Category: point of inquiry

New Point of Inquiry — Scott Atran: Violent Extremism and Sacred Values

By Chris Mooney | August 31, 2011 10:02 am

I’ve been on the road so I’m a day late in notifying folks about my latest hosted episode of the show:

In less than two weeks, the ten year anniversary of the deadliest terror attack on U.S. soil—9/11—will be upon us.

In the past decade, there has been much debate and discussion about the root causes of terrorism and violent extremism. There has also been considerable scientific study of the matter.

Fortunately, Point of Inquiry recently caught up with the anthropologist Scott Atran, a world leader in this research. Atran has met with terrorists face to face. He has interviewed mujahedin, met with Hamas, talked to the plotters of the Bali bombing-and sometimes found his life at risk by doing so.

There’s probably nobody better if you want to talk about terrorism, what motivates it, and how these extremes fit within the broad tapestry of human nature.

Scott Atran is a research director in anthropology at the French National Center for Scientific Research, and holds a variety of appointments at other academic institutions. He’s also the author of several books including In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion and Talking to the Enemy: Faith, Brotherhood, and the (Un)Making of Terrorists. He has published frequent op-eds in the New York Times and his research has been published in Science, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and other leading publications.

You can listen to the show here. Note: Some listeners over there are already wrongly calling Atran a “postmodernist,” and he has responded himself in the comments.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Announcements, point of inquiry

New Point of Inquiry: Hugo Mercier — Did Reason Evolve for Arguing?

By Chris Mooney | August 16, 2011 8:25 am

The latest episode of Point of Inquiry is now up, and Hugo Mercier himself is responding in the comments section.

Here is the show write-up:

Why are human beings simultaneously capable of reasoning, and yet so bad at it? Why do we have such faulty mechanisms as the “confirmation bias” embedded in our brains, and yet at the same time, find ourselves capable of brilliant rhetoric and complex mathematical calculations?

According to Hugo Mercier, we’ve been reasoning about reason all wrong. Reasoning is very good at what it probably evolved to let us do—argue in favor of what we believe and try to convince others that we’re right.

In a recent and much discussed paper in the journal Behavioral and Brain Research, Mercier and his colleague Dan Sperber proposed what they call an “argumentative theory of reason.” “A wide range of evidence in the psychology of reasoning and decision making can be reinterpreted and better explained in the light of this hypothesis,” they write.

Given the discussion this proposal has prompted, Point of Inquiry wanted to hear from Mercier to get more elaboration on his ideas.

Hugo Mercier is a postdoc in the Philosophy, Policy, and Economics program at the University of Pennsylvania. He blogs for Psychology Today.

Listen to the full show here.

My Next Point of Inquiry Guest: Hugo Mercier on the Argumentative Theory of Reason

By Chris Mooney | August 12, 2011 7:56 am

Earlier this year, Hugo Mercier and his colleague Dan Sperber (of the Jean Nicod Institute in France) came out with one of the more intriguing evolutionary psychology ideas in quite some time. They argued, in a paper in Behavioral and Brain Sciences, that the human capacity for reasoning evolved not so much to get at truth, as to facilitate argumentation:

Reasoning is generally seen as a means to improve knowledge and make better decisions. However, much evidence shows that reasoning often leads to epistemic distortions and poor decisions. This suggests that the function of reasoning should be rethought. Our hypothesis is that the function of reasoning is argumentative. It is to devise and evaluate arguments intended to persuade. Reasoning so conceived is adaptive given the exceptional dependence of humans on communication and their vulnerability to misinformation. A wide range of evidence in the psychology of reasoning and decision making can be reinterpreted and better
explained in the light of this hypothesis. Poor performance in standard reasoning tasks is explained by the lack of argumentative context. When the same problems are placed in a proper argumentative setting, people turn out to be skilled arguers. Skilled arguers, however, are not after the truth but after arguments supporting their views. This explains the notorious confirmation bias. This bias is apparent not only when people are actually arguing, but also when they are reasoning proactively from the perspective of having to defend their opinions. Reasoning so motivated can distort evaluations and attitudes and allow erroneous beliefs to persist. Proactively used reasoning also favors decisions that are easy to justify but not necessarily better. In all these instances traditionally described as failures or flaws, reasoning does exactly what can be expected of an argumentative device: Look for arguments that support a given conclusion, and, ceteris paribus, favor conclusions for which arguments can be found.

Mercier blogs for Psychology Today and is a postdoc at U. Penn. I’ll be interviewing him at 11 for a show that airs Monday. If you have any thoughts, or anything you’d like to hear asked, post them here.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Announcements, point of inquiry

New Point of Inquiry: David Frum, Kenneth Silber — Conservatives and Science

By Chris Mooney | August 2, 2011 7:38 am

The latest show is now up and you can listen here. Here is the write-up:

When it comes to the U.S. political right, it often appears that the opposition to science-and reason in general-is everywhere. From climate change denial to anti-evolutionism; from debt ceiling denial to, that’s right, incandescent light bulb availability denial; conservatives today have plenty to answer for.

Fortunately, some conservatives know it. And given how much he has blasted the “Republican War on Science” in the past, on this show Chris Mooney wanted to hear their take.

So he invited on David Frum. Frum is the editor of the group blog Frum Forum, a former speechwriter for the George W. Bush White House, and a widely published author, most recently of Comeback: Conservatism that Can Win Again. In recent years, Frum has become a leading critic of today’s GOP and its allegiance with the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Fox News.

Joining Frum is Kenneth Silber, a frequent contributor to Frum Forum. Silber is a science writer based in New Jersey who contributes to Research MagazineScientific American, and other outlets. He calls himself a “center-right dissenter, a deviationist apostle of the Frumian Heresy” and these days, a RINO (Republican in Name Only).

Once again, you can listen here.

Announcing the Next Point of Inquiry: David Frum and Kenneth Silber

By Chris Mooney | July 28, 2011 11:26 am

Clarification: This show does not air until Monday. I was getting reader suggestions for interview questions. We pre-record the show, usually the week before it airs. Stand by for the link…

In about three and a half hours, I interview David Frum of and Kenneth Silber, a frequent contributor on science over there. The topic of the show is conservatism, science, and reality–and I’ve gotten two conservatives, albeit pretty much the opposite of Tea Partiers, to talk about it.

It is my perception that across a wide array of issues–from health care to, uh, light bulb policy–the U.S. political right today just views the world differently, and has a different set of facts (which, I’m afraid, tend to be wrong). I want Frum, and Silber, to tell me to what extent I’m right, and to what extent I’m wrong–and also to show me where the liberal blind spots are.

But of course, you may also have questions for them–so suggest away. They’ll be considered if posted in the next three hours or so….

By the way, here is a piece by Silber, entitled “How I Joined the Vast RINO Conspiracy.” And here is Frum’s classic article taking on Rush Limbaugh.

Another Rebecca Watson Thread

By Chris Mooney | July 20, 2011 8:33 am

Over at Point of Inquiry, comment #32 on the new show is great:

I’ve honestly lost count of the number of facepalms discussions on this have inspired.

I can only hope that this thread doesn’t descend into a swirling miasma of vitriol, from which nothing escapes!

So far it hasn’t–but wow. It’s a constant risk on this subject.

In the show itself, I think I have a quite calm discussion with Watson and clarify some of the issues–and then we move on rather quickly to other topics like the religious right’s attacks on women, and the importance applying skepticism to dubious marketing schemes aimed at them.

Anyway, see for yourself here.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: point of inquiry

New Point of Inquiry: Rebecca Watson — Skepticism and Feminism

By Chris Mooney | July 19, 2011 4:40 pm

The new show just went up–sorry for the slight tardiness. Here’s the description:

Our guest this week is Rebecca Watson, the founder of the Skepchick blog. Recently, she’s been at the center of an explosive controversy over the relationship between feminism and the skeptic/atheist movement.

It all started when Watson made a relatively casual remark in a video to her followers. She was discussing her travels and a talk she’d given in Ireland about sexism in the atheist/skeptic community. Overall, Watson said, the response to her remarks had been great—but then she added something else. After the talk, she said, she’d received an advance from a man in an elevator—a man who apparently didn’t get the message.

