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darwin

Generally, we tend to associate powerful theories with the people who first proposed them and say that without Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Einstein, Heisenberg, Turing, or all the other scientists featured in countless books as visionaries, our world wouldn’t be the same, and the knowledge we take for granted now would’ve never made it to us. Well, this is somewhat true. Change who discovered, say, germ theory and how it was proposed, and you’d have different criticisms and politics, and adoption curve by the scientific establishment of the day so the world would indeed be a different place. But when it comes to the knowledge, it would largely be similar. That’s one of the greatest things about science. Call physics "objectology" and change the variables in the formulas, and the body of work will still describe pretty much the same processes with the same mechanics because that’s just the way nature works. The differences would be in what bleeding edge ideas would dominate the debate among the experts and professionals, not the basics.

And so, a new book by historian Peter J. Bowler, argues that without Darwin, biology as we know it today would be virtually the same. Were the young naturalist thrown overboard during a storm as he traveled the world, compiling evidence for his theory, there were many scientists waiting to fill the role of evolution’s historical focal father. Wallace probably fits the bill best since it was his version of the theory that prompted Darwin to dust off his by then 20 year old manuscript. And if Wallace’s ideas failed to get any attention, the idea of natural selection was still in the air, it just needed a solid footing to really take off and fuse with genetics. If anything, argues Bowler, neo-Darwinian synthesis might have actually been expedited with Wallace because his theories had more developmental underpinnings, and would turn the field’s focus to complex genetics we’re trying to master to the forefront sooner. And of course there would’ve still been vocal creationist opposition to the idea in all forms. It’s basically a given, much like gravity and entropy.

Even the charges of evolution inspiring eugenics and the horrors of the Holocaust would’ve still persisted because the people who were ultimately responsible for them were looking for any kind of excuse to reshape humanity to their liking. Considering that their understanding of selection was pitiful and their knowledge of hereditary mechanisms was non-existent, they weren’t exactly interested in the science. They just wanted a patina of facts to hide their bigotry and racism, and anything that sounded like it could be bastardized into serving their goal was used. Hundreds of years before them, religion was used to justify mistreatment of minority groups throughout much of the Western world, be it selective accusatory clauses from the Old Testament, or invoking the loathsome Deicide Doctrine to defend systematic segregation and prosecution of Jews. In fact, much of the legendary Witch’s Hammer reads like the furious ranting of a misogynist who would easily show up any self-appointed Men’s Rights Activist on the web, the 15 century male version of Andrea Dworkin. Would Kramer have abused evolution to fuel his misogyny? Absolutely.

Nevertheless, this doesn’t mean that Darwin’s accomplishments were trivial or that Galileo was simply stealing from Eratosthenes, or that the re-invention of the steam engine was no big deal. There was a good deal of research, work, and insight involved in doing what they did and being the first to have your work recognized and adopted so widely is still a feat. It doesn’t matter that others could’ve done it too because how nature works will always be there for someone to come along and discover. What matters is that they seized the moment and advanced our civilization, giving us new fields to explore. But Bowler’s exercise also proves an important point. Science is ultimately about the facts. The data comes first, the theory to explain why the data is this way is second, and the people who put it all together come third. And while visionaries deserve all their accolades, they are not completely indispensable At worst, their absence from history would’ve delayed a discovery. Nature didn’t uniquely open up to them to grant them insight Anyone can discover something new and fascinating, and sometimes something that can change the way we think about the entire universe. And that’s what makes science such a terrific endeavor.

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After looking at some of the recent posts around here, I’m thinking that I need to get back to this blog’s roots. Less modern day tech, more AI, aliens, and outlandish conspiracy theory reviews. And lucky for me, Wired has feature story about a manuscript created by the Occulists, a rather obscure spin-off of the Freemasons in Germany sometime in the late 1700s, and this story is a perfect starting point to talk about secret societies in general. You see, the reason why the past is littered with secret societies of one sort or another is thanks to the prying eye of churches and monarchs who liked to keep very strict control over the populace to ensure their power. Want to experiment with obscure religious ideas? Burn heretic! Want to discuss a different from of ruling over a population? Off with your head traitor! Back in those days there was a very real and very powerful ruling class which was also very paranoid, and because it made the law, it could do the sort of things that even the most politically connected plutocrats today can’t even imagine. And so, to keep their traditions alive but also secret, the Occulists wrote a book we had to decrypt with a powerful computer and experimental purpose-built linguistic software.

Today’s secret societies supposedly in charge of the world’s most powerful governments could make your life very uncomfortable. Examples given by conspiracy theories include tracking your every transaction, spying on your social media use, blacklisting you from certain jobs, detaining you at customs, threatening you with legal actions, smearing you in the press, and maybe even making your murder look like an accident as a warning to your friends. Unpleasant, true, but you probably noticed the absence of things such as making your death a public spectacle, torture that would leave you disfigured for the rest of your life, being burnt alive, beheading with a rusty axe that might not do the job with just one whack, or if you’re really lucky or happen to be a very famous aristocrat, exile. That’s the fate awaiting those who were discovered to be members of secret societies because any group outside of the mainstream was immediately assumed to be evil and a threat to the powers in charge. The Occulists were no different since they seemed to have been associated with Freemasonry, carrying a lot of baggage with their history.

