Marian Tupy: Michael Shermer, thank you very much for joining me. I appreciate it.
Michael Shermer: Nice to see you and hope you’re doing well. Human progress – I guess we’ve been challenged on that thesis for the last six months or so.
MT: You are the editor of Skeptic magazine, so I want to talk to you about a number of different things, including some of the very interesting conspiracy theories that are floating around the world about COVID. So that I don’t butcher the quote, here is one that I found on NPR: “with people believing that COVID-19 pandemic is part of a strategy conceived by global elites such as Bill Gates to roll out vaccinations with tracking chips that would late to be activated by 5G technology used by cellular networks.” So, let’s start with that. Where do these conspiracy theories come from and what do you make of them?
MS: Well, they come from the imaginations of people who are very conspiratorially minded. Now in terms of response here, I invoke Hitchens’s dictum, as I call it. Christopher Hitchens said, “That which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.” That is to say, anybody can say anything. You could say that aliens planted COVID-19 on our planet. So what? Where’s your evidence? And if you don’t have any evidence, then we don’t have to respond because there’s really no response to conspiracy theories that are unfalsifiable, that is, you can’t refute it and you can’t test it or anything like that. There’s no evidence. It’s just a made-up story. But things like the 5G networks. That was an interesting one because it was just an accidental conjunction between two completely independent things: COVID-19 and the rollout of 5G. And it’s not like there’s anything special about 5G, other than it’s more powerful in dispersal and its extent than 4G and that’s more than 3G and all the way back to flip phones. Remember the 1990s Motorola flip phones that looked like Star Trek communicators. There were conspiracy theories around that – cancer cluster scares. At that time, not everyone had a cell phone or one of these flip phones, so there seemed to be a cluster of people that had brain tumors and they used the flip phones, so there was this fear that somehow the radiation from the cell phone was causing tumors, although we showed even back then that cell phones don’t give off enough energy to break the chemical bonds in cells that would cause tumors and the mutations that lead to cancerous tumors. So that’s just nonsense, and 5G is just another version of that. It’s not enough energy to cause something like COVID-19. That’s not quite the argument, though. To be fair to them, their argument is that 5G energy weakens the immune system, making you more susceptible to the virus. But there’s still no evidence for that. In any case, the counterfactuals refute it, that is, countries and areas that have extensive COVID-19 and no 5G. Those places have no 4G or 3G or anything, and still, they have COVID-19. So that counterfactual then refutes that particular argument. As for Bill Gates, he’s been a target of conspiracy theory since the 80s when Microsoft really was trying to take over the world of software engineering. But, of course, the moment you have anybody that’s powerful and has a lot of money, conspiracy theorists glom on. Now Jeff Bezos has more money than Gates, so he’s becoming a target of conspiracy theories, particularly as Amazon is one of only two or three big influential online retailers. Of course they’re going to be targeted for conspiracy theories because that’s normal. Conspiracy theories go after big governments, big corporations, big pharma, and so on. By the way, big pharma is also rolled into this whole COVID thing because of the pharmaceutical chemicals that we might take, like hydroxychloroquine or the coming vaccine. I know you wanted to talk about vaccines because that’s going to be another huge one. We need a vaccine. SARS-CoV-2 is not going away. I think pretty much everybody agrees on that. We’ll have it forever, and it may mutate into a more moderate virus like the seasonal flu. But anyway, it’s not going away. So, we need a vaccine. Then you get to this issue of security versus freedom, and people have a peculiar idea about freedom. I should be free from having to take a vaccine or having to wear a mask or whatever, but that’s not what freedom means. As you well know from having studied this, Thomas Hobbes laid out the first argument for a social contract in which we give up certain freedoms to have safety and security. The simplest analogy I make with wearing masks or a vaccine is that you’re not free to drive on the opposite side of the road. You give up that freedom in order to be safe from drivers hitting you. The freedom to swing your arm ends at my nose. You’re not free to do anything you want. We give up all sorts of freedoms, so I think it’s just what people get used to. The vaccine thing also has another element to it. It’s counterintuitive that I’m going to put a little bit of poison or toxin or germs in my body and somehow that’s going to make me more protected from the more viral form of this germ. To a lot of people, that just doesn’t sound right even though it works. We have over a century of data showing that this is one of the greatest inventions of all time. You might have the numbers on how many hundreds of millions, or billions, of people have been saved or at least not suffered as much from having vaccines, and yet people still feel that you can’t force me to do it. I should be free to not get vaccinated, and that’s a tough issue.
MT: There are always limits to people’s appreciation of science and understanding of science, but are you in a way pleased or encouraged by the fact that when the COVID outbreak happened, people didn’t start sacrificing to gods or flagellating or something like that? People immediately turned to science and scientists. From Europe to North America to Africa to Asia, people are looking towards scientists to come up with new ideas. We are not in some sort of a grip of religious fervor, unless you want to talk about the political situation in the country. We will get to that later. But are you encouraged by that? Isn’t this proof positive that humanity has now internalized a scientific view of the world or am I being too optimistic?
MS: No, I think you’re being realistic. I don’t like the word optimism because it implies that we’re blind to the facts and we just go around thinking your glass is half full no matter how empty it actually is. We’re realists. The data shows that things are getting better, and in this particular case, we are centuries away historically in the Western world from blaming the gods or the witches or the demons for plagues and diseases like this. But in a way, conspiracy theories are kind of like a secular religious target for explaining the origins of the virus. But I agree with you. It’s a small minority of people. Unfortunately, they have their own web pages, so they get a lot of media attention, but most people want to follow the dictates of what scientists say. Even someone like Trump, who seems to often defy his scientific advisors, it’s only when he thinks it’s going to go against his re-election or some political reason. Otherwise, he’s kind of a germaphobe, and he and he follows most of the dictates of science. Most politicians do in both parties as long as the scientific finding isn’t pushing one of their hot-button issues. For example, because of Al Gore and his film An Inconvenient Truth, climate change has become associated as a left-wing liberal cause and therefore, if I’m defining myself by my political affiliation with the right, I’m going to go against that, just because that’s what I’m supposed to do as a member of the team on the right. And so it will appear that conservatives and Republicans are anti-science, but liberals are just as bad when it comes to hot-button issues for them like GMOs and nuclear power. They’re just as irrational as Republicans are when it comes to those particular issues because that’s a hot-button issue for them. But if you take out those, then most people most of the time accept the science. We climb aboard airplanes without thinking twice about it and fly at 35,000 feet at 600 miles per hour. We gladly use our cell phones and our laptops and drive our cars and so on. We accept all the science and engineering and math behind those without question. So it’s really only those particular subjects.
MT: Now, as a keen student of psychology, why do you think that people simply cannot accept that bad things just happen? We were talking about conspiracies just now. Why do you think that people always see some control mechanism behind what’s going on in the world, rather than just accepting that even in the world that is generally getting better, some things are simply going to go wrong somewhere at some time? What do you think is going on in the human mind?
