Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

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COVID and natural immunity / Follow-up: The paradoxical betrayal by those who should fight for truth

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In my previous text, I went hard on fact-checkers, proponents of Official Truths, and the like. Among other things, I noted:

With more facts in hand, it is horrifying how much the likes of Fauci [contextually juxtaposed with Trump] got wrong.

At around the same time, Brownstone published a text on distortions, including by Fauci, around natural immunity and COVID, which well illustrates some of the problems.* I strongly recommend reading the article as a whole, especially for examples and details. Still, a few quotes:**

*In addition to pointing to the benefits of natural immunity. This is off-topic relative my previous text, but is important in its own right, considering how many have not yet seen the point.

**With reservations for formatting, etc.

A new study in The Lancet has confirmed that natural immunity from COVID infection is at least as protective and durable against severe complications as vaccination.

Yet again, another COVID “conspiracy theory” has become today’s “The Science™.”

Natural immunity has long been a well known and accepted part of immunology, despite rabid, frenzied attempts to discredit it.

This fits a bigger picture of trying to discredit unwanted opinions with various slurs (e.g. “conspiracy theory”, “racism”, “White Supremacy”) instead of with arguments. Such attempts could, on a meta-level, be seen as a strong argument for the attacker being wrong and the attacked being right, as those who actually have arguments should* use those arguments instead of shouting “conspiracy theory”. I have reached the point where, unthinkable just a few years ago, “conspiracy theory” seems more like an endorsement than a condemnation. The issue with natural immunity is particularly puzzling, if we take a “we want to help” attitude at face value,** as the idea behind vaccines has historically been to get as much of the benefits from (post-infection) natural immunity without actually taking the risks associated with a (regular, non-manipulated) infection—immunity with less risk; not stronger immunity. The COVID vaccines use a somewhat different approach, but there is nothing that a priori (in my layman’s perspective) pointed to their being more effective than natural immunity and, for the young and healthy, even the “less risk” part seems*** highly dubious by now.

*Unfortunately, this is not foolproof, as some go for the easy manipulation of the broad masses over attempts to convince the thinkers; however, it does seem to hold up very well with the Left. (Cf. e.g. [1].)

**Whether we should is another matter. Much of what has happened can be parsimoniously explained by assuming a priority of e.g. selling vaccines or enforcing compliance over a wish to keep the people healthy.

***Unfortunately, the methods of the COVID fanatics, and the polarization of the debate that they have caused, have made it hard to gain a clear impression, at least without putting in much more leg-work than I have. There are definite risks, but how large they are and how they compare with the COVID risks is hard to tell.

Repeatedly, “fact-checkers” labeled posts as “misleading” for claiming that natural immunity was highly effective and could provide similar protection as vaccination.

Except they’ve all been proven wrong.

The Lancet study examined 65 studies from 19 different countries to determine the level of protection from infection against severe illness from COVID.

And they found that natural immunity was extremely protective against further complications, even for newer variants.

An excellent example for my own discussion of fact-checkers and how large the disconnect between claims about science (facts, whatnot) and the actual science (facts, whatnot) can be. (But note that I do not vouch for the correctness of details, here and elsewhere, e.g. whether “extremely protective” holds true or just “protective”. The point is, to me, that natural immunity was dismissed in a near blanket manner, while actually working well.)

Even more importantly, the study found that natural immunity was “at least” as protective as vaccination against all variants. And frequently more so.


Beyond being as least as protective, natural immunity was potentially longer lasting than protection from vaccination.

As really should have been expected. Moreover, something that the sceptics have been saying for a very long time based on earlier research. (A disadvantage with a meta-study is, of course, that it has to wait for individual studies to materialize—the truth has been out there for most of the COVID era.)

It’s almost impossible to be more wrong than Fauci, Birx, Mother Jones, dismissive “experts” and “fact-checkers” have been over the past few years.

With regards to masks, vaccine passports, school closures, lockdowns and natural immunity, for every single pandemic question the ‘experts’ formulated the wrong answer.

Hear, hear! The interesting question now is to what degree this is explained by e.g. incompetence and to what degree by some hidden agenda.

One of the most consistent features of the COVID era has been “experts” lying to the public, while steadfastly refusing to ever admit they were wrong.

Ditto. (Note that the word “lying” is justified, even should the issue ultimately be rooted in incompetence, as many stuck with the same line even after it must have been clear that the line was faulty.)


Written by michaeleriksson

February 21, 2023 at 12:54 pm

The paradoxical betrayal by those who should fight for truth

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As I noted in a recent text ([1]) (also see e.g. [2]), fact-checkers do more or less the opposite of what they should do: they should check facts in a neutral and objective manner, but actually check for compatibility with Leftist agendas or, very often overlapping, some Official Truth—and agendas/whatnot almost invariably supported by mis- and/or disinformation. Not only do they fail in their nominal task, they actually manage to make the situation worse than if they had not existed.

This is the more saddening to me as I had the idea of large scale* fact-checking before it manifested and had attached great hopes to the effects of a future implementation. Notably, there are a great many Leftist misconceptions, distortions, and outright lies that are ever and ever recurring, including that infamous 77 cents on the dollar bullshit, which is like a hydra—it grows** heads more quickly than the debunkers can keep up. It must have been debunked thousands of times over several decades and in a great many countries, yet it is still repeated with a mind-numbing stubbornness, and with not the slightest attempts at nuance or at countering the debunkings. (It is also an excellent example of how important it is to not just look at raw data but to actually understand the data in context, understand the reasons behind the data, understand the implications of the data, etc.—something very important to keep in mind when it comes to Leftist propaganda, which is often based on exactly data or claims removed from context, understanding, whatnot.)

*As opposed to e.g. a fact-checker hired by a newspaper to check the works of individual journalists or by a scientist to reduce some of his leg-work. Fact-checking, as such, has a history that goes back long before my idea and the modern “fact”-checking industry that came instead.

**But differs in that the growth is not caused by decapitation.

The result is a virtual sequence of:

“Women only earn 77 cents on the dollar!!! Sexism!!! Discrimination!!!”

“No, that is misleading because: [a discussion over several paragraphs]”

“Women only earn 77 cents on the dollar!!! Sexism!!! Discrimination!!!”

This, of course, only in those cases where someone actually is present to speak up, has the energy to do so, is not censored for disagreeing with the Feminists reality distortions, and whatnot. Most of the time, “Women only earn 77 cents on the dollar!!! Sexism!!! Discrimination!!!” sees no counter and is allowed to indoctrinate the weak thinkers and those ignorant of the underlying situation. Here, real fact-checkers might have worked miracles by simply pointing out the truth of the matter every time one of the hydra’s heads popped up.

There are many other examples where real fact-checkers would have been immensely valuable to counter recurring dis-/misinformation, e.g. defamation of IQ,* fear-mongering around nuclear power, the habit of blaming Capitalism for government failures,** and belief in the long discredited (among real scientists) “nurture only”/“tabula rasa” thinking, which is central to much of Leftist policies, e.g. with regard to the school system and transfer payments.

*Most commonly, maybe, the outrageously wrong claim that “IQ only determines how good you are at taking IQ tests” (cf. a text on IQ myths).

**See an upcoming text.

In [1], I also note that Wikipedia suffers from similar issues, thereby betraying its encyclopedic duties. Then there are scientific magazines, newspapers, schools, … Disturbingly often, it is exactly those institutions, persons, whatnot, that are supposed to be in the frontline against poor information, distortions of science, an anti-scientific/-intellectual attitude, poor attitudes towards language, postmodernism, and various Leftist bullshit, who have either put up no fight at all or, worse, joined the fight to push mis- and disinformation, distortions of science, etc.* (This often through the administrative route, that activists take control over an organisation, what policies the organisation supports, who is hired in “real”** positions within the organisation, etc., through gaining dominance among administrators.)

*Note that this is not limited to political issues. Consider e.g. non-political language issues (e.g. correctness of grammar, choice of good words): Journalists should have been setting a good example—but are often among the worst sinners. Teachers should instruct the students carefully, in order to reduce long-term damage to the language (cf. [3]), to ensure that A and B understand each other correctly, etc.—but often have a very shallow or incorrect own understanding, do not seem to care, and/or are Leftist activists who abuse their position to bend language in favor of some cause (e.g. by pushing “they” as a generic pronoun).

**For a college, contrast a professor, who is actually involved with the teaching and the research, with an administrator, bureaucrat, pencil pusher, DIE enforcer, whatnot. (Sadly, the professor is the one who has to take orders, which is the opposite of how a sane world/college would work.)

The case of the German Unwort des Jahres* is particular problematic and perfidious. Here we have a negative award that rightfully should be give to words that are ugly, illogical, overused, whatnot, and that are best avoided from a more linguistic or stylistic point of view. Instead? Looking at the list given in the above link (in German), the yearly** “winner” is usually chosen for being a word used by the non-Left to criticize (usually in a highly justified manner) various excesses or idiocies of the Left—the whole thing is turned into an illegitimate attempt to delegitimize legitimate criticism of the Left. It is nothing more and nothing less than a propaganda tool for the Left or far Left. In particular, it has no true connection to anything linguistic, stylistic, whatnot.

*The German “Un” prefix often has a strong negating and/or intensifying effect. Note, e.g., “Tier” (“animal”) vs. “Untier” (“monster”). Without the prefix, “Wort des Jahres” is simply “word of the year”, while “Unwort des Jahres” then (nominally, but not in reality) becomes the linguistic equivalent of the “Razzies”.

**See excursion for a discussion of the 2022 entry.

Excursion on the 2022 “Unwort des Jahres”:
The 2022 choice was announced a few days ago, and was the trigger for this text: “Klimaterroristen” (“climate terrorists”).

There are at least two angles that make this choice unjustifiable, even the absence of linguistic and stylistic issues aside: Firstly, 2022 saw a considerable amount of violence from climate fanatics, including attempts to ruin old works of art, that falls well within what has been considered terrorism when performed by other groups.* Indeed, if e.g. societal concerns were to trump linguistic concerns, it would have been less unreasonable to name it word of the year than un-word of the year. Secondly, the much more justifiable-as-a-winner “Klimaleugner” (“climate denier”) has never seen a similar “award”. However, “climate denier” does check a relevant linguistic checkbox through being highly illogical (who denies that the climate exists?!?). It is also highly misleading, defamatory, and serves as a dishonest ad-hominem attack, which makes it all the more worthy of condemnation. (Note the asymmetry: “climate terrorist” is applied to those who engage in terroristic acts, while “climate denier” is thrown around in a wild manner, including against those, like Koonin, who appear to be more-or-less believers in e.g. man-made climate change but object to misrepresentations of the underlying science by media, special interest groups, and the like.** (Generally, for every alleged non-Leftist “un-word”, there are a handful of Leftist words that are more or much more deserving of the label.)

