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Science Salon Archives

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SCIENCE SALON # 38

Dr. Yuval Noah Harari — 21 Lessons for the 21st Century

21 Lessons for the 21st Century (book cover)

Released September 4, 2018

In this dialogue with one of the most interesting minds of our time, the Hebrew University historian and best-selling author (Sapiens, Homo Deus), Dr. Yuval Noah Harari, he and Dr. Shermer discuss the central ideas of his new book, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, an exploration of: history, work, liberty, equality, community, civilization, nationalism, religion, immigration, terrorism, war, humility, God, secularism, ignorance, justice, post-truth, science fiction, education, meaning, and meditation. Dr. Harari and Dr. Shermer cover as many of these topics as reasonable in this wide-ranging conversation, focusing especially on nationalism, tribalism, God and religion, free will and determinism, AI algorithms and human volition, the future of liberal democracy, colonizing Mars, and much more.

Dr. Yuval Noah Harari has a Ph.D. in history from the University of Oxford, and now lectures at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, specializing in world history. His two books, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind and Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, have become global best­sellers, with more than twelve million copies sold and translations in more than forty-five languages.

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This remote Science Salon was recorded in audio format only on August 19, 2018.

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SCIENCE SALON # 37

Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson — Accessory to War: The Unspoken Alliance Between Astrophysics and the Military

Accessory to War: The Unspoken Alliance Between Astrophysics and the Military (book cover)

Released September 11, 2018

In this deep dive into the history of science and war, and the strange but productive alliances that have been formed over the centuries—particularly those between astrophysicists and politicians, governments, military, and corporations—Neil deGrasse Tyson and Michael Shermer cover centuries of history and the many facets of science policy that have brought us to the modern world of space telescopes, GPS, and the Internet, along with guided missiles, nuclear weapons, and smart bombs delivered by drones. The conversation focuses primarily on Tyson’s new book, Accessory to War, co-authored with his long-time Natural History editor Avis Lang, which is a serious scholarly work on a monumentally influential topic. Shermer also challenges Tyson on the relationship between resource scarcity and war, and when scientists like Werner von Braun and Edward Teller go too far in developing weapons of mass destruction, when “scientists know sin.” Tyson is at his best when pushed to go deep on serious subjects like these. Don’t miss this fascinating discussion.

Neil deGrasse Tyson is an astrophysicist, author, and the Frederick P. Rose Director of the Hayden Planetarium at the Rose Center for Earth and Space in New York City. He is the host of the Cosmos television documentary series, and of his wildly popular Startalk podcast and National Geographic television show. His books include Death by Black Hole, Origins, The Sky is Not the Limit, The Pluto Files, Space Chronicles, and Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, which has been on the New York Times bestseller list for 67 weeks.

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This remote Science Salon was recorded on September 5, 2018.

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SCIENCE SALON # 36

Dr. Jonathan Haidt — The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation for Failure

The Coddling of the American Mind (book cover)

In this fascinating dialogue Dr. Haidt and Dr. Shermer discuss what has been going wrong on many college campuses in the last few years. Speakers are shouted down. Students and professors say they are walking on eggshells and are afraid to speak honestly. Rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide are rising—on campus as well as nationally. How did this happen? In his new book Haidt has teamed up with First Amendment expert Greg Lukianoff to show how the new problems on campus have their origins in three terrible ideas that have become increasingly woven into American childhood and education: What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker; always trust your feelings; and life is a battle between good people and evil people. These three Great Untruths contradict basic psychological principles about well-being and ancient wisdom from many cultures. Embracing these untruths—and the resulting culture of safetyism—interferes with young people’s social, emotional, and intellectual development. It makes it harder for them to become autonomous adults who are able to navigate the bumpy road of life. They explore changes in childhood such as the rise of fearful parenting, the decline of unsupervised, child-directed play, and the new world of social media that has engulfed teenagers in the last decade. They examine changes on campus, including the corporatization of universities and the emergence of new ideas about identity and justice. They situate the conflicts on campus within the context of America’s rapidly rising political polarization and dysfunction.

Dr. Jonathan Haidt is Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business. He is a social psychologist whose field is moral psychology. He is the author of The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom and The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion.

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This remote Science Salon was recorded on August 27, 2018.

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SCIENCE SALON # 35

Dr. Tali Sharot — The Influential Mind: What the Brain Reveals About Our Power to Change Others

The Influential Mind (book cover)

In her new book, The Influential Mind, neuroscientist Tali Sharot takes readers on a thrilling exploration of the nature of influence, so she and Shermer start the conversation by discussing how we can influence, for example, climate deniers to accept climate science, anti-vaxxers to accept vaccines, and creationists to accept evolution. As Sharot shows in her research, merely presenting people with the facts will not change their minds. There are other forces at work, which she reveals in this conversation and in more depth in her book. It turns out, for example, that many of our instincts—from relying on facts and figures to shape opinions, to insisting others are wrong or attempting to exert control—are ineffective, because they are incompatible with how people’s minds operate. Sharot shows us how to avoid these pitfalls, and how an attempt to change beliefs and actions is successful when it is well-matched with the core elements that govern the human brain. Sharot reveals the critical role of emotion in influence, the weakness of data and the power of curiosity. Relying on the latest research in neuroscience, behavioral economics and psychology, she provides fascinating insight into the complex power of influence, good and bad. Since she grew up in Israel, she and Shermer discuss the role of religion in terrorism and politics along with health and happiness.

Tali Sharot is a Professor of cognitive Neuroscience at University College London where she directs the Affective Brain Lab. She combines research in psychology, behavioural economics and neuroscience to reveal the forces that shape our decisions and beliefs. Dr. Sharot is the author of The Influential Mind and The Optimism Bias. Her papers have been published in top scientific journals including Nature, Science and Nature Neuroscience. This work has been the subject of features in many outlets including the New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN, the BBC and others. She has also written essays for Time (cover story), the New York Times, the Guardian among others. She was a speaker at TED’s annual conference 2012 and a British Academy and Wellcome Trust fellow. She received her Ph.D from New York University.

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This remote Science Salon was recorded in audio format only on August 17, 2018.

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SCIENCE SALON # 34

Colin McGinn — Paradoxes, Puzzles, and Philosophy

In their second Science Salon conversation Michael Shermer and Colin McGinn consider the broader sweep of philosophy after their first encounter in which they focused on consciousness, free will, and God. In this dialogue they review some of the paradoxes and puzzles of philosophy, pseudo-questions, realism v. antirealism, how to deal with unknown unknowns, immortality and the nature of the self and soul, and how McGinn and Daniel Dennett differ in their positions on mysterianism. Another hard-hitting and illuminating conversation.

If you missed it, listen to part 1 of this dialogue with Colin McGinn: Mysterianism, Consciousness, Free Will, and God (Science Salon # 29). You may also wish to read McGinn’s illuminating thought experiment essay “What is it like to be a human?” which was written to help clarify what, exactly, Thomas Nagel meant in his famous paper “What Is It Like to be a Bat?

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This remote Science Salon was recorded on July 20, 2018.

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SCIENCE SALON # 33

David Quammen — The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life

The Tangled Tree (book cover)

In this dialogue with one of the best nature and science writers of our generation, David Quammen and Michael Shermer discuss his new book on the history of one of the most exciting revolutions in evolution and genetics that is unfolding before our eyes. In the mid-1970s, scientists began using DNA sequences to reexamine the history of all life. Perhaps the most startling discovery to come out of this new field—the study of life’s diversity and relatedness at the molecular level—is horizontal gene transfer (HGT), or the movement of genes across species lines. It turns out that HGT has been widespread and important. For instance, we now know that roughly eight percent of the human genome arrived not through traditional inheritance from directly ancestral forms, but sideways by viral infection—a type of HGT.

In The Tangled Tree David Quammen chronicles these discoveries through the lives of the researchers who made them—such as Carl Woese, the most important little-known biologist of the twentieth century; Lynn Margulis, the notorious maverick whose wild ideas about “mosaic” creatures proved to be true; and Tsutomu Wantanabe, who discovered that the scourge of antibiotic-resistant bacteria is a direct result of horizontal gene transfer, bringing the deep study of genome histories to bear on a global crisis in public health.

As well, Quammen and Shermer discuss how molecular studies of evolution have brought startling recognitions about the tangled tree of life—including where we humans fit upon it. Thanks to new technologies such as CRISPR, we now have the ability to alter even our genetic composition—through sideways insertions, as nature has long been doing. They consider the ethical issues involved in bringing back extinct species, the meaning of the “self” if we are actually mosaics of different species, and the trans-humanist dream of re-engineering the human genome so our species can become post-human.

David Quammen is the author of a dozen fiction and nonfiction books, including Blood Line and The Song of the Dodo. His book Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic was a finalist for seven awards and received two of them: the Science and Society Book Award, given by the National Association of Science Writers, and the Society of Biology (UK) Book Award in General Biology. A three-time National Magazine Award winner, he is a contributing writer for National Geographic and has written also for Harper’s, Outside, Esquire, The Atlantic, Powder, and Rolling Stone. He received honorary doctorates from Montana State University and Colorado College. He travels widely on assignment, usually to jungles, mountains, remote islands, and swamps.

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This remote Science Salon was recorded on August 2, 2018.

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SCIENCE SALON # 32

Nina Teicholz — The Big Fat Surprise About Diet and Nutrition

The Big Fat Surprise (book cover)

In this fascinating conversation with Michael Shermer, the investigative journalist Nina Teicholz reviews the scientific literature on diet and nutrition, the link (or lack thereof) between dietary cholesterol and heart disease, the history of the government’s recommendation of what constitutes a healthy diet and why they got it so wrong, statins and heart disease, exercise and nutrition, an update on what has happened since her book, The Big Fat Surprise, was published in 2014, and most importantly what you should eat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner tomorrow (hint: it’s okay to have meat, butter and cheese without feeling guilty).

Nina Teicholz is an investigative science journalist and author. Her international bestseller, The Big Fat Surprise has upended the conventional wisdom on dietary fat—especially saturated fat. The executive editor of The Lancet wrote, “this is a disquieting book about…ruthless silencing of dissent that has shaped our lives for decades…researchers, clinicians, and health policy advisors should read this provocative book.” The Big Fat Surprise was named a 2014 Best Book by The Economist, the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Mother Jones, and Library Journal. Teicholz is also the Executive Director of The Nutrition Coalition, a non-profit group that promotes evidence-based nutrition policy. She is a graduate of Stanford and Oxford Universities and previously served as associate director of the Center for Globalization and Sustainable Development at Columbia University. Teicholz now lives in New York city with her husband and two sons.

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This remote Science Salon was recorded on July 19, 2018.

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SCIENCE SALON # 31

Amy Alkon — Unf*ckology: A Field Guide to Living with Guts and Confidence

Unf*ckology: A Field Guide to Living with Guts and Confidence (book cover)

In this unique conversation Michael Shermer talks with the science writer and weekly advice columnist Amy Alkon about her new book, Unf*ckology: A Field Guide to Living with Guts and Confidence. She calls her book a “science-help” book, instead of “self-help” because she grounds her recommendations in solid science. Her hilarious anecdotes are there just to illustrate a scientific point. She also debunks widely-accepted but scientifically unsupported notions about self-esteem, shame, willpower, and more and demonstrates that:

  • Thinking your way into changing (as so many therapists and self-help books advise) is the most inefficient way to go about it.
  • The mind is bigger than the brain, meaning that your body and your behavior are your gym for turning yourself into the new, confident you.
  • Fear is not just the problem; it’s also the solution.
  • By targeting your fears with behavior, you make changes in your brain that reshape your habitual ways of behaving and the emotions that go with them.

Shermer and Alkon also get into the #metoo movement, evolutionary psychology, politics, depression, suicide, Jordan Peterson, and other fascinating topics.

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

This remote Science Salon was recorded on July 5, 2018.

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SCIENCE SALON # 30

Dr. Ralph Lewis — Finding Meaning in a Meaningless Universe

Finding Purpose in a Godless World (book cover)

In this wide-ranging conversation Michael Shermer talks with the author of the new book Finding Purpose in a Godless World: Why We Care Even if the Universe Doesn’t, Dr. Ralph Lewis. Dr. Lewis is a psychiatrist at the University of Toronto who works with cancer patients and others facing death. They often face existential crises, so Dr. Lewis—himself an atheist—has developed techniques to help people cope that do not depend on any one religion. His new book is about how human purpose and caring, like consciousness and absolutely everything else in existence, could plausibly have emerged and evolved unguided, bottom-up, in a spontaneous universe. He and Shermer discuss how a random world is too often misconstrued as nihilistic, demotivating, or devoid of morality and meaning. Drawing on years of wide-ranging, intensive clinical experience as a psychiatrist, and his own family experience with cancer, Dr. Lewis helps listeners understand how people cope with random adversity without relying on supernatural belief. In fact, as he explains, although coming to terms with randomness is often frightening, it can be liberating and empowering too.

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

This remote Science Salon was recorded on July 2, 2018.

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SCIENCE SALON # 29

Colin McGinn — Mysterianism, Consciousness, Free Will, and God

This remote Science Salon, recorded on July 9, 2018, was initiated after McGinn commented publicly, and critically, on Shermer’s latest Scientific American column on the mysteries of consciousness, free will, and God.

The philosopher Justin Weinberg at the University of South Carolina, who runs the DailyNous website ( @DailyNousEditor on Twitter) posted a dozen tweets admonishing Shermer and Scientific American for publishing such a mischaracterization of several philosophical subjects, even referencing the film Annie Hall, where Woody Allen’s character is irritated in a movie line by some bloviator yammering on about Marshall McLuhan, reaches behind a big movie poster and pulls McLuhan out of line, who then upbraiding the blowhard “I heard what you were saying! You know nothing of my work! You mean my whole fallacy is wrong. How you got to teach a course in anything is totally amazing!” To which Woody says, “Boy, if life were only like this.”

Well, life can be like this, but in this case Shermer invited McGinn on the show to discuss the topics in detail in order for everyone to glean a deeper understanding. A fruitful conversation ensued on these and other important topics.

Related Material

In an illuminating thought experiment that supplements Science Salon # 29, McGinn penned an essay (“What is it like to be a human?”) to help clarify what, exactly, Thomas Nagel meant in his famous paper “What Is It Like to be a Bat?

In their second conversation (Science Salon # 34), Michael Shermer and Colin McGinn discuss paradoxes and puzzles of philosophy, pseudo-questions, realism v. antirealism, how to deal with unknown unknowns, immortality and the nature of the self and soul.

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