Monday, July 20, 2009

Michael Shermer - Science, Skepticism and Libertarianism


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Michael Shermer is one of the most well-known skeptics in America, working for decades to advance the scientific outlook in society. He is a contributing editor and monthly columnist for Scientific American, and is the host of the Skeptics Distinguished Lecture Series at Caltech. Since his founding of the Skeptics Society in Southern California and Skeptic magazine, he has appeared widely on TV and radio on shows such as 20/20, Dateline, Charlie Rose, Oprah, Unsolved Mysteries, and many more. He is the author of many books, including Science Friction: Where the Known Meets the Unknown, and Why People Believe Weird Things. His most recent book is The Mind of the Market: Compassionate Apes, Competitive Humans, and Other Tales from Evolutionary Economics.

In this discussion with D.J. Grothe, Michael Shermer discusses skepticism and its possible relationship to libertarianism. He argues that what some organizations define as "humanism" are actually positions that have nothing to do with humanism, but with Marxism and social democracy. He talks about why he has begun speaking out more about libertarianism as a leader in the skeptical movement. He admits that he may be more of a moderate libertarian than some others who defend that political and economic perspective. He talks about tensions within libertarianism as regards national defense, and what he sees as the need for national armies after 9-11. He explains which came first for him: libertarianism or skepticism, and talks about the influence of Ayn Rand on his intellectual development. He argues that Ayn Rand is still relevant even if her view of human nature (that people are basically selfish and that there is no such thing as altruism) upon which her economic theories are based is not born out by recent developments in cognitive and evolutionary psychology. He talks about Adam Smith, and how this year is the 250th anniversary of his first book, A Theory of Moral Sentiments, which presents his views regarding people's natural propensity for empathy and sympathy. He defends free market capitalism despite what some consider recent wholesale failures of the market, and criticizes Alan Greenspan's betrayal of free market ideals. He attacks the current economic system which engages in corporate welfare and "economic tribalism" for being "capitalist in profits but socialist in losses." Other topics he touches on include the gold standard, tax revolt anarchism, income redistribution, and how he would prefer religion and the private sector to help the poor as opposed the government providing for the welfare of the economically disadvantaged. He defends the growing disparity between the super rich and the very poor, and the position that most poor people in the West deserve their lot in life due to their own bad decisions. He talks about his book The Mind of the Market and why people believe weird things about money. He explores the implications of the burgeoning fields of behavioral economics and neuroeconomics for his libertarian position. He describes the basic elements of evolutionary economics, a field he has pioneered. And he defends the position that skepticism should not remain apolitical — instead, he argues that skeptics should apply their skepticism to religion and God, pseudoscience and the paranormal, and also economics and politics.

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