Fighting the good fight

| July 26, 2020

The big battles are never won. Our generation assumed that vaccines and antibiotics had conquoured infectious disease, and yet the world is gripped by a new pandemic. We thought the spectre of authoritarianism and war had passed with the fall of the Soviet Union and the economic blossoming of China, yet superpower rivaly is not only increasing but the odds seem ever more stacked against the west.

Above all, the triumph of science, rationalism and the impartial pursuit of truth – the foundation of not only our wealth and comfort, but our freedom today, is under assault once again from all sides.

Just as the internet we hoped would free people from oppression is used to brainwash them anew, so social media and the web spreads patent falsehoods and partisan lunacies around the world at the speed of light before the truth, in Winston Churchill’s famous phrase, has got its boots on.

Michael Shermer has had his boots on for over thirty years, fighting the good fight for reason. It seems absurd that this fight should even be necessary, but the default state of humanity is one of fear and superstition, rather than reason and enlightenment. We default to tyranny rather than freedom. To the dark rather than light.

It is easy to point out the apparent idiocies of others, but this does little to persuade them to your side.  Shermer’s previous books, Heavens on Earth, The Moral Arc, The Believing Brain, and Why People Believe Weird Things explore the social, psychological and evolutionary reasons why falsehoods and misapprehensions take root and thrive, regardless of the facts hurled against them.

Shermer’s latest collection of thoughts, essays and reviews tackles freedom of speech, religious belief, social change, scientific upheavals and contemporary intellectuals.   However it makes for a coherent read because the man himself is consistent in his interest in people, as well as objective truth. Although the book is dedicated to the late, great Christopher Hitchens and evolutionary scientist Steven Pinker, Shermer’s work offers a break from the occasionally hectoring tone of the ‘Four Horsemen’ of atheism – Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris.

Although resolute in his defence of enightenment values, Shermer is never confrontational in tone.  He is always avuncular company, and his wit, warmth and humanity shine through as much as his clear eyed intellect.  His book is always good company, giving his arguments more chance of traction with the general public, rather than preaching to the skeptic choir.

His defence of freedom of speech and classical liberalism is particularly timely, given the well-meaning but ultimately poisonous social acceptance of ‘thought crimes’ at the behest of the cultural marxists and social justice warriors.   Identity politics and intersectionality theory are as great a threat to social cohesion and the pursuit of truth as religious dogma, conspiracy theories and political thuggery.

As Shermer notes with characteristic economy:

“It is when individuals are subsumed into and sacrificed for the good of the group that abuses of freedom have been most widespread and body counts have been driven highest. It is when people are judged not by the content of their character but by the color of their skin – or by their gender chromosomal constitution, or by whom they prefer to share a bed with, or by what accent they speak with, or by which political or religious affiliation they identify with – that freedom falls and liberty is lost.”

There is a strong skeptic community, well served by a host of authors and websites such as Shermer’s own  However the notions of evidence based action and objective truth are under assault from both the right and left in our own societies, as well as manipulation by hostile regimes, unscrupulous hucksters and the simply unhinged.  A defence of truth is now controversial, and can be academic suicide.

Progress is not a ratchet which only works one way.  There may never be a passenger plane as fast as Concorde.  There may never be another man on the moon.  Let us hope we didn’t live at the highwater mark of reason, and that Shermer’s work has not been in vain.

So buy two copies, one for yourself, and one for that friend on Facebook who says COVID-19 is caused by 5G wireless, the moon landings were faked or Elvis hasn’t left the building.  Shermer deserves celebrating, not just because his writing styles is as erudite as it is readable, but because the scientific method is the powerful tool in our armoury and the quest for truth is the only hope for mankind.