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Anthony Kronman — The Assault on American Excellence
The former dean of Yale Law School argues that the feverish egalitarianism gripping college campuses today is out of place at institutions whose job is to prepare citizens to live in a vibrant democracy. In his tenure at Yale, Anthony Kronman has watched students march across campus to protest the names of buildings and seen colleagues resign over emails about Halloween costumes. He is no stranger to recent confrontations at American universities. But where many see only the suppression of free speech, the babying of students, and the drive to bury the imperfect parts of our history, Kronman recognizes in these on-campus clashes a threat to our democracy. Shermer and Kronman discuss:
Anthony T. Kronman served as the dean of Yale Law School from 1994–2004, and has taught at the university for forty years. He is the author or coauthor of five books, including The Assault on American Excellence; Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life; and Confessions of a Born-Again Pagan.
|Aug 20, 2019|
Dr. Donald Hoffman — The Case Against Reality: Why Evolution Hid the Truth From Our Eyes
In his new book, The Case Against Reality: Why Evolution Hid the Truth From Our Eyes, the U.C. Irvine cognitive scientist Dr. Donald Hoffman challenges the leading scientific theories that claim that our senses report back objective reality. How can it be possible that the world we see is not objective reality? And how can our senses be useful if they are not communicating the truth? Hoffman argues that while we should take our perceptions seriously, we should not take them literally. His evolutionary model contends that natural selection has favored perception that hides the truth and guides us toward useful action, shaping our senses to keep us alive and reproducing. We observe a speeding car and do not walk in front of it; we see mold growing on bread and do not eat it. These impressions, though, are not objective reality. Just like a file icon on a desktop screen is a useful symbol rather than a genuine representation of what a computer file looks like, the objects we see every day are merely icons, allowing us to navigate the world safely and with ease. The real-world implications for this discovery are huge, even dismantling the very notion that spacetime is objective reality. The Case Against Reality dares us to question everything we thought we knew about the world we see.
In this conversation, Hoffman and Shermer get deep into the weeds of:
|Aug 13, 2019|
Dr. Lee McIntyre — The Scientific Attitude: Defending Science from Denial, Fraud, and Pseudoscience
In this engaging conversation on the nature of science, Dr. McIntyre and Dr. Shermer get deep into the weeds of where to draw the line between science and pseudoscience. It may seem obvious when you see it (like Justice Potter’s definition of pornography — “I know it when I see it”), from a philosophical perspective it isn’t at all easy to articulate a formula for science that perfectly weeds out all incorrect or fraudulent scientific claims while still retaining true scientific claims. It really comes down to what Dr. McIntyre describes as a “scientific attitude” in an emphasis on evidence and scientists’ willingness to change theories on the basis of new evidence. For example, claims that climate change isn’t settled science, that evolution is “only a theory,” and that scientists are conspiring to keep the truth about vaccines from the public are staples of some politicians’ rhetorical repertoire. In this podcast, and in more detail in his book, McIntyre provides listeners and readers with answers to these challenges to science, and in the process shows how science really works.
McIntyre and Shermer also discuss:
|Jul 30, 2019|
William Poundstone — The Doomsday Calculation: How an Equation that Predicts the Future is Transforming Everything We Know About Life and the Universe
In this wide ranging conversation with science writer William Poundstone, answers to these questions, and more, will be provided … or at least considered in the framework of Bayesian analysis. In the 18th century, the British minister and mathematician Thomas Bayes devised a theorem that allowed him to assign probabilities to events that had never happened before. It languished in obscurity for centuries until computers came along and made it easy to crunch the numbers. Now, as the foundation of big data, Bayes’ formula has become a linchpin of the digital economy.
But here’s where things get really interesting: Bayes’ theorem can also be used to lay odds on the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence; on whether we live in a Matrix-like counterfeit of reality; on the “many worlds” interpretation of quantum theory being correct; and on the biggest question of all: how long will humanity survive?
The Doomsday Calculation tells how Silicon Valley’s profitable formula became a controversial pivot of contemporary thought. Drawing on interviews with thought leaders around the globe, it’s the story of a group of intellectual mavericks who are challenging what we thought we knew about our place in the universe.
|Jul 23, 2019|
Charles Fishman — One Giant Leap: The Impossible Mission that Flew us to the Moon
On this July 16th, the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11, Michael Shermer speaks with veteran space reporter Charles Fishman who has been writing about NASA and the space program for more than 30 years.
In One Giant Leap he delivers an all-new take on the race to the Moon that puts Apollo into a new perspective in American history. Yes, the Apollo astronauts are the well-known and well-deserved public heroes of the race to the Moon. But the astronauts didn’t make the trip possible. It took 410,000 people to make the moon landings achievable. Every hour of spaceflight for Apollo required a million hours of work by scientists, engineers and factory workers on the ground — the equivalent of 10 lifetimes of work back on Earth. Fishman tells the story of the men and women who did the work to get the astronauts, and the country, to the Moon and back. Fishman and Shermer discuss:
|Jul 16, 2019|
Shaili Jain, M.D. — The Unspeakable Mind: Stories of Trauma and Healing from the Frontlines of PTSD Science
From a physician and post-traumatic stress disorder specialist comes a nuanced cartography of PTSD, a widely misunderstood yet crushing condition that afflicts millions of Americans.
The Unspeakable Mind is the definitive guide for a trauma-burdened age. With profound empathy and meticulous research, Shaili Jain, M.D. — a practicing psychiatrist and PTSD specialist at one of America’s top VA hospitals, trauma scientist at the National Center for PTSD, and a Stanford Professor — shines a long-overdue light on the PTSD epidemic affecting today’s fractured world.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder goes far beyond the horrors of war and is an inescapable part of all our lives. At any given moment, more than six million Americans are suffering with PTSD. Dr. Jain’s groundbreaking work demonstrates the ways this disorder cuts to the heart of life, interfering with one’s capacity to love, create, and work — incapacity brought on by a complex interplay between biology, genetics, and environment. Beyond the struggles of individuals, PTSD has a tangible imprint on our cultures and societies around the world.
In this conversation Dr. Shermer and Dr. Jain discuss:
|Jul 09, 2019|
Andrew Seidel — Busting the Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism is Un-American
In this important new book, The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism is Un-American, constitutional attorney and scholar at the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF), Andrew L. Seidel, begins by explaining what apparently religious language is doing in the Declaration of Independence. Does this prove that America was founded on Judeo-Christian principles? Are the Ten Commandments the basis for American law? What, exactly, was the role of religion in America’s founding? Christian nationalists assert that our nation was founded on Judeo-Christian principles, and advocate an agenda based on this popular historical claim. But is this belief true? The Founding Myth answers the question once and for all. Seidel builds his case point by point, comparing the Ten Commandments to the Constitution and contrasting biblical doctrine with America’s founding philosophy, showing that the Bible contradicts the Declaration of Independence’s central tenets. Thoroughly researched, this persuasively argued and fascinating book proves that America was not built on the Bible and that Christian nationalism is, in fact, un-American.
Seidel and Shermer also discuss:
|Jul 01, 2019|
Robert Zubrin — The Case for Space: Spaceflight Revolution
In this dialogue, visionary astronautical engineer Robert Zubrin lays out the plans for how humans can become a space faring, multi-planetary civilization, starting with the competing entrepreneurs like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos who are creating a revolution in spaceflight that promises to transform the near future. Fueled by the combined expertise of the old aerospace industry and the talents of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, spaceflight is becoming cheaper. The new generation of space explorers has already achieved a major breakthrough by creating reusable rockets. Zubrin foresees more rapid innovation, including global travel from any point on Earth to another in an hour or less; orbital hotels; moon bases with incredible space observatories; human settlements on Mars, the asteroids, and the moons of the outer planets; and then, breaking all limits, pushing onward to the stars.
Zubrin shows how projects that sound like science fiction can actually become reality. But beyond the how, he makes an even more compelling case for why we need to do this—to increase our knowledge of the universe, to make unforeseen discoveries on new frontiers, to harness the natural resources of other planets, to safeguard Earth from stray asteroids, to ensure the future of humanity by expanding beyond its home base, and to protect us from being catastrophically set against each other by the false belief that there isn’t enough for all.
Zubrin and Shermer also discuss:
This Science Salon was recorded on June 17, 2019.
|Jun 24, 2019|
Dr. Michael Shermer — What is Truth?
In this live podcast event hosted by the Santa Barbara Science Salon in conjunction with the Skeptics Society and the Unitarian Society, co-hosted by Dr. Whitney Detar, Dr. Shermer reflects on the question “What is Truth?” in the context of his lifelong search to understand why people believe weird things.
What is a weird thing and how do we know what is true? This is what is known as the demarcation problem, and Dr. Shermer provides numerous examples of the difficulty of drawing a clear demarcating line between science and pseudoscience. Sometimes it’s obvious, sometimes it’s not.
Science, Dr. Shermer begins, is “A set of methods designed to describe and interpret observed or inferred phenomenon, past or present, aimed at building a testable body of knowledge open to rejection or confirmation.” That is, it is “A method to explain the world that is testable and open to change.”
Through the scientific method we aim for objectivity: the basing of conclusions on external validation. And we avoid mysticism: the basing of conclusions on personal insights that lack external validation.
Dr. Shermer then presents examples of subjective/internal truths (dark chocolate is better than milk chocolate; Stairway to Heaven is the greatest rock song) and objective/external truths (evolution happened, the dinosaurs went extinct 65 million years ago), and gave examples of how subjective truths (meditation makes me feel better) may become objective truths (meditation works). The lecture was followed by an extensive AMA/Q&A with the audience.
This Science Salon was recorded on May 19, 2019.
|Jun 17, 2019|
Dr. Brian Keating — Losing the Nobel Prize: A Story of Cosmology, Ambition, and the Perils of Science’s Highest Honor
In this wide-ranging conversation Science Salon host Dr. Michael Shermer speaks with cosmologist and inventor of the BICEP (Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization) experiment Dr. Brian Keating about the following topics:
This Science Salon was recorded on May 21, 2019. We apologize for the very poor audio-video quality of this recording.
|Jun 11, 2019|
Dr. Barbara Tversky — Mind in Motion: How Action Shapes Thought
An eminent psychologist offers a major new theory of human cognition: movement, not language, is the foundation of thought.
When we try to think about how we think, we can’t help but think of words. Indeed, some have called language the stuff of thought. But pictures are remembered far better than words, and describing faces, scenes, and events defies words. Anytime you take a shortcut or play chess or basketball or rearrange your furniture in your mind, you’ve done something remarkable: abstract thinking without words.
In Mind in Motion, psychologist Barbara Tversky shows that spatial cognition isn’t just a peripheral aspect of thought, but its very foundation, enabling us to draw meaning from our bodies and their actions in the world. Our actions in real space get turned into mental actions on thought, often spouting spontaneously from our bodies as gestures. Spatial thinking underlies creating and using maps, assembling furniture, devising football strategies, designing airports, understanding the flow of people, traffic, water, and ideas. Spatial thinking even underlies the structure and meaning of language: why we say we push ideas forward or tear them apart, why we’re feeling up or have grown far apart.
In this dialogue Dr. Tversky and Dr. Shermer discuss:
This Science Salon audio-only recording was created on June 1, 2019.
|Jun 04, 2019|
Dr. Michael Ruse — A Darwinian Meaning to Life
Dr. Michael Ruse is the Lucyle T. Werkmeister Professor of Philosophy, and Director of the Program in the History and Philosophy of Science, at Florida State University. He has written or edited more than 50 books. His new book is “A Meaning to Life,” which we discuss on the show, as well as:
This Science Salon was recorded on January 16, 2019.
|May 28, 2019|
Dr. Christian Smith — Atheist Overreach: What Atheism Can’t Deliver
In recent years atheism has become ever more visible, acceptable, and influential. Atheist apologists have become increasingly vociferous and confident in their claims: that a morality requiring benevolence towards all and universal human rights need not be grounded in religion; that modern science disproves the existence of God; and that there is nothing innately religious about human beings. In Atheist Overreach, Christian Smith takes a look at the evidence and arguments, and explains why we ought to be skeptical of these atheists' claims about morality, science, and human nature. He does not argue that atheism is necessarily wrong, but rather that its advocates are advancing crucial claims that are neither rationally defensible nor realistic. Their committed worldview feeds unhelpful arguments and contributes to the increasing polarization of today's political landscape. Everyone involved in the theism-atheism debates, in shared moral reflection, and in the public consumption of the findings of science should be committed to careful reasoning and rigorous criticism.
