• SKEPTIC CONFERENCE May 29-31, 2015, On the Future of Science and Humanity
  • SKEPTIC CONFERENCE May 29-31, 2015, On the Future of Science and Humanity
  • SKEPTIC CONFERENCE May 29-31, 2015, On the Future of Science and Humanity
  • SKEPTIC CONFERENCE May 29-31, 2015, On the Future of Science and Humanity
  • SKEPTIC CONFERENCE May 29-31, 2015, On the Future of Science and Humanity
  • SKEPTIC CONFERENCE May 29-31, 2015, On the Future of Science and Humanity
  • SKEPTIC CONFERENCE May 29-31, 2015, On the Future of Science and Humanity
  • SKEPTIC CONFERENCE May 29-31, 2015, On the Future of Science and Humanity
  • SKEPTIC CONFERENCE May 29-31, 2015, On the Future of Science and Humanity
  • SKEPTIC CONFERENCE May 29-31, 2015, On the Future of Science and Humanity
  • SKEPTIC CONFERENCE May 29-31, 2015, On the Future of Science and Humanity

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Double-Exposure in the Back Seat

You can find it reproduced on hundreds of paranormal themed websites and in many ghost books. The photo is usually accompanied by a short bit of text that describes the scenario. Mrs. Mabel Chinnery snapped the photo in March of 1959 in England. She took the photo of her husband in the car, but when the photo was developed she could see that her mother (Mrs. Ellen Hammell) was in the photo sitting behind him—but the photo was taken during a visit to the late Mrs. Hammell’s grave! How could she now appear in the back seat?! [cue dramatic music]

FullShot-BackseatGhostCar

A screen shot from Arthur C. Clarke’s World of Strange Powers offers the clearest copy of the photo by Mrs. Mabel Chinnery allegedly showing a back-seat ghost.

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Reflections on Earth Day

Earth, the "pale blue dot", the tiny green planet in a vast cosmos. It is our only home, and if we foul it, we will never get another chance. (Image courtesy NASA).

Earth, the “pale blue dot”, the tiny green planet in a vast cosmos. It is our only home, and if we foul it, we will never get another chance. (Image created by Reto Stöckli, Nazmi El Saleous, and Marit Jentoft-Nilsen, NASA GSFC; courtesy NASA).

Today is the 45th anniversary of the first Earth Day, held on April 22, 1970. Originally proposed by activist Denis Hayes in 1969, it quickly gained momentum and was officially inaugurated by Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson the following year. Nelson chose the date because it was late enough in the spring that people would be able to hold outdoor rallies and it would not conflict with most campus spring breaks or the Easter and Passover holidays. It also happened to fall on the day after the birthday of famous conservationist John Muir. (Although Nelson didn’t know it, it also fell on the 100th anniversary of the birth of Vladimir Lenin, a fact which the anti-environmentalists used to claim that communism was behind environmentalism). It is now the largest secular holiday in the world, with observances in over 200 countries involving millions of people.

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eSkeptic for April 22, 2015


OUR NEXT LECTURER: Dr. Beth Shapiro

How to Clone a Mammoth:
The Science of De-Extinction

Sunday, May 3, 2015 at 2 pm (PST)
Baxter Hall, Caltech

Dr. Beth Shapiro (photo by Kris Krug)

Credit: Kris Krüg

COULD EXTINCT SPECIES, like mammoths and passenger pigeons, be brought back to life? According to evolutionary biologist Beth Shapiro, the science says yes. From deciding which species should be restored, to sequencing their genomes, to anticipating how revived populations might be overseen in the wild, Shapiro vividly explores the extraordinary cutting-edge science that is being used to resurrect the past. Journeying to far-flung Siberian locales in search of ice age bones and delving into her own research and that of others, Shapiro considers de-extinction’s practical benefits and ethical challenges. Would de-extinction change the way we live? Is this really cloning? What are the costs and risks? And what is the ultimate goal?

A book signing will follow the lecture. We will have copies of the book, How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction, available for purchase. Can’t attend the lecture? Order the book from Amazon.

TICKETS are available first come, first served at the door. Seating is limited. $10 for Skeptics Society members and the JPL/Caltech community, $15 for nonmembers. Your admission fee is a donation that pays for our lecture expenses.

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upcoming lectures


Michael Shermer
Quantum Leaps

Michael Shermer considers Deepak Chopra’s use and abuse of quantum physics.

Read the Insight

Daniel Loxton
I Get Mail: Cryptids, Smoke, and Fire

Daniel Loxton answers an email from a reader regarding a common paranormal argument.

Read the Insight


Steven Novella
A Skepticality Guide
to the Universe
SKEPTICALITY EPISODE 252

This time around Derek has a light-hearted conversation with Dr. Steven Novella, clinical neurologist and assistant professor at Yale University School of Medicine. (Oh! …and the host and producer of ‘The Skeptics’ Guide To The Universe’ podcast.) Derek and Steve started their skeptical shows within the same week about 10 years ago, around this time of year. In this episode of Skepticality, they discuss a bit about the landscape of the skeptical movement, the impact of new media, and some current skeptical news.

Skepticality (the Official Podcast App of Skeptic Magazine) is available on the App Store
Skepticality (the Official Podcast App of Skeptic Magazine) is available at Amazon for Android
Skepticality (the Official Podcast App of Skeptic Magazine) is available on Windows Store

About this week’s eSkeptic

In this week’s eSkeptic, Glenn Branch reviews Why Science Does Not Disprove God, by Amir D. Aczel. This review was published in Skeptic magazine 20.1 (2015).

Glenn Branch is deputy director of the National Center for Science Education, a non-profit organization that works to defend the teaching of evolution and climate science in public schools.

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Proof & God

a book review by Glenn Branch

A statistics professor turned science writer, with a string of popular books on various topics in mathematics, physics, and the history of science to his credit, Amir D. Aczel turns, in Why Science Does Not Disprove God, to the vexed subject of science and religion. Addressing the same general audience, he argues that “modern science has not disproved the existence of God” (p. 4). He makes the stronger and separable claim that “spirituality, religion, and faith have important roles to play in our lives” (p. 5), but he does not argue for it here. His targets, unsurprisingly, are the so-called New Atheists, particularly Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss.

Of the three significant concepts in the book’s title, Aczel concentrates on science. The first six chapters (including a chapter on biblical archaeology, which is not really relevant to his theme) march the reader through the history of science, with occasional swipes at Dawkins and Krauss en route, and the next five chapters directly engage the New Atheist arguments on topics in physics and mathematics. Three chapters discuss evolution, culture, and the infinite, following which the final chapter summarizes the argument. Throughout, however, Aczel fails to interrogate the other two significant concepts of his book’s title—proof and God—and the results are calamitous for his project.

For Aczel, a mathematician by training, proof appears to be the mathematical notion of proof: a deductive argument from unchallenged premises for a necessary conclusion. It is certainly possible to attempt to offer a proof of the non-existence of God: the familiar conundrum “Can God create a rock so big that He can’t lift it?” is a gesture toward doing so. But such a proof, if successful, reveals that the concept of God is inconsistent; science is neither necessary for nor helpful in its construction. Indeed, it is practically a platitude, even for the New Atheists, that science alone is incapable of constructing such a proof that there is no God—so why write a book arguing for the point?

That Aczel is assuming the mathematician’s notion of proof seems evident from his treatment of Dawkins. In The God Delusion (2006), Dawkins describes his atheism as attributing a non-zero probability to the existence of God: “I cannot know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there.” Insofar as Dawkins’s atheism depends on empirical claims that cannot be known with certainty, this seems like a reasonable claim. Yet Aczel refuses to acknowledge the possibility of a position such as Dawkins’s, instead asking, “Why does the world’s most prominent atheist suddenly hedge?” (p. 13), and not pausing to look for the answer.

