Month: September 2016

Not Intellectuals Yet Not Idiots

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Back at the time of the Second Gulf War I made a real attempt to up my political engagement. I wanted to understand what was really going on. History was being made and I didn’t want to miss it.

It wasn’t as if before then I had been completely disengaged. I had certainly spent quite a bit of time digging into things during the 2000 election and its aftermath, but I wanted to go a step beyond that. I started watching the Sunday morning talk shows. I began reading Christopher Hitchens. I think it would be fair to say that I immersed myself in the the arguments for and against the war in the months leading up to it. (When it was pretty obvious it was going to happen, but hadn’t yet.)

In the midst of all this I remember repeatedly coming across the term neocon, used in such a way that you were assumed to know what it meant. I mean doesn’t everybody? I confess I didn’t. I had an idea from the context, but it was also clear that I was missing most of the nuance. I asked my father what a neocon was and he mumbled something about them being generally in favor of the invasion, and then, perhaps realizing that, perhaps, he wasn’t 100% sure either, said Bill Kristol is definitely a neocon, listen to him if you want to know.

Now, many years later, I have a pretty good handle on what a neocon is, which I would explain to you if that what this post were about. It’s not. It’s about how sometimes a single word or short phrase can encapsulate a fairly complicated ideology. There are frequently bundles of traits, attitudes and even behavior that can resist an easy definition, but are nevertheless easy to label. Similar to the definition of pornography used by Justice Stewart when the Supreme Court was considering an obscenity case,

I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description [“hard-core pornography”], and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it(my emphasis)

It may be hard to define what a neocon is exactly, but I know one when I see it. Of course, as you have already surmised, neocon is not the only example of this. Other examples include, hipster, or social justice warrior, and lest I appear too biased towards the college millennial set, you could also add the term “red neck” or perhaps even Walmart shopper.

To those terms that already exist, it’s time to add another one: “Intellectual Yet Idiot” or IYI for short. This new label was coined by Taleb in just the last few days. As you may already be aware, I’m a big fan of Taleb, and I try to read just about everything he writes. Sometimes what he writes makes a fairly big splash, and this was one of those times. In the same way that people recognized that there was a group of mostly Jewish, pro-israel, idealistic, unilateralists, with a strong urge to intervene who could be labeled as neocons, it was immediately obvious that there was an analogous bundle of attitudes and behavior that is currently common in academia and government and it also needed a label. Consequently when Taleb provided one it fit into a hole that lots of people had recognized, but no one had gotten around to filling until then. Of course now that it has been filled it immediately becomes difficult to imagine how we ever got along without it before.

Having spent a lot of space just to introduce an article by Taleb, you would naturally expect that the next step would be for me to comment on the article, point out any trenchant phrasing, remark on anything that seemed particularly interesting, and offer amendments to any points where he missed the mark. However, I’m not going to do that. Instead I’m going to approach things from an entirely different perspective, with a view towards ending up in the same place Taleb did, and only then will I return to Taleb’s article.

I’m going to start my approach with a very broad question. What do we do with history? And to broaden that even further, I’m not only talking about HISTORY! As in wars and rulers, nations and disasters, I’m also talking about historical behaviors, marriage customs, dietary norms, traditional conduct, etc. In other words if everyone from Australian Aborigines to the indigenous tribes of the Amazon to the Romans had marriage in some form or another, what use should we make of that knowledge? Now, if you’ve actually been reading me from the beginning you will know that I already touched on this, but that’s okay, because it’s a topic that deserves as much attention as I can give it.

Returning to the question. While I want “history” to be considered as broadly as possible, I want the term “we” to be considered more narrowly. By “we” I’m not referring to everyone, I’m specifically referring to the decision makers, the pundits, the academics, the politicians, etc. And as long as we’re applying labels, you might label these people the “movers and shakers” or less colloquially the ruling class, and in answer to the original question, I would say that they do very little with history.

I would think claiming that the current ruling class pays very little attention to history, particularly history from more than 100 years ago (and even that might be stretching it), is not an idea which needs very much support. But if you remain unconvinced allow me to offer up the following examples of historically unprecedented things:

1- The financial system – The idea of floating currency, without the backing of gold or silver (or land) has only been around for, under the most optimistic estimate, 100 or so years, and our current run only dates from 1971.

2- The deemphasis of marriage – Refer to the post I already mentioned to see how widespread even the taboo against pre-marital sex was. But also look at the gigantic rise in single parent households. (And of course most of these graphs start around 1960, what was the single parent household percentage in the 1800s? Particularly if you filtered out widows?)

3- Government stability – So much of our thinking is based on the idea that 10 years from now will almost certainly look very similar to right now, when any look at history would declare that to be profoundly, and almost certainly, naive.

4- Constant growth rate – I covered this at great length previously, but once again we are counting on something continuing that is otherwise without precedent.

5- Pornography – While the demand for pornography has probably been fairly steady, the supply of it has, by any estimate, increased a thousand fold in just the last 20 years. Do we have any idea of the long term effect of messing with something as fundamental as reproduction and sex?

Obviously not all of these things are being ignored by all people. Some people are genuinely concerned about issue 1, and possibly issue 2. And I guess Utah (and Russia) is concerned with issue 5, but apparently no one else is, and in fact when Utah recently declared pornography to be a public health crisis, reactions ranged from skeptical to wrong all the way up to hypocritical and, the capper, labeled it pure pseudoscience. In my experience you’ll find similar reactions to those people expressing concerns about issues 1 and 2. They won’t be quite so extreme as the reactions to Utah’s recent actions, but they will be similar.

As a personal example, I once emailed Matt Yglesias about the national debt and while he was gracious enough to respond that response couldn’t have been more patronizing. (I’d dig it up but it was in an old account, but you can find similar stuff from him if you look.) In fact, rather than ignoring history, as you can see from Yglesias’ response, the ruling case often actively disdains it.

Everywhere you turn these days you can see and hear condemnation of our stupid and uptight ancestors and their ridiculous traditions and beliefs. We hear from the atheists that all wars were caused by the superstitions of religions (not true by the way). We hear from the libertines that premarital sex is good for both you and society, and any attempt to suppress it is primitive and tyrannical. We hear from economists that we need to spend more and save less. We heard from doctors and healthcare professionals that narcotics could be taken without risk of addiction. This list goes on and on.

For a moment I’d like to focus on that last one. As I already mentioned I recently read the book Dreamland by Sam Quinones. The book was fascinating on a number of levels, but he mentioned one thing near the start of the book that really stuck with me.

The book as a whole was largely concerned with the opioid epidemic in America, but this particular passage had to do with the developing world, specifically Kenya. In 1980 Jan Stjernsward was made chief of the World Health Organization’s cancer program. As he approached this job he drew upon his time in Kenya years before being appointed to his new position. In particular he remembered the unnecessary pain experienced by people in Kenya who were dying of cancer. Pain that could have been completely alleviated by morphine. He was now in a position to do something about that, and, what’s more morphine is incredibly cheap, so there was no financial barrier. Accordingly, taking advantage of his role at the WHO he established some norms for treating dying cancer patients with opiates, particularly morphine. I’ll turn to Quinones’ excellent book to pick up the story:

But then a strange thing happened. Use didn’t rise in the developing world, which might reasonably be viewed as the region in the most acute pain. Instead, the wealthiest countries, with 20 percent of the world’s population came to consume almost all–more than 90 percent–of the world’s morphine. This was due to prejudice against opiates and regulations on their use in poor countries, on which the WHO ladder apparently had little effect. An opiophobia ruled these countries and still does, as patients are allowed to die in grotesque agony rather than be provided the relief that opium-based painkillers offer.

I agree with the facts, as Quinones lays them out, but I disagree with his interpretation. He claims that prejudice kept the poorer countries from using morphine and other opiates, that they suffered from opiophobia, implying that their fear was irrational. Could it be instead, that they just weren’t idiots

In fact the question should not be why the developing countries had problems with widespread opioid use, but rather why America and the rest of the developing world didn’t. I mean any idiot can tell you that heroin is insanely addictive, but somehow (and Quinones goes into great detail on how this happened) doctors, pain management specialists, pharmaceutical companies, scientist, etc. all convinced themselves that things very much like heroin weren’t that addictive. The people Stjernsward worked with in Kenya didn’t fall into this trap because basically they’re not idiots.

Did the Kenyan doctors make this decision by comparing historical addiction rates? Did they run double-blind studies? Did they peruse back issues of the JAMA and Lancet? Maybe, but probably not. In any case whatever their method for arriving at the decision (and I strongly suspect it was less intellectual than the approach used by western doctors) in hindsight they arrived at the correct decision, while the intellectual decision, backed up by data and a modern progressive morality ended up resulting in  exactly the wrong decision when it came time to decide whether to expand access to opioids. This is what Taleb means by intellectual yet idiot.

To give you a sense of how bad the decision was, in 2014, the last year for which numbers are available 47,000 people died from overdosing on drugs. That’s more than annual automobile deaths, gun deaths, or the number of people that died during the worst year of the AIDS epidemic. You might be wondering what kind of an increase that represents. Switching gears slightly to look just at prescription opioid deaths they’ve increased by 3.4 times since 2000. A net increase of around 13,000 deaths a year. If you add up the net increase over all the years you come up with an additional 100,00 deaths. No matter how you slice it or how you apportion blame, it was a spectacularly bad decision. Intellectual yet idiot.

And sure, we can wish for a world where morphine is available so people don’t die in grotesque agony, but also is simultaneously never abused. But I’m not sure that’s realistic. We may in fact have to choose between serious restrictions on opiates and letting some people experience a lot of pain or fewer restrictions on opiates and watching young healthy people die from overdosing. And while developing countries might arguably do a better job with pain relief for the dying, when we consider the staggering number of deaths, when it came to the big question they undoubtedly made the right decision. Not intellectual yet not an idiot.

It should be clear now that the opiate epidemic is a prime example of the IYI mindset. The smallest degree of wisdom would have told the US decision makers that heroin is bad. I can hear some people already saying, “But it’s not heroin it’s time released oxycodone.” And that is where the battle was lost, that is precisely what Taleb is talking about, that’s the intellectual response which allowed the idiocy to happen. Yes, it is a different molecular structure (though not as different as most people think) but this is precisely the kind of missing the forest for the trees that the IYI mindset specializes in.

Having arrived back at Taleb’s subject by a different route, let’s finally turn to his article and see what he had to say. I’ve already talked about paying attention to history. And in the case of the opiate epidemic we’re not even talking about that much history. Just enough historical awareness to have been more cautious about stuff that is closely related to heroin. But of course I also talked about the developing countries and how they didn’t make that mistake. But I’ve somewhat undercut my point. When you picture doctors in Kenya you don’t picture somehow who knows in intimate detail the history of Bayer’s introduction of heroin in 1898 as a cough suppressant and the later complete ban of heroin in 1924 because it was monstrously addictive.

In other words, I’ve been making the case for greater historical awareness, and yet the people I’ve used as examples are not the first people you think of when the term historical awareness starts being tossed around. However, there are two ways to have historical awareness. The first involves reading Virgil or at least Stephen Ambrose, and is the kind we most commonly think of. But the second is far more prevalent and arguably far more effective. These are people who don’t think about history at all, but nevertheless continue to follow the traditions, customs, and prohibitions which have been passed down to them through countless generations back into the historical depths. This second group doesn’t think about history, but they definitely live history.

I mentioned “red necks” earlier as an example of one of those labels which cover a cluster of attitudes and behaviors. They are also an example of this second group. And further, I would argue, that they should be classified in the not intellectual yet not idiots group.

As Taleb points there is a tension between this group and the IYI’s. From the article:

The IYI pathologizes others for doing things he doesn’t understand without ever realizing it is his understanding that may be limited. He thinks people should act according to their best interests and he knows their interests, particularly if they are “red necks” or English non-crisp-vowel class who voted for Brexit. When plebeians do something that makes sense to them, but not to him, the IYI uses the term “uneducated”. What we generally call participation in the political process, he calls by two distinct designations: “democracy” when it fits the IYI, and “populism” when the plebeians dare voting in a way that contradicts his preferences.

The story of the developing countries refusal to make opiates more widely available is a perfect example of the IYI’s thinking that they know what someone’s best interests are better than they themselves. And yet what we saw is that despite, not even being able to explain their prejudice against opiates, that the doctors in these countries, instinctively, protected their interests better than the IYIs. They were not intellectuals, yet they were also not idiots.

Now this is not to say, that “red necks” and the people who voted for the Brexit are never wrong (though I think they got that right) or that the IYI’s are never right. The question which we have to consider is who is more right on balance, and this is where we return to a consideration of history. Are historical behaviors, traditional conduct, religious norms and long-standing attitudes always correct? No. But they have survived the crucible of time, which is no mean feat. The same cannot be said of the proposals of the IYI. They will counter that their ideas are based on the sure foundation of science, without taking into account the many limitations of science. Or as Taleb explains:

Typically, the IYI get the first order logic right, but not second-order (or higher) effects making him totally incompetent in complex domains. In the comfort of his suburban home with 2-car garage, he advocated the “removal” of Gadhafi because he was “a dictator”, not realizing that removals have consequences (recall that he has no skin in the game and doesn’t pay for results).

