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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.

The Moral Arc: How Thinking Like a Scientist Makes the World More Moral

Posted on Jul. 03, 2020 by | Comments Off on The Moral Arc: How Thinking Like a Scientist Makes the World More Moral

In this, the final lecture of his Chapman University Skepticism 101 course, Dr. Michael Shermer pulls back to take a bigger picture look at what science and reason have done for humanity in the realm of moral progress. That is, applying the methods of science and principles of reason since the Scientific Revolution in the 17th century has solved not only problems in the physical and biological/medical fields, but in social and moral realms as well. How should we structure societies so that more people flourish in more places more of the time? Science can answer that question, and it has for centuries. Learning how to think like a scientist can make the world a better place, as Dr. Shermer explains in this lecture based on his 2015 book, The Moral Arc.

Shermer’s Chapman University course, Skepticism 101: How to Think Like a Scientist, covers a wide range of topics, from critical thinking, reasoning, rationality, free speech, cognitive biases and how thinking goes wrong, and the scientific methods, to actual claims and whether or not there is any truth to them, e.g., ESP, ETIs, UFOs, astrology, channelling, the Bermuda Triangle, psychics, evolution, creationism, Holocaust denial, and especially conspiracy theories and how to think about them.

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What is Truth, Anyway?

Posted on Jun. 26, 2020 by | Comments Off on What is Truth, Anyway?

In this lecture Dr. Michael Shermer addresses one of the deepest questions of all: what is truth? How do we know what is true, untrue, or uncertain? Given that none of us are omniscient, all claims to knowledge carry a certain level of uncertainty. Given that fact, how can we determine what is true? Included: subjective/internal vs. objective/external truths, Hume’s theory of causality, correlation and causation, the principle of proportionality (or why extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence), how to think about miracles and the resurrection, mysterian mysteries, post-truth, rational irrationalities, the man who saved the world, Bayesian reasoning, and why love depends on evidence.

Skepticism 101: How to Think Like a Scientist covers a wide range of topics, from critical thinking, reasoning, rationality, cognitive biases and how thinking goes wrong, and the scientific methods, to actual claims and whether or not there is any truth to them, e.g., ESP, ETIs, UFOs, astrology, channelling, psychics, creationism, Holocaust denial, and especially conspiracy theories and how to think about them.

If you missed Dr. Shermer’s previous Skepticism 101 lectures watch them now.

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The Truth About Post-Truth Truthiness

Posted on Jun. 25, 2020 by | Comments (3)

Is post-truth the political subordination of reality? Is truth itself any more under threat today that in the past? Have the populists & postmodernists won the day? In response to Dr. Lee McIntyre’s essay, Dr. Michael Shermer asserts that people are not nearly as gullible as some believe.

Words embody ideas, and their changing usage and meaning are tracked by lexicographers in dictionaries, which therein become barometers of cultural trends. In 2006, for example, the American Dialect Society and Merriam-Webster’s both chose as their word of the year the neologism “truthiness”, introduced by the comedian Stephen Colbert on the premiere episode of his satirical mock news show The Colbert Report (on which I appeared twice1), meaning “the truth we want to exist.”2 It was a prescient comedic bit as a decade later three examples of truthiness entered our lexicon.

After Donald Trump’s Presidential inauguration on January 20, 2017, his special counselor Kellyanne Conway concocted the term “alternative facts” during a Meet the Press interview while defending White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s inaccurate statement about the size of the crowd that day. “Our press secretary, Sean Spicer, gave alternative facts to that [the inaugural crowd size], but the point remains that….” at which time NBC correspondent Chuck Todd cut her off: “Wait a minute. Alternative facts? … Alternative facts are not facts. They’re falsehoods.”3 German linguists deemed it the “un-word of the year” (Unwort des Jahres) for 2017. Later that year the related term “fake news” became common parlance, leaping in usage 365 percent and landing it on the “word of the year shortlist” of Collins Dictionary, which defined it as “false, often sensational, information disseminated under the guise of news reporting.”4

Such words (or un-words) are often invoked as evidence that we are living in a “post-truth” era brought on by Donald Trump (according to liberals) or by postmodernism (according to conservatives). Are we living in a post-truth world of truthiness, fake news, and alternative facts? Have the populists and postmodernists won the day? Is all the political, economic, and social progress we have achieved over the past several centuries in reversal—the abolition of slavery and torture, the decline of homicide, crime, and violence, the cessation of the European Great Powers wars, and the expansion of the moral sphere to include civil rights, women’s rights, children’s rights, worker’s rights, and gay rights for more people in more places more of the time? Are we lurching backwards to the Middle Ages when bigots lighted faggots to torch women as witches?

Skeptic 24.3 (cover)

No. The Fall 2019 cover story of Skeptic by the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, “Why We Are Not Living in a Post-Truth Era,” explains why, starting with this question: Is the statement “We are living in a post-truth era”…true? If it is, then it isn’t! That is, if you argue that the statement is true then you are making an argument, which means you are committed to determining whether the statement is true or false, which means we have not passed into a post-truth world. Similarly, is the statement “humans are irrational” rational? If it is, then it can’t be because, as Pinker asks rhetorically, “If humans were truly irrational, who specified the benchmark of rationality against which humans don’t measure up?”5 As Pinker reflected in his 2018 book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, “Mendacity, truth-shading, conspiracy theories, extraordinary popular delusions, and the madness of crowds are as old as our species, but so is the conviction that some ideas are right and others are wrong.”6

In this issue of Skeptic the philosopher Lee McIntyre, author of the book Post-Truth,7 challenges Pinker, starting with a definition of post-truth as the “political subordination of reality,” which he ascertains to be “a tactic in the authoritarian toolbox.” McIntyre’s definition is much narrower than the way Pinker and I use the term, confining it as he does to political propaganda, which he says “is not meant to convince you, but to show you who’s boss.” The message, he says, referencing Jason Stanley’s book How Propaganda Works8, is “I am so powerful that I can dominate your reality, and there is nothing you can do about it.” To reinforce the political nature of post-truth, McIntyre also invokes Tim Snyder’s observation in his 2017 book On Tyranny that “post-truth is pre-fascism,”9 along with Hannah Arendt’s observation that “the ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.”10

Post-truth as political propaganda is certainly one use (or misuse) of truth that neither Pinker nor I discount, but McIntyre then accuses Pinker (and others) of merely knocking down one or more of four post-truth straw men: (1) that truth doesn’t matter, (2) that no one really cares about truth anymore, (3) that no one can find the truth, and (4) that if we were actually living in a post-truth era, we should just give up. Instead, to steel-man the problem McIntye asserts that “the claim that we live in a post-truth era is properly based on the idea that truth today is under threat.”

Is it? There certainly are people who, pace Hannah Arendt, cannot seem to distinguish between fact and fiction, true and false, and this shortcoming can lead not only to fascism or communism, but also to Holocaust denial, evolution denial, climate denial, vaccine denial, GMO denial, and more. But is it really that people cannot discern reality, or is it that they are motivated to spin the facts to support some other agenda? Holocaust deniers are anti-Semites. Evolution deniers are religious fundamentalists. Climate deniers mistrust big government. Vaccine deniers distrust big Pharma. GMO deniers detest Monsanto. It isn’t the truth about the facts under dispute, but an underlying motive. Consider an interview reprinted in McIntyre’s book, which he presents as a type specimen of post-truth, in which CNN’s Alisyn Camerota engages the former Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich on crime rates. The exchange is revealing:11

Camerota: Violent crime is down. The economy is ticking up.

Gingrich: It is not down in the biggest cities.

Camerota: Violent crime, murder rate is down. It is down.

Gingrich: Then how come it’s up in Chicago and up in Baltimore and up in Washington?

Camerota: There are pockets where certainly we are not tackling murder.

Gingrich: Your national capital, your third biggest city…

Camerota: But violent crime across the country is down.

