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The Michael Shermer Show

The Michael Shermer Show is a series of long-form conversations between Dr. Michael Shermer and leading scientists, philosophers, historians, scholars, writers and thinkers about the most important issues of our time.

Watch or listen here or via Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, iHeartRadio, Amazon Music, and TuneIn.

EPISODE # 160

Abigail Shrier — Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters

Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters (book cover)

Until just a few years ago, gender dysphoria — severe discomfort in one’s biological sex — was vanishingly rare. It was typically found in less than .01 percent of the population, emerged in early childhood, and afflicted males almost exclusively. But today whole groups of female friends in colleges, high schools, and even middle schools across the country are coming out as “transgender.” These are girls who had never experienced any discomfort in their biological sex until they heard a coming-out story from a speaker at a school assembly or discovered the internet community of trans “influencers.” Unsuspecting parents are awakening to find their daughters in thrall to hip trans YouTube stars and “gender-affirming” educators and therapists who push life-changing interventions on young girls — including medically unnecessary double mastectomies and puberty blockers that can cause permanent infertility.

In this conversation Abigail Shrier recounts has she dug deep into the trans epidemic, talking to the girls, their agonized parents, and the counselors and doctors who enable gender transitions, as well as to “detransitioners” — young women who bitterly regret what they have done to themselves. Coming out as transgender immediately boosts these girls’ social status, Shrier finds, but once they take the first steps of transition, it is not easy to walk back. She offers urgently needed advice about how parents can protect their daughters because if this trend continues a generation of girls is at risk.

Abigail Shrier is a writer for the Wall Street Journal. She is a graduate of Columbia College, where she received the Euretta J. Kellett Fellowship; the University of Oxford; and Yale Law School. She lives in Los Angeles, CA.

Shermer and Shrier discuss:

  • separating facts about gender dysphoria from moralizing about it (everyone is entitled to universal human rights regardless of what the science says about them),
  • the historical baseline rate of gender dysphoria compared to current trends,
  • F–M trans & M–F trans,
  • What percent of trans revert?
  • Trans or gay? Do F–M trans want to be men or trans?
  • What happened to lesbians?
  • determining the cause of the spike in female-to-male trans in social contagion & social media,
  • pressures girls and young women are under that lead them to such drastic steps: isolation, bad online social dynamics, restrictive gender and sexuality labels, unwelcome physical changes and sexual attention, puberty, bullying, online mobbing,
  • sex vs. gender; who you identify as vs. who you are attracted to,
  • trans binding, clothing, and general behavior.

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EPISODE # 159

Joshua Glasgow — The Solace: Finding Value in Death Through Gratitude for Life

The Solace: Finding Value in Death Through Gratitude for Life (book cover)

How can we find solace when we face the death of loved ones? How can we find solace in our own death? When philosopher Joshua Glasgow’s mother was diagnosed with cancer, he struggled to answer these questions for her and for himself. Though death and immortality introduce some of the most basic and existentially compelling questions in philosophy, Glasgow found that the dominant theories came up short. Recalling the last months of his mother’s life, Glasgow reveals the breakthrough he finally arrived at for himself, from which readers can learn and find solace. When we are grateful for life, we value all of it, and this includes death, its natural culmination. Just as we are grateful for the value in our lives, we can affirm this value in death.

Shermer and Glasgow discuss:

  • What does an atheist say to a dying person?
  • Ricky Gervais’ The Invention of Lying,
  • Epicurus’ Dilemma: death is nothing to us since so long as we exist, death is not with us; but when death comes then we do not exist.
  • being dead vs. dying,
  • When is the “natural” time to die?
  • Is death worse for the young because they are losing more?
  • What would it really mean to live forever?
  • suicide,
  • Does a terminus to life increase it’s meaning and value?
  • gratitude vs. solace,
  • history: if you could go back in time and kill Hitler, no Holocaust, no WWII, and very likely no me or you.
  • Since suffering is real, is it better to never be born?

Joshua Glasgow is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Sonoma State University, where for several years he was also Director of the Center for Ethics, Law, and Society. He works on a variety of topics in ethics and political philosophy. He is the co-author of What is Race?: Four Philosophical Views (Oxford University Press, 2019).

From Michael Shermer’s essay “The Shadowlands,” reprinted in his 2004 book Science Friction

Behind every one of the 6.2 billion people now living lie seventeen others in the ground, for 106 billion is the total number of humans who have ever lived. Our future is sealed by our past.

Sixty thousand years ago, in a cave 132-feet deep cut into the Zagros Mountains of northern Iraq, 250 miles north of Baghdad at a site called Shanidar, the body of a Neanderthal man was carefully buried in a cave, on a bed of evergreen boughs, on his left side, head to the south, facing west, and covered in flowers, so identified through microscopic analysis of the surviving pollens. Already in the grave were an infant and two women. The flowers were from eight different species and the arrangement was not accidental. There was a purpose to the burial process. It is the earliest memorial celebration of life and mourning of death of which we know. Now that Neanderthals are extinct, we are the only species who is aware of its own mortality. Death is an inescapable end to life. Every organism that has ever lived, has died. There are no exceptions.

Thus, we are faced with the existential question that has haunted everyone who has thought about this uncomfortable fact of life: why are we here? People throughout the ages and around the world, in all cultures and communities, have devised a remarkable variety of answers to this question. Indeed, anthropologists estimate that over the past 10,000 years humans have created roughly 10,000 different religions, the well-spring of which may be found in the answers they have offered to that soul-jarring question, why are we here?

Too often, I think, we gloss over the messiness of living and the unpleasantries of life, particularly at the beginning and end, as if birth and death are shadowlands accessible only to a chosen few. We suppress or ignore some of the deepest and most meaningful events of the human condition. It is in those shadowlands, however, where we face the termini of life and share the full experience of the hundred billion who came before us and know authentically what it means to be human.”

From Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow

We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly, those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.

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EPISODE # 158

Jason D. Hill — We Have Overcome: An Immigrant’s Letter to The American People

We Have Overcome: An Immigrants Letter to the American People (book cover)

A black immigrant’s eloquent appreciation of the American Dream, and why his adopted nation remains the most noble experiment in enabling the pursuit of happiness. It has been more than 50 years since the Civil Rights Act enshrined equality under the law for all Americans. Since that time, America has enjoyed an era of unprecedented prosperity, domestic and international peace, and technological advancement. It’s almost as if removing the shackles of enforced racial discrimination has liberated Americans of all races and ethnicities to become their better selves, and to work toward common goals in ways that our ancestors would have envied.

But the dominant narrative, repeated in the media and from the angry mouths of politicians and activists, is the exact opposite of the reality. They paint a portrait of an America rife with racial and ethnic division, where minorities are mired in a poverty worse than slavery, and white people stand at the top of an unfairly stacked pyramid of privilege. Jason D. Hill corrects the narrative in this powerfully eloquent book. Dr. Hill came to this country at the age of 20 from Jamaica and, rather than being faced with intractable racial bigotry, Hill found a land of bountiful opportunity — a place where he could get a college education, earn a doctorate in philosophy, and eventually become a tenured professor at a top university, an internationally recognized scholar, and the author of several respected books in his field.

Throughout his experiences, it wasn’t a racist establishment that sought to keep him down. Instead, Hill recounts, he faced constant naysaying from so-called liberals of all races. His academic colleagues did not celebrate the success of a black immigrant but chose to denigrate them because this particular black immigrant did not embrace their ideology of victimization.

Jason D. Hill is a professor of philosophy and Honors Distinguished Faculty at DePaul University in Chicago. He is the author of Becoming a Cosmopolitan: What it Means to be a Human Being in the New Millennium; Beyond Blood Identities: Posthumanity in the Twenty-First Century; We Have Overcome: An Immigrant’s Letter to the American People. His next book is What Do White Americans Owe Black People: Racial Justice in the Age of Post-Oppression. He specializes in ethics, politics, foreign policy, and moral psychology.

