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.

Posted in Personal history | Comments Off on Intro

Lots of Links, Two Lists, and a Few Comments: Republican Delusion and Denial

Sean McElwee at Rolling Stone, Six Studies That Show Everything Republicans Believe is Wrong

Subtitle: “It’s time for the right wing to stop lying about the minimum wage, taxes, global warming and more”

The great 20th-century economist John Maynard Keynes has been widely quoted as saying, “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” Sadly, in their quest to concentrate economic and political power in the hands of the wealthiest members of society, today’s Republicans have held the opposite position – as the evidence has piled up against them, they continue spreading the same myths. Here are six simple facts about the economy that Republicans just can’t seem to accept:

(Writers of newspaper stories and magazine articles don’t write their own headlines; the editors do, and sometimes oversell the story. In this case, the essay is limited to items about the economy.) The article is free, so I’ll just list the six items. The statements are what the writer claims are true, while Republican believe the opposite

  1. The Minimum Wage Doesn’t Kill Jobs.
  2. The Stimulus Created Millions of Jobs.
  3. Taxing The Rich Doesn’t Hurt Economic Growth.
  4. Global Warming is Caused by Humans.
  5. The Affordable Care Act is Working.
  6. Rich people are no better than the rest of us.

Items like the last one overlap with the results of the last few decades of psychological research, e.g. the widespread belief that poor or the homeless are that way not through bad circumstances but through their own laziness. (As in those David McRaney books, e.g. reviewed here.) Studies show that simply isn’t true, and for conservatives to believe that it is true seems, to me, to find some convenient circumvention for what their Jesus counseled them to do.


Here are a bunch of other links I’ll just list by headline and subtitle, for now.

Washington Post: conservative writer Max Boot: The longer Trump stays in office, the crazier the GOP becomes. (Online title: Republicans, Not Democrats, Are the Party Controlled by Extremists.)

Salon via AlterNet: Chauncey DeVega: ‘Mass delusion’: Why Trump’s followers believe their leader has given their lives meaning

Salon, Amanda Marcotte: Trump’s big lies reveal a truth: Right-wing science denial was never about ignorance, just cruelty. Subtitle: “Conservatives have been gaslighting the public about science for decades. Now we’re reaping the consequences”

Salon, Heather Digby Parton: Is Donald Trump mostly evil or mostly ignorant? Bob Woodward’s book offers an answer: Both. Subtitle: “If Trump’s calculated dithering on the coronavirus was obviously malevolent, his foreign policy is just moronic.”

Salon, Amanda Marcotte: Trump’s claim he didn’t want “panic” is laughable — he wants it focused on imaginary threats. Subtitle: Trump doesn’t want “panic” over 190,000 dead — but he’s begging voters to panic over antifa invading “the suburbs”.

Alternet, Alex Henderson: 19 years after 9/11, America’s biggest terrorist threat is far-right white supremacists who love Trump.

The Atlantic, Tom Nichols (author of The Death of Expertise, reviewed here): This Republican Party Is Not Worth Saving. Subtitle: “No one should ever get a second chance to destroy the Constitution.”

And along the same lines, two pieces by the same writer at Washington Post, Jennifer Rubin:

It’s not just Trump. All Republicans must go. And Seven reasons to vote every Republican out of office

What are the seven reasons? She writes paragraphs of descriptions, ending with these summary points:

  1. Republicans facilitated corruption.
  2. Republicans thereby enabled Trump’s abuses of power.
  3. Republicans subverted U.S. national security.
  4. Republicans have supported a commander in chief unfit to lead men and women in uniform.
  5. Republicans have thereby helped foment racial division and violence.
  6. In short, Republicans have put their own political survival above the lives of Americans.
  7. Republicans have thus helped undermine the central attributes of democracy — free and fair elections, and the peaceful transfer of power.


There is no doubt that if President Barack Obama had committed any of these offenses and Democrats had been as derelict in their constitutional and moral duties as Republicans, the entire right-wing media and political universe would have called for Obama’s impeachment and removal, and for the defeat of every spineless member of his party. Over and over again, Republicans’ hunger to retain power at all costs has triumphed over their obligations to their fellow citizens. They have put Americans’ lives and the nation’s democracy itself at risk. In doing so, they have lost the moral authority to hold power. All of them.

It seems that Republicans are the party of delusion and denial, and they will lead the US, if they stay in charge, to its destruction, or at least diminution in world affairs, setting the stage of dominance by… China?

I could add my standard disclaimer along the lines that, while not all Republicans are deluded and denialists (or racists, or science-deniers, etc. etc.), those who are deluded and denialists, ideologues along these lines, seems to be Republicans.

Enough for today.

Posted in Politics | Comments Off on Lots of Links, Two Lists, and a Few Comments: Republican Delusion and Denial

Links and Comments: Speaking Fox; Ideology and Lies; Fear and Paranoia

It’s difficult to get away from the current crisis, and threat.

The Atlantic, Megan Garber: Do You Speak Fox?. Subtitle: How Donald Trump’s favorite news source became a language

Political theorists, over the years, have looked for metaphors to describe the effects that Fox—particularly its widely watched opinion shows—has had on American politics and culture. They’ve talked about the network as an “information silo” and “a filter bubble” and an “echo chamber,” as an “alternate reality” constructed of “alternative facts,” as a virus on the body politic, as an organ of the state. The comparisons are all correct. But they don’t quite capture what the elegies for Fox-felled loved ones express so efficiently. Fox, for many of its fans, is an identity shaped by an ever-expanding lexicon: mob, PC police, Russiagate, deep state, MSM, MS-13, socialist agenda, Dems, libs, Benghazi, hordes, hoax, dirty, violent, invasion, open borders, anarchy, liberty, Donald Trump. Fox has two pronouns, you and they, and one tone: indignation. (You are under attack; they are the attackers.) Its grammar is grievance. Its effect is totalizing. Over time, if you watch enough Fox & Friends or The Five or Tucker Carlson or Sean Hannity or Laura Ingraham, you will come to understand, as a matter of synaptic impulse, that immigrants are invading and the mob is coming and the news is lying and Trump alone can fix it.


Salon, Amanda Marcotte: How anti-choice propaganda trained Republicans to accept Trump’s coronavirus denialism. Subtitle: Trump’s new medical adviser peddles a familiar model of deceit: Wrap lies and right-wing ideology in a lab coat.

Donald Trump didn’t like what the experts were telling him about the coronavirus pandemic, so he found a guy with “Dr.” in front of his name who will tell the president the bedtime stories he wants to hear. Dr. Scott Atlas isn’t an expert in infectious disease or epidemiology, as are coronavirus task force advisers Dr. Deborah Birx and Dr. Anthony Fauci, whom he has pretty much usurped. Atlas is a radiologist and, more importantly, a senior fellow at the far-right bad-idea incubator known as the Hoover Institution (previously home to the infamous prediction that the U.S. death toll from the COVID-19 pandemic would be around 5,000).

According to the New York Times and the Washington Post, Atlas — who apparently caught Trump’s eye the way so many of his advisers do, by peddling BS on Fox News — is ready and willing to say all sorts of medically unsound things that just happen to align with everything Trump wants to believe about the coronavirus. So Atlas has risen rapidly as a power player and is reportedly even getting venerable institutions like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to echo his unscientific beliefs.


Drilling in to the key issue:

The Atlantic, Peter Wehner: Why Trump Supporters Can’t Admit Who He Really Is. Subtitle: Nothing bonds a group more tightly than a common enemy that is perceived as a mortal threat.

This is just the latest installment in a four-year record of shame, indecency, incompetence, and malfeasance. And yet, for tens of millions of Trump’s supporters, none of it matters. None of it even breaks through. At this point, it appears, Donald Trump really could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose his voters.

Still, in the minds of Trump’s supporters lingers the belief that a Biden presidency would usher in a reign of terror. Many of them simply have to believe that. Justifying their fealty to a man who is so obviously a moral wreck requires them to turn Joe Biden and the Democratic Party into an existential threat. The narrative is set; the actual identity of the nominee is almost incidental.

A powerful tribal identity bonds the president to his supporters. As Amy Chua, the author of Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations, has argued, the tribal instinct is not just to belong, but also to exclude and to attack. “When groups feel threatened,” Chua writes, “they retreat into tribalism. They close ranks and become more insular, more defensive, more punitive, more us-versus-them.”

That works both ways. Fear strengthens tribalistic instincts, and tribalistic instincts amplify fear. Nothing bonds a group more tightly than a common enemy that is perceived as a mortal threat. In the presence of such an enemy, members of tribal groups look outward rather than inward, at others and never at themselves or their own kind.

All about fear, or rather, paranoia.

Posted in Politics, Psychology | Comments Off on Links and Comments: Speaking Fox; Ideology and Lies; Fear and Paranoia

How These Projects Are Proceeding; Status; Word Counts

Projects. I’ve just edited this to change two targets end-dates from 2019 to 2020.

It would be fair to imagine that I’ve gotten more done this year on my various projects than I otherwise would due to the pandemic and the shut-in orders, but that’s not exactly true. I’m retired and stay at home all week anyway. What’s changed is that my partner is working from home four days a week, and so he’s here in the house most of the time. That hasn’t affected me very much; when he’s “working” he does in fact sit on the sofa with his laptop logged into his worksite remotely, often with headphones on to take phone calls or participate in teleconferences. So his presence doesn’t much affect my daily activity. At the same time, given that we’re supposed to stay at home as much as possible, both of us are home most of the time even on weekends, times when a year ago we might have gone shopping, to the gym, to a movie, on a hike, or occasional special trips to museums and whatnot. (We still do hikes when the weather permits.) Which means I get some of my work done even on weekends, that previously with small exceptions had been given over to spending time with him.

(Fortunately, even on weekends, my partner mostly finds things to do on his laptop; he doesn’t turn on the TV and watch it all day. That would drive me crazy.)

On the other hand, the pandemic and its threat to my personal health – I am now 65 and do in fact have a mild heart condition (occasional atrial fibrillation) – has perhaps sharpened my focus and my determination to finish some of these projects that I’ve been working on for years. So here’s where we are. expansions:

Aside from routine updates of awards data, the goal of is to post a set of ranked lists of novels and short fiction, and a timeline displaying the top ranking works. I had drafts of all these done a full year ago, but then I decided I needed more anthology data. And that interim project grew and grew. I thought I was nearly done earlier this year, until I realized that what I’d done thus far was essentially a history of sf/f/h anthologies, or even of the fields through anthologies, with one big exception. That was I had ignored original anthologies, since my motive for compiling anthology data was to compile reprint data for classic stories. So I decided to compile original anthologies, especially series and those by major editors, and that took several more months, but the result now is that the Anthologies section of is a semi-independent section of the site in its own right. (Also, as the months went on, I spent several hundred dollars buying physical copies, via Abebooks, of key books I didn’t have, for the sake of the photos on each group page. And then when all was compiled, I did an audit over several weeks to resolve errors in author names and story titles, combine multiple records for the same titles that had crept into place, and so on. For the sake of accurate reprint counts for the stories, and also to avoid obvious duplicate entries on the Name pages.)

So the expanded Anthologies section of, which isn’t “complete” in any way, just cut off for now, took a full year to finish. I’m now taking a break from the sfadb project to work other things. But a key metric is this: on the 118 pages to various groups of anthologies, the descriptions on those pages total right about 30,000 words. (This would be, oh, some 50 pages in a typical book.)

Initial reactions to the expanded Anthologies section included emails and Facebook posts pointing out individual anthologies I’d missed. I updated the Intro to that sections to explain: I missed thousands and thousands! I only compiled about 1400 anthologies, out of over 20,000 indicated at

Given that I finished drafts of the rankings and timeline a year ago, I’d like to think I can incorporate this new anthology data and finalize all those pages in relatively short order. It would be nice to finish them this year, since it would be 20 years since I first conceived this project. But these things always take longer than I expect.

My Trek Season 1 Essays

After I commented on a Facebook post about one early Trek episode a couple days ago, with links to my posts about them (that got several Likes!), I wondered, how many words did I write in all those episode reviews of Trek’s 1st season, back in 2017? ( I did a random sample and extrapolated: a couple thousand words each for 29 episodes, plus some sidebar essays; some 60,000 words. I still plan to get around to seasons 2 and 3.

Memoirs, i.e. Family Pics and Personal Narrative

Before this year, I’d written some 17,600 words of family history: posts about family genealogy, recalling the two Apple Valley houses, and so on. The pandemic this year provided a new sense or urgency to get this done. And by now, it is, mostly; what remains is linking the various posts and pages into a coherent structure, and scanning and posting a bunch more pics. Looking back at the work done this year, not all yet posted, I’ve written 57,000 words of memoirs. The total, some 75,000 words, would comprise a book of some 200-250 pages depending on layout and font size. (Not that I think they will ever be published as a book.)

Black Gate Summary-Reviews

I’m gratified that this year I’ve found a gig to write for a wide audience (my blog doesn’t reach much of an audience). Black Gate editor John O’Neill and I have different takes on what I’m doing; that’s OK. John likes my columns as nostalgia pieces for his older audience about early SF books they read as teenagers. My motivation is to reexamine these early SF novels in light of later works and especially the current understanding of science as captured in my Provisional Conclusions and ongoing posts. In a sense, every one of these columns is a thematic draft for my “Book,” about which I’ve done several blog posts of notes but otherwise have no substantial start of. Anyway, the Black Gate columns range from 2000-5000 words, and there have been 18 so far. So, around some 50,000 words.


So I’m being fairly productive in my retirement, over the last almost 8 years. And I plan to keep chugging along.

This post is just over 1000 words. Written in about an hour. I always revisit posts the next day to correct and polish. (17sep20: done.)

Posted in Personal history | Comments Off on How These Projects Are Proceeding; Status; Word Counts

Notes for the Book: Deutsch on Reality

I’m still, intermittently, reading my way through David Deutsch’s The Fabric of Reality, and today came across these passages, that echo and underscore my thoughts in Notes for the Book: Hierarchy of Knowledge and Human Affairs. I said in that post the cumulative knowledge of hundreds and thousands of years of human investigation is in full view of anyone who cares to look. In books, at Wikipedia, in TED talks, etc etc.

Deutsch makes the crucial observation that the facts of the universe are visible right there in the universe itself, for anyone to see.

