[FoRK] Science and Even Sci-Fi Make Us Better People

Stephen D. Williams sdw at lig.net
Sun Mar 15 19:10:18 PDT 2015

I like these points.

" which argues science and reason are responsible for most of humanity’s moral progress. "


     Geek's Guide to the Galaxy Entertainment
     7:00 am

Science and Even Sci-Fi Make Us Better People
Jeremy Danger

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.”


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