Author: Michael Shermer

The Danger Is Real: Why We’re All Wired for ‘Constructive Conspiracism’

I once met a politician who told me that he believes water fluoridation is the greatest scam ever perpetrated on the public. I have been confronted by “truthers” who insist the 9/11 attacks were an “inside job” engineered by the Bush administration. Others have regaled me for hours with theories about who really killed JFK and Princess Diana—not to mention the nefarious goings-on of the New World Order, the Trilateral Commission, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Knights Templar, the Freemasons, the Illuminati, the Bilderberg Group, the Rothschilds, the Rockefellers, and the Zionist Occupation Government (ZOG) that secretly runs the United States. In the course of researching a 2012 BBC documentary, I spent a day in Las Vegas with a cohort of British conspiracists during their journey around the southwestern United States in search of UFOs and aliens, and the government facilities where their existence supposedly was covered up. One woman told me about the orange balls of energy hovering around her car on Interstate 405 in Los Angeles. (Fortunately, they were chased away by …

Banning Evil: In the Shadow of Christchurch, Quasi-Religious Myths Can Lead Us Astray

On March 15, a 28-year old an Australian gunman named Brenton Tarrant allegedly opened fire in two Christchurch, New Zealand mosques, killing 50 and wounding 50 more. It was the worst mass shooting in the history of that country. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who was rightly praised for her response to the murders, declared: “While the nation grapples with a form of grief and anger that we have not experienced before, we are seeking answers.” One answer took form a week later, when Ms. Ardern announced legislation that would ban all military-style semi-automatic weapons, assault rifles and high-capacity magazines. Will such gun-control measures work to reduce gun crime? Maybe. They did in Australia following a 1996 mass shooting in Tasmania in which 35 people were murdered. A 2006 follow-up study showed that in the 18 years prior to the ban, there had been 13 mass shootings. But in the decade following, there had been none. Gun culture is different in every country. But there is at least an arguable case to be made that the …

Genes, Environment, and Luck: What We Can and Cannot Control

Social justice activists have issued a challenge to “check your white privilege.” Inasmuch as I oppose the inherent racism ingrained in such expressions of Identity Politics, my initial replies were of a snarky nature, such as “It’s doing just fine, thank you.” But as I engaged the task more seriously it wasn’t my “white privilege” that I discovered so much as it was my good fortune. This led to my November 2017 column in Scientific American, in which I enumerated a few of the ways that luck has favored many people (myself included) that led to their success, much of which was not “earned” in the purist sense that conservatives conceive of it, in which the successful merited it and the unsuccessful deserved it. The deeper I looked into the matter of how lives turn out, in fact, the more I realized how much is out of our control. Let’s begin with a question: Why do some people succeed in life while others fail? Is it because they are naturally smarter and harder working, or …

Another Dream Deferred

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. —Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., 1963 When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered what, in the fullness of time, would become his most memorable vision from his 1963 magisterial “I Have a Dream” speech, he could not have known how much progress in civil rights would ensue over the coming half century, in no small measure because of his work. Human progress in general, and moral advancement in particular, have been documented in detail in a number of recent books, including Hans Rosling’s Factfulness (2018, Flatiron Books), Yuval Noah Harari’s 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (2018, Spiegel & Grau), Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now (2018, Penguin) and The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011, Penguin), Gregg Easterbrook’s It’s Better Than it Looks (2018, PublicAffairs), Johan Norberg’s Progress (2017, OneWorld), my own The Moral Arc (2015, Henry Holt), Matt Ridley’s The …

Giving the Devil His Due: Why Freedom of Inquiry in Science and Politics is Inviolable

In the 1990s I undertook an extensive analysis of the Holocaust and those who deny it that culminated in Denying History, a book I coauthored with Alex Grobman.1 Alex and I are both civil libertarians who believe strongly that the right to speak one’s mind is fundamental to a free society, so we were surprised to discover that Holocaust denial is primarily an American phenomenon for the simple reason that America is one of the few countries where it is legal to doubt the Holocaust. Legal? Where (and Why) on Earth would it be illegal? In Canada, for starters, where there are ‘anti-hate’ statutes and laws against spreading ‘false news’ that have been applied to Holocaust deniers. In Austria it is a crime if a person “denies, grossly trivializes, approves or seeks to justify the national socialist genocide or other national socialist crimes against humanity.” In France it is illegal to challenge the existence of “crimes against humanity” as they were defined by the Military Tribunal at Nuremberg “or in connection with any crime within the …

How Classical Liberalism Can Heal the Bonds of American Affection

As I write these words—on April 18, 2018—Starbucks has just announced it would temporarily close more than 8,000 cafés so that 175,000 employees may undergo sensitivity training for the “implicit racism” that, apparently, everyone in the company unconsciously harbors. This follows an incident in Philadelphia, in which a Starbucks store manager called the police on two African-American men who wanted to use the bathroom despite not being paying customers. Setting aside the contentious issue of whether it is possible even to reliably detect and correct such a nebulous concept as unconscious bias (of which I, and others, have expressed skepticism), how is it that the hidden motives of an entire corporate collective can be inferred from the actions of a single employee? Traditional bigotry operates by mapping a stereotype of a collective onto an individual. Within Starbucks, the process has been inverted, with the vector of prejudice emanating from the one to the many. Stories such as this now clutter our news feeds daily. The details change from one controversy to the next, but they …

Would You Opt for Immortality?

Before the 7.6 billion people alive today, demographers estimate that about 100 billion people lived and died. This is the reality of the human condition. Memento mori, as medieval Christians reflected—Remember that you have to die. What if it didn’t have to be this way? There are, in fact, organisms whose bodies steadily and reliably replace cells with healthier cells, and whose tissues and organs self-repair and maintain their vigor. They’re called children. And there are cells in adults that divide indefinitely. They’re called cancer. What if there were a way to genetically re-engineer and chemically reprogram our cells to divide indefinitely like they do in children, and to continue this process throughout adulthood without becoming cancerous? Could we become immortal? “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work,” Woody Allen once said, “I want to achieve immortality through not dying. I don’t want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen; I want to live on in my apartment.” There are today well-funded groups of scientists who believe we can do just that. If …