MS: I think there are several components to that one. One I call “patternicity,” the tendency to find meaningful patterns in random noise. We’re not good at detecting randomness. If you give subjects listening to signals, you can give them random noises, little blips that are totally random. and they’ll find a pattern. They’ll hear a pattern of some kind. It’s the same thing with dots on a screen, and you just take it up from there to any kind of pattern. We tend to see dragons in the clouds or the face of Jesus on a tortilla or the Virgin Mary on the side of a building. These are just random stains and blotches that our brain sees. The fusiform gyrus and the temporal lobe have a neural network that specializes in recognizing faces – two dots, a nose, a mouth, and maybe some kind of oval outline. We’re really good at that. Add to patternicity “agenticity,” the tendency to infuse those patterns with intentional agency. There’s something behind that. My thought experiment on this in The Believing Brain was imagine you’re a hominid on the plains of Africa about three and a half million years ago and you hear a rustle in the grass. Is it a dangerous predator or is it just the wind? So if you assume the rustle on the grass is a dangerous predator and it turns out it’s just the wind, that’s a type one error, a false positive. You made a mistake, but it’s a low-cost error to make. You just become more skittish and move away. But if you make the opposite error, if you assume the rustle in the grass is just the wind and it’s a dangerous predator, you’re lunch. You’ve just been given a Darwin award for taking yourself out of the gene pool early. So I’m arguing that natural selection created a kind of neural cognitive sensory apparatus system to detect patterns no matter what. But let’s ask what’s the difference between the wind and a dangerous predator. The wind is an inanimate force. A dangerous predator is an intentional agent, and his intention is to eat me and that can’t be good. So we infused these patterns with agency – animism and spiritism and polytheism and monotheism and aliens and demons and witches and gods and even conspiracy theories. These are all kinds of intentional agents behind the scenes pulling the strings and making things happen because everything happens for a reason. Nothing happens by chance. These are very common phrases that almost everybody uses because it feels that way, and the idea of a statistical analysis of the probabilities of randomness in the economy or in the weather or any kind of system we deal with in the modern world is pretty new. It’s within a century and a half at most that we’ve kind of grasped that a lot of what happens in the world is random, or it’s based on these kinds of probabilistic things. So we get wrong so many things, all the way from the simplest things like the gambler’s fallacy, where red has come up six times in a row and therefore black is due. Or the opposite: red has come up six times in a row, so I’m on a hot streak and I should bet on red. That wheel has no memory of what it just did so each roll of the roulette wheel is independent, and therefore, the odds are the same each with each roll. They’re not going to accumulate. But the brain doesn’t see that. The brain just sees that there’s some pattern here. I got six reds in a row, so something’s going on all the way to how we interpret the weather or the economy. We just find these meaningful patterns. Even something like insurance companies and how they evaluate risk is pretty new. That’s within a century or so of really fine models that accurately predict what’s going to happen collectively. We evolved over for millions of years without anything like that even remotely existing. Richard Dawkins calls this “middle land,” that we evolved in the middle land of the plains of Africa where we’re used to seeing things of a middling size, from ants to mountain ranges, and they move at a middling speed, like the snail crawling or the weather or something like this. You don’t see continents drifting. You don’t see hundred-year patterns in the weather. You don’t see light moving because it’s so fast you can’t detect that it even has a speed. Or the expanding universe or quantum physics. These things are all completely counterintuitive because there’s nothing in our brain to hook it on to. Much of physics is not like anything that you can glom onto and the same thing with the economy. One of the difficulties of accepting free markets and capitalism is that it just feels counterintuitive. How is it I’m going to profit from your profit? I don’t see that because in the ancestral environment of our hunter-gatherers, there was no free market. There was no invisible hand. There was no wealth that could be distributed or anything like that. Everybody was relatively poor. Again, the ideas behind a modern economy are counterintuitive. There’s very little about the modern world that we intuitively grasp. That’s why we need science. That’s why we need education and literacy. People need that information to override their instincts about the world.
MT: I read somewhere that the complexity of the modern world has outpaced our ability to understand it with our Stone-Age brains. Anyhow, COVID is resurgent throughout the world and I think it’s fair to say that the United States specifically has been really underperforming. What do you think is behind that? Is our government particularly inept, or do you think that Americans differ from other people – Canadians or Europeans – in a sense that we are more rebellious or more distrustful of our government and therefore unwilling to follow the dictates that the government throws in our way? Have you given that some thought?