In this podcast conversation about his book Smith and Shermer get into the weeds of…
This Science Salon was recorded on April 19, 2019.
|May 21, 2019|
Dr. Christian List — Why Free Will is Real: A response to Sam Harris, Jerry Coyne, and Other Determinists
Philosophers have argued about the nature and the very existence of free will for centuries. Today, many scientists and scientifically minded commentators are skeptical that it exists, especially when it is understood to require the ability to choose between alternative possibilities. If the laws of physics govern everything that happens, they argue, then how can our choices be free? Believers in free will must be misled by habit, sentiment, or religious doctrine. Why Free Will is Real defies scientific orthodoxy and presents a bold new defense of free will in the same naturalistic terms that are usually deployed against it.
Unlike those who defend free will by giving up the idea that it requires alternative possibilities to choose from, Christian List retains this idea as central, resisting the tendency to defend free will by watering it down. He concedes that free will and its prerequisites—intentional agency, alternative possibilities, and causal control over our actions—cannot be found among the fundamental physical features of the natural world. But, he argues, that’s not where we should be looking. Free will is a “higher-level” phenomenon found at the level of psychology. It is like other phenomena that emerge from physical processes but are autonomous from them and not best understood in fundamental physical terms—like an ecosystem or the economy. When we discover it in its proper context, acknowledging that free will is real is not just scientifically respectable; it is indispensable for explaining our world.
This Science Salon was recorded on May 1, 2019.
|May 15, 2019|
Jared Diamond — Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis
For this special edition of the Science Salon Podcast Dr. Shermer took a camera crew to Jared Diamond’s home in Los Angeles for an especially intimate portrait of the man and his theories. You won’t want to miss this conversation, one of the best we’ve yet recorded, with one of the most interesting minds of our time, perhaps of all time.
In his earlier bestsellers Guns, Germs and Steel and Collapse, Jared Diamond transformed our understanding of what makes civilizations rise and fall. Now, in the final book in this monumental trilogy, he reveals how successful nations recover from crisis through selective change — a coping mechanism more commonly associated with personal trauma.
In a dazzling comparative study, Diamond shows us how seven countries have survived defining upheavals in the recent past — from US Commodore Perry’s arrival in Japan to the Soviet invasion of Finland to Pinochet’s regime in Chile — through a process of painful self-appraisal and adaptation, and he identifies patterns in the way that these distinct nations recovered from calamity. Looking ahead to the future, he investigates whether the United States, and the world, are squandering their natural advantages, on a path towards political conflict and decline. Or can we still learn from the lessons of the past?
Adding a psychological dimension to the awe-inspiring grasp of history, geography, economics, and anthropology that marks all Diamond’s work, Upheaval reveals how both nations and individuals can become more resilient. The result is a book that is epic, urgent, and groundbreaking.
This Science Salon was recorded on March 13, 2019.
|May 07, 2019|
Michael Tomasello — Becoming Human
In this fascinating conversation with the evolutionary anthropologist Michael Tomasello, the Max Planck Institute scientist presents his new theory of how humans became such a distinctive species. Other theories focus on evolution. Here, Tomasello proposes a complementary theory of human uniqueness, focused on development. His data-driven model explains how those things that make us most human are constructed during the first years of a child’s life.
Tomasello assembles nearly three decades of experimental work with chimpanzees, bonobos, and human children to propose a new framework for psychological growth between birth and seven years of age. He identifies eight pathways that starkly differentiate humans from their closest primate relatives: social cognition, communication, cultural learning, cooperative thinking, collaboration, prosociality, social norms, and moral identity. In each of these, great apes possess rudimentary abilities. But then, Tomasello argues, the maturation of humans’ evolved capacities for shared intentionality transform these abilities—through the new forms of sociocultural interaction they enable—into uniquely human cognition and sociality. The first step occurs around nine months, with the emergence of joint intentionality, exercised mostly with caregiving adults. The second step occurs around three years, with the emergence of collective intentionality involving both authoritative adults, who convey cultural knowledge, and coequal peers, who elicit collaboration and communication. Finally, by age six or seven, children become responsible for self-regulating their beliefs and actions so that they comport with cultural norms.
Becoming Human places human sociocultural activity within the framework of modern evolutionary theory, and shows how biology creates the conditions under which culture does its work.
This Science Salon was recorded on February 19, 2019.
|Apr 30, 2019|
Dr. Hector A. Garcia — Sex, Power, and Partisanship: How Evolutionary Science Makes Sense of Our Political Divide
Through the lens of evolutionary science, Dr. Garcia offers a novel perspective on why we hold our political ideas, and why they are so often in conflict. Drawing on examples from across the animal kingdom, Garcia reveals how even the most complex political processes can be influenced by our basic drives to survive and reproduce—including the policies we back, whether we are liberal or conservative, and whether we are inspired or repelled by the words of a president. Garcia explains how our political orientations derive from an ancestral history of violent male competition, surprisingly influencing how we respond to issues as wide-ranging as affirmative action, women’s rights, social welfare, abortion, foreign policy, and even global warming. Critically, Garcia shows us how our instinctive political tribalism can keep us from achieving stable, functioning societies, and offers solutions for rising above our ancestral past. Dr. Garcia and Dr. Shermer also discuss:
Hector A. Garcia, Psy.D., is the author of Alpha God: The Psychology of Religious Violence and Oppression. He is an assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, and a clinical psychologist specializing in the treatment of posttraumatic stress disorder in combat veterans. He has published extensively on evolutionary psychology, stress and politics in organizations, and the interplay between war and masculine identity.
This Science Salon was recorded on February 25, 2019.
|Apr 24, 2019|
Dr. Michael Shermer — “Are the Miracles of Jesus Unbelievable?” Debate Postmortem (AMA # 5)
In this AMA special Dr. Shermer conducts a postmortem on his debate with the evangelical Christian theologian Luuk van de Weghe, with Windmill Ministries, before an audience of about 400 people, the vast majority of which were evangelicals. Dr. Shermer argues in the affirmative to the debate proposition that the miracles of Jesus are unbelievable. In this postmortem Dr. Shermer elaborates on his notes for the debate, suggesting ways to think about miracles from a scientific or naturalistic perspective.
The debate took place on March 30, 2019 in Sequim, Washington, and was moderated by Justin Brierley.
|Apr 21, 2019|
Dr. Mark Moffett — The Human Swarm: How Our Societies Arise, Thrive, and Fall
In this riveting conversation, Dr. Shermer speaks with Dr. Mark Moffett, biologist (Ph.D. Harvard, under E. O. Wilson), wildlife photographer for National Geographic, cave explorer, and world traveler about his new book, The Human Swarm: How Our Societies Arise, Thrive, and Fall, on the nature of societies from a biologist’s perspective. Scientists routinely explain that humans rule the planet because of our intelligence, tools, or language, but as Moffett argues, our biggest asset, surprisingly overlooked to date, is our ability to be comfortable around strangers. We can walk into a cafe or stadium full of unfamiliar people without thinking twice, but a chimpanzee, wolf or lion, encountering strangers could be attacked and perhaps killed. This ability—not IQ—has allowed humans to swarm over the world in vast nations. If we want to compare ourselves to the rest of the animal kingdom in order to define what makes our societies unique, Moffett argues that it’s time we look at ants. Making their way across the African savannah, the Australian coastline, and the American plains, our ancestors moved in small bands of lifelong fellow travelers. Month after month they made their camps and searched for food and water. Rarely did they encounter other human souls. So rarely that outsiders seemed to occupy a realm between reality and myth. Aborigines guessed the first Europeans they met were ghosts. Over time our view of the members of other societies has changed radically; today, foreigners don’t seem outlandish or otherworldly, as they once routinely did. As a consequence of global exploration starting in the 15th century, and more recently tourism and social media, contact between people from far-flung parts of the globe is now commonplace. Outright incomprehension of outsiders is no longer the excuse it often was in prehistory.
This Science Salon was recorded on April 8, 2019.
|Apr 16, 2019|
Dr. Richard Wrangham — The Goodness Paradox: The Strange Relationship Between Virtue and Violence in Human Evolution
We Homo sapiens can be the nicest of species and also the nastiest. What occurred during human evolution to account for this paradox? What are the two kinds of aggression that primates are prone to, and why did each evolve separately? How does the intensity of violence among humans compare with the aggressive behavior of other primates? How did humans domesticate themselves? And how were the acquisition of language and the practice of capital punishment determining factors in the rise of culture and civilization?
Authoritative, provocative, and engaging, The Goodness Paradox offers a startlingly original theory of how, in the last 250 million years, humankind became an increasingly peaceful species in daily interactions even as its capacity for coolly planned and devastating violence remains undiminished. In tracing the evolutionary histories of reactive and proactive aggression, biological anthropologist Richard Wrangham forcefully and persuasively argues for the necessity of social tolerance and the control of savage divisiveness still haunting us today.
Dr. Richard Wrangham is Ruth B. Moore Professor of Biological Anthropology, Harvard University. He is the author of Catching Fire: How Cooking Made us Human and Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence. He has studied wild chimpanzees in Uganda since 1987 and received a MacArthur Foundation fellowship and is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences of the British Academy.
Dr. Wrangham and Dr. Shermer discuss:
This Science Salon was recorded on March 5, 2019.
|Apr 10, 2019|
Nicholas A. Christakis — Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society
In this exceptionally important conversation Dr. Shermer discusses at length the background to and research of Dr. Nicholas Christakis, a physician and evolutionary sociologist famous for his study of social networks in humans and other animals. Drawing on advances in social science, evolutionary biology, genetics, neuroscience, and network science, Blueprint shows how and why evolution has placed us on a humane path—and how we are united by our common humanity. For too long, scientists have focused on the dark side of our biological heritage: our capacity for aggression, cruelty, prejudice, and self-interest. But natural selection has given us a suite of beneficial social features, including our capacity for love, friendship, cooperation, and learning. Beneath all our inventions—our tools, farms, machines, cities, nations—we carry with us innate proclivities to make a good society. In Blueprint, Nicholas A. Christakis introduces the compelling idea that our genes affect not only our bodies and behaviors, but also the ways in which we make societies, ones that are surprisingly similar worldwide. With many vivid examples—including diverse historical and contemporary cultures, communities formed in the wake of shipwrecks, commune dwellers seeking utopia, online groups thrown together by design or involving artificially intelligent bots, and even the tender and complex social arrangements of elephants and dolphins that so resemble our own—Christakis shows that, despite a human history replete with violence, we cannot escape our social blueprint for goodness. Shermer and Christakis also discuss:
Nicholas A. Christakis is a physician and sociologist who explores the ancient origins and modern implications of human nature. He directs the Human Nature Lab at Yale University, where he is the Sterling Professor of Social and Natural Science, in the Departments of Sociology, Medicine, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Statistics and Data Science, and Biomedical Engineering. He is the Co-Director of the Yale Institute for Network Science and the co-author of Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives.
This Science Salon was recorded on March 27, 2019.
|Apr 03, 2019|
Cass R. Sunstein — On Freedom
In this pathbreaking book, New York Times bestselling author Cass Sunstein asks us to rethink freedom. He shows that freedom of choice isn’t nearly enough. To be free, we must also be able to navigate life. People often need something like a GPS device to help them get where they want to go — whether the issue involves health, money, jobs, children, or relationships.
In both rich and poor countries, citizens often have no idea how to get to their desired destination. That is why they are unfree. People also face serious problems of self-control, as many of them make decisions today that can make their lives worse tomorrow. And in some cases, we would be just as happy with other choices, whether a different partner, career, or place to live — which raises the difficult question of which outcome best promotes our well-being.
