Sunday, January 06, 2008

Michael Shermer's new book

Michael Shermer just released a new book, 'The Mind of the Market: Compassionate Apes, Competitive Humans, and Other Tales from Evolutionary Economics'. It doesnt appear to be like his other books, but Im still confused as to why I havent heard much about it from the skeptic community.

But I cant say Im super excited to pick it up. Blurb #1 from Amazon:

“Written with his customary verve and flair, The Mind of the Market is Michael Shermer at his best. Roving over the entire sweep of history, and drawing on the best of modern science, Shermer attempts a grand synthesis of research from psychology and the neurosciences to demonstrate that markets are moral and that free trade meshes well with human nature. Shermer entertains as well as informs, and in the process he deepens the argument for economic, political and social freedom.”—Dinesh D’Souza, author of What’s So Great About America
Uh huh. Umm... what? No. I mean, I guess its good to get people from 'the other side' to endorse your book... but D’Souza was what, an English major? Not economics/evolution/relevant field.

Why dont you get SAL to review your next book, Shermer?

Bleh. Gross.

26 comments:

Tyler DiPietro said...

From the description of the book it looks more like political polemic than an honest scientific investigation. It's not surprising, Shermer has in the past shown a tendency to abandon his skeptical mindset when pontificating on political and economic issues. He's even gone so far as to favorably cite cranks from the "Austrian school" of economics, a pariah field that is often considered the economic equivalent of creationism.

Mister DNA said...

We might be seeing more of this type of stuff as conservatives freak out over Huckabee's poll advances.

Sure, the neocons will go on denying global warming and claiming evolution is "just a theory", but they've got to do a modicum of damage control to make it look like they're not associated with the "Flinstones is a Documentary" branch of the republican party.

Post-Diluvian Diaspora said...

d'souza is a conservative pundit. conservatives are supposed to know all about free markets. therefore, an endorsement from d'souza means it's a good book.

but has anyone else noticed that lately michael shermer has become more and more...wrong?

Spurge said...

FYI

Shermer is going to be at the Harvard COOP on Tuesday.

ERV said...

Evidently he was at the Cato Institute last week..........

Spurge said...

I wonder if any of the Boston area skeptics will attend?

I am thinking of going but it does not sound like my cup of tea.

Shalini said...

but has anyone else noticed that lately michael shermer has become more and more...wrong?

Yes.

Jake said...

Shermer has always struck me as a bit of a lightweight. He was good in the Bullshit episode about the Bible, but otoh, they had a professional editing team whose job it was to make him look good. I saw him "debate" Kent Hovind (which in and of itself demonstrates poor decision-making skills on his part), and he completely bombed. I was very disappointed.

I was subscribed to his e-newsletter for a while, forget what it's called, but I gave up because, like I said, lightweight.

Post-Diluvian Diaspora said...

He's giving a talk at CATO on the 11th. http://www.cato.org/event.php?eventid=4297

mugwump said...

Agreed with all, particularly Jake. Shermer should not debate, it's not his forte (that's saying it mildly), and he seems to be very selective about when he uses honest skeptical thinking.

I've also noticed that he uses some of the very same rhetorical techniques he's complained about in others (much as Chomsky does).

And the CATO Institute? Ug. Lolbertarian closet Reagan fetishists, IMHO.

Jon said...

There is a gathering storm with libertarian and liberal conflicts in the skeptic/atheist communities.

This book should bring a lot of this simmering debate to the fore. I certainly could learn more about macroeconomics.

Art said...

This about Shermer reminds me of a lot of other folks, some quite competent in their own fields, who somehow get the notion that their genius extends to areas beyond their competence.

The results often range from the ridiculous to the obscene. Some such cases that come to mind are William Shockley on race, Linus Pauling on vitamin C, Newton on mysticism, or me on What Women Want.

Jack said...

Jon wrote:
here is a gathering storm with libertarian and liberal conflicts in the skeptic/atheist communities.

I've noticed that as well. I've been very unpleasantly surprised at the irrationality of the responses to libertarian positions by self-identified liberals. The tendency to name calling and other insults rather than rational discussion reminds me forcibly of the responses of creationists to the presentation of scientific arguments.

I'm a "small l" libertarian because I am not willing to initiate force against other people. Following from that, I am not willing to support the initiation of force by others, even if those others call themselves "the government."

The irrational response to libertarian views by many liberals suggests to me that the liberal views are based on emotion rather than reason. If someone believes that a particular position is incorrect, let's see the evidence and arguments rather than insults.

