As a followup to my commentary on the Kyle Rittenhouse acquittal, with which I agreed, I wanted to note that I also believe that the jury made the right decision in the Ahmaud Arbery case in convicting his three assailants of murder, aggravated assault, false imprisonment, and criminal intent to commit a felony: Gregory McMichael, his son Travis McMichael, and their neighbor William "Roddie" Bryan. The case involved a now-repealed Georgia law that permitted citizen arrests, which the defendants argued gave them the right to confront the unarmed 25-year-old Arbery while he was out jogging, based on their suspicion that he was fleeing a crime. As in the Rittenhouse case, it was yet another example of vigilante self-help justice turned deadly.
In the long history of civilization vigilantism happens when people do not believe that the criminal justice system works as it should, or where people live beyond the long arm of the law. The 4,000-year history of how this was worked out around the world may be found in the newly-published The Rule of Laws by the anthropologist of law and barrister Fernanda Pirie, with whom I just recorded a podcast episode of The Michael Shermer Show that will be released soon. It is a magisterial work that reveals in intricate detail the wide diversity of ways that people have developed to work out their differences and achieve justice. In my book The Mind of the Market I presented a fictional example of how this unfolded in the wild west of the United States, through John Ford’s classic 1962 film, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, in which a clash of ethics unfolds in the frontier town of Shinbone, Arizona.
There in the dusty streets and ramshackle buildings, two self-contained and self-consistent moral codes come into conflict. One is the Cowboy Ethic, where trust is established through courage, loyalty, and personal allegiance to friends and family, and where disputes are settled and justice is served between individuals who have taken the law into their own hands. The other is the Law Ethic, where trust is established through the transparent and mutually-agreed upon rule of law, and where disputes are settled and justice is served between all members of the society who, by virtue of living there, have tacitly agreed to obey the rules. Only one of these codes can prevail.
In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the Cowboy Ethic is represented by two people, one good and the other evil. John Wayne’s character, Tom Doniphon, is a fiercely loyal and deeply honest gunslinger who is duty-bound to enforce justice on his own terms through the power of his presence backed by the gun on his hip. Lee Marvin’s title character, Liberty Valance, is a coarse and unkempt highwayman whose unruly behavior provokes fights with the locals, most of whom fear and loathe him. The Law Ethic is represented by Jimmy Stewart’s character Ransom Stoddard, an attorney hell bent on seeing his beloved Shinbone make the transition from cowboy justice to the rule of law. John Ford opens his film at the end of the story: the funeral of Tom Doniphon, attended by an elderly Stoddard, who is swamped by reporters inquiring why the now-distinguished U.S. Senator would bother returning to his native town to be present at the memorial services of a down-and-out gunfighter.
When they were coming of age in this territory just slightly out of reach of the law, Stoddard and Doniphon are of radically different minds about how justice should be served, each believing that the other’s strategy is either outdated (Doniphon’s gun) or naïve (Stoddard’s law). Despite this difference, or perhaps because of it, they become faithful friends, both believing that in the end, justice must prevail. When Valance arrives, it is clear that he respects only Doniphon, because they share the Cowboy Ethic that men settle their disputes honorably, between themselves. As Doniphon boasts, “Liberty Valance is the toughest man south of the Picketwire—next to me.”
But Valance’s disdain for the milksop Stoddard and his naïve notions about the effectiveness of the law knows no bounds. Entering a restaurant where Stoddard is dining, for example, Valance berates him, taunts him, and finally trips the waiter, sending Stoddard’s dinner to the floor. As Stoddard meekly tries to avoid a confrontation, Doniphon enters and stares down Valance, who snaps back, “you lookin’ for trouble, Doniphon?” In his inimitable John Wayne drawl, Doniphon responds, “You aimin’ to help me find some?” Valance caves to Doniphon’s challenge and scurries out of the restaurant. “Well now; what do you supposed caused him to leave?” Doniphon wonders rhetorically. The sardonic response from a patron in reference to the impotency of Stoddard’s philosophy reveals which ethic is still dominant: “Why it was the specter of law and order rising from the gravy and the mashed potatoes.”
Despite Valance’s relentless taunting, Stoddard holds to his belief that until Valance is caught doing something illegal, there can be no justice. When Doniphon tells Stoddard “You better start pack’n a handgun,” Stoddard rejoins, “I don’t want to kill him. I just want to put him in jail.” At long last, however, Stoddard can take the derision no more, so he decides to take Doniphon’s advice that “out here a man settles his own problems,” and turns to him for gun-fighting lessons. When Valance challenges Stoddard to a dual, the overconfident naïf accepts and a late-night showdown ensues. In a darkened street, the two men square off. Stoddard is trembling in fear while Valance mocks and scorns him, shooting first too high and then too low. When Valance takes aim to kill, Stoddard shakily draws his weapon and discharges it. Valance collapses in a heap. Having felled one of the toughest guns in the west, Stoddard becomes a local hero, building that image into political capital and working his way up from town politics to a distinguished career in the U.S. Senate. Soit would appear that the Law Ethic prevailed, literally and figuratively, though the transition was resolved in the flash of a gun, moral conflict resolved.
But as the flashback continues, we learn that some time after the gunfight Stoddard discovered that he was not the fatal shooter. The man who shot Liberty Valance was Tom Doniphon. Knowing that Stoddard was no match for Valance, Doniphon lurked in the shadows, fingering a rifle, which he engaged to kill Valance at the crucially-timed moment when the two men drew their weapons. Holding to the Cowboy Ethic of loyalty and friendship, Doniphon takes the secret to his grave. When Stoddard finally reveals to a newspaper reporter the truth about who really shot Liberty Valance, the paper decides not to print the truth because, in what has become one of the most memorable lines in filmic history, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
Despite this being a typical shoot-em-up western film, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance contains many moral subtleties, starting with the observation that both Stoddard and Doniphon violated their principles, but they did so because this was the only means by which one moral code could displace the other. By agreeing to a duel with Valance, Stoddard adopts a form of conflict resolution that he previously deemed illegal and immoral, and after discovering the truth about who really shot Valance, he chooses to live a lie of omission and capitalizes on his unearned heroism. For his part, Doniphon violates his moral code by ambushing Valance instead of facing him man to man, and then hides the truth about what really happened, tacitly endorsing Stoddard’s faux use of the Cowboy Ethic in order to help bring about the Law Ethic to town. In fact, both men violated their own codes of morality, and with ample irony the only person who held true to his was the scurrilous Liberty Valance. But in the end, as Shinbone grew in size, the transition from one moral code to the other had to happen, and in this moral homily it was friendship and loyalty that facilitated the change.
The fictional Shinbone embodies any small community in transition from an informal moral system to a formal legal code and system of justice. As long as population numbers are low and everyone in a community is either related to one another or knows one another through regular interactions, the code of the cowboy can work relatively well to keep the peace and ensure trust and social stability. But when communities expand and population numbers increase, the opportunities for unchecked violations of such informal codes expand exponentially, requiring the creation of such social technologies as codes, courts, and constitutions.
This is why the breakdown of law-and-order such as we’ve seen in cities like Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco resulting in widespread rioting, looting, and most recently smash-and-grab raids on retail stores, witnesses Liberty Valance wannabes who lack even a cowboy ethic or a culture of honor. These are honorless thugs who should be brought to justice…legally.
Like everyone else last week I was riveted by the suspense over what the verdict would be in the Kyle Rittenhouse trial. I think that the jury made the right decision to acquit Rittenhouse on all charges. The testimonies and video evidence presented in the trial shows that Rittenhouse was chased and lunged at by the first victim he fatally shot, Joseph Rosenbaum, was attacked with a skateboard by the second victim he fatally shot (Anthony Huber), and shot and wounded the third victim (Gaige Grosskreutz) who pulled out his own handgun and pointed it at Rittenhouse. Thus, it was determined, Rittenhouse acted legally under Wisconsin law to “prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself.”
But as I told my wife that day, if our son was 17 and announced that he was going to a protest over a highly-charged issue with racial and political overtones (in this case the police shooting of Jacob Blake), and that he was taking with him a semi-automatic AR-15 style rifle just in case things took a turn toward violence, we’d take away his gun, hide the car keys, and if necessary lock him in his room. As I tweeted that day, “Emotionally aroused testosterone-fueled males + guns = trouble.”
There are already countless commentaries on the meaning and the particulars in the Rittenhouse trial, so let me offer some reflections on what I think are some deeper lessons on human nature and society we can take from this case, starting with the concept of self-help justice. I wrote about this extensively in my book The Moral Arc, in the chapter on “Moral Justice: Retribution and Restoration,” keying off sociologist Donald Black’s explanation for why people living in civilized societies with justice systems and police forces nevertheless sometimes choose to take the law into their own hands. Black’s 1983 paper on this subject is titled “Crime as Social Control” (published in the American Sociological Review, pp. 35-45), in which he takes the well-known statistic that only around 10 percent of homicides belong in the category of predatory or instrumental violence (e.g., robbing a liquor store for cash and shooting the clerk in the process), arguing that most homicides are moralistic in nature. Most murders, says Black, are a form of capital punishment in which the murderer is the judge, jury, and executioner over a victim they perceive to have wronged them in some manner deserving of the death penalty.
Black provides examples that are as common as they are disturbing: “a young man killed his brother during a heated discussion about the latter’s sexual advances toward his younger sisters,” another man who “killed his wife after she ‘dared’ him to do so during an argument about which of several bills they should pay,” a woman who “killed her husband during a quarrel in which the man struck her daughter (his stepdaughter),” another woman who “killed her 21-year-old son because he had been ‘fooling around with homosexuals and drugs,’” and several involving disputes over automobile parking spots. Most violence, in fact, is a form of moralistic punishment, and that includes self-defense.
But what was Rittenhouse doing there in Kenosha the first place, along with all those protesters? The Constitution guarantees our right to peacefully protest, but as we’ve seen in recent years, protests often turn violent, as it did in Wisconsin. Why? The proximate explanations can be seen in the videos and imagined from the testimonies, but the ultimate explanation is because we evolved a moral sense of right and wrong, and if the state doesn’t protect our right to seek justice over those who have wronged us, we’re inclined to take the law into our own hands.
The goal of modern Western judicial systems is to prevent citizens of a nation from using force and committing violence against one another when disputes arise. Today this is conducted through two justice systems: criminal and civil. Criminal justice deals with crimes against the laws of the land that are punishable only by the state. Civil justice deals with disputes between individuals or groups, such as contract violations, property damage, or bodily injury, and the court’s say is final in determining right and wrong and appropriate damages. Criminal justice involves mostly retribution. Civil justice involves both retribution and restoration (through assessed damages). For both forms of justice, states claim a monopoly on the legitimate use of force, with the goal of deterring future crimes against citizens of the society. This is why criminal cases are labeled The State v. John Doe or The People v. Jane Roe. The state becomes the injured party. My home state of California, for example, continues to pursue charges against the film maker Roman Polanski for raping an underage girl in 1977, even though she—now a woman in her 40s—has forgiven him and has requested that the state drop the charges, and even though Polanski lives in Switzerland and has no intention of ever returning to the U.S.
This is why in areas of Western nations where citizens do not feel that the law is fair to them—as in parts of the United States where the police and courts are perceived to be racist—people often take the law into their own hands. This is why it is called “self-help justice,” or sometimes “frontier justice,” or plain old “vigilantism.” Take the case of inner city violence where crime rates are much higher than elsewhere. The primary reason for this violence is gang-related illegal drug trafficking. When a product that people want is made illegal, it does not necessarily eliminate the desire for the product; instead it shifts the economic transaction from a lawful free market to an unlawful black market—think alcohol during Prohibition, or drugs today. Because drug dealers cannot turn to the state to settle disputes with other drug dealers, self-help justice is their only option. As such, criminal gangs emerge (most famously the Mafia), which enforce a different sort of criminal justice.
Occasionally conditions arise in which ordinary citizens feel pressed to take the law into their own hands, as Bernhard Goetz did on December 22, 1984, when four young men approached him on a New York City subway in what he perceived to be in a threatening manner. At the time of this incident, New York City was in the throes of one of the biggest crime waves in American history, having seen its rate of violent crime skyrocket nearly fourfold from 325 to 1,100 per 100,000 people in only a decade. In fact, three years prior to this incident, three young men had robbed Goetz of some electronic equipment and then tossed him through a plate-glass door. One of his attackers was caught, but was charged only with criminal mischief for ripping Goetz’s jacket and released from the police station even sooner than Goetz was. The criminal went on to mug again, leaving Goetz skeptical of the criminal justice system and the police’s capacity to protect him from harm. So to protect himself, Goetz purchased a Smith and Wesson .38-caliber handgun, as was his right by the Second Amendment.
On that fateful night in 1984, the four young men boarded the subway carrying screwdrivers, intent (they later said) on knocking off video arcade machines in Manhattan. When Goetz attempted to exit the subway train, they surrounded him and demanded money. (In their trial they claimed that they had only been “panhandling” and had merely “asked” for the money instead of demanding it.) Given his prior experience, his awareness of the crime wave, and the gun in his pocket, Goetz was conditioned for confrontation. He shot the men and exited the train.
Not long afterwards, Goetz became known as the “Subway Vigilante” and was the topic of a national debate on crime and vigilantism. In response, and to show that it would not tolerate a return to the Wild West form of vigilante justice, the state criminal justice system came down hard on Goetz, charging him with four counts of attempted murder, four counts of reckless endangerment, and one count of criminal possession of a weapon. Living in what was essentially a lawless subsection of a civil society—New York City subways—Goetz reacted, in his own words, like an animal. “People are looking for a hero or they are looking for a villain. And neither is the truth. What you have here is nothing more than a vicious rat. That’s all it is. It’s not Clint Eastwood. It’s not taking the law in your own hands. You can label that. It’s not being judge, jury and executioner.”
In a civilized society, in fact, it is the state’s duty to provide judge, jury, and executioner, but the public disagreed, most siding with Goetz, and several groups established legal defense funds on his behalf. In his criminal trial he was acquitted of the attempted murder charges but served eight months for carrying a loaded but unlicensed weapon in a public place. As Goetz reflected: “What happens to me at this point is unimportant. I’m just one person. This has at least raised issues in New York. One thing I can do to show the legal system what I think of it.”
As we reflect on the Rittenhouse case, and those that came before and will surely come again, let me close with an even bigger picture of what lesson we might glean from all this. In the long history of civilization, self-help justice conducted by individuals has gradually been replaced with criminal justice conducted by the state. The former leads to higher rates of violence than the latter, due to the lack of an objective third party to oversee the process. States, for all their faults, have more checks and balances than individuals.
This is why Justitia—the Roman goddess of justice—is often depicted wearing a blindfold, symbolizing blind justice and impartiality; in her left hand she carries a scale on which to weigh the evidence, a symbol for a balanced outcome; and in her right hand she wields the double-edged sword of reason and justice, symbolizing her power to enforce the law. The system is far from perfect, but it is vastly superior to the alternative of a lawless society, or one in which citizens take the law into their own hands.
Thank you all for the warm and enthusiastic reception to my first Substack column on how and why Scientific American went woke, and the many thoughtful comments readers posted. This is exactly what I was hoping for on this platform—an open dialogue with readers. Why? The answer comes straight out of Steven Pinker’s new book Rationality, in which he quotes the psychologist David Myers’ “essence of monotheistic belief” that (1) There is a God and (2) it’s not me (and it’s also not you), and adds the secular equivalent: (1) There is objective truth and (2) I don’t know it (and neither do you). Pinker then draws the rational conclusion (p. 40):
The same epistemic humility applies to the rationality that leads to truth. Perfect rationality and objective truth are aspirations that no mortal can ever claim to have attained. But the conviction that they are out there licenses us to develop rules we can all abide by that allow us to approach truth collectively in ways that are impossible for any of us individually.
As most readers will know, I don’t believe in God (so it’s not me, you, or anyone else). But I do believe in objective truth that is out there to be discovered, only I don’t know what it is (and neither do you), so we need to work together through open dialogue to figure it out through what Karl Popper called “conjectures and refutations”. My purpose in writing that essay was most assuredly not to get readers to cancel their subscriptions to Scientific American (no more “cancel culture” please!); it was to address the many conjectures on offer in that publication that group differences between races and genders are primarily explained by racism, misogyny, and general bigotry, and to explain why those conjectures are refuted by counterfactual examples. This is why I provided that bar graph showing fields where, for example, women dominate in earning graduate degrees, and the dearth of conjectures of reverse bias against men. Here it is again in case you missed the previous column:
Some readers objected to my use of the word “woke”. Because it carries pejorative connotations I am sympathetic to the objection and even went out to my Twitter followers to ask for alternatives, but none were particularly compelling. I do like Thomas Sowell’s “the anointed” (in his aptly titled book The Vision of the Anointed: Self-Congratulation as a Basis for Social Policy) and John McWhorter’s “the elect” in his new book descriptively titled Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America:
Author and essayist Joseph Bottum has found the proper term, and I will adopt it here: We will term these people the Elect. They do think of themselves as bearers of a wisdom, granted them for any number of reasons—empathic leaning, life experience, maybe even intelligence. But they see themselves as having been chosen, as it were, by one or some of these factors, as understanding something most do not. “The Elect” is also good in implying a certain smugness, which, sadly, is an accurate depiction.
As a linguist, McWhorter has also tracked how the word “woke” has mutated into a pejorative in what the psychologist (and linguist) Steven Pinker calls the “euphemism treadmill”, in which purely descriptive words that carry no connotations (e.g., “moron” was a technical label for an I.Q. score range in which an adult tests at the mental age of 8-12), take on pejorative meanings until they become politically incorrect and are replaced with a neutral term (“developmentally disabled”) until that morphs in a derogatory direction, and so on. “Woke,” McWhorter says, “migrated from Black vernacular to mainstream use” and that the expression “stay woke,” “went from being insider progressive-speak to a term of derision for a progressive agenda.” At its worst, McWhorter concludes, the word “allowed many progressives, supposedly attuned to injustice, to signal their commitment to combating it without actually demonstrating an understanding of its causes or remedies.”
This is the deeper reason I used the term “woke” to describe what is going on at Scientific American: they don’t seem to demonstrate an understanding of the causes and remedies of actual injustices, which still exist (even while the world becomes ever more socially liberal and inclusive). This is what I tried to do in my book The Moral Arc, and why we included on the cover Félix Parra’s classic painting of Galileo demonstrating the instruments of science at the University of Padua to a tonsured monk (illustrating my thesis that science has been the primary driver of progress, not religion). Perhaps McWhorter’s characterization of woke racism as a new religion is apropos here.
Coincidentally (or was it?), this morning the Editor-in-Chief of Scientific American, Laura Helmuth, whom I did not know in my time there, tweeted out a thread about Substack writers and the use of the word “woke” as an insult:
Okay Laura, and readers herein, I am open to suggestions for with what we should replace “woke”. Twitter followers suggested “equalitarians” and “equitarians”, which aren’t bad, and do seem to capture the belief many who call themselves “woke” seem to hold, namely, the goal of a just and equitable society should be equal outcomes, not just equal opportunity. (And, thus, any outcome differences between groups are, ipso factor, unjust and must be corrected.)
Honestly, I’m not looking for a fight. Before such terms hopped on the euphemism treadmill I would have called myself woke and a social justice warrior, inasmuch as I believe in civil liberties, civil rights, women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, animal rights, and the continued expansion of the moral sphere to include all sentient beings. As my book is a 500-page defense of the principles behind these now-pejorative terms I hardly think I can be accused of being arrogant, self-righteous, and offended by social justice efforts. To the contrary. I’m not God. And neither are you. So let’s find the right language, practice epistemic humility, and apply the tools of science and reason to further bend the arc of the moral universe toward truth, justice, and freedom.
In April of 2001 I began my monthly Skeptic column at Scientific American, the longest continuously published magazine in the country dating back to 1845. With Stephen Jay Gould as my role model (and subsequent friend), it was my dream to match his 300 consecutive columns that he achieved at Natural History magazine, which would have taken me to April, 2026. Alas, my streak ended in January of 2019 after a run of 214 essays.
Since then, I have received many queries about why my column ended and, more generally, about what has happened over at Scientific American, which historically focused primarily on science, technology, engineering and medicine (STEM), but now appears to be turning to social justice issues. There is, for example, the August 12, 2021 article on how “Modern Mathematics Confronts its White Patriarchal Past,” which asserts prima facie that the reason there are so few women and blacks in academic mathematics is because of misogyny and racism. Undoubtedly there are some misogynists and racists in mathematics, as there are in all walks of life, but we know that the number and percentage of such people throughout society has been decreasing for decades (see Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature and my own The Moral Arc). As well, this may be another example of base rate neglect: before indicting academic hiring committees as hotbeds of misogyny and racism, which they most assuredly are not (academics are among the most socially liberal people in any profession), we need to know how many women and blacks are applying for such jobs compared to whites. The percentage is lower, and according to a 2019 Women in Mathematics survey “senior faculty composition both reflects the BA and PhD pipeline of prior years, and also influences the gender composition of new graduates.” If “structural” causes are the culprits—for example, if base rate comparisons do not match population percentages because of differential educational opportunities or vocational interests—such variables should also be factored into any scientific analysis of causality, especially in a popular and respected science publication. Again, there is no denying that some bias against some women in some fields exist, but that this is the only explanation on offer is unscientific.
And, unsurprisingly, reverse asymmetries never warrant explanations of reverse biases. To wit, this same study reported that “women earned 57%, 60% and 52% of all Bachelor’s, Master’s and Doctoral degrees respectively in the U.S. in 2013-14,” but proposed no reverse biases against men to account for such imbalances. Neither did a 2019 Council of Graduate Schools study that found for the 11th year in a row women earned a majority of doctoral degrees awarded at US universities (41,943 vs. 37,365, or 52.9% vs. 47.1%). Our attention is drawn to the lower percentages of female doctorates in engineering (25.1%), mathematics and computer sciences (26.8%), physical and earth sciences (35.1%), and business (46.7%), followed by discussions of systemic bias, but no such structural issues are on offer for the lower percentages of male doctorates in public administration (26.4%), health and medical sciences (29%), education (31.6%), social and behavioral sciences (39%), arts and humanities (48.1%), and biological sciences (48.6%). When the data is presented in a bar graph rank ordered from highest to lowest percentages for females earning doctorates (below), the claim that the fields in which women earn lower percentages than men can only be explained by misogyny and bias is gainsaid by the top bars where the valance is reversed, unless we are to believe that only in those bottom fields are faculty and administrators still bigoted against women whereas those in the top fields are enlightened.
Then there is the July 5, 2021 Scientific American article that “Denial of Evolution Is a Form of White Supremacy.” Because we are all from Africa and thus black, the author Allison Hopper avers, evolution deniers (AKA creationists) are ipso facto white supremacists. “I want to unmask the lie that evolution denial is about religion and recognize that at its core, it is a form of white supremacy that perpetuates segregation and violence against Black bodies,” she begins. “The fantasy of a continuous line of white descendants segregates white heritage from Black bodies. In the real world, this mythology translates into lethal effects on people who are Black.” Setting aside what, exactly, Hopper means by “lethal effects”, or that the vogue reference to “Black bodies” seems to reduce African Americans to nothing more than mindless matter, her thesis is verifiably wrong. As I and other historians of science have documented extensively (see, for example, Edward Larson’s Summer for the Gods, Eugenie Scott’s Evolution and Creationism, Ronald Numbers’ The Creationists, Robert Pennock’s Intelligent Design Creationism and Its Critics, and my own Why Darwin Matters), the primary motivation behind creationism is religious (and secondarily political), not racist. Again, no doubt some creationists in the first half of the 20th century were also white supremacists, as were many more people throughout America then compared to today, but the chain of reasoning Hopper employs—that the Genesis story of Cain and Able suggests that “the curse or mark of Cain for killing his brother was a darkening of his descendants’ skin,” ergo the Bible endorses white supremacy—is not an argument made by mainstream creationists then or now. In any case, the hypothesis is gainsaid by the fact that polls consistently show a larger percentage of blacks than whites hold creationist beliefs. Apparently they didn’t get the white supremacist talking points. Finally, since anecdotes are often treated as data these days, let me add that I personally know a great number of creationists and I can attest that they would be horrified at the accusation. They are creationists not because they are white supremacists who wish to perpetuate “violence against Black bodies” but because they believe that God created the universe, life, humans, consciousness, and morality, and that the design inference to a designer makes the most sense to them (however wrong in their reasoning I believe them to be).
The most bizarre example of Scientific American’s woke turn toward social justice is an article published September 23, 2021 titled “Why the Term ‘JEDI’ is Problematic for Describing Programs that Promote Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion.” Apparently, some social justice activists have embraced the Star Wars-themed acronym JEDI (Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion) as a martial reference to their commitment, and is now employed by some prominent institutions and organizations such as the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. The JEDI acronym is clearly meant to be uplifting and positive. It isn’t, opine the authors of this piece that is clearly not in the satirical spirit of The Onion or Babylon Bee. Make of this what you will:
Although they’re ostensibly heroes within the Star Wars universe, the Jedi are inappropriate symbols for justice work. They are a religious order of intergalactic police-monks, prone to (white) saviorism and toxically masculine approaches to conflict resolution (violent duels with phallic lightsabers, gaslighting by means of “Jedi mind tricks,” etc.). The Jedi are also an exclusionary cult, membership to which is partly predicated on the possession of heightened psychic and physical abilities (or “Force-sensitivity”). Strikingly, Force-wielding talents are narratively explained in Star Wars not merely in spiritual terms but also in ableist and eugenic ones: These supernatural powers are naturalized as biological, hereditary attributes.
One may be forgiven for thinking that anyone who sees in a lightsaber duel clashing penises has perhaps been reading too much Freud…or watching too much three-way porn. Nevertheless, the authors grouse about “Slave Leia’s costume”, Darth Vader’s “ableist trope”, alien “racist stereotypes when depicting nonhuman species,” and too many white men in the galaxy, no matter how far away or long ago they are. Worst of all, the authors propose, is that the Star Wars franchise is owned by a for-profit company. “How ready are we to prioritize the cultural dreamscape of the Jedi over the real-world project of social justice? Investing in the term JEDI positions us to apologize for, or explain away, the stereotypes and politics associated with Star Wars and Disney.”
It’s hard to know what this piece has to do with Scientific American’s commitment to STEM issues, and readers have sent me other such essays and articles whose connection to science seems tenuous at best. Perhaps some insight might be gleaned from the British historian and Sovietologist Robert Conquest, who observed in what became an eponymous law that “any organization not explicitly right-wing sooner or later becomes left-wing.” The reason, I surmise, is straight out of John Stuart Mill: “A party of order or stability, and a party of progress or reform, are both necessary elements of a healthy state of political life.” Conservatives wish to conserve traditional institutions, so unless an organization or publication is avowedly conservative it will inevitably drift Leftward, a hint of which I noted creeping into the editorial process for my final columns.
For example, in my November 2018 essay—titled “The Fallacy of Excluded Exceptions,” or specific examples that do not support the general conclusion—I recounted being interviewed for a documentary on cursed horror films, in which I was asked to explain examples such as Poltergeist, after which its 22-year old star Dominique Dunne was murdered by her abusive ex-boyfriend; or when The Exorcist star Linda Blair injured her back when she was thrown from her bed when a piece of rigging broke; or when Gregory Peck was on his way to London to make The Omen his plane was struck by lightning, as was producer Mace Neufeld’s plane a few weeks later (Peck avoided aerial disaster when he cancelled another flight at the last moment and that plane crashed killing everyone on board); or The Crow when star Brandon Lee was accidentally shot to death by a stage gun with blanks, and he was the son of Bruce Lee, who also died mysteriously at a young age; or when the star of Twilight Zone: The Movie, Vic Morrow, was decapitated by a helicopter during filming.
I explained that the “cursed-horror films” connection is causally unwarranted by asking viewers to picture a 2x2 square with four cells (see graphic below, from my PPT lecture on the subject). Cell 1 contains Cursed Horror Films (Poltergeist, The Exorcist, The Omen, The Crow, Twilight Zone: The Movie). Cell 2 contains Cursed Non-Horror Films (Superman, Wizard of Oz, Rebel Without a Cause, Apocalypse Now). Cell 3 contains Non-Cursed Horror Films (It, The Ring, Sixth Sense, The Shining). Cell 4 contains Non-Cursed Non-Horror Films (The Godfather, Star Wars, Casablanca, Citizen Kane). When put into this perspective it is clear that those seeing supernatural intervention are remembering only the horror movies that seemed cursed (“hits”) and forgetting the other three possibilities (“misses”, “false alarms”, and “correct rejections” in Signal Detection Theory parlance).
I then added a more serious example of the Fallacy of Excluded Exceptions, provided to me by the renowned social psychologist Carol Tavris, citing her skepticism about the theory that sexually abusive parents were themselves sexually abused as children. This was a common explanation until researchers pointed out that most sexually abused children do not grow up to abuse their own children, and that most abusive parents were not abused as children (see the 2x2 matrix below from my PPT lecture).
My Scientific American editor deemed this unacceptable, telling me:
I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask for a revision on your November Skeptic column. The overall idea is sound—another example I often think of is “I was just thinking about you—and then you called! It’s ESP!” But we’re unwilling to publish a piece that suggests—even in a quote attributed to someone else [Carol Tavris]—that sexual harassment and the phenomenon of abused children growing up to be abusers are less of a problem than most people imagine. Heuristics are all very well, but unlike with spooky deaths related to horror movies, these involve real harm to real people.
To this I responded:
I’ll find other examples and send you another draft, but the point is NOT that sexual harassment or abuse is not as large a problem as we think (or that its effects are not as harmful as we thought); the point is that in our attempt to understand why, say, the sexual abuse of children happens, the hypothesis that their abusers were themselves abused as children is gainsaid by the cell in which all those kids who were abused as children grow up to not only not be abusers, but to be loving parents who wouldn’t dream of harming their children; and the other cell in which abusive adults were not abused as children.
I understand why we need to be sensitive to victims of abuse, but from a purely scientific hypothesis-testing perspective, it doesn’t serve society to refuse to consider the other cells in the matrix that contain disconfirming evidence of the hypothesis just because someone is committed to the hypothesis that abused children grow up to be abusers, and abusive adults were abused as children. The evidence shows otherwise. It should be okay to point that out.
In 2018 at Scientific American it was apparently not okay to point that out. I had to rewrite the column.
My next column, December 2018, was rejected entirely. I include it in its original entirety below so you can judge for yourself the decision by my editor to cancel it. Here is what I was told:
I’m afraid I’m going to have to reject your December column. It’s not really well argued, and leaves a couple of enormous holes that any critic could drive a large truck through.
You say, essentially, that things are better, especially for minorities of various kinds, than ever in history, your evidence being, basically, “you can look it up.” It may be true in a relative sense—there are fewer lynchings these days, and a man generally can’t beat his wife to death and get away with it as easily as he once could—but you ignore the question of where these and other historically powerless groups stand in relation to those with hereditary privilege. “Driving while black” is still a thing, as is getting shot by cops for failure to be abjectly respectful enough, as is casual, thoughtless racism. Income inequality is larger than it’s been in a long time, which also impacts minorities vastly more than it does privileged groups. Women still suffer constant indignities and violence at the hands of men. And worldwide, fascist and authoritarian regimes are on the increase.
To simply say, blithely, that Steven Pinker tells us everything is wonderful and everyone should all stop whining doesn’t really work. And playing the MLK/Langston Hughes card rings hollow, since neither man is here to offer his opinion about the state of race relations today.
I’m not looking for a revise here; we need a new column.
Crucially, Pinker’s massive body of work on human progress (for example, Enlightenment Now), or my own in The Moral Arc, most assuredly does not argue that “everything is wonderful and everyone should all stop whining.” To the contrary, as Pinker has said in hundreds of interviews, that just because life is better now than it was in the past does not mean it is perfect today. Many problems still exist (as outlined by my editor above), but it should be okay to document with data all the progress that has been made, or else why bother even trying? Here is my unpublished penultimate Scientific American column in its original draft so you can judge for yourself (later published in Quillette).
SKEPTIC (December, 2018)
Intersecting identities and tribal divisiveness
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered what, in the fullness of time, would become his most memorable vision from his magisterial 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech, he could not have known how much progress in civil rights would ensue over the coming half century, in no small measure because of his work. As documented in Hans Rosling’s Factfulness (2018, Flatiron Books), Yuval Noah Harari’s 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (2018, Spiegel & Grau), Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now (2018, Penguin), Greg Easterbrook’s It’s Better Than it Looks (2018, PublicAffairs), Johan Norberg’s Progress (2017, OneWorld), and my own The Moral Arc (2015, Henry Holt), there has never been another time in history when it has been better to be alive than today, including and especially for people of color, women, and minorities of any type.
Lamentably, in the process of this expanding moral sphere that was on its way to encompassing all of humanity, we are witnessing a reversal of Dr. King’s dream in the form of identity politics, or the collectivization of individuals into groups competing for status and power and perceived persecution by privileged identities. Its classificatory scheme includes not only race but gender identity, sexual orientation, class, religion, ethnicity, language, dialect, education, generation, occupation, political party, disability, marital status, and more.
To this new instantiation of ancient tribalism is intersectionality theory, in which membership in multiple intersecting identity groups brings more or less power, more or less persecution. The historical subjugation of blacks by whites, or of women by men, are measured along single axes; black women have different experiences than black men or white women along two axes; a non-white transgender lower-class disabled Muslim woman faces a world different from that of a white cisgender upper-class able-bodied Christian man along multiple axes. As the philosopher Kathryn Pauly Morgan explained intersectionality, each of us may be identified and judged on where we fall “on each of these axes (at a minimum) and that this point is simultaneously a locus of our agency, power, disempowerment, oppression, and resistance.” The Chicana feminist activist Elizabeth Martinez worried what such hierarchical assessments might lead to: “There are various forms of working together. A coalition is one, a network is another, an alliance is yet another. But the general idea is no competition of heirarchies should prevail. No Oppression Olympics.”
Unfortunately, as detailed in three new books, Suicide of the West by Jonah Goldberg (2018, Crown), The Diversity Delusion by Heather Mac Donald (2018, St. Martin’s Press), and The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt (2018, Penguin), the Oppression Olympics are well past their opening ceremonies in colleges, corporations, and Congress, tearing institutions asunder as conflicting cohorts vie for who has suffered the most historical inequities. This has led to what Lukianoff and Haidt call “The Untruth of Us Versus Them: Life is a battle between good people and evil people.” They write: “As a result of our long evolution for tribal competition, the human mind readily does dichotomous, us-versus-them thinking. If we want to create welcoming, inclusive communities, we should be doing everything we can to turn down the tribalism and turn up the sense of common humanity.”
That historical injustices were degrading, destructive, and deadly none of these authors denies, and even the most optimistic of us acknowledges that prejudices and disparities still exist. But the division of people into such aggregate identities is a perverse inversion of Dr. King’s dream, now deferred by these regrettable movements, however well intentioned they were when launched.
My lament is echoed by the African American jazz poet Langston Hughes in his 1951 poem Harlem, when he asked “What happens to a dream deferred?” He answered in a series of rhetorical questions, most famously:
“Does it dry up / like a raisin in the sun?”
Let us not allow Dr. King’s noble dream to wither on the vine under the collectivist drought brought on by these intersecting tribal identities, which we must shed if we are to return to the moral path leading to a unifying humanity.
My revised December column, titled “Kids These Days,” focused on the growing concern over Gen Z kids having significantly higher rates of depression and anxiety, which Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt attribute to “coddling” by helicopter parenting and the larger culture of safetyism.
Shortly after the December 2018 column I was given my walking papers, but was allowed one more farewell column in January, 2019. In it I noted that in accordance with (Herb) Stein’s Law—“Things that can’t go on forever won’t”—closed out my streak at 214 consecutive essays, my dream deferred to another day, which has now come in accordance to Davies’ Corollary to Stein’s Law—“Things that can’t go on forever can go on much longer than you think.”
