Carl Sagan’s THE DEMON-HAUNTED WORLD: Science As a Candle in the Dark

This is a book I think of as one of my foundational nonfiction books, i.e. a major book of central importance for its discussion of a critical theme. That theme, essentially, is that given the prevalence of pseudo-scientific claims in modern society (in the 1990s alien abductions were a popular theme) science is the methodology for determining what’s real and what’s bunk. Furthermore, there are psychological reasons for why people are attracted to pseudo-science (and religion) and put off by real science. And there are ways in which the ideals of science and democracy align.

I first read it in 1996, not long after it was published. Rereading it now, I have to temper my assessment just a tad; it’s a less than perfect book, because it’s not a single sustained thesis and development leading to an overall conclusion. Rather, like Sagan’s first book THE COSMIC CONNECTION, it’s composed partially of pieces originally published separately, in magazines or newspapers, making the book instead a collection of essays around a common theme, and perhaps inevitably giving some topics more attention than you might think they deserve. In that, the book reflects its era: over 100 pages, chapters 4 through 10, discuss the then-current phenomenon of alien abductions, together with related topics of UFOs and the (legitimate) search for extraterrestrial life. That supposed phenomenon has pretty much faded away, I think, perhaps replaced by conspiracy theories and fake news on more strictly political themes.

A chapter-by-chapter summary follows, with comments, but first some highlights:

  • The key chapter is 12, “The Fine Art of Baloney Detection.” Skeptical thinking in a nutshell. The positive steps for constructing a sound argument, and the counterpart steps for recognizing a fallacious or fraudulent argument. As it happens, the key points have been posted online, here:
  • And a key metaphor, which later writers have cited, is the “dragon in my garage” described in chapter 10. How, for example, one might claim to have a dragon in one’s garage, and for every request for any kind of evidence, provide some reason why such evidence isn’t possible. What’s the difference between an invisible, incorporeal dragon, and no dragon at all?
  • Chapters 2, 14, and 15 have strong discussions of the methods and values of science, how it’s different from pseudo-science and religion, and answering criticisms of science.
  • And several of the later chapters, written with Ann Druyan, discuss how the values of science relate to those of democracy, [[ Implicitly aligning the values of religion and pseudo-science to those of authoritarianism; the current example being evangelical support for Donald Trump. ]]
  • A running theme is about how science is a balancing act between being open to wonder, and being skeptical when drawing conclusions. Followers of pseudoscience are open to wonder but lack all skepticism. (Ch17 especially)

Detailed summary with some key points bolded and [[ my comments in brackets ]].

Preface: My Teachers.

Sagan recalls his childhood in 1939, especially the 1939 New York World’s Fair and the World of Tomorrow. His parents weren’t scientists, but they introduced him to skepticism and wonder, pxiii.6. They supported his idea to become an astronomer. He recalls no inspirational teachers. Schoolwork was rote, with no broad perspectives. With college came fulfillment; professors, etc. (see bullets). Still, his parents provided the most essential things…

  • He mentions the value of being able to do back-of-the-envelope calculations.
  • And, page xiv bottom: at U of Chicago “It was considered unthinkable for an aspiring physicist not to know Plato, Aristotle, Bach, Shakespeare, Gibbon, Malinowski, and Freud—among many others.” [[ I confess I had to look up who Malinowski was. ]]
  • [[ My parents provided no such support. The best things my parents did was to fill the house with certain kinds of books: various kinds of encyclopedia, and the Harvard Classics. But they never provided story books, or chapter books, and they never consulted those encyclopedias themselves. When I started buying my own books – paperbacks from Scholastic, e.g., or science fiction – they were mostly indifferent, except to wonder why I couldn’t just check such books out of the library. My father was anti-elitist, sneering at scientists who thought they knew everything (as he thought) so far as to doubt religion. And I had no inspirational teachers, not even in college. I discovered everything through books, many of them encountered quite by happenstance. ]]

Ch1, The Most Precious Thing

Author tells of a limo driver asking him about various conspiracies and pseudo-science. Author reluctantly dissuades him, and asks what he knows about real science – not much. There are hundreds of books about Atlantis, and crystals, with no evidence. Little in public view of evidence, or skepticism, which doesn’t sell. In popular culture, bad science drives out the good; Gresham’s Law. Every generation thinks educational standards are decaying, e.g. quote from Plato.

  • [[ Note! —just as some always think the “good old days” were in the past, it’s common to think “kids these days” don’t measure up to past standards. Neither is true. ]]

Yet such ignorance is more dangerous now than ever – long list of topics, p7t – given how politicians ignore the experts. How do Americans make decisions about such matters?

Hippocrates brought some insight into medicine that had previously been entirely superstitious. He emphasized observations. Most of this was lost during the dark ages. [Because religion] Queen Anne, late 17th century. Things have improved enormously since then. (Despite Christian Science.) Life expectancy is increasing. For humanity to continue to thrive requires science and technology. Not that they are always for the good: there have also been nuclear weapons and all the other military applications; thus the image of the mad scientist. …

Do we care what’s true? Does it matter? P12. Serious question. Some think too much knowledge is damaging; author disagrees, better to know that persist in delusion. A maturing. Anyway, we are stuck with the discoveries of science; there is no way back. Yet pseudoscience keeps getting in the way. Based on insufficient evidence or ignoring contrary evidence. Pseudoscience speaks to emotional needs; to fantasies about personal powers; reassurances of our importance.

Pseudoscience is the counterpart of misunderstanding science. It reflects the way humans have always thought. The cases here are mostly American, but these afflictions are present around the world. Many examples p15-16. Most recently, TM, transcendental meditation. Russia encouraged ideological religion, and considered critical thinking dangerous. [[ as do some modern state educational boards ]] China. Summary 19.4.

So what’s going on? The situation relates to what religions are and how they arise. There is a natural selection of doctrines, how some thrive and most quickly vanish. There’s a continuum from pseudoscience and superstition to religion based on revelation. Some religions reign in their excesses; yet they are reluctant to challenge their extreme fundamentalists.

Pseudoscience is not erroneous science. The former often frame hypotheses that are immune to potential disproof, and often appeal to conspiracy theories.

We don’t appreciate how our perceptions are fallible—mention here of the first Gilovich book, p21m. Science better appreciates human fallibility.

And it’s just as important to teach the methods of science, as its conclusions. Otherwise scientific claims seem arbitrary. And to acknowledge how in the history of science there were often stubborn refusals to accept new discoveries…

Ch2, Science and Hope

To love science is to want to tell the world about it. More than a body of knowledge; a way of thinking. Foreboding—p25b, about the dumbing down of America. Can already be seen in the media. “A Candle in the Dark” was a 1656 book attacking the notion that anything bad must be due to witches. Now, any kind of threat or stress seems arouse the demons of ignorance.

Science doesn’t claim to know everything. It’s not perfect, just the best instrument of knowledge we have. It has a built-in error correcting mechanism. Error bars. Absolute certainty is unattainable. Mistrust arguments from authority. Scientific findings are at times unsatisfying, but there is deep satisfaction in understanding the methods of science. Science can be “spiritual” without presuming anything outside the realm of science.

Science may be hard to understand, but it delivers the goods—no religion delivers prophecies with anywhere near the accuracy of science. This is not ‘faith’ in science, it is using what works best. It works best because of that error-correcting machinery. Science is relentlessly self-critical, in papers, in conferences, in theses.

Science is not arrogant; it’s humble in its taking seriously what nature tells it. Thus Newton was superseded by Einstein, p33. Now, even general relativity may break down, e.g. if gravity waves don’t exist. [[ They’ve been found since this book ]]

You never hear of religion questioning itself and rewarding critics. Science always reminds you that you might be wrong.

Example: two paragraphs about electrodynamics. From Einstein: concise and clear. Scientists experiment wherever possible. Whereas metaphysics has no laboratory.

There are four main reasons to convey science to every citizen.

  • Science is the means to escape poverty and become wealthy.
  • Science provides early warning systems for damage we may be doing to our world.
  • Science teaches us the deep issues of our origins and fates, our place in the universe, in a way no other endeavor has done.
  • The values of science and democracy align. Without them both, we risk being a nation of suckers.

What would an extraterrestrial think of us by reading our papers?

Ch3, The Man in the Moon and the Face on Mars

Every field of science has its counterpart pseudoscience—see long para p43. Author starts with those related to his area of study, the planets: the face on Mars, and that aliens are visiting earth.

Cultures have seen many things in the face of the moon; in ours, a “man in the moon.”

Infants recognize faces. It’s hardwired. And so we sometimes see faces from patches of light and dark where there are none. Thus there are geological formations named faces or body parts. Shapes in clouds, or wood grain, etc. Insects that have evolved to look like sticks.

Recalls book by John Michell, and Richard Shaver and Antonin Artaud, who thought artifacts like these were evidence of ancient civilizations, p47, dismissing rational explanations as “materialism” p48t, and that nature intends more than that.

Then we had the canals on Mars. Inspiring much popular fiction. But of course spacecraft never found them. They were errors of pattern recognition. The advent of space flights brought thousands of amateurs perceiving amazing things. We see familiar shapes in galactic nebulae. Geological features look like pyramids.

And then Cydonia, on Mars, and the ‘face’ found by Viking in 1976. Speculation went wild. Accusations of NASA cover-ups. Tabloids made wild claims. E.g. about suppression of evidence to avoid world panic. But scientists are not secretive by nature.

So what do we know about the ‘face’? Blurry images. Worth further examination, however unlikely they’re alien artifacts.

Such phenomena will not go away. Further ‘discoveries’ are announced. Other tabloid stories., p56-57. It would be funny if many readers didn’t take the tabloids quite seriously. Some people need the thrill of such possible discoveries, p58. The tabloids have the pretense of using science to validate ancient faiths and superstitions.

But there are enough real wonders out there without inventing any.

[[ Note he doesn’t mention Richard Hoagland, the most notorious author to promote the “Mars Face”, even indirectly. ]]

Ch4, Aliens

Author describes scenario of waking in the night, being abducted, probed. Sometimes not remembering until later. Polls indicate widespread belief in such abductions, from UFOs. Who are we to doubt them? Yet, how could such an alien invasion be taking place? Why would they be doing that? Why not in a more efficient way?

How strong is the actual evidence? The early ‘flying saucers’ seemed partly plausible given the number of stars out there. And there were plenty of photos.

The 1841 book Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds told of similar events throughout history—of scams and delusions. Usually with some political or religious motivation. Mesmer.

Also Martin Gardner’s Fads and Fallacies book. More examples. Thus the fallibility of humans might easily explain flying saucers. It all depends on evidence. The more we want something to be true, the more careful we have to be.

Examples of misquotations, frauds, pranks, hoaxes. The last go back to Richard Shaver and his Lemuria, in Amazing Stories.

Similar credulousness and shoddy standards of evidence are seen in reports of crop circles. Enthusiasts credited superior aliens. In 1991 two pranksters admitted being behind them. Copycats followed. But few heard about the hoaxers.

The tools of skepticism aren’t difficult, but are seldom taught—too many politicians, advertisers, and religious leaders rely on discouraging skepticism.

Ch5, Spoofing and Secrecy

UFO is a more general term than flying saucer. We hear many claims, but none where evidence requires them to be alien spacecraft. We seldom hear about those that are explained. Author has spent some time concerning UFOs. People ask if he ‘believes’ in them. Many have no problem assuming a government conspiracy to cover them up. Project Bluebook was so shoddy it reinforced that impression. And it makes perfect sense that the government should study the phenomenon. Military balloons were a thing. Roswell is likely explained by such balloons carrying classified equipment.

In this era there was much experimentation into missiles for carrying nuclear bombs, and into how they reentered the atmosphere. Those indeed were top secret. Another idea is ‘spoofing’ where an enemy craft sees how far they can get into southern US airspace before being detected. Again, such incidents would be secret. Also, routine surveillance of tv, radio, and mail is subject to secret, and even FOIA releases are heavily redacted…

The most credulous UFOlogists seem unaware of this secrecy culture, taking it as evidence of a government coverup of alien spacecraft. And the so-called MJ-12 documents, likely a forgery that served the interests of its discoverer. (also: Deuteronomy, p 91m, and the Donation of Constantine.)

And how could such a worldwide conspiracy be maintained? 92.5 Why wouldn’t NASA be interested? Or the DoD? This isn’t to say the subject isn’t worthy of study. And there are many other (unlikely) explanations. Sidebar about a secret government plane, Aurora, which the air force denies exists.

[[ This whole chapter reads like a sidebar, reflecting Sagan’s special interest in debunking UFOs. ]]

Ch6, Hallucinations

Consider the advertisements in an issue of the magazine UFO Universe, p99, all appealing to unlimited gullibility.

Sometimes someone in ‘contact’ with aliens will ask Sagan for a question to ask the aliens – but questions about math, say, are never answered. Aliens seem preoccupied by current concerns of humans.

George Adamski. Betty and Barney Hill. James E. McDonald. Author met the Hills.

Another kind of explanation are hallucinations. Drugs. Some cultures venerate them—vision quests. Religious quests. A signal-to-noise problem. Some percent are subject to them; it’s part of being human. The stories alien abductees tell are like those in other cultures of meeting goblins, elves, etc. Only recently in human history did children sleep alone; thus their being afraid of the dark.

Once the idea of extraterrestrials became popular, people imagined contacts with aliens. But after the canals were debunked, stories of visits by Martians disappeared….

Ch7, The Demon-Haunted World

Belief in demons was widespread in the ancient world. They were taken to be natural, not supernatural, often thought intermediaries between humans and God. Socrates, Plato. The early church tried to distance itself from ‘pagan’ beliefs. But St. Augustine was vexed with demons. Psellus in the 11th century. Incubi and succubi. The external reality of demons was almost entirely unquestioned from antiquity through late medieval times. The obsession reached a crescendo with a Bull of 1484, by Pope Innocent VIII, which justified the pursuit and torture and execution of ‘witches’ throughout Europe. The Protestants followed suit. Handbooks about how to torture and kill witches. Accusation was sufficient; confessions were exacted through torture. The priests were obsessed with the details of orgasms and bodily parts. P122 in one small city there 100 or so immolations in one year.

