Month: March 2017

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Global Warming?

If you prefer to listen rather than read, this blog is available as a podcast here. Or if you want to listen to just this post:

Or download the MP3


I mentioned in my last post that there were several controversial topics that I had never covered, and I promised to rectify that. Well, as they say there’s no time like the present. You can probably guess from the title which topic that will be. Yes, the first subject I’m going to tackle is global warming. I probably don’t need to point out that this is a controversial topic, so I expect to get some flack, but I go where the truth takes me! Or at least where my completely subjective, inadequately informed, culturally biased perception of the truth takes me…

I’m not the only one who’s been talking about global warming recently, Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, who I’ve mentioned in this space before, has been spending a significant amount of time on it as well. Before going farther, I know that many people think Scott Adams has gone off the deep end. And I, personally, am a little bit tired of his repeated references to persuasion and hypnotism. Also, I think he sometimes engages in the bias of massaging his predictions after the fact to make them look better, but you know what? He would be the first to admit that he’s biased, and that he has biases he’s not even aware of. And whether or not he massages his predictions, he still called it for Trump over a year in advance, of the election, when very few people were. In other words, if we’re looking at whose side everyone is on in whatever weird battle is currently taking place, I think I’m on Adams’ side (particularly if there are only two sides.)

I bring Adams up because he’s been hammering home a point that I think is critical to understanding the issues and policy associated with global warming, i.e. it may be less about the facts and more about which side is the better persuader. Now, Adams is an absolute fiend for persuasion (as I said I’m a little sick of it) and so he would say something like this, but despite that I think he makes a very important and frequently overlooked point, in short, that global warming advocates may have overshot the mark.

In order to understand why that might be the case we need to begin by defining what global warming is. This may seem like an unnecessary first step, but the problem is that one of the ways in which advocates have overshot the mark is by bundling everything together, and in order to understand things we have to first unbundle the various assumptions if we really want to know what’s going on. The best way to do this is through a series of questions.

The first and most basic question: Is the Earth getting hotter? Much of the debate about global warming occurs at this level. On the one side you’ll see headlines like February 2017: Earth’s 2nd Warmest February and 4th Warmest Month in Recorded History. And on the other side you might see someone claim that there was no appreciable warming from February 1997 through November of 2015. This is the debate about whether any global warming is actually happening. For my own part I’m convinced that it is. The evidence is substantial. But as usual the point is not to convince you to agree with me, but to dissect things in such a way that you understand it better.

At this level what is frequently happening is what Daniel Kahneman, in Thinking, Fast and Slow called the substitution fallacy (also the Masked-Man fallacy), where people substitute an easy question for a hard question. The hard question is “Should we completely remake the world economy to prevent global warming?” That’s a really difficult question, so people substitute, “Is the Earth getting warmer?” That’s an easier question to answer. And of course it should be pointed out that some people go one step farther to, “Did summer seem especially hot?” Often the substitution happens as the question is being asked. It’s far more common to hear, “Should we do something about global warming?” Than any questions involving carbon pricing or emission sequestration. And of course we should probably do something, but that’s pretty broad.

Once we’ve determined that yes, the Earth is getting hotter, the next question is, is it getting hotter because of human activity? The background temperature of deep space is -455 degrees fahrenheit. The average temperature of the Earth is around 57 degrees fahrenheit. Which means that the sun provides 512 degrees of warmth. If the average temperature of the earth goes up to 59 degrees, it’s not insane to argue that perhaps the warmth of the sun increased by 0.005%. I used to see arguments along these lines fairly often, but I haven’t seen them recently. I think the consensus is that the Earth is getting warmer, and humans are causing it through the release of massive amounts of carbon dioxide. That’s certainly where I would put my money. Still how often do you see anyone try and separate warming from human activity. I think 99.5% of people don’t make any distinction between the two, and they’re probably totally correct not to, but you can see from even the short example I gave that it’s not ridiculous to do so.

Third, is global warming a bad thing? Or more specifically are the downsides to a warmer planet worse than the upsides? Not all change is bad. If manna started falling from heaven, ending world hunger, then despite the potential increase in obesity I think people would argue, that on the balance, it was a good thing. As far as global warming goes, we hear about a lot of bad things, the flooding of coastal cities, a plague of tropical diseases, worse hurricanes, etc. But we don’t hear much about any benefits. Is it possible that global warming is 100% bad, that everything gets worse with rising temperature? I suppose so, but that seems unlikely. There’s probably some benefits. I completely understand why none of the advocates would want to mention any potential benefits, but there are almost certainly a few of them.

I just recently read a book called Twilight of Abundance. I know someone, somewhere recommended it to me, but I’m not even sure who it was. I probably wouldn’t recommend it, but it was interesting. The author, David Archibald, is a global warming skeptic, and a Malthusian. His big worry is that you have lots of countries, with serious population growth, which already import from half to 90% of their food. And therefore the biggest problem, in his opinion, is feeding those people. He doesn’t believe global warming is happening, but if it is, he thinks it would be a good thing, particularly if it increased the amount of arable land in places like Siberia. As I said I don’t think I’d recommend the book, but I also don’t think his opinions are so out there that they’re not even worth mentioning. Bill Gates was quoted as saying something broadly similar in an article about global warming a while back when he mentioned that if we don’t do something we’ll end up running the “2-degree experiment”. In other words no one is 100% sure what will happen when temperatures go up, it’s an experiment. I totally agree that it would be better if we didn’t conduct the experiment at all, but I think it’s implausible that rising temperatures won’t bring any benefits.

Fourth, now that we’ve established that the planet is warming, humans are causing it, and it’s a net bad thing, we have to ask, “How Bad?” If unchecked global warming will unquestionably cause humanity’s extinction, then that calls for far more extreme measures, than if it’s just going to cause everything to have to move a few more meters above sea level. Obviously, I don’t want to minimize the disruption caused by a sea level rise of several meters, but it’s not the same thing as the end of humanity. And we shouldn’t treat it the same way either. The third question, essentially asked, should we do anything? This fourth question asks how much should we do. If it means the end of humanity then nothing is off limits. But if it’s not that bad then the question of what we should do becomes a lot more complex.

Beyond this point there are other ways to break the issue down. We might ask what the US and China should be doing vs. what countries in Sub-Saharan Africa should be doing. We might get into the fact that sea levels could actually fall in certain places. Or we might get into minutia, like Climategate or cow farts. But I think we’ll stop it here. The key thing I wanted to illustrate was that when people speak of global warming they generally combine all four of these questions into a single assertion that unless we do something radical, anthropogenic human warming will cause the end of humanity. And maybe it will. You know I’m very careful about predicting the future. But if we’re going to speak intelligently about global warming it’s important to examine the various links in the chain. Too many people translate “February temperatures reach record high” into “WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE!!!” And the two are not remotely the same thing.

