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

23 and We

August 1, 2018

The limitations of personal genome service testing

Scientific American (cover)

Like a lot of baby boomers, I find myself gravitating to newspaper obits, cross-checking ages and causes of death with my current health parameters, most notably heart disease (which felled my father and grandfather) and cancer (which slew my mother). And then there is Alzheimer’s disease, which a 2015 report by the Alzheimer’s Association projects will destroy the brains of more than 28 million baby boomers. Given the importance of family history and genetics for longevity, I plunked down $199 for a 23andMe Health + Ancestry Service kit, spit into the little plastic vial, opted in for every test available for disease gene variants and anxiously awaited my reports. How’d they do?

First, the company captured my ancestry well at 99.7 percent European, primarily French/German (29.9 percent), British/Irish (21.6 percent), Balkan/Greece (16.4 percent) and Scandinavian/ Sweden (5.5 percent). My maternal grandmother is German and grandfather Greek; my fraternal great-grandparents were from Sweden and Denmark.

Second, the traits report correctly predicted that I can smell asparagus in my urine, taste bitter and have hazel eyes, ring fingers longer than index fingers, little freckling and straight, light hair. Third, for the disease reports, my eye lit on the phrase “variants not detected” for Parkinson’s, cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy, sickle cell anemia, Tay-Sachs and, most concernedly, Alzheimer’s. “Oh joy, oh rapture unforeseen!” (Thank you, Gilbert and Sullivan.)

But wait, 23andMe also says I have no bald spot, no cheek dimples, little upper back hair, a slight unibrow, no widow’s peak and a longer big toe—all wrong. If a genetic test for such comparatively simple physical features can be mistaken, what does that say about its accuracy for more complex diseases? “Our reports do not include all possible genetic variants that could affect these conditions,” 23andMe disclaims. “Other factors can also affect your risk of developing these conditions, including lifestyle, environment, and family history.” Oh, that.

For toe length, for example, 56 percent of research participants with results like mine (15 genetic markers for a longer big toe, 13 for a longer second toe) have a longer big toe, but I’m in the 44 percent. A prediction barely better than 50–50 isn’t terribly expedient. For Alzheimer’s, carrying the e4 variant of the APOE (apolipoprotein E) gene increases one’s risk of developing Alzheimer’s to 1 percent by age 65, 4 to 7 percent by age 75, and 20 to 23 percent by age 85 in men (to the same figure of less than 1 percent, to 5 to 7 percent and to 27 to 30 percent in women). Having two copies of the gene (one from each parent) moves the needle up to 4 percent (by age 65), 28 percent (age 75) and 51 percent (age 85) in men (2, 28 and 60 percent in women). But the test “does not include all possible variants or genes associated with late-onset Alzheimer’s disease,” so, for example, though lacking both e4 variants, I still have a 1 to 2 percent risk of Alzheimer’s by age 75 and 5 to 8 percent chance by age 85.

For further clarity on this tangle of interactive effects, I contacted Rudy Tanzi, a Harvard Medical School neurologist and head of the Alzheimer’s Genome Project, who co-discovered many of the genes for Alzheimer’s. He admitted that “no one can say with certainty [if ] a calculation of the variance of [Alzheimer’s is] due to genetics versus lifestyle,” adding that the e4 variant of the APOE gene “is present in 20 percent of the population and in 50 percent of lateonset cases but does not guarantee disease.”

Moreover, “until we identify all (or most) of the actual disease-causing mutations in these 40 genes, any attempts at putting an actual number at genetic variance is futile. In the meantime…, all we can say responsibly is that no more than 5 percent of gene mutations causing [Alzheimer’s] are guaranteed to do so. This means that in the remaining cases, most if not all almost certainly involve genetic influences (risk-conferring and protective), but in these cases (95 percent), it is an interplay of gene and environment/lifestyle that determines lifelong risk.”

What should we baby boomers do to shield ourselves against Alzheimer’s? “SHIELD” is Tanzi’s acronym for Sleep (uninterrupted seven to eight hours), Handle Stress, Interact (be sociable), Exercise (cardiovascular), Learn (“the more synapses you make, the more you can lose before you lose it,” Tanzi says), and Diet (Mediterranean: high in fruits, vegetables, olive oil, whole grains). As for personal genome service testing, actionable results with measurable outcome differences are still limited. But that is true for most medical knowledge, and yet we absorb everything we can for what ails us, so why not add genetics?


The Final Mysterians

July 1, 2018

Are consciousness, free will and God insoluble mysteries?

Scientific American (cover)

In 1967 British biologist and Nobel laureate Sir Peter Medawar famously characterized science as, in book title form, The Art of the Soluble. “Good scientists study the most important problems they think they can solve. It is, after all, their professional business to solve problems, not merely to grapple with them,” he wrote.

For millennia, the greatest minds of our species have grappled to gain purchase on the vertiginous ontological cliffs of three great mysteries—consciousness, free will and God—without ascending anywhere near the thin air of their peaks. Unlike other inscrutable problems, such as the structure of the atom, the molecular basis of replication and the causes of human violence, which have witnessed stunning advancements of enlightenment, these three seem to recede ever further away from understanding, even as we race ever faster to catch them in our scientific nets.

