Registratration, darn it
Leaving the site registration free meant that I was constantly having to "dust" the place for spam posts. Just another examples of spammers screwing up the place for everyone.
Religion and Politics. A civil discourse.
The Foot on the Accelerator
Speaking of wonder, by now you're likely wondering where I'm going with all this. I promise you, it's not going to be all vague gloom and doom -- because I'm getting to the specifics.
Only a couple of weeks ago, Jerome a Paris published his Whiny Frog diary, complaining about the lack of attention given to energy issues. Since then, there have been a series of good diaries from other sources (including Meteor Blades), one of Jerome's dairies has made the front page, and we've had direct feedback from a governor on energy issues in his state. We've even started on the idea of forming a coherent "open source" energy policy.
It's quite a turn around for the subject. In fact, considering all the things we have to think about -- all the issues, all the news, all the candidates -- is it too much? Are energy issues bogarting the recommended list? Does energy really deserve this much attention? It does, and here's why.
In 2003, Richard Heinberg put out a little book with the somewhat cute title, The Party's Over. If that title makes the book seem sort of light and fluffy, the content is anything but.
Heinberg's contention, backed by a small army of statistics, is that not only have we passed peak oil, we've passed the era of cheap energy. For a century, the world has luxuriated in a bath of readily available hydrocarbons and has, oblivious to the damage we were causing the environment, turned that abundance into a fantastic abundance of food and goods. We are oil addicts.
It was this wealth of cheap resources that lifted us into the Industrial Age. Not only did it bring factories making $200 sneakers and iPod Nanos (I love mine), it brought the Green Revolution. All but the most barren places in the world were made to produce a new abundance of crops. Even if "a rising tide raises all boats" has been misused by politicians of all stripes, cheap energy really did buoy up world population and living standards. In fact, the last couple of generations living in the wealthiest countries have experienced a kind of cultural hedonism unthinkable a century before.
Cheap energy has defined how we live, where we live, and who we live with. It's made the suburbs possible. It's scattered families over continents. It's made it possible to transport goods around the world for less than it takes to make them in your home town. It's also fueled a demand for more cheap energy -- and an unbreakable assumption that such energy is available. Sure, maybe it means poking holes in the last wild places. Maybe it's deep ocean hydrates. Or wind. Or solar. Or tidal power. We plot to put hydrogen fuel cells in our cars. We plant corn, switchgrass, and soybeans to produce biofuels.
In all of this, we assume there's an "out." Make the right choices, turn left at the next policy intersection, and we'll reach a happy destination. We'll be able to keep on keepin' on, doing what we've always done, only better. Clean, hydrogen cars will sweep into shiny solar powered cities, and we'll all have Playstation 9's hooked up to 100" OLED TVs.
Ever see one of those cartoons where someone is trying to calculate the way to some fantastical result? There are a thousand mathematical symbols on the left side of the chalkboard, and the desired result on the right. In between is that magical phrase: "and then a miracle occurs." We expect the miracle.
Only according to Heinberg, that's not going to happen. Despite the presence of the word "party" in the title of his book, the operative word is "over." According to his numbers, there is no miracle on the way. Even if we make all the right decisions (and he doesn't think for a moment that we will), the world as we know it is already done for. Industrial society stormed the planet on the back of cheap oil, and it's about to exit stage right. High tide has already passed, and as the water starts to go down, it's going to go way down. Fast.
Think about some of the consequences of this truly post-industrial world (some of this is from Heinberg's book, more from my own fervid extrapolation):
In all cases, I've successfully sent the anti-science crowd packing. This isn't because I'm brilliant, or because I have enough sheepskin to cover a couch. It's not because I'm a great orator. It's because I keep my head and realize: this is not a debate.
Over at kos, DarkSyde has done some nice evolution primers, but this isn't about explaining science. This is about sending them back humming the theme song to Inherit the Wind. All you have to do is keep a few things in mind.
