Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Dark Age America: The Sharp Edge of the Shell

One of the interesting features of blogging about the twilight of science and technology these days is that there’s rarely any need to wait long for a cogent example. One that came my way not long ago via a reader of this blog—tip of the archdruidical hat to Eric S.—shows that not even a science icon can get away with asking questions about the rising tide of financial corruption and dogmatic ideology that’s drowning the scientific enterprise in our time.

Many of my readers will recall Bill Nye the Science Guy, the star of a television program on science in the 1990s and still a vocal and entertaining proponent of science education. In a recent interview, Nye was asked why he doesn’t support the happy-go-lucky attitude toward dumping genetically modified organisms into the environment that’s standard in the United States and a few other countries these days. His answer  is that their impact on ecosystems is a significant issue that hasn’t been adequately addressed. Those who know their way around today’s pseudoskeptic scene won’t be surprised by the reaction from one of Discover Magazine’s bloggers: a tar and feathers party, more or less, full of the standard GMO industry talking points and little else.

Nye’s point, as it happens, is as sensible as it is scientific: ecosystems are complex wholes that can be thrown out of balance by relatively subtle shifts, and since human beings depend for their survival and prosperity on the products of natural ecosystems, avoiding unnecessary disruption to those systems is arguably a good idea. This eminently rational sort of thinking, though, is not welcomed in corporate boardrooms just now.  In the case under discussion, it’s particularly unwelcome in the boardrooms of  corporations heavily invested in genetic modification, which have a straightforward if shortsighted financial interest in flooding the biosphere with as many GMOs as they can sell.

Thus it’s reasonable that Monsanto et al. would scream bloody murder in response to Nye’s comment. What interests me is that so many believers in science should do the same, and not only in this one case. Last I checked, “what makes the biggest profit for industry must be true” isn’t considered a rule of scientific reasoning, but that sort of thinking is remarkably common in what passes for skepticism these days. To cite an additional example, it’s surely not accidental that there’s a 1.00 correlation between the health care modalities that make money for the medical and pharmaceutical industries and the health care modalities that the current crop of soi-disant skeptics consider rational and science-based, and an equal 1.00 correlation between those modalities that don’t make money for the medical and pharmaceutical industries and those that today’s skeptics dismiss as superstitious quackery.

To some extent, this is likely a product of what’s called “astroturfing,” the manufacture of artificial grassroots movements to support the agendas of an industrial sector or a political faction. The internet, with its cult of anonymity and its less than endearing habit of letting every discussion plunge to the lowest common denominator of bullying and abuse, was tailor-made for that sort of activity; it’s pretty much an open secret at this point, or so I’m told by the net-savvy, that most significant industries these days maintain staffs of paid flacks who spend their working hours searching the internet for venues to push messages favorable to their employers and challenge opposing views. Given the widespread lack of enthusiasm for GMOs, Monsanto and its competitors would have to be idiots to neglect such an obvious and commonly used marketing tactic.

Still, there’s more going on here than ordinary media manipulation in the hot pursuit of profits. There are plenty of people who have no financial stake in the GMO industry who defend it fiercely from even the least whisper of criticism, just as there are plenty of people who denounce alternative medicine in ferocious terms even though they don’t happen to make money from the medical-pharmaceutical industrial complex. I’ve discussed in previous posts here, and in a forthcoming book, the way that faith in progress was pressed into service as a substitute for religious belief during the nineteenth century, and continues to fill that role for many people today. It’s not a transformation that did science any good, but its implications as industrial civilization tips over into decline and fall are considerably worse than the ones I’ve explored in previous essays. I want to talk about those implications here, because they have a great deal to say about the future of science and technology in the deindustrializing world of the near future.

It’s important, in order to make sense of those implications, to grasp that science and technology function as social phenomena, and fill social roles, in ways that have more than a little in common with the intellectual activities of civilizations of the past. That doesn’t mean, as some postmodern theorists have argued, that science and technology are purely social phenomena; both of them have to take the natural world into account, and so have an important dimension that transcends the social. That said, the social dimension also exists, and since human beings are social mammals, that dimension has an immense impact on the way that science and technology function in this or any other human society.

From a social standpoint, it’s thus not actually all that relevant that that the scientists and engineers of contemporary industrial society can accomplish things with matter and energy that weren’t within the capacities of Babylonian astrologer-priests, Hindu gurus, Chinese literati, or village elders in precontact New Guinea. Each of these groups have been assigned a particular social role, the role of interpreter of Nature, by their respective societies, and each of them are accorded substantial privileges for fulfilling the requirements of their role. It’s therefore possible to draw precise and pointed comparisons between the different bodies of people filling that very common social role in different societies.

The exercise is worth doing, not least because it helps sort out the far from meaningless distinction between the aspects of modern science and technology that unfold from their considerable capacities for doing things with matter and energy, and the aspects of modern science and technology that unfold from the normal dynamics of social privilege.  What’s more, since modern science and technology wasn’t around in previous eras of decline and fall but privileged intellectual castes certainly were, recognizing the common features that unite today’s scientists, engineers, and promoters of scientific and technological progress with equivalent groups in past civilizations makes it a good deal easier to anticipate the fate of science and technology in the decades and centuries to come.

A specific example will be more useful here than any number of generalizations, so let’s consider the fate of philosophy in the waning years of the Roman world. The extraordinary intellectual adventure we call classical philosophy began in the Greek colonial cities of Ionia around 585 BCE, when Thales of Miletus first proposed a logical rather than a mythical explanation for the universe, and proceeded through three broad stages from there. The first stage, that of the so-called Presocratics, focused on the natural world, and the questions it asked and tried to answer can more or less be summed up as “What exists?”  Its failures and equivocal successes led the second stage, which extended from Socrates through Plato and Aristotle to the Old Academy and its rivals, to focus their attention on different questions, which can be summed up just as neatly as “How can we know what exists?”

That was an immensely fruitful shift in focus. It led to the creation of classical logic—one of the great achievements of the human mind—and it also drove the transformations that turned mathematics from an assortment of rules of thumb to an architecture of logical proofs, and thus laid the foundations on which Newtonian physics and other quantitative sciences eventually built.  Like every other great intellectual adventure of our species, though, it never managed to fulfill all the hopes that had been loaded onto it; the philosopher’s dream of human society made wholly subject to reason turned out to be just as unreachable as the scientist’s of the universe made wholly subject to the human will. As that failure became impossible to ignore, classical philosophy shifted focus again, to a series of questions and attempted answers that amounted to “given what we know about what exists, how should we live?”

That’s the question that drove the last great age of classical philosophy, the age of the Epicureans, the Stoics, and the Neoplatonists, the three philosophical schools I discussed a few months back as constructive personal responses to the fall of our civilization. At first, these and other schools carried on lively and far-reaching debates, but as the Roman world stumbled toward its end under the burden of its own unsolved problems, the philosophers closed ranks; debates continued, but they focused more and more tightly on narrow technical issues within individual schools. What’s more, the schools themselves closed ranks; pure Stoic, Aristotelian, and Epicurean philosophy gradually dropped out of fashion, and by the fourth century CE, a Neoplatonism enriched with bits and pieces of all the other schools stood effectively alone, the last school standing in the long struggle Thales kicked off ten centuries before.

Now I have to confess to a strong personal partiality for the Neoplatonists. It was from Plotinus and Proclus, respectively the first and last great figures in the classical tradition, that I first grasped why philosophy matters and what it can accomplish, and for all its problems—like every philosophical account of the world, it has some—Neoplatonism still makes intuitive sense to me in a way that few other philosophies do. What’s more, the men and women who defended classical Neoplatonism in its final years were people of great intellectual and personal dignity, committed to proclaming the truth as they knew it in the face of intolerance and persecution that ended up costing no few of them their lives.

The awkward fact remains that classical philosophy, like modern science, functioned as a social phenomenon and filled certain social roles. The intellectual power of the final Neoplatonist synthesis and the personal virtues of its last proponents have to be balanced against its blind support of a deeply troubled social order; in all the long history of classical philosophy, it never seems to have occurred to anyone that debates about the nature of justice might reasonably address, say, the ethics of slavery. While a stonecutter like Socrates could take an active role in philosophical debate in Athens in the fourth century BCE, furthermore, the institutionalization of philosophy meant that by the last years of classical Neoplatonism, its practice was restricted to those with ample income and leisure, and its values inevitably became more and more closely tied to the social class of its practitioners.

That’s the thing that drove the ferocious rejection of philosophy by the underclass of the age, the slaves and urban poor who made up the vast majority of the population throughout the Roman empire, and who received little if any benefit from the intellectual achievements of their society. To them, the subtleties of Neoplatonist thought were irrelevant to the increasingly difficult realities of life on the lower end of the social pyramid in a brutally hierarchical and increasingly dysfunctional world. That’s an important reason why so many of them turned for solace to a new religious movement from the eastern fringes of the empire, a despised sect that claimed that God had been born on earth as a mere carpenter’s son and communicated through his life and death a way of salvation that privileged the poor and downtrodden above the rich and well-educated.

It was as a social phenomenon, filling certain social roles, that Christianity attracted persecution from the imperial government, and it was in response to Christianity’s significance as a social phenomenon that the imperial government executed an about-face under Constantine and took the new religion under its protection. Like plenty of autocrats before and since, Constantine clearly grasped that the real threat to his position and power came from other members of his own class—in his case, the patrician elite of the Roman world—and saw that he could undercut those threats and counter potential rivals through an alliance of convenience with the leaders of the underclass. That’s the political subtext of the Edict of Milan, which legalized Christianity throughout the empire and brought it imperial patronage.

The patrician class of late Roman times, like its equivalent today, exercised power through a system of interlocking institutions from which outsiders were carefully excluded, and it maintained a prickly independence from the central government.  By the fourth century, tensions between the bureaucratic imperial state and the patrician class, with its local power bases and local loyalties, were rising toward a flashpoint.  The rise of Christianity thus gave Constantine and his successors an extraordinary opportunity.  Most of the institutions that undergirded patrician power linked to Pagan religion; local senates, temple priesthoods, philosophical schools, and other elements of elite culture normally involved duties drawn from the traditional faith. A religious pretext to strike at those institutions must have seemed as good as any other, and the Christian underclass offered one other useful feature: mobs capable of horrific acts of violence against prominent defenders of the patrician order.

That was why, for example, a Christian mob in 415 CE dragged the Neoplatonist philosopher Hypatia from her chariot as she rode home from her teaching gig at the Academy in Alexandria, cudgeled her to death, cut the flesh from her bones with sharpened oyster shells—the cheap pocket knives of the day—and burned the bloody gobbets to ashes. What doomed Hypatia was not only her defense of the old philosophical traditions, but also her connection to Alexandria’s patrician class; her ghastly fate was as much the vengeance of the underclass against the elite as it was an act of religious persecution. She was far from the only victim of violence driven by those paired motives, either. It was as a result of such pressures that, by the time the emperor Justinian ordered the last academies closed in 529 CE, the classical philosophical tradition was essentially dead.

That’s the sort of thing that happens when an intellectual tradition becomes too closely affiliated with the institutions, ideologies, and interests of a social elite. If the elite falls, so does the tradition—and if it becomes advantageous for anyone else to target the elite, the tradition can be a convenient target, especially if it’s succeeded in alienating most of the population outside the elite in question.

Modern science is extremely vulnerable to such a turn of events. There was a time when the benefits of scientific research and technological development routinely reached the poor as well as the privileged, but that time has long since passed; these days, the benefits of research and development move up the social ladder, while the costs and negative consequences move down. Nearly all the jobs eliminated by automation, globalization, and the computer revolution, for example, used to hire from the bottom end of the job market. In the same way, changes in US health care in recent decades have benefited the privileged while subjecting most others to substandard care at prices so high that medical bills are the leading cause of bankruptcy in the US today.

It’s all very well for the promoters of progress to gabble on about science as the key to humanity’s destiny; the poor know that the destiny thus marketed isn’t for them.  To the poor, progress means fewer jobs with lower pay and worse conditions, more surveillance and impersonal violence carried out by governments that show less and less interest in paying even lip service to the concept of civil rights, a rising tide of illnesses caused by environmental degradation and industrial effluents, and glimpses from afar of an endless stream of lavishly advertised tech-derived trinkets, perks and privileges that they will never have. Between the poor and any appreciation for modern science stands a wall made of failed schools, defunded libraries, denied opportunities, and the systematic use of science and technology to benefit other people at their expense. Such a wall, it probably bears noting, makes a good surface against which to sharpen oyster shells.

It seems improbable that anything significant will be done to change this picture until it’s far too late for such changes to have any meaningful effect. Barring dramatic transformations in the distribution of wealth, the conduct of public education, the funding for such basic social amenities as public libraries, and a great deal more, the underclass of the modern industrial world can be expected to grow more and more disenchanted with science as a social phenomenon in our culture, and to turn instead—as their equivalents in the Roman world and so many other civilizations did—to some tradition from the fringes that places itself in stark opposition to everything modern scientific culture stands for. Once that process gets under way, it’s simply a matter of waiting until the corporate elite that funds science, defines its values, and manipulates it for PR purposes, becomes sufficiently vulnerable that some other power center decides to take it out, using institutional science as a convenient point of attack.

Saving anything from the resulting wreck will be a tall order. Still, the same historical parallel discussed above offers some degree of hope. The narrowing focus of classical philosophy in its last years meant, among other things, that a substantial body of knowledge that had once been part of the philosophical movement was no longer identified with it by the time the cudgels and shells came out, and much of it was promptly adopted by Christian clerics and monastics as useful for the Church. That’s how classical astronomy, music theory, and agronomy, among other things, found their way into the educational repertoire of Christian monasteries and nunneries in the dark ages. What’s more, once the power of the patrician class was broken, a carefully sanitized version of Neoplatonist philosophy found its way into Christianity; in some denominations, it’s still a living presence today.

That may well happen again. Certainly today’s defenders of science are doing their best to shove a range of scientific viewpoints out the door; the denunciation meted out to Bill Nye for bringing basic concepts from ecology into a discussion where they were highly relevant is par for the course these days. There’s an interesting distinction between the sciences that get this treatment and those that don’t: on the one hand, those that are being flung aside are those that focus on observation of natural systems rather than control of artificial ones; on the other, any science that raises doubts about the possibility or desirability of infinite technological expansion can expect to find itself shivering in the dark outside in very short order. (This latter point applies to other fields of intellectual endeavor as well; half the angry denunciations of philosophy you’ll hear these days from figures such as Neil DeGrasse Tyson, I’m convinced, come out of the simple fact that the claims of modern science to know objective truths about nature won’t stand up to fifteen minutes of competent philosophical analysis.)

Thus it’s entirely possible that observational sciences, if they can squeeze through the bottleneck imposed by the loss of funding and prestige, will be able to find a new home in whatever intellectual tradition replaces modern scientific rationalism in the deindustrial future. It’s at least as likely that such dissident sciences as ecology, which has always raised challenging questions about the fantasies of the manipulative sciences, may find themselves eagerly embraced by a future intellectual culture that has no trouble at all recognizing the futility of those fantasies. That said, it’s still going to take some hard work to preserve what’s been learnt in those fields—and it’s also going to take more than the usual amount of prudence and plain dumb luck not to get caught up in the conflict when the sharp edge of the shell gets turned on modern science.


Max Osman said...

i usually frown on the use of cliches but
this is just mindblowing...
is there any chance for physics though?
seeing how thats bound up the most with the ruling elite , that and astrology...

latheChuck said...

Not obviously relevant, but not so many years ago, as I went about the tasks of daily life, I would ask "how would I do this in zero gravity?" Now, I ask myself, "how would I do this without fossil fuels?" or "how would I do this without money?"

Dan the Farmer said...

Consider the "persons" who rig their trucks to spew extra smoke, just to oppose the current president. It kinda follows this logic.

Nathan Donaldson said...

This reminds me of a conversation I had with a friend a couple of years ago. I do office furniture assembly (cube farms) and was joking with him about being "a working class guy" because he's currently out of a job in sales. One day all the white collar workers in the office building we're working in are gone for some reason and I ask "do you think they all got sucked into their computers and joined the Singularity?"
"Probably" he answered.
And I replied: "Then as working class guys we need to find the mainframe they're in and destroy them!"

Andy Brown said...

Wow, an optimistic rendering to shock your regular readers! (I'm being unfair, I know.)

I used to think that cultural anthropology had potential to carry forward, since it had strong romantic undercurrents that served as critiques of Progress and many or most anthropologists eventually came to challenge the standard, easy self-congratulatory narratives of human history.

But in the end, a critique that doesn't result in a change of practice is just hypocrisy, and anthropology as a science ensconced itself in the corrupt body of the university. As a practice, there is lots of constructive do-goodery in applied anthropology, but that end of it is less "science" and more "common sense" and "wisdom", which has to be converted to jargon if it wants credibility within the academy.

And besides, noticing the idiocy and intellectual dishonesty of colonialism and globalization is hardly going to wow the hoi polloi.

Anthony Romano said...

This series of posts on the decline of science have really struck a chord with me.

I'm in my late twenties, studied biology, ecology, and geography in college and grad school, and I'm struggling to get a career off the ground in conservation. I currently work for a state program centered on rare plant conservation.

I too hope that the observational sciences can survive the coming dark ages. Their practical applications certainly have value, but I also wouldn't be surprised if everything we've learned about sustainable forestry is tossed out the window in a mad rush to deforest (again!) the eastern United States, and what's left of the west (including the redwoods).

We've essentially been subsidizing forest recovery in North America with deforestation in the tropics. But tropical wood wont stay cheap forever as shipping costs rise.

On a more personal note, I'm depressed by how much biological knowledge will be lost. I'm staking my career on trying to prevent unnatural extinctions. Biodiversity is one of my core values.

Considering that, it isn't a surprise that I consider the project of documenting/cataloging every species on earth to be one of the scientific communities (and humanities) loftiest and worthiest goals.

The Linnaean system is one our great works. Collections of butterflies, plants, fungi, etc. are some our most beautiful monuments to life on this planet. It saddens me to think that these will all be lost.

I know local knowledge of flora/fauna is more than adequate for a society (We only discover things new to science, humanity writ-large, the locals have always had a name for it first). But the shared knowledge of all life on this one habitable planet is something probably only an industrial society can produce.

The irony is that industrial society knocks loose bricks from the wall of life at an unprecedented rate.

Ventriloquist said...

She looked closely, through
grandfather's old binoculars . . .

"Old John was working on his windmill
but he's just fallen off the ladder . . ."

He groaned,
"Once again, trying to fix it,
all by himself . . .

I'll get Katrina and the
horse and we'll go and
do what we can.

That generator,
it's a fools errand.
There's just no need anymore
for it to work."

Doctor Westchester said...


While reading this post, I thought of another blogger of alternative economic ideas that you have mentioned that you follow. He is a keen observer and is Peak Oil aware, yet has a few quite glaring blind spots. One of them is his love of (vaporware) technology that threatens to throw a lot of people out of work. One recently promoted example is the idea of self driving trucks. As this post and others of yours have stated, the concept of replacing more people with machines in these times is a bad idea from so many fronts - environmental, social and political. I find it so amazing that this concept is one that simply doesn't register with a person who is otherwise quite astute. But then, that issue is one of the major points of your post. He may be a very intelligent and astute person, but the blinders of his upper middle class viewpoint are too difficult to remove, even if he is aware of them.

Tom Bannister said...

Just thought this might amuse you. A stock and standard attack on anti GMO. (a philosopher could spot the flaw in the articles argument in about 5 seconds).

Its of course a response to Nassim Taleb who is currently going absolutely ballistic on twitter in his opposition of GMOs, pointing out how the basic principles of science and logic are ignored by their advocates (he only uses twitter to get around journalists who misquote him).

People like him give me hope for science. No one can accuse a Taleb of being a radical hippie or anything like that (just like the scientist you mentioned).

Personally I won't be too sad to see the end of Genetic engineering technology anyway. GE can (probably for the most part) only survive in a high energy industrial economy anyway so its highly unlikely to be of any use to a future civilization even if it does survive. I just hope it doesn't drag too much other science down with it. This point could be applied to a number of sciences that are about controlling things. A lot of them need gratuitous amounts of energy to be viable in the first place. Hope endures I say :-) But yes, there's plenty of work ahead!

Junto Felicidad said...

I never thought of my choice to study science in college as something that could put a target on my back. If an angry mob shows up, I'll be sure to put on my nemyss and wave around homeopathic remedies until they disperse.

Cherokee Organics said...


Yeah, I've always wondered about the obsession with GM organisms. It can only appear to be a process by which an industry captures a process that is done by nature for a far lower cost. With less middle men, clearly nature must have a lower cost base for an equivalent product. I'm unsure whether the yields (agricultural output, profits are another matter altogether) for GM organisms is that much higher than conventional agriculture anyway. Good luck finding unbiased reports.

Oh well. The whole lot will sort itself out in time as the fertilisers sprayed on industrial agricultural fields generally don't and can't cover the full spectrum of minerals required by plants due to the sheer cost and complexity of doing so. Sooner or later the soils in industrial agricultural systems will run out of one mineral or another (or a combination of). And there is the unanswered water question to about where that lot will come from in future?

My understanding - and I could be wrong - is that the herbicides favoured by GM organisms prohibit the uptake of minerals which possibly starves both the plants and the soil life that work in symbiosis (they generally swap plant sugars for minerals). Good luck in trying to rehabilitate that soil life quickly.

I always try to win people over with the quality of produce that I gift to them from here and they are rarely disappointed.

The funny thing about GM food is that it is eaten by both the lower and middle classes alike, because, like organic stuff is real expensive, like. Maybe the health impacts haven't shown up yet, who knows? I've read a few accounts now of the mineral deficiencies of food and that should be ringing alarm bells. It certainly does with me. As a prediction, the people and their soils will pay the price, it is just that they don't know it yet.



PS: There is a new blog entry up: A hive of activity where Scritchy the boss dog has had a further misadventure with bees. There are some cool tree frogs which warned about impending heavy rain. Plus I show the water harvesting systems here in action and put some preserves together whilst it was raining.

Auriel Ragmon said...

Noel Coward: Hooray! there are bad times around the corner!

Glenn said...

Since I first heard of Hypatia I've made a point of observing her death each March. Her fate seems symbolic of the conflict the various christian churches have with science, logic, philosophy, education and women. Especially women in positions of power.


in the Bramblepatch
Marrowstone Island
Salish Sea

pyrrhus said...

Well, my opinion of Bill Nye just went up by an order of magnitude...I have raised the potential and actual neurological dangers of glyphosate, a drying agent used in Roundup and also by itself, online, and gotten
quite a bit of flack from people who should know better. For Nye to stick his neck out, especially when he hangs out with guys like Tyson, is kind of impressive...

Pinku-Sensei said...

When you linked to the Discover Magazine blog post expressing bewilderment about Bill Nye's standoffish attitude to GMOs, I was expecting his stance to be contrasted with Neil DeGrasse Tyson's. I was not disappointed. It looks as if the blog author and the Redditor had a choice between two popular science heroes, Nye and Tyson, and picked Tyson, the one most friendly to technology. That choice exemplifies the confusion between science and technology that I fight against constantly and one that I point out to my classes in the very first lecture, in which I point out that technology, medicine, and engineering are not actually science, but the application of scientifically derived information to human needs and wants. The old Dewey Decimal System recognized this and separated science in the 500s and the rest in the 600s. Pity that distinction is being lost these days.

As for Monsanto, the corporation has earned such an odious reputation that there is now a March Against Monsanto, an annual event protesting GMOs in general and Monsanto's behavior in particular. The coverage of last year's protests earned contrasting views from CNN and Russia Today. CNN tried to be as even-handed as possible and included the claim that there are, as yet, no studies showing ill health effects on humans from GMOs. That's true as far as it goes, but I'm not sure it goes as far as the supporters think it does. Russia Today, on the other hand, was much more supportive of the protesters and critical of Monsanto. Then again, RT is as much a propaganda organ as it is a news organization, and it likes to urge on dissidents in the U.S. With friends like them, the protesters don't really need enemies.

Harry J. Lerwill said...

What disturbs me most is that I'm blind as to where the threat may be coming from. I know what social forces oppose the scientific paradigm in the West; and could point to those churches and religious figures who reject science, but they are not the majority of the people denied access to the fruits of technology.

The ones that appear to be the immediate threat are, like me, part of a Patrician class that is fighting among themselves.

What form will will that rough beast take, as it slouches towards the Science Museum?

Pongo said...

Last year I sat down and watched an old cliffhanger science fiction serial called THE MONSTER AND THE APE, which was made in 1945 and which you may very well have yourself seen syndicated on TV back in your childhood. The "monster" of the title is actually a robot powered by meteorite metal, giving it fantastic strength and stamina. All throughout the first couple of chapters commentators keep talking about how these robots are going to "ease the burden of human toil" by doing work that is too dangerous or exhausting or boring for ordinary humans. When the inevitable mad scientist shows up trying to hijack the robot for his own evil ends (the "ape" of the title is used by him to assassinate rivals) the characters then lament about how they need to get it back so they can stop the madman and liberate mankind from being slaves to work and labor. Classic religion of progress stuff from the very beginning of the optimistic postwar era, all presented in a very exciting way.

You can tell how much attitudes to science and technology changed in seventy or so years from what a friend who watched it with me said: "Yeah, right. All that those robots are going to do is put a lot of blue collar factory and construction workers out of jobs. Just give it twenty years and they won't even be making the robots in America anymore, they will all be made in Japan. And just wait till you see the horrors that are going to be unleashed when the U.S. military starts buying them!"

escapefromwisconsin said...

As you know, much of that philosophical tradition was preserved via a different culture - the Islamic culture which took over much of the Eastern Roman (i.e. Byzantine) Empire. Eventually it came back to Europe in the Renaissance. Is there an equivalent alternative culture today?

Incidentally, iconoclastic economic philosopher Nassim Taleb has also made a persuasive and cogent argument against GMOs:

Given the ubiquity of this kind of foodstuff, you could be forgiven for thinking that the scientific debate over its safety has been largely settled. It is certainly true that a large number of scientists seem to take that view. In 2012, for example, the American Association for the Advancement of Science declared that genetically modified crops pose no greater risk than the same foods made from crops modified by conventional plant breeding techniques.

Today, Nassim Nicholas Taleb at New York University and a few pals say that this kind of thinking vastly underestimates the threat posed by genetically modified organisms. “Genetically modified organisms represent a public risk of global harm,” they say. Consequently, this risk should be treated differently from those that only have the potential for local harm. “The precautionary principle should be used to prescribe severe of limits on genetically modified organisms,” they conclude.

Taleb and co begin by making a clear distinction between risks with consequences that are local and those with consequences that have the potential to cause global ruin. When global harm is possible, an action must be avoided unless there is scientific near-certainty that it is safe. This approach is known as the precautionary principle.

Genetically Modified Organisms Risk Global Ruin, Says Black Swan Author

There were the predictable denunciations of him as well, this time mainly by the economics priesthood.

If we really used the precautionary principle, I wonder how many of today's wonder technologies would pass the test. And I wonder how much of what we are using even today would still be used (chemicals, endocrine disruptors, flame retardants, radiation, and so on)

Thomas Daulton said...

Dan the farmer just now beat me to the point. To some degree this is already happening, or at least the seeds are well-planted and green shoots are visible. Climatic scientists and alternative-energy researchers, in real life, have been effectively tarred (in the minds of a certain, minority but vociferous, segment of the population) as charlatans interested in nothing but gobs of free grant money. Ecologists and related disciplines can often be tarred by association. This problem has failed to go away despite liberals' lament of its stupidity. JMG has often pointed out real problems with the science these groups are promulgating, but a persistent minority has already been persuaded to reject their science wholesale regardless of its flaws or merits, simply on the basis of jealousy (of access to government money). It seems to fit JMG's model where one group of elites (short-term profiteers off fossil fuels) use the rejection of science as a weapon to take out another group (elite researchers and government regulators). As jobs become scarcer and the benefits of the science studies become more nebulous, I could imagine more and more of the population passing an unfavorable judgment on those fields and their ivory-tower practitioners.

Scratching my head I can think of only a few examples in science-fiction where a backlash arose against science as a cultural expression of elitism, instead of for other reasons. For example, in recent movies like "Elysium" and "In Time," science is presented as a tool of repression by the elite, but the impoverished masses want nothing more than to seize that perq for themselves, not reject it. In many post-apocalyptic stories (including your two, JMG, IMHO), certain aspects of science have been selectively rejected because of their consequences, not for social reasons -- the rejection is usually presented as some sort of awakening, tragic or hopeful. ADR readers, am I missing other prominent examples?

Sci-fi writers probably tend to see science as pure Truth and thus seem blind to the meme of science as a cultural wedge. The one clean example I can think of is from the cheesy old TV series "V", about neo-Nazi reptilian aliens invading the earth. The aliens didn't want humans to master any captured alien tech and use it against them, so they established a narrative where the "Visitors" wanted to offer miracle cures and technological solutions to world hunger etc., but they held back because they had allegedly caught human scientists weaponizing the technology and/or using it for their personal gain over others. The non-scientist humans promptly judged all human scientists as deceitful, and engaged in pogroms against them. That always struck me as one of the better and more predictive subplots of the otherwise mediocre '80s show (I never saw the 2009 remake). Minus the reptillians and tone down the violence, and you get basically the scenario with climate scientists today.

Emmanuel Goldstein said...

I am reading "Antifragile" by Nicholas Taleb. He makes a good case that higher education and university research (especially in economics) are enterprises that copy the accomplishments of tinkerers, entrepreneurs and other doers, make them into theories, and then reverse the narrative to claim that better ways of doing things came out of academic theories. In fact, it works most often the other way around.
So from Taleb's point of view, we will all be better off when we stop wasting public money funding higher education and think tanks, and leave the improvement of civilization and culture to the tinkerers and amateurs. I don't wish anyone to be sliced to gibbets with shells, but there are some academic areas, like theories of economics, that have caused a great deal of harm when they drive the fiscal policies of the Empire. Maybe some things are better forgotten.

gordon said...

Good evening JMG, I have read all of your weekly essays from the beginning and this one ranks in the top 10%. These are the ones I share with my few true friends in hopes that they will see some truth and act on it. Sometimes it works!

Meanwhile, life here on the farm in Southwest Cascadia is good.

John Michael Greer said...

Max, did you mean to say astrology, or were you talking about astronomy?

LatheChuck, good. At this point, your chances of doing things with zero money or fossil fuels are a lot higher than your chances of doing them in zero gravity!

Dan, yes, it does.

Nathan, funny.

Andy, sorry to say it, but I think you're quite correct. A lot of would-be critiques haven't done anything other than sit on the sidelines and criticize the system that provides them with their paychecks and perks, and all things considered, that doesn't count for much.

Anthony, it's by no means certain that all of it will be lost. Your mission, if you should choose to accept it, is to find some way to preserve at least some of it.

Doctor W., that's very common, I'm sorry to say.

Tom, I'm reminded of the big names in chemistry who insisted at the top of their lungs that Rachel Carson was a crank for criticizing DDT. Where your paycheck is, there shall your heart be also...

Junto, you'll need to be more proactive than that, or nobody's going to take the time to find out whether the pills you're waving are homeopathic or not!

Cherokee, my working guess is that the GMO obsession is half bought and paid for by corporations in that industry, and half pure gosh-wow "It's science, it's got to be good for us!!!"

Auriel, in a sense.

Glenn, yes, but it's not just that. It's also symbolic of the conflict late pagan Neoplatonist philosophers had with facing up to the human implications of the society whose traditions and practices they defended.

Max Osman said...

meant to say astronomy as in astrophysics
id say something about economics being like astrology but at least astrology has more than a negative chance of predicting something

N Montesano said...

I'm reminded of the 1972 novel "The stars are ours!" by Andre Norton (before it gets to the Glorious Destiny in Space, and ceases being any sort of cultural commentary). It's set a few years after society has collapsed and turned violently on science -- and scientists.
Another is the 1980s "Phoenix Legacy" trilogy by M.K. Wren, set -- in space, of course -- in the far future after civilization has collapsed due to overpopulation and ecological disaster, gone through a long dark age, and is now in a feudal state, albeit one with lots of shiny technical toys.

John Michael Greer said...

Pyrrhus, I was certainly pleased to see Nye standing up for common sense.

Pinku-sensei, it's exactly the conflating of science, technology, medicine, and engineering as a single religious icon of Progress that's the underlying issue here, of course.

Harry, it's early days yet. I could be wrong, but my guess is we've got a few more decades before the chaos of alternative ideologies starts sorting itself out, and it becomes clear which new religious movement will become the framework to which the internal proletariat turns as it loses the last scraps of its faith in the existing order.

Pongo, I managed to miss that one -- a bit of a surprise, as a lot of the old serials were standard afternoon TV fodder when I was a kid. Still, yes, that's a good point!

Escape, heck of a good question -- I could see China or India becoming a place where some forms of science remain intact through the deindustrialization and collapse of Europe and North America.

Thomas, it's an interesting question. The rejection of science as a function of elitism isn't the only issue; as I noted in my post, the fact that science and technology are increasingly used to disadvantage the underclass is also a major issue. But it's an intricate situation, needing more development than one blog post here can permit.

Emmanuel, a case could be made for that. I'll be talking about that in more detail in a future series of posts on education.

Derv said...

Hey JMG,

There were two things that popped out to me in reading this essay. The first was a gut response, one which I had hoped had left my thinking. I immediately started thinking about large-scale projects that could mitigate the damage, from a reform scientist community to an overhaul of our method of funding to a giant monument which would enshrine important formulas for future generations. I thought big instead of small. But I suppose I should be happy that I recognized it as an error, at least.

Secondly, I thought about (from a historical/sociological perspective) what it was that made Christianity thrive in the late empire. Of course, being a Christian I believe it was a matter of Divine providence that it took place, but that doesn't invalidate attempting to understand the means by which providence accomplished this. Immediately, I thought of Viktor Frankl's logotherapy approach, where he discusses the deep human need for meaning in one's life and most especially in suffering.

In a world of decline - as your previous posts have recently addressed - a good number of people who have found meaning in the religion of progress will find their lives shaken to the core. To that one commentor, a life without Progress was meaningless. He'd rather be dead. So any philosophy that once again comes into vogue needs to assign meaning to suffering, and with a continual decline in material wealth, it can't be a materialistic system either.

In my assessment, that's practically a death sentence (in the long-term) for a number of worldviews currently in vogue. The modern version of Protestantism, with its doctrinal declaration that God will take them all to Heaven in the Rapture rather than let His people suffer (because that's how it worked for Christ, after all, right?) and middle-class ethics is doomed. Communism/Socialism, which both declares progress dogma and sees materialism as the sole lens by which we understand history, is also out. That whole shallow New-Age "The Secret" mentality of universal wish-fulfillment doesn't have a shot. And so on.

At least in the West, I don't see the stoic approaches having much chance of widespread acceptance either. I mean stoic in the broadest sense, which includes things like Buddhism, Daoism, Stoicism and a few others. But I could be wrong there; they have a much better shot than the "prosperity Gospel" approaches at any rate.

But this is where I see the critical failure of nearly every modern ideological approach, and one of the reasons I've harped so long on the concept of returning to our roots (or someone else's, like Islam). I think things like - if you'll pardon me - druidry can provide meaning to a certain type of people, but identification of yourself as a part of some greater whole simply isn't enough for most. And I feel that most environmentalist worldviews, which have for some approached near-religious levels, will struggle to hold an audience when its message is both materialistic and must, in the future, amount to "we effed up pretty badly." It's hard to find meaning in a belief system that must essentially admit defeat, given what the state of the world is/will soon be.

But perhaps there will be some degree of synthesis that mitigates these issues, an adaptation of more overtly religious concepts to the worldviews. Who can say, really?

That's my two cents, anyway.

onething said...

The more I see the patterns, the more I find this whole human drama rather depressing. Those who consider themselves rational are not, those who consider themselves religious are hypocrites.

Life is but a collective dream. Sometimes nice dreams, often bad ones and nightmares.


Oh, I think we are paying the price already. The health is declining quite a bit. Some of it is obesity and lack of exercise, to be sure, and not all of it is about minerals, but even the obesity is tied up with nutrient-poor food. What about all the young on antidepressants? The 23-year-olds with type 2 diabetes? And so on. And by the way, did you know that plants can be quite healthy on roughly half the number of minerals that we need? I'm sure a lot of agriculturists are aware of what the plants need to be healthy. But they don't care that we need a full complement of minerals, which the plants will happily take up and supply us with if they are in the soil...

N Montesano said...

"The Phoenix Legacy" doesn't meet Thomas Daulton's criteria, but "The Stars are Ours!" comes close. A comment from one of the characters: "Listen, son, somebody starts out with an idea -- maybe in the beginning, a good one. Renzi wasn't a crook; he was basically a decent man. I heard his early speeches and I'm willing to agree that much he said was true. But he had no -- well, 'charity' is the best word for it. He wanted to force his pattern for living on everyone else, for their own good, of course. Because he was great and sincere in his own way, he gained a following of honest people. They were sick of war and they were terribly shocked by the Big Burn and they could readily believe that science had led to evil. The Free Scientists were too independent -- they made closed guilds of their teams. There was a separation between thinking and feeling. And feeling is easier to us than thinking. So Renzi appealed to feeling, and against the aloofness of science, he won. He was joined by other fanatics, and by those who want power no matter how it comes into their hands."
That leaves out a lot of details about the state of society, of course, but I've been frustrated more than once by, for example, climate scientists, talking dispassionately in science-speak about percentages and appearing to do a great deal of hedging and rump-covering instead of speaking plainly. Similar irritation with doctors, who tend to err on the other side, telling me nonsense in the apparent belief that I'm an idiot -- a mammogram or X-ray is no different than flying in an airplane! (in terms of radiation exposure) -- and the like, and get angry when questioned.

onething said...

Says someone-
and could point to those churches and religious figures who reject science, "

I'm really not aware of any churches or religious people who reject science. Never heard of such a thing. Maybe what is really meant by the above, is that some of them reject the Darwinian interpretation of data, or perhaps reject the global warming interpretation of data.

I just want to point out that last week's post was about exactly this - that when someone disagrees with some aspect or interpretation of data, they are accused of being anti science or rejecting science.

And this week's post is about blindness. In this case, the assumption is that there is simply no question at all that a certain belief system is true (Darwinian evolution for example,)so that if someone rejects the idea that random and unguided processes could produce the life forms, there is no other explanation than that they are rejectors of science.

I've seen very good and detailed arguments by experts against many mainstream scientific beliefs, such as big bang, electric universe, vaccination, chemotherapy, or Darwinian evolution.

Perhaps every one of them is utterly wrong. But that does not make them anti-science.

team10tim said...

Hey hey JMG,

This is kind of out there in left field but also strangely germane. Concerning the colonization of other planets and the split between science, as a method, and the cargo cult of science, as a social phenomenon... It has always bugged me that what we can do now, with existing technology, always plays second fiddle to what we might be able to do tomorrow, with future technology.

We can't colonize any of the planets in our solar system with existing technology, but we could move a suitable planet to a suitable location with existing technology and let it terraform itself. Specifically, we could move Venus to Mars's orbit with existing technology. The relevant science Gravity assist and Korycansky, D.G. et al. “Astronomical Engineering: A Strategy for Modifying Planetary Orbits” Astrophysics and Space Science 275 (2001): 349–366 would take an enormous amount of work, something like 1%, 5%, 10% of global GDP for thousands or tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of years, and that is why this is interesting.

Because it is totally doable, except that human civilizations don't last that long. And because our civilization won't commit any resources to a doable project that is expensive when it expects that progress will make the project cheap and easy in the future.


PS a habitable planet needs lots of things, Venus lacks water, a magnetic field, and suitable radiation from the Sun. Magnetic fields require a conducting, convecting, spinning core. Venus has a convection and conducting core, we just need to spin it up, read “Astronomical Engineering: A Strategy for Modifying Planetary Orbits” for the details. The water can come from Ceres, the Trojans, the Oort cloud, or any other icy bodies in our solar system, again at great cost in time and effort.

PPS JMG, I disagree with your Solving Fermi's Paradox Specifically: "Given the fantastic energies required, the chance that any intelligent species will have access to enough highly concentrated energy resources to keep an industrial society progressing long enough to evolve starflight technology, and then actually accomplish the feat, is so close to zero that the silence of the heavens makes perfect sense." because I think that even an ecotechinic society could manage the feat, but I doubt that they would have the social stability to attempt such a lengthy endeavour or the willingness to spend such a large percentage of their resources on such a project.

Candace said...

@ At the moment the scientific field of psychology seems to be in position to become the most despised. The work of Edward Bernays in the use of psychology for the refinement of propaganda and the most recent contributions by Mitchell and Jessen (the psychologists who recently refined the CIAs torture techniques) certainly discredit that field.

John Michael Greer said...

Gordon, thank you!

Max, astronomy might make it, as there's a very lively scene of amateur astronomers. As for comparing astrologers to economists, I wouldn't insult astrologers that way -- you'll never hear an astrologer claim that tomorrow the sun will rise in the west and never set again, while economists claim all the time that infinite economic expansion is possible on a finite planet.

N Montesano, I liked the Norton book back in the day, but hated the title -- ours? Even at age ten I thought that was appalling hubris. I haven't read the Wren books, though.

Derv, good -- as I understand it, certainly, providence always works through what the old philosophers liked to call secondary causes. As for Druidry, there's much more to it than just feeling part of a whole; still, I've noted before that I'd be stunned to find that Druidry became the religious framework for the next cycle. It's too idiosyncratic, too independent, and too chary of simple answers for that.

Onething, I think you're letting depression get the better of you. There are plenty of rational people -- they just don't tend to be the ones who trumpet their claim to rationality -- just as there are plenty of sincerely religious people who avoid hypocrisy with all their strength. There again, it's the pompous bozos that give the others a bad name.

As for rejecting science, good. Myself, I've encountered some people who actually do reject science, the whole kit and caboodle, but they're decidedly in the minority.

Tim, 5% of current global GDP isn't something that could be sustained for a century, much less for the amount of time you're discussing. It's not even a matter of social stability -- though that's a major issue -- it's the sheer inability of any species to maintain extravagant levels of energy consumption long enough. As for my solution of Fermi's paradox, as far as I know my proposal is the only one that doesn't require the introduction of ad hoc hypotheses, and thus -- by Occam's razor -- it should be considered the default option until someone comes up with evidence that supports another hypothesis instead.

Candace, no argument there. Psychology certainly seems to be working day and night to earn that unwelcome title.

beetleswamp said...

At the farm class tonight we were listening to an extension agent talk about growers who, instead of doing cheap soil tests through the university lab and adjusting inputs, simply dump triple 16 on their land until it develops a nice salty crust and basically becomes useless. He has to tread lightly when convincing them of the folly of their ways, because a lot of them don't trust college boy types. It seems those of us who take this challenge seriously will become extension agents of institutions that no longer exist, and have the added challenge of trying to serve a population that feels a very profound sense of betrayal.

KF said...

Wow, great post!
I see the beginnings of this turn of the tide already underway. My partner works in oceanographic research, and there's been a significant loss of funding already for observational oceanographic work and data gathering - made worse by oceanographic data projects being overrun by Raytheon and other government contractors sucking money from the system to maintain themselves.

Also - your framing of the systems that exclude those of other social and economic classes provides an interesting way of looking at the "meritocracy" that is Silicon Valley and the other bastions of Tech these days. Interview practices have become so biased and rigged to prevent anybody without the pedigreed education from gaining a job or other foothold in the industry, and the CEO of Microsoft exhorts women to not bother even asking for raises (or negotiating for market-rate pay along with the men).

Hmm. Good food for thought! Thanks!

Bike Trog said...

At a 5am winter bus stop the topic of conversation is probably a local sports team losing again and the idiot that can't throw/catch/run/kick/etc.. Science hate hot and wide enough to start mob violence must be a long way down the road, after the end of sports hate.

Indrajala said...

A lot of my recent research into the history of astrology (particularly in Buddhist contexts) has led me to read a lot on the history of astronomy. As I'm sure you know, observational astronomy in Babylon was initially motivated by a belief that there were messages in the stars from the gods, hence the need for consistent and accurate observations. Later in the Hellenistic world a lot of people, rich and poor, wanted accurate horoscopes, hence the need for accurate predictive astronomy. That sort of religious motivation for a science to develop is interesting.

As you've predicted in the past, the trend towards a 'return' to earth religions could motivate a widespread enough desire to preserve sciences like ecology and perhaps biology. Astronomy might not be so fortunate. It seems to be on the cutting block, now that the space age is coming to an end.

Perhaps in the distant future Druids will teach ecology as a sacred method of identifying and healing the wounds of the earth!

Seb Ze Frog said...

Good Morning.

Of course lots of what is theoretical calculations might get lost, a huge chunk turned into rules that aren't understood anymore, and the cosmological framework, or image, can see some interesting shifts. But I think that astronomy will get through.

First because of amateur astronomers, but those will likely become scarcer once the concept of "spare time" gets challenged a bit.

Second, and even more because of astrology. A friend of mine recently pointed me at an astrology book of the beginning of the 20th century, and I have to admit that regardless of any other considerations, the level of astronomical knowledge that is contained in this volume (even if in terms that would get it thrown on the wall/trash/nearest student in many astronomy classes) highly impressed me.

Right now, those things are easily calculated by computers, but I wouldn't swear that the fact that I could actually calculate them by hand if need be (think hard long tedious work) will not come in handy in my lifespan.

As for 3D printers... To my knowledge they beat a drill handled by an expert only when it comes to drilling a complex curv hole in plain volume. Which is an use case that isn't encountered that often, even in my line of work.

On the other hand, please don't be to hard on 3D printers: I owe to them one of the best laughs of the last three months. It was when I was told about 3D printers that were used to print houses. In very serious tones. I had to explain my hilarity to the audience, and it went something like this: "We have had them for a long time in France. At the beginning of the century, they were called Italian bricklayers."

Now I go back to watch over the training program of my neural-network controlled 3D printer (my kid is playing with modeling clay)


Nick Nelson said...

For a while now I've been pondering the different aspects of the increasingly single minded focus on STEM education. In terms of economics, it seems obvious that the harder we push students into those fields, the quicker we will see diminishing returns in those areas and take some of the shine off the promise of STEM. Socially, many people peg their hopes for a better world on STEM professionals, and when those hopes go unrealized those professionals will take the blame. But also there's the focus on STEM as a path to prosperity for people from disadvantaged communities. Those aspirations seem doomed for the reasons stated above, and I've always thought it was kind of rude to suggest that the only way for people at the bottom of the totem poll to improve their situation is to climb that poll. The obvious alternative is to find a different poll, or make your own, one that isn't specifically carved to favor a certain way of climbing.

Odin's Raven said...

Observational science surely depends on honesty. There's an increasing number of complaints about dishonesty in science. Here's an eloquent lament for the death of Real Science:

'Briefly, the argument of this book is that real science is dead, and the main reason is that professional researchers are not even trying to seek the truth and speak the truth; and the reason for this is that professional ‘scientists’ no longer believe in the truth - no longer believe that there is an eternal unchanging reality beyond human wishes and organization which they have a duty to seek and proclaim to the best of their (naturally limited) abilities. Hence the vast structures of personnel and resources that constitute modern ‘science’ are not real science but instead merely a professional research bureaucracy, thus fake or pseudo-science; regulated by peer review (that is, committee opinion) rather than the search-for and service-to reality.'

Forget Leibowitz; 'A Canticle for Charlton' might be more helpful in combating the moral, intellectual and financial corruption that is destroying what should be carried forward.

ed boyle said...

Is this our time of troubles to be followed by a global unitary state described by Toynbee, or is PO , economic debt collapse about to bring that on? The 1% corresponds nicely to his "ruling minority" without legitimacy. Obviously in such a culture of mass global financial, goods movememts with mass migrations common identity will be lost, resulting in social disintegration, atomization. So syncretism of religions, philosophies, values by commoners results. Perhaps social gospel cum new age spirituality mixed with underclass handyman survival skills and alt energy, alt science will be synthesized as early christians synthesized greo-roman philosophies with mithras cult and roman bureaucratic parallel church structure as Isis cult, mithras, neoplatonism, etc could not acheive. The ruling elite will quickly adapt to this as late Roman emperors played gladiator, etc. eliminating difference between classes. External proletariat were trained by us just as barbarians warrors by Rome, i.e. Al quaeda,ISIL. When industrial paradigm is over such groups will dominate muslim world, corrupt decadent west left with decay, aging ignorant, apathetic population ready to accept any new dictator as long as peace and food is promised.

Archaism vs. futurism as both escapist trends to be rejected. What are we left with when futurism is official doctrine, i.e. technology cult. Toynbee calls futurism more revolution tendency, spartacus, jewish rebellions, etc. I see Occupy movement here as a start by middle class, perhaps recent black protests. Archaism is making veggie garden, going without electricity. If civil conflict, wars inevitable with massive changes in lfestyles, belief systems, social and ethnic milieus, all constantly changing in a chaotic manner that one will do, believe, say, what isnecessary to who and with whoever one must. Of course this happens over decades not mad max. Our own lives exemplify this. My belief systems , family situation different from parents, theirs from their parents. My kids will adapt in20-30 years to a lower level of tech,energy,money, strange belief and government, economic systems and start learning to pray or sacrfice to the "god of the day" as need be.

Ben Iscatus said...

JMG, I don’t agree with your view that ordinary people reject science- yet. At any rate, they don’t reject technology. Even the poor have TVs, smartphones and other gadgets. When the going gets tough, expenditure on electronic entertainment actually increases.

But I suppose if electronic gadgetry suddenly become useless in a postindustrial world, science might look like it has betrayed people –it promised the future, but suddenly can’t deliver it, or can only deliver apocalypse and piles of toxic chemicals.

Apparently, half of all people in the UK are on prescription drugs.

Would you interpret that as faith in scientific medicine, or as the desperation of the alienated?

Jon from Virginia said...

Barbara Kingsolver wrote a wonderful short essay on GMOs
A Fist in the Eye of God which contains the best short explation of evolution ever--
"Charles Darwin himself was a religious man, blessed with an extraordinary
patience for observing nature's details, as well as the longevity and
brilliance to put it all together. In his years of studying animate life he
noticed four things, which any of us could notice today if we looked hard
enough. They are:

* Every organism produces more seeds or offspring than will actually
survive to adulthood.

* There is variation among these seeds or offspring.

* Traits are passed down from one generation to the next.

* In each generation the survivors succeed - that is, they survive -
because they possess some advantage over the ones that don't succeed, and
because they survive, they will pass that advantage on to the next
generation. Over time, therefore, the incidence of that trait will increase
in the population.

Bingo: the greatest, simplest, most elegant logical construct ever to dawn
across our curiosity about the workings of natural life. It is inarguable,
and it explains everything"

On this rock, what can be built?

Phil Harris said...

A very good score board this week, JMG, on the part of one and all. And good for Bill Nye!

Your choice of GM to illustrate technology needing questions is OK by me. As a lowish level 'scientist' official in British government I was a cog in the creation of GM regulation Brit / EU style for 10 years prior to 97. I saw also a lot of US biotech and its regulation during that time. And I wrote a chapter on regulation in an obscure biotech book as I came up to retirement. FWIW; all your points figure OK.

I might add that 'scientists' are often estimable but even the least venal and most conscientious are naive. They find it intellectually hard or impossible to do commonsense risk assessment in the face of normal uncertainties. The lower order American scrum employed by American biotech industry, and one or two Brits ditto, was something else entirely. (BTW I met a few old 50s style American officials / career grade science / technology guys who were much more appealing. They were trying to "keep the faith", while facing the excrescencies that challenged their view of a world policed by knowledge. August Johnson's (Green Wizard) dad's paper on the analog computer for star work, reminded me of their style.)

Back in the day, British Ministry of Agriculture & Food had a rationale based on doubling output from farms in WWII in the face of U-boat induced starvation, and from managing a fair if cobbled together food rationing programme. Not all the science was right, of course, but it had impressed the population. By 1980 when Thatcher started to dismantle said Ministry and any ethos of ‘public science’, I made a joke in the pub that: “If it made money, then government can hand it over to ‘Business’. And, if it did not make money then it was not worth doing anyway.” There were some jokes I wished later I had not found so amusing.

Phil H

donalfagan said...

I remember reading a blurb about Hypatia in a textbook, but it didn't point out that it was Christians that attacked her.
One of the ScienceBlogs is called Denialism, and Mark posted a youtube of a GMO debate. The vid is over an hour. I haven't watched it yet. Mark made a snarky comment about Bill Nye asking the first question. There is some interesting back and forth in the first 13 comments:

RPC said...

This brings to mind also Elon Musk's comments about artificial intelligence, which can be summed up as "it looks like we can do this, but we really should think hard about it first." Most of the commentary I've seen amounts to "but he's a technologist, so why isn't he gung-ho about all technology?" The idea that one should carefully choose the technologies one chooses to deploy seems to have escaped everyone but the Amish.

RPC said...

Excellent post! My epigram from a few weeks back, "Bonfires of the iVanities," plays into this. I think there's an opening for a contemporary Savonarola to declare that technology is not Good (as in we should ascribe our salvation to it), but Evil, and that it needs to be destroyed.

N Montesano said...

Yes, the Norton title was ridiculous.
It's been some years since I last read the Wren books, but they are feeling fairly relevant. The feudal society is on the verge of collapsing into a new dark age, unless it can find a way to transition out of feudalism. So a secret society is formed to try to do so, and naturally, membership is punishable by death. In between the standard exciting bits of space opera, people spend a lot of time musing on the development of their civilization, the reasons why a previous attempt at reform failed horribly, and so forth. It's interesting.

zaphod42 said...

Thanks for your view, JMG. I agree as to the Science Guy; did one quick search just to make sure I was not out to lunch and found No doubt the author of the Discover item was a Monsanto scientist.

As to Neil deGrasse Tyson, skepticism in general, and as to skepticism about homeopathy in particular, you and I do not agree. For any claim of curative (or palliative) efficacy, my standard is similar to my position on GMOs. There should be careful, double blind studies done to determine what really works, what side effects occur, and whether or not stated claims are verifiable, and on publication I will take note of the results.

Homeopathy, acupuncture, chiropractic and the like are suspect, just as big foot, the Loch Ness Monster, ghosts, communications with spirits, esp and psi are suspect. All of these make grand claims and have no evidence in support for such. Folk remedies need to be subject to the same tests; if those tests show statistical positives, I will view them far differently than tests that are negative. Just saying that old Druids used magik herbs says more about the Druids than about the herbs. If tests show the herbs are remedial as to some affliction, then it says much about each.

Having said that, I agree that we may see science used as a scape goat, much as neo-Platonic schools were used by the Empire. Though I am not fond of that school of philosophical thought in general (I tend to favor Hume's brand of philosophy), it does serve as a good lesson. Perhaps we should be looking for some good Irish monks to preserve much of what is extant by way of scientific knowledge today?


Dave Zoom said...

The split in science is perhaps already starting ,on one hand you have Bill Gates extolling the virtues of robotics and artificial intelligence ( an oxymoron if there ever was one ) and Professor Stephen Hawkins who states that that branch of science will doom the human race .

Kutamun said...

Yes i suppose there is the court case currently in train between Monsanto and the state of vermont , here in Oz we have had a w.a farmer lose his case against a large agribusiness GMO , i guess there is no pun intended when i say " they will reap what they sow " .
I imagine scientists would be front and centre at these high profile proceedings giving evidence .
These firms are even fighting tooth and nail to avoid having to label food products if they are GMO ..
For me "The Day of The Triffids " is a powerful and prescient image for all thus GMO tomfoolery. Perhaps the Triffids are a metaphor for the types of consequences we can expect to follow in the train of such hubris . I think it is important to remember that we are a part of the ecosystem that may be thrown out of balance by such interference , and if we are what we eat , perhaps there will be strange mutations in human beings themselves over time as a result of estimg this crap ! Food for thought ..
So the powers that be may see an opportunity in backing the new belief system that casts out the old gods of science ... There have been many rumours that large corporate entities are in fact behind the creation of many green groups such as " friends of the earth " , perhaps for reasons alluded to in this post . Sometimes i see odd people popping up in green political ranks , like people with a background in merchant banking who are ex army officers and i think hmmmm,. Something not quite right .
Steampunk Movement perhaps ? Seems to be becoming quite popular with the green urban elites , you know "Mumford and Sons " , full beards , rooftop gardens , kitch technologica , fiddles etc . But who will be the Messiah of the steampunk movement. ? Like paganism and christianity , steampunk will retain elements of science in its ethos , though perhaps more like a parody ..?
Strange Days

Ed-M said...


It's not just that "faith in progress was pressed into service as a substitute for religious belief during the nineteenth century"; but also here in America, the Christians over the decades bought in wholeheartedly into the ROP, so much so that we now have two psychotic belief systems competing with traditional Christianity: far-right fundamentalist Christianity, which rejects evolution and embraces the Republican Party as the instrument of God's vengeance (go figure!), and a civil religion embraced by the same Christians which I call the Progress Christian Heresy, exemplucked by that bizarro-world illustration you posted in March 2013 showing Jesus holding up the US constitution as sacred writ, surrounded by our worshipful founding fathers plus Lincoln, themselves surrounded by modern-day pseudoconservative Americans and two Govt institutions in the style of a Richard Kincaide painting.

Crazy, innit?

Thomas Prentice said...

I am grateful for the Classical and Philosophy education I am getting from you JMG that was somehow not on the reading lists or in the anthologies in catechism, HS and college lol...

Having said that, I am not certain that post structural or post modernist theorists -- or Critical Theorits of the Frankfurt School for that natter (except perhaps for the radical pomos) have asserted that "science and technology are purely social phenomena".

If so, and I missed it, I would suggest that perhaps such a position was asserted as a means of "squaring" the Hegelian "circle" by offering an anti-thesis to the thesis offered by industrial scientific rationalism to put the matter of social construction of knowledge up for discussion.

Derrida's concept of "differance" is material here; I assert that science such as it is, is always tentative, awaiting the next discovery to validate or repudiate some finding or scientific "truth" (dogma?). Moreover, that science is always subject to bias -- most of it of the white, male, patrician elite sort -- and that ferreting out bias is as important as replicating experiments and making new discoveries.

The Higgs boson is a case in point. Last year, Higgs was reported to have been "discovered". This year it seems Higgs was, ahem, "created".

Which brings up the Carl Sagan test: "extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof." I would assert that the Sagan test applies to both of the (biased?) terms "discovered" as well as "created". For instance, did Columbus "discover" America or did Columbius "create" America? I could actually argue that one either way lol

The Sagan test also applies, it seems to me, to the whole notion of God and gods as does Occam's Razor. The simplest and least extraordinary explanation is that man created god/s in s/his own image, NOT vice versa, which would require quite a lot of "complexity" and too many specious assumptions.

So is it possible that some major portion if not nearly all of the current One Per Cent patrician class -- as well as its courtesans, courtiers, Eichmanns and slobbering wannabes -- has created scientific and technological rationalism and -- PROGRESS -- as the current, reigning, omnipotent G/god/s?

Sensei, I look forward to your fortchoming book.

Thomas Prentice said...

RE: "Pinku-Sensei: "RT [Russia Today} is as much a propaganda organ as it is a news organization, and it likes to urge on dissidents in the U.S. With friends like them, the protesters don't really need enemies..."

Russia Today is less a propaganda vehicle than the new york times, cnn, npr, pbs, nbc, the works. As an authentic journalist I find Russia Today to have more implicit surface credibility THAN the new york times...

RT is, in my judgement, "too conservative" in its journalism -- far more reluctant than the new york times as an example, in making assertions and connecting obvious dots. Of course, the new york times connects dots where there are no dots to begin with...

Having said that, you will NEVER see RT going after Putin or the corrupt Russian oligarch/eastern orthodox/patrician/bureaucratic/military industrial complex EVER. But, then, that is not their mission.

Going aftyer Putin is probably best left to the new york times, cnn, time magazine, pbs, you know the works -- the entire US empire ministries of propaganda which goose step and sieg heil automatically without even being told. Most obedient servants rthey are....

Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...

Thanks, Derv, for citing Frankl. Even in Auschwitz, meaning can be found (as Frankl personally attests, in part on the strength of his personal experience as a prisoner in that place). Frankl and Solzhenitsyn serve for our own troubled post-1914 era something of the function of Isaiah and Jeremiah in ancient Israel.


Toomas (Tom) Karmo

Toomas dot Karmo at gmail dot com

www dot metascientia dot com

PS: I should also quickly comment on Raymond Duckling from last week, who wrote me a reply with reference to Linux on the i386 CPU: About Linux kernels. I think it can be done, but would advice to give yourself a finite date and run the experiment yourself to get an idea of the effort involved.

I did kinda-sorta run the experiment, in 1995, using that pile of approx 20 floppies which was then the Slackware Linux distribution. But I write "kinda-sorta" because my CPU was not the i386 but the i486, in its cheapest incarnation - the "Intel 486 SX", as opposed to the more expensive "Intel 486 DX". I think I had 4 MB of RAM.

The install was indeed rather tedious, in keeping with Raymond Duckling's suggestion of trouble. I kept getting hung up with kernel panics, I think because for a while I was not correctly specifying the geometry of the hard drive.

When things finally worked, the result was a machine without GUI, but with Internet (via dial-up modem). One typed stuff at the command-line prompt, treating the screen as a no-graphics "glass teletype". I am quite sure that by doing the usual Linux CTRL-plus-F1, CTRL-plus-F2, ... trick, one had access to a simulated row of six or so teletypes.

This, then, was a Unix system at the level of the early-1980s "departmental mini". The results with an i386 would have been similar, albeit with a degradation in processing speed.

PPS: Also, I should correct some remarks I made last week on 1949-vintage Cambridge University Edsac 1: the number of words of storage depended on how the machine was configured (in a typical run, double the number I actually gave); and it is rather likely NOT the case, contrary to what I wrote, that the EDSAC 1 "mercury delay lines" were in the strict sense a RAM (since each "delay line" held a sequence of words, rather than a single word: I now conjecture, without having studied this, that you could not quite address a single word by memory address). EDSAC memory was in machine-architecture terms perhaps a little like today's technique of simulating RAM with "swap" on a (necessarily sequential-access) hard drive).

Twilight said...

Likely engineers who read The Archdruid Report are not very close to the stereotype, but as one (and I know there are several of us) I can tell you that I see the negative reaction already. While to me engineering is a skill and profession rather than an identity, there are times when I do present myself as an engineer. To many groups these days that is clearly a negative, and it has been obvious enough that I have at times done it just to gauge the reaction.

There was once a time that in general social situations I would often hide my engineering affliction just to avoid the absurd tape-on-glasses stereotypes, but now it is quantitatively different. This is more clear in on-line encounters where people feel more comfortable expressing their opinions due to anonymity, but even in real world situations I can feel it. At this point it isn't too hard to get past if given a chance to get to know each other, but I fully expect this reaction to deepen and spread, eventually getting to the point where one will not be given that opportunity.

It is an interesting reaction in a society where progress manifested by technological gadgets has been elevated to a religion, and where most accept the narrative of how our society has been sold out by outsourcing the manufacturing and engineering jobs overseas. And yet this is being overwhelmed by the rising resentment created from the obvious failure of progress/science/technology to improve the lives of most.

However, I man not worried much, as the applied realms of engineering have never been seen as worthy by the scientists and academics (hence the outsourcing), and so the types of things I do will be part of what is jettisoned as you describe. The skills and approaches used in designing and developing useful things can return to the realm of craftsmen, and will be too useful to be intentionally discarded. Such arts seem well suited to protection in a guild system.

Varun Bhaskar said...


Been watching Elon Musk over the last few days. He recently recommended Dune and Foundation series to his followers. What I find particularly odd is that many who belong to the cult of progress get the idea of civilization cycles. They just haven't quite figured out which part of the cycle we're on. Elon thinks we're on the upswing of a grand cycle. I honestly feel sorry for the guy.

Saving the methods and ideas of science is gonna be as tough as saving the ideas of liberal democracy. Like you said, it's gonna take a good dose of skill and luck.


Take it easy man, we're just following our biological imperative. There are ways off this wheel if the ancient sages are to be believed that don't require rocket ships.



Renaissance Man said...

"... eminently rational sort of thinking, though, is not welcomed in corporate boardrooms just now."
Was it ever?

DesignScience said...

I for one am really looking forward to your forthcoming book on progress as a religion. In my experience the religious dimension of societies and psychologies runs deeper than we are comfortable admitting. I too have had thoughts that its collapse will have implications darker than what has yet been discussed in your previous blog posts. I appreciate your taking these things with care and look forward to learning from what your studies and insight have to share.

It is astonishing to me how simple 1.0 correlation can be used as a mental BS detector (to use Hemmingway’s wonderful phrase). In the real world where there are limits to knowledge, sensory accuracy, and all the rest. Anytime inferential logic finds “always” or “never”, 0 or 1 in the probability density involved, the careful thinker should take note. There be dragons here. Those who made a cult out of science and insist reductive materialism is the only level of analysis that produces results valuable to the human animal are shrill yet sounding ever more hollow as their god progress continues to fail to deliver.

The very nature of reasoning it seems to me has been caught up in this pseudoscience science. The logical proofs that you mentioned became the foundation of mathematics are in danger of getting lost in the tempest of technological gadgetry since few in our population claim this corner of their intellectual inheritance. Delineating the capabilities of reasoning clearly is a needed first step in the process of assessing its proper role in systems of thought like ecology or Neoplatonism for that matter. I fear most those currents of intellectual history that warn us it is possible to have societies that in the process of dethroning reason enthrone much darker denizens; blood and soil come to mind. I share your hope that the observational sciences so unwelcome at the table of this pseudoscience science of techno-porn are able to lift their lights of knowledge when the knives, er, shells come out.

Eric S. said...

Of course, one of the fates of neoplatonist philosophy is buried subtly in Hypatia’s story itself in the life of one of her students: Synesius, the Bishop of Cyrene who died of chronic illness and depression from the loss of his sons just before Hypatia’s death (a depression worsened by his lack of contact with his beloved mentor, who, history suggests stopped writing him to protect him from the dangerous political climate of Alexandria at the time). Synesius, as well as for his epistles and clerical writings is remembered for his practice of astrology, hydromancy, dream interpretation, and physical experimentation. His training in neoplatonist philosophy under Hypatia led him to become remembered not for his role as a bishop or philosopher, but for his role as one of the founding fathers of medieval alchemy. All through the middle ages, the science and philosophy of the pagan world continued to be practiced by people willing to put their lives on the line to pursue their studies. Sometimes they managed to become influential politicians or doctors of the church, but just as many of them were executed for heresy. That continued all the way up until the last dredges of the Byzantine Empire got overtaken by the Ottomans in the 15th century after which most of Pletho’s circle moved to Italy where the neoplatonists and hermeticists gave rise to the golden age of renaissance magic. That’s a theme you’ve hinted at many times before, and it suggests that clothing the best of modern science in Druid Robes and starspangled hats may well be the best hope for it. And so, science may leave the industrial age wearing the same vestments it entered it in. People like Isaac Newton shaping both the past and the future of the discipline.

Clay Dennis said...

Though I don't know him personaly I had exactly the same college education as Bill Nye, but a few years later. I think that he benefits from a better view of ecology than many of his science critics but he also benefits from an unusual introductory engineering course taught by the late great professor Bart Conta in the 1970's. Professor Conta had us read Schumacher, Bookchin , Mumford and other critcs of the mindless application of technology. He then moved on to the thermodynamics of endless energy growth. Needless to say such a course would probably not pass muster in todays corporate directed academia, but a rare gem it was and certainly contributed to my world view as I assume it did to Bill Nye.

escapefromwisconsin said...

To answer my own comment - i wonder if research universities will become the future monasteries preserving science the way monasteries preserved learning and literacy in the chaos of the European Late Antiquity?

I just had to add this article I read today which captures the point of this blog post perfectly.

It seems that there is this woman named Vani Hari, aka the "Food Babe" who has created a nice living for herself exposing all of the questionable practices and novel additives that the food industry (ponder that term) is putting in our food without our knowledge or consent. The reason she can do this is the complete and utter lack of trust that ordinary people have in the food industry, which you can understand when you ponder all the artificial ingredients commonly added to food today to make us eat more, or to make it taste better or last longer on the shelf.

Scientists are denouncing her work as "fear-mongering." But what's great about the article is exactly what this blog post points out - a growing divide between the common people subjected to having their food manipulated with chemicals they can't pronounce or understand by big business that they cannot control, and an arrogant scientific field in the pocket of big industry claiming that all of these chemicals are "perfectly safe" and denouncing anyone who disagrees, such as the Food Babe as "ignorant" and "fear mongering." Meanwhile, whatever the accuracy of her claims, she is taking her arguments straight to the average person, and people are all to happy to believe her over the scientists whom they no longer trust:

Hari's approach capitalizes on growing consumer distrust of both Big Food companies and their unfamiliar, industrial-sounding ingredients, and of regulators' ability to oversee them effectively. Some of these chemicals and additives may indeed be questionable, but food scientists would argue that nearly all are safe. So why do food companies respond to her demands, if they have nothing to hide?

Because, Gorski writes, "companies live and die by public perception. It's far easier to give a blackmailer like Hari what she wants than to try to resist or to counter her propaganda by educating the public."

Critics note that Hari lacks credentials in nutrition or food science; she's a former consultant who studied computer science. Hari declined to be interviewed for this story; through her publicist, she told NPR she isn't speaking to media until her new book is released in February. But when the Charlotte Observer asked her about such criticisms, Hari answered, "I've never claimed to be a nutritionist. I'm an investigator."

But that lack of training often leads her to misinterpret peer-reviewed research and technical details about food chemistry, nutrition and health, says Kevin Folta, a professor of horticultural sciences at the University of Florida and vocal online critic of Hari. "She really conflates the science," he tells The Salt.

"If anything, she's created more confusion about food, more confusion about the role of chemicals and additives," Folta says.

"What she does is exploit the scientific ignorance and fear of her followers," says Kavin Senapathy, an anti-pseudoscience blogger who frequently challenges the assertions in Hari's posts. "And most of us are in agreement that we simply can't accept that."

Senapathy and other online critics, using parody names like Science Babe, Chow Babe and Food Hunk, have taken to Twitter and Facebook in an organized effort to engage with Hari's followers and counter her scientific claims.

peak.singularity said...

I think that for comedy to succeed, it has to get to the core feelings.
That's why yesterday's "Les Guignols de l'Info" (France) edition is especially interesting considering what you wrote : "the poor know that the destiny thus marketed isn’t for them" :

A transcription here, though you don't really need to be able to understand French to get the gist of it :

First at 2:38 :
[Title] "A better life" :
[Speaker:] "Macron's law [legalizing work on Sundays] arrives in time for the everyday fight of government against unemployment" [almost certainly ironic, notice the mismatch between "in time" and "everyday"]
*Advertising for Microsoft's Surface Pro 3 expensive tablet computer*
Then *fade to black* with "You'll just have to find a job to be able to afford it"
"Ministry of Work"
[with logo and the following motto]
"Let's dream together"

Then at 4:22
[Title ]"Pub +":
*Advertising for [I surmise] the latest Mercedes car [which is incidentally described to be an hybrid - accidental tie-in with greenwashing?]*
Then *fade to black* with "You'll just have to find a job to be able to afford it"
"Ministry of Work"
[with logo and the following motto]
"Let's dream together"

MindfulEcologist said...

“Between the poor and any appreciation for modern science stands a wall…”

I commented earlier under my DesignScience handle but wanted to add something more. I think it is a very worthy pastime to work on defeating that wall anyway that we can. The poor rightly suspect the corporate science game is rigged for all the reasons you enumerated and more. (That is an insight worthy of exploration by a student of ideas; I wondered immediately what Mumford would have made of it!) I understand your point to be that some science will escape being painted with the same black brush the sciences hijacked by politics and marketing are destined for. This is all the more reason to try and share the observational sciences with as many as possible. With their hands-on, real-world characteristics and the practical benefits properly presented appropriate tech is not a hard sell.

It is by clearly demonstrating the value of experiment, observation, evaluation of data and careful use of reasoning to weigh the evidence that we can honorably defend and spread the word about limits to growth. The poor, as you have pointed out, have already collapsed. It seems to me wise to consider placing into their rough-hewn hands the precious treasure of our ecological understanding if we want to see it carried into the far future. Share your enthusiasm for gardening with a compost heap and spare a few minutes to share a view through your hand lens or microscope. The kids and adults respond well, much as they do for the sidewalk astronomers that occasionally pop-up in our national parks and cities. Instead of exploring the stars we are exploring the earth, we have the advantage of the home team…

zentao said...

Hi John Michael,
As an engineer who has worked in biotech for 8 years I can say that the rate of development in the field of synthetic biology is astonishing. It was mentioned in a previous set of comments that this area of technology is both relatively low-tech in addition to having enormous possibilities for various outcomes.

For example, iGEM (internation Genetically Engineered Machine) just held its high school competition where students may use synthetic biology building “blocks” from the registry of standard biological parts and then typically modify E. coli to perform various new functions. There is a fairly extensive and diverse group of “garage biohackers” who have adapted equipment such as smart phones to take the place of much more expensive equipment; although with the internet one may obtain high-quality and inexpensive used equipment quite readily.

Gen9 has advanced production of bio components to an unprecedented level of output. In other words, the tools are readily available to many people and now it is just a matter of waiting to see what is made…Not a comfortable position and, in my opinion, something far more worthy of focus compared to the table top toy 3D printers…

If you want a good book then try “The Wind Up Girl” by Bacigalupi – many elements are quite plausible, in my opinion.

Here in Canada David Suzuki ended up a pariah for voicing his concerns on GMOs. Personally I think his concerns are extremely worthy of attention. AquaBounty, for example, is trying to get approval for the modified salmon which grow twice as fast as natural fish. Considering the impact introducing natural salmon to the great lakes had on the original fish population (read: population crash) it doesn’t take much to imagine what will happen when the GMO salmon get loose in the oceans.

I think that many such tech attempts will be used on the downslope whether it is engineered E coli making something we can no longer achieve with other more energy-intensive means or very engineered food (plants, animals, algea and fungi) that end up ravaging the biosphere.

Then there are the advances being made on hacking our own genetics. I saw Ron Evans talk a number of years ago regarding his “marathon mice” – mice that were modified with a drug where the end result was twice the physical output for no training. Evans stated his drug was in final clinical trials and that “the military was camping out in my lab” waiting for it. Since nothing ever came to market for mass sales I assume his drug is now being used to give soldiers twice the physical output for no training…A first step for super solider along the lines of “Nexus”…
Again, the technology is moving rapidly in this area and, I am sure, will be used on the downslope. And the relatively low-tech nature of the gear required to move this tech along I think that there is very high likelihood of dealing with the consequences for quite a long time.

So I worry very little about the survival of some tech, such as my 1984 hp calculator (electrolytic caps are not much concern for battery powered gear) but more about the stuff that is just being worked on. Time grows short for considering the impact of the synthetic biology revolution.

I think your stories along the past few weeks have been very good but I also would say that some tech just being developed and released is even worse than living next door to a nuclear reactor during the downward descent…

Eric S. said...

Throughout this whole discussion on science and the intellectual decay of our society, I keep thinking back to Giambattista Vico. This quote in particular:

"But as the popular states became corrupt, so also did the philosophies. They descended to skepticism. Learned fools fell to calumniating the truth. Thence arose a false eloquence, ready to uphold either of the opposed sides of a case indifferently. Thus it came about that, by abuse of eloquence like that of the tribunes of the plebs at Rome, when the citizens were no longer content with making wealth the basis of rank, they strove to make it an instrument of power."

That passage captures so much of what we've been discussing here. And it's not just in the natural sciences that it's happening. Someone showed me this heartbreaking article a while back about the decline in the humanities. Even without help from resource depletion, climate change, and the loss of biodiversity that out civilization's bringing down on us it feels like our civilization could suffocate under the grip the barbarism of reflection has on our collective throats all on its own.

Rita said...

@Andy Brown--I was an anthropology major as an undergraduate (UC Davis 1970)I had considered graduate work and making a profession of it. But I became disillusioned by the fact that when native peoples needed professional testimony to protect their right most mainstream anthropologists were nowhere to be found. This was at the time that American Indians were occupying Alcatraz and leading other movements to reclaim treaty rights, protect sacred lands, etc. Yet even so simple a thing as to testify that gathering herbs from a particular mountain was essential to a tribe's religious practice seemed too much to ask. One new professor on campus actually taught in Applied Behavioral Science, which was part of the School of Agriculture rather than the School of Arts and Science to achieve distance from the Anthro Dept. culture.

John Michael Greer said...

Beetleswamp, another good reason to distance ourselves from the public image of the "college boy," whether that takes the form of the scientist clueless about local realities, or the man from the government who's there to help you.

KF, those are two good examples. Many thanks!

Trog, not all conversations take place at bus stops, you know.

Indrajala, good. We're already on it.

Seb, astrology has paid astronomy's rent far more often than not in the past, and I won't be at all surprised if it does so again. The calculations needed to erect a horoscope, btw, are actually surprisingly easy so long as you take advantage of the tables of logarithms and other math aids to be found in any old-fashioned book of astrological tables. A slide rule helps, too!

Nick, it's a standard strategy for members of a privileged class to insist that the only way for the poor to better themselves is to do the same thing the privileged class is doing, and then erect as many barriers as possible in the way of their doing that. Sooner or later, the poor figure that out.

Raven, no argument there; in my two stints at university, in different departments at different institutions, I encountered flagrant scientific fraud; in both cases it was treated as a matter of course, and the normal way of doing academic business. That's another reason why the scientific method has to be pried out of the hands of the academy and put someplace where it's less vulnerable to corruption.

Ed, good. You're paying attention.

Ben, notice how you're confusing science and technology. Here's a question for reflection: how many devout Biblical creationists use cell phones?

Jon, the problem is that it's not a rock. It's just a model, an elegant assemblage of human verbal symbols that more or less seems to imitate and predict the world as we perceive it. (Please note that I say this as a serious fan of Darwin, and a believer in evolution as the best model we've got for understanding biological processes.) Treat it as a model, understand the difference between map and territory, and much can be done with it; insist that it's a rock and try to use it as the foundation for a church, and problems mount up.

Phil, the issue of risk assessment is a huge one. I should probably do a post one of these days explaining why game theory proves that the standard approach to risk assessment used by proponents of progress is utterly misguided.

Donal, thanks for the link. As for Hypatia, well, yes; a lot of Christians finesse that point. According to contemporary sources, many members of the mob that murdered her were Christian monks and minor clergy; the monks in particular were the shock troops of the Church in those days.

LegaliseFreedom1 said...

Reminds me of a line from John Boorman's Excalibur as the peasants railed against the knights - "They made themselves god, and now god has abandoned us."

NosVemos said...


It's interesting that most of the scientific/technological gains that have managed to--I suppose you could say-- "bio-accumulate" in the lower economic strata have been used largely for oversight and control.

One could even argue that "debt" in its current iteration wouldn't be possible without the computational capabilities made available by our overbuilt "adding machines," and that this is another cornerstone of "progress" which has been used against those who will come to sharpen the figurative clam shells.


This is only tangentially-related to the general topic of hand (science: monolithic entity/institution vs. process/practice/praxis), but I am reminded of scene from the recent KSR novel Shaman (which, to be honest, stands in stark contrast to his other fare) in which the early proto-scientist uses observation to determine edible foods by feeding candidates to a cat and recording its reaction (death/sickness=bad; no reaction=study more, maybe good).

That simple description still remains the best argument for the preservation of the methodology which adds and subtracts from the body of knowledge we so absurdly call "science".

Anyway, excellent post as always.


LewisLucanBooks said...

I've often wondered about the reaction of other people of Hypatia's ilk as the news of her murder traveled around the Mediterranean. Did they go to ground? Move and assume new low profile identities?

There is speculation that around the time of Hypatia's death, whatever was left of the Library of Alexandria was destroyed. There's a little known film about the end of Hypatia's life. Pretty good, as I remember. "Agora" , 2009.

Here in the Pacific Northwest, we are waiting to be slammed by a windstorm, sometime after 4 this afternoon. Almost lost in the excitement over this forecast is that Seattle had a high temperature of 65F, yesterday. The highest December temperature ever recorded in Washington State. Along with the unusual high overnight temperatures over the summer (great for tomatoes!) I'm sure this will be another "hottest year on record". At least for us.

I hope that as a science, meteorology into the future. Without technology, such as weather satellites and radar, I wonder how. On the other hand, I've just picked up a copy of Eric Sloane's "Weather Almanac; A Classic Illustrated Guide to Weather Folklore and Forecasting." It will be interesting to see how our forebears did it.

My father always said my grandmother was a great weather forecaster. She lived in Nebraska. She'd go outside with a rag and if it was wet, it was raining. If it was frozen, it was cold. If it got snatched out of her hand by the wind, a tornado was coming!

Eric S. said...

Last comment of the day, I promise, but I just got an e-mail from a friend of mine who works for the oil industry in Texas that, while a bit off topic for this week’s post reveals something that isn’t being admitted anywhere in the news sources:

“a major company is pulling out of producing in the Barnett Shale area, that is the Dallas Fort Worth area, for good. The fracking costs to produce in that area are no longer economically viable even if oil gets back up over $100 a barrel."

Every article I’ve seen has suggested that Fracking’s going to get shut down for a few years and then come back and resume the oil boom when prices recover above 70 again. But if the breakeven costs are shooting up above 100 dollars a barrel, things are worse than anyone’s letting on. Numbers like this the energy companies keep really close to the chest, and they’ve gotten caught giving different numbers to investors and regulators a few times, so it may be a while before anyone’s willing to admit just how dire their situations are. I know Maryland just approved Fracking, I really hope this economic situation shuts down those wells before they get built otherwise this state’s going to be in the same shape Texas and North Dakota are about to be.

John Michael Greer said...

RPC, it's central to the theology of progress that we don't get to pick and choose -- no, you have to take whatever the nice man from the nice corporation wants to shove down your throat, and smile.

N Montesano, interesting. I'll put that on the to-read list, then.

Zaphod42, and the rationalist skeptic rejection of alternative medicine says much more about the rationalist skeptics than it does about alternative medicine. There are reams of studies showing that alternative modalities work; you can find some linked here. Once you've glanced at them and found convenient reasons to dismiss them, please look here, and see how many of your reasons are based on the logical fallacies normally used for that purpose.

Dave, what interests me is that both those claims assume the omnipotence of progress -- of course we can create superhuman AIs, it's just a matter of what they'll do. If you really want to make people uncomfortable, suggest that AI may be just as possible as perpetual motion -- which may well be the case.

Kutamun, indeed, something's not right. I don't know how it's done on your side of the planet, but here, government and corporate infiltration of activist movements has been an open secret since the 1950s, when more than half the active membership of some US Communist parties were FBI plants.

Ed-M, and then you have the liberal version of the progress heresy, which reduces salvation to social improvement and has turned a lot of churches into unusually boring political action committees. It's entertaining, in a bleak sort of way.

Thomas, I'll take your word for it; Derrida gives me a headache. As for Sagan's fallacy, though, you do realize that that's a logical howler so old it has a Latin name? Any time you insist that the evidence for one point of view has to meet more stringent criteria than the evidence for the other, that's petitio principii, and logically invalid -- especially when, as in Sagan's case, "extraordinary" is simply a euphemism for "I disagree with it."

Twilight, excellent! Exactly; redefine yourself as a craftsman, and be ready to show off some elegant handmade items, and nobody will think of you as one of those evil technologists who have to be buried alive as a sacrifice to Mother Earth, or whatever it turns out to be.

Varun, if he's got people reading Dune, they may learn something. Do you recall the Reverend Mother's comments to Paul, early on, about the rationale behind the Butlerian Jihad?

Renaissance, heck of a good question. If it made a profit, sure...

Jon said...

Regarding the ‘singularity.’ When I first heard about that bit of sci-fi masquerading as science, I immediately wondered who would keep the computers running? Someone has to shovel coal and light the fires to keep the nerdvana working. And those coal shovelers might decide to put down their shovels after a while.

Also, I remember the movie, Zardoz with Sean Connery, post Bond. A futuristic science society became so sophisticated that they were immortal. To insure that nobody got the crazy idea of ending their utopia, they put everything under control of a computer and wiped their own memories of how to reverse it. Of course, normal human politics were still active but there were no more assassinations or outliving your enemy. What they could do was age people to the point of being almost comatose. Outside of their (literal) bubble, evolution continued until Sean Connery’s character evolved to breach the gap, which was called a stagnant insult to nature, and destroy it. The movie title comes from The Wizard of Oz, as in, the man behind the curtain.


Dennis D said...

Last night I was attending a supper at the local Masons lodge, where new applicants were invited to meet the members. I was there to hand in my paperwork to join, as were several others. To my surprise another applicant was the only other ADR reader that I had met in the flesh (other than those I have introduced your blog to). Both of us had been independently influenced by your writing to join (our other common interest is permaculture)
We both agreed that the Masons were one of the better bets on preserving some of the civil in civilization during the long descent, and the basic incompatibility of the Mason’s stated beliefs and a day job as a barbarian overlord.
As for backlash against scientists, when I was growing up the truth about the hazards of smoking was coming out, despite may supposed scientists (now acknowledged to being in the pay of Big Tobacco) claiming it was safe (Both my parents were heavy smokers, and both died of cancer). Now, I have determined by personal experimentation that I am sensitive to something in modern wheat (when I eat a wheat containing product, I develop arthritis like symptoms, when I stop, the symptoms go away). I recently saw a study that linked the practice of spraying round up on wheat a week before harvest to the incidence of gluten sensitivity reported. Correlation is not causation, but I may just have a sensitivity to the round up (which many credentialed scientists claim is perfectly safe). More experiments will follow with some organic wheat to see if this is true, but if not, it’s back to modifications made to wheat during the green revolution as being the likely culprit which also has most credentialed scientists claiming are safe.
Another problem is the turf wars between various groups claiming the “scientific gospel”, such as the AMA’s history against any other treatment options. I use Chiropractic and acupuncture, due to proven personal results, for the things that they do best. Every time a medical doctor denounces them, the doctors drop lower in the credibility ratings. I don’t think this is any way a Luddite tendency, as I have worked in the technology field for over 30 years.

Ed-M said...

Hello again, JMG!

True, that, and THAT is why all those churches are essentially dead!

Because, if given the choice between sorry stale speeches on human improvement and Christ-Psychosis spread by radical preachers in fundamentalist churches, people'll pick the radical preachers every time.

Of course, the Christ-Psychosis is getting old and tiresome, too; so it's no wonder the only religious classification that's growing is "None."

Ursachi Alexandru said...

Zaphod42, JMGg

Those three websites listed on JMG's Galabes blog are all pro-homeopathic. To me, it is like looking for unbiased information about GMOs on a Monsanto website. I have to agree with Zaphod on this one, I'm sorry.

Having read about your unfortunate experiences with the medical industry in the US, JMG, I cannot blame you for supporting alternative medicine. I know that I do my best to avoid having to take medicine or visit the doctor, that is trying to look
out for my own health.

Again, I have nothing but empathy for people who had to suffer because of the modern medical industry.

Cherokee Organics said...


Yeah, too true, however, it is the words of defence which are being used that are very telling. Play the man and not the argument seems to be one of the final tactics of a declining orthodoxy. Actually I can almost hear a brittleness in the arguments which often hides a level of uncertainty in a belief system. Most belief systems should be able to withstand a little bit of prodding and poking?

On a wholly different note, I think I've earned an award for the nerd-iest accident ever: So I was in my favourite electronics shop picking up some wire and copper terminal bus bars for the lights in the new shed, and I'm measuring out the wire by the metre against the ruler (as it is self-serve). Then right near the top of the ruler was a paper sign in a hard Perspex covering which I just happened to accidentally clip with my hand and the wire. It then fell off whatever was holding it in place and the corner of the Perspex clopped me on the forehead and bridge of the nose.

Wow, that stuff is really surprisingly hard.

Anyway, I was annoyed but mostly OK so I went and picked up the rest of the stuff only to dab my forehead and go: "ooo, that's a lot of blood, mate can I have a tissue?". Anyway, the staff were really apologetic and took me off to the bathroom to wash off the blood and it stopped bleeding pretty quickly.

So later I'm walking though the city and people were getting out of my way because I looked like I'd just stepped out of a bar fight.

It is amazing how quickly accidents can happen without notice in the strangest of places. It is remote here, so I'm always as careful as possible, but it never occurred to me that the electronics shop could be so hazardous.

Hope everyone up in the PNW is staying safe.



Cherokee Organics said...

Hi onething,

From last week’s comment: hehe! Glad to entertain you! Actually the number of people that want to go off grid (solar PV electric) down here is quite surprising. Unfortunately, they are always dismayed at the cost of the batteries and inverter and also at how little useable energy you get during the depths of winter.


I shouldn't laugh, but having a 3D printer - which the electronics shop mentioned above just happened to be selling, that's where I originally asked the hard questions - print some bit of rubbish in 3 days that my grandmother could have whittled with a sharp knife and a bit of softwood in 20 minutes seems vaguely ludicrous!

Hi Varun,

I sincerely hope that they are not holding their breath waiting? - They may be in for a disappointment.



nr-cole said...

The backlash against science is already well underway in many areas, including, in my view, the GMO debate.

Now my opinion on the matter is that there are probably dangerous applications as well as benign ones, although the safe ones probably fall into the wrong box of your technology model from last week. In any event the only chance of all this research being profitable is if it can be applied on a massive scale through an industrialized farming system, which kind of renders the whole discussion moot. Still, all things considered I don't have any strict opposition to people messing around with vegetable DNA.

A lot of the people who do oppose the proliferation of GMOs rub me completely the wrong way. Some comments here have correctly pointed out that there is a scientific basis for caution and skepticism here, but a lot of the opposition comes across as profoundly anti-scientific. Shrilly predicting catastrophic consequences, misrepresenting poor research (like the infamous Seralini study), and loudly promoting your own products (like commercially sold organic food or your services as a speaker) does not make for a compelling argument. I wonder if this is what we can expect the further out of the public trust institutional science falls?

In related news, I've been concerned lately by what I perceive as a loss of empathy in a lot of public debates on supposedly "progressive" causes. Simply, people who believe they're in the right on this or that issue seem quicker than ever to jump to the least favourable interpretations of the things they're opponents say and do. Binary divisions between what/who is right and wrong seem more and more common in a lot of internet debates these days. People are nailed up all the time as they struggle to express and work through things they were brought up believing and feel honestly. This lack of empathy seems to me like a very good way to start a culture war...

Christophe said...

John Michael, what a beautiful illustration this week's post is of how we think in narratives. All the facts of the collapse of the Academies, Constantine's conversion, and Hypatia's slaughter were familiar to me. Yet I had never thought of them as a storyline about the overthrow of a worldview corrupted beyond relevance by the ruling class. Facts may be true, but are meaningless until narrative gives them context and meaning.

You have created a cipher between the past and our present dilemma that does not rely on the mythology of a chosen people nor of backward superstition giving way to modern progress. Your stories help me think.

John Michael Greer said...

DesignScience, that's an excellent point; 1.0 correlations do indeed work tolerably well as BS detectors. As for logic and the foundations of mathematics, no argument there; the banishing of Euclid's Elements in favor of textbooks full of babytalk has got to be reversed, for starters.

Eric, good. We're certainly hard at work getting the robes and pointy hats ready.

Clay, that sort of education was common in the 1970s, and became absolutely taboo in the 1980s. I've written more than once about the shift in consciousness involved.

Escape, and of course it never occurs to the people who denounce the Food Babe and her equivalents that they're simply playing into the hands of those who will eventually dismember them with oyster shells. It amazes me how often the would-be denouncers of pseudoscience pursue their crusade in a way that makes the pseudoscientists look reasonable.

Peak.Singularity, that's very, very sharply edged. Thanks for passing it on!

MindfulEcologist, agreed. The wall can be pierced in some places and demolished in others; it's those who aren't trying to protect their own privilege who have the best chance of doing so, though.

Zentao, I don't doubt that at all. The chance that we may lose a lot of people in a hurry because somebody, intentionally or accidentally, does something massively lethal with biotech is real.

Eric, we'll be talking about the humanities at great length in an upcoming series of posts. The short form is that if they're going to survive, they've got to get out of the universities, because the universities are walking corpses at this point, propped up temporarily by immense infusions of borrowed money.

Legalise, and the next step in the sequence is Nietzsche's "God is dead."

NosVemos, a very good point.

Lewis, getting observational meteorology through the bottleneck is a worthwhile project, no question.

John Michael Greer said...

Eric, fascinating. Next week's post, curiously enough, is going to be on the end of the fracking bubble; clearly I need to write fast...

Jon, now there's a blast from the past. It interests me that even in the movies, the futures were more interesting back then.

Dennis, delighted to hear it. Did you mention to the brethren that one of your reasons for joining was a series of blog posts from a Mason in Maryland?

Ed-M, it's more complex than that. One of these days I may need to get into that particular can of worms.

Ursachi, did you take even so much as a minute to look at the double-blind, controlled studies cited in those links? Or was the mere fact that the sites were in favor of a health care modality you reject settle the matter for you?

Cherokee, okay, you get a special award for being a tough character. Not everyone can get into a bar fight in an electronics shop. ;-)

Nr-Cole, no argument, a lot of the people who denounce GMOs et al. use dubious logic and emotional rhetoric. Have you noticed that in both cases, they're simply taking the pro-GMO logic and rhetoric and inverting it?

Christophe, delighted to hear it. Thank you.

SDBoneyard said...

"...the underclass of the modern industrial world can be expected to grow more and more disenchanted with science as a social phenomenon in our culture, and to turn instead—as their equivalents in the Roman world and so many other civilizations did—to some tradition from the fringes that places itself in stark opposition to everything modern scientific culture stands for."

Santa Muerte, pray for me.

onething said...

The more I think about it, the more I am in agreement with the unwashed masses of the future, regarding science.

Knowledge is power. (So is energy.) The thing is, people cannot be trusted with power, can they? It matters not that you or I can be trusted with it. It matters not that the evil and the nefarious are in the minority. It is only a small minority of people who break and enter, or mug, and yet they have got all of us wary every day, directing us to acquire cumbersome habits in hopes of avoiding them.

The knowledge that science brings enables the already oppressive and exploitative desires of the few to be implemented beyond the wild dreams of earlier times. Right now, many Americans (and others)are only subliminally aware of how ugly technology can get. But when the drones come home...

It is so simple, really. If the destructive are given great power, they will destroy to the greatest limit. Humanity cannot handle knowledge. We do not deserve it.

Anthony Romano said...

JMG, I certainly hope we can salvage (revive is probably more appropriate) natural history as an honored discipline. The practical value of it is one potential way to punch through the wall that Mindful Ecologist mentioned. Perhaps we'll see a revival of the 'Herbal' in the future dark age. I just hope we can spare the National Museum of Natural History from the fate of the Library of Alexandra. I'd rather we be in a position to build on previous works instead of trying to recreate Audubon's and others masterpieces.

For my own part, the Denver Botanic Gardens has a well recognized botanical illustration certificate program. I'm trying to scratch together the coin to begin taking the courses.

As an aside, Herbals, Their Origin and Evolution by Agnes Arber is a delightful little book I found in a used bookstore that traces the development of Herbals, from 1400 through 1600, and how their content changed over time from mystical illustrations and dubious medical qualities to anatomically correct illustrations and more stringent medical descriptions.

Also, The Species Seekers, by Richard Conniff is a fascinating look at how Natural History developed into a large industry in the 1700's.

Andrew Vines said...

On the idea of what technologies could transform and persist under non-reductionist and magical guises....I think genetic engineering actually fits the bill perfectly.

For one thing the technology involved doesn't have to be as energy based as it currently is. The current model of purified biochemicals and computerised databases of information is ironically a very counterproductive way to deal with the matter. For all our vast arrays of genome sequences we still have barely the foggiest about what it all means. We are applying reductionist linear mathematical mindsets to a system that is inherently networked and chaotic. For all our amazing tools at our disposal, a quick reflection will reveal they are all borrowed from pre-existing biological machinery. We have invented almost nothing, simply repurposed life as we found it.

One report that got little attention but sparked my interest was a group that showed animal sperm will very readily absorb naked DNA from solution and incorporate it into its genome. No gold bullets or complex mechanisms required, just a basic salt wash in buffers well within a low tech scenario.

The only thing that would have to be abandoned is the notion that we can control the outcome in any meaningful way. To my mind that spells magic, in fact I have often heard my research lab mates referring to fiddly and often unreproducible techniques as black magic. To use crude genetics this way would require a cultural shift, particularly if humans are to be tinkered with. I could see a despotic nation going down this path someday, and if they get meaningful benefit from it starting an arms race with deep biological roots.

Beneath all of this is the immense power that comes from traditional breeding techniques, that have ironically been lost to mainstream science with the push to genetic engineering. Deep down this is the original technique of civilisation, harnessing and transforming species for our short term benefit but generally for long term ecological detriment. Those low technology techniques could be reclaimed and applied to breeding perennial and tree crops, projects that are currently well underway at places like Badgersett nursery that has already gotten hints of hybrid hazel and chestnut production per acre well above that of corn. Inga alley cropping in the tropics is also looking promising even without selective breeding.

Bob said...

Hi JMG! After reading your last few postings, I keep coming back to two of the same thoughts. The first is that the more a technology offers a strategic or tactical military advantage, the more likely it will be maintained.

The second thought is that the more likely a technology increases individual survival, the more likely it will be maintained.

One possible example that fits both categories: IV access and infusion equipment. I would argue that the ability to give medications/blood/fluid immediately into circulation is the key to surviving many traumas and illnesses. Drugs/herbs/fluids etc are great, but they're a lot better if they're used like a laser rather than a Buick. Yes some plastic is helpful, but metal and glass will get you pretty far.


Crow Hill said...

Hello Mr Greer.

Thank you for the post. Could you elaborate on this assertion: the claims of modern science to know objective truths about nature won’t stand up to fifteen minutes of competent philosophical analysis. Thank you

Cherokee Organics said...


Yeah talk about an unexpected turn of events.

Hey, the perspex pulled the first punch, I didn't start it! hehe.



Matthew Casey Smallwood said...

Pythagoras' instruction to his followers was a little more nuanced than the NeoPlatonist position, apparently: the prime directive was to have nothing to do with violence, but to support those "of the Law", however not directly. In the context (Iamblichus' biography) I took "those of the Law" to mean those who favored "rule of Law" and followed a "Way". Definitely not revolutionaries.

KL Cooke said...

"government and corporate infiltration of activist movements has been an open secret since the 1950s, when more than half the active membership of some US Communist parties were FBI plants."

And unlike many in the other half, they regularly paid their dues. It's been suggested that without dues paying informants the parties would have folded.

Marc L Bernstein said...

Let's hope that as funding dries up for primarily observational sciences (such as ecology, botany, zoology, paleontology, entomology, mammalogy, ornithology, ichthyology, herpetology, parasitology, marine biology, etc.), there will arise a small group of persons who take up the task of preserving the accumulated knowledge within those sciences for future generations. This might involve something akin to Morris Berman's "new monasticism".

Perhaps the time has come for older folks (who will be long gone by the time threats to the preservation of knowledge become an acute problem) to teach members of the younger generation what is likely to happen to the sciences, so that a few of them can become inspired to choose a path of the greatest dignity - that of preserving the accumulated knowledge for the future. This may also include the preservation of literature, music and the visual arts.

So what we're talking about is the preservation of culture itself.

Ursachi Alexandru said...


Yes, I did give them a more-than-one-minute look, and when my time allows it I could watch the video and read the articles where they address criticism against homeopathy. But about my reluctance because they are pro-homeopathy sites:

I know some people, among them close friends, who will post links via social media about "well researched" studies showing why GMOs are good, why fracking in Romania is good for us (and - ahem - if you're still unconvinced that makes you a secret Putin lover), why libertarianism is the one true path, and so on. All of them will present you with links to websites that have plenty of research, studies and arguments that support those claims. Did I give them a look? Of course, more than once. I have even had real life debates with them after reading those arguments and not being convinced by them. And all I accomplished is getting to know how much will some people stick to their beliefs.

I think we are all susceptible to this "selective skepticism". I know I am, so I try to keep an open mind. So I would be happy to know that there is a better and cheaper way of offering healthcare to people than the current medical industrial complex. I would be happy if homeopathy was effective.

But please, try not to put anyone who would express doubt about such issues into the "pseudo-skeptic" box. The issues and ideas you express here on this blog, even if I may not agree with some of them, I think they stand strongly enough on their own. I had enough of being labeled, or suspected as being a socialist, Malthusian doomsdayer, pro-Russian traitor, and so on.

Seb Ze Frog said...

John Michael, I was thinking about actually putting together an ephemerid table, which is I think the one tough or tedious calculation that is at the root of all horoscope calculations if I get it right.

But no dispute: log tables and slide rules make those calculation easier for sure. Speaking of which, I am currently working my way through Asimov's introduction to slide rule calculation and hightly recommend it.
For those interested, it can be found as a free pdf online. But be careful, if you read it, you might get to understand logarithms before you know it...

And to conclude, a quote that I just read at the end of a PhD defense less than 2 hours ago, and that might be appropriate here:
"Millions of dollars, and years of experimental research can destroy a theory that took all of an afternoon to develop."


Violet Cabra said...

For the past few days I've spent some time meditating on the social constructs of Subject and Object, which I believe is relevant to this week's post.

The religion of Science, essentially, restricts subjecthood to the human intellect. Everything else is an object; be it human bodies treated with allopathic medicine, the genetics of plants and animals open to tinkering, factory farm animals, or the proletariat masses. This dividing of the world into an almost entirely objective field is fundamental for any of the dogmatics of Science to have internal consistency.

As far as I can tell this extreme restriction of subjecthood is fairly unique historically, although there may have been something similar in the rationalist periods of other cultures.

I believe that it is this restriction of subjecthood and the subjective world that makes Science so repugnant to so many. As someone who lives in a world filled with subjective forces I personally find the loud insistence that all are objects to be used by intellects absolutely disgusting. Furthermore, the actual use of the earth, plants, animals and human beings as mere objects is nauseatingly abhorrent to me. Having had many subject-subject experiences with Nature, I personally believe that Western Culture partitions the world incorrectly into objects. This in turn informs my values; it isn't right to treat Nature like an object. Many non-Westerner cultures have shared this value, and I imagine that this valuation will find many converts in the years ahead.

For this reason I imagine that the second religiosity will be predicated on a much more subjective worldview, a world containing many subjects and perhaps few objects. I also imagine this sort of worldview will be more popular than the dead matter in soulless universe outlook of Science.

While I don't imagine a more subject-making cultural matrix to be inherently better than a more object-making one. There will be massive downsides that I probably can't predict. I believe it will, however, at the very least treat the non-human world with much greater respect than we typically allow.

Cathy McGuire said...

This is relevant to both last time and this, I think - technology once again failing, and inconveniencing (at least!) a lot of people - so next time someone brags about how computers help us, all those folks will be thinking, "yeah, right..."
London airspace has been closed until 19:00 GMT after a computer failure, air traffic controllers have said.
UK air traffic controllers Nats confirmed a "technical problem" at its Swanwick control centre in Hampshire.
It said in a statement "every possible action" was being taken to resolve the problem.

Ed-M said...

Hello again, JMG.

Well you're probably right on the situation being more complicated than as I presented it.

So when you open that can o' worms, you might want to pursue the internal contradictions of Christianity back to its beginning -- when the self-styled "Apostle Paul" had a falling out with the Jamesian-Petrine faction in Jerusalem due to what the latter perceived to be his multitudinous lies (and they were lies IMHO) about the Torah, the Temple, and the Jewish people.

Ed-M said...

JMG and Clay,

That about sums it up. I went to college in the autumn of 1979 to pursue a B. Sc. in Civil Engineering and what I got was a tsunami of rote work, instead of the education Clay received. The theory was, from that one was able to learn to think like an engineer. Didn't work for me and, I suspect, quite a few others.

Laylah said...

I'm reminded of a piece I read recently about the terrible health problems that people living near fracking wells have been suffering -- constant headaches, persistent rashes, hair falling out -- and the (industry-owned) state officials coming out to measure emissions and insist that nothing is wrong, or that there isn't enough data to prove that it's the fault of the wells. The couple who was the centerpiece of the article eventually managed to sell their home despite its location, and get further away, where their problems cleared right up. But of course poor people's experience of suffering through the side effects is just backward, anti-progress superstition. Science says it's fine! (Where have we heard that song before?)

More generally, thank you for insisting that the level of discourse here remain so civil and thoughtful -- even when I disagree with your commenters, they make me think about *why* I disagree and where I find fault with their logic. I think this is the only place on the internet where I routinely *want* to read the comments.

Ed-M said...

Hi Chris!

Concerning your incident with the sign -- be thankful you live in the land of Oz! Here in America, I'd say the chance is only 50-50 or less that the staff would be apologetic, because they know they might get sued! Otherwise, what you'd get would be at best an exasperated look on the staff's faces to, at worst, a reprimand by a belligerent store employee or owner, screaming, "Why can't you be more careful?!" Because he honestly thinks he is overworked and underpaid, and that his business (if it's a small one) overestimated and overtaxed.

Dagnarus said...

This week's post reminded me of a recent conversation which I had with a comp sci PhD friend. It was on the fact that governments were being short sighted in their lack of funding for research. I commented that it seemed to me that two of the major problems in the world today were that automation was making increasing numbers of people surplus to requirement, and the fact that we were burning fossil carbon at unsustainable rates leading amongst other things to climate change, thus if I were the grand muckity muck in charge of budgeting I probably wouldn't direct huge amounts of resources towards our area of expertise (I am also a comp sci PhD). This was followed up by a quick comment about how another PhD's research topic looking at simulating how the batteries from all our future electric cars can be used to balance wind energy for the grid. The subject was quickly changed after this. said...

Zaphod42: There are very few double blind studies looking at ANY alternative medical therapies specifically because 1. no one will fund them and 2. they are barred from being published in peer reviewed journals due to 3. huge financial conflicts of interest by pharmaceutical/medical/industrial medical suppliers who have something to lose if it's indeed proven that something such as chiropractic can work.

Look at the studies sponsored by the US govt showing how very harmful marijuana is. Yet look at the fact that the US government also holds a patent on the active ingredient in marijuana as a medical treatment. Ever wonder why that is? Ever wonder why, if you research studies done in Europe/Asia, marijuana in fact has properties that are actively anti-tumor, documented and researched very carefully?

Those studies are in fact out there, you just have to look really hard for them, and you have to understand that they will only be published in obscure journals or directly on the internet. You also have to develop a skill for reading and interpreting research (if you don't have it already) in order to wade through the BS on both sides in order to be able to decide whether in fact these modes of treatment work.

I can tell you that herbalism is very likely the wave of the future. Hawthorne, a standardized extract of 1200mg per day, is DOCUMENTED to improve cardiac function and reduce edema in heart failure patients. When will you see a doctor prescribe that? Not any time soon, I'm guessing. No money in it.

As an aside, what is wrong with the placebo effect if it helps the patient and they get better, because they BELIEVE they will?

james albinson said...

Apropos of astronomy as a service to the community, it occurs to me that time keeping, perhaps in cahoots with your local church/brotherhood/whatsit, may be a useful "craft" skill to offer. Even a small department store refractor, firmly mounted on the meridian, with a cross hair in the eyepiece, may be used to time the south/north meridian transit of navigation stars, along with an 8 day pendulum clock. The clock is regulated /adjusted by timing transits of stars - preserve copies of navigation tables/star_charts, etc! During the day time can be distributed with pocket watches, time balls, flags, etc, as needed. Up to circa 1920 (I think?) this was done in London by a lady with a pocket watch and a daily trip to the Royal Greenwich Observatory. And yes, this is something I am thinking of doing locally, especially if GPS goes phut, and radio time signals fail. Your (and my) local University Observatory or local amateur obsy may be a good starting point. said...

JMG, as a soon to be licensed practitioner with one foot in the modern medical world and one foot in the alternative medical world, I see both sides of the equation.

If I'm in a car accident, I don't want to see my naturopath, I want to see the trauma surgeon. For my thyroid issues however, I want to see my naturopath. He's not bound by the American Thyroid Association treatment guidelines which actually discourage (with threats of reporting them as conducting ethics violations to their boards) primary care providers from taking care of hypothyroidism in the majority of patients as being too complex.

Nor is he bound, as the guidelines state, to only prescribe levothyroxine (brand name!) to his patients as the guidelines specifically state. Guess who two major financial backers of the new guidelines were? AbbVie (Synthroid) and Pfizer (Levoxyl). Funny how that works.

Even funnier is how they insist that only BRAND NAME thyroid medications are effective while generics (which just recently became available) are not. Pseudoscience in action. And protecting paychecks over protecting patients.

The skills I am focusing very hard on as I complete my final rotation are in the 'old time' skill repertoire such as percussion, physical maneuvers that tell you a lot about function, plain old physical exam and the all important history taking skills, suturing, and basic microscopy. I am working under an old time GP so I am able to get a lot of good training; the one thing I wish I could get is setting bones but that is NOT going to happen in the near future as NO ONE will touch that with a ten foot pole outside of an orthopedist's office. I suspect these are skills which will be much in demand at some point in the not too far off future. Many of my fellow students laugh at me or think I'm crazy for wanting to learn these - after all you can send someone to the ER for sutures, send them for an xray if you think they have pneumonia, etc. I just smile and tell them I'm preparing for the zombie apocalypse. I do live in a very rural area after all.

They also think it's odd that I keep actual books around for reference - why would anyone need a reference BOOK when there are smart phone apps?

Of course, they also are incredulous that I make: soap, lotion, laundry soap, preserves. Hang out my laundry, make clothes, spin, dye, weave, knit, repair/mend, etc. Why would anyone want to do that? I just smile, again it's for the zombie apocalypse :)

Ray Wharton said...

Deep seated antagonism toward the scientific establishment exists in my own heart, and flourishes among most groups that I know; excepting those who are tied to this regions representative of academia, CSU.

Recently a very dull panel on "Art and Science, collaborating to combat climate change." or some such fluff, I honestly was not paying attention, because every time I tried to listen I couldn't hear anything of substance, for more than an hour, trying to remember what the panel said is like trying to get radio reception in a deep cavern. The high light of the evening was a young man in a carhart coat and a truckers hat with a whiskey in hand stood up and made a scene about how the entire discussion was pointless chatter by people who aren't willing to do anything. I am glad he was holding the whiskey and not I or it would have been the same scene with my stetson standing in for his truckers hat. I felt very sad for the esteemed panel, they are trying in their own ways to help, but everything they said was too abstract for me to follow, and I taught second order predicate logic for a year! I believe that the conversation needs to become uncomfortably personal to break through the smoke screens. These sad souls are completely addicted to their position within the school, and it takes the force from their every attempt to act.

Fort Collins is a very interesting place to live, culturally it admires with lavish praise the idea of changing our way of life to respond to the challenges of our era with a fluency greater than any other region I have traveled to, at the same time it is more perfectly protected with in a bubble of affluence than any other American city I have heard of. I have become close to the subculture that is actively doing most of the actual work of making the area less dramatically unsustainable, which Fort Collinders prides it self on like a peacocks tail, but judging from how often the people in the sub culture all know each other I estimate that only about 1% of the population here is actively engaged in any of the movements I have come to know.

The underclass here is likely to swell massively in times to come, we have so much further to fall than most. Right now I am trying to encourage the friends I have to focus our energy on helping the lowest active strata of society, because I think it is the best place to try to smuggle through learning. Accepting a personal life of austerity is my main step so far. practicing and teaching a few sciences, specifically forest ecology and mycology are the other side. In my own heart I wonder what sciences I would even wish upon the future, it deserves much consideration; currently I believe that the observational and non experimental sciences are much less odious, but much fine tuning is needed there. Nature should not be forced to reveal her secrets, but if she chooses to give us clues, we may listen as mindfully as we are able with out offence I believe.

Even permaculture and its use of systems theory is suspect to me. The machine, a microcosm under human control, still dwells in many visions of permaculture I think. Just as many activists seeking to "Manage the Globe" bring to mind "the white man's burden" now in a green dress with dreadlocks; the same tragic idea that the world needs some rational center of control. We need to consider, as this blog I believe encourages, what to do when we are explicitly not in control of our situation and in no position to manage the crisis?

Hmmmm.... I need to think quite a bit more about what sciences I actually care about, it just occurred to me that much of the product of science inspires me not.... an image comes to mind, of peasants living in a farm land that is not flattened, but is deeply enriched in texture, texture of soil and texture of rock, and texture of hedge and canopy. I wonder what the hedge that means?

latheChuck said...

And now, some good news from the medical/industrial complex:

"Understanding Intestinal Microbiota to Regain Balance in the Gut" by Natalie Duggan, Emory.

... Fecal transplants are proving to be a highly effective, antibiotic-free tool to cure Clostridium difficile, known as C diff, often a health care acquired infection that is more common among the elderly or those who take frequent antibiotics.
The intestinal microbiota program has a success rate of more than 90%. "We receive a lot of thank-you cards from patients and their families," Dhere says. "The quality of life that patients get after the procedure speaks volumes for this treatment."

This is from "Drug Discovery and Development Magazine" (

How we might adapt their colonoscopy-based procedure to a low-tech future is a problem I'll leave to the specialists.

TomK said...

do you in your forthcoming book After Progress elaborate on what religion(s) you think will become dominant as faith in progress diminishes? Is it likely that the paradigm shift will have significantly different outcomes in North America vs Europe? What about the role of Islam in future Europe? Or is asking such specific questions about as helpful as to ask where exactly we are on the timeline of collapse as of 12/12/2014CE(and therefore you don't waste much time with them)?

Varun Bhaskar said...


They're heading the cargo cult way for sure. I get the appeal, it's not like I still don't read news about developments in space-tech. I'm still a space opera nerd. Like I said, I feel sorry for them. Giving up on ones religion is no easy task when it is still alive and looks to be accomplishing great feats.


Which one?

“Once men turned their thinking over to machines in the hope that this would set them free. But that only permitted other men with machines to enslave them.”


“But what the O.C. Bible should've said is: 'Thou shalt not make a machine to conterfeit a human mind.'...”The Great Revolt took away a crutch,” She said. “It forced human minds to develop...”

Both seem applicable in this case. I hope some will take it to heart. I know I'm slowly bringing people around to the mentat path.



peak.singularity said...

One of the reasons GMO's are pushed by the likes of Monsanto is that of control :

The most infamous examples being probably Monsanto forbidding farmers to re-plant seeds from a harvest (to buy them from Monsanto instead), and to sue farmers that had their crops contaminated by GMO plant pollen for copyright infringement.

What's wrong with Seralini's GMO/Roundup study? I find it quite illuminating considering that it showed that the health issues only started to appear months after the usual duration of the safety studies (the long term effects - a common blind spot in toxicology?), and also the talk around it shed light on how the overwhelming majority of studies were paid for by the GMO-supporting agribusiness, and how much those are lobbying in the EU.

nuku said...

Dear Posters, If you are going to use abbreviations like ROP POV STM blah, blah, please FIRST write out in the full the actual name of whatever it is, THEN you can use the abbreviation to your little heart’s content. That way we all know what the hell it is you are talking about.
Sorry to offend any corporate-speak addicts; I’m just riding in on my personal hobby-horse.

Avery said...

Coming in late to this conversation, but I think Andy Brown's comment is quite important. In the 1980s the whole field of anthropology had a major crisis: if we really care about native opinion so much, why dissect it in a university setting? The end result, of course, was that those who really disagreed and had intellectual integrity left the academy, and everyone else stayed on to create a newly sanitized department. Since 2000 or so the same thing has happened to religious studies. People who still believe in the academic or Wikipedia account of how culture and religion functions seriously need to keep this in mind.

Donald Hargraves said...

My problem with "double blind" studies is that they are, by design, impossible to do yourself.

As an example, I do Glucosamine and MSM (and/or Chondroitin) for my joints. Now, I can say these things work because every time I've stopped taking the Glucosamine and MSM (and/or Chondroitin) my knees have hurt, and every time I start taking the pills the knees stop hurting. What I can't say is that I've had someone else try having me take the pills in a study (either the actual pills or some placebo in the same shape and color), tell me after some time whether I was taking the real thing or the placebo.

Now, what the scientific establishment says is that I can only have an idea that the pill works if it's been tested in such a way that a third party can tell whether it works or not...and that if my knee reacts to my taking the pill when their tests state that my knee shouldn't react to the pill, then I'm faking the pain so that I can spend money on some quack cure and claim that I'm independent of science.

Never mind that this is my body and that I may have some knowledge of it independent of the scientific establishment, never mind the idea that I may indeed know more than I know that I know (and by the way, thanks for the concept, Mr. Greer) and never mind the mind over matter thing (aka Placebo and Nocebo Effects), if the peer-reviewed officially-third-partied studies show nothing than I must be an active liar.

And people wonder why people who cast aspersions towards "mainstream ANYTHING" get so much attention. More and more, it seems to make sense.

KL Cooke said...

"To use crude genetics this way would require a cultural shift, particularly if humans are to be tinkered with. I could see a despotic nation going down this path someday, and if they get meaningful benefit from it starting an arms race with deep biological roots."

Been tried.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

@LewisLucanBooks--The precision and lead time of weather prediction has certainly improved since we got satellites to watch storms developing. Now that meteorologists have had decades of data to calculate the probabilities of what weather systems are going to do, maybe we don't really need satellite pictures anymore. Perhaps it would be sufficient to have a voluntary net of far-flung stations on land and aboard ships, transmitting information about their local weather to each other every few hours (via radio or telegraphy) day and night.

On the other hand, if global warming alters ocean currents, the earth's albedo and so forth, past patterns of weather making may be thrown into a cocked hat and no amount of data will tell us what the weather is going to do next.

Cherokee Organics said...


All is now clear. I might have mentioned that I picked up a copy of Sun Tzu's "The Art of War".

Oooo, it's good! In this binary presented this week, I believe he would recommend for scientists not to waste energy on divisive behaviour. In fact, I'd have to guess he would make a point of ensuring that we all moved as if of one mind in a brutal, if pragmatic and perfunctory sort of a way.

He's a clever chap.

Anyway, after the IPCC concluded that human actions are the most likely cause of global warming, he would have then acted swiftly, not because it was his preference - but because in between his words I sense a deep stoicism - but because it would be the right thing to do. And that, my friends is the conundrum that scientists now face. I strongly suspect that Sun Tzu would say that they are not leaders because they lack "Character".

Thus in sticking to what they know and the familiar feed trough from which they sup, they risk their very future. The Art of War warns never to: act according to beliefs or dogma but in light of the information flowing in a particular moment. Moreover, we must always challenge the conventional wisdom in order to arrive at the truth of a situation.

If I had to be brutally honest, I would suggest that there are very few leaders on the world stage now that display "Character". Too often in accepting donations - which no one seriously believes are made out of pure charity - they find themselves in a snare from which they can't extricate themselves. I often think of our own unloved Prime Minister accepting the bribes (sorry, I meant donations) and trying to get to sleep at night whilst telling himself that he did it so that he could pursue his pet ideology. All the while, that pet ideology when presented to the public he acts surprised when they find it to be wholly repugnant. Meanwhile the puppet masters - for a small fee - sing: "Dance and sing for me Tony, dance and sing for me".

Oooo - where did that come from?



David James Peterson said...

Not specifically related to science, but a good example of what the upper class is doing to encourage the lower classes sharpen the shells. Oprah Winfrey's "The life you want" tour asked local acts to perform on a side stage for free. Apparently the performer didn't take very kindly to being asked to perform for free at billionaire's motivational seminar ( tickets to the seminar cost between $99 & $999).

Stacey Armstrong said...

Good Morning,

It might be interesting to note that Hypatia was killed not only for being a scholar, a scientist-mathematician but also because of her links to the pagan community. I have to say that many of the neat boundaries drawn between science, religion and other human endeavours are smudging and disappearing after reading the last few weeks all in one go. I keep coming back to Carl Jung's work, which I realize is not considered science or religion necessarily, but many of his writings straddle the line between what many would consider 'poetry' and a systematic meaning-making. Where are the borders between science and alchemy and Myth? The scientist, the intellectual and the Mage? I am still jostling along looking for some more useful distinctions. The new distinctions cannot radically fight with hanging up the laundry.

It also brings to mind George Eliot's contention that both science and story-telling have to start in the middle :

"Men can do nothing without the make-believe of a beginning. Even science, the strict measurer, is obliged to start with a make-believe unit, and must fix on a point in the stars'
unceasing journey when his sidereal clock shall pretend that time is at Nought. His less accurate grandmother Poetry has always been understood to start in the middle; but on reflection it appears that her proceeding is not very different from his; since Science, too, reckons backward as well as forward, divides his unit into billions, and with his clock-finger at Nought really sets off
in medias res. No retrospect will take us to the true beginning; and whether our prologue be in heaven or on earth, it is but a fraction of that all-presupposing fact with which our story
sets out.” (From Daniel Deronda)
What could some new units of measurement be moving forward? And where will we choose to begin our story? I must admit that technology has never been one of my altars, but I am grieving the university system. I am pondering ways in which to localise what I glean from your electronic living room each week. I am wondering how living by scratch and peck can also include the possibility of an intellectual life for a wide swath of people.

I try not to use the comments section as a search engine or magic eight ball! But can anyone suggest a book(s) on the history of weather forecasting/divination.

All for now. Stacey

Patricia Mathews said...

Tinfoilhatsociety said " Hawthorne, a standardized extract of 1200mg per day, is DOCUMENTED to improve cardiac function and reduce edema in heart failure patients."

Link, please? This is something I truly need to know.



Bob Patterson said...

A very cogent article on where and how Cheney led us into darkness, in a semi-mainstream Salon

Bob Patterson said...

Most Americans' experience with science is sort of scewed. It is usually represented as an "enlighted" priesthood with superior understanding , rather than a method of thinking and experimentation. The white lab coated man telling you ingredient X in the toothpaste is the best thing for you. The "expert" oft quoted on TV. The doctor to whom you owe your health. Of course this was exploited to the extreme, so now no one trusts anyone. Climate change is the ultimate expression of commercially driven anti-science and science in battle, the vast majority of folks just confused.
(not to say there are well founded arguments on both sides). And time after time, someone who has produced a sound study of something out of the masinstream is hounded out of consideration and often a job. Indeed we have reached a point where people say I am right because I am rich or your boss or elected or in charge or famous or ....

The other Tom said...

Thank you for the most erudite, big picture analysis of our condition I have seen.
In my corner of the world I have long wondered why so many intelligent people shrug off even a general consensus of science, i.e.climate change, but now in light of the overall zeitgeist that you described where cultural institutions lose relevance I can make better sense of that.
I hope this is not too far off point but I think there is a similar reaction in our political and economic attitudes: the more disenfranchised working people become the more they go "off the grid." I don't know what the numbers are but here in New England
in my circles many of us have created a parallel economy through barter, odd jobs, gardening, hunting, foraging, and repurposing the stuff that's thrown away. It surprises me that this trend is off the radar of so many elites because, given enough time and momentum, it is a direct threat to their positions. I discussed this with an economics professor at the local watering hole. He thinks of this as another cycle rather than a tectonic change. I do not carry any clamshells but once people have lived ten years or more without a "real job" it is unlikely they are going back. The economic system loses legitimacy just as the philosophical schools did.
As for those who would rather be dead than live without the religion of progress I would point to The Plague, by Camus, where those who retained their humanity put one foot in front of the other, one moment at a time. We don't get to choose where we live in history.

JML said...

Great post, JMG. Very illuminating.

I'm not much of a fan of Neoplatonism. I think that Stoicism was the best of the last three schools of classical philosophy. I also think that the Pre-Socratic philosophers were generally superior to the Post-Socratic philosophers.

latefall said...

Re science and established opinion
In my mind science should involve a lot of bickering, backstabbing (in slow motion), and whistle blowing. Established opinion is where science is not done. Also, if you want out, disciplines are not set in stone - in principle you can shift focus or methodology to put quite some social distance between your approach and some corporate sock puppet club. In practice that may be difficult to pull off - possibly an indication that you've already strayed into some of the more murky areas of academia. The cultural differences between disciplines (or nations) and sub-disciplines is pretty large in my opinion. This is also true for their contacts outside the ivory tower. That may give you a few ways to break out. What is strange to me is this wide range of feelings people have towards some fields of technology, science, or organizations supposedly representing them. If they are large organizations you should expect them to be corrupt, no? Does that make them the enemy of all that is good and true? Off the bat - only to a small degree I would say. They are made by normal people that end up in their positions by relatively normal selection processes (peer review is far from being a cure all) and incentives (by now at least). If science (or technology) has any special authority it overwhelmingly rests with their results and experiments (if you can do any), and to a far, far smaller extent can be attritbuted to individuals who managed to bring the results about. In more than a few fields of science (or technology) the verdict on the results is a long ways from being clear. I do agree that can change quickly once people quit measuring their environment by the metrics of "progress". I wish (but highly doubt) that there are a bunch of rules of thumb out there that can say which specific field is going up or down. I doubt the corporate sock puppet debating clubs will all get shelled. They are relatively powerful and can push into other areas when they need to (see the interesting Raytheon example KF gave). As for the wall - there's a million and one ways to wreck that, and from my perspective it is being done at such a pace that you'll have trouble sliding your shell along it for more than a few times without pushing through a whole or knocking off a brick. This may not be true for each and every field though, and I don't know who started sharpening when, nor if Hypatia is still in the building or not...

latefall said...

There was some discussion on shoe making last week, to which I'd like to add clog making

This is another very nice source for what he calls "common man bushcraft" (⊂ green wizardry?)

@Cherokee re winter solar:
What do you think of a cheapo solar concentrator (e.g. space blanket or trough) in winter? When you don't need it you can turn it on your green house (or in summer dry food with it)?

Janet D said...

@Nick Nelson, re: STEM education. Yeah, talk to me. In my area, which has 3 school districts, there is one STEM-only high school (students must wear a collared shirt & tie every day), a STEM-program at one middle school, and a new STEM-elementary school (yes, you read that correctly) has just opened up. Now, why an elementary school needs to offer STEM education, especially to a 40+%-ESL student body who struggle mightily already anyway with basic reading and writing, is anybody's guess. How does a STEM education differ from a "regular" education for your average 8-year-old? Will they even have the ability to notice or care?

And can somebody PLEASE tell me why all the rage in private high schools these days is to issue each incoming freshman student their own personal frackin' iPad? (The reasoning? Students need it to become "leaders in the world of technology".....anyone wanna guess how they're actually using these iPads).

I find it hysterical that these same schools all vigorously promote themselves as teaching "critical thinking skills". (Apparently, anyone standing up and asking the question, "WHY"?, is not counted as a necessary 'critical thinking' skill.)

jonathan said...

jmg- you are correct about the fracking bubble. you'll have to write fast, this thing is likely to unravel even faster and more completely than the housing bubble. a foreclosed house still has some market value. when oil is $50/bbl, the value of oil in the ground that costs $70/bbl to extract is effectively zero.

it's also worth noting the taxpayer bailout of bank owned derivatives that was slipped into the omnibus government funding bill at the last minute. when the junk bonds issued by shale patch oil companies go south (the yield is up some 400 bps in the last few weeks) the toxic mess of cdo's unravels too.

Random Man said...

Reporting from the front lines as a physician.

What I'm going to say is going to sound elitist but that's alright. I'm fully aware elites rise and fall, and I know what the fate of my class is going to be...oblivion.

Having said that, if you trust medicine, industrial or otherwise, to the buffoons and clowns currently working in healthcare, you have a rude awakening coming up. It's not that they're bad people. And I would say that many of them are underpaid and have repetitive, thankless jobs.

It's just that they don't know anything and don't care. "Punch in, punch out" is the attitude. They have no intellectual curiosity, no relation to the physical word surrounding them and the devices they use. Thoughtlessness reigns and, like an acid, corrodes everything and impacts even the best. The old masters in every field high to low are quitting, retiring or dying out.

Think I'm some sort of curmudgeon? I just turned 34.

Knowing that I will take the blame, I'm planning my own exit.

Island Poet said...

I would be interested in your view of the seemingly powerful anti-nuclear/anti-technology zeitgeist in Japan. Which interestingly, didn't save them from the arguably worst nuclear disaster (so far) on the planet... Kunstler has nominated Japan as the first nation-state to re-adopt agrarian feudalism... As always, thank you for a thought provoking post!

Emmanuel Goldstein said...

Actually, it would be possible to preserve a large amount of scientific and cultural knowledge through the next few civilization cycles, using high technology. All we have to do is put it in a repository on the moon.
Instead of sending up another pointless lander to roll around and look at rocks again, we could send up a few good books, with lots o' pictures in one of them to let our descendents know how to decipher the material. Then lay out a reflector that makes a bright dot on the surface of the moon that could be seen with binoculars. In another 10,000 years, someone will get around to building another spacecraft to see what the bright dot is all about, and they can read all about us and learn how to make their own iPads, internal combustion engines, and nuclear reactors. --Or maybe descriptions of the scientific method, calculus, coppicing, and best gardening techniques.
Of course, whoever does this will have to carefully skirt around the dust-covered reflectors and book-piles of the previous 3 or 4 high civilizations. Write NASA and David Branson today!

N Montesano said...

Violet Cabra said, "The religion of Science, essentially, restricts subjecthood to the human intellect. Everything else is an object; be it human bodies treated with allopathic medicine, the genetics of plants and animals open to tinkering, factory farm animals, or the proletariat masses. This dividing of the world into an almost entirely objective field is fundamental for any of the dogmatics of Science to have internal consistency. ...

I personally find the loud insistence that all are objects to be used by intellects absolutely disgusting. Furthermore, the actual use of the earth, plants, animals and human beings as mere objects is nauseatingly abhorrent to me."
Maybe I just need to think more about this, but I both agree and disagree. It does remind me powerfully of some of the more nauseating dogma I recall hearing and reading about as a child -- "animals have no feelings and no ability to think," etc., that even then struck me as a large load of manure perpetuated by people who had never, apparently, used their eyes.
But I'm of the impression some of that comes to science straight out of Christianity. Certainly, as with most belief systems, you can find Christians who believe all of the above -- and those who believe nature is of God, and to be treated as holy.
And you can find science-worshipping agnostic atheists like me, who think nature and living things are intrinsically sacred, for lack of a better word. Personally, while having no objections to other people's beliefs, I'm horrified and terrified by the concept of Deity; 'it's all just evolution' strikes me as a much more calming idea. But I'm right with you on being horrified by the notion that the world is our toy. I think people choose their beliefs in that respect -- religious or secular -- based on personal inclination. Though our Western culture certainly does seem to provide plenty of encouragement for choosing the more self-indulgent versions.

Gloucon X said...

Another GMO labeling referendum just failed --this time, in Oregon. It could be that people have just given up because it’s already too late. In the US, GMO food is already everywhere, and so are the crops. You can have an organic farm, but your neighbor can have GMO crops and the seeds can blow onto your farm and there’s nothing you can do about it. Monsanto and Big Ag have billions to spend to make sure the laws give them free reign.

The same is true for nuclear power. General Electric made their money selling those Fukushima reactors long ago, and now each of us has some radioactive particle from those reactors in our bodies. We were never asked. Our ancestors were assured that they were safe and that any problems would be minor. We are now being given the same assurances with regard to GMOs.

John Michael Greer said...

SDBoneyard, the Pretty Girl seems like a fairly good candidate just now, doesn't she?

Onething, it's not the people who rob and mug, but the combination of the people who rob and mug with a set of social institutions that are supposed to protect the rest of us from them, and these days go out of their way not to do so. In the same way, I'm far from sure it's fair to take the failure of our current civilization to deal constructively with knowledge in this late stage of its history as a valid sample of humanity as a whole. Still, your values, your judgment...

Anthony, good for you -- I hope you find the money and take the course! One of the reasons I'm so strongly in favor of printing presses and private subscription libraries is that, to my mind, they hold the most hope for getting as much as possible of current ecological knowledge through the bottleneck. More, much more, on this in a forthcoming series of posts.

Andrew, it's possible, hideously so. I wonder if there's any way to make it less possible at this point.

Bob, fair enough. What do you propose to do to make that knowledge available to our descendants?

Crow Hill, sure. What science gives us is a set of mental models that have not yet been conclusively proved false. That's what the scientific method is capable of generating. Mind you, that's not a criticism; such models have enormous power as a tool for thought and action, especially when it's remembered that they're simply mental models that have not yet been disproved. It's when they get turned into dogmas that thinking stops and various stupidities set in.

Cherokee, funny. Try buying the perspex a beer next time and see if it's less aggressive. ;-)

Matthew, according to ancient historians, the Pythagorean society got much more deeply into politics than that, but you're right that they weren't revolutionaries -- quite the contrary, they were violent defenders of the status quo. That's why so many of them were slaughtered in the revolutions in Magna Graecia in the sixth century CE.

KL Cooke, makes sense to me. Hoover had good reason to keep the heat on the Communists and away from the Mafia, after all, once Meyer Lansky got those pictures of him in women's clothing doing various then-illegal activities...

Marc, yes, that's exactly what we're talking about.

Ursachi, fair enough. The tone of your response made it sound to me as though you'd dismissed the sites out of hand because they approve of something you don't, and of course that's very common these days.

Seb, I'm not sure how ephemerides used to be calculated, but it was clearly something that could be done with 17th century technology -- I think that's when ephemerides took over from the Alphonsine Tables and similar, less accurate ways of tracking the astrological heavens. Certainly, back before computers became omnipresent, there were quite a few organizations that put out annual or decade-at-a-time ephemerides for astrologers to use.

John Michael Greer said...

Violet, good. This is another place where philosophy is a huge help, because sustained reflection on fundamental concepts is perhaps the most effective way to shred the prejudice that assigns subjecthood only to human beings -- and more precisely, though more covertly, only to the conscious intellects of privileged male human beings of the right social classes.

Cathy, good. I tend to think of things like this when Singularitarians start babbling about omnipotent and omniscient supercomputers...

Ed-M, and I'd say that it's a good deal more complex than the rather partial summary you've offered here. Still, this is not the place to get into a long discussion about Christian origins.

Laylah, thank you! I'd encourage you, and anyone else who shares the same sentiment, to pass on the word: to have an intelligent conversation about controversial issues, rules of courtesy that are enforced against those who insist on violating them are essential. It really is that simple.

Dagnarus, I bet the subject changed very quickly!

James, good. Not all that long ago, most American farm houses had a spot of paint on a south-facing window and a line scratched into the floor. The shadow from the spot of paint hit the scratch at exact noon local time, and that "noon mark" was used to keep the big wind-up clock in the parlor running accurately. That's one of a good many old-fashioned tricks that were used for timekeeping before long-distance communication made the process easier.

Tinfoilhat, I wish you were setting up your practice somewhere within walking distance of me -- I'd probably make use of your services. The lack of access to competent mainstream medical services that aren't simply pimping for the pharmaceutical industry is rather on my mind as I get older; it would make a useful addition to the alternative modalities I have on hand already.

Ray, the guy in the Carhartt coat with the whiskey in his hand is the wave of the future. Those scientists, and sciences, that can listen to him and learn from the experience may have a future -- but you're right, there's no small amount of reflection needed about exactly what is worth saving.

LatheChuck, I'm tempted to suggest that they stick it -- oh, wait...

TomK, what my book suggests is that it's way too early to tell. Remember that until the fourth century, Christianity was just one of dozens of little, despised fringe cults attracting members from the underclass of the Roman world, and Islam -- the other religion that dominated the post-Roman world -- didn't even exist yet.

Varun, good. Both will do, but it was the first that I had in mind.

Peak.Singularity, that's exactly what's wrong with Seralini's study -- it asks the questions you're not supposed to ask. No wonder it's being denounced by industry pimps.

Nuku, I admit I agree with you.

John Michael Greer said...

Avery, stay tuned. Those who left the academy may just have jumped off a sinking ship when there was still time to make it to the dock.

Donald, good. That's one of the behavior patterns that have made rationalist-atheist trolls among the worst enemies science has, driving more and more people into active hostility to institutional science and medicine: "Your experience doesn't match my biases, therefore you're Wrong! Wrong! Wrong!" Et cetera, ad nauseam.

Cherokee, he's a very clever chap. I'll probably have to talk down the road about the way that corporate funding has helped foster exactly those schisms and bad habits in the activist scene that have reduced said scene to complete ineffectiveness.

David, I felt rather the same way when I recently fielded an invite to a TED talk; mind you, they offered to cover my travel costs, which is more than Oprah does. I turned them down, of course.

Stacey, good! Those boundaries are meant to be smudged -- they're conveniences for easy classification, not actual divisions in the subject matter.

Bob, exactly. All most Americans see are people in lab coats making dogmatic claims that may or may not reflect anything in their own experience, but will certainly be contradicted by the next guy in a lab coat to get up and say something. The result is a massive crisis of legitimacy that nobody in the sciences seems to be willing to notice.

Other Tom, I've been hearing more and more about that of late. I suspect the elite isn't asking questions about people dropping out because they don't want to know the answers.

JML, de gustibus non disputandum est!

Latefall, it's not the view from within the scientific scene that I'm discussing, but the view from outside it. From that angle, the wall is very solid and well suited for shell-sharpening.

Jonathan, I know. I've started seeing references to panic dumping of low-quality crude (fracked crude, tar sand extractives, etc.) for whatever the market will bear, no matter how little that is; if that takes off, we're in for a doozy of a crash. I'll be updating my post for next week (which is already written) as we go; hopefully it won't all be old news by Wednesday night.

John Michael Greer said...

Random, may I make a suggestion? Learn all you can about herbal medicine and the skills once practiced by general practitioners, and be ready to jump ship when the medical industry starts going to bits. I think you'll find that those outside the industry have a very good idea where the blame belongs, and if you can reinvent yourself as a healer -- that is to say, what physicians used to be -- you'll get by just fine.

Poet, I don't live there and so have only a very limited idea of what's actually happening there. Besides, the last thing Japan (or anywhere else, really) needs is one more clueless American making pronouncements about its future!

Emmanuel, no doubt. Not only that, we can put detailed plans in your lunar repository that will tell people of future civilizations how to build a spacecraft so they can get to the Moon and use what's in the repository!

Gloucon, and it never occurs to them that preventing people from using peaceful means to bring change just guarantees that they'll turn to less peaceful ones. When I wrote about the senility of the elites a while back, this is one of the things I had in mind.

Cherokee Organics said...


I hadn't thought of the beer, but it might just have worked. It was a truly belligerent chunk of perspex which left me with a bit of a headache for a day.

Please do, as I'd be interested in your thoughts on the matter. The system as it stands is certainly broken and donations are certainly a large part of the problem.

Actually, I was approached by a person from Greenpeace about two weeks ago asking me whether I'd heard about the destruction of the Great Barrier Reef and I was like, yeah of course of I have. Then I could sense the money question, so I cut them off and said, you realise that it is inevitable that the reef may be destroyed. We're trying to campaign against its destruction they replied. I then pulled the big gun and said did not Gandhi say that we must become the change that we wish to see in the world? Before they had a chance to reply I said, "I live on an organic farm, which is not connected to the grid, I drive as little as possible". But we're really trying to make a change was the reply. Just to skewer them I said your NGO is part of the system and thus ineffective and I walked off and said as a parting shot over my shoulder, "the only effective change begins with the individual". I must say that I took no pleasure in how upset they looked and they stared after in disbelief.

Yes, I would really appreciate your thoughts in this matter.

Hi Ed-M,

Yeah, well, I really like this shop as they have a lot of techno boffin stuff which is good for the off grid solar system. It is really hard to find parts and cables now. Many years ago, there was a bit more competition on that front. Incidentally, my experiences with the legal system have taught me that it is not a justice system, but a system that seeks to administer itself for its own benefit. The administrative tribunal ensures that all parties despite the relative injustices go away unhappy and perhaps that is the desired outcome? Dunno.

The staff were very good about the accident. Someone once told me that it isn't the injury, but the reaction to the injury which determines the course of events. Dunno.

Hi Varun,

Haha! I still enjoy a good space opera too. Peter F Hamilton writes a ripping good yarn, I just sort of gloss over the techno stuff and concentrate on the story line. I enjoyed the Great North Road recently and it spanned 1,100 pages. Good stuff.

Hi latefall,

Many thanks for the suggestion. Winters are cold here, but rarely below 0'C degrees. Mind you, I'm considering building a proper green house here to grow some of the tropical crops which are only just out of reach: Coffee, tea and ginger come to mind. The final tea camellia in the orchard is looking quite sad now.



Unknown said...

One area that is already being affected by reduction in available funding is healthcare. Here in the UK it is becoming increasingly difficult to access specialist healthcare without paying to go private. Just in the last few weeks I have come across several situations of this kind. A work colleague who has fibromyalgia has paid to see a specialist privately to get treatment which has enabled her to get back to work, the family of a community health patient of mine who has developed symptoms which look like Parkinson's disease have arranged to see a neurologist privately and a friend whose husband has been unwell for a while whose GP would not refer to a specialist has seen a specialist privately and been found to have cancer.

I have decided to take my own health care in my own hands as much as possible and partially inspired by comments made by JMG regarding herbalism have signed up to become an apprentice herbwife

Bruno B. L. said...

Same situation here! Except that, since I live in the non-rich world (Brazil), most of these so-called "old-fashioned" practices haven't actually got out of fashion. That's because they are necessary in many parts of the country in which physicians have little to no access to technology. As a consequence, however, the old techniques are seem as something that you are going to need only if you decide to live in the non-urban poorer areas of the country. Still, just like you, I'm making an extra effort to learn them instead of relying solely on technology. Most of my peers still learn some of the old techniques, but only because they are obligated to.

Phil Harris said...

Violet has raised a central topic of our modern creed – the world divided between objectivity and subjectivity, and the ‘ownership’ of this particular conceptual mapping of the world by such as ‘Science’.

I agree with her meditation. I aver, I think perhaps similarly, that there are real ‘qualities’ out-there, to be seen if rather fleetingly. It seems inevitable that I am ‘seen’ as well as ‘seeing’ within this larger frame (for want of a better term).

IMHO very little ‘scientific thinking’ despite the technic tools and toys we use and our dependencies, has much to do with the kind of ‘reasoning’ or ‘recognitions’ we mostly use for our daily lives.

What the Christian mob recognised in Hypatia as a symbol, whatever it was, seemingly fed their group frenzy. Daily life reduced to a shared frenzy over symbols (not themselves ‘qualities’) takes us out of any real world altogether, to where we lose the place – and there is no quality to be seen except a tension where relief in this case is sought by cutting.

I have seen group feeding-frenzies in animals and birds mobilised to the extent they similarly ‘lose the place’ in reality – so I guess it is a runaway biological phenomenon.

The similarity with human behaviour might have something in common. The animal occasions I witnessed were in very artificial circumstances where key ‘natural’ checks and balances did not apply.

Phil H

PRiZM said...

In some ways this has very little to do with the post today, but I'm sure if someone stretches their mind it could be connected...mostly though, I am interested in whether you, JMG, and others, have read about this fellow.. Brad “Darby” Kittel, from Texas Tiny Houses, and Pure Salvage Living. This fellow has made a life living many of the ideas espoused on this blog, and in many ways reminds me of a modern day ruinman from "Star's Reach."

Tiny Texas Houses Willy Wonka on doing magic reusing wood

This "salvage mining" idea especially reminds me of ruinmen(and sorry to any who are offended by the option to buy a product)
Salvage Mining DVD

Perhaps, with people coming to similar ideas as yours, seemingly on their own, their is some hope for the salvage of science, amongst other things, in the future...

Nastarana said...

Ed M, I had an extremely minor injury on the escalator at Penny's , entirely my own fault. I found myself having to reassure the nervous staff that I "took full responsibility" and "was very impressed with the courtesy and professionalism of Penny's staff" etc. etc. I don't normally talk that way, but I wanted to message to get through to the supervisors that there would be no lawsuit and no staffer was at fault.

zaphod42 said...

JMH: Done, and done. I remain in disagreement. The studies that I did read noted seemed to have been done by proponents of the method, using other proponents as their subjects. In other words, they were not random. The individuals responding had a dog in the hunt.

