Money speech is better than peer-reviewed scientific speech

So we all missed this one.  Science fiction writers have for decades been imagining different ways in which a technological society can turn on science.  Standard tropes are that fundamentalist religion takes over the state, and bans science; another standard trope is that some catastrophe happens, and people blame science and scientists (Interstellar had a few lines devoted to this trope, to cite a very contemporary example).

This morning, I read the text of the bill that passed the House last week:  HR1442.  This bill would determine who can advise the E.P.A.  It includes (I cut for readibility some clauses):

(2) Each member of the Board shall be qualified by education, training, and experience to evaluate scientific and technical information on matters referred to the Board under this section. The Administrator shall ensure that–

“(C) persons with substantial and relevant expertise are not excluded from the Board due to affiliation with or representation of entities that may have a potential interest in the Board’s advisory activities, so long as that interest is fully disclosed to the Administrator and the public and appointment to the Board complies with section 208 of title 18, United States Code;

“(E) Board members may not participate in advisory activities that directly or indirectly involve review or evaluation of their own work;

So (C) above would open the advisory board to include corporate representatives; these people are specifically redefined as acceptable as long as we know that they work for industry.

But (E) above means that a scientist whose has published on global warming, for example, cannot be part of the board if they are discussing global warming, because of course then her work would be evaluated as part of the discussion of global warming.

In other words, working for a corporation that would be directly affected by the regulation does not cause a conflict of interest, but the scientific method and peer review do cause a conflict of interest.

No dystopian fancy ever encompassed a world in which “I am paid to say P” is treated as no serious conflict of interest with respect to P, but the person who publishes peer-reviewed scientific papers on P has a conflict of interest because… I just don’t know why because.

We are laggards, we science fiction writers. The world is leaving us behind.

Stanislaw Lem remains the best

After many years, I reread Solaris.

It’s hard to say what makes Lem so good.  The prose, at least in translation, is good, but not stunning.  The idea of Solaris–a planet covering, perhaps intelligent ocean–is not completely novel to SF.  But somehow the final effect is that here is science fiction at its very best.  Science fiction as we writers should all envy and long to write it.

Lem of course does not predict the future with compelling accuracy.  For example, on the Solaris station there are paper books but no recordings–the idea that the dead could reappear and you have to type a report about it, and not just film it all, every second of it, from a hundred angles–is quaint.  But there is something so mature, so human and also so… scientific in Lem’s vision, that it truly is in the end not only compelling and authentic, but also beautiful and moving.

There are notable differences with mainstream SF.  In the trade, we call it an “info dump” when someone explains a phenomenon.  The term is (obviously) disparaging.  By this standard, a good quarter of Solaris is info dumps.  But the term shows a deep problem with contemporary SF, one that Lem diagnosed and scoffed at.  For him, science fiction is about the human being in a world transformed and understood by science.  In Solaris, the discussions of the scientific literature on the mysterious ocean are not info dumps, they are the very fabric of attempted scientific understanding.  Lem is fearless in this:  he portrays not a world of space opera adventure.  He portrays a world of human beings trying to understand themselves, and the absurdity of existence, and, yes, a huge thinking ocean, via science and also via their own culture and purposes.

All this, and I haven’t even mentioned his brilliant, unique explorations of form–his book of introductions to non-existent books, his book written by an AI, the inexhaustible joy and brilliance of The Cyberiad.  He out-Calvinos Calvino, he makes Borgesian leaps over Borges.

It is a great failure of the Nobel Committee, to have passed him over.  But what do we care?  We can read him, and spread the word.  Long live Lem!


Click here for a Naked Celebrity Book Cover

I assiduously avoid anything having to do with celebrities.  But, all the news that I consume is treating it like a major story, right up there with Putin’s imperialism and ISIS and the endless growth in wealth inequality, so I can’t help but repeatedly hear, or encounter headlines, about the phone photos hack of some celebrities.  Which makes me suddenly think of Arthur Clark and Stephen Baxter.  (I know, I know, you had the same reaction, right?)

