Archive for August, 2019

Is the novel dead (or dying)?

August 31, 2019

(This essay previously appeared in Trolley,  the NYS Writers Institute’s online magazine.)

I was a failed novelist. Good with words, perhaps, but less on human insight. Which points toward the answer to the question.

What are novels for? Telling stories. A love for stories and storytelling is deeply embedded in human nature. And why is that? Because we evolved as exceptionally social creatures. A high level of social cooperation and cohesion was humanity’s “killer app” in the battle for survival. And that requires understanding what makes other people tick. That’s why we’re so big on stories and storytelling. They give us insight into that greatest of mysteries, the inner lives of others.

Cave people sitting around their campfires surely did a lot of storytelling — and listening. Narratives featuring human (or semi-divine) protagonists loomed large in our earliest cultures: Gilgamesh, the Iliad and Odyssey, the Bhagavad Gita. It took a long time for the “novel,” per se, as we know it today, to be developed as a vehicle for storytelling. Perhaps that was largely down to technology — before movable type printing, narratives like the Iliad were mainly transmitted orally. Poetry is easier to memorize than prose, and few people had the ability to read anyway. Printing overcame those constraints. With many more books becoming available, many more people found it worthwhile to learn to read — creating the mass audience for novels.

Then it was off to the races. And the novel has never since lost its appeal. Indeed, the expansion of literacy has not come to an end. As world population grows, and the percentage who are literate continues to rise, the global market of book readers increases.

On the other hand, further technological change has gone into overdrive, again altering the world. The written word, and the printing press, might seem like archaic holdovers of an epoch if not bygone, soon doomed to be.

More specifically, our thirst for stories is increasingly slaked by non-print means: ones with pictures. Books long had illustrations. But now the pictures move. Some are even 3-D! And immersive virtual reality will soon be a very big thing. If you can have all that stimulus, why be satisfied with words on a page?

Moving pictures have, of course, been around for over a century now, and while their audiences are immense, they don’t seem to come — at least not substantially — at the expense of book reading. Though watching movies and TV and other video does have to reduce somewhat the hours available for reading, people don’t actually seem to regard the one activity as a substitute for the other. They are indeed different activities.

This is the key point. While both do involve storytelling, seeing a film or video is a different kind of experience from reading a novel. True, in some ways, a film can be a richer, more vivid experience in the moment, and can convey things a novel cannot easily emulate — “a picture is worth a thousand words.” Yet some of the differences are to the novel’s favor.

For one thing, reading a novel is (normally) a much more prolonged activity. Efficient use of time is not the point; we find it pleasurable to become immersed, for a length of time, in a novel’s story, its characters’ lives, and its other world. How often has one felt sorry having to let go of them at novel’s end?

And reading a novel is a more contemplative, reflective experience. While a film or video necessarily goes headlong from one scene to the next — allowing the viewer only seconds, at most, to linger — novel reading facilitates thinking about the content, pondering its meaning to us, savoring it.

Further, while a picture can be worth a thousand words, words nonetheless pack a lot of power. And while visual beauty is one kind of experience, there can be beauty in language too, which is again a different kind of experience. Words can embody a complexity and subtlety of ideas that visual images cannot. Especially when a novel has a lot more than a thousand words to develop them.

I’m thinking, for example, of Jonathan Franzen’s work. This essay began by talking of human insight. I recall reading Franzen’s first novel,The Twenty-Seventh City, and marveling at the depth of human understanding in it (far exceeding my own); and that Franzen achieved this while only in his twenties. More recently I read his Freedom. It showcases Franzen as an artist with words, each of them a small brick, built into a cathedral of plot, character, and ideas, a deeply satisfying immersive experience, helping a reader to better understand life.

Novels have been written for half a millennium now. Google has told us that precisely 129,864,880 books have been published. That was back in 2010; no doubt that number is rather larger today; they’re being churned out at an ever faster rate. Most of them are novels. Yet we’re also told that there are really only seven basic plots. So the question arises: can there be anything new to say? When a would-be novelist sits down to begin, doesn’t she realize it’s all been done already, in all those tens of millions of previous novels?

But of course it hasn’t been, and never will be. That is the vastness of the human imagination. Writers are forever coming up with new ways of seeing and expressing things. People are still writing novels that surprise us; and delight us.

I was not a great novelist, but as long as there are people like Franzen to write them — and the pool of potential novelists is growing, because human beings, in general, are getting better and smarter — there will always be readers for them.

