Last week, Michael Shermer of Skeptic magazine published a column in Scientific American describing his view of moral philosophy, arguing against a heavily simplified form of utilitarianism and in favor of natural rights theory. This, in turn, garnered a response from philosopher Massimo Pigliucci, who pointed out Shermer’s gross oversimplification of the complexities of philosophy, and Shermer responded on Twitter by claiming to already know and understand the aspects of philosophy that Piglucci pointed out, but without explaining why he chose to ignore two centuries of philosophical development in order to rail against a version of utilitarianism that went out of fashion in the 1830s.
ENLIGHTENMENT NOW: THE CASE FOR SCIENCE, REASON, HUMANISM, AND PROGRESS
Steven Pinker | 543 pages | Viking | 2018 | ISBN: 9780525427575 | $35
Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now has been in stores for a few weeks now, and I need not devote much space in this review to detailing Pinker’s many failings. Other reviewers have more than adequately demonstrated that Pinker’s Pollyanna pronouncements on the utopian glory of modern society are shortsighted, and his grasp of the Enlightenment, the putative topic of his book, is incomplete at best. Pinker makes almost no mention of the individual philosophers of the Enlightenment, nor does he take time to note the differences among them, subsuming all of their many and varied opinions on reason and science to the skepticism of David Hume and the veiled atheism of Voltaire. He also fundamentally misunderstands the Enlightenment as the pursuit of pure reason against all emotion, a fact belied by no less a figure than Immanuel Kant, who literally wrote a book entitled Critique of Pure Reason (1781/1787) in which he stated that his purpose was to criticize “the faculty of reason in general, in respect of all knowledge after which it may strive independently of all experience.” More directly relevant, while Pinker claims Enlightenment figures bowed before reason, Hume actually discounted the power of reason to discover moral truth: “Reason is wholly inactive, and can never be the source of so active a principle as conscience, or a sense of morals” (Treatise, 126.96.36.199)
Comet Research Group Publishes New Article Reviving Catastrophist Claims about Frozen Mammoths in Alaskan Muck
Ever since Edmond Halley first proposed that a comet caused Noah’s Flood, there has been a group of people who have advocated that the former world age came to an abrupt end through this mechanism. Ignatius Donnelly advocated for this catastrophic conclusion to the Ice Age world of Atlantis, and today Graham Hancock and those in his orbit have picked up the claim. The most recent set of claims orbits around the work of the Comet Research Group and its team of scientists, who have published academic articles outlining the evidence for a comet impact at the end of the last Ice Age, and who have received intense criticism from other scientists who heavily dispute the evidence.
I read yesterday that Seth Myers is planning a reboot of The Munsters for NBC, and in this new version the Universal monster family won’t be living in the suburbs but in a trendy Brooklyn hipster neighborhood where the characters will struggle to fit in with decade-old hipster stereotypes. I’m not entirely sure that this will work as well as Myers hopes, and I get that the show revolves around the Munsters because they are an NBC Universal property. However, the plot might better fit the rival Addams Family, who are, basically, hipsters a half century too early. Consider: The Addams Family have an eclectic and retro fashion sense. They collect antiques and oddities, and they prefer handmade artisanal products to anything mass produced. They distrust Western medicine and prefer shamans and natural cures. They eat exotic foods from foreign cultures and practice Eastern meditation techniques. They favor wetland preservation and flirt with homeschooling. By today’s standards, their “normal” neighbors, who recoiled in fear, are now the odd ones. I’m not sure the Munsters will fit the template quite as well without some serious retrofitting. After all, they only looked bizarre; in every other respect they aspired to be as boring as the Addams’s neighbors.
Thursday Odds and Ends: A Blow to the Younger Dryas Comet Hypothesis, Lovecraft among the Alt-Right, and More!
Do you remember back in December when I described the cheap Chinese mechanical watch I bought on eBay? At the time, I had expected that it would last six months before crapping out, but it turns out that I was being overly optimistic. The M. G. Orkina brand mechanical watch died this week. I went to wind it, and the winding stem fell off, followed by several small gears that disengaged from the movement, stopping the watch. The watch lasted just about eight weeks. It was a learning experience. Apparently it is possible to make crap that is so cheap that it fails to meet even my lowest expectations.
Congressman Implies Archaeology Not in the "National Interest"; Plus: James Tabor Defends Talpiot Tomb
I don’t usually bring up political issues, especially not at the granular level of government appropriations, but a piece by anthropology professor Rosemary Joyce at Berkeley is important enough to call attention to. Joyce reports that Republican Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) implied that archaeological research is not in the national interest. The conservative representative issued a press release about HR 3293, a bill that would require the National Science Foundation to justify all of its funding requests by demonstrating how they meet the national interest. In that press release, Smith provided five examples of grants he considered non-essential to America’s national interest. Three of these five were archaeology projects, even though archaeology represents less than 0.12% of NSF research funding. All three archaeology projects, not coincidentally, had implications for how humans adapt to climate change, according to Joyce.
After Rapper Claims Earth Is Flat, Science Writer Says Bad Ideas Are Fine as Long as They Have Good Intentions
Musicians, being the creative type, seem prone to supporting fringe ideas. We’ve had metal bands that sing about ancient astronauts and the Insane Clown Posse considering magnets to be a form of magic. The hip hop community created a stir by causing conspiracy theorists to foam at the mouth over Illuminati imagery in hip hop videos. Now one rapper is taking the fringe beliefs all the way back to before Eratosthenes by denying that the Earth is round.
Graham Hancock has a new book, an edited volume called The Divine Spark (Disinfo, 2015), in which he collects essays advocating the use of hallucinogenic drugs in order to discover true nature of reality. The essays come from some of the usual suspects from both the fringe world and the realm of psychedelics: Robert Schoch, Luis Eduardo Luna, and even English comedian Russell Brand. If the last-mentioned name seems odd, don’t fear: Brand didn’t write a piece for Graham Hancock. Hancock reprints an essay Brand wrote for the New Statesman back in 2011 attacking Richard Dawkins. Anyway, Hancock has posted the introduction to his book in which he muses on the spiritual dimension of reality, which has been the major focus of his “research” into ancient history since he stopped smoking marijuana and took up ayahuasca as his preferred mind-altering substance.
Editor's note: This post has been corrected after I misidentified the authors of a journal article mentioning me.
Today I have several short topics to share.
Yesterday a public radio producer asked to speak with me about pseudoscience and the Kensington Rune Stone for a planned documentary about the artifact. I’m supposed to talk with her later this week, so that will be interesting, I guess. Of course, you know that any documentary on the subject will inevitably collide with Him Who Must Not Be Named…
Today I have two short pieces to discuss. The first is an update on a story I’ve been following for what seems to be years now, and the second… is also very depressing.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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