Saturday, April 14, 2007

Michael Shermer, Ayn Rand & other dreck

See also my original post with feedback on Freethought Forum.

Written 2 January 2007:

Magazines such as The Skeptic do not as a rule interest me, and I never heard of Michael Shermer until I tuned into one of the most horrid programs I ever watched on PBS:

The Question of God

I was so furious after seeing this pretentious, vacuous waste of airtime I wrote a really nasty note, on 16 September 2004:

This has got to be the dumbest piece of sh*t PBS has ever broadcast, after Suze Orman, Wayne Dyer, and Gary Null. . . . With one or two exceptions, the talking heads were just appalling, absolutely beneath contempt. Anyway, I’m writing up a denunciation of this show to send to PBS. I’ve already posted a few remarks to the discussion board. The preponderance of comments seem to come from idiots, but there are several voices of protest against the abominable premiss and execrable logic underlying this program. This is just the sort of second-rate middlebrow dreck designed to appeal to the upper middle class dweebs who donate money to public television and think they’re sophisticated for watching this sh*t instead of Springer.
I continued the following day:

. . . this documentary on Freud & Lewis with the exception of the two secular humanists had the most idiotic panel of talking heads I have ever seen. It’s worse than watching Dennis Wholey. The total lack of logical thinking, the lack of recognized experts in important fields such as comparative mythology, etc., the total arbitrariness in the selection of people and the tenor of conversation—this is a new low. It’s like watching Bill Clinton or Tony Blair engage in discourse—indecent total bullsh*t without content or substance.
It seems I never got around to writing the detailed analysis I planned. While apparently I didn’t think Shermer was the worst of the lot, I didn’t think there was a whole lot to him, either.

The Science of Good and Evil

The next time I wrote about Shermer was on 13 February 2006:

Here’s an example of my dislike of sociobiological “explanations” of human belief systems, esp. those using this crackpot notion of “memes” [Dawkins]:

The Science of Good and Evil: Why People Cheat, Gossip, Care, Share, and Follow the Golden Rule by Michael Shermer

While biological evolution undoubtedly explains the formation of human groups who can survive in nature, aside from basic propensities to survive in social groups, natural selection cum genetics and neuroscience in the present state of biological knowledge cannot explain the “survival” of belief systems—i.e. culturally transmitted ideas and practices—esp. via natural selection of individual genetic traits.

My problem with sociobiological explanations is that not only are the genetics of belief systems unknown to physical science, but that their proponents lack a grounding in history, anthropology, and sociology, and are rather naive in their speculations on the regulation of social behavior.

One may applaud secular humanists such as Dennett, Shermer, and Dawkins for certain aspects of their public interventions, but the replacement of religion with tough-guy (or make-nice) pseudo-science only compounds the problem. These people are all sociologically naive, and can’t even understand the anti-scientific reaction and the policies of the ruling elite since the 1960s that have driven millions to illiteracy and superstition.

The Ayn Rand Cult: Reason as Unreason

Most recently, on 23 December, I ran into this little ‘gem’:


And this is what I had to say about it:

This article by a prominent figure in skeptic and secular humanist circles pinpoints certain aspects of the Rand cult’s irrationality while neglecting to specify on a deeper level what makes it ideological (i.e., operating in a fashion of which its practitioners are unconscious), and revealing himself to be the same shallow intellectual type that characterizes much of the secular humanist and atheist movement in the anglophone world.

Even worse, Shermer embraces a good deal of Rand’s philosophy, most obviously the celebration of free market capitalism.

I never thought Shermer was very bright after seeing him on PBS, but this shows him to be worse.

And this is the best the ‘skeptic’ is capable of producing. I never had much use for ‘skeptics’, as they never had much to say about so many things that really mattered, and this piece shows just useless they are. There is a terrible intellectual vacuum in this milieu and the suggestion that these people are the best representatives of reason that we have makes me want to vomit.

Here is one rather revealing book on Rand and her cult following:

The Ayn Rand Cult by Jeff Walker (Open Court Publishing Company, 1998)

On 22 July 2004 I wrote:

The author of this book makes a penetrating observation. He says Rand was at war with reality her whole life. I think this is quite perceptive. The price of maintaining this foolish consistency is to edit out a good portion of reality and history. The incoherence is not [in] the internal logical consistency of the system, but [in] the mismatch between the ideology and reality, and [in] the contradiction between the avowed rationality of its proponents and the manifest irrationality of their motivations.

Like religious proselytizers, our [local] Rand groupie felt the need to accost every attendee of [our local philosophy group] and grill him or her seeking out contradictions. I’ve seen this individual in social situations, and he is only capable of treating other human beings as objects or lab rats. This is not rational behavior; it is mental illness.

If Rand is despised by the academic community, and I don’t know whether that’s so, it is probably because her arrogance exceeds what they are used to, and the inflated claims of her status contrasts with her actual grasp of the ideas with which she is in competition. As a philosopher, her cult pretty much edits out most of philosophy. I don’t necessarily believe that the bulk of philosophical tradition mandates respect, but critique demands an understanding of how concepts are put together, even an understanding of the contradictions in philosophical systems which may be a product of the state of society and knowledge at a given time and their evolution through history. But real society and real history do not exist for Ayn Rand. She deduces reality from first principles but can only do so by denying or distorting most of it. This I think is why her followers are such simpletons as well as diseased personalities.

I run into these libertarian types at atheist gatherings. I have no interest in arguing with them; I simply recuse myself from whatever conversation I’m a party to. The last time I inadvertently got sucked into a discussion on this topic, while sitting next to a Randroid woman known for hawking her book at WASH [Washington Area Secular Humanists] meetings, I wanted to know only one thing I didn’t already know about Ayn Rand: what was her position on oral sex? I got a laugh, but not an answer.


Ralph Dumain said...

My response to commentators, 23 March 2007:

It's time to stop giving a blank check to these miscreants just because they are atheists. I recognize the value of single-issue politics up to a point; however, one must look at the total agenda of these people. Shermer hasn't a progressive bone in his body; he's just an asshole, whereas at least some of these others are mild liberals. Being for "science" and peddling pseudo-science as science is not necessarily being for social progress.

Fortunately, all this buzz about the “new atheism” is creating the climate for more intelligent people to gain public attention. I’m told that Victor Stenger’s God, the Failed Hypothesis has made the NY Times’ Best Seller List. I have never paid attention to the NYT Best Seller list even once in my life, but in a nation of lemmings, this is good news.

Hopefully, public discourse can be opened up enough so that other things can be said. People invested in the natural sciences don’t have what it takes to address the most fundamental problems of unreason in society. That such people dominate reflects the backwardness of the American ideological environment.

The philosophical battle must be carried on on several fronts, against neocons whatever their religious commitments, against the eugencists (Bell Curve), the libertarians, and the postmodernists. On the positive side, look out for my review of Stephen Eric Bronner’s Reclaiming the Enlightenment.

Dave said...

The Bell Curve isn't about eugenics in the way I think you mean. Specifically the authors argue that IQ stratification is already at work, and that these differences are bad for society. They argue that it is best for society if everyone increases in IQ, and even go so far as to make some policy recommendations that favor government interaction to help raise IQs of the underprivileged.

Did you read it? Maybe I just misremember entirely what I read. Something is amiss.

Also, I'm disappointed that your site isn't really about autodidactism but looks more like campaign to promote a socialist perspesctive. Not necessarily bad, it's just seems misleading.

Joe said...

Hi there.

I've been reading a few of the posts on this blog, it's very interesting and I agree with a lot of what you've written.

I read Atlast Shrugged a few years ago, and it's only strength is its clear a firm position, but that's about it.

Where do you stand politically, Ralph?

I am a Trotskyist. I believe this is the only way of fighting for Enlightment values and rationality.

By the way, have you read Equality, the Rights of Man and the Birth of Socialism

Ralph Dumain said...

I am well versed in the history of Trotskyism, not so much of its present condition.

There are a number of right-wing libertarians in the atheist movement, in the "skeptics" movement, and in the allegedly morally superior "secular humanist" movement. Of course there is a huge overlap, but in the USA there are differently skewed organizational histories. In general,these movements are still fighting the battles of the 18th & 19th centuries; they are babies when it comes to grappling with secular, non-supernaturalist ideologies.