Thursday, April 30, 2009

Michael Shermer's visit in Austin

Michael Shermer, founder of the Skeptics Society, and author of popular science books, came to Austin to participate in a debate about evolution and intelligent design with representatives of Reason to Believe (a science-faith think tank). Earlier that day Center For Inquiry hosted a lunch with Shermer at NXNW.

I didn't go to the debate -- I'm one of those people who think, why does this question need to be debated at all? Evolution is an established fact in biology, but those who don't believe it are not known to change their minds in the presence of evidence. Who could possibly expect them to change their minds based on this discussion? I didn't see what I would get out of this, so I didn't go. Plenty of people from Austin's atheist and freethought communities did, though.

Earlier that day Center For Inquiry Austin hosted a lunch for Shermer at NXNW. We chatted about all sorts of things. This debate was going to be different than typical evolution vs. intelligent design debates, he said. His religionist opponents were not going to argue creationism from biological point of view. This wasn't going to be about how bacterial flagellum demonstrated irreducible complexity. This debate was going to be about the Bible. The opponents are a brand of believers who look for scientific evidence in the Bible. They pick quotes from the scripture and reinterpret them in such a way as to fit modern science. Here I asked Shermer, why can't those people find evidence for evolution in the Bible? He just smiled politely. Thus, tonight's debate was going to be more showmanship than intellectual discussion, he said. Both sides will compete who knows the Bible better -- and Shermer, according to him, knows it very well. He enjoys this kind of competition.

He has written quite a few popular science books, but he also wants to try his hand at science fiction. He has an idea for a novel about a colony set on Mars, which was founded by astronauts who were all atheists. They didn't raise their children religiously. Will religion come back spontaneously in this society? That's an important question Shermer would like to address in this novel. He believes it will, as religion is too fundamental to human thinking. This book would also explore such political questions as whether government is necessary to a society, or if all institutions should be private.

Shermer would like to do as Carl Sagan did in "Contact", that is to use plot and characters as vehicles to convey his ideas. He admitted he's not so good at character development. I was excited to hear that: as an aspiring science fiction writer, I know how hard it is to write believable characters. So I told him. Shermer was nice enough to ask me what authors he should read so as to learn to write in this genre. I suggested starting with classics, like Arthur Clarke and Isaac Asimov; then backpedalled: after all, those two writers were not good at developing fully fledged, realistic characters, so they are not the best to learn from.

Shermer came across as a warm and down-to-Earth guy. He shared food with people, who in turn enthusiastically offered him bites of their dishes. And he even stole a fry from somebody's plate. :-)

Pictures from lunch can be found in my photo gallery.

Bookmark This on Delicious

No comments: