How skepticism can fight radicalism, conspiracy theorists, and Holocaust deniers

Why have some conspiracy theories been pushed back into the public? Because when you try to force them out of the mainstream, they'll find a wider audience on the fringes.

Michael Shermer: There’s a market for what we do; that is, skepticism. What is skepticism? It’s just a scientific way of thinking. So why aren’t scientists doing this?

Because they’re busy doing their own thing in their particular fields. What the skeptical movement has developed is a set of tools like the Baloney Detection Kit, a set of tools to deal with particular claims that are on the margins of science like creationism, intelligent design theory, the anti-vaccinations, the holocaust revisionists, you know, all these conspiracy theories and so on and all these alternative medicines, there’s hundreds and hundreds of these claims that are all connected to different sciences, but the scientists in those particular fields are too busy working in their research to bother with what these claims are because they claims really aren’t about those fields, they’re just hooked to them.

They’re about something else, because back in the ‘80s when I first saw some professional scientists debate Duane Gish, the “Young Earth” creationist, they did not fare well. And I saw some holocaust historians debating or confronting Holocaust so-called revisionists or deniers, they did not fare well because they didn’t know the special arguments that are being made by these fringe people that have nothing to do with the science really, they have an agenda, and they’re using these little tweaked questions to get at the mainstream and try to debunk it for their own idea logical reasons.

So for example, like Holocaust revisionists, they make this the big deal about why the door on the gas chamber at Mauthausen doesn’t lock. “I mean if it doesn’t lock how are you gassing people if you can’t lock the door? So they must not have gassed people in there, so if they didn’t gas people at Mauthausen they probably didn’t gas people at any of the death camps. And if they didn’t gas people at any of the death camps then there must not have been a Holocaust.” What?! Wait a minute. All from this door that doesn’t lock?

Well I eventually went and found out that that wasn’t the original door; that took me a couple of years, but that’s the kind of specialty thing that skeptics do that mainstream scientists, scholars, historians don’t have time to do.

So over the 25 years, not just us there’s other skeptic magazines and conferences and groups of people that meet at meet ups and so on all over the world, and it’s because of the Internet, especially this whole idea of what we now call fake news, alternative facts, has gotten bigger and bigger and it just gets unfolded in real time online within minutes and hours and we have to jump on it fast.

That’s really in part what we do so that’s what we’ve been doing for 25 years is kind of putting out brushfires here and there, but also developing a set of tools that can apply to any future ideas, because I don’t know what’s going to be popular five years from now. Heck I don’t know what’s going to be trending tomorrow, who knows?

So you’ve got to have these tools at the ready and that’s what we’ve been doing at Skeptic magazine, but let's address a college campus issue these days. 

Ok, I really think this goes back to the 1980s. I noticed it first when I was in graduate school, the second time when I got a PhD in the history of science.

My first round was in the ‘70s in experimental psychology graduate school, and I didn’t notice any of this campus stuff. In the late ‘80s when I was in my doctoral program—because history deals a lot with literature, the kind of post-modernist deconstruction of what texts means, it was really taking off. So I initially thought “What is this? But okay I’ll give it a shot I’ll keep an open mind here and just try to follow the reasoning.” And I kind of see where they were going.

So what is the true meaning of Jane Austen’s novel here, or Shakespeare’s play there, or this novelist or that author? And I can see that there may not be one meaning. Maybe the author meant it as kind of provoking you to think about certain deep issues and you have to find your own meaning in the text. Okay, I can understand that.

But then it kind of started to spill over into history and I was studying the history of science, and I kind of like to think of science as progressing toward some better understanding of reality that I believe is really there.

And it’s not that science is perfect and we’re going to get to a perfect understanding of reality, I know that’s not going to happen, but it’s not the same as literature, it’s not the same as art and music; it’s different than that.

If Darwin hadn’t discovered evolution somebody else would have, in fact if somebody did! Alfred Russell Wallace discovered natural selection is the mechanism of evolution.

And if Newton hadn’t discovered calculus somebody else would have. Well, they did—Leibniz, and so on.

