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Exploring Skepticism, Freespeech, and Conspiracies

October 3, 2022
Michael Shermer


This week our guest is Michael Shermer, who founded Skeptic Magazine and is the executive director of the Skeptic’s Society. Michael’s written many books over the years, including Heavens on Earth, which explores technologists efforts towards immortality; Giving the Devil His Due, which is a collection of essays on scientific humanism; and later this month he’ll be publishing Conspiracy: Why the Rational Believe the Irrational.

Given Michael’s wide array of interest, we take a wide tour of many different ideas in this episode, including: free speech online, governmental regulation, how the internet has impacted conspiracy theories, reasons to be skeptical about technology, and much more.

Find Michael's podcast and latest publications on his website michaelshermer.com, or follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/michaelshermer


Host: Steven Parton - LinkedIn / Twitter

Music by: Amine el Filali


The following transcription was created automatically. Please be aware that there may be spelling or grammatical errors.

Michael Shermer [00:00:01] And the only thing I can say is that, you know, maybe Twitter and Instagram and so forth, they won't be like newspapers that last for centuries. You know, it could just be it's a fad. You know, so before we take drastic sensorial action with, you know, the government breaking things up, let's just see how it plays out. 

Steven Parton [00:00:32] Hello everyone, my name is Steven Parton and you're listening to the feedback loop on Singularity Radio. This week our guest is Michael Shermer, who founded Skeptic magazine and who is also the executive director of the Skeptics Society. Michael is also an author who has written many books over the years, including Heaven's on Earth, which explores our efforts to reach towards immortality via technology. Another book is Giving the Devil His Due, which is a collection of essays on scientific humanism, something we're obviously in favor of here at Singularity. And later this month, he'll be publishing his latest book, Conspiracy Why the Rational Believe the Irrational. Michael has a long history of talking deeply about a lot of subjects. So given this wide array of interest, we also explore many different ideas in this episode. Some of these include, but are not limited to free speech online governmental regulations of the Internet. How the Internet has impacted conspiracy theories, reasons we should be skeptical about technology and a whole lot more. So without further ado, let's just go ahead and jump into it. Everyone, please welcome to the feedback loop. Michael Shermer. You know, a lot of what attracted me to you is this idea of scientific humanism. And what I feel like what we do at Singularity is an attempt at that to take the power of science and technology to do some kind of positive, humanistic change in the world. But I'd be really curious to know, and I just would love to hear your idea of what scientific humanism is. How would you define that? Why is it important to you? And if you can just expound upon it a little bit. 

Michael Shermer [00:02:23] Yeah, sure. So I'm just using the term scientific humanism. It could be secular humanism or enlightenment humanism or just humanism. Different groups use different words, but it's pretty much the derivative or the long term child of of the Enlightenment in which, you know, we use reason, rationality, empiricism under the rubric of science or science and philosophy, natural philosophy to try to answer questions not just about the physical world and the biological world, but also the social world, political world, economic world, cultural world, human behavior. Right. I mean, the earliest scientists of human behavior were enlightenment thinkers like David HUME and Adam Smith. And, you know, they were really early cognitive psychologists or social psychologist, you know, really trying to answer questions about, you know, like, what's the origin of wealth? That was the title of Adam Smith's famous book. It was Not The Wealth of Nations. That's not really the title. The full title is The Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. So it's a science book. Hmm. You know, where does this stuff come from? And why don't we want to know? Because it's better if people have money than don't. Right? And because they can live better lives. And it's, you know, better prices are lower than higher for everybody. And, you know, and on and on. And what makes people happy, what makes them fulfilled, what kind of society should we structure, you know, is a democracy better than an autocracy? You know, of course we all say, well, yeah, but why? You know, can you articulate why? Right. So yeah. So that that giving the devil is do. That's my previous latest book, The New One is on conspiracies, but we get into that later. What I try to do there is just make a case for free speech and open dialog about anything. And everything is really the kind of foundational rights of all other rights, because all other rights are really derived through argumentation and reason. And you know, this is why we should treat others a certain way. And the only way to find out if you're right about that is to talk to other people, you know, so free speech is really behind everything else. And yet the censorious is on both the left and the right has been stunning in the last, say, ten years that I've been, you know, watching this since the seventies, really. And it was always the right, the religious right in particular, who were wanting to censor rock music and art and literature and and so on. But the last decade or so, it's been the left. And so you hear people like Tucker Carlson on Fox News defending free speech. Of course, the right is also censorious, like they've been defenders trading books of late that have to do with trans and racial issues and so on. So they're just as bad, but you know that nobody should be going down that road of censoring ideas because that's the only way we can find out if we're on the road to truth or not. 

Steven Parton [00:05:22] Yeah. Do you think the the inner prize of scientific humanism has led us to this place where it's actually started to undermine its own efforts in the realm of free speech? You know, it seems like in a lot of ways this idea that everyone deserves a voice and it should hold equal weight and the scientific development of social media and the Internet has brought us to this place where now there's deep concerns about should everyone have a voice? What about misinformation? What about things around vaccines or the state of democracy? Or is this going in a direction where maybe it's starting to undermine itself and we have to actually start asking questions if this is a pure value? 

Michael Shermer [00:06:04] Well, that's always been the direction. If you look at the history of free speech going back thousands of years, governments and people in power always want to control people's thoughts and ideas and speech. Always. You know, it's been one long struggle for thousands of years to let people, regular people have a voice, that it doesn't come naturally for whatever reason. I'm not like this temperamentally. I don't want to be president or I don't even want to be CEO. I don't want to be anything. I just like being just an individual. But for some reason people get in power and then all of a sudden they they don't want other people thinking certain thoughts or saying certain words or sentences or whatever. And it's like this astonishing. It just happens almost like a law of nature, even in democracies. And so, you know, it's something that we have to fight for constantly, you know, the eternal vigilance. Whine about those kinds of freedoms have to be fought for every generation because there's nothing natural about it. For whatever reason, having to do with human nature. So, you know, that's why we have it built into the Constitution. But even that's not enough, because the First Amendment only protects the government, protects you from the government censoring your speech. Of course, private corporations can do whatever they want. Twitter wants to kick you off. They're free to do that. You know, should they know? You know, I mean, I find, you know, much of what Trump has to say or Alex Jones pretty deplorable. And they lie. They lie and lie and lie. But I'm still against the censoring of them, you know, and like or Joe Rogan when he has on that Robert Malone talking about vaccines and that what's that cardio condition where the heart gets enlarged because of vaccine? Oh, it's called socialism. Yeah. So people went crazy about that. Joe had him on. Well, you know, you got to know what you're getting, Joe. He's not there's not 60 Minutes with a team of researchers where he's going to ask all angles and get somebody else on the other side and interview them and edit it all together. He's just talking to people. Right. And so and it's not hard to find. You just if you Google Malone and you know what? What's the arguments against him? You can find it. And so there are other shows that do that. And so I say just let people have their say. And, you know, there's just an almost infinite number of sources online now where you can get good content. You may have to work at it a little bit, but the idea that there's some governing body that should tell podcasters what they can, who they can talk to on their shows, I don't know. You know, again, that's that's the natural impulse. I'm against it. I don't like that. I don't even think again, I think Trump is pretty close to having incited violence on January 6th, although my free speech attorney friends who know about the law on that say it's a pretty high bar to meet. It's hard to prove that something somebody said directly led to violence. Right. So it may not be indictable for that particular thing. Nevertheless, you know, I don't like that they kicked him off. You know, it's good to know what he's thinking. Right. Right. And, you know, he's just a free associating Twitter machine, you know, two in the morning. Here's what Trump is thinking. Oh, it's good to know that. Right. And as I say, pretty much, you know, I mean, there are limits. Of course, we don't want somebody tweeting out the nuclear codes to our launch sites or, you know, national secrets or something like that. But we already have laws about that. So anyway. 

Steven Parton [00:09:30] Well, you're speaking there are a lot of I would say to the marketplace of ideas and letting the best ideas went out and putting some impetus on the person to, you know, understand that they're listening to Rogan rather than, you know, academic research. But do you think in this age of bots and algorithms and attention economy and addictive attention economy, that that that has a lot of, I would say, manipulation and proclivities towards outrage baked into the system that there once you enter this digital space like the world of social media, you start really leaving behind a fair marketplace. Like you're no longer in a place where free speech maybe has the same value because the the marketplace just simply isn't a fair one anymore. 

Michael Shermer [00:10:20] Yeah, well, I know these arguments, you know, let's play this out for a second. So the argument is that companies like Twitter as a kind of open marketplace of conversations are so powerful that it's not enough for the libertarians to say, hey, let the free market decide. And it could be Twitter's. Mm hmm. And you pick which one? There aren't. Twitter's there just one. And for whatever reason, they got a market headstart over everybody else. And anyone that tries to create something like Twitter, they just never get very big. And, you know, I was talking to Andrew Yang about this and, you know, he you know, he was complaining about Twitter and it's like, yeah, well, why doesn't somebody like Elon Musk or Peter Thiel just start a new one? Well, you know, they have people have rich people have. But as as Andrew said, you know, everybody is on Twitter. If you want to say something to everybody, you got to be on Twitter. If you go over to one of the other sites, you know, it's, you know, 1/10 of the number of people are their 1/100 or whatever. And I don't know how to, you know, change that, you know, sort of the government regulating them and breaking them up, which I'm against. I don't know. It's just kind of the way it goes. And the only thing I can say is that, you know, maybe Twitter and Instagram and so forth, they won't be like newspapers that last for centuries. You know, it could just be it's a fad, you know. So before we take drastic sensorial action with, you know, the government breaking things up, let's just see how it plays out. You know, there's some evidence. Well, you know, we know that the tech companies have tweaked these. Algorithms to manipulate you, to get you to stay on longer because that's their business model. Okay. Well, you know that you don't have to do it. No one's holding a gun to your head. You don't have to go on Twitter or Instagram or TikTok or whatever. You just closed a computer and go do something else. Right. You don't have to. So you're still free. No one's making you do anything. So I don't see it as quite the same level as, say, drug addiction or, I don't know, alcoholism or gambling addiction or whatever that word addiction. People are addicted to social media. Really? I mean, it's not the same. Yeah, I think. But, you know, maybe I'm an old baby boomer and I don't get the, you know, the FOMO and fear of being left out and all that stuff and how powerful that is on teenagers. Maybe that's true. But I think we need more research before we say definitively this is a problem and the government needs to step in and break these companies up or regulate them more. I'm not convinced of that yet. 

Steven Parton [00:12:50] Yeah. I mean, in that regard, in terms of how it's affecting the individual and more, bring it more specifically into your expertize in some way. How do you feel social media is impacting the way people think about conspiracy theories and kind of get inside their own little reality tunnels, in the words of Robert Anton Wilson. You know, like Hack, right? People are constructing these feeds that cater directly to their ideas. Confirmation bias is going through the roof. You know that people can now find a community that supports them. Hundreds of people who support their ideas that no American, no matter how crazy they are, where in the past they might have, you know, struggled to find someone in their town who could support these ideas. 

Michael Shermer [00:13:34] Yes, I write about that. So I'll give a plug to the new book, which I just got this copy that just came out. So because we're a couple weeks away from pub date here, but, you know, in the sixties, like, say, with the JFK assassination conspiracy theory, the theories are mostly just in their basement or small little offices or hotel rooms meeting or it kind of mimeographed little newsletters that they would pass out or mail physically mail, you know, maybe a few hundred, a few thousand at most. And so now, of course, you can reach millions instantly in real time for free. You know, the difference isn't that this is new. It's that it's more effective, it's more efficient, it's economically more practical for people to do that. I mean, just think about, you know, the 911 truth movement was largely given a big boost from that that film Loose Change that was made by, you know, this young man basically in his dorm room, I guess, or wherever he was with his laptop. You know, this was the first really laptop made, computer generated documentary that reached, I don't know, hundreds of millions of views. It's astonishing the amount of viewership that got. You know, Michael Moore has hasn't had that many views. Right. Although loose change was free and online to watch in, Michael Moore's films are mostly in theaters at the time. But that really reached so many people. And even if it wasn't convincing because he just kind of threw everything he could think of up against the wall, but people would go, Oh, wow. Okay, so I know a lot of this is a bunch of baloney, but what if just 10% of it's true? Then there's some something was up with the Bush administration and they knew it was going to happen and all that stuff. And so it takes quite a concerted effort. I mean, there are people that have gone through like every claim made and lose change, you know, and they have like a 200 page document on online you got to read to debunk it. So that's sort of the argument for for censorship is that, you know, you can say anything you want, but but showing why it's wrong takes a lot of work. Well, I don't know. My opinion is. Well, that's what we do in skeptic. I mean, there's people that do this are Snopes or, you know, any of the fact checking sites. That's what they do. So just counter that with some other technology online, right? I mean, fact checking, you know, there's PolitiFact and Snopes and some of these others. They've really risen since Trump. And, you know, everyone's complaining about the lies number like, well, of course, politicians are always lying and dissembling and exaggerate and so on. Trump did it more, but now he's kind of launched for people to launch this now, you know, in real time while the politician is speaking somebody is fact checking and posting it, right? Right on line. It's like, this is great. And they're like, when Neil deGrasse Tyson tweets about a movie he's watching that has something to do with physics or whatever you get, you can watch and go, Oh yeah, I saw that movie. Oh, I didn't notice that. Right. Oh, God, this is all fine. This is part of the kind of change in culture. 

Steven Parton [00:16:30] How much do you think that fact checking makes it to the places it needs to be, though? Because I think of, you know, we we kind of in the words of like Jonathan Hiatt, we hijack the elephant. And the writer just goes along. You know, we make things emotionally salient. And then the, you know, the the individual just kind of takes it wherever it goes. So people aren't really looking for the facts as much as they're looking to be emotionally moved. So I don't. Know how many people are actually checking these things like, you know what, the work that you do and PolitiFact and all that stuff. 

Michael Shermer [00:17:01] Well, probably not enough. We probably need a lot more of that and deeper penetration. But. Okay. You know, how do you do that? Well, again, but, you know, if you if you look at some of the concerns about the printing press or concerns about even books being published in mass produced, it was the same kind of argument. Oh, my gosh, people are going to be negatively influenced by these books or films. That was another argument cultural critics made about movies and then television and now the Internet. Same arguments. You know, the wrong people are going to see this or it's going to influence people to do bad things and well, who's going to decide that? Or you or me or, you know, some thought police committee. You know, this is not good. This is dangerous. It leads, you know, to a tyrannical government or programs that overreach inevitably. Mm hmm. And, you know, even, like the written word back in, you know, back in B.C., you know, the idea that we're going to lose our ability to employ our memories through these kind of long mnemonic devices that people use to remember things through these stories or the oral tradition. And so when the written word came along, people were concerned. All the kids these days, they're reading books. Oh, no. You know, no one says that anymore. Okay. So, again, I think, you know, change is followed by more change. And rather than going backwards, let's just go forward and think of ways to solve specific problems. Hmm. You know, so say teenagers are having issues with fear of being left out or fear of missing out on Facebook. Okay. Maybe there's a specific thing we could do with that particular problem, parental advice or I don't know what. And instead of saying the Internet is a problem, you know, this is too big, too big an issue. 

Steven Parton [00:18:56] Yet in your years of, you know, being a four running skeptic, how have you seen the realm of conspiracy kind of change as a result of the digital technology? Have you seen an increase in polarization or the contagion of of ideas or, you know, people just simply becoming more radicalized and polarized? 

Michael Shermer [00:19:19] Yeah, I do think it's more rapid and maybe more polarizing, although if you look back 100 years ago, I have a discussion in my book about, you know, studies of The New York Times letters section, letters to the editor section, going back to the late 19th century. And, you know, people were very concerned about conspiracies then, you know, oh, the Jews are doing this or the Mormons are doing that. The Catholics are up to no good. They're trying to get power and so on. And, you know, that's old. You know, that's as old as really probably civilization, you know, and the reason is because there are conspiracies, right? So conspiracy theories are ideas about possible real conspiracies. And the problem and I call this constructive conspiracies. And the problem is that a lot of conspiracy theories turn out to be true. So it kind of pays to be a little paranoid because sometimes they really are out to get you now. Not always. So you have to, you know, take each one individually. But but it probably pays to be a little bit paranoid that way. So people naturally have always been that way. And, you know, so that that's all it's just speeded up. I would say the Internet speeds it up are way more polarized, apparently. Yes. There's research on this. You know, the number of people self-identifying as centrist or just to the left of center, just to the right of center, that card is shrinking. The number of people on the far left and far right or who self-identify as progressive on the left or, you know, more radical right, those are increasing. Okay. And apparently political scientists have studied this. You know, how much time do politicians across the aisle spend with each other, like on the weekends? You know, and I'm told that, you know, back in the day, congressmen and senators who otherwise were against each other would meet on the weekends and their kids would play, go to the soccer game or whatever, and they'd all hang out and they were friendly to each other. And apparently that doesn't happen much anymore. And also, the the politicians tend to go home on the weekends to their home state where they fundraise and do other things. And so they don't meet with the people on the other parties and the other party. And so that makes it worse. And then talk radio, it's terrible, you know, conservative talk radio and and talk really television on both sides probably. I think maybe conservatives are slightly worse, more polarizing than than, say, MSNBC. But but it's still bad on both sides, right? It's not just that these people are are differ. From me or they have a different opinion about abortion or immigration or whatever they are. They're wrong and not just wrong, but immoral. Yeah. They they want to destroy America. Yeah. Wow. Okay. You know, so if I believe in this percentage of upper cap of income tax or that percentage of how many immigrants we're going to accept every year. Biden just said it and I think 125,000 a year. Well, what if I said it should be 100,000? Do I hate America? Or if I think it should be 200,000? Do I hate America? You know, come on. You know, it's just a normal debate. 

Steven Parton [00:22:28] Yeah, I feel like that's a cognitive distortion that people get warned against and things like cognitive behavioral therapy, you know, you don't want to catastrophize. 

Michael Shermer [00:22:35] Catastrophize, right? Yes. Yeah. Yeah. That's a good point from Heights and and Gregg looking at College of the American Mind, right? Yeah. I like that section because Gregg had some issues that he with depression, I think it was he used cognitive behavioral therapy. Write about that in the book and. Yeah. Catastrophizing is one of them or everything is a complete disaster. 

Steven Parton [00:22:59] Right. It feels like it's a political catastrophizing. Exactly. Exactly. Well. Well, using that skeptical lens again of yours and looking instead at the perhaps a really positive use of technology rather than some of the pessimistic views of technology. What do you think about the the world maybe right now of techno optimism, of the singularity, Terrians, that the people who are perhaps blind to the the shortcomings of technology and believe it's going to create a utopia. Do you have a certain bone to pick with that kind of philosophy where you see a shortsightedness? 

Michael Shermer [00:23:39] Yeah, I see you have res both there on your shelf, just over your right shoulder. 

Steven Parton [00:23:43] Right next to here somewhere. Yeah. Yeah. 

Michael Shermer [00:23:45] How near is it? Right. You keep pushing that date back. I don't know if it is coming. If there's a there there. It's hard to say. I mean, we know from research on people that study forecasting like professional forecasters that more than five years out into the future, no one's better than random chance at guessing what's going to happen on any specific or general trend. So, you know, something big is going to happen in 25 years. Maybe. Maybe not. Who knows? I mean, maybe it's something that we can't even think of. You know, had you asked people in the sixties, you know, by the nineties and 2000 is what are going to be the biggest things, what people did as that? And almost nobody said, well, there's going to be this thing called a World Wide Web and the Internet is going to be online travel. The entire economy is going to be I mean, no one thought that would happen or even the fall of the Soviet Union like the year before. Yeah. You know, even expert political scientists and people that studied the Soviet Union, almost nobody saw this coming. Right. So I don't know. On the other hand, I like Ray. I like the Singularity University, the singularity in philosophy, the kind of techno optimism by temperament. I like that. You know, to me, I think the solution is let's go forward and solve problems with better science and technology. That's almost always better than some other solution where it usually involves the government doing something big and interventionist to slow everything down. I say just go forward and if if there's a problem, then we can deal with it then, right? A.I. is going to lead to some existential crisis. Maybe. Probably not. You know, it's not going to turn us all into paperclips. Okay? But if it does, you know, if it looks like, you know, the day before, you just pull the plug, just stop, you know, it's, you know, or Elon Musk's cars are going to drive, you know, auto drive into a crowd of people on the sidewalk. Yeah, well, if that happened, you know, how long will it be before the regulators are at Elon's office going, you're not doing this anymore, right? Government is quite good at regulating business. And they have the power of the of the gun to stop businesses so that Elon and these the other companies now just do whatever they want and let's see how it goes and just monitor it day by day, month by month. And just, you know, I have a Tesla. I don't use the autopilot driver assist very often because it's not reliable. I think we're a long ways away from that. But, you know, I'd say it's let's keep trying. It's just a hard problem to solve rather than overly regulate it and cancel it. And in general, I think, you know, if you look at the long term trends, I did this in the last chapter of the moral arc, kind of that Star Trek version. Let's let's look 500 years, 5000 years into the future, you know, maybe there'll be no more nation states. Maybe it's just our porous borders where everybody trades with everybody, maybe a trek, an omics kind of scenario where everybody is incredibly wealthy, you know, due to digital technology. And, you know, there's a, you know, pretty much infinite number of solutions to problems. And we can just continue growing the economy, you know, that it's not a zero sum game, you know, as. We say we didn't. As somebody said, you know, we didn't leave the Stone Age because we ran out of stones. We just found better solutions. And I'm fond of of that thought experiment, you know, that we will never run out of fossil fuels. We'll never run out of oil. You know, people scratch their heads, like, how can that be? You know, we live in a finite planet. And the answer is supply and demand. You know, once the supply of oil starts to really dry up, the price will go so high, no one will want to buy it anymore. And we'll find other solutions. Like, you know, I don't know, electric cars. How's that for a solution? Right. And I know the electricity is mostly coming from fossil fuel driven power plants. It's not coming from the electric very much. All right. But, you know, nuclear, you're right, does have again, nuclear power is so overregulated that it hasn't been allowed to go through the technological evolution that other technologies have, such that it should be now so cheap and easy to build these new generation nuclear power plants. You know, there are some that are available now and but it's so overtly regulated. Part of it is because of of fears of, you know, something catastrophic happening like Chernobyl. But Chernobyl can't happen with the new generation of and and nuclear power plants are Three Mile Island, which is not nearly as bad as people thought it was. Nobody died, and not even very many people died from Chernobyl. I mean, that wasn't nearly the disaster. You know, they were saying millions of people are going to know that didn't happen. And that's the worst of it. Right. So again, going forward, let's you know, let's really lean into more science and technology. So I like, you know, the kind of. KURTZ Wisely, in view of things in the future, a lot of libertarians, there's a lot of people in that community, the libertarians, you know, that's good. I kind of like that lean that way. And, you know, but you can always you can always kind of ratchet back if you have to. It's hard to go forward. You know, we have to allow people to fail and keep trying and trying and trying in order to get the innovation right. 

Steven Parton [00:29:03] Yeah. So are there any domains at all that you're currently kind of like? Having said all that, I still kind of think maybe we shouldn't do X. 

Michael Shermer [00:29:13] Oh, well, don't know. Let's think. I mean, the thing that I guess most worried about would be nuclear weapons. But, you know, we've we've really cut back on those, but we need to cut back another order of magnitude. So there's only a few hundred. I don't think we can get to nuclear zero because of the security dilemma. You know, they always do what's called the other guy problem. You know, there's always going to be some Putin or some Kim Jong un out there that has one or ten or 100. So you got to have one or ten or 100 and so on. But once you get below 10,000 or say below 1000, you know, you really obviated the problem of nuclear winter or just, you know, scattered catastrophe for, you know, hundreds of millions or even billions of people. That's what we want to avoid, climate change. You know, I'm not as as I don't think of it as an existential threat as much as some people. I mean, I think it's real human caused and so on. I think we have the time to do something about it, and I think the effects are real and happening. But that just in other words, again, let's just find solutions to carbon sequestration and and using other sources than fossil fuels. Let's just do that and, you know, design our systems to make them safer in a future warmer world, that kind of thing, as opposed to let's let's have fewer people, although that is happening naturally and let's cut back and use less technology. No technology is good. Right, either. Also, one other thing. There's there's kind of a resentment against wealth. Mm hmm. You know, Jeff Bezos or Bill Gates or whoever. And that's natural. I understand why. You know, but what this is called the survivorship bias, right? We see the Bill Gates and the Steve Jobs success stories and people write biographies of them, you know, as if the model is to go to a liberal arts or really expensive college and then drop out and then move back to your parents house and then build a startup in your garage and then you get bought out pretty soon your Google or Apple or or Microsoft. Well, yeah, we know about those. But how many guys in the seventies dropped out of college, went back to their parents house and they and they didn't do anything or they they they started a company and went out of business. Most of them go out of business. I'm told it's like one out of a hundred are funded by venture capitalists and out of the hundred that they find only like one out of 100 becomes Google or Apple. I mean, you know, the odds are stacked against you. Yeah. So from a society, we want that one person to make it because look, we get a you know, we get a smartphone for that. Yeah, that's great. And the other ones, I went broke, but I don't even know who they are. And, well, that's tough luck. You took your chances. Good for you. And and if you didn't succeed, well, that's the way it goes. 

Steven Parton [00:32:01] Yeah. Do do you want to see a world in which the I guess the disparity between the wealthy and the poor, though, is maybe assuaged by technology? I mean, do you think that's a direction we're going and that you think would be beneficial to us? 

Michael Shermer [00:32:16] I think the gap is probably real and will continue or maybe even get worse if we follow the trends we've been doing that I've said are good. So the solution is not bring down the people on the top to close the gap. The solution is pull the people up on the bottom to get closer to those at the top. Well, I don't care about the people at the top. There aren't that very many. There's like 100 people that are, you know, that own all that wealth or whatever. I don't care about them, you know, I care about the middle class. The working class is pull them all up, you know, so that everybody makes the equivalent of, I don't know, $100,000 a year today in today's dollar. That's that's a better solution than that. Let's really hammer those, you know, top 0.001 percenters. And and then what? You know, they don't have that much money, whereas if you gave it if you just did a straight wealth transfer to the lower 1% or whatever, it's going to pull them up. There's not that much wealth at the top. So you'd have to do it through some kind of programs or whatever. Okay. I think let's just figure out a way for it to encourage companies to pay their lower priced workers through changing norms. Right. So I like John Mackey's conscious capitalism. John Mackey is the CEO of Whole Foods. Yeah, he's a good friend of mine and he's a smart cookie and he's a he's a hardcore libertarian, but he's also very conscientious about the environment and and people and society and the communities that his stores are in. And his Conscious Capitalism program includes a cap on the top salaries of his company. They can't earn more than 19 times the lower worker wages. Right. Whereas a Disney or whatever, you know, like 500 times more, a thousand times more than the average worker, you know, that's just so obscene. Right. So and he's he's that no one's making them do that. And he's encouraging other CEOs to do the same thing. And some of them are. And they don't give back to the community, you know, the neighborhood you're in. You know, your store is not going to flourish as much. If there's a bunch of homeless people right on the perimeters of your store, it's better that those people are taken care of. It's better for everybody, including your bottom line. I think that's the kind of attitude that would be effective. 

Steven Parton [00:34:33] Yeah, more expendable income with the masses means more money towards all the people who are trying to earn it as well. 

Michael Shermer [00:34:40] In a way that has happened. If you look at like, say, the last 500 years, you know, the rate of poverty is defined as less than what is a dollar 90 a day or two bucks a day or something like that. You know, I don't know, a century and a half ago is like 90% of humanity was impoverished and only 10% were above the poverty line. Now it's the reverse. I think it's nine or eight and a half, 9% right now. Not that making three bucks a day makes you okay or successful. But but but however you want to define it, the UN just defines it a certain way. But there's far fewer people and as much smaller percentage of people below that. So something has happened. Let's do more of that. 

Steven Parton [00:35:18] Yeah. Speaking of kind of this, I guess, humanistic look at the way the world is improved. One thing that I was thinking about when preparing for this interview was how in the world of instant communication, with so much access to information, it feels like we're developing a self-defeating pessimism about humanity. And specifically, I think of Steven Pinker and his work. I think it was an enlightenment now, and instead of embracing his work with gratitude for how far we've come, everyone wanted to tear him down with hostility for being so naive and privileged. And it feels like there's this reluctance to to savor our humanistic winds as a as a society. Do you do you see that as well? 

Michael Shermer [00:36:05] Oh, yeah, totally. Yeah. Steve's a good friend of mine, one of my best friends. And I know his work intimately. And and, you know, this is the last guy who who should be accused of that, because first, he's massively data driven. You know, he's not he's not a Pollyannish. You know, I think, in my opinion, things are better. Well, good for you. I think they're worse. I mean, he actually presents the data. Here it is. You know, if that's not better than it used to be, if 90% impoverished is reduced to less than 10% impoverished, if that's not progress, I don't know what is. It's just a number you call whatever you want. But he's also pretty liberal. Steve is and he gives a lot of money to the Democratic Party, supports Democratic candidates and, you know, other causes like this. I mean, he's pro-choice. He's, you know, free speech. He's he's right down the barrel, old school liberalism. So he calls he actually calls this problem progressive phobia. Mm hmm. There's something built into the. Well, first of all, if you have a nonprofit and you're trying to raise money to solve some problem, you can't say things are better in almost, you know, almost done and expect to raise money. You've got to say things are bad and getting worse, but if you give us money, we're going to fix it up or we're going to make America great again. Right. The environment great again or something, whatever. So you have to, you know, kind of exaggerate the problem. So that's part of it. And also the availability heuristic, you know, we only notice the bad things more because they're readily available in our environment and on the news. And then, you know, kind of putting into context the negativity bias. We notice negative things more than positive things for good evolutionary reasons because those are the things that can take you out of the gene pool. So they have to pay attention to those. You know, so a bunch of reasons why people don't. And for some really weird reason, people seem to think that pessimists and, you know, existential crisis type opinion editorialists are smarter than those who say things are getting better, who are described as Pollyannish and naive and not as smart. It's like, this is crazy, but that's kind of the reception of it. 

Steven Parton [00:38:05] Yeah. Well, as we think about the way tech is progressing, I want to switch topics too much here, but you have such a wide breadth that you explore. I'm curious to hear your thoughts on how religion and atheism play into all of this. And specifically, you know, as tech is advancing, as things are improving, as we're moving towards this world where maybe AI does run a lot of things, where, you know, the work that you covered in heaven, on earth with immortality really becomes a real thing. Do you see religion starting to get pushed into the fringes or do you think maybe new religions will develop that are, you know, that worship the A.I. gods or, you know, who knows what? 

Michael Shermer [00:38:50] Yeah, I was there at the Singularity Conference, I think it was 2050. It was one in New York City, right during the the Wall Street. What was that movement? Occupy. Yeah, the Occupy Wall Street movement, whatever year that was. And, you know, Ray Kurzweil gave his I Have a Dream speech, you know, and it was very motivational. But I have to say, I almost felt like I was back in church, like, oh, my God, this guy's like the messiah. And, you know, we are the chosen generation. We're the ones that get to live forever. And it's just like, well, okay, maybe, but I've heard this before, but I was religious. Right. So there is, there is there are certain, uh, I don't know, parallels, I guess, to religion. I don't know about using that metaphor too much because most religions have a godhead. And, you know, I don't think secular humanism is quite like that, but I do think that people need community and, you know, social capital, you know, bowling, you know, bowling leagues, as is that book said, you know, the, the, what was it called? Uh, not bowling alone. Bowling alone? Yeah. You know, that that decline of of social groups like that is harmful to people. I think that's true. People want to belong to things. So as the number of nones rises, people have no religious affiliation, which is happening rapidly. Huge. Like, you know, in the early nineties, I think it was like less than 5 to 7% were nones and maybe one or 2% atheists. You know, now it's like 30 to 40%. Well, it's about 30% overall, maybe 40% for millennials. And Gen Z is maybe 50%, have no religious affiliation. Now, they're not necessarily atheists, but if they follow anything, maybe it's more like spiritual, but not religious or. Deepak Chopra, kind of, you know, Western Buddhism. You know, I meditate every day and, you know, okay, that's a kind of religious spirituality or something, whatever you want to call it. Or they belong to some, you know, cause like, you know what you're doing singularity that you know, belonging to that almost feels like I'm working toward this thing that's bigger than me, you know, it's kind of, you know, long term, it has kind of a moral component to it progress, you know, that, you know, the far future is going to be better. That's kind of quasi religious in a way. But there's nothing wrong with that because it's tapping into something in human nature where we need to we want to belong to some group and we want to feel like we're our efforts count for something in the long run. You know, it's like the difference between happiness and meaningfulness, right? Happiness tends to be more short term and activities that bring immediate pleasure, like a, you know, dinner with friends tonight. Well, that would be really fun. And it makes me happy to be with my friends, have a good meal. But the next day it's it's over now what? Right. But, you know, I go to work now I'm going to write a book or I'm going to do this issue of skeptic. And, you know, this could change things down the road. That makes me whether it does or not, makes me feel like I'm working toward the far future or example I often give, you know, take caretaking for my parents who are all gone now. But for parents, two stepparents, you know, three of the four I had, I did kind of care for and it wasn't fun. It didn't make me happy. It wasn't pleasurable, right. But it made me feel like a better person. And I would want somebody to do this for me. They did a lot for me. I want to pay back and, you know, just a lot of really positive things like that. And psychologists who study this say, yeah, it's way more meaningful to do a long term activities, you know, sort of back into time. Like, how has my life changed over the decades and where am I going in the far future with my life and my society? What can I do to make the world a little bit better? Those are the kinds of things. Doesn't matter what it is, could be religion or nonprofit or some kind of social group or something that's working for that. You're manning the soup kitchens or, you know, I don't know, effective altruism or, you know, building a better A.I. that's going to help everybody. That's good. You know, that makes people feel better. 

Steven Parton [00:42:57] So you see that religious instinct shifting away from maybe a god to more about community and shared goals. 

Michael Shermer [00:43:05] Yeah, yeah, yeah. So, I mean, I like I love the kind of sci fi scenarios of colonizing the galaxy. We're going to Mars, you know? Well, maybe we are. That is pretty cool, right? And you know, I've written about this, you know, what kind of government we're going to have on Mars. Have you thought about that? Let's we should think this through. We should do it, but we should think it through. Right. And then from there, you bounce out to the other moons of Jupiter and Saturn, and from there you go to Proxima Centauri and wherever they are, planets that are earth sized, roughly speaking to the local stars. Maybe this is 10,000 years or a hundred thousand years, but a cosmic timescale. That's nothing, right? We could we could populate the entire galaxy, probably within a hundred thousand years or million years or something like that. But again, a million years, nothing compared to cars. We don't care. So even just thinking about that almost makes me feel like I felt when I was religious, like, wow, this is like cosmic and in scale. The deep time. Deep space. Yeah. 

Steven Parton [00:44:03] Part of something bigger than yourself. 

Michael Shermer [00:44:05] Yes. That, that's the whole thing. Right. 

Steven Parton [00:44:07] Well, that makes me think I know at one point you talked about how your wife is from Cornell or Cologne, however people want to pronounce it. And in her cultural background, it's much more tight and people are kind of more rigid and rule oriented, whereas, you know, you are more loose and kind of whatever happens, happens kind of thing. How do you think that that dynamic is going to play out as we move forward, you know, between different countries developing technology with these different perspectives and if there's going to be some kind of, I guess, reconciliation that has to take place. 

Michael Shermer [00:44:44] Hmm. Yeah. Interesting. You hadn't thought about that. Let's see. We're talking about Michele Galvin's research on cultural psychology. Tighten loose. Yeah, cultures. I mean, you have to have some tightness, right? You have to have some laws and rules that people obey or else any society will fall apart. Yeah. So you can't live in that kind of individualistic, uber libertarian or her or anarcho capitalist type structure that's too loose. I think you need some structure. Most people do. And so there again for you to, you know, send up a group of people to Mars and they're going to live there and start building a new community. You know, they got to have rules. What happens if the air gets low and we run out of water? You know, you can't just hoard it and is let's be some distribution. So so you need some kind of set of rules or I guess. 

Steven Parton [00:45:32] Yeah. That makes sense to me. Yeah, just kind of a curious thought. You know, as we come up on time here, I want to kind of ask one just like kind of a Hail Mary question and get your get your opinion as as a proper skeptic. What do you think about the simulation theory? How many holes do you think it has? 