Accessible and lively, and drawing on perspectives from the humanities, religion, and the arts, as well as social science and the law, On Freedom explores a crucial dimension of the human condition that philosophers and economists have long missed — and shows what it would take to make freedom real.
In addition to discussing his book Sunstein and Shermer talk about what it was like to work in the Obama administration, the issue of free will and determinism in the context of his theory of libertarian paternalism and choice architecture, opt-in vs. opt-out programs related to everything from menu options to organ donations, the electoral college, term limits for Supreme Court Justices, free speech on college campuses (and trigger warnings, safe spaces, and micro aggressions), Universal Basic Income, taxes, and terrorism.
About Professor Sunstein’s principle, Dr. Shermer wrote in his book The Mind of the Market:
This Science Salon was recorded on March 4, 2019.
|Mar 26, 2019|
Ben Shapiro — The Right Side of History: How Reason and Moral Purpose Made the West Great
In this wide ranging conversation, the noted conservative political commentator and public intellectual Ben Shapiro makes the case that what makes the West great is its foundation in Judeo-Christian values. We can thank these values, Shapiro argues, “for the birth of science, the dream of progress, human rights, prosperity, peace, and artistic beauty.” Shapiro says “Jerusalem and Athens built America, ended slavery, defeated the Nazis and the Communists, lifted billions from poverty and gave billions spiritual purpose. Jerusalem and Athens were the foundations of the Magna Carta and the Treaty of Westphalia; they were the foundations of the Declaration of Independence, Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, and Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail.”
As you might expect, Dr. Shermer disagrees on the source of these values, attributing them instead to the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment and the secular thinkers who used reason and evidence to make the case for human rights and progress. For example:
These are all purely secular moral values derived from Enlightenment science and reason.
Shermer also asks Shapiro how he derives “all men are created equal” from “we were created in God’s image”. Shapiro has a very reasonable answer, to which Shermer read from Thomas Jefferson’s own explanation for the origin of that phrase. In a letter to Henry Lee in 1825, Jefferson wrote:
Shapiro responded to Shermer’s counter-examples to his thesis, namely successful civilizations that arose before Judaism and Christianity, such as Sumeria, Babylonia, Akkadia, Assyria, Egypt, and Greece, and Christian civilizations that did not flourish, such as the Catholic countries of South America, or historically all the Christian nations in the Middle Ages that never produced anything like a democracy or capitalism.
As two members of the Intellectual Dark Web, Shapiro and Shermer show how people can disagree even on fundamental principles and still have a civil conversation, and along the way find agreement and common cause. Other topics that came up:
This Science Salon was recorded on February 27, 2019.
|Mar 19, 2019|
Dr. Frans de Waal — Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us about Ourselves
Based on his latest book — Mama’s Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us about Ourselves — the legendary biologist and primatologist Frans de Waal continues his empirical and theoretical work on animal societies, politics, intelligence, sentience, consciousness and, now, feelings and emotions. In this conversation Dr. de Waal and Dr. Shermer discuss:
This Science Salon was recorded on February 12, 2019.
|Mar 12, 2019|
Dr. Tyler Cowen — How an Economist Views the World
In this wide ranging dialogue Dr. Shermer speaks with the famed economist Dr. Tyler Cowen, whose new book, Stubborn Attachments: A Vision for a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals, is “a vision for a society of free, prosperous, and responsible individuals.” Dr. Cowen makes the case that…
Dr. Tyler Cowen is an economics professor at George Mason University where he holds the Holbert C. Harris chair in the economics department. He hosts the economics blog marginal Revolution, together with co-author Alex Tabarrok. He writes the “Economic Scene” column for the New York Times, and now contributes a regular opinion column at Bloomberg View. He has written for the New Republic, the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Newsweek and the Wilson Quarterly.
Dr. Shermer and Dr. Cowen also discuss…
This Science Salon was recorded on January 15, 2019.
|Mar 06, 2019|
Dr. Michael Shermer — The Problem of Evil (AMA # 4)
In this Ask Me Anything, Dr. Shermer performs a postmortem on his debate/dialogue on with Dr. Brian Huffling at the Southern Evangelical Seminary in Charlotte, North Carolina, on Saturday February 23, 2019. The specific topic was: “Is the Reality of Evil Good Evidence Against the Christian God?” Watch the video of the debate.
This is an exercise in the difference in thinking between a Christian philosopher/theologian/apologist and a secular scientist/humanist/atheist. Dr. Huffling focused on purely philosophical arguments about the nature of God, evil, omniscience, omnipotence, and moral perfection, whereas Dr. Shermer concentrated on specific examples of evil in the world and challenged Dr. Huffling to explain why God fails to do anything about them. In the end (literally at the end of the debate), when Dr. Shermer pushed him to explain why God allows childhood leukemia and the attendant suffering by children and their loving parents, Dr. Huffling’s answer was “I don’t know.”
|Mar 03, 2019|
Dr. David Sloan Wilson — This View of Life: Completing the Darwinian Revolution
In this dialogue Dr. Shermer speaks with Dr. David Sloan Wilson, the renowned evolutionary biologist and Distinguished Professor of Biology and Anthropology at Binghamton University. His previous books include Evolution for Everyone, The Neighborhood Project, Does Altruism Exist? and Darwin’s Cathedral. He is the president of the Evolution Institute and editor in chief of its online magazine, This View of Life. His new book, out this week, is This View of Life: Completing the Darwinian Revolution. He and Shermer discuss…
This Science Salon was recorded on February 1, 2019. We apologize for the quality of this episode; it was recorded before Michael moved to the new recording studio. We still have a couple episodes to release from the old studio. Quality of subsequent episodes will be better.
|Feb 27, 2019|
Dr. Michele Gelfand — Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire Our World
In this wide-ranging conversation Dr. Shermer talks with the author of the new book, Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire Our World, Dr. Michele Gelfand, Distinguished University Professor of Psychology at the University of Maryland, College Park. Her pioneering research into cultural norms has been cited thousands of times in the press, including the New York Times, Washington Post, Harvard Business Review, and Science, and on NPR. As a cultural psychologist, Dr. Gelfand takes us on an epic journey through human cultures, offering a startling new view of the world and ourselves. With a mix of brilliantly conceived studies and surprising on-the-ground discoveries, she shows that much of the diversity in the way we think and act derives from a key difference—how tightly or loosely we adhere to social norms.
Why are clocks in Germany so accurate while those in Brazil are frequently wrong? Why do New Zealand’s women have the highest number of sexual partners? Why are “Red” and “Blue” States really so divided? Why is the driver of a Jaguar more likely to run a red light than the driver of a plumber’s van? Why does one spouse prize running a “tight ship” while the other refuses to “sweat the small stuff?”
In search of a common answer, Gelfand has spent two decades conducting research in more than fifty countries. Across all age groups, family variations, social classes, businesses, states and nationalities, she’s identified a primal pattern that can trigger cooperation or conflict. Her fascinating conclusion: behavior is highly influenced by the perception of threat.
Dr. Shermer and Dr. Gelfand discuss these and other interesting topics:
This Science Salon was recorded on February 13, 2019.
|Feb 20, 2019|
Adam Higginbotham — China Syndrome II: The True Story of What Happened at Chernobyl
In this discussion with the author of the newly published book Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster, Adam Higginbotham tells what really happened at Chernobyl, by far the worst nuclear disaster in history, and why it took so long to discover what really happened. Human error and technological design flaws in the reactor are only proximate explanations for the core meltdown and explosion. The ultimate explanation is to be found in Soviet secrecy and lies. The book reads like an adventure novel, but it’s a richly researched non-fiction work by a brilliant storyteller. Don’t wait for the motion picture based on the book, which is years down the line. Get and read this gripping account to understand why people are still so afraid of nuclear power.
Adam Higginbotham was born in England in 1968. His narrative non-fiction and feature writing has appeared in magazines including GQ, The New Yorker and the The New York Times magazine. He is the author of A Thousand Pounds of Dynamite, named one of Amazon’s Best Books of 2014 and optioned as a film by Warner Brothers. He recently completed Midnight In Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster, which will be published in the US by Simon & Schuster on February 12th 2019. The former US correspondent for The Sunday Telegraph magazine and editor-in-chief of The Face, he lives with his family in New York City.
This Science Salon was recorded on February 5, 2019.
|Feb 12, 2019|
Bruce Schneier — Hacked! Security and Survival in a Hyper-Connected World
Bruce Schneier is a fellow and lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School and the Berkman-Klein Center for Internet and Society. He is a special advisor to IBM Security and a board member of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Access Now, and the Tor Project. You can find him on Schneier.comand on twitter at @schneierblog
He is the author of Data and Goliath, Applied Cryptography, Liars and Outliers, Secrets and Lies, and Beyond Fear: Thinking Sensibly about Security in an Uncertain World. His new book is Click Here to Kill Everybody, which we discuss at length, as well as:
This Science Salon was recorded on January 21, 2019.
|Feb 05, 2019|
Gregg Hurwitz — Into the Light: Myths, Narratives, Archetypes, and Trump
In this wide-ranging dialogue Michael Shermer and Gregg Hurwitz discuss being a public intellectual, how to convey ideas through fiction vs. nonfiction, the role of myths and archetypes in narrative stories, Jordan Peterson and religion, Shakespeare and tragedy, the role of life experience and suffering in the development of a successful novelist, screenwriter, or filmmaker, the role of narrative in politics, especially the 2016 election in which Trump’s narrative was surprisingly compelling to tens of millions of people, even over other highly qualified conservative candidates in the primary election campaign, and what democrats needs to do to recapture the White House in 2020.
Gregg Hurwitz is the New York Times #1 international bestselling author of 20 thrillers, including his latest novel Out of the Dark. His novels have won numerous literary awards, graced top ten lists, and have been published in 30 languages. He has also written screenplays for or sold spec scripts to many of the major studios, and written, developed, and produced television scripts for various networks. He is also a New York Times bestselling comic book writer, having penned stories for Marvel (Wolverine, Punisher) and DC (Batman, Penguin). He has published numerous academic articles on Shakespeare, taught fiction writing in the USC English Department, and guest lectured for UCLA and Harvard. He earned a BA from Harvard where Jordan Peterson was his thesis advisor, and a Master’s from Trinity College Oxford where he studied Shakespearean tragedy.
This Science Salon was recorded on January 23, 2019.
|Jan 30, 2019|
Dr. Michael Shermer — Ask Me Anything # 3
The Jordan Peterson Phenomenon
In this short AMA Michael Shermer answers a single question: “What is your opinion of Jordan Peterson?”
Dr. Shermer is asked this question in nearly every public appearance he makes, along with regular emails and social media queries he receives. At a November 2018 public event with Richard Dawkins, in the Q&A, he and Shermer received no less than four questions about Jordan Peterson, even though Jordan was not the topic of the dialogue between Dawkins and Shermer. Watch that edited clip reel from that dialogue.
Clearly there is much interest in Jordan Peterson and the phenomenon surrounding him, so Dr. Shermer thought he would issue his opinion in the form of an essay he penned for Skeptic magazine 23.3: “Have Archetype — Will Travel: The Jordan Peterson Phenomenon”. Purchase back issue 23.3 online.
See also Steven Beckner’s brilliant analysis of Jordan Peterson in the same issue: “Thought Crimes Jordan Peterson and the Meaning of the Meaning of Life”. (Some have said this is the best and fairest article ever written about Peterson.)
In Science Salon AMA # 3, Dr. Shermer offers a brief summary of his current opinion of Peterson and then reads his essay: “Have Archetype — Will Travel: The Jordan Peterson Phenomenon”.
|Jan 22, 2019|
Dr. Rachel Kleinfeld — A Savage Order: How the World’s Deadliest Countries Can Forge a Path to Security
In this episode of the Science Salon Podcast, Michael Shermer speaks with Dr. Rachel Kleinfeld, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where she focuses on issues of rule of law, security, and governance in post-conflict countries, fragile states, and states in transition. As the founding CEO of the Truman National Security Project, she spent nearly a decade leading a movement of national security, political, and military leaders working to promote people and policies that strengthen security, stability, rights, and human dignity in America and around the world.
