That COVID Letter I Won’t Send

Where angels fear to tread…

Several times over the last half year, I’ve begun to draft a letter to the relatives who are in full Fauxvid Panic Mode, in order to tell them why I’m not. My motivation: my wife, alone out of her 11 siblings, is the one providing a home and care for their 83 year old mother. So – horror of horrors! – every day for several years now, their mom, who few of them care to do more for than maybe – maybe – call her on the phone once or twice a year, get ‘exposed’ to people who aren’t panicked over the Kung Flu, who encourage her to go on walks and take her to Mass every day, exposing her to (socially distanced, masked up) people who might have a deadly disease! Clearly, we’re trying to kill the poor old lady!

When vaccines became available, one son, a very good man and the one who does the most for his mom apart from my wife, made sure his mom got vaccinated, including driving her to and from the appointments he made. He’s trying to be an attentive and dutiful son, of which I totally approve. I want to be perfectly clear: given his premises, he behaved admirably.

Our only involvement was reminding them that we take Helen to the doctor regularly, and that she would want to do whatever her doctor recommends, and thus we would set up a telephone consultation with him for her. Her doctor, predictably, was all for the vaccine, and so she got it, both doses – under the impression that would mean no more masks or worry. Which of course it would mean, in a sane world.

I recognize the futility of presenting reason to terrified rabbits, to people who are very confident they have a completely rational bead on things such that anyone who disagrees is clearly evil or insane. They assume – I heard them assume this out loud – that anyone who disagrees with that nice doctor Fauci is merely doing it for political reasons. After years of very successful schooling, they lack the imagination to think anything else. They think they believe evidence and ‘the science’ when they do whatever the people with journalism degrees and remarkably straight teeth tell them to. The concept that it might take some skill, understanding, and effort to understand any evidence at all is completely foreign to them, as is the notion that to claim to accept claims as evidence prior to applying the required skill, understanding, and effort is nothing more than accepting dogma on authority.

The history of mass delusions suggests several outcomes here. As the evidence, or lack thereof, continues to point toward the entire panic/lockdown/masking reaction being, at best, wildly disproportionate to the actual risk and utterly ineffectual even according to its own goals, the True Believers have a few options:

  1. Keep doubling down. No, no, no! We did exactly the right things! Millions would have died if we had not done them. In other words, preserve your self-image at the expense of accepting reality. Sadly, we humans have a lot of experience doing this. Examples: the current treatment of the French Revolution by academic historians in France (so I hear), where the Revolution is treated as an essentially unalloyed good, where giving any credence to or even acknowledging the existence of opposing views is a career-ender. The Vendee (so I hear) is simply never discussed in elite French academic circles. Or the Russians who yearn for a return to Soviet rule, because they and theirs didn’t have it so bad, and all that bad stuff people keep talking about didn’t happen to them and so, effectively, didn’t happen. This course requires continual little lies, as the evidence keeps impinging – but we humans are good at that.
  2. Pretend it never happened. I am reminded of the accounts of some German Jewish professors, who were driven from their positions, impoverished, driven into hiding, fled for their lives, only to return after the war to find the remaining faculty, who gave at least their silent consent to all this, acting as if nothing had happened, greeting them as if they had merely been on sabbatical for a while. The political ploy of claiming anyone who brings up past crimes and disasters is refusing to ‘move on’ is a species of this.
  3. Ownings it. By our gullible faith in people who professionally lie and distort reality, and have for all the centuries their vocation has existed – the press and politicians – we are complicit in the destruction of the world’s economy, the seizure and destruction of property (small businesses) under the pretext of safety, and the ongoing starvation of millions of third-world peasants who our actions deprived of livelihood when we wantonly destroyed world trade, and the imposition of a police state world-wide.

So my vote is for #1 or #2. It seems Bohr’s quip about science advancing one funeral at a time will now apply to those who accept pseudo-science: this generation will go to their graves thinking – something. Only some future generation will (maybe – assuming civilization as we know it more or less continues), after their elders achieve room temperature, conclude that we collectively lost our minds.

The letter would go something like this:

Dear fam:

You all don’t really know me very well, which is understandable as we have been scattered to the winds over the decades and don’t see each other all that much. One thing you don’t know about me is that I’ve been obsessed with science since 4th grade. I thought about pursuing a career as a science historian (I don’t seem to have much talent as an experimentalist), but delayed until I had gotten married and started a family, so I did the much more expedient and lucrative route of business while continuing to study science as a hobby. I’ve watched science programs, listened to the science news, read many articles and essays and dozens of books covering not just particular sciences but the history and philosophy of science and the scientific method. I read scientific studies for fun.

As we scientifically literate people have learned from experience to do, I of course ignore the claims made in the media and read the literature for myself. This is necessary, as journalists have repeatedly proven to have no grasp of science while being highly motivated to be as sensational as possible – “if it bleeds, it leads” being a motto bordering on an iron law in the news business. Thus, when I heard back in March of 2020 about some viral outbreak in China, I, along with thousands of other scientifically literate people, went to the publicly available data and reports and read them myself. Here’s what I, and thousands of other scientifically literate people, including Nobel Prize winners, PhDs in all sorts of analytic fields, and even thousands of non-scientists like, for example, doctors, concluded. The data all but screams the following:

  1. SARS 2 is a real disease that really kills some people.
  2. Its fatality and seriousness varies wildly based on the population affected, such as when you subdivide by age or health.
  3. There is one and only one easily identifiable group that is at extreme risk from COVID: those who are already dying of something else. Nursing home patients, for example.
  4. For those who are even moderately healthy, COVID is about as dangerous a typical flu.

That’s based on all the evidence available in March and April of 2020. No evidence has been developed since then to change these conclusions.

Please note that this is not just me saying this – thousands of scientifically literate people, including Nobel Prize winners and experts in data analysis, the kind of people who read studies and understand what they mean, have reached essentially the same conclusion.

BUT: you have heard otherwise! Not only does the news continually trot out horror stories, or invite you to imagine bodies piling up somewhere, “experts” keep telling you to panic hard, sometimes with tears in their eyes. So I, and thousands of other scientifically literate people, simply cannot be right – right?

A few things to consider:

  1. Confirmation bias + fear = a panic spiral. Confirmation bias – the tendency to accept and overvalue claims that confirm what we already believe, and reject and undervalue evidence that contradicts what we already believe – is well known and endemic. Even elite scientists suffer from confirmation bias, which is why studies that have not been subjected to vigorous criticism carry no weight. Add fear, and you reduce further the ability to rationally evaluate information. Scared people then embrace their panic, reject anything that might calm it, and vilify anyone who contradicts it.
  2. Mistaken expertise. Science means ignoring the experts and looking at the data. If we relied on experts, we’d still be having our blood let to treat consumption, and ringing church bells to disperse the noxious vapors that transmit the Black Death. Science advances when people defy the experts and look at the evidence. Yet we live in a culture that values expertise, because we’ve never learned how to evaluate data for ourselves.
  3. Participation Trophy Culture. We have all been trained from the cradle to conform with whatever we’re told to do. We get a trophy for just playing the game. The social costs of independent thought are high. Much easier to simply conform.
  4. Since at least WWII, it has been estimated that between 2% and 5% of the American people are clinical sociopaths. These are people who have no empathy, who not only don’t care about the pain they inflict on others, but positively get off on the raw exercises of power over others. What are called high functioning sociopaths are able to fake normal emotions well enough to pass as normal – you or I would stand almost no chance of picking up on their sociopathy without years of interactions with them. These high functioning sociopaths tend to do very well in business and politics, unencumbered by normal emotions and morality. It is reasonable to conclude that many of our political and business leaders are sociopaths who would get off on fanning the panic and have not the least compunction about destroying the careers of anyone who opposes them. Doctors and nurses who have reached the same conclusions I have get fired or censured; scientists who point out the absurdity of current practices get unpersoned. And you will never hear about it.

Note that these consideration are before and outside of any political considerations. There are many other issues, involving new strains, supposed long-term effects, endless anecdotes and just-so stories, but I say: get your head around any of the issues above, and you’ll have made much progress towards a scientific understanding of the virus, and why I and thousands of others are not afraid of it.

By the by, if any of you have any EVIDENCE to contradict these and the following assertions, I’d be happy to look it over and interpret it for you, just send a link. Note that the naked assertions of scientists, let alone journalists, politicians, and doctors, are not evidence – they are assertions. If they don’t present evidence, they are gossip. Claims are only as strong as the evidence to support them. Evidence is presented in studies and reports.

As the evidence rolled in over the following months, we scientifically literate people noticed a few other things:

  1. About half of alleged infections result in no symptoms at all. This has been consistent across time and continents.
  2. The case fatality rate (CFR), a technical and basically useless number for laymen but constantly cited, kept going down. What you would want to know are the IFR (infection fatality rate) and population fatality rates for your specific population. If you are not already dying of something else, those rates will be orders of magnitude lower than the CFR.
  3. The definitions of what constitutes a COVID ‘case’ and ‘death’ are inconsistent and innovative – no other diseases had ever had their base metrics so constantly and irrationally varied across time and space. Yet all reporting assumes complete homogeneity of the data.
  4. 99.5%+ of all reported cases have no or minor (cold- or flu-like) symptoms.
  5. While vast numbers of deaths from COVID have been claimed, total deaths across populations have not significantly increased, at least not as much as the alleged deaths from COVID. This is what is to be expected if the virus mostly kills people who were already dying. Ex: The UN predicted in 2019, without taking the virus into account, that about 2.94 million Americans would die in 2020 in the usual course of things. The CDC says that the deaths of nearly 500,000 Americans “involving” COVID- their language, not mine – occurred in 2020. So, do we see 2.94 + 0.5 = 3.44 million deaths? Nope – just under 2.9 million, according to the CDC. The CDC’s own numbers and basic math do not support the claim that half a million Americans have died of COVID.
  6. Flu deaths disappeared worldwide in March of 2020 and have yet to reappear, as reported by the WHO and the CDC. This is unprecedented. The logical conclusion: all flu deaths are being assigned to COVID, since in virtually all cases the symptoms are identical.
  7. No evidence has yet been presented to support the notion of significant asymptomatic spread, meaning that if you don’t have symptoms, there’s no significant risk you will spread the disease. Wearing a mask when you aren’t sick around other people who aren’t sick protects no one.
  8. No evidence that lockdowns prevent more deaths than they cause has been presented. In fact, no all-in analyses, where benefits AND COSTS are considered and weighed against each other, have been allowed to surface.
  9. No evidence that social distancing as practiced in the real world slows the spread of COVID has been presented.
  10. No evidence that people under 50 who are even moderately healthy are at any significant additional risk from COVID has been presented. Children are at about the same risk from COVID as they are from being eaten by sharks or crushed by a meteorite.

And so on. Could I and the thousands of other scientifically literate people be wrong about some or all of the above? Of course! That’s the beauty of science – you can always be proved wrong by the next batch of evidence, rigorously produced and criticized. But one can’t be proved wrong by the naked assertions of ‘experts’ or the pernicious anti-science of the oxymoronic phrase ‘scientific consensus.’ Science is not a religion one ‘follows’ or in which one ‘believes.’ The scientist either produces and defends solid evidence, or he should shut up.

Unfortunately, learning how to evaluate evidence according the principles of science, math, and logic requires years of effort, like learning a language. It is not what is taught in schools under the heading ‘science,’ which tends toward mere technical competence. Doctors certainly don’t learn it in medical school, and history has shown that they are among the greatest disseminators of pseudoscience. I can explain it, but there’s no guarantee you will understand it without significant effort, and a vigorous challenge to your confirmation bias.

I repeat my offer: send me any studies or reports that defend the current COVID panic, and I will be happy to analyze them for you. NOTE: if you throw 70 studies at me that you, yourself, have not read, you need to own up to be a scientifically illiterate poser who is merely following orders.

Of course, I can’t send this – zero chance it will do anything but further alienate already panicked relatives.

Civilization & Progress: What It Takes

When I was a kid, reading all those Time-Life Science books:

Life Science Library by Time-Life Books
These guys, I don’t know how many there were, back in the late 1960s, but I ‘read’ all I could get my hands on. ‘Read’ in quotes, because they’re mostly pictures and ‘gee-whiz!’ copy.

I first ran into a persistent and pernicious idea that made me sad: that Science! was the triumph of some small few smart people, who, despite the ignorance and, often, hostility, of the masses, dragged the rest of us kicking and screaming into the glorious future. (Therefore, the Sagans of the world inescapably conclude, we little people should shut up and do what Our Betters tell us to do, for our own good!)

This attitude pops up everywhere, so much so that even for people who don’t consciously accept it, it becomes like water to a fish, just The Way Things Are. What is the underlying message, for example, of Asimov’s Foundation? That there are smart people someplace, with magical scientific powers, who know what’s going on, who are opposed by the Powers That Be and all the little people. Poor, poor geeks! They need to find their own special planet far away from us, to do their magic, and save us! At least, those few who can be saved.

Once you start looking for it, it’s everywhere, and has resulted in our current Cult of the Expert. We are always looking for somebody who is an expert to tell us what to do, and any of us who don’t get in line with the ‘expert’ view are vilified. For the conventionally well-educated, there is no other option.

Later, as I read more, (I want to say, like, 7th grade? But memory both fails and is creative) I came to see how this wasn’t true. The giants of science stand, not so much on the shoulders of the preceding giants of science, but on the backs of the millions of peasants whose work has created a world where men of science can do their thing. Far from being a stumbling block or barrier to science, we little people, by our patient, stable, productive lives, produce the bedrock upon which any scientific edifice may be constructed.

When the smart people take charge, say, in the French or Russian Revolution, it ends up with your Lavoisiers guillotined and your Lysenkos making sure science is an obedient stepchild to the state. “No, no, no!” I can hear the ‘I effing Love Science’ crowd objecting – “those Enlightened Frenchmen and the Vanguard of the Collective in Russian were the wrong smartest, most enlightened, and most moral people ever. We mean *us*! And we would never do such bad things! We would only silence and lock up the deniers – those clearly evil stupid people who question the legitimacy and effectiveness of masks and lockdowns – they’re denying COVID! Those benighted morons who completely agree the climate is changing (because it always changes) and that CO2 is of course a greenhouse gas (although an extraordinarily minor one at any level of concentration ever experienced on earth) but question the sanity of those who think people can enact policies to stop climate change, something that has been going on for 3 or 4 billion years now without any human intervention – they’re climate change deniers! Those truly evil people who point out that a man remains a man regardless if he thinks he’s a woman and undergoes physical or chemical castration – those evil, evil people are denying SCIENCE! Such people DESERVE to be silenced, at the very least. If we need to lock up or even kill those deniers, we, the REAL most intelligent, enlightened, and moral people the world has ever seen, would be doing the world and those people a favor!”

The price to stay in the outer rings of the Kool Kids Klub is high.

The medieval peasants who accepted that each man had rights and duties, that God would judge the King and the pauper by the same standards while demanding more from him to whom more was given – they produced enough food and peace for universities and monasteries to thrive. The people in those universities and monasteries, some of whom were the brightest children of the peasants, believed that trying to understand the created world was one obvious way to honor its Creator, and thus was worthy activity in and of itself. The kings and nobility and the Church, believing or at least feeling obliged to honor where expedient the same notions of rights and duties embraced by peasants, also respected and supported the intellectual activities of the universities and monasteries.

Only in such a world could millions of men (and some women) learn the rigorous logic that constitutes the foundation to modern science. Only in a world where a rational Creator is accepted could the idea that creation is an objective, orderly, fundamentally comprehensible whole that man could and should understand become commonplace.

From 900 to 1250, the population of Europe approximately quadrupled, something only possible because technology allowed vastly more land to be worked vastly more productively. The famine and plagues of the first half of the 14th century brought 400 years of steady intellectual and material progress nearly to a halt. Grossly, after a couple centuries that saw a tremendous drop in population and rise in chaos, we had a ‘renaissance’ – a resumption of the the intellectual and material progress of the Middle Ages, but with a conscious rejection of its true source: the great achievements of the Medieval period were denigrated, even so far as labelling the architectural and artistic triumphs of the period ‘Gothic’ as a slur. As if copying Romans was an advance over Chartres and Giotto and Dante?

The Renaissance and Enlightenment were very modern in this respect: projecting their daddy issues onto an imaginary past.

Of course, this all is a gross simplification – but so is the idea that the Renaissance and Enlightenment represent unalloyed progress. I would go so far as to paraphrase Dr. Johnson: The Renaissance and Enlightenment were both good and original. Where they were good, they were not original; where they were original, they were not good.

“Always”: Unspoken & Clueless Assumptions

Because I have nothing to do (ha!), wasted a couple minutes trying to understand what NFTs – Non-Fungible Tokens – are. Pretty sure I don’t understand it, any more than I understand money.

(There exists a large class of objects in this world that seem pretty clear until you spend a few seconds thinking about them, and another class that start out murky – NFTs, say, or Hegel – that merely become more fundamentally murky the more thought one puts into them. In the extreme, one achieves what might be called Socratic nihilism: you only know that you don’t know. One of the reasons Aristotle is, at a minimum, more useful than Plato – but I digress… )

I was struck by this phrase in the first article on NFTs I looked at:

The other aspect is that it is a smart contract, permanently on blockchain, always able to be tracked. 

National Review Online

“Always”? You sure about that? This is the sense of ‘always’ I use when I say that an S&P index fund will always have value, meaning: as long as any stocks anywhere have value, an S&P index fund will have value. Put another way: if an S&P index fund becomes valueless, then the money you lost investing in it will be the least of your problems. Since investing in an S&P index is a close proxy for investing in the world’s economy, any general collapse(1) of S&P indexes would mean the world’s economy has collapsed. Rather than worrying about how your comfortable retirement just went up in smoke, you’d be worrying about how soon you are going to need to eat the family dog.

Thus, the reporter can say a “smart” contract will always be able to be tracked. All tracking it requires is the Internet and all the technology that supports it. Not just computers and wires, but the energy grid, metallurgy, international shipping infrastructure, roads – you know, the totality of the modern world, circa 2021. And don’t forget: the rule of law under which the concept of a permanent contract has meaning. The rule of law means not just written law, not just cops, judges, and lawyers, but the willingness of people to live as if the law binds them.

Notice anything fragile in there? Anything that might make this particular ‘always’ brief and exciting? Ultimately, the rule of law boils down to not stealing stuff even if you know you won’t get caught, not running the red light even when nobody’s around, filling out your tax forms without a thought given to how likely you might be to get caught if you just fudge a little, or a lot, around the edges. Like fiat currency, the rule of law exists only where people agree it has value and should be accepted.

Oligarchies of various flavors sometimes give the appearance of being law abiding. They know other oligarchs can make life hard on them, sometimes, if they don’t play by the rules, and they really prefer the little people to follow the rules, at least insofar as those rules prevent violence and theft against oligarchs. It’s also a lot easier to manage people who are under the impression the law applies to everyone. Otherwise, the oligarchs must keep up a constant show of power to keep the little people in line. As the Dread Pirate Roberts says, “Once word leaks out that a pirate has gone soft, people begin to disobey you and then it’s nothing but work, work, work, all the time.” Can’t go soft, once the rule of law – the law YOU make and interpret – vacates the hearts of your subjects. Far better to keep up the illusion.

Problem: the idea of the “law-abiding” “citizen” is dead except as an eccentric idiosyncrasy. The law has been reduced to whatever our betters decide it is and is applied however and to whomever they decide to apply it. Freedom of assembly? Freedom of speech? As dead as the concept of representative democracy. Our citizenship has been rendered meaningless by the last election.

Even all that other, more physical, infrastructure is not nearly as tough as it seems. Things get lost. Technological progress, like progress in general, happens when we only take 99 steps back for every 100 steps forward.

Was teaching the 8th graders about the Greek Dark Ages. After the fall of the Mycenaeans after 1200 BC, the use of Linear B script stopped. A literate people, builders of great palaces and defensive works, heirs to some degree of the great Minoan civilization of Crete, just stopped writing. In other words, a literate people became illiterate. Only centuries later did the Greeks adopt an alphabet from the Phoenicians and return to literacy. It’s an unanswerable question, if the Greeks would have ever developed writing on their own. The Mycenaean Greeks seem to have adapted Linear A (based on a forgotten language and unreadable) from the Minoans into Linear B (a syllabic script for Greek) the first time around, then the Archaic Greeks who followed them relearned to write from the Phoenicians the second time. People in the running for the greatest literary culture in history might never have written anything, left to themselves. That they forgot how at one point is edifying.

Can we forget how to access a block chain to validate the ownership of ephemera via smart contract? How many people understand what that means, or would care if they did? How many people today would be baffled by a rotary phone, or a physical map? How many would be able to reduce a live animal to something you could eat? I still run across floppy discs I forgot to throw away. CDs are all but useless today.

Skilled manual workers could build things like the F-1 rocket engine without computers or 3-D printers. And, weirdly enough, today’s engineers with computers and 3-D printers can’t. The highly skilled engineers, welders, and fitters, who got their hands dirty building rocket engines, aren’t around any more. That knowledge has died. In the linked video, the narrator assumes the original builders were in too big a hurry to notate every trick they used, revealing his ignorance of how highly skilled and productive people work. Welders – and I knew a lot of expert welders, including my dad – just knew stuff, and used it every day. The very idea you’d need to notate every trick you used to get something to work so that some newb non-welder could understand it would have been laughed out of the room.

I suspect NFTs will be dinosaurs sooner rather than later. Recall that all we have of dinosaurs are some bones and a few rare impressions of skin and feathers. From this, we imagine giant beasts, and imagine how they lived, like you can tell from bone fragments the often stunningly complex ways animals behave. The question is: do they become dinosaurs because better solution were developed, or because an asteroid strike, figuratively speaking, wipes out the world as we know it?

Vet Anatomy UofA on Twitter: "African Lion Skeleton (male ...
Large Dog Skeleton - Dapper Cadaver Props
Bear Skeleton by ArsonAnthemKJ on DeviantArt
Even if you can tell the difference between a dog, a lion, and a bear based on their skeletons, could you tell that dogs hunt in packs, bears hunt alone, while some cats (tigers) hunt alone, other cats (lions) hunt in packs? For one example of important things you can’t tell from bones alone.

Imagine explaining the function of a mimeograph machine to someone under 40. “It’s like a computer printer, except completely different” isn’t going to help the callow youth run it. Heck, he probably couldn’t work the typewriter to make up the original. (I remember mimeograph correction fluid – I suspect that blue crap could have gotten one high. I am too straight-laced, and was even back in the Pleistocene, to have ever found out.)

Now imagine explaining how to use a mimeograph machine from some rusted, incomplete scraps. Thus, we see the Minoan’s beautiful ruins and artwork, and their Linear A script, and can as easily recognize that script as writing as we can recognize a Tyrannosaurus Rex bone as part of an animal. But we can’t read Linear A (and not through lack of trying), and we can’t tell much about what a T-Rex IS. We just guess.(2)

The near-universal confidence we have in the permanence of our current tech would be funny if it weren’t horrifying. It never rises to the level of thought, even thought by today’s debased standards of ‘thought’, that maybe, just maybe, it takes work to keep anything going, that entropy is the law, and we and everything we build and love, are profoundly antientropic. Civilizations really don’t spring up naturally, and tend strongly towards decay unless constantly renewed; libraries don’t just happen; knowledge is hard-won, and not yours if you don’t personally know it. The idea that this is ‘our’ technology is delusional. it belongs to those who understand it – and those people can forget, die, or simply fail to pass it along. It’s all very fragile by nature.

Once, a few years back, I had an amusing thought (it amused me, at least) at a meeting of our Chesterton reading group. At the table were about a dozen people, including a doctor, a couple teachers, an economics professor, a couple tech geniuses (I’m told one regular was somewhat famous in Silicon Valley for some fundamental invention used by everybody). A couple doubled as musicians and artsy-types. There were graduates from St. John’s College, MIT, Stanford, and sundry other schools you might have heard of. My funny thought: wow, we here at this table could just about recreate Western Civilization from scratch! ha ha ha. The main thing (among many) we lacked would be one little thing: everybody else’s cooperation.

Civilization is only possible when almost everybody plays nice – and agrees to come down hard on any who don’t. Otherwise, entropy will win.

  1. If only your particular investment firm’s index fund collapsed – say, due to fraud or gross incompetence – that’s another story. I’m talking here about funds becoming valueless because the underlying assets are no longer valued. Just to be clear, in case anyone as pedantic as me reads this.
  2. One of the fun things about the hundreds of cuneiform tablets from all those Mesopotamian civilizations is that almost all of them are boring business records. Imagine putting in the years to learn to read the various languages, then spending the time deciphering some tablet, only to discover it’s all about how many beans somebody owed somebody. Yet Gilgamesh was discovered pretty much by some poor slob happening upon the one in a thousand tablets NOT a boring business record.

Canaries

(This has been sitting open on my computer for 2 weeks. It is incoherent. I’m hitting publish nonetheless.)

What are some physical signs of that our current secular millennialist insanity is fully in death spiral mode? Let me quote me, from a story I once threw up here:

The last straw was Reality’s refusal to bring about the Apocalypse. Several centuries of millennialist fervor has to go somewhere, and came to take any number of odd shapes, like the water in a balloon being squeezed. Heaven and earth, with remarkable indifference, showed no sign of passing away. We’d been promised 4 Horsemen, workers of the world casting off chains, or at least some ice caps melting. Something, some sort of comeuppance. But nope.

The children of the Puritans became the children of Marx, the environ-mental-cases, the Deconstructionists; fervor and zeal undiminished, their spirit flowed into all the isms pouring forth from the fevered imaginations of the world’s butt-hurt toddlers of all ages.

The dogmas of the abstracted are infinitely flexible. But zeal for their father’s demise consumes them, under whatever liturgical trappings this week’s catechism dictates.

Behind all the gloating and insanity are a whole lot of very hurt, very scared, and very angry children of all ages. It helps me feel more sympathetic when I keep in mind that many, perhaps most, Americans today were raised with

  • No or intermittent fathers
  • Crazy mothers (1)
  • Therefore: No family stability or consistency. The man of the house (if any) was not your dad; your siblings (if any) shared one parent with you. This situation mutated regularly. By the time you finally ran away from home or moved permanently into the basement, you had experienced any number of transient arrangements, each with its own rules and rulers.
  • No glimpse of the good, the true, and the beautiful

Even in the upper middle classes, with their higher rates of marriage and of two-parent homes, those two parents have probably made it clear to you in a million not so subtle ways that you and your happiness take a back seat to them and their supposed happiness: you were raised in daycare, had only the finest afterschool programs keeping you out of mom’s and dad’s hair, and were shipped off to a ‘good’ college as soon as possible.

Signs: a huge percentage of Americans believe as the fundamental dogma, thus incapable of refutation, that we are “destroying the planet.” Never mind that this curious phrase is never defined. It is the filter through which all ‘evidence’ is screened. Note that, for example, on the whole, forestation around the world is increasing, that the Amazon rainforest is growing back as fast or faster than it is being cut down, that the glaciers we were promised would be gone by now are still there, as are the costal cities we were told would be washed away, and you are a bad person. Note that oil pipelines are safer, on the whole, than any other way of moving oil around, or that fracking is no more destructive than any other way ever devised for getting stuff out of the ground, and you’re evil.

Certainly, one must never allow to rise to consciousness the reality that those solar panels and electric cars involve a whole lot of getting stuff out of the ground – natural gas and oil (plastics, power), common and rare earth metals (the latter resulting in massive pollution in China, because we are too squeamish to mine them here) and that those solar panels, batteries, and cars will in turn need to be disposed of, which will require more stuff to be taken out of, and put into, the ground. The proper skepticism that would greet claims that nuclear waste can be safely disposed of is nowhere to be found when the question is the inevitable damage done by going green. Wind power killing birds indifferently and in great numbers? La la la I can’t hear you!

Nope, we are destroying the planet! We’re primed for disaster, and our psyches demand we get one, even if we have to make it up ourselves.

So we did. It is extremely unlikely at this point that COVID will kill more people than the lockdowns. Even disregarding the real but difficult to measure upticks in all stress and panic related deaths – suicides, heart attacks, drug overdoses, medical problems made worse by deferred or skipped treatments, accidents – the destruction of international trade all but guarantees massive starvation and other hardship will be visited upon those third-world peasants who had only recently risen out of poverty, a rise fueled by cheap and ubiquitous shipping. Our Dickensian hand-wringing over factory conditions blinds us, it seems, to the reality that people for the last couple of centuries have flocked to factory work pretty much whenever it was available. That’s the engine that has reduced poverty, worldwide, from ‘almost everyone’ to ‘single digits.’

The canaries in this coal mine died long ago. Family, village, and church have all been forbidden to gather, gathering being the basic physical manifestation of their essence. Faces must be hidden behind face diapers of submission, because seeing face to face is how families, neighbors, and churches are what they are. Fear, panic, and submission must replace intimacy, comfort, and friendship as our basic modes of relationship.

We are in the middle of what seems to be one of those rare, brief ages where leading people think, if they think, that civilizations are robust in themselves, that not only is it unnecessary to work to keep what you’ve got, but that if you destroy what civilization you have, a better one will spontaneously arise from the rubble. Saner ages understood that maintaining any civilization at all is a full-time job. A Charlemagne ruled from the saddle at the head of an army, not because he was some sort of meanie oppressing people. He was going to rule from the saddle if he were to rule at all. And his horrible, ever-so-evil tyrannical rule lead to the Carolingian Renaissance, to the spread of the idea that things could, in fact, be better than endless, brutal, tribal warfare. We see oppression. The people at the time saw it differently. They thought Charlemagne a saint or a god.

I’ve long been amazed at how much praise exists for Sparta, nearly as dreary and miserable a civilization as I can imagine. But to contemporary and many later people, Sparta was a marvel of stability in a sea of chaos. They didn’t have revolts, tyrants, or mob rule; for centuries, their cities weren’t sacked, their weren’t men slaughtered, and their women and children weren’t sold into slavery (or worse). On a given afternoon, that had to look like a very much an improvement to your Athenian, Florentine, or Parisian.

Now? We live in fear of saying the wrong thing. A 9th century Frank or 4th century BC Spartan feared getting murdered, having his city burnt to the ground, his loved ones sold into slavery or worse, and everything he cherished destroyed. He feared this because he either saw it happen, did it to others, or heard it in tales from the cradle.

The bulwarks against people behaving as they usually did were cherished, defended, built up over generations. The king is dead, long live the king! Now, many lust for that beast, the typical human history reveals, to be released, his bloodlust fanned and fed. The original proponents of liberty, equality, and brotherhood were clearly the best educated, most enlightened, most moral people in history! Their army invaded the rural Vendee for, in this context, the crime of clinging to the proven bastions of order, those things upon which generations had relied to keep the beast at bay: family, village, and church. These peasants wanted nothing to do with the enlightened vanguard that was guillotining those who lacked proper enthusiasms and leaving religious people to starve and rot locked in decaying ships.

It was simply not enough for the Revolution to kill them. Peasants were bayoneted in the gut, so that their deaths would be agonizing and long; crowds were gathered on the riverbanks, stripped naked, the younger women and older girls raped, then all, men, women, and children, lashed together and shoved into the water to drown.

These are the representatives of the Enlightenment, far better, in their own minds, than the primitives they thus murdered. Our current self-proclaimed betters, equally certain in their superiority, dream of doing the same to us.

  1. A relative once pointed out, with ample examples in front of us, that men without women tend to brutes; women without men tend to insanity.

Digging Through Some Old Files….

…I found a bunch of stories and outlines from decades ago. Most, I remembered instantly once I saw them, a couple evoked a major ‘huh?’ response, as in, I have no memory of them at all. It’s weirdly encouraging: not only have I averaged about 150K words/yr on this blog, I also wrote maybe 200 pages of stories and outline long before this blog. So, I guess I’m a writer by the simple fact that I do, in fact, write. Now, if I can only complete the novels and publish them – that’s the plan! Anyway, for kicks:

“I have no memory of this story…”

A. Untitled Novel Outline, 8/9/90, 15 pages + diagram, handwritten. A chemist working for the National Oceanographic Institute gets involved with some illegal gold mining on the ocean floor. Insane chase scene involving a submersible and two ships. He gets the girl. I remember it being a ton of fun writing the outline. I even have a sort of roller-coaster diagram for the chase scene.

B. Notes from a writing workshop I attended, 7/8/90. No longer applicable, if they ever were.

C. Penultimate chapter to a Sci Fi novel about a run in with some insectoid star-faring race. Undated. Only about 6 pages, the escape scene. Remember having written a lot more on it – maybe it’s in this pile someplace. [update: nope.]

D. Thelma and Me. 8/95. Only 3 pages long, one of my favorite stories. Maybe I should throw it up here, since it’s hardly more than flash fiction? The 1st person protagonist notes that the odometer on his ’57 Chevy BelAir convertible, which he bough new with money from his first job out of high school, is about to hit 500,000 miles. Babying this car has been about the only thing he’s ever done right in his life.

E. The Great Desert Valley, CH 1 of Earth Wars, which is perhaps a misleading title – it was intended as a set of stories about what might be called real ecology. Think I started it in response to all the nonsensical anthropomorphizing of nature, so I started writing more ‘true’ stories. In this story, I try to recount what it would have looked like when one of the periodic refloodings of the dried-out Mediterranean basin took place – from the perspective of the life adapted to living in an extreme desert basin. Whatever destruction we might think we’ve done to the environment, Nature has done and will do much, much worse.

F. The Last Sabre-Toothed Tiger, CH 2 of the above. A story of how exquisite adaptation can spell death when conditions change. A story I don’t see in this pile is my favorite from the set: about a lighthouse cat that completes the extinction of some shorebird, by the simple accident that the lighthouse keeper had a cat, and the rock the lighthouse was on was also the only place where the seabirds bred. All the creatures – man, cat, bird – act innocently according to their natures, yet extinction of one of them results.

G. Sets of song lyrics. Did I mention that I used to be a (frankly, terrible) part of a number of garage bands? Well, I did. And I tried my hand at songwriting, with some minimal success. So in this pile are the lyrics to a bunch of songs, a few of which I recall and even set to music. In my last band, did get one number I wrote into the rotation – people seemed to like it. I am of the ‘melancholy to sad lyrics set to bouncy music’ school of songwriting. These would need some *very* bouncy music to counterbalance the depressing lyrics.

H. Undated, untitled handwritten outline, 4 yellow legal pad pages long, of some wild adventure that kicks off with a priest killing a teenage soldier. Absolutely no idea where this came from. The notes are largely incomprehensible now, e.g., “Grain rotting in the fields, on the shelves, (Bali??)” Must have had something in mind….

I. Whole folder full of Earth Wars stories, dates 12/14/1989! Printed out on a dot matrix printer, on paper with little perforations. Call in the archeologists! The outline/table of contents shows 19 stories. In the actual printout, there’s the lighthouse cat story, and a story about elephants creating grasslands from forests (you knew they did that, right?). There’s one 20-page story called The Last Cave Bear, which has to do with the encroaching ice sheets 125,000 years ago, a sort of border conflict between cave bears, who were going extinct around this time, and people, who were learning to adapt to much harsher conditions during the glaciation. It’s a really sad story. And then, the concluding chapter is Ut Animalia, a wild tale of an elderly Latin American priest serving at the ruins of a church while his mind slips away. Due to the constant revolution, he hardly ever sees anybody – but the animals of the surrounding jungle start to make the church their home.

Maybe half an inch of paper devoted to a 30+ year old project. Huh.

J. The Talley, an 11 page long short story, undated, but printed out on the same dot matric printer, so around 1989. This one is marked up, as a draft awaiting revisions. The 1st person narrator has recently been widowed; he teaches piano. On his walk home from visiting his wife’s grave, a woman whose talentless, uninterested tween son takes lessons from him, corners him. Potentially interesting things ensue.

K. Ut Animalia has it’s own folder! An incomplete draft – don’t think I ever finished it.

L. Prime Directive. Another dot matrix era bit of – ??? In this folder there is a wide piece of perforated lined paper labeled “Character/Plot Development Chart” broken into squares, characters on the left, characteristics across the top, with little tidbits in each box. Wild.

I have no memory of this.

Then, an outline, regarding a sort of graduate-level field trip to Borneo to investigate the natives. I have a character named Higgins (‘just you wait, ‘Enry ‘Iggins!’) and a bunch of grad-school rabble. The title comes from, I suppose, the absurdity of the Star Trek Prime Directive. Then, there’s an opening chapter, where the students reveal themselves to be Trekkers.

What could I possibly have been thinking? The character outlines show a conflict between science, which doesn’t ultimately care if the people being studied live or die, a practical recognition that you might have to choose between saving the culture and saving the people, and a character who cannot see that choice.

And that’s it for that set of files. There are only two projects/stories I remember that aren’t in there – one, called The Pearl, about the gaslighting that goes on inside a truly messed up family, written in 1992, and an untitled parody of sex researchers in the wild. That last one involved an enlightened feminist sex researcher doing field work, in Borneo again, I think (I had recently read the excellent Into the Heart of Borneo, by Redmond O’Hanlon, so had Borneo on the brain), trying to discredit the claims made by her major competitor, who happens to now be the lover of her former boyfriend. So she retraces the steps in her enemy’s landmark and tenure-securing masterpiece, attempting to replicate/discredit, as it were, the ‘;findings.’ Thus, she finds herself trying to get laid in the jungles of Borneo.

All the characters involved are utterly jealous, possessive, and needy, while of course rejecting the very idea that sex might lead such feelings. Hilarity ensued via the write-ups from the field getting published in, I think, the Atlantic? wherein the ‘researcher’ recounts her experiences, basically, trying to get laid by a bunch of tribesmen, who, as shines through her reports despite her lofty language, think she’s a curiously insane white lady best kept at arms’ length. I particularly remember writing her discussion on the desirability of pendulosity in breasts, and how it could not be that the difference between her breasts and the breasts of her competitor had lead to her failure in the field….

I think I stopped when I realized: there is no way to parody this. Anything I think of has probably been done, in all seriousness, by some maniac or other. But it was funny, you’ll have to take my word for it…

That was fun. Back to the actual WIP.

Lawncare and Leprosy

Just looking for a catchy title for more exasperation.

As a distraction from the steady rain of naked emperors and their fawning sycophants and courtiers and the sheep they intimidate into line, I’m putting in some serious lawn care time, and writing. Only partially effective. What’s sticking in my brain is the awareness that about 90% of my relatives are firmly on the Corona Train of Doom. These are for the most part well educated and intelligent people, who seem to firmly believe they are ‘following the science’ that they’ve never looked at and wouldn’t understand if they did. They just so *certain* they’ve got a bead on things.

This item is something you can buy, in bulk if necessary, from actual trophy retailers. And it seems to be assumed that getting this trophy would not only not increase the juvenile suicide rate but rather actually make a child feel *good*. These people 1) are not from this planet, and 2) have never won anything worth winning in their lives.

A seriously cultivated lack of self-awareness. I’m thinking masks are the ironic completion of the participation trophy culture. You want to be an outsider? Someone who doesn’t even get a participation trophy, that proves that the authority figures love you as long as you, well, participate?

(Aside: I am in some ways a very competitive person, mostly manifested in sports. What seems missing from the equation: Running the real risk, sometimes even near-certainty, of losing is a huge part of what made it fun and satisfying. If you win, it’s worth winning; if you lose, you went up against good competition and got to prove yourself, even if just to yourself. The worst thing: playing in games you’re supposed to win easily. Winning is thus nothing to be proud of, while losing is embarrassing. Didn’t these people ever see “A Nice Place to Visit”?)

Several times now, I’ve drafted letters to the family explaining why me and mine are not panicking, why we don’t wear masks or social distance unless we will get innocent people in trouble for it (like a church or a store – it’s not their fault, but they will be made to pay). But – I always, so far, stop before sending it. I just don’t know if it will do anything other than increase the already significant distance between me and mine and these particular relatives. Maybe it’s an act of mercy? I just don’t know.

Writing suffered greatly this week, as I was busy and distracted after a very productive weekend. Picked it up again this morning, and added another maybe 2,000 words to It Will Work. Started in on the ending, just barely scratched the surface. At 12K words at the moment. I am paying the price for not having done enough thought-smithing up front – the end, which I thought I had worked out, is a little bit gappy, holey like an old rag. Thus, I’m setting myself up for fairly monumental rewrites just getting it to flow and not leaving massive holes. Oh well – first novel, the important thing is to get stuff down. On, Teb! On!

The Saga of the Back Lawn doesn’t get much ink around here, and not only because I can practically hear your eyes glazing over through the interwebs. It’s neither as much fun nor as picturesque as the Endless Brick Project of Doom. Here goes, if you’re feeling penitential: when we bought this house lo these 25 years ago, it had a pretty decent back lawn, certainly adequate for anything you’d want a back lawn for, such as running and rolling around on it with children.

Then, back in 2005, made the large, perfectly clear with 20/20 hindsight, poor decision to put on an addition. At the time, home prices were ridiculous and rising – no matter how well I did financially, a home better enough than what we had to make it worth moving was just too big a stretch. But those same factors made it easy to borrow a ton and add on, so we did – and got it done just in time for the housing market to collapse. So, our starter home is our home, at least until we move out of state.

So, second major error: hired a long time friend of my sister’s as the general contractor. He’d done a bunch of work for her, she seemed happy with him. He lied about his licensing, was always sharing fantasies about timing, and was just a slapdash horror. Part of his style was to simply use the back lawn as his staging area, and just destroy it. Not talking just about killing the grass – the soil here is quite clay, and, when they were done, it was packed down as hard as rock, and covered with crap. I couldn’t bring myself to pay any more money at that point, and so, for several years, the backyard sat, a useless disaster. Finally, maybe 5 or 6 years ago, I was up to tackling it. It’s only maybe 40′ X 30′, so it’s not like a major project. Cleaned it off, amended the soil some – but didn’t, alas, rototill the living heck out of it.

So, every year since, I try to do something to improve the lawn. As of last spring, it looked pretty good – right up until the end of May, when the warm, dry weather kicks in and the 1/4″ root depth before it hits solid clay means it mostly dies off. By the end of the summer, it’s pretty pathetic. It looks great in April!

This year, after surveying yet another dreary looking lawn, decided what the heck, let’s get serious. It had rained enough that I could dig in the clay, so I picked the ugliest patch, about 6′ X 20′, and just dug it up by hand, turned the soil, added manure and gypsum, let it sit for a few days, then seeded and watered it. Total time invested might be 5? 6? hours. So far.

If this works, I’ll do another similar patch next year, and it 2-3 years, should attain lawn Nirvana. Right?

As I type, I can see a bird on the lawn eating seed. This, I can stand – anything short of a significant flock is unlikely to eat enough to make any difference. BUT: if I had the appropriate verminator, I’d be shooting some squirrels. Damn things have to dig anywhere I’ve loosened the soil – garden, planters, pots, and now, lawn. I hate squirrels. At this rate, my new patch of lawn will be pock-marked with squirrel holes. Furry little bastards.

Next week, I’ll see if I have anything less trivial to write about.

Sociopathic & Possibly Unintended Consequences

Ran across this YouTube video about the destruction of the world’s container ship fleet. Summary: due to the drastic drop in world trade caused by the lockdowns, the world’s container ship fleets are being decommissioned and sold for scrap. The decades-long trend to larger and larger ships, which reduce the unit cost of shipping compared to smaller ships, has been dramatically reversed: the larger, more modern ships are the first to go, because, while they are more efficient when fully loaded, they are money-hemorrhaging disasters when sailed at less than capacity. Thus, ships worth tens or hundreds of millions of dollars, with decades of useful life left in them, are being run ashore in Bangladesh and scrapped.

(China is spending heavily on infrastructure, raising demand for scrap iron, raising the scrap value of those container ships. All this means is that the math leans even more toward ‘sell it for scrap’ and away from ‘ride it out’.)

I’m a little sheepish that it took me this long to become aware of this issue, because, after all, my credentials (Bow to me, bow!) are a Masters’ in International Business and Finance, so this – the financing & mechanisms of international trade – is exactly the sort of thing I’m supposedly an expert (expert I tells ya! Bow some more!) in and am supposed to know about.

But I’ve been pretty much avoiding the ‘news’ for many, many months now. Sanity has some value.

Container ships run aground in Bangladesh, awaiting their turn to be reduced to steel scrap and sold to China

Anyway, the gist of the video: shipping is a highly competitive, low-margin business. What this means: in order to stay in business, a shipping company has to run at close to capacity at all times. The cost of running a 75% full ship versus a 100% full ship are essentially the same, but the money coming in is vastly different. 100% capacity: you make some money. 75% capacity: you quickly go broke. There’s a point where it’s better, financially, to simply scrap a ship you expect to run at 75% capacity than to lose the ocean of money you’ll bleed if you continue to run them. Take the loss up front, rather than die the death of a thousand cuts.

The lockdown has brought us to this point.

The bigger the ship, the lower the cost per container, but the higher the loss if run at less than capacity. Therefore, the world’s container shipping industry is scrapping their bigger, more efficient ships in favor of smaller ships. Smaller = easier to run at capacity. BUT: smaller = higher costs per container. As trade dries up, the size of ship that can be run without going broke keeps shrinking. At some point, the industry dies.

For those of you wearing two masks while driving alone in your car and cowering at home while wagging an angry finger at those who aren’t, deal with this:

International trade is the engine that has, over the last 40-50 years, reduced the percentage of the world’s people living in poverty from ‘most’ to ‘under 10%’. All those factory jobs, and the jobs in the infrastructure that supports those factory jobs, have lifted a couple billion people out of a precarious hand-to-mouth existence to something like a decent life. The Green Revolution has made it possible for fewer and fewer people to feed more and more people with less and less work.

