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Mixing Science and Politics (and Economics)

by Michael Shermer, Jul 28 2009

So many of you have taken the time to respond to my blogs thoughtfully that I feel I should comment in kind. In looking through the many comments, however, I see that most of what I would say has already been said by people who responded to my critics. Nevertheless…

First of all, why is it okay to mix science and religion (with atheists eagerly do in debunking religious claims) but not okay to mix science and politics/economics? Why is it okay for liberal atheists to stick it to religious believers and twist the knife slowly, but when it comes to getting your own (political/economic) beliefs challenged, that’s off limits — NOMA (nonoverlapping magisterial) for science and politics? I don’t see how they are different in principle. Skeptic is a science magazine, not an “atheist” magazine; nevertheless, we routinely deal with religious claims and no one ever complains about that. The closest we have come to political/economic issues is environmentalism (Vol. 9, No. 2 — sold out), overpopulation (Vol. 5, No. 1), and global warming Vol. 14, No. 1). For all three we published several articles; in Vol. 14, No. 1, for example, we published articles both skeptical of global warming and accepting of global warming. So I don’t see what would be wrong with publishing articles pro, con, and neutral on political and economic claims.

One person wrote me a private email that said he thought of me as the next Carl Sagan, but now that I’ve gone to the dark side (turning Right, although I’m as critical of the Right as I am the Left), because Carl was “apolitical.” Carl Sagan was many things, but apolitical was not one of them. Carl was a Liberal and proudly wore his politics on his sleeve, such as when he marched in protest at nuclear sites or testified before Congress about the dangers of nuclear winter. I admire him for having the courage of his convictions, which intimately blended his science and (Left) politics. If you think Sagan was apolitical it is because you happen to agree with his politics and so those ideas seem simply correct, not political. If you don’t share his politics (I share about half of them), then it’s obvious that Sagan was not apolitical.

The liberal bias in the skeptical community was identified by many people in the comments section of my blog, for example by “DR,” “James,” and “Devil’s Advocate”:

… Sadly, there is a lot of hatred toward libertarianism at JREF [he means TAM]. I can be an atheist, believe gay marriage is ok, think nothing of smoking pot, and I won’t get half as much grief from a conservative that I do from an American liberal who reels and squirms when I say that the welfare state is immoral or that free trade and voluntary transactions in capitalism promote fair and just outcomes. It’s like the only reason why I have rationalized this set of morality is because I’m a supremely evil person and must be wrong… —DR

… I’m disappointed, but not surprised by the large group of liberal skeptics. I’ve talked to too many Democrat-card-carrying skeptics that spout the same unoriginal, canned rhetoric and continual spewing hatred of Republicans. For a group that supposedly supports tolerance, they’re anything but tolerant …

I’ve three times over twenty years joined local skeptic groups and all three times there was a presumption that if I was a skeptic, then of course I’m also liberal in my politics. Two times I tried to be what I am but was marginalized, treated like a Goldwater (or Reagan, or Bush) mole. The third time I tried to avoid political discussion, but it was not possible, so, unwilling to lie, I left. My refusal to come over to pure liberalism clearly wasn’t going to be tolerated. All I wanted to do was examine UFO claims and crop circles, but… —Devil’s Advocate

Another critic named John D. Draeger makes a good point that I wish to acknowledge: “He [me] does NOT believe that political persuasions and different economic models for how societies should be run are moral value judgements…. Social services can be paid for in different ways, and in a democratic society it’s up to the majority to define how that is done. Social services can be paid for in different ways, and in a democratic society it’s up to the majority to define how that is done.” That’s true, in a democracy the majority rules how to divvy up public funds for social services, and that tends to be more of a value judgment than a science. But as someone else wrote just below that, quite cleverly I think…

First of all, democratic societies can still be evil, as the famous saying goes: “democracy is two wolves and one lamb voting on what to have for lunch.” And then in another famous quote (attributed to several), “A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury with the result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy, always followed by a dictatorship. Thus our founding fathers gave us a republic … if we can keep it.

Even this is a value judgment, I agree, but surely we can apply some forms of social science to inform our value judgments. For example, we may as a society make the value judgment that it would be good if every child received a basic K–12 education. I agree with this value judgment, and would add to it the value judgment that it would be equally important for every child to have a computer and Internet access because that is the future of education. So we share that value judgment. However, the next question is a pragmatic one: who is going to pay for this education (and computers/Internet)? Parents? Churches? NGOs? Charities? Government? If the latter — the value judgment we have made — then do parents get to choose among the various government schools of where to send their children? (No.) Do parents who choose to send their children to private schools have to also pay for government schools? (Yes.) Is that fair? You make that value judgment. I don’t think that it is fair. To be consistent, if you are pro-choice on abortion you should also be pro-choice on education. The deeper value judgment here is being pro-choice about everything. Choice = freedom.

Some correspondents hated the political diagram because it seems to elevate libertarianism above the traditional left-right spectrum. Okay, then you come up with something other than the left-right linear spectrum to visualize where someone would fall on that line who is socially liberal and fiscally conservative. You draw it and I’ll publish it in a future blog.

Some people hate the word “libertarian.” I’m not crazy about it either, but haven’t thought of a better label. Labels are useful because they enable people to take cognitive shortcuts, but they also lead to shortcuts to nuanced thinking about what someone believes. “Oh, you’re one of those…” full stop. We all do this, of course, but I call myself a libertarian for the same reason I call myself a feminist, an atheist, and a pro-choicer — because it is the accepted language and we have to communicate ideas with language. But I much prefer to be assessed on specific issues.

Several of you said that I am a victim of one of my own central tenets of baloney detection: the confirmation bias, where we look for and find confirmatory evidence for what we already believe and ignore the disconfirmatory evidence. Yes, I will admit, I do this. Everyone does, and we must guard against it, especially when it comes to religion, politics, and economics. To combat this problem, I read the conservative Wall Street Journal and the liberal Los Angeles Times. I listen to such conservative talk radio hosts as Hugh Hewitt and Dennis Praeger as well as the very liberal Bill Maher. I have read Karl Marx’s books as deeply and carefully as I have read Adam Smith’s books. I have read a host of books from liberal and conservative and libertarian authors on the current economic meltdown. And although I have a few libertarian and conservative friends, because I work in the sciences and in publishing, the vast majority of my friends, acquaintances, staff, co-workers, and colleagues are liberals who I can assure you are never shy about letting me know where they think I’ve gone off the political or economic rails.

Finally, let me add that one of the appealing things to me about the libertarian worldview is that it is optimistic, uplifting, and most importantly (to me) anti-elitist. I’m in favor of doing whatever we can to allow the little guy to succeed and to break up power blocs that prevent the average Joe or Jane from reaching their full potential. The Constitutional divisions of power in our Democracy — emulated by many others around the world — are a huge improvement from centuries past that allowed or enabled some to succeed at the expense of others. That was a zero-sum world. Over the past 200 years the spread of democracy and capitalism has done more toward achieving a Nonzero world than anything else — more people in more places more of the time have more power and liberty and wealth than any time in the previous four millennium. Therefore, the more we can spread democracy and capitalism the better off more of us will be more of the time.


266 Responses to “Mixing Science and Politics (and Economics)”

  1. MadScientist says:

    “Why is it okay for liberal atheists to stick it to religious believers and twist the knife slowly, but when it comes to getting your own (political/economic) beliefs challenged, that’s off limits — NOMA (nonoverlapping magisterial) for science and politics?”

    I don’t see anyone making such an assertion that science and politics cannot be mixed. The difference between the two scenarios which you present is that religious claims contradict observations and well-established facts. When you throw in a political view which is purely hypothetical and claim that it will cure all evils how can you not expect skeptics to roll their eyes? There are numerous problems with the current political and economic systems and there have been in the past. There have been a number of very significant positive changes to the political system in the past, for example with Abraham Lincoln and the GOP and later on with Theodore Roosevelt (and the GOP again).

    I’m still waiting for evidence that your economics and politics are in fact backed by science and not just trying to assume the trappings of science to peddle claims as the “alternative medicine” crowd does. As far as science goes, you seem to be stuck in the stage of forming hypotheses; the next step is to formulate tests of those hypotheses and by that I don’t accept an overnight wholesale change to the political and economic systems as a reasonable experiment.

    • Cthandhs says:

      “When you throw in a political view which is purely hypothetical and claim that it will cure all evils how can you not expect skeptics to roll their eyes?”

      Straw Man. To which political views are you referring? Not all libertarians believe the same things. The Libertarian Party, such as it is, tends to be split on Abortion Rights and Gun Control. Many Libertarians consider themselves Left-Libertarians and tend to vote Democrat, while others will only vote for Republicans, but only if their candidate will cut taxes. Further, the suggestion that Libertarianism is purely hypothetical is also incorrect, particularly where it merges into economic thought; economics is a science, with predictable and testable results. You seem to believe that certain kinds of politics require certain beliefs. It’s fine to be skeptical beliefs, but, for instance, I may be skeptical of Trickle down theory or Green Energy. That does not mean I’m skeptical of Republicanism or Democratism.

      • tmac57 says:

        “economics is a science, with predictable and testable results. ”
        If this is correct, then why are there such diverse economic theories? Or is it your humble position that ‘of course’ your libertarian economic theory is infallible, and all the rest are ‘of course’ garbage?

      • Cthandhs says:

        For the same reason there are diverse scientific theories in many fields. There are Economic theories that most economists agree with, such as Supply and Demand.

        ‘of course’ your libertarian economic theory is infallible, and all the rest are ‘of course’ garbage?

        Straw Man. I did not state or imply either of those things. In fact, I’m not sure that a cohesive “libertarian economic theory” exists. Libertarianss tend to favor Free Market Capitalism, but opinions vary wildly over how far you can take a free market.

      • JGB says:

        I would argue that “laws” such as Supply-and-Demand are sufficiently vague and nebulous as to not warrant being labeled ‘science’. Can *anyone* predict the price of a can of coca-cola given adequate numbers of supply and demand?

        The saying “Whatever goes up must come back down.” is about as scientific as description of gravity as supply-and-demand describes prices.

        The fact is these “laws” are mere assertions and do not make testable predictions.

      • Tim says:

        The Law of Demand is defined:

        As something becomes more expensive, people do less of it: As something becomes less expensive, people do more of it: Holding other things constant.

        There are mathematical equations in economics describing many of these processes. MV=PQ in dealing with money for example. These things can be tested. They are not nebulous at all, they have clear definitions and meaning.

      • tmac57 says:

        Cthandhs you edited out the key part of my statement that you labled “straw man” You left out “Or is it your humble opinion that…” .You see I was asking what your position was, not making any assertion. Ironically, you ended up making the straw man argument by misrepresenting my statement.Good Job!

      • Anthony O'Neal says:

        I am pretty certain that the LP is very much pro gun. I don’t think I’ve ever met a pro gun control libertarian.

        While most libertarians describe themselves as “economically conservative and socially liberal”, people who self-describe as libertarian have a definite tendency to lean right.

        Personally, I am economically libertarian in some respects. I am very pro-free trade, pro-immigrant, and pro-capitalism. That’s why, even though I’m very left wing, I have very little sympathy with most social democratic groups, and I choose to describe myself as a hardcore liberal. But my strong belief in the welfare state as a positive good for society labels me as “immoral” by an libertarian standard, so I’m never going to say I “lean libertarian”. Libertarianism is inherently biased to the right. It’s not this pretentious above the fray thing most libertarians like to describe it as.

      • Cthandhs says:

        Some Libertarians do lean right. Some libertarians lean left. Maybe you just haven’t met them.

      • Fredrik says:

        (Old post, i know. Google brought me here)

        Skip left and right. Use Left, rigt, up and down. Where
        left/rigt is economic freedom and up/down is iduvudual freedom/state internention in social (none economic) life

    • Patrick says:

      Start here,
      with economic freedom. Economic freedom correlates with many things including higher incomes, more political, social, and press freedoms, less corruption, higher education levels, longer lives, better access to clean drinking water, lower pollution. The list goes on.

      While correlation is not causation, there is no existing hypothesis to explain why expanding economic freedom did NOT cause most of this. What we know from he evidence is that more economic freedom is better than less economic freedom, but we don’t yet know how far economic freedom goes before the value of its returns diminishes. Libertarians want to push for even more economic freedom, given its past performance.

      This isn’t the only instance where libertarians appear to be empirically correct. We know that free trade is better than no trade. We know that property rights are better than no property rights. We know gay marriages do not destroy society and we know that pot is not some gateway drug that leads to debauchery. We know that when America was much poorer than it is today, wealthy men of the past built libraries, museums, hospitals, colleges, symphony halls…and we have no reason to suspect that this would stop if government got out of the business… we know that neighborhoods of poor immigrants voluntarily formed their own insurance companies to help each other out and we know that the industrial revolution DID NOT increase poverty only increased the visibility of poverty (meaning we were starting to have something to contrast the poor with…ie a rapidly growing middle class).

      There are plenty of observations and empirical evidence around the world that lends an open mind to suspect that the libertarian hypothesis might be correct. Now if we can only find brave men and women to advocate a great social experiment in America. Maybe something like a massive city-wide free trade zone, with no trade barriers, very low taxes, and little regulation – skeptics pick any city you want, I bet even Detroit could be saved with some libertarian capitalist know-how.

      • Torkel says:

        strange definition of economic freedom. Libertarian politics (lower taxes, cut public spending, privatize public institutions) have in the past been directly linked to higher class differences, (the poor gets poorer) etc, being poor will lead to less economic freedom.

      • Patrick says:

        Um, not at all true. There is no causal mechnaism for increasing poverty by reducing taxes and spending and privatizing public institutions.

        We also know that building a bigger economic pie, does not lead to the poor getting poorer.

        As I stated before, we know that more economic freedom is better than less (France is more economically free than Zimbabwe by a large margin and one is fairly wealthy and one is dirt poor), but we do not know how far to take economic freedom.

  2. MadScientist says:

    “To be consistent, if you are pro-choice on abortion you should also be pro-choice on education.”

    To be consistent, if you hate broccoli you should also hate steak.

    • dub says:

      “To be consistent, if you hate broccoli you should also hate steak.”

      I think what Michael is saying is the choice should be up to the individual. Using your example: like or hate broccoli & like or hate steak. It’s your choice.

    • Max says:

      LOL. To be consistent, if you are pro-abortion and pro-euthanasia, you should also be pro-death penalty and pro-war.

      • Dallas says:

        Pro-abortion and pro-euthanasia (by self decision) are the actions based upon ones choice and freedom over his own life and future. Both the death penalty and war have impacts on people with fully developed and functioning brains which they would not choose.

        It is all about whose choice it is.

    • Joshua says:

      Pro-choice for abortion rights and pro-choice for school attendance are NOT the same value judgment. The former is social and the latter is economic. While one could argue there is a social component to the latter, I (a liberal) would describe the economic consequences as outweighing the social choice. With abortion, there is no such competing economic interest.

      • Mike says:

        I disagree that there is no economic component to abortion. Does it cost nothing to raise a child? In many cases, the “social” reasons given are often economic ones in disguise (an “unwanted” child…why are they unwanted? Sometimes it is b/c the parent is in poverty and cannot afford to raise the child).

  3. atlas1882 says:

    Well put, Michael. It is quite refreshing to find someone invested in the scientific/skeptical worldview that is also a proponent of individual liberty. Keep up the good work.

    • John says:

      I concur wholeheartedly. Individual liberty seems like such a no-brainer, but it is so often brushed aside.

  4. Dax says:

    To be consistent, if you are pro-choice on abortion you should also be pro-choice on education. The deeper value judgment here is being pro-choice about everything. Choice = freedom.

    What a total oversimplification! This is exactly the reason why we should be careful with mixing science and politics. What if the choice you demand is actually detrimental to others, the greater good, the environment, or whatever you care about? This is a value judgement.

    Does policy need to be based upon science? In cases where the answer is clear, yes. But the problem comes in forming the actual policy and then we move into the realm of ideology, which almost has the same blinding attraction as religion. People (including me), no matter what political ideology, will ignore the flaws and focus on the strengths of the ideological system because, unlike in science, you cannot express the outcomes in pure numbers. What is your criteria? The utilitarian view of least suffering? Well, that can be obtained by socialism. But is your criteria based upon a pure individualistic view, then we should go for pure libertarianism. Et cetera. Et cetera.

    Arguments fail. Science and politics can only go as far as leveling the facts of a problem (for instance, climate change is real, or poverty is less common in social democratic societies) but how we use those facts to create a policy is subjective. Just that you see this as not subjective is already a subjective view. Again, these are value judgements we are dealing with, after all.

    • K. says:

      What if the choice you demand is actually detrimental to others

      Now that’s a question I’d like to see intelligently answered.

    • Patrick says:

      So when a random sample of students are placed in a voucher program and a random sample remain in public schools and the voucher sample out performs the control group is it ideological to conclude that the voucher program has no positive results? Because that is what some Democrats have done and that is one danger of wanting to ignore science when it comes to politics.

  5. This post sounds like the conversation you and I had at TAM7… I, too, have run into the same near-religious fervor about political and social issues, even from people who describe themselves as skeptics. I wrote about this subject myself recently —

    Keep it up, Michael. I don’t think science can provide answers to political and social issues, but it can inform our decisions, and critical thinking about such issues, IMHO, is a good thing.

  6. Goyle says:

    “Finally, let me add that one of the appealing things to me about the libertarian worldview is that it is optimistic, uplifting, and most importantly (to me) anti-elitist. I’m in favor of doing whatever we can to allow the little guy to succeed and to break up power blocs that prevent the average Joe or Jane from reaching their full potential.”

    I’m confused as to how this applies to libertarianism. Without proper oversight and regulation, those power blocs are more, not less, likely to occur. It’s from an unbridled free market that robber barons emerged. Anti-trust laws were needed to break up the power blocs and allow “the average Joe or Jane [to reach] their full potential.”

    I believe that libertarianism is an idea that looks great on paper, but in the real world people tend to be greedy and irrational. And cynical…

    • Cthandhs says:

      Actually “Robber Barrons” is a pejorative term, see Please note that the term was initially used in America to describe rail industrialists who were heavily subsidized by US government land grants, even to the point that US Military forces were used on dissenting native tribes to clear the way for the railroads. That doesn’t sound like free market capitalism to me. I would love to see an article discussing the differences between the business practices of early industrialists pre-widespread government regulation and the post-industrial business practices of technology firms in the late 1990’s. How about the financial credit disaster unintentionaly caused by the Fed’s change in credit rules? Has regulation really helped that much in these cases?

    • Tim says:

      Cthandhs said pretty much what I would have said. I would point out though that the anti-trust acts were not used to break up monopolies, but instead used to go after people like James J. Hill who were competing with “Robber Baron” political entrepreneurs like Union Pacific and Central Pacific who were heavily subsidized and had politicians granting them special privileges. The Sherman Anti-Trust Act was given its teeth not breaking up a monopoly, but instead going after a market entrepreneur who never sought out government assistance; Rockefeller and his company Standard Oil. Standard Oil was by no definition of that act a monopoly. Standard Oil had fought a 30 year competition war with the Russians and brought oil prices to all time lows.

      “The Myth of the Robber Barons” by Burton Folsom is the best single book I can recommend on the subject.

  7. smijer says:


    I disagree with your politics and a few of the political viewpoints you expressed here (especially the view that “consistency” demands pro-choice on abortion entail “pro-choice” on education!) (and if the forum were correct, I’d enjoy discussing the points with you in depth)… But I agree with the view you are expressing in this article – that there should be no sacred cows for the skeptical enterprise.

    Although I identify as a political liberal and hold mostly politically liberal views, I cannot but admit that I have been guilty of and have witnessed a “critical analysis for thee but not for me” mentality among otherwise skeptical liberals.

    So, your point is well taken.

  8. JonA says:

    While I agree with you on many of your economic views, I disagree that these views are not a matter of opinion and can be settled by science.

    You sum up this point with the example about public education:

    Do parents who choose to send their children to private schools have to also pay for government schools? (Yes.) Is that fair? You make that value judgment. I don’t think that it is fair

    To be consistent, if you are pro-choice on abortion you should also be pro-choice on education. The deeper value judgment here is being pro-choice about everything. Choice = freedom.

    The difference between these two cases should be pretty clear. Having everyone pay for public schools is intended to improve society by ensuring that everyone has a basic level of education. In my opinion, I don’t mind paying taxes for public education because it means that people I will deal with on a daily basis will have at least some education, and this can help the economy as well. The fact that some people view this issue as “my kid goes to a private school so there’s no point in paying for public school” is disappointing. There is a large benefit to society by paying for public school, but you may judge that you don’t want it, but that’s a value judgement.

    On the other hand, being pro-choice with abortion is about allowing people to make a decision that only affects them (and their family). Again, it’s a value judgement, but it’s clearly a very different one. It also is different because we’re talking about a person’s body as opposed to their wallet. You might consider your wallet equally sacred, but that’s a value judgement.

    Now back to the issue of skepticism and economics. I think that science can inform some particular economic claims (what happens when minimum wage is increased?), but just like with religion, the skepticism movement shouldn’t make sweeping endorsements of any particular view or ideology. With economics, the systems are too complex to figure out which one is ‘best’, especially if we can’t even agree on what ‘best’ is since that is so largely informed by value judgements.

    • Perspective says:

      I don’t understand why you think an abortion only affects the family where it occurs. Every person affects society, born or unborn. I do agree though that if society wants to prevent abortion they must also take on the responsibility of raising the child. The issue has a lot more to do with our respect for human life, the parents and the child’s.

  9. atlas1882 says:

    JonA, there is no causal mechanism that links the action of “forcing everyone to pay for public schools” with the result of “everyone has a basic level of education.” The Washington, DC public school system should stand as powerful evidence that money does not equal success. A skeptical approach might concede as a given that the funds used to pay for education will be collected via taxation, while still holding out that having the government actually run the schools might not be the best way to utilize those resources. Vouchers and tax credits are two means of satisfying the public funding requirement without further depriving citizens of choice and maintaining the competitive pressures that have improved the quality of nearly every other good and service we consume.

    • Adam_Y says:

      I wonder if the reason why most Libertarians are met with such derision in skeptical circles is that they engage in such blatantly obvious fallacies. Shermer engaged in such a non sequitur in comparing abortion and education. You just engaged in the bare assertion fallacy by trying to claim that competition always results in better services.

    • Tim says:

      My home Detroit would probably be a better example than D.C. Washington had a voucher system for a while that led to higher levels of education at a lower cost to the government. A more precise example of failure is Detroit.

      Vouchers and tax credits don’t deal with the moral issues of what force may be used to finance, but I don’t think that sort of society would be one where Ragnar Danneskjold would appear. Milton Friedman rocks.

      Oh, and go Fair Tax.

  10. JonA says:

    @atlas1882: Maybe so, but it’s not the same as abortion, jeez.

  11. “I’m somebody now! Millions of people look at this blog everyday! This is the kind of spontaneous publicity – your name in print – that makes people. I’m in print! Things are going to start happening to me now…..”

  12. I think the key is that the skeptical movement needs to be (for intellectual honesty, consistency, and for practical reasons) ideologically neutral or at least tolerant. This means that ideological choices based upon value judgments or culture or personal choices of faith should be largely tolerated – and there should not be an ideological litmus test for skepticism.

    For example, there are deists among us, and honestly they should feel as welcome in the skeptical movement as atheists.

    But in practice this is complex. Most ideologies include factual claims, or use them to support their ideology. So as skeptics we need to explore the relationship between empirical claims and value judgments – and get very good an drawing the line. We also need to be careful about addressing the underlying facts and assumptions without unnecessarily attacking an ideological belief. This is tricky.

    And some value judgments are so basic and shared that we do take them for granted – like the notion that all people deserve a certain amount of value and dignity. We also all value truth for its own sake – almost by definition as skeptics.

    So as skeptics there are some ideological values we share – otherwise we wouldn’t actually care about anything and skepticism would be a pure intellectual exercise. I care when sick people are victimized by con artists – why?

    So another part of the picture is that we need to agree on what our core skeptical values are and when we should be ideologically tolerant. Otherwise we risk unnecessarily narrowing an already small community.

    • Joe Mamma says:

      I think that skepticism speaks to and attracts it’s slew of subscribers in a myriad of ways but that there is a nuanced persecutory streak that can at times be found in people that are skeptically inclined. I’m certainly not implying that majority of people here are involved for the sole purpose of being disagreeable, but I do think that we as a community look down our nose at opinions with which we disagree far too often (myself included). I believe that this particular slice of what fosters many of our skeptical tendencies rears its head regularly when politics or religion come about and is the reason that the deists, libertarians, and conservatives do not feel as welcome as they should, because at it’s core they really aren’t as welcome.

    • “Otherwise we risk unnecessarily narrowing an already small community.”

      I would add only that, while ideological intolerance can and has kept me out of and away from skeptical organizations and events, nothing will keep me away from skepticism itself, the practice of critical thinking and applications, and the efficacies of scientific method. Such intolerance will not impact my skepticism one iota, but it immediately impacts my willingness to join or assist skeptical organizations.

      Dr. Novella is not among them, but there is a growing number who feel they somehow, to some degree, ‘own’ skepticism by dint of having websites, blogs, podcasts, books, magazines, etc. If we want to kill the skeptical movement, the quickest way is to allow skeptical principles to be supplanted by skeptical personalities.

      Nobody owns skepticism.

    • First of all, why is it okay to mix science and religion (with atheists eagerly do in debunking religious claims) … Why is it okay for liberal atheists to stick it to religious believers and twist the knife slowly…

      It isn’t. This conflates two endeavors that should be distinct from one another: skepticism (a method for approaching testable fact claims) and atheism (a position regarding an untestable metaphysical claim). As skeptics, it is not our job to “stick it to religious believers and twist the knife slowly.” That many skeptics find this appropriate is a demographic artifact resulting from the fact that many skeptics are themselves atheists — and it is damaging to our core project.

      Skeptics should avoid any temptation to “stick it to religious believers” in the course of their skeptical work, just as mechanics, psychologists, or bus drivers should avoid doing so in the course of their work.

      but when it comes to getting your own (political/economic) beliefs challenged, that’s off limits — NOMA (nonoverlapping magisterial) for science and politics? I don’t see how they are different in principle.

      They aren’t different in principle: testable scientific claims of all kinds can and should be addressed, and placed in context against the state of the science as evaluated by the community of scientific experts for that topic. Metaphysical and ideological assertions — “god does not exist” or “liberty is the highest virtue” — should be strenuously avoided. If we cannot avoid assertions of these types, we do, as Steven notes above, unnecessarily fracture an already tiny community.

      • SeanG says:

        “skepticism (a method for approaching testable fact claims) and atheism (a position regarding an untestable metaphysical claim).”

        Daniel put it perfectly. You could substitute atheism for any number of things like deism, liberalism, etc. I think being a skeptic is synonymous with always enhancing my critical thinking skills. It doesn’t really say anything about the judgments I make after applying those skills, only that I’ve done my best to be objective about the process. In the end though one still has to make a value judgment. The scientific process doesn’t dovetail perfectly into conclusions about religion or politics but it can help you be rational about your assertions and help you back up your beliefs when interacting with others.

    • Steven Novella writes,

      So as skeptics there are some ideological values we share – otherwise we wouldn’t actually care about anything and skepticism would be a pure intellectual exercise. I care when sick people are victimized by con artists – why?

      From one viewpoint, skepticism actually is a purely intellectual exercise like other academic disciplines. From that perspective, our unifying goal is just to find out and describe the truth about pseudoscience and the paranormal; our unifying ethos would just be that of academia and science in general (ie, that knowledge is good).

      I advocate strongly for applied, activist skepticism, but I’m aware that some skeptics don’t share my sense of ethical urgency.

      • Jason Loxton says:

        Dan and Steven make excellent points. I want to make another point that often goes unsaid:

        The most dangerous outcome of mixing skepticism and politics is the risk of perceived bias. As skeptics, the most important thing we have is our reputation: a commodity that is hard to acquire and easy to lose.

        Mixing ideology and skepticism genuinely risks it.

        This isn’t just hypothetical. I personally–and I cringe writing this as they are, especially Shermer, personal intellectual heroes–now find myself skeptical of Penn and Teller and Shermer on some topics. I have caught each maintaining positions that were in keeping with their personal political philosophy, e.g., climate skepticism or second hand smoke, but out of step with the science. And this is the consequence: everything they now say that could possibly be affected by their politics gets a question mark.

        One caught, always in doubt. By embracing politics and ideology, we risk tarring our whole movement with this brush.

        Personally, skepticism has already lost its standing on environmental issues. There is too much Libertarianism floating around and environmental action requires, when the threat is real, risking too much “freedom.” I still follow the controversies, and enjoy watching the shrill voices on both sides crash down to earth at the hand of well-supported fact, but I do this through academic conferences and journals, not the skeptical literature.

        Shermer asks why he can’t write about policy questions? Here’s my blunt answer: Because he publicly declared himself a Libertarian, and Libertarians, like all ideologues, have a long history of embracing confirming facts and arguments of convenience. Does that mean Shermer engages in this? No, it doesn’t. But it means that he needs to be read for bias in exactly the same way as does the Marxist or the Deep Ecologist.

        There’s nothing wrong with having a strong political opinion, but it precludes you from the position of objective commentator. Skepticism needs to keep this status, and so our organizations should steer clear of political affiliation, and we should assign our most politically disinterested spokespeople to tackle the sticky intersection of science and policy.

        Carl Sagan famously said: “We’ve arranged a global civilization in which most crucial elements profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster.” I submit that by letting our politics mix with our skepticism, we risk our ability to be the people that can be turned to for this help. We risk our credibility. We risk our purpose.

      • The most dangerous outcome of mixing skepticism and politics is the risk of perceived bias. As skeptics, the most important thing we have is our reputation: a commodity that is hard to acquire and easy to lose.

        Jason, I agree that a serious danger of mixing skepticism and politics is the likelihood that we will be perceived as unreliable sources on scientific questions. But what is your prescription here? How does skepticism regain your trust?

      • Jason Loxton says:

        Well… I think that there’s not too much to regain. I think it is a dangerous path to go down, but I think that there have already been lessons learned (this remains my favourite retrospective piece: Shermer came round on climate change, and it sounds like Penn was starting to at TAM. The way Penn delivered his answer it also sounds like he has gotten a drubbing from someone and is thinking through to make sure his baloney detector is tuned correctly. We should all go through that tuning process periodically. Every one of us. Shermer’s point about the number of “Liberals” around was well taken. We need to take the same hard look at ourselves: make sure we get our science from journals and not Hollywood.

        Honestly, everyone gets stuff wrong. I am sure I do all the time. The thing is, people like Shermer and Penn–leaders–have a higher standard attached them because we hold them up, unfairly perhaps, as sort of icons of critical thinking. They are our public face and also our inspiration. They need to rise above it all. They aren’t allowed to be subject to normal human biases.

        I guess my prescription is this: moral debates are fun and necessary, but there are other places for them (who should fund education is a moral/philosophical issue, as is whether taxation is “slavery” or a fee for residence in a community). As for factual arguments about policy, about the cost effectiveness of some program, the most efficient delivery model, etc., if we choose to go there –and I am not at all sure we are really the best people to do it: there are health and education economists and policy experts who already work on this stuff–we need to be very, very careful. If the Economist gets a little selective with its citations in support of the market, no one will be surprised, and no harm done. Same if the Guardian skews Left. We don’t have that luxury. If we deal with this stuff, it has to be neutral, fact-checked, and citation rich. If we go here it has to be according to journalistic standards of excellence.

        But personally, I think we are better off sticking with pseudoscience, pseudoscholarship, the paranormal, and consumer protection. There’s still plenty to be done there.

      • MadScientist says:

        I find that P&T’s Bullsh!t provides a very superficial treatment of issues, but it is entertaining and gives a thinking person something to think about and something to go out and learn more about. Just because the big loud guy tells you it’s bullshit, it isn’t necessarily so.

      • SicPreFix says:

        Jason Loxton, thank you for this post. You have very succinctly put into words what I’ve been trying to say for some time now in regards to Shermer’s rather embarrasing proselytizing of his personal ideology. He is such a smart guy, and it utterly baffles me how blind he is to the error of his ways in selling his politics as he does. This blog desperately needs more highly eloquent posters like you.

      • Perspective says:

        Pseudoscience and Paranormal? These are what skeptics do not need to be involved with, what we do need to be involved with is the world we interact with. Skepticism is our way of dealing with new and old information that comes into our lives and allows us to have a deeper understanding of the world around us.
        Will we still have prejudices, certainly, but if we are truly skeptical, we have the honesty to question those as well and eventually come closer to understanding the world as it is.

      • Perspective writes,

        Pseudoscience and Paranormal? These are what skeptics do not need to be involved with, what we do need to be involved with is the world we interact with.

        One thing that gets lost in these discussions: those who argue skepticism should avoid wading into politics are not arguing that we shouldn’t bring every ounce of our skeptical expertise to our political lives. I bring informed skepticism to the table when I discuss politics in my private life — and when I go the ballot box. When skeptics (like Hal Bidlack, or perhaps one day Shermer himself) run for office, their platforms are no doubt informed in part by their critical thinking skills and science literacy. That is all good and appropriate.

        But I would certainly echo Jason’s point above: skepticism as a movement should indeed focus sharply on “pseudoscience, pseudoscholarship, the paranormal, and consumer protection.”

        I made my pitch for renewing this traditional emphasis in my essay “Where Do We Go From Here?”(PDF). I won’t review all the arguments here, except to note: when I dig into an industry-driven astroturf campaign to derail regulation of unproven supplements, or Michael Shermer deeply investigates the culture and arguments of Holocaust denial, or other skeptics study and report on fake cancer cures or predatory “psychic” con men or other traditional skeptics’ fare, we perform a unique public service. No one else fills the role that skeptics do, and there is a clear public need for investigation and consumer protection reporting on these fringe topics.

        Are these topics, in relative terms, less important than sweeping policy questions? Perhaps so, but I would ask instead, “Are these topics important enough in absolute terms — do they have sufficient human cost — that somebody should be looking at them seriously?” I think they are. We are the ones who do that work, and it’s clear what happens when we abdicate this responsibility: con artists get away with murder.

        By contrast, the world is stuffed to the gills with pundits offering their political opinions. It is not clear that dropping our emphasis on paranormal and pseudoscientific topics to promote our various divergent political views would be a net benefit to anyone. (It is clear that it divides our community.)

        Certainly policy questions should be researched rigorously and informed by the best available science, as many posters suggest. Yet skeptics should be aware: there are already domain experts doing that academic and scientific work. Whether it’s administration, politics, pedagogy, economics, sociology, or any of dozens of other fields and sub-fields and specialties, serious work is already taking place. How many thousands of PhDs toil just at the intersection of politics and the environment, or politics and schools? A technical literature exists on these topics that must be mastered and cited before any meaningful opinion can be ventured. For any question skeptics might ask in the political arena, there is a body of relevant expert, peer-reviewed literature — and relevant experts.

        Can skeptics engage with those vast bodies of expert knowledge? Sure, the same way we can engage with the expert literature in cosmology. We can,

        A) set it aside and deal with our own area of expertise;

        B) responsibly report on the state of the relevant expert literature in our role as science journalists,

        or C) become relevant accredited domain experts ourselves, perform original research, and publish that research in the relevant peer-reviewed literature — not the skeptical press.

      • badrescher says:

        Although, Like Shermer, the paranormal bores me to tears these days (spent too much time on it during childhood), there are many other more mainstream issues to talk about: CAM, SOCAS, scientific integrity, environmental issues (which I could argue are just as complicated, but seem to be less divisive), and education.

        So, I will comply. No more open-forum discussion about fiscal conservativism/liberalism from me.

        But I still want an answer to my question about his definition of “moral”… ;)

      • badrescher writes,

        Although, Like Shermer, the paranormal bores me to tears these days (spent too much time on it during childhood), there are many other more mainstream issues to talk about: CAM…

        This is partly a definition problem: I’d include most CAM therapies under the heading “paranormal” and the remainder under “pseudoscience.” (After all, homeopathy, traditional chiropractic, and Therapeutic Touch are all supernatural, while Bigfoot isn’t.)

        But you’ve put your finger on something important: one cause of distraction into topics like politics is that long-time skeptics get bored of the old chestnuts. Unfortunately, this is an inescapable tension. The material that interests or entertains the established base (“something new”) is not the stuff that brings new audiences to the skeptical literature. There is a reason that the key growth and outreach successes for skepticism, such as the podcasts, are so traditional in their focus on pseudoscience and the paranormal: people turn to skepticism to learn the truth about weird things. (If they want political discussion, we’re hardly the best or most entertaining source for that.)

      • Tim says:

        Morality: “A code of values to guide man’s choices and actions – the choices which determine the purpose and the course of his life. It is a code by means of which he judges what is right or wrong, good or evil.”

        – Philosophy: Who Needs It, by Ayn Rand, pg. 83 is about the same.

    • MadScientist says:

      I for one do not believe that economics and politics is somehow a sacred cow (except possibly for those indoctrinated at an early stage – political affiliation is reminiscent of religious affiliation). Schermer makes that statement without any reasonable evidence. Not all people say his politics or economics is crazy just because it doesn’t fit their own concepts of what economics and politics should be like. Most people I know dislike much of what they see in current politics and economics and would welcome a change which they did not believe to be detrimental. So it is up to the proponents of any specific political or economic reform to lay out the *facts* (not opinions) on why a particular change is of benefit to the nation. Admittedly at the moment many economic and political changes are really a matter of opinion rather than a matter of facts, but people deal with what they’re handed so it would take something quite unusual to do irreparable harm. However, when proposing huge changes to a system the general attitude I would expect would be one of “things are bad enough as is, you’d better prove that things will be better or I won’t waste my time listening to you.” Schermer mentions a “science” to politics and economics so let’s see the scientifically established facts, otherwise why should any sensible person treat the claims with any more credibility than woo-woo claims of “proof” and “scientific tests”?

    • says:

      This frenzy of political correctness is disappointing. Just as with the truth behind Nixon and Watergate, following the money reveals the truth, inconvenient as it might be to the “views” of posters on this blog. We must start, however, at the beginning. The basic assumption out of the womb is this: there are two kinds of people; those who create and produce, and those who steal their output and live off it. Judging from these posts, that includes intellectual honesty. Regarding ineffectiveness of public schooling, why are none of you intellectuals lying the blame where it belongs, smack-dag at the feet of today’s Robber Barons–big business? It is big business that wants pliant (meaning dumb and gullible) consumers and who sponsor mass media programming that rots the brains of consumers and teaches, actively and aggressively, that to be a hip youth, one must be a stupid slob who drips ketsup on white carpet, lives life with a remote control, values only posessions, ignores laws, cheats at every opportunity and generally ignores consequences of their actions because they are the only organism in existence. It is big business and consumerism that force families apart and family members to work away from their homes that then allows in or requires young people’s “educations” to be by peer pressure, pop culture and fear-mongering advertising (yes, to a teen-age girl, not having what her friends have strikes fear in her). Teachers, who are denigrated by the mere existence of hundred million-dollar salaries for illiterate, inarticulate and immoral jocks, can’t possibly be proper role models, so being beaten up for exhibiting any self-control, intelligence or common sense in schools is the norm, and no one thinks about root causes of all these ills because the cynical panels of psychologists in Madison Avenue Ad firms are adroit at propaganda and subversion of moral, ethical and self-preservation instincts which must be overcome to sell consumerism.

      Follow the money and you will find what went wrong.

  13. Drew says:

    The “political diagram” is called the Nolan Chart, and the original was a square with libertarian in the top-right corner. It was designed by fellow Tucsonan David Nolan, who is a libertarian, and for whom I proudly voted in 2006. It is nonsense for the following reason:

    Nobody favors government intervention for its own sake. Government intervention is always a necessary evil or and unnecessary evil. The chart, by defining “liberal” and “conservative” in terms of when they believe in government intervention is nothing but a rhetorical tool for libertarianism.

    It is an oversimplification to say that what it means to be a liberal is to favor government intervention into economics but not social life and vice-versa for conservatives. If liberal always favored government intervention into the economic sphere then they would favor all taxes and all welfare (which is what the chart implies), but liberals tend to oppose regressive taxes and corporate welfare. If they always opposed government intervention into the social sphere they would oppose mandatory sex education laws, which they tend to favor.

    I’ve commented about the underlying psychology that I believe makes a person a “conservative” or “liberal,” but here what’s important is that they have different goals and they both believe in government intervention to achieve those goals. The difference with libertarians is that they do not believe in government intervention to achieve their goals.

    What the Nolan Chart omits is what libertarian goals are, in terms of what a libertarian world would look like.

    • Adam_Y says:

      And another hasty generalization…. Technically both Republicans and Democrats are liberals. Muahahhahah…

      • MadScientist says:

        Yes, and what passes for “conservative” today bears no resemblance to the conservatism I was familiar with. The conservatives I was familiar with would be called “communist” and “hippie anarchist” in today’s world.

    • oldebabe says:

      Re: your last paragraph. That seems to be the problem with most denunciations and/or negative critiques of systems, policies, etc., i.e. there seems to be no specific, detailed alternative offered.

  14. Kenn says:

    The objective is not to be an atheist or a theist:

    The objective is to be objective.

    Sadly, atheist tend to overlook that principle. Instead, they incorporate their own dogma.

    1. Thou shalt believe in global warming.
    2. Thou shalt vote for and support Obama and only Democrats shalt thou serve.
    3. Thou shalt support socialized medicine.
    4. Thou shalt figure out a way to contort every argument into a question of racism.
    5. Thou shalt not notice that only white people attend Pete Seeger concerts.
    6. Thou shalt support Keynesian economics and all tax-and-spending legislation.
    7. Though shalt black-list conservatives in Hollywood lest they spread McCarthyism.
    8. Though shalt hate the Second Amendment and distort the First.
    9. Thou shalt celebrate Earth Day and Mandela Day.
    10. Though shalt not eat meat.

    Suggested websites:

  15. RL says:

    I agree with your observations. My own observation from reading the various blogs and listening to various podcasts, is that there are very few true skeptics who consistently apply critical thinking to areas outside their favorite topics. Many do in certain topics, but the great majority do not when it comes to politics, economics, morality or other areas. In this regard, I view those skeptics in the same way as they view religious folk who don’t practice what they preach. Those skeptics are blind to their own behavior. But, they are people after all.

    I don’t share a lot of political or religious views as a lot of skeptics. But I have great respect for, and will listen to, the opinions of those who are consistent in their skepticism. Skeptics such as yourself, Dr. Novella, Brian Dunning and Penn Gillette, while often holding different views than my own, have my respect for being consistent in their thinking. Unfortunately, this seems rare in the rest of the skeptic community.

  16. Alex says:


    Very much a simplification.

    I think names like “Hobbes” and “Mill” are swear words to libertarians like yourself, since you don’t seem to comprehend that not all choice is good. Is it a good thing to choose to murder? No, that’s why we have a government make it illegal. Otherwise, you murdering someone, effects their freedom, even if it makes yourself freer. All government action is to intervene between conflicting rights and freedoms (e.g. the right to murder versus the right to life). Where liberals and conservatives etc differ is which rights to intervene on behalf of in different situations (e.g. the right to a free market versus the right to equal opportunity). Where libertarians go wrong is that while they understand that a government needs to make murder illegal, they don’t seem to comprehend the same arguments being made to even slightly regulate firearms, or have social security payments etc.

    • Perspective says:

      (e.g. the right to a free market versus the right to equal opportunity) In a non-coercive free market there is equal opportunity, so versus doesn’t make sense. Freedom as used meant the right to make choices that do not infringe on the right of others to also make choices. Therefor murder, stealing, and other choices that affect others are not freedom.
      I do not believe in gay marriage because I believe what is wanted is not the marriage but the forced acceptance of others. Marriage has historically been a unifying force used to encourage parents to be responsible for the long term care of children. It is a societal asset (opinion). What two adults do in privacy and with the consent of each only affects them. Any two (or more) adults should be able to enter non-coerced contracts which can be backed by the authority of the law(government). As with any other contract, deceit by one or more parties should be grounds for dissolution of the contract and make it non-binding.

      • Alex says:

        No, the government restricts your freedom to murder. This is a good thing, but there’s no getting away from the fact that if the government didn’t exist, you could murder freely. Consider if someone said they were talking about the “most free market possible” i.e. completely and utterly laissez-faire. Such a market would have no regulations at all. But it wouldn’t be as “free” under your definition (“right to make choices that do not infringe on the right of others to also make choices”), since clearly a private entity being free to dump waste on your back lawn or whatever will infringe on you. To me the definition “right to make choices that do not infringe on the right of others to also make choices” refers to Mill’s Harm Principle i.e. to legitimate things for the government not to regulate or outlaw.

        And this leads me onto “equal opportunity”, as under laissez-faire, not everyone has equal opportunity. Money is power so to speak, and with no government regulations, those with the most money will get education for their children, but those who are poor will not get education for their children. The same principles apply to other ingredients of a social safety net. Similarly, there is no equal opportunity if companies have a right to discriminate against employees.

        As for gay marriage, it’s not true that “Marriage has historically been a unifying force used to encourage parents to be responsible for the long term care of children”. Marriage was around during Ancient Greece and Rome etc, where homosexual marriage was quite common. Then Christianity came along and monopolized the term to mean “between one man and one woman”. Gay people just want the original usage of the term back, so they can marry the person they love. How on earth you can think it’s about the “forced acceptance of others” when it’s about love I don’t know.

      • Peter says:

        Consider if someone said they were talking about the “most free market possible” i.e. completely and utterly laissez-faire. Such a market would have no regulations at all.

        That depends what you mean by “regulations”, of course. It would not have rules handed down by and enforced by third parties, against the will of the parties involved in any given transaction. But that’s a far cry from saying it would be OK to commit murder, etc. (it would not).

        Marriage was around during Ancient Greece and Rome etc, where homosexual marriage was quite common.

        Nonsense. Relationships that we would call homosexual weren’t uncommon (at least among people that were worth writing about), but nothing like marriage. Most homosexual relationships in the ancient Greek world were between adult men and young boys (under 17), and not explicitly sexual in nature; that would have been severely degrading to them. And in ancient Rome, would have led to a death sentence!

      • fascination says:

        Do you really think that if government didn’t exist that people could murder freely? Think about it. You don’t think that the people who belong to the society in which the murder occured wouldn’t punish him/her themselves? If not for justice then at least for self protection. Look at the past, look at lynch mobs. I’m not saying I disagree with laws or murder being one of them, just that I found that statement of yours a little naive.

  17. Neil Middlemiss says:

    I am sympathetic to Dr. Shermer on this one. While many call me a “Libertarian”, I prefer the term “Classical Liberal”, used in the same way that the famed economist Milton Friedman did (as did von Mises and Hayek).

    I think part of the question we’re asking is: from what perspective do your politics come? For some, their perspective is top-down; for others, like myself, they look at it from bottom-up.

    Another interesting point is the quickness with which contemporary liberals say that the free market led to things like the current economic crisis. This idea is funny to most Libertarians; we typically consider the cause of the most recent economic crisis to be too much government interference (like, say, artificially low interest rates or forced lending intended to increase the number of home-owners while also substantially increasing risk).

    I fully admit that the other side of the Liberty coin is responsibility, and if you took risks in the market, you have to pay the price of a market correction when it comes along, because it always will.

    Consider also that the more government becomes involved in, the more critical the voter’s perspective is. Almost every voter I have met has been so devoid of social, political, economic, or scientific knowledge that it frightens me that they’re voting on the outcomes of individuals other than themselves.

    From a Skeptic’s perspective, I think what I am skeptical of is the ability of government to fairly govern for all people, rather than for the majority. Certainly in a free market it is possible for individuals or corporations to take advantage of others, but the diversity of the market that results from such liberty ensures my ability to choose wisely, should I choose to educate myself appropriately. If a person does not educate themselves, they will be taken advantage of with both large and small government, but a large government will minimize the abilities of those who have educated themselves.

    • tmac57 says:

      “Almost every voter I have met has been so devoid of social, political, economic, or scientific knowledge that it frightens me that they’re voting on the outcomes of individuals other than themselves.”
      Well, in a free society this is what free people choose to do. In a totally free society many may choose not to have even the minimum of education that society mandates now. Its difficult to predict what the unintended consequences would be when people are now free to do whatever they wish. My view is that is how we ended up with all of the laws,rules, and regulation that we now have for better or worse. While change is needed, I think targeted rational correction would be better than a wholesale ‘everyone for them selves’ type of change.

      • fascination says:

        tmac57, I have NEVER met a liberatarian that believed in total unrestricted freedom. There seems to be a lot of confusion about liberatarianism and what most liberatarians think about issues.

      • Tim says:

        Sir I think you confuse liberty with anarchy.

      • tmac57 says:

        I just respond to what I read. I see self identified libertarians who want to wholesale tear down the FDA, EPA,and other regulatory agencies. They want the roads and highways put into private hands. They want markets to operate in a totally unfettered way. They see taxation as theft, and pretty much think all services to the public should be more or less done in a voluntary manner (since taxation is immoral).
        I certainly see the problems with the existing system, and they should be addressed. My point is that what we have created since the inception of American society is a series of actions, reactions, social contracts,elections,laws,etc, that resulted in our current situation. I think that it is naive to think that everything can be corrected with a simplistic theory of free market approaches to replace a complex web of social structure that took centuries to evolve, without causing serious unintended consequences.

      • Tim says:

        Well, I agree with your first paragraph (kind of, I do see self-identified libertarians that believe all the things that libertarians believe which include the short list you included).

        As for the second paragraph, I would ask you politely to check your description of freedom as “simplistic.” I would be interested in which methods of state initiated force against the general population that you think are preferable to, you know, not having state initiated force against the general population. I’m not quite sure what those would be, what practical parts of society would be better, or how such continued action could be morally justified if you had the opportunity to end such statism, but I would like to hear it. Well, actually I have heard it many times before and indeed that line of thinking seems to be the main theme of the Republican Party so I actually find such political attitudes to be tried-and-failed method, but given your other posts you may have a unique argument to present that I would be genuinely interested in hearing (despite my sarcasm I would be very much interested).

        P.S. I take exception to the notion that our system has ‘evolved’ into a complex, convoluted system of ponsi schemes, senseless regulations, prohibitions, tax systems with deductions designed for social engineering, infrastructure that where it is not deteriorating it is completely useless (e.g. Alaskan bridge to nowhere), etc. If anything we have been in the process of slowly devolving into statism and collectivism through a series of ‘not-so-bad’ programs that “oh-you’re-just-exaggerating.”

  18. Tim Farley says:

    Do parents who choose to send their children to private schools have to also pay for government schools? (Yes.) Is that fair?

    To add to what JonA said above, yes, I think it’s fair. Why? Because the other people’s children, whose education I partially pay for, grow up becoming voters in my area. As such, they will eventually have some say over issues that affect me through their ballot.

    Do you want completely uneducated people voting in your district? It seems to me this was the fundamental argument for public education from the very beginning in the U.S. If you are going to give everyone the vote, then you need to ensure everyone has an education.

    Yes, of course, it does not automatically follow that government provided schools are the only answer. But (ridiculous extreme cases like DC aside) it does seem to work OK in many districts.

    • Tim says:

      Being a school board member in suburban Detroit, I can assure you that no it doesn’t work. Private schools do what we do better and for less money.

      I also find your moral argument lacking. You are simply saying that the ends justify the means. If the ends are not accomplished, do the means of using force to finance something become immoral, but moral if the ends are accomplished?

      • fascination says:

        The public schools are awful where I live too, Tim. The local private schools spend less per child than public schools do and yet, where I live at least, they out perform the public schools. Why is that?
        America spends more money on schooling than the vast majority of countries that outscore us on international tests. By high school age, American children test lower than children in 24 other countries, many much poorer than ours. My husband and I are saving up so that we can put our children in private school when they reach school age. I would hate to put them into the public school here! Our country is definitely doing something wrong when it comes to educating our children. I used to think it was lack of money being spent on education but thats not it. Hopefully one day we can find the answer.

      • Tim says:


        You lament upon our education system in your last sentence, but such passive desperation makes little sense given the opening of your statement. In that opening you clearly lay out the situation that private schools are doing what public schools do better and for less money. You seem to have the answer; the dynamic nature of a competitive system in which each actor (private school) has as its nature individuality, autonomy, and self-reliance/accountability. The producer (the school) is free to produce in any manner that suits them so long as they do not engage in coercion, but their money is theirs to lose as much as their profits are theirs to keep. The consumer (the parents/students) is free to ‘consume’ in any manner that they please as long as there is no coercion involved. The parents/students want the best education for the lowest price. The schools want the largest market share, profits, and reputation as they can possibly get. Each of the respective parties seeking their separate interests, and denied any chance to use force rather than reason, persuasion, and fairness end up producing the highest quality at the lowest price. This dynamic nature is the same force that drives evolution, however unlike evolution nobody gets devoured.

        Unfortunately there are many people who get into the wrong frame of mind and view all things as zero-sum; they come to believe that one man’s ability is another man’s loss. In fact the ability of one benefits all who can come into contact with that ability and it should be protected, encouraged, cherished, and celebrated.

      • fascination says:

        I agree that competition would make our schools better. I hope that we can get a voucher program implemented where I live. From what I have read, where vouchers have been implemented ALL the schools in the area improve, including the public schools.

  19. Brian M says:

    Your example on education is pretty good. In Canada, we can get funding redirected from public schools to private schools to help pay for them. So, we have the choice, without having to rely on private schools to ensure a proper education. You can have both.

    But you are avoiding the biggest issue. Health care! You claim that there is somehow more choice, yet, in american health care, the only choice you have is whomever your HMO says you can go to. In Canada, the money to get needed treatment can be diverted anywhere. And when I say anywhere, I mean _anywhere_. If I need a procedure that is not common, or not carried out in canada, I can literally go to the USA for that treatment. Yes, we can go out of our entire health care system for needed treatments, and it is entirely paid for. In Canada, we do almost everything here now, so its not really pertinent any more, but the point is that I actually have far more choice with a properly devised system then you do with a supposedly “free” system. And we don’t even have that great of a health care system. Fortunately, I know that I am covered by canadian health care wherever I go, so I don’t have to worry. I only need to worry about traveling to the states, where hospitals won’t let a dying grandmothers husband leave the hospital because he hasn’t paid half the bill, which will be completely covered by Canadian health care. Yes, this happened to my grandparents. Freedom by detainment. Fantastic.

    • Max says:

      Health care! You claim that there is somehow more choice, yet, in american health care, the only choice you have is whomever your HMO says you can go to.

      If I don’t like my HMO plan, I can switch to a PPO plan.

      • unbound says:

        That sounds about right…if you don’t like your one employee sponsored HMO choice, *sometimes* you can choose a PPO plan…with pretty much the same benefits, same limitations and same cost as the HMO plan you used to have (usually a bit more money for a *bit* more flexibility).

        Or, if you are in my shoes, you can choose between 2 PPO plans…which my employer worked with each PPO provider to make sure the benefits, costs and limitations are virtually identical. Both plans still exclude about 50% of the doctors in this region, both plans reject paying for some treatments (in one case, because the doctor couldn’t determine what was and was not allowed by my PPO provider…I guess US doctors should expect to have memorized all plans…and each PPO provider have different benefits depending on what your employer decides to purchase…how is a doctor to figure all this out?)

        Do I still really have a choice?

    • Max says:

      In a closed primary election, registered Republicans can only vote for Republican candidates, and registered Democrats can only vote for Democratic candidates.
      But in a single-Party state, voters can vote for “any” candidate in the Party. Does that mean there’s more choice in a single-Party state?

      • Brian M says:

        Who said anything about single party? Single party is very bad. But that has nothing to do with health care. They’re entirely not comparable. One makes decisions, the other provides tangible services. The health care system does not make decisions for the people they provide services to. Nor does the government make those decisions for the people. If you don’t like your doctor, you can change, and still be covered. You don’t need to change health care providers. If you like your family doctor, but dislike the hospitals in your HMO/PPO, whatever, can you just jump between them? Most can’t, at least not without a waiting period, and possibly getting denied health care. I can go wherever I want. I can go to one family doctor one day, and any other later that day. I don’t even have to call anyone, or get approved. It just happens. It’s also pretty cheap. I get my base health care (required services) for free. I only pay about $1 CAD a day for complete health care, including dental and optical. And that is everyone. The poor, the rich, and everyone in between.

        Now tell me, would you rather have significantly cheaper health care, or the fake promise of freedom?

      • SicPreFix says:

        While I fully support most of your argument in favour of our (Canadian) health care system, I really have to take issue with this statement you made:

        “I only pay about $1 CAD a day for complete health care, including dental and optical. And that is everyone. The poor, the rich, and everyone in between.”

        1. In BC, one of the first actions that our lovely premier, that notorious thief and liar Gordo Campbell, took on gaining office was to increase the base rate of the health care plan to $50 per month; substantially more than $1 per day
        2. Campbell also removed eye care from the health plan.
        3. Finally, so far as I know, dental care of any kind whatsoever has never, ever been paid for by Canada’s health care system in any province at all.

  20. badrescher says:

    I applaud you for continuing to talk about this in spite of harsh criticism.

    Skepticism should have no boundaries. I have heard time and time again that political and economic hypotheses are untestable. Hogwash.

    The assertion that these are untestable areas (outside the realm of science) is an assertion that a supernatural/metaphysical realm exists to place these areas into. That view is one of faith.

    Yes, economies are complex systems. So are the brain, weather, and societies, but study them.

    I would not consider myself libertarian and my fiscal stance is less conservative than yours, but it upsets me to see people either lock reason in a closet or simply refuse to debate when discussion turns to their political views.

    • I have heard time and time again that political and economic hypotheses are untestable. Hogwash.

      I’m not sure anyone says this. Of course economic and political hypotheses are testable. What is not testable is the assertion that we ought to value some political outcomes or ethical principles more highly than others. Is taxation good or bad? Is liberty a higher good than public welfare? Is it, as Michael suggests, “deeply morally repugnant that bureaucratic agencies have the legal right to confiscate my wealth through force or the threat of force”?

      Science can’t tell us.

      • badrescher says:

        Oh, I am not going to name names, but MANY have said just this. Some may surprise you. When pressed to discuss why, most simply turn away.

        I understand that some think of these issues in terms of values and even a vague sense of morality, but it seems unclear from brief mentions. In one discussion, a friend stated that we cannot discuss morality because what is “moral” is completely subjective, which defies a basic canon of science and creates a definition which must be attached to a metaphysical concept of the self. If any variable exists which cannot be defined, then the canon is destroyed and knowledge gained through science with it. We can certainly define terms like “moral”, “ethical”, and “fair” objectively.

        I agree that we cannot discuss these things in terms of what we should value, but we can surely discuss the relationships among variables and how sets of circumstances lead to specific outcomes (things which, as Shermer puts it, “inform our value judgments”).

        Your quote is a good example of how choice of language confuses these issues. It calls into question Michael’s definitions of words such as “morally”. Perhaps he’ll address this and clarify it?

  21. Alex says:

    A well thought out political conversation? I think I’ve seen it all now…

  22. Tim Farley says:

    In theory political and economic practices are testable.

    In practice its extremely difficult to do good controls on such studies, because you have to do your tests on live populations, which vary widely. A certain policy or incentive might work great in Denmark and go over like a lead balloon in Arkansas.

    • JonA says:

      On top of that, if you test a theory in a town in Alabama in 2009, and get a certain outcome, you can never replicate the test because it’ll be done in either another town, or at a different time, which would have different variables.

      This doesn’t make economic theories untestable, just very complex and difficult to test to a satisfactory level of reliability.

      To me, with any economic system larger than a small town (if even), chaos starts to enter the equation and it’s impossible to account for all the variables.

      If all these theories are testable, have ANY been tested? Haters of communism point to USSR as a failed experiment in socialism, while haters of libertarianism point to Peru. These aren’t experiments, they’re anecdotes!

      • Tim says:

        Well Peru wasn’t libertarian. Indeed, Hernando de Soto has some fine books on this subject. The Soviet Union was a good example of communism, but North Korea is even better.

        There are plenty of examples of liberty and plenty of collectivism out there, in Eastern Europe especially. Estonia is a very good example.

    • Nicole G says:

      I hate to tell you this… but the Mythbusters DID get a lead balloon to stay aloft. Just sayin ;-)

  23. Anonymous Coward says:

    Dear Michael Shermer, we already know what libertarianism is. Regardless of whether we agree with it or not and to what extent, we’re getting pretty sick of your proselitising. Please branch off related activities to a separate blog. Thank you.

    • Tim says:

      Speak for yourself. I know the number of responses to this blog certainly speaks for itself.

  24. jbrydle says:

    For what it’s worth, I’m somewhat libertarian (I agree the label causes problems), and I live in Canada, in Vancouver. Everyone and their dog is a liberal here, but I’ve never felt excluded or personally disrespected by my liberal skeptic friends. We disagree, we debate, and often the issues remain unresolved, but I feel no animosity from liberal skeptics.

    • tmac57 says:

      I think that it is ‘how’ and issue is argued, not ‘that’ it is argued that causes animosity. Use of pejorative, ad hominem language, and misrepresentation of position are used to frame the others argument, which frustrates and angers people. This causes both sides to argue past each other, as neither side can ‘hear’ the other’s true point of view.

  25. Nicole G says:

    I think this is a really great post and sums up why liberals and libertarians should be able to get along within the skeptical movement. However, I don’t see how continuing to talk about it is productive at this point. Yes, we should support the science behind issues such as global warming. But for a lot of political issues, as Tim Farly points about above, it’s difficult to get hard data. I think that we should stray away from these issues within the skeptical movement, unless it is to bring our personal skepticism into the political arena. Let’s keep talking about these things as friends and acquaintances, but as skeptics, there are bigger problems to face: consumer scams, science education, con-artists, alt-med dangers, and more. And we can do a lot of good if we stick to claims that are testable.

    • Tim says:

      Economics are testable. Global Warming is testable (well, more detestable than testable, but testable nonetheless). I like talking about things as friends and acquaintances, it is my preferred M.O., but I also like talking about things as people who make each others blood boil. Maybe I’m just cynical about the “lets hug and get along” attitude though. I want to talk about all issues here, not just some. Why? This place is one of the few on the internet where there are people who are genuinely concerned about being correct.

  26. atlas1882 says:

    I was unaware that there was an outstanding controversy as to whether competition improves the quality of commercial offerings. I think the argument is straightforward and well accepted: in a free market, if you fail to satisfy your customers, a competitor can enter and earn away that business by offering a better deal. Are you suggesting there is some other force at work responsible for the rapid disemination of god ideas throughout the economy? Isn’t this basically an incarnation of the skeptical m.o.?

    • Max says:

      Satisfying customers doesn’t always require improving quality. Consider network television.

    • Max says:

      Satisfying customers does not require improving quality.
      Consider homeopathy and network television.
      In the context of education, many customers want their children to learn Creationism instead of evolution.

      • atlas1882 says:

        Max, you call to attention an excellent point. Value is subjective. Often we may be able to apply objective criteria to a good or service and observe measurable improvements according to the predetermined scale: computers have faster processors, cars get better gas mileage, shoes have more durable soles. Equally as often, what a consumer deems important and hence bearing on quality will be the unique way an offerings features interact with his own perspective and personality. I love Family Guy, my parents hate it. My wife loves John and Kate Plus 8. I find it detestable. But this is the essential benefit of a free market economy: quality, from the perspective of the consumer, is ever-increasing in those offerings subject to competition. From a skeptical point of view, so what if parents want their kids to learn creationism? Creationism is wrong, and in any field where the correct understanding of evolution is essential to the successful execution of a task, those who adhere to a bogus belief will fail and be out-competed by those with a more accurate theory. This is why, as a skeptic, I’ve adopted a more libertarian political theory: like goods and services compete the same way ideas do, since really that’s all they are, manifestations of ideas. If a monopoly is defined as a situation in which it is impossible for new entrants to compete, then I don’t see any other way for that to be accomplished than with the aid of the threat of force supplied by the state.

      • Tim says:

        You lying, no good, nasty, manipulative, misleading, slanderous piece of human excrement. I don’t believe you for a freggin’ second and I can’t believe you would have the audacity to be so arrogant in your lying when everyone can so clearly see that you are not telling the truth. There is no way that somebody doesn’t like Family Guy. No way. And your comment that somebody actually likes John and Kate plus 8… ya’ suspect!

      • Tim says:


        What is more of a threat:

        1: Homeopathy, creationism, and the rest being out there and pursued by people and the state can do nothing to stop it except provide courts?


        2: Homeopathy, creationism, and the rest being out there with the state having the power to force you to accept medical practices they deem good and have curriculum standards that they can force on you?

        Which is worse, when people must convince you to buy some nonsense or when people can make you buy some nonsense?

  27. Tuffgong says:

    I seem to see an improvement in the sentiments toward Shermer. I have already debated and questioned (alone of course, I haven’t met him personally) his work and really most of his posts have been written in greater depth in other places, namely Scientific American and eSkeptic.

    You have to at least give Shermer credit for A)being aware of his criticism and addressing it, and B) simply being aware of his own limitations and biases. How many of you are willing to admit that you fall victim to the same pitfalls that we as skeptics denounce of others such as confirmation bias.

    The most important thing we have as individuals in the skeptic movement is our ability to look in the mirror and apply the same process to ourselves. That’s the only way to determine a hazy yet solid middle of what’s true and most likely true. Otherwise bias does get in the way.

    I think Shermer is in the proper direction as far as his political direction matching that of what makes sense and has worked scientifically in the past. Does he take it over board and fall victim to his own bias? Of course he does.

    I have seen the same old line time and time again however and it’s frankly irritating at this point. I’m talking about this one, “Shermer shouldn’t talk about politics, that isn’t skepticism, that’s just political bs. Get it out of here!”. Agree or disagree with his views, he does represent a virtue in not limiting skepticism to areas such as quackery and woo.

    The only danger and the only real issue Michael Shermer has had throughout his entire career as a skeptic, and Penn & Teller fall into this too, is that there is a tendency for his language to use science as a cheap (that is easy and authoritative) verification of a particular view, belief, value judgement, or political standing.

    However the above relies on a case-by-case basis where a healthy does of skepticism needs to be applied to determine whether it’s founded or not. I find that most of Shermer’s use of scientific verification in this way either makes sense, legitimately substantiated, or understand where he’s coming from. The other times it is a case of a notion gone too far or confirmation bias tainting it to varying degrees. Especially on this blog, it’s usually bits and pieces. Rarely has he gone overboard or simply fallen off when it comes to the general idea and/or big picture.

    However when Shermer does slip up ever so often, he doesn’t ignore it. Sometimes he changes his view, sometimes he elaborates, and sometimes he stands by his view. In this way at least, he’s dynamic and that’s why I think should be giving him more credit than he’s getting.

  28. Brian Fleming says:


    You are making assertions. Skeptics only evaluate other people’s assertions. Skeptics are timid. Nothing ventured nothing lost. Carry on brother.

    • Tim says:

      You’re thinking of relativism, not Skepticism. Skeptics are not absolutists, but they are “pretty damn surists.” Is a skeptic absolutely sure that objective reality exists, that the Earth circles the Sun, and that Batman has no real powers and therefore doesn’t count as a superhero? No, but we are pretty damn sure.

      • Brian Fleming says:

        No I said what I meant and I meant what I said. But I’m open to new info. Show me a skeptical assertion.

      • Tim says:

        Sure. God does not exist.

        Show me skepticism without an assertion.

      • Brian Fleming says:

        “God does not exist” is not an assertion, it is a debunking of the “God” assertion. Try again, show me a skeptical assertion.

      • Tim says:

        The whole point of skepticism is to bring reasonable doubt in an attempt to ascertain whether or not a proposition is true, not just the automatic rejection or contradiction of any claim. One cannot be skeptical without an assertion but one can have an assertion without being skeptical. A skeptical assertion therefore, like “God does not exist,” is required not to contradict the very notion of assertions or even one particular proposition, but to analyze.

        While “God does not exist” cannot be a proposition, it most certainly can be an assertion. Indeed, I just asserted it because I am skeptical of God.

        I do hope this ends this semantic digression.

      • Brian Fleming says:

        To avoid semantic digression, lets turn to statistical terms. Skeptics seek to avoid Type I errors (false positives), so we set a low α. Whereas α = .05 is customary, skeptics are tempted to set it even lower. The result is a higher Type II error rate (false negative) which means skeptics are rarely confortable making assertions or even propositions of what we hold to be true. Skeptics are timid.

  29. Douglas says:

    I’m on the right side politicaly.

    One thing I’ve noticed about you (not so much james randi) is that you are almost never derisive on “value” disagreements as you describe them. You Disagree, but you are always rational.

  30. UNRR says:

    This post has been linked for the HOT5 Daily 7/29/2009, at The Unreligious Right

  31. William Patrick Haines says:

    Well there is movie I really think will cause the Libertarians to howl at the moon!!! I t is the latest Micheal moore movie
    I guess the Libetarians will of cource give an extensive negative review of the film with outever seeing it . The same way their icon and the role model for numerous villians in Disney cartoons Ayn Rand did.

    • Tim says:

      Have you ever seen “Expelled” by Ben Stein? If you like Michael Moore movies, you will love that movie.

      • William Patrick Haines says:

        Well I do not plan to look at pseudoscientific creationism hogwash like Ben Stein’s expelled . Yes in a lot of
        Areas I am I am a Progressive Liberal . I actually like to call myself anti elist since a liberal is defined as one stops elitism whether it is corporate religious or unrestrained government .
        Well if were not for Progressive Liberals the
        United States would have not declared independence from Great Britain the 40 hour work week overtime pay child labor the EPA FDA OSHA ended slavery women’s suffrage or non property owners have
        the vote . or taxation would still be based on population
        At that time, the United States Constitution specified that Congress could impose a “direct” tax only if the law apportioned that tax among the states according to each state’s census population.[14]

      • Tim says:

        Well, almost none of those things are true, but I will do my best to be patient, polite, and open minded. I recommended “Expelled” because it uses the same tactics precisely that Michael Moore uses in his movies of deliberately misrepresenting information, fabricating information, and using premises that contradict one another almost to the point of lunacy.

        I think I may have failed already in the polite part, but I will still do my best to at least not be hostile. Liberalism (modern liberalism) is defined by its elitism, libertarian philosophy (for the most part, although not entirely) was the basis for Independence from Great Britain, the 40 hour work week was introduced by Henry Ford through free market competition who loved capitalism and the government attempted to destroy him during the New Deal for not obeying the government, the EPA, FDA, and OSHA (among other agencies) are a negative which have actually caused more harm than good in each of their respective fields, slavery was ended by Lincoln on the grounds of liberty not Marxism proletariat nonsense, women’s suffrage began in Wyoming where the attitude was the opposite of “progressive liberalism” (which is neither progressive nor liberal in the classic sense), and the income tax has been one of the most disgusting forces for the destruction of freedom and economic prosperity in America.

        So basically, respectfully (you have not been rude to me, you have been very decent), everything you have said is wrong. Not just some of the things, all of the things with the exception of your self description. Also, just for the record, creationism is hogwash so you are right there also, indeed, we are right together on that one. There, we have a point of agreement. :-)

  32. RockDoctorJ says:

    I have no problem mixing science and politics. I think it is, to some degree, unavoidable. My problem with science and politics comes when persons in public office use science loosely to further an agenda, making absurd claims, often by using information derived through the scientific process taken completely out of context. Michael Crighton’s climate change novel, State of Fear, is a perfect example.

    In addition, I find that it is distressing that new policies that are implemented by local, state, and national governments around the world, do not include some method of assessment to determine if the policy in question is working. Assessment is left up to researchers in various fields, and often depends on grant funding. When funding is limited, assessment does not occur, and the efficiency of the policy in question may not be determined for years.

    Finally, I find the analogy between abortion rights and education to be inadequate; the discussion of public education as a whole is incomplete. First, the government does not provide public abortion services for all, free of charge (or with limited cost) as it does with respect to education. Second, there is no political consensus on the necessity of access to abortion. There is certainly a consensus that access to education is crucial, regardless of how we manage the educational system. Third, it is my personal opinion that most of us would agree that there is a moral component to our debate over abortion rights that is not as evident in any discussion of K-12 education in America.

    I also must point out that if one pursues the “we should be able to send our kids to private schools and stop paying taxes for public schools if we do so” idea, the next step is to allow couples who choose not to have children to stop paying taxes that support schools, and to allow couples whose children have graduated to stop paying taxes to support schools as well. If we follow that path, the requirement that each child receive a K-12 education becomes an unfunded mandate placed on parents, many of whom will not have the resources to pay for their child’s education. One of the crucial aspects of public education in the US is that it be open and available to all.

    I find there is an analogy between public education and the health care access “crisis” that we face today. (The term “health care crisis” is B.S. We have good health care. Not everyone has access). It seems to me that the question we should be asking is this: Will a healthy population be better able to produce goods and services, to govern itself, and to provide for the essential services necessary to operate? My understanding of the intentions of the Old White Dudes who founded the US is that they believed that education would do all of the above. If the answer to the health question is yes, then must we consider some kind of methodology to guarantee access to QUALITY health care? My personal opinion is yes, but I have no idea how we pay for it.

    Such a rambling post, but I think these issues are similar and are, on some basic level, related.

    Still, keep up the good work.

  33. TryUsingLogic says:

    Thank you Michael Shermer for this important discussion.

    As a freedom loving agnostic conservative I respect your bold exploration of skepticism’s place in the search for answers to critical issues about government in our lives.

    When discussions based on history, data and fact cannot take place about any subject affecting our lives…….critical thinking, reason, logic and skepticism will be rendered useless.

    And if we don’t discuss this issue openly Skeptic’s groups will continue to be small organizations of talented people with Liberal bias.

    The responses from the Left remind me of a fundamentalist church…our way or the highway you sinner, and we don’t want to discuss it!

    The number of responses to you articles define the importance!

    You are doing great work!


    • SicPreFix says:

      TryUsingLogic said:

      “And if we don’t discuss this issue openly Skeptic’s groups will continue to be small organizations of talented people with Liberal bias.

      “The responses from the Left remind me of a fundamentalist church…our way or the highway you sinner, and we don’t want to discuss it!”

      I take it you do not see the implicit contradiction?

      • TryUsingLogic says:

        I have no idea what you are talking about….

        I said talented people….not almighty, all knowing or infallable

        Spin it how you want… you just don’t get it….skepticism events are dominated by people with left bias….I guess that is acceptable if you are liberal!

        What part of that clear fact do you not understand?…..I was at TAM and saw the hands go up in the air!

        You don’t want Libertarian or Conservative bias… why would you accept bias from the left?


  34. Joe Ferguson says:

    Well, this is the third or fourth blog on this subject, along with all the attendant left/right posturing. If this is the kind of nonsense you wish to engage in, Mr. Schermer, then post on MySpace or some similar social network more in keeping with this pointless proselytizing.

    When you preach to skeptics, your audience will be …well…skeptical.

    Please no more. If you are out of real ideas, please bring in a guest blogger until your writer’s block subsides.

    • RockDoctorJ says:

      There is no left/right posturing in my reply. Just a statement of peronal views/opinions on the subject with no reference to other’s viewpoints (other than my discussion of Michael’s analogy). This is my posture on the issue(s) in question. I think Michael takes a well-defined position in his blog. By definition that IS posturing, but I think there is no effort to instigate an ideological urinating contest here (which is the implication I draw from ‘left/right posturing’). There is some of that scattered throughout this list of replies. I also don’t see this topic as nonsense because it touches on an issue that seems to be fundamental to society today. I think that the fact that this topic continues to show up in blog posts reflects the importance of the discussion rather than some problem with “blogger’s block.” (I find this analogous to the continuing evolution/ID discussion).

      As an aside, I detest the term ‘liberal.’ It’s sort of become a dirty word that immediately brings a knee-jerk reaction of those who have more conservative views. I’ve always preferred the term progressive to describe “one who believes in political change, especially social improvement, by government action.”

      But that’s just me. And I have no political affiliation. I’ve voted for two Republicans, two Democrats, and three independents in my 7 presidential elections.

      • Joe Ferguson says:


        You have a point,

        However, had the three or four blogs on this subject been divided equally among different points of view (probably best done by bringing in different guest guest bloggers) instead of Mr. Schermer reiterating ad nauseum his own belief system, the discussion would have more legitimacy.

      • RockDoctorJ says:

        Point taken. That would probably have fostered a more lively discussion.

      • Tim says:

        Conservatives never need to stop calling themselves conservatives. Libertarians never need to stop calling themselves libertarians (although Mr. Shermer does show reservation and libertarians don’t trumpet their title as much as conservatives). Liberals never call themselves liberals. Liberals always need Orwellian terminology to make sure that people don’t understand what it is they believe. “I’m not liberal, I’m progressive.” “I don’t want censorship, I want fairness.” “I don’t want redistribution, I want equality.” People who use these terms are either mushy or manipulative.

        Come on people, if you are not proud of what you believe then why do you believe it?

        P.S. Do you know who the progressives were, or do you just like how the word sounds (not a critique)?

    • Tim says:

      Booo!!! All ideas should be discussed. I’m glad that there is no Joe Ferguson filter on what may and what may not be considered on a website called Skeptic.

  35. Tim says:

    Hmmm, I am going to have to be more pithy in the future so that I too may be quoted by the good Mr. Shermer.

    While I’m sure we all appreciate the reply Mr. Shermer, there really isn’t a topic. I guess I could suggest a left right line with left on the left, right on the right, center in the center, and then bending the bar and placing libertarianism in the area where left and right almost meet. Of course that wouldn’t be entirely accurate. It is a common mistake to think that anyone on the left believes in freedom or liberty. They do not. The left does not believe in gay marriage because they think that people should be free to marry who they want, the left instead breaks into two camps:

    1: Anti-rationalists who believe in attaining “the zero” as it were, who look at the whole of human history and draw the conclusion that none of the philosophies, ideologies, forms of government, etc. have created a world devoid of war, poverty, crime, and injustice (yes, most of this is ripped wholesale from the video “How Modern Liberals Think” from youtube that I posted as well as the other sources). They have come to the conclusion that since all these ideas have proved to be lacking, the real cause of war, poverty, crime, and injustice are found in the attempt to be right. Therefore since they see struggle of any kind as the root of all struggle they constantly work to prove that right isn’t right, that wrong isn’t wrong, and to bring about a philosophy where everything meets in the middle and there is nothing left to fight about. Since gay marriage falls not just outside orthodox society, but conflicts with what is accepted to be good this anti-rationalist sect (which views rational thought as a hate crime) will therefore embrace gay marriage for no other reason than to diminish what is viewed as good and elevate what is viewed as bad.

    2: The other side of the left doesn’t wish for any kind of freedom for gays to marry, but rather is expressing a desire for a wider role of government to decide who is and is not married. The premise is that people are allowed to do things by government and if a behavior is acceptable then it is to be approved. The multiculturalism of the left leads them to expand what is “allowed” to get married and who is not. Anti-rationalists on the other hand are just looking to use the power of government to dilute the meaning of marriage for the purpose of destroying meaning.

    The correct position relating to marriage is simply to remove government from having any role. Once you enter the government into the role of deciding who can get what then whether it is food, airwaves, or marriage certificates the zero-sum attitude is automatically accepted, rationing is required, denying of liberty is innate. If resources are controlled by the state, then people by definition are not free because they require the permission of the government to do anything. The issue is the same on any other issue of the left, for example state financing of political campaigns and speech. As soon as you accept the premise that the state should be doing such things, you have already discriminated. Who gets what funding? Who makes these decisions? How much funding will one group get? Surely the American Nazi Party will not get the same level of funding and airtime as Democratic Party. Well then, how much does the Libertarian Party get? What about the Objectivist Party? Skeptic Party? As soon as you take control of resources forcefully, you will be put into a situation where you have to discriminate against certain groups, give favors to other groups, and sooner or later the question will come up about whether or not people should be “allowed” to privately raise and spend money outside of that which the state is deciding. Indeed, in another post one person was talking about whether or not people should be “allowed” to “capitalize science.”

    The left does not wish to have a situation of freedom, they wish to have a simulation of freedom. I have no problem with gay people getting married, I don’t even have a problem with polygamy, but there are people who do. There are people who might have a definition of marriage that says it is between a man and a woman, and when the state codifies in law that the opposite is the case and if they want to get married (and have all the tax/legal benefits that come with marriage) then they have to have their marriage be just as relevant before the law as that which an affront to their beliefs, then they have a legitimate grievance. In a free society, marriage cannot be determined by the government. The state should have no more of a right to tell Christians/Jews/not Mormans, that marriage is between 1 man and 1 woman than any Church should have the right to tell two flamers that their lawyer can’t sign a marriage contract while both are wearing assless leather chaps.

    So is libertarianism the area where the left-right bar bends? Not really. Leftism is totalitarianism, and there is no preservation of rights in the end in any such society. Sooner or later the American Nazi Party will lose their public funds, then the American socialists, then the libertarians, then Blue-Dog Democrats, and so on all undoubtedly in the name of pragmatism, that there is only such much money to go around and it is just not practical to finance every fringe party at the same rate as the main parties. At the end of that movie, which always ends the same way, there is not even enough room for Trotsky. When the right wants government reinforced “straight & monogamous marriage” they are accepting a view of government from the left and do not even realize it; they are just arguing for a different list of who makes it and who doesn’t. There is liberty, and there is tyranny.

    So Mr. Shermer, you do not hold the same positions of the left any more than you agree with Christian Origins Conspiracy Theorists just because they claim atheism. Superficial similarity of conclusion does not allow you to magnanimously claim that you hold positions from both sides and are always striving to bring them together, you are not. You sir, are an advocate of liberty (except on abortion where you are totally wrong, but I’m already running long here), be proud.

  36. KC says:

    Wonderful article. I tend to shy away from anything large and organized, so was surprised to read that most skeptics ARE NOT Libertarians, mostly they are just atheists.

    I love your books, views and responses to critics. Always respectful, introspective and rational.

    Keep up the terrific work because this homeschooling, optimistic, happily married, atheist, skeptic, libertarian, austrian economists-loving American needs to feel hope.

    • Tim says:

      Well I hate to say that most atheists are not rational folk, they are the above mentioned anti-rationalists. Christianity is accepted in orthodox society as good and this group for the above mentioned reasons seek to attack it because it is recognized as good (and you can spot them by their love for Islamic foreigners as well). Atheism is right and here the orthodox happens to be wrong, but that point is irrelevant to the anti-rationalist. Anti-rationalists don’t seek to bring down what is right, they seek to bring down what is viewed as right and elevate what is viewed as wrong. So if there is a right position outside of the orthodox then you can expect to find them congealing in those areas. That means atheists unhinged when Christopher Hitchens talks about Islam, it means Skeptics that go crazy when Michael Shermer talks about economic liberty (although most will congeal around thinking economic objection to the Fed are the same as the “cabal” objection to the Fed), etc.

      So, crazy people and leftist people hanging around atheism and skepticism is just something you have to deal with until it becomes orthodox.

      P.S. Chicago School is better than Austrian School! :-p

      • Peter says:

        Except for the little detail that where they differ, the Chicagoites are wrong and the Austrians are right… :)

  37. Jim says:

    I absolutely agree that it’s time to start mixing skepticism with politics. We need to learn to approach political issues with the mindset of a scientist rather than that of a lawyer if we are to have any chance of enacting good policies to deal with all the problems we’re facing today. It’s also kind of silly to spend all of our time as skeptics talking about issues that we basically agree about (Bigfoot, alien abductions, etc.) while there are so many more important ones that still need to be addressed.

    Michael, I think you should broaden the range of topics you discuss in your blogs, as well. Why not talk about foreign policy a little? I would love to get your perspective on the situation in Iran or Afghanistan, for instance.

    The skeptical community does need to learn to be a tad more tolerant toward those of us who are not part of the political left, however. I can’t believe how some people on here go after Shermer so hysterically just because he’s fiscally conservative (but otherwise, seemingly, quite liberal). We need to work together and learn from one another – otherwise we just produce more heat than light (like the geniuses in Washington).

    • Tim says:

      I disagree. I like the intolerance, I like the stress and the discord…as long as it has substance, otherwise it is just that much more I have to scroll through. I don’t want to learn from other people, I just want to learn and figure out what is right and move towards it, although in those all so wise words “I’ve never met a man so ignorant that I couldn’t learn something from him.” Still, if somebody is repeated a debunked argument in form and substance then I don’t want to waste my time with stuff I already know is garbage. I do, but to sharpen my wit.

  38. unbound says:

    “To be consistent, if you are pro-choice on abortion you should also be pro-choice on education. The deeper value judgment here is being pro-choice about everything. Choice = freedom.”

    I call false analogy on this one. Education and abortion are very different issues with different complexities.

    Education issues revolve around providing a service. Should that service be provided to the general public equally, or should that service be provided only to those that can afford (or perhaps better versions of the service will be provided to those that can afford)? In its current state, public education provides equally opportunity for all individuals, regardless of income, to become educated and contribute to the general economy at a better level (which does tend to help individually as well). The primary issue with private education is the concern that a “choice” really represents eventually degradation of public education; which, in effect, could put education back into the hands of the wealthy. In this instance, a “choice” in reality could lead to lack of choices.

    Abortion issues actually revolve around choice. There is no significant public value regarding abortions (or lack thereof). Removing the option of abortion simply reduces choice as well as eliminates one of the controls a woman has. In this instance, a “choice” provides something of substance, not a diversion of funding.

    • Tim says:

      “In its current state, public education provides equally opportunity for all individuals, regardless of income, to become educated and contribute to the general economy at a better level (which does tend to help individually as well).”

      I dislike people who make their arguments simply by laughing at others, so I have stopped typing my would be response and preparing a new one.

      The position you have taken is not only not supported by the evidence, it is contradicted by the evidence. Every area that has adopted a monopoly with the ability to use force to raise funds and force people to consume their product (public schools) has resulted in people graduating from high school unable to read and economic stagnation from the taxes.

      Education doesn’t lead to prosperity, prosperity leads to education. Supply and demand require people to learn things in order to compete which is why people learn things. You can bring a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. Simply requiring children to take classes will not cause them to learn, and the state is the poorest method to accomplish the goal of learning. Why? The nature of the state is antithetical to learning. The nature of the state, is force, not reason. At the end of the day the argument from the state is do it or we will hurt you. How conducive to learning do you think it can be?

      Meanwhile look at private schools that are “in the hands of the Je…wealthy” as you put it. Almost forgot which group we are supposed to hate without explanation or distinction in a painfully generic fashion. Do they produce educated student or uneducated student? Does the education of those students somehow, take away, from the education of other kids? If one kid develops an amazing musical talent at a private school, are we worse off “as a society” (whatever that is) because of the new music that has been created?

      So what if schools are in the hands of “the wealthy.” Who else would schools be run by? How do you get wealth? You produce it. What are we trying to teach kids in school? Learn to produce. Is there some period in our history where wealthy people were purposefully keeping poor people ignorant? No. Is there some period in our history where schools were used to indoctrinate children to adhere to some political ideology by teaching false history, not teaching other parts of history, philosophy, economics, and just using the school system as a form of social engineering, political party building, and getting people dependent for their way of life on a powerful organization with the power to use force to deny and crowd out entry? Yes, it is called the status quo with the teachers union advancing liberalism in the classroom and making up 1/4 of all the Democratic Party delegates in 2004 at their party convention. So what is the threat to democracy, private schools that cannot make you come to their school and can only operate on the money they can raise with your consent, or the state which has the power to take your money without your consent and can make your kids come to school under punishment of truancy?

      As for abortion, you are killing a human being! However, that was not the point Mr. Shermer was making. If you reject the premise that unborn human beings are human beings, then the philosophical and moral issue is one in the same. If you say that there is some necessary overriding ideal that democracy works better when people are educated then that same principle can be applied to abortion. Indeed, a few magic words like “overpopulation” and “population pollution” and presto-chango, that same argument for education has just been applied to abortion. The philosophy behind your education argument and the philosophy behind your abortion argument are mutually exclusive, they cannot be held together without contradiction.

  39. unbound says:

    “Finally, let me add that one of the appealing things to me about the libertarian worldview is that it is optimistic, uplifting, and most importantly (to me) anti-elitist.”

    I guess the most unsettling aspect of this sentence (which does not seem to be atypical of this post or previous posts) is the apparent lack of skepticism applied. Replace the word “libertarian” with “christian” in that sentence and perhaps you’ll see how it can be perceived as anything but a skeptical view.

    I’ve been attempting to build my worldview around what, to the best of my ability, appears to be the truth. The truth is at times optimistic, and at times pessimistic. It can be uplifting or unsettling. Having the truth may make me appear elitist or foolish. But isn’t truth one of the primary goals of philosophy? I don’t choose my views based on what makes me feel happy…truthfully, I’m a bit surprised to hear this as one of the basis for accepting the “libertarian” viewpoint.

    I realize that libertarianism can have a number of viewpoints associated with it. But in the United States, it is most consistently associated with free markets. At its core, free markets are indeed a beautiful concept; but, like most religions, free markets don’t survive examination under real world conditions. Is strong government control a better answer? Almost certainly not. Are those the only two answers? Definitely not. We need to realize that there are a lot of possibilities in between those extremes. Free markets should be encouraged, but some degree of government involvement is needed to prevent abuses and ensure competition is actually happening. A key to free markets is that consumers fully understand what they are purchasing…government involvement is likely needed since it isn’t in a company’s interest to provide that information for cost reasons alone (nevermind the possibility of dishonesty). Reality is that government creates the rules for markets to abide by, although not always done well. Reality is that competitive markets are the most efficient, although competition is not always functionally existent. A little of both is likely the answer…

    • Joe Ferguson says:


      Capitalism is a necessary evil. It works well enough when doses of socialism are applied to curb its excesses.

      I found it amusing that Mr. Schermer promulgates the Orwellian doublespeak of equating democracy and capitalism. A reminder from high school economics and history: democracy is a system of government, socialism is an economic system. Apples and oranges.

      • Tim says:

        Dogmatic. Very dogmatic.

        The phrases “necessary evil” has always amused me. The phrase is the perfect example of that old saying, “Well this sounds good in theory, but it doesn’t work in practice.” Well, what is a theory? It is a description of how reality is governed according to certain principles. If a theory doesn’t describe reality, then how can it be good? Socialism is not a good theory, and if you acknowledge capitalism as working then you recognize it as good. The fact that it works so good that you can fool yourself into thinking that socialism isn’t “that bad” because it can still stand despite the stupid burden that are put upon it by people who think they can live other people’s lives better than they can live there own just speaks to the productiveness (and thus the validity) of capitalism.

        Democracy and capitalism do not necessarily go hand in hand, but socialism and tyranny do.

      • Tim says:

        Oh, and what would you define as “excesses,” why do they need to be curbed, and what gives you the right to curb them?

      • Joe Ferguson says:

        The fact that you do not know what the excesses of capitalism are (1 % of the population controlling 90+% of the wealth, the uneven playing field of those born to wealth vs. those not, meaningless wars in order to justify the arms business Or to protect our “interests”, corporations moving abroad to exploit cheaper labor abandoning U.S. workers, interference in the sovereignty of smaller, weaker countries, the list goes on) demonstrates you are locked into your own point of view and incapable of rational discourse, serving up instead long-winded diatribes of borrowed dogma.

      • Tim says:

        I forgot to include the disclaimer that I included in Mr. Shermer’s other blog. I think it was left, right, center, but I don’t entirely remember which one. I’m sure if you search the page for “platitude” you will find the disclaimer. I remember the issue then was not the word excess but the word “exploit” I think.

        So, you define excess as the top 1%. So, why should it be curbed, and what gives you the right to curb it?

    • Tim says:

      Legitimate critique. Libertarianism is correct, but clearly Mr. Shermer’s reasoning there is wrong.

      I do have to point out though that you have engaged in a similar form of false reasoning. You simply declared that free markets don’t survive examination under real world conditions without any evidence. Indeed the evidence contradicts that claim. The United States during much of the 19th century, Hong Kong, Macau, Monaco, Singapore, Estonia, Taiwan, Japan, Bahrain, West Germany briefly after WWII, etc. all operate on free markets and prosper a great deal. Meanwhile whenever a country moves towards socialism or any sort of government dictates in their economy they see economic decline such as Great Britain, France, Germany, Ghana, etc. There are also those who clearly went to the logical end of the philosophy that justifies economic interventionism such as Cuba, Soviet Union, Vietnam, North Korea, etc.

      Moderation is almost never the answer. If I am really sick and I can choose penicillin and Vancomycin, I don’t want moderation. Moderation is not in itself a virtue. You are making the same mistake Mr. Shermer made when he made that comment you so intelligently debunked; you are attempting to go out sounding like the voice of moderation and upbeat and end up saying something that is simply incorrect. You show me a place where a policy of government intervention in the economy produced prosperity and I will show you the reality of the situation. From “Robber Barons,” to the Great Depression, to the New Deal, to the Marshal Plan, to today’s economic collapse, you show me the claim that government made things better and I will show you that position is wrong.

      The best method, so far discovered, for helping the ordinary man has been through capitalism and free trade. The types of societies that suffer are those that depart from that method (this last paragraph loosely plagiarized from Milton Friedman).

      • Joe Ferguson says:

        Well. Things were much better for the working bloke when the New Deal was in effect. Only one person per household had to work, anyone working could afford a home, college, and a comfortable lifestyle.

        If, however, you define prosperity merely in dollars, then perhaps you are right. However, quality of life is a better ruler, (at least in my humble liberal opinion)and in that sense, life in England, Canada, the Scandinavian countries, and most of the other places that mix capitalism and socialism is much more pleasant than here in the U.S. where capitalism is the state religion. No homeless panhandling, lower crime rates, roads that have no potholes, clean streets, less stress-related illness, and with healthcare, less sick people walking around coughing and sneezing in your face.

      • Tim says:

        Well, no, life was not better during the Great Depression. The New Deal extended the Great Depression and certainly did not increase quality of life. Here you are just historically inaccurate. A good book on the subject is “New Deal Raw Deal” by Burton Folsom which offers a critical assessment of the New Deal using primary sources.

        As far as quality of life being better in Canada, England, and Scandinavian countries, no, life is not better there. Cancer survival rates are far worse in every category (with the US in the number 1 spot in 13 out of 16 categories), waiting lines are more than outrageously long, care is rationed, and apart from many other statistics supporting the US as superior in really every way, there are the immigration numbers and where people go when they get sick. I would say look how people vote with their feet before you presume to judge what economic system is best for them. Look at where people travel to get medical treatment before you judge which medical system is best. We are the relief valve of the world. Look at all the treatments and medical machines in all those European countries and Canada. You will find that the overwhelming majority of them were developed (if not manufactured) in the United States under our (mostly) free system. If the US falls, the middle class and higher can no longer take their names off the waiting lists with their money by traveling to the United States to get treated. Look at France, where most people have to get private health insurance to supplement their government care because the government care is so poor. Look where the person who oversees the Canadian healthcare system traveled when they needed treatment for their cancer (traveled here, to the US).

        Capitalism is not a state religion, and seeing as anti-religion is universally agreed upon in this forum it is not surprising to see you using it as a means of insulting and attempting to stigmatize a philosophical point of view. Freeze it, polarize it, personalize it. I see your methodology, but this is the Skeptic website and I do not think people here are very susceptible to dogma.

        Freedom is a good thing, and we should have more of it. Capitalism, the communist word for freedom (coined by Karl Marx himself), is freedom in our economic sphere and it is not supported by anything except reason. It is a system of people dealing in reason, not force. Socialism is a system of people dealing in force, not reason.

        Freedom good, not freedom not good.

      • Alan Hoch says:

        This reply is a good example of why people get frustrated with so-called libertarian “skeptics” — it is filled with endless libertarian dogma such as “The New Deal extended the Great Depression” and “life is so much better here in the US” or “Canada has a horrible healthcare system.” AT THE VERY LEAST such claims are highly debatable (and quite likely seriously false), yet they are repeatedly offered as truisms.

        If libertarians (at least here) will stop treating their ideology as established fact and actually feel the need to prove such beliefs first then we can have meaningful discussion. Otherwise, it’s a waste of time.

      • Tim says:

        Sir I issue no dogma, I have made no claims that I simply expect people to take on faith. As for the New Deal extending the Great Depression I cited a source of information to back up my position. I, and many other libertarians, are frequently upset at the lack of education on the part of many people when it comes to facts (such as the fact that the New Deal did not end the Great Depression and the consensus that the depression was extended by the New Deal among economists) but we do not simply proclaim our opinions to be true, we back them up with fact. Life is better in the United States, Canada does have a terrible healthcare system in which many (including the administrator, much to their embarrassment, of Canada’s healthcare system) come to the US for treatment (a source for that I cited elsewhere on this page I believe), and if you would like a source on anything that is said, all you have to do is ask, but don’t say that there is no meaningful conversation simply because you don’t have any facts to back up your pro-tyranny position.

      • Alan Hoch says:

        Thank you for making my point.

      • TryUsingLogic says:

        You must have missed this…..
        ..or you would not say “life in England, Canada, the Scandinavian countries, and most of the other places that mix capitalism and socialism is much more pleasant than here in the U.S.”


      • Joe Ferguson says:

        Apparently its a tie, and like I said depending on what you feel is more important, most of the other countries win in what I consider quality of life, according to your source, which of course, may or may not be biased. (Sorry about the accidental rhyme. Too lazy to fix it.)

        I say this because most of you on the right are throwing books at me that I should read which are obviously just Libertarian propaganda.

        It really doesn’t matter. The real point is that these discussions are utterly pointless. You will not change me and I will not change you. It’s a waste of time.

        Scientific American Newsletter had a good article on this subject recently. Basically, the findings of the studies they cited demonstrated that liberal or conservative bias was basically genetically built into us.

        These Sisyphean arguments are really tiresome, and Schermer should stick with skeptical thinking and avoid these political quagmires.

      • Tim says:

        I don’t know how legitimate this source is. I mean, they rank Macau below Swaziland for crying out loud.

      • Tim says:

        “It really doesn’t matter. The real point is that these discussions are utterly pointless. You will not change me and I will not change you. It’s a waste of time.”

        Here is another book recommendation:

        The Closing of the American Mind, by Professor Allan Bloom

        That quote of yours is EXACTLY what I meant in my post about anti-rationalism. That quote of yours is EXACTLY what this website is dedicated to defeating.

      • Joe Ferguson says:

        Interesting. You site all these books with obvious agendas. Claim you are the rational one. Yet ignore my citation of Scientific American, a completely rational, unbiased source, going so far as to leave it out of my quote.

      • Tim says:

        First, you didn’t cite the article, you mentioned it in passing. Second, the point I was making was about the mindset that would lead one to believe that such a source was relevant (I have seen many similar studies at, some are interesting, other have clear flaws, I have no idea which this article is) when it only speaks whether or not somebody is inclined to a particular belief.

        My point is about the closed mindedness. The point of that article is not to say that a particular position is right or wrong, but that there is no right or wrong. I’ve spent most of my free day today posting here, but I am starting to get tired, so I will leave you with this link. I’ll tell you the same thing I tell everyone when I recommend this video; try to ignore the specific position and focus instead on the mindset that he is describing:

      • Joe Ferguson says:

        Apparently, only those who disagree with you are close-minded, yet you ignore this very trait in yourself.