In 2011, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton appointed Kleinfeld to the Foreign Affairs Policy Board, which advises the secretary of state quarterly, a role she served through 2014. Dr. Kleinfeld has consulted on rule of law reform for the World Bank, the European Union, the OECD, the Open Society Institute, and other institutions, and has briefed multiple government agencies in the United States and abroad.
She is the author of Advancing the Rule of Law Abroad: Next Generation Reform (Carnegie, 2012), which was chosen by Foreign Affairs magazine as one of the best foreign policy books of 2012. Named one of the top 40 Under 40 Political Leaders in America by Time magazine in 2010, Kleinfeld has been featured in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Fox News, and other national television, radio, and print media.
Her new book is A Savage Order: How the World’s Deadliest Countries Can Forge a Path to Security. In this conversation we discuss her new book, specifically:
This remote Science Salon was recorded on January 4, 2019.
|Jan 15, 2019|
Dr. Michael Shermer — Ask Me Anything # 2
In his second Ask Me Anything, recorded on the final day of 2018, Dr. Shermer reviews the latest issue of Skeptic magazine, introduces upcoming podcast guests Rachel Kleinfeld (A Savage Order: How the World’s Deadliest Countries Can Forge a Path to Security), Bruce Schneier (Click Here to Kill Everybody: Security and Survival in a Hyper-Connected World), Mark W. Moffett (The Human Swarm: How Our Societies Arise, Thrive, and Fall), and Jared Diamond (Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis).
Dr. Shermer also discusses his book publishing plans for 2019, including an essay collection of his last 70 Scientific American columns, which he is sad to report is coming to an end with the January 2019 issue of that august magazine, along with that of other popular contributors, such as the popular tech columnist David Pogue. Dr. Shermer reflects on his 18 years and reads aloud the final column, titled “Stein’s Law and Science’s Mission”.
|Jan 08, 2019|
Dr. Gad Saad — Doing Gad’s Work
In this episode of the Science Salon Podcast, Michael Shermer talks to the renowned evolutionary behavioral scientist and Concordia University professor Dr. Gad Saad. Starting with his escape to Canada from war-torn Lebanon, Dr. Saad recounts how he got interested in the study of human nature in general and consumer behavior in particular through the evolutionary lens, why people make the choices they do in the marketplace, why evolutionary psychology is an equal-opportunity offender to both the political left and right, what’s wrong with the Blank Slate model of human nature, what it means to hypothesize that something evolved “for” an adaptive reason, how evolutionary psychologists test their claims, the consilience of human knowledge, epistemological humility, postmodernism and how it has corrupted the academy, and the vital importance of free speech and free inquiry in science and society.
Dr. Gad Saad held the Concordia University Research Chair in Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences and Darwinian Consumption from 2008 to 2018. He is the author of The Consuming Instinct (2011, Prometheus Books) and The Evolutionary Bases of Consumption (2007, Lawrence Erlbaum), editor of Evolutionary Psychology in the Business Sciences (2011, Springer), and is finishing his next book on idea pathogens and how they have spread like a contagion in the academy, now spilling out into government and corporations. He is the host of the popular podcast The Saad Truth, which focuses on science, religion, political correctness, multiculturalism, postmodernism, third-wave feminism, Islam, safe spaces, trigger warnings, and many other topics.
This Science Salon was recorded on December 26, 2018.
|Jan 01, 2019|
Sir Martin Rees — On the Future: Prospects for Humanity
In this wide-ranging dialogue Michael Shermer talks to Martin Rees about: his early education and how he got interested in astronomy and cosmology • how the Big Bang theory won out over the Steady State theory • origin of life, SETI, and the search for a second genesis • Fermi Paradox (if life is abundant in the universe…where is everyone?) • space exploration (human or robotic or both?) • future of humanity as sentient A.I. (to the stars…inside computers!) • limits of scientific knowledge (are we nearing the “end of science”? No says Dr. Rees!) • threats and challenges facing humanity (nuclear weapons, climate change, overpopulation, sustainable energy sources, artificial intelligence, income inequality, political instability, and others) • role of religion in modern society (why Dr. Rees is an atheist but not a “new atheist”) • do we need to replace religion with a secular equivalent?
Sir Martin Rees is a leading astrophysicist as well as a senior figure in UK science and a public intellectual in England and America. He has conducted influential theoretical work on subjects as diverse as black hole formation and extragalactic radio sources, and in the 1960s his research provided key evidence to contradict the Steady State theory of the evolution of the Universe. Dr. Rees was also one of the first to predict the uneven distribution of matter in the Universe, and proposed observational tests to determine the clustering of stars and galaxies. Much of his most valuable research has focused on the end of the so-called cosmic dark ages —a period shortly after the Big Bang when the Universe was as yet without light sources.
As Astronomer Royal and a Past President of the Royal Society, Martin is a prominent scientific spokesperson and the author of seven books of popular science. After receiving a knighthood in 1992 for his services to science, he was elevated to the title of Baron Rees of Ludlow in 2005. His latest book is On the Future: Prospects for Humanity. His other books include: Before the Beginning: Our Universe and Others (1997) • Just Six Numbers: The Deep Forces That Shape the Universe (1999) • Our Cosmic Habitat (2001) • Our Final Hour: A Scientist’s Warning —How terror, error, and environmental disaster threaten humankind’s future in this century —on earth and beyond (2004) • What We Still Don’t Know (2009) • From Here to Infinity: Scientific Horizons (2011).
This Science Salon was recorded on December 12, 2018.
|Dec 25, 2018|
Dr. Susan Blackmore — Altered States and Conscious Beings
Dr. Susan Blackmore is no stranger to skeptics. Dr. Shermer has known Dr. Blackmore since the early 1990s. When the Skeptics Society and Skeptic magazine were founded in 1992 she was already a rock star in the skeptical movement, having moved from believing in the paranormal, ESP, telepathy, and all the rest, to being an arch skeptic of all such claims. After earning a Ph.D. in the paranormal she devoted a decade to testing various phenomena under rigorous laboratory conditions, and continually found null results. That is, the tighter the controls she implemented and the more rigorous the research protocols, the weaker the paranormal effects became until they disappeared entirely. She went on from there to develop a theory about the neural correlates of such altered states of consciousness as Out of Body Experiences and Near Death Experiences, and after that wrote her bestselling book The Meme Machine, in which she developed a theory of how memes can be replicated and selected in a manner first proposed by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene, when he coined the term. Dr. Blackmore went on to publish one of the leading textbooks on consciousness and is now working on a theory of tremes, or technological memes and how they can be replicated and selected in machines without human input.
This Science Salon was recorded on November 7, 2018.
|Dec 04, 2018|
Zac Sechler interviews Michael Shermer about Why People Believe in God
In this unusual Science Salon we bring you an interview of Dr. Shermer by Zac Sechler, a high school senior at Grace Prep High School in State College, PA. Zac is interested in studying areas such as religion, science, and history. He plans on studying history in college and hopes to work in the education field. This interview was for his Senior Project, on studying different worldviews that people hold on religion, and why they believe what they believe. Dr. Shermer’s contribution was as an atheist and skeptic, although as he points out to Zac, atheism and skepticism are not worldviews. Atheism is simply a lack of belief in God, full stop. Skepticism is just a scientific way of exploring the world and confronting claims about it.
This Science Salon was recorded in audio format only on October 10, 2018.
|Nov 27, 2018|
Daniel de Visé — On Comebacks in Sports and Life
In this unusual dialogue Dr. Shermer talks to author and journalist Daniel de Visé about one of the greatest athletes in American history, three-time Tour de France winner Greg LeMond and de Vise’s new book about the cyclist, The Comeback: Greg LeMond, the True King of American Cycling, and a Legendary Tour de France. They also get into what constitutes fairness in sports, Lance Armstrong and the era of doping in sports in which nearly every professional athlete (not just in cycling) was using Performing Enhancing Drugs, and the ethics of how something can be immoral if everyone is doing it. Shermer explains his game theory analysis of cheating and how to tilt the incentive matrix to encourage fair play among all agents in a system. They also touch on de Vise’s prior bestselling book Andy and Don, the story of Andy Griffith and Don Knotts and their classic American television series.
Daniel de Visé is an author and journalist. He has worked at the Washington Post, the Miami Herald, and in 2001 shared a Pulitzer Prize for his investigative journalism of the on-the-scene coverage of the pre-dawn raid by federal agents that took the Cuban boy Elian Gonzalez from his Miami relatives and reunited him with his Cuban father. His investigative reporting twice led to the release of wrongly convicted men from life terms in prison. He is the author of I Forgot to Remember and Andy and Don: The Making of a Friendship and a Classic American TV Show.
This Science Salon was recorded on September 14, 2018.
|Nov 13, 2018|
Dr. David P. Barash — Human Nature Through a Glass Brightly
Humans have long seen ourselves as the center of the universe, the apple of God’s eye, specially-created creatures who are somehow above and beyond the natural world. This viewpoint — a persistent paradigm of our own unique self-importance — is as dangerous as it is false. In this conversation with Michael Shermer based on his new book Through a Glass Brightly, noted biologist and evolutionary psychologist David Barash explores the process by which science has, throughout time, cut humanity “down to size,” and how humanity has responded. Shermer and Barash also explore how evolutionary psychology became politicized, with the Right embracing it and the Left looking askance at it, based on a deeper commitment to human nature as grounded deeply in our biology and genetics vs. human nature as malleable and shaped primarily by culture. A lifelong liberal and social activist, Dr. Barash nevertheless accepts the science wherever it leads, regardless of ideology. From there Barash and Shermer discuss human aggression and violence, whether or not war is part of our nature, game theory and nuclear deterrence and why Barash thinks MAD (Mutual Assured Destruction) is a dangerous and fraudulent game to play with extinction on the line, how we can get to Nuclear Zero, and whether we should be optimistic or pessimistic for our species’ future.
This Science Salon was recorded in audio format only on October 19, 2018.
|Nov 06, 2018|
Dr. Jonathan Haidt — Coming Apart
A lecture by and follow-up discussion with Jonathan Haidt about the excessive divisiveness of American politics and culture the past several years. Dr. Haidt visited the campus of Chapman University on October 18 on his book tour for The Coddling of the American Mind, about which Dr. Shermer talked to him in Science Salon # 36. While on campus Professor Haidt made a guest appearance in Professor Shermer’s class, Skepticism 101, and gave a lecture about his deep concerns of what is happening in America and what we should do about it, followed by an “in conversation” with Dr. Shermer in front of the class on several of these themes, including to what extent science and determine human values, what business America has in telling other countries and cultures what their values should be, his thoughts on the Harvard discrimination lawsuit, the deplatforming of Steve Bannon by The New Yorker, the legalization or criminalization of polygamy and prostitution, welfare programs and Universal Basic Income, and our moral obligation to help those who cannot help themselves.
This Science Salon was recorded in audio format only on October 18, 2018.
|Oct 30, 2018|
Dr. Clay Routledge — The Meaning of Life, the Universe, and Everything
In this dialogue on life’s deepest and most meaningful issues Michael Shermer talks with psychologist Clay Routledge about: the evolution of motivation and goals in animals and humans ● what a “purpose driven life” really means ● how atheists and nonbelievers can create meaningful and purposeful lives ● the self, personal identity, and existential psychology ● why people believe in God and fear death ● why religious people live longer and healthier lives ● the different types of atheists ● why one-third of atheists believe in some type of life after death ● free will as a useful fiction ● trans-humanism as a faux religion ● what should an atheist say to someone who is dying or has a loved-one who passed away ● terrorism as motivated by religion or politics or both.
Dr. Clay Routledge is an author, psychological scientist, consultant, public speaker, and professor. He is a professor at North Dakota State University. He studies basic psychological needs and how these needs influence wellbeing, physical health, and intergroup relations.Much of his research focuses on the need for meaning in life and the need to belong.He has published 95 scholarly papers, co-edited two books on existential psychology, and authored the book Nostalgia: A Psychological Resource. He was the lead writer for the TED-Ed animated lesson Why Do We Feel Nostalgia? His new book Supernatural: Death, Meaning, and the Power of the Invisible World was published in July 2018.
