Dr. Michael Shermer, Why There Are Holocaust Deniers
Dr. Michael Shermer is, among other things, the founding publisher of Skeptic magazine, the Executive Director of the Skeptics Society, a monthly columnist for Scientific American and Adjunct Professor of Economics at Claremont Graduate University.
Dr. Shermer’s most recent book is The Mind of the Market, on evolutionary economics. He is also the author of Denying History, on Holocaust denial and other forms of pseudohistory.
Since his creation of the Skeptics Society, Skeptic magazine, and the Skeptics Distinguished Science Lecture Series at Caltech, he has appeared on such shows as The Colbert Report, 20/20, Dateline, Charlie Rose, Oprah Winfrey, and other shows as a skeptic of weird and extraordinary claims, as well as interviews in countless documentaries aired on PBS, A&E, Discovery, The History Channel, The Science Channel, and The Learning Channel.
He is interviewed by Dan Leshem, program manager of the HDOT website.Q. [Leshem]
You are the editor and publisher of Skeptic magazine, and you write a monthly column called Skeptic for Scientific American magazine, and so you seem like a great person to ask: What is a skeptic, and what do they believe in?A. [Shermer]
Right. Well, a skeptic is really not a thing to be; like science, it’s more of a verb than a noun. It’s something you do instead of something you are. For example, you could be skeptical that HIV causes aids or you can be skeptical of the HIV/AIDS skeptics. You can be skeptical that humans cause global warming or you can be skeptical of the global warming skeptics. So it’s not something that you lay out unilaterally ahead of time and say, "I’m just going to be skeptical about everything." Obviously you have to pick and choose which particular claims you’re skeptical of, or skeptical of the skeptics of the claims. So, it just depends on each one. You have to look at the evidence and that sort of thing.Q. [Leshem]
You happen to mention science and so science goes by the scientific method in terms of determining how it’s going to approach a given question or problem. Is there a skeptical method?A. [Shermer]
Yeah, it has to do with the evaluation of evidence, like in science, really determining whether a claim is testable or not. Is there some way to get an answer? Can we run some sort of an experiment? Can we evaluate data in some statistical way to determine if there’s a statistically significant difference between this condition and that condition? All sorts of things. Most people are actually pretty familiar with the process just from watching on the news things about drug trials and whether the FDA approves a new drug or not based on clinical trials and preliminary trials and experimental trials. So people have kind of a general sense that there is a way in science to get at an answer that we can agree on. There is an effect here or there isn’t an effect here, even if it’s a provisional conclusion because it can change at any time when there is new evidence that comes in.Q. [Leshem]
Is skepticism as an approach relevant only to studying scientific questions, or do you think it can look at other types of questions?A. [Shermer]
Oh, I think it can be applied to lots of different things, not just traditional natural science questions, but also social science obviously, economic/socially political questions, I think. The history of science is a long and tried tradition, long and true tried tradition, of like the astronomical understanding of stellar evolution for example, is a historical science. You have to infer something that happened in the past based on the fossil evidence now, in the case of fossils. Here it’s stars in their current state. So nobody sees a star evolve because it takes to long, unless it hits the final stage where it explodes in a black hole, I mean explodes into a supernova. That you can see. But other than that, most of the stages take millions of years. All you can do is look around the sky and see stars at different stages and infer that there’s a chronological sequence there.
Same thing with coral reefs; Darwin discovered, before he even got to the Pacific on his voyage of the Beagle, from reading Charles Lyell’s book Principals of Geology that all those different kinds of reefs, coral reefs, fringing reefs and so on, were not different kinds of reefs that have different causes, but they’re all different stages of volcanic islands that erupt, they break the surface, they become volcanic islands, they develop coral reefs along the fringes of them, then the volcano subsides underneath the ocean over long periods of time leaving the fringing reef around it. And so you see that when you go across the Pacific all these different coral reefs at different stages of evolution. And so they actually have one cause, not multiple causes. But you have to infer that over time and that’s how historical science works. So that would be the same for inferring evolution, inferring that the Holocaust happened or the Civil War, or whatever. You infer from lots of lines of evidence.Q. [Leshem]
So to follow a title of one of your books, why do people believe weird things, or why are denier positions conceived broadly in a variety of fields so much easier to explain and believe than are to refute?A. [Shermer]
Well, of course it’s easier to just challenge somebody’s theory or disbelieve their data as opposed to presenting your own theory about what you think happened. So I take 9/11 conspiracy theorists for example. We consider them skeptics of the government’s explanation that Al-Qaeda was behind 9/11. So we’ll call them Al-Qaeda skeptics. So they poke holes in it saying, "This little detail here, that detail there doesn’t seem to match up if Al-Qaeda was actually doing this."
