Science Fiction

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Unless you are a Republican congressman for whom the declaration that “I am not a scientist,” seems like a sad badge of honour, most people think they have a grasp on basic science. After all you can’t get through high school without at least one science credit. Back in the day, you even needed one to get your Bachelor of Arts – just as science guys like me needed at least one arts course. Still, I suspect most of my peers got no more grasp of science from their Biology 101 than I understood world history from my Plato to NATO survey course.

As they say a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. The average North American gets by on very little information. Most, I suspect would flunk a grade ten general science quiz.

The people I tend to spend most of my time with – policy analysts and science fiction writers – tend to do a little better. Some of them even have degrees in one science discipline or another. But even we can make colossal blunders when we forget the basics tenets of the reasoning system that underpins most of modern civilization.

Perhaps no one can be blamed for losing track – there is after all more science out there every day, a lot of it reported in simplified memes or grotesque news headlines. And then we have the image of the scientist portrayed in fiction and the movies. Few get it right. Even The Martian, which was better than most films at portraying science, got it wrong in a way. When the hero says he is going to ‘science the shit’ out things, he’s really talking mostly about using technology.

There is a huge gap between those who use tools and those who actually make them and an even bigger gap to those who figure out the processes that make those tools work.

But we live in a sea of technology. I’m typing on a laptop while my smart phone counts down the ten minutes. I live in a building with thermostats and air circulation systems that would have seemed like magic two hundred years ago. Outside my windows, people are driving cars with more sophisticated computers than those that landed on the moon.

But science is not technology and, moreover, science is not done in isolation by single people working in labs or in front of whiteboards filled with math. Science is not about Eureka moments or brilliant men or women overturning the laws of nature in one fell swoop.

Science is a slow tedious process, mostly consisting of running the same experiment over and over again until you get consistent results, of reading and analyzing other people’s work rather than doing your own. It consists of endless calculations and often frustrating consideration of what results mean.

But that’s not very exciting and not very conducive to funny memes.

To many people, a theory is nothing more than a guess; to a scientist it is a rigorous set of proposals based on extensive evidence and used to make predictions about the world. Theories get strong if those predictions work out in reality and are weakened or even disproven if they don’t. It is a slow iterative process but the longer a theory has been around and more often it has been tested the stronger and more useful it becomes. The process is collaborative and tentative.

All too often we lose sight of that and leap on some reported result that hasn’t been repeated – that has in fact been refuted. I made that mistake earlier this week when I jumped the gun on the science of the Zika virus. And that’s how we misunderstand the world – whether it is climate change or vaccines: by selecting only those results that confirm our own prior beliefs. But that’s not science, that’s religion.

And this is a little more than ten minutes.

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Religious Freedom

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Hilary Clinton once said that freedom of religion does not mean freedom from religion. She might be excused for espousing such a logical absurdity given that a poll of Americans once found that they would rather have a communist for president than an atheist. Despite the wishes of its founding fathers, America has indeed become a god-fearing country.

This weekend – on January 16th, in fact – some Americans celebrated religious freedom day. It marks the anniversary of a law passed in Virginia, under the guidance of Thomas Jefferson, which removed the Anglican Church (now called the Episcopalian Church) from being the official church of the state. Under this law, ALL religions would be treated as equal before the law and, as is promised in the US Constitution, no religion would have influence over the secular government.

While secular tyrannies abound – such as North Korea – it is far more common to find religious tyrannies in the modern world (Myanmar with its Buddhist extremists or Saudi Arabia where Sunni oppresses Shia Muslims). There are those in the United States who would like to see their own country become one. They would like to change the Constitution to make the USA a Christian country subject to Biblical law. Good luck to them – well, in the falling-down-the-stairs into a pit of flaming oil sense of the words: good luck.

Of course, the fact that there are dozens of varieties of Christians probably poses a bit of the problem. The same way it did in Europe during the Reformation and subsequent 200 years of religious war. It’s hard to tally the number of people burnt at the stake over disputes over the nature of the trinity. One in three or three in one – it’s a dicey question unless you are trying to fix a rusty hinge.