This remote Science Salon was recorded on September 12, 2018.
|Oct 17, 2018|
Dr. Debra Lieberman — That’s Disgusting! Objection: Disgust, Morality and the Law
Why do we consider incest wrong, even when it occurs between consenting adults unable to have children? Why are words that gross us out more likely to be deemed “obscene” and denied the protection of the First Amendment? In a world where a gruesome photograph can decisively influence a jury and homosexual behavior is still condemned by some as “unnatural,” it is worth asking: is our legal system really governed by the power of reason? Or do we allow a primitive human emotion, disgust, to guide us in our lawmaking? In this wide-ranging conversation Dr. Lieberman considers disgust and its impact on the legal system to show why the things that we find stomach-turning so often become the things that we render unlawful. Shedding light on the evolutionary and psychological origins of disgust, she reveals how ancient human intuitions about what is safe to eat or touch, or who would make an advantageous mate, have become co-opted by moral systems designed to condemn behavior and identify groups of people ripe for marginalization. Over time these moral stances have made their way into legal codes, and disgust has thereby served as the impetus for laws against behaviors almost universally held to be “disgusting” (corpse desecration, bestiality) — and as the implicit justification for more controversial prohibitions (homosexuality, use of pornography).
Dr. Debra Lieberman is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Miami, where she is co-director of the Evolution and Human Behavior Laboratory. Dr. Lieberman is a leading researcher in the area of human cognition and behavior from an evolutionary perspective.
This remote Science Salon was recorded on August 22, 2018.
|Oct 10, 2018|
Dr. Kwame Anthony Appiah — Who Am I? Who Are You? The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity
In this wide-ranging conversation Dr. Appiah and Dr. Shermer review the 5 “Cs” of identity—Creed, Country, Color, Class, and Culture—and what they tell us about who we are, or at least who we think we are. Dr. Appiah’s new book The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity explores the nature and history of the identities that define us. It challenges our assumptions about how identities work. We all know there are conflicts between identities, but Appiah shows how identities are created by conflict. Religion, he demonstrates, gains power because it isn’t primarily about belief. Our everyday notions of race are the detritus of discarded nineteenth-century science. Our cherished concept of the sovereign nation—of self-rule—is incoherent and unstable. Class systems can become entrenched by efforts to reform them. Even the very idea of Western culture is a shimmering mirage. These “mistaken identities,” Appiah explains, can fuel some of our worst atrocities—from chattel slavery to genocide. And yet, he argues that social identities aren’t something we can simply do away with. They can usher in moral progress and bring significance to our lives by connecting the small scale of our daily existence with larger movements, causes, and concerns. Elaborating a bold and clarifying new theory of identity, The Lies That Bind is a ringing philosophical statement for the anxious, conflict-ridden twenty-first century. This book will transform the way we think about who—and what—“we” are.
Kwame Anthony Appiah is a professor at NYU in the department of philosophy and the school of law, the Ethicist column for the New York Times, and the author of Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers, The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen, Experiments in Ethics, and most recently The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity.
This remote Science Salon was recorded on August 21, 2018.
|Oct 03, 2018|
Heather Mac Donald — The Diversity Delusion: How Race and Gender Pandering Corrupt the University and Undermine Our Culture
In this riveting review of the campus craziness investigative journals, writer, and lawyer Heather Mac Donald and Michael Shermer dive deep into the root causes of what has gone wrong on college campuses, in corporations, and in government agencies, over the decades that has led to a crisis in higher education … and beyond. Race and gender form the core of Identity Politics, which Mac Donald and Shermer discuss in dunking the myth that American society in general — and academia in particular — are rampant environments of bigotry and prejudice. Just the opposite is the case, as there has never been a safer and more inviting space to be than a college campus in 2018 America.
The discussion revolves around Mac Donald’s new book, The Diversity Delusion: How Race and Gender Pandering Corrupt the University and Undermine Our Culture, in which she shows how toxic ideas first spread by higher education have undermined humanistic values, fueled intolerance, and widened divisions in our larger culture. Chaucer, Shakespeare and Milton? Oppressive. American history? Tyranny. Professors correcting grammar and spelling, or employers hiring by merit? Racist and sexist. Students emerge into the working world believing that human beings are defined by their skin color, gender, and sexual preference, and that oppression based on these characteristics is the American experience. Speech that challenges these campus orthodoxies is silenced with brute force.
Heather Mac Donald is a self-described secular conservative (she’s an atheist) who writes extensively on American politics and culture. She is the Thomas W. Smith Fellow of the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor to New York’s City Journal. Her previous books include The War on Cops, Are Cops Racist?, The Immigration Solution, and The Burden of Bad Ideas.
This remote Science Salon was recorded on September 10, 2018.
|Sep 26, 2018|
Dr. Yuval Noah Harari — 21 Lessons for the 21st Century
In this dialogue with one of the most interesting minds of our time, the Hebrew University historian and best-selling author (Sapiens, Homo Deus), Dr. Yuval Noah Harari, he and Dr. Shermer discuss the central ideas of his new book, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, an exploration of: history, work, liberty, equality, community, civilization, nationalism, religion, immigration, terrorism, war, humility, God, secularism, ignorance, justice, post-truth, science fiction, education, meaning, and meditation. Dr. Harari and Dr. Shermer cover as many of these topics as reasonable in this wide-ranging conversation, focusing especially on nationalism, tribalism, God and religion, free will and determinism, AI algorithms and human volition, the future of liberal democracy, colonizing Mars, and much more.
Dr. Yuval Noah Harari has a Ph.D. in history from the University of Oxford, and now lectures at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, specializing in world history. His two books, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind and Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, have become global bestsellers, with more than twelve million copies sold and translations in more than forty-five languages.
This remote Science Salon was recorded on August 19, 2018.
|Sep 18, 2018|
Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson — Accessory to War: The Unspoken Alliance Between Astrophysics and the Military
In this deep dive into the history of science and war, and the strange but productive alliances that have been formed over the centuries—particularly those between astrophysicists and politicians, governments, military, and corporations—Neil deGrasse Tyson and Michael Shermer cover centuries of history and the many facets of science policy that have brought us to the modern world of space telescopes, GPS, and the Internet, along with guided missiles, nuclear weapons, and smart bombs delivered by drones. The conversation focuses primarily on Tyson’s new book, Accessory to War, co-authored with his long-time Natural History editor Avis Lang, which is a serious scholarly work on a monumentally influential topic. Shermer also challenges Tyson on the relationship between resource scarcity and war, and when scientists like Werner von Braun and Edward Teller go too far in developing weapons of mass destruction, when “scientists know sin.” Tyson is at his best when pushed to go deep on serious subjects like these. Don’t miss this fascinating discussion.
Neil deGrasse Tyson is an astrophysicist, author, and the Frederick P. Rose Director of the Hayden Planetarium at the Rose Center for Earth and Space in New York City. He is the host of the Cosmos television documentary series, and of his wildly popular Startalk podcast and National Geographic television show. His books include Death by Black Hole, Origins, The Sky is Not the Limit, The Pluto Files, Space Chronicles, and Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, which has been on the New York Times bestseller list for 67 weeks.
This remote Science Salon was recorded on September 5, 2018.
|Sep 12, 2018|
Dr. Jonathan Haidt — The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation for Failure
In this fascinating dialogue Dr. Haidt and Dr. Shermer discuss what has been going wrong on many college campuses in the last few years. Speakers are shouted down. Students and professors say they are walking on eggshells and are afraid to speak honestly. Rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide are rising—on campus as well as nationally. How did this happen? In his new book Haidt has teamed up with First Amendment expert Greg Lukianoff to show how the new problems on campus have their origins in three terrible ideas that have become increasingly woven into American childhood and education: What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker; always trust your feelings; and life is a battle between good people and evil people. These three Great Untruths contradict basic psychological principles about well-being and ancient wisdom from many cultures. Embracing these untruths—and the resulting culture of safetyism—interferes with young people’s social, emotional, and intellectual development. It makes it harder for them to become autonomous adults who are able to navigate the bumpy road of life. They explore changes in childhood such as the rise of fearful parenting, the decline of unsupervised, child-directed play, and the new world of social media that has engulfed teenagers in the last decade. They examine changes on campus, including the corporatization of universities and the emergence of new ideas about identity and justice. They situate the conflicts on campus within the context of America’s rapidly rising political polarization and dysfunction.
Dr. Jonathan Haidt is Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business. He is a social psychologist whose field is moral psychology. He is the author of The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom and The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion.
This remote Science Salon was recorded on August 27, 2018.
|Sep 05, 2018|
Dr. Tali Sharot — The Influential Mind: What the Brain Reveals About our Power to Change Others
In her new book, The Influential Mind, neuroscientist Tali Sharot takes readers on a thrilling exploration of the nature of influence, so she and Shermer start the conversation by discussing how we can influence, for example, climate deniers to accept climate science, anti-vaxxers to accept vaccines, and creationists to accept evolution. As Sharot shows in her research, merely presenting people with the facts will not change their minds. There are other forces at work, which she reveals in this conversation and in more depth in her book. It turns out, for example, that many of our instincts—from relying on facts and figures to shape opinions, to insisting others are wrong or attempting to exert control—are ineffective, because they are incompatible with how people’s minds operate. Sharot shows us how to avoid these pitfalls, and how an attempt to change beliefs and actions is successful when it is well-matched with the core elements that govern the human brain. Sharot reveals the critical role of emotion in influence, the weakness of data and the power of curiosity. Relying on the latest research in neuroscience, behavioral economics and psychology, she provides fascinating insight into the complex power of influence, good and bad. Since she grew up in Israel, she and Shermer discuss the role of religion in terrorism and politics along with health and happiness.
Tali Sharot is a Professor of cognitive Neuroscience at University College London where she directs the Affective Brain Lab. She combines research in psychology, behavioural economics and neuroscience to reveal the forces that shape our decisions and beliefs. Dr. Sharot is the author of The Influential Mind and The Optimism Bias. Her papers have been published in top scientific journals including Nature, Science and Nature Neuroscience. This work has been the subject of features in many outlets including the New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN, the BBC and others. She has also written essays for Time (cover story), the New York Times, the Guardian among others. She was a speaker at TED’s annual conference 2012 and a British Academy and Wellcome Trust fellow. She received her Ph.D from New York University.
This remote Science Salon was recorded on August 17, 2018.
|Aug 29, 2018|
Colin McGinn — Paradoxes, Puzzles, and Philosophy
In their second Science Salon conversation Michael Shermer and Colin McGinn consider the broader sweep of philosophy after their first encounter in which they focused on consciousness, free will, and God. In this dialogue they review some of the paradoxes and puzzles of philosophy, pseudo-questions, realism v. antirealism, how to deal with unknown unknowns, immortality and the nature of the self and soul, and how McGinn and Daniel Dennett differ in their positions on mysterianism. Another hard-hitting and illuminating conversation.
If you missed it, listen to part 1 of this dialogue with Colin McGinn: Mysterianism, Consciousness, Free Will, and God (Science Salon # 29).
This remote Science Salon was recorded on July 20, 2018.
|Aug 22, 2018|
David Quammen — The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life
In this dialogue with one of the best nature and science writers of our generation, David Quammen and Michael Shermer discuss his new book on the history of one of the most exciting revolutions in evolution and genetics that is unfolding before our eyes. In the mid-1970s, scientists began using DNA sequences to reexamine the history of all life. Perhaps the most startling discovery to come out of this new field—the study of life’s diversity and relatedness at the molecular level—is horizontal gene transfer (HGT), or the movement of genes across species lines. It turns out that HGT has been widespread and important. For instance, we now know that roughly eight percent of the human genome arrived not through traditional inheritance from directly ancestral forms, but sideways by viral infection—a type of HGT.
