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Michael Shermer Reads Gettysburg Address

Michael Shermer commemorates, with his own personal reading, the 150th anniversary of U.S. President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address — one of the most memorable speeches in America history, which Lincoln delivered on November 19, 1863.

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Why the world is not flat…yet
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FAST-FORWARD TO THE YEAR 2100. Computers, writes physicist and futurist Michio Kaku in Physics of the Future (Doubleday, 2011), will have humanlike intelligence, the Internet will be accessible via contact lenses, nanobots will eliminate cancers, space tourism will be cheap and popular, and we’ll be colonizing Mars. We will be a planetary civilization capable of consuming the 1017 watts of solar energy falling on Earth to meet our energy needs, with the Internet as a worldwide telephone system; English and Chinese as the contenders for a planetary language; a unified culture of common foods, fashions and films; and a truly global economy with many more international trading blocs such as we see today in the European Union and NAFTA.

Kaku’s vision of how the exchange of science, technology and ideas among all peoples will create a global civilization with greatly weakened nation-states and almost no war is epic in its scope and heroic in its inspiration. Many have felt similar hope for a united, peaceful future through globalization. Indeed, I evoked a similar image in my book The Mind of the Market (Holt, 2009), and I was inspired in part by Thomas Friedman’s wildly popular The World Is Flat (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005), in which he argues for “a global, Web-enabled playing field that allows for multiple forms of collaboration on research and work in real time, without regard to geography, distance or, in the near future, even language.” (continue reading…)

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Flowers for Nim

Project Nim film trailer ad from

When I was in a psychology graduate program in the late 1970s, the nature v. nurture debate was in full-throated either-or mode, with crudely conceived experiments and data sets marshaled to defend one side or the other, as if asking whether π or r2 is more important in calculating the area of a circle. (Thankfully this debate today has morphed into much more sophisticated research by behavioral geneticists and others to understand how nature and nurture interact, well summarized in Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate and Matt Ridley’s Nature via Nurture.) In addition to the studies examining twins separated at birth and raised in separate environments, I recall that raising chimpanzees in a human environment and trying to teach them sign language garnered considerable media attention as pioneering research into understanding the nature of human (and primate) nature, along with language and cognition. These were heady times of bold experimentation, the most prominent being Project Nim, initiated and monitored by Columbia University psychologist Herbert Terrace. Terrace in particular wanted to test MIT linguist Noam Chomsky’s then controversial theory that there is an inherited universal grammar that is the basis to language and unique to humans, by teaching our closest primate cousin American Sign Language (ASL). Terrace, however, did a turnabout, concluding that the signs Nim Chimpsky (a cheeky nod to Noam Chomsky) learned from his human companions and trainers amounted to little more than animal begging, more sophisticated perhaps than Skinner’s rats and pigeons pressing bars and pecking keys, but in principle not so different from what dogs and cats do to beg for food, be let outside, etc.—a “Clever Hans” effect in primates. His 1979 book, Nim, outlines the project and his assessment of its results. There have been many evaluations and critiques since that time, most recently by Elizabeth Hess in her 2008 book, Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human (Bantam Books), which is the basis of the new documentary film, Project Nim, by James Marsh (whose previous film, Man on Wire, is portrays the tightrope walker Philippe Petit).

Project Nim is a dramatic and disturbing critique of Terrace’s research and the treatment of Nim that also serves as something of an indictment of the entire enterprise of animal behavioral research. Having worked in an animal lab for two years training rats and pigeons in Skinner boxes, I was deeply moved by the perspective several decades have brought to what we were doing to animals back then in the name of science. There is, however, next to no science presented in this film, and perhaps that is the way it should be because how that data was collected was, by today’s standard, so sloppy as to be virtually worthless, or at the very least morally questionable.

It is with some irony that Nim spent the remainder of his post-experimental life at the Black Beauty Ranch in Texas, because Project Nim is, on one level, presented from his perspective, through the eyes (often tearing up) and voices (often cracking) of his trainers and handlers. Nim was ripped from the arms of his mother at only a few weeks old. As he was the seventh of her children to be so seized she had to be tranquilized and grabbed quickly so that she did not accidentally smother her baby that she clutched to her chest in motherly love and protection, as she collapsed on the floor. Stop right there. Five minutes into the film and I’m already wondering what science tells us about the effects on a mother of having her seven children stolen from her arms.