This book should bring a lot of this simmering debate to the fore.

I'm afraid it might. I'd rather see this kind of dissension in the ID creationism big tent.

DS said...

I'm a NYC area skeptic and I'll be checking out his talk at the NYAS on wednesday. I'll blog about it here shortly thereafter. I have a love-hate relationship with Shermer, so it should be interesting to hear what he has to say. I'll probably pick up a copy of the book at the talk

DS

Bayesian Bouffant, FCD said...

but has anyone else noticed that lately michael shermer has become more and more...wrong?

How dare you say such things about the world's foremost advocate of hydrogen fission!

Bob O'Hara said...

Shermer attempts a grand synthesis of research ... to demonstrate that ... that free trade meshes well with human nature.
Well, that aspect's a no-brainer. Of course letting people behave as they will will mesh well with human nature.

Bob

Torbjörn Larsson said...


I've been very unpleasantly surprised at the irrationality of the responses to libertarian positions by self-identified liberals.


I know what you mean. Many such posts starts off by shutting down a factual discussion ('my position on libertarians is well known'), so it is difficult to understand what the many different brands of libertarianism proposes and especially why most or all provokes such an emotional response.

It's like an in-crowd for hate, and they don't seem to get that you may know next to nothing about the background. Yes, I could also do well with some more macro-economics.


Of course letting people behave as they will will mesh well with human nature.


IIRC, just before yule someone claimed that chimps fits better to economical models of selfish (free trade) agents than humans. Let's see if the conservatives go ape over that one.

Blake Stacey said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Blake Stacey said...

Bleh.

Shermer has always had a tendency to commit the naturalistic fallacy, with poor analogies providing the cherry on top. Does biological evolution imply that a Totally Free Market(TM) is the best way to "organize" a human economy? Of course not, no more than Newton's laws imply that the stock market should fall like an apple.

Evolution is, in a famous phrase, the non-random survival of randomly varying replicators. When describing an economy as an evolutionary process, what are the replicators — people, companies, products, ideas, memes? And assuming we can answer that question, what are the selection pressures? What about altruism and cooperation, spandrels and byproducts?

On top of that, how do you get falsifiable predictions out of your model, and what experiments can you use to test them?

Maybe Shermer develops his ideas in his new book more than he has in what I've read so far.

Logan said...

How dare you say such things about the world's foremost advocate of hydrogen fission!

Surely you jest. Maybe Shermer can be a little off sometimes, but Shermer must know hydrogen doesn't split (unless you have the magical ability to separate quarks).

Since many of us here no doubt scoffed at critics who ranted against the "New Atheist" books without reading them, surely a few of us here will follow through a read Shermer's new book?

Of course you don't *have* to read it to discern ideas blurbed that sound false (I agree with Blake Stacey on the naturalistic fallacy criticism).

I will probably read it but I have a mild interest in economics anyway.

Dunno if I want to fork over the money to *buy* it, though.

Bayesian Bouffant, FCD said...

Surely you jest. Maybe Shermer can be a little off sometimes, but Shermer must know hydrogen doesn't split (unless you have the magical ability to separate quarks).

You would think so, wouldn't you? But surely you have not read Shermer's column in the June 2007 issue of Scientific American.

Shermer also wrote, in his book Why People Believe Weird Things:

"from an evolutionary viewpoint, 25 percent of a child’s genes come from each parent"

He has made a number of other remarkably wrong statements over the years.

Blake Stacey said...

To be fair, the sort of mistakes cited by Bayesian Bouffant, FCD could just be examples of error — glitches which were not caught by the editing process. However, I've read Shermer's efforts to "build a bridge" between science and religion, to sell evolution to economic conservatives, etc., and I was completely underwhelmed.

John Allen Paulos uses the comparison with a free-market economy as a plausibility argument, a way to get people to wake up and think, a tactic for warming them up so they'll be ready to listen to the real evidence. It might be good for such purposes — your mileage may vary — but I can't believe it's much better than that, for the reasons I sketched above.

Hector Avalos gave Shermer a dressing-down in Fighting Words (2005), after which I can't really trust Shermer to perform a "grand synthesis of research" from disparate fields. (By the way, WTF, D'Souza — neither psychology nor neuroscience can prove that something is moral.) Let me just dig that book out of the stack. . . .