MS: Yeah, I like the interpretation by my friend and colleague Michelle Gelfand, who is a cultural psychologist who studies tight and loose cultures. Tight cultures are cultures where most of the people most of the time obey the laws and rules, and they have kind of a more homogeneous perspective of their nation, their culture, and what they stand for. They’re more in unison together. Tight cultures are like Germany and Japan and loose cultures are like the United States Britain and Italy would be another example. We kind of feel like whatever the government tells me is sort of a suggestion. I can take it or leave it, and if I don’t feel like it, I’m not going to do it. That’s kind of a loose culture thing, and Americans are more like that. Most people seem to respect Anthony Fauci. He’s a smart guy, but damn it, I’m not wearing a mask because I’m an American, right back to the problems with understanding what freedom means. I should be free from your germs just like you should be free from wearing a mask. Something’s got to give. The principle of harm is what matters. You’re not free to harm other people and germs can do that. But Americans, even though they may grasp that conceptually, feel emotionally or intuitively like they shouldn’t have to do that. If you look at the graphs of our closing down just after Europe started to close down, our rates were plunging just like they were in European countries. But then the moment that we started to re-open things, where people were out and about without their masks — and I don’t just mean the protests and the BLM movement or any of that – but going to the beach and going to bars and restaurants. There was footage on the nightly news every night for a month of people not wearing the masks, and you just didn’t see that in European countries where they were wearing their masks because they were told that’s what you should do. I think that’s largely going to come down to a huge colossal mistake on our part that’s going to harm our economy. Back here in California, we’re back shutting down now. Bars and restaurants are all closed, except for take-out or dining out on the sidewalk or in the street. That’s not good, but that’s the result of that. I think that’s the deeper issue. I don’t think it’s just the incompetence on the part of the government. You could certainly nail trump on a number of points that liberals and more centrist republicans have nailed him for, but I don’t think that’s the deeper problem. I think it’s this cultural difference.
MT: I wasn’t specifically thinking only of Trump. I was also thinking about state governors, legislatures, basically the entire political system. When it comes to Europe, I’m wondering if Europe wasn’t already approaching a level of closure and curfews that were not going to be sustainable in the long run. I myself have been going crazy and a lot of people I’ve been talking to have been going crazy under the lockdown. And I also think that even with the best of intentions, at some point the human devotion to staying in and trying to do the best will eventually evaporate, and people will do what they want to do. That brings me to my next question. What do you think is the connection between the pandemic and the violence that we are seeing in the streets? All that pent-up energy, not to mention increased concern over our economic future, surely has a role to play in the riots, don’t you think?
MS: Yeah, maybe. I think that’s a reasonable hypothesis. I’m not sure how to test it because it’s a one-off event. The BLM movement is not going to say we’re out here because we’re tired of being indoors. They say we’re out here for social justice, because of George Floyd and so forth and the other names. And they have a point that’s right. But the critical point, when it’s tips over from non-violent protesting to violent protesting — riots and burning federal buildings and breaking Starbucks windows and all that craziness, this is not good for moral progress. That’s the worst thing you could do. It turns people against your movement, and it rarely succeeds in getting what you want. As we know from the research on this, non-violent protests work far more than violent protests do, but people don’t know that, or they don’t care because they’re not out there with a particular goal in mind. Dr. King’s marches and boycotts were very specifically targeted to certain cities with certain mayors or states with governors that were very racist, and he did it in a way to maximize the media coverage of it all to get the laws changed. It was all orchestrated very carefully. That’s not at all what we’re seeing now. It’s just a mass of people just going down there. I’m guessing 90% of them have no political ideology at all involved in it. They just want to mix things up and burn things down and have a riotous good time and kick some ass. They’re just generally anti-authority of any kind. But they’re not very consistent about being anti-authority when the violence starts, and they want the police to protect them. But consistency is not I think part of these kinds of protests, unfortunately.
MT: Well, that’s a very good segue to the next question I wanted to ask you. When George Floyd was killed, almost all Americans saw it as an unjustifiable murder, and they wanted justice to be done. That’s of course how the riots started, but today the protest agenda seems to be going well beyond simple calls for justice. It includes attacks on freedom of thought and expression. Even reason and argument are being attacked as being expressions of some kind of white domination. What is behind these sentiments? Where do they come from, and what do you think is going on?
