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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 # 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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SCIENCE SALON # 120

Andrew Rader — Beyond the Known: How Exploration Created the Modern World and Will Take Us to the Stars

For the first time in history, the human species has the technology to destroy itself. But having developed that power, humans are also able to leave Earth and voyage into the vastness of space. After millions of years of evolution, we’ve arrived at the point where we can settle other worlds and begin the process of becoming multi-planetary. How did we get here? What does the future hold for us? Divided into four accessible sections, Beyond the Known examines major periods of discovery and rediscovery, from Classical Times, when Phoenicians, Persians and Greeks ventured forth; to The Age of European Exploration, which saw colonies sprout on nearly continent; to The Era of Scientific Inquiry, when researchers developed brand new tools for mapping and traveling farther; to Our Spacefaring Future, which unveils plans currently underway for settling other planets and, eventually, traveling to the stars.

A Mission Manager at SpaceX with a light, engaging voice, Andrew Rader is at the forefront of space exploration. As a gifted historian, Rader, who has won global acclaim for his stunning breadth of knowledge, is singularly positioned to reveal the story of human exploration that is also the story of scientific achievement. Told with an infectious zeal for traveling beyond the known, Beyond the Known illuminates how very human it is to emerge from the cave and walk toward an infinitely expanding horizon. Rader and Shermer also discuss:

  • the human nature to explore: adaptation or spandrel?
  • what the Greeks and Romans knew about the world that was lost for centuries
  • how dark were the Dark Ages for exploration?
  • the economic and religious drivers of early exploration
  • the political and practical drivers of 20th century exploration
  • Mars direct or to the moon first?
  • how to terraform Mars
  • how to get people to the moons of the outer planets
  • how to get people to the stars
  • are we living in a simulation?
  • should we be worried about A.I.?

Andrew Rader is a Mission Manager at SpaceX. He holds a Ph.D. in Aerospace Engineering from MIT specializing in long-duration spaceflight. In 2013, he won the Discovery Channel’s competitive television series Canada’s Greatest Know-It-All. He also co-hosts the weekly podcast Spellbound, which covers topics from science to economics to history and psychology. Beyond the Known is Rader’s first book for adults. You can find him at Andrew-Rader.com.

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SCIENCE SALON # 119

Howard Bloom — Einstein, Michael Jackson, and Me: A Search for the Soul in the Power Pits of Rock and Roll

Howard Bloom — called “the greatest press agent that rock and roll has ever known” by Derek Sutton, the former manager of Styx, Ten Years After, and Jethro Tull — is a science nerd who knew nothing about popular music. But he founded the biggest PR firm in the music industry and helped build or sustain the careers of our biggest rock-and-roll legends, including Michael Jackson, Prince, Bob Marley, Bette Midler, Billy Joel, Billy Idol, Paul Simon, Peter Gabriel, David Byrne, AC/DC, Aerosmith, Queen, Kiss, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Run DMC, ZZ Top, Joan Jett, Chaka Khan, and one hundred more. What was he after? He was on a hunt for the gods inside of you and me. Einstein, Michael Jackson & Me is Bloom’s story — the strange tale of a scientific expedition into the dark underbelly of science and fame where new myths and movements are made. Shermer and Bloom also discuss:

  • What and where is God?
  • the search for God inside us all
  • how an atheist can search for the soul
  • conducting science in everyday life
  • music as an evolutionary adaptation or cheese cake spandrel
  • What makes some musicians successful and others not (hint: it’s more than 10,000 hours of practice)
  • what it was like working with Prince, Billy Joel, Joan Jett, and others
  • Do female rock stars have as much sex with strange men as male rock stars have sex with strange women?
  • why Michael Jackson was a transcendent talent, the Mozart of our time.

Based in Park Slope, Brooklyn, Howard Bloom has been called “next in a lineage of seminal thinkers that includes Newton, Darwin, Einstein, [and] Freud” by Britain’s Channel 4 TV, and “the next Stephen Hawking” by Gear magazine. One of Bloom’s seven books, Global Brain, was the subject of an Office of the Secretary of Defense symposium with participants from the State Department, the Energy Department, DARPA, IBM, and MIT.