Gingrich: The average American, I will bet you this morning, does not think crime is down, does not think they are safer.

Camerota: But it is. We are safer and it is down.

Gingrich: No, that’s just your view.

Camerota: It is a fact. These are the national FBI facts.

Gingrich: But what I said is also a fact. … The current view is that liberals have a whole set of statistics that theoretically may be right, but it’s not where human beings are. People are frightened.

Camerota: But what you’re saying is, but hold on Mr. Speaker because you’re saying liberals use these numbers, they use this sort of magic math. These are the FBI statistics. They’re not a liberal organization. They’re a crime-fighting organization.

Gingrich: No, but what I said is equally true. People feel more threatened.

Camerota: Feel it, yes. They feel it, but the facts don’t support it.

Gingrich: As a political candidate, I’ll go with how people feel and let you go with the theoreticians.

As I read it, this isn’t an example of the post-truth equivalent of, as McIntyre describes it, a “chilling exchange in the basement of the Ministry of Love in the pages of George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984.” Camerota and Gingrich are simply talking about two different matters: crime rates and peoples’ perceptions about crime rates. The difference represents a cognitive illusion due to the availability bias, in which one assesses a problem based on the most immediate and salient available example, usually from the evening news that features individual crimes, especially homicides. Camerota is a journalist focusing on the long-term decline of crime, whereas Gingrich is a politician trying to garner support by appealing to peoples’ fears about crime, citing the equally true statistics about recent upticks in crime in a handful of U.S. cities, most notably Chicago, Baltimore, and Washington D.C., which Camerota acknowledges. Both facts are true, so this is not an example of recent post-truthiness but of good old-fashioned spin-doctoring, which has been around at least since the 1940s, when George Orwell noted: “Political language— and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists—is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”12 The problem can be traced back even further, as when Edmund Burke commented on the language surrounding the French Revolution:

The whole compass of the language is tried to find sinonimies [synonyms] and circumlocutions for massacres and murder. Things are never called by their common names. Massacre is sometimes called agitation, sometimes effervescence, sometimes excess; sometimes too continued an exercise of a revolutionary power.13

McIntyre says that the purpose of post-truth “is political, not epistemological,” but is not the former subsumed in the latter? It’s all epistemological, inasmuch as everything turns on what constitutes reliable knowledge, and that is a very old problem indeed.

Even the concept of post-truth is not new. The Oxford Dictionaries has tracked its use back to 1992, the year we founded Skeptic magazine, the early years of which were devoted to the “science wars,” which were fought over the nature of truth and whether or not science was the royal road to it. Many thought not, coming to believe that there is no objective reality to be discovered and no belief, idea, hypothesis, or theory that is closer to the truth than any other. In his 1996 Skeptic article “More Higher Superstitions,” Norman Levitt (coauthor of the book Higher Superstition14) describes the problem in language that could have been written in 2019:

Science studies…overlaps what is nowadays called cultural studies, a tendency that has effaced traditional scholarship in a number of areas, and it has absorbed many of the radically relativistic attitudes that predominate in postmodern cultural anthropology. The central doctrine of science studies is that science is “socially constructed” in a way that disallows traditional notions of scientific validity and objectivity. On this view, scientific theories are merely narratives peculiar to this culture and this point in its history. Their chief function is to create stories about the world consonant with dominant social and political values. Thus, they are no more “true,” or even more reliable, than the myths, legends, and just-so stories of other cultures. All are equally culture- specific.15

Post-truth claims were just as prominent in the 1990s as they are now, and no less criticized, even parodied. Recall that this was the decade of the wildly popular television series The X-Files, a conspiracy-laden mosh pit of aliens and UFOs, monsters and demons, mutants and shape-shifters, urban legends and government cover-ups, and all manner of paranormal piffle. So trendy was the show that The Simpsons caricatured it with an episode titled “The Springfield Files,” in which Homer has a close encounter of the third kind after downing ten bottles of beer. X-Files stars Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny (Scully and Mulder) guest star as investigators of the alien abduction, and Leonard Nimoy, host of the 1970’s more-or-less nonfiction version of The X-Files called In Search of…, voiced the introduction, announcing: “The following tale of alien encounters is true. And by true, I mean false. It’s all lies. But they’re entertaining lies, and in the end isn’t that the real truth? The answer is no.”

So post-truthiness is not new, but the availability bias dialed up to eleven through social media led the Oxford Dictionaries to name “post-truth” as its word of the year in 2016 after it documented a 2000 percent spike in usage over the previous year, characterizing it as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” As the dictionaries’ editor Casper Grathwohl noted: “We first saw the frequency really spike this year in June with buzz over the Brexit vote and again in July when Donald Trump secured the Republican presidential nomination. Given that usage of the term hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down, I wouldn’t be surprised if post-truth becomes one of the defining words of our time.”16 Even the veteran CBS anchorman and 60 Minutes correspondent Scott Pelley succumbed to the temptation to think we’re living in a post-truth era. On the final day of 2019, reflecting on the message of his new book Truth Worth Telling, summed up what has happened to truth in the decade of the 2010s:

This is the thing that worries me the most about our beloved country. We have gone from the information age to the disinformation age. I think our viewers and our readers now have a responsibility that they’ve never had before, and that is that they have to be careful about how they choose their information diet. This is going to be a problem for the rest of our history, in particular for democracies.17

Not only is post-truthiness not new, but the response to challenges to objective knowledge are as robust today as in the past, if not more so, having moved far beyond the pages of niche magazines like Skeptic and Scientific American, which defend science, reason, empiricism, and fact checking, and is now routinely addressed in national news magazines and newspapers. Despite President Trump’s constant reference to the “failing New York Times” in his Twitter feed,18 for example, the circulation of the Grey Lady has skyrocketed since Trump was elected. In the 4th quarter of 2018 alone, for example, the New York Times added 265,000 digital subscriptions, turned a profit of $55.2 million, and saw its newsroom staff grow to 1,600 people, the largest number in its 167-year history.19

Today, as dictionaries track the upswing in post-truth language, and as political pundits pronounce the end of truth and with it the Republic (if you can keep it), the Internet of ideas has responded with tools to combat the illiberalism of unreason: real time fact-checking. As politicians engaged in the old-time art of spindoctoring the truth in speeches, fact-checkers at OpenSecrets.org, Snopes.com, FactCheck.org, and PolitiFact.com tallied their errors and lies, the latter cheekily ranking statements as True, Mostly True, Half True, Mostly False, and Pants on Fire. As PolitiFact’s editor Angie Holan explained: “journalists regularly tell me their media organizations have started highlighting fact-checking in their reporting because so many people click on fact-checking stories after a debate or high-profile news event.”20

Finally, the idea that post-truthiness could invade the brains of gullible citizens is gainsaid by new research by cognitive scientists that demonstrates that people are not nearly as gullible as we’ve been led to believe. A 2020 book by the cognitive scientist Hugo Mercier, Not Born Yesterday, presents a mountain of evidence “against the idea that humans are gullible, that they are ‘wired not to seek truth’ and ‘overly deferential to authority’, and that they ‘cower before uniform opinion’,” quoting Jason Brennan in his book Against Democracy. In fact, Mercier reveals through both laboratory research and real-world examples that “far from being gullible, we are endowed with a suite of cognitive mechanisms that evaluate what we hear or read.” And far from defaulting to believing everything we hear, Mercier notes that “by default we veer on the side of being resistant to new ideas. In the absence of the right cues, we reject messages that don’t fit with our preconceived views or preexisting plans. To persuade us otherwise takes long-established, carefully maintained trust, clearly demonstrated expertise, and sound arguments.”21