Marsh’s film shuttles between talking-head interviews with all the major players in the project (including Terrace himself) and original footage shot throughout the experiment. Nim began his childhood in an upper west side brownstone New York apartment surrounded by human siblings in the mildly dysfunctional LaFarge family spearheaded by Stephanie, who breast-fed Nim and, as he got older, allowed him to explore her nakedness even as he put himself between his adopted mother and her poet husband in an Oedipal scene right out of Freud. Just as Nim grew into his new family, surrounded by fun-loving human siblings and days filled with games and hugs, Terrace realized that scientists were not going to take him seriously because there was next to no science going on in this free-love home. (According to one of the trainers, there were no lab manuals, no diaries, no data sheets, no recordings of progress, and no one in the family even knew how to sign ASL!) So for a second time in his young life Nim was wrenched from his mother and placed into a more controlled environment in the form of a sprawling home owned by Columbia University. There a string of trainers carefully monitored Nim’s progress in learning ASL, making daily trips to a lab at the university where Terrace could control all intervening variables in a manner not dissimilar to a Skinner box. There some halting progress was made, but Nim was clearly not enamored at being shuttled back and forth between the Disneylandesque environment of home and the sterile environment of the lab, and it is unclear whether his lack of significant progress was the result of cognitive shortcomings or simian protest.

In due time Nim grew into his teenage years, and as most testosterone-fueled male primates are wont to do, he became more assertive, then aggressive, then potentially dangerous in his evolved propensity to test his fellow primates for hierarchical status in the social pecking order. The problem is that adult chimpanzees are 5-10 times stronger than humans. In other words, Nim became a threat. As one of the trainers said while pointing to a scar on her arm that required 37 stitches: “You can’t give human nurturing to an animal that could kill you.” After several of these biting incidents that sent trainers and handlers to the hospital, including one woman who had part of her cheek ripped open, Terrace pulled the plug on the experiment and therewith shipped Nim back to the research lab in Oklahoma from whence he came. Tranquilized into unconsciousness, Nim went to sleep surrounded by loving human caretakers on a sprawling estate in New York and awoke in a grey-bar cold steel cage in Oklahoma.

Having never seen another member of his species Nim was understandably anxious and scared at the sight of grunting, hooting male chimps eager to let the youngster know his place in the pecking order. I imagined that it must have been something like being tossed into a maximum-security prison with muscle-bound, tattoo-hardened murderers and rapists looking at you like fresh meat to be pounded on. As a result, Nim slipped into a deep depression, losing weight and refusing to eat. A year later Terrace visited Nim, who greeted him eagerly and expressed himself in a manner that Terrace himself described as signaling to get him out of this hell hole. Instead, Terrace took off the next day for home and Nim slid back into a depression. Some time later he was sold to a pharmaceutical animal-testing laboratory managed by New York University where Hepatitis B vaccinations were tested on our nearest primate relatives. Footage of a tranquilized chimp being pulled out of and stuffed back into a steel-barred cage barely big enough to turn around was sickening to watch. The emotional impact of the visual imagery left me to imagine what Nim would have signed to Professor Terrace had his vocabulary developed into fully human with the necessary colorful language for emotional expression appropriate for the situation: “Screw you Herb Terrace, you traitorous back-stabbing, low-life scumbag. You took me from my mother and my species. You robbed me of my simian childhood. You gave me a new mother then took her away from me just as I grew attached. You used me and abused me in the name of bogus science to further your own career, and when I protested you sold me off like so much raw meat. How about we put you into this hell-hole environment, lock you up behind bars, feed you crappy food, and make you sleep in your own piss and shit and see how you like it?”

In reality, no chimp has such verbal language, but violent incidents between chimps and humans and research on chimpanzees in the wild enables us to imagine what Nim would have done to Terrace given the opportunity and awareness of his ultimate responsibility for Nim’s fate: Nim would likely have torn off his face, ripped open his neck, eaten his genitals, and left him for dead in seconds. At least that is what this film evokes in emotional desire for revenge on Nim’s behalf. To be fair, the trainers and handlers come across as caring, loving people who did the best they could under the circumstances, but they had little say in the long-term course of Nim’s existence. Terrace, by contrast, who ran the show and called the shots, comes across as an almost psychopathic manipulator, an alpha male egotist who, in his own words on camera, spoke of Nim’s suffering in cold clinical language, saw absolutely nothing scientifically objectionable to employing mostly young nubile graduate students, most of whom he bedded during the research project then dispensed with before moving on to the next conquest. I realize that this was the free-love 1970s in which professors and students often conducted research between the sheets, but even by those standards Terrace appears to be the very embodiment of moral turpitude.

Momentarily, Terrace partially redeemed himself in my eyes when he admitted that the data he collected changed his mind on the nature-nurture debate—since Nim did not even remotely approach the complexity of language or cognition of humans, Chomsky was probably right. What a rare treat to hear a scientist say, “I was wrong.” But after thinking about it for a day I came to the conclusion that even this might have been nothing more than a way of reducing cognitive dissonance for how Nim’s life turned out. If Nim is human like, then the subhuman treatment of him becomes criminal. But if Nim is little more than a rat or pigeon, merely begging for food and favors like a lowly dog, then shipping him off to a research lab to live out his life in a cold steel cage perhaps doesn’t seem so deplorable. Sadly, there was no Shawshank redemption for Nim. But thanks to this film we can at least put flowers on his metaphorical grave.

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The Believing Brain

Why science is the only way out of the trap
of belief-dependent realism
magazine cover

WAS PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA BORN IN HAWAII? I find the question so absurd, not to mention possibly racist in its motivation, that when I am confronted with “birthers” who believe otherwise, I find it diffcult to even focus on their arguments about the difference between a birth certificate and a certificate of live birth. The reason is because once I formed an opinion on the subject, it became a belief, subject to a host of cognitive biases to ensure its verisimilitude. Am I being irrational? Possibly. In fact, this is how most belief systems work for most of us most of the time.

We form our beliefs for a variety of subjective, emotional and psychological reasons in the context of environments created by family, friends, colleagues, culture and society at large. After forming our beliefs, we then defend, justify and rationalize them with a host of intellectual reasons, cogent arguments and rational explanations. Beliefs come first; explanations for beliefs follow. In my new book The Believing Brain (Holt, 2011), I call this process, wherein our perceptions about reality are dependent on the beliefs that we hold about it, belief-dependent realism. Reality exists independent of human minds, but our understanding of it depends on the beliefs we hold at any given time. (continue reading…)

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An attempted ambush interview turns
into a lesson in patternicity and numerology

On Friday, June 17, a film crew came by the Skeptics Society office to interview me for a documentary that I was told was on arguments for and against God. The producer of the film, Alan Shaikhin, sent me the following email, which I reprint here in its entirety so that readers can see that there is not a hint of what was to come in what turned out to be an attempted ambush interview with me about Islam, the Quran, and the number 19:

Dear Michael!

I am the director of a film crew hired by a non-profit organization, Izgi Amal, from Kazakhstan, which has no connection with the American brat, Borat. We have been working on a documentary film on modern philosophical and scientific arguments for and against God for almost a year. We have been taking shots and interviewed theologians, philosophers and scientists in England, Netherlands, USA, Turkey, and Egypt.

We are planning to finish the film by the end of this year and participate in major film festivals, including Cannes. We will allocate some of the funds to distribute thousands of copies of the film for free, especially to libraries and colleges.

Our crew will once again visit the United States and will spend the rest of June interviewing various people, from layman to artists, from academicians to activists.

Though we are far out there, we know your work and we think that it contributes greatly to the quality of this perpetual philosophical debate. We would like to include perspective and voice in this discussion. We would appreciate if you let us know what days in JUNE would be the best dates to meet you and interview you for this engaging and fascinating documentary film.

Since we are planning to interview about 10 scholars and experts of diverse positions such as atheism, agnosticism, deism, monotheism, and polytheism, it is important to learn all available days in this month of June.

Please feel free to contact us via email or our cell phone numbers, below. If you respond via email and please let us know the best phone number and times to reach you.

Alan Shaikhi

In hindsight perhaps I should have picked up on his admission that “we are far out there,” which in fact they turned out to be. Present were Mr. Shaikhin, another gentleman named Edip Yuksel, a couple of film crew hands, and a woman videographer who was setting up all the lighting and equipment. Before we began Shaikhin explained that they were actually filming two projects, and that his colleague (Mr. Yuksel) would be interviewing me after he, Shaikhin, was finished. Yuksel, in fact, was very fidgety and throughout the interview with Shaikhin I could see him out of the corner of my eye feverishly taking notes and fiddling around with books whose titles I could not see.