In The Tangled Tree David Quammen chronicles these discoveries through the lives of the researchers who made them—such as Carl Woese, the most important little-known biologist of the twentieth century; Lynn Margulis, the notorious maverick whose wild ideas about “mosaic” creatures proved to be true; and Tsutomu Wantanabe, who discovered that the scourge of antibiotic-resistant bacteria is a direct result of horizontal gene transfer, bringing the deep study of genome histories to bear on a global crisis in public health.
As well, Quammen and Shermer discuss how molecular studies of evolution have brought startling recognitions about the tangled tree of life—including where we humans fit upon it. Thanks to new technologies such as CRISPR, we now have the ability to alter even our genetic composition—through sideways insertions, as nature has long been doing. They consider the ethical issues involved in bringing back extinct species, the meaning of the “self” if we are actually mosaics of different species, and the trans-humanist dream of re-engineering the human genome so our species can become post-human.
David Quammen is the author of a dozen fiction and nonfiction books, including Blood Line and The Song of the Dodo. His book Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic was a finalist for seven awards and received two of them: the Science and Society Book Award, given by the National Association of Science Writers, and the Society of Biology (UK) Book Award in General Biology. A three-time National Magazine Award winner, he is a contributing writer for National Geographic and has written also for Harper’s, Outside, Esquire, The Atlantic, Powder, and Rolling Stone. He received honorary doctorates from Montana State University and Colorado College. He travels widely on assignment, usually to jungles, mountains, remote islands, and swamps.
|Aug 15, 2018|
Nina Teicholz — The Big Fat Surprise About Diet and Nutrition
In this fascinating conversation with Michael Shermer, the investigative journalist Nina Teicholz reviews the scientific literature on diet and nutrition, the link (or lack thereof) between dietary cholesterol and heart disease, the history of the government’s recommendation of what constitutes a healthy diet and why they got it so wrong, statins and heart disease, exercise and nutrition, an update on what has happened since her book, The Big Fat Surprise, was published in 2014, and most importantly what you should eat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner tomorrow (hint: it’s okay to have meat, butter and cheese without feeling guilty).
Nina Teicholz is an investigative science journalist and author. Her international bestseller, The Big Fat Surprise has upended the conventional wisdom on dietary fat—especially saturated fat. The executive editor of The Lancet wrote, “this is a disquieting book about…ruthless silencing of dissent that has shaped our lives for decades…researchers, clinicians, and health policy advisors should read this provocative book.” The Big Fat Surprise was named a 2014 Best Book by The Economist, the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Mother Jones, and Library Journal. Teicholz is also the Executive Director of The Nutrition Coalition, a non-profit group that promotes evidence-based nutrition policy. She is a graduate of Stanford and Oxford Universities and previously served as associate director of the Center for Globalization and Sustainable Development at Columbia University. Teicholz now lives in New York city with her husband and two sons.
This remote Science Salon was recorded on July 19, 2018.
|Aug 07, 2018|
Amy Alkon — Unf*ckology: A Field Guide to Living with Guts and Confidence
In this unique conversation Michael Shermer talks with the science writer and weekly advice columnist Amy Alkon about her new book, Unf*ckology: A Field Guide to Living with Guts and Confidence. She calls her book a “science-help” book, instead of “self-help” because she grounds her recommendations in solid science. Her hilarious anecdotes are there just to illustrate a scientific point. She also debunks widely-accepted but scientifically unsupported notions about self-esteem, shame, willpower, and more and demonstrates that:
Shermer and Alkon also get into the #metoo movement, evolutionary psychology, politics, depression, suicide, Jordan Peterson, and other fascinating topics.
This remote Science Salon was recorded on July 5, 2018.
|Jul 31, 2018|
Dr. Ralph Lewis — Finding Meaning in a Meaningless Universe
In this wide-ranging conversation Michael Shermer talks with the author of the new book Finding Purpose in a Godless World: Why We Care Even if the Universe Doesn’t, Dr. Ralph Lewis. Dr. Lewis is a psychiatrist at the University of Toronto who works with cancer patients and others facing death. They often face existential crises, so Dr. Lewis—himself an atheist—has developed techniques to help people cope that do not depend on any one religion. His new book is about how human purpose and caring, like consciousness and absolutely everything else in existence, could plausibly have emerged and evolved unguided, bottom-up, in a spontaneous universe. He and Shermer discuss how a random world is too often misconstrued as nihilistic, demotivating, or devoid of morality and meaning. Drawing on years of wide-ranging, intensive clinical experience as a psychiatrist, and his own family experience with cancer, Dr. Lewis helps listeners understand how people cope with random adversity without relying on supernatural belief. In fact, as he explains, although coming to terms with randomness is often frightening, it can be liberating and empowering too.
This remote Science Salon was recorded on July 2, 2018.
|Jul 25, 2018|
Colin McGinn — Mysterianism, Consciousness, Free Will, and God
This podcast was initiated after McGinn commented publicly, and critically, on Shermer’s latest Scientific American column on the mysteries of consciousness, free will, and God.
The philosopher Justin Weinberg at the University of South Carolina, who runs the DailyNous website (@DailyNousEditor on Twitter) posted a dozen tweets admonishing Shermer and Scientific American for publishing such a mischaracterization of several philosophical subjects, even referencing the film Annie Hall, where Woody Allen’s character is irritated in a movie line by some bloviator yammering on about Marshall McLuhan, reaches behind a big movie poster and pulls McLuhan out of line, who then upbraiding the blowhard “I heard what you were saying! You know nothing of my work! You mean my whole fallacy is wrong. How you got to teach a course in anything is totally amazing!” To which Woody says, “Boy, if life were only like this.”
Well, life can be like this, but in this case Shermer invited McGinn on the show to discuss the topics in detail in order for everyone to glean a deeper understanding. A fruitful conversation ensued on these and other important topics.
|Jul 16, 2018|
Dr. Michael Shermer — Ask Me Anything # 1
In this first Ask Me Anything (AMA) Dr. Shermer attempts to answer as many questions as possible in a reasonable time among the hundreds submitted by readers. There were so many good ones, in fact, that he will produce a second AMA on these, as well as new ones submitted when we put out a call shortly. In AMA # 1 the questions are roughly grouped in the following categories:
Read a list of the questions answered in this AMA: https://www.skeptic.com/science-salon/ama001/
|Jul 09, 2018|
Edward J. Larson — On Faith and Science
Throughout history, scientific discovery has clashed with religious dogma, creating conflict, controversy, and sometimes violent dispute. In this enlightening and accessible volume, distinguished historian and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Edward Larson and Michael Ruse, philosopher of science and Gifford Lecturer, offer their distinctive viewpoints on the sometimes contentious relationship between science and religion. The authors explore how scientists, philosophers, and theologians through time and today approach vitally important topics, including cosmology, geology, evolution, genetics, neurobiology, gender, and the environment. Broaching their subjects from both historical and philosophical perspectives, Larson and Ruse avoid rancor and polemic as they address many of the core issues currently under debate by the adherents of science and the advocates of faith, shedding light on the richly diverse field of ideas at the crossroads where science meets spiritual belief.
In addition to these topics, Dr. Shermer and Dr. Larson discuss: the Scopes Monkey trial and how legal complications shaped its outcome, along with that of other creationism-evolution trials; what Darwin believed about God and religion; why biblical literalism took off in America in the 1960s and 1970s leading to creationist movements to rewrite science textbooks; what really happened in the Galileo trial; how so many prominent scientists throughout history believed in God but did not actually use their science to prove God’s providence; why atheism became so prominent in the early 21st century but not before, even though atheist arguments against God’s existence have been around for centuries; Gould and Dawkins and different approaches to science and religion; the rise of the nones and the decline of religion in the West (but it’s increase in other areas); the limits of human knowledge.
|Jul 02, 2018|
Charles S. Cockell — The Equations of Life: How Physics Shapes Evolution
We are all familiar with the popular idea of strange alien life wildly different from life on earth inhabiting other planets. Maybe it’s made of silicon! Maybe it has wheels! Or maybe it doesn’t. In The Equations of Life, astrobiologist Charles S. Cockell makes the forceful argument that the laws of physics narrowly constrain how life can evolve, making evolution’s outcomes predictable. If we were to find on a distant planet something very much like a lady bug eating something like an aphid, we shouldn’t be surprised. The forms of life are guided by a limited set of rules, and as a result, there is a narrow set of solutions to the challenges of existence.
In addition to these topics, Dr. Shermer and Dr. Cockell discuss: the origins of life on earth; the possibility of finding life on Mars and, if we did, would it have something like DNA, albeit with different base pairs?; Fermi’s paradox: if the laws of physics and evolution are so common throughout the universe, and there are so many earth-like planets in our galaxy alone (estimated to be in the billions), where is everyone?; humanity becoming an interplanetary species (possibly the first), and if so what type of governing system we should employ for, say, the first colonies on Mars.
|Jun 25, 2018|
Dr. Stephen T. Asma — Why We Need Religion
In this dialogue Dr. Michael Shermer talks with philosopher Stephen T. Asma, a Professor of Philosophy and Founding Fellow of the Research Group in Mind, Science, and Culture at Columbia College, Chicago. His new book is Why We Need Religion, in which he argues that, like art, religion has direct access to our emotional lives in ways that science does not. Yes, science can give us emotional feelings of wonder and the sublime—we can feel the sacred depths of nature—but there are many forms of human suffering and vulnerability that are beyond the reach of help from science. Different emotional stresses require different kinds of rescue. Unlike secular authors who praise religion’s ethical and civilizing function, Asma argues that its core value lies in its emotionally therapeutic power. Asma and Shermer also discuss the relationship of science and religion, why people believe in God, atheism vs. agnosticism, the “new atheists”, humanism and the need for social and spiritual community, and other hot topics.
|Jun 22, 2018|
Richard Rhodes — Energy: A Human History
This is one of the best dialogues Dr. Shermer has ever had in his quarter century of talking to the leading scientists and scholars of our time. Listen in as he and Pulitzer Prize- and National Book Award-winning author Richard Rhodes discuss nuclear weapons, North Korea, Iran, and Russia, the psychology of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD), human violence and its causes, the “Bullet Holocaust” (the millions of Jews and others shot to death in Eastern Europe before the death camps ramped up their killing by gas), how people become serial killers (the socialization of violence), and his new book Energy: A Human History, which reveals the fascinating history behind energy transitions over time—wood to coal to oil to electricity and beyond. People have lived and died, businesses have prospered and failed, and nations have risen to world power and declined, all over energy challenges. Ultimately, the history of these challenges tells the story of humanity itself.
In Energy, Rhodes highlights the successes and failures that led to each breakthrough in energy production; from animal and waterpower to the steam engine, from internal-combustion to the electric motor. He addresses how we learned from such challenges, mastered their transitions, and capitalized on their opportunities. Rhodes also looks at the current energy landscape, with a focus on how wind energy is competing for dominance with cast supplies of coal and natural gas. He also addresses the specter of global warming, and a population hurtling towards ten billion by 2100.
|May 29, 2018|
Dr. Alan Stern and Dr. David Grinspoon — Chasing New Horizons: Inside the Epic First Mission to Pluto
Listen in on this remarkable conversation with mission leader Dr. Alan Stern and co-author of the spell-binding new book Chasing New Horizons, Dr. David Grinspoon, as they recount the story of the men and women behind this amazing mission: of their decades-long commitment and persistence; of the political fights within and outside of NASA; of the sheer human ingenuity it took to design, build, and fly the mission; and of the plans for New Horizons’ next encounter, 1 billion miles past Pluto in 2019.
Told from the insider’s perspective of mission leader Dr. Alan Stern and others on New Horizons, and including two stunning 16-page full-color inserts of images, Chasing New Horizons is a riveting account of scientific discovery, and of how much we humans can achieve when people focused on a dream work together toward their incredible goal. Nothing like this has occurred in a generation―a raw exploration of new worlds unparalleled since NASA’s Voyager missions to Uranus and Neptune―and nothing quite like it is planned to happen ever again. The photos that New Horizons sent back to Earth graced the front pages of newspapers on all 7 continents, and NASA’s website for the mission received more than 2 billion hits in the days surrounding the flyby. At a time when so many think that our most historic achievements are in the past, the most distant planetary exploration ever attempted not only succeeded in 2015 but made history and captured the world’s imagination.
|May 22, 2018|
Dr. Kenneth R. Miller — The Human Instinct: How We Evolved to Have Reason, Consciousness, and Free Will
Ken Miller is well known for his work in debunking Intelligent Design Creationism, most notably for his testimony in the Dover Pennsylvania trial that demolished the legal strategies of the movement to have creationism taught in public school science classes. His book, Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul recounts his experiences and argues why evolution is true.
