(The reader will notice, if the reader manages to wade through this, that the skeptic Mr Shermer can sometimes be quite gullible.)
N.B. This interview was originally published on a blog I created called DeeperSlowerHarder. The idea of that blog is to publish interviews with minimum, if any, editing, and also to keep all the questions as they were asked. Journalists, perhaps myself included, often beguile the interviewer with jokes and comments that give the interviewee a false sense of intimacy, camaraderie, sometimes making both interviewee and interviewer appear fortuitously similar. Then, when it's time to publish the interview, the interviewer edits out all his or her bits, making sure only the interviewee is exposed to the reader's scrutiny. I wanted to avoid that, and have a more honest (if embarrassing) approach, so that both people in the conversation are equally exposed, and the reader is not deprived from knowing how an answer came about.
I'm not sure the idea works, though.
Note: Whenever there is no question mark at the end of the question, or whenever any other punctuation is lacking, it’s because the person speaking has been interrupted or has been aided in his/her speech.
PS: So first can you do a cold reading of me? It’s not gonna be so cold, of course, you already have some information.
MS: I sense you are a very intuitive woman; very intelligent, thoughtful, people have great affection for you, your skills in the way of communication, you are pretty open-minded because you travel a lot, you are open to new experiences, you are very liberal
PS: What does that mean?
MS: You’re liberal, a champion for equal rights around the world. I say you are tough-minded because you had many experiences and you won’t take bullshit from people. I’d say you are between introverted and extroverted, you spend a lot of your time alone because you travel, if you are in a social group you can be outgoing and extroverted, but you don’t mind being alone, you’re ok with your own thoughts and brain. You’re able to entertain yourself. Let’s see. Loves life, not married, no kids, couple of long-term relationships, nothing right now. And a complicated woman, for relationships.
PS: You got the 'complicated' right, but the long-term bit is wrong.
PS: I had one long-term and it became a bit tragic, so I will never repeat it.
MS: They’re all tragic.
PS: That one ended in death, so…
MS: I’m sorry, what happened?
MS: Enough about you.
PS: Yes, let’s talk about me now.
PS: So, atheist or agnostic?
MS: I’m an atheist. In terms of what I actually believe about the world, I assume there is no god and act upon accordingly. If you press me on a philosophical point on whether there is a god or not, I’ll have to be an agnostic, it’s not a knowable concept but I’d say that the evidence is overwhelming that there is no god, so I am an atheist.
PS: How can you be certain that there is no god? Isn’t that as naïve as being certain there is one?
MS: In science we don’t have certainty in any case, there’s just probabilities of things being true or not, in a small T true. In the case of god of course I’m not sure there is no god, but the burden of proof is not on me to prove there is no god, it’s on the person making the claim for god’s existence to prove that there is. And in science we start with the ‘null hypothesis’, that your claim is not true until you prove otherwise. That’s true for all claims. So if you wanna say there is a Big Foot out there I’ll say that’s nice, show me the body. You have to provide the proof. You can’t just say ‘I think there is a big foot, now prove me wrong’. And that’s essentially what god believers do, they say ‘well I believe in god, can you prove for sure that there isn’t one?’ I mean we test claims, you say this is what I believe and we say ok, let’s see your evidence, show us your data. […] I’m a scientist so I’m interested in what are the scientific evidence for things, because that is the best tool we have.
PS: […] You said America is the most religious of the western countries – I don’t know if that is true – while it has some of the worst social statistics. Can you tell me what are those statistics?
MS: Things like rates of teen pregnancy, abortions, suicide, homicide, we are off the chart in homicide.
PS: Prison population.
MS: Prison population, right, very low education rates. In other words, the kinds of things religious people say religion is good for, you know, the moral fabric of a society, if America is so religious why is it we’re not particularly socially healthy in that regard? I don’t think things like homicides are caused by religion, I’m just saying that they are caused by poverty and gangs and drugs and things like that, but I am also saying that if religion is supposed to be a prophylactic against these things, it doesn’t seem to be working here.
PS: Later I’d like to talk about a subject that fascinates me, how to apply morality without religion. I was born catholic, baptized and confirmed, but I don’t believe in it. But I bet that most of the little goodness I have is somehow a remnant of my religious education, considering I’m not a good-natured person.
MS: What do you mean?
PS: I mean that my instinct is very selfish and I am very self-centred, but I donate part of my salary to charity and I’m compassionate, for some reason. I’d guess that’s all the Sunday masses I had to attend.
MS: Is that out of religious convictions? Or out of political conviction?
PS: No, I think it is out of uh… I call it the birth lotto in my book. I was born lucky to have a family that managed to educate me, had money etc etc, so I think that in a way you owe some of that back to the mathematics of life.
MS: Well that’s genetic, at least half. About 50% of pretty much everything you can think of, in terms of personality, temperament, you know, political preferences, religiosity, is genetic. And then the rest is environment – some of it is your parents. Either way it’s your parent’s fault.
PS: So you mean that, let’s say my parents are very good, and they are indeed, if I hadn’t lived with them I would likely be as good?
MS: Yes, you would.
PS: I heard about the twin study but
MS: Yeah, that’s right, the twin study shows that twins separated from birth and raised in different environments are almost identical on so many things, not just physical but
PS: This is like genetic determinism of one’s personality
MS: Yes, but it’s not determinism, I’m only talking 50%, but
PS: can you actually say it’s 50%?
MS: Yes, there are researches from behaviour genetics and they have a large sample size, thousands and thousands of twins in the last half century have been studied for their political preferences, their religious preference, their personality, the kind of food they like, the kind of clothes they wear. So let’s say you met your long-lost twin that you didn’t know about. And she shows up and she’s got jeans and boots and a top like that. This would shock most people, they’d go ‘wow’, but really there’s no genes for picking jeans. It’s just that you have a certain body type and your twin is gonna have the same body type, and you look in the mirror and go ‘well I look good in this, I don’t look so good in that’.
PS: What about colour?
MS: Even colour. You pick a certain colour that matches your eyes, or your hair, because it looks better, and your twin is likely to do the same thing, so there’s a slight push towards buying the same kind of clothes…
PS: Wait, in that case you are associating choice to a type of physical determinism. Give me other examples [of genetically determined traits]
MS: If you are politically left, if you are liberal, your siblings or twin would likely be in that direction too. Because the liberal world view and the conservative world view appeal to different aspects of our personality and temperament. So, for example, political liberals tend to be more comfortable with change, and a political systems that allows people to move around, up and down the economic ladder; conservatives tend to like a conservative world view that doesn’t change a lot, it’s hierarchical, it’s law-bound, it’s rule-bound, everybody is in their place, everybody should stay in their place and not move around.
