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Michael Shermer

Dr. Michael Shermer is the Publisher of Skeptic magazine, a monthly columnist for Scientific American, an Adjunct Professor at Claremont Graduate University and Chapman University, and the author of 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. His new book is The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity Toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom. Read Michael’s other posts on this blog.

Life’s Score

Posted on Aug. 09, 2017 by | Comments (17)

ABOVE: The author in the 1984 Race Across America (RAAM), crossing from Arizona into Utah through the Virgin River Gorge.

Among cycling aficionados of my generation, Peter Yates’ and Steve Tesich’s 1979 film Breaking Away was a welcome vehicle to convey the elegance and complex strategy of our sport to an American audience largely oblivious to its beauty and nuances. Of course, like most sports films, it was a metaphor for something deeper, in this case a coming of age story of a young man struggling to break away from the provincialism of family and friends, along with a morality tale about how everyone lies a little and some people cheat a lot.

In Knowing the Score, King’s College philosopher David Papineau uses specific sports as metaphors for and lessons about many of the most important and contentious issues in philosophy and life. In his chapters on cycling, for example, he confesses his ignorance while watching the 2012 Olympic road race as to why four women cyclists from different countries would work together after their break away from the peloton. Papineau finds an answer in game theory, the analysis of competition and cooperation between rational actors in a conflict situation. The prisoner’s dilemma model is the most famous example: you and another prisoner are arrested for a crime with the following options: (1) If both of you remain silent then you each receive one year in jail; (2) If you confess but the other person does not, then you go free and he gets three years; (3) If the other prisoner confesses and you don’t, then you receive the three-year penalty while he goes free; (4) If you both confess then you each get two years. What should you do? Research shows that when the game is played just once, or over a fixed number of rounds without the players being allowed to communicate, defection (confessing) is the common strategy. But when the game is played over an unknown number of rounds the most common strategy is “tit-for-tat,” where you begin by cooperating and then do whatever the other player does. Even more cooperation can be induced in a “Many Person Dilemma” in which one player interacts with several other players, and in which players are allowed to accumulate experience with the other players in order to establish trust. Here cooperation trumps competition, selflessness overcomes selfishness.

We can see how this plays out in a road race. Cyclists drafting one another provide a significant savings in energy (as much as 40 percent) and increase in speed, so solo breakaways are very unusual and almost always fail. Drafting in the middle of the pack the entire race is very efficient, but then you have to sprint for the win against a hundred other competitors, some of who specialize in sprinting. Ideal is a small breakaway with, say, four riders, allowing for efficient enough drafting to conserve energy and maintain speed, and you only have to beat three others to win. So it pays for each of the four racers to cooperate with one another until the very end. If one rider “defects” in the game theoretic model and refuses to take a pull at the front, the others will punish her by various means, verbally or otherwise. Occasionally what happens in the final kilometer is that everyone in the break away refuses to pull through in order to conserve energy for the sprint and the group gets caught by the hard-charging peloton, an example of selfishness overcoming selflessness to the detriment of all. Knowing this can happen discourages early collective defection and keeps the provisional mutualism going.

Such conflicts between self-interest and group-interest are common, in sports and in life. Cold War strategies between the US and USSR are examples of game theoretic models that worked to prevent nuclear holocaust, as are the strategic moves today by the US, China, and South Korea to contain North Korea’s nuclear weapons program while recognizing it’s desire for defense. Like nations, humans are autonomous selfish beings who are also altruistic social creatures, so finding the right balance between these competing motives lurks behind most interactions. Individual European nations desiring autonomy versus the collective benefits of being in the EU is an example of these tensions, as is US economic nationalism versus the advantages of international trade. Climate change is a collective action problem that must contend with breakaway nations like China and India who need cheap fossil fuel energy to become fully industrial economic powerhouses. Who are we in the peloton of developed nations to tell the developing nations in the breakaway to slow down?

Michael Shermer the 1983 Race Across America (RAAM) between Prescott and Flagstaff, Arizona (listening to music via headphones on a Sony Walkman).

The author in the 1983 Race Across America between Prescott and Flagstaff, Arizona (listening to music via headphones on a “Sony Walkman”).

Each chapter in Papineau’s engaging book deconstructs a philosophical problem along these lines. Political obligations in a society and professional fouls in an athletic contest; civil society and sporting eligibility; sporting nations and political geography (of which George Orwell once commented that sport “is war minus the shooting”); nature and nurture in athletic performance and life (gifted athletes have gifted children, but not equally so); Coase’s Theorem in economics applied to sports; Noam Chomsky and the nature of sports (the linguist “thinks sport is nothing but a capitalist trick,” as only a non-athletic egghead could conclude); to name but a few of the integrative topics. “It is tempting to confuse the insulation of sports with a lack of significance,” Papineau writes. “We are too quick to conclude, just because sports don’t matter to other things, that they don’t matter at all. But this doesn’t mean that it is not important and valuable in its own right.”