This is a good thing, if you think more and more people living, and living healthier, less soul-crushing lives, is a good thing. We seem to love the stories of evil factory owners working poor peasants to death, but the reality is that, for the most part, those peasant farmers eagerly left the farm behind and took up factory work, because -follow closely – they were thus much more likely to live decent lives. While picturesque, those rice paddies and garden patches where subsistence farmers toiled away their lives are in practice dreary, exhausting, and tenuous. Nobody had to go round up the peasants – they came of their own will, after making their own decisions – for the most part. (Economics is complicated, but, in general, the idea that mean old capitalists had to make people abandon their farms in order to staff their factories simply doesn’t work, not in practice nor in theory.)

But for all this depends on cheap international shipping. If you are competing on price – and that’s about the only thing third world countries can compete on – then, since shipping costs are, you know, costs, then rising shipping costs make you less competitive.

The last 50 years or so have seen pretty much every non-totalitarian country with a coast join in the world of international commerce. If your country didn’t have a coast or a big navigable river that could get your stuff to a coast super cheap, the shipping costs would exclude you from this boom. Mongolia or Tibet, for example, could only compete on items where the market value of the product dwarfs the shipping costs, because they would need to go overland to get to a coast to take advantage of cheap shipping. The example in the video was Switzerland and watches – the Swiss produce super-high-value products where the shipping costs are trivial compared to the cost of the product. (Also, the Swiss sit atop possibly the world’s finest overland shipping network of roads and rail, with a huge market just across their borders. Not so Mongolia.)

So, on the the sociopathy, defined here as a complete lack of empathy for the suffering of others. We’ve institutionalized sociopathy, where we are effectively forbidden to even raise the issue of what is happening in the rest of the world due to our rabbit-like and rabidly anti-science reaction to the ‘Vid. What is happening, beyond the horror described in the video:

  1. As the cost of shipping rises and demand drops, factories producing low-cost goods in low cost (read: third world) countries are going out of business
  2. The people who worked in them are being laid off.
  3. The people in the supporting economy – everything from restaurants to business services to clothing – are also getting laid off or losing their little businesses
  4. Those farms the newly unemployed used to work on? They’re unlikely to still be there. Even if they were, how fast can they ramp up production to feed the extra mouths returning from the cities?
  5. Bonus: we’re destroying not just the ships, but the shipping and ship building industries and all the industries that support them. More layoffs, further drop in demand, further reductions in shipping, etc. Let’s hope we get them back before the needed skills pass from living memory!

Bottom line: it is likely, bordering on inevitable, that millions of people are going to starve to death over the next year or two as a direct result of our idiotic overreaction to COVID. People who don’t have a safety net, who can’t just go to the local soup kitchen or food pantry, who’s countries are unlikely to have the pull needed to get in shipments of food from elsewhere in a timely manner. (Shipped in on what ships? At what cost?)

In William Gibson’s excellent short story Burning Chrome, the protagonist is a hacker who exploits a weakness in the older software and hardware being used in Africa to rob their banks blind. He watches the news with detached indifference as the financial infrastructure collapses and the continent descends into chaos. He does not react to pictures of bodies floating down the rivers. He is simply detached from the disaster he has caused, and feels no remorse.

As he so often was, Gibson was a prophet. If we even allow the thought that our insane overreaction to COVID is causing mayhem and death around the world, we feel nothing, certainly not any responsibility. They’re brown, black, and yellow people who we don’t have to look at, so I guess it’s OK? Not racist or anything.

Confirmation Bias, Cont’d

A few posts back, explored the role Confirmation Bias, or You Find What You’re Looking For, plays in panics, such as the ones (1) we’re experiencing now.

Many thanks to reader Martin Shotzberger, who kindly sent me a link to a transcription of a talk by Irving Langmuir, titled Pathological Science, delivered at the Colloquium at the Knolls Research Laboratory, December 18, 1953, as transcribed and edited by R. N. Hall

Irving Langmuir, according to Wikipedia, was an American chemist, physicist, and engineer, Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry, and wide ranging inventor and just all around brilliant dude. The audience, I presume, are other elite physicists and other scientists, so it took a little time and effort for me to understand a few of the examples, but they’re not too hard to get. Chiefly, Langmuir is noting the insidious and persistent nature of confirmation bias. He give examples where honest, dedicated, even brilliant scientists worked themselves into a state of utter conviction that they’d seen or discovered something, such that any new observations were reflexively explained away – nothing could be seen except for phenomena that confirmed their theories or discoveries. He labels this Pathological Science.

Langmuir goes to some length to say (usually) that he has no reason to doubt the honesty of the researcher, and that the main problem is overreliance on edge cases, observations right at the edge of perception, where it’s oh so easy to see what you want to see. Honest, bright-to-brilliant men letting their legitimate desire to know overwhelm their prudence.

Most telling, perhaps, is Langmuir’s observations that sometimes up to 50% of the specialists who examined the experiments were convinced, and that it sometimes took decades for the skeptics to win out. There was no one moment where everybody went: no, that doesn’t work. Instead, in a manner eerily parallel to the cult described in When Prophecy Fails (4th bullet at the link), people double down at first, then slowly drift away as evidence, or lack thereof, mounts. The theory or claims just sort of die out.

Highly recommended read.

Keep in mind that scientists are supposedly trained to anticipate and take measures against confirmation bias – and, in these examples, despite intelligence and education, fell to it anyway. If education and intelligence are no barrier, if men such as these can fall to it, what hope do we peons have? This brings us back to the Salem witch hunts, and, indeed, the COVID panic and, terrifyingly, the effectiveness of the “insurrection” propaganda campaign. Take confirmation bias, add fear, then stir briskly with a campaign to silence critics and demonize all opposition, and we are so, so screwed.

Prediction: there will never be a general public acknowledgement in our lifetimes that the lockdowns and masks were based on out-of-control confirmation bias fanned by fear-mongering and fraud. Nope, the Doom, if it ever is allowed to go away, will simply fizzle out over many years, and, with any luck, our progeny in a generation or two will stare back at it in wonder and horror at what we did to ourselves.

God help us.

  1. Plural. Not only is every death assumed to be corona-doom until proven otherwise, every act or word by anyone not on board the Blue Train to Paradise is assumed to be a call for bloody insurrection, any dissent from Critical Theory catechism is hate speech, any pushback at all on any point, any failure to accept without question whatever is being promulgated at the moment is eeeevil incarnate. Even noticing the story has changed is condemned. We have always been at war with Eastasia.

Thanks, Updates

A. Several of you, my deeply appreciated readers, have sent me comments on A Layman’s Guide to Understanding Science: How Not to be A Gullible Rabbit (I like that title better). If I haven’t gotten back to you yet, it’s because your input a) required actual thought; b) is long; or c) both. Maybe later today.

On the actual text, not counting notes, I’m up to about 6,500 7,200 more or less usable words. Thinking about starting each chapter with a Feynman quotation and a story from science history. For example:

It doesn’t matter how beautiful your theory is, it doesn’t matter how smart you are. If it doesn’t agree with experiment, it’s wrong.

Richard Feynman, Nobel Prize winning physicist and well-known Cal Tech professor

Then, maybe, tell a story – bloodletting, say, how it was the accepted treatment for a dazzling array of medical problems until the end of the 19th century – how it was the “consensus science,” how few dared to question its efficacy, how it probably killed (or at least, hastened the death of) George Washington, a true believer in bloodletting. It only took a CENTURY OR SO for the medical profession to accept the growing pile of counter evidence.

A beast. Much more attractive than the beasts we are among and are constantly at risk of becoming.

What’s occurred to me, in writing this, is illustrated by another Feynman quotation:

We have this terrible struggle to try to explain things to people who have no reason to want to know.

With this in mind, I’ve been working on an opening chapter that dedcribes why anyone should care – why is it not OK to just do as we’re told. File this as yet another item under: things that are obvious to me but clearly not so obvious to very many other people.

