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.
Dr. Michael Shermer is the Founding Publisher of Skeptic magazine, a monthly columnist for Scientific American, a regular contributor to Time.com, and Presidential Fellow at Chapman University. His new book is The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity Toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom. He is also the author of The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies—How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths; The Mind of the Market, on evolutionary economics; Why Darwin Matters: Evolution and the Case Against Intelligent Design; and The Science of Good and Evil. He has been a college professor since 1979, also teaching at Occidental College, Glendale College, and Claremont Graduate University, where he taught a transdisciplinary course for Ph.D. students on Evolution, Economics, and the Brain. As a public intellectual, he regularly contributes Opinion Editorials, book reviews, and essays to the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, Science, Nature, and other publications. Dr. Shermer received his B.A. in psychology from Pepperdine University, M.A. in experimental psychology from California State University, Fullerton, and his Ph.D. in the history of science from Claremont Graduate University. He appeared on such shows as The Colbert Report, 20/20, Dateline, Charlie Rose, and Larry King Live (but, proudly, never Jerry Springer!). His two TED talks, seen by millions, were voted in the top 100 of the more than 1,000 TED talks.
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.
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