Shermer and Hill discuss:

  • President Lyndon Johnson’s famous observation:

    “Freedom is not enough. You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him; bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, ‘you are free to compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.”

  • From Jamaica to Georgia: what role did family and luck have?
  • What has been the response to his success story from your liberal colleagues?
  • political correctness and cancel culture,
  • black families and fatherless homes,
  • white guilt and the exploitation of it by black activists,
  • BLM and the antiracism movement,
  • race fatigue,
  • reparations: what do white Americans owe black people?
  • Universal Basic Income (UBI),
  • why racism is not the cause of black-white gaps in achievement, education, and income, and
  • income inequality: how much is too much? Where do you draw the line?

The problem captured in two quotations:

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” —Martin Luther King, Jr.

“The only remedy to racist discrimination is antiracist discrimination. The only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination. The only remedy to present discrimination is future discrimination.” —Ibram X. Kendi

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EPISODE # 157

Avi Loeb — Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth

Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth (book cover)

According to the Harvard astronomer Avi Loeb, we have proof of alien existence, and more sightings are coming soon. In late 2017, scientists at a Hawaiian observatory glimpsed an object soaring through our inner solar system, moving so quickly that it could only have come from another star. Loeb argued that it was not an asteroid; it was moving too fast along a strange orbit and left no trail of gas or debris in its wake. There was only one conceivable explanation: the object was a piece of advanced technology created by an ancient alien civilization. This was a shocking claim, and many were vehemently opposed to Avi’s view. In his new book, and in this conversation, Loeb outlines his controversial theory and its profound implications for science, religion, and the future of our species and our planet. Also highlighted, and perhaps at the heart of his message, is Loeb’s plea for open and eager scientific inquiry into this field of study, and his calls for deeper faith in science and the breaking down of barriers between the scientific community and the non-scientific community.

Shermer and Loeb discuss:

  • how to deal with anomalies in science in general and astronomy in particular, such as Tabby’s star, the light data from which was one thought to indicate the existence of ETI debris but now believed to be the result of natural causes,
  • Galileo and Saturn and why he was wrong about this but right about the Copernican system,
  • Signal Detection Theory: Face on Mars vs. Mt. Rushmore — one is due to natural erosion the other to intelligent design. What would convince Loeb’s colleagues that Oumuamua is ETI in origin?
  • Before we say something is intelligently designed let’s first make sure it is not naturally designed.
  • Carl Sagan’s influence on the scientific community to SETI,
  • why Giordano Bruno was really burned at the stake (it wasn’t just because he believed in other worlds),
  • the Law of Very Large Numbers and Oumuamua,
  • How many unknown knowns are still out there in the form of comets & asteroids that could account for Oumuamua?
  • the role of consensus among experts in science,
  • What if the SETI Institute announced it had detected an ETI signal but it was degraded and anomalous and unclear whether it was natural or intelligent in nature, but they claimed it was?
  • What if Kip Thorne announced LIGO discovered gravitational wave activity that suggests the collision of our universe with another universe, thereby confirming the multiverse theory, and then wrote a bestselling book about the aliens in this other universe?
  • What will ETIs be like?
  • Loeb’s response to theistic Cosmological and Fine-Tune arguments, and
  • Why is there something rather than nothing?

Avi Loeb is the former chair of the astronomy department at Harvard University (2011–2020), founding director of Harvard’s Black Hole Initiative and director of the Institute for Theory and Computation at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. He also chairs the Board on Physics and Astronomy of the National Academies and the advisory board for the Breakthrough Starshot project, and is a member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

What follows is the passage from Dr. Shermer’s book The Believing Brain on Galileo and why he got Saturn wrong, discussed in the podcast as an example of what can happen if the data is degraded and there is no theory about what you’re observing.


Excerpt from The Believing Brain

After observing Saturn—the most distant planet of his day—through his tiny telescope, Galileo wrote to his astronomical colleague Johannes Kepler, “Altissimum planetam tergeminum observavi,” “I have observed that the farthest planet is threefold.” He then explained what he meant: “This is to say that to my very great amazement Saturn was seen to me to be not a single star, but three together, which almost touch each other.” He saw Saturn not as a planet with rings as we see it today in even the tiniest of home telescopes, but as one large sphere surrounded by two smaller spheres, thus accounting for its oblong shape.

Why did Galileo—champion of observation and induction—make this mistake? Having praised empiricism as the sine qua non of science, we must now admit its limitative effects. Galileo’s error is instructive for an understanding of the interplay of data and theory, and when it came to Saturn, Galileo lacked them both. Data: Saturn is twice as far away as Jupiter, thus what few photons of light there were streaming through the cloudy glass in his little tube made resolution of the rings problematic at best. Theory: There was no theory of planetary rings. It is at this intersection of nonexistent theory and nebulous data that the power of belief is at its zenith and the mind fills in the blanks. Like Columbus before him, Galileo went to his grave believing not what his eyes actually saw but what his model of the world told him he was seeing. It was literally a case of I wouldn’t have seen it if I hadn’t believed it.

Whenever the data of observation are unclear, the mind fills in the gaps. But if the mind has no model from which to work, imagination takes over, leading directly and powerfully to errors generated by expectation. Galileo could not “see” the rings of Saturn, either directly or theoretically, but he certainly saw something, and herein lies the problem. Altissimum planetam tergeminum observavi. As the late Harvard evolutionary theorist and historian of science Stephen Jay Gould noted in his insightful commentary on this affair: “He does not advocate his solution by stating ‘I conjecture,’ ‘I hypothesize,’ ‘I infer,’ or ‘It seems to me that the best interpretation…” Instead, he boldly writes ‘observavi’—I have observed. No other word could capture, with such terseness and accuracy, the major change in concept and procedure (not to mention ethical valuation) that marked the transition to what we call ‘modern’ science.”1

Over time Galileo returned to Saturn often, and although he never saw the same thing twice, he stuck steadfastly with his original trigeminal observation and conclusion. As he wrote in his 1613 book on sunspots: “I have resolved not to put anything around Saturn except what I have already observed and revealed—that is, two small stars which touch it, one to the east and one to the west.” Challenged by a fellow astronomer who suggested that perhaps it was one oblong object rather than three spheres, Galileo boasted of his own superior observational skills, and that “where perfection is lacking, the shape and distinction of the three stars imperfectly seen. I, who have observed it a thousand times at different periods with an excellent instrument, can assure you that no change whatever is to be seen in it.”

The next time he pointed his tube to Saturn just before publication of his sunspot book, however, Galileo saw something rather different. “But in the past few days I returned to it and found it to be solitary, without its customary supporting stars, and as perfectly round and sharply bounded as Jupiter. Now what can be said of this strange metamorphosis?” What indeed? Recant the earlier observation? Perhaps, he wondered, “was it indeed an illusion and a fraud with which the lenses of my telescope deceive me for so long—and not only me, but many others who have observed it with me? … I need not say anything definite upon so strange and unexpected an event; it is too recent, too unparalleled, and I am restrained by my own inadequacy and the fear of error.”2 Nevertheless, Galileo concluded in the 1613 sunspot book that despite this new data his original theory about what he saw was correct. Why? The answer may be found in the visual presentation of the data.

The great scholar of the visual display of quantitative information, Edward Tufte, notes in his 2005 book, Beautiful Evidence, with the accompanying page from Galileo’s 1613 sunspot book (see Figure 1), that “Galileo reported his discovery of Saturn’s unusual shape as 2 visual nouns that compare clear and murky telescopic views. In Galileo’s work Istoria e dimostrazioni intorno alle macchie solari (1613), words and images combine to become simply evidence rather than different modes of evidence.” The translation of the text in Figure 1 accompanied by the two tiny drawings of Saturn reads: “The shape of Saturn is thus ______ as shown by perfect vision and perfect instruments, but appears thus ______ where perfection is lacking, the shape and distinction of the three stars being imperfectly seen.” Tufte describes this sentence as “one of the best analytical designs ever” because it represented “Saturn as evidence, image, drawing, graphic, word, noun.”3 Despite his more recent observations that the “three stars” had become “solitary” and “as perfectly round and sharply bounded as Jupiter,” Galileo’s image, drawing, graphic, word, and noun were congealed into evidence that his original observations were correct. Galileo never fully retreated from his first definitive conclusion.

