Dr. Michael Shermer is an American science writer, historian of science, founder of The Skeptics Society, and editor-in-chief of its magazine Skeptic, which is largely devoted to investigating pseudoscientific and supernatural claims. The Skeptics Society currently has over 55,000 members. Shermer engages in debates on topics pertaining to pseudoscience and religion in which he emphasizes scientific skepticism.”
Here is my interview with Dr. Shermer about topics from his books Skepticand The Moral Arc:
Armen: Regarding your provisional rational decalogue, or ten moral principles for a person to follow, I notice a theme of taking others into account when making decisions. A young child reaches a developmental milestone when they are able to process how the person they are interacting with is receiving their communication, and how it makes them feel(getting out of their own head). Would this set of ten moral points be a form of continuous upgrade from that same concept?
Dr. Michael Shermer: Well, yes, that was the idea, but an upgrade not just for kids of course, but for everyone. But what I’ve presented in my rational decalogue is not anything particularly unusual or surprising, since they’re principles by which most rational and reasonable people already live. My small contribution was to identify them, define them with semantic precision, and present them in a succinct list; you know, like Moses…without the burning bush.
Armen: I have fallen for the fundamental attribution bias, at times taking credit for situational circumstances as though I would have created the situation had it not been there. Is a conscious appreciation for the things in one’s life the only way to avoid this bias, and is there any positive to this bias as an adaptive feature to adjust one’s baseline to a higher state?
Dr. Michael Shermer: Most of the cognitive biases we all employ in our lives are either subconscious or done without consciously thinking about it, but once someone calls you out on it you can (hopefully) see what you’re doing. That’s why we call out our debate opponents (or spouses, friends, colleagues) on their ad hominem attacks, or their confirmation bias, or whatever. Most of us are pretty good at detecting cognitive biases in others but not so good in ourselves. Inculcating these into your memory and reviewing them periodically is a good way to bring them to conscious awareness in order to avoid them. But, of course, in many cases, as Daniel Kahneman notes in Thinking: Fast and Slow, these are heuristics, or cognitive shortcuts, because no one has time to properly asses every single thing that enters our awareness, so you can only do so much and still function normally.
Armen: You had mentioned that an all-science network would be better than one that had little bits and pieces of science, and that TSN(The Science Network) has served much value in this regard. Would it highly benefit the scientific fields to have a large-scale marketing campaign towards spreading logical critical thinking, or is it not a big deal to spread it to those who don’t naturally gravitate to it?
Dr. Michael Shermer: Supposedly critical thinking is taught in all schools to all students, but I think the realization of this objective often falls short. Ideally something like the course that I teach at Chapman University, Skepticism 101, would be taught to every student in the world, and it should start in high school if possible. This is already being done by lots of professors and teachers who adopt materials from the Skeptics Society webpage where we have a Skepticism 101 section at Skeptic.com:
There are plenty of materials from lots of educators on how to do this. It’s a good start, but only a start. Much more work needs to be done.
Armen: If animals(foxes) that were bred for friendliness ended up with smaller skulls, jaws, and teeth after a number of generations, could this be seen negatively as it would leave them weaker against other organisms? If a similar sort of selection happened with people being selected for their docility or friendliness, wouldn’t this take away from their primal nature, leaving them either less able to compete with the few who weren’t as friendly, or being left less able to respond to the entropy of life? Is this a form of selection for the cooperative option in the Prisoner’s Dilemma, that is best for all species?
Dr. Michael Shermer: Yes, such selective choices for some traits have both positive and negative consequences, and in the case of humans there’s no going back now. We’ve largely taken control from natural selection and using science, technology, and medicine to deal with the consequences of being a domesticated species. So far so good but we need to stay vigilant.
Armen: I have seen theme of women’s rights that you presented also presented in different angles elsewhere, such as in the business perspective that not taking into account half of the potential workforce is detrimental to a company or country that doesn’t promote women. Is the advance of women into science, research, coding, and relevant positions going to happen quite quickly since it is a competitive advantage, or will it be gradual?
Dr. Michael Shermer: It is already happening, and happening relatively quickly, by which I mean years and decades, not weeks and months. It takes some time for the process to work its way through the educational system and into the work force but it’s unfolding before our eyes. The pay gap is nearly closed now, despite what you hear in the media, which some activist groups would have you believe it hasn’t budged since the 80s. When you control for actual jobs and not just general categories of professions women are very nearly equal in pay to men. For example, you can just compare the pay between men and women “doctors” because, for example, pediatricians make less than plastic surgeons, and more women go into the former than the latter, so it looks like there’s something unfair going on, but women pediatricians make the same as men pediatricians and women plastic surgeons make as much as men plastic surgeons.
Armen: With stories like that of Nim Chimpsky and his rights as a living entity being trampled upon, it makes one wonder who we are to do such things, as animal’s brains fire up neural pathways in highly similar regards when they are excited, afraid, or go through other emotional processes. Regarding the testing that is done on animals, do you think it should be done in some form, or that testing should be done on humans for either the moral reason of leaving other species free from our reign, or the reason of testing a product on the same species as will use it?
Dr. Michael Shermer: I would like to see all animal testing brought to a gradual end, winding down their use over the next several years or decades. I understand that many medical trials need to be conducted on animals before humans, but the higher up the phylogenetic tree we go the more ethically problematic this becomes, meaning, for example, primates. That should end immediately. It already has with chimpanzees, which are now being retired.
Armen: Income inequality and social inequality have been shown to lead to stress and poorer outcomes for a broad base of people in that environment. An inequality in access to clean water, that is on the rise, will further exacerbate some forms of inequality that are in place. As this leads to violence due to unmet needs, is it in the best interests of all nations to converge on moral answers to the inequity, or will the advantageous option be to leave violence and anguish to happen “somewhere else”?
Dr. Michael Shermer: The solution is to solve specific problems, rather than some generic attempt to achieve “equality.” Break down barriers that prevent people from rising out of poverty, for example, and then leave them to do whatever they want. I greatly admire Bill Gates and his foundation working to solve specific problems in Africa, such as water, sanitation, diet, and disease, but there are massive political problems with rampant corruption in many governments that are the deeper root cause to the inequalities.
Armen: A panel/seminar of legal professionals hosted by a colleague of mine also included an individual on the panel who had been wrongly convicted and served what I recall was 17 years in jail, until a certain judge(who was also on the panel) was able to bring his innocence to light. That individual now help other convicts and ex-convicts in a similar situation, but there is nothing to guide him in a positive direction other than his morals and understanding. Is awareness of a moral logical framework enough to transition to helping from hurting, or is a baseline of loving or caring needed before a person can see further?
Dr. Michael Shermer: Long-term prisoners need assistance in transitioning out of prison and into the world. Most don’t get it. We need to do something about that, along with more reform of the criminal justice system and the legal system, starting with the decriminalization of drugs, all of them. Legalize them, regulate them, tax them, etc., just like we already do with alcohol. Many European countries are moving in this direction and with many positive results in the reduction of drug-related crimes. And, as I discuss at length in The Moral Arc, the criminal justice system is still based on the primitive retribution system instead of the more just restorative justice system, in which justice is restored to the victim and the perpetrator is helped to correct his errors, mistakes, and problems that led to the criminal activity in the first place.
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I appreciate Dr. Shermer for taking part in this interview.