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Science Salon Archives

In the tradition of the Enlightenment salons that helped drive the Age of Reason, 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 Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Play Music, Stitcher, iHeartRadio, TuneIn, and Soundcloud, or using the audio or video players below.

SCIENCE SALON # 87

Douglas Murray — The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race, and Identity

The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race, and Identity (book cover)

In his devastating new book The Madness of Crowds, Douglas Murray examines the 21st century’s most divisive issues: sexuality, gender, technology and race. He reveals the astonishing new culture wars playing out in our workplaces, universities, schools and homes in the names of social justice, identity politics and intersectionality. We are living through a postmodern era in which the grand narratives of religion and political ideology have collapsed. In their place have emerged a crusading desire to right perceived wrongs and a weaponization of identity, both accelerated by the new forms of social and news media. Narrow sets of interests now dominate the agenda as society becomes more and more tribal — and, as Murray shows, the casualties are mounting. Readers of all political persuasions cannot afford to ignore Murray’s masterfully argued and fiercely provocative book, in which he seeks to inject some sense into the discussion around this generation’s most complicated issues. He ends with an impassioned call for free speech, shared common values and sanity in an age of mass hysteria. Shermer and Murray discuss:

  • gay: born this way?
  • race: why current attitudes are an inversion of Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream
  • gender: is it really all about power? Men and women in the workplace
  • trans: how big an issue is this and how many trans people are there? Reversing trans surgeries
  • the problem of intersectionality, or the oppression olympics
  • campus craziness: how big a problem is it really?
  • political correctness and free speech
  • the problem of “overcorrection” in moral progress, and
  • the way forward.

Douglas Murray is an author and journalist based in Britain. His previous book, The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam, was a No. 1 bestseller in non-fiction. Murray has been a contributor to the Spectator since 2000 and has been Associate Editor at the magazine since 2012. He has also written regularly for numerous other outlets including the Wall Street Journal, the Times, the Sunday Times, the Sun, Evening Standard and the New Criterion. He is a regular contributor to National Review and has been a columnist for Standpoint magazine since its founding.

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SCIENCE SALON # 86

Neil deGrasse Tyson — Letters from an Astrophysicist

Letter (book cover)

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has attracted one of the world’s largest online followings with his fascinating, widely accessible insights into science and our universe. Now, Tyson invites us to go behind the scenes of his public fame by revealing his correspondence with people across the globe who have sought him out in search of answers. In this hand-picked collection of 101 letters, Tyson draws upon cosmic perspectives to address a vast array of questions about science, faith, philosophy, life, and of course, Pluto. His succinct, opinionated, passionate, and often funny responses reflect his popularity and standing as a leading educator. Tyson’s 2017 bestseller Astrophysics for People in a Hurry offered more than one million readers an insightful and accessible understanding of the universe. Tyson’s most candid and heartfelt writing yet, Letters from an Astrophysicist introduces us to a newly personal dimension of Tyson’s quest to explore our place in the cosmos. Shermer and Tyson discuss:

  • killing Pluto
  • killing God
  • science and religion
  • why he takes a relatively conciliatory approach to religion
  • why he takes a hard-line against science deniers in religion (and elsewhere)
  • progress in science
  • how vs. why questions
  • race and racial progress
  • why the arc of the moral universe still bends toward justice
  • race and IQ and the curious letter he received about how to address this sensitive subject
  • his middle name and why one correspondent objected to it
  • Neil’s father and why he ends the book with a eulogy.

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SCIENCE SALON # 85

Deepak Chopra — Metahuman: Unleashing Your Infinite Potential

Metahuman: Unleashing Your Infinite Potential (book cover)

In this conversation long-time adversaries and now friends Michael Shermer and Deepak Chopra make an attempt at mutual understanding through the careful unpacking of what Deepak means when he talks about the subject-object split, the impermanence of the self, nondualism, the mind-body problem, the nature of consciousness, and the nature of reality. Shermer also pushes Deepak to translate these deep philosophical, metaphysical, and psychological concepts into actionable take-home ideas that can be put to use to reduce human suffering and help people lead lives that are more meaningful and purposeful.

In the book Deepak includes a survey called Nondual Embodiment Thematic Inventory (NETI), final scores of which range from 20 to 100, on “how people rank themselves on qualities long considered spiritual, psychological, or moral.” Shermer scored a 62, which Chopra said is “not bad”. Take the test yourself in the book or Google it online to read more about it.

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SCIENCE SALON # 84

Christof Koch — The Feeling of Life Itself: Why Consciousness is Widespread but Can’t Be Computed

The Feeling of Life Itself: Why Consciousness Is Widespread but Can’t Be Computed (book cover)

In this fascinating discussion of one of the hardest problems in all of science — the hard problem of consciousness, that is, explaining how the feeling or experience of something can arise from neural activity — one of the world’s leading neuroscientists Christof Koch argues that consciousness, more widespread than previously assumed, is the feeling of being alive, not a type of computation or a clever hack. Consciousness is experience. Consciousness is, as his book title states, The Feeling of Life Itself — the feeling of being alive. Shermer and Koch discuss:

  • the Neural Correlates of Consciousness (NCC)
  • where consciousness is located in the brain (or, more precisely, where it is not located)
  • what comas and vegetative states teach us about consciousness
  • what brain injuries and diseases teach us about consciousness
  • what hallucinogens teach us about consciousness
  • what split-brain surgeries teach us about the nature of the self and identity
  • Koch’s experience with psilocybin and what he learned about consciousness
  • Koch’s experience in a flotation tank and what he learned about consciousness
  • why computers as they are currently configured can never create consciousness
  • why mind-uploading cannot copy or continue consciousness
  • Integrated Information Theory of Consciousness
  • Global Workspace Theory of Consciousness
  • why consciousness is not an illusion, and
  • mysterian mysteries.

Christof Koch is President and Chief Scientist of the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle, following twenty-seven years as a Professor at the California Institute of Technology. He is the author of Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist (MIT Press), The Quest for Consciousness: A Neurobiological Approach, and other books.

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SCIENCE SALON # 83

Peter Boghossian — How to Have Impossible Conversations: A Very Practical Guide

How to Have Impossible Conversations: A Very Practical Guide (book cover)

In our current political climate, it seems impossible to have a reasonable conversation with anyone who has a different opinion. Whether you’re online, in a classroom, an office, a town hall — or just hoping to get through a family dinner with a stubborn relative — dialogue shuts down when perspectives clash. Heated debates often lead to insults and shaming, blocking any possibility of productive discourse. Everyone seems to be on a hair trigger.

In How to Have Impossible Conversations, Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay guide you through the straightforward, practical, conversational techniques necessary for every successful conversation — whether the issue is climate change, religious faith, gender identity, race, poverty, immigration, or gun control. Boghossian and Lindsay teach the subtle art of instilling doubts and opening minds. They cover everything from learning the fundamentals for good conversations to achieving expert-level techniques to deal with hardliners and extremists.

Shermer and Boghossian discuss:

  • the growing political divide in American over the past quarter century
  • why politicians no longer reach across the aisle
  • when is the right time to have a difficult conversation
  • the best strategies to use to diffuse anger and keep a conversation productive
  • why the atheist movement splintered over disagreements
  • strategies used by hostage negotiators that you can employ in your conversations, and
  • negotiating the intractable social media.

Peter Boghossian is a full time faculty member in the philosophy department at Portland State University and an affiliated faculty member at Oregon Health Science University in the Division of General Internal Medicine. He is a national speaker for the Center of Inquiry and an international speaker for the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, and the author of A Manual for Creating Atheists. He lives in Portland, Oregon.