The IYI has been wrong, historically, on Stalinism, Maoism, GMOs, Iraq, Libya, Syria, lobotomies, urban planning, low carbohydrate diets, gym machines, behaviorism, transfats, freudianism, portfolio theory, linear regression, Gaussianism, Salafism, dynamic stochastic equilibrium modeling, housing projects, selfish gene, Bernie Madoff (pre-blowup) and p-values. But he is convinced that his current position is right.

With a record like that which horse do you want to back? Is it more important to sound right or to be right? Is it more important to be an intellectual or more important to not be an idiot? Has technology and progress saved us? Maybe, but if it has then it has done so only by abandoning what has got us this far: history and tradition, and there are strong reasons to suspect both that it hasn’t saved us (see all previous blog posts) and that we have abandoned tradition and history to our detriment.

In the contest between the the intellectual idiots and the non-intellectual non-idiots. I choose to not be an idiot.


Hillary Clinton and the Criteria of Embarrassment

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It’s old news by now Hillary Clinton had a pretty rough time of it on September 11th. I’m sure you’ve heard the story and you might even be sick of it, so I won’t spend too much space on the details. I’m more interested in looking at it from a slightly higher level than that. In particular I’m interested in an examination of figuring out how to figure out what’s going on. Meta-figuring out you might say. Or perhaps meta-investigation sounds better.

In my reading I end up in some of the darker corners of the internet. And the idea that Clinton might have health issues has been floating in those corners for awhile. Of course if some person, in some dark corner of the internet says that Clinton is sick that doesn’t mean anything, but it doesn’t mean nothing either. However partisan someone is, they generally have to have something to latch onto first. In this case it was Clinton’s 2012 fainting spell where she hit her head and got a concussion, and when later examined was found to have a blood clot.

On its face that sounds serious, though, in the interest of full disclosure I have known two people who died as the result of, or from complications due to, blood clots, and both were comparatively young, so I may be predisposed to view clots as more dangerous than they actually are. Even so, I wouldn’t say I decided anything right then, certainly not that Clinton definitely has a health problem and there’s a conspiracy to hide it. Rather it was one of those things that you file in the “might be true” box which also puts it into the potential black swan category. Of course given the enormous power of the president and the fact that they’re only one person a president’s health is always a potential black swan, just look at William Henry Harrison. But when you hear something like that you might, without making any firm decisions, mentally increase the odds a little bit.

That’s where things remained for a while and that’s where they might still be, had no further facts come to light. But of course more facts did come to light. Also, the election is less than two months away, so if I am going to do something with it, I need to do it soon.

Now we’ve already talked about how any one person is very unlikely to influence the election, so if the only thing at stake is my vote, then who cares what I end up deciding as far as Clinton’s health? But of course it’s not just me. There are thousands, if not millions of people out there who have all heard the news about Clinton’s collapse, and are now trying to decide if Clinton’s health should be a factor in how they cast their vote. How do these people make up their mind? Where can they go to get their information?

I said earlier that more facts have become available, and while that’s true, facts are not what most people have access to. There are facts and there is the spin on those facts. And mostly what’s available is spin, which you then have to dissect to get the actual facts. And this is where the difficulty arises. This is where meta-investigation comes into play.

I’m going to take you through a few of my own attempts to do this dissection, mostly to illustrate the difficulty inherent in the process. Is this going to be horribly prejudiced? Almost certainly, but I think despite that, viewing the process might be valuable anyway. I am going to try to keep it as neutral and objective as possible, but just by choosing the subject of Hillary’s health, people are going to claim that I’ve clearly picked a side. Perhaps I have, though, honestly, I’m almost certainly going to vote third party. But certainly, by focusing on Clinton’s health, people who are looking for reasons to disqualify my opinion would have ample excuse right there. But if you’re looking for an excuse not to listen, I think you may already be dealing with an significant lack of objectivity without any help from me. And regardless of your political leanings I think the issue of how to get at the truth is important, and Clinton’s recent health problems just seem to be custom made for this sort of thing.

Returning to Clinton’s most recent episode on 9/11, as I said, obviously at this point there is already tons of stuff out there from all sides trying to spin the event as either not worth talking about at all, (which seems a stretch) or the end of the Clinton campaign (also a stretch). With such an enormous amount already written on the subject where does one go? How do we extract anything?

For myself I started with the video. What can we get out of that? First no one seems to be claiming that it’s not Clinton, which is a great start. It’s amazing how once you get into the weeds what sort of theories actually get floated. But it can be necessary to consider even the crazy stuff if you’re really trying to strip the facts from the spin. But it seems safe to put the video in the facts column. The video is an actual record of an event which actually happened.

Okay, so that’s a fact. What do we do with it then? Well on the one hand you’re not a doctor and you weren’t there, but on the other hand you do have a decision to make on November 8th, when it comes time to cast your vote. And, hopefully, you want to make the best decision possible, so while viewing a video isn’t ideal, it is information largely without a filter. What other facts can we extract?

Unfortunately not many. But wait, you may be saying, what about the fact that she was just overheated? Or that her doctor said that she had pneumonia? Or if we’re talking about videos being facts, what about the video a short while later when she emerged from the apartment and appeared to be doing great?

Let’s take those in reverse order. There’s a quote that I really like, that I think cuts to the heart of separating fact from spin:

Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed; everything else is public relations.

The origin of that quote is obscure. But it’s basically a restatement of a principle often used when attempting to separate historical truth from fiction: the criterion of embarrassment. The idea is that if you see something people don’t want you to see it’s probably true and when you see something that someone wants you to see it’s more likely to be staged or spun for your benefit.

Applying this to the two videos. It’s very unlikely that Clinton wanted anyone to see her having a hard time walking to the car. In fact it’s been reported that she forbade cameras from filming her. And the only reason we have a video is that a private individual filmed it on their phone. Thus by the criteria of embarrassment this is probably a true glimpse of what was going on. When you look at the second video it was obvious that she wanted cameras to be filming and wanted people to be watching. Does this mean it wasn’t actually happening? No, but it means that she (or her handlers) decided that this was something that should be seen. So while it was undoubtedly true, it’s also possible that it had less information content than the other video. Still if you want to enter it into the record as a fact you may, but it should be entered with the intentionality of the act understood. Clinton decided to appear in front of the media later that day.

What then, about the overheating and the pneumonia? This relates back to the criteria of embarrassment. Clinton’s doctor and staff is telling you what they feel comfortable telling you. There is certainly some embarrassment involved but less so than not saying anything. And the fact that there was some lag in mentioning the pneumonia means that at some point they did not feel comfortable mentioning it.

