Giving the Devil His Due by Michael Shermer reflections of a scientific humanistApril 30, 2020
Shermer is a particular kind of scientific truthteller, who aims to cut through the bullshit. How useful are these short reflections?
Pick up a book, any book. Is it dedicated to my friends Christopher Hitchens and Steven Pinker, peerless champions of liberty? Does it have cover puffs by Jordan Peterson and Pinker? Do the chapter headings refer to many alpha men and controversial intellectuals (Richard Dawkins, David Hume, David Irving, Hitchens, and Peterson again) but not a single female?
Is the text peppered with fond reminiscences of boozing with Hitch et al on the global conference circuit? By now you will be getting a strong whiff of a distinctive, testosterone-filled musk. Yes, youve wandered into the habitat of that fearless, self-assured celebrity creature: the ageing, raging, white, male, scientific truthteller. Hes here to cut through the bullshit for you, whether you like it or not.
This particular specimen, Michael Shermer, is the author of many previous works, including The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity toward Truth, Justice and Freedom (2015), and the more fun-sounding Why People Believe Weird Things (1997). A onetime evangelical Christian, libertarian and professional bicycle racer turned historian, hes best known as an enthusiastic, atheistical debunker of pseudo-science.
His latest volume is a collection of almost 30 reflections published over the past 15 years, repackaged and organised around five themes: freedom of speech, religion, politics, scientific humanism and examples of transcendent thinkers. Your opinion of the book will almost certainly depend on your fondness for quick, super-brief journalistic takes on large, complicated issues. Reading it is a bit like being stuck next to a well-meaning but opinionated guy on a (safe, boring, post-coronavirus) transatlantic flight youre unlikely to learn anything very profound, and you probably wont want to stay in touch, but if youre in the mood, it passes the time to have a chatty stranger mansplain the meaning of the cosmos, the genius of the Founding Fathers, and how he got rid of his beloved .357 Magnum during an unfortunate period of marital strife. (Or you could just turn away, pop in your earplugs, and binge on the free movies.)
Shermers project is to open our eyes to supposedly rational, scientific ways of analysing and mastering knotty, controversial subjects, from gun control in America, through the natural foundations of economic prosperity, to the prospects for a global advance of civilisation. Try to be reasonable, he patiently explains. Its good to keep an open mind and listen to what others have to say. Look out for confirmation bias. We should accept or reject ideas only according to their evidentiary standing.
Unfortunately the brevity of Shermers chapters means that his application of these unobjectionable principles often results only in banal truisms. You might not need to read his essays on God and religion to appreciate that Scientology is a money-making cult; that both atheists and people of faith deserve to be treated as intelligent and worthy of respect; that many Americans these days define themselves as agnostic; or that the universe per se cannot have a purpose in an anthropomorphic sense because, well, it isnt a human being.
Read more: http://www.theguardian.com/us