While calling yourself a Freemason in public now summons conspiracy theorists to speculate if you have a role in creating the latest new banking crisis or war for your personal gain or at the order of your masters, when the Occulists gathered to perform their versions of Masonic rituals, you would’ve been deemed a Satan worshipping sodomite on a mission to undermine the power and sacred authority of the church and the king or queen. In reality, you would’ve met to indulge in banned plays, reading literature deemed unfit for the general populace, and talk about new, potentially blasphemous ideas in relative privacy and comfort, just letting your mind roam. If you were in the Hellfire Club, you may enjoy some casual sex on the side and call it a good night of fun and entertainment. If you were in the OTO, you would’ve performed rituals that you felt could connect you to the mysteries of the past. There would be nothing all that sinister about what you did, but the Alex Jones’ of the day would be calling for your head in much the same way they do now on the web, radio, and their occasional stints on TV shows.

It’s little wonder that well-connected, wealthy, and powerful people want to join exclusive groups like the Builderbergs or have prominent roles in Masonic lodges. They want to be able to share opinions without public scruitiny, talk about things they wouldn’t ordinarily discuss, and find out who they should really meet if they want to advance their careers or projects. At a certain point, people who have high level positions, are surrounded by aides and assistants, and bombarded with pleas for their time, advice, and help, need an easy way to figure out who’s really important, to put it bluntly. Joining exclusive clubs or going to exclusive parties gives them an easy way to boost their profiles or see who’s on the up and up. Secretive organizations like Skull and Bones and the aforementioned Bilderberg Group seem to be all about networking and getting to know ambitious and promising people on a first name basis. They’re basically the hushed versions of the country club. It’s not exactly the sanctuary for rebellious freethinkers to indulge in experiment after experiment and find like-minded friends it used to be in the 1700s, but it still carries similar overtones and provides an escape from the spotlight for those who feel they need it.

Of course for those more paranoid than most of us, if something takes place in secret, it must be evil or at least nefarious, otherwise it would be made public. People like Alex Jones, Glenn Beck, and Jim Marrs make a living hypocritically arguing that if all the societies they suspect of running the world behind closed doors have nothing to hide, they should be holding all their meetings in public while lamenting intrusive government surveillance as an invasion of their right to privacy, forgetting how quickly and easily the media savages people for simply speaking their minds on a regular basis even if they’re just discussing a hypothetical situation. I’ve lost track of how many times something I wrote sarcastically or just explored in a post was assumed to be my opinion on the matter, or how many times something I said was taken out of context and twisted into things I never said or implied. But I’m just a blogger and a techie. The stakes for me to bluntly speak my mind aren’t all that high. For the head of a major bank or a powerful politician, they’re huge; one of their gaffes or snarky comments can quickly become international news.

And so it seems that secret societies are a necessary construct to let us speak our minds and vet our ideas in the company of those also not too shy to share their experience. In the words of Oscar Wilde, if we give a man a mask, he’ll tell us the truth. These secret and occult groups are masks for men and women to tell what they think is the truth to each other. Although when such groups become too exclusive and too cut off, there’s always the danger of creating something a lot more sinister than a forum to throw out and discuss ideas: an echo chamber where not truth but groupthink shapes the members’ thoughts and actions. Conspiracy theories shouldn’t worry that secret societies gather to talk about taking over the world, they should be worried that they start publishing tome after tome, arguing about their way of thought being the only acceptable or reasonable way to consider world events, lobbying politicians with ideas that obviously received little to no intellectual challenge. But the level of debate is up to each secret society to enforce and which this may be a bizarre proposition, we should accept the secret societies as a release valve for their members and innocent of instituting a New World Order until proven otherwise…

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stylized pokemon

If you went to college, you certainly remember taking a class in which you didn’t want to spend a whole lot of time on that 23 page paper on the farming techniques of 13th century serfs and the impact of said techniques on feudal agriculture. So you did some browsing around and padded the points you did research with page after page of boring fluff, betting that the professor was going to skim it here and there before giving it a grade. No shame in that, we’ve all done it. But did you know you can also do the same thing with blog posts and books, and make a living from repeating that padding technique? A good, recent example of that is a post by Keith Floor over at Cosmic Variance, in which he spends hundreds of words arguing that science could never be an effective substitute for religion. His thesis summed up in the one sentence it needed to be? People like just so stories and science doesn’t have them, therefore they’ll stick to the stories in which they’re special and important enough to be the children of a deity.

How is this argument new? Why is it so important that the same thing was published in Nature? And even more importantly, how is this a good argument? I would want to hear someone tell me that my AI research is going to get a $15 million development grant from DARPA next year and instead of consulting full time and researching part time, I can flip these roles and do what I love for the next five to ten years. But if it’s not true, maybe I should take note and not make plans on the story I want to hear, and focus on the consulting because that’s what pays the bills? This is the problem with accommodationism and mollycoddling faith in a nutshell. We can’t be nice and say that we’d never dream of challenging someone’s faith because that’s what this person really wants to believe. We tried that. It doesn’t work. We don’t need people to give up on every fun or interesting idea out there and apply Occam’s razor to every thought they have. But we do need them to make decisions based on facts. When people believe that they have the divine right to do as they wish, they can do a lot of damage and make very bad choices.

