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 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.


Feb 2020: Here I’m linking posts about some of the best nonfiction books I’ve read in recent years. Posts are less traditional reviews than they are summaries (some quite long) intermixed with my comments and reactions. Posts for some of the books in the photo aren’t done yet.

  • Sean Carroll. THE BIG PICTURE: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself (2016). Read 2016. post
  • A.C. Grayling. THE GOD ARGUMENT: The Case Against Religion and for Humanism (2013). Read 2013. post
  • Jonathan Haidt. THE RIGHTEOUS MIND: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (2012). Read 2015. 1st post; 2nd post; 3rd post
  • Yuval Noah Harari. SAPIENS: A Brief History of Humankind (2015). Read 2017, again 2018. Post
  • Yuval Noah Harari. HOMO DEUS; A Brief History of Tomorrow (2017). Read 2017. post
  • Elizabeth Kolbert. THE SIXTH EXTINCTION: An Unnatural History (2014). Read 2015. post
  • Carl Sagan. THE DEMON-HAUNTED WORLD: Science As a Candle in the Dark (1996). Read 1996, again 2020. Post
  • Edward O. Wilson. ON HUMAN NATURE (1978). Read 1980, again 2019. post
  • Edward O. Wilson. THE MEANING OF HUMAN EXISTENCE (2014). Read 2014. Post #1, #2, #3, #4, #5
Posted in Personal history | Comments Off on Intro

Notes for the Book: Hierarchy of Knowledge and Human Affairs

  • Everything you need to understand the reality of the world, as discovered over centuries, and especially in the past century and past few decades, is out there, available to you. All the mysteries of the ancient world have been explored, and many solved, if not always to the satisfaction of the primitive mindset. This knowledge is not hidden. It’s more easily available to the average person than it has ever been in all of history. It’s there–perhaps haphazardly, on Wikipedia; it’s there in tens of thousands of books available from Amazon and in libraries, books written by sincere people who have dedicated their lives studying history, biology, cosmology, and dozens and hundreds of specialty topics, examining the world as it is and not how primitive people thought it was. You don’t have to attend university (though that helps, to channel your studies). To ignore this vast collective knowledge and discoveries of the human race, or renounce it in favor of the religious myths of ancient tribes who thought the world was flat, is to be at best intellectually dishonest, at worst to renounce the heritage of the species.


  • As writers like Sean Carroll and Alex Rosenberg have pointed out, we know virtually everything there is to know about how the world works, at least at local levels. Any new discoveries will be at the fringes of experience, and won’t overthrow what is known to be true at local levels, e.g. how physics can predict eclipses thousands of years in the future, to pinpoint accuracy. How we fly and navigate spacecraft among the planets, to pinpoint accuracy. And in turn, how physics explains chemistry, chemistry explains biology, and so on. No undiscovered magical forces are needed to explain these things. And conversely, our knowledge of physics rules out undiscovered magical forces that would be required for telepathy, or astrology, or whatever to be true; for them to work (or for an incorporeal “soul” to exist), the physics we’ve established thus far would have to not be true. It’s like knowing where all the states are in the US, and knowing therefore you’re not about to stumble upon a previously unknown state on your cross-country drive. The science-deniers and conspiracy theorists would tell you there’s some unknown state, that’s being denied by the authorities, that “they” don’t want you to know about. (Or that some place you’ve never been to actually doesn’t exist. This has happened! About Finland:


  • The irony—perhaps—is that most people don’t care, and don’t need to. Living a life as a functional human being, raising a family to propagate the next generation, being a citizen in the society you live in, has nothing to do with understanding the reality of the world outside your immediate experience. And in fact, most people are woefully uninformed about basic science, history, civics, even current events; see the man-on-the-street interviews by late night talk show hosts (for example, by Jimmy Kimmel: People claim knowledge of things they don’t actually know; some of these quizzes ask about fictitious terms, and a certain proportion of people will claim familiarity with things that don’t actually exist. The average person is unclear on the difference between a planet and a star, a moon or a planet, a comet or an asteroid, a galaxy or a nebula—despite the prevalence in recent decades of science fiction franchises like Star Trek and Star Wars. What do the flat-earthers think about those adventures in the stars? And yet, all these people, even the flat-earthers, manage to get along with their daily lives, do their jobs, raise their children.


  • It’s now well understood, increasingly so over the past three decades, why people perceive supernatural things and why they prefer supernatural explanations to scientific ones. And, as Rosenberg points out, it’s ironically due the very same evolutionary processes that the supernatural partisans don’t ‘believe’ in. (This is all about perception of agency, the tendency to detect cause and effect, and how we live our lives as stories, all of which evolved to support the survival of our species.)


  • The understanding of the world the average person has is derived from social and religious conventions. The numerous religions have a vast, centuries or millennia long, momentum, of parents inculcating their children, generation after generation, into the beliefs or superstitions of ancient tribes, that cannot easily be overcome, and may never be, by education. This religious “knowledge” serves to bind families, communities and tribes, but has little to do with the actual reality as revealed by the systematic investigation of centuries. Further, virtually no one examines the evidence for every fact about the world independently; rather, each person learns who to trust, whose expertise or authority to believe. Perhaps a problem of the modern age is that the internet (especially YouTube and Facebook) make fringe theories, many of them mendacious, others just dimwitted, easier to circulate and persuade the gullible.



  • The discoveries of the modern age that are most resisted by those who defer to ancient teachings are those that impinge upon psychological biases. People more concerned about purity and contamination are more inclined to resist vaccines, and then use motivated reasoning to lawyerly justify their instinctive bias. These are matters where the evidence and conclusions can seem counter intuitive. People more concerned with hierarchical relationships and authority resist the idea the humans are related, over evolutionary eons, to all life on the planet, and then use motivated reasoning to lawyerly justify their instinctive bias. There is no conservative resistance to the idea of teaching cosmology; there are no right-wing institutes devoted to undermining geology. Because these studies don’t impinge on human vanity, in the way that evolution does.
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Heinlein’s First: For Us, the Living

Almost on a lark, I picked up the first novel by Robert A. Heinlein the other day, and read through it. It’s a fascinating book on several levels. First, it’s Heinlein first novel in that it’s the first one he wrote, way back in 1938 and 1939. But it didn’t sell. The manuscript was thought lost; Heinlein and his wife had destroyed copies in their possession. Yet another copy was found long after Heinlein’s death in 1988, and published in 2004. I read it then, but didn’t remember the details of its future society until rereading it this week.