Clark and Baxter’s book, The Light of Other Days, is a fine example of classical SF:  a very clever idea with radical implications thought through to the limit of its potential.  The idea is that wormhole technology is developed, but wormholes can only be microscopically large.  At first this might seem useless, but it turns out one can see through such a hole.  This becomes a consumer technology, and soon all of humanity is able to see any event anywhere.  And the wormholes can be opened into the past by setting them up in distant space-time locations, so all the past is also visible.

Clark and Baxter work on the implications with brilliance.  Society is transformed.  For example, most crimes become such that it is impossible to escape justice (just follow the perpetrator home by moving a wormhole to the scene of the crime, watch what happened, and then move the wormhole along behind the villain till he or she is identified).  We can sit in on politicians meeting with rich donors, and watch how legalized bribery shapes their activities.  We can no longer foolishly romanticize a past where we can see the things our nation actually did.  And so on.  There are some costs to this radical transparency, but mostly the end result is strangely utopian.

But I wonder.  Would enough people care about what votes the politician promised in his meeting with the Koch brothers?  Politics is so complicated, and you could spend your wormhole time looking at celebrities in the shower.

In the economy of attention, transparency competes with all the other opportunities to see something new–or rather to see something titillating.  Hence, a third of my evening news is about what one woman is doing with her cell phone, time that could and should be spent on something worthwhile, like the situation in Gaza or current economic data or–my god, just about anything else.

Furthermore, transparency is not going to make things easier to grasp.  Transparency into a complex situation does not simplify, it merely gives you more data.  Much scientific data is transparently available.  It doesn’t seem to do anything to improve scientific literacy.  We still we have a widespread and seemingly endless faux controversy over global warming.

Citizenship is work, and it requires preparation.  (One should really know how basic statistics work, the branches of government, who your Representative is, what “socialism” really means, some history, and so on.  What use is transparency when you can’t put the data in context, can’t tell whether the data is representative of the population in question, don’t know how your government makes use of data, don’t know how we got here, etc.?).  That all requires a decent education.  But we’re living though a time when schools and universities are constantly pressured to become more and more vocational.

But all that is no excuse for me not giving you a Jennifer Lawrence picture.  I’m a terrible person.  Here’s a unclothed book cover instead.  I’m sorry, I know it’s so much less interesting, but it’s all I got.

Book Cover, for book by celebrity SF authors, who were probably once naked somewhere!

A book by celebrity SF authors, each of whom was probably once naked somewhere!


Paleofuture: the remote past future

I learned about this blog on NPR.  It’s great!  Looking through it, you really get a sense of how hard it is to predict the future.  But more surprising is how many good ideas that we did not implement because of political failure.  Worth some looking:

I enjoyed the entry about freeze-dried food being the trend of the future.  I grew up with the Apollo missions, and as a small kid tried to make my own astronaut food by shaping leftovers into cylinders and freezing them in plastic bags. I don’t recall ever eating my astronaut food; I just admired its space age appearance and probably then left it on a counter to melt until my mother threw it away.

We choose to go to the moon… and do the other things….

What The Great Beauty got wrong (and Neuromancer got right)

I recently returned from Rome, and my friends there were talking of Paolo Sorrentino’s Le Grande Belleza (The Great Beauty), which received some attention by Italians before it won the Foreign Language Oscar and much attention after.  It’s a beautiful film, and poignant, but it is also fatally nostalgic and anachronistic.

large_70TGomRq1JQNWvnnq5DNfUkzyexIts theme is the paralysis of wealthy Italians, a kind of Chekovian Fellini-ism.  What makes this so wrong of our time is that we live when the wealthy are as much the opposite of paralyzed as one can describe.  The wealthy are furiously active, growing their power at exponential rates. It is the rest of us that are paralyzed.

The much truer work for our time is Neuromancer.  I know many were impatient with cyberpunk, mostly because of its tough guy noir.  But even though it is 30 years old, Gibson’s novel captured some of the social dimensions of the then future very well: corporations grown to immense power, vast mercenary armies (like Blackwater) killing with impunity, governments intentionally weakened until most people live in an arena of vicious social darwinism, and a ruling class of highly isolated wealthy elites bereft of social conscience or social interest.

Neuromancer_(Book) That is our time, that is our world, and I’m glad that an SF author saw it clearly, and sorry that our more popular forms of art gaze backward.

Seems like hows regularly folk talk

Hayden Trenholm told me about this favorable review in Quill & Quire, by Corey Redekop, of the collection Strange Bedfellows.

The book closes on two high points. Nebula Award–winning author Katherine Sparrow’s “Why Lily Left” is a melancholy, horrifying glimpse into an anti-civilization mindset. “Amateur Night at the Global Mart,” Craig DeLancey’s technobabble-laden entry (“genemod symbiot lichen” being a prime example), is activist-oriented speculative fiction as strong as anything Cory Doctorow has produced.

Of course I appreciate the praise and the comparison to the very talented Cory Doctorow, but the thing that amuses me is, I thought “genemod symbiot lichen” sounded like clear, workaday speech!  Is that a sign of SF-induced conceptual corruption?


Ayn Rand, SF writer, non-philosopher

David Brat, the winner of the primary against Eric Cantor, and has a huge bank-buys-curriculum grant to teach the ethics of Ayn Rand to college students.  Because Rand was a science fiction writer who aspired to be a philosopher, this seems the right place to say something about the ethics of Ayn Rand.  (There are other interesting things to say, such as Brat is a devoted Christian and a follower of Ayn Rand, which is a contradiction that Rand would have totally loathed; she rightly believed Christian ethics antithetical to her ethics.  And not just Christian: she believed ontological dualism and belief in an afterlife were fundamentally opposed to her view, with or without the Sermon on the Mount, so nearly all forms of theism will be inconsistent with her ethics.  Odd that American politicians who follow her manage to overlook this.  But focus, focus….)

Ayn_Rand1I know of only one mainstream philosopher who cited Rand (Robert Nozick).  So why don’t philosophers take Rand seriously?  Because consistently, Rand’s reasoning is so obviously and hopelessly flawed that it does not rise to the standards of philosophers.  Two examples will suffice, from the big Galt speech.

First, Rand attempts epistemology (the theory of knowledge) but never rises above a parody of epistemology.  She, in the voice of Galt, tells us that a=a.  Everything follows from this, she asserts.

All the disasters that have wrecked your world, came from your leaders’ attempt to evade the fact that A is A. All the secret evil you dread to face within you and all the pain you have ever endured, came from your own attempt to evade the fact that A is A. The purpose of those who taught you to evade it, was to make you forget that Man is Man.

But nearly nothing follows from a=a.  It’s a necessary truth, given a standard interpretation of identity.  And from it you can derive nothing of significance; you can at best derive from it a series of tautologies or other necessary truths, like: it is not the case that it is not the case that a=a.  Or: if a=a then a=a.

Maybe what Rand meant was something like this:  there are indisputable truths, and from this epistemic realism follows.  (Realism about some domain is the view that there are evidence-transcedent truths about that domain.)  But this erects as opponent a straw epistemology, and ignores the history of epistemology.  Philosophers who study epistemology are not worried about whether a is a.  They are worried about things like:  If we cannot observe something, but it is useful to assume a description of it for our theories, should we believe it exists or should we remain skeptical and assume it is nothing more than a useful theoretical posit?  Or:  if two people disagree about the meaning of “the good,” how will we settle such a dispute?  Or:  how is it that we have knowledge about all triangles, when we have experience of only a few imperfect images of triangles?  Rand is not up to answering those kinds of questions.  She does a drive by; she pretends epistemology is trivially easy, but she never considers a single difficult case.

Second, Rand does the same thing with her ethics.  This is far more damning, because her primary concern is ethics, and her core ethical views are fundamentally hopeless.  She asserts that self-interest is the foundation of ethics.  The claim that we each of us know what is best for our self is a claim that philosophers debated for centuries, but which she thinks is not worth even discussing; let us set that aside.  The most problematic issue is that she betrays her own axioms immediately, and rightly so:  they’re simplistic and inadequate.  Repeatedly Galt says things like

The symbol of all relationships among such men, the moral symbol of respect for human beings, is the trader. We, who live by values, not by loot, are traders, both in matter and in spirit. A trader is a man who earns what he gets and does not give or take the undeserved.

