the official site of Michael Shermer

top navigation:
Scientific American

Doomsday Dumb

published May 2016 | comments (0)
Why Malthus makes for bad science policy
magazine cover

If by fiat I had to identify the most consequential ideas in the history of science, good and bad, in the top 10 would be the 1798 treatise An Essay on the Principle of Population by English political economist Thomas Robert Malthus. On the positive side of the ledger, it inspired Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace to work out the mechanics of natural selection based on Malthus’s observation that populations tend to increase geometrically (2, 4, 8, 16…), whereas food reserves grow arithmetically (2, 3, 4, 5…), leading to competition for scarce resources and differential reproductive success, the driver of evolution.

On the negative side of the ledger are the policies derived from the belief in the inevitability of a Malthusian collapse. “The power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race,” Malthus gloomily predicted. His scenario influenced policy makers to embrace social Darwinism and eugenics, resulting in draconian measures to restrict particular populations’ family size, including forced sterilizations.

In his book The Evolution of Everything (Harper, 2015), evolutionary biologist and journalist Matt Ridley sums up the policy succinctly: “Better to be cruel to be kind.” The belief that “those in power knew best what was good for the vulnerable and weak” led directly to legal actions based on questionable Malthusian science. For example, the English Poor Law implemented by Queen Elizabeth I in 1601 to provide food to the poor was severely curtailed by the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, based on Malthusian reasoning that helping the poor only encourages them to have more children and thereby exacerbate poverty. The British government had a similar Malthusian attitude during the Irish potato famine of the 1840s, Ridley notes, reasoning that famine, in the words of Assistant Secretary to the Treasury Charles Trevelyan, was an “effective mechanism for reducing surplus population.” A few decades later Francis Galton advocated marriage between the fittest individuals (“What nature does blindly, slowly, and ruthlessly man may do providently, quickly and kindly”), followed by a number of prominent socialists such as Sidney and Beatrice Webb, George Bernard Shaw, Havelock Ellis and H. G. Wells, who openly championed eugenics as a tool of social engineering. (continue reading…)

topics in this column:

Hooey. Drivel. Baloney…

published April 2016 | comments (11)
Would you know it if you saw it?
magazine cover

Babble, bafflegab, balderdash, bilge, blabber, blarney, blather, bollocks, bosh, bunkum. These are a few of the synonyms (from just the b’s) for the demotic descriptor BS (as commonly abbreviated). The Oxford English Dictionary equates it with “nonsense.” In his best-selling 2005 book on the subject, Princeton University philosopher Harry Frankfurt famously distinguished BS from lying: “It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction.” BS may or may not be true, but its “truthiness” (in comedian Stephen Colbert’s famous neologism) is meant to impress through obfuscation—that is, by saying something that sounds profound but may be nonsense.

Example: “Attention and intention are the mechanics of manifestation.” This is an actual tweet composed by Deepak Chopra, as quoted by University of Waterloo psychologist Gordon Pennycook and his colleagues in a paper published in the November 2015 issue of Judgment and Decision Making. The scientists set out to determine “the factors that predispose one to become or to resist becoming” a victim of what they called “pseudo-profound” BS, or language “constructed to impress upon the reader some sense of profundity at the expense of a clear exposition of meaning or truth.” I was cited in the paper for describing Chopra’s language as “woo-woo nonsense.” For instance, in a 2010 debate we had at the California Institute of Technology that was televised on ABC’s Nightline, in the audience Q&A, Chopra defines consciousness as “a superposition of possibilities,” to which physicist Leonard Mlodinow replies: “I know what each of those words mean. I still don’t think I know….”

Chopra’s definition of consciousness certainly sounds like pseudo-profundity, but I have since gotten to know him and can assure readers that he doesn’t create such phrases to intentionally obscure meaning. He believes that quantum physics explains consciousness, so invoking terms from that field makes sense in his mind, even though to those not so inclined, much of what he says sounds like, well, BS. (continue reading…)

topics in this column:

Left Behind

published March 2016 | comments (36)
Political Bias in the Academy
magazine cover

In the past couple of years imbroglios erupted on college campuses across the U.S. over trigger warnings (for example, alerting students to scenes of abuse and violence in The Great Gatsby before assigning it), microaggressions (saying “I believe the most qualified person should get the job”), cultural appropriation (a white woman wearing her hair in cornrows), speaker disinvitations (Brandeis University canceling plans to award Ayaan Hirsi Ali an honorary degree because of her criticism of Islam’s treatment of women), safe spaces (such as rooms where students can go after a talk that upset them), and social justice advocates competing to signal their moral outrage over such issues as Halloween costumes (for example, at Yale University). Why such unrest in the most liberal institutions in the country?

