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

Soul-Searching

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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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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