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The Michael Shermer Show

The Michael Shermer Show (formerly Science Salon) 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 # 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.

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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).

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EPISODE # 145

Greg Lukianoff — How Free is Free Speech?

In this wide ranging conversation focused on Greg Lukianoff’s co-authored (with Jonathan Haidt) book The Coddling of the American Mind, and his new documentary film Mighty Ira: A Civil Liberties Story, about the free speech champion Ira Glassner, who headed the ACLU for decades, he and Shermer discuss:

  • the state of free speech today,
  • how coddled today’s students are,
  • the data on rates of depression and anxiety in students today,
  • possible causes of the coddling of the American mind: social media, screen time, culture of safetyism, culture of victimhood, helicopter parenting, the decline of unsupervised, child-directed play,
  • cancel culture and its effect on self-censorship and silencing speech,
  • current rates of deplatforming and canceling in academia,
  • the polarization of politics,
  • when self-censorship is healthy,
  • default to truth theory vs. default to skepticism theory,
  • How gullible are we, really?
  • how to combat the negative influencers on social media,
  • a brief history of free speech in the 20th and 21th centuries,
  • why people in power want to silence dissenters (even free speech advocates in power), and
  • the value of viewpoint diversity.

Greg Lukianoff is the president and CEO of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). Lukianoff is a graduate of American University and Stanford Law School. He specializes in free speech and First Amendment issues in higher education. He is the author of Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate and Freedom From Speech. Read about his new film: Mighty Ira: A Civil Liberties Story.

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EPISODE # 144

Agustín Fuentes — Why We Believe: Evolution and the Human Way of Being

Why are so many humans religious? Why do we daydream, imagine, and hope? Philosophers, theologians, social scientists, and historians have offered explanations for centuries, but their accounts often ignore or even avoid human evolution. Evolutionary scientists answer with proposals for why ritual, religion, and faith make sense as adaptations to past challenges or as by-products of our hyper-complex cognitive capacities. But what if the focus on religion is too narrow? Renowned anthropologist Agustín Fuentes argues that the capacity to be religious is actually a small part of a larger and deeper human capacity to believe. Why believe in religion, economies, love? Fuentes employs evolutionary, neurobiological, and anthropological evidence to argue that belief — the ability to commit passionately and wholeheartedly to an idea — is central to the human way of being in the world.

The premise of the book is that believing is our ability to draw on our range of cognitive and social resources, our histories and experiences, and combine them with our imagination. It is the power to think beyond what is here and now in order to see and feel and know something — an idea, a vision, a necessity, a possibility, a truth — that is not immediately present to the senses, and then to invest, wholly and authentically, in that “something” so that it becomes one’s reality. The point is that beliefs and belief systems permeate human neurobiologies, bodies, and ecologies, and structure and shape our daily lives, our societies, and the world around us. We are human, therefore we believe, and this book tells us how we came to be that way.

Shermer and Fuentes also discuss:

  • what it means to “believe” something (belief in evolution or the Big Bang is different from belief in progressive taxes or affirmative action),
  • evolution and how beliefs are formed…and why,
  • evolution of awe, wonder, aesthetic sense, beauty, art, music, dance, etc. (adaptation or exaptation/spandrel?),
  • evolution of spirituality, religion, belief in immortality,
  • Were Neanderthals human in the “belief” sense?
  • human niche and the evolution of symbolism/language,
  • evolution of theory of mind,
  • how to infer symbolic meaning from archaeological artifacts,
  • components of belief: augmented cognition and neurobiology, intentionality, imagination, innovation, compassion and intensive reliance on others, meaning-making,
  • dog domestication and human self-domestication,
  • Göbekli Tepe and the underestimation of ancient peoples’ cognitive capacities,
  • the development of property, accumulation of goods, inequality, and social hierarchy,
  • gender role specialization,
  • monogamy and polyamory, gender and sex, and continuum vs. binary thinking,
  • violence and warfare,
  • political and economic systems of belief, and
  • love as belief.

