This blog is a focussed experiment. I wanted to test my ability to publish and produce a taut multi-media blog on something. I attended TAM7 in July. It struck me as the perfect 4-day crash course. The "course" didn't go as well as I hoped, but I learned a lot. I'm continuting to update as I have the opportunity to - eventually I'll have covered the entirety of my experience at the conference.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Shermer Rises Above

While Friday had been an entertaining day, and even had my favourite individual speaker (Jennifer Oullette) Saturday was the best day of the conference.

It started off well with the surreal SGU breakfast, and the first speaker of the day set us off in grand fashion. (That said, it was a dense talk requiring an ability to maintain early points through to the end. The distilling of the details here was a chore. One which I have probably failed at.)

But first, Hal Bidlack started the morning off with a group ovation for all the science teachers in the room. And then announced that the next speaker needed no introduction... and left the stage.

It was true. That speaker was Michael Shermer, the founding publisher of Skeptic Magazine, and you could have probably counted the number of people in the room who didn't know his name on one hand.

He began with a straw poll: "By show of hands, how many are here for their first time?" I think the figure is around 1/3 of us were there for the first time. The second part of his poll was: "How many of you have never been to TAM before? Let's see a show of hands." Some hands raised, but most people just laughed. "Those of you who raised your hands twice, you need to join the Skeptic Society and subscribe to Skeptic Magazine right away."

He had the good grace to chuckle at his own shameless plug. He went on to talk a bit about the magazine and some of the subjects they'd covered in the past.
It was a successful ploy. I proceeded to later in the day go to the Skeptic Magazine table at the back and buy a couple of back issues including one on 9/11 conspiracies that he specifically mentioned in his talk.

He did make it clear as he was talking that yes, he does think there was a 9/11 conspiracy. Nineteen men organizing themselves to hi-jack four planes and fly them into key targets on American soil constitutes a conspiracy. He does not think that it was an inside job. I'm not getting into it now, but essentially I agree. It doesn't mean there aren't some nagging questions, but the core claims supporting a cabal within the Bush White House – as much as I wish it were demonstrable that they were shit-eating-mother-fucker-crooks – fall apart under scrutiny. I'll cover that at some point on Confessions of an Asshole Skeptic.
Michael's main, and admittedly somewhat facetious, contention that the best evidence that the Bush Administration was not directly involved in the attacks is a good one: "It worked." (And if that makes you wonder about his political leanings, he identifies as a Libertarian.)

His subject was the need for us as people to "Rise Above."

To rise above our tribal instincts; our xenophobia; our belief that we have the one true religion; our evolutionary environment. Rise above our inner warrior and rise to our inner Oskar Schindler or reasonable facsimile.

He used a still from the classic Star Trek episode "The Enemy Within" where Kirk was split into his two polar personality components to illustrate the conflict within ourselves.
Naturally this was a crowd that didn't need much explanation of the reference.

He agreed with the thesis of the episode – that both sides are necessary characteristics. We are by nature moral and immoral, good and evil, rational and intuitive, selfish and co-operative and so on.

We care the most about ourselves and our immediate family - our parents – related genetically above – and our offspring below.
Outwards from there we have connections to our siblings, half-siblings, cousins, and so on in an expanding circle. The closer to centre are the people we care most about and the further out, the people we care less and progressively less about. Kin-selection results in us taking care of those family members who aren't vertically genetically linked... and then beyond that we have a reciprocally altruistic relationship with our community.

This was as far as we needed to go in a tribal society as these were all the people we knew – at least with any level of intimacy. Treating these people well was, in fact, good for us as it protected ourselves and our offspring. In short – morality grew around solid evolutionary social traits, from the bottom up.

But we don't live in that world anymore. We live in a world-wide culture.

Being good to our neighbours and warlike with those dangerous folks from over the hill is no longer a beneficial survival tactic for the species.
We must rise up to caring about the species, the bio-sphere and people we don't know. We need to rise above the old right/left political spectrum. It's broken. It's over simplified.