PS: I was probably adopted.
MS: Do you have sisters or brothers?
MS: Are they older?
PS: Younger. But they are all responsible people
MS: You’re the first born?
PS: Oh, you support that theory of the first born? How can they establish that? Is it statistical?
MS: Yes, it’s a statistical argument. There will always be exceptions.
PS: Exactly, which makes it sound like that technique applied on cold reading and astrology. If it is 50%...
MS: 50% is not much.
PS: Exactly. If you use binary choices in the analysis – do you prefer dark colours or light colours; do you prefer outdoor activities or indoor activities – you’re bound to get 50% of something…
MS: Like I said, in terms like a measure of extroversion, or openness to experience, there’s a scale, you can be from zero to ten on openness to experience. So I’d put you at like a 9 or 10, you are probably way up there, just from what I read about you and talking to you and just from what you told me tonight that you’ve lived in so many different countries, and you’ve… so, travel is a proxy for openness to experience. In other words you are more liberal and tolerant of other people’s beliefs that are different from yours, you are less likely to be, say, judgemental of somebody that believes different than you than, say, a conservative.
PS: Thanks for your misperception.
MS: Compared to, say, a political conservative from the Midwest who likes things just the way they are, the American way is the only way.
PS: I understand. Oh, I saw your video with Jeffrey Armstrong and I was shocked. What’s the story with that? [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C6k7xa1NrCc]
MS: The story was that we didn’t get to finish the shoot that day, we were supposed to do another set of tests, and we ran out of time, it was 5 o’clock and we would have to pay the camera crew double over-time and all that stuff, and the producer said we’re done, we’re just gonna finish with this and I’ll edit it and that’ll be fine. And I said ‘ok, are you sure?’ because it looks pretty bad.
PS: It looks awful, it proves you wrong if anything. So how do you explain that [the statistically above-average number of correct hits by the astrologer]? Just a fluke?
MS: Yes, just a fluke, you have to run a number of trials. If you flip a coin and you get four heads in a row you can’t just go ‘wow,’ because that must be a rigged coin or something. Because if you flip 100 coins it would come out pretty close to 50/50.
PS: Well, in that specific case I’d say the man flipped ten coins, and he got all of them right.
MS: Yeah, well, I haven’t watched that for a long time, I forgot what we did. See, the proper way to do it, what we were gonna do, we would give him some files and he would have to match people to those files, and get something like, seven out of ten. But the way we did it initially was not good, we had to do the follow up as a test but we ran out of time and we didn’t get to do it.
PS: Who posted that video?
MS: I didn’t.
PS: [laughter] Of course you didn’t. That would be quite interesting if you had, actually, I’d have admired the intellectual honesty. It was funny. I don’t believe in that, of course, but I found it very interesting. I’m quoting you here. You say: “What’s the difference between an invisible god that is not measurable and a non-existing god? None.” But I say – and this is my question – that Heisenberg said (and you quote him in your book) that “what we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning.” So basically, if ants thought men did not exist, because they could not be detected by their scope of vision, for example… […] Do you get where I’m going here? I mean, are you saying that man is the final arbiter [of truth and existence]? Because if you are, you seem more religious than most believers I know, because it’s like you believe man to be the final product. [note to the interested: On that particular philosophical quest, I recommend a tiny book that reproduces a dialogue between Einstein and Rabindranath Tagore on this very ontological point.]
MS: There are certain limitations to science that are based on the instruments that we use, and so as the instruments broaden we find more things. So in the physical sciences, something like the size of your telescope will determine how big the universe is. But of course that’s only a partial reflection of the restrictions of our technology. We assume that the universe is just the way it is regardless of what we’re doing and whether we are here or not, and that we’re just limited based on our brains and our technology. And if that is the case in the physical sciences… that’s why I was talking about truth as being provisional and not absolute. It could change, for sure, but if you’re talking about something like social sciences, like IQ tests and are they measuring intelligence? Well, what do you mean by intelligence? IQ measures a particular skill but they miss a lot of other things, and the SAT measures something, the GRE measures something etc. So those will definitely be determined by the instruments you’re using. But even though that’s restricting and limiting, it’s better than nothing, it’s better than guessing. It’s better than horoscopes. So I’m admitting that science has certain restrictions.
PS: Ok. I don’t know where I took that from, I think it was from one of your lectures, though I don’t know if you actually wrote that down. My question is, would you be that adamant that there is no difference between an invisible god that’s not measurable and a non-existing god?
MS: My point with that is, if every time I ask you for evidence for god… ok, let’s use a different example. Say you have this conspiracy theory that the US government is hiding aliens in Roswell in New Mexico, so say every time I say ‘how do you know’ you say ‘oh, because I heard that’s the case’. And I ask you ‘where is the evidence for that? Who told you that?’ and you say ‘well, they’re hiding the evidence. They’re hiding the body.’ ‘Show me the body.’ ‘Show me the spacecraft.’ ‘They’re hiding the spacecraft.’ Where is the document? ‘They blacked out the document, see, here is the document with blacked-out bits.’ So at some point you have no evidence at all, so what’s the difference between hidden secret aliens and no aliens? It’s the same with god. If you say…
PS: This is mostly a rhetorical answer.
MS: Yes, it is. If god is outside of space and time and he is supernatural, then I ask ‘how do you know he’s there?’ ‘Well, because he answers prayers.’ ‘Oh, so he sticks his hand into the pot to stir the particles to cure your cancer, fix your heart valve.’
PS: You mean to say that once god intercedes with the natural world, then we should indeed be able to measure that interference and have evidence?
MS: Right. So scientists measure the natural world and if god is tweaking it in some way then we should be able to measure that. Does that make sense?
PS: It does. You say in your book that ‘shouldn’t we know by now that ghosts cannot exist unless the laws of science are faulty or incomplete?’ My question is, what makes you think that the laws of science are complete? Where did you get that from? Newtonian physics was the only physics that existed until very recently, but now we know that depending on the dimension – size-wise even – the laws are different.
