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Don’t miss BILL NYE, the Science Guy

in conversation with Michael Shermer, discussing Bill’s new book: Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation
Bill Nye Bill Nye

Sun., Jan. 25, 2015 at 2 pm
Beckman Auditorium

SPARKED BY A CONTROVERSIAL DEBATE in February 2014, Bill Nye has set off on an energetic campaign to spread awareness of evolution and the powerful way it shapes our lives. In Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation, he explains why race does not really exist; evaluates the true promise and peril of genetically modified food; reveals how new species are born, in a dog kennel and in a London subway; takes a stroll through 4.5 billion years of time; and explores the new search for alien life, including aliens right here on Earth. With infectious enthusiasm, Bill Nye shows that evolution is much more than a rebuttal to creationism; it is an essential way to understand how nature works—and to change the world. Don’t miss this enlightening “In Conversation” with Bill Nye, hosted by Michael Shermer.

A book signing will follow the lecture. We will have copies of the book, Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation, available for purchase. Can’t attend the lecture? Order Undeniable from Amazon.

Ticket Information

Tickets are $15 for Skeptics Society members/Caltech/JPL community; $20 for general public; $5 for Caltech students. Tickets may be purchased in advance through the Caltech ticket office in 101 Winnett, at the door, by calling at 626-395-4652 between 9am and 4pm Monday through Friday (Do not leave a message.), or online using the link below. Ordering tickets ahead of time is strongly recommended.

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Bradley Voytek, On Demand
Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep?

WITH THEIR ENDLESS WANDERING, lumbering gait, insatiable hunger, antisocial behavior, and apparently memory-less existence, zombies are the walking nightmares of our deepest fears. What do these characteristic behaviors reveal about the inner workings of the zombie mind? Could we diagnose zombism as a neurological condition by studying their behavior? In Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep?, Dr. Bradley Voytek, a professor of computational cognitive science and neuroscience at the University of California, San Diego, applies neuro-know-how to dissect the puzzle of what has happened to the zombie brain to make the undead act differently than their human prey. Combining tongue-in-cheek analysis with modern neuroscientific principles, Voytek shows how zombism can be understood in terms of current knowledge regarding how the brain works. Voytek draws on zombie popular culture and identifies a characteristic zombie behavior that can be explained using neuroanatomy, neurophysiology, and brain-behavior relationships. Through this exploration he sheds light on fundamental neuroscientific questions such as: How does the brain function during sleeping and waking? What neural systems control movement? What is the nature of sensory perception? Order Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep? from Amazon.

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Here Be Zombies

In Michael Shermer’s January 2015 “Skeptic” column for Scientific American, he discusses our fear of and fascination with zombies—those liminal beings that fall in between categories (animate and inanimate, human and nonhuman)—and what the living dead can teach us about ancient prejudices.



About this week’s eSkeptic

In this week’s eSkeptic, Michael Shermer discusses race relations and the law in America through the lens of Max Weber’s 1919 theory on “legitimate use of physical force.” A slightly different version of this OpEd was originally published at on December 23, 2014.

Michael Shermer is publisher of Skeptic magazine and a monthly columnist for Scientific American. His new book, The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity Toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom, comes out on January 20, 2014. Follow him on Twitter @michaelshermer.

The 1919 Theory That Explains Why Police Officers Need Their Guns

by Michael Shermer

In 1919, with the smoke still clearing from the battlefields of the First World War, the German sociologist Max Weber began a systematic study of the nation-state by defining a state as any “human community that successfully claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.” But what constitutes legitimate force? We should keep this question in mind when considering the run of recent events involving conflicts between police and citizens, from the killing of two unarmed black men by cops in Ferguson, Mo., and Staten Island, N.Y., earlier last year, as well as the murder of two police offers in New York City in December.

