Michael Shermer: How Scientific American Got Woke

The science writer and journalist talks identity politics, wokeness, trans athletes, and why his goal is to find out what is true rather than to "be right."


"I think the second-wave feminists I've talked to are very worried about the kind of woke, gender-identity movement because it's reducing women to just body parts," says Michael Shermer. "A guy can say, 'Well, if I just get breast implants [and] then I can have a vaginal plastic made out of a piece of my skin, I'm in. I'm a woman, right?' Well, no, because women are not just tits and ass. There's more to it than that, a lot more."

For decades, Shermer has been one of the most popular—and provocative—explicators of science to popular audiences, having authored bestselling books such as Why People Believe Weird Things, Why Darwin Matters, The Moral Arc, and The Mind of the Market. He founded Skeptic magazine in 1992 and hosts a video podcast with leading activists and intellectuals. For nearly 20 years, he authored a widely read column for Scientific American in which he debunked beliefs in UFOs and other paranormal phenomena, explained the rise of the "new atheism," and showed how evolution systematically informs human behavior. Shermer's work is deeply and explicitly rooted in libertarian and Enlightenment ideas about individual responsibility, free market economics, rationality, and the search for something approaching objective truth.

In 2019, Scientific American cut him loose, a move he ascribes to the publication's suffocating embrace of the sort of identity politics and wokeness that he says dominates academic and intellectual circles and, increasingly, the culture at large. 

Last fall, Shermer, who holds a Ph.D. in the history of science and teaches a class called Skepticism 101 at Chapman University, started a weekly Substack where he posts podcasts and the columns he would have written for Scientific American. The 67-year-old former competitive cyclist talked with Reason during FreedomFest, an annual gathering in Las Vegas, about what he sees as the fundamental clash between wokeness and scientific inquiry, how hard it is to overcome the cognitive biases we all have, why he thinks trans athletes should be banned from most women's sports, why we have so much trouble acknowledging moral and technological progress, and why he now identifies as a classical liberal rather than a libertarian.

Shermer has sat down with Reason a number of times since 2008, speaking about the future of science, how evolution formed the modern economy, and his "Google theory of peace." He's also spoken to us about the history of modern skepticism, why everyone wants to believe in Heaven, and why self-help gurus aren't the key to happiness.

Photo Credits: Willie J. Allen Jr./ZUMApress/Newscom; Loxton, via Wikimedia Commons; Gage Skidmore, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons; Fronteiras do Pensamento, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons; Fronteiras do Pensamento, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons; Fronteiras do Pensamento, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons; Sports Press Photo/Daniela Porcelli / SPP/Sipa USA/Newscom; Jose Perez / SplashNews/Newscom; Tristanb at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons; Kenneth Martin/ZUMAPRESS/Newscom; Glasshouse Images Glasshouse Images/Newscom; RICHARD B. LEVINE/Newscom.

Music Credits: "Just Make It Fun," by Custommelody via Artlist.

Interview by Nick Gillespie. Video by Regan Taylor and Adam Czarnecki. Camera by Noor Greene.