The Skeptics Society & Skeptic magazine


banner

Distinguished Science Lecture Series Archives

Moral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue,
Altruism, and Shame

Dr. Christopher Boehm (photo by Jenny Cool)

IF THE HUMAN INSTINCT to survive and reproduce is “selfish,” why do people engage in self-sacrifice, and even develop ideas like virtue and shame to justify that altruism? Many theories have been put forth, some emphasizing the role of nepotism, others emphasizing the advantages of reciprocation or group selection effects. Evolutionary anthropologist Christopher Boehm offers an elegant new theory. Tracing the development of altruism and group social control over 6 million years, Boehm argues that our moral sense is a sophisticated defense mechanism that enables individuals to survive and thrive in groups. One of the biggest risks of group living is the possibility of being punished for our misdeeds by those around us. Bullies, thieves, free-riders, and especially psychopaths are the most likely to suffer this fate. Getting by requires getting along, and this social type of selection, Boehm shows, singles out altruists for survival. This selection pressure has been unique in shaping human nature, and it bred the first stirrings of conscience in the human species. Dr. Boehm offers profound insight into humanity’s moral past—and how it might shape our moral future.

Tags: , , ,

Born Together, Reared Apart:
The Landmark Minnesota Twin Study

Dr. Nancy Segal

“The Minnesota Study of Twins Reared Apart” startled scientists by demonstrating that twins reared apart are as alike, across a number of personality traits and other measures, as those raised together, suggesting that genetic influence is pervasive. Dr. Nancy Segal, a professor in the Department of Psychology at California State University, Fullerton, and the director of the Twin Studies Center, offers an overview of the study’s scientific contributions and effect on public consciousness. Dr. Segal is an associate editor of Twin Research and Human Genetics, the official journal of the International Society for Twin Studies.

Tags: , , ,

The Secrets of Mental Math: The Mathemagician’s Guide to Lightning Calculation and Amazing Math Tricks

Art Benjamin

TEACHERS AND PARENTS, BRING YOUR STUDENTS AND KIDS to see the famous lightning calculator and mathemagician Art Benjamin demonstrate simple math secrets and tricks that will forever change how you look at the world of numbers. Get ready to amaze your friends—and yourself—with incredible calculations you never thought you could master, and learn how to do math in your head faster than you ever thought possible, dramatically improve your memory for numbers, and—maybe for the first time—make mathematics fun. Dr. Benjamin will teach you how to quickly multiply and divide triple digits, compute with fractions, and determine squares, cubes, and roots without blinking an eye. No matter what your age or current math ability, Dr. Benjamin will teach you how to perform fantastic feats of the mind effortlessly. This is the math they never taught you in school.

Tags: , , ,

Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist

Christof Koch

WHAT LINKS CONSCIOUS EXPERIENCE OF PAIN, joy, color, and smell to bioelectrical activity in the brain? How can anything physical give rise to nonphysical, subjective, conscious states? Neuroscientist Christof Koch has devoted much of his career to bridging the seemingly unbridgeable gap between the physics of the brain and phenomenal experience. Koch recounts not only the birth of the modern science of consciousness but also the subterranean motivation for his quest—his instinctual (if “romantic”) belief that life is meaningful. Koch describes his own groundbreaking work with Francis Crick in the 1990s and 2000s and the gradual emergence of consciousness (once considered a “fringy” subject) as a legitimate topic for scientific investigation. Koch gives us stories from the front lines of modern research into the neurobiology of consciousness as well as his own reflections on a variety of topics, including the distinction between attention and awareness, the unconscious, how neurons respond to Homer Simpson, the physics and biology of free will, dogs, sentient machines, and Der Ring des Nibelungen.

Tags: , , , ,

Dr. Leonard Mlodinow — Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior

Leonard Mlodinow

From the best-selling author of The Drunkard’s Walk and coauthor of The Grand Design (with Stephen Hawking) and War of the Worldviews (with Deepak Chopra) comes a fascinating, illuminating examination of the profound ways in which the unconscious mind shapes our lives. Every aspect of our mental lives plays out in two versions: one conscious, which we are constantly aware of, and the other unconscious, which remains hidden from us. Over the past two decades researchers have developed remarkable new tools for probing the unconscious, or subliminal, workings of the mind. This explosion of research has led to a sea change in our understanding of how the mind affects the way we live. As a result, scientists are becoming increasingly convinced that how we experience the world—our perception, behavior, memory, and social judgment—is largely driven by the mind’s subliminal processes and not by the conscious ones, as we have long believed.

You play a vital part in our commitment to promote science and reason. If you enjoyed this Distinguished Science Lecture, please show your support by making a donation.

