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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, and TuneIn, or using the audio or video players below.

SCIENCE SALON # 116

Howard Steven Friedman — Ultimate Price: The Value We Place on Life

How much is a human life worth? Individuals, families, companies, and governments routinely place a price on human life. The calculations that underlie these price tags are often buried in technical language, yet they influence our economy, laws, behaviors, policies, health, and safety. These price tags are often unfair, infused as they are with gender, racial, national, and cultural biases that often result in valuing the lives of the young more than the old, the rich more than the poor, whites more than blacks, Americans more than foreigners, and relatives more than strangers. This is critical since undervalued lives are left less-protected and more exposed to risk.

Howard Steven Friedman explains in simple terms how economists and data scientists at corporations, regulatory agencies, and insurance companies develop and use these price tags and points a spotlight at their logical flaws and limitations. He then forcefully argues against the rampant unfairness in the system. Readers will be enlightened, shocked, and, ultimately, empowered to confront the price tags we assign to human lives and understand why such calculations matter. Friedman and Shermer also discuss:

  • the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic tradeoffs in the context of putting a price on human life
  • how long should the economy be kept shut down in social isolation
  • private vs. public calculations of the value of a human life
  • the tradeoffs between conflicting moral values related to the value of human life (abortion, capital punishment, etc.)
  • 9/11 and the calculations used to determine the value of each life lost
  • calculating the devil we know (coal-related deaths) vs. the devil we don’t know (possible future nuclear-power related deaths)
  • how the price of $10 million was determined for the current value of a human life
  • organ sales as a form of human life valuation
  • Should you have life insurance?
  • When should you start collecting social security?
  • why all lives should be treated equally in terms of statistical valuation, but why they are not.

Howard Steven Friedman, a leading statistician and health economist, is an expert in data science and applications of cost-benefit analysis. He teaches at Columbia University.

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SCIENCE SALON # 115

Matthew Cobb — The Idea of the Brain: The Past and Future of Neuroscience

For thousands of years, thinkers and scientists have tried to understand what the brain does. Yet, despite the astonishing discoveries of science, we still have only the vaguest idea of how the brain works. In The Idea of the Brain, scientist and historian Matthew Cobb traces how our conception of the brain has evolved over the centuries. Although it might seem to be a story of ever-increasing knowledge of biology, Cobb shows how our ideas about the brain have been shaped by each era’s most significant technologies. Today we might think the brain is like a supercomputer. In the past, it has been compared to a telegraph, a telephone exchange, or some kind of hydraulic system. What will we think the brain is like tomorrow, when new technology arises? The result is an essential read for anyone interested in the complex processes that drive science and the forces that have shaped our marvelous brains. Cobb and Shermer also discuss:

  • panpsychism
  • the hard problem of consciousness
  • free will and determinism
  • mind uploading
  • near death experiences (NDEs) and other paranormal experiences
  • quantum consciousness
  • the history of neuroscience and how we got to where we are today
  • brain mapping and localization
  • why the new phrenology (brain localization and modules) is still wrong
  • why neurons are not digital like computer chips, and why the brain is not like a computer, and
  • why we’re still nowhere near understanding how the brain works.

Matthew Cobb is a professor in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Manchester, where he studies olfaction, insect behavior, and the history of science. He earned his PhD in psychology and genetics from the University of Sheffield. He is the author of five books: Life’s Greatest Secret, Generation, The Resistance, Eleven Days in August, and Smell: A Very Short Introduction. He lives in England.

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SCIENCE SALON # 114

Katherine Stewart — The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism

For too long the Religious Right has masqueraded as a social movement preoccupied with a number of cultural issues, such as abortion and same-sex marriage. But in her deeply reported investigation, Katherine Stewart reveals a disturbing truth: America’s Religious Right has evolved into a Christian nationalist movement. It seeks to gain political power and to impose its vision on all of society. It isn’t fighting a culture war, it is waging a political war on the norms and institutions of American democracy. Stewart shows that the real power of the movement lies in a dense network of think tanks, advocacy groups, and pastoral organizations, embedded in a rapidly expanding community of international alliances with likeminded, anti-democratic religious nationalists around the world, including Russia. She follows the money behind the movement and traces much of it to a group of super-wealthy, ultraconservative donors and family foundations. The Christian nationalist movement is far more organized and better funded than most people realize. It seeks to control all aspects of government and society. Its successes have been stunning, and its influence now extends to every aspect of American life, from the White House to state capitols, from our schools to our hospitals. Shermer and Stewart also discuss:

  • how the Moral Majority of the Reagan era 1980s morphed into the Christian nationalists of today
  • why 81% of white evangelicals voted for Trump, one of the least religious presidents in U.S. history
  • follow the money: where these many Christian nationalist organizations get their funding
  • Betsy DeVos, big money, and school vouchers: what’s really going on with so-called “school choice”
  • how conservatives use pastors to “get out the vote”
  • When did Jesus become a conservative?
  • Christian nationalists and the poor
  • Christian nationalists and homosexuality
  • how Christian nationalists made abortion a modern political cause
  • how conservatives like Barry Goldwater used to support a woman’s right to an abortion
  • why conservatives are actually in favor of big government…when it suits their ideological and religious agendas (military, police, prisons, courts, immigration, corporate welfare, etc.)
  • Who’s next? Mike Pence, Ted Cruz? The future of democracy in an age of Christian nationalism.

Katherine Stewart’s work has appeared in The New York Times, Washington Post, American Prospect, The Atlantic and other publications. She is the author of The Good News Club, an investigation of the religious right and public education.

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SCIENCE SALON # 113

Dave Rubin — Don’t Burn This Book: Thinking for Yourself in an Age of Unreason

The left is no longer liberal. Once on the side of free speech and tolerance, progressives now ban speakers from college campuses, “cancel” people who aren’t up to date on the latest genders, and force religious people to violate their conscience. They have abandoned the battle of ideas and have begun fighting a battle of feelings. This uncomfortable truth has turned moderates and true liberals into the politically homeless class. Dave Rubin launched his political talk show The Rubin Report in 2015 as a meeting ground for free thinkers who realize that partisan politics is a dead end. He hosts people he both agrees and disagrees with — including those who have been dismissed, deplatformed, and despised — taking on the most controversial issues of our day. As a result, he’s become a voice of reason in a time of madness. Now, Rubin gives you the tools you need to think for yourself in an age when tribal outrage is the only available alternative. Shermer and Rubin discuss:

  • why he left the Left
  • how progressive leftism is illiberal
  • how identity politics makes people more racist, misogynist, homophobic, bigoted, and less tolerant
  • liberalism and classical liberalism
  • how to stand up to the mob when it comes after you for not perfectly toeing the PC line
  • individual rights and limited government
  • immigration, abortion, gun rights, foreign policy, income inequality, and other hot-button issues, and
  • why Jordan Peterson is not the anti-Christ despite what progressives say.

Dave Rubin is the creator and host of The Rubin Report, the most-watched talk show about free speech and big ideas on YouTube. A former progressive turned classical liberal, he speaks to millions all over the world, including touring with Dr. Jordan Peterson, and performs stand-up comedy in cities around the United States. Originally from Long Island, New York, he currently lives in Los Angeles with his husband, David, and their dog, Emma. This is his first book.

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SCIENCE SALON # 112

Ann Druyan — Cosmos: Possible Worlds

In this sequel to Carl Sagan’s beloved classic and the companion to the hit television series hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson, the primary author of all the scripts for both this season and the previous season of Cosmos, Ann Druyan explores how science and civilization grew up together. From the emergence of life at deep-sea vents to solar-powered starships sailing through the galaxy, from the Big Bang to the intricacies of intelligence in many life forms, Druyan documents where humanity has been and where it is going, using her unique gift of bringing complex scientific concepts to life. With evocative photographs and vivid illustrations, she recounts momentous discoveries, from the Voyager missions in which she and her husband, Carl Sagan, participated to Cassini-Huygens’s recent insights into Saturn’s moons. This breathtaking sequel to Sagan’s masterpiece explains how we humans can glean a new understanding of consciousness here on Earth and out in the cosmos — again reminding us that our planet is a pale blue dot in an immense universe of possibility. Druyan and Shermer also discuss:

  • how to write a script for a television series
  • her 20 years with Carl Sagan and what their collaboration meant
  • how she dealt with her grief after Carl’s death (and how any of us can deal with such pain)
  • who the Voyager records were really for
  • Breakthrough Starshot
  • science and religion
  • God and morality
  • free will and determinism
  • the hard problem of consciousness
  • the Fermi Paradox (where is everybody?)
  • women in science
  • how we can eventually settle on other worlds, and
  • how to reach the stars … and beyond.

