Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Scientific Education as a Cause of Political Stupidity

While we’re discussing education, the theme of the current series of posts here on The Archdruid Report, it’s necessary to point out that there are downsides as well as upsides to take into account. The savant so saturated in abstractions that he’s hopelessly inept at the business of everyday life has been a figure of fun in literature for many centuries now, not least because examples of the type are so easy to find in every age.

That said, certain kinds of education have more tightly focused downsides. It so happens, for example, that engineers have contributed rather more to crackpot literature than most other professions. Hollow-earth theories, ancient-astronaut speculations, treatises arguing that the lost continent of Atlantis is located nearly anywhere on Earth except where Plato said it was—well, I could go on; engineers have written a really impressive share of the gaudier works in such fields. In my misspent youth, I used to collect such books as a source of imaginative entertainment, and when the jacket claimed the author was some kind of engineer, I knew I was in for a treat.

I treated that as an interesting coincidence until I spent a couple of years working for a microfilming company in Seattle that was owned by a retired Boeing engineer. He was also a devout fundamentalist Christian and a young-Earth creationist; he’d written quite a bit of creationist literature, though I never heard that any of it was published except as densely typed photocopied handouts—and all of it displayed a very specific logic: given that the Earth was created by God on October 23, 4004 BCE, at 9:00 in the morning, how can we explain the things we find on Earth today?

That is to say, he approached it as an engineering problem.

Engineers are trained to figure out what works. Give them a problem, and they’ll beaver away until they find a solution—that’s their job, and the engineering profession has been around long enough, and had enough opportunities to refine its methods of education, that a training in engineering does a fine job of teaching you how to work from a problem to a solution. What it doesn’t teach you is how to question the problem. That’s why, to turn to another example, you get entire books that start from the assumption that the book of Ezekiel was about a UFO sighting and proceed to work out, in impressive detail, exactly what the UFO must have looked like, how it was powered, and so on. “But how do we know it was a UFO sighting in the first place?” is the one question that never really gets addressed.

It’s occurred to me recently that another specific blindness seems to be hardwired into another mode of education, one that’s both prestigious and popular these days: a scientific education—that is to say, a technical education in the theory and practice of one of the hard sciences.  The downside to such an education, I’d like to suggest, is that it makes you stupid about politics. Plenty of examples come to mind, and I’ll be addressing some of the others shortly, but the one I want to start with is classic in its simplicity, not to mention its simple-mindedness. This is the recent proposal by astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson, which I quote in full:

Earth needs a virtual country: #Rationalia, with a one-line Constitution: All policy shall be based on the weight of evidence— Neil deGrasse Tyson (@neiltyson) June 29, 2016

That might be dismissed as just another example of the thought-curtailing properties of Twitter’s 140-character limit—if a potter makes pots, what does Twitter make?—except that Tyson didn’t say, “here’s the principle behind the constitution, details to follow.” That’s his proposed constitution in its entirety.

More precisely, that’s his sound bite masquerading as a constitution. An actual constitution, as anyone knows who has actually read one, doesn’t just engage in a bit of abstract handwaving about how decisions are to be made. It sets out in detail who makes the decisions, how the decision-makers are selected, what checks and balances are meant to keep the decision-makers from abusing their positions, and so on. If Donald Trump, say, gave a speech saying, “We need a new scientific method that consists solely of finding the right answer,” he’d be mocked for not knowing the first thing about science. A similar response is appropriate here.

That said, Tyson’s proposal embodies another dimension of cluelessness about politics. Insisting that political decisions ought to be made exclusively on the basis of evidence sounds great, until you try to apply it to actual politics. Take that latter step, and what you’ll discover is that evidence is only tangentially relevant to most political decisions.

Consider the recent British referendum over whether to leave the European Union. That decision could not have been made on the basis of evidence, because all sides, as far as I know, agreed on the facts.  Those were that Britain had joined the European Economic Community (as it then was) in 1973, that its membership involved ceding certain elements of national sovereignty to EU bureaucracies, and that EU policies benefited certain people in Britain while disadvantaging others. None of those points were at issue. The points that were at issue were values on the one hand, and interests on the other.

By values I mean judgments, by individuals and communities, about what matters and what doesn’t, what’s desirable and what isn’t, what can be tolerated and what can’t. These can’t be reduced to mere questions of evidence. A statement such as “the free movement of people across national borders is good and important” can’t be proved or disproved by any number of double-blind controlled studies. It’s a value that some people hold and others don’t, as is the statement “the right of people to self-determination must be protected from the encroachments of unelected bureaucrats in Brussels.” Those values are in conflict with each other, and it was in large part over such values that the Brexit election was fought out and decided.

By interests I mean the relative distribution of costs and benefits. Any political decision, about any but the most trivial subject, brings benefits and has costs, and far more often than not the people who get the benefits and the people who carry the costs are not the same. EU membership for Britain was a case in point. By and large, the affluent got the majority of the benefits—they were the ones who could send their children to German universities and count on border-free travel to holidays in Spain—and the working poor carried the majority of the costs—they were the ones who had to compete for jobs against a rising tide of immigrants, while the number of available jobs declined due to EU policies that encouraged offshoring of industry to lower-wage countries.

What made the Brexit referendum fascinating, at least to me, was the way that so many of the pro-EU affluent tried to insist that the choice was purely about values, and that any talk about the interests of the working poor was driven purely by racism and xenophobia—that is to say, values.  As I’ve noted here in numerous posts, the affluent classes in the industrial world have spent the last four decades or so throwing the working poor under the bus and then rolling the wheels back and forth over them, while insisting at the top of their lungs that they’re doing nothing of the kind.

Wage earners, and the millions who would be happy to earn a wage if they could find work, know better.  Here in America, for example, most people outside the echo chambers of the affluent remember perfectly well that forty years ago, a family with one working class income could afford a house, a car, and the other amenities of life, while today, a family with one working class income is probably living on the street. Shouting down open discussion of interests by insisting that all political decisions have to do solely with values has been a common strategy on the part of the affluent; the outcome of the Brexit referendum is one of several signs that this strategy is near the end of its shelf life.

In the real world—the world where politics has to function—interests come first. Whether you or I are benefited or harmed, enriched or impoverished by some set of government policies is the bedrock of political reality. Evidence plays a role: yes, this policy will benefit these people; no, these other people won’t share in those benefits—those are questions of fact, but settling them doesn’t settle the broader question. Values also play a role, but there are always competing values affecting any political decision worth the name; the pursuit of liberty conflicts with the pursuit of equality, justice and mercy pull in different directions, and so on.

To make a political decision, you sort through the evidence to find the facts that are most relevant to the issue—and “relevant,” please note, is a value judgement, not a simple matter of fact. Using the relevant evidence as a framework, you weigh competing values against one another—this also involves a value judgment—and then you weigh competing interests against one another, and look for a compromise on which most of the contending parties can more or less agree. If no such compromise can be found, in a democratic society, you put it to a vote and do what the majority says. That’s how politics is done; we might even call it the political method.

That’s not how science is done, though. The scientific method is a way of finding out which statements about nature are false and discarding them, under the not unreasonable assumption that you’ll be left with a set of statements about nature that are as close as possible to the truth. That process rules out compromise. If you’re Lavoisier and you’re trying to figure out how combustion works, you don’t say, hey, here’s the oxygenation theory and there’s the phlogiston theory, let’s agree that half of combustion happens one way and the other half the other; you work out an experiment that will disprove one of them, and accept its verdict. What’s inadmissible in science, though, is the heart of competent politics.

In science, furthermore, interests are entirely irrelevant in theory. (In practice—well, we’ll get to that in a bit.)  Decisions about values are transferred from the individual scientist to the scientific community via such practices as peer review, which make and enforce value judgments about what counts as good, relevant, and important research in each field. The point of these habits is to give scientists as much room as possible to focus purely on the evidence, so that facts can be known as facts, without interference from values or interests. It’s precisely the habits of mind that exclude values and interests from questions of fact in scientific research that make modern science one of the great intellectual achievements of human history, on a par with the invention of logic by the ancient Greeks.

One of the great intellectual crises of the ancient world, in turn, was the discovery that logic was not the solution to every human problem. A similar crisis hangs over the modern world, as claims that science can solve all human problems prove increasingly hard to defend, and the shrill insistence by figures such as Tyson that it just ain’t so should be read as evidence for the imminence of real trouble. Tyson himself has demonstrated clearly enough that a first-rate grasp of astronomy does not prevent the kind of elementary mistake that gets you an F in Political Science 101. He’s hardly alone in displaying the limits of a scientific education; Richard Dawkins is a thoroughly brilliant biologist, but whenever he opens his mouth about religion, he makes the kind of crass generalizations and jawdropping non sequiturs that college sophomores used to find embarrassingly crude.

None of this is helped by the habit, increasingly common in the scientific community, of demanding that questions having to do with values and interests should be decided, not on the evidence, but purely on the social prestige of science. I’m thinking here of the furious open letter signed by a bunch of Nobel laureates, assailing Greenpeace for opposing the testing and sale of genetically engineered rice. It’s a complicated issue, as we’ll see in a moment, but you won’t find that reflected in the open letter. Its argument is simple: we’re scientists, you’re not, and therefore you should shut up and do as we say.

Let’s take this apart a step at a time. To begin with, the decision to allow or prohibit the testing and sale of genetically engineered rice is inherently  political rather than scientific. Scientific research, as noted above, deals with facts as facts, without reference to values or interests. “If you do X, then Y will happen”—that’s a scientific statement, and if it’s backed by adequate research and replicable testing, it’s useful as a way of framing decisions. The decisions, though, will inevitably be made on the basis of values and interests. “Y is a good thing, therefore you should do X” is a value judgment; “Y will cost me and benefit you, therefore you’re going to have to give me something to get me to agree to X” is a statement of interest—and any political decision that claims to ignore values and interests is either incompetent or dishonest.

There are, as it happens, serious questions of value and interest surrounding the genetically engineered rice under discussion. It’s been modified so that it produces vitamin A, which other strains of rice don’t have, and thus will help prevent certain kinds of blindness—that’s one side of the conflict of values. On the other side, most seed rice in the Third World is saved from the previous year’s crop, not purchased from seed suppliers, and the marketing of the GMO rice thus represents yet another means for a big multinational corporation to pump money out of the pockets of some of the poorest people on earth to enrich stockholders in the industrial world. There are many other ways to get vitamin A to people in the Third World, but you won’t find those being discussed by Nobel laureates—nor, of course, are any of the open letter’s signatories leading a campaign to raise enough money to buy the patent for the GMO rice and donate it to the United Nations, let’s say, so poor Third World farmers can benefit from the rice without having to spend money they don’t have in order to pay for it.

These are the issues that have been raised by Greenpeace among others. To respond to that with a straightforward display of the logical fallacy called argumentum ad auctoritatem—“I’m an authority in the field, therefore whatever I say is true”—is bad reasoning, but far more significantly, it’s inept politics. You can only get away with that trick a certain number of times, unless what you say actually does turn out to be true, and institutional science these days has had way too many misses to be able to lean so hard on its prestige. I’ve noted in previous posts here the way that institutional science has blinded itself to the view from outside its walls, ignoring the growing impact of the vagaries of scientific opinion in fields such as human nutrition, the straightforward transformation of research into marketing in the medical and pharmaceutical industry, and the ever-widening chasm between the promises of safety and efficacy brandished by scientists and the increasingly unsafe and ineffective drugs, technologies, and policy decisions that burden the lives of ordinary people.

There are plenty of problems with that, but the most important of them is political. People make political decisions on the basis of their values and their perceived interests, within a frame provided by accepted facts. When the people whose job it is to present and interpret the facts start to behave in ways that bring their own impartiality into question, the “accepted facts” stop being accepted—and when scientists make a habit of insisting that the values and interests of most people don’t matter when those conflict, let’s say, with the interests of big multinational corporations that employ lots of scientists, it’s only a matter of time before whatever scientists say is dismissed out of hand as simply an attempt to advance their interests at the expense of others.

That, I’m convinced, is one of the major forces behind the widening failure of climate change activism, and environmental activism in general, to find any foothold among the general public. These days, when a scientist like Tyson gets up on a podium to make a statement, a very large percentage of the listeners don’t respond to his words by thinking, “Wow, I didn’t know that.” They respond by thinking, “I wonder who’s paying him to say that?” That would be bad enough if it was completely unjustified, but in many fields of science—especially, as noted earlier, medicine and pharmacology—it’s become a necessary caveat, as failures to replicate mount up, blatant manipulation of research data comes to light, and more and more products that were touted as safe and effective by the best scientific authorities turn out to be anything but.

Factor that spreading crisis of legitimacy into the history of climate change activism and it’s not hard to see the intersection. Fifteen years ago, the movement to stop anthropogenic climate change was a juggernaut; today it’s a dead letter, given lip service or ignored completely in national politics, and reduced to a theater of the abusrd by heavily publicized international agreements that commit no one to actually reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Much of the rhetoric of climate change activism fell into the same politically incompetent language already sketched out—“We’re scientists, you’re not, so shut up and do as you’re told”—and the mere fact that they were right, and that anthropogenic climate change is visibly spinning out of control around us right now, doesn’t change the fact that such language alienated far more people than it attracted, and thus helped guarantee the failure of the movement.

Of course there was a broader issue tangled up in this, and it’s the same one that’s dogging scientific pronouncements generally these days: the issue of interests. Specifically, who was expected to pay the costs of preventing anthropogenic climate change, and who was exempted from those costs? That’s not a question that’s gotten anything like the kind of attention it deserves—not, at least, in the acceptable discourse of the political mainstream. We’ll be talking about it two weeks from now.

In other news, I'm pleased to report that the print edition of The Archdruid Report is now open for subscribers. Stone Circle Press, appropriately enough, will be publishing the Report monthly as a zine. Their sales website, still very basic as yet, is here.


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Unknown said...

Twits!!! I LOL'd at that.


whomever said...

Oh man, so very, very, true.
I work in computers, and there's a huge tendency among the people I work with to, in the words of someone I can't remember, see the law and politics as a Universal Turning Machine. That is, they believe that people and the law work just like computer programs and that if they can come up with a clever reading of the law they've found a bug they can exploit, even though an actual lawyer would roll their eyes and explain patiently that no, common law doesn't work that way, intent etc. This mindset then leads into a lot of the more whacky stuff coming out from various libertarian types, who don't seem to realize that they are making exactly the same mistaken assumptions that the communists did in the 1930s, that we can just engineer away human nature. This will have exactly the same results in the very unlikely event any of their suggestions ever actually happen in practice.

By the way, if you ever want to make a Bay-Area resident change the subject, point out that the current Bay-Area economy looks exactly like Detroit's did circa 1955 or so.

Then you combine all this with what I've heard described as "Doctor Investment Syndrome". I used to work in finance, and If you ever talk to someone in finance, the general consensus is that doctors are, without question, the worlds worst investors: They (in the general, obviously there are exceptions) are really arrogant, smart but not quite as smart as they think they are, have a chunk of money to burn and assume that the knowledge they have about the human body carries over perfectly to working out how the markets work, in a sort of Dunning-Kreuger effect. This makes them perfect marks for buying Florida Swampland and the like, and the Bernie Madoffs of the world are great at exploiting this; the general consensus is if a Doctor invests in something, run far, far, far away.

Combine all this and you get some truly strange ideas coming out of a number of nominally smart people who are nevertheless talking about something they don't know at all. You see this all the time.

On the plus side, you'll be happy to know that the record Lake Mead water lows are being fixed by negotiation:

whomever said...

Oh, one other thing: Interestingly, Engineers are prone to being terrorists (see eg I think this backs up your thesis 100%: They see it as a solution to a particular problem without thinking about the bigger picture.

W. B. Jorgenson said...

Who's gonna pay the costs? Well, it would make the most sense for it to be put on the people who pollute the most, no? Alas, that's not how we do things.

And you now have at least one happy subscriber to the print version. I figure the benefits to being able to continue to read this will be worth the small cost. Plus, it supports your writing, which to my mind is a very good thing.

Finally, Cherokee, not sure if you saw it, but I replied to you on the previous post. Thank you for taking the time to reply to me, and I'm happy to keep our conversation going.

W. B. Jorgenson said...

Oh, also, when does the first issue come out? I'm assuming August, but I'd like to know for sure.

Shane W said...

I wanted to thank all the Brexiteers who commented recently on standing by their convictions in spite of bringing down a tirade of contempt from Remainers, and the UK in general for voting to Leave in the teeth of overwhelming elite and establishment pressure to Remain. It's giving me the courage and fortitude to do the equivalent on this side of the pond. I'm very ambivalent about Trump, but, by golly, if he's the vehicle, then I'm on board. The class divisions in this country have become very apparent to me over the past few years, and it's become even more apparent what class I belong to...

aaa said...

Found your description of engineers amusing. (I am one). Wonder where scifi/fantasy authors rank when it comes to crackpot theories ;-) ... personally, I think the same thing that makes one susceptible to crackpot theories also makes one willing to "step out of the box" and examine alternatives to conventional wisdom. Moreover, if any person is to begin developing and exercising their critical thinking ability to use in questioning conventional wisdom, they will likely go thru a phase of being into crackpot theories, until those too are rejected, and their instincts in critical thinking improve. Those people are on the right track, we should encourage them.

Also, there's a book on the phenomenon of people being smart about science but dumb about politics:

Disciplined Minds: A Critical Look at Salaried Professionals and the Soul-battering System That Shapes Their Lives, Jeff Schmidt, 2001.

Parts of this book are about exactly the phenomenon you describe, and about how the training process makes it so. The writing is a bit brutal and driven by the authors personal experiences, which give it a dark edge :-(. In 1 sentence, it says that highly educated professionals, even when they are staunch defenders of scientific integrity and political independence within their field, are much more likely to be conformist (politically submissive) outside their field.


Ixtlan said...

Not sure who said it but "When Richard Dawkins opens his mouth, a dozen people decide to give religion a second chance."

Marcu said...

Thank you for a timely and informative post. As an engineer myself I can attest that there is a big echo chamber effect that takes place in engineering and there is a lot of disdain for politics and the views of non-engineers.
Among my engineering friends there is a strong belief that the world would be a great place if it was ruled by engineers. I seriously doubt that this would work. My main take away from this week's essay is that no single system can solve all of our problems.


The next meeting of the Green Wizard's Association of Melbourne will be held on the last Saturday of July. All interested parties are invited to attend. For those people who are unsure about the nature of our meetings, imagine a long descent support group with some intentional living discussion mixed in.

If you are interested to join us, meet us on Saturday the 30th of July 2016 at 13:00. The venue is, Vapiano, 347 Flinders Lane, Melbourne Victoria, Australia.

Send queries and comments to limitstogrowth1972[at]

Just look for the green wizard's hat.

P.S. I have created a webpage where I will post the details of the next meeting and any further details for those who don't frequent the comments here. The webpage can be found at

Justin said...

Regarding climate change: It is obviously happening, and quickly. The disturbing thing is that I am skeptical about climate science for a number of reasons. I won`t touch the funding feeding frenzy and argument from authority issues, as those are well-documented. I won`t talk about the club of celebrity climate boosters who live fantastically carbon-intensive lives. I`ve read the IPCC reports and made an effort to understand the physics, and although I can`t really speak from authority as an engineer who has had nothing to do with thermodynamics since my last exam on the subject, I think there are serious issues.

Nobody, not climate skeptics, nor climate scientists, nor Al Gore, properly understands the effects that water vapor and clouds has on the planet. In fact, I think IPCC 5 (I went on a climate paper binge about a year ago, after taking a certain prediction about 2030 seriously for about a week, I haven`t paid any attention since) even admits that there is essentially no way to properly model the water vapor-cloud system`s effects on the climate even in a vague-but accurate long term sort of way. On top of that, human activities such as agriculture, putting aerosols into the atmosphere, air travel, etc have serious effects on this system that are not properly modeled. I don`t mean to say that everything will be fine, I`m saying that based on my reading of the facts, nobody really has a clue what`s going to happen including myself, except that it probably will not be a good thing. Of course, maybe I think this way because I`m an engineer.

It's also worth considering that based on the actual actions and statements of the 'climate community', conspiracy theories about global governance aren't really as illogical as your average climate scientist will claim they are.

One strange (bright?) spot here in Canada is that the Conservative party has adopted "because it's the current year" as a quasi-slogan. I read this as a direct mockery of the popular liberal notion that because it's, well, the current year, X should be Y. Of course, my perspective on the issue is fairly slanted due to sharing the author's views about progress.

A Post-Millennial said...

Hey everybody, I'm with Stone Circle Press. As JMG noted, the website is still very basic. We wanted to get it up now though to give everyone time to sign up before the first issue, July 2016, ships at the end of this month. If you have any questions about the zine, feel free to email us at stonecirclepress(at)riseup(dot)net.

Chris Smith said...

Thank you, JMG, for putting that argument together. It's the old "I've got a hammer so everything looks very nail-like" argument. Science and politics are different fields, so we should expect that different tools will be required. One must pay attention to the matters under discussion to determine which toolbox to bring.

Back when I was an underpaid philosophy lecturer, I tried to drive this point home to my students. I forced my poor freshmen students to read Alan Turing's "Computing Machinery and Intelligence." Not just the "nine objections," but the whole damn paper. I had an agenda for this. After reading the paper, I asked my class what the most important point in the paper was. Way too many pointed to some of the tables or explanations of how discrete state devices work. Others would point to the idea of the Turing test. After allowing my class to discuss for a few minutes, I directed their attention to this paragraph:

It was suggested tentatively that the question, "Can machines think?" should be replaced by "Are there imaginable digital computers which would do well in the imitation game?" If we wish we can make this superficially more general and ask "Are there discrete-state machines which would do well?" But in view of the universality property we see that either of these questions is equivalent to this, "Let us fix our attention on one particular digital computer C. Is it true that by modifying this computer to have an adequate storage, suitably increasing its speed of action, and providing it with an appropriate programme, C can be made to play satisfactorily the part of A in the imitation game, the part of B being taken by a man?"

That is, Turing is equating intelligence with intelligible behavior (i.e. some form of behaviorism or functionalism). If you disagree with Turing's premise about what constitutes intelligence, then the rest of the paper will fail to convince you. In short, pay attention to what is actually under consideration. (The same thing holds for John Searle's Chinese Room rejoinder to Turing in "Brains, Minds, and Programs" - which always struck me as an elaborate exercise in circular thinking. Gee, John, if we assume that you are right about the nature of consciousness, then you are right about the nature of consciousness.)

I like to think I got some of my students interested in probing some underlying assumptions. At least a few of them even dared to question their lecturer on occasion.

siliconguy said...

An Engineering education does indeed teach you to question the problem. However Marketing and Management can and do exercise their prerogatives as Signers-of-the-Checks to have the last word on the definition of the problem. And where this hits on one of your previous issues, transferring the externalities to someone else, is waste treatment. That is not a profit center, and gets short shrift. Plant utilities are another example. No one cares about the plant air compressor until it quits, then it's panic until it's running again.

Nestorian said...

With some hesitancy, I take this occasion to identify myself as a young-earth creationist of intense conviction. (If there are any other such among regular readers of The Archdruid Report, please identify yourselves!)

One of the books on the topic that I own is by an engineer named Walt Brown. JMG, is that the person you worked for?

The other remark about this matter that I will hazard relates to the point about the diminishing credibility of scientific authority. For me personally, this lack of intellectual credibility on the part of the scientific establishment was powerfully reinforced by my several years of intense research into the intellectual viability of young earth creationism, beginning around 2007.

Among other things, I found that most scientific proponents of the opposite persuasion are unable to distinguish logical circularities from sound reasoning. They also engage constantly in fallacious ad hominem attacks against their opponents, as well as the precise type of flawed reasoning from authority that JMG deplores in this week's post. There is also quite a bit of handwaving masquerading as rigorous logic in their attempts to defend against young-earth creationist attacks.

To sum up: Based on my appraisal of the controversy, young earth creationist tend to be far better logicians than their scientific opponents.

