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.

Minutia and Writing Updates

No excuse for boring you, my loyal readers, with this, but here goes:

A. Trying to keep up the momentum, I’m switching back and forth between 3-4 writing projects. When I get stuck on one, just switch. Don’t even think about, just keep writing, with the goal still being 2 novels and 2 collections of short stories ready to go (to an editor, most likely) by end of June. And that science book. Anyway, what’s in the hopper:

Layman’s Guide to Understanding Science: Right around 10,000 words, on temporary hold. The comments, especially from Dr. Kurland and some of the commentators here, made me think – always dangerous. The question is not so much what science IS – which can be approached, I think, from several valid angles – but rather, in what sense should a layman care what science is. It will do little good to be technical accurate if my imagined reader doesn’t see any point to it. Ya know? So, I’m letting that one stew for now.

Working title “It Will Work” the first 6,000 or so words of which appeared on this blog as a series of flash fiction posts. (CH 1   CH 2   CH 3   CH 4   CH 5   CH 6 CH 7) I couldn’t seem to stop writing this, right up until I could, and it got the second most positive comments of anything I’ve written here, (1) so it seemed primed to become a short novel. It was one of the three novels-in-development in the Novels folder I set up back in January. At about 8,000 words at the moment.

Always told myself I needed to settle on an ending, so I knew where I was going with this – even though the 7 fragments were each tossed off totally seat-of-the-pants. Well, just today I started outlining what the kids these days might call the Boss Battle, the final test of Our Hero – and, it rocks so hard. Want to talk stupid? I was getting choked up telling my wife about it. I wrote it long before the current insanity, but, given the current insanity, it all makes so much more sense. As far as a “things done got blowed up good” by bombardment from space and aliens in power armor scene set on a distant moon of a far-away planet can be said to relate to current events. (answer: quite a bit, really.) Anyway: got the finale & denouement outlined, and am in the middle of the middle section. My only fear, if you can call it that – if I keep the pacing such as it has been so far, I’ll wrap it up in +/-30K words. Don’t want to stretch it simply for the sake of stretching it, but do want at least 40K words – Pulp Era novel length. Not a real problem until it is….

The White-Handled Blade – the Arthurian YA novel set in modern day Wales, the first 25% of which is the novella several generous readers here beta read for me a couple years ago. Currently sits at about 13K words. This one is exciting, but I want to do more reading in Arthurian legends and outline a longer path, as in, a potential series, before maybe writing myself into a corner. The story as it stands now is little more than a free retelling of the Lynette & Lyonesse story as told by Malory, ending right before Gareth makes his untoward advances toward Lyonesse. So, obviously, I would continue along those line BUT I want to introduce more stuff that will let me go in any number of Arthurian directions. I already have several of the important knight (reimagined as middle-aged academics, because I find that amusing), so, in future works, it will be easy to take some side-trips to Scotland or the Orkneys or Cornwall or France. I want to keep Lynnette as the heroine, because I like her, and she was designed from the ground up as someone the reader could relate to: she’s fiercely devoted to her older sister, loves but has trouble communicating with her dad, gets snubbed and bullied at school, can hold a grudge, but never gives up and is as brave as needed to rise to the occasion. And is otherwise a blank slate, so there’s nothing in the way to seeing yourself in her shoes.

So I’m rereading Malory and reading the Mabinogion for ideas. The farther back in time one goes, the crazier the legends become, such that getting a glimpse into Malory’s world – 15th century retelling of much older stories -is a lot easier than getting into the world of the Mabinogion, which are thought to be older still. Even Malory requires a bit of gymnastics to get into the moral mindset of people who seem to kill each other rather gleefully at the drop of a biggin, but not like the Welsh tales. And then there’s the French version…

Speaking of writing something I didn’t set out to write and would have never imagined writing, it seems YA fiction is mostly characterized as follows:

  • no sex
  • no swearing
  • not too much gore

Which, frankly is a pretty fair description of anything I’m likely to write. On the other hand, Hunger Games is about children killing each other for the amusement of the powerful – I’d take a lot of sex and swearing before I’d consider that entertainment…

Anyway, it seems to be common industry knowledge that YA readership includes large numbers of adults who are just sick and tired of all the gratuitous sex and swearing and violence in mainstream stuff. So, from that point of view, pretty much anything (well, except this) I write would qualify, but I have never consciously tried to write YA. I’m putting in plenty of what I hope to be interesting non-childish philosophical and political and moral stuff. So – huh? Anyway, I’ll have to be careful of how I market this stuff. Studying up on that in parallel. Hope to get back to it soon, but it’s It Will Work is on the front burner at the moment.

Longship, the working title of the Novel That Shall Not Be Named (wait! doh!), some sections of which I’ve thrown up here on the blog, is the one that has both been percolating in my mind for a decade or two AND the one I’m having the least success in hammering into a actual novel or 4. On the back burner.

Finally, Black Friday is another bit of flash fiction fluff (well, 1400 words, so not exactly flash fiction…) that seemed ripe to expand, so I’ve been outlining that one, too. Have put in some work on it, but not in the form of adding to the wordcount.

B. This brings me to another consideration: The science and education stuff (remember that education stuff? I seem to have forgotten) I will publish under my own name. However, if I’m hoping to actually make a little money off the SF&F stuff, it would seem prudent to market under a nom de plum. I’m under no illusions that I’m anybody important, but underestimating the pettiness of our self-appoint betters is a fool’s game.

On a related note, I’ve taken a few baby steps towards hardening my superversive presence online, including a Brave/Duckduckgo browsing combo, a protonmail account and staying off Google as much as I can. I want to go :

  • secure VPN
  • secure website hosting

Just want off, as much as possible, the Bidenriech’s surveillance network. A know I guy…

C. The 16 year old Caboose just mentioned that his favorite books include a book on spiritual teachings from the perspective of a demon, a book on politics from the perspective of rabbits, and a post apocalyptical novel about a monastery.

Kids these days. I asked him what about that book about the short dude with hairy feet trying to return some stolen jewelry? He laughed.

D. Slept 8+ hours straight last night, the first time that’s happened in months. Felt very good. Been getting 4 -6 hours most nights since the Crazy Years became manifest – wake up, can’t go back to sleep, get us and try to do something. I could get used to that.

E. Got a few hundred more bricks. The neighbors who I, being a solid California suburbanite, hardly know, have twice now over the last few years of the Great Front Yard Brick Insanity and Orchard Hoedown, have, unbidden, offered me bricks, because I’m the guy with the brickwork. So, dude around the corner had this pile of bricks he wanted gone – 6 1/2 wheelbarrows full. Maybe a short block away.

One Load 3, I think it was, I came off the curb a little too hard and bent the metal wheel supports (it’s a cheap and old wheelbarrow) such that the wheel now rubbed against the underbelly of the tub section. I was able to brut-force them straight enough so that I could limp that load home.

So, had to repair the wheelbarrow. Two bolts that hold the handle arms to the tub section, which I had replaced a few years back with a couple far too long bolts I had lying around, had worked themselves very loose then rusted into their new loose positions. This made the load likely to shift from side to side as you rolled – no biggie with a load of dirt, dangerous and tiring with a load of bricks. But the bolts were carriage bolts, so there was no easy way to grip the head from the top. After a applying a bit of WD-40, tried to grip the excess bolt with plyers while using a crescent wrench to tighten them up. The first nut moved a little before the plyers had shredded the threads on the bolt and would no longer prevent it from turning; the second budged not a whit. Jury-rigged the ugliest solution: took some heavy wire, bent it unto a U shape, then crimped it onto the bolts between the nut and the tub – one on the side I’d gotten a little tighter, and two one the side I’d been unable to move.

And – it kinda works. Reality often fails to suitably rebuke me for my stupid ideas, thereby encouraging me to keep coming up with more of them. It’s going to get me killed someday…

Next, for the bent arms: Cut a scrap of walnut into two maybe 8″ pieces, placed them behind the bent arms, clamped them until the arms were more or less straight and in contack with the wood, then drilled some wholes and put in some tiny screws to hold it all together.

And – that worked, too. Now have a much more stiff structure and a couple inches of clearance between the tub and wheel. See what I mean? If these slapdash ideas keep working, I’m going to keep doing them.

Next step: replace the 16+ year old cheap and falling apart wheelbarrow. Once some stupid repair idea fails to work, that is.

Picturesque old wheelbarrow, with lots of freshly stacked bricks in the background. Those with sharp eyes can perhaps spot the much too long bolts where the handles first encounter the tub, and even the thick wire crimped on them; the gratifyingly straight struts connecting the wheel to the tub. Yes, I took a picture of my wheelbarrow. At night. Just to throw up on the blog. Yep. Really did that.

F. Got the front yard orchard cleaned up, pruned, fertilized, mulched, copper-sprayed, and watered, not in that order. So, that’s done for now. Next, finish the brickwork, paint the house, get it fumigated for termites, replace the dying major appliances, put in this year’s vegetable garden, marry off a son on the East Coast in May, and goodness knows what else. And teach a couple history classes. Shaping up to be a busy Year 63 for me. And write two novels, put together two books of short stories, and write a book on science – in my spare time.

Yes, I am freaking INSANE.

  1. Most positive comments: One Day. Heck, even Mike Flynn liked it enough to comment – I’m still blushing.

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.

The Layman’s Guide to Understanding Science: How Not to be a Gullible Rabbit. Preliminaries

This is the third of three preliminary chapters before we get to the meat of things. I organized this on the fly, so I’m not in love with there being three chapters, in effect, before Chapter 1. This can be cleaned up later.

Preliminaries

First you guess. Don’t laugh, this is the most important step. Then you compute the consequences. Compare the consequences to experience. If it disagrees with experience, the guess is wrong. In that simple statement is the key to science. It doesn’t matter how beautiful your guess is or how smart you are or what your name is. If it disagrees with experience, it’s wrong. That’s all there is to it.

– Feynman

This short book addresses an increasingly desperate situation: the near universal state of scientific illiteracy among virtually all Americans. This state of profound ignorance of what science is and how it works is especially prevalent among those think themselves highly educated. Scientific illiteracy is complete among those who say they ‘believe’ or ‘trust’ or, especially, ‘effing love’ science.

To anyone with an even modest grasp of what science IS,such claims are embarrassing. If the truth of the previous sentence isn’t instantly clear, this book is for you.

It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.

– Aristotle

The first step is the hardest: to intelligently evaluate a claim made in the name of science, one must exercise the intellectual and emotional discipline needed to suspend all emotions and political feelings. Put another way: we should want to know what a thing is before speculating on why people feel and act the way they do about it.

The typical practice, seen everywhere, is to FIRST consider the politics of the source of the supposed ‘science’: was it stated by a politician or public servant or journalist who shares my political persuasion? Is it the position of the political party I identify with? Then it is trustworthy. If from someone of whose politics I disapprove? It is, by that fact alone, judged untrustworthy. Everyone has seen this; almost everyone has done this.

We humans are also very much prone to fear. We very prudently want to know about any danger we should avoid, and fear is the natural reaction to danger. Unfortunately, we humans are also very bad at assessing risk. Another thing everyone has seen, often in the mirror, is someone who will worry about minor risks while ignoring major ones. We see people – or are people – who won’t taste the cookie dough because it has raw egg in it, but will drive 85 on the freeway or ride our bike without a helmet or carry around way too much weight. We’ve done those last things most of our lives, and no longer even think about it; but we just heard about the (microscopic) danger from raw eggs, so that requires action. Fear will cause us to underestimate familiar risks and overestimate novel risks.

For the past 50 years, if not longer, we have been daily assaulted by claims that the science says we’re all going to die from a variety of ever-changing causes if we don’t promptly act NOW. These claims are framed to make us as frightened as possible. The hedging and restraint that are the hallmark of most good science are omitted when the claim is proclaimed – our doom is certain in a way that nothing else in the future is certain. Don’t fall for it. Do not be afraid; at least, suspend that fear until you’ve got a good grasp on the evidence.

What I’m here calling political beliefs are actually something much more basic, as discussed in the previous chapter: we all want to belong. We all must pay attention to what the other people in our peer group or tribe say, because the risk of being an outcast is felt to be too high. Our need to belong is a fundamental trait of our species, more fundamental than any love of science or, indeed, truth, and so it is only natural that we check with our group’s beliefs before forming our own,

This need to belong, while hardly a bad thing in and of itself, can lead us far astray, if not balanced against a love for truth. We spend 12, 16, or more years in school, where we’re much more likely to get into trouble for failing to conform to the group than we are for failing to learn anything. After years of such training, we tend to see the world as this place where authority figures decide and transmit to us what we ought to believe. All that’s left to us is identifying the correct authority figures – and they are eager to tell us who they are. There is no shortage of people vying for that job.

This habit of picking a team or a tribe and then using that tribe’s beliefs to filter what is allowed to be considered THE science has a name: Lysenkoism. Don’t follow Lysenko, that’s not a happy story.

When you express passionate belief in ‘the science’ which you have not independently worked to understand, it’s not just that you are parroting your chosen authority figures, it’s that all you are capable of is parroting your chosen authority figures.

You can think for yourself. Try it, you may like it. This book is intended to help.

It’s not going to be easy to find the courage to swim past the emotional bait and risk defying your tribe. I can only say, after K in Men in Black: “Oh yeah, it’s worth it… if you’re strong enough!” In order to understand science, or, indeed, in order to understand anything of any complexity, you have to want to understand it. It’s work, but it’s worth it. The alternative is to allow yourself to be blindly lead. History, especially modern history, is largely the tragic stories of people who imagine themselves the best educated, most enlightened, most moral people ever swallowing whole whatever their leaders tells them and whatever their peers profess to believe. We like to imagine it’s only stupid rubes who fell for the obvious (to us) manipulations of the tyrants and ideologues of the last couple centuries, when the sad truth is that it was the cream of society, the professors and professionals, the doctors and lawyers, who were always in the lead in accepting whatever they were told to accept. The more your position in society depends on the good opinions of those around you, the more susceptible you are to the wiles of the snake-oil salesman, who will always strive to hold exactly the position of respect needed for his scam to work. Alas! Historical illiteracy is nearly as complete as scientific illiteracy.

What is needed, and what this book aims to supply, are a few basic principles, a few rules of thumb, as it were, to help us laymen sift through the incessant, shrill claims made in the name of science. Science is not, and never has been, about trusting scientists. Science has always been about evaluating evidence. Anyone who tells you otherwise is selling something.

Science is a way to teach how something gets to be known, what is not known, to what extent things are known (for nothing is known absolutely), how to handle doubt and uncertainty, what the rules of evidence are, how to think about things so that judgments can be made, how to distinguish truth from fraud, and from show.

– Feynman

The Layman’s Guide to Understanding Science: How Not to be a Gullible Rabbit. Taming the Beast

This is the second of three preliminary chapters before we get to the meat of things. I organized this on the fly, so I’m not in love with there being three chapters, in effect, before Chapter 1. This can be cleaned up later.

Taming the Beast

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.

– Richard Feynman, Nobel Prize winning physicist and legendary Cal Tech teacher

We humans – you, me, everybody – have some limitations and predilections we need to overcome, or they will rule us. In the words of Agent K in Men In Black:

The person is smart. People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals, and you know it!”

If we are to be that smart person, we need to find a way to separate ourselves out from the dumb, panicky, dangerous herd we belong to, at least for as long as it takes to consider an idea or proposal. If we can’t or won’t do this, we are not free. We will be slaves to the opinions and emotions of other people.

Most of us are more or less reasonable and open-minded when talking with people one on one. But no matter how vehemently we deny it, few of us can resist the pressure to conform to our peers. While we – you, me, everybody – may flatter ourselves that we’re oh so open-minded, educated, and fair, the evidence suggests that’s not quite true. After reading this book, I hope you start listening for the dead giveaways that you are being told to conform to your tribe rather than look at evidence and listen to argument. Conforming is easy, and gets you a pat on the back and gold star; thinking things through for yourself is hard, and is unlikely to make you any friends within your tribe.

Since this is a book about science, let’s frame this up in terms of Darwinismi: The environment in which our ancestors evolved was tribal. Not one of our ancestors survived and reproduced without the cooperation of others of our ancestors. Therefore, Natural Selection has hard-wired into our DNA a desperate need for a tribe, simply because those without a tribe had little if any chance of reproducing, and thus, in the cruel world of Darwin, ceased to be ancestors to anybody.

Right after breathing and eating, our next most important drive as humans is to belong, to be in a tribe. That’s where we grew up, where we will find a mate, where we find those who will defend us. It is thus completely natural and to be expected that, when an unfamiliar idea slouches into view, our first instinct is to look to the people on our right and left and see what our tribe thinks, and accept that view. Why risk our standing in the tribe over something as abstract as an idea?

And it is, instinctually, the smart thing to do. We need our tribe – being without it is a terrifying prospect. By comparison, truth is most definitely an acquired taste – but it is essential for our thriving in the real world that we acquire it. Watch a group of dogs sometimes. They regularly perform little rituals to reestablish and confirm their membership and standing in their little pack, everything from tail wagging to butt-sniffing to rolling over to show their throats. Then watch people. You think all our little social rituals aren’t as based in instinct as what you see your dog do around other dogs?

The trouble begins when someone we instinctively identify as a member of our tribe wants us to do something. They could present careful arguments and attempt to persuade us – but that’s both uncertain and time-consuming, and besides the point, from their perspective. They want us to do something, not just to win an argument.

So your first lesson here, the first sign something is up, is when someone first assumes a position of tribal authority, and then tells you that to do, repeat, and believe what they tell you are requirements to remain in the tribe. To do otherwise is to belong to the stupid, evil tribe. That’s what almost all demands that you ‘believe’ or ‘follow’ the science boil down to.

That’s simply not how science works. Every study is call for criticism; every finding is conditional, often highly so. Every strong claim in science got strong by withstanding open, vigorous criticism. I mention this, because, of course, the next step for the snake oil salesman is to tell you you’re a stupid, evil person (in so many words) if you even listen to those who might disagree with him. In practice, it’s remarkable how open real science is to criticism. That willingness to consider critics is the glory of science. On the other hand, it’s common, these days, for people who disagree with some policy claim to be accused of being anti-science and to get shut out of public discussions, even if they are PhDs, Nobel prize winners, and otherwise experts. We live in interesting times.

Keep in mind that scientists are people, too, and can only approximate the required levels of honesty and openness that doing science demands. When science works, it’s often the fear of being exposed by their peers more than anything else that enforces whatever honesty there is in any given field. I’m a big fanboy of a number of scientists – Feynman and Darwin are in my personal Hall of Fame – but that doesn’t mean I’m blind to the problems we fallible humans, most definitely including me, are prone to.

Below, I’ll explain what science is, how it works, and how you and I as laymen are not, usually, at the mercy of experts when it comes to science. If you know how it works, it becomes easy to spot the fraud and bullying. The hard part is going to be standing up to your tribe. But it’s worth it, and essential to the creation and maintenance of a free society.

Endnote:

iAnd, being a Darwinian account, it will be a Just-So story. I love Darwin, I really do, but Darwinism is the one science in which any old likely story is accepted as proven, even if there’s little if any chance it could ever be observed or tested. In this case, I – and the many, many others who have made essentially the same argument – have no way of observing the behavior of our ancestors, nor can we devise an experiment that might confirm this lovely theory. Yet, to quote Plato: it is so beautiful that something like it must be true.

The Layman’s Guide to Understanding Science: How Not to be a Gullible Rabbit. Opening Chapter

How about we team beta-read this thing? I’ll throw up chapters as I get them finished, and you all can, in your exceeding mercy, take a look and tell me where things are not clear or otherwise have problems. You will earn my undying gratitude. You can put your comments in the comments, or email them to me.

(To those who offered criticism so far – my thanks, and I will get back to you soon!)

There will be a few preliminary chapters before getting to the nuts and bolts. I need to establish why anyone should care about this, and try to put a crack, however tiny, in the stone certainty of the many.

The table of contents as it now stands, to show the order in which I want to discuss things, followed by a Goals preliminary chapter.

Table of Contents

  • The Goal: Filtering Out the High-Level Nonsense
  • Taming the Beast
  • Preliminaries
  • Chapter 1: What Is This Science Thing, Anyway? A Note on Studies Some Studies to Ponder
  • Chapter 2: Why Should You Care About Science Claims?
  • Chapter 3: The Toolkit Outlined
  • Chapter 4: Appeals to ‘Scientific Consensus’
  • Chapter 5: ‘Believe’ the Science
  • Chapter 6: ‘Trust’ the Scientists
  • Chapter 7: The ‘Science is Settled’
  • Chapter 8: You Are Commanded to Have and Defend a Position as ‘Scientific’
  • Chapter 9: Science Dictates Policy
  • Chapter 10: Thoughts, Feelings, and Other Non-Physical Objects
  • Chapter 11: Model Output Presented as Evidence
  • Chapter 12: Some More Technical Considerations (If You’re Up For It)
  • Who Is This Guy, Who Thinks He Can Tell Me All About Science? About the Author

The Goal: Filtering Out the High-Level Nonsense

Let me break it to you up front: you’re not going to learn all about science from one 200 or so page book. But you might learn how not to get snowed by obvious nonsense masquerading as science. That’s all we’re trying to do here. These days, being able to tell the difference between science and hokum is becoming a more and more important skill. Don’t be a gullible rabbit. Think for yourself.

I’m a layman when it comes to science, and wrote this book for other laymen. You’ll need to go to the experts, and put in the years of work, if you want to know the details of any particular scientific field. Here, we’re only hoping to pass along enough understanding of what science looks like so that you can perform a sniff test on claims that ‘the science’ demands you do or believe something.

I’m here to tell you that those details, as beautiful and thrilling as they often are, are not the problem. Rarely does anyone try to snow us using the actual details of any scientific field. That’s too much work. Rather, the con men and quacks want you to believe them because they speak for science and you’re a smart little rabbit, and you know that you must do whatever science tells you to do, or you’re a bad person. This works, when it does, partly because science – actually, it’s technology, but we’ll get back to that – has delivered to us peons so many life-enhancing and life-saving tools, not to mention all the cool gadgets. iPhones are cool; it takes science to make iPhones; therefore, science is cool! Every snake-oil salesman wants you to think he’s all aglow with the beneficent aura of SCIENCE when he tries to compel us to buy what he’s selling. It behooves us all to be able to spot the snake oil, even, especially, when the dude selling it is wearing a lab coat.

But mostly, these manipulative and abusive claims made in the name of science get accepted because we humans are naturally more interested in our good standing with our tribe than with some abstraction like ‘the truth’ or ‘the evidence.’ We will tend to believe, and think it evil not to believe, whatever everybody else in our tribe believes.

If I am able to make you instantly suspicious of any claims that ‘science has shown’ this or that thing to be true, with the implied threat that you will be a stupid, if not evil, person if you don’t go along, this book will have achieved its goal. Shaming and threatening is not how science works. That’s how fraud, manipulation, and propaganda work.

Writing as Therapy? Eeewe!

Reality check: I’m putting together a book in order to make points that could be listed on 1 page. Is there any chance anyone who doesn’t see the truth in the list is going to see the truth when I pound it in with another 40-50K words? I don’t know, which means – I’m writing as therapy? Icky.

Today, I’m getting twitchy about all the fiction I’m not writing. Need to set aside the Science book soon, just to keep the other stuff moving. In the meantime, I’m getting close to 10K words. Are they 10K good words worth saying, calling for another 40-50K more words? Stay tuned. So far, writing this is – motivating.

Also also, I could put together a page and a half of Feynman and Crichton quotations that say everything I want to say, and have the advantage of often being pithy, witty, and from the mouths of much smarter men. Here, let’s do it:

Feynman first:

“Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.”

Have no respect whatsoever for authority; forget who said it and instead look what he starts with, where he ends up, and ask yourself, “Is it reasonable?””

“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.”

“We need to teach how doubt is not to be feared but welcomed. It’s OK to say, “I don’t know.””