*There is room to discuss the correctness of such use in general, and there might have been some considerably earlier year where a plain “[Tt]errorist” would have been a legitimate choice through the drift in use. However, the more specific “climate terrorist” has no such justification—and certainly not for 2022. Also note, beyond this general drift, a common abuse of the word “[Tt]errorist” by the Left against its opponents for far lesser reasons. (E.g. that parents protesting Leftist indoctrination in U.S. schools are equated with “domestic terrorists”.)

**I remain agnostic on the issue; however, I also have very strong objections to the methods that the fanatics use in the climate debate—methods that are intellectually dishonest, anti-scientific, and generally worthy of condemnation, regardless of what the facts on the climate are.

Excursion on methods:
The methods used by various entities who “fight the bad fight” can be very annoying in their own right, including unsupported claims that this-or-that would be “racist” or “sexist”, and other claims that involve a considerable speculation (or fantasizing) about the intentions of others. (In particular, it is a common malpractice to condemn claims as e.g. “racist” without stating what these claims were, which prevents the reader from fact-checking the condemnation.) Similarly, claims by non-Leftists are often prefixed with something like “unfounded” or “debunked” (e.g. “X’s debunked claim that […]”)–even when the claim actually has considerable support and is anything but debunked.* In the other direction, Leftist claims are often prefixed with “science says that […]” or similar—even when real scientists (i.e. those not doing gender studies and other quackery) say something very different.** Then we have issues like e.g. calls for more government intervention, despite many decades of empirical evidence that this is a negative, while those calling for less government and more market are dismissed as e.g. invoking “market hocus-pocus”, while the same decades of experience show that markets actually work—to give just one example of a complete disconnect between claims and reality.

*A critical point: I, too, use similar phrasings, e.g. the “unsupported claims” in the first sentence of this excursion—but I do so because it is justified, while the Left does so because the “wrong” person said it or because it does not fit the Agenda. At an extreme, note how some suggestions by Trump around COVID seem to have been condemned in a near blanket manner because he suggested them, regardless of what science actually said, what actually was plausible, what was within the range of the large uncertainties present at the time, etc. (With more facts in hand, it is horrifying how much the likes of Fauci got wrong.)

**I re-iterate my observation that the claim “science says that X” is no more credible than just the claim “X”, unless proof is actually given.

Written by michaeleriksson

February 20, 2023 at 7:22 pm

Nullius in verba / Follow-up: Who are the science deniers?

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Checking a detail about the Royal Society on infogalactic, I came across the RS motto, “Nullius in verba”, explained as:*

*Some change to formatting through copy-and-paste and/or for technical reasons. Reference indicators removed.

Nullius in verba (Latin for “on the word of no one” or “Take nobody’s word for it”) is the motto of the Royal Society. John Evelyn and other Royal Society fellows chose the motto soon after the founding of the Society. The current Royal Society website explains the motto thus:

It is an expression of the determination of Fellows to withstand the domination of authority and to verify all statements by an appeal to facts determined by experiment.

(I note especially “withstand the domination of authority”. Whether “by experiment” is the sole source of verification, even for scientists, is open to dispute, and it is certainly impractical for the layman; however, the general idea of own verification definitely holds, even be it in the weaker form of checking with independent sources for, say, a prospective voter listening to the claims of a political partisan.)

This is a scientific attitude—and the virtual opposite of what e.g. Fauci and various Leftist “Believe the science!” and “We are the party of science!” shitheads try to force upon the world, often while making claims unsupported or outright contradicted by science… I particularly re-iterate my observation that “Science says X!” is no more and no less credible than just “X!”, unless accompanied by actual proof that science indeed says X.

I ask again, Who are the science deniers?—and, again, the answer is “the Leftists”.

(Also see a few other texts on various related topics, including [1].)

Written by michaeleriksson

January 30, 2023 at 7:18 pm

Correction / Mistaken plausibilities

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Recently, I wrote:

In the softer fields, sadly, similarly large-scale fraud does take place, as with e.g. the common IQ-denialism and, more generally, the “nature [sic!] only” claims.

This should read:

In the softer fields, sadly, similarly large-scale fraud does take place, as with e.g. the common IQ-denialism and, more generally, the “nurture only” claims.

Excursion on errors:
The above is an excellent illustration of some problems discussed in A few notes on my language errors: Firstly, it is usually parts that are edited during revision or proof-reading that contain errors, as they have fewer iterations of checks. Here I originally wrote “blank slateism”, moved to “tabula rasa”-something when my spell checker complained and I was uncertain whether “slateism” or “slatism” was the better version (neither was recognized). Then I found the “tabula rasa” formulation too awkward and switched to the faulty formulation actually used. Secondly, the issue of homophones and near homophones (“nature” vs. “nurture”), where I still make mistakes.

Written by michaeleriksson

September 26, 2022 at 8:48 am

Mistaken plausibilities

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In the past, I have written about topics like how some jump to conclusions about sexism or racism (e.g. [1], [2]) as causes for some certain event where a neutral and reasonable third party would, in most cases, suggest other causes.* This up to and including the systematic application of distorting gender-glasses** or their equivalent for e.g. race and/or systematic interpretation within a detached-from-reality framework like CRT. In light of later thoughts, I want to point to the possibility of an explanation that is (a) applicable to much more general situations, (b) is partially*** less incriminating when applied to allegations of sexism, racism, whatnot: mistaken plausibilities.

*Consider e.g. a woman being fired. The explanation for this might be sexism, but a more likely explanation is that she under- or outright mis-performed. Another explanation is a personal antipathy from a higher up—unrelated to her being a woman, maybe even involving a female higher up. Other explanations yet are possible that do not involve sexism.

**Yes, this is a thing and a thing that some Feminists, at least in Sweden, deliberately push.

***The jumped-to conclusions remain incorrect and there is an overlap in that e.g. PC propaganda might have brought on mistaken plausibilities that, in turn, led to a false conclusion of e.g. “sexism”.

To illustrate the general idea: When I was very, very young, I and my sister had been jumping on a bed. Mother was angry, as the previously well-made bed was now unmade. I tried to blame Martians, believing that this was sufficiently plausible to create reasonable doubt* (not that I knew the term at the time). Mother concluded that I was/we were still guilty and just trying to escape an “earful”. I, in turn, was honestly surprised that she was not open to my explanation.

*Indeed, I have long considered writing something about specifically the varying plausibility of reasonable doubt to various parties based on this event. For now, I just note that different levels (sometimes, areas) of knowledge, understanding, experience, intelligence, whatnot can lead to different positions on what doubt is reasonable.

I encountered Martians and other extraterrestrials, ghosts, witches, time travel, whatnot on a near daily basis—and I more-or-less took for granted, e.g., that there were Martians and that they often visited Earth. These encounters, true, had yet to manifest in my own life, but TV and my comics were full of them. My exposure to science and other aspects of a more adult worldview was much more limited, and my critical thinking was still that of a very, very young child.

My mother, on the other hand, had some* understanding that not everything on TV and whatnot** was to be trusted, she had lived a much longer life without a personal encounter with Martians, and she might have had the insight that children (and, sadly, adults) often lie to escape culpability.*** (She might also have considered factors that I had not, say, the relative likelihoods that Martians, should they exist and visit Earth, had and had not made their way into the house without her noticing.)

*Although, an imperfect one, as she was more culpable with regard to e.g. the news. A major point of this text is that adults often fall victim to similar errors, just in a more subtle manner. Witness e.g. the many true believers in the COVID-propaganda.

**Not limited to comics, of course, but also including novels (note e.g. how many historical inaccuracies the typical historical novel has), newspapers, works of non-fiction, etc. Their standard is usually higher or much higher than that of (children’s) comics, but most of them contain at least some amount of error and taking them too much at face value, as many adults do, is a mistake. Note, in parallel, how much of modern fiction engages in what appears to be deliberate reality distortion regarding e.g. crime rates in various racial groups, rates of domestic violence for the respective sexes, frequencies of clear cases of race- or sex-based discrimination, etc.; and the damage that this does to the worldview of the unwary. Ditto misleading journalism.

***Here she might have been well ahead of me at the same age. As an adult, I hardly ever lie, and I have often failed to consider the possibility that others could be lying, unless I either knew the truth to be something different or the lie was too obviously implausible.

Here we see how different persons can give a certain explanation drastically different plausibilities, which plays in to which explanations they prefer respectively reject.

We can apply the same thinking to e.g. a Catholic medieval village. Let us say that a statue in the church appears to be crying. The villagers have been raised to believe in miracles, saints, omens, whatnot, and would likely consider a miraculous* explanation highly plausible. Many might not even bother to consider other explanations, like a natural phenomenon, maybe relating to condensation or a previous rainfall.** From my point of view, however, a miraculous explanation is highly unlikely, as I have seen precious little evidence*** of miracles (and, as an atheist, would find them highly unexpected). At the same time, I have seen a great many cases of condensation, I know that a stony and/or unheated church might be prone to condensation, I have heard of alleged miracles that have turned out to have a scientific explanation, etc., and would be quite likely to consider natural causes. I have also encountered a great many hoaxes of various kinds, and would certainly not rule that option out.

*With reservations for terminology. My intent should be clear.

**This especially if a “I want to believe” factor plays in. Keeping such factors in mind when looking at other cases can be worthwhile.

***Strictly speaking, neither would the villagers have. However, they would have heard plausible-to-them claims from far away, they would have read/listened to stories, backed by higher authority, of saints performing miracles, they would know stories from the infallible-to-them Bible, etc. Compare this with the often too trusting attitude towards science, main-stream media, and the government today. (Also see excursion.)

Excursion on trusting science:
Many trust science in a highly naive manner, or, worse, trust others when they claim-that-science-claims. (Note e.g. [3], [4].) However, even highly critical thinkers, those who think for themselves, who are aware that even natural science sometimes gets things wrong, and who deeply mistrust the social “sciences”, usually take much on faith—and might not be that different from a medieval Catholic who trusted the Pope and the Bible. For instance, I know a fair bit about Relativity Theory, including being aware experimental evidence*, e.g. measurements involving atomic clocks that have remained still (relative the Earth) respectively traveled by airplane that show the time difference predicted by theory. Or do I? Strictly speaking, I have read accounts that claim that such experiments have taken place and have delivered certain results.

*Arguably, failed attempts at falsification.

Do I doubt these claims? No: physicists are (or have historically been) less likely to lie and distort than members of softer and/or more ideologically driven fields; plenty of physicists would have had much to gain by falsifying Relativity (so why have we seen so little contradictory evidence?); it would take a massive effort to keep such a big lie going for well over a hundred years; and the plausibilities are one-sided. Still, I am open to the theoretical-but-highly-unlikely possibility of fraud—just like I am open to the theoretical-but-highly-unlikely possibility that God does exist, after all.

