Archives For politics

buried skull

When the world momentarily became a better place through bin Laden’s removal from it, there was an instant surge of “deathers,” conspiracy theorists convinced that there was no raid or the whole thing was a sham, weaving a New World Order tale for every possible scenario. Indulged by the media looking for views and bursting comment sections, they went quiet after al Qaeda’s generals themselves confirmed that indeed, their leader was dead and gone. Or, at least, quiet in the public eye. But now there’s a new bin Laden conspiracy theory in town from a legendary investigative reporter who says that the raid in Pakistan was indeed a sham, and instead of the intelligence community tracking down a terrorist mastermind and dispatching special operators to take him out in a daring raid, the CIA and SOCOM was just doing Pakistan’s dirty work while stuffing someone’s wallet to the tune of $25 million. In trying to answer the very real mystery of how Pakistan could allow the most wanted man on earth to set up shop next to their West Point, he ended up with a tall tale that belongs on InfoWars rather than in a real newspaper.

Many technicalities of Hersh’s story have already been picked apart by numerous writers, so I’ll limit myself to solely the showstoppers here. First off is the idea that Pakistan not only knew bin Laden was hiding out next to their top military facility, they put him there under house arrest for future use as a pawn in negotiations with the U.S. about military aid. This actually makes sense because the ISI is the kind of organization that would think that this would be a great idea, but it quickly stops making it when you realize that they would’ve held him for five years. A deal could have been made within months if not weeks because terrorists do not age like fine wine and art. Bin Laden was worth even more when al Qaeda affiliates were raising hell in Iraq and he hadn’t yet become a far off leader writing vague strategy memos. To sit on an asset like this when the Bush Administration would’ve surely paid handsomely for his head would be asinine.

The second problem is the claim that the ISI went along with a greedy informant who waltzed in from the street and asked American diplomats for the bounty on bin Laden’s head. Whether he went rogue or sent by the intelligence agency guarding bin Laden, why would Pakistan follow? Every passionate rebuttal of a Hersh debunking rests on the idea that the ISI wouldn’t give up a man who many Pakistanis actually see as a hero, including some fundamentalist higher ups in the so-called Pakistani deep state, the shadowy cabal of generals, tycoons, and politicians who hold real power in the country. Then why would they help Americans execute a raid? Why allow them to even get close to bin Laden rather than hide him or just discredit the informant? Which one is it? Pakistan wanted to trade bin Laden for cash and guns, or protect him as a hero? The two are mutually exclusive. Did the ISI suddenly decide that after holding on to him through the years of violence and turmoil on their borders and within he just wasn’t worth it?

But changing their mind about bin Laden’s upkeep has to be eliminated as an option due to the third big problem with Hersh’s tale, the idea that Saudi Arabia paid to house him in Pakistan. It’s only a slightly less ridiculous proposition than the idea that it was the Americans who footed the bill because anyone who knows anything about bin Laden is aware that the House of Saud was very interested in having him killed. Suggesting otherwise falls into the “well, Arabs are all more or less the same, right?” category of geopolitical reasoning. Saudis didn’t mind him too much as long as he picked fights with Americans, but they drew the line at attacking their kingdom. All of his Saudi benefactors and friends were actually dealing with him illegally because his citizenship was revoked and his assets frozen after he tried to orchestrate a revolt against the royal family for allowing American bases on Saudi soil. Why would the House of Saud ever pay to imprison someone they wanted dead and blamed for terrorist attacks on hotels and oil refineries?

While it’s true that Saudi Arabia funds terrorists around the world, the fuller, darker story, is that this is how they deal with homegrown homicidal extremists; they simply export them to a distant land, fighting wars that don’t need to be fought funded by countries that don’t want to fight them but know that the minute they stop giving their bloodthirsty maniacs something to do, they’ll be handling a domestic crisis of epic proportions. So why didn’t Pakistan adopt the strategy which would’ve made them look either cunning or completely un-involved and sent bin Laden off into some distant province of Afghanistan to die or get killed if they wanted to get rid of him? It’s so much more likely that there were ISI people aware of his presence, who saw him as a hero and didn’t want him to die, and simply kept their mouths shut, directing suspicious minds to look for him elsewhere. Then, when they woke up one morning to find that a SEAL team killed him, that was the end of that as far as they were concerned. They did their best to protect him, but they lacked the virtually unlimited resources of a superpower with a globe spanning military.

As said before, there are dozens of little details that give us reason to doubt pretty much every other word that Hersh wrote and relying on all anonymous sources makes his story pretty much impossible to verify. If you believe that special operators refer to what they do as “murder” and throw bodies of long sought foes out of choppers for no reason, that the House of Saud won’t just off their enemies, that it somehow benefited either Saudi Arabia or Pakistan to keep the old terrorist alive while his minions wreaked havoc across the region, and that despite photos of an honest to goodness firefight and wreckage at the compound, the SEALs actually just walked in, shot an already almost dead man in a wheelchair to later dump his body mid-flight, and left, you probably won’t agree with a single critique of Hersh’s “expose.” And you’ll likely resort to the oft repeated defense of his writing: “you’re just asking questions about why they did something, not showing that Hersh is wrong!” But actually I am. People can be illogical, but generally, when we come to politics on the world stage, people follow their best interests and all my questions really ask is why none of their players he invokes, other than the U.S., acted in their best interests.

