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Science Friction

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Q&A With Michael Shermer

Where are you from?
Southern California, born and raised and live, where the sun always shines and yet we have four seasons: fires, floods, earthquakes, and riots.

Who are your favorite writers?
Stephen Jay Gould, Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, Sam Harris, Jon Krakauer, Thomas Sowell, Shelby Steele, Ayn Rand.

Which book/books have had the biggest influence on your writing?
For science writing: Steve Gould’s essays (and attendant book collections of them) and especially his books Time’s Arrow Time’s Cycle, Wonderful Life, and The Structure of Evolutionary Theory.

For general writing: Jon Krakauer’s books Into the Wild, Into Thin Air, and especially Under the Banner of Heaven are exemplary models of prose writing and narrative nonfiction storytelling.

Which teacher had the biggest impact on your life?

Richard Hardison and Earl Livingood at Glendale College (my A.A.), Tony Ash and Ola Barnett at Pepperdine University (my B.A.), Doug Naverick and Meg White at California State University (my M.A.), and Richard Olson and Jim Moore at Claremont Graduate University (my Ph.D.). Hardison and Livingood introduced me to the joys of learning and liberated my brain to think; Ash and Barnett taught me now to think and reason; Naverick and White taught me how to think like a scientist; Olson and Moore taught me how to be a scholar.

What are your hobbies and outside interests?
Cycling with my buddies and hanging out with my daughter.

What is the single best piece of advice anyone ever gave you?
When I was a student at Pepperdine University I came into my own, grew up, and got very serious about my career and developed a fanatical work ethic. My psychology advisor and mentor, Ola Barnett, told me to lighten up, develop a sense of humor, and balance my life between work and play and to have joy.

What is your favorite quote?
“All observations must be for or against some view if they are to be of any service.” —Charles Darwin, 1861, responding to a criticism that his book (On the Origin of Species) was too theoretical and that he should have just let the facts speak for themselves.

What is the question most commonly asked by your readers?  What is the answer?
Readers’ question: What is your position on the afterlife?
My answer: I’m for it.

Readers’ question: Have you ever encountered a mystery you could not explain?
My answer: Yes, Paris Hilton.

What inspired you to write your first book?
I always wanted to be a writer, then a science writer, and since Stephen Jay Gould was my role model and mentor for this, I wrote Why People Believe Weird Things in his style (but my voice of course), and Steve wrote the foreword to that book, one of the most meaningful things anyone has ever done for me. I dedicated my second book, How We Believe, to Steve.

Where do you write?
I write on a laptop, so I write at home in the kitchen, living room, entertainment room; I write at the office at my desk; I write at Starbucks; I write in my car; I write on planes (I am writing the answers to these questions at 35,000 feet flying from Nashville to L.A.).

Why do you write?
I write, therefore I am. I am, therefore I write.