In the softer fields, sadly, similarly large-scale fraud does take place, as with e.g. the common IQ-denialism and, more generally, the “nature only” claims. However, there are many voices that point out the faults of this denialism, and both the experimental evidence and everyday observations* are strongly in favor of IQ—not of the IQ-deniers.

*Everyday observations are, for natural reasons, not something that applies to Relativity (more correctly: to the differences between it and classical physics).

Written by michaeleriksson

September 24, 2022 at 6:25 pm

Warranted skepticism in science / Follow-up: Who are the science deniers?

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Disclaimer: I wrote a near complete draft of the below two weeks ago, but left a few TODOs in, where I, today, am uncertain exactly what I intended. For reasons of time and the size of my backlog, I have mostly removed them without additional work. For the same reasons, I have not split the text into two, one dealing with the intended core topic and one with the unplanned side-topics around 7DSP (cf. below).

I have already written ([1]) about how accusations of e.g. “science denialism” are more appropriately directed at the Left than the non-Left. However, there is another aspect to the issue, where the non-Left, again, fares better, but which might be a source of much of the Leftist propaganda of alleged non-Leftist “science denialism”: warranted skepticism. This usually hand-in-hand with critical thinking and a wish to think for oneself/to form one’s own opinions. (All of which seem to be far rarer on the Left than on the non-Left.)

The simple truth is that even proper science performed by great minds according to all the rules of the scientific method often gets things wrong or finds something else than was expected. Even physics is inherently something fallible and incremental, which does not reveal absolute and unshakable truths after a five-minute experiment (or, for that matter, five minutes of math). That we now might appear to have a great many absolute and unshakable truths in physics is the result of hundreds of years of accumulated results and vetting of results. Even so, there are occasional discoveries, or even paradigm shifts, that show something to be faulty or just approximately correct.

But how much of science can be described as “proper science performed by great minds according to all the rules of the scientific method”? Very little. Most scientists are not great minds—good, maybe, but not great. Many, especially in the softer sciences, do not have a scientific mindset. Many are driven by secondary concerns, e.g. to publish enough for a good career, to further an ideological agenda, or to stay on the good side of a financier. The scientific method* might be more something developed and proposed by philosophers than scientists, and most good scientists are likely content with a scientific mindset—while bad scientists often do not have even that.

*Whether the scientific method is even that important on the level of the individual scientist might be disputed. It does become very important on the level of the field as a whole, however.

It is also quite common for scientists and/or scientific results to contradict* each other, especially as time goes by and especially where health is concerned. To take just one example, I have heard at least the following claims about alcohol** and health: No matter how much or what type of alcohol you drink, drinking less is better. Moderate amounts of any type of alcohol are beneficial. Moderate amounts of specifically wine are beneficial, but not of other types of alcohol. Moderate amounts of specifically red wine are beneficial, but not of other types of alcohol, including other wines.

*Not to be confused with pseudo-contradictions, e.g. the unexpected-but-not-contradictory claims that (a) coffee is good, (b) caffeine is bad. It might, for instance, be that some non-caffeine component of coffee is good for the human body and more than outweighs any negative effects of caffeine. (Whether either claim is true, I leave unstated, especially with an eye on issues like dosages and the risk of someone mistaking correlation for causation.)

**Strictly speaking, ethanol—that we should stay away from e.g. methanol is indisputable. However, the reporting (and e.g. the labels on wine and gin bottles) is always phrased in terms of “alcohol” and I will remain consistent with this.

Being skeptical of what is claimed by even physicists has some justification—being skeptical of what is claimed in the softer sciences is an outright virtue. This, however, is not “science denialism”—it is, on the contrary, a part of that scientific mindset. Those who blindly claim that “scientist X said Y; ergo, Y”, without own thought, without an awareness that scientist X might be wrong (or misunderstood/misreported), without finding out what other scientists have said on the topic, etc. are the ones being unscientific. Moreover, being skeptical of what journalists and politicians claim that scientists would claim is a virtual necessity to an even remotely scientific mind. Someone who is not, should not be allowed to vote.

I have already (e.g. in [1]) pointed to severe issues in the social sciences/“sciences” and in ideological pseudo-sciences like “gender studies”, around COVID, and (at least as far as journalists and politicians are concerned) environmental science. To this, an interesting recent read—“The Seven Deadly Sins of Psychology” (7DSP) by Chris Chambers. This book gives a damning analysis of many issues in psychology, including various forms of publication bias* and failure to perform adequate replication studies (as well as examples of an absurd attitude towards replication studies among some researchers). It is virtually impossible to take modern psychology seriously in light of 7DSP.**

*Including secondary problems like “p-hacking”. All in all, this publication bias goes a long way to explain the infamous “replication crisis”.

**Assuming that it is factually correct. The scientifically minded are, of course, open to the possibility that it gives a misleading picture. However, the contents match what I have heard and seen, if in smaller doses, from other sources.

Excursion on retractions:
(Executive summary: Bad science is legitimate grounds for retraction, merely being wrong is not.)

7DSP brings up the topic of retractions, in particular a reluctance to retract papers within the psychology community. Here the author, in my opinion, severely overshoots the target by suggesting that already published papers should be retracted merely because replication attempts fail. This brings me to a topic that has long annoyed me—the flawed idea that (experimental*) papers should be retracted willy-nilly. Now, if the authors of a paper find out, post-publication, that they have made such a severe mistake that the paper is invalidated, then a retraction is warranted.** Ditto, if the authors know before publication and still go ahead (in which case we usually enter the area of academic fraud).

*When it comes to e.g. math papers the situation might often be different. If a proof contains a previously undetected error of logic, e.g., then the entire paper might collapse or only be worthwhile in an amended form. If there are no such errors of logic, arithmetic, algebra, whatnot, on the other hand, the results of the paper will almost certainly be true. (While an experimental paper can do everything right and still be wrong.)

**Say, in a medical double-blind study, that an inadvertent unblinding took place or that data for the test and control groups were switched.

However, the idea that a properly written paper about a properly performed experiment/study/whatnot should be retracted merely because it later proves not to describe reality* is ludicrous. A good paper in the experimental sciences does not** proclaim what the truth of reality is—it states that “we did this and we did that, and the result was the following”. This will continue to hold true, even if there are a hundred failed replications—and there is no point in a retraction. Indeed, retracting can have negative consequences down the line, e.g. in that a later meta-study chooses not to include the retracted-for-a-spurious-reason paper, which leads to a weakening of the meta-study.

*Which can happen e.g. for statistical reasons, say, in that a survey was given to a random sample and that this random sample happened to have an unfortunate composition, which caused the answers to the survey to be skewed relative a population wide survey.

**If the paper fails here, there are bigger things to worry about than the details of what went wrong.

Worse yet are retractions for entirely spurious reasons, say that a particular paper causes politically or ideologically motivated protests or (when the retractor is a journal) that one of the authors later engages in other research that causes politically or ideologically motivated protests.

Now, if a researcher says “My new pill can cure cancer!”* and this turns out to be incorrect, this claim should be retracted. Generally, explicit claims (going beyond data), explicit advice, endorsements,** and the like can and should be retracted when later experiences prove them wrong—but not papers.

*As opposed to “I performed a trial as described in my paper X and found the results presented there”. (That “My new pill can cure cancer!” has no place in the paper, it self, even should the results point in that direction, is a given.)

**Note that the publication of a paper in a journal does not constitute an endorsement by the journal in a sense involving the correctness or infallibility of the paper. The true implied claim is typically some combination of “we believe that you will want to read this” and “we have performed the usual vetting, peer-review, etc.”, which is not an extent of endorsement that is sensible to retract just because of e.g. a later replication problem. In fact, off the top of my head, I would argue that there are only three scenarios in which a journal can legitimately retract, namely when (a) the authors have already retracted the paper for a valid reason, (b) there is significant proof that the authors should have retracted but refused to do so, (c) the paper has been revealed to contain deliberate fraud. (The two latter often overlap.)

Excursion on 7DSP:
The book is generally worth reading; however, I caution that the author does not strike me as a great thinker and that the reader often needs to reevaluate the text with regard to what is left out, what other perspectives might apply, whether the reasoning holds, etc. For instance, at some point he poses a few ethical questions of the “is this OK or not OK” type, including e.g. removal of data points—but he fails to specify why the data points were removed, which is a central issue when judging their removal. (Did the data points go against the preferred hypothesis while otherwise being valid, or did they also have some notable problem that made them misleading in the evaluation of said hypothesis?)

Written by michaeleriksson

August 28, 2022 at 5:03 pm

Who are the science deniers?

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One of the most frustrating issues with the current political climate is the endless Leftist claims about science, about X* deniers, about the Democrats (!!!!!!) being the party of science, etc. These are good examples of the Left claiming the opposite of the truth. (Cf. e.g. some heuristics to understand the Left.)

*Where X is any of a growing number of terms, including e.g. “climate”, “COVID”, or even “science” outright.

Let us look more closely at this nonsense:

Firstly, the modern Left has a very anti-scientific and anti-intellectual streak, beginning with Post-Modernism and its attempts to truly deny the legitimacy of science and scientific endeavours, its attempts to blur the difference between mere opinion and well-founded scientific results,* etc. As if this decades-long issue was not enough, we now have to contend with absurd claims that scientific endeavours, giving correct answers on a test, “showing the work” when solving a math problem, and even math it self would be “White Supremacy”. Long before even Post-Modernism, we had issues like Lysenkoism and other pseudo-scientific fields pushed by Leftist regimes. (This despite Lysenkoism having a massively negative impact on the local agriculture and the sustenance of the locals.) Indeed, Marxism, it self, is a pseudo-science (at least by today’s standards), while many of the important Leftist “intellectuals” of the 20th century depended on psychoanalytic theories (also pseudo-scientific by today’s standards).

*I am tempted to write “established scientific facts”, but that far Post-Modernism gets it right—perfect knowledge is impossible and science is a process of revising the established. Of course, the scientists had this insight much earlier and Post-Modernism goes off the reservation immediately after this insight.

These problems extend deep into the Left-dominated social sciences or, increasingly, “sciences”, which by now have more-or-less abandoned scientific ideals and the scientific search for truth in favor of Leftist agenda pushing and ideological distortions not dissimilar to Lysenkoism. This up-to and including absurdities like Gender Studies and CRT, where the entire fields seem geared at “proving” and pushing certain pre-conceived opinions, with no regard for the evidence at hand—which is usually strongly contrary to these pre-conceived opinions.

Secondly, if we look at various areas of denialism, the Left does not fare well. Consider some prominent areas:

  1. There are mountains of evidence from various fields, including physiology, psychometrics, and genetics, of in-born differences between various groupings, including between men and women, between sub-Saharan Africans and Europeans, and (to a lesser degree) between Swedes and Russians.

    These do not fit the Leftist agenda and “blank slate” ideology—and are alternately ignored and condemned as e.g. “racist”, with no regard for the actual evidence.

    This applies in particular to the area of IQ*: IQ has a proven track-record as a predictor** of e.g. success in life, is hard to change within the parameters of modern society, and would, if properly considered, reveal many Leftist programs and ideas, especially relating to education, as wishful thinking. But, no: instead we get to hear that IQ is “racist”, or see IQ “debunked” by some ever recurring and highly contrafactual claims, e.g. that “IQ only shows how well you do on IQ tests”***.

    *More accurately, the underlying g. As the latter concept is poorly known among the broad masses, I will ignore the difference. I note, however, that there appears to be some training effect to IQ, which is not reflected in g, and that the “Flynn effect” might be restricted to IQ.

    **Strongly so on the group level and for differences in e.g. distributions of outcomes. Less strongly so, but still on a valuable level, for the individual.

    ***On the contrary, there is a very wide range of correlations and likely causalities to various other measures, e.g. of scholastic success.

    Then we have issues of “gender” and sexual preferences, where the Left jumps between denying any biological involvement (“X is a social construct”) and declaring something in-born and inherent depending on how it fits the ideology and agenda, with no care for consistency of thought or that pesky evidence.

  2. Partially overlapping, we have the area of Evolution:

    It is true that U.S. Democrats almost invariably claim to believe in Evolution, while their Republican counterparts are much more likely to be sceptical or even outright Creationist. But:

    Firstly, this is a U.S. issue and does not reflect the global situation. In e.g. my native Sweden and adopted Germany, Evolution is usually taken for granted outside the Left. At the same time, the aforementioned Lysenkoism was a severe mistreatment of Evolution pushed by the Left.*

    *At a minimum, the Soviet Left. I have not looked into details, but chances are that parts of the Left elsewhere had similar ideas, notably the parties/countries under strong Soviet influence.

    Secondly, this is not a matter of Democrats vs. Republicans, per se, nor Left vs. Right, but of religious opinions. In the U.S., and many other countries, the Left has a very strongly atheistic or even anti-religious angle, which has almost necessarily forced the strongly religious to take shelter in non-Leftist groupings, including the Republican party. In the older days, when Christianity was more widely popular this was different. For instance, the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial was based on the Butler Act, passed by a Democrat legislature (cf. [1]) and the vociferous and strongly religious prosecutor was none other than William Jennings Bryan, one of the leading Democrats of his era and one of the most influential on Democrat thought in any era.

    Thirdly, the Leftist claims are typically nothing but lip service: Ever and ever again, the Leftists show that they simply do not understand how Evolution works. If they do not understand how Evolution works, a profession of being an Evolutionist carries no more value than the claim of being Christian from someone who has no clue about Christianity. Worse, by this lack of understanding, they quite often combine a de facto denial (!) of Evolution with their de jure acceptance, e.g. by denying that humans have evolved over the last few thousand years, that Evolution applies to humans too (not just animals), or that differences in life style, societal roles, whatnot could* have an Evolutionary effect.

    *Here and elsewhere, legitimate questions may be raised as to how large a certain effect might be, how long a time is necessary, how large the differences must be, etc. However, the Left does not, or only very rarely, raise such questions—instead, there is typically a blanket denial of even the possibility.

  3. COVID is an area of many, many examples. That there were great doubts about what was true to begin with is understandable; however, even then the Left* tended to discount established ideas and there seemed to be a knee-jerk reaction that “Trump said that X; ergo, X is wrong”—without any actual investigation of plausibility and proof.**

    *In particular. Unfortunately, the problem occurred to some degree outside the Left too. Witness e.g. Merkel in Germany and, to a lesser degree, the early acts of Trump in the U.S.

    **Consider e.g. the possibility of a lab leak, which was mentioned by Trump, immediately considered discredited for a long time, and then suddenly considered legitimate again when a journalist raised the suggestion. Similarly, Trump suggested that Ivermectin might be a viable early treatment and Ivermectin was immediately considered discredited. (I am not up-to-date, but the last I heard, the jury in the non-ideological community was still out on Ivermectin. Note that the research has been scarce and that some trials have misapplied it, notably by missing the “_early_ treatment” aspect. Indeed, some have raised the accusation that some trials were deliberately designed to fail. However, the question is not whether Ivermectin works, the question is the anti-scientific approach to the matter. Ditto, the question is not where COVID originated, but the anti-scientific approach to the investigation of the origin.)

    Since then, we have seen a long line of scientific investigations and practical experiences indicate e.g. that lockdowns and masking bring at most a minor help (and do more harm than good through side-effects), that those not in a risk group are not at risk, that the effectiveness of the vaccines is dubious and that the vaccines come with side-effects, that various predictions and models were wide off the mark, etc. Still, the current, highly anti-science, stance of the Left is that we need more lockdowns and masking, that absolutely and categorically everyone, children included, must be vaccinated for their own safety, that the vaccines work well and have no side-effects whatsoever, and that renewed predictions “prove” that renewed countermeasures are direly needed. Oh, and did anyone notice how slowly and reluctantly natural immunity was accepted? This despite the natural expectation being that natural immunity would come and be at least as good as vaccine-induced immunity.

  4. Accusations of climate denialism is a Leftist staple.* (And a horribly illogical expression—who would deny that there is a climate?!?)

    *Unlike most other points, this is an area where I do not necessarily reject the Leftist position, as I have done too little leg-work. However, I do reject the Leftist methods, distortions, anti-scientific approach, … (Note that the use of such methods by the Left do not automatically imply that they are used by the climate scientists—this is a discussion of Left vs. non-Left, not of the work of the actual climate scientists.)

    Nevertheless, the Left seems to be the greatest source of poor science, unscientific thinking, and misleading or outright faulty claims. This includes uncritical acceptance of poorly tested and poorly performing models, exaggerated reporting, blanket ascription of this-or-that (e.g. forest fires) to global warming, misrepresentation of past data, and a failure to discuss the many past predictions that have failed—society should have been destroyed several times over by now, had they been correct.* Then there are those constant claims of the “Hottest July of All Times!!!” (or whatever the latest hottest was). Really? Four-and-half billion years and this July was the hottest? Oh, you meant the hottest July since the beginning of measurements. Well, then say so you f-ing moron!!!

    *Of course, for someone who does have a scientific mind, repeated failures are cause to be very cautious and critical. (But not necessarily to reject in a blanket manner—the boy who cried wolf was actually taken by a wolf in the end.) Ditto, poor reasoning, exaggerations, etc.

    Moreover, the accusation of climate denialism often arises merely through questioning some portion of the narrative, pointing to errors or exaggerations, or asking for actual proof—implying that the accusation is raised in an anti-scientific manner against someone (often) scientific. A good example is the debate around “Unsettled”, as I discuss in an earlier text: a real scientist who appears broadly supportive (!) of the claims around climate change is hanged to dry for questioning individual flaws with good arguments.

  5. Related, we have many misrepresentations of an unscientific nature in various other environmental areas, e.g. in that the dangers and disadvantages of nuclear power have been horrifyingly exaggerated, that the disadvantages of favored technologies are swept under the carpet, that only “run-time” greenhouse-gas emissions are considered when making comparisons and not the life-cycle costs/emissions/whatnot, etc.
  6. Then there is the topic of Economics, where members of the Left seem to be either ignorant or to cling to outdated (e.g. Keynesian) thought or wishful thinking (e.g. MMT). Established and proven principles are ignored, e.g. that (all other factors equal) an increase in the money supply leads to inflation—witness Joe Biden. Or consider the known negative effects of high taxes and the danger of big government or regulatory capture—no, the Left wants higher taxes, bigger government, and more power to regulators. Or consider the benefits of market forces*—no, the Left does whatever it can to remove their effects or to supplant them with government controls. The effect of incentives and principles from game theory are equally ignored. Etc.

    *Arguably, the single most important thing to understand about economics.

    (Additionally, I have a fear that the field of Economics, it self and as a consequence of Leftist influence, is drifting from an attempt to explain and understand to an attempt to push specific political goals, e.g. “exterminate poverty” and “reduce GINI”. Effectively, it is moving from a science or proto-science to an unscientific field of activism.)

  7. As a bit of a meta-item, consider fact checking. The way that fact checking, usually run by Leftists, works is that claims are not judged on their merits but on (a) whether they fit the Leftist ideology and agenda and (b) who made them. This well illustrates the analogous Leftist approach to science—what supports the Cause is “true”; what does not is “false”. This in a blanket manner, without any scientific investigation, and with a thoroughly anti-scientific mindset.

    (The reader familiar with my early texts will note how many of them deal with Feminists, Feminist censorship of dissent, statistics, and factual arguments, and Feminist misinterpretation, distortion, or outright invention of statistics.)

Written by michaeleriksson

July 28, 2022 at 10:11 pm

Never read your idols!

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“Never meet your idols!” the saying goes. A similar saying might apply to re-encountering, after too long a time, someone or something that we once admired:* Working on a text on some early influences and non-influences on my own development, I downloaded a copy of “Broca’s Brain”—a work by Carl Sagan, which I recall reading with great enjoyment at a tender age.**

*For which the title of this text is a hyperbolic special case, not to be taken literally.

**How tender, I do not know for certain, but it was tender: “Cosmos” was, according to IMDB, released in Sweden when I was 7 (1982), which provides a lower bound, while leaving “mellanstadiet” (years 4–6 of school) provides an upper bound. (A better lower bound would be given by the publication of “Broca’s Brain” in Swedish translation, but a short Internet search did not find this information.)

Having now partially read, partially skimmed the introduction and the first of five parts (“Science and Human Concerns”), I am horribly disappointed and will not read on. Not only is the writing the type of poor non-science that makes popular-science books hopeless,* but Sagan reasons poorly, is weak on critical thinking, shows a lack of understanding of what little science is present, is highly naive outside of science, and pushes exactly the type of anti-scientific Leftist populism that is so dangerous and has done so much damage to the modern world. Too often, he abuses rhetoric to spread opinions, instead of factual arguments. Above all, I come away with the impression that he has not truly thought on and gained insight into most of what he discusses.

*E.g. through an immense amount of “human interest” material with only parenthetical mentions of actual science, through sloppy or faulty science, and through more attempts at saying how wonderful this-and-that is than actually demonstrating the wonderfulness (note e.g. the first quote below).

Between the “Cosmos” TV series, “Broca’s Brain”, and one or two other books (of unremembered title[s]), Sagan once seemed an intellectual giant to me. Right now, he seems like a “mid-wit”.