Skeptic magazine volume 16, number 3.

Shaikhin’s interview, in fact, included mostly standard faire questions for such documentaries: Do I think there’s a conflict between science and religion?, What do I think about this and that argument for God’s existence?, Why do I think people believe in God?, etc. He was unfailingly polite and professional. Toward the end he did make some vague reference to Islam and our cover story of Skeptic on myths about the Islamic religion (the myth of the Middle East Madman, the myth of the 72 virgins, etc.), but I begged off answering anything about Islam because I haven’t studied it much nor have I read the Quran.

My first clue that the interview was about to take a sharp right turn came when Shaikhin acted shocked that I would edit an issue of Skeptic on Islam without myself having read the Quran. I explained that I write very few articles in Skeptic and that my job as editor is to find writers who are experts on a subject, which was, in fact, the case with this issue when our Senior Editor Frank Miele interviewed the University of California at Santa Barbara Islamic scholar R. Stephen Humphreys. Nonetheless, Shaikhin continued to act surprised, repeating “you mean to tell me that you edited a special issue of Skeptic on Islam and haven’t read the Quran?” I again explained that editors of magazines are not always (or ever) the world’s leading expert on the topics they publish, which is the very reason for contracting with experts to write the articles for magazines.

With this first part of the interview completed, Edip Yuksel leaped up out of his chair like a WWF wrestler charging into the ring for his big match. He grabbed a chair and pulled it over next to mine, asked for a bottle of water for the match, and instructed the videographer to widen the shot to include him in the interview. Only it wasn’t an interview. It was a monologue, with Yuksel launching into a mini-history of how he wrote Carl Sagan back in 1992 about the number 19 (he didn’t say if Sagan ever wrote back), how Carl had written about the deep significance of the number π (pi) in his science fiction novel Contact, how he is a philosopher and a college professor who teaches his students how to think critically, and that he is a great admirer of my work. However (you knew this was coming, right?), there is one thing we should not be skeptical about, and that is the remarkable properties of the number 19 and the Quran.

At this point I had a vague flashback memory of the Million Man March in Washington, D.C. and Louis Farrakhan’s musings about the magical properties of the number 19. The transcript from that speech confirmed my memory. Here are a few of the numerological observations by Farrakhan that day in October, 1995:

There, in the middle of this mall is the Washington Monument, 555 feet high. But if we put a one in front of that 555 feet, we get 1555, the year that our first fathers landed on the shores of Jamestown, Virginia as slaves.

In the background is the Jefferson and Lincoln Memorial, each one of these monuments is 19 feet high.

Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth president. Thomas Jefferson, the third president, and 16 and three make 19 again. What is so deep about this number 19? Why are we standing on the Capitol steps today? That number 19—when you have a nine you have a womb that is pregnant. And when you have a one standing by the nine, it means that there’s something secret that has to be unfolded.

I want to take one last look at the word atonement.

The first four letters of the word form the foundation; “a-t-o-n” … “a-ton”, “a-ton”. Since this obelisk in front of us is representative of Egypt. In the 18th dynasty, a Pharaoh named Akhenaton, was the first man of this history period to destroy the pantheon of many gods and bring the people to the worship of one god. And that one god was symboled by a sun disk with 19 rays coming out of that sun with hands holding the Egyptian Ankh – the cross of life. A-ton. The name for the one god in ancient Egypt. A-ton, the one god. 19 rays.

This is a splendid example of what I call patternicity: the tendency to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless noise. And Edip Yuksel launched into a nonstop example of patternicity when he pulled out his book entitled Nineteen: God’s Signature in Nature and Scripture (2011, Brainbow Press; see also and began to quote from it. To wit…

  • The number of Arabic letters in the opening statement of the Quran, BiSMi ALLaĤi AL-RaĤMaNi AL-RaĤYM (1:1) 19
  • Every word in Bismillah… is found in the Quran in multiples of 19
  • The frequency of the first word, Name (Ism) 19
  • The frequency of the second word, God (Allah) 19 x 142
  • The frequency of the third word, Gracious (Raĥman) 19 x 3
  • The fourth word, Compassionate (Raĥym) 19 x 6
  • Out of more than hundred attributes of God, only four has numerical values of multiple of 19
  • The number of chapters in the Quran 19 x 6
  • Despite its conspicuous absence from Chapter 9, Bismillah occurs twice in Chapter 27, making its frequency in the Quran 19 x 6
  • Number of chapters from the missing Ch. 9 to the extra in Ch. 27. 19 x 1
  • The total number of all verses in the Quran, including the 112 unnumbered Bismillah 19 x 334
  • Frequency of the letter Q in two chapters it initializes 19 x 6
  • The number of all different numbers mentioned in the Quran 19 x 2
  • The number of all numbers repeated in the Quran 19 x 16
  • The sum of all whole numbers mentioned in the Quran 19 x 8534