As to the "three" (actually two) logical fallacies, I did major in logic as an undergrad, and can inform you that I did not beg the question. It seems to me that the author did a bit of dancing about the subject, and tried to say that, because "extraordinary" was not strictly defined, it is impossible to judge anything as such, and equally impossible to judge proofs. I agree that it can be difficult to strictly define; and like some members of SCOTUS I think I can recognize one when I see it. Claims of one cure fits all, claims with no basis or real proof that water can remember one molecule was there (with no chemical signature showing it), as part of a < 1ppm solution (and where not even that one part is present in the 'solution') is, frankly, not only extraordinary but seemingly preposterous. I am not saying it is impossible; I am saying it IS extraordinary.

It seems to me that the argument being made in favor is that, 'absence of proof is not proof of absence." And, perhaps the proponents have defined the subject to be impossible to prove, like the existence of a god.

A very good friend of mine, some years ago, was an advocate of and used, for instance, chiropractic. He was being treated for back pain, and I visited with him a number of times over a period of months, during which time he reported the pain would subside for a while after "adjustments" and it would later come back. At such times he called his faithful chiropractor, who did some new manipulations and sent him home.

Bottom line, he was treated by a quack, using quackery. Had he been treated by a traditional MD, he would have had an early X-Ray examination, read by a professional. He would have learned that what he was experiencing was pain from a tumor. Had he begun treatment for that cancer earlier, he might be alive today.

I view most homeopathic claims to be quite extraordinary. I wish they were all true. If they were, my wife would not be in severe daily pain, my friend would be alive, and all would be perfect in this, the best of all possible worlds.

That is not to say that there would not be a double blind, random study showing that 1 ppm or less in solution is a miracle cure for anything, or that acupuncture/acupressure provide any more than a temporary palliative consequence (yes, JHM, back rubs feel good, as do some acupressure techniques - I have tried them. Others can hurt, and do harm - been there and done that as well). I read claims with an open mind, and yet do apply a high standard when judging extraordinary claims, including medical claims that are often far beyond the pale and actually fraudulent.

Simply saying that old sages and mages have been doing that for years does not impress - they also did bloodletting, ingestion of what are now known to be poisons, and so forth.

And, I realize that some traditional remedies actually do work (and are banned - e.g., cocaine, marijuana, etc.), and that there are any number of traditional remedies that have been synthesized (in order to enable patenting). Greed is a great enabler for cognitive dissonance.

I am comfortable in disagreeing about homeopathy... I remain open to the possibility that some remedies might be curative and useful. I am also watchful when those I care about seek such treatments. Meanwhile, just call me, "ahomeopathic."

james albinson said...

As a rider to my previous note, and a comment on your (JMG) reply, this rather poses the question of what level of timekeeping is relevant. In a society bounded by the speed of an oxcart or shanks pony (feet!) you only need 4 times or tides a day - morn tide, noon tide, afternoon tide and even tide. Maybe monks with a set schedule of offices/prayers need something better, to within 15 mins per day or so. Incidentally JMG's mark on a window will give Local Solar Time which varies from a Mean Solar Time by up to 15 mins throughout the year. A good sundial with rough correction tables will do better than this - time would be broadcast by church bells... This sufficed from medieval times to the coming of the railways.

If you want to run a national railway system you need to keep time to better than than a minute per day, preferably to a second per day. The careful synchronisation of good quality pendulum clocks by stellar observations combined with time distribution by electric telegraph or radio time signals enables this level of precision. Radio time signals could well be an amateur radio contribution in a future time. In effect this would be a reversion to the early Victorian system, which might slip back to the more local systems as deindustrialisation proceeds. This is something I'll ponder in the near future.

Bill Blondeau said...

@Ray Wharton: "Even permaculture and its use of systems theory is suspect to me. The machine, a microcosm under human control, still dwells in many visions of permaculture I think."

Anyone who attempts to use systems theory to achieve a deterministic result is deeply misunderstanding the whole idea. If the permaculturists of your experience are trying to do that, then yes. Fool's errand. I'm sorry for them. The most hopeful possibility is that you may be misunderstanding their approach; but a lot of deterministic reasoning does get used by people attempting to achieve conceptual control of complex systems.

In general, the boundaries between the traditional (and deterministically tractable) domains of science and engineering, on one hand, and systems theory on the other, seem not to be very well studied. This is unfortunate: the physical sciences, at least, seem able to obtain genuinely convergent solutions. In contrast, attempts to apply deterministic analytical methods to systems seem to ordinarily end up as receding-horizons problems.

I think that systems theory is not a "science" as such - I'm not yet sure what systems theory is, honestly. Although it's clear enough that the scientific method (if not misapplied) is still of considerable value in studying systems.

Poorly studied and inadequately reified as systems theory is, it remains incredibly valuable in a lot of contexts; preserving its insights and methodologies for future generations is probably just as important as preservation of science itself. said...

Link to the hawthorne study.

I would STRONGLY recommend a book called Medical Herbalism and to get to know your local herbalist.

Jon from Virginia said...

t_t_f_h_society, you mention that there are few double blind studies on alternative medicine. It's worse than that- if you could be prove one effective, then it could only be done by a licensed doctor. There is a work-around, the "crossover study". Would studies crossing over conventional and herbal medicines would still poke the bear in the eye?

Ben said...

Nice of NASA to join the conversation. Maybe they started reading your blog?

LewisLucanBooks said...

@ Deborah Bender - Yup. Climate change is going to throw a real wild card into weather forecasting, or reporting, of any type. Besides taking advantage of the tech forecasting going on around me, I do a few other things. Now that I'm probably "in place" for the rest of my life, I pay more attention to my local weather.

I note weather "things" on my wall calendar. First frost, last frost, cold snaps, etc.. One of these days I'm going to get around to putting a poster on the wall and chart them all out. I keep an eye on an old barometer I have. We had quit a storm the other day, and I really paid attention to the clouds, before hand. They came in from the south (unusual for us) were quit low and of odd shapes. If I see that again, I know I have about two hours to batten down the hatches.

I also remembered, this morning, that Almanacs were one of the earliest things printed after the invention of the printing press. And, before them, there were "chronicles" that recorded weather data by hand. I think there's also a rich verbal local traditions about weather that still float around. "Everyone talks about the weather ..." as part of the old saw goes.

LewisLucanBooks said...

@ Stacey Armstrong - "Eric Sloanes's Weather Almanac; A Classic Illustrated Guide to Weather Folklore and Forecasting." The edition I have is 2005. No bibliography, unfortunately.

Interesting. I was just checking out Amazon to see what the earliest edition of this book is and noticed that Sloane has 4 or 5 other books on weather and weather forecasting.

daelach said...

@ JMG: I'd be very interested in your take on the currently plummeting oil price, and I think the matter is important enough to deserve one or two paragraphs in this week's blog posting.

irishwildeye said...

Off topic for this weeks theme but hopefully relevant to the overall theme, a quick update about the amazing Irish political transformation.

After 32 years as a regular reader of the mainstream Irish Times newspaper, I finally came across a mention of my hero E.F. Shumacher this weekend. They even briefly explained his ideas. Interesting times indeed, too see old Schumacher coming back in from the fringe.

You may have seen the Dublin Water Protest last Wednesday. Perhaps 50,000 people on a very cold winter day, and a major act of civil disobedience blocking a bridge in the heart of Dublin, at rush hour. Magnificent stuff.

My brother’s in law has been arrested eight times for obstructing the installation of water meters, but he continues to do so weekly. So many people are resisting that jailing them is out of the question, there is no space.

In recent weeks I have met some newly radicalised, middle class, middle aged women. Women I have known most of my life and never heard express a political thought, are suddenly burning with righteous anger about the state of our society and are ready to act and go to jail.

A significant and apparently growing section of the Irish people is full of fight and ready to challenge the established political order. There is a move to build local, grass roots political organisations and setup people’s conventions. It is suddenly a radical’s paradise.

As a life long, frustrated inhabitant of the radical fringe, this sudden turn of events took me by surprise but it gives me great hope. Who knows the risen people may yet reclaim political power and finally create the kind of Republic the leaders of the 1916 Rising died for.

There must be a General Election within 16 months and the three parties that dominated the state since its foundation are now collectively at only 48% in the polls.

Very interesting times indeed in the Emerald Isle. Irish eyes are not smiling these days they are increasingly full of rebellion. Roll on the summer.

John Michael Greer said...

Cherokee, I'd have said much the same thing; at this point, Greenpeace is part of the problem, not part of the solution. More on this in a future post.

Unknown, excellent. The skills and knowledge you'll get are likely to make your life and those of many other people a good deal easier in the years ahead.

Phil, granted -- any realistic assessment of human behavior has to start from the hard fact that we're social primates whose overdeveloped brains don't actually have that much impact on our day to day behavior.

Prizm, the ideas aren't really mine -- I just gave them a home and some puppy chow when a lot of other doors were slammed in their faces. It's good to see them roaming far and wide again.

Zaphod, I'd encourage you to reflect on the fact that the arguments you've just used to dismiss homeopathy could be used by creationists just as effectively to defend their belief that the world was created in 4004 BCE. After all, the studies that defend evolution were all conducted by people who believe in it, and if you can use a wholly subjective definition of "extraordinary" -- one that amounts in practice to "if I disagree with it, it's extraordinary" -- why, so can they.

James, and of course that's an issue. If you don't have something like a railroad system to coordinate, local solar time is good enough.

Ben, and it's not the only recent study to draw similar conclusions, either.

Daelach, this coming Wednesday's post is entirely about the crash in the price of oil and its likely effects. Stay tuned!

John Roth said...

@ on astrological & astronomical ephemerides.

the process of creating an ephemeris goes in two steps. first, the cosmological model is reduced to a set of Tables, which are then used to make ephemerides. The Alphonsine Tables were based on a Ptolomaic cycles and epicycles model involving 40 cycles and epicycles and actual observations going back to Hipparchos and Ptolomy, with all the copying errors that implies.

This was replaced by the Rudophine Tables in 1627, based on Kepler’s heliocentric theory using ellipses instead of cycles and epicycles.

The modern equivalent is based on Newton’s laws of gravity with relativistic corrections in the case of Mercury; it’s a series of equations that starts with between a half dozen and a dozen parameters for each planet and has a huge number of terms, many of which involve trig functions.

The [i]really[/i] modern ones involve pre-calculated tables from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), or a condensed set (the Swiss Ephemeris) for use in their astrological software.

Model to Tables to Ephemerides are a huge amount of work for each step. Kepler worked for years reducing Tycho Brahe’s observations to the Rudophine Tables, only taking time out to defend his mother against a charge of witchcraft (8 years) and a dispute with Tycho’s heirs about who owned the observations. Then the first edition was destroyed when the printer’s shop burned in a peasant revolt.

Using a pre-calculated ephemeris for an actual set of positions at a given time and place is comparatively simple. And yes, I did it by hand back in the day. It doesn’t take that long to set up a chart.


Interesting thing about those old weather diaries. The people keeping them were trying to collect data to fix the astrological weather forecasting of the time. Nice bit of early observational science that wound up demonstrating that the astrological weather forecasting methodology of the time didn’t work.

G E Canterbury said...

James Albinson and JMG –

Coincidentally, this year I placed a tiny mark on my south-facing office window and made a project of tracking the position of the shadow at the top of each hour. It has been quite fascinating over the course of a few months to watch the marks trace out the figure-8 shape of an analemma, and to consider that this curve is a visible indication of the progress of the seasons combined with the change in speed of the earth as it moves through its slightly eccentric orbit. I can confirm that while the sun is out these hand-drawn curves can function as a quite accurate combined clock and calendar, able to pinpoint the start of a new hour to within about fifteen seconds. Applied astronomy!

-Grant Canterbury

Cherokee Organics said...


Many thanks for considering that aspect of decline, although it possibly won't win you friends.

I agree wholeheartedly with you and look forward to your analysis.

PS: I have a new blog entry up discussing wombats, sheds, preserves and spiders: The eleventh hour



ThisOldMan said...

I'm sure there are lots of exceptions to this rule of which I am ignorant, but I have the impression that the philosophies and even more certainly the religions of the ancients were a great deal more anthropocentric than is modern science. Which it must be admitted makes the human race seem like an ultimately inconsequential click of static in the evolutionary history of the planet, and the planet itself an even more inconsequential speck of dust in the universe. These observations are disturbing even to me (a scientist), but will no doubt be even more disturbing to those who wield the oyster shells.

Patricia Mathews said...

Thanks, tinfoil. I have emailed the link to myself and will look up the book.


Varun Bhaskar said...


Now I have another book on my reading list, thanks!


Thank the gods, I'm glad we'll finally get a picture of what happens after the next oil crash. I've been struggling to make plans around that.

Speaking of plans. Things are moving along nicely here in Wisconsin. The people I'm Wizarding for are starting to pay attention. Two weeks ago we held a jam making party to go over the basics of food preservation, seven people attended. More plans are in the works and two people are taking leadership roles.


Will add that to my growing reading list.



Raymond Duckling said...

@Toomas Karmo - Glad to hear you gave it a serious try. My experience was similar, though admitedly on newer hardware. It is quite a reachable goal for the people who has already has sinked serious time into gaining the required skills. Not so much for a newcomer.

@Ursachi, Zaphod42, etc -

Alt-med is a very mixed bag, not a panacea. Quackery is widespread, and even among practitioners with good meaning intentions, claims are made that challenges the very world view that lays the foundation of most westerners nowadays.

Still, science have been put to study some of this phenomena, with positive results.

I can talk about acupuncture, which is the subject I am familiar with. I am quoting from memory, so I will owe you the reference, but I recall an study made on rats, which received an intentional damage to spine that mimics damage typically found on victims of car crashes.
I recall the point selection by researchers being clumsy, and the application being both insufficient and unrealistic (a single discharge from a piezoelectric stimulator within 5 minutes of original trauma). In spite of this shortcomings, the treated rats did measurably better,
not only than the control group, but than the statistical data from real patients that receive standard medical treatment (which was marginally better than the control group anyways).

When I get home, I will comment a bit further on that study and the conflation of Science and Acupuncture in general, though I think some of my conclusions would fit better the debate in the Well of Walabes blog.

dfr2010 said...

JMG, in the upcoming post on oil prices crashing and what knock-on effects we can expect, I do hope you touch upon just how much of the "shale revolution" has been financed via junk bonds and why ZIRP has driven some rather conservative funds into said junk bonds. The amount of leverage used this time may make the subprime 2007-2008 contagion look like just a mild cold.

Kaitain said...

@ JMG and Gloucon:

Especially when there has been evidence of blatant vote fraud in addition to Monsatan, etc pouring vast amounts of money into ad campaigns in order to scare voters into voting against anti-GMO initiatives.

Since American democracy has become a rigged game that stacks the deck in favor of big money special interests, that will have the effect of discrediting the system and making a revolt inevitable at some point. When I think of the elites running the American political system and Corporate America, I am reminded again and again of the French aristocracy immediately prior to the Revolution of 1789...

David said...


I'd be interested in observing the reaction to the kind of TED talk that you would give...

Thomas Mazanec said...

I first learned about the collapse of modern civilization through increasing complexity and overhead in the period of the first OPEC energy crisis when I read Roberto Vacca's THE COMING DARK AGE and thought we would already be in this deindustrialized future by now.

Seb Ze Frog said...

@ John Roth:
a nice summary of the methods to calculate ephemerids, to which I have little to add but for this specific text:

It is a link to a quote from Feynmann, where he actually shows with an example how this works in practice.

I remember when I read it for the first time and realized that *this was possible*.

Maybe that's one of the ways to get away with the sharp edge of the shells: be down in the streets, showing the strings and tricks that would otherwise be hidden in High Teck Trinkets.
For some reason, the image of a wandering something comes to mind. Never rich, maybe with some kind of discutable fame, but well... alive. And I think, happy.


Violet Cabra said...

N Montesano,

the similarity between Christian and Scientific dogmas isn't incidental, it is causal. according to Spengler, the rational period of a culture grows out of its religion. More specifically, the seed of rationalism is found in the puritan movement of a culture's religion. with this conceptual framework it is telling that Isaac Newton was born 30 years after Oliver Cromwell. Newton's was the generation proceeding puritanism. Equally of interest is that in Greek times a similar chain of events unfolded - Euclid was about 30 years younger than Pythagoras.

I would say that the scientific revolution in the West wasn't a break from earlier Christian dogmatics any more than the Reformation. Certainly, the luminaries of that time viewed their work as of the utmost religious significance.

Ellen He said...

Could the study of history create new sciences such as the hypothetical concept of socionomics?

Robert Mathiesen said...

Anthony Romano mentioned Agnes Arber's excellent _Herbals, Their Origin and Evolution_ (2nd ed., revised, 1938). I'd like to add Eleanour Rohde's _The Old English Herbals_ (1922). Rohde's book can be downloaded as a PDF from the Internet Archive (, as can the first edition (1912) or Arber's book. (The second edition seems still to be under copyright.) Also well worth noting is Frank J Anderson's _An Illustrated Hiostory of the Herbals_ (1977), which is not hard to find as a used book.

Crow Hill said...

To JMG: Thank you for your answer concerning not taking modern science as producing objective truths. I’m not totally convinced because philosophical analysis is also something of the mind and not absolute either. Agreed about not turning dogmatic one way or the other.

To Violet Cabra and others: I share your views about the need to move back to a paradigm where all beings not only humans are subjects. It existed also in the West until the industrial revolution. I think Descartes was one of the baddies in this respect.

Ellen He said...

Here's the actual link on socionomics I was referring to.

Thomas Mazanec said...

We get new GMOs every day, by the trillion. They are called mutations and come from random changes in DNA, or transfers of DNA between organisms.
I don't think we should make frivolous changes and release them into the environment, but things like Golden Rice could improve life for millions.

Tat Loo said...

Chiropractors are very well trained, in the USA and in other jurisdictions, to identify insidious causes of back pain. They are also well trained to take and read spinal x-rays, and make clinical diagnoses upon that imaging.

That being said, the political animosity between the chiropractic and medical professions is well known and longstanding. Patient care would be improved by building bridges between the professions, not by heightening walls. Why should the ability to approach clinical problems from different perspectives and with different tools in hand be considered a weakness instead of a strength.

According to zaphod42 the pain caused by his friend's spinal malignancy was eased, without drugs, by chiropractic care. That to me is not "quackery." It is an incredibly valuable clinical finding to follow up on, which could potentially help a lot of people.

SeaMari said...

You may already have heard this....

The Health Commissioner of New York State just announced today that after many months of review of health studies on hydrofracking, the State will ban the practice.

NY governor Andrew Cuomo is a very canny politician. Interesting timing for this announcement!

Robert Mathiesen said...

I ought to have mentioned, in my previous post, that complete PDFs of many of these early-printed herbals in Latin, German anmd French can be downloaded *for free* from the digidtal website of the Bavarian State Library in München. Even if you can't read the languages, the old woodcuts in these books are breathtaking. I am particularly partial to the _Hortus Sanitatis_ published at Mainz in 1491.

Ed-M said...


I don't expect you to. If I recall correctly, you already gave your.idea of it's origins I'm the Miami. Homeless kids post.

Ed-M said... the Miami Homeless Kids post.

**** I-phone autocorrect!

Bill Man said...

Great article, lots of food for thought. I am a huge fan of science and discovery. I am fascinated by the Tracy-Widom distribution of highly correlated systems, which seems have to have a universality from sub atomic particles, to species extinction patterns to the stock market and beyond.

Biologist, Robert May, did a study on the effects of tortoise populations in a model of an archipelago and how the amount of flotsam between islands played a large role in creating strong interactions between the populations of tortoises as different species of tortoises rode flotsam to neighboring islands creating population instability. Robert May noticed that the populations rise and fall followed a skewed distribution pattern, later dubbed the Tracy-Widom distribution.

If society's planners could reduce the amount of figurative flotsam, each island's individual populations would be less likely to suffer catastrophic population destabilization. The flotsam in this case might be the highly complex and integrated banking systems,JIT inventory systems, and/or etc.

I do think that science has the answers for humankind to make slow and steady growth of knowledge and discovery and sustainability for everything else, but our lack of social intelligence and the greed of even a very few well placed people will likely derail anything resembling long term stability planning by a central authority. It seems as though we as a species are drifting instinctually into repeating our mistakes. Maybe humans have no more collective ability to forge our future than do subatomic particles and we will forever be trapped inside a Tracy-Widom distribution.

I find it interesting that the things JMG is proposing on how to deal with the realities of peak oil are in some respects to change the shape of the curve in which we now reside, reduce the strength of interaction between the strongly correlated aspects of our civilization to reduce the steepness of the right side of the curve. If we had more foresight, and discipline, and along with reducing the amount of strongly interacting correlations we also reduced the amplitude of the curve before we hit the peak, the other side of the curve would be flattened and extended providing a softer landing further in the future. We would also have more time at the apex of the curve.