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The Michael Shermer Show

A series of 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 on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Amazon Music, Google Podcasts, iHeartRadio, Stitcher, and TuneIn.

EPISODE # 216

Kathryn Paige Harden — The Genetic Lottery: Why DNA Matters for Social Equality

The Genetic Lottery: Why DNA Matters for Social Equality (book cover)

In recent years, scientists like Kathryn Paige Harden have shown that DNA makes us different, in our personalities and in our health — and in ways that matter for educational and economic success in our current society.

In The Genetic Lottery, Harden introduces readers to the latest genetic science, dismantling dangerous ideas about racial superiority and challenging us to grapple with what equality really means in a world where people are born different. Weaving together personal stories with scientific evidence, Harden shows why our refusal to recognize the power of DNA perpetuates the myth of meritocracy, and argues that we must acknowledge the role of genetic luck if we are ever to create a fair society.

Reclaiming genetic science from the legacy of eugenics, this groundbreaking book offers a bold new vision of society where everyone thrives, regardless of how one fares in the genetic lottery.

Kathryn Paige Harden is professor of clinical psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, where she is Director of the Developmental Behavior Genetics Lab and codirector of the Texas Twin Project. She lives in Austin. Twitter @kph3k

Shermer and Harden discuss:

  • Harden: “You only have one life to live, but if you rewound the tape and started anew from the exact same genetic and environmental starting point, how differently could your life go?”
  • Harden applies this to her own life (her personal life journey raised by Conservative Christian parents),
  • why she, as a liberal, embraces behavior genetics,
  • cognitive creationism and the blank slate/behaviorism. The slate can’t be blank because the environment has to operate on something, in this case neurons that control behavior that are built of proteins that are designed by genes.
  • How did behavior genetics (and evolutionary psychology) become so political?
  • Charles Murray and The Bell Curve

    • Differences in I.Q. scores are heritable, racial differences in I.Q. scores exist, therefore the cause of racial differences in I.Q. are heritable.
  • The Search for a Psychometric Left” (Eric Turkheimer):

    “a psychometric left would recognize that human ability, individual differences in human ability, measures of human ability, and genetic influences on human ability are all real but profoundly complex, too complex for the imposition of biogenetic or political schemata. It would assert that the most important difference between the races is racism, with its origins in the horrific institution of slavery only a very few generations ago. Opposition to determinism, reductionism and racism, in their extreme or moderate forms, need not depend on blanket rejection of undeniable if easily misinterpreted facts like heritability. Indeed it had better not, because if it does the eventual victory of the psychometric right is assured.”

  • Bag of seed corn analogy: The seed characteristics are highly heritable. Different environments produce different outcomes. The more uniformly beneficial the climate, the more pronounced the effects of genetic difference.
  • What is behavior genetics?
  • Eric Turkheimer’s “Three Laws of Behavior Genetics and What They Mean”:

    1. All human behavioral traits are heritable.
    2. The effect of being raised in the same family is smaller than the effect of genes.
    3. A substantial portion of the variation in complex human behavioral traits is not accounted for by the effects of genes or families.
  • What is a “polygenic score”?: a weighted sum of an individual’s relevant genetic variants,
  • Genome-Wide Association Study (GWAS),
  • Gattaca,
  • Harden on Head Start Programs and other educational reforms:

    “Even if we eliminated all inequalities in educational outcomes between sexes, all inequalities by family socioeconomic status, all inequalities between different schools (which as you know are very confounded with inequalities by race), we’ve only eliminated a bit more than a quarter of the inequalities in educational outcomes.”

  • science and morality,
  • Do parents matter? Judith Rich Harris, The Nurture Assumption,
  • epigenetics,
  • luck, and how lives turn out,
  • equality of opportunity vs. equality of outcomes (equal opportunity for inequalities),
  • meritocracy,
  • antiracism, BLM, equality,
  • reparations,
  • Harden (channeling John Rawls): “What sort of society would you want if you didn’t know what the outcome of the genetic lottery was going to be?”
  • free will, volition, agency, and moral culpability.

If you enjoy the podcast, please show your support by making a $5 or $10 monthly donation.

This episode is sponsored by Brilliant:

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EPISODE # 215

Mary Eberstadt on God, Religion, Politics, and Sex, based on her books How the West Really Lost God: A New Theory of Secularization and Primal Screams: How the Sexual Revolution Created Identity Politics

Correction to Mary Eberstadt’s bio mentioned 15 seconds into the video: Mary Eberstadt holds the Panula Chair in Christian Culture at the Catholic Information Center, and is a senior research fellow with the Faith and Reason Institute.

How the West Really Lost God: A New Theory of Secularization (book cover) Primal Screams: How the Sexual Revolution Created Identity Politics (book cover)

In this conversation on two of the hottest social and cultural issues of our day — the decline of religion and the rise of identity politics, Mary Eberstadt presents her alternative theory for the “secularization thesis” (that religious decline was followed by the decline of the family), arguing instead that the undermining of the family has undermined Christianity itself. Drawing on sociology, history, demography, theology, literature, and many other sources, Eberstadt shows that family decline and religious decline have gone hand in hand in the Western world in a way that has not been understood before — that they are “the double helix of society, each dependent on the strength of the other for successful reproduction.” Eberstadt argues that there are enormous social, economic, civic, and other costs attendant on declines of both family and faith, and Dr. Shermer presents counter examples to show that America’s extreme religiosity has been a burden on its social health and that the decline of religion is a good thing.

In the second part of the conversation Eberstadt and Shermer discuss her previous book on identity politics and how identitarians track and expose the ideologically impure, as people face the consequences of their rancor: a litany of “isms” run amok across all levels of cultural life; the free marketplace of ideas muted by agendas shouted through megaphones; and a spirit of general goodwill warped into a state of perpetual outrage. This rise of identity politics, she argues, is a direct result of the fallout of the sexual revolution, especially the collapse and shrinkage of the family. Eberstadt argues that from time immemorial humans have forged their identities within the structure of kinship. The extended family, in a real sense, is the first tribe and first teacher. But with its unprecedented decline across a variety of measures, generations of people have been set adrift and can no longer answer the question Who am I? with reference to primordial ties. Desperate for solidarity and connection, they claim membership in politicized groups whose displays of frantic irrationalism amount to primal screams for familial and communal loss.

Mary Eberstadt is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. She has written widely for magazines and newspapers, among them First Things, Policy Review, the Weekly Standard, the Wall Street Journal, and Commentary. Her previous books include Home-Alone America, Adam and Eve After the Pill, and the satire The Loser Letters.

Shermer and Eberstadt discuss:

  • the decline of religion,
  • the decline of the traditional family,
  • the nuclear family versus larger extended families and communities,
  • the secularization thesis (that religions decline due to the secularization of societies),
  • comparing Europe and America in religiosity and family structures,
  • Gen Z and the spike in depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation,
  • identity politics,
  • Joe Henrich’s WEIRD theory of how modern family structures developed after the Catholic Church banned cousin marriages,
  • empirical truths, religious truths, and political truths,
  • abortion,
  • why abstinence-only programs don’t reduce unwanted pregnancies,
  • If religion is so important for societal health, why does America — by far the most religious industrialized democracy in the world — fall so far behind other such countries in societal health measures like suicides, homicides, crime rates, incarceration rates, abortions, teen births, STD rates, life expectancy, divorce, alcohol consumption, corruption indices, income inequality, poverty, and life satisfaction?

If you enjoy the podcast, please show your support by making a $5 or $10 monthly donation.

This episode is sponsored by Wondrium:

Wondrium (sponsor)
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EPISODE # 214

Tom Nichols — Our Own Worst Enemy: The Assault From Within on Modern Democracy

Our Own Worst Enemy: The Assault From Within on Modern Democracy (book cover)

Over the past three decades, citizens of democracies who claim to value freedom, tolerance, and the rule of law have increasingly embraced illiberal politicians and platforms. Democracy is in trouble, but who is really to blame?

In Our Own Worst Enemy, Tom Nichols challenges the current depictions of the rise of illiberal and anti-democratic movements in the United States and elsewhere as the result of the deprivations of globalization or the malign decisions of elites. Rather, he places the blame for the rise of illiberalism on the people themselves. Nichols traces the illiberalism of the 21st century to the growth of unchecked narcissism, rising standards of living, global peace, and a resistance to change. Ordinary citizens, laden with grievances, have joined forces with political entrepreneurs who thrive on the creation of rage rather than on the encouragement of civic virtue and democratic cooperation. While it will be difficult, Nichols argues that we need to defend democracy by resurrecting the virtues of altruism, compromise, stoicism, and cooperation — and by recognizing how good we’ve actually had it in the modern world.