I know many readers of this blog are puzzled by the continuing persistence of young-earth creationist views in today's world. Please consider my current post to be a small contribution towards explaining this state of affairs.

Yeast in a Bottle said...


Paul Beckwith, the paleo-climate scientist from Canada ( seems like the poster child for your essay's points on the failure of climate change activism. He is genuinely flummoxed at why he makes climate change sense yet the powers that be and the general public don't react to his dire predictions. He has brilliantly connected many dots but has no grasp at all on Realpolitik.

Glenn said...

Tyson's remarks bring to my mind Plato's Republic. Whether he's right or not is another matter, but it's a definite echo of past frustrations with the politic process on the part of professional intellectuals.


in the Bramblepatch
Marrowstone Island
Salish Sea

The Cloudwalking Owl said...

It seems to me that a lot of issues are getting mixed together in this post rather than clearly delineated. The issue of who benefits from a technology is not really a question of values, per ce, but rather one of social science. If it is the case that a genetically modified rice is going to make the life of ordinary peasants worse because they can no longer seed save, that is something that can be shown by social science research. I would posit that many of the problems Greer is talking about come from scientists doing something that is a total scientific no-no, speaking outside of their area of expertise. The values issue is that a lot of people in the hard sciences think very poorly of social science. That sounds like old fashioned arrogance to me.

Personally, I'm of the opinion that science is pretty much a process of developing consensus rather than TRUTH. That's what the whole process of moving from hypothesis to theory by using things like falsifiability and peer reviewed journals is all about. In the same way, my experience of politics is also about developing a consensus through a series of labourious mechanisms to allow a "meeting of minds". I'd suggest that that's what the whole campaign of Bernie Sanders was all about---trying to bring new ideas into a Democratic party that was pretty much moribund.

Anyway, Mr. Greer is an expert at crafting narratives that explain the world. I don't have exactly the same narrative, but there is overlap. So I will leave it at that.

Jim said...

Wow. I don't think I've read one of these columns with so many issues that I feel a need to respond to.

First, I'm an engineer, and really proud of my training and how it has molded my thought processes. Yet I have to agree that I, too, have seen a scary number of goofy non-technical proposals put forth by engineers.

However I don't think that the fault lies specifically in the training that engineers receive but it is more related to the confidence engineers accumulate by actually making things happen and the ease with which engineers can assemble relationships with ideas combined with the lack of training, and interest, engineers have in social and value concepts. This issue is made worse by, what to me, is one of the most incredible characteristics of the human mind. That is the ability to compartmentalize different subjects and put impenerable barriers between them. For example, a person can be quite talented at, say, solving complex math problems related to physical subjects and not be able to balance their checkbook. I attribute this dichotomy to interest, or values. I had an engineering mentor many years ago that was a wonderful engineer and a young earth creationist. It boggled my mind that he could be so clever and resourceful on technical subjects and simply accept his parent's religion without thought.

About politics and compromise. I'm suprised that in your discussion about interests and compromise you left out what to me is the core of our political problems today, power. If you have the financial power to tempt, cajole and threaten the people who find politics a way of life your interests simply dominate the playing field. The compromises that ensue have nothing to do with any kind of balance between the parties. The compromises end up being essentially chaff thrown to the parties with the least power.

We agree that there is a great deal of distrust of experts. This distrust is spread over all levels of "authority". Scientists aren't trusted. Politicians (especially) aren't trusted. Business people aren't trusted. I attribute this problem much more to the abuse of power much more than to confusion between facts and values.

Regarding climate change I feel that the scientists have done a good job of identifying a problem and making the problem public. However solving the problem shows promise of breaking the rice bowl of very, very powerful organizations and people and those people and organizations have thrown fortunes literally at obscuring the scientific data and personally discrediting the individuals who have done the work.

I agree completely with you about the reaction of people to globalization, but isn't this too an issue of power? The policies have been put forth in collaboration with those having the power to move politicians and the media into making globalization fait accompli. But there is a value issue here too. Millions of Americans have suffered from the effects of globalization. Tens of millions of Asians have benefitted. I honestly can't say it is evil but my guess is that the life expectations of the Americans have suffered more than the aspirations of Asians have been met.

Thanks again for the steady diet of thoughtful discourse (even tho' I don't always agree!)

Bryan L. Allen said...

I find it deliciously ironic that N. deG.Tyson's proposal to create a virtual country has, by its very nature, created the foundation of that virtual country. For what does "virtual" mean but "entirely in the mind and in software." So hey Neil, break out the C++ and Perl and Ruby on Rails and code up that puppy. We'll use the statement "All policy shall be based on the weight of evidence" as the requirements document. I look forward to the first Critical Design Review.

In reality, I think Pokemon Go already usurped the mind space for Rationalia. If Rationalia had ever made it to market, it would have probably looked the same: people holding their smartphones out in front of them, poking at the glowing screen while twitching about and muttering.

Jim Irwin said...

brave and bold attempt to integrate science. logic, history and politics, cant say that i have read such previously...
thought provoking, I hope you keep this up, expect that you will get much input from specialists in all of the disciplines and inspire more of the same...

jessi thompson said...

Excellent essay! The topic is highly relevant. Science's crisis of legitimacy touches on all of civilization, and the reaction to it from individual scientists is often embarrassingly naive. Standing on a podium declaring everyone intellectually inferior is not going to win friends or influence people!!

I look forward to part 2 of the article: "Politicized Education as a Cause of Scientific Stupidity." ;)

Dennis Mitchell said...

I was brainwashed to believe and respect science. Come to think of it I thought the press was impartial, the police were on our side, our soldiers died protecting our freedom and our votes were honestly counted. If I wasn't told Trump was making American great again I'd be a little butt hurt.
Betrayal is a vicious emotion.
The matter of climate change reminds me of the tobacco industry. All the lies presented by "scientists". The government subsidies and hypocrisy. The killing of innocent bystanders. I'm remembering that line from Dragnet. "...just the facts mam."

Justin said...

Jim, I think quite a lot of the collapse community has an engineering background. As far as the respect that engineers command, well, it's simple. Engineers are (by definition in most of the world) university educated, and work primarily with their heads, or at worst, with delicate measurement tools. And yet they're a necessary part of doing very real things, unlike, say, climate scientists, gender studies professors, economists or politicians. So salary class types will respect us without the cognitive dissonance involved in say, respecting someone who welds or grows wheat for a living.

Back when I worked as an engineer (not that long ago), there was very little that I liked about sitting in an air-conditioned office drawing things on a computer and periodically going down into the shop, with all it's trappings and discomforts, to sort something out with a welder. Although I do believe that I was gifted with the particular kind of mind well-suited to the sort of informal optimization process involved in designing custom machinery, I've learned not to consider it to be a source of generalized virtue. It wasn't that the division of labor was inappropriate, but I was never really comfortable with the upstairs/downstairs divide. I liked going on installations, where I would plunk my laptop down on whatever surface was appropriate and maintain an active dialogue with the workers I was responsible for directing.

Ironically, partially due to the financialization of the Canadian economy, I now work almost entirely with computers in a stupidly abstract sort of way. I like it a little bit better - I miss the interactions with real things that I can touch and working class types, but I don't miss the uncomfortable classist undertones of the typical custom fabrication shop. The thing I disliked the most was the need to stay dressed up, which was obnoxious because touching a piece of machinery or shaking a worker's hand when needed became an exercise in remembering not to touch your clothes afterwards without appearing bothered by the grease or whatever on your hand. On the other hand, I might have to develop some sort of smartwatch that dispenses blood pressure medications and sedatives if it detects John Oliver, Degrasse Tyson or their ilk on the Apple TV in the work lunchroom again.

Bill Pulliam said...

Shane W -- If you think that Trump actually gives a flying flip at the moon about the people of your class, I think you need a major reality check. He cares about the dispossesed working class only as a means to an end. In his actual practice, he has been as eager to continue disposessing them as any other rich dirtbag on the planet. If he is elected I expect to see and hear a lot of populist sounding nonsense wrapped around policies that are crafted in every detail to further enrich the dirtbags at the expense of what remains of the middle and wage class.

And in reply to some of your comments to the previous post, why are so many of you kids so eager for violent insurrection? Do you honestly not understand how destructive that is to the general population, especially the lower economic levels? Have you not looked at what happens in the world when insurgents start shooting? Have you not noticed who it is that suffers the most? Hint: it is NOT the upper classes.

Wars are conceived of, started by, and beneficial to the upper classes. They are fought by and murderous of the lower classes.

richard b said...

dear JMG, another wonderful set of insights. the tragedy of climate change is that the science on this one looks to be right and the costs are horrendous. 30 years ago the transition to new energy systems may have been easier; but the longer we wait, the more these costs mount until we pass some point of no return.

in the meantime it seems that everyone on earth is benefiting from fossil fuels - often in the form of just being alive - since modern populations are unsustainable without them.

so the cost of stopping fossil fuels in time to save the planet increasingly look like the poor will be asked to pay with their lives - unless one believes in some utopian energy transition that allows for a free lunch.

sadly the free lunch is the only politically acceptable solution - so we seem doomed to fail our planet and ourselves.

meanwhile, people like the Republicans in congress seem so beholden to big oil that they are quite content to sell the entire planet along with all its wonderful plants and animals down the river in exchange for a few short years of living in luxury.

alternatively, they are just badly misinformed or incredibly stupid.

so will we ever avert this danger in time seeing as there are cogent arguments that we are already too late?

I fear not, and that's left is to watch the unfolding disaster, and mourn mankind's short sightedness - and maybe say I told you so - while we fly around and drive our SUV's just like the next guy.

Repent said...

A brilliant essay- one of your very best!

I personally struggle with trade-offs in my daily life. More work equals more money, but less spare time. More time spent doing the things I want and love to do, means less time to focus on advancing my career. The whole 'Robbing Peter to pay Paul' financial dilemma, where no matter what you choose, automatically prevents you from doing, having, or experiencing something else. Trade-offs make life hard.

Tyson is also a problematic person as you indicated. He recently went toe to toe with a 'Moon hoax' advocate, and although he logically won every argument, I was left at the end of the podcast feeling cheated and thinking the very same thing that you have suggested here as "Who is paying him to say this?"

Science needs to find a way to be inclusive to the general public, rather than exclusive as it currently is now. Also, on the subject of Atlantis, I recently forwarded a youtube video to my brother who is an accredited Archeologist, about evidence that there was a pre-Egyptian society that had 15th century technology, including advanced seafaring ships, and that they had made accurate maps of the Atlantic portion of Antarctica, millennia before modern world discoveries of the 1800's. After forwarding this video to my brother, the video was promptly taken down by youtube within a day or two. Hard not to see that there is an agenda to take down anything that doesn't agree with the status quo.

Here is something similar:

John D. Wheeler said...

@Justin - I had to laugh at your comment about water vapor and climate. It may be a mystery to Homo domesticus, but anyone who spends a significant amount of time outdoors knows that a cloudy day is cooler than a sunny day. A little more subtle, but well drilled into every gardener in a temperate zone, is that it is the cloudless nights that have the greatest danger of frost. The climate scientists have confirmed in their own way these opposing micro effects. Figuring out which is dominant is in the long term is difficult, if not impossible -- once the computational power required is significant enough to have its own effect on climate, all bets are off.

John Roth said...

@Brian L. Allen

Nah, what you're going to see is people wearing virtual/augmented reality headsets. There are already projects to build virtual meeting rooms, play spaces and similar that aren't games and that avoid the problems of being controlled by massive corporations.

Timothy John Sharp said...

Just a quick question about the monthly print edition of your blog posts, will you be printing a selection of comments along with them? Sort of like a "correspondence section?"

Doubt Truth to be a Liar said...

Great post Mr. Greer. Although, I must say I disagree with your passing comment about Dawkins being a brilliant biologist. He is one of the last biologists to think that the gene is the target of selection (an idea he unwittingly and unknowingly disavowed in his book The Extended Phenotype). Ernst Mayr explains why he is not very brilliant in his interview with Edge Magazine:

'The idea that a few people have about the gene being the target of selection is completely impractical; a gene is never visible to natural selection, and in the genotype, it is always in the context with other genes, and the interaction with those other genes make a particular gene either more favorable or less favorable ... Therefore people like Dawkins in England who still think the gene is the target of selection are evidently wrong ... Yet the funny thing is if in England, you ask a man in the street who the greatest living Darwinian is, he will say Richard Dawkins. And indeed, Dawkins has done a marvelous job of popularizing Darwinism. But Dawkins' basic theory of the gene being the object of evolution is totally non-Darwinian. I would not call him the greatest Darwinian.'

Mayr was being very polite. To paraphrase Gould, Dawkins is at best a caricature of a Darwinian.

Unknown said...

Dear JMG,
I have read 20-30 posts of the ADR over the last 4 months, and I don't know whether to curse you or to thank you dearly.

On one hand, I discovered that many of the assumptions I have been taught or taken for granted are incorrect (even if I still unconsciously believe and apply them). More importantly, I can sometimes detect when I'm making a decision with one of these beliefs, and correct the decisision or thought. I also sometimes recognize when somebody says something based off these assumptions which is false.

I have always been a truth seeker, and now I finally found the explanation to many of today's and tomorrow's problems. Now I know how to prepare for the future and what to expect, along with ways of avoiding the worst of the collapse.

On the other hand, I have always lived the suburban affluent air-conditioned McMansion lifestyle. I never experienced any violence, conflict, change, or pain. Now I wish I was born 50 years earlier, and this thought haunts ne every day.

Also, I have taken an interest in computers and technology since I was a toddler. I have spent thousands of hours learning about programming, hardware, systems, and networking. I am also going to college in a month to study information systems. Knowing that most of this will be useless after the collapse makes me feel hopeless. My parents also work in high-tech jobs which would probably be gone immediately when the collapse starts.

You frequently mention that the upper classes of society have neglected the lower classes and environment, while insisting they weren't. Knowing that I am part of the upper class, and have believed the talking heads on CNN for years without thinking of the damage I have caused to my own future and upcoming generations, makes me feel guilty. Even more so, growing up around computers and knowing that automation has made hundreds of millions of people poorer, while benefiting people like me.

I know you've said many times that high technology and material wealth doesn't make people happy, beyond a certain point. I am sure I could adapt to a 1940's middle-class lifestyle, or higher, without being unhappy. But the prospect of change, especially with the violence and conflict involved, weighs down every day.

Therefore I don't know whether the burden of the truth is worse than all the pain I can avoid. Hopefully you can tell me that it isn't?

Unless this is just a useless, off-topic rant and I wasted your time. Sorry if I did that.

Genevieve Hawkins said...

Amen. Once upon a time I was finishing my masters degree at BGSU, had a good idea for a study. Turned out I couldn't study the placebo effect because nobody would pay me to do so. I discovered that what I thought of as science and the scientific method and politics had become intertwined. It's only gotten worse since then.
Now somebody would need some solid evidence to make me think it's real. Like empty store shelves. Closed stores. Shotguns pointed at my face. The rest is just divide and conquer BS, and who is really listening anymore?

Wendy Crim said...

I really like the posts on education. Thanks.

I was all ready to order a six month subscription to print version but it only has PayPal as payment. I don't do PayPal. Maybe this will change?

For my birthday last week, my husband pre ordered Dark Age America for me. I can't wait.

I'm currently reading more southern gothic fiction from the forties and fifties. I know that's not old enough for you assignment, but there are many phrases and themes to make young people today squirm. I just finished The Violent Bear it Away by Flannery O'Conner. Now that's a heavy religious ride! As familiar as I am with the south and these type of novels, some of it had me asking internal questions. And I'm about half way through Truman Capote's Other Voices, Other Rooms. Definitive gender roles, race roles, class roles. Whoa. I don't know if many college students could handle it. But, as hard as some of these issues can be, the beauty and art of these kind of novels always keeps me coming back for more. You know, I've a copy of Stars Reach and Twilights Last Gleaming and I am often recommending them. Not one person I know has been able to get through either novel. What do you think that means?

One last thing....I honestly can't even remember what brought it up...but my husband and I were JUST talking about how engineers can inadvertently cause more problems than they solve. I mean, like hours before I read this. But I'm no engineer and only have the slightest bit of interaction with any so please, do not take offense any engineers on here.

Ok, last comment really. I think it is very brave of the young earth creationist to come out on this blog. I often find myself saying things in a group that I get ridiculed for, so I know it's not always easy to be honest and vulnerable. Same for Brexit supporters and Trump supporters. As they say, you can't be everybody's cup of tea.

Hammer said...

I think this is why many engineers and scientists are stereotypically not good at socializing (including myself). We think everything other people say should be taken as fact at its face value, without thinking about the finer interests and values underneath.

Weogo said...

Hi Nestorian,

Ron Evans is a Native American Keeper of Stories, raised in northern Saskatchewan.
He is also a storyteller.
'Keeper of Stories' means that he has learned his people's oral history, and can repeat verbatim stories that have been told exactly the same way for a very long time.
He will very clearly tell you that his people came to North America about 32,000 years ago.
His people say their oral history is as accurate a history as anything written.

How do you reconcile this history, and those of other traditional cultures around the world that have longer time frames, with yours?

JMG, in addition to your other points, gmo 'golden rice' tastes bad.

Some Rice growing areas that went big in to commercial, 'high yield' Rice varieties have had problems.
Many of these varieties only grow well under optimal conditions.
Extended drought or monsoon can almost completely destroy a crop.
Sri Lanka and other locations are bringing back old varieties that will produce a crop under adverse conditions.

Thanks and good health, Weogo

Roy Smith said...

Hi JMG, you now have another happy subscriber for the print version of the Archdruid Report, and I am looking forward to receiving the first issue soon. (And boy, you weren't kidding when you said the website is still very basic . . . but I subscribed anyway!)

In other news, the first gathering of the Cascadia Guild was held yesterday, and I have posted my first cut of a summary of some of the things we discussed. There will be more posts and ideas to follow, and you can read them all on The Cascadia Guild website.

Mark Rice said...

The savant so saturated in abstractions that he’s hopelessly inept at the business of everyday life has been a figure of fun in literature for many centuries now, not least because examples of the type are so easy to find in every age.

Hey -- I resemble that characterization. When I was young and single, I wondered why I had such a hard time getting laid. Now in hindsight the answer is obvious.

Somewhat similar ground was covered in the essay The Moral Economy of Tech.

a quote:
"As computer programmers, our formative intellectual experience is working with deterministic systems that have been designed by other human beings. These can be very complex, but the complexity is not the kind we find in the natural world. It is ultimately always tractable. Find the right abstractions, and the puzzle box opens before you.

"The feeling of competence, control and delight in discovering a clever twist that solves a difficult problem is what makes being a computer programmer sometimes enjoyable.

"But as anyone who's worked with tech people knows, this intellectual background can also lead to arrogance. People who excel at software design become convinced that they have a unique ability to understand any kind of system at all, from first principles, without prior training, thanks to their superior powers of analysis. Success in the artificially constructed world of software design promotes a dangerous confidence."

patriciaormsby said...

I'm at about the halfway point of reading and will finish once I fire this off (and apologies if you've noted this in the second half), but what immediately struck me about Tyson's incomprehensibly stupid proposal was that "evidence" can be purchased by those with sufficient means, and contrary evidence can be suppressed. This fact of politics has encouraged former engineering students like me to take a much deeper interest in politics, sociology, psychology, ponerology, economics, etc. Lots of environmental victims continue to suffer because their evidence is politically inadmissible.

Okay, let me finish reading! But I've got some praise for you stored up from last week.

team10tim said...

I haven't read the comments yet so please excuse me for missing anything relevant.

I have a personal maxim that may be useful for understanding this science/politics divide:

Everything in the world makes sense, always, the trick to understanding it is figuring out what perspective it makes sense from. (preposition at the end of the sentence is intentional, grammarians can [expletive deleted] off*)


* The grammar note makes a good segue. Languages are living things and they evolve (for lack of a better word) over time. Grammars are not living things, they are formed after the fact to codify a language based upon how it was used in the past.

John Michael Greer said...

Unknown Joel, thank you. That struck me about a year ago, as I noted the increasing tendency on the part of many people to be unable to think through any statement that takes more than 140 characters to express...

Whomever, too funny. No question, California's on track to become the Rust Belt of the 21st century -- they're making all the same mistakes that were made in the old industrial heartland in the mid-20th century. As for Doctor Investment Syndrome, this makes perfect sense to me, based on the physicians I've known!

W.B., thank you. I'm not making any money off the print edition, any more than I make off this blog -- the subscription price pays for the cost of production and mailing, and that's pretty much it -- but I don't mind; as with the blog, it's publicity rather than profit, and I figure that people who like either one will buy my books and/or put something in the tip jar. As for questions about the print edition, see the comment by A Post-Millennial above.

Aaa, science fiction and fantasy authors tend to be on the skeptical end of things, oddly enough. I suspect the pressure from fans in both genres to make the details consistent and convincing makes us authors hypersensitive about logical lapses!

Ixtlan, I think it was someone familiar... ;-)

Marcu, you're welcome and thank you. I suspect a society run by engineers would proceed with the maximum efficiency and rationality toward profoundly irrational goals...

Justin, no question, the detailed forecasts on offer from IPCC et al. are dubious at best. That's why I base my predictions on paleoclimatology: "what happened the last time these conditions occurred?" tends to be a much more accurate source of predictions than abstract models of poorly understood whole systems.

Chris, I think you're missing the point of Searles' metaphor. What he's shown is that a given set of behavior -- the ability to respond to messages in Chinese -- can be an indicator of two wholly different sets of mental processes. Since each of us has experienced those processes directly in our own minds, and knows the difference between them, it's not necessary to presuppose the accuracy of his model -- just that, as each of us knows, there's a difference between rote repetition of behavior and actual understanding of a process. The Turing test, at least to me, seems to presuppose that there is no such difference.

Siliconguy, all I can say is that I've read a great many books by engineers who, for all intents and purposes, and in contexts where marketing and management weren't involved, demonstrated a complete inability to question the starting point of their investigations.

Nestorian, while (as you know) I don't agree with you about the age of the Earth, I'll certainly grant that most would-be debunkers of young Earth creationism (and everything else defined by the current pseudoskeptic scene as pseudoscience, for that matter) rely constantly on circular reasoning, ad hominem arguments, and logical howlers old enough to have names in Latin. If these guys are the defenders of science and reason, science and reason are in real trouble.

Yeast, he also hasn't realized that so many people have tried to use dire predictions to scare others into agreeing with them that, these days, that strategy basically doesn't work any more. David Cameron's attempts to bully British voters into voting for Remain by waving around threats are a case in point; these days, when you trot out the scare stories -- even if they're true! -- people just roll their eyes and walk away.

John Michael Greer said...

Glenn, good. Didn't work in Plato's time, won't work now.

Owl, er, you may need to reread the post, as you've gotten confused about what I said. Who benefits from what technology isn't a matter of values, it's a matter of interests. While you're right that social science research could, in theory, determine the probable economic consequences of introducing GMO rice, I trust you don't think Monsanto's going to hand over a grant to any social scientist who might say "Actually, this is a really bad idea." That said, you're right about speaking outside one's field of expertise; that was my point, or part of my point, in suggesting a tweet by Donald Trump about the scientific method, as Tyson apparently knows about as much about politics as Trump does about science.

Jim, I think it's more than confidence based on experience, as I've met a lot of newly minted engineers who have the same attitude -- thus my speculation that it's the product of common trends in engineering education. As for the power of vested interests, it's been a constant refrain of climate change activists that that's what's kept them from accomplshing their goals -- but every reform in history was carried out in the teeth of resistance from those who benefit from the existing order of things. Other movements for reform have succeeded anyway. Climate change activism has flopped. The core difference, I'd argue, is that those other movements played their cards well, while climate change activists have by and large played them very, very poorly. More on this as we proceed!

Bryan, funny. These days, though, I think we should talk less about virtual reality and more about vicial reality. Vicial? Yep; it relates to "vicious" the way that "virtual" relates to "virtuous"...

Jim, thank you. It's been ongoing for ten years, and I plan on keeping things going for the foreseeable future.

Jessi, I'll certainly consider that. There are so many kinds of induced stupidity these days that it's kind of like shooting fish in a barrel...

Dennis, betrayal is indeed a vicious emotion. I wonder if the people responsible have any idea just how much rage is directed at them these days.

Richard, not at all. It's too late to prevent a real mess, but it's not too late to take concerted action to give our descendants a better world than they'll otherwise get -- and the insistence that we might as well just keep on driving our SUVs is, to my mind, just another copout.

Repent, thank you. If you have the chance, you might want to check out Charles Hapgood's book Maps of the Ancient Sea Kings, which I believe is back in print -- Hapgood's the guy who originally noticed that there's data on some very old maps that can't be squared with current theories about the state of geographical knowledge in ancient, medieval, and early modern times. It's a thought-provoking book!

Timothy, I believe that the people who are issuing the print edition (I'm not one of them -- I just provide content) will be doing that; drop a note to A Post-Millennial, at the email address included in his comment above, if you want to know the details.

Doubt, I may have misread Dawkins, then. I took what he was saying to mean that, for reasons rooted ultimately in statistics, evolution in a population functions as though individual genes were competing with one another against selective pressures -- which in turn could be rephrased as the more modest claim that a model working along those lines is an effective predictor of actual evolution. Still, I may have gotten that from my college classes in ecology and mapped it onto Dawkins' writings.

Stuart Jeffery said...

The Leave campaign won by pushing a simple value: 'take back control'. It played into the hands of of disaffected working class people who had been robbed of any control over their lives and the referendum was seen by them as an opportunity to exercise some control by poking Westminster and Brussels.

Facts were not agreed on in the campaign. The Brexiteers continued to campaign using a 'fact' that the EU costs the UK £350m per week - blatantly untrue.

That said, the 'control' value and accompanying narratives were an excellent lesson in magical manipulation of the masses by the leading leave campaigners. The remainers had no such value to campaign with.

Gottfried Wilhelm Melvin Hicks-Leibniz said...

John, speaking of recent developments in electioneering theater, how could one make sense of the apparent "against special interests" Sanders' endorsement of "special (crooked) interests" Hillary? Did someone make an offer Bernie could not refuse? ;-)
This betrayal to a good fraction of his support base will likely benefit Trump more so than what Clinton's campaign thought. At this point, a Clinton win seems more likely if Sanders becomes her VP choice, which would make his "change of heart" a bit understandable.

John Michael Greer said...

Unknown, no, it's neither useless nor off-topic. The first thing I'd say is that any harm you've helped cause was done in ignorance, and guilt isn't merited. The thing to do is consider your lifestyle now and say, "What am I prepared to change?" You don't need to go whole hog -- in fact, that's usually a really bad idea. I'd encourage you to consider doing what a lot of Druids do, which is to choose three things to change in order to decrease the burden you place on the environment. They can be little things, especially to start with. Do them, stick with them, learn from them, and once you've learned that you really can change your life, consider what further changes you want to make.

As far as your schooling and career, collapse is not a fast thing. The US has been in decline, by measurable objective standards, for several decades now; that decline is accelerating -- but even so, you're likely to be able to use computer skills for some time to come. You might consider, as time permits, learning how to do something that isn't dependent on computers -- the example I like to suggest to people is learning how to homebrew beer, since that means you can produce a commodity for which there will always be a market!

It's been pointed out many times that waking up to the reality of the hard future ahead is like experiencing the death of a family member. You're going through the grieving process right now, and that's difficult. On the other side is a world full of new possibilities -- and knowing that it's coming, and that the future promised by the myth of progress is never going to happen, will make it possible for you to help the people you care about navigate the rough waters of the years ahead. To my mind, that makes the knowledge worth the grief.

Genevieve, the medical industry is terrified of the placebo effect. It works better than most medicines, it's cheap, and physicians are lousy at using it these days because they've forgotten how to interact with their patients. No wonder you couldn't get funding!

Wendy, you might want to email A Post-Millennial, who put his email on an earlier comment, and ask him if there's some other way you can pay for the subscription. My guess is that Stone Circle Press will be happy to work things out. As for my two novels, hmm! Have you asked people why they haven't been able to get through them?

Hammer, that could be it.

Weogo, that is to say, it's standard agribusiness groupthink, producing a product that would work perfectly in a predictable world and works very poorly in ours.

Roy, thank you and congrats -- may the guild flourish!

Mark, that makes absolute sense to me. I've also noticed that people who play too many video games lose the ability to solve problems in the real world, because video games create an imaginary environment in which every problem was invented by a human being and therefore has an answer that makes immediate sense to the human mind.

Patricia, and that's a crucial point, of course.

Tim, fair enough!

John Michael Greer said...

Stuart, that is to say, you're trying to insist that the campaign was entirely about values and not about interests. Obviously I disagree. I'd point out that the parts of England and Wales that voted overwhelmingly for Brexit are exactly those parts that have seen working families driven into poverty and misery by policies, furthered by the EU, which benefited the affluent at the expense of the working poor. People in those regions who voted for Brexit were responding rationally to their own interests, and the extent to which so many Remain supporters keep trying to spin the discussion to erase the conflict of interests strikes me as good evidence that they know perfectly well what the score is.

Gottfried, my first thought when I heard about Sanders selling out was that he'd been promised the VP slot. Clinton's people may have finally gotten around to realizing just how vulnerable she is, not to mention how widely hated, and that would be a logical attempt at damage control. We'll see what comes of it.

Zachary Braverman said...

Wasn't it Richard Feynman who said that physicists are no smarter than the average person when dealing with things outside their narrow specialty?

Too bad more scientists don't take him to heart. :)

Godfree Roberts said...

Your observation about the political fate of climate change legislation is spot on. The story in China seems almost the reverse, however.
Only 20% of Chinese think climate change is a major concern, yet the government has passed lots of legislation and is spending billions – far more, per capita than any comparable developing nation – to mitigate its effects. Funny thing is, 80% of Chinese approve of their governments climate change policy. They themselves don't see a problem but apparently trust the government's judgement.
There's something to be said for Singapore-style governance when confronting long-term threats like climate change, educational underachievement and inequity. Our faith in amateur, unqualified temp workers to make equitable policies is is justified: someone who is only temporarily in office and who will bear no responsibility for bad outcomes. What do they care?

deedl said...

Thank you for this great post! Being an engineer by myself I wanted to add two things, one regarding the questioning of given task and problems, the other one regarding the submissiveness to non-engineering fields.

I work in a government institution that provides other government institutions with software either by making it by ourselves or by acquiring it from software companies. Those two ways of acquiring differ totally in their approach, because the letter one involves contracts and money. When evaluating software, it has to be verified and validated, which are two different things. Verification is testing whether the product behaves as required (solving a problem), while validation is checking if the software required by the customer improves the situation of the customer (questioning the problem). So in engineering there is a scientific concept of questioning a given task, called validation. However, when a piece of software is developed by a contractor, the contractor does not care about validation, because he is paid to deliver what is required by the contract. So he will verify to prove that he has fulfilled the contract, but he does not spend resources to care whether the product improves the situation of the customer. When we develop the software by ourselves as an intergovernmental service, we don’t have to care about money and contracts so we can spend much time together with the customer validating our doings to improve his situation. So I think the problem of engineers not questioning the task lies at least partially in most of them being embedded in a market economy with all its restrictions.

I think engineering stands out from other scientific fields in the way that the work that is done by engineers is constantly tested under the most complex test condition - in reality. Thus engineers know that their scientific tool box is right, because planes fly, computers compute and televisions show moving pictures. Thus all engineering is based on tons of empirical evidence. Most scientific fields do not have a permanent testing field for theories with trillions of test cases done by billions of users every day, so many other fields are full of untested theories and opinions. Not being aware of this, many engineers assume that other scientific tool boxes are as true and as based on empirical evidence as their own one. This I think makes them at first submissive to other scientific fields. However, being trained to evaluate their works on the hard empirical evidence of using a technical system in reality provides them also with the mindset and toolbox to thoroughly question other fields' scientific theories.

Those two points may help explain why there are on the one hand engineers who do not question anything and are submissive to non-engineering science while one the other hands engineers show brilliance in uncovering bogus science in fields as economics or nutrition.

Peter Wilson said...

JMG, another good post. I treat Thursdays (in my country) as a regular dose of sanity. It's actually got to the point where after about 10 years of reading your stuff regularly that one can develop a different way of looking at the world that starts to become immune from the daily yammerings for attention, where the longer term trends and their drivers come into view.

But anyway, I agree with you about climate activists. I had friends in the climate activism movement in my country. I remember making a special (albeit fossil-fueled) trip up to the capital city to advise them. I advised them to build their footpaths where people walked, and to treat the climate problem as an energy problem. As in, taking it back to physics. I was stared at blankly, and came to the conclusion that they were more interested in selling carbon guilt to the middle classes, which of course, would never sell at all.

Sven said...

On the subject of facts:

The golden rice technology is available free of charge in the developing world. The interest of the biotech companies involved in its production has more to do with absorbing billions in aid money to develop it in the first place, plus a smattering of PR opportunities and avoiding cognitive dissonance when they claim to be feeding the world.

DiSc said...

As someone working with engineers, I can entirely subscribe to your description of engineers lacking political (also social and historical) insight.
They do tend to see current news as essentially bad solutions to clear problems, and are indeed embarassing to anybody with a college-level or
high-school level background in the humanities.

The same applies by and large to economists.

The problem these days is of course that engineers and economists have the clout and the resources to force their myopic solutions onto the rest of us.

The problem is also that the other side of our culture - the humanists - see their field in the same terms as the scientists do: an expensive past-time for the affluent.

They seem to have forgotten that a liberal education makes you (potentially) a better person, with a deeper understanding of the world around you,
and enables you to make better decisions about your life.

Scotlyn said...

To "Unknown" about to go to college. If you can manage to be honest about the privilege of growing up in a place where collapse has not much affected, and stay unburdened by guilt for something that is an accident of birth, you will be well positioned to learn a lot in the next few years, and I don't mean in the classroom. You will meet many people with different life histories, different values and differenf interests, learn to be curious, to open up conversation space, and headspace, to give serious consideration differenf ways of looking, and become wise. Learn to walk and talk. Let your feet carry you to unfamiliar places sometimes, and learn all you can about whoever lives there... you're going to be ok, but things are going to be different.

flute said...

The kind of engineer you point out in this post belongs to the class of people Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls IYI (Intelligent-Yet-Idiot). You can find them everywhere: among engineers, economists, religious leaders, politicians, scientists. Of course Taleb lashed out at Tyson for his moronic idea of "Rationalia".
I think it often comes down to having a focused education in one field and not caring about other fields. I've seen so many examples of this among engineer friends and colleagues. Especially when you mention resource constraints they start arguing about e.g. fusion power and maglevs. I am an engineer, but when I was around 18 I also decided to go through the library and learn a bit about every subject, something I've kept up since then. I think that kind of approach should be mandatory for students in all fields. Many engineering students of course will hate studying totally "irrelevant" subjects such as egyptology, but in the long run it will broaden their mindset.
As I see it, too much focus nowadays is on education for a certain specialised job. What the world needs is more erudition instead of education.

patriciaormsby said...

JMG, your efforts really do bring me new insights!

On the inability you have noted of engineers to question the starting point of their investigations, you have cleared up something that has been a profound mystery to me. How could an entire government agency staffed with dozens of highly competent scientists start with a set of premises regarding the collapse of a certain engineered facility, provided to them by politicians with clear political motives and personal interests, and--never questioning it--proceed to construct elaborate explanations and models for how it must have occurred, and when their best model fails to reproduce the observed behavior in test runs, disregard it and present their explanation to the public as an unassailable truth? Of course, you know what I am talking about, and also why I don't name it for fear of slanting readers' opinions. Politics as it stands says you cannot touch this topic with a ten-foot pole, and I am sure any secretly dissenting scientists among that group, if they exist, are clearly aware of that fact.

A few months ago, in discussing social justice activism, you cleared up another mystery for me. I had a dear acquaintance, now deceased, who was a humanitarian activist. She introduced me to Amnesty International. I thought the world of her, and yet her personal relationships within her family were dreadful enough that I strongly suspect her of sociopathy. She was terribly manipulative, and two of her four children were likewise, with the other two being terribly neurotic in response. Since what I've read about sociopathy leads me to think such people would not do anything that did not provide them real rewards, I wondered about her apparent altruism. Now I have a better idea of what she was getting in return for her activism.

And finally, the assignment two weeks ago was just such a brilliant idea. Reading objectionable material as a group like that was so much more fun than slogging through it alone. Having not been able to access the whole book I chose, I am motivated to find other objectionable articles and read them. It is important to know exactly what the opposition is saying and what their form of argumentation is. To try to counter them without doing them the favor of seeing what they are actually saying only weakens one's own argument.

Furthermore, the Net has produced so many distinct echo chambers, where we all go skipping off in our own favorite direction with nothing much to bring us back to reality. It is very important to read stuff you disagree with.

(The Indonesian novel I initially selected for the assignment has not disappointed either: within three pages, I had a florid vocabulary for cell phone use. I am having a lot of fun reading it, though. Real slow going at this stage--I liken this point of language learning to a rocket launch. All the parts assembled, and now, real sustained effort to get it going. Those of you who have not learned a new language--you don't know what you are missing! it is really worth the effort.)

patriciaormsby said...

@Unknown, your realization is something all of us following the Arch Druid Report have experienced, some of us, bit by bit over the years, and others, all at once in an agonizing fit. You have my sincerest sympathy!

Cortes said...

The following article about some of the real-life objections to the GMO rice in question ought to have any signatories to the Greenpeace letter hiding in a blast proof shelter until the risk to the general public from radiation from their reddened cheeks dies down:

On "trust us, we're scientists", I was reminded of the "Great Simplification" which follows the nuclear war in Walter Miller's classic "A Canticle for Leibowitz."

Another excellent essay: thank you, JMG.

Spanish fly said...

I would like to make a point about (idiot) savants. Engineers are not scientists, they have been trained to solve punctual problems. Doctors are not scientists, they solve body problems as they have been taught. You can't say that car mechanics are scientists...
Of course, I don't want to sacralize the argument of auctorithy in real science. It's suspiciously like Pope infalibility...
By the way, I suspect that some of the monomanyacal histeria abour fast collapse in peak oil people is caused by high % peakers that are hard scientists and engineers. These nerds usually don't know much History or Social Sciences (or even worse, they despise them) so they fail in applying 'Hubberts bell' to real world...

Bad times for Platonic King-Philosophers, unless they live hikikomori style...
Hail Eris!

Scotlyn said...

JMG, I am pondering Jim's point about the role of power in the context of the peculiar cluelessness about other people's values and interests that is the hallmark, one might say the most prized luxury of the privileged. One which your posts continue to highlight so eloquently.

If you consider the patriarchal tropes current in Victorian times - "who can understand how women think" and "who can resist a woman's wiles" - you can see the power dynamic at play. A man had so many legal and other means to directly disadvantage a woman, and therefore to directly pursue his own interest in his relations with women, that he could absolutely dispense with making any effort to understand her point of view or interest. For her part, having all direct routes to pursuing her interests blocked, a number of indirect routes present themselves. The impact of her use of them on the men in her life would be perceived by them as "wiles".

The point of this worked example is to show that having the wherewithal (money, influence, institutional support, public prejudice in your favour, capacity to inflict pain or disadvantage with a minimum of consequence) to pursue your interests DIRECTLY is to have power, and consequently, the ability to be clueless about the interests and values of people who can only pursue their interests INDIRECTLY, by, in some way, managing YOU, and accessing power through YOU.

There are some obvious consequences here:

The less powerful you are in a relationship, the more time you are likely to spend studying the values and interests of the other, as such study is key to all INDIRECT routes to the pursuit of your values and interests. But also, the better you are able to understand the other, and sometimes, the more likely you are to empathise with the other.

The more powerful you are in a relationship, the less interested you will be in studying the values and interests of the other, and ALSO, should you develop any curiosity in this regard, the less likely you will be to actually hear truths from them. YOU are yourself both the obstacle and the means to the other's direct pursuit of their interests, and the more this is the case, the less likely they are to risk your displeasure or vengeance by giving you their truth.

In these comments, I use "relationship" both in the personal sense and in the class/interest group sense, although in real life, the terrain these encompass between any specific two people is messy and complicated.

Chloe said...

The relationship between facts/evidence and political decisions is a bit more complex than that. Human societies being as complex as they are, a lot of the "facts" involved are not as simple to establish as the date we joined the EU. For example, the question of whether immigration is "good" may come down to values, but the questions of whether immigration leads to growth/raises or lowers average wages/causes friction in a community is in principle resolvable via evidence and investigation. In practice, of course, those questions are no easier to answer than, "What will the weather be next Tuesday?" and it's easy enough for somebody with a soapbox to pick one or the other crude attempt at an answer according to their preferred values. When over time that adds up to a series of failed predictions and retractions you end up with skepticism of "experts" on one hand and a devaluing of both fact and evidence on the other. As one of your commenters has already pointed out, the Brexit campaign consistently quoted the "£350 million" figure long after it had been thoroughly debunked. Far from agreeing on the facts, people quibbled over the simplest.

That issue of complexity goes some way to explaining the issue scientists have discerning between facts and value judgements. Facts do illuminate situations: the question of immigration looks very different if it seems to benefit a community or harm it. It's very tempting to believe, from there, that if you simply follow the evidence you will reach a point where all the facts are laid out for you, naturally weighted, and showing you precisely what you must do. I suspect Tyson, if challenged, would be willing to admit that we don't currently have enough evidence to make all the right decisions, but would insist that such a point is reachable - and the current situation looks much the same regardless of whether he's right, or right in principle but wrong in practice, or flat-out wrong. That it's the last is only clear if you understand that the evidence which gave the "right" answer already existed within a value framework (Which community? What benefit? What harm?) and, as we've established, scientific education doesn't cover that particularly well.

(If your calculations tell you that throwing a cat off the roof will kill it, that may tell you it's wrong to throw the cat, but only on the implicit understanding that it's wrong to kill the cat in the first place.)

Then again, there are aspects of scientific thinking that are very applicable to politics. Physicists and engineers I can excuse, but it's always a disappointment when biologists fail to note that politics (a game of self- and in-group interest reliant on competition, strategic cooperation, occasional altruism, and various forms of predation, parasitism and mutualism) follows many of the same basic rules as natural selection, and for much the same reason, following the intermediates of human behaviour and psychology. Scientists tend to make the mistake of assuming all people think like scientists, when of course all people - including scientists - think like people; and I suppose many engineering majors chose their field to get away from that. But the way people think is another of those areas that can, theoretically, be understood and explained in terms of fact and evidence, and this can to some extent inform the choices you make. You just can't draw any value judgements from it.

YCS said...

The stupidity goes every way it seems. Engineers are awfully uncritical about the human implications of solutions, I had a fellow engineering friend who suggested that we should simply outsource all production to the robots and cut human population to one-tenth. When I started dismantling his argument using the very systems engineering methodologies we both had learnt, he got very hot under the collar.

Us engineering students simply loathe all law and commerce grads. Most of us think that these lot have no problem-solving tools and see everything as process, and not function. You can see this in the typical places lawyers go: Government, where they run around in circles and in tangents from, but nowhere near the actual huge problems.

Perhaps the reason so many climate change deniers see the evidence as being consensus based, i.e. apply the political method, is because so many scientists apply the scientific method to their political opinions.

My point is that no one tool is good for every situation: as an engineer, I understand very little about ecology or the law, so I think we should leave those decisions and counsel to them. The problems occur when (as I see it) a certain subset of society makes all the decisions. In the Anglosphere, that means that certain types of humanities professionals (lawyers and economics) make all decisions, including health, infrastructure, and investment. When was the last time the Health Minister was an actual health professional? This, as expected leads to disasterous results. A society run exclusively by engineers or economists or any other group would be just as bad.

We need people with wide-ranging multidisciplinary knowledge. That's why I positioned myself in a double degree, learning both engineering and arts.

YCS said...

Excellent post John.

It has been fascinating watching the post-Brexit fallout and the inability of many in the Remain camp to accept that there were very good and logical reasons why the majority of Brits voted to leave the EU.

It is also rather amusing to watch the establishment backtrack on their Project Fear statements, including hikes in interest rates (from the Bank of England Governor), a "punishment" budget (backtracked by Philip Hammond yesterday) and indeed the future of the City where the big banks are now saying has a bright future after all.

The rage of the Remain camp and their media cheerleaders has been expressed in some brutal ageist and classist attacks on the poorer and older members of society. The smug upper-middle class elites who run Britain have shown their true colours and I'm sure the working classes have noticed the contempt shown.

The Left in Britain is currently imploding with the Labour Party in civil war. Paradoxically, it is the Right who seem to have better adapted to the new populist rage surging through Britain with the new Prime Minister Theresa May speech a masterclass in empathy for the ordinary working man or woman struggling. I see the same signs in the United States, where Donald Trump, despite his flaws, is clearly better at connecting with the same sense of frustration and insecurities which so many feel about modern American life. The Left, which has largely been taken over by identity politics, doesn't seem able to communicate with the working classes anymore.

Certainly interesting times. For those who wish to follow the post-Brexit debate further, you are welcome to follow my blog (

Keep up the good work John. I look forward to reading your further posts, in particular an update on the Saudi Arabia situation, which you think is heading towards collapse. Would be interested to know your thoughts on when this may happen and what the implications would be for global economics and geopolitics.



Mark In Mayenne said...

There are political tragedies too:the tendency of politicians to view facts as mutable, and the tendency of voters to ask themselves "who's playing this politician to say this?"

Mark In Mayenne said...

I meant paying not playing, but playing actually works as well

Phil Harris said...

I think you have left out my other prejudice: chemists or rather those working in chemical science. I judge chemists are worth a special mention. ;-)

(I have a soft spot for engineers – some of my very best friends have been engineers ;-) One very good friend used what I can only call ‘creative magic’ (with reference to discussions on your other blog) to conjure reliable working devices of great subtlety and brilliance which he was pleased to find he could not entirely understand. He was really shrewd about reality! But like many of his tribe he was very gullible. Think for example 2012 end-of-the-world and all that.)

I am surprised however those chemists have not seen us all off – inadvertently as it were, especially post Second World War. I have experienced close-up conviction chemists’ arguments about everything from DDT, dioxins and other xenobiotics and metal contaminations through to projections for the future limitless combinations and permutations that their world consists of. One trick is to take over biology. Molecular biology is a truly fascinating extension of biochemistry and ‘promises’ (help!) to be all-encompassing. These hardnosed children are let loose in a limitless treasure house with permutations and combinations that obey their rules. May the Gods of Progress look after them!

And some of these true-believer science guys - chemists especially in my experience ;-) - deny Climate Science of course!

Phil H

Phil Harris said...

JMG & All
Confession to follow my commentjust now on my own preferred prejudice.

In another life I used mol biol as a practical tool and then spent 10 years in national risk assessment of the genetically engineered ‘next wave of the future’ as a minor cog in the nascent ‘global’ regulatory machinery.

Conclusions? Well 20 years ago I wrote a chapter on biotech regulation wherein most of the arguments you list in this week’s blog figured, along with a few others – I think you have the nub of it and hope some of it sticks.

Second conclusion? Scientists have great deal of trouble doing risk assessments. Without knowing much of history of philosophy I diagnosed back then ‘logical positivism’. How can one do risk assessment if our true knowledge is limited to what we can agree is proved (strong version) by scientific method?

Phil H

Don Plummer said...

"[I]f a potter makes pots, what does Twitter make?" Similar to the old joke, "If the opposite of pro is con, then the opposite of progress is _______." That one might also be appropriate for this week's subject, myth of progress notwithstanding. Thanks for the laugh.

James Gemmill said...

A print edition of The Archdruid Report?!?!

Yayyyyyy!!! I'm in. Best use for the credit card in I don't know how long.

Alan B said...

Hi John,
Very interesting and thought-provoking, thank you. Being an engineer myself, I'm around engineers a lot, and I've noticed the propensity you describe. While education probably plays some role, I wonder if a larger contribution is the personality type that is attracted to engineering as profession. In other words, correlation vs. causality.

. said...


“Wars are conceived of, started by, and beneficial to the upper classes. They are fought by and murderous of the lower classes.”

That’s just not true of all wars everywhere ever. The Irish war of independence wasn’t like that, nor was our civil war. The Russian civil war killed huge numbers of the existing upper class and installed a new one. I don’t think the Rwandan genocide fits that pattern either. Revolutions are different to wars are different to civil wars.


A Post-Millennial said...

"Timothy John Sharp
Just a quick question about the monthly print edition of your blog posts, will you be printing a selection of comments along with them? Sort of like a "correspondence section?""

No we won't. We had considered doing this, but realized that JMG's posts get far too comments for that to be feasible. Every page costs us money, and unless people are willing to pay more than $3/issue, we have to limit this to just JMG's articles.

"Wendy Crim
I was all ready to order a six month subscription to print version but it only has PayPal as payment. I don't do PayPal. Maybe this will change?"

The vendor we're using only offers Paypal and a service called Stripe to process credit cards. If we set up Stripe would you be able to order a subscription, or is the issue that you're wanting to pay in some form other than a credit card? Why don't you email us at stonecirclepress(at)riseup(dot)net and we can discuss this further there.

peacegarden said...

Just subscribed for first six months…thank you for offering this!
“Back” to the future, so to speak!


Leon said...

> Insisting that political decisions ought to be made exclusively on the basis of evidence sounds great, until you try to apply it to actual politics... - because, if I may point out one more problem with that approach, the evidence usually is not available until a few years later and in many cases - never. Does distributing free food reduce crime? Is economy doing better with or without transactional tax? What ratio of police cars to population produces the best result in a not so good neighborhood? We don't really know, even though we've been studying it for years.

Complex social systems are, well, pretty complex and usually non-linear, so locking people up for 10 years for jaywalking may work great on Feb 29th and be really counterproductive the rest of the time. Also, I suspect the right answers are extremely local and may or may not be right in the next town.

Every time I tried to find a definite general scientific answer to a practical policy question I found only a few social scientists or economists fighting over it in the narrow crevasses of their areas of expertise. In my first shock over how little benefit the society actually receives from all the effort to study this stuff I concluded the distinguished academicians were just incompetent frauds. Later I realized that some systems are just too complex for finding reliable patterns by using scientific approach. Which by the way, still makes them "scientists" incompetent frauds - how can you possibly do something all your life and not notice that you haven't produced a single useful answer? :)

Patricia Mathews said...

On topic and food for thought, if you want something beyond Neil DeGrasse Tyson's simplistic Tweet - an honorable opponent, David Brin.


He has has been writing passionately about and against The War On Science for some time, because he sees it as the last hope of humankind. Now, Brin is one of those people to whom "what must be done" is utterly obvious - just ask him - and he is also deeply committed to the value of science and the values of The Enlightenment, democracy, and "the diamond-shaped economic pyramid."

The combination means he is either totally baffled as to why people are reacting as they do, or he seeks and has found a villain. To him, it's all a plot by would-be aristocrats who want a return to the days when a small minority was on top and the classes descended pyramid-style from there. He understands why they should want to do so - raw self-interest - but is begging his readers to help stop them.

Esn said...

This reminds me of a strange pattern that I noticed a long time ago.

If you want a case study of what happens when scientists are given the ruling reins... look the former Soviet Bloc.

I've been following the politics of former Eastern (communist) Europe for a long time. When the USSR and its allies collapsed, hundreds of thousands of scientists suddenly became considered redundant by their societies, and many had to find new employment (it was perhaps the first big collapse of a "science bubble", and might portend what will one day happen in the West).

Quite a lot of those scientists (particularly physicists and mathematicians, it seems) became politicians, and some rose to leadership positions. Some examples: Angela Merkel (East Germany), Viktor Yushchenko (Ukraine), Askar Akayev (Kyrgyzstan), Boris Nemtsov (Russia).

The pattern I seem to see is that the politicians from scientific backgrounds have made memorable yet disastrous political leaders, with tendencies towards idealism and principles that initially make them popular... unfortunately, accompanied by blinkered dogmatism, treating people as things, staying on a particular path long after the point where it should've become obvious to anyone that a course correction is needed, and brutal dismissal of opposing voices even if the price is destroying one's own country (you can definitely see that in the leaderships of Merkel, Yushchenko and Akayev - all of whom slowly and methodically sowed the seeds for their country's destruction, most visibly in Ukraine - and Nemtsov would've likely done likewise if he'd been higher up the ladder and had been allowed to stay longer).

The most effective (longest-lasting and most internally popular) political leaders in Eastern Europe seem to have come from very different spheres: sociology/agriculture (Orban), agriculture (Lukashenko), secret service (Putin), metallurgy (Nazarbayev). Perhaps the one thing all of those fields have in common is that they require working closely with, and for, other people...

(also, an honourable mention for "professions that make horrible politicians" goes to chess players. Exhibit A: Garry Kasparov, who has managed to alienate almost everybody even on his own "side" and made his own causes toxic among the population he claims to speak for. See also Bobby Fischer, though he never actually tried to get elected. If anything, chess players are even worse politicians than physicists and mathematicians, but they're so comically horrible at it that the chance of one actually reaching power appears to be nil)

Patricia Mathews said...

@team10tim - that's Miller's Law. "If you don't understand something, assume it's true and try to figure out what it could be true OF." A very useful took in your mental toolkit.

Erik Buitenhuis said...

Fifteen years ago, I'd just started on the path to try and make my ecological footprint sustainable (or, if you prefer that terminology, on the way from being a light green to a dark green), and I thought at the time that people who were on a parallel path were few and far between. So I'd be curious if you could give some examples why you say:
"Fifteen years ago, the [climate change activism] movement to stop anthropogenic climate change was a juggernaut".

Scotlyn said...

On the specific topic of science education and its effects, I wonder if (part of) the problem lies in the way science has been made the handmaiden of technology - ie of perpetuating what you have called the "delusion of control". This is not inherent in the science itself, which continues to elegantly demonstrate how little control we have, in the greater scheme of things.

Shorter version of this thought: might an ecologist be a better politician?

Twilight said...

Engineers are indeed quite often focused narrowly on problem solving of a technical nature, but this is largely because working with machines attracts people who have difficulty dealing with human interactions. I cannot say I’m immune from that characteristic, but people can deal with deficits in personality type either by avoiding such stressful interactions and surrounding themselves with technical problems, or by learning to be competent at the things they are not naturally good at.

In the end this comes down to individual personalities and is merely another symptom of our society’s extreme level of specialization. Some people look for the big picture, while others prefer to get lost in details, and our society greatly encourages the latter in all areas. Sadly, when those who’ve spent a lifetime focused on very a few narrow areas belatedly begin to sense that things may be going wrong in other areas they are often poorly equipped to assimilate and respond to those problems. The natural tendency is to apply the things that have worked for them, even if that is irrelevant. If all you have is a hammer...

Still, this is going on everywhere, and I watch the people around me become more and more dependent on a virtual, specialized, interconnected world at the same time the cracks in the foundations of that world grow wider by the day. There are no generalists, eyes are willingly held tightly closed to all the rude intrusions of reality, and it is hard to imagine a population less equipped to deal with problems from outside of their narrow specialty, let alone multiple failures of many other systems and infrastructure.

Patricia Mathews said...

For a while now, when looking at whom is chosen as a candidate's running mate, I consider "assassination insurance" as a factor. Or less violently, "impeachment insurance." People who seriously hate the top of the ticket look at the VP, shudder, and settle for the devil they know. Danny Quayle struck me as one such; Sarah Palin, as another.

Venkataraman Amarnath said...

It has been a practice in South India to ferment rice overnight and consume it in the morning. I recently learnt that it enriches in many vitamins. Fermenting was also practiced in China. It does not cost anything.

Nastarana said...

Dear Mr. Greer, I have sent an email to Stone Circle Press about offering a snail mail option for subscription, and also asking about ownership of the mailing list. If the company owns the list...companies do get sold sometimes, and I suppose the list is considered an asset.

Dear Gottfreid, The oligarchy have means to compel obedience, as we saw in Greece last summer. Sad, but true. What I think happened is that Sen. Sanders was persuaded that a Trump presidency would be Bad for Israel.

However, conditions on the ground which fed the Sanders and Trump insurgencies have not gone away. If Clintonistas imagine they can put out a grass fire by stomping on the match which provided the spark...I think they might live to regret that assumption.

Tom Schmidt said...

I owe you a longer comment, perhaps via email, on The Ring and Parsifal. Tomorrow, JMG.

I keep a handy reference to Jane Jacobs' Systems of Survival, her book originally to be titled Raiders and Traders. Traders, the merchants, operate by one syndrome, which includes things like "be honest" and "be open to new ideas and people." Under Jacobs' syndrome, scientists are traders. I illustrate this point for my students with this question: "what do you call a scientist who falsifies data? Not a scientist."

Guardians live by another syndrome. They follow precepts like "deceive for the sake of the task," and "treasure honor." Jacobs argues that traders and guardians are both needed to have a functioning society. La Wik adds: "Conflicts occur, according to Jacobs, when the precepts appropriate to one syndrome are applied to the other. This always generates problems. Furthermore, it is inevitable that problematic intermixing of the syndromes will occur over time, resulting in what she refers to as monstrous moral hybrids."

Imagine telling a police officer, a guardian, that he should be efficient and raise revenue, too, not support justice and social peace. You get Ferguson, MO, where 25% of the city budget was raised through traffic fines. Then, even when a police officer legitimately tries to keep the peace, he is attacked in his patrol car and winds up shooting a man who should have seen the police not as government highway robbers, but legitimate force. The city burns.

Scientists who attempt to use the force of the state eye become guardians, a monstrous moral hybrid. One problem with climate change is that it is phrased like a sin in the religion of Progressivism. Those opposed to accepting it know well that the power elite wants to use the "Science" to show them not just as people needing to change and adapt, but as Sinners. That becomes a religious/guardian issue. Science is concerned with true and false, and religion with right and wrong. Both are necessary to a properly functioning society.

The corruption of science can belaid at the feet of the politicians who turned it into a government-supported enterprise. The Federal government supplies about 1/7th of the money spent annually at Higher Education in America, but every dollar spent by an institution receiving Federal funds must comply with Federal rules. This has turned university science into an arm of the State, the ultimate guardian institution. Ultimately, the wage class knows who is paying for the scientist: the salary class that runs the State. This is an utter disaster going forward, and you're right: cosseted scientists like Tyson cannot see it.

Chris Smith said...

@ Bill Pulliam:

Not only does Trump not care about the working class, he is a snake oil salesman. The 1950s and 1960s were great for the American working class*. Trump tells us he's going to bring the jobs back. He even said in Pennsylvania a few weeks ago that he is going to bring steel back.

This of course ignores two facts (IMHO). First, that post war boom happened in part because our industry wasn't destroyed during the war. We were the only ones who could fill everybody's orders. This is no longer the case. Second, and more important, we do not have enough resources for everyone on the planet to live 1960s middle class US lifestyle, and the rest of the people on the planet aren't going to put up with living in deprivation and penury so that we can maintain our lifestyle.

Sure, people want to believe that we can go back to the way it was, but it wasn't isn't and won't be sustainable. But then again, it's easier to sell "morning in America" then it is to sell "turn down the thermostat and put on a sweater."

And lest anyone think I in any way, shape, or form support Clinton, she is selling the same sort of snake oil to the salary class. That is, that things can go on like this forever with improvements made by tinkering around the edges. Good luck with that.

As for violent insurrection Bill, I don't get that either.

* There is a racial dimension to this, but its too complicated and too important for a glib treatment.

RPC said...

A tangential point..."forty years ago, a family with one working class income could afford a house, a car, and the other amenities of life, while today, a family with one working class income is probably living on the street." But which of these situations is anomalous? A reading of the literature yields the impression that for most of industrial civilization the working class has had barely enough resources to survive and reproduce. The worker of forty years ago was the beneficiary not just of the New Deal, but also of the remainder of the world being destroyed in WWII (and using American expertise and equipment to rebuild), to say nothing of the burning of a whole lotta domestic coal and oil. I think restoring a set of policies more favorable to the working class is A Good Thing, but the comfort of forty years ago is probably now forever out of reach.

Paulo said...

It isn't just scientists and engineers who fall into the 'know it all' trap. I believe it is a question of 'habits'. I have a aquaintance who is a Menonite minister. He is a great guy, but he drives me effing crazy simply because there isn't one topic he doesn't have an opinion on. He understands everything, and will go to great pains to let you know what you should really be thinking. One day, I put two and two together. It is simply because people ask his opinion all the time, and every Sunday he gives a sermon listened to people who think just like him, otherwise, they would have probably gone fishing instead of to church.

Another person I know is an engineer. He was deeply offended when I told him that as an experienced tradesman, engineers were just another problem we had to work around, and that many actually knew very little of the scope and sequence of how a building goes up, or how a project is completed. One day, a Govt engineer came to inspect a fish hatchery I helped construct, (I was the foreman). He remarked that we had put in the plumbing on the 'wrong' side of the building. I replied that to install it as designed we would have had to make several tight 90 degree turns and pass under the driveway. We would have also had to do more drilling/blasting through bedrock. The way we installed it gave us a straight shot into the building, used less pipe, was easier to install, and offered less friction and better flows for the rearing areas. He demanded we redo it. I refused, as it was by now all under concrete. We argued, and then finally got to the nitty gritty of the matter. His reasoning for wanting us to redo the installation was that it was the way he had drawn it up on the blueprints. The construction had to conform to the blueprints. I told him that his design was wrong, and that it was easier to redo the blueprints and do a 'mirror image' of the plumbing installation than change the building around. We call that doing an 'as built' drawing. He was a Fisheries engineer and probably would not have survived in Industry. Nevertheless, he had the degree and people usually followed his orders.

Another engineer (boyfriend of my wife's friend) remarked to me with irritation in his voice that he simply did not understand why the 2nd crossing of Burrard Inlet (Vancouver) was called the Ironworkers Bridge? It offended him as he did not like ironworkers. (Sometimes, they are pretty hard to like). He was from Toronto and did not know our local history. Anyway, I told him it was because so many ironworkers died in the construction of the bridge due to a faulty design and project construction plan. He denied that the bridge had ever collapsed and that a properly engineered bridge could never fall down if details were adhered to. I told him to go and look it up....and have never heard back from him.

These three examples are people who have had years of authority linked to their training and job title, reinforced by people who had not questioned them, ever. In politics, and life, such rigidity is an accident waiting to happen.

John Roth said...

@Bill Pullam

Right on. The only benefit of wars and collapses is they clear out a whole lot of rubbish so people have to start over. The cost, on the other hand, is horrendous. You’d think we’d have learned enough to actually grow our social systems rather than crash, burn, pick up and repeat.


Every oral culture will tell you that their oral histories are accurate. The cases where oral memory can be compared against written records say is simply isn’t so. Studies of how stories get transmitted show there are certain things that are needed to keep a story stable, and certain things tend to change in very specific ways.

32,000 years ago is at least 50% too long, and probably a lot more, for a tribe in Canada.


No real grammarian will tell you that a preposition at the end of the sentence is wrong. The people who tell you that are called “peevers.”

Re: Dawkins

JMG, you’re right about what Dawkins is saying; the counterpoint is that it doesn’t work that way. Dawkins is on one end of an argument in evolutionary theory on the unit of evolution between people who believe that the individual is the only unit, and people who believe that populations have a validity beyond the individuals who make them up. It’s called group selection, and Dawkins was against it.

@Gottfried etc.

Idealism is all very well, but sooner or later you have to face reality. As last seen, most of Sanders’ base had shifted to Hillary anyway. See the analysis at

Keith Hammer said...

You have certainly hit on something here. Its similar to what Thomas Frank explored in his book Listen Liberal.Its about the professional class as the main constituency of the Democratic party.Along with minorities and a few pet projects like gay rights and womens issues while ignoring the plight of working class America.Trump the opportunist is hitting those buttons.I doubt he can deliver anything but more misery.

Shane W said...

I'm baffled why you seem to have such a "charge" over the cycles of history taking place. A lot like King Canute trying to stop the tides. Whether you jump up and down and throw a fit or not makes not one whit of difference in the cycling of history in our society. Likewise, whether you jump up and down, swear, scream, have a stroke or heart attack will have no bearing at all on my decision to volunteer for the Trump campaign. I fully expect as much from people, and am prepared for the reaction, if I even choose to share my decision with others.
You seem to have missed the part where I discussed my ambivalence. I totally agree that it may be entirely possible that Trump sells out his supporters, but I fully believe that if that happens, his supporters will form the insurgency. I'm not really interested in stopping the tides, Bill, but trying to figure out the tides and surfing them. To me, Hillary is an unacceptable alternative that will unquestionably lead to Civil War or war with Russia, or both, and if there's even the remotest chance that Trump may follow through on some of his campaign promises, he should be given the opportunity to do so. Honestly, Bill, I'm not so much of a war monger as you are making me out to be, in that I think that Trump is our best sliver of hope to avert insurgency, and should be given an opportunity.

Allie said...

Great post, JMG.

One nitpick I had with the Leave camp in the Brexit vote was their mostly dishonest claim that you quoted: “the right of people to self-determination must be protected from the encroachments of unelected bureaucrats in Brussels.” The term 'unelected' isn't true. All of the legislative and executive institutions of the EU operating out of Brussels are made up of elected officials. The main ones:

The EU Parliament by direct vote of the citizenry of the member countries.

The EU Council that is made up of the heads of state of each member country, who are all in their position due to their parties or coalitions being voted into power by their countries citizens.

The Council of the EU (not to be confused with the EU Council above). It is the other legislative body of the EU. It is made up of the executive governments of the member states. Those governments are elected by their national parliaments, who were in turn elected by their citizenry.

The European Commission is the executive body of the European Union responsible for proposing legislation, implementing decisions, upholding the EU treaties and managing the day-to-day business of the EU. There is one member per member state. One of the 28 is the Commission President proposed by the European Council and elected by the European Parliament. The Council of the European Union then nominates the other 27 members of the Commission in agreement with the nominated President, and the 28 members as a single body are then subject to a vote of approval by the European Parliament.

As you see, everyone is technically elected. It's just that, as you see from my descriptions above, it all gets rather derivative in a hurry. The guy who is in charge of the day to day biz is elected by another guy who was elected by this other dude, who you voted for in the last national elections. And being so far detached from direct elections, it might as well be unelected. Trying to nitpick on that technical inaccuracy results in this long winded description that just makes peoples eyes glaze over and they think to themselves "I can't wait to vote leave."

Now the European Central Bank is a totally unelected institution and it isn't based in Brussels. Also since the UK isn't in the Eurozone it isn't directly impacted by the ECB and more than it is impacted by the Federal Reserve.

I wish there had been more realistic talk from the Leave camp for making the UK more self reliant with important things like domestic food production. They currently import about 40% of their needs. But again, I'm just nitpicking. I think they did the right thing...I just don't think the Leave leaders have any sort of real plan after the vote.

Lastly, thank you so much for mentioning that awful open letter about Golden Rice. I would simply add to your comments about interests and values, the statement "golden rice doesn't work as advertised" is a fact. The field tests in the Philippines in 2012-2013 failed to produce the same yields as commercial strains. And didn't have significantly more vitamin A.

Professor Diabolical said...

Recognizing the young earth argument, I'd just point out that real science is about studying the things we don't understand and don't fit, rather than the things that do.

There is a cornucopia of things that don't fit into the standard scientific theory of earth evolution, and they are all locked away as assiduously as The Man in the Iron Mask, "Those-facts-who-shall-not-be-named" if you will. Q: What scientist looks at ill-fitting evidence and says, "hey, I'd better stay as far away from understanding that as possible"? A: All of them. Every field has career-ending taboos and lines of inquiry, with 300 tenure applicants clawing up the ladder behind you. You couldn't build a better system to prevent honest investigation if you tried. It was only in my childhood that tectonic plate theory was a tinfoil hat theory refuted by honorable geologists despite the self-evident appearance of the African and South American coasts. Then one day, scientists had always ascribed to plate theory and the tinfoil hats were the ones who didn't believe it.

So is there evidence that would support the young earth theory, or at least radically re-write existing theory? Absolutely. And that's why they'll never look at it. But don't worry: if they someday change their minds, they'll always have been right, and you'll still have always been wrong -- the ultimate appeal to authority.

over the hill and down the other side said...

Thank you so much for opening this discussion!

Somewhere I read this definition of science: Science is a series of statements that have not yet been disproven.

Coming from the intuitive/feeling side of perception, these mainline official scientists come across to me as insufferable priests of materialist religion.. The engineering side of science too obsessed with control from a basis of arrogance. No one seems to notice how the "verities" have changed from epoch to epoch! Or that "fudging" has to go on with facts and measurements .

This, I believe, is in violation of the principles of science as skeptical inquiry.

This violation seems to begin with the definition of something as a "problem." Anything defined as a problem must have a solution.

In political terms, this always leads to what was said to be Stalin's "solution." No people. No problem.

"People" being those "irrational" folks who create situations and predicaments which frustrate "problem solvers."

nrgmiserncaz said...

JMG - I'm another happy subscriber to the print edition. Was hoping you'd make a little coin from the effort but I can always add to the tip jar instead. Including the comments would be welcome too.

As an Engineer, I found this highly relevant to my day-to-day existence. I'm an oddball however, as I've straddled the Engineering/Business Development/Sales & Marketing walls for many years. The advantage is that I come to discussions with a bit more of a values bent so my perspective is often VERY different than my Engineering peers.

We have any number of highly trained, well educated folks that have multiple Master's degrees or Ph.D's but who suffer from ignorance about both sides of the coin you've discussed - politics vs. science. I have guys that are absolutely dismissive of science-based notions like climate change, peak oil, environmental degradation, etc. even in the face of actual facts they could understand and assimilate.

Meanwhile, they also have complete disdain for human emotion or perception. I often have to explain that winning a bid for work often has more to do with perception of our capabilities (true or not), how well we get along with their Engineers or how crazy our ideas are to potentially conservative buyers. The buyer sees risk where the Engineer sees innovation.

This also goes to the argument between atheists and philosophy where the crowd of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, et al seem to think everything can be solved by science but I'm more inclined to think that many things in life are value judgments and will never be solved by science.

Your rice example is a wonderful nod to this and is the kind of issue I discuss with the Engineers I work with to no avail. To them , the GMO thing is simple and logical. If it's deemed scientifically safe and is legal to sell, then it should be done, period, regardless of the "feeling" of the "crazy liberals". Trying to get them to see the impact this can have on autonomy or income inequality is met with fierce resistance.

As the VP of our organization (BS Physics/ MS Elec. Eng) told me regarding working class people and jobs, "if people don't have jobs, that's not my problem".

Varun Bhaskar said...


You have a knack for talking about ideas that should be taught in the social sciences. I hope you don't mind me using your idea for the “Political Method,” it's a brilliant way to teach politics to the uninitiated.

When I was working in India, I attended a defense conference where a professor from South Asia University talked about how engineering colleges are breeding grounds for terrorists. He went on to describe, in some detail, about all the flaws in the curriculum that caused young students from engineering fields to become radicalized. Then he went on to point out that the relationship between engineering eduction and terrorism wasn't just limited to Islamic terrorism. He had gone back and done his research and found a trend all the way back to the communist uprisings in the early 1900s. He ended by calling for a deep reform of the educational system in South Asia to combat terrorism. Obviously, no such reform has taken place.

Also, here's an article I wrote about immigration that is definitely a value-interest argument. The Diminishing Returns of Immigration.


Varun Bhaskar

spinozarina smith said...

As someone with a four year humanities degree and who then went for a two year associates in engineering – and who has worked with engineers for 20+ years – I remain amazed at how incurious engineers can be about anything NOT related to their field.

I suspect the compartmentalization of academic fields – particularly the “hard” sciences - drives this non-holistic approach but because they are rewarded financially they must be right!

Another observation: I am old enough to have had years of drafting in HS and later learned AutoCAD. I suspect – in a pinch - doctors “can” do what nurses do, lawyers “can” so what their para-legal does but IMO there are very few engineers [at least the civils I’ve worked with] that can draw anything using AutoCAD. They can read a set of plans but are unable to actually produce them.

donalfagan said...

In a related vein, Vox posted, The 7 biggest problems facing science, according to 270 scientists

Academia has a huge money problem
Too many studies are poorly designed
Replicating results is crucial — and rare
Peer review is broken
Too much science is locked behind paywalls
Science is poorly communicated
Life as a young academic is incredibly stressful

Ironically, Vox noted this was not a scientific survey.

Hereward said...

Isn't this exactly what we might expect as we move into the Age of Aquarius? Scientists pontificating about matters that science is totally unsuitable to address?

From the Piscean era characterized by emotion, depth and devotion, but also dogma, the water in the pitcher is emptied out and replaced by what appears at first to be a breath of fresh air. New thinking and rationality take over and this appears to be all to the good. However, as the fixed version of the element of air, contained as it is by the pitcher, the attempt is made to systematize everything, which is all well and good for the sciences, but quickly comes unstuck when the same process is applied to politics, economics, religion, art etc. We then become imprisoned by our own rigid thought constructs.

This all begs the question of how we might expect this age to develop. What might the world look like a thousand years from now? No doubt you had (something like) this in your mind when you set the challenge for the space bats competition last year.

It further begs the question of what, if anything, can be done to avoid the impending train wreck? On a personal level, fore-warned can be said to be fore-armed, but the wheels of Hamlet's Mill are ever turning and will trace out their arc no matter what. Presumably, therefore, humanity as a whole is strapped in and can do little else but sit back and 'enjoy' the ride.

Shane W said...

I'm so glad that I didn't really "feel the Bern", that I didn't invest any time or money in Bernie's campaign, and went to a rally more as observer rather than participant. Seems like a wise decision/use of time...

dermot said...

I'm reminded of these passages from Michael Polanyi's 'Study of Man' (~1953), where he dissects the spectrum from facts to values. Mary Midgley does something very similar in her more recent book 'Wisdom, Information & Wonder'.

'Study of Man' Michael Polanyi p.37
I have moved deliberately from facts to values and from science to the arts, in order to surprise you with the result; namely, that our powers of understanding control equally both these domains. This continuity was actually foreshadowed from the moment that I acknowledged intellectual passion as a proper motive of comprehension. The moment the ideal of detached knowledge was abandoned, it was inevitable that the ideal of dispassionateness should eventually follow, and that with it the supposed cleavage between dispassionate knowledge of fact and impassioned valuation of beauty should vanish.

A continuous transition from observation to valuation can actually be carried out within science itself, and indeed within the exact sciences, simply by moving from physics to applied mathematics and then further to pure mathematics. Even physics, though based on observation, relies heavily on a sense of intellectual beauty. No one who is unresponsive to such beauty can hope to make an important discovery in mathematical physics, or even to gain a proper understanding of its existing theories. In applied mathematics - for example in aerodynamics - observation is much attenuated and the mathematical interest often predominates; and when we arrive at pure mathematics, for example, number theory, observation is effaced altogether and experience is alluded to only quite dimly in the conception of integers. Pure mathematics presents us with a vast intellectual structure, built up altogether for the sake of enjoying it as a dwelling place of our understanding. It has no other purpose; whoever does not love and admire mathematics for its own internal splendours, knows nothing whatever about it.

And from here there is but a short step to the abstract arts to music. Music is a complex pattern of sounds constructed for the joy of understanding it. Music, like mathematics, dimly echoes past experience, but has no definite bearing on experience. It develops the joy of its understanding into an extensive gamut of feelings, known only to those specially gifted and educated to understand its structure intimately. Mathematics is conceptual music - music is sensuous mathematics.

And so we could go on extending our perspective, until it took in the entire range of human thought. For the whole universe of human sensibility - of our intellectual, moral, artistic, religious ideas - is evoked, in the way illustrated for music and mathematics, by dwelling within the framework of our cultural heritage. Thus our acknowledgment of understanding as a valid form of knowledge foreshadows the promised transition from the study of nature to a confrontation with man acting responsibly, under an over-arching firmament of universal ideas.


And here he attacks the brute scientism of this time (which is a feature again shared with Midgley):


p.20 I agree that the process of understanding leads beyond - indeed far beyond - what a strict empiricism regards as the domain of legitimate knowledge; but I reject such an empiricism. If consistently applied, it would discredit any knowledge whatever and it can be upheld only by allowing it to remain inconsistent. It is permitted this inconsistency because its ruthless mutilation of human experience lends it such a high reputation for scientific severity, that its prestige overrides the defectiveness of its own foundations. Our acknowledgment of understanding as a valid form of knowing will go along way towards liberating our minds from this violent and inefficient despotism.



onething said...

"“But how do we know it was a UFO sighting in the first place?” is the one question that never really gets addressed."

Well, to my mind, the question went from naive acceptance of the spiritual vision in a very altered reality, to the question of hey, what if something like that really happened and how does the language in which it is described remind us of the kind of technology that we have or can imagine today, rather than what people in earlier eras could not see it as - i.e., technology? The description sounds a lot like a description of a primitive person seeing a space ship, as does some of the descriptions in Revelation describe what might be helicopters and bombers. And it isn't only in the Bible.

You spoke highly of peer review, but it also can be used to lock out opinions or research that doesn't fit an accepted agenda or even just to prevent the entrenched dogma from being shaken. What if, for example, someone came up with good arguments against the Big Bang; that would upset all sorts of apple carts. Would that pass peer review?

dermot said...

On the subject of whether or not the BREXIT voters (who were old, racist, stupid and of course, working class) didn't understand the vote, as opposed to the educated Neil Tyson reading middle class people who allegedly did:

being Irish I'm familiar with 4 or 5 of these awful EU referenda (I've lost count), as all EU treaties must be ratified by binding referenda under the Irish constitution.

in my experience of following these, both at home and from overseas, the number of people who understood what they were voting for, based on YES/NO

YES: 0
NO: 0

There is NOBODY, barring some infinitesimal number of constitutional lawyers, who could have read and understood Maastricht, Nice, Lisbon treaties, etc.

("The party of the first part, insofar as applicable to subsection 3.4, shall, upon execution of terms, apply said entity to code 7.2, upon which the party of the second part shall thereupon etc etc etc ...")

Even assuming anyone did understand the particular treaties, there is no way that any of them could have predicted the full consequences (e.g., Irish membership of the Euro meaning loss of control over currency, leading to massive austerity post 2008). Nobody - not even the Irish Euroskeptics - who were mostly on the hard left - predicted that.

So the Refs are fought on hope & fear, usually a mix of 10% hope 90% fear, but 20/80 is sometimes approached. This isn't a bug of EU referenda, it's a feature.

Also note the irony of complaints that "the old people have voted, but it's the young who will have to live with this". Yeah, you mean like in EVERY OTHER ELECTION we've ever had? If the young couldn't be bothered to log off of Twitter for 30 minutes, then they've selected themselves out of having a say. (But of course, #notmyvote was easy enough to do). If only we could vote on Twitter.

Anyway, the idea that the REMAIN camp in the UK 'understood' what they were voting for is a hoot. They were voting for status quo, perhaps they can claim that - but even an appeal to Burkean conservatism might not apply, as the EU is the prime mover in quite quick social change these days, and ceding power to unelected Brussels bureaucrats is not something I imagine old Eddie would have been comfortable with.

The Brits could also do what the Irish gov did when the electorate voted NO. Simply run the referendum a second time. Of course, if the Tories did that, the tory party wouldn't survive a wet weekend.



Peter Robinson said...

While I certainly agree with most of the points raised here, I must take issue with the view that engineers simply take a problem then come up with the solution without considering whether the problem is actually a valid one. In many years in the electronics industry, I have never known a professional engineer to take this approach.

The starting point of any engineering project is to carefully examine the problem to be solved - usually as stated in a customer requirement or similar document - and to decide whether this is really the problem that needs solving. Identifying and defining the problem is an essential first step in any successful engineering project. Accepting at face value what the customer thinks is the problem is a sure recipe for a failed project. Designing and implementing the right solution to the wrong problem is a career limiting move for any professional engineer, no matter whose fault it is.

Engineering is a pragmatic profession that tries to live in the real world, with all its uncertainties and imperfections.

Martin B said...

The best brief definition I know is "Politics is about who gets what."

Strictly speaking, golden rice contains carotene, which gives it its color. Carotene is converted to vitamin A in the body. But you could just as easily get your carotene from carrots or green leafy vegetables. Developing golden rice is just a boondoggle to get funds to various research organizations. All that's really needed to get the same benefit as golden rice is to encourage healthy dietary choices.

onething said...


I can see that this post is going to bring some interesting opinions out of the wood work!
Does your young earth creationism relate to the Nestorian Church? Because in the larger Orthodox world, they do not and have not ever insisted upon 24 hour days for the tale in Genesis.
I always enjoy reading your thoughts.

anton mett said...

Genevieve, I noticed a recent study for botox treatment of migraines. They results are as follows:

Chronic Migraine Treatment
• OnabotulinumtoxinA (botox)
– Approved for prophylaxis of chronic migraine (>
15 headache days/month)
*8-9 fewer HA compared to 6-7 with placebo*
– 31 injection sites into head/neck Q 3 mo.
– Boxed warning re: possibility for spread causing
weakness in distant area(s)

So one take away is that injecting botulism can result in 1-3 less headaches a month than placebo. The other lesson is that, placebo can cut down migraines nearly in half!

I work in research and I do find it funny that we only study the placebo effect in order to delete it from the results of "real" medicine.
We study it specifically so we can ignore it.

Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...

Coordinated Universal Time (= UTC = EST+5 = EDT+4): 20160714T162937Z

Dear JMG:


(This is the FIRST in a pair of two comments. I accordingly write "====1====".)

I largely agree with your various contentions this week. In particular, you seem to be right in finding various scientists guilty of argumentum ad auctoritatem. In glancing over the pro-GMO letter, signed by over 100 Nobel laureates, I find some names appearing that look odd oven to me, working even at the very low (unpaid!) scientific level that I do, and being as poorly informed in science as I am - what on earth can be the intellectual authority of quantics laureate Cohen-Tannoudji, or Cosmic Microwave Background laureate Penzias, in a debate in agronomy? Are some physicists here behaving like municipal politicians, basking in the sense of importance that comes with getting quoted in the media?

Hastily poking also a little further this morning into the topic of physicists behaving oddly, I note a propos of climate change Follow the money, say the police detectives. Well, there is money in this story: grants to Baliunas and/or Soon from the American Petroleum Institute between 2001 and 2007 totalling 274,000 USD, and grants from Exxon Mobil totalling 335,000 USD between 2005 and 2010.

It is said that no gentleman is a hero to his valet. To this I would add, having been research assistant here and there over the years, that no prof is a hero to his or her research assistant. On the strength of minor personal observations over the years, I offer the following: The physics profs are as prone to vanity and the craving for affirmation as anyone else is, and the big-money people know this, and they are accordingly willing to stoop to manipulation. Profs who are busy, and are rather Aspergery in character, and are perhaps even a bit lonely, and are inclined to be rather trusting (they are not blessed with the deep reserves of cynicism we may hope to find in police detectives, or again in monastery abbots) make fine targets for manipulation.

This might end badly. You have indeed yourself already said so, in a 2014-11-26 posting entitled "Dark Age America: The Suicide of Science".



Patricia Mathews said...

@ Bernie Sanders' price for selling out - I keep thinking he's wrung some serious platform concessions out of Hillary. I'm sure the negotiations included "You pass these parts of my program, and I'll endorse you." And of course, it's also a "one no-trumps bid" in the ongoing political bridge game.

Alvin Leong said...

I am reminded of a lot of things Nassim Taleb has been covering recentlyin this essay.
He has also taken a hard line against GMOs and faced Monsanto harrassment in his workplace as a result.

You come at it from a slightly different angle but I think his "puddle of water" scenario in Black Swan is relevant: given an ice cube, one can predict quite reliably the shape of the puddle it will melt into; given a puddle of water on the other hand it is impossible to reverse engineer whether it was even an ice cube in the first place.

What the creationist engineers are doing seems to be deciding that it was an ice cube and then attempting to reverse engineer the evidence to show how the puddle resulted from the ice cube melting.

He calls these idiot savants "IYIs": Intellectual Yet Idiots. Intellectuals who have no skin in the game and think reality should conform to their Platonifying models rather than basing their models in reality (which also calls to my mind William James).

Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...

Coordinated Universal Time (= UTC = EST+5 = EDT+4): 20160714T165755Z

Dear JMG:


(This is the SECOND in a pair of two comments. I accordingly write "====2====".)

Although largely agreeing with your various contentions this week, I do have to add a few brief sentences of corrective to the following remark in your current essay: /.../ specific blindness seems to be hardwired into another mode of education, one that’s both prestigious and popular these days: a scientific education—that is to say, a technical education in the theory and practice of one of the hard sciences. Although one can hardly dispute the charge of "specific blindness", it does have to be added that the current system offers not one but two cultures in "scientific education" in "the hard sciences", and that these two are dissimilar.

Take, as an illustration, the University of Toronto main ("St George") campus. (A) On the west side of St George street is the physics tower, with a nice adjacent 1950s-heritage brick lowrise for astrophysics. On the same side of the street, not too far away, although in three separate places, are three separate centres of pure mathematics - the Maths Dept, the maths library, and the Fields Institute. (B) On the east side are multiple buildings for engineering.

East is east, and west is west, said Kipling, and ne'er the twain shall meet.

I am rooted in the west-side culture. I think I speak for many when I say that the east-side culture is, on the whole, rather bad news: maths regarded as a mere tool, I believe, and connections with corporate money outright celebrated and flaunted (there is a "Hall of Fame" in one of the engineering buildings, explaining with little vitrine exhibits how Prof. I.M.Doing-Ratherwell helped develop Ontario tantalum mining, or how Prof. Plutus designed a new kind of hydraulic control for that evil which is the passenger jet).

We give the east side more respectability than it deserves, since our culture (as some other JMG ADR commentator lately remarked) fetishizes technology. The social-wellbeing truth is that we should have no home computers, no passenger jets, no private motorcars (the cops, the doctors, and the like do admittedly have to have cars), no broadcast television - that, in short, we should be back at something like the technological level we were attaining in 1914, the year future historians may well be taking as a convenient start-marker for the Collapse of Western Civ. But because technology is presently fetishized, we are tempted to paint physics as above all the search for more elementary particles, to seek an "application" even for General Relativity (there is one big application, namely GPS - but this we need just as much or as little as coffee percolators need steering wheels), and so on.

As real science commits suicide, through the unwise mass-media pronouncements of the Cohen-Tannoudjis and Penziases and Baliunases and Soons, engineering will to some extent endure. The warlords will need their drones. Perhaps the remote future of the University of Toronto is one in which "applications" still get explored in those labs on the east side of St George, while the west side is mothballed.

Hastily, respectfully,
hoping that science education is destined to be duly dissected at JMG's ADR and elsewhere
with mention of the academic divide between theoretical work and engineering,


Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...

Coordinated Universal Time (= UTC = EST+5 = EDT+4): 20160714T174501Z

Two further thoughts to my "====2====" posting (above, as UTC=20160714T165755Z). So think of this as not "2" but "2-prime":

(i) I have practiced (in my blog) what I here (on JMG's blog) preach. I touched briefly on the east-west divide in my "Is Science Doomeed" essay at ("Part C", posting of 2016-06-14: search for string "drones with cameras"). But I will have to blog about the divide over there again, perhaps this autumn.

(ii) I hope no engineers here at ADR will be very angry with me! Engineering is only as good as our overarching social arrangements. In a society in which corporations and the military take the social decisions, we cannot expect engineering to be a fully happy profession. A happy society - "creating a new society in the shell of the old", they say at Catholic Worker - would have its engineers. They would be working on things like carbon-neutral, biomass-burning, locomotives.

Hastily, respectfully,


Grim said...

Mr Greer, sorry for the non-sequitur.

Last night something happened to be that drove home your position that the latest technology is not better.

My GF got new cable boxes. There was nothing wrong with the existing equipment, but that corporate nightmare Comcast (Com-curse) wants to "update" the equipment every 2 years. I spent over an hour on the phone to some guy in China and 48 hours later they still haven't activated the new boxes. Remember, the old ones worked just fine. They weren't as pretty and were physically a bit a larger.

My poor GF had to listen to me quoting chapter and verse from this blog about "improvements" in technology.

Thanks for all your hard work.

Bill Pulliam said...

Mallow - Oh our civil war most definitely WAS like that, absolutely. It was fought because of a clash in political and economic interests between southern land/slave owners and northern industrialists. The war only became "about slavery" after it started. Emancipation was a political decision, not an ethical one. It was rich yanks versus rich seccesionists. Both bamboozled 750,000 mostly poor farmers and workers into getting killed for their cause.

Shane -- I think you put WAY too much stock in there being actual differences between Clinton and Trump. Both benefit enormously from the status quo, neither has any reason at all to change it.

And you lecture me about not understanding the tides of history. Really? Have you been reading this blog very long? It's because of the long arc of history that I think random insurgencies at this point in it would be nothing but a waste of lives, resources, and energy. We are nowhere near the point yet (sorry JMG, but I really disagree with you on this one) that such a thing would catch fire and do anything but get people killed and STRENGTHEN central government's claim to power and more intrusive policies. Let the dang feds die under their own bloated weight, they're doing that fast enough already!

Son, I'm not pitching a fit, I'm trying to slap some sense into your head. As a fellow southerner you should know the difference.

avalterra said...

I was going to comment on this blog but I must drop everything and run out the door to catch a new Pokemon that has appeared in my neighborhood!


Dennis D said...

Here are a few comments from a Canadian at the top end of the wage class, in random order. I used to collect conspiracy theories, but after a while I ran into one that stated that many of the conspiracy theories were disinformation to discredit the real theories, and that the definition of a conspiracy also included the official explanation, which meant that what we were looking at were competing theories. I settled on "I don't need to know the truth to know I am being lied too", and that regardless, most don't affect my day to day life other than general directions the world is going.
For your homework assignments, I tried to read Henry James "portrait of a lady", then the De Sade link from someone in the comments. With both I found a bigger gulf from the class issues than the age differences. Portrait could have been about someone trying to fit in the Hamptons, and de Sade could have been about the ugly side of billionaires, just substitute a 737 and a private island for an ex-president and his friends, and a few other minor details. This is in regards to things like treatment of servants, as nobody that I know has a servant.
As for your election, I agree that the choice is either go with a certified monster, of gamble that an upstart might do what he says. If he toes the line of the puppet masters, you are no worse off than if you had selected an obvious marionette, but you at least have a chance at improvement.
My personal rant about engineers, as an electrician, is that too many assume that because it fits in a CAD program, it must work in the real world, which has esoteric concerns about whether there is room for your hand and wrench to fit in the required space, or will your hand bend that way.

A Post-Millennial said...

Dear Mr. Greer, I have sent an email to Stone Circle Press about offering a snail mail option for subscription, and also asking about ownership of the mailing list. If the company owns the list...companies do get sold sometimes, and I suppose the list is considered an asset."

Hi Nastarana, we saw your email; give us a day or two to respond, we need to talk over the feasibility of offering a snail mail subscription option. We are not a company, but rather a indy/DIY print shop, which is to say of group of people with a printer and some ambition. That means we/our assets will never be sold off; your data is secure. It also, however, means that we need to talk about who, if any of us, is comfortable having our home address listed publicly (and/or whether it's worth the cost of renting a PO Box).

Hope that helps!

JMG - I'm another happy subscriber to the print edition. Was hoping you'd make a little coin from the effort but I can always add to the tip jar instead. Including the comments would be welcome too."

You should definitely drop a little something in JMG's tip jar. Without him, none of this would exist. As far as including comments goes, like we said above, that would make the zine extremely long and therefore prohibitively expensive to produce and ship, unless people are willing to pay a significant markup for an edition that includes comments.

W. B. Jorgenson said...

I think the "if all you have is a hammer" metaphor is a little wrong here, it strikes me more as, "If you've been trained all you ever need is a hammer, and it's wrong to use anything else"


I feel your pain, I'm dealing with something similar now too. My advice, take it one step at a time, look to the future, not the past, and understand that things aren't as good as you've been told, but better than they could be. Just find ways to make the world a little better (or at least, less bad), and that's all anyone can do.

Tidlösa said...

You´re not the first person to notice the seemingly peculiar co-incidence between creationism and engineering - people doing research on creationism has noted it, too, so it does seem to cry out for an explanation! The explanation given by the scholars is that both creationists and engineers think in terms of intelligent design (I wonder if a similar correlation exists today between computer geeks and creationists? "Information"!)

You´re statements about politics are spot on. This is one of the reasons why Plato was wrong when he attacked democracy with the argument that "just as a ship must have a competent captain, and only one, and you can´t have the crew elect him, a state needs a competent leader", etc. The leader of a state isn´t like a ship captain. (Of course, Plato - on the standard interpretation - was a utopian, so in his strictly ordered state, I suppose there could be "captains".) In a real state, there is always "class struggle" and/or attempts to mediate it.

As for scientists, I think both they and "real" intellectuals would love to have political influence, are resentful because they don´t have it, or (in some cases) wrongly imagine that they *do* have it. This often leads to conundrums of various kinds. Sometimes, the cluelessness of scientists is almost comic - regardless of what you think about Greenpeace or genetic engineering, it´s not savvy to attack them in a way that simply confirms the picture of arrogant "Nobel Prize winners" in an ivory tower looking down on the common man. The fact that politicians aren´t Platonic captains, doesn´t mean they should be clueless! Another classic was the attempt to rebrand atheists as "Brights"...

As for Dawkins, I think one of his problems is that he constantly repeats the same sound bites over and over again... They may have been interesting the first time, but the shtick is getting old after 10 or 15 years! He tried to rebrand himself as an anti-Muslim tweeter on Twitter, but it seems this too has grown old (perhaps surprisingly). Today, Dawkins is even attacked with impunity by the "SJWs", suggesting that he has lost his status as a culture icon. I kind of like the old rascal and his gung-ho documentaries, despite not being a hard-core skeptic myself, but his reductionism and purely negative criticism of religion/spirituality was, I think, destined to have a relatively short shelf life within the general culture.

One of my fears is that science and the scientific method (which are indeed achievements of the human mind) will be destroyed by the cluelessness of really existing scientists themselves...

I sometimes feel *they* could need an authoritarian captain to navigate the stormy seas of the long descent!

Dennis D said...

On the subject of climate change, I have noticed a couple of things. One, it is almost always stated as a problem, and they have the solution. However, when pushed to specifics, the best case solution to even 100% ceasing of burning fossil fuels will take over a hundred years to return to normal. The other issue is that it is stated as 100% man-made problem, with man-made solutions possible. I believe that climate change is occurring, but am not sure it is all mankind's fault, or even if burning carbon fuels is the main driver. If the main message was that climate was changing, (not just heating as originally stated) the end result is that we are now in a predicament, and need to be working on solutions to survive. What we see is big celebrity spokespeople burning lots of carbon, working on schemes to extract and skim wealth from the regular economy, with no practical result.

Eric S. said...

Re: Climate change:

It seems the one phrase that is most crucial for the climate change movement to bring forward at this point… that hasn’t been brought up once and usually gets silenced as denial when someone utters it… that would actually go a long way towards providing the jobs and prosperity for the working classes that would be necessary to breach the divide is “damage control.” Most of the measures being discussed and implemented right now are preventative, and climate change is advanced enough at this point that we need to be looking at responsive measures… And the thing is, the act of building up coastal fortifications and levies in vulnerable coastal areas as a rear guard, relocating vulnerable economic, political and population centers, setting up seed banks and greenhouses in preparation for shifts in growing regions, and a host of other responsive measures would open up more construction and agricultural jobs than the global workforce could shake a stick at. The fact that not a single responsive measure has been brought forward, makes it look to climate deniers as though the people talking about climate change don’t really believe the words coming out of their mouths.

Eric S. said...

Re: YE Creationism:
One of the weirdest logic moments I encountered during my creationist childhood happened sometime after I’d finally given up on trying to force-fit my observations of the world into the ideology, and started following the literature of an Old Earth Creationist organization called “Reasons to Believe. I finally went to attend a conference where the leaders of the organization were speaking (I was around 13 or 14 at time), and during the Q&A I asked them some questions: one was about the 4 million years worth of pre-human hominids in the fossil record, and whether they are transitional forms that pose a challenge to creationism. Their answer was that God created them to “prepare the Earth for the creation of Man,” My other question was, if everything on earth was created for the benefit of humankind, why were there so many species that went extinct before humans were created. Their answer to that one was that God had to keep the earth populated with a large amount of biomass for eons before he created humans, because he needed to ensure that humans were endowed with the biodeposits necessary to launch and sustain a global high technology civilization that could ensure that Christ’s followers could distribute the gospel throughout the world in a short time, rather than a long time. That conference turned me into a reluctant theistic evolutionist, and was the beginning of a long journey. So I got to work through the logic of engineer thinking… and out of it at a fairly young age.

One thing that does concern me about the crisis of legitimacy in science is just how complete it could be, and how irreversible. There are some aspects of our scientific knowledge that we may have only had one shot at gathering, especially in paleontology. In addition to depleting natural resources for economic growth such as fossil fuels, we’ve also depleted our reserves of actual fossils. Would a combination of peak fossil, and a revolt against the sciences potentially lead to a permanent loss of the records that allow us to see how whales, birds, and humans evolved, and what the deep history of the planet looks like? If our civilization rejected that, we might be the last civilization to have that chance, and the best records of the evolution of life might never have a chance to emerge again.
In some of your early posts on this project, you’d explored the possibility of nature religion as a new religious sensibility, and that such concepts as human kinship with other life, the smallness of humanity in the eye of deep time, and human impacts on the environment as playing a major role in the mythos and ethos of our successor civilizations. In your solstice trilogy, you even had a culture that treated the Origin of the Species like scripture. Has the new sensibility ship pretty much sailed as anything that’s ever going to appeal to any but a tiny few? A part of me had been thinking that there’d eventually come a point where we realized that ecological devastation, recourse overuse, pollution and climate change and an array of other factors had run their course, some form of environmental ethic on a collective scale would follow… now it looks much more likely that we’ll be blaming religious freedom, racial and gender equality, homosexuality, and any number of other things unrelated to the causes of our downfall… and ultimately placing the blame on the scientists who tried to warn us themselves… which ensures that there isn’t going to be much of a place for an ecological worldview in the world that comes out of this one…

“Let them perish, and all their works, their names, and even their memories. Let us destroy them all, and teach our children that the world is new, that they may know nothing of the things that went before. Let us make a great simplification, and then the world shall begin again.”
-Walter M. Miller Jr.

Cathy McGuire said...

Wonderful post! Excellent point, that many (most) decisions are made based on values, not logic. It also reminds me that once education gets specialized enough, no one really knows it all. I was reading about Thomas More's library, which apparently had all the books currently on the market!! Not even possible nowadays.

You didn't mention propensities - the tendency of some people to think in some ways, that probably guides them to certain careers rather than others. Engineers are a good example - which comes first, the training or the propensity? As a writer, I know I've had "the writing bent" all my life, wondering what was going on in X house, or at X table in some restaurant - I was always looking for the stories and was amazed that others didn't care! So my training only reinforced what was there. So politicians are likely those whose propensity is both getting attention and problem solving in a social way (ie: they like negotiating - or at least until our country became so polarized). Scientists like problem solving, but only if the problem keeps still and doesn't talk back! ;-)

I do wonder these days if it's just too complicated to manage, even if we are aware of these different kinds of skills. I see the complexity factor topping almost all the others - society feels just about to fall apart from its own weight. :-\

Greg Reynolds @ Riverbend said...

I have recently read that the real world problem with golden rice was that it yielded so poorly that it was not worth growing. An insignificant detail to the poor farmers of asia, I'm sure...

Unless I am mistaken, poor people have lived in asia for a long time. How did they traditionally get their vitamin A ?


Dan said...

You mentioned that there was a crisis in the ancient world related to the limitations logic? Can you pinpoint some specific historical episodes, as I can't think of any right now that fit the bill.

Tidlösa said...

The relation between values and interests is interesting. Many assume that interests will become all-embracing if or when society hits rock bottom. Values will mean nothing, everyone will scramble for base survival á la Hobbes. Maybe. And then, maybe not! I think the long descent might see the birth of more value-based politics. If resources are meager anyway, the choice between "free trade" and "protectionism" (or open borders and immigration) will no longer be decided solely on the basis of interests, but on that of values - perhaps to a larger extent. If free trade can no longer entice the majority with promises of a higher standard of living, why not choose protectionism, even if it makes us somewhat poorer (or seemingly so), since we at least can keep our independence? Strictly fact-based science will become even less operative as a political arbiter in such a situation...

Tidlösa said...


Any relation between your pokemon and my werewolf? ;-)

Brian Kaller said...

For our home-schooling lessons my daughter and I sometimes play "fact or truth." Facts, I told her, are things you can verify mathematically, chemically or physically; truths, I told her, are beliefs, values and attitudes that you can’t scientifically prove and don’t need to. Everyone’s entitled to believe their own truths, but they have to back up their facts. (Of course, we come up with more complicated nuances as part of the game.)

I’m amazed at how often people confuse these things. National Geographic magazine, for example, ran a cover story last year on “anti-science” beliefs, with a list of common examples on the cover -- “Climate change does not exist,” “The Moon landing was fake,” and “Vaccinations can lead to autism.” Fair enough; climate change is fairly well-established, and links between vaccinations and autism seem to have been disproven.

To my dismay, though, they also included the line, “Genetically Modified Food is evil” – a disingenuous addition, as “evil” is a moral judgement. Genetic experimenters can splice insect genes into a berry or grow a human ear on a mouse for amusement, and that's fact; only we can decide whether they should.

Similarly, I saw a recent magazine article that began with a list of things “you shouldn’t be allowed to believe anymore,” beginning with “that vaccines cause autism,” and “that gay people shouldn’t get married.” Whatever your opinions of gay marriage, I was astonished that people would confuse that value-based question with a scientific test result.

Justin said...

John D. Wheeler, I wasn't suggesting that the short-term local effects of water vapor and cloud cover on weather (not climate) aren't well understood... I think even some city slickers (like me!) understand about how clouds, water vapor and energy interact.

For instance, there is not one word in the IPCC reports about how, say, irrigating a huge part of the desert with fossil groundwater might affect the climate, or cities shifting historic rainfall patterns with their aerosol emissions. I've notice that the climate buzzword has become 'change', rather than warming, or as one frequent-flier-climatologist (is there a special Visa card for that yet?) puts it, 'global wierding' is more descriptive. I think JMG is right that the best way to predict the future is to look at the paleoclimate record, but even then, I am not 100% confident in the paleo record's utility. It's very hard to find climate information that isn't one of the following:

Stories-for-children about how CO2 is bad, and if we fund universities enough and vote Democrat, we'll get to keep on driving to wal-mart forever in our (solar) cars to buy (3d printed from biopolymer) garbage (recycling futures).

Stuff like the IPCC report - questionable science based on even more questionable assumptions, with the only sure conclusion being "fund us more and we'll tell you how screwed we think you are"

Idiotic climate denial, basically just stories-for-children about how CO2 is good/neutral, and if we defund universities and vote Republican we'll get to keep on driving to wal-mart forever in our synfuel-powered F-150s forever to buy injection molded crap from China.

Serious climate denial, which comes from a variety of places, and although many of their criticisms of Big Climate are factually correct, their arguments that everything will be OK are equally as based on self-interest as the IPCC's predictions.

Conspiracy theories about how George Soros is going to make you live in cramped Agenda 21 housing and eat fluoride-laced ultraprocessed soy instead. Actually I think that's just life in an Asian megacity.

I try not to pay too much attention. Shale is going to get weird, and although I suspect JMG's theory of "follow the paleoclimate data" is probably the best basis for serious futurology, I don't have total confidence in it.

latheChuck said...

Grim- Why did COMCAST give you a new wireless gateway? Here's the answer:

Today, Internet providers like AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon in the United States are quickly rolling out such hotspots, accessible to any of their subscribers, by piggybacking this functionality on the wireless gateways installed in their customers’ homes. Juniper Research, based in England, estimates that by 2017 one in three home gateways around the world will allow community access by incorporating a second network identifier and allowing some of the Wi-Fi spectrum available to that gateway to be shared, typically without the awareness of the people in whose homes the gateways are installed.

So, when you upgraded YOUR wireless Internet, you helped provide low-cost wireless telephony (via WiFi) to your neighborhood. (And you'd still have done it if they'd told you that you were doing it, right?)

Christopher Henningsen said...

In scientific education's defense, I would say that naive sincerity might well be preferable to political expertise in today's arena. I remember vividly the contrast between meetings at my university's engineering society and its student government. The scale of the difference in effectiveness was astonishing, and was no endorsement of studying public policy. I suspect part of the reason is because there is a willingness to change one's position when one treats a decision as a problem to be solved rather than a battle to be won, and politicians today seem to do the latter without exception. When values and ideas are the primary product of one's work, it must get harder to let go of the bad ones.

Certainly an engineering approach is less than ideal for open ended problems, and it seems fair to say that technical education promotes political ignorance. But stupidity? That's quite a charge, especially considering the track record of the politically educated.

Shane W said...

Well, I went to Half Price Books today to search for my assignment, and, boy, did I find it! Boy, this one's a real eye-roller: The End of Faith by Sam Harris, an anti-religion, pro-reason/Enlightenment polemic of the kind we regularly criticize here. It even has an endorsement on the cover by none other than Richard Dawkins himself. Oddly enough, I found it in the religion bargain bin, I was actually looking for some Prosperity Gospel or other fundamentalist trash when I came upon it. Marked $2, they sold it to me for $1.48, a real steal!
@Bill, I guess we just have to agree to disagree about the speed of collapse. I agree with JMG, sorry. Part of the reason I do find JMG's take more compelling is because he presents his case so dispassionately and serenely, while it seems like you are very passionate and bent out of shape about yours. Maybe I'm misjudging your passion and hysterics, but that is certainly how it comes across. It doesn't really sway me, I still think we should roll the dice with Trump and prevent Hillary from taking office.
As far as the class of those carrying the banner, I'm really not sure that it matters. Farage was a banker and Boris Johnson went to Eton, but I'm not sure that that means that the Brexiteers reasons for voting Leave were any less compelling.

Rita said...

Re engineers I have a perhaps interesting datum. Way back in the early 70s I read a book on the subject of transvestites (heterosexual men who derive pleasure from dressing in items of feminine attire). The author asserted that a engineers constituted a significant percentage of transvestites. He suggested that the they felt the need to balance the extreme masculinity of the profession with feminine expression in their private life. I have no idea whether this was true at the time or, if it was, whether it continues to be true.

On Doctor's Investment Syndrome I am reminded of my federal grand jury service a couple of years ago. One of the cases our panel heard was an elaborate investment scam which was so mind bogglingly unlikely that I'm sure we all sat listening with an expression of "who would possibly fall for this" on our faces. The Assistant DA presenting the evidence actually felt the need to remind the jury, not exactly in these words, but close that "even stupid people deserve the protection of the law." Need I add that some of the investors in this scam were indeed doctors. The experience of serving was very informative about the whole system.

Cherokee Organics said...


I was rather curious as to whether you had the concept of citrus trees and kangaroos in the back of your mind when you wrote this essay! ;-)! Oh, it was all so very wrong and I can still not get my head around the correct words to be used to describe such arrogance. I did wonder how many times that monkey business had been used!



rabtter said...

Hello Nestorian,

I'm not a Young Earth Creationist but once was. I still have friends and family that still are, who unfortunately are quite hostile to those that aren't, so I just don't mention it when it comes up. I'm interested in the logical circularities you refer too.

John Roth said...


You commented on Bill’s comment: “Wars are conceived of, started by, and beneficial to the upper classes. They are fought by and murderous of the lower classes.”

You’re right, but that’s the difference between a crisis war and a political war. Crisis wars occur at the end of the crisis phase of the 80-year historical cycle, which is what we’re experiencing now. They occur when the situation is so dire that a lot of people feel the best option is to pick up a gun, sword, spear, club, convenient rock or whatever and have at what they can be convinced is the source of their misery.

See Strauss and Howe Generations or Fourth Turning or John Xenakais Generational Dynamics or the draft of Generational Dynamics for Historians, especially the latter, for definitions.

@Keith Hammer

It’s rather interesting that, until quite recently, college-educated whites, aka “the professional class,” voted Republican by a significant margin. Anyone who says that they’re the bastion of the Democratic party is smoking something. The bastion of the Democratic party is blacks and other disadvantaged minorities. See any breakdown of who supports Ms. Clinton versus who supports Mr. Trump.

@Professor Diabolical

Could you please list some of them? I seem to have missed that memo.

@Dennis D

I’ve noticed the same thing, however, I’ve noticed something else. All the ways of addressing the problems caused by climate change are not things that are within the sphere of climate science, so addressing them would be talking outside of their area of competence.

The only thing that’s in their area of competence is to say: we’re putting too much carbon dioxide in the air, if we quit doing that, things will return to normal in some amount of time.

So you’re saying that they ought to be talking outside of their area of competence?


Bryant said...

@Bill Pulliam: I want Trump and chaos because sometimes, the sheer frustration and anger at where society is going leaves one with very little choice. You speak of destruction and damage, but it is not better to have a clean fire wipe out the slate than a slow and steady degradation until we all become the Eloi?

Myriad said...

Since last fall I've been doing volunteer work for a climate activist organization. I can't do anything about how the environmental "movement" has conducted itself over decades, but I can do the face to face political work this particular organization is doing now: circulating in-person petitions, writing and soliciting hand-written letters to elected officials and letters to the editor, and (on occasion) lobbying in person in my state capitol. Our current efforts are focused on public support of the Clean Power Plan, a too-little too-late (and highly complex) measure created by the EPA and the Obama administration. It mandates state-by-state programs (to be designed by the individual states within a common framework) to reduce carbon emission from electrical power plants by about 30% (varying a little by state) by the year 2030.

Why am I bothering, considering that the work is way outside my personal comfort zone, the Clean Power Plan looks like it will be tied up in court for years, carbon emissions from my state's power plants are already going down at a faster rate than the plan mandates, and it will likely all be moot by 2030 anyhow? Partly because my state, Pennsylvania, is a major exporter of electrical power to other states, so how its citizenry and government respond could be influential regionally and possibly nationwide. Pennsylvania has been part of the historical origin of U.S. coal, oil, and gas production, so it seems fitting. Partly because even token efforts to reduce power plant emissions have a good chance of resulting in useful gains in conservation, renewable energy, and grid resilience. And partly to influence my fellow activists by example. (Many of them are young urbanites, and already have small footprints, but others are fellow suburbanites who are often rather surprised to learn that it's actually possible to walk six miles each way to attend an event. Sure they can't yet imagine doing it themselves, but it lends weight when I tell them they're fooling themselves if they expect to reduce carbon emissions without reducing energy use.)

But I can't say those benefits add up rationally to being worth the effort. Intuitively, I feel it's the right thing to be doing right now, and I don't know exactly why.

Interestingly, a clear majority in all demographics in PA appears to be in favor of measures to reduce carbon emissions despite the expected costs in e.g. higher energy prices. The salaried liberals want to save the planet (without changing their lifestyle, of course) and think they can afford it. The already-struggling urban working and lower classes aren't expecting their kids to have class immunity from the eventual consequences, and are already using less energy themselves, so they see little downside in supporting reductions. (Their kids are also the ones getting asthma attacks from particulates from dirty power plants in their neighborhoods). The rural working class is more ambivalent, being directly threatened both by energy policies (higher fuel prices, loss of coal and gas income) and by climate change effects (on agriculture, for instance), and so is far from united either for or against climate measures. The main political opposition really does seem to be from moneyed interests influencing the legislature, rather than from some broad class or racial contingent that distrusts the science.

I look forward to reading, in two weeks, your thoughts about the un-discussed interests aspects of climate measures. Who would be expected to pay seems pretty clear to me, but the "who would be exempt?" aspect is one I hadn't considered. I assume the answer is more complex than "the wealthy, as usual."

Candace said...

@ a post millennial

I know I enjoy the comments section nearly as much as the post itself. So maybe you could split the difference. Charge a little more for the subscription. But also treat comments sort of like classified ads and charge per word That would also help keep comments pithy. And of course JMGs rules would still apply.

I'm guessing you will start out with this on a computer so both might be feasible a subscription to the basic version of a pricier subscription to an enhanced version. Anyway just thinking out loud since it's currently free;-)

Adrynian said...

Hmm, well I may have picked one of the least flattering posts to attach this to - as I'm about to discuss yet another expert touting his two cents - but I think his values and interests are in the right place. Plus, your mention of class interests makes a good jumping off point and I've been wanting to introduce you to the [anti-]economist, Steve Keen, for some time. First, a couple of quotes:

"I see the main class struggle in Capitalism as not Workers vs Capitalists, but Workers vs Finance. And the tragedy is that Finance is winning under Neoliberalism. But of course it leads to a crisis. And we need to say directly what's happened and take that battle on... to abolish private debts, and to use the capacity of the state to do it," Steve Keen, (20m 05s).
Steve Keen: The Alternative to Neoliberalism

[Describing the ultimate end-point of the "bad equilibrium" in his model:]
"...And then the Employment Rate plunges because the increase in Debt is now more than counter-acting the fall in Wages Share. But the last people to know Capitalism is coming to an end are the Capitalists because for a while those two forces balance each other out... and everything's fine for them until the [private] Debt Ratio goes exponential and the Profit Level collapses. So the Capitalists are the last to know their system is coming to an end," (32m 19s).
Inequality, Debt and Credit Stagnation by Professor Steve Keen

His basic starting point is three definitions that he turns into partial differential, non-linear dynamical equations to model the economy. His conclusion is that because banks create money endogenously when they issue loans, rising private debt-to-GDP ratios and rising inequality are symptoms of an economic system headed towards a financial crash. His work was first published in 1995 and he started warning about the Global Financial Crisis in 2005. His theory explains why most of the world is stuck in economic stagnation: net-new loans and gov't deficits are the only two mechanisms for creating money - which creates growth in a monetary system - and both have stalled out. Most people are [sensibly] trying to deleverage, and government austerity means they can't do so without shrinking the economy.

I hope you take the time to peruse a couple of his seminars, which are posted on YouTube. The two I have linked to are excellent primers, as are:

Why Capitalism Needs a Modern Debt Jubilee to Survive

Talk to Bristol University Rethinking Economics Society

Unknown said...


"I suspect Tyson, if challenged, would be willing to admit that we don't currently have enough evidence to make all the right decisions, but would insist that such a point is reachable - and the current situation looks much the same regardless of whether he's right, or right in principle..."

Ask anyone who's ever held any sort of leadership role about decision making and they will tell you that any effective decision must be made without all the facts. If all the facts are in, the decision is either too late to matter or the question didn't matter in the first place.


Shane W said...

for simplification, even if you wanted the US, the neoliberal consensus, the current order to remain in place for, say 20-30 years, and I wanted an end of empire and to be living in Kentucky, C.S.A., say, tomorrow, neither of us has the power to move the trajectory of things one iota one way or the other. Also, if you're trying to "knock some sense" into me, what about the hundreds (thousands?) of people who think and feel just like I do that you can't possibly reach? It is what it is, you have one idea of the pace of collapse, I and JMG have another, and the course of events/unfolding of history will prove one of us right and the other wrong, and there's nothing any one person can do to change that.

Bill Pulliam said...

Shane -- "hysterics" meaning from the uterus, i.e. feminine, i.e. not worthy of consideration. That really the word you wanted?

In the America I live in (rural, poor, white, southern) people live from check to check. many of these checks come from the federal government. They are not gonna jeapordize them. Even though the status quo has thoroughly reamed them out, they still are dependent on its continuation. Literally dependent -- through state-facilitated addictions to nicotine, alcohol, gambling, prescription drugs, you name it. As well as economicly and culturally dependent.

My whole life, the stuff has been just about to hit the fan. We have always been on the edge of collapse, revolution, armageddon. And yet every year, it doesn't happen. It's like fusion power or Jesus -- always just around the corner, never arrives. So, yeah, I am inherently sceptical of the latest flavor of the month version of "THIS time it really is gonna all go down!" 'Cause while everyone has been waiting for the shooting to start, the bombs to drop, the riots to break out, it actually HAS all been going down. Steadily and inexhorably. And everyone is too fixated on their hypothetical future dramatic-and-noisy end of the world as we have known it to notice that the world as we knew it has already ended, time and time again.

Bill Pulliam said...

Bryant -- That is quite a dichotomy you present there. And there is no space between those options? Either A or B, if you don't chose one you must accept the other? That is not generally the way the world really works.

siliconguy said...

"in the meantime it seems that everyone on earth is benefiting from fossil fuels - often in the form of just being alive - since modern populations are unsustainable without them. "

This is an often overlooked point the change everything now crowd overlooks. Who decides which third of the population dies? Choose whatever fraction you like, the problem stays the same. It was a third in a bad book I read (Natures End?)

On the subject of authorities blowing their credibility, l submit as an example the dietitians who stuffed the low-fat high carbohydrate diet down our throats, and now seem shocked by the outbreak of diabetes and obesity,

Indian Blogger said...


I agree that hard sciences folks do not have the respect for soft sciences folks and to be honest, I too was one among the tribe. It is only very recently that I have developed more appreciation for the soft sciences especially history. Wikipedia has been a great source to quench my thirst of knowledge for history. Part of my interest was sparked due to your extremely interesting writings on western roman history and particularly your thoughts on its collapse.

I have some observations to make

engineers are not trained to simply solve problems. We do try to figure out how to avoid and reduce the problems. I work as a software engineer and that is why we have something called QA/Testing to try to avoid problems. Apart from QA/Testing, we frequently do something called as Root Cause Analysis to figure out why problem occurred and if possible how to avoid it.

You are looking at brexit rather simply as a case of elites vs non-elite classes. However in my opinion, that is rather simplistic. The exact vote percentage is 52 vs 48, this is rather more close. And this is a very divisive issue, there was campaign to have a revote and that campaign attracted 4 million votes. And you have in my opinion failed to look at it from the angle of old vs young people. There was a yougov poll which showed a majority of young Britishers cutting across all types of class, gender and race voted overwhelmingly for Bremain. The question then arises as to what old people want to establish with their brexit ? do they want to go back to the glorious past of british colonialism and british empire ?
And I think there is an amount of racism and xenophobia towards non-britishers involved here. The old britishers who are not adequately skilled to take on competition from the young folks from outside Britain are the ones who votes overwhelmingly for Brexit.

In this article, you made a point about why don't powerful western companies give away their technology for free to help third world farmers. I get your point about the hypocrisy, but I think trade and globalization does benefit poor people all things considered. I come from a poor country called India and I have personally benefited from the offshoring and outsourcing as I work in a global MNC. But having said this I do realize, though I am well paid by Indian standards, by US standards of professional class I am not well paid and by US CEO standards, my salary is probably 1/1000th or something. I realize the wage gap is significantly high across all developed countries, but it is especially worse in US compared to even other developed countries in EU and countries like Japan, South Korea etc.

Lastly, I dislike feudalism. I come from upper-caste and I know first hand the drawbacks of feudalism. Lower castes are not going to go back to feudalism, ever. They are not going to allow the system to go back to a state where upper caste lord over lower caste ever again. That phase is over at least in India.

John Michael Greer said...

Zachary, if Feynman said that, he's even smarter than I thought he was!

Godfree, well, we'll see whether the Chinese actually do anything about climate change. Last I heard they were still building coal-fired power plants as though there's no tomorrow.

Deedl, interesting. Thank you.

Peter, that sounds exactly like what I've seen. More on this in two weeks!

Sven, thanks for the correction.

DiSc, I'd disagree in only one detail. In my experience, training as an economist is far more destructive to the ability to deal with the real world than training as an engineer. Engineers, as I noted in my post, are very, very good at solving problems. Economists aren't. A joke popular after the 2008-2009 market crash -- "What do you call an economist who makes a prediction? Wrong" -- sums things up nicely.

Flute, that is to say, a liberal education -- in other words, the kind of education that used to be considered appropriate for a free human being, as distinguished from a servile education. Our universities these days mostly offer up a servile education, focused on how to serve one's government or corporate masters.

Patricia, glad to be of service!

Cortes, many thanks for the link. I doubt the signatories will ever read it, though.

Mikep, yes, and that's also going to be a part of the discussion two weeks from now. (Next week, of course, is the next installment of Retrotopia.)

Spanish Fly, all hail Discordia! I really should do a post here discussing the five stages of the historical cycle -- the one useful thing, as far as I know, that ever came out of Hegel's blatherings.

Scotlyn, true enough, and to some extent that's a reflection of Hagbard's Law, the rule that communication is only possible between equals. It would be interesting to consider whether the loss of information is proportional to the difference in power between the two parties in the exchange.

Chloe, as long as you grant the difference between facts and values, I have no quibble at all.

YCS, my only argument is your suggestion that law and economics belong to the humanities. Quite the contrary -- these days, both belong to the inhumanities.

Lordberia3, I admit I was flabbergasted to hear May talking about the sufferings of the poor, given her penchant for turning disabled people out onto the streets! Trump is definitely tapping into the same shift in the zeitgeist -- one that the Democrats, like Labour, have missed completely.

Mark, it does indeed.

Unknown said...

I am an old time reader but I rarely comment.

After rereading some related older posts, I think this post is a refresh on a theme that sounds about right to me. That's why I am trying to apply the scientific method and prove myself wrong. For example, I don't think climate change movement ever had a chance. Yes, some activists approached it the wrong way, but there were plenty of people doing the right thing and they got ignored (or killed, like the activists researching Amazon deforestation). The explanation is very simple: the world is too big for us to stop the tragedy of the commons. It's true for air (CO2) for oceans (over-fishing) etc.

On a different note, I am shocked how many people continue to misunderstand your criticism of the science (or maybe I misunderstand you?). Just because humans are fallible and corruptible and this ruins science as a social endeavor, that does not reduce the power of the science as a tool for investigating the world (and even ourselves, Buddhists use something similar in meditation).
The reason I bring this up is all the comments I see from people that are YEC or CC deniers or moon landing hoaxers etc.

One quick reply to Nestorian: I am not trying to be snarky but of course creationist are better at logic (or rather sophistry), that's all they have. Remember that logic is just a tool, not a goal in itself. And one of the reason the anti-YEC people are mean is just simple exhaustion after rehashing the same arguments millions of times.

I listened recently to John Searle's chinese room analogy and I tend to agree with Chris - he does not touch on anything related to Turing test. He does point to the difference between understanding and parroting (like JMG says) but that has no bearing whatsoever on the question if the brain is just a UTM (universal Turing machine). I was actually disappointed at the level of discourse - seemed very sophomoric to me. I am surprised at the success of this meme...

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

Toomas Karmo wrote, “The warlords will need their drones.” You bet. That was Archimedes’ day job.

Dennis D wrote, “My personal rant about engineers, as an electrician, is that too many assume that because it fits in a CAD program, it must work in the real world, which has esoteric concerns about whether there is room for your hand and wrench to fit in the required space, or will your hand bend that way.” My job sometimes involved installing mods (modifications) of existing equipment bolted into cabinets on the underside of light rail vehicles. I often envied the octopus.

Some of these mods simply could not be made workable by following the instructions. I knew those particular circuits had been drafted by armchair engineers who had neither tried to follow their own instructions nor gotten a tech to beta test the design. We had a few engineers who were former techs. Their mods were better.

A few remarks on rebellion and revolution. Things are getting dire in Venezuela. I heard on the radio that starving people are standing in food lines and dying where they stand, or being fatally attacked by others. It didn't sound to me as if any group there is organized enough to pull off a revolution.

From what I read about revolutions back in the late Sixties/early Seventies, when Marxist revolutionary talk was popular among some youth, revolutions are usually not started or led by the desperate poor. They are more likely to be fomented and supported by disappointed members of the bourgeoisie or salary class. I'm of an age and class that has little to gain from abrupt change and that colors my view. I expect more serious rebellions and breakdown of order, but I don't think the US is in a revolutionary period just now. I agree with JMG that a stunning and obvious military defeat followed by economic losses could turn that corner quickly.

John Michael Greer said...

Phil, oh, granted. There are still chemists trying to insist at the top of their lungs that Rachel Carson was a fraud and DDT is good for you. As for risk assessments, it's kind of hard to do an objective risk assessment when saying "This is too risky" means that five or ten years of hard work, plus a range of potential payoffs, just went out the window.

Don, you're welcome and thank you! Now if Congress really would reverse "progress"...

Alan, that's certainly a possibility worth research. ;-)

Leon, true enough. One of the reasons why democratic politics makes sense is that, when there really is no good way to make a decision on the basis of facts, you might as well let people do what they think is right, because that way at least they'll be less grumpy.

Patricia, oh, I drop in on Brin's site now and then. I read a lot of his early SF -- not so much the recent stuff; like H.G. Wells, he's ended up spending more time grinding axes than telling a story -- and I still enjoy the spluttering tirade he wrote in response to my piece The Next Ten Billion Years.

Esn, that's a useful point. I can't off hand think of a scientist who's risen to political power in the US, but I can certainly think of a very capable engineer -- Herbert Hoover. The trajectory of this country during his tenure in the White House does not exactly lend confidence to the notion that engineers ought to run nations...

Erik, I didn't say that the juggernaut in question was having much success getting activists to change their own lifestyles! For reasons I'll discuss next week, that hasn't been up for discussion since the coming of the Reagan years.

Scotlyn, very possibly.

Twilight, that's a good point.

Patricia, not an unreasonable approach.

Venkataraman, fascinating -- I wasn't aware of that. Fermentation in general is of course a very good thing for many foodstuffs, for precisely that reason.

Tom, I'll look forward to your longer comment. Thanks for the reference to the Jacobs book -- I'll put it on the get-to list, as her analysis seems very sensible.

RPC, I'm not arguing. The condition of the wage class is still much worse than it had to be, because such a disproportionate share of the national wealth was diverted into the process of keeping the affluent as comfortable as possible.

Paulo, that last story nearly got tea on my keyboard. An engineer who thought that a properly engineered bridge can't collapse -- bright gods. That man is a disaster looking for a spot marked X.

Stuart Jeffery said...

JMG: I did not say that the leave vote was "entirely about values and not about interests", only that the take back control theme was the value that inspired huge numbers of those working class people who never usually vote to turn out.

Kfish said...

How many former engineers are part of the leadership of the British Labour Party? Seems like they've gone hell for leather on the question of how to get Corbyn out of the top seat, without thinking about whether it was a good idea. Now half the party's in open revolt and the split between MPs and members has been made embarrassingly obvious.

Cherokee Organics said...


I forgot to mention that tools are misused all of the time in our society. Your example of the scientific method reminds me of peoples displays of belief in renewable energy systems. I see so many people saying so many crazy things about renewable energy, and when I tell them that solar Photo Voltaic panels just don't produce much energy at all when it is cloudy as it was this week and then it snows heavily, I'm directly confronting their belief systems. They appear to me to think to themselves that: we've got this here tool - how good are we? - and we can use this tool to replace whatever current energy systems that we enjoy, in whatever fashion we believe and it better damn well work how and when we say it does - or else. And it just doesn't work that way.

Things became so grim this week that I had to use a generator for a few hours (the first time in three years, mind you) to put a bit of charge in the batteries or risk damaging them. Yes, and who would ever have thought that batteries don't store energy like fuel tanks do! More on the snow on next weeks blog. The snow was very nice though!

Tools are good, but you just can't use a particular tool in all situations, you have to have many tools at your disposal. Sometimes you just need different tools. And sometimes you just can't do a particular job and have to walk away from it.

Hope you are having a nice summer? Global weirding is smashing me from one extreme to another down here.



Hi W.B. Jorgenson (and others),

I read your gracious reply, but have little internet time today and will reply to you tomorrow.



averagejoe said...

Great post once again JMG. Slightly off topic, but its worth noting the lengths the National Executive Committee of the UK labour party are going to, to try and prevent Jeremy Corbyn winning the Labour leadership again. Firstly they voted 18 -14 to let him take part in the contest automatically. Great you might think. But the NEC rules are crystal clear that he doesn’t need any ballots to take part, so why did 14 vote against them? They have introduced new rules so that the thousands of new labour party members who have joined recently can’t vote for him. They have also banded all local branch meetings of the labour party in the meantime, to try and stamp down his support as well. It’s clear that the labour establishment will do everything they can to try and force him out. The idea that this may in some way backfire does not seem to have occurred to them. I suspect he may win even a larger mandate, and in turn this could lead to a split in the party. Corbyn’s appeal is he is seen as an anti-establishment character to voters who are fed up with hollow rhetoric from Blairite clones. He is seen as ‘one of us’. Labour party members like his policies that are likely to benefit them more than all the neoliberalism they have subject to for decades. Corbyn does not fit the standard mould of what is considered a ‘leader’, but that simply reinforces the ‘one of us’ image.

Doug Manners said...

Sven wrote: "The golden rice technology is available free of charge in the developing world. The interest of the biotech companies involved in its production has more to do with absorbing billions in aid money to develop it in the first place, plus a smattering of PR opportunities and avoiding cognitive dissonance when they claim to be feeding the world."

But, as a previous contributor wrote, the technology fails in less than optimum conditions. So what happens when it fails? The farmers who used it no longer have their seed corn, since they stopped saving it when they switched to the new system. That means they are forced to buy "better" seed from the biotech companies in order to survive. The fact that the technology is free and then fails is part of the strategy.

Scotlyn said...

Re Hagbard's Law (& thanks for opportunity to reread an old post), of course MANY things can be communicated between non-equals, they are just less and less likely to be true (informative) things the more unequal the relationship (or at least the more one party blocks the other party's DIRECT pathways to fulfilment of their will/pursuit of their intetest. The party so doing converts themselves into the other's obstacle/pathway and must both study the other, and hide their own intent from the other. This is pretty obvious in a hostage situation where whether the hostage lives or dies is entirely dependent on the hostage takers mood. But it is also build into other situations - parent/child. A small child lives or dies depending on the adults in its life as the keys to the resources it needs fir sustenance. Learning the adults is identical, at first, to learning survival.

Note, power imbalances between any two individuals create a structural hindrance to truth between them, but there IS a way out. Parents who are interested in cultivating truthful communications with their children know that the key is to relinquish the advantage inherent in the relationship's structure - let it be known that they are secure with you, that nothing will induce you to abandon them, or withhold the means of survival, ever. Likewise an employer who provides job security & protects whistleblowers is likelier to hear truth than one known for randomly firing people.

And here is where values come in. Would you rather cultivate obedience or honesty in people structurally, culturally or otherwise subordinate to you? If Raspberry Jam has anything to say on this, so mote it be when it is yourself in the subordinate place.

Unknown said...


As someone who had a fair bit to do with problem solving from an engineering perspective in a wide range of manufacturing environments, my observation is that the effectiveness of the solutions engineers developed was entirely determined by the values and interests of those who controlled the cheque books.

That aside, thanks for a very timely illumination of some knowledge I really needed to acquire.

eagle eye

Chloe said...

@Joel (Unknown) - If you have all the facts, there may appear to be no decision to be made but simply an obvious and correct course of action to follow. That's half the point, and what Tyson seems to believe. ("Do all the right things", perhaps, rather than "make all the right decisions".) The other half is that if you believe this, you're implicitly accepting that questions of value and interest will not come up in the decision-making process - that they'll be assumed rather than argued over, and the facts are only required to see how various decisions fit into them - which is true, a lot of the time, but not obligatory.

@JMG - The only thing facts and evidence are good for in relation to values is explaining why we hold the ones we do; and explanation is not justification.

Doc Tim said...

Overall, I quite enjoyed the article although the separation between values and facts is far from clean. This debate is similar to the discussion of whether science and religion can or should occupy separate domain. I view there being two kinds of "truth": narrative truth, which include values and factual truth. Science seeks factual truth. The missing piece is that while there can be multiple valid narrative truths, narrative truths can be invalid. I would define an invalid narrative truth as one that conflicts with factual truth.

Using the Brexit example, there can be reasonable value and narrative truths on both the remain and leave side of the camp. If someone bases a leave narrative largely on an incorrect fact that there were 30 million migrants in London competing for jobs, or if someone bases a remain narrative on the incorrect fact that income increases from EU membership was exactly distributed among populations, both narratives would be invalid.

As an engineer and scientist myself, I give the scientist/engineer emphasis facts more benefit of the doubt, but I still agree with most of your arguments. I would argue that both the engineers/scientist and political scientist mindsets are needed though for healthy debate to both weed out factual errors from the discussion while maintaining the ability to compromise between conflicting valid sets of values and narratives. The problems arise when the engineers/scientist focus too much on errors in minutia facts and miss the forest for the trees or when political scientist get their facts so wrong that their narrative can't hold together.

. said...

Bill, I meant the Irish civil war. I'm not American. I think the idea that wars are basically caused by the dynamics of a class system comes from Marx. And it just doesn't work as an explanation throughout different societies globally and historically.

It also inevitably neglects the agency of the lower classes. People, rich and poor, have been motivated to kill each other for all kinds of reasons, individually or in groups, for as long as our history goes. I agree that what you describe is a factor in many wars, certainly in modern industrial civilization, but war seems to me to have other, deeper roots, in ordinary human violence, that have never gone away.

Shane W said...

not sure where the comment went, but the shooting HAS started. Some black people are responding to extrajudicial execution of African-Americans by police by targeting police, a not unexpected response. We're already there...

Shane W said...

JMG, I was thinking about the Hillary supporter who hung up on you, and similar responses I've had recently. This really is the year of everyone going mad and losing their minds all around us, isn't it?

Bill Pulliam said...

Now Shane you just made a great big fallacious leap there. You assume I "want" the neoliberal consensus to persist. Just because I think it WILL does not in any way imply that I WANT it to. In fact if you read closely, one of my objections to sputtering insurrections at this point in history is that they will likely just strengthen and sustain the status quo in the backlash. You assume a great deal about the inner workings of my mind that I have not revealed.

Similarly, JMG has made it clear that the fact he argues there is a substantial likelhood Trump could be elected does not in any way mean he actually desires this outcome.

As for slapping sense... I'm talking to an individual here, we are comparing and contrasting our ideas. That is where change happens. Of course I cannot change 100,000,000 minds. The only one I can actually change is my own. But, I bet I got you to think about some things, even if you rejected them, right? THAT is what an individual can do.

For the record I am uncertain who has the greater potential to be a disaster, Clinton or Trump. I think it is likely either will be ineffective and bumbling. And I am unlikely to cast my vote for either. You might not have noticed, I rarely say a single word in praise of Clinton, either. I'm in Tennessee, we are going Trump unless he murders Hank Jr. live on Fox News. So I can vote for whomever the freak I want to and not have to think "strategicly."

Unknown said...

I am fascinated by my own pre-conceived notions of wrong and right, while not possessing all of the information required to make an informed decision. Which, I guess, is a fancy way of saying how interesting I find all the ways I manage to be wrong.

When you mentioned the GMO rice, I must admit I scoffed at the idea that it would be a bad idea. Vitamin A is usually a good thing, and I imagined it would be difficult to amass enough rice to actually blow past the point where someone might get Vitamin A poisoning from too much rice. I saw no downside to this innovation; why did the Archdruid have his panties in a twist about something so self-evidently good?

And then you mentioned corporations.


As an engineer, I often see the issues as black and white; nuance and subtlety are things reserved for negotiating a change order with the owner. The ability to see the underlying complications is something that I struggle with, which I suppose is why I am an engineer and not a politician.

So thank you for the reminder that most problems are complicated. It is a good lesson for me to keep in mind.

I love your essays, especially the Retrotopia. It's a fascinating engineering solution to the creeping complexity of technology.

Shane W said...

RE: the age of the Earth. Maybe Deborah and other Jewish readers can elaborate, but I was told in a class on Judaism that theological way Jews resolve the creation of the Earth is via the question, "What is a day?", that when Genesis says that the Earth was created in seven days, it does not specify just how long a day is.

Shane W said...

the reason I question your judgment, and metaphorically move away from you, is b/c of your inability to "Keep Calm and Carry On" whenever this topic of accelerated collapse comes up. I have my ideas behind the reason why it seems to upset you so. I would probably find your opinions more credible and be more open to them if you weren't so darn agitated about them.
I'm in the same boat, I'm sure KY is fully on board the Trump train, but I'll be volunteering for his campaign, so, if previous elections are any indicator, it means I'll be working phone banks targeting voters in swing states, as well as caravanning to nearby swing states to pound the pavement.

Myriad said...

I've recently wondered whether anecdotes such as Paulo's reflect an attitude that, from reading older literature, appears to have been prevalent in past eras: the notion that the knowledge and ability to "properly" design and build something necessarily implied the ability to accurately predict how it would behave. Until approximately the start of the 20th century, science and engineering operated almost entirely within domains where that was mostly true. Sure, a bridge might collapse or a steam boiler explode from time to time, but that had to be (and usually could be) attributed to some specific error such as a miscalculation or some particular overlooked variable.

(A perfect divine Creator would of course not be prone to such errors or omissions, so even a deists' God who did not intervene in the world would still have anticipated everything that ever happens in it.)

That, I'm pretty sure, is the reason why the "mad scientists" of literature had to be mad! Madness was the only justification for the "contradiction" of how a scientist could be able to create something but unable to predict or control it.

With our current awareness of nonlinear dynamics, complex systems theory, and chaos mathematics, the false equivalence between reductive understandability and behavioral predictability is no longer tenable and is being abandoned. (This appears to even be affecting some of the aforementioned deist views in interesting ways.) But not everyone has gotten the word. Engineers and most scientists still work primarily within established regions of stability and predictability. In many cases they, like most people, are unaware of how unusual those regions are within the overall space of possibilities—even to the point of being unwilling to accept the well-evidenced conclusion that the extreme behavior of a certain engineered structure that departed the stable region due to certain extreme conditions was neither precisely predictable nor surprising in hindsight.

So we have a public convinced that because forecasters can't correctly predict the weather all the time, they are only pretending to understand anything about how weather works in the first place. Mad meteorologists! And biochemists, and neurologists, and seismologists, and ecologists, and epidemiologists… It's a horrendous communication problem.

Eric S. said...

@Doubt & JMG re: Dawkins:

I do think Dawkins is very good at summarizing other people's work and putting it in context. Both The Greatest Show on Earth, and The Ancestor's Tale are excellent overviews of evolution in action as represented through experimental data in the present day on the one hand, and evolution in action over the course of Earth's history on the other. When he's attempted to introduce something new to the literature, though, his efforts are definitely lacking. The Selfish Gene tells us much more about Dawkins than it does about evolution.

Nastarana said...

This article

I think would be of great interest to the Archdruid's readers.

While I welcome the advent of a society wherein virtue is rewarded and vice is discouraged, I am less interested in the question of Who gets to be important? than I am in preserving a structure of land ownership that would allow for small enterprise.

jsn said...

From a values perspective I don't agree with it, but I think a pretty strong scientific argument could be made that life on earth would be better off without people.

I like people, but that's just my values.

Duncan Mitchel said...

Chris Smith: "The same thing holds for John Searle's Chinese Room rejoinder to Turing in "Brains, Minds, and Programs" - which always struck me as an elaborate exercise in circular thinking. Gee, John, if we assume that you are right about the nature of consciousness, then you are right about the nature of consciousness.".

Oh, dear. I followed the controversy over the Chinese Room while it was going on, and I think you have it exactly backwards. I don't recall that Searle had much to say about Turing specifically; his rejoinder was primarily aimed at later AI propagandists. Searle was questioning Strong AI's assumptions about the nature of consciousness, and I don't think he made any assumptions about its nature himself. Your objection to Turing's assumptions seems to me quite in line with Searle's.

Bill Pulliam said...

Shane: "but the shooting HAS started. Some black people are responding to extrajudicial execution of African-Americans by police by targeting police, a not unexpected response. We're already there... "

Nothing at all new about this. We have been THERE for decades. Historical perspective...

Eric S. said...

@Dan: "You mentioned that there was a crisis in the ancient world related to the limitations of logic? Can you pinpoint some specific historical episodes, as I can't think of any right now that fit the bill."

I'm not sure which specific examples JMG is thinking of, but one of the more famous examples in the classical world of logic falling play to appeal to authority in a similar manner to modern science is the example of the Sophists, especially the sophists of the second sophistic movement that emerged in the final centuries of the Roman Empire. They were were professional rhetoricians and logicians, and were highly venerated among the elites, who would market their ideas, products and policies as being endorsed by this or that well-known sophist and therefore worthy of public respect and admiration, much like today's celebrity scientists (as in the cases of the appeal to authority examples referenced in this week's essay). The fact that regular people failed to be as impressed as the elites who staked their reputations on sophistic endorsement can be seen in the rather more pejorative legacy of the word "sophistry."

Nestorian said...

Well, I must say that I am pleasantly surprised at the generally positive reaction to my young-earth creationist disclosure, including on the part of our host. Even though I am a charter reader of this blog, I have never felt quite at home in its general cultural atmosphere, due to the fact that my fundamentally orthodox Christian convictions are rather alien in that atmosphere. So I want to say that this generally positive reaction to one of the culturally most reviled aspects of traditional Christian faith (including among many traditionally-minded Christians themselves) helps make me feel a bit more at home here, and in the Peak Oil community generally.

Another general comment I have to make relates to JMG's prior reading assignment of reading a book promoting ideas that the reader finds repugnant. For those of you who might want to undertake this suggestion with regard to Young Earth Creationism, I have two particular suggested readings:

1) "The Modern Creationist Trilogy, Volume 2: Science," by Henry Morris and John Morris (1996).

2) "Shattering the Myths of Darwinism," by Richard Milton (1997).

Both are available cheap on amazon and the like. Henry Morris is probably the single most prolific Christian creationist writer of the 20th century; he also happens to have been a professor of hydraulic engineering who authored a standard textbook in the field. Richard Milton is a British science journalist who is actually quite hostile to Christianity, but who is more than willing to engage in irreverent attacks against the scientific establishment on account of the gaping logical and evidential holes in many aspects of scientific evolutionary orthodoxy.

Later today or tomorrow, I hope to write another post that addresses some of the particular issues raised in replies to my original post.

wagelaborer said...

As soon as Sanders endorsed Clinton, and his backers announced that they would vote for Dr. Jill Stein, there was an explosion of posts saying that she was "anti-science'', because she was "anti-vaccine".

Dr. Stein then posted a statement which sounded as if you wrote it. Maybe she reads the Report.
I don’t know if we have an “official” stance, but I can tell you my personal stance at this point. According to the most recent review of vaccination policies across the globe, mandatory vaccination that doesn’t allow for medical exemptions is practically unheard of. In most countries, people trust their regulatory agencies and have very high rates of vaccination through voluntary programs. In the US, however, regulatory agencies are routinely packed with corporate lobbyists and CEOs. So the foxes are guarding the chicken coop as usual in the US. So who wouldn’t be skeptical? I think dropping vaccinations rates that can and must be fixed in order to get at the vaccination issue: the widespread distrust of the medical-indsutrial (sic) complex.

