Michael Shermer and the moral arc of libertarianism

img_0265by Massimo Pigliucci

Skeptic magazine publisher Michael Shermer has gotten onto the same “science can determine moral values” bandwagon as other scientistically-minded writers such as Sam Harris. But this commentary isn’t directly about Shermer’s latest book [1], and even less about Harris (about whose ideas I’ve written more than enough [2]). Rather, it concerns a more specific claim about science-driven moral progress made by Michael in a recent article that appeared in the libertarian Reason magazine, entitled “Are We Becoming Morally Smarter? The connection between increasing IQs, decreasing violence, and economic liberalism” [3]. The piece is an interesting mix of good points, good reasoning, bad points, and bad reasoning. I am going to try to sort things out in the interest of stimulating further discussion.

Shermer begins by talking about the famous (and still poorly understood) “Flynn effect” [4] the observation that IQ test scores, when non standardized to the population average, have increased by two standard deviations throughout the 20th century: we have become “smarter.” Of course, one has to buy into the idea that IQ tests actually measure “intelligence,” or that the latter is even a sufficiently coherent concept to be quantified effectively. But for the sake of the argument, let’s say that cultural evolution (obviously, as Shermer himself readily acknowledges, this has nothing to do with biological evolution) has made it so that people are getting better at scoring high on a certain class of standardized test that has something to do with intelligence, at the least when the latter is understood in certain ways.

The controversy really heats up when we move from the observation of the Flynn effect to what it means and what is causing it. Shermer quotes Flynn himself as attributing “the effect to an accelerating capacity for people to view the world through ‘scientific spectacles.’” I’m not sure what that means, but the publisher of Skeptic magazine should be cautious about this sort of conclusion. If people really have increasingly been donning scientific spectacles during the past several decades, wouldn’t we expect, say, a correspondingly decreasing degree of acceptance of anti-scientific notions? Alas, this is clearly not the case, as demonstrated by repeated Gallup and NSF surveys about Americans’ beliefs in ghosts, telepathy, creationism, and so forth. These beliefs have been holding steady for decades, Flynn effect be damned.

Shermer (and Flynn) shift into an even more speculative mood immediately afterwards: “Flynn and his colleague William Dickens suggest that the increases in reasoning abilities may have started centuries ago with the industrial revolution, which required certain cognitive abilities not needed in a predominantly agricultural society.” It’s too bad we don’t have data on IQ going back to before the industrial revolution, though I seriously doubt that the history of humanity until that point had been characterized by low cognitive abilities. More likely than not, the Flynn effect is part artifice (because of substantial problems with the whole idea of IQ testing) and part the result that more people have become educated in certain ways of thinking, exactly those ways (not at all by coincidence) that lead to high scores on IQ tests. None of this is a bad thing, mind you, but grand claims about historical levels of intelligence ought to be tempered by the utter lack of corresponding historical data.

In the last paragraph of the first section of the article, Shermer tells us where he wants to go next, and why he began by talking about the Flynn effect: “Our improved ability to reason abstractly may also be the result of the spread of scientific thinking — reason, rationality, empiricism, skepticism. Thinking like a scientist means employing all our faculties to overcome our emotional, subjective, and instinctual brains to better understand the true nature of not only the physical and biological worlds, but the social world (politics and economics) and the moral world.”

Notice a few preliminary points, before we get to the meat of Michael’s argument: i) the assumed equation of scientific thinking with “reason, rationality, empiricism, skepticism,” as if these were inventions of the scientific revolution, rather than some of the very attitudes that contributed to make the scientific revolution possible; ii) the artificial, and both philosophically and scientifically flawed, opposition of reason and emotion, where of course the latter is bad, the former is unquestionably good, David Hume (and modern neuroscience) be damned; iii) the overt suggestion that scientific thinking leads to moral development. The latter is the true main focus of the rest of the article.

At the beginning of the next section, Shermer tells us that “since the Enlightenment, humans have demonstrated dramatic moral progress. … Liberal democracies are now the dominant form of governance, systematically replacing the autocracies and theocracies of centuries past.” Broadly speaking, this is true, though it’s not like moral progress began with the Enlightenment. As for the triumph of liberal democracies, let us temper our enthusiasm just a little bit, as data show that out of 167 countries only 25 are characterized by “full democracies,” while in another 54 democracy is “flawed,” 37 more have hybrid regimes, and another 51 have authoritarian ones [5]. Still, there has been (qualified) progress, though the full democracies are still found only in Western Europe and North America (and if you ask me, they are pretty flawed).

“Abstract reasoning and scientific thinking are the crucial cognitive skills at the foundation of all morality. Consider the mental rotation required to implement the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” says Shermer. But presenting the Golden Rule (obviously a much more ancient moral principle than the scientific revolution, as Michael admits) in pseudo-mathematical terms like “mental rotation” makes it sound “sciency” without any particular scientific reason behind it (doesn’t that ability to see things from other people’s perspective have to do with the function of mirror neurons and the emotional capacity we have for empathy rather than with geometrical exercises?).

It is also highly doubtful, indeed, it goes against everything we know about evolution, that the foundation of all morality is abstract reasoning, and even less so “scientific” thinking. Research by primatologist Frans de Waal and others [6] has long showed that moral instincts are present in other social primates, and that that is where we get the foundation for our morality. Of course, abstract reasoning is necessary for anything like the sort of language-articulated, sophisticated thinking about morality that people have exhibited since at the least the ancient Greeks, but that’s not foundational to morality itself. And, it should go without saying, we have engaged in moral thinking long before anything like science came along. The fact that more people accept sophisticated moral reasoning (though, not nearly as much, or as many people, as we would like, given recent events) is likely due to the spread of those ideas via mass education, and of course to the prolonged, sometimes violent, struggle on the ground that has forced people in power to accept, say, equal rights for women and blacks (at the least in theory). Or do we want to argue that the good people of Alabama bought into civil rights in the ‘60s because they became scientifically literate?

Shermer continues: “As Enlightenment philosophers and scholars consciously adopted the methods of science to establish such abstract concepts as rights, liberty, and justice, successive generations have become schooled in thinking of these abstractions as applied to others in matrices-like mental rotations.” I don’t know which history books Michael has been reading lately, but that’s not how I understand what happened during the Enlightenment. I don’t remember Voltaire, Diderot, or Hume doing scientific experiments or observations in order to establish the abstract concepts of rights, liberty and justice. To begin with, those concepts were known and debated for many centuries before the Enlightenment; moreover, it was a great educational (remember the Encyclopédie?), literary (Voltaire’s Candide, for instance), and philosophical (Hume’s Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding) effort that characterized the intellectual vibrancy of the period. Science didn’t enter into it, though of course the scientific revolution was already in full swing, reaping the benefits of that earlier rekindling of human thought not at all casually known as the Renaissance.

The next section in Shermer’s article deals with the (scientific) evidence backing up his thesis. The evidence he refers to is indeed interesting, but it is altogether unclear why he thinks it supports his own particular view of things.

Here is a taste: “Numerous studies from the 1980s onward, for example, find that intelligence and education are negatively correlated with violent crime … correlation between literacy and moral reasoning, most particularly between reading fiction and being able to take the perspective of others … A 2013 study by the psychologists David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano explored the causal relationship between reading high-quality literary fiction and the ability to take the perspective of others.”

Interesting stuff, but notice that the mentioned correlation is between reading literature (i.e., fiction) and ability to take others’ perspective. Could it be that a liberal arts education, rather than specifically a scientific one, is more relevant, or at the least one of the crucial factors at play?

Shermer then moves closer to his real target: “among 20,000 young adults there was a positive correlation between IQ and liberalism. Data from the General Social Survey clarified the link in noting that the correlation involves classical liberalism of the Enlightenment kind, in which smarter people were less likely to agree that the government should redistribute income from the rich to the poor.”

Ah yes, smarter people lean libertarian! But of course this is very likely an artifact of the fact that the survey in question was conducted in the United States, where Ayn Rand’s novels are still, bafflingly, best sellers among the young. Do the same survey in Sweden, say, and you’ll likely get that intelligent people favor social democracies. Heck, do it in China and I’m sure the smartest will favor a hybrid capitalist/autocratic system. And so on.

Shermer mentions psychologist Ian Deary as saying that “Bright Children Become Enlightened Adults,” where by “‘enlightened,’ Deary meant the values that came directly from the Enlightenment, the definition for which he adopted from the Concise Oxford Dictionary: ‘a philosophy emphasizing reason and individualism rather than tradition.’” So now Voltaire was a libertarian? Perhaps one should consult an historian of the Enlightenment, rather than a concise dictionary, as prestigious as the Oxford is.

And there is more: “the economists Bryan Caplan and Stephen Miller culled data from the General Social Survey and published an article in a 2010 issue of the journal Intelligence tellingly titled ‘Intelligence Makes People Think Like Economists.’” Well, naturally, just like Aristotle thought that the highest occupation for a human being is philosophizing (hint: he was a philosopher). And never mind that certain aspects of economics have an abysmal record as a science, and any intelligent person ought to be weary of whatever comes from the keyboard of an economist (particularly one with a political agenda, as most of them seem to have).

Here is an interesting study cited by Shermer: “the German psychologist Heiner Rindermann ran correlational studies on a number of data sets from many different countries, examining their average scores on popular intelligence tests and measures of academic achievement from the period 1960 to 1972. Rindermann found that intelligence scores predicted the level of prosperity, democracy, and rule of law found in those countries in the subsequent period 1991 to 2003 — even when controlling for the country’s prior level of prosperity.” Right, but I don’t see anything in there that supports the idea that a scientific, libertarian inclined mind is responsible for prosperity. I see instead classical progressive values at work, like education (which is highly correlated with “intelligence”). It is nice to have the data, but it has been rather clear that a better educated populace means generally more open and prosperous societies. It was true in ancient Athens and during the Renaissance, it remains true today.

