pass or more credence.

      From Coyne: “Shermer’s last paragraph is a bit distressing to me, for he made no attempt to gather more evidence—by looking at the radio, for instance. The “evidence” he has is a one-off event, so is he really going to remain agnostic about the possibility that the dead grandfather was somehow trying to communicate with his wife? After all, people have rare experiences seeing or talking to God, so is Shermer going to remain agnostic about God as well? I don’t think so.”

      • Guestus Aurelius
        Posted December 4, 2014 at 10:09 am | Permalink

        You’re just missing the point, too.

        Of course he doesn’t remain agnostic to that possibility in an intellectual sense. What he’s describing is a rare human experience that he enjoyed on an emotional and psychological level.

        You’ve quoted Coyne’s interpretation, but my contention is that Coyne’s interpretation is a misunderstanding.

        • Posted December 4, 2014 at 10:17 am | Permalink

          You can disagree with me if you want, but I don’t like to be called “Coyne” on my website, please.

          • Posted December 4, 2014 at 10:23 am | Permalink

            In fairness, it’s hard to keep track of who likes being called what.

            On FTB calling someone by their first name is ‘microagression’.

            • Posted December 4, 2014 at 10:27 am | Permalink

              Fair enough, but I’ve mentioned several times here that I prefer to be called “Jerry,” or “Professor Ceiling Cat.” If one is really timorous, “Professor Coyne” will do, though I don’t really like titles.

              “Coyne” sounds to me rather aggressive and cold, and since this is my living room I get to be called what I want.

              • Posted December 4, 2014 at 10:37 am | Permalink

                I’m happy to call you Jerry – that’s the way I usually address you here. Elsewhere I tend to use Jerry Coyne in the first instance and probably just Coyne thereafter because otherwise it looks like I’m pretending to know you.

                Which is why I’m using ‘Shermer’ here rather than ‘Michael’. If this was his blog I’d use ‘Michael’ just like I use ‘Michael’ when posting on Michael Nugent’s blog.

                Off topic, I know, but the rules are different on different blogs.

              • Posted December 4, 2014 at 11:42 am | Permalink

                Speaking of Jerry Coyne, how’s your orange fluffy namesake doing?
                🐯

                Strangely, at my last school, you knew you’d arrived if your teacher colleagues called you by just your last name.

              • Guestus Aurelius
                Posted December 4, 2014 at 10:45 am | Permalink

                I definitely wasn’t going for “aggressive” or “cold.” Blunt disagreement, sure, but for the record my feelings about you and your blog are overwhelmingly positive.

              • GBJames
                Posted December 4, 2014 at 10:48 am | Permalink

                Blog?

              • Daniel Engblom
                Posted December 4, 2014 at 10:59 am | Permalink

                Oh, just realized that I’ve been calling you Coyne all this time I’ve been commenting on your site, sorry! I will try to remember in the future to stick with either Jerry or Professor Ceiling Cat. 🙂

            • Ken Kukec
              Posted December 4, 2014 at 6:32 pm | Permalink

              “On FTB calling someone by their first name is ‘microagression’.”

              “Don’t micro-aggress me, dude”?

          • Posted December 4, 2014 at 10:35 am | Permalink

            I’ll keep that in mind in the future. I’m only here sporadically and wasn’t aware of your preference.

          • Guestus Aurelius
            Posted December 4, 2014 at 10:39 am | Permalink

            Sure thing.

            (Sorry, I honestly didn’t know that.)

          • Posted December 4, 2014 at 11:35 am | Permalink

            Even I get called “Jerry” sometimes. 😉

        • Posted December 4, 2014 at 10:34 am | Permalink

          I don’t think it’s a misinterpretation, but rather an acknowledgement of the fact that Shermer didn’t go further and talk about investigating the supernatural propositions in question. If he actually did take steps to investigate them, or if he remained skeptical of them in spite of his emotions, I think this was an important moment for him to say so. There are a lot of people sitting on the fence when it comes to the supernatural and a lot of those people are reading Shermer’s work so he has a duty to be clear here imo.

    • Posted December 4, 2014 at 9:39 am | Permalink

      I’ve got to agree.

