Dr. Michael Shermer is a leading agnostic and respected scholar. In addition to being the founder of The Skeptics Society and author of numerous best-selling books on critical thinking, he has secured his standing as a bona fide academic, which is why I’m taking a split level approach to Michael regarding the Sagan Signal, first as a skeptic, then as an academic.
MICHAEL SHERMER, THE SKEPTIC
Michael Shermer the skeptic has had a powerful influence on my life. As a champion of science and the scientific method, I hold him in the highest regard. When Michael speaks, I listen, when he writes, I read, and while we don’t always agree on things, I always learn. His trilogy of books: Why People Believe Weird Things, The Believing Brain, and How People Believe are must reads for anyone who cares about the workings of science. In explaining in easy-to-understand language why people who don’t understand or appreciate science are so easily persuaded to believe in things that are not true, Michael has helped tens of thousands of people, including myself, develop critical thinking skills.
It should therefore come as no surprise that Michael was one of the first skeptics I contacted when I began vetting the Sagan Signal in the secular community. In 20112 I asked him the question: Are the sequences a code?, his anecdotal answer was:
“Are you familiar with the book The Bible Code? Biblical numerology is an ancient tradition in which people believe that they have found all sorts of patterns indicating the hand of god or a higher intelligence. Nothing new there. I find yours--a simple pattern of three--to be one of the simplest and easiest to explain by chance.”
While I appreciated Michael’s willingness to respond to a question from someone he never met, didn’t know, and never heard of, I also knew that what he sent me was an unstudied and off-the-cuff response. Some might even call it dismissive. Nevertheless, I appreciated the effort. He didn’t have to say anything, but he did. I accepted his cursory reply as encouragement to, in the future, be more specific in my presentation.
In science, nothing is more important than an accurate description of an observed phenomenon. Get it wrong in the beginning and the conclusion will almost always be wrong in the end. For example, the ancients saw the sun rise in the morning and fall in the evening. Based on that simplistic description, they wrongly concluded that the sun revolves around the earth, not the other way around.
With all due respect, Michael’s description of the Sagan Signal as “a simple pattern of three,” is so simplistic and so far off base that it would take a separate tab on this website to explain all that’s wrong with it.
Following are just two examples:
Ezra 6:9 – “And whatever they need – young bulls, rams, and lambs for the burnt offerings of the God of heaven, wheat, salt, wine, and oil, according to the request of the priests who are in Jerusalem – let it be given to them day by day without fail.”
Analysis: This is a sequence, within a sequence, within a sequence. There are a total of seven commodities listed in this verse, and within this seven word sequence is the sub-sequence: “wheat, salt, wine, and oil.” Within this four word sequence is the three word sub-sequence: “wheat, wine, and oil” - in the only order, out of six possible, that qualify it for the code. Rather than “a simple pattern of three,” as Michael claims, this is but one of many examples of a highly sophisticated construct.
Verse 38: “You shall carry much seed out to the field but gather little in, for the locust shall consume it.”
Verse 39: “You shall plant vineyards and tend them, but you shall neither drink of the wine nor gather the grapes; for the worms shall eat them.”
Verse 40: “You shall have olive trees throughout all your territory, but you shall not anoint yourself with the oil; for your olives will drop off.”
In verse 28, the sequence is: seed/field/harvest – three words related to grain.
In verse 29, the sequence is: vineyards/wine/grapes – three words related to wine.
In verse 40, the sequence is: olive trees/anoint/olives – three words related to oil.
Verse 38 features three grain factors, verse 39, three wine factors, and verse 40, three oil factors. The author could have chosen any of five other sequential options, any one of which would have destroyed the symmetry, but he didn’t. He chose the only sequence that matches the symmetry of the code.
So, as you can see, to describe the Sagan Signal accurately involves far more than calling it a “simple pattern of three.” It’s anything but that.
Only a third of the 46 sequences fit the description of being “simple.” The remaining two thirds are complex, exhibiting a varied and sophisticated level of symmetry that can’t be dismissed as “simple patterns of three.”
A statistical probability analysis
The following probability analysis, by math professor Sean Rule, further throws Michael’s “simple pattern of three” explanation into doubt:
“Following the dictum that every researcher needs to first try to debunk their own work before asking others to do it, I approached Sean Rule, math professor at my local community college, and asked him if he would solve a thought problem for me. Not wanting to inject the Bible, religion, or extraterrestrials into the equation, I asked Sean to imagine three bingo balls, one red (representing grain), one white (representing wine), and one blue (representing oil). The balls are dropped into a Plexiglas air blower like they use to pull up winning numbers in a lottery drawing. The balls bounce around awhile until a chute is opened and, at random, they are sucked, one-by-one, into a tube and the color sequence recorded. This process is repeated 50 times.
My question to Sean was: What would be the odds that in 40 of the 50 sequences, or 80%, the red ball (grain) comes out first, the white ball (wine) second, and the blue ball (oil) last? Note that the symmetry percentage in the Sagan Signal is 86%, six points higher than in my thought experiment.