Freedom from religion is at the heart of the idea of the separation of church and state. It means, in essence, that everyone is free to practice their own religion (if they have one) without the worry of being persecuted legally by the adherents of another faith. It means, for all matter that happen outside an actual church, you can’t be discriminated against simply because you don’t believe the things that other people believe.

There are people who don’t seem to get that. A lot of them seem to be running for the GOP nomination for president. Several of those people are Catholics. There was a time in America when Catholics were excluded from membership in certain clubs. One of those clubs was the Presidency. John Kennedy would have won by more than a few hundred thousand votes if he hadn’t been the first serious Catholic candidate for the job.

Having been raised a Baptist, I can see the value of excluding Catholics from high office. Maybe we should even stop them from coming to the country. Some Catholics – Irish ones for example, like Mr. Trump’s ancestors – have been heavily engaged in terrorist acts. Maybe they should be excluded from even staying in the States just until ‘we figure this thing out.’

This is not really satire – it’s simply a case of following things through to their illogical conclusion. Without freedom from religion, there is no freedom of religion.

And that’s ten minutes.

Resolutions

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It’s that time of year again. A time for looking back and summing up; for looking ahead and making resolutions. Some people claim not to make them; some people avoid resolutions the way bureaucrats eschew obfuscation. That is, not at all: they just say they do and take a course to prove it.

After all, who hasn’t woken up on the day after the night before and resolved: Never again! Who hasn’t looked in the mirror by accident after their shower and thought: Just 5 pounds. Who hasn’t come home from work tired and depressed and thought: I need to get a different job.

We do it all the time, whether we make a formal effort at New Year’s is merely a trivial detail. We all think that soon, we will work harder, look better and be a nicer person. Is that so bad?

If it were only so easy. Life, like everything else in the macro-universe, operates on the three laws of motion. You know, the ones you learned in high school physics and vowed never to forget. I can’t quite quote them verbatim but I do recall that things in motion tend to stay in motion (and those at rest sit on the sofa) until some external force comes along to change them.

You see, Red Green was right. I can change. If I have to. I guess. All it takes is a little shove. From someone. So why not me?

I think everyone should have a few resolutions but not ones that are too hard. After all, it hardly helps your reformation to fail right away, now does it?

Let’s start with a simple one.

I resolve to get up every day. There, that can’t be too hard. Well, unless you’re confined to a “hospital” and they have you strapped down for your own and others’ safety. It could happen.

But still, you get the idea. Start with the easy ones and work your way up. No point in going crazy with things like: I’ll go to the gym every day. That’s just a waste of money. Because what you will do is buy a gym membership. You think, if I’ve spent all that money, I’ll surely go more often. Nope. You will go exactly as many times a month as if you paid for it on a per visit basis – that is, about 5. Studies have proven this. Which is why gyms make it so easy to sign up for a membership and so hard to cancel it.

Free money for them. Which of course defeats YOUR resolution to be more careful with your cash.

So whatever you do, don’t promise to do what you know you can’t do. If you haven’t gone to the gym in a year, don’t plan on going three times a week. Resolve to go to the gym once. Just once. If you do that, you can make another resolution (there is no rule that it all has to be done at once). I’ve been to the gym once, I’ll go again some time. How hard is that?

Baby steps. After all, you are starting a new life.

And that’s ten minutes.

Religious Violence

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Is religion inherently violent? Certainly there are those who will say it is. Or rather they will say Islam is. You can find those claims if you like – usually made by people who have an outside’s view of that religion. There are others who will tell you that all religions are inherently violent. That faith itself is the basis of violent behavior.

I’m not one of those people. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no big fan of religion. It is a colossal waste of human time and energy. It is sometimes used to oppress people; it is often used to defraud them. The good that religious people do is neither different nor greater than the good done by the irreligious. And make no mistake; people have done great violence in the name of religion. All people, all religions, everywhere.

It’s hard to do violence in the name of atheism but a few people have even managed it. Not Hitler  – he was a self-proclaimed Catholic – but others.

See, that’s the thing. People do violence. And, sometimes they use religion as an excuse. Some may even use it as a motivation. Nobody gets off the hook for that.

