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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 Podcasts, Stitcher, iHeartRadio, Amazon Music, and TuneIn, or using the audio or video players below.

SCIENCE SALON # 135

Paul Halpern — Synchronicity: The Epic Quest to Understand the Quantum Nature of Cause and Effect

Does the universe have a speed limit? If not, some effects could happen at the same instant as the actions that caused them — and some effects, ludicrously, might even happen before their causes. By one hundred years ago, it seemed clear that the speed of light was the fastest possible speed. Causality was safe. And then quantum mechanics happened, introducing spooky connections that seemed to circumvent the law of cause and effect. Inspired by the new physics, psychologist Carl Jung and physicist Wolfgang Pauli explored a concept called synchronicity, a weird phenomenon they thought could link events without causes. Synchronicity tells that sprawling tale of insight and creativity, and asks where these ideas — some plain crazy, and others crazy powerful — are taking the human story next. Shermer and Halpern discuss:

  • Model-Dependent Realism, the idea from Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow that our understanding of nature depends on the model we apply to it, and that we cannot define science as an asymptotic curve toward Truth,
  • from Newton to Einstein to Quantum Physics,
  • Platonic ideals/idealism,
  • Is the universe mathematical?
  • Where/what are “laws of nature”?
  • What is gravity?
  • What is causality and how is it determined?
  • quantum entanglement and what it says about our understanding of causality,
  • Bell’s inequality,
  • backward causality,
  • Hume’s “constant conjunction” definition of causality and it’s limitations,
  • Hume’s “counterfactual” theory of causality,
  • Bogus mechanisms of causality: impetus, ether, energy fields, ESP,
  • the friendship of Wolfgang Pauli and Carl Jung,
  • Jungian archetypes and how scientists think about them,
  • God, religion, and spirituality.

Paul Halpern is a professor of physics at the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia and the author of sixteen popular science books, including The Quantum Labyrinth and Einstein’s Dice and Schrödinger’s Cat. He is the recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship and is a fellow of the American Physical Society. He lives near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

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SCIENCE SALON # 134

Joseph Henrich — The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous

WEIRD: Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic.

Unlike much of the world today, and most people who have ever lived, WEIRD people are highly individualistic, self-obsessed, control-oriented, nonconformist, and analytical. They focus on themselves — their attributes, accomplishments, and aspirations — over their relationships and social roles. How did WEIRD populations become so psychologically distinct? What role did these psychological differences play in the industrial revolution and the global expansion of Europe during the last few centuries? To answer these questions Joseph Henrich draws on anthropology, psychology, economics, and evolutionary biology. He illuminates the origins and evolution of family structures, marriage, and religion, and the profound impact these cultural transformations had on human psychology. Mapping these shifts through ancient history and late antiquity, Henrich reveals that the most fundamental institutions of kinship and marriage changed dramatically under pressure from the Roman Catholic Church. It was these changes that gave rise to the WEIRD psychology that would coevolve with impersonal markets, occupational specialization, and free competition — laying the foundation for the modern world. Shermer and Henrich discuss:

  • psychology textbooks that “now purport to be about ‘Psychology’ or ‘Social Psychology’ need to be retitled something like ‘The Cultural Psychology of Late 20th Century Americans’,”
  • 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.” What views Henrich is writing for and against,
  • evolutionary psychology and the search for human universals in the context of his thesis that WEIRD cultures are so different,
  • Max Weber’s book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, and how his thesis holds up under modern studies,
  • the problem of overdetermining the past (so many theories explaining history: Jared Diamond’s geographic models, Ian Morris’ War: What is it Good For?, Matt Ridley’s The Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge (ideas having sex), Robin Dunbar’s Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language, economic historian Gregory Clark’s A Farewell to Alms, Benjamin Friedman’s Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, Rodney Stark’s The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success,
  • normative vs. descriptive accounts of human behavior
  • polygamy vs. monogamy,
  • 1st cousin marriages?
  • conformity, shame and guilt, illusions, loss aversion, cognitive dissonance, confirmation bias, superstitions,
  • religion doesn’t have to be true to be useful,
  • national differences in cultural psychology (for example: Italy a loose culture, Germany a tight culture),
  • origin of writing and literacy rates,
  • origin of religion and its purpose(s),
  • the “Big Gods” theory of religion’s origin,
  • the purpose of religious rituals and food taboos,
  • families and kin, kin selection, group selection,
  • meaning and happiness in non-WEIRD cultures, “Then you get Westerners who are like ‘I’m an individual ape on a pale blue dot in the middle of a giant black space” and “What does it all mean?’”,
  • physical differences: “WEIRD people have flat feet, impoverished microbiomes, high rates of myopia and unnaturally low levels of exposure to parasites like helminths, which may increase their risk of heart disease and allergies.”, and
  • When we colonize Mars and become a spacefaring species, what should we take with us from what we’ve learned about human history and psychology?