      You get an ‘uncanny’ effect because of the cognitive dissonance between rational and supernatural explanations. Shermer is simply enjoying the feeling.

      It’s like taking a psychedelic drug: we know the experience isn’t real – or at least we do when we come down – the experience gives us access into the brain’s base code. What Shermer seems to be revelling in is his brain’s capacity to deceive him: it’s an expression of wonder at the complexity of the brain rather than an ontological claim about the supernatural.

      If he was making some broader claim – that the experience had turned him against gay marriage or something – we’d have reason to criticise him.

      • Posted December 4, 2014 at 11:19 am | Permalink

        Yes yes yes, and that’s whence the unfortunate muddle of the article arises: the revelling isn’t unambiguously stated, but also the rejection of woo isn’t unambiguously stated, either.

  34. Posted December 4, 2014 at 9:29 am | Permalink

    Yeah that is pretty disheartening. Every moment that passes in our lives is another opportunity for something incredibly improbable to happen to us. It’d be more surprising if nothing incredibly improbable ever happened, given the vast number of moments that pass in our lives.

  35. W.Benson
    Posted December 4, 2014 at 9:35 am | Permalink

    Most people I suppose have experienced one ‘big’ coincidence. Some are not so happy. Mine was a misprint in a Chinese fortune cookie. At the end of the meal my friend at the other side of the table cracked his cookie open and paled as he read his destiny from the little white strip of paper. It uncompromisingly declared: “you are dead.” Less than three months passed before he was killed in a military accident. Of course, one coincidence in a passel of years is not much, and everyone forgets all those times the signs in cookies, clouds and tea leaves are ridiculously wrong.

  36. mormovies
    Posted December 4, 2014 at 10:01 am | Permalink

    This would be a perfect opportunity to really go into a full on investigation and find a resolution and scientific explanation or theory instead of leaving this open ended. Left unresolved, this so-called paranormal incident becomes perfect fodder for woo-meisters like Deepak!

  37. boggy
    Posted December 4, 2014 at 10:12 am | Permalink

    If the radio had started working without batteries, then I would believe everything from the 6 Day creation onwards.

    • John Scanlon, FCD
      Posted December 5, 2014 at 8:24 am | Permalink

      I wouldn’t. I’d disbelieve the claim about the batteries.

  38. Posted December 4, 2014 at 10:16 am | Permalink

    Of course this incident dovetailed with an emotionally significant event in his life. He was already primed for the unexpected with an extra does of yearning coming from his emotionally invested bride.

    With my luck it would have been an egregious earworm — except the radio would never shut off.

    • Posted December 4, 2014 at 10:28 am | Permalink

      “My grandfather is here with us,” Jennifer said, tearfully. “I’m not alone.”

      Plus, who would turn to their beloved at this point and say, “Now honey, stop crying, let’s be rational.”??

      You’d appear like Leonard Nimoy and would immediately contaminate the quality (and quantity) of your evening romance.

  39. Sastra
    Posted December 4, 2014 at 10:18 am | Permalink

    I can’t remember the source but I recall reading about a study which asked a group of people to write down the details of some amazing coincidence which had happened to them. They were then asked to rank it on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being “common” and 10 being “impossible by chance alone.” As you might guess, those numbers were all pretty high.

    But the next step was where it got interesting. Each story was passed to the neighbor, and on again around the room, with every individual reading the experiences and then ranking them on the same scale.

    Iirc the hypothesis to be tested was that there would be a statistically valid tendency for the subjects to rank their own story higher on the scale of extraordinariness than they ranked the anecdotes of others. And so there was.

    Skepdoc Harriet Hall speaks and writes against alternative medicine and often deals with advocates who insist that her conclusions have no real validity unless she has tried the remedy “for herself.” On the contrary, she argues, doing so would make her conclusions less reliable because now she’d be more likely to be unfairly biased in either direction.

    This really freaks out the unscientific mindset. What happens to you, personally, is supposed to be the Gold Standard of certainty.

    • Matt G
      Posted December 4, 2014 at 11:10 am | Permalink

      Francis Bacon:

      “The root of all superstition is that men observe when a thing hits, but not when it misses.”