Yet, if religion was a cause of violence, we’d be in a lot of trouble. There are literally billions of devoted people in the world. If religion drove them to violence, we’d all soon be dead. Yet, in fact, the world is getting less violent. Don’t take my word for it – there is good solid research to show it is true. The world is also getting more secular but the trend away from violence predates that change.

Why people like the barbarians of Daesh are driven to commit atrocities is unclear. Some of it is based on ideology rooted in what is clearly a misinterpretation of Islam just as Anders Breivik in Norway murdered scores of people because he misunderstood Christianity, just as Buddhists in Sri Lanka and Myanmar clearly misunderstand the teachings of Buddha. I could go on – as I said people have committed acts of violence and terrorism for a long time for a lot of reasons.

You might as well ask if politics is inherently violent. Think of all the acts of violence committed in the name of one ideology or the other – right or left, authoritarian or anarchist, they all do it.

People are violent and usually don’t need any reason at all to be that way – except to justify themselves. Violence is a tool to get what you want – money power, sex. We are all wired to respond to violence – a few by fighting, many by fleeing, some by freezing. Frozen people do not resist.

And of course there are causes for violence – which include poverty, powerlessness, fear of the other, fractured economies, criminal tendencies and human venality.

There are those who think that violence must be met with more violence. The evidence for that succeeding is pretty slim. When you look at why the world is becoming less violent, clearly it is not because of more violence. It is because we are also remarkably good at cooperating, at building societies, negotiating ways of living, of talking and working together for a better world.

Because most people don’t like to be hurt. Most people do not like hurting others. Most people believe in the golden rule: do unto others… And you don’t need religion to know that. But it’s surprising how many religions preach it.

And that’s a little more than ten minutes.

November Madness

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I blame it on the end of Daylight Saving Time. It now occurs on the first weekend in November and ever since that change – ten years ago under the presidency of George Bush (figgers!). Ever since then, November has meant some form of madness has descended on the world.

Let’s take the most obvious example – the Baseball playoffs now invariably stretch into November. They don’t call the World Series champs ‘the boys of OCTOBER’ for nothing. But no-more – this year it was November 1st before the crown was awarded.

But wait, there’s more. November has become the national month of male scruffiness. I refer to those hairy caterpillars so many men wear over their upper lips during Movember – a marathon of mustache growing to raise money and awareness for men’s health issues, notably prostate cancer. I did it once myself – the results were less than attractive (or impressive).

But of course the greatest madness of them all is NaNoWriMo, the national novel writing month when literally millions of people commit to writing an entire novel (well, a relatively short one) during the month of November. In my day, you wrote novels in three days but no more. Now it’s 2000 words a day, every day. If you know as many writers as I do it really cuts into your social life. In fact the only way you can get them to come to your house for supper is to let them write at the table between courses. By the end of the month it is hard to tell the NaNoWriMo participants from street people. I mean who has time for hygiene when you have an impending deadline.

And of course at the end of the month it all comes together: hordes of hairy, bedraggled and wild eyed people descending on stores on the Friday after American Thanksgiving for Black Friday.

All this November activity can be explained, perhaps, as a mechanism for avoiding the massive Christmas displays and endless Xmas tunes playing in the malls beginning the first week of November (despite earnest and appropriate pleas to delay it at least until after Remembrance Day). And of course, everyone knows, as George Martin, likes to say: Winter is Coming.

So, it is possible that all of this madness is nothing more than some traumatic case of denial. Or in the case of facial hair a desperate attempt to stay warm and avoid chapped lips.

Or, it could be preparation for the zombie apocalypse. It all fits now. The continuation of baseball when the sport should be dead; the frantic rummaging for words that come from where: BRAINS!!!!. The dishevelled appearance of mustache wearing men and boys. And finally the desperate shambling mass that is the Black Friday shopping crowd.

November isn’t a normal month. It’s the end times!

Time to stock up on canned goods and pick axes.

And that’s ten minutes.

Surprise

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If you’ve ever tried to throw a surprise party, you know just how tricky it can be. I’ve done it three times – succeeding twice. The first was a bit of cheat since it was only a party of two – me and the person surprised. It involved secretly buying a plane ticket and booking a hotel and on the day of the flight, handing my wife her suitcase and getting in a cab with her to the airport. Surprise!

The other two were tougher. The first was for a co-worker in Halifax. I made every mistake possible. I did the planning at work. I started too far in advance. I invited too many people. I wasn’t sufficiently deceitful. Of course, the person found out – they acted surprised but they weren’t exactly giving an Oscar winning performance.

The other time was for my wife’s fiftieth birthday. I did everything right. I planned it ten days in advance. I planned it at work (not at home). I invited a limited number of people and held the party in a city far away. I had co-conspirators who lied magnificently. She still almost figured it out. Only when her mother suggested that no-one would go to so much trouble for a birthday – her birthday –  was she taken in. And she still figured it out seconds before we yelled surprise. Close though.

Which is one of the many reasons that I roll my eyes whenever anybody talks about conspiracy theories. There are many reasons to roll your eyes at such people – their selective memory, their willingness to continuously expand the circle of conspirators, the cherry-picking of information, their reliance on experts whose expertise does not fall within the field of interest and so on. But the main cause of eye rolling is that I’m fairly convinced that none of them has ever planned a surprise anything. Honestly, most of them are so trapped in their own heads, they wouldn’t dream of doing something for someone else. They are TOO SERIOUS for that.

Human nature hates a secret the way nature abhors a vacuum. The only way to keep a secret is to keep it to yourself – as soon as another person knows the chances of being revealed goes up. Every person you add increases the risk exponentially.

Robert Snowden is a bit of hero to some but he was also inevitable. If he hadn’t blown the whistle (and probably he wasn’t the first) someone else would have. Too many people knew and the activities of the NSA were clearly moving into the unethical and probably illegal. That story has yet to be fully told.

As for the other stuff – 911 being an inside job (the most recent story relies on evidence from the Russian secret service. Now there’s a reliable source), the moon landing never happening, ISIS being backed by the CIA – they not only fail on a rational basis, that is, the reasons offered for doing it only make sense if you suffer from paranoid delusions (at least a little bit) but also on a basic truth of human behavior.

People blab. And people with ethical concerns will blab frequently no matter how many secrecy oaths you make them swear. Do conspiracies exist? Absolutely – just not successful ones.

And that’s ten minutes.

The Good Life

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When I was about 17, I read The Nature of Things (Dr Rerum Natura) by Lucretius. It was my introduction to Epicurean philosophy and in many ways it became a touchstone for my worldview and personal philosophy. Of course, many of the ideas are a little dated now and most of the ‘facts’ have been replaced with more accurate representations of the universe. But what would you expect from a book that is more than 2000 years old – an accurate representation of how the world does and should work? Surely you jest.

The Nature of Things, despite its flaws, describes a universe that operates at the atomic level. There are no ethers or Forces or prime movers, simply a set of laws that matter follows to produce all the wonders that we see. It is a world without gods and without worship. No wonder the Churches of the world tried to suppress it for a thousand years. In fact, it was sheer luck, as described in the excellent book The Swerve, that preserved it to modern times – thus hastening the Renaissance and the coming scientific revolution.

Lucretius and his mentor, Epicurus, were not only concerned with the function of the larger universe; they were concerned with how a man or woman might live the good life. Contrary to the slanders leveled at Epicureans, it is not a life of excess but rather of seeking pleasure through moderate consumption of all good things – food, wine, music, sex – while cultivating deep and lasting friendships.

While the Epicureans denied the existence of gods, they were never more than gently mocking of their religious contemporaries; one might wish that they were treated the same way, but no. They were persecuted for centuries and there was no greater taint that a priest could level at a philosopher or ordinary citizen than he followed an Epicurean life. The Inquisition could hardly be far behind.

Still, it seems to me, that the world would be a much better place if Epicurus had become the central fount of wisdom for modern society. No more poverty or excessive wealth, no persecution of people for holding different views – merely a demand, made in a jocular fashion, that they defend their views in a rational way based on actual observation of the world. Toleration, moderation, contemplation, friendship, joy, laughter, acceptance, inner peace – all Epicurean values.

Now that would be paradise on earth. But you have to excuse me – I have to go eat a modest breakfast of scones, strawberries and whipping cream washed down with a mug of hot strong coffee. While listening to music with my lovely wife.

And that’s ten minutes.