Finally the heat exhaustion and the pneumonia raise their own interesting points. If we turn again to trying to get at some facts is there anything to be extracted from those claims or more specifically the timing of those claims

I find the statements on pneumonia and overheating to be uninteresting when considered separately. It’s only when you consider them together that I something potentially useful emerges, but first we have to step back a bit. Clinton’s doctor says that she was diagnosed with pneumonia on Friday. And since the video of her collapse was posted, both Clinton and her staff have apologized for not mentioning the pneumonia diagnosis sooner. Obviously if she was diagnosed on Friday, then Clinton was aware of it, but it also sounds like some members of her staff were aware of it as well. If everyone was aware of it, when the video and other news of her difficulties on 9/11 came out, why didn’t they immediately say “She has pneumonia.” Instead, in the immediate aftermath the story was that she had merely overheated.

I understand that when someone get’s this nitpicky they are in danger of starting to sound like a conspiracy theorist. But when you’re trying to extract facts from spin, dissections like this can be pretty valuable. And what we might be seeing here is one of those instances where you get a view of some facts before the spin machine has a chance to take over. Also as Taleb said a few days after the incident:

It is as irrational to reject all conspiracy theories as it is to accept them.

With that in mind, let’s get a little bit nitpicky. As I said, in the immediate aftermath of Clinton’s troubles and the video, no one offered up the information that she had pneumonia. But at this point a few days out, most people probably don’t even remember that pneumonia didn’t come up till later, or if they do they assume that the pneumonia diagnosis was a clarification which followed quickly after the explanation that she overheated. In reality it was many hours after the fact that they announced that she had pneumonia. Clinton collapsed at around 9:30 that morning. They announced she was overheated at 11:00. She appeared in public in the second video around 1:00. The pneumonia didn’t come up until 5:00. (This is a good, if partisan, breakdown of the timeline, but the NYT confirms the key fact about the pneumonia not coming out until 5:00.) This timeline takes us back into the realm of facts. But once again we’re left with the question of what to do with these facts.

As an aside, it’s perfectly fine if you’ve decide that Hillary Clinton could be in a vegetative state and you would still vote for her over Trump. But if, for whatever reason, you have decided that Clinton’s health is a factor in your decision on how to vote, perhaps even the deciding factor, then trying to get to the bottom of what’s going on is important. And even if her health isn’t the deciding factor, and something else is, you will still face the same challenges getting to the bottom of that issue. Particularly given the incredibly polarized nature of today’s media and politics.

But returning to the timeline. If lots of people knew that Clinton had pneumonia as early as Friday, why wasn’t that the first explanation offered? I understand that’s a question which is impossible to answer, just as viewing the video doesn’t definitely answer the question of whether Clinton is healthy enough to be president. So we’ve managed to tunnel down to the level of facts, but having reached there we may be no closer to a decision than we were before, and we probably have no choice but to wade back into the “spin zone.” However at least we have some facts, so that when we do wade back in we’re better prepared to decide which spin might actually contain an element of truth. Presumably we’ll be particularly attentive to that spin which accepts the same facts as we do, and we should reject out of hand any spin that denies the few things which we’re certain are factual.

Of course once you’re back into the spin zone it becomes even more difficult. For example the first thing you might want to do is get a doctor’s opinion. This is a health issue after all. Obviously there’s Clinton’s doctor, and whatever they say shouldn’t be discounted. But under the criteria of embarrassment you may nevertheless decide to set it aside, or even if you don’t it’s perfectly understandable to seek a second opinion. This is another point where people might stop reading, since if you choose to discount Clinton’s doctor then you’re, by definition, putting forth a conspiracy theory, the theory of a conspiracy between Clinton and her doctor (and probably others as well) to lie to the public. First, refer back to what Taleb said, second it’s not as if conspiracies to cover up presidential or presidential candidate’s health are without precedent. But as I said, maybe you just want another perspective. Certainly if you looked around and all doctors were unanimous in declaring that the symptoms Clinton had exhibited (going all the way back to the 2012 fainting episode, and perhaps even farther) were perfectly normal, then that would be a reasonably good sign that these health scares were overblown. What if, on the other hand, you found some doctors who were worried? What do you do then?

This is where the wading into the spin becomes so problematic. If you’ve done what you could to uncover facts, you’ve watched the video, and it doesn’t raise any concerns. You’ve uncovered the large gap between the incident and the first mention of pneumonia and you feel like you have a reasonable explanation for that. Then you might decide to completely ignore the doctors who have expressed concerns. And if that’s the decision you’ve reached, that’s completely reasonable. But what if, having seen the video and uncovered the time disparity you have a nagging feeling that it doesn’t add up. And then you come across a doctor, presumably more knowledgeable than you, who has these same misgivings? Should this be added into your own assessment of probabilities? Or should you ignore it because this doctor obviously hasn’t done an actual examination of Clinton? Being human it’s certainly going to be the first, but still you might want to look closely at the doctor, does he have any biases you should be aware of?

This exact thing happened to me, albeit before the incident on 9/11. Drew Pinsky, often known as Dr. Drew, who for many years was on Loveline with Adam Carolla came out with his misgivings about Clinton’s health. Okay so there’s a doctor, and he also thinks something might be going on there. (Once again to be clear I am not basing my vote on my assessment of Clinton’s health, I just think it’s an interesting exercise in getting at the truth. Whatever that is.) But what do I know about Dr. Drew? Obviously I’ve heard of him. I saw a couple of episodes of Loveline, several months ago I listened to his interview on WTF. But beyond that I don’t know. Is he a notorious conservative who will say anything? Does he have a long standing feud with the Clintons? It can be hard to tell after the fact because of course the minute he offers his opinion, not only is that opinion tossed into the partisan battlefield with one side rallying around it and the other side attempting to blow it up, but Dr. Drew himself is forced onto the battlefield and forced to take sides. He may have been completely apolitical before this, but suddenly if he doesn’t want to be completely alone against a fairly furious attack he has to pick some allies.

As you can see anytime someone does offer a definitive opinion, even if backed by expertise, it get’s swallowed into the partisan maw. So where does that leave someone who’s still trying to figure out the truth about Clinton’s health? To further complicate things, it should be pointed out that neither side wants you to succeed. Even if one side is more correct than the other they are both trying to push the pendulum as far as they can. One side want’s to convince you that there’s a 95% chance Clinton will be dead by Election Day and the other side wants to convince you that Clinton had the mildest form of pneumonia possible, barely worthy of the name and other than that she has the stamina and intellect of a 25 year old.

I wouldn’t blame you if, after all this, you threw up your hands and decided to give up on the whole enterprise, or if, as is far more common, you picked a side at some point in the past and decided to just believe whatever that side was saying.

But if you’re still determined to dig. And once again recall that your vote, particularly in the presidential race, almost certainly doesn’t matter. So that even if you do arrive at a firm, unshakable position, that you’re basically King Canute commanding the waves. If despite this, you still want to continue, then I offer my final piece of advice.