To look at some details:*

*Quotes with reservations for distortions during a PDF to text conversion. Some hyphenation at line-breaks have been removed (as have the line-breaks themselves). Some formatting might have changed.

This book is written just before—at most, I believe, a few years or a few decades before—the answers to many of those vexing and awesome questions on origins and fates are pried loose from the cosmos. […] By far the most exciting, satisfying and exhilarating time to be alive is the time in which we pass from ignorance to knowledge on these fundamental issues; the age where we begin in wonder and end in understanding. In all of the four-billion-year history of life on our planet, in all of the four-million-year history of the human family, there is only one generation privileged to live through that unique transitional moment: that generation is ours.

It might well be that there were many interesting questions posed and/or answered at the time, but that has not been unique to any given “now” for a long time. Consider e.g. someone seeing the breakthroughs of Galileo, Newton, Darwin, or Einstein, or one of a number of other big names, and the ensuing immense changes to our understanding of the world. Their contemporaries might very well have expressed a sentiment similar to Sagan’s. And: We are more than forty years, or almost two generations, past Sagan’s time of writing.* I am not convinced that the set of questions has changed that much or that the answers to them have been provided.**

*Here and elsewhere, I am not clear on what material was written exactly when. The book was published in 1979, but individual copyrights go back to as early as 1974. Depending on the exact quote, and what might or might not have been revised, we land at between 43 and 48 years ago using a year-minus-year calculation.)

**Sagan mostly speaks in generalities and it is hard to make a statement about any given question, because the question is not actually given. However, off the top of my head, I can recall no true and great revelation during my own lifetime (which is approximately the lifetime of the book), only smaller and more accumulating insights. Yes, we have evidence of the Higgs boson, we are reasonably certain how the non-avian dinosaurs died out (and that birds are dinosaurs), and we have a better estimate for the age of the universe; no, we have not seen the equivalent of heliocentrism, evolution, deep space, deep time, special and general relativity theory, quantum mechanics, maybe not even continental drift. (With reservations for discoveries yet to be widely known or sufficiently understood as important.) Moreover, it is in the nature of science that new revelations raise more questions than they answer and that answers tend to merely shift the problem from the current turtle to the turtle below it.

You could feel the presence of nineteenth-century museum directors engaged, in their frock coats, in goniométrie* and craniologie*, busily collecting and measuring everything, in the pious hope that mere quantification would lead to understanding.

*The setting is a French museum, which explains the language.

Apart from being one of many, many examples of atrocious writing, this simultaneously gives a hint of the agenda pushing to come and gives signs of own prejudice and lack of scientific understanding and/or mentality.

Not only is this unwarranted speculation about the long dead, but it also misses the point of measurements and quantification: Good science, outside of strictly theoretical fields, requires measurements, be it to get the lay of the land, to develop first ideas and models, or to verify/reject/refine these ideas and models. Understanding comes from thinking, but we need to have something to think about and a connection between the thoughts and reality. That someone takes an interest in quantification does, as should be obvious, not automatically imply that this is his sole interest and that he considers quantification to be enough.

As to what is measured: Let us say that you were a 19th-century anthropologist with an interest in the physiology of the human mind. Where would you begin your measurements and investigations? With a CT-scan? With an EEG? By cutting up the skull of a living human and placing electrodes into the brain? No, chances are that you would begin with calipers. Maybe, calipers would turn out to be highly insufficient at the end of the day, but you have to start somewhere, you have to start with something realistic, and you have no way of knowing in advance whether calipers will be productive or a dead end.

An array of large cylindrical bottles containing, to my astonishment, perfectly preserved human heads. A red-mustachioed man, perhaps in his early twenties, originating, so the label said, from Nouvelle Calédonie. Perhaps he was a sailor who had jumped ship in the tropics only to be captured and executed, his head involuntarily drafted in the cause of science. Except he was not being studied; he was only being neglected, among the other severed heads.

This is one example of how Sagan seems to push an attitude of something barbaric or wasteful with the collections of a museum. (And what is the point of wildly speculating on the man’s profession and fate?) Maybe, there are some objects who have never brought value or truly do reflect something barbaric, but current neglect is not a sign of this. It might, for instance, be that this head was once an object of intense study, but that this study is now long ended. Who says that the currently neglected might not prove of value at some later time? How are we to know in advance what objects are worth preserving? Etc.

Doubtless the savants of earlier days had hoped there might be some anomaly, some telltale sign in the brain anatomy or cranial configuration of murderers. Perhaps they had hoped that murder was a matter of heredity and not society. Phrenology was a graceless nineteenth-century aberration. I could hear my friend Ann Druyan saying, “The people we starve and torture have an unsociable tendency to steal and murder. We think it’s because their brows overhang.”

This reeks of politically correct “Those people of yore were evil racists. Thank good that we are so much more enlightened!” thinking:

Phrenology was not a “graceless nineteenth-century aberration”—it was merely something that did not pan out. A priori, it might or might not have, and the general idea (but not necessarily the details) was not obviously absurd. There are even aspects of it that proved true, notably the idea of a differentiated brain with different areas having different responsibilities.* (As a contrast, note that Leftists have sometimes tried to deny that even brain volume/weight might have any type of influence, and that the considerable physiological differences between male and female brains would, by some stroke of magic, be equally void of influence. There we have a truly graceless aberration.) From another perspective, that phrenology did not pan out and that no “telltale sign” was found might merely have reflected the limits of science and measurements at the time. Today, it is known that differences within the brain** can affect e.g. behavior (even among humans, as opposed to the more obvious differences between e.g. humans and horses).

*I am not certain whether this idea originated with phrenology, however, or whether it merely was central to phrenology.

**Consider e.g. the considerable influence of the amygdala. Unfortunately, the amygdala cannot be characterized by applying calipers to the outside of a skull.

As to his “friend” (actually, future wife), the quote is a good example of simplistic Leftist thought or argumentation—lack of insight, straw-manning, and borderline sloganeering. Not only does it suggest an active oppression and a level of poverty/whatnot that is only very rarely present, but it also ignores the overwhelming amount of crimes, then and now, committed for reasons other than dire need (or e.g. a wish for vengeance). Look at the current U.S. For that matter, look at Sagan’s U.S. As to overhanging brows, they might be irrelevant, but there is considerable evidence of at least one connection between something largely inborn, IQ, and various behaviors (cf. e.g. “The Bell-Curve”).

It was difficult to hold Broca’s brain without wondering whether in some sense Broca was still in there—his wit, his skeptical mien, his abrupt gesticulations when he talked, his quiet and sentimental moments. Might there be preserved in the configuration of neurons before me a recollection of the triumphant moment when he argued before the combined medical faculties (and his father, overflowing with pride) on the origins of aphasia? [And a looong continued rambling on the same theme.]

I am no expert on the workings of human memory, but I suspect that such ideas border on the ridiculous to someone who is an expert—and would have done so even at Sagan’s time of writing. With the end of neurological activity and the subsequent decay, chances are that virtually everything would be gone. Also note how Sagan, much like a phrenologist, wishes to extract information from the configuration of the brain—the one might want to do so by looking at bumps on the head, the other by looking at neurons, but the principle is not that different.

Broca was a humanist of the nineteenth century, but unable to shake the consuming prejudices, the human social diseases, of his time. He thought men superior to women, and whites superior to blacks.

While I cannot speak for specifically Broca, these formulations, especially “social diseases”, are too far-going and speculative—likely more reflecting Sagan’s prejudices than those of Broca’s time. Leaving the specific word “superior” out of the discussion,* it was clear then and it is clear now, outside of politically correct propaganda, that e.g. great inventors, thinkers, scientists, whatnot tend to be male more or much more often than female—even given equal opportunity. The same applies to e.g white vs. black. Etc. A criticism is valid e.g. if someone were to conclude that all men are smarter than all women, but I have seen few examples of such thinking both in my own experiences of the current world and my readings of history and literature of the 19th century. Women of great actual and proven ability were not shoved off to the kitchen merely for being women—they just happened to be very rare. Possibly infected by Sagan’s tendency to speculate and imagine wildly, I cannot shake the image of someone trying to show Queen Victoria her proper place. She does not seem amused as she loads up for a devastating blow with her handbag.

*Firstly, it is not clear whether this is Sagan’s word or that of e.g. Broca. Secondly, it is unclear what type of superiority is intended, and a discussion would be hampered without clarifying this. For instance, and at one extreme, if we speak of some abstract human value, everyone might be tautologically on the same level. For instance, and on the other extreme, if we equate superiority with having a higher IQ, then these “prejudices” are correct (at the group level). I am also uncertain what the proper connotations of “superior” would have been in the original context—is Lake Superior actually better than Lake Huron? (Or is it simply further to the north? Or is there an other explanation for the name entirely?) Is your superior at work actually better than you?

Indeed, the current world suffers from massive prejudice in the opposite direction, that all are created identical in abilities (not just equal in rights), that what we accomplish in life is determined by how poor or wealthy our parents were, that a few additional years of education is what made the smart smart and the lack of these few years what left the dumb dumb, etc. (Whether Sagan did so too, I leave unstated.) This despite mountains of evidence to the contrary.

From another point of view, the defining characteristic of a prejudice is not that it is wrong, but that it is arrived at without sufficient investigation, deliberation, and whatnot. But was that truly the case with the opinions of Broca and his peers? They might have drawn from a wide range of experiences and observations, and might have arrived at these opinions in a perfectly reasonable manner. (This while their current counterparts might reject the very notion of this-or-that out of hand, because it “cannot” or “must not” be true; because a wrong word on the matter could lead to a “cancellation”; or similar—and never mind the actual evidence.)

Even so straightforward a question as whether in the absence of friction a pound of lead falls faster than a gram of fluff was answered incorrectly by Aristotle and almost everyone else before the time of Galileo. Science is based on experiment, on a willingness to challenge old dogma, on an openness to see the universe as it really is.


Where would Galileo have been without measurements and observations? Was not Aristotle’s problem (rumored to be) exactly that he failed to do measurements? Why would Galileo be better or worse than a user of calipers? The falling objects happen to be far less complex, and much more easily observed, than the human brain. If it had been the other way around, Galileo might be viewed as a quack and some phrenologist as a hero of science.

Can we know, ultimately and in detail, a grain of salt? Consider one microgram of table salt, a speck just barely large enough for someone with keen eyesight to make out without a microscope. In that grain of salt there are about 10^16 sodium and chlorine atoms. This is a 1 followed by 16 zeros, 10 million billion atoms. If we wish to know a grain of salt, we must know at least the three-dimensional positions of each of these atoms.