Michael Shermer [00:45:51] Well, it's entirely based on this thought experiment that, you know, the prediction principle, we're not special. So that means we're probably not the first to achieve intelligence and technological capacity to build computers. And if we're in the middle, half are ahead of us, half or below us, assuming we're not alone in the cosmos. Somebody has to be first, I guess. But chances are it's not us. So they're out there somewhere and someone, you know, take Moore's Law, extrapolate it out. Somebody will have done what we did. And maybe they did that 10,000 years ago. And they've done that. That pace of Moore's Law increasing instead of for 50 years, for 50,000 years. And now they're building in a perfect matrix, like, you know, holodeck, maybe. Okay, but but at some point, is there any evidence for this? No, none. It's just purely a thought experiment. And, you know, I'm not a philosopher, and maybe this is why, you know, it's like you can really go far down the rabbit hole with just thought experiments. And to me, it's good. Once in a while, you know, look out the window, see what's actually out there. You know, is there any buffering? Are there any delays in conversations with people? I'm standing at a McDonald's across the street and all of a sudden the person buffers out and they blink out and they come back in and, whoa, what was that? You know, that never happens, right? And I'm told by I don't know that much about this, but, you know, I had David Chalmers on my show and, you know, he wrote a whole book about this and even he said there's no way to test it. It's a purely thought experiment, but that at some point you would need it because you could have simulations. On top of simulations, you have simulation in the simulation, but at some point you need hardware, right? You need an actual computer that the stuff runs on. And so at some point you'd run out of computing power even if you had the entire universe. That's not enough for an infinite number of simulations. So you would have glitches in the system and we never see that. So in my opinion, I guess it's fine. It's a sci fi scenario. It makes for a good Star Trek episode. Yeah, like the Ship in the bottle. One of my favorite example of that. Yes. Right. Where it turns out data is left handed. And right now maybe it was Geordi was left handed rather than the right hand and they figured out, wait a minute, he's normally right and but now he's left handed. So we're still in the simulation. Oh, you know, something like that would happen. 

Steven Parton [00:48:06] That that's still my show of comfort. I could always throw on Star Trek and enjoy in the background. 

Michael Shermer [00:48:10] Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. 

Steven Parton [00:48:12] Well, we're coming up on time here, man. And I know you're a busy man, so I want to respect your your time. But of course, I want to give you an opportunity here to kind of close out talking about the new book, Anything We Could Know about how to find it when it's coming out. Anything you. 

Michael Shermer [00:48:24] Want. Oh, yeah. So conspiracy, whenever you post this, it comes out October 25th, Tuesday. And so it's it's really in two parts. The first three parts really. The first part is why people believe conspiracy theories. So there's a rich body of literature on the psychology, sociology, social psychology, anthropology of Conspiracism, why people believe it, you know, what are the factors? Race, gender, you know, anxiety, you know, whatever the personality characteristics and so forth. So review all that and then offer some of my own thoughts on this. You know, kind of a tripartite theory of explanation for why people believe conspiracy theories. One is proxy conspiracism. That is, regardless of the specific conspiracy theory, it is often a proxy for some other deeper concern people have usually. And with power, people in power tend to cheat more, and so we should be suspicious of them. The second is tribal conspiracism. You know, this is what our tribe believes. You know, the election was rigged. You know, I don't know if the election was rigged or not. What do I know? But everybody in my group says it was. I'm going along with that or constructive Conspiracism is my third one. You know, as I mentioned before, it pays to be a little bit conspiratorial because some conspiracies are real, right? Yeah. You know, people really do cheat on their taxes or corporations cheat on the regulations or, you know, Watergate, the assassination of President Lincoln. These are all real conspiracy theories. You know, if you read any of the literature about books, about the CIA in the fifties, sixties and seventies, oh, my God. You know, Project MKULTRA, where they're, you know, dosing citizens without consent with LSD. What mind control experiments. You know, the rigging of the helping to rig elections in South American countries to favor one dictator over another. We apparently preferred fascistic dictators over communist dictators because they were friendlier toward American business interests. You know, Congress didn't approve this. No one even knew they were doing this. You know, come on, that's a conspiracy. So when people say, I just I'm suspicious of the government. Yeah, well, you should be right. I mean, you look at, you know, WikiLeaks and and Ed Snowden's revelations. You know, we didn't know a lot of that was going on, you know, in the Obama administration, you know, Mr. Transparency what you know, so that's my third one that really there's a good reason for why people are so suspicious. 

Steven Parton [00:50:43] Yeah, I love the quote. I just throw this out there real quick that I heard once and I can't remember who said it, but they said, if you don't think there are conspiracy theories or real conspiracies, you don't think anyone's ever been selfish. 

Michael Shermer [00:50:54] Right. Right, exactly. Yeah. 

Steven Parton [00:50:57] Michael, I want to thank you again, like I said at the opening, I really appreciate your time. And this is a real honor to get to chat with you. So so thanks for taking the time, man. 

Michael Shermer [00:51:05] Well, thanks for having me. And thanks for doing what you do. I mean, I love the whole singularity thing. It's fun, even if even if that specific thing doesn't happen in 2040 or whatever the latest date is, you know, something's happening. Even if it's slow and gradual, it takes centuries. It's all pretty cool. You know, we're getting all that. 

Steven Parton [00:51:23] We're going in that direction, whether we like it or not. 

Michael Shermer [00:51:25] Yeah, exactly. 

Steven Parton [00:51:27] All right. Thank you. 

Michael Shermer [00:51:28] All right. You're welcome. 

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