  40. Posted December 4, 2014 at 10:26 am | Permalink

    The “shaking to the core” is especially unfortunate given Micheal Shermer makes his living as a skeptic. An opportunity lost to say something like “for the first time in my life, I had the kind of experience so many people mistake for the supernatural,” or something to that effect. So much skeptical writing lacks sympathy for real human experience including delusion – look at the atheist criticism of Sam Harris’s latest book; some folks seem to be averse to the very idea of useful, powerful emotions (due to the taint of woo, of course) that they can sound like the heartless charicatures we are made out to be. Don’t they know THE WALLS ARE F***ING BROWN?!

    Also, our nervous systems go bananas during the big three life events – birth of a child, death of a loved on and marriage – heightening awareness, fixing vivid memories and attaching emotional significance to ordinary events. Mr. & Mrs. Shermer were in the midst of two of the big three! It would be really neat if he can make lemonade out of this little lemon.

  41. boku
    Posted December 4, 2014 at 10:36 am | Permalink

    I vote for memory problems or lying.

    He probably fixed the radio, turned it on, and put it in the drawer to trick his wife, then thanks to alcohol, the excitement, and the time passed since it happened, his memory has fooled himself, just as he fooled his wife.

    • boku
      Posted December 4, 2014 at 10:40 am | Permalink

      Or how about this. He fixed the radio, forgot to turn it off and put it in the drawer where its antenna got in the right angle to pick up a radio station.

      • Posted December 4, 2014 at 11:26 am | Permalink

        Or maybe he was pwned by The Amazing Randi.

        • John Scanlon, FCD
          Posted December 5, 2014 at 8:26 am | Permalink

          Yes! That’s so possible! (Except Randi might have managed it without batteries)

  42. Posted December 4, 2014 at 10:38 am | Permalink

    I was once traveling in Mexico and staying in fairly out of the way place (Puerto Angel). I was talking to some fellow somewhere and he and said he also came from Germany.

    I asked him which city — same as me. Which district? – Same as me. Half jokingly I said “Which street?” He just laughed, and said “Ah, a really tiny backstreet. You wouldn’t even know it.”

    I asked him more insistently, and yep– same street!

    “Which number?” And yep – he was my next door neighbor in the apartment building next to mine!

    If he had have been a nice woman I would have been convinced that the universe had brought us together. But he wasn’t, and in fact was a bit of a fool and not very friendly…

    And in that moment just I knew — there are no supernatural forces. It shook my belief in woo to the core. (heh heh)

  43. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted December 4, 2014 at 10:57 am | Permalink

    I’ve had more than one uncanny experience like this and while it kinda sorta pushes me down one notch on a paranormal analog of the Dawkins scale on theism (I dunno maybe from 6 to 5), it doesn’t change my feelings about the obscenity of mediums and their seances bilking the grieving of mega-bucks and phony psychics of which the most notorious and obscene is John Edward [no ‘s’ unliked the disgraced Democrat politician].

    Edward’s worst stunt was his trying to do a show with relatives of 9/11 victims during sweeps week two months after the tragedy. My outrage at his shenanigans and my deep gratitude to Penn and Teller for exposing him of their “Bullshit” show are wholly undiminished by my own pair of experiences similar to those of Michael Shermer.

  44. Posted December 4, 2014 at 10:59 am | Permalink

    I just want to share a brief story: We had two male sibling cats (still adolescents), Ben and Jerry. This was the era of tape answering machines and VCR / VHS tapes. We found a self-recorded message on the answering machine of the two boys meowing while “Everybody wants to be a cat” from Disney’s ‘Aristocats’ played in the background. I have no explanation for these events that make any sense. They apparently stepped on the remote, the voicemail record button, and managed to meow into the microphone area in careful coordination…. or they had an awesome party while we were away… I prefer the latter explanation.

    • Posted December 4, 2014 at 11:05 am | Permalink

      and…..Ben Goren comments on Jerry’s Website where there is always a party!

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted December 4, 2014 at 11:19 am | Permalink

      That is a great story!

    • Sastra
      Posted December 4, 2014 at 11:20 am | Permalink

      Or someone was playing a practical joke (do you usually play the soundtrack from Aristocats?)