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Reading Tony Judt on people telling themselves stories

August 28, 2019

Tony Judt was a lefty intellectual historian who died at 62 of ALS in 2010. When I was writing The Case for Rational Optimism,  he wrote Ill Fares the Land, his title a seeming rebuttal. Indeed, it was a lament that his leftist politics was losing. Still considering myself a “conservative,” I didn’t read it, put off by the tendentious title.

That was then.

Recently I stumbled upon Thinking the Twentieth Century, by Judt with Timothy Snyder, published in 2012; transcribing conversations the two had while Judt neared death. Much is rather abstruse intellectualizing about the interplay among the century’s big “isms” — Communism, Marxism, Socialism, Fascism, Nazism. In that landscape, classical liberalism may be likened those little proto-mammals eking out existence amidst dinosaurs.

That past world might seem remote to us now. But the world of 2010-12, when the book was compiled, already feels similarly remote. In hindsight an interlude of comparative calm and sanity. The 20th century turmoil analyzed in the book has many current parallels. It’s a pity the authors didn’t get to discuss them.

Many other writers and thinkers are mentioned, including some clear-sighted ones, like Orwell, able to penetrate the fog of the sturm und drang around them. But mostly one is driven to scream, “Was everyone nuts?” One line, mid-book, jumped out at me: ” . . . the biggest story of the twentieth century: how so many smart people could have told themselves such stories with all the terrible consequences that ensued.”

How that resonates in our current moment! Britain is literally destroying itself in a manic Brexit seizure. Italy and Brazil elect clowns and knaves. Others throw democracy away. And in America a big population segment tells itself a story grotesquely at odds with truth.* Whose terrible consequences I’m still hoping can be stanched.

Part of the explanation is fingered by Judt the historian. People fall for false stories because they don’t know true ones, ignorant about facts shaping their cultures.**

It’s an odd feeling reading this book’s discussion of a past time with so many disturbing echos to my own. Today any sane person knows Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin were monsters.*** But back then an awful lot of people were telling themselves different stories. Just like today with Trump.

I believe future generations will look back on ours with restored clarity. They too will wonder “how so many smart people could have told themselves such stories.” Unless Trump and his ilk succeed where those earlier monsters failed, and finally do create the world Orwell warned about.

* Watch for their snarky comments on this blog post! But it’s not just the political right. Judt was sympathetic to socialism, but the book shows how that faith failed. Yet now America’s left is telling itself a false story about it. Or trying to sell one. (No, socialism is not merely government building schools and roads.)

** Unfortunately when they move on to more current affairs, the authors go down a rabbit hole. Smugly dismissing the thinking of almost everyone else (like “the egregious Thomas Friedman”) not conforming to their rarefied ideas. Actually a distorting left-wing lens, full of notions I found cockeyed and just plain wrong.

*** Notably, the authors avoid any mention of Mao. Is that monster (unlike Stalin) still an icon a true-blue left-winger refuses to criticize?

“Credit recovery courses” and education inequality

August 26, 2019

Inequality. Mostly it’s inequality of opportunity. Which comes down to inequality of education. America’s real and growing gap is between the better educated and the less educated who earn much less. And children from poor and minority families get crappier education. That’s America’s great scandal.

High school graduation rates are a focus. What’s the fate of a poor/minority kid without even a high school diploma? Yet we tolerate this for millions.

But graduation rates, especially in poor/minority districts, have been rising. Good news? Not so fast. The Economist recently reported that many districts have responded to the pressure to improve graduation rates by simply lowering standards, to hand out more diplomas.

A big part of this is online credit recovery courses — which students can take via computer if they fail a class. One source estimates they’re now used by 69% of U.S. high schools. Especially in poor/minority areas.

Good in theory perhaps; but in The Economist’s telling, in practice this is often a fudge to change a failing grade into a passing one. It’s “all about manipulating the system,” one teacher is quoted. Students can repeat online exams — with the same questions — until they pass. “Most teachers just gave the students the answers.”

The Economist does note in passing “some pockets of real success high-performing charters in cities have helped many poor minority students most at risk of dropping out if left in traditional public schools.” Yet most “progressives” continue demonizing charter schools as “draining” funds from the public education they venerate. Seemingly blind to the rotten public schooling at the heart of the inequality they so loudly bemoan.

Trump, destroyer of conservatism

August 23, 2019

(This appeared as a commentary in the 7/14 Albany Times-Union)

Democracy is not so much a set of practices (like elections) as it is a culture; a way of being. It was something new when articulated in 1776 — “all men are created equal” with “inalienable rights.”

The Declaration gave a nod to a “creator,” yet it was clear the kind of society it envisioned owed nothing to him. Instead it was the creation of human beings. And because humans are fallible, it can fail. A recent commentary in the Albany Times Union quoted Judge Learned Hand in 1944: “Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save it.”

I became a conservative in the 1960s because of the profoundly democratic values and ideals that entailed. A key precept of the Enlightenment’s classical liberalism, and America’s founding values, has been constraining government power. Recent decades have seen a growing fear on that score. It led to “liberty” and “freedom” becoming, for the right, fetishized words. Badges worn by a political movement that has now gone on to make them a hollow mockery, by falling in to an orgy of tribalism, falling in line behind a false god.

Look what travesties are countenanced. Racial bigotry and divisiveness. Demonization of press freedom. Defying rule of law and government accountability. Inhuman cruelty toward suffering people at our border. Flattering brutal dictators, dismissing Russian subversion, shredding our alliances. A president steeped in corruption, vulgarity, and depraved egotism. All grounded in pervasive lies.

Is this what conservatives’ “liberty” and “freedom” have come to? They’ve lost their moral minds.

The word “conservative” should connote an ethos of humility and carefulness, of respect toward institutions and other people. As The Economist’s July 6 lead editorial headlined, “The new right is not an evolution of conservatism but a repudiation of it.” Actually at war with the classical liberalism conservatism once embodied. Conservatives used to see America as a bulwark for democracy globally. Used to be for free trade and fiscal responsibility and against Russian aggression. Conservatives believed in accepting reality — and certainly hated the idea of government power in the hands of a demagogue whose lies flout reality.

The only thing these latter-day “conservatives” really want to conserve is America’s whiteness.

I am reminded of the idealistic Communists whose faith died when their eyes were opened to Stalin’s crimes. Open your eyes, conservatives. Your faith is dead. Trump has killed it and for that you should revile him.

Our democracy was not eternally ordained by God; nor even by our constitution. Judge Hand was right. It will endure only so long as we keep our grip on the principles, ideals, and values embodying it.

Already almost half the population is a lost cause in that respect. America’s fate rests in the hands of the others.

Dear Abby

August 20, 2019

I love reading “Dear Abby.” For the letters; not the advice dispensed. The original “Abby” was great, but she passed on and the column is now done by her daughter, who is frankly uninspired. Too often her “advice” is like, “Tell your husband exactly what you said in your letter.” Well, thanks a lot for that brilliant solution. And too often her answers really miss the boat.

Recently a single column had two in that category. Here are the letters (slightly condensed), “Abby’s” verbatim responses, and what I’d have said —

DEAR ABBY: My boyfriend and I have been dating for nearly two years. He would literally do anything for me. He’s incredibly affectionate and supportive, and a lot of women would love to have someone like him.

My problem is we see the world through completely different eyes. I’m an artist. I want to go out and explore the world and do crazy things. He’s more comfortable at home with video games and he’s not comfortable mingling with crowds. He can be overprotective sometimes . . . . We live together and are dependent both financially and emotionally. Honestly, I would like to stay with him, but I’m torn about what to do. Should I leave someone I should be grateful for in order to chase selfish dreams? Or should I stay and encourage him to change?

ABBY: Your boyfriend isn’t going to change. If you can’t accept him the way he is, then it would be better for both of you to separate.

FRANK: What exactly are these “selfish dreams” you want to chase? Is your boyfriend stopping you? Can you “go out and explore the world and do crazy things” yourself, and then come home to his affection and support? Is he okay with that? But meantime there’s a certain word conspicuously missing from your letter. It’s “love.” People with very divergent personalities can love each other and accommodate to each other’s differences. But without love, that will ultimately fail.

DEAR ABBY: For our anniversary, I bought my wife a $1,500 necklace, and told her that if she wanted, it could be exchanged at the store. She went out and came back with a different piece of jewelry that cost an additional $800. Besides the financial aspect, I’m feeling hurt that what I gave was not adequate enough for her. Am I being too sensitive here?

ABBY: You are a generous and loving husband. You should not, however, feel hurt that your wife exchanged the necklace. You told her she could, and she took you up on it. Perhaps next time you should consider asking her what she would like, so you can choose the gift “together.”

FRANK: She did that without even asking you? That was not an “exchange,” it was an upgrade, which you did not authorize. Simply inexcusable. Tell her to return the item. She does not deserve to have it; nor deserve you.

Sentinel: The Statue of Liberty

August 17, 2019

In 1986, when the Statue of Liberty was being refurbished, I made a donation. Later, receiving another solicitation in the mail, I said to myself, “No, I already gave.” But I read the thing anyway. And guess what? I wrote another check. Love that gal.

