michael shermer

Revolutions (Intellectual Ones)

I've recently come to believe that a very important course missing from the high school curriculum is the history of science. The course as it's taught is primarily about learning facts (laws, how to draw atoms, and so forth) and solving problems; both very important. But the emphasis is almost exclusively on what we know and not how we know it. 

When you take a step back and look at a history class, it's really is the history of humanity learning to get along (through the nicer bits of diplomacy and the uglier bits called wars.) The moral of twentieth century history is that we have almost but not completely got that figured out. Major powers don't go to war and haven't for decades.

Similarly, the history of science is the history of humanity learning what it should take to change our minds. In an excerpt from a longer interview at Skeptic Magazine, Lawrence Krauss explains why most people don't understand how scientific knowledge advances.  

On a recent episode of Quirks and Quarks on CBC I was introduced to the term pessimistic meta-induction hypothesis. Science has told us that much of what we thought was true ten years ago is now false. So ten years from now most of what we now think of as true will be false. So any fact we disagree with now can safely be ignored since it will eventually be discovered to be wrong anyway. 

You'd be surprised how many people believe that. 

On learning new interesting words...

The way we speak reveals a great deal about the way we think. Early in my magic career, one of the books that influenced me was Stephen Pinker's The Stuff of Thoughtabout how language provides insight into what's actually going on inside our heads.

Most interesting; it contains a chapter on profanity. (You haven't truly read until you've read a Harvard professor discussing profanity.) In particular, he emphasizes how we have different ways of speaking on the spur of the moment — such as the moment after you drop a hammer on your foot — than we do when we have time to reflect — like when composing an essay for school. 

And one of the great secret skills of a magician is taking things which are thoroughly planned and rehearsed and making them seem as though they are happening right here and now. That understanding has helped me create some truly wonderful magic over the years.

In this extended interview Benjemin Bergen sits down with the editor and publisher of Skeptic Magazine, Michael Shermer, to discuss profanity in great detail. Not so useful for making magic, but a fascinating discussion:  

The book under discussion is available here. I haven't read it, but it looks fucking delightful. 

Incidentally, the notion that your word choice impacts the way people perceive what you say has also spawned a pseudo-scientific discipline (read nonsense) called neurolinguistic programming — or NLP for short. I'm not one to underestimate the value of choosing my words carefully, but any such advice that falls under the umbrella of NLP can usually be discounted. 

Taking the Lord's name in vain

I posted this recently on a private forum for secularists, heathens and infidels. The conversation it sparked was interesting, but that was for a slightly different crowd of like minded people. As a bit of personal background, the areas where I have the most training are magic and mathematics. Both are disciplines where the language where ideas are expressed are extremely important. A few words difference can have a huge impact and so I often waste a lot of energy trying to pick exactly the right words to use.

"In my experience, if you cannot say what you mean, you can never mean what you say. The details are everything."

-J.M. Straczynski

Do you make an effort to change the way you speak because you’re gay and/or an atheist.

I’m thinking of things like how whenever Michael Shermer mentions god, he often refers to ‘she’ or ‘her’ and it’s always followed by this little giggle as people are confused and amused by the incongruity.

I’m also thinking of swear words. There are three levels. At the highest are the insulting racial slurs (N-word and the like), followed by the sexual/scatological (asshole, shithead, cocksucker, fuck, cunt, these lists are fun to make) and at the lowest end are the religious ones (god damn, what in god’s name, oh god, oh hell, etc).

Pretty much no one uses the first kind, and the second kind is still hard to get away with in most settings. So in mixed company, the religious ones are the closest thing you can get to a good curse word.

So my question to all of you is, since you don’t believe in god hell or damnation, what do you use for a good swear word in mixed company?

I worry sometimes that if you use the words, you’re tacitly endorsing their validity. Stephen Hawking (happy birthday) and Albert Einstein both used phrases involving god and it has come back to bite them as people have tried to quote it out of context to imply that they must believe in god. Hitchens used to say he used the phrase “god knows” to mean “nobody knows” but who knows what percentage of his audience actually knew that.

When I was in my late teens, I used to run a kids day camp, so I was really, really good at avoiding all, except for maybe the odd “hell” or “damn”. For my own amusement I tried the Bugs Bunny type ones for a while (fiddlesticks, suffering succotash) and the one from Phil the Prince of Insufficient Light (“I Darn you to Heck”). Then when I got a little older, I tried to replace religious curses with scientific ones (“what in Feynman’s name”, “for the love of Darwin”) which I still do from time to time.

Depending on how confident I feel, I might even interject when someone uses one of the little religious curses, “who is this god person you’re talking about?” My favourite is if someone says cocksucker, to add “excuse me, some people do that for fun.”

There are lots of other little places where religious phrases sneak into language, like saying ‘bless you’ when someone sneezes. Wondering, if anyone else notices or cares or what you try to do about it.