Page 95, recalling Galileo:

Every part of the Earth’s surface, on every clear night, for billions of years, has been deluged with evidence about the facts and laws of astronomy. For many other sciences evidence has similarly been on display, to be viewed more clearly in modern times by microscopes and other instruments. Where evidence is not already physically present, we can bring it into existence with devices such as lasers and pierced barriers — devices which it is open to anyone, anywhere and at any time, to build. And the evidence will be the same, regardless of who reveals it. The more fundamental a theory is, the more readily available is the evidence that bears upon it (those those who know how to look)…

The self-similarity of physical reality on several levels is what enables knowledge:

The very existence of general, explanatory theories implies that disparate objects and events are physically alike in some ways. The light reaching us from distant galaxies is, after all, only light, but it looks to us like galaxies. Thus reality contains not only evidence, but also the means (wuch as our minds, and our artefacts) of understanding it. There are mathematical symbols in physical reality. The fact that it is we who put them there does not make them any less physical. In those symbols — in our planetariums, books, films and computer memories, in our brains — there are images of physical reality at large, images not just of the appearance of objects, but of the structure of reality. There are laws and explanations, reductive and emergent. There are descriptions and explanations of the Big Bang and of subnuclear particles and processes; there are mathematical abstractions; fiction; art; morality; shadow photos; parallel universes. To the extent that these symbols, images and theories are true — that is, they resembles in appropriate respects the concrete or abstract things they refer to — their existence gives reality a new sort of self-similarity, the self-similarity we call knowledge.

(End of Chapter 4)

The universe is out there in plain view. Of course, most people are indifferent, and some people refuse to look, as did Church officials when Galileo offered to show them, in his telescope, the four moons orbiting Jupiter. Church officials knew such things couldn’t exist, because Scripture, and so refused to look.

Posted in Quotes, Science, The Book | Comments Off on Notes for the Book: Deutsch on Reality

Links and Comments: A Proposition; Why So Many Still Support Trump

Decades ago, from reading reviews of books and movies I had read and seen, I formulated a proposition that runs something like this:

There is no work of art (book, film, painting, song) so universally admired that someone, somewhere, will not hate it, and think it the worst thing ever; conversely, there is no work of art (book, film, painting, song) so universally disdained that someone, somewhere, will not think it the greatest thing ever.

Some of this is about matters of taste; some negative judgments are irrelevant because they’re off the mark (Amazon reviewers complaining about the price, not the work); some of these are matters of ignorance (all works of art exist in cultural and historical contexts, easily overlooked or misunderstood); and some of this is about the range of human personalities that respond to the world around them in such different ways.

Now I’m thinking to modulate this proposition somewhat. It’s not just that *someone* out there is a contrarian, it’s that the consensus on any particular work of art, or about anything at all, is seldom more than a slight majority. It’s like the elections where a 60% support for one candidate is considered a landslide. I might have thought a landslide is more like 95%. But no matter of taste, in art, or in politics, ever reaches that proportion.

(Aside: this is why science is, to a large degree, to be trusted: it’s not a matter of taste, or opinion. There are always matters of dispute at the very fringes of new thought and new discoveries, but there is no widespread split of opinions about physics, chemistry, evolution, cosmology, and so on. When you keep hearing about how 97% of science studies support human-caused climate changed… it’s turns out the other 3% were methodologically flawed. The Achilles Heel of science is that bad results sometime get published and give the doubters an excuse to dismiss the entire enterprise, and then to use their smartphones — based on so much science and technology than you could believe — to spread the news to their credulous friends.)

But this brings us to politics. How is it, in the face of so many years of performance by our moron (I should have a stock of other adjectives at hand) president, with his obvious lies, with his obvious mismanaging of the pandemic, do something like 40% of the entire US population still support him?? How can they think this man is worthy of being President of the United States?

This isn’t just alarming, it’s puzzling. And part of this question is, as I’ve expressed before, Is this the best conservatives can do to achieve their goals?

But let’s look a couple three articles and essays that ask this very question.

Vox, Ezra Klein (whose book Why We’re Polarized I’m reading): Can anything change Americans’ minds about Donald Trump?. Subtitle: The eerie stability of Trump’s approval rating, explained.

“If you see Trump as ‘the protector of Western Civilization,’ as Charlie Kirk called him the other night at the RNC, or the protector of white America, as Desmond King and Rogers Smith have called him, defending cherished (white Christian) American values from atheist, left-wing socialists who want to take your guns and put Cory Booker in charge of diversifying your neighborhoods, then there’s almost nothing that would make you abandon him,” Tesler continues.

I think this is key: Trump stokes fear into white Christians who fear their world is coming to an end. But again, is that the best they can do? Are there not more competent, honorable men who could accomplish their goals? Do they not realize they are acting like members of a cult, whose leader can do no wrong?


The most gullible person for conspiracy theories is, apparently, Trump.

NYT: Trump Spread Multiple Conspiracy Theories on Monday. Here Are Their Roots. A handy list.

CNN: Fact check: A guide to 9 conspiracy theories Trump is currently pushing.


Washington Post: Trump’s insulting the troops is just the latest episode of the ‘nothing matters’ presidency

Are all his supporters simply not paying attention??

Washington Post: All the Trump books agree: He’s just as bad as you think.

For people who don’t follow publishing, or book reviews, or news, there have been two or three dozen such books.

But no president has been the subject of as many books by disgruntled, disgusted, and horrified former aides and associates as Donald Trump. And more are coming.

So Trump is obviously not a very good judge of character, if so many of his associates and hired keep quitting and writing nasty book about him. How do Trumpists explain this? (I suspect they are simply not paying attention; they don’t know about all these books; all they know is Fox News and Trump rallies.)


And then there’s this, about the evangelical movement’s support of Trump.

Salon, Michael Rea: How the evangelical movement became Trump’s “bitch” — and yes, I know what that word signifies. Subtitle: As an evangelical myself, I can see how far the movement has sunk — even to betraying its own ideal of masculinity.

Four years in, people are still struggling to understand the overwhelming support for Donald Trump that has come from what should have been its least likely source: American evangelicals. They belong to a socially conservative movement that embraces traditional Christian morality and family values. Their leaders have loudly insisted, especially during the Clinton years, that the moral character of our president deeply matters. They take as their highest infallible authority a Bible whose central themes include God’s love for the poor and the vulnerable, and a demand to love one’s neighbor — even one’s enemies — to the point of great personal sacrifice.

He, by contrast, is a man whose lifestyle displays little regard for Christian morality or family values. His dishonesty and infidelity have been almost daily news items since before he took office. His reputation for sexual predation, bullying, narcissism and a host of other sins and vices antithetical to Christianity has only continued to grow since he took office. His most notable advice for interacting with half the human population is “grab ’em by the pussy”. Who could have predicted such an alliance?


What evangelicals wanted, and found, in Trump was not just a (potentially) powerful ally, but a man of a certain sort — a political strongman whose brash and swaggering demeanor made it clear not only that, but how he would wield power on their behalf.

He was a man who would “tell it like it is” — code for something like “confront people and issues aggressively, without concern for the usual norms of tact, diplomacy, respect, and concern for the feelings of others.” He would “turn over the tables” — code for something like “deliberately upset or circumvent the usual rules and protocols for getting things done in Washington in order to push his own agenda and the agenda of supporters.” In displaying this demeanor while at the same time embracing a socially conservative and superficially Christian-friendly political platform, he sent a clear message. He would deal with evangelicalism’s “oppressors” and cultural enemies in the manner of a political John Wayne, James Bond or Jack Bauer. He would be a hypermasculine tough guy, a modern day Goliath, who would fight on their side in the culture wars.

There’s more.


I think all of this gives me pause about the prospect for the human race. Or at least American civilization. All cultures go down eventually.

Posted in Politics, Science | Comments Off on Links and Comments: A Proposition; Why So Many Still Support Trump

Link and Comment: Profile of an Anti-Vaxxer

This one deserves a post of its own.

Today in Salon, a profile of a hypothetical anti-vaxxer couple, Jim and Jenny. Inside the mind of an anti-vax parent. Subtitle: A researcher who studies the anti-vaccination movement digs into the psychological profile of a typical anti-vaxxer.

Final paragraph:

Jim and Jenny’s anti-vaccine stance arose in concert with many of the human tendencies, biases, and shortcuts of thinking that we’ve discussed before. People we know are more trustworthy than people we don’t know. Statistics are less convincing than stories. Establishment authorities, such as physicians and federal agencies, engender distrust. Chemicals and substances with long and unpronounceable names can be frightening. We fear that putting things that are not natural into our bodies will make us impure. How we view ourselves and how we appear to our peers informs what we view as good parenting. Now that Jim and Jenny have been convinced they’ve done the right thing, can their minds be changed? Has someone who was anti-vaccine ever changed their mind?

This conclusion echoes themes I’ve discussed here on this blog:

  • It’s all about psychological biases, but especially about group-think, trusting your friends and community even if they’re as misinformed as you are
  • It’s about the sense of purity (cf. Jonathan Haidt)
  • People don’t change their minds from evidence (am I right?)

Also, there was something on Facebook a while ago (Anecdote! Not evidence! But telling!), which I neglected to capture the link for. The gist was, the writer told his friend about two studies that showed that evidence doesn’t change people’s minds. The friend said, I dunno, I don’t think that’s true.

Posted in Lunacy, Science | Comments Off on Link and Comment: Profile of an Anti-Vaxxer

Links and Comments: US rank in social progress; How to debate a flat earther

Are there any recent links that aren’t about Trump, or the Republicans? Well here’s one about American society in general. USA is Number One?

NYT, Nicholas Kristoff: ‘We’re No. 28! And Dropping!’. Subtitle: A measure of social progress finds that the quality of life has dropped in America over the last decade, even as it has risen almost everywhere else.

This keys off the notion of American exceptionalism, and the idea that the GDP and stock market are the ultimate measures of a nation’s welfare; authors like Hans Rosling and Rutgar Bregman have discussed these issues.

The newest Social Progress Index, shared with me before its official release Thursday morning, finds that out of 163 countries assessed worldwide, the United States, Brazil and Hungary are the only ones in which people are worse off than when the index began in 2011. And the declines in Brazil and Hungary were smaller than America’s.

“The data paint an alarming picture of the state of our nation, and we hope it will be a call to action,” Michael Porter, a Harvard Business School professor and the chair of the advisory panel for the Social Progress Index, told me. “It’s like we’re a developing country.”

The index, inspired by research of Nobel-winning economists, collects 50 metrics of well-being — nutrition, safety, freedom, the environment, health, education and more — to measure quality of life. Norway comes out on top in the 2020 edition, followed by Denmark, Finland and New Zealand. South Sudan is at the bottom, with Chad, Central African Republic and Eritrea just behind.

The United States, despite its immense wealth, military power and cultural influence, ranks 28th — having slipped from 19th in 2011. The index now puts the United States behind significantly poorer countries, including Estonia, Czech Republic, Cyprus and Greece.

The state of the stock market is misleading, even irrelevant, because most Americans don’t own stock; the stock market increasing is only an indication of increased economic inequality. And GDP, Gross domestic product, is problematic because it presumes that endless growth is good, whereas we should be thinking about sustainability in a world where growth has brought about planet-threatening climate change.

Quality of life, by the measures in the quote, should be just as important.

The United States ranks No. 1 in the world in quality of universities, but No. 91 in access to quality basic education. The U.S. leads the world in medical technology, yet we are No. 97 in access to quality health care.


And here’s this. Flat-Earthers, Anti-vaxxers, QAnon supporters — it’s never about the actual evidence. It’s about taking a stand, to defy the authorities or those elitist scientists, or demonize the politicians you don’t like, and then using motivated reasoning to defend your position, like a lawyer, not a detective or scientist. How to debate a flat-Earther. Subtitle: So, why do people believe this, and is it even worth getting into a debate over?

People who believe that the Earth is flat aren’t coming to that conclusion from the same types of observations. They, instead, believe that we are being misled and lied to, that scientists (including me) want you to believe that the Earth is round, despite its flatness.

So the question isn’t “why do people believe in a flat Earth” but rather “why do people believe in a conspiracy?” And the answer is the same reason it always is: a lack of trust.

Many people don’t trust the society around them, most notably the representatives of that society. That trust often falls even further when it comes to elite representatives of that society, which includes government officials, members of academia and scientists like me.

By claiming that the Earth is flat, people are really expressing a deep distrust of scientists and science itself.

(Some of this dovetails with the themes of the book I just posted about, Scienceblind, about how children and many adults default to their most intuitive notions of how reality works.)

I’m not sure this is quite right. First, some people do come to this conclusion by looking at selective evidence and using naive reasoning. And second, what is it scientists have done that earns mistrust by so many? Have scientists fooled you into believing the aerodynamics that makes planes fly? Have they fooled into into believing the cosmology and quantum dynamics that makes GPS devices work and the internet possible?

I think it’s deeper than that: it’s a commitment to a political or religious ideology, and the rejection of science that challenges that ideology.

Posted in Lunacy, Politics | Comments Off on Links and Comments: US rank in social progress; How to debate a flat earther

Andrew Shtulman: SCIENCEBLIND: Why Our Intuitive Theories About the World Are So Often Wrong

(Basic Books, 2017)

Here’s a book I read earlier this year and am only just now boiling my notes down into a coherent summary. (Well actually I started boiling my notes down but ended up just cleaning up the remainder, and added a summary at the top.) The subject here is supplemental to, not quite the same as, various books about cognitive errors, perceptual illusions, and so on; but it does align with those in examining ways our naïve “common sense” takes on the world are so frequently wrong. The focus in this book is how we come up with “theories” of how the world works in the first place.

The baby-faced (judging from the jacket photo) author is a professor of psychology at Occidental College (in LA), and the book has blurbs from Steven Pinker and Michael Shermer.

Going into this, I thought about the most common examples of how intuitive thinking is wrong. First, the notion that heavier objects fall faster than lighter ones. Trials would be foiled if lighter objects are subject to friction with the air, so you can see how people would think this. (Didn’t the Apollo astronauts on one trip do this demonstration in the vacuum on the Moon?) The second example is the notion that something that slides off a table, or that’s shot into the air and reaches a high point, falls straight down. We don’t take into account the object’s sideways momentum….

So to the book. Shtulman has handily provided summaries to each section capturing each chapter’s theme. Some of these intuitive theories, or misunderstanding about the real world, are features of childhood development that can be overcome; others are persistent even in adults.


  • Matter: substances are viewed as holistic and discrete, rather than particulate and divisible
  • Energy: heat, light, and sound are viewed as material substances rather than emergent properties
  • Gravity: weight is viewed as an intrinsic property rather than a relation between mass and gravity
  • Motion: viewed as a something transferred between objects, rather than an external factor that change’s an object’s motion
  • Cosmos: earth is viewed as a motionless plane orbited by the sun, rather than a sphere in orbit around the sun
  • Earth: geological features are viewed as eternal and unchanging, rather than transient and dynamic
  • Life: animals are viewed as psychological agents rather than organic machines
  • Growth: eating is viewed as a means of satiation, rather than nourishment; aging as a series of discrete changes, rather than a continuous change
  • Inheritance: parent-offspring resemblance is viewed as a consequence of nurture, rather than by a transmission of genetic information
  • Illness: disease is viewed as a consequence of imprudent or immoral behavior, rather than due to microscopic organisms
  • Adaptation: evolution is viewed as a transformation of an entire population, rather than the selective survival of subsets of a population
  • Ancestry: speciation is viewed as a linear process of direct ancestry, rather than a branching process of common ancestry

Key quote, page 126:

We form these theories because we are built to perceive the environment in ways that are useful for daily living, but these ways to not map onto the true workings of nature. … Only scientific theories draw the right distinctions and thus only scientific theories can furnish us with beliefs that are consistently accurate and broadly applicable.

The first chapter is “Why We Get the World Wrong”; the last is “How to Get the World Right.” Key points:

  • Intuitive theories are untutored explanations for how the world works. They’re often wrong. To get things right, we need to dismantle our intuitive theories and rebuild them.
  • These theories are coherent, widespread, and robust; they’re better than nothing. But scientific theories, that get the world right, help us thrive.
  • Intuitive theories “are anthropocentric, grounded in a human timescale, a human perspective, and a human sense of value and purpose.” They have common themes: they are grounded in perception; they are thing-based (whereas science carves the world into processes); they focus on objects rather than contexts. And they are narrower and shallower than their scientific counterparts.
  • Does it matter if your neighbor misunderstands science as long as they have a sense of moral virtue? Maybe it does, if clinging to intuitive theories causes you neighbor to reject vaccines (or other health advice.)
  • Science denial is unavoidable – “there is a fundamental disconnect between the cognitive abilities of individual humans and the cognitive demands of modern society.” We must take intuitive theories seriously, becoming aware of them, and overcoming them.

Now what he doesn’t address are the way these ideas affect storytelling, especially in Hollywood movies (about how car crashes always end in explosions) and especially in almost all science fiction (why the Enterprise swooshes audibly as it streaks past the camera). Perhaps this is a separate subject, but this is where I see his subject overlapping with my study of SF.


Detailed Notes:

Chapter 1: Why We Get the World Wrong

  • Milk used to be a problem; it became dangerous once carried long distances and stored for periods of time. This was solved in 1860s by pasteurization. And yet there are people now who are opting for unpasteurized milk, as if being more “natural” is automatically better. And because the idea of heat to kill germs is counterintuitive. This entails the rejection of immunology, geology, and genetics–science denial, coupled with political and religious ideologies. But at the root are intuitive theories, our untutored explanations for how the world works. And they’re often wrong. Our intuitive theory of illness, e.g., is about behavior, not microbes.
  • Intuitive theories are better than no theory at all. But they close our minds to ideas inconsistent with them.
  • This book addresses two ideas: First, we get the world wrong. Second, to get the world right, we must dismantle our intuitive theories (not just refine them) and rebuild them. Many truths are not easy to understand.
  • We learn such theories—about cause and effects—through experience. Some intuitions about motion and matter are innate; ideas about cosmology, etc., are acquired through culture. They vary in assumptions about causality. Supernatural explanations are just as substantive than natural ones.
  • They are not a dying breed; they’re a permanent fixture of human cognition—of children. E.g. concept of heat. Conceptual change; analogy with legos.
  • Some misconceptions are simply errors. Intuitive theories are coherent, widespread, and robust, 10t. Examples: dropping a bullet and shooting a gun; dropped a cannonball from a ship’s crow’s nest. Most people guess wrong about what happens to both. Our intuition about motion involves impetus, not momentum.
  • Another example: what it means to be alive…animals and plants.
  • Scientific theories never completely override intuitive ones; it’s more like a palimpsest, p14.
  • Example of a mother who thinks science is great, it’s just not right for her or her family (!). Science deniers are often skeptical of science where it seems to conflict with political or religious beliefs.
  • Intuitive theories help us get by. Scientific ones help us thrive.

Part 1: Intuitive Theories of the Physical World

Ch 2, Matter, p19

  • Humans innately perceive heft and bulk, and must be instructed in the atomic nature of matter to understand weight and volume, and therefore density.
  • Children identify matter with tangibility, so that air isn’t seen as matter.
  • Many examples of various experiment with children, even experiences with adults.

Ch 3, Energy

  • Heat was studied beginning in the mid-1600s, but experimenters thought that cold was something that moved, not a transfer of heat. This was the source-recipient theory of heat. Joseph Black in 1761 developed the “caloric” theory; a century later came the kinetic idea.
  • Intuitive theories of heat parallel historical theories. We still talk about heat as a substance that moves. We confuse heat and temperature, e.g. in situations of heat transfer: metal feels warmer that cloth even when their temperatures are the same.
  • Things are easier to think about than processes, especially emergent processes such as heat, pressure, traffic, stock prices.
  • Sound is energy; it travels through matter but it not matter. People think of it as a substance. “Extramissionist” beliefs imagine that ears send out sound waves, or eyes emit some kind of ray. Many adults hold such beliefs, even after given correct explanations. [[ Really? Never heard this before. ]]

Ch 4, Gravity

  • Infants seem to have no expectations of gravity, or of one thing supporting another, until 4 to 6 months.
  • Children expect objects to fall straight down, despite sideways motion or obstructions.
  • The simple heuristic for looking for a fallen object is to look straight down.
  • Some 7% of Americans think the moon landings were faked, and have various explanations for how it was done. But they overlook the dust in the film, dust which could hardly be rigged on wires. There are many odd questions about mass and gravity. Why don’t things on the other side of the earth fall off? Children imagine they would. What about a stone dropped down a hole through the earth? Learning about the shape of the earth has to go with learning how gravity works. Learning several new concepts at once is like building a ship at sea; you have to use what you have to start with.

Ch5, Motion

  • Medieval physicists had various theories about objects in motion, momentum or impetus, and so on. They got nowhere because impetus is not real; it’s the wrong question. Newton clarified this with his three laws. But these laws describe motion differently than how we intuit it on our own. We tend to find force and motion inseparable. We think motion requires an explanation, while rest does not. But they are two sides of the same coin.
  • Thus we imagine a marble rolled off a table will fall straight down, p76. Or that a whirled ball released from its string will still move in a curved path. All this affects how we deal with everyday objects—except, e.g., hockey players, baseball catchers, who have to learn how things actually move. And yet we find Wile E. Coyote cartoons funny because he *doesn’t* immediately drop down.
  • Impetus theory is constructed early in life. Even physics students use impetus-based reasoning, even though they can solve equations well.
  • How about simulated microworlds, as in video games? Helps only a bit. A tutorial on Newtonian principles works better. Anyway, most video games do *not* incorporate Newtonian principles.
  • Yet even hands-on experience is ineffective in teaching such abstract ideas, e.g. watching balls of different mass roll down a ramp. It takes instruction for these lessons to sink in. One way that works is via ‘bridging’ examples, e.g. to relate pressing your hand on a spring compared to a book sitting on a table. These work quite well. Preconceptions are not necessarily misconceptions. Yet some really are (like that heavy objects fall faster than lighter ones). Both sidestepping and bridging are useful strategies.