B. A major point, perhaps not emphasized enough: it’s OK, in fact, it’s preferred, to simply not have an opinion. If the science is really, truly, over your head, then why do you even have an opinion on it? Perhaps it is a consequence of the way voting is done here in America: we are made to vote for people we couldn’t possibly know, who talk about issues we hardly, if at all, understand. Yet, we seem to be embarrassed not to have an opinion on these people and policies.

Let’s say we humbly recognize that the base science is simply over our heads. What we might do, instead, is talk about the big picture. The obvious example: it would have been nice if, from the beginning, a cost/benefit analysis had been presented on the lockdowns. Clearly, before 2020, everybody, including the CDC, were very adverse to lockdowns, because the cost is so obviously high. Short of Black Death level event, it’s should be fairly obvious that lockdowns should be used very sparingly and only as a last resort.

So, say, instead of incessant panic-mongering based on supposed science way over out little heads, we instead demanded regular updates on the costs in lives, health, and money, of the lockdowns, to be compared to the presumed benefits. I’m imagining it would have been a different discussion. I imagine that’s why it never took place.

Anyway, on most science, it’s meet and just to simply not have an opinion. Evolution – who cares? Some geneticists and biologists, I suppose, but, for the rest of us, it’s simply immaterial. Yet, ‘belief’ in evolution is used as some sort of touchstone. We need to see that for what it is: an attempt to force people into line for the sake of having them in line. Same goes for absolutely everything in cosmology and astrophysics – who cares? Why should people even have an opinion on whether the earth orbits the sun, let alone the red shift and dark matter and so on? It just doesn’t matter.

I’m saying this as someone who loves this stuff. It’s just odd that, socially, you’ll be judged a lot harsher for for expressing any doubt that the earth (despite all appearances) is whipping through space and spinning like a top than you will for walking out on your spouse and kids. The balance here is wildly, insanely off.

C. So, on the chapters, here’s the problem: there are counterarguments (some made by readers – thanks again!) to some of the major points I’m making. For example, scientific consensus is a real thing, with a real purpose. It’s just not evidence. Putting it in somewhat more technical terms: under Kuhn’s distinction between normal and revolutionary science, a scientific consensus is an aid to those doing normal science, but that’s all it is. These normal scientists (who might more properly be called technicians) are working out theories or discoveries they no longer question. The revolutionary scientists – scientists in the fullest sense – are working on stuff that isn’t already understood, on the ragged edges and in the holes of accepted science. The first group, it is supposed, form consensuses around evidence. If this is true, then for us laymen the thing we want to see is that evidence.

Again, the real problems are caused when the idea of ‘scientific consensus’ is used as a blunt instrument to silence us little people and force us into conformity. Sure, some theories we might like as amateurs have been beaten to death by the pros, and so they consider even bringing them up bad form. So? Is that really a problem in real life? Rather, we are lied to to shut us up: it’s the scientific consensus that, unless you panic as we tell you, and do what we tell you, and hand over the power we demand, we’re all going to die!

And so on. Similar issues arise with some of the other points I’m trying to make.

D. We’re into year 3 since I was forced out my job. Good riddance, frankly, it was death by a thousand cuts. Fortunately, for few years there, I did pretty well, so, it’s not the disaster for us it would be for most people. At some point, fairly soon, I need to figure it out. I could semi-retire, teach some school (alternative/home-school co-op, that sort of thing) and write some books. Tempting, Hammy, very tempting. But if I’m doing that, then it would be good to move someplace much cheaper than the Bay Area, perhaps some place a little less azure, a little more crimson? There are probably cantons in China less azure than certain neighborhoods out here… Texas or Tennessee I could handle. Florida – God-forsaken paved-over swamp with weather that makes Texas’s look good. Montana and Wyoming look nice, but kind of flat and cold. Idaho, I hear, has already had it with its ongoing Californication.

Poland or Uruguay might be better, but I’m not that adventurous (although far short of a worse-case scenario might make me wish I were). If I were to dump our suburban Bay Area house, I could maybe get some serious acres and build a 4,000 sq ft house on them – and break even. Depending, of course, and going completely wild/rural. Mamma was from East Texas, and Daddy from Claremore, OK, so shouldn’t I get more the coming home treatment than the damn Californian reception? Please?

I’m imagining aging gracefully on our new family spread, with enough room for the kids and their kids, if things get bad enough for them out here. Big enough house for them all to stay in, and room for them to build their own if the want. Piano room, big greenhouse, garden. My only luxury (the music room is NOT a luxury! Absolutely essential!) would be a nice kitchen. My standards for a decent kitchen are unfortunately high…. Everything else can be standard suburban quality. Enough insulation and air conditioning to ride out the 90% of the time I’m going to look outside and miss California….

E. Went on YouTube, watched a couple videos, and fixed our power mower. I am da MAN!

What a Scientific Study IS

Been thinking further on the quotation used in this post, where a young astrophysicist captures the essence of what makes a study scientific:

“Now apparently the authors spent months checking their work, just to make sure it was robust and would stand up to very intense scrutiny because they knew it was going to get that. They checked it for measurement error and systematic error and statistical errors, but by the end of it they just couldn’t deny what they found. You know, even the most die-hard of dark matter fans could not deny what they found.”

What a study is is a proposal. A study says: here is what we found, here is how we found it, here is what we conclude from it – what do you think? Any individual study is an invitation to criticism. See that quotation above – that’s what that study is doing. The authors knew that throwing some evidence out there that calls into question an accepted and beloved theory was going to get criticized, so, preemptively, they worked hard – over the course of months – to hammer on the data themselves to toughen it up for the waves of scrutiny and criticism they knew were coming. They knew it was coming, because they, themselves, had a working knowledge of how science works. The very idea that you would criticize the critics for being critics never occurred to them, and, if it had, would have been laughed out of the room. Critics are not some necessary evil. Critics are how science works.

What makes a study ‘scientific’ in the precise sense of making its claims something an honest, reasonable person would be obliged to (conditionally – always conditionally) accept, is exactly this process of getting hammered on by critics. A study too rushed or too delicate to be able to run this gauntlet of criticism is, by that fact alone, abandoning any right to claim an honest man’s consent.

So, when the infamous 70 studies showing masks slowed the spread of COVID came out, you knew right off the bat that we were being snowed. The ink was still wet on those studies – had to be, if they were studying COVID, which, at that time, was purported to have been around only a few months. Generally, science takes time, yet no time was allowed. Where were the criticisms and replication? Attempts at criticism were roundly denounced as science denial, the epitome of Orwellian propaganda: labeling wrongthink with a name that is the opposite of reality. War is peace. Insisting on science is science denial.

Testing of your claims and replication of your results by people who would be happy to disprove them are the highest level of such scientific scrutiny, and have a central and honored place in science history. When Einstein claimed that starlight would detectably bend when it passed close to a very massive object like the sun, I’m guessing any number of scientists who set out to see if this were true would have been just as happy if it were not. When the results came in, and Einstein was proven correct, there was not universal rejoicing. Physicist ever since have been trying to poke holes in relativity, and there are some cracks (so I am told – a lot of this stuff is over my head). But relativity is accepted today BECAUSE it has been beaten up, raked over the coals, poked and prodded for a century now. Then, best of all, it has been successfully USED – in astronomy, astrophysics, rocket science, and in the GPS system your phone uses. That’s science in all its glory.

Not so the COVID, not so! While science works, insofar as it does, precisely as a result of skeptical but rational critics beating up your theory, your paper, your study, in the case of COVID, compliance is so important that the flimsiest, most rushed, most laughably flawed study is somehow beyond criticism.

And all this science I don’t understand, it’s just my job 5 days a week. I’m a Rocket Ma – aaaa – aaaa – an! A Rocket Man!