Agustín Fuentes is a Professor of Anthropology at Princeton University. He is an active public scientist, a well-known blogger, lecturer, tweeter, and an explorer for National Geographic. Fuentes received the Inaugural Communication & Outreach Award from the American Association of Physical Anthropologists, the President’s Award from the American Anthropological Association, and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

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EPISODE # 143

Nicholas Christakis — Apollo’s Arrow: The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way We Live

Apollo’s Arrow offers a riveting account of the impact of the coronavirus pandemic as it swept through American society in 2020, and of how the recovery will unfold in the coming years. Drawing on momentous (yet dimly remembered) historical epidemics, contemporary analyses, and cutting-edge research from a range of scientific disciplines, bestselling author, physician, sociologist, and public health expert Nicholas A. Christakis explores what it means to live in a time of plague — an experience that is paradoxically uncommon to the vast majority of humans who are alive, yet deeply fundamental to our species. Featuring new, provocative arguments and vivid examples ranging across medicine, history, sociology, epidemiology, data science, and genetics, Apollo’s Arrow envisions what happens when the great force of a deadly germ meets the enduring reality of our evolved social nature.

Shermer and Christakis discuss:

  • the replication crisis in social science and medicine,
  • determining causality in science and medicine,
  • how we know smoking causes cancer and HIV causes AIDS, but vaccines do not cause autism and cell phones do not cause cancer,
  • randomized controlled trials and why they can’t be done to answer many medical questions,
  • natural experiments and the comparative method of testing hypotheses (e.g., comparing different countries differing responses to Covid-19),
  • the hindsight bias and the curse of knowledge in judging responses to pandemics after the fact,
  • looking back to January 2020, what should we have done?,
  • comparing Covid-19 to the Black Death, the Spanish Flu, and other pandemics,
  • bacteria vs. viruses, coronaviruses and their effects, and why viruses are so much harder to treat than bacteria,
  • Bill Gates’ TED talk warning in 2015 and why we didn’t heed it,
  • treatments: hydroxychloroquine, remdesivir, Vitamin D.

How civilization will change:

  • medical: coronavirus is here to stay — herd immunity naturally and through vaccines,
  • personal and public health: handshakes, hugs, and other human contact; masks, social distancing, hygiene,
  • long run healthier society (e.g., body temperatures have decreased from 98.6 to 97.9),
  • economics and business,
  • travel, conferences, meetings,
  • marriage, dating, sex, and home life,
  • entertainment, vacations, bars, and restaurants,
  • education and schools,
  • politics and society (and a better understanding of freedom and why it is restricted),
  • from pandemic to endemic.

Nicholas A. Christakis is a physician and sociologist who explores the ancient origins and modern implications of human nature. He directs the Human Nature Lab at Yale University, where he is the Sterling Professor of Social and Natural Science, in the Departments of Sociology, Medicine, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Statistics and Data Science, and Biomedical Engineering. He is the Co-Director of the Yale Institute for Network Science, the co-author of Connected, and the author of Blueprint.

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EPISODE # 142

Philip Goff — Galileo’s Error: Foundations for a New Science of Consciousness

Galileo’s Error: Foundations for a New Science of Consciousness (book cover)

Paperback now available

Understanding how brains produce consciousness is one of the great scientific challenges of our age. Some philosophers argue that consciousness is something “extra,” beyond the physical workings of the brain. Others think that if we persist in our standard scientific methods, our questions about consciousness will eventually be answered. And some even suggest that the mystery is so deep, it will never be solved. Decades have been spent trying to explain consciousness from within our current scientific paradigm, but little progress has been made.

Now, Philip Goff offers an exciting alternative that could pave the way forward. Rooted in an analysis of the philosophical underpinnings of modern science and based on the early twentieth-century work of Arthur Eddington and Bertrand Russell, Goff makes the case for panpsychism, a theory which posits that consciousness is not confined to biological entities but is a fundamental feature of all physical matter — from subatomic particles to the human brain. In Galileo’s Error, he has provided the first step on a new path to the final theory of human consciousness. Shermer and Goff discuss:

  • the problem Galileo’s approach to science solved,
  • Galileo’s error in solving the consciousness problem, that is the qualitative,
  • Dualism, Monism, Panpsychism,
  • Material Monism, Mind Monism, and Idealism,
  • hard problem of consciousness defined,
  • how consciousness is at the bottom of reality,
  • why science cannot discover the ultimate nature of reality,
  • Model Dependent Realism, philosophy, and science,
  • Arthur Stanley Eddington and Bertrand Russell build panpsychism back into science,
  • philosophical zombies and the “other minds problem,”
  • free will, determinism, compatibilism, and panpsychism,
  • objective moral values and science,
  • fine tuning and the multiverse, and
  • implications of panpsychism for attitudes toward nature and the meaning of life.

Philip Goff is a philosopher who teaches at Durham University. He is the author of Consciousness and Fundamental Reality and has published more than 40 academic papers. His writing has also appeared in many newspapers and magazines, including The Guardian and The Times Literary Supplement, and he has guest-edited an issue of Philosophy Now. He lives in Durham, England. Follow Philip on Twitter @philip_goff, visit his website, and read his blog.