Joseph Henrich is an anthropologist and the author of The Secret of Our Success: How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter, among other books. He is the chair of the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University, where his research focuses on evolutionary approaches to psychology, decision-making, and culture.

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SCIENCE SALON # 133

Michael E. McCullough — The Kindness of Strangers: How a Selfish Ape Invented a New Moral Code

In this sweeping psychological history of human goodness — from the foundations of evolution to the modern political and social challenges humanity is now facing — psychologist Michael McCullough answers a fundamental question: How did humans, a species of self-centered apes, come to care about others? Ever since Darwin, scientists have tried to answer this question using evolutionary theory. McCullough shows why they have failed and offers a new explanation instead. From the moment nomadic humans first settled down until the aftermath of the Second World War, our species has confronted repeated crises that we could only survive by changing our behavior. As McCullough argues, these choices weren’t enabled by an evolved moral sense, but with moral invention — driven not by evolution’s dictates but by reason. Today’s challenges — climate change, mass migration, nationalism — are some of humanity’s greatest yet. In revealing how past crises shaped the foundations of human concern, McCullough offers clues for how we can adapt our moral thinking to survive these challenges as well. Shermer and McCullough also discuss:

  • Darwin’s Dictum: All observation must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service.
  • the problem to solve: 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 “by-product” theory: 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,
  • Frans deWaal and the “thin veneer” theory of human morality and civilization he thinks Dawkins holds, and why our morals are a thick veneer on our evolved nature,
  • Peter Singer’s expanding circle,
  • Norbert Elias’ The Civilizing Process and his etiquette books advisories,
  • why stranger-adaptation and blessed-mistake theories are too simplistic,
  • a brief overview of the past 10,000 years of moral progress,
  • our evolved human instincts: (1) our social instincts for helping others in hopes of receiving help in return, (2) our instinct for helping others in pursuit of glory, (3) our ability to track incentives, and (4) our capacity for reason,
  • the 7 Ages of human history: Age of Orphans, Age of Compassion, Age of Prevention, First Poverty Enlightenment, Humanitarian Big Bang, Second Poverty Enlightenment, Age of Impact, and
  • the end of poverty, UBI, and other social tools for creating a more just society of strangers.

Michael McCullough is a professor of psychology at the University of California, San Diego. The winner of numerous distinctions for his research and writing, he is a fellow of the American Psychological Association and the Society for Personality and Social Psychology. He lives in La Jolla, California.

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SCIENCE SALON # 132

Leonard Mlodinow — Stephen Hawking: A Memoir of Friendship and Physics

One of the most influential physicists of our time, Stephen Hawking touched the lives of millions. Recalling his nearly two decades as Hawking’s collaborator and friend, Leonard Mlodinow brings this complex man into focus in a unique and deeply personal portrayal. We meet Hawking the genius, who employed his mind to uncover the mysteries of the universe — ultimately formulating a pathbreaking theory of black holes that reignited the discipline of cosmology and paved the way for physicists to investigate the origins of the universe in completely new ways. We meet Hawking the colleague, a man whose illness leaves him able to communicate at only six words per minute but who expends the effort to punctuate his conversations with humor. And we meet Hawking the friend, who could convey volumes with a frown, a smile, or simply a raised eyebrow. Modinow puts us in the room as Hawking indulges his passion for wine and curry; shares his feelings on love, death, and disability; and grapples with deep questions of philosophy and physics. This deeply affecting account of a friendship teaches us not just about the nature and practice of physics but also about life and the human capacity to overcome daunting obstacles. Shermer and Mlodinow discuss:

  • what it was like working with Stephen Hawking,
  • what Stephen Hawking was like as a person and personality,
  • Hawking’s place in the pantheon of great physicists in the history of science,
  • Hawking’s major contributions to physics,
  • What is grand about the grand design of the universe?
  • model dependent realism and the philosophy of science,
  • Can we ever know reality?
  • Why is there something rather than nothing?
  • What caused the Big Bang to bang?
  • What there was before time began?
  • Why does the universe look fine-tuned and designed?
  • Is the universe itself a giant black hole?
  • Did the universe begin in a singularity?
  • Hawking’s beliefs about God and why the concept isn’t necessary to explain the universe.