Do we now? Firstly, by that standard of exact and exacting detail, humans would know virtually nothing about anything, rendering the idea of knowledge nonsensical and contradictory to previous conceptions. Secondly, is this the right level of abstraction? For instance, virtually any relevant characteristic of this grain of salt will be independent of the exact numbers of atoms and their exact layout. For instance, the individual atoms are not salt. Thirdly, we have issues in the extended family of the Sorites Paradox and the Ship of Achilles. Would, for instance, a previous knowledge be invalidated if two sodium atoms changed places? (Likely with more concerns to be found on deeper contemplation.)

By analogy, would we require this level of knowledge in order to say that someone “knows his brother” or “knows math”? Well, maybe, someone could argue that there is a difference between knowing one’s brother and knowing him “ultimately and in detail”, but even here the bar must either be set lower or the exercise be pointless. If in doubt, what would the benefit of knowing someone/something “ultimately and in detail” be, if such excessive and pointless criteria are applied?*

*In addition, this is the wrong type of knowledge. (Cf. e.g. knowing his exact atomic configuration with knowing, say, his favorite movies, foods, places, whatnot.) However, Sagan notes that there is more to the grain of salt, he would presumably think the same about humans, and it would almost certainly be unfair to criticize him in this area.

If, as seems likely, every bit of information in the brain corresponds to one of these [dendrites], the total number of things knowable by the brain is no more than 10^14, one hundred trillion.

Why would this seem likely? On the contrary, from what I have read so far, as well as from common sense, it is highly likely that various memories are formed by some accumulation of something or other—and I am sceptical as to whether dendrites, per se, are these something or other. Even if we assume that they are, the equation of one bit with one dendrite is dubious, and seems like a naive attempt to apply a computer-memory paradigm onto the brain,* which simply does not pan out.

*I do not know how knowledgable Sagan was in the field of computing/computers/whatnot, but I have seen the same type of thinking from others in the past.

It is an astonishing fact that there are laws of nature, rules that summarize conveniently—not just qualitatively but quantitatively—how the world works.

Is it? Or is it merely a fact that seems astonishing to someone unfamiliar with the idea? (Here the questions should be taken at face value: it is often the case that prior exposure alters expectations, and I am not certain which set of expectations is the more reasonable a priori.)

It might be argued that rules could be found in almost any functioning system, because it is hard to avoid entering the realms of math or quasi-math beyond a certain point. Consider e.g. the “law of large numbers” and variations thereof, and how hard it would be for a large system to avoid it, even absent more deterministic rules.

We might imagine a universe in which there are no such laws, in which the 10^80 elementary particles that make up a universe like our own behave with utter and uncompromising abandon. To understand such a universe we would need a brain at least as massive as the universe.

Why? Even with a high degree of random or unexpected behavior, chances are* that abstraction and blocking of various types would reduce the load considerably—as would the likelihood that we only ever interact with a small subset of all those particles. For a sufficient level of “strangeness”,** the claim might hold, but for any reasonably likely universe, even well short of the actual universe, it will likely be false. In the other direction, for a sufficient level of “strangeness”, no brain might be sufficient—or capable of existence.

*Note e.g. the behavior of a gas or gas mixture, including the atmosphere that surrounds us: While the molecules of a gas underlie rules, they are quite chaotic when taken one-by-one, to the point that they might seem to behave entirely randomly and without rules when viewed by a naive observer. Nevertheless, when aggregated to a level that is observable by a regular human (without special equipment), they behave quite reasonably. Behavior on the quantum level might equally seem absurd to us, but still results in high-level behavior that is easily handled.

**Assume e.g. that your typical particle jumps instantaneously from one point of the universe to another in random manner, while alternating between being an electron, a positron, a beach-ball, and a tea kettle, and while its gravitational pull independently varies between zero and that of a star.

It seems unlikely that such a universe could have life and intelligence, because beings and brains require some degree of internal stability and order. But even if in a much more random universe there were such beings with an intelligence much greater than our own, there could not be much knowledge, passion or joy.

Again, why? On the first count, for a sufficient level of “strangeness”, he might be right, but for more reasonable levels he is likely wrong; and even at extreme levels of strangeness, the result might be a type of life and/or intelligence that is simply strange to us. (Contrast e.g. the eponymous entity from Fred Hoyle’s “The Black Cloud” with a regular human to see how radically different conceptions of life are possible—and then note that the unconceivable-by-humans might be far stranger yet.) The second count is ridiculous given the premise of “beings with an intelligence much greater than our own”—except in as far as passion and joy* might be aspects of life that simply do not apply to a sufficiently different life-form. This, however, does not require an extraordinarily strange universe—it is enough with a sufficiently alien life-form. (Contrast e.g. “Data” with the rest of the TNG Enterprise crew. To a lesser degree, the same applies to some other major characters in the franchise, including various Vulcans and the holographic “Doctor”.)

*Knowledge is less likely to be an issue, but maybe it is too in some extreme scenario—or maybe the idea of knowledge is different.

It is stunning that as we go close to the speed of light our mass increases indefinitely, we shrink toward zero thickness in the direction of motion, and time for us comes as near to stopping as we would like. Many people think that this is silly, and every week or two I get a letter from someone who complains to me about it.

Well, if he phrases it like that… (I am genuinely uncertain whether the formulations are idiotic or whether Sagan has completely misunderstood relativity theory.)

Firstly, if Einstein’s relativity assumption holds,* there is no such thing as getting close to the speed of light—either something is at the speed of light or it is not. To travel at 0.999999999 times the speed of light relative e.g. the Earth** has much more in common with standing still relative the Earth than it does with actually reaching the speed of light. (Similarly, the numbers 5 and 5000000000 have much more in common with each other than with, say, Aleph-0.) Indeed, from the perspective of the traveller, his own speed (“eigen-speed”) is 0—plainly and simply, or the relativity assumption does not hold.

*There is (or was, when I was at Uni) some dispute as to whether it holds perfectly or just approximately, maybe whether the distribution of mass might create a preferred frame anyway.

**Which is not the same thing as travelling at 0.999999999 times the speed of light in an absolute sense.

Secondly, no our mass does not increase, we do not shrink, and time does not come near stopping. All these things remain exactly as they were—because our eigen-speed is 0. On the contrary, it is the rest of the universe which goes through strange changes.*

*From our point of view. If Sagan means something else, e.g. the point of view of an observer in Greenwich, he should not have spoken in terms of “we”.

(One might also criticize the use of the phrase “speed of light” as it misses the point entirely, but the use is so common that it would be unfair to criticize specifically Sagan for it. Indeed, at least in this text, I follow his example for convenience. As to the correct perspective: there is an upper limit on how fast information/causality/whatnot can travel and light happens to be one of the things that travels “at the speed limit”.)

For myself, I like a universe that includes much that is unknown and, at the same time, much that is knowable. A universe in which everything is known would be static and dull, as boring as the heaven of some weakminded theologians. A universe that is unknowable is no fit place for a thinking being. The ideal universe for us is one very much like the universe we inhabit. And I would guess that this is not really much of a coincidence.

A dubious opinion (and what seems like a gratuitous swipe at theologians): A known universe need not be static at all, although a static universe might be easier to know than a dynamic one. Unless the individual individually knows and understands the entire universe, there might be plenty of surprises. (And if he does know and understands it, chances are that he is a being so different from us that Sagan’s and my opinions are irrelevant to him. By Sagan’s own reasoning, the human brain would fall well short of the mark for any universe less trivial than a grain of salt.*) As to the unknowable universe, it will depend on what exactly is unknowable, but chances are that a high degree of “unknowability” would be very tolerable.** Not a coincidence? Is he postulating a divine creator or assuming a sufficient adaption of life to the universe? If the former, he seems hypocritical; if the latter, well, then life might adapt excellently to other universes too.

*Well, maybe a grain-of-salt universe would be boring, but this is a matter of the static state of a grain, not necessarily size or knowledge. Melt the grain and it might be much more interesting.

**Consider an alternate-universe pre-historic human who has no clue why he needs to eat and breathe, maybe even one who cannot rely on night following day and water flowing downwards, but who is certain that the ground will carry him and that that weird feeling in his stomach will disappear if he does eat.

Without Einstein, many of the young people who became scientists after 1920 might never have heard of the existence of the scientific enterprise.

Heh?!? This is too stupid to comment on, beyond bringing the stupidity to the readers’ attention.

[…] the famous equation, E = mc^2, which is so widely quoted and so rarely understood. The equation expresses the convertibility of matter into energy, and vice versa. It extends the law of the conservation of energy into a law of conservation of energy and mass, stating that energy and mass can be neither created nor destroyed—although one form of energy or matter can be converted into another form.


The complete conversion of one gram of mass [sic!] into energy […]

Indeed, Sagan himself gives conflicting signs as to whether he understands the equation: Either he does not or he expresses himself poorly.

Firstly it is very disputable whether “can be neither created nor destroyed” follows from the formula, as the core is a mass–energy equivalence, not preservation.

Secondly, mass cannot be converted into energy; matter only with reservations.* What can be done is to “convert” mass associated with one type of energy into mass associated with another, e.g. by converting some type of binding** energy into kinetic energy (movement of mass) or kinetic energy into gravitational potential energy (e.g. a mass on a hill) .

*The issue is complicated by Sagan’s inconsistent use of “matter” and “mass”: Matter is a poorly defined concept separate from mass, where, depending on definitions, photons and similar particles need not count as matter, but do have a (relativistic) mass. If, for instance, an electron and a positron cancel each other with two photons as result, it might argued that they were matter “converted” into energy, but the overall energy and mass is no larger or smaller than before. Mass is also a somewhat dubious concept, especially as too many resort to special treatment of “rest mass” over mass or relativistic mass in general. (This especially when it comes to photons, which, according to some, would be massless by dint of having no rest mass. A better perspective is to say that they have mass but no rest[ing] state. Again, being at the speed of light and being at 0.999999999 times the speed of light relative the Earth are two fundamentally different things.) As an aside, I personally suspect that mass is best viewed as a manifestation of energy, which would make the conservation of mass a side-effect of the conservation of energy.

**E.g. chemical energy between atoms in a molecule or nuclear energy between protons and neutrons in an atomic nucleus.

Before Einstein, it was widely held by physicists that there were privileged frames of reference, such things as absolute space and absolute time. Einstein’s starting point was that all frames of reference—all observers, no matter what their locale, velocity or acceleration—would see the fundamental laws of nature in the same way. It seems likely that Einstein’s view on frames of reference was influenced by his social and political attitudes and his resistance to the strident jingoism he found in late-nineteenth-century Germany. Indeed, in this sense the idea of relativity has become an anthropological commonplace, and social scientists have adopted the idea of cultural relativism: there are many different social contexts and world views, ethical and religious precepts, expressed by various human societies, and most of comparable validity.

