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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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