“Guys, don’t do that,” said Watson. “I was a single woman in a foreign country at 4 am in a hotel elevator with you. Just you. Don’t invite me back to your hotel room right after I finish talking about how it creeps me out and makes me uncomfortable when men sexualize me in that manner.”

In one way or another—and with many other debate participants involved-this story led to thousands upon thousands of blog comments, and an outpouring of support-and criticism. So Point of Inquiry asked Watson to address the controversy, and to talk more generally about atheism and feminism.

Rebecca Watson is the founder of the Skepchick blog, a co-host of the Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe podcast, and a prominent speaker and commenter on skepticism, feminism, freethought, and the religious right.

You can listen here.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Announcements, point of inquiry

Announcing My Next Point of Inquiry Guest: Rebecca Watson

By Chris Mooney | July 12, 2011 8:31 am

Today, for the show airing next Monday, I’m interviewing Skepchick founder Rebecca Watson. She’s a fast rising star in the skeptic movement, and one who–as many already know–has recently been at the center of a huge controversy involving how some in the skeptic/atheist movement treat the concerns of women.

You can read about it here, and Phil Plait has the full back story: Suffice it to say that it involves not only what one skeptic man (now infamously) said to Watson in an elevator at 4 in the morning, but how Richard Dawkins then dove in and minimized the incident.

We’ll be discussing this and the lessons to be taken from it–as well as Watson’s important work to spread skepticism and, especially, to make the skeptic movement a more welcoming place for women. Comments here will be considered as possible questions and jumping-off points for the show.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Announcements, point of inquiry

Bill Donohue and the Catholic League Attack Matthew Chapman's New Atheist Film, "The Ledge"

By Chris Mooney | July 6, 2011 1:48 pm

I kinda suspected this new film, The Ledge–the topic of the latest Point of Inquiry–would raise a culture war brouhaha. When do you know you have such a brouhaha? Well, one early barometer is often Bill Donahue–whose conservative Catholic League is always trying to police depictions of religion in the public square.

And now Donahue has weighed in on the film–negatively, of course. Here’s his statement [warning, spoiler alert below]:

People of faith, especially Catholics, are used to being trashed by Hollywood, but they are not accustomed to films that promote atheism. Yes, there was “The Golden Compass,” an atheism-for-kids effort which the Catholic League successfully boycotted (in fairness, it was the book upon which the movie was based that triggered our response, not the screen adaptation). “The Ledge” is different in that its backers are selling themselves as the real pioneers: they expect it to be a ground-breaker. In short, they are relying on its potential fan base accessing the film through Video on Demand (it opens in only two theaters). Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Culture, point of inquiry

New Point of Inquiry: Matthew Chapman–The Ledge

By Chris Mooney | July 4, 2011 8:50 pm

Recently I blogged about Matthew Chapman’s “The Ledge,” which I called a “true atheist movie.” Now, Chapman is the guest of our latest Point of Inquiry episode, where we discuss the film. Here’s the write-up:

It’s not often that Hollywood takes up the subject of atheism directly—much less sympathetically.

Even rarer is finding this in a film starring major names like Liv Tyler and Terence Howard.

But that’s what Matthew Chapman has achieved in The Ledge—which also stars Patrick Wilson and Charlie Hunnan.

Besides being a screenwriter and author, Chapman himself is an atheist, freethinker, science advocate, and great-great grandson of Charles Darwin.

Without giving away the plot of The Ledge—which opens on July 8 in New York and Los Angeles—suffice it to say that it is a gutsy defense of freethinking and unbelief, framed as a star-studded romantic thriller. And perhaps even more than any work of nonfiction, it may have a unique potential to drive a national conversation about atheism.

So recently, Chris Mooney caught up with Matthew Chapman for lunch in New York City to interview him about the film, what inspired it, and what he hopes its impact will be.

You can listen to the interview here. And here, again, is the trailer for The Ledge, which premieres this July 8 in New York City and Los Angeles (details here):


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