Science and Even Sci-Fi Make Us Better People

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.”

Ghostbusters Should Have Been Left to the Girls

Things that were good while they lasted: Firefly, Ben & Jerry’s Free Cone Day, the first season of Homeland, and now, thinking Ghostbusters would become a female-fronted franchise.

For those who don’t know, last week news broke that in addition to the Paul Feig-directed, woman-led Ghostbusters people have been geeking out about for months, Sony is working on another Ghostbusters film starring an all-male cast. In late January we learned that Feig’s reboot would star Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon (called it), and Leslie Jones. The dude version will be produced/directed by brothers Joe and Anthony Russo (Captain America: The Winter Soldier) produced by Channing Tatum (who may star), and possibly also feature Chris Pratt.

Look, it’s not as though I thought that a woman-led Ghostbusters was going to make the franchise a completely female dominated monolith from here on out—that’s unnecessary. It’s just, well, the little high that came from hearing that one of the great geek franchises was going to get a reboot starring a few highly talented folks of my gender is gone. But moreover, the second all-male movie gives the all-girl Ghostbusters a gender problem it didn’t need to have.

Almost immediately many decried the new guy-centric endeavor. And just as quickly rushed to clarify that maybe it wouldn’t technically be an all-male movie, just a movie that would probably star a lot of bros. (A Ghostbusters with dudes—how novel!)

What’s worse is I’ll probably love that brodown! I’m psyched at the idea of Tatum and Pratt getting into the busting business—they’re both fantastic. But that excitement is now necessarily tempered by an inescapable reality: the mere existence of a “guy” Ghostbusters movie and a “girl” Ghostbusters movie sets up an unfortunate dichotomy.

There’s something about the idea of having one film “for women” and one “for men” that’s just gross, even if they’re not meant to be seen that way. (There’s talk the two films will lead to an Avengers-esque crossover.) As Genevieve Koski points out at The Dissolve: “the idea that there is ‘girl entertainment’ and ‘boy entertainment’ is outmoded but annoyingly persistent, based more in advertising opportunities than how most people actually consume entertainment.” That’s true, but the fact that this immediately became the conversation about these two movies demonstrates there are still those who think movies with a lot of men are made for men and movies with a lot of women are made for women, when in fact the average movie-goer would probably just like to see a flick that looks as populated by people of different genders (not to mention races or sexual orientations) as real life.

In fact, the Feig-led Ghostbusters could have been a perfect blind test of this theory. If Feig and co. would have been allowed to finish this one chapter under the auspices of “the Ghostbusters are female this time around,” it could have told us what kind of legs the franchise had with a different set of phantom-chasers. Now it won’t be able to escape being put in competition with the Russo brothers offering.

Why Does It Have to Be All or Nothing?

As a fan and female, while I’m completely psyched for a Wiig/McCarthy/McKinnon/Jones addition to the cannon, I never really thought there had to be an all-girl Ghostbusters, specifically. I just wanted a Ghostbusters where there were girls on the team. (We can have the argument about whether Annie Potts’s Janine Melnitz was on the team in the original movies another time.) As with many a nerd property, Ghostbusters just wasn’t very gender balanced the first time around and whenever word started to come around that the franchise might get rebooted it was easy to hope that in a post-“women aren’t funny” world, the answer to “Who ya gonna call?” might not be “four dudes.” When I was eight years old I dressed up as the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man for Halloween because it was easier for me to be that than, say, Peter Venkman and it would be nice if Halloween 2016 had female Ghostbusters costumes that didn’t look like this. (I still think of that Stay Puft costume to be my inaugural drag performance, though.)

The author as the Puft Marshmallow Man. The author as the Puft Marshmallow Man. Angela Watercutter

But instead of a gender-balanced squad the franchise completely gender-swapped it and we got an all-female team. It maybe shouldn’t have been this way, and not just because these kinds of things tend to cause waves of misandry panic that spread like the clap at Coachella. It maybe shouldn’t have been this way because it would’ve been a more interesting movie. And it would have avoided making Ghostbusters a franchise with a “comes in pink” installment like so many unnecessarily gendered products before it.