Thus Aczel assumes, far too often, that the incompleteness and fallibility of current scientific knowledge—its incapacity to rise to the level of mathematical proof—provide a refuge for God. With regard to the origin of life, for example, he writes, “the question of a beginning of the process of life through a powerful set of commands, something like a primeval piece of computer code, is unavoidable. How is it possible to prove that no outside force created the code?” (p. 168). Perhaps it isn’t; but so what? Worse, Aczel occasionally infers from the mere fact that a hypothesis is not disprovable that it is scientifically “viable” (p. 168), which is ludicrously indefensible.

What about God? Quoting the literary critic James Wood, Aczel suggests, plausibly, that the New Atheism “often seems engaged only in doing battle with scriptural literalism” (p. 20), a position that he acknowledges is thoroughly debunked: “The discoveries of fossils, evolution, geological time, the rotation of the Earth, and other developments in science showed that Scripture should not be taken literally” (p. 93). It is disturbing, though, that even so he insists that Genesis lists the order in which living things are created in a way that is “not in disagreement with evolution” (p. 93). In fact, the Genesis narrative conflicts not only with evolution but with itself: compare Genesis 1 and Genesis 2.

Commendably unwilling to defend scriptural literalism, Aczel is not willing to specify what it is about God that he wants to defend. At times, it seems only the mere label: of the postulated superforce in which the basic four forces were once unified, he intones, “Some might call it God” (p. 103); of the supposed fine-tuning of the universe, he endorses the idea that “something like a miracle” (p. 180) might have been responsible; of the infinite, he urges, “one could say that [it] belongs to God” (p. 231). Indeed, but what explanation or insight would doing so afford, especially in light of Aczel’s admission that “we do not know what God is” (p. 252)?

Why Science Does Not Disprove God
Order the book from Amazon

Why are theologies that attempt to accommodate modern science not discussed in Why Science Does Not Disprove God? In his introduction, Aczel explains that he is not writing from the perspective of any particular faith and that he is not seeking to defend any particular religious institution. But neither restriction would have prevented him from describing a variety of theological positions. Perhaps as a science writer he was uncomfortable doing so. But in any case, his silence in effect implies that there are only two choices: scientific atheism of the sort that he opposes and etiolated, in-name-only, faith—which surely, by his lights, is a counterproductive result.

The ramifications of Aczel’s not examining the concepts of proof and God are not the only irritations of the book. The treatment of evolution is particularly disappointing. Aczel wrongly identifies only natural selection as a mechanism of evolution, ignoring genetic drift, mutation, migration, and less basic mechanisms such as endosymbiosis. He misleadingly describes both Homo erectus and Australopithecus afarensis as a “missing link” between humans and apes, thus reinforcing a host of common misconceptions about human evolution. And, in a passage that creationists will forever quote without regard to its context, he writes, “The theory of evolution has flaws” (p. 201).

What are the flaws of the theory of evolution, in Aczel’s view? In part that it fails to provide complete explanations of various phenomena: the peacock’s tail, altruism, the origin of life, the emergence of eukaryotic cells, consciousness. In part that it is not quantum mechanics: Aczel devotes a table to the comparison, with evolution stigmatized as insufficiently mathematizable, rigorous, predictive, precise, and accurate. These complaints, however, are in mutual tension if not outright contradictory: after all, even if it is conceded that the evolutionary explanation of the peacock’s tail is not complete, quantum mechanics is hardly going to provide any further insight.

Aczel is not convincing about these flaws in any case. While discussing altruism, the evolutionary topic to which he devotes the most space, he dismisses kin selection by asking, “would people die for a sibling more willingly than for a child? Such ‘genetic’ computations seem questionable” (p. 203). In fact, individuals are on average equally genetically similar to their siblings and to their children, so the relevance of his question is unclear. Aczel argues that cases of altruism with regard to strangers are evolutionarily unexplainable, apparently on the mistaken assumption that the biological infrastructure for altruism is bound to influence behavior directly, unmediated by culture.

On physics and mathematics, Aczel’s critique of the New Atheism is often on point. In chapter 7, he dismisses Krauss’s claim in A Universe from Nothing (2012) that physics explains why there is something rather than nothing by noting that the quantum foam from which the universe sprang in Krauss’s view isn’t nothing. In chapter 11, described as “the book’s most important chapter,” he incisively criticizes the anthropic principle as unexplanatory. Elsewhere, he faults Dawkins for relying on a statistical study of the religious beliefs of a prestigious group of scientists that was conducted by e-mail and received only a 23% response, thus establishing nothing of significance.

But there is often a tinge of legerdemain, especially when Aczel appeals to technicalities to establish philosophical results. In chapter 9, he scolds Dawkins for not assuming that the prior probability of God’s existence is 50 percent. He misreads Dawkins there, but he also fails to note that the principle of indifference he invokes is highly contentious. In chapter 14, he rehearses Russell’s paradox, concluding not only that there is no universal set but also that there are disturbing consequences that “hint at our inherent inability to ever know everything about creation” (p. 227). But he overlooks the set theories, such as Quine’s New Foundations, that have no problem with the existence of a universal set.

Skeptic magazine 20.1 (cover)
Order Skeptic magazine 20.1.

When it comes to the history of science, the narrative approach Aczel employs is useful and appealing, although somewhat hackneyed in its use of familiar episodes and anecdotes (including the story of Euler’s algebraic rebuke to Diderot’s atheism, which is definitely apocryphal). But there is sometimes cause to wonder about the depth of his knowledge of the material. Aczel fails to cite literature that would, if anything, bolster his case, especially when he offhandedly dismisses the Middle Ages as a period in which “there were few attempts to pursue science” (pp. 64–65), suggesting his thoroughgoing ignorance of the work of modern historians of medieval science.

Aczel writes clearly and fluently, and the text is occasionally enlivened by his engaging reports of his interviews with sympathetic contemporary scientists. But the value of his book overall is vitiated by not only his sloppiness with the historical, scientific, and philosophical material but also his uncharitable treatment of his opponents. (The worst example of the latter flaw is the offensively inaccurate observation, “I have never heard of an atheist group volunteering to offer comfort to the ill or the distressed” [p. 205], which is somehow the fault of Daniel Dennett.) Anyone seeking a judicious critique of the New Atheism’s claims about religion and science will be disappointed by Aczel’s book. END


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Quantum Leaps

Deepak Chopra in 2006. (Image by Mitchell Aidelbaum, via Wikimedia Commons. Used under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.)

Deepak Chopra in 2006. (Image by Mitchell Aidelbaum, via Wikimedia Commons. Used under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license. Cropped.)

In the Middle Ages scholars drew correspondences between the microcosm (the earth) and the macrocosm (the heavens), finding linkages between bodily organs, earthly minerals, and heavenly bodies that made the entire system interlocking and interdependent. Gold corresponds to the Sun, which corresponds to the Heart. Silver corresponds to the Moon, which corresponds to the Brain. Mercury corresponds to the planet Mercury, which corresponds to the Gonads. The four elements of Earth, Water, Air, and Fire were astrologically coupled to the four humor-based personality traits of melancholic, phlegmatic, sanguine, and choleric.

In March of 2010 Sam Harris and I participated in a debate with Deepak Chopra and Jean Houston at Caltech that was filmed by ABC’s Nightline and viewed by millions (video). Deepak hammered out a series of scientistic-sounding arguments for the existence of a nonlocal spooky-action-at-a-distance quantum force that reminded me of a Middle Ages-inspired correspondence between macrocosm world events and microcosm quantum effects, well captured in the following chart (inspired by my friend and colleague Stephen Beckner):

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Living the Secular Life: New Answers to Old Questions

Dr. Phil Zuckerman

OVER THE LAST 25 YEARS, “no religion” has become the fastest-growing religion in America. Around the world, hundreds of millions of people have turned away from the traditional faiths of the past and embraced a moral yet nonreligious—or secular—life, generating societies vastly less religious than at any other time in human history. Drawing on innovative sociological research, Dr. Zuckerman—a Pitzer College professor who founded a Department of Secular Studies, the first of its kind—illuminates this demographic shift with the moral convictions that govern secular individuals, offering crucial information for the religious and nonreligious alike. Living the Secular Life reveals that, despite opinions to the contrary, nonreligious Americans possess a unique moral code that allows them to effectively navigate the complexities of modern life. Zuckerman discovered that despite the entrenched negative beliefs about nonreligious people, American secular culture is grounded in deep morality and proactive citizenship—indeed, some of the very best that the country has to offer. Order the book from Amazon.

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I Get Mail: Cryptids, Smoke, and Fire

In my role as the Editor of Junior Skeptic (and now INSIGHT) I quite often receive email from media, researchers, and general readers about topics I’ve covered. My schedule does not always allow me to respond in the depth I’d like, but I try to be helpful as often as I can—in keeping with the Skeptics Society‘s mission to inform the public. Today I’d like to share a pleasant exchange with an Abominable Science! reader named Karl, who wrote to ask me the following:

I have been listening to a lot of podcasts dealing with Bigfoot and Dogman and the eyewitness accounts can be compelling. Apparently, these two creatures have been seen all over the U.S. and indeed the world. There is a substantial database of accounts by now.

My question:

Do the skeptics believe that ALL of those accounts are attributable to hoaxing or mistaken identity? And if not, what are these people actually seeing?

It seems unlikely to me that ALL of these seemingly sober and earnest people, whose accounts can be vividly detailed, are either lying or mistaken in what they saw and experienced.

Here is my lightly edited reply:

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eSkeptic for April 15, 2015



WATCH DR. PHIL ZUCKERMAN’S LECTURE FOR FREE, BROADCAST LIVE FROM CALTECH, THIS SUNDAY @2pm

Living the Secular Life: New Answers to Old Questions

Sun., Apr. 19, 2015 at 2 pm (PST)
Baxter Hall, Caltech

OVER THE LAST 25 YEARS, “no religion” has become the fastest-growing religion in America. Around the world, hundreds of millions of people have turned away from the traditional faiths of the past and embraced a moral yet nonreligious—or secular—life, generating societies vastly less religious than at any other time in human history. Drawing on innovative sociological research, Dr. Zuckerman—a Pitzer College professor who founded a Department of Secular Studies, the first of its kind—illuminates this demographic shift with the moral convictions that govern secular individuals, offering crucial information for the religious and nonreligious alike. Living the Secular Life reveals that, despite opinions to the contrary, nonreligious Americans possess a unique moral code that allows them to effectively navigate the complexities of modern life. Zuckerman discovered that despite the entrenched negative beliefs about nonreligious people, American secular culture is grounded in deep morality and proactive citizenship—indeed, some of the very best that the country has to offer.

A book signing will follow the lecture. We will have copies of the book, Living the Secular Life: New Answers to Old Questions, available for purchase. Can’t attend the lecture? Order Living the Secular Life online.

TICKETS are available first come, first served at the door. Seating is limited. $10 for Skeptics Society members and the JPL/Caltech community, $15 for nonmembers. Your admission fee is a donation that pays for our lecture expenses.

Watch Live on Sunday

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MonsterTalk # 97
Shame on the Lizard People

Is the world secretly being controlled by a dark, shadowy cabal? Are many of the world’s leaders actually blood-drinking, child-abusing lizard people? No, they aren’t. But in this episode of MonsterTalk we talk with Jon Ronson about his experiences with conspiracy theorist David Icke.


Donald Prothero
The Eruption that Created Frankenstein

Donald Prothero considers the 200th anniversary of a momentous event in geology, and in human affairs: the eruption of Mount Tambora.

Read the Insight


About this week’s eSkeptic

In this week’s eSkeptic, John E. Buckner V and Rebecca A. Buckner discuss compartmentalization and conformity as possible socio-psychological mechanisms that might explain how individuals, through education, can decrease their paranormal/supernatural beliefs without improving their critical thinking skills. This commentary is a response to McCaffree and Saide’s article, “Why is Critical Thinking So Hard to Teach?” published in eSkeptic a few week’s ago and in Skeptic magazine 19.4 (2014).

John Buckner is currently an applied-psychologist focused on individual assessment and employee selection, and an adjunct faculty member teaching Psychology. He received his Ph.D. in Industrial and Organizational (I-O) Psychology from Louisiana Tech University and Master’s in I-O Psychology from Saint Cloud State University. He has published research on emotions, health, personality, and technology use at work.

Rebecca Anders Buckner is currently an applied-psychologist in the field of learning and development. She received a Master’s of Arts in Industrial and Organizational Psychology from the University of Detroit Mercy. She enjoys researching, writing, and presenting her work about skepticism and psychology.

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Commentary on “Why is Critical Thinking so Hard to Teach?”

by John E. Buckner V & Rebecca A. Buckner

We really enjoyed our read of the recent Skeptic article “Why is Critical Thinking so Hard to Teach?” by Kevin McCaffree and Anondah Saide (published in Skeptic 19.4 and presented in eSkeptic for Wednesday, March 25th, 2015). In it, the authors presented their meta-analysis of studies on critical thinking courses. They found purported paranormal beliefs decrease after participating in a critical thinking course, though critical thinking skills do not necessarily improve. This left the reader questioning, “Why did paranormal beliefs decrease across these studies without an increase in critical thinking?”

Answering this question, McCaffree and Saide argued that critical thinking is not strictly a cognitive issue (we agree) and suggested that social mechanisms help explain how individuals can change their purported beliefs without increasing their critical thinking. Specifically, the authors outlined how tribal identity and a desire for social inclusion can cause individuals to:

  1. experience discomfort when their views are challenged, disengage from the course content, and report the expected belief change without much thought in order to ease their discomfort,
  2. fear group exclusion or punishment in rigid or hierarchical settings (e.g., a classroom or “workshop”) and report a belief change—perhaps real but emotionally motivated—in order to “fit in”, or
  3. defer to an authority figure’s supposed belief out of generalized trust or a presumption the authority knows more or is more capable.

The article struck a chord with us and we could not resist offering a few unsolicited comments. It was encouraging to see attention paid to teaching critical thinking skills and we felt the data presented were somewhat promising. This also triggered some thoughts about other possible mechanisms that could explain their findings. Two came to mind, compartmentalization and conformity.

Compartmentalization of thought refers to keeping one’s incompatible ideas and beliefs internally separated so they might continue to coexist. Compartmentalized thinking is a way for individuals to avoid cognitive dissonance, that uncomfortable feeling that occurs when confronted with conflicting information about one’s deeply held beliefs. As McCaffree and Saide mention, this discomfort can be resolved by disengaging from thinking critically about content and instead apathetically reporting a change in paranormal belief. Cognitive dissonance can also be resolved by an authentic belief change where one adopts a new belief or alters their existing belief to be consistent with new information.