One of the things that you’re naturally going to be inclined to do, and which you’re going to be pressured to do, is make a firm and final decision. In the case we’ve been examining you’re going to be asked to declare once and for all that Clinton is hiding something, or alternatively that she is not. In fact people are going to want you to go even farther and not merely declare she is hiding something, but toss in decades of misdeeds by the Clinton’s as well, or alternatively, demand that in addition to vouching for Clinton’s transparency about her health, that you add in a declaration that Trump is a misogynistic moron. You should resist this impulse and this pressure. Nothing is certain. What you should really be doing is adjusting your probabilities, not trying to find some firm and final answer. This doesn’t carry the certainty of deciding that everything is fine and there’s no reason not to vote for Clinton. But remember that you can’t command the waves, and contrary to how the story of King Canute is normally used these days. The King knew that, and the point of the whole exercise was for him to show the limits of his power, just as we need to be aware of the limits of knowledge.

With this in mind let’s return to an examination of the recent comments by Dr. Drew. If you dig into things there are some elements which move the needle in one direction and some elements which move it in the other direction. As an example of something which makes Dr. Drew less credible you have to of course include that he evaluated her without access to her records and without any kind of examination. Not only is the information he’s relying on partial and potentially misleading, but it’s a borderline violation of medical ethics.

As an example of something which adds to his credibility, if you look at what he actually said, he’s not only commenting on Clinton’s health but her medical care. When he says that some of the medications she’s receiving are no longer recommended, then not only is that a statement devoid of politics, but it’s also very specific and detailed, something you could probably check if you were so inclined.

Obviously there’s a lot more than just these two, but in the absence of a smoking gun, deciding on a probability and adjusting it as new information comes in, is the best anyone can do, particularly with the incredibly low signal to noise ratio of today’s journalism

I fear, having reached the end that perhaps this isn’t as useful as I hoped. But of course there are no easy tactics to uncover the facts. Still, hopefully the criteria of embarrassment was something useful to add to your cognitive toolkit. And finally, remember:

Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed; everything else is public relations.


The Harvest is Past

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The theme of this blog comes from the book of Jeremiah, verse 20 of chapter 8, and though that verse is included conspicuously in numerous places, it doesn’t hurt for it to appear again.

The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.

For this post I’d like to focus on that first phrase. What do I mean when I claim that the harvest is past?

We all basically understand harvesting, it’s when you take the food that has been grown and remove it from the plants where it grew, presumably storing it for later use. If we look a little deeper, the harvest is really the final step of turning energy from the Sun into something usable.

It’s not just food that is ultimately made by the Sun, with a few exceptions (nuclear, geothermal and tidal) all energy comes from the Sun. Fossil fuels included. I’m sure this won’t surprise any readers of this blog, but I think that many people are unaware of the fact that fossil fuels are just stored solar energy. Thus when we burn oil, and coal, and natural gas for power, we are withdrawing solar energy that was saved up millions of years ago.

Consequently, when we talk about the total energy available, if we exclude nuclear (geothermal and tidal power being not significant enough to matter) we’re limited to the amount of sunlight which reaches the Earth. We’ve been able to reach back and withdraw the energy of past sunlight, but at some point, as every family knows, you have to stop spending more than you bring in. When we say that all energy comes from the Sun we’re more or less saying that everything comes from the Sun. (I know what you’re thinking. I promise we’ll get back to nuclear power before the end.) Our economy, the conveniences of modern life, economic growth, employment, etc. are all intimately connected with energy usage. And all of these things have been supercharged by the extraction of additional energy. That is the harvest. That is the summer, and as I will show they can’t last forever, if in fact they haven’t ended already.

As we get into things, I’m hugely indebted to a couple of posts by Tom Murphy, a physics professor at the University of California, San Diego. If you want to really get into the math of things and if you’d like to see more charts and graphs, I would check out both articles:

Galactic-Scale Energy

Can Economic Growth Last?

Murphy begins by pointing out that since about 1650, a century before the Industrial Revolution, the United States (or what would become the US) has grown at a fairly steady rate of 2.9% per year, on average. This has continued down to the present day, though recently there are signs that it’s been slowing. (Average growth since 2001 has only been 1.8%.) One might usefully ask, what was the long term average growth rate before 1650, or in any case before the industrial revolution? As it turns out it was next to zero, perhaps a long term average of 0.1%. So hurrah for the industrial revolution, but how did we go from nearly zero to 2.9%? What changed?

Put simply, we did it by spending a million years worth of accumulated solar energy, in the space of a few centuries.

Now, when I say something like that, there’s a danger that you’re going to tune out, thinking, that this is going to be some kind of environmental rant. You may even be thinking that the next step is for me to start talking about Peak Oil. Certainly a discussion of environmental issues, or whether we’re about to run out of oil is interesting, but for the purposes of this illustration it’s beside the point, because it doesn’t matter if we’re about to run out of oil, or if oil is naturally produced deep in the earth and effectively unlimited (a theory with a surprising amount of traction in Russia) or if we’re going to destroy the earth with global warming, or if fusion will save the day. When you actually look at the numbers, in the long term none of those things matters.

Yes, I do think that for a variety of reasons that the enormous growth rate spike we’ve experienced over the last several centuries is nearing an end. That we have essentially had the biggest harvest ever, as we’ve extracted the accumulated solar energy of all the previous epochs. But even if we leave fossil fuels out of the equation we are still reaching the limits of growth. And that is what I found so interesting about Murphy’s posts, and why I decided to write about them.

As I said, let’s keep fossil fuels out of it and just focus on the solar energy we’re receiving at this moment. Also let’s follow Murphy’s lead and reduce the annual growth rate from 2.9% to 2.3%. This translates into an easy to remember 10x increase every 100 years. So if we’re currently using 12 terawatts of power every year then in 100 years we’ll be using 120 terawatts.

First the good news. We get more energy from the Sun every hour (174,000 terawatts) than we use all year. Of course only 70% of that energy reaches the surface (the rest is reflected back into space.) And only 28% of the earth is land, and thus currently eligible for solar collection, and of that land we’re using 50% for agriculture (which sounds high, but who am I to argue with National Geographic?) And finally our current solar panels are only 15% effective. Taking all of that together we end up with 2558 terawatts of currently usable solar power which still seems pretty good. It’s over 200 times what we’re using now.

The problem is when you have exponential growth, things that aren’t problems can quickly become problems. And they have a tendency to sneak up on you. In 100 years, at a growth rate of 2.3% as I said above, we’re still only using 120 terawatts. Still lots of room, but then 200 years from now we’re using 1200 terawatts (10x every 100 years remember). That’s still less than half, how bad could it be right? Well it only takes another 35 years and we’re out. So in 235 years, at the current rate, we’re using all of the sun’s available energy. Now I understand that 235 years seems like a long time. But it’s less time than the US has existed.