Tags: , ,

Born Believers: The Science of Children’s
Religious Belief

Justin Barrett

FROM A NOTED DEVELOPMENTAL PSYCHOLOGIST and anthropologist at Oxford University, this fascinating theory about the value of religious faith posits that we are all predisposed to believe in God from birth. We are all Born Believers, explains Professor Justin L. Barrett. It begins in the brain. Infants, under the sway of powerful internal and external forces, make sense of their environments by imagining a creative and intelligent agent, a grand controller who makes the sun shine and the night fall. In the chaos of childhood, where so much is out of the child’s control, this belief in a morally good creator can bring tremendous comfort and calm. A child’s world is then filled with beings who intentionally act upon the environment, maintaining order. Summarizing scientific experiments conducted with children across the globe, Professor Barrett illustrates the ways human beings have come to develop complex belief systems about God’s omniscience, the afterlife, and the immortality of deities. He shows how the science of childhood religiosity reveals, across humanity, a “Natural Religion.”

Tags: , , ,

Sam Harris on “Free Will”

Sam Harris is the author of the New York Times bestsellers, The Moral Landscape, The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation. His new book is short (96 pages), to the point, and will change the way we all view free will, as Oliver Sacks wrote: “Brilliant and witty—and never less than incisive—Free Will shows that Sam Harris can say more in 13,000 words than most people do in 100,000.” UCSD neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran notes: “In this elegant and provocative book, Sam Harris demonstrates—with great intellectual ferocity and panache—that free will is an inherently flawed and incoherent concept, even in subjective terms. If he is right, the book will radically change the way we view ourselves as human beings.”

You play a vital part in our commitment to promote science and reason. If you enjoyed this Distinguished Science Lecture, please show your support by making a donation.

Tags: , , ,

The Great Debate: Has Science Refuted Religion?

Sean Carroll, Michael Shermer (photo by David patton), Dinesh D'Souza, and Ian Hutchinson
 (logo)

Official Debate
Co-Sponsor

CALTECH COSMOLOGIST AND PHYSICIST Sean Carroll teams up with Skeptic magazine publisher and science historian Michael Shermer in this epic debate with noted conservative author and King’s College President Dinesh D’Souza and MIT physicist Ian Hutchinson as they go head-to-head over one of the most controversial issues of our age. As science pushes deeper into territory once the province of religion, with questions such as Why there is something rather than nothing?, Where did the universe come from?, How did life arise?, What was the origin of morality?, and others, inevitable conflicts arise over the best approach to answer them. Don’t miss this great debate and come with your questions for the audience participation portion of the day!

Tags: , , , , ,

Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics
in the Book of Revelation

Elaine Pagels (photo by Jerry Bauer)

A STARTLING EXPLORATION of the history of the most controversial book of the Bible, the religious scholar Elaine Pagels tackles The Book of Revelation, the surreal apocalyptic vision of the end of the world…or is it? Pagels returns The Book of Revelation to its historical origin, written as its author John of Patmos took aim at the Roman Empire after what is now known as “the Jewish War,” in 66 CE. Militant Jews in Jerusalem, fired with religious fervor, waged an all-out war against Rome’s occupation of Judea and their defeat resulted in the desecration of Jerusalem and its Great Temple. Pagels persuasively interprets Revelation as a scathing attack on the decadence of Rome. Soon after, however, a new sect known as “Christians” seized on John’s text as a weapon against heresy and infidels of all kinds—Jews, even Christians who dissented from their increasingly rigid doctrines and hierarchies. In a time when global religious violence surges, Revelations explores how often those in power throughout history have sought to force “God’s enemies” to submit or be killed.

Tags: , , , ,

The Creative Destruction of Medicine: How the
Digital Revolution Will Create Better Health Care

Eric Topol (photo by John Arispizabal)

WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU COMBINE cellular phone technology with the cellular aberrations in disease? Or create a bridge between the digital revolution with the medical revolution? How will minute biological sensors alter the way we treat lethal illnesses, such as heart attacks or cancer? These questions, and more, are answered by Dr. Eric Topol, a leading cardiologist, gene hunter and medical thinker. Topol’s analysis draws us to the very frontlines of medicine and leaves us with a view of a landscape that is both foreign and daunting. As baby-boomers approach retirement age, they are going to be confronted with important choices among many new medical technologies. Don’t miss this important lecture based on Dr. Topol’s new book.

Tags: , , ,

Abundance: Why the Future Will Be
Much Better Than You Think

Pater Diamandis

SINCE THE DAWN OF HUMANITY, a privileged few have lived in stark contrast to the hardscrabble majority. Conventional wisdom says this gap cannot be closed. But it is closing—fast. According to the X-Prize creator and entrepreneur Peter H. Diamandis, we will soon be able to meet and exceed the basic needs of every man, woman and child on the planet. Abundance for all is within our grasp through four forces: exponential technologies, the DIY innovator, the Technophilanthropist, and the Rising Billion. Diamandis establishes hard targets for change and lays out a strategic roadmap for governments, industry and entrepreneurs, giving us plenty of reason for optimism.