Tom Nichols is Professor of National Security Affairs, US Naval War College, a columnist for USA Today, and a contributing writer at The Atlantic. He is the author of The Death of Expertise (Oxford 2017), No Use: Nuclear Weapons and US National Security (2013), and Eve of Destruction: The Coming Age of Preventive War (2008). He is also an instructor at the Harvard Extension School and an adjunct professor at the US Air Force School of Strategic Force Studies. He is a former aide in the US Senate and has been a Fellow of the International Security Program at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

If you enjoy the podcast, please show your support by making a $5 or $10 monthly donation.

Shermer and Nichols discuss:

  • why 74 million people voted for Trump,
  • why Trump is not a conservative,
  • what happens if you watch three straight hours of Fox News,
  • liberalism, classical liberalism, and illiberalism,
  • Afghanistan,
  • Is terrorism really an existential threat?
  • nuclear weapons as an existential threat,
  • the Hobbesian trap, the security dilemma, and why we may never get to global nuclear zero,
  • Are there good wars? (John Mueller’s The Stupidity of War)
  • January 6, 2021, QAnon, rigged election,
  • assaults on democracy/death of democracy: recency effect/availability heuristic?
  • liberal / illiberal, conservative / populism / authoritarianism,
  • Viktor Orban, Tucker Carlson, Hungary as a “serious country,”
  • nostalgia for the “good old days” (they sucked),
  • BLM, antiracism, #metoo, woke gender and race (American Marxism?)
  • Cold War/proxy wars,
  • globalization,
  • Is social media eroding our civic discourse?
  • Federalist Papers and good governance,
  • Does a liberal democracy and self-governing people need religion (an internal self-governor)?
  • the appeal of the apocalypse.
Quote Shermer read during the podcast, from George Orwell’s review of Mein Kampf, The New English Weekly, March 21, 1940:

“Hitler, because in his own joyless mind he feels it with exceptional strength, knows that human beings don’t only want comfort, safety, short working-hours, hygiene, birth-control and, in general, common sense; they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice, not to mention drums, flags and loyalty-parades. However they may be as economic theories, Fascism and Nazism are psychologically far sounder than any hedonistic conception of life. The same is probably true of Stalin’s militarised version of Socialism. All three of the great dictators have enhanced their power by imposing intolerable burdens on their peoples. Whereas Socialism, and even capitalism in a more grudging way, have said to people ‘I offer you a good time,’ Hitler has said to them ‘I offer you struggle, danger and death,’ and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet. Perhaps later on they will get sick of it and change their minds, as at the end of the last war. After a few years of slaughter and starvation ‘Greatest happiness of the greatest number’ is a good slogan, but at this moment ‘Better an end with horror than a horror without end’ is a winner. Now that we are fighting against the man who coined it, we ought not to underrate its emotional appeal.”

If you enjoy the podcast, please show your support by making a $5 or $10 monthly donation.

This episode is sponsored by Brilliant:

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EPISODE # 213

Mike Rothschild on how QAnon became a movement, cult, and conspiracy theory of everything, based on his book The Storm Is Upon Us

The Storm Is upon Us: How QAnon Became a Movement, Cult, and Conspiracy Theory of Everything (book cover)

Its messaging can seem cryptic, even nonsensical, yet for tens of thousands of people, it explains everything: What is QAnon, where did it come from, and is the Capitol insurgency a sign of where it’s going next?

On October 5th, 2017, President Trump made a cryptic remark in the State Dining Room at a gathering of military officials. He said it felt like “the calm before the storm” — then refused to elaborate as puzzled journalists asked him to explain. But on the infamous message boards of 4chan, a mysterious poster going by “Q Clearance Patriot,” who claimed to be in “military intelligence,” began the elaboration on their own. In the days that followed, Q’s wild yarn explaining Trump’s remarks began to rival the sinister intricacies of a Tom Clancy novel, while satisfying the deepest desires of MAGA-America. But did any of what Q predicted come to pass? No. Did that stop people from clinging to every word they were reading, expanding its mythology, and promoting it wider and wider? No. Why not?

Mike Rothschild, a journalist specializing in conspiracy theories, has been collecting their stories for years, and through interviews with QAnon converts, apostates, and victims, as well as psychologists, sociologists, and academics, he is uniquely equipped to explain the movement and its followers. In The Storm Is Upon Us, he takes readers from the background conspiracies and cults that fed the Q phenomenon, to its embrace by right-wing media and Donald Trump, through the rending of families as loved ones became addicted to Q’s increasingly violent rhetoric, to the storming of the Capitol, and on.

And as the phenomenon shows no sign of calming despite Trump’s loss of the presidency — with everyone from Baby Boomers to Millennial moms proving susceptible to its messaging — and politicians starting to openly espouse its ideology, Rothschild makes a compelling case that mocking the seeming madness of QAnon will get us nowhere. Rather, his impassioned reportage makes clear it’s time to figure out what QAnon really is — because QAnon and its relentlessly dark theory of everything isn’t done yet.

Mike Rothschild is a journalist focused on the intersections between internet culture and politics as seen through the dark glass of conspiracy theories. He has specialized in an investigation of the QAnon conspiracy cult since its inception in 2018, and is one of the first journalists to reveal its connections to past conspiracy theories and scams. Rothschild’s expertise has led to his becoming a leading commentator on the subject for the New York Times, Washington Post, NPR, CNN, MSNBC, the BBC, and elsewhere.

Shermer and Rothschild discuss:

  • FAQAnon: the basic questions answered,
  • QAnon’s origin story,
  • QAnon comes of age,
  • Do people really believe QAnon and other conspiracy theories?
  • QAnon and Pizzagate,
  • QAnon and pedophilia,
  • QAnon and Trump,
  • QAnon and the deep state,
  • QAnon and the rigged election,
  • QAnon and the Capitol insurrection,
  • Do QAnoners really believe Trump is coming back to the White House in 2021?
  • why people believe QAnon, the rigged election, and other conspiracy theories,
  • Is QAnon a cult?
  • Is QAnon a religion?
  • how to debunk QAnon claims,
  • how to talk to a QAnon believer,
  • exit strategies for QAnon believers,
  • QAnon and social media.

If you enjoy the podcast, please show your support by making a $5 or $10 monthly donation.

This episode is sponsored by Wondrium:

Wondrium (sponsor)
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EPISODE # 212

Gale Sinatra & Barbara Hofer — Science Denial: Why It Happens and What to Do About It

Science Denial: Why It Happens and What to Do About It (book cover)

How do individuals decide whether to accept human causes of climate change, vaccinate their children against childhood diseases, or practice social distancing during a pandemic? Democracies depend on educated citizens who can make informed decisions for the benefit of their health and well-being, as well as their communities, nations, and planet. Understanding key psychological explanations for science denial and doubt can help provide a means for improving scientific literacy and understanding — critically important at a time when denial has become deadly.

In this conversation based on their new book, Science Denial: Why It Happens and What to Do About It, Gale Sinatra and Barbara Hofer identify the problem and why it matters and offer tools for addressing it. They explain both the importance of science education and its limitations, show how science communicators may inadvertently contribute to the problem, and explain how the internet and social media foster misinformation and disinformation. The authors focus on key psychological constructs such as reasoning biases, social identity, epistemic cognition, and emotions and attitudes that limit or facilitate public understanding of science, and describe solutions for individuals, educators, science communicators, and policy makers. If you have ever wondered why science denial exists, want to know how to understand your own biases and those of others, and would like to address the problem, this book will provide the insights you are seeking.

Gale Sinatra is the Stephen H. Crocker Professor of Education and Psychology at the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California, where she directs the Motivated Change Research Lab. She received her B.S., M.S., and Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She has been recognized by the American Educational Research Association for career achievements in research with the Sylvia Scribner Award. She resides in Altadena, California.

Barbara Hofer is a Professor of Psychology Emerita at Middlebury College and is a Fellow of the American Psychological Association. She received her Ph.D. in psychology and education from the University of Michigan and an Ed.M. in human development from Harvard University. She is the recipient of national awards for both research and teaching, from the American Educational Research Association and the American Psychological Association. She lives in Middlebury, Vermont.

