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Anterior Cervical Discectomy & Fusion (ACDF)
or, My Big Bike Crash and Surgical Adventure

September 21, 2019

On July 26 I had a nasty cycling crash. I’m fond of telling people that cycling is a low-impact sport, unless you impact the ground, which I did that day. My cycling buddy Bob McGlashan were riding the Lake Casitas loop from Summerland, down the coast to Ventura (there’s a nice bike path next to the 101 freeway) and up the road paralleling highway 33 north. We had a howling tailwind and were flying at over 20mph on a modest upgrade. Well, at the big left turn to the lake, a car was coming the other way at high speed, so I timed my left turn to be after he flew past me, but at the last minute he hit the brakes and turned right. I had to veer right around him a little, which would have been fine, but as his car passed in front of me there was a pothole I had to swerve right to miss, sending me straight into the curb, which I hit at around 20mph, flipping me right into a dirt/rock field. I slammed my head, shoulder and hip really hard, the same side as my total hip replacement from 2013. There’s a dent in my helmet from a rock, so it did its job, but I could barely walk. As we were too far from home for a call to my wife, and no Ubers anywhere near us, I tried riding and there was almost no pain at all, so we rode the two hours back to the car. But by the time I got home I couldn’t walk from my car to the house without assistance, so I went to the Cottage Hospital ER and got an X-Ray and then a CT scan. There were two small pelvic fractures, one on the inferior ramps of the pelvic bone (not a problem) but the other one is on the acetabulum of the hip where the ball of the joint presses up against the socket (mine is titanium and plastic), so every time I put weight on the leg it hurt like hell.

I also pinched a nerve in my neck, which two days later was unbearably painful. I couldn’t sleep without strong painkillers. Another cycling partner of mine, Dr. Walter Burnham, happens to be a world-class orthopedic surgeon specializing in the spine, so he did an MRI on my neck and found some pretty severe degeneration of C-5, 6, and 7—not from the crash but from…”life” (he said, when I asked). So that led to the ACDF surgery, which Walt did on September 6, two days before my 65th birthday.

I would have done it earlier, but Medicare coverage started for me on September 1 so I had to wait in order to have the surgery fully covered. Yes, I have health insurances, with Blue Shield, and a fairly expensive plan at that, but even so my share of what would have been owed without Medicare would have been over $10,000. So, it was worth waiting a couple of weeks. I could rant for pages more about our messed up healthcare system, but I won’t as at the moment I am grateful for the near miraculous performance of Dr. Walt and his team, along with everyone else who took care of me along the way. (i.e., it’s the system that’s messed up, not the people.)

I did notice how careful everyone is now with opioid painkillers, which saved me from being miserable for weeks. When the ER docs wrote a script for a codeine painkiller, unbeknownst to me the law now requires that any opioid prescription must include a prescription for Naloxone, the inhaler that saves your life if you overdose. The codeine (Tylenol 3) was $1.57 for 12 pills. The Naloxone was $75. My wife Jennifer picked up the order for me. I called the ER to complain about the price differential. The woman explained the law to me. I told her I understood, but asked “the instructions say to take 1 every 4 hours. What moron would take all 12 at once?” She replied: “you’d be surprised.” Alas, that’s the world we live in now.

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Conspiracies & Conspiracy Theories:
What We Should and Shouldn’t Believe—and Why

September 16, 2019

Audible Inc., the world’s largest producer and provider of downloadable audiobooks and other spoken-word entertainment, in conjunction with The Great Courses, is creating audio-only, non-fiction content for Audible’s millions of listeners. The first three titles include Dr. Michael Shermer’s new and original course on: Conspiracies & Conspiracy Theories: What We Should Believe and Why.

