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SCIENTISTS' NIGHTSTAND

Scientists' Nightstand: Michael Shermer

Frank Diller

Michael Shermer (Ph.D., History of Science, 1991, Claremont Graduate University) is the founding publisher of Skeptic magazine (http://www.skeptic.com), the director of the Skeptics Society, a columnist for Scientific American, the host of the Skeptics Lecture Series at Caltech, and the cohost and producer of the 13-hour Fox Family television series Exploring the Unknown. His new book The Science of Good and Evil: Why People Lie and Cheat, Share and Care, and Follow the Golden Rule will be published next month by Henry Holt (more information about the book can be found at http://www.henryholt.com/forthcomingnn.htm); it is the third installment of a trilogy that includes How We Believe: Science, Skepticism, and the Search for God and the bestselling Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time. Shermer is also the author of In Darwin's Shadow: The Life and Science of Alfred Russel Wallace (for a link to a sample chapter, go to http://www.oup.com/us/samplechapters/0195148304/?view=usa); The Borderlands of Science: Where Sense Meets Nonsense; and Denying History: Who Says the Holocaust Never Happened and Why Do They Say It? (coauthored by Alex Grobman). His other books include Teach Your Child Science; Teach Your Child Math (with Arthur Benjamin and Michael Brant), and Mathemagics (with Arthur Benjamin and James Randi).

What books are you currently reading (or have you just finished reading) for your work or for pleasure?

Consciousness: An Introduction, by Susan Blackmore; Consciousness: A Neurobiological Approach, by Christof Koch; The Bounty: The True Story of the Mutiny on the Bounty, by Caroline Alexander; and Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith, by Jon Krakauer

Why did you choose them, and what do you think of them?

These are work-related books. I review books for the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Washington Post, Scientific American and Skeptic magazine, and I am reviewing the two books on consciousness for Scientific American. [EDITOR'S NOTE: Shermer has also reviewed for American Scientist: His essay on Matt Ridley's Genome appeared in the January–February 2001 issue (http://www.americanscientist.org/BookReviewTypeDetail/assetid/14297).] I read The Bounty just for fun but then got so involved in trying to understand why the mutiny happened that I ended up writing a column about it for the February 2004 issue of Scientific American ("A Bounty of Science," which you can read online). Alexander's narrative is brilliant and gripping, but in the end she abandons any attempt at a deeper understanding of causality. This, in my opinion, is the biggest failing of biographers and historians in general: They operate at a proximate level of causality (immediate events best described through the medium of narrative) and not at the ultimate level of causality (the deeper causes operating behind the proximate causes). I have undertaken a study of the ultimate cause of the mutiny on the Bounty, and I think I have the answer.

When and where do you usually read (specific location, time of day, etc.)?

I read anytime, anywhere, but I am especially fond of reading via Books on Tape when I am on training rides on my bicycle. Since 1993 I have listened to more than 300 full-length readings of books I would not otherwise have had the time to read.

What do you like to read best—fiction, nonfiction or poetry? Why?

Nonfiction, mostly science, biography, history of science, and general history. Science because it is what I do for a living. Biography because I like to know how other people's lives turn out in order to gain a perspective on how I should live my life. History because it is biography writ large.

What are the three best books you've ever read? Explain.

This is difficult to answer because of the recency effect. For example, I just read Jon Krakauer's Under the Banner of Heaven and found it to be one of the best books I have ever read. All writers can improve their writing by reading any of his books, although anyone interested in religion in any way would profit from reading this particular volume, which is on the history of the Mormon Church and religious extremism. A number of Stephen Jay Gould's books would fall into this list—most particularly, I thought his book Time's Arrow, Time's Cycle was especially brilliant, literary and informative, while being unusually succinct (for Gould). I would also have to include a now-out-of-print and obscure little book, but one that should be republished immediately, and that is Vincent G. Dethier's To Know a Fly. It is the best exposition of how science really works that I have ever read.

What book has influenced you most? Explain how.

In science, Born to Rebel: Birth Order, Family Dynamics, and Creative Lives, by Frank J. Sulloway. In politics and economics, Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand, and Human Action: A Treatise on Economics, by Ludwig von Mises.

What book recommendations do you have for young readers?

The Baloney Detection Books, a series of children's science-related titles to be published in 2004 by the Skeptics Society.

Already published books:

1. How We Know What Isn't So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life, by Thomas Gilovich (Free Press, 1991)

2. Just Pretend: A Freethought Book for Children, by Dan Barker (Freedom from Religion Foundation, 1988)

3. Maybe Yes, Maybe No: A Guide for Young Skeptics, by Dan Barker (Prometheus Books, 1990)

4. Maybe Right, Maybe Wrong: A Guide for Young Thinkers, by Dan Barker (Prometheus Books, 1992)

5. Alexander Fox and the Amazing Mind Reader, by John C. Clayton (Prometheus Books, 1998)

6. The Encyclopedia Brown books, by Donald J. Sobol

7. How Do You Know It's True?; Discovering the Difference Between Science and Superstition, by Hy Ruklis (Prometheus Books, 1991)

8. The Magic Detectives: Join Them in Solving Strange Mysteries, by Joe Nickell (Prometheus Books, 1989)

9. Philip J. Klass's books on UFOs

10. Wonder-Workers!: How They Perform the Impossible, by Joe Nickell (Prometheus Books, 1991)

What science book recommendations do you have for nonscientists?

Since my specialty is books on the fringes of science, I'll give you the top 10 recommendations voted on by members of the Skeptics Society:

1. Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, by Carl Sagan

2. Why People Believe Weird Things, by Michael Shermer

3. Flim Flam!: Psychics, ESP, Unicorns and Other Delusions, by James Randi

4. Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, by Martin Gardner

5. How to Think About Weird Things, by Theodore Schick and Lewis Vaughn

6. The Faith Healers, by James Randi

7. How We Believe, by Michael Shermer

8. The New Age: Notes of a Fringe Watcher, by Martin Gardner

9. The Mismeasure of Man, by Stephen Jay Gould

10. Voodoo Science: The Road From Foolishness to Fraud, by Robert L. Park (reviewed in the September–October 2000 issue http://www.americanscientist.org/template/BookReviewTypeDetail/assetid/25625)


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