  • Why should we believe Anthony Fauci?
  • vaccine hesitancy, Hydroxochloroquine, Bret Weinstein and Ivermectin,
  • climate science denial,
  • evolution denial: from William Jennings Bryan to Intelligent Design creationists,
  • ways of knowing: absolutism vs. multiplism vs. evaluativism,
  • algorithmic literacy,
  • types of truth: empirical, personal, political, religious, ideological,
  • how to think about evidence,
  • how to evaluate media sources of science,
  • self identity and science denial,
  • why no one in the history of the world has ever identified as a science denier,
  • What is science, anyway?
  • why knowing the facts of evolution, vaccines, climate science, GMOs, etc. is not enough,
  • Is there a liberal science denialism?
  • GMOs and science denial,
  • conspiracy theories and science denial,
  • how to engage eccentric Uncle Harry at the next family dinner when he declares climate change to be a Chinese hoax, or that vaccines are a conspiracy to control people, or that QAnon is a real conspiracy and the 2020 election was rigged.
  • Action steps:

    • dealing with cognitive biases,
    • supporting digital literacy,
    • supporting science education,
    • understanding beliefs about knowledge,
    • understanding emotions and attitudes,
    • understanding motivated reasoning.

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EPISODE # 211

Ashley Rindsberg — The Gray Lady Winked: How the New York Times’s Misreporting, Distortions and Fabrications Radically Alter History

The Gray Lady Winked: How the New York Times's Misreporting, Distortions and Fabrications Radically Alter History (book cover)

As flagship of the American news media, the New York Times is the world’s most powerful news outlet. With thousands of reporters covering events from all corners of the globe, the Times has the power to influence wars, foment revolution, shape economies and change the very nature of our culture. It doesn’t just cover the news: it creates it.

The Gray Lady Winked pulls back the curtain on this illustrious institution to reveal a quintessentially human organization where ideology, ego, power and politics compete with the more humble need to present the facts. Rindsberg offers an eye-opening, often shocking, look at the New York Times’s greatest journalistic failures, so devastating they changed the course of history.

  • How its World War II Berlin bureau chief, a known Nazi collaborator, skewed coverage in favor of the Third Reich for over a decade.
  • Its notorious coverup of the Ukraine Famine, a genocide committed by Stalin, showing that it was the newspaper’s owners who directed the coverup in order to advance their own financial and ideological interests.
  • The “1619 Project,” a cynical, ideologically driven attempt to revise American history by rooting the nation’s birth in slavery instead of liberty.

The result is an essential look at the tangled relationship between media, power and politics in a post-truth world told with novelistic flair to reveal a uniquely powerful institution’s tortured relationship with the truth. Most importantly of all, The Gray Lady Winked presents a cautionary tale that shows what happens when the guardians of the truth abandon that sacred value in favor of self-interest and ideology-and what this means for our future as much as for our past.

Ashley Rindsberg was born in South Africa and immigrated to the U.S. as a child. After earning degrees in Philosophy and Science & Technology Studies at Cornell University, Rindsberg worked at prestigious digital NGO, Internet Archive, where he ran the Internet Bookmobile project. His work for the Archive took him to Egypt, where he installed the country’s first Internet Bookmobile at the Library of Alexandria. Over the course of 13 years spent wandering Israel’s “unholy city,” Rindsberg encountered the beggars, dreamers, artists, musicians and madmen who would inspire his first collection of fiction, Tel Aviv Stories. Rindsberg has contributed essays and journalism to a number of publications. He was managing editor of the short-lived but culturally influential English-language Israeli magazine, 18, and served as a founding associate editor of long-form Mideast policy and culture magazine, The Tower.

Shermer and Rindsberg discuss:

  • why the New York Times has such a reputation vs. the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post
  • Isn’t the Wall Street Journal equally biased toward the right?
  • Don’t all papers make mistakes but the NYTs errors are more prominent?
  • the history of journalism and when fact checking became the norm: “the paper of record”?
  • UAPs/UFOs in the New York Times and how that elevated the previously fringe topic to mainstream,
  • Adolph Ochs, founder of the NYTs and it’s mission “to give the news impartially, without fear or favor, regardless of party, sect or interests involved.”
  • NYTs reported favorably about Hitler, Mussolini and Fascism (while hating Trump),
  • NYTs reported that Poland invaded Germany on Sept. 1, 1939,
  • NYTs reported favorably about Marx, Lenin, Stalin & Communism (while castigating Putin),
  • tyrannophilia,
  • Holocaust,
  • the NYTs rock-star treatment of Fidel Castro,
  • the 1619 Project,
  • critical race theory and safe spaces,
  • antiracism as a religion,
  • reason is a social construct, but they use reason to argue against reason,
  • the business model of click-bait “news” and what has to change,
  • social media platforms and whether or not they should be regulated, and
  • how to restore the search for objective truth, even and including about history.

If you enjoy the podcast, please show your support by making a $5 or $10 monthly donation.

This episode is sponsored by Wondrium:

Wondrium (sponsor)
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EPISODE # 210

Leidy Klotz on doing more with less, based on his book Subtract: The Untapped Science of Less

Subtract: The Untapped Science of Less (book cover)

We pile on “to-dos” but don’t consider “stop-doings.” We create incentives for good behavior, but don’t get rid of obstacles to it. We collect new-and-improved ideas, but don’t prune the outdated ones. Every day, across challenges big and small, we neglect a basic way to make things better: we don’t subtract.

Leidy Klotz’s pioneering research shows why. Whether we’re building Lego® models or cities, grilled-cheese sandwiches or strategic plans, our minds tend to add before taking away. Even when we do think of it, subtraction can be harder to pull off because an array of biological, cultural, and economic forces push us towards more. But we have a choice — our blind spot need not go on taking its toll on our cities, our institutions, and our minds. By diagnosing our neglect of subtraction, we can treat it.

Subtract will change how you change your world. In these pages you’ll meet subtracting exemplars: design geniuses, Nobel Prize-winners, rock-stars, and everyday heroes, who have subtracted to dismantle racism, advance knowledge, heal the planet, and even tell better jokes. These and more guiding lights show how we can revolutionize not just our day-to-day lives, but our collective legacy. More or less. A paradigm shift of a book, Subtract shows us how to find more of the options we’ve been missing — and empowers us to pursue them.

Leidy Klotz is the Copenhaver Associate Professor at the University of Virginia, where he is appointed in the Schools of Engineering, Architecture, and Business. He co-founded and co-directs the university’s Convergent Behavioral Science Initiative, which engages and supports applied, interdisciplinary research. Klotz earned a highly-selective CAREER award from the National Science Foundation, one of the NSF’s first awards through its INSPIRE program, and over $7 million in competitive research funding. He advises influential decision-makers that straddle academia and practice, working with the Departments of Energy and Homeland Security, the National Institutes of Health, Resources for the Future, ideas42, and Nature Sustainability. A columnist for the Behavioral Scientist, Klotz has written for venues such as Science, Nature, Fast Company, and The Daily Climate.

Shermer and Klotz discuss:

  • how one studies behavioral subtraction,
  • experimental evidence that people add to solve problems, not subtract,
  • evolutionary reasons why we tend to add rather than subtract to our lives and environment,
  • evonomics,
  • loss aversion, endowment effect, sunk-cost fallacy,
  • history of civilization: isn’t this an example of addition, not subtraction?
  • Göbekli Tepe and the role of monumental architecture,
  • climate change: add or subtract to solve the problem?
  • racial issues/BLM/antiracism: add or subtract to solve the problem?
  • examples of subtraction:

    • Vietnam War Memorial,
    • Embarcadero Freeway, San Francisco,
    • corporate structures,
    • Feynman diagrams.
  • improving your personal life through subtraction.

If you enjoy the podcast, please show your support by making a $5 or $10 monthly donation.

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EPISODE # 209

Heather Heying and Bret Weinstein on evolution and the challenges of modern life, based on their new book A Hunter-Gatherer’s Guide to the 21st Century

A Hunter-Gatherer’s Guide to the 21st Century (book cover)

We are living through the most prosperous age in all of human history, yet people are more listless, divided and miserable than ever. Wealth and comfort are unparalleled, and yet our political landscape grows ever more toxic, and rates of suicide, loneliness, and chronic illness continue to skyrocket. How do we explain the gap between these two truths? What’s more, what can we do to close it?

