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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 # 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?

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


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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.

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

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SCIENCE SALON # 106

Daniel Chirot — You Say You Want a Revolution? Radical Idealism and its Tragic Consequences

Why have so many of the iconic revolutions of modern times ended in bloody tragedies? What lessons can be drawn from these failures today, in a world where political extremism is on the rise and rational reform based on moderation and compromise often seems impossible to achieve? In You Say You Want a Revolution?, Daniel Chirot examines a wide range of right- and left-wing revolutions around the world — from the late eighteenth century to today — to provide important new answers to these critical questions. From the French Revolution of the eighteenth century to the Mexican, Russian, German, Chinese, anticolonial, and Iranian revolutions of the twentieth, Chirot finds that moderate solutions to serious social, economic, and political problems were overwhelmed by radical ideologies that promised simpler, drastic remedies. But not all revolutions had this outcome. The American Revolution didn’t, although its failure to resolve the problem of slavery eventually led to the Civil War, and the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe was relatively peaceful, except in Yugoslavia. Chirot and Shermer also discuss:

  • why violent radicalism, corruption, and the betrayal of ideals won in so many crucial cases, but why it didn’t in some others
  • Did most Germans really believe in Nazi ideology or did they just go along out of social pressure and political convenience?
  • No Hitler, No Holocaust?
  • How do you get people to commit genocide?
  • Anti-semitism in history and today
  • how the logic of utopian radicalism leads to violence
  • the difference in belief and action between Marx, Lenin, Stalin, and Trotsky
  • the difference between the American and French Revolutions
  • We think of the American revolution as liberal, but its chief English defender, Edmund Burke, is the founder of modern conservatism.
  • lessons to learn from centuries of violent vs. nonviolent revolutions.

Daniel Chirot is the Herbert J. Ellison Professor of Russian and Eurasian Studies at the Henry Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington. He is the author of many books, most recently, The Shape of the New: Four Big Ideas and How They Made the Modern World (with Scott L. Montgomery) (Princeton), which was named one of the New York Times Book Review’s 100 Notable Books of the Year.

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

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SCIENCE SALON # 105

Diana Pasulka — American Cosmic: UFOs, Religion, Technology

More than half of American adults and more than 75 percent of young Americans believe in intelligent extraterrestrial life. This level of belief rivals that of belief in God. American Cosmic examines the mechanisms at work behind the thriving belief system in extraterrestrial life, a system that is changing and even supplanting traditional religions. Over the course of a six-year ethnographic study, Dr. Pasulka interviewed successful and influential scientists, professionals, and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who believe in extraterrestrial intelligence, thereby disproving the common misconception that only fringe members of society believe in UFOs. She argues that widespread belief in aliens is due to a number of factors including their ubiquity in modern media like The X-Files, which can influence memory, and the believability lent to that media by the search for planets that might support life. American Cosmic explores the intriguing question of how people interpret unexplainable experiences, and argues that the media is replacing religion as a cultural authority that offers believers answers about non-human intelligent life. Pasulka and Shermer also discuss:

  • the definition of religion
  • fictional religions and historical religions
  • Jediism as a religion
  • new religious movements and cults
  • Mormonism and Christianity
  • Scientology as a UFO religion
  • how to be spiritual without religion
  • Nietzsche, Jung, and archetypes
  • scientific truths and mythical truths
  • astronomical observatories and medieval cathedrals
  • UFOs as Sky Gods for Skeptics; aliens as deities for atheists, and
  • the rise of the Nones and the future of growth of new religions.

Diana Pasulka is a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, and chair of the Department of Philosophy and Religion. Her current research focuses on religious and supernatural belief and practice and its connections to digital technologies and environments. She is the author and co-editor of numerous books and essays, the most recent of which are Believing in Bits: Digital Media and the Supernatural, co-edited with Simone Natalie and forthcoming from Oxford University Press, and Posthumanism: the Future of Homo Sapiens, co-edited with Michael Bess (2018). She is also a history and religion consultant for movies and television, including The Conjuring (2013) and The Conjuring II (2016).