This is something of a tangent, but before we go any farther it’s important to talk about climate change denial. By not immediately denouncing all denial as a crime akin to torturing kittens, and in fact even using the word “interesting” to describe some of the ideas, certain people may be assuming that I should be considered a “denier” as well. If that’s what you think, I doubt anything I can say will change your mind, which is too bad because reasonable disagreements and debates are one of the best ways to get at the truth, and that can’t happen if we only have access to one side. I would allow that there are certain situations of extreme emergency where debate has to be suspended, but I don’t see any reason for placing global warming in that category.

In any case I think “deniers” have had minimal impact on what’s actually happened. It’s not as if some charismatic denier kept us from taking the easy and obvious steps to prevent global warming. Doing anything about global warming is difficult, costly and politically unpopular even in the absence of doubt. In order to assume deniers have done any damage you have to show me where there was some credible path to stop global warming and it failed specifically because climate change deniers swung things the other way. As in, imagine voters in the Appalachian coal country who voted against something involving global warming specifically because they thought global warming wasn’t real and not because of the far more tangible fear that the legislation might cost them their jobs. I don’t think this has ever been the case. I understand lots of people have doubts about global warming, but that’s almost never the primary reason for doing one thing rather than another. Our hypothetical residents of coal country may have had doubts about global warming in addition to their fear of unemployment, but changing their belief in global warming would not have changed their votes. In any event I reject the idea that you can’t bring up the possibility that something might be wrong. End of tangent.

Having broken down the global warming debate into these various stages, maybe you can start to see why global warming advocates may have overshot the mark, but if not let me provide a metaphor. Imagine if you gave a very difficult test to a bunch of high school students, and told them that if they got a perfect score they could go to a good college, but that if they missed even one question it would be the same as if they missed all the questions. How hard would these high school students try? Sure you might have a couple of overachievers who really gave it 100%, but most kids would check out the minute they came to a question they didn’t know. This, in my opinion, is what the current state of global warming advocacy looks like, particularly when it’s framed as an apocalyptic, extinction level event. It’s a really hard test that we have to ace. And yes there are some overachievers out there who are really trying, but most people are essentially high school students who are going to check out the minute you tell them they can’t have a hamburger.

If you disagree with this metaphor, perhaps you’re not aware of how hard the test is. Fortunately as I was working on this post Vox.com published an article laying out the exact details. Titled: Scientists made a detailed “roadmap” for meeting the Paris climate goals. It’s eye-opening. I agree that it’s eye-opening and I would recommend reading the whole article, but just to give you some highlights:

  • All new cars have to be electric by 2030. Currently, electrical cars are at around 1%, at least in the US. To go from 1% to 100% in 13 years would be one of the most amazing accomplishments ever. How many people do you know that even have a purely electrical car? Now imagine that everyone you know has one…
  • Carbon capture has to get to five gigatons per year by 2050. In other words we have to be removing 5 billion tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and putting it somewhere where it can’t escape. Currently, as best I can tell we are doing effectively zero carbon capture right now. But, by 2050, the article says, we would have to be capturing twice as much carbon as all the trees and soil on the entire planet.
  • In addition to perfecting carbon capture, there are a host of other technologies we’d have to invent. In particular we have to come up with a low carbon way for producing steel and concrete. We’d have to grow food with zero carbon emissions from land use. We’d have to make a huge investment in nuclear energy or invent much more effective batteries.
  • Finally we have to cut carbon dioxide emissions in half every decade. Currently the US, China and India are responsible for half of all emissions. Imagine that all three countries had to be completely carbon neutral by 2030. And then of course you have to halve it again in 2040, and then you have to halve it again by 2050.

All of this has to be done while at the same time the population continues to grow to 9.7 billion. As perhaps the best illustration of how difficult it is I refer you to another article also from Vox.com, where they talk about a “remarkable slowdown” in emissions. If you look at the article you’ll see that the remarkable slowdown is just emissions being flat for the last few years. If emissions need to go down by 90% while population increases by 50% then staying constant is not a “remarkable” slowdown it’s horrible.

I’ve talked about how difficult it’s going to be, but I haven’t talked about how bad it is if we fail. As I said above if this threatens the extinction of humanity we should do whatever it takes. But as far as I can tell it doesn’t. I haven’t seen a credible scenario on how global warming wipes out all of humanity. I see how it makes things really bad, how progress might be set back 50 years, and even where some people die. But I don’t see any scenario where it kills every last human. A few months ago I read the book Global Catastrophic Risks, which is a comprehensive examination of everything that might wipe out humanity, and while they have a chapter on climate change their conclusion is:

The key point to emphasize in the context of catastrophic risk is that this warming is expected to be quite smooth and stable. No existing best guess state-of-the-art model predicts any sort of surprising non-linear disruption in terms of the global mean temperature.

In other words there’s no tipping point where the Earth suddenly gets 50 degrees hotter. Further on it says:

While it’s true that a global mean temperature rise of 4℃ would probably constitute dangerous climate change on most metrics, it would not necessarily be catastrophic in the sense of being a terminal threat. The challenges they suggest our descendents will face look tough, but endurable.

If global warming is “tough but endurable” what’s really at stake? Generally when you talk about some big potential catastrophe what you’re really talking about is people dying. I am not an expert, but it doesn’t appear that global warming is bad because of all the lives that are stake. Yes, some people will die as a result of global warming whether it’s hurricanes, or tropical diseases or something else. But as I also pointed out it’s possible, maybe even likely that more people will be saved from hunger. I’ve already touched on that idea, but briefly, at a minimum we’re looking at longer growing seasons, an abundance of carbon dioxide, which plants love, and additionally, unlike how it’s often portrayed, a warmer world is a wetter world. So if people’s lives aren’t at stake, what is?

In short, progress is at stake. We’ve talked a lot about progress in this space, from the Religion of Progress, to the idea that progress has reduced deaths. We’ve also talked about how modern progress is sustained by using up the stored solar energy of millions of years in the space of a couple of centuries, which is course what causes global warming. Which means that what global warming really is, is a very costly challenge to this idea of never-ending progress. In simple terms it’s the challenge of having your cake and eating it too. This is why it’s so hard to do anything about global warming. People don’t have some higher want they’re willing to make sacrifices for. They’re not avoiding cake so they can lose weight. Global warming is essentially avoiding cake in order to maybe still have cake in 50 years. Very few people even understand that trade, and even fewer are willing to make it. Not even the people who are ostensibly very concerned with the issue (do a search for global warming and private jets).

As I say, so often I don’t know what’s going to happen. Maybe we will manage to do all the things I listed above. Maybe there will be hidden benefits to warming. Maybe there will be some tipping point and the world will get 50 degrees warmer all of the sudden. And maybe, just maybe the deniers are right. I don’t think so. I think global warming is happening, and I wish I knew what to do about it. But in the end it’s one more reason why the harvest is past, and the summer is ended, and we are not saved.


Solving global warming is not straightforward, or easy. If you’re looking for something easy and straightforward may I recommend donating to this blog. I’m not saying it’s a good thing, it’s just straightforward.


But What if We’re Wrong?