Galileos Saturn Evidence, Image, Drawing, Graphic, Word, Noun

Figure 1. Galileo’s Saturn Evidence, Image, Drawing, Graphic, Word, Noun The page from Galileo’s 1613 book on sunspots, in which he returns to the consideration of the Saturn enigma, concluding once again that he was right in the first place that Saturn was a 3-bodied object. Source: Galileo Galilei, Istoria e Dimostrazioni Intorno Alle Macchie Solari (Rome, 1613), as reproduced in Edward Tufte, Beautiful Evidence (Graphics Press, 2006, p. 49)

The solution to the Saturn problem is equally instructive of the Data-Theory dialogue in the narrative of belief. It wasn’t until 1659—half a century after Galileo’s observations—that the Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens published the solution in his great work Systema Saturnium, one of the finest visual displays of both data and theory in the history of science. In Figure 2 we see on display thirteen interpretations of Saturn produced by astronomers from 1610 (Galileo) to 1645 (Fontana and others), all wrong.

Christiaan Huygens Catalogue of Errors

Figure 2. Christiaan Huygens’ Catalogue of Errors The Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens solved the Saturn enigma in his 1659 work Systema Saturnium, in which he included this visual catalogue of the 13 most prominent theories of Saturn, including: I. Galileo, 1610; II. Scheiner, 1614; III. Riccioli, 1641 or 1643; IV–VII. Hevel, theoretical forms; VIII–IX. Riccioli, 1648–1650; X. Divini, 1646-1648; XI. Fontana, 1636; XII. Biancani, 1616; Gassendi, 1638, 1639; XIII. Fontana and others, 1644, 1645.

To our Data-Theory duo we should add Presentation of the data and theory. In many ways, presentation is everything in understanding of how beliefs are born, reinforced, and changed because humans are so visually-oriented as primates who once depended on three-dimensionality to navigate through dense arboreal environs. The Data-Theory-Presentation trialogue is on exquisite display in Figure 3, in which Huygens takes those two-dimensional Saturns, blows them up into 3-D, and puts them in motion around the sun. It is a marvelous presentation of both data and theory, incorporating Copernicus’s theory that the sun is at the center of the solar system instead of the earth (as in Ptolemaic cosmology), Kepler’s first law that planetary orbits are elliptical instead of circular (as in Aristotelian cosmology), and Kepler’s third law that the inner planets revolve around the sun faster than the outer planets.

Here we see the Sun-Earth-Saturn system from above—an Archimedian point outside the solar system that grants a new perspective—with Saturn set in motion on its glacially slow orbit of 29.5 Earth-years long, such that about 1.8 Earth-years elapse between each of the 32 Saturns in the diagram. The effect is to show that Saturn will appear different to Earth-bound observers at different times of the Earth year, thereby explaining why in the course of half a century so many keen-eyed astronomers saw so many different Saturns, including a Saturn with no rings at all because twice each Saturn-year the rings appear edge on from Earth-bound observers. As Edward Tufte eloquently describes the power of this visual explanation: “Huygens presents a series of still images in order to depict motion. To resolve such discontinuous spatial representations of continuous temporal activity, viewers must interpolate between images, closing up the gaps. Imaginative and original, this display is a classic, an exemplar of information design.”4

Saturn in 3-D and in Motion

Figure 3. Saturn in 3-D and in Motion The Data-Theory-Presentation trialogue is on exquisite display here, in which Huygens takes those two-dimensional Saturns and blows them up into 3-D and puts them in motion around the sun. It is a marvelous presentation of both data and theory, incorporating Copernicus’s theory that the sun is at the center of the solar system instead of the earth (as in Ptolemaic cosmology), Kepler’s first law that planetary orbits are elliptical instead of circular (as in Aristotelian cosmology), and Kepler’s third law that the inner planets revolve around the sun faster than the outer planets.

The Saturn enigma and its ultimate solution reveals the interplay between data, theory, and presentation, between induction, deduction, and communication, between what we see, what we think, and what we say. We cannot untangle the three, for the mind engages them all to produce knowledge on which we act in the world. The Saturn affair demonstrates, in the master rhetorician Stephen Jay Gould’s words, both “the power and poverty of pure empiricism.” How? Gould’s answer is one of the most eloquent ever penned on this contentious issue:

The idea that observation can be pure and unsullied (and therefore beyond dispute)—and that great scientists are, by implication, people who can free their minds from the constraints of surrounding culture and reach conclusions strictly by untrammeled experiment and observation, joined with clear and universal logical reasoning—has often harmed science by turning the empiricist method into a shibboleth. The irony of this situation fills me with a mixture of pain for a derailed (if impossible) ideal and amusement for human foibles—as a method devised to undermine proof by authority becomes, in its turn, a species of dogma itself. Thus, if only to honor the truism that liberty requires eternal vigilance, we must also act as watchdogs to debunk the authoritarian form of the empiricist myth—and to reassert the quintessentially human theme that scientists can work only within their social and psychological contexts. Such an assertion does not debase the institution of science, but rather enriches our view of the greatest dialectic in human history: the transformation of society by scientific progress, which can only arise within a matrix set, constrained, and facilitated by society.5

Four centuries after Galileo changed the geography of knowledge of the world and its immediate environs in space, in the 1920s a cosmological matrix of data, theory, and presentation came together in a new cosmological pattern that completely changed the way we view the cosmos and our place in it. As bold a pattern-shatterer as he was, Galileo could never have imagined just how inconceivably vast and vacuous the heavens would turn out to be. How that new pattern was discovered, delineated, doubted, debated, and ultimately determined to be correct provides us with a final example of how science works to adjudicated disputes over conflicting patterns.

References
  1. Gould, “The Sharp-Eyed Lynx, Outfoxed by Nature,” Natural History, May, 1998, 16–21, 70–72.
  2. Quoted in Gould, 1998, 32, translation by Gould.
  3. Tufte, Edward R. 2006. Beautiful Evidence. Connecticut: Graphics Press.
  4. Tufte, Edward R. 1997. Visual Explanations: Images and Quantities, Evidence and Narrative. Connecticut: Graphics Press, 106–108.
  5. Gould, 1998, 19.

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EPISODE # 156

Ayaan Hirsi Ali — Prey: Immigration, Islam, and the Erosion of Women’s Rights

Prey: Immigration, Islam, and the Erosion of Womens Rights (book cover)

Why are so few people talking about the eruption of sexual violence and harassment in Europe’s cities? No one in a position of power wants to admit that the problem is linked to the arrival of several million migrants—most of them young men—from Muslim-majority countries. In Prey Ayaan Hirsi Ali presents startling statistics, criminal cases and personal testimony. Among these facts: In 2014, sexual violence in Western Europe surged following a period of stability. In 2018 Germany, “offences against sexual self-determination” rose 36% from their 2014 rate; nearly two-fifths of the suspects were non-German. In 2017 Austria, asylum-seekers were suspects in 11% of all reported rapes and sexual harassment cases, despite making up less than 1% of the total population. This violence isn’t a figment of alt-right propaganda, Hirsi Ali insists, even if neo-Nazis exaggerate it. It’s a real problem that Europe—and the world—cannot continue to ignore. She explains why so many young Muslim men who arrive in Europe engage in sexual harassment and violence, tracing the roots of sexual violence in the Muslim world from institutionalized polygamy to the lack of legal and religious protections for women.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a research fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, Founder of the AHA Foundation and host of The Ayaan Hirsi Ali Podcast. Her new book Prey: Immigration, Islam, and the Erosion of Women’s Rights is published by Harper Collins. Her previous books include Infidel, The Caged Virgin, Nomad, Heretic, and The Challenge of Dawa. Born in Mogadishu, Somalia, she grew up in Africa and the Middle East, before seeking asylum in the Netherlands, where she went on to become a member of parliament. Today she lives in the United States with her husband and two sons. Find out more at ayaanhirsiali.com.

Trigger warning: upon listening to this conversation, you should be triggered.

Shermer and Hirsi Ali discuss:

  • difficulties in collecting reliable data on sex crimes,
  • Is the problem a temporary downturn in the long-term progress of women’s rights?
  • why burying the problem because of political correctness only emboldens the Far Right,
  • what it’s like growing up female in a Muslim-dominated culture,
  • why Hirsi Ali is not embraced as a feminist by liberals and leftists,
  • why liberals are not feminists when it comes to women’s rights violations by Muslims,
  • What about conservatives who argue for female modesty & chastity?
  • why Germany’s understandable (given its history) openness to immigrants backfired,
  • the male evolved sex drive and what cultural factors best keep it in check,
  • What is the right balance between open and closed borders?
  • Should immigrants be forced or encouraged to integrate and assimilate into host countries?
  • why immigrants don’t always integrate,
  • how the law has failed women,
  • Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilization thesis,
  • Natan Sharansky’s Case for Democracy, George W. Bush’s foreign policy to spread U.S. style democracy to the Middle East, and the tribal resistance and failure of democracy there, and
  • what Hirsi Ali would advise the Biden Administration on immigration.

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EPISODE # 155

Martin Sherwin — Gambling with Armageddon: Nuclear Roulette from Hiroshima to The Cuban Missile Crisis, 1945–1962

“I can go to my office and pick up a telephone, and in 25 minutes, millions of people will be dead.” —President Richard M. Nixon, 1974

The above quote from Nixon serves as the epigram of Martin Sherwin’s definitive history of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and as Dr. Shermer notes at the top of this conversation, Nixon’s pronouncement was no exaggeration. We still have a triad of nuclear weapons: (1) land (missiles), (2) air (bombers), and (3) sea (submarines). As the scientist David Barash calculates, a single Trident sub carries 20 nuclear-tipped missiles, each one of which has eight independently targetable warheads of about 465 kilotons, or about 30 times the destructive power of Little Boy. So one sub packs 20 × 8 × 30 = 4,800 Hiroshimas. We have 18 Trident submarines, so that is the equivalent of 86,400 Hiroshimas! In the words of President Obama during a briefing about our nuclear capability: “Let’s stipulate that this is all insane.”

Gambling with Armageddon: Nuclear Roulette from Hiroshima to The Cuban Missile Crisis, 1945-1962 (book cover)

In this episode Dr. Shermer talks with Martin Sherwin, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, about his new book Gambling with Armageddon, the definitive history of the Cuban Missile Crisis and its potential for nuclear holocaust, in a wider historical narrative of the Cold War—how such a crisis arose, and why at the very last possible moment it didn’t happen. Luck, coupled to reason and diplomacy, saved the world from thermonuclear war.

Sherwin not only gives us a riveting sometimes hour-by-hour explanation of the crisis itself, but also explores the origins, scope, and consequences of the evolving place of nuclear weapons in the post-World War II world. Mining new sources and materials, and going far beyond the scope of earlier works on this critical face-off between the United States and the Soviet Union—triggered when Khrushchev began installing missiles in Cuba at Castro’s behest—Sherwin shows how this volatile event was an integral part of the wider Cold War and was a consequence of nuclear arms. Gambling with Armageddon looks in particular at the original debate in the Truman Administration about using the Atomic Bomb; the way in which President Eisenhower relied on the threat of massive retaliation to project U.S. power in the early Cold War era; and how President Kennedy, though unprepared to deal with the Bay of Pigs debacle, came of age during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Sherwin also presents a clarifying picture of what was going on in Khrushchev’s Soviet Union.

As existential threats go, a nuclear exchange is second to none. Understanding how we dodged Armageddon in 1962 is vital for the future of humanity. This conversation explores those themes and more.

Martin J. Sherwin is George Mason University Professor of History and the author of Gambling with Armageddon: Nuclear Roulette from Hiroshima to The Cuban Missile Crisis, 1945–1962. His previous books include A World Destroyed: Hiroshima and Its Legacies and, with Kai Bird, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, which won the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 2006. He and his wife live in Washington, DC, and Colorado.

Some memorable quotes and facts discussed in the conversation:

Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara:

Mutual Assured Destruction is the foundation of deterrence. Nuclear weapons have no military utility whatsoever, excepting only to deter one’s opponent from their use. Which means you should never, never, never initiate their use against a nuclear-equipped opponent. If you do, it’s suicide.

American military strategist Bernard Brodie on deterrence, from his book The Absolute Weapon:

Thus far the chief purpose of our military establishment has been to win wars. From now on, its chief purpose must be to avert them. It can have almost no other purpose.

Dr. Strangelove, in Stanley Kubrick’s classic Cold War film of that title: “Deterrence is the art of producing in the mind of the enemy the fear to attack.” Said enemy, of course, must know that you have at the ready such destructive devices, and that is why “The whole point of a doomsday machine is lost if you keep it a secret!

Some chilling statistics:

  • In 1957, Strategic Air Command (SAC) estimated that between 360 and 525 million casualties would be inflicted in the first week of a nuclear exchange with the Soviet block.
  • In 1968 former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara gave these figures for MAD to work: “In the case of the Soviet Union, I would judge that a capability on our part to destroy, say, one-fifth to one-fourth of their population and one-half of her industrial capacity would serve as an effective deterrent” (with a population of the time of about 128 million, this translates to 25–32 million dead).
  • A 1979 report from the Office of Technology Assessment for the U.S. Congress, entitled The Effects of Nuclear War, estimated that 155 to 165 million Americans would die in an all-out Soviet first strike (unless people made use of existing shelters near their homes, reducing fatalities to 110–120 million). The population of the U.S. at the time was 225 million, so the estimated percent that would be killed ranged from 49 percent to 73 percent. Staggering.

Of the many times luck played a role in the Cuban Missile Crisis, one stands out above all the others: At the height of the tensions a Soviet submarine submerged off the Cuban coast was being harassed by a U.S. Navy surface flotilla, which was firing small depth charges, of the sort used in training exercises. It was not trying to destroy the submarine but rather in an effort to get it to surface. The submarine’s officers, however, believed they were under full attack; the U.S. military was unaware that this sub was equipped with at least one nuclear-tipped torpedo. Unable to communicate with its military leadership in the Kremlin and having been given permission to use its nuclear weapon in “dire circumstances,” two out of the three officers with launch responsibility voted to fire their nuclear torpedo at the U.S. fleet, believing that a war had already started. This would almost certainly have provoked a thermonuclear war. But the third officer, one Vasily Arkhipov, voted “No,” and so the Soviet submarine didn’t devastate a chunk of the U.S. Navy, the U.S. did not retaliate, and the world remained intact.

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EPISODE # 154

David Sloan Wilson — Atlas Hugged: The Autobiography of John Galt III

In episode 154 of The Michael Shermer Show, Michael speaks with renowned evolutionary theorist David Sloan Wilson about individualism, objectivism, cooperation, altruism, and collective action problems, based on his new novel Atlas Hugged: The Autobiography of John Galt III — a devastating critique of Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism and its impact on the world.

Renowned evolutionary theorist David Sloan Wilson has ventured into fiction with his new novel Atlas Hugged, which begins: “Call me anything but John Galt. That is my name, but it is also the name of my father and grandfather. I am not like them and the world they created is not the one I desire. The III after my name does not sufficiently set me apart.”

With these words, famed scientist and nonfiction writer David Sloan Wilson launches a devastating critique of Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism and its impact on the world. Just as Rand advanced her ideas through fiction in addition to nonfiction, including her iconic novel Atlas Shrugged, Wilson pursues his quarry into the fictional realm with the story of John Galt III, the grandson of the main protagonist of Rand’s novel, and his quest to defeat the Evil Empire constructed by his father, grandfather, and grandmother—Ayn Rant. Atlas Hugged is available only at AtlasHugged.world, where it is gifted, not sold, for whatever one wishes to give in return, with all proceeds going to Prosocial.world.