Leonard Mlodinow received his PhD in theoretical physics from the University of California, Berkeley, was an Alexander von Humboldt Fellow at the Max Planck Institute, and was on the faculty of the California Institute of Technology. His previous books include the best sellers The Grand Design and A Briefer History of Time (coauthored with Stephen Hawking), Subliminal (winner of the PEN/E. O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award), and War of the Worldviews (with Deepak Chopra), as well as Elastic, Euclid’s Window, Feynman’s Rainbow, and The Upright Thinkers.

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SCIENCE SALON # 131

Stuart Ritchie — Science Fictions: How Fraud, Bias, Negligence, and Hype Undermine the Search for Truth

Science is how we understand the world. Yet failures in peer review and mistakes in statistics have rendered a shocking number of scientific studies useless — or, worse, badly misleading. Such errors have distorted our knowledge in fields as wide-ranging as medicine, physics, nutrition, education, genetics, economics, and the search for extraterrestrial life. As Science Fictions makes clear, the current system of research funding and publication not only fails to safeguard us from blunders but actively encourages bad science — with sometimes deadly consequences. Yet Science Fictions is far from a counsel of despair. Rather, it’s a defense of the scientific method against the pressures and perverse incentives that lead scientists to bend the rules. By illustrating the many ways that scientists go wrong, Ritchie gives us the knowledge we need to spot dubious research and points the way to reforms that could make science trustworthy once again. Shermer and Ritchie also discuss:

  • why we need to get science right because science deniers will pounce on such fraud, bias, negligence, and hype in science,
  • Daryl Bem’s ESP research and what was wrong with it,
  • “psychological priming” and the problem of replication,
  • sleep research and the problems in Matthew Walker’s book Why We Sleep,
  • Amy Cuddy and the problem with “Power Posture” research,
  • Andrew Wakefield and the biggest fraud in the history of science linking vaccines & autism,
  • diet and nutrition research and the complication of linking saturated fats, unsaturated fats, cholesterol, and heart disease,
  • Phil Zimbardo‘s Stanford Prison Experiment,
  • Samuel Morton’s skulls showing racial differences in head size, Steve Gould’s critique, the critique of Gould, and the critique of the critics of Gould,
  • self-plagiarism,
  • p values / p hacking
  • the Schizophrenia/amyloid cascade hypothesis and why it has been hard to prove,
  • the file-drawer problem,
  • how to detect fraud, and
  • Terror Management Theory and why it is almost certainly wrong.

Stuart Ritchie is a lecturer in the Social, Genetic and Developmental Psychiatry Centre at King’s College London. His main research focus is human intelligence: how it relates to the brain, how much it’s affected by genetics, and how much it can be improved by factors such as education. He is a noted supporter of the Open Science movement, and has worked on tools to reform scientific practice and help scientists become more transparent when reporting their results.

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SCIENCE SALON # 130

Debra Soh — The End of Gender: Debunking the Myths About Sex and Identity in Our Society

Is our gender something we’re born with, or are we conditioned by society? In The End of Gender, neuroscientist and sexologist Dr. Debra Soh uses a research-based approach to address this hot-button topic, unmasking popular misconceptions about the nature vs. nurture debate and exploring what it means to be a woman or a man in today’s society. Shermer and Soh discuss:

  • If you are transitioning to a different gender, but the word “gender” is largely meaningless biologically, then what are you transitioning to and what is the point of hormone therapy and surgery?
  • the 1990s push to find biological basis of homosexuality so it’s not a “lifestyle choice” and how this trend has been recently reversed,
  • the problem of putting ideology before science,
  • cognitive creationism on the left (evolution from the neck down),
  • why biology is not destiny,
  • cancel culture,
  • sex and gender,
  • percentages of the population of LGBTQ,
  • what you identify as vs. who you’re attracted to,
  • individual behavior vs. collective labels,
  • sexual orientation and gender identity,
  • gender neutral parenting,
  • gender dysphoria,
  • men and women dating,
  • trans bathrooms, prisons, and sports,

