Intro

This is the blog and homepage of Mark R. Kelly, the founder of Locus Online in 1997 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 and comments that I link to. Movie reviews and reports and pics from travels are posted on Facebook.

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Links and Comments: Storytelling; Religious Fundamentalism and Fake News; the Attraction of Conspiracy Theories

Time magazine, December 5, 2017, Jeffrey Kluger: How Telling Stories Makes Us Human

[S]torytelling is a powerful means of fostering social cooperation and teaching social norms, and it pays valuable dividends to the storytellers themselves, improving their chances of being chosen as social partners, receiving community support and even having healthy offspring.

A study of storytelling in forager cultures in Thailand, Malaysia, Africa and elsewhere. Storytelling has evolutionary benefits.

Of course, nothing captures natural selection quite like the number of babies any one person has, and storytelling confers that benefit too — at least on the tellers. “Storytelling is a costly behavior,” write the researchers, “requiring an input of time and energy into practice, performance and cognitive processing.” But the payoff for making such an effort is big: When the investigators looked at family groups within the 18 camps, they found that skilled storytellers had, on average, .53 more living children than other people.

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Patheos: Researchers Find Link Between Religious Fundamentalism and Falling for Fake News.

A new working paper by researchers at Yale University finds that the kind of people more likely to believe stories that are literally “fake news” — who fall for the hoaxes, if you will — are those who believe in delusions (like telepathic communication), are dogmatic in their thinking, and are just flat-out religious fundamentalists.

It makes a lot of sense. After all, the paper notes, evidence “suggests that religious fundamentalists may engage in less analytic and actively open-minded thinking.” I believe that. They already believe in huge amount of nonsensical garbage — a talking snake, a young Earth, God watches over you, Jesus performed miracles, etc. — in large part because they live in bubbles where those stories feel convincing despite not measuring up to reality. When pastors tell you those lies with conviction, and a sacred book reiterates the lies, and your parents teach you that doubting the lies could lead you down the path to eternal punishment, it makes a lot of sense that news articles that appear legitimate would just be taken as gospel.

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The Week, from Aeon: How to think like a conspiracy theorist, by Roland Imhoff.

It’s partly about feeling a lack of control about one’s life…

The rationale behind this is that lacking control increases the need to engage in the compensatory illusion of control — that is, in conspiracy theories. Detecting patterns where there are none at least leaves open the possibility of gaining control, whereas the attribution of, say, a natural disaster to unchangeable and uncontrollable weather dynamics does not.

And also this:

Belief in conspiracies can serve to set oneself apart from the ignorant masses — a self-serving boast about one’s exclusive knowledge. Adherence to conspiracy theory might not always be the result of some perceived lack of control, but rather a deep-seated need for uniqueness.

And so the researchers invented a conspiracy theory from scratch, and tested it out.

The new conspiracy seemed to be more attractive if it was a minority opinion. It set them apart from the masses.

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E.O. Wilson: What Is Man?

From the first page of his book HALF-EARTH: Our Planet’s Fight for Life (2016).

What is man?

Storyteller, mythmaker, and destroyer of the living world. Thinking with a gabble of reason, emotion, and religion. Lucky accident of primate evolution during the late Pleistocene. Mind of the biosphere. Magnificent in imaginative power and exploratory drive, yet yearning to be more master than steward of a declining planet. Born with the capacity to survive and evolve forever, able to render the biosphere eternal also. Yet arrogant, reckless, lethally predisposed to favor self, tribe, and short-term futures. Obsequious to imagined higher beings, contemptuous toward lower forms of life.

This is a book about Wilson’s plea to preserve the biosphere of Earth by sectioning off and preserving from human development fully half the land area of the entire planet. This isn’t as far-fetched as it might seem: Rosling’s 2018 book (more on that soon) notes that the percentage of that land surface that’s been protected has grown from basically 0%, in 1900, to nearly 15%, in 2016. (Getting ahead of myself but: the dying off of small towns and the concentration of humanity into cities is a *good thing*, because that’s less likely to destroy the planet’s biosphere, upon which humanity’s future depends.)

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Michael Benson’s SPACE ODYSSEY


This is not my usual methodical summary with comments, but rather a compilation of random bits that stood out, as I read this book, without taking notes.

  • I was struck again and again by how key plot points, or techniques of special effects, or composers whose music was used, were accidental discoveries or were decided serendipitously.
    • The idea of HAL reading lips was suggest by an associate producer, to solve a plot point.
    • The notion of knocking the wine glass onto the floor – an incident fraught with symbology – was an offhand suggestion by the actor.
    • The colorized landscapes (of Scotland, and Monument Valley) used a technique they came to call ‘Purple Hearts,’ an accidental discovery that film stock recorded in three basic colors could be recolored randomly in restoration.
    • At one point Kubrick all but buys out a local record shop, playing bits of hundreds of LPs for appropriate tracks; but Gyorgi Ligeti was heard by chance by his wife on the radio.
    • That the tiger’s eyes reflected light was an accidental effect of the front-projection technique used in the Dawn of Man scenes.
  • Similarly: work would proceed on one part of the film, even as the overall story was undetermined, and techniques for filming other parts were undetermined. (All the 2001 era scenes with actors were filmed first; then the Dawn of Man; finally the Star Gate effects.)
  • The dimensions of the interior sets (as described in production details) are not consistent with the exterior ship Discovery (judging its size by what we see of the pod bay deck from the outside). Why is the emergency entry hatch so deep? As with so many others, the interior of Discovery is bigger inside than outside. (No doubt there’s a technical term for this.)
  • Gossip:
    • William Sylvester couldn’t get through the long take of the lunar briefing room conference; he was a junkie, and was threatened with dismissal, before he got his act together. (Even so, Kubrick didn’t get the single long take he’d wanted.)
    • Kubrick took a dislike to Carl Sagan, introduced to him by Clarke. He found Sagan “supercilious” and “patronizing” [Benson’s words] and didn’t want to see him again. (Nevertheless, Sagan took credit for one of his suggestions about the film, in his book THE COSMIC CONNECTION, that the aliens not be shown, only implied.)
    • Dan Richter, a ballet dancer who played Moonwatcher, was also a junkie – but a legal junkie, under British laws at the time, under a doctor’s supervision to administer doses.
  • I have a much better understanding of the ‘front-projection’ and ‘slit-scan’ techniques than I’ve ever had, via diagrams on pages 270 and 343.
  • The ‘pace’ of the spacecraft scenes was dictated by the movements of the stars [which shouldn’t have been moving at all] – any faster, they would have blurred, or twinkled. And so the spacecraft, e.g. the Discovery, moved at the same pace, in slightly different directions.
  • Doug Trumball, one of the key special effects wizards, was drafted and pretended to be gay to avoid it. Benson mentions that this – that homosexuality was still illegal in Britain, and the US – was the reason Clarke had relocated to Ceylon (later known as Sri Lanka), where he lived most of his life
  • Other music Kubrick liked in early edits was Mahler’s 3rd,  Vaughn Williams’ 7th, and the scherzo of Mendelsohn’s Midsummer’s Night Dream.
  • Famously, the celebrated film composer Alex North was hired to do an original score for 2001, even after Kubrick had committed himself to using Zarathustra, at least, for the opening; and North gamely composed fresh music that attempted to achieve the same effects. Ultimately, it was not used; Kubrick liked his classical tracks better, and preferred a sound design that left much of the film with no music at all. Pieces of North’s score, like everything else, are on YouTube. It’s not bad; but it’s too recognizably the Alex North music of scores for Spartacus and Cleopatra.
  • It’s impossible to know about the alternate history of the effect of that score having been used, as opposed to the classical tracks by Richard Strauss and Johann Strauss (the pieces by Khachaturian and Ligeti were far less well-known and so carried no cultural baggage). Benson captures the issue with “The Blue Danube” p358, that it “was then considered a kitschy, musty, nationalistic composition”. Elsewhere, back in Jerome Agel’s book THE MAKING OF KUBRICK’S 2001, I recall that a concern was that the piece would distract the audience with recollections of movies about Vienna.
  • Yet Benson confirms another recollection: that Kubrick, as perfectionist with the music as with anything else, “listened to about twenty-five recordings of ‘Blue Danube’ before choosing the one for Deutsche Grammophon by Herbert von Karajan, the world’s greatest conductor. It’s the kind of music that can sound terribly banal, but at its best, it’s still a magnificent thing.” P359
  • Indeed, I’ve always thought that this recording of Blue Danube is so much more precise and technical than any other I’ve ever heard. This was von Karajan’s esthetic, and it fit Kubrick’s esthetic exactly.
  • Benson spends a significant amount of time on Clarke, with the recurring theme that Clarke’s vision for the film – with introductory interviews by great scientists about the possibilities of extraterrestrial life, and with *narration* throughout the film about the state of the early man-apes, about what was going on with HAL, and so on – was gradually and eventually completely abandoned by Kubrick, who wanted a visual experience, not a verbal one. Clarke wrote endless drafts of that narration; some of this is in Clarke’s book THE LOST WORLDS OF 2001, published only a few years later in 1972. Clarke was shocked, “in tears,” by the previews of the final version he saw, without those intros and without the narration – but just as with the critics, he came around to realize what an achievement the film itself was. And Clarke’s novel version, following the release of the film by four months, ‘explained’ everything in the way he preferred. The film and the novel complement one another.
  • And there are descriptions of the harsh reactions of critics on the film’s premiere, and the walk-outs from the earliest showings, and the later revisions of opinions by critics. But the box office spoke, especially among younger viewers, as opposed to the elderly film critic crowd. 2001 was the highest box office performing film of its year. It didn’t do so well in the Oscars the following year – it was nominated in four categories, including best picture, but only won for special effects, which Kubrick had taken complete credit for.
  • Yet its assessment as a great film rose over the years, gradually, until 2001 is now ranked among the top 10, even the top 3, of various rankings of the greatest films of all time.
  • And I think a lesson here is that the classics are precisely those works that break new ground, that do new things regardless of the artistic or popular standards of the time, that upset people at first. And those works – like Melville’s Moby Dick, which is compared to 2001 on a couple grounds in this book – take a while to be recognized.
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C.P. Snow’s The Two Cultures, The Third Culture, Big History, and 2001

C.P. Snow’s “The Two Cultures” is the famous 1959 lecture and then essay about the divide between the scientific community and the literary ‘intellectual’ community, an essay much referenced in books about the acceptance of science in modern culture (with, for example, several references in Steven Pinker’s ENLIGHTENMENT NOW, which are what prompted me to buy a copy of Snow and read it for myself). The essay comes in a little book, shown here in a 2013 printing just 58 pages long, that includes additional topics.

The principal essay is short and to the point. The Wikipedia entry for the lecture, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Two_Cultures, quotes a key passage, about how traditional intellectuals have no idea what the second law of thermodynamics might be about, nor care; yet would consider a scientist who’d never read Shakespeare to be uncultured, even uneducated. He notes p4 that “at one pole we have the literary intellectuals, who incidentally while no one was looking took to referring to themselves as ‘intellectuals’ as though there were no others.” As if the work of scientists like Rutherford or Dirac or Einstein was not intellectual.

Snow describes how he was trained as a scientist, but had become a writer, and so had interactions and friends among both groups. He discusses how scientists are thought unreasonably optimistic and unaware of the human condition, while the literary intellectuals lack concern about the future and would deny the progress of science and technology. An apt quote, p15:

They still like to pretend that the traditional culture is the whole of ‘culture’, as though the natural order didn’t exist. As thought the exploration of the natural order was of no interest either in its own value or its consequences. As though the scientific edifice of the physical world was not, in its intellectual depth, complexity and articulation, the most beautiful and wonderful collective work of the mind of man.

There are worlds of commentary about this essay, easily found via Google, from critical responses at the time, to later re-evaluations, to references in contemporary books.

But I’ll make a couple points myself anyway: Snow lays the situation primarily at the English educational policies of the time, especially those of Cambridge and Oxford, with their high degrees of specialization. He notes that the educational systems in the US, and USSR, are not so severe. He discusses how the ‘intellectuals’ barely noticed or understood the industrial revolution (Ibsen among writers being an exception), how the poor gravitated toward the factories to improve their lot (a point Pinker makes also, to those who criticize the industrial revolution). And in the final essay of this slim book, he realizes how the industrialized nations are getting richer (and how ‘intellectuals’ don’t appreciate this rate of change [that rate of change being a central theme of science fiction]) and how the poor nations have noticed and will take any help they can get – and if the West doesn’t help them, Russia will. And so the gap between the cultures must close.

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This theme about the problems of specialization we’ve seen in essays on SF from the same general era as Snow’s, e.g. three separate essays in Bretnor’s MODERN SCIENCE FICTION (here http://www.markrkelly.com/Blog/2018/01/19/sfnf-bretnor-modern-science-fiction/).

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Since Snow there have been a couple prominent developments in this conflict, one relatively recent.

First, the gap between the cultures — at least among the curious lay public — began to shrink, I think, as books by scientists written for the general audience became popular, especially THE COSMIC CONNECTION and COSMOS by Carl Sagan, Hawking’s A BRIEF HISTORY OF TIME, and E.O. Wilson’s ON HUMAN NATURE, not to mention numerous works by Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould and others.

So by 1995 editor (and agent) John Brockman could publish an anthology of essays, THE THIRD CULTURE, claiming that the culture had indeed shifted, from the literary, classical, and philosophical ‘intellectuals’ to “those scientists and other thinkers in the empirical world who, through their work and expository writing, are taking the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering visible the deeper meanings our lives, redefining who and what we are” (p17). Brockman explores this idea in his introduction, and then fills the book with essays by representative key thinkers on various themes: evolution, the mind, cosmic origins, algorithms, and the singularity. Contributors include Gould, Dawkins, Margulis, Minsky, Dennett, Pinker, Penrose, Rees, Smolin, and many others, and what’s fun is how Brockman lets his contributors comment on each other’s essays. Even as the modern scientific intellectuals agree on the large-scale outlines of evolution and cosmology, they emphasize varying parts, bicker about the importance of details. That’s how science works.

And in 1998 E.O. Wilson published one of his most ambitious books, CONSILIENCE, subtitled “The Unity of Knowledge,” that attempted to show how recent understandings in the physical and biological sciences could illuminate issues in the social sciences, in art, in ethics, in religion. (Meanwhile, as one of Brockman’s contributors points out, p27, when traditional intellectual Mortimer Adler compiled a ‘Synopticon’ index, his entry on consciousness referenced Aquinas, Montaigne, and Aristotle.)

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Second, more recently, a movement known as ‘Big History’ has appeared, which attempts to put all of human history into the context of cosmological history – everything from the Big Bang, to the origin of stars and planets, to the development of life on Earth, the evolution of mankind, and eventually the growth of culture and modern human history. This grand scope was written about at least since Bill Bryson’s A SHORT HISTORY OF NEARLY EVERYTHING in 2005 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Short_History_of_Nearly_Everything), and more technically by David Christian in MAPS OF TIME in 2004, with its sections that steadily zoom in on narrowing, more recent slices of the cosmic timeline. The movement has crystallized into a “Big History Project” led by Christian, with a website (https://www.bighistoryproject.com/home), a TED talk, a comprehensive coffee table book, endorsements by Bill Gates, and a forthcoming narrative account by Christian called ORIGIN STORY (https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0316392006/), which of course I’ve preordered.

And of course, the opening credits of the TV series “The Big Bang Theory” is big history in popular culture.

The point about ‘big history’ is that it places the history that the traditional ‘intellectuals’ know about, the art and literature and philosophy of the past two or three thousand years, into a grander context, one only discovered and appreciated in the last 50-75 years. If you want to know what we know about the age and extent of the universe, or about human consciousness and the mind, don’t look to Mortimer Adler’s references; look to Stephen Hawking and Brian Greene, to Daniel Dennett and Steven Pinker. The best books about what collective humanity knows about the world, through systematic investigation [science], are the latest books, not the most ancient. Because the early philosophers, though their intuitive speculations are fascinating in retrospect, have turned out mostly to be wrong.

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Finally, just today, as I’m working my way a chapter at a time through Michael Benson’s history of the making of the film 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, I came across this passage that captures how science fiction is a kind of third culture, a blending of art and science, and how 2001 in particular captured that combination. P. 264-265:

At its best, science fiction takes our post-Enlightenment way of understanding the world and extrapolates, using the findings of science and projections concerning the future of technology and putting them at the service of truths expressible through fiction. By the midsixties, astronomy and astrophysics had radically expanded the universe’s dimensions, and the emerging science of paleoanthropology—a discipline rooted in Darwinism, paleontology, and biological anthropology—was starting to revolutionize our understanding of human origins. But rarely had the findings of these broad disciplines been incorporated into artistic expression. Instead, science had effectively been over here, and the arts elsewhere.

It was one of Kubrick’s and Clarke’s great achievements, and a wellspring of 2001’s lasting power and continuing significance, that they took the complex, sometimes haunting, sometimes magnificent truths revealed by modern science, polished them with all the care given an expensive piece of Zeiss glass, and used them as a window to view the human condition within that staggeringly vast universe. Projecting back into the past, 2001’s authors examined human origins. They weren’t particularly doctrinaire about it. This was fiction, not a peer-reviewed paper in the journal Nature. But they always deployed scientific research—and its miraculous offspring, technology—to define their story, refine it, and expand it to its farthest possible limits It’s how they reached the border between the known and unknown—that place science is always probing like a tongue exploring a broken tooth. It’s where they wanted to take their audience, because beyond it, sometime like magic prevails.

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Richard Feynman’s Meaning, and Being Savvy

Here’s a short book of three essays first delivered as lectures at the University of Washington in Seattle, in 1963, gathered into a book published in 1998. Feynman, of course, was a famous CalTech physicist influential for work in quantum mechanics, inventor of pictorial diagrams to describe the behavior of subatomic particles that later became known as Feynman Diagrams. He won the Nobel Prize for his work in quantum electrodynamics.

This book is subtitled “Thoughts of a Citizen-Scientist,” and the lectures addressed a lay audience, not an audience of fellow scientists or of students.

My quick take: Feynman addresses issues of science, religion, and public credulousness that are all too familiar; not much has changed from 1963 to 2018.

The first lecture, “The Uncertainty of Science,” reviews the idea of science in three aspects: as a method, as the content of its results, and as what it can produce, i.e. technology. In the method, “observation is the judge of whether something is so or not,” and exceptions test, or ‘prove,’ the rule. Science requires objectivity, and thoroughness. The more specific a rule, the better. It doesn’t matter where ideas come from, or the background of any individual scientists; relations among scientists are good. Imagination is important, yet it’s difficult to imagine something truly new, that’s consistent with all past rules and observations. Why to the laws of science change? Only when the ‘sieve’ becomes smaller. Some uncertainty always remains; doubt is not to be feared. When people wonder how one can live without certainty, Feynman responds, “how you get to know is what I want to know” p28.0

The second lecture is “The Uncertainty of Values.” We must admit we don’t know the meaning of life; the worst times of history have been when “people who believed with absolute faith and absolute dogmatism in something. And they were so serious in this matter they insisted that the rest of the world agree with them. And then they would do things that were directly inconsistent with their beliefs in order to maintain that what they said was true.” p33-34.

And so he talks about religion, reflecting on how students come to university (i.e. CalTech) and gradually give up belief in their fathers’ God. Most scientists don’t believe. Why? They most plausible idea is reflection upon learning the facts of the universe: its size, the relationship of man to animals, and so on; “Can the rest be just a scaffolding for His creation?” These scientific views “appear to be so deep and so impressive that the theory that it is all arranged as a stage for God to watch man’s struggle for good and evil seems inadequate” p39.8.

And yet moral values are not affected by loss of religious belief; they are thus independent. Yet he admits that Western civilization has two great heritages: the adventure into the unknown, and Christian ethics, and that the latter remains the source of inspiration.

(And then he trails off into a discussion of Russia and US, how the US government isn’t great, but it’s better than any other, and how Russia is backward, with discussions about Lysenko and others, and how governments should never impose any answers.)

The third lecture, “This Unscientific Age,” is a ramble in which Feynman admits he covered his planned topics in the first two lectures. So here he discusses various “uncomfortable feelings” he has about the world. Though we live in a scientific age, how few people understand even the basics of science. (It’s always been so, was my thought.)

He discusses ‘tricks’ about how to judge an idea. People who have quick answers to complex problems are dishonest — most politicians. Uncertainty again, and how we can be pretty sure about many things without being absolutely certain. E.g., how to test a supposed mind reader, at Las Vegas resorts; how experiments reading cards [he’s referring to J.B. Rhine, notoriously known a few decades ago and now mostly forgotten] became less impressive as tests were refined; how in contrast hypnotism turned out to be valid.

Flying saucers: ordinary people argue about what’s *possible*. That’s not the point; it’s whether the idea of alien spacecraft is *probable*. How the Catholic Church goes about proving a saint. How an anecdote, or one or two occurrences, prove nothing; “Otherwise you become one of these people who believe all kinds of crazy stuff and doesn’t understand the world they’re in. Nobody understands the world they’re in, but some people are better off at it than others.” p84

Some problems are due to lack of information, e.g. astrology, prayers, faith healing, Biblical prophecy: “I think it just belongs to a general lack of understanding of how complicated the world is and how elaborate and how unlikely it would be that such a thing would work.”

He visits a John Birch Society center in Altadena, which promotes tenants about “ancient principles of warfare” such as the 10th, paralysis, which the host claims is behind so much wrong in the world. It’s like paranoia; it’s impossible to disprove. Again, Feynman says, it’s about a lack of a sense of proportion. “And so it is with these people. They don’t have a sense of proportion.” p105. He humors the host by agreeing with her, to absurdity. (It’s very 2018.)

And he trails off discussing radiation from nuclear tests, the Mariner and Ranger probes, where scientists get their ideas from, Arabic science in the Middle Ages, the chaotic spelling of English, the many non-technological advances of man [i.e. humanity] such as economic systems, accounting, laws, and government organizations, future potentials of fusion and biology, and how he admires the encyclical of Pope John XXIII (i.e. what’s known as Vatican II]

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My takeaway from this book is his recurring thought that much gullibility about pseudoscience (and religion) is based on “a general lack of understanding of how complicated the world is and how elaborate and how unlikely it would be that [any such thing] would work.” A lack of a “sense of proportion.”

This aligns with the past three posts, about the value of education, about how the religiously-home-schooled teenager in Equus had nothing real to base his worldview on, and about the susceptibility of some to conspiracy theories and intuitive physics.

I’ve been thinking of the word ‘savvy’ as the quality of having this “sense of proportion” and this “understanding of how complicated the world is,” and, currently, the added understanding of the cognitive biases that have been identified in the past couple three decades, which cause one to reassess anything one might ‘believe’ to think about why such a belief might be held, as opposed to whether it is a valid belief, or understanding, of the world as it actually exists. I’ll be developing this theme.

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Richard Feynman
Feynman diagram
Simple English Wikipedia: Feynman diagram
Second Vatican Council

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Arguing with a Flat Earther

Vox: How to argue with flat-earthers, subtitled, “But not necessarily convince them.”

People committed to the belief that the Earth is flat (or that the universe was created 6000 years ago) will have answers to all your challenges, all your supposed evidence. Partly this is motivated reasoning — to find fault with anything doesn’t support your previous beliefs — but these arguments also illustrate the idea of ‘moving the goalposts’ — demanding higher standards for evidence than anyone would ever do in any other context of life. The writer here refers to “epistemic contextualism,” and gives an example from the sitcom Friends, “in which if there’s a hint of doubt about something — any possibility that you might be wrong — then you don’t know it at all.”

The piece makes the point that for virtually everything we “know” we’re relying on the testimony and experiences of others. There’s a deep philosophical pit here, but it’s unavoidable for getting through day to day life and at the same time having any idea about the world and universe around us. There’s also the cognitive bias that favors immediate experience — what I’ve been calling “intuitive physics” — over any evidence or demonstrate that the world works in non-intuitive ways. (For example, that heavy objects don’t fall faster than light objects.)

The flat-earther’s argument is framed in a context where you can’t set aside the possibility that there’s a pervading global conspiracy — albeit one which somehow intermittently leaves glaring errors which give them away. In that context, you don’t know the Earth is round. But in that context, nobody knows much at all and so this conclusion is simply unsurprising.

In the more everyday contexts that we care about, we can rely on testimony. We can rely on the fact that every educated physicist, cartographer, and geographer never pauses to think the earth might be flat. And we are correct to rely on these things. If it was incorrect, we’d never get treated at hospitals — for in a context where we can’t trust the established laws of physics, how could we trust the judgments of medical science?

The process of learning how to judge the world around us and not succumb to intuitive physics and conspiracy theories takes some basic education to ground it — as in the quote from “Equus” in the previous post. And as echoed in the Richard Feynman lectures I just read (next post).

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Equus, part 2

Scene 25. The psychiatrist, concerning the worship of a 17-year-old stable boy raised in isolation by his religious mother:

I only know it’s the core of his life. What else has he got? Think about him. He can hardly read. He knows no physics or engineering to make the world real for him. No paintings to show him how others have enjoyed it. No music except for television jingles. No history except tales from a desperate mother. No friends. Not one kid to give him a joke, or make him know himself more moderately. He’s a modern citizen for whom society doesn’t exist.

This pairs with the previous post.

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Steven Pinker on Knowledge and Education

From Steven Pinker’s ENLIGHTENMENT NOW, chapter 16, Knowledge, p233:

The supernova of knowledge continuously redefines what it means to be human. Our understanding of who we are, where we came from, how the world works, and what matters in life depends on partaking of the vast and ever-expanding store of knowledge. Though unlettered hunters, herders, and peasants are fully human, anthropologists often comment on their orientation to the present, the local, the physical. To be aware of one’s country and its history, of the diversity of customs and beliefs across the globe and through the ages, of the blunders and triumphs of past civilizations, of the microcosms of cells and atoms and the macrocosmsm of planets and galaxies, of the ethereal reality of number and logic and pattern — such awareness truly lift us to a higher plane of consciousness. It is a gift of belonging to a brainy species with a long history.

p235, on the vindication of the Enlightenment:

So much changes when you get an education! You unlearn dangerous superstitions, such as that leaders rule by divine right, or that people who don’t look like you are less than human. You learn that there are other cultures that are as tied to their ways of life as you are to yours, and for now better or worse reason. You learn that charismatic saviors have led their countries to disaster. You learn that your convictions, no matter how heartfelt or popular, may be mistaken. You learn that there are better and worse ways to live, and that other people and other cultures may know things that you don’t. No least, you learn that there are ways of resolving conflicts without violence. All these epiphanies militate against knuckling under the rule of an autocrat or joining a crusade to subdue and kill your neighbors. Of course, none of this wisdom is guaranteed, particularly when authorities promulgate their own dogmas, alternative facts, and conspiracy theories — and, in a backhanded compliment to the power of knowledge, stifle the people and ideas that might discredit them.

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Kingsley Amis, NEW MAPS OF HELL

Next in my series of reading nonfiction books about science fiction, proceeding in roughly chronological order, is this short book of six essays, originally presented as lectures at Princeton in 1959 and collected into book form in 1960. It’s by an author who was at the time well known outside SF for a couple three satirical novels (e.g. LUCKY JIM), but had not written any SF himself. (Later, he would, an acclaimed alternate history novel called THE ALTERATION, which won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award in 1977, http://www.sfadb.com/John_W_Campbell_Memorial_Award_1977, over Frederik Pohl and Kate Wilhelm.) Because of his appearance as an outsider passing judgment on SF, as numerous notorious magazine essayists had done in the 1950s, Amis is quick to advise, in his very first sentence, that he’d been a devotee of the field since the age of 12. So he wasn’t a novice, or an unsympathetic outsider prepared to express snobbery about SF.