David Sloan Wilson, PhD, is president of The Evolution Institute, and SUNY distinguished professor of biology and anthropology at Binghamton University. He applies evolutionary theory to all aspects of humanity, in addition to the biological world. His books include Darwin’s Cathedral, Evolution for Everyone, The Neighborhood Project, and Does Altruism Exist?

Shermer and Wilson discuss:

  • how an evolutionary biologist comes to write a novel about economics and society,
  • the role of fiction and film in spreading ideas, good and bad,
  • empirical truths, pragmatic truths, mythic truths,
  • Why don’t liberals/progressives/feminists like Rand? She is a woman, an immigrant from an oppressed minority (Jewish), created strong independent woman who ran major corporations and enjoyed successful professional careers. Is the politics stronger than the identity in Identity Politics?
  • individualism vs. collectivism,
  • the nature of human nature: in addition to being selfish, competitive, and greedy, we also harbor a great capacity for altruism, cooperation, and charity,
  • collective action problems and how they are solved in the real world,
  • how small groups best operate and how to scale that up to whole societies,
  • Can the nation-state endure as presently structured?
  • the good and bad sides of capitalism,
  • income inequality: how much is too much? Where do you draw the line?
  • similarities between Objectivism and Christianity,
  • veridical perception and the distortion of reality. From Atlas Hugged:

    “Is it possible to actually prove that Rand’s creed of Objectivism is little different than a religion such as Christianity in its reliance on adaptive fictions? A hallmark of adaptive fictions is that they portray a world without messy tradeoffs, as if the only choice is between a path to glory and a path to ruin.”

Dr. Wilson’s critique of Objectivism (from Atlas Hugged):

Harm in the world is seldom caused by evil people. It is caused by normal people trying to tell right from wrong by peering through a tissue of lies. That’s what you discovered for your Christian faith and what I discovered for Objectivism.

Dr. Shermer’s critique of Objectivism (from Why People Believe Weird Things):

The fallacy in Objectivism is the belief that absolute knowledge and final Truths are attainable through reason, and therefore there can be absolute right and wrong knowledge, and absolute moral and immoral thought and action. For Objectivists, once a principle has been discovered through reason to be True, that is the end of the discussion. If you disagree with the principle, then your reasoning is flawed. If your reasoning is flawed it can be corrected, but if it is not, you remain flawed and do not belong in the group. Excommunication is the final step for such unreformed heretics. Nathaniel Branden, Rand’s chosen intellectual heir, where he listed the central tenets to which followers were to adhere, including: “Ayn Rand is the greatest human being who has ever lived. Atlas Shrugged is the greatest human achievement in the history of the world. Ayn Rand, by virtue of her philosophical genius, is the supreme arbiter in any issue pertaining to what is rational, moral, or appropriate to man’s life on earth. No one can be a good Objectivist who does not admire what Ayn Rand admires and condemn what Ayn Rand condemns. No one can be a fully consistent individualist who disagrees with Ayn Rand on any fundamental issue.”

Dr. Wilson’s vision of the future (from Atlas Hugged):

Laissez faire and centralized planning, the two main modes of governing, were both doomed to failure. A new path needed to be blazed that didn’t fall into any current political or economic camp. The beacon to follow was the concept of society as an organism and the way to get there was through a managed process of cultural evolution.

Dr. Wilson asked Dr. Shermer what people find inspiring about Atlas Shrugged. He answered with this passage from Galt’s speech:

In the name of the best within you, do not sacrifice this world to those who are its worst. In the name of the values that keep you alive, do not let your vision of man be distorted by the ugly, the cowardly, the mindless in those who have never achieved his title. Do not lose your knowledge that man’s proper estate is an upright posture, an intransigent mind and a step that travels unlimited roads. Do not let your fire go out, spark by irreplaceable spark, in the hopeless swamps of the approximate, the not-quite, the not-yet, the not-at-all. Do not let the hero in your soul perish, in lonely frustration for the life you deserved, but have never been able to reach. Check your road and the nature of your battle. The world you desired can be won, it exists, it is real, it is possible, it’s yours.

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EPISODE # 153

Kevin Dutton — Black-and-White Thinking: The Burden of a Binary Brain in a Complex World

Several million years ago, natural selection equipped us with binary, black-and-white brains. Though the world was arguably simpler back then, it was in many ways much more dangerous. Not coincidentally, the binary brain was highly adept at detecting risk: the ability to analyze threats and respond to changes in the sensory environment — a drop in temperature, the crack of a branch — was essential to our survival as a species. Since then, the world has evolved — but we, for the most part, haven’t. Confronted with a panoply of shades of gray, our brains have a tendency to “force quit:” to sort the things we see, hear, and experience into manageable but simplistic categories. We stereotype, pigeon-hole, and, above all, draw lines where in reality there are none. In our modern, interconnected world, it might seem like we are ill-equipped to deal with the challenges we face — that living with a binary brain is like trying to navigate a teeming city center with a map that shows only highways.

Shermer and Dutton discuss:

  • black-and-white thinking in: physics, biology, psychology, politics, economics, society,
  • What are categories and why do we need them?
  • When does a hill become a mountain and how many grains of sand makes a heap?
  • from quantitative scaling to qualitative categories,
  • analogue vs. digital, vinyl records vs. DVDs,
  • What is a species, exactly?
  • How can there be dozens of genders if there are just males and females?
  • Abortion: where do you draw the line?
  • from categories to stereotypes to bigotries,
  • tribalism, xenophobia, & racism: the dark side of black-and-white thinking,
  • the difference between a cult, a sect, and a religion,
  • What constitutes mental disorders? Are we all a little crazy?
  • Consciousness: when do the lights come on?
  • When is a Republican a conservative and not a liberal?

Dr. Kevin Dutton is a Fellow of the British Psychological Society and a research psychologist at the University of Oxford. He regularly publishes in leading international scientific journals and speaks at conferences around the world. He is the author of Flipnosis and The Wisdom of Psychopaths, for which he was awarded a Best American Science and Nature Writing prize. His work has been translated into over twenty languages, and his writing and research have been featured in Scientific American, New Scientist, The Guardian, The Times, Psychology Today, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post, among other publications.

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EPISODE # 152

Politics & Truth — Michael Shermer Responds to Critics of His Commentary “Trump & Truth”

Photo credit: Crowd of Trump supporters marching on the US Capitol on January 6, 2021 (photo by TapTheForwardAssist, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons).

Transcript

I have received a lot of interesting and constructive response to my commentary on the events of January 6, 2021—the storming of the Capitol by Trump supporters.

Let’s get one thing out of the way first: there seems to be a number of people who actually think that these were not Trump supporters at all, but rather Antifa activists dressed up as Trump supporters, in a form of “crisis actors,” ala the risibly ridiculous conspiracy theory promulgated by Alex Jones that the Sandy Hook school shooting was a “false flag” operation conducted by the Obama administration in order to enact gun laws to confiscate American’s firearms. Imagine if you were the parent of one of these slain children, crushed in emotional loss, grieving in existential agony, only to have some conspiratorial asshole scream in your face that your so-called “child” was actually just a “crisis actor” pretending to die. How any of these parents did not lose all control and go after these schmucks with extreme violence is beyond me. In the popular idiom, they showed the patience of Job. (I should note parenthetically that as a result of the Sandy Hook massacre and concomitant conspiracy theories about gun control, gun and ammunition sales skyrocketed to an all-time high after this event. So much for conspiracies.)

Just in case anyone thinks that there might be something to this conspiracy theory, hundreds of people who stormed the Capitol have now been arrested, and most of them have a long trail of social media posts confirming their allegiance to the 45th President of the United States, to the point that many of them are now begging Trump for a pardon, arguing that in charging the Capitol, breaking doors and windows, assaulting the Capitol police, and murdering several people in the process, they were doing the President’s bidding. At this point, anyone who would join a Fair Play for Trump Supporters Committee, has lost all touch with reality.