And here, to my mind, he pulled a little bit of a psychological fast one on us... though it may have been incidental. He brought up the above diagram with Liberal on the left, Conservative on the right and Libertarian, his own declared leaning, on top.
He asked everyone to – by a show of hands – demonstrate their personal affiliation... And I quote "to the left of centre there, to the right, or above with the Libertarians." (Emphasis added.)
He never acknowledged any deliberate suggestion. I do think it was most likely incidental, but I did find it curious. His thesis being that there is virtue in 'rising above' and what was above on his diagram – his personal political bent. But I digress...

A bit more than half the audience, perhaps even as much as two thirds raised their hand for Left.
About four raised their hands for Right. (Giving credence to the aphorism "Reality has a left-wing bias.")
And about half raised their hand for Libertarian.

Yeah, it doesn't take much to figure out that more than a few people raised their hand for both Left and Libertarian – myself included, and the fellow beside me for that matter.

He went on about the stereotype of "Liberals think that the right are a bunch of hard-drinking, gun-toting, hummer-driving, fist-pounding, bible-thumping, morally hypocritical boors."
And conversely the Conservatives think the left are a bunch of "tree-hugging, whale-saving, sandal-wearing, hybrid-driving, wishy-washy, namby-pamby, bed-wetters."
Both of these generalizations got big rounds of good-humoured applause... I guess we all know who we are and what we think!

He then presented us with a trio of graphics.

The first how Conservatives see the world:

The second, how Liberals see the world:

When in actual fact it's more purple when you break it down by counties:

The matter is more complicated than that even. He moved on to a brief look at Jonathan Haidt's Moral Foundation's Theory wherein five values cover virtually everything anyone on the spectrum cares about: Care/Harm; Fairness; Loyalty; Respect/Authority; and Purity.

Liberals tend to value the first two more, and Conservatives value the last three more, though all five group more together when charted for Conservatives. (This is a gross oversimplification on my part for expediency.)

This is not a North American or even Western phenomenon. There are shades of difference, but world-wide the graphs are very similar.

Michael says there is no 'right or wrong' people just emphasize different things.

He went on to say that he disagrees with the notion that politics is something that is not open for discussion – something that skeptics shouldn't even talk about. His own writings about Libertarianism have provoked greater responses than what he has written about religion. "Skepticism is apolitical" as one respondent wrote. But he contends that in fact how people feel is that if they agree with him then it's apolitical, but if they don't agree then he has ventured into verboten territory. I tend to agree with him. Politics should not dictate the evidence, but the evidence absolutely should dictate your politics, allowing for room for differences to fall in differing camps where matters of opinion are concerned.

Shermer cites 9/11 as being a turning point. It caused a dilemma for Liberals. Wherein they were forced to give more value to group loyalty and respect for authority. I don't think I agree with him on this. He is right in that extreme fundamentalists are difficult to impossible to reason with and thus need to be dealt with in more direct, physical, defensive manners. Sam Harris argues even further – and I agree with him as I think I understand the point – that religious moderates are even dangerous as they reinforce the beliefs of the extremists.

And so we remain tribes behind walls and on those walls are men with guns.

To illustrate the teasing apart of the individual rights and the importance of group loyalty he turned to a classic scene from Rob Reiner's excellent film "A Few Good Men" – written, significantly, by Aaron Sorkin creator of The West Wing. Shermer calls it his favourite film.

Shermer cut it off at approximately the three minute mark – just after Nicholson responds to Cruise's demand "Did you order the Code:Red!?!" with "You're God damned right I did!" To quote Shermer, "Heh, heh – got 'im." But he also asks "How are we getting around this problem?" (The tension between these two realities.)

Moving into the second part of his talk, he shifted the subject towards types of civilizations as understood according to the Kardashev Scale.

We are a type zero... or at least below type one. We use dead plants and animals as our primary energy source. He suggests that we are in the neighbourhood of a century away from being a Type One civilization.

