Conspiracy Theories with Dr. Michael Shermer
Conspiracy theories are all crazy, right? Well, maybe not. There’s some history as to why so many people believe in them. What we really need is a conspiracy theory detection kit and that’s what we have in today’s episode.
Our guest today is Dr. Michael Shermer. Dr. Shermer is the founding publisher of Skeptic Magazine, the host of the Science Salon Podcast, and a presidential fellow at Chapman University where he teaches Skepticism 101. For 18 years he was a monthly columnist for Scientific American. He is the New York Times bestselling author of Why People Believe Weird Things and his latest book is Giving the Devil His Due: Reflections of a Scientific Humanist.
- [1:40] – Dr. Shermer’s magazine is called Skeptic Magazine which is devoted to teaching critical thinking skepticism and scientific reasoning.
- [2:03] – None of us are omniscient. We can’t know anything with certainty. Most of the decisions we make in life are made with uncertainty. So how best should we best make decisions?
- [2:39] – For centuries, we have developed methods, tools, and technology to help us with this problem of uncertainty.
- [4:47] – Finding the cause of something has many variables and once you start getting into economics and politics, things get messy.
- [5:50] – It is important to separate the correlation between seemingly cause and effect relationships. Dr. Shermer uses the fraudulent connection between vaccines and autism to demonstrate.
- [7:48] – The curse of knowledge is the Hindsight Bias. After the fact, it is clear what should have been done, but at the time it wasn’t clear. Dr. Shermer shares several great historical events as examples of this.
- [9:27] – There’s let something happen on purpose and make something happen on purpose and it is unfair to place blame on others using the Hindsight Bias.
- [11:40] – There is a difference between conspiracy and conspiracy theory. A conspiracy is something that actually happened and a conspiracy theory is the idea that there is something that is happening.
- [12:08] – The main reason people believe conspiracy theories are true is because many shocking conspiracies have actually happened. They are not so far out of the realm of possibility.
- [12:55] – It is not completely crazy to think that something will happen because historically something similar has happened. Dr. Shermer uses examples from the Kennedy administration.
- [14:49] – Another reason people are quick to believe conspiracy theories is because of the messiness of the world. Our brains are wired to try to simplify things.
- [15:39] – Money is a proxy for power and a lot of people believe that these people who have power are actually more powerful than they are. For example, Bill Gates is the center of some conspiracy theories, but in reality, what power does he actually have?
- [16:10] – This is not unreasonable for people to believe because there have been powerful people with money who have rigged the system.
- [16:58] – It is easier to believe that horrific things that happen in the world are controlled by a small group of people. This is an example of the human brain trying to simplify things.
- [17:17] – The fact is, nobody is running the world. And in a way, that is scary.
- [18:27] – The more people that have to be involved, the less likely the conspiracy is true. People don’t typically keep secrets and have big mouths.
- [19:56] – Dr. Shermer uses a 9/11 conspiracy theory as an example of how crazy the theory sounds due to its complexity.
- [21:05] – Some conspiracy theories are harmless, but many can be harmful.
- [22:40] – An example of a dangerous conspiracy theory is the one surrounding Hitler’s rise to power. Hitler’s initial platform was spreading the conspiracy theory that the only reason they lost the first world war was because they were stabbed in the back by the Jewish community.
- [23:25] – People are very confused about the term freedom. You have to give up certain freedoms for security.
- [24:54] – The United States and Italy are examples of countries with a loose culture. This means that they are not rigidly following guidelines and the spread of COVID-19 is rapid in nations like this.
- [27:12] – Chris and Dr. Shermer discuss the title of Dr. Shermer’s new book Giving the Devil His Due which was inspired by the play A Man For All Seasons by Robert Bolt.
- [29:12] – The book is a series of essays on the theme of free speech.
- [29:27] – The only way to make sure you haven’t gone off the rails and believe things that aren’t true is to interact with people who think differently from you. This gets you out of a bubble and gives you a better ability to make your own decisions and form your own opinions.
- [29:58] – Dr. Shermer is concerned about the lack of diversity in ideas and opinions within politics.
- [31:00] – The new book has had mostly positive reviews.
- [32:12] – Even scientists need critical review. This helps us determine if we should be skeptical.
- [33:27] – It is important to know and understand the arguments behind a differing opinion from your own.
- [35:04] – Dr. Shermer predicts that there will be many changes and feels that this is not always a bad thing. Some changes will be good and bad.
- [38:01] – Dr. Shermer offers tons of free content on his website and also offers courses for more information. You can find them in the links and resources.
Thanks for joining us on Easy Prey. Be sure to subscribe to our podcast on iTunes and leave a nice review.
Links and Resources:
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- Michael Shermer Web Page
- Skeptic Salon Podcast
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- Skeptic Magazine on YouTube
Michael, thank you so much for coming to the Easy Prey Podcast today.
You’re welcome. I hope I’m not easy prey for you. I don’t even know what that means. What does that mean, easy prey?
There are things that we do that really make us vulnerable to hackers, to scams, to people trying to convince us of stuff that’s not true, and that there are things that we could do to prevent ourselves from falling victim to those, either thought processes or those types of people who want to do bad to us.
That’s the connection to my work. I see. That makes sense. Much of what I do has to do with teaching people not to be prey to bad ideas.
What’s the expression? Reasons that sound good as opposed to good sound reasoning?
Yes. That’s a good phrase. That’s right.
Can you give us a little background as to how you came to where you’re at and what you’ve been doing?
Yeah, sure. As you could see in the backdrop there, my magazine is Skeptic Magazine. It’s a quarterly publication in the Skeptics Society. We’re a 501(c)(3) nonprofit science education organization. We’re devoted to teaching critical thinking, skepticism, scientific reasoning, rationality, and all of that.
If I want to paint the biggest picture, it would be that none of us are omniscient. We can’t know anything with certainty, so most of what we do in life, including most of the decisions we make, are made under uncertainty. How best should we make decisions and choices in our lives about anything from shopping to marriage, to job, career, to which religion, which political party, how should you vote—whatever, anything—has to be based on some kind of algorithm or method or something that’s beyond just what I felt like doing today. Just random guessing.
It turns out that for centuries, really, since the scientific revolution, we’ve developed certain tools and methodologies, technologies to work around this problem of uncertainty. The scientific method, for example, is designed in a way to tease out causality. That is, what causes what. Hume famously defined causality as constant conjunction. A happens, then B happens. A, B. A, B. Intuitively, A is causing B. And a lot of times that’s true, so that’s good.
Say the rooster crows and the sun rises. That happens every day. We would be foolish to think the rooster crowing is causing the sun to rise. Hume’s addendum to that was the counterfactual theory of causality. That is, if you counterfactually prevent the rooster from crowing, does the sun still rise? Oh, it does? Then, it wasn’t the rooster after all.
It’s a silly example of what scientists do when they control variables. The randomized controlled experiment we’ve all heard about with vaccines, drugs, and things like that, the whole point is that we want to know for certain if this drug can do what the pharmaceutical company says it can do, or is it some placebo effect, or is it some artifact of something else.
Or maybe a more familiar example to your listeners would be which diet should I go on? I read that the people that did this diet lost this amount of weight and they had health improvement measures. Yeah, maybe. It might be the diet, but it could be that they also changed their sleep pattern, they also stopped drinking and smoking, maybe they started exercising more. Maybe it’s one of those and not the diet, or some combination.
Controlling all those variables is a larger theme. What we’re trying to do is understand the cause of things. What the hell is going on? The more you go into bigger subjects like economics or political systems, it gets super messy. You get into hot-button issues, like are police all racists? To what extent should markets be free? That depends on what you’re trying to measure and what all the other variables are. You’ll see things like liberal democracies are better than autocracies on these 12 measures. That’s true. But some autocracies do better at certain things like law and order. Maybe, because they have such rigid political control systems.
Much of it then gets super messy in the social sciences when it merges into the political sciences. But the whole idea is we’re just trying to understand what causes what.
That’s a great explanation. It separates the correlation. Just because things happen at the same time doesn’t necessarily mean that one caused the other.
Yeah. It’s like the vaccines and autism thing. When that happens, this is a classic case of anecdotal thinking. I got my kid vaccinated and a couple of weeks later he started acting weird. I took him to a doctor a few months later after that, he was diagnosed with autism. What’s the last thing we did that was out of the ordinary? Oh, we got those vaccines! Oh! A happened, then B happened.
Well, it turns out there’s no causal connection, and the one paper that said that it was retracted as fraudulent. But nevertheless, people still glom onto that one. There’s nothing special about that. Does Hydroxychloroquine work or does it not work for COVID-19? It doesn’t, but for a while, we thought it did. I tried it for two days. This makes me feel like crap. I’m not taking this up just as a preventative measure. Who knows?
That was a perfect example in the current events of there is a little bit of evidence that it might. Okay, let’s run some experiments. Let’s try this and try that. Nope, it doesn’t. Move on to the next thing. Remdesivir, or whatever that is. Still new things after that, so we’ll see.
It’s one of those times that we’re living in where there isn’t a whole lot of scientific background. It’s a novel virus. We don’t know what it’s going to do, how it’s going to work, how it’s going to impact our bodies, what medications are going to work.
I hate the whole politicization of it as if Fauci or Trump or whoever is omniscient. They knew. They knew and they should’ve done this. No, no. Rewind the tape back to January. We did not know. Remember, we did not know what was going on. Even Fauci—I love Fauci—but he’s not omniscient. He doesn’t know everything. Nobody does.
It’s one of those challenges. They’re saying people felt like you should be omniscient, you should have known that the guidance would shift. If the guidance is shifting, then you must not be correct now. It produces a complex argument.
This is what’s called cursive knowledge. It is once you know something, you can’t not know it. That colors your retrospective review of what people should’ve done. This is also called the hindsight bias. After the fact, it’s clear what we should’ve done. But at the time, it wasn’t clear.
My two favorite examples are Pearl Harbor. That is, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, there was a conspiracy theory that Roosevelt knew that it was coming. The crazier one was that he was in on it. A little bit like the 9/11 truthers; I’ll use that as a second example.
Retrospectively, Roosevelt’s critics dug through all the intel and said there was a memo here and a memo here and a memo here clearly indicating the Japanese are going to attack Hawaii. But what they’re forgetting is that there were 10,000 pieces of intelligence over 10 years that they’re going to do this, they’re going to do that, who knows? Nobody knew. It wasn’t at all clear.
In fact, there was so much intel, they stopped sending it to Roosevelt because he was getting confused and the State Department didn’t know what they should be doing. Why are you sending all of these? What should we do? We don’t know. Then after the fact, he goes, “Look at that one. That’s the one.” Same thing.
There was that famous August 9th, 2001 memo from Condoleezza Rice to the White House. The intel indicates that Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda may attack the United States in the US. After 9/11, then they go, “A ha. August 9th. Bush knew that they were going to attack the United States. He was in on it. Or he knew it’s going to happen.” There’s “let it happen on purpose” (LIHOP) versus “made it happen on purpose” (MIHOP).
Even the 9/11 truthers don’t agree on that. But then, again, that’s not fair. Because again, there were 10,000 pieces of intelligence of Al Qaeda—what they were doing all over the world. It wasn’t at all clear that that was the one they were going to do.
That one piece in the massive ocean of information doesn’t really give you that much information.
Right. Even when people make bad marital decisions. The parents, “You should have known. You shouldn’t have married her or him. Did you really know?” In a way, even marital decisions should be grounded in some level of reason and rationality. This whole point of dating, say for two years, so that if anything weird comes out. A few months, you just don’t know. People can be on their best behavior for a while.
That’s a form of data collection in a way. It sounds unromantic. And my friend, Tim, mentioned this singer/songwriter, has that funny line about love and evidence. What’s evidence got to do with love? Do you know what you call love without evidence? Stalking.
Oh, gee. That’s a scary thought.
In a way, that’s what unrequited love is. If you have an interest in somebody that’s not coming back. The coming back or not, that’s information, that’s data to signal to you, is this a hit? Is this somebody I should pursue, or a miss? Somebody I should not pursue. It’s all that signal detection theory writ large to life.
Back to 9/11 and knowing or not knowing, or being in on it or not being in on it. There seems to be in our society—I don’t know outside of the US—this almost a love for conspiracy theories or the underpinning like there has to be some truth behind this. Is there a science behind why people want to believe in conspiracy theories? The Fox Mulder ‘I want to believe’?