      If you are absolutely positive that it couldn’t possibly have been someone playing a joke … then it probably was someone playing a joke. You’re prime.

      • Posted December 5, 2014 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

        We had the Aristocats VHS in the VCR, but it had been rewound completely… and my wife sometimes accidentally left the TV on when she left for school. All they had to do was step on the remote to start it playing.

        There’s nothing too remarkable about them stepping on the remote, they were kittens and loved to have climbing contests… I guess the amazing part of the recording was the timing. That was the only time they ever recorded an “audio selfie”.

        We were living in a garage apartment above my parents’ garage (we were married out of college and went through grad school together) My father is in a wheelchair and couldn’t climb the stairs. If it was a practical joke, that’s a serious commitment to a gag. 🙂

        • Sastra
          Posted December 5, 2014 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

          Yes, it certainly might have been curious timing, but the person I thought most likely to be playing the joke was whoever was the other side of “we.”

    • Posted December 4, 2014 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

      LOL!

  45. Son of Sharecroppers
    Posted December 4, 2014 at 11:01 am | Permalink

    I agree with the bad solder joint theory. Or it could have been a bad capacitor. Those can sometimes cause intermittent operation.

  46. nickswearsky
    Posted December 4, 2014 at 11:09 am | Permalink

    Scientific American recently had a very good article (not by Shermer) on the mathematics of highly improbable events. It was very interesting and included a remarkable true story about lottery tickets.

    Maybe Shermer should have read it. That said, I got the gist of his column when it appeared. Such events can easily make people think supernatural is involved.

  47. Larry Esser
    Posted December 4, 2014 at 11:20 am | Permalink

    I have had strange things happen to me like this, too. But in every case, there turned out to be a perfectly natural reason for them. There’s nothing wrong with wondering if there’s something “behind them,” but at some point, it’s far simpler to see them as what they are: Perfectly understandable natural occurrences. Mathematician John Allen Paulos points out in “Irreligion,” that it’s easy to come up with all sorts of wild coincidences (and he does!) But, he says, “the most amazing coincidence imaginable would be the complete absence of all coincidences.”

  48. Sastra
    Posted December 4, 2014 at 11:25 am | Permalink

    My husband has about 5,000 songs on the iPod in his car and every now and then a band or singer we’ve just been talking about comes on.

    We usually respond the same way, in unison: “And yet we STILL don’t believe in God!

    You either listen to what the universe is trying to tell you … or you don’t.

    • Doug
      Posted December 4, 2014 at 9:50 pm | Permalink

      Several years ago, the thought “I wonder if Freddie Batholomew [a child star from the 1940s] is still alive?” I don’t know what prompted that thought-I wasn’t a fan and I hadn’t seen any of his movies lately. I later found out that he had died THAT DAY. Spooky!

      • Doug
        Posted December 4, 2014 at 9:51 pm | Permalink

        I meant to say that the thought popped into my head.

      • Sastra
        Posted December 5, 2014 at 8:54 am | Permalink

        And yet you STILL don’t believe in God!!!11!1

        Jeez, what is it going to take to get through to you guys??

  49. Ken Kukec
    Posted December 4, 2014 at 11:38 am | Permalink

    Weird story about that transistor radio. But to shake my skepticism, the radio would have to come back to life without a battery and start playing oldies from a teutophone station that went off the air in 1978 (like that ’58 Fury coupe named Christine).

  50. Posted December 4, 2014 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

    It seems that what Shermer experienced was one of those transcendent moments Hitchens used to talk about. The difference is that Hitchens didn’t seem to entertain the possibility that something supernatural was occurring. He realized his feelings could be explained by natural phenomena and yet could still enjoy the experience as such. Shermer on the other hand was confounded by that sense of awe and wonder, that sense of the numinous. Whether it’s a starry night sky or an unfathomable natural event (the radio suddenly turning on), the possibility is there to enjoy the surprise and wonder, or move beyond it to superstition. Of course it goes without saying there is always time to approach a phenomenon with a critical eye (and perhaps the enjoyment of a wonder and its critical evaluation are not entirely mutually exclusive).