It’s hard not to cringe at this.  An ethical theory must address issues of desert.  It’s one of the hardest parts of political ethics.  Does a rich kid who never worked a day in his life deserve a billion dollar inheritance?  Does a CEO deserve to be paid $15 million dollars in an annual bonus?  Does a drug addict deserve some kind of public assistance?  Do all citizens deserve a free education?  And so on.  Here, Rand merely asserts that the virtuous person won’t take what is undeserved.

Some self-interested people will rob, lie, and cheat, and then comfortably assert they deserve their ill gotten earnings.  Every Wall Street thug, who used government bailout money to pay himself a multimillion dollar bonus, has said, and may even believe, that he deserves it.  How do we settle our disagreements with such people?  We need a theory of desert, of when something is and is not deserved.  Rand never grapples with any of that.  Instead, Rand just assumes desert as a primitive; she basically says, “it’s obvious what desert is, it’s to take what is deserved.”

This goes to the heart of Rand’s “virtue of selfishness” ethics.  Selfishness is good.  So why not rob, lie, cheat?  Because, Rand tells us, the trader won’t take what is undeserved.  Why not?  It would surely be self-interested and, done deftly, would produce personal profit.  The answer is implicit but obvious.  Robbing, lying, and cheating are wrong.  Rand knows this.  And this wrongness is independent of selfishness, as her argument here makes clear.  She introduces another ethical principle on the sly, without admitting it to us, and perhaps without admitting it to herself.  She claimed that ethics was easy, and we were all being pig-headed by not seeing the objective truths that she could see.  But whenever things get a little tough, she betrays her own first principles.

These are only two examples.  We can multiply them.

Ayn Rand was an extraordinary person.  From Russia she came to the United States as a young woman, a very late age to not only master English but become a novelist.  She became an enormously successful writer.  It’s a very impressive accomplishment.  Her influence on American politics is remarkable.  But she has made no contribution to philosophy and no contribution to ethical theory.  None at all.

Piketty’s Extrapolations vs The Singularity Scene

I’m reading Piketty’s book.  It’s of interest to a philosopher for obvious reasons; but it is also of interest to a science fiction writer because much of it is about predicting the future.  Piketty projects certain important trends forward, such as slowing per capita growth and slowing population growth.  His projections are  simple:  they’re just linear trends carried forward.

9780674430006-lgContrast Piketty’s work with the projections of extreme techno-optimists like Kurzweil or Diamandis.  Kurzweil projects exponential trends forward.  I’m skeptical about Kurzweil’s belief that exponential trends remain exponential.  I suspect many of his choice trends (e.g., size of memory, speed of computers…) will ultimately prove to be S curves.  But, setting that aside, what’s interesting is the disharmony between the world imagined by Piketty and the world imagined by the extreme techno-optimists.  Piketty sees on the horizon a world of inequality so severe that democracy and civil society will be difficult to maintain.  Kurzweil and Diamandis project some technological trends forward, and see a vastly better civilization looming just around the bend.

SUAlas, I’m inclined to think Piketty’s world is the more likely of the two visions.  The comparison of the extrapolations of Piketty and Kurzweil make something quiet clear.  Piketty is extrapolating economic outcomes based on past and current economic trends.  In contrast, from their technological projections, the extreme techno-optimists make leaps to predict social benefits.  They’re skipping the hardest part:  there is nothing in their trends to tell us how these technologies will be applied.  And yet most of their ink is spilled on the joyful news of the benefits we are all going to get from faster computers and faster gene sequencers and new nanomachines.  It seems to be a novel kind of fallacy:  if technology X can do good, then when technology X is faster and cheaper it will do much good.  That doesn’t follow.  All the benefits of these technologies, if any, could end up going to that tiny portion of people who have almost all of the wealth.

It would be nice if some of our science fiction writers could imagine a third way–a better, but more realistic, possible future.