If you prefer to listen rather than read, this blog is available as a podcast here. Or if you want to listen to just this post:

Or download the MP3


I already mentioned the road trip I took in February to visit some old college friends. What I probably didn’t mention is the role audiobooks played in that road trip. I would argue that being able to listen to audiobooks (plus adaptive cruise control) makes just about any length of road trip not only bearable, but enjoyable. The trip out and the trip back were both nearly 12 hours and other than the weather I had no problems as long as I had a book to listen to. In preparation for the trip I went to the library and checked out any audiobook that grabbed my attention and wasn’t too long. One of the books which made the cut was But What If We’re Wrong, by Chuck Klosterman. I picked this book up solely based on its title and the fact that it’s a question I ask myself all the time, and I was interested in hearing someone else tackle it.

I have to admit that I was disappointed with the book. Klosterman appeared to be most interested in talking about pop culture, and of all the areas where the title question might apply it was the one I was the least interested in. Fortunately, this mismatch wasn’t as bad as it sounds. His interest and knowledge of the subject made it the most enjoyable section of the book despite my initial ambivalence. And to clarify I’m not ambivalent about pop culture in general, I’m just not very interested in a discussion of the ways in which our judgement of Michael Jackson might change in the next 50 years. Obviously our judgement of Michael Jackson will change in 50 years, but will that matter?

Klosterman offers up the example of Melville and Moby-Dick. When Moby-Dick was published the reception was underwhelming. It went out of print while Melville was still alive and during most of the time it was in print it averaged sales of only 27 copies a year. It was published in 1851 and it was only decades later, in 1917 when Carl Van Doren (Uncle of the Quiz Show Van Doren) wrote an article about Melville that anything approaching our current appreciation begin. The story, as Klosterman told it, was all very interesting, but imagine if Van Doren hadn’t come along, and that Melville had been entirely forgotten, would the modern world look any different? Not really. Which is not to say that losing Melville wouldn’t be a tragedy, it just wouldn’t have had much, if any, impact on the world of 2017.

He also spends some time talking about how generally, with any historical category, people end up settling on a single representative example. He uses Mozart to illustrate the point in the category of classical composers. I’m not sure I agree that people can only come up with one example, I can think of several more even if I’m limited to a fairly strict definition of classical. And even people with no interest in classical music could almost certainly come up with Beethoven. But I do agree that, in general, people have a tendency to distill things down to a few examples. If you look at this list of classical-era composers even if you’re really well educated you’re probably going to see a lot more names that you don’t recognize than names that you do.

Taking this idea and applying it to all of the music which falls under the category of “Rock”. Klosterman wonders who will end up as the single example of the genre that people remember centuries from now. If Mozart (or Beethoven) is emblematic of classical music who is going to be the long term emblem of “Rock”? He goes through various options from The Beatles to The Rolling Stones before finally seeming to land on Chuck Berry. It’s a fun and even interesting exercise, but once again we have to ask if people remember The Beatles as the emblem of Rock instead of The Rolling Stones how does that change the world of 2525? (One might suspect this song from Zager and Evans will be unusually popular.) In other words when applying the title question, “But what if we’re wrong?” to this subject, I’m pretty sure the answer is if we’re wrong so what?

Another area he considers, and one that’s far more consequential, is the idea that we might be wrong about certain scientific principles. This had the potential to be more interesting than the culture discussion, but this potential was mostly unrealized. It became quickly obvious that Klosterman was out of his depth. I think the biggest evidence of this is how he missed out on two huge stories which both would have supported his thesis. To begin with he actually poses the question, “But what if we’re wrong about gravity?” This is kind of silly, there are lots of areas where we might end up being horribly wrong, but gravity is not a great candidate. That said for a long time Newton’s theory could not quite explain the orbit of Mercury, and it wasn’t until Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity added the warping of space due to the mass of the sun that Mercury’s orbit finally made sense. This is a perfect example of his point, and it’s nowhere to be seen.

The other example, which would have perfectly fit his point, would have been to discuss the conflict between the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics and some of the other explanations, in particular the pilot wave model. The Copenhagen Interpretation, which is still the most common explanation, ends up with a lot of weird situations. (You may have heard of Schrödinger’s cat?) The pilot wave model avoids all of that weirdness, and so the whole subject is a perfect candidate for something we might be wrong about. But either Klosterman didn’t talk to the right people (though he did manage to talk to Neil DeGrasse Tyson) or he didn’t ask the right questions or he came across both of these examples, but didn’t understand them well enough to include them in his book. Instead he offers up the idea of multiple universes, and points out that different universes could have different physical constants and different fundamental laws. But as interesting as that might be, it’s basically pointless. Yes, there could be another universe out there were gravity works differently, but it wouldn’t mean that we were wrong about how gravity works in our universe, or that we could ever conclusively prove there are other universes.

As I mentioned, Klosterman ended up talking to Neil DeGrasse Tyson, specifically about ways in which science could be wrong, and you get the impression that it didn’t go very well. This is not hard to understand. Tyson is one of the more public defenders of science, and I’m sure that Klosterman just seemed like another anti-vaccination, GMO-panicking, global warming denier. (I realize as I write that, that I’ve never used this space to clarify my own views on any of those subjects. I’ll have to rectify that.) Consequently Tyson comes across as being very defensive, and takes the strong position that nothing major in science is going to turn out to be wrong. When you’re talking about gravity (as Klosterman is) then I totally agree with Tyson, but as I’ve mentioned before, people have a tendency to lump the very solid science of Newton and Einstein in with science that is much more questionable, particularly stuff like social social and dietary science. Klosterman once again misses a great opportunity by not focusing on these areas of science, since as we know we’ve found all sorts of places where we’re wrong in these areas.

As I already pointed out, in addition to considering whether we’re wrong, we need to consider the effect of being wrong. And as I point out again and again in this space it’s generally easier to know the consequences of a given answer than to know the answer itself. As we already discussed, the consequences of being wrong about some aspect of pop culture are minor at best. When we move into science, the consequences change, though not in the way you might think. Being wrong about gravity might initially seem like a big deal, but actually we were wrong about it for thousands and thousands of years and it really didn’t have much impact. If there yet remain some tweaks to our understanding of gravity, on the order of Einstein’s adjustment, then it will have very little practical effect. On the other hand once we start to get into the social sciences the consequences of being wrong can be extreme. To take one of the larger examples, we have the failed experiments in Communism and the resulting deaths of tens of millions of people. Perhaps you disagree that this was a failure of social science, but ultimately it was a theory about how people would behave and it turned out to be spectacularly incorrect.

It may seem that I’m stating the obvious, of course there are places where being wrong is cataclysmic. Unfortunately these seem to be precisely the areas that Klosterman avoids. As you have probably already gathered I had serious issues with the book. Which is unfortunate because the title question is one that needs to be asked, a lot, and I think that far too few do so. This is a topic very much in need of more attention, but the attention it did receive in this book was all in the wrong places. The review I’ve done of the book so far is all in an effort to set the stage for a better examination of the question, one that gets into areas where it really matters if we’re wrong.