For Christmas I received Francesca Lidia Viano’s book Sentinel: The Unlikely Origins of the Statue of Liberty. A 499-page tome delving deeply into the monument’s cultural, historical, mythological, iconographic background. It ominously begins with the story of the Trojan horse!

The statue was a gift from France, though no Trojan horse. Frederic Auguste Bartholdi was the sculptor and chief promoter of the project. Less well known was the key role of Edouard de Laboulaye, a political and intellectual activist, collaborating with Bartholdi. Viano explores what they were thinking — and it had nothing to do with welcoming people to America.

They called her “Liberty Enlightening the World.” The torch obviously fit with that. Yet even that name seems to have been something of an afterthought. The book’s title, Sentinel, is more to the point. The lady was really meant to be a guardian. Thus her stern expression. She may even have a concealed weapon.

This has more to do with France’s cultural context than America’s. Her 1789 revolution was more of a societal upheaval than ours. And France had further revolutions, in 1830, 1848, and 1871. They also had Napoleon, long looming over the French psyche. Consequently, for them, Liberty had to be a combative figure. This is epitomized by Delacroix’s painting of the 1830 revolution, Liberty Leading the People. In that uprising by commoners, women were prominent; Viano suggests Delacroix’s Lady Liberty may have been a prostitute. Ours is that same gal (albeit more modestly clothed), with combativeness still part of her essence as originally conceived.

Bartholdi actually started with an idea for an Egyptian monument, but couldn’t sell it as such, so he Americanized it, as embodying friendship between his country and ours. But he soon realized it needed a larger moral meaning. As “Liberty” she has that, but ultimately Bartholdi envisioned even more. The statue may be seen as representing America itself, giving all humanity a new dawn.

Or as a memorial to Revolutionary war dead, both French and American. Celebrating sacrifice and regeneration. A monument to U.S. industrial strength; to maritime commerce; to global free trade. Her spiked crown may have been inspired by Victor Hugo’s poem Stella; it may represent a “morgenstern,” a medieval weapon, a club topped by spikes; or Christ’s crown of thorns. Or she could embody Hermes, messenger of the gods. A torch-bearer was a canonical figure in Masonic ritual. Or the torch could stand for the Promethean gift of fire; or, says Viano, she could represent “An Orpheus shedding light on man’s painful condition.” The lady did appear to have quite the dark side; there was something of the underworld about her.

And meantime, Bartholdi seems to have been much the momma’s boy — with a lot of her in the statue too.

All the foregoing actually doesn’t begin to dissect everything about her mythological, iconographic antecedents, as explored in the book. But all of that became somewhat beside the point, because America embraced the statue differently from what its progenitors imagined.

“I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” Emma Lazarus’s poem trumped everything else — imbuing the monument with a new, positive, humanistic, uniquely American meaning. Viano (perhaps too embedded in her Francophone story) gives Lazarus scarcely a page, saying that whereas the French vision was concededly too dark, hers “was much too benign.” She even mocks Lazarus’s reference to the lady’s “mild eyes,” when people at the time actually noted their severity.

But it’s her torch that’s really her essential feature; what she now represents being a synthesis between that physical image and the reflective imagery of the poem. The lamp lighting the way to the golden door.

And today, I see defiance in her pose; and if her eyes are tough, defiance in them too. Steely-eyed, she stands sentinel, more so now than ever. Our still undaunted guardian of what America means.

* * *

Postscript: Trump’s immigration worm, Stephen Miller, in a White House briefing, spat on the Lazarus poem, insisting it “is not actually part of the original Statue of Liberty.” The other day new strictures on immigrants were announced, denying green cards if they access any public benefits.* I heard on the radio someone said the poem should be changed to read “give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge.” I assumed that was sarcasm from an administration critic. But no, it was said by Ken Cuccinelli — the acting head of ICE. He also said the poem referred only “to people coming from Europe.”

In fact it states, “From her beacon-hand glows world-wide welcome.”

This administration’s sadistic treatment of suffering migrants is a crime against humanity.

* To which they’re lawfully entitled. Had Congress, in enacting these programs, meant to limit them just to citizens, it could have so stipulated. It did not.

Refugees: When the doors flew open

August 15, 2019

My friend Olga arrived here as a Soviet Jewish refugee in 1979; I’ve written about her. She got out just before the door slammed shut. The USSR was one big prison, especially for Jews, victims of severe discrimination.

My humanist group recently viewed a wonderful film about them, Stateless, mostly interview footage with refugees now in America, relating their stories. Seeing it was an emotional experience.

The plight of Soviet Jews became a big issue in the ’80s. When Gorbachev met with Reagan in Washington, large demonstrations demanded that Soviet Jews be let go. Reagan pressed Gorbachev on the issue (this was back when U.S. presidents still stood for what was right).

And the doors flew open.

But the Soviets made the exit a humiliating ordeal. Emigrants were milked for bribes at every step. Luggage was a particular problem; basically they were allowed to take only what they could carry, and getting the heavy bags from checkpoint to checkpoint was tough. At Sheremetyevo Airport, customs officers would roughly rifle through the suitcases, refusing to permit certain items, again extracting bribes.*

Meantime, the local police would know who was scheduled to leave; they’d break into apartments to steal the packed bags.

One woman said that when she’d handed over the final bribe, with almost her last rouble, she actually felt elated: a price worth paying to escape that prison.

The refugees traveled to Vienna, then to Italy, to await final transit to either Israel or America. Actually having a choice was an intoxicating novelty. That was one shock upon reaching the West. One guy spoke of his amazement to find, in airport bathrooms, free toilet paper! Wouldn’t people steal it? In fact some arrivees, still having that Soviet mentality, did just that. And then the abundance in stores was mind blowing. Some thought at first these must be Potemkin displays, plastic simulacra, not real goods.

People from government and aid agencies met them to help. But they viewed these offers with suspicion; the idea of such assistance seemed alien and implausible. Especially with no bribes even demanded! But on the streets, smiling cheerful people were another surprise. How unlike Moscow. So this was what freedom looked like.

Those opting for America needed refugee visas from consular officials who interviewed them to document their histories of persecution. This was hard; what they’d endured had been so internalized, so integral to seemingly normal life, they didn’t realize there was anything to report. While some, on the other hand, flagrantly embellished. (Lying was also the Soviet normal.)

With the sudden flood of visa applications, a large proportion were denied. This put the migrants in a terrible fix. They didn’t understand the system, had no idea what to do.

The issue came to the attention of Congress (this was back when it could still actually legislate to solve a problem). Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) introduced a bill relieving Soviet Jewish refugees from having to individually prove persecution. The bill swiftly passed.

And the doors flew open.

Hearing these people’s stories made me love it that they’re now my fellow Americans. Anyone with the grit to go through what they did to get here, I want here. This is what America means. This is what made it great.

* I remembered my own Sheremetyevo experience. “Numismatic tours” of Russia in 1993 and 1995, led by Erastus Corning Jr., were a fantastic buying opportunity — on the second trip I bought 92 pounds of coins. Erastus hired a local guy, Misha, to help us at customs. The customs officer was grim faced; examining my stash, he kept repeating, “it’s impossible.” Lengthy discussions in Russian ensued with Misha. Finally Misha left, and then the customs guy waved me through.

I met up with the others. Erastus said, “Give Misha $100.” I instantly understood, and handed over the money, saying “Wasn’t Misha taking a big risk?”

“Misha knows what he’s doing,” Erastus replied. “He was with the KGB.”

BREAKING NEWS: Amid Election Chaos, Trump Urges Shutdown

August 12, 2019

 

NOVEMBER 3, 2020

By James Thornton

and Julie Montalbano

Associated Press

____________________________________

                                       Washington

With today’s U.S. election in Russian-hacked chaos as millions of voters find their registrations seemingly voided, President Trump tweeted that he is “calling for a total and complete shutdown of the election process — until we can figure out what the hell is going on!!”

The extraordinary problems, almost surely from Russian hacking, have been reported in at least 32 states, with the voter registries distributed to local election boards missing many (if not most) entries. Voters affected are generally permitted to file paper provisional ballots, to be adjudicated later. However, the huge number of such time-consuming cases (with paper ballots often running out) has thoroughly snarled voting, causing very long lines — turnout was already breaking modern records — with many would-be voters giving up.

At stake in today’s election are not only the presidency but also all seats in the House of Representatives, a third of the Senate, eleven state governorships, and thousands of other local offices.

Elections are supervised by state governments, not the president, and it was not immediately clear what effect, if any, Trump’s tweet would have. Canceling or postponing a national election would be unprecedented and constitutionally impermissible. Nevertheless, several Republican governors have indicated receptiveness to Trump’s call; most are silent; Democrats universally denounce it.

Predictably, Trump blamed Democrats for the voting problems, accusing them of trying to “rig the election” to deny him victory. He offered no basis for his accusation. Actually, it appears that mostly Democratic voter registrations are affected. And recent polls have shown Trump’s Democratic challenger, former Vice President Joseph Biden, with a consistent lead of landslide proportions in the ten to twelve percentage point range. Biden leads in all the “battleground states” and even in some former Republican bastions, including Texas, as the nation slides into a recession widely blamed on Trump’s trade wars.