Second, Heinlein repurposed many of its ideas in later stories and novels, some written only a year or two later (he quickly learned how to write saleable stories). And third, it’s remarkable how so many of these ideas anticipated real-world discoveries and ideas of recent decades. He was ahead of his time.

This first novel is in the tradition of didactic utopias, like Edward Bellamy’s LOOKING BACKWARD: 2000-1887 (published in 1888) and H.G. Wells’ THE SLEEPER AWAKES (1899), both of which involve characters from the author’s time who become comatose and wake centuries later. There were many similar novels, says Wikipedia; the motives of these weren’t to write dramatic stories, but to use a fictional frame around authorial lectures about how things ought to be in the future. Many of these were socialist in nature, and they dealt with matters of politics, society, morals, and much else.

So Heinlein provides a framework for much discussion of history, religion, economics, and human nature. A cursory outline of the plot:

  • In 1939, pilot Perry Nelson’s car goes off a cliff and he dies.
  • He is found, alive, by a young woman named Diana, in the year 2086. Diana lives in the Sierra mountains with a spectacular view, and casually walks around her home naked. (Perry is obliged to do the same.) They exchange stories, and Perry gathers many things have changed in 150 years, and they quickly fall in love.
  • Perry reads available books about history, while Diana has a master from UC Berkeley visit to fill in details and discuss issues, at great length
  • Diana takes Perry to see San Francisco (in her copter), where the streets are moving strips, then to Monterey, where they swim. They become, in effect, married.
  • A colleague/former boyfriend of Diana’s visits (they are both professional dancers doing a joint project), and Perry jealously slugs him. Perry is taken to a city hall and then remanded to a hospital, where he undergoes psychological counseling to help him overcome the inappropriate attitudes of his past. He is encouraged to think about meanings of words, and the nature of human nature, and how it reacts to the current environment.
  • He’s visited by another master, this one to explain the economics of the era, and the mistakes made by earlier eras, at very great length.
  • Perry and one of the hospital attendants, Olga, travel to the Grand Canyon, then experimental grounds where a moon rocket is being developed. Perry visits Washington DC to see how the government now works.
  • Perry takes to studying rocketry. He reconciles with both Diana and Olga and realizes he has overcome the attitudes of the past (i.e. they’re in a three-way relationship).
  • Later, having developed a new powerful rocket fuel, Perry himself climbs into a rocket for the first trip to the moon.

Key themes and ideas:

  • The history after 1939 includes a second world war, a 40-year European war, and an evangelical movement in the US called the New Crusade, led by Nehemiah Scudder, whose eventual defeat results in a new Constitution. This Constitution limits laws to those prohibiting only actions that harm others, limits rights of corporations, and enshrines a right of privacy for all personal affairs. As a consequence, it also removes all laws derived merely from religious morality.
  • The big economic idea is that everyone, even children, get “heritage checks,” monthly grants for life; as a result, there is no unemployment, and everyone enjoys a high standard of living. The key is money: what is it? No, not gold, that was a big mistake of the early 20th century. Money is a medium of exchange that works because everyone believes it works. —This is exactly Harari’s thesis in SAPIENS. And the idea of a universal basic income, floated around for decades, has gained prominence recently from Rutger Bregman and Andrew Yang.
  • Over-production, not the profit system, was the problem in 1939. Knowledge accumulates. The answer is to create new money as needed to balance the production cycle. Further, value is not, as Marx thought, the number of work-hours to produce a given article. Value is about customer desire, how much the customer wants a particular article. —And this correlates with modern psychological thought about happiness, which doesn’t have an objective measure, but rather depends on the circumstances around you; thus “keeping up with the Jones.”
  • But doesn’t this system subsidize laziness? No, the way to look at it is to consider that modern humans are living off the accumulated knowledge and discoveries of the past; there isn’t enough drudgery to go around. —Again, anticipates Harari and others in worrying whether machines will render many jobs obsolete. Perhaps so; the answer is that universal basic income. In 2086, Heinlein suggests, most people aren’t indolent and work anyway, or find some private project to pursue. [[ My own thought, which I can’t point to a source just at the moment, is that the cost of subsidizing a minority of lazy people is far less than the cost of the infrastructure to decide who’s eligible for government “assistance” and prevent the lazy from getting it. Dismantle the infrastructure—shrink the government—and just given everyone the money, as Alaska does. The problem then becomes the “moral” one of rewarding people who don’t work; work, now matter what kind, is supposedly virtuous. ]]
  • On matter of human nature, as Perry is “treated” he is asked to define terms, first common ones like apple and cat, then abstract ones like patriotism, duty, honor, society, and truly think about what these mean. This future society has developed a Code of Customs based on conclusions reached through understanding of the real world—the only alternative being revelation. These conclusions have always been available, but were resisted. Still, Perry can’t help feeling jealous. His mentor explains that while “human nature” may exist, the environment changes and how human nature responds changes. Thus flying despite fear of heights; thus belly hunger doesn’t trigger ravenous reactions to the sight of food. Males and females have different reasons for sexual jealous–males, to defeat other males for the right to mate; females, to ensure her partner remains loyal to her and her children. —And this is remarkably like the conclusions of sociobiology of recent decades, about the differing reproductive strategies of males and females (and thus to indicate why male and female brains are not identical, nor that they are “blank slates.”)
  • And so with personal affairs matter of privacy (i.e. no one possesses anyone), and everyone including children take care off by the state, the old jealous reactions can be unlearned or disregarded. [[ As a personal aside, this is how, in my experience, the gay community works. Two men can date for a while, call it off, and still be good friends, still mix with the same groups of friends together, in a way unthinkable for most straights. ]]

Some of these ideas about economics, I gather, show up in Heinlein’s 1942 novel BEYOND THIS HORIZON, which I haven’t read in decades. Other specific ideas which turned up in later stories:

  • The moving streets were the subject of “The Roads Must Roll,” published in 1940.
  • Perry is given the choice of psychological treatment or deportation to “Coventry,” a reservation for non-compliant individuals that one enters and never leaves (in effect, an anarchy). An entire story about it, with that title, was published also in 1940.
  • And the narrative about the religious takeover of the US is told in “If This Goes On—” also published in 1940! Though it’s not the story of Nehemiah Scudder himself (Heinlein never did write that story, he admitted, disliking the character too thoroughly.) I blogged about this story here:
  • More incidentally, everyone smokes constantly in this novel. I don’t recall if that was true in later stories.
  • And Heinlein was always attracted, throughout his career, to the idea of casual nudity and to open and multiple relationships. I’m afraid I don’t buy the casual nudity for a moment, except possibly among partners in a sexual relationship. Otherwise, it would be too distracting! And likely disgusting. How many of your colleagues, or neighbors, would you want to see naked?