Mercier begins by showing why evolution could not have created animals that are so gullible as to be routinely exploited by others, as that would ultimately lead to reproductive failure and the extinction of extreme gullibility. The balance in communication between belief and skepticism led to an evolutionary arms-race between deception and deception detection, along with cognitive mechanisms “that help us decide how much weight to put on what we hear or read.” Mass persuasion, for example, is extremely difficult to pull off, and most attempts at it fail miserably, because when scaled up from two-person communication to large audiences, trust cues do not scale up accordingly. Most preachers, prophets, and demagogues fail, but because of the availability bias we only remember the biggest names in the genre, such as Jesus and Hitler. But even these examples fail upon further inspection. In his own time Jesus was a disappointment at starting a new religion (which might not have been his mission in any case), and even the apostle Paul barely got Christianity rolling. It wasn’t until the 4th century that Christianity began to number in the millions, which sounds impressive until we consider the power of compound interest, in which a small but steady growth can yield an enormous figure given enough time. Invest $1 at a constant yearly interest rate of 1% in the year 0, if the dividends are reinvested by the year 2020 the investment would be worth over $2.4 billion. Mercier cites statistics compiled by the sociologist of religion Rodney Stark, who estimates Christianity’s growth rate at 3.5% over the centuries. If each Christian only saves a few souls in a lifetime the religion could easily compile tens of millions in a matter of a few centuries, and over two billion by today. Perhaps this is why the dismal conversion rate of, for example, Mormon missionaries on their two-year missions, is not a concern for the church, as the success rate can be small if the process goes on long enough (coupled to high birth rates, of course, which most religions encourage).

As for Hitler, Mercier presents compelling evidence revealing that most Germans did not accept Nazi ideology, nor most of the planks in the regime platform, and even the anti-Semitism so famously on display in Hitler’s writings and speeches was only effective on Germans who were already anti-Semitic. The euthanasia of the handicapped in the 1930s was resisted by most Germans and got so much bad press that the Nazis made the program secret and issued orders to never speak of it, a policy carried through the Final Solution and the Holocaust, which was shrouded in secrecy and mostly carried out in Poland, far from the prying eyes of German citizens. Hitler’s anti-communism appealed to right-leaning Germans but was rejected among industrial workers. By 1942, most citizens did not believe the declarations of victory issued by the propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, instead relying on secreted BBC reports of how the war was really going for Germany (not well). As the Nazi intelligence agency Sicherheitsdienst (SD) reported: “Our propaganda encounters rejection everywhere among the population because it is regarded as wrong and lying.”22

To the commonly asked question “How could so many highly educated, intelligent, and cultured Germans become Nazis?” the answer is: “Most didn’t.” The entire regime—not unlike the Soviet Union and North Korea—was held aloft on pluralistic ignorance, in which individual members of a group don’t believe something but believe that most others in the group believe it. When no one speaks up—or are prevented from speaking up through state-sponsored censorship or imprisonment—it produces a “spiral of silence” that can transmogrify into witch hunts, purges, pogroms, and repressive political regimes. This is why totalitarian and theocratic regimes restrict speech, press, trade, and travel, and why the route to breaking the bonds of such repressive governments and ideologies is free speech, free press, free trade, and accurate and trustworthy information.

In a wide-ranging conversation for my Science Salon podcast, I asked Mercier directly, “are we living in a post-truth era?” His answer was clear:

In many ways it’s better than it’s ever been, in that people are more informed than they used to be, and because of that they tend to be more consistent in their points of view. Fake news, for example, is a very marginalized phenomenon. Only a few percent of Twitter or Facebook users actually saw or spread fake news, and it doesn’t appear to effect those who see it. But everyone has heard of fake news, so on the whole I think the information environment is improving, slowly and perhaps not as much as we would like it to be, but I think things are better than they used to be. People still want accurate opinions and they care about the truth. Even people who support Trump—studies show when you show them that something about Trump is fake news they accept that, even while maintaining their support for Trump.

In one of my final Scientific American columns I coined my own neologism in the Colbert tradition: Factiness, or the quality of something seeming to be factual when it is not.23 But how do we know when something is factual and not factiness? We employ science and reason! There is progress in science and culture, and some ideas really are better than others. The post-Enlightenment ideal that beliefs should be tested in the laboratory and marketplace of ideas with the goal of generating objective and disinterested knowledge may seem Sisyphean, in that we are always in danger of backsliding into truthiness and factiness in which propaganda, superstition, and self-serving sophistry can slow our progress in pushing the boulder of knowledge up the mountain of ignorance, but that is precisely what we’ve been doing for millennia.

Per aspera ad astra—with difficulty to the stars. END

About the Author

Dr. Michael Shermer is the Publisher of Skeptic magazine, the host of the Science Salon Podcast, a regular contributor to Time.com, and Presidential Fellow at Chapman University. His latest book is Giving the Devil His Due: Reflections of a Scientific Humanist. As a public intellectual he regularly contributes Opinion Editorials, book reviews, and essays to The Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times, Science, Nature, and other publications. He appeared on such shows as The Colbert Report, 20/20, Dateline, Charlie Rose, and Larry King Live (but, proudly, never Jerry Springer!). He was a monthly columnist for Scientific American. His two TED talks, seen by millions, were voted in the top 100 of the more than 1000 TED talks. He holds a Ph.D. from Claremont Graduate University in the history of science.

References
  1. On August 21,2007: https://on.cc.com/36i0Mzg and on July 11, 2011: https://on.cc.com/2QBjrQ6
  2. Colbert, Stephen. 2005. “The Word—Truthiness.” The Colbert Report, https://on.cc.com/1KS28h6
  3. Interview with Kellyanne Conway. January 22, 2017. NBC Meet the Press. https://nbcnews.to/2wjC7bB
  4. Definition of “fake news.” Collins Dictionary. https://bit.ly/2V7Ff7Q
  5. Pinker, Steven. 2019. “Why We Are Not Living in a Post-Truth Era.” Skeptic, Vol. 24, No. 3.
  6. Pinker, Steven. 2018. Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. New York: Viking, 375.
  7. McIntyre, Lee. 2018. Post-Truth. Cambridge: MIT Press.
  8. Stanley, Jason. 2015. How Propaganda Works. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  9. Snyder, Timothy. 2017. On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. New York: Tim Duggan Books/Penguin Random House, 71.
  10. Arendt, Hannah. 1951/1994. The Origins of Totalitarianism. New York: Harcourt, 474.
  11. Quoted in: McIntyre, ibid., 3–4.
  12. Orwell, George. 1946. “Politics and the English Language.” Horizon, April. https://bit.ly/18z9Ikb
  13. Burke, Edmund. 1790/1967. Reflections on the Revolution in France. London: J.M. Dent & Sons.
  14. Gross, Paul and Norman Levitt. 1996. Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and its Quarrels with Science. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
  15. Levitt, Norman. 1996. “More Higher Superstitions: Knowledge, Knowingness, and Reality.” Skeptic, Vol. 4, No. 4, 79.
  16. Editors. 2016. “’Post-truth’ declared word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries. BBC News. November 16. https://bbc.in/2Vh36lt
  17. Pelley, Scott. 2019. Inter view. Reliable Sources. CNN. December 31. https://cnn.it/36fu2qz
  18. For one example among hundreds see his tweet of October 3, 2018 at 4:53 a.m.: “The Failing New York Times did something I have never seen done before…”
  19. Associated Press. 2019. “New York Times subscriber numbers are skyrocketing in the Trump age.” MarketWatch. February 6. https://on.mktw.net/37Z19PS
  20. Quoted in: Glaisyer, Tom. 2016. “Cranking up the Truth- O-Meter: Giving a Boost to Truth in Politics.” Democracy Fund. January 13. https://bit.ly/2M8p7yK
  21. Mercier, Hugo. 2020. Not Born Yesterday: The Science of Who We Trust and What We Believe. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 257, 270–271. Quotes from Brennan are in: Brennan, Jason. 2019. Against Democracy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 8.
  22. Kershaw, Ian. 1983. “How Effective was Nazi Propaganda?” In D. Welch (Ed.), Nazi Propaganda: The Power and the Limitations (180–205). London: Croom Helm, 199.
  23. Shermer, Michael. 2018. “Factiness: Are we living in a post-truth world?” Scientific American, March. https://bit.ly/2pHCzC5
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Is Freedom of Speech Harmful for College Students?