        Agreed, far too much time has been spent on this subject. I believe that was my initial point.

        But hell, it was raining here today so I indulged in this rather bootless repartee.

        Don’t think I’ll be back until Schermer writes about something truly interesting.

      • Tim says:

        Somehow, I question your sincerity.

      • TryUsingLogic says:

        Joe Ferguson says:
        July 29, 2009 at 9:39 pm
        “Apparently its a tie, and like I said depending on what you feel is more important”

        If it’s a tie, then this statement is wrong…”life in England, Canada, the Scandinavian countries, and most of the other places that mix capitalism and socialism is MUCH MORE PLEASANT than here in the U.S.”

        Would you admit that?

        If the data is wrong show me better data that contradicts it! Michael Moore says healthcare is better in Cuba and it’s a wonderful place….maybe you could use him as a source of accurate data?


      • fascination says:

        Joe, I was in the Netherlands last year and they had some very aggresive panhandlers. So that statement of yours isn’t correct. However, it is a beautiful country and I think that some of their policies on some issues are indeed better than ours here in the U.S. If you have never traveled there I recommend it. Especially Amsterdam! :)

      • Max says:

        If I am really sick and I can choose penicillin and Vancomycin, I don’t want moderation.

        And if you have difficulty falling asleep, you inject yourself with propofol.

      • Tim says:

        I thought the point was clear, that moderation is not the answer, being correct is the answer. Is this the point you are attempting to dispute?

      • Max says:

        No, I’m pointing out that a lack of moderation indicates an inability to weigh the efficacy against the side-effects, and this often leads to a solution that’s worse than the problem.

      • Tim says:

        In what way would lack of moderation indicate an ‘inability’ to weigh the efficacy against the side-effects?

      • Max says:

        Allow me to demonstrate in what way.
        Tim, tell me one negative consequence of extreme libertarianism, or one problem that would be better solved by collectivism.

      • Tim says:

        Well I’m not quite sure what you means when you say “extreme” libertarianism, but I can see the flaw in your reasoning. Your question does not seek to find out what is good and what is bad, but simply looks to confused certainty with closed mindedness. I am certain that if I drop something on Earthit will fall at 32 feet per second squared minus wind resistance. If somebody simply says that they can summon a psi ball or the gods to change the quantum molecular wormhole blackhole of the falling object so that it will fall at 35 feet per second squared, there is no virtue in moderating my position if I am right.

        Right is right, wrong is wrong. Liberty is good, collectivism is bad. While not as absolute as gravity, the principle is one in the same. Collectivism doesn’t solve problems, liberty does solve problems. My position is not based on a “lack of moderation,” but rather it is based on the evidence and arguments available to me. I’m more than happy to listen to whatever you have to say, but the truth is not democratic, you do not simply vote or compromise on it. If something is good and you choose to moderate your behavior then you will suffer to the degree that you are moderating your behavior.

        Moderation is not in and of itself a virtue.

      • Tim says:

        Come on, don’t be so absolutist about this moderation thing. Can’t you moderate your position a little bit?

  40. Johan says:

    I think you guys (including Shermer) start in the wrong end.

    What ought to be discussed first is what the state should be aiming for to do. What should it try to accomplish? When that is clear, what political system most appropriate for these ends could be argued about. This is nothing new. The abcient Greeks also discussed what the state ought to do, and which political system that would better accomplish it.

    If you say that you prefer not to think about ideologies, but about the issues, that is fine. But how do you decide what you think about the issues? According to which principles do you come to the conclusions you do?

    I’d love to see Shermer write about that.

    • Joe Ferguson says:

      I’d love to see him get back to writing skeptically about something he has no emotional investment in.

      To make this discussion valid, he should have disqualified himself from writing about Libertarianism.

      Perhaps he could have written a skeptical piece about socialism, followed by a guest socialist writing a skeptical piece about Libertarianism, then a middle of the roader writing a skeptical piece about both.

      His error, and as a skeptic he should have seen this, was promoting something he personally believes in.

      • Tim says:

        I disagree. I do not think that people need to be dispassionate to be objective, they just need to be objective. I think Shermer is quite objective, and what is the point of thinking about things if you can never come to any sort of conclusion? What is the point of thinking except to understand something? I’m not sure if you have read his book “Mind of the Market.” I bought it for my brother some time ago and says it is very good. I have read through bits and pieces of it and Mr. Shermer appears to be quite objective and supports his arguments with a good deal of solid evidence.

        I think passion is a good thing. I suspect you do to, or else you probably wouldn’t be following his blog.

      • TryUsingLogic says:

        A ridiculous comment!

        If Shermer or any of us stop discussing subjects we have a personal feeling about…..what would we discuss?

        Oh I know…we could discuss religion, science, space aliens, ghosts, medicine….etc.

        I believe Shermer is asking for Skeptics to be open minded about all subjects that affect our lives.


  41. William Patrick Haines says:

    (libertarian world view is that it is optimistic, uplifting, and most importantly (to me) anti-elitist. I’m in favor of doing whatever we can to allow the little guy to succeed and to break up power blocs ).
    First Libertarianism is not only one of the most idealistic but one of the most mean sprit ed elitist philosophies that cares absolutely nothing for the less fortunate. It is Orwellian in that it feigns concern for other people and gives some land of opportunity hogwash speach .The most talented in any society garner the most success . However there is problem in all societies in that those in charge are not neither the most benign compassionate or competent. Government does not have a monopoly on either tyranny paranoia eavesdropping or monumental incompetence!!! How many Unionizers were gun downed by corporate thugs? but lets just ignore that and scapegoat and villainize the government and act like everything will be utopia with out a functional government!! It aint the worst country but if you exercise you first amendment too vigorously and donot behave like some boot licking corporate Reinfeild you get branded a traitor to the constitution and they demand you leave .(I’m in favor of doing whatever we can to allow the little guy to succeed and to break up power blocs ) Oh except when these power blocks are huge multi national corporate monopolies .
    Since when is optimistic idealism the best train of though especially when this train of thought is brought to life and it’s inevitable derailment causes the most damage especially to the poor .
    Yes if the business community were all kindly generous and competent libertarianism would work . As a devout agnostic I can not prove the existence or non existence of hell . However history has proven idealism has always brought about hell on earth .

    • Tim says:

      This is the sort of thing I was talking about when I said “anti-rationalism.”

      • Joe Ferguson says:

        Why is this irrational? Because it differs from your dogma?

      • Tim says:

        First, I did not say irrational. There is a very clear pattern to the thought process. I said anti-rational.

        Now I issue no dogma, I ask nobody to take anything I say on faith. What I am talking about is a particular philosophy and ideology.

        The protagonists of this philosophy from their point of view is called “Rules for Radicals” by Saul D. Alinsky which lays out both the philosophy and tactics. The philosophy is very similar to relativism. The above book is one that advocates the philosophy (I do not just read and recommend books and sources that agree with me) but if you want to know where I am coming from, then the book “The Closing of the American Mind,” “Atlas Shrugged,” and the youtube video “How Modern Liberals Think” will provide a non-fiction, fiction, and lecture points of view of why such a philosophy is, well, bad. If you don’t want to watch the video or read the books, that is fine, you don’t have to. You will be missing out though.

    • fascination says:

      Its interesting that so many people on the left see conservatives and liberatarians as greedy and selfish. Arthur C. Brooks is a professor at Syracuse University and a social scientist. He is also reportedly a liberal. Brooks published a book about the differences in charitable giving among conservatives and liberals. The findings were very interesting.
      For example, even though liberal families’ incomes average 6 percent higher than those of conservative families, conservative-headed-households give, on average, 30 percent more to charity than the average liberal-headed-household ($1600 per year vs. $1227). Conservatives donate more time and are more likely to donate blood. Residents of the states that voted for John Kerry in 2004 gave smaller percentages of thier incomes to charity than did residents of states that voted for George Bush. Bush carried 24 of the 25 states where charitable giving was above average. People who reject the idea that “government has a responsibility to reduce income inequality” give an average of FOUR TIMES more than people who accept that proposition.
      Could it be that conservatives and liberatarians care at least as much as liberals do for the poor, but they just disagree on what the proper role of government should be?

      • fascination says:

        By the way, the book was titled, “Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth About Compassionate Conservatism”.
        Even if you want to shrug off the data on charitable giving, Mr. Haines, do you really think that Michael Shermer is a greedy and selfish person?

  42. Matt says:

    I have to disagree with DR, James, and Devils Advocate. As a Libertarian I get a lot more vitriol from the right wing than the left.

  43. JGB says:

    OK. Let me play devil’s advocate here. I am going to take the traditional Libertarian position that a key Federal government role is to provide ‘National Security” to the best of its ability… within reason. Sure, there are other things like coining money and negotiating with foreign powers, but National Security is a big one.

    National security is so important that we are willing to sacrifice many valued things for it: we accept a draft which forces people to do things against their will; we allow people to be killed (including civilians); we accept having to pay taxes for it. We accept that we have to maintain a military in peace time to avoid being defeated in a surprise attack. We accept the military controlling military bases (land) and conducting secret operations there. We accept that to supply the military, it must cooperate with industrial organizations – working hand in hand to develop equipment. The military – to maintain its technology edge has to support R&D projects (such as the Internet). The list goes on and on.
    Well, since the military relies so heavily on engineers and technicians (with security clearances) doesn’t training/educating these workers fall under national security? (back in the 50’s and 60’s people thought so).
    Isn’t boosting the science literacy of the general public part of national security (because it has been shown that having more science in the home increases the chance of studying a STEM subject in college).
    Also, the military needs to have people who can read & write as well as manage large groups of people. So isn’t education *really* part of national security?

    • Tim says:

      You are misrepresenting the libertarian position so severely that the fairest conclusion I can draw is that you are doing it deliberately. Libertarians do not support a draft. Libertarians for years have been arguing against the draft going back to Milton Friedman arguing against the draft when it was actually in place. Of the libertarians who support a system of taxes at all you will find incredibly few who support forms of taxation such as the income tax. Many libertarians are opposed to a standing army in times of peace (I personally am not one of them). No, the industrial-military complex does not exist despite the constant conspiracy theories which have yet to produce any evidence that such a complex exists let alone controls policy. Is boosting the scientific literacy of the general public part of national security? No, it is not. That would be a social welfare program if you are talking about using tax dollars. The military is an armed group used to defend a system of law and order which governs a free society (ideally, although a military is in most cases just an armed body meant to defend a country). In the free society people pursue their own interests without impediment or direction by the state. The job of the state is to provide police and courts that allow people who have conflicts within the free society to resolve those issues (such as a contract dispute, a rape, a murder, counterfeiting, etc.). The job of the military is to protect the country so that such law and order can exist (which is why the rules of war are different from those of society. Miranda and other such rules are something read to people who are arrested who break laws within a system while the military is the force that establishes a system when no such system exists [war]). Anything beyond that such as redistributing property requires the state to violate the rights of certain citizens in order to change the temporary arrangement of material things, oh, and in your favor! Such an act requires the state not to act as it would in a free society as the designated actor that arrests robbers, but to engage in such acts of robbery itself with impunity and color of law. Libertarians are philosophically opposed to such things.

  44. K. says:

    I’ve identified as very liberal for my entire life. Socially speaking, I don’t expect that to change. However, when it comes to economic issues I don’t know where to stand. In fact, I must confess to almost total ignorance of economics. (I wonder if I’m the only skeptic who studies literature and drama and is rubbish with numbers?)

    Each side of the political spectrum has ideas that sound reasonable in theory, but I have no idea how to intelligently judge how successful these ideas would be in practice. No matter what I read, I’m still left with umpteen unanswered question.

    So, I hope you won’t mind if I interrupt this nice debate you’re having and politely ask you all to recommend some resources of information on these subjects. I’m hoping that, as fellow skeptics, you can direct me to some well-written, unbiased, logically-sound reading material. I’d like to educate myself and have a better opinion than “Um, I don’t know.”

  45. atlas1882 says:

    Try “Economics in One Lesson” by Henry Hazlitt

  46. atlas1882 says:

    For what it’s worth, Tim, if you’re still reading. Way to go. I’ve enjoyed your comments as much as the original post. The more people we have advocating the message of free minds and free markets (to borrow the slogan of the Reason foundation) the better off we’ll be as a society.

  47. Pete Murphy says:

    The only real problem I have with libertarianism is the blind faith that free trade is beneficial to all. If you’re willing to consider that there may be something that Adam Smith and David Ricardo didn’t consider – the potential of disparities in population density for driving trade imbalances – may I suggest reading my book, “Five Short Blasts.” (Please pardon the shameless self-promotion.) I invite you to visit either of my web sites at or where you can read the preface, join in the blog discussion and, of course, buy the book if you like.

    Pete Murphy
    Author, “Five Short Blasts”

    • Tim says:

      Shameless self-promotion is only forgivable if you’ve already cracked the Amazon top 100 list, otherwise it is just shameless.

      Trade, by definition, is beneficial to all involved, and before you try to throw any externality crap out there, who has better air quality, Hong Kong or Beijing? Now as much as I enjoy somebody who cites themselves as a source, I tend to roll my eyes. I got my degree in economics and history at the University of Michigan (while we are breaking out our arguments by authority) so I am pretty familiar with how these arguments about how there’s some special case somewhere where things could be a little bit better if we compromise the entire system by adopting a philosophical point of view that runs contrary to economic liberty. If you adopt such a philosophy it will not stay put, it will grow like fungi and ultimately not only not accomplish anything it originally promised, but will spread its tentacles into parts of the economy where you never intended it to go.

      I am so tired of population density arguments. High population density prosper from Hong kong to Monaco and low population density areas prosper from Estonia to rural America. Who built branch lines going past farms into obscure areas of wilderness and bought thousands of livestock just to hand them out to farmers in the area to encourage people to settle near his railroad? James J. Hill and his privately owned and run Great Northern Railroad. Who prohibited branch lines from going into rural areas and instead required their railroad to only run through certain areas of high population density? The United States government through its subsidies and mandates to Union Pacific, Central Pacific, and Northern Pacific. Did Smooth-Hawley create prosperity? No, it caused the depression (along with a reduction in the money supply of a third over four years plus various other tax and spend schemes under Hoover).

      Free trade is the best system, so far discovered, to bring prosperity to the ordinary people and the record of history is absolutely crystal clear that the types of societies that fail are the societies that depart from that model. Free trade is not taken on ‘blind faith’ as you put it; free trade is accepted with conviction and a good deal of certainty because it PROVES itself to be valid.

    • TryUsingLogic says:

      There is overwhelming scientific evidence that “that free trade is beneficial to all.” It is not blind faith. Blind faith is believing that socialism will create a perfect Utopia.


  48. William Patrick Haines says:

    Certainly religious dogma has plenty of hollow promises of salvation . Well not to be out down in the if only idealism department libertarianism will ring hollow claims that if income taxes and government regulation were eliminated things would trickle down .
    But with all the tax cuts under the Reagan administration how come of this has transpired

    • Tim says:

      Ladies and gentlemen, pay close attention to this. Read the articles people of this mindset post. What I said about anti-rationalism is a very hard thing to come to believe, that there is a philosophy actually dedicated to the degradation of discriminating thought which is why watching them in action is crucial.

      Look at the article. Look at the picture they use, notice the insults thrown out every other word, notice the sources they use, look how they accuse people of things, assume those things to be true, and then attack anybody who disagrees with humiliation and ridicule as their primary means of argument.

      Now, understanding how this philosophy works says nothing about the individual positions they happen to take. I want to stress that point because rejecting the conclusions they come to just because of the process of thought they used to come to it would be logical fallacy. My point here is not whether or not supply side economics are good or bad because that point is not being discussed here. The point here is about the process of thought that is leading to the type of conclusions formed here and the tactics they use.

      I cannot stress this point enough because the point of Skeptic is not any particular point of view, but a process of thinking about things in a critical, logical, rational fashion. Now I’ve already posted a source from the point of view that this philosophy is a good thing and three sources critiquing it (fiction, non-fiction, and video lecture). I cannot recommend them too highly. Again, not saying anything about the particular positions taken, but the process of thought.

  49. William Patrick Haines says:

    I made few typos I ment to stake not to be out done and how come none of this has transspired

  50. Rich says:

    Dr. Shermer has done a wonderful job in responding to the critics of his pollitical views and has rightly pointed out the non-tolerance of the left and the absolute hatred toward people who don’t think exactly as they do on pollitical issues. It’s as if a person has to be a “liberal” in order to be pro-choice, pro-evolution, pro-science, an atheist….etc. John Stossel and others out there have also taken a beating on their pollitcal views. It’s a shame.

  51. Patrick says:

    There are too many fallacies and straw men made here for any libertarian to answer them all. I guess to understand libertarianism you’ve got to start from the beginning.

    One poster above made the statement about the Reagan tax cuts, but didn’t give a full picture of what happened. This wasn’t libertarian. There were tax cuts, but we still had a progressive income tax, we still had trade barriers, we still had thousands of pages of regulations, a massive military budget, and a balooning social welfare budget. Don’t forget, under Reagan the welfare state bloated.

    Furthermore, cutting taxes, and increasing spending, is NOT a prefered libertarian outcome.

    Too many people make the error of looking at A and only A and forget about B, C, D, E, F, and how they may play a role. You’ve got to understand unintended consequences, compliance costs, opportunity costs. You’ve got to understand that voluntary interactions don’t occur if one party is made worse off.

  52. Beelzebud says:

    I see a lot of right-wing comments, that can’t seem to figure out why skeptical groups are mostly made up of liberals. It’s pretty simple.

    The modern conservative movement has largely rejected the scientific method. We see evidence of it in this very thread. People pretending that the scientific consensus on global climate change as a “belief”, when it’s actually based on hard evidence collected by real scientists.

    Libertarians like to pretend they value science, but then they call global climate change a religion, and have folks like Richard Hoagland give talks about why we should do away with NASA at their national convention.

    When the right-wing modern conservative movement rejects science, don’t be surprised when most scientifically skeptical people are more liberal.

    • Patrick says:

      The problem, as I see it, has nothing to do with science in this regard. Most people on the left don’t know the science of global warming at all. Even the consensus that exists seems to have varying degrees of concern over human involvement. Its hard for me to imagine that humans aren’t having some impact, but does that mean disaster? No, the left seems to have built a religious dogma around catastrophic change in order to pursue radical social change. And even then, the left has really bizarre and unscientific ways of addressing the concerns of climate change. As a libertarian all I can ask is, if climate change is occurring, and humans are causing it, why the hell did you pick the most expensive and least effective solution?

      • tmac57 says:

        “No, the left seems to have built a religious dogma around catastrophic change in order to pursue radical social change.” Really? You actually believe that people’s concern over a possibly catastrophic and non-reversible tipping point in climate change is just an excuse to radically alter society? You can’t see that what mainstream scientists are telling us is scaring the crap out of people that like to believe that they know what they are talking about? I am not a climate scientist, and I’m guessing that you are not one either, but I don’t see that it is at all unreasonable to believe what appears to be the majority of people who know a hell of a lot more about this than you or I, when they sincerely are trying to warn us about the potential for disaster if we do not take action now.
        As for your statement:”As a libertarian all I can ask is, if climate change is occurring, and humans are causing it, why the hell did you pick the most expensive and least effective solution?:” First of all how do you know that it is either of these? Second, do you have a better solution, and if so what is it?

      • Patrick says:

        I don’t think the evidence is even remotely clear that the there will be a catastrophic change. And given sciences track record on climate, I think it is perfectly reasonable for people to stress caution before action. Importantly, given sciences track record on economics and politics (I’m talking about guys like Paul Ehrlich author of the Population Bomb), I think it is very reasonable very reasonable to urge caution. I think people jump to that conclusion BECAUSE they are predisposed to the solutions of radical social change. That is, climate change is an excuse for, not a cause of, the radical agenda.

        When I read what a scientist is saying about global climate change, they appear very cautious in their wording. I see the media and individual non-scientists blowing their words out of proportion.

        As for solutions, things like cap and trade appear to be far more harmful than good. I haven’t seen convincing counter evidence to suggest that things like Kyoto will have a measurable effect on climate change. Maybe its building more nuclear power plants while letting the market work to produce other energy efficient green products. The greatest threat to the planet is not human self interest, but policies that will dismantle our incentives to innovate and find unknown solutions. What really worries me is that the solutions offered by the left will increase or sustain global poverty and cause millions upon millions of people to die needlessly as a result of strangling the free market.

        My solution would be to worry about the immediate threats to humans like poverty, hunger, malnutrion, indoor smoke inhalation (because wood burning fires as fuel in 3rd world homes), a lack of access to clean drinking water, AIDS… Use capitalism and free trade to build more wealth on the planet allowing us the wealth to create new wonderful innovations to solve these problems along with climate change.

  53. Jeff says:

    “The difference between these two cases should be pretty clear. Having everyone pay for public schools is intended to improve society by ensuring that everyone has a basic level of education. In my opinion, I don’t mind paying taxes for public education because it means that people I will deal with on a daily basis will have at least some education, and this can help the economy as well. The fact that some people view this issue as “my kid goes to a private school so there’s no point in paying for public school” is disappointing. There is a large benefit to society by paying for public school, but you may judge that you don’t want it, but that’s a value judgement.”

    So, with this line of thinking, one could posit that if I decided to, say, xeriscape my yard (because it saves water, looks cool, provides a living space for lizards, is natural, or for whatever reason), you (my neighbor) have the right to force me to get in line with the rest of the neighborhood and replant a lawn because, A) you believe it looks better, B) xeriscaping devalues the price of the homes in the neighborhood, C) photosynthesis in grass is better than cactus…or for whatever reason. But you don’t have the right to force me, so you have your city council pass a law that says that I have to pay the cost of installing and maintaining a lawn to the city anyway…..I mean, hey, it’s only fair! If you have to pay the cost of maintaining a lawn, which (theoretically) adds value to the cost of MY home, then why shouldn’t I have to pay those same costs?

    This line of thinking has brought to the brink of ruin.

  54. William Patrick Haines says:

    (Finally, let me add that one of the appealing things to me about the libertarian world view is that it is optimistic, uplifting, and most importantly (to me) anti-elitist. I’m in favor of doing whatever we can to allow the little guy to succeed and to break up power blocs that prevent the average Joe or Jane from reaching their full potential ) Since when is optimism / idealism a valid philosophy of any kind and there is an upcoming book

    The key fault with Libertarian idealism is some of them of think the less fortunate just do not make the effort to support let alone better them selves . This is a delusion that arises from those who come from privileged back grounds who never had any hard times except in their heads .
    If Libertarianism philosophy actually promoted personal success and actually did more than chastise the less fortunate for failures and extol self centeredness ,self indulgence than more people would adopt it . To be fair they have some valid points of view 1 they are against the failed war on drugs 2 They do not promote the Imperial /crusading foreign policy of the Republicans with it’s paranoid domino effect which first it was the commies now it’s Muslims . 3 In an article in Reason magazine they mentioned how the menace of a terrorist employing a dirty bomb was over blown 4 Like an analog clock which can be right at least twice a day they had another moment in Reason magazine where they were actually correct in that it mentioned how MADD had over blown the dangers of drunk driving via those who only had one or two drinks . I have first hand expeiernce since I needed a ride home and rode with somebody who had a few drinks

  55. Vince Mounts says:

    It would be too difficult to provide a better response than Daniel Loxton or Steven Novella so I guess I will just add a “me too” type of response.

    To be honest I had stopped reading your posts as it was clear you weren’t interested in talking about skepticism much any more. You seem to have confirmed this with your appearance on Point of Inquiry where you said you are bored with talking about bigfoot. The massive number of responses sucked me in though.

    Of course science and skepticism can inform our political beliefs and there shouldn’t be sacred cows in any area. For example, from my experience I would guess that liberals are much more likely to be an anti-vax person than a conservative. This comes, I believe, a tendency in liberalism to be distrustful of the corporate form of organization. Skepticism can address this issue and bring the science to bear. However, as to whether or not the corporate form has too many problems to be useful, that is not a scientific question (for the most part anyway). There are too many value judgments and not enough clear science.

    On the other hand when you come in here and start focusing exclusively on things that are far far far from scientifically established then I have a problem with that. If you think you have economics all figured then out take it up with the economists. Take Galbraith, Krugman and Stiglitz out to lunch and show them where they have gone wrong. Maybe you’ll get a Nobel Prize too! Until then please stop treating the skeptical community as your personal captive audience to preach to. It isn’t.

    I get that you might get bored with skepticism after so many years. No one can blame you for that. If your only point is to say , “hey all you liberals, some of us skeptics are not liberals!” I kind understand that a little too. At this point, it is pretty clear it is more than that, as it is the only thing your write about any more.

    Get a blog on catounbound or reason magazine or something like that. Some times people need to move on, we understand. One the other hand , if you really believe that libertarianism is somehow scientifically established then you are off your rocker. If you are well aware it isn’t but have made it your one and only topic of conversation in a community devoted to scientifically established ideas, then you are being rude and divisive.

    • Beelzebud says:

      I’m a liberal (I know, it goes against the claim up-thread that liberals don’t call themselves that any more), and I think the anti-vax people are irrational, ignorant, and dangerous. Darksyde from DailyKos (a liberal blog) has also done many articles on the dangers of the anti-vax movement.

  56. Patrick says:

    “Take Galbraith, Krugman and Stiglitz ”

    Sounds like appeal to authority to me, but while you’re at it, there are other free market nobel prize winners like Friedman, Hayek, Smith…Smith is still alive btw.

    Krugman and Stiglitz, btw, didn’t win the prize for promoting socialism btw they won it regarding theories free markets. Stiglitz, unfortunately, builds a total straw man in his economic books and falls flat on taking his prize winning theory to creating a proper social order…that guy really believes the government can do everything better than the private sector because he really believes that free market people actually think there has to be perfect information all the time.

    At any rate, maybe its time to get skeptical about economics and politics. Maybe its time to shake up peoples world views.

    • Vince Mounts says:

      If you have taken it as an appeal to authority then you have grossly misunderstood. The point is that Mr Stiglitz is an established expert that has done research in the field of economics. His research focused on asymmetric information and how it distorts markets and makes them, in almost all cases, not optimally efficient. In other words and established, credible economic scientists did research that undermines the notion that markets by themselves produce the best results. That is an appeal to research sir, not authority.

      If you want to shake up people’s world views, argue and hash out which if the Nobel economists are correct then do it in the appropriate forum. The skepticism movement is not that forum. The economics profession is. It is the same thing you would tell any creationist. Think a part of the established research community has it all wrong? Take it up with them! Prove your case and once your ideas have been established as the best conclusion science can offer then the skeptic community will be your champion too. The problem with _some_ of Michael’s stuff is that it probably doesn’t even fall in that category of idea in the first place. While a _person_ with his personal philosophy is most welcome here (and I hope if he does start a political blog that he still comes here to write his skepticism stuff), his personal philosophy itself is not something the skeptical community should take up.

      It is amusing to me that you think perfect information is not a part of free market ideas. In the general equilibrium model that underlies most of economics it states it’s assumptions quite clearly. For the model to work (i.e. produce correct results) it most definitely does assume perfect information. Not just about the present but also about the future! Perfect information about the future is not a realistic assumption in any way. You really aren’t going to shake up anyone’s world views when you don’t even understand the basics of what you are talking about. But, I didn’t really come here to argue economics with you. If that is what you seek then find one of the many forums devoted to it. You might even bump in to me reading catounbound from time to time. This place is for established science not libertarians that can’t distinguish between science and their personal philosophies.

      • Patrick says:

        Yes, I know what Stiglitz has researched and the Nobel Prize is well deserved. When you read is polemics, however, he creates total strawmen out of the opposition (even name calling). I have not yet met a single free marketeer (or fundamentalist as he calls them) that believes markets need perfect information to function well. Models are nothing more than explanatory, you have to make certain assumptions to make certain points. Stiglitz KNOWS that free market economists don’t believe there is perfect information and don’t believe its even needed for the market to function yet he straw mans their ideas then reaches the bizarre conclusion that governments can provide perfect information and should therefore be everywhere in the economy. Certainly there is a need for government, on occasions, but not as far as Stiglitz is willing to go. He totally underestimates compliance, opportunity costs, and really underestimates government efficiency, moral hazards and incentives

        I’m not qualified to debate Stiglitz, the people who are already take him on. Same with Krugman, who gets hammered constantly. I am perfectly qualified to talk and debate ideas with others and I am perfectly qualified to question Stiglitz and Krugman’s assumptions even though I may not be capable of proving them wrong. Just because I, as an individual non professional researcher cannot prove them wrong, doesn’t mean they must be right. There are lots of smart people who get things wrong.

        But why are skeptic forums not the realm for this? We’re sharing ideas, debunking myths, and talking about things which are in fact empirically testable…or at least observable. Economics and politics can be scientifically tested and I wish we would do more.

      • Patrick says:

        By the way, if the professionals are already debunking UFOs, why are skeptics even bothering talking about it or debating? We should all just sit by and watch the professionals duke it out? Come on.

  57. Maria says:

    A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury.

    Am I the only one who sees this as the cause for California’s current financial woes?

    For the record, I’m a libertarian skeptic, too.

    • Beelzebud says:

      California’s current financial woes are directly from libertarian policies. They made it so the public can vote on budgetary decisions, and the libertarians succeeded in convincing many people to vote against any sort of tax at all, and now the state is going broke from it.

      • Patrick says:

        False dichotomy. You just assumed the only way to solve budget problems is to raise taxes. Not blowing the money on wasteful and unsustainable government programs/projects to begin with is one other way…

        As it turns out the problem isn’t the fact they can’t increase certain taxes, its the fact that the government programs are so wasteful and expensive they simply weren’t sustainable in the long run. Budget cuts are inevitable.

    • Patrick says:

      Maria you aren’t the only one , don’t worry. :) Here is a video from Reason on that subject:

  58. Patrick says:

    The possibility of being wrong, I think, is why some skeptics don’t want to mix science with economics or politics.

    But what is so skeptical about taking on subjects where we have a 99% chance of being right and avoiding those subjects where we might be wrong? What is so harmful about being skeptical and thinking critical of more difficult subjects where a consensus has not yet formed? What is the harm in the possibility of being wrong?

    All skeptics should realize that THEY MAY be wrong…and that is ok. The world will still turn, critical thinking will still exist, you can still be an intelligent and rational human being. Being wrong is a part of scientific discovery.

  59. Skeptic…published articles both skeptical of global warming and accepting of global warming. So I don’t see what would be wrong with publishing articles pro, con, and neutral on political and economic claims.

    For many topics, this approach works well. When relevant domain experts discuss science controversies in front of a lay audience, this can be very illuminating (and fun to read). It can help readers learn what is not contentious. Or, in instances where respected intellectual heroes disagree with each other (I’m reminded of Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins) readers get a valuable reminder to remain critical even of those we admire.

    However, the point / counterpoint approach to science reporting can also distort the public understanding of the state of the science. The skeptical media should rise above the mainstream tendency to give fringe science undue weight (“the community of climate scientists agrees, but my uncle Bob dissents”) — not repeat the same failing.

    In any event, posters complain that Skepticblog does not present “pro, con, and neutral” articles about taxes, public schools, government bailouts, regulation, or other political and economic subjects, but advocates exclusively for the controversial libertarian position. There are no articles debunking libertarianism, nor promoting any of the wide spectrum of other political ideologies. (My own view, I hasten to add, is that polarizing debate on these outside topics is undesirable.)

  60. cputter says:

    Enough with all the “why I am / am not a libertarian” talk already.

    Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s quite good to be sceptical of government policies no matter which party promotes them. But that’s not what Mr. Shermer is doing. He’s simply stating that he IS libertarian and that one SHOULD be sceptical of government intervention. Though not once in the past 3 or 4 posts on this topic has he actually given a critical analysis on any specific policies.

    This just causes the debate to stagnate.

    If he would actually make a post regarding something specific with some reasoned analysis and data to back him up we might actually be able to have a meaningful discussion. As it is right now the debate is so broad and covering so many different topics it’s rather pointless to try and contribute or even follow.

    Maybe he should actually try to debunk some political myths.

    Are teachers under paid? Does the US have a free market in healthcare? School vouchers / credits vs. public schools. etc. etc. etc…

    All he’s doing is making statements regarding his preference towards not believing governmental myths, rather than trying to debunk any specific myths.

    It would be of much greater benefit to everyone if we could actually have a real debate on whichever topic Mr. Shermer chooses. Right now it’s just an unruly mêlée.

    So what’s the first Big Foot policy of Big Government he’d like to debunk?

    • Patrick says:

      Teachers are not underpaid. They average about $50,000 per year for a 10th month contract, plus bennies.

      The US does not have a free market in healthcare. The government restricts competition and treats individuals and company purchases of insurance different. It also regulates that people have to buy expensive all-inclusive policies (a Lexus) rather than what they can afford (which may be a Kia).

      Vouchers and Tax credits appear to work. No peer reviewed random sample study has shown that vouchers make students perform worse. Evidence is also starting to suggest that there are systemic effects – meaning the vouchers create competitive pressures to improve even the public schools.

      Yes, I can provide sources.

      How about Big Foot policies, where to start? Want to start with Cash For Clunkers and why it hurts the poor?

      • Tim says:

        Good stuff. I’m not entirely sure though if vouchers work, or if they are just less bad than public schools, but I would happily vote for vouchers rather than the current system.

        Cash for clunkers? Nothing like taking the Community Reinvestment Act and applying it to cars.

  61. Mmh. Fairness is a strange choice of a criterion, because it’s so subjective. Fair to whom? Here are some examples of other points of view (that I don’t necessarily subscribe to, by the way):
    * in a system where all schools are private with no government intervention, is it fair that only kids from rich families can afford the best schools?
    * in a system where public schools are only paid by the parents of kids who attend them, is it fair that the rich don’t have to participate in the education of the poor, who by definition pay little to no income tax?
    * in a system (such as France’s) where the private schools get subsidized to be on an equal footing with public ones, is it fair that everyone pays for private schools?
    * in a system where there would be only public schools, is it fair that you can’t choose the school your kids attend?
    * in a system where private schools can teach whatever they want, is it fair that the kids of religious fundamentalists don’t get a chance for a proper education?
    * in a system where the curriculum is determined by the government for all schools (again, France comes to mind), is it fair that you can’t choose what your kids get taught?
    * etc.

    There might be more objective criteria to measure what works and what doesn’t.
    For example:
    * adult literacy ( and
    * enrollment
    * percentage of adult population with a college education
    * percentage of children from modest origins receiving a college education
    * etc.

    • Tim says:

      No, fairness is not subjective, fairness is objective. I think you are confusing “fair” with “enjoyable and preferred.”

      “in a system where all schools are private with no government intervention, is it fair that only kids from rich families can afford the best schools?”

      Fallacy. You assume that the prosperity of one means the poverty of another, that the world is a zero-sum game. The question is not whether or not it is fair that one family can educate their child and another cannot, but whether the child of the rich family has a right to exist and have an education if another family does not. The education of one does not occur at the detriment of another. Would it be fair to say that child could not exist BECAUSE their family can pay for it? Must they buy their life and their freedom dollar by dollar from any passing person?

      Capitalism does not create poverty, it inherits poverty and when you see one with and another without then what you are seeing is a 50% reduction in those who are without. The issue of course is a moral issue though, so the fact that this situation doesn’t happen, that people are not starving in the streets because one man can be fat is aside from the issue. Or is it?

      “in a system where public schools are only paid by the parents of kids who attend them, is it fair that the rich don’t have to participate in the education of the poor, who by definition pay little to no income tax?”

      Why are they poor, why are the others rich, why do we have any public schools, and why must others exist to serve you? If the poor were stripped of their possessions and dropped onto one island and the rich were stripped of their possessions and dropped onto another island, how would either survive according to your assumptions? Your assumption is that wealth is finite, wealth is fixed, wealth is distributed rather than produced and earned, so with a starting point of zero and the assumption of a zero-sum game, how would either survive? If the means of your survival are your claims that you have a right to that which is produced on others, how do you claim your rights when there is nobody left to rob? What gives you the right to what others have produced?

      “in a system (such as France’s) where the private schools get subsidized to be on an equal footing with public ones, is it fair that everyone pays for private schools?”


      “in a system where there would be only public schools, is it fair that you can’t choose the school your kids attend?”

      Since you beat your wife, when was the last time you beat your wife? So, no on both accounts. No there should not be a system of government run schools any more than there should be a system of governmetn run banks, car companies, health insurance companies, or hospitals, and no it is not fair to deny choice of schools once you have already made that mistake. School of choice and vouchers are the least wrong way to make that mistake.

      “in a system where private schools can teach whatever they want, is it fair that the kids of religious fundamentalists don’t get a chance for a proper education?”

      Do you think that force rather than choice is the best way to resolve the issue of a poor education? First, it is none of your business if parents want to send their child to a religious school. Just because you don’t like their religion doesn’t mean you have a right to tell them that they have no right to practice that religion. If you don’t like that school, don’t send your kid there, but in my experience religion or no religion parents want their kids to have a good education and don’t settle for BS. When a Christian fundamentalist gets injured, they may preach creationism but they behave like they think Darwin might be right when they go to the hospital. Parents may say they want their kid to love Jesus, but they are not going to shortchange their kid out of math, science, etc.

      “in a system where the curriculum is determined by the government for all schools (again, France comes to mind), is it fair that you can’t choose what your kids get taught?”

      No, that is not fair.

      “appeal to authority (paraphrasing)”

      If you think that source is solid, then go for it, but when government gets involved that choice to use that method or not use it goes out the window. The government says, you do, and choice is gone either de jure or de facto.

      We should deal with our fellow man only in terms of reason, in terms of persuasion, in terms of volition. The initiation of force answers to questions.

      • You are making (wrong) assumptions about what I’m assuming and missing my point, which is that there are more objective measures to the success of an education system than “fairness”.

      • Tim says:

        I checked your comment and then re-checked mine. We definitely were not talking about education theory, we were talking about the proper role of government and the morality of intervention in the economy and society.

        I do not think I made any assumptions about what you were assuming; I believe I identified what the premise of your argument is; the ends justify the means. You have to accept that premise in order to continue with the various arguments you presented, or, you do not view anything morally wrong with the notion of taking things away from people and forcing them to do things they would not do on their own. I like to think I gave you the benefit of the doubt.

      • Well, not exactly but I appreciate the effort to try to understand what I was trying to articulate.
        Saying the ends justifies the means is another sort of extreme position. What I’m advocating is that we identify what the ends really are (that part is a somewhat subjective political choice) and what metrics represent it so that we can analyze (based on hard data) what means are the most efficient in optimizing the measured result.
        In other words, I’m advocating for applying the scientific method where relevant. And by the way, citing sources of relevant statistics is not an appeal to authority, it’s standard scientific practice.
        Now it is absolutely alright to reject a given means, even if it would be efficient, based on moral grounds, but in doing so it is important to recognize that moral standards vary in time as well as geographically and are often open to interpretation. Good compromises do exist though, for example the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or the Bill of Rights (but even those will or already have obsolete parts).
        Case in point, many people on this forum seem to interpret “nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation” as meaning that all taxes are immoral. Is there any possibility that may be a little too extreme? The margin for interpretation here of course is what “just compensation” exactly means. Some will believe for example that living in a country where literacy is high and all children have a right to an education is compensation enough, some won’t, and some others will criticize the means that are being used. I’m saying that at least that last part could be handled rationally and objectively.

      • Tim says:

        With all due respect, I think you missed the point entirely. Whether or not a particular method of schooling is more or less effective than another method is not what is being discussed. What is being discussed as means is the seizing by force of what other people have in order to spend it on things that you like. Now not all libertarians are entirely opposed to the notion of taxes (I am), but most libertarians regard the taking of taxes being justified for the exclusive purpose of protecting our right to life, liberty, and property (don’t kill me, don’t violate me, don’t rob me). The idea is that one person has no right to use force or coercion against another and the purpose of government is to use force to stop the use of force, or to try to make the situation right after such force has been used (locking up murderers after they murder, etc.).

        The end would be the implementation of this plan you cite (which fair enough is not necessarily an appeal to authority, but it seemed like you were using it that way). The means would be turning government from the protector of rights to the violator of rights; to throw in with the robbers and looters to take what is yours for their own purposes, altruistic or otherwise. This act would be immoral, to take things not for the protection against the robbers, but simply for the sake of funding optional things. Since this act would be immoral, any act that would follow on this premise would by definition be wrong.

        As for the Bill of Rights being obsolete, wow. Please tell me what part; the part banning cruel and unusual punishment, the part guaranteeing freedom of speech, the part that requires warrants for searches, or the part about self incrimination? “Obsolete” may be a relevant term when talking about aesthetics and tastes, but to apply that term to the philosophical, to the principles that allow various business models, education methods, and ideas to emerge, that is a confusion that will put one on a short road to relativism.

        As for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, BARF! Any document that says that you have a right to something that somebody else has produced, and that you have the right to use force in obtaining it is not suitable for the most disposable purposes in a public restroom.

        Now, for the statement on eminent domain. I would not have accused you of the beliefs you stated. I would not assume that somebody believed in that level of statism, but since you confess I must operate on that premise. To read that part of the bill of rights as you have read it is to negate the rest of the Constitution. If that passage meant simply that the state could take the property of any person at any time for any reason it deemed as “the public good” then we would have no protection from government. I would also like to point out that eminent domain has nothing to do with taxes as you suggested. I also must say, and I can say it no other way honestly, that your comment about having a highly literate society being a just form of compensation is stupid. Stupid. The notion that you could have so little cognitive ability that you conflate compensation to mean POSSIBLE and INDIRECT outcomes for OTHER PEOPLE is baffling to the mind. If anything that statement makes my argument that government is not the means in which people become educated. That statement is intellectual profanity and I seriously suggest without intent of insult a deep introspection before repeating that statement to anybody else, lest you look like somebody who is incapable of understanding the plain meaning of words.

      • Bertrand Le Roy says:

        I have no interest in continuing a conversation with someone who calls his interlocutor stupid because he disagrees. Good luck with that plan of yours.

      • Tim says:

        I didn’t call you stupid because you disagree, I called you stupid because you don’t seem to have the cognitive ability to understand the plain meaning of words.

      • I think I deserve kudos for managing to get a PhD from a major university while being stupid and not being able to grasp the basic understanding of words.

  62. Politics is people, the governance of people. The first question, the only question, the primary and most elemental question, is this:

    Is it fair for one to have more than another?

    The most of people will say no, it is not fair, meaning that those above the most of people ought to give to those below the most of people.

    However, the most of people will change their minds when it is their strata which is asked to give downward to people below. Then the most will find it is fair -unfortunate, but fair -for one to have more than another. The only thing to have changed is the position within strata of the people making the fairness judgment.

    By this we know the primary and most elemental question involving the governance of people is answered subjectively, relative to one’s position within the strata. It is answered on basis of emotion, namely fear and its offshoots.

    We can apply all the skepticism we want, but in the end analysis we will be motivated to decision by emotion, by fear, by the judgment of whether or not it is our ox to be gored, convincing ourselves we come to the decision objectively.

    This is why we’ve so many adages, saws, and aphorisms, most of them originating with the earliest of human civilizations, about the futility of arguing religion or politics.

    • I wouldn’t be so pessimistic: I don’t think that many people think it’s unfair that some have more than others if it’s by merit. If it’s by birthright, that’s a different story. Equality of wealth and equality of rights are understood by most intelligent people as two different things.

      • Those points are secondary. Here’s my main premise:

        “We can apply all the skepticism we want, but in the end analysis we will be motivated to decision by emotion, by fear, by the judgment of whether or not it is our ox to be gored, convincing ourselves we come to the decision objectively.”

        I’m suggesting it is illusory to think we can reliably reach objective conclusions on matters we exoperience so deeply in our emotions. While properly planned testing can control for bias born of emotion, the chances of individuals controlling for their own emotions on a day by day basis as they experience politics is a very unlikely outcome. I’m not sure how an inherently biased mind controls for its own bias.

        This is why arguing or discussing politics (and religion) has become a cultural icon of futility in virtually all cultures and throughout history. This is why we can see obvious bias in the other guy’s argument, but not within our own.

        This is also why blogs and message boards have discussions that go on for weeks, months, years even, and no one appears to move so much as an inch. ;)

      • Tim says:

        “I’m suggesting it is illusory to think we can reliably reach objective conclusions on matters we exoperience so deeply in our emotions.”

        Why? The world exists outside our mind and can be tested through the scientific method and objective measures. The fact that we have emotions doesn’t mean the world goes away. The world is rational, and if we choose to be irrational then we do so at our own peril.

        “I’m not sure how an inherently biased mind controls for its own bias.”

        The body can control for illnesses when the body is ill through an immune system; our mind has the immune system of reason. We come into contact with balony every day, the point of skepticism is to build up an immunity, to set up a system of thinking that allows us to see past our biases through objective methods.

        “This is why arguing or discussing politics (and religion) has become a cultural icon of futility in virtually all cultures and throughout history.”

        What kind of defeatist argument is this? Are you saying that knowledge is unknowable? How do you know that knowledge is unknowable if knowledge is unknowable? If nobody can be sure of anything, then everybody can be sure of everything. This sort of retreat into subjectivism is premised upon the idea that there is no objective reality, that people like Victor Stenger cannot scientifically dispell the notion that Judeo-Christian-Muslim versions of creation did not take place. You are operating on the assumption that everybody’s individual conclusion is equally valid even if they contradict one another. Give up this quasi-religious mentality while you still can, this notion of a Kantian universe where every phenomenon is inexplicable and there can be no objective understanding of anything.

        If the universe is real, if existence exists, then understanding that universe is essential to the survival of anything alive and I have seen to compelling evidence that somebody cannot be convinced of something that can be shown to be objectively correct, regardless of biases.

      • Tim says:

        correction: should be “no compelling evidence” rather than “to compelling evidence.”

    • Tim says:

      “Is it fair for one to have more than another?”

      To the contrary, the primary and most elemental question is:

      “Is it just for one to take from another?”

      The simple matter of having something does not require the permission of anyone and can be aquired in spite of their condemnation. Since the acquisition of wealth is not contingent upon the whims or good graces of another it is not the proposition. The proposition instead is rather action may or may not be taken against somebody. That action is what must be judged.

      When stated properly with the correct proposition we can see that the issue is not simply “what is fair” but rather “what is fair, and what is just?” Is it just to take from others through the initiation of force? No. Now when considering the issue of fairness we can be fairly objective. Did both parties of a given transaction agree to an exchange without coercion or fraud involved? If yes, then yes the situation is fair. If no, then the issue is not fair. Fairness and justice go hand-in-hand. These things can be settled through reason and do not always end a decision through emotion. The whole point of fairness and justice is to apply objective measurements in resolving disputes. If we just went by the subjective and the emotional then we wouldn’t have fairness and justice, we would just have envy and greed.

    • Max says:

      John Rawls asked the following question:

      What society would you prefer to be dropped into randomly, not knowing whether you’d be rich or poor, healthy or sick?

      People who don’t like to gamble with their lives would prefer a society with a good safety net, lest they find themselves in the lowest social class.

  63. John Draeger says:

    Wow! Nobody can say that Michael’s posts don’t elicit commentary. Just got around to reading this post.

    MadScientist identified the main difference between religious claims and political/economic models in the 1st comment. Even though Michael graciously acknowledged my point that political (and economic) positions are value judgements, it doesn’t appear as though he actually believes it. Scientific examination cannot inform us on matters of value judgements any more than it can say that rock, country, or classical are a better form of music. Maybe some time is necessary for it to “sink in.” People rarely change deeply rooted beliefs on the spot.

    The chart should have conservative, liberal, libertarian (and a few others) on an equal level – and without the Statue of Liberty being claimed as libertarian turf. I hope a good artist sends him something reflecting that perception.

    At the end Michael says, “the libertarian worldview…is optimistic, uplifting, and most importantly (to me) anti-elitist.” There are many people who do not perceive libertarianism (as he defines it) the same way that he does, and therefore all those people are evidence against his statement.

  64. William Mook says:

    Nobelist Ken Arrow has proven in 1963 that social choice is a phantasm. In his book, SOCIAL CHOICE AND INDIVIDUAL VALUES, Arrow proves that collective choice cannot be done with numbers (scalars).

    This means that voting and markets cannot work the way we naively believe they work.

    A simple example;

    Say you like three things, A,B,C – call them Apples, Berries and Cherries. You like B better than A and C better than B, so;

    C > B > A

    Does that mean you like Cherries (C) best of all? (can uniquely order the list) – no, not necessarily. It often occurs in individuals that they like apples (A) better than cherries (C) – and when that happens, you have what Arrow calls a PREFERENCE LOOP.

    How does this shoot in the head notions that markets and voting work the way we think?

    Well, preference loops are EVERYWHERE. There’s no way to get away from them. That’s the first point. Look for them hard enough, you will find them.


    Illustrate with an example.

    We just saw a preference loop with my valuing apples, berries and cherries. If someone wanted to ‘help’ me make a choice for dessert they might ask me two questions, say

    Which do you like better, A or B?

    B, I reply.

    Alright, which do you like better B or C?

    C, I say.

    Alright, and he hands me a bowl of cherries.

    I made all the decisions – the one asking the questions (determining the order of voting) determined the outcome. If the person had asked the questions differently, in a different order – the same questions;

    Which do you like better B or C?

    C, I reply

    Which do you like best? C or A?

    A, I say.

    I choose A this time because the person asking the two questions merely changed their order.

    We can navigate ANYWHERE on the preference loop by concocting the right sequence of questions;

    Which to you like better? C or A?

    A, I reply.

    Which do you like better? A or B?

    B, I answer.


    This is known as ARROW’S PARADOX because once you have detected a preference loop a knowledgeable questioner can navigate it to wherever THEY WANT even though YOU make all the decisions.

    This is why polling has become so important in the modern age. It is also why minor details – or spin – have become so important in elections (and advertising). It is also why the order of questions in the closing room of your car dealer is so important to that transaction.

    Any time you attempt to make a choice using numbers or by putting things into a logical order – you open yourself up to manipulation through Arrow’s Paradox.

    Bottom line, with sophisticated politics, and sophisticated businesses, free markets and democracy work just about as well as The Divine Right of Kings, to secure people against excesses of their Monarch. The Divine right of Kings argues simultaneously that Kings are Kings by the pleasure of God and that opposing a King ordained by God is Heresy. On the flip side, God would only suffer a ‘good’ King, one who according to James IV, in 1598 “acknowledgeth himself ordained for his people, having received from God a burden of government, whereof he must be countable.”

    Of course we all know how well that works out – God was largely asleep at the switch, and so people devised an improved method – democratic voting and free markets. Though the framers and founders of this new system couldn’t help but try to convince the public that God smiled upon the new system and opposed the old one – standing the Devine Right of Kings on its head.

    But Arrow proved that voting and markets cannot work the way we always assumed they did.

    Is there a solution?

    Sure! People aren’t stupid! They routinely make important decisions after analyzing their individual preferences loops. So, even while markets and voting break down, people do not. This means that people don’t use unique ordering of things to make those decisions. They use a little more sophistication. When we build robots that must operate autonomously we have to be just as sophisticated. This provides an answer to Arrow’s Paradox and a means to create a system not subject to the failures of our present system (even when it is allowed to operate freely and fairly).

    When we buy and sell, we seek to maximize profit – a scalar quantity. When we vote, we seek to maximize vote count – a scalar quantity. Then, we uniquely order the outcome, and pick the largest number. This unique ordering is where both fail when attempting to make sophisticated decisions.

    There are more complicated numbers than scalars. There are vectors – lists of scalars. There are tensors – lists of vectors, or tables of scalars. These can be used to measure values as well – in fact to measure values in several directions at the same time and relate them to one another.

    So what if we had tensor voting? tensor money?

    How would that work?

    Well that was worked out in detail by Wasily Leonteif – who also recieved a Nobel Prize for his work on THE INPUT OUTPUT METHOD OF ECONOMETRIC ANALYSIS. It is a solution to Arrow’s Paradox

    With the help of a computer to keep track of it, and seamlessly build the tensors to begin with – we could implement a voting/buying system that did away with governments as we know them, and end the shortcomings we presently suffer with today.

  65. William Mook says:

    Interesting the power in a label! So, what would you call a person who;

    believes that the word of God if written anywhere is found in the very fabric of nature?

    believes that reality is what reality is and does not need any defense?

    believes that is is we, not God or beliefs, that suffer if we are ignorant of this reality?

    feels kinship with the entire world and

    believes the whole world is his nation and

    and all people his countrymen?

  66. William Mook says:

    The point in the article about the public voting largesse leading to a collapse of the nation is reinforced by Schumpeter. There is a limit to what a nation can spend uselessly. Exceed that limit and you drive the nation into the poorhouse as people disinvest to pay those costs. Stay below that limit and you can accumulate wealth and capital and sustain economic growth.

    How do we avoid this sort of problem?

    By having an ‘automatic’ currency.

    In the modern age this may be done through a system of individual tensor values created and redeemed by each individual electronically over a ‘value net’

    In more ancient systems of scalar valued national currencies this is achieved by having a precious metal based currency. Here is what Schumpeter himself says on the subject;

    “An ‘automatic’ gold currency is part and parcel of a laissez-faire and free-trade economy. It links every nation’s money rates and price levels with the money-rates and price levels of all the other nations that are ‘on gold.’ It is extremely sensitive to government expenditure and even to attitudes or policies that do not involve expenditure directly, for example, to foreign policy, to certain policies of taxation, and, in general, to precisely all those policies that violate the principles of [classical] liberalism. This is the reason why gold is so unpopular now and also why it was so popular in a bourgeois era. It imposes restrictions upon governments or bureaucracies that are much more powerful than is parliamentary criticism. It is both the badge and the guarantee of bourgeois freedom—of freedom not simply of the bourgeois interest, but of freedom in the bourgeois sense. From this standpoint a man may quite rationally fight for it, even if fully convinced of the validity of all that has ever been urged against it on economic grounds. From the standpoint of etatisme and planning, a man may not less rationally condemn it, even if fully convinced of the validity of all that has ever been urged for it on economic grounds.”

    (italics in original)

    One way to do this is to create gold bullion in denomimations that are conveniently circulated. There are 31.10 grams per troy ounce of gold. At $960.00 per troy ounce, 1 gram of gold is worth $30.87 one milligram of gold is worth $0.03

    There is an interesting property of precious metals. They become more valuable when they’re sold in smaller units. This property is what led to private coinage houses that bought wholesale quantities of gold and made them into convenient bullion sizes.

    With modern technology we could re-establish a global system of gold bullion. Setting the bullion price at say $50 per gram – and issuing a variety of bullion in;

    $100.00 – 2 grams -‘2000′
    $ 50.00 – 1 gram – ‘1000’
    $ 20.00 – 400 milligrams – ‘400’
    $ 10.00 – 200 milligrams – ‘100’
    $ 5.00 – 100 milligrams – ‘ 50′
    $ 1.00 – 20 milligrams – ‘ 20′
    $ 0.25 – 5 milligrams – ‘ 5′
    $ 0.10 – 2 milligrams – ‘ 2′
    $ 0.05 – 1 milligram – ‘ 1′

    Silver might be more interesting – since 1 gram would equal $1 at current prices with coinage charges added;

    $100 – 100 grams – solid silver coin
    $ 50 – 50 grams – solid silver coin
    $ 20 – 20 grams – solid silver coin
    $ 10 – 10 grams – silver ‘note’
    $ 5 – 5 grams – silver ‘note’
    $ 1 – 1 gram – silver ‘note’
    $0.50 – 500 milligrams
    $0.25 – 250 milligrams
    $0.10 – 100 milligrams
    $0.05 – 50 milligrams
    $0.01 – 10 milligrams

    These bullion ‘notes’ are basically nylon/PET film – embedded with holographic data – and then vapor coated with the precise amount of gold or silver required. The ‘coins’ are massive enough to be examined routinely – and are merely encased in tamper-proof plastic. ‘Notes’ are also tamper-proof envelopes with a vapor coating of silver or gold – which is easily seen as real. Holographic data is checked through the internet to determine accuracy with a simple universal reader. Solid state spectrographic analysis and sonic analysis – built into the reader also determines accuracy and size of the bullion note.

    The coinage premium, along with the fees earned in transacting business pays for the system – which can be quite modest, especially if delivered by competing services.

    Efficient electronic exchanges with very low cost universal scanners provide a means to efficiently use the bullion as a defacto global currency.

    If this were to happen, we’d find that the amount of gold and silver in the world is not adequate to our needs. The productivity of modern industry was held back by the lack of liquidity early in the industrial age and led to our current system of paper money. That is, before the recent run-up of money in circulation the US had about $900 billion in circulation. To have a 1 to 1 replacement with silver, requires 900 billion grams of silver or 9 billion grams of gold. That’s 30 billion ounces of silver and 300 million ounces of gold.

    Since there is 4 billion ounces of gold and only 1 billion ounces of silver available in the world, its clear that gold is possible while there isn’t enough silver available.

    There are 10 million millionaires in the world that have deposits of $40 trillion. Everyone else, including governments, have a total of $18 trillion in cash deposits. (world total $58 trillion) Clearly, the amoung of greenbacks and other major currencies in circulation (about $2 trillion) supports lots of economic activity.

    The good news is that convincing only 1 million millionaires to commit 20% of their portfolio to gold, and operate this coinage scheme to increase the value of gold, buying 10% of the world’s supply is enough to create a privately backed currency equal to the US dollar in its capacity to support business, and superior to ALL currencies in terms of stability.

    The largest sovereign stockpile of gold is Fort Knox, with 261.5 million ounces. So, even if the US government gave the gold away at half the value of the global coinage scheme, there would be enough gold and cash after the first issue to sustain the currency. That is, with 300 million+ ounces in circulation the system is stable, and rising prices for gold make the bullion currency more valuable. Falling prices for gold make it possible for the original investors to expand the program – and since the global market is large enough to absorb ALL the gold held in reserves, and sub-dividing the product into ‘micro-bullion’ naturally increases values, prices would be rather stable no matter what other holders of gold did. Even if others printed micro-bullion ‘notes’ – it would tie back to the gold value of the bullion itself.

    • Tim says:

      I’m skeptical of anyone who claims they support free markets and uses the word bourgeois. Also, the Federal Reserve Bank in New York is the largest store of gold in the world, not Fort Knox.

      I recommend “Monetary History of the United States” by Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz.

  67. William Mook says:

    Bourgeois refers to the merchant class, and Schumpeter’s use of the term is quite appropriate for the period he wrote, so I don’t know what you are going on about with that. Obviously applying modern usage to century old texts is inappropriate and only obfuscates clear discourse.

    I apologize for not being clear. When I said Fort Knox I meant to say the total amount of gold held by the Federal Reserve system which totals 261.5 million ounces – that’s the largest reserve of sovereign gold anywhere. This includes the gold in Fort Knox AND the Federal Reserve bank of New York held by the American people.

    This source says there are 5,000 metric tons of gold (5 giga-grams). There are 31.10 grams per troy ounce so that’s 160 million troy ounces.

    Fort Knox has a little less 4,176 metric tons – 147.5 million troy ounces –

    Together this totals over 300 million troy ounces, of this 261.5 million troy ounces are held by the American people. This is about 20% of all the gold held by everyone in the world.

    261.5 million troy ounces of gold according to this source;

  68. Dr. Shermer, with respect, I disagree. This thread is long enough without my having to add what I have to say, So I’ll just embed a link here. Do with it as you will, or won’t ;)

  69. I’m a huge fan of Ayn Rand’s work, and the objectivist philosophy. Free markets, and free will lead to growth and prosperity. More government and regulation leads to less growth and prosperity.