Scientific Reality and Ideological Imagination

  • Reality check about warp drives;
  • Reality perspective about the Kardashev ladder;
  • My evolving ideas about traditional vs. honest science fiction;
  • How the latest conservative panic appears in the new film Sound of Freedom;
  • How House Republicans are openly discriminating against LGBTQ Americans;
  • A film score track by Vangelis.

A reality check, in case anyone isn’t sure about this:

Big Think, Don Lincoln, 19 Jul 2023: Is Star Trek’s warp drive possible?, subtitled “The concept of the warp drive is currently at odds with everything we know to be true about physics.”

Key Takeaways: • Star Trek‘s warp drive, which involves distorting space, is not within our understanding of the laws of nature. • A theoretical solution involving negative energy exists, but this is considered a mathematical artifact, not a real physical phenomenon. • We should never say something is impossible, but there must be a substantial shift in our understanding of physics for warp drives to become a reality.

Similarly, physicists like Sean Carroll will tell you that for psychic forces, like telepathy, to exist, they would require overturning everything humans have learned about physics over many hundreds of years.


On points like this, I am currently refining my thoughts about the range of attitudes science fiction takes about science. An early draft of such thoughts was posted back in 2020. Much science fiction is either cartoonish or clings to now-discredited notions like faster-than-light travel and telepathy; a relative minority is what I shall call “honest” in its speculations about the world, or the future. Yet it would be unfair to dismiss all of the former as somehow invalid science fiction (and wrong to dismiss it as “fantasy,” which is something else entirely). I am currently working with a new hierarchy of science fiction, along the dimension of fidelity to science and philosophy, that runs from cartoonish, to pop, to traditional, to honest, to philosophical. And of course there are many other dimensions.


A perspective beyond current global issues.

OnlySky, Adam Lee, 20 Feb 2022: Climbing the Kardashev ladder: How civilization survives

The power to control ever-greater amounts of energy is a hallmark of civilization’s progress, and humanity is poised to take the next big step

We’ve read about this ladder before, in Adam Frank’s Light of the Stars (review here). This piece is an example of a once-abstruse concept filtering down to popular media, with some perspective. I’ll bold an interesting point.

One such predictable trend is humanity’s ability to harness and control ever greater amounts of energy. When the only power at our disposal was muscle power—ours or animals’—we were limited to subsistence agriculture and crude blacksmithing, requiring backbreaking labor that filled almost every waking moment. But since the Industrial Revolution, people’s lives have been getting easier and better as we climb the ladder of more abundant energy sources: from wood, to coal, to oil and gas, and now nuclear power, solar power, and wind.

You and I owe our lives to this trend. About one-third of all human beings exist only because of the Haber-Bosch process, a chemical reaction that we use to manufacture nitrogen fertilizer, which in turn makes agriculture feasible on an industrial scale and allows us to feed billions of humans. Since the reaction requires high temperature and pressure, this could never have been achieved without the ability to direct vast quantities of energy. (The Haber-Bosch process alone consumes about 1-2% of the world’s energy budget.)

And concluding with a key point:

Although fossil fuels still generate the majority of the world’s energy, it’s clear that they’re facing inevitable extinction, and sooner rather than later. The nations that are first to cut their fossil fuel ties and take full advantage of better sources will, in the long run, be the superpowers of the world.


As it happens, Adam Frank has a new book coming out, in October.

Big Think, Adam Frank, 20 Jul 2023: “The Little Book of Aliens” is your guide to the biggest question ever asked, subtitled “We may be the last generation born not knowing if we are alone in the Universe.”


The latest overblown conservative panic.

Slate, Molly Oldstead, 13 Jul 2023: How Sound of Freedom Misrepresents Its Subject—and Why the Movie Is So Seductive, subtitled “This is the exact point where a legitimate problem and dangerous conspiracy theory meet.”

The problem, broadly, is child sex trafficking—and the solution, implied by the plot of the Sound of Freedom, is courageous sting operations targeting groomers and traffickers willing to provide children to rich Americans.

If this hasn’t always happened, why has it become such a concern now? Conservatives always anxious for moral outrages everywhere never seem to ask that question. As usual, these panics are baseless, or grotesquely blown up out of proportion.

Statistics on human trafficking are notoriously difficult to pin down, but the often-circulated claim that 800,000 children go missing in the U.S. each year is an extreme exaggeration. Such claims conflate different kinds of disappearances, and confuse reports with crimes; the reality in America is likely around 115 kidnappings a year. Sound of Freedom doesn’t give audiences that context, though.

And the claim that “Human trafficking is a $150 billion a year industry” refers to “all human trafficking—the great majority of which is for labor, not sex, and which includes both adults and children.”

Why are conservatives so gullible about these matters? Partly, I suspect, this is yet again about conservative preference for stories that feed their prejudices and panicked attitude about the state of the world. Prejudice against whom? Why, the gays; these stories always seem to get around to vilifying the gays.

Remember Pizzagate? It wasn’t the first time the country had become gripped by a moral panic over the belief in nonexistent child-sex-trafficking rings. But it was the first time it had happened in the era of social media, and the conspiracy theory grew out of control, eventually helping spawn QAnon. Soon enough, other cultural anxieties could be filtered through this theory of mass child trafficking: Supporting gay children became grooming them. The resurgence in vilification of LGBTQ+ Americans is directly related to these conspiracy theories about child-sex-trafficking rings—and the ballooning effect has created a dangerous reality for LGBTQ+ adults and children.

More than that, some people just need to be panicked about something all the time, it seems:

“There’s something about sex trafficking, the moral panic of it, that seems to have captured the imagination of American evangelicals in a sustained way,” said Elizabeth Dolfi, a professor of religion at Columbia University who has studied the evangelical anti-trafficking movement. “It’s the kind of issue that’s difficult to say, I disagree with your stance that human trafficking is bad. They can point to this, over and over again, to say, This is who we are. We are abolitionists. We care about social justice.

Anyone remember the McMartin preschool trial? Wikipedia: “The case was part of day-care sex-abuse hysteria, a moral panic over alleged Satanic ritual abuse in the 1980s and early 1990s.” That panic evaporated entirely; it was the like Salem witch trials.


We see a related theme here.

Washington Post, Dana Milbank, 21 Jul 2023: Opinion | In the House, it’s open season on LGBTQ Americans

This House Republican majority has turned even the most routine functions of government into divisive spectacles.

Last week, the GOP blew up the annual defense authorization bill — which had enjoyed overwhelming bipartisan support — by trying to turn it into a vehicle for blocking abortion access, banning books, honoring Confederate generals and dismantling racial diversity initiatives.

This week, they took the normally sleepy markup of the humdrum Transportation, Housing and Urban Development appropriations bill and turned it into a vehicle for overt bigotry against gay and lesbian Americans.

Republicans on the Appropriations Committee combed through all 2,680 earmarks that had been cleared for inclusion in the bill by Republicans and Democrats, then issued an amendment striking precisely three of them — all programs providing housing and related assistance for those in need in the LGBTQ+ community.


Just noted.

CNN: 21 Jul 2023: RFK Jr. hearing encapsulates a political era when truth is upside down

In a Donald Trump-influenced era of through-the-looking-glass politics, everything seems upside down, traditional loyalties are scrambled, history can be rewritten and truth is just what anyone wants it to be.

A Republican-run House hearing Thursday encapsulated the current political circus ahead of another tense election. In a head-spinning spectacle, a Kennedy family scion and candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination was greeted as a hero by Republicans. But he was slammed by Democrats, including by House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries as “a living, breathing, false flag operation.”

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. was given a platform by pro-Trump Republicans because his conspiracies about vaccine and Covid-19, and claims that the government has tried to censor him gel with their efforts to shield Trump by claiming that the political weaponization of government is a Democratic and not a GOP transgression.



Noting this piece today, track 3 from the 1992 Vangelis soundtrack to the Ridley Scott film 1492: Conquest of Paradise. I’ll have more to say about this later.

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