So if you're not there to convince your opponents, or the school board, or even the handful of other community members who have nothing better to do than attend school board meetings on a work night, why are you there? Don't convince them, embarrass them. You have to demonstrate that there's nothing to what your opponents are saying but hot air and religious platitude. Keep smiling, make jokes, and be relentless in your pursuit. Once you've adequately demonstrated that the emperor is buck naked, or you've backed them into using the "G" word, your job is done. The school board can relax and go back to wondering how they can skim money from the soda machine contract.
All right, the job is to make these crusaders swallow their own arguments. So how do you do that? It's really not that hard because of one big factor: they don't know anything about evolution. Even better than that, they think they know something about evolution. This gives you a tremendous advantage. You know what their arguments are going to be, they don't know diddly about what you're going to say. This is true even when your opponent's spokesperson has a PhD or MD after their name. Believe me, if it didn't come from one of "Black Box" Behe's books, or out of a fine quality "Chick" publication, they haven't read it.
So what are they going to say?
The No Evidence Argument
Bet your bottom dollar that your opponent will say there's no evidence for evolution. They get this from both sides, and the bozos who make their living writing an endless stream of Intelligent Design books lie to them about this every single time. They've been told there's no evidence so firmly, that they'll just start shaking their head when you give a counterargument. Again, remember you're not out to convince your opponent, only to make them look bad so they can't foist this hoax on the school. You can come at this argument from two directions: the fossil record or the panda's thumb argument. I prefer the fossil record because it's easier to hit in short sentences, and it's guaranteed to draw the parry "even Darwin said the fossil record is incomplete." Behe makes a big deal of that in his bestselling book, and you should all thank him, because this shows the "intelligent design" position as foolish right off the bat. You couldn't ask for a better set up line than that, because Darwin delivered his statement in the middle of the nineteenth century. Just ask them how well physics was understood in 1850. Would they take a statement made in 1850 as the last word on electricity, rockets to the moon, or computers? Darwin was smart, but he never claimed to be able to see the future. Since Darwin's day, we've expanded our knowledge of prehistoric life just as much as we have any other field of science. And what we've found is millions of examples of evolution. The fossil record is a wonderful, rich, incredible record of life on Earth and our understanding grows with each year (at this point, I usually launch a digression about the ancestry of whales, or discuss dinosaur digs I've worked on). There is no creature on earth, least of all man, that is lacking lineage in the fossil record. If you're big on humanoid evolution, feel free to dazzle them with facts about the widespread nature of ancient man, and the sheer volume of fossils that have been found. Frequently, your opponents will believe that there are only one or two specimens of each species (because that's what they've been told), and these can be explained away by disease or as "freaks." I've literally had one of these guys argue that the "only" specimen of Neanderthal was "just an old man with arthritis." Ah, we should always be so lucky. Catching them in these statements, by showing the real nature of the evidence, can be fun.
The Second Law of Thermodynamics Argument
I think this one has fallen out of favor. Creationists used to like it because years back it came so far out of left field that it would leave scientists stuttering. But it's easily demolished, and I think they've retired this one from the official creationist play book. A thirty second statement along the lines of "the second law only applies to systems where no energy was coming in, and last time I looked there was something up there called the sun" has handled this on the few occasions where it's popped up.
