The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer

Giving the Devil His Due: Reviews


Reflections of a scientific humanist—Michael Shermer’s new book is a collection of skilful elucidations of academic ideas

I write this review after a weekend in which Extinction Rebellion, whose members presumably believe that science is inviolable, have blockaded the printing plants of national newspapers which they deem to be right-wing and therefore insufficiently vocal about the peril of climate change. Michael Shermer would doubtless say that they are failing to give the Devil his due and that the only way to allow science to be tested in the marketplace of ideas is to allow freedom of speech, whether it be climate-change denial or simple fecklessness, because if the position were reversed Extinction Rebellion would be denied the right to protest and to propagate its own claims.

As it happens, Shermer does not believe in the Devil or God. He is an atheist and an academic at a private university in California, whose first degree was in psychology and whose Ph.D. was in the history of science. Christopher Hitchens was a friend, as is Richard Dawkins, both of whom are the subject of essays in this collection of 30 “reflections” based on already published articles in the magazine Skeptic, which Shermer founded, Scientific American, where he wrote a monthly column for 18 years, and various other journals, not least Quillette, the online magazine which challenges left-wing orthodoxy. Free speech, he says, “is inviolable for science and politics”.

The best way to fight Holocaust deniers such as David Irving is with superior arguments, not by prosecuting them in court under “hate crime” law, as happened to Irving in Austria in 2006, or by no-platforming them on university campuses. Shermer points to the 2018 book by Nadine Strossen (a former president of the American Civil Liberties Union) called Hate: Why We Should Resist it with Free Speech, not Censorship. Strossen pointed out that in the 1830s several southern states introduced laws to ban abolitionist speech, but that “the asserted harms that abolitionist speech was feared to cause — libel, emotional injury, and violence — are the very same harms that are now cited in support of ‘hate speech’ laws”.

In one chapter Shermer examines the plight of US universities. At Oberlin College, for example, the students attacked imperialism, cissexist heteropatriarchy, and the enforcement of “gender binary and gender essentialism”, but their “most audacious demand was ‘an $8.20/hour stipend for black student leaders who are organizing protest efforts. These students wanted to be paid for protesting!”

We are all drawn towards safe spaces in our lives, Shermer says, citing his own cycling training rides with his buddies, but Duke University created a safe space for men to contemplate their “toxic masculinity”, which “has a reversed valance: punishment instead of protection”. […]

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This review was originally published on on October 28, 2020.


Hate Speech: Would You Give the Devil His Due? A professional debunker rigorously defends his opponents’ right to free speech.

In the riveting 2016 film Denial, which re-enacts the libel trial of Irving v Penguin Books and Deborah Lipstadt and the events leading up to that trial, the Holocaust denier David Irving (played by Timothy Spall) is seen in the opening scene declaring: “More women died on the back seat of Edward Kennedy’s car in Chappaquiddick than ever died in a gas chamber at Auschwitz.” Irving, who once had a serious reputation as an historian, did not deny that many Jews died at Auschwitz, but claimed this was mostly from disease. He was convinced that no one was gassed at Auschwitz.

In her 1993 book, Denying the Holocaust, historian Deborah Lipstadt had called Irving a Holocaust denier, falsifier, and a bigot, and wrote that he manipulated and distorted documents. In 1996, Irving filed libel charges in England against Lipstadt and her publisher Penguin Books, claiming that her accusations were false and had defamed his reputation as an historian. Irving chose to file the suit in England rather than in the U.S. because English defamation law puts the burden of proof in libel cases on the defendant. In his closing statement to the court, Irving claimed to have been a victim of an international, mostly Jewish, conspiracy for more than three decades.

On April 11, 2000, Judge Charles Gray of the High Court of Justice in London handed down his judgment: Lipstadt and Penguin had won their case resoundingly against Irving’s charges that they had libeled him. Judge Gray found that Irving had “for his own ideological reasons persistently and deliberately misrepresented and manipulated historical evidence” in order to portray Hitler “in an unwarrantedly favourable light” particularly in his treatment of the Jews. Judge Gray also found that Irving was an “active Holocaust denier; that he is anti-semitic and racist, and that he associates with right-wing extremists who promote neo-Nazism.”

Both debunking and defending the Devil

New York Times bestselling author and professional skeptic Michael Shermer is an expert on the psychological and social dynamics of conspiracy theories. He described his own first-hand encounters with Irving and other Holocaust deniers, and his attempts to get inside their heads to try to understand how and why they believe the things they do, in a carefully researched book coauthored with Alex Grobman, Denying History: Who Says the Holocaust Never Happened and Why Do They Say It? (2000).

To be clear, Shermer’s use of the term skeptic is very different from the sense in which Irving might mean it as skeptical about the Holocaust. Shermer subscribes to a scientific approach to skepticism, applying the scientific method to test and debunk false claims, scrupulously attempting to neutralize one’s own biases, assumptions and motivated reasoning. Shermer represents mainstream science and mainstream approaches to establishing historical facts. […]

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This review was originally published on on June 9, 2020. Ralph Lewis, M.D., is a psychiatrist at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto, Canada; an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Toronto; and a psycho-oncology consultant at the Odette Cancer Centre in Toronto. His clinical work focuses on youth psychiatry and psycho-oncology.

