The Strange Allure of the Superhero

Superheroes seem a uniquely American creation. There’s no other society I know of that’s invented the superhero as it exists in American society (Ulysses and Beowulf were heroic and larger than life, to be sure, but don’t really fit the superhero mold), and our love affair with all things superhero has made Marvel Comics one of the most enduring box office success stories outside of Star Wars.

Iron Man. Captain America. The Avengers. Deadpool, the funniest movie I’ve seen so far that involves multiple decapitations. The American moviegoing public is all about the superhero these days. That means the American entertainment industry is all about the superhero, and by extension, the world is all about the superhero, American cultural hegemony being what it is.

And doesn’t that seem just a little bit…weird to you? It does to me.

Superhero stories are the height of implausibility. Man gets bitten by radioactive spider, becomes crusading vigilante with superpowers. Man gets zapped with gamma rays and becomes, not dead, but crusading vigilante with superpowers. Man arrives from another planet to become crusading vigilante with superpowers. Man loses parents in a dark alley, spends vast fortune to be crusading vigilante with superpowers. Crusading vigilante with superpowers faces escalating series of evil embodiments with superpowers, bent on destroying the city the country the world the universe.

The stories are hokey, the characters hackneyed, the plots contrived and predictable. Why are they so damn popular?

Enter Captain America, stage left.

In the book Captain America and the Crusade against Evil: The Dilemma of Zealous Nationalism, Robert Jewett and John Shelton Lawrence argue, convincingly, that the superhero is the expression of American religious mythology. Captain America was the first modern superhero, after all, and they argue that Captain America is the embodiment of the American ideal: a heroic figure, above the law and answerable to nobody, doing God’s work by defeating the forces of absolute evil through any means necessary.

This is the way the United States likes to see itself: invulnerable, invincible, morally pure, the vanquisher of all that is unjust, uniquely blessed by God, wielder of the holy sword of redeeming violence that cleanses the world.

And like the comic-book superhero, the United States must operate outside the law to redeem the world and purge it of evil. Superheroes aren’t concerned with Miranda rights or due process. The existence of the superhero trope is, by its nature, a vote of no confidence in the normal processes of justice and law. The superhero comes along to save us because the law is incapable of doing so, too feeble or too corrupt to stop the encroachment of evil. If the superhero must beat people up or dangle them off a balcony to save the world, so be it. If the United States must torture suspected terrorists, so be it. Only such purifying violence can bring about righteous victory.

People argue, of course, about what the “appropriate” use of torture is and what the acceptable level of violence is; a guy I know has, with a straight face, made the argument that if you’re willing to shoot someone and you think that’s okay, surely it must be okay to hurt him as well (by which logic, anything becomes okay–rape, dismemberment, mutilation–to someone you’re willing to kill). The underlying logic beneath all these arguments is that we, the forces of right and good, are entitled to commit acts of violence upon the wicked, and no laws or treaties matter. Ours is a morally pure end, we are sanctioned by God, and we must do whatever it takes to purify the unjust and the iniquitous through cleansing violence.

They argue in the book that this idea is rooted deep in the Puritan Christian history of the United States. Our ancestors came here because they wanted a place where they could build a paradise on earth, and if creating that righteous place in God’s name required wrenching the land from the natives by violence and had to be maintained through violence, so be it. The God of the Bible (yes, both books, not just the Old Testament) is completely fine with the violent application of holy zeal.

This thread of zealous nationalism, they argue, is still part of the fabric of American civil religion today, so deeply woven into the way we see ourselves that even people of no particular religious faith still accept its premises. We are good. They are evil. Law is weak and corrupt. The application of violence by the forces of good is the only way to bring about the destruction of evil. Those forces of good are above any law, answerable to none save God, and cleansing violence is always just.


The book makes a good argument, and I think there’s a lot of truth in it.

But it misses something.

The appeal of the superhero is not just that it validates our image as a morally pure country wielding the divine sword of redemptive violence against the wicked and evil. There’s another part of it, too.

Superheroes are, by their nature, an adolescent power fantasy. The invulnerable superhero, with superpowers and the ability to do whatever he wants, is the daydream of the person who feels disempowered and weak. Superman is bulletproof! And can fly! And see through walls! Batman is rich! He gets all the cool toys and beats up bad guys! The appeal of superheroes is deeply rooted in revenge fantasies and desire for power. Superheroes don’t have to take shit from anyone, and they have, like, totally awesome powers, man!

The prevalence of the superhero trope in social entertainment, then, shows a widespread underlying feeling of helplessness and disempowerment. The world is a scary place, and a lot of people–ironically, people in the most powerful nation the world has ever seen–feel disempowered. Terrorists want to blow us up! Other countries don’t like us! I can’t get a girlfriend! Boy, Iron Man would sure fix all that up. He can go get those terrorists where they live, and he gets hot girls, too! The superhero becomes an expression of the ego, a desire for power and control. The superhero has meaning and purpose. The superhero may brood–there’s a reason superheroes tend to act like angsty teenagers when they’re not smashing in the faces of bad guys–but ultimately, the superhero has a mission and that mission gives him clarity. The superhero applies power to solve his problem, and in so doing saves the day.

So on the one hand, we have the American monomyth: the United States is the agent of good and right, wielding violence to vanquish evil and bring about redemption of the world, transcending mere law to do so. On the other hand, we have the superhero as adolescent fantasy fulfillment, intoxicating because he offers an escape from our own helplessness. Put those two things together, and it creates the perfect soil for growing atrocity. We see ourselves simultaneously as hero and victim, all-powerful and powerless, the bringer of holy violence and the victim of malign evil.

The implications of that particular mix are quite frightening, I believe. The nation that believes itself simultaneously powerless and also called upon to deliver the world from evil through the instrument of violence is a very dangerous thing.

b#WLAMF no. 5: Awe

As I mentioned in WLAMF no. 4, Eve and I visited Salt Lake City on our book tour. The tour feels like it happened years ago, even though it ended, what, last month or something? Time does funny things when you upend your life and start down an entirely new path.

Anyway, while we were there, we visited the Mormon temple, because hey! polyamory authors wearing cute animal ears in Salt Lake City! What else would we do, right?

We were kept under the watchful eye of security the entire time, but they were polite about it and let us take pictures.

The Mormon temple is awesome. And I mean that in the literal, old-fashioned sense of the word, not in the modern, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure sense of the word. It is a structure designed and built with the intention of evoking a sense of awe. It is emotion in architecture, every aspect carefully crafted to manipulate the emotions of those who see it.

It’s a bit ironic, really, that human beings can design and build a structure whose design is intended to make other human beings believe they are part of something greater than humanity.

I have always harbored a deep distrust of houses of worship built on such a grandiose scale. The walls of the temple are covered with huge squares of marble, the cost of each one of which would probably feed a dozen needy families for six months. The grounds are that specific kind of lovely that you can only get through hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of gardening, all carefully watered every day in this, a place in the center of the desert.

Folks like to talk about Madison Avenue, the epicenter of modern marketing and advertising, as a cynical and soulless machine of mass manipulation. And yet, and yet, I’ve never met an advertiser whose talent can compare in even the feeblest way to that of the architect of religious edifices. This structure is manipulation, every line and every ornament tasked to the goal of making you feel something when you see it. A lot of this building is, in a utilitarian sense, wasted space; it is designed to an end other than efficiency.

Sure is pretty, though, isn’t it?


I’m writing one blog post for every contribution to our crowdfunding we receive between now and the end of the campaign. Help support indie publishing! We’re publishing five new books on polyamory in 2015: https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/thorntree-press-three-new-polyamory-books-in-2015/x/1603977

Musings on being fucked: Christian millennialism and the Fermi paradox

When all the world’s armies are assembled in the valley that surrounds Mount Megiddo they will be staging a resistance front against the advancing armies of the Chinese. It will be the world’s worst nightmare – nuclear holocaust at its worst. A full-out nuclear bombardment between the armies of the Antichrist’s and the Kings of the East.

It is during this nuclear confrontation that a strange sight from the sky will catch their attention. The Antichrist’s armies will begin their defense in the Jezreel Valley in which the hill of Megiddo is located. […] At the height of their nuclear assault on the advancing armies something strange will happen.

Jesus predicted the suddenness of His return. He said, “For just as lightening comes from the east, and flashes even to the west, so shall the coming of the Son of Man be” (Matt. 24:27). And again He said, “…and then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and then all the tribes of the earth shall mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory” (Matt. 24:30).
–Sherry Shriner Live

Believers must be active in helping to fulfill certain biblical conditions necessary to usher in the return of Christ. Key to this plan is for Gentiles to help accomplish God’s purpose for the Jews. […] Jesus is saying that His Second Coming will not take place until there is a Jewish population in Jerusalem who will welcome Him with all of their hearts.
— Johannes Facius, Hastening the Coming of the Messiah: Your Role in Fulfilling Prophecy

There is a problem in astronomy, commonly referred to as the Fermi paradox. In a nutshell, the problem is, where is everyone?

Life seems to be tenacious and ubiquitous. Wherever we look here on earth, we see life–even in the most inhospitable of places. The stuff seems downright determined to exist. When combined with the observation that the number of planetary systems throughout the universe seems much greater than even the most optimistic projections of, say, thirty years ago, it really seems quite likely that life exists out there somewhere. In fact, it seems quite likely that life exists everywhere out there. And given that sapient, tool-using life evolved here, it seems quite probable that sapient, tool-using life evolved somewhere else as well…indeed, quite often. (Given that our local galactic supercluster contains literally quadrillions of stars, if sapient life exists in only one one-hundredth of one percent of the places life evolved and if life evolves in only one one-hundredth of one percent of the places that have planets, the universe should be positively teeming with sapience.)


These aren’t stars. They’re galaxies. Where is everyone? (Image: Hubble Space Telescope)

When you’re sapient and tool-using, radio waves are obvious. It’s difficult to imagine getting much beyond the steam engine without discovering them. Electromagnetic radiation bathes the universe, and most any tool-using sapience will, sooner or later, stumble across it. All kinds of technologies create, use, and radiate electromagnetic radiation. So if there are sapient civilizations out there, we should see evidence of it–even if they aren’t intentionally attempting to communicate with anyone.

But we don’t.

So the question is, why not?

This is Fermi’s paradox, and researchers have proposed three answers: we’re first, we’re rare, or we’re fucked. I have, until now, been leaning toward the “we’re rare” answer, but more and more, I think the answer might be “we’re fucked.”


Let’s talk about the “first” or “rare” possibilities.

The “first” possibility posits that our planet is exceptionally rare, perhaps even unique–of all the planets around all the stars everywhere in the universe, no other place has the combination of ingredients (liquid water and so on) necessary for complex life. Alternately, life is common but sapient life is not. It’s possible; there’s nothing especially inevitable about sapience. Evolution is not goal-directed, and big brains aren’t necessarily a survival strategy more common or more compelling than any other. After all, we’re newbies. There was no sapient life on earth for most of its history.

Assuming we are that unique, though, seems to underestimate the number of planets that exist, and overestimate the specialness of our particular corner of existence. There’s nothing about our star, our solar system, or even our galaxy that sets it apart in any way we can see from any of a zillion others out there. And even if sapience isn’t inevitable–a reasonable assumption–if life evolved elsewhere, surely some fraction of it must have evolved toward sapience! With quadrillions of opportunities, you’d expect to see it somewhere else.

The “we’re rare” hypothesis posits that life is common, but life like what we see here is orders of magnitude less common, because something happened here that’s very unlikely even on galactic or universal scales. Perhaps it’s the jump from prokaryotes (cells without a nucleus) to eukaryotes (cells with a nucleus, which are capable of forming complex multicellular animals). For almost the entire history of life on earth, only single-celled life existed, after all; multicellular life is a recent innovation. Maybe the universe is teeming with life, but none of it is more complex than bacteria.


Depressing thought: The universe has us and these guys in it, and that’s it.

The third hypothesis is “we’re fucked,” and that’s the one I’m most concerned about.

The “we’re fucked” hypothesis suggests that sapient life isn’t everywhere we look because wherever it emerges, it gets wiped out. It might be that it gets wiped out by a spacefaring civilization, a la Fred Saberhagen’s Berserker science fiction stories.

But maybe…just maybe…it won’t be an evil extraterrestrial what does us in. Maybe tool-using sapience intrinsically contains the seeds of its own annihilation.


K. Eric Drexler wrote a book called Engines of Creation, in which he posited a coming age of nanotechnology that would offer the ability to manipulate, disassemble, and assemble matter at a molecular level.

It’s not as farfetched as it seems. You and I, after all, are vastly complex entities constructed from the level of molecules by programmable molecular machinery able to assemble large-scale, fine-grained structures from the ground up.

All the fabrication technologies we use now are, in essence, merely evolutionary refinements on stone knives and bearskins. When we want to make something, we take raw materials and hack at, carve, heat, forge, or mold them into what we want.


Even the Large Hadron Collider is basically just incremental small improvements on this

The ability to create things from the atomic level up, instead from big masses of materials down, promises to be more revolutionary than the invention of agriculture, the Iron Age, and the invention of the steam engine combined. Many of the things we take for granted–resources will always be scarce, resources must always be distributed unequally, it is not possible for a world of billions of people to have the standard of living of North America–will fade like a bad dream. Nanotech assembly offers the possibility of a post-scarcity society1.

It also promises to turn another deeply-held belief into a myth: Nuclear weapons are the scariest weapons we will ever face.

Molecular-level assembly implies molecular-level disassembly as well. And that…well, that opens the door to weapons of mass destruction on a scale as unimaginable to us as the H-bomb is to a Roman Centurion.


Cute little popgun you got there, son. Did your mom give you that?

Miracle nanotechnology notwithstanding, the course of human advancement has meant the distribution of greater and greater destructive power across wider and wider numbers of people. An average citizen today can go down to Wal-Mart and buy weapon technology that could have turned the tide of some of the world’s most significant historical battles. Even without nanotech, there’s no reason to think weapons technology and distribution just suddenly stopped in, say, 2006, and will not continue to increase from here on.


And that takes us to millennialist zealotry.

There are, in the world today, people who believe they have a sacred duty, given them by omnipotent supernatural entities, to usher in the Final Conflict between good and evil that will annihilate all the wicked with righteous fire, purging them from God’s creation. These millennialists don’t just believe the End is coming–they believe God has charged them with the task of bringing it about.

Christian millennialists long for nuclear war, which they believe will trigger the Second Coming. Some Hindus believe they must help bring about the end of days, so that the final avatar of Vishnu will return on a white horse to bring about the end of the current cycle and its corruption. In Japan, the Aum Shinrikyo sect believed it to be their duty to create the conditions for nuclear Armageddon, which they believed would trigger the ascendancy of the sect’s leader Shoko Asahara to his full divine status as the Lamb of God. Judaism, Islam, and nearly all other religious traditions have at least some adherents who likewise embrace the idea of global warfare that will cleanse the world of evil.

The notion of the purification of the world through violence is not unique to any culture or age–the ancient Israelites, for example, were enthusiastic fans of the notion–but it has particularly deep roots in American civic culture, and we export that idea all over the world. (The notion of the mythic superhero, for instance, is an embodiment of the idea of purifying violence, as the book Captain America and the Crusade Against Evil explains in some depth.)

I’m not suggesting that religious zealots have a patent on inventive destructiveness. From Chairman Mao to Josef Stalin, the 20th century is replete with examples of secular governments that are as gleefully, viciously bonkers as the most passionate of religious extremists.

But religious extremism does seem unique in one regard: we don’t generally see secularists embracing the fiery destruction of the entire world in order to cleanse os of evil. Violent secular institutions might want resources, or land, or good old-fashioned power, but they don’t usually seem to want to destroy the whole of creation in order to invoke a supernatural force to save it.

Putting it all together, we can expect that as time goes on, the trend toward making increasingly destructive technology available to increasingly large numbers of people will likely continue. Which means that, one day, we will likely arrive at the point where a sufficiently determined individual or small group of people can, in fact, literally unleash destruction on a global scale.

Imagine that, say, any reasonably motivated group of 100 or more people anywhere in the world could actually start a nuclear war. Given that millennialist end-times ideology is a thing, how safe would you feel?

It is possible, just possible, that we don’t see a ubniverse teeming with sapient, tool-using, radio-broadcasting, exploring-the-cosmos life because sapient tool-using species eventually reach the point where any single individual has the ability to wipe out the whole species, and very shortly after that happens, someone wipes out the whole species.

“But Franklin,” I hear you say, “even if there are human beings who can and will do that, given the chance, that doesn’t mean space aliens would! They’re not going to be anything like us!”

Well, right. Sure. Other sapient species wouldn’t be like us.

But here’s the thing: We are, it seems, pretty unremarkable. We live on an unremarkable planet orbiting an unremarkable star in an unremarkable corner of an unremarkable galaxy. We’re probably not special snowflakes; statistically, the odds are good that the trajectory we have taken is, um, unremarkable.


Yes, yes, they’re all unique and special…but they all have six arms, too.
(Image: National Science Foundation.)

Sure, sapient aliens might be, overall, less warlike and aggressive (or more warlike and aggressive!) than we are, but does that mean every single individual is? If we take millions of sapient tool-using intelligent species and give every individual of every one of those races the ability to push a button and destroy the whole species, how many species do you think would survive?

Perhaps the solution to the Fermi paradox is not that we’re first or we’re rare; perhaps we’re fucked. Perhaps we are rolling down a well-traveled groove, worn deep by millions of sapient species before us, a groove that ends in a predictable place.

I sincerely hope that’s not the case. But it seems possible it might be. Maybe, just maybe, our best hope to last as long as we can is to counter millennial thinking as vigorously as possible–not to save us, ultimately, but to buy as much time as we possibly can.


1Post-scarcity society of the sort that a lot of transhumanists talk about may never really be a thing, given there will always be something that is scarce, even if that “something” is intangible. Creativity, for instance, can’t be mass-produced. But a looser kind of post-scarcity society, in which material resources are abundant, does have some plausibility.

Oh, Joss: “Morality doesn’t exist without the fear of death”

A couple of years ago, during a lackadaisical time in my life when I was only running two businesses and wasn’t on tour to support a book I’d just coauthored, I sat down with my sweetie Zaiah and we watched all the episodes of the Joss Whedon television show Dollhouse over the course of a week or so.

The premise of the show, which isn’t really important to what I want to write about, concerns a technology that allows personalities, identities, and skills to be constructed in a computer (much as one might write a computer program) and then implanted in a person’s brain, such that that person takes on that identity and personality and has those skills. The television show followed a company that rented out custom-designed people, constructed in a bespoke fashion for clients’ jobs and then erased once those jobs were over. Need a master assassin, a perfect lover, a simulation of your dead wife, a jewel thief? No problem! Rent that exact person by the hour!

Anyway, in Episode 10 of the short-lived series, one of the characters objects to the idea of using personality transplants as a kind of immortality, telling another character, “morality doesn’t exist without the fear of death.” I cringed when I heard it.

And that’s the bit I want to talk about.


The New York Times has an article about research which purports to show that when reminded of their own mortality, people tend to cling to their ethical and moral values tightly. The article hypothesizes,

Researchers see in these findings implications that go far beyond the psychology of moralistic judgments. They propose a sweeping theory that gives the fear of death a central and often unsuspected role in psychological life. The theory holds, for instance, that a culture’s very concept of reality, its model of “the good life,” and its moral codes are all intended to protect people from the terror of death.

This seems plausible to me. Religious value systems–indeed, religions in general–provide a powerful defense against the fear of death. I remember when I first came nose to nose with the idea of my own mortality back when I was 12 or 13, how the knowledge that one day I would die filled me with stark terror, and how comforting religion was in protecting me from it. Now that I no longer have religious belief, the knowledge of the Void is a regular part of my psychological landscape. There is literally not a day that goes by I am not aware of my own mortality.

But the idea that fear of death reminds people of their values, and causes them to cling more tightly to them, doesn’t show that there are no values without the fear of death.

As near as I can understand it, the statement “morality doesn’t exist without the fear of death” appears to be saying that without fear of punishment, we can’t be moral. (I’m inferring here that the fear of death is actually the fear of some kind of divine judgment post-death, which seems plausible given the full context of the statement: “That’s the beginning of the end. Life everlasting. It’s…it’s the ultimate quest. Christianity, most religion, morality….doesn’t exist, without the fear of death.”) This is a popular idea among some theists, but does it hold water?

The notion that there is no morality without the fear of death seems to me to rest on two foundational premises:

1. Morality is extrinsic, not intrinsic. It is given to us by an outside authority; without that outside authority, no human-derived idea about morality, no human-conceived set of values is any better than any other.

2. We behave in accordance with moral strictures because we fear being punished if we do not.

Premise 1 is a very common one. “There is no morality without God” is a notion those of us who aren’t religious never cease to be tired of hearing. There are a number of significant problems with this idea (whose God? Which set of moral values? What if those moral values–“thou shalt not suffer a witch to live,” say, or “if a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death,” or “whatsoever hath no fins nor scales in the waters, that shall be an abomination unto you”–cause you to behave reprehensibly to other people? What is the purpose of morality, if not to tell us how to be more excellent to one another rather than less?), but its chief difficulty lies in what it says about the nature of humankind.

It says that we are not capable of moral action, or even of recognizing moral values, on our own; we must be given morals from an outside authority, which becomes the definition of morality. I have spoken to self-identified Christians who say that without religion, nothing would prevent them from committing rape and murder at will; it is only the strictures of their religion that prevent them from doing so. I have spoken to self-identified Christians who say if they believed the Bible commanded them to murder children or shoot people from a clock tower, they would do it. (There is, unsurprisingly, considerable overlap between these two sets of self-identified Christian.) If it takes the edict of an outside force to tell you why it’s wrong to steal or rape or kill, I am unlikely to trust you with my silverware, much less my life. Folks who say either of these things seldom get invited back to my house.

The notion that the fear of death is a necessary component of moral behavior because without punishment, we will not be moral is, if anything, even more problematic. If the only thing making you behave morally is fear of punishment, I submit you’re not actually a moral person at all, no matter which rules of moral behavior you follow.

Morality properly flows from empathy, from compassion, from the recognition that other people are just as real as you are and just as worthy of dignity and respect. Reducing morality to a list of edicts we’ll be punished if we disobey means there is no need for empathy, compassion, charity, or respect–we aren’t moral people by exercising these traits, we’re moral by following the list of rules. If the list of rules tells us to stone gays, then by God, that’s what we’ll do.

An argument I hear all the time (and in these kinds of conversations, I do mean all the time) is “well, if there’s no God and no fear of Hell, who’s to say the Nazis were wrong in what they did?” It boggles me every single time I hear it. I cannot rightly apprehend the thought process that would lead to such a statement, in no small part because it seems to betray a boggling inability to allow empathy and compassion be one’s moral signposts.

What it all comes down to, when you get to brass tacks, is internal moral values vs. external moral values. When we can empathize with other human beings, even those who are different from us, and allow ourselves to fully appreciate their essential humanness, treating them ethically becomes easy. When we do not–and often, religious prescriptions on behavior explicitly tell us not to–it becomes impossible. An intrinsic set of moral values is predicated on that foundation of reciprocal recognition of one another’s humanness, worth, and dignity.

Those who say without God or without fear of punishment there can be no morality seem blind to that reciprocal recognition of one another’s humanness, worth, and dignity. And those folks scare me.

Some thoughts on the Seven Virtues

A while ago, over dinner with my partner Eve, her mom, and some friends of theirs, we started talking about the Seven Deadly Sins.

I am not terribly good at them; in fact, it took a while to remember what they were (greed, envy, sloth, lust, gluttony, pride, and wrath). Of the seven, the only one at which I have any skill is lust; in fact, I’ve put so many character points into lust I’m still forced to make default rolls for all six others.

I got to thinking about the Seven Deadly Sins, and wondering if there were Seven Virtues to go along with them. Apparently, there are; a few hundred years after the list of vices caught hold, someone decided there should be a similar list of virtues, and made such a list by negating the vices. The virtue Chastity was proposed as the opposite of Lust, for example, and the virtue Humility as the opposite of Pride. (Some of the others don’t really make a lot of sense; proposing Kindness as Envy’s opposite ignores the fact that people can simultaneously feel envious and behave kindly. But no matter.)

The negative version of the Seven Deadly Sins didn’t really seem to catch on, so Catholic doctrine has embraced a different set of virtues: prudence, justice, temperance, courage, faith, hope, and charity.

I look at that list, and find it a bit…underwhelming. We’ve given Christianity two thousand years to come up with a cardinal list of virtues in human thought and deed, and that’s the best it can do? It’s almost as disappointing as the list of Ten Commandments, which forbids working on Saturday and being disrespectful to your parents but not, say, slavery or rape, as I talked about here.

Now, don’t get me wrong, some of the things on the list of virtues I heartily endorse. Courage, that’s a good one. Justice is another good one, though as often as not people have an unfortunate tendency to perpetrate the most horrifying atrocities in its name. (Handy hint for the confused: “justice” and “vengeance” aren’t the same thing, and in fact aren’t on speaking terms with one another.) Temperance in opposing injustice is not a virtue, hope is that thing at the bottom of Pandora’s jar of evils, and faith…well, the Catholic catechism says that faith means “we believe in God and believe all that he has said and revealed to us,” and furthermore that we believe all “that Holy Church proposes for our belief.” In this sense, to quote Mark Twain, faith is believing what you know ain’t so. (On the subject of hope, though, it should be mentioned that Hesiod’s epic poem about Pandora says of women, “From her is the race of women and female kind: of her is the deadly race and tribe of women who live amongst mortal men to their great trouble, no helpmates in hateful poverty, but only in wealth.” So it is without an exuberance of cynicism that I might suggest there is perhaps a synchronicity between the ancient Greek and modern Catholic thinkings on the subject of the fairer sex.)

In any event, it seems that, once again, the traditional institutions charged with the prescription of human morality have proven insufficient to the task. In my musings on the Ten Commandments, I proposed a set of ten commandments that might, all things considered, prove a better moral guideline than the ten we already have, and it is with the same spirit I’d like to propose a revised set of Seven Cardinal Virtues.

Courage. I quite like this one. In fact, to quote Maya Angelou, “Courage is the most important of all the virtues, because without courage you can’t practice any other virtue consistently. You can practice any virtue erratically, but nothing consistently without courage.” So this one stays; in fact, I think it moves to the head of the list.

Prudence is a bit of an odd duck. Most simply, it means something like “foresight,” or perhaps “right thinking.” The Catholic Education Site defines prudence as the intellectual virtue which rightly directs particular human acts, through rectitude of the appetite, toward a good end. But that seems a bit tail-recursive to me; a virtue is that which directs you to do good, and doing good means having these virtues…yes, yes, that’s fine and all, but what is good? You can’t define a thing in terms of a quality a person has and then define that quality in terms of that thing!

So perhaps it might be better to speak of Beneficence, which is the principle of making choices that, first, do no harm to others, and, second, seek to prevent harm to others. The principle of harm reduction seems a better foundation for an ethical framework than the principle of “right action” without any context for the “right” bit. (I’m aware that a great deal of theology attempts to provide context for the virtue of prudence, but I remain unconvinced; I would find, for example, it is more prudent to deny belonging to a religion than to be hanged for it, simply on the logic that it is difficult for dead Utopians to build Utopia…)

Justice is another virtue I like, though in implementation it can be a bit tricky. Justice, when it’s reduced to the notion of an eye for an eye, becomes mere retribution. If it is to be a virtue, it must be the sort of justice that seeks the elevation of all humankind, rather than a list of rules about which forms of retaliation are endorsed against whom; formal systems of justice, being invented and maintained by corruptible humans, all too easily become corrupt. A system which does not protect the weakest and most vulnerable people is not a just system.

Temperance needs to go. Moderation in the pursuit of virtue is no virtue, and passion in the pursuit of things which improve the lot of people everywhere is no vice. And this virtue too easily becomes a blanket prohibition; the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, who were anything but temperate in their zeal to eradicate alcohol, failed to acknowledge that drinking is not necessarily, of and by itself, intemperate; and their intemperance helped create organized crime in the US, a scourge we have still been unable to eradicate.

In its place, I would propose Compassion, and particularly, the variety of compassion that allows us to see the struggles of others, and to treat others with kindness wherever and whenever possible, to the greatest extent we are able. It is a virtue arising from the difficult realization that other people are actually real, and so deserve to be treated the way we would have them treat us.

Faith and Hope seem, to be frank, like poor virtues to me, at least as they are defined by Catholicism. (There is a broader definition of “faith,” used by mainline Protestant denominations, that has less to do with accepting the inerrancy of the Church in receiving divine revelation and more to do with an assurance that, even in the face of the unknown, it’s possible to believe that one will be okay; this kind of faith, I can get behind.) Indeed, an excess of faith of the dogmatic variety leads to all sorts of nasty problems, as folks who have faith their god wants them to bomb a busy subway might illustrate. And hope (in the Catholic sense of “desiring the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness, placing our trust in Christ’s promises and relying not on our own strength, but on the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit”) can lead to inaction in the face of real-world obstacles–if we believe that once we get past the grave, nothing can go wrong, we might be disinclined to pursue happiness or oppose injustice in the here and now.

I would suggest that better virtues might be Integrity and Empathy. Integrity as a virtue means acting in accordance with one’s own stated moral precepts; but there’s more to it than that. As a virtue, integrity also means acknowledging when others are right; being intellectually rigorous, and mindful of the traps of confirmation bias and anti-intellectualism; and being clear about what we know and what we hope. (When, for example, we state something we want to be true but don’t know is true as a fact, we are not behaving with integrity.)

Empathy in this context means, first and foremost, not treating other people as things. It is related to compassion, in that it recognizes the essential humanity of others. As a moral principle, it means acknowledging the agency and rights of others, as we would have them acknowledge our agency and our rights.

Charity is, I think, a consequence arising from the applications of justice, compassion, and empathy, rather than a foundational virtue itself. In its place, I propose Sovereignty, the assumption that the autonomy and self-determinism of others is worthy of respect, and must not be infringed insofar as is possible without compromising one’s own self.

So bottom line, that gives us the following list of Seven Virtues: Courage, Beneficence, Justice, Compassion, Integrity, Empathy, and Sovereignty. I like this draft better than the one put forth by Catholicism. But coming up with a consistent, coherent framework of moral behavior is hard! What say you, O Interwebs?

Some Thoughts on Anti-Intellectualism as a Red Queen Problem

“Well, in our country,” said Alice, still panting a little, “you’d generally get to somewhere else — if you ran very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing.”
“A slow sort of country!” said the Queen. “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run twice as fast as that!”
“I’d rather not try, please!” said Alice. “I’m quite content to stay here — only I am so hot and thirsty!”

— Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

“When we just saw that man, I think it was [biologist P.Z. Myers], talking about how great scientists were, I was thinking to myself the last time any of my relatives saw scientists telling them what to do they were telling them to go to the showers to get gassed … that was horrifying beyond words, and that’s where science – in my opinion, this is just an opinion – that’s where science leads you.”
— Ben Stein, Trinity Broadcasting System interview, 2008

What do spam emails, AIDS denial, conspiracy theories, fear of GM foods, rejection of global warming, antivaccination crusades, and the public school district of Tucson, Arizona banning Shakespeare’s The Tempest have in common?


A typical spam message in my inbox

The answer is anti-intellectualism. Anti-intellectualism–the rejection of scientific study and reason as tools for understanding the physical world, and the derision of people who are perceived as educated or “intellectual”–has deep roots in the soil of American civil discourse. John Cotton, theological leader of the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay, wrote in 1642, “the more learned and witty you bee, the more fit to act for Satan will you bee”–a sentiment many Evangelical Protestants identify with today. (Tammy Faye Bakker, wife of the disgraced former televangelist Jim Bakker, once remarked “it’s possible to educate yourself right out of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.”)

It seems weird that such a virulent streak of anti-intellectualism should be present in the world’s only remaining superpower, a position the US achieved largely on the merits of its technological and scientific innovation. Our economic, military, and political position in the world were secured almost entirely by our ability to discover, invent, and innovate…and yet there is a broad swath of American society that despises the intellectualism that makes that innovation possible in the first place.

Liberals in the US tend to deride conservatives as ignorant, anti-intellectual hillbillies. It’s arguably easy to see why; the conservative political party in the US is actively, openly hostile to science and intellectualism. The Republican Party of Texas has written into the party platform a passage opposing the teaching of critical thinking in public school. Liberals scoff at conservatives who deny the science of climate change, teach that the world and everything in it is six thousand years old, and seek to ban the teaching of evolutionary science…all while claiming that GMO foods are dangerous and vaccines cause autism. Anti-intellectualism is an equal-opportunity phenomenon that cuts across the entire American political landscape. The differences in liberal and conservative rejection of science are merely matters of detail.

So why is it such a pervasive part of American cultural dialog? There are a lot of reasons. Anti-intellectualism is built into the foundation of US culture; the Puritans, whose influence casts a very long shadow over the whole of US society, were famously suspicious of any sort of intellectual pursuit. They came to the New World seeking religious freedom, by which they meant the freedom to execute anyone they didn’t like, a practice their European contemporaries were insufficiently appreciative of; and the list of people they didn’t like included any unfortunate person suspected of learning or knowledge. That suspicion lingers; we’ve never succeeded in purging ourselves of it entirely.

Those of a cynical nature like to suggest that anti-intellectualism is politically convenient It’s easier, so the narrative goes, to control a poorly educated populace, especially when that populace lacks even basic reasoning skills. If you’ve ever watched an evening of Fox News, it’s a difficult argument to rebut. One does not need to be all that cynical to suggest a party plank rejecting critical thinking skills is a very convenient thing to a political party that enshrines young-earth Creationism, for instance.

But the historical narrative and the argument from political convenience seem insufficient to explain the breathtaking aggressiveness of anti-intellectualism in the US today, particularly among political progressives and liberals, who are often smugly self-congratulatory about how successfully they have escaped the clutches of tradition and dogma.

I think there’s another factor, and that’s the Red Queen problem.

In evolutionary, biology, the Red Queen hypothesis suggests that organisms in competition with each other must continue to evolve and adapt merely to maintain the status quo. When cheetahs prey on gazelles, the fastest cheetahs will be most successful at catching prey; the fastest gazelles will be most successful at escaping cheetahs. So natural selection favors faster and faster gazelles and cheetahs as each adapts to the other. Parasites evolve and become more efficient at parasitizing their hosts, which develop more efficient defenses against the parasites. I would like to propose that the same hypothesis can help explain anti-intellectualism, at least in part.

As we head into the twenty-first century, the sum total of human knowledge is increasing exponentially. When I was in college in the late 1980s and early 1990s, my neurobiology professors taught me things–adult human brains don’t grow new neurons, we’re all born with all the brain cells we’ll ever have–that we now know not to be true. And that means anyone who wants to be educated needs to keep learning new things all the time, just to stay in one place.

Those who reject science like to say that science is flawed because it changes all the time. How can we trust science, they say, when it keeps changing? In fact, what’s flawed is such critics’ estimation of how complicated the natural world is, and how much there is to know about it. Science keeps changing because we keep shining lights into previously dark areas of understanding.

But it’s really hard to keep up. A person who wants to stay abreast of the state of the art of human understanding has to run faster and faster and faster merely to stay in one place. It’s fatiguing, not just because it means constantly learning new things, but because it means constantly examining things you believed you already knew, re-assessing how new discoveries fit into your mental framework of how the world works.

For those without the time, inclination, tools, and habits to keep up with the state of human understanding, scientists look like priests. We must merely accept what they say, because we don’t have the tools to fact-check them. Their pronouncements seem arbitrary, and worse, inconsistent; why did they say we never grow new brain cells yesterday, only to say the exact opposite today? If two different scientists say two different things, who do you trust?

If you don’t race to keep up with the Red Queen, that’s what it is–trust. You must simply trust what someone else says, because trying to wrap your head around what’s going on is so goddamn fatiguing. And it’s easier to trust people who say the same thing every time than to trust people who say something different today than what they said yesterday. (Or who, worse, yet, tell you “I don’t know” when you ask a question. “I don’t know” is a deeply unsatisfying answer. If a Bronze Age tribesman asks two people “What is the sun?” and one of them gives a fanciful story about a fire-god and a dragon, and the other says “I don’t know,” the answer about the fire-god and the dragon is far more satisfying, even in complete absence of any evidence that fire-gods or dragons actually exist at all.)

Science is comfortable with the notion that models and frameworks change, and science is comfortable with “I don’t know” as an answer. Human beings, rather less so. We don’t want to run and run to keep up with the Red Queen. We also don’t want to hear “I don’t know” as an answer.

So science, then, becomes a kind of trust game, not that much different from the priesthood. We accept the pronouncements of priests and scientists alike when they tell us things they want to hear, and reject them when they don’t. Political conservatives don’t want to hear that our industrial activity is changing the global climate; liberals don’t want to hear that there’s nothing wrong with GMO food. Both sides of the political aisle find common ground in one place: running after the Red Queen is just plain too much work.

What my cat teaches me about divine love

This is Beryl.

Beryl is a solid blue Tonkinese cat. He shares a home with (I would say he belongs to, but the reverse may be true) zaiah and I, and spends a good deal of each day perched on my shoulder. I write from home, and whenever I’m writing, there’s a pretty good chance he’s on my shoulder, nuzzling my ear and purring.

He’s a sweetheart–one of the sweetest cats I’ve ever known, and believe me when I say I’ve known a lot of cats.

Whenever we’re in the bedroom, Beryl likes to sit on a pillow atop the tall set of shelves we have on the wall next to the bed. It didn’t take him long to learn that the bed is soft, so rather than climbing down off the top of the shelves, he will often simply leap, legs all outstretched like a flying squirrel’s, onto the bed.

Now, if I wanted to, I could get a sheet of plywood, put it on top of the bed, then put the blanket over top of it. That way, when Beryl leapt off the shelves, he’d be quite astonished to have his worldview abruptly and unpleasantly upended.

But I wouldn’t do that. I wouldn’t do that for two reasons: (1) I love my cat, and (2) it would be an astonishingly dick thing to do.

That brings us to God.

This is a fossil.

More specifically, it’s a fossil of Macrocranion tupaiodon, an extinct early mammal that lived somewhere between 56 and 34 million years ago and went extinct during the Eocene–Oligocene extinction event.

Now, there are very, very few things in this world that conservative Orthodox Jews, Fundamentalist Muslims, and Evangelical Christians will agree on, but one thing that some of these folks do have in common is the notion that fossils like this one do not actually represent the remains of long-vanished animals, because the world is much younger than what such fossils suggest. Most conservative Muslims are more reasonable on this point than their other Abrahamic fellows, though apparently the notion of an earth only a few thousand years old is beginning to take hold in some parts of the Islamic ideosphere.

That presents a challenge; if the world is very young, whence the fossils? And one of the many explanations put forth to answer the conundrum is the idea that these fossils were placed by a trickster God (or, in some versions of the story, allowed by God to be placed by the devil) for the purpose of testing our faith.

And this, I find profoundly weird.

The one other thing all these various religious traditions agree on is God loves us* (*some exclusions and limitations apply; offer valid only for certain select groups and/or certain types of people; offer void for heretics, unbelievers, heathens, idolators, infidels, skeptics, blasphemers, or the faithless).

And I can’t quite wrap my head around the notion of deliberately playing this sort of trick on the folks one loves.

Yes, I could put a sheet of plywood on my bed and cover it with a blanket. But to what possible end? I fear I lack the ability to rightly apprehend what kind of love that would show to my cat.

Which leads me to the inescapable conclusion that a god that would deliberately plant, or allow to be planted, fake evidence contradicting the approved account of creation would be a god that loved mankind rather less than I love my cat.

It seems axiomic to me that loving someone means having their interests and their happiness at heart. Apparently, however, the believers have a rather more unorthodox idea of love. And that is why, I think, one should perhaps not trust this variety of believer who says “I love you.” Invite such a person for dinner, but count the silverware after.

Some thoughts on appropriation of another sort

The complaints about cultural appropriation by the polyamory community that I talked about in my last blog post got me to thinking about a different kind of appropriation. It often takes place in the same places and the same contexts as cultural appropriation, and a lot of the same people do it, but it’s a very different animal.

I’m talking about science appropriation.

Science appropriation is what happens when someone uses a garbled, factually incorrect, and/or completely unintelligble statement about science in an attempt to justify or rationalize something that has nothing to do with science at all.

This isn’t directly relevant to polyamory, except insofar as there are some folks (particularly in the New Age crowd) who are polyamorous and do it. I’ve also seen it in religious groups, in alternative “medicine” communities…hell, even among conspiracy theorists.

Science appropriation typically goes something like this: A person with little or no formal background in science wants to believe something. What he wants to believe isn’t especially important. Maybe he wants to believe that fluoridated water is a secret conspiracy of shadowy government agencies trying to control us with mind control drugs, or that diseases can be cured by the waving of hands and the application of spiritual energy, or that benign beings from another dimension want to make us all better people, or that after we die things become wonderful forever. Whatever it is, the person attempts to support the belief with a bizarre and often nonsensical application of some poory-understood scientific principle, or at least sciencey-sounding words like “quantum” or “frequency” or “DNA.” The result makes a hash of science, and in the few cases where the belief might have some kernel of validity, completely obfuscates its validity under a blizzard of intellectual rubbish.

This plays out in practice in a number of ways, and often involves other forms of appropriation as well.

Take this Web site. Please.

It talks about raising our “spiritual awareness” to a higher plane by using the powers of the twelve chakras, possibly related in some manner I’m not entirely clear on to the pyramids, to activate the hidden powers in our DNA.

In addition to a staggering amount of cultural appropriation (I’m not sure the authors of this stuff are even aware that the idea of chakras comes from an entirely different culture than the one that gave us the pyramids), the level of science appropriation reaches nosebleed proportions. For example (I can not make this up):

Most people know that DNA is the ‘blueprint of life’ and is located in every cell of the body. In addition to each chromosome’s 2 strand double helix of DNA, there are an additional 10 etheric strands of DNA available to each human, which have been de-activated and dormant since the beginning of recorded history. Each additional strand possesses attributes that permit the individual to perform greater human accomplishments. Scientists acknowledge that we currently only use 3% of our current 2 strand DNA. Thus we live in a society where people are sick, unhappy, stressed out, create wars, have difficulty experiencing love, and are totally disconnected with the universe. Most people have to meditate for many years just to have a so-called ‘mystical’ experience, that’s how disconnected we are now. Imagine activating 100% of your 2 strand DNA, PLUS 10 additional strands! You will go from using 10% of your brain to becoming a multi-dimensional being with psychic, telepathic, and manifestation abilities beyond anything you’ve ever dreamed of. Plus, you will stop the aging process and actually start to rejuvenate to look and feel YOUNGER. […] The portions of the DNA chain that science has presently identified as the “Double Helix”, represent only the SURFACE portions of the chemical, elemental, and electrical components of the active DNA strands. Science has yet to identify the MULTIDIMENSIONAL spectra of DNA manifestation, and has yet to realize that within the structures of detectable DNA, there are levels of structure and function that direct the operations of the entire genetic blueprint, which are not currently detectable by the contemporary scientific method.

This quote hits pretty much all the hallmarks of science appropriation.

First, there’s the garbled misunderstanding of science facts. Science says that a small percentage of the human genome is made up of “coding DNA”–the percentage is actually closer to 20% than to 3%, but never mind–which is DNA that directs the cell to make proteins. However, that doesn’t mean the rest is inactive! Non-coding DNA is involved in many functions: activation and deactivation (usually through epigenetic methylation) of protein-coding sequences of DNA; coding for strands of RNA that affect the translation of messenger RNA into proteins; and more. Many areas of non-coding DNA aren’t well understood but are highly conserved, indicating that they play an active and essential role in biology.

Then there’s the faux pop-sci mythology that we only use 10% of our brains, a nonsensical superstition remarkably resilient to the light of disproof. This and other popular science superstitions (like the notion that science says bumblebees can’t fly) are common in science appropriation.

And then there’s the hint of secret knowledge–information beyond what science can see, or facts that transcend the current state of knowledge–that’s part and parcel of science appropriation.

And finally, there’s the bizarre, anti-intellectual hatred of science and the scientific method that almost always accompanies sience appropriation. The folks who appropriate scientific-sounding language and ideas for unscientific or pseudoscientific notions seem to have a love-hate relationship with science; on the one hand, they speak with derision and contempt about the scientific method, but on the other, they seem eager–even desperate–for the validation of science.

In fact, about the only thing missing from this particular example is the word “quantum,” which as near as I can tell is what science appropriators use when they mean “magic.”

A great deal of science appropriation comes from folks who seem to genuinely want to make the world a better place, but don’t want to invest in the tools to do it because making the world a better place is often very hard work. Folks who want to be healers but who don’t want to get a medical degree or invest the serious amunt of time and money it takes to understand biology are big offenders here. There’s a Web site (and, I gather, a set of beliefs) called Healing Heart Power that’s a great example of science appropriation:

The heart’s electrical field is about 60 times greater in amplitude than the electrical activity generated by the brain.

The magnetic field produced by the heart is more than 5000 times greater in strength than the field generated by the brain

The electromagnetic energy of the heart not only envelops every cell of the human body, but also extends out in all directions in the space around us […]

Research conducted at the Institute of HeartMath suggests that the heart’s field is an important carrier of information.

Our mental and emotional state impacts the quality of contact we offer to another person. When we touch one another with safe, respectful, loving intention both physically and emotionally, we call into play the full healing power of the heart. The greater the “coherence”–a sense that life is comprehensible, manageable and meaningful– one develops, the more sensitive one becomes to the subtle electromagnetic signals communicated by those around them. […]

Heartpower and our genetic make-up: Dorothy Mandel writes, “Genetically, cells adapt to what they perceive their environment to be. Because an event experienced in the midst of a heart response will be perceived and interpreted very differently than an event experienced in the midst of a stress response, the heart can also powerfully affect genetic expression”

Becoming more heart aware and working towards authentic emotional expression and inner peace may positively impact our genetic health.

Anyone who has any backgrund in biology at all is probably cringing and eyerolling right now. The notion that human beings benefit from positive interaction with one another is pretty straightforward, but here it’s dressed up with a level of science appropriation that’s almost physically painful to read.

We see unsourced, vaguely-defined claims about the heart’s electrical and electromagnetic field that are remarkably content-free (what units are we talking about? What’s the absolute strength of these fields?) and that we are expected to infer are important. (If it’s significant that the heart’s electromagnetic field is stronger than the brain’s, what are we to infer from the fact that the bicep’s electromagnetic field is also stronger than the brain’s?) The biological basis for these claims is not presented (I would reasonably expect the brain to have a weak electromagnetic field, as the activity in it is electrochemical rather than electromagnetic!), yet the claims are used to try to support other claims, such as the heart’s electromagnetic field being a “carrier of information” (what information? in what form? From where to where?).

This particular Web page does do one thing that a lot of science appropriators don’t do, though, which is to make a falsifiable prediction (“the heart can also powerfully affect genetic expression”). Unfortunately for the creators of healing heart power, this prediction doesn’t have any evidence at all to support it.


That does bring up an important distinction between science and science appropriation, though. People who appropriate science for non-scientific or pseudoscientific ends don’t actually know what science is.

Science isn’t a body of knowledge. Science isn’t a collection of facts or books. The Theory of Relativity isn’t science; nor is Western medicine or the Hubble Space Telescope.

These things are the products of science. Science itself is a process, not a library of theorems. It’s a way of looking at the world. It’s a carefully designed system for figuring out what’s true and what’s false that s founded on a simple idea:

Human beings suck at separating truth from falsehood. When we want to believe something, we will find ways to fool or trick ourselves into believing it, even if we’re not consciously aware that’s what we’re doing. Therefore, actually separating what’s true from what we want to be true means systematically dealing with our own cognitive shortcomings, confirmation biases, and predilection for fooling ourselves.

Science insists on falsifiability because without it we tend to persuade ourselves that anything we want to believe is true. We learn about the Scientific Method in school (at least if we got anything even remotely approximating a decent education), but the version we learn in school is dry and not very illuminating. The scientific method, put more plainly, looks something like this:

  1. You are not as smart as you think you are.
    1. If you want to believe something, you’ll find a way to make yourself believe it.
    2. If you think you are rational, you’re probably good at making yourself believe what you want to believe.
    3. You are gullible.
    4. If you think you’re not gullible, you’re really, really gullible.
  2. If you want to know what’s true, you shouldn’t believe things without reason.
    1. “I really, really want it to be true” isn’t a reason.
    2. An anecdote isn’t a reason.
    3. Your feelings aren’t a reason.
      1. Feelings can lie to you.
      2. Your emotional self isn’t very good at fact-checking.
  3. Reality doesn’t care very much about what you think.
    1. Reality is really, really complicated.
    2. Reality doesn’t give a hairy flying fartknuckle about politics.
    3. Reality isn’t human-centric.
      1. If a person in New York and a person in Tehran both measure the universal gravitational constant, the result better be the same.
      2. If you get different results when the “negative energy” of “unbelievers” spoils the experiment, your results aren’t worth a fetid dingo’s kidney.
  4. if you want to understand how the universe works, you have a lot of work to do.
    1. The universe doesn’t fit human stories.
      1. Storytelling isn’t science.
    2. If it can’t be quantified, it isn’t science.
    3. If you can’t figure out a way to test whether an idea is wrong, it isn’t a scientific idea.
      1. The best way to see if an idea holds any water is to try to prove it wrong, not try to prove it right.
      2. Your own tendency toward confirmation bias will lead you to see evidence that your ideas are true even when it isn’t really there.
  5. Sometimes, the answer to a question is “we don’t know,” and that’s okay.

The things I’ve talked about so far are all examples of pseudoscience, so it might seem like sciece appropriation is simply another expression for pseudoscience.

All pseudoscience is sciene appropriation, but not all science appropriation is pseudoscience. Science appropriation also happens when something that isn’t science claims that its principles have been “scientifically proven,” something that happens often in the world of religion.

My sweetie Eve has remarked about how Westerners are quick to appropriate elemets of Indian culture, what with Tantra this and chakra that and having sex is all about spirituality, really it is, I’m being so sincere right now. But when she was in India, she saw the same thing happening in reverse; Indian mystics ad religious people often tried to claim scientific legitimacy for their religious practices, saying that science has “proven” beliefs such as cutting one’s hair is wrong.

When I was working prepress for a living, one of my clients was a book publisher that specialized in supplying books to Christian bookstores. Every year I worked on their catalog, which had an entire section devoted to books that claimed to show how science “proves” that Christianity is the true religion or that Jesus was the son of god or something.

I don’t think of these examles as pseudoscience. Pseudoscience is when something claims to be a science but isn’t, like phrenology or DNA activation or dowsing. The Christians who claim that science supports the divinity of Jesus or the Sikhs who say that refusing to cut their hair is scientifically proven to be beneficial aren’t saying that Christianity or Sikhism is a science; they’re appropriatng the respectability of science to try to support an idea that at its core has nothing to do with science. To me, that’s a it different from prenology and similar systems that claim to be scientific fields but aren’t.

There are overlaps, of course. Creation “science” is a religious belief that’s also a pseudoscience. Sometimes the boundaries get fuzzy. That doesn’t change the fact that some folks claim scientific legitimacy for a belief without saying the belief itself is a science.

Science appropriation also happens in pop culture. An astonishing number of people believe that humans only use 10% of our brains, that the left brain is rational and the right brain is creative, or if you rescue a baby bird that’s fallen from its nest you shouldn’t return it to the nest or its mother will reject it. None of these ideas has any basis in science, but they’re incredibly, annoyingly persistent and many people pass them off as science fact.


Science appropriation is more than annoying; it’s harmful. We live in a technological, post-industrial society with a public school infrastructure that is crap at teaching basic science. Thanks to that, we’ve created a society uniquely vulnerable to science appropriation. When a person with diabetes uses homeopathic “treatment,” the diabetes goes untreated. When someone spends time and money on “DNA activation” in the hopes that it will let her unlock the other 90% of her brain (whatever that means; ae these folks saying that someone with a 110 IQ will have a 1,100 IQ after DNA activation?), she gets fleeced by a scam. The fact that the scammer might also believe the scam dooesn’t make it any less of a scam; it simply means the educational system has failed the scammer, too. Public policy decisions based on science apropriation have the potential to harm lots of people.

So, as part of my own personal crusade to make the world a better place, I’ve created this handy-dandy Science Appropriation Bingo card. Keep it with you when you read New Age Web sites or browse the alternative healing section of WebMD. If you want to print it out, clicky on the picture for a link to a PDF version!

The Apocalypse Is Coming! (…again)

In less than three weeks, the end of the world will happen.

Or, rather, in less than three weeks, a bunch of Mayan-prophesy doomsdayers will wake up and, if they have any grace at all, feel slightly sheepish.

The Mayan epic calendar is set to expire on December 21, or so it seems, and a lot of folks think this will signal the end of the world. They really, truly, sincerely believe it; some of them have even written to NASA with their concerns that a mysterious Planet X will smash into Earth on the designated date. (There seems to be some muddling of New Age thought here, as the existence of this “planet X,” sometimes called Nibiru, is a fixture amongst certain segments of the New Age population, its existence allegedly described in ancient Sumarian texts.)

It’s easy to dismiss these people as gullible crackpots, uneducated and foolish, unable to see how profoundly stupid their fears are. But I’m not so sure it’s that simple.

Apocalyptic fears are a fixture of the human condition. The Mayan doomsday nonsense is not the first such fearful prediction; it’s not even the first one to grab recent public attention. Harold Camping, an Evangelical Christian, predicted the end of the world on October 21, 2011…and also on May 21, 2011, September 7, 1994, and May 21, 1988. He got enough folks worked up about his 2011 predictions that many of his followers sold their belongings and caravanned across the country warning people of the impending Apocalypse.

These kinds of predictions have existed for, as near as I can tell, as long as human beings have had language. Pat Robertson has been in on the action, predicting the Great Tribulation and the coming of Jesus in 2007. These fears are so common that a number of conservative politicians, including Sarah Palin, believe that the current generation is the last one the world will see.

Given how deeply-woven these apocalyptic fears are in the human psyche, it seems to me they speak to something important. I believe that, at least for some people, such fears of impending doomsday actually offer protection against an even deeper fear: the fear of irrelevance.


My readership being what it is, I bet the percentage of you who recognize this picture is probably higher than the percentage of the population as a whole who recognize it.

This is part of the Standard of Ur, an artifact recovered from archaeological digs from the site of Ur, one of the world’s oldest cities, in what is now present-day Iraq.

Ur was likely first settled somewhere around 3800 BC, or roughly six thousand years ago, give or take. That puts its earliest settlement at about the start of the Bronze Age, plus or minus a century or so. The Agrarian Revolution was already well-established, but metallurgy was fairly new. When it was built, it was a coastal city; that was so long ago that the land itself has changed, and the ruins of Ur are now well inland.

You’ve probably at least heard of Ur; most public schools mention it in passing in history classes, at least back when I was a schoolkid. Unless you’re a history major, you probably don’t know much about it, and certainly don’t know a whole lot about life there. Unless you’re a history major, you probably don’t think about it a whole lot, either.

Think about that for a minute. Ur was a major center of civilization–arguably, the center of civilization–for centuries. History records it as an independent, powerful city-state in the 26th century BC, more than a thousand years after it was founded. People were born, lived, loved, struggled, rejoiced, plotted, schemed, invented, wrote, sang, prayed, fished, labored, experienced triumph and heartbreak, and died there for longer than many modern countries have even existed, and you and I, for the most part, don’t care. Most of us know more about Luke Skywalker than any of the past rulers of Ur, and that’s okay with us. We have only the vaguest of ideas that this place kinda existed at some vague point a long time ago, even though it was among the most important places in all the world for a total of more than three thousand years, if you consider its history right up to the end of the Babylonians.

And that, I think, can tell us a lot about the amazing persistence of apocalyptic doomsday fears.


When I was a kid, I was fascinated by astronomy. I wanted to grow up to be an astronomer, and even used a little Dymo labelmaker to make a label that said “Franklin Veaux, Astrophysicist” that I stuck on my bedroom door.

Then I found out that some day, the sun would burn out and the earth would become a lifeless lump of rock orbiting a small, cold cinder. And that all the other stars in the sky would burn out. And that all the stars that would come after them would one day burn out, too.

The sense of despair I felt when I learned that permanently changed me.

Think about everything you know. Think about everything you’ve ever said or done, every cause you believe in, every hero and villain you’ve ever encounter, every accomplishment you’ve ever made.

Now think about all of that mattering as much to the world as the life of an apprentice pot-maker in Ur means to you.

It’s one thing to know we are going to die; we all have to deal with that, and we construct all kinds of myths and fables, all sorts of afterlives where we are rewarded with eternal bliss while people we don’t like are forever punished for doing the things we don’t think they should do. But to die, and then to become irrelevant? To die and to know that everything we dreamed of, did, or stood for was completely forgotten, and humanity just went along without us, not even caring that we existed at all? It’s reasonable, I think, for people to experience a sense of despair about that.

But, ah! What if this is the End of Days? What if the world will cease to be in our lifetimes? Now we will never experience that particular fate. Now we no longer have to deal with the idea that everything we know will fade away. There will be no more generations a thousand or ten thousand years hence to have forgotten us; we’re it.


Just think of all the advantages of living in the End Days. We don’t have to face the notion that not only ourselves, but our ideas, our values, our morality, our customs, our traditions, all will fade away and people will get along just fine without us.

And think of the glory! There is a certain reflected glory just in being a person who witnesses an epic thing, even if it’s only from the sidelines. Imagine being in the Afterlife, and having Socrates and Einstein and Buddha saying to us, “Wow, you were there when the Final Seal was broken? That’s so cool! Tell us what it was like?”

Human nature being what it is, there’s also that satisfaction that comes from watching all the world just burn down around you. That will teach them, all those smug bastards who disagreed with us and lived their lives differently from the way we did! As fucked-up as it may be, there’s comfort in that.

Most of us, I suspect, aren’t really equipped to deal with the notion that everything we believe is important will probably turn out not to be. If we were to find ourselves transported a thousand, two thousand, ten thousand years from now, assuming human beings still exist, they will no doubt be very alien to us–as alien as Chicago would be to an ancient Sumerian.

They won’t speak our language, or anything like it; human languages rarely last more than six hundred years or more. Everything we know will be not only gone, but barely even recognized…if there’s anything left of, say, New York City, it will likely not exist much beyond an archaeological dig and some dry scholarly papers full of conjecture and misinformation. For people who live believing in tradition and hierarchy and authority and continuity, the slow and steady evaporation of all those things is worse than the idea of death. Belief in the End Times is a powerful salve to all of that.

Given the transience of all human endeavor, it makes a certain kind of sense. The alternative, after all, is…what? Cynicism? Nihilism? If everything that we see, do, think, feel, believe, fight for, and sacrifice for is going to mean as much to future generations as the lives of the citizens of Ur four thousand years ago mean to us, what’s the point of any of it? Why believe in anything?

Which, I think, misses the point.

We live in a world of seven billion people, and in all that throng, each of us is unique. We have all spent tens of billions of years not existing. We wake up in the light, alive and aware, for a brief time, and then we return to non-existence. But what matters is that we are alive. It’s not important if that matters a thousand years from now, any more than it matters that it wasn’t important a thousand years ago; it does matter to us, right here, right now. It matters because the things we believe and the things we do have the power to shape our happiness, right here, and if we can not be happy, then what is the point of this brief flicker of existence?

Why should we fight or sacrifice for anything? Because this life is all we have, and these people we share this world with are our only companions. Why should we care about causes like, say, gay rights–causes which in a thousand years will mean as much as campaigns to allow women to appear on stage in Shakespeare’s time? Because these are the moments we have, and this is the only life that we have, and for one group of people to deprive another group of people the opportunity to live it as best suits them harms all of us. If we are to share this world for this brief instant, if this is all we have, then mutual compassion is required to make this flicker of awareness worthwhile. This, ultimately, is the antidote to the never-ending stream of apocalyptic prophesy.

Some thoughts on parasites, ideology, and Malala Yousafzai

This is Malala Yousafzai. As most folks are by now aware, she is a 14-year-old Pakistani girl who was shot in the head by the Taliban for the crime of saying that girls should get an education. Her shooting prompted an enormous backlash worldwide, including–in no small measure of irony–among American politicians who belong to the same political party as legislators who say that children ought to be executed for disrespecting their parents.

I’ve been reading a lot lately about what seems to be two different and at least theoretically unrelated things: parasitology and ideology, specifically religious ideology. This might seem to have nothing to do with Malala Yousafzai’s shooting, but it really isn’t.

When I say I’ve been reading about parasitology, what I mean by that is my Canadian sweetie has been reading to me about parasitology. Specifically, she’s been reading me a book called Parasite Rex, which makes the claim that much of evolutionary biology, including the development of sexual reproduction, is driven by parasites. It’s been a lot of fun; I never knew I’d enjoy being read to so much, even though the subject matter is sometimes kinda yucky.

What’s striking to me is that these things–religious ideology and parasitology–are in some ways the same thing in two different forms.

Parasites make their living by invading a host, then using the host’s resources to spread themselves. To this end, they do some amazing manipulation of the host. Some parasites, for instance, are able to alter a host’s behavior to promote their own spread. Sometimes it’s as crude as irritating the host’s throat to promote coughing which spreads hundreds of millions of virus particles. Other times, it’s as bizarre and subtle as influencing the host’s mind to change the way the host responds to fear, in order to make it more likely that the host will be eaten by a predator, which will then infect itself with the same parasite. In fact, parasitologists today are discovering that the study of life on Earth IS the study of parasites; parasites, more than any other single factor, may be the most significant determinant in the ratio of predator to prey biomass on this planet.

Religious ideology would seem to be a long way off from parasitism, unless you consider that ideas, like parasites, spread themselves by taking control of a host and modifying the host’s behavior so as to promote the spread of the idea.

This isn’t a new concept; Richard Dawkins coined the term ‘meme’ to describe self-replicating ideas decades ago.

But what’s striking to me is how direct the comparison is. The more I learn about parasites, the more I come to believe that parasites and memes aren’t allegories for each other; parasites ARE memes, and vice versa.

We tend to think of parasites like toxoplasma as being real things, and ideas like the salvation of Jesus Christ as being abstract concepts that don’t really exist the same way that real things do. But I don’t think that’s true.

Ideas exist in physical form. It might be as a series of symbols printed in a book or as a pattern of neural connections stored inside a brain, but no matter how you slice it, ideas have a physical existence. An idea that does not exist in any physical way, even as neuron connections wired into a person’s head, doesn’t exist.

Similarly, parasites are information, just like ideas are. A strand of DNA is nothing but an encoded piece of information, in the same sense that a series of magnetic spots on a hard disk are information. In fact, researchers have made devices that use DNA molecules to store computer information, treating banks of DNA as if they were hard drives.

In a sense, ideas and organisms aren’t different things. They are the same thing written into the world in different ways. An idea that takes control of a host’s brain and modifies the host to promote the spread of the idea is like a parasite that takes control of a host and modifies it to spread the parasite. The fact that the idea exists as configurations of connections of neurons rather than as configurations of nucleotides isn’t as relevant as you might think.

We can treat ideas the same way we treat parasites or diseases. We can use the tools of epidemiology to track how ideas spread. We can map the virulence of ideas in exactly the same way that we map the virulence of diseases.

Religion is unquestionably a meme–a complex idea that is specifically designed to spread itself, sometimes at the host’s expense. A believer infected with a religious ideology who kills himself for his belief is no different than a moose infected with a parasite that dies as a result of the infection; the parasite in both cases has hijacked the host, and subverted the host’s own biological existence for its own end.

The more I see the amazing adaptations that parasites have made to help protect themselves and spread themselves, the more I’m struck by how memes, and especially religious memes, have made the same adaptations.

Some parasitic wasps, for example, will create multiple types of larva in a host caterpillar–larva that go on to be more wasps, and larva that act as guardians, protecting the host from infection by other parasites by eating any new parasites that come along. Similarly, religious memes will protect themselves by preventing their host from infection by other memes; many successful religions teach that other religions are created by the devil and are therefore evil, and must be rejected.

We see the same patterns of host resistance to parasites and to memes, too. A host species exposed to the same parasites for many generations will tend to develop a resistance to the parasites, as individuals who are particularly vulnerable to the parasites are selected against and individuals particularly resistant to the parasites are selected for by natural selection. Similarly, a virulent religious meme that causes many of its hosts to die will gradually face resistance in its host population, as particularly susceptible individuals are killed and particularly resistant individuals gain a survival advantage.

Writers like Sam Harris and Michael Shermer talk about how people in a pluralistic society can not really accept and live by the tenets of, say, the Bible, no matter how Bible-believing they consider themselves to be. The Bible advocates slavery, and executing women for not being virgins on their wedding night, and destroying any town where prophets call upon the citizens to turn away from God; these are behaviors which you simply can’t do in an industrialized, pluralistic society. So the members of modern, industrialized societies–even the ones who call themselves “fundamentalists” and who say things like “the Bible is the literal word of God”–don’t really act as though they believe these things are true. They don’t execute their wives or sell their daughters into slavery. The memes are not as effective at modifying the hosts as they used to be; they have become less virulent.

But new or mutated memes, like new parasites, always have the chance of being particularly virulent. Their host populations have not developed resistance. In the Middle East, in places where an emergent strain of fundamentalist Islam leads to things like the Taliban shooting Malala Yousafzai, I think that’s what we’re seeing–a new, virulent meme. islam itself is not new, of course, but to think that the modern strains of Islam are the same as the original is to think that the modern incarnations of Christianity are akin to the way Jesus actually lived; it’s about as far off the mark as thinking a bird is a dinosaur. They share a common heritage, but that’s all. They have evolved into very different organisms.

And this particular meme, this particular virulent strain of Islam, is canny enough to attack its host immune system directly. The Taliban targeted Malala Yousafzai because she favors education for women. Education, in many ways, provides an immunological response to memes; it is no accident that Tammy Faye Bakker famously said that it’s possible to educate yourself right out of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. It’s no accident that Fundamentalism in all of its guises tends to be anti-intellectual and anti-education.

I’m not saying that the meme of religion (or any other meme) is inherently bad, of course. Memes have different strains; there are varieties of any large religion that are virulent and destructive to their host population, and other strains that are less virulent and more benign.

But with parasitic ideas as with parasitic biological entities, it is important to remember that the goal of the parasite is not necessarily the same as the goal of its host. Parasites attempt to spread themselves, often at the host’s expense. the parasite’s interests are not the host’s interests. Even a seemingly benign meme, such as a meme that says it is important to be nice to each other in order to gain an everlasting reward in heaven, might harm its host species if it siphons away resources to spread itself through churches that might otherwise have been used to, for example, research new cures for cancer. At the more extreme end, even such a benign meme might cause its adherents to say things like “We as a society don’t need to invest in new biomedical nanotechnology to promote human longevity, because we believe that we will live forever if we abide by the strictures of this meme and help to spread it through our works.”

Virulent memes tend to be anti-intellectual, because education is often a counter to their spread. Malala Yousafzai was targeted because she represents the development of an immune response to a virulent, destructive meme that is prevalent in the environment where she was born.