Michael concludes his essay by saying that “it’s hard to accept the notion that people in the early 20th century were moral idiots, two standard deviations dumber than us.” It is hard because we don’t actually have the data to back up that claim. Shermer has quickly moved from the (actual) IQ Flynn effect to the (hypothetical) “moral Flynn effect,” which has not been measured. In other words, we have seamlessly moved from (debatable) science to pure speculation.

I do agree with Michael that — since moral progress is cultural, not evolutionary — we can expect to go much further along the same lines, possibly very quickly. (Conversely, since moral progress isn’t embedded in our genetics, we can just as easily and quickly slide backwards.) But no, I don’t think that the scientific worldview has much to do with it (as good a thing as it is in itself), and I certainly don’t think that “free trade and market capitalism” are such an obvious positive that they ought to be mentioned in the same sentence as civil rights and equal treatment under the law. As for the Enlightenment, Richard Dawkins once declared himself a son of the movement. So did I, when I was 18. Then I grew up and I started seeing things in a bit more nuanced way. After all, the Enlightenment was followed by the French Revolution, which bred the Reign of Terror, which led to Napoleon. Not exactly a stellar record for the champions of reason.

_____

Massimo Pigliucci is a biologist and philosopher at the City University of New York. His main interests are in the philosophy of science and pseudoscience. He is the editor-in-chief of Scientia Salon, and his latest book (co-edited with Maarten Boudry) is Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem (Chicago Press).

[1] The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom, by M. Shermer, Henry Holt and Co., 2015

[2] Here is why I think Michael is wrong, and this is a sample of what I think about Harris’ thesis.

[3] Are We Becoming Morally Smarter? by M. Shermer, Reason, March 2015.

[4] Flynn effect, Wiki entry.

[5] Democracy Index, Wiki entry.

[6] Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved: How Morality Evolved, by F. de Waal, Princeton University Press, 2006.

90 thoughts on “Michael Shermer and the moral arc of libertarianism

  1. I suppose eugenics and brainwashing could also lead to truth, justice and freedom. So could a little blue pill. Not that I am convinced by the breadth of Shermer’s argument, but how much of the moral compass does it cover anyway? Since when do truth, justice and freedom comprise even a plurality of moral concerns?

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  2. Hi Massimo,

    Your biggest problem with Shermer is perhaps that he sometimes describes all the helpful modes of thought as scientific. Like Harris (and Coel!), I suspect Shermer takes a very broad view of what constitutes science, which would probably encompass most of what you call Scientia.

    > wouldn’t we expect, say, a correspondingly decreasing degree of acceptance of anti-scientific notions?

    You argue that people still believe in ghosts, creationism and so on. This is true, but you have not established that acceptance of such beliefs has not decreased.

    > I seriously doubt that the history of humanity until that point had been characterized by low cognitive abilities.

    He didn’t say it was, but that different modes of thinking were prevalent.

    > but grand claims about historical levels of intelligence

    I don’t see such a grand claim. I see it presented explicitly as speculation, with words such as “suggest” and “may have”.

    > the assumed equation of scientific thinking with “reason, rationality, empiricism, skepticism,” as if these were inventions of the scientific revolution, rather than some of the very attitudes that contributed to make the scientific revolution possible;

    I accept your point that these are the modes of thought that made the scientific revolution possible (I imagine Shermer would too). That doesn’t mean it is inappropriate to call such modes “scientific thinking”.

    > ii) the artificial, and both philosophically and scientifically flawed, opposition of reason and emotion,

    Hume’s point is well taken. We need emotion to give us a reason to pursue our goals, but once this is achieved we are perhaps most successful when we limit the extent to which emotions influence us, cutting out wishful thinking or emotional commitment to untenable ideas.

    Good point about “mental rotation”, although I think Shermer’s argument retains some force. The Golden Rule encourages us to actually make the conscious mental effort to see things from another’s point of view rather than simply going with our gut. It is plausible that habituation to abstract thought makes this easier.

    > It is also highly doubtful, indeed, it goes against everything we know about evolution, that the foundation of all morality is abstract reasoning, and even less so “scientific” thinking.

    But he never says anything like that! He only says that abstract thinking is making us morally smarter. He’s not talking about laying foundations, but that we’re getting better at building on foundations already laid.

    > I don’t remember Voltaire, Diderot, or Hume doing scientific experiments or observations in order to establish the abstract concepts of rights, liberty and justice.

    True. I think Shermer is wrong to describe what he is talking about (abstract thinking, skepticism, open-mindedness, reason) as the methods of science, but I do think that this is what he is talking about and if so he has a point.

    > Could it be that a liberal arts education, rather than specifically a scientific one, is more relevant, or at the least one of the crucial factors at play?

    Again, your problem is that he is too ready to characterise any abstract thought as science, whereas his real thesis seems to me to be that abstract thought (including skepticism, analytical philosophy and so on) makes us morally smarter.

    Finally, to end on a note of agreement, I think you make very good points about Shermer’s projections into the future, and in particular I think you are spot on in your comments regarding Rand, Sweden and China.

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  3. It seems to me that the 20th century was an era where social rights, education and welfare states developed much more than hard-core capitalism (which was already present in the 19th century). It’s only very recently (starting from the 80’s) that pure liberalism made a come back. Maybe Shermers lacks political and historical distance.
    It also seems to me that the smartest part of the population (the academics) are much more anti-capitalist and pro-social policies than the rest of the population.
    So applying Shermer’s standards of reasonning, I would say that high IQ is an effect of socialism rather than capitalism.

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  4. “smarter people lean libertarian”?

    The numbers in the 2012 US election don’t support that.

    Assuming those with “Postgraduate study” are “smarter” than the other classifications (Some HS, HS graduate, Some college, College graduate), the numbers leap* to 55% (Obama) vs. 42% (Romney).

    On the general idea that “moral progress isn’t embedded in our biology”: Sometimes I get the idea from some (maybe not Michael Shermer, I don’t know) that the human brain evolved to be like a special-purpose computer rather than a general-purpose one. It’s like the latter, so we are free to make our culture and morals just about anything.

    * http://www.ropercenter.uconn.edu/elections/how_groups_voted/voted_12.html

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  5. Shermer’s “mental rotation” is a fantastic example of how the implications of a cognitive metaphor carry into the reasoning we do about things.

    When Shermer explains matrices in the article, he doesn’t make reference to “rotations”, but instead calls them “abstract figures that require determining a pattern and then deducing the missing piece”. I have a feeling this might confuse readers, who might ask, “how does he get from ‘missing pieces’ to ‘rotations’?”. I’m still not sure. It seems like he’s equating “matrix” problems on a test to the matrices of linear algebra.

    Those of us who have programmed 3-D software, of course, get the connection between matrices and rotation. In a 3-D game, the positions and orientations of objects in 3-D space are computed with linear algebra, using “transformation matrices”. These are used not only to calculate the rotation of objects, but also transformations of position, perspective, scaling, etc. So the first thing to keep in mind is that a matrix operation isn’t specifically tied to the idea of rotation, but rather more broadly to spatial “transformation”.

    The major point, though, is that Shermer is seemingly picking a metaphor that has the kinds of cognitive entailments that he wants. If empathy is a matrix transformation, it is a straightforward, exact computation whose results do not vary no matter how many times the computation is performed. Although this is properly described as “mathematical” rather than “scientific”, we’d definitely be more likely to associate this kind of computation with science than we would a messy, ad-hoc, heuristic kind of computation.

    The question, then, is whether our brains perform anything like this sort of computation when empathy is engaged — or even when we reason abstractly to place ourselves in another’s position (notice how spatial metaphors are difficult to avoid when talking about this sort of thing). It’s (very, very remotely) possible that something vaguely like this is involved, but Shermer doesn’t present any evidence for it whatsoever.

    I’m really surprised that someone with the amount of respect Shermer seems to have in the skeptical community – and who is writing an article for a magazine called “Reason”, no less – is comfortable with a metaphorical argument in which the aptness of the metaphor is simply assumed without evidence.

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  6. You were good until “…and I certainly don’t think that “free trade and market capitalism” are such an obvious positive that they ought to be mentioned in the same sentence as civil rights and equal treatment under the law.”

    Our standard of living has risen immensely from free trade! It is an obvious positive. I just don’t understand how you could think otherwise.

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  7. It seems like cognitive science might be playing the role that fiction began, and could be used to further the moral sphere as they say. This is the only way I can think of science having a direct effect on morality. As you said Massimo, reason was around well before science. It may give it some positive feedback though, which is great.

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  8. The unspoken assumption here is that good and bad are some cosmic dual between the forces of righteousness and evil, but in fact, they are the basic biological binary code of attraction to the beneficial and repulsion of the detrimental.
    The consequence is that they are unfortunately quite subjective. What is good for the fox, is bad for the chicken.
    Now as we become more aware of our larger context, i.e. smarter, we are better able to balance all the competing interests and hopefully come to conclusions benefiting the broader society and the planet, not just ourselves and very limited interests, to the detriment of that larger view.
    This goes to the point that there is no absolute ideal, no objective perspective, no universal frame, no “God’s eye” view. Reality is bottom up and the forms we manifest are relational.
    It seems even the science minded are leery of this view. As Shermer typifies, a good salesman shouldn’t equivocate. As Harry Truman said, not entirely in jest, “Give me a one armed economist! I’m sick of hearing; On the other hand…”
    People like narrative, but nature is thermodynamic.

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  9. Massimo,

    Enjoyed, you said all I would have, and more, and said it well.

    “In other words, we have seamlessly moved from (debatable) science to pure speculation.”

    DM,

    “We need emotion to give us a reason to pursue our goals, but once this is achieved we are perhaps most successful when we limit the extent to which emotions influence us, cutting out wishful thinking or emotional commitment to untenable ideas”

    I think emotion is the support and ‘foundation’ of reasoning, you can’t have one without the other, and it’s foremost a positive influence, though it can also contribute to error.

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  10. Sounds like Shermer is making unsupported conjecture and misusing the term science, both of which is frustrating to hear from such a visible figure in the skeptics movement.

    For the issue of science leading to moral progress, it’s certainly possible but he doesn’t demonstrate it. What’s more, if I was to offer my own (supported) conjecture, science most likely impacted morality more by improving quality of life and giving people less petty things to fight over (even though we seem very content on finding other things to fight on). We at least have some correlational data to show the better the SES and quality of life of people, they tend to act more morally (which of course does not prove the connection).

    As for misusing science, I think this issue has been beaten to death but even as a scientist myself, I am getting tired of hearing “science” be used as a replacement for “good inquiry” or general epistemic phrase. Not only is it confusing, it’s also serves only to alienate other fields of inquiry from science.

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  11. He presents one sided examples of ‘progress’ (thus the ignoring of minor negative side effects of ‘progress’ like the Terror). He conflates material advancement with social ‘progress’. By labeling change he morally approve of ‘progress’, degeneracy becomes evidence for, instead of against, his narrative.

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  12. Steven Pinker made some similar arguments in his Better Angels book. I suggest addressing them also.

    Philip: It is true that a lot of those with postgraduate study are govt employees and vote Democrat. But overall, Obama voters have significantly lower IQ and education than Republican voters. Just try asking an Obama voter what he has done, and see if you get a coherent answer. Democrats also have higher crime rates.

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  13. As pointed out by the previous responder Steven Pinker made similar arguments in his book “The Better Angels of Our Nature.” One of his points regarding the Flynn effect is that it helps people solve the Prisoner’s Dilemma problem. Well, maybe but critics of the Pinker book have attacked it for engaging in wishful thinking.

    One of the good things in the Pinker book is his rejection of Herbert Spencer and Gregory Clark who make genetic arguments about things improving due to genetic selection. This thinking is straight out of Eugenics and is widely rejected by most people though not some far right wing thinkers (the “Bell Curve” book comes to mind here).

    Based upon my reading of some of Shermer’s books – though not this one as I haven’t purchased it yet – I think he is attracted to the kind of Libertarianism that Herbert Spencer pioneered. I acknowledge this is opinion but opinion that I could probably back up with quotations from Shermer’s writings.

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  14. The ‘Flynn Effect’ was apparently named by Herrnstein and Murray of “The Bell Curve” fame after James R Flynn. I would counsel, er, skepticism.

    I once read a book by Flynn (long ago and I don’t remember which) and it seemed to be full of statistical howlers. At one point he describes a data collection process that involves various different methods of data collection, direct interviews, second or third hand hearsay and anecdotes.

    OK, sometimes you have to use what you can get, but from this information Flynn derives a statistic (again I forget the actual details) to about 6 decimal places. This kind of spurious precision was throughout the book, it seemed to me to be a manual for statistical malpractice.

    Take IQ tests – I remember doing them in the 1960’s and they were a very different kind of animal to IQ tests in the 1980’s or 1990’s and I am wondering how there can be any sort of standardisation. The tests in the 1960’s often depended on general knowledge or cultural assumptions and often had (I remember my frustration at this) more than one correct answer. To complete these I had to, as a 9 year old child, second guess what an adult might think was the correct answer.

    There has undoubtedly been moral progress (or at least from the viewpoint of someone like me) over the decades. We no longer wink at child abuse, we no longer lock up gays for being themselves. I don’t know if this is due to an increase in intelligence, because I cannot say that I can see any marked tendency for smarter people to be better people

    Studies that show a negative correlation between literacy and criminality – do they properly control for things like income and social disadvantage? I am somewhat skeptical of anything that starts “Studies have shown …” unless I can get some sort of confidence that they were well designed and executed studies and that they have been replicated. Sometimes it seems that you could find a study to support whatever proposition you happen to come up with as well as another study completely ruling it out.

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  15. From the end of the 19th century, notwithstanding the First World War, until the rise of fascism in Europe, the most culturally rich, scientifically advanced, technologically progressive, potentially powerful culture in the world was the Austro-German one.
    Its scientific avant-garde was evident in such fields as logic and mathematics, empirical psychology, medicine and physiology, biology, physics, chemistry, and many applied sciences as well as engineering.
    Its only competitor was British culture which had formerly profited from Great Britain’s colonal empire and a head-start in both the scientific and the industrial revolution. By the beginning of the 20th century these advantages no longer existed, because the Empire imposed great costs on Britain and the German Reich had successfully caught up as an industrial power. Germany’s population was bigger and less socially stratified (and therefore more productive), too.
    During the interwar years, Austro-German culture contributed the most diverse, advanced, and sophisticated philosophical and literary works to the world. Austrians and Germans invented the intellectual frame of western modernity: The philosophy of modernity (logical empiricism and, subsequently, analytic philosophy), the architecture of modernity (Loos, van der Rohe, Gropius, the Bauhaus school), and so on.
    Even during the imperial and militarised 19th century, humanistic and progressive social notions such as equal rights for homosexual people, universal suffrage, democratic socialism and social democracy (equal rights and opportunity for all economic classes), were championed by germanophone intellectuals either first or in a politically powerful fashion. Oh! And were did Austrian economics come from, again?…

    Long story short: If the rise of fascism and the German people’s self-mutilation would have been averted, Austro-German culture and some incarnation of the German Reich (with its multiethnic population still intact) would have become, during the 20th century, the dominant force in the West.

    But instead, the Germans voted Hitler into office, the Austrians cheered their Anschluss, and twelve years later, the european jews were destroyed, Poland and the Soviet Union devastated and depopulated, while Germany lay in ruins.

    So much for the progress of humanity’s moral intelligence.

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  16. True/false underlies science as good/bad underlies ethics. We should entertain making a quaternity out of the two oppositions, at least until the old argument is won by other means.

    Michael Shermer is full of surprises. These terrible arguments (or assumptions: science=intelligence=reasonableness=goodness) are as unexpected as his recent occult experience with an old music box.

    Scientists make moral decisions all the time presumably informed by their scientific beliefs, whether we agree they have that right or not. Perhaps science is so deeply implicated in morality that it encompassed both good and bad.

    Who to marry, how harshly to punish, how fairly to distribute, when wars are justified, how much testing can be inflicted on children, what to do if your wife will be run down unless you cause the death of ten random people, each of calculable life expectancy. . . any of these things can be made into an app.

    The relationship between science and ethics, though, is at least as pressing a sociological as a philosophical issue. Maybe we should be considering how a hegemonic scientific capitalism is already consolidating command of many important moral choices being made in the world.

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  17. DM,

    “Your biggest problem with Shermer is perhaps that he sometimes describes all the helpful modes of thought as scientific. Like Harris (and Coel!), I suspect Shermer takes a very broad view of what constitutes science”

    That’s not the only problem, but yes, it’s certainly part of it. The thing is, what Shermer and Harris do in this respect amounts to a bait and switch. Most people, I wager, when they hear “science” they think physics, chemistry, biology, *maybe* the social sciences. Certainly *not* “reason” broadly construed. And of course I think Shermer, Harris and others do this on purpose, perfectly conscious of what they are up to, in order to foster their scientistic ideology.

    “You argue that people still believe in ghosts, creationism and so on. This is true, but you have not established that acceptance of such beliefs has not decreased.”

    It hasn’t. The Gallup and NSF data are remarkably constant, over decades.

    “He didn’t say it was, but that different modes of thinking were prevalent”

    No, he explicitly cites the Flynn effect to argue that we are more intelligent, not just that we think differently (which we obviously do).

    “I see it presented explicitly as speculation, with words such as “suggest” and “may have”.”

    Right, which is a bit strange for an essay (and book) that argues about the rigorous use of science, no? All sorts of things “may have” been this way or that, so what?

    “I accept your point that these are the modes of thought that made the scientific revolution possible (I imagine Shermer would too). That doesn’t mean it is inappropriate to call such modes “scientific thinking”.”

    It is definitely historically incorrect, I believe the correct word is anachronism.

    “We need emotion to give us a reason to pursue our goals, but once this is achieved we are perhaps most successful when we limit the extent to which emotions influence us”

    Once this is achieved? The interplay of emotion and reason is continuous, dynamic. It’s not like you can give some space to your emotions and then securely shift to the reason-gear.

    “The Golden Rule encourages us to actually make the conscious mental effort to see things from another’s point of view rather than simply going with our gut. It is plausible that habituation to abstract thought makes this easier.”

    Sure, plausible. Any evidence? Specifically, any evidence that this is anything like a mental rotation?

    “But he never says anything like that! He only says that abstract thinking is making us morally smarter. He’s not talking about laying foundations”

    You may not have read the article carefully, it is exactly what he is talking about: “Abstract reasoning and scientific thinking are the crucial cognitive skills at the foundation of all morality.” No, they are manifestly not.

    “I think Shermer is wrong to describe what he is talking about (abstract thinking, skepticism, open-mindedness, reason) as the methods of science, but I do think that this is what he is talking about and if so he has a point.”

    But if *that* is what he is talking about then nobody disagrees, and plenty of others have said it before…

    “whereas his real thesis seems to me to be that abstract thought (including skepticism, analytical philosophy and so on) makes us morally smarter.”

    Since that’s the foundation of the whole idea of moral philosophy, which has been around since Socrates, again, what exactly is he saying that is new or that should make us pause and pay attention?