“Science is a way to teach how something gets to be known, what is not known, to what extent things are known (for nothing is known absolutely), how to handle doubt and uncertainty, what the rules of evidence are, how to think about things so that judgments can be made, how to distinguish truth from fraud, and from show.”

“First you guess. Don’t laugh, this is the most important step. Then you compute the consequences. Compare the consequences to experience. If it disagrees with experience, the guess is wrong. In that simple statement is the key to science. It doesn’t matter how beautiful your guess is or how smart you are or what your name is. If it disagrees with experience, it’s wrong. That’s all there is to it.”

Richard Feynman, Nobel Prize winning physicist and legendary Cal Tech teacher. These and many other Feynman quotations can be found here.

And now Crichton:

I want to pause here and talk about this notion of consensus, and the rise of what has been called consensus science. I regard consensus science as an extremely pernicious development that ought to be stopped cold in its tracks. Historically, the claim of consensus has been the first refuge of scoundrels; it is a way to avoid debate by claiming that the matter is already settled. Whenever you hear the consensus of scientists agrees on something or other, reach for your wallet, because you’re being had.

Let’s be clear: the work of science has nothing whatever to do with consensus. Consensus is the business of politics. Science, on the contrary, requires only one investigator who happens to be right, which means that he or she has results that are verifiable by reference to the real world.

In science consensus is irrelevant. What is relevant is reproducible results. The greatest scientists in history are great precisely because they broke with the consensus. There is no such thing as consensus science. If it’s consensus, it isn’t science. If it’s science, it isn’t consensus. Period.

Finally, I would remind you to notice where the claim of consensus is invoked. Consensus is invoked only in situations where the science is not solid enough.

Nobody says the consensus of scientists agrees that E=mc2. Nobody says the consensus is that the sun is 93 million miles away. It would never occur to anyone to speak that way.

Michael Crichton, Author and MD. From his Caltech Michelin Lecture – January 17, 2003, which can be found here.

One more long thing from Crichton that really drives it home, from the same source:

In addition, let me remind you that the track record of the consensus is nothing to be proud of.

Let’s review a few cases.

In past centuries, the greatest killer of women was fever following childbirth . One woman in six died of this fever. In 1795, Alexander Gordon of Aberdeen suggested that the fevers were infectious processes, and he was able to cure them. The consensus said no. In 1843, Oliver Wendell Holmes claimed puerperal fever was contagious, and presented compelling evidence. The consensus said no. In 1849, Semmelweis demonstrated that sanitary techniques virtually eliminated puerperal fever in hospitals under his management. The consensus said he was a Jew, ignored him, and dismissed him from his post. There was in fact no agreement on puerperal fever until the start of the twentieth century. Thus the consensus took one hundred and twenty five years to arrive at the right conclusion despite the efforts of the prominent “skeptics” around the world, skeptics who were demeaned and ignored. And despite the constant ongoing deaths of women.

There is no shortage of other examples. In the 1920s in America, tens of thousands of people, mostly poor, were dying of a disease called pellagra. The consensus of scientists said it was infectious, and what was necessary was to find the “pellagra germ.” The US government asked a brilliant young investigator, Dr. Joseph Goldberger, to find the cause. Goldberger concluded that diet was the crucial factor. The consensus remained wedded to the germ theory. Goldberger
demonstrated that he could induce the disease through diet. He demonstrated that the disease was not infectious by injecting the blood of a pellagra patient into himself, and his assistant. They and other volunteers swabbed their noses with swabs from pellagra patients, and swallowed capsules containing scabs from pellagra rashes in what were called “Goldberger’s filth parties.” Nobody contracted pellagra. The consensus continued to disagree with him. There was, in addition, a social factor—southern States disliked the idea of poor diet as the cause, because it meant that social reform was required. They continued to deny it until the 1920s. Result—despite a twentieth century epidemic, the consensus took years to see the light.

The examples can be multiplied endlessly. Jenner and smallpox, Pasteur and germ theory. Saccharine, margarine, repressed memory, fiber and colon cancer, hormone replacement therapy. The list of consensus errors goes on and on.

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!