What we’d be doing if we didn’t advocate for science leading the way would be no different than the extreme of the self-esteem movement. Instead of telling little Johnny or Suzie that they really need to spend more time doing math and unless they do, their GPA isn’t going to get them into any college without years of remedial classes, we’d be telling them that math probably isn’t their strong suit and it’s ok that they got a D in geometry. Obviously the A in English means that they’ll be talented writers and literary critics so they shouldn’t worry about that mean old math. But we know that’s not true and that a D in math is a really bad thing. This is the same reason why we can’t tell the faithful that it’s ok to treat some people as less than equal because we know that a person from a different faith or with a different sexuality is just as biologically human as anyone and therefore, deserves the same rights. And this is why we can’t just let creationists preach their gospel of willful ignorance, because we know they’re wrong, we know they ignore facts, and we know that they’re coming from a place of denial. When we excuse a belief in myth, the faithful will take it as a license to ignore facts. Why should we give them this license?

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Despite the dedicated efforts of the Global Atheist Conspiracy, it seems that the War on Christmas has been lost again this year since the holiday is scheduled to proceed without a hitch, store clerks still wish us a Merry Christmas, and just about every place that can be decorated with a Christmas motif, was decorated with one. It really is almost like there’s no sinister conspiracy to dismantle Christmas just to oppress Christians and an annual stream of sensationalistic half-truths and paranoia about the supposed secular crackdown on one of the biggest holidays of the year, is really a plea for ratings by pundits who want you to tune in rather than turn off the TV and spend more time with your family and wrapping presents. Oh right, that’s exactly what happens every year as those looking to be offended and claim oppression see the all-inclusive and cost-saving Happy Holidays moniker as an anti-religious plot rather than just getting into the holiday spirit of good will and calm reflection on the year that’s coming to a close. Holidays are a time to have fun rather than to look for fights.

Christmas may have started out as a planned celebration of Jesus Christ’s birth, which was attributed to old polytheistic traditions of celebrations of the winter solstice which ended the year for many ancient cultures. In today’s world, we’re well aware that if Jesus really was born two millennia ago just as the Bible says, he may have been born anywhere between mid-spring to early fall, but definitely not anywhere during the winter. Had he been born close to the solstice in Roman-ruled Judea, their Saturnalia parties would have certainly played some role in the narrative as the three wise men would’ve had to present their gifts as the Romans held their games and feasts in the background, right next door to where Jesus is said to have been born. We also know that many Christmas traditions like the decorated pine tree, the Yule log, and even the holiday feasts came to us from Norse and Mediterranean cultures which existed before and alongside Christianity, incorporated with the spread of the new religion over hundreds of years and allowed to exist side by side with Christmas for an easier time managing newly converted people with their own rich traditions and ancient heritages.

Over time, Christmas has become more of a secular holiday about family and presents than a pious event of just one religious movement, with the winter solstices caused by our planet’s axial tilt as the reason for some sort of celebration and us simply coming up with the appropriate one. And that’s perfectly ok. The whole point is to celebrate the passing year and have an excuse to slow down to spend more time with the people in your life. Whether your excuse is Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanza, Saturnalia, or the birthday of the other legendary figure said to born around the winter solstice of a virgin, the Persian deity Mithras, go for it. To waste your time frustrated about whether someone is pious enough about what was once a purely religious event and fighting culture wars over etiquette and which screaming head on TV is better than an uncannily similar loudmouth on another news channel just seems to miss the whole point of what this season has to offer. So let the culture warriors perpetually looking to be outraged and to feel threatened by those who are different have their annual politically religious aneurism. It’s their issue if their hearts skip a beat when they hear a “happy holidays.” We, the skeptics, secularists, and atheists, don’t have to play their games. We can, and should, just enjoy our time with friends and loved ones, swapping presents and decorating something to look festive.

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For one of those people who claim that religious faith ennobles us and teaches us the true value of a human life unlike the crass ideas of atheists that neither Heaven nor Hell exist, William Lane Craig sure has a rather low opinion of how important life actually is. You see, according to him, the Biblical plagues which involved an indiscriminate slaughter of Egyptian children, God’s lack of interference when King Herod ordered a slaughter of innocents, and the atrocities committed by ancient kingdoms as documented in the Old Testament are just fine and dandy and in fact, were a good thing. You see, according to Craig, we keep forgetting that death is an ephemeral and transcendental experience which parts us with the mundane concerns of the mortal world for all eternity, therefore, indiscriminate brutality just gets us closer to God. One wonders why Craig is still alive if he thinks that death is such a wonderful thing and why he doesn’t encourage more and more people to go off to war while killing as many as possible. At this rate, why doesn’t he become a cheerleader of a huge nuclear exchange, the kind of exchange that would trigger a swift extinction of our species? Death is glory, right?