    “I think you make very good points about Shermer’s projections into the future, and in particular I think you are spot on in your comments regarding Rand, Sweden and China.”

    Thank you, appreciated!

    Asher,

    “The major point, though, is that Shermer is seemingly picking a metaphor that has the kinds of cognitive entailments that he wants.”

    Precisely.

    “It’s (very, very remotely) possible that something vaguely like this is involved, but Shermer doesn’t present any evidence for it whatsoever.”

    Again, yep.

    Jake,

    “Our standard of living has risen immensely from free trade! It is an obvious positive. I just don’t understand how you could think otherwise.”

    Go tell that to the countless people who lost jobs or got lower wages because of unfettered free trade. (Of course notice that my beef here isn’t with trade per se, which has been an engine of economic growth and welfare for millennia, but rather with the specific libertarian meaning of the term, which includes the idea of no labor or environmental regulations, etc.)

    brodix,

    “The unspoken assumption here is that good and bad are some cosmic dual between the forces of righteousness and evil”

    I’m not sure where you get that, it doesn’t seem to be an assumption put forth by either Shermer or myself.

    “What is good for the fox, is bad for the chicken”

    No doubt, but we are not talking about foxes and chickens, we are talking about human beings, who tend to have the same (general) wants and needs (like security, shelter, food, freedom to pursue their interests, etc.).

    “there is no absolute ideal, no objective perspective, no universal frame, no “God’s eye” view”

    Again, none is needed in order to talk about morality.

    imzasirf ,

    “Shermer is making unsupported conjecture and misusing the term science, both of which is frustrating to hear from such a visible figure in the skeptics movement.”

    And yet, not at all infrequent.

    schlafly,

    “Steven Pinker made some similar arguments in his Better Angels book. I suggest addressing them also.”

    If and when I get to Pinker. I can’t do everything, and this essay is about Shermer, let’s stay focused, yes?

    “Obama voters have significantly lower IQ and education than Republican voters”

    This is a truly ridiculous and entirely unsubstantiated claim. Care to provide sources?

    Robin,

    “I would counsel, er, skepticism.”

    It is actually not difficult to find academic critiques of the Flynn effect and its interpretation, something that Shermer didn’t even mention. Here are two examples: http://goo.gl/8KVrai and http://goo.gl/0d0niU

    “The tests in the 1960’s often depended on general knowledge or cultural assumptions and often had (I remember my frustration at this) more than one correct answer.”

    That’s right, and just one of many problems with the whole idea of IQ testing.

    astro,

    “These terrible arguments (or assumptions: science=intelligence=reasonableness=goodness) are as unexpected as his recent occult experience with an old music box.”

    Right, I forgot that (weird) episode!

    Like

  18. St David,
    Thanks for the dose of reality. Given it doesn’t fit the preferred narrative vector of progress, those aspects do tend to be swept under the rug.
    Now if we were to consider it in terms of thermodynamic processes; Emotional, cultural, economic, political pressures, options, energy build up, structural breakdown, feedback, etc, it is explainable. Yet in our start to finish, Genesis to Armageddon, Big Bang to Multiverses/fadeout/big crunch, initiation to dissolution, narrative vector explanations of reality, it is much easier to ignore the parts that don’t fit the central narrative.
    Something has to be edited out to make a good story. If you just confuse the audience, no one pays attention.
    Directiondirectiondirection.

    Like

  19. Massimo seems to be arguing with a different Shermer than the one who wrote the article. Maybe it’s in his book somewhere, but nowhere in the article at Reason is Shermer arguing against a liberal arts education, or that IQ tests measure intelligence with no qualifications, or that abstract thought didn’t exist before the scientific revolution, or that only Science with a capital S can address moral questions, or that people of previous generations were literally two standard deviations behind us in some sort of moral IQ test, etc. Shermer’s crime seems to be having described “-reason, rationality, empiricism, skepticism” as “scientific thinking”. A description most scientists would agree with but Massimo apparently feels this has impugned the honor of capital P Philosophy.

    Shermer’s actual thesis is that certain kinds of intelligence, specifically not all, have measurably increased and he posits that this is due to the spread of modern education and the kinds of jobs people are required to work, not to reasoning having been invented in the last couple centuries. He suggests this makes us better able to relate to and reason about people outside our immediate experience. Massimo asks “doesn’t that ability to see things from other people’s perspective have to do with the function of mirror neurons and the emotional capacity we have for empathy rather than with geometrical exercises?” The data Shermer cites suggests not, or at least that there is no such dichotomy. One wonders, what about ’emotional capacity’ untethered from reason has changed in recorded history?

    Shermer is a booster for economic Libertarianism and Massimo is better off criticizing him for leaping to his favored conclusion here. But even then that is a small part of the article. Shermer says “smarter people were less likely to agree that the government should redistribute income from the rich to the poor but more likely to agree that the government should help African Americans to compensate for historical discrimination.” Massimo cut off the second half of that quote, misrepresenting a big part of Shermer’s point.

    I also can’t see any reason to bring Richard Dawkins up in the final paragraph other than his apparent responsibility for the French Reign of Terror. I would have thought economics and authoritarianism had something to do with it, but then, if I were going to talk about the impact of the Enlightenment on French history I would talk about the Napoleonic code more than Napoleon himself.

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  20. Massimo,
    I realize I sound a bit one note here, but I do think that there needs to be some debate over and consideration about such ideas as good and bad being relational, even though it might come across as morally ambiguous. Obviously humanity needs encouragement to “do the right thing” and all the more the power to those who take on that role. Yet if we don’t recognize the situational nature of this, then we have no larger structural balance to understand when the situation has gone too far in one direction. Consider there were many people, at the time, who viewed Hitler positively and some who still do. Just as there are supporters of ISIS. While current philosophy may not consider good and bad as absolutes, it certainly doesn’t do much to discourage that notion in the larger culture.
    People’s interests might generally be the same, but acquiring them has led to significant conflicts over such resources in the past. I don’t think there can be a ‘happy medium,” so much as cycling around an equilibrium and we need to understand when those cycles are getting out of control, the blowback can be severe. It would not stop social breakdowns and conflicts, but give intelligent people some broadly understood framework to place and hopefully counteract them.
    Basically Shermer is making an argument that will attract popular attention, because it appeals to people’s emotional desires, rather than one which really dissects these points. While that is understandable, it’s still more about popularity, than philosophy.
    Truth is. Answers are what people pay to hear. Priests and politicians provide answers, while philosophers seek truths. That’s why many more people make their living at religion and politics, than philosophy.

    Like

  21. Hi Massimo,

    Thanks (since i don’t comment often…or ever) for providing the world with this forum. It has been quite informative and provocative for me.

    I don’t have much to contribute on this conversation, but i can speak to one point you made: “If people really have increasingly been donning scientific spectacles during the past several decades, wouldn’t we expect, say, a correspondingly decreasing degree of acceptance of anti-scientific notions?” Perhaps i’m reading this sentence a bit differently than you mean it, but there is a fair amount of research that undermines the idea that higher levels of education, or even critical thinking ability, lead to closer alignment of personal beliefs with those of experts in the area—particularly when community values and group identities are involved. One striking example is that people of higher educational level or technical reasoning ability become not more closely aligned, but more polarized along ideological lines, in their assessments of the reality and risk of climate change:
    http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1533-8525.2011.01198.x/abstract
    http://scholarship.law.gwu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1298&context=faculty_publications

    Also, in concurrence with Jake Zielsdorf’s comment, to the best of my (limited) understanding, the human benefits of free trade to societies all along the spectrum, seem to be overwhelmingly agreed upon by economists:
    http://dailysignal.com/2013/02/01/politicians-should-listen-to-economists-on-free-trade/
    (I have several times consulted the IGM for guidance on the consensus view, when my personal ideological leanings have seemed to come into conflict with strong evidence from economic research.) This of course says nothing, however, about the “libertarian view” generally.

    Like

  22. Another insightful piece by Massimo, as usual. 🙂

    The main conclusion I can draw from this essay is to remember not to waste my time by reading anything from Shermer in the future.

    Some things to meditate on:

    * A true scientist must apply skepticism first and foremost to his very own ideas. Failing that is a betrayal of the scientific method.

    * Having an opinion based on reasoning doesn’t make it rational. One additionally needs to make sure that the assumptions are supported by evidence.

    * It is remarkable how much of the “soft sciences” stuff is actually pure opinion-making, often prejudiced, and full of propaganda. I actually feel sorry for the true soft scientists who are honestly trying to do some proper research. People like Shermer seem to only devalue their real research in the eyes of the laypeople.

    * Data-collecting in social sciences can be valid only if taken across (a random sample of) the whole population on Earth. And it should be triple-blind — party A formulates the questions to be collected and encrypts them, while party B chooses the sample population C (who decrypt questions and encrypt answers) and analyses the results statistically. Party A has no control over the choice of C, while B does the analysis without knowing the meaning of either questions or answers. Then A decrypts the answers of C and provides the interpretation of the B’s data analysis, obtaining the result of the poll. This procedure would somewhat reduce (though not fully eliminate) biasing the data by researchers. Modern technology and planet-wide communication could hopefully make this kind of protocol feasible in the near future, and I believe it would go a long way in obtaining more objective data in social sciences.

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  23. Massimo,

    After reading Shermer’s article, I think you are being way too generous.

