Nosferatu! <crosses self>

I do not believe in the supernatural, but the evidence is growing that the Trump regime is so desperate for support that they are raiding graveyards — probably Nazi graveyards — to dig up the undead and prop them up on a stage. Case in point: look into the dead eyes of Stephen Miller. He’s horrifying.

He even appalls Joe Scarborough. I think we’re going to have to invade the White House with buckets of holy water and wooden stakes and torches sometime soon.

But…who is going to the stars?

possums

Kim Stanley Robinson wrote an excellent essay on generation ships — the science-fiction concept of building starships designed to take hundreds or thousands of years to fly to their destination, with generations of people living within them — and summarized all the physical, biological, and ecological problems with them that would ultimately doom such a project to failure. His conclusion is that “Earth is our only home”, which sounds depressing if you look at it one way, but really shouldn’t be, if only we could stop trashing the place.

I agree completely with that essay.

Now Kameron Hurley has written her own excellent essay in response, pointing out that there is a path towards making them viable again. I agree completely with this one, too.

If we figured out how to jettison ourselves from the Earth, we can figure out how to alter ourselves to traverse the incredible distances between stars and even galaxies. And here, then, is the difference in ideas that drives my writing as opposed to that of many other science fiction writers. I understand that space travel and expansion is just as much about altering ourselves, our attitudes, our social structures, our very biology, as it is about altering the places we choose to live.

The one problem is that word “ourselves”. Who are “we”? As Hurley says, the only way this works is if we are plastic and willing to change who we are, adapting to radically new circumstances. We can’t expect to simply put New York in a bubble and lift it off the planet — New York in space is a completely different beast from a New York planted firmly in the BosWash corridor with harbors and airports to connect it to everywhere else. The life of the city would have to change utterly.

The Puritans left England in their ships to preserve their way of life. It didn’t work. It changed everything about them in ways they could not predict, and I suspect that if we could go back in time and show the Puritan emigrants a picture of what America would become and how their descendants would live, they would react with horror and decide that there is no point in leaving after all. If your goal is to shelter your identity, your way of life, and the lives of your children, packing up and moving to a wildly different environment with unpredictable elements is probably the very worst idea you could have. If you want to define “ourselves” as a body of beliefs and ideas, well, sorry, those are extremely fragile and tend not to survive in new environments without some major transformations.

What about our biology? Look at the formation of the Panamanian land bridge and the exchange of North and South American fauna. We couldn’t possibly predict who the winners and losers would be, except, maybe, that there’d be a lot of losers. The grand champion of the invasion of North America was…opossums? Really? Come on. If they’d been sapient, those 5 meter tall phorusrhacid terror birds might have been pretty confident that they were going to kick ass and take over and rule two continents, but instead they all went extinct — as did the Astrapotheria, the Litopterna, the Sparassodonta, and other orders of big strong beasties — and it was the marsupial rat-thingies that thrived?

Hurley is exactly right that generation ships could be doable if we didn’t think of them as shells for people in transit and more as self-sustaining ecological islands cast off to grow and change, but then we have to change our notions of what constitute “us”, because for sure what arrives at a distant star a thousand years from now won’t be Americans, and may not even be recognizable as human any more. We could be building a bridge to Tau Ceti that delivers a chittering cargo of marsupial rat-thingies to a brand new world.

Is that acceptable? Is our vision of ourselves sufficiently flexible that we would consider planting a colony of unicellular eukaryotes on a distant planet to be a success? Would we be disappointed if we didn’t at least get mammals off-world, or are we going to insist on a primate exodus? We’re going to have to have an extraordinarly broad sense of identity for this all to work. Hurley seems to get that, I’d just wonder whether she’s gotten weird enough.

This was a concept I explored deeply in my novel, The Stars are Legion. Because certainly, we will change if we create and inhabit a living organism to which we are intrinsically tied. The Earth has shaped our evolution in every way, and our world-ships will no doubt do the same. Perhaps we’ll never be able to leave these ships. But propelling ourselves across the universe inside a self-sustaining world that can repair and reproduce itself solves the problems of distance and reduces the chance of ecological collapse, particularly if the worlds moved together as a legion and included independent layers of systems so that if one began to decline, another would rise. Think of it as naturally evolving back-up systems.