The physical part might or might not (likelier*) be correct, but I doubt his claims about Einstein’s motivations. The claim is sufficiently unexpected and counter-intuitive that a greater amount of reasoning or references would have been needed. It also reminds me of “Fashionable Nonsense”. A more plausible seeming explanation is that Einstein took a leap that others had either overlooked or not dared. I note that the idea is arguably a generalization of Newton’s laws of motion, which could be seen as putting every fix velocity on par with staying still in at least some regards. What influence Einstein might or might not have had on social scientists I do not know, but I note that cultural relativism is only superficially similar and that using the one to justify the other is ill-advised. Moreover, cultural relativism is to a large part misguided and by no means the height of enlightenment: there are types of comparisons where A vs. B does not matter, but for most As and Bs, there will be some or many comparisons where the difference does matter—and very often important such.**

*Depending on what Sagan intends by “acceleration” and “fundamental laws of nature”. The core relativity assumption refers to fix velocities, and someone in acceleration can feel or measure a gravitation-like pull which is absent when moving without acceleration. If two objects move away from each other at fix speed, they will live in equivalent worlds; if there is acceleration, they live in different worlds, as the gravitation-like pull will be different for the two—most likely entirely absent for one of them, because he is not doing anything, while his counterpart is actively changing the relative velocity between the two. Also note how e.g. the “twin paradox” is based on an asymmetry caused by acceleration. (When we move from special to general relativity, additional restrictions might be needed.)

**To look at extreme ends: (a) Whether we pick the French or English language rarely matters, except when there is a pre-existing English- or French-dominated demographic—the languages are, in some sense, equally powerful and fungible. (b) Western medicine vs. the local shaman will usually leave the shaman in shambles, but if someone has eaten the wrong local mushroom, the shaman might do the better job—the systems are neither equally powerful nor fungible.

(In addition to the above, there are a lot of biographical detail and details of Einstein’s political opinions that could be seen as Leftist agenda pushing and as irrelevant to a text ostensibly on science or scientific thought. As my own text deals with Sagan and his work, I will not go into detail, but I do note, in Einstein’s defense, that Leftist opinions were easier to understand in the long gone past than they are today. Cf. e.g. [1]. Einstein was of a generation where some naivete was understandable, even among the highly intelligent and educated; Sagan does not have that excuse.)

But a very plausible case can be made that our civilization is fundamentally threatened by the lack of adequate fertility control. Exponential increases of population will dominate any arithmetic increases, even those brought about by heroic technological initiatives, in the availability of food and resources, as Malthus long ago realized. While some industrial nations have approached zero population growth, this is not the case for the world as a whole.

And the spectre of Malthus has scared the world again and again, but we are still here. The world population is more than twice what it was back then—and there is a lesser problem with food shortages today. (Excepting some artificially created issues, unrelated to population growth, notably the recent COVID and Ukraine situations.) Maybe a truly problematic point will come some day, but there are other problems that are far worse and more urgent—and here the then zero, now often negative, population growth of “some industrial nations” is a major problem.* These problems include dysgenics within the industrial nations, a demographic shift between industrial and non-industrial nations, and the turning of industrial nations into service nations (see excursion).

*Yes, he is right that the ongoing increase in the non-industrial world is a problem, but not due to global population growth. The problem is the demographic shift.

Of course, Sagan likely commits the error that almost every invoker of Malthus does—to assume that the population will grow and grow with less and less to share per capita. In reality, chances are that we would see a voluntary equilibrium before that point was reached. (If not, we would see an involuntary equilibrium when it is reached.) In particular, any exponential population increase simply would not continue once food becomes scarce enough (or water, living space, whatnot).

Minor climatic fluctuations can destroy entire populations with marginal economies. In many societies where the technology is meager and reaching adulthood an uncertain prospect, having many children is the only possible hedge against a desperate and uncertain future. Such a society, in the grip of a consuming famine, for example, has little to lose. At a time when nuclear weapons are proliferating unconscionably, when an atomic device is almost a home handicraft industry, widespread famine and steep gradients in affluence pose serious dangers to both the developed and the underdeveloped worlds.


Minor climatic fluctuations? To some approximation, they could, but it is rare* and it is more likely that these populations are hit by something falling short of a climatic fluctuation, e.g. bad weather that ruins a harvest or two. Moreover, chances are that they would be partially bailed out by Western charity.

*As Sagan is not more specific, I have to be vague. If we are talking, say, the population of a small village, it is bound to happen every now and then. (But even here there is some chance that it is the village that dies, while the population moves elsewhere.) If we are talking, say, the population of an entire country, I can recall no single example.

Having many children? A half-truth at best. Chances are that having fewer children and giving them more resources and attention per capita would be better.

Little to lose? Lose in what sense and to whom/what? The last thing to do in a “consuming famine” is to have more children. If in doubt, the newly born are unlikely to live long enough to be useful.

Nuclear weapons? What do they have to do with the topic? What is unconscionable about having or proliferating them? (As opposed to using them and with restrictions to non-crazy countries. Note that the threat of nuclear weapons might well be what has prevented WWIII for more than 70 years. Also see excursion.) Is widespread famine supposed to greatly increase the risk of a nuclear war?

The solution to such problems certainly requires […] , and, especially, fair distribution of the world’s resources.

Here a specification of what Sagan considers fair would have been needed—not to mention what resources he means. It might be unfair that the Saudi’s have oil and the Swedes do not, but how is that to be rectified? What about the Swedish trees vs. the Saudi sand? A geographic lottery might see winners and losers, but is not inherently unfair, a win in one section might be a loss in another, and some degree of own choice is involved. Or does Sagan mean e.g. food? If so, much of the differences go back to whether someone works the land and how well—teach a man to farm instead of giving him bread. Or is this some hyper-naive far-Left idea that “once we have redistributed all the money of the rich to the poor, we will live in utopia for ever”?

At the other is the proposal of Gerard O’Neill of Princeton University to construct large orbital cities that would, using lunar and asteroidal materials, be self-propagating—one city being able to construct another from extraterrestrial resources. [With more on the topic following.]

Maybe one day, but here and now? It cannot be seen as a serious suggestion today, let alone in the 1970s. Focus on what is realistic and doable, including revisiting the Moon, first-visiting Mars, building more space stations, increasing space tourism, … Sooner or later, the critical mass will be there, and if the idea pans out, the cities will be built. I would suspect, however, that we would see a moon city first; in part, because benefits seem more likely; in part, because building an orbital city beginning on the moon might be a lot easier. For that matter, underwater cities might be a more reasonable first step.

We are not stronger or swifter than many other animals that share this planet with us. We are only smarter.

Apart from this claim being oddly placed and bringing nothing to its context: While humans have many limitations, in part due to trading specialisation for generalisation and physical abilities for brain power, they do fairly well in absolute strength and swiftness. (Note that most other animals are considerably smaller.) Yes, a human might lose a fight against an elephant or even a largish dog, but what about that fox, mouse, or ant? For larger animals, our brains have given us spears, guns, and other weapons. As to being smarter, I sometimes wonder.

Only a small fraction of the most able youngsters enter scientific careers. I am often amazed at how much more capability and enthusiasm for science there is among elementary school youngsters than among college students. Something happens in the school years to discourage their interest (and it is not mainly puberty); we must understand and circumvent this dangerous discouragement.

I am with him as far as the negative influence of school* is concerned, but (a) I am sceptical to the “small fraction” claim, (b) it is far from a given that school would discourage from specifically science, (c) to claim “more capability” among youngster is ridiculous. Chances are that those who choose a different career** do so for other reasons, e.g. later non-scientific interests, careers that allow better earnings, or the realization that science, as a profession, is not just fun and games but actual hard work. Maybe, some intervention in these areas might be beneficial, but the right to choose freely must be preserved. Moreover, apparent early capability can be misleading, especially when it comes to those untested in math.

*Here and elsewhere with reservations for what might be different between his and my respective school years and the schools of our respective time of writing.

**And, maybe, a science adjacent career, e.g. as a physician instead of a biologist, an engineer instead of a physicist.

It is clear that Albert Einstein became a scientist in spite of, not because of, his schooling (Chapter 3).

My point exactly—he still became a scientist. In a wider view, this chapter (Chapter 4) of “Broca’s brain” seems to implicitly commit the fallacy of assuming that the education makes the man, while the opposite is the truth. (The odder, as the preceding chapter went in the other direction.)

In his Autobiography, Malcolm X describes a numbers runner who never wrote down a bet but carried a lifetime of transactions perfectly in his head. What contributions to society, Malcolm asked, would such a person have made with adequate education and encouragement?

Probably very few and minor, even if the description is correct:* A great memory does not equate to a great scientist (or a great whatnot), no matter how much it might help, and there is no guarantee that he would even have wanted to become one. The question is not one of memory but of ability to think—the good thinker with a poor memory can use a notebook; the poor thinker with a great memory has no such aid. And referencing Malcolm X? Really? A racist, Islamist hate-monger?

*And it need not be. There might be an honest misestimate, exaggerations, misunderstandings, or even fabrication involved.

I believe that there are many more of [brilliant, daring and complex people] around—in every nation, ethnic group and degree of affluence—than we realize.

On the contrary, these make a small proportion of the population even in the West and the “smart” parts of Asia. Elsewhere they are rarer still. (Affluence, presumably in the sense of parental SES or something similar, is more secondary, once corrected for other factors, but by now, if not already “then”, there will almost certainly be a further rarity the lower in income we go, as there has been a filtering over many decades.)

Not all is bad, however. I note e.g. the implicitly anti-post-modern claim:

The well-meaning contention that all ideas have equal merit seems to me little different from the disastrous contention that no ideas have any merit.

(Although, contextually, I am not certain that his own investigation of what claims have what merit was very meritorious. Other claims might indicate a naive support of post-modernism.)

Or take a rare show of self-insight:

The question raises nagging uncertainties about which of the conventional truths of our own age will be considered unforgivable bigotry by the next.

A point which has been of great importance during the last ten or twenty years through the ever more extreme positions of the “New Left”.

Other positive examples include the use of Einstein to illustrate problems with the school system and the similarity of anti-science stances in Nazi-Germany and the Soviet Union. (The latter is of a particular interest to me due to my series on the Nazis and their correct classification as Left-wing. I also note similarities with how the current Left and the COVID fanatics treat science that speaks against their respective orthodoxy.)

As more of an aside, the long time between my current reading and the original publication has led to changes. Contrast e.g. the, by now, decades old ban on CFCs in new refrigerators with:

Steps have finally, although reluctantly, been taken to ban halocarbons* from spray cans (although no one seems to be worrying about the same molecules used in refrigerators) and as a result the immediate dangers are probably slight.

*Halocarbons include CFCs, but also many other chemicals of no relevance here.