Russia’s hand in today’s voting turmoil seems virtually certain. Knowledgeable observers note the Mueller probe’s irrefutable evidence that the Kremlin tried to similarly hack into state election systems in 2016. It appears that Russia has been more successful this time. In addition, the proven 2016 Russian social media disinformation campaign also escalated in 2020. Most notable, of course, was the purported “Socialist Biden” video, surfacing only Saturday, and quickly spreading as the most viral item in internet history. It appeared to show candidate Biden saying he favors making America “totally socialist;” borders completely open; allowing abortions up to nine months; and confiscating all guns. The video, though skillful, was swiftly exposed as completely fake, and experts pointed to Russia’s clear electronic fingerprints on it.

President Trump (who retweeted the video, and later denied doing so) has steadfastly refused to acknowledge any such Russian transgressions. In 2019, bipartisan legislation to combat anticipated Russian election subversion was blocked from a Senate vote by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky, called “Moscow Mitch” by some), leaving the nation largely defenseless.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov issued a statement saying, “Tales of Russian involvement in America’s election confusion are delusional lies and laughable fabrications. The fact is that democracy is a dead system, and so-called ‘democratic elections’ have always been a sham.” Shortly afterward Trump tweeted that he accepts the Russian statement.

Candidate Biden, in a joint appearance today with running mate Sen. Kamala Harris, called for the election to go forward despite the hacking, and for “all hands on deck” to quickly resolve the problems. Biden said a voting shutdown, and its resulting constitutional chaos, would be exactly what Russia seeks. He urged voters to be patient and to “stand up for democracy — even if it does mean standing in long lines.” And Biden labeled Trump’s call to abort the election “the final illegitimate ploy by a disgraced and discredited president to cling to power, adding yet one more outrage to his endless rap sheet.”

 

(Note: This is not satire, nor fake news, but authentic future news. Remember you first read it here.)

“Science for Heretics” — A nihilistic view of science

August 10, 2019

Physicist Barrie Condon has written Science for Heretics: Why so much of science is wrong. Basically arguing that science cannot really understand the world, and maybe shouldn’t even try. The book baffles me.

It’s full of sloppy mistakes (many misspelled names). It’s addressed to laypeople and does not read like a serious science book. Some seems downright crackpot. Yet, for all that, the author shows remarkably deep knowledge, understanding, and even insight into the scientific concepts addressed, often explaining them quite lucidly in plain English. Some of his critiques of science are well worth absorbing. And, rather than the subtitle’s “science is wrong,” the book is really more a tour through all the questions it hasn’t yet totally answered.

A good example is the brain. We actually know a lot about its workings. Yet how they result in consciousness is a much harder problem.

Condon’s first chapter is “Numbers Shmumbers,” about the importance of mathematics in science. His premise is that math is divorced from reality and thereby leads science into black holes of absurdity, like . . . well, black holes.* He starts with 1+1=? — whose real world answer, he says, is never 2! Because that answer assumes each “1” is identical to the other, while in reality no two things are ever truly identical. For Condon, this blows up mathematics and all the science incorporating it.

But identicality is a red herring. It’s perfectly valid to say I have two books, even if they’re very different, because “books” is acategory. One book plus one book equals two books.

Similarly, Condon says that in the real world no triangle’s angles equal 180 degrees because you can never make perfectly straight lines. Nor can any lines be truly parallel. And he has fun mocking the concepts of zero and infinity.

However, these are all concepts. That you can’t actually draw a perfect triangle doesn’t void the concept. This raises the age-old question (which Condon nibbles at) of whether mathematics is something “out there” as part of the fabric of reality, or just something we cooked up in our minds. My answer: we couldn’t very well have invented a mathematics with 179 degree triangles. The 180 degrees (on flat surfaces!) is an aspect of reality — which we’ve discovered.

A key theme of the book is that reality is complex and messy, so the neat predictions of scientific theory often fail. A simplified high school picture may indeed be too simple or even wrong (like visualizing an atom resembling the solar system). But this doesn’t negate our efforts to understand reality, or the value of what we do understand.

Modern scientific concepts do, as Condon argues, often seem to violate common sense. Black holes for example. But the evidence of their reality mounts. Common sense sees a table as a solid object, but we know from science that it’s actually almost entirely empty space. In fact, the more deeply we peer into the atomic and even sub-atomic realms, we never do get to anything solid.