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SCIENCE SALON # 82

Phil Zuckerman — What it Means to be Moral: Why Religion is Not Necessary for Living an Ethical Life

What It Means to Be Moral: Why Religion Is Not Necessary for Living an Ethical Life (book cover)

In What It Means to Be Moral: Why Religion Is Not Necessary for Living an Ethical Life, Phil Zuckerman argues that morality does not come from God. Rather, it comes from us: our brains, our evolutionary past, our ongoing cultural development, our social experiences, and our ability to reason, reflect, and be sensitive to the suffering of others. By deconstructing religious arguments for God-based morality and guiding readers through the premises and promises of secular morality, Zuckerman argues that the major challenges facing the world today―from global warming and growing inequality to religious support for unethical political policies to gun violence and terrorism―are best approached from a nonreligious ethical framework. In short, we need to look to our fellow humans and within ourselves for moral progress and ethical action. Shermer and Zuckerman discus:

  • what is morality and what does it mean to be good?
  • the evolutionary origins of morality
  • the “naturalistic fallacy,” or the “is-ought fallacy” and why it need not always apply
  • how we’ve made moral progress over the centuries thanks to secular forces
  • why religion is always behind the wave of moral progress (but takes credit for it later)
  • the origin of good and evil
  • how to solve crime, homelessness, and other social problems through science, reason, and secular forces, and
  • the seven secular virtues.

Dr. Phil Zuckerman is the author of several books, including The Nonreligious, Living the Secular Life, Society without God, and his latest book, What it Means to be Moral. He is a professor of sociology at Pitzer College and the founding chair of the nation’s first secular studies program. He lives in Claremont, California, with his wife and three children.

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SCIENCE SALON # 81

Bruce Hood — Possessed: Why We Want More Than We Need

Possessed: Why We Want More Than We Need (book cover)

You may not believe it, but there is a link between our current political instability and your childhood attachment to teddy bears. There’s also a reason why children in Asia are more likely to share than their western counterparts and why the poor spend more of their income on luxury goods than the rich. Or why your mother is more likely to leave her money to you than your father. What connects these things?

The answer is our need for ownership. Award-winning University of Bristol psychologist Bruce Hood draws on research from his own lab and others around the world to explain why this uniquely human preoccupation governs our behavior from the cradle to the grave, even when it is often irrational, and destructive. What motivates us to buy more than we need? Is it innate, or cultural? How does our urge to acquire control our behaviour, even the way we vote? And what can we do about it? Possessed is the first book to explore how ownership has us enthralled in relentless pursuit of a false happiness, with damaging consequences for society and the planet — and how we can stop buying into it.

Dr. Hood and Dr. Shermer also discuss:

  • who owns your body and mind
  • how the military draft, conscription, is a way of the state taking possession of your body
  • suicide and bodily ownership: why states prohibit you from killing yourself
  • organs and bodily ownership: why states prohibit you from selling your organs
  • prostitution: why states prohibit people from selling their bodies for sex
  • slavery: why historically states have legalized owning other people
  • marriage & children: why historically states have sanctioned men owning women and children
  • children’s sense of ownership
  • income inequality
  • objects vs. money vs. social capital as possessions
  • money is not a possession so much as a means of getting possessions.
  • jealousy as a form of possession
  • xenophobia as a fear of loss of ownership
  • who owns the land, air, water, minerals, etc.?
  • intellectual property: who owns your ideas?
  • what wills and trusts tell us about the psychology of the transfer of ownership
  • the tragedy of the commons and environmental protection through private ownership: Ducks Unlimited, game reserves, licenses for killing big game in Africa
  • why original art is more valuable than fakes or duplicates, and
  • the Arab-Israel conflict and what happens when God ordains ownership of a piece of land to two different peoples.

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SCIENCE SALON # 80

Bryan Walsh — End Times: A Brief Guide to the End of the World

End Times: A Brief Guide to the End of the World (book cover)

End Times: A Brief Guide to the End of the World is a compelling work of skilled reportage that peels back the layers of complexity around the unthinkable—and inevitable—end of humankind. From asteroids and artificial intelligence to volcanic supereruption to nuclear war, 15-year veteran science reporter and TIME editor Bryan Walsh provides a stunning panoramic view of the most catastrophic threats to the human race. Walsh and Shermer discuss these existential threats to humanity and what to do about them:

  • nuclear weapons
  • killer diseases
  • climate change
  • artificial intelligence
  • biotechnology
  • asteroids and volcanos
  • extraterrestrials, and
  • preparing for doomsday: should we all be doomsday preppers?