Dr. Debra Soh is a neuroscientist who specializes in gender, sex, and sexual orientation. She received her doctorate from York University in Toronto and worked as an academic researcher for eleven years. Her writing has appeared in The Globe and Mail (Toronto), Harper’s Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, Scientific American, Playboy, Quillette, and many other publications. Her research has been published in academic journals including the Archives of Sexual Behavior and Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. As a journalist, Soh writes about the science and politics of human sexuality and gender, free speech, and censorship in academia. She lives in Toronto and divides her time between New York and Los Angeles. Follow her on Twitter at @DrDebraSoh and visit her website at DrDebraSoh.com.

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SCIENCE SALON # 129

Mona Sue Weissmark — The Science of Diversity

The Science of Diversity uses a multidisciplinary approach to excavate the theories, principles, and paradigms that illuminate our understanding of the issues surrounding human diversity, social equality, and justice. The book brings these to the surface holistically, examining diversity at the individual, interpersonal, and international levels. Shedding light on why diversity programs fail, the book provides tools to understand how biases develop and influence our relationships and interactions with others. Shermer and Weissmark also discuss:

  • What is diversity and how do we understand it?
  • How is diversity related to people’s perceptions of fairness and justice?
  • Does respect for diversity promote peace and positive change?
  • psychology and neuroscience of classification/stereotyping,
  • Freudianism to behaviorism to cognitive science to post-cognitive science,
  • the self, consciousness, AI, and free will in the context of a science of diversity,
  • revenge and justice,
  • Israel and Palestine,
  • nationalism: ethnic and civic,
  • just-world theory of inequality,
  • intergenerational justice and reparations,
  • BLM and reparations, and
  • the future after 2020.

Mona Sue Weissmark is an American clinical psychologist and social psychologist, researcher, and author whose work on diversity and justice has received global recognition. She is best known for her groundbreaking social experiment of bringing children of Holocaust survivors face-to-face with children of Nazis, and later, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of African American slaves with descendants of slave owners. She is also a professor of psychology and author of numerous journal articles and the books: Doing Psychotherapy Effectively (University of Chicago Press); Justice Matters: Legacies of the Holocaust and World War II (Oxford University Press); The Science of Diversity (Oxford University Press).

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SCIENCE SALON # 128

Michael Shellenberger — Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All

Michael Shellenberger has been fighting for a greener planet for decades. He helped save the world’s last unprotected redwoods. He co-created the predecessor to today’s Green New Deal. And he led a successful effort by climate scientists and activists to keep nuclear plants operating, preventing a spike of emissions. But in 2019, as some claimed “billions of people are going to die,” contributing to rising anxiety, including among adolescents, Shellenberger decided that, as a lifelong environmental activist, leading energy expert, and father of a teenage daughter, he needed to speak out to separate science from fiction. His conclusion: “Climate change is real but it’s not the end of the world. It is not even our most serious environmental problem.”

Despite decades of news media attention, many remain ignorant of basic facts. Carbon emissions peaked and have been declining in most developed nations for over a decade. Deaths from extreme weather, even in poor nations, declined 80 percent over the last four decades. And the risk of Earth warming to very high temperatures is increasingly unlikely thanks to slowing population growth and abundant natural gas. Curiously, the people who are the most alarmist about the problems also tend to oppose the obvious solutions. Shermer and Shellenberger also discuss:

  • what’s really behind the rise of apocalyptic environmentalism,
  • the powerful financial interests in environmentalism,
  • the desire for status and power among environmentalists, along with the all-too human propensity to moralize and tell other people what to do,
  • Shellenberger’s hypothesis that environmentalism is a faux religion primarily followed by secular people searching for transcendence,
  • Environmental Humanism as a replacement worldview,
  • the problems and shortcomings of climate computer models,
  • how much warmer it’s going to get and what the consequences of that warming will be, and what we do about it? (hint: nuclear),
  • myths about nuclear power and why people fear it,
  • renewables, solar, wind, geothermal, and why they are not nearly as efficient as nuclear,
  • the Amazon: Are the Earth’s lungs burning?
  • plastic straws, recycling, electric cars, and other things,
  • Are we in a Sixth Extinction?
  • How have sweatshops saved the planet?
  • How have technology and capitalism saved the whales?
  • meat eating, Temple Grandin, and happy farms vs. factory farms,
  • the myth of natural: what is natural is good, non-natural is bad,
  • why environmentalism is the dominant secular religion of the educated, upper-middle-class elite in the most developed nations, with good guys and bad guys, heroes and villains, and
  • Environmentalism as Calvinism — Richard Rhodes: “In the sense that the world is an evil place and it would be better if it were destroyed and turned back over to the natural kingdom.”

Michael Shellenberger is a Time magazine “Hero of the Environment”; the winner of the 2008 Green Book Award from the Stevens Institute of Technology’s Center for Science Writings; and an invited expert reviewer of the next Assessment Report for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). He has written on energy and the environment for the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, Nature Energy, and other publications for two decades. He is the founder and president of Environmental Progress, an independent, nonpartisan research organization based in Berkeley, California.

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SCIENCE SALON # 127

William Perry and Tom Collina — The Button: The New Nuclear Arms Race and Presidential Power from Truman to Trump

From authors William J. Perry, Secretary of Defense in the Clinton administration and Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering in the Carter administration, and Tom Z. Collina, the Director of Policy at Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation in Washington, DC, The Button recounts the terrifying history of nuclear launch authority, from the faulty 46-cent microchip that nearly caused World War III to President Trump’s tweet about his “much bigger & more powerful” button. Perry and Collina share their firsthand experience on the front lines of the nation’s nuclear history and provide illuminating interviews with former President Bill Clinton, former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, Congressman Adam Smith, Nobel Peace Prize winner Beatrice Fihn, senior Obama administration officials, and many others. Shermer, Perry and Collina also discuss:

  • even if Trump loses the 2020 election and we have President Biden, real risks of nuclear catastrophe exist because of the system, not the person,
  • why the Iran deal was a good one to keep that country from developing nukes,
  • how to deal with North Korea and Perry’s experience with the Kim dynasty,
  • why the Russians are rational actors who do not want nuclear war,
  • terrorists and the possibility of them getting a nuke,
  • why we must eliminate Launch on Warning and First Strike policies,
  • what is in “the football” seen held by men constantly trailing the President?
  • Stanislav Petrov: the man who saved the world, and what this story tells us about the precariousness of our current system,
  • game theory, the logic of deterrence, and how to get around it,
  • why nuclear weapons were not inevitable, and
  • changing the taboo from not using nuclear weapons to not owning them.

William J. Perry served as Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering in the Carter administration, and then as Secretary of Defense in the Clinton administration, and has advised presidents all through the Obama administration. He oversaw the development of major nuclear weapons systems, such as the MX missile, the Trident submarine and the Stealth Bomber. His new “offset strategy” ushered in the age of stealth, smart weapons, GPS, and technologies that changed the face of modern warfare. His vision now, as founder of the William J. Perry Project, is a world free from nuclear weapons.

Tom Z. Collina is the Director of Policy at Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation in Washington, DC. He has 30 years of nuclear weapons policy experience and has testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and was closely involved with successful efforts to end U.S. nuclear testing in 1992, extend the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1995, ratify the New START Treaty in 2010, and enact the Iran nuclear deal in 2015. Collina has published hundreds of articles, op-eds, and reports and appears frequently in major media.

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SCIENCE SALON # 126

Sarah Scoles — They Are Already Here: UFO Culture and Why We See Saucers

More than half a century since Roswell, UFOs have been making headlines once again. On December 17, 2017, the New York Times ran a front-page story about an approximately five-year Pentagon program called the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program. The article hinted, and its sources clearly said in subsequent television interviews, that some of the ships in question couldn’t be linked to any country. The implication, of course, was that they might be linked to other solar systems. The UFO community—those who had been thinking about, seeing, and analyzing supposed flying saucers (or triangles or chevrons) for years—was surprisingly skeptical of the revelation. Their incredulity and doubt rippled across the internet. Many of the people most invested in UFO reality weren’t really buying it. And as Scoles did her own digging, she ventured to dark, conspiracy-filled corners of the internet, to a former paranormal research center in Utah, and to the hallways of the Pentagon.