Finally, here’s the most important detail to consider. Hersh had two explosive reports that gave him his legendary reputation, the story on the My Lai massacre, and the investigation into how prisoners were being abused at Abu Grahib. Much of the rest of his journalistic career, though, was spent trying to find a contrarian narrative that would give him a second My Lai bombshell, and he relied on con men, cranks, and dictators with every incentive to lie to him as his primary sources, either regurgitating conspiracy theories, or inventing a new one on the spot when he felt he needed to up the ante. And that’s the sad truth about him. He started as an investigative journalist looking for the truth, then having gotten a taste of success, became a pundit with his expected narrative. Much like Glenn Beck will see a communist conspiracy in everything and in every current event Alex Jones finds the Illuminati, Hersh will keep telling you that America is a bumbling, barely competent empire with outsize ambitions. The truth is that America does use plenty of military and financial muscle to maintain its global hegemony, but every country plays the same game as well. But that truth is messy, too messy for Hersh. He wants a villain, a very big and easy target for our outrage so he can pull in enough attention to justify his fee…

tower of babel

Humans can sure take up a lot of space. Not literally mind you, if you stacked humans in pods just big enough to accommodate the average person and raise them 50 units high, the entire global population would comfortably fit within the Bronx metro area, with 23 square kilometers left over. For those curious, yes, I actually did the math. I know, I’m a nerd. But like all abstract calculations, this is technically correct but very much irrelevant since we don’t live in pods with a few inches of wiggle room in every direction, we like to have our space. This is why even a high density megacity can take up as much as 7,000 square miles. Start adding in suburbs, exhurbs and other bordering towns that seem to merge with our biggest cities, farms that feed the many millions living in this area, and you end up with vast swaths of space dedicated to perpetuating countless humans with the substantial environmental costs that entails. So what if, asked many architects over the years, we were to consolidate entire cities in massive skyscrapers?

Now the idea is sound if your first priority is efficient allocation of resources. While no huge city could be perfectly efficient, on average, any megacity could concentrate resources and shorten supply chains. This can mean less waste, more productivity, and more economic activity. But if we take it one step further and start structuring them around giant, self-contained skyscrapers, we can wring out many of the current remaining inefficiencies in resource allocation. A vertical farm in each skyscraper would double as green space and the perfect place for producing a lot of staple crops that instead of being delivered across a country are delivered to a different floor which saves a lot on infrastructure costs. From a utopian perspective, embracing growing your own crops in a vertical community garden inside a giant building that also has apartments, bars and nightclubs, movie theaters, schools, and offices could return many millions of square miles back to nature should every city in the world make that leap. But would that ever happen?

Today, such a transition would be politically dead on arrival and technically hard to execute. It’s not for a lack of ideas though; within the last 30 years there have been no shortage of plans to build these cities in a skyscraper including Sky City 1000, Shimizu TRY Pyramid, and just a few weeks ago, Sand Sky City. But just because there are plans doesn’t mean there’s enough raw materials to actually build these projects or money to afford them. Between buying all the land required to pour the foundations, or in the case of Sand Sky City, establish robust routes to get materials to a job site in the middle of nowhere, even getting started comes with a price tag few governments could afford, and those that could, probably have many other uses for the money, ones that will be much more popular with their constituents. Speaking of which, how do you get people to live in these skyscrapers in numbers that make them economically viable? 

One rather popular conspiracy theory here in the United States is that extreme urban planning proposals like this are really the machinations of an evil cabal trying to enslave humanity for an amazingly wide array of sinister purposes, so there go millions of potential residents. Plus, how many people would be fine with giving up their privacy, living with over a million others not just around them, but in the same building at any given time? Just like flying cars look great from a purely utilitarian, utopian point of view, the reality of actually creating them is fraught with many problems that will take a long time to address. Maybe at some point in the far future, with more globalized economies and massive changes in culture, buildings housing an entire city could be viable, and by then we’re bound to have plans for hundreds of them. But we’re not going to get them anytime soon. They simply cost too much, require too much, and unlikely to provide the kind of return on investment we’d need to make them worthwhile. At least for now…

future highway

As I said before, we really want the Musks and Gates of the world to keep investing exactly the way they’re investing now and we want to keep on encouraging their choices through every tax credit, rebate, and whatever other enticement we can think of. Then we need to take that cash and start pouring it into the sciences and education. Why? Because the biggest reasons those knocked out of the job market by machines and outsourcing will not be able to find new, steady work are a) one-way globalization by nations happily trading goods and services, but severely restricting the flow of labor, and b) lack of skills for new careers and the prohibitively high price tag of acquiring relevant credentials. The former is very, very hard to solve because it’s asking certain countries to put the good of the world above their self-interest, which is political suicide for their leaders. The latter, on the other hand, is something we can take on quickly.

Right now, the typical new degree requires about $18,000 not including books, fees, and living expenses for the next three to four years. And by the time you graduate, your job may already be made obsolete by a new app or maxed out by existing candidates. You’ll also have trouble with getting enough experience in your new chosen field for employers and end up having to work an unpaid internship position just to put something on your resume. Oh and your student debt could only be dismissed by an act of Congress or an alien invasion, and given the current political climate, I would bet cash money on the aliens. Although I’m sure Sally May would keep their employees hounding debtors even while buildings around them are being mowed down by the invaders’ lasers until the bitter end, knowing how they typically operate…

This is an asinine state of affairs. We need something closer to formally accredited certification programs and really, really consider making the college degree optional again for fields which honestly don’t involve specialized knowledge requiring years of theoretical study. If we sponsor enough universities to offer them for affordable sums and actually do job training programs with major companies, we’d be giving millions of people displaced by machines new chances in life. There are trade schools and community college programs that try to fulfill this function already, but there aren’t enough, too many are just predatory scams, and too many HR departments will scoff at these credentials when they see them on a candidate’s resume. We need to tackle this as directly as possible because even management experts consider the way companies hire to be often broken and completely illogical, often indicating a management problem.

We also need to take our education system seriously, easing up on standardized testing across the board and setting our sights on helping students discover what they really want to do in life as they’re getting their general education, providing chances for real world experiences in their fields of choice. When they can see what their lives would actually entail if they choose to follow their dreams, they’ll make better choices about how to peruse them rather than play education poker with a college which views them as customers receiving a product for which they borrow many to pay and expect a bang for their buck, not students to be educated so they can acquire a career by employing the theoretical framework their professors give them.

The common thread in all this is of course lowering the financial and time commitment bars for getting to work and learning new skills as they are needed by the marketplace by getting rid of nonsensical requirements that don’t actually help students or adults looking to make a change. Not only would it help them immeasurably, but they could give them a chance to explore their potential, try more new things in life, and live up to their aspirations without sticker shock. Yes, we could try to create some sort of minimum national income for all citizens as some suggest, but other than the many social questions this idea raises, questions we’re obviously not ready and willing to answer, passively reacting to a decline in jobs and income growth for the 99% by widening the social safety net and hoping that we can change things by doing exactly what got us into this mess in the first place, this approach would kill the potential of millions.

Today we’re snuffing out engineers, writers, doctors, and designers by under-educating them the first 12 years of their schooling, bilking them the next four, and subjecting their resumes to death by a thousand keywords and buzzwords. Just giving them some money while placing all their goals even further out of reach isn’t going to do any good whatsoever. What we need is a lot more moon shots, crazy inventions, and government aided competitions for solutions to our big problems; big picture thinking that asks “what about tomorrow?” rather than “how do I make a buck today?” We got into this mess by taking the easy way, by assuming things won’t change. More of the same solutions to our problems, like Piketty’s wealth tax, or standardized testing, or more lopsided free trade deals, or pouring our money into another bubble, won’t get us out. We need to rethink our priorities and focus on investing in a new post-industrial world where basics like education, wealth, and jobs, aren’t just zero-sum games.

reserve note

Now, far be it for a lowly techie to question the work of an economist like Piketty since he’s, well, an economist, with many years of education and research in the discipline, and since I’m not a political pundit, I don’t suffer from the delusion that just being able to read his thesis makes me an expert in economics as well. But at the same time, this is the internet, I have wi-fi and years of professional blogging experience, so I’m going to barrel ahead anyways. Although it’s not so much to say that Piketty is wrong in his conclusions or his views about why economic inequality is a bad thing, as much as, at least in my opinion, his proscription has a hidden danger in it and it covers up the biggest and most problematic issue for workers in the near future, for whom his solutions will fall very, very short.

At the core of Piketty’s findings is the issue that capital gains are outstripping economic growth by comparison, and it’s really difficult to argue with mathematics on this. The compound return on $3 million in investments is going to grow a lot faster than savings from a $45,000 per year salary socked away into secure, slow growing investments. This is especially true because the larger sum lets you better absorb market losses, and gives you leeway to be more aggressive with your investment strategies, whereas smaller investments have to be far safer, since many risks become too expensive. And so, true to the saying, the rich get richer.

But this is not necessarily a bad thing. Inequality in and of itself is a very normal condition, and even in the most egalitarian community there are those who, to paraphrase an old Soviet quip, are more equal than others. Where the problem lies is in inequality looming so wide that social mobility starts to notably suffer, something that may be starting to happen in the United States. Certainly the capitalist ethos of the U.S. dictates that there will be winners and losers when we talk about money, and that someone who became a millionaire after many years of hard work and smart asset management should be seen as an example, not an exploitative oligarch.