On the other hand, his discussions show such marked attention for certain authors, especially Frederik Pohl and Robert Sheckley, with barely passing mentions of others, like Isaac Asimov and Robert A. Heinlein, that you have to wonder whether his reading of the field was really thorough, or whether his tastes were so specific that he misrepresented the field as it has become to be known. Not necessarily relevant, but SFE advises that Amis was assisted by one Mark Rose (http://www.sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/rose_mark), a UC Santa Barbara academic who later wrote his own book, ALIEN ENCOUNTERS, published in 1981. I have that book too; it has more references in its index to Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein, than to Pohl or Sheckley.

(I do not have a first edition of this book; I have the 1961 Ballantine paperback edition, shown in the pic, with its Richard Powers cover. I bought it used in 1978 and have read it twice now, so it’s about to fall apart.)

So then. Amis’ six lectures/chapters run thusly:

1, Starting Points. He compares SF to jazz, in that each form is somewhat disreputable, yet has a devoted audience. He defines SF as “that class of prose narrative treating of a situation that could not arise in the world we know, but which is hypothesized on the basis of some innovation in science or technology, or pseudo-science or pseudo-technology, whether human or extra-terrestrial in origin.” Then he discusses some of the very early examples of SF, as cited in L. Sprague de Camp’s SF HANDBOOK (read just previously and discussed here), but dismisses most for their “accidental similarities” to the modern genre; he might include Gulliver, but the first real SF writers were Verne, even with his bad writing and implausible themes, and Wells, who established several basic categories of SF, and wrote it for its own sake, not as allegory or satire.

2, The Situation Today. Gernsback, 1926, and how SF grew along with two adjacent fields: fantasy, and space opera. He describes the latter with reference to BEMs, van Vogt, Haggard, and Burroughs. Early SF was barely literate (he provides examples) and hidden behind lurid magazine covers. Now, in 1959, there are some 20 magazines, and 150-200 books each year. He describes the contents of a typical magazine, and then in detail the contents of the October 1958 Astounding, noting that all the stories involve some kind of moral concern and commit no grave offenses of style. Astounding has 100,000 subscribers, and the readers are attentive, in its letter columns. He discusses clubs, conventions, types of readers, types of writers; mentions SF in movies and TV briefly. And concludes that SF’s importance is that it is “a means of dramatizing social inquiry, as providing a fictional mode in which cultural tendencies can be isolated and judged.”

3, New Light on the Unconscious. He begins to examine SF (and fantasy) for how it reveals the wishes, hopes, and fears of its writers and audience – not the ideas of SF themselves, but the emotions behind them. First subject is sex: not much in SF, though in fantasy he discusses Charles Finney’s “The Circus of Dr. Lao” and two stories by Bradbury, “The Man Upstairs” and “Skeleton”. (Readers familiar with these works will note they are not about sex at all, per se, but about various horrors of the flesh which were perhaps the only ways writers could allude to sexual matters in the ‘40s and ‘50s; stories actually about sex would become frequent in SF within the next decade following Amis’ book.) Then, issues of doom, the end of the human race: stories by Clarke, Sheckley, Brown, Pohl, Bradbury, Heinlein. The dangers of technology: PKD, Sturgeon. And that theme’s counterpart, the nostalgia for a simpler past, as even in Anderson’s BRAIN WAVE but especially in the works of Simak, Wyndham, and Brown. He spends two or three pages on a story, “Of Missing Persons,” whose author he doesn’t even mention (it’s by Jack Finney). [This story evokes several Twilight Zone episodes on similarly nostalgic themes.]

He notes that in SF going into space isn’t about escape (alluding to the common charge that SF is escape fiction); it’s about being part of a larger positive goal of mankind to explore the universe. He discusses how SF has confidence, almost complacency, about the future; scientists are never at fault, but are always saving the day despite the politicians. There aren’t many artists in SF, and not much religion, but discusses those few (and famous) religious stories by Blish, Boucher, Asimov, and del Rey (and in a footnote, Miller’s CANTICLE). SF’s religious impulse seems more present in stories about super-intelligence or super-moral aliens; again Simak, with a long example.

4, Utopias 1. Sf as an instrument of social diagnosis and warning. Sex again: Wylie’s DISAPPEARANCE; works by Charles Eric Maine and John Wyndham. Colonization: works by Katherine MacLean and Poul Anderson. And politics: Simak, Heinlein, Pohl, Knight, Tenn. Van Vogt’s Null A, and Tenn’s Null P. Another Sheckley example, at length. And then a discussion of Bradbury, from one unnamed, to “Usher II”, to FAHRENHEIT 451, which Amis says is in ways superior to Orwell’s novel.

5, Utopias 2. Economic and technological issues. FAHRENHEIT 451 again; Mrs. Montag’s indulgences and neuroses. And then he gets to Frederik Pohl, whom Amis (notoriously, in the many reviews and discussions of this book following its publication) calls “the most consistently able writer science fiction, in the modern sense, has yet produced” (p102.3 in the Ballantine pb). He discusses “The Midas Plague” at length, for its inventiveness, and uses the term “comic inferno” to describe this and similar tales: “The Wizard of Pung’s Corners”; “The Tunnel Beneath the World”. He mentions that most SF writers don’t have much range; they keep plowing the same themes over and over, and then claims Pohl & Kornbluth’s THE SPACE MERCHANTS as having “many claims to being the best science-fiction novel so far.” (This was 1959.)

He cites Edmund Crispin to generalize that characters in SF are usually unexceptional, so as not to detract from the story, which is usually about human beings and other things, not about how human beings interact among themselves. And how SF is not so concerned with thematic resolution, as about identifying problems.

6, Prospects. Cosmic disasters are less popular than before, though he discusses John Christopher’s THE DEATH OF GRASS. He discusses Philip Latham’s “The Xi Effect” as an example of a story in which the idea is hero, and how SF is better at short length, while too many novels are padded. Among the few truly successful novels are Ward Moore’s BRING THE JUBILEE and Hal Clement’s MISSION OF GRAVITY. He discusses stories by Katherine MacLean, Poul Anderson, Chad Oliver.

He draws to conclusions. SF needs to consolidate what it already has. Bring sex into focus — but not with love stories. Avoid the horrible humor (citing Bretnor’s Feghoots). The field needs writers who are less rushed by deadlines, in order to write and revise more carefully. And it needs new authors who are not unfamiliar with general literature. (As with stories about sex, these would arrive in spades within the following decade.) And it needs fewer cranks, citing Campbell, Bretnor, van Vogt, and Hubbard. Some of this is happening, and he notes Golding’s LORD OF THE FLIES and a story by George P. Elliott as being SF stories by outsiders not identified as SF.

Finally, on the value of science fiction:

• “a medium in which our society can criticize itself, and sharply.” (e.g. how only in SF is the advertising industry so criticized)
• “a form of writing which is interested in the future, which is ready, as I put it earlier, to treat as variables what are usually taken to be constants, which is set on tackling those large, general, speculative questions that ordinary fiction so often avoids.”
• And in the final lines, how we “could do with more, not less, of that habit of mind which will look beyond the attempted solution of problems already evident to the attempted formulation of problems not yet distinguishable. That is the path which science fiction, in its faltering way, is just beginning to tread, and if it can contrive to go on moving in that direction, it will not only have secured its future, but may make some contribution to the security of our own.”

\\

Given the book’s slightly disreputable reputation, I liked it better reading it again than I thought I would. I like the way Amis identifies the themes and motivations that underlie much SF (while being aware that much has changed since he wrote). He’s aware of previous commentators and is willing to disagree with them.

My biggest issue with the book, though, is its random selection of works cited. Amis clearly sees SF as most interesting for its satirical and dystopian values, thus his valuation of Frederik Pohl, and so cites his work and Robert Sheckley’s to a degree unwarranted by the judgement of history, or even common assessment of the time. Both were significant writers – indeed, Pohl took a break with editing during most of the 1960s, then came back as a more mature writer in the 1970s with GATEWAY and many others that followed, almost a book a year for some 20 years – but not as popular or as highly regarded as were Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein, at the time. Furthermore, Amis often cites obscure stories to make some point, sometimes without bothering to mention their titles, or authors. This is cherry-picking, not a fair assessment of the field as it existed at the time.

There is also the occasional issue of Amis’ prose style, which is at times rotund; his background is literary, perhaps academic. He often avoids making some plain statement in preference to wrapping it in several layers of qualification. Here’s a sample from the last page, embedding one of the conclusions cited above:

…one is grateful that we have a form of writing which is interested in the future, which is ready, as I put it earlier, to treat as variables what are usually taken to be constants, which is set on tackling those large, general, speculative questions that ordinary fiction so often avoids. This is no less true when all allowance has been made for the shock and pain felt by some when they find these questions answered in a way that does much less than justice to their complexity. Most answers to anything are overwhelmingly likely to be crude, and I cannot bring myself to believe that the most saturating barrage of crude answers really menaces the viability of the sensitive and intelligent answer; if that were the way the world worked, it would long since have stopped working altogether. But perhaps this is just an instance of my own sentimental, science-fictional optimism, so I will go on to observe as coldly as possible that I must not be taken as implying that every writer of science fiction is hopelessly limed in crudity.

The main value of this book is that it was the first example of how science fiction was taken seriously by a literary figure who was respected outside SF.

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