In They Are Already Here we meet the bigwigs, the scrappy upstarts, the field investigators, the rational people, and the unhinged kooks of this sprawling community. How do they interact with each other? How do they interact with “anomalous phenomena”? And how do they (as any group must) reflect the politics and culture of the larger world around them? Funny and colorful, and told in a way that doesn’t require one to believe, Scoles brings humanity to an often derided and misunderstood community. Scoles and Shermer discuss:

  • who the “they” are in her title,
  • comparing the UFO community to that of SETI scientists, whom she wrote about in her previous book, Making Contact: Jill Tarter and the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence?
  • what it was like engaging UFOlogists at conferences,
  • her answer to the Fermi paradox: where is everyone?
  • what it means to “believe” in UFOs vs. ETIs,
  • Project Saucer, Project Sign, Project Grudge, Project Bluebook,
  • Robert Bigelow, Tom DeLonge, and the To the Stars Academy of Arts and Science,
  • the most probable explanation for the USS Nimitz UFO videos,
  • Kenneth Arnold, Roswell, Area 51, and modern myth making,
  • Scoles’ Mormon background and how she lost her religion, and
  • what we will replace religion with in the future.

Sarah Scoles is a science writer whose work has appeared in The Atlantic, Slate, Smithsonian, The Washington Post, Scientific American, Popular Science, Discover, New Scientist, Aeon, and Wired. A former editor at Astronomy magazine, Scoles worked at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, the location of the first-ever SETI project. She lives in Denver, Colorado.

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SCIENCE SALON # 125

Bjorn Lomborg — False Alarm: How Climate Change Panic Costs Us Trillions, Hurts the Poor, and Fails to Fix the Planet

Hurricanes batter our coasts. Wildfires rage across the American West. Glaciers collapse in the Artic. Politicians, activists, and the media espouse a common message: climate change is destroying the planet, and we must take drastic action immediately to stop it. Children panic about their future, and adults wonder if it is even ethical to bring new life into the world.

Enough, argues bestselling author Bjorn Lomborg. Climate change is real, but it’s not the apocalyptic threat that we’ve been told it is. Projections of Earth’s imminent demise are based on bad science and even worse economics. In panic, world leaders have committed to wildly expensive but largely ineffective policies that hamper growth and crowd out more pressing investments in human capital, from immunization to education.

False Alarm will convince you that everything you think about climate change is wrong — and points the way toward making the world a vastly better, if slightly warmer, place for us all.

In this wide-ranging conversation Shermer and Lomborg discuss:

  • How much warmer is it going to get?
  • What will the consequences of the warming be?
  • What should we do about it?
  • How the public discussion/debate over climate has changed in the past 20 years since Lomborg wrote The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World
  • Precautionary Principle: should we do something “just in case”?
  • What about other existential threats: AI apocalypse, nuclear weapons, pandemics? and
  • Why climate is such a hard problem.

The claims:

  • we have a decade to solve the problem … or else
  • droughts, floods, hurricanes, and extreme weather
  • deforestation/reforestation
  • polar bears/the 6th Extinction, and
  • AOC/Greta Thunberg/Al Gore.

Non-Solutions:

  • individual action,
  • why the Green Revolution isn’t here yet,
  • why the Paris Agreement is failing,
  • how climate policy hurts the poor, and
  • reducing greenhouse gases.

Rational Solutions:

  • carbon tax: a market-based solution,
  • innovation,
  • adaptation,
  • geoengineering, and
  • prosperity.

Bjorn Lomborg is the best-selling author of The Skeptical Environmentalist and Cool It. He is a visiting professor at Copenhagen Business School and at the Hoover Institution at Stanford. His work appears regularly in New York Times, Wall Street Journal, the Economist, the Atlantic, and Forbes. His monthly column appears in around 40 papers in 19 languages, with more than 30 million readers. In 2011 and 2012, Lomborg was named Top 100 Global Thinker by Foreign Policy. In 2008 he was named “one of the 50 people who could save the planet” by the Guardian. He lives in Prague.