"Okay, well then, who do you think did it?"
And their answer is, "Well, you know, I, well, I’m not saying I know who did it. I just think it was, you know, an inside job of the U.S. government."
"Really? How did they do it? Where’s the evidence for that?"
Well, they have none, none at all. But all they do is present negative evidence against prevailing theories. But that doesn’t count as positive evidence in favor of some other theory. You have to actually have positive evidence. So in science the way it works is it’s not enough just to debunk a prevailing theory. You have to replace it with something because scientists are working, they’re doing a research program, they’re operating in a lab, they’re doing something. So if you just say, "Well okay, we’re going to take away your current prevailing theory or model or paradigm." Well you have to replace it with something because we have to go to work tomorrow and test things. So it’s a very social pragmatic thing. The bottom line is whether there is some way to get at an answer to the question?Q. [Leshem]
The other side of that question is why do people believe the 9/11 conspiracy theorists?A. [Shermer]
Well, the short answer is we believe things for all sorts of emotional reasons, psychological reasons, and then after the fact we justify them as rational reasons. And so my short answer to why do smart people believe weird things is because they’re better at rationalizing beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons. So most of this most of the time are religious beliefs, or political beliefs, or social attitudes, or economic beliefs, that have to do with how we were raised, what our parents believed, what our siblings believed, our peer groups, our mentors, our teachers. We have all these different forces that shape what we believe. But nobody says, "I’m a Republican because my father was. I don’t really think about it." Nobody says that. People say, "Well, I’m a Republican because I like this policy or that policy." They give reasons for it, rational reasons. "I believe in god because of this reason, or that reason," or, "I’m an atheist because of this or that." Nobody says, "Well, it’s just because it makes me feel good," or something like that. And yet that is in fact the way we arrive at our beliefs. It’s usually emotional psychological reasons.Q. [Leshem]
Why do you think that people deny the Holocaust then?A. [Shermer]
I think it really is mostly anti-Semitism, the belief in the inordinate amount of power that Jews allegedly have in the world. It’s a certain amount of just basic tribalism. "We’re worried about that tribe of Jews. That they’re doing this, they’re doing that." It really does come down to that and the Holocaust is such a lynch pin in modern history of political support for Israel, for example, and so anti-Zionists, anti-Israeli supporters will then wish to undermine that political support by taking the Holocaust away from the politics by saying, "Well, it didn’t actually happen."Q. [Leshem]
What I’m struck with in terms of Holocaust denial, and this probably applies to the other sorts of areas you look at, is that it seems like we’re saying Holocaust denial isn’t something only deniers do. That is, people who aren’t deniers, naïve people, innocent in the sense that they have no explicit ideological motivations, are drawn to these kinds of arguments. The challenge for educators is to always try to present conflicting evidence, actual evidence, and yet people resist those pieces of evidence as well and end up walking away oftentimes with their original conclusions. So why is it that you think people are drawn to those kinds of arguments?A. [Shermer]
There you’re moving into more of this sort of Pat Robertson, more of that sort of far right wing Republican Party. Yeah, there then the Holocaust revisionism gets tucked into something larger there having to do with American politics and our support of Israel, that sort of thing, and the idea that we should circle the wagons and close the borders and control for immigration and not get entangled in foreign affairs like that. That does sometimes incorporate a little bit of Holocaust denial like maybe there is some exaggeration for political purposes. Yes, of course. And it’s true that that does happen. Although in this case it’s just a factual question. How many Jews were there before the Second World War, how many were there after, and where they possibly would have gone, and so on. And the figure really does consistently come down between five and six million, and closer to six million, of course it’s not exactly six million. Figures vary depending on who’s doing the counting and what methods are used. So when you get down to the nitty-gritty of how do we know what happened, well the evidence is really overwhelming now, and in David Irving’s trial it just came out so clearly how we know. You know, this sort of convergence of evidence from multiple lines of inquiry that we know what happened.Q. [Leshem]
In your book Denying History you sort of lay out the common fallacies of deniers and compare it and say it’s very similar to the sort of beginnings of other malicious cults and religious extremists in terms of their development, their historical development over time, and also in terms of the kind of logical fallacies they use to justify their positions. Could you explain a little bit about what those positions are?A. [Shermer]
If you have an ideological agenda there are certain things you just do automatically to overthrow the other guy’s position, to gain a cultural hearing, to get some media attention, that sort of thing. Creationists do it. Holocaust deniers do it. It has to do with poking holes at the mainstream accepted theory of whatever that you’re challenging, asking for equal time, demanding that the controversy be taught, freedom of speech, equal time in classrooms for your position, that sort of thing. It’s almost like they all go to the same school, and of course they don’t, but this has to do with the nature of American society and how we have a free market of ideas so there’s a certain amount of impetus on the individual’s part to get out there and promote his ideas, and that’s what the Holocaust deniers do and that’s what the creationists do. They have their own museums for example, and well, that’s what you do in America.Q. [Leshem]
And yet you, as opposed to many people who have worked on Holocaust denial, insist that it is important to debate them. So...A. [Shermer]
Okay, two things. The freedom of speech issue ‐ Yes of course they should be able to write whatever books they want and produce whatever films they want, hold conferences. Yeah, they should do whatever they want of course. Now should we engage them? That kind of depends I guess on what’s being claimed or debated, what you do. I mean, this is what I do for a living. I mean, I’m a public intellectual, I engage in public debate in conversations with lots of people on the other side. The other side of whatever ‐ psychics, UFO people, conspiracy people, that sort of thing. My argument is that it’s sort of the Jeffersonian/John Stuart Mill that the truth will come out in the light of day, and don’t cover anything up; just put it all out there and people can see how idiotic this other position is, and if they want to expose themselves to that, fine. So for the most part I think it’s a useful enterprise and it also, by being public about it, it removes any notion of conspiratorial cover up like, "Ooh, this is the thing they don’t want you to know about."