MS: They are supplemented. Newtonian physics is supplemented by Einstein, not displaced.
PS: No, it’s a whole new reality, with different laws.
MS: Sort of. It’s an expansion of reality. If you want to go on a spacecraft tomorrow you just pretty much use Newtonian mechanics.
PS: But I’m not talking about spacecraft. If you want to work in the Large Hadron Collider it’s a whole new different world with different properties.
MS: Different physics, you’re right. So, on the ghost question, even if the laws of nature are not complete, and it’s possible there are ghosts, where is the evidence, what is the mechanism by which a disembodied soul floats off and is able to hang mid-air, so to speak, in what substance, what is the substrate holding the pattern that represents your soul, what would that be? We have no physics for that.
PS: For the record, I don’t believe in soul myself, but I am not giving any lectures on the subject. I find it interesting that you… For example, the Large Hadron Collider just came up with a new type of matter. [….] You don’t believe that thought can be transmitted between people, right?
MS: No, not other than the normal way, like we are doing…
PS: You mean by sound, right?
PS: Well, couple of hundred years ago we wouldn’t be able to say how sound was transmitted, right? We didn’t know sound waves.
MS: That’s right. But there’s nothing in terms of thought transfer that needs explaining. In other words, you say ‘how do you explain how people can read each other’s mind,” my answer is, they can’t.
PS: Because nobody has.
MS: They can’t. People say they can, but when you put them under controlled conditions in a lab, then the effect disappears.
PS: I find it plausible that there may be waves that we haven’t yet… I don’t see why we would have to know every existing wave in the world. I don’t doubt that there can be types of waves that one person could emit, and another could receive, but we just don’t have the machine to capture it. Two hundred years ago, if I told you something about the radio you would think I am nuts.
MS: Right. So is there something equivalent to the radio in the brain, that’s what you’re asking.
PS: No, not equivalent.
PS: I mean to say that if you are scientifically agnostic too, you know that there can be infinite things that we don’t know about yet.
MS: But that doesn’t mean they are there just because we can imagine them.
PS: But are you so adamant that they aren’t there?
MS: Analogously, J.K. Rowling can make up an entire world of magic but nobody thinks that might be real, they know she just made that up. So the fact that humans are capable of making up fantastical worlds doesn’t mean they are true. So neuroscientists have a pretty good handle now on what the brain does, how it operates, the neurochemical transmitters, the electrical impulses when the neurons fire, how small the gap is…
PS: We don’t even know what consciousness is.
MS: But the waves don’t extend beyond the skull.
PS: How do you know?
MS: We never measured it.
MS: You’re reversing the argument.
PS: Do you know what consciousness is? That hasn’t even been defined yet.
MS: The fact that consciousness is spooky and weird, and quantum physics is spooky and weird, it doesn’t mean they are connected.
PS: I’m not saying they are connected.
MS: This is a big theory, about quantum consciousness. This is the theory you’re referring to, of people reading each other’s minds, that it’s not radio waves, or sound waves, or electromagnetic spectrum, it’s quantum, it’s quantum action at a distance. So my neuron fires and causes the subatomic particles to affect the subatomic particles in your neurons and cause your neurons to fire in the same pattern mine is firing and you’d read my thoughts. Well, first of all, if that was true that would not be the paranormal, it wouldn’t be ESP, it would just be Neurophysics, something like that. It would just be part of the natural world.
PS: Ok, I want to talk about that. What I find funny in your reasoning is that you insist on that, that once something is proven or explained, it is not paranormal anymore. It seems that you are focused on whether something is called paranormal or not, whereas I think the people you are arguing with, they don’t care if something is considered to be paranormal or not, they care about whether that thing exists.
MS: Yes, I agree. You’re right.
PS: Mind-reading. People don’t necessarily care if that is like, a gift from god or…
MS: What I’m saying is that, I don’t think it exists. Forget the psychics on TV and the people who talk to the dead
PS: Think of a number, quickly.
PS: Aaaaaaaaargh!I said think a number, not say a number. I was thinking seven.
PS: Never mind. I always get right once, and only the first time.
MS: So we just put people in a lab and say ‘ok, so in the other room there’s this person and he is sending you a thought. What is it?’ and if that’s too nebulous you have the Zener cards, you know, the wavy line, the circle, the square, the triangle. And you just pull it up and ask which one do I have. And you do that 500 times, and they never do better than one out of five, 20%
PS: Which is just
MS: Chance. It’s chance. Under controlled conditions, the effect disappears when you tighten the controls. […]
PS: Do you believe in that quantum principle that the observer interferes with uh
MS: Yes, at a subatomic level.
PS: Ok. You think thought is ‘over-atomic’?
MS: Yeah, I do. Because neurons firing and swapping chemicals, those are molecules, they are much bigger, they are orders of magnitude bigger than subatomic particles, so the effects would wash out. The moon is there whether you look at it or not. The moon is not like a subatomic particle, even though Deepak disagrees with me on that.
PS: I’d like to talk about things I didn’t see you covering very much but I did hear you mention. For example, organic products. Do you have a problem with organic food?
MS: No, well, it depends on what you mean by organic. It’s all organic. It’s just to what extent is has been modified chemically, I guess, or genetically.
PS: Does it bother you? Do you have a problem with genetically modified stuff?
MS: No, I don’t have a problem with genetically modified organisms, I’m fine with them, frankenfood, bring them on.
PS: Ok, so let me ask: have you ever been given money by any company that works with genetically
PS: Has Monsanto ever sponsored any
MS: Monsanto [laughter], there it is.
PS: No? I’m asking because you believe in evolution, and you call evolution ‘functional’.
MS: But Paula, we’ve been modifying food for ten thousand years.
PS: Wait, that’s something else, that’s hybrid [breeding]. The plant has to fall in love with the other little plant, they have to have some chemistry. [laughter]. You yourself call evolution ‘functional adaption’, correct?
PS: And such evolution is beautiful in its quote unquote perfection because time equals adaptation therefore perfection in purpose or function. Now, if you do believe that, how can you think it’s fine that someone would come and just invent a new type of corn that can never give birth to other little corns…
MS: Yes, but you know what the original corns look like, right? They were an inch tall, half an inch wide, you’re not gonna feed very many people out there, so we have been genetically modifying
PS: Oh, because we are feeding the world, huh?
