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Science Salon Archives

Science Salon is a series of conversations between Dr. Michael Shermer and leading scientists, scholars, and thinkers, about the most important issues of our time. Listen to Science Salon via iTunes, Spotify, Google Play Music, Stitcher, iHeartRadio, TuneIn, and Soundcloud, or using the audio or video players below.

SCIENCE SALON # 70

Dr. Brian Keating — Losing the Nobel Prize: A Story of Cosmology, Ambition, and the Perils of Science’s Highest Honor

Losing the Nobel Prize: A Story of Cosmology, Ambition, and the Perils of Science's Highest Honor (book cover)

We apologize for the very poor audio-video quality of this recording.

In this wide-ranging conversation Science Salon host Dr. Michael Shermer speaks with cosmologist and inventor of the BICEP (Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization) experiment Dr. Brian Keating about the following topics:

  • how he almost won the Nobel Prize for his research that confirmed the inflationary model of the Big Bang
  • the problems with the Nobel Prize as it is currently structured, such as its limitation to only three people (when modern experiments are typically directed by a great many more); that it can’t be awarded posthumously (thereby neglecting people like Amos Tversky, who did as much work as his Nobel Prize-winning collaborator Daniel Kahneman); its neglect of many women scientists as deserving of the prize as their male counterparts, and especially how it distorts incentives to collaborate in science
  • his upbringing and what inspired him to probe the deepest questions about the nature of the cosmos and reality
  • what it’s like conducting research in the harsh conditions at the South Pole
  • what banged in the Big Bang and what there was before the Big Bang
  • the possibility (or not) of a multiverse model and a cyclical model of universes outside of, or before, our universe
  • the relationship between science and religion and why they need not always be in conflict
  • his Prager U video on why believing in the multiverse takes as much faith as believing in God.

Listen to Science Salon via iTunes, Spotify, Google Play Music, Stitcher, iHeartRadio, TuneIn, and Soundcloud.

This Science Salon was recorded on May 21, 2019. We apologize for the very poor audio-video quality of this recording.

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SCIENCE SALON # 69

Dr. Barbara Tversky — Mind in Motion: How Action Shapes Thought

Mind in Motion: How Action Shapes Thought (book cover)

An eminent psychologist offers a major new theory of human cognition: movement, not language, is the foundation of thought.

When we try to think about how we think, we can’t help but think of words. Indeed, some have called language the stuff of thought. But pictures are remembered far better than words, and describing faces, scenes, and events defies words. Anytime you take a shortcut or play chess or basketball or rearrange your furniture in your mind, you’ve done something remarkable: abstract thinking without words.

In Mind in Motion, psychologist Barbara Tversky shows that spatial cognition isn’t just a peripheral aspect of thought, but its very foundation, enabling us to draw meaning from our bodies and their actions in the world. Our actions in real space get turned into mental actions on thought, often spouting spontaneously from our bodies as gestures. Spatial thinking underlies creating and using maps, assembling furniture, devising football strategies, designing airports, understanding the flow of people, traffic, water, and ideas. Spatial thinking even underlies the structure and meaning of language: why we say we push ideas forward or tear them apart, why we’re feeling up or have grown far apart.

In this dialogue Dr. Tversky and Dr. Shermer discuss:

  • her new theory of cognition, in detail, with examples
  • what is a thought?
  • what did humans think about before language?
  • what do babies, chimpanzees, and dogs think about without language?
  • how will far future humans think if their language is completely different from ours?
  • if you had to warn humans 10,000 years from now not to open a container of nuclear waste, what symbols would you use?
  • gender differences in spatial reasoning
  • why there are not more women programmers in particular and women in tech in general
  • I.Q. tests, intelligence, and why thinking is so much more than what these tests capture.

Listen to Science Salon via iTunes, Spotify, Google Play Music, Stitcher, iHeartRadio, TuneIn, and Soundcloud.

This Science Salon audio-only recording was created on June 1, 2019.

