Are You An Auto-Brainwasher?

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, April 22, 2017

There is an extreme condition known as the Anton-Babinski syndrome where blind people believe they can see. It’s a visual variation of Anosognosia, where a person with a disability is unaware of their disability. Anosognosia covers a range of delusions dealing with the body, senses, memory, and language. There is a cognitive related syndrome called the Dunning-Kruger Effect, where low-ability individuals suffer from superiority illusions. (I can’t help think of Donald Trump when reading that article.) Quoting Wikipedia, here are the essential qualities of the D-K effect:

  • fail to recognize their own lack of skill
  • fail to recognize the extent of their inadequacy
  • fail to accurately gauge skill in others
  • recognize and acknowledge their own lack of skill only after they are exposed to training for that skill

I believe we all fool ourselves. But how far do we go? Are some people auto-brainwashers? Anyone who has read books by Oliver Sacks knows how powerful a brain is at fooling its own mind. I highly recommend you read the articles linked to above, and then ask yourself: Am I fooling myself?

brainwashing

This has very powerful implications. What if you think another person is in love with you and they are not? What if you think you are great at your job and you are not? What if you believe you’re writing the world’s greatest novel and you’re not? What if you think you are brilliant, sexy, funny, and compassionate and you are not? Many people are crushed by self-doubts, but maybe just as many people are brainwashed by over-confidence and delusions.

Take climate change deniers. They believe they know the truth, even though they oppose armies of scientists with PhDs, using trillions of dollars worth of supercomputers, space satellites, rockets, airplanes, drones, ships, submarines, monitoring stations, balloons, and other scientific resources. Are they any less deluded than blind people claiming they can see?

Any individual who thinks they can solve any of the world’s major problems is absolutely deluded. Our reality is intensely complicated. To assume we understand anything clearly is delusional. A reasonable amount of self-doubt is healthy. Too much can be crippling, yet we need enough for humility.

The trouble with being human is we make up stories to explain a limited set of facts. This is called the narrative fallacy. I can’t find a single article that explains it, but the book, The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb is where I first heard the concept. If a noise wakes you in the middle of a night you can’t stop yourself from imagining scenarios for what caused that noise. From burglars, falling tree limbs, to raccoons, you have to think of something to explain the noise, even if the explanation is wrong. And generally, it is.

This is how we brainwash ourselves. Narrative fallacies lead to the Dunning-Kruger effect if you don’t do a lot of fact-checking. The reason why fake news is so successful is it often fits into people’s narrative fallacy storylines.

Science is our cognitive tool where we statistically study reality to look for consistency. We can only trust evidence when it’s overwhelming. We can only trust evidence when a majority of other people collaborate that evidence with further scientific research. But we are easily fooled by masses who have fooled themselves with auto-brainwashing. Their claims appear to be consistent evidence – but consistent opinions do not equal consistent evidence.

One of the purposes of Zen Buddhism is to deprogram our auto-brainwashing. If you can get your inner observer to back away from its attachments to thoughts it is possible to see how we auto-brainwash ourselves.

My old friend Connell and I have been talking about auto-brainwashing lately. Terms like Dunning-Kruger aren’t very effective, or memorable, so I’ve started using the phrase auto-brainwashing. Once we accept that a concept exists and have a good label for it, it’s possible to see it in action. With the idea of auto-brainwashing in mind, study yourself and your friends.

What do we see that’s not there. What’s there that we don’t see?

JWH

More Sense of Wonder Than Science Fiction

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, February 20, 2017

Origami-NOVA-3

For the first two-thirds of my life sense of wonder mostly came from science fiction, but in the last third science is supplying more wonder. I have theories as to why. First, aging is making me more fascinated with reality. Second, I’ve lived long enough to feel the real world is science fictional. For example, my science fiction book club is reading Little Fuzzy by H. Beam Piper, a 1962 novel about the discovery of cute creatures on a distant planet that might be sapient. As a kid in the 1960s, that was an exciting idea. But in 2017 we know animals are far more intelligent than we thought and in ways far more exciting than an old science fiction novel. Learning how and why has a great sense of wonder.

The dimensions of sapient behavior have become far more fantastic than fiction, including old stories about robots. For example, The Door Into Summer by Robert A. Heinlein, published in 1957, and first read by me in 1964. Heinlein’s character Dan Davis built household robots – which dazzled me back then. But today I could build my own robot with a Raspberry Pi kit, producing a completely different kind of sense of wonder. I could also download open source machine learning toolkits. This era of Makers and DIY produces a different kind of wonder. Science fiction is great, but I believe I would now give a kid a subscription to Make Magazine before telling her to read science fiction.

More and more when I watch a great documentary I want to know the details about how things are actually done. I don’t want to just be an observer. Last night I watched a wonderful episode of NOVA on PBS that has more sense of wonder than any science fiction novel I can remember reading in a very long time.

It was about origami.

Origami?

Yes, origami. You know, paper cranes…

It was titled “The Origami Revolution” – about how the art of folding paper has inspired scientists, mathematicians, and engineers. The producers completely blew me away. Origami is a fascinating craft, even an art form, but not one I ever paid much attention to. The program began by reporting the latest developments in the art, which go way beyond making simple paper cranes. Using a single sheet of paper, it’s possible to make very elaborate 3D shapes by just folding paper (and without cutting).

Origami-NOVA-2

Cranes are simple, requiring about thirty folds. Modern advanced origami art like above requires hundreds of folds involