Dr Michael Shermer is the Founder and Editor in Chief of the magazine Skeptic. He is also a regular contributor to Time.com, a monthly columnist for Scientific American, and Presidential Fellow at Chapman University. Michael is also an accomplished author, his latest book The Moral Arc is a fascinating look at how science and reason can lead humanity towards the truth. In addition to this, he has given two excellent TED talks, seen by millions of people, both of which were voted in the top 100 out of more than 1000 talks. In this interview, we have touched on a wide range of subjects from Star Trek to his favourite books, spoiler alert – one of them is The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker. It has been a pleasure to interview Michael and we hope you enjoy reading about his adventures.
Q: What is your dinner party monologue for when someone says “and what do you do?”
A: I’m the editor of Skeptic magazine, I write a monthly column for Scientific American, I’m a professor at Chapman University, I write science books, and I ride my bike. Not necessarily in that order!
Q: Could you tell us about where you grew up; were you a rural or city dweller?
A: I grew up in La Canada, California, a sleepy suburb of Los Angeles in the foothills of the San Gabriel mountains. I went to all public schools: Montrose Elementary, Rosemont Jr. High, and Crescenta Valley High. My parents divorced when I was 4 and I grew up in two homes within a few miles of each other. I have two older step-brothers and an older step-sister on one side, and two younger half-sisters on the other side…and I’m an only child. You know, the all-American family.
Q: What subject(s) did you excel at in school, and which did you find most challenging?
A: I majored in sports and stood out as a mediocre academic student. I mostly played baseball from very early on through my senior year in high school, when I had to stop playing due to a weird back problem that turned out to be a tumor on my spine, but it wasn’t big enough to detect in an X-Ray for four years, so I took up archery and wore this hard plastic back brace that went from waist to neck because the docs thought that maybe my slight scoliosis was the cause of the pain. After the tumour was removed I was fine and I took up sports again (first tennis, then cycling), but in the interim, I realised I had better develop my mind just in case I might need it one day. That’s when I got interested in science and history.
Q: Can you recall any reoccurring comments from your school reports?
A: This: “Well, someone has to work in the service industry.”
Q: Did you ever have a eureka moment where you thought, “this is the subject I want to study”?
A: Freshman year of college, Astronomy 101, Professor Richard Hardison at Glendale College. I had no idea what courses to take but I was a big science fiction fan and Star Trek devotee, so I thought I might like astronomy, and boy did I ever. But it was more Dick Hardison’s love of learning that was contagious, particularly in the sciences and philosophy. That opened the world to my inchoate mind.
Q: Can you remember the point at which you fell in love with your subject?
A: Professor Hardison also taught the Psychology 101 course, which I took after astronomy (this was a community college so a polymath like him could really diversify his teaching). I realised at once that I wanted to go into the social sciences in general and psychology in particular, because I had an interest in social activism and it seemed to me that the social sciences (especially economics, in addition to psychology) would best prepare me for that. Plus, astronomy has a LOT of physics and mathematics, particularly the calculus, which I struggled with, and in any case, I was more interested in observational astronomy from an amateur perspective, and I still practice that today with my 8-inch Meade reflecting telescope. But professionally most of my research and writing is focused on the social sciences.
Regarding your undergraduate studies:
Q: Which University did you study at, and was it your first choice?
A: I matriculated at Pepperdine University in 1975. I went primarily for three reasons: (1) I had a couple of friends already attending who spoke highly of it; (2) it was a conservative Christian school and I was a Christian at the time (I wasn’t sure what I was politically yet); and (3) have you seen that campus in Malibu across from the Pacific Ocean?!
Q: What undergraduate degree did you study for at University, and in hindsight would you select the same subject again?
A: Psychology, minor in biology. Yes, I would do it again.
Q: Can you remember a University lecturer who really inspired you?
A: At Glendale College, in addition to Richard Hardison there was Earl Livingood who taught the history of civilisation. He was such a great storyteller that I took all of the courses that he taught: ancient, medieval, modern, plus U.S. and archaeology. At Pepperdine University, Ola Barnett, who taught psychology and mentored me, and Tony Ash, who taught the courses on Jesus the Christ and the writings of C.S. Lewis. At Cal State Fullerton, Douglas Navarick was my mentor and advisor in the experimental psychology program and I worked in his behaviour lab for two years running experiments with rats and pigeons, and he is still a friend and colleague. Also, there was the inimitable Bayard Brattstrom, who taught the course on evolution Tuesday nights from 7-10, which completely killed any remnants of creationism still lingering in my brain from my born-again Christian days. Then, from 10-2am Bayard held court at the 301 Club in Fullerton, in which we imbibed adult beverages until closing time, talking about the great issues of life, the universe, and everything. It should have been called the 42 Club.
Regarding your postgraduate studies:
Q: What motivated you to further pursue academia?
A: In my doctoral program at Claremont Graduate University, Richard Olson was my mentor and advisor who is one of the great historians of science of our time. I went there because I saw that he was the science historian advisor on James Burke’s series The Day the Universe Changed, which inspired me to go into the history of science. Burke showed how important ideas are in history, and how more than anything else they drive culture, society, politics, economics, etc., and he also demonstrated in his inimitable way (think Connections, his first series), how interconnected everything is. It also inspired me to be a public intellectual.
Q: What institution(s) did you study at in your pursuit of postgraduate education?
A: Well, for a decade I studied in the School of Hard Knocks, aka the Real World. I took a decade off to pursue cycling and writing and ended up doing both reasonably seriously.
Q: What was the title of your PhD thesis, and how would you explain your findings to a novice?
A: Alfred Russel Wallace: Heretic Scientist. I went on to rewrite it into a full-length biography published by Oxford University Press titled In Darwin’s Shadow: The Life and Science of Alfred Russel Wallace. It’s about the second most important person in the history of evolutionary thought. The first is obvious in the title of the biography.
Q: If you had your time as a student again, what would you do, if anything, differently?
A: At Glendale College, I would have taken calculus. At Pepperdine, I would have learned to surf and gone cycling up PCH. At CSU Fullerton I would have studied more anthropology. At Claremont, I would have taken courses in cognitive psychology instead of the absurd postmodern courses taught by Marxist historians and literary deconstructionists.
Q: Could you tell us a little about your professional journey to date?
A: Mine is a very unorthodox career and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone. Then again, most lives don’t turn out as planned, so in that sense mine is not that unusual. I always just wanted to be a college professor because that seemed like a great gig—you get paid to teach and learn and read. But I was sidetracked by a number of contingencies so I ended up being a cyclist for a decade, plus co-owning a bike shop (Shermer Cycles) and the Race Across America (with Lon Haldeman and John Marino), plus learning the magazine publishing business first through two different cycling magazines, which I parlayed into co-founding Skeptic magazine. Throughout all of that time, I was teaching as an adjunct so I still got the great gig, but also got to do all these other fun and interesting things. Basically, I had to make a living, and I didn’t want to do it having to work at jobs I hated, so I just made these things happen so I could earn a living doing what I love. So far it has worked out okay.
I just made these things happen so I could earn a living doing what I love.
Q: What do you think is your biggest achievement?
A: Trying to make the world a little better today than it was yesterday and slightly better tomorrow than it is today. As for actual concrete achievements…I have no idea. I’ll let history judge that. But if history is any indication, most of what most of us do won’t matter all that much for big changes, but everything all of us do on a day-to-day basis matter just a tiny bit that adds up cumulatively over the long run to make a difference. Think protopia instead of utopia or dystopia.
Q: Can you tell us about your current professional focus?
A: A study of the quest for immortality and perfectibility, and the psychology of conceiving of death and dying.
Q: Within your field, what breakthroughs are on the horizon?
A: In psychology: artificial intelligence interface with the human brain to improve the thinking capacity of all people, but more importantly solving the problems of mental illness and Alzheimer’s disease/dementia/senility, hopefully before I check out—I will be 100 on September 8, 2054. Hope springs eternal.
Q: Let your imagination take over for a minute and tell us what you hope your successors will be working on in 2116?
A: A theory to explain all the factors that came together in the 21st century to bring an end to war, to reduce nuclear weapons to zero, to end poverty, and to expand the moral sphere to include not only all humans but all other sentient animals as well.
Expand the moral sphere to include not only all humans but all other sentient animals as well.
Q: What do you feel your professional legacy will be?
A: I hope it is my books, but it will probably be Shermer’s Neck, now an official medical condition in which the muscles of the neck collapse from overuse and strain of being hunched over a bicycle’s handlebars for too long. I was Patient Zero, somewhere in Wisconsin, in the 1983 Race Across America (RAAM), the 3,000-mile nonstop transcontinental bicycle race, in 2nd place behind the eventual winner Lon Haldeman, about 1500 miles into the race when I noticed my head getting heavier and heavier. I eventually had to drop out of the race at the Ohio border, no longer riding safe due to the fact that I couldn’t see very far up the road with my head collapsed. You can read about it in a medical journal here and a cycling publication here.
Q: Are you working on any extra-curricular projects at the moment, such as: books, podcasts, websites, or speaking?
A: I’m raising a son, born May 6, 2016. I’m finishing my next book, Heavens on Earth: The Quest for Immortality and Perfectibility. And I’m riding my bike, as usual—it helps me keep my sanity.
Advice and Tips
Q: If you could give your 18-year-old self one piece of advice, what would it be?
A: Be a little less risk averse in sports and investing, and a little more risk averse with women.
Q: What advice would you give someone looking to start, or progress his or her career in your field?
A: Take a lot of different courses from a lot of different professors and read a diversity of books and papers from a lot of different authors, making sure to get a diversity of opinions not just in your field of science, but in politics, economics, and especially ideology.
Q: Which book would you say has had the biggest impact on your life?
A: In my youthful 10s Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke’s science fiction novels. In my 20s Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, Free to Choose by Milton Friedman, and Human Action by Ludwig von Mises; plus Carl Sagan’s The Dragons of Eden and Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene. In my 30s and 40s Stephen Jay Gould’s essay collections, such as The Panda’s Thumb and The Flamingo’s Smile, and his short treatise Time’s Arrow, Time’s Cycle. In my 50s Carl Sagan’s Demon-Haunted World and Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate.
Q: If you could recommend one book to a novice in your field, what would it be?
A: Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature.
Thinking free is at the core of all of science and democracy.
Q: Why do you think being a freethinker is important?
A: Thinking free is at the core of all of science and democracy.
Q: And finally, we are back at the dinner party. Someone offers you a drink, what do you ask for?
A: An Old Fashioned: whisky, bitters, sugar, and a twist of citrus rind, with one large ice cube, in a thin crystal glass.
If you’d like to find out more about Dr Michael Shermer you can check out his Twitter page, Facebook page, personal website and Wikipedia page.