For evolutionary biologists Heather Heying and Bret Weinstein, the cause of our woes is clear: the modern world is out of sync with our ancient brains and bodies. We evolved to live in clans, but today most people don’t even know their neighbors’ names. Survival in our earliest societies depended on leveraging the advantages of our sex differences, but today even the concept of biological sex is increasingly dismissed as offensive. The cognitive dissonance spawned by trying to live in a society we’re not built for is killing us.

Heying and Weinstein cut through the politically fraught discourse surrounding issues like sex, gender, diet, parenting, sleep, education, and more to outline a science-based worldview that will empower you to live a better, wiser life. They distill more than 20 years of research and first-hand accounts from the most biodiverse ecosystems on Earth into straightforward principles and guidance for confronting our culture of hyper-novelty.

Heather Heying and Bret Weinstein are evolutionary biologists who have been invited to address the US Congress, the Department of Justice, and the Department of Education, and have spoken before audiences across the globe. They both earned PhDs in Biology from the University of Michigan, where their research on evolution and adaptation earned awards for its quality and innovation. They have been visiting fellows at Princeton University, and before that were professors at the Evergreen State College for 15 years. They resigned from Evergreen in the wake of 2017 campus riots that focused in part on their opposition to a day of racial segregation and other college “equity” proposals. They cohost weekly livestreams of the DarkHorse podcast.

Shermer and Heying and Weinstein discuss:

  • Darwin’s Dictum: “How odd it is that anyone should not see that all observations must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service.”
  • proximate vs. ultimate causal explanations of human mind and behavior,
  • Why is evolutionary psychology still politically charged?
  • How do evolutionary psychology researchers test hypotheses?
  • human nature/nurture,
  • ape culture, mating behavior, social organization,
  • archaeological evidence for the EEA,
  • the evolution of sex differences: physical and psychological,
  • sex differences in mating cognition and behavior,
  • mother-infant bonding and attachment,
  • gender division of labor,
  • marriage, monogamy, polygamy,
  • medicine, food, sleep,
  • sex and gender,
  • parenthood and relationships,
  • childhood, school, becoming adults,
  • culture and consciousness.

If you enjoy the podcast, please show your support by making a $5 or $10 monthly donation.

This episode is sponsored by Wondrium :

Wondrium (sponsor)
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EPISODE # 208

The Truth About 9/11 and Terrorism

In this special episode of the podcast Michael Shermer honors the 20th anniversary of 9/11 with a commentary on the truth about that event and how it changed our lives, 7 myths about terrorism that need debunking if we are to understand how we should respond to this threat, and why we need not sacrifice liberty for security.

If you enjoy the podcast, please show your support by making a $5 or $10 monthly donation.

Transcript

Today is the 20th anniversary of 9/11, so I have titled this solo episode “The Truth about 9/11 and Terrorism”. It’s a play on words, given that the so-called “9/11 Truthers” have attempted to abscond with that word and turn it into something quite the opposite of truth.

So let me say up front that I agree, 9/11 was a conspiracy. Say what? I define a conspiracy as two or more people or a group plotting or acting in secret to gain an advantage or harm others immorally or illegally. So, by definition, 19 members of al-Qaeda plotting to fly planes into buildings without warning us constitutes a conspiracy. The ultimate failure of the 9/11 conspiracy theorists is their inability to explain away the overwhelming evidence of the real conspiracy by Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. For example, to name but a few incriminating facts:

  • The 1983 attack on the Marine barracks in Lebanon by a radical Hezbollah faction.
  • The 1993 truck bomb attack on the World Trade Center.
  • The 1995 attempt to blow up 12 planes heading from the Philippines to the U.S.
  • The 1995 bombings of U.S. Embassy buildings in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 12 Americans and 200 Kenyans and Tanzanians.
  • The 1996 attack on Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia that killed 19 U.S. military personnel.
  • The 1999 failed attempt to attack Los Angeles International airport by Ahmed Ressam.
  • The 2000 suicide boat attack on the U.S.S. Cole that killed 17 sailors and injured 39 others.
  • The well-documented evidence that Osama Bin Laden is a major financier for and the leader of al-Qaeda.
  • The 1996 fatwa by Bin Laden that officially declared a jihad against the United States.
  • The 1998 fatwa calling on his followers “to kill the Americans and their allies— civilian and military is an individual duty for any Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it.”

Given this background, since Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda have officially claimed responsibility for the attacks of 9/11, we should take them at their word that they did it. But what bothers me most about the 9/11 Truth movement is that it is a distraction from the real conspiracy of al-Qaeda, ISIS, Boko Haram, the Taliban, and other such extremist organizations plotting to kill Westerners in Europe and America through countless low-level and nearly indefensible targets such as streets, subways, theaters, stadiums, Christmas markets, churches, and anywhere else that large crowds of people gather. Those are real conspiracies, organized and implemented by real conspirators. Let’s not lose sight of them while anomaly hunting among the rubble of 9/11.

I have spent the past week watching a stream of documentaries and specials on 9/11 and the political ramifications of that event, and the United States’s mostly disastrous response to it. For example, I recommend the two-hour PBS Frontline documentary America After 9/11, along with Netflix’s 5-part series, Turning Point: 9/11 and the War on Terror, most notably the final episode on Afghanistan, appropriately titled “The Graveyard of Civilizations.” I distinctly recall a conversation I had with my father at a lunch we shared the day the U.S. invaded Afghanistan. He said if the mighty Soviet empire with their world-class military couldn’t do it in ten years and they’re located right next door, what hope is there for us 7,000 miles away?

As we have seen this past month, it went even worse for us than it did Soviet Union, and looked what happened to them shortly after. I don’t think this is the beginning of the end for the U.S.—not remotely so—but that we spent over $2 trillion dollars on the war on terror and have next to nothing to show for it, is depressing, especially with all the domestic problems we face for which that money could have been better spent. There’s a scene in that final episode of the Netflix’s doc showing footage of the massive airbases we built in Afghanistan just to handle our military jets and equipment. These bases looked to be about the size of JFK and LAX airports combined, and we built a number of these, and then bulldozed them into rubble so they couldn’t be used by the Taliban or al Qaeda, which our $2 trillion dollars evidently failed to fund a victory over these militant and terrorist organizations. Just imagine if we had put all those resources into reinforcing the infrastructure of the United States, now in disrepair for which the current administration is proposing spending…$2 trillion dollars. Interesting.

But, we’re told, if we didn’t do all that then the next terrorist attack would have been in the form of a mushroom cloud. Nonsense. This is like the proverbial elephant repellant: ever since I sprayed it in my home I have not experienced a single elephant attack. It works! I know, that’s not a perfect analogy since 9/11 really did happen, and nothing like it has happened since. But why? I contend it is because terrorism is not the existential threat we’ve been told it is. Here I will highlight some excerpts from my chapter on war and terrorism in my book The Moral Arc.

Excerpt on Terrorism from The Moral Arc

Terrorism is a form of asymmetrical warfare by non-state actors against innocent noncombatant civilians. As its name suggests, it does so by evoking terror. This exercises our alarmist emotions, which in turn confounds our reasoning, making clear thinking about terrorism well nigh impossible. As such, I suggest that there are at least seven myths that have arisen that need to be debunked to properly understand the causes of terrorism in order to continue to reduce its frequency and effectiveness.

1. Terrorists are pure evil. This first myth took root in September, 2001 when President George W. Bush announced “We will rid the world of the evil-doers” because they hate us for “our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.”1 This sentiment embodies what the social psychologist Roy Baumeister calls “the myth of pure evil”, which holds that perpetrators of violence act only to commit senseless injury and pointless death for no rational reason. The “terrorists-as-evil-doers” myth is busted through the scientific study of violence, of which at least four types motivate terrorists: instrumental, dominance/honor, revenge, and ideology.