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SCIENCE SALON # 118

Stuart Russell — Human Compatible: Artificial Intelligence and the Problem of Control

In the popular imagination, superhuman artificial intelligence is an approaching tidal wave that threatens not just jobs and human relationships, but civilization itself. Conflict between humans and machines is seen as inevitable and its outcome all too predictable. In this groundbreaking book, distinguished AI researcher Stuart Russell argues that this scenario can be avoided, but only if we rethink AI from the ground up. Russell begins by exploring the idea of intelligence in humans and in machines. He describes the near-term benefits we can expect, from intelligent personal assistants to vastly accelerated scientific research, and outlines the AI breakthroughs that still have to happen before we reach superhuman AI. He also spells out the ways humans are already finding to misuse AI, from lethal autonomous weapons to viral sabotage. If the predicted breakthroughs occur and superhuman AI emerges, we will have created entities far more powerful than ourselves. How can we ensure they never, ever, have power over us? Russell suggests that we can rebuild AI on a new foundation, according to which machines are designed to be inherently uncertain about the human preferences they are required to satisfy. Such machines would be humble, altruistic, and committed to pursue our objectives, not theirs. This new foundation would allow us to create machines that are provably deferential and provably beneficial. Shermer and Russell also discuss:

  • natural intelligence vs. artificial intelligence
  • “g” in human intelligence vs. G in AGI (Artificial General Intelligence)
  • the values alignment problem
  • Hume’s “Is-Ought” naturalistic fallacy as it applies to AI values vs. human values
  • regulating AI
  • Russell’s response to the arguments of AI apocalypse skeptics Kevin Kelly and Steven Pinker
  • the Chinese social control AI system and what it could lead to
  • autonomous vehicles, weapons, and other systems and how they can be hacked
  • AI and the hacking of elections, and
  • what keeps Stuart up at night.

Stuart Russell is a professor of Computer Science and holder of the Smith-Zadeh Chair in Engineering at the University of California, Berkeley. He has served as the Vice-Chair of the World Economic Forum’s Council on AI and Robotics and as an advisor to the United Nations on arms control. He is a Fellow of the American Association for Artificial Intelligence, the Association for Computing Machinery, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He is the author (with Peter Norvig) of the definitive and universally acclaimed textbook on AI, Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach.

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SCIENCE SALON # 117

Matt Ridley — How Innovation Works: and Why It Flourishes in Freedom

Innovation is the main event of the modern age, the reason we experience both dramatic improvements in our living standards and unsettling changes in our society. Forget short-term symptoms like Donald Trump and Brexit, it is innovation itself that explains them and that will itself shape the 21st century for good and ill. Yet innovation remains a mysterious process, poorly understood by policy makers and businessmen, hard to summon into existence to order, yet inevitable and inexorable when it does happen.

In his new book, How Innovation Works, Matt Ridley argues that we need to change the way we think about innovation, to see it as an incremental, bottom-up, fortuitous process that happens to society as a direct result of the human habit of exchange, rather than an orderly, top-down process developing according to a plan. Innovation is crucially different from invention, because it is the turning of inventions into things of practical and affordable use to people. It speeds up in some sectors and slows down in others. It is always a collective, collaborative phenomenon, not a matter of lonely genius. It is gradual, serendipitous, recombinant, inexorable, contagious, experimental and unpredictable. It happens mainly in just a few parts of the world at any one time. It still cannot be modelled properly by economists, but it can easily be discouraged by politicians. Far from there being too much innovation, we may be on the brink of an innovation famine.

Ridley derives these and other lessons, not with abstract argument, but from telling the lively stories of scores of innovations, how they started and why they succeeded or in some cases failed. He goes back millions of years and leaps forward into the near future. Some of the innovation stories he tells are about steam engines, jet engines, search engines, airships, coffee, potatoes, vaping, vaccines, cuisine, antibiotics, mosquito nets, turbines, propellers, fertilizer, zero, computers, dogs, farming, fire, genetic engineering, gene editing, container shipping, railways, cars, safety rules, wheeled suitcases, mobile phones, corrugated iron, powered flight, chlorinated water, toilets, vacuum cleaners, shale gas, the telegraph, radio, social media, block chain, the sharing economy, artificial intelligence, fake bomb detectors, phantom games consoles, fraudulent blood tests, faddish diets, hyperloop tubes, herbicides, copyright, and even a biological innovation: life itself. Shermer and Ridley discuss all this and:

  • why the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics is the First Law of Life
  • why the patent/intellectual property rights concept is antithetical to innovation
  • why innovation is so much more important than invention
  • why the Chinese system of innovation works even though it’s government is anti-freedom
  • why musical innovation did not decline with the advent of Napster
  • the difference between scientific discoveries and artistic/musical creations
  • vaccine innovation in the era of COVID-19
  • why innovations are postdictable but not predictable, and
  • how the future may change after this pandemic.

Matt Ridley is the award-winning, bestselling author of several books, including The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves; Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters; and The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature. His books have sold more than one million copies in thirty languages worldwide. He writes regularly for The Times (London) and The Wall Street Journal, and is a member of the House of Lords. He lives in England.

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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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