Michael Shermer is the editor of Skeptic magazine and the author of over a dozen books, including The Moral Arc , which argues science and reason are responsible for most of humanity’s moral progress. Before the rise of science, says Shermer, many people participated in grotesque evils like witch burning simply because they lacked a reliable method for identifying false beliefs.
“The great scientific revolutionaries like Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, and Newton discovered that the universe is governed by natural laws that can be understood and applied to social problems, political problems, economic problems, and moral issues,” Shermer says in Episode 141 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast.
He also notes that literature plays an important role in improving people’s behavior. Recent studies suggest that those who read fiction become better at understanding and empathizing with others, particularly when those stories involve characters and cultures that are different or unfamiliar.
“That’s what science fiction does,” says Shermer. “Pretty much every novel is transporting you to another world. And so I think all of that adds up—in addition to all these political and economic factors—to making us more moral.”
He also points to Star Trek as an example of how science fiction can promote moral progress. Creator Gene Roddenberry’s show frequently questioned war and bigotry, and also championed reason and logic through beloved characters like Mr. Spock.
“Roddenberry was a humanist,” says Shermer. “He believed we get our morals from reason, and from that you can expand the moral sphere, which he did in his vehicle, the magnificent starship Enterprise.”
Another advantage of science fiction is that a fanciful setting can make controversial statements more palatable to a hostile audience.
“It’s a way of sneaking past the censors and the executives the message you really want to deliver,” says Shermer. “But nevertheless the message is delivered, and the public gets it, even if it’s on a subconscious level, and that effects social change.”
Listen to our complete interview with Michael Shermer in Episode 141 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above), and check out some highlights from the discussion below.
Michael Shermer on The Day the Earth Stood Still :
“My favorite all-time film is The Day the Earth Stood Still. Most people don’t realize that it’s a Christ allegory. Klaatu comes down to earth … and he wants to deliver this warning that we have a sinful nature—like original sin—and we have to repent or else. … Then the authorities—like the Romans—the government tracks him down and kills him. … So Gort the robot … takes him back to the spaceship and resurrects him. And in the original script the Patricia Neal character, who’s sitting there watching this with her mouth open, is like, ‘Whoa, that’s amazing! He’s alive again. He was dead. You mean this is the power that science and technology have in the future?’ And in the original script he says, ‘Yeah,’ but in the film he says, ‘No, no, nobody has that sort of power. It’s reserved for the great spirit in the sky,’ or some such thing. And the reason for that is that the Breen censorship board in 1951 said, ‘You can’t say that to American film viewers. They’ll freak out.’ Because we’re such a religious nation.”
Michael Shermer on the end of war:
“I think it’s possible to get to a point where there are no more major inter-state conflicts. I mean, look at what’s happened in Europe. For 500 years the major powers of Europe were at war with each other almost every year, and that all came to a stop, in 1945, it ended, and the great powers have not fought one another since then. Agreed there are proxy wars like Korea and Vietnam, and supporting third world dictators in South America, I know that still goes on—but not as much as it did. … But what are the chances of France and Germany going to war again? Or imagine France marching their troops through the Chunnel into England and marching on London to conquer it. It almost seems laughable at this point. But three-quarters of a century ago, or two centuries ago, it wasn’t laughable at all, it was happening. So I’m optimistic about that. It’s possible to get the whole world to that point.”
Michael Shermer on utopias:
“I don’t think it’s possible to genetically engineer people to become angels, or even structure society in a way that would make that possible. I think the best we can hope for is to optimize the incentives to get people to act more morally, but there’s always going to be some guy who gets pissed off about his car getting scratched and goes berserk. … I think it’s unrealistic to shoot for zero violence and we’re not going to be happy until we reach there. I think that’s not realistic. Let’s just try to optimize things, just make it a little better. The problem with the idea of utopias is that they often fail because of an unrealistic theory of human nature, or they try to do that kind of engineering, either eugenically or through society, and they also fail, because they’re too extreme. They either move too fast or they have unrealistic goals, and they fail. And unfortunately, sadly, tragically, they often fail with a high body count. So I really—given history—would rather avoid that.”
Michael Shermer on advanced civilizations:
“I disagree with people like Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk and others that have commented on artificial intelligence and/or extraterrestrials being evil, being colonialists. It’s sort of a guy’s way of looking at the worst parts of history and projecting forward. Hawking makes this point, well, how do the Native Americans feel about the ‘advanced extraterrestrials’ coming from Europe, so to speak—I guess they’d be advanced ‘extra-continental’ intelligences—coming from Europe? Not so good. Yeah, but that was a different time in history. I don’t think a ‘colonial empire’ kind of society could sustain a long-term—by which I mean thousands of years, or tens of thousands of years—space exploration program. … It seems to me that to get to that point you would have had to solve a lot of these social problems that we’re currently facing, and are now solving, to get there. So look at how far we’ve come in just two centuries, in terms of rights for more people and more places, and the decline of violence and so on, just project that out another 200 years — or 200,000 years—into the future. You can only imagine how much better it could be.”