In a study of 52 cases of Islamic extremists who have targeted the U.S., for instance, the political scientist John Mueller concluded that terrorist motives include instrumental violence and revenge: “a simmering, and more commonly boiling, outrage at U.S. foreign policy—the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, in particular, and the country’s support for Israel in the Palestinian conflict.” Ideology in the form of religion, “was a part of the consideration for most,” Mueller suggests, “but not because they wished to spread Sharia law or to establish caliphates (few of the culprits would be able to spell either word). Rather they wanted to protect their co-religionists against what was commonly seen to be a concentrated war upon them in the Middle East by the U.S. government.”2 As for dominance and honor as drivers of violence, through his extensive ethnography of terrorists cells the anthropologist Scott Atran has demonstrated that suicide bombers (and their families) are showered with status and honor in this life (and, secondarily, the promise of virgins in the next life), and that most “belong to loose, homegrown networks of family and friends who die not just for a cause, but for each other.” Most terrorists are in their late teens or early 20s, especially students and immigrants “who are especially prone to movements that promise a meaningful cause, camaraderie, adventure, and glory.”3 All of these motives are on display in the 2013 documentary film by Jeremy Scahill called Dirty Wars, a sobering look at the effects of U.S. drone attacks and assassinations in foreign countries such as Somalia and Yemen—countries with whom the U.S. is not at war—in which we see citizens swearing revenge against Americans for these violations of their honor and ideology.4

2. Terrorists are organized. This myth depicts terrorists as part of a vast global network of top-down centrally-controlled conspiracies against the West. But as Atran shows, terrorism is “a decentralized, self-organizing, and constantly evolving complex of social networks,” often organized through social groups and sports organizations, such as soccer clubs.5

3. Terrorists are diabolical geniuses. This myth began with the 9/11 Commission report that described the terrorists as “sophisticated, patient, disciplined, and lethal.”6 But according to the political scientist Max Abrahms, after the decapitation of the leadership of the top terrorist organizations, “terrorists targeting the American homeland have been neither sophisticated nor masterminds, but incompetent fools.”7 Examples abound: The 2001 airplane shoe bomber Richard Reid was unable to ignite the fuse because it was wet from the rain and his own foot perspiration; the 2009 underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab succeeded only in setting his pants ablaze, burning his hands, inner thighs, and genitals, and getting himself arrested; the 2010 Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad managed merely to torch the inside of his 1993 Nissan Pathfinder; the 2012 model airplane bomber Rezwan Ferdaus purchased C-4 explosives for his rig from FBI agents who promptly arrested him; and the 2013 Boston marathon bombers were equipped with only one gun for defense and had no money and no exit strategy beyond hijacking a car with no gas in it that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev used to run over his brother Tamerlan, followed by a failed suicide attempt inside a land-based boat. Evidently terrorism is a race to the bottom.

4. Terrorists are poor and uneducated. This myth appeals to many in the West who like to think that if we throw enough money at a problem it will go away, or if only everyone went to college they’d be like us. The economist Alan Krueger, in his book What Makes a Terrorist, writes: “Instead of being drawn from the ranks of the poor, numerous academic and government studies find that terrorists tend to be drawn from well-educated, middle-class or high-income families. Among those who have seriously and impartially studied the issue, there is not much question that poverty has little to do with terrorism.”8

5. Terrorism is a deadly problem. In comparison to homicides in America, deaths from terrorism are in the statistical noise, barely a blip on a graph compared to the 13,700 homicides a year. By comparison, after the 3,000 deaths on 9/11, the total number of people killed by terrorists in the 38 years before totals 340, and the number killed after 9/11 and including the Boston bombing is 33, and that includes the 13 soldiers killed in the Fort Hood massacre by Nidal Hasan in 2009.9 That’s a total of 373 killed, or 7.8 per year. Even if we include the 3,000 people who perished on 9/11, that brings the average annual total to 70.3, compared to that of the annual homicide rate of 13,700. No comparison.

6. Terrorists will obtain and use a nuclear weapon or a dirty bomb. Osama bin Laden said he wanted to use such weapons if he could get them, and Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge pressed the point in calling for more support for his agency: “Weapons of mass destruction, including those containing chemical, biological or radiological agents or materials, cannot be discounted.”10 But as Michael Levi of the Council on Foreign Relations reminds us, “Politicians love to scare the wits out of people, and nothing suits that purpose better than talking about nuclear terrorism. From President Bush warning in 2002 that the ‘smoking gun’ might be a mushroom cloud, to John Kerry in 2004 conjuring ‘shadowy figures’ with a ‘finger on the nuclear button’ and Mitt Romney invoking the specter of ‘radical nuclear jihad’ last spring, the pattern is impossible to miss.”11; But most experts agree that acquiring the necessary materials and knowledge for building either weapon is far beyond the reach of most (if not all) terrorists. George Harper’s delightful 1979 article in Analog entitled “Build Your Own A-Bomb and Wake Up The Neighborhood” is revealing in showing just how difficult it is to actually make a bomb:

As a terrorist one of the best methods for your purposes is the gaseous diffusion approach. This was the one used for the earliest A-bombs, and in many respects it is the most reliable and requires the least sophisticated technology. It is, however, a bit expensive and does require certain chemicals apt to raise a few eyebrows. You have to start with something on the order of a dozen miles of special glass-lined steel tubing and about sixty tons of hydrofluoric acid which can be employed to create the compound uranium-hexaflouride. Once your uranium has been converted into hexaflouride it can be blown up against a number of special low-porosity membranes. The molecules of uranium hexafluoride which contain an atom of U-238 are somewhat heavier than those containing an atom of U-235. As the gas is blown across the membranes more of the heavier molecules are trapped than the light ones. The area on the other side of the membrane is thus further enriched with the U-235 containing material; possibly by as much as ½% per pass. Repeat this enough times and you wind up with uranium hexafluoride containing virtually 100% core atoms of U-235. You then separate the fluorine from the uranium and arrive at a nice little pile of domesticated U-235. From there it’s all downhill.12

In his book On Nuclear Terrorism, Levi invokes what he calls “Murphy’s Law of Nuclear Terrorism: What can go wrong might go wrong,” and recounts numerous failed terrorist attacks due to sheer incompetence on the part of the terrorists to build and detonate even the simplest of chemical weapons.13 In this context it is important to note that no dirty bomb has ever been successfully deployed resulting in casualties by anyone anywhere, and that according to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission—which tracks fissile materials—“most reports of lost or stolen material involve small or short-lived radioactive sources that are not useful for a RDD [radiological disbursal device, or dirty bomb]. Past experience suggests there has not been a pattern of collecting such sources for the purpose of assembling a RDD. It is important to note that the radioactivity of the combined total of all unrecovered sources over the past 5 years would not reach the threshold for one high-risk radioactive source.”14 In short, the chances of terrorists successfully building and launching a nuclear device of any sort is so low that we would be far better off investing our limited resources in diffusing the problem of terrorism in other areas.

7. Terrorism works. In a study of 42 foreign terrorist organizations active for several decades, Max Abrahms concluded that only two achieved their stated goals—Hezbollah achieved control over southern Lebanon in 1984 and 2000, and the Tamil Tigers took over parts of Sri Lanka in 1990, which they then lost in 2009. That results in a success rate of less than 5 percent.15 In a subsequent study, Abrahms and his colleague Matthew Gottfried found that when terrorists kill civilians or take captives it significantly lowers the likelihood of bargaining success with states, because violence begets violence and public sentiments turn against the perpetrators of violence. Further, they found that when terrorists did get what they want it is more likely to be money or the release of political prisoners, not political objectives. They also found that liberal democracies are more resilient to terrorism, despite the perception that because of their commitment to civil liberties democracies tend to shy away from harsh countermeasures against terrorists.16 Finally, in terms of the overall effectiveness of terrorism as a means to an end, in an analysis of 457 terrorist campaigns since 1968 the political scientist Audrey Cronin found that not one terrorism group had conquered a state and that a full 94 percent had failed to gain even one of their strategic political goals. And the number of terrorist groups who accomplished all of their objectives? Zero. Cronin’s book is entitled How Terrorism Ends. It ends swiftly (groups survive only 5–9 years on average) and badly (the death of its leaders).17

A rejoinder I often hear when recounting these studies is that terrorism has worked in terms of terrorizing the government into expending enormous resources into combatting its threat, and along the way sacrificed our freedom and privacy. It’s a valid point. The U.S. alone has spent upwards of $6 trillion dollars since 9/11 on two wars and a bloated bureaucracy in response to the loss of 3,000 lives,18 less than a tenth of the number of people who die annually on American highways. The explosive revelations by Edward Snowden about the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs launched a national conversation about the balance between privacy and transparency, freedom and security. As Snowden told the 2014 TED audience in Vancouver via video link from an undisclosed location in Moscow:

Terrorism provokes an emotional response that allows people to rationalize and authorize programs they wouldn’t have otherwise. The U.S. asked for this authority in the 1990s; it asked the FBI to make the case in Congress, and they said no, it’s not worth the risk to the economy, it would do too much damage to society to justify gains. But in the post 9/11 era, they used secrecy and justification of terrorism to start programs in secret without asking Congress or the American people. Government behind closed doors is what we must guard against. We don’t have to give up privacy to have good government, we don’t have to give up liberty to have security.19

That balance between liberty and security is one all governments contend with in many areas of society.20 We must be vigilant always, of course, but these seven myths point to the unavoidable conclusion that in the course of history terrorism fails utterly to achieve its goals or divert civilization from its path toward greater justice and freedom unless we fall victim to fear itself.

References
  1. Quoted in: Perez-Rivas, Manuel. 2001. “Bush Vows to Rid the 1 World of ‘Evil-Doers’.” CNN Washington Bureau. September 16, http://goo.gl/zrZMCV
  2. Mueller, John and Mark G. Stewart. 2013. “Hapless, Disorganized, and Irrational.” Slate, April 22. http://goo.gl/j0cqUl
  3. Atran, Scott. April 22. “Black and White and Red All Over.” Foreign Policy, April 22. https://bit.ly/3A5PJrO
  4. Scahill, Jeremy. 2013. Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield. Sundance Selects.
  5. Ibid.
  6. The 9/11 Commission Report, 2004. xvi. https://bit.ly/3txACVM
  7. Abrahms, Max. 2013. “Bottom of the Barrel.” Foreign Policy, April 24. http://goo.gl/hj4J1h
  8. Krueger, Alan B. 2007. What Makes a Terrorist: Economics and the Roots of Terrorism. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 3.
  9. Bailey, Ronald. 2011. “How Scared of Terrorism Should You Be?” Reason, September 6. http://goo.gl/3ZvkR
  10. Quoted in: Levi, Michael S. 2003. “Panic More Dangerous than WMD.” Chicago Tribune, May 26.
  11. Levi, Michael S. 2011. “Fear and the Nuclear Terror Threat.” USA Today, March 24, 9A.
  12. Harper, George W. 1979. “Build Your Own A-Bomb and Wake Up The Neighborhood.” Analog, April, 36–52.
  13. Levi, Michael S. 2009. On Nuclear Terrorism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 5.
  14. 2012. “Fact Sheet on Dirty Bombs.” United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission, December. https://bit.ly/2YL9jfo
  15. Abrahms, Max. 2006. “Why Terrorism Does Not Work.” International Security, 31, 42–78. http://ow.ly/ttvYv
  16. Abrahms, Max and Matthew S. Gottfried. 2014 “Does Terrorism Pay? An Empirical Analysis.” Terrorism and Political Violence.
  17. Cronin, Audrey. 2011. How Terrorism Ends: Understanding the Decline and Demise of Terrorist Campaigns. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  18. Global Research News. 2014. “US Wars in Afghanistan, Iraq to Cost $6 Trillion.” Global Research, February 12, https://bit.ly/3z2FTWg
  19. https://bit.ly/2YMuL3F
  20. See the response to Snowden’s TED appearance by NSA Deputy Director Richard Ledgett: https://bit.ly/3hhqJ9R
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EPISODE # 207

John Petrocelli — The Life-Changing Science of Detecting Bullshit

The Life-Changing Science of Detecting Bullshit (book cover)

Bullshit is the foundation of contaminated thinking and bad decisions that leads to health consequences, financial losses, legal consequences, broken relationships, and wasted time and resources.

No matter how smart we believe ourselves to be, we’re all susceptible to bullshit — and we all engage in it. While we may brush it off as harmless marketing sales speak or as humorous, embellished claims, it’s actually much more dangerous and insidious. It’s how Bernie Madoff successfully swindled billions of dollars from even the most experienced financial experts with his Ponzi scheme. It’s how the protocols of Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward resulted in the deaths of 36 million people from starvation. Presented as truths by authority figures and credentialed experts, bullshit appears legitimate, and we accept their words as gospel. If we don’t question the information we receive from bullshit artists to prove their thoughts and theories, we allow these falsehoods to take root in our memories and beliefs. This faulty data affects our decision-making capabilities, sometimes resulting in regrettable life choices.

But with a little dose of skepticism and a commitment to truth seeking, you can build your critical thinking and scientific reasoning skills to evaluate information, separate fact from fiction, and see through bullshitter spin. In The Life-Changing Science of Detecting Bullshit, experimental social psychologist John V. Petrocelli provides invaluable strategies not only to recognize and protect yourself from everyday bullshit, but to accept your own lack of knowledge about subjects and avoid engaging in bullshit just for societal conformity.

With real world examples from people versed in bullshit who work in the used car, real estate, wine, and diamond industries, Petrocelli exposes the red-flag warning signs found in the anecdotal stories, emotional language, and buzzwords used by bullshitters that persuade our decisions. By using his critical thinking defensive tactics against those motivated by profit, we will also learn how to stop the toxic misinformation spread from the social media influencers, fake news, and op-eds that permeate our culture and call out bullshit whenever we see it.

John Petrocelli is an experimental social psychologist and Professor of Psychology at Wake Forest University. His research examines the causes and consequences of BS and BSing in the way of better understanding and improving BS detection and disposal. Petrocelli’s research contributions also include attitudes and persuasion and the intersections of counterfactual thinking with learning, memory and decision making. His research has appeared in the top journals of his field including the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Petrocelli also serves an Associate Editor of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

  • bullshit defined (different from lying),
  • signs that you’re being bullshitted,
  • magic and bullshit,
  • how we obtain reliable knowledge,
  • conspiracy theories as bullshit,
  • what it means to “believe” in a conspiracy theory like QAnon or the rigged election,
  • how we know that the election wasn’t rigged, that 9/11 was not an inside job, and that climate change and evolution are true,
  • Hitchens’ Dictum and Razor,
  • the replication crisis and why it happened,
  • how to talk to a bullshitter,
  • bullshit in: wine tasting, car salesmen, real estate agents, diamond salesmen,
  • Donald Trump and alternative facts (aka bullshit),
  • Steve Bannon: throw shit at the system/the enemy is not the Democrats but the media.

From the book

My ideal bullshit detector is Lieutenant Frank Columbo, played by Peter Falk in the 1970s television series Columbo. He was a homicide detective and famous for solving complicated “whodunit” murder mysteries by asking suspects “just one more question.” The last question would always be the one that cracked the case. What does the Columbo critical-thinking mindset look like in practice? We can list the basic habits of critical thinking as the following:

  • having a passionate drive for clarity, precision, accuracy, relevance, consistency, logic, completeness, and fairness,
  • having sensitivity to the ways in which critical thinking can be skewed by wishful thinking,
  • being intellectually honest, acknowledging what they don’t know and recognizing their limitations,
  • not pretending to know more than they do and ignoring their limitations,
  • lListening to opposing points of view with an open mind and welcoming criticisms of their beliefs and assumptions,
  • basing beliefs on facts and evidence rather than on personal preference or self-interest,
  • being aware of the biases and preconceptions that shape the way the world is perceived,
  • thinking independently and not fearing disagreement with a group,
  • getting to the heart of an issue or problem without being distracted by details,
  • having the intellectual courage to face and assess ideas fairly even when they challenge basic beliefs,
  • loving truth and being curious about a wide range of issues, and
  • persevering when encountering intellectual obstacles or difficulties.

Philosopher Peter Facione and the American Philosophical Association identified five critical-thinking skills in the landmark 1990 Delphi Report: interpretation, analysis, evaluation, inference, and self-regulation. Each of these skills is essentially a different way of asking questions.

You are best able to detect bullshit when you are able to accurately interpret the claim. If you can answer the following questions, you can better understand the meaning and significance of a claim:

  • What does the claim mean? How is it meant to be understood?
  • Is there anything unclear, ambiguous, or not understood about the claim?
  • How can the claim be best characterized and classified?

An expert bullshit detector analyzes the arguments that could be made in support of and against a claim. Engaging in analysis involves asking these questions of the claim:

  • On what basis is the claim being made?
  • How does the individual know the claim is true?
  • What assumptions must be made to accept the claim and its conclusions as true?

When critical thinkers assess the logical strength of a claim, they engage in evaluation. They determine if the arguments and evidence for the claim justify the conclusions. Evaluative questions include:

  • How compelling is the evidence supporting the claim?
  • How well does the claim follow from a reasonable interpretation of the evidence?
  • Do the results of relevant investigations speak to the truth of the claim?