Are these “hard” problems, as philosopher David Chalmers characterized consciousness, or are they truly insoluble “mysterian” problems, as philosopher Owen Flanagan designated them (inspired by the 1960s rock group Question Mark and the Mysterians)? The “old mysterians” were dualists who believed in nonmaterial properties, such as the soul, that cannot be explained by natural processes. The “new mysterians,” Flanagan says, contend that consciousness can never be explained because of the limitations of human cognition. I contend that not only consciousness but also free will and God are mysterian problems—not because we are not yet smart enough to solve them but because they can never be solved, not even in principle, relating to how the concepts are conceived in language. Call those of us in this camp the “final mysterians.”

Consciousness. The hard problem of consciousness is represented by the qualitative experience (qualia) of what it is like to be something. It is the first-person subjective experience of the world through the senses and brain of the organism. It is not possible to know what it is like to be a bat (in philosopher Thomas Nagel’s famous thought experiment), because if you altered your brain and body from humanoid to batoid, you would just be a bat, not a human knowing what it feels like to be a bat. You would not be like the traveling salesman in Franz Kafka’s 1915 novella The Metamorphosis, who awakens to discover he has been transformed into a giant insect but still has human thoughts. You would just be an arthropod. By definition, only I can know my first-person experience of being me, and the same is true for you, bats and bugs.

Free will. Few scientists dispute that we live in a deterministic universe in which all effects have causes (except in quantum mechanics, although this just adds an element of randomness to the system, not freedom). And yet we all act as if we have free will—that we make choices among options and retain certain degrees of freedom within constraining systems. Either we are all delusional, or else the problem is framed to be conceptually impenetrable. We are not inert blobs of matter bandied about the pinball machine of life by the paddles of nature’s laws; we are active agents within the causal net of the universe, both determined by it and helping to determine it through our choices. That is the compatibilist position from whence volition and culpability emerge.

God. If the creator of the universe is supernatural— outside of space and time and nature’s laws—then by definition no natural science can discover God through any measurements made by natural instruments. By definition, this God is an unsolvable mystery. If God is part of the natural world or somehow reaches into our universe from outside of it to stir the particles (to, say, perform miracles like healing the sick), we should be able to quantify such providential acts. This God is scientifically soluble, but so far all claims of such measurements have yet to exceed statistical chance. In any case, God as a natural being who is just a whole lot smarter and more powerful than us is not what most people conceive of as deific.

Although these final mysteries may not be solvable by science, they are compelling concepts nonetheless, well deserving of our scrutiny if for no other reason than it may lead to a deeper understanding of our nature as sentient, volitional, spiritual beings.


The above column generated a lot of online attention, some of it critical attention by professional philosophers, who strongly suggested that I misrepresented a number of concepts related to these topics. On July 16, 2018, I published a followup to address some of that criticism. Read “Mysterianism Redux” on

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June 1, 2018

Google as a window into our private thoughts

Scientific American (cover)

What are the weirdest questions you’ve ever Googled? Mine might be (for my latest book): “How many people have ever lived?” “What do people think about just before death?” and “How many bits would it take to resurrect in a virtual reality everyone who ever lived?” (It’s 10 to the power of 10123.) Using Google’s autocomplete and Keyword Planner tools, U.K.-based Internet company Digitaloft generated a list of what it considers 20 of the craziest searches, including “Am I pregnant?” “Are aliens real?” “Why do men have nipples?” “Is the world flat?” and “Can a man get pregnant?”

This is all very entertaining, but according to economist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, who worked at Google as a data scientist (he is now an op-ed writer for the New York Times), such searches may act as a “digital truth serum” for deeper and darker thoughts. As he explains in his book Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are (Dey Street Books, 2017), “In the pre-digital age, people hid their embarrassing thoughts from other people. In the digital age, they still hide them from other people, but not from the internet and in particular sites such as Google and PornHub, which protect their anonymity.” Employing big data research tools “allows us to finally see what people really want and really do, not what they say they want and say they do.” (continue reading…)

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You Kant Be Serious

May 1, 2018

Utilitarianism and its discontents

Scientific American (cover)

Would you cut off your own leg if it was the only way to save another person’s life? Would you torture someone if you thought it would result in information that would prevent a bomb from exploding and killing hundreds of people? Would you politically oppress a people for a limited time if it increased the overall well-being of the citizenry? If you answered in the affirmative to these questions, then you might be a utilitarian, the moral system founded by English philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) and encapsulated in the principle of “the greatest good for the greatest number.”

Modern utilitarianism is instantiated in the famous trolley thought experiment: You are standing next to a fork in a trolley track and a switch to divert a trolley car that is about to kill five workers unless you throw the switch and divert the trolley down a side track where it will kill one worker. Most people say that they would throw the switch—kill one to save five. The problem with utilitarianism is evidenced in another thought experiment: You are a physician with five dying patients and one healthy person in the waiting room. Would you harvest the organs of the one to save the five? If you answered yes, you might be a psychopathic murderer.

In a paper published online in December 2017 in the journal Psychological Review entitled “Beyond Sacrificial Harm,” University of Oxford scholars Guy Kahane, Jim A. C. Everett and their colleagues aim to rehabilitate the dark side of utilitarianism by separating its two dimensions: (1) “instrumental harm,” in which it is permissible to sacrifice the few to benefit the many, and (2) “impartial beneficence,” in which one would agree that “it is morally wrong to keep money that one doesn’t really need if one can donate it to causes that provide effective help to those who will benefit a great deal.” You can find out what type you are by answering the nine questions in the authors’ Oxford Utilitarianism Scale. I scored a 17 out of a possible 63, which was at the time described as meaning “You’re not very utilitarian at all. You Kant be convinced that maximising happiness is all that matters.” (continue reading…)

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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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