Ann Druyan is a celebrated writer and producer who co-authored many bestsellers with her late husband, Carl Sagan. She also famously served as creative director of the Voyager Golden Record, sent into space 40 years ago. Druyan continues her work as an interpreter of the most important scientific discoveries, partnering with NASA and the Planetary Society. She has served as Secretary of the Federation of American Scientists and is a laureate of the International Humanist Academy. Most recently, she received both an Emmy and Peabody Award for her work in conceptualizing and writing National Geographic’s first season of Cosmos.

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SCIENCE SALON # 111

Scott Barry Kaufman — Transcend: The New Science of Self-Actualization

When psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman first discovered Maslow’s unfinished theory of transcendence, sprinkled throughout a cache of unpublished journals, lectures, and essays, he felt a deep resonance with his own work and life. In this groundbreaking book, Kaufman picks up where Maslow left off, unraveling the mysteries of his unfinished theory, and integrating these ideas with the latest research on attachment, connection, creativity, love, purpose and other building blocks of a life well lived.

Kaufman’s new hierarchy of needs provides a roadmap for finding purpose and fulfillment—not by striving for money, success, or “happiness,” but by becoming the best version of ourselves, or what Maslow called self-actualization. While self-actualization is often thought of as a purely individual pursuit, Maslow believed that the full realization of potential requires a merging between self and the world. We don’t have to choose either self-development or self-sacrifice, but at the highest level of human potential we show a deep integration of both. Transcend reveals this level of human potential that connects us not only to our highest creative potential, but also to one another. Shermer and Kaufman also discuss:

  • human nature
  • good and evil
  • the good side of psychopathy
  • the illusion of self as a useful fiction
  • security, attachment, and self-esteem
  • ego and narcissism
  • how to quantify and measure internal states
  • how to practice mindfulness without meditation
  • humanistic psychology as a science-based alternative to religious practices
  • characteristics of self-actualization
  • how to be a self-actualized person.

Scott Barry Kaufman, PhD is a humanistic psychologist who has taught at Columbia University, the University of Pennsylvania, NYU and elsewhere. He received his Ph.D. in cognitive psychology from Yale University, and an M.Phil in experimental psychology from the University of Cambridge under a Gates Cambridge Scholarship. He writes the column Beautiful Minds for Scientific American and hosts The Psychology Podcast, which has received more than 10 million downloads. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic and Harvard Business Review, and his books include Ungifted, Wired to Create (with Carolyn Gregoire), and, as editor, Twice Exceptional and, as co-editor, The Cambridge Handbook of Intelligence. In 2015, he was named one of “50 Groundbreaking Scientists who are changing the way we see the world” by Business Insider.

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SCIENCE SALON # 110

Bart Ehrman — Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife

According to a recent Pew Research poll, 72% of Americans believe in a literal heaven and 58% in a literal hell (more evidence of the over-optimism bias and self-serving bias). Worldwide, over two billion Christians believe that because of their faith they will have a glorious afterlife. And nearly everyone wonders about what, if anything, comes after death. In Heaven and Hell, renowned biblical scholar and historian of religion Dr. Bart Ehrman investigates the powerful instincts that gave rise to the common ideas of heaven and hell and that help them endure. From the Epic of Gilgamesh to the writings of Augustine, Ehrman recounts the long history of the life after death. In different times, places, and cultures, people held a wide variety of views, and Ehrman is adept at showing how these influenced one another and changed in response to their historical, social, and cultural situations. His driving question is why and how Christians came up with the idea that souls will experience either eternal bliss or everlasting torment. Ehrman shows that the historical Jesus, Paul, and the author of Revelation would have been utterly perplexed by such ideas. These ideas are later Christian developments. Shermer and Ehrman also discuss:

  • Ehrman’s personal journey from Christian to nonbeliever
  • the earliest writings on the afterlife
  • why the Old Testament says nothing about Heaven and Hell
  • what the New Testament says about Heaven and Hell
  • early pagan influences on Judaism and Christianity
  • who invented the afterlife and why
  • what Jesus really said about the afterlife, souls, and immortality
  • what commoners believed about the afterlife in Greek, Roman and biblical times
  • myths, stories, and parables: their original meaning and use
  • the real meaning of the resurrection
  • Is the Kingdom of Heaven within us all?
  • What does a nonbeliever say to a believer about the (non-existence) of the afterlife?