Expert bullshit detectors engage in inference, which occurs when the relevant information needed to draw reasonable conclusions is secured and connected to the implications of the claim’s truth. Inference is promoted when you can gain answers to questions like:

  • What does the evidence imply?
  • If the claim is true, what are the implications moving forward?
  • If major assumptions supporting the claim are abandoned, how does the claim’s truth stand?

Self-regulation involves assessing one’s own motivations and biases and asking whether these influence one’s interpretations, analyses, inferences, and evaluations of a claim. Self-regulation works best when engaging in metacognitive thought (thinking about one’s thoughts) by answering questions such as:

  • How good was my method in evaluating the claim?
  • Are my conclusions based on evidence and data, or are they based on anecdotal evidence or what I read in the news?
  • Is there anything I might be missing (or wanting to miss), and are my conclusions about the claim motivated by something other than the truth in any way?

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This episode is sponsored by Wondrium:

Wondrium (sponsor)
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EPISODE # 206

Nichola Raihani — The Social Instinct: How Cooperation Shaped the World

The Social Instinct: How Cooperation Shaped the World (book cover)

Cooperation is the means by which life arose in the first place. It’s how we progressed through scale and complexity, from free-floating strands of genetic material, to nation states. But given what we know about the mechanisms of evolution, cooperation is also something of a puzzle. How does cooperation begin, when on a Darwinian level all that the genes in your body care about is being passed on to the next generation? Why do meerkat colonies care for one another’s children? Why do babbler birds in the Kalahari form colonies in which only a single pair breeds? And how come some coral wrasse fish actually punish each other for harming fish from another species?

A biologist by training, Raihani looks at where and how collaborative behavior emerges throughout the animal kingdom, and what problems it solves. She reveals that the species that exhibit cooperative behavior — teaching, helping, grooming, and self-sacrifice — most similar to our own tend not to be other apes; they are birds, insects, and fish, occupying far more distant branches of the evolutionary tree. By understanding the problems they face, and how they cooperate to solve them, we can glimpse how human cooperation first evolved. And we can also understand what it is about the way we cooperate that has made humans so distinctive and so successful.

Nichola Raihani is a Royal Society University Research Fellow and Professor in Evolution and Behaviour at University College London, where she leads the Social Evolution and Behaviour Lab. An evolutionary biologist by training, she won the 2018 Philip Leverhulme Prize in Psychology for her research achievements, and was elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Biology. She has also worked in the BBC Science Development Team, and appeared on several podcasts and radio shows, including BBC Radio 4’s “Hacking the Unconscious” and “Thought Cages.” She lives in London with her family.

Shermer and Raihani discuss:

  • Darwin’s Dictum: All observation must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service.
  • What view is Raihani’s book for or against?
  • the problem to be solved: why are people kind to strangers? (i.e., origins of empathy, altruism, and kindness),
  • why we don’t need “divine command” theory to explain real morality, which can be derived through evolutionary theory plus philosophical ethical systems,
  • evolutionary origins of cooperation: from single cells to nation states,
  • evolutionary cooperation in the modern world: when we help strangers in the modern world we are following ancient rules of thumb that worked well enough in a world in which meeting someone for the first time was a reasonably good indicator that you’d meet them again,
  • Peter Singer’s expanding circle,
  • self-domestication (Richard Wrangham),
  • bonobos vs. chimpanzees vs. humans,
  • the “natural family” is more diverse than conservatives and Christians think,
  • Joe Henrich’s WEIRD theory of religion and the family,
  • evolution of religion,
  • individualistic vs. collectivist societies,
  • collective action problems and how they are solved in the real world,
  • the nature of human nature: in addition to being selfish, competitive, and greedy, we also harbor a great capacity for altruism, cooperation, and charity,
  • individual selection vs. group selection.
From “The False Allure of Group Selection” by Steven Pinker

E. O. Wilson: “In a group, selfish individuals beat altruistic individuals. But, groups of altruistic individuals beat groups of selfish individuals.”

Steven Pinker: “The first big problem with group selection is that the term itself sows so much confusion. People invoke it to refer to many distinct phenomena, so casual users may literally not know what they are talking about. I have seen ‘group selection’ used as a loose synonym for the evolution of organisms that live in groups, and for any competition among groups, such as human warfare. Sometimes the term is needlessly used to refer to an individual trait that happens to be shared by the members of a group; as the evolutionary biologist George Williams noted, ‘a fleet herd of deer’ is really just a herd of fleet deer. And sometimes the term is used as a way of redescribing the conventional gene-level theory of natural selection in different words: subsets of genetically related or reciprocally cooperating individuals are dubbed ‘groups,’ and changes in the frequencies of their genes over time is dubbed ‘group selection.’

Natural selection could legitimately apply to groups if they met certain conditions: the groups made copies of themselves by budding or fissioning, the descendant groups faithfully reproduced traits of the parent group (which cannot be reduced to the traits of their individual members), except for mutations that were blind to their costs and benefits to the group; and groups competed with one another for representation in a meta-population of groups. But everyone agrees that this is not what happens in so-called ‘group selection.’ In every case I’ve seen, the three components that make natural selection so indispensable are absent.”

From Dr. Shermer’s The Moral Arc

A cell, or body, or organism—a survival machine—is the gene’s way of surviving and perpetuating itself. The problem is that survival machines scurrying around in, say, a liquid environment like an ocean or pond will bump into other survival machines, all of whom are competing for the same limited resources. “To a survival machine, another survival machine (which is not its own child or another close relative) is part of its environment, like a rock or a river or a lump of food,” says Dawkins. But there’s a difference between a survival machine and a rock. A survival machine “is inclined to hit back” if exploited. “This is because it too is a machine that holds its immortal genes in trust for the future, and it too will stop at nothing to preserve them.” Thus, Dawkins concludes, “Natural selection favors genes that control their survival machines in such a way that they make the best use of their environment. This includes making the best use of other survival machines, both of the same and of different species.” Survival machines could evolve to be completely selfish and self-centered, but there is something that keeps their pure selfishness in check, and that is the fact that other survival machines are inclined “to hit back” if attacked, to retaliate if exploited, or to attempt to use or abuse other survival machines first.

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EPISODE # 205

Richard Dawkins on evangelizing for evolution, science, skepticism, philosophy, reason, and rationality, based on his new book Books Do Furnish a Life: Reading and Writing Science

Books Do Furnish a Life: Reading and Writing Science (book cover)

Richard Dawkins is author of The Selfish Gene, voted The Royal Society’s Most Inspiring Science Book of All Time, and also the bestsellers The Blind Watchmaker, Climbing Mount Improbable, The Ancestor’s Tale, The God Delusion, and two volumes of autobiography, An Appetite for Wonder and Brief Candle in the Dark. He is a Fellow of New College, Oxford and both the Royal Society and the Royal Society of Literature. In 2013, Dawkins was voted the world’s top thinker in Prospect magazine’s poll of 10,000 readers from over 100 countries.

This episode is heavily edited because Dawkins was having trouble with his voice, and Shermer tried to speak a little more to give Dawkins a chance to let his voice rest.

Shermer and Dawkins discuss:

  • his conversations with Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Steven Pinker, Matt Ridley, and Christopher Hitchens,
  • third culture science books as literature,
  • Popperian falsification vs. Bayesian reasoning: how science actually works,
  • evolutionary adaptationism, hyper-adaptationism, spandrels/exaptations,
  • fitness, adaptive, good; eyes and brains are good, but not always: blind cave fish, most animals have small brains,
  • The myth of natural selection as a “force”
  • Is religion adaptive?
  • E.O. Wilson and group selection, multilevel selection, and other misunderstandings about evolutionary theory,
  • metaphors and analogies in science: artificial selection,
  • Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace and how they differed in their theories,
  • directionality to evolution; evolution of evolution; Gouldian contingency?
  • convergent evolution and ETIs: will aliens look anything like us?
  • how we know evolution is a fact of nature,
  • Christopher Hitchens, America as a theocracy? Faux religions like Nazism, communism, wokeism, Trumpism?
  • religious truths vs. political truths vs. empirical truths,
  • Afghanistan and Islam,
  • humans as gullible or skeptical, irrational or rational,
  • scientism, is-ought naturalistic fallacy, objective morality,
  • Grand mysteries? God, free will, consciousness, nothingness?