Ch6, Cosmos (i.e., what is the shape of our world? What is its place in the cosmos?)

  • Consider that many ancient people spent their entire lives within a day’s travel from home. So what ideas would they have about the world? Exmples from Egypt to Hebrew. No one considered the world might be a sphere. Even today most children have not understood this. Children learn it, but don’t readily understand it. Children drawing a picture of the earth make odd mistakes, 93m. We call theirs ‘models’ rather than theories. Some of their ideas are ‘hollow sphere’ models. There are also the flattened sphere and the dual earth models. See diagrams p96. These models are remarkable for their consistency; children devise them on their own. Or are they swayed by interviewers’ questions?
  • Understanding the earth is a sphere requires understanding why it *looks* flat. And how a person can be on the other side without falling off. Tutorials on these subjects helped children abandon their earlier models.
  • There are cultural variations in children’s models, depending on cultural myths. Australian children are aware of being on the ‘underside’ and so are anxious about the question of why they don’t fall off.
  • Other ideas require explanation: day/night, the seasons, tides, changing constellations. Children’s ideas of these depend on the models of the earth, p102. By adolescence most understand the day, the year, etc. [[ of course I suspect many adults *can’t* explain these things just because they’ve never had occasion to think about them. And now there are some actively pushing back, prioritizing their intuitive sensations of the flat earth. ]]
  • What about other ideas, like tides or lunar phases? Most think the season are due to closeness to the sun. Videos don’t seem to help. Adult misconceptions run deep. … “I never knew that Mars had a sun.”

Ch7, Earth (i.e., why do continents drift? Why do climates change?)

  • We know that the earth is molten, that the continents drift.
  • Wegener amassed much evidence for continental drift—it was a triumph of evidence over intuition, 110.2. At one point lost continents were postulated—Lemuria! Yet geologists were skeptical; what mechanism could move continents? Nongeologists still find the idea baffling. Even modern students retain their naïve understanding of the earth (as fixed and unchangeable).
  • Why? First, the data is not plain to the naked eye. They are not obvious like volcanoes are. Students with better visuospatial skills did better.
  • Second, immense amounts of time are involved. ‘Deep time’ geologists call it. Darwin wrote of this, p117. Consider order of major events in evolution of life, p118t. (Mammals appeared long before the dinosaurs went extinct, of course.) Some people think dinosaurs and humans lived at the same time—recall pop culture tv and movies. Creationists require no evidence, of course. They at first denied dinosaurs ever existed, then had to reinterpret the evidence, e.g. to suggest that Jesus rode a T.rex (!) p119.7.
  • You also need to see earth as a dynamic system to understand its climate. Most people conflate climate with weather, and with hot weather. People are more apt to accept climate change on hot days than on cold. Such misconceptions breed naïve solutions.
  • There are ‘six Americas’ in terms of how climate change concerns people. Those more dismissive are also more politically conservative. Perhaps those who dismiss it simply don’t understand what it is. Providing information about how it works helps only a little. Info on how many scientists accept it helps somewhat. That’s the consensus effect, analogous to popular fashion and peer pressure. Yet the default strategy is the guilt trip—how we’re harming the earth. Such emotional appeal often fails against our notion that the earth is eternal and indifferent to humans. It’s more correct to say that Gaia will survive, it’s humans that are killing themselves. P126.
  • Recap of these chapters, p126b. and “We form these theories because we are built to perceive the environment in ways that are useful for daily living, but these ways to not map onto the true workings of nature.” …And: “Only scientific theories draw the right distinctions and thus only scientific theories can furnish us with beliefs that are consistently accurate and broadly applicable.”
  • Well, yes, this is the bottom line.

Part 2: Intuitive Theories of the Biological World

Ch8, Life (what makes us alive? What causes us to die?)

  • Children are unaware of mortality. Author recalls taking his 4 ½ year old son to see mummies. When children aren’t told answers about biological events, they invent answers based on things they know, like sleep and travel.
  • Begin alive is about a metabolic state—extracting energy from the environment, and so on. Children simplify this to self-directed motion. Children are attentive to organic movement over mechanical or random movement. (Because those are the ones that interact with the child.) Preschoolers don’t think plants, etc., are alive. They’re also confused about which biological activities various animals engage in. Children will attribute qualities of humans to some animals, but never qualities of animals to humans. They think things like the sun is alive. Gollum’s riddle. Rural children understand these things earlier than urban children. Except urban children who have pets.
  • So children gradually understand that death is a termination, not a journey somewhere. Five principles of death, p140m, learned at different stages. Children don’t hear much about death; more about grieving, or confusing talk about surviving as angels. This is confusing because children don’t understand the distinction between the physical body and the ‘soul’. Eventually they focus on the concept of a body. Teaching about parts of the body, e.g. with body aprons, helps. Did it make them fear death more? No, less.
  • Adults are conflicted about death. E.g., why exhume remains of soldiers who died at Pearl Harbor for identification and reburial? Further, we speak less of plants being alive than of animals. And even adults don’t completely escape the motion-based conception of life. People with Alzheimer’s revert to childlike conceptions.
  • So: children think living entities are animate, and have to learn it’s about them being metabolic.

Ch9, Growth (why do we grow bigger? Why do we grow older?)

  • Children don’t understand that a birthday indicates a passage of time since they were born; but they know older children are bigger, smarter, etc. Some young children think the birthday party *makes* you a year older. This hearkens to the vitalistic theory of biology, that some inner energy or life force is what keeps us going. Young children provide vitalistic explanations for how the body works. It takes a while to understand that being alive and growing go together. Growth is seen as a separate phenomenon, the way clouds grow.
  • A key step is whether children understand the nutritional value of food. Some get hung up on particular aspects. They get confusing directions on what they should or should not eat. Vitalistic instructions work best, emphasizing which components are healthy or not.
  • Examples of people with Williams syndrome, that combines low intelligence with normal language skills. Do they acquire vitalistic ideas of biology? E.g. not understanding why a vampire would bite a lady’s neck.
  • People can learn which foods are healthy, etc., but they still think exercise is the key to losing weight, not eating less.
  • Other beliefs are shaped by essentialism—that outward appearance is a product of an inner nature or essence. As in familiar stories in which a person or animal’s true nature comes through in the end. Children believe an animal, or person, raised by others will grow up to be like their parents. This has sociological consequences, in terms of categories of people, e.g. rich vs poor. Or issues with organ donation, even blood transfusions.
  • Children don’t realize that children grow into adults. And they have difficulty realizing that aging goes through phases. 20 and 30 year olds think their preferences will change less often in the future than they have in the past. Adults think they’ve arrived at the final phase of their identity, unable to imagine that we might change in the future.

Ch10, Inheritance (why do we resemble our parents? Where did we get our traits?)