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SCIENCE SALON # 124

David J. Halperin — Intimate Alien: The Hidden Story of the UFO

UFOs are a myth, says David J. Halperin — but myths are real. The power and fascination of the UFO has nothing to do with space travel or life on other planets. It’s about us, our longings and terrors, and especially the greatest terror of all: the end of our existence. This is a book about UFOs that goes beyond believing in them or debunking them and to a fresh understanding of what they tell us about ourselves as individuals, as a culture, and as a species.

In the 1960s, Halperin was a teenage UFOlogist, convinced that flying saucers were real and that it was his life’s mission to solve their mystery. He would become a professor of religious studies, with traditions of heavenly journeys his specialty. With Intimate Alien, he looks back to explore what UFOs once meant to him as a boy growing up in a home haunted by death and what they still mean for millions, believers and deniers alike.

From the prehistoric Balkans to the deserts of New Mexico, from the biblical visions of Ezekiel to modern abduction encounters, Intimate Alien traces the hidden story of the UFO. It’s a human story from beginning to end, no less mysterious and fantastic for its earthliness. A collective cultural dream, UFOs transport us to the outer limits of that most alien yet intimate frontier, our own inner space. Shermer and Halperin discuss:

  • What is religion and what role does it play in peoples’ lives?
  • What is myth and what role does it play in peoples’ lives?
  • what Carl Jung believed about UFOs and why,
  • The Day the Earth Stood Still film as a Christ Allegory,
  • why he’s an atheist but fascinated by the power of religion,
  • why he’s a UFO skeptic but compelled by the power of alien beliefs,
  • the origin of alien eyes,
  • the origin of alien abductions,
  • the true meaning of the Roswell incident,
  • John Lennon’s UFO experience,
  • Will religion fall into disuse with the rise of the nones?, and
  • the future of religion in a post-COVID-19 world.

David J. Halperin taught Jewish studies in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, until his retirement in 2000. He has published five nonfiction books on Jewish mysticism and messianism, as well as the coming-of-age novel Journal of a UFO Investigator: A Novel (2011). He blogs about UFOs, religion, and related subjects at www.davidhalperin.net.

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SCIENCE SALON # 123

Gerald Posner — Pharma: Greed, Lies, and the Poisoning of America

Pharmaceutical breakthroughs such as antibiotics and vaccines rank among some of the greatest advancements in human history. Yet exorbitant prices for life-saving drugs, safety recalls affecting tens of millions of Americans, and soaring rates of addiction and overdose on prescription opioids have caused many to lose faith in drug companies. Now, Americans are demanding a national reckoning with a monolithic industry. Pharma introduces brilliant scientists, incorruptible government regulators, and brave whistleblowers facing off against company executives often blinded by greed. A business that profits from treating ills can create far deadlier problems than it cures. Addictive products are part of the industry’s DNA, from the days when corner drugstores sold morphine, heroin, and cocaine, to the past two decades of dangerously overprescribed opioids. Pharma also uncovers the real story of the Sacklers, the family that became one of America’s wealthiest from the success of OxyContin, their blockbuster narcotic painkiller at the center of the opioid crisis. Pharma reveals how and why American drug companies have put earnings ahead of patients. Shermer and Posner also discuss:

  • how Big Pharma companies conspire to hack the FDA regulations,
  • parsing responsibility for the Opioid crisis between manufacturers, distributors, doctors, and patients,
  • the physiology of addiction and dependency,
  • how Arthur Sackler went from liberal do-gooder to greedy capitalist,
  • the polio vaccine and patenting the sun,
  • how valium and anti-depressants were marketed to men and women differently,
  • how the AIDS cocktail was developed,
  • how Viagra® was discovered,
  • why patents and intellectual property rights do not lead to more innovation,
  • the prospects for a COVID-19 vaccine, and
  • the current state of the opioid crisis and how to stem it.

Gerald Posner is an award-winning journalist who has written twelve books, including the Pulitzer Prize finalist Case Closed: Lee Harvey Oswald and the Assassination of JFK and multiple national bestsellers. His 2015 book, God’s Bankers, a two-hundred-year history of the finances of the Vatican, was an acclaimed New York Times bestseller. Posner has written for many national magazines and papers, including The New York Times, The New Yorker, Newsweek, and Time, and he has been a regular contributor to NBC, the History Channel, CNN, CBS, MSNBC, and FOX News. He lives in Miami Beach with his wife, author Trisha Posner.