Finally I’ll quote a long passage, spoken by the historian from Berkeley, about religion and its role in society. Some of these lines did show up in “If This Goes On—,” as quoted in my post linked above. Pages 83-84:

“All forms of organized religion are alike in certain social respects. Each claims to be the sole custodian of the essential truth. Each claims to speak with final authority on all ethical questions. And every church has requested, demanded, or ordered the state to enforce its particular system of taboos. No church ever withdraws its claims to control absolutely by divine right the moral life of the citizens. If the church is weak, it attempts by devious means to turn its creed and discipline into law. If it is strong, it uses the rack and the thumbscrew. To a surprising degree, churches in the United States were able, under a governmental form which formally acknowledged no religion, to have placed on the statutes the individual church’s code of moral taboos, and to wrest from the state privileges and special concessions amount to subsidy. Especially was this true of the evangelical churches in the middle west and south, but it was equally true of the Roman Church on its strongholds. It would have been equally true of any church; Holy Roller, Mohammedan, Judaism, or headhunters. It is a characteristic of all organized religion, not of a particular sect.”

This is the sort of matter-of-fact attitude about religion that pervades most science fiction about the future, though it’s rarely stated as explicitly as this. It’s not controversial, or contentious, just stating what’s obvious.

Posted in Book Notes, Heinlein, science fiction | Comments Off on Heinlein’s First: For Us, the Living

Notes for the Book: A Hierarchy of Understanding

Next, a hierarchy of stages about the extent to any of us understands the universe. (Which is distinct from simply being aware of it, though it overlaps it somewhat.)

  1. At the base level is the understanding of primitive tribes about the world and its extent, especially those in isolated valleys (e.g. Borneo) or isolated island (e.g. North Sentinel Island, They know only what they explore on foot or can see from the highest mountain. (The language in the Old Testament reflects such a view of the world.) These tribes engage in story-telling to explain where things came from and how things work, applying instinctive attitudes of human nature to “explain” their existence, the weather, and so on, revealing the innate need for narrative, i.e. cause and effect, to everything in sight.
  1. Next, learning the world is bigger than just your local tribe. There are worlds beyond the hill, other tribes with different languages and customs. Broadly, then, learning that the things in your experience aren’t the best just because they’re yours. Understanding that followers of all religions think theirs is true and all the others false. Being cosmopolitan. Being, to an extent, savvy. (But: the preference for narrative explanation still prevails here.)
  1. Third, possible only in the past century or so, becoming aware of the age extent of the universe, how vast it really is, how tiny our Earth is within it, and given this, how naïve and parochial it is to think that our world or our tribe is somehow special in the eyes of that agency-detected creator. Analogies of the extent of time—fitting 14 billion years into a single day, in which humanity appeared on Earth in the last few hours or minutes on December 31st (the Cosmic Calendar,—help to intellectually understand this, but it’s difficult for anyone with a human brain to appreciate these scales emotionally. The lesson is that reality is larger than human intuitions; be humble, be savvy.
  1. Fourth, finally perhaps the intellectual understanding that cause and effect simply don’t apply at cosmic scales. Again, quantum mechanics, or Hawking’s notion that time and space are intertwined in the sense that time began at the big bang, so there was nothing before it; it doesn’t make sense to ask what “caused” the big bang, or what happened before it, than it does to ask what’s north of the North Pole. Here is where the intellect is needed in place of actual understanding. And somewhere here is the recognition of certain human geniuses, like Feynman, like Ramanujan, seem able to perceive (perhaps understanding isn’t the right word) things as impenetrable and counter-intuitive to ordinary humans, as human understanding of mathematics would be to dogs.

So science fiction informs this hierarchy at every level, though it’s most effective in evoking the third and suggesting the fourth. (The first level is reflected in a certain set of SF stories about primitive or enclosed societies that discover they are, for example, actually on a generation starship, and have forgotten their origins.) The third, the discovery of the vastness of time and space, is what the hoary phrase “sense of wonder” is about. And the fourth is suggested by those few science fiction tales that suggest realms of time and space that are incomprehensible to humans (if perhaps not to aliens).

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Links and Comments: Wars on Science; Epistemology; Conspiracy Theories

A facebook friend comments:

“Research” isn’t just googling to find someone saying what you want to hear. That’s confirmation bias, and cherry picking.


My own thought, a week ago: The big political conflicts aren’t about asking the same questions and reaching different conclusions; it’s about thinking some questions and their answers are more important than others.

Comment now: the central one of these is the conflict between freedom and equality. Both may be enshrined in the US founding documents. But they’re not consistent. Conservatives are more concerned about freedom (to discriminate if it pleases them), liberals more about equality and justice, even if those require regulations to entail freedoms.


Vox, Sean Illing: Inside corporations’ war on science: A new book explains how corporations create a climate of doubt around science and expertise.

Keyed off the recent decision by Johnson & Johnson, looking back at the history of Big Tobacco and the fossil fuel industry. It’s not the *scientists* who are trying to fool you, it’s the industries and their cherry-picked “scientists” to support corporate profits. This is why there are industry regulations (which Republicans are always trying to undermine).

“The Republican base,” Michaels told me, “has been acclimatized to be skeptical of mainstream science, and easily believe accusations that they are being manipulated by the deep state, the liberal media, and pointy-headed scientists.”


In its broadest sense one of my key interests is epistemology, how we know what we know, how we know what we think is true, more loosely about how people in general think they know what is true, which is why I keep emphasizing contingency and circumstance, why I don’t believe that everything happens for a reason, and why I’m fascinated by the attraction of conspiracy theories, virtually all of which are self-serving fantasies.

In NYT, long-time technology writer Farhad Manjoo writes, The Worst Is Yet to Come, subtitled, The coronavirus and our disastrous national response to it has smashed optimists like me in the head.

Key comment:

In a book published more than a decade ago, I argued that the internet might lead to a choose-your-own-facts world in which different segments of society believe in different versions of reality. The Trump era, and now the coronavirus, has confirmed this grim prediction.

As I said in a recent blog post, we seem to be living in different alternate realities, with different opinions about the facts of reality, simultaneously.


Another strong essay:

Religion News, Tara Isabella Burton: How Americans’ ‘tell it like it is’ attitude renders us vulnerable to conspiracy theories

The mythos of American self-making — that with the right amount of grit and cunning, the individual can determine his own truth and fate — lends itself to the view that civil bureaucracies and establishments, by contrast, are inherently sclerotic and corrupt: the information they provide automatically suspect.

This tendency can be glimpsed in the contrarian programs of investor and PayPal founder Peter Thiel, who founded and funded a Thiel Fellowship designed to coax promising would-be entrepreneurs to drop out of college and go straight into solitary startup life. It is this tendency, too, that underlies our collective obsession with “fake news” — and with alternative news outlets and conspiracy theorists, like Alex Jones, who claim to “tell it like it is” — in coded contrast to the wisdom of the establishment.

Conspiracy theories tie into a wider mistrust of civic life, combined with an optimistic belief that the individual is capable of “discovering” — through a cursory YouTube search or other research in the digital landscape — truths about the world order that the establishment is trying to hide.


And one more:

The Atlantic: Ellen Cushing: I Was a Teenage Conspiracy Theorist. Subtitle: Want to know why wild conspiracism can be so irresistible? Ask a 14-year-old girl.

Conspiracy thinking is incredibly compelling. It promises an answer to problems as small as expired light bulbs and as big as our radical aloneness in the universe. It is self-sealing in its logic, and self-soothing in its effect: It posits a world where nothing happens by accident, where morality is plain, where every piece of information has divine meaning and every person has agency. It makes a puzzle out of the conspiracy, and a prestige-drama hero out of the conspiracist. “The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of conspiracy in apocalyptic terms,” the historian Richard Hofstadter wrote in his seminal 1964 essay, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” “He is always manning the barricades of civilization.” What Hofstadter declined to put a finger on is the intoxicating feeling of having insider knowledge about the fate of the world, or at least believing you do.

Posted in Conservative Resistance, Lunacy, Science | Comments Off on Links and Comments: Wars on Science; Epistemology; Conspiracy Theories

Link and Comments: Ezra Klein on the Psychology of Coronavirus Response

Why are liberals more afraid of the coronavirus than conservatives?
: Covid-19 and the complex politics of fear.

By Ezra Klein, co-founder and editor-at-large of Vox (and whose recent book, WHY WE’RE POLARIZED, I’ve just begun reading).

Good question. You’d think conservatives, being more sensitive to contamination and conscientious about purity, would freak more about a deadly disease. Why don’t they? Before reading the article, my guess is their sense of autonomy overrides personal concerns; they resent authorities, especially experts (whom they mistrust, or simply don’t understand), telling them what to do. Also, the relatively off-stage progression of the virus, where the majority of Americans still don’t know anyone affected (I know only one), helps to diminish its apparent threat.

The article talks about the numerous psychological studies into the psychological foundations of political differences, e.g. Jonathan Haidt’s (cf. THE RIGHTEOUS MIND), that inform the difference between conservatives and liberals. E.g. “Liberalism and conservatism are rooted in stable individual differences in the ways people perceive, interpret, and cope with threat and uncertainty.” How dangerous the world is. Then why do conservatives downplay the coronavirus?

Klein speaks to various political psychologists and summarizes their ideas.

First: Liberals are more caring about others. Conservatives do fear, but of economic devastation.

Or: It’s partisanship, and a Republican is in charge, downplaying the threat. Haidt: “When Obama was president and America was threatened by Ebola, it was conservatives freaking out, demanding a more vigorous government response to protect us, while Obama kept steady on following scientific advice.” Trump was at the forefront of the Ebola panic (because he could criticize Obama).

Or: Trump followers are more afraid of threats from human outsiders (e.g. “welfare cheats, unpatriotic athletes, norm violators, non-English speakers, religious and racial minorities, and certainly people from other countries”), than of disembodied threats like climate change and Covid-19. Thus Trump responds the pandemic by attacking China.

The concluding section is worth quoting at length, with discussion of motivated reasoning and that famous Upton Sinclair quote.

Here’s my view: Political psychology is like the soil in politics. There are differences in the liberal and conservative soil — particularly in how they view threat, change, tradition, outsiders, and diversity — so different kinds of politicians, tactics, and movements take root on the two sides.

Trump is, at his core, a suspicious, threat-oriented, traditionalist figure — he’s nostalgic for the way things were, hostile to outsiders, angry over demographic change (he’s even, in normal times, a germaphobe). There’s a reason he took root in conservative soil.

By contrast, former President Barack Obama is optimistic, cosmopolitan, and temperamentally progressive — he looks at change and sees hope, he looks at other countries and sees allies, he sees diversity as a strength. There’s a reason he took root in liberal soil.

But once a politician captures a party, other dynamics take over. For one thing, partisans trust their leaders and allied institutions. Very few of us have personally run experiments on the coronavirus, or gone around the world gathering surface temperature readings over the course of decades. We have to choose whom to believe, and once we do, we’re inclined to take their word when describing contested or faraway events.

For another, we all fall prey to motivated reasoning, in which we shape evidence, arguments, and values to align with our incentives. As Upton Sinclair said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

Many Republican officeholders, led by Trump, think the coronavirus threatens their reelection because the lockdown threatens the economy. As such, they’re motivated to believe that reopening the economy sooner is better, and attracted to evidence and arguments that support that position. Sometimes that means downplaying the coronavirus. Sometimes that means accepting its risk but suggesting the costs of reopening are worth it. In both cases, the argument is working backward from the desired conclusion.

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Links and Comments: Loners, Law and Religion, Our Anti-Science Leaders, the Roots of Science Denial

Atlantic: How Loners Are an Evolutionary Insurance Policy

This echoes my comments about how diversity is needed in the human race because different attitudes and skills may be needed in situations that require different ways to survive. Though the article isn’t about humans at all.

There are other contexts in which loner behavior might prove evolutionarily crucial as well. Couzin and others have found, for instance, that some forms of loner behavior can lead to the emergence of leaders in groups. “Are these differences predetermined?” Couzin says. Or are they products of “a decision-making strategy that depends on both the physical and the biotic environment around the animals?”

Finding answers to these questions will be difficult. But in the meantime, the work demonstrates that to truly understand how collective and cooperative behaviors evolved, and how they continue to operate, researchers may need to study the seeming misfits that don’t participate.


NY Times: Storytelling at the Supreme Court: Two recent cases on religion are about more than the tales they tell.

Why the law, and religion, is about story-telling, not truth or reason.

The court heard two cases dealing with religion during its recent weeks of telephonic argument sessions, and on the surface both display this quality of shared premise. You might call it the “of course” principle: Of course nuns shouldn’t be expected to subsidize birth control for their nonprofit institution’s employees. Of course a religious school should be free to hire and fire teachers whose job it is to impart to young students the core meaning of the faith.

In this column, I want to unpack those “of courses.” …


Salon, Mario Livio: Our anti-science leaders are the geocentrists of today: Galileo would have seen a familiar impulse in the politicians who reject scientific predictions on the coronavirus

Put bluntly, what Galileo established as separating science from other types of “revealed” truths was this: facts and the ability to make testable predictions mattered. There weren’t anymore your facts and my facts, neither were there facts and “alternative facts”. There weren’t revealed facts or aspirational facts. Facts came in only one flavor — observable. Observations, experiments, and reasoning based on reliable data became the only acceptable methods for discovering facts about the world.

Galileo was punished by the Church, of course.

Given his own experience, Galileo might not be that surprised to hear that political considerations would make grim predictions about the spread of the coronavirus targets for science deniers at high places. He would be far more surprised — in fact probably perplexed — by the anti-vaccine science deniers, because those are putting their own children at risk. He would be besides himself over the science deniers of climate change.


The Conversation (via Pocket Worthy): The Thinking Error at the Root of Science Denial: Could seeing things in black-and-white terms influence someone’s views on scientific questions?

This reflects my thoughts that religious fundamentalist thought, the need for certainty and “knowing” that God has a plan and everything happens for a reason, is uncomfortable with the perpetually provisional nature of science. (And in turn, when things happen that don’t seem to have a cause or reason, conspiracy theories are invented to explain them.)

This widespread rejection of scientific findings presents a perplexing puzzle to those of us who value an evidence-based approach to knowledge and policy.

Yet many science deniers do cite empirical evidence. The problem is that they do so in invalid, misleading ways. Psychological research illuminates these ways.


In my observations, I see science deniers engage in dichotomous thinking about truth claims. In evaluating the evidence for a hypothesis or theory, they divide the spectrum of possibilities into two unequal parts: perfect certainty and inconclusive controversy. Any bit of data that does not support a theory is misunderstood to mean that the formulation is fundamentally in doubt, regardless of the amount of supportive evidence.

There is no “proof” in science.

Proof exists in mathematics and logic but not in science. Research builds knowledge in progressive increments. As empirical evidence accumulates, there are more and more accurate approximations of ultimate truth but no final end point to the process. Deniers exploit the distinction between proof and compelling evidence by categorizing empirically well-supported ideas as “unproven.” Such statements are technically correct but extremely misleading, because there are no proven ideas in science, and evidence-based ideas are the best guides for action we have.

I have observed deniers use a three-step strategy to mislead the scientifically unsophisticated. First, they cite areas of uncertainty or controversy, no matter how minor, within the body of research that invalidates their desired course of action. Second, they categorize the overall scientific status of that body of research as uncertain and controversial. Finally, deniers advocate proceeding as if the research did not exist.

With examples from climate change deniers, creationists, and anti-vaxxers.

Posted in Culture, Evolution, Science | Comments Off on Links and Comments: Loners, Law and Religion, Our Anti-Science Leaders, the Roots of Science Denial

Notes for the Book: a Hierarchy of Awareness

Here’s another theme that will inform my book, if I survive to write it.

Our understanding of the universe, our understanding of physics and biology, of deep history, is biased by the way we learn to understand and think about the world from our earliest awareness as an infant. Key books I’ve read over the past decade that inform this theme are by Jesse Bering and Andrew Shutlman, but these ideas are implicit in many others.

  • As an infant and child, we form ‘intuitive’ theories about how the world works, based on genetic proclivity (e.g. the detection of agency that enables the infant to respond to its parents, and later to perceive intent in random events that are the basis for superstition and divinity) and the experience of the world at certain scales. People who grow up and never examine those naïve assumptions consider them ‘common sense.’
  • As an adult, one can learn how the world actually works, even if (as Shtulman indicates) educated adults never entirely overcome those innate proclivities. One can, furthermore, consciously learn science, become aware of humans’ innate psychological biases, and train oneself to detect and avoid rhetorical fallacies. (At the level of human interaction, one indulges in these biases and fallacies because the point is to win, not to be right. Trying to be right is science.)
  • Next perhaps is pursuing science into realms where it’s impossible to develop intuitive understand, e.g. quantum mechanics, which we know works because we have QM equations that make predictions that have proven true over and over, for decades. In effect, we surrender any personal, intuitive, understanding to the algorithms of the equations, because they work, and they indicate a level of reality completely separate from the part we interact with and think we understand.
  • Finally, perhaps, are the deeper issues which may be impossible to understand on any level – why the universe is the way it is, e.g. the fundamental physical constants. They seem arbitrary. If they are not, perhaps we will never understand why. (One answer of course is, if the constants weren’t as they are, we wouldn’t be here to ask the question; thus the multiverse hypothesis.) In this area is the intriguing notion that SF sometimes speculates about: would truly alien aliens think differently than us? Could they be more intelligent than us, as we are to dogs? And perceive things clear to them but incomprehensible to us, as we understand things incomprehensible to dogs? And if they do have some hyperintelligence, how did that intelligence come about? Did it evolve or was it engineered?

The last points are where science fiction explores; and an example is the hyperintelligence that visits the Earth in Fred Hoyle’ 1957 novel the Black Cloud, which I reviewed recently for Black Gate. ( Not only does the Cloud perceive deep problems of the universe, when it tries to transfer its knowledge to human beings, they die. There is the suggestion of a greater reality beyond anything humans can perceive, or understand. Hoyle’s book was an early exploration of this theme; there are many later.

On the third bullet, I’ve acknowledged in my memoir essays how I “hit a wall” of intuitive understanding, both in physics and in math, at certain points, in my undergraduate education. The geniuses of the world are those who perceive complex truths intuitively, as if they are obvious. This is a general theme in science fiction, too. Most people live their lives by rote, relatively speaking; the geniuses who perceive higher truths are a tiny minority.

Posted in The Book | Comments Off on Notes for the Book: a Hierarchy of Awareness

Notes for the Book: Simplex, Complex, Multiplex

Several themes are starting to gel, so perhaps I’ll record some of my current thoughts as they now stand. Just the act of writing a blog post helps me organize and clarify them. I still find myself learning: almost every nonfiction book I read (I’ve read about 10 so far this year, not so many, given pandemic distractions) provides some new perspective, some incidental, some profound.

Briefly, the book I’m gathering my thoughts about will be a consideration of how science fiction informs our understanding of the world, and, moreover, provides insight into potential aspects of the world that we don’t yet understand. I’m developing the notion of various hierarchies of complexity, knowledge, and understanding, and the book will review how these apply to what we already know — how what we know has changed over the decades and millennia — with science fictional examples of stories and novels that illustrate the levels in those hierarchies, and more crucially, how the best science fiction tries to look around the corner, so to speak, from what we know to what we might come to know, or what might exist and be true that we may never comprehend.

Here’s a simple hierarchy, one I don’t think I’ll use directly, but perhaps one that planted the seed in my mind, decades ago, about different ways of looking at things, when I first read the book it’s from.

The idea is from a 1966 novel by Samuel R. Delany, Empire Star. It’s short but complicated, with many incidents that reflect off each other at the end as a kind of time/space vortex sends characters traveling through time, so that we’re able to see causes and effects in many different ways. (Near the end of the book he provides variations of temporal sequences that illustrate how the same events differ in cause and effect from different characters’ perspectives.)

The running metaphor of the book is his distinction of the simplex, and complex, and the multiplex. David Gerrold, on Facebook, recalled these ideas in a long post about a month ago. (Here’s a direct link to his post) I reread Delany’s book a couple weeks ago and Gerrold’s summary of how these ideas are introduced is pretty accurate:

Two characters are standing under a steelwork bridge. One of them tells the other to look up. That’s the simplex view of the bridge.

Then he tells him to move a ways down and look up again. This is a different view of the bridge. Now he has a complex view of the bridge.

Then he has him walk along while looking up and watching the interplay of motion among the steel beams — that’s the multiplex view of the bridge.

Gerrold then goes on align these three ideas with people who live in a rural community, people who live in more than one community, and people who travel internationally; from one to the next, the perspective and understanding of the world increases. However — he goes on to state, that doesn’t mean one of these states is necessarily superior to another. They are all useful in their ways, in their contexts.

This parallels my thoughts in this blog about political divisions, Jonathan Haidt’s ideas of moral foundations theory (which I explored in this post), that differences in psychology among people help understand political differences. But that’s not to say any one perspective is more correct than another; they’re all part of the diversity of the human race, all potentially useful given whatever circumstances might challenge the race’s survival. You never know which strategy will be needed in any given circumstances; you must not therefore force the entire race to conform to some ideologically correct view.

Still, this is giving the benefit of the doubt. Can we be sure some position along a spectrum like this is not superior, depending on how we define that word, to others? Isn’t knowledge better than ignorance, for example? Well, there are people who would disagree, those who value tradition over any knowledge that would challenge it.

But my thought in revisiting Delany’s triad of “exities” is to wonder if there isn’t a fourth level. Here’s where science fiction comes in. The most ambitious science fiction tries to go beyond what we know, everything cosmopolitan and everything extrapolated based on existing knowledge, to consider if there are realms beyond human understanding. What would we call this? Cosmiplex, perhaps? I’ll think about this.

Meanwhile, a cursory Google search of these terms turn up a 2016 blog post by a Finnish post-grad student in philosophy (whose name isn’t evident). He quotes the original Delany at length, and also quotes a book by Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen, Figments of Reality, which I have but haven’t read, as well as the same authors’ The Science of Discworld, which I have read and commented about, here, in 2015). And their comments about a proposed fourth type of mind, in a novel by David Zindell, which they reject because “the concept of omniplexity is a simplex thought”.

Hmm. I will think about this.

Posted in Philosophy, science fiction, The Book | Comments Off on Notes for the Book: Simplex, Complex, Multiplex

Links and Comments: Conspiracies! Conspiracies!

Over the past several weeks there’s been an outbreak of stories and articles in the various legitimate media (New York Times, NPR, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, et al) about conspiracy theories related to the coronavirus pandemic. So many articles! Could this be mere concidence? Or perhaps… a conspiracy! By mainstream media to fool people into thinking conspiracy theories are bogus? Or real? Pick and choose whatever you want to believe, and if so-called “experts” dispute want you want to believe, than clearly there’s a conspiracy theory going on.

I’ve linked a bunch of articles recently on Facebook, captured in this post (with more to follow), mainly to challenge a bout of posts by a couple of my Facebook friends, only a couple of them out of 500 or 600.

But if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my life — something I’ve truly changed my mind about, since a couple decades ago — is that you can’t change someone’s mind by patiently showing them evidence and expecting them to reach logical conclusions. That’s not how people work. People are concerned with group identity, and with *winning*, not with identifying truth. This informs much current politics (e.g. the conservative cry of “owning the libs”).