“Football is not a matter of life and death,” Papineau quotes the Liverpool soccer manager Bill Shankly. “It’s much more important than that.” That may be hyperbolic wit, but athletic contests are not just another form of play. They are the very embodiment of human striving that brings meaning to life. Most people want more than just a happy and contented existence. We want challenges to face and obstacles to overcome. Our ancestors got more of those from daily life than we do today, so all the more need we have for our artificial trials, and all the more importance of knowing the score. END

Michael Shermer

Michael Shermer is publisher of Skeptic magazine, a monthly columnist for Scientific American, and a Presidential Fellow at Chapman University. He co-founded the 3,000-mile nonstop transcontinental bicycle Race Across America in 1982 and competed in it five times. His next book is Heavens on Earth. Follow him on Twitter @michaelshermer.

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Skeptic’s Science Dialogue
with Bill Nye the Science Guy

Posted on Mar. 07, 2017 by | Comments Off on Skeptic’s Science Dialogue
with Bill Nye the Science Guy

This is the first in Skeptic’s new series of Science Dialogues. Skeptic magazine Publisher and Skeptics Society Executive Director Michael Shermer interviews Bill Nye the Science Guy about his new Netflix Original Series Bill Nye Saves the World. The new series airs Friday, April 21, 2017. The following interview took place on December 18, 2016 at the offices of the Planetary Society, and was filmed by Skeptic’s videographer Brad Davies.

About the Netflix Series: Bill Nye Saves the World

Bill Nye Saves the World (Netflix poster)

The series will focus on science, and will investigate its relationship with politics, pop culture and society (from space exploration to fad diets). The first season will explore topics such as climate change, alternative medicine, video games, and sex from a scientific point of view. The series will refute myths and anti-scientific claims. Guests will join for lab demos and myth busting.

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The Ultimate Trade Off

Posted on Nov. 30, 2016 by | Comments (17)
aging cars

Michael Shermer reviews What Evolution Reveals About Male Health and Mortality, by Richard G. Bribiescas. A shortened version of this review ran in the Wall Street Journal on November 18, 2016, under the title “Why Men Die First.”

Richard G. Bribiescas is a professor of anthropology and evolutionary biology at Yale University and his new book is the best short summation I have seen of a massive body of scientific research to address his title subject, How Men Age. Now that I am in my early 60s I find myself gravitating toward this literature, but this is not a how-to book. There is no men’s magazine-style bullet list of what older men should do to look and be young again. Bribiescas is a good scientist, and as such he makes it clear that all such studies are limited in scope, have exceptions, and the long-term consequences of any artificial interference with the aging process beyond diet and exercise are unknown. Caveat emptor! Here is what we know.

Aging is the decline in physiological function that occurs over a measurable passage of time, caused by a combination of physics, genes, disease, and other environmental assaults and stressors. Aging is highly heritable, which is why physicians and life insurance companies always ask about the age of your parents at death and the causes of their deaths. But there is no “gene for aging,” or even a suite of genes. Aging happens across most of the systems in your body and there’s only so much you can do to stave off its inevitable effects. Worse, tinkering with the aging process too much can lead to a phenomenon the biologist G. C. Williams discovered called antagonistic pleiotropy—traits beneficial to an organism early in its life may be detrimental later in life, such as women’s high ovarian steroid levels during peak reproductive age that can lead to breast cancer decades later, or high testosterone in young men that leads to prostate cancer in old age. So the idea of taking testosterone supplements to ward off aging’s effects may have unintended and possibly antagonistic pleiotropic effects that lead to even earlier mortality.

old yellow Chevy

According to “rate of living theory,” larger mammals conserve heat more efficiently, have slower metabolic rates, burn energy slower, and live longer. Humans are relatively large mammals and we live longer than any other primate, but within our species even though men are larger than women they burn more energy per unit time, so men age faster than women and women live longer than men. As well, because the world is a dangerous place and men face many more risks than women, they tend to discount the future and reproduce earlier, just in case.

Environment also makes a difference. The evolutionary biologist Steven Austad conducted a study of opossum populations, one on an island with no predators and the other on the mainland with the usual assortment of threats to life and limb. Austad found that the island opossums reproduced later and aged slower whereas the mainland opossums reproduced sooner and aged faster. CONTINUE READING THIS POST…

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Top 10 Myths of Terrorism

Posted on Nov. 23, 2016 by | Comments Off on Top 10 Myths of Terrorism

As usual, each year, we give away an informative booklet to thank you for your generous donations. This year, our free booklet examines whether terrorism is an “existential threat” to our way of life or even to our survival.