Now, in his new book, Dr. Miller presents a radical, optimistic exploration of how humans evolved to develop reason, consciousness, and free will, contra scientists such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris who tell us that our most intimate actions, thoughts, and values are mere byproducts of thousands of generations of mindless adaptation. We are just one species among multitudes, and therefore no more significant than any other living creature.
Brown University biology professor Miller contends that this view betrays a gross misunderstanding of evolution. Natural selection surely explains how our bodies and brains were shaped, but Miller argues that it’s not a social or cultural theory of everything. In The Human Instinct, he rejects the idea that our biological heritage means that human thought, action, and imagination are pre-determined, describing instead the trajectory that ultimately gave us reason, consciousness and free will. A proper understanding of evolution, he says, reveals humankind in its glorious uniqueness—one foot planted firmly among all of the creatures we’ve evolved alongside, and the other in the special place of self-awareness and understanding that we alone occupy in the universe.
|May 19, 2018|
Dr. Gregory Berns — What It’s Like to Be a Dog…and Other Adventures in Animal Neuroscience
In this wide-ranging dialogue (recorded on September 1, 2017) on the nature of consciousness Dr. Michael Shermer talks with Dr. Gregory Berns, Distinguished Professor of Neuroeconomics and Director of the Center for Neuropolicy and Facility for Education and Research in Neuroscience.
Dr. Berns is famous for his use of fMRI to study canine cognitive function in awake, unrestrained dogs. The goals of his research are to non-invasively map the perceptual and decision systems of the dog’s brain and to predict likelihood of success in service dogs. He also uses diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) to reconstruct the white matter pathways of a wide variety of other mammals, including dolphins, sea lions, coyotes, and the extinct Tasmanian tiger.
Shermer and Berns address the so-called “Hard Problem of Consciousness” of “what is it like to be a bat (or dog)?” What is it like to be another sentient being has been impossible to understand until and unless we can get inside the other conscious creature’s head. Now we can thanks to this new technology. Of course, we cannot have a first-person subjective experience of being a dog—and in this sense the “Hard Problem of Consciousness” is something of a conceptual error inasmuch as it can never be answered in this first-person subjective sense, but we can come close to understanding what dogs (and other conscious creatures) are thinking and feeling.
|Apr 16, 2018|
Dr. Leonard Mlodinow — Elastic: Flexible Thinking in a Time of Change
Out of the exploratory instincts that allowed our ancestors to prosper hundreds of thousands of years ago, humans developed a cognitive style that Mlodinow terms elastic thinking, a collection of traits and abilities that include neophilia (an affinity for novelty), schizotypy (a tendency toward unusual perception), imagination and idea generation, pattern recognition, mental fluency, divergent thinking, and integrative thinking.
In this remote Science Salon (recorded on March 22, 2018), Dr. Shermer begins by asking Dr. Mlodinow what it was like to work with and get to know Stephen Hawking, on which the two worked together on two books. Hawking had to be elastic in his thinking given that his disease prevented him from doing science in the traditional manner.
Leonard Mlodinow received his Ph.D. in theoretical physics from the University of California, Berkeley, was an Alexander von Humboldt Fellow at the Max Planck Institute, and was on the faculty of the California Institute of Technology. His previous books include the best sellers Subliminal, War of the Worldviews (with Deepak Chopra), The Grand Design (with Stephen Hawking), and The Drunkard’s Walk, as well as The Upright Thinkers, Feynman’s Rainbow, and Euclid’s Window. He also wrote for the television series MacGyver and Star Trek: The Next Generation.
|Apr 09, 2018|
Dr. Michael Shermer — Heavens on Earth: The Scientific Search for the Afterlife, Immortality, and Utopia
In his most ambitious work yet—a scientific exploration into humanity’s obsession with the afterlife and quest for immortality—bestselling author and skeptic, Michael Shermer, sets out to discover what drives humans’ belief in life after death, focusing on recent scientific attempts to achieve immortality along with utopian attempts to create heaven on earth.
For millennia, religions have concocted numerous manifestations of heaven and the afterlife, and though no one has ever returned from such a place to report what it is really like—or that it even exists—today science and technology are being used to try to make it happen in our lifetime. From radical life extension to cryonic suspension to mind uploading, Shermer considers how realistic these attempts are from a proper skeptical perspective.
Heavens on Earth concludes with an uplifting paean to purpose and progress and how we can live well in the here-and-now, whether or not there is a hereafter.
|Mar 25, 2018|
Bill Nye the Science Guy Saves the World on Netflix
Michael Shermer interviews Bill Nye the Science Guy about his new Netflix series “Bill Nye Saves the World,” which aired Friday, April 21, 2017.
The conversation took place on December 18, 2016 at the offices of the Planetary Society, for which Nye is the CEO.
Learn more about the series on Netflix.
|Mar 07, 2018|
Dr. Bart Ehrman — How a Forbidden Religion (Christianity) Swept the World
In this remote Science Salon (recorded on February 19, 2018), Dr. Shermer converses with the great bible scholar and historian Dr. Bart D. Ehrman, the Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Dr. Ehrman is a leading authority on the New Testament and the history of early Christianity and the author of 8 Teaching Company courses and a number of New York Times bestselling books, including Misquoting Jesus and How Jesus Became God. In his new book, The Triumph of Christianity: How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World, Dr. Ehrman explores how a tiny sect of just 20 people at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion in 30 CE became 25 to 35 million Christians by 400 CE. Imagine if the couple of dozen Branch Davidians living near Waco, Texas in early 1990s, instead of being incinerated by Federal agents in a botched stand-off, went on to convert two billion people around the world to their religion. That is what early Christians did. How did they do that?
Shermer and Ehrman also discuss the modern atheism movement, how Jesus became a Republican in the second half of the 20th century, the intractable (for Christians) problem of evil, the problem of identity for Jesus (how could he be both man and God?), what pre-Christian pagans believed about the gods, what early Christians had to offer pagans that other religions didn’t, how religions invented the afterlife and what people believed before the rise of Christianity about what happens after you die, and other fascinating topics.
|Feb 19, 2018|
Dr. Kip Thorne — Gravitational Waves, Black Holes, Time Travel, and Hollywood
Join us for what promises to be one of the deepest and most profound conversations we’ve had in our Science Salon series as Dr. Thorne reflects on his life and career in theoretical physics, his pursuit of the detection of the long-elusive gravitational waves through the LIGO detector, his relationship and bet with Stephen Hawking, how he came to consult on Carl Sagan’s Contact and Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, his curious work on black holes, wormholes, and time travel, and what it’s like to go to Stockholm to receive the Nobel Prize.
|Feb 18, 2018|
Dr. Robert Trivers — Evolutionary Theory & Human Nature
Dr. Robert Trivers and Dr. Michael Shermer have a lively conversation on everything from evolutionary theory and human nature to how to win a knife fight and Trivers’ membership in the Black Panthers. Don’t miss this engaging exchange with one of the most interesting scientists of the past half century.
|Nov 16, 2017|
Donald Prothero & Timothy Callahan — UFOs, Chemtrails, and Aliens: What Science Says
UFOs. Aliens. Strange crop circles. Giant figures scratched in the desert surface along the coast of Peru. The amazing alignment of the pyramids. Strange lines of clouds in the sky. The paranormal is alive and well in the American cultural landscape. In UFOs, Chemtrails, and Aliens, Don Prothero and Tim Callahan explore why such demonstrably false beliefs thrive despite decades of education and scientific debunking.
Employing the ground rules of science and the standards of scientific evidence, Prothero and Callahan discuss a wide range of topics including the reliability of eyewitness testimony, psychological research into why people want to believe in aliens and UFOs, and the role conspiratorial thinking plays in UFO culture. They examine a variety of UFO sightings and describe the standards of evidence used to determine whether UFOs are actual alien spacecraft.
Finally, they consider our views of aliens and the strong cultural signals that provide the shapes and behaviors of these beings. While their approach is firmly based in science, Prothero and Callahan also share their personal experiences of Area 51, Roswell, and other legendary sites, creating a narrative that is sure to engross both skeptics and believers.
|Oct 15, 2017|
Dr. Nancy Segal — Twin Mythconceptions: False Beliefs, Fables, and Facts about Twins
Dr. Nancy Segal, the world’s leading expert on twins, has a new book that sheds light on over 70 commonly held ideas and beliefs about the origins and development of identical and fraternal twins. Using the latest scientific findings from psychology, psychiatry, biology, and education, Dr. Segal separates fact from fiction. Each idea about twins is described, followed by both a short answer about the truth, and then a longer, more detailed explanation. Coverage includes embryology of twins, twin types, intellectual growth, personality traits, sexual orientation of twins, marital relationships, epigenetic analyses, the frequency of different twin types and the varieties of polar body twin pairs. This book, and Salon with Dr. Segal, will inform and entertain behavioral and life science researchers, health professionals, twins, parents of twins, and anyone interested in the fascinating topic of twins and what they can teach us about human nature.
Dr. Segal earned her Ph.D. in the Social Sciences and Behavioral Sciences from the University of Chicago. From 1982-1991 she was a post-doctoral fellow and research associate at the University of Minnesota, affiliated with the well-known Minnesota Study of Twins Reared Apart. She is currently Professor of Psychology at CSU Fullerton and Director of the Twin Studies Center, which she founded in 1991. Dr. Segal has authored over 200 scientific articles and book chapters, as well as several books on twins. Her previous book, Born Together-Reared Apart: The Landmark Minnesota Twin Study (2012, Harvard University Press) won the 2013 William James Book Award from the American Psychological Association. Her other books include Someone Else’s Twin: The True Story of Babies Switched at Birth (2011), Indivisible by Two: Lives of Extraordinary Twins (2007) and Entwined Lives: Twins and What They Tell Us About Human Behavior (2000). She is the 2016 recipient of the Wang Family Excellence Award from the California State University administrators and trustees for “exemplary contributions and achievement.” She was recognized as CSUF’s Outstanding Professor of the Year in 2005 and as the Distinguished Faculty Member in Humanities and Social Sciences in 2007 and 2014. She has been a frequent guest on national and international television and radio programs, including the Martha Stewart Show, Good Morning America, the Oprah Winfrey Show and The Forum (BBC). Dr. Segal has variously served as a consultant and expert witness for the media, the law and the arts.
|Sep 17, 2017|
Dr. Walter Scheidel — The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the 21st Century
Are mass violence and catastrophes the only forces that can seriously decrease economic inequality? To judge by thousands of years of history, the answer is yes. Tracing the global history of inequality from the Stone Age to today, the Stanford University historian Walter Scheidel shows that inequality never dies peacefully. Inequality declines when carnage and disaster strike and increases when peace and stability return. The Great Leveler is the first book to chart the crucial role of violent shocks in reducing inequality over the full sweep of human history around the world.
Ever since humans began to farm, herd livestock, and pass on their assets to future generations, economic inequality has been a defining feature of civilization. Over thousands of years, only violent events have significantly lessened inequality. The “Four Horsemen” of leveling—mass-mobilization warfare, transformative revolutions, state collapse, and catastrophic plagues—have repeatedly destroyed the fortunes of the rich. Scheidel identifies and examines these processes, from the crises of the earliest civilizations to the cataclysmic world wars and communist revolutions of the twentieth century. Today, the violence that reduced inequality in the past seems to have diminished, and that is a good thing. But it casts serious doubt on the prospects for a more equal future.
An essential contribution to the debate about inequality, The Great Leveler provides important new insights about why inequality is so persistent—and why it is unlikely to decline anytime soon.
|Jun 11, 2017|
Derren Brown — Magic, Happiness, and Skepticism
In this remote Science Salon, Michael Shermer talks with Derren Brown, a British magician and writer.
