Two science-fiction writers got into a fight, and it didn’t matter

That’s the story here, two science-fiction authors disagreed with each other about colonizing the galaxy, and you can stop reading now, because it’s all fuss and bother about a fantasy. Except, I would argue, that the disagreements and advocacy of their respective positions have consequences, and I agree far more with one than the other.

Kim Stanley Robinson wrote a novel called Aurora about a failed effort to colonize Tau Ceti with a generation ship. It’s pessimistic: complex engineering projects fail if you try to keep them running for centuries, the biology of small populations fail predictably if you have limited genetic diversity and limited environmental information, human societies are messy and fragile and tend to fall apart over time, and biology is complex and unpredictable and your destination is either going to be dead (which isn’t good) or teeming with independently evolved organisms (which is worse). He wrote the novel in response to a weird-ass initiative from NASA called The Hundred Year Starship.

In 2011, NASA and DARPA (the Pentagon agency that gave birth to the internet) lent their names to a project called The Hundred-Year Starship. Its aim was to coalesce the space community behind a goal of launching an interstellar mission by your time: 2112. For generation ship dreamers, it was like Christmas had come.

And then along came Kim Stanley Robinson to stomp over all our dreams and tell us that Santa Claus didn’t exist.

Robinson is best known in our time as the author of the Mars trilogy (Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars, all written in the 1990s, the latter two set in your century). He’s what they call a hard sci-fi guy — he talks to the experts in the field, reads the latest research, does his level best to get the science exactly right. For example, all of his novels set in the 22nd century feature a flooded, post-climate change Earth. (Again, we’re really sorry about that.)

Watching a Hundred-Year Starship conference incensed Robinson. “It was a combination of a scam and a religious meeting,” he says, “presented with such an authoritative sheen, such pseudo-science.” So he went to NASA Ames, discovered a lot of internal consternation about the agency’s involvement with the project, talked actual planetary science with actual planetary scientists, and published Aurora in 2015.

I sympathize. It is a scam. There is a range of such ridiculous projects that are cheerfully supported by people who should be much more responsible. It ranges from the starry-eyed optimism of people like Seth Shostak, who want to pump money into SETI with exactly the same mindset as people who buy lottery tickets every week, to malignant rich assholes like Elon Musk who think the Earth is doomed to become an ecological hell-hole, so they are eager to get off this planet to one that is already dead. He sees trouble coming, and his response is to invest in the most expensive, futile tomb he can imagine. And unfortunately, that imagination is fed by overly optimistic science-fiction writers.

I like science fiction, myself. I also think it can be valuable in inspiring people to think about the future. But I would like people to be inspired about ways to solve real problems — we have lots of them crashing over us right now — rather than imaginary bullshit, like how we’re going to get to and colonize a planet we haven’t even seen. There is a place for that, but it’s called escapist fantasy, and there’s nothing wrong with it, unless you lose track of reality and muddle it up with real-world issues.

I will remind you that what inspired Robinson’s novel was NASA and DARPA supporting the idea of building a generation ship to carry humans to another star system 10 or more light years away, to be built and launched in the next century. Elon Musk isn’t going to build a viable colony on Mars, yet we’ve already got people day-dreaming about voyages that could last centuries, launched to destinations unknown, as if that has a chance in hell of happening. At the rate we’re going, the starship collapse Kim Stanley Robinson imagines in his novel is more likely to occur on a grander scale right here on Starship Earth, and we aren’t going to rocket away from it, no matter how many physicists and fantasy authors close their eyes and wish real hard.

That pessimism about space colonies annoys Gregory Benford, who wrote a negative review of the novel. It’s not a rebuttal of the ideas that Robinson advance, but really is just a review of where he thinks the story fails.

In 2012, Robinson declared in a Scientific American interview that “It’s a joke and a waste of time to think about starships or inhabiting the galaxy. It’s a systemic lie that science fiction tells the world that the galaxy is within our reach.” Aurora spells this out through unlikely plot devices. Robinson loads the dice quite obviously against interstellar exploration. A brooding pessimism dominates the novel.