  51. Larry Cook
    Posted December 4, 2014 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

    I’m disappointed. I was hoping something was missing, like maybe a last paragraph that said he knows it was a coincidence but the emotion of the day combined with the working radio made him feel like it went beyond coincidence, but he knows that coincidence is all it was. But nothing is missing. I hope he corrects himself. He may say he was describing a feeling and not a belief or that he was seeing the event through his bride’s eyes on his wedding day, etc.. It would take something more than this to “shake my skepticism to the core”.

  52. Keith Cook or more
    Posted December 4, 2014 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

    No doubt Michael Shermer was happy and excited on his wedding day, it’s a big day by anyone’s standard. This psychological emotional state has the effect of lowering your guard somewhat, being happy opens one up, and coupled with the moment (his soon to be wife’s emotional state) was caught off guard (rocked) whether he liked it or not, a truly human response.
    Because of the heightened emotional state and in recalling the event and state of mind which I imagined pleased him for his brides sake, that nearness of a grandparent (more emotion) used the words he thought conveyed rightly or wrongly the event as a whole experience.
    Who in the middle of a wedding stops to evaluate a ‘paranormal normal’ experience. Being a full time sceptic is hard work and he has since confirmed his business as usual position as would be expected. Otherwise I would have been rocked.
    I think it goes some way for me to giving a proximate cause for his behaviour.

  53. Curt Nelson
    Posted December 4, 2014 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

    His article should have been about how seductive these experiences can be.

  54. slartibart
    Posted December 4, 2014 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

    I think NewEnglandBob is on it.

    The wedding is in a house, it’s crowded, festive, noisy. The last minute preperation and high excitement has Shermer and fiancé getting ready in the bedroom, perhaps opening and shutting drawers with some vigor, inadvertantly performing said “percussive maintenance”. The radio kicks on but isn’t heard in the hubub (it’s in a drawer, after all). The ceremony starts, the assembled take on a reverant hush, his daughter hears the radio. Perhaps.

    Then again, it’s a lovely, deep and meaningful little story.

    If you’re into that kind of thing.

  55. Les
    Posted December 4, 2014 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

    Prof Coyne’s saidsomething today also relevant to this article:
    ‘as Jake says to Brett in the last line of The Sun Also Rises, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”’

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted December 4, 2014 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

      Shermer got drunk in Pamplona? That’s his woo experience?

  56. redlivingblue
    Posted December 4, 2014 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

    If the radio would have kicked on at virtually any other time, Michael would have chalked it up to what it was, “malfunction”. I think the reason his skepticism was “shook” was because of his current emotional state and the state of his future bride. She was obviously moved by the experience. Would she have been moved less IF the anomaly occurred at a different time? Everyone in the story was in an altered state of emotion. This state was brought on by the pending nuptials. Brains were awash with emotions on that very special day. If the radio had come on during a st. paddy’s day celebration, would Michael’s skepticism been shook by the realization that grandpa, from the grave, wanted a pint of Guinness?

  57. Michael Michaels
    Posted December 4, 2014 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

    The important thing to remember is we are the ones who attribute coincidence and significance to random happenings.

    • Posted December 4, 2014 at 10:15 pm | Permalink

      Simple enough in theory. Most people struggle a lot with this in practice, though.

      Randomness implies a lack of control and a lack of ultimate meaning. Just about every person I’ve ever met deeply desires at least the latter.

  58. Posted December 4, 2014 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

    I read this post as I get them as email and just noticed there are some updates. I add here what came to mind even if Shermer has already clarified:

    An old broken radio that suddenly starts working again is surprising but only within what a radio can do: produce sound.

    What if the music was being produced by some Altoids mints tin box in that drawer? or some hidden undies! That would be real magic!

    I think I’ve read all of Shermer’s books and I would find it difficult to imagine that he is going to walk out on us. I can understand the chilling reaction they must have felt, but I doubt he is going to suddenly return to being a hard-core, evangelical Christian like he used to be. That would be devastating to me, as he is one of my intellectual heroes, up there with Prof. Ceiling Cat of course, Sagan, Bertrand Russell and others.

  59. DrDroid
    Posted December 4, 2014 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

    I once had a Panasonic stereo receiver turn on full blast in the middle of the night emitting white noise. Never did understand what happened, but it started my quest for answers to The Big Questions, ultimately leading to my belief in Ceiling Cat (peace be upon him).