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SCIENCE SALON # 104

Judith Finlayson — You Are What Your Grandparents Ate: What You Need to Know About Nutrition, Experience, Epigenetics and the Origins of Chronic Disease

In this wide ranging conversation Judith Finlayson reviews the research she writes about in her new book that takes conventional wisdom about the origins of chronic disease and turns it upside down. Rooted in the work of the late epidemiologist Dr. David Barker, it highlights the research showing that heredity involves much more than the genes your parents passed on to you. Thanks to the relatively new science of epigenetics, we now know that the experiences of previous generations may show up in your health and well-being. Shermer and Finlayson discuss:

  • epigenetics and the link to epidemiology
  • why it is so difficult determining causality in medical sciences
  • why correlation is not necessarily causation, but how it can be used to advise on diet and lifestyle changes
  • How many of the risks for chronic diseases, including obesity, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and dementia, can be traced back to your first 1,000 days of existence, from the moment you were conceived?
  • the association between these diseases and the experiences parents and even grandparents had
  • fruits and vegetables or meat and fat?
  • how poverty affects epigenetics, and
  • epigenetic exaggerations and incautious extrapolations — no miracles promised!

Judith Finlayson is a bestselling author who has written books on a variety of subjects, from personal well-being and women’s history to food and nutrition. She is a former national newspaper columnist for The Globe and Mail, magazine journalist and board member of various organizations focusing on legal, medical and women’s issues. Judith lives in Toronto, Canada.

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SCIENCE SALON # 103

Robert Frank — Under the Influence: Putting Peer Pressure to Work

Psychologists have long understood that social environments profoundly shape our behavior, sometimes for the better, often for the worse. But social influence is a two-way street — our environments are themselves products of our behavior. Under the Influence explains how to unlock the latent power of social context. We are building bigger houses, driving heavier cars, and engaging in a host of other activities that threaten the planet — mainly because that’s what friends and neighbors do. In the wake of the hottest years on record, only robust measures to curb greenhouse gases promise relief from more frequent and intense storms, droughts, flooding, wildfires, and famines. Robert Frank describes how the strongest predictor of our willingness to support climate-friendly policies, install solar panels, or buy an electric car is the number of people we know who have already done so. Frank and Shermer also discuss:

  • luck and how lives turn out
  • circumstances of behavior
  • peer pressure and pressures on peers
  • free will, volition, and self-control
  • positive behavioral externalities, e.g., solar panels
  • happiness vs. purpose/meaning/comfort
  • utilitarianism vs. natural rights theory
  • abortion, capital punishment, polygamy, prostitution, and the selling of organs
  • behavioral contagions: smoking, problem drinking, obesity, tax cheating, bullying, and wasteful energy use
  • same-sex marriage and other areas of moral progress
  • arms races: good and bad
  • climate change
  • belief in god and religion in decline, and
  • UBI (Universal Basic Income).

Robert H. Frank received his M.A. in statistics from the University of California at Berkeley in 1971, and his Ph.D. in economics in 1972, also from U.C. Berkeley. He is the Goldwin Smith Professor of Economics at Cornell University, where he has taught since 1972 and where he currently holds a joint appointment in the department of economics and the Johnson Graduate School of Management. He has published on a variety of subjects, including price and wage discrimination, public utility pricing, the measurement of unemployment spell lengths, and the distributional consequences of direct foreign investment. For the past several years, his research has focused on rivalry and cooperation in economic and social behaviour.

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SCIENCE SALON # 102

Christopher Ryan — Civilized to Death: The Price of Progress

Most of us have instinctive evidence the world is ending — balmy December days, face-to-face conversation replaced with heads-to-screens zomboidism, a world at constant war, a political system in disarray. We hear some myths and lies so frequently that they feel like truths: Civilization is humankind’s greatest accomplishment. Progress is undeniable. Count your blessings. You’re lucky to be alive here and now. Well, maybe we are and maybe we aren’t. Civilized to Death counters the idea that progress is inherently good, arguing that the “progress” defining our age is analogous to an advancing disease. Prehistoric life, of course, was not without serious dangers and disadvantages. Many babies died in infancy. A broken bone, infected wound, snakebite, or difficult pregnancy could be life-threatening. But ultimately, Ryan argues, were these pre-civilized dangers more murderous than modern scourges, such as car accidents, cancers, cardiovascular disease, and a technologically prolonged dying process? In Civilized to Death, Ryan makes the claim that we should start looking backwards to find our way into a better future. Ryan and Shermer also discuss:

  • human nature: peaceful or violent?
  • humans: spectrum or binary?
  • what hunter-gatherers were really like and why it is so hard to know
  • hunter-gatherers and…children, women, the elderly, sex, religion, politics and economics
  • how egalitarian were hunter-gatherers?
  • why hunter-gatherers don’t think of work as “work” in the way we do
  • the lottery test: if you won the lottery would you work at your job, live in your neighborhood, live your life?
  • was civilization the biggest mistake humans ever made?
  • the “Big Gods” theory of religion vs. the communal theory of religion, and
  • how we can learn from our ancestors to lead more balanced and healthier lives.

