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Is the Market Moral?

Dr. Michael Shermer, historian of science, bestselling author and founder of the Skeptics Society and Skeptic Magazine, will discuss how evolution applies to economics, whether being a scientist means

Audio

Aired 7/2/09

Dr. Michael Shermer, historian of science, bestselling author and founder of the Skeptics Society and Skeptic Magazine, will discuss how evolution applies to economics, whether being a scientist means not believing in god, and whether science can prove (or disprove) the existence of God.

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): If sub-prime mortgages and high-yield investment schemes have taught us anything in the last few years, it's that many of us could use a healthy dose of skepticism. If something sounds too good to believe, it probably is. But there's more to the skeptics' world than just saying no. My guest, Dr. Michael Shermer, is the founding publisher of Skeptic magazine and the executive director of the Skeptics Society. He's spent years delving into the reasons why people believe weird things and defining the boundaries between science and pseudoscience. Dr. Shermer has also written extensively about the impact of Darwin's Theory of Evolution and how that theory is exhibited not just in biology but in our social institutions. For example, his latest book, called "The Mind of the Market," is about evolutionary economics. Michael Shermer, welcome to These Days.

DR. SHERMER: Well, good morning. Thanks for having me.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Michael, I'm just wondering if there are any valid skeptical arguments to be made challenging the theory of evolution?

DR. SHERMER: Not really, no. There's, of course, the normal give and take within the science, evolutionary biology, that you see in any science which the general theory is being tweaked in tiny ways here and there. But the overall reception of the idea that life evolved over an immense period of time and that it operates by natural selection which is dissent with modification. That is, offspring are similar to but different from their parents and that there's a differential reproductive success, some survive and some don't, the characteristics that help them survive are the ones that get passed on to their descendents and we're the, you know, the decendents of those ancestors who were best able to do that. And so that has withstood the test of time, it truly has. I mean, it was reasonable to be skeptical of Darwin's theory probably before the 1930s, before the grand synthesis of genetics, population genetics, paleontology and so on, but once we really had the mechanism of heredity and then how selection could operate out in the field with genes as the hereditary mechanism, then it was pretty solid. In Darwin's own time, there were plenty of skeptics and they had reasonable arguments but, you know, the fossil evidence now is so overwhelming it's – you know, we just have thousands of transitional species and it's correlated beautifully with genetics. And it's not like paleontologists and geneticists get together on the weekends and say, okay, we got to get our story straight here because those creationists, you know… I mean, they don't know each other, they don't go to the same conferences, they publish in different journals and yet they still come up with the same conclusion and – and that's just two fields. There's dozens of others that all point to the same conclusion.

CAVANAUGH: Well, valid or not, there are still skeptics. This week, the Texas State Board of Education decided that teachers must present all sides of a scientific argument. What is that ruling all about?

DR. SHERMER: Yeah, well, yeah, all sides and also teach the strengths and weaknesses of a theory. Well, of course, they're not talking about the strengths and weaknesses of the germ theory of disease or that HIV causes AIDS or that the Earth goes around the sun. I mean, why don't they call for teaching all sides on the theory of gravity or the theory of plate tectonics and continental drift? I mean, really it's obviously targeted for one, and only one, theory and that's the theory of evolution, and for one reason only: It's the perceived threat that it challenges religious beliefs. And people feel like, well, if I accept this evolution stuff, you mean I have to give up God and religion and my family and my friends and the church and all that? That's the perception that a lot of people have. And the answer is no, of course not. I mean, science and religion are, for the most part, largely two completely different things and they do different things. You know, science doesn't rush down to New Orleans to save the victims of Katrina, and religion doesn't do research on genetics. I mean, these are just two different things and so the sooner we get past the warfare model then I think people are more likely to accept it. And, in fact, the studies show that most people don't even know what it is that they don't believe when they say, you know, I don't believe in evolution. Really? Well, what is it you think it is? You know. Well, I – I don't believe it's all chance. And I always say, I don't either. Well, you know, if we came from monkeys, why are there monkeys still around? It's like, well, I wouldn't believe that either because we didn't come from monkeys. You know, monkeys and humans came from a common ancestor. So there's a whole suite of these myths that people hold, and they think, well, I just can't believe that, and no scientist does either. So there is, you know, what the evolutionary biologists are actually doing and it's a – you know, it's a hardcore science. It's, you know, serious stuff. I mean, you wouldn't take up quantum mechanics or global general relativity with a single magazine article and then start challenging the professionals. I mean, nobody would do that because you have to know something about it. But for some reason people feel like they can just comment willy-nilly about evolution like they know enough to comment on it and most people don't.

CAVANAUGH: So the myths of – about Darwin continue 200 years out. I wanted to ask you, Michael Shermer, how did you become a skeptic?

DR. SHERMER: Well, I was always interested in the paranormal and UFOs and all those kinds of things when I was in college and – high school and college and after, and they are interesting subjects. I mean, when I was in graduate school I remember Thelma Moss had a lab at UCLA studying the paranormal, and Uri Geller was all the rage bending spoons on television shows and before scientists and there were labs, professional experimental psychologists, which I was training to become, so I figured, well, these guys are smarter than me and they're more educated than me and they say that this Uri Geller guy is the real thing. And I thought, well, maybe there is something to this, you know, and wouldn't it be interesting if some of these things were true? Except I'm not sure I'd be crazy about people reading my thoughts but, you know, I don't think anybody else would be either. But then I saw the Amazing Randy on the "Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson and Johnny was always interested in magic and Randy's a magician but Randy adds a twist to it. He actually shows how some of these psychics do their tricks, and so he was bending spoons for Randy (sic) and levitating tables and duplicating photographs or drawings, things like that. All the stuff that Geller was doing, Randy was doing it, and then he said, you know, it's a trick. This is standard magic. It was like, oh, I see. Why don't the scientists know this? And the answer's because they're not trained to detect intentional deception. Scientists are trained to pull the mysteries out of nature but nature doesn't intentionally deceive us. Nature's just complicated and hard to figure out, you just have to construct interesting experiments to get the answers. But humans intentionally deceive, they lie. And I'm constantly amazed and the older I get, the more amazed I get that people are surprised at things like Bernie Madoff and ponzi schemes, and it's like but – but he lied. It's like, really? I mean, you're surprised? I mean, people lie. It's like on "House," everybody lies. It's true. And so I then became more and more skeptical and I, you know, I got a degree in science and then I got a Ph.D. in the history of science and so when I was teaching I was just kind of nosing around for something fun to do and I started this magazine, Skeptic magazine, just out of my garage. It was – it just – alls I ever wanted to do was just be a college professor. It's a great gig, really. And – But then the magazine got bigger and bigger and the Society took off and, you know, skeptic.com became a super-active webpage and that became my business, really, my livelihood. So I quit teaching to do this full time. I write for Scientific American, I write science books. So that's my full time job, really science education, teaching people how to think skeptically, critically, you know, be questioning of all claims.

CAVANAUGH: Now I'm wondering with the magazine, are you hoping to reach any particular audience?

DR. SHERMER: Well, I kind of divide the world up into three types of people for the magazine. You know, there's the hardcore skeptics that pretty much already believe most of the stuff we publish and they're our base. So – And then there's that sort of unwashed middle ground that hasn't decided yet, the undecided voter. That's really who we're going after. I mean, true believers in whatever, UFOs or Bigfoot or, you know, they're not going to be convinced by some, you know, well-written article with data and charts and graphs. I mean, once people make a commitment to a belief system, it's pretty hard to change their mind directly. But it's the people on the fence that are curious, like I was, like who wouldn't be interested in aliens visiting Earth or something like that? And so we want to reach them to say, well, here's actually what we know. We know this, we don't know that. And one of our messages, key messages, is that, you know, it's okay to say I don't know. You know, scientists don't know everything. I mean, in fact, the whole point of science is to fill gaps that are out there. Look for gaps that – of things we don't know. See, for creationists and intelligent design theorists, the gaps are the answer. That's what they're looking for. Ooh, look, we found this gap, you guys can't explain where this came from, therefore that's where the intelligent designer did it or God did it or whatever. That's their answer. In science, that's the beginning, that's not the answer. That's just the start. So like when cosmologists talk about dark energy and dark matter as a way of explaining why galaxies are structured the way they are and that sort of thing, that's – they don't mean that as an answer. It's not an answer. It's just a linguistic placeholder to say, okay, there's something else going on out here, we don't know what it is, we'll just call it dark energy or dark matter for now, and now let's go look for it. See, whereas the creationists, they would take that, oh, that's our answer. No, it's not an answer. You have to have more than just a word.

CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with Michael Shermer. He is the founder – founding publisher of Skeptic magazine, executive director of the Skeptics Society. Robert in San Diego is on the line. Hi, Robert.

ROBERT (Caller, San Diego): Hello.

CAVANAUGH: Hi.

ROBERT: Hi. Yeah, I have a question for Dr. Shermer. Do you think that part of the problem with getting the public to accept theories like evolution is a failing of the school system to present science in the proper way, more of a presentation of all the things that have been discovered by science, almost like they found it all under a rock.

DR. SHERMER: Yeah, I do think that's a problem. You know, the public school system, as we know, is – has a lot of problems and, you know, the science education is just one of them. But we have to remember that we don't have a central United States board of education that determines the curriculum of all students in America. You know, we have just numerous, countless thousands of school boards that vote on these things and that's why we see these little eruptions like in Texas where they just voted the other day to include certain language in the science curriculum for the State of Texas. And even within each state, there are smaller counties that have their own boards, and that's what gets determined of what's going to be taught to kids. Now on one level, of course, there are ultimately SAT tests and general national standards with the No Child Left Behind program. But still, there's a lot of individual variation there where, say, six of the ten parents on the school board are creationists, well, then you're going to have a shift. And so then we're back to the whole problem in democracy, you know, do you want states' rights or federal power? And there's always that tension there. And, of course, if schools were private—and of course there are plenty of private schools and there are private creationist schools. There are home schooling. The home schooling movement is big and growing and it's largely, vastly, like 90% or 95% of evangelical Christians doing this because they feel that education's too liberal and secular and they're teaching creationism. Well, on the one hand, this is America so that's okay. They can teach whatever they want. But on the other hand, if you're teaching nonsense, which creationism is, you know, that will have consequences for your children and, ultimately, for the nation.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you for that call, Robert. Now beyond the theory of evolution, this month's issue of the Skeptic has articles on ponzi schemes, and…

DR. SHERMER: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: …Gulf War Syndrome, the positive thinking movement. Do you think that skepticism should be applied to most aspects of life?

DR. SHERMER: Sure, absolutely. I'm always looking for new topics to cover in Skeptic. We're a quarterly magazine. It's carried in Barnes & Noble and Borders, and we have a pretty good circulation of people that don't just subscribe; they pick it up on the newsstands. So I have to vary it. I can't just do the Bigfoot issue and the UFO issue every time. You know, I mean, we – you know, do, you know, astrology, is it real, you know. Okay, we've done that 12 times. Okay, enough.

CAVANAUGH: Even Bigfoot gets boring after awhile.

DR. SHERMER: Well, Bigfoot gets boring. I mean, you know, show me the body, okay? It's not that there can't be a Bigfoot but, you know, we've been looking for over a century and no one's produced a body yet so all right, come on, get over it. Let's – let's go – let's go look for something new, right? So obviously, well, this – our latest issue with the eponymous Charles Ponzi on the cover was an interesting development. This friend of mine, Stephen Greenspan, no relation to Alan, is a professor of psychology who specializes in cults and scams and schemes and things like that, and he just wrote a book about this and his book was about to come out and he had sent me a copy to blurb for him and maybe review it in Skeptic or whatever. And then the next thing I know, he calls me and says you're not going to believe this but I lost about half my retirement with Bernie Madoff. So here you have a professional skeptic who specializes in ponzi schemes, and he fell for one. Okay, so, you know, it's a great object lesson. You got to read the story in Skeptic. It was – it's such a good story, it was picked up by Wall Street Journal and reprinted because how could that be? Well, because we're all potentially gullible. And if the normal signals of distrust are not there, they're hidden, they're covered up – in the case of Madoff, you know, he was running like two different companies and it was like an insider scam where if you're a member of the, you know, the group, in this case, you know, a Jewish group, then, you know, you might – you might be let in. He may let you give him your money, you know, that sort of thing. And so those are all just sort of classic ways that it works. I mean, in a way, the current meltdown is, in part, a product of that, that by removing the normal signals of whether you should give somebody a loan or not, and passing them down the line with these derivatives, so the loan officer sitting there, he's not going to pay any price if the loan goes default and neither is his boss or even – nobody even in the company or the company itself that gives the loan. They're not going to pay the price if it fails. So the signals of risk – humans are normally risk averse—behavioral economists have shown this—very risk averse. That is, the potentials for – the potential for loss is hurt twice as much as gains feel good. Losses hurt much – twice as much as gains feel good. So in order to take a fifty-fifty gamble, the potential payoffs have to be twice what the potential loss will be, just emotionally. And the behavioral economists, they have this down. They've done thousands of studies on this. So how can this be? That all these banks were giving out all these high risk loans? Well, because the government stepped in and said no worries, we'll bail you out, or, no worries, you know, we're lowering the interest rate. The fed got in there and all these – so it's a combination of government and then, of course, the private companies with these complex derivatives in which nobody's actually going to feel the effect until way down the line. And so human nature being what it is, of course people are going to go for a quick buck like that if…

CAVANAUGH: You know, and it just makes me think the fact that one of your contributing editors got taken on this, is about a book that you read about how many smart people believe in weird things. And I guess being gullible is not the same as being stupid.

DR. SHERMER: That's right, no. I mean, but by nature we're pattern-seeking primates. You know, we practice what I call patternicity, the tendency to find meaningful patterns in random noise and, you know, the face in the clouds, the face on Mars, the Virgin Mary on a grilled cheese sandwich. You know, these are silly things but, in fact, we find all kinds of patterns. You know, is there a conspiracy there or not? And so we look for and find those patterns and connect the dots. And the rub is, is it a true pattern or a false pattern? So let's say you're a hominid on the plains of Africa and you hear a rustle in the grass. Is that the wind? Or is it a dangerous predator? Well, if you assume that it's a dangerous predator and you move away and you're extra cautious but it turns out it's the wind, well, no harm. But it's – And that's called a Type I error or a false positive. On the other hand, if you assume the rustle in the grass is just the wind and it turns out it's a dangerous predator, you're likely to be lunch. So what I'm arguing—this is a column I wrote in Scientific American called "Patternicity"—what I'm arguing is there was a natural selection in evolution for the tendency to just assume all patterns are real. Just make lots of false positives because most of the time it's fairly harmless. And that's why people believe in astrology or whatever. For the most part, these are harmless things. And we just assume everything is real. And it only gets to where it really matters, like you assume there's weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and there isn't. That was a false positive. Well, that's a costly mistake to make, right? So it does matter what you think about these things and science is the best tool we have for determining the difference between true and false patterns.

CAVANAUGH: And, Michael, there's someone who wants to talk to you but didn't want to stay on the phone and asks, should we be more skeptical about eyewitness testimony in courtrooms?

DR. SHERMER: Oh, boy, we should be completely skeptical of eyewitness testimony. All the research in the last 15 years from cognitive psychologists shows that we are terrible at remembering things. Most of us think of memory as like a videotape, like there's a little machine in there and you rewind it and play it back on the little screen and there's the little monkey lives in your brain, watching it and reporting back to your cortex, there it is, it was that guy with the hat on or whatever. That isn't at all how memory works. Memory's constantly edited and updated. There was a terrific "60 Minutes" show on this. A woman who was raped by this black guy and she was absolutely certain she could pick him out of a lineup and so – and she was wrong and this guy was convicted and he was in jail for like 15 years and even when they found the right guy and they, you know, retried the previous guy and they had the actual guy who confessed right there in the room, in the courtroom, she said that's not him, that's absolutely not him. And yet it was him. And how could that happen? Because the way the prosecutors – or, the detectives presented the lineup, that often determines who you pick, how it's presented, one at a time or all at the same time. Whether the person may be there or not – may be not in the lineup, that has to be an option. Like it could be one of these people but it might not be any of them. That changes completely…

CAVANAUGH: Aha.

DR. SHERMER: …how the selection process is done. And then what happens once you pick somebody out of the lineup, your memory reconfigures itself on that particular person, even if it's not the person, and it rewires the memory. And, forevermore, that's now the person. And even if you are shown the other person, it's too late. The memory's rewired. So it's very disturbing. There's all these – this research on what's called attentional blindness where we don't see things that are really obvious in front of us if we're told to focus on something else. Of course, lawyers already know all this by trial and error. They can get you to remember certain – a thing a certain way just by asking the question like if you want the witness to give the estimate of how fast the car was going at a higher rate, you ask them how fast was the car going when it smashed into the other car, versus collided.

CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh.

DR. SHERMER: You know, just using the language 'smashed in' makes the rate go up higher. I mean, I get – my new book, "The Mind In the Market," I have all this research on behavioral economics. I mean, if you ask somebody first what's the last four digits of your social security number and then you ask them how many restaurants do you think there are in Manhattan, so – and this is unbelievable. People with higher four digit numbers in their social security number will give a higher estimate of the number of restaurants in Manhattan, yes, consistently. It's unbelievable. So it's called the anchoring effect. You're anchoring the number estimate, to some other number that you've just been – you've just recited. Or if -- You know, and so these are also framing effects. You know, you frame a question a certain way to get a certain answer. So we're not rational, we're not. I, you know, I mean my whole magazine, Skeptic magazine, is based on rationality, you know, but I have to tell you, the older I get, the more discouraged I get. We are just not rational about almost everything. Politics, forget it. Religion, no way. I mean, even science, I mean, science has – at least has within it a built-in self-correcting machinery. But scientists are people, they have their pet theories they want to push and they're just as biased as everybody else so you – we should be skeptical of the skeptics, of everybody.

CAVANAUGH: Now I want to just explore the question—and it's a big one—of God for a moment. Can science prove the existence of God? Well, can anyone? I mean, isn't God a question of faith?

DR. SHERMER: Well, I think so. I cannot imagine any experiment that we could run and say, you know, at the, you know, .05 level of confidence, we reject the known hypothesis that there is no God and, therefore, there is. Or we reject the known hypothesis that there is a God and, therefore, there isn't. I mean, what set of criteria could we use, right? So theologians, of course, have these whole set of like deductive reasoning type arguments or these logic but these are old. These go back to St. Thomas Aquinas, and David Hume in the 18th century debunked most of those. And none of them really stand the test of time. It does come down to – I mean, the arguments really are – they go back and forth both ways. It really is right on the fence. It's almost like God designed it that way, if there is a God, so that you really do have to just believe or not believe. And for some reason, religion gets a kind of a free pass in America, at least it has until recently. That is, for the most part, we nonbelievers are supposed to respect other people's faiths – or, people of faith are supposed to respect other people's faiths, and it's almost like a hands-off kind of thing. And somebody makes some comment on, you know, I believe in the virgin birth or the resurrection or whatever, the burning bush, whatever it is and people, oh, okay, well, that's your faith. But if you made a comparable statement like in politics, if you're a liberal and you say, you know, I think this about gun control or whatever, there's no way conservatives are going to go, well, you know, that's your belief and I respect that. That never happens in politics or economics, social attitudes and controversies. For some reason, religion gets a pass and that's why we're seeing sort of the new atheism. A lot of us nonbelievers feel like after 9/11 and the Bush administration's rather excessive pushing of religion into the public sphere, it's like enough is enough. You know, come on. You know, if you want to believe it privately, that's fine, but you're getting too intrusive. And so, you know, we push back once in awhile.

CAVANAUGH: And does – so does that mean being a scientist mean you really can't believe in God?

DR. SHERMER: Well, statistically, no, because lots of scientists do believe in God, and why should that be? How could that be? Well, because I think religious beliefs are not arrived at for scientific reasons in the first place. They – In fact, most religious beliefs are based on faith, they have nothing to do with logic, reason, evidence and so on. Once you believe something, however, what happens then is the confirmation bias. You look for and find confirmatory evidence for which you already believe and you ignore the disconfirmatory evidence. Everybody does it. It's what fuels conspiracy theories, say, for example, or any kind of theories. The difference is, in science you have to look for your disconfirmatory evidence because if you don't, somebody else will and they'll publish it in a prominent place if they can. So science is a very tough-minded, thick skinned, competitive enterprise and it has to be because there's so much bunk. I mean, people always say, you know, well, you know, they laughed at the Wright brothers. You know, yeah, they laughed at the Marx brothers. You know, being laughed at doesn't make you right. Lots of people get laughed at. Most people are wrong. You know, we go Galileo triumphed over ignorance. Yeah, well, there was, you know, a dozen Galileo type characters who were – they just had idiotic theories and we never heard of them. You know, and, well, that's because they were wrong. And most ideas are wrong. So science is, by nature, very skeptical, conservative. We just start off with the known hypothesis; whatever you say, it's not true. Now, burden of proof is on you to prove it. Just like we would if the FDA's going to approve a drug or not, the FDA assumes the no hypothesis; your drug does not cure cancer. Now go ahead and run the clinical trials and see if you can reject the no hypothesis. That's how science works.

CAVANAUGH: This brings me to another listener question and that is, what about – what should you do about a medical diagnosis? How skeptically should you confront that?