But at the same time, this culture was based on equality of access, i.e. the idea that we should all start with similar opportunities and through hard work, achieve our dreams. When you’re no longer able to do that, the economic game becomes rigged and the consequences to long term stability are dire. Typically, nations with the biggest middle classes and the most social mobility enjoy the most stable and prosperous economies. Those divided primarily into a wealthy elite v. a small middle class and many in poverty, stagnate and suffer from more violence, crime, and political unrest. So Piketty’s point that we shouldn’t stand idly by, concluding that if an oligarchy emerges from a capitalistic economy we should simply accept it, has serious support behind it. But should we start taxing wealth at punitive levels to avoid an authoritarian kleptocracy?

In a short? No. Gains from investments are not certain, and even worse, if you recall the Great Recession’s more boring, but financially crucial lessons, many of today’s massive capital gains were built on the very shaky foundation of financial shenanigans and collaterized obligations by over-leveraged banks. Institutions borrowed so heavily to trade assets which were rotten at the core, boosting value of financial equivalents of badly burnt White Castle sliders to that of a filet mignion made by Gordon Ramsey, and then played a game of musical chairs with them. (That should be enough overlapping metaphors for one sentence, right?) And if you think the banks learned from their mistakes, you are an optimistic soul whose lofty expectations of your fellow humans is endearing, but sadly, misguided. Which is a long-winded way of saying “hell no.”

So do you really want to pump whatever you could recover before it’s squirreled away in some tax haven based on Wall Street voodoo into the economy and then tie government funding and basic social services to the ups and downs of some stock broker snake oil? Wouldn’t it be wiser to regulate financial monstrosities into virtual non-existence and promote investment in lagging and much needed areas of the economy and education? We really want people like Elon Musk and Bill Gates to invest into medicine, science, education, space, and new technology, and we should make it easy and gainful for them to do so with tax incentives. We don’t want billions to be loaned to banks that will use it to gamble on the spreads of some Hungarian foot fetish porn company stocks, or giant squid tentacle futures, we need to identify them as the junk they are, and punish those obfuscating their over-leveraged positions in overly volatile markets. Problem sort of, kind of, maybe solved in an ideal world? Well, not exactly. Stay tuned for the deep dive into how computers and robots play a big part in all this tomorrow…

[ illustration by K. J. Garbutt ]

sad calvin

Since I’ve been quiet for a long time and a whole lot of things have happened, there’s a sense that before moving forward, we might want to take a quick look back and address a few major issues that have been brewing in atheist and skeptical blogospheres. Sadly, the muddled focus for the future of organized skepticism is still as much a problem as it was over a year ago. It’s unnervingly telling that columns about JREF have been drying up and there’s still no articulated vision for where we go from debunking homeopathy and UFOs, though it would be unfair not to highlight major positives, like Orac being regularly quoted in mainstream media’s takedowns of popular quackery, and Yvette d’Entremont, aka Science Babe, being asked by Gawker to weigh in as a professional chemist on the flood of Vani Hari’s trendy, brain-dead nonsense. As for the organized atheist movements, which often participate in skeptical groups, well, they’re still more interested in turning skepticism and popular science into a left wing political movement and how to change the subject from science education to battling the ills and inequities of society.

And that’s pretty much where we left off last time, with two broad competing groups battling for what each says is the soul of skeptical and atheistic blogging. One sees science and skeptics being a means to a political end, as weapons to fight the Culture Wars with social reactionaries who are desperately trying to return us to the 1950s they imagine in their nostalgic fantasies. In the other end of the spectrum is the group which sees education as its ultimate goal, betting the farm on the idea that when you give people hope for a better world, they’ll help build it with the educational tools you provide, and that while battling social inequities is a noble goal, there will always be some social injustice, so the best we can do is confront it when it happens. I’m firmly in the second camp, personally, and as it so happens, people like me have managed to end up on the wrong side of the We Are All Already Decided doctrine of political debate. We just aren’t what the social justice contingent wants us to be: dedicated ideologues in their service.

Now, surely, you’ve heard the acronym SJW brandished on the web as a pejorative and almost immediately being proudly accepted by someone as an acknowledgment that he or she is on a mission to right society’s wrongs. Quite a few even go so far as to say that SJW is an imaginary pejorative used solely by misogynists and bigots, and that there are no “social justice warriors,” just people who support equal rights and respect for all, and those who don’t. But there is a line that can be crossed, even if you have nothing but good intentions, with which the road to Hell is often paved, to paraphrase St. Bernard of Clairvaux. There are activists who work to make sure that those being discriminated against have a voice, go to city council meetings, write op-eds in their local newspapers and in the national press, and who need our help and support. And then there are overzealous keyboard warriors fighting for the unwashed masses from the comfort of their couches, going after those who commit transgressions big, small, and even micro.

Oh you haven’t heard of microaggressions? Based on academic studies of how racism begins and propagates, the theory is based on subconscious biases coming out in everyday life. While its debatable whether these aren’t just known manifestations of racism by another name, there was little time wasted by the aforementioned keyboard warriors to cast everything around them as some sort of microaggression. Consider the following. As a Ukrainian-Russian Jew, much of my adult life was accompanied by jokes about the sturdiness of my liver, my friend Vassiliy who just so happens to be an enforcer for the Russian mob, my probable side job of selling malware to carders and identity thieves, my spy work for the KGB, and in some circles, a number of very colorful stereotype-based zingers not fit to print. And that’s just the Russian stuff. Can you even imagine the number of jokes lobbed my way when I was moving to LA? “Hey Greg, so will your work be primarily is software, or ‘hardware?'” apparently never gets old.

All of that is just good-natured ribbing, playing off on various stereotypes, many of them either negative or in a moral gray zone, right? Well, as most self-proclaimed social justice activists will rush to explain you, these are all microaggressions, intended to demean and stigmatize me, so every time you make a joke like that towards me, I should get offended and blame you for how often Russians in movies are gangsters, weirdos, malicious hackers, nefarious spies, or former commandos for hire with a moral compass pointing to the biggest wad of cash. And should you ever make such jokes in a publicly accessible platform, I’m within my rights to bring it up to then dismiss everything you have to say, and you as a person, by default. Why do you think Watson, to this day, features only the most vicious trolling she receives to address any criticism of what she says or does, and categorizes any disagreement with her or PZ Myers as hate speech by misogynistic, racist bigots? It turns their identity into an argument-ending cudgel and allows for what amounts to a get-out-of-criticism-free card with a side of self-indulgent moralism.

And really, it would be fine if this sort of thing happened when we hit a sensitive topic in one of the talks in the skeptical and pop sci community, it’s unavoidable and everyone deserves their turn at the microphone. But like most fanatics, these keyboard warriors won’t change their mind and refuse to change the subject so every issue and every problem that comes up as a topic of discussion becomes a macro or microaggression to be dissected by internet scandal and mob justice on blogs. And even when their complaints are heard, acknowledged, and met, they just can’t be met fully enough. No “yes” is enthusiastic enough, no accommodation ever sufficiently accommodating, and no “safe space” ever adequately safe. There’s no goal but to keep up the perpetual outrage and the corresponding blog traffic, and if you don’t go along with it, or even worse, dare point it out, well, they don’t have to tolerate your bigoted hate speech, so why don’t you go to your favorite neo-Nazi MRA site instead of bothering decent people.

Just to bring this all back into focus, let’s return to the We Are All Already Decided doctrine and see how detrimental it is to getting new people excited about real science and technology, then drawing them into skeptical groups. Who will want to go to meetings that shift from astrobiology and physics applied to UFO reports into social activism lectures, and who will even want to talk to skeptical groups which are lambasted for being full or women-hating bigots for what could’ve never been an adequate response to some suffered microaggression? Bombastic social justice platforms are fine when you’re starting a political group, but when your goal is to teach, inspire, and help others, creating an insular, rigid ideological squad that tolerates no dissent is every bit as bad as the politics of discrimination and exclusion we’re told to be fighting against.

When we declare that we won’t tolerate intolerance, then classify everything with which we do not immediately agree as being intolerant, we’re building coffee klatches rather than the broad skeptical movements that attract the wide following and support we desperately need when any scientifically-illiterate crank and quack with a big smile can use the web to raise vast followings ready to be fleeced, and used to harass critics into silence by sheer numbers. We can fight for both good science and for the rights of others, yes. But we have to know when to tone it down and when someone is using a moral, ethical banner to shield his or her grab for popularity, and a place at the microphone not by virtue of having something significant to contribute, but solely by using our guilt and shortcomings as fallible humans against us. And right now, it just seems better to do this whole skepticism thing without getting involved with big groups…

calvin superhero

Apologies for the lengthy pauses between posts but with Project X in full swing and long days at the office, there’s only so much time to write, and the more gets written the more problems there are for the aforementioned project. But more on that in due time. For now, I decided to take the occasional detour into the realm of meta-debates and talk about news stories documenting the growing pains of the skeptical movement. Their common theme is that there are people under a banner called skepticism who want to confront pseudoscience while at the same time arguing a great deal about how to do it, and with certain influential skeptics trying impose their politics on the entire movement. Does a skeptic need only to worry about debunking Bigfoot, UFOs, quack remedies, and ghosts? Does a skeptic need to be atheist? Are skeptics allowed to shelter hope that a belief for which there’s little to no evidence might still somehow end up being true? And in the grand scheme of things, what do the skeptics really want to accomplish in the end and who gets to be invited to join them in their campaigns? In short, what exactly makes one a skeptic?

