Reflections of a scientific humanist
Michael Shermer’s new book is a collection of skilful elucidations of academic ideas
I write this review after a weekend in which Extinction Rebellion, whose members presumably believe that science is inviolable, have blockaded the printing plants of national newspapers which they deem to be right-wing and therefore insufficiently vocal about the peril of climate change. Michael Shermer would doubtless say that they are failing to give the Devil his due and that the only way to allow science to be tested in the marketplace of ideas is to allow freedom of speech, whether it be climate-change denial or simple fecklessness, because if the position were reversed Extinction Rebellion would be denied the right to protest and to propagate its own claims.
The best way to fight Holocaust deniers is with superior arguments
As it happens, Shermer does not believe in the Devil or God. He is an atheist and an academic at a private university in California, whose first degree was in psychology and whose Ph.D. was in the history of science. Christopher Hitchens was a friend, as is Richard Dawkins, both of whom are the subject of essays in this collection of 30 “reflections” based on already published articles in the magazine Skeptic, which Shermer founded, Scientific American, where he wrote a monthly column for 18 years, and various other journals, not least Quillette, the online magazine which challenges left-wing orthodoxy. Free speech, he says, “is inviolable for science and politics”.
The best way to fight Holocaust deniers such as David Irving is with superior arguments, not by prosecuting them in court under “hate crime” law, as happened to Irving in Austria in 2006, or by no-platforming them on university campuses. Shermer points to the 2018 book by Nadine Strossen (a former president of the American Civil Liberties Union) called Hate: Why We Should Resist it with Free Speech, not Censorship. Strossen pointed out that in the 1830s several southern states introduced laws to ban abolitionist speech, but that “the asserted harms that abolitionist speech was feared to cause – libel, emotional injury, and violence – are the very same harms that are now cited in support of ‘hate speech’ laws”.
In one chapter Shermer examines the plight of US universities. At Oberlin College, for example, the students attacked imperialism, cissexist heteropatriarchy, and the enforcement of “gender binary and gender essentialism”, but their “most audacious demand was ‘an $8.20/hour stipend for black student leaders who are organizing protest efforts. These students wanted to be paid for protesting!”
We are all drawn towards safe spaces in our lives, Shermer says, citing his own cycling training rides with his buddies, but Duke University created a safe space for men to contemplate their “toxic masculinity”, which “has a reversed valance: punishment instead of protection”.
Safe spaces infantilise adults
As Shermer correctly argues, safe spaces infantilise adults and shield them from the challenges they will face in the outside world, while the growing list of perceived microaggressions towards minorities turns “normal conversation into a cauldron of potential violations that further restricts speech, encourages divisiveness rather than inclusiveness, and forces people to censor themselves, dissemble, withhold opinion, or outright lie about what they believe”. The solution is to encourage “viewpoint diversity” and stop disinvitations of controversial speakers – there were 257 attempted disinvitations between 2000 and 2016, 111 of which were successful.
But Shermer’s subjects also include quantum mechanics, free market economics, creationism and intelligent design, genetics, and theories of governance.
There are three chapters on the gun-control debate in the US, a subject wherein Shermer’s position is nuanced. As a lifelong libertarian and a former gun owner, he finally disposed of his last gun because he was aware of the statistic “about a gun being twenty-two times more likely to be used on yourself or a family member than on a home invader”. He also thinks that legislating to ban assault rifles and large-capacity magazines would reduce the carnage caused by mass shootings. At the same time, he recognises that guns “fit into the conservative lexicon as a proxy for self-defence, self-reliance, individual responsibility, authority, property rights, freedom, and punishment of wrong-doers”.
My only problem with this book is the publisher’s choice of typeface
An exchange of tweets with tech entrepreneur and would-be Mars coloniser Elon Musk sparks an examination of what governance on Mars might be like. Astrophysicist Charles S. Cockell recommends the colonists should take with them copies of the US Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Declaration of Independence, whereas Robert Zubrin, President of the Mars Society, believes Mars will be a place where “experiments are done” and where tyranny will be precluded by interdependence. Shermer also weaves in the HMS Bounty mutineers and shows how their unintentional experimental community on Pitcairn Island went disastrously awry.
My only problem with this book is the publisher’s choice of typeface (insufficiently dense) and point size (too small), which make the long passages of quotation in even smaller type hard to read. Shermer slips in the occasional passing reference to popular culture – the early 1960s western TV series Have Gun, Will Travel, Annie Hall, Star Trek, and Borat – but for the most part he sticks to the skilful and concise elucidation of academic ideas.
Although Shermer is acutely aware of confirmation bias in mainstream thought, he is equally aware of the snares of “patternicity” in heterodox thought – a term he coined which means the tendency to find meaningful patterns in meaningless noise. Hence his critique of “alternative archaeologist” Graham Hancock, who believes that there was an earlier Ice Age civilisation which was so thoroughly destroyed by a comet that not a bone or potshard has survived. Sceptics must challenge outlandish as well as accepted ideas. Nonetheless, says Shermer, “science needs outsiders and mavericks who poke and prod and push accepted theories until they either collapse or are reinforced even stronger”.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try three issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £5Subscribe