  • Cloning and genetic engineering are scarier in pop magazines than in real life. There’s great misunderstanding about genetics and modified food, e.g. GMOs. Some of this is due to poor education, but it’s also due to essentialism. Adults associate essences with genes. But this leads to many maladaptive attitudes and behaviors, 170. Children can be tested with thought experiments. Children younger than 7 confuse inherited traits between a king and an adopted prince. Or thinking shirt color was inheritable.
  • Also, children think kinship refers only to social relations. E.g. that a close friend of a boy is a brother. Of course, adults speak in such terms, but children don’t realize those are metaphorical.
  • A third context is cross-species transformation, as in Wells. It doesn’t work because each animal retains its ‘essence’. Children think this should be possible. They think surgery turns one animal into another.
  • How to children acquire a biological understanding of inheritance? By learning where babies come from. …articles in NYT assume a certain knowledge of biochemical facts, 182b. And our beliefs about genes can influence our behavior…

Ch11 Illness (what makes us ill? How does illness spread?)

  • Humans around the world express the same reactions to things that contain pathogens and parasites. The disgust face. The insular cortex. It triggers even by seeing someone else look disgusted. Some things are disgusting only by association, 187t. [[ This is the same kind of better-safe-than-sorry overreaction as the perception of agency. ]] At the same time, we fail to be disgusted by some things that should be disgusting—agencies that spread infectious diseases.
  • Children differ in same ways in their disgust responses. The confuse disgust with anger. They don’t react to things like dead animals. They have to be trained to be wary of objects that might be contaminated, like urinals. Or glasses of milk a grasshopper had fallen into. Perhaps because some degrees of disgust are a luxury, for living in a modern society; early, one couldn’t afford to be too picky. E.g. food that’s fallen on the ground. People are sometimes disgusted by things they did not eat in their childhood; so attitudes about certain foods vary from culture to culture. Crabs, termites.
  • There are other reasons people fall ill rather than infectious diseases; genetic, nutrition. For most of history these have been blamed on internal fluids, or ‘humors’. Hippocrates. Imbalanced. To relieve them could involve bloodletting. A universal practice. Bad air, or miasma, was another popular explanation. It wasn’t until the 17th century that ‘animalcules’ were observed, and not until 1857 that Pasteur made the link to diseases. Thus germ theory and microbiology.
  • So now children are told about germs all the time. Yet they don’t always understand and react appropriately. And young children don’t distinguish between germs and poison. And the connection between germs and disease is fuzzy.
  • Same is true among adults; thus people who think you catch a cold from being cold. But this is just a folk belief. Such beliefs generally prescribe preventative measures, but sometimes these are maladaptive. A Think Biology course for children helped.
  • Other folk beliefs have supernatural flavors. Some pray to god. Some cultures attribute illness to sorcery, spirits, or witchcraft. Some Africans know how AIDS is transmitted but still blame witchcraft. And it takes adults to teach such things to children. Some people believe illness is moral; bad things happen to bad people, as if they deserve it. Knowing how we get sick isn’t the same as knowing why we get sick.

Ch12 Adaptation (why are there so many life-forms? How do they change over time?)

  • Newton and Darwin didn’t discover gravity and evolution—they discovered the principles and mechanisms behind them. Darwin had five insights. … summary 204b. Other ideas had floated around, e.g. Lamarck’s inheritance of acquired characteristics. Darwin realized that both mutation and selection are involved. Even after Darwin there were other theories, for 50 years. Eventually understanding of genetics came down in favor of Darwin.
  • Still today, students don’t appreciate its importance; they deny it utterly, or misunderstand it. Most answer incorrectly a question about woodpeckers, 206b. Intuitive theories of evolution are similar to pre-Darwinian theories. Another: about changes in moth coloration, 208t.
  • [[ well this is interesting; I didn’t realize there are so many *wrong* ideas about how evolution worked. ]]
  • Similarly, most people see extinction and speciation as rare events. 209. The common thread is that people seem to believe that adaptation occurs uniformly across all members of a species in accordance with the species’ needs.
  • Most people misunderstand variation as deviations from some ‘true’ form, recalling Plato, and essentialism. Essentialism makes sense in understanding why a swan is born of two other swans. But every population is full of variation. Yet people still think in terms of categories of identical members. People deny traits might vary—at least, children and adults who didn’t understand evolution do.
  • Even people who know about variation don’t always appreciate its role in evolution. Many people believe in a non-Malthusian, harmonious view of nature. They underestimate competitive behavior and overestimate cooperative behavior. They underestimate how many organisms die without leaving offspring. These correlate with understanding of evolution. Competition within a species was a key idea. The less informed react to video feeds of animals eating, etc.
  • Summary: two deep-seated misconceptions: that all members of a species are the same; that all members have plenty of resources at their disposal.
  • And yet in the US evolution is excluded from biology courses sometimes even in high school. And teleology infects its teaching. One source of confusion is how evolution is portrayed in pop media.

Ch13 Ancestry (where did species come from? How are they related?)

  • Most people think humans are related to monkeys through direct ancestry—actually it’s shared ancestry. Ancestry isn’t a simple line, but a nested hierarchy. Curious George looks like an ape but is called a monkey. Speciation occurs when populations have been split apart by some barrier. Yet naïve notions of an essentialist views can’t account for one species split into two becoming two different species. They imagine a kind of metamorphosis. (Which is why Creationists they ask why apes still exist if they evolved into humans; they misunderstand evolution.)
  • All life is interconnected. Everything from humans to algae is similar at a cellular level. Educators use cladograms to illustrate relationships, p225. They diagram actual relationships even when superficial similarities are misleading. Yet these are confusing to nonbiologists. The order in the diagram doesn’t matter. And some versions include ‘chart junk’ that has no meaning, 229t.
  • Also, cladograms typically leave out extinct species, which leave behind no DNA. And they often misrepresent the number of species in a group, leaving out the diversity of some groups. Omissions lead to misunderstanding, e.g. about bonobos p232. As in the famous ‘tree of life’.
  • And some people think such diagrams fictions, or lies, preferring creationist accounts. A much simpler explanation. Children use such explanations instinctively. Religion is the highest indicator of skepticism toward evolution. Creationists are often fervent in their denial, as in hate mail to Richard Dawkins, 235b. Thus hesitancy of teaching evolution. And 12% even teach creationism.
  • Even Darwin was conflicted, at first, as his studies revealed the unlikelihood of creationism. And now, many feel religion and evolution as complementary. While in some areas endorsement of evolution marks one as immoral, disloyal, lawless, and godless 237.8. Of course, many other scientific ideas were once rejected by religion as well, and now accepted even by the religious (e.g. that the earth moves, etc.). Yet the problem with the middle ground is understanding why a God would use such a process, and end up with so many poorly designed creatures? 238m. Finally, acceptance of evolution can be inspiring and motivating, 239.

