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

Silent No More

April 1, 2018

The rise of the atheists

Scientific American (cover)

In recent years much has been written about the rise of the “nones”—people who check the box for “none” on surveys of religious affiliation. A 2013 Harris Poll of 2,250 American adults, for example, found that 23 percent of all Americans have forsaken religion altogether. A 2015 Pew Research Center poll reported that 34 to 36 percent of millennials (those born after 1980) are nones and corroborated the 23 percent figure, adding that this was a dramatic increase from 2007, when only 16 percent of Americans said they were affiliated with no religion. In raw numbers, this translates to an increase from 36.6 million to 55.8 million nones. Though lagging far behind the 71 percent of Americans who identified as Christian in the Pew poll, they are still a significant voting block, far larger than Jews (4.7 million), Muslims (2.2 million) and Buddhists (1.7 million) combined (8.6 million) and comparable to politically powerful Christian sects such as Evangelical (25.4 percent) and Catholic (20.8 percent).

This shift away from the dominance of any one religion is good for a secular society whose government is structured to discourage catch basins of power from building up and spilling over into people’s private lives. But it is important to note that these nones are not necessarily atheists. Many have moved from mainstream religions into New Age spiritual movements, as evidenced in a 2017 Pew poll that found an increase from 19 percent in 2012 to 27 percent in 2017 of those who reported being “spiritual but not religious.” Among this cohort, only 37 percent described their religious identity as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular.”

Even among atheists and agnostics, belief in things usually associated with religious faith can worm its way through fissures in the materialist dam. A 2014 survey conducted by the Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture on 15,738 Americans, for example, found that of the 13.2 percent who called themselves atheist or agnostic, 32 percent answered in the affirmative to the question “Do you think there is life, or some sort of conscious existence, after death?” Huh? Even more incongruent, 6 percent of these atheists and agnostics also said that they believed in the bodily resurrection of the dead. You know, like Jesus. (continue reading…)

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Factiness

March 1, 2018

Are we living in a post-truth world?

Scientific American (cover)

In 2005 the American Dialect Society’s word of the year was “truthiness,” popularized by Stephen Colbert on his news show satire The Colbert Report, meaning “the truth we want to exist.” In 2016 the Oxford Dictionaries nominated as its word of the year “post-truth,” which it characterized as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” In 2017 “fake news” increased in usage by 365 percent, earning the top spot on the “word of the year shortlist” of the Collins English Dictionary, which defined it as “false, often sensational, information disseminated under the guise of news reporting.”

Are we living in a post-truth world of truthiness, fake news and alternative facts? Has all the progress we have made since the scientific revolution in understanding the world and ourselves been obliterated by a fusillade of social media postings and tweets? No. As Harvard University psychologist Steven Pinker observes in his resplendent new book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (Viking, 2018), “mendacity, truth-shading, conspiracy theories, extraordinary popular delusions, and the madness of crowds are as old as our species, but so is the conviction that some ideas are right and others are wrong.”

Even as pundits pronounced the end of veracity and politicians played loose with the truth, the competitive marketplace of ideas stepped up with a new tool of the Internet age: real-time fact-checking. As politicos spin-doctored reality in speeches, factcheckers at Snopes.com, FactCheck.org, and OpenSecrets.org rated them on their verisimilitude, with PolitiFact.com waggishly ranking statements as True, Mostly True, Half True, Mostly False, False, and Pants on Fire. Political fact-checking has even become clickbait (runner-up for the Oxford Dictionaries’ 2014 word of the year), as PolitiFact’s editor Angie Drobnic Holan explained in a 2015 article: “Journalists regularly tell me their media organizations have started highlighting fact-checking in their reporting because so many people click on fact-checking stories after a debate or high-profile news event.” (continue reading…)

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Alvy’s Error and the Meaning of Life

February 1, 2018

Science reveals our deepest purpose

Scientific American (cover)

In a flashback scene in the 1977 film Annie Hall, Woody Allen’s character Alvy Singer is a depressed young boy who won’t do his homework because, as he explains to his doctor: “The universe is expanding…. Well, the universe is everything, and if it’s expanding, someday it will break apart, and that will be the end of everything.” His exasperated mother upbraids the youth: “What has the universe got to do with it?! You’re here in Brooklyn. Brooklyn is not expanding!”