Over the course of many centuries the criminal justice system, with its armed police, replaced self-help justice conducted by gangs and individuals. Human communities such as drug gangs and mafia syndicates use physical force, but it is not legitimate and they do not have a monopoly; this leads to higher rates of violence because there is no strong state to act as an objective third party to oversee disputes. In Mexico, for example, the high incidence of violence can be traced in part to the inability of the state to enforce its drug laws, leading gangs to settle their differences themselves. States, for all their faults, have more checks and balances than individuals. This is why Justitia—the Roman goddess of justice—is often depicted wearing a blindfold (symbolizing impartiality) and carrying a scale on which to weigh the evidence in one hand and a double-edged sword, for her power to enforce the law, in the other.

Today the state’s justice is conducted through two systems: criminal and civil. Civil justice deals with disputes between individuals or groups, whereas criminal justice deals with crimes against the laws of the land that are punishable only by the state. This is why criminal cases are labeled The State v. John Doe or The People v. Jane Roe: the state is the injured party. California, for example, continues to pursue charges against the filmmaker Roman Polanski for allegedly raping an underage girl in 1977, even though she—a woman now in her 40s—has requested that the state drop the charges. In late December 2014 he filed another motion to have all charges against him dropped, and Geimer has even offered to testify on his behalf, but the state of California is unlikely to drop the charges because that would show weakness in its commitment to the rule of law.

That’s why people sometimes take the law into their own hands, via vigilantism or protest, when they do not feel that the law is fair to them: because the criminal-justice system acts on behalf of only the state, rather than on behalf of individuals, it requires trust in the state in order to work. That trust is lacking for many black communities in America; a 2013 Gallup poll, for example, found that 25% of whites but 68% of blacks believe that “the American justice system is biased against black people.”

This theory is important to keep in mind when thinking about what happened between 12:01pm and 12:03pm on Aug. 9, 2014, in Ferguson, Mo., when police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed teenager Michael Brown. Was his use of physical force legitimate or not? A grand jury determined that it could not make such a determination based on the conflicting eyewitness accounts, and so Wilson’s actions will not be considered criminal by the state. Something similar happened in New York when Eric Garner died at the hands of the police—was it a legal “grappling hold” or “headlock” or an illegal chokehold? Even with video evidence the grand jury voted not to indict the police officers, based on a medical examination that concluded Garner’s death was not due to damage to the windpipe or neck bones, but was the result of compression to the neck and body in conjunction with asthma, heart disease and obesity. Though Brown’s and Garner’s families may choose to pursue civil cases, only the state can say—or, as the case may be, not say—that a crime has been committed.

Though much remains unclear about what happened in these situations, Weber’s theory can also help us understand how a seemingly innocent encounter between a citizen and a police officer could escalate into lethal violence. When Officer Wilson asked Michael Brown to move from the middle of the street to the sidewalk and Brown refused, Wilson was faced with the dilemma all cops face when a suspect refuses to comply: back down and thereby lose both the monopoly and the legitimacy of law enforcement, or ratchet up the intensity of tactics to achieve compliance. The latter is what happened on that fateful day when Brown not only refused to comply with Wilson’s demand, but—according to some reports—also reached into his squad car to grab his gun. As a former Baltimore police officer and police commissioner named Fred Bealefeld told the New York Times “If someone grabs your weapon, as a cop you’re not thinking they are going to scare you with it. In my mind, every time someone tried to grab my gun in the street, they were going to try to kill me. That encounter changes everything.” The case of Eric Garner was similar in that when he was approached by the police on suspicion of selling single cigarettes without tax stamps, he responded by complaining of being harassed by the police. In response, the police moved to arrest Garner by physically grabbing him, which he also resisted, leading to an escalation of violence and his death.

In a world where Weber’s theory is in effect, allowing a civilian to potentially use force against the police is a challenge to the whole fabric of society. Though it’s possible to debate how much police force is legitimate, any non-police force is inherently illegitimate. This is why the killing of two New York City police officers—40-year old Rafael Ramos and 32-year old Wenjian Liu—on December 20 is likely to shift the sympathies of the public away from the peaceful protesters marching against injustice and back toward the police, especially after news reports surfaced that the alleged shooter, Ismaaiyl Brinsley, posted on social media that it was in retaliation for the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner (the killer took his own life shortly after the shootings). This is most likely a one-off event unlikely to be repeated in cities across the U.S., but it nonetheless punctuates the point that there’s a reason the police in all civilized states are armed in one way or another.

The deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu were tragedies that need this kind of perspective, because in fact the vast majority of law enforcement officers are good people just trying to do their jobs of administering the state’s rule of law, and the vast majority of African-Americans are good people just trying to lead their lives without hassle from law enforcement. That these two communities occasionally collide in this manner is tragic, but a bit more historical perspective shows that this is far less common than it used to be.

Urban violence from the 1950s through the 1980s was commonplace, a regular feature on the nightly news; it’s now mostly relegated to historical documentaries featuring black-and-white footage of fire hoses and police dogs. And racist attitudes of Americans really are on the decline. Polling data show, for example, that in the 1940s nearly three-quarters of Americans agreed that “black and white students should go to separate schools.” That figure collapsed to almost zero by 1995, when pollsters quit asking the question. In 1960 almost half of all white Americans said that they would move if a black family moved in next door. Today that figure is also close to zero. At the turn of the 20th century lynchings were commonplace, averaging a couple a week through the 1920s, finally coming to an end by the 1950s, as shown by data from the Oxford University economist Max Roser. A 2013 Gallup poll on interracial marriage also shows the positive trend in tolerance over the past half century; in keeping with other rights revolutions where age is a factor in becoming more tolerant, the approval rate of interracial marriage in this study was 96% among 18– to 29-year-olds, 93% of 30– 49-year-olds, 84% of 50– to 64-year-olds, and 70% of 65 year olds and older. And think about the case of Donald Sterling, forced to sell his basketball team, the Clippers, for racist remarks he made in private to his mistress. In the 1950s an old white guy who thought of blacks like Sterling seems to today wouldn’t have needed to be especially private about his prejudices. Today, the few who still think like this mostly keep it to themselves or publish their views in fringe white supremacist newsletters or web sites.

Clearly, as recent events have shown, racial violence is not zero and we have a ways to go before America is truly color blind, but, as the oft-quoted Martin Luther King line says, the arc of the moral universe really is bending toward justice. It would be good to keep that fact in mind when watching the daily news. There’s good reason for our police to be armed, and reason for the officers to be able to use their weapons, and for the most part they apply that force judiciously—and, with that in mind, we can continue working on refining what is meant by Weber’s “legitimate use of force” to insure that it is rational, reasonable and applied to everyone equally. END



  1. daniel gautreau says:

    Mr. Shermer, you will be accused of being an apologist for racist police brutality. I suggest a follow-up piece against that, for the sake of those with poor reading-comprehension skills.

  2. Jack says:

    Excellent article!

  3. Edward Haines says:

    “Legitimate use of force” is the fulcrum upon which this debate teeters. I agree that the State has the right and duty to respond with ligitimate force when required. However, that does not include initiation of force which appears at least possible if not liukely in the Eric Garner case. Along with the right to use force, the State incurs the obligation to insure that its agents use that right with legitimacy and restraint. If there is lack of supervision and investigation of uses of force by its agents, those agents who have inadequate self restraint will escalate their use of force and will become assailants of persons who would not (and, in some cases could not) initiate force.
    Our movie and TV industry provide us numerous instances in which agents of the State initiate or escalate violence with the aim of achieving a safe society. However, as the State becomes an initiator of violence, it is no longer a safe environment in which to live. Gandhi stated, “The means are not justified by the end, they determine it.” As the sole agent empowered with legitimate use of force, the State is obligated to ensure that the force used is legitimate.

  4. K. Iyer says:

    Mr. Shermer is being quite disingenuous and cute while trying his best to transform the discussion from the real question in sane minds to one for popular consumption: why is a man of color automatically assigned the role of a suspect and possibly that of a criminal EVEN before a confrontation begins AND why is the same courtesy not extended to a white person under identical conditions?