14, How to Get the World Right

  • How a stone with birdlike footprints found in 1802 was interpreted intuitively: it must be Noah’s raven! (He relied on his very limited knowledge of the world.) This “highlights how intuitive theories are anthropocentric, grounded in a human timescale, a human perspective, and a human sense of value and purpose.” And are elaborated by culture—without the Bible, the idea of Noah’s raven would obviously never have occurred to him. Now with science having expanded human thought, any child could identify a dinosaur fossil.
  • These are not the only intuitive theories. The 12 here have common themes: they are grounded in perception. They are thing-based (whereas science carves the world into processes). And they focus on objects rather than contexts (e.g. volume varies by temperature, color by viewing conditions). Each theme applies to some but not all. Furthermore: they are narrower and shallower than their scientific counterparts. Intuitive theories deal with the here and now; scientific with the full causal story.
  • So how do we restructure our knowledge? We can’t start from scratch; we have to repurpose knowledge we already have. We have to get our hands dirty in the details of the knowledge itself. Example about sexing chickens. Targeted training. Another example is teaching children about = signs. Specific tutorials work well; experimentation not so much, nor does critical analysis or quantitative reasoning help with problems of intuitive theories. Science is domain specific; so must science learning.
  • A problem is that intuitive theories seem sufficient, so we don’t realize they don’t explain everything. Example of rainbows. Most people think they understand more than they do. This is the illusion of explanatory depth. We have limited ability to recognize our limited ability.
  • And our intuitive theories are resilient. We tend to fall back on them. Science actually complicates our understanding of the world, adding a new layer on top of the old. It doesn’t overwrite intuitive theories. We need to actively think like scientists.
  • It matters more whether your neighbor has a sense of moral virtue, than whether they accurately understand science. Or does it? Maybe understanding science is more important than that. There are many scientific issues with social equations that everyone should understand. Vaccinations! Intuitive theories don’t help here. Even if science denial is unavoidable – “there is a fundamental disconnect between the cognitive abilities of individual humans and the cognitive demands of modern society.” 255.7. So we must take intuitive theories serious—by becoming aware of them, and overcoming them.


Posted in Book Notes, Psychology, Science | Comments Off on Andrew Shtulman: SCIENCEBLIND: Why Our Intuitive Theories About the World Are So Often Wrong

Links and Comments: Dishonest Republicans; Covid-19 Skepticism; Carl Sagan’s prediction of a charlatan leader

Why are Republicans so routinely dishonest? Do they think they cannot win without cheating? Or do they think they have some ‘higher purpose’ that excuses cheating (my provisional conclusion, which alas applies to every group of zealots throughout history, who can’t count on their supposed truths to will out).

The Hill: New York City tenants say they unwittingly appeared in GOP convention video: report

NYT: How did the party get low-income New Yorkers to praise Trump? They simply tricked them into participating. N.Y.C. Tenants Say They Were Tricked Into Appearing in R.N.C. Video. Subtitle: “I am not a Trump supporter,” one of the tenants said, adding that she was furious that her interview with a government official was used for the convention.

Washington Post: I speak with a computerized voice. Republicans used it to put words in my mouth.

Do Democrats commit shenanigans like this? The only thing I’ve seen lately impugning a Democrat is that story about Nancy Pelosi getting her hair done, via security footage from a disgruntled hair salon owner who immediately ran to Fox News with the tape. But that was Republican driven, not any kind of fraud committed by a Democrat.


A deeper look into Covid-19 death skepticism;, at Vox, “explained by a cognitive scientist,” subtitled: Faulty causal thinking may be driving death toll doubt.

With sections about counterfactual thinking, how we prefer simpler explanations, and the role of motivated reasoning.


Let’s step back. Via a Facebook post: Upworthy: In his last interview, Carl Sagan warned that America will be taken over by ‘charlatan’ political leader.

Shortly before his death in 1996, he appeared on “Charlie Rose” and made a dire warning about how the average Americans’ lack of skeptical, scientific thinking could lead to disastrous consequences.

Today, we can see the problems that are happening due to America’s anti-science streak whether it’s anti-vaxxers, conspiracy theories or climate change deniers.

“We’ve arranged a society on science and technology in which nobody understands anything about science and technology, and this combustible mixture of ignorance and power sooner or later is going to blow up in our faces,” he told Rose. “I mean, who is running the science and technology in a democracy if the people don’t know anything about it?”

He then warned that our lack of critical thinking leaves us vulnerable to those who wish to exploit our ignorance.

“Science is more than a body of knowledge, it’s a way of thinking,” he says. “If we are not able to ask skeptical questions to interrogate those who tell us something is true to be skeptical of those in authority, then we’re up for grabs for the next charlatan political or religious who comes ambling along.”

Sagan believes that a democracy cannot function without an educated populace.


More in the next few days.

Posted in Lunacy, Politics, Psychology | Comments Off on Links and Comments: Dishonest Republicans; Covid-19 Skepticism; Carl Sagan’s prediction of a charlatan leader

Status; Links and Comments: Conservative Willful Misunderstanding of Coronavirus Deaths

I’m behind on commenting on newspaper and magazine articles; it’s been almost two weeks!

This is because, as I’ve detailed on Facebook (though I realize some readers of this blog might not see my Facebook posts), I’ve been busy finishing a year-long project expansion of my site, creating a history of sf/f/h anthologies (, which I posted a week ago today; and keeping up on my biweekly reviews for Black Gate, the latest one about Philip K. Dick is here.

Also, I’ve spent some time this week answering email interview questions from James Patrick Kelly, a fiction writer who also does a column about the Internet in every bimonthly issue of Asimov’s magazine (he’s been doing these since… 1998! — per, about my site, which he feels, along with the Science Fiction Encyclopedia ( and the Internet Speculative Fiction Database (, are three essential science fiction sites on the web. (I’m flattered, and gratified.)

Let’s go back to some links from the end of August. Here’s a couple about willful misunderstanding, on the right, about the coronavirus pandemic.


NYT: ‘But I Saw It on Facebook’: Hoaxes Are Making Doctors’ Jobs Harder. Subtitle: Without the support of social platforms, our efforts to stamp out viral misinformation feel futile..

It ends:

Purveyors of false news will always exist; for as long as there have been epidemics there have been snake oil salespeople exploiting fear and peddling false hope. But Facebook enables these charlatans to thrive. Absent a concerted effort from Facebook to rework its algorithm in the best interests of public health — and not profit — we will continue to throw water on little fires of misinformation while an inferno blazes around us.

I keep saying this: Don’t get your news from Facebook.


Nature: How many people has the coronavirus killed? Subtitle: Researchers are struggling to tally mortality statistics as the pandemic rages. Here’s how they gauge the true toll of the coronavirus outbreak.

People who want to think the pandemic does not exist, or isn’t an issue (because big government, conspiracy theories by scientists to take control of the world, or whatever), willfully misunderstand statistics.

This is about deaths directly attributable to Covid-19, and the actual “excess” deaths this past year, compared to previous years. If the substantial number of excess deaths aren’t attributable to Covid-19, then what have they been caused by? Trumpists haven’t thought it through this far. They are not very smart.


Salon drills down the theme: Why the “6%” meme stating COVID-19 deaths are exaggerated is wrong. Subtitle: Trump and other conservatives seized on a misunderstood CDC statement as “proof” that coronavirus isn’t that deadly.

Yet the viral spread of the “6%” meme seems to speak to both a larger scientific illiteracy and the rapidity with which the conspiratorial right jumps on misinformation that appears convenient to their political narrative.

Dr. Eric Feigl-Ding, senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists, called the “6%” meme “a ludicrous misunderstanding and misinformation.” “Basically, [they are] arguing that if you die with COVID and have any risk factors, then it somehow doesn’t count as COVID,” he told Salon. Feigl-Ding compared the situation to that of cancer patients, who frequently have compounding conditions that increase their risk of dying of cancer.


I’ve begun reading Ezra Klein’s Why We’re Polarized, and will report about it soon.

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