Although there are many proximate causes, there is but one ultimate cause—lack of political diversity to provide checks on protests going too far. A 2014 study conducted by the University of California, Los Angeles, Higher Education Research Institute found that 59.8 percent of all undergraduate faculty nationwide identify as far left or liberal, compared with only 12.8 percent as far right or conservative. The asymmetry is much worse in the social sciences. A 2015 study by psychologist José Duarte, then at Arizona State University, and his colleagues in Behavioral and Brain Sciences, entitled “Political Diversity Will Improve Social Psychological Science,” found that 58 to 66 percent of social scientists are liberal and only 5 to 8 percent conservative and that there are eight Democrats for every Republican. And the problem is most relavent to the study of areas “related to the political concerns of the Left— areas such as race, gender, stereotyping, environmentalism, power, and inequality.” The very things these students are protesting. (continue reading…)

topics in this column: , ,

Afterlife for Atheists

published February 2016 | comments (16)
Can a brain’s connectome be preserved forever?
magazine cover

The soul is the pattern of information that represents you—your thoughts, memories and personality—your self. There is no scientific evidence that something like soul stuff exists beyond the brain’s own hardwiring, so I was curious to visit the laboratories of 21st Century Medicine in Fontana, Calif., to see for myself an attempt to preserve a brain’s connectome—the comprehensive diagram of all neural synaptic connections.

This medical research company specializes in the cryopreservation of human organs and tissues using cryoprotectants (antifreeze). In 2009, for example, the facility’s chief research scientist Gregory M. Fahy published a paper in the peer-reviewed journal Organogenesis, documenting how his team successfully transplanted a rewarmed rabbit kidney after it had been cryoprotected and frozen to -135 degrees Celsius through the process of vitrification, “in which the liquids in a living system are converted into the glassy state at low temperatures.”

Can brains be so preserved? Fahy and his colleague Robert L. McIntyre are now developing techniques that they hope will win the Brain Preservation Technology Prize, the brainchild of neuroscientist Kenneth Hayworth (I’m on their advisory board as the advocatus diaboli). As I write this, the prize is currently valued at more than $106,000; the first 25 percent of the award will be for the complete preservation of the synaptic structure of a whole mouse brain, and the other 75 percent will go to the first team “to successfully preserve a whole large animal brain in a manner that could also be adopted for humans in a hospital or hospice setting immediately upon clinical death.” (continue reading…)

topics in this column: , , , ,

Murder in the Cave

published January 2016 | comments (9)
Did Homo naledi behave more like Homo homicidensis?
magazine cover

“Fossil First: Ancient Human Relative May Have Buried Its Dead” (Reuters). “Why Did Homo naledi Bury Its Dead?” (PBS). These are just two of the many hyped headlines that appeared last September in response to a paper purporting the discovery, in a cave in South Africa, of a new species by paleoanthropologist Lee R. Berger of the University of the. There were reasons for skepticism from the get-go.

The age of the fossils is undetermined, and it is not yet known where in the hominin lineage the fossils fit. Their hands, wrists and feet are similar to small modern humans, and their brain volume is closer to that of the small-brained australopithecines, like Lucy. Researchers are debating whether these and other traits constitute a new species or a variation on an existing species. Instead of publishing in Science or Nature, the prestigious journals in which major new fossil human finds are typically announced, the authors unveiled their discovery in eLIFE, an open-access online journal that fast-tracks the peer-review process. And instead of meticulously sorting through the 1,550 fossils (belonging to at least 15 individuals) for many years, as is common in paleoanthropology, the analysis was published a mere year and a half after their discovery in November 2013 and March 2014.*

What triggered my skepticism, however, was the scientists’ conjecture that the site represents the earliest example of “deliberate body disposal,” which, as the media read between the lines, implies an intentional burial procedure. This, they concluded was the likeliest explanation compared with four other hypotheses. (continue reading…)

topics in this column: , , ,
next page »