    • Sid Saunders says:

      Well said! Mr. Shermer’s analysis is way too light on the real issue at the root of these unfortunate events which is a deeply seated racial discrimination in our society leading to unequal and often unfair treatment of racial minorities. No one is arguing against the use of force by law enforcement where necessary. (e.g. fighting terrorists, organized gangs, etc…) However, it’s imperative of peace officers to use that force only as a last resort.

  5. Janice Muir says:

    Perhaps it is also useful to remember that unarmed does not necessarily mean non-violent or not dangerous.

  6. Mr. T. T. Rothach says:

    From speaking with Persons of Color and reading blogs about their experiences, “color blindness” is the new racism. Racism is no longer violent and overt, it’s discreet and polite, permitting non-whites to make up the majority of incarcerated populations, to be the subject of traffic stops and the most unlikely to be chosen for jury duty. Even if I didn’t know who you are, I could still tell just by the last paragraph that a white person wrote this. Hope you’ve read “The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander.

  7. J Petr says:

    It might be worth noting that the local police in Germany, France, and the UK are not armed. Though, they are armed at the federal level.

    Why are local U.S. police armed? We do not hear of these situations involving the F.B.I. and such…

    • W. Corvi says:

      There are vastly more guns in the general population here than in those countries.

    • Michael Müller says:

      Ah sorry but the german police is armed. Always no matter wether state (Bundesland) or national level (Polizei des Bundes, formerly the Federal Boarder Gurds -BGS). Each has a 9mm automatic and in many states a semi auto only MP5 is carried in the car. The only “uniformed forces” in germany that are not armed belong to the Ordnungsamt and their job is writing up parking offenders and unruly behaviour.

  8. M.Moore says:

    Excellent article Mr. Shermer. In the two confrontations that are discussed here we have a person suspected of illegally selling cigarettes and another who robs a store and then walks down the middle of the street. Fortunately for our society these actions get the attention of the police. Do we really want our police to just say “oh, OK” if a person does not feel like stopping ? A society where the police leave and the criminal continues on can not last long.

  9. Bob Pease says:

    1. A college degree is required to participate in American Upper middle class.

    2. In Public Schools , The strongest correlation for College admission is the median value of the single family residence in a particular neighborhood.

    3. Housing Apartheid exists throughout America.

    The conclusion is obvius

    Your chance of Financial Suckcess in USA depends on where you grew up.

    The issue of the ” right” to civil disorder and looting because of perceived abuse of police power is peripheral to all of this


  10. Roy Niles says:

    For once I agree with Mr. Shermer completely.

  11. T Maz says:

    “Though it’s possible to debate how much police force is legitimate, any non-police force is inherently illegitimate.”

    Shermer would seem to discount one’s right to defend oneself against aggression.

    Police-citizen confrontations could be reduced if a variety of ‘crimes’ were eliminated from the code. Selling single cigarettes or various drug offenses or prostitution are victimless ‘crimes’. There can be no legitimate use of force to deter these actions, but the state uses them as grounds for thousands of police actions that harm citizens, incarcerate otherwise non-violent individuals, and destroy families.

    Race is a factor, but those who focus solely on race ignore the larger issue that pervades our system. Accountability by police – the same as for any other citizen – is required to re-establish the level of trust that law enforcement needs to be effective. A lack of transparency and the cozy relationship between the local prosecutor and the local cops undermines such trust. A good first step would be to require a truly independent prosecutor to oversee all charges of police violence.

    • M. Friedman says:

      Hear hear!

      Self defense and defense of one who cannot defend himself are absolutely legitimate uses of force. I think what may be left out but understood in the 1919 definition is force used to compel others to do what you want. Such as pay taxes, walk on the sidewalk etc.

      Why selling single cigarettes is a crime worthy of detainment makes no sense to me. The taxes were paid on the full pack. This man was simply filling a niche market. One that was not being served and could not be served by a retail establishment due to arbitrary laws. Ending the war on drugs and reforming capricious laws like the single cigarette one would take us light years ahead in curbing useless deaths at the hands of law enforcement.