Now, obviously I’m not suggesting that Craig should take his own life or encourage other Christians to do the same thing, but it’s very difficult to avoid the massive gap in logic when you see someone alive and well pen a passionate treatise describing how wonderful death of infants really is from a metaphysical standpoint before going off to say that slaughtering innocent people must’ve rattled the nerves of ancient Israelites so much that we should feel sorry for what today would be considered the most heinous war crimes possible. Applying this logic, going to war while trying to minimize civilian casualties is folly because you’re not delivering those poor people caught in the crossfire to their salvation. Maybe there’s something wrong with my train of thought, but is there not something so heinously evil about Craig’s argument that it’s enough to start questioning whether he has any grasp of basic human morality? How can anyone even suggest with a straight face that death is good and war crimes are more traumatic to those who carry them out than to the victims? And all this talk about how death really isn’t all that bad is trotted out because Craig wants to find excuses to keep Biblical inerrancy while justifying the issue of God’s immoral orders in the Old Testament, like a lackey of a brutal dictator…

The problem, it seems to me, is that if God could not have a command [to kill Caanite tribes], then the biblical stories must be false.  Either the incidents never really happened but are just Israeli folklore; or else, if they did, then Israel, carried away in a fit of nationalistic fervor, thinking that God was on their side, claimed that God had commanded them to commit the atrocities, when in fact He had not.  In other words, this problem is really an objection to biblical inerrancy.

And then he proceeds to say that God had the moral authority to order the murder to innocents while humans do not since God’s rules are different. This is how our supposedly silver-tongued, brilliant defender of all the truth of Christianity, the modern voice of Christian apologetics who just adores science, defends the idea of a single, objective moral codex as defined by God? By simply saying that a deity can follow a very different moral compass and everything it does is peachy while we have to follow the one he issues? Did he just argue that a loving and merciful God is actually a horrible hypocrite who tells his creations to do as he says and not as he does, then praise the idea as affirming Biblical inerrancy? I suppose this is what happens when your job is to drum up ways for a tome of assorted Bronze age political punditry and social commentary to be true to the last word; you twist your logic into such a pretzel that you can declare that two plus two equals fish, declare such a desecration of logic and fact to be more proof for the glory of your god, and expect everyone to swallow this as conclusive proof of this tome’s inerrancy while wondering how anyone who doesn’t already ascribe to your set of dogmas can disagree. Of course the Israelites got carried away with nationalistic fervor during conquests, chanting that God was on their side. Everyone from the Assyrians to the Romans did the same thing!

Craig even says that we’ve moved away from the definitions of morality exercised by the ancients, then quickly swept this statement under the rug, pretending that he didn’t just undermine his own argument that there’s an objective set of morals for all humans to follow by acknowledging that our standards of morality change with a sufficient passage of time, before coming up with utterly immoral excuses for indiscriminant murders. This is the kind of logic used to justify abhorrent acts that fuel wars and skirting laws which try to reinforce a rudiment of human decency. This is the logic of an amoral monster who values his dogma above the lives of his fellow humans, giving a free pass to a beheading said to be done in the name of a deity while condemning one that wasn’t as he pretends that an objective guide to all human morality sits on his desk. Once you write a treatise justifying genocide done in a particular way and excusing the deity who supposedly ordered it from taking any responsibility for it, you should be ashamed of yourself. But then again, Craig doesn’t strike me as the kind of person who’s familiar with even rudimentary ethics or feeling shame. If he did, he wouldn’t have written such a monstrously cruel and unabashedly immoral treatise cheering on the death of the innocent.

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If you listen to the perpetual End Times crowd that’s so persistent in Western culture, every major event in the news involving unrest, natural disasters, or disease is a sign that the world as we know it is about to end and any minute now, the war between angles and demons will descend on Meggido after they’ve been sent upwards to Heaven. And really, at first, their claims that we’re living in an ever more violent, tumultuous world seem hard to dispute. I mean after all, according to foreign policy wonks, there are about forty armed conflicts of various intensity going on around the world right now and three of them are constantly making international headlines. Though war is formally over in Iraq, tensions are still high, the country is still unstable, and there’s still a contingent of troops there. Afghanistan has been engulfed in wars for decades now and shows no sign of calming down, even as American involvement there nears its ten year anniversary. Libya plunged into a civil war, now with international involvement, as unrest sweeps the Middle East. And while all this is going on, the developing world is still ravaged by rampant poverty, ethnic strife, disease, and hunger, at the same time as a second enormous quake in two years rocked Japan and triggered a major nuclear crisis. Bad omens, huh?

Well, that’s actually all relative, especially when it comes to disease and war. What sends us into shock may have bored our ancestors who usually lived half as long as we do in conditions we would consider unfit for a human, and grappling with lethal diseases for which we have a wide arsenal of treatments. Today, having an infection won’t lead to death from septic shock nearly as often as it did even a few hundred years ago, and a case of tuberculosis is terribly unlikely to kill you if you have access to halfway decent medical care. And that’s not to mention the fact that the greatest infectious killer in human history responsible for snuffing out millions of lives over thousands of years, smallpox, has been driven to extinction, and polio seems to be slowly but oh so surely heading the same way. We’re living longer, healthier, and safer lives thanks to modern technology, science, and education, and we can see how well they work when we compare developed countries where a newborn is now expected to live into his or her 80s and spend nearly a decade and a half on formal learning, to nations where the same kind of educational, medical, and logistical infrastructures don’t exist. We do have much of the technology we need to extend the lives of the world’s poor and help lift them out of poverty, it’s just that the scale of the task and the political complications involved means that it will take many more decades to reach those in dire need and this technology will not be a panacea. But it would help quite a bit.

