As founder and publisher of Skeptic Magazine, Michael Shermer, who’s the star of this TED talk, has exposed fallacies behind intelligent design, 9/11 conspiracies, the low-carb craze, alien sightings and other hilarious and really very sad beliefs, paranoias and theories. But he’s not about debunking for debunking’s sake. Shermer is a staunch defender of the idea that we can understand our world better only by matching good theory with good science. In order to pulverize the notion that explosives caused the World Trade Center towers to fall on 9/11, for instance, one should call upon demolition experts. (That’s exactly what his magazine did; it’s deliciously nerdy.
Shermer’s work offers cognitive context for our often misguided beliefs: In the absence of sound science, incomplete information can powerfully combine with the power of suggestion and our tendency toward patternicity, which explains why we sometimes hear Satanic lyrics when we play “Stairway to Heaven” backwards, which we do sometimes, for some reason. In fact, a common thread that runs through beliefs of all sorts, he says, is our tendency to convince ourselves. We overvalue the shreds of evidence that support our preferred outcome, and ignore the facts we aren’t looking for.
As you might imagine, the comments on TED’s website are even better than the video.