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SCIENCE SALON # 108

Michael Shermer with Brian Greene — Until the End of Time: Mind, Matter, and Our Search for Meaning in an Evolving Universe

Until the End of Time is Brian Greene’s breathtaking new exploration of the cosmos and our quest to find meaning in the face of this vast expanse. Greene takes us on a journey from the big bang to the end of time, exploring how lasting structures formed, how life and mind emerged, and how we grapple with our existence through narrative, myth, religion, creative expression, science, the quest for truth, and a deep longing for the eternal. From particles to planets, consciousness to creativity, matter to meaning—Brian Greene allows us all to grasp and appreciate our fleeting but utterly exquisite moment in the cosmos.

Dr. Greene is a professor of physics and mathematics and director of Columbia University’s Center for Theoretical Physics and is renowned for his groundbreaking discoveries in superstring theory. He is the author of The Elegant Universe, The Fabric of the Cosmos, and The Hidden Reality, and he has hosted two Peabody and Emmy Award winning NOVA miniseries based on his books. With producer Tracy Day, Greene cofounded the World Science Festival. He lives in New York. Greene and Shermer also discuss:

  • God and religion
  • why there is something rather than nothing
  • What was there before the Big Bang, and what caused it to bang?
  • Are mathematics and the laws of nature human constructs or in nature?
  • how the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics is the First Law of Life
  • How does consciousness arise from physical particles?
  • panpsychism
  • the Fermi Paradox (where is everybody?)
  • the evolutionary origins of storytelling and myth making
  • free will and determinism
  • finding meaning in a meaningless universe
  • Greene’s encounter with J.Z. Knight and her 35,000 year old spirit warrior Ramtha
  • Terror Management Theory and the fear of death
  • Are moral values human constructs and thus relative, or is there a secular/scientific basis for right and wrong?

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SKEPTICISM 101

Michael Shermer Gives a Remote Lecture on Conspiracies & Conspiracy Theories that anyone can watch for free

During the Coronavirus outbreak, while many schools are closed, Michael Shermer will be teaching remotely his Skepticism 101 course How to Think Like a Scientist from his recording studio in California instead of from Chapman University. He has chosen to share some of these lectures with you that he recorded for his students practicing social distancing at home.

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.

In this lecture, Dr. Shermer explains the difference between conspiracies and conspiracy theories, who is more likely to believe which conspiracy theories, the social, political, cultural, and psychological conditions in which conspiracy theories flourish, real conspiracies, and who really killed JFK.

The course was 7 weeks into the 15-week semester when the pandemic hit, so this lecture picks up where he was in the course. He thought he would would make these lectures public inasmuch as all of us are now in search of content to consume while we’re stuck inside for the next few months. Enjoy.

View the full lecture

Note: There was a technical glitch at the end of the lecture, cutting out most of the points of the final slides of my Conspiracy Detection Kit. Here are those slide as expanded text:

Conspiracy Detection Kit

Parallel to my Baloney Detection Kit, I have put together a 10-point list for a Conspiracy Detection Kit. The more that a conspiracy theory manifests the following characteristics, the less likely it is to be a real conspiracy.

  1. Patternicity. Proof of the conspiracy supposedly emerges from a pattern of “connecting the dots” between events that need not be causally connected. When no evidence supports these connections except the allegation of the conspiracy, or when the evidence fits equally well to other patterns—or to randomness—the conspiracy theory is likely false.
  2. Agenticity. The agents behind the pattern of the conspiracy would need nearly superhuman power to pull it off. Most of the time in most circumstances, people, agencies, and corporations are not nearly so powerful as we think they are. If the conspiracy theory involves super powerful agents it is likely false.
  3. Complexity. The conspiracy theory is complex and its successful completion demands a large number of elements coming together at just the right moment and in the proper sequence. The more elements involved and the more delicate the timing of the sequence in which they must come together, the less likely the conspiracy theory is to be true.
  4. People. The more people involved in the conspiracy theory the less likely it is to be true. Conspiracies involving large numbers of people who would all need to keep silent about their secrets typically fail. People are incompetent and emotional. They screw up, chicken out, change their minds, have moral scruples. Conspiracy theories treat people like programmed robots carrying out their commands. That is unrealistic.
  5. Grandiosity. If the conspiracy theory encompasses some grandiose ambition for control over a nation, economy, or political system, and especially if it aims for world domination, it is almost certainly false. The bigger the conspiracy the more likely it is to fail for the reasons of complexity and people that I’ve just given.
  6. Scale. When the conspiracy theory ratchets up from small events that might be true to much larger events that have much lower probabilities of being true, it is very likely false. Most real conspiracies involve very specific events and targets, such as insider trading on Wall Street, price fixing in an industry, tax evasion by a corporation, and, yes, the assassination of a political leader, but always for a narrow goal of making money, grabbing power, or ending tyranny.
  7. Significance. If the conspiracy theory assigns portentous and sinister meanings and interpretations to apparently innocuous or insignificant events, it is most likely false. Again, most conspiracies are narrowly focused and significant only to those who will benefit or be hurt. Most real conspiracies do not change the world.
  8. Accuracy. If the conspiracy theory commingles facts and speculations without distinguishing between the two, it is likely to be false. Conspiracists are notorious for sprinkling in a handful of verifiable facts amidst a vast array of conjectures and suppositions, which blur reality and confuse listeners into thinking there is more to the theory than there actually is.
  9. Paranoia. If a conspiracy theorist is extremely and indiscriminately suspicious of any and all government agencies or private corporations, this suggests a lack of nuance in understanding how the world works. Yes, sometimes “they” really are out to get you, but usually not.
  10. Falsifiability. Conspiracy theorists typically refuse to consider alternative explanations, rejecting all disconfirming evidence for the theory, and blatantly seeking only confirming evidence to support what has a priori been determined as the truth. To return to Karl Popper, if a conspiracy theory cannot be falsified, it is probably false.

SKEPTIC 25.1

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Who believes in conspiracies and why? Read real conspiracy theories and conspiracies with no theories in Skeptic magazine 25.1, available now in print and digital formats.

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