Asking Michael Shermer: Why is mythology more popular than science?

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Scientific skepticism is a well-known concept. Why is it so important during this day and age?


Many people fear that science is answering too many questions too quickly. What can be said about this idea? Mythology often finds a greater degree of popularity than scientific conclusions do. Is there a reason for this?

Despite the fact that it offers reasonable explanations for complex questions, modern science is often the subject of derision. Can this be explained? 

Whether they should be rooted in theism or politics, various ideologies often attract droves of willing participants searching for a universal truth of some kind. In the long run, what does this do to any given society?

Michael Shermer is one of our time’s foremost scientific skeptics, as well as the founder of Skeptic Magazine. He has devoted much of his career to raising public awareness about the human condition; specifically how many of its more puzzling aspects can be explained through rational means. 

In this first part of our discussion, Dr. Shermer answers the questions mentioned above.


Joseph F. CottoScientific skepticism is a well-known concept. Why, in your view, is it so important during this day and age?

Dr. Michael Shermer: Because it is better to live in a reality-based worldview than a faith-based (or superstition-based) worldview. Plus, for a liberal democracy to work we need informed voters, but not just informed—they need to know how to think critically. That is, not just what to think, but HOW to think. That is what scientific skepticism is all about—knowing how to think about claims, how to test hypotheses, how to challenge ideas fairly and objectively.

Written By: Joseph Cotto
continue to source article at communities.washingtontimes.com

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  1. “Plus, for a liberal democracy to work we need informed voters, but not just informed—they need to know how to think critically. “

    I agree, so far so good.

    “Just as compulsory primary education created a market catered for by cheap dailies and weeklies, so the spread of secondary and latterly tertiary education has created a large population of people, often with well-developed literary and scholarly tastes, who have been educated far beyond their capacity to undertake analytical thought.” Peter Medawar — Mind, 70, “Review of Teilhard de Chardin’s The Phenomenon of Man”, pp. 99‒105

    “”my subject does not exist because subject matters in general do not exist. There are no subject matters; no branches of learning – or, rather, of inquiry: there are only problems and the urge to solve them” – Karl Popper 1983 Preface, ‘On the Non-Existence of Scientific Method.

    The problem with the UK is school pupils aren’t taught to think, they aren’t even taught subjects they are taught answers to pass exams.

  2. Mythology (and its cousin religion) are only more popular in certain areas. When it comes to, say, medical treatment, almost everyone in the industrial West still favors going to a medical doctor instead of a witch doctor. You should [sic] me someone who prefers mythology at 35,000 feet and I’ll show you a hypocrite.

    True, but (a) the “certain” areas are a big chunk & (b) places outside of the West matter. In any case, this doesn’t answer the question. Why are there any areas mythology wins? What makes one area an example of this?

    I have debunked them both thoroughly and they are not worth bothering about unless they try to influence education and politics, which they occasionally do

    Occasionally! Texas, and (because of how publishing works) the US as a whole, has to win the right to teach evolution again at least annually. And don’t get me started on the climate.

    they are best ignored for the ignorance they portray.

    But what if they infect others? The more people believe something, the more often actions will be based on that belief. You quarantine carriers.

    Extremist ideologies can attract droves of followers, but in the long run they do not survive. Moderate politics is in it for the long haul

    What does that even mean? Many currently moderate positions in the West were once on the extreme left. Many formerly moderate positions in the West are now on the extreme right. It moves quite quickly. The US moved from “slavery FTW” to a black President in 150 years.

  3. This report is a simplistic ‘reader’s digest’ type of format, so much so that I wonder why the attempt to publish it is even made, but I suppose a little of something is better than nothing. Barely in this article though. I dislike promising headlines with stories of little substance, the trite of the internet these days. In my experience most people I meet don’t ‘think’ because it’s easier not to. Simple solutions are fast food for the mind. It’s the weather, the economy, the lie of danger everywhere. Teaching people to think, to question everything, to ASK why a claim is such just does not happen easily these days. Quick sound bites, simplistic answers to stupid questions, this is the mark of CNN and Fox and much information these times, for example. Yet education is everything, it it simply to better to know than not to know. We are becoming cultures of reader’s digest, too busy in our busy world to even think. Facebook is the best example of this nonesense of ‘social evolution’. We have come to believe our behaviours are more important than thinking critically. Most people I meet are incredibly boring and cannot create an original thought if their life depended on it. We repeat the news. We follow like sheep. We have not been taught to think.

  4. Yeah, this wasn’t a great read. Like Jos Gibbons pointed out, Shermer didn’t even answer some of the questions!

    Why is mythology more popular than science?

    How do you make the comparison? What counts as mythology; commercial fiction, generic superstitions, formal religious beliefs, or all three?