MS: Well, what do you want to do with the seven billion people, let them die?
PS: So many are dying of starvation already
MS: I know, you want more people to die?
PS: No, I just don’t see how genetically modified is feeding anybody. I just see how they are actually preventing people from having new cultivation from the seeds they bought, because they end up buying copyrighted seeds.
MS: I think we’re talking about two different things. There’s the business of mega-farming and all that and then there is the issue of how we’re gonna feed… if we ban all genetically modified foods of any kind we’re going to go back to hunter-gatherers. Farming has already modified cows and chickens and all that stuff. None of those animals are natural.
PS: Do you have a problem with how animals are kept in captivity
MS: Well, I’m not crazy about the beef industry.
MS: Yeah, it’s pretty disgusting. And when I see something about that I don’t eat meat for a few days until I forget.
PS: But do you make it a point to eat from free range
MS: I do when I can, I prefer…uh, I guess I don’t have a big dog in that fight, it’s not a big thing for me, I guess politically I feel like we’ve already got so far down the road of civilisation that we can’t go back to the grassroots of living off the land because there’s not enough ways to feed that many people.
PS: Between margarine and butter, which one would you choose?
MS: Butter. I don’t eat margarine.
PS: Because you trust the cow better than the chemist?
MS: Yeah, I guess a little bit, yeah.
MS: Yeah, I trust evolution.
PS: I mean the evolution of the cow and the milk and how the digestive enzymes evolved
MS: Of course I know that the cow has been modified a lot in ten thousand years
PS: Has it really?
Q - Was the cow also one inch long and half an inch wide?
MS: I mean, I’m not crazy about the way animals are treated but I think we’ve made progress on that front.
PS: You could help.
MS: By joining PETA?
PS: Look, I’m not a vegetarian and I can’t understand it, I find it so artificial. If anything, nature teaches us that one animal eats another animal, and I don’t believe in waste either, I feel if an animal is dead you might as well eat it. But I don’t like the idea of making an animal miserable and deprive it of its natural gift of grazing and basking in the sun, it’s very sad the way they are treated. And I can’t stand people who want to save the whales and don’t give a damn about the cows.
MS: I think I’d rather save the whales than the cows. They have bigger brains. See, I adjust my opinions on that based on approximation to consciousness.
PS: [Approximation] to man, the ultimate product.
MS: Yeah, I guess so.
PS: So there is a value scale for you in nature, man is obviously the highest, and the closest an animal is to man the more deserving it is of
MS: Yes, chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans, dolphins, porpoises, whales
PS: So you wouldn’t like people eating dolphin meat.
MS: No, I’m against all that
PS: But cow is fine.
MS: Yes, we’re going down the scale: chicken, even better, fish. You know fish have tiny little brains, they are not even really brains. You know, so I’m less concerned about that, it bothers me less.
PS: And you’re measuring intelligence by brain size?
MS: It’s not intelligence, just probably consciousness, or awareness, or something like that.
PS: You’re equating consciousness to brain size.
PS: Or [equating it] to evolution.
MS: Yes. I think that chimps and dolphins feel more pain than fish.
PS: You know that porpoises kill other porpoises, right, baby porpoises?
MS: Yes. Chimps do too. Chimps are nasty. I’m not judging based on good or evil.
PS: So you’re judging them based on their capacity to feel pain?
MS: Yeah, pain and awareness.
MS: Sentience. And also to how social they are, how connected to other members of their species, if you take them away from their mother or their child…
PS: So if you take a little fish from its school
MS: Yeah, but you see, fish are not social in the same way that mammals are social
PS: You clearly haven’t watched Finding Nemo
PS: I read that you wrote or gave a lecture entitled ‘Confessions of a former environmental sceptic’ but I couldn’t see it.
MS: Oh. That’s available. What I wrote is that I used to be sceptical of global warming.
PS: Yes, that’s the thing, I keep hearing you say that but I never find the original material [you’re now disowning]. I don’t know if you’ve deleted all the videos where you spoke of your skepticism…
MS: No! Maybe somebody is out there doing that
PS: A friend clearing your past. [laughter] And the only thing I have on that is you saying ‘I used to be a skeptic on global warming.’ Can you tell me more about that?
MS: Yes. So when I was in college the whole ecology movement was getting going and there were all these prophecies of doom and gloom, you know, the rainforest will be gone by the eighties, we’ll run out of oil, precious minerals and all that stuff will be depleted, and over-population, we’re not gonna make it to the nineties, and none of that happened, it’s not even close to happening, so I thought you know, that’s a bunch of bullshit, I think this is more of a political movement, sort of a quasi-religious movement, sort of like ‘religion for leftists,’ and I still think there’s something to that, the sacred values that the conservative right has about god and marriage and the body and sex, liberals have with the purity and sanctity of the environment, the air, the water, that sort of thing, food can be pure and natural. So I think they’re the same sacred values that we hold, but liberals and conservatives apply them differently, in different places. So anyway, I was sceptical of all that for the longest time, and I wasn’t that interested in the subject in terms of spending a lot of time studying it. But in the early 2000’s, at Skeptic Magazine, it became a hugely important topic, people kept sending me articles, you know, about this side or that side.
PS: And you were still sceptical.
MS: Yes, then I actually started reading the literature, because I hadn’t really looked at that carefully in ages, and I’m not an environmental scientist so what do I know, I am just an observer like you or anybody else. So I started reading about it, and I met Al Gore at TED and I listened to him talk, and I know he is a political, uh, he is out there as an activist, but still I can on my own go check his sources and enough of the evidence started to accumulate…
PS: When did you change, then?
MS: Around 2006, I think, 2007.
MS: Whoa? Is that late in the game?
PS: Oh yes, that’s very late in the game.
MS: Well, I came around late.
PS: I like that you had the… uh. Changing one’s mind is usually a sign of intelligence.
MS: Oh thank you. [laughter]
PS: That’s not how I spotted yours, I mean. But considering that you can be wrong, I mean, what a revelation for you, no?
MS: I can be wrong about that.
PS: And you could be wrong about other things as well.
MS: Yes. It would be interesting to see, like, in 30 years from now if the sea levels haven’t risen and all these things.
PS: But they are rising, no?
MS: Yeah, a little bit. But the doomsayers say it’s gonna raise by meters, not millimetres, so we’ll see, that’s a test, we can see what happens.