Bart D. Ehrman is a leading authority on the New Testament and the history of early Christianity, and the author or editor of more than thirty books, including the New York Times bestsellers Misquoting Jesus, How Jesus Became God, and The Triumph of Christianity. A Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he has created eight popular audio and video courses for The Great Courses. He has been featured in Time, The New Yorker, and The Washington Post, and has appeared on NBC, CNN, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, the History Channel, the National Geographic Channel, BBC, and NPR.

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SCIENCE SALON # 109

Neil Shubin — Some Assembly Required: Decoding Four Billion Years of Life, from Ancient Fossils to DNA

The author of the best-selling Your Inner Fish gives us a lively and accessible account of the great transformations in the history of life on Earth — a new view of the evolution of human and animal life that explains how the incredible diversity of life on our planet came to be. Over billions of years, ancient fish evolved to walk on land, reptiles transformed into birds that fly, and apelike primates evolved into humans that walk on two legs, talk, and write. For more than a century, paleontologists have traveled the globe to find fossils that show how such changes have happened. We have now arrived at a remarkable moment — prehistoric fossils coupled with new DNA technology have given us the tools to answer some of the basic questions of our existence: How do big changes in evolution happen? Is our presence on Earth the product of mere chance? This new science reveals a multibillion-year evolutionary history filled with twists and turns, trial and error, accident and invention. In Some Assembly Required, Neil Shubin takes readers on a journey of discovery spanning centuries, as explorers and scientists seek to understand the origins of life’s immense diversity. Shermer and Shubin also discuss:

  • Darwin’s consilience of inductions (convergence of evidence) from multiple lines of inquiry
  • how a scientific theory can gain acceptance without an underlying causal mechanism (evolutionary theory before DNA)
  • what scientists should do with anomalies unexplained by the prevailing theory
  • Does ontogeny recapitulate phylogeny? (What can we learn about evolution from embryology?)
  • What is epigenetics, anyway?
  • the best explanation for the origins of life
  • how information can increase in a genome
  • from microevolution to macroevolution: why creationists are wrong
  • Are there hopeful monsters in evolution?
  • Punctuated equilibrium and what it was like to be Steve Gould’s TA
  • women in science, then and now
  • What it’s like to do a paleontological dig north of the arctic circle? and
  • Martian paleontology.

Neil Shubin is the author of Some Assembly Required, Your Inner Fish, and The Universe Within. He is the Robert R. Bensley Professor of Organismal Biology and Anatomy at the University of Chicago. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2011. He lives in Chicago.

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SCIENCE SALON # 108

Brian Greene — Until the End of Time: Mind, Matter, and Our Search for Meaning in an Evolving Universe

Until the End of Time is Brian Greene’s breathtaking new exploration of the cosmos and our quest to find meaning in the face of this vast expanse. Greene takes us on a journey from the big bang to the end of time, exploring how lasting structures formed, how life and mind emerged, and how we grapple with our existence through narrative, myth, religion, creative expression, science, the quest for truth, and a deep longing for the eternal. From particles to planets, consciousness to creativity, matter to meaning—Brian Greene allows us all to grasp and appreciate our fleeting but utterly exquisite moment in the cosmos.

Dr. Greene is a professor of physics and mathematics and director of Columbia University’s Center for Theoretical Physics and is renowned for his groundbreaking discoveries in superstring theory. He is the author of The Elegant Universe, The Fabric of the Cosmos, and The Hidden Reality, and he has hosted two Peabody and Emmy Award winning NOVA miniseries based on his books. With producer Tracy Day, Greene cofounded the World Science Festival. He lives in New York. Greene and Shermer also discuss:

  • God and religion
  • why there is something rather than nothing
  • What was there before the Big Bang, and what caused it to bang?
  • Are mathematics and the laws of nature human constructs or in nature?
  • how the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics is the First Law of Life
  • How does consciousness arise from physical particles?
  • panpsychism
  • the Fermi Paradox (where is everybody?)
  • the evolutionary origins of storytelling and myth making
  • free will and determinism
  • finding meaning in a meaningless universe
  • Greene’s encounter with J.Z. Knight and her 35,000 year old spirit warrior Ramtha
  • Terror Management Theory and the fear of death
  • Are moral values human constructs and thus relative, or is there a secular/scientific basis for right and wrong?

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SCIENCE SALON # 107

Fred Kaplan — The Bomb: Presidents, Generals, and the Secret History of Nuclear War

From the author the classic The Wizards of Armageddon and Pulitzer Prize finalist comes the definitive history of American policy on nuclear war — and Presidents’ actions in nuclear crises — from Truman to Trump. Fred Kaplan takes us into the White House Situation Room, the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s “Tank” in the Pentagon, and the vast chambers of Strategic Command to bring us the untold stories — based on exclusive interviews and previously classified documents — of how America’s presidents and generals have thought about, threatened, broached, and just barely avoided nuclear war from the dawn of the atomic age until today. Kaplan’s historical research and deep reporting will stand as the permanent record of politics. Discussing theories that have dominated nightmare scenarios from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Kaplan presents the unthinkable in terms of mass destruction and demonstrates how the nuclear war reality will not go away, regardless of the dire consequences. Shermer and Kaplan also discuss:

  • Dr. Strangelove
  • The Doomsday Machine
  • Mutual Assured Destruction
  • game theory and the logic of deterrence
  • proliferation, non-proliferation, and the evolution of nuclear weapons and strategy
  • North Korea and why Kim Jong Un is not a madman
  • President Trump and how he has reminded us that The Bomb is here to stay
  • Israel and Iran
  • Reagan and Gorbachev
  • how conventional wars can escalate to nuclear war…but haven’t…yet, and
  • why we will never get to Nuclear Zero.

Fred Kaplan is the national-security columnist for Slate and the author of five previous books, Dark Territory: The Secret History of Cyber War, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War (a Pulitzer Prize finalist and New York Times bestseller), 1959: The Year Everything Changed, Daydream Believers, and The Wizards of Armageddon. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, Brooke Gladstone.

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Detecting Baloney

Baloney Detection Kit Sandwich (Infographic) by Deanna and Skylar (High Tech High Media Arts, San Diego, CA)

The Baloney Detection Kit Sandwich (Infographic)

For a class project, a pair of 11th grade physics students created the infographic shown below, inspired by Michael Shermer’s Baloney Detection Kit: a 16-page booklet designed to hone your critical thinking skills.

FREE PDF Download

Wisdom of Harriet Hall

Top 10 Things to Know About Alternative Medicine

Harriet Hall M.D. discusses: alternative versus conventional medicine, flu fear mongering, chiropractic, vaccines and autism, placebo effect, diet, homeopathy, acupuncture, “natural remedies,” and detoxification.

FREE Video Series

Science Based Medicine vs. Alternative Medicine

Science Based Medicine vs. Alternative Medicine

Understanding the difference could save your life! In this superb 10-part video lecture series, Harriet Hall M.D., contrasts science-based medicine with so-called “complementary and alternative” methods.

FREE PDF Download

Top 10 Myths of Terrorism

Is Terrorism an Existential Threat?

This free booklet reveals 10 myths that explain why terrorism is not a threat to our way of life or our survival.

FREE PDF Download

The Top 10 Weirdest Things

The Top Ten Strangest Beliefs

Michael Shermer has compiled a list of the top 10 strangest beliefs that he has encountered in his quarter century as a professional skeptic.

FREE PDF Download

Reality Check: How Science Deniers Threaten Our Future (paperback cover)

Who believes them? Why? How can you tell if they’re true?

What is a conspiracy theory, why do people believe in them, and can you tell the difference between a true conspiracy and a false one?

FREE PDF Download

The Science Behind Why People See Ghosts

The Science Behind Why People See Ghosts

Mind altering experiences are one of the foundations of widespread belief in the paranormal. But as skeptics are well aware, accepting them as reality can be dangerous…

FREE PDF Download

Top 10 Myths About Evolution

Top 10 Myths About Evolution (and how we know it really happened)

If humans came from apes, why aren’t apes evolving into humans? Find out in this pamphlet!

FREE PDF Download

Learn to be a Psychic in 10 Easy Lessons

Learn to do Psychic “Cold Reading” in 10
Easy Lessons

Psychic readings and fortunetelling are an ancient art — a combination of acting and psychological manipulation.

FREE PDF Download

The Yeti or Abominable Snowman

5 Cryptid Cards

Download and print 5 Cryptid Cards created by Junior Skeptic Editor Daniel Loxton. Creatures include: The Yeti, Griffin, Sasquatch/Bigfoot, Loch Ness Monster, and the Cadborosaurus.

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