In other words if we expect the US to be around for at least as long as it’s already has been (if we don’t want to believe we’re past the mid-point) and further if we expect it to continue in roughly the same trajectory. Then we have to increase the efficiency of solar panels, start putting them onto the ocean and/or into space, or grow less food. The problem is, that because of exponential growth, none of that buys us very much time.

Let’s assume that we’re able to increase the efficiency of the solar panels to 100%. That buys us 319 years (an additional 84 years.) Or if we’re looking in reverse back to around 1700. Once again that seems like a long time, but we’ve had longer than that to become accustomed to 2.9% growth as a law of nature. Once again we’re looking at being past the midpoint of our growth, in a best case scenario that involves every square inch of land being covered by solar panels or used for farming, and which also involves a premise (100% efficiency) which is physically impossible.

Let’s then assume that we get rid of all the land being used for agriculture. I’m not sure how, perhaps we grow things underground. Doing that adds another 31 years and gets us to 350 years from now. Or looking back it gets us to around 1666, very close to the start of the big harvest. But now of course every square inch of land from Antarctica to the remotest part of Siberia is being used for solar collection.

As you can see once you start running up against the limits, then even doing something as radical as doubling the amount of land being used doesn’t buy you much time. And recall that we are talking about theoretical limits. This is as good as it’s possible to be. Practical limits are likely to be 10x more restrictive. In other words we might be bumping up against those limits a lot sooner than we think. But let’s continue with our thought experiment.

We can add in the oceans, which buys us another 55 years. 405 years into the future or back to about 1600 or when Shakespeare was alive. Historically we’re still talking about a time that was fairly recent. In fact as Murphy points out in order to continue on the same growth rate for 1200 years (so the Dark Ages if you’re looking back) we’d have to use all of the Sun’s energy. And I mean all of it, the Sun would have to be completely encircled by solar panels. And if we wanted our energy use to continue to grow at the same rate for 2500 years we’d need to use all of the solar energy produced by our entire galaxy. Which to put it bluntly, seems unlikely.

I know that some of you have been screaming, “But what about nuclear power? What about fusion?” Here we run into a different problem. Heat. I said above in 1200 years our energy requirements are going to be equal to the entire output of the Sun. What do you think happens if you’re generating as much energy as the Sun, through fusion, in a space much, much smaller than the Sun? The implacable laws of thermodynamics dictate that the Earth, because it’s much, much smaller, would end up, much, much hotter. As I said if you want to look at the math and see some graphs I refer you to Murphy’s paper, but according to his calculations, if terrestrial energy use continues at it’s current rate, the Earth gets hotter than the surface of the Sun in less than 1000 years.

I think you can see now that things are unsustainable. To steal Murphy’s key point:

Continued growth in energy use becomes physically impossible within conceivable timeframes.

Thus far I’ve been using something of a sleight of hand. I’ve mostly used growth and energy growth interchangeably. And in fact for most of human history they have basically been the same thing, though in the last 50 years or so we have started to see a divergence between economic growth and energy growth. This is good news, if we don’t need growth in energy use to get economic growth, then perhaps everything’s okay, and we won’t need to cover the entire Earth in solar panels, or heat the surface to the point where steel melts (730 years). It would be nice if it were true, but there are also insuperable problems with this line of thinking as well.

Basically if at some point we have to keep energy use flat, while the economy keeps growing then the percentage of the economy made up by things that don’t use any energy get’s bigger and bigger. What part of the economy doesn’t use energy? Stuff like fashion, certain innovations, education, and most of all financial transactions. Perhaps this sounds familiar? Perhaps it sounds like the world we already live in? And maybe you’re thinking hey this isn’t so bad. Is it that big of a deal that the UK’s GDP is 10% financial services, and that the economy of New York City is 35% financial services?

First I’m not sure that financial services are as divorced from energy use as even Murphy thinks. Secondly, yes it may be fine that 35% of New York City’s economy is financial services. (I actually think the housing crash proves the exact opposite, that it was not fine, but let’s set that aside for the moment.) Will it be fine when that number is 90%? What about when it’s 99%? Or 99.9%? Because at some point that’s what has to happen if we divorce energy growth from economic growth, and economic growth continues at the same rate.

And what happens to the people who are forced to work in the 0.01% of economy which still uses energy? For example we are presumably still going to have to eat, and presumably even if all of the food is planted and harvested by robots, that someone is going to have to be involved with food production on some level. How do these people get paid? In order for all this to happen, food, manufactured goods, new houses, etc. would all have to be virtually free.

Accordingly, it’s not just energy growth which has to stop at some point. In fact, at some point, all growth has to stop. The problem is, that’s not the way the modern world is set up. All of our assumptions, all of our institutions, all of our systems are built around the idea that growth will continue. Therefore transitioning to a system where growth is flat is not going to be pretty.

Perhaps you’re comforted by the fact that 235 years is a long way away. Long enough away that even your grandkids won’t have to deal with it. But I would argue that we’re already starting to see this world. I already mentioned the increasing percentage of the economy that’s made up by financial services. And of course there’s the giant share of the economy devoted to services (which is sort of halfway between in terms of energy use.) This is not to mention the persistent negative interest rates, not only with government bonds but now extending even to corporate bonds.  And of course I explicitly avoided talking in any great detail about global warming or any of the other potential catastrophes which may befall us before we even get to the point where we’re worried about covering the world with solar panels.

For a long time we have looked to progress and technology to save us. But if they can (and I would offer the opinion they can’t) then they’re running out of time.

The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.


The Secular Answer To Fermi’s Paradox

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Having explored at some length in our last post the idea that Fermi’s Paradox may offer strong support for the existence of God.  As well as the idea that assumptions made about extraterrestrial communication line up better than might be expected with the process of prayer. I want to flip the coin and look at what the conventional wisdom is as far as the Paradox. For my examination I will be mostly drawing from If the Universe Is Teeming with Aliens … WHERE IS EVERYBODY?: Fifty Solutions to the Fermi Paradox and the Problem of Extraterrestrial Life, by Stephen Webb. There has obviously been quite a bit written about the paradox, but this appears to be one of the only (if not the only) book length treatments. My discussion will use the first edition of the book, which has 50 potential explanations for the Paradox. The second edition, which I have yet to acquire has 75 potential explanations. I cannot speak definitively about the second edition, but of the 50 potential explanations in the first none resemble the explanation I offered in my last post. But otherwise it is admirably comprehensive.