PS: When I was at CERN, the laboratory
MS: You were there?
PS: Yes, I wrote a piece for Rolling Stone.
PS: I spoke to various scientists and I asked all of them about god. I was actually writing about quantum physics but the god bit was, like, a standard question. And most of the answers I got were variations of, “it makes no sense to discuss negative time, or time before time. Time begins at the Big Bang and that is the zero mark.” But that is a convention, right, it’s a mark decided by man that zero is the moment of the Big Bang. Do you see a lot of that in science, human limitation used to determine paradigms?
[I shortened this question because my examples were too convoluted. I thank Shermer for making sense of them]
MS: So the examples you gave there, I mean, physicists have to define a system, in some way, and so they do (that) with mathematics. In my field, social sciences, we talk about the operational definition of something. You have to operationally define it: exactly what do you mean by depression, or intelligence, or whatever? You have to put a number on it so we can then put in different conditions and measure how the numbers go up or down. That’s kind of restraining but it’s necessary because without that then we have no objective standards to go by and it just boils down to my opinion versus your opinion. So one thing we know from cognitive psychology is that our biases are so powerful that I am very likely to find – even if I am trying to be careful – I’m very likely to find what I want to be true, what I’m expecting to be true, what I’ve guessed as true. So we have to go to great lengths to avoid the confirmation bias, for example. That’s why it’s good to have thousands of experimenters checking those numbers and writing those experiments so it’s not just you and me and… That’s the problem with the cold fusion thing, there were just two guys in a lab and they never checked it, they never had somebody else check it before they made their announcement.
PS: There was no peer review?
MS: No peer review, no. They held a press conference and then they released their data and their methods and then everybody ran out…
PS: Ok, on the same vein of this subject, I’d like you to tell me how are experiments decided upon, who funds them. Explain to me what’s the system, the procedure (for an experiment to be conducted) because I also want to talk about what I see as your lack of scepticism of the corporate science nowadays, because experiments start with a goal in mind.
MS: Not just corporate, government. There’s really more money in government funding of science than corporate funding of science. The National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health and the National Institutes of Mental Health, they are huge, you know, billions and billions of dollars
PS: Of public money
MS: Yeah, of public money. Anyway, it doesn’t matter, your point is a larger one, that might this not have built into it hidden biases, it’s like, the people who sit on the committee decide who gets which money, they themselves are people with an agenda? Yes, of course, absolutely, it’s a big problem. It’s no different than a corporation that wants to fund research that happens to affect its bottom line. You know, these are all biases that are for real, and so I am sympathetic to outsiders who want to make a contribution but they can’t get funding, they can’t get telescope time, say, because the people who sit on the committee don’t like their particular line of research and this area over here is hot now so they give the telescope time to all those people. Yes, that’s a problem, it’s a built-in limitation to science.
PS: Does that hamper in any way your work? Have you ever been funded by the government or a private company?
MS: No, no.
PS: Everything you do is financed by Skeptic…
MS: Yeah, my research is pretty much… I mean, when I write a book I get a book advance from my publisher, so that’s corporate money, I guess, but I don’t think that’s what you’re talking about. I don’t get any money from like, a pharmaceutical company or… Probably the closest thing would be Templeton Foundation hired me to edit some essays, but they said ‘you can edit them in any way you want, you can hire anybody you like to write these essays.’ The essay question was “Does science make belief in God obsolete?” So I said “can I have atheists?” and they go “oh, please, get Hitchens if you can.” So I did, I got Christopher Hitchens and they paid him to write an essay. That’s just work for hire, that’s not quite the same thing. I’d say drug research is a big problem, it’s not what I do, but I read people who study this and I can see where the biases are.
PS: Ok, so when you criticise natural medicine, or…
MS: Oh, I’m doing on a different level. See, there’s no such thing as alternative medicine, there’s just medicine. There’s only medicine that has been tested and that hasn’t been. It’s not that the non-tested ones, traditional medicines are wrong, we just don’t know if they work or not.
PS: Though you agree that if I am, say Pfizer, I have no interest in funding the research of an herb that I cannot patent, right? Why would I want to know if an herb is efficient in fighting cancer, for example, or
MS: Why wouldn’t you be able to patent it, or patent a molecular structure similar to that…
PS: Then I would conduct a secret research and then I would tweak the molecule and say that the medicine I just invented cures cancer.
MS: Yeah. I’m actually ok with that to a certain extent, because the government is so involved in the approval of drugs, the FDA, that these pharmaceutical companies have to spend enormous amounts of money to get a drug approved, and so they have to make money, they’re a company, so unless you wanna make public all drug companies or something like that… But even there you’d still gonna have other bias problems, who is deciding which drugs should get research money or not. You see, presumably private corporations like Pfizer, the marketplace kinda directs them. If there is a clamouring for aids drugs or a particular kind of cancer that they need a drug for, then they are responding to a market function, a market demand. I’m not very confident that the government is gonna do that any better. Because the government is often beholden to special interest groups that give them money, they give politicians money. And it might not be that the guy who gives the most money is representing us, the people, and what we want. Let’s say cancer is the number one killer but the guy, let’s say it’s David Koch, of the Koch brothers, and they give some politician a gazillion dollars to fund some research on AIDS because he has AIDS, or something like that.
PS: Speaking of Koch, you call yourself a conservative. I heard
MS: No, libertarian.
PS: No… I heard you
MS: I am fiscally conservative, socially liberal.
PS: Ah, ok.
MS: Fiscally conservative, socially liberal. You have to qualify that.
PS: No, but when you said it, you said… I’ll find the video – damn it, I will have to go through all that again. Wait, I remember, you were talking to Dinesh.
MS: Oh yes, yes.
PS: And you said “we are both conservative.”
MS: He doesn’t mean on social issues. He means
PS: No, but you said it, not him.
MS: He knows I’m pro-gay marriage and that kind of stuff. Separation of church and state…
PS: So basically you are against the welfare state, medicare and all that?
MS: I’d rather the market tried to solve those problems in a more efficient way, as a general principle…
PS: Yes, because the market has all intention of saving old people from dying, wink
MS: Today I was reading an article about New York taxi cab permits.
PS: The medallion.
MS: Yes, the medallion. They are a million dollars, it’s all unionised, the government controls it, and there’s companies trying to get in, where you can get an app on your iphone and you tap the app and type in where you are and a car just comes and gets you and takes you where you wanna go, it’s just a company. And they’re starting to do this and the taxi unions just go ‘no no no no, because then anybody can do this and we’d be out of business.’ So they are pressuring politicians to ban this private taxi.
PS: You call it taxi unions. I’d like to look into it. I think it’s way more interesting what happens in Seville, where the law does not allow you to own a taxi if you are not the driver. That is fair. Why? Because it allows people to be their own bosses. In Sao Paulo, when I lived there, there were a few companies that basically owned all taxis, it was a cartel, and taxi drivers had to pay the taxi rental per day. If they didn’t have as many trips as they needed to cover the payment, they’d just pay to work. It was almost a type of slavery, awful.
MS: I do think it’s good to have some kind of social safety net to help people that really need help. No question about it, there’s a certain percentage of the population that is mentally ill and they have real problems and they can’t work. Yes, we have a moral obligation as a society to take care of the… yes, I agree, but the moment you set it up and then you offer free goods, then people that don’t necessarily need it or they only need it for a little while but they extend it and, in other words it’s called the free-riding problem.
PS: Don’t tell me you also believe homeless are just people who don’t want to work?
MS: No. Ok, I’m not talking about that. I’m not talking about mentally ill people on the streets
PS: Not mentally ill. Do you think there’s a job for everybody in the world?
MS: There could be.
PS: “There could be” is something else.
MS: That’s my superstition. [laughs]
PS: Right, exactly, I was just going to say
MS: I think we are on the road to abundance. I’m pretty optimistic about
PS: My god, what drug are you on? I want some.
MS: [laughter] You want some?
PS: You are a very optimistic person, right?
MS: Yes, I am, it’s my nature. I think things are getting better, I think more people in more places have more freedom now than ever before. I mean, I just saw the Lincoln movie, you know. Here, here Lincoln barely got past the idea of banning slavery, I mean, and it was the Democrats who were fighting him, you know, the Democrats.
PS: I know.
MS: This was not that long ago. So we’ve come a long ways just in our century.
PS: But poverty is increasing…
MS: And remember, women could not vote until 1920. I mean, one of the arguments against the passage of the 13th amendment was, “what’s next, you’re gonna let women vote? I mean, come on!” That’s how ridiculous it sounded to the ears of people living in the 1860’s, in America, the land of the free. So, I’m encouraged by that. I think gay marriage in 50 years will be just like that. People in 50 years will look back and go, “what were they thinking, they wouldn’t let gays get married, are you kidding me?”
PS: Yeah, I think you’re right about that. But I think the exclusion will no longer be about that, it will be those who have money and those who don’t have.
MS: Well, the solution is just to get more people money, just abundance. Even poor people today have way more than people had 50 years ago. I mean, the poorest people in America today, they have televisions and refrigerator and a microwave, most of them have cell phones
PS: My god, they eat Cheetos for dinner, hello.
MS: But it’s still better than it used to be.
PS: Is it really?
MS: We have to take the long perspective. Yes, it’s better.
PS: These people now weigh 300 and frigging kilos.
MS: Ok, so, when you have a problem of over-eating, that’s very different from starvation. They over eat, they have too much food.
PS: They eat the wrong food. And they don’t have money to buy what I eat, which is to go to Whole Foods [note from the interviewer: since I learned of the sale of GMO foods at Whole Foods, I am no longer a consumer. If I were still in New York, I’d take the trouble to walk longer to shop from Trader’s Joe.]
MS: Ok, since you brought that up. So here is the solution, compassionate capitalism. That’s John Mackey’s theory, the CEO of Whole Foods. No, no, not compassion – what is it called – compassion capitalism, or something like that. So he believes in taking care of people, like your employees. You pay your employees really well, you give them a great healthcare program, you take care of the people in the community near the store, they do all this stuff. So this is the future of capitalism.
PS: Tell me a country that applies a type of capitalism that you admire.
MS: Well. Some of it here. It’s an approximation. We have a ways to go.
PS: Whoa. Shit.
MS: Well, I’d say the modified economies of northern European countries seem to work pretty well. Those governments are more intrusive than I’m comfortable with, because I’m an American, but I was just in Denmark and people seem happy.
PS: Intrusive? What do you mean by intrusive? I’d like you to qualify it because I don’t know a country that is more intrusive than yours, as far as espionage goes, reading emails
MS: You’re right. Touché.
PS: Have you ever debunked something that came from the government, from the pharmaceutical industry or the establishment – I’ll tell you why I am asking this. For example, you talk a lot about Islam, and how scary fundamentalism is, and I agree with you. In fact, one good example of religious fundamentalism is Israel. That is a whole country based on the idea that they have been chosen by God. I never heard you say anything about it. Why do you never talk about it?
MS: Well, because I don’t talk about politics that much.
PS: That’s religion.
MS: Well, so. No, that’s really politics. I don’t address Israel in particular because I support Israel. I mean
MS: I think it’s good to have a western democracy in the middle of that… area.
PS: Oh, because it spreads democracy?
MS: Yes, it spreads democracy.
PS: Oh yeah, right, I can see it spreading right now, democracy is bursting at the seams.
MS: Well, it’s not spreading so well.
PS: How would it spread? You mean to other Arab countries?
MS: The Arab Spring was a good start but then it kinda fizzled.
PS: Wait, just a second. Israel is in fact the justification for most of the dictatorships in the Middle East. Those dictators can only be dictators and impose state of emergency because their countries are technically at war with Israel.
MS: Hum. Ok, I didn’t know that. So the very existence of Israel leads to certain kinds of government. But that’s not a reason to eradicate them. Ok, so two different issues. I’m totally sceptical of the Jewish claim of the god of Abraham and all those stories, I don’t think there was a Moses, there’s no divine basis for Israel existing
PS: You don’t think Moses existed?
MS: No, I don’t. I’m just going by what Biblical scholars and archaeologists tell me, things I read.
MS: I think he probably existed. But that is a different question. Yes, I’m totally sceptical of the claims the Jews make about the world. But still, everybody has a right to exist. I would support a two-state solution, a two-state solution is the only solution but Israel violates that as much as Palestinians do.
PS: I won’t get into that.
MS: Well, it’s not an area I follow really closely.
PS: So you see it more as a political problem, rather than religious.