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SCIENCE SALON # 68

Dr. Michael Ruse — A Darwinian Meaning to Life

A Meaning to Life (book cover)

Dr. Michael Ruse is the Lucyle T. Werkmeister Professor of Philosophy, and Director of the Program in the History and Philosophy of Science, at Florida State University. He has written or edited more than 50 books. His new book is “A Meaning to Life,” which we discuss on the show, as well as:

  • Dr. Ruse’s early life growing up as a Quaker in England and how this influenced his thinking about religion
  • why he is a bulldog against creationism but has a soft spot in his heart for religion
  • why we should not read religious texts literally, but allegorically, and when we do there are great truths to be found, just as there is in great literature
  • his beef with the New Atheists like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett
  • how Darwinism is a religion
  • Darwinian existentialism
  • how a naturalist can still find morals, values, and meaning in life through the laws of nature, particularly human and social nature
  • what’s wrong with academia today, and
  • what advice he would give to someone asking how to lead a meaningful life.

Listen to Science Salon via iTunes, Spotify, Google Play Music, Stitcher, iHeartRadio, TuneIn, and Soundcloud.

This Science Salon was recorded on January 16, 2019.

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SCIENCE SALON # 67

Dr. Christian Smith — Atheist Overreach: What Atheism Can’t Deliver

Atheist Overreach: What Atheism Can't Deliver (book cover)

In recent years atheism has become ever more visible, acceptable, and influential. Atheist apologists have become increasingly vociferous and confident in their claims: that a morality requiring benevolence towards all and universal human rights need not be grounded in religion; that modern science disproves the existence of God; and that there is nothing innately religious about human beings. In Atheist Overreach, Christian Smith takes a look at the evidence and arguments, and explains why we ought to be skeptical of these atheists’ claims about morality, science, and human nature. He does not argue that atheism is necessarily wrong, but rather that its advocates are advancing crucial claims that are neither rationally defensible nor realistic. Their committed worldview feeds unhelpful arguments and contributes to the increasing polarization of today’s political landscape. Everyone involved in the theism-atheism debates, in shared moral reflection, and in the public consumption of the findings of science should be committed to careful reasoning and rigorous criticism.

In this podcast conversation about his book Smith and Shermer get into the weeds of…

  • what constitutes moral values
  • objectivity of right and wrong
  • the secular moral philosophies of Philip Kitcher, Sam Harris, Peter Singer, and Steven Pinker
  • Aristotle, Kant, Hume, Rawls: who is right?
  • pluralism and morality
  • theism and can it deliver the objective moral values it promises?
  • moral progress.

Listen to Science Salon via iTunes, Spotify, Google Play Music, Stitcher, iHeartRadio, TuneIn, and Soundcloud.

This Science Salon was recorded on April 19, 2019.

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SCIENCE SALON # 66

Dr. Christian List — Why Free Will is Real: A response to Sam Harris, Jerry Coyne, and Other Determinists

Why Free Will is Real (book cover)

Philosophers have argued about the nature and the very existence of free will for centuries. Today, many scientists and scientifically minded commentators are skeptical that it exists, especially when it is understood to require the ability to choose between alternative possibilities. If the laws of physics govern everything that happens, they argue, then how can our choices be free? Believers in free will must be misled by habit, sentiment, or religious doctrine. Why Free Will is Real defies scientific orthodoxy and presents a bold new defense of free will in the same naturalistic terms that are usually deployed against it.

Unlike those who defend free will by giving up the idea that it requires alternative possibilities to choose from, Christian List retains this idea as central, resisting the tendency to defend free will by watering it down. He concedes that free will and its prerequisites—intentional agency, alternative possibilities, and causal control over our actions—cannot be found among the fundamental physical features of the natural world. But, he argues, that’s not where we should be looking. Free will is a “higher-level” phenomenon found at the level of psychology. It is like other phenomena that emerge from physical processes but are autonomous from them and not best understood in fundamental physical terms—like an ecosystem or the economy. When we discover it in its proper context, acknowledging that free will is real is not just scientifically respectable; it is indispensable for explaining our world.

Listen to Science Salon via iTunes, Spotify, Google Play Music, Stitcher, iHeartRadio, TuneIn, and Soundcloud.

This Science Salon was recorded on May 1, 2019.