Christopher Ryan, Ph.D., and his work have been featured on MSNBC, Fox News, CNN, NPR, The New York Times, The Times of London, Playboy, The Washington Post, Time, Newsweek, The Atlantic, Outside, El Pais, La Vanguardia, Salon, Seed, and Big Think. A featured speaker from TED to The Festival of Dangerous Ideas at the Sydney Opera House to the Einstein Forum in Pottsdam, Germany, Ryan has consulted at various hospitals in Spain, provided expert testimony in a Canadian constitutional hearing, and appeared in well over a dozen documentary films. Ryan puts out a weekly podcast, called Tangentially Speaking, featuring conversations with interesting people, ranging from famous comics to bank robbers to drug smugglers to porn stars to authors to plasma physicists.

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As most of you know I consume a lot of online content while I’m driving, cycling, hiking, or doing chores around the house, and for years you’ve heard or seen me posting on social media The Great Courses I’ve been taking, for example: Professor Patrick Grim’s The Philosopher’s Toolkit: How to be the Most Rational Person in Any Room.

In the past I would purchase individual courses, but with The Great Courses Plus program you can subscribe to the service and listen to individual lectures — or entire courses — from a huge variety of courses from their catalogue.

With The Great Courses Plus program I often skip around and listen to lectures from different courses, depending on what, exactly, I’m interested in hearing that particular day. For example, The Philosopher’s Toolkit includes 24 30-minute lectures that teach you, for example, how to think like Artistotle, the power of thought experiments, the difference between cool rationality and hot thought, why we make mistakes, how to win debates, and near and dear to my heart, how to think scientifically.

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SCIENCE SALON # 101

Hugo Mercier — Not Born Yesterday: The Science of Who We Trust and What We Believe

Not Born Yesterday explains how we decide who we can trust and what we should believe — and argues that we’re pretty good at making these decisions. Hugo Mercier demonstrates how virtually all attempts at mass persuasion — whether by religious leaders, politicians, or advertisers — fail miserably. Drawing on recent findings from political science and other fields ranging from history to anthropology, Mercier shows that the narrative of widespread gullibility, in which a credulous public is easily misled by demagogues and charlatans, is simply wrong.

Why is mass persuasion so difficult? Mercier uses the latest findings from experimental psychology to show how each of us is endowed with sophisticated cognitive mechanisms of open vigilance. Computing a variety of cues, these mechanisms enable us to be on guard against harmful beliefs, while being open enough to change our minds when presented with the right evidence. Even failures — when we accept false confessions, spread wild rumors, or fall for quack medicine — are better explained as bugs in otherwise well-functioning cognitive mechanisms than as symptoms of general gullibility. In this lively and provocative conversation Shermer and Mercier discuss:

  • If we’re not as gullible as we’ve been led to believe, then why do so many people apparently believe in ESP, astrology, the paranormal, the supernatural, conspiracy theories, and the like?
  • Epistemic Vigilance and skepticism
  • why most Germans did not believe in Nazi ideology
  • honest signaling, costly signaling, and virtue signaling
  • Malcolm Gladwell’s book Talking to Strangers and why the “default to truth” theory is wrong.
  • folk biology and why creationism is intuitive and evolutionary theory counterintuitive
  • conspiracy theories and why we believe them (or not)
  • the real meaning of conformity experiments in which people appear to go along with the group
  • why people join cults … or ISIS.
  • why people belong to religions, and
  • why we are not living in a post-truth era, and why access to accurate information has never been so good.