Anyone who doubted the justice of this was said to be attacking the church and thus committing a mortal sin. The inquisitors and torturers were doing God’s work. Heresy was also a crime, e.g. attempting to publish an English language bible, Tyndale in the 16th century.

Burning witches has declined since then. But we still use language like pandemonium and most Americans say they believe in the Devil; modern Christians accuse rock music of being demonic.

And what did these demons do? They interfered with copulation; they transferred human semen and transferred it. Either demons really exist, or for centuries, unto today, most people suffered shared delusions.

Which brings us to alien abductions. In many cultures there are stories of gods appearing to humans, e.g. the Greek gods impregnating women. Lilith. A 1645 case about fairies.

Now we have alien abductions, beginning with a 1982 book. Edward Gibbon describes the credulity of the ancients. James I wrote a book on demons. They were imagined to be everywhere.

If the aliens are real, why were there no reports of flying saucers before 1947? And why haven’t their experiments finished by now?

In fact, some believe the aliens are really demons—the Raelians; Whitley Strieber; fundamentalist tracts. Christians are split on whether scripture allows for the existence of aliens, e.g. Hal Lindsey.

Since the early 1960s author has argued that UFO stories were crafted to satisfy religious longings. They’re rewrites of older stories about supernatural beings. Our hallucations interpret what we see according to the assumptions of culture of the day, see 131t. People remember fragments of experiences from childhood that emerge later. And now popular culture is full of alien imagery, often with the assumptions that aliens will be small framed but with large heads.

What most reports reveal is a failure of imagination and a preoccupation with human concerns. “The believers take the common elements in their stories as token of verisimilitude, rather than as evidence that they have contrived their stories out of a shared culture and biology.”

Ch8, On the Distinction Between True and False Visions

If we see something or hear a sound and wonder if it’s just our imagination, do we tell others? Depends on the surrounding people and culture; on what other people might think, doubt or credulity. In therapy reticence is often overcome. Hypnosis encourages fantasy, or incorporation of the hypnotist’s beliefs. Hypnotists can cue their patients. People are suggestible; they’ll accept false evidence and claim they saw it too, 139m; false memories. Children especially. Reagan famously told of liberating concentration camp prisoners—but he didn’t; it was a movie. We form memories that are seldom challenged by new facts.

Most common are apparitions of religious figure, e.g. the Virgin Mary. Shrines are built; the local economies thrive.

In 1400 a book [title of this chapter] was written about which visions could be taken as true and which not. Authorities were not to be challenged; ordinary objects were compelling.

Motives are easy to imagine. That doesn’t mean they just made things up. Many were likely species of dream—or hoaxes and forgeries. Such apparitions were welcome by the church in medieval times. This changed around the time of Reformation; they then became threats church order. Thus Joan of Arc was burned at the stake.

Needless to say, the requests of Virgin Mary were prosaic—e.g. pay your tithes. Never any revelations of knowledge that could only have come from God. Why doesn’t Mary approach the authorities herself? None of the saints criticized the torturing and burning of witches.

There are many parallel with the alien abduction stories. In our time there are as many apparitions of Jesus.

Why would people invent abduction stories? Perhaps simple notoriety. Like claimants of product tampering. Which happen even without therapists encouraging them. As they are for alien abductees.

Ch9, Therapy

Author cites Harvard psychiatrist who interviewed abductees and became convinced—based entirely on the emotional power of those experiences. This is a bad guide to truth. Perhaps they are remembering childhood sexual abuse. Therapy tries to draw them out. But memories can be confabulations too. Claims of alien abduction are similar to ‘recovered memories’ of childhood sexual abuse. A third class of claims come from satanic cults. To some, satanism is any religious belief system other than their own, p159b. Much abuse has been done in the name of religion. Consider five cases. Many such cases don’t hold up to scrutiny. Long example involving man who went to prison for 20 years. Why does all this happen? Perhaps a way for evangelicals to ward off threats of new religious movements, 163b. They have no patience for skeptics.

All three of these classes of ‘recovered memories’ have their own specialists. What is the larger picture? A kind of hysteria; people are suggestive and gullible; the specialists validate their fantasies. In a few cases therapists have been found guilty of negligence. Therapists have no motive to identify simple solutions.

[[ As in much of this book, the lessons aren’t so much about, say, alien abductions per se—it’s about how easily we can fool ourselves, or be misled by others, or manipulated by circumstances, into believing things that aren’t real. ]]

Ch10, The Dragon in My Garage

Suppose author claims to have a dragon in his garage, and you want evidence. But it’s invisible, incorporeal, and so on—no evidence is possible. Even if many people make such claims. Scant evidence is likely faked. The best conclusion is to wonder why so many people are having delusions about invisible dragons. Similar reasoning applies to claims of alien abduction.

Recalls case from 1954 about a physicist who had an elaborate fantasy life of a far future starship pilot. The psychoanalyst found himself being sucked into the fantasy. Until the patient confessed, he made it all up. The two had switched roles.

Consider radio search for ETs. Signals detected from CTA-102, later called a quasar. And in 1967, pulsars. All the reasons scientists are careful before announcing aliens. P180: “I try not to think with my gut. … Really, it’s okay to reserve judgment until the evidence is in.”

We must rely on the evidence. No anecdote is good enough. And there isn’t any verified evidence that couldn’t have been scammed. Photos are faked. Scars are claimed but can’t be seen. Explanations resort to ‘other dimensions’, a notion from physics; borrowing its language without its methods.

What’s needed is critical thinking, even for psychiatrists. P184. As you would when buying a used car. A 1995 TV broadcast of an alien autopsy might easily have been faked. No physical evidence from alien spaceships has ever turned up. Discoveries of real evidence would be momentous.

It’s good to keep an open mind. But evidence must be strong.

Ch11, The City of Grief

The previous 7 chapters were summarized in Parade magazine (a supplement to many Sunday newspapers) in 1993. It provoked much reaction, including misunderstandings. What follows is a representative sampling of mail on the subject…  almost all skeptical of his conclusions, many spouting crazy ideas of their own. Including religious ones.

Ch12, The Fine Art of Baloney Detection

Author recalls parents and how there are moments he thinks perhaps they’re not really dead. There’s something within us ready to believe in life after death. Regardless of whether there’s any sober evidence for it. Why don’t channelers ever provide information otherwise unavailable? Secrets lost to the past? Better the hard truth than the comforting fantasy, 204.4. Examples: JZ Knight and Ramtha. Ramtha offers no details, e.g. 205t, only homilies. –another good example of specific evidence that never turns up. Another, 205b.

JBS Haldene supposed in an infinite universe, everything would happen again… infinite times.

We tell our children fabulous tales to soothe them. They get disabused of Santa Claus, etc; but not the faith of religions. Quotes from Tom Paine, TH Huxley p208. Their thoughts were about religion, but similar remarks can be made about modern advertisements—claims we’re not supposed to question. Paid endorsements corrupt attitudes about scientific objectivity. New Age Expos promote highly questionable products. Psychic healers. Astrologers. Dowsers. Miracle workers.

Scientists employ a baloney detection kit. Tools for skeptical thinking, p210. Skeptical thinking is about constructing a sound argument, and recognizing a fallacious or fraudulent argument. [see here: ]

  • Try to independently confirm ‘facts’
  • Encourage debate on the evidence
  • Arguments from authority carry little weight; at best science has experts.
  • Think of all possible hypotheses to explain the evidence, and think of ways each might be disproven. Keep going until one is left. (Compare the issue of jury trials, where people make up their minds early.)
  • Don’t get attached to a hypothesis just because it’s yours.
  • Wherever possible, quantify.
  • Every chain in an argument must work, not just most of them.
  • Occam’s Razor: choose the simpler of two hypotheses that explain the data equally well.
  • Ask if the question is falsifiable

Key is reliance on carefully designed and controlled experiments. Variables must be controlled. Often experiments must be done “double-blind”.

We must also recognize fallacies of logic and rhetoric—used often in religion and politics, where often two contradictory propositions must be justified.

  • Ad homimen
  • Argument from authority
  • Argument from adverse consequences
  • Appeal to ignorance. (absence of evidence is not evidence of absence)
  • Special pleading
  • Begging the question
  • Observational selection, e.g. counting the hits and forgetting the misses
  • Statistics of small numbers
  • Misunderstanding the nature of statistics
  • Inconsistency
  • Non sequitur
  • Post hoc, ergo propter hoc, i.e. it happened after, so it was caused by.
  • Meaningless question
  • Excluded middle, or false dichotomy
  • Short-term vs. long-term, a subset of excluded middle
  • Slippery slope, also related to excluded middle
  • Confusion of correlation and causation
  • Straw man
  • Suppressed evidence, or half-truths
  • Weasel words

Examples of how the tobacco industry argues against causation from tobacco to lung cancer. And Du Pont with Freon. [[and deniers of climate change.]]  Aren’t low-tar cigarettes a tacit admission…? Data is faked. What does this say about how well free enterprise can police itself? Part of tobacco’s success is due to unfamiliarity with critical thinking and the scientific method.

Ch13, Obsessed with Reality

Epigraph about a man who didn’t worry his ship might sink; he sincerely believed it would not. But from the evidence, his sincerity was not earned (and the ship sank).

There’s a whole range of ideas that are appealing, but not subject to the Baloney Detection Kit by their advocates—long list, p221-2, from astrology and Bermuda triangle to scientology and the remains of Noah’s ark.

Some fundamentalists reject these on the ground of Deuteronomy, 222b—not because they’re false, but because they’re unsuitable for a follower of god. A 12th century writer was more insistent that they just don’t work. It’s always about how good the evidence is. Examples of claimants who fail when examined privately.

And then the long tale of Carlos, a new age figure, supposedly an ancient soul that would take over the body of Jose Luis Alvarez, and their appearance in Australia in 1988, to much media attention. –But it was all an elaborate hoax staged by James Randi with an assistant. The press didn’t do due diligence in checking on his background.

Such fraudsters can be dangerous in situations like faith healing… some people do get spontaneously better, but they likely would have anyway. Placebos often work. Death rates drop before major holidays and events…then rise afterwards. Mark Twain criticized Christian science; cults almost began about JFK, and Elvis.

The Australian press was criticized. But there were still a few believers! What did it all prove? That how readily people are willing to be fooled. And the few random successes sometimes convince charlatans they really do have powers!

Another lesson: if someone is bamboozled long enough, they reject evidence of the bamboozle. [[ Sunk-cost fallacy and religion! ]] it’s too painful to acknowledge we’ve been taken. Thus séance tricksters, and crop circle hoaxers, when they confess, the news doesn’t get out, or believers always say, but what about this other case.

Sending out the same horoscope to 150 people; almost all see themselves in it. The required evidence for sexual abuse, e.g., is often so broad everyone will exhibit some symptom or another.

And these things happen in all nations, not just the US.

Ch14, Antiscience

Epigraph summarizing new age beliefs in which there is no objective truth.

Motivations for doubting the framework of science—science envy; it can be dismissed, p247.

Edward U. Condon and the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible. Concon was impugned on the ground that quantum mechanics was ‘revolutionary.’

Quantum mechanics is impossible to understand without the math. Purveyors of religion and new age doctrines often use the same ploy: it takes 15 years to understand all the ‘mysteries’. [[ Jerry Coyne points out that theologians often use this argument. ]] The difference is: we can verify that QM works. And shamans claim their cures work. But do they? Also, science is open to everyone; those who question non-rational authoritarianism are considered disloyal and unfaithful.

Certain kinds of folk knowledge are valuable—but they don’t extend to general principles.

Science has for centuries been attacked by antiscience. That it’s subjective, like history, written by victors to justify themselves—list of historical examples, p252-3. [[ Knowing such examples is another example of being savvy. ]] This subjectivity has been recognized for centuries. Historians have biases, and can try to overcome them. Scientists have biases too, and make mistakes; but it has built-in error-correcting machinery. And science, unlike history, can do experiments.

There’s also the claim that science is arbitrary or reason is an illusion. Ethan Allen—how to argue this without using reason? 255m. [[ Isaac Asimov made the same point, somewhere. ]]

Within the framework of science any scientist can prove another wrong and make sure everyone else knows about it, 255b. Fred Hoyle was so productive of ideas that there were many efforts to prove him wrong, and these led to new areas of knowledge. All the major scientists made serious mistakes. Even author himself: about Venus, Titan, Kuwaiti oil wells.

Arguments about the motivations of this or that scientist are irrelevant if their results work—just as arithmetic is the same everywhere. Examples of arguments against Newton and Darwin. Analogous to Jefferson and Washington owning slaves. Habits of our age that may be considered barbaric in future ages, p259b. Thomas Paine stood out.

Ideas can be misused, but should not be dismissed; who would decide which ideas to suppress? Ideologues do so: Nazi science; Lysenko in Russia, who hampered Soviet science for two generations. And Americans who promote the pseudoscience of creationism, and their efforts to prevent evolutionary theory from being taught in school.

Ch15, Newton’s Sleep

Epigraphs from Blake, and Darwin (about ignorance…)

Blake seems to have meant to criticize the narrowness of Newton’s physics; and it’s true that science rules out, lacking evidence, many wonderful ideas: spirits, souls, angels, and so on. The term scientism is used to condemn the idea that we are nothing but material beings, despite the attraction of psychic or spiritual. Yet there are many things once thought miraculous that we now understand.

Still, life seems unfair; it would be nice if there were some eternal reward, or a second chance. Cultures that believe such things might have a competitive advantage. People want to believe such things. Some people resent the limits of nature that science identifies.

Or that science is too simple-minded or ‘reductionist.’ That it will all be explained by a few laws. Newton’s clockwork universe. That’s just the way the universe is. It used to be thought some ‘vital force’ must exist to explain life. Study of DNA was considered reductionist. But with that we understand are organisms work. Reductionism works especially in physics and chemistry. The universe might have been different, but it isn’t.

Attempts to reconcile science and religion go back to Aquinas. Yet the tenets of religion can be tested scientifically—and this makes believers wary of science. Examples p275. Consider prayers of other religions. Which prayers work, if any? Why are they needed, if god knows all? Why don’t monarchs live long, when so many pray for them? This is data. Those fundamentalist sects that take stands on matters subject to disproof have reason to fear science. If some central tenet of faith were disproved, what would they do? Fortunately some tenets are difficult to prove or disprove. Are there some things it’s better not to know? Author suggests it’s better to know.

Ch16, When Scientists Know Sin

Oppenheimer’s comment about the Manhattan Project; Truman never wanted to see him again. Charges that products of science can be used for evil probably go back to the domestication of fire. It’s a statement about human nature. Some try to have it both ways by attributing evil uses to other agencies. Edward Teller advocated the hydrogen bomb, over Oppenheimer’s concerns. Author warned against prospect of nuclear winter in the 1980s. Teller claimed that he discovered it—but never told anyone. Teller advocated using nuclear bombs for all sorts of purposes. He sold Reagan on the idea of Star Wars. His ideas might be seen as attempting to justify the invention of the hydrogen bomb.

No realm of human endeavor is not morally ambiguous. Aphorisms. Maintain religion. All the slaughter in Joshua and Numbers. You can find something in the bible to justify anything. It is a particular responsibility of scientists to be aware of ethical issues, and issue appropriate warnings.

Ch17, The Marriage of Skepticism and Wonder

It’s impossible to literally tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. We try to weed out bias among jurors. Shouldn’t such biases be accounted for in other areas? We should consider ourselves and our institutions scientifically, with no areas off limits. All societies have incest taboos and belief in supernatural gods of some sort. And a world of myth and metaphor. How can we enjoy the fruits of technology and still believe in creationism or astrology?

True, scientists can sound smug and offensive. Supporters of superstition and pseudoscience are people too. Aren’t their comforts deserving of respect? Or is staying silent harmful to rigorous thinking? A prudent balance takes wisdom.

CSICOP, founded in 1976 by Paul Kurtz, helps challenge credulous reports of every faith healer and visiting alien. And yet the skeptical movement creates polarization, us vs. them. They’re not all crackpots; many are sincerely exploring alternatives to conventional answers to various issues. Yet the defenders dismiss skeptics as atheistic materialists. It’s more important to some that people feel strongly. And the skeptics are a tiny minority.

There are a few ideas from ESP that *might* be true. Author could not endorse Objections to Astrology; some criticisms were beside the point. Astrology remains popular.

Science must be open to any idea, no matter how bizarre or counterintuitive, and at the same time ruthless in its skepticism of all ideas. Creative thinking and skeptical thinking. There are many absurd-sounding ideas that are nevertheless true. Better to be skeptical than credulous. The marriage of these skills should be taught to every child.

Ch18, The Wind Makes Dust

Why should science be hard to learn and hard to teach? Perhaps because science is relatively new. Many cultures made inventions; only ancient Greece developed science, due to numerous factors over 1000 years, p310t.

Yet the early Ionians made no lasting impression. What’s needed are unfamiliar challenges, where fundamental changes are needed. Early Greek science was riddled with error. And science requires experiment. The later idea that the universe was created by one Supreme God was a motive in the development of modern science. Monotheism.

And yet—recall a vignette of Kalahari desert people on a hunt. Forensic tracking skills. Science in action. Like understanding craters on other planets. Techniques passed on from generation to generation. A scientific bent that’s been around for millennia. Skills that enhance survival.

What happened in ancient Greece was the idea of systematic inquiry, and the notion that laws of nature, not capricious gods, govern the world.

So…a proclivity for science is embedded deeply with us, all times and cultures.

Ch19, No Such Thing as a Dumb Question

Stone age tools were the same for long periods of time—techniques were passed down by tradition. When new things must be learned, students complain about relevance, respect for elders diminishes. The skill needed is learning to learn. Young kids ask all sorts of questions; high school seniors memorize ‘facts’. As if asking deep questions is a social blunder. Students must be given tools to think with.

Americans are worse in most subjects than many other countries; why? The larger issue is producing a scientifically literate public. Examples of how few know basic facts 324b. Even more important is understanding *how* we know these things. Religious texts say the earth is flat, and only 6000 years old; and people believe what they want to believe, e.g. about evolution. Children need hands-on experience. American kids need to do more homework. Workers are often incompetent.

Wonders of science. Questions framed to trigger discoveries, p330-3.

Scientists need to talk to general audiences differently than they do other scientists. Speak as simply as possible. Learn which analogies work, etc. List of popular writers, p336

[[ At the same time I’ve begun to wonder if it really matters if modern adults don’t know this stuff? Making a living and being aware might be independent. ]]

Ch20, House on Fire

Parable about a man who escapes his burning house while inside are his sons unaware of the fire…

A short version of previous chapter was published in Parade. He got feedback from students, p339. And from parents, 341. (Note comments about not wanted to stand out, or show up the other kids.) Religious resistance. These issues affect all subjects, of course. Exhibits. Museums—wildly popular. Discusses the film Powers of Ten, and the Sciencenter in Ithaca, as effective ways of teaching science.

Ch21, The Path to Freedom

Only the educated are free.

Recalls slaves, especially in Maryland, 1820, when children separated from their parents, and whipped, as endorsed by the Holy Bible. Illiterate. And the slave boy who became Frederick Douglass, by learning to read.

Books are the key to examining the past. But many Americans are only barely literate. Those with the lowest rates are poorer and less likely to vote. It helps to have parents who read. Good nutrition. Criticizes the book The Bell Curve – which argued that programs to help the poor didn’t work and should be abandoned — for confusing correlation and causation. Programs like Head Start do work.

Tyrants and autocrats understand that learning can be dangerous. Early America had a high literacy rate; now not so much. We bear the costs of illiteracy…

Ch22, Significance Junkies

Television is profit-motivated. Can science programming be successful on TV? Basketball is relatively modern. Can it be used to teach science and math? People absorb sports statistics, and financial news.

Some people are impressed by hot and cold ‘streaks’. But using BDK, such streaks are to be expected. Recall Gilovich. We see streaks and find them meaningful—we’re junkies for significance. Isn’t it harmless to entertain such ideas?

Scientists in TV shows are usually mad, power-crazed. We get credulous shows like In Search Of. (These exhibit much thirst for wonder, but no skepticism.)

The X Files, p374, always choosing the fantastic explanation. Star Trek, which doesn’t come to grips with evolution. Star Wars’ parsec.

Science covers in the news is nil. Author lists several ideas for more science on tv, p377.

[[ An example of how the whole book, and even individual chapters like this, is a grab-bag of assorted ideas not well coordinated. The title here alludes to one specific point, about seeing meaning in randomness, while most of the chapter is about science on TV. ]]

Ch23, Maxwell and the Nerds

Reagan quote: “Why should we subsidize intellectual curiosity?”

Everyone is stereotyped. Even if valid on average, stereotypes are bound to fail in many cases. Recall the bias against women in science. How skeptics tend to be men. How scientists are nerds. There may be reasons why this is sometimes so.

You can’t just order scientists to make some discovery. Suppose in 1860 you imagined a [television], and ordered it to be built. Couldn’t have done it. The technology that made it possible came from James Clerk Maxwell, who was called dafty; he was a nerd. And he was interested in how electricity makes magnetism and vice versa. He developed four equations to describe what was known about both. And what they would be in a vacuum—a changing field of one generates the other. And would propagate at the speed of light. He imagined an ‘aether’ for such waves to travel through. But that was ruled out by Einstein. It’s counterintuitive to think of these fields as not being somehow mechanical. Nature is stranger than human common sense. P392m From these came radio, TV, radar. And much else. Long Feynman quote. Yet Maxwell was never knighted, nor has he been celebrated by film or TV.

Now such electromagnetic signals are being sought from extraterrestrial civilizations. But congress pulled funds for SETI after one year. Yet again and again, discoveries made by scientists have led to widespread technological and medical advances. While politicians like Proxmire make fun of such proposals. The failure of the SSC was due in part to the scientists not making a comprehensible, easy to understand case for it. And the free market would never fund most of these discoveries. No one can predict which research will have practical value. Cutting off basic research funding is like eating the seed corn.

Ch24, Science and Witchcraft

The 1939 world’s fair presented a vision of the future reached through science. But it was oriented to consumer products; it could have been more, with some basic science, as a way of thinking.

50 years later, author wonders if Americans know how to keep their freedom. 1798, the Alien and Sedition Acts. Criticism of Federalist officials was a crime. The French and Irish were seen as threats, undeserving of equal rights. Then there was 1942 and the Japanese; now there’s a war on drugs.

Recall again the witch hunts. In 1631 von Spee wrote a list of charges against those trials—the list follows, for 4 full pages. Whatever happens is proof of witchcraft. And eventually the accusers are accused themselves… A few, like von Spee, protested. Eventually the witch hunts stopped, and not abolished by the church until 1816.

Quote p413 about the witch mania:

Why was it resolutely supported by conservatives, monarchists, and religious fundamentalists? Why opposed by liberals, Quakers and followers of the Enlightenment? If we’re absolutely sure that our beliefs are right, and those of others wrong; that we are motivated by good, and others by evil; that the King of the Universe speaks to us, and not to adherents of other faiths; that it is wicked to challenge conventional doctrines or to ask searching questions; that our main job is to believe and obey—then the witch mania will recur in its infinite variations down to the time of the last man.

Recall Goebbels, and Orwell’s 1984, how they tried to rewrite history. Now [as the author writes] we have the sudden demonization, 1991, of Saddam Hussein. And in the war on drugs, where evidence is distorted and invented. And now with changes in media – fewer newspapers; control of TV by a few corporations, etc. 416t. “It’s hard to tell how it’s going to turn out.”

Nationalism is rife in many parts of the world. Science is international. Note how often scientists are among social critics. Linus Pauling. Edward Teller. Again, the powers of science must come with ethical focus.

[[ how relevant is this chapter in the age of Donald Trump! ]]

Ch25, Real Patriots Ask Questions

The methods of science can be used to improve social, political, and economic systems. Every change of policy is an experiment. Policy can be tested; it would be a waste to ignore results of social experiments because they seem to be ideologically unpalatable, 423b.

Yet humans tend to make the same mistakes over and over. Many of the founding fathers were science oriented. Jefferson described himself as a scientist. He helped spread democracy around the world. Conservatives denounced his Declaration, for its ideas of rights for all, the idea that people could lead themselves. And yet people are easily misled. Thus the balancing of powers. Later he advocated term limits for the president, and a bill of rights. Where are the likes of Jefferson and the other founders today?

Freedoms of expression are broad. There is no mandatory or forbidden ideology. Quotes from narrow-minded abortion critics p430: “Let a wave of intolerance wash over you… Yes, hate is good… Our goal is a Christian nation…We are called by God to conquer this country…We don’t want pluralism.”

But our system has error-correction mechanisms; the exchange of ideas, the criminal justice system.

Once people were tortured for doubting religious leaders; gradually Christianity became more tolerant. The Bill of Rights decoupled religion from the state. The establishment clause.

With rights comes the responsibilities to use them.

Last lines, p434

In every country, we should be teaching our children the scientific method and the reasons for a Bill of Rights. With it comes a certain decency, humility and community spirit. In the demon-haunted world that we inhabit by virtue of being human, this may be all that stands between us and the enveloping darkness.


Posted in Book Notes, Science | Comments Off on Carl Sagan’s THE DEMON-HAUNTED WORLD: Science As a Candle in the Dark

Intuitive Theories about Intuitive Theories

I’m about to read a book (by Andrew Shutlman) about “intuitive theories” and before I do I’m going to write down my take on intuitive theories, since the idea of them has been an occasional theme in these posts, and I don’t think I’ve ever written directly on the subject. And I want to record my thoughts so far before they are overlaid by the new book.

As usual I’ll use bullets to mark distinct points.

  • Intuitive theories are notions people have about how the world works that are seemingly correct, but are upon examination wrong.
  • An example is that heavy objects fall faster than light objects. They don’t (disregarding the effects of atmospheric friction).
  • Another example is if the starship Enterprise is flying past, it must making a swooshing sound.
  • Another example is that spaceships (in Star Wars) maneuver in space as jet fights do in the atmosphere.
  • Another example is that any moving object will eventually come to a rest.
  • Another example is the earth seems obviously flat.
  • Closely related are misconceptions taught us by movies and TV, where effects are enhanced for the sake of drama or spectacle. In ’70s TV action shows especially, whenever a car crashes, it explodes. In TV and films for decades, fist fights are amazingly loud (in contrast to fist fights in films of the ’30s, say, that seem remarkably wimpy by comparison).
  • Intuitive theories arise because our experience of the world is limited to a small slice of time and space, compared to the planet or the entire universe. We see only a small part of the electromagnetic spectrum; we experience moving objects only at certain scales and in certain environments.
  • To some extent intuitive theories are heuristics, in that they are valid in many of these ordinary circumstances.
  • But the point of understanding them is that they are demonstrably not true in general, in all circumstances, and scientific experiment, for example, can demonstrate so.
  • Nevertheless these notions are so powerful they can trump logical demonstration of their invalidity, just as for flat-earthers their intuitive sense that the earth goes on forever in all directions is so powerful that trumps any evidence that the earth is in fact a sphere.
  • Science is the methodology for determining which theories are true and which are not.
  • And by extension (is my own thesis) science fiction serves an analogous function in suggesting that culture, or even reality, is not necessarily what you think it is.
  • Most intuitive theories are benign, I suspect, at least to the extent that it doesn’t matter what people believe as long as it doesn’t interfere with their making a living in the broadest sense–living their lives, having families, participating in their cultures. Whether spaceships make noise as they fly by doesn’t pertain to any of that.
  • On the other hand intuitive theories can be dangerous or malicious if they lead to behavior dangerous to the individual or to others. People who don’t “believe” in germs, for example, because they can’t be seen, might seek “alternative” medicine that appeals to their sense of essence or symbol.
  • And from there the topic leads to the cognitive biases and perceptual illusions that affect us all, but that can be overcome with conscious awareness.

Also: The idea that certain attitudes about how the world works arose because they were evolutionary successful. They *work* even though they’re not actually true.

Also ideas from Kahneman and Haidt about instinctive thinking, our quick take on what we experience, before the more deliberate, slow thinking takes over to draw valid conclusions. Haidt, recall, said that humans aren’t instinctive rationalists; we’re instinctive lawyers, making up our minds quickly based on intuitive notions, then using rationality to justify those conclusions. (The methodologies of science are the correctives to supporting invalid conclusions, when wants to understand the truth and not just win an argument.)

The book by Matthew Hutson cheekily admits the existence of various “irrational beliefs” (which may or may not be precisely what Shtulman considers as “intuitive theories”) but then suggests we live with them and let them make us happy. (E.g. you can understand that a lucky charm doesn’t *really* improve your luck, but if carrying it around with you assuages some insecure corner of you mind, then go for it.)

Posted in Psychology, Science | Comments Off on Intuitive Theories about Intuitive Theories

But What’s at Stake? Hal Clement’s Needle

Needle (Astounding Science Fiction, May-June 1959; expanded to book form: Doubleday, 222 pages, $2.50 in hardcover, 1950)

by Hal Clement

Hal Clement (legal name Harry Stubbs) was one of the stable of science fiction writers developed by John W. Campbell in the pages of Astounding magazine in the 1940s. His first story was “Proof” in the June 1942 issue and his next 10 stories appeared in the magazine throughout the ‘40s. He’s most famous for the 1954 novel Mission of Gravity and his reputation rests on its sort of hard science fiction: alien environments rigorously extrapolated from known physical principles. (Others in this vein were Iceworld, 1953, and Cycle of Fire, 1957.)

His first novel is a little different. This is Needle, serialized in Astounding and expanded to book form the following year for Doubleday. And published, incidentally, as a juvenile, in the “Doubleday Young Moderns” series, despite, as SFE notes, certain themes. (The edition I’m reading, and using pagination from, is a 1974 trade paperback reprint in Avon/Equinox’s SF Rediscovery series, with an odd cover illustration depicting two Greek-like gods fighting in the clouds. Photo upper right.)


The premise is that a good guy alien, Hunter, is pursuing across space a bad guy alien, Killer, and they both emerge from FTL in their separate ships near Earth and crash into the ocean just offshore of an island near Tahiti. The aliens are symbionts and must inhabit other bodies to survive. Hunter occupies a 15-year-old boy lying on the beach, makes himself aware to the boy, and together they engage on a detective hunt to identify what other person, on this small island, is harboring the fugitive Killer. It’s like searching for a needle in a haystack—except that the needle is disguised as a piece of hay.


This is a decent mystery/detective story, in that a quarry must be found, various likely candidate hosts are identified, and circumstances eliminate some or suggest others, until the resolution uses clues we likely haven’t noticed to identify a previously unsuspected suspect. The greatest flaw is that the stakes are arbitrary—the bad guy is bad because we’re told so—while apparently the symbionts are if anything beneficial to their hosts, not harmful. What would have happened if the quarry hadn’t been found? Nothing at all, apparently. It’s a matter of alien justice, only.

Summary and Comments

  • The opening pages describe Hunter and his ship, emerging from FTL and crashing into a planet into shallow water. The ship is just 20 inches by 2 ft (our omniscient author informs us), and Hunter weights just 4 pounds. He has a companion animal called a “perit” which has not survived. (And nothing much is made of what this companion did; perhaps serve as a surrogate host during space travel.) We’re told how Hunter is a metazoan but with extremely small cells; it can reshape itself, e.g. exuding pseudopods, and insinuate itself into other creatures, like a passing shark, which Hunter then kills by depriving it of oxygen.
  • The dead shark washes up on the beach. Hunter observes bipeds approach and play in the water. Hunter disguises himself as a jellyfish to approach them…
    • Up to this point the narrative does a decent job in describing things from an alien point of view, including some things we recognize as ordinary parts of our world that the alien doesn’t quite understand. (There’s a subgenre of such stories – Asimov’s “Green Patches” comes to mind—of SF writers doing this for better or worse.) But at this point the author gives up and tells us…
  • One of the boys is Robert Kinnaird, 15-years-old, and his friends are having a farewell picnic; summer is ending and Robert is heading back to school on the mainland. As the boys sleep on the beach, Hunter creeps across the sand and enters the boy’s foot, moving through his muscles and organs, settling in the abdomen. He reminds himself of his kind’s ancient law: Do nothing that can harm your host!
    • The prose is rather clinical, e.g. page 22 as the boys part: “They were rather silent now, with the awkwardness natural to their ages when faced by a situation which adults would treat either emotionally or with studied casualness.” And throughout, Clement is fond of semicolons. And it’s third-person omniscient; note how the author informs us of the thoughts of both the doctor and the father, on pp56-57.
  • We get some background on Hunter’s race, a race of symbionts that typically live on good, open terms with their hosts. A minority who occupy hosts covertly are regarded as evil and must be terminated—like Hunter’s quarry.
  • Robert returns to school in Massachusetts, and Hunter is inadvertently carried along, panicked that his quarry is now far behind him. Months pass. Hunter learns the boy’s language by observing his physics class.
    • Typically of SF stories of this era, aliens are given the task of learning the humans’ language, rather than vice versa, and do so with remarkable speed (necessary to plot); Clement at least allows this to happen over a period of months.
  • Hunter decides to reveal himself to Robert, which he does by taking control of the boy’s hands, then eyes, eventually projecting words across Robert’s field of vision
    • Robert is initially freaked out by feeling his fingers twitch, and so on, but once communication begins, accepts with remarkable equanimity that an alien creature has secreted itself inside his body. SFE’s Clement entry notes that “This internal symbiosis is a highly loaded theme” but that the story is “told without any of the necessary queasy resonance.” My thought in particular was how an adolescent, especially, might feel angst about some alien, or anyone, witnessing all his bodily functions.
    • Robert also discovers a useful function of his symbiont. In his initial panic he races down the stairs and cuts open his arm, and sees that Hunter has the ability to seal the cut by extruding some glistening substance onto his skin. This puzzles the school nurse! A couple of times later in the book Hunter similarly rescues Bob from serious injury.
  • Robert (Bob) learns to speak out loud to communicate with Hunter. He quickly appreciates Hunter’s situation, and thus the need to return to the island, without any excuse to leave school to do so. In a convenient yet plausible bit of plotting, Bob’s distraction from his schoolwork on this matter leads to his dismissal from school for a rest leave back home.
  • And so Bob (and Hunter) return to his island. At this point we’re at page 61 of a 207 page novel. The bulk of the book consists of…
    • Hunter trying to identify just where offshore the alien ships crashed, and therefore which humans might have been occupied by the quarry.
    • Bob meeting up with friends Kenny, Norman, Hugh, and Kenneth. They spend much time swimming, and exploring the southern edge of the island behind the reef. Bob can’t help but think these friends, on the beach with him that day, are the most likely hosts for Killer.
    • Meanwhile, Bob’s father is busy with a large construction project; the island’s economy rests on creating petroleum products from local plants.
    • Bob confides to the local doctor—who, as was Bob, is remarkably unperturbed by the idea of an alien symbiont. (It’s as if he was officer on some Trek starship, told of an incredible circumstance, accepting it immediately, and dealing with it, because that’s his job. To be fair, Hunter has Bob and the doctor hold hands to 20 minutes to establish contact between the doctor and the alien.)
  • And all of this happens over the space of two or three days, because one of the prime suspects of hosting Killer is about to leave the island, and because Bob, who’s arrived on a Friday, is due to attend the local school on Monday.
    • One by one Bob’s friends seem to be ruled out; they’ve acted in ways a symbiont would not let them. Who is left?
    • Bob doesn’t figure it out; his symbiont Hunter does. It’s…. SPOILER … Bob’s father. Hunter verifies this by emerging from Bob’s body in the middle of the night and oozes into the sleeping Mr. Kinnaird’s room, and makes contact with Killer, in a stand-off.
    • Hunter explains his reasoning to Bob the next morning: he’s observed Mr K. becoming more and more careless over the past few days, with several examples cited from scenes we’ve witnessed on the dock and at the construction site and perhaps not paid close enough attention to.
    • The rationale is that Killer, inside Mr. K’s body, has been protecting him from casual injuries just as Hunter has Bob, and this has made Mr. K less careful as he moves about the docks and the work site.
      • I don’t think this is plausible – if I cut myself and it healed amazing fast, would I become more careless around knives assuming I would heal quickly again? And did Hunter really notice this trend over the space of two or three days?
  • Stalemate? The climax comes as Bob arranges an elaborate stunt, which involves setting a fire that threatens an explosion, to apparently threaten both himself and his father. The reasoning is that the Killer will flee Mr. K’s body if there’s risk to itself.
  • The scheme works and Bob douses the Killer’s bloblike body to kill it.
  • The Asimovian chapter titles (including “Signal,” “Answer,” “Stage…”, “Setting…” and “Players”, and especially “Slip!” and “And Fall!”) helpfully mark key points of plot. “Problem One” was identifying Killer’s host. “Problem Two” was ridding the host of Killer. The final chapter is called “Problem Three”. What would this problem be? Why, fairly obviously, it’s what does Hunter do now? He has no way of leaving Earth to return to his own world. That’s obvious, so perhaps the actual problem is whether Bob is willing to continue hosting him. And without a moment’s hesitation, Bob agrees, and he needs Hunter to concoct an explanation for why he started that fire. The end.


I was reminded somewhere recently that one way of thinking about a story is to consider, what are the stakes? Why should we care? And so my problem with this story is why there is such urgency to find Killer and remove it from its host. We gather that Mr. Kinnaird was never aware of hosting an alien; nor have we been given any reason to think the alien Killer has been manipulating the human to carry off some evil plan. We haven’t even been told that Killer at any time killed anyone; his name begs his evil status. (Or did I miss something?) What was the problem with both Hunter and Killer remaining in their hosts? If anything, these symbionts are beneficial to their hosts, in that they can protect their hosts from bodily injury.

Credit given for Bob’s having the presence of mind to wonder if Hunter is telling him the truth about who he and his quarry are. Mightn’t Killer tell Mr. K an identical story, or some cover story to justify his presence? Yet, though we suspect once or twice that Mr K is aware of, or being manipulated by, his symbiont, we gather by the end of the book that he was entirely unaware of his invader. (I noted a line on page 127, which I thought might be foreshadowing, as Mr. K observes his son Bob napping: “Mr. Kinnaird approached silently and looked down at the boy for some time with an expression that defied interpretation.” Perhaps this is just haphazard omniscient narrative from Clement.)

Much is made of Bob’s not having opportunities to speak with Hunter, since doing so requires talking out loud—but all he has to do is go to the bathroom. Except characters in fiction of this era didn’t go to the bathroom.

The endless details about the geography of the island, how the boys move back and forth across it, get wearying. You have the impression the author lived on such an island and is using it exactly as the model for the nameless island in this book. (Though the bios at SFE and Wikipedia indicate no such connection; Clement spent WWII in Europe.) And the author also seems to know a lot about industrial construction!

I should note that Clement wrote a sequel years later, Through the Eye of a Needle (1978), which I’ve not read. So perhaps he addressed some of these lingering issues there.


Despite a couple gaps in plausibility, this is a good example of Campbellian era problem-solving science fiction. Situations are set up, and problems are introduced that must be solved within the constraints of the situations. How does Hunter establish contact with the human he is occupying? How do they find who’s hosting Hunter’s quarry, with no way to tell externally, only by circumstance? This is the kind of story that invites the reader to solve these problems before the characters do, as in any good mystery novel.

Posted in Book Notes, science fiction | Comments Off on But What’s at Stake? Hal Clement’s Needle

Things Are As They Are: George R. Stewart’s EARTH ABIDES

Here is one of the best science fiction novels of all time. It’s about the entire world, and implicitly the entire human race, and it’s as timely as ever as, for one reason or another, humanity faces the realization that its indefinite survival on planet Earth is not guaranteed.

The novel is EARTH ABIDES by George R. Stewart. It was published in 1949 and was Stewart’s only SF novel (though he wrote a couple earlier novels about natural catastrophes, including one about a storm that inspired the US National Weather Service to give storms names). It won the first International Fantasy Award ( in a year preceding the advent of the Hugos. (Stewart never wrote any other science fiction, and this novel wasn’t published as science fiction, but was later embraced by genre critics, much as the famous novels by Huxley and Orwell were.)

It’s about the aftermath of a worldwide plague that kills off virtually all of humanity, all but a tiny number of people who are naturally immune. We gather this number might be a dozen or two in any large city. It follows one particularly character, Isherman Williams, Ish, as he returns to his city, which happens to be Berkeley, California, from a stay in the mountains, and discovers that the world seems deserted.

That is, the story begins after the initial catastrophe is mostly over, the part of it presumably involving mass panic and people dying in horrible ways. In this way it resembles similar stories, like Wyndham’s THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS or the debut episode of The Twilight Zone, “Where Is Everybody?” (and numerous others I’m sure; there was a Martian Chronicle like this too), which invites the personal fantasy of having the entire world to one self, and the temptation of imagining what to do with it, despite the growing panic of not knowing how the world got this way.

The book then follows the rest of Ish’s life. And it does so in varying manners of scope and pace in a way that gives the novel a multi-dimensional impact.

Here’s a bulleted summary with comments indented one tab.

World Without End

In a 345-page book (I’m using the pagination of the 2006 Del Rey trade paperback edition), the first part, “World Without End,” is 127 pages. It follows Ish from day to day as he realizes what has happened and starts to make a new life for himself.

  • He is living in the mountains, is struck by a rattlesnake, and lies in bed in his cabin recovering for the several days. (Perhaps that is what gives him immunity from the plague.)
  • Recovered, he drives to town, finds no one; finds a week-old newspaper that tells of a disease sweeping the US, leaving 25-35% of the population already dead.
  • He drives down the highway to the city, in the Bay Area, and to his parents’ home on San Lupo Drive.
    • A Stewart website,, says the author’s actual house was on San Luis Road, in Berkeley; San Lupo is fictional, but the novel seems to base its house on the actual one. There’s a photo in the scroll at the bottom of the page, linked here:
    • A lot of the older homes in the Oakland and Berkley hills are on narrow lots and so are tall, and/or deep. The location is about a mile north of the UC Berkeley campus.
  • He walks the neighborhood, drives through town, finds only a handful of people, crazy or half-dead. He starts across the deserted Bay Bridge before deciding it’s pointless, and returns home.
  • Ish is remarkably calm about all this, ready to be a spectator to observe what happens to the world in the absence of man. He considers his own qualifications: he has will to live; has always been solitary; did not experience the disaster firsthand. And is not superstitious.
    • During these wanderings has passes through a park with tall rocks, that will become significant later.
  • He packs his station wagon, befriends a dog, and drives cross country, over the Tehachapi Pass, across the Mojave Desert, into Arizona. He encounters an isolated family of timid Negroes. He eventually reaches New York.
  • The city is empty. He meets a couple who hear his car approaching: Milt Abrams and Ann, two random survivors now living together, drinking warm martinis. Ish stays a night but finds them vacant, and departs.
  • Soon he’s back home, gathering food from stores. The water still flows; a public library is nearby; the lights stay on…for a while, then fade.
  • Weeks pass. He reads the Bible—Ecclesiastes, Solomon—pondering the meaning of life. And then he sees smoke from a chimney down the hill. And finds the house, and meets a woman there, Emma. After only a few minutes inside, they embrace.
  • She moves in with him. They talk of having a child. Rat populations explode, and they worry about plague. Emma knows the time will come for her child…and reveals to him, very indirectly, her secret – that she’s half black. It doesn’t matter to him.
  • Ish visits the university library, overwhelmed by its preservation of civilization. He decides to better keep track of time, and uses a surveyor’s transit to follow sunsets to the west across the bay. When sunset reaches furthest south and begins moving back north, that’s the solstice. He resolves to wait for the following solstice and then mark the end of Year One, somehow. Things aren’t finished; the world is without end.


Throughout the book are italicized passages that reveal what has happened outside of Ish’s experience—mostly about what is happening, or will happen, to the world at large, without humanity’s maintenance or interference.

The opening lines of the book are one of these passages, page 3: “…and the government of the United States of America is herewith suspended, except in the District of Columbia, as of the emergency. […] The West Oakland Hospitalization Center has been abandoned. Its functions, including burials at sea, are now concentrated at the Berkeley Center.” And so on.

Page 8: An encyclopedic passage about how populations of animals fluctuate, expanding until being struck by plague. Page 10: How a rodent on Christmas Island went extinct.

Then numerous passages about how the world as maintained by humans will deteriorate. About how pet dogs will die in their houses or merge with their wild counterparts. About how cats will die in their houses or not survive contact with wildcats. About grasses and flowers, gardens withering untended. What will happen to various livestock. Later, how the city decays, how cars will decay. In these we see how the Earth itself is as much a character in this novel as is Ish, as Connie Willis points out in her introduction to this edition. And these passages anticipate Alan Weisman’s striking 2007 book THE WORLD WITHOUT US (, which remorselessly describes how the artifacts of humanity will decay in days, years, and thousands of years after humanity’s hypothetical disappearance.

The farthest perspective is this from page 17:

High overhead, moon and planets and stars swung in their long smooth curves. They had no eyes, and they saw not; yet from the time when man’s fancy first formed within him, he has imagined that they looked down upon the earth.

And if so we may still imagine, and if they looked down upon the earth that night, what did they see?

Then we must say that they saw no change. Thought smoke from stacks and chimneys and campfire no longer rose to dim the atmosphere, yet still smoke rose from volcanoes and from forest fires. Seen even from the moon, the planet that night must have shown only with its accustomed splendor—no bright, no dimmer.

Quick Years

Stewart then shifts into fast forward mode to show what happens to Ish and Emma and others they meet, over the next 20 years, in 19 pages.

  • At the end of the first year, at a small park near their house where tall rocks lean against each other, Ish chisels out the number 1, to mark the first year: the Year of the Baby.
    • Personal aside: as I read this I had a frisson: could he be talking about Indian Rock Park? It was a place I had just visited, with my family, about six months before I reread this novel (which was about a year ago now). It’s a small park of enormous boulders now surrounded by homes in the Berkeley Hills; there are several similar parks in the area, presumably outcrops of rocks the home developers didn’t figure worth clearing. (Various websites devoted to George R. Stewart confirm this as the park described in the book.)
    • Here’s my blogpost about the visit: (Which I’ve made public.) And my photo; the San Francisco skyline is in the distance.
    • And here’s the official website:
  • Back to the book: The years pass, each one chiseled into the rock and given a name. The year of the garden; the year of the fires. Wildfires in northern California were as common then as now (it’s just that now they’re so much more destructive, since humans have been building further into fire-prone areas).
  • A man, Ezra, visits them a while, departs, and returns two years later with two wives, a situation presented matter-of-factly. [[ This was an issue in DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS too. ]] Another couple appears, and stays. They become a small tribe of seven adults, four children, and a half-wit, Evie.
  • They deal with cattle, mountain lions. Ish tries conducting church, for the children’s’ sake; but Ish is a skeptic, and thinks of it as a sham, and ends it.
  • An old man passing through brings them an epidemic, and three children die.
  • Wood carving becomes a fad. In Year 16, the first children get married.
  • In Year 17, a nearby house collapses. (Recall Alan Weisman. As a homeowner myself, I completely sympathize with the idea that, without regular, unending maintenance, a house might simply decay in a decade or two and fall down.)
  • Year 20: a big earthquake, and more houses fall down.
  • Year 21: One boy, Joey, who’s bright but no good at play, learns to read.

The Year 22

This middle section is the longest in the book, running from page 147 to page 304. Having employed three different narrative strategies, from the Stapledonian to the single point-of-view, Stewart now focuses on a single dramatic year in the lives of Ish and his kin.

The epigraph to this section, on page 147, concerns those Europeans who (in the early settlements of America) defected from their settlements to become Indians, while no Indians left their villages to settle with the Europeans. Exactly the same point was made in Sebastian Junger’s 2016 book TRIBE ( to try to understand why “primitive” society is, to many, so much more attractive than “modern” society.

The events of this year:

  • Ish ponders the future and thinks about who might someday lead their tribe. He focuses on Joey, the smart one.
  • The water runs slow; they discover the reservoir is running low.
  • Two boys fix up a jeep and leave on an expedition east.
  • The tribe grows. Ish resumes teaching. He realizes the power of holding a hammer, which is regarded as a holy relic [[ recall LORD OF THE FLIES, the conch! ]]
  • The two boys return, bringing an older but dirty man, Charlie. They’d reached Chicago. The tribe become suspicious of Charlie, a threat to their order, for various reasons, and vote to execute him. And they do.
  • Another disease strikes, perhaps typhoid fever. Ish succumbs, but survives, and learns that – SPOILER, since this is the most emotional scene in the book – among others, Joey, his hope, has died.
  • Ish spends weeks convalescing. He goes for a walk, considers disposing of the hammer, but does not. He walks to the campus, and in the library finds a book he once read about climate: “Climatic change was not a practical problem,” he thinks, and puts the book back.
  • Ish becomes disconsolate. Perhaps Joey may not have been able to change anything. The Tribe won’t rebuild civilization. They will run out of supplies, or ammunition, or matches.
  • He decides: no more school. Instead, he teaches them how to make bows and arrows. The children are fascinated and competitive. Ish takes solace in that they have an invention to fall back on when there are no more rifles.
  • The year ends, and they simply name it, Year 22.


There are several in this section too, some of them thoughts about human society that might well be Ish’s:

  • Page 190, how long the bridges will last.
  • Page 210, how old boundaries, like fences, give way to landmarks.
  • Page 219, education, from a child’s point of view: Civ-vil-eye-za-shun! That is what Uncle Ish talked about. There are lots of quail by the stream today. Two-and-six? I know that! Why should I say it to him? Two-and-nine? That is hard. It is more than my fingers. It is the same as “a lot.”
  • Page 231, what happens to a culture when its promised one is gone. Between the plan and the fulfillment stands always the frail barrier of a human life.
  • Page 233, Ish muses about being treated like a god, receiving sacrifices.
  • Page 293, How people yearn to escape from daily life to go fishing, or camping, or sit in a cabin or on a beach. What a strange thing then is this great civilization, that no sooner have men attained it than they seek to flee from it! […] Why do the legends look back toward some golden day of simplicity? Must we not think then that this great civilization grew up, not by men’s desires, but rather by Forces and Pressures. Step by step, as villages grew larger, men must give up the free wandering life of berry picking and seed gathering and tie themselves to the security (and drudgery) of agriculture… Yes—this is the key.

Quick Years 2

A shorter, 10 page fast forward, taking Ish into old age.

  • Adult members of the tribe die.
  • In Year 34 they meet another group north of the bay and agree to merge, for the sake of wives.
  • Em dies; Ish marries a young woman from the other tribe and has more children.
  • In Year 43 Ish is too tired to carve the rock and given the year a name, and the tradition dies.
  • A fire ravages the city for a week.
  • Then Ezra dies, the last of the original tribe’s adults, and Ish realizes he is the last American.

The Last American

This final section is just 30 pages long.

  • One day a young man, Jack, comes to Ish, showing off his bow and arrow. Rifles can’t be trusted. The boy shows his red and white arrows, with points made from different “corns” (i.e. coins) with pictures on them of the Old Ones, who perhaps made the hills and the Americans. Red arrows are for one kind of hunting, white for another. Why?, Ish asks. The boy replies that there is no why, things just are; “It is like the sun that keeps on going round the earth, but naturally no one knows why, or asks why. Why should there be a why?” Ish is tempted to respond, but stops himself. It doesn’t matter; superstitions will arise.
  • Ish asks the boy, are you happy? Jack responds, “Yes, I am happy. Things are as they are, and I am part of them.”
  • Then one morning there’s a fire and the entire group flees, Jack bringing the hammer. They huddle by the rocks as fire sweeps through the neighborhood. Now the second world is gone too, Ish thinks. They hike to the campus and camp there.
  • In the morning they head west. Ish is weak, but clear-headed enough to realize he is dying. They go along the East Shore Highway, US 40 [now Interstate 80/580] and head out onto the bridge. Ish has a seizure, wakes to the boys appealing to him for some decision—about who should get the hammer. He indicates Jack. He sees the hills across the bay, and remembers the passage, “Men go and come, but earth abides.”


  • Page 326: The cuts in the hills and the long embankments for the roads—they will still show as narrow valleys and ridges even after ten thousand years have passed. The great masses of concrete that were the dams—they will remain like the dikes of the granite itself. It goes on: three fires will destroy the rest: of rust, of decay, of flame.
  • Page 331, sounding Biblical: Again, in that day each little tribe will live by itself and to itself and go its own way, and their differences will soon be more than they were even in the first days of Man, according to the accidents of survival and of place…

Notes and other quotes

  • The main character, commentators note, is almost certainly named after Ishi, a Yahi Indian who emerged from the California mountains and into the modern world in 1911. His story was documented by the anthropologist Alfred Kroeber, father of Ursula K. Le Guin (who grew up in Berkeley).
  • If a primary theme of the book is the almost welcoming of a return to a simple way of the life, the counterpart to that is the idea that knowledge, rationalism, escape from superstition (e.g. culminating in Ish’s atheism) are luxuries available only to individuals in a large civilization that can support them. Whereas in a tribalistic way of life, they are unneeded and perhaps counter-productive.
  • P284.4: “Perhaps rationalism—like so much else—had only been one of the luxuries which men could afford under civilization.”
  • P311.8: “Perhaps the brilliant ones were not suited to survive.”
  • On the primary theme: commentaries like Wikipedia point out the reflection of Biblical themes in this novel – the recovery from the global catastrophe, etc. But I see both this novel, and the parables of Genesis, as reflecting the larger issue of the evolution of human culture, in particular the fallout of the transition from the hunter-gatherer way of life through the invention of agriculture to the sedentary way of life, some 10-12,000 years ago. Anthropologists and historians have increasingly recognized the inherent dilemma; Jared Diamond, in GUNS, GERMS, AND STEEL (, called the Neolithic Revolution “the worst mistake in the history of the human race.” I wonder if perhaps the yearning for the simplicity of life before agriculture is what motivates not only the parables of Genesis, but the eternal notion that things were better in the “good old days” (an idea cited in “Death Sentence,” one of the EARLY ASIMOV stories!) all the way up to MAGA.
  • And so this dilemma is surely as profound as any issue in literature: has the expansion of our species and our knowledge of ourselves and the universe through science and rationalism been worth it? Or is it better to be happy as part of a tribe and know nothing of the world? “Yes, I am happy. Things are as they are, and I am part of them.”

One quibble

The quibble is about Del Rey’s cover blub: “The Award-Winning Futuristic Classic.” There’s nothing futuristic about this novel; it’s set in the author’s present and was published in 1949, and the events in it could easily happen now as then.

Of course, this novel is science fiction because science fiction isn’t merely about speculative futures; science fiction is about the humanity’s place in and understanding of a presumably comprehensible universe that objectively exists independent of human desires and motivations. And in the balancing of its portrait of human nature as expressed in its characters and emerging new culture, with the depiction of a planet that is bound to endure whether humanity survives or not, EARTH ABIDES addresses this broadest project of science fiction as well as any novel I know.

Posted in Book Notes, science fiction | Comments Off on Things Are As They Are: George R. Stewart’s EARTH ABIDES

Links and Comments: Secrets of Success, the 2010s, Gibson’s future, History v. Narratives

Here are a few items from recent papers.

1) Nicholas Kristof: The Four Secrets of Success.

Which are:

1. Take a class in economics and in statistics
2. Connect to a cause larger than yourself.
3. Make out.
4. Escape your comfort zone.

By #3 he means to meet lots of people before making any life decisions. Numbers 4 and 2 are familiar and self-explanatory. I endorse #1 but with an even broader scope: take a class, or read a book, about logical fallacies, about cognitive biases, to understand how advertising and politics works, to understand how people make arguments, to understand how every one of us is susceptible to confirmation bias and other motivated thinking. (For that matter, in addition to economics, learn elementary civics, a subject apparently no longer taught in elementary school.)

2) Michio Kakutani, The 2010s Were the End of Normal

Nice summary, including this now-familiar history of similar episodes in US history:

Although the United States was founded on the Enlightenment values of reason, liberty and progress, there has long been another strain of thinking at work beneath the surface — what Philip Roth called “the indigenous American berserk,” and the historian Richard Hofstadter famously described as “the paranoid style.”

It’s an outlook characterized by a sense of “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy,” Hofstadter wrote in his 1964 essay, and focused on perceived threats to “a nation, a culture, a way of life.” Its language is apocalyptic (Mr. Trump’s “American carnage” is a perfect example); its point of view, extremist. It regards its opponents as evil and ubiquitous, while portraying itself, in Hofstadter’s words, as “manning the barricades of civilization.”

The “paranoid style,” Hofstadter observed, tends to occur in “episodic waves.” The modern right wing, he wrote, feels dispossessed: “America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it.” In their view, “the old American virtues have already been eaten away by cosmopolitans and intellectuals,” and national independence has been “destroyed by treasonous plots, having as their most powerful agents not merely outsiders and foreigners but major statesmen seated at the very centers of American power.”

One well-known eruption of the “paranoid style” occurred in the 1950s with the anti-Communist hysteria led by Joseph McCarthy. It would surface again in the 1960s with the emergence on the national stage of George C. Wallace, who ran a presidential campaign fueled by racism and white working-class rage.

And then the religious right, having lost on civil rights, took on abortion, until then a non-issue. It worked.

3) This profile of William Gibson includes this famous remark:

“The future is already here,” he has said. “It’s just not very evenly distributed.”

4) History vs. narratives. Women Have Always Had Abortions, by Lauren MacIvor Thompson.

Concluding with:

The mortality rate dropped significantly, from about 70 patient deaths per 100,000 cases before the ruling to 1.3 after the [Roe v. Wade] decision. It has now become statistically safer to obtain an abortion in the United States than it is to undergo pregnancy or give birth.

Scholars have worked tirelessly to uncover this long history and make sense of it. Nevertheless, false histories of abortion dominate contemporary politics, selling Americans on a past that never existed and creating the possibility of a future that has no precedent. It is a world where somehow no one will ever try to end her pregnancy. But it’s worth taking a close look at the historical record because it tells us one thing over and over and over. Regardless of whether abortion was legal, or how many people believed fetuses had rights or what physicians thought or anything else really, women have always had abortions.

This issue will go away, I predict, as technology perfects ‘abortion pills’ that can be ordered by mail. And then the religious right, no matter how much they might like to interfere in other peoples’ private affairs, will be unable to do so.

Posted in Conservative Resistance, Culture, Economics, Narrative | Comments Off on Links and Comments: Secrets of Success, the 2010s, Gibson’s future, History v. Narratives

Peter Watts essay: “Understanding Sarah Palin, or, God Is In the Wattles”: Summary and Comments

From the book Peter Watts Is An Angry Sentient Tumor: Revenge Fantasies and Essays (Tachyon, November 2019), a selection of posts from the blog of Peter Watts, which has been running since 2007. Watts is the noted author of high concept, hard SF novels like STARFISH and BLINDSIGHT. His blog ranges over many topics, from movie reviews to political commentary. I skimmed the book on a rainy afternoon a couple days ago, reading some chapters completely and getting at least an idea of the others. (I needed to decide if I would recommend it for Locus’ Recommended Reading List, and I will.) Two or three chapters struck me as particularly interesting given my themes here (being summarized on my new “Principles” page recently), and the most interesting one is worth summarizing and commenting on. And since the book chapters are all from the blog, they’re all online — you can easily read the entire original post if you like.

Here’s the one I’m looking at, from October 2008. My comments, this time, are in [[ double brackets ]]

Understanding Sarah Palin: Or, God Is In The Wattles

He starts with:

Here’s a question for you. Why hasn’t natural selection driven the religious right to extinction?

You should forgive me for asking. After all, here is a group of people who base their lives on patently absurd superstitions that fly in the face of empirical evidence. It’s as if I suddenly chose to believe that I could walk off the edges of cliffs with impunity; you would not expect me to live very long. You would expect me to leave few if any offspring. You would expect me to get weeded out.

[[ Right away, I’m eager to see what he has to say. My tentative conclusion has been that survival is not about accurately perceiving the real world; it’s about social cohesion, and shared beliefs, no matter how absurd, build that cohesion. In fact the ‘cost’ of holding especially absurd beliefs works especially to prove dedication to the group. ]]

The post/chapter goes on with recourse to psychology, including the now-famous Dunning-Kruger effect (in which dumb people are too dumb to realize how dumb they are, and actually think themselves pretty smart; world-famous example is an exercise for the reader). Watts even anticipates my comment just made:

You might suggest that my analogy is a bit loopy: young-earth creationism may fly in the face of reason, but it hardly has as much immediate survival relevance as my own delusory immunity to gravity. I would disagree.

…with examples of the Church denying scientific findings, and noting that fundamentalists tend to be climate change deniers.

Evoking group selection, Watts wonders why there aren’t more societies driven by empiricism; “why are god-grovellers so powerful across the globe?”

The great thing about science is, it can even answer ugly questions like this. And a lot of pieces have been falling into place lately. Many of them have to do with the brain’s fundamental role as a pattern-matcher.

[[ To cite the three-nature model of human nature from the Van Schaik & Michel (VS&M) book The Good Book of Human Nature: A Evolutionary Reading of the Bible in my previous post: Here we are back to first nature tendency to see agency everywhere, and the propensity to detect patterns – bunnies in clouds, the Virgin Mary in a tortilla – even when none exist. The cost of false positives (superstitions) is less than the cost of false negatives (death). That does not mean that the false positive patterns are real, or meaningful. ]]

So Watts starts citing recent scientific studies. I’ll bullet-summarize the points he makes.

  • “It turns out that the less control people feel they have over their lives, the more likely they are to perceive images in random visual static.”
  • “Right-wingers are significantly more scared of [spiders] than left-wingers tend to be: at least, conservatives show stronger stress responses than liberals to ‘threatening’ pictures of large spiders perched on human faces.” The strongest responses were from those who “favor defense spending, capital punishment, patriotism, and the Iraq War”.
  • Dunning-Kruger, quoting his bullets:
    • “People tend to overestimate their own smarts.
    • “Stupid people tend to overestimate their smarts more than the truly smart do.
    • “Smart people tend to assume that everyone else is as smart as they are; they honestly can’t understand why dumber people just don’t ‘get it’, because it doesn’t occur to them that those people actually are dumb.
    • “Stupid people, in contrast, tend to not only regard themselves as smarter than everyone else, they tend to regard truly smart people as especially stupid. This holds true even when these people are shown empirical proof that they are less competent than those they deride.”

[[ I did not know this last point! I knew about the dumb people not realizing how dumb they were part, and how they overestimate their own intelligence. But dumb people think smart people are dumb? But after a moment, I understood completely. The idea recalls something conservative firebrand Ann Coulter once said: why can’t liberals just make up their minds? [paraphrasing from memory]. The idea dovetails with the oft-repeated sentiment (see my Quotes page) that “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.” That is, some people, driven I would think by [to use VS&M’s terminology] first nature thinking, with second nature justification, think all problems are simple matters of good or evil, black or white, and that the answer to any question is simple and obvious. Never mind that third nature thinking (like science) might show that cognitive biases and perceptual illusions are misleading them, because those first two natures are suitable for survival but not for perception of reality. These people wonder why the third nature folks see uncertainty in everything, and thus think them the dumb ones. ]]

Watts summarizes, and then concludes:

Therefore (I would argue) the so-called “right wing” is especially predisposed to believe in moralizing, authoritarian Invisible Friends. And the dumber individuals (of any stripe) are, the more immune they are to reason. Note that, to paraphrase John Stuart Mill, I am not saying that conservatives are stupid (I myself know some very smart conservatives), but that stupid people tend to be conservative. Whole other thing.

[[ I’ve made this last stipulation myself, e.g. along the lines of noting that racists are usually conservatives, but that doesn’t mean all conservatives are racist. ]]

Next, Watts cites studies about the origins of religion. People are less likely to cheat if they think someone is watching them. Even a poster of eyes above a donation jar; even an imaginary god. Thus religious communes last longer than secular ones. Acts of charity are matters of social optics: who sees that I’m being charitable? How religion is more common in areas with water and resource shortages. [[ This dovetails with VS&M’s notion that the reason the formidable legal codes of the Torah evolved where it did, and not anywhere else. ]]

The surveillance issue solves the problem of freeloading [[ this is an idea I’ve noted from other books; solving the problem of freeloading enables larger and larger communities ]]. Thus, religion, and the idea that god is watching over you, enabled groups far larger than those traditional among hunter-gatherer tribes, where freeloading would be easily detected.

And therefore the idea that the cost of religious commitment, even to crazy ideas, validates membership in the group. And here we get to chicken wattles: they may seem purposeless, but in fact they are signs of health, as are peacock tails. Religious communes impose many more costly requirements than others. Watts emphasizes this point:

It’s not the ideology per sé that confers the advantage; it’s the cost of the signal that matters. Once again, we strip away the curtain and God stands revealed as ecological energetics, writ in a fancy font.

And so the power of Palin and her followers, to quote Watts’ bullets:

  • “Fear and stress result in loss of perceived control;
  • “Loss of perceived control results in increased perception of nonexistent patterns ([from a study earlier cited]: ‘The tendency to detect agency in nature likely supplied the cognitive template that supports the pervasive belief in supernatural agents’);
  • “Those with right-wing political beliefs tend to scare more easily;
  • “Authoritarian religious systems based on a snooping, surveillant God, with high membership costs and antipathy towards outsiders, are more cohesive, less invasible by cheaters, and longer-lived. They also tend to flourish in high-stress environments.”

Watts ends by wondering, now that we understand all this, what are we going to do about it?


In the original post, but not in the book chapter, is a coda from a couple days after the initial post:

And as the tide turns, and the newsfeeds and Youtube videos pile up on my screen, the feature that distinguishes right from left seems ever-clearer: fear. See the angry mobs at Republican rallies. Listen to the shouts of terrorist and socialist and kill him! whenever Obama’s name is mentioned. And just tonight, when even John McCain seemed to realise that things had gone too far, and tried to describe the hated enemy as “a decent man”— he was roundly booed by his own supporters.

…These people are fucking terrified.

Indeed, that’s been my impression for some time. Look at the anger, and fear, evident in the rantings of right-wing talk show hosts; and just recently, look at how the Republicans in the impeachments hearings last week engaged in non-stop yelling. (In contrast to the cool, reasoned attitudes of Schiff and Pelosi; or on TV of Rachel Maddow, who’s usually just amused and bemused by the antics of the conservatives, but not angry.) While it’s dangerous to generalize, again: the people who are primarily motivated by first nature thinking and feel threatened in any way, are conservatives.

Posted in Book Notes, Conservative Resistance, Evolution, Religion | Comments Off on Peter Watts essay: “Understanding Sarah Palin, or, God Is In the Wattles”: Summary and Comments

Carel Van Schaik & Kai Michel, THE GOOD BOOK OF HUMAN NATURE: An Evolutionary Reading of the Bible (2016): Introduction

This is a fascinating book because it describes how there really is some rationale (if not reason or logic) to the stories in the Bible. It’s a set of answers to the general question, a sort of meta-question that one can ask about any kind of story—why is *this* story being told, and not some other? And why does the story end *this* way, and not some other way? Remember, they’re stories! The answer is not that they’re literally true, let alone the dictation from some omnipotent being. Even if remotely based on real events, the reality is that the early books of the Bible were transmitted orally for centuries before they were written down – and then the versions that were written down were, ahem, edited by the folks in 300 AD or so who decided which parts went into their anthology, and which others were deemed apocryphal or blasphemous. And stories grow in the telling.

This is a detailed book that I’ll likely not finish until I finish reading and rereading the Bible itself, over the next year, so for this post, just a summary of the 25 page introduction. I’ll alternate my comments with summary.


The Bible documents humanity’s cultural evolution. We can understand this with awareness of recent finding in cognitive science and evolutionary biology. Its odd stories began making sense with this perspective.

In the Bible we find answers to humanity’s greatest questions. We do not mean this in a religious sense. Rather, it teaches us why we fear death, how we deal with misfortunes, and where our deep-seated desire for justice originated. The Bible shows us how we learned to survive in large, anonymous societies, why our modern lives sometimes seem so pointless, and why we are so often nagged by what we would describe as a longing for Paradise.


The gist of their theme is this: We understand that some 10-12,000 years ago, as the last great ice age ended, humanity ‘invented’ agriculture. The agricultural revolution. This led to the formation of fixed villages, towns, and eventually cities. But humanity had spent hundreds of thousands of years as hunter-gatherers, in small tribes with no fixed locations. In these tribes everyone knew everyone else. Based on evidence of the few remaining hunter-gatherers that still exist around the world, these tribes were remarkably egalitarian; everyone shared tribal chores. But being stuck in one place, to grow crops, changed everything. Among the effects: close contact with animals brought about new diseases, whose causes were unknown (and so of course ascribed first to spirits and then to gods). Investment in land required the stability of a family line, leading the primogeniture, with the eldest male inheriting everything, instead of the equal distribution of the estate you read about in some of the early Bible stories. With the men at home, women became commodities, traded like any other property, and thus the subjugation of women.

And so on. The early Bible stories reflect these issues and describe how they were solved, and even if these issues had been around for thousands of years, they were still the most important stories to be told, long enough until they were finally written down.

The grand achievement of this primeval history was the creation of law—Leviticus—all the rules to follow to avoid conflict, to prevent diseases, and so on.

(Of course those rules were created for desert tribes with no electricity or plumbing, with no knowledge of the outside world. To follow those rules now would be, mostly, silly. Yet some people still find the simplicity of an ancient list attractive, so they don’t have to think about the realities of modern life.)