The Common Sense Argument
This is the one you'll get the most, now that creationists are all wearing Intelligent Design clothing. The whole house of cards created by Behe and the ID crew is based along something very like this: I know the difference between something created and something that's 'natural.' The typical example is a stone and a pocket watch lying in a field. You can see that the stone is natural, and you can see that the watch is 'designed.' How can you tell there? Well, it's just common sense! In other words, skip all that science stuff and substitute your own opinion directly. It's so much easier that way. And when you look at how complex livings things can be, common sense says they have to also be designed, QED, QEF, WWWWW, ipso facto, etc. The best thing about this argument is that the guys advancing it think they've got you. Arrgh! I never expected the "a single flagellum on a bacterium is too complex to arise by chance, much less a whole organism" argument. Let me just stagger out of the room and... oh, wait. One little thing -- your inability to understand how something happens does not mean it can't happen. You may not know how a jet engine works, but that doesn't cause planes to fall. In physics, there are many items - maybe even the majority - that defy common sense. Why is light an absolute speed limit? How do quarks jump from one spot to another without moving through the values in between? It's common sense to think that time is the same everywhere. It's also wrong. Once, it was common sense to think the world was flat - everyone just knew it was true. They were wrong, and so are people who think complexity can't come from simple sources. Given an input of energy and enormous periods of time, simply anything can happen. To repeat: "common sense" is not science - science often defies the obvious solution. Likewise, an inability to understand a complex process is not evidence against that process. Plenty of people don't understand the tax code, but the IRS persists.
Scientists are all conformists who don't like change. .
This can be couched in nice terms that make it seem as if they're challenging the control of the scientific press, or the tenure system at universities. They may even pull out ideas that had a hard time breaking in as the "standard view" (oddly enough, Copernicus seems to be the go-to guy). No matter how it's phrased, implicit in this the idea that scientists are all godless automatons, motivated by nothing but conformity to their robot masters. The response to this one is simple. Ask them to name a scientist. Odds are hugely in favor of them naming Einstein. I've also had Jonas Salk and one Edison (er, okay). Then ask them if these scientists are remembered because they went along with the way things were, or because they had new ideas. Every scientist wants to be remembered. Every professor at every school, every researcher in every lab, every field tech brushing sand away from a bone, is hoping to make their mark. They know they won't do it by writing a paper that says "yup, the world looks just like we thought." They're dying to be rebels. And the colleges are dying to hire these mavericks. The journals are dying to print their papers. Science thrives on controversy. If there was one piece of evidence for Intelligent Design, there would be professors clamoring to write about it, magazines lined up to publish it, and new chairs being endowed in geology departments across the country. But there isn't, and there aren't. Right now, when it comes to evolution, scientists in the field do all think the same - because all the evidence is on the side of evolution.
The Micro vs. Macro argument
Kind of the "death by a thousand paper cuts" of counter-evolutionary argument. Your opponent professes to believe in "micro" evolution - changes in colors of moths, that sort of thing. Generally, they'll say there's no evidence of evolution within a species, but no evidence of change from one species to another. Of course, your opponent will not have the slightest clue what species really means, but then, neither does 99% of the population (including a good number of biologists), and your luck in explaining it is likely to be no better than mine (unless you have some killer metaphor, in which case, please share). Instead, you're better off pointing out that all evolution is micro over the short term, macro over the long term. Lead them down the path of small changes, and you can likely find your opponent admitting to changes that clearly cross the species (and genus, and family) boundaries. So far, I've yet to meet a real "God created all the species in a fixed state and none of them have ever changed" person. They probably exist, but they don't bother trying to argue their points in front of school board. Maybe they're all too busy hosting shows on Fox. Believe it not, this argument can veer into the "if people came from monkeys, why are their still monkeys?" territory. You will want to scream when it does. Bite back the scream, explain how evolution works on individuals and small populations, and move on. You don't have to say your opponent is an idiot. If they go down this path, they've done it for you.
The Just a Theory / Closed Mind Argument
This one generally appears toward the end, when the "facts" have failed to hold up the creationists mythical positions. It can be said a number of ways, but it always boils down to "evolution is just a theory; we owe it to the kids to teach them all the alternatives." Good luck trying to argue that "theory" in science doesn't mean what they think it means. The word is in too common coinage for anyone to believe they don't understand the meaning. Instead, point out that everything in science is a theory. The idea that the sun is powered by fusion is a theory. Quantum mechanics is a theory. In science, we teach the current working theory, the one that's supported by evidence and trial. We don't offer unsupported theories any more than we offer alternate theories of history. Someone may believe that Benedict Arnold was a hero and George Washington a traitor (indeed, a great many Brits may do so), but we teach what best fits the information at hand. There's no obligation to indulge in theories that don't fit the facts. The emphasis in this argument used to be the "just a theory" section. Now it's more "we should keep an open mind for the sake of the children" drivel. At the last meeting, I actually had an English teacher swayed by this, who began to argue that we shouldn't exclude views from the classroom because it wasn't "Democratic." I answered that facts were not democratic, they were just facts. I then asked her if she taught that Shakespeare's plays were written by Francis Bacon. I'm not sure she got the point, but she got mad and started screaming, which was almost as good. When your opponents are frothing, you've won.
The Obligation to Faith Argument
This one has come up several times, so someone must have put it down on paper. It runs along the lines of "we have a responsibility to present information that's sensitive to the faith of the majority of Americans." This from the same people who usually complain about any attempt to be "politically correct." I go personal on this one, explaining that I am a Christian, but that I find no conflict with my faith. I also suggest that facts don't change just because the majority finds them inconvenient - although the Right seems to have a slippery hold on reality these days, so that last may not work.
All right, go stick 'em in the eye. And if things start to get sticky, and they're really huffing and puffing, give them a blast of the old reductio absurdum. After all, if living things require a creator, isn't It more complex still? So, who created the creator?
When I talk about Fantasyland, I'm talking about something more serious. And dangerous. Warning: there's rough religious waters ahead.
I've made no secret of the fact that I write "speculative fiction." There are a lot of little niches within this broad section of the fiction universe -- alternate history, cyperpunk, horror -- but the two best known broad categories are science fiction and fantasy. For better than a century, people have been fighting over these labels. Is science fiction only something that uses strict extrapolation of facts? Is it fantasy when it introduces something that can't be reduced to logic and hardware? I'll give you a much simpler definition: science fiction looks forward, fantasy looks back.
Take a look at the landscape of Lord of the Rings. Scattered over the hillsides are the ruins of fantastic castles, the fallen remains of enormous statues, the worn down nubs of a civilization that was. Even discounting the fact that this fantasy is set in the past, it looks even farther into the past. Typical of many fantasy worlds, LOTR is "autumnal." Its characters live in the fading days of a great age, with only echoes of a time when godlike deeds were accomplished. Once men (and other creatures) carved mountains into fantastic forms. Once there were great kings and glorious conflicts and honor and strength and valor. Now the world is only a shadow of what was. The greatest treasures we have are the few remnants of what was. If we want to look for the best of what can be, we stare backwards into the mists of the past.
That's the way it is in fantasyland. Wonders are behind you, only drudgery lies ahead.
For Republicans, that era of great deeds lies in some ill formed space between Plymouth Rock and "I Like Ike." They know there were once giants in the earth. They know there was once "decency" and "honor" and they believe that those things are now lost. To build the walls of their fantasy kingdom, they lift a snatch of Adams here, a line of Lincoln there, and stir with allusions to John Ford westerns. Oh sure, King Ronald postdates the end of this golden era, but he was merely a reminder of earlier days, like Arthur rolling over beneath Glastonbury Torr.
There's nothing wrong with remembering our history. In fact, it's vitally important that we both recall and learn from the past. What's wrong is to assume that the source of greatness lies behind us, that we are somehow lesser than the men and women who struggled through World War II, or those who founded our country.
Here's some history we should recall: four thousand years ago, a small group moved from the city of Ur in what is now Iraq to a new home in areas that we would recognize as Israel. These people, Abram and those who accompanied him, created the basis of the three western religions that dominate our nation and our politics. In his book, The Gift of the Jews, Thomas Cahill recognizes the enormous importance of what these people accomplished. It wasn't that they signed a covenant with God. It was that they made a break with the past. What they did somewhere between the green valley of the Fertile Crescent and the scrubby hillsides of Canaan was as vital to mankind as the wheel. They invented progress.