Hugo Mercier is a cognitive scientist at the Jean Nicod Institute in Paris and the coauthor of The Enigma of Reason. He lives in Nantes, France. Twitter @hugoreasoning

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SCIENCE SALON # 100

100th Episode Special — Ask Me Almost Anything (AMA#6)

In this 100th episode of the Science Salon podcast Dr. Shermer gives a brief overview and history of the salon and how it evolved from the Distinguished Science Lecture Series at Caltech, which began in 1992, along with the founding of the Skeptics Society, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit science education organization, and it’s publication Skeptic magazine. Following this brief history Dr. Shermer answers questions sent to him on social media, on such topics as:

  • ETIs and the chances we’ve been visited by aliens
  • Generic Subjective Continuity, a secular version of reincarnation, and what happens after we die
  • Trump-style propaganda and how to deal with it
  • Should we separate artist from artwork, e.g., Michael Jackson’s music or Adolf Hitler’s paintings?
  • Eliminative Materialism (a type of determinism) and its implication for moral progress
  • How reliable are eyewitnesses, particularly those in the Bible, particularly with regard to stories about miracles?
  • When did you first learn that we are made of stardust and how did this change your thinking?
  • How much power do Christian Nationalists have in the U.S. today?
  • Have you changed your mind about science, religion, health, and politics in the past ten years?
  • Will we ever reach an end of scientific knowledge and understanding?

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

You play a vital part in our commitment to promote science and reason. If you enjoy the Science Salon Podcast, please show your support by making a donation.


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As most of you know I consume a lot of online content while I’m driving, cycling, hiking, or doing chores around the house, and for years you’ve heard or seen me posting on social media The Great Courses I’ve been taking, for example: Professor Patrick Grim’s The Philosopher’s Toolkit: How to be the Most Rational Person in Any Room.

In the past I would purchase individual courses, but with The Great Courses Plus program you can subscribe to the service and listen to individual lectures — or entire courses — from a huge variety of courses from their catalogue.

With The Great Courses Plus program I often skip around and listen to lectures from different courses, depending on what, exactly, I’m interested in hearing that particular day. For example, The Philosopher’s Toolkit includes 24 30-minute lectures that teach you, for example, how to think like Artistotle, the power of thought experiments, the difference between cool rationality and hot thought, why we make mistakes, how to win debates, and near and dear to my heart, how to think scientifically.

They’re offering my listeners this amazing deal: 3 months of unlimited access for just $30!

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SCIENCE SALON # 99

Bobby Duffy — Why We’re Wrong About Nearly Everything: A Theory of Human Misunderstanding

What percentage of the population are immigrants? How bad is unemployment? How much sex do people have? These questions are important and interesting, but most of us get the answers wrong. Research shows that people often wildly misunderstand the state of the world, regardless of age, sex, or education. And though the internet brings us unprecedented access to information, there’s little evidence we’re any better informed because of it. We may blame cognitive bias or fake news, but neither tells the complete story. In Why We’re Wrong About Nearly Everything, Bobby Duffy draws on his research into public perception across more than forty countries, offering a sweeping account of the stubborn problem of human delusion: how society breeds it, why it will never go away, and what our misperceptions say about what we really believe. We won’t always know the facts, but they still matter. Why We’re Wrong About Nearly Everything is mandatory reading for anyone interested making humankind a little bit smarter. Duffy and Shermer also discuss:

  • cognitive biases and how they distort what we think about the world
  • do men really have more sexual partners than women (and if so, who are they having sex with?)
  • why we lie to ourselves and others about almost everything
  • fears about immigrants and immigration
  • Brexit: leave or remain and why people vote each way
  • why we are more polarized politically than ever before (and what we can do about it)
  • the “backfire effect”: the bad news and the good
  • why we are not living in a post-truth era
  • why facts matter and why free speech matters, and
  • kids these days…

Bobby Duffy is director of the Policy Institute at King’s College London. Formerly, he was managing director of the Ipsos MORI Social Research Institute and global director of the Ipsos Social Research Institute. He lives in London.

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

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We are now working with The Great Courses to bring you a special offer for Unlimited Access to Over 11,000 Video and Audio Lectures in Science, Math, History, Photography, and more… Read the following note from Michael Shermer to learn more.

As most of you know I consume a lot of online content while I’m driving, cycling, hiking, or doing chores around the house, and for years you’ve heard or seen me posting on social media The Great Courses I’ve been taking, for example:

  • Professor Patrick Grim’s The Philosopher’s Toolkit: How to be the Most Rational Person in Any Room.
  • Professor Richard B. Spence’s The Real History of Secret Societies, and
  • Professor Daniel Breyer’s Understanding the Dark Side of Human Nature.

In the past I would purchase individual courses, but with The Great Courses Plus program you can subscribe to the service and listen to individual lectures — or entire courses — from a huge variety of courses from their catalogue.