Yeah, the review consists almost entirely of picking at plot holes in the book — which may be entirely valid flaws in the novel. He thinks, for instance, that Robinson “stacked the deck” by making the planet the starship arrives at implacably hostile to human habitation, which is the most likely outcome. The universe is not designed for us, so the majority of destinations are going to be uninhabitable! I think Robinson stacked the deck by making the imaginary starship actually succeed in arriving with a live crew at a distant star, which is already incredibly unlikely, and then being able to turn around and fly back to Earth. Unlike real life, I guess we can fix a plot hole in a book by just rewriting the planet so it’s a paradise.

Then I notice why Benford is disagreeing with Robinson — he’s the editor of an anthology of stories based on that silly conference!

Now I have a dilemma. I’d kind of half like to read that book, but only because it would probably make me really angry at the “scam and a religious meeting” and pseudo-science aspects of it all. Do I really need that kind of negativity in my life? Maybe. It does keep the bile flowing.

Neuralink and the delusional world of Muskians

I know, I’m getting a reputation as that guy who hates Elon Musk (I don’t, I hate hype), but his latest is just too much bullshit. He has bought a company called Neuralink, which has the goal of creating brain-machine interfaces (BMIs). OK so far. These interfaces are cool, interesting, and promising, and I’m all for more research in this field. But Musk gets involved, and suddenly his weird transhumanist-wannabe fanboys start hyperventilating. I double-dog dare you to read this puff piece, Neuralink and the Brain’s Magical Future. It begins roughly here, with the claim that Musk is going to build a Wizard Hat to make everyone super-smart:

Not only is Elon’s new venture—Neuralink—the same type of deal, but six weeks after first learning about the company, I’m convinced that it somehow manages to eclipse Tesla and SpaceX in both the boldness of its engineering undertaking and the grandeur of its mission. The other two companies aim to redefine what future humans will do—Neuralink wants to redefine what future humans will be.

The mind-bending bigness of Neuralink’s mission, combined with the labyrinth of impossible complexity that is the human brain, made this the hardest set of concepts yet to fully wrap my head around—but it also made it the most exhilarating when, with enough time spent zoomed on both ends, it all finally clicked. I feel like I took a time machine to the future, and I’m here to tell you that it’s even weirder than we expect.

But before I can bring you in the time machine to show you what I found, we need to get in our zoom machine—because as I learned the hard way, Elon’s wizard hat plans cannot be properly understood until your head’s in the right place.

I dared you to read it, because I’ll be surprised if anyone can plow through it all: it goes on for almost 40,000 words (I know, I pulled it into a text editor and confirmed it), and that doesn’t count all the crappy little cartoons scattered through out it. When the author says you cannot properly understand it without putting your head in the right place, he means you have to start with sponges and be lead step by step through a triumphalist version of 600 million years of evolutionary history, which is all about a progressive increase in the complexity of brain circuitry. It’s an extremely naive and reductionist perspective on neuroscience and intelligence that presumes that all you have to do is make brains bigger and faster to be better, and that computers extend the “bigger” part but are limited by the speed of interfaces, so all we have to do is improve the bandwidth and we’ll be able to battle the AIs that Musk thinks will someday threaten to rule the world.

All the verbiage is a gigantic distraction. It’s virtually entirely irrelevant to the argument, which I just nailed down for you in a single sentence…without bogging you down in a hypothetical history of flatworms and a lot of simplistic neuroscience. He summarizes Elon Musk’s glorious plan in yet another crude cartoon:

It is accompanied by much grandiloquent noise and promises of planetary revolutions, but what needs to be asked is “How much of this is real?”. The answer is…pretty much none of it. We are currently in the little blue ball at the lower left labeled “starting point”, and Musk has bought a company that is doing tentative, exploratory research on building BMIs (I guess that this whole field is new enough that they are all, by default, “cutting edge”). Everything else in the diagram is complete fantasy. Elon Musk has bought a company, and is cunningly trying to inflate its value by drowning the curious in glurge, techno-mysticism, and making shit up, which, because he has this mystique among young male engineers, will probably succeed in making him more money and fame, without actually doing anything in the top two thirds of that cartoon.

I do rather like how the third step is “BREAKTHROUGHS in bandwidth and implementation”. You could replace it with “And then a miracle occurs…”, and it would be just as meaningful.

Let’s add a little more reality here: Musk has a BS in physics and economics, and started a Ph.D. in engineering, which he dropped out of. He has no education at all in biology or neuroscience.

Another shot of reality: he’s buying this company in collaboration with Peter Thiel’s venture capital company. You remember Thiel, right? Wants to prolong the life of old rich people by transfusing them with the blood of the young? Libertarian acolyte of Ayn Rand who is now advising Trump on policy? If you think this is a recipe for a post-Singularity paradise, looking at the people backing it ought to tell you otherwise.

So why are these filthy rich people getting involved in this nonsense? Let’s ask Elon.

Fear and ignorance, like always.

They’ve imagined a huge, shadowy existential risk which does not exist yet — you might as well drive your decisions by the possible threat of invasion by Mole People from Alpha Centauri (oh, wait…they also fear aliens). They don’t know how AIs will develop or what they’ll do — nobody does — and they lack the competencies needed to guide the research or assess any risks, but they’ve got a plan for generating all the benefits. These guys are as terrifying to me as the Religious Right, and for all the same reasons.

They have fervent worshippers who will vomit up 40,000 words based on inspiration and wishful thinking, and then wallow about in the mess. It’s possibly the worst science writing I’ve encountered yet, and I’ve read a lot, but still, take a look at all the commenters who want it to be true, and regard grade-school and often incorrect summaries of how brains evolved to be informative.

The Kensington Forgery

The infamous Kensington Runestone is kept in a museum just a few miles up the road from me. It’s a carved rock that was dug up on a farm in the 19th century by a Swedish farmer, and purports to tell the tale in runes of a doomed Viking expedition that had come down from Hudson’s Bay to meet a tragic end at the hands of the Minnesota natives. More likely, it’s a cunning artifact produced by the farmer, Olof Öhman. It’s an unlikely bit of pseudo-history, and I’d love to see an unassailable disproof of its source.

Martin Rundkvist is reporting that Öhman’s signature has been found on the stone. Unfortunately, I find the evidence for that even more weirdly unlikely than that Vikings carved it. There are various numbers scattered around in the account written on the stone — the number of Vikings, the days spent traveling, that sort of thing — and the guy who claims to have detected the signature uses these numbers in a bizarrely oblique way.

The inscription has twelve lines. Larsson counts the words from the left on odd-numbered lines and from the right on even-numbered lines…

Uh, why? What if you counted from the left on even lines and from the right on odd lines? What if you counted characters up from the bottom, or whatever other random number-juggling you could do. This reeks of post-hoc fitting of an interpretation to the data set, and I don’t believe a word of it.

Rats. We’re going to have to keep on rolling our eyes at the silliness in that little museum to the north, I guess.

(Also on FtB)

Stand for Science: Confront Homeopathy

Aww, the students of Campus Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists have warmed the frigid, friable cockles of my black heart. They’re having a protest of homeopathy on the Twin Cities campus this Friday! They’re hosting a lecture debunking that nonsense, and are planning to poison themselves with homeopathic dilutions.

Take that, Center for Spirituality and Healing! We all see right through you.

Homeopathy is renowned for both its popularity and the overwhelmingly incorrect pseudoscientific tenets it purports. In the UK, the growing 10/23 protest has called for the end of government support of such unsupported blather. It’s about time the United States joined her sibling. This October 28th, join CASH at the University of Minnesota- Twin Cities and the Center for Inquiry at Michigan State in protesting the pseudoscience of homeopathy and its faulty ‘regulation’ by the FDA.