Where does compartmentalization fit in here? It is possible that individuals join courses with compartmentalized beliefs, which they then learn to scrutinize. That is, critical thinking courses might focus individuals on their ‘compartments’ causing them to burst their own metaphorical bubbles. Framing the issue this way, individuals may be using their critical thinking skills within certain ‘compartments’ of ideas and beliefs, but not applying them to all of the paranormal beliefs they hold. The critical thinking courses, then, might be focusing individuals’ application of their critical thinking skills rather than building their skills per se. If individuals are able to generalize this ability (and motivation) to apply their level of critical thinking skill more broadly, the positive impact of critical thinking courses could be long-lasting.

Conformity to social pressure was discussed by McCaffree and Saide in several respects, namely that individuals are often motivated to avoid social stigma, punishment, and exclusion and that their desire to “fit in” might cause them to yield to the group or a perceived authority. Thus, social pressure can force conformity and lead to belief change, real or feigned.

This pressure to conform might also operate in another fashion in the classroom. If we consider a larger social group—the University or a region of the U.S.—which is likely to believe in at least some paranormal phenomenon, the sub-culture formed within the course may actually be non-conforming. As the critical thinking sub-group forms its norms, the rules and expectations the group has about how openly they can share or contest ideas, individuals might genuinely feel safe to challenge and abandon ideas and beliefs which are more widely accepted. Through this lens, the course professor may be acting as the “first” dissenter who breaks the expectation of social conformity in the broader sense making students feel accepted for using their critical thinking skills.1 Although some students might respond to this social pressure by conforming to the “new rules” of the course for emotional reasons, others may react to this as an opportunity to “come out” and recognize, “oh, it is okay for me to question these things.” In fact, it seems probable that at least some students would seek out that opportunity.

Naturally, there are many other relevant explanatory mechanisms that could influence the findings regarding critical thinking and paranormal belief pre- and post-course. For instance, those taking part in a critical thinking course could self-select in for a variety of reasons. The various course titles themselves might attract different types of individuals with different motivations. That is, the student drawn to “Parapsychology” or “Paranormal Phenomena” might be quite different from the student drawn to “Science & Pseudoscience” or “Psychology of Critical Thinking”. Related to this, students might come into a course with above-average critical thinking skills, and therefore may hit a “ceiling” for how much they can improve.

magv19n4-cover-400px

Order Skeptic magazine 19.4. This issue is available digitally in the Skeptic magazine App, and is sold out in print format.

Overall, McCaffree and Saide’s study was thought-provoking and we wanted to reinforce that the explanatory mechanisms they proposed—among others—merit further investigation by the skeptical community. The questions “what are the mechanisms influencing the growth and application of critical thinking skills?”, “how can we use these mechanisms to create positive change?”, and “are these changes short-lived or long-lasting?” still need to be answered. Those teaching courses on critical thinking are particularly well positioned to help. By employing a pre- and post-course survey design in the classroom more data can be accumulated for future meta-analyses. This could serve to identify drivers of the purported changes in belief and direct us toward even more effective strategies for helping people to grow and apply their critical thinking skills. END

Reference
  1. Psychological experiments have shown that individuals are more likely to non-conform once others have challenged the status quo; consider for example Asch’s line studies and Milgram’s obedience experiments.
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The Eruption that Created Frankenstein

The year 1815 was an important one in history. On January 8, the Battle of New Orleans ended the War of 1812—even though it was fought AFTER the treaty ending the war had already been signed in 1814. (Communications across the Atlantic were very slow in those days.) In February, Napoleon Bonaparte escaped from exile on the isle of Elba, raised another huge French army, took control of France, and ruled for 100 days. Then he was defeated at the Battle of Waterloo on June 18, and ended up in his final place of exile on the remote Atlantic island of Saint Helena, where he passed the remainder of his days. Soon the French throne returned to the royal family with the rule of Louis XVIII. Less known at the time was the publication of the first geologic map by the humble canal engineer, William Smith, which has been called “the map that changed the world.”

April 10 was also the 200th anniversary of a momentous event in geology, and in human affairs: the eruption of Mount Tambora. It is the largest volcanic eruption in recorded human history, much bigger than the enormous eruption of Mt. Krakatau in 1883, or the much smaller eruptions of Mt. Saint Helens in 1980 or Mt. Vesuvius in 71 A.D. Mt. Tambora is on the island of Sumbawa, in the Indonesian Archipelago, east of Java. Indonesia is home to hundreds of active volcanoes. (Krakatau is west of Java, in the Sunda Strait between Java and Sumatra). There was an even larger eruption of Mt. Toba in northern Sumatra 71,000 years ago, which  nearly wiped out humans on this planet, but there are no historical records of this ancient event.

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eSkeptic for April 8, 2015


July 14–31, 2016

Join us in the summer of 2016 for a once-in-a-lifetime 17-day tour of Great Britain

Led by geologist/paleontologist/author Dr. Donald Prothero, we will explore the geology and natural history of Great Britain from the White Cliffs to the North Sea coast of Scotland. Our tour will focus on sites of scientific and skeptical interest, including famous fossil beds and geologic sites, behind-the-scenes tours of natural history museums, historic places associated with scientists such Charles Darwin, A.R. Wallace, Isaac Newton, geologist James Hutton, and skeptic philosopher David Hume, plus a boat tour of Loch Ness, a visit to Stonehenge, tours of a Cornish tin mine and a Welsh coal mine and slate quarry, guided tours of London and Edinburgh, as well as visits to castles, battlefields, and other fascinating places. Also coming on the trip and lecturing on the history of science and evolutionary theory, especially Darwin and Wallace, is Dr. Michael Shermer.

Click an image to enlarge it.
Cliffs at Lands End, Cornwall
Edinburgh Castle on Castle Rock at sunset
Big Ben and Westminster Bridge
Stonehenge at sunset
White Cliffs of Dover
Ruins of Urquhart Castle near Loch Ness
Roman Baths at Avon
Lumley Castle Elizabethan Banquet Room
London Eye Ferris Wheel on the River Thames
Llechwedd Caverns, illuminated (photo https://www.flickr.com/photos/mjtmail/2939321255/ by mjtmail, https://www.flickr.com/photos/mjtmail/ used under CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Download a tour map

Itinerary
Thursday, July 14
Arrive in London. Welcoming reception at our hotel.
Friday, July 15
Morning behind-the-scenes tour of the Natural History Museum; afternoon free to explore London
Saturday, July 16
Full-day guided tour of London, including walking tours of Westminster Abbey and the Tower of London
Sunday, July 17
Kent and Sussex: tour of Darwin’s house in Downe, Sydenham dinosaurs and site of first dinosaur discovery, White Cliffs and English coast
Monday, July 18
Tours of Cambridge University (Sedgwick Museum, Cavendish lab) and Oxford University (Natural History Museum)
Tuesday, July 19
Dorset and Devonshire: Stonehenge; the Fossil Coast at Lyme Regis; tour of ammonite beds at low tide; historic Plymouth
Wednesday, July 20
Cornwall: Land’s End, the Cornish tin mines, and ancient oceanic crust at Coverack Beach
Thursday, July 21
Bath and Wales: the Roman Baths; the birthplace of stratigraphy; southern Welsh Coast (Cardiff and Swansea); overnight at Aberavon Beach Hotel
Friday, July 22
Southern Wales and Shropshire: over the Breton Beacons to Blaenavon coal mine; Darwin’s birthplace at Shrewsbury; Chester Roman amphitheatre
Saturday, July 23
Northern Wales: the Snowdonia Mountains and Llechwedd Caverns slate quarry; geologic sites on the Anglesey Peninsula
Sunday, July 24
North to Scotland, via Grantham (Isaac Newton’s home, Woolsthorpe Manor); overnight at Lumley Castle, Durham (Elizabethan banquet dinner)
Monday, July 25
Scottish Lowlands: Hadrian’s Wall and Housteads Roman fort; Hutton’s unconformities at Jedburgh and Siccar Point
Tuesday, July 26
Edinburgh: Tour of Edinburgh Castle and the Royal Mile; Our Dynamic Earth Museum; Hutton’s section at Salisbury Craigs and Arthur’s Seat volcano
Wednesday, July 27
Full day free to explore Edinburgh
Thursday, July 28
Stirling Castle and Doune Castle; Bannockburn battlefield; Falkirk Wheel
Friday, July 29
Scottish Highlands: over the Cairngorms to Elgin Museum; Culloden Battlefield and Inverness
Saturday, July 30
Scottish Highlands: Loch Ness cruise; Fort William; Glencoe and the Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond; ending in Glasgow. Farewell dinner
Sunday, July 31
Fly home from Glasgow
Pricing
  1. DOUBLE OCCUPANCY: £3439 per person
    (ground tour only; in pounds sterling), which comes to about $300 a day in $US.
  2. SINGLE OCCUPANCY: £3984 per person
    (ground tour only, in pounds sterling).