Yes, Scully and Mulder. That’s right. It’s the perfect blend of reason and emotion, or skepticism and belief. I have a teaching company course. Actually, the great course is called Conspiracies and Conspiracy Theories. They’re two different things. The conspiracy is something that actually happened. Two or more people plotting in secret to take advantage of or do something illegal or immoral to a third party.
A conspiracy theory is the idea that there is such a thing. These are two different things. Conspiracies really do happen. One reason we believe in conspiracy theories is because enough of them are true. We know about the nefarious goings-on of CEOs, corporations, and governments. A day doesn’t go by where somebody isn’t busted for insider trading or a big corporation like Volkswagen gets busted for cheating the emission standards. All the shenanigans of the US government in the 70s, manipulating elections in South American countries.
These are all conspiracies. When people say 9/11 was an inside job, okay. Or a false flag operation, some mass shooting or whatever. You start sounding like Alex Jones, who’s pretty far out there, for sure. But the fact is there are false flag operations. They do happen.
My favorite example of this was Operation Northwoods. That is when Kennedy was president. The State Department was trying to figure out ways to get rid of Castro. One of them was Operation Northwoods. We’re going to set up a false flag operation. We’d make it look like the Cubans did X and it’s really us doing that. Then, we have a pretense to invade Cuba and accuse them of doing this bad thing, including making some of our airplanes look like Russian MiGs or this kind of thing, and then have them buzz, like a US airport and go, “Oh, those Russians coming from Cuba.” To his credit, Kennedy rejected all these things.
There were attempts to assassinate Castro, like a poison pen. One was you put toxins inside his wetsuit. He likes to dive; he’s a diver. You put toxins inside a wetsuit, he puts the wetsuit on, and then he’s poisoned. Or they even had an exploding shell or a conch. It’s at the bottom of the ocean, he dives down there.
These are crazy ideas. This is Mission: Impossible kind of stuff. Again, Kennedy rejected this. But the fact that his State Department is bringing him these proposals, this is the kind of thing our government is even thinking about doing?
During Reagan’s administration, he passed that law saying assassinating foreign leaders is illegal. Don’t be thinking about assassinating me. That tells us, and we know historically, that it’s like 20% of all European monarchs were assassinated. That is, power changed hands from one regime to another or one party to another violently. It’s not completely crazy to think that that could happen because it has happened. That’s one argument for why people believe in conspiracy theories.
The other has to do with the messiness of the world. Much of our cognition is designed to try to simplify things. That it’s just this, it’s just that. Sometimes it is something simple, but the tendency is then to think that the people in power have more power than they actually have.
For example, political conspiracy theories are mostly promoted by people out of power. The party that loses concocts all kinds of conspiracy theories about the rigged elections, and so on. The weird thing about Trump is that he won and he continued the conspiracy theories. It’s like, dude, you won. You’re supposed to drop the conspiracy theories. Just crazy.
Again, that power differential that CEOs or big Fortune 500 corporations have way more power than they actually have, and that they’re conspiring to do this or that. For a while, Bill Gates was the big demon conspiring to do things. Although, he’s back in the news with COVID, that he’s conspiring to chip everybody in the world. When they do the vaccine, they’re going to put a chip in you and Gates is going to control the world population.
But I’m predicting that Bezos will take over as the Antichrist trying to take over the world because he’s now the richest person. But again, money is a proxy for power. People feel there are shenanigans going on by powerful people. Again, for good reason because powerful people that have money do rig the system. Again, there are good reasons for that.
I’ve always wondered, maybe the example that I was thinking of personally was 9/11. Horrific event. I wonder if it’s easier for people to believe. There was this vast conspiracy to make this event happen rather than a handful of people from a foreign country could do something so horrific and there was nothing that we could do about it. The truth is almost more unnerving and more scary because there’s less control there.
There’s an angle there that I like. Again, back to the complexity of political and economic systems, it’s easier to think that there are just 12 people in London called the Illuminati calling the shots. They are the ones running the world. Again, it’s a simplification. But also, it’s a way of reducing cognitive dissonance or anxiety about that uncertainty because the fact is, nobody is running the world. In a way, that’s scary.
You see gas prices go up and they all have these people on the news, why is the gas price up? I think it’s this. I think it’s that. Ask the gas producers. They are the ones that are jacking the price up. Ask them. They’re doing what these people tell them. No one seems to know. And it’s like, what? Does no one have an understanding of the economy? That’s a little scarier. No one’s in charge. That’s a little disturbing.
Maybe that’s the fear. It’s easier to believe that someone bad is in charge as opposed to no one’s manning the ship and if we bump into something, we’re going to bump into it and there’s nothing we can do about it.
Exactly, because of the belief that one person or one small group is in charge and they’re evil. Then, we just have to get rid of the evil people then everything will be okay. It simplifies it in that way too.
Is there an easy-to-identify pseudoscience and conspiracies that, I would say, not found in truth? Flat earth and things like that.
I do have my conspiracy detection kit in my course that, first of all, the more people that have to be involved, the less likely the conspiracy theory is true. As Franklin said, “Three people can keep a secret if two of them are dead.” And also, the more elements that have to be involved, they have to come together in just the right time and place. Because the world, again, it’s messy, it’s chaotic, it’s contingent. Things never go the way they’re supposed to go.
People don’t keep their mouth shut. They do talk. We find out about these things eventually. As a joke goes, Clinton couldn’t even get a blow job in the White House before everybody knows about it. Nixon couldn’t even orchestrate a break-in to the Watergate Hotel. Here is the most powerful regime. He’s got his top G-Man, G. Gordon Liddy going in there. They couldn’t even pull up a robbery. Come on.
This is how it normally goes. People are incompetent, they can’t keep their mouth shut. Like the 9/11 truth movement, depending on which version. Take the one where it was an inside job with explosive devices. But wait a minute, we saw the planes hit. Now, let’s set aside that no planes there for a minute. They’re completely crazy. There were no planes. Those were all holograms.
Even the normal 9/11 truthers had debunked the no plane theory. It’s kind of amusing. But even with that. Let’s say the planes did hit and they used explosive devices. This is impossible to have all that complexity come together that somehow the operative got inside the World Trade Center buildings, broke through all the drywall and planted the explosive devices on the beams and so forth, and they did it in just the right place on the right floors where the planes hit. And they hit at an angle. You could see the collapsing videos. It’s slightly tilted at that floor where they hit. The people would have to know that in advance, which floor the planes were going to hit. On and on and on.
What about the passengers? The phone calls they made. You’d have to have 10,000 people in on this, with all those elements that would have to come together just the right way. Impossible because that’s not how the world really works.
Yeah. Is there a risk of giving in to conspiracy theories or engaging with people? Or saying, it’s harmless to be a 9/11 conspiracy theorist. It’s in an isolated bubble, it has no relevance, anything else. Or do these things blend into other areas?
Some of it is harmless. The flat earthers or some of that. But some of it is harmful. The examples of the parents that are suing Alex Jones because his nut-job followers were harassing them in their homes. Just going right up to their doors, following them around at the supermarket, screaming at them and stuff. There, it tips into the harm principle. When somebody is harmed, then that’s bad. Especially if it’s not true, then it’s libelous. He gotten sued for that and he lost. That was good.
Or the guy that went to the Ping Pong Pizzeria place or whatever. Pizza Pong or whatever the place was called.
Supposedly where Hillary was running her pedophile ring in the basement and that lunatic shows up with a gun and shoots through the roof because he thought, “I’m going to bust up this pedophile ring right now.” That’s somebody who believes in conspiracy theories.
Much more dangerous ones are the guy in New Zealand that shot up the mosque. He really believed the whole white supremacy conspiracy theory about the darker races trying to out-breed the lighter races, that people are in on this, the Muslims are doing this, and the Jews are doing that. That goes back to, really, Hitler and the whole Protocols of the Elders of Zion. These are all conspiracy theories.
Hitler rose to power on the stab-in-the-back conspiracy theory. That the only reason the Germans lost the First World War was that they were stabbed in the back by the Jewish interest in business that wanted to end the war sooner, blah-blah-blah, and they gave away all this stuff. They are the reason we lost millions of people. Believed that conspiracy theory and they put them in power for it. That’s an example of a dangerous conspiracy theory.
Let me guess, the pseudoscience implications are similar. If you don’t believe the coronavirus is a real virus, then why would you get a vaccine? If you don’t believe in polio or other vaccines, why would you get your children vaccinated?
People get very confused about freedom also. I should be free to not get vaccinated. Yeah? Well, I should be free from your germs. If freedom for you to swing your arm ends at my nose. The harm principle. It’s also what people are used to. California people, I should be able to go into a restaurant without a mask. You can’t go in without shoes and a shirt. Pretty much every restaurant has no shoes, no shirt, no service. Everybody goes, “Well, yeah. That makes sense.” “Okay, we’re throwing a mask in there because you might have the virus.” That’s even worse than your ugly chest and your stinky feet. Or you’re not free to drive on the left side of the road.
You give up certain freedoms for security. People get confused about this. They think, “No, I should be free to do anything I want.” No. You can go live on an island by yourself and do whatever you want, but not in a civil society.
Yeah. I’ve seen people talking about the restaurant. I’m free to come to your restaurant without a mask. Then, I’m afraid to have my food prep workers not wash their hands after they use the bathroom, sneeze on your food. But if you see my employees do that, you’re going to be upset and alarmed at it.
They’ll call the government to shut you down.
Is this because there’s a political ideology and the political ideology overrides the science aspect?
That’s true. But of course, it doesn’t happen in all Western countries. The United States is an outlier in the sand. Also in Italy. This gets me to the work of my friend and colleague, Michele Gelfand, who’s a cultural psychologist. She studies loose versus tight cultures. That is to what extent the citizens of a nation follow the rules and the laws. Some are better at it and others are not so good at it.
Like Italians where COVID spread initially wildly. They didn’t want to follow the edicts of the government that said this is what you should do. We’ve seen quite a bit of that here. Americans are pretty good for a while, maybe March, April, and May, but then in June, when it’s like we’re ready to open up now, the numbers are looking good. And then we saw what happened. Now, we’re back to square one again, almost. That would be an example.
Whereas in Japan, Germany, and a few other tighter cultures where they said, “Okay, we’re going to do what you tell us to do in the interest of solving this problem.” There are cultural differences. I think America is not so good on that front.
We can only abide by a rule so long if we don’t see a personal benefit to us.
That’s right. Individualistic culture versus a more collectivist culture. In other words, collectivism—a bad connotation here—implies socialism, communism, and so on. And I agree; I’m kind of an individualist. But again, we give up freedoms all the time for security, and for good reason I’m happy about that. I live a much better life where I don’t have to worry about things that I would be worried about if I lived in some third-world country where there were no police or the police were all corrupt, and I couldn’t count on the banking system that the currency may be inflated wildly, where I would be afraid to put my money in the stock market. These are things I just don’t worry about. I can think about things because I live in a secure, safe society, because I’d been willing to give up all those certain freedoms.
We’ve got good water, consistent electricity because we’re willing to pay taxes and we’re willing to give up these other things to make that happen.
I know that you have a book that came out in April, Giving the Devil His Due. Where in the world did that title come from?
There he is. There is the devil. I’ll tell you where it came from. This is Robert Bolt’s 1960 play, A Man for All Seasons. Based on the true story of the 16th century chancellor of England, Sir Thomas More, and his collision with King Henry the 8th, over the monarch’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon. In the play, a dialogue unfolds between More and his future son-in-law, Roper, over the changing of the law.
Roper urges him to arrest a man whose testimony could condemn More to death, even though no laws were broken. More says, “And go he should, if he was the Devil himself, until he broke the law!” And Roper says, “So now you’d give the Devil benefit of law?” And More says, “Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?” And he said, “I’d cut down every law in England to do that!” And then More says, “After all the laws were cut down and the Devil came after you, then where are you going to go?” “I’d give the Devil the benefit of law for my own safety’s sake.”
Here I’m mostly talking about free speech. That as the moment you start censoring people’s speech you don’t like, particularly their ideas, then what happens when you set a precedent (or worse, even change the laws) to censor people, when it’s you who are the unorthodox one, you are the heretic, you’re the one that has the idea that wants to push back against the orthodoxy, you’re the heterodox thinker, and then you’ve already signed off on censorship. Too bad. We have to protect free speech for our own safety’s sake.
Anyway, the book is a collection of my essays. Mostly focused on those themes of free thought, free thinking, free speech, heterodox thinking, the problem we mentioned at the start about no one’s omniscient. The only way to find out if you got up the rails with your ideas is to engage with other people who think differently from you.
If you’re a liberal and you only read The New York Times, you’re not helping yourself because you may have gone down a rabbit hole. You’re in a bubble. The social media bubbles and echo chambers, as they’re called. You’ve got to get out of that to find out if the ideas you’re pursuing are gone too far. The only way to do this is to talk to somebody that doesn’t agree with you. Believe it or not, there are.
I’m concerned about the lack of diversity of ideas, opinions, and politics in the academy. Most of my fellow professors are pretty liberal. You could make jokes about conservatives pretty much unabated on campus and people will laugh. But you can’t make jokes about liberals or democratic presidents, for example. They won’t think that’s funny because there’s a huge, huge bias there. And that’s a problem.
Again, in the academy, we’re signed up on diversity as a great thing, except for diversity of opinion. Viewpoint diversity.
What’s the expression, I’m all for diversity as long as you agree with me?
You’re exactly right. Yeah. That’s just not good for what we’re trying to do here is figure out what’s true.
Has there been any pushback from the book? Of people like, “We don’t want you to be talking about widening diversity or…”
I’ve had mostly pretty positive responses. The book had one negative review in The Guardian in England. Clearly by a social justice warrior. He starts off by saying, “Shermer’s an old white guy. And all of the blurbs by the back of his book are by old white guys and he lists them all.” Of course, he forgets that I also had Amy Chua, who’s an Asian Woman, and Nadine Strossen, who’s a woman, who’s head of the ACLU. Conveniently forgetting some of the other people.
This is the opening paragraph. “If that’s your best argument, well, Shermer’s an old white guy, so we can’t trust him.” That’s racist and ageist. You tell me. You’re a liberal. You’re supposed to be against ageism and racism, and you’re telling me if I’m old and white, and middle-aged, whatever, I’m 65, that you can’t trust me, what is that? I found it actually rather amusing.
I appreciate the stance of we want to hear opposing ideas. We need to hear opposing ideas. We need to challenge the status quo to some extent, not without science, not without reason, but the pressing against the edge of the bubble helps us all be better.
Yeah. Even scientists, especially, really need critical feedback. It’s the point of peer review. But science is not perfect. We have the so-called replication crisis. A lot of the cutesy social psyche experiments turned out to be not replicable. Some of them weren’t even done; they were just fraudulent.
More importantly, a lot of the medical science experiments and research are difficult to replicate because they’re so complex. That has bigger ramifications, like when big pharmaceutical companies try to get drugs passed by the FDA and they present data. A lot of the data is not replicable. It’s not good. We’re making important decisions about what to recommend to patients with diseases based on faulty research.
Really important that scientists also get on board with trying to debunk their own ideas. Be skeptical of their own theories. You’ve got to do it.
That’s got to be a hard position. There’s an expression about the best way to figure out if your argument is right is to argue against your own thoughts.
Exactly. I have had my students in the past take up the opposite position. What is your position on abortion? I’m pro-choice. Okay. What’s the best argument on the pro-life side? Do they hate women? No, that’s not their argument. They may hate women—I don’t know—but that’s not their argument. Go back and do your homework. Here, watch Ben Shapiro’s video on defending the pro-life position and then come back with some arguments against that. Most of them never thought about it. That’s the only way to figure out.
That’s really awesome. Obviously, you’re not traveling.
No. I did my entire book tour from my garage. I’m in my garage here. Actually, I’m getting used to it, I have to say. I used to like traveling and giving a lot of public talks and stuff like that, and now that I can’t, now that no one else can either, I don’t have any FOMO. No fear of missing out. Like, why didn’t I get invited to that conference? Oh, no. Now, no one’s going anywhere. This is not so bad. I get to stay home, play with my kid, ride my bike, work on my next book, and so on.
It’s all that adjusting to what’s the world we’re currently living in and how do we make it work with us.