Call it “Alvy’s Error”: assessing the purpose of something at the wrong level of analysis. The level at which we should assess our actions is the human timescale of days, weeks, months and years—our life span of fourscore plus or minus 10—not the billions of years of the cosmic calendar. It is a mistake made by theologians when arguing that without a source external to our world to vouchsafe morality and meaning, nothing really matters.

One of the most prominent theologians of our time, William Lane Craig, committed Alvy’s Error in a 2009 debate at Columbia University with Yale University philosopher Shelly Kagan when he pronounced: “On a naturalistic worldview, everything is ultimately destined to destruction in the heat death of the universe. As the universe expands, it grows colder and colder as its energy is used up. Eventually all the stars will burn out, all matter will collapse into dead stars and black holes, there will be no life, no heat, no light—only the corpses of dead stars and galaxies expanding into endless darkness. In light of that end, it’s hard for me to understand how our moral choices have any sort of significance. There’s no moral accountability. The universe is neither better nor worse for what we do. Our moral lives become vacuous because they don’t have that kind of cosmic significance.” (continue reading…)

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For the Love of Science

January 1, 2018

Combating science denial with science pleasure

Scientific American (cover)

That conservatives doubt scientific findings and theories that conflict with their political and religious beliefs is evident from even a cursory scan of right-leaning media. The denial of evolution and of global warming and the pushback against stem cell research are the most egregious examples in recent decades. It is not surprising, because we expect those on the right to let their politics trump science—tantamount to a dog-bites-man story.

That liberals are just as guilty of antiscience bias comports more with accounts of humans chomping canines, and yet those on the left are just as skeptical of well-established science when findings clash with their political ideologies, such as with GMOs, nuclear power, genetic engineering and evolutionary psychology—skepticism of the last I call “cognitive creationism” for its endorsement of a blank-slate model of the mind in which natural selection operated on humans only from the neck down.

In reality, antiscience attitudes are formed in very narrow cognitive windows—those in which science appears to oppose certain political or religious views. Most people embrace most of science most of the time.

Who is skeptical of science, then, and when?

That question was the title of an October 2017 talk I attended by Asheley R. Landrum, a psychologist at Texas Tech University, who studies factors influencing the public understanding and perception of science, health and emerging technologies. She began by citing surveys that found more than 90 percent of both Republicans and Democrats agreed that “science and technology give more opportunities” and that “science makes our lives better.” She also reviewed modest evidence in support of the “knowledge deficit hypothesis,” which posits that public skepticism of science is the result of inadequate scientific knowledge. Those who know more about climate science, for example, are slightly more likely to accept that global warming is real and caused by humans than those who know less on the subject. (continue reading…)

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Outlawing War

December 1, 2017

Why “outcasting” works better than violence

Scientific American (cover)

After binge-watching the 18-hour PBS documentary series The Vietnam War, by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, I was left emotionally emptied and ethically exhausted from seeing politicians in the throes of deception, self-deception and the sunk-cost bias that resulted in a body count totaling more than three million dead North and South Vietnamese civilians and soldiers, along with more than 58,000 American troops. With historical perspective, it is now evident to all but delusional ideologues that the war was an utter waste of human lives, economic resources, political capital and moral reserves. By the end, I concluded that war should be outlawed.

In point of fact, war was outlawed … in 1928. Say what?

In their history of how this happened, The Internationalists: How a Radical Plan to Outlaw War Remade the World (Simon & Schuster, 2017), Yale University legal scholars Oona A. Hathaway and Scott J. Shapiro begin with the contorted legal machinations of lawyers, legislators and politicians in the 17th century that made war, in the words of Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz, “the continuation of politics by other means.” Those means included a license to kill other people, take their stuff and occupy their land. Legally. How?

In 1625 the renowned Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius penned a hundreds-page-long treatise originating with an earlier, similarly long legal justification for his country’s capture of the Portuguese merchant ship Santa Catarina when those two countries were in conflict over trading routes. In short, The Law of War and Peace argued that if individuals have rights that can be defended through courts, then nations have rights that can be defended through war because there was no world court. (continue reading…)

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