Order today

Watch Dr. Shermer’s introduction

Brief Course Description

What is the difference between a conspiracy and a conspiracy theory? Who is most likely to believe in conspiracies, and why do so many people believe them? Is there some test of truth we can apply when we hear about a conspiracy that can help us determine if the theory about it is true or false? In this myth-shattering course, world-renowned skeptic and bestselling author Dr. Michael Shermer tackles history’s greatest and widespread conspiracy theories, carefully deconstructing them on the basis of the available evidence. In the current climate of fake news, alternative facts, and the rise of conspiracy theories to national prominence and political influence it is time to consider how to distinguish true conspiracies (Lincoln’s assassination, the Pentagon Papers, Watergate) from false conspiracy theories (Sandy Hook, 9/11, fake moon landing). You learn how conspiracies arise, what evidence is used to support them, and how they hold up in the harsh light of true historical, even scientific analysis, as well as why people believe them. Illuminating and compelling, the next time you hear someone talking about a conspiracy theory, this course just may give you the detective skills to parse the truth of the claim.

Conspiracies & Conspiracy Theories consists of 12 lectures, 30-minutes each.

PART I: Conspiracies & Why People Believe Them
  1. The Difference Between Conspiracies and Conspiracy Theories
  2. Classifying Conspiracies and Characterizing Believers
  3. Why People Believe in Conspiracy Theories
  4. Cognitive Biases and Conspiracy Theories
  5. Conspiracy Insanity
  6. Constructive Conspiracism
PART II: Conspiracy Theories & How to Think About Them
  1. The Conspiracy Detection Kit
  2. Truthers and Birthers: The 9/11 and Obama Conspiracy Theories
  3. The JFK Assassination: The Mother of All Conspiracy Theories
  4. Real Conspiracies: What if They Really Are Out to Get You?
  5. The Deadliest Conspiracy Theory in History
  6. The Real X-Files: Conspiracy Theories in Myth and Reality

Bonus Lecture: Letters from Conspiracists

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Watch Dr. Shermer’s introduction

About Michael Shermer

Dr. Michael Shermer is the Publisher of Skeptic magazine, a Presidential Fellow at Chapman University, the host of the Science Salon podcast, and for 18 years a monthly columnist for Scientific American. He is the author of a number of New York Times bestselling books including: Heavens on Earth, The Moral Arc, The Believing Brain, Why People Believe Weird Things, Why Darwin Matters, The Mind of the Market, How We Believe, and The Science of Good and Evil. His two TED talks, viewed nearly 10 million times, were voted in the top 100 of the more than 2000 TED talks. Dr. Shermer received his B.A. in psychology from Pepperdine University, M.A. in experimental psychology from California State University, Fullerton, and his Ph.D. in the history of science from Claremont Graduate University.

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What We Should and Shouldn’t Believe—and Why

Free to Inquire

May 17, 2018

The Evolution-Creationism Controversy as a Test Case in Equal Time and Free Speech

A book chapter for The Palgrave Handbook of Philosophy and Public Policy (December 26, 2018), edited by David Boonin.

During the second week of March, 1837, barely a year and a half after circumnavigating the globe in the H.M.S. Beagle, Charles Darwin met with the eminent ornithologist John Gould, who had been studying Darwin’s Galápagos bird specimens. With access to museum ornithological collections from areas of South America that Darwin had not visited, Gould corrected a number of taxonomic errors Darwin had made, such as labeling two finch species a “Wren” and “Icterus”, and pointed out to him that although the land birds in the Galápagos were endemic to the islands, they were notably South American in character.

According to the historian of science Frank J. Sulloway, who carefully reconstructed Darwin’s intellectual voyage to the discovery of the theory of evolution by means of natural selection, Darwin left the meeting with Gould convinced “beyond a doubt that transmutation must be responsible for the presence of similar but distinct species on the different islands of the Galápagos group. The supposedly immutable ‘species barrier’ had finally been broken, at least in Darwin’s own mind.”1 That July Darwin opened his first notebook on Transmutation of Species. By 1844 he was confident enough to write in a letter to his botanist friend and colleague Joseph Hooker: “I was so struck with distribution of Galapagos organisms &c &c, & with the character of the American fossil mammifers &c &c, that I determined to collect blindly every sort of fact which cd bear any way on what are species.” Five years at sea and nine years at home pouring through “heaps” of books led Darwin to admit: “At last gleams of light have come, & I am almost convinced, (quite contrary to opinion I started with) that species are not (it is like confessing a murder) immutable.”2