MS: Well, that I think is an extension of the post-modernism and critical theory that’s been around for decades. It’s come to the fore in recent years more and more, but it’s been around since the 80s. This idea that there’s no objective truth and that everything is kind of a contest between groups for power. It starts with a Marxian interpretation where it’s class warfare, but clearly, that didn’t pan out. Nationalism was much stronger than socioeconomic class as a motivating factor in the first and second World Wars and in the proxy wars during the Cold War. Class had nothing to do with it. Marx was wrong about that. But the left has instead glommed on to so-called identity politics and other forms of identity instead of your class — your skin color and your gender and all the others. So I think that’s what we’re seeing expressed now. I saw this weird thing in one of the BLM webpages that they stand against the nuclear family. What has that got to do with George Floyd and police brutality? And you’re right that everybody agreed George Floyd was a clear injustice. I didn’t see a single conservative try to rationalize away the police violence. That seemed to be a universal agreement. If they would have just restricted it to that and a few other names that were that were at the forefront, that could have led to some real immediate police reform because clearly that was a problem. There are obviously cops who should be nowhere near having a gun and a badge. They are bad people. But the moment you start that, then you start a mission creep: if some police are like that, maybe they’re all like that, Not personally this guy or this guy, but this systemic racism in all of police. Then all of a sudden you expand to all policing is bad. The very idea of policing is bad. Whoa, wait a minute! That’s how it goes too far, and then you lose most of your audience that would have supported you otherwise. Black lives matter. Yes, they do. But then you throw in this other stuff. Why the nuclear family? Well, because the rate of unwed births in the black community is something like 70% now and so rather than remedying that or treating it as just a freedom issue, it’s claimed that having a nuclear family with a married couple is a white thing and they have more power. Therefore, we have to be against it. All of a sudden, you’ve gone down some path almost nobody’s going to support you on. That that that was disappointing to me to see the BLM movement move in that direction because otherwise, I would support it. If you just say, “Do black lives matter?” I go, “Yes, absolutely. Black lives matter.” Or if you want to say, “Do black lives matter too, just like other lives?” Yes, absolutely. But then you throw in all this other stuff -defunding the police or all policing or even objective truth, reason, and science are a form of white suppression — it’s like you’ve just lost your mind if you think that. The fact that it developed in the Western world at least along one particular pathway doesn’t make it white or white supremacist or oppressive at all. That’s an example of it going way too far.
MT: Yeah, the last point about objective truth is something that has been around for a while. I seem to recall around 2014 or 2015, people started talking about things like “your truth” as opposed to real truth and that sort of thing. It seems to me that there are a certain number of advances that humanity has made that should be applicable universally. Among them, of course, is freedom of speech and freedom of thought, but also reason and using reason to discover truth as an objective matter. Why are these things important for human progress and in general and COVID specifically? I know this is an easy question for you, but I still would like you to answer it because a lot of people who might be watching this podcast may be young and don’t really appreciate how progress in the world is made. How do we discover vaccines? How do we move forward? How would human progress be compromised if we didn’t rely on freedom of speech and reason and expression? Could you take us home by talking about that question?