So what about all the wars and armed conflicts raging across the world? Well, believe it or not, in the days of the ancients, war was a pretty regular event. Emperors filled coffers with the spoils of war from the conquered territories they inherited and acquired, and often, the measure of a ruler was his success in the many military campaigns he would launch. You doubtlessly know Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, and you’ve probably at least heard of Hannibal. Why? Because they were accomplished conquerors and lead the kinds of military campaigns that history books were invented to record. But I’m sure you know what that must mean for those they conquered. How many people as a percentage of the total global population died when a couple of empires brutally expanded their territory and demonstratively butchered thousands just to show the newly conquered populace who’s boss? I’m willing to bet that it was far more than when we’ve built weapons that allowed us to efficiently murder millions of people, since major wars occurred on a nearly constant basis and the conquerors were expected to rape, pillage, and exterminate much of the populace when they’d finally broken through enemy lines. The Mongols built entire pyramids out of human remains and marched armies of enslaved prisoners into their targets’ line of fire during an initial advance. Today, brutality on this scale is an international war crime which will immediately trigger nearly all of the world’s advanced militaries to descend on your head. Back then, it was the modus operandi, recorded in almost apathetic footnotes.

Still, why does it seem that we’re living in such a brutal and tumultuous world besieged by war, famine, death, and natural disasters while our ancestors lived in what many of us today would consider a world in which the unrelenting and horrific war crimes were set against entire city-sized cesspools of disease and desperately unsanitary conditions that couldn’t possibly exist outside the gates of Hell itself? Because we have the kind of communication tools that the ancients couldn’t even envision. When a massacre happened in 350 AD, all the people heard were news that someone just conquered someone else and that all those caught in the conflict were probably either dead or enslaved. Today, the death of a protester at the hands of an authoritarian thug is uploaded to the web and sent viral within minutes after it happened in shocking detail. Genghis Khan did not exactly sit on his horse and use his smartphone to Tweet: “sacking Beijing. guards fired all their arrows in my prisoner army, lol!” before uploading fresh pictures from the slaughter and his soldiers posing alongside the mutilated cadavers of those they indiscriminately butchered on his Flickr account and Facebook. Today, one soldier just posing with captured enemies in pictures available to the public causes a global PR uproar, and pictures of soldiers actually abusing prisoners triggers a media firestorm that lasts for months. Our access to instant information has given us unprecedented glimpses at the mechanics of war and drastically lowered our tolerance and acceptance of civilian casualties and violence, a very positive change for the world.

And the same information technology which lets us get up close and personal with the victims of war is also letting us communicate the scale and magnitude of disasters like the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, the 2010 quake in Chile, and the recent tremor which severely wounded Japan. Even fifty years ago, we would’ve heard only a few statistics and a brief mention of a tsunami. Today, we’re almost immediately presented with a live feed to the unfolding disasters and kept up to date on what’s going on across the world in real time. We know more about the disasters and we know about them faster, which is why it seems like there are more of them. It’s easier to remember a video of a tsunami surging miles inland, carrying houses on fire and pictures of one, huge, crippled nuclear power plant on the verge of meltdown than it is the brief headline that a magnitude 9.0 quake killed 10,000 people and generated a 30 foot tsunami which is left at that for about a week. Nature will continue to function as it usually does and there’s nothing we can do about it but to be prepared. And while it seems like we’re living in constant decline thanks to how much misery we can now transmit through the net, the reality is that we’re actually much wealthier, much more peaceful, far healthier, and live much longer than we did in the past. Far from getting worse and more chaotic, the world is actually a better place to live now in the grand scheme of things, and I don’t remember the Tribulations implying a better world before the end…

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It’s a little unsettling that one of the greatest bursts of technological advancement and exploration was fueled by a rivalry between two global superpowers afraid of war with one another, but also eager to show off to every other nations how much they could accomplish. The Soviet Union sent the first humans into orbit. The United States landed the first humans on another world. Both of them developed advanced aircraft, weapons, digital technology, and both entertained or carried out extremely complex, elaborate plans in the political and military world that would instantly be shot down today as being too expensive or too radical for consideration. While a good deal of those plans were pretty out there, there seemed to have been an environment where ideas were allowed to flourish and tested on the off chance that they could yield a competitive advantage. But a downside to half a century of runaway R&D competitions was the human cost, and in Popular Science’s retrospective of their coverage of the Red Menace’s military and engineering might, that’s a vague but recurring theme.

Several of the highlighted articles lament how few household goods there are for ordinary Soviet citizens and how outdated and bare-bones virtually everything was, from elevators to hotel rooms. That’s not just plain, old propaganda at work. Having lived in the Soviet Union, though during its twilight years, I can tell you that many of the things typical Americans take for granted were luxuries in the USSR and constant shortages made very basic products difficult to get, sometimes requiring connections and favors to speed things along. It’s not that the Soviet Union didn’t have the capacity to make plenty of food or manufacture plenty of high quality and high level electronics for common use, it’s just that no one had the incentive to do so and corruption at every level of the supply chain was so pervasive, I wouldn’t be surprised if a historical study uncovered that more than half a product’s cost was graft. Why didn’t the government step in? Because at first, the leadership didn’t care about the people, viewing them as nothing more than simple cogs in its machine, cogs to be dragged kicking and screaming into the industrial age, creating a mighty military, and then, when its rules favoring seniority and the devotion of its members over their merit as leaders turned it into a gerontocracy, the Politburo was far too busy keeping its grasp on power than actually caring about what the people needed.