Conspiracy theories, is my provision conclusion, are the extreme, malignant forms of the natural human instinct for narrative. How human perception of the world around them turns everything into a story. This thing happens *because* of that thing. How children think rain happens *in order* to water the plants, and so on; adults, some of them at least, understand that the world is not fraught with agents. Still, the popularity of stories, everywhere, in literature, movies, political analysis, theology. The idea that everything happens for a reason. I’ll develop this theme more in my book, because it is a key idea in epistemology, how we know what is true, why people think they know what is true.

For now: items I’ve posted on Facebook in recent weeks.

The Atlantic: The Coronavirus Conspiracy Boom: Nearly a third of the people we polled believe that the virus was manufactured on purpose. Why?

The piece ends:

And if the one in three Americans who believes that the effects of COVID-19 have been exaggerated choose to forgo crucial health practices, such as social distancing, frequent hand-washing, and wearing a mask, then the disease could spread faster and farther than otherwise, and could cost many thousands of lives.

More generally, this:

New York Times: Why Coronavirus Conspiracy Theories Flourish. And Why It Matters. Subtitle: “Unseen villains. Top-secret cures. In their quest for reassurance during the pandemic, many people are worsening more than just their own anxiety.”

Since this article isn’t free to non-subscribers, I’ll quote a few passages:

The belief that one is privy to forbidden knowledge offers feelings of certainty and control amid a crisis that has turned the world upside down. And sharing that “knowledge” may give people something that is hard to come by after weeks of lockdowns and death: a sense of agency.

The conspiracy theories all carry a common message: The only protection comes from possessing the secret truths that “they” don’t want you to hear.

“People are drawn to conspiracies because they promise to satisfy certain psychological motives that are important to people,” Dr. Douglas said. Chief among them: command of the facts, autonomy over one’s well-being and a sense of control.

The belief that we have access to secret information may help us feel that we have an advantage, that we are somehow safer. “If you believe in conspiracy theories, then you have power through knowledge that other people don’t have,” Dr. Douglas said.

Italian media buzzed over a video posted by an Italian man from Tokyo in which he claimed that the coronavirus was treatable but that Italian officials were “hiding the truth.”

In Venezuela, President Nicolás Maduro suggested that the virus was an American bioweapon aimed at China. In Iran, officials called it a plot to suppress the vote there. And outlets that back the Russian government, including branches in Western Europe, have promoted claims that the United States engineered the virus to undermine China’s economy.

One of the crucial things I’ve learned in my life is that you cannot show someone authoritative evidence and expect them to change their minds. There is good evidence, and bad evidence; conspiracy theorists can find evidence online to support any idea, no matter how outlandish. Just as the Flat-Earthers do.


Forbes: Why It’s Important To Push Back On ‘Plandemic’—And How To Do It

Plandemic is part of a disturbingly successful trend in which deep-pocketed purveyors of pseudoscience produce slick, professional videos as credible-appearing documentaries. The lighting, narrative structure, the pacing, use of imagery, camera angles, editing techniques—these are all common documentary filmmaking conventions that we’ve come to associate with factual information.

The people producing this video know what they’re doing, and they’re very good at it. On a subconscious level, no matter what words are being said, this video feels factual simply because of how it was produced. It’s intentionally manipulative. It’s a textbook example of effective propaganda.”


Conspiracy theories like those in this video are actively, directly harmful and dangerous. They can influence people’s behavior in ways that harm those people and public health—including you personally—in general. We can’t afford to let these ideas run unchecked.

If you don’t push back on them, even to those you love or don’t want to upset, you’re enabling them. You’re allowing people to spew harmful, dangerous nonsense that kills people and demoralizes the millions of health care providers trying to save lives.

The bottom of the article has various debunking resources that address the claims in the film.


Slate, Dahlia Lithwick: Whose Freedom Counts?. Subtitle: “Anti-lockdown protesters are twisting the idea of liberty.”

My take: those insisting on re-opening are doing so in defiance of, or oblivious of, the inevitability of further spreading of the virus and increasing the number of deaths. It’s like a parable I’ve seen a couple times, once recently, which I’ll paraphrase: a man offers you $3000, on the condition that, if you accept it, someone in the world, somewhere, someone you don’t know, will die. Would you accept it? Now, the $3000 is the personal “liberty” to escape lock-down, to force a re-opening that would oblige many people to go back to work, and inevitably, to spread the infection and increase the number of deaths.

My prediction is that, despite the re-openings of many states underway, most people will continue to stay home (as I certainly will do), and the economies of these states will not magically rebound. Those who insist on going out will spread the infection, because some of them are infected but asymptomatic, and will infect others, some of whom will die.

This is an unprecedented event in all of our lives, and I understand why many people have trouble coming to terms with it.

Here is Dahlia Lithwick, who further down this essay invokes another writer about the difference between “freedom to and freedom from.” Lithwick:

The words freedom and liberty have been invoked breathlessly in recent weeks to bolster the case for “reopening.” Protesters of state public safety measures readily locate in the Bill of Rights the varied and assorted freedom to not be masked, the freedom to have your toenails soaked and buffed, the freedom to open-carry weapons into the state capitol, the freedom to take your children to the polar bear cage, the freedom to worship even if it imperils public safety, and above all, the freedom to shoot the people who attempt to stop you from exercising such unenumerated but essential rights. Beyond a profound misunderstanding of the relationship between broad state police powers and federal constitutional rights in the midst of a deadly pandemic, this definition of freedom is perplexing, chiefly because it seems to assume not simply that other people should die for your individual liberties, but also that you have an affirmative right to harm, threaten, and even kill anyone who stands in the way of your exercising of the freedoms you demand. We tend to forget that even our most prized freedoms have limits, with regard to speech, assembly, or weaponry. Those constraints are not generally something one shoots one’s way out of, even in a pandemic, and simply insisting that your own rights are paramount because you super-duper want them doesn’t usually make it so.

May 9:

Science Magazine: Fact-checking Judy Mikovits, the controversial virologist attacking Anthony Fauci in a viral conspiracy video.

Politifact: Fact-checking ‘Plandemic’: A documentary full of false conspiracy theories about the coronavirus

Daily Beast: Discredited Doctor and Sham ‘Science’ Are the Stars of Viral Coronavirus Documentary ‘Plandemic’: Coronavirus Grifters.

