02/17/2015 08:44 am ET Updated Feb 17, 2015

Has Science Made Us Better People?

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The Charlie Hebdo massacre occurred on the same day I received my copy of The Moral Arc, Michael Shermer’s new book about how science and reason have made mankind more moral. If you're somehow not familiar with the incident, on the morning of January 7, two Islamic extremists stormed the offices of a French satirical magazine and, while yelling God is Great, slaughtered 12 people—targeting editors and cartoonists, but also killing a couple of police officers. A Facebook friend captured the disgust felt by so many when he raged, "Unfuckingreal, the deterioration of society is unraveling at light speed these days!"

It was hard not to sympathize. Other recent headlines included beheadings in the Middle East, cops assassinated in New York, and protests over alleged police abuse in multiple American cities. So it was with more than a little irony that I contemplated Shermer's central thesis: virtually every aspect of modern society is better than it used to be, and things will continue to improve as long as we remain true to the tenets of science and reason. Huh? What of the interminable horrors on the news? The ubiquitous cynicism? The intractable political division?

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