(I’m wondering if in this book there is any acknowledgment that this is only one strand of primeval history. Other cultures, especially in Asia, must have gone through analogous phases. Perhaps we simply don’t know that history? Or people in the West ignores those histories?)

Back to summary:

Why should the current authors be the first to take this approach to the Bible? Because Biblical studies have been carried out in isolation, and with little knowledge by the public; because the study of religion as an aspect of human nature is relatively recent; because of the tensions between religion and science, especially in the US. (Mentions of Steven Pinker, Marvin Harris, Robert Wright, John Teehan.)

We understand now that the evolutionary history of humanity left us with emotions and behaviors adapted to a world that has since disappeared. The single greatest change in the behavior of any species on the planet has been humanity’s adoption of a sedentary way of life. This event, the Neolithic Revolution, has been called “the worst mistake in the history of the human race” (in Jared Diamond’s GUNS, GERMS, AND STEEL). It was certainly a decisive turning point in human evolution: the species has since exploded across the planet. The initial costs were shorter lifespans, more violence, more disease. Scourges that required explanations. And strategies for avoiding them.


I should mention that Isaac Asimov, in his two volume GUIDE TO THE BIBLE in the late 1960s, frequently invokes the perspective of pre-history following the ice ages, the tensions between early farmers and herders, and the effect natural catastrophes might have had on the development of Biblical stories. But the authors here go much further, given recent developments in cognitive science, evolutionary biology, etc.

Back to summary:

Brief history of the Bible. Beginning in the 17th century it became understood that the first five books, traditionally ascribed to Moses, could not have been written by him – too many references to things past his time. The observation that some passages refer to Elohim and others Yahweh (“God” vs. “LORD God” in KJV) enabled the reconstruction of separate original sources, at least four, that were stitched together (likely during the Babylonian exile) to form Genesis. The Hebrew Bible (the OT) was composed from roughly 900-100 BCE, from multiple sources and under varying influences.

Cultural evolution and our three natures: The transition to sedentariazation was too quick for it to be survived via biological evolution; rather, cultural evolution handled the problems it created. And so our ancient human nature has been overlaid, twice, and can now be described as three natures.

The first nature is our innate feelings, reactions, and preferences that evolved over hundreds of thousands of years as hunter-gatherers. These include love between parent and child, a sense of fairness and outrage at injustice, a fear of strangers, a concern for reputation, feelings of obligation and jealousy—and the tendency to see supernatural actors at work everywhere.

Cultural evolution created a second nature that is learned; it varies from culture to culture. These are traditions and customs, religion as a cultural product, and rules of decency, politeness, and good manners.

Our third nature reflects our rational side. These are conscious practices and institutions that enable analysis of a given situation. These are generally taught in schools, and result in all the practices we know are good for us but balk at doing: eating healthily, exercising, not drinking and driving, etc. This third nature comes into play when we face new challenges and old mechanisms to solve problems no longer work.

Our third nature now keeps the world running. But our first nature reactions often conflict, resulting in ‘mismatch problems’ in modern life. Third nature self-discipline is a limited resource. Example: a married woman falls in love with another man. First nature: “love!” Second nature: “fidelity!” Third nature: “think of the mortgage, the lawyers’ fees!” p24. (Monogamy is absent from many parts of the Bible; even that was a second nature development to solve problems brought about by the sedentary life.) Our second and third natures help us survive, but don’t necessarily make us happy. And anytime our gut nature is unhappy, we are detecting another of those mismatches between our evolutionary heritage, and modern life.

Posted in Bible, Book Notes, Evolution, Religion | Comments Off on Carel Van Schaik & Kai Michel, THE GOOD BOOK OF HUMAN NATURE: An Evolutionary Reading of the Bible (2016): Introduction

Stephen King, THE INSTITUTE (2019)

This is a solid contemporary thriller with SF (or perhaps fantasy) elements. As I’ve said before I like Stephen King but read only about his every third or fourth book, just the ones that seem to have some, to me, provocative theme (e.g., the others in the photo).

The book is expertly plotted and structured. It breaks down cleanly into half a dozen blocks of varying sizes. The whole book is about 560 pages.

  • 40 pages: Tim Jamieson, an ex-Sarasota police officer, forced out of his job due to a bizarre incident of circumstances, gives up his seat on a plane to New York and instead hitchhikes north. He ends up in a small South Carolina town, DuPray, where he gets a job as a “night walker,” that is, someone who walks up and down main street all night checking that doors are locked and everything is OK. His quick action when a local night mart is robbed leads to a better job with the local sheriff.
    • Right away in this section the central theme is emphasized: the results of chance circumstances, how the future is a result of chance encounters and unpredictable events. Tim gives up his plane seat on impulse; one of his rides gets stuck and in traffic and so he walks to the next town; the night mart robbery.
  • 40 pages: Luke Ellis is a gifted teenager in Minneapolis whose high school guidance counselor recommends he attend not one but two universities simultaneously, MIT and Emerson. Unremarked by his parents, he seems to have incidental telekinetic abilities: he can knock an empty pizza box onto the floor. One night a black SUV pulls up to his house; people enter, casually shoot Luke’s parents, and kidnap him. Luke wakes in a replica of his bedroom, inside some institute with other kids who exhibit TP and TK (telepathy and telekinesis).
  • 120 pages: We learn about the institute, which we gather is in Maine, run by the stern Mrs. Sigsby and a security staff. A dozen or so other kids are there, periodically taken to lower levels for various kinds of tests. After a time each kid is removed to the institute’s “back half” from which there is no return. The tests involve Stasi lights, symbols on playing cards, and the torture of being dunked into tank of water for minutes at time, supposedly to release latent psychic talents.
  • Mrs. Sigsby assures them that they are here to serve their country: the world is an arms race, a mind race. When their service is over, their memories will be wiped and they will be returned to their families. But new kids arrive regularly, and one of them, a talented TP named Avery, perceives that everything she says is a lie. (Luke already suspects his parents are dead.) Avery can also perceive that kids in the “back half” are shown movies, and apparently are being trained to execute targeted attacks on various victims, as psychic drones.
  • — spoilers from here on —
  • 75 pages: Luke escapes the institute, with help from one of the housekeepers, by digging under a chain link fence late one night. He makes his way through the woods to a river and rides a rowboat to a train yard and hops on a freight train heading south, all the way to… DuPray SC.
    • The last line of this section: “Great events turn on small hinges.”
  • 250 pages: Then follows plot, playing out the consequences of everything set up so far.
    • Luke meets Tim Jamieson and tells his story. That housekeeper gave him a flash drive, which has videos of the inside of the institute, including the “back half.”
    • Meanwhile the staff in Maine discovers that he’s gone and frantically searches for him. They are absolutely convinced that the survival of the world depends on continuing their mission – since the 1950s! – of testing, and torturing, kids, in order to selectively assassinate targets whose survival might trigger the end of the world. That the world hasn’t ended since the 1950s is proof their work is successful.
    • Agents from the institute arrive in DuPray; there’s a big shoot-out; Luke and Tim try to negotiate a deal with the security team at the institute…
    • Meanwhile, in an over-the-top special-effects sequence, the kids at the Institute join psychic forces with all the other kids at some 20 institutes around the world, and revolt: they escape their quarters, literally lift one portion of the facility into the air and drop it on top of the other. By the time Luke and Tim arrive from South Carolina, the staff is dead and only a few kids survive.
  • Last 30 pages: Three months later, Tim and his girlfriend live on a farm with Luke and the other surviving kids. A man, the “lisping man” who was Mrs. Sigsby’s unseen boss by phone, drives up, to explain himself, how the 20 institutes around the world have kept the world from destroying itself – and without them, now, the world is now on suicide watch. Isn’t it worth torturing a few kids to keep the world from destroying itself? Tim says, no.
  • Lisping man further explains that they selected their targets (an open question through the second half of the book) via a small handful of very rare Precogs, i.e. people with precognition, who can see the future.
    • And here the book’s theme coalesces: Luke, hearing this, objects. He says that analysis is flawed; they can’t predict consequences that far out; too many random factors intervene. Lisping man seems to realize this, but insists they were doing good. (There’s the suggestion that the Precogs are taking advantage of the situation, to live the high life they enjoy.)
  • And, in an almost wistful conclusion, the surviving kids, one by one, are sent back to where they came from, with stories to tell of how they’d been kidnapped for unknown reasons, and keys to a lockbox with that flash drive in case the news gets out.

Key points:

  • Again, the theme that echoes through the book is the effect of chance encounters, of unpredictable events, and without being explicit about it, King contrasts that with the claim, at the end, that history is being manipulated on the basis who can see the future—because the future is predetermined? Obviously not, or they couldn’t make changes. There’s a rich history of speculation in science fiction of the past century about whether history is alterable, via changes in the past or, as here, changes in the present to affect the future. Without dwelling on the theoretical, King’s conclusion seems to be: can’t be done. Too many random factors make prediction, or interference, impossible.
  • More generally, King is a popular writer who uses off-the-shelf SF and fantasy themes when he uses them at all. You don’t read Stephen King for original speculation. This book combines a couple familiar SF themes, and one philosophical moral theme familiar from a famous SF story. The latter is from Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”: if a perfect society could be maintained only through the suffering of a single child in a basement, is it worth it? The SF ideas are the try-to-change-the-future time travel notions, and a helping of the central theme of Theodore Sturgeon’s novel MORE THAN HUMAN, in the psychic unification of a group of variously talented people – here, when kids in the institutes around the world join forces to bring the Institute down.
  • I mentioned fantasy in the first sentence of this post because, really, there hasn’t turned out to be any scientific basis for telepathy, or for telekinesis, let alone precognition. (A funny point in the book is in the final scenes, when Tim accepts Lisping Man’s explanation until precognition is brought up: “I can buy telepathy, and I can buy telekinesis, but precognition? That’s not science, that’s carnival bullshit!” Alas, while all three premises are fun for use in fantasy and SF stories, they are passing (in public consciousness) or have already passed (among the scientifically savvy) into the dustbin of ideas that humans might wish were true, but are not.

Couple off-hand points:

  • In a clever bit of irony and character sketching, there’s a homeless woman in DuPray who listens to a conspiracy theory radio show, and all her fears about government conspiracies, down to hit men in black SUVs, seem to come true.
  • There also a moment late in the book in which one of the children complains, bitterly, “It’s not fair!” A common cry among children – humans have a deep sense of fairness, especially among siblings, and some never grow out of the feeling that life just has to be fair, even though it obviously isn’t. That’s the just-world fallacy in a nutshell.
Posted in Book Notes | Comments Off on Stephen King, THE INSTITUTE (2019)

Isaac Asimov: THE EARLY ASIMOV (1972)

This is a book I’d never read before, and debated recently about whether to ever read it. On the one hand, life is too short to read every book one might have accumulated, and this book consists, frankly, of all the stories from Asimov’s early career that had not already been included in 10 earlier collections — all the leftovers. (Those 10 include I, Robot as well as the three Foundation “novels,” since those were largely comprised of earlier magazine stories.) Thus I had passed over it several times before. On the other hand, I kept noticing early stories by Asimov in various anthologies, and realized that I’d never read those stories, or only a couple of them via those anthologies. So why not catch up on the others and just read through this 1972 book? An attraction is the substantial, autobiographical notes Asimov provides, detailing how each story was written and submitted; the book is subtitled “Or, Eleven Years of Trying.” Such notes proved so popular here that he provided similar notes in subsequent books (like the anthology BEFORE THE GOLDEN AGE) and then in two lengthy volumes of autobiography over the next eight years.

So before considering individual stories, here are the broad takeaways from reading this book.

  • Some of these stories are really bad, in awkward, embarrassing ways, while a few of them are quite good, making one wonder why they hadn’t been included in earlier books.
  • Considering why the bad ones are bad, and why the good ones are good, you can see that what Asimov did in his early career was gradually figure out what *kind* of stories he was good at telling, and avoiding those he wasn’t. Thus, his eventual characteristic stories that are largely conversation and/or about explaining things; thus his penchant for mysteries.
  • Many of these stories involve themes he also dealt with in his more famous stories, but differently worked out. I noticed this when I read THE REST OF THE ROBOTS a while back, which included stories about robots which weren’t consistent with the premises or conclusions of the canonical set of robot stories gathered in I, ROBOT. So in EARLY ASIMOV we have stories about galactic empires that aren’t consistent with the Foundation stories; stories about futures with alien races; stories about galactic colonies with positronic robots. Taken together, Asimov was writing variations on a small handful of themes, and his variations gradually became reduced to one set of canonical robot stories and another set of canonical foundation stories, with the inconsistent variants left to mold away in old magazines with no expectation of ever being read again. Until Asimov’s popularity in subsequent decades made books like THE EARLY ASIMOV feasible. (Asimov makes the point several times that through the decade of the 1940s, his only ambition was to write stories for the magazines, which were ephemeral; the notion of publishing books, or that these stories would ever be seen again, was unthinkable.)
  • There’s also recurring thoughts in several of these stories about “mob psychology” in how to understand humans, or aliens. These thoughts would later crystallize into the “psychohistory” of the Foundation stories.

These stories were all published from 1939 to 1950, the same span of years in which Asimov published of the Foundation and robot stories that went into I, ROBOT. The appendix has a numbered, chronological list of the 60 stories from this era, including several stories that went unsold and were lost, and the 27 stories included in this book.

Some examples of cringe-worthy stories:

  • In early story “The Callistan Menace” (2nd story written, published 1940) the menace which has caused previous expeditions to the Jovian moon to never return is… giant caterpillars that emerge from a lake! This time the mission succeeds because, as is offhandedly mentioned early in the story, the spaceship’s hull is made of beryl-tungsten, not steel. Comic book stuff.
  • “Ring Around the Sun” (#5, 1940) concerns a pair of wiseacre spaceship pilots testing out a new deflection shield that allows a course from Earth to Venus to go tightly past the sun. Things go wrong because, it turns out, the pilots didn’t bother to read the instructions for adjusting the field strength.
  • Similarly, “The Magnificent Possession” (#9, 1940) concerns a pair of inventors who don’t bother to test their new device before announcing it to the press, even as various con men and politicians try to get control of it. This story and the previous were attempts at comedy; they’re just dumb.
  • Perhaps most peculiarly, “Half-Breed” (#15, 1940) concerns a lone inventor, Jefferson Scanlon, attempting to perfect atomic power, and a race of Earth/Mars half-breeds that look like humans except for having spiky white hair. These half-breeds are normally kept in asylums. The inventor rescues a runaway Tweenie boy, Max, from torment by street kids and takes him into his house, despite the outrage of his housekeeper—“How dare you bring such a thing into this house! Have you lost your sense of morals?” Max, having some natural inborn genius, subsequently takes apart and fixes the atomic power device, and Scanlon becomes world-famous. Later Scanlon decides the boy is lonely, and sets off on a tour of Tweenie asylums to find Max a girlfriend.
    • The story is creepy on a couple levels. First, there’s absolutely no background about where the Tweenies came from. Why are they in asylums? Who were their parents and where are they now? Worse, the supposedly enlightened Jefferson Scanlon treats Max like a pet, going to a kennel to find him a mate. Doesn’t Max have any say? Max’s reaction when he meets the girl, actually, is like that of a nervous pet.
    • While at the same time, Max’s genius in fixing the atomic energy device is taken as evidence that the half-breed race is superior to both humans and Martians.
    • And Asimov wrote a sequel, about the “half-breeds” setting up a new civilization on Venus, that’s all action-adventure and still no explanations. (#20, 1940)

Examples of absurd stories:

  • “Black Friar of the Flame” (#13, 1942) is Asimov’s earliest story of interstellar intrigue. It involves lizardlike creatures from Vega who once captured Earth, and who are now planning a final drive to exterminate humanity. Rebels on Earth learn of this plot by the happen-chance encounter of two offworlders serving duty as “guardians of the flame” at a memorial to human courage in New York City, while two of the alien Lhasinu happen to have snuck into that memorial, on a bet, and then just happen to discuss the plot against humanity – in English, apparently – for our humans to overhear.
    • Riots and space battles ensue, with the climax featuring human “needle-ships” that literally have needle-like spires at their fronts which then literally skewer the alien ships.
    • This is comic book space opera, yet notable because it prefigures the Foundation stories in some ways – the shifting scenes from one group of characters to another, the far future characters with odd names, the competition among factions unwilling to cooperate. The name Trantor is mentioned two or three times! Asimov notes the story went through several drafts, and earlier drafts had a religious angle that editor John W. Campbell asked him to take out… and then rejected the story anyway.
  • Only slightly better is “Homo Sol,” (#19, 1940) another Galactic Federation story. This begins as 288 delegates of the Galactic Congress meet to discuss the admission to the Federation of humans in the system Sol, now that they have developed interstellar travel. An expedition of psychologists is sent to Sol and returns with the news that the humans have refused, and that their behavior contradicts Federation theories of psychology. One of the psychologists develops a new idea about mob psychology, and sets about testing it on the humans. The result is the unsettling realization that humans will catch up with the rest of the Federation real soon now.
    • Campbell loved the implication that humans were somehow superior to the lordly galactic aliens—that was a prejudice throughout his career—and Asimov’s discomfort with the idea inspired the human-only galaxy of the Foundation stories. Otherwise, it’s a hodgepodge of a story, with an odd and irrelevant side-plot about why a Draconian squid, given a specific sequence of colors and sounds, should fall asleep.
  • “Heredity” (#23, 1941) concerns twin brothers raised apart, one in cosmopolitan New York, the other on the frontier world of Ganymede, who are brought together on Mars at age 25 and obliged to cooperate. Their attitudes conflict; a series of accidents and catastrophes (a huge sandstorm *and* a huge earthquake on the same day) tests their respective skills; and they earn grudging respect for each other. This is action-adventure that Asimov wasn’t good at writing; the incidents are arbitrary and implausible. The kind of story Asimov eventually stopped trying to write.
  • “The Hazing” (#30, 1942) is another action-adventure about a pack of humans dropped off by fellow students at Arcturus University on a primitive planet. The ship breaks down; the humans become tribal gods to the natives (in eight days), and so on. More thoughts about “mob psychology” but otherwise crude and cartoonish.

Two odd-ball pieces are fantasies co-written with Frederik Pohl (for a time Asimov’s agent) under the pseudonym James MacCreigh.

  • “The Little Man on the Subway” (#27, 1950) is about a subway car that magically enters the realm of a god-in-training, whose disciples bicker about the extent of his powers. Here we get some Asimovian takes on religion. P302m, how the subway conductor Cullen is “an intelligent Irishman. That is to say, he admitted the existence of banshees, leprechauns, and the Little Folk, and kept an open mind on poltergeists, werewolves, vampires and such-like foreign trash. At mere supernaturalities, he was too well-educated to sneer.” And discussing a potential heresy, p306t: “Imagine trying to create a god that would be under the thumbs of the creators. It was anthropomorphic heresy (where had he heard that word, now?) and struck at the roots of all religion.”
  • “Legal Rites,” (#34, 1950) oddly set in a cabin and small town near the Sierra Nevada, concerns a man arriving to claim the house his late uncle left him, only to find it inhabited by a ghost. The centerpiece is a trial where, with typical Asimovian detailed argument, points and counterpoints, results in the legal right of ghosts to haunt houses.

Other curious stories:

  • “Death Sentence” (#44, 1943) reads like a Foundation outtake, about a rumored world full of psychotronic robots created with a simplified psychology allowing them to be manipulated, unlike humans. But it’s a twist story, and so completely non-canonical. —- spoiler —- When the planet’s discoverer returns there (to the planet where the robot natives don’t know they’re not flesh and blood creatures) he lands in their main city: New York.
  • “Super-Neutron” (#31, 1941) is Asimov’s first “club” story, that is, a story consisting of conversation among a group of men at a club, a form Asimov used endlessly for his “Black Widowers” non-SF mystery stories, and in many of the stories that went into his 1968 collection ASIMOV’S MYSTERIES. It’s about a man who begins by claiming that the world will end in an hour or so, and then backfills with his discovery of a nearly transparent star that, analogous to how a neutron triggers a nuclear reaction, is about to hit the sun and trigger it to nova.

And then there are several pretty good stories, worth reading on their own terms, or at least significant in the context of Asimov’s development.

  • The early story “Trends” (#10, 1939) concerns a visionary and inventor, John Harman, obsessed by building a rocket to go the moon. He’s opposed by public opinion, and “tub-thumping revivalist” evangelist Otis Eldredge, who distributes pamphlets that accuse him of profaning the heavens and risking damnation. Even Harman’s supporters wonder if he might suspend his project until public sentiment settles down. History exhibits trends, it swings back and forth, and the present 1973 is a new Victorian Age, where science may soon be regulated. But Harman is determined, and prepares for launch. His ship is sabotaged and explodes.
    • Harman survives and goes into hiding for five years, building a new ship in secrecy, then taking off unannounced … and returning to be greeted a hero. The pendulum has swung back.
    • This is a significant story in its consideration of social trends visible in our own day, and far less corny than the other early stories. Asimov admits he was inspired by work he did, one summer at college, for a sociologist studying social resistance across history to technological innovation. The theme is apt regarding space travel, though the depiction here is extreme. It’s a theme that would recur in Asimov’s fiction and essays, the opposition to discovery and progress by the religious. Another point entirely is that Asimov, here an in other stories, like other sf writers of the day, blithely assumes a project like going to the moon will be the work of a single genius.
  • “Not-Final!” (#33, 1941) concerns humans on Ganymede worried that an intelligent civilization discovered on Jupiter, where pressure and gravity are high, have vowed to destroy human “vermin.” But is that threat even possible? That is, even though the Jovians have atomic power and thus can generate force fields, can they ever escape their planet? Human experiments on powerful force fields indicate a limit on stability; the field buckles. And so they conclude fields powerful enough to enable the Jovians to escape their planet simply aren’t possible. And that’s final!
    • The ironic final scene shows a new transparent spaceship approaching Ganymede…a ship using powerful force fields.
    • Asimov underplays the contrast between the theoretical conclusions of the first group and the practical trial-and-error methodology of the spaceship designers. The more general point anticipates one of the Clarke’s Laws—when a scientist declares something impossible, he’s more likely wrong that right; technology often prevails theoretical objections.
  • “The Red Queen’s Race” (#58, 1949) is an excellent example of how Asimov can present a mystery – in this case a scientist found dead inside an atomic power plant that has been completely drained, and parchments among his effects on which modern chemistry has been translated into ancient Greek – and then proceed, step by step, laying out pieces of the puzzle (not always in the systematic order one would marshal in a formal argument) to justify a remarkable conclusion. He even seems to undermine that conclusion at one point, only to then demonstrate that something subtler has occurred. It involves time travel, and also ideas about historical development that echo the historical speculation he had been doing, for six or seven years already, in the Foundation stories. He even uses the word “psychohistory,” figuratively, here.
  • Finally “Mother Earth,” (#59, 1949) the last story here, published in 1949, is a big, substantial galactic empire story very similar in its themes to the Foundation stories. We have a human-only terrestrial empire consisting of Earth and some 50 Outer Worlds, once colonies and now independent nations. These Outer Worlds are paradises compared to the overcrowded Earth, and have set up strict, racist immigration policies to keep Earth contained. Now rumors of something called the Pacific Project suggest that Earth is about to wage war against the Outer Worlds. One theme here is how Earth forbids robot labor, artificial foods, and abortion (“the slaughter of unborn children”), without which it cannot control its population; a counter-theme is that the racially pure Outer Worlds consider Earth to be populated by “disease-ridden, ignorant and subhuman remnants” of humanity. As tensions rise trade restrictions are put into place; war breaks out and Earth quickly surrenders; and then, in a move familiar from the Foundation stories, it all turns out to have been planned that way for the sake of longer-termed goals.
    • The eugenics theme recalls the contempt with which Earth is regarded by colony worlds in PEBBLE IN THE SKY, which, as it happens, Asimov had just drafted a couple months before.
    • Quarreling colonies, events that occur across light-years as if space travel is instantaneous, restrictions on free trade, the use of robots—a remix of familiar Asimov themes and devices.
    • Asimov mentions that Campbell accepted the story but wanted more Foundation stories from Asimov instead—and so Asimov wrote the second part of what became SECOND FOUNDATION.

There are a few other stories in the book that I haven’t mentioned, but any points I might make about them have already been made.

Finally, here’s a broad take-away. Reading the lesser works by an author helps you to better appreciate their best works. This is a scalable conclusion. The “classics” of any author or era are often the exceptions — that’s why they’re exceptional — and reading only those misses the standards against which they’ve been compared. That’s why in my retrospective reading and reviews, while I generally focus on “classic” novels and short fiction, from a perspective of 50+ years, I occasionally visit more ordinary works. They provide insight into the standard themes and assumptions of an era, or an author, that are just as fascinating, in a different way, as the exceptional classics.

Posted in Book Notes, Isaac Asimov, science fiction | Comments Off on Isaac Asimov: THE EARLY ASIMOV (1972)

Links and Comments: Sustainability and Rural Living

Problem? Or solution?

Sarah Smarsh: Something Special Is Happening in Rural America. Subtitle: There is a “brain gain” afoot that suggests a national homecoming to less bustling spaces.

Writing from Wichita

The nation’s most populous cities, the bicoastal pillars of aspiration — New York City and Los Angeles — are experiencing population declines, most likely driven by unaffordability. Other metros are experiencing growth, to be sure, especially in the South and West. But there is an exodus afoot that suggests a national homecoming, across generations, to less bustling spaces. Last year, Gallup found that while roughly 80 percent of us live in urban areas, rural life was the most wished for.

If happiness is what they seek, those folks are onto something. A 2018 study by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health reported that in spite of economic and health concerns, most rural Americans are pretty dang happy and hopeful. Forty percent of rural adults said their lives came out better than they expected. A majority said they were better off financially than their parents at the same age and thought their kids would likewise ascend. As for cultural woes, those among them under age 50, as well as people of color, showed notably higher acknowledgment of discrimination and commitment to social progress. All in all, it was a picture not of a dying place but one that is progressing.

Problems for which that’s not a solution:

NYT, Farhad Manjoo: It’s the End of California as We Know It, subtitled “The fires and the blackouts are connected to a larger problem in this state: a failure to live sustainably.”

It’s not that California is worse; it’s the leading edge.

The long-term solutions to many of our problems are obvious: To stave off fire and housing costs and so much else, the people of California should live together more densely. We should rely less on cars. And we should be more inclusive in the way we design infrastructure — transportation, the power grid, housing stock — aiming to design for the many rather than for the wealthy few.

If we redesigned our cities for the modern world, they’d be taller and less stretched out into the fire-prone far reaches — what scientists call the wildland-urban interface. Housing would be affordable because there’d be more of it. You’d be able to get around more cheaply because we’d ditch cars and turn to buses and trains and other ways we know how to move around a lot of people at high speeds, for low prices. It wouldn’t be the end of the California dream, but a reconceptualization — not as many endless blocks of backyards and swimming pools, but perhaps a new kind of more livable, more accessible life for all.

But who wants to do all this? Not the people of this state. Sure, we’ll ban plastic bags and try to increase gas-mileage standards (until the federal government tries to stops po96us, which of course it can, because our 40 million people get the same voting power in the Senate as Wyoming’s 600,000).

But the big things still seem impossible here. In a state where 40 years ago, homeowners passed a constitutional amendment enshrining their demands for low property taxes forever, where every initiative at increasing density still seems to fail, where vital resources like electricity are managed by unscrupulous corporations and where cars are still far and away the most beloved way to get around, it’s hard to imagine systemic change happening anytime soon.

And so we muddle on toward the end. All the leaves are burned and the sky is gray. California, as it’s currently designed, will not survive the coming climate. Either we alter how we live here, or many of us won’t live here anymore.

Posted in Conservative Resistance, Social Progress | Comments Off on Links and Comments: Sustainability and Rural Living