A graduate of Princeton University, Bryan Walsh worked as a foreign correspondent, reporter, and editor for TIME for over 15 years. He founded the award-winning Ecocentric blog on TIME.com and has reported from more than 20 countries on science and environmental stories like SARS, global warming, and extinction. He lives in Brooklyn, NY, with his wife and son.

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Addendum

In the discussion with Bryan Walsh about his new book End Times, in the section on nuclear weapons as an existential threat, the University of Washington Professor of Psychology David Barash, who is writing a book about the threat of nuclear weapons, points out two minor factual misstatements made about two Russian officials involved in nuclear close calls:

  1. The man responsible for the Soviet submarine not using its nuclear torpedo in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis wasn’t the captain but a high ranking officer named Vasily Arihopv
  2. The “man who saved the world” in 1983 was Stanislav Petrov. Thanks to Dr. Barash for providing the following excerpts from his forthcoming book, Threats: From Animals to People, Society, and Countries (Oxford University Press, 2020).
1. Cuban Missile Crisis Close Call

Unknown to US authorities, the Soviets had already put at least 20 nuclear tipped missiles in Cuba, capable of reaching as far as Washington, D.C., each carrying a one-megaton nuclear warhead — equivalent to roughly 70 Hiroshima-size bombs. At the same time, a Soviet submarine submerged off the Cuban coast was being harassed by a US Navy surface flotilla, which was firing small depth charges, of the sort used in training exercises — not trying to destroy the submarine but rather in an effort to get it to surface. The submarine’s officers, however, believed they were under full attack; the US military was unaware that this sub was equipped with at least one nuclear-tipped torpedo. Unable to communicate with its military leadership in the Kremlin and having been given permission to use its nuclear weapon in “dire circumstances,” two out of the three officers with launch responsibility voted to fire their nuclear torpedo at the US fleet, believing that a war had already started. This would almost certainly have provoked a thermonuclear war. But the third officer, one Vasily Arkhipov, voted “No,” and so the Soviet submarine didn’t devastate a chunk of the US Navy, the US did not retaliate, and the world remained intact.

2. The 1983 “Man Who Saved the World” Close Call

An enormous naval exercise was conducted during April and May of 1983, which was a particularly crucial year, with three Pacific-based carrier battle groups simulating total war against the USSR. By design, US forces began probing the sensitivity (and restraint) of Soviet air defenses. Especially provocative was a mock bombing exercise in which US Navy aircraft actually flew over a Soviet military base on Zeleny Island, which the Soviets countered by flying over the Aleutians, leading Premier Andropov to order that any subsequent overflight of Soviet territory be shot down. At the time, the US was about to deploy its Pershing II missiles in Europe. And then, sure enough, in September of that same fateful year, Soviet radar reported what they believed was a US spy plane in Soviet airspace over Siberia. An Su-15 interceptor was ordered to shoot it down. The intruder was no spy plane, but Korean Airlines flight 007, a commercial airliner bound for Seoul that had gone off-course, and whose communications with the scrambled Soviet jet were garbled. There were 269 civilian passengers, all of whom perished, including 62 Americans (one being a sitting congressman who was chairman of the bellicosely anti-communist John Birch Society) and 22 children under the age of 12.