The Food and Drug Administration regulates the homeopathic industry not to lend credibility to such products, but to supposedly protect consumers from products that can kill them. This is not enough. Just like with actual medications (as homeopaths liken their products to), testing of the claims made by such companies must be both accurate and rigorous. Without such standards, homeopaths openly use the stamp of FDA approval to advertise for the effectiveness of homeopathic remedies.

Join the growing numbers who are taking a stand for science-based medicine. Join us on October 28th in confronting homeopathy and demanding that the FDA require peer-reviewed, scientific research in order to garner its approval. Participation is easy!

Protest on October 28th at your local university, hospital, or drugstore that dispenses homeopathic remedies. Conduct an ‘overdose’. Give a statement to your local media. Write a letter. Sign the petition. Take a stand for science.

The following materials may be of interest as well:

CFI’s industry-wide petition (no signatures):

CFI’s Walmart-directed petition (signature-based):

Secular Student Alliance activity packet:

More information from CFI:

Updated information from CASH:

Join CASH and CFI in taking a stand for science-based medicine on October 28th. Making evidence-based thinking a movement and not a counterculture requires effort, and the efforts of many hands can move more mountains than the faith of a few.


Chelsea Du Fresne
Campus Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists
University of Minnesota- Twin Cities

(Also on Sb)

Prepare yourself for a megadose of the awesome

Tonight, at 8pm ET, the cast of The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe will be bracing themselves with caffeine for their overwhelming plan to saturate the world with a non-stop 24 hour live program. I think it’s a kind of anti-homeopathy: they’ll be delivering a super-concentrated dose of an effective agent all at once to their audience. Tune in and listen, especially since it would be so sad if they were exerting themselves so magnificently to a tiny group of people.

I’m going to try and catch bits and pieces of it. Unfortunately, I’m not insane, so I will be getting more sleep than the SGU rogues, and I’m also going to be off in Fargo for Project 42. And I’m also up to my eyeballs in a grant proposal I must get done this coming week! Maybe listening to Novella in the background will make my writing potent enough to impress the agency administrators.

(Also on FtB)

Dr Oz crosses the line

Usually, Oz just dispenses pointless pap and feel-good noise, but now he’s antagonized the agriculture lobby. On a recent show, he claimed that apple juice was loaded with deadly arsenic — a claim he supported by running quick&dirty chemical tests on fruit juices, getting crude estimates of total arsenic, and then going on the air to horrify parents with the thought that they were poisoning their children.

One problem: his tests weren’t measuring what he claimed. The FDA got word of the fear-mongering he was doing, and sent him a warning letter.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is aware that EMSL Analytical, Inc. has obtained and tested 50 samples of retail apple juice for total arsenic content on behalf of Zoco Productions. It is our understanding that, based on these test results, you will assert during an upcoming episode of The Dr. Oz Show that apple juice is unsafe because of the amounts of total arsenic found in the samples.

We appreciate that you have made the results of these tests available to us. As we have previously advised you, the results from total arsenic tests CANNOT be used to determine whether a food is unsafe because of its arsenic content. We have explained to you that arsenic occurs naturally in many foods in both inorganic and organic forms and that only the inorganic forms of arsenic are toxic, depending on the amount. We have advised you that the test for total arsenic DOES NOT distinguish inorganic arsenic from organic arsenic.

The FDA has been aware of the potential for elevated levels of arsenic in fruit juices for many years and has been testing fruit juices for arsenic and other elemental contaminants as part of FDA’s toxic elements in foods program. The FDA typically tests juice samples for total arsenic first, because this test is rapid, accurate and cost effective. When total arsenic testing shows that a fruit juice sample has total arsenic in an amount greater than 23 parts per billion (ppb), we re-test the sample for its inorganic arsenic content. The vast majority of samples we have tested for total arsenic have less than 23 ppb. We consider the test results for inorganic arsenic on a case-by-case basis and take regulatory action as appropriate.

The analytical method for inorganic arsenic is much more complicated than the method for total arsenic. You can find the method that FDA uses to test for inorganic arsenic at this web address:

The FDA believes that it would be irresponsible and misleading for The Dr. Oz Show to suggest that apple juice contains unsafe amounts of arsenic based solely on tests for total arsenic. Should The Dr. Oz Show choose to suggest that apple juice is unsafe because of the amounts of total arsenic found by EMSL Analytical, Inc.’s testing, the FDA will post this letter on its website.