    An example, I suppose, of mythology versus science would be creationism versus evolution. The potential answers can be summed up in a bunch of points:

    1. They don’t think it is mythology. They think it’s fact, so its popularity is self-evidently justified to them.

    2. Ideas aren’t treated dispassionately, but almost anthropomorphized into personalities. When an idea or set of ideas looks dry, cold, obscure, domineering, and morally indifferent, and doesn’t stoke your ego, then it’s about as welcome as a real person with those perceived qualities. Also, people have a tendency to think “you are what you believe”, so anyone who identifies with those ideas may well share those qualities in their eyes. Conversely, when an idea or set of ideas looks appealing, easy to understand, friendly, morally keen, and goes to some effort to stoke your ego, then it too is about as welcome as a real person with those perceived qualities. This is partly why what should be empirical facts are also invested with emotional and moral connotations and then rigorously defended from accusations.

    3. It depends on the personality of the person who holds the view. Some just naturally accept new ideas, while others resist them, for example.

    4. Creationism had an unfair advantage: it came earlier, spread further, and allied itself with moralistic and emotional thinking before evolution ever really took off.

    5. Scientific facts threaten the pre-set superstitions that justify the presence of religious authorities. Since they had no interest in relinquishing political power or in giving up the privileges of their positions, they naturally had to retard the acceptance and progress of the science by any means necessary.

    6. Past a certain point, something that’s somewhat more popular than rivals can become even more popular as more people jump onto the bandwagon, especially if holding the popular idea marks you out in social and moral terms (i.e. you can incur a loss and/or condemnation or punishment, however mild, by not going along with it).

    7. Pragmatics. Sometimes, science is just too expensive, time-consuming, and headache-inducing to indulge, and people can’t devote all their time to it. Hence the preference for simpler, cheaper, and quicker lessons from perceived authorities and seemingly trustworthy people with impeccable credentials, even if they turn out to be lessons on things that aren’t true.

    8. Current cultural mores in the mainstream could have a hand in preserving mythology despite the progress of scientific ideas. For instance, even-handed tolerance and cultural preservationist approaches can grant embassy for ideas that would otherwise wither and die, or at least fall into the history books.

  5. Not too bad considering the given format. I just wanted to say I liked the photo. It shows that science people/sceptics are not boring dorky people (not my idea!) who only sit in the lab with white coats on but are adventurous.

    • In reply to #5 by mira:

      Not too bad considering the given format. I just wanted to say I liked the photo. It shows that science people/sceptics are not boring dorky people (not my idea!) who only sit in the lab with white coats on but are adventurous.

      The recluse boring mad scientist, isolated in a lab, is largely a strawman comic caricature concocted by fiction writers and disparaging ignoramuses.

      From Darwin and Wallace to modern volcanologists, biologists, climatologists, geologists, palaeontologists, physicists, astronomers, archaeologists etc. Inputs from fieldwork are the objective basis of scientific evidenced thinking. The detailed lab-work, microscopy, and theorising is the follow-up.

  6. People crave aphoristic wisdom, its portable, memorable, spreadable and best of all using it to resolve a problem is easier (literally less energy) than actually thinking logically from evidence, this latter anyway leading to no certain solution.

    Its all about the effort of thinking and the stickiness of memes.

    • Many people fear that science is answering too many questions too quickly.

      Unlike myths and most religions, which presented their answers as absolute truth thousands of years ago and have barely changed them at all ever since?

      • We have to be a bit careful when referring to “mythology”, there are two subtly different commonly used meanings, it is commonly understood to mean something that is a false tale or untruth, something an investigative reporter might “expose” or “bust” for instance, another meaning is that a myth is a narrative or tale that is culturally focused.

        Now I say this because the first type of “myth” is obviously not good, but the second type of myth (mythos) has merit, so one has to be mindful of the context, mythology can be enriching, informative and yes, they propagate because they are “interesting”, they are retold time and again, reconstituted and assimilated, so they must have some worth, should we erase The Odyssey and The Iliad in pursuit of some unattainable rational utopia?

        What a poor sterile world it would be, if we did not have the gods, Heroes and the epic tale … I vote to keep the Song of Ilium!

  7. Plus, for a liberal democracy to work we need informed voters, but not just informed—they need to know how to think critically. That is, not just what to think, but HOW to think. That is what scientific skepticism is all about—knowing how to think about claims, how to test hypotheses, how to challenge ideas fairly and objectively.

    As soon as I read this, I (unfortunately) imagined the voice of some religious zealot saying “See! See! Science is trying to tell you what to think and how to think! It’s a religion too!” Ignoring both the context and the irony of using this supposed equality as a form of derision.

    To me that’s the challenge that needs to be undertaken. Is there a way to talk sense into the excessively prideful? Someone certaily shaped their minds that way. Is there a way to shape it back?

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