While Klosterman largely stays away from social science, he does talk about social issues more broadly. From any point of view, the last few decades, has seen a rapid, and unprecedented change in societal norms, particularly in the West. Given how recent and controversial these changes are, they seem like ideal candidates for things that we might be wrong about. But once again Klosterman shies away from talking about anything which could be truly consequential. This is not to say that he avoids the issue entirely. He does bring up the recent changes in western society, but not as candidates for being incorrect, but rather in the exact opposite fashion. He offers these changes up as proof that we were wrong in the past. This ties into his larger point that we might be wrong again, but he gives no indication that we might be wrong about any of the things we recently changed our mind about. In other words Klosterman spends a good chunk of the book pointing out that we are almost certainly wrong about some things, but when it comes to recent issues of social justice he seems to think that in this one area, we’ve finally dialed it in.

Clearly, it is possible that throughout most of human history up until a decade or so ago that we were wrong about Same Sex Marriage. But it’s also possible that we were right throughout most of human history and a decade ago is when we made the wrong choice. You can probably guess where I fall on that debate, but these days you get in trouble for even classifying it as open for discussion, but classifying something as closed for discussion is not the same thing as being correct.

I think it’s beneficial, if not critical, to examine issues similar to Same Sex Marriage, i.e issues where conventional wisdom has been reversed, but where there is limited historical precedent for this change. Things which in the past were almost exclusively done one way, but are now done differently. There are a lot of examples I could choose from and all of them are controversial, so in an attempt to try to keep the controversy to a minimum I will discuss just one example. It will still be controversial, but I’m hoping that I can limit the anger to a single interest group rather than getting everyone mad at me. The example I’m going to use is women in combat.

Similar to all issues that fall into this category, proponents of women in combat point to the many historical examples. Of course, the fact is, that if you dig into history deep enough you find that just about anything you can imagine has happened at least once. If you actually look into it, the truth of the matter is that, while there have been women in combat, it has always been extremely rare and generally either done covertly by the individuals themselves or by a country that had no other choice. But in the end, for proponents of this, and other recent changes it doesn’t matter, if historically it was very rare because we’re in a new age, and everything is different. All the outmoded standards and vulgar prejudices are being done away with. And it doesn’t matter if something has always been done a certain way because we’re better than all those wicked people from the past, and we’re going to do it differently.

As you can probably gather I think there are many reasons why history and tradition should not be cast aside so casually, but before we get to those, and to the larger issue of whether we might be wrong, let’s examine why people think we might finally be right about this issue. One argument I’ve heard (this was actually brought up by a friend of mine) is the idea that it’s a government benefit. That at it’s core being able to serve in the military is not that different than Medicaid or food stamps (SNAP). One could hardly imagine forbidding women (or men) from taking advantage of Medicaid or food stamps. And we spend more on defense than both of those put together. In this light if being in the military and specifically in combat is just viewed as one other way to get money from the government, restricting it on the basis of sex doesn’t make much sense. Personally, I think if the military is just another form of welfare or even a variety of job training that there are better, cheaper, and more efficient ways to accomplish that. But I probably haven’t done justice to my friend’s argument. I’ll make sure to point out this entry so he has an opportunity to give it the defense it deserves.

The argument I’ve just presented is merely a specific example of the more general argument that women should have the same opportunities men do. Closely related to this is the principle of equality. These are great ideas in theory, but it’s unclear, when speaking of women in combat, if they work in practice. I am not saying that opening up combat positions doesn’t increase both opportunity and equality, more that I’m not sure what else it might do. For those that think it’s a good idea, the fact that it increases these two core values is all that they need to know. But I’m more interested in how it affects the military as a whole, and on this count I find very few people arguing that it makes our army/navy/whatever better at fighting. There seems nothing inherent to the waging of war itself that makes it better done with an integrated fighting force. And here we start to get into some of the reasons why it might be a bad idea. Why it’s worth asking if the current policy might be wrong.

During the tumultuous years when the US military was in Iraq I don’t recall hearing anyone saying that the problem was too few women in combat roles. In other words we aren’t correcting some perceived deficiency. Rather, this appears to be strictly an issue of making things better for a certain number of women who want to be in combat, rather than making the US military better at it’s core mission. Now it’s possible that things have advanced enough and the US military is dominant enough that even if it does make our military slightly less effective that we don’t have to worry about it. This is the anti-historical argument from another angle. The argument that, yes, there were a variety of reasons why women weren’t put into combat in the past, but those reasons no longer apply.

How do we know those reasons don’t apply anymore? I know that many people want to ignore history, but what data do we have on this? If we just look at the US, women have been allowed in combat roles going, at best, all the way back to 2013, so we have, maximum, four years of data so far. That’s not a lot. Normally when you’re doing something new and you’re not sure if it’s going to work, you might implement it on a limited scale, collect some data, then introduce it a little more widely, collect some more data, etc. If you’ve read much about conditions among the infantry during larger wars (and I would even include Korea and Vietnam) than certainly you would think there are ample reasons to at least exercise some caution. But I don’t get the sense of any caution here. When Leon Panetta made the announcement, it was very broad.

Thus far we don’t really have any data on women in combat, at least that I can find. (If someone knows of any, please send it my way.) This isn’t surprising given the limited amount of combat since 2013. We do have some data from the longer period during which women have been in the military, though within this data I don’t see any examples of an integrated military being more effective than a male only military. I know of no wargames pitting one style of military against the other. I haven’t heard any stories of female pilots regularly out dog-fighting male pilots. (Once again please feel free to correct me on this.) The stories and numbers I do see mostly concern harassment. The most recent story making the rounds is of a vast network among the marines for sharing nude photos of female soldiers. Less publicized, are stories of the Navy having a growing problem with pregnancy among women who’ve been deployed. Apparently rising from 2% of women in 2015 to 16% currently. Both of these stories come on top of persistent stories of sexual harassment in the military going back to at least the Tailhook Scandal in 1991. (It’s certainly possible that there were reasons other than combat effectiveness for historically not having women in the military.)

Contrary to what you might be thinking I’m not actually trying to make the case that we shouldn’t have women in the military. I think that case could be made, but my focus is more on framing the question we started with. What if we’re wrong about women in the military? Are we enabling a large amount of sexual harassment that might not otherwise happen? Are we sacrificing military effectiveness on the altar of political correctness? Are we overlooking the wisdom of centuries?

Not to minimize it. in any way shape or form, but an increase in sexual harassment could end up not being the worst thing to come out of an integrated military. Earlier in the post I mentioned considering not only the probability of being wrong, but the consequences of being wrong. If we’re wrong about whether the Beatles are the quintessential rock group, it’s not a big deal. But if we assume that an integrated military is just as effective as a male only military and we’re wrong about that, the consequences could be the end of the US. The primary purpose of a military is to ensure that a country continues to exist. We mess with that at our peril. History is replete with stories of formerly dominant powers who found out in the space of a single engagement that their military was not as effective as it once was. I know I’m already violating my resolution to be more optimistic, and your welcome to disagree. Still, if nothing else, I would urge you to really look around at the world and it’s customs, at the current dogma and it’s recent triumphs and ask, “But what if we’re wrong?”