What happened on January 6, 2021 was unquestionably, undeniably, and dare I say unskeptically the result of Donald J. Trump. I realize that, legally, it might be difficult to prove in a trial that Trump should be held at least partially responsible for what unfolded from his words, but in so arguing people making this case, including some who have written me long emails explaining why my “counterfactual causality” argument—that is, but for Trump’s speech that morning, there would have been no storming of the capitol—wouldn’t stand in a court of law, misses the larger picture. No one who is not blind can fail to see that Trump had a role in what happened that day. Recall that Trump urged tens of thousands of his Sycophant followers to “be strong” and “show strength” in confronting Mike Pence and other politicians because “we want to get this right because we’re going to have somebody in there [Biden] that should not be in there and our country will be destroyed, and we’re not going to stand for that.” Oh really?

And: “we’re stuck with a president [Biden] who lost the election by a lot, and we have to live with that for four more years. We’re just not going to let that happen.” You don’t say?

And so they marched down Pennsylvania Ave. to the Capitol to “stop the steal”. This, after four years of Trump’s dissembling, duplicity, mendacity, and outright lying, orders of magnitude more lies than any President has ever told, possibly more lies than all other Presidents combined.

Let’s be clear, every Republican state and federal representative connected to the election, from city and county election official and politicians, up to the top cop Attorney General Bill Barr and Vice President Mike Pence, both of whom are devoted loyalists to Trump, and most of whom voted for Trump and would be, if so inclined, motivated to see Trump win, nonetheless say that the election was fair and that Trump lost. QED.

By the way, how did Trump reward Barr and Pence for their unwavering loyalty to him? Barr was forced to “resign” shortly after he declared the election fair, and Pence was given the choice by Trump to either be a “patriot or a pussy.” Was this just more locker-room talk, along the lines of Trump’s Hollywood Access tape boast that he’s so famous he can freely grab women by the pussy. I guess we’ve come full circle now. To his credit, Pence chose to be a patriot and not go against the Constitution to which he swore an oath to defend and protect, unlike his boss.

Despite what some of my correspondents think, I am not anti-conservative nor am I anti-Republican. I have my differences with them, which I will explicate in another commentary, and over the years I have also expressed my differences with liberals. But, frankly, at this moment in time, conservatives and Republicans have much to answer for. While the assault on the Capitol was unfolding, and contrary to his promise that he would march down Pennsylvania with them, Trump was, as he apparently spends most of his days doing, watching television, specifically the storming of the Capitol he was sworn to defend. Did he condemn the violence? No. He let it unfold until he saw the backlash against him by his own party loyalists—like when Goering and Himmler bailed on Hitler in the bunker in the final days of World War II—and out of desperation issued a scripted teleprompter speech that was indistinguishable from one of those hostage videos in which the captive reads a statement while blinking out a secret message “I don’t mean any of this.” In fact, the next day aids reported that he told them that he regretted making the video. What does that tell you about his character?

As a result, a Washington Post-ABC News poll on January 15 found that 66% of Republicans believe that Trump behaved responsibly since the election, while 65% said that they believe there is “solid evidence” that the election was stolen. To date none have provided any evidence whatsoever, solid or not, because there is none. Nevertheless, as a result of this false belief, by a margin of 2 to 1 Republicans say they are no longer confident in the “integrity” of the electoral system overall. How that will play out in future elections is anyone’s guess.

You wouldn’t think it could get any worse for conservatives, but it can. A 2019 YouGov poll found that 56% of self-identified Republicans think that it’s “probably true” or “definitely true” that President Barack Obama—the first African American President—was illegitimate because he was born in Kenya. This is beyond delusional. Anyone who believes any of this codswallop has lost their minds. If you believe this, you’ve gone off the rails. You are no longer operating in the real world.

If you are a conservative or a Republican, please consider this thought experiment I proposed on Twitter on January 13:

If Obama lost to Mitt Romney in 2012 and refused to acknowledge the election as legitimate, then spent months promoting on Twitter and Facebook that he won the election in a landslide, and that Romney and the Republicans stole the election, and then on the day the electoral college votes were to be counted in Congress Obama held a mass rally near the Capitol and told a mob of Antifa hotheads to march down Pennsylvania Ave. and go to the Capitol and “be strong” with the “weak” Congressmen and Senators, and to “show strength,” and that “our country will be destroyed and we’re not going to stand for that” and that with Romney “we’re stuck with a president who lost the election by a lot and we have to live with that for four more years” and “we’re just not going to let that happen,” and this was followed by an Antifa storming of the Capitol resulting in five dead, do you think Fox News and right-wing media would be claiming that it wasn’t Obama’s fault, that he had nothing to do with the violence, and that the biggest story of the week is that Twitter and Facebook kicked him off their platforms?

As I am recording this on January 17, it has come to light that it appears the Capitol assault was much more organized and preplanned than it seemed that day, which in my causal analysis could reduce Trump’s complicity, unless he was behind what appears to be pre-planning for the assault, as many Trump supporters traveled great distances and brought with them weapons and other paraphernalia, such as zip ties used to subdue perpetrators of violence and/or hostages. One guy posted on his social media that he planned to subdue the Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, tie her up and then execute her on national television.

All year conservatives have been lambasting liberals for the extreme actions of Antifa in the rioting and looting of major cities like Portland and Seattle. Well, what goes around comes around, and now conservatives have to answer for these Trump extremists.

There is still much we don’t know about the events of January 6. It is disturbing to discover, for example, that the day before—January 5—there were some tours of the Capitol building, which because of COVID-19 had been shut down for months. What were those people doing there and who let them in? As I wrote in a tweet on January 14 when that story broke, “Wouldn’t it be conspiratorially wild if it turned out that 1/6 was an “inside job” that Trump either MIHOP (Made it Happen on Purpose) or LIHOP (Let it Happen on Purpose) pace the 9/11 ‘inside job’ conspiracy theories?”

We’ll see how that pans out. It’s too soon to tell and I don’t want to be conspiratorially paranoid. But if true it would increase Trump’s complicity, inasmuch as he swore an oath to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States, and as Commander-in-Chief if he knew about the mob’s plans for that day and merely let it happen, even sans his speech that morning, he would be in deep legal trouble.

One correspondent wrote to me to say that: “Your writings have always been interesting to me intellectually on most subjects and worthy of reading ‘for the progressive view’ on ideology subjects. The recent video/commentary was not in the same construct and very biased politically to my reading.”

Here is my response to this correspondent:

If you’re reading me for “the progressive view on ideology subjects” you’ve got the wrong guy. I am anything but progressive. I’m not even really a liberal, at least according to mainstream liberals. I’ve said in countless interviews, articles, OpEds, podcasts, and especially my books, that I’m a libertarian, or now a classical liberal (given how extreme some libertarians have become). I’ve been so publicly critical of progressives, leftists, the woke crowd, the BLM movement, etc. that most of my readers consider me to be anything but progressive. So I’m not sure how you got that impression. In the podcast episode I stated toward the end that we really need a good solid conservative candidate in 2024 so that the liberals don’t take the country too far left.

Other readers accused me of ignoring what they saw as the big story of the week: that Twitter kicked Trump off their platform. If you think that is the biggest story of the week, again, your vision is out of focus. That is most assuredly NOT the story of the week. The storming of the Capitol is the story. In fact, as Jack Dorsey said in a statement made on January 16, Trump was banned because of the violence he incited on January 6th. If the banning were purely politically motivated, Dorsey went on to say, they would have banned Trump long before. In fact, social media has bent over backward to enable Trump to exercise his free speech rights and privileges on their platform. It was only when Trump’s followers, charged with riotous emotions and filled with anger believing that the election was stolen and that the United States itself was about to be destroyed if they didn’t do something today, charged into the Capitol and started rampaging, looting, rioting, and murdering people, that Twitter finally and at long last said “enough.”