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EPISODE # 141

Richard Kreitner — Break it Up: Secession, Division, and the Secret History of America’s Imperfect Union

The provocative thesis of Break It Up is simple: The United States has never lived up to its name—and never will. The disunionist impulse may have found its greatest expression in the Civil War, but as Break It Up shows, the seduction of secession wasn’t limited to the South or the 19th century. It was there at our founding and has never gone away.

Investigative journalist Richard Kreitner takes readers on a revolutionary journey through American history, revealing the power and persistence of disunion movements in every era and region. Each New England town after Plymouth was a secession from another; the 13 colonies viewed their Union as a means to the end of securing independence, not an end in itself; George Washington feared separatism west of the Alleghenies; Aaron Burr schemed to set up a new empire; John Quincy Adams brought a Massachusetts town’s petition for dissolving the United States to the floor of Congress; and abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison denounced the Constitution as a pro-slavery pact with the devil.

From the “cold civil war” that pits partisans against one another to the modern secession movements in California and Texas, the divisions that threaten to tear America apart today have centuries-old roots in the earliest days of our Republic. Richly researched and persuasively argued, Break It Up will help readers make fresh sense of our fractured age. Shermer and Kreitner discuss:

  • what happens if Trump loses the 2020 election and refuses to leave,
  • the possibility of the secession of California, Oregon and Washington,
  • States rights vs. Federal power in issues like climate change, abortion, health care, etc.,
  • how Native American tribes and nations governed themselves and what the colonists learned from them,
  • how the 1st colonial revolution was fought not to create a federation but to destroy one when Boston rebelled against the Crown-backed Dominion of New England,
  • separatists movements throughout our history,
  • Aaron Burr’s attempts to create a new nation he would head,
  • spread of slavery to the west and Jefferson’s fear that it sounded like a “fire bell in the night,”
  • why John Quincy Adams introduced a petition demanding the dissolution of the U.S.:

    “If the day should ever come, (may Heaven avert it,) when the affection of the people of these states shall be alienated from each other; when the fraternal spirit shall give away to cold indifference, or collisions of interest shall fester into hatred, far better will it be for the people of the disunited states, to part in friendship from each other, than to be held together by constraint.”

  • how Southern states initially sought to expand the union of slave holding states, not secession,
  • why reconstruction failed,
  • the Civil War of the 1960s,
  • Brexit, Texit, and Calexit,
  • Russia support for American secessionist movements,
  • James Madison’s observation (in Federalist Paper No. 51) about the problem all human groups/tribes/nations must solve:

    “But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”

Kreitner’s summation of America’s irrepressible conflict “The ‘irrepressible conflict’ was not just between North and South, freedom and slavery; it reflected something even deeper. The truly ‘irrepressible’ conflict was between union and disunion, whose forces bringing American together and those tearing them apart.”

Richard Kreitner is a contributing writer to The Nation. He is the author of Booked: A Traveler’s Guide to Literary Locations Around the World. A graduate of McGill University, he has also written for The New York Times, Slate, Salon, The Baffler, Raritan, The Forward, and the Boston Globe. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and daughter.

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EPISODE # 140

Rebecca Wragg Sykes — Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art

The common narrative of Neanderthals is that they were a group of dullard losers whose extinction 40,000 years ago was due to smarter competition and a little of interbreeding with our own forebears. Likening someone to a Neanderthal was and, most likely, still is a top-rate anthropological insult. But, in the past few decades, Neanderthal finds have greatly contradicted our perception of the species. In Kindred, Rebecca Wragg Sykes combs through the avalanche of scientific discoveries of the species and uses her experience at the cutting-edge of Paleolithic research to share our new understanding of Neanderthals, shoving aside cliches of rag-clad brutes in an icy wasteland. She reveals them to be curious, clever connoisseurs of their world, technologically inventive and ecologically adaptable. They ranged across vast tracts of tundra and steppe, but also stalked in dappled forests and waded in the Mediterranean Sea. Above all, they were successful survivors for more than 300,000 years, during times of massive climatic upheaval. Shermer and Sykes also discuss:

  • the nature of species and if Neanderthals and Homo sapiens are one or two species,
  • the deep time span of Neanderthals,
  • the wide geography of Neanderthals,
  • how archaeologists work today to discern Neanderthal lives and minds,
  • Neanderthal DNA and what we have learned from it,
  • Neanderthal bodies,
  • Neanderthal brains and minds,
  • Neanderthal tools and what they tell us about their lives,
  • Neanderthal hunting/caloric needs,
  • Neanderthal art,
  • Neanderthal sex and love and social lives,
  • Neanderthal death, burial, afterlife beliefs, and possible religious beliefs, and
  • extinction: what happened to the Neanderthals?