You may be out there reading this, and you may have already decided not to donate, That’s fine, it’s a perfectly valid opinion, but, what if you’re wrong? If that’s a worry maybe it’s best to donate just in case.


Doom vs. Optimism

If you prefer to listen rather than read, this blog is available as a podcast here. Or if you want to listen to just this post:

Or download the MP3


As I frequently mention, I’m wrong about a lot of things. But I know this, which means that if someone accuses me of being wrong, rather than ignoring them, I actually try to pay closer attention. Unfortunately this system relies on being able to identify the accusation in the first place. This is easy if you’re talking to someone face to face. Or if someone actually comes to your blog and tells you that you’re wrong, but for me (though perhaps not most people) potential accusations of wrongness occur far more frequently when I’m reading something. And it’s not always clear if the accusation applies to me.

For example when Thoreau says: The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. Is he talking to everyone else, but not me? Or is he, perhaps, just wrong about general levels of desperation? Or am I actually leading a life of quiet desperation, even though I don’t feel particularly desperate? In other words, am I wrong? It would be so much easier if it just said, “Jeremiah, you’re leading a life of quiet desperation and you don’t even realize it.” Then my only concern would be whether he’s wrong or whether I’m wrong. I would not have to decide if he’s even talking to me in the first place. All of this is a very roundabout way of saying, that I’m open to soul-searching if that’s what’s required, but I’m not always sure when it is.

I came across an example of this recently while reading through the Gordon B. Hinckley manual, the one we’re using in Priesthood and Relief Society this year. It happened as I was reading Lesson 3 which is titled Cultivating an Attitude of Happiness and a Spirit of Optimism. This lesson really jumped out at me, and in the Church that’s something you’re told to pay attention to. It’s not hard to imagine why it jumped out at me. I will freely admit to being very cynical by nature. If someone were to accuse me of being grumpy by default I don’t think I would argue with them very much. Consequently, this definitely seemed like one of those times where someone might be trying to tell me that I’m wrong.

As I mentioned above in the Thoreau example. There are three possibilities. First, President Hinckley could be talking about someone else. Second, he could be wrong. Or third, I could be wrong. The first possibility is unlikely given the natural cynicism I already mentioned. Also he is the leader of MY church, which means I’ve already decided he’s talking to me, and then finally there’s the whole bit about the lesson jumping out at me.  The second possibility, that President Hinckley is wrong, is something, which, for religious reasons, I’ve already basically ruled out. Which only leaves the final possibility, that I’m wrong, or at a minimum that I need to do some soul-searching, and, lucky you, I’m inviting you along for the ride.

Of course, wrongness operates on a continuum. On the one end it can be very black and white, as was the case when a one of my 2nd grade classmates bet me a “hundred bucks” that the speed of light was only 1,000 miles per hour. Needless to say he didn’t have a “hundred bucks”, and if I could remember his name maybe I’d try to track him down and collect it now. On the other end of the continuum are opinions like declaring Harry Potter the greatest fantasy series ever (for future reference it is, and always shall be, the Lord of the Rings.) So though I expect to be find some places where I’m wrong, I hope that it might fall more on the Lord of the Rings end of the spectrum, than on the speed of light end. Also, while, I’ve already admitted that I have a “bad attitude” what’s more important, particularly from the standpoint of the church is what I say and do.

One of the things I do (and also say) is this blog. Does it reflect a bad attitude? Probably. I wouldn’t blame anyone if that was their impression after reading posts about nuclear war, the end of progress, the near impossibility of space travel, etc. etc. In fact reading the last two posts they might specifically point to a lack of optimism about technology. Fortunately, there is a section in the lesson which appears to address that very subject. And given that at least one other person has pointed this out as an area where I may be wrong, it’s probably a great place to start. Here’s the relevant quote:

There never was a greater time in the history of the world to live upon the earth than this. How grateful every one of us ought to feel for being alive in this wonderful time with all the marvelous blessings we have.

When I think of the wonders that have come to pass in my lifetime—more than during all the rest of human history together—I stand in reverence and gratitude. I think of the automobile and the airplane, of computers, fax machines, e-mail, and the Internet. It is all so miraculous and wonderful. I think of the giant steps made in medicine and sanitation. … And with all of this there has been the restoration of the pure gospel of Jesus Christ. You and I are a part of the miracle and wonder of this great cause and kingdom that is sweeping over the earth blessing the lives of people wherever it reaches. How profoundly thankful I feel.

You can probably see where this quote might have some bearing on my last two posts about technology, specifically what I was saying about the Mormon Transhumanist Association (MTA). And, in my experience, this is the sort of quote the MTA loves. Does this mean I’m about to say that my last two posts were wrong? No. Definitely not. I’ve already written two posts on the subject (and the last one even addressed the idea that I might be wrong), so I don’t want to rehash all that here, but I continue to maintain that the technology President Hinckley is talking about and the technology the MTA is talking about are very different. That said, I could certainly see where someone might accuse me of underselling the awfulness of the past and overemphasizing current problems. And this is a great time to correct that impression.

When speaking on this subject I am reminded of my Grandma, who was born in 1912. Near the end of her life, she would often talk about how difficult young people have it these days. How hard it is to get started financially. She might also express her worries about war and disease. Oftentimes using some variant of the idea that “It’s never been worse.” Of course this is not true. My Grandmother lived through the Great Depression and World War II (also World War I though she probably didn’t remember much) not to mention the Spanish Flu Pandemic. But all of those things happened at least half a century ago, while the latest crisis, whatever it was, was always front and center. I don’t think I’ve ever said that that there was less violence or less sickness or less poverty in the past, but I also haven’t done perhaps as much as I should to emphasis the many ways in which modern life is pretty amazing. We do live, as President Hinckley said, in the greatest time in history, and we should be grateful for that.

By returning to the neglected theme of the blog, Jeremiah 8:20, I think we might find some clarity. Jeremiah said, “The harvest is past, the summer is ended and we are not saved.” Implicit in that scripture is the idea that there was a harvest, and a summer. And when President Hinckley talks about the wonderful technology of the modern world, that is precisely what he’s talking about. I don’t disagree with President Hinckley or the MTA about that. Where I disagree with the MTA is whether this harvest of technology and this summer of progress, has saved us or whether if it hasn’t. I think it has not and based on the rest of the President Hinckley quotes in the lesson I think he agrees. But getting to the bottom of President Hinckley’s feelings on technology is not the point of this post, the point is to get to the bottom of what he’s saying about happiness and optimism, and if you look at the full lesson you’ll see that references to modern conveniences makes up just a small portion of it. (In fact it basically just appears in the two paragraphs I quoted.)  So what does President Hinckley offer up as the keys to happiness and optimism?

Absent a better way of approaching things (and believe me I did spend a lot of time trying to come up with one) it’s probably best to just go through the various sections in the lesson. The first section is all about cultivating a spirit of happiness and optimism. As I’ve already mentioned this is where I could do better. I’m not someone who brims with happiness and optimism and I’m not someone whose writing brims with happiness and optimism either. I could do better and I’ll try to do better going forward, but I’m not committing to anything. Particularly since in the middle of this section President Hinckley says that he’s not asking for a silencing of all criticism. And he points out that:

Growth comes with correction. Strength comes with repentance. Wise is the man or woman who, committing mistakes pointed out by others, changes his or her course.