MS: Yeah, sure. Human progress comes from solving problems. That’s it in a nutshell. Pretty much every step in human progress has been to solve some particular problem, and the general sort of underlying reason for that is the second law of thermodynamics, or entropy. There are far more ways for things to go wrong than right. There are far more ways for things to be disordered than ordered, and therefore, the second law of thermodynamics is the first law of life, that is, to carve out some niche of order in a chaos of entropy. Clean your room every morning because if you don’t your room will get cluttered. Wood rots and metal rusts and bodies run down and so forth. In that sense, things like poverty don’t need an explanation. That’s what you get if you do nothing. Poverty is the normal state of things. Prosperity is the hard thing to explain, and that requires some very specific anti-entropy, or call it extropy as the extropians call it. Just from there, everything we do is in a way kind of pushing back against entropy and solving particular social problems or medical problems or public health problems and so on. But that then requires understanding causality. What is the cause of prosperity? What is the cause of plagues? What is the cause of physical disability? That requires an understanding of the cause of things, and that is the kind of the realm of science and reason or science and philosophy. Does X cause Y? Does A cause B? I mentioned patternicity earlier. Our brains have a tendency to just connect A to B no matter what. David Hume called it constant conjunction. A happens, then B happens. You do that three or four times, and the brain goes, “Okay, there’s a causal connection there. A causes B.” That’s the normal way of thinking, but oftentimes, they don’t. They’re just accidentally connected or just correlated but not caused, and therefore, you need some mechanism to test it. How can we figure out if it’s just a random pattern that my brain thinks is real? And the answer is science. There’s some experimental method, a way of testing a particular claim. We saw this during the early days of COVID. Does hydroxychloroquine attenuate or even prevent COVID-19? Nobody knew. There were a few studies that suggested this or that. Well, then we put it to the test. Within two months, we had an answer: it doesn’t work. Ok, so take that principle and just apply it to everything. What’s the cause of war? What’s the cause of civil wars? What’s the cause of violence? Why do people commit homicides? Those are the kinds of things we want to know so that we can attenuate them or make them better for human flourishing. Pretty much everything we all today experience that is positive for human flourishing is due to somebody figuring out the cause of the thing we don’t want or the thing we do want. And figuring it out necessitates freedom of thought and freedom of expression because nobody’s omniscient right. Not even Anthony Fauci is omniscient. Everybody’s wrong about many a great many things, so the only way to find out is to try your ideas out in the marketplace of ideas or just mention them to your spouse or your friend or go to a conference and present them to your peers or publish them in a peer-reviewed journal or publish them in a book or go on a podcast and tell people about your ideas and then allow questions or comments to flow in. if you work in isolation, it’s too easy to go down a side path that turns out to lead to nothing. It’s better to catch it early before you’ve gone off the rails and the only way to do that is to engage with other people. So free speech is really the foundational right of all other rights because the only way for me to figure out what the other rights should be is if I present them to other people that are interested in also solving problems. If you look at The Federalist Papers in the years leading up to the writing of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, this is what they were doing. They were bouncing ideas off each other: “I think we should do this. No, let’s not count that as a right. Let’s count this as a right.” And you do it by debate, disputation, argument, discussion, conversations, and so on, and nothing should be off the table. You’re free to say whatever you want. And you’re going to get, of course, crazies coming out of the woodwork like Alex Jones with his conspiracy theories about Sandy Hook or 9/11 being an inside job. You’re going to get that, but we have to allow that. In any case, the response to bad ideas like that is better ideas. No, 9/11 was not an inside job, and here’s how we know. Then, he puts his evidence out and I put my evidence out, and you can decide for yourself. I even do that with the Holocaust deniers, which is a pretty odious idea that’s offensive to Jews of course. I don’t just call them anti-Semites, although a lot of them are. That’s irrelevant. Why are they wrong? How do we know that the Holocaust happened the way we think that it happened? Well, I wrote a book about this, so to me, the response to people like David Irving, who is a pretty strong proponent of Holocaust denial or revisionism as he calls it, is that he’s wrong. I’ve pointed out a great many times all the different places that he’s wrong. That’s the way to deal with it, and that’s what we did, and that’s why he’s fallen out of favor and largely disappeared. That’s the way to treat ideas like that.
MT: I really liked what you said about free speech being the foundational freedom on which all others are based, and I think that’s a great way to conclude our podcast. I’m deeply grateful to you for taking the time to talk to us. Stay healthy and stay safe.
MS: I will, Marian. And let me take a moment to thank you for your important work that the HumanProgress.org site is doing. I go to it all the time, particularly when I need cheering up. Is there some good news here today? Can I find something the good that happened? I think it’s important we be data-driven. Your site and our site, skeptic.com, we try to base our decisions on information and, particularly, long-term trends are important.