But hold on, you might object, why does arriving at a concrete definition matter? Aren’t skeptics just scientifically literate folks applying basic scientific methodology to bullshit claims made by all sorts of profit-minded shysters and by well-meaning but potentially dangerously ignorant people who pass them on or weave them into their personal brands of cargo cult science? Well, yes, in the broadest way that’s correct, and it’s what let me to start forging ties with organized skeptical organizations when their blog was in its prime skeptical phase. However just because you called yourself a skeptic for denouncing pseudoscience and were recognized for it by JREF or another skeptical group, doesn’t mean the topic you’re best equipped to address will ever get any major boost, even within the group. For example, I’m most often cited for Singularity skepticism, mostly because I’m a techie by profession and education, and have the experience and tools to put the wild claims of our impending immortality through technology under very tight scrutiny. Good for me, right? A new branch of skepticism can be added to the collective’s efforts, right?

Sorry but no dice. In fact, a certain very popular 2012 skeptic once told me that until he started reading my dissections of Kurzweil & Co., he thought that their ideas were a lot more plausible than they actually were, and the Skepchicks hosted a very sympathetic take on the claims and predictions being made by the attendees of a Singularity Summit. After talking to those involved on the subject, I was told that while my take was appreciated in the form of links, what I wrote on the subject was "sort of advanced skepticism" and they wanted to focus on something that was more common, the old school skeptics-as-common-sense-debunkers approach. Pretty much the only recognizable skeptics not only interested, but willing to give transhumanist and AI skeptics a real platform was the team at Skeptically Speaking, for which I ended up doing half an episode, and a two-hour debate with a prominent transhumanist. That’s right, we were so popular and the audience was so receptive, I had to come back twice. But to the old school skeptics, it’s really all about debunking common myths and popular quacks. It needs to be done but for those of us no longer interested in that, there doesn’t seem to be much room in organized skepticism.

And this is one of the biggest sources of friction that I’m seeing right now. Those of us who are technical experts in one subject or another interested in applying our specialized knowledge to a possibly arcane but still popular topic, are sick and tired of the umpteenth dissection of Dr. Oz and a UFO sighting now decades old, but we’re not really being included or asked to bring light to a new topic or two because that puts the old school skeptics out of their comfort zone. Now, I won’t be surprised if by now you’re tempted to dismiss this grievance by pointing out that it come from personal experience and makes for only one data point. But if you go back to the Atheism+ fight for just a bit, you’ll hear an undertone of the same exact issues from a completely different group of people with completely different goals. They wanted to turn organized skepticism into a left wing political movement rather than broaden its primary topics, but their reason for trying to create a new offshoot was due to a) feeling that the skeptical old school is not interested in new ideas for the future, and b) their avoidance of the skepticism vs. atheism question based mostly on marketing considerations, to make the religious feel more welcome at skeptic meetups.

Today’s big, organized skeptical groups don’t seem to be evolving or really expanding past the few topics that bound them together. More and more skeptical meetups seem to be preaching to the choir rather than exposing skeptics to new topics. The whole movement just seems stuck in place, retracing the same fake Bigfoot steps and analyzing the same flying saucer on a wire for the hundredth time. And as if that wasn’t enough, we get drama and gender wars on an endless loop for publicity and stats instead of guidance and fresh ideas. Wasn’t the point of well-funded, organized skepticism to spread education and combat the popularization of pseudoscience in all of its forms rather than spending a lot of time with people who agree with what you say? Where are the skeptical conferences that invite expert speakers to expose skeptics to big, cutting edge scientific ideas to peak their interest in broadening their horizons and taking on new topics? Is a skeptical equivalent of TED without the buzzwords out of the question? No wonder reporters on missions to write about organized skepticism all end up asking where would the movement go in the next few years and fail to prove an answer. They can’t. There’s no future game plan…

censorship ad

Policy wonks, like most people, tend to think of IT as a magical black box which takes requests, does something, and makes their computers do what they want, or at least somewhat close to it. And so it’s not really surprising to see Ronan Farrow and Shamila Chaudhary rail against major cybersecurity companies for enabling dictators to block internet content at Foreign Policy, with allegations that show how poorly they understand what these companies do and how virtually all of the products they make work. You see, blaming a tech company for censorship is kind of like blaming a car manufacturer for drunk drivers. Certainly their tools are intended to block content but they’re not designed to filter all undesirables from a centralized location to which a dictator can submit a request. They’re meant to analyze and block traffic coming from malicious sources to prevent malware and any time you can analyze and stop traffic, you can abuse the ability and start blocking legitimate sites just because you don’t like them or the people who run them.

Most of the software they cited is meant to secure corporate networks and if they no longer get to stop or scan data, they’re pretty much useless because they can’t do threat identification or mitigation. WebSense does filter content and uses a centralized database cluster to push how it classifies sites to its customers so, as Farrow and Chaudhary noted, it was able to change up a few things to help mitigate its abuse by authoritarians. But McAffee and others are in a tougher spot because they’ve simply sold a software license to network admins. Other than virus and bot net definitions, there’s not much they can control from a central location, and trying to shame a company for selling tools made for something entirely different puts them in a position in which it would be very hard to defend their actions to someone convinced that they can just flip a switch and end the digital reign of tyranny across the world. And its even worse when the first reactions to articles about the abuse of their wares blame them for just being greedy.