Someone who chooses the alias of Jeremiah is never going to shy away from pointing out mistakes, offering criticism or calling people to repentance. Nevertheless, I should remember to do it in the most loving way possible, and that probably hasn’t been the case thus far.

Section two is where his discussion of technology and the modern world appears, and since we’ve already covered that, we’ll jump ahead to section three.

The title of section three is “The gospel of Jesus Christ gives us a reason for gladness.” And I think here is where the lesson really gets into the meat of things, and the section where President Hinckley and I largely agree. It begins with a quote from the Doctrine and Covenants, Section 25 verse 13:

Wherefore, lift up thy heart and rejoice, and cleave unto the covenants which thou hast made.

I think there are a lot of people that have no problem with the first part, but don’t pay much attention to the second part. The part about actually keeping the covenants we’ve made. Obviously covenant keeping is something which largely applies to people inside of the Church but if we speak of commandments more generally, then I would have to say most people don’t agree with this connection between being happy and obeying the commandments. In fact my strong sense is that most people think that it’s the exact opposite. That obeying commandments is the biggest obstacle to happiness.  That telling people not to have sex outside of marriage or to avoid drugs or to do anything else to restrict their natural urges is the chief cause of unhappiness. President Hinckley makes it very clear that this is not the case:

Transgression never was happiness. Disobedience never was happiness. The way of happiness is found in the plan of our Father in Heaven and in obedience to the commandments of His Beloved Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.

This is the point most people overlook, and while I’m sure, as this lesson demonstrates, that we need to be reminded from time to time to be optimistic and happy. When I look at the world I see at least as much need if not more of reminding people to keep the commandments. And while I am horrible at the former I don’t think anyone can say that I’ve avoided doing the latter.

President Hinckley goes on to make another point which I think a lot of people miss. Many people in the world today think that happiness comes from being able to do what we want to. This is why most people think that keeping the commandments is the opposite of happiness, but President Hinckley points out that happiness comes from faith in things which are outside of ourselves, that in fact if we can only derive happiness from things going the way we want that we’re going to be disappointed a lot of the time. To illustrate this he offers up an old newspaper clipping:

Anyone who imagines that bliss is normal is going to waste a lot of time running around shouting that he has been robbed.

Most putts don’t drop. Most beef is tough. Most children grow up to be just people. Most successful marriages require a high degree of mutual toleration. Most jobs are more often dull than otherwise…

Life is like an old-time rail journey—delays, sidetracks, smoke, dust, cinders, and jolts, interspersed only occasionally by beautiful vistas and thrilling bursts of speed.

The trick is to thank the Lord for letting you have the ride.

Thanking the Lord for letting us have the ride is an example of looking for a foundation outside of ourselves, an idea President Hinckley expands on in the fourth section, so we’ll move on to that.

The overarching message of section four and perhaps of the whole lesson, is faith. Specifically the idea that everything will work out. In fact the lesson says that this may have been the assurance President Hinckley repeated most often to family and friends. This may seem at odds with the newspaper clipping I just included, but President Hinckley’s point is more that everything will work out eventually, rather than that everything will work out immediately. Once again people reading my blog could find ample places where I appear to be saying that things won’t work out. But what I’m saying is the complement to what President Hinckley is saying, he’s saying that in the end everything will be okay, and I’m saying that before the end their might be some times when things are not okwy. In other words, I think we’re saying the same thing, in any event where we both agree is that we definitely need the help of God. That we will not be saved through our own efforts. President Hinckley states it this way:

The Lord never said that there would not be troubles. Our people have known afflictions of every sort as those who have opposed this work have come upon them. But faith has shown through all their sorrows. This work has consistently moved forward and has never taken a backward step since its inception.

This idea of troubles and afflictions runs through the last part of the lesson, continuing from section four into the concluding section, section five. Section five is more about recognizing our status as Children of God, but it ends on a note that I think ties in with many of the things I’ve already written on the topic.

In a dark and troubled hour the Lord said to those he loved: “Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.”

These great words of confidence are a beacon to each of us. In him we may indeed have trust. For he and his promises will never fail.

Right at the beginning of the lesson we’re urged to not fret about the future. The word future is mentioned a couple of other times, but on those other occasions it’s in reference to the future of the Church. This is the only time where specific instructions are given about the future in general, but in reality the future and worrying about the future form the background for the entire lesson. When President Hinckley urges us to be optimistic it’s understood that we should be optimistic about the future. When he mentions keeping the commandments, once again he’s referencing the future, specifically how we should act in the days and months to come. Of course he also mentions troubles and afflictions. It may seem counterintuitive to emphasis both troubles and optimism. While we can draw a certain amount of optimism from the assurance that everything will work out eventually, that only gets us so far. How do we maintain a spirit of optimism and happiness in the meantime? We don’t do it by ignoring potential catastrophes, or by blindly assuming everything is going to be great, we do it by protecting ourselves against those catastrophes. This largely takes the form of keeping the commandments, but it also takes the form of savings and food storage and strengthening families and communities. While it’s true I may spend too much time emphasizing the bad things which may happen, I did it largely to assist with this preparation.

Certainly, like President Hinckley I believe that everything will work out eventually, but that doesn’t mean that a lot of bad might not happen in the next 10 years or the next 20. And, obviously, it is exactly that sort of statement that makes me seem pessimistic, but the way to happiness and optimism is not through ignoring the future or naively assuming we’ve progressed past the point of worry, the way to happiness and optimism is knowing that you’re prepared. It didn’t come up in the lesson, but President Hinckley gave an entire talk on the idea that if we are prepared we shall not fear.

This is why we’re urged to keep the commandments. What does anyone have to fear if they’re prepared to meet their maker? Death itself holds no terror if we’ve done what we were supposed to. In the shorter term the Church encourages us to stay out of debt, assemble food storage, live modestly, support one another. All of these are things which increase our happiness and optimism because we have less to worry about. And here, rather than being wrong, I think President Hinckley and I are in exact agreement. This is the whole concept of Antifragility which I’ve talked about in numerous places. Keeping the commandments makes you antifragile. Having savings and food storage makes you antifragile. Having a loving and strong family makes you antifragile. And as much as I need to work on my attitude I think doing all of this is the surest way to happiness and optimism.


If you’re feeling happy and optimistic, consider donating, it might decrease your happiness, but it will increase mine.


Why I Hope the MTA Is Right, but Also Why It’s Safer to Assume They’re Not

If you prefer to listen rather than read, this blog is available as a podcast here. Or if you want to listen to just this post:

Or download the MP3


Last week’s post was titled Building the Tower of Babel, and it was written as a critique of the position and views of the Mormon Transhumanist Association (MTA). Specifically it was directed at an article written by Lincoln Cannon titled Ethical Progress is not Babel. In response to my post Cannon came by and we engaged in an extended discussion in the comments section. If you’re interested in seeing that back and forth, I would recommend that you check them out. Particularly if you’re interested in seeing Cannon’s defense of the MTA. (And what open-minded person wouldn’t be?)