Washington Montly: Do Republicans Have a God-Given Right to Infect You?: The “Open-Up-Now” crowd’s flawed constitutional reasoning.

New York Times, Jamelle Bouie: The Anti-Lockdown Protesters Have a Twisted Conception of Liberty.

It seems many of us are living in alternate worlds, simultaneously.


May 11:

Three more.

The Atlantic: If Someone Shares the ‘Plandemic’ Video, How Should You Respond?

The Week: The making of a coronavirus conspiracy theory

And here’s the New York Times summary, buried in today’s print edition on page B4, because it’s a fringe story. If there were any truth to it, all the reputable news sources would be all over it, because they’re in competition with each other, and would want to be first to expose any actual conspiracy (cf. Watergate).

Virus Conspiracists Elevate a New Champion, subtitled, “A video showcasing baseless arguments by Dr. Judy Mikovits, including attacks on Dr. Anthony Fauci, has been viewed more than eight million times in the past week.”


And finally, if anyone hasn’t noticed, disgruntled, fired employee Judy Mikovits is on this tirade because she’s *promoting a book*! Plague of Corruption: Restoring Faith in the Promise of Science, with a foreward by notorious anti-vaxxer Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. And indeed, in the week after “Plandemic” was released, the book was #1 on the Amazon Bestsellers page.

Posted in Lunacy, Meaning, MInd, Psychology | Comments Off on Links and Comments: Conspiracies! Conspiracies!

More Standard SF Furniture: Robert Silverberg’s The 13th Immortal

As I said in my previous post, I suspended reading for some weeks once the coronavirus lockdown began, in mid-March; things were too unsettled and uncertain to allow for the indulgence of sitting down and turning inward into a book. It was much more important to pay attention to everything going on in the outside world. And so instead I replayed most of the Myst games, over five or six weeks. As I finished those, or stalled on a couple of them, I returned to books. At the end of April, I began reading again: the first Asimov robot novel, then this rather incidental Silverberg novel, and since then a few more. Since I still have a backlog of 1950s “classic era” science fiction novels that I read a year ago to base future Black Gate columns on, I’ve decided to relax my purview for reading and especially reread the great SF novels from all decades since the 1950s. But more about those later.

There are reasons to occasionally read more ordinary novels from past decades, as I did with Robert Silverberg’s COLLISION COURSE (review at Black Gate here: I’m a long-time Silverberg fan, especially for his mature work that I discovered in the early 1970s, yet my justification for reading his very early novels from the 1950s and 1960s is to identify the “standard SF furniture” of the time – the assumptions about space, and aliens, and ESP, and so on, that informed 1950s SF and which have lingered in popular culture via the franchises Star Trek and Star Wars, yet which have been overcome, derided, dismissed, by advancing scientific understanding, and abandoned or superseded by better ideas in the best SF of subsequent decades.

For this post, instead of copying in my complete summary notes (which sometimes I write as I read, sitting by the computer, and so which are extremely detailed), I will summarize more concisely, as a courtesy to any readers I might have.

So. Robert Silverberg’s THE 13TH IMMORTAL was, as he explained in the introduction to the 2004 Cosmos paperback edition, the first novel he wrote after winning a Hugo Award for “Most Promising New Author” in 1956. After winning that award, he pitched a novel to Donald A. Wollheim, publisher of Ace Books, which in that decade published “Ace Doubles,” in which two books were published, back to back, with a front cover on each side. He sold it, wrote it, and that’s how this novel first appeared.


The setting is some hundreds of years in the future, after a nuclear war. The entire world has been divided up into Twelve Empires, each ruled by an immortal Duke. Mutant animals, and humans, inhabit the landscape.


  • Dale Kesley works on a farm in Iowa, without memories of his early life. He’s visited by a man, Dryle van Alen, who is from Antarctica, who says he’s been looking for Dale for a long time. But the key to Dale’s identity is another person, Daveen the Singer, who also needs to be found. Despite his suspicion and confusion, Dale, on the basis of his having no memories of his early life, leaves the farm with Dryle.
  • They travel to Galveston, then via steamer to South America, and in Argentina are pursued by bandits. DvA disappears, and Dale is taken captive.
  • He’s taken the local Duke in Buenos Aires, Don Miguel, who assumes Dale is an assassin, and makes a deal with him to travel north to assassinate the North American duke instead, in exchange for his adopted daughter.
  • Dale travels to Chicago, encounters a mutant human who seems to know the future, and meets Don Miguel, who condemns him to prison. A mutant frees him; he travels south to a Mutie city, then a colony of artists in Kentucky, then to a mechanical city in Texas, then to a hobo camp, to eventually reunite with the mutant…who is actually the missing Daveen, and who has the power to magically transport them both to… Antarctica, a beautiful, high-tech city, in contrast to the squalor of the rest of the world.
  • Where Dale receives various revelations: that Dale is an immortal; that the other Dukes are sterile, and the Duke of Antarctica is… Dryle van Alen.
  • And finally: this has all happened before. Dryle is immortal, but not sterile, and therefore a threat to the other dukes; Dale, years before, wanted Antarctica to reach out to the rest of the world; his father refused, had Dale conditioned and hidden on a farm in Iowa to protect him from the other dukes.
  • But now, Dryle agrees, he will abdicate, and Dale, now a man, will take over, and help rebuild the world.


  • So, the standard sf furniture: the post-apocalyptic aftermath of a nuclear war; mutants, both human and animal, resulting from that war; the idea that mutant humans would have magical powers (precognition, teleportation); the idea that the world would split into advanced and primitive societies.
  • And immortality. It’s not explained early on why the dukes are immortal; it emerges that immortality was a mutation, and the rare few who acquired it gradually assumed power, dividing up the world between them, leaving the odd 13th one exiled in Antarctica.
  • A running theme is that Dale never understands why all this is happening to him.
  • And the notion that the protagonist doesn’t know his true identity is a standard plot device in SF and fantasy; if I recall correctly, this was also the main revelation of Silverberg’s most popular book, from 1980, Lord Valentine’s Castle.


Posted in Book Notes, Robert Silverberg, science fiction | Comments Off on More Standard SF Furniture: Robert Silverberg’s The 13th Immortal