There’s of course a lesson in this. A government that cares only about its own perpetuation and can’t be voted in or out of office, and a government on which people rely for anything and everything rather than just the basic things required to function in society, can both lead to a very sad end for the citizenry. In the United States, we may argue about how we vote and why we vote, and partisanship often overtakes reason in public discourse, but the government does have to deal with the public and its fury should it upset enough people. The nation’s entire population is typically not left to fend for itself and told to live off government rations, or placed in a state factory or power plant and told to do a particular job knowing that the only pay raises will come with seniority in one’s post rather than skill or merit, and that obedience to old and often dimwitted bosses was the only way to get enough seniority to be well off. In other words, the extent of the Peter Principle was on a level that very few establishments in the United States could ever meet. But this is not to say that American citizens were living it up in paradise while the Soviets suffered under their government’s indifference. They were subjected to highly dubious and very dangerous experiments by the CIA, spied on by multiple intelligence agencies, and groups that were considered a "leftist threat" were often broken up, their members harassed or prosecuted.

In their fear of the Evil Empire, Americans allowed their government to create institutions which could afford to do almost anything they pleased, just as long as they prefaced it by some reference to national security. This is why today’s return to domestic wiretaps and a heavy-handed Homeland Security department is actually an instinctive return to how things were with an ever-present danger rather than a new development. But while a lot of people may decry the TSA’s freedom gropes and FBI snooping in their personal finances, all that pales in comparison to what the KGB did to Soviet citizens. While the worst that can happen to you if you ridicule the American government today is a guest spot in Fox News, and a secretive investigation into your life during the previous administration, very rarely do you have to worry about being sent to a hard labor camp in Alaska. For an agonizing stretch of time in the Soviet Union, just writing a book that the leaders thought may contain some sort of ridicule of their actions could net you two decades in a Siberian prison, where all sorts of horrible and sometimes unspeakable things happened. When we look back at the Cold War now and list all the things we accomplished as a civilization, be they advancements in everyday life or in warfare, we have to ask ourselves two important questions. Was it worth doing it that way, and how many people suffered in the process, for the sake of "the cause"? And unfortunately, these questions are fiendishly difficult to address in advance…

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If you’ve been reading for a while, you know my position on science. Science is good. It provides a formal and objective framework to verify claims and make new discoveries by asking questions and constantly probing a little deeper than the last experiment. And this is why I think the idea of anthropology moving away from using even references to science or the scientific method is as disheartening as Orac found it. Sure, anthropology is a messy science where nothing is certain, like psychology and sociology, but that’s no reason to whip out the post-modernist, overly politically correct spiel and start beating the scientific, investigative elements of the discipline out of the picture with a very liberal use of what can only be described as white guilt and hipsterish, fluffy New Age quasi-spiritual appeals to unspecified “other ways of knowing” so frequently invoked today.

Look, what colonists from Europe did to countless indigenous populations was absolutely terrible. Only very, very creative revisionists could even think of claiming otherwise. But it’s not science that should bear the brunt of some anthropologists’ urges to make their discipline a living version of PCU, only with humanities scholars instead of college kids looking for a cause to make their own. Unfortunately, I’m not kidding here. Check out a quote from an anthropologist defending the decision not to reference science in the discipline and while you do, just try to count the fallacies and think of where else you’ve seen them before…

When examining the term “science”, we uncover a distinctly Western framework for explaining the world around us… Historically not included under the rubric of “science”, however, are thousands of distinct indigenous knowledge systems that exist around the world. Indigenous knowledge is only recently being understood and accepted by those in the West… as the equally complex (and equally valid) indigenous counterpart to Western science. For the AAA, maintaining the use of the term “science” in their mission statement serves to maintain the colonizing, privileging, superior positionality of anthropology that continues to plague the discipline.

Got all that? Science is bad because it’s a Western term and used by elitist Westerners to crowd out all those other forms of knowledge in nations with which they have tense relations or have colonized in the past, and if the governing body of American anthropology keeps using the word science, it’s simply continuing to support those over-privileged Western no-goodniks. Frankly, I think the anthropologist in question, Dooglas Carl, was condescending and insulting to the very “indigenous cultures” he was trying to praise. Does he really believe that ancient Africans or the Chinese didn’t use the scientific method and really fit the New Age mold into which so many liberal commentators hell-bent on political correctness past the point of good taste and reason try to jam them? Just look at the pyramids and temples of North Africa and South America. The Egyptians and the Nubians who emulated their feats, as well as the Aztecs and the Maya, were excellent engineers. In Medieval times, well-funded Muslim scholars produced seminal treatises on mathematics the principles of which are one of the key parts of computer science, principles I use every day. The Chinese experimented with rocketry and herbal medicine. None of the things mentioned above was achieved by “alternative ways of knowing” but by good, old fashioned trial and error as the cultures’ own records show.