    Let me say that I like much of his writings as a skeptic, think them written in a fairly down-to-earth manner. But this is a mess of over-generalizations from insufficient data, sloppy and misguided conflation of metaphors and points of argument, sloppy argument, loose rhetoric. (For some reason I was reminded of Firestone’s “Dialectic of Sex” from 1970, with its raving utopian promises that ‘cybernetics’ was going to liberate women from the burdens of pregnancy.) Lines like “Abstract reasoning leads us to consider members of other tribes (nations) as potential trading partners to be respected rather than as potential enemies to be conquered or killed.” or “It’s hard to accept the notion that people in the early 20th century were moral idiots, two standard deviations dumber than us,” leave one breathless with their over-simplification, naivete and utter lack of historical or social perspective. (And DM and josh, I see nothing in the text to indicate that he does not intend for such remarks to be taken seriously.) Further, the attempt to mix conservative buzz-topics with liberal buzz-topics, as in the line that josh quotes about: ‘redistribution of wealth bad, compensation for blacks good’ – would be offensive, except that Shermer evidently believes he can pull this off, in which case it is just sad. However, this does demonstrate that his article is as politically uninformed as it is economically regressive. “Since the Enlightenment, humans have demonstrated dramatic moral progress -” as brodix remarked, thanks to St David “for the dose of reality.” As for Shermer’s incautious and indiscriminate conflation of “scientific thinking” with reasoning per se, of any kind – well, what is to be said? As Voltaire’s Dr. Pangloss always insisted to Candide, “this is the best of all possible worlds,” for if the Europeans couldn’t get syphilis from Uruguayans following the conquest of the Americas, “we should have had neither chocolate nor cochineal” (ch. 4). Human nature hasn’t changed much in two centuries.

    So now, how can we buy Shermer’s credentials as a professional skeptic anymore, if he sees the future through such a poorly defined, unsupported utopian haze? I am very disappointed

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  24. Massimo, are you one of the people supporting American sugar producer jobs by maintaining that we need sugar import quotas? Are you for the corn producers and the giant ethanol subsidy because it saves corn farmer jobs? More jobs are created all the time. You’re committing the lump of labor fallacy. And lower wages? Wages have been steadily rising since at least the Industrial Revolution, not to mention the tremendous innovations inspired by the profit motive in free market capitalism. The American middle class lives better than kings did centuries ago. Even the poor are much better off. Should we “fetter” free trade by mandating wage levels for each job? Would that prevent exploitation? No, it would disallow employers to hire employees at the wage level they could afford, thus hampering job growth. This is not some libertarian ideology masquerading as science. This is Econ 101. We could debate the marginal merits and demerits of any given labor or environmental regulation but this shouldn’t detract from the astronomical value of free trade. Trade is a positive-sum game, like Shermer says, so tariffs, preferential subsidies for certain sectors, and onerous regulations are limiting economic growth and the increase in the standard of living of the vast majority of people. Most countries right now that are stuck in poverty are cut off from free trade. That’s a big factor in why they’re poor. Again, this isn’t libertarian ideology. Any mainstream economist will tell you this. And just because economics isn’t a perfect science doesn’t mean there aren’t things that economists agree on, like the benefits of free trade and the distortionary effects of large taxes and subsidies. Sometimes it feels like you pooh-pooh the scientific status of economics so you can insulate lefty beliefs from economic scrutiny.

    Beside this, I don’t know why Shermer wrote this book. Pinker already did a masterful job with The Better Angels of Our Nature. Pinker talks about the pacifying effects of trade, the benefit of a Leviathan, the virtues of the printing press with its enabling of the mass consumption of empathy-inducing fiction, and the trickling-down of scientific concepts to the general public.

    Like

  25. “The Golden Rule encourages us to actually make the conscious mental effort…”
    Sure, plausible. Any evidence? Specifically, any evidence that this is anything like a mental rotation?

    “Rawls’ model of deduction is a Euclidean one. ‘We should strive for a kind of moral geometry’, he
    writes, ‘with all the rigor which this name connotes’ “. James Franklin defends a moral realism that
    arises from basic ideas of symmetry which (given his background) he sees as mathematical: “the fundamental role of equality in both mathematics and ethics gives them a commonality that other sciences may not share”.

    Click to access matheth.pdf

    Which is why they are mirror neurones 😉

    Anyway, nonhuman morality involves neither third person punishment nor third person beneficence.

    More generally, if there is moral progress (which I think many would agree there is), it has to arise from convincing enough people (whether Chinese bureaucrats, US billionaires, or Weimar Republic unemployed voters) that current action X is morally worse than the alternative, and that the change can be made without making material or social conditions worse overall. There is a role for scientific arguments (I was looking through Florence Nightingale’s work for a good example of this – she famously used statistical measures of public health interventions, and we could argue that public health is intimately both a moral and a scientific concept) as well as straight ethical arguments.

    There is a certain amount of economic work on changing IQ, where it has been used to justify funding health interventions (eg deworming). My pet peeve on skepticism about the measurement of IQ is how central it is to “hard” biology eg the subtle effects of small doses of lead and mercury, maternal alcohol, correlations with brain volumes etc.

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  26. Hi Massimo,

    > No, he explicitly cites the Flynn effect to argue that we are more intelligent,

    If he does, I can’t find such a citation. What he actually says (quoting Flynn) is to attribute “the effect to an accelerating capacity for people to view the world through scientific spectacles”

    > Right, which is a bit strange for an essay (and book) that argues about the rigorous use of science, no?

    It’s an opinion piece, not a scientific publication. Have you never speculated in an article?

    > It is definitely historically incorrect, I believe the correct word is anachronism.

    It can’t be, because no chronological claim is being made.

    He calls reason, rationality, empiricism, skepticism “scientific thinking” because these are the modes of thought most important in science. He is not claiming that they originated in modern science and not disputing your claim that these modes of thought (perhaps having first flourished in philosophy) allowed modern science to develop.

    > Once this is achieved? The interplay of emotion and reason is continuous, dynamic.

    “Once this is achieved” is perhaps an unfortunate choice of phrase. I was thinking form the perspective of a designer of humans. I mean, once you have the emotions in place, you have fixed the motivation for the pursuit of goals. I think I disagree with your position that emotion is inextricably linked to the reasoning process.

    > Sure, plausible. Any evidence? Specifically, any evidence that this is anything like a mental rotation?

    I said it was plausible, not that I had evidence. Again, this is an opinion piece, so plausible is just fine. And I agreed with your point about the mental rotation.

    > You may not have read the article carefully, it is exactly what he is talking about: “Abstract reasoning and scientific thinking are the crucial cognitive skills at the foundation of all morality.”

    More than one interpretation is possible. Sure, he uses the word “foundation”, but I don’t take him to mean that all we need for morality is reason and that emotion has nothing to do with it. If we take the foundation to be emotions such as empathy, as you have pointed out, then I think Shermer is right that the crucial cognitive skills needed to develop this into what we would recognise as true morality are the kinds of abstract thinking he is talking about. They are “at the foundation” but not the entirety of the foundation.

    Anyway, whatever he said, I don’t think your argument is too important because I am confident he would agree with you. Your point would have the effect perhaps of having him state his point a little more clearly rather than actually defeating anything he wanted to say. It’s quite clear from the text that all he needs for his purposes is the argument that abstract thinking is vital to moral progress and not that morality has its ultimate origins in abstract thinking, so a charitable reading would interpret him to mean the former more modest claim rather than the latter false claim.

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  27. “whereas his real thesis seems to me to be that abstract thought (including skepticism, analytical philosophy and so on) makes us morally smarter.”

    “Since that’s the foundation of the whole idea of moral philosophy, which has been around since Socrates, again, what exactly is he saying that is new or that should make us pause and pay attention?”

    Do abstract thought and analytical philosophy make us “morally smarter”? If so, shouldn’t moral philosophers be the most moral people? Eric Schwitzgebel’s work shows that to not be the case: http://schwitzsplinters.blogspot.com/2014/01/new-essay-in-draft-moral-behavior-of.html

    Like

  28. With different domains of discourse [1], there is likely to be be degrees of disunity of the sciences [2]. If Shermer is inventing a science of ethics [3] then he should define it and analyze its degree of unity with and disunity from the other sciences. I don’t know if he’s doing anything like that.

    There is something called “formal ethics” [4] that looks worth looking into, though.

    [1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Domain_of_discourse
    [2] https://scientiasalon.wordpress.com/2014/12/01/on-the-disunity-of-the-sciences
    [3] http://www.umich.edu/~scieth
    [4] http://www.formalethics.net

    Like

  29. This brief note is to say that, in consequence of the strong ad hominem attacks on me, contrary to this site’s oft proclaimed policy of civil discourse, I am saying farewell to Scientia Salon. Cheers.

    Like

  30. One of my problems with this is that it implies a certain moral superiority in more intelligent people. Apart from the fact that this does not seem to be the case, you would really want to be sure of your facts before putting that trope out as it has the power to insult and alienate or to encourage elitism.

    I have been among the intellectually disabled who struggle to calculate the right money for their weekly shopping and yet seem to have no trouble making the right moral choices. And the financial geniuses at the big end of town do seem to have something of a struggle to make the right moral choices.

    Maybe these are all outliers, but as I say, someone claiming this needs to be sure of his evidence.

    I would suggest that finding the right moral choices is not a cognitively difficult task and the wrong moral choices are taken more from inclination than lack of ability to see past them.

    As a rough counter proposal, let me suggest that the increased population of the world, the increased communication has meant that more people are exposed to more ideas.

    In insular communities with little contact to the outside people tend to be exposed to a narrow range of ideas, I know, I grew up in one such. In these communities there is likely to be racism and homophobia because this is all that people knew.

    As we are exposed to more ideas we have more chance of sifting through them and finding what we consider really good ideas.

    It is not that we are better able to think of good moral choices, it is just that we are more likely to come across those ideas and adopt the good ones.

    I am not saying this is right and I don’t really know how it could be tested, but it seems a more plausible explanation than Shermer’s.

