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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.

Skeptic’s Science Dialogue
with Bill Nye the Science Guy

Posted on Mar. 07, 2017 by | Comments (0)

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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Top 10 Myths of Terrorism

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