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Is free speech an ‘inviolable’ right or a cover for ‘hostile acts’?

On Aug. 11, 2017, white nationalists converged on Charlottesville for a “Unite the Right” rally to protest the town’s decision to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. Carrying torches and chanting “Jews will not replace us,” they faced off against counterprotesters. As the testy standoff erupted into violence the next day, a neo-Nazi rammed a car into a crowd, killing Heather Heyer and injuring dozens of others.

When President Trump refused to unequivocally condemn the white supremacists, declaring instead that “very fine people” populated both groups of demonstrators, he catapulted the episode into another flash point in the nation’s toxic political discourse.

Alongside the growing awareness of extremist groups ranging from white nationalists to Islamic terrorists, the incident triggered a new round of debates over free speech. Reaffirming the current state of the law, some commentators argued that no matter how detrimental they might be, white nationalists were entitled to speak freely as long as they refrained from inciting violence.

But the showdown in Charlottesville also gave new impetus to a small but increasingly popular viewpoint, particularly on college campuses dominated by speech codes, political correctness and protests leading to the cancellation of guest speakers. This view maintained that hate speech directed at vulnerable individuals was undeserving of the First Amendment’s protection.

In two new books, Michael Shermer and Thane Rosenbaum reside in these opposing camps. Largely eschewing the traditional constitutional and philosophical talking points of this debate, their fresh perspectives are a welcome contribution but ultimately fall short of finding a solution. The shortcoming stems not from their ideas, which are well-presented and instructive, but from the inherent difficulty of developing standards to restrict deleterious speech while preserving legitimate — albeit unpopular or provocative — discourse.

This is the free-speech dilemma confounding America.

In Giving the Devil His Due: Reflections of a Scientific Humanist, a collection of previously published essays and articles, Shermer skims over the usual constitutional analysis to instead cast free speech as the cornerstone of democracy and knowledge. People communicate “through speech and writing,” he explains. “Thus, free thought and free speech are … the ground of all other rights.” […]

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Michael Bobelian teaches journalism at Baruch College and is the author of “Battle for the Marble Palace: Abe Fortas, Earl Warren, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and the Forging of the Modern Supreme Court.” This review was originally published in the Washington Post on June 5, 2020 as well as the Houston Chronicle.


We Should Debate with the Devil

A decade or more ago I encountered what you might call the sceptics’ movement. Often young scientists and medics, they would meet in rooms above pubs and listen to speakers talking about science, religion, belief systems and ethics.

What had motivated many of the people attending these events had been the experience of the MMR controversy, when pseudo-science had entered the mainstream and caused enormous damage to public health. Sceptics saw themselves as an arguing army, upholding the values and methods of the Enlightenment in an age of conspiracy theories and mumbo jumbo. I liked them because they even managed to be sceptical about themselves. And they still do.

Over in the US, where pastors speak in tongues and lay on hands to heal the sick, where it seems appropriate to take an assault rifle with you into the supermarket, and where the president is a man who tweets 20 year-old murder conspiracy theories, the stakes seem higher. Possibly the leading organisation for taking on the various ideas and contentions of the anti-scientific and the anti-rational is the Skeptics Society, founded in 1992 by Michael Shermer, the author of this new book of essays and articles and whom some readers will know from his earlier very successful book Why People Believe Weird Things.

Giving the Devil His Due is grouped into a series of themes ranging from a total defence of free speech, via gun control, to what the blurb describes as “the ideas of controversial intellectuals”, some of whom are Shermer’s heroes and some of whom are his opponents. Shermer is a dedicated advocate of the view that freedom of speech underpins all other freedoms. Without it ideas can’t be tested, and the untested assertions of whoever gets to decide which speech is legitimate will rule. Besides, we all tend to think we’re right, but sometimes — obviously — we’re wrong. “It is my contention,” he concludes one essay, “that we must protect speech no matter how hateful it may seem. The solution to hate speech is more speech. The counter to bad ideas is good ideas. The rebuttal to pseudo-science is better science. The answer to fake news is real news. The best way to refute alternative facts is with actual facts.”

It’s one of the curses of the pandemic moment that almost everything written about ethics and society before it began now seems to need to be rewritten slightly. The decision by Google, Twitter and others to more actively police misinformation about coronavirus presents an interesting challenge to some free-speech arguments: an online version of the old question about the right to shout “fire” in a crowded cinema. […]

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This review was originally published on on May 29, 2020.