I hope you’ll join me on this journey, and I look forward to hearing from readers and opening a dialogue about the myriad ways we can examine the world through a scientific lens.
Welcome to my new Substack Skeptic column, resurrected from my Scientific American column, which ran from April 2001 to January 2019. Skeptic had nearly a million readers, and each month I would hear from many of them, to which I always looked forward. But given the structure of the magazine and online platform, and time constraints on the staff and myself, interactions and correspondence with my interlocutors was necessarily limited. In resurrecting the Skeptic column in this free Substack format, I am increasing the frequency from monthly to weekly. For paid subscribers to my column I will read and respond to their letters and post some of those exchanges and, time permitting, I will periodically host a live Q&A with subscribers and add more AMAs to my semi-weekly podcast, The Michael Shermer Show.
I also plan to expand the range of topics I will write about to include more cultural, social, religious, economic, and political issues, which I believe can be also examined through a scientific lens, that includes not only empiricism but reason, rationality, and critical thinking. Traditional skepticism has primarily focused on examining claims of the paranormal, supernatural, and extraordinary—ESP, Psi, UFOs, ETIs, ancient astronauts, lost civilizations, astrology, psychics who talk to the dead, cryptids like Bigfoot and Loch Ness, conspiracies and conspiracy theories, and more—but there are many more mainstream claims made that can also be examined through a scientific lens that we do not cover in Skeptic magazine (which I co-founded and edit). My Substack Skeptic column will know no such restrictions, and I have no political, religious, or ideological agenda other than this one: a commitment to the truth.
Anyone who has listened to my podcast or read some of my books, most notably The Science of Good and Evil, The Mind of the Market, The Moral Arc, and Giving the Devil His Due, knows that I am not an ideologue (despite what some of my critics say). When I was in college and a young adult I identified as libertarian, but largely abandoned that label when it was clear that on many issues I was more closely aligned with traditional liberals (not today’s progressives), and other issues I found some conservative positions viable.
Today I call myself a Classical Liberal, but in this Skeptic column I endeavor to avoid pushing any conclusions into any particular political, economic, or social classificatory bins, because that is when truth is sacrificed to ideology and motivated reasoning takes over, most notably the confirmation bias, the hindsight bias, the self-justification bias, and especially the myside bias. The moment you analyze anything from the perspective of your “side”—your team, your religion, your political party, your ideology—the search for truth will be contaminated. I will try to avoid that here. Feedback from readers is the key to course correction whenever this might happen despite my commitment to the search for truth.
If you’re with me in this endeavor please subscribe to the Skeptic column here, and if you support my life’s work to promote science, reason, and critical thinking toward building a more moral and rational world, please consider a monthly subscription.
If you are unfamiliar with my work here is a brief bio:
“Michael Shermer is a beacon of reason in an ocean of irrationality.” —Neil deGrasse Tyson
“Michael Shermer has long been one of our most committed champions of scientific thinking in the face of popular delusion. We have all fallen more deeply in his debt.” —Sam Harris
“Thank goodness for Michael Shermer’s sound and inspired mindfulness and for this importantly useful volume. Truly a delicious read. Ten Goldblums out of a possible ten Goldblums!”
“Michael Shermer is one of America's necessary minds. A reformed fundamentalist who is now an experienced foe of pseudo-science and superstition.” —Christopher Hitchens
“Michael Shermer connects the arc of the rise of reason and science with a country’s economic success, and the overall worldwide decline in violence and suppression of our fellow humans, especially women.” —Bill Nye, The Science Guy
“This is one of the best recent books that I have read, and it’s the one that I expect to re-read most often.” —Jared Diamond
“You may disagree with Michael Shermer, but you’d better have a good reason and you’ll have your work cut out finding it. He describes skepticism as a virtue, but I think that understates his own unique contribution to contemporary intellectual discourse.” —Richard Dawkins
“Michael Shermer is our most fearless explorer of alternative, crackpot, and dangerous ideas, and at the same time one of our most powerful voices for science, sanity, and humane values. In this engrossing collection, Shermer shows why these missions are consistent: it’s the searchlight of reason that best exposes errors and evil.” —Steven Pinker
“This book is a ray of light in a nation befogged by pseudoscience and psychobabble.” —Carol Tavris
“Well-researched, comprehensive, and persuasive. How We Believe is especially notable in stressing the great power of narration as the vehicle of complex thought.” —Edward O. Wilson
“As always, Michael Shermer is hard-hitting, thought-provoking, and brilliant. The fascinating essays in this wide-ranging book will make you think—and then rethink.” —Amy Chua
“Michael Shermer is the voice of reason, and this is a book of his best essays—the ones we most need to read to understand the madness of our time and to imagine a more reasonable future. The range of questions Shermer addresses and the breadth of his knowledge make this book a delight to read.” —Jonathan Haidt
“In Giving the Devil His Due, Michael Shermer provides a detailed roadmap for thinking well and clearly about interesting and challenging ideas. This vivid, erudite, broad, and deep collection of essays is marvelously written, so much so that, as you finish one essay, you cannot resist starting the next. And the range—from ancient civilizations to the colonization of Mars, from free speech on campus to gun control in cities, is as astonishing as it is engaging.”