With The Great Courses Plus program I often skip around and listen to lectures from different courses, depending on what, exactly, I’m interested in hearing that particular day. For example, The Philosopher’s Toolkit includes 24 30-minute lectures that teach you, for example, how to think like Artistotle, the power of thought experiments, the difference between cool rationality and hot thought, why we make mistakes, how to win debates, and near and dear to my heart, how to think scientifically.

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SCIENCE SALON # 98

Robert Pennock — An Instinct for Truth: Curiosity and the Moral Character of Science

An exploration of the scientific mindset — such character virtues as curiosity, veracity, attentiveness, and humility to evidence — and its importance for science, democracy, and human flourishing. Exemplary scientists have a characteristic way of viewing the world and their work: their mindset and methods all aim at discovering truths about nature. In An Instinct for Truth, Robert Pennock explores this scientific mindset and argues that what Charles Darwin called “an instinct for truth, knowledge, and discovery” has a tacit moral structure — that it is important not only for scientific excellence and integrity but also for democracy and human flourishing. In an era of “post-truth,” the scientific drive to discover empirical truths has a special value. Taking a virtue-theoretic perspective, Pennock explores curiosity, veracity, skepticism, humility to evidence, and other scientific virtues and vices. Shermer and Pennock discuss:

  • the nature of science
  • why Intelligent Design creationists are not doing bad science — they’re not doing science at all
  • what to do with anomalies not explained by the current paradigm
  • the role of outsiders in science
  • what scientific training does to develop the virtues of science
  • how authority is different from expertise
  • when experts pronounce on ideas outside their field
  • fraud in science and why it happens
  • why scientists are skeptical of UFOs, ESP, bigfoot, and the like
  • falsification of a scientific hypothesis vs. positive evidence in support of a scientific hypothesis
  • the naturalistic fallacy and the Is-Ought problem, and
  • the ethics of autonomous vehicles and the trolley problem.

Robert T. Pennock is University Distinguished Professor of History, Philosophy, and Sociology of Science at Michigan State University in the Lyman Briggs College and the Departments of Philosophy and Computer Science and Engineering. He is the author of Tower of Babel: The Evidence Against the New Creationism.

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SCIENCE SALON # 97

Amber Scorah — Leaving the Witness: Exiting a Religion and Finding a Life

In this revealing conversation Amber Scorah opens the box into the psychology of religious belief to show how, exactly, religions and cults convince members that theirs is the one true religion, to the point, she admits, that she would have gladly died for her faith. As a third-generation Jehovah’s Witness, Amber Scorah had devoted her life to sounding God’s warning of impending Armageddon. She volunteered to take the message to China, where the preaching she did was illegal and could result in her expulsion or worse. Here, she had some distance from her community for the first time. Immersion in a foreign language and culture — and a whole new way of thinking — turned her world upside down, and eventually led her to lose all that she had been sure was true. As a proselytizer in Shanghai, using fake names and secret codes to evade the authorities’ notice, Scorah discreetly looked for targets in public parks and stores. To support herself, she found work at a Chinese language learning podcast, hiding her real purpose from her coworkers. Now with a creative outlet, getting to know worldly people for the first time, she began to understand that there were other ways of seeing the world and living a fulfilling life. When one of these relationships became an “escape hatch,” Scorah’s loss of faith culminated in her own personal apocalypse, the only kind of ending possible for a Jehovah’s Witness. Shunned by family and friends as an apostate, Scorah was alone in Shanghai and thrown into a world she had only known from the periphery — with no education or support system. A coming of age story of a woman already in her thirties, this unforgettable memoir examines what it’s like to start one’s life over again with an entirely new identity. Scorah and Shermer also discuss:

  • the legals and logistics of writing a memoir
  • the rise of the nones and disbelief and why stories like hers provide social proof for living without religion
  • what Jehovah’s Witnesses believe and why they believe it
  • what it’s like to go door-to-door witnessing for a religion
  • Armageddon and what doomsayers do when the world doesn’t end
  • the mindset of the fundamentalist
  • why religions are obsessed with female sexuality
  • why religions forbid homosexuality
  • the psychology of deconversion
  • the problem of evil, or why bad things happen to good people
  • how she would try to talk someone out of joining ISIS
  • what it’s like to be expelled from a religion and be an apostate, and
  • how to start your life over when you’ve lost everything.