DR. SHERMER: Well, it's good to be skeptical although there's a reason – there's really only two kinds of medicine: scientific medicine and everything else. There's really no such thing as alternative medicine or complementary medicine. These are just fancy names for claims in the medical sphere that have not been tested yet. They have anecdotes and anecdotes are an okay place to start. But everybody has anecdotes. What we need to know in science are the non-anecdotes, the failed anecdotes. I mean, anybody can run an ad on a late-night infomercial that says, you know, look, I had these 12 people that took my extract of seaweed and their headache went away or their, whatever, memory got better, or whatever it is. But what about the people that tried it and nothing happened? And, of course, in the case of like cancer cures and AIDS cures and those kinds of things that are in that realm of alternative complementary medicine, well, dead men tell no tales, right? The people that tried it and died, well, we don't get testimonials from them. Hey, you know, I tried this and it didn't work. You know, they're – We don't get those published, right? There's a selection bias there, what's called the file drawer problem, that is negative results don't get published, they get stuck in the filing cabinet. And so in science, we really need to know what the negative results are, that is we tried this, this, this, nothing worked. And so, yeah, sure, you should be skeptical, particularly of nonmainstream, nontested medicine. Now that doesn't mean that doctors are always right. They're not, of course. And it isn't that hard anymore with the internet to actually look up your own disease and look to see what research there is. And you can get – you can get passes to some of the professional journals and read some of the articles. Some of them are a little technical but you don't have to read very far to see the limitations of modern medicine on a lot of diseases like cancer. It's a very discouraging thing. We have a long ways to go, I'm afraid. I'm going to be really upset if humanity achieves immortality through genetic engineering right after I'm gone.

CAVANAUGH: That would be very annoying. Now your most recent book, Michael Shermer, is "The Mind of the Markets." It's on evolutionary economics and I think maybe it's a little bit too complex for us to get into at this point. If you could streamline it a little bit and tell us just the major points that you hit in this book.

DR. SHERMER: Yeah, I mentioned earlier about the problem with – that humans are naturally risk averse. This is a behavioral economics discovery. I have – about half my book is on behavioral and neural economics. It is how the mind works in a marketplace, how irrational people are. In a way, why people believe weird things about money, right? And it shows that you have to structure an economy in a way that allows the normal checks and balances to operate, that allows direct – the more direct interactions you have between buyers and sellers without too many middle men, the better it is because people are naturally risk averse and will be careful with their money. So – And then the second aspect of the book is on evolutionary economics. That is, how the economy is, itself, a bottom-up, self-organized complex system, just like an evolution. So Adam Smith's invisible hand is very much like Charles Darwin's natural selection. We naturally think life is designed from the top down and everybody believed that until Darwin gave us a mechanism to show how it could happen from the bottom up. Well, in a way, Adam Smith had the same way. He was writing against the mercantilists of his generation who said, no, we have to control the economy in every step, every bit of way. And Smith said, no, actually you don't. In fact, the more you interfere with it, the worse – the lower the wealth of the nation. You want to really increase the wealth of a nation, just let people trade. And that's very counterintuitive. These are – We naturally seem to want top down explanations for things, whether it's, you know, aliens coming down or gods or governments or conspiracies. You know, the Bilderbergers and the Illuminati are running the economy, they're meeting in London right now, the 12 of them. Oh, no, wait, that's the G-20. So, right, we naturally kind of look for our alpha males to run the show but often that isn't the case. So the mind of the market also includes that and – and also some tips on stocks. Sort of.

CAVANAUGH: Now just listening to you, I wonder if you could quickly tell us what kind of red skeptical flags are raised for you when you hear about the current economic recovery plans?

DR. SHERMER: I'm very concerned about the – essentially just the printing of money. Yes, there – some of it's based on bonds and, hopefully, China will continue to buy our bonds or whatever but this is fiat, what's called, fiat money, that is by fiat, it's printed by the government without a basis behind it other than we say it's valuable. Well, maybe but what if the rest of the world doesn't think our dollar is valuable? Well, we know exactly what happens: inflation. So I'm deeply worried about inflation in the coming years. Everything's okay at the moment on that front but, you know, we're printing a trillion dollars. That's a lot. You know, if you take a dollar and you just pass along a dollar, one per second, and how many – how much is a trillion dollars, a trillion seconds? It's about 30,000 years. So it's – that – this is going back to before civilization, basically when Neanderthals were still roaming around in Europe and we were just using stone tools, that's thirty – that's a trillion seconds. That's a lot. That is a huge number. It's unbelievable. It's unprecedented. And I'm deeply concerned that the natural boom and bust cycles that do happen in free markets, they just do, but usually they're short-lived. This one, I'm afraid, is going to last a lot longer because of so much tinkering.

CAVANAUGH: That was Michael Shermer, founding publisher of Skeptic magazine. You've been listening to These Days on KPBS.

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