Like confessing a murder. How could a solution to a technical problem in biology, namely the immutability of species, generate such angst in its discoverer? The answer is obvious: if new species are created naturally instead of supernaturally, there’s no place for a creator God. No wonder Darwin waited twenty years before publishing his theory, and he would have waited even longer had he not rushed into print for priority sake because the naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace had sent Darwin his own theory of evolution in 1858, the year before Darwin published On the Origin of Species.3 And no wonder it took some time for Darwin to convince others of the theory’s veracity. The geologist Charles Lyell, a close friend and colleague of Darwin who groomed him into the world of British science and whose geological works Darwin read on the Beagle, withheld his support for a full nine years, and even then pulled back from fully embracing naturalism, leaving room for providential design underlying the entire natural system. The astronomer John Herschel sniffed at natural selection, calling it the “law of higgledy-piggledy.” In a review in the popular Macmillan’s Magazine, the statesman and economist Henry Fawcett spoke of a great divide created by Darwin’s book: “No scientific work that has been published within this century has excited so much general curiosity as the treatise of Mr. Darwin. It has for a time divided the scientific world with two great contending sections. A Darwinite and an anti-Darwinite are now the badges of opposed scientific parties.”4 (continue reading…)

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Frequent Infrequencies

May 12, 2018

Do anomalies prove the existence of God?

This op-ed was originally published on as part of a Big Ideas series on the question “What is the Future of Religion” in 2015.

For a quarter century I have investigated and attempted to explain anomalous events that people report experiencing, and I have written about a few of my own, such as being abducted by aliens (caused by extreme fatigue and sleep deprivation), hallucinating inside a sensory deprivation tank, and having an out-of-body experience while my temporal lobes were stimulated with electro-magnetic fields. Most people interpret such experiences as evidence for the supernatural, the afterlife, or even God, but since mine all had clear and obvious natural explanations few readers took them to be evidentiary.

In my October, 2014 column in Scientific American entitled “Infrequencies” however, I wrote about an anomalous experience for which I have no explanation. In brief, my fiancé, Jennifer Graf, moved to Southern California from Köln, Germany, bringing with her a 1978 Phillips 070 transistor radio that belonged to her late grandfather Walter, a surrogate father figure as she was raised by a single mom. She had fond memories of listening to music with him through that radio so I did my best to resurrect it, without success. With new batteries and the power switch left in the “on” position, we gave up and tossed it in a desk drawer where it lay dormant for months. During a quiet moment after our vows at a small wedding ceremony at our home, Jennifer was feeling sad being so far from home and wishing she had some connection to loved ones—most notably her mother and her grandfather—with whom to share this special occasion. We left my family to find a quiet moment alone elsewhere in the house when we heard music emanating from the bedroom, which turned out to be a love song playing on that radio in the desk drawer. It was a spine-tingling experience. The radio played for the rest of the evening but went quiescent the next day. It’s been silent ever since, despite repeated attempts to revive it. (continue reading…)

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Moral Philosophy and its Discontents

April 29, 2018

A response to Massimo Pigliucci’s critique of my Scientific American column on utilitarianism, deontology, and rights. (Illustration above by Izhar Cohen.)

My May 2018 column in Scientific American was titled “You Kant be Serious: Utilitarianism and its Discontents”, a cheeky nod to the German philosopher that I gleaned from the creators of the Oxford Utilitarianism Scale, whose official description for those of us who score low on the scale read: “You’re not very utilitarian at all. You Kant be convinced that maximizing happiness is all that matters.” The online version of my column carries the title (which I have no control over): “Does the Philosophy of ‘the Greatest Good for the Greatest Number’ Have Any Merit?” The answer by any reasonable person would be “of course it does!” And I’m a reasonable person, so what’s all the fuss about? Why was I jumped on by professional philosophers on social media, such as Justin Weinberg of the University of South Carolina on Twitter @DailyNousEditor, who fired a fusillade of tweets, starting with this broadside:

I sent a private email to Justin inviting him to write a letter to the editor of Scientific American that I could then respond to—given that Twitter may not be the best medium for a discussion of important philosophical issues—but I never received a reply. (continue reading…)

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