Exactly. People aren’t an ecosystem. It’s going to require establishing a complex, diverse assemblage of organisms to be self-sustaining, and everything will change year after year. And you aren’t going to be able to predict ahead of time how it will change, only that it will change. And the most fungible, protean, fragile elements will be the highest level bits, things like “societies”.

Those who arrive in the next star system, if they have created societies that allow them to change what we currently consider to be the intrinsically human foibles of war and strife and pettiness and bickering, will require time to adapt to a new environment. Consider how symbiotic parasites can chemically change and shape their hosts to suit them. Now imagine a ship is programmed to merge its flora and fauna with a new planet when it arrives, making the world-ship, now, into a living terraforming machine, a bacterial incubator that rapidly adapts the local environment to sustain its hosts. If symbiotic parasites can do this here on earth, why can’t we hurl something like it through space?

There are nightmares nestled in that idea.

Imagine you fill your ship with high-minded idealists, intellectuals and artists, and plan to export the very best of your culture to distant alien worlds…and by the time it gets there, it turns out that the best survivors are Republican neo-Nazis and televangelists.

Or it isn’t even people who last a thousand years in your starfaring arcology, and the survivors are all marsupial rat-thingies. But I repeat myself.

Try flipping the perspective, too. You’re having a grand time on an ecologically restored Earth, living in balance with all of nature, when a legion of ecological arks from an alien world arrive. They don’t want to exercise the cartoon SF prerogative of exterminating all humans or destroying Earth, they want to merge with us allow change to flow from the natural ecological and evolutionary interactions of diverse species. They aren’t going to kill us, no not directly, they’re going to give us an opportunity to adapt and change, like all good species. Never mind that these kinds of interactions are always catastrophic for some. We send probes up to the oncoming giant space island to figure out what we are going to face, and the astronauts look inside and say, “My god, it’s full of marsupial rat-thingies!”

Or Republicans and televangelists. But again, I repeat myself.

But I am looking forward to reading Hurley’s The Stars are Legion. Maybe I’ll get to it this weekend.

Happy Darwin Day, unofficially!

Charles-Darwin-and-William-Darwin

Hey, like, do you remember when congress proposed to recognize Darwin Day, officially, years ago? Yeah, it’s been kind of bouncing around for a long time. Didn’t pass.

Hey, also, remember when Congressman Paul Broun of Georgia, a member of the House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space and Technology, said a few words about that Darwin stuff?

God’s word is true. I’ve come to understand that. All that stuff I was taught about evolution and embryology and the big bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of Hell.

Heh. Good times, good times. Hey, didja know this kind of bill has been proposed over and over again, and always dies in that same Committee on Science, Space and Technology? The one that is currently chaired by Lamar Smith, with luminaries like Dana Rohrabacher on board? I wonder how that happens.

Last month, another Darwin Day bill was shuffled off to that committee. How do you think it will fare?

Oh, well, we shall celebrate evolutionary biology in our hearts. Or on YouTube — I’ll be going live here around noon to play “Ask an Evolutionist” for a while, as promised.

Yes, I liked a movie

We just got back from a showing of Hidden Figures.

Wow.

I know, I usually have something snarky and dismissive to say about the movies I see, but with this one…I just can’t. It’s inspiring and honest and strong, and it ought to win all the awards, and the actors and writers and director need to be rewarded with great careers, and there ought to be more movies made like this. So yeah, go see it.

OK, maybe I can say something rude: the Sixties were truly screwed up. We have gotten slightly better, even if we now have a gang of awful people running the country who want to roll all our gains right back. See it and feel even more inspired to fight back against the Nazis.

Sometimes, justice is served

See this guy? His name is Michael Aaron Strickland.

strickland

He’s pulling out a gun that he then pointed at a group of Black Lives Matter protesters in Portland, Oregon. He claimed he was feeling “threatened” by unarmed and peaceful protesters because they called him a racist, the poor little snowflake. He was arrested and charged on a slew of offenses.

The good news: He was actually convicted. I know, hard to believe.

The funny news: he exploded his own defense.

Jackson said Strickland’s contention that he was in grave danger isn’t believable, pointing out that Stickland reholstered his gun and stepped off the street and onto the sidewalk to give an interview in front of a TV camera just steps away from the scene of the confrontation.