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  31. labnut, it’s your decision, and I’m sorry you feel wronged enough to take it. But perhaps this is a good opportunity to remind people of a few things about Scientia Salon:

    i) I do not have the time to carefully read every single comment, especially when there are more than a hundred on a thread, many of which run for several hundred words. So sometimes I scan them looking for obviously offensive words, and otherwise let them pass. Not idea, but it is still effective, and not likely to get better unless you guys want to start shelling money so that I can hire a student to do it more carefully.

    ii) Ad hominem attacks are (informal) logical fallacies, not insults. I do not intend to make this site one in which people cannot criticize, strongly and sharply, if they feel like, other people or positions. I am simply try to avoid the crass personal insults that are so common on blogs throughout the internet.

    iii) To be fair, from where I stand at the least, labnut has been dishing it about equally to the amount of receiving it, so much so that both he and others have incurred in episodes of filtering on my part. I seriously doubt this incident is so exceptional to warrant abandoning what I think is a unique site. And if you do so, labnut, I will definitely miss you.

    cheers,
    Massimo

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  32. For the record, and just to make it clear that I’m not completely with Shermer, I disagree with his views in the following key respects:

    1) I am not a libertarian. I find myself torn between libertarian and socialism. Both extremes have attractive points in my view. I don’t know if I’m a moderate so much as indecisive.
    2) I am not convinced that “science” has much to do with the moral progress we have made, although it may. Robin’s argument above (increased globalisation) is also plausible. In defending Shermer I am only pointing out what I see as unfair criticisms, which does not mean that I think Shermer is right.
    3) I think Shermer is perhaps too confident that moral progress will continue
    4) I think Shermer is taking an over-broad interpretation of what science is. He would do well to more clearly acknowledge the role of philosophy and other disciplines. He does for example acknowledge literature, but that just shows how “science” is a poor characterisation of all the varied intellectual pursuits that have informed our cultural development.

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  33. Oh well, since we are taking umbrage – I don’t take it for myself – it is the straw men that I feel sorry for.

    When someone makes a bizarre misrepresentation of something I say and calls it “specious” then it is clearly not my argument which is being called specious.

    I enjoy being given little lectures on reasoning by people who leave the key clause out of sentences to alter the meaning and who can’t seem to grasp the difference between a “guess” and a belief.

    I welcome being educated that when I say something can be disproved, what I really mean is that it cannot be disproved.

    I am grateful at being told that I may believe something (although I never mentioned belief) but may never call it science or philosophy (not that I ever called it science or philosophy).

    Because in the end it is not my problem since, in the (slightly redacted) words of my nautical forebears, ablutions to loo’ard, not to windward.

    By the way, sorry to see you go, labnut, I will miss you too.

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  34. brodix,

    “Now if we were to consider it in terms of thermodynamic processes; Emotional, cultural, economic, political pressures, options, energy build up, structural breakdown, feedback, etc, it is explainable”

    I know thermodynamics is your thing, but honestly, I don’t see why bringing it up here. Yes, yes, the whole universe, including us, is a thermodynamical system, and abides to the laws of thermodynamics. But that, as far as I can see, explains precisely nothing about emotions, culture, economics, politics, etc. It is just far too remote a level of analysis, not very different from attempting to come up with a quantum mechanical theory of sex. Good luck.

    “I do think that there needs to be some debate over and consideration about such ideas as good and bad being relational, even though it might come across as morally ambiguous”

    I think we all agree on that, I was rejecting your statement that Shermer, or I, subscribe to some sort of cosmic notion of morality. We manifestly don’t.

    josh,

    “Massimo seems to be arguing with a different Shermer than the one who wrote the article”

    Perhaps, though I think you have been reading a different Shermer instead, judging from your take on it.

    “nowhere in the article at Reason is Shermer arguing against a liberal arts education”

    Not in those many words, but his insistence on science implies precisely the same sort of “up with STEM, down with arts & humanities” mantra that has become very popular among politicians and administrators.

    “or that IQ tests measure intelligence with no qualifications”

    Did you see any qualifications, at all?

    “or that abstract thought didn’t exist before the scientific revolution”

    No, it was just so much more primitive, a claim for which Michael has no basis whatsoever.

    “or that only Science with a capital S can address moral questions”

    Didn’t see references to anything else…

    “or that people of previous generations were literally two standard deviations behind us in some sort of moral IQ test”

    No, not literally, since nobody has even measured a moral IQ, nor does anyone know how to measure it. But the phrase is there, and its implications are obvious.

    “Shermer’s crime seems to be having described “-reason, rationality, empiricism, skepticism” as “scientific thinking”. A description most scientists would agree with”

    No, his take is that science invented, or at the least greatly refined, those attributes. Otherwise he’s not saying much: if your interpretation were correct, not only scientists, but nobody else would object to the notion, it would be trivially so.

    “certain kinds of intelligence, specifically not all”

    Which ones does he *explicitly* leave out?

    “due to the spread of modern education and the kinds of jobs people are required to work”

    In part, but mostly to the fact that we are thinking more scientifically, which is actually demonstrably not the case (see the persistence of all sorts of pseudoscientific notions, and the rejection of well established scientific ones).

    “The data Shermer cites suggests not, or at least that there is no such dichotomy”

    What data? We really must be reading a different article.

    “Massimo cut off the second half of that quote, misrepresenting a big part of Shermer’s point.”

    I be to differ. The second part of that quote was irrelevant to my (and, I wager, Michael’s) point: compensation for historical discrimination is something that *both* libertarians and progressives agree on; they differ on the first part of that quote.

    “I also can’t see any reason to bring Richard Dawkins up in the final paragraph other than his apparent responsibility for the French Reign of Terror.”

    Oh give me a break. Dawkins did say that, and he, Harris, Shermer and others are on the same scientistic bandwagon that has infected the atheist / skeptic community, and with which I am seriously concerned. Hence bringing up Dawkins.

    Cornelioid,

    “Thanks (since i don’t comment often…or ever) for providing the world with this forum. It has been quite informative and provocative for me.”

    Much appreciated, especially on a day in which I’ve lost a valuable commentator (see above), thanks.

    “One striking example is that people of higher educational level or technical reasoning ability become not more closely aligned, but more polarized along ideological lines”

    Correct, one more reason why Shermer’s simplistic / optimistic view about education and intelligence fostering a new golden age of reason is, well, simplistic and optimistic.

    “in concurrence with Jake Zielsdorf’s comment, to the best of my (limited) understanding, the human benefits of free trade to societies all along the spectrum, seem to be overwhelmingly agreed upon by economists”

    This is a complicated issue, worth a separate discussion. But a) economists see things only from an economic perspective (naturally), while I’m talking about the ethical consequences of free trade; b) again, I don’t have anything against free trade per se, but rather against the rapacious behavior of multinational corporations, their sheltering of revenues from taxes (because you know, they are not bound to single nations anymore), their treatment of workers in both first and second world countries (the first ones get laid off, the second ones paid pennies), and their disregard, and indeed active fighting against, environmental regulations. So, no, not an unqualified good at all.

    Marko,

    “Another insightful piece by Massimo, as usual.”

    Thanks, appreciated!

    “Having an opinion based on reasoning doesn’t make it rational. One additionally needs to make sure that the assumptions are supported by evidence.”

    Indeed.

    “I actually feel sorry for the true soft scientists who are honestly trying to do some proper research.”

    Very good point…

    ejwinner,

    “After reading Shermer’s article, I think you are being way too generous.”

    Ah, well clearly not everyone agrees… (which is fine, of course!).

    Jake,

    “Massimo, are you one of the people supporting American sugar producer jobs by maintaining that we need sugar import quotas?”

    No, see my comments about this issue above.

    “You’re committing the lump of labor fallacy.”

    Strangely, it doesn’t appear on my textbook list of logical fallacies…

    “Wages have been steadily rising since at least the Industrial Revolution”

    Tell that to the American lower and middle class, which has seen wage stagnation and regression over the past couple of decades.

    “it would disallow employers to hire employees at the wage level they could afford”

    A libertarian myth contradicted by the evidence, both in the US and abroad (especially clear in Scandinavian countries).

    “Most countries right now that are stuck in poverty are cut off from free trade. That’s a big factor in why they’re poor.”

    Yeah, or perhaps they are being ran by tyrants who profit on the skin of their people, like in much of Africa, for instance.

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  35. david,

    “My pet peeve on skepticism about the measurement of IQ is how central it is to “hard” biology eg the subtle effects of small doses of lead and mercury, maternal alcohol, correlations with brain volumes etc.”

    I’m a *hard* biologist, and I don’t think the two are related at all. The effects of poisons on people’s intelligence (however measured) are well known, and obviously pathological. Here the discussion is about standardized tests administered to a normal population of individuals, where the issues, in terms of definitions, measurements, statistical analyses, proper controls, etc. are of an entirely different type.

    DM,

    “If he does, I can’t find such a citation. What he actually says (quoting Flynn) is to attribute “the effect to an accelerating capacity for people to view the world through scientific spectacles””

    The whole point of the Flynn effect is that people’s intelligence has gotten better over time, the fact that you don’t see that in Shermer’s decision to frame his entire article in terms of the effect is a bit baffling.

    “It’s an opinion piece, not a scientific publication. Have you never speculated in an article?”

    Sure, but I usually try to get my facts straight and lined up, even in an opinion piece. Or is “op-ed” now synonymous with “I’ll write whatever I like and hope people we’ll buy it”?

    “It can’t be, because no chronological claim is being made. He calls reason, rationality, empiricism, skepticism “scientific thinking” because these are the modes of thought most important in science.”

    A chronological claim is most certainly been made, since Shermer thinks that things got better after the Enlightenment, which he equates with the rise of “scientific thinking,” which he in turns equates with reason more generally. Just connect that dots.

    “not disputing your claim that these modes of thought (perhaps having first flourished in philosophy) allowed modern science to develop.”

