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

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Postmodernism vs. Science

The roots of the current campus madness

Scientific American (cover)

In a 1946 essay in the London Tribune entitled “In Front of Your Nose,” George Orwell noted that “we are all capable of believing things which we know to be untrue, and then, when we are finally proved wrong, impudently twisting the facts so as to show that we were right. Intellectually, it is possible to carry on this process for an indefinite time: the only check on it is that sooner or later a false belief bumps up against solid reality, usually on a battlefield.”

The intellectual battlefields today are on college campuses, where students’ deep convictions about race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation and their social justice antipathy toward capitalism, imperialism, racism, white privilege, misogyny and “cissexist heteropatriarchy” have bumped up against the reality of contradictory facts and opposing views, leading to campus chaos and even violence. Students at the University of California, Berkeley, and outside agitators, for example, rioted at the mere mention that conservative firebrands Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter had been invited to speak (in the end, they never did). Middlebury College students physically attacked libertarian author Charles Murray and his liberal host, professor Allison Stanger, pulling her hair, twisting her neck and sending her to the ER. (continue reading…)

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Science for All

On 22 March, 2017 I posted on my Twitter account (@michaelshermer) a link to this article titled “Science march on Washington, billed as historic, plagued by organizational turmoil,” which chronicled the “infighting among organizers, attacks from outside scientists who don’t feel their interests are fairly represented, and operational disputes.” The article went on to note that “Tensions have become so pronounced that some organizers have quit and many scientists have pledged not to attend.” Predictably, politics was the divisive element, most notably identity politics involving the proper representation of race and gender diversity, and immigration, obviously in response to the election of Donald Trump. The website of the march felt the need to post an official diversity policy that reads, in part, “We acknowledge that society and scientific institutions often fail to include and value the contributions of scientists from underrepresented groups.”

My initial thought was this: So let me get this straight. As the Federal government prepares to cut science budgets across the board, and in an era of fake news and alternative facts, instead of marching to proclaim how important science is to the American economy, not to mention human survival and flourishing, along with our commitment to facts and reason, you want to send a message to the public in general and the Trump administration in particular that science—the most universal institution in human history—is a failure when it comes to diversity and inclusion?

But then I realized that this had nothing to do with the ideals of science, which I articulated in a tweet posted shortly after the link to the article: (continue reading…)

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Michael Shermer Sizzle Reel

See clips from Dr. Michael Shermer’s most noted media appearances including: twice on the Colbert Report, Larry King Live with UFOlogists, CNN, and other news shows debating creationists and Intelligent Design advocates, and other highlights from his 25 year career as a public intellectual.

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Michael Shermer in Reasons to Believe

Reasons to Believe is a thought-provoking documentary by filmmaker Ben Fama Jr., that explores the psychology and science of belief and why we believe, sometimes falsely, in things that may not match up with reality. Facilitated by leaders in the fields of science, philosophy, neuroscience, moral reasoning, psychology, perception, memory formation, and indoctrination, these experts answer a variety of thought provoking questions and provide tangible structure to the definition and creation of belief in the human brain. Fama asks the question: Why do we believe?

Starring: Michael Shermer, Peter Boghossian, Jennifer Whitson, Caleb Lack and Chad Woodruff. Official website

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At the Boundary of Knowledge

Is it possible to measure supernatural or paranormal phenomena?
magazine cover

The history of science has beheld the steady replacement of the paranormal and the supernatural with the normal and the natural. Weather events once attributed to the supernatural scheming of deities are now understood to be the product of natural forces of temperature and pressure. Plagues formerly ascribed to women cavorting with the devil are currently known to be caused by bacteria and viruses. Mental illnesses previously imputed to demonic possession are today sought in genes and neurochemistry. Accidents heretofore explained by fate, karma or providence are nowadays accredited to probabilities, statistics and risk.

If we follow this trend to encompass all phenomena, what place is there for such paranormal forces as ESP or supernatural agents like God? Do we know enough to know that they cannot exist? Or is it possible there are unknown forces within our universe or intentional agents outside of it that we have yet to discover? According to California Institute of Technology physicist Sean Carroll in his intensely insightful book The Big Picture (Dutton, 2016), “All of the things you’ve ever seen or experienced in your life—objects, plants, animals, people—are made of a small number of particles, interacting with one another through a small number of forces.” Once you understand the fundamental laws of nature, you can scale up to planets and people and even assess the probability that God, the soul, the afterlife and ESP exist, which Carroll concludes is very low.

The postmodern belief that discarded ideas mean that there is no objective reality and that all theories are equal is more wrong than all the wrong theories combined.

But isn’t the history of science also strewn with the remains of failed theories such as phlogiston, miasma, spontaneous generation and the luminiferous aether? Yes, and that is how we know we are making progress. The postmodern belief that discarded ideas mean that there is no objective reality and that all theories are equal is more wrong than all the wrong theories combined. The reason has to do with the relation of the known to the unknown.

As the sphere of the known expands into the aether of the unknown, the proportion of ignorance seems to grow—the more you know, the more you know how much you don’t know. But note what happens when the radius of a sphere increases: the increase in the surface area is squared while the increase in the volume is cubed. Therefore, as the radius of the sphere of scientific knowledge doubles, the surface area of the unknown increases fourfold, but the volume of the known increases eightfold. It is at this boundary where we can stake a claim of true progress in the history of science.

Take our understanding of particles and forces, which Carroll says “seems indisputably accurate within a very wide domain of applicability,” such that “a thousand or a million years from now, whatever amazing discoveries science will have made, our descendants are not going to be saying ‘Haha, those silly twenty-first-century scientists, believing in ‘neutrons’ and ‘electromagnetism.’” Thus, Carroll concludes that the laws of physics “rule out the possibility of true psychic powers.” Why? Because the particles and forces of nature don’t allow us to bend spoons, levitate or read minds, and “we know that there aren’t new particles or forces out there yet to be discovered that would support them. Not simply because we haven’t found them yet, but because we definitely would have found them if they had the right characteristics to give us the requisite powers.”

What about a supernatural God? Perhaps such an entity exists outside nature and its laws. If so, how would we detect it with our instruments? If a deity used natural forces to, say, cure someone’s cancer by reprogramming the cancerous cells’ DNA, that would make God nothing more than a skilled genetic engineer. If God used unknown supernatural forces, how might they interact with the known natural forces? And if such supernatural forces could somehow stir the particles in our universe, shouldn’t we be able to detect them and thereby incorporate them into our theories about the natural world? Whence the supernatural?

It is at the horizon where the known meets the unknown that we are tempted to inject paranormal and supernatural forces to explain hitherto unsolved mysteries, but we must resist the temptation because such efforts can never succeed, not even in principle.

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