Intro

This is the blog and homepage of Mark R. Kelly, the founder of Locus Online in 1997 (for which I won a Hugo Award in 2002 — see the icon at right) and of an index to science fiction awards in 2000 that became sfadb.com in 2012. I’m retired from my day job of 30 years, from 1982 to 2012, as an aerospace software engineer, supporting the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station.

Posts here are mostly about my reading, of science fiction and of books about science, history, philosophy, and religion; and comments to articles in newspapers that I link to. Movie reviews and pics from travels are posted on Facebook.

More on my About page, including a photo of the Hugo Winners the year I was among them, and links to an index of my columns and other writings, and to my earliest homepage with links to some of my work.

Posted in Personal history | Comments Off on Intro

This Week’s Facebook Memes

Quoted without comment. Opinions, not claims of fact;

From Gloria Steinem:

How about we treat every young man who wants to buy a gun like every woman who wants to get an abortion — mandatory 48-hour waiting period, parental permission, a note from his doctor proving he understands what he’s about to do, a video has to watched about the effects of gun violence… Let’s close down all but one gun shop in every state and make him travel hundreds of miles, take time off work, and stay overnight in a strange town to get a gun. Make him walk through a gauntlet of people holding photos of loved one who were shot to death, people who call him a murderer and beg him not to buy a gun.

From UC Berkeley economist Robert Reich:

Wouldn’t it be nice if pro-lifers focused on suicide prevention. Or ending the death penalty? Or fighting poverty? Or curbing hunger? Or stopping gun violence and police killings: Or combating the opioid epidemic? Or ending wars?

You know, things that would actually save lives?

One more, that I’ve seen times in the past months:

How said it must be — believing that scientists, scholars, historians, economists, and journalists have devoted their entire lives to deceiving you, while a reality TV star with decades of fraud and exhaustively document lying is your only beacon of truth and honesty.

Or the purveyors of YouTube videos. Oops, that was a comment.

Posted in Conservative Resistance, Culture, Lunacy | Comments Off on This Week’s Facebook Memes

Memoir Post: My Heart Attack

I think I should write an essay, a reflection, a memoir, about my heart attack and its aftermath, if only to acknowledge how what a heart attack is, and what the hospital experience is like, were different from my expectations.

So this post today is just a stub for a future long post.

Posted in Personal history | Comments Off on Memoir Post: My Heart Attack

Links and Comments: Science, Reality Bubbles, and Stories

The most interesting one is at the bottom.

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Scientific American: To Understand How Science Denial Works, Look to History, subtitled, “The same tactics used to cast doubt on the dangers of smoking and climate change are now being used to downplay COVID.” By Naomi Oreskes.

But while the events of 2020 may feel unprecedented, the social pattern of rejecting scientific evidence did not suddenly appear this year. There was never any good scientific reason for rejecting the expert advice on COVID, just as there has never been any good scientific reason for doubting that humans evolved, that vaccines save lives, and that greenhouse gases are driving disruptive climate change. To understand the social pattern of rejecting scientific findings and expert advice, we need to look beyond science to history…

How the chief culprit was the tobacco industry. And now we have Facebook…

…the industry was able to delay effective measures to discourage smoking long after the scientific evidence of its harms was clear. In our 2010 book, Merchants of Doubt, Erik M. Conway and I showed how the same arguments were used to delay action on acid rain, the ozone hole and climate change—and this year we saw the spurious “freedom” argument being used to disparage mask wearing.

…In the summer of 2020 a report from civil-rights law firm Relman Colfax suggested that Facebook posts could contribute to voter suppression. Climate scientists have complained that the social media giant contributes to the spread of climate denial by permitting false or misleading claims while hobbling responses by mainstream scientists by labeling their posts “political.”

Without a historical perspective, we might interpret this as a novel problem created by a novel technology. But this past September, a former Facebook manager testified in Congress that the company “took a page from Big Tobacco’s playbook, working to make our offering addictive,” saying that Facebook was determined to make people addicted to its products while publicly using the euphemism of increasing “engagement.” Like the tobacco industry, social media companies sold us a toxic product while insisting that it was simply giving consumers what they wanted.