This is cheaper than, or comparable to trips of similar length and distance offered by most tour companies.

What’s Included?

The price includes 17 nights’ lodging (including one night in a historic castle and another at a beach resort), all breakfasts, 9 lunches, and a few dinners (including an Elizabethan Banquet at the castle), motorcoach transport and tour guides, guidebook, and all admission fees.

You must book your round-trip airfare to the UK separately from your own point of origin, but our travel agent, Dreammaker Travel, Inc., will get you the best possible price.

Hurry! This trip is unique and never to be repeated. Book now, because space is very limited! There are only 35 seats!

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Donald Prothero
Stranger Than Fiction: A Review of the HBO documentary, Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief

Donald Prothero reviews an explosive new documentary film about the controversial Church of Scientology.

Read the Insight

Donald Prothero
Loch Ness Silliness

Donald Prothero expresses exasperation at press linking Nessie to a small armored fish which vanished into extinction 160 million years before dinosaurs evolved.

Read the Insight


A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia
SKEPTICALITY EPISODE 251

In this episode of Skepticality, Derek interviews Laura Miller, one of the original co-founders of the popular online site Salon.com about her first book, The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia. The book is a personal story about her experience re-reading her favorite series of books, The Chronicles of Narnia, uncovering the meanings embedded in them by C.S. Lewis, and realizing how one can still find immense joy in books, even when one does not agree with some of the messages contained with them.

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About this week’s eSkeptic
The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom (book over)

Visit the Moral Arc website for more information about the book, or click one of the following to order the book right now from Amazon, Shop Skeptic, Barnes & Noble, iTunes, iBooks, Kobo, and IndieBound.

Shortly after the publication of Michael Shermer’s book The Moral Arc , Marc Hauser—the evolutionary biologist and author of Moral Minds and Evilicious, important books on the evolutionary origins and development of our moral faculty—wrote to Shermer to express his appreciation of his book and to voice a challenge to Shermer’s claim that science can determine human values, tell us right from wrong, and adjudicate moral dilemmas. Hauser’s point was well made and represents the majority view among scientists and philosophers that there is an unbridgeable barrier between Is and Ought, between the way something is and the way something ought to be. Shermer considers this an important topic and devoted a portion of the first chapter of The Moral Arc to it. Shermer thought it might be instructive if he and Marc had a dialogue about it that we would publish online for readers to comment on and contribute to in order to advance the subject through the process Karl Popper called “conjecture and refutation,” one of the key elements to the scientific method.

This piece was also published today on Shermer’s Moral Progress Blog under the same title.

Dr. Michael Shermer is the Publisher of Skeptic magazine, a monthly columnist for Scientific American, a Presidential Fellow at Chapman University, and the author of The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom. His previous books include: The Believing Brain, Why People Believe Weird Things, Why Darwin Matters, The Mind of the Market, How We Believe, and The Science of Good and Evil.

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Can Science Determine Moral Values?
A challenge from and dialogue with Marc Hauser about The Moral Arc

by Michael Shermer

Moral Minds (book cover) Evilicious (book cover)

Marc Hauser: The Moral Arc (TMA) is a tour de force, a celebration of our moral progress, and an inspiration for times when we see the world as dark and dangerous. But as in any tour de force, there are sections that are controversial and others that seem to provide less than the explanatory adequacy championed. I want to take up the latter, focusing in particular on the fundamental thesis that runs throughout the book, articulated succinctly on page 3 of the Prologue:

… we can trace the moral arc through science with data from many different lines of inquiry, all of which demonstrate that in general, as a species, we are becoming increasingly moral. As well, I argue that most of the moral development of the past several centuries has been the result of secular not religious forces, and that the most important of these that emerged from the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment are science and reason, terms that I use in the broadest sense to mean reasoning through a series of arguments and then confirming the conclusions are true through empirical verification.

Moral Tribes (book cover)

In brief, though I fully agree that reasoning by means of careful argumentation has and will continue to serve us well on our path to moral progress, I disagree that science and scientific evidence will settle or even help settle many of the moral challenges we face as individuals and as a species. As should be clear from the empirical work that I and many of my students and collaborators have carried out on the nature of moral judgments (see, for example, Joshua Greene’s book Moral Tribes)

I fully support scientific inquiry into morality. But I don’t believe that this work will settle key moral problems; rather, it will illuminate the nature of our moral instincts, together with the role that cultures may play in bending both our judgments and our actions. In fact, as I see it, some of the primary challenges to your thesis come from the moral dilemmas and scenarios that have been used in the scientific work of late, and that you discuss in TMA. Let me begin, therefore, close to where you begin in the book, with the famous trolley problem.

The moral philosopher Philippa Foot first introduced the trolley problem in a paper focused on abortion and the doctrine of double effect. Fantasy dilemmas such as the trolley problem are introduced in philosophy to help us think through central moral issues in the absence of our real world connection to the problem. Thus, instead of wrestling with abortion per se, Foot wrestled with the reasons why we might or might not consider the means by which we carry out an action as more or less significant than the consequences of such actions; this distinction maps on, to a first approximation, to difference between deontological as opposed to utilitarian perspectives.

The original trolley problem asks us to consider whether the driver of a runaway (no brakes) trolley should allow it to continue down the track where it will run over and kill 5 workers or steer it onto a sidetrack where it will kill 1 worker. If one focuses on consequences, the answer is easy: turn the trolley, killing 1 worker but saving the lives of 5. But there are other considerations, including: the 1 worker on the side track is safe, so by turning the trolley, the driver is deciding that his life is less valuable than any single individual on the main track; the driver doesn’t intend to kill the 1, rather, he intends to save the 5, so the 1 worker’s death is a byproduct or side-effect; and so on.

trolley problem

In response to Foot’s case, the moral philosophers Judith Thomson and Frances Kamm spun off a railroad station’s worth of cases, all designed to disentangle the factors that might be in play when we are faced with competing moral outcomes. One of the most vivid spinoffs considered the case where a runaway trolley is empty, but a bystander is standing on the side of the track next to a very heavy man. If the bystander pushes this man onto the track, his weight will stop the trolley from advancing and killing the 5 workmen, but this man will of course die. Here, though the numbers are the same as in Foot’s case – 1 vs 5 – many of us feel a substantial difference. In particular, though the consequences seem to dominate our decision-making in the original case, the means seem to dominate our decision-making in this second case: though we may feel that turning the trolley makes good moral sense in the first case, pushing the man seems morally wrong in the second case.