I feel fortunate. In Southern California, first of all, the weather’s pretty good most of the year. I get out, ride my bike, and stuff. It doesn’t really matter how long the shutdown happens. For me, personally. Economically, it’s not good. My Canadian friends can’t come here, because if they do, then they’re quarantined when they go back. I like my house and I like my family. But 24/7, I like to get out. We’ve all got to get out for a couple of hours a day, anyway. It could be worse. We’ll get through this.
I’m predicting that there’ll be a lot of changes, both good and bad. You know Schumpeter’s idea of creative destruction in economics: sometimes industries get stuck and then something knocks them out all of a sudden and quickly. It’s not always a bad thing because new industries leap in to fill the void. Things like malls. Malls were always an inefficient way—although it’s kind of a social thing, I guess—but a lot of those are just going to be gone, retail stores gone. I’m getting quite used to having UPS bring my Amazon package—pretty much every day I’ve ordered something.
You know? This isn’t that bad. I didn’t really like going to the mall, having to find a place to park, then walk for 20 minutes to get to the place I wanted to go, then they go there and they don’t have my size. I end up spending money on a chocolate chip cookie because Mrs. Fields is there and I shouldn’t have done that. I think that’ll be okay.
A good friend of mine owns a theater, and he’s worried. “What am I going to do with this building?” You could convert it to condos or something. Here in California, drive-in theaters are making a comeback; people in their cars. Food service companies are now servicing the cars so they’re making a little bit of comeback generating revenue. It could be good in the long run.
It’s been an interesting shift. I’ve been working from home for many years now. I’ve always been wondering with the pandemic is this shift to these corporations who have this ideology of everybody needs to be in the office in order to be efficient. Now, they can’t be in the office and they’re maybe not losing the efficiency that they thought they were. Now, do you get rid of your office buildings? There could be some really seismic shifts in the way that we live and we work as a result of this.
Yes. I see Google told their employees—200,000 employees—you’re going to work at home for the next year. This can be interesting for family life, too. Maybe this is good. Parents spend more time with their kids, maybe. You can get a lot of work done, or you take breaks and play with your kid, back to work and so on. Probably need to carve out a little place in the house where it’s quiet or the kids can’t come bursting in or whatever, but that’s not so bad.
In LA, that soul-crushing traffic. I don’t know how anybody does that. Hours a day just sitting in your car. Even if you’re consuming audiobooks and teaching company courses—I do all that—but even that, come on. Sitting in the car is just so soul-crushing. That would be okay if that gets chipped away.
I know many people who commute who’d be very happy for their commute to disappear.
Let’s close it out here. Obviously, people can get your book pretty much anywhere that you get books. Amazon is always a good choice, but those who already have an account and something’s already showing up tomorrow anyway.
Amazon Prime. It’s a great deal. michaelshermer.com is my webpage, skeptic.com is the webpage for the magazine. Tons of free content and it’s all good.
You were talking about courses also. Are those courses available?
Oh yeah. I have two teaching company courses. These are The Great Courses, and if you go to teach12.com, or just type in The Great Courses, you’ll see my courses there. It’s a great company. I love that. I listen to their courses all the time. They now have an app, thegreatcoursesplus.com. You can listen to any lectures from any of the courses. You don’t have to take the whole course. You can just bounce around different topics.
Again, part of that shift we’re going to go through is right when COVID hits, with Netflix, Hulu, CBS, NBC, they’re all doing these online streaming platforms. This is a great way to consume a ton of content. I can’t tell you how many documentaries I’ve watched in the last six months. I don’t even want to admit it. But I’ve really learned a lot. It’s a great use of time. Even if I’m just vacuuming or whatever, the yard work and whatnot, I’m listening to some course, some lecture. It’s like, this is really great.
I love the whole podcast evolution and being able to hear different thoughts, different ways of doing things. These are things I wouldn’t go to see a lecture on, but the fact that I could just pop in my headphones to listen, I’m in my own little bubble, safe from being challenged, but I could listen to some challenging thoughts.
That’s right. Exactly. I have a podcast now, Science Salon, and the numbers are getting up there now. I’m not Joe Rogan with millions of followers, but even Joe, I love Joe. These podcasts are big fun to listen to when I’m out riding my bike or whatever. I always learn something new. I think this is a good trend.
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