Shermer doesn't want to look at the idea based on it's typical terms – energy usage and how we might use the signature that another civilization might leave behind in the cosmos – his terms are more social and political. Based on the existing literature we passed the .7 level sometime in the 80s and will surpass the .73 level in the next few decades. But how does our tribalism match up within our Kardashev Type?

  • As a group of loosely organize primates – call that a .1
  • As nomadic hunter gatherers - .2
  • Tribes of settled communities - .3
  • Chiefdoms of various scopes - .4
  • States - .5
  • Empires - .6
  • Democracies - .7
  • Liberal democracies - .8
  • Liberal democratic capitalism - .9
  • A globally connected world community – Type 1.

(Note: I have to admit, that somewhere in there I seem to have missed a step in his thinking. I've gone through the talk several times and can't identify the gap between where we go from being a .73 on the Kardashev scale to Shermer's matched scale having Type 1 being our next apparent step... unless the point is that the world as a whole has not made it to .9 – which he failed to explicitly say. And that doesn't even address the politico-centric view this represents... a view I agree with, I might add, despite recognizing that it is vaguely self-congratulatory of Western Culture.)

His definition of Type One from this perspective includes the entire world being wireless and everyone having access. (I personally think we are far closer to being there than a century... but it's his talk.) We would switch from fossil-fuel to renewable energy. (That may be closer to a century in absolute terms, but I believe we are witnessing the beginning of this transition here and now in ways that have never been so clearly defined.) We will have a global language – he suggests it unequivocally will be English. (I think it's still too early to make that call.) There will be a global communications system – the internet – and culture will be shared by all. There will be a global democracy that will break up the power blocks. (...And now we see why a century may be naively optimistic in my mind.) There will also be global free-trade. Things like eBay and Amazon are making the latter surprisingly close to real – though we still have a way to go. Why is it a good thing? Because it breaks down natural tribal barriers.

He went on to cite a study of 371 international wars (the name of the researcher is lost in the bad audio) where at least 1000 people were killed. There were 205 wars between non-democratic nations; 166 between democratic and non-democratic nations; and zero wars between democratic nations. Therefore the trend towards Liberal Democracy is a good thing. There is a question of what precisely is a democracy, but as an approximation, it is an encouraging set of statistics.

He wrapped up by reading from his latest book, The Mind of the Market:

The treaty of Rome gathered "...disparate and historically divided European nations under one economic umbrella. Where once nations in wars were common-place through a thousand years of European history, they are now unthinkable. Try imagining Germany invading France and waging war upon it. Picture France marching it's armies through the Chunnel and marching into London to declare the country French. What once made for dramatic literature now sounds like pulp fiction. The 'wikification' of the economy – wikinomics as it's becoming known – adds to the Google-theory wherein the entire world economy is participated in my billions of people. Wikipedia is the right analogy of this emerging world-wide phenomenon. It's the collaboratively created encyclopaedia that runs on wiki-software that allows real-time editing and updating of documents by anyone anywhere anytime. It's an open-sourced, peer-reviewed, mass-collaborated, bottom-up, self-organized emergent property of millions of people choosing to build the modern equivalent of the Alexandrian Library, whose purpose it was to make the sum of the world's knowledge available to everyone in one location. Granted the Alexandrian scholars had far less knowledge to store than we do by many orders of magnitude, but we have the world-wide web. In the long run, no dictator, demagogue, priest, president or any other pretender to power will be able to control the googlefication, wikification, ebayification, mapquestification, youtubeification, myspaceification..." stops and adds as an aside "I guess I should add twitterfication since that came out since I wrote this" and then continues after incorrectly identifying the emergence of Twitter as 'like about a month ago', "...of information, knowledge, geography, personal relationships, markets and the economy. Chinese bureaucrats can try to put all the firewalls and controls they want in front of a billion potential Chinese web-surfers, but they'll never be able to prevent knowledge, products and people from finding a way to those who seek them. Freedom finds a way."

During the question session immediately following he admitted that he likes the Haidt parameters as an alternate heuristic for identifying what people believe. He dislikes the standard labels and doesn't even like calling himself a Libertarian due to "eat the poor" baggage people associate with it.

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