Condon talks about chaos theory, and how it messes with making accurate predictions about the behavior of any system. Weather is a prime example. Because the influencing factors are so complex that a tiny change in starting conditions can mean a big difference down the line. Fair enough. But then — exemplifying what’s wrong with this book — he says of chaos theory, “[t]his new, more humble awareness marked a huge retreat by science. It clearly signaled its inherent limitations.” Not so! Chaos theory was not a “retreat” but an advance, carrying to a new and deeper level our understanding of reality. (I’ve written about chaos theory and its implications, very relevantly to Condon’s book: https://rationaloptimist.wordpress.com/2017/01/04/chaos-fractals-and-the-dripping-faucet/)

After reading partway, I was asking myself, what’s Condon really getting at? He’s a very knowledgeable scientist. But if science is as futile as he seems to argue — then what? I suspected Condon might have gone religious, so I flipped to the last chapter, expecting to find a deity or some other sort of mysticism. But no. Condon has no truck with such stuff either.

He does conclude by saying “we need to profoundly re-assess how we look at the universe,” and “who knows what profound insights may be revealed when we remove [science’s] blinkers.” But Condon himself offers no such insights. Instead (on page 55) he says simply that “we are incapable of comprehending the universe” and “there are no fundamental laws underlying the universe to begin with. The universe just is the way it is.” (My emphasis)

No laws? Newton’s inverse square law of gravitation is a pretty good descriptor of how celestial bodies actually behave. A Condon might say it doesn’t exactly explain the orbit of Mercury, which shows how simple laws can fail to model complex reality. But Einstein’s theory was a refinement to Newton’s — and it did explain Mercury’s orbit.

So do we now know everything about gravitation? Condon makes much of how galaxies don’t obey our current understanding, if you only count visible matter; so science postulates invisible “dark matter” to fix this. Which Condon derides as a huge fudge factor. And I’m actually a heretic myself on this, having written about an alternate theory that would slightly tweak the laws of gravitation making “dark matter” unnecessary (https://rationaloptimist.wordpress.com/2012/07/23/there-is-no-dark-matter/). But here is the real point. We may not yet have gravitation all figured out. But that doesn’t mean the universe is lawless.

Meantime, you might wonder how, if our scientific understandings were not pretty darn good, computers could work and planes could fly. Condon responds by saying that actually, “our technology rarely depend[s] on scientific theory.” Rather, it’s just engineering. “Engineers have learnt from observation and experience,” and “[u]nburdened by theory they were . . . simply observing regularities in the behavior of the universe.”**

And how, pray tell, do “regularities in the behavior of the universe” differ from laws? In fact, a confusion runs through the book between science qua “theory” (Condon’s bete noire) and science qua experimentation revealing how nature behaves. And what does it mean to say, “the universe just is the way it is?” That explains nothing.

But it can be the very first step in a rational process of understanding it. Recognizing that it is a certain way, rather than some other way (or lawless). That there must be reasons for its being the way it is. Reasons we can figure out. Those reasons are fundamental laws. That’s science.

And, contrary to the thrust of Condon’s book, we have gained a tremendous amount of understanding. The very fact that he could write it — after all, chock full of science— and pose all the kinds of questions he does — testifies to that understanding. Quantum mechanics, for example, which Condon has a field day poking fun at, does pose huge puzzles, and some of our theories may indeed need refinement. Yet quantum mechanics has opened for us a window into reality, at a very deep level, that Aristotle or Eratosthenes could not even have imagined.

Condon strangely never mentions Thomas Kuhn, whose seminal The Structure of Scientific Revolutions characterized scientific theories as paradigms, a new one competing against an old one, and until one prevails there’s no scientific way to choose. You might thus see no reason to believe anything science says, because it can change. But modern science doesn’t typically lurch from one theory to a radically opposing one. Kuhn’s work was triggered by realizing Aristotle’s physics was not a step toward modern theories but totally wrong. However, Aristotle wasn’t a scientist at all, did no experimentation; he was an armchair thinker. Science is in fact a process of honing in ever closer to the truth through interrogating reality.

Nor does Condon discuss Karl Popper’s idea of science progressing by “falsification.” Certitude about truth may be elusive, but we can discover what’s not true. A thousand white swans don’t prove all swans are white, but one black swan disproves it.

And as science thusly progresses, it doesn’t mean we’ve been fools or deluded before. Newton said that if he saw farther, it’s because he stood on the shoulders of giants. And what Newton revealed about motion and gravity was not overturned by Einstein but instead refined. Newton wasn’t wrong. And those who imagine Darwinian evolution is “just a theory” that future science may discard will wait in vain.

Unfortunately, such people will leap upon Condon’s book as confirmation for their seeing science (but not the Bible) as fallible.*** Thinking that because science doesn’t know everything, they’re free to disregard it altogether, substituting nonsense nobody could ever possibly know.