This goes on and on for 620 pages which, when divided by the number of chapters in the book (31) equals 20, which is one more than 19; since 1 is the cosmic number for unity, the first nonzero natural number, and according to the rock group Three Dog Night the loneliest number, we subtract 1 from 20 to once again see the power of 19. In fact, 19 is a prime number, it is the atomic number for potassium (flip that “p” to the left and you get a 9), in the Baha’i faith there were 19 disciples of Baha’u’llah and their calendar year consists of 19 months of 19 days each (361 days), and it’s the last year you can be a teenager and the last hole in golf that is actually the clubhouse bar. In point of fact we can find meaningful patterns with almost any number:

  • 99: names of Allah; atomic number for Einsteinium; Agent 99 on TV series Get Smart
  • 40: 40 days and 40 nights of rain; Hebrews lived 40 years in the desert, Muhammad’s age when he received the first revelation from the Archangel Gabriel and the number of days he spent in the desert and days he spent fasting in a cave
  • 23: The 23 enigma: the belief that most incidents and events are directly connected to the number 23
  • 11: sunspot cycle in years, the number of Jesus’s disciples after Judas defected
  • 7: 7 deadly sins and 7 heavenly virtues; Shakespeare’s 7 ages of man, Harry Potter’s most magical number
  • 3: number of dimensions; number of sides of a triangle, the 3 of clubs—the forced pick in one of Penn & Teller’s favorite card tricks
  • 1: unity; the first non-zero natural number, it’s own factorial and it’s own square; the atomic number of hydrogen; the most abundant element in the universe; Three Dog Night’s song about the loneliest number
  • π (pi): a mathematical constant whose value is the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter, or 3.14159…. Make of this what you will, but Carl Sagan did elevate π to significance at the end of Contact:

The universe was made on purpose, the circle said. In whatever galaxy you happen to find yourself, you take the circumference of a circle, divide it by its diameter, measure closely enough, and uncover a miracle—another circle, drawn kilometers downstream of the decimal point. In the fabric of space and in the nature of matter, as in a great work of art, there is, written small, the artist’s signature. Standing over humans, gods, and demons, subsuming Caretakers and Tunnel builders, there is an intelligence that antedates the universe.

At this point in the filming process I interrupted Yuksel and told Shaikhin that the interview was over, that he could use the footage from the first part of the interview but not this monologue mini-lecture that was an undisguised attempt to convince me of the miraculous properties of the number 19. I didn’t sign any waiver or permission to use any of the footage shot that day, but just in case I was relieved when the videographer came to me in private to apologize and explain that she had nothing to do with the rest of the crew, that she was just hired to do the filming, and that after I had put an end to the interview she stopped filming.

At some point I asked Edip why he felt so compelled to convince me of the meaningfulness of the number 19 in the Quran, when I told him that I haven’t read the Quran and hold that all such numerological searches are nothing more than patternicity. The impression I got was that if he could convince a professional skeptic then there must be something to the claim. I asked him what other Islamic scholars who have read the Quran think of his claims for the number 19, and he told me that they consider him a heretic. He said it as a point of pride, as if to say “the fact that the experts denounce me means that I must be on to something.”

P.S. Edip Yuksel did strike me as a likable enough fellow who seemed genuinely passionate about his beliefs, but there was something a bit off about him that I couldn’t quite place until I was escorting him out of the office and he said, “I see you are a very athletic fellow. Can I show you something that I learned in a Turkish prison?” With scenes from Midnight Express flashing through my mind, I muttered “Uhhhhhh… No.”

Patternicity Challenge to Readers

As a test—of sorts—I would like to hereby issue a challenge to all readers to employ their own patternicity skills at finding meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless noise with such numbers and numerical relationships, both serious and lighthearted, related to the number 19 or any other number that strikes your fancy. Post them here and we shall publish them in a later feature-length article I shall write on this topic.

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