Webb breaks extraterrestrials into three broad categories:

  1. They are here.
  2. They exist but have not communicated with us.
  3. They don’t exist.

The first possibility is broader than the initial title would suggest. It essentially encompasses all scenarios under which aliens exist, and are aware of us. These explanations range from the humorous (They are here and they call themselves Hungarians) to explanations for why, if they exist, they might choose to hide from us. The classic example of this thinking is the Prime Directive from Star Trek, the principle that the federation will not interfere with any less advanced civilizations.

Interestingly enough the final explanation in the “They are Here” section is titled “God Exists”. From the title, at least, it sounded like it must be very similar to my own thinking. It wasn’t. Webb spends a couple of paragraphs talking about some vague theological issues, but then spends the rest of the section (four more pages) examining the idea that there seems to be no good reason for the constants of the Universe to have the values they do (for example the strength of the weak nuclear force or the mass of an electron.) From there he goes on to discuss a theory of universe evolution under which new universes might be created by black holes so universes would “evolve” to maximize black hole production. If the physical constants which lead to the creation of black holes are similar to the constants necessary for the emergence of life you might end up with the second condition being a byproduct of the first.

The second possibility, that they exist but have not communicated with us, generally boils down to the idea that on top of the enormous number of stars and the enormous amount of time that has passed, which argue in favor of alien life, that there are other enormous numbers: the distance between habitable planets (less now than a couple of weeks ago); the number of ways language and communication could develop; the different types of intelligent life; and so forth, which argue against alien communication. This could mean that it’s just too far, or that they are communicating with us and we don’t understand, or in one of the more off-beat explanations, perhaps most worlds have skies perpetually shrouded in clouds. In which case, would they ever even develop astronomy, or even a full Newtonian understanding of the Universe?  

The final possibility is that there is some kind of filter which works against intelligent extraterrestrial life. Some process which keeps life from starting at all, from reaching sufficient complexity, from developing consciousness, from lasting long enough to spread, or from accomplishing any of the thousands of steps required to have a truly interstellar civilization. As you can imagine, such a filter might be behind us, or it might be in front of us. Examples which have been offered for filters we have already passed, have included: the difficulty of moving from prokaryotes to eukaryotes, galactic catastrophes like supernovas, getting life started in the first place, and even plate tectonics.  

Examples which have been offered for filters yet to come include: blowing ourselves up with nukes, losing ourselves in virtual reality, civilizational collapse, or of course galactic or solar catastrophes yet to come. Another explanation is that aliens do exist, but they’re aggressive and warlike and no one wants to risk initiating communication (or what’s termed Active SETI) because they’re all afraid they’ll be discovered and destroyed.

This is of course one of the things that makes Fermi’s Paradox so fascinating, the number of possible explanations is huge and those explanations can tie into anything (from the Runaway Consumerism to having a particularly large Moon.)

I said that Webb’s book offered up 50 explanations for the paradox. That’s not entirely true. He actually offers up 49 explanations and then for the 50th he offers his own explanation. He mentions in one of the introductory sections that the 50th explanation will be his explanation for the paradox, and while reading the book I was intensely curious about what his explanation would be. And if, for whatever reason you were thinking of reading the book (which I recommend only if you are REALLY interested in the paradox) and you don’t want to be spoiled you should stop reading now…

Webb’s final solution titled “The Fermi Paradox Resolved…” is not unique, it’s not some new take on things or an explanation that hasn’t been offered already, it’s the combination several explanations. Having gone through 49 possible explanations for the paradox Webb’s answer is that we are alone. This is an interesting conclusion. And I think he reaches it somewhat reluctantly, but it carries an enormous number of consequences, not all of which he’s willing to grapple with. But before we get to that let’s examine how he arrives at his conclusion.

In a similar fashion to how Fermi and Drake arrived at their numbers, Webb comes up with is own filter for determining how many intelligent civilizations there should be. All of his filters come from the previous 49 explanations of the paradox already laid out in his book. And in a fashion similar to Drake, he starts with the number of stars in the galaxy. He then multiplies that by the average number of planets per star. This gives him a number of 10^12 or one trillion potential planets. Starting from there he begins to filter planets out. His filtering process is somewhat involved and scholarly, but it’s interesting enough that I’d like to walk through it. He goes through seven steps (actually 8, but one of his steps doesn’t actually filter anything, so we’ll skip it.)

Step 1- Eliminate any planets not in the galactic habitable zone. Most people are familiar with the solar habitable zone, (discussed more in step 3). This is the same thing on the galactic scale, and mostly has to do with the frequency of large scale galactic catastrophes. If you’re too close to the center of the galaxy, then the density of stars is such that galactic catastrophes would be frequent, potentially too frequent for life to ever establish a foothold. Consequently only stars out on the rim of the galaxy would accident free enough for life to develop, and this region is the galactic habitable zone. Webb uses an estimate of 20% of stars being in this zone so that takes us down to 200 billion planets.

Step 2- Eliminate any planets which don’t orbit sun-like stars. Bigger stars burn too fast and smaller stars don’t give off enough energy. Only 5% of stars are sun-like (G-Type) which leaves us with 10 billion planets.

Step 3- Eliminate any planets which aren’t in the continuously habitable zone (CHZ) of the star. This means, not only do they currently have to be at a distance from the star where water is liquid, but they have to have always been at that distance. He puts this number at 0.1% of planets. Which frankly seems extremely conservative particularly in light of the data we’re getting from Kepler which is biased against Earth-sized planets. To be fair to Webb part of the low estimate comes from the idea that the Sun was much fainter in the past. That filter takes us to 10 million planets.

Step 4- Eliminate any planet in the CHZ on which life doesn’t actually emerge. After saying that he considers life to be a probable occurrence for planets in the CHZ he, somewhat unexpectedly, goes on to say that it would happen on only 5% of them. Which takes us to half a million.

Step 5- Eliminate any planet where life gets wiped out by a supernova or some similar solar or galactic catastrophe. Here he’s fairly optimistic and thinks that only about 20% of life would be eliminated in this fashion. I think on this step, contrary to all the other steps he is too optimistic, that possibly far more than 20% could be wiped out by something like a supernova or some giant collision. Though we have also eliminated the planets most prone to this in Step 1. In any event this takes him to 400,000.

Step 6- Eliminate any planet where life doesn’t ever get to be multicellular. Conveniently he places the odds at life making the jump from single celled to multi celled at 1 in 40 which works out nicely to give us 10,000 planets with multicellular life.

Step 7- Eliminate any planets where life doesn’t produce an intelligent, tool-using, mathematical species capable of developing technology. He thinks the odds of this happening are least 1 in 10,000 (0.01%) and possibly much greater which means that there is only one of those civilizations, us. We are alone.