Excursion on nuclear weapons vs. delivery systems:
I have long suspected that the creation of nuclear weapons had less impact than the creation of new delivery systems. There was e.g. an early fear that “the bomber always gets through”; and, looking at WWII vs. WWI, the main difference in terms of bombings were not the two (by today’s standards) small nuclear attacks but the massive aerial bombings of Japan,* Germany, London, and some other areas, which would have been inconceivable without a sufficient quantity of suitable** airplanes. Of course, without airplanes, there would have been no (or very different) nuclear attacks to begin with. The true killer might be the ICBM and the ability to e.g. bomb the Soviet Union from U.S. soil and vice versa. With conventional warheads, ICBMs might “only” be able to take out Moscow resp. Washington and New York instead of dozens of cities. But is that not bad enough? Alternately, countermeasures might be strong enough to ensure that “only” half the city is destroyed instead of the entire city.*** In contrast, nukes without a sufficient delivery system are of little value: What are you going to do? Smuggle a few nukes to Moscow by truck and have them waiting two decades for some future signal that their time has come?

*And the conventional bombings of Japan killed more civilians than the nuclear. (Yet, the one counts as war, the other as war crime…)

**Where suitability does not just include the capacity to carry a certain load, but also having sufficient range to reach the target, sufficient speed or height to not be shoot down, etc. Not many years before WWII, the planes for WWII-style bombings were simply not available. Indeed, even the Orvilles were just several decades back.

***Missing a single nuke can easily be worse than missing a dozen very large conventional bombs.

Then we have the question of other “mass destruction” attacks. What about an ICBM loaded with some deadly gas or infectious this-or-that?

If nukes are the larger problem, this is likely restricted to fusion-based devices, which are similarly more powerful relative fission-based devices as fission-based devices are relative conventional explosives. A dozen Tzar Bombas would be far worse than a hundred Little Boys.

Excursion on service vs. industry:
The value of services is usually far more fleeting and often more pointless than industrial production, which too few seem to understand. To this, as a personal anecdote: The first time that GDP (or some similar measure) was explained to us in school, I objected to the inclusion of services—make a toaster and someone has a toaster for ten years; give a haircut and the effect gradually wears off in a month or two. (And most other services have an even shorter period of value…) This while GDP was supposed to be used to compare different countries (with potentially differently sized service sectors) or the same country at different times (again, with potentially differently sized service sectors). Both the teacher and the class seemed to consider me silly. Since then, I have become aware of more points of criticism relating to services (and, off topic, points not relating to services), say, public sector “service” contributions to GDP often having a disputable true value (grow the civil service bureaucracy and GDP increases) or a hired maid being included in GDP while a housewife performing the exact same service is not. When push comes to shove, whether in GDP or “for real”, a service economy can be a giant on feet of clay.

(My current view of GDP is more nuanced than back then, as there are different perspectives. The perspective of the toaster vs. the haircut is valuable, as is the perspective that a toaster is often easier to store or export than a service, but there is also e.g. a perspective of spending, which pays for salaries, which pay for spending, etc., where the proportion of service to manufacture is more secondary than the circulation of money.)

Written by michaeleriksson

June 28, 2022 at 10:14 pm

Unorthodox thought and the ability to find refuge

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That diversity/freedom/tolerance of opinion is import to scientific and e.g. societal progress is hardly surprising—nor that the current trends towards the establishment of “official truths”, blanket* academic rejection of non-PC thought and limits on academic freedom** for its proponents, whatnot, are very dangerous.

*Because it is non-PC and irrespective of the state of evidence, arguments, etc. If a rejection took place on scientific grounds, it would be different.

**Limits on academic freedom are not in order, even when science points against an idea/theory/field/whatnot. This partly because early impressions can deceive, e.g. in that an implausible-seeming theory can be validated at a future time (as is fairly common); partly because once restrictions are allowed where they might seem acceptable, they can spread to areas where they are not acceptable. (Cf. e.g. opinion corridors and their current influence on politics and media.)

Compared to large stretches of Western history, this could involve a fatal change:

I am toying with the idea that the relative success of Western society between some point in the late middle ages and the 20th century was partially based on the ability of unorthodox thinkers or thought to escape oppression or to find an otherwise more nurturing environment. Comparing e.g. Europe and China, Europe had (a) a greater number of distinct groups with their own autonomous territory (e.g. the Italian, French, German, and Swedish areas), and (b) a much greater number of independent states (including the many German and Italian ones). This was not only a source of potentially greater diversity, of potentially a greater number of cultural and scientific centers, of potentially more literary traditions, whatnot,* but it also had the side-effect that someone with too unpopular ideas in one country or city could move on to the next, someone who woke the hostility of one ruler might make friends with another, etc. If all else failed, there was always the escape overseas, as with some unpopular religious groups. Of course, even if the individual thinker did not manage to escape, some of his books and ideas might still be available in other parts of Europe—Galileo might have been silenced, but his ideas lived on. In less dire cases, someone who failed to find sponsorship for an idea (or e.g. his art) in the one city might have better luck in another.

*On the down-side, also a risk e.g. of ideas traveling slower or never leaving the area of their origin.

A notable example is the Catholic–Protestant split: If the German emperor (or the Pope) had had the power and authority to just forbid Protestant thought, Catholicism would have remained dominant and without major competition, while the Protestant ideas might have lived on only in small and powerless under-ground movements. As is, many German rulers individually sided with the Protestant movement, there was a very major and prolonged turmoil, and both Germany and Western Europe ended up split roughly 50–50. Indeed, e.g. Sweden and England sided with the Protestant cause mostly because their respective king wanted to strengthen his own position vis-à-vis the Pope and the Church.

In contrast, Christianity once became the dominant religion in the Roman empire simply through having a Christian emperor. (And appears to later have aggressively lobbied the respective rulers when it moved into new territories.) Other attempts to reform the Christian faith or to split* from the Catholic church on a more local level might have had some temporary success, only to fail in the longer run, because there was no refuge available (as with e.g. the English Lollards).

*The East–West Schism had a very different character and very different circumstances.

Similarly, much of the great Greek progress took place in an environment of city states.

This idea is speculation, I have not gone through the (considerable) leg-work to see whether it checks out more in detail, and I have not even spent as much time mulling it over as most other topics. But: When we look at current developments, where scientists run an increasing risk of being globally condemned for having the “wrong” opinions or even researching the “wrong” topics, I feel forced to mention the possibility. What if even seemingly totalitarian, intolerant, whatnot societies still allowed progress through such escapes, while the modern, allegedly democratic, diversified, enlightened*, whatnot society will fail horribly? (This especially when combined with e.g. the strong current trends of anti- and pseudo-intellectualism in the softer sciences, an increased focus on feelings and subjectivity over facts and objectivity in public discourse, etc.)

*What passes for enlightenment today is often the exact opposite, the holding of a set of (often poorly supported) opinions and a pride in condemning everyone not sufficiently orthodox.

As an aside, the repeated use of religious examples above is not coincidental: not only are those among the most obvious—there is also a strong parallel in attitude with the current PC crowds. This includes many occurrences of a quasi-religious conviction of being right, belief without or even contrary to evidence, a wish to indoctrinate others “for their own good”, extreme condemnation of the “heretics”, and similar. Indeed, from what I have read about Galileo in the past, his treatment might originally have been met with more factual arguments and a fairer treatment than many heretics against the PC “truths”.

Written by michaeleriksson

July 21, 2019 at 4:34 pm

Brief thoughts on the decline of Latin and Greek as a scientific languages

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When I first, as a child, learned of the use Latin and Greek names for various plants, animals, and whatnot, it was explained to me that this was done to (a) ensure that there was a name that scientists speaking different languages could use and still be understood by each other, (b) still keep the names in a single language.

I am far from certain that this explanation is correct: More likely, the likes of Linnaeus simply started a tradition based on Latin as the then “science language” for his extensive classifications,* which was kept long after Latin lost ground to modern languages.

*Just like I prefer to write in English over Swedish—why not use the language more likely to be understood?

Still, the purported idea is quite sound: Using a single language allows for greater consistency and enables those so interested to actually learn that single language in order to make identification of the item behind the name that much easier;* and Latin has the advantage of lacking** potential for conflict (as might have been the case if English and French or Mandarin and Japanese were pitted against each other).

*Indeed, even a limited knowledge can be a great help, e.g. by knowing a few commonly occurring suffixes and prefixes.

**Or should do so in any sane era: Some politically correct fanatics apparently consider anything relating to “Western Culture” something to be condemned in a blanket manner. Nothing is certain, except for death, taxes, and human stupidity.

Unfortunately, the scientists of old did not stick to Latin, often turning to Greek. (This includes the names of many (most?) dinosaurs.) However this situation was still reasonably tolerable.

Then things started to get out of hand: Over the last few decades names have increasingly been coined in any locale language. For instance, this text was prompted by the recent discovery of the dinosaur genus Ledumahadi—apparently named “a giant thunderclap at dawn”* in Sesotho

*The silliness and apparent lack of “scientificity” of the meaning, however, has little to do with the language. Dinosaurs have been given similarly silly names from the early days of scientific attention (and many less silly names for extinct animals are obscure through e.g. referring to the shape of a tooth). In contrast, many of Linnaeus names could draw directly on existing Latin names for at least the genus (as e.g. with “homo sapiens”—“homo” being the Latin word for human).

Going by Wikipedia, Sesotho has some five or six million native speakers—considerably less than Swedish today and an even smaller proportion of the world population than Sweden in the days of (my fellow Swede) Linnaeus*. If Linnaeus picked Latin over Swedish back then, how can we justify picking Sesotho over both Latin and English today? The idea is contrary to reason.

If someone were to argue that Latin and Greek, specifically, had grown impractical due to the reduced knowledge among today’s scientists, I might have some sympathies. However, if we concluded that they should go, the reasonable thing to do would be to opt for English as the sole language, thereby ensuring the largest global understandibility. If not English, then some other, truly major language, e.g. Mandarin*, Hindi*, or Spanish should have been considered. Sesotho is useless as single language, and not using a single language will end with names that appear entirely random. It will usually even be impossible to know what language a name is in, without additional research, making it that much harder to find out the meaning.

*Here additional thought might be needed on how the names should be written. (Original writing system? Transliterated to the Latin alphabet? Otherwise?)

For those interested in “local” names, there is always the possibility of introducing an everyday name for the local language: Dinosaurs have normally been known by their scientific names even in the general population, but there is no actual law that this must be the case. Call the Ledumahadi “Ledumahadi” in Sesotho and use a Latin or Greek translation* as the scientific name and the default in other languages.

*My limited knowledge does not allow me to make a suggestion.

Written by michaeleriksson

September 29, 2018 at 5:46 pm