      And to parrot your last statement a bit, how can we expect that government will impartially judge itself? Would anyone? Of course not. I don’t know the answer but I think police officers should be held to a higher standard not the much lower one that seems to be in place now. With their armament and special training they are extremely dangerous and should exercise the proper level of responsibility. When I see the way many officers manhandle suspects I seethe. Respect and courtesy should be the norm not the exception.

  12. tpaine says:

    It’s not just about race anymore, it’s about the coercive and unconstitutional (my opinion) power taken by our government. Do gooders sought to improve society by using a nebulous taxing authority to negatively influence personal choices, like smoking. They created a crime where one would not otherwise exist. Eric Garner, satisfying a double coincidence of needs, was just an entrepreneur.

    When you give government a powerful tool, the powerless will feel it first. Absolute power will be felt absolutely.

  13. Provocateur says:

    I use to love MS’s articles, but this is the second time (IMO) he has seriously fallen down (the previous being his article against gun rights). He presents many accurate points, but mixes in a few blatant falsehoods that ruin the rest of his argument.

    The legitimate use of force does not stem from a law or a badge. It stems from self-defense. INITIATION of force is wrong. DEFENSIVE (retaliatory) use is legitimate. That we grant the state a monopoly on the use of defensive force (leaving aside argument as to whether or not this is a good thing) is to prevent vigilante justice, and to interject reason, science, uniformity, and predictability.

    The police do not “lose legitimacy” by backing down in the face of a “non-compliant” suspect. They have already lost legitimacy via unjust laws, the enforcement of unjust laws, the unjust (selective) enforcement of laws, and the unjust use of force. The result of such injustice is a return to vigilante justice, further negating LE legitimacy!

    MS ends with a reference to MLK. He should look up the “Deacons of Justice” and how they armed themselves in self defense. The peace-loving and striving MLK himself owned guns and was prepared to use them if necessary. Owning guns is NOT incompatible with a peaceful society, and, I would venture to say, actually a requirement.

    • Provocateur says:

      I should clarify: We grant the state monopoly on the *retaliatory* use of force, not the defensive use of force. Defensive use of force is a natural right of everyone.

  14. julio a. says:

    T. Maz….in the vast majority of prostitution, there is a crime occurring, namely kidnapping, abuse, forced acts, etc. And remember that neither of these two men were killed for committing a petty crime – they were killed while resisting arrest, which rolls right back to shermer’s argument regarding either escalating the force or losing the monopoly of power. Gardner’s death could also have been prevented by him complying with directions rather than resisting. Same with Brown’s death. Furthermore, the state does not intentionally harm citizens and destroy families, as you say, just for the sake of it. Harmed citizens and destroyed families are the byproduct of being caught not following the law – just like the deaths of these two men.

  15. Julie R Butler says:

    How is everyone missing the point, here?

    First of all, there is the issue of scale of force, and the police in the United States have become militarized. – Here’s just one of many examples of this:

    Then there are the issues brought up in this piece by Matt Taibbi about the NYPD “work stoppage”:

    “First, it shines a light on the use of police officers to make up for tax shortfalls using ticket and citation revenue. Then there’s the related (and significantly more important) issue of forcing police to make thousands of arrests and issue hundreds of thousands of summonses when they don’t ‘have to.'”

    And finally, as at least one aware commenter mentioned above, the nature of racism in the United States has changed, but don’t be fooled. It is still alive and well. This article about segregation in St. Louis explains how, because of “white flight,” Ferguson was left with a very low tax base, so the city raises taxes with traffic fines and such, which disproportionately affects lower-income people and can lead to a warrant for their arrest and completely ruin their lives if they didn’t have money to pay the fine.

    How disappointing that Mr. Shermer does not recognize the massive complexity of race relations in the United States today, and I must say that I am rather shocked that the readers are so unaware of these issues, as well. It appears to me that, despite Neil Degreasse Tyson’s advocacy for scientific reason, the skepticism crowd has a serious race problem in addition to its gender problem.

  16. tpaine says:

    julio, you should re read provocateur’s post. He understands rights, I don’t believe you do.
    Unfortunately, many in society will not have the “liberty” epiphany until they are “detained”or bullied, even when there is no reasonable, articulated suspicion that a “crime” has been, or is about to be committed. When it happens to Michael, I think it might alter his view. The state never intentionally harms others? Those acting as agents of the state do, every day i’d theorize.