Oh, man. These people are stupid. Stupid and armed.

I have concluded that I am a natural BOOB MAGNET

No other conclusion is possible. I got this weird self-promotional message from a guy named jeffreydavidmorris, and I replied to let him know his approach was a bit off-putting.

That was it! I swear! Then he sent me an angry comment and I blocked him. But you know what comes next: the ragegasm. He has now sent me 30 or 40 emails — I lost track because I just selected the whole batch and hit delete before setting a gmail filter. Most of them were short ranty religious things, but a few were humongous. I’ll include one example below the fold.

[Read more…]

Too cheesy for K-Mart and Sears?

Oooh, that’s got to sting. K-Mart and Sears are dropping the Trump brand from their lineup, once again citing declining sales. The Trump brand isn’t good enough for K-Mart? Wow.

trumplamp

I can’t understand the problem, though. I mean, what K-Mart shopper wouldn’t want a $567.45 Trump Lamp? Look how classy it is. That is the best lamp. The greatest! Definitely worth half a grand. Donald probably has one exactly like it, except that his is covered in gold.

All science is always political

I have been out of the loop for a few weeks — man, my workload spiked recently — but now that I’m catching up, I feel nothing but dismay at the ridiculous complaints from scientists about the March for Science. I could hardly believe that some oppose the idea of scientists expressing vigorous dissent.

Al Gore, bless his heart (as we say in the South), was well intentioned when he made “An Inconvenient Truth” in 2006. But he did us no favors. So many of the conservative Southerners whom I speak to about climate change see it as a partisan issue largely because of that high-profile salvo fired by the former vice president.

Scientists marching in opposition to a newly elected Republican president will only cement the divide. The solution here is not mass spectacle, but an increased effort to communicate directly with those who do not understand the degree to which the changing climate is already affecting their lives. We need storytellers, not marchers.

I’ve heard that so often: don’t rock the boat. We’ve got ours, if you make waves you’re imperiling the precious position we are clinging to by our fingernails. It’s absurd, selfish, and futile. The situation for science has become increasingly dire, and instead of shaking up the situation, putting your position at risk, you want to make sure that scientists are more harmless/helpless, more innocuous, more inoff-fucking-ensive because conservatives who despise science already might use the support of a political movement they hate as more ammo against us?

We have a common word for that. It’s called cowardice.

Then he dares to lecture us on what would be effective science communication? I’ve been through that for years, too. There’s always someone who will lecture at others who are doing the work that they’re doing it wrong. And that someone doing the hectoring is usually terribly ineffective at communicating science, so they are reduced to pontificating about the proper way to do it to the science communicators.

When they tell people “we need storytellers” without recognizing that we already know that, and are doing it, it’s remarkably clueless. We just see the need for something more, that when we reach yet another period of peak crisis, it’s time to add another approach to the toolkit.

And hey, you want to tell stories? Go ahead. No one is stopping you. The only ones trying to suppress diverse methods of outreach to diverse communities are the ones saying there can be only one acceptable way of explaining science.

By the way, I know people who found “An Inconvenient Truth” useful and powerful. That it antagonized the assholes who have been subverting science for decades is a point in its favor.

I thought that op-ed was bad, but here’s a dude complaining that the March is too political…or worse, that it’s the wrong politics. Those damn SJWs! Ruining everything!

What does make me worry is the increasing politicization of the March, which is fast changing from a pro-science march to a pro-social justice march. Now there’s nothing wrong with marching in favor of minority rights and against oppression, but if you mix that stuff up with science, as the March organization seems to be doing, well, that is a recipe for ineffectiveness. What would be the point of a march if it’s about every social injustice, particularly when, as the organizers did, they indict science itself for its racism and support of discrimination? The statement of aims below from the March’s organizers has now disappeared, but the tweet below that is still there. (You can find the full statement archived here.)

We’ve seen this same crap recently from Steven Pinker. The March for Science declares that they are “committed to centralizing, highlighting, standing in solidarity with, and acting as accomplices with black, Latinx, API, indigenous, Muslim, Jewish, women, people with disabilities, poor, gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer, trans, non-binary, agender, and intersex scientists and science advocates,” and boom, the conservative science wing reacts in horror. I don’t get it. Encouraging diversity and new ideas and approaches is exactly what scientists should support — but I guess if you’re part of the establishment now, you’d rather not see the implicit policies that helped you get where you are change. It’s almost as if they’re willing to help others climb the ladder of scientific achievement, but only if they look like the people that are already there. Can’t clutter up the old boys’ club with disabled lesbians and transgender brown people and all that, because they wouldn’t be as committed to doing good science as…privileged white people?