I was grateful Cannon stopped by for several reasons. First I was worried about misrepresenting the MTA, and indeed it’s clear that I didn’t emphasize enough that, for the MTA, technology is just one of many means to bring about salvation and in their view insufficient by itself. Second a two-sided discussion of the issues is generally going to be more informative and more rigorous than a one-sided monologue. And third because I honestly wasn’t sure what to do with the post, or with the MTA in general. Allow me to explain.

In a previous post I put people into three categories: the Radical Humanists, the Disengaged Middle and the Actively Religious. And in that post I said I had more sympathy for and felt more connected to the Radical Humanists than to the Disengaged Middle. The MTA is almost unique in being part of both the Radical Humanist group and the Actively Religious. Consequently I should be very favorably disposed to them, and I am, but that doesn’t mean that I think they’re right, though if it were completely up to me I’d want them to be right. This is the difficulty. On the one hand I think there are a lot of issues where we agree. And on those issues both of us (but especially me) need all the allies we can get. On the other hand, I think they’re engaged in a particularly seductive and subtle form of heresy. (That may be too strong of a word.) And I am well-positioned to act as a defender of the Mormon Orthodoxy against this, let’s say, mild heresy. And it should go without saying that I could be wrong about this. Which is one of the reasons why I think you should go read the discussion in the comments of the last post and decide for yourself.

Perhaps a metaphor might help to illuminate how I see and relate to the MTA. Imagine that you and your brother both dream of selling chocolate covered asparagus. So one day the two of you decide to start a business doing just that. As your business gets going your father offers you a lot of advice. His advice is wise and insightful and by following it your business gradually grows to the point where it’s a regional success story. But at some point your father dies.

Initially this doesn’t really change anything, but eventually you and your brother are faced with a business decision where you don’t see eye to eye, and your father isn’t around anymore. Let’s say the two of you are approached by someone offering to invest a lot of money in the business. You think the guy is shady and additionally that once he’s part owner, that he may change the chocolate covered asparagus business in ways that would damage it, alter it into something unrecognizable or potentially even destroy it. Perhaps he might make you switch to lower quality chocolate, or perhaps he wants to branch into chocolate covered broccoli. (Which is just insane.) Regardless, you don’t trust him or his motives.

On the other hand, your brother thinks it’s a great opportunity to really expand the chocolate covered asparagus business from being a regional player into a worldwide concern. In the past your father might have settled the dispute, but he’s gone, and as the two of you look back on his copious advice you can both find statements which seem to support your side in the dispute. And, not only that, both of you feel that the other person is emphasizing some elements of your father’s advice while ignoring other parts. In any event you’re adamant that you don’t want this guy as an investor and part owner, and your brother is equally adamant that it’s a tremendous opportunity and the only way your chocolate covered asparagus business is really going to be successful.

None of this means that you don’t still love your brother, or that either of you is any less committed to the vision of chocolate covered asparagus. Or that either of you is less respectful of your late father. But these commonalities do nothing to resolve the conflict. You still feel that this new investor may destroy the chocolate covered asparagus business, while your brother feels that the investor is going to provide the money necessary to make it a huge success. And perhaps, most interesting of all, if you could just choose the eventual outcome of the decision you would choose your brother’s expected outcome. You would choose for the investment to be successful, and for chocolate covered asparagus to fill the world, bringing peace and prosperity in it’s wake.

But, you can’t choose one future over another, you can’t know what will happen when you take on the investor. And in your mind it’s better to preserve the company you have than risk losing it all on a unclear bet and a potentially unreliable partner.

Okay that metaphor ended up being longer than I initially planned, also, as with all metaphors it’s not perfect, but hopefully it gives you some sense of the spirit in which I’m critiquing the MTA. And perhaps the metaphor also helps explain why there are many ways in which I hope the MTA is right, and I’m wrong. Finally I hope it also provides a framework for my conclusion that the best course of action is to assume that they’re not right. But, let’s start by examining a couple of areas where I definitely hope they are correct.

The first and largest area where I hope the MTA is right and I’m wrong is war and violence. There is significant evidence that humans are getting less violent. The best book on the subject is Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker, which I reviewed in a previous post. As I mentioned in that post I do agree that there has been a short term trend of less violence, and also, a definite decrease in the number of deaths due to war. This dovetails nicely with the MTA’s assertion that humanity’s morality is increasing at the same rate as its technology, and given these trends, there is certainly ample reason to be optimistic. But this is where the Mormon part of the MTA comes into play. While it’s certainly reasonable for Pinker and secular transhumanists to be optimistic about the future, for Mormons and Christians in general, there is the little matter of Armageddon. Or as it’s described in one of my favorite scriptures Doctrine and Covenants Section 87 verse 6:

And thus, with the sword and by bloodshed the inhabitants of the earth shall mourn; and with famine, and plague, and earthquake, and the thunder of heaven, and the fierce and vivid lightning also, shall the inhabitants of the earth be made to feel the wrath, and indignation, and chastening hand of an Almighty God, until the consumption decreed hath made a full end of all nations;

I assume that the MTA has an explanation for this scripture that is different than mine, but I’m having a hard time finding anything specific online. If I had to guess, I imagine they would say that it has already happened. But in any case, they have to have an alternative explanation because if we assume that the situation described above has yet to arrive, then the MTA will have at least two problems. First the trend of decreasing violence and increasing morality will have definitely ended, and second I think it’s safe to assume that if we have to pass through the “full end of all nations”, that what comes out on the other side won’t bear any resemblance to the utopian transhumanist vision of the MTA. Again, I hope they’re right, and I hope I’m wrong, I hope that scripture has somehow already been fulfilled, or that I’m completely misinterpreting it. I hope that humanity is more peaceful than I think, rather than less. But just because I want something to be a certain way doesn’t mean that’s how it’s actually going to play out.

For our second area, let’s take a look at genetic engineering. Just today I was listening to the Radiolab podcast, specifically the most recent episode which was an update to an older episode exploring a technology called CRISPR. If you’re not familiar with it, CRISPR is a cheap and easy technology for editing DNA, and the possibilities for it’s use are nearly endless. The most benign and least controversial application of CRISPR would be using it to eliminate genetic diseases like hemophilia (something they’re already testing in mice.) From this we move on to more questionable uses, like using CRISPR to add beneficial traits to human embryos (very similar to the movie Gattaca). Another questionable application would involve using CRISPR to edit some small portion of a species and then, taking advantage of another technique called Gene Drive, use the initially modified individuals to spread the edited genes to the rest of the species. An example of this would be modifying mosquitos so that they no longer carry malaria. But it’s easy to imagine how this might cause unforeseen problems. Also how the technique could be used in the service of other, less savory goals. I’ll allow you a second to imagine some of the nightmare scenarios this technique makes available to future evil geniuses.