At first glance the whole process seems scientific, but similar to the Drake equation Webb has very little evidence for any of his estimates. The late Michael Crichton of Jurassic Park and Andromeda Strain fame once gave a talk about the Drake Equation at Caltech. His purpose was to take a shot at global warming, and perhaps you’ll dismiss it on that grounds, but his point was nevertheless valid:

This serious-looking equation gave SETI a serious footing as a legitimate intellectual inquiry. The problem, of course, is that none of the terms can be known, and most cannot even be estimated. The only way to work the equation is to fill in with guesses. And guesses-just so we’re clear-are merely expressions of prejudice.

Nor can there be “informed guesses.” If you need to state how many planets with life choose to communicate, there is simply no way to make an informed guess. It’s simply prejudice.

As a result, the Drake equation can have any value from “billions and billions” to zero. An expression that can mean anything means nothing. Speaking precisely, the Drake equation is literally meaningless, and has nothing to do with science. I take the hard view that science involves the creation of testable hypotheses. The Drake equation cannot be tested and therefore SETI is not science. SETI is unquestionably a religion.

His point about SETI being a religion is particularly telling for the purposes of this blog and our discussion. As is his point that the guesses are an expression of prejudice. In the case above it’s obvious that Webb already has a final answer in mind before he started plugging in his guesses, it didn’t just happen to come out with one to his amazement and surprise, he arranged his guesses so that it would come out as one.

Think about that for a second, you start off with one trillion, and in the end you’ve created a filter that leaves just one planet left out of the one trillion you started with?  Not zero, not a million? Imagine that you were going to create a set of seven filters which when applied to 7+ billion humans left you with one and only one person, and that you could only use natural criteria, like weight and height, not artificial filters like a social security number or the name of the town they were born in. It would be impossible, and recall that Webb starts with one trillion planets, not seven billion, so he’s already dealing with potential set over 100 times as large.

But let us for the moment assume that he’s correct. That in all the galaxy we are the only intelligent, technological life. As I already mentioned, the consequences of that are far-reaching and extreme.

First it reverses one of the major trends in science. The trend towards de-emphasizing humanity’s place in the universe.

In the beginning if you were the ruler of a vast empire you must have thought that you were the center of creation. Alexander the Great is said to have conquered the known world. I’m sure Julius Caesar couldn’t have imagined an empire greater than Rome, but I think Emperor Yuan of Han would have disagreed.

But surely, had they know each other, they could agreed that between the two of them they more or less ruled the whole world? I’m sure the people of Americas, who were entirely unknown to them, would have argued with that. But surely all of them could agree that the planet on which they all lived was at the center of the universe. But then Copernicus comes along, and says, “Not so fast.” (And yes I know about Aristarchus of Samos.)

“Okay, we get it. The Earth revolves around the Sun, not the other way around. But at least we can take comfort in the fact that man is clearly different and better than the animals.”

“About that…” says Darwin.

“Well at least our galaxy is unique…”

“I hate to keep bursting your bubble, but that’s not the case either,” chimes in Edwin Hubble.

At every step in the process when someone has thought that humanity was special in anyway someone comes along and shows that they’re not. It happened often enough that now they have a name for it, The Copernican Principle (after one of the biggest bubble poppers). Which, for our purposes, is interchangeable with the Mediocrity Principle. Together they say that there is nothing special about our place in the cosmos, or us, or the development of life. Stephen Hawking put it as follows:

The human race is just a chemical scum on a moderate-sized planet, orbiting around a very average star in the outer suburb of one among a hundred billion galaxies.

This is what scientist have believed, but if we are truly the only intelligent, technology using life form in the galaxy, then suddenly we are very special indeed. Which, as you’ll recall, is what religion has been arguing all along, and it is primarily against religion that these various attacks at uniqueness have been leveled.

Now obviously it’s not impossible for the Copernican principle to be wrong, but you can still imagine that it presents a problem for scientists to explain. Particularly for scientists who would rather not give any ammunition to the unbelievers. In other words, for militant atheists, the idea that we might be unique and special, that the universe and the galaxy and the solar system might have been designed for us, is deeply troubling. And if you talk to any of them who are knowledgeable about this issue, they have a response ready, the Anthropic Principle.

The Anthropic Principle is complicated enough that it almost certainly deserves it’s own post, particularly as we are already 2500+ words into this post, but in short what it says is that there’s nothing remarkable about our uniqueness, because only our uniqueness allows it to be remarked upon.

To expand on that a little bit. Conscious life will only be found in places where conditions allow it to exist, therefore when we look around and find that things are set up in just the right way for us to exist, it couldn’t be any other way because if they weren’t set up in just the right way no one would be around to do the looking.

As I said the subject is deep enough that it will probably eventually get it’s own post (though not next week I’m feeling a hankering for something different.) But I will end with four points about the anthropic principle to chew on:

1- It’s logically true, but logically true in the sense that a tautology is logically true. It basically amounts to saying I’m here because I’m here, or if things were different, they’d be different. Which is fine as far as it goes, but it discourages further exploration and a deeper understanding rather than encouraging it.

2- It’s generally used as an answer to the question of why all the physical constants seemed fine tuned for life. To which people reply there could be an infinite number of universes, so we just happen to be in the one fine tuned for life. Okay fine, but is there any evidence that the physical constants we experience don’t apply to the rest of the galaxy? Because that’s what we’re talking about when we talk about Fermi’s Paradox. In fact we don’t even have any evidence that they are different anywhere in the visible universe of the 100 billion additional galaxies. In other words if the Earth is fine-tuned for life as far as physical constants, so is the rest of the galaxy, at a minimum.

3- It’s an argument from lack of imagination. Or in other words Webb asserts that we are alone because there has not been any evidence to the contrary. It is entirely possible that we have just not looked hard enough. Webb admits this possibility of course, but it is not his preferred explanation, which is that we’re alone, because of the factors which I mentioned above, but all of those factors could just be a lack of imagination. Imagining how life could develop in the center of the galaxy, how life could develop outside of the CHZ (say Europa) or, especially, imagining how we might already be in contact with extraterrestrials and just call it prayer.

4- It’s not science. Just as Crichton (and others) argue that SETI is a religion, so is the anthropic principle. In this particular religion it’s easier to believe that we’re alone and use the anthropic principle as justification then to think that we’re not alone and that God exists. It’s the religion of, humanism, especially the belief that there is nothing beyond the limits of rationality and science.

When I said the consequences are far-reaching and extreme, this is what I meant. If we are truly alone, if we are the lone intelligence in the entire observable universe then that puts us in a position of awful responsibility, and takes us back to the premise of the blog. My assertion is that the harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved. If you assert that humanity is alone, that we are all there is, then what you’re saying is:

The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we HAVE to be saved.