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Saying things that are out of place

Basbøll points us to a column by Michael Shermer, a journalist and self-described skeptic who’s written a lot about skepticism, atheism, etc. Recently, though, Shermer wrote of an event that “shook [his] skepticism to its core”—it was a story about an old radio that didn’t work, then briefly started to work again, then stopped working.

From the outside it doesn’t sound like much (and indeed Shermer’s blog commenters aren’t particularly impressed) but, hey, they all laughed at Arthur Conan Doyle when he said he saw pictures of fairies (see image above), but who’s laughing now???

OK, sure, it’s easy to mock Doyle or Shermer (indeed, I couldn’t resist a bit of mockery myself in my comment to Basbøll’s above-linked post) or to move gently from mocking to being patronizing, saying that Doyle’s spiritualism is understandable given the sad events of his life, or that Shermer is being charmingly romantic in telling a story about his bride. Maybe we need a bit more romanticism and sentimentality when it comes to later-in-life weddings.

But I don’t want to take either of these paths here. Instead I’d like to talk about the somewhat unstable way in which we use different sources of discourse in different aspects of life, and the awkwardness that can arise when we use the wrong words at the wrong time.

For an obvious example, I’m all lovey-lovey when I talk with my family (except when we’re screaming at each other, of course) but that wouldn’t be appropriate at work. Sure, sometimes, I’ll get overcome with emotion and say “I love you guys” to my class, but it’s pretty rare, it certainly wouldn’t be appropriate to do that every day.

We also cordon off different aspects of inquiry. I have no problem mocking studies of fat arms and voting or whatever, but you’re not gonna see me making fun of the Bible here. Why? It’s not that the Bible is sacred to me, it just seems like it’s on a different dimension. It’s not claiming to be science. It’s a bunch of stories. If people want to believe that Moses crossed the Red Sea, or for that matter that there was an actual Moses or an actual King Arthur or whatever, fine. It doesn’t seem to interact in any direct way with statistical modeling, causal inference, or social science so it’s not particularly relevant to what we’re doing here.

So Shermer did this goofy thing where he was using romantic love discourse in a space where people were expecting science discourse or journalism discourse. It didn’t really work.

Sometimes the practice of unexpected forms of discourse can produce interesting results. For example, say what you want about Scott Adams, but sometimes his offbeat cartoonist’s perspective on public affairs can be interesting. So my message is not that everyone needs to stay in his place, or that Shermer shouldn’t display his romantic love in a column about skepticism. What I’m saying is that our norm is to evaluate statements in their context. When a comedian says something on a sitcom, we evaluate it based on how funny it is (and maybe on how offensive it might be), when a self-declared skeptic writes a column, we evaluate things in that way, etc. A story doesn’t exist on its own, it exists in context.

We tend to assume that since Shermer labels himself as a skeptic, that he is not superstitious and should “know better” than to believe in ghosts. But maybe that’s a misguided view of Shermer. Perhaps he has strong superstitious feelings, but has been convinced that those feelings are unscientific hence his career as a skeptical journalist, but the superstition is still there and bubbles up from time to time.

That’s just a story, of course, but my point is that it’s natural to interpret the Shermer story in terms of some frame or another. The frame “prominent skeptic is stunned by a coincidence” is just one way to interpret this story.


  1. How about the “human couple is rejoiced by some coincidence” framing of the story? I really don’t think that his wife’s granddad actually continues an existence after death and temporally fixed the radio to send a message of approval (and seriously really hope he doesn’t), but that doesn’t mean he and his wife cannot get some pleasure in the experience; he has every right to “savor the experience more than the explanation. (That said, the “prominent skeptic is stunned by a coincidence” framing is explicitly made in his article).

    But what you say about different types of discourse is quite true. I happen to be a founding-member of my local skeptics group and write for its blog on a regular basis. While I pretty much always write about science and skepticism, once I was inspired to write a more poetic praise of what I call the “scientific worldview”. Some of the feedback was positive, but there was also some negative responses that accused me of “saganism” and misticism (the former which I embrace wholeheartedly).
    We have similar problems in our facebook discussion group when someone makes a emotionally or symbolically laden post. For example one time someone asked if skeptics ask for three wishes when blowing birthday candles and some members of our community actually argued against that tradition.

  2. BenK says:

    Certainly there is more to be explored here; but the basic gap exists, in the sense of the ‘two cultures’ (which has been bitterly fought over), between those who treat narrative reality as something equally real and distinct from those who treat it as an illusory epiphenomenon completely explained by underlying atomistic principles.

  3. Corey says:

    The cynic in me suspects that the core-shaking of Shermer’s skepticism was potentiated by the fact that his star is on the wane in the skeptics’ community due to accusations of Cosby-esque misconduct.

  4. paul alper says:

    Thus far, we have only a sample of size one. Any predictions of what the radio will do when Shermer and his wife divorce? A strictly personal example of an unbelievable series of events: I met my wife on a blind date on the Left Bank in Paris and we honeymooned in Cleveland, Ohio, a place neither one of us had ever been to nor since. Surely that proves we are in the Final Days and vindicates The Book of Revelation.

  5. Alex says:

    I confess to being mildly aggravated. Besides religion, parapsychology is the one field where most scientists don’t even consider the possibility of there being a true effect of the claimed sort. It seems not even necessary to talk about potential explanations of the phenomenon, except maybe for alluding to coincidence (which isn’t an explanation in this case). Certainly, though, the parapsychology literature (along with lots of anecdotal evidence) is substantial enough to at least warrant unprejudiced scrutiny. I simply don’t see the literature so clearly in disfavor of a true effect that scientists could be “justified” in mocking and patronizing “believers”. Pretty clearly, there’s some social group dynamics at play that has nothing to do with evidence, and that’s just bad science.

    • Andrew says:


      I’m willing to believe that Shermer had a radio that worked intermittently; I’ve had such appliances myself. I’m not so willing to believe that the critters in the photo above were real life fairies. But you and Conan Doyle could be right on this.

      If you’d like some explanations for what happened to Shermer, check out the comments to his post. The commenters offered some reasonable explanations.

    • paul alper says:

      The radio coming to life is an example of what might be called “happy talk” among believers who see something beyond science and don’t liked to be “mocked” and/or “patronized.” Let us, however, try something on the opposite end of warm and fuzzy:

      Last week a private plane crashed into house in Maryland killing all three on board as well as three of the occupants of the house, a mother and her two infant sons. The father and another child were away and escaped injury. Should we rejoice at the survival of the father and daughter and seek a beyond-science explanation? Should we seek an “unprejudiced” explanation as to why the mother and her infant children were singled out for tragedy? Or, compared to the radio, sadly note that they just “naturally” happened.

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