MS: Yes, right. I mean, if you took religion away obviously they couldn’t make divine claims to the land, so that would be a good start but I don’t think that is gonna happen. So in the meantime, the political solution is like a two-state solution, and yes the United States should support them because, well, we should.
MS: Back to your question, we can pick and choose our battles and that’s just not one of mine. I mean, just on the side, as a person, politically, yes, I think we should support Israel. And I believe in a two-state solution, Palestine should exist, ok. But at Skeptic, we don’t deal with any of that. Yes, we deal with religious claims, like that, there was no Moses, whatever
PS: Has the Skeptic Magazine published articles on Moses?
PS: You seem to criticise people – no, you do criticise people who say they are “spiritual but not religious.” Why is that? What’s your problem with spirituality and why do you need to have a definition of it?
MS: I sometimes am spiritual.
PS: In what way?
MS: Well, because people insist that if you’re not… there’s a sense that if you’re not, there’s something wrong with you, you’re like Mr Spock, you don’t have any feelings or any emotions. That’s bullshit. I just think that’s a fuzzy word that people misuse, they don’t really know what they mean. When people say they are spiritual but not religious, I say “what do you mean by spiritual?” And I typically get an answer like this, “Oh, well, you know, it’s kinda, you know, it’s like a feeling.” Ok. Whatever. But what I mean is just sort of the awe and wonder at the cosmos and the world and deep time and deep space…
PS: The sense of wonder?
MS: Yes, sense of wonder, that’s it.
PS: The sense of not knowing?
MS: And science offers that in spades compared to religion.
MS: I mean, if you wanna feel… I mean, one of my favourite things to do is going to observatories; I’ve visited observatories around the world. To me they are much more spectacular than cathedrals, and I like cathedrals. I was just in the big Catholic cathedral in Madrid, and I was in another one in Copenhagen, another one in Oxford. They are everywhere. And they are spectacular but they are minuscule compared to the big dome of an observatory that gives us an eye on the cosmos, that makes us feel small compared to what religion can do. That would be my religion.
PS: Ok, morality. This is a subject that fascinates and scares me a little. What do you think of this statement, which is mine: If the world is as unjust as it is with so many people believing that after they die there will be a heaven or hell, a reward or a punishment, or, as your experiment proved how people have the impression they are being watched by a supreme being, what do you think would be of the world if this whole sense of an invisible watcher was gone?
MS: That’s a good question. But we’re not talking about replacing god with nothing – we are replacing our religious-based morality with a secular-based morality.
MS: Well, government, yes, of course, we need to have rules to get along, but of course we want people to also be self-governing, so what we’ve been witnessing in the last, say, 200 years is a shift in morality from, sort of religious-based to people having values in and of themselves. This is Kant’s idea from the Enlightenment, and that people should be good for goodness sake. And that as a society we need take care of one another, that people should be treated equally under the law, civil liberties, civil rights, all these things did not exist before 200 years ago, and now they do. And so people have inculcated into their brains that you just don’t treat blacks this way, like they used to; you don’t treat women like this anymore. And gays and atheists were the last of these repressed minorities, so to speak. How does that happen?
PS: The sense of right and wrong?
MS: No, not just right and wrong but, ok, yes, in a deeper sense, I guess, but how we should treat other people and interact with them, who counts as a member of our ‘in’ group. It used to be just this tiny sphere of who counts as member of our moral community, that used to be pretty small. That expanding circle is getting huge now, where we count all women now – except for Muslim countries – and all blacks, all Jews. And eventually I think it will expand to include all primates, and marine mammals, that those are conscious creatures that should be treated with respect and dignity and – they will not get voting rights or something like that, but the idea that they should not be harmed, that sort of thing. So, I’m optimistic because the trend lines are very positive – this is my next book, the Moral Arc in Science. Martin Luther King said, “The arc in the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” […] So you have to have rules that people respect, and the rule of law is necessary for a country to be prosperous, for people not to pluck the flower [in a public park that belongs to everyone and does not belong to one person in particular. Shermer was referring to my previous point on game theory, not transcribed here because I was the one doing the talking, blabbermouth!]. So the argument that without religion such thing won’t happen is not true, it’s already happening. Slavery was not really abolished because of religions, it was abolished politically. And Christians make it like… Dinesh [D’Souza] makes a big deal of Samuel Wilberforce, the Christian abolitionist. Yes, of course, he was Christian. But who were the abolitionists riding against? So believers like to make a big deal about the fact that it was a Christian who led that movement. And there were Christians in the American abolitionist movement. But who were they railing against? Their fellow Christians. There were more Christians who believed slavery was good and decent and just… and you can read their sermons and their speeches and justifications why slavery was a good thing for blacks.
PS: Have you ever read the Bible?
MS: Yes, I have.
PS: The whole thing?
PS: So why don’t you use it against itself?
MS: I do sometimes.
PS: Could you, for example, ask Dinesh tomorrow what he thinks of Noah being buggered by his own son?
MS: [laughter] We are not debating that tomorrow night. But I have used stuff like that before.
PS: Like what?
MS: Well, like most of the commandments in Deuteronomy, like death penalty for disobedient children, death penalty for adulterous women but not guys – of course, this was written by men – and I even make a joke, death penalty for adultery, there goes half a Congress.
PS: What is their answer to that?
MS: They say that’s the Old Testament, not the New Testament.
PS: Well, then let me tell you something I wrote about. The New Testament tells, I think it’s in Paul’s letters to the Corinthians, he says that women should cover their heads. The Koran doesn’t, actually. In fact, if you analyse the scriptures alone, the Koran is more egalitarian than the Bible.
MS: I’ve heard that. When people say ‘oh, that’s the Old Testament, we believe in the New Testament.’ I point out that Jesus says you’re supposed to leave your family and give up your belongings and follow me. And by the way, when did Jesus become a conservative? I mean, Jesus says you can’t get into heaven if you are rich, right, and that you’re supposed to turn the other cheek. When did Jesus become a militant, a war-monger? He is the opposite of that, so I don’t know how conservatives embrace Jesus.
PS: I quite like Jesus expelling the vendors from the temple.
PS: I wanted to know if you’ve heard of the refuseniks. Because I heard Sam Harris speak – and I’m not confusing you with Sam Harris but I think you guys are similar in that you both seem to say that “oh, Christians don’t bomb anything, Jews don’t go about exploding stuff.” Well, not if you count Israel. In Israel they massacre whole villages, and they are Jews, and almost every Jew is a soldier. So how is that so different from… Perhaps it’s even worse, because that is…
PS: Exactly, state-sanctioned.