The West was outraged. President Reagan denounced Soviet “barbarity,” and then things got even more dangerous. On September, 26, three weeks after the shooting down of KAL 007, a newly installed Soviet early warning satellite system sent an alert that a US ICBM had been launched and was heading toward the USSR, followed by a possible four more. The mid-ranking duty officer in the early warning command system, Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov, decided — on his own and counter to explicit military protocol — not to report this incident, which he judged to be a false alarm. And so it was. (Part of his reasoning was that a real first strike would have involved hundreds of missiles, not just a hand-full.) Had he informed his superior officers, General Secretary Andropov et al would have had just minutes to decide whether or not to “retaliate,” and given the tense state of US-Soviet relations at that time, the outcome could easily have been disastrous. Petrov was nonetheless officially reprimanded for his non-action; shortly thereafter he left the Soviet military and, in May, he died in relative poverty. Interviewed for the film, The Man Who Saved the World, Petrov said this about his role in the incident, “I was simply doing my job … that’s all. My late wife for 10 years knew nothing about it. ‘So what did you do?’ she asked me. ‘Nothing. I did nothing.’” Petrov’s “nothing” could well have saved the world.

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SCIENCE SALON # 79

Anthony Kronman — The Assault on American Excellence

The Assault on American Excellence (book cover)

The former dean of Yale Law School argues that the feverish egalitarianism gripping college campuses today is out of place at institutions whose job is to prepare citizens to live in a vibrant democracy. In his tenure at Yale, Anthony Kronman has watched students march across campus to protest the names of buildings and seen colleagues resign over emails about Halloween costumes. He is no stranger to recent confrontations at American universities. But where many see only the suppression of free speech, the babying of students, and the drive to bury the imperfect parts of our history, Kronman recognizes in these on-campus clashes a threat to our democracy. Shermer and Kronman discuss:

  • free speech vs. hate speech
  • how language affects how we think about other people
  • diversity of characteristics (race, gender) vs. diversity of viewpoints
  • the search for universal truths vs. understanding other’s perspectives
  • affirmative action in the academy: from the University of California to Harvard
  • taking down statues of Hitler and Stalin vs. taking down statues of Confederate Generals
  • the problem of applying current moral values to the past, and
  • how to reform the academy to refocus on excellence.

Anthony T. Kronman served as the dean of Yale Law School from 1994–2004, and has taught at the university for forty years. He is the author or coauthor of five books, including The Assault on American Excellence; Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life; and Confessions of a Born-Again Pagan.

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

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SCIENCE SALON # 78

Dr. Donald Hoffman — The Case Against Reality: Why Evolution Hid the Truth From Our Eyes

The Scientific Attitude: Defending Science from Denial, Fraud, and Pseudoscience (book cover)

In his new book, The Case Against Reality: Why Evolution Hid the Truth From Our Eyes, the U.C. Irvine cognitive scientist Dr. Donald Hoffman challenges the leading scientific theories that claim that our senses report back objective reality. How can it be possible that the world we see is not objective reality? And how can our senses be useful if they are not communicating the truth? Hoffman argues that while we should take our perceptions seriously, we should not take them literally. His evolutionary model contends that natural selection has favored perception that hides the truth and guides us toward useful action, shaping our senses to keep us alive and reproducing. We observe a speeding car and do not walk in front of it; we see mold growing on bread and do not eat it. These impressions, though, are not objective reality. Just like a file icon on a desktop screen is a useful symbol rather than a genuine representation of what a computer file looks like, the objects we see every day are merely icons, allowing us to navigate the world safely and with ease. The real-world implications for this discovery are huge, even dismantling the very notion that spacetime is objective reality. The Case Against Reality dares us to question everything we thought we knew about the world we see.

In this conversation, Hoffman and Shermer get deep into the weeds of:

  • the nature of reality (ontology)
  • how we know anything about reality (epistemology)
  • the possibility that we’re living in a simulation
  • the possibility that we’re just a brain in a vat
  • the problem of other minds (that I’m the only sentient conscious being while everyone else is a zombie)
  • the hard problem of consciousness
  • what it means to ask “what’s it like to be a bat?”
  • does the moon exist if there are no conscious sentient beings anywhere in the universe?
  • is spacetime doomed?
  • quantum physics and consciousness
  • the microtubule theory of consciousness
  • the global workspace theory of consciousness, and
  • how Hoffman’s Interface Theory of Perception differs from Jordan Peterson’s Archetypal Theory of Truth (Shermer’s label for Peterson’s evolutionary theory of truth).

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