Obviously we can offer even more examples, like the navigational abilities of Polynesians and the wheel and the aqueducts of Sumerian city-states, but I think you get the point. Science is not some sort of “privileged and elitist Western idea that marginalizes indigenous knowledge,” it’s a basic, experiment-driven process human civilizations used to learn and advance. Every culture has its mythology and traditions, but every culture has a pretty good grasp of the scientific method as well, and every culture has used it during its history. To embrace their myths and folk tales, then elevate those above their scientific and engineering abilities is not praising an alternative method of knowledge. It’s placing them in a “special” box and inventing a PC term so they can hold that box proudly, as if you’ve done them a favor. How condescending, insensitive, and tone-deaf. This is why I used the loaded term white guilt to describe this, because those suffering from a need to make sure we’re all aware that other cultures exist and their views, opinions, and history are valid and to be respected so often get so much wrong about them and end up with a back-handed compliment they present as flattery. You know, a little like an old guy who says “oh he’s Asian? He must be really good at math and karate,” or “he’s black? He must be an awesome basketball player,” then leans back, certain that he was really sensitive to other people and cultures. But in reality, all he did was throw out a cliché instead of getting to know them.

[ illustration by Miguel Covarrubias ]

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There are few things more bizarre than watching academics trying to decipher military policies though a lens of philosophy and sociology, where rather than focusing on a chain of events and trying to walk through all the possible conclusions along that chain, they try to put entire ideologies on the couch. The result, as seen in a pair of essays on American ideas about the military and its use, comes off as convoluted to someone who isn’t interested in obtuse philosophical ruminations, and patronizing to the ideologies they try to analyze. In an effort to play therapist and throw around trendy geopolitical terms with which far too many pundits like to lard a particularly vague piece on foreign policy, they tend to miss some very obvious issues and flail in search of an answer they find satisfactory. Same goes for those who take their treatises and use them to weave elaborate webs of conspiracy theories which too often culminate in New World Orders ran by the Illuminati, or alien and human hybrids who secretly ruled the world for eons, or the vast, amorphous military-industrial complex.

Actually, I’ve lost count as to how many times Eisenhower’s warning about the power of the defense industry has been trotted out in the last six months, and consider it somewhat ironic when used by bloggers who will quote unnamed experts suggesting that the military could cut a trillion dollars from its budget, despite the fact that this proposed cut is about twice what the military actually spends in a given year, because under his reign, military spending in America was over half the national budget. Today, it’s about a quarter, and yet we’re being told that the United States has constantly growing military budgets and numerous alternative estimates inflate the numbers by rolling any agency which deals with law enforcement, aviation, space, and research of any kind under the military umbrella, in effect cooking the books to stick to the narrative. But then again, if you were to go by people’s budgetary estimates, you’d think NASA’s budget was $500 billion even though it’s not even in the same order of magnitude with $18 billion a year. Still, all that said, American military expenses are thought to account for anywhere between a third and half of all global defense spending, depending who does the number crunching, and no matter how you look at it, that’s an awful lot. But how did that happen?

Well, let’s go back to the often cited turning point in American military policy, the end of World War II, when the fate of entire nations lay in the hands of two superpowers which knew very little about each other and spent a few decades demonizing one another in their newspapers and radio shows. All they really knew with certainty was that their military might was nothing to be taken lightly, that both had found Nazi V2 rocket factories, that it was a near certainty that one side would use them to launch its newly developed nuclear arsenal at the other with its future long range missiles, and that the other side was building its own nukes and working on its own stockpile of future ICBMs. This is why they set about trying to carve out buffer zones and secure alliances and treaties that sought to extend their reach and put missiles and turrets closer to their enemies to make crucial, possibly deciding nuclear blows easier. The vast military build-up during the Cold War was the conclusion a pair of superpowers deeply suspicious and fearful of each other made. The bigger the military, and the more nukes, the greater the deterrent to direct warfare. Instead, the superpowers warred by proxy, requiring a new wave of military expansion during each conflict to warn the other not to take the proxy wars global.

Of course if we knew then what we know now, history may have been very different. But the real world doesn’t work in hindsight, and at the time, the only thing the superpowers could really do was to arm themselves for a potential World War III and hope it would never happen. Than, as the Cold War ended when the USSR finally imploded after decades of corruption, ineptitude, and terrible decisions by its paranoid gerontocracy, the U.S. found itself with a huge military, a booming voice in global affairs built by its investments and alliances, and a lack of an enemy against which to use all this clout. Or in other words, it was all dressed up but had nowhere to go. So, ask critics of military spending, why not just draw down the armed forces? Well, it’s not that easy to do that because once you set up a giant organization with hundreds of thousands of people on its payroll, it’ll take decades just to unwind it. Its weapons have to be fueled, maintained, and supported. Its veterans and all its employees must be paid. Its current apocalyptic stockpiles of horrifying nukes have to be watched. To use an IT term here, the American military is a legacy system and one that can’t be scaled down or phased out as easily as it seems on paper or in a blog post. Just cutting its costs is an expensive process in itself because someone will have to pay all those transitional expenses. Until another war comes along that is…