I understand their decision, although as for censorship in principle, I am against it, and that day I made the point that I disagreed with Twitter’s decision to ban Trump, and I tweeted about it several times. My latest book, Giving the Devil His Due, is a vigorous defense of free speech, and not just against government censorship but private censoriousness as well. That said, if I were the CEO of a major social media tech company responsible for the communications of billions of people, one of whom was using my platform to publish provable lies about the 2020 election that led, at least indirectly, to violence at the heart of our nation’s democracy, I can’t say that I wouldn’t have made the same decision.

Quite a few people who are long-time readers of Skeptic magazine and supporters of the Skeptics Society, were concerned that I had used this platform to promote my personal political beliefs and that this has nothing to do with science, critical thinking, and skepticism.

I beg to differ. If, for example, my commentary defended a flat tax instead of a progressive tax, or some specific immigration policy, or a foreign relations policy issue, that would be purely political and not appropriate for what we do at Skeptic. There is no way for science to adjudicate what, precisely, is the “right” tax rate or the “correct” immigration policy. Should the upper bracket income tax be 37% as it is today or 77% as it was nearly a century ago? I don’t know. There is no “correct” answer to that question. Naturally, like most people, I would personally prefer to pay lower taxes. But I recognize the necessity of funding government to solve collection action problems, like interstate highways, infrastructure, the military, police, courts, legislation, and especially to help people who cannot help themselves, like the unemployed, homeless, and mentally ill. But these issues are hashed out not in peer-reviewed scientific journals, but by interested parties at election time and then sorted out in debates and votes in congress. 

What my commentary was about was truth, specifically the verisimilitude of the conspiracy theory that the 2020 election was “rigged” “fraudulent” or “stolen”. Conspiracy theories are very much in the wheelhouse of Skeptic magazine, and whether a particular conspiracy theory is true or false very much matters, as we saw on January 6, and as we’ve seen throughout 2020 as BLM activists protested and then rioted in major cities like Seattle and Portland.

Finally, I would like to comment on what it means to “believe” something. If you truly believe that the election was stolen, or that America is a racist cesspool with cops driving around targeting African Americans, then it is understandable why people would protest, and unfortunately peaceful protests can easily morph into violent rioting when emotions wrest control from reason. As I wrote in a tweet on January 16:

If you came home and saw strangers in your house stealing your stuff, you would of course want to do something about it—call the police, get a gun, or get friends to storm your home to stop the steal. This is why the “stolen election” conspiracy theory must be debunked again and again.

Thus, the truth or falsity of a claim of any kind that can be adjudicated by science and reason applies not just to astrologers, psychics, UFO proponents, and Big Foot hunters (all of which we cover in Skeptic magazine), but to conspiracy theories, including and especially those in the realm of politics, economics, and ideology, which as we’ve seen matters very much to the stability of our democracy and trust in the institutions that keep society stable.

Allow me to end this commentary with a quote from one of my intellectual heroes, Thomas Jefferson, from his First Inaugural Address, on March 4, 1801, which followed a bitter and rancorous election against the incumbent President John Adams who, by the way, did not attend Jefferson’s inauguration:

All too will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will, to be rightful, must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal laws must protect, and to violate would be oppression. Let us then, fellow citizens, unite with one heart and one mind, let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty, and even life itself, are but dreary things. And let us reflect that having banished from our land that religious intolerance under which mankind so long bled and suffered, we have yet gained little if we countenance a political intolerance, as despotic, as wicked, and capable of as bitter and bloody persecutions.

Here’s hoping for a smooth and peaceful transition of power on January 20, 2021.

Thanks for listening.

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EPISODE # 151

Trump & Truth — A Commentary by Michael Shermer

Photo credit: Donald Trump‘s face through the torn US flag by Marco Verch under Creative Commons 2.0

“Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.” — Voltaire

In this monologue commentary on the events of January 6, 2021, Dr. Shermer applies causal inference theory to Trump’s speech that morning, the violent assault on the Capitol that followed, the banning of Trump off social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, the fears on the Right of social media censoriousness on the Left, the breaking up of big tech social media companies, and related topics, including what it means to “believe” a conspiracy theory like Pizzagate (that Democrats are running a pedophile ring out of a pizzeria), or that America is a deeply racist country in which most cops are so racist that they’re hunting down African Americans, or that the 2020 election was rigged and stolen by Democrats. (Note: in the monologue Dr. Shermer misspoke in discussing the case against Microsoft: it bundled Internet Explorer, not Netscape, which was one of its competitors. See the discussion below.)

As Dr. Shermer has long argued, people act on their beliefs, and if people really believe these conspiracy theories it becomes more understandable that they act on them as they do: the gunman who showed up at the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria in Washington DC to break up the pedophile ring; the Antifa mobs who rioted and looted Seattle and Portland and other cities to defund the police; the violent mob who followed Trump’s orders to march to the Capitol to “show strength” and “demand that Congress do the right thing” to reverse the stolen election. This is why determining the truth matters, has always mattered, and matters more now than ever.

Dr. Shermer also calls on Republicans to “not do that again” and instead put up a rational, reasonable, and respectable statesman for their next Presidential candidate because our political system works best when each side keeps the other in check from going too far. As John Stuart Mill concluded in his classic 1859 book On Liberty:

“A party of order or stability, and a party of progress or reform, are both necessary elements of a healthy state of political life.”

Causal diagram for the firing squad example (from The Book of Why, by Judea Pearl)

Causal diagram for the firing squad. A and B represent (the action of) soldiers A and B. (Figure 1.4: from Judea Pearl’s book The Book of Why.)

In the monologue Dr. Shermer presents a causal inference diagram from Judea Pearl’s book The Book of Why. If you are listening to this episode rather than watching the video podcast, here is the diagram, followed by quotes and passages read by Dr. Shermer in the monologue.

Regarding the break-up of big tech social media companies, here are the passages from Dr. Shermer’s book Giving the Devil His Due, on why this isn’t necessary:

In 1917 Bertie Forbes published his list of the top 100 U.S. corporations. By 1987, 61 of them were gone, and of the remaining 39, 21 were no longer in the top 100 and 18 underperformed the average growth in stock market value. The only company to both survive and outperform the market was General Electric. Similarly, of the 500 companies that made up the Standard & Poor’s original list in 1957, only 74 survived through 1997, at which point they had all underperformed the S&P 500 index by an average of 20 percent. In both natural ecosystems and economies, extinction is part of evolution. Think Kodak.

Kodak once so dominated the film and camera industry — at one point enjoying a 96% market share — that government bureaucrats were wringing their interventionistic hands in panic that such a monopoly could bring about market inefficiencies, or worse, Americans would get so hooked on capturing their “Kodak moments” that the film giant would force addicted consumers to pay artificially jacked-up prices. In response, the feds sued Kodak twice for antitrust violations in 1921 and 1954, opening the door for Fuji film to jump into the market. The result? Kodak and Fuji became a duopoly, and like most gargantuan organizations both grew sclerotic and failed to keep up with the digital revolution that, in the case of Kodak, saw their stock price collapse from $60 a share in 2000 to less than 50 cents a share at the time of this writing shortly after the story broke that the fearful giant was preparing to declare bankruptcy. Apple and Google are hot today, but who knows what a couple of grad students are dreaming up in their dorm rooms this year that in the near future will reconfigure the economic landscape? These giants — which the antitrust regulators are fretting about today — will almost assuredly turn into GM-like lumbering sloths unable to respond in time to the next shift in the economic ecology, and they too could go the way of Neanderthals.

And from Dr. Shermer’s The Mind of the Market, on the government’s lawsuit against Microsoft for it’s alleged monopolistic practices:

Microsoft was accused of gaining a market advantage over its competitors through the wildly successful Windows operating system by adding to it a free version of a web browser, Internet Explorer, which competed with other browsers such as Netscape’s, who charged for the product. Microsoft’s crime was to offer special discounts to major vendors such as IBM, Intel, and Compaq as an incentive to adopt Microsoft technology. One of these vendors was America Online (AOL), for whom Microsoft developed a browser designed specifically for its Internet service. In exchange for AOL adopting Microsoft’s Internet software, Microsoft provided AOL with free worldwide distribution rights to Internet Explorer and placement of the AOL icon in a special folder on the Windows desktop. The effects were immediate and dramatic. AOL quickly registered nearly one million new subscribers to its service, and soon tens of millions of Internet consumers could access cyberspace at no additional cost. Microsoft offered Internet Explorer free to consumers. Surely this is a good thing, no?