What does this boil down to, ultimately? How American capitalism prioritizes profit over truth and responsibility?

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NYT: Your Brain Is Not for Thinking, subtitled “In stressful times, this surprising lesson from neuroscience may help to lessen your anxieties.”

… This story of how brains evolved, while admittedly just a sketch, draws attention to a key insight about human beings that is too often overlooked. Your brain’s most important job isn’t thinking; it’s running the systems of your body to keep you alive and well. According to recent findings in neuroscience, even when your brain does produce conscious thoughts and feelings, they are more in service to the needs of managing your body than you realize.

This is another perspective on the idea, one my themes here, that humans aren’t rational animals; they’re tribal, self-serving animals who reach conclusions on emotional grounds, then employ lawyerly tactics, by cherry-picking information and using motivated reasoning, to justify those conclusions. The article here addresses issues at a more fundamental level.

We’re all living in challenging times, and we’re all at high risk for disrupted body budgets. If you feel weary from the pandemic and you’re battling a lack of motivation, consider your situation from a body-budgeting perspective. Your burden may feel lighter if you understand your discomfort as something physical. When an unpleasant thought pops into your head, like “I can’t take this craziness anymore,” ask yourself body-budgeting questions. “Did I get enough sleep last night? Am I dehydrated? Should I take a walk? Call a friend? Because I could use a deposit or two in my body budget.”

This is not a semantic game. It’s about making new meaning from your physical sensations to guide your actions.

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The Atlantic: Right-Wing Social Media Finalizes Its Divorce From Reality, subtitled, “Fox News acknowledged Trump’s loss. Facebook and Twitter cracked down on election lies. But true believers can get their misinformation elsewhere.”

Again, we’re not rational animals, objectively evaluating the world around us; we’re tribal animals, eager to ignore the evidence if doing so validates the tribe’s beliefs about the world.

This is mostly about Parler.

A feedback loop is now at work: Mainstream platforms have come to the conclusion that certain content or behavior has serious downstream implications, so they moderate it with a heavier hand. That moderation, particularly when sloppily executed, is perceived as censorship by those affected, and the content or accounts taken down are recast as forbidden knowledge. The claim of censorship is turned into a mass-aggrievement narrative, deployed as a cudgel by politicians who use it cynically to rally their base, and various demi-media outlets and grifters attempt to leverage it for profit. Ordinary people, meanwhile, are pushed deeper into echo chambers.

Whether they will stay there is not yet clear. Parler is one of a suite of social-media spaces built for conservatives. Others include the YouTube-like sites Rumble and BitChute and the Twitter-like Gab. … For some Trump supporters, the whole point of politics is to “own the libs,” but on Parler, there are no libs around to own.

Part of this is the human tendency, not just among right-wingers, to not understand that other people have different tastes and beliefs than their own.

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Lawrence M. Krauss on Quillette: Why Is Scientific Illiteracy So Acceptable?.

In the mid-1980s, when I taught a Physics for Poets class at Yale University, I was dumbstruck when I gave the students a quiz problem to estimate the total amount of water flushed in all the toilets in the US in one 24-hour period and I started to grade the quiz. In order to estimate this, you have to first estimate the population of the US. I discovered that 35 percent of my Yale students, many of whom were history or American studies majors, thought the population of the US was less than 10 million! I went around campus interrogating students I met, asking them what they thought the population of the US was. Again, about one-third of the students thought it was less than 10 million and a few even thought it was greater than a few billion.

How was such ignorance so common in a community commonly felt to contain the cream of the crop of young US college students?

Then it dawned on me. It wasn’t that these students were ignorant about US society. It was that they were rather “innumerate,” as the mathematician John Allen Paulos had labeled it in a book he wrote in the 1980s. They had no concept whatsoever of what a million actually represented. For them, a million and a billion were merely both too large to comprehend.

(The population of the US is now about 330 million. When I was growing up, it was 250 million.)

This is a problem all by itself. The physicist Enrico Fermi used to give students thought problems to solve on the proverbial back of the envelope. E.g., how many piano tuners are there in Chicago? You had to have some general knowledge about the world, in terms of populations and proportions, to get the answer; he only asked for the nearest order of magnitude. Most people can’t do this; from those who could, Fermi chose his students.

Science fiction writer Philip K. Dick once said, “Reality is that which continues to exist even when you stop believing in it.” The line between being scientifically or empirically controversial vs being politically controversial has been blurred to the point of erasure. In Washington, and many other seats of government throughout the world, belief trumps reality.

With the example of Amy Coney Barrett.

I should underscore that when I discuss scientific illiteracy, I am not focusing on how many scientific facts people may remember. I rather mean the process of science: empirical testing and retesting, logical analysis, and drawing conclusions derived from facts and not hopes. The impact of increased CO2 on heat absorption in the atmosphere is something that can be tested, as can the expansion coefficient of water as heat is added, one of the key factors affecting measured sea level rise. Accepting the reality of these is not something that should disqualify you from, or assure you of, a government appointment.

The article was linked from one of my science fiction email groups because of this comment:

When it comes to public perceptions of medical or scientific prowess, I blame in part science fiction programs on television or in feature films that give the illusion that faced with a technical problem, sufficiently talented scientists and engineers can both ascertain the cause and create a solution in hours instead of years or decades. That is just not the way science often works. Most important scientific developments are not revolutionary. More often than not they are baby steps taken along a long road of discovery.

Yes, this is a problem, not just with science fiction dramas. And this is a reason why relying on stories to build your world-view (as most people do perhaps) can be misguided. The general example being that so many shows about police actions and hospital crises gives you the impression that the world is more dangerous and frightful than it actually is. A larger issue for future thought.

The essay has a nice conclusion:

The Enlightenment was well-named because it led to a greater understanding of ourselves, our society, and our environment, and was accompanied by the rise of the scientific method. Acting for the common good requires subjecting our own ideas to empirical scrutiny, being open to considering and empirically testing the ideas of others, and letting empirical data be the arbiter of reality. The most compelling reason that all of us, most importantly our public figures, should take science seriously, and honestly, was expressed best by Jacob Bronowski, a personal hero who exemplified the union of the two cultures of science and humanities:

Dream or nightmare, we have to live our experience as it is, and we have to live it awake. We live in a world which is penetrated through and through by science and which is both whole and real. We cannot turn it into a game simple by taking sides.

Posted in Culture, Narrative, Science | Comments Off on Links and Comments: Science, Reality Bubbles, and Stories

Links and Comments: Obama; Conspiracy Theories; Big Government; Liberty

Guardian: review of Barack Obama’s new book.

Obama makes clear he believes the whiplash from the 44th to 45th president is no accident. On the contrary, the mere fact that an accomplished, intelligent, scandal-free black man inhabited the White House was enough to trigger his antithesis.

Of course. Trump. Dinesh D’Souza. And all the racist Republicans freaked out by a non-white president.

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Nautilus: Why America Is Ripe for Election Conspiracy Theorizing.

Can people become less susceptible to believing conspiracy theories? Perhaps. One of the things that underlie conspiratorial thinking is a teleological bias, the tendency to see intention or planning where it doesn’t exist. A 2018 study found that this bias, “a resilient ‘default’ component of early cognition” that shapes adult intuitions, is associated with both creationist and conspiracist beliefs. Both of these, the researchers wrote, “entail the distant and hidden involvement of a purposeful and final cause to explain complex worldly events.”


What makes people susceptible to conspiracy theories isn’t healthy skepticism, a sensitivity to evidence joined to a sense of proportion. It’s a skepticism that’s abetted by political sectarianism and, as Cichocka explains, exacerbated by society-deranging events like the onset of COVID-19. It’s “created a perfect storm for vulnerability to conspiracy narratives,” she wrote. “Uncertainty and anxiety are high. Lockdown and social distancing bring isolation. People struggling to understand this unprecedented time might reach for extraordinary explanations.”

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Vox: Conspiracy theories, explained

There’s no hard evidence that conspiracy theories are circulating more widely today than ever before. But over the past five years, it has certainly seemed like average Americans have bought into them more and more. Surveys within the past year have shown that a quarter of US citizens believe the mainstream media is lying to them about Covid-19, and that it is “definitely” or “probably true” that the outbreak was intentionally planned.

Meanwhile, the headline-grabbing QAnon, a conspiracy theory that evolved from Pizzagate and posits that Trump has been working in secret to capture high-powered figures who are engaged in child abduction and trafficking, is still a niche belief. But a quarter of those who know what it is think there’s at least some truth to it, and that number is growing rapidly as the QAnon theory begins to converge with Covid-19 theories.


As 2020 enters the home stretch, new conspiracy theories seem to keep coming up. The latest? Trump’s baseless claims of voter fraud during the presidential election, which many of his followers are echoing, despite zero evidence, in any state, to support the assertion.

Long essay. Major points:

  • Sociopolitical turbulence tends to generate conspiracies
  • The modern misinformation crisis allows conspiracy theories to flourish
  • More people are profiting off the spread of conspiracy theories than ever
  • Conspiracy theories are resistance-proof — and increasingly disruptive
  • Conspiracy theories aren’t easy to stop — but empathy for believers is a crucial first step

The third is key, I suspect.

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Why global problems like the pandemic [and climate change] require big government. (As I’ve been saying.)

NYT: The Pandemic Is Showing Us How Capitalism Is Amazing, and Inadequate, subtitled, “Why big business needs big government and vice versa.”

It may seem like a trivial case of a company and an administration each claiming credit for some happy news. But it speaks to a deeper reality the pandemic has revealed — both what is amazing about capitalism, and how the free market alone comes up short in solving enormous problems.

The nine months of the pandemic have shown that in a modern state, capitalism can save the day — but only when the government exercises its power to guide the economy and act as the ultimate absorber of risk. The lesson of Covid capitalism is that big business needs big government, and vice versa.

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From before and during my hospital stay.

NYT, 25 Oct: How to Talk to Friends and Family Who Share Conspiracy Theories, subtitled, “Fringe movements will persist long after Election Day. Here’s how to help.”

Subheadings:

  • Ask where the information is coming from.
  • Create some cognitive dissonance.
  • Debunking is difficult.
  • Don’t debate on Facebook.
  • Mocking and scolding don’t work.
  • Know when to walk away.

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NYT, Paul Krugman, 22 Oct: When Libertarianism Goes Bad. (Print title: How Many Americans Will Ayn Rand Kill?) Subtitle: “Liberty doesn’t mean freedom to infect other people.”

But why does this keep happening? Why does America keep making the same mistakes?

Donald Trump’s disastrous leadership is, of course, an important factor. But I also blame Ayn Rand — or, more generally, libertarianism gone bad, a misunderstanding of what freedom is all about.


But you also see a lot of libertarian rhetoric — a lot of talk about “freedom” and “personal responsibility.” Even politicians willing to say that people should cover their faces and avoid indoor gatherings refuse to use their power to impose rules to that effect, insisting that it should be a matter of individual choice.

Which is nonsense.

Many things should be matters of individual choice. The government has no business dictating your cultural tastes, your faith or what you decide to do with other consenting adults.

But refusing to wear a face covering during a pandemic, or insisting on mingling indoors with large groups, isn’t like following the church of your choice. It’s more like dumping raw sewage into a reservoir that supplies other people’s drinking water.

Posted in Politics, Psychology, Social Progress | Comments Off on Links and Comments: Obama; Conspiracy Theories; Big Government; Liberty

Links and Comments: Christian Nationalism; Covid and Climate Denial

NYT: Trump or No Trump, Religious Authoritarianism Is Here to Stay, subtitled “Their unlikely ally may have lost the White House, but Christian nationalists still plan to win the war,” by Katherine Stewart.

The 2020 election is proof that religious authoritarianism is here to stay, and the early signs now indicate that the movement seems determined to reinterpret defeat at the top of the ticket as evidence of persecution and of its own righteousness. With or without Mr. Trump, they will remain committed to the illiberal politics that the president has so ably embodied.