And this, unfortunately, is why nearly every conversation about diversity in Hollywood devolves into a frustrating mess. Now that The Heat and Jennifer Lawrence have proven women are bankable, Hollywood has warmed to the idea of putting females in big tentpole films. But for every Wonder Woman or Captain Marvel movie that gets announced, there’s an added level of pressure that if it doesn’t do well, it’s because no one wants to see a female-lead movie. (Robert Downey Jr. does not have this problem.) By creating one Ghostbusters with mostly women and another with mostly men, buying a ticket to one and not the other will inevitably feel like a vote in some stupid cinematic battle of the sexes.

Ghostbusters deserves better than this. Once it was determined that there was going to be a girl-group Ghostbusters it should have been allowed to fly solo. It should have been allowed to see how it did on its own. If it flopped, so be it. But now, even if it makes $100 million opening weekend, its ultimate success will ride on whether it beats the boys. And that’s terrible for both films. This decision has divided the fanbase in a way that’s wholly unnecessary. What will happen if we cross the streams?

The Remarkable Story of a Tech Incubator Inside a Prison

WIRED co-produced The Last Mile, a documentary short that looks at a tech start-up incubator in a very unlikely place: San Quentin prison. The titular program, founded by venture capitalist Chris Redlitz, draws on volunteers from the tech world who teach inmates about the digital technology that is rapidly advancing in the outside world, but forbidden within the prison’s walls. The film premieres today in competition at the SXSW Film Festival; below is a conversation between filmmaker Ondi Timoner (two-time winner of the Sundance Grand Jury Prize) and a former inmate, Heracio Harts.

In 2013 I met a charming and dapper Heracio Harts at Summit Series. I asked him what had brought him to the event, and he said he’d served 8 1/2 years in San Quentin for involuntary manslaughter. The most powerful piece of Heracio’s journey was his founding participation in The Last Mile program at San Quentin. With the premiere of this film that Heracio and I kicked off together, we decided to get on the phone and talk about it.

ONDI: How is The Last Mile structured?

HERACIO: It’s a six-month program, and there are two meetings per week. During those six months, you get to talk to different community leaders and business leaders… People of power, people of success are there to teach us how to be successful as well. I think that encouragement in and of itself is something that should be replicated. Right? The Last Mile goes further—actually getting to participate in social media, to hear from the public, hear their responses from what we write. I think those things really are necessary in prison.

ONDI: How does The Last Mile train you up with regard to social media?

HERACIO: I think we did five or six tweets per week. So we write out tweets on paper and they would post it for us… I think for all of us, it was like ‘Oh, this is how you get people to know you.’ and then you can start building your own personal brand… We’re pretty open, however you still have that anxiety of being judged. Like you want to tell people the raw and uncut things that’s going on in your life. You don’t look for pity, but you think that people may judge you…. You still voice how you feel and things that you’ve done and um, you’re accepted. And you know, it’s kind of scary at first. But you know, it does help. It definitely helps to be transparent.

ONDI: How do you feel about the responses you received online?

HERACIO: It’s encouraging. I think that it connects you to the world to know that you’re not the only one that made bad choices. There are a bunch of people that have made bad choices. Some people just didn’t get caught, but it kind of gives you a little more strength to be open and be more brave about it because you know that you can help someone else through your experiences.

I remember one of the best responses that I received… I drew the parallels between living in a local community and being in prison—low-income communities are the toughest prisons, because you had guns and knives too. You can lose your life a lot more easily in the projects. So there were a lot of responses from people just telling me that they’d never looked at it like that.

ONDI: What [do] you think you and some of the people in the program have to offer that maybe we don’t, from what you’ve been through.

HERACIO: What I really think what may give us a competitive edge is our persistence and our will. It’s a refuse-to-lose attitude. You’re locked up and you don’t have control over anything, but you do have control over your willpower. And you lean on that to overcome things that some people would suffer breakdowns from. But you learn to be more patient and present and you learn to stay focused.

ONDI: One line that I thought was really important in the film is when TLM grad Caleb says, “What job was I ever gonna get? Who’s gonna hire me coming out of prison? This is the only way I’m going to be able to make it, by having the entrepreneurial spirit and having the know-how to start my own business.” There’s a lot of job placement that happens with you guys.

HERACIO: What’s really good for the guys who return back home is that we’ve been able to get a job in a tech community. It gives those other guys that are inside prison walls hope that when they are released they will have support and the community will welcome them.… so that when they are out they can get a job and hold it down.

ONDI: How was the filming process for you? You were a big part in bringing us all together.

HERACIO: I’m excited for the awareness that this film can bring. I’m grateful that we have a voice and that our voices are being heard. I really hope that it will change public’s perception of returning citizens.

While You Were Offline: Everyone Freaks Out Over Apple Watch

It’s been an odd, exhausting week, filled with unexpected legal activity, amazingly expensive technology, and deeply saddening deaths of beloved figures. But enough about our personal lives, let’s talk about what’s been happening on the Intern—oh, OK, you got to the punchline first. But with Ireland accidentally instituting a drug Purge, Robin Thicke becoming an unlikely figurehead for creative expression, and Apple trying to convince us that $10,000 isn’t a ridiculous amount of money to pay for a watch (just duct-tape your iPhone to your wrist, it’s much cheaper), it really has been a weird week on the web. Here’s what you might have missed.

Watches! They’re Back! Apparently!

What Happened: Apple finally gets around to offering up details on the watch we’ve been hearing about forever. Turns out the high-end version is $10,000.

Where It Blew Up: Twitter, blogs, media think pieces

What Really Happened: No matter how much you’ve been hiding from the world, it can’t have escaped your notice that Apple finally announced more details on its Apple Watch this week. As with every Apple announcement, this prompted a flurry of online activity, including a lot of people offering reasons not to buy one: You can get better alternatives for less money! The battery life may be terrible! A Rolex is a better investment! You can already buy pirated versions!

Of course, that hasn’t stopped people from wanting the watch. Look, here’s someone who’d like the Internet to pay for it on his behalf. Apparently, factories are already struggling to keep up with demand, which either shows how labor intensive the watch is or how many people have far too much money for their own good. Reaction on social media was split between “I want one” and “I could never be able to afford one,” as should be expected, but at least some people are already looking ahead to the next next big thing:

The Takeaway: Apple is going to have to go a lot further than it has so far to convince us that we can’t just look at our phones to see all of this stuff already. Didn’t we all agree that we were over watches years ago, anyway?

Ireland Forgets How the Law Works

What Happened: The Republic of Ireland accidentally legalized all manner of drugs. Many people suddenly wondered how quickly they could move to Ireland.

Where It Blew Up: Twitter, blogs, media think pieces

What Really Happened: The Irish legal system is in a bit of churn lately, with a court ruling Tuesday accidentally making it legal to possess ecstasy, meth, ketamine, and other class-A drugs as the result of accepting that the current Misuse of Drugs Act was, in fact, unconstitutional. As you might expect, many people noticed, leading to some great coverage. Best headline? Probably “Irish Government Goes Full Caligula, Legalizing Drugs and Banning Hereteosexuality for a Day”—oh, yeah; there were also worries that unclear wording in a legal bill accidentally made hetero marriage illegal. We probably should’ve mentioned that, too.

Obviously, Twitter had a lot to say about the subject:

A Wednesday ruling closed the loophole, but clearly unleashed some kind of legal fever over there: authorities have since announced that more than 5,000 laws deemed “obsolete” will be repealed. Here’s hoping they pay close attention to what they’re repealing this time.

The Takeaway: We can only hope other countries learn from Ireland’s mistake, however, before we accidentally end up in a scenario where all crimes are legal and society as we know it breaks down for 24 hour periods. Hey, it could happen, why else would they have made two movies about it?

Turns Out, Rap Music Isn’t to Blame for Racism. Who Knew?

What Happened: On MSNBC’s Morning Joe, it was apparently old folks’ old excuses day, with rap music finding itself being blamed for all evils in the modern world.