Vaccines in general have made a huge contribution to public health. Reducing or eliminating devastating diseases like small pox and polio. In Canada, where I happen to have some numbers, hundreds of annual death from measles and whooping cough were eliminated after vaccines were introduced. Still, vaccines should be treated like any medical procedure–each one needs to be tested and regulated by parties that do not have a financial interest in them. In an age when industry lobbyists and CEOs are routinely appointed to key regulatory positions through the notorious revolving door, its no wonder many Americans don’t trust the FDA to be an unbiased source of sound advice.

Jeff T said...

Dear JMG,

I have been a long term lurker for almost a year by now, and it's finally time for my first comment here! First off, a very large thank you for the work you do, and how you have helped me to break through some of my own disfuntional narratives. I've read almost every post since that first one, and it has been worthwile each time.

It's really intersting to hear you speak on brexit, migration, class-issues, The scientific establishment etc in the way you do. It's so depressingly rare these days to come across a narrative that's not just the same old 'neolib establishment' or the 'alt right anti-establishment' point of view.

A good friend of mine (ex-environmentalist), recently revealed to me, that he is now a full-blown (pretty far) right libertarian. He is a very honest & intelligent (and even spiritual) individual, so our recent conversations gave me much material for contemplation. A lot of his opinions came as quite a shock to me (making me want to yell nazi-moron schoolyard insults at him), but I held back as I could see that he clearly had a couple points.

I'd be very curious on your thoughts on a few of the issues we've been discussing.
First off, (you've touched on that a bit already) environmentalism & climate change. One thing the right is obviously pretty worked up about atm is Political correctness. Ie - because there is so much silencing of dissenting voices in the environmental movement it must all be joke, created by a joint-operation of corrupt scientist and a power-hungry government.

How do you view the level of corruption within the environmental sciences especially climate science? Or this more just right wing propaganda?

Second, Anarcho-Capitalism. It seems to become increasingly popular these days, especially amongst people who spent too much time on youtube. I wonder whether you've come across the influential poster-child of anarcho-capitalism, Stefan Molyneux? He has managed to built up a cult-like following (like seriously cult-like, involving cutting off your all your family ties etc...) esp among young male adults, by posting hour-long youtube videos about the evils of centralized government, and what not.
all in all it's a further perfect example of another utopian political philosophy, derived from a single ethical principle. (I guess this was more a comment than a question, but mabye you've got some thoughts to offer..)

best regards,

H. Bustos Domeq said...

You really are one of the most concise, thoughtful, and consistently rewarding bloggers I've come across on the Internet. Keep at it. Always amazing how often one needs to make this point about values and interests not being the same as objective facts. From where I'm sitting (academia) this reluctance to recognize the reality of the irreducibly subjective elements of human social life has a lot to do with the ongoing backlash against the lazier exponents of post-Nietzsche relativism and the excesses of "critical theory." All of this got mixed-up into a toxic stew, that left people searching for some new authority. But those in the thrall of "Science" forget that Nietzsche wasn't just knocking over idols for kicks - he was right about many things. Namely that science, as a consequence of its own best methods, can't supplant religion in the emotional and psychological life of a culture. One sees this desire even among otherwise very astute philosophers of science, who really should know better.

blue sun said...

In terms of the latest news/ data points regarding your recent political observations, I believe that the just-announced selection of Mike Pence as his running mate will only help Trump’s chances of winning. Pence has none of the baggage of political insiders like Newt Gingrich.

What was noteworthy was Hillary’s response to the news. She released a video statement: "Donald Trump and Mike Pence: building a great, big, beautiful wall between America and progress."

It’s interesting. I recall once reading about a speech given by Alfred E. Smith, governor of New York in the early 1900s. I can’t remember the contents of the speech but I believe it was about child labor laws. He made an appeal to morality and what struck me was that he made reference to something in the Bible. I can’t recall exactly what. It was an appeal to the authority of a book which, although I personally would consider an authority on moral matters, I would never expect anyone on the street today to take seriously as an authoritative text in a public speech. How strange, I remember thinking, that such an argument—an appeal to religion—could work back then. Yet how powerful and effective. It left me wondering if such an appeal to religion could ever be employed today. If so, it certainly would be less effective in today’s unraveling culture.

I guess we have our answer. It’s just not an appeal to the religion that most people assume—or I myself had assumed at the time—is the most popular religion in America.

RPC said...

"An engineer who thought that a properly engineered bridge can't collapse..." Can you say "Tacoma Narrows?" Come to think of it, can you say "Firth of Tay?" Those were both properly engineered according to the knowledge available when they were built...

Matthias Gralle said...

An interesting post, as a working scientist I agree with a lot of it, though I'll have to look up the details of the GMO rice question - I was under the impression that the rice was already distributed for free.

@JMG: Can you give a good reference for the crisis caused by the discovery that logic can't solve everything? The histories of philosophy that I have read were not sociological enough to talk about this kind of thing.

Shane W said...

I'm sure JMG can speak for himself, but in all the comments and posts since the original popular Trump/Politics of Resentment post, his comments have been supportive of a Trump presidency and critical of those who paint it apocalyptically. Maybe I'm reading different posts and comments than you are...

blue sun said...

Another thing I should add is your juxtaposition of Trump with deGrasse Tyson is a great one. In fact, it’s hard to think of a better one.

Time will tell, but Trump appears to be no fool when it comes to politics. Just a quick comparison of Pence to the likes of Dan Quayle, Dick Cheney, or Sarah Palin reveals that. However, Pence could turn out like Joe Biden, who at first seemed a respectable intelligent guy but has ended up essentially becoming the next Dan Quayle.

Ed-M said...


Interesting report and a lively discussion! I was an engineer for a while -- I was never properly mentored, just plugged and played. I think it didn't help my problem-solving abilities any, unfortunately. That, and a University education that was more "training by rote" than anything. Well enough negativity for now!

On to politics.

What you described in the way politics works -- or is supposed to work -- in a functioning democratic republic. Under our system, those who have the most power and wealth bear upon the politicians through their lobbyists so that what they need to get done, gets done. Which means, of course, that we don't have a system of politics, we have a system of ANTI-politics ... which explains Obamacare!

Shane W,

Here I'll have to agree with Bill. Donald Trump does NOT have the common man's interests at heart. Watch this YouTube video: "You've Been Trumped" and you'll see what he does to people from the wage class and even salary class when they get in the way.

@Whoever (can't remember whom) said the engineers and economists are using their power and influence to force their solutions onto us:

It's not the engineers and economists, but those who pay their salaries, directly or indirectly through the politicians: the financiers and the business people.

Shane W said...

"will" vs. "want", it makes no difference, we both have our opinions about the speed of collapse, and neither of them will have any effect whatsoever on the actual pace of collapse.

Nick ZZ said...

I took a college course in Geology some years ago. The professor was a terrific teacher, a very personable, knowledgeable and enthusiastic authority on the subject. He was a local go to expert for News crews whenever events of a geologic nature took place. Whenever there was a heavy season of rain the professor would be on the News talking about how heavy rains cause landslides in the West hills of Portland, Oregon.

One day in class I asked a question of the professor: Coastal bluffs at Arch cape on the Oregon coast had been rapidly eroding away for decades. My uncle had built a cabin there back in the late 1950's. The area was forested and stable into the late 1970's but then after extensive logging, sections of the bluff began falling away during heavy rains.
Over two decades, our family saw the original 100 feet of yard on the seaside of the cabin get reduced to about 6 feet. Other cabins along the same bluff had fallen onto the beach 50 feet below.

A class lawsuit had been brought against the logging companies by residents and owners along the bluff who had seen their property eroded away. The hills above the bluff had been clear cut and the resulting landslides and mud earth movements had obviously triggered the erosion and destruction of the bluffs below. But the residents did not win their case.

Years later, when I asked the professor about this, he responded in a hostile and defensive way that was very uncharacteristic of him. I am sure the entire class felt the ire in his response. He began by saying that "the people who build down there were fools". The land along the bluff is geologic slate and so is inherently unstable and so on. The clear cutting did not cause the bluffs to erode, it was the geologic slate.

I was so shaken by this out of character, aggressive and illogical response that I did not know what to make of it. Not only did he call my uncle a fool in front of the entire class, but he made no mention of the lessons he already gave the same class having to do with how deforestation can cause landslides. How many thousands of years had those bluffs been there without experiencing rapid erosion before the 70's clear cuts? Later it occurred to me that this well known and highly regarded professor must have been hired by logging company attorneys to provide expert testimony in the class action suit. They paid him to lie. He was not about to contradict his previous testimony in a class when questioned about the same formation.

This was a sad lesson. If this very smart and prestigious head of a Univ. Geology dept. can be hired to give false scientific testimony, then how common it must be that public issues today are tainted by similarly purchased expert opinion, when we know that so many scientists and science grads are unemployed, underemployed or low paid when they are employed.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

@Shane W--The context for what you were told in class is that (sweeping generalization follows) religious Jews read the Bible for guidance about how God wants people to act and about what attitudes and habits people need to cultivate in order to live a life that is pleasing to the Creator. In order to wring as much meaning as possible out of the texts, many forms of interpretation have been used, including symbolic ones. This practice goes back two thousand years.

The doctrines of Biblical literalness and inerrancy are primarily tenets of Protestant fundamentalism. They arose out of two needs that the Protestant movement had: that Jesus's resurrection be regarded as a historical event that took place on a specific date, and that the Old and New Testaments by themselves are sufficient guides for a religious person. The Orthodox and Catholic branches of Christianity don't rely directly on the Bible as the sole authority, rather the Bible as applied and interpreted through the ages by the teachers and institutions of the Church. That's what Luther tore down.

Judaism does not depend on belief in the historicity of any one marvelous event. To the extent that Judaism is a revealed religion, the revelation was or is (opinions differ) cumulative. Rabbinic Judaism thinks that studying Biblical texts together with later commentaries in a group discussion under the guidance of a learned teacher is far better than just reading the Bible by itself. What a day might have been before the Sun existed is not a problem that greatly troubles Jewish readers of In The Beginning, because it's not the point of the story.

sara drew said...

On the subject of Atlantis I read an excellent book many years ago by Graham Hancock who cited Charles Hapgood's Maps of the Ancient Sea Kings and makes specific reference to the Piri Reis Map, a 15th century Ottoman map which is supposed to show a reasonably accurate configuration of the coast line of Queen Maud Land, Antartica unglaciated, which makes the data many thousands of years old. Modern mapping techniques using radar confirmed that coastline in, I believe, 1957. Hancock's work has been comprehensively rubbished down the years as has that of his colleague Robert Bauval who worked on the theory that the Sphinx was eroded by water, which dates it many hundreds of years prior to current egyptology dating. He also theorised that the pyramids are aligned with Orion abut 12 thousand years ago. All interesting data points leading away from conventional wisdom. I have always been considered pretty eccentric for my interest in these matters.

On a Brexit note, and following your thesis JMG, the new British Conservative Prime Minister has set out a social agenda well to the left of the current supposed progressive British Labour Party, perhaps as you have suggested in previous posts, this is evidence that the 'right' are now wearing the progressive clothes. Labour is tearing itself apart in true inquisitorial style and in such a manner that suggests its historical moment is over. I wonder if that is the fate of the Democrats in a post Trump victory landscape?

I write with heartache for France and a real sense of urgent need to reach out to the Middle East diaspora where so many live with such pain all too frequently.
I welcome, as others have a forum that is decent and respectful enough for such a diversity of opinion, disagreement and debate. Long may it be a light when all other lights go out.

SCjelli said...

A very thought provoking post. It wasn't until a couple of days later that I remembered a part from Robinson's Red Mars: "They were so ignorant! Young men and women, educated carefully to be apolitical, to be technicians who thought they disliked politics, making them putty in the hands of their rulers, just like always."

234567 said...

@ JMG -

OT, but there is a really decent article about global petroleum and energy out today by Art Berman. It recaps what those of us in the oil industry have been seeing for the last 30 years, and combines the energy cost and debt picture in a coherent way. He even touches on solar fallacy. This is from a petroleum geologist and not just some investor chaser.

I know you aren't much for pushing readers to other sites, but this is a really decent recap of where we have been, why and how the jagged right-hand side of M. King Hubberts bell curve will be very unpredictable.

There is no relief or jumping up and down that Hubbert was right, not for any of us. We play the hand we are dealt, but the reality is that profit chasing drives things in very destructive ways - and that is what we all do.

It is going to be a very bumpy ride down this slope over the next decade.

barrigan said...

An odd phenomenon I noticed recently:

It seems to me that many speculative fiction novels published fairly recently have actually become more conservative in terms of technological development - e.g. published in 2010, they withhold until after 2050 a technology that a book published in, say, 1990 might unleash in 2015. If the ubiquitous flying car is mentioned, it's usually as a joke made by a time-traveler wondering why there aren't any. This might just be a function of the particular authors I read, but it's interesting to note.

Shane W said...

Part of the thing w/the Trump campaign is that the seem to be desperately lacking in experienced hands and that he seems w/in striking distance in so many swing states...

Jay Moses said...

@ shane w.: nothing in judaism ever is that simple or straightforward. fun fact: the last two jews left in afghanistan could agree on nothing and despised each other so much that each established his own temple.

there are young earth jews, secular jews who accept scientific explanations of the earth's origins and reject the torah's time scale and a wide variety of fence straddlers who, as you suggest, try to accept both science and torah by questioning the length of the genesis "day". in his famous work "guide to the perplexed", part ii, ch. 25, the great scholar maimonades appears to contradict himself on this point--although he has a typically brilliant rabbinical escape hatch for himself.

i suspect that the person teaching your class on judaism may not have been jewish.

patriciaormsby said...

Coming somewhat to the defense of Shane, I note very heated emotions on both sides of the US campaigning, but particularly on the so-called left. I think a lot of folks in America are deeply embarrassed by Trump. He embodies every crass absurdity about America they hate. Stepping back a little bit, the opinion overseas, to the degree it is not influenced by hysterical US-dominated TV coverage, seems to be that Trump is 95% crazy and 5% patriotic, putting him head and shoulders above his treasonous opponent (lifted from someone over on the Saker's blog). I am reminded of a joke I once heard about a team of anthropologists from Harvard going into the wilds of Oklahoma and reporting back that the natives were superstitious, loved rituals and would gather in colorful, boisterous festivals each week to worship a giant named Gard. Seen from this perspective, they are not quite as threatening. But it is an uprising of the natives, and I fear what firepower the US will use to put this one down. I suppose my biggest concern is that if it doesn't get its way, the US elite will do a primadonna and call in a nuclear war. That might occur simply because Trump got elected, but that is still not a good reason to vote for she-who-should-not-be-named, IMHO.

In a better world I'd vote for Jill Stein.

Nastarana said...

Dear A Post-Milenial, Thank for your assurances regarding the mailing list. I withdraw my query about snail mail; I had thought you were some sort of small scale brick and mortar establishment. Paypal hates me, but I will see what I can do.

Shane W said...

I had no more interest in debating Creationism vs. Evolution w/you than I do the speed of collapse/effect of Trump presidency w/Bill. Choose your battles carefully...
Man, I wholeheartedly recommend my book, The End of Faith, for JMG's assignment. It's turning out to be a real polemic for progress, reason, rationality, and it's chock full of unsubstantiated claims and shoddy scholarship. I don't know how many times I've laughed out loud. Every sentence seems like it needs deconstructing. And, just like JMG says, it's Christian theology w/the serial numbers filed off, complete with an altar call for reason, progress, and rationality along w/apocalyptic scaremongering if we don't "get right w/reason" and abandon religion.

Nastarana said...

Dear Greg Reynolds, I did a google search for tropical fruit rich in vitamin A, and found both mangoes and papayas mentioned in that context. Then there the various curcurbitae, orange veges.

Dear Bill Pulliam, my great great grandfather was said to have been homesteading in Oregon when the Civil War broke out. He gave up the homestead, such is the family story, and traveled back to Missouri to enlist in the Union army (or some sort of Missouri militia). I doubt someone would take such a step because of tariffs. Three squares a day perhaps might have been the motive.

Kevin Warner said...

I know that this week's essay was about how scientific education can cause political stupidity but to me it seems that any too specialised an education can lead to misguided if not catastrophic consequences when applied to an area outside their field of expertise. We have all seen this movie many a time - the entrepreneur who tries his hands at politics because everybody knows that running a business is exactly like running a country (, the MBA who just knows that it does not matter what industry he goes into as what he learnt getting his MBA applies everywhere ( or the Silicon Valley billionaires who figure that they should be put in charge of their own society so long as they get to scrape the rest of us off their boots (see & but you get the idea.
In thinking this over, perhaps the underlying fault-line is that modern humans way of thinking is still stuck in old patterns and modes and is just not up to task anymore. We actually need to revamp the way that we think in everyday life. De Bono's Lateral Thinking ( was a recognition of this simple fact. The state of modern education thus becomes a reflection of how faulty our way of thinking has become.
If anyone doubts this, consider the following examples of where our way of thinking has failed us. Fact, that after two centuries of modern medicine, there is still no simple statement of what the optimum daily diet of an average human being should be. Seriously, this should have been nailed down a century ago. On a deeper level, we have had philosophy in a developed form for thousands of years but there is no agreement on how a good life should be led. From the outside, it seems that this field of learning was abandoned to religions in favour of more esoteric philosophical points long, long ago which is why for most people philosophy, rightly or not, is simply regraded as irrelevant for everyday life when it should be at the heart of everyday life.

Dan said...

@Eric S.: Thanks for the explanation. I'm finding a lot of discussion of sophism with respect to Athens (especially Plato and Socrates who denounced) but not very much about their influence in the Roman Empire. It seems that the second Sophists were respected by Trajan, Antoninus Pius, Marcus Aurelius, and Hadrian but I'm not so sure regarding bringing about a crisis of sophistry. Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius would have been stoics not sophists.

Mark Rice said...

As an engineer I have some observations on engineers who do and who do not know "how to question the problem".

There are parts electrical engineering that make intensive use of mathmatical abstractions. These parts include control theory and communication theory. Not many people have the aptitude and training to be effective in these areas.

The abstractions have always been easy for me. Math courses were always easy. I had thought that mastery of one of these areas was the end all and be all.

But then I noticed that companies that were well endowed with engineers who were really good with these abstractions were not the most successful companies. The most successful companies had people who questioned the problem. "Why are we doing this?" "Is there a simple way to do this?" Every successful engineering organization has the people who ask these questions. The people who can ask these questions, communicate with others, influence others and bring order and calm to a situation are often the ones who get promoted.

That said -- for some design efforts you really need people who can operate at the intersection of messy physical reality and these abstractions.

John Michael Greer said...

John, fair enough. It's certainly possible to be smart and wrong.

Keith, it's entirely possible that Trump won't deliver anything but misery to wage class Americans, but that's what they're certainly going to get from a Clinton presidency, so I can understand their willingness to hope.

Allie, not so fast. These people are selected by those people who are chosen by these other people, and your vote has some influence on who one of the last category is? That doesn't make the first category elected. The core of democratic process is that the people get to select, by vote, the people who make the laws. The more layers of insulation you put between the people and the lawmakers, the less democracy you have.

Professor D., the acceptance of tectonic plate theory was a good deal more complex than that! I watched it happen, so can testify to this, and it's only in very recent years that there's been an attempt to insist that the scientific community didn't reject it at all. Your broader point, though, stands; Thomas Kuhn's discussion of the way that "normal science" does its level best to ignore anomalies is highly relevant here.

Over the Hill, the difficulty is of course that this word "science" means so many different things. It means skeptical inquiry. It means a set of beliefs not yet disproven. It means a constellation of influential institutions that claim the exclusive right to say what is and isn't truth, and constantly maneuver to expand its share of government and corporate largesse. It's in the intersections and deliberate confusions between these very different things that the trouble comes.

Nrgmiserncaz, exactly. This notion that the privileged owe nothing to the rest of society, even when the latter is what supports and makes possible their privilege, is one of the sure signs that tell you that a privileged class is about to end up dangling from lampposts.

Varun, by all means use it!

Spinozarina, many thanks for the data points.

Donalfagan, it's good to see that they recognize the huge issue around irreproducibility. That's a stake through the heart of science. If results are not systematically checked for reproducibility, then science isn't happening -- it's as simple as that.

Hereward, the Piscean age wasn't very Piscean, all things considered! By all astrological logic, the greatest and most brutal campaign of conquest in the history of the world -- the conquest of most of the planet by a handful of European nations -- should never have happened in an age ruled by the least warlike of the signs; nor should such forerunners as the Mongol conquests and the rise of the Ottoman Empire. That is, I'm far from sure current ideas about the implications of precession hold water when compared to the evidence from history.

Dermot, I'd call it more a transition from fact-centered to value-centered thinking, rather than from facts to values, but that's a quibble.

Onething, I wasn't praising peer review as such. I was praising the ostensible goal of the scientific process, which peer review sometimes furthers.

Dermot, so noted! I sometimes wonder if the sheer volume of gobbledygook churned out by Brussels is protective camouflage, meant to keep people from noticing what they're supposed to be voting about.

Allexis Weetman said...

JMG Going back quite a ways in the comments you state that you think playing computer games makes people bad at making real world decisions, as in our computer games there is always a way to solve the puzzle. I think you are arguing outside your area of expertise as you have stated that you never play these games.

You are right of course that games are designed to be played and solved and therefore are not a good model of the real world. However 99% of my real world problems were also designed by humans, and many of them can be solved by looking around for the solution in a similar way to in a game(maybe not 99%, call it 50%). A sub-set of problems exist which are not at all like a game. Thankfully I do not only play games and have the real world experience to deal with these problems as best I can.

You argue that when presented with a predicament with no simple solution I will be more confused than my non-computer playing counterpart. I could argue with the same logic that reading fiction books makes a person unable to see the real world for what it is, that instead they merely see fixed narratives and unalterable story-lines which is not the way the real world works. If you had never really lived in the real world and read nothing but fiction you might be socially inadequate and unable to cope with the randomness of the real world. Such people as exist who only read books or only play games will no doubt be confused and frightened by reality. You might counter this argument by saying that most people understand that a book is just a book. But I also understand that a game is just a game and not a basis for understanding reality.

A computer game can be more than just a simple book-style storyline with some target practice thrown in these days, featuring moral ambiguity, unsolvable puzzles, multiple choices and blah blah blah I could go on for pages, but you wouldn't know about that as you don't play, in fact I would guess you actively avoid knowledge of the subject. And in discussing this I am just trying to bring one of your very own cognitive biases to your attention. Not because I think it is important for you to face it but because it rankles me to be told that I will struggle to make real world decisions. It would no doubt rankle you if I said that pulp sci-fi and fantasy rots your brain(incidentally I love a good sci-fi book).

I can of course see your point, but would refine it to say that if one plays a lot of games growing up and never examines how the real world differs from them would be bad for ones understanding. But most young people will come against these differences on a regular basis in their school and work lives. And there my rant ends.

Oh and the article was great and very thought provoking as you can see.

Synthase said...

Maybe so.

However, the inverse of that - political astuteness combined with willful pig ignorance of science is absolutely disgraceful. I know this is the conventional view, and archdruids dwell well outside the conventional, but I just can't denounce it strongly enough. Having any significant young earth creationist presence is a great dishonor on a community, particularly on its educators, and a sign that scientific education is almost nonexistent in the area. You don't have to be a scientist or a self-proclaimed skeptic to find it contemptible.

That crackpot literature you mentioned I had found infuriating rather than entertaining since childhood, as I took it as an attempt to mislead and insult my intelligence when I was looking to understand the world around me.

If I have just proven your point about political stupidity by example, then fine - but graargh.

Fred said...

Reading the title and the first couple of paragraphs, I thought you were going in the direction of the scientific management of people that has been so popularized the last 100 years. That scientific management comes out in public schools, corporate employers, and in people's everyday thinking. The latest round of police shooting of unarmed black men brought the "solution" that the police need more training. As if their decision to gun someone down while being video taped was a lack of knowledge, and if we just gave the right knowledge they wouldn't do it. It's not a head issue, it's a heart issue. Our lack of action on climate too isn't a matter of not knowing what to do, it's a matter of having the guts to do it.

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