In their responses to the election outcome, some prominent religious right leaders have enabled or remained true to the false Trumpian line of election fraud. Michele Bachmann, the former Minnesota congresswoman and 2012 presidential candidate, said, “Smash the delusion, Father, of Joe Biden is our president. He is not.” In Crisis Magazine, a conservative Catholic publication, Richard C. Antall likened media reporting on the Biden-Harris ticket’s victory to a “coup d’état.” Mat Staver, chairman and founder of Liberty Counsel, added, “What we are witnessing only happens in communist or repressive regimes. We must not allow this fraud to happen in America.”

After processing their disappointment, Christian nationalists may come around to the reality of Joe Biden’s victory. There is no indication, however, that this will temper their apocalyptic vision, according to which one side of the American political divide represents unmitigated evil. During a Nov. 11 virtual prayer gathering organized by the Family Research Council, one of the key speakers cast the election as the consequence of “the whole godless ideology that’s wanted to swallow our homes, destroy our marriages, throw our children into rivers of confusion.” Jim Garlow, an evangelical pastor whose Well Versed Ministry has as its stated goal, “Bringing biblical principles of governance to governmental leaders,” asserted that Mr. Biden and Ms. Harris are at the helm of an “ideology” that is “anti-Christ, anti-Biblical to its core.”

They collaborate in a densely interconnected network of think tanks, policy groups, activist organizations, legal advocacy groups and conservative pastoral networks. What holds them together is not any centralized command structure, but a radical political ideology that is profoundly hostile to democracy and pluralism, and a certain political style that seeks to provoke moral panic, rewards the paranoid and views every partisan conflict as a conflagration, the end of the world. Partisan politics is the lifeblood of their movement.

The power of the leadership is the function of at least three underlying structural realities in America’s political and economic life. …The first is the growing economic inequality that has produced spectacular fortunes for the few, while too many ordinary families struggle to get by. …

The second structural reality to consider is that Christian nationalism is a creation of a uniquely isolated messaging sphere. Many members of the rank and file get their main political information not just from messaging platforms that keep their audiences in a world that is divorced from reality, but also from dedicated religious networks and reactionary faith leaders.

The third critical factor is a political system that gives disproportionate power to an immensely organized, engaged and loyal minority. One of the most reliable strategies for producing that unshakable cohort has been to get them to agree that abortion is the easy answer to every difficult political policy question. Recently, religious right leaders have shifted their focus more to a specious understanding of what they call “religious freedom” or “religious liberty,” but the underlying strategy is the same: make individuals see their partisan vote as the primary way to protect their cultural and religious identity.

These people are living in a fantasy world. As I’ve noted before, what will they rally behind if they do overturn Roe v. Wade? It won’t make a huge difference in the number of abortions performed across the US. This essay suggests a rallying point will be their “specious” view of “religious liberty,” even though, as I’ve noted before, American culture is saturated from end to end with Christian assumptions and practices, which they seem as unaware of as fish are unaware of water. What they want, apparently, is to stifle everyone else who doesn’t follow their practices. Liberty to discriminate and suppress.

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Also today, Paul Krugman: Why the 2020 Election Makes It Hard to Be Optimistic About the Future. (Print title: “Covid, Climate and the Power of Denial”.) Subtitle: “If we can’t face up to a pandemic, how can we avoid apocalypse?”

The climate apocalypse. I’ve long noticed the human inability, among many (not all), to have very short-term concerns, dismissing projections of long-term problems through misunderstanding or simple selfishness. Climate change is a long-term problem that many still dismiss, despite the increasing number of natural disasters, because so many think it doesn’t affect themselves, never mind their grandchildren. Wreck the economy? Do nothing, there will be no economy. Many can’t think this through.
Krugman:

As many people have noted, climate change is an inherently difficult problem to tackle — not economically, but politically.
Right-wingers always claim that taking climate seriously would doom the economy, but the truth is that at this point the economics of climate action look remarkably benign. Spectacular progress in renewable energy technology makes it fairly easy to see how the economy can wean itself from fossil fuels. A recent analysis by the International Monetary Fund suggests that a “green infrastructure push” would, if anything, lead to faster economic growth over the next few decades.