  60. Posted December 4, 2014 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

    I have had some weird, inexplicable things happen in my house. But I don’t attribute it to the influence of dead people. Yes, it’s completely weird. No, I don’t know why/how it happens. Just one of those things that we a don’t know enough about yet…And, while we are on that subject, I would ask Gerry Coyne NOT to be dispirited about people not replying to his more “sciencier” posts. I DO read them, but I mostly don’t comment because usually, I don’t know enough about the subject to make any meaningful contribution.

    • GBJames
      Posted December 4, 2014 at 6:44 pm | Permalink

      “Gerry Coyne “? Who’s that?

  61. Posted December 4, 2014 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

    Isn’t Michael the same one who had an “abducted by aliens” experience as an young adult whilst bicycling far past his normal endurance limits?

    I can appreciate what he’s driving at with the anecdote; experiences can be very real and very compelling whilst being at most loosely correlated with the events that trigger them. It’s important to recognize the power of such experiences and the influence they can have on one’s life, whilst also noting that what matters is the experience, not the relationship of the experience to the rest of the world.

    Michael expressed as much, I think, but even he seems to recognize that he didn’t do an especially good job at differentiating the experience from events.

    b&

  62. Raygray
    Posted December 4, 2014 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

    Synchronicity seems to fit here: Meaningful coincidence between two events which are not causally related.

  63. trou
    Posted December 4, 2014 at 8:47 pm | Permalink

    I once had a windshield cleaner start working in my old VW bug just at the exact moment I needed a clean windshield so I could see the road and make it around a corner. A large truck passing in the opposite direction had splashed a great gob of road shite on my window and I was driving blind. As I was a Christian at the time I said, “help me Jesus” and it worked, but only for a few more squirts.
    The memory of this did not influence me to remain Christian. I don’t know why it didn’t work, then did, then didn’t. Why would I base any decision about whether or not to believe in God on my lack of knowledge about something.
    Also, if it was a miracle then God must the world’s finest fuckknob because he could have let me die on that corner and not just save my life but save my eternal life. He must have known I would become an atheist and be lost for e t e r n i t y. What an ass.
    Anyway, he’s not real and I can cut him a break.

  64. Macha
    Posted December 5, 2014 at 2:37 am | Permalink

    From temperature changes resurrecting a dry joint to vibrations healing a broken cap. the rational explanations are many. Yet this guy prefers to believe the spooky spirit of a dead relative fixed it?

    Erm …

  65. Ken Kukec
    Posted December 5, 2014 at 4:14 am | Permalink

    Only White People would hang on to a broke-ass, 35-year-old transistor radio and take a chance on it coming back to life and freakin’ everybody the hell out. Like going to live in a haunted house, it’s not something normal folk are wont to do.

    You never see a movie where Denzel or Jamie or Will or Chris do something like that. Won’t see one with George Lopez or Paul Rodriguez or Carlos Mencia, either. Only a numbnuts like Ethan Hawke does that, like in Sinister (and that boy’s so dumb he let Uma Thurman get away).

    • Posted December 5, 2014 at 4:41 am | Permalink

      Is it okay to make fun of white people this way? Would you say the same thing about black people in another situation, like “Only black people would do X. . . “?

      I don’t think so.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted December 5, 2014 at 9:17 am | Permalink

        Per recent tradition, our society has generally deemed it permissible to direct humor at a historically privileged group under circumstances where it might not be appropriate to direct similar humor at a group that has not benefitted from such historical privilege. By dint of similar tradition, one generally has leave to direct humor at one’s own group, even where it might not be appropriate for an outsider to engage in such humor at the same group’s expense. See, for example, here.

        In the comment above, I was endeavoring to play off of a trope, developed largely by black and other minority comedians, concerning the way in which popular entertainment tends to portray white protagonists in danger, frequently due to their own obliviousness to inherently perilous circumstances, in the horror and paranormal genres. See here for an example of a black stand-up comic working this trope; see also here for a more general discussion of the trope.

        I understand, nevertheless, that not everyone appreciates this type of humor — that, indeed, some might find it inappropriate for the reason you state.