Rebecca Wragg Sykes has been fascinated by the vanished worlds of the Pleistocene ice ages since childhood, and followed this interest through a career researching the most enigmatic characters of all, the Neanderthals. After a Ph.D. on the last Neanderthals living in Britain, she worked in France at the world-famous PACEA laboratory, Université de Bordeaux, on topics ranging from Neanderthal landscapes and territories in the Massif Central region of south-east France, to examining how they were the first ancient humans to produce a synthetic material and tools made of multiple parts. Alongside her academic activities, she has also earned a reputation for exceptional public engagement. The public can follow her research through a personal blog and Twitter account, and she frequently writes for the popular media, including the Scientific American and Guardian science blogs. Becky is passionate about sharing the privileged access scientists have to fascinating discoveries about the Neanderthals. She is also co-founder of the influential Trowelblazers project, which highlights women archaeologists, palaeontologists and geologists through innovative outreach and collaboration.

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EPISODE # 139

Shelby Steele — Shame: How America’s Past Sins Have Polarized Our Country & the film What Killed Michael Brown?

The United States today is hopelessly polarized; the political Right and Left have hardened into rigid and deeply antagonistic camps, preventing any sort of progress. Amid the bickering and inertia, the promise of the 1960s—when we came together as a nation to fight for equality and universal justice—remains unfulfilled.

As Shelby Steele reveals in Shame, the roots of this impasse can be traced back to that decade of protest, when in the act of uncovering and dismantling our national hypocrisies—racism, sexism, militarism—liberals internalized the idea that there was something inauthentic, if not evil, in the America character. Since then, liberalism has been wholly concerned with redeeming modern America from the sins of the past, and has derived its political legitimacy from the premise of a morally bankrupt America. The result has been a half-century of well-intentioned but ineffective social programs, such as Affirmative Action. Steele reveals that not only have these programs failed, but they have in almost every case actively harmed America’s minorities and poor. Ultimately, Steele argues, post-60s liberalism has utterly failed to achieve its stated aim: true equality. Liberals, intending to atone for our past sins, have ironically perpetuated the exploitation of this country’s least fortunate citizens. Approaching political polarization from a wholly new perspective, Steele offers a rigorous critique of the failures of liberalism and a cogent argument for the relevance and power of conservatism.

Shermer and Steele discuss:

  • 30th anniversary of his book The Content of Our Character, and what has changed in race relations in America in those 30 years,
  • Steele’s response to President Johnson’s famous quote:

    “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.”

  • why “The promised land guarantees nothing. It is only an opportunity, not a deliverance.”,
  • literal truths vs. poetic truths and power:

    “What actually happened was that liberalism turned to poetic truth when America’s past sins were no longer literally true enough to support liberal policies and the liberal claim on power. The poetic truth of black victimization seeks to compensate for America’s moral evolution. It tries to keep alive the justification for liberal power even as that justification has been greatly nullified by America’s moral development.”

  • political correctness is the enforcement arm of poetic truth,
  • black families & fatherless homes,
  • white guilt,
  • race fatigue,
  • reparations,
  • anti-racism,
  • achievement gap,
  • Princeton racism letter,
  • race and IQ,
  • SAT tests,
  • BLM and the nuclear family,
  • training and sensitivity programs.

Shermer and Steele also discuss his new film, produced with his son Eli Steele, titled What Killed Michael Brown?

Steele:

“We human beings never use race except as a means to power. Race is never an end. It is always a means, and it has no role in human affairs except as a corruption.”

“America’s original sin is not slavery. It is simply the use of race as a means to power. Whether for good or ill, race is a corruption. Always. And it always turns one group into the convenience of another group.”

“Liberalism’s great sin was to steal responsibility for black problems away from black people, leaving them vulnerable to destructive social forces, such as the drug epidemic of the 70s and 80s. It was the suffering of blacks that justified liberalism’s demand for power, but this only relegates blacks to permanent victimhood and alienates them from the power to uplift themselves.”

Shelby Steele is the Robert J. and Marion E. Oster Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution. Winner of the Bradley Prize and a National Humanities Medal and the author of the National Book Critics Circle award-winning The Content of Our Character, Steele lives in the Central Coast of California.