It didn’t take Sean long to send me the following email:
Hey there, Don!
OK...I've got it now. What you have in this bingo game is a textbook binomial distribution problem. Here's how we can proceed:
There are 6 possible sequences that the balls can take on any one trial (of the 50 of which you spoke):
RWB, RBW, WRB, WBR, BWR, BRW. The chance of getting a sequence of RWB on any one of the 50 trials is 1/6.
Now, you need the chance of a set number of successes (i.e., RWB sequences) out of 50; in particular, the chance that you get at least 40 out of the 50. We can find this by summing the following:
Chance of getting at least 40 out of 50 = chance of getting 40 + chance of getting 41 + chance of getting 42 + ... + chance of getting 50.
Each one of those terms that we have to add is a binomial expression. Here's a link < to a lesson I use on the binomial, if you're interested.
Let's sum them all up:
(50 nCr 40)(1/6)^40(5/6)^10 + (50 nCr 41)(1/6)^41(5/6)^9 + ... + (50 nCr 50)(1/6)^50(5/6)^0 =......a very, very, very small number. It's basically zero. If you need a number, it's in the neighborhood of 10^(-21). Wow. Very unlikely. (makes sense; you would expect to get about 8 such runs; nowhere near 40).
Let me know if you need anything else, Don!
Sean’s results were not only stunning, but thoroughly at odds with Michael’s summarization that the Sagan Signal is the result of blind chance. The probability that Michael is right is one in ten billion trillion.
Faced with this stark mathematical reality, no other skeptic I have interacted with over the past fifteen years, including those at the Center for Inquiry, have cited chance as a scientifically viable explanation for the Sagan Signal’s extraordinary symmetry. In his defense, Michael didn’t have these calculations in hand when he responded to my question, so I dismiss that initial exchange as irrelevant. What is relevant is what he thinks of the Sagan Signal now.
Another way to look at it is to think of each grain/wine/oil sequence as a single dice, the kind you roll in Vegas or in a board game. It has six sides, the same as the number of ways you can sequence three factors. If you roll the die 54 times, you would expect each of the six numbers to come up 9 times (6x9=54). In the Sagan Signal, one number, or sequence, comes up 46 times! Unless the die is heavily loaded in favor of a single number, it doesn’t happen, and if it is loaded, then someone is responsible for doing it. Ergo, that would make it a code.
The bottom line is that code identification is largely a mathematical process. Michael cites probability theory a lot in his writings. I’m sure he would agree that math matters – a lot.
James Underdown, CFI Executive Direct of Investigations, believed that the Sagan Signal was the result of algorithmic manipulation. I gave him 10 months to prove it - and he couldn’t do it. Why? Because the Sagan Signal is not algorithmic.
I’m now giving Michael Shermer 12 months to defend his belief that the Sagan Signal is a chance event. I’ll be shocked if he even tries. The numbers don’t lie. The Sagan Signal is not “a simple pattern of three.”
On the 20th of each month I’ll issue a report on Michael’s answer to my following question:
MICHAEL: DO YOU AGREE WITH THE CENTER FOR INQUIRY CONCLUSION THAT THE SAGAN SIGNAL IS A NON-PREDICTIVE, NON-ALGORITHMIC CODE?
Should Michael change his mind and concede that the Sagan Signal is a code, it will end the demonstration. But if, on 12/20/21, Michael has neither conceded nor responded, I will conclude that he is unable to prove his initial assessment.
Finally, if Michael concedes that chance isn’t a viable explanation for the Sagan Signal, does he have another one, a better one, in his hip pocket that he would care to advance, preferably one that hasn’t already been considered and abandoned?
Michael Shermer, the academic
What’s the difference between how Michael Shermer the skeptic attacks the Sagan Signal and how Michael Shermer the scholar might approach it?
Like frontline troops, skeptics are generally the first to challenge extraordinary claims supported by testable data. If they can’t debunk a claim, it becomes what an academic might label as “interesting,” a designation that prompts scholars to launch investigations that sometime result in written papers that are peer reviewed and published in scientific journals. If academics get involved and my code claim is sustained, research will likely be expanded, with more tests and investigations into both the known and the unknown. This dynamic process is how the scientific method plays out in real life, and could go on for years before the emergence of a broad consensus of opinion.
But for the moment we are stuck in a sort of time warp with Michael’s casual 2012 ruling. So, as the claimant, I’m pressing him to update his response by issuing a judgment that incorporates investigative results from credible entities that occurred after he issued his initial pronouncement, especially the one conducted by the Center for Inquiry.
Once he does that, Michael can put on his scholar hat and study the data from a perspective that is more about advanced testing and deep analysis than in trying to dismiss a science-based claim with a parochial comment. I’m anxious to see what Michael Shermer the scholarly academic will do with the data.
Michael, thank you for making me an independent thinker. I love you and wish you all the best.