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The Science of Good & Evil (AirTalk 89.3 KPCC)

Michael Shermer joins Larry Mantle to talk about his book The Science of Good and Evil in which he explains how humans transformed the moral sentiments displayed in many primate species — shame and trust, for instance — into ethical principles.

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None So Blind

Perceptual-blindness experiments challenge the validity of eyewitness testimony and the metaphor of memory as a video recording
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Picture yourself watching a one-minute video of two teams of three players each. One team wears white shirts and the other black shirts, and the members move around one another in a small room tossing two basketballs. Your task is to count the number of passes made by the white team — not easy given the weaving movement of the players. Unexpectedly, after 35 seconds a gorilla enters the room, walks directly through the farrago of bodies, thumps his chest and, nine seconds later, exits. Would you see the gorilla?

Most of us believe we would. In fact, 50 percent of subjects in this remarkable experiment by Daniel J. Simons of the University of Illinois and Christopher F. Chabris of Harvard University did not see the gorilla, even when asked if they noticed anything unusual (see their paper “Gorillas in Our Midst”). The effect is called inattentional blindness. When attending to one task — say, talking on a cell phone while driving — many of us become blind to dynamic events, such as a gorilla in the crosswalk. (continue reading…)

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A Bounty of Science

A new book reexamines the mutiny on the Bounty, but science offers a deeper account of its cause
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The most common explanation for the Bounty mutiny pits a humane Fletcher Christian against an oppressive William Bligh. In her 2003 revisionist book, The Bounty, Caroline Alexander recasts Bligh as hero and Christian as coward. After 400 pages of gripping narrative, Alexander hints that the mutiny might have involved “the seductions of Tahiti” and “Bligh’s harsh tongue” but concludes that it was “a night of drinking and a proud man’s pride, a low moment on one gray dawn, a momentary and fatal slip in a gentleman’s code of discipline.”

A skeptic’s explanation may seem less romantic, but it is more intellectually satisfying because it is extrapolated from scientific evidence and reasoning. There are, in fact, two levels of causality to consider: proximate (immediate historical events) and ultimate (deeper evolutionary motives). Both played a role in the Bounty debacle. (continue reading…)

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Where Goods Do Not Cross Frontiers, Armies Will

Where goods do not cross frontiers, armies will. How a Science of Good and Evil Reveals a Solution to Global Tribalism

In Rob Reiner’s 1992 film A Few Good Men, Jack Nicholson’s character — the battle-hardened Marine Colonel Nathan R. Jessup — is being cross-examined by Tom Cruise’s naive rookie Navy lawyer Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee, defending two Marines accused of killing a fellow soldier. He thinks Jessup ordered a “code red,” an off-the-books command to rough up a lazy Marine trainee in need of discipline, and that matters got tragically out of hand. Kaffee wants answers to specific questions about the incident. Jessup wants to lecture him on the meaning of freedom and the need to defend it: “Son, we live in a world that has walls. And those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Who’s gonna do it? You? I have a greater responsibility than you can possibly fathom. You don’t want the truth. Because deep down, in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want me on that wall. You need me on that wall.” (continue reading…)

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Broad-mindedness is a virtue when investigating extraordinary claims, but often they turn out to be pure bunk
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Those of us who practice skepticism for a living often find ourselves tiptoeing politely around the PC police, who think that all beliefs and opinions are equal. Thus, when asked, “Are you a debunker?” my initial instinct is to dissemble and mutter something about being an investigator, as if that will soften the blow.

But what need, really, is there to assuage? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, to debunk is to “remove the nonsense from; to expose false claims or pretensions.” Bunk is slang for “humbug,” and bunkum is “empty claptrap oratory.” Here is some bunk that merits no brook. (continue reading…)

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