Much has been discussed about these cases, and many others like them (see below). But the conclusions that have been drawn, including connections to applied issues such as abortion and euthanasia (see below) derive from careful deliberation, reflection and philosophical expertise, not scientific evidence. Where science has played a role-including some of my own work, as well as the contributions of John Mikhail, Joshua Greene, and some of the remarkable students I have had the privilege to work with (Fiery Cushman, Liane Young)-is in revealing how different factors influence people’s judgments. Consider one example, one that is highly relevant to a number of issues raised in TMA. Based on responses from thousands of subjects, judging hundreds of different dilemmas (Hauser et al., 2007; Banerjee et al, 2010), judgments about right or wrong were not influenced by gender, education, political affiliation or religious background, including a contrast between atheists and all those with some kind of religious background. This kind of evidence is of interest in terms of our understanding of the factors that may or may not guide moral judgments, but they don’t enable us to decide whether we should punish those who push the heavy man or reward them because they have contributed to greater human flourishing! The debate between deontological and utilitarian reasoning rages on, and science won’t decide which wins the day.

Consider next a different set or class of moral situations: active vs. passive euthanasia and incest. Each of these issues have fascinated philosophers and scientists, and much progress has been made in thinking about them. But none of the scientific evidence provides the means for deciding which position is the more morally progressive view, or is more likely to lead to human flourishing.

Euthanasia

In many countries, including the United States, it is legally permissible to allow someone who is in pain and suffering from an incurable disease to die (passive euthanasia), but legally forbidden to cause this person to die through lethal injection (active euthanasia). Countries that allow both active and passive euthanasia, such as the Netherlands, have taken this route because of careful reasoning, including arguments from philosophers. Scientific evidence didn’t push the Netherlands in this direction, though there is scientific evidence from some of my own work (Hauser et al., 2009) comparing how Dutch and American subjects judge the moral permissibility of actions as opposed to omissions in unfamiliar cases. Interestingly, the results show that although the Dutch have explicitly decided to endorse both the action of ending someone’s life and the omission of allowing someone to die, like Americans, they see actions as morally worse than omissions when the scenarios are unfamiliar. This is interesting with respect to the nature of our moral judgments, and the relative immunity of this system to cultural influences, but it doesn’t tell us whether the Americans are backwards or progressive in terms of the legality of euthanasia.

Incest

Scientists such as Jonathan Haidt have carried out terrific work showing how the emotion of disgust plays a role in guiding our moral judgments, including cases of incest. In his most famous case, when you tell people about a brother and sister who decide to have protected intercourse and keep it a secret, many find this morally wrong and definitely yucky, despite the fact that it is protected sex and thus, without reproductive consequences! But the fact that you might find incest disgusting and morally wrong, whereas someone else may not, doesn’t tell us whose view is morally superior, preferred, or more likely to lead to human flourishing. In fact, given that incest among relatively distant relatives, such as second cousins, is unlikely to lead to negative consequences for the developing fetus, one might argue that we should support those who are more tolerant of incest. And tell others to just get over their disgust!

In sum, scientific evidence provides increasingly interesting information on the nature of our moral judgments and actions, including a wealth of evidence that extends from genes to behavior. But most of this work plays no role in shaping the moral conversation. Scientific evidence can illuminate how human nature and nurture shape our moral judgments to these cases, but will not provide the ballast for adjudicating between arguments.

Michael Shermer:

Thank you for taking the time to read my book carefully Marc, and for articulating so clearly what most scientists and philosophers believe about the wall separating science and values.

First, I conjecture that it is “science and reason”-not just “science” in the narrow sense of running experiments in a lab and collecting data—that have been the major drivers of moral progress because they can and have determined moral values. (I reject the “philosophy is dead” notion recently proffered by a few popular scientists, because the philosophical tradition of reason and logic underlies all of science, and scientists use reason when deducing general principles from specific observations.) Ever since the Scientific Revolution, when scientists such as Bacon, Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Harvey, and Newton discovered that the world is governed by natural laws and principles that can be revealed, understood, and used to make predictions and test hypotheses, thinkers in other fields during the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment sought to understand the laws and principles that govern political, economic, legal, social, and moral systems, which they then used to make predictions and test hypotheses about how best we should live. Thomas Hobbes, Charles Montesquieu, Cesare Beccaria, John Locke, Jeremy Bentham, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, Immanuel Kant, François Quesnay, David Hume, Adam Smith, and others were all, in my reckoning, scientists who employed the best empirical and rational tools of their age. The term “scientist” didn’t exist then, so they are often referred to as philosophers or natural philosophers, but whatever terms we use my point is that they placed supreme value on reason and scientific inquiry, from which they discovered or derived such concepts as human natural rights, equal treatment under the law, individual autonomy, freedom of thought and expression, and other principles related to equality and liberty, on top of which they built a diverse, cosmopolitan worldview of Enlightenment Humanism.

Hobbes’s Leviathan, considered the most influential political treatise ever written, begins with atoms in motion and builds on observations and first principles to devise a rational- and empirical-based social system (he called himself the Galileo of civil society). In his book Esprit des Lois (The Spirit of the Laws), Montesquieu invoked Newton when he compared a well-functioning government to “the system of the universe” that includes “a power of gravitation” that “attracts” all bodies to “the center” (the monarch), and he employed the deductive method of Descartes: “I have laid down first principles and have found that the particular cases follow naturally from them.” By “spirit” Montesquieu meant “causes” from which one could derive “laws” that govern society. “Laws in their most general signification, are the necessary relations derived from the nature of things,” he wrote. Quesnay—physician to the King of France—and his followers (the French physiocrats) undertook a systematic study of the economy from which they gathered empirical evidence and derived rational principles that underlie how economies grow or shrink as a function of government policies (and from where the French term laissez faire—“leave alone”—comes). This led to the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher Adam Smith to compose the founding text of economic science, which everyone knows as The Wealth of Nations. Its full title, in fact, is An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. It is a scientific inquiry to discover the true nature and causes of wealth, straight out of the tradition of the scientific revolution.

Wealth Of Nations

So historically, we have already been using science to determine such moral values as the best way to structure a polity, an economy, a legal system, and a civil society, in the same way that physicians have developed improved medical science and epidemiologists have worked to build better public health science in order attenuate plagues, disease, and other scourges of humanity. If you agree that it is better that millions of people no longer die of yellow fever and smallpox, cholera and bronchitis, dysentery and diarrhea, consumption and tuberculosis, measles and mumps, gangrene and gastritis, and many other assaults on the human body, then you have offered your assent that the way somethingis(diseases such as yellow fever and smallpox kill people) means weoughtto prevent it through vaccinations and other medical and public health technologies. Analogously, if you agree that millions of lives have been saved over the past couple of centuries by a reduction in violence (war, torture, homicides, etc.) due to improved understanding of causality in these areas and the application of appropriate policies based on those causes, then you might well concur that applying the methods of the social sciences to further attenuating war, crime, and violence is also something we ought to do.

Why are these science-based policies morally good? Because they lead to the survival and flourishing of sentient beings, which is a moral starting point grounded in evolutionary biology. By survivalI mean the instinct to live, and byflourishingI mean having adequate sustenance, safety, shelter, bonding, and social relations for physical and mental health. I claim that any organism subject to natural selection will by necessity have this drive to survive and flourish. If it didn’t, it would not live long enough to reproduce and would no longer be subject to natural selection. BysentientI meanemotive, perceptive, sensitive, responsive, conscious,and therefore able to feel and to suffer.

