Seth Shulman, editorial director of the Union of Concerned Scientists, reviews Michael Shermer’s new book at the Washington Post. Remember, the subtitle of that book is “How Science and Reason Lead Humanity Toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom.”
If you read carefully, I think you can detect that he doesn’t think much of it but wants to be polite or encouraging. It’s possible that I’m just reading that in, but…that’s the sense I get.
‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. told a crowd of protesters in Montgomery, Ala., in March 1965. King’s use of that quote stands as one of history’s more inspiring pieces of oratory, acknowledging that victories in the fight for social justice don’t come as frequently as we might like, while offering hope that progress will come eventually.
But is the contention empirically true?
No. We don’t know how any arc of the moral universe bends. We can’t know. It’s trivially easy to summon up moments crossed with locations when saying such a thing would just be insulting – a hot afternoon at Auschwitz for instance, or a cold night at a Siberian gulag.
Michael Shermer, a professor, columnist for Scientific American, and longtime public champion of reason and rationality, takes on this question and more. In “The Moral Arc,” Shermer aims to show that King is right so far about human civilization and that, furthermore, science and reason are the key forces driving us to a more moral world. It is at once an admirably ambitious argument and an exceedingly difficult one to prove.
If only the claim were that science and reason are among the key forces driving us to a more moral world. That would be a much easier claim to back up, and a less annoyingly self-congratulatory one as well.
To his credit, Shermer tackles this broad agenda with an abundance of energy, good cheer and anecdotes on everything from “Star Trek” episodes and the reasoning of Somali pirates to the demise of the Sambo’s restaurant chain. The anecdotes provide leavening but don’t alter the fact that this is a work of serious and wide-ranging scholarship with a bibliography that runs to nearly 30 pages. The effect can be kaleidoscopic and even a bit scattershot at times, but that doesn’t detract from the truly impressive array of data Shermer assembles.
Oh really? I bet it does. That’s one of the places where I detect (or think I detect) politeness veiling Shulman’s criticism. That kind of thing is one reason I have never liked Shermer’s writing, long before I clashed with him personally.
Shulman cites the precedents of Pinker and Harris.
Overall, Shermer does a good job of mining the scholarship in these and other areas, but his approach and the sheer breadth of scope ultimately make his argument seem more of a survey and less focused than some of these other works.
Somewhat less convincing are Shermer’s sections on the role of science as a moral force for good, which mostly boil down to anecdotes in which science has helped supplant superstition since the Enlightenment. It is true, of course, that (as far as I know) we’re no longer burning “witches” at the stake for phenomena we don’t understand. But I hoped Shermer would grapple more with the vexing ways in which science has contributed — and arguably continues to contribute — to moral atrocities, from the role of Nazi scientists to the development of biological weaponry.
Shermer’s case seems more anecdotal and even arbitrary than it should to really prove his grand case. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the book’s provocative breadth and found much of the material fascinating and well chosen. I greatly admire Shermer for tackling such an ambitious project and hope the book spurs many discussions and much further scholarship on this important subject.
Meh. I’m not a fan of that kind of ambition unless you’ve got the chops to pull it off. I prefer people who know their own strengths and weaknesses.