Posted on Jun. 19, 2020 by | Comments Off on Is Freedom of Speech Harmful for College Students?

In this lecture, Dr. Michael Shermer addresses the growing crisis of free speech in college and culture at large, triggered as it was by the title lecture, which he was tasked to deliver to students at California State University, Fullerton, after a campus paroxysm erupted over “Taco Tuesday,” in which students accused other students of “cultural appropriation” for non-Mexicans appropriating Mexican food from Mexicans, which if you’ve ever been to Southern California becomes absurd on the face of it inasmuch as Mexican cuisine is among the most popular dining options. From there Shermer reviews the history of free speech, the difference between government censorship and private censorship, the causes of the current crisis, and what we can do about it.

Skepticism 101: How to Think Like a Scientist covers a wide range of topics, from critical thinking, reasoning, rationality, cognitive biases and how thinking goes wrong, and the scientific methods, to actual claims and whether or not there is any truth to them, e.g., ESP, ETIs, UFOs, astrology, channelling, psychics, creationism, Holocaust denial, and especially conspiracy theories and how to think about them.

If you missed Dr. Shermer’s previous Skepticism 101 lectures watch them now.

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What are Science & Skepticism?

Posted on Jun. 12, 2020 by | Comments Off on What are Science & Skepticism?

This lecture, traditionally the first in the series for the Skepticism 101 course, is based on the first couple of chapters from Dr. Michael Shermer’s first book, Why People Believe Weird Things, presenting a description of skepticism and science and how they work, along with a discussion of the difference between science and pseudoscience, and some very practical applications of how to test claims and evaluate evidence. The image for this lecture is the original oil painting for the first cover of Why People Believe Weird Things, commissioned by the publisher and painted by the artist Lawrence Berzon.

Skepticism 101: How to Think Like a Scientist covers a wide range of topics, from critical thinking, reasoning, rationality, cognitive biases and how thinking goes wrong, and the scientific methods, to actual claims and whether or not there is any truth to them, e.g., ESP, ETIs, UFOs, astrology, channelling, psychics, creationism, Holocaust denial, and especially conspiracy theories and how to think about them.

The audio is out of sync with the video in “What is a Skeptic?” Here’s the link to view it. If you missed Dr. Shermer’s previous Skepticism 101 lectures watch them now.

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Evolution & Creationism, Part 2: Who says evolution never happened, why do they say it, and what do they claim?

Posted on Jun. 05, 2020 by | Comments Off on Evolution & Creationism, Part 2: Who says evolution never happened, why do they say it, and what do they claim?

Dr. Michael Shermer continues the discussion of evolution and creationism, focusing on the history of the creationism movement and the four stages it has gone through: (1) Banning the teaching of evolution, (2) Demanding equal time for Genesis and Darwin, (3) Demanding equal time for creation-science and evolution-science, and (4) Intelligent Design theory. Shermer provides the legal, cultural, and political context for how and why creationism evolved over the 150 years since Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859, thereby providing a naturalistic account of life, ultimately displacing the creationist supernatural account. Finally, Shermer reviews the best arguments made by creationists and why they’re wrong.

Skepticism 101: How to Think Like a Scientist covers a wide range of topics, from critical thinking, reasoning, rationality, cognitive biases and how thinking goes wrong, and the scientific methods, to actual claims and whether or not there is any truth to them, e.g., ESP, ETIs, UFOs, astrology, channelling, psychics, creationism, Holocaust denial, and especially conspiracy theories and how to think about them.

If you missed Dr. Shermer’s previous Skepticism 101 lectures watch them now.

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Wicked Games
Lance Armstrong, Forgiveness and Redemption, and a Game Theory of Doping

Posted on May. 31, 2020 by | Comments (7)

Part 2 of the documentary film “Lance” airs tonight on ESPN and served as a catalyst for this article that employs game theory to understand why athletes dope even when they don’t want to, as well as thoughts on forgiveness and redemption. The article is a follow up to and extension of Dr. Shermer’s article in the April 2008 issue of Scientific American.

All images within are screenshots from Marina Zenovich’s 3 hour and 22 minute film and are courtesy of ESPN, who provided a press screener. In appreciation. Zenovich also produced Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind (2018), Water & Power: A California Heist (2017), Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic (2013), and Roman Polanski: Odd Man Out (2012).

Toward the end of Marina Zenovich’s riveting documentary film on Lance Armstrong, titled simply Lance and broadcast on ESPN May 24 and May 31, 2020, the former 7-time Tour de France champion grouses about the apparent ethical hypocrisy of why TdF champions like the German Jan Ullrich (1997), the Italian Marco Pantani (1998), and himself (1999–2005) were utterly disgraced and had their lives ruined because of their doping, whereas cyclists such as the German Eric Zabel, the Italian Ivan Basso, and the American George Hincapie are “idolized, glorified, given jobs, invited to races, put on TV” even though they’re “no different from us” inasmuch as they doped as well. Of Pantani, whom Armstrong famously battled up many a mountainous climb, Lance scowls that “they disgrace Marco Pantani, they destroy him in the press, they kick him out of the sport, and he’s dead. He’s fucking dead!” Ditto Ullrich. “They disgrace, they destroy, and they fucking ruin Jan Ullrich’s life. Why? … That’s why I went. Because that’s fucking bullshit.”

Lance Armstrong (Jan 1)

This invective, in fact, comes on the heels of the most touching moment of the nearly 3.5-hour film, in which a lachrymose Armstrong loses his tough-guy composure when asked why he spontaneously flew to Europe to support his former rival in his time of need. Ullrich’s life was unraveling after a series of incidents involving drugs, alcohol, and violence, and Armstrong’s emotional fracture in recalling it is so out of character from his public image that it may give even his most cynical critics pause. His answer? “I love him.”

Lance Armstrong
Lance Armstrong (Jan 2)

That a quintessentially straight jock from Texas would admit on camera that he loves another man surely humanizes someone who has otherwise for decades been a picture of leather-neck toughness, a “badass motherfucker” as his former teammate Floyd Landis describes him. If he were a 1950’s test pilot he’d be a steely-eyed missileman staring down the sound barrier. If he were a boxer he’d be Jake LaMotta mercilessly pounding opponents into the canvas. If he were a basketball player he’d be Michael Jordan, entering each sporting contest like it was a matter of life and death, which it was for Lance. “I like to win,” he told filmmaker Alex Gibney, “but more than anything, I can’t stand this idea of losing. Because to me, losing means death.”

That such a film as this is so widely viewed, coming as it is on the heels of the most-watched show in ESPN history, on Michael Jordan’s final season with the Chicago Bulls, is one answer to Lance’s puzzlement about the asymmetrical treatment he has received. It was over two decades ago (1999) that Lance won his first Tour de France and was invited to Bill Clinton’s White House. To put this into further perspective, Armstrong won his 7th and last Tour de France two years before Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone in 2007. That seems a lifetime ago, and yet we’re still talking about Lance Armstrong. Why?

Lance Armstrong and David Letterman

To answer the question I think we must distinguish between Lance’s doping that was, in fact, a logical outcome of a corrupt system that forced most top cyclists at the time to choose between cheating and quitting, from his mendacity and intimidation to enforce Omerta that included threats, lawsuits, libelous public statements, and alleged backroom deals that harmed anyone who threatened to break their silence. As well, to invoke the title of Armstrong’s bestselling memoir, it was never about the bike and always about Lance. As the idiom suggests, those who reach great heights have further to fall. In short, the continued interest in the rise and fall of Lance Armstrong has more to do with the human condition and what it reveals about our species and the wicked games we play.