Finally, to your point about utilitarianism and the trolley dilemma, by the “moral arc” of progress I mean an improvement in the survival and flourishing ofindividualsentient beings. I emphasize the individual (the 1 worker on the track) over the collective (the 5 workers on the track) for four reasons: (1) Natural selection operates on individual organisms, not groups. (2) It is the individual who survives and flourishes or who suffers and dies, not the group, tribe, race, gender, state, nation, empire, or society. Individual sentient beings perceive, emote, respond, love, feel, and suffer, not populations, races, genders, groups, or nations. (3) Historically, immoral abuses have been most rampant, and body counts have run the highest, when the individual is sacrificed for the good of the group. The utilitarian calculus that it is permissible to kill 1 to save 5 is too easy to ratchet up to kill 1 million to save 5 million, and that is the basis of genocide and why utilitarianism fails in certain real-world situations (as opposed to hypothetical moral dilemmas), and therefore… (4) The rights revolutions of the past two centuries have focused almost entirely on the freedom and autonomy of individuals, not collectives—on the rights ofpersons, not groups. Individuals vote, not races or genders. Individuals want to be treated equally, not races. Rights protect individuals, not groups; in fact, most rights (such as those enumerated in the Bill of Rights) protect individuals from being discriminated against as members of a group, such as by race, creed, color, gender, or—soon—sexual orientation and gender preference.

Legal systems have evolved to follow this line of reasoning and historical development. Analogous to the trolley problem, if a surgeon has 1 healthy person in her waiting room and 5 patients in operating rooms each dying of an organ failure that the harvesting of the 1 will save the 5, if she were to carry out the surgeries resulting in the death of the 1 healthy person to save the 5, she would go to jail for murder. The moral arc has bent, in part, because our legal system has followed our intuition that the intentional harm or murder of an individual against their will feels wrong, and your own research confirms that most people would not push 1 man off a bridge onto the track to stop the trolley from killing 5 workers. Natural rights theory trumps utilitarianism based on my moral starting point of the survival and flourishing of individual sentient beings.

As for your real-world examples, euthanasia is resolvable by natural rights theory (which I consider to be science-based): as long as the individual consents to allowing herself to die or instructs someone to initiate an assisted suicide (here videotaped consent should be mandatory to prevent abuse of the law), it is morally acceptable regardless of whether or not it leads to the greatest good for the greatest number. Incest, in part, follows natural rights theory because the incest taboo, which anthropologists have shown is a human universal, was selected for because of the genetic harm from too much inbreeding, and from modern psychological research showing that incestuous relationships between, for example, fathers and daughters, can be severely damaging to the child. Of course, if you alter the conditions such that the incestuous relationship is consensual, between distant cousins, and does no one harm, then it may be considered morally acceptable. But here the problem is that the exceptions are mostly in the realm of philosophical thought experiments designed to nudge our intuitions to come into conflict with our reasoning. In conclusion, science and reason can and have helped us determine moral values.

Marc Hauser:

I started off my comments by noting a distinction between reason and scientific evidence.I specifically said that reason, rational discourse, etc., has been essential to moving our discussions of morality. I also noted that science has informed important aspects of how humans judge moral situations and how we act, and what can lead to universality as opposed to cross-cultural variation; the latter can be important as knowing human biases can inform policies, as Kaplow and Shavell have argued in their legal treatise comparing fairness as opposed to individual welfare discussions.My worry is that I don’t feel as though you engaged with the core part of my comment which is that scientific evidence can’t adjudicate between different moral perspectives when different moral perspectives have validity on their own. In other words, if you are a utilitarian you put more weight on consequences than means, and if you take on a deontological perspective, you see the means as more important than the consequences; you see the world through a lens of well reasoned “reasons.” So reasoning yes.But the key part of the quote from your book is that we determine that our moral “conclusions are true through empirical verification.” But evidence wouldn’t convert a utilitarian over to the dark side of deontology, and vice versa.A good counter-example would convert some, especially if it led to a slippery slope dragging in other cases.So it is not that I reject reasoning, and it is not that I reject the role of science in some cases. For example, if you can show that a vaccine saves thousands of lives-the evidence-then it should be possible to argue based on this that people ought to take the vaccine. And yet, even here, if your culture promotes a perspective of using only traditional medicine, as opposed to artificial chemicals, but you do so knowing the risks, could we mandate this as policy?But toward the end of your commentaries, when you engage in my cases, your response is couched in terms of good reasons, but not in terms of evidence from scientific observations and experiments that could adjudicate between the options. A smart open minded utilitarian could be convinced to change as a function of a good logical argument, but if you showed him evidence that, say, significantly more people consider the means over the consequences, I doubt this would have any impact. I raise this latter point, because this is precisely the response I received from many distinguished philosophers in response to my empirical work. In fact, Frances Kamm, the distinguished Harvard ethicist told me in a seminar on my work that she didn’t really care if 5 million people voiced a different judgment from her own on a particular trolley problem, because her own reasons were principled and considered in the context of a broader view of right and wrong. In brief, the evidence was irrelevant.

The challenge, in brief, is for you to point to work in either your book, or elsewhere, or even in principle, that could flip things around.This is the challenge that I posed to Sam Harris as he was writing his book, and I don’t feel that it has been addressed.

Michael Shermer:
The Moral Landscape (book cover)

I think a lot of moral thought experiments along the lines of the trolley problem, or the “lifeboat ethics” dilemmas given to students to suss out the various moral problems inherent in any ethical system, may not be ultimately resolvable through science, in the sense you are using the term to mean empirical evidence.To come at this in a slightly different manner, given the diversity of human interests and moral foundations it may be that there are, as Sam Harris articulated it in his book The Moral Landscape, “multiple peaks on the moral landscape.” For example, in my public debates with John Lott over gun control (he wants almost none and I want some), it became clear to me that there are a lot of Americans who simply don’t care how many people die from gun violence each year (tens of thousands), they cherish their freedom to own a gun over the carnage that piles up as a result. What a science-and-reason based society has done is allow us to establish a system that can be changed in response to these differing values so that there are multiple peaks from which to choose. Science may help you choose which one is best for you, and science may help society design its moral systems to be as optimal as possible for these differing peaks.

Marc Hauser:

I think the core issue, or difference between us, boils down to this. I think your sense of science, and what it can contribute, boils down to reason, even though you explicitly stated that from reason we decide with “empirical verification.” For me the challenge has always been whether science, in terms of evidence, experiments, observations, and modeling can decide between competing moral views in the hard cases we have been discussing.I don’t think it can, and so far, you haven’t provided any cases where it has, or walked through some plausible scenarios for how it might. When philosophers get in your grill, or Sam’s, or mine and Josh Greene, it is about the strong version of the claim: science and its evidence, not the role of reason. Sam’s multiple peaks don’t help. Sure there are multiple peaks, and this is what philosophers and other great minds have considered for a long time.I don’t think that is new.

If, as you say, it is about how individuals decide what is best for them, then we are not in the game of morality but about individual choice.If individuals within a society recognize the significance of a finding, and decide to follow its implications, then that would be different. But if I decide for myself what pieces of evidence are worth picking and what pieces I can ignore, and I base my morality on such selective picking, we won’t have a system of morality that can operate with others.