        Sorry. I will eschew humor along these lines in future comments at this site.

        • GBJames
          Posted December 5, 2014 at 9:25 am | Permalink

          FWIW, as a white guy myself I was not offended and understood your gist.

        • Posted December 5, 2014 at 9:48 am | Permalink

          This “white girl” found all these comments and links funny, but then I don’t make Da Roolz.

        • Matt G
          Posted December 5, 2014 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

          I am another white male who found your comments amusing, and your justification on the mark.

    • slartibart
      Posted December 5, 2014 at 10:42 am | Permalink

      as a White Guy approx. Shermer’s age, I thought Kukec’s comment was pretty funny.

      • Doug
        Posted December 5, 2014 at 9:51 pm | Permalink

        I’m another white guy who wasn’t bothered. I once heard a female comedian make a joke about what slobs men are, and I laughed. A woman asked, “Doesn’t that offend you?” No it didn’t offend me. If a joke is [a] funny and [b] not malicious, I have no problem with it.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted December 6, 2014 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

        Thanks, comrades.

        I feel a bit like the character narrating the song “Up On Cripple Creek” from The Band’s Big Pink album:

        “If I spring a leak, [they] mend me
        I don’t have to speak, as [they]defend me
        A drunkard’s dream if I ever did see one”

  66. PaulP
    Posted December 5, 2014 at 8:58 am | Permalink

    If it shows anything it’s how powerful the superstition module in the brain can be under certain circumstances.

    Lots of religious people base their entire worldview on events like this.

    The module must have been useful somehow in a primitive world. Perhaps in surprising ways.

  67. Posted December 5, 2014 at 9:46 am | Permalink

    I have seen this behavior before: if it happens to others it’s statistics, but to me? Oh no, it’s spooky and my core beliefs are shaking! Smells of self-importance.

    • slartibart
      Posted December 5, 2014 at 10:45 am | Permalink

      well said. i think most of religion can be explained as an ego malfucntion.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted December 5, 2014 at 11:29 am | Permalink

      Whenever I worry irrationally, I tell myself that I’m just experiencing confirmation bias, like when you buy a new car and suddenly see that exact type of car everywhere and statistically there aren’t more cars. Statistics is the only thing that keeps me sane.

  68. Vaal
    Posted December 5, 2014 at 9:55 am | Permalink

    Dang, my post above, under #22, was supposed to go here.

    Anyway, my quick spooky electronics story.

    When I was younger I’d borrowed my mom’s car to go to a friend’s house in the winter.

    I was driving back at night through a thick winter storm, on some suburban side street.
    It was very tough to see through the heavy falling snow and I was just rounding a corner.

    Suddenly the car horn just honked by itself!
    At just that moment I noticed directly in front to the right side of my car, a figure startled by the honk, look up and suddenly draw back quickly out of the way. It took a fraction of a second more to see it was a mother and small child who were crossing the street.

    I had not seen them AT ALL crossing in front of me and it was clear by their reaction to the sudden horn honk that they had not been aware of MY oncoming car. The horn mysteriously honked at literally the perfect moment to get them to jump back out of the way, since I wouldn’t have seen them or been able to stop in time.

    Explain THAT, science! Those odds are too great to be simply coincidence!

    I never did figure out exactly to which of my dead relatives, or which God, to attribute that benevolent intervention.

    *(As it turned out, my mother said her car horn did seem to be acting up recently, honking on it’s own sometimes, and in several trips in her car afterward, I experienced the horn honking at random times with no particular significance. But adding the information that there was an electrical fault with the horn, making it prone to honking randomly, is just being a party pooper, and wreaks the “emotional significance” of the story. I really should be taking in the Lesson That The Universe Has For Me)

    • Vaal
      Posted December 5, 2014 at 9:57 am | Permalink

      ^^ “wrecks”

  69. Matt G
    Posted December 5, 2014 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

    I watched the Orion launch this morning, and then an hour later watched the next episode of Cheers in my queue. In it, Sam, Carla and Norm sail Robin’s boat in a regatta, hoping to win the ten grand prize which will help Sam buy back his bar. The boat which held the first place berth? The Orion. Now I believe in the supernatural….


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