Mark Twain defined faith as believing what you know ain’t so. Science is not a “faith.” Nor even a matter of “belief.” It’s the means for knowing,

*But later he spends several pages on the supposed danger of the Large Hadron Collider creating black holes (that Condon doesn’t believe in) and destroying the world. Which obviously didn’t happen.

**But Condon says (misplaced) reliance on theory is increasingly superseding engineering know-how, with bad results, citing disasters like the Challenger with its “O” rings. Condon’s premise strikes me as nonsense; and out of literally zillions of undertakings, zero disasters would be miraculous.

***While Condon rejects “intelligent design,” he speculates that Darwinian natural selection isn’t the whole story — without having any idea what the rest might be.

Insanity: a global contagion

August 8, 2019

Hong Kong is China’s richest, most advanced, most economically vibrant part. When Britain agreed to return it in 1997, the deal was “one country, two systems.” China pledged to respect Hong Kong’s liberalism, rule of law, and move toward free elections there. The Chinese regime lied. Making clear by now they’ll never allow democracy anywhere.

They’ve shanghaied Hong Kong political targets back to China for intimidation and torture. More recently, they’ve proposed to legalize such extradition. Hong Kong erupted in massive protests. The extradition bill was shelved (for now). But meantime the regime further antagonized the population by meeting the protests with excessive violence. Even deployed gangs of goons to brutalize people. In response, the civil disobedience is ramping up.

A sane Chinese regime would strive to defuse this through dialog with its critics — encompassing most of Hong Kong’s population — making some concessions to mollify them. Instead the regime simply threatens more violence.

This will end badly. Likely China will send its army into Hong Kong, imposing martial law. Another Tienanmen bloodbath. Destroying the jewel of the nation. The regime acts like it was appointed by Heaven to rule in perpetuity, no matter what. That actually was the traditional Chinese theory of rulership. It has no place in the 21st century. It’s insane.

* * *

I’ve written of how India’s Hindu-nationalist Modi regime is trying to make its large Muslim minority into second-class citizens — or even non-citizens. Insanity, given the long bloody history of communal violence.

Kashmir is India’s lone Muslim-majority state. Since 1947, India and Pakistan have quarreled over it; in effect they’ve split it, amid chronic violence. But India’s half has always had its own local government, and elections, like the rest of the country. But now the Modi regime proposes to revoke that and rule Kashmir from the center. To what end? This will surely enrage the population and make Kashmir an even more contentious and violent trouble spot; while poisoning relations with India’s Muslim neighbors (notably Pakistan). Utterly insane.

* * *

Great Britain, in 2016, voted to leave the European Union (“Brexit”), by a narrow 52% margin. That “will of the people” has been sanctified by Brexiteers as holy writ — never mind that it was based on massive lies and disinformation (Russia had a hand). Brexiteers intone “will of the people” yet refuse to consult them further, ruling out a second referendum, even to vote on the actual Brexit deal — or lack thereof.

The deal negotiated with the EU — belying all Brexiteer promises — was clearly worse than continuing membership. But clearly better than leaving with no deal, which would be economic catastrophe. Brexiteers insist that’s a price worth paying. They’re even willing to see the country literally destroyed, as Brexit could well propel Scotland and Northern Ireland out of the union.

So they’ve made Boris Johnson prime minister. An irresponsible goofball windbag at a moment of gravest crisis. He vows Brexit will happen at the new deadline of October 31, deal or no deal, “do or die.” (Trump cheers him on.) Johnson says the odds against a no-deal Brexit are “a million to one,” yet has no clue how to get a deal that can pass his own red lines — and Parliament, which has thrice rejected the only deal possible.

The sticking point is to avoid a “hard border” with customs formalities between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, both of which hate the idea. The EU’s deal solves this by keeping Britain in its customs union. (The EU won’t screw Ireland, a member.) Brexit fanatics refuse to accept this. If Johnson caves on it, they’ll immolate him.

Their Conservative party — like our GOP — has gone off the deep end. So has the opposition Labour party, with 1940s hard left Stalinism.

Parliament (having no Conservative majority) has meantime also voted to rule out a no-deal Brexit. Johnson could get around this by suspending Parliament. Unconstitutional you say? Actually, Britain has no written constitution. This thing is driving the country into very dark waters.

What’s that word again? Insane.

* * *

And what of America? Electing a deranged moral creep, ignoramus, criminal con man, pathological liar, Russian tool, and hate-monger, trashing every ideal America ever stood for. And 40% still support him! While no matter how many mass shootings we have, we still cannot ban military style weapons whose only function is to kill a lot of people fast.

What’s that word again?