"Well sure, sure you can know about it. Here ‐ Here’s the book, here’s our special issue of Skeptic devoted to it. You can read all about it. We’re going to talk about it next week at this university. You can come listen to it. No secrets, no hidden agendas, just put it all out there and be done with it." That’s my approach.Q. [Leshem]
So it doesn’t concern you that for instance your, I think it was 1996 debate with Mark Weber of the Institute for Historical Review, a video of that debate is still for sale on the Institute for Historical Review’s website along with regular articles that they write emphasizing Weber’s victory and...A. [Shermer]
Yeah, I know. Of course you’re going to claim that. I guess I don’t really care. It doesn’t bother me. I suppose a case could be made that it gives their site credence or something like that. I actually really don’t think it does. I think they’ve become so marginalized that they’re completely irrelevant. They are nothing like the creationists anymore. For a while in the nineties they had a lot of attention but they’ve lost all that. The Irving trial pretty much buried them; just like the Dover trials pretty much killed intelligent design. It’ll mutate into something else. But that has far more support from the religious right in terms of a creation model based on the Bible in which you can in various forms incorporate evolutionary theory without too much problem. That will always get a much larger hearing in America than Holocaust denial, which has no foundation to it. With creationism people feel like, "Well, boy, this is the basis of my whole religion, so this is important to me." But what would denying the Holocaust be the basis of for the average Joe? Nothing. There’s no motivation for anybody to care about it. So I think they’ve become largely irrelevant.
And as you probably know, Mark Weber’s pretty much conceded the Holocaust happened pretty much the way I say it did. He wrote an essay about a month/six weeks ago or so, it came out I think the first week of January, in which he said, "You know what? I think we need to refocus our attention here because we’re pretty much barking up the wrong tree here now." So he got pretty heavily slammed by a lot of Holocaust deniers I noticed. It’s on the Institute for Historical Review. If you go to their web page you’ll see his big essay.Q. [Leshem]
So when you debate Holocaust deniers, or the so-called 9/11 Truth Movement, or any other group, are you trying to convince the people with whom you’re debating? Do you believe that they’re convincible?A. [Shermer]
No. I’m after the undecided. Like all politicians, we’re after the uncommitted voter. True believers ‐ they can’t be converted by evidence alone. There has to be something else that goes on.Q. [Leshem]
In the current world of Internet research by students, YouTube education, and the blossoming of hidden and overt sites denying the Holocaust and other issues, what do you think are the best approaches for educators to take in reaching audiences accustomed to easy answers?A. [Shermer]
You use the same media. We’re always producing YouTube videos; little three/five minute video shorts on things. And all my debates are all broken up onto YouTube into short segments. Teachers should just use the same tools. The information’s available from our side as well. There are tons of really good things on evolution, for example, that teachers can use -- very visual stuff that counters all the Creationist nonsense.Q. [Leshem]
People often complain that on a controversial topic any website you go to seems to be from one ideological position or the other. Are there certain things that you would recommend students watch out for when approaching sites like that, sort of a checklist?A. [Shermer]
Yeah, we call this the baloney detection kit. There are certain questions you need to ask about evidence ‐ What’s the quality of the evidence; how is the evidence gathered; was there an attempt to find contradictory evidence; is there any sign on the website or in the book or whatever that the author has attempted to refute his own ideas; is there any kind of backing of recognized institutions, mainstream institutions? So many of these websites are marginalized and they’re real fringe. And it’s not that good things can’t come from the fringe; they can, it’s just less likely to happen that way. So, the more fringy it looks and appears based on, you know, you never heard of the people, there’s no affiliation with any recognized institution and so on, you’re skeptical alarm should go off and just be extra cautious about the claims that are being made. What’s the documentation for the facts that are cited? You know, like the global warming skeptics will say, "Oh, there’s this Oregon committee statement of skepticism about human-caused global warming."