His TV show Derren Brown: Mind Control received immediate success after airing in 2000. His specials include Russian Roulette, Seance, The Heist, Hero at 30,000 Feet, How to Predict the Lottery, and Apocalypse. His live shows Something Wicked This Way Comes and Svengali have won him two Olivier Awards. He garnered the 2012 BAFTA for Best Entertainment for Derren Brown: The Experiments. He has also penned the books Tricks of the Mind and Confessions of a Conjuror, which have sold over 700,000 copies worldwide.
His latest book is Happy: Why More or Less Everything is Absolutely Fine. Derren is currently in the US for his off-Broadway show Secret (April 21st – June 25th, 2017), which has already sold out and has been extended with additional dates.
Derren Brown makes his American theatrical debut in this world premiere production at Atlantic Theater Company. New York audiences can experience Derren’s unique blend of mind-reading, suggestion and psychological illusion in a brand new theatrical experience.
|May 15, 2017|
Dr. Andrew Shtulman — Scienceblind: Why Our Intuitive Theories About the World Are So Often Wrong
Why do we catch colds? What causes seasons to change? And if you fire a bullet from a gun and drop one from your hand, which bullet hits the ground first? In a pinch we almost always get these questions wrong. Worse, we regularly misconstrue fundamental qualities of the world around us. In Scienceblind, cognitive and developmental psychologist Dr. Andrew Shtulman, a professor of psychology and cognitive science at Occidental College, where he directs the Thinking Lab, shows that the root of our misconceptions lies in the theories about the world we develop as children. They’re not only wrong, they close our minds to ideas inconsistent with them, making us unable to learn science later in life.
So how do we get the world right? We must dismantle our intuitive theories and rebuild our knowledge from its foundations. The reward won’t just be a truer picture of the world, but clearer solutions to many controversies—around vaccines, climate change, or evolution—that plague our politics today.
|Apr 23, 2017|
Dr. Carol Tavris — Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me)
Why is it so hard to say “I made a mistake”—and really believe it? Social psychologist Dr. Carol Tavris, one of the most influential thinkers and writers of our time, explores in dialogue with Michael Shermer cognitive dissonance and what happens when we make mistakes, cling to outdated attitudes, or mistreat other people—we must calm the cognitive dissonance that jars our feelings of self-worth. And so, unconsciously, we create fictions that absolve us of responsibility, restoring our belief that we are smart, moral, and right—a belief that often keeps us on a course that is dumb, immoral, and wrong. Backed by years of research, Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) offers a fascinating explanation of self-justification—how it works, the damage it can cause, and how we can overcome it. The updated edition of the book features new examples and concludes with an extended discussion of how we can live with dissonance, learn from it, and perhaps, eventually, forgive ourselves.
|Feb 19, 2017|
Gary Taubes — The Case Against Sugar
Among Americans, diabetes is more prevalent today than ever; obesity is at epidemic proportions; nearly 10% of children are thought to have nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. And sugar is at the root of these, and other, critical society-wide, health-related problems. With his signature command of both science and straight talk, Gary Taubes delves into Americans’ history with sugar: its uses as a preservative, as an additive in cigarettes, the contemporary overuse of high-fructose corn syrup. He explains what research has shown about our addiction to sweets. He clarifies the arguments against sugar, corrects misconceptions about the relationship between sugar and weight loss; and provides the perspective necessary to make informed decisions about sugar as individuals and as a society.
This is a groundbreaking and eye opening expose that makes the convincing case that sugar is the tobacco of the new millennium, backed by powerful lobbies, entrenched in our lives, and utterly addicting, making us all very sick. As Katie Couric says, “This is required reading for not only ever parent, but every American.” Gary Taubes is the New York Times bestselling author of Good Calories, Bad Calories and Why We Get Fat. His writing has appeared in the New York Times magazine, The Atlantic, and Esquire.
|Jan 22, 2017|
Dr. Priyamvada Natarajan — Mapping the Heavens: The Radical Scientific Ideas That Reveal The Cosmos
Dr. Priyamvada Natarajan is a cosmologist and theoretical astrophysicist from Yale University, specializing in dark matter, dark energy, and black holes. She also holds the Sophie and Tycho Brahe Professorship of the Dark Cosmology Centre, Niels Bohr Institute, at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark. She is passionate about sharing science with the general public and in her new book she provides a tour of the “greatest hits” of cosmological discoveries—the ideas that reshaped our universe over the past century. The cosmos, once understood as a stagnant place, filled with the ordinary, is now a universe that is expanding at an accelerating pace, propelled by dark energy and structured by dark matter. Priyamvada Natarajan is at the forefront of this research—an astrophysicist who literally creates maps of invisible matter in the universe. In the book, she not only explains for a wide audience the science behind these essential ideas but also provides an understanding of how radical scientific theories gain acceptance. The formation and growth of black holes, dark matter halos, the accelerating expansion of the universe, the echo of the big bang, the discovery of exoplanets, and the possibility of other universes—these are some of the puzzling cosmological topics of the early twenty-first century. Natarajan discusses why the acceptance of new ideas about the universe and our place in it has never been linear and always contested even within the scientific community. And she affirms that, shifting and incomplete as science always must be, it offers the best path we have toward making sense of our wondrous, mysterious universe.
|Nov 13, 2016|
Dr. Benjamin Bergen — What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves
Dr. Benjamin Bergen is a professor of cognitive science at the University of California, San Diego, and in his new book he explains why profanity is so appealing to us. Let’s face it, we all swear. Whether we’re happy or mad, uttering a four-letter word seems to be a natural occurrence for most of us. But why do we swear, even when we know we’re breaking cultural taboos? Why are some words off limits in certain countries or deemed offensive in past centuries but are considered perfectly tame in others? What does all this g*ddamn swearing tell us about our language and our brains? Bergen has the answers as he illuminates the controversial and complex nature of profanity and its relationship on our culture.
|Oct 16, 2016|
Dr. Stephon Alexander — The Jazz of Physics: The Secret Link Between Music and the Structure of the Universe
In The Jazz of Physics: The Secret Link Between Music and the Structure of the Universe, physicist and jazz saxophonist Dr. Stephon Alexander revisits the ancient realm where music, physics, and the cosmos were one. This cosmological journey accompanies Alexander’s own tale of struggling to reconcile his passion for music and physics, from taking music lessons as a boy in the Bronx to studying theoretical physics at Imperial College. Playing the saxophone and improvising with equations, Alexander uncovered the connection between the fundamental waves that make up sound and the fundamental waves that make up everything else. As he reveals, the ancient poetic idea of the “music of the spheres,” taken seriously, clarifies confounding issues in physics. Dr. Alexander is the Royce Family Professor at Brown University’s Physics Department. In 2013, he won the prestigious American Physical Society Bouchet Award for “his contributions to theoretical cosmology.” He is also a jazz musician, and recently finished recording his first electronic jazz album with Erin Rioux.
|May 22, 2016|
Dr. Janna Levin — Gravitational Waves, Black Holes and the Nature of the Cosmos
On Thursday, February 11, 2016, the National Science Foundation made a thrilling announcement: gravitational waves—first predicted by Einstein as part of his general theory of relativity in 1916—had been detected for the first time. This incredible development made front page news and was reported by outlets across the country. How was such a remarkable discovery, a long hundred years after Einstein’s prediction, made possible?
In this Science Salon based on her new book, Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space, astrophysicist and award-winning writer Dr. Janna Levin tells the epic story of the scientific campaign to record these waves—the holy grail of modern cosmology. A handful of physicists, led by Kip Thorne and Ronald Drever at Caltech and Rainer Weiss at MIT, have been working nearly their entire careers to conceive of, design, and build an instrument sensitive enough to detect gravitational waves. Levin delves into the lives and fates of the scientists, painting compelling portraits of these very human visionaries. She journeys from Los Angeles to Boston, to the LIGO interferometers in Hanford, Washington and Livingston, Louisiana, to the labs, offices, and observatories where the work in this great quest has painstakingly unfolded over the past five decades. Her account of the personalities, surprises, setbacks, and successes is a compelling and intimate portrait of the people and processes of modern science.
|Apr 10, 2016|
Dr. Sean B. Carroll — The Serengeti Rules: The Quest to Discover How Life Works and Why It Matters
How does life work? How does nature produce the right numbers of zebras and lions on the African savanna, or fish in the ocean? How do our bodies produce the right numbers of cells in our organs and bloodstream? In The Serengeti Rules, award-winning biologist and author Sean Carroll tells the stories of the pioneering scientists who sought the answers to such simple yet profoundly important questions, and shows how their discoveries matter for our health and the health of the planet we depend upon.
One of the most important revelations about the natural world is that everything is regulated—there are rules that regulate the amount of every molecule in our bodies and rules that govern the numbers of every animal and plant in the wild. And the most surprising revelation about the rules that regulate life at such different scales is that they are remarkably similar—there is a common underlying logic of life. Carroll recounts how our deep knowledge of the rules and logic of the human body has spurred the advent of revolutionary life-saving medicines, and makes the compelling case that it is now time to use the Serengeti Rules to heal our ailing planet.
|Mar 20, 2016|
Dr. Arthur Benjamin — The Magic of Math: Solving for x and Figuring Out Why
The Magic of Math is the math book you wish you had in school. Using a delightful assortment of examples—from ice cream scoops and poker hands to measuring mountains and making magic squares—this book empowers you to see the beauty, simplicity, and truly magical properties behind those formulas and equations that once left your head spinning. You’ll learn the key ideas of classic areas of mathematics like arithmetic, algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and calculus, but you’ll also have fun fooling around with Fibonacci numbers, investigating infinity, and marveling over mathematical magic tricks that will make you look like a math genius!
A mathematician who is known throughout the world as the “mathemagician,” Arthur Benjamin mixes mathematics and magic to make the subject fun, attractive, and easy to understand. In The Magic of Math, Benjamin does more than just teach skills: with a tip of his magic hat, he takes you on as his apprentice to teach you how to appreciate math the way he does. He motivates you to learn something new about how to solve for x, because there is real pleasure to be found in the solution to a challenging problem or in using numbers to do something useful. But what he really wants you to do is be able to figure out why, for that’s where you’ll find the real beauty, power, and magic of math.
If you are already someone who likes math, this Science Salon will dazzle and amuse you. If you never particularly liked or understood math, Benjamin will enlighten you and—with a wave of his magic wand—turn you into a math lover.
|Jan 24, 2016|
Michelle Feynman — The Quotable Feynman & His Van
Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard P. Feynman (1918–88) was a towering scientific genius who could make himself understood by anyone and who became as famous for the wit and wisdom of his popular lectures and writings as for his fundamental contributions to science. The Quotable Feynman is a treasure-trove of this revered and beloved scientist’s most profound, provocative, humorous, and memorable quotations on a wide range of subjects edited by his daughter, Michelle Feynman, who will discuss her father’s life and legacy. In addition, physicist Seamus Blackey will bring Feynman’s van, newly restored and recently featured on The Big Bang Theory, so you can get your photograph taken with the famous vehicle featuring Feynman diagrams. Order The Quotable Feynman from Amazon.
Our special guest at this salon will be: Dr. Leonard Mlodinow, physicist and author of Feynman’s Rainbow: A Search for Beauty in Physics and in Life and The Upright Thinkers: The Human Journey from Living in Trees to Understanding the Cosmos.
|Dec 20, 2015|
Dr. Lisa Randall — Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs: The Astounding Interconnectedness of the Universe
The renowned Harvard cosmologist and theoretical physicist explores a scenario in which a disk of dark matter—the elusive stuff in the universe that interacts through gravity like ordinary matter, but that doesn’t emit or absorb light—dislodged a comet from the Oort cloud that was ultimately responsible for the dinosaurs’ extinction. Dr. Lisa Randall teaches us an enormous amount about dark matter, our Universe, our galaxy, asteroids, and comets—and the process by which scientists explore new concepts.
|Nov 22, 2015|