Tags: ,

Why We Believe in God(s): A Concise Guide
to the Science of Faith

Andy Thomson (photo by Mike Cornwell)

IN THIS LECTURE BASED ON HIS NEW BOOK, psychiatrist Andy Thomson examines the evolution, history, anthropology, sociology, and psychology of religious beliefs and provides a brief and accessible guide to the exciting new discoveries that allow us to finally understand why and how the human mind generates, accepts, and spreads religious faith and god beliefs. Dr. Thomson is a staff psychiatrist at the University of Virginia’s Student Health Center and the Institute of Law, Psychiatry and Public Policy, and maintains a private practice of adult and forensic psychiatry in Charlottesville, Virginia. He serves as a trustee of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science.

Tags: , , , ,

Physics on the Fringe: Smoke Rings, Circlons,
and Alternative Theories of Everything

Margaret Wertheim

FOR THE PAST 15 YEARS acclaimed science writer Margaret Wertheim has been collecting the works of “outsider physicists,” many without formal training and all convinced they have found true alternative theories of the universe. Jim Carter, the Einstein of outsiders, has developed his own complete theory of matter and energy and gravity that he demonstrates by experiments in his backyard—with garbage cans and a disco fog machine, he makes smoke rings to test his ideas about atoms. Captivated by the imaginative power of his theories and his resolutely DIY attitude, Wertheim has been following Carter’s progress for the past decade. Through a profoundly human profile of Carter, Wertheim’s exploration of the bizarre world of fringe physics challenges our conception of what science is, how it works, and who it is for.

Tags: ,

Who’s in Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain

Michael Gazzaniga (photo by Joseph Mehler)

DO WE HAVE FREE WILL or are our lives simply determined by the same physical laws that control the world around us? For the most part, science has embraced the determinist point of view. But the U.C. Santa Barbara psychologist Michael S. Gazzaniga—the man Tom Wolfe has called “one of the most brilliant experimental neuroscientists in the world”—is not convinced. Gazzaniga argues that the human mind acts to constrain the brain and monitor our behavior, much as a government, created by a society, provides constraints on those who conceived it. Drawing on cutting-edge neuroscience and psychology, as well as ethics and law, he offers a deeply considered case for human responsibility: we are accountable for our actions.

Tags: , ,

The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life

Whether it’s in a cockpit at takeoff or the planning of an offensive war, a romantic relationship or a dispute at the office, there are many opportunities to lie and self-deceive—but deceit and self-deception carry the costs of being alienated from reality and can lead to disaster. So why does deception play such a prominent role in our everyday lives? In his bold new work, Rutgers University evolutionary theorist Robert Trivers unflinchingly argues that self-deception evolved in the service of deceit—the better to fool others. We do it for biological reasons—in order to help us survive and procreate. From viruses mimicking host behavior to humans misremembering (sometimes intentionally) the details of a quarrel, science has proven that the deceptive one can always outwit the masses. But we undertake this deception at our own peril.

This lecture was recorded on November 13, 2011 as part of the Distinguished Science Lecture Series hosted by Michael Shermer and presented by The Skeptics Society in California (1992–2015).

We offer this lecture to you freely, and greatly appreciate your support.

Tags: , ,

Thinking: Fast and Slow

Dr. Daniel Kahneman (photo by Jon Roemer)

THE IDEAS OF THE PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PSYCHOLOGIST DANIEL KAHNEMAN, recipient of the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for his seminal work that challenged the rational model of judgment and decision making, have had a profound and widely regarded impact on psychology, economics, business, law and philosophy. Until now, however, he has never brought together his many years of research and thinking in one book. In the highly anticipated Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kahneman introduces the “machinery of the mind.” Two systems drive the way we think and make choices: System One is fast, intuitive, and emotional; System Two is slower, more deliberative, and more logical. Examining how both systems function within the mind, Kahneman exposes the extraordinary capabilities and also the faults and biases of fast thinking, and the pervasive influence of intuitive impressions on our thoughts and our choices. Kahneman shows where we can trust our intuitions and how we can tap into the benefits of slow thinking. He offers practical and enlightening insights into how choices are made in both our business and personal lives, and how we can guard against the mental glitches that often get us into trouble. Kahneman will change the way you think about thinking.