    He couldn’t be disputing my claims, since I’ve made them after he published the piece. See the issue with anachronism?

    “I was thinking form the perspective of a designer of humans. I mean, once you have the emotions in place, you have fixed the motivation for the pursuit of goals.”

    I don’t know what that means, a designer of humans? Are you turning toward ID my friend? 😉

    “More than one interpretation is possible. Sure, he uses the word “foundation”, but I don’t take him to mean that all we need for morality is reason and that emotion has nothing to do with it.”

    I never said that he claims that “all we need” is reason, I take him, however, at his words: he thinks reason is *foundational* to morality, and it is manifestly not, according to the best science available.

    “I don’t think your argument is too important because I am confident he would agree with you.”

    Right, same with Harris: once we agree that “science” and “reason” are not synonymous, or that we redefine “science” as including philosophy and other approaches, *then* we’d agree. We would, but it would also be painfully clear that neither The Moral Landscape nor Shermer’s book had much reason to be written in the first place…

    And thanks for your further clarifications in your latest post.

    borednihilist,

    “Do abstract thought and analytical philosophy make us “morally smarter”? If so, shouldn’t moral philosophers be the most moral people? Eric Schwitzgebel’s work shows that to not be the case”

    Yes, that work is well known. As unfortunate as the results are, however, it is pretty much irrelevant to the discussion at hand. Academic moral philosophy is just like any other academic fields: people publish by making more and more nuanced points about whatever it is they are interested in. I don’t see any reason why we should think that such rarefied activity should make them better persons. The issue is whether people who reflect on ethical issues in order to improve their lives (rather than advance their academic career) are better persons, and I wager that they are. (Besides, there are issues with the findings themselves, in terms of controls, operational definitions of “morality,” and so on.)

    Robin,

    “I have been among the intellectually disabled who struggle to calculate the right money for their weekly shopping and yet seem to have no trouble making the right moral choices. And the financial geniuses at the big end of town do seem to have something of a struggle to make the right moral choices.”

    Indeed.

    “As we are exposed to more ideas we have more chance of sifting through them and finding what we consider really good ideas.”

    J.S. Mill (a moral philosopher…) would wholeheartedly agree.

    Like

  36. Massimo,
    Sorry to have irritated you. Although:

    “I know thermodynamics is your thing, but honestly, I don’t see why bringing it up here. Yes, yes, the whole universe, including us, is a thermodynamical system, and abides to the laws of thermodynamics. But that, as far as I can see, explains precisely nothing about emotions, culture, economics, politics, etc. It is just far too remote a level of analysis, not very different from attempting to come up with a quantum mechanical theory of sex. Good luck.”

    Feedback loops are a conceptualization of thermodynamic processes. Do they not apply to any of the above? Politics! Culture! Emotion? Economics?
    As Newton said, for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Nature does pushback, in myriad ways. Yes, it is both obvious and inconvenient, but I just do not think our narrative, A to B, linear, causal rationality, which among other things, has led us to create a linear, start to finish cosmology (even though there appears a very obvious convection cycle, balancing expanding intergalactic, versus contracting galactic space, resulting in overall flat space), is not doing a very complete job of explaining reality.
    I also tie it into understanding the function of the right side of the brain as just such a scalar/pressure/heat based function(think emotions), not to mention, again, explaining time as an effect of action/change, as events go future to past, thus measures of frequency, as temperature is cumulative of amplitude.
    So while I agree I’m not making any progress convincing anyone, no one is showing me where I’m wrong. If it is simply boring you, I’ll shut up and stick to commenting on other’s proposals.

    Like

  37. Massimo, if workers in America are laid off, it’s tough, but they find other jobs. The workers in the low wage countries that get the new jobs want them, because they often are leaving hardscrabble farm jobs in the hinterland of their country. This is what happened in China en masse! A billion people escaped dire poverty. This also means more affordable products for everyone, especially the poor, because the labor costs are lower. This is a huge benefit to everyone except the few people who had to leave their old jobs for new ones. But they are probably moving into a sector where their country has a comparative advantage.

    As for wage stagnation, this is hotly debated. There’s issues with the overstatement of inflation by the CPI, the problems with measuring household income in the new age of cohabitation, the exclusion of fringe benefits from the income analysis, and the problems with focusing on pretax income when lower and middle income people are receiving government benefits, which may be crowding out potential private income rewards.

    What Scandinavian countries mandate wages for each job type? All economists agree that price floors reduce supply. If you’re talking about minimum wages, setting them at near the equilibrium level won’t have a huge effect on employment. That doesn’t mean you can set them at any level.

    Yes, many poor countries are tyrranized and plundered by dictators. This and the absence of free trade work hand in hand.

    Like

  38. Cornelioid,

    “the human benefits of free trade to societies all along the spectrum, seem to be overwhelmingly agreed upon by economists” – trained in what tradition?

    Jake Zielsdorf,

    “This is not some libertarian ideology masquerading as science. This is Econ 101.” – At what university?

    This kind of arguing seems basically predicated on a hidden assumption – ‘the economists I pay attention to are right, the one’s I ignore are wrong.’ I’m pretty sure that economists that you ignore would disagree with you.

    One of the problems with economics as a field to be modeled theoretically, is that we are always in the practice of it. And unfortunately, the practice of it today can lead to the crisis of it tomorrow without anybody able to recognize it, as the trajectory of events of the first decade of this century indicates.

    Disagreeable Me,

    “a charitable reading would interpret him to mean the former more modest claim rather than the latter false claim.”

    Well, this is one of those moments when charity reaches its limits. To read him that charitably, I would have to say that the article is just badly written, he isn’t writing what he means. That may be so, but then the article loses interest on points of style and coherence. If he means what he says, than he does appear to be making the claim you agree is false.

    Also, I’m not sure I agree that “all he needs for his purposes is the argument that abstract thinking is vital to moral progress.” His purpose is stem-to-stern political. His argument is that moral progress moves historically in one direction, politically and economically, has arrived at a point of culmination thanks to increased intelligence capable of abstract thought in the ‘scientific’ understanding of the term, and that this culmination opens the door to a brighter, better future where we will all be enjoying free-market abundance while communing with our trading partners as equals. I can’t wait to hear his speech endorsing Rand Paul.

    I really can’t agree to any of this, its grounding assumptions are unsound.

    Robin Herbert,

    “It is not that we are better able to think of good moral choices, it is just that we are more likely to come across those ideas and adopt the good ones.” – I agree, I think this is the more common sense approach to the phenomena Shermer thinks he is addressing.

    (BTW, if I misread your comment on the article on Neuroscience and the Soul, I apologize.)

    labnut,

    I have read your comment; I will see if I can generate a post at my blog this week through which we can continue that discussion.

    I would also suggest rethinking your decision to leave here. The discussions can get pretty rugged at times, but it’s a learning process, and although there are issues over we have serious disagreements, I value your contributions on ethics, culture, and the need for continuing philosophy.

    Like

  39. I have a few remarks to make, I don’t have time to read all the comments so parden me if they are redundant.

    One explanation for the Flynn effect, is better nutrition and medical care during childhood leading to better neurological outcomes.

    Science has changed the way we see people with certain afflictions, such as birt defects, or mental illness. We don’t see these sorts of things as devine punishments for sin anymore, and so we tend to be sympathetic to such sufferers rather than wishing
    to cooperate with god in doling out punishment. Whether you can say we are being more moral -people in the past thought they were doing the morally correct thing, as commanded by god. In general changing atitudes about what is moral versus immoral, will always create the illusion of moral progress.

    Empathy may be motor neurons when we are face to face, but that doesn’t automatically translate into empathy at a distance. For this we have to engage our imaginations to try to determine how our actions are likely to affect people that are remote from us.

    Evolution of brain function that affects “moral behavior” could take place if there is a social or otherwise selection effect for/against individuals with certain inclinations.

    Like

  40. I’m confused. I don’t see a single post here from Labnut, nor any criticisms of him. To what is he referring in his farewell note?

    For what it’s worth, I’m sad to see you go, Labnut. I wish you’d reconsider.

    Like

  41. Hi all,

    A reaction to the tenor of some remarks. I think we all owe it to our host to remember that being a research professor is a full time job, actually a relatively strenuous one between research, committee work, students etc (and there is much et cetera). A department chair I know told graduate students that he counsels incoming faculty that they should be working at least 60 hours a week. Being a research professor, chairing a top 50 department, doing a podcast and running, even closely monitoring a blog is a suicidal, borderline insane amount of work and I can never and probably will never understand how or why one would do it. But, valuing this site as I do, I feel a great debt of gratitude to Massimo for doing it. Better him than me. Though I occasionally am unhappy with the way this or that decision goes, my displeasure is always expressed alongside this gratitude. I take it I owe our host that much patience. So, I submit, do we all.

    With that out of the way….

    I really liked this article and had been looking forward to a good take-down on Shermer’s ethical empiricism. Some commentors have argued something along the lines of “Well, Shermer merely takes a broad, perhaps too broad, view of science but really his broad view of science is broad enough to include philosophy”, suggesting this makes the use of terms acceptable. I doubt it is so innocent. The trouble is these new-atheists sometimes use the wider view of science but primarily have in mind the narrower view. They pay lip service to those styles of thinking beyond science-narrowly-construed (“Sure, through philosophy and literature in I guess”) but they think scientific thinking (narrowly construed) can really do most, and maybe in their heart of hearts, all the work. So when Shermer or Harris are confronted with a question of what is right to do they try to gather data or run experiments (conduct surveys, do nuero-science). This shows that when they say they want to think about morality scientifically they mean scientifically in the narrow sense. This, I have argued alongside Massimo, is a fatal mistake. Also when they say morality was greatly improved and even aped the methods of the scientific revolution, they confirm again that what they mean by science of morality is a science according to the usual (narrow) understanding.

    If you doubt what Shermer means see this discussion (start at about 9:15) :
    http://bloggingheads.tv/videos/33556?in=2:19&out=11:59

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  42. Shermer has the disease where he acts as if a personal scientific outlook makes him an expert on anything. A lot of public intellectuals have this problem to various degrees. His SciAm columns have all sorts of opinions outside his expertise. Bill Nye has a new book out on evolution. Everyone has an opinion about global warming.

    The first thing on barrackobama.com is:

    CALL OUT THE CLIMATE CHANGE DENIERS
    97% OF CLIMATE SCIENTISTS AGREE
    that climate change is real and man-made, and affecting communities in every part of the country.

    Really? If there were from someone with a scientific outlook, there would be a reference to a source with definitions and data. I can believe that 97% of climate scientists agree that a majority of the observed temperature increase since 1950 is attributable to man-made emissions. But I have never heard any of those politicians deny climate change, and I have never heard a climate scientist say that a majority or all of the climate change is man-made.

    Maybe I am uninformed. It does not stop me from having an opinion.

    Now that Labnut is gone, can we trash him? Just kidding.

    Like

  43. Perhaps I should explain my reasoning.

    David Ottlinger put it very well when he said:

    chairing a top 50 department, doing a podcast and running, even closely monitoring a blog is a suicidal, borderline insane amount of work and I can never and probably will never understand how or why one would do it. But, valuing this site as I do, I feel a great debt of gratitude to Massimo for doing it. Better him than me.

    Massimo carries a heavy load and controlling the tone of comments is largely impossible. It is also, perhaps, a little undesirable. From Rationally Speaking he inherited a largely atheist readership. Like any tribal grouping, they maintain the group with many subtle and not so subtle allusions to their shared beliefs and enemies(signalling). For this reason Massimo actually needs quite a light hand when controlling tone because this signalling is necessary for the group. This problem is amplified by the presence of a theist like myself. It gives the group a target and increases the temptation to indulge in more signalling(which is what happened).

    This has two consequences. It increases the load on Massimo as he struggles to control the rise in emotional temperature and it leaves me increasingly frustrated as I find myself forever in the firing line, until I in my turn, make unwise comments. This situation is not Massimo’s fault. As David Ottlinger put it, he has an impossible task.

    So, for these reasons, I think it really is expedient for me to withdraw. Think of it this way, it is like removing the allergen that provokes the immune system of the host.

    I think that Massimo is doing something very important and he deserves all the support he can get. I will be watching from the sidelines and wishing him every success. But I will stay off the playing field, for the reasons I have mentioned.

    Like

  44. As we discuss the idea that science grounds morals, the New York Times, no less, is calling for prosecution of the members of the Bush administration and “the psychologists who devised the torture regimen”. Really, the preposterous idea that science is somehow intrinsically moral seems to be a diversion from the more pressing question for philosophers of science: what are the moral responsibilities of scientists? Scientists control a precious and powerful armory. Is what they do any the less science when they sell it to the highest bidder? The biggest arms dealer? Shermer doesn’t really try very hard to prove that science grounds morality — his argumentative material is painfully flimsy — or is it defiantly flimsy? At any rate he always assumes that science in itself is good, the best way to Truth.

    What a strange one is Mr. Shermer. I don’t particularly follow him, but he pops up provocatively. I took the liberty of reading his Wiki. Formidably productive in several realms, competitive bicycling is not the last of them (possibly even the first). His name is given to “Shermer Neck”, an acute sports-medical condition. I found this rather incredible, under ‘Personal Life’: “…he owned a Ruger .357 Magnum pistol with hollow-tip bullets for a quarter century in order to protect his family, though he eventually took it out of the house when his marriage began to experience problems…”

    His biobraphy of Alfred Russell Wallace is nothing short of superb, except for the off-putting first chapter on “The Psychology of Biography”.

    Like

  45. Massimo,
    Thanks for replying. But your whole piece still reads like a personal grudge against Shermer and his perceived nefarious scientism instead of what he actually wrote.

    “Not in those many words, but his insistence on science implies precisely the same sort of “up with STEM, down with arts & humanities” mantra that has become very popular among politicians and administrators.”

    Not in any words at all. Shermer doesn’t say anything about down with arts & humanities.

    “Did you see any qualifications, at all?”

    Shermer:”The cause of the Flynn effect is still the subject of debate, but it’s not just that we’re getting better at taking tests. If that were the case, intelligence scores throughout the test’s subcategories should have improved across the board. But results in areas such as information, arithmetic, and vocabulary have nudged only slightly upward over the past half-century when test taking became ubiquitous.”

    Me:“or that abstract thought didn’t exist before the scientific revolution”
    “No, it was just so much more primitive, a claim for which Michael has no basis whatsoever.”

    Michael’s claim is that studies have shown an increase in performance on abstract subjects like similarities and matrices tests. He cites various social researchers. It’s a claim about the performance of the general population.

    Me:“or that only Science with a capital S can address moral questions”
    “Didn’t see references to anything else…”
    Really? That’s it? Shermer in fact doesn’t mention capital S science except that he considers abstract reasoning, skepticism, etc. exemplary of scientific thinking. He does specifically mention reading fiction.

    “No, not literally, since nobody has even measured a moral IQ, nor does anyone know how to measure it. But the phrase is there, and its implications are obvious.”

    The obvious implication is that we have morally improved as a society. A statement a liberal moral realist is bound to agree with. As evidence he cites the spread of democracy, outlawing of slavery and torture, women’s and minority rights, etc. If we accept that slavery is bad then we have to explain why so many people a few generations ago were ‘moral idiots’ on this topic.

    “No, his take is that science invented, or at the least greatly refined, those attributes. Otherwise he’s not saying much: if your interpretation were correct, not only scientists, but nobody else would object to the notion, it would be trivially so.”

    Where? I quoted his actual words. How does ‘science’ invent things? You are the one objecting to his description, you can’t argue that he must be wrong, otherwise you’d have nothing to object to.

    Me:“certain kinds of intelligence, specifically not all”
    “Which ones does he *explicitly* leave out?”
    “information, arithmetic, and vocabulary”, along with concrete reasoning.

    “In part, but mostly to the fact that we are thinking more scientifically, which is actually demonstrably not the case (see the persistence of all sorts of pseudoscientific notions, and the rejection of well established scientific ones).”

    Shermer is giving a reason (the jobs we work) for the observation of improved abilities that he calls scientific. I get that you object to that classification but it’s really a side issue in this piece. Just as he doesn’t say all intelligence has improved, he doesn’t say that all aspects of scientific reasoning have improved, nor is it a given that improved scientific reasoning in general will remove all obstacles to acceptance of science.

    “What data? We really must be reading a different article.”
    I read the one about the data showing improved abstract reasoning capabilities and improved moral stances. Also the one that states “Numerous studies from the 1980s onward, for example, find that intelligence and education are negatively correlated with violent crime.” I agree that doesn’t prove his case but he doesn’t claim that.

    “I be[g] to differ. The second part of that quote was irrelevant to my (and, I wager, Michael’s) point: compensation for historical discrimination is something that *both* libertarians and progressives agree on; they differ on the first part of that quote.”

    But you emphasize that Michael’s real goal it to sell libertarianism. In fact, he’s talking about a general ethical improvement. In his view this includes adopting libertarian principles, although in general libertarians don’t support compensation for historical wrongs so it seems he has a more nuanced view than you give him credit for. My point is that he has one paragraph promoting the idea that smarter people endorse a libertarian economy, in a libertarian forum. You and I would disagree with that claim but it’s hardly his only point.

    “Oh give me a break. Dawkins did say that, and he, Harris, Shermer and others are on the same scientistic bandwagon that has infected the atheist / skeptic community, and with which I am seriously concerned. Hence bringing up Dawkins.”

    I can tell you are seriously concerned, because you brought up the concern in an article that had precious little to do with it. Dawkins once said he was a child of the Enlightenment. So? Any western academic today could say the same. This just looks like personal animosity brought out as a clumsy smear.

    Like

  46. Labnut,

    Please don’t leave! 😦 I completely understand your frustration with ad hominem, especially when it’s uncalled for. But still, if I were you, I would just remember which commenter offended you, and develop a thick skin against them. Your comments and contributions to all discussions are respectable and valuable, even if others disagree with you. I think you should not be driven away by such snarky, sarcastic and low comments.

    Aravis,

    I’m confused. I don’t see a single post here from Labnut, nor any criticisms of him. To what is he referring in his farewell note?

    The offending piece is not from this thread, but the previous one, here:

    https://scientiasalon.wordpress.com/2015/02/23/michael-shermer-and-the-moral-arc-of-libertarianism/comment-page-1/#comment-12214

    Specifically, the part where Phoffman56 says the following:

    For example, an 18 year old from a Missouri farm, let’s call him Ladnutter, who has at least some independence of mind, might have come up with the following ‘heresy’, on long lonely nights in the country with time on his hands, which he puts forth at a discussion in a phil seminar:

    (after which Labnut’s idea is being quoted word-for-word as the idea of that hypothetical “Ladnutter”).

    IMO, this is way off-base by Phoffman56, and completely uncalled for. He could state his counterarguments without any such sarcastic “story”, and Labnut has every right to feel insulted by this. Also, note that these kind of things are hard to screen against by Massimo, because the ad hominem is inserted in the context, rather than being rude explicitly.

    Massimo,

    I am aware that this comment is off-topic here, but nevertheless, I would ask that you let it through, so that everyone can be completely clear why Labnut felt offended and decided to leave.

    Finally, Phoffman56,

    I believe a public apology from you would be in order. Not just to Labnut, but to everyone reading SciSal. On both threads.

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