Where It Blew Up: Twitter, blogs, media think pieces

What Really Happened: This just in from the “Yes, it’s 2015 and this still happens” department: On Wednesday, hosts and guests on MSNBC’s Morning Joe show—all white—argued that the reason for University of Oklahoma frat members being caught on video chanting racist epithets was, of course, rap music. If that sounds ridiculous, you might be happy to note it proved to be so ridiculous Twitter responded in the only way it knew how: outright mockery. Introducing the hashtag #RapAlbumsThatCausedSlavery:

In an attempt to repair the self-inflicted damage, Morning Joe invited a number of black panelists onto the show Thursday to discuss the U of O video. None of them, impressively, pointed out how boneheaded the comments the previous day had been.

The Takeaway: On the one hand, it’s nice to know such stupid opinions just lead to those offering them getting clowned, instead of being taken seriously. On the other, how can anyone suggest that on television and not have everyone around them just tell them they’re wrong?

That Unexpected Moment When We All Sided With Robin Thicke

What Happened: A court ruled Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams owed the family of Marvin Gaye $7.4 million over the similarity between “Blurred Lines” and the Gaye song “Got to Give It Up.” This was not a popular opinion.

Where It Blew Up: Twitter, blogs, media think pieces

What Really Happened: Just when the world had learned to accept Robin Thicke is a figure of derision and scorn, it had to collectively reassess things when a lawsuit brought by the Marvin Gaye estate over whether or not Thicke’s 2013 song “Blurred Lines” lifted from Gaye’s 1977 song “Got to Give It Up” ended with a ruling in the Gaye estate’s favor, awarding them $7.4 million as a result.

Almost immediately, arguments about why this was a bad decision started flooding the Internet, including one with the headline “It’s okay if you hate Robin Thicke. But the ‘Blurred Lines’ verdict is bad for pop music.” Musicians wrote about the problems of confusing appropriation and inspiration, critics wrote about the way this ruling will stifle creative expression, and journalists argued the songs aren’t even that similar in the first place. (Rolling Stone summarized possible implications for the music industry, but downplayed a lot of other people’s fears, noting that it is unlikely to result in “the death of the music business.”)

Williams’ attorney posted an op-ed explaining that the case isn’t over yet with the use of some unexpected baseball metaphors (“We now head into the later innings of the contest,” he wrote, sounding a little too upbeat about just losing), and many believe the ruling will be thrown out on appeal, but for now, we’re in a strange place where the future of creative expression may be endangered over the success or failure of Robin Thicke’s career. How did that happen?

The Takeaway: You know something’s a bad idea when it interrupts our schadenfreude over Robin Thicke getting bad news.

It’s a Miracle

What Happened: Never mind the rest of Netflix’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, let’s talk about that theme song. A lot.

Where It Blew Up: Twitter, blogs, media think pieces

What Really Happened: Depending on who you talk to, Kimmy Schmidt is either a sensitive portrayal of abuse survivors or more than a little racist (it could very well be both, although we’re not convinced it’s connected to The Americans ), but everyone agrees on one thing: that theme song is insanely catchy.

It’s so catchy, in fact, that everyone is talking to the people responsible. (Yes, even WIRED.) Given that the theme song is a parody of viral videos, the fact that it’s ended up going viral itself is either irony or a sign of a job well done.

The Takeaway: Anything that gets people singing “females are strong as hell” is, of course, a good thing, but if this means that auto-tuned videos are going to suddenly be everywhere again, you’ve got a lot to answer for, Kimmy.

RIP, Terry Pratchett

What Happened: The much beloved author of the Discworld series died on Thursday, seven years after he revealed that he had early-onset Alzheimer’s.

Where It Blew Up: Twitter, blogs, media think pieces

What Really Happened: In one sense, Pratchett’s death shouldn’t have been a surprise—he had been fighting Alzheimer’s for years, after all. However, when his death was announced, it was shattering to his fans, as was obvious from the reaction online to his death.

The online tributes were numerous, but Val McDermid’s and Kieron Gillen’s stand out in particular.

The Takeaway: As many pointed out, he’ll live on through his work—including one final novel, completed last year, to be published this fall—but, still. He’ll be very much missed.