On top of that, it’s not exactly hard to write your own filters and deep packet inspection tools. It’s just difficult to scale them for millions of users but it’s nothing out of the authoritarians reach. As they spend billions on security and control, surely they could divert a couple of million to build a capable system of their own. In fact, the Great Firewall of China is mostly home-grown and uses the country’s ISPs to scan incoming and outgoing traffic on a daily basis to find what to block. It sounds like a powerful indictment to point out that the Chinese use Cisco routers in their system, but it’s not as if they outsourced the task of pinging and blocking Tor nodes to the company. To be perfectly fair in charging tech companies in aiding and abetting censorship, you’d have to be talking about search engines that agree to modify their functionality to get a toehold in markets ruled over by authoritarians who will get someone to censor searches if not the company which was trying to expand. Bottom line: dictators will find a way to censor what they want to censor. If they use network monitoring security tools to do it, the blame still rests with them.

ice forecast model

According to the stream of reports from the National Snow and Ice Data Center, the Arctic ice is slowly but surely disappearing. Well, slowly for us humans. On geologic time scales, it’s thawing in the blink of an eye. For this year, the extent of the ice is the sixth lowest on record, and last year, there was about half as much ice at minimum as there was between 1979 and 2000, while also being much thinner. On the other side of the world, Antarctica is not doing much better as an average of 100 cubic kilometers of ice are lost every year, despite ice sliding into the ocean from dry land seemingly increasing the reach of sea ice. Now, this prompted many denialists to distribute a talking point that while the Arctic is melting, Antarctica is gaining ice, which would be true only if you measure sea ice and forget that there’s an entire continent thawing, sending all that excess ice out to sea. It’s sort of like claiming a virgin birth by forgetting to mention that the couple isn’t married and the child’s father lives across town, visiting every other day.

But all this said, there’s the big question is how bad all this thawing is for us. Sea levels may rise between 16 and 22 feet, changing coastlines and altering climactic cycles over a century. How worried should we be? And is there any way to stop it? Well, exactly how worried you should be would depend on where you live and whether you think another century is too short of a time to move the cities back from the sea. The world is not going to flood as shown in many apocalyptic posters from environmental groups. To drown a city like that would require massive and sudden natural disasters like asteroid impacts or a magnitude 9.1 quake that triggers a monster tsunami and sends it towards a city built mostly below sea level. No city planner 30 or 70 years from now would be dealing with the same exact coastlines, and old buildings could be moved or altered to deal with the rising water. Of course, if we didn’t emit nearly as much carbon dioxide by building our economies around energy efficiency, we could just avoid all of that in the first place.

Though, just to play Devil’s advocate, there’s an interesting point that needs to be raised. New economies and infrastructures are expensive. Very expensive. And the thawing Arctic means a shorter path between Europe, Asia, and North America than the Panama Canal. Goods can get to their destinations cheaper, new fiber can be laid for a faster, more redundant internet, and a lot of oil and natural gas will be open to exploration far away from the Middle East. And while as the United States and Canada extract more and more oil from the Arctic, OPEC could just lower production to keep prices high, the political ramifications are huge and to many, worth perusing. Is potential energy independence that will let the United States disentangle itself from the Middle East and its messy affairs, while creating new jobs and cozy ties with its neighbors worth moving some big cities back from the rising seas? And do the improved economics of fast, new shipping lanes and extra fiber-optic cables just sweeten the deal to let it all melt?

Before we get carried away though, there is a downside to such strategic terraforming. Warmer climates mean more droughts in areas that are now among the world’s bread baskets, and a lot less food. In some countries, which produce far more food than they can consume or send over as aid, this isn’t a pressing issue. But in countries not producing enough, or just barely enough to get by, famines could easily reemerge because the farmlands couldn’t be moved to land that belongs to another state. For nations on good terms, there might be a deal in the making. For countries that view each other as an existential threat (like India and Pakistan), not so much. Oh and bad news for foodies. When food sources become any scarcer in a warmer world, the only viable response is doubling down on hyper-efficient factory farms that employ methods that can drive a panel of Food Network chefs up a wall. Point is that your experience with the effects of a warmer Earth may vary depending on many factors, but deciding how to manage the warming is not as cut and dry as a yes or a no, there’s an economic and geopolitical calculus involved…

microcosm

Really, the politicians in office today, science, and technology simply don’t mix. We have years and years of bills and their behavior proving this. From vapid remarks about science, to serious debate about an internet kill switch, to inviting woefully unqualified people to judge what should be funded by the NSF, it’s as if our lawmakers are trying to live the stereotype of over-confident managers who think they’re experts at all things because they can talk a big game. It would be amusing were they not in a position to actually change how science is being funded, and churn out ridiculous proposal after ridiculous proposal. The latest volley of this oblivious ineptitude is the bill from Lamar Smith (yes, R-TX, a real shocker, I know) which lays out what sort of projects the NSF should be funding and in the process basically discards anything that’s not an applied military or a medical project, negating the entire point of basic research and eviscerating basic research funding not obfuscated to look like a future treatment, weapon, or infosec system.