These are things that are out there to be discovered, and I see that differently than art and music and literature, which is constructing ideas out of your mind.

And so I don’t think that the postmodern kind of deconstruction of the text applies completely to history, and you can see immediately why it fails because this is what led to in the ‘90s the whole Holocaust denial movement, so-called revisionists. They call themselves revisionists and their argument was “all history is text, it’s just written by the winners and the winners write themselves as the good guys and the losers are the bad guys and this is all unfair. Look, maybe the winners here have unfairly critiqued Hitler and the Nazis” and so on.

Yeah, but what about the Holocaust thing? It looks pretty bad. “Yeah well maybe it didn’t happen the way we have been led to believe it happened because, again, the history of the Holocaust it was written by the winners.”

You can see immediately why this kind of textural analysis can cascade into complete moral relativism and insane ideas like Holocaust denial.

That’s when I thought okay this is wrong; this has gone too far.

And in the mid ‘90s after we founded Skeptic magazine in ‘92 this was one of the earliest things we started going after because it was around ‘95 or so that the so-called science wars took off and that “science is just another way of knowing the world, no different and no better than any other way of knowing the world.” Wait, time out. What was that part about we’re just like everybody else? Science has its flaws but it’s not just like art or music, it’s different.

So then by the 2000s I think this really trickled down into all the social sciences, anthropology, biology, evolutionary biology and just attack, attack, attack to the point where any particular viewpoint that an oppressed minority finds offensive or anybody finds offensive can be considered a kind of hate speech or a kind of violence. You could sort of see the reasoning from the 1980s all the way through to today, you can see how they get there, but we should have drawn that line and stopped, well a bunch of us tried to stop it back in the ‘90s and well, it had a momentum of its own.

So I really think this whole idea of we have to protest Ben Shapiro because he’s a conservative and he’s pro-life and this is evil and wrong and it’s hate speech and it leads to violence, wait, Ben Schapiro is a really smart guy and if you can’t refute his pro-life arguments— I’m pro-choice, I think I could beat him in a debate, or I could at least tie him in a debate.

But if you don’t even know his arguments because you don’t want to listen to him and you’re going to shout him down, well, kudos to the Berkeley people who let him speak recently, but boy that has not been the trend recently. And this is the problem.

The problem is this, none of us has the truth. The only way to find out if you’re deceiving yourself or not, if you’ve gone off the rails, if you’re wrong in some way is to listen to other people who disagree with you.

And these were the original arguments laid down by John Stuart Mill 1859, “On Liberty.” This is the classic work.

One, I might be partially wrong and so by listening to somebody who disagrees with me I get to correct my idea.

Two, I might be completely wrong and off the rails and boy good thing I figured this out before I went to far.

Three, I might be completely right but I’m not 100 percent sure about my arguments and hearing somebody on the other side helps me refine my arguments and strengthen my arguments.

If I could refute that conservative or that radical leftist or whoever it is, then, how much stronger my position is.

And four, it’s not just the speaker’s right to speak, it’s the listener’s right to listen. Maybe I the protester don’t want to hear this person, but maybe there’s people in the room that do want to hear this person for whatever reason. It’s none of my business.

And then finally, in terms of moral progress that I like to track, one of the biggest drivers for the last five centuries has been the principle of free speech. This is at the basis of all liberal democracies of all civil societies, that everybody must have the freedom to express their points of view no matter how much we dislike them. I don’t care if you’re a Nazi or you think we didn’t land on the moon or whatever your ideas are, go ahead and tell us your best arguments and we’ll see in the marketplace of ideas how well you do.

And it’s been my experience that this is the quickest way to silence somebody.

Like the holocaust deniers: don’t lock up David Irving in jail like they did in Austria when he showed up at the airport, heck no, let him give his talk in a public forum and expose his ideas for the craziness that they are, for the lies that they are and then everybody can see it. End of story. But if you lock him up then people are going to be, “Oh what’s he got to say? It must be really good because they won’t let him say it.” It has the opposite effect the banned in Boston effect.

So that’s my argument for free speech and why these college kids have gone off the rails here. Let the people speak if you invite them.

Liberal college students have taken to shouting down certain right-leaning speakers on campus that they don't agree with. Michael Shermer, the publisher of Skeptic Magazine, thinks that is the worst thing you can do. He posits that all you do when you prevent someone from speaking is make certain people want to hear them more. This has led to the rise of the conspiracy theorists and why fringe ideas—from something as silly as flat-earth believers to something as morally reprehensible as Nazism and Holocaust deniers—have been pushed back into the mainstream. Michael's new book is Heavens on Earth: The Scientific Search for the Afterlife, Immortality, and Utopia.

Hack your brain for better problem solving

Tips from neuroscience and psychology can make you an expert thinker.

Credit: Olav Ahrens Røtne via Unsplash
Mind & Brain

This article was originally published on Big Think Edge.

Problem-solving skills are in demand. Every job posting lists them under must-have qualifications, and every job candidate claims to possess them, par excellence. Young entrepreneurs make solutions to social and global problems the heart of their mission statements, while parents and teachers push for curricula that encourage critical-thinking methods beyond solving for x.

It's ironic then that we continue to cultivate habits that stunt our ability to solve problems. Take, for example, the modern expectation to be "always on." We push ourselves to always be working, always be producing, always be parenting, always be promoting, always be socializing, always be in the know, always be available, always be doing. It's too much, and when things are always on all the time, we deplete the mental resources we need to truly engage with challenges.

If we're serious about solving problems, at work and in our personal lives, then we need to become more adept at tuning out so we can hone in.

Solve problems with others (occasionally)

A side effect of being always on is that we are rarely alone. We're connected through the ceaseless chirps of friends texting, social media buzzing, and colleagues pinging us for advice everywhere we go. In some ways, this is a boon. Modern technologies mediate near endless opportunities for collective learning and social problem-solving. Yet, such cooperation has its limits according to a 2018 study out of Harvard Business School.

In the study, participants were divided into three group types and asked to solve traveling salesman problems. The first group type had to work on the problems individually. The second group type exchanged notes after every round of problem-solving while the third collaborated after every three rounds.

The researchers found that lone problem-solvers invented a diverse range of potential solutions. However, their solutions varied wildly in quality, with some being true light bulb moments and others burnt-out duds. Conversely, the always-on group took advantage of their collective learning to tackle more complex problems more effectively. But social influence often led these groups to prematurely converge around a single idea and abandon potentially brilliant outliers.

It was the intermittent collaborators who landed on the Goldilocks strategy. By interacting less frequently, individual group members had more time to nurture their ideas so the best could shine. But when they gathered together, the group managed to improve the overall quality of their solutions thanks to collective learning.

In presenting their work, the study's authors question the value of always-on culture—especially our submissiveness to intrusions. "As we replace those sorts of intermittent cycles with always-on technologies, we might be diminishing our capacity to solve problems well," Ethan Bernstein, an associate professor at Harvard Business School and one of the study's authors, said in a press release.

These findings suggest we should schedule time to ruminate with our inner geniuses and consult the wisdom of the crowd. Rather than dividing our day between productivity output and group problem-solving sessions, we must also create space to focus on problems in isolation. This strategy provides the best of both worlds. It allows us to formulate our ideas before social pressure can push us to abandon them. But it doesn't preclude the group knowledge required to refine those ideas.

And the more distractions you can block out or turn off, the more working memory you'll have to direct at the problem.

A problem-solving booster

The next step is to dedicate time to not dealing with problems. Counterintuitive as it may seem, setting a troublesome task aside and letting your subconscious take a crack at it improves your conscious efforts later.

How should we fill these down hours? That's up to you, but research has shown time and again that healthier habits produce hardier minds. This is especially true regarding executive functions—a catchall term that includes a person's ability to self-control, meet goals, think flexibly, and, yes, solve problems.