And that’s really the core of the issue. Over half a century of constant sparring and military buildup, the U.S. is now left in command of a vast military that its politicians have gotten used to presenting as a deterrent in the best of times, and sending off to unleash its firepower in the worst. And while we all too often assume that an immense war machine designed to level entire nations in weeks could easily handle insurgencies in a Third World country, that’s really not true. In fact, politicians and many commanders are finding out that you have to fight against superpowers and guerillas with very different militaries, and are now in the process of taking the existing structure of the armed forces and retooling them for different wars while creating another big wave of military buildup in the process. And this is when we start hearing the cries of imperialism, conspiracy theories about New World Order sponsored warfare, and academic over-analysis to fully explain why Americans keep maintaining its armed forces at such expense by pundits who for some reason think that once the Cold War’s end was finally here, we could’ve just dismissed half the military and thanked the soldiers for their service. In the post-Cold War world, as the political landscape was still uncertain and potentially threatening, Americans wanted to keep a vast military to safeguard themselves. And today, as the mistakes of the Cold War’s twilight days have returned as a new global menace, that military, originally intended to fight nation-states, is fighting new and different wars, and trying to retool itself for what it never really prepared.

Certainly, there’s something to be said about what sixty years of military-centric policies shaped by an always near-violent, or violence-by-proxy political turmoil does to a nation’s culture. But to squeeze the latest chapters of American history through the prisms of 19th century philosophers and not even mention the Cold War and its enormous influence on shaping the United States’ foreign policy and national identity, or discounting it for another exciting conspiracy theory, or elaborate sophistry that glosses over it, assuming that dismantling half a century of work and complex political entanglements can be done in just a few years, is just sloppy at best, and alarmingly inept at worst. And certainly not something that should be considered an academic thesis.

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While for most of us, it tends to be a given that the culprit behind the scourge known as the Black Death was the bubonic plague, a number of historians weren’t so sure. The reports from the time talked about the kinds of symptoms we’d expect from a bizarre hybrid of bubonic and hemorrhagic plagues, or a hemorrhagic fever, something eerily similar to Ebola. Furthermore, critics of the bubonic plague theory contended, the spread of the outbreaks that killed nearly half of Europe’s population from 1347 to 1453 was too fast to be traced solely to fleas carrying the plague as they traveled with countless rats across the continent. Surely, there must have been something even more potent than the bubonic plague doing the damage, right? To settle the debate, or come as close to settling a debate as science allows, a team of anthropologists examined the bones from a number of mass graves associated with Black Death outbreaks and looked for Black Death’s genetic traces.

Turns out that what you’ve heard about the Black Death’s nature was probably right. It was the bubonic plague as evidenced by genes it left in the bones of its victims, or to get a tad more technical, a trio of closely related strains of bubonic plague which killed their victims very quickly thanks to the lack of real medical care and no knowledge of sanitary practices at the time. After taking the genetic analysis and combining it with the written records, we get a well defined picture of how the plague came from Asia and spread across Europe.

From historical accounts we know that the Black Death was imported into southern Europe from Asia, and reached Marseilles (southeast France) by November 1347. The plague then spread to western France by land and sea, reaching Narbonne and Carcassonne at the beginning of 1348. This extension to the west was probably responsible for a plague epidemic in Saint-Laurent-de- la-Cabrerisse, which lies between Narbonne and Carcassonne. [ … ]

Our finding of identical genotypes (based on 20 markers) in Saint-Laurent-de-la-Cabrerisse and Hereford thus lends support to historical evidence which suggest that plague spread from France to England in the second half of the 14th century. [ … ] Our results are consistent with the idea that the genotype in Bergen op Zoom represents a different route of plague spread, possibly from the northern to the southern Low Countries in AD 1350. Bergen op Zoom was in commercial contact with the north of the Netherlands in the 14th century, exporting pottery to Amsterdam. Friesland, in turn, was infected from Norway, which during the Middle Ages traded extensively with England and the Hanseatic cities along the North Sea coast of Germany.

So there you have it. The bubonic plague made its way along trade routes during the Middle Ages, starting its outbreaks in busy port cities which then spread the infection to the countryside, burning itself out until another round of international trade imported it elsewhere, creating new outbreaks. Unlike some scientists suggested to account for countryside death tolls claimed in Medieval records, it probably wasn’t anthrax or a hemorrhagic fever, or some unknown bacteria. But other criticisms of the bubonic plague theory point to issues that would be very difficult to evaluate, issues like the population of rats in Medieval Europe, precise duration and severity of bubonic plagues in a particular region, the discrepancies between expected death tolls based on modern epidemiology and the reported number of Black Death victims, and even whether it was warm enough for the carrier fleas to survive in Northern Europe during the Middle Ages. Those questions are very difficult to resolve in simple experiments, and it’s likely that they’ll be around for the foreseeable future. This is why I said that the anthropologists taking ancient DNA samples from mass graves are only settling the debate as much as they can in a scientific context, rather than settling it once and for all.

See: Haensch, S., et al (2010). Distinct Clones of Yersinia pestis Caused the Black Death PLoS Pathogens, 6 (10) DOI: 10.1371/journal.ppat.1001134

[ illustration by Marek Okon ]

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