Amber Scorah is a writer living in Brooklyn, NY. Her articles have been published in The New York Times, The Believer, and USA Today. Prior to coming to New York, Scorah lived in Shanghai, where she was creator and host of the podcast Dear Amber: An Insider’s Guide to Everything China. Leaving the Witness is her first book.

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SCIENCE SALON # 96

Catherine Wilson — How to Be an Epicurean: The Ancient Art of Living Well

In this wide-ranging conversation the philosopher Catherine Wilson makes the case that if the pursuit of happiness is the question, Epicureanism is the answer. Not the mythic Epicureanism that calls to mind gluttons with gout or an admonition to eat, drink, and be merry. Instead, in her new book How to Be an Epicurean, Wilson shows that Epicureanism isn’t an excuse for having a good time: it’s a means to live a good life. Although modern conveniences and scientific progress have significantly improved our quality of life, many of the problems faced by ancient Greeks — love, money, family, politics — remain with us in new forms. To overcome these obstacles, the Epicureans adopted a philosophy that promoted reason, respect for the natural world, and reverence for our fellow humans. By applying this ancient wisdom to a range of modern problems, from self-care routines and romantic entanglements to issues of public policy and social justice, Wilson shows us how we can all fill our lives with purpose and pleasure. Wilson and Shermer also discuss:

  • the hedonic treadmill and the problem of pursuing material goods
  • why money will not bring you happiness or meaning
  • eternal moral truths
  • judging figures from the past by modern moral standards
  • why she thinks everyone from Thomas Jefferson to Joe Biden should have known better and acted differently
  • why she thinks Jeffrey Epstein committing suicide was a rational choice for him
  • how to think about the abortion issue
  • why we need not fear death, and
  • how to lead a meaningful life.

Catherine Wilson received her PhD in philosophy from Princeton University and has taught at universities in the US, Canada, and Europe. She has published more than 100 research papers and eight books, including A Very Short Introduction to Epicureanism and Metaethics from a First-Person Standpoint: An Introduction to Moral Philosophy. She has two children and lives in New York City, where she is currently Visiting Presidential Professor of Philosophy at the Graduate Center at CUNY.

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SCIENCE SALON # 95

John Martin Fischer — Death, Immortality and Meaning in Life

John Martin Fischer’s Death, Immortality, and Meaning in Life offers a brief yet in-depth introduction to the key philosophical issues and problems concerning death and immortality. In this wide-ranging and thoughtful conversation, Shermer and Fisher discuss:

  • meaning in life
  • meaning in death
  • the badness of death
  • different philosophical, religious, and scientific ideas on immortality
  • near-death experiences
  • extending life through medical technology
  • medical immortality vs. real immortality
  • the problem of identity for immortality (who or what becomes immortal?)
  • living for 100 years vs. 1000 years vs. forever
  • responding to the theistic argument that without God anything goes, there is no objective morality, and no meaning to life
  • If you don’t believe in God or the afterlife, what do you say to someone who is dying or has lost a loved one?
  • Is immortality, like existence, one thought too many?

John Martin Fischer is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Riverside, and a University Professor at the University of California. He is coauthor of Near-Death Experiences: Understanding Visions of the Afterlife (OUP, 2016), and coeditor of Introduction to Philosophy: Classical and Contemporary Readings (Eighth Edition, OUP, 2018). He was Project Leader of The Immortality Project (John Templeton Foundation).

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SCIENCE SALON # 94

David Leiser — How We Misunderstand Economics and Why it Matters

This is the first book to explain why people misunderstand economics. From the cognitive shortcuts we use to make sense of complex information, to the metaphors we rely on and their effect on our thinking, this important book lays bare not only the psychological traits that distort our ability to understand such a vital topic, but also what this means for policy makers and civil society more widely.

Shermer and Leiser dive into the mismatch between the complexities of economics and the constraints of human cognition that lie at the root of our misconceptions, as well as explore:

  • folk economics and why our intuitions are so often wrong
  • the evolutionary origins of our thinking about economics and why we are not prepared cognitively to understand complex economic ideas
  • Universal Basic Income
  • income inequality
  • CEO pay and why we think it’s too high
  • the importance of trust in economic exchanges
  • tariffs and Trump
  • China, and
  • reparations for slavery vs. reparations for the Holocaust.

David Leiser is Full Professor of Economic and Social Psychology at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Israel. He is Past President of the International Association for Research in Economic Psychology, and President of the Economic Psychology Division of the International Association of Applied Psychology. He studies lay conceptions, especially in the economic domain.

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