  17. Julie R Butler says:

    After stepping away from this issue, I realize that my previous comment was a bit emotionally overwrought, and I would like to clarify my opinion.

    I recognize that Mr. Shermer did not claim that racism has disappeared. What got me, though, was the insinuation in this article that because things are not horrendous now, as compared to the past, then they must be pretty good in regard to the treatment of blacks and other minorities in the United States. This is unacceptable.

    Yes, I believe that the arc of the moral universe is bending toward justice, just as Dr. Martin Luther King did, even as he was fighting to bend it in that direction. But those words were spoken to spiritually uplift members of the black community who saw little hope that things could change, when Jim Crow laws were preventing blacks from advancement in society and racism was right out in the open. I feel that it is an affront to the civil rights movement to use the term for the opposite purpose, to imply that we should be satisfied with where we are.

    My utter disappointment with this article lies in its flippant attitude toward the social problems it addresses, from talking about the use of force by the state without recognizing its scale to blowing off the country’s very real racism problem. To quote MLK once again, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

  18. Mike Sutton says:

    I’m a British criminologist. When visiting police in Indianapolis some years ago I was introduced to an officer who was “confined to his desk” by the Captain – essentially grounded for a month or so. I asked him why. His reply: “I fired my gun too often recently. But I figure they give you a tool, train you to use it, then they expect you to use it.”

    Kind of reminds me of the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes: – Train a cop to effectively shoot first and ask questions about the evidence for dong so later then that is what they think you want them to do.

  19. Cameron says:

    I am quite surprised by this article. Not so much by the racially charged aspect of it. Rather, I’m surprised that as a skeptic you’re using Max Weber for your theoretical basis. Why not throw Hobbes in there and defend totalitarianism? Max Weber is to social science like the Sigmund Freud is to psychology – interesting in the historical perspective, but utterly outdated and useless. Just look at some very clear evidence: English police don’t normally carry guns and the rates of gun violence are far lower in the UK than in the US. Also, cops tend to shoot people when they think that the suspect may go for their gun (as you mention in your piece), which is a logical reaction by a cop, but wouldn’t happen if the cop didn’t have a gun. Also, wielding a gun has not shown to be a deterrent, much in the same way the death penalty isn’t. Holding a gun actually increase aggression and the chances of someone getting shot, not to mention how it fogs people’s memory of incidents (gun effect). Lastly, civilian adherence to social legal norms is far more affected by trust in the state than it is by the state’s ability to predictably and forcefully administer punishment. Michael, please practice what you preach: start with the evidence then go to the theory, not the other way around – especially when it comes to outdated theories.

  20. Thomas Teske says:

    How ironic Michael Shermer, a member of the Privileged Affluent White Male demographic, the one with essentially zero firsthand experience dealing with “legitimate use of force,” would stray across the tracks into this bad part of town!

  21. Trent Halliday says:

    Straying from the main argument,”Crimes without victims” is the justification people give for lifestyle choices like alcoholism. Actually, the families and community of the alcoholic are often victims of such tragedies, and of course the alcoholics themselves can become irreparably damaged.

  22. billy s humphries says:

    That article spins and deletes and ignores facts……about ferguson , NY , D. sterling and more..

    anyone who reads that article should slowly take it apart sentence by sentence and view it for what it really is . Biased an not based on facts .. ” lies are as good as the truth if people will believe it ” “end justifies the means mentality”………

  23. awc says:

    I think that these specific cases are a red haring. It is the systematic racism that needs addressing. When you look at over all arrest and incarceration rates in america this is where the issue arises.

    Many of the single events are seemingly justified when the facts are examined. When you look at the meta data you realize that things are very lopsided.

    The fact is there are laws against racism already. How are they to be enforced or when will they be obeyed?

    One of the arguments that bothers me is the police always say they felt threatened. What is my recourse if I feel threatened by police?

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