His show got this letter that clearly explains why his measurements were invalid a week before the show was aired, and Oz ignored it and went ahead and broadcast a misleading and hysterical piece. Some public schools are already yanking apple juice from their lunchrooms on the basis of Oz’s lies.

Maybe somebody should explain to Oz that arsenic is entirely “natural”. Or maybe some orchard owners ought to get together for a big class-action suit.

(Also on FtB)

Michele Bachmann: pseudo-scientist and anti-vaxxer

There was another Republican debate (I skipped it; there are limits to the horrors I can endure), and apparently, many people think Michele Bachmann trumped Rick Perry by jumping on his ‘liberal’ endorsement of using the HPV vaccine to prevent cancers in women. Bachmann ranted about the federal government forcing innocent little girls to get mental retardation injections, and the teabaggers loved it. They loved it almost as much as they loved Rick Perry’s record of executions.

Orac rips her apart. It’s great fun, and informative, too.

As I’ve pointed out time and time again, Gardasil is incredibly safe by any measure. Also by any measure, it’s been very heavily tested and monitored. Of course, there is no evidence at all that the HPV vaccine can cause mental retardation. I’ve also pointed out how the vast majority of the reports of adverse reactions after the HPV vaccine made to the VAERS database were almost certainly not due to Gardasil and have castigated Medscape, of all publications, for buying into anti-vaccine myths about Gardasil. Meanwhile the American Academy of Pediatrics immediately issued a press release to correct Michelle Bachmann’s false statements about Gardasil. What Bachmann is peddling is pure pseudoscience. I suppose I shouldn’t be in the least bit surprised, given how gullible she is when it comes to science in general and how much she allows ideology to trump science.

Once again, the Republicans step forward as the anti-human, anti-science, anti-health party.

(Also on FtB)

A whole new world of quacks

My wife and I have three kids, and while that pregnancy and childbirth thing is way, way back in the past, we did have some strong opinions after our experience. Midwives were wonderful, we had only the best and most positive experiences with them, and they were the indispensable supporters we were glad to have there. The doctors…meh. They didn’t seem to be involved much, and it was rather strange when they’d come by after all the work was done and sign the birth certificate, as if they were taking credit. But my wife had relatively uneventful, uncomplicated deliveries (the second was a bit rough, and she had to stay overnight for observation afterwards; that kid was gigantic), and we knew that the doctors were essential if things went wrong, and we would have been horrified and greatly worried if they hadn’t been there. All our kids were born in clinics, with professionals all around us, because we weren’t going to take any risks. Childbirth is dangerous when things go wrong, and they really can go very, very wrong.

But now I’ve discovered The Skeptical OB, and it’s all about this crazy kooky weird world of homebirthers — people who, just like anti-vaxxers and HIV denialists, refuse to recognize that modern medicine is actually incredibly powerful and useful, and have these bizarre myths about what is “natural”. So they insist on having their babies at home, away from those horrible doctors, and they end up with dead mothers and dead babies.

That last case is particularly eye-opening. A woman writes into a forum dispensing this quackery, and complains about ditching her OBGYN and going with an unlicensed midwife, and proceeded to go into labor for eight days and delivered a dead baby.

Or this case, where a homebirther is irate because doctors recommend against her desired natural childbirthing experience, because she’s “high risk”. She thinks she isn’t, because her first delivery was easy. But then she mentions that her second delivery had a minor problem: the kid got “stuck” and required resuscitation (!) after delivery, and her third child was born unresponsive and died two days later. And then she wonders why doctors are so worried!

It’s all very disturbing and new to me, but I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. There are all these strange people around who, for some unfathomable reason, worship pre-18th century medicine and make a fetish of “natural”. Heart attacks are also entirely “natural”, but you won’t catch me suggesting that we skip the doctor if I have one.

(Also on FtB)