Not according to the United States Department of Justice, who charged Microsoft with monopolistic practices. Here is what the United States District Court Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson had to say about Microsoft and its evil doings in his judgment against them on November 5, 1999:

The inclusion of Internet Explorer with Windows at no separate charge increased general familiarity with the Internet and reduced the cost to the public of gaining access to it, at least in part because it compelled Netscape to stop charging for Navigator. These actions thus contributed to improving the quality of Web browsing software, lowering its cost, and increasing its availability, thereby benefiting consumers.

Uh? This is a crime? Yes, because “Microsoft also engaged in a concerted series of actions designed to protect the applications barrier to entry, and hence its monopoly power, from a variety of middleware threats, including Netscape’s Web browser and Sun’s implementation of Java.” So? “This indicates that superior quality was not responsible for the dramatic rise in Internet Explorer’s usage share.” In other words, in Judge Jackson’s opinion, even though Microsoft offered a higher quality product at a lower price, that is not what led to its success over Netscape; rather, Microsoft’s exclusive deals and special offers to other companies with whom it desired to do business is what led to its success, and this is not fair. It is not fair to whom? Consumers? No — as Judge Jackson admitted, it was a beneficial boon to consumers. So to whom was it not fair? The answer should be obvious by now: other producers.

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EPISODE # 150

Daniel Lieberman — Exercised: Why Something We Never Evolved to Do is Healthy and Rewarding

“Nothing about the biology of exercise makes sense except in the light of evolution, and nothing about exercise as a behavior makes sense except in the light of anthropology.”

In this myth-busting book, Daniel Lieberman, professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University and a pioneering researcher on the evolution of human physical activity, tells the story of how we never evolved to exercise — to do voluntary physical activity for the sake of health. Using his own research and experiences throughout the world, Lieberman recounts how and why humans evolved to walk, run, dig, and do other necessary and rewarding physical activities while avoiding needless exertion. As our increasingly sedentary lifestyles have contributed to skyrocketing rates of obesity and diseases such as diabetes, Lieberman argues that to become more active we need to do more than medicalize and commodify exercise.

Shermer and Lieberman also discuss:

  • evolutionary and anthropological perspectives on physical activity,
  • why we never evolved to exercise,
  • physical activity vs. exercise,
  • sleep: how much do we really need?
  • walking vs. running; speed vs. strength,
  • endurance and aging: why exercise matters,
  • why we age and die,
  • exercise and diet,
  • Should we do weights, cardio, or high-intensity training?
  • Is sitting really the new smoking?
  • Is BMI really a useful measure?
  • exercise and disease: obesity, diabetes/metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular disease (and cholesterol), osteoporosis, Alzheimer’s, depression, and cancer,
  • immune systems and exercise, and
  • How much exercise should you get each week?

Daniel E. Lieberman is Edwin M. Lerner Professor of Biological Sciences and professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University. He is the author of the national best seller The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health, and Disease. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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EPISODE # 149

The After Time: The Future of Civilization After COVID-19

In this special episode of the Science Salon podcast, the last of 2020, Dr. Michael Shermer offers some reflections on 2020, starting with race and the Black Lives Movement, putting it into perspective from other books he read this year, along with podcast guests who appeared in 2020, such as Shelby Steele (in Science Salon # 139). Dr. Shermer recently read Isabel Wilkerson’s book Caste and Ibram X. Kendi’s book How to Be an Anti-Racist, and offers some thoughts on them, along with other issues competing for our attention of ills troubling society, including class conflicts, income inequality, lack of education, anti-Semitism, far-left illiberalism, far-right xenophobia and bigotry, and religious indoctrination. Everyone thinks that their particular focus is the only one that matters, but broad reading can put each into perspective. Dr. Shermer then reads his essay of the podcast title (originally published on August 31, 2020 in The American Scholar and expanded on here and in an upcoming issue of Skeptic magazine).

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EPISODE # 148

Have Archetype — Will Travel: The Jordan Peterson Phenomenon

In this special episode of the Science Salon podcast Dr. Michael Shermer reflects on the recent resurrection of Jordan Peterson, the resurgent criticism of him and why so many people attack him, why similar such unwarranted attacks have been made against public intellectuals like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris today, and of Stephen Jay Gould and Carl Sagan in the past. Dr. Shermer then reads his essay of this title that was originally published in Skeptic magazine 23.3 (2018), and on skeptic.com, and is reprinted in his essay collection Giving the Devil His Due.

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EPISODE # 147

David Barash — On the Brink of Destruction

  • 2020 as the most momentous year of the past half century,
  • judging historical figures based on modern morals (e.g., race and slavery),
  • whether humans are naturally gullible or skeptical,
  • the evolutionary logic of deterrence,
  • how animals deal with threats,
  • how humans deal with threats,
  • game theory of deterring threats,
  • nuclear deterrence (Mutual Assured Destruction) as a threat strategy,
  • the motives behind nuking Hiroshima and Nagasaki,
  • the U.S. arms race against the U.S.S.R.,
  • the arms race within the U.S. between the Army, Navy, and Airforce,
  • close calls with nuclear weapons and why this is not a sustainable strategy,
  • how to deal with threats like Iran, China, Russia, and North Korea,
  • Trump and what he did right with regard to North Korea.

David P. Barash is an evolutionary biologist and Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of Washington. He has written more than 280 peer-reviewed articles and 40 books. Barash has penned op-eds in the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, and The Chicago Tribune, as well as numerous pieces in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Nautilus, and Skeptic.

Listen to the podcast via Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, iHeartRadio, Amazon Music, and TuneIn.

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EPISODE # 146

Donald R. Prothero — Weird Earth: Debunking Strange Ideas About Our Planet

Shermer and Prothero discuss:

  • flat earth theories and how we know the earth is round,
  • hollow earth theories and how we know it’s not hollow,
  • the return of Ptolemy and an earth-centered solar system model (and how we know it’s wrong),
  • how science deals with anomalies, fringe claims, and challenges to the orthodoxy,
  • whether humans were in the San Diego area 130,000 years ago,
  • how consensus is achieved in science (and the messy road to get there),
  • from Newton to Einstein and what ultimately determines if a theory is true or not,
  • flood myths and what causes such stories to arise in some cultures but not others,
  • catastrophism vs. uniformitarianism in geology,
  • the age of the earth and how geologists determined it,
  • the myth of Atlantis and what Plato really intended with his account,
  • biblical accounts of the world and how we should read the book as literature, not science,
  • how science won the evolution-creation wars,
  • science denial and how to deal with it, and
  • the real-world consequences of denying science.

Dr. Donald R. Prothero has taught geology for over 33 years as Professor of Geology at Occidental College in Los Angeles, and Lecturer in Geobiology at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, and currently at Pierce College in Woodland Hills, CA. He earned M.A., M.Phil., and Ph.D. degrees in geological sciences from Columbia University in 1982. He is currently the author, co-author, editor, or co-editor of 33 books and over 250 scientific papers, including five leading geology textbooks and three trade books as well as edited symposium volumes and other technical works. He is on the editorial board of Skeptic magazine, and in the past has served as an associate or technical editor for Geology, Paleobiology and Journal of Paleontology. He is a Fellow of the Geological Society of America, the Paleontological Society, and the Linnaean Society of London, and has also received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Science Foundation. In 1991, he received the Schuchert Award of the Paleontological Society for the outstanding paleontologist under the age of 40. He has also been featured on several television documentaries, including episodes of Paleoworld (BBC), Prehistoric Monsters Revealed (History Channel), Entelodon and Hyaenodon (National Geographic Channel) and Walking with Prehistoric Beasts (BBC).

Listen to the podcast via Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, iHeartRadio, Amazon Music, and TuneIn.

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Retrospective

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