You can catch a glimpse of the difference between Abram's religion and what came before in Karen Armstrong's seminal A History of God. Other religions of the day were locked into fantasyland. Read the surviving writings of the Sumerians, or the Babylonians, and you find a rich, fantastic set of tales about the gods and creatures who struggled to bring Earth into being out of the muddy, primordial chaos. The stories are fascinating, but they all share something in common: man is an afterthought. All the really important struggles take place in the "before time." What we do -- the best we can hope to do -- is to emulate the gods, never to equal them.
The gift of the Jews is progress. Progress in a religion that puts man at the heart of God's plan and puts the future on a more than equal footing with the past. Sure, the Bible starts with some of those creation stories and associated myths. However, these are more centered on men, and even then the whole thing is wrapped up in the first few pages. The Bible is a story of progress, both in the actions of men, and of the understanding of God. It's a relationship that's always being reinterpreted.
When I teach my Sunday School class, I tell the high school kids that they should look to the characters of the Old testament as examples of how people once related to God, then I tell them something else: you can do better. You can understand God's plan for your life better than David. You can know what God expects of you better than Moses. You can be in covenant with God in a way that Abraham never imagined. You can be a better person than any of these characters. You can be more kind, less cruel, more just, smarter, more thoughtful. Better. Any casual reader approaching the Bible will find that the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New bare scant resemblance. That's because this is a religion that looks ahead. The words are fixed, but our minds are not. It's all about learning from the past, and forging your connection with God anew.
The same should be true of our democracy. Those founders and fighters who brought us to where we are deserve praise for what they accomplished, but they should never be seen as more than what they were. We can understand how the world works more clearly than Jefferson, Washington, or anyone who laid a pen to the Constitution. We should look on these men with the respect they deserve, but we should not overlook their flaws, neither should we treat their words as inviolable 'holy writ.' We should build on what they gave us, not worship it.
When you look to the past as if it is better than the future, whether it is in your religion or your politics, you find yourself justifying murder, defending war, and siding with leaders who committed every crime imaginable while thinking themselves on the side of God and country. To deify the past is to denigrate civil rights and suffrage. You cannot elevate the slaveholder without also raising the institution of slavery.
Right now, the Republicans have not looked to the right so much as they have stared into the past. They've squinted hard enough that they can pretend to see none of the hardship, and only catch the glint of faded glories. They fumble through history like Cabalists seeking some secret meaning. They turn actions of fifty, a hundred, or two hundred years ago into causes for war, reasons to hold people interminably, or excuses to deny liberty.
Nowhere is this more clearly seen than in the Republican assault on reason. Whether it is substituting "intelligent design" for evolution, the constant berating of public schools and teachers, or the old "liberal elite" chestnut, the Republicans are marching under the banner of regressive ignorance. They fight against stem cell research as much because it represents the future as because it brushes against some tenant of their faith. Some of them do not see that the past they are seeking to resurrect was a dark place, filled with abuse for all those not in power. Other's simply don't care.
We have to offer an alternative, to hold up a torch of both liberty and learning. The Democratic Party is the progressive party. That has to be our gift to the nation. We will look fearlessly forward, willing to address the issues of today, not re-fight the wars of the past. We must defend every inch of progress made in gaining fairness and personal liberty. We have to understand that the banners of the party, justice, reason, knowledge, science, personal and religious freedom must all advance together, or none of them will advance at all.
We need a good stout dose of science fiction in our mix. We need its optimism and inventiveness. We must be willing to try new ideas and reward fresh thinking. This is, after all, a science fiction nation, a nation of continent spanning trains, and delicate airplanes, and rockets to the moon. The real gift of the past has been to reward us with the understanding that the future can be better still.
Fantasyland is a dangerous place, where institutions crumble and knowledge fades. Fortunately for us, the lesson of four thousand years is this: progress always wins. Let's just make sure it wins sooner, rather than later. Personally, as much as I love Tolkien, I could do without a dark age of sitting among the ruins, smoking pipeweed, and telling the tales of past giants.