MS: Well I guess that’s the difference, it’s state-sanctioned, instead of religion-sanctioned.
PS: But it’s based on religion.
MS: Well, is it? Or is it more political? Is it more self-defence, and political, or territorial? I mean, religion may be behind it, but is it really the true motive?
PS: I understand what you mean, and I understand that a fundamentalist Muslim who kills an infidel may think he is doing a favour to God. But what if I think that I’ve been chosen by God… Isn’t the belief that one has been chosen by God as his chosen people a good predictor of enormous evil?
MS: Yes, certainly, of course, I agree.
PS: Peter Ustinov, apparently, said “Terrorism is the war of the poor, and war is the terrorism of the rich.” My point is, it’s even worse that it’s sanctioned by the state.
[I will refrain from transcribing this bit because it is a long discussion on history, interpretation and epistemology]
MS: You ask me interesting questions that people have never asked.
PS: So, the meaning of life. You dedicated one of your books to your daughter saying “the mantle now is yours.” So, is that how you see your, ahn, permanence? Do you believe that, in a world that is secular and that has no soul or life after death, having kids is your…
MS: Yes, for sure, that’s it, my work and my child. I doubt that much of what I do will make a difference 500 years from now, but, you never know. All of us make a tiny little bit of difference and push the moral arc further and further towards justice, if I can help a little bit, you can help a little bit… I mean, I didn’t have a child for that purpose, it’s just an accident, most of them are, it just happened. But once that’s there, ok, that’s my legacy. But I didn’t think about it, it’s like evolution just took over my brain and I am just crazy about it and I just want her to carry on.
PS: So you hope she will have kids?
MS: It doesn’t matter. The only reason I want her to have kids is for her to know how great it is to have kids. It’s great. It’s a really rewarding experience. I would have never imagined, I didn’t care, I didn’t want kids, but then once I had Devin it’s like, wow, this is fantastic. But on the other hand I got lucky because she is a good kid. […] So back to your previous point about, if there is no god, I mean the larger point you made, if there is no god are you free of any kind of moral restraints? No, I’m not free of restraints, I have all kinds of obligations, and promises, and friendships, and people I love and that I feel obligated to. The basis of morality is in human relationships, a person on an island by themselves, there’s no morality there, they’re just by themselves, it’s only how you interact with other people, you don’t need god for that, and if you’re not sure if you should violate a moral norm, just ask the person you’re thinking about sticking it to, how they feel about it. They will tell you, right? So you know, you don’t even need to ask, you know how someone will feel about something before you do it, that’s the basis of morality.
PS: Do you think you have the obligation to help people that you never met?
MS: Just a second. [pause] Say again?
PS: Do you think you have a moral duty to help people less privileged, for example, people you have nothing to do with and never met?
MS: On the sliding scale as you expand out from yourself and your immediate family, friends, yes, I think we do have the moral obligation to help those who are less privileged. But I don’t think we have the right to make you do. In other words, I don’t feel right that I should take your money and give it to someone that I think needs it. You should be free to do that, you do it. So this is why I am against government… I don’t like government hand-outs
PS: Do you do it?
MS: Yeah, yeah, I adopted, er, I did a, I have an adopted-child program through, you know, one of those adopt-a-child things, it’s a little girl, actually she is, like, almost done now, I think she is almost out of high-school, in Europe, in Romania.
MS: Yeah. [silence] So ah, I mean, it’s not a lot, it’s 30 bucks a month maybe for ten years now. Yeah, I feel good about that.
PS: That’s it? That’s all?
MS: Well, what do you mean, I don’t know, like what else?
PS: I don’t know.
PS: Do you feel that religious people are more charitable than non-religious people?
MS: Yes. Not only do I see it, but the data shows that.
MS: Well, because religions are good at rallying the troops to get people to do the right thing, that’s one of the good things that religions do. My atheist friends don’t like to acknowledge but it’s true, they do. Now it’s not that secular people can’t do it. They can and they do, but religions are just more organised about it. In fact one of the reasons why I think America is more religious than European nations is because European nations’ governments do what religions do here, take care of the poor, help the people in need. Like in Katrina, in New Orleans, way before Bush and his cronies got there with FEMA to help out, the churches were there instantly, they were there like the next day. A friend of mine works in this business so she was full time on this and they got mass donations instantly, millions of dollars, and they converted that immediately into food and water, they just drive right there, “go!”, whereas the government, well, it takes forever for them to do anything. So religion in a way is privatised social security, privatised welfare. In that sense science will never replace religion, because religion does something that science doesn’t even do, it’s not tasked to do that. Mormons are spectacularly good at this, but they mostly take care of themselves.
PS: You said that computers are five years away from being more intelligent than humans and forever will be. Can you explain?
MS: That’s my joke. Obviously that’s not true, we will get there, the curve shows that we will get there.
PS: That computers will get there.
MS: Yes, eventually. But the proof is in the pudding, let’s go ahead and do it.
PS: Well, and when they do? Can you lucubrate on that scenario?
MS: First and foremost, I think computers are just too used to help us lead better lives, to solve problems. And to that extent it’s great. I really, I’m optimistic as I usually am. I don’t think computer are gonna take over the world, I don’t think computers are gonna decide humans are obsolete and be done with us, or anything like that. […] We don’t know how (computers) are going to change the world. I think it will mostly change the world for good. So imagine an entirely wireless world and every single person on the planet has a laptop. And we can communicate instantly. Already, as Kurzweil points out, a teenager in Kenya has access to more knowledge than the president of the United States did 15 years ago. Just the internet, Google, Wikipedia and boom, you have...
PS: You said ‘access’ to knowledge. To process that knowledge is something else.
MS: So imagine when a billion minds come online in Africa, and we get them wealthy enough, and educated enough, and online – how fast the world will change for the good – [all those people] solving problems, just being involved. I’m optimistic about that, I think that’s coming. I mean the one-hundred dollar laptop kinda fizzled out, but, you know, the idea is there. It will happen. I mean, nobody was online 25 years ago. Now 3 billion or 4 billion online, that’s just phenomenal.
PS: Damn you’re such a positive man. What’s your star sign?