"Yeah, well, you know, let’s look at how that was gathered." That’s why we ran a whole thing on this in Skeptic. This is not how science is done; it’s not done by a statement. It’s done by facts, by data, by research. Who’s making this claim? What’s the person’s background? What are their credentials? It’s not that we think it should be an elitist thing and only elite snobs can know the truth, or something like that. We don’t believe that, but there’s a certain fact checking process that goes on. It’s like when you read the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times you just expect that you’re getting a more accurate description of things than, say, the Drudge Report or something like that where there’s no fact checking at all. Anything the Huffington Post, anything that anybody wants to say just goes up. No one even looks at them. No one even reads it. There are no editors to read it first. It just goes up. And so it’s not that the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal can’t publish errors, they do, they creep in once in a while. But at least there’s an attempt at fact checking, and that’s the reason for peer review in science is that it’s a form of fact checking. It’s like, "Somebody’s going to check this, so I’d better be careful what I say here."Q. [Leshem]
It seems like you also point to a couple typical ways our mind works to sort of trick us into believing things that might not be true. And one of the terms I come across a lot in your writing is the confirmation bias. Can you describe what that is a bit?A. [Shermer]
Yeah, confirmation bias is where you look for and find confirmatory evidence for which you already believe. You ignore the disconfirmatory evidence, or as we like to say in the psychic trade, you remember the hits and forget the misses. So you get a psychic reading: a psychic will say two or three hundred things in the course of a one hour reading and you’ll come out go, "Wow, it’s amazing. He knew this, that, and the other." You know, you have three little factoids that you remember he said. You conveniently forget the couple hundred things he said that had no relevance to your life at all. Everybody does it. It’s what drives conspiracy theories. You know, once you think the Jews are running the world you just open the paper and look for Jewish sounding names that are running this bank, or this institution, or whatever. You go, "Aha, you see." Or you want to find some connection between some Bush action and something that happens in the economy. It’s easy to find hits like that. I call it patternicity; the tendency to find meaningful patterns in random noise. Everybody does it. Our brains are designed to do that. Evolution designed us to find patterns. That’s what we do, and we’re really good at it.
The problem is that some patterns are not real; they’re bogus. And the only way to find out for sure is science. There has to be some means of testing between true and false patterns. Short of that then it’s just, you know, whatever I think, whatever you think, I have this intuitive hunch, this guess, you have an intuitive hunch, you take a guess. How can any of us know? So there has to be something more than that, we hope. And that’s what science is about, and skepticism of course.Q. [Leshem]
Another term that comes up on this particular... I’m drawing from the Denying History book where you sort of talk about the ways in which deniers will attack an argument by breaking all the converging pieces of evidence into their individual components and trying to force each individual component to prove the totality of the story. And you call this a post-hoc rationalization. Can you explain what that term means?A. [Shermer]
After the fact that something’s already happened and then you rationalize it. It’s like on any given day on the stock market for example -- Whatever the market does; it doesn’t matter what it does -- after the fact you can explain why it happened.
"Oh, Obama made this speech this morning," or, "The Fed chairman said this and then market responded."
But had it gone the other way you would’ve found equally plausible explanations.
"Oh, the market went up because the President made this speech," or there was some other event that you notice. You just pick and choose. It’s cherry picking. After the fact it’s easy to do it. Before the fact ‐ not so easy.Q. [Leshem]
So, if you were teaching a class on the Holocaust and a student brings in an article arguing a denier position, and from that I just want to generalize a sort of student who has this article and something seems fishy about it. What would you say, just in general, are the steps that someone should take to establish whether or not to believe something like that?A. [Shermer]
You engage your baloney detection kit. That is you start asking questions about who is making this claim, and what’s the evidence for it, and are there other sites I can go to? And there are. Thanks to search engines you can easily go to the Nizkor webpage [http://www.nizkor.org/] or our web page, or my books, or whatever, and find a lot of the explanations that are there for those things that are likely to appear in those kinds of articles.Q. [Leshem]
That’s all I have for you today. I want to thank you again for participating in our podcast.A. [Shermer]
You’re welcome. Thanks for having me.