To illustrate how even the most critical and skeptical scientists can fall into common traps because of their lack of acquaintance with religious studies, we feature here the work of Michael Shermer, author of The Science of Good and Evil (2004). Shermer seems broadly acquainted with the scientific literature, but not with that of the anthropology of religion or biblical studies. For example, note how Shermer describes the evolution of human religions: "As bands and tribes coalesced into chiefdoms and states animistic spirits gave way to anthropomorphic and polytheistic gods, and in the eastern Mediterranean the anthropomorphic gods of the pastoral people there lost out to the monotheistic God of Abraham."

Shermer's theory of the evolution of religion reflects that of Edward Burnett Tylor's (1832–1917) outdated unilineal model of religious evolution, which posited the following stages: animism > polytheism > monotheism. This unilineal scheme was already beginning to be dismantled with fieldwork at the start of the twentieth century, because high gods could be found among some "tribal" peole, and animism could be found in the most "civilized" states.

Likewise, Shermer is at least a half century out of date in biblical studies. Most critical biblical scholars no longer see Abraham as a historical figure, and we do not know if he was a monotheist. And the biblical records portray Abraham himself as believing in quite an anthropomorphic god who walks, converses, and eats with Abraham in the tents of Mamre (Genesis 18). Nor did the anthropomorphic gods of pastoral people die out, if one regards Jesus as an embodied god.

Shermer's definition of "religion" suffers from apparently assimilating Christian views of religion uncritically. His definition is this: "a social institution that evolved as an integral mechanism of human culture to encourage altruism and reciprocal altruism, to discourage selfishness and greed, and to reveal the level of commitment to cooperate and reciprocate among members of the community."

But where does Shermer derive the notion that religion is meant to encourage altruism? Does being an ascetic hermit who believes in God count as altruistic behavior? What is altruistic about killing others who do not believe the same set of precepts? In at least some circumstances, religion could be interpreted as maladaptive, not as altruistic.

That Shermer has assimilated Christian notions is more evident in his statement about the difference in morality between the Old and New Testaments: "This may represent the difference between Old Testament and New Testament morality: inflexible moral principles versus contextual moral guidelines—a stricter draconian God versus a kinder, gentler God." As we shall show in chapter 9, some New Testament authors actually advocate the eternalization and intensification of violence. Christian authors, in fact, may advocate a much more violent approach to life and our future compared to what is found in the Old Testament.

Shermer's view of Christianity is related to his evolutionary scheme for the Golden Rule, which is also not conversant with the dating of biblical sources. Thus, Shermer's Table 1 (a chronology of "The Historical and Universal Expression of the Godlen Rule") cites Leviticus 19:18, which he dates to 1000 BCE, as the first occurrence of the Golden Rule. However, the dating for htis section of Leviticus, usually called the Holiness Code, is hotly contested, with most dates ranging from the eighth century BCE to the fourth century BCE. Shermer apparently is not coversant with the liturature that argues that the Golden Rule may represent a selfish political dictum.

In sum, a simple lack of acquaintance with the literature of religious and biblical studies seems to have led Shermer far afield in his attempt to explain the role of religion in violence.


I've skipped transcribing several footnotes in the original which provide additional source citations.

In passing, I note that this is the sort of thing which biblical scholars, anthropologists of religion and their ilk should provide, instead of worthless Courtier's Replies about theological arcana.

Bayesian Bouffant, FCD said...

Shermer provided some blurbage for D'Souza's latest book. Possibly it was an exchange of service for service. I leave the drawing of the conclusion that D'Souza and Shermer are both whores to the reader.

Torbjörn Larsson said...

The link to SciAm says "fusion". (And my favorite archive is down, and I'm too tired to look for any original text elsewhere.)

OTOH, Shermer makes a terrible blanket claim about radiating waves (conflate other waves, such as linear, with spherical). Sure, it's true far away from any radiating source, but not necessarily elsewhere. So I can agree that he wrote a sloppy original, however it looked.

Logan said...

The link to SciAm says "fusion". (And my favorite archive is down, and I'm too tired to look for any original text elsewhere.)

I happen to have the original magazine. Shermer *did* say "fission." LOL. That's just a little mistake, though. Shermer definitely knows that hydrogen is the lightest element and therefore unfissionable.

Craptacular that Sherms blurbed for D'Souza's anti-atheist book. It's sorta like when Michael Ruse blurbed for McGrath's "The Dawkins Delusion", but less expected.

Hume's Ghost said...

I read his SciAm column on it and I got the eSkeptic update on the book - and would have linked to his new webpage if I had had a net connection earlier today.

Shermer and D'Souza are friends. Impressive, given that D'Souza has more in common with Islamic radical Qutb that he does with Shermer.