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SCIENCE SALON # 65

Jared Diamond — Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis

Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis (book cover)

For this special edition of the Science Salon Podcast Dr. Shermer brought a camera crew to Jared Diamond’s home in Los Angeles for an especially intimate portrait of the man and his theories. You won’t want to miss this conversation, one of the best we’ve yet recorded, with one of the most interesting minds of our time, perhaps of all time.

In his earlier bestsellers Guns, Germs and Steel and Collapse, Jared Diamond transformed our understanding of what makes civilizations rise and fall. Now, in the final book in this monumental trilogy, he reveals how successful nations recover from crisis through selective change — a coping mechanism more commonly associated with personal trauma.

In a dazzling comparative study, Diamond shows us how seven countries have survived defining upheavals in the recent past — from US Commodore Perry’s arrival in Japan to the Soviet invasion of Finland to Pinochet’s regime in Chile — through a process of painful self-appraisal and adaptation, and he identifies patterns in the way that these distinct nations recovered from calamity. Looking ahead to the future, he investigates whether the United States, and the world, are squandering their natural advantages, on a path towards political conflict and decline. Or can we still learn from the lessons of the past?

Adding a psychological dimension to the awe-inspiring grasp of history, geography, economics, and anthropology that marks all Diamond’s work, Upheaval reveals how both nations and individuals can become more resilient. The result is a book that is epic, urgent, and groundbreaking.

Listen to Science Salon via iTunes, Spotify, Google Play Music, Stitcher, iHeartRadio, TuneIn, and Soundcloud.

This Science Salon was recorded on March 13, 2019.

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SCIENCE SALON # 64

Dr. Michael Tomasello — Becoming Human

Becoming Human: A Theory of Ontogeny (book cover)

In this fascinating conversation with the evolutionary anthropologist Dr. Michael Tomasello, the Max Planck Institute scientist presents his new theory of how humans became such a distinctive species. Other theories focus on evolution. Here, Tomasello proposes a complementary theory of human uniqueness, focused on development. His data-driven model explains how those things that make us most human are constructed during the first years of a child’s life.

Dr. Tomasello assembles nearly three decades of experimental work with chimpanzees, bonobos, and human children to propose a new framework for psychological growth between birth and seven years of age. He identifies eight pathways that starkly differentiate humans from their closest primate relatives: social cognition, communication, cultural learning, cooperative thinking, collaboration, prosociality, social norms, and moral identity. In each of these, great apes possess rudimentary abilities. But then, Tomasello argues, the maturation of humans’ evolved capacities for shared intentionality transform these abilities—through the new forms of sociocultural interaction they enable—into uniquely human cognition and sociality. The first step occurs around nine months, with the emergence of joint intentionality, exercised mostly with caregiving adults. The second step occurs around three years, with the emergence of collective intentionality involving both authoritative adults, who convey cultural knowledge, and coequal peers, who elicit collaboration and communication. Finally, by age six or seven, children become responsible for self-regulating their beliefs and actions so that they comport with cultural norms.

Becoming Human places human sociocultural activity within the framework of modern evolutionary theory, and shows how biology creates the conditions under which culture does its work.

Listen to Science Salon via iTunes, Spotify, Google Play Music, Stitcher, iHeartRadio, TuneIn, and Soundcloud.

This Science Salon was recorded on February 19, 2019.

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SCIENCE SALON # 63

Dr. Hector A. Garcia — Sex, Power, and Partisanship: How Evolutionary Science Makes Sense of Our Political Divide

Sex, Power, and Partisanship: How Evolutionary Science Makes Sense of Our Political Divide (book cover)

Through the lens of evolutionary science, Dr. Garcia offers a novel perspective on why we hold our political ideas, and why they are so often in conflict. Drawing on examples from across the animal kingdom, Garcia reveals how even the most complex political processes can be influenced by our basic drives to survive and reproduce—including the policies we back, whether we are liberal or conservative, and whether we are inspired or repelled by the words of a president. Garcia explains how our political orientations derive from an ancestral history of violent male competition, surprisingly influencing how we respond to issues as wide-ranging as affirmative action, women’s rights, social welfare, abortion, foreign policy, and even global warming. Critically, Garcia shows us how our instinctive political tribalism can keep us from achieving stable, functioning societies, and offers solutions for rising above our ancestral past. Dr. Garcia and Dr. Shermer also discuss:

  • Trump and other political leaders through the lens of evolutionary psychology
  • what ancient fears Trump evokes when he says foreigners are bringing in disease and threaten our safety
  • why people tend to prefer politicians who are taller, better looking, and with broader shoulders
  • how liberals and conservatives differ in temperament and personality and how this difference plays out in public policy
  • the moralistic fallacy and the naturalistic fallacy
  • the authoritarian personality and social dominance theory
  • why the Left-Right/Liberal-Conservative political spectrum is universal and what deep preferences it represents
  • how women and men differ in cognitive styles of thinking, preferences, and career choices
  • how PTSD as a real phenomena, especially among returning veterans, but why normal anxiety should not be considered pathological

Hector A. Garcia, Psy.D., is the author of Alpha God: The Psychology of Religious Violence and Oppression. He is an assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, and a clinical psychologist specializing in the treatment of posttraumatic stress disorder in combat veterans. He has published extensively on evolutionary psychology, stress and politics in organizations, and the interplay between war and masculine identity.

Listen to Science Salon via iTunes, Spotify, Google Play Music, Stitcher, iHeartRadio, TuneIn, and Soundcloud.

This Science Salon was recorded on February 25, 2019.

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SCIENCE SALON AMA

Dr. Michael Shermer — “Are the Miracles of Jesus Unbelievable?” Debate Postmortem (AMA # 5)

In this AMA special Dr. Shermer conducts a postmortem on his debate with the evangelical Christian theologian Luuk van de Weghe, with Windmill Ministries, before an audience of about 400 people, the vast majority of which were evangelicals. Dr. Shermer argues in the affirmative to the debate proposition that the miracles of Jesus are unbelievable. In this postmortem Dr. Shermer elaborates on his notes for the debate, suggesting ways to think about miracles from a scientific or naturalistic perspective.

The debate took place on March 30, 2019 in Sequim, Washington, and was moderated by Justin Brierley.

Listen to Science Salon via iTunes, Spotify, Google Play Music, Stitcher, iHeartRadio, TuneIn, and Soundcloud.

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SCIENCE SALON # 62

Dr. Mark Moffett — The Human Swarm: How Our Societies Arise, Thrive, and Fall

The Human Swarm: How Our Societies Arise, Thrive, and Fall (book cover)

In this riveting conversation, Dr. Shermer speaks with Dr. Mark Moffett, biologist (Ph.D. Harvard, under E. O. Wilson), wildlife photographer for National Geographic, cave explorer, and world traveler about his new book, The Human Swarm: How Our Societies Arise, Thrive, and Fall, on the nature of societies from a biologist’s perspective. Scientists routinely explain that humans rule the planet because of our intelligence, tools, or language, but as Moffett argues, our biggest asset, surprisingly overlooked to date, is our ability to be comfortable around strangers. We can walk into a cafe or stadium full of unfamiliar people without thinking twice, but a chimpanzee, wolf or lion, encountering strangers could be attacked and perhaps killed. This ability—not IQ—has allowed humans to swarm over the world in vast nations. If we want to compare ourselves to the rest of the animal kingdom in order to define what makes our societies unique, Moffett argues that it’s time we look at ants. Making their way across the African savannah, the Australian coastline, and the American plains, our ancestors moved in small bands of lifelong fellow travelers. Month after month they made their camps and searched for food and water. Rarely did they encounter other human souls. So rarely that outsiders seemed to occupy a realm between reality and myth. Aborigines guessed the first Europeans they met were ghosts. Over time our view of the members of other societies has changed radically; today, foreigners don’t seem outlandish or otherworldly, as they once routinely did. As a consequence of global exploration starting in the 15th century, and more recently tourism and social media, contact between people from far-flung parts of the globe is now commonplace. Outright incomprehension of outsiders is no longer the excuse it often was in prehistory.

Listen to Science Salon via iTunes, Spotify, Google Play Music, Stitcher, iHeartRadio, TuneIn, and Soundcloud.

You play a vital part in our commitment to promote science and reason. If you enjoy the Science Salon Podcast, please show your support by making a donation, or by becoming a patron.

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