CRISPR is exactly the sort of technology the MTA and other transhumanists have been looking forward to. It’s not hard to see how the cheap and easy editing of DNA makes it easier to achieve things like immortality and greater intelligence. But as I already pointed out even positive uses for CRISPR have been controversial. According to the Radiolab podcast the majority of bioethicists are opposed to using CRISPR to add beneficial traits to human embryos. (Which hasn’t stopped China from experimenting with it.)

As far as I understand it the MTA’s position on all of this is that it’s going to be great, that the bioethicists worry to much. This attitude stems from their aforementioned belief that morality and technology are advancing together. Which means that by the time we master a technology we will also have developed the morality to handle it. As it turns out DNA editing is another area of agreement between the MTA and Steven Pinker, who said the following:

Biomedical research, then, promises vast increases in life, health, and flourishing. Just imagine how much happier you would be if a prematurely deceased loved one were alive, or a debilitated one were vigorous — and multiply that good by several billion, in perpetuity. Given this potential bonanza, the primary moral goal for today’s bioethics can be summarized in a single sentence.

Get out of the way.

A truly ethical bioethics should not bog down research in red tape, moratoria, or threats of prosecution based on nebulous but sweeping principles such as “dignity,” “sacredness,” or “social justice.” Nor should it thwart research that has likely benefits now or in the near future by sowing panic about speculative harms in the distant future. These include perverse analogies with nuclear weapons and Nazi atrocities, science-fiction dystopias like “Brave New World’’ and “Gattaca,’’ and freak-show scenarios like armies of cloned Hitlers, people selling their eyeballs on eBay, or warehouses of zombies to supply people with spare organs. Of course, individuals must be protected from identifiable harm, but we already have ample safeguards for the safety and informed consent of patients and research subjects.

Given this description perhaps you can see why I hope the MTA, and Pinker are right. I hope that CRISPR and other similar technologies do yield a better life for billions. I hope that humanity is mature enough to deal with the technology, and that it’s just as cool, and as transformative as they predict. That the worries of the bioethicists concerning CRISPR and the warnings of scripture concerning war, turn out to be overblown. That the future really is as awesome as they say it’s going to be. Wouldn’t it be nice if it were true.

But perhaps, like me, you don’t think it is. Or perhaps, you’re just not sure. Or maybe despite my amazing rhetoric and ironclad logic, you still think that the MTA is right, and I’m wrong. The key thing, as always, is that we can’t know. We can’t predict the future, we can’t know for sure who is right and who is wrong. Though to be honest I think the evidence is in my favor, but even so let’s set that aside for the moment and examine the consequences of being wrong from either side.

If I’m wrong, and the MTA is correct, then my suffering will be minimal. Sure the transhumanist overlords will dredge up my old blog posts and use them to make me look foolish. Perhaps I’ll be included in a hall of fame of people who made monumentally bad predictions. But I’ll be too busy living to 150, enjoying a post scarcity society, and playing amazingly realistic video games, to take any notice of their taunting.

On the other hand, if I’m right and the MTA is wrong. Then the sufferings of those who were unprepared could be extreme. Take any of the things mentioned in D&C 87:6 and it’s clear that even a little preparation in advance could make a world of difference. I’m not necessarily advocating that we all drop everything and build fallout shelters, I’m talking about the fundamental asymmetry of the situation. Which is to say that the consequences of being wrong are much worse in one situation than in the other.

The positions of the MTA and the transhumanists and of Pinker are asymmetrical in several ways. First is the way I already mentioned, and is inherent in the nature of extreme negative events, or black swans as we like to call them. If you’re prepared for a black swan it only has to happen once to make all the preparation worth while, but if you’re not prepared then it has to NEVER happen. To use an example from a previous post, imagine if I predicted a nuclear war. And I had moved to a remote place and built a fallout shelter and stocked it with shelf after shelf of canned goods. Every year I predict a nuclear war and every year people mock me, because year after year I’m wrong. Until one year, I’m not. At that point, it doesn’t matter how many times I was the crazy guy from Wyoming, and everyone else was the sane defender of modernity and progress, because from the perspective of consequences they got all the consequences of being wrong despite years and years of being right, and I got all the benefits of being right despite years and years of being wrong.

The second way in which their position is asymmetrical is the number of people who have to be “good”. CRISPR is easy enough and cheap enough and powerful enough that a small group of people could inflict untold damage. The same goes for violence due to war. It’s not enough for the US and Russia to not get into a war. China, Pakistan, North Korea, Israel, France, Japan, Taiwan, India, Brazil, Vietnam, the Ukraine, and on and on, all have to behave as well. The point being that even if you are impressed with modern standards of morality (which I’m not by the way) if only 1% of the people decide to be really bad, it doesn’t matter how good the other 99% are.

The final asymmetry is that of time. A large part of the transhumanist vision came about because we’re in a very peaceful time where technology is advancing very quickly. Thus the transhumanists came into being during a brief period where it seems obvious that things are going to continue getting better. But they seem to largely ignore the possibility that in 100 years an enormous number of things might have changed. The US might no longer exist, perhaps democracy itself will be rare, we could hit a technological plateau, and of course we’ll have to go that entire time without any of the black swans I already mentioned. No large scale nuclear wars, no horrible abuses of DNA editing, nor any other extreme negative events which might derail our current rate of progress and our current level of peace.

As my final point, in addition to the two things I hope the MTA is right about I’m going to add one thing which I hope they’re not right about. To introduce the subject I’d like to reference a series of books I just started reading. It’s the Culture Series by Iain M. Banks, named after the civilization at the core of all the books. Wikipedia describes Culture as a utopian, post-scarcity space communist society of humanoids, aliens, and very advanced artificial intelligences. We find out additionally that its citizens can live to be up to 400. So not immortal, but very long lived. In other words Culture is everything transhumanists hope for. As far as I can tell citizens of the Culture spend their time in either extreme boredom, some manner of an orgy or transitioning from one gender into another and back again. Perhaps this is someone’s idea of heaven, but it’s not mine. In other words if this or something like it is what the MTA has in mind as the fulfillment of all the things promised by the scriptures, then I hope they’re wrong. And I would offer up that they suffer from a failure of imagination.

I hope that resurrection is more than just cloning and cryonics, that transfiguration is more than having my mind uploaded into a World of Warcraft server, that “worlds without number” is more than just a SpaceX colony on Mars. That immortality is more than just the life I already have, but infinitely longer. If you’re thinking at this point that my description of things is a poor caricature of what the MTA really aspires to then you’re almost certainly correct, but I hope that however lofty the dreams of the MTA that those lofty dreams are in turn a poor caricature of what God really has in store for us.

Returning to my original point. I am very favorably disposed to the MTA. I think they have some great ideas, and I’ve very impressed with the way they’ve combined science and religion. Unfortunately, despite all that, we have very different philosophies when it comes to the business of chocolate covered asparagus.


Given that we don’t yet live in a post-scarcity society consider donating. And if you’re pretty sure we eventually will, that’s all the more reason to donate, since money will soon be pointless anyway.