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EPISODE # 204

Carole Hooven on T: The Story of Testosterone, the Hormone that Dominates and Divides Us

T: The Story of Testosterone, the Hormone that Dominates and Divides Us (book cover)

Since antiquity―from the eunuchs in the royal courts of ancient China to the booming market for “elixirs of youth” in 19th-century Europe — humans have understood that typically masculine behavior depends on testicles, the main source of testosterone in males. Which sex has the highest rates of physical violence, hunger for status, and desire for a high number of sex partners? Just follow the testosterone. Although we humans can study and reflect on our own behavior, we are also animals, the products of millions of years of evolution. Fascinating research on creatures from chimpanzees to spiny lizards shows how high testosterone helps males out-reproduce their competitors. And men are no exception.

While most people agree that sex differences in human behavior exist, they disagree about the reasons. But the science is clear: testosterone is a potent force in human society, driving the bodies and behavior of the sexes apart. But, as Hooven shows in T, it does so in concert with genes and culture to produce a vast variety of male and female behavior. And, crucially, the fact that many sex differences are grounded in biology provides no support for restrictive gender norms or patriarchal values. In understanding testosterone, we better understand ourselves and one another — and how we might build a fairer, safer society.

Carole Hooven, PhD, is lecturer and codirector of undergraduate studies in the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University. She earned her Ph.D. at Harvard, studying sex differences and testosterone, and has taught there ever since. Hooven has received numerous teaching awards, and her popular Hormones and Behavior class was named one of the Harvard Crimson’s “top ten tried and true.” Follow Carole on Twitter @hoovlet.

Shermer and Hooven discuss:

  • Hooven’s nontraditional career path into biological anthropology,
  • the anthropology wars: biological vs. cultural anthropology,
  • cognitive creationism, the blank slate, and T skeptics who think human behavior
  • the chemistry, biology, and neurobiology of T,
  • Why do we have testosterone and estrogen?
  • T and steroids, human growth hormones, and other performance enhancing drugs,
  • Are we more like chimps or bonobos?
  • The question is not why we’re so violent, but why we’re not even more violent.
  • the self-domestication theory,
  • gender differences in cognition and career interests (Lawrence Summers, Jamie Damore),
  • gender differences in aggression and violence,
  • gender differences in sexual psychology and preferences,
  • confusing scientific findings with moral values,
  • T and Trans,
  • trans and sports,
  • #metoo and why men behave badly and what can be done about it,
  • implication of T for political, social, and cultural issues.

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EPISODE # 203

Lee McIntyre — How to Talk to a Science Denier: Conversations with Flat Earthers, Climate Deniers, and Others Who Defy Reason

How to Talk to a Science Denier: Conversations with Flat Earthers, Climate Deniers, and Others Who Defy Reason (book cover)

“Climate change is a hoax — and so is coronavirus.” “Vaccines are bad for you.” These days, many of our fellow citizens reject scientific expertise and prefer ideology to facts. They are not merely uninformed — they are misinformed. They cite cherry-picked evidence, rely on fake experts, and believe conspiracy theories. How can we convince such people otherwise? How can we get them to change their minds and accept the facts when they don’t believe in facts? In this conversation based on his new book, Lee McIntyre shows that anyone can fight back against science deniers, and argues that it’s important to do so.

Shermer and McIntyre discuss:

  • McIntyre’s career path to the philosophy of science and activism against science denialism,
  • why no one in the history of the world has ever identified as a science denier,
  • the problems with the demarcation problem (discerning the difference between science and pseudoscience, science acceptance and science denial),
  • falsificationism vs. verificationism,
  • What is science, anyway?
  • Sagan’s dragon,
  • McIntyre’s adventures attending a Flat-Earth conference and what he learned about engaging with people whose beliefs differ starkly from your own,
  • Should you counter pseudofacts with real facts or counter denial strategies with skeptical strategies?
  • why knowing the facts of evolution, vaccines, climate science, GMOs, etc. is not enough,
  • Is there a liberal science denialism?
  • conspiracy theories and science denial, and
  • how to engage crazy Uncle Bob at the next family dinner when he declares climate change to be a Chinese hoax or that QAnon is a real conspiracy.

Lee McIntyre is a Research Fellow at the Center for Philosophy and History of Science at Boston University. He is the author of Dark Ages: The Case for a Science of Human Behavior, Post-Truth, and The Scientific Attitude: Defending Science from Denial, Fraud, and Pseudoscience, all published by the MIT Press.

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EPISODE # 202

Julia Galef — The Scout Mindset: Why Some People See Things Clearly and Others Don’t

The Scout Mindset: Why Some People See Things Clearly and Others Dont (book cover)

When it comes to what we believe, humans see what they want to see. In other words, we have what Julia Galef calls a “soldier” mindset. From tribalism and wishful thinking, to rationalizing in our personal lives and everything in between, we are driven to defend the ideas we most want to believe—and shoot down those we don’t. But if we want to get things right more often, argues Galef, we should train ourselves to have a “scout” mindset. Unlike the soldier, a scout’s goal isn’t to defend one side over the other. It’s to go out, survey the territory, and come back with as accurate a map as possible. Regardless of what they hope to be the case, above all, the scout wants to know what’s actually true.

In The Scout Mindset, Galef shows that what makes scouts better at getting things right isn’t that they’re smarter or more knowledgeable than everyone else. It’s a handful of emotional skills, habits, and ways of looking at the world—which anyone can learn. With fascinating examples ranging from how to survive being stranded in the middle of the ocean, to how Jeff Bezos avoids overconfidence, to how superforecasters outperform CIA operatives, to Reddit threads and modern partisan politics, Galef explores why our brains deceive us and what we can do to change the way we think.

Julia Galef is the host of the popular Rationally Speaking podcast, where she has interviewed thinkers such as Tyler Cowen, Sean Carroll, Phil Tetlock, and Neil deGrasse Tyson. She is an advisor to OpenAI, works with the Open Philanthropy Project, and cofounded the Center for Applied Rationality. Her 2016 TED Talk “Why You Think You’re Right—Even If You’re Wrong” has been viewed over 4 million times.

Shermer and Galef discuss:

  • mind metaphors,
  • Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow,
  • Daniel Kahneman vs. Gerd Gigerenzer: how irrational are humans?
  • What if you’re right? Shouldn’t you be a soldier in defense of the truth?
  • myths about the “team of rivals”,
  • beliefs and truths: empirical, religious, political, ideological, aesthetic, personal,
  • social media effects and company regulations?
  • BLM, #metoo, woke, gender, antiracism, etc.,
  • science denial and how to deal with it,
  • selective skeptic test,
  • the outsider test,
  • the ideological Turing test,
  • deception and self-deception,
  • conspiracy theories,
  • persuasion, influence and volition/free will,
  • how to use the principles in The Scout Mindset to structure a meeting between Arabs and Israelis.
Scout mindset vs. soldier mindset (from Shermer’s review of Galef’s book in the Wall Street Journal)

Soldiers rationalize, deny, deceive and self-deceive, and engage in motivated reasoning and wishful thinking in order to win the battle of beliefs. “We talk about our beliefs as if they’re military positions, or even fortresses, built to resist attack,” she writes. “Beliefs can be deep-rooted, well-grounded, built on fact, and backed up by arguments. They rest on solid foundations. We might hold a firm conviction or a strong opinion, be secure in our convictions or have an unshakeable faith in something.” This soldier mindset leads us to defend against people who might “poke holes” in our logic, “shoot down” our beliefs, or confront us with a “knock-down” argument, all of which may be our beliefs are “undermined”, “weakened”, or even “destroyed” so we become “entrenched” in them less we “surrender” to the opposing position.

Soldiers are more likely to agree with statements like these: “Changing your mind is a sign of weakness.” “It is important to persevere in your beliefs even when evidence is brought to bear against them.” Scouts are more likely to agree with these statements: “People should take into consideration evidence that goes against their beliefs.” “It is more useful to pay attention to those who disagree with you than to pay attention to those who agree.” Scouts, Galef explains, “revise their opinions incrementally over time, which makes it easier to be open to evidence against their beliefs” and “they view errors as opportunities to hone their skill at getting things right, which makes the experience of realizing ‘I was wrong’ feel valuable, rather than just painful.” In fact, Galef suggests, let’s drop the whole “wrong” confession and instead describe the process as “updating”, a reference to Bayesian reasoning in which we revise our estimations of the probability of something being true after gaining new information about it. “An update is routine. Low-key. It’s the opposite of an overwrought confession of sin,” Galef continues. “An update makes something better or more current without implying that its previous form was a failure.”

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