Tags: , , , , , ,

The Better Angels of Our Nature:
Why Violence Has Declined

Faced with the ceaseless stream of news about war, crime, and terrorism, one could easily think we live in the most violent age ever seen. Yet as the Harvard University psychologist and New York Times bestselling author Steven Pinker shows in this startling and engaging new work, just the opposite is true: violence has been diminishing for millennia and we may be living in the most peaceful time in our species’ existence. For most of history, war, slavery, infanticide, child abuse, assassinations, pogroms, gruesome punishments, deadly quarrels, and genocide were ordinary features of life. But today, Pinker shows all these forms of violence have dwindled and are widely condemned. How has this happened? This groundbreaking work continues Pinker’s exploration of the essence of human nature, mixing psychology and history to provide a remarkable picture of an increasingly nonviolent world. The key, he explains, is to understand our intrinsic motives—the inner demons and the better angels—and how changing circumstances have allowed our better angels to prevail.

“Steven Pinker’s new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, is one of the most important science books I have ever read, and in my opinion may very well be one of the most important science books ever written. Period. It is a stunning piece of research and an epic masterpiece of narration and storytelling. It is nearly 800 pages long and I’ve already read it twice. It’s that good.” —Michael Shermer

Tags: ,

Knocking on Heaven’s Door: How Physics and Scientific Thinking Illuminate the Universe and
the Modern World

Dr. Lisa Randall (photo by Phil Knott)

FROM ONE OF TIME MAGAZINE’S 100 MOST INFLUENTIAL PEOPLE IN THE WORLD, Harvard University physicist and cosmologist Dr. Lisa Randall presents a rousing defense of the role of science in our lives. The latest developments in physics have the potential to radically revise our understanding of the world: its makeup, its evolution, and the fundamental forces that drive its operation. Knocking on Heaven’s Door is an exhilarating and accessible overview of these developments and an impassioned argument for the significance of science. She examines the role of risk, creativity, uncertainty, beauty, and truth in scientific thinking, along with the nature and goals of the largest machine ever built: the Large Hadron Collider, the enormous particle accelerator below the border of France and Switzerland—as well as recent ideas underlying cosmology and current dark matter experiments, and what they tell us about who we are and where we came from.

Tags: , , ,

Area 51: An Uncensored History of America’s
Top Secret Military Base

Annie Jacobsen (photo by Michael Hiller

IT IS THE MOST FAMOUS MILITARY INSTALLATION IN THE WORLD. And it doesn’t officially exist. Located a mere seventy-five miles outside of Las Vegas, the base has never been acknowledged by the U.S. government. Myths and hypotheses about Area 51 have long abounded, thanks to the intense secrecy enveloping it. Some claim it is home to aliens, underground tunnel systems, and nuclear facilities. Others believe that the lunar landing itself was filmed there. The prevalence of these rumors stems from the fact that no credible insider has ever divulged the truth about his time inside the base. Until now. Los Angeles Times investigative journalist Annie Jacobsen had exclusive access to 19 men who served the base proudly and secretly for decades and are now aged 75–92, and unprecedented access to 55 additional military and intelligence personnel, scientists, pilots, and engineers linked to the secret base. In Area 51, Jacobsen shows us what has really gone on in the Nevada desert, from testing nuclear weapons to building super-secret, supersonic jets to pursuing the War on Terror.

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Someone Else’s Twin:
The True Story of Babies Switched at Birth

Dr. Nancy Segal

IN THIS FASCINATING STORY, Dr. Nancy Segal, Professor of Psychology at California State University, Fullerton (and herself a twin and an expert on twin research) describes the consequences of unintentional separation of identical twins. She considers not only the effects on separated twins, but the implications for questions concerning identity, familial bonds, nature-nurture, and the law. Based on her extensive research into the psychology of twins and interviews with family members, Dr. Segal explores many questions of universal human significance: How do mothers know who their biological children are? How much does our family contribute to our sense of self? Are we more like the people who raised us or the people we are born to? Dr. Segal also examines custodial decisions concerning children who are the result of donated sperm or eggs by individuals outside the rearing family. She further elucidates the benefits to children from adoption.

Tags: , , ,

PREVIOUS
 
NEXT
Donate
For those seeking a sound scientific viewpoint

Newsletter

Be in the know!

Subscribe to eSkeptic: our free email newsletter and get great podcasts, videos, reviews and articles from Skeptic magazine, announcements, and more in your inbox once or twice a week.

Sign me up!

Copyright © 1992–2023. All rights reserved. | 3938 State St., Suite # 101, Santa Barbara, CA, 93105-3114 | 1-805-576-9396. The Skeptics Society is a non-profit, member-supported 501(c)(3) organization (ID # 95-4550781) whose mission is to promote science & reason. As an Amazon Associate, we earn from qualifying purchases. Privacy Policy.