The Rise of the Use of the Term “Existential Threat”

Top 10 Myths of Terrorism (page 1 of free booklet)

Click image to enlarge. The historic 60-inch telescope at the Mt. Wilson Observatory. We will be using this, or perhaps the even larger 100-inch telescope. (Photo by Heven729 (own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons)

Is terrorism really an “existential threat” to our way of life? Tracking the phrase with a Google Ngram search shows that it didn’t come into use until the late 1950s, most likely for describing the growing threat of global thermonuclear war. It crawls along the bottom of the curve through the 1960s, 1970s, and early 1980s. Then, around 1983, its use takes off in a steady upward trend line to 2001, after which it spikes dramatically upward in a hockey-stick like increase, clearly in response to 9/11. If ISIS or any of the other terrorist organizations grounded in Islamism were successful in their global jihad to bring about Sharia law, terrorism could become an existential threat. But will they succeed? No. Here are 10 myths about terrorism that explain why. Feel free to download, print and share this 4-page booklet.

Download the free booklet

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The “Mandela Effect”

Posted on Sep. 20, 2015 by | Comments (29)
Former President Nelson Mandela of South Africa meets with US President George W. Bush in the Oval Office in 2005. And yet, according to some people's memories, Mandela died two decades earlier. (White House photo by Eric Draper)

Former President Nelson Mandela of South Africa met with US President George W. Bush in the Oval Office in 2005—and yet, according to some people’s memories, Mandela died two decades earlier. (White House photo by Eric Draper)

At Chapman University I teach an undergraduate course called Skepticism 101: How to Think Like a Scientist. One of the course requirements is that each student must do an 18-minute TED-style talk. It’s a good exercise in learning to give public talks, as well as organize your thoughts in a manner conducive to both critical thinking and clear communication. The first student TED talk was by Taryn Honeysett on something called “The Mandela Effect,” of which I was unfamiliar. The name comes from the mistaken belief that the great statesman and civil rights activist Nelson Mandela (1918–2013) died while in prison in the 1980s, and it is characterized by a group of people who all misremember something in a similar manner.

The effect gained a cultural toehold in an Internet forum discussion over the proper spelling of a popular children’s book and television series called The Berenstain Bears, when a number of people insisted the correct spelling was Berenstein. (The series began in 1962, with the first book edited and published by Dr. Seuss—aka Ted Seuss Geisel.) Other examples of The Mandela Effect involve the number of states in the United States (50 or 52, with a sizable number of people believing it is 52, probably mixing states in the U.S. with cards in a deck), the correct spelling of the word definitely (or definitly), and people’s recall of what Darth Vader said in Star Wars: “Luke, I’m your father” or “No, I’m your father” (it’s the latter, although I too remember it by the more effecting version that addresses the subject).

CONTINUE READING THIS POST…

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Quantum Leaps

Posted on Apr. 21, 2015 by | Comments (22)
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):

CONTINUE READING THIS POST…

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The Fifth Horseman: The Insights of Victor Stenger (1935–2014)

Posted on Sep. 20, 2014 by | Comments (2)

Victor J. Stenger was a particle physicist, philosopher, author, skeptic, and friend. I first came across his name shortly after we founded Skeptic magazine in 1992 when I read his 1990 book Physics and Psychics: The Search for a World Beyond the Senses (Prometheus Books), for which “psychic” Uri Geller sued (the case was dismissed and Geller was ordered to pay legal fees of nearly $50,000). Stenger’s 1995 book, The Unconscious Quantum: Metaphysics in Modern Physics and Cosmology, was especially helpful to us as we dealt with the burgeoning interest in the topic of quantum consciousness and the New Age fascination with the field as a way of using one of the most well-developed and thoroughly tested fields in all of science to prop up supernatural and paranormal beliefs with sciency sounding terms (the very definition of pseudoscience).

Victor was especially helpful to me in assessing the technical claims of the quantum consciousness proponents, such as those featured in the wildly popular film What the Bleep Do We Know?! It was a well produced film (I saw it in Portland with the producers after we were both on a radio show), but I never imagined it would become the big hit it did, given the esoteric nature of its subject: quantum physics and consciousness. But it had that New Agey uplifting anything-is-possible-if-you-wish-it-so feel. It included a number of talking head physicists, such as University of Oregon quantum physicist Amit Goswami, who proclaimed: “The material world around us is nothing but possible movements of consciousness. I am choosing moment by moment my experience. Heisenberg said atoms are not things, only tendencies.” In my Scientific American column on the film I challenged him to “leap out of a 20-story building and consciously choose the experience of passing safely through the ground’s tendencies.”

CONTINUE READING THIS POST…

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Detecting Baloney

Baloney Detection Kit Sandwich (Infographic) by Deanna and Skylar (High Tech High Media Arts, San Diego, CA)

The Baloney Detection Kit Sandwich (Infographic)

For a class project, a pair of 11th grade physics students created the infographic shown below, inspired by Michael Shermer’s Baloney Detection Kit: a 16-page booklet designed to hone your critical thinking skills.

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Top 10 Myths of Terrorism

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Who believes them? Why? How can you tell if they’re true?

What is a conspiracy theory, why do people believe in them, and why do they tend to proliferate? Why does belief in one conspiracy correlate to belief in others? What are the triggers of belief, and how does group identity factor into it? How can one tell the difference between a true conspiracy and a false one?

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