The Dope on Doping

Doping has long been a part of cycling. From the 1940s through the 1980s stimulants and painkillers were ubiquitous. As the 5-time Tour winner Jacques Anquetil snorted, “You can’t ride the Tour de France on mineral water.” And when challenged to elaborate, quipped: “Everyone in cycling dopes himself. Those who claim they don’t are liars.” With that as the norm, doping regulations were virtually nonexistent until the British champion Tom Simpson keeled over dead on the climb up the legendary Mont Ventoux in the 1967 Tour. An autopsy revealed a pharmacopoeia of drugs in his body and a vial of amphetamines in his jersey pocket. But even after that tragedy and the implementation of incipient testing, the dopers were always ahead of the doping controls. When I was competing in the 3,000-mile nonstop transcontinental bicycle Race Across America in the 1980s blood doping was both popular and allowed until after the 1984 Olympics and was a quantum leap over earlier techniques, but I begged off it because it seemed medically risky to inject a bag of your own or someone else’s blood in order to boost the amount of oxygen-carrying red blood cells in your system. Lance’s teammate Tyler Hamilton, in his 2012 book The Secret Race, recounts horror stories about injecting bags of spoiled blood and the illness that followed.

This risk was averted in the early 1990s, before Lance entered the sport professionally, with the introduction of genetically engineered recombinant erythropoietin — r-EPO. Natural EPO is a hormone released by the kidneys into the bloodstream, which carries it to receptors in bone marrow, stimulating it to pump out more red blood cells. Chronic kidney disease and chemotherapy can cause anemia, and so the development of the EPO substitute r-EPO in the late 1980s was a savior for chronically anemic patients … and oxygen hungry endurance athletes. Taking r-EPO is just as effective as getting a blood transfusion, but instead of messing around with bags of blood hanging from hotel room picture hooks and poking long needles into uncooperative veins, cyclists could now store tiny ampoules of r-EPO on ice in a thermos bottle or hotel minifridge, then simply inject the hormone under the skin, boosting the rider’s hematocrit (HCT), or the percentage of red blood cells in the total volume of blood. The normal range of HCT is in the mid-40s. Endurance training can boost it naturally into the high 40s or low 50s. Multi-week stage races like the Tour de France cause HCT to steadily decrease. EPO can push those levels into the high 50s and even the 60s and keep them there. Bjarne Riis, the winner of the 1996 Tour de France was nicknamed “Mr. 60 Percent”, and in 2007 he confessed that EPO was behind his moniker. After a test was developed in 2000 that could detect EPO, dopers shifted to micro-dosing it intravenously and/or returning to blood doping under tight supervision.

EPO

How big a difference does EPO make? In Zenovich’s film Armstrong’s U.S. Postal teammate Jonathan Vaughters makes a back-of-the-envelope calculation that the drug enhances performance by about 10 percent. In a 100-hour race in which the first and last place riders are separated by two hours, or two percent, this is a game changer. The infamous sports physiologist and convicted doping doctor Michele Ferrari, who for years worked exclusively with Armstrong and the U.S. Postal team, quantified the effect for me more specifically when I interviewed him for a 2008 article in Scientific American on doping in sports: “If the volume of [red blood cells] increases by 10 percent, performance improves by approximately 5 percent. This means a gain of about 1.5 seconds per kilometer for a cyclist pedaling at 50 kilometers per hour in a time trial, or about eight seconds per kilometer for a cyclist climbing at 10 kph on a 10 percent ascent.” Thus, a cyclist who boosts his hematocrit by 10 percent can lop off 75 seconds in a 50-kilometer time trial, which is typically decided by a few seconds, or 80 seconds per climb on any of the numerous 10-kilometer 10 percent mountain passes the riders negotiate in the Pyrenees and Alps, often decided by a few tens of seconds. This advantage is not one that athletes can afford to give away to their competitors.

EPO forced cyclists into choosing between doping and quitting the sport, as the three-time Tour winner Greg LeMond discovered in 1991. After logging victories in 1986, 1989 and 1990, LeMond set his sights on equaling or bettering the record of five Tours de France achieved by only three cyclists before him — Jacques Anquetil, Bernard Hinault, and Eddy Merckx. “I was the fittest I had ever been, my split times in spring training rides were the fastest of my career, and I had assembled a great team around me,” LeMond told me. “But something was different in the 1991 Tour. There were riders from previous years who couldn’t stay on my wheel who were now dropping me on even modest climbs.” The following year was worse, as LeMond refused to dope and would not allow his teammates to either. The result: “our team’s performance was abysmal” and “I couldn’t even finish the race.”

Greg LeMond
Greg LeMond

Greg’s hunch is backed by data. Average speeds of the winners of the Tour de France spiked upward beginning in 1991. To control for yearly variance effected by course changes and weather over time, I averaged the speeds over 14-year periods going backward and forward in time from 1991, then compared those to the peak Armstrong era and after. The averages are plotted on the graph below. In the period 1991–2004 the winners’ average speed jumped 9 percent over the corresponding speed in the period 1977–1990, an increase that cannot be accounted for by improvements in equipment, nutrition or training. Lance’s final victory in 2005 is the fastest Tour ever recorded at 25.9 mph. The extensive disqualification of dopers in 2007 brought the average speed down to 24.2 mph. It has hovered around there ever since, bouncing around between 24.5 mph and 25.1 mph through 2019, with an average speed between 2008 and 2019 of 24.9 mph. The spike in 2017 may be a statistical anomaly or the product of varying race conditions, but it is interesting to note that the winner, Chris Froome, later that year tested positive in the Tour of Spain for salbutamol, an asthma medication that opens up the medium and large airways in the lungs. Although Froome was ultimately cleared by the UCI, it is a curious thing that some professional cyclists seem to come down with asthma around the time of the three grand tours.

Miles per hour
Join the Club or Go Home and Get a Real Job

In his bestselling book Game of Shadows, the San Francisco Chronicle investigative reporter, Lance Williams, who broke the BALCO doping scandal in baseball, made this observation: “Athletes have a huge incentive to dope. There are tremendous benefits to using the drugs, and there is only a small chance that you will get caught. So depending on your sport and where you are in your career, the risk is often worth it. If you make the team, you’ll be a millionaire; if you don’t, you’ll probably go back to driving a delivery truck.” Armstrong’s teammate for many years, Tyler Hamilton, confirmed to Zenovich that the logic applied to the sport of cycling as well: “It was either join the club or go home, finish school, and get a real job.”

Tyler Hamilton

Once it becomes known that the top competitors in a sport are doping, the rule breaking cascades down through the ranks until an entire sport is corrupted. Based on his numerous interviews with athletes, coaches, trainers, drug dealers and drug testers, Williams estimates that between 50 and 80 percent of all professional baseball players and track and field athletes were doping. Given that reality, Williams told me, “There is the conviction that everyone they are competing against is cheating already.” By way of example, Williams noted that Charlie “the Chemist” Francis, coach of Ben Johnson, the sprinter and (briefly) 1988 Olympic gold medalist in the 100-meter run who was busted for doping and stripped of his medals, told him that the doping was “completely self-defensive.” How so? “It was cheat or lose.”

Armstrong’s U.S. Postal teammate Frankie Andreu, a domestique in support of the team leader in the mid 1990s, told me: “For years I had no trouble doing my job to help the team leader. Then, around 1996, the speeds of the races shifted dramatically upward. Something happened, and it wasn’t just training.” Andreu resisted doping as long as he could, but by 1999 he was unable to do his job: “It became apparent to me that enough of the peloton was on the juice that I had to do something.” He began injecting himself with r-EPO two to three times a week. The boost was exactly what he needed “to dig a little deeper, to hang on to the group a little longer, to go maybe 31.5 miles per hour instead of 30 mph.” That seemingly small difference is actually larger than it appears as it can make the difference between staying in the peloton and getting dropped; when you’re dropped and unable to enjoy the drafting benefits of riding in a large pack of riders, that can spell the difference between staying in the race or taking a flight home. This is where the game theory matrix of incentives kicks in.