So getting people to act responsibly on the coronavirus should be much easier than getting action on climate change. Yet what we see instead is widespread refusal to acknowledge the risks, accusations that cheap, common-sense rules like wearing masks constitute “tyranny,” and violent threats against public officials.

Most tragically, a story making the rounds yesterday:

Washington Post: South Dakota nurse says many patients deny the coronavirus exists — right up until death

USA Today: ‘It’s not real’: In South Dakota, which has shunned masks and other COVID rules, some people die in denial, nurse says

WGN TV: Nurse says some patients deny COVID-19 is real, even as they die from it

Even if if you live in a fantasy reality, the real reality can still kill you.

Posted in Politics, Religion | Comments Off on Links and Comments: Christian Nationalism; Covid and Climate Denial

Links and Comments: Republican Shamelessness and Hypocrisy; Voter Fraud and Science Denialism

Mostly just links; the headlines and subtitles and quotes speak for themselves.

NYT, Bret Stephens: The Conservative Movement Needs a Reckoning: subtitled, Just as ignorance was strength in George Orwell’s “1984,” shamelessness is virtue in Trump’s G.O.P.

Trump lost for two main and mutually reinforcing reasons. The first is that he’s immoral — manifestly, comprehensively and unrepentantly.

The second reason Trump lost is that conservatives never tried to check his immorality. They rationalized, excused, enabled and ultimately celebrated it. For Trump’s presidency to have had even a faint chance of succeeding, he needed his allies and fellow travelers to provide reality checks and expressions of disapproval, including occasions of outright revolt. What he mainly got was an echo chamber.

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GOP Hypocrites Hammer Dems for Refusing to Concede in Must-Watch ‘Daily Show’ Supercut
Featured hypocrites include Kayleigh McEnany, Laura Ingraham, Newt Gingrich, Greg Gutfeld, Jeanine Pirro, Lou Dobbs, Matt Gaetz, and Sean Hannity.

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The Atlantic: How Trump Sold Failure to 70 Million People. Subtitle: The president convinced many voters that his response to the pandemic was not a disaster. The psychology of medical fraud is simple, timeless, and tragic.

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Washington Post: ‘My faith is shaken’: The QAnon conspiracy theory faces a post-Trump identity crisis. Subtitled: President Trump’s defeat and the week-long disappearance of its anonymous prophet have forced supporters of the baseless movement to rethink their beliefs: ‘Have we all been conned?’

Comment: yes.

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Slate: Goodbye! to Trump’s swamp; a directory to short articles about each one.

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Slate: Maybe This Is Who We Are

The fact is we are, perhaps more than any time since the late 1850s, a divided country—divided not only by ideology and policy preferences (that’s normal; it’s what elections are supposed to decide) but also by the way we see the world. The two sides seem to occupy different universes. One universe observes facts, respects science, and values at least the goals of democracy and civility; the other universe does not. And the two view each other with seething contempt. Trump may wind up defeated, but Trumpism very much endures.

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NYT: Republicans Claim Voter Fraud. How Would That Work?. Subtitle: Stealing a presidential election requires an unrealistic level of planning, coordination and good luck.

Comment: like a conspiracy theory.

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CNN: Five alarm fire: How right-wing media is encouraging Trump’s election denialism

Election Week has given way to two parallel Americas, one that’s reality-based and one that’s grievance-based.

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Scientific American: The Denialist Playbook. Subtitled: On vaccines, evolution, and more, rejection of science has followed a familiar pattern

Recalling how chiropractors (!) rejected the Salk vaccine in 1955.

1. Doubt the Science
2. Question Scientists’ Motives and Integrity
3. Magnify Disagreements among Scientists and Cite Gadflies as Authorities
4. Exaggerate Potential Harm
5. Appeal to Personal Freedom
6. Reject Whatever Would Repudiate A Key Philosophy

The purpose of the denialism playbook is to advance rhetorical arguments that give the appearance of legitimate debate when there is none. My purpose here is to penetrate that rhetorical fog, and to show that these are the predictable tactics of those clinging to an untenable position. If we hope to find any cure for (or vaccine against) science denialism, scientists, journalists and the public need to be able recognize, understand and anticipate these plays.

