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

Alvy’s Error and the Meaning of Life

published February 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

published January 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.

But that modest effect not only is erased when political ideology is factored in, it has an opposite effect on one end of the political spectrum. For Republicans, the more knowledge they have about climate science the less likely they are to accept the theory of anthropogenic global warming (whereas Democrats’ confidence goes up). “People with more knowledge only accept science when it doesn’t conflict with their preexisting beliefs and values,” Landrum explained. “Otherwise, they use that knowledge to more strongly justify their own positions.”

Landrum and her colleagues demonstrated the effect experimentally and reported the results in a 2017 paper in the Journal of Risk Research entitled “Culturally Antagonistic Memes and the Zika Virus: An Experimental Test,” in which participants read a news story on Zika public health risks that was linked to either climate change or immigration. Predictably, when Zika was connected to climate change, there was an increase in concern among Democrats and a decrease in concern among Republicans, but when Zika was associated with immigration, the effects were reversed. Skepticism, it would seem, is context-dependent. “We are good at being skeptical when information conflicts with our preexisting beliefs and values,” Landrum noted. “We are bad at being skeptical when information is compatible with our preexisting beliefs and values.”

In another 2017 study published in Advances in Political Psychology, “Science Curiosity and Political Information Processing,” Landrum and her colleagues found that liberal Democrats were far less likely than strong Republicans to voluntarily read a “surprising climate-skeptical story,” whereas a “surprising climate-concerned story” was far more likely to be read by those on the left than on the right. One encouraging mitigating factor was “science curiosity,” or the “motivation to seek out and consume scientific information for personal pleasure,” which “seems to counteract rather than aggravate the signature characteristics of politically motivated reasoning.”

The authors concluded that “individuals who have an appetite to be surprised by scientific information—who find it pleasurable to discover that the world does not work as they expected—do not turn this feature of their personality off when they engage political information but rather indulge it in that setting as well, exposing themselves more readily to information that defies their expectations about facts on contested issues. The result is that these citizens, unlike their less curious counterparts, react more open-mindedly and respond more uniformly across the political spectrum to the best available evidence.”

In other words, valuing science for pure pleasure is more of a bulwark against the politicization of science than facts alone.

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Outlawing War

published December 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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What is the Secret of Success?

published November 2017

Does it come from talent, hard work—or luck?

Scientific American (cover)

At a campaign rally in Roanoke, Va., before the 2012 election, President Barack Obama opined: “If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life&8230; . Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business—you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”

Although Obama was making a larger point about the power of collective action, such as building dams, power grids and the Internet, conservative heads exploded at the final sentiment. “I did build that!” is an understandable rejoinder to which I can relate. I research my books, edit my magazine, teach my courses and write these columns (this one is my 200th in a row for Scientific American). If I don’t make them happen, nobody else will.

But then I started thinking as a social scientist on the role of circumstance and luck in how lives turn out. It’s a sobering experience to realize just how many variables are out of our control:
(continue reading…)

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Sky Gods for Skeptics

published October 2017

Is belief in aliens a religious impulse?

Scientific American (cover)

In Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, Captain James T. Kirk encounters a deity that lures him to its planet in order to abscond with the Enterprise. “What does God need with a starship?” the skeptical commander inquires. I talked to Kirk himself—William Shatner, that is—about the film when I met him at a recent conference. The original plot device for the movie, which he directed, was for the crew to go “in search of God.” Fearful that some religious adherents might be offended that the Almighty could be discoverable by a spaceship, the studio bosses insisted that the deity be a malicious extraterrestrial impersonating God for personal gain.

How could a starship—or any technology designed to detect natural forces and objects—discover a supernatural God, who by definition would be beyond any such sensors? Any detectable entity would have to be a natural being, no matter how advanced, and as I have argued in this column [see “Shermer’s Last Law”; January 2002], “any sufficiently advanced extraterrestrial intelligence [ETI] is indistinguishable from God.” Thus, Shatner’s plot theme of looking for God could only turn up an ETI sufficiently advanced to appear God-like. (continue reading…)

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