The Game Theoretic Logic of Doping

Game theory is the study of how players in a game choose strategies that will maximize their return in anticipation of the strategies chosen by the other players. The “games” for which the theory was invented are not just gambling games such as poker or sporting contests in which tactical decisions play a major role; they also include serious life matters in which people make economic choices, military decisions, and even nuclear diplomatic strategies like Mutual Assured Destruction, in which neither nation (the US and USSR during the Cold War) has an incentive to launch a nuclear first strike because the other guy will retaliate in kind, leaving both countries decimated. What these “games” have in common is that each player’s “moves” are analyzed according to the range of options open to the other players.

Prisoners Dilemma

The game of prisoner’s dilemma is the classic example: You and your partner are arrested for a crime, and the two of you are held incommunicado in separate prison cells. Even if neither of you wants to confess or rat out the other, the D.A. can change your incentive through the following matrix of options (depicted visually in the table):

  • If you both remain silent, you each get a year (top left).
  • If the other guy confesses and you do not, you get three years and he goes free (top right).
  • If you confess but the other guy doesn’t, you go free and he gets three years in jail (bottom left).
  • If you both confess, you each get two years (bottom right).

With these possible outcomes the logical choice is to defect from the advance agreement and betray your partner. Why? Consider the choices from the first prisoner’s point of view. The only thing the first prisoner cannot control about the outcome is the second prisoner’s choice. If the second prisoner remains silent then the first prisoner earns the “temptation payoff” (no jail time) by confessing, but gets a year in jail (the “high payoff”) by remaining silent. The better outcome in this case is for the first prisoner is to confess. But if the second prisoner confesses, then once again the first prisoner is better off confessing (the “low payoff” or two years in jail) than remaining silent (the “sucker payoff” or three years in jail). Because the circumstances from the second prisoner’s point of view are entirely symmetrical to the ones described for the first, each prisoner is better off confessing no matter what the other prisoner decides to do.

The prisoner’s dilemma game has been played in many experimental conditions, revealing that when subjects play the game just once or for a fixed number of rounds without being allowed to communicate with the other prisoner, defection by confessing is the common strategy. But when subjects play the game for an unknown number of rounds, the most common strategy is tit-for-tat: each begins cooperating with the prior agreement by remaining silent, then mimics whatever the other player does. Even more mutual cooperation can emerge if the players are allowed to communicate and establish mutual trust. But once defection by confessing builds momentum, it continues throughout the game and cheating becomes the norm.

“It was either join the club or go home, finish school, and get a real job.” —Tyler Hamilton

In cycling, as in baseball and other sports, the contestants compete according to a set of rules, which clearly prohibit the use of performance-enhancing drugs. But because the drugs are so effective and many of them are so difficult to detect, and because the payoffs for success are so great, the incentive to use banned substances is tempting. Once a few elite athletes defect from the rules by doping to gain an advantage, their rule-abiding competitors must defect as well. But because doping is against the rules, a code of silence — Omerta — prevents any open communication about how to flip the matrix incentives and return to abiding by the rules.

Nash Equilibrium and the Level Playing Field

In game theory, if no player has anything to gain by unilaterally changing strategies, the game is said to be in a Nash equilibrium, discovered by the mathematician John Forbes Nash, Jr., (portrayed by Russel Crowe in the film A Beautiful Mind), who went on to win the Nobel Prize in economics for his pioneering research in game theory. When everyone in a system violates the rules, or if everyone just thinks that everyone else is violating the rules (even if they are not all so doing), cheating can become a Nash equilibrium, which turns it from a moral violation to a rational choice. As the title of an article analyzing average Tour speeds put it: “Doping: A Necessity, Not a Sin.” But if everyone outside the system thinks that the rules are enforced (even while those inside the system know better), fans respond accordingly with moralistic punishment for the cheaters.

Just do the right thing: sack Lance

I have yet to see anyone inside or outside the sport explain it this way, which in a manner of speaking at least partially absolves the athletes while shifting some the moral culpability to the regulatory bodies of the sport. That is, the governing bodies of a sport must change the payoff values of the expected outcomes identified in the game matrix. First, when other players are playing by the rules, the payoff for doing likewise must be greater than the payoff for cheating. Second, and perhaps more important, even when other players are cheating, the payoff for playing fair must be greater than the payoff for cheating. Players must not feel like suckers for following the rules.

In a Nash Equilibrium of mass doping, is it a level playing field? That is, if everyone was doping then can we at least conclude that the best cyclist won all those Tours de France (not just Lance, but Pantani in 1997, Ullrich in 1998, and the others before and since)? We will never know for sure, of course, and while it is unlikely that 100% of cyclists were doping, it is telling that none of Lance’s competitors who were in a position to win but were bested by him are claiming victory or demanding restitution (and every one of the podium finishers in all seven of Lance’s TdF victories was eventually busted for doping and/or later confessed to it). In any case, anyone who would join a Fair Play for Other Dopers Committee would find it difficult to gain much sympathy among ethicists.

Anyone who would join a Fair Play for Other Dopers Committee would find it difficult to gain much sympathy among ethicists.

Some have argued that Lance’s extensive resources that enabled him to hire the best sports physiologist in the world for exclusive preparation gave him an edge over his competitors. In that vein, an unintentionally humorous moment in Zenovich’s film comes in the segment on Operatión Puerto, in which Spanish police raided the lab of a sports physiologist named Eufemiano Fuentes, whose secret code for the drugs and blood bags of athletes consisted of their initials or, in the case of Jan Ullrich, his first name. But from the time that Lance said he started doping in 1993 through his first Tour victory in 1999, he didn’t have the extensive resources that victory and fame subsequently brought him. And surely the president of the Union Cycliste International (the UCI, the sport’s governing body), Hein Vergruggen, carries some moral accountability for turning a blind eye to the corruption he not only could not have failed to notice, but actively participated in covering it up in the name of saving his sport after the catastrophic 1998 Tour that exposed the massive doping scandal already underway while Lance was still struggling to come back from cancer and chemotherapy.

Eufemiano Fuentes

It is not unreasonable to argue that the playing field wasn’t level, but it isn’t now and never was level, drugs or no drugs. Genetically gifted riders with a fire in the belly to win and the discipline to train 500 miles a week accrue not only superior fitness but greater resources in the form of more sponsorship dollars, faster support riders, smarter coaches and managers, better training facilities, food, and other creature comforts. For example, the well-capitalized British Team Sky would rent out rooms on Mount Teide in Tenerife in the Canary islands for the entire year so that their team members could train at altitude, a legal method of increasing oxygen-rich blood cells. The real victims of doping are not the other top riders whom Lance beat (all of whom doped), but the athletes who DNF’d, finished near the bottom of the leaderboard, or gave up their dream and went home to get a real job. For that you can blame systemic corruption of the system and the logical deterioration of norms of fairness that follow from it, more than any single cyclist no matter how much they capitalized on it.

Lance Armstrong
Breaking the Chain

At the end of my Scientific American article I suggested that in order to reform cycling and encourage cyclists to play by the rules, the expected values of the doping game had to be changed. For example, building and enforcing a much stricter drug-testing regimen would dramatically increase the likelihood of getting caught, thereby tilting the matrix incentive toward riding clean; for those who want to risk getting caught, increasing the penalty for doping from a temporary to a lifetime ban on competing would presumably nudge the motivation toward fair play even further.

I also suggested granting immunity to athletes for past cheating if they come clean about how doping programs worked; increase the number of competitors tested, both in competition and out-of-competition; disqualify all team members from an event if any member of the team tests positive for doping, thereby shifting the taboo on doping from an external governing body to the internal workings of the team and its members; and compel any convicted athlete to return all salary paid and prize monies earned to the team sponsors, further strengthening the incentive for athletes to enforce their own antidoping rules.