Now, imagine that we find scientific evidence that determines, without doubt, that some animals not only feel pain, but can think about their future selves, understand what it is like for another to feel pain, and act on the basis of it. They have, in essence, some of the critical ingredients of sentience as well as moral agency (as opposed to moral patience).I understand this evidence and I decide that since these animals are like my children, I can neither support eating them nor carrying out experiments. You, on the other hand, also understand this evidence, but decide that it is irrelevant to your moral decisions because they are not humans.In essence, you decide that humans have the moral right to control other animals, including hunting them and using them, because the core issue is our well being.Someone else decides that the evidence is important, but insufficient. That for another species to count as a moral agent, they would need to understand, or at least come to understand (as in human babies) the moral issues in play.The evidence can’t decide who is morally right because there are different standards.Three peaks? If so, fine, but science isn’t going to adjudicate.

So, I guess it boils down to this for me.If the moral arc is guided by reason, as opposed to gut feelings and appeal to the supernatural, I am totally on board, and I can’t imagine a philosopher on the planet who wouldn’t be.On the other hand, if you want to take the stronger position that all aspects of the moral arc have been and will be guided by scientific evidence, of the kind that biologists, chemists, physicists, etc., collect in their daily lives, then I don’t think you have shown this, either in terms of prior work or in principle work.

Michael Shermer:

Perhaps not all aspects of the moral arc have been bent by science. But what has happened is that in the same way that Galileo and Newton discovered physical laws and principles about the natural world that really are out there, so too have social scientists discovered moral laws and principles about human nature and society that really do exist. Just as it was inevitable that Kepler would discover that planets have elliptical orbits-given that he was making accurate astronomical measurements, and given that planets really do travel in elliptical orbits, he could not have discovered anything else-scientists studying political, economic, social, and moral subjects will discover certain things that are true in these realms. For example, that democracies are better than autocracies, that market economies are superior to command economies, that slaves don’t like being enslaved and oppressed, that torture and the death penalty do not curb crime, that burning women as witches is a fallacious idea, that Jews did not cause the Black Death, that blacks are not intellectually inferior to whites, or that women are not too weak and emotional to run companies or countries.

My view is that ever since the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment the idea that individual sentient beings have natural rights has outcompeted other ideas that place the group, tribe, nation, race, gender, or religion above the rights of the individual. These rights have expanded around the globe because individual sentient beings want them, and they want them because it is part of their nature to want them-it is instinctive-and a proper scientific understanding of human nature has revealed this fact. Knowing that, we then have a moral obligation to expand those rights where we can, and to help people whose rights are being violated.

Jonathan Haidt’s six moral foundations (described in his book The Righteous Mind) are an interesting test case because, as he argues, they are part of our nature, evolved features of our minds as social primates.

the_Righteous_Mind
  1. Liberty/oppression, related to our desire for freedom and autonomy and our resentment of bullies and oppressors who try to restrict our liberty.
  2. Harm/care, related to our long evolution as mammals with attachment systems and an ability to feel (and dislike) the pain of others. This foundation underlies virtues of kindness, gentleness, and nurturance.
  3. Fairness/reciprocity, related to the evolutionary process of reciprocal altruism. This foundation generates ideas of justice, rights, and autonomy.
  4. In-group/loyalty, related to our long history as tribal creatures able to form shifting coalitions. This foundation underlies virtues of patriotism and self-sacrifice for the group.
  5. Authority/respect, shaped by our long primate history of hierarchical social interactions. This foundation underlies virtues of leadership and followership, including deference to legitimate authority and respect for traditions.
  6. Purity/sanctity, shaped by the psychology of disgust and contamination. This foundation underlies religious notion that the body is a temple that can be desecrated by immoral activities and contaminants.

As Haidt’s data shows, liberals tend to emphasize the first three, conservatives tend to value the second three, and libertarians focus more on the first foundation over all others. I am prepared to argue that one of the drivers of moral progress as I have defined it is that the second three foundations that have been the backbone of groups, tribes, nations, and religions are being outcompeted by the first three that are the central core of the rights revolutions of the past two centuries. The reason for their success is that the worldview of Enlightenment Humanism and Classical Liberalism that embraces liberty, care, and fairness over in-group loyalty, authority, and purity is more likely to lead to the survival and flourishing of individual sentient beings.

Exceptions such as ISIS, al Qaeda, and others who want to return to a 7th century Caliphate built on Sharia prove the generalization: they reject the Enlightenment values of science, reason, openness, tolerance, and individualism. I claim that these moral foundations-these truths about our moral nature-are discoverable by science, and once discovered can be used in the service of the betterment of humanity. It is in this sense that rights theory trumps utilitarian theory, at least in these cases and others I document in The Moral Arc. END


OUR NEXT DISTINGUISHED LECTURER:
DR. PHIL ZUCKERMAN

Living the Secular Life: New Answers to Old Questions

Sun., Apr. 19, 2015 at 2 pm
Baxter Hall, Caltech

Dr. Phil Zuckerman

OVER THE LAST 25 YEARS, “no religion” has become the fastest-growing religion in America. Around the world, hundreds of millions of people have turned away from the traditional faiths of the past and embraced a moral yet nonreligious—or secular—life, generating societies vastly less religious than at any other time in human history. Drawing on innovative sociological research, Dr. Zuckerman—a Pitzer College professor who founded a Department of Secular Studies, the first of its kind—illuminates this demographic shift with the moral convictions that govern secular individuals, offering crucial information for the religious and nonreligious alike. Living the Secular Life reveals that, despite opinions to the contrary, nonreligious Americans possess a unique moral code that allows them to effectively navigate the complexities of modern life. Zuckerman discovered that despite the entrenched negative beliefs about nonreligious people, American secular culture is grounded in deep morality and proactive citizenship—indeed, some of the very best that the country has to offer.

A book signing will follow the lecture. We will have copies of the book, Living the Secular Life: New Answers to Old Questions, available for purchase. Can’t attend the lecture? Order Living the Secular Life online.

TICKETS are available first come, first served at the door. Seating is limited. $10 for Skeptics Society members and the JPL/Caltech community, $15 for nonmembers. Your admission fee is a donation that pays for our lecture expenses.

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Loch Ness Silliness

The legend of the Loch Ness monster is one of the most popular and enduring of all the tall tales of cryptozoology—and ironically, one of the most easily debunked as well. In our book Abominable Science!, Daniel Loxton and I laid the entire myth to rest about as conclusively as one can debunk something. Yet it still manages to drum up publicity on a regular basis, routinely appearing in news items that demonstrate how bad ideas just won’t die—and how journalists manage to keep paranormal and pseudoscientific ideas going, rather than doing their jobs as reporters, checking facts, and viewing their sources critically.

One recent  news item can be listed as a classic “Journalism 101 FAIL.” A regional paper called The Scotsman ran an article claiming to  have found the fossil of Nessie’s “great granny.” It is full of head-slapping howlers that make any geologist or paleontologist cringe at the ignorance of the reporter who ran the story. Loch Ness monster enthusiast Gary Campbell is featured (as he has often appeared in other silly Nessie stories from supposedly reputable news organizations), along with Dr. Evelyn Gray and archeologist Cait McCullagh, a curator at the Inverness Museum and Art Gallery. Following Campbell’s lead, The Scotsman makes a big fuss about a Devonian fossil fish called Pterichthyodes milleri, from the Old Red Sandstone in the area, collected by the pioneering fossil collector Hugh Miller back in the 1830s and resting in the collection of the Inverness Museum. Apparently ignorant of every aspect of paleontology and geology, Campbell and the gullible reporter claim this fish is an ancestor to “Nessie,” offering “evidence that she exists and that her relatives populated the Highlands in prehistoric times.” Instead of using the fossil animal’s proper name, they’ve nicknamed it “Pessie.”

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