"Exercisers outperform couch potatoes in tests that measure long-term memory, reasoning, attention, problem-solving, even so-called fluid-intelligence tasks. These tasks test the ability to reason quickly and think abstractly, improvising off previously learned material to solve a new problem. Essentially, exercise improves a whole host of abilities prized in the classroom and at work," writes John Medina, a developmental molecular biologist at the University of Washington.

One such study, published in the Frontiers in Neuroscience, analyzed data collected from more than 4,000 British adults. After controlling for variables, it found a bidirectional relationship between exercise and higher levels of executive function over time. Another study, this one published in the Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, compared fitness data from 128 adults with brain scans taken as they were dual-tasking. Its findings showed regular exercisers sported more active executive regions.

Research also demonstrates a link between problem-solving, healthy diets, and proper sleep habits. Taken altogether, these lifestyle choices also help people manage their stress—which is known to impair problem-solving and creativity.

Of course, it can be difficult to untangle the complex relationship between cause and effect. Do people with healthy life habits naturally enjoy strong executive functions? Or do those habits bolster their mental fitness throughout their lives?

That's not an easy question to answer, but the Frontiers in Neuroscience study researchers hypothesize that it's a positive feedback loop. They posit that good sleep, nutritious food, and regular exercise fortify our executive functions. In turn, more potent executive decisions invigorate healthier life choices. And those healthy life choices—you see where this is going.

And while life choices are ultimately up to individuals, organizations have a supportive role to play. They can foster cultures that protect off-hours for relaxing, incentivize healthier habits with PTO, and prompt workers to take time for exercise beyond the usual keyboard calisthenics.

Nor would such initiatives be entirely selfless. They come with the added benefit of boosting a workforce's collective problem-solving capabilities.

Live and learn and learn some more

Another advantage of tuning out is the advantage to pursue life-long learning opportunities. People who engage in creative or problem-solving activities in their downtime—think playing music, puzzles, and even board games—show improved executive functions and mental acuity as they age. In other words, by learning to enjoy the act of problem-solving, you may enhance your ability to do so.

Similarly, lifelong learners are often interdisciplinary thinkers. By diving into various subjects, they can come to understand the nuances of different skills and bodies of knowledge to see when ideas from one field may provide a solution to a problem in another. That doesn't mean lifelong learners must become experts in every discipline. On the contrary, they are far more likely to understand where the limits of their knowledge lie. But those self-perceived horizons can also provide insight into where collaboration is necessary and when to follow someone else's lead.

In this way, lifelong learning can be key to problem-solving in both business and our personal lives. It pushes us toward self-improvement, gives us an understanding of how things work, hints at what's possible, and, above all, gives us permission to tune out and focus on what matters.

Cultivate lifelong learning at your organization with lessons 'For Business' from Big Think Edge. At Edge, more than 350 experts, academics, and entrepreneurs come together to teach essential skills in career development and lifelong learning. Heighten your problem-solving aptitude with lessons such as:

  • Make Room for Innovation: Key Characteristics of Innovative Companies, with Lisa Bodell, Founder and CEO, FutureThink, and Author, Why Simple Wins
  • Use Design Thinking: An Alternative Approach to Tackling the World's Greatest Problems, with Tim Brown, CEO and President, IDEO
  • The Power of Onlyness: Give Your People Permission to Co-Create the Future, with Nilofer Merchant, Marketing Expert and Author, The Power of Onlyness
  • How to Build a Talent-First Organization: Put People Before Numbers, with Ram Charan, Business Consultant
  • The Science of Successful Things: Case Studies in Product Hits and Flops, with Derek Thompson, Senior Editor, The Atlantic, and Author, Hit Makers

Request a demo today!

How AI learned to paint like Rembrandt

The Rijksmuseum employed an AI to repaint lost parts of Rembrandt's "The Night Watch." Here's how they did it.

Credit: Rijksmuseum
Culture & Religion
  • In 1715, Amsterdam's Town Hall sliced off all four outer edges of Rembrandt's priceless masterpiece so that it would fit on a wall.
  • Neural networks were used to fill in the missing pieces.
  • An unprecedented collaboration between man and machine is now on display at the Rijksmuseum.
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CRISPR therapy cures first genetic disorder inside the body

It marks a breakthrough in using gene editing to treat diseases.