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EPISODE # 138

Douglas Murray — The Madness of 2020

The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race, and Identity (book cover) Douglas Murray (photo by Andy Ngo)

Douglas Murray (by Andy Ngo)

In this special episode of the Science Salon Podcast, Michael Shermer catches up with Douglas Murray one year after the publication of his bestselling book The Madness of Crowds, which was featured in Science Salon # 87 in October 2019. Murray’s book is now out in paperback with an Afterword update on all that has happened the past year, one of the most momentous in living memory. Shermer and Murray discuss:

  • why he wasn’t “cancelled” after The Madness of Crowds was published and became a bestseller,
  • what people should do if they’re cancelled, shamed, mobbed, or accused of being racist, misogynist, transphobic, or bigoted and they know they’re not,
  • how to fight back against wokeness, political correctness, and identity politics,
  • updates on the featured topics in The Madness of Crowds: gay, women, race, trans,
  • J.K. Rowling and “people who menstruate” (if only there was a single word for that phrase),
  • statues and why some people want them taken down (Lord Nelson may be next…find out why),
  • why leftists think everyone (except them) are racists and why they’re really making these accusations,
  • why we should be suspect of the motives of social justice warriors (who are anti-social, against justice, and not warriors),
  • Michael Brown, George Floyd, and police violence,
  • white fragility, white guilt, BLM, and anti-racism,
  • corporate sensitivity training programs and why they’re really being conducted,
  • what could happen after the 2020 election, depending on who wins, and
  • comparing 2020 to 1968, and what the future holds for Western culture.

In The Madness of Crowds Douglas Murray investigates the dangers of “woke” culture and the rise of identity politics. In lively, razor-sharp prose he examines the most controversial issues of our moment: sexuality, gender, technology and race, with interludes on the Marxist foundations of “wokeness”, the impact of tech and how, in an increasingly online culture, we must relearn the ability to forgive. One of the few writers who dares to counter the prevailing view and question the dramatic changes in our society — from gender reassignment for children to the impact of transgender rights on women — Murray’s penetrating book clears a path of sanity through the fog of our modern predicament.

Douglas Murray is a regular columnist for both the Spectator and Standpoint and writes frequently for a variety of other publications, including the Sunday Times and Wall Street Journal. A prolific debater, Douglas has spoken on a variety of prominent platforms, including at the British and European Parliaments and the White House.

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EPISODE # 137

Marta Zaraska — Growing Young: How Friendship, Optimism, and Kindness Can Help You Live to 100

From the day her daughter was born, science journalist Marta Zaraska fretted about what she and her family were eating. She fasted, considered adopting the keto diet, and ran a half-marathon. She bought goji berries and chia seeds and ate organic food. But then her research brought her to read countless scientific papers and to interview dozens of experts in various fields of study, including molecular biochemistry, epidemiology and neuroscience. What Marta discovered shattered her long-held beliefs about aging and longevity. A strong support network of family and friends, she learned, lowers mortality risk by about 45 percent, while exercise only lowers it by about 23 percent. Volunteering your free time lowers it by 22 percent or so, while certain health fads like turmeric haven’t been shown to help at all. These revelations led Marta Zaraska to a simple conclusion: In addition to healthy nutrition and physical activity, deepening friendships, practicing empathy and contemplating your purpose in life can improve your lifespan. Shermer and Zaraska also discuss:

  • diet, nutrition, and supplements: what works, what doesn’t, and what about meat?
  • exercise: how much, what type, and when?
  • the causal mechanisms behind how relationships and marriage effect health,
  • how friendships and community affect longevity,
  • how religion makes people healthier and longer lived,
  • why we need others and why handshakes and hugs will return after COVID-19,
  • the harmful effects of loneliness and isolation,
  • the deleterious effects of stress, and
  • how leading a purposeful and meaningful life leads to longevity.

Marta Zaraska is a Canadian-Polish science journalist. She has written about nutrition and psychology for the Washington Post, Scientific American, The Atlantic, The Los Angeles Times, New Scientist, and several other publications. She is the author of Meathooked: The History and Science of Our 2.5-Million-Year Obsession with Meat (Basic Books, 2016), which has been translated into Japanese, Korean, simplified Chinese, Spanish and Polish, and chosen by the journal Nature as one of “the best science picks” in March 2016. Meathooked has also been praised in The Wall Street Journal, Discover Magazine, Time, The Washington Post, Kirkus Reviews, Natural History Magazine, etc. She has also contributed a chapter to the recently published The Reducetarian Solution (TarcherPerigee, 2017) alongside Mark Bittman, Michael Shermer, and Peter Singer.

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

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