Basic science is done because we’re curious about something and we don’t know what sorts of applications or spin-offs it might have. Maybe there will be none. Maybe we’ll discover something as incredibly useful as lasers. Maybe there will be no direct benefit but in the process, we’ll build something that will change the world, like the world wide web being derived from a project meant to help particle physicists share data from particle collider results at CERN. We just don’t know, which is why we try to study all these things, and the results provide more than enough ROI as direct applications and spin-offs are commercialized. However, a lot of people will not see it that way, insisting that if something can’t be on the market within a few years, or used to kill bad guys half a world away, it’s a waste of money. And not only do they see it that way, they refuse to even try to understand how basic research and the scientific process work. They also do not care for, or understand scientists, deluding themselves with myths about their lifestyles.

And this is how we get the Lamar Smiths of the world. His constituents truly believe that a typical scientist could never make it in "a real job," and lives off of government welfare in the form of an enormous grant, handed over like a blank check from the NSF. The facts that scientists actually make something like $55,000 per year on average, have to deal with the NSF approving only a small fraction of all the grant applications they receive (below 10% in many fields and up to 20% in some others), and generally to already well established scientists, and that they can be fired for not being top of their field, do not register with them. It’s so sadly ironic that people who can easily out-earn scientists in their lifetimes and can keep their jobs if they’re at least mediocre, are deriding woefully underpaid professionals who can be fired for not being in the top 10% of their discipline and have to pay their own salaries through fundraising and political savvy. And it’s an insult to injury when said people turn scientifically illiterate politicians into their attack dogs.

But this is what happens when people are allowed, and even encouraged, to remain glib and as incurious as they please by politicians and public figures who rush to pat them on the back and give them a gold star for just being who they are. The current push to structure basic education around standardized testing rather than discovery, curiosity, and career orientation isn’t helping either. If we just let kids find out what fascinates them and feed their curiosity with key subjects that will let them pursue it further, they’ll learn the reading, the math, and the history involved to perform well on whatever standardized tests you’ll give them. After all, any field requires a solid command of basic literacy and mathematical competence to fully understand. But that requires the effort to restructure how the education system works, basically, giving a shit and trying to do something about it, to put it bluntly. However, by the choices a lot of people are making in their elected officials, and their support of said officials’ scientific illiteracy and hostility to science, I’m willing to bet that not a whole lot of the required shits are being given on average…

robot and human

Generally, political pundits are quick to ridicule technocrats and wonks for assuming that they’ll solve all the world’s problems with spreadsheets and computers, sounding so very dispassionate as they do their seemingly tedious jobs. One of the more recent examples is this critique of Ezra Klein’s wonkish style which has a hard time accepting the focus on numbers rather than entering the political fray with partisan zeal. As if this was a bad thing. Ever notice that political debates in general seem to be a morass of big emotions, big ideas, big personalities, bold pronouncements about the past, present, and future, and pretty much devoid of facts, that if present, are verbally violated to fit into whatever pigeonhole the person abusing them wants to fit them? Discussing the mathematical and statistical viability of a budget proposal and the ideological underpinnings that the budget tries to advance are two different conversations. One is the goal, the other is a means of reaching it, and it’s good to focus on how well that works out on paper.

Yes, well meaning technocrats can go way too far, I know. Yes, I know that people are creatures of messy, disorganized, and often irrational habits. And that’s exactly why they need technocrats to help them parse the facts and just the facts. I’m not saying that people like me should run the world, in fact I think I could make a very lengthy case as to why you would definitely not want to do that. But you do need technocrats to play a big enough role to stop wasteful projects or shut down impossible pipe dreams inspired by delusions of grandeur or ideology than sound logic. A political pundit will read whatever he or she wants to read from a budget to support a position all his or her viewers tune in to see every weeknight. Technocrats have a harder time doing that to justify their ideas because for them, the math has to add up, and whatever grandiose plans they have, they’re going to debate about implementation until a decent one is hammered out. This is not to say they could never be biased or ideological, just that they have to be less so.

Politicians can afford to talk big and act larger than life. They’re not the ones who have to see how their laws are implemented after they’re passed. The technocrats are the ones doing much of the real world work involved in turning policies and ideas into workable plans, and when they get it wrong, the results are soon obvious and it takes an amazing amount of stubbornness not to admit that something went wrong. A terrific example is sex ed. The ideologues insist that we must shove abstinence and scare tactics down teenagers’ throats. They fail. They always fail. They’ll continue failing compared to comprehensive sex ed, which does a far better job at delaying sex than any abstinence-based farce of a curriculum. Yet they continue to whiz into the windstorm in oblivious disregard of how the world works. Meanwhile, the technocrats are pushing for superior comprehensive sex ed classes because they looked at the numbers and pick what was factually shown to be better. And that’s why we need them around, dissecting facts rather than allowing a rabid ideologue to drag them down into partisan politics and beat them with experience.

[ illustration by Allan Sanders ]