Credit: National Cancer Institute via Unsplash
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published by our sister site, Freethink.

For the first time, researchers appear to have effectively treated a genetic disorder by directly injecting a CRISPR therapy into patients' bloodstreams — overcoming one of the biggest hurdles to curing diseases with the gene editing technology.

The therapy appears to be astonishingly effective, editing nearly every cell in the liver to stop a disease-causing mutation.

The challenge: CRISPR gives us the ability to correct genetic mutations, and given that such mutations are responsible for more than 6,000 human diseases, the tech has the potential to dramatically improve human health.

One way to use CRISPR to treat diseases is to remove affected cells from a patient, edit out the mutation in the lab, and place the cells back in the body to replicate — that's how one team functionally cured people with the blood disorder sickle cell anemia, editing and then infusing bone marrow cells.

Bone marrow is a special case, though, and many mutations cause disease in organs that are harder to fix.

Another option is to insert the CRISPR system itself into the body so that it can make edits directly in the affected organs (that's only been attempted once, in an ongoing study in which people had a CRISPR therapy injected into their eyes to treat a rare vision disorder).

Injecting a CRISPR therapy right into the bloodstream has been a problem, though, because the therapy has to find the right cells to edit. An inherited mutation will be in the DNA of every cell of your body, but if it only causes disease in the liver, you don't want your therapy being used up in the pancreas or kidneys.

A new CRISPR therapy: Now, researchers from Intellia Therapeutics and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals have demonstrated for the first time that a CRISPR therapy delivered into the bloodstream can travel to desired tissues to make edits.

We can overcome one of the biggest challenges with applying CRISPR clinically.

—JENNIFER DOUDNA

"This is a major milestone for patients," Jennifer Doudna, co-developer of CRISPR, who wasn't involved in the trial, told NPR.

"While these are early data, they show us that we can overcome one of the biggest challenges with applying CRISPR clinically so far, which is being able to deliver it systemically and get it to the right place," she continued.

What they did: During a phase 1 clinical trial, Intellia researchers injected a CRISPR therapy dubbed NTLA-2001 into the bloodstreams of six people with a rare, potentially fatal genetic disorder called transthyretin amyloidosis.

The livers of people with transthyretin amyloidosis produce a destructive protein, and the CRISPR therapy was designed to target the gene that makes the protein and halt its production. After just one injection of NTLA-2001, the three patients given a higher dose saw their levels of the protein drop by 80% to 96%.

A better option: The CRISPR therapy produced only mild adverse effects and did lower the protein levels, but we don't know yet if the effect will be permanent. It'll also be a few months before we know if the therapy can alleviate the symptoms of transthyretin amyloidosis.

This is a wonderful day for the future of gene-editing as a medicine.

—FYODOR URNOV

If everything goes as hoped, though, NTLA-2001 could one day offer a better treatment option for transthyretin amyloidosis than a currently approved medication, patisiran, which only reduces toxic protein levels by 81% and must be injected regularly.

Looking ahead: Even more exciting than NTLA-2001's potential impact on transthyretin amyloidosis, though, is the knowledge that we may be able to use CRISPR injections to treat other genetic disorders that are difficult to target directly, such as heart or brain diseases.

"This is a wonderful day for the future of gene-editing as a medicine," Fyodor Urnov, a UC Berkeley professor of genetics, who wasn't involved in the trial, told NPR. "We as a species are watching this remarkable new show called: our gene-edited future."

Pragmatism: How Americans define truth

If something is "true," it needs to be shown to work in the real world.

Credit: Gene Gallin via Unsplash
Culture & Religion
  • Pragmatism is an American philosophical movement that originated as a rebuke to abstract European philosophy.
  • The pragmatic theory of truth argues that truth and reality only can be understood in their relation to how things work in the real world.
  • The trouble is that the theory devalues the term "truth," such that it only applies to one particular moment in time. But Charles Sanders Peirce offers a clever way out.
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