Reflections of a Scientific Humanist

Michael Shermer’s Giving the Devil His Due: Reflections of a Scientific Humanist (Cambridge University Press, 2020) is a very special book written for people that actually spend time “thinking.” Geez, come to think of it, that’s kinda special in and of itself, “people thinking about things.” It’s especially true because nowadays society is geared to the opposite of deep thinking. Rather, in today’s world quick reflexes attuned to electrical whims rule the day. People increasingly react to impulses, not deep thought, as buttons/apps are pushed to communicate across the room as well as across the world. Presto! So much for deep thought!

Dr. Shermer (PhD, Claremont Graduate University), a multiple New York Times bestselling author, provides an outlet for those looking for something more than personally “reacting to impulses, pressing buttons, staring at small screens.” He satiates the innate deep-seated human need to connect with the intellectual intensity of the world, its colors, its odors, its thinkers, its societal norms, and its cultural roots with his crystal clear words. These are themes of the life experience in an increasingly whacky world. Giving the Devil His Due is a book for people that have a thirst for understanding the crucial uppermost levels of knowledge of today’s world.

As for what Shermer personally thinks and believes, in addition to his interesting political hybrid libertarianism/liberalism, he is a science advocate, par excellence: “I hold that science is the best tool ever devised for understanding the world and changing it for the better.” (pg. 135)

And, in that regard, he adheres to the science: “In light of the accumulation of evidence, the position of denying global warming is no longer tenable.” (Scientific American, June 2006)

Shermer’s intellectual cachet comes from a broad, extraordinary experience as the Editor-in-Chief of Skeptic magazine for 25 years and as a monthly columnist for Scientific American for 18 years. From that broad eclectic base of acquaintances, guests, and interviews, he offers a collection of essays and articles, mostly by himself, supplemented by respected worldly scholars, scientists, the deepest of thinkers, and even the crazies of society.

Shermer’s book is five parts: (1) Free Thought and Free Speech, (2) God and Religion, (3) Politics and Society, (4) Scientific Humanism, and (5) Controversial Intellectuals.

Along the way, Shermer introduces a collection of people from wildly diverse backgrounds, for example: (1) Michele Bachmann (House of Representatives, 2007–2015) (2) Jared Diamond (Guns, Germs, and Steel, 1997 — Pulitzer Prize winner (3) biologist Richard Dawkins (The Selfish Gene, a classic, Oxford University Press) (4) American/British intellectual extraordinaire Christopher Hitchens (Shermer’s chocolate lab is named “Hitch” in honor of Hitchens) (5) Charles Darwin (On the Origin of Species) and (6) Thomas Jefferson (President, 1801–09 — Shermer’s favorite president) and (7) Ayn Rand (Atlas Shrugged, 1957).

He takes the reader on splendid journeys that pry open the mysterious, for example: from a scientific perspective, he gives consideration to “the two biggest questions of all” (1) Does the universe have a purpose? (2) why is there something rather than nothing?” (Pg. 103)

Those two high intensity brainy subjects alone are worth a serious read of this finely written tome that also tackles the push and pull of today’s political bickering, Left/Right or is classical liberalism the proper course?

And, speaking of the proper course of a properly run government, he goes so far as to tackle how Mars should be governed when colonists first set up a new outer space society, which will be in sharp contrast to the political beginnings of Jamestown Erectus, circa 1607. Keeping in mind: “The 1967 Outer Space Treaty that the USA signed prohibits anyone from ‘owning’ Mars.” (pg. 150)

Fortunately, Edinburgh astrophysicist Charles S. Cockell, in a series of meetings, already addressed Mars’s governance issues with scholars and scientists from varied fields in two conferences. Cockell personally informed Shermer: “Space is an inherently tyranny-prone environment.” (pg. 151)

And, fascinatingly enough, there is a reasonable answer to the prevention of a tyranny-prone Mars by establishing “modularity.” Which means, “literally incorporating liberty via architecture.” Whoever controls production of oxygen is key. It could be tyrannically authoritative (monopolistic ownership) or it could be fair and democratic (individual ownership units), depending upon configurations and design of all-important oxygen, as architectural engineering holds the key to Mars’ future political structure.

Giving the Devil His Due is a treasure trove for lovers of the humanities and society at large as viewed through the perspective of scholarly minds, treatises, and essays. It’s marvelously ripened and full of wonderful tales about people, like Jordan Peterson, arguably the most controversial intellectual of the 21st century and one of the most polarizing figures in intellectual life since Noam Chomsky.

Peterson’s book 12 Rules for Life succeeds in “launching its author into the cultural stratosphere.” (pg.299) By way of an outside subjective opinion re the Peterson personality type hitting the world stage, according to Caitlin Flanagan, “Why the Left Is So Afraid of Jordan Peterson,” The Atlantic, August 9, 2019: “The left has an obvious and pressing need to unperson him; what he and the other members of the so-called ‘intellectual dark web’ are offering is kryptonite to identity politics.”

It’s these stories that offer the reader insight into true intellectual grit, as every printed word by Shermer carefully conveys meaning.

Postscript: “It is obvious that God was made in our likeness and not the reverse.” (Michael Shermer, Editor-in-Chief, Skeptic)

This review was originally published on on January 28, 2020.

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