Since 2008 anti-doping controls have improved dramatically with some of these factors implemented, plus others, most notably a “biological passport,” in which an athlete’s fitness indicators are constantly monitored, such as HCT, power output, VO2 maximum rate of oxygen consumption, and others, so that any spike in improvement beyond what training can account for is an indicator of possible doping. In his 2019 book, One-Way Ticket, Jonathan Vaughters explains in game-theory language that the biological passport “wasn’t about catching people. It was always about dissuading them. It’s about limiting them. It’s about keeping things fair.” Fairness is what athletes want more than anything and Vaughters is concerned that the moralizing impulse to “find evildoers and burn them at the stake” is “what the world wants from anti-doping” but is counterproductive to the deeper fairness issue — the level playing field in which other factors like talent, training, nutrition, and drive determine outcomes. Now a team manager and cycling influencer, Vaughters has been vocal and public about his teams riding clean, thereby shifting the norms of the sport from “everyone’s doing it” to “some aren’t doing it” in hopes of arriving at a new norm of “no one’s doing it.”

Jonathan Vaughters

Jonathan Vaughters

Forgiveness and Redemption

At the end of Vaughters’ memoir he admits “We all doped. It’s inexcusable and it’s a fact.” It should be clear by now that Lance’s downfall has less to do with doping and more to do with the people whose lives he harmed in his years of denial, defense, and destruction of others. As Vaughters put it: “The bullying was the reason Lance paid a higher price than the rest of us.” One of those who feels bullied is Betsy Andreu, wife of Lance’s teammate of many years, Frankie Andreu. A deeply moral person who is the very the embodiment of Kantian deontological (rule-bound) ethics, Betsy does not suffer cheats gladly (including her husband, whom she upbraided when she discovered he doped just to compete). She explained to me in no uncertain terms exactly what the core issue with Lance is and what he has to do to redeem himself.

First, she said, the other dopers, such as Ullrich, Basso, and Pantani, did not try to destroy other people for simply telling the truth about what was going on. Doping causes harm to others in the sport who don’t dope, but attacking, suing, libeling, and curtailing the income of those attempting to expose the doping is another level of harm altogether. Second, she continued, there is the matter of apologies. “I’ve learned there are 3 components to being sorry,” she outlined:

  1. You acknowledge the wrong you did to the person you wronged.
  2. You apologize for it.
  3. You make amends. How? You ask the person what they need from you to show you they mean they’re sorry.
Betsy Andreu

Betsy Andreu

Restorative vs. Retributive Justice

In criminal justice scholarship what Betsy Andreu is proposing is called restorative justice, in which the perpetrator apologizes for the offense, attempts to set-to-rights the wrong done, and if possible initiate or restore good relations with the victim. Restorative justice is contrasted with retributive justice, in which wrong doers should get their just desserts. Think Old Testament eye-for-an-eye (Moses) vs. New Testament turn-the-other-cheek (Jesus), Malcolm X vs. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rambo vs. Gandhi. Redemption begins with an acknowledgment on the part of the wrongdoer, who must take some level of responsibility for the offense, and builds from there to include the victims’ losses and a plan for restoration. As I outlined in my chapter on the subject in The Moral Arc, retributive justice is focused on what offenders deserve whereas restorative justice is concerned about what victims need; retributive justice is about what was done wrong whereas restorative justice is about making it right; retributive justice is offender oriented whereas restorative justice is victim oriented.

I don’t know who all feels that they should be on Lance’s restorative justice list. And, clearly, there are possible legal and financial consequences of going down that path that I do not know about. But in noting the many cancer victims and their families Lance inspired and materially helped through his charitable generosity — highlighted in the film and praised as unassailably real by ESPN’s Senior Writer Bonnie Ford, who was otherwise a harsh critic — it is evident that Armstrong is capable of being a person who can make a positive difference in the world. Will he?

Lance Armstrong

This could be Lance’s greatest challenge, harder perhaps even than overcoming cancer, inasmuch as personality and temperament are relatively stable throughout the lifespan. I don’t know if he has the character to do so across the board, but he has made amends with some people, and I will note that many a person with far graver personal failings have turned their lives around so dramatically that they’re almost unrecognizable. A type specimen might be the heavyweight boxing champion George Foreman, who by his own account was, pace Landis’ description of Armstrong, a badass motherfucker … until he was humbled by Muhammad Ali in the Rumble in the Jungle. Foreman willed himself into becoming one of the most likeable and inspirational figures of the late 20th century, recapturing his heavyweight title along with the admiration of millions. Others have made similar transformations. Can Lance do the same? The only person standing in the way is Lance himself. We shall see. END

About the Author

Michael Shermer is the Publisher of Skeptic magazine, host of the Science Salon podcast, and a Presidential Fellow at Chapman University. He is the author of a dozen books including the New York Times bestsellers Why People Believe Weird Things, The Believing Brain, and The Moral Arc. His latest book is Giving the Devil His Due. He is also a co-founder of the 3,000-mile nonstop transcontinental bicycle Race Across America (RAAM), which he competed in 5 times and was the Race Director for a decade.

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Evolution & Creationism, Part 1

Posted on May. 29, 2020 by | Comments Off on Evolution & Creationism, Part 1

Dr. Michael Shermer takes viewers to the Galápagos Islands to retrace Darwin’s footsteps (literally — in 2006 Shermer and historian of science Frank Sulloway hiked and camped all over the first island Darwin visited) and show that, in fact, Darwin did not discover natural selection when he was there in September of 1835. He worked out his theory when he returned home, and Shermer shows exactly how Darwin did that, along with the story of the theory’s co-discoverer, Alfred Russel Wallace. Then Shermer outlines what, exactly, the theory of evolution explains, how it displaced the creationist model as the explanation for design in nature (wings, eyes, etc. as functional adaptations), and why so many people today still misunderstand the theory and how that sustained the creationist model.

Skepticism 101: How to Think Like a Scientist covers a wide range of topics, from critical thinking, reasoning, rationality, cognitive biases and how thinking goes wrong, and the scientific methods, to actual claims and whether or not there is any truth to them, e.g., ESP, ETIs, UFOs, astrology, channelling, psychics, creationism, Holocaust denial, and especially conspiracy theories and how to think about them.

If you missed Dr. Shermer’s previous Skepticism 101 lectures watch them now.

About the photograph above

Charles Darwin described of what he called the “craterized district” on San Cristóbal, Galápagos Islands thusly:

The entire surface of this part of the island seems to have been permeated, like a sieve, by the subterranean vapours: here and there the lava, whilst soft, has been blown into great bubbles; and in other parts, the tops of caverns similarly have fallen in, leaving circular pits with steep sides. From the regular form of the many craters, they gave to the country an artificial appearance, which vividly reminded me of those parts of Staffordshire, where the great iron-foundries are most numerous.

The photograph was taken on 21 June 2004 by Dr. Frank Sulloway. Darwin hiked this area in September, 1835.

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Holocaust Denial

Posted on May. 22, 2020 by | Comments Off on Holocaust Denial

In this lecture on Holocaust Denial, Dr. Michael Shermer employs the methods of science to history, showing how we can determine truth about the past. Many scholars in the humanities and social sciences do not consider history to be a science. Instead, they treat it as a field of competing narrative stories, no one of which has a superior claim to truth values than any others. But as Dr. Shermer replies to this assertion, are we to understand that those who assert that the Holocaust never happened have equal standing to those who assert that it did? Of course not! It is here where most cultural relativists get off the relativity train, acknowledging that, in fact, we can establish certain facts about the past, no less than we can about the present.

Skepticism 101: How to Think Like a Scientist covers a wide range of topics, from critical thinking, reasoning, rationality, cognitive biases and how thinking goes wrong, and the scientific methods, to actual claims and whether or not there is any truth to them, e.g., ESP, ETIs, UFOs, astrology, channelling, psychics, creationism, Holocaust denial, and especially conspiracy theories and how to think about them.