To illustrate how the playbook works—and sadly, it is very effective –I will break down the chiropractor and creationist versions, which have endured for many decades in spite of overwhelming evidence, and point out parallels to the coronavirus rhetoric.

Posted in Politics | Comments Off on Links and Comments: Republican Shamelessness and Hypocrisy; Voter Fraud and Science Denialism

Bullets Dodged

A couple posts ago I listed several events in my life that, having survived them, provided a kind of “afterlife” that I would not have experienced in an earlier age, e.g. when medical procedures were not available to solve a ruptured appendix or blocked coronary arteries.

The third I mentioned was actually something different: I misssed getting hit by a car running a red light, that might easily have T-boned my car and killed me.

That was more of a dodging of the bullet. Nothing but chance. I suspect everyone experiences a few of those in their lives. (And those who don’t dodge them, die.)

So here’s something I’ve never talked or written about before. The biggest bullet I’ve dodged in my life.

Which is that, being gay, I survived the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and 90s, when many others did not.

And the explanation is easy enough. I was a bit slow.

As discussed elsewhere (in my memoirs), I did not have close friends growing up, at least not outside of school. In high school I did not date, did not have girlfriends (let alone boyfriends), as I gather others did. I didn’t socialize at all; never went to parties, never hung out with friends.

I was past 20 before I *realized* I was gay. It was like a light-bulb went off in my head — ah ah, that’s that answer! But what to do about it?

Even then I was a solitary person, not at all sociable. I attended UCLA as I had high school, attending classes during the day and then going home at night, staying home on weekends.

The standard, perhaps cliche, scenario of how gays meet each other is at bars. There are lots of such bars in big cities, few in smaller cities, none in small towns, which is why those who realize they are gay move away from the small towns they grew up in for the big city. In New York City, it’s Chelsea; in Los Angeles, it’s West Hollywood; in San Francisco, it’s the Castro.

But even once I had my own car, in 1982 (when I was not quite 27), I was not inclined to visit gay bars. I did a handful of times, in WeHo. But — in those days everyone smoked, which I hated; the bars were very noisy, which I hated (being a notch or two along the spectrum); and I could not hold a conversation with anyone, because of the noise and perhaps being a bit hard-of-hearing (which is why I don’t like to talk on the telephone).

So in the ’80s I avoided the gay social scene, and thus likely saved my life. I did not get AIDS. I joined a couple social groups (gay bicyclers, gay scientists, a group of gay friends who skied at Mammoth), and met a number of guys via classified ads in the gay newspaper of the era, THE ADVOCATE. But the guys I met that way were similar to me, not the sociable, more promiscuous guys who did the bar scene.

And so I survived. Major bullet dodged.

Posted in Personal history | Comments Off on Bullets Dodged

The Afterlives, Part 2

I read a striking insight somewhere recently, but don’t remember where it was or who said it. The insight flips inside out the standard belief (at least among Christian faiths) that living a good life gets you into heaven, so that while your body perishes into dust, your spirit or soul survives, presumably (if you’ve been a good person) in heaven, forever.

(As an aside, I’ve never understood how this concept of eternal life in heaven makes a lick of sense. Eternal life, but what kind of life? Whatever it is, *forever*? Really?? Human imagination fails with spans of space and time outside ordinary human experience, and completely self-destructs, sort of like dividing by zero, when trying to comprehend ideas of infinity or forever. No matter how blissful one can imagine life in heaven — a standard idea is that one is reunited with all your loved-ones (but in what form? As they were just before the died? No. As they were at the prime of life? So everyone’s a strapping 30-year-old? [Or each person’s heaven is different from everyone else’s, which would mean they’re not the same and your version of your loved-ones isn’t, in a sense…real.]) to live in eternal happiness — would it be bearable to experience *forever*? Contemplate this, and the incoherencies and contradictions and paradoxes mount, spinning wildly out of control. Or is it the idea of eating one’s favorite food, performing one’s favorite sport, watching one’s favorite TV program …forever? Forever! Over and over and over and over and over and over and over. And an infinite times over. Whatever it is, it would becoming palling, quickly. Sounds more like eternal torture. –Or does God somehow reset you everyday, so that you experience your favorite experiences of life fresh each time without the pall of remembering all the earlier iterations? Like the background cast of Groundhog Day. But how is it satisfying to be such a manipulated automaton?)

Returning to the original point: In fact, the opposite is true. The substance of your mortal body survives, and the pattern that was you mind (soul if you like), vanishes just as a rainbow fades away as the clouds gradually shift or the angle of the sun changes. The atoms and molecules in your body are part of the biosphere of the planet, billions of years old, and they survive themselves, endlessly rearranging themselves into new forms, in endless combinations. But the *patterns* of those physical particles don’t survive. The rainbows, the flames, the minds. There is no heaven for rainbows; there is no heaven that compiles every sentence ever spoken. Once spoken, a sentence is gone; once sounded, the symphonic performance no longer exists. Once the substrate fails, the pattern it held vanishes. But the components of the substrate survive and form new substrates, which give rise to new patterns.

It’s been noted that, while alive, some 98% of all the atoms in your body are replaced annually. Your mind is pattern held by a particular formation of atoms and molecules, but not even the same ones from year to year!

The difference between minds, and rainbows or flames, is that, through the inescapable logic of biological evolution, the physical substrates (bodies) that hold the patterns of minds become more and more complex over time, thus the patterns they are able to support become more and more complex. So that as one substrate recycles into the biosphere and its pattern dissolves, the next substrate supports as complex a pattern, or a more complex pattern. But they’re new patterns, and thinking the old ones are preserved somewhere is a naive fantasy.

Posted in Evolution, Religion | Comments Off on The Afterlives, Part 2

Principles and Moral Guidelines, Update

I polished my Principles page today, tightening a bit, and adding a section at the end listing my favorite alternatives to the Biblical Ten Commandments.

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The Issues that Divide Us (in the US at least)

I commented somewhere that the “issues” that divide the electorate today become more and more trivial the farther one zooms out to take a broader perspective of time and space. Issues so important at one time in history are irrelevant in others. Consider at random DC in 1960, New York in 1900, Paris in 1800, Bombay in 1700, and no doubt there were issues that divided their populations and drove partisan fighting. And I’m guessing that those issues have long since disappeared. Mostly having been resolved in progressive ways.

A corollary to this thought is that the “issues” themselves are almost beside the point. That a substantial portion of the population can spend so much time and energy worrying about abortion, say, or affirmative action, means that we live in an era when far larger problems, like infant mortality and slavery, have been resolved and have gone away. Getting worked up over abortion is a *luxury* of modern people whose far worse problems have been solved by past generations. That’s progress. (The further corollary is that when abortion is solved, say by perfecting contraception and preventing unwanted pregnancies in the first place, conservatives and progressives will find issues to bicker about that would seem trivial to us today. There will always be tribalism, and bickering.)

So what divides the left and right in the US? Again, it’s not really about particular issues. It’s about different ways of life. The most obvious lesson of all the voting returns maps is that, even in the red states, blue votes are concentrated in big cities. What divides red and blue? Life in small towns where little changes from generation to generation and people like it that way; and think that small government is all that they need. Life in big metropolises, typically port cities of one type or another, that bring into contact people of many types who have to learn to get along with one another; cities where the innovations occur that require “big government” to coordinate and spread to the entire population: building the interstate highway system, putting a man on the moon, inventing the internet, or successfully managing a global pandemic. No collection of small town governments (let alone libertarian ones) would accomplish those things. (As indeed, the uncoordinated federal management of the coronavirus pandemic, in which each state is one its own, has led to the disastrous response of the US.) Those things require big governments, even worldwide cooperation, in ways that are the inevitable wave of the future, unless you want our global technological society to completely collapse.

Posted in Culture, Social Progress | Comments Off on The Issues that Divide Us (in the US at least)