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SCIENCE SALON # 122

Walter Scheidel — Escape from Rome: The Failure of Empire and the Road to Prosperity

What has the Roman Empire ever done for us? Fall and go away. That is the striking conclusion of historian Walter Scheidel as he recounts the gripping story of how the end of the Roman Empire was the beginning of the modern world. The fall of the Roman Empire has long been considered one of the greatest disasters in history but Scheidel argues that Rome’s dramatic collapse was actually the best thing that ever happened, clearing the path for Europe’s economic rise and the creation of the modern age. Shermer and Scheidel range across the entire premodern world and up to the present, discussing:

  • Why did the Roman Empire appear?
  • Why did nothing like it ever return to Europe?
  • Why did Europeans come to dominate the world?
  • The rich diversity of Europe that encouraged political, economic, scientific, and technological breakthroughs
  • Why other parts of the world lagged behind
  • How empires are built and why they fail
  • America as an empire
  • Income inequality and the only forces that change it significantly
  • The future of human civilization.

Dr. Walter Scheidel is an Austrian historian who teaches ancient history at Stanford University. His main research interests are ancient social and economic history, pre-modern historical demography, and comparative and transdisciplinary approaches to world history. He is the author of The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century, On Human Bondage: After Slavery and Social Death, The Science of Roman History: Biology, Climate and the Future of the Past, The Cambridge Companion to the Roman Economy, The Oxford Handbook of Roman Studies, and Rome, China: Comparative Perspectives on Ancient World Empires, and more.

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SCIENCE SALON # 121

Maria Konnikova — The Biggest Bluff: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Master Myself, and Win

It’s true that Maria Konnikova had never actually played poker before and didn’t even know the rules when she approached Erik Seidel, Poker Hall of Fame inductee and winner of tens of millions of dollars in earnings, and convinced him to be her mentor. But she knew her man: a famously thoughtful and broad-minded player, he was intrigued by her pitch that she wasn’t interested in making money so much as learning about life. She had faced a stretch of personal bad luck, and her reflections on the role of chance had led her to a giant of game theory, who pointed her to poker as the ultimate master class in learning to distinguish between what can be controlled and what can’t. And she certainly brought something to the table, including a PhD in psychology and an acclaimed and growing body of work on human behavior and how to hack it. So Seidel was in, and soon she was down the rabbit hole with him, into the wild, fiercely competitive, overwhelmingly masculine world of high-stakes Texas Hold’em, their initial end point the following year’s World Series of Poker.

But then something extraordinary happened. Under Seidel’s guidance, Konnikova did have many epiphanies about life that derived from her new pursuit, including how to better read, not just her opponents but far more importantly herself; how to identify what tilted her into an emotional state that got in the way of good decisions; and how to get to a place where she could accept luck for what it was, and what it wasn’t. But she also began to win. And win. In a little over a year, she began making earnest money from tournaments, ultimately totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars. She won a major title, got a sponsor, and got used to being on television, and to headlines like “How one writer’s book deal turned her into a professional poker player.” In this wide-ranging conversation Konnikova and Shermer discuss:

  • the balance of luck, skill, intelligence and emotions in how lives turn out
  • the real meaning of the marshmallow test
  • time discounting and how to improve yours
  • rapid cognition and intuition
  • how to improve your use of emotions in gambling and in life
  • what it was like being a woman in an almost exclusively male game, and
  • the nature of human nature in the context of the BLM movement and protests.

Maria Konnikova is the author of Mastermind and The Confidence Game. She is a regular contributing writer for The New Yorker, and has written for The Atlantic, The New York Times, Slate, The New Republic, The Paris Review, The Wall Street Journal, Salon, The Boston Globe, Scientific American, Wired, and Smithsonian, among many other publications. Her writing has won numerous awards, including the 2019 Excellence in Science Journalism Award from the Society of Personality and Social Psychology. While researching The Biggest Bluff, Maria became an international poker champion and the winner of over $300,000 in tournament earnings. Maria also hosts the podcast The Grift from Panoply Media and is currently a visiting fellow at NYU’s School of Journalism. Her podcasting work earned her a National Magazine Award nomination in 2019. Maria graduated from Harvard University and received her PhD in Psychology from Columbia University.

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