If you missed Dr. Shermer’s previous Skepticism 101 lectures watch them now.

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Pathways to Evil, Part 2

Posted on May. 15, 2020 by | Comments Off on Pathways to Evil, Part 2

In Pathways to Evil, Part 2, Dr. Michael Shermer fleshes out the themes of Part 1 by exploring how the dials controlling our inner demons and better angels can be dialed up or down depending on circumstances and conditions. Are we all good apples but occasionally bad barrels turn good apples rotten, or do we all harbor the capacity to turn bad?

Skepticism 101: How to Think Like a Scientist covers a wide range of topics, from critical thinking, reasoning, rationality, cognitive biases and how thinking goes wrong, and the scientific methods, to actual claims and whether or not there is any truth to them, e.g., ESP, ETIs, UFOs, astrology, channelling, psychics, creationism, Holocaust denial, and especially conspiracy theories and how to think about them.

If you missed Dr. Shermer’s previous Skepticism 101 lectures watch them now.

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Pathways to Evil, Part 1

Posted on May. 08, 2020 by | Comments Off on Pathways to Evil, Part 1

In Part 1 of his Pathways to Evil lecture Dr. Michael Shermer considers the nature of evil in his attempt to answer the question of how you can get normal civilized, educated, and intelligent people to commit murder and even genocide. Are we basically good and made bad by evil situations, or are we basically evil and made good by civilized society?

Skepticism 101: How to Think Like a Scientist covers a wide range of topics, from critical thinking, reasoning, rationality, cognitive biases and how thinking goes wrong, and the scientific methods, to actual claims and whether or not there is any truth to them, e.g., ESP, ETIs, UFOs, astrology, channelling, psychics, creationism, Holocaust denial, and especially conspiracy theories and how to think about them.

If you missed Dr. Shermer’s previous Skepticism 101 lectures watch them now.

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How to Think About the Bermuda Triangle

Posted on May. 01, 2020 by | Comments Off on How to Think About the Bermuda Triangle

Dr. Michael Shermer examines the claims about the Bermuda Triangle using the tools of skepticism, science, and rationality to reveal that there is no mystery to explain. Selective reporting, false reporting, quote mining, anecdote chasing, and mystery mongering all conjoin to create what appears to be an unsolved mystery about the disappearance of planes and ships in this triangular shape region of the ocean. But when you examine each particular case, as did the U.S. Navy, Coast Guard, and especially insurance companies who have to pay out for such losses, it becomes clear that almost all have natural explanations, and the remaining unsolved ones are lying on the bottom of the ocean beyond our knowledge.

Skepticism 101: How to Think Like a Scientist covers a wide range of topics, from critical thinking, reasoning, rationality, cognitive biases and how thinking goes wrong, and the scientific methods, to actual claims and whether or not there is any truth to them, e.g., ESP, ETIs, UFOs, astrology, channelling, psychics, creationism, Holocaust denial, and especially conspiracy theories and how to think about them.

If you missed Dr. Shermer’s previous Skepticism 101 lectures watch them now.

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Politics of Belief

Posted on Apr. 17, 2020 by | Comments Off on Politics of Belief

Dr. Michael Shermer explains how we arrived at the Left-Right spectrum, both historically and evolutionarily, and the numerous metaphors used to wrap our minds around such complex systems as politics and economics. This Chapman University lecture is based on chapters in his books The Believing Brain, The Moral Arc, and Giving the Devil His Due, along with the books of Christian Sith, George Lakoff, Alan Fiske, Jonathan Haidt, Thomas Sowell, and Steven Pinker.

Skepticism 101: How to Think Like a Scientist covers a wide range of topics, from critical thinking, reasoning, rationality, cognitive biases and how thinking goes wrong, and the scientific methods, to actual claims and whether or not there is any truth to them, e.g., ESP, ETIs, UFOs, astrology, channelling, psychics, creationism, Holocaust denial, and especially conspiracy theories and how to think about them.

If you missed Dr. Shermer’s previous Skepticism 101 lectures watch them now.

Mentioned in this lecture

Order the following books by Michael Shermer upon which this lecture is based.

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Deities for Atheists, Skygods for Skeptics: UFOs & ETIs

Posted on Apr. 07, 2020 by | Comments Off on Deities for Atheists, Skygods for Skeptics: UFOs & ETIs

Dr. Michael Shermer distinguishes between two questions: (1) Are extraterrestrial intelligences (ETIs) out there somewhere in the cosmos? and (2) Have aliens come here? Evidence for both questions is considered in the larger context of why the issue so compels us to answer it almost religiously.

Skepticism 101: How to Think Like a Scientist covers a wide range of topics, from critical thinking, reasoning, rationality, cognitive biases and how thinking goes wrong, and the scientific methods, to actual claims and whether or not there is any truth to them, e.g., ESP, ETIs, UFOs, astrology, channelling, psychics, creationism, Holocaust denial, and especially conspiracy theories and how to think about them.

If you missed Dr. Shermer’s previous Skepticism 101 lectures watch them now.

Mentioned in this lecture
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Cults, Myths, and Religion

Posted on Apr. 03, 2020 by | Comments Off on Cults, Myths, and Religion

Dr. Michael Shermer considers the characteristics of cults, how they differ from sects, religions, and myths, the role that myths and religions play in culture and people’s lives, and what Scientologists really believe.

Skepticism 101: How to Think Like a Scientist covers a wide range of topics, from critical thinking, reasoning, rationality, cognitive biases and how thinking goes wrong, and the scientific methods, to actual claims and whether or not there is any truth to them, e.g., ESP, ETIs, UFOs, astrology, channelling, psychics, creationism, Holocaust denial, and especially conspiracy theories and how to think about them.

If you missed Dr. Shermer’s previous Skepticism 101 lectures watch them now.

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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.

FREE PDF Download

Wisdom of Harriet Hall

Top 10 Things to Know About Alternative Medicine

Harriet Hall M.D. discusses: alternative versus conventional medicine, flu fear mongering, chiropractic, vaccines and autism, placebo effect, diet, homeopathy, acupuncture, “natural remedies,” and detoxification.

FREE Video Series

Science Based Medicine vs. Alternative Medicine

Science Based Medicine vs. Alternative Medicine

Understanding the difference could save your life! In this superb 10-part video lecture series, Harriet Hall M.D., contrasts science-based medicine with so-called “complementary and alternative” methods.

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Top 10 Myths of Terrorism

Is Terrorism an Existential Threat?

This free booklet reveals 10 myths that explain why terrorism is not a threat to our way of life or our survival.

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The Top 10 Weirdest Things

The Top Ten Strangest Beliefs

Michael Shermer has compiled a list of the top 10 strangest beliefs that he has encountered in his quarter century as a professional skeptic.

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Reality Check: How Science Deniers Threaten Our Future (paperback cover)

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

What is a conspiracy theory, why do people believe in them, and can you tell the difference between a true conspiracy and a false one?

FREE PDF Download

The Science Behind Why People See Ghosts

The Science Behind Why People See Ghosts

Mind altering experiences are one of the foundations of widespread belief in the paranormal. But as skeptics are well aware, accepting them as reality can be dangerous…

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Top 10 Myths About Evolution

Top 10 Myths About Evolution (and how we know it really happened)

If humans came from apes, why aren’t apes evolving into humans? Find out in this pamphlet!

FREE PDF Download

Learn to be a Psychic in 10 Easy Lessons

Learn to do Psychic “Cold Reading” in 10
Easy Lessons

Psychic readings and fortunetelling are an ancient art — a combination of acting and psychological manipulation.

FREE PDF Download

The Yeti or Abominable Snowman

5 Cryptid Cards

Download and print 5 Cryptid Cards created by Junior Skeptic Editor Daniel Loxton. Creatures include: The Yeti, Griffin, Sasquatch/Bigfoot, Loch Ness Monster, and the Cadborosaurus.

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