"I've been thinking about what to say here," journalist John Horgan told the New York City Skeptics at the beginning of his second invited talk for the group this year. "And there are a lot of different things I could say."
The things Horgan said on May 15 at the Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism (NECSS) weren't received all that well, at least by the meeting's emcee, magician and skeptic Jamy Ian Swiss. After the former senior writer at Scientific American suggested skeptics focus less on "soft" targets, like homeopathy, and more on "hard" targets, like the nature of war, Swiss offered his own impromptu rebuttal, instead of leading the originally-planned question-and-answer session.
"It was one of the high points of my career, actually," the returning Horgan told the audience at Baruch College on September 24. During this second chance to make his case, Horgan decided to focus on the question of if war is inevitable, and what could be done to stop it.
"How many people think the end of war between nations could happen relatively soon?" Horgan asked the audience. Four of the approximately 30 people in attendance agreed war could be eradicated by the end of the century, about in line with the usual 10 per cent who agree when Horgan asks the question elsewhere. Most people tend to think war is part of human nature.
"It seems like common sense," Horgan said of the "Malthusian catastrophe" idea, that unchecked population growth will always lead to conflict over less abundant resources, despite evidence to the contrary. "It's simply not supported by the literature," Horgan said. He reminded the crowd of Steven Pinker's work that shows the worldwide decline of war, despite the continued, global rise in population. Horgan argued it's not war that's innate in humans, but the tendency toward conformity.
"Once war's invented in one place, it's extraordinarily infectious," Horgan said, likening the phenomenon to a psychological meme. More practically, if a country's neighbor becomes warlike, it may have to follow suit just to defend itself. Deliberate aggrandizement of conflict, like national holidays commemorating the fighting of wars, also help to maintain the trend, Horgan said.
Horgan opined that the United States could help by setting a better example to the rest of the world, through reductions in defense spending, closing of overseas military bases and the implementation of more imaginative methods of conflict resolution. That might not happen, though, when so many of our leaders are "fatalists," as Horgan said -- those who believe that war cannot be eradicated. Even the Nobel Peace Prize-winning President Obama has made efforts to bolster the United States' nuclear arsenal.
Some high-profile skeptics, like Pinker and Michael Shermer, also continue to accept the "deep roots" nature of war, which may be one reason Horgan believes the boundary between mainstream science and pseudoscience is now "very blurry." At NECSS and again during this lecture, Horgan said that several ideas in current physics, like string theory and the idea of a multiverse, were unscientific, and that many psychiatrists wrongly put too much confidence in medication for treatment of clinical depression.
After the lecture's conclusion, some audience members reminded Horgan that skeptics raise the same points, and that while plenty of people talk about war, homeopathy and other harmful practices often go unchallenged.
"Go ahead, do all that other stuff," Horgan said. But with such a destructive problem -- one that could be ended simply with a little convincing -- all hands are needed.
"I almost don't care about what you do as skeptics," Horgan said. "I'm appealing to you as human beings."
A Facebook Live video of John Horgan's September 24 NYC Skeptics lecture is available here. A higher-quality recording will be added at a later date.
Report by Russ Dobler, photos by Jonathan Nelson