the official site of Michael Shermer

top navigation:
Scientific American

Scientia Humanitatis

published June 2015 | Comments Off on Scientia Humanitatis
Reason, empiricism and skepticism are not virtues of science alone
magazine cover

In the late 20th century the humanities took a turn toward postmodern deconstruction and the belief that there is no objective reality to be discovered. To believe in such quaint notions as scientific progress was to be guilty of “scientism,” properly said with a snarl. In 1996 New York University physicist Alan Sokal punctured these pretensions with his now famous article “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” chockablock full of postmodern phrases and deconstructionist tropes interspersed with scientific jargon, which he subsequently admitted were nonsensical gibberish.

I subsequently gave up on the humanities but am now reconsidering my position after an encounter this past March with University of Amsterdam humanities professor Rens Bod during a European book tour for The Moral Arc. In our dialogue, Bod pointed out that my definition of science—a set of methods that describes and interprets observed or inferred phenomena, past or present, aimed at testing hypotheses and building theories—applies to such humanities fields as philology, art history, musicology, linguistics, archaeology, historiography and literary studies. (continue reading…)

topics in this column: , , , , ,

Terrorism as Self-Help Justice

published May 2015 | comments (1)
The moralistic motivations of ISIS
magazine cover

IN AN UNINTENTIONALLY HILARIOUS VIDEO CLIP, primatologist Frans de Waal narrates an experiment conducted in his laboratory at Emory University involving capuchin monkeys. One monkey exchanges a rock for a cucumber slice, which he gleefully ingests. But after seeing another monkey receive a much tastier grape for a rock, he angrily hurls it back at the experimenter when he is again offered a cucumber slice. He rattles the cage wall, slaps the floor and looks seriously peeved at this blatant injustice.

A sense of justice and injustice—right and wrong—is an evolved moral emotion to signal to others that if exchanges are not fair there will be a price to pay. How high a price? In the Ultimatum Game, in which one person is given a sum of money to divide with another person—with the stipulation that if the offer is accepted both keep the money, but if the offer is rejected no one gets any money—offers less than 30 percent of the sum are typically rejected. That is, we are willing to pay 30 percent to punish an offender. This is called moralistic punishment. (continue reading…)

topics in this column: , , , , ,

Paleo Diets, GMOs, and Food Taboos

published April 2015 | comments (2)
What do we mean by “natural”?
magazine cover

IN 1980 I SUBJECTED MYSELF to a weeklong cleansing diet of water, cayenne pepper, lemon and honey, topped off with a 150-mile bicycle ride that left me puking on the side of the road. Neither this nor any of the other fad diets I tried in my bike-racing days to enhance performance seemed to work as well as the “see-food” diet one of my fellow cyclists was on: you see it, you eat it.

In its essence, the see-food diet was the first so-called Paleo diet, not today’s popular fad, premised on the false idea that there is a single set of natural foods—and a correct ratio of them—that our Paleolithic ancestors ate. Anthropologists have documented a wide variety of foods consumed by traditional peoples, from the Masai diet of mostly meat, milk and blood to New Guineans’ fare of yams, taro and sago. As for food ratios, according to a 2000 study entitled “Plant-Animal Subsistence Ratios and Macronutrient Energy Estimations in Worldwide Hunter-Gatherer Diets,” published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, the range for carbohydrates is 22 to 40 percent, for protein 19 to 56 percent, and for fat 23 to 58 percent. (continue reading…)

topics in this column: , , , , ,

Forging Doubt

published March 2015 | comments (1)
Just because we don’t know everything
doesn’t mean we know nothing
magazine cover

WHAT DO TOBACCO, food additives, chemical flame retardants and carbon emissions all have in common? The industries associated with them and their ill effects have been remarkably consistent and disturbingly effective at planting doubt in the mind of the public in the teeth of scientific evidence. Call it pseudoskepticism.

It began with the tobacco industry when scientific evidence began to mount that cigarettes cause lung cancer. A 1969 memo included this statement from an executive at the Brown & Williamson tobacco company: “Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the minds of the general public.” In one example among many of how to create doubt, a Philip Morris tobacco executive told a congressional committee: “Anything can be considered harmful. Applesauce is harmful if you get too much of it.”

The tobacco model was subsequently mimicked by other industries. As Peter Sparber, a veteran tobacco lobbyist said, “If you can ‘do tobacco,’ you can do just about anything in public relations.” It was as if they were all working from the same playbook, employing such tactics as: deny the problem, minimize the problem, call for more evidence, shift the blame, cherry-pick the data, shoot the messenger, attack alternatives, hire industry friendly scientists, create front groups. (continue reading…)

topics in this column: , ,

A Moral Starting Point

published February 2015 | comments (9)
How science can inform ethics
magazine cover

Why is it wrong to enslave or torture other humans, or take their property, or discriminate against them? That these actions are wrong, almost no one disputes. But why are they wrong?

For an answer, most people turn to religion (because God says so), or to philosophy (because rights theory says so), or to political theory (because the social contract says so). In The Moral Arc, published in January, I show how science may also contribute an answer. My moral starting point is the survival and flourishing of sentient beings. By survival, I mean the instinct to live, and by flourishing, I mean having adequate sustenance, safety, shelter, and social relations for physical and mental health. By sentient, I mean emotive, perceptive, sensitive, responsive, conscious, and, especially, having the capacity to feel and to suffer. Instead of using criteria such as tool use, language, reasoning or intelligence, I go deeper into our evolved brains, toward these more basic emotive capacities. There is sound science behind this proposition. (continue reading…)

topics in this column: , , ,
next page »