But that would be racist/sexist.

There’s another distractor there, too: fighting oppression is a “recipe for ineffectiveness”. We must focus laser-like on ONE THING, even if we are a massive organization of hundreds of thousands or even millions of members — everyone must be in lockstep on the ONE THING or we won’t get the ONE THING, even if the one thing is so abstract and huge that it’s effectively indefensible. So Movement Atheism must focus on the ONE THING of ATHEISM, which is fiercely defended as the sole principle that there is no god, never mind all the complex cultural baggage associated with that. Scientists must focus on the ONE THING of SCIENCE, a concept so complex that we have a name for the problem of trying to define its boundaries, the demarcation problem.

I have no idea how (or why) this dude plans to narrow the focus of the March. Is the March for Science to consist only of white men looking distracted as they concentrate on the scientific method? Wait — that would look just like a bunch of philosophers, and we can’t have that. A bunch of white men fiddling with telescopes and dissecting cats and punching numbers into their handheld computers as they march? That sounds like a recipe for effectiveness.

There’s another complaint. The organizers for the March for Science have criticized science. How dare they! Clearly, they don’t understand the True Purpose of Science, which is Good and Above Criticism. All Hail Science!

If a March has any chance of being effective, it can’t consist of a bunch of penitentes who flagellate themselves loudly and publicly for bad behavior. After all, stuff like “immigration policy”, “native rights”, and many other issues of social justice are not, as the organizers maintain, “scientific issues.” They are moral issues, which means they reflect worldviews and preferences that are not objective. Of course once you set your goals on immigration, pipeline locations and who should not be near them, and so on, then science can inform your actions. But to claim that all issues of social justice are “scientific issues” is palpably wrong.

This is just weird to the point of incomprehensibility to me. Science must have an objective purpose? But most of it doesn’t! Science is about curiosity and wonder and exploration. What objective purpose was Thomas Hunt Morgan pursuing when he was searching for sports in his fly colony? What was the objective purpose of Santiago Ramón y Cajal spending long nights drawing the beautiful filigree of Golgi-stained neurons, or writing lovely prose about the growth cone?

Please, do tell me how to define this criterion of “objectivity”. It seems to me that this arbitrary distinction would make postage stamp collecting, which has discrete, specific, measurable criteria, more scientific than launching a space probe to Pluto, where we had little idea what we’d find.

It is clearly not so much that some issues lack objectivity — once you recognize that native Americans are human beings, “native rights” becomes a rather clearly defined concern with measurable goals — but, as defined, that adding a moral component taints a subject, polluting the purity of Science, making it non-objective.

I’ve got news for him: everything has a moral component. Everything has a political component. If it’s a human activity, it is contaminated with moral and political ramifications, because that’s what humans do. Deciding that we have the economic surplus and the privilege of leisure to be able to support people who study fruit flies full time is a moral, social, and political act, for instance.

It becomes even more profoundly moral, social, and political when we make arbitrary decisions about which people will be permitted to have the privilege of spending their days studying fruit flies, or even which people will be granted the education that will allow them to appreciate the study of fruit flies. Until the day comes that AIs are doing all the science, discussing the science only among the other AIs, and doing all the work to benefit or harm only AIs, you cannot divorce the moral from the scientific. And even then I hope the AIs are smart enough to consider the impact of their pursuits on AI morality, because we feeble apes sure don’t seem to be able to comprehend that concept.

Just the idea that science ought not to criticize itself in public gives me the heebie-jeebies. Damn. The Tuskegee Syphilis Study? I guess that was scientifically objective, let’s not criticize it. Eugenics? All sciencey and shit. Bioethics is not a field that actually exists, or if it does, it’s not objective and Truly Scientific because it recognizes the impact of science on society.

It’s easy to find fun and exciting examples. How about this: An Adorable Swedish Tradition Has Its Roots in Human Experimentation. They fed institutionalized, mentally-ill people with massive doses of candy until their teeth rotted, to determine if sugar actually caused tooth decay. It was objectively done, of course. All Praise Science!

Or how about the whole issue of evolutionary psychology, which mainly seems to exist to rationalize traditional Western values as objective and scientific, perpetuating a whole vast collection of oppressive ideas.

Victorian social attitudes and science were closely intertwined. The common belief was that males and females were radically different. Moreover, attitudes about Victorian women influenced beliefs about nonhuman females. Males were considered to be active, combative, more variable, and more evolved and complex. Females were deemed to be passive, nurturing; less variable, with arrested development equivalent to that of a child. “True women” were expected to be pure, submissive to men, sexually restrained and uninterested in sex – and this representation was also seamlessly applied to female animals.

That sure sounds like Science with a capital “S” to me! Let’s get some grant money to prove the status quo and get it published in Journal of Evolutionary Psychology, Cosmpolitan, and The Journal of Personal Selling & Sales Management! A three-fer, win-win, here comes tenure…and none of that has involved those damned “moral issues”, as long as you realize that white, conservative, capitalist, male biases are the gold standard of Truth, and it’s only those deviants who question the status quo who are bringing in that dirty word, “morality”, and making everything messily unscientific.

Oh, god, this thing gets even worse.

If we are to march, we should march in unity for truth, and against those who reject empirical truth. What unites all science—and makes it unique—is that it is a universal toolkit, used in the same way by members of all groups, regardless of gender, ethnicity, or religion. That is what holds us together. If we start dragging in issues of social justice—and I’m not of course saying they should be ignored in other venues—then we divide not only ourselves, but separate ourselves from much of the electorate, who, as we’ve seen above, generally trust us.

Declaring that you’ll only be marching under the banner of TRUTH sounds awfully religious to me. Declaring that science always works the same way in everyone’s hands sounds awfully ahistorical to me. Declaring that what holds us together is a disregard of gender, ethnicity, or religion sounds awfully privileged to me — I have the luxury of being unaffected by my sex and race, but damn, if you listen with half an ear to everyone who isn’t a white man you can’t help but notice that that isn’t true for everyone.

Social justice isn’t something that we “drag in” when social injustice is the muck that hinders the participation of more than half the citizenry in science, when toxic nonsense about sex and race poison the whole discourse about science in our culture.

This whole argument that social justice must be actively excluded from the March for Science reminds me of another march: the suffrage parade of 1913, in which black women were asked to segregate themselves from the white women and march at the back of the parade, because the white ladies did not want their goals marred by that other issue of equality. If you’re worried that your cause might be tainted, that’s the example you should examine, because it was Ida Wells who emerges the hero and white feminists who damage their own reputation (and who still, all too often, kick their own butts when they ignore intersectionality).

And sweet jesus, the hypocrisy. Science is all about Truth and Objectivity, which is why we should bow to the biases of the electorate, who will be divided from us if we start dragging in issues of social justice, since they, after all, are assumed to not like it (and oh, the implicit bias in which part of the electorate we must listen to…I cringe). So much for the objectivity of science — it should say what the people desire, or it might erode their trust in us.

I presume Dr Coyne will now respect the wishes of all those faith-heads who want him to shut up about atheism. Might separate ourselves from much of the electorate, don’t you know.

It’s a Pink FlyDay

I’m a big fan of Pink, and the latest story makes me like her even more. At the Superbowl half-time show, Lady Gaga apparently did some acrobatics on a wire, which is something Pink also does at her shows, and some people seemed to think that she “owns” that kind of routine (which is obviously absurd, but I guess they just wanted to stir up a fight). Pink shut them down hard, and shut them down beautifully.

Then this morning, while I was at the gym doing my little work out with my iPhone drowning out the horrible Sirius XM background noise there, Pink came up by chance on my playlist. This song:

It’s a nice song, but recent events have made it seem remarkably quaint, I think. We’ve gone from the dithering, privileged, incompetent boob of a president the song was written for to one that is a malignant narcissist, and the song just seems well-intentioned but inadequate now. This is a time for angry songs.

She has a few of those, too. It’s FlyDay for me, which means I’m about to spend an hour or two scrubbing maggots out of fly bottles. I’m planning on bopping to Pink while I do it, at least.