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Publisher of Skeptic magazine and author


The greatest innovation in my field (science and scepticism) is the scientific method which came to fruition over the past four centuries, beginning with the philosophical writings of Francis Bacon, the astronomical observations of Brahe, Kepler, and Copernicus, the theorising by Galileo and Newton, and the experimental methods developed in subsequent centuries.

The scientific method is so important because humans are pattern-seeking primates who look for and find meaningful patterns in the world, to try to make sense of an often chaotic nature. We connect the dots: A to B to C to D. Often A is connected to B, which is connected to C, which is connected to D. It is called learning, and we are the ancestors of our Palaeolithic ancestors who did it best. Unfortunately, many patterns are false. A appears to be connected to B, but it isn’t. Yet, false positives like this do not usually take someone out of the gene pool, and so we have also inherited magical thinking and superstitious behaviour.

The one and only sure-fire way of telling the difference between true and false patterns is the scientific method. Does extract of seaweed cure cancer or doesn’t it? The fact that your second cousin’s aunt’s friend tried it and her cancer went into remission doesn’t mean a thing because there could have been other intervening variables. The only way to know for certain is to conduct an experiment in which one group of subjects receives extract of seaweed, another receives a placebo, and another receives nothing. That is the beauty and power of science: to tell us what is real and what is not.

Dr Michael Shermer is the publisher of Skeptic magazine, monthly columnist for Scientific American and author of Why People Believe Weird Things (buy this book from Amazon(UK)), How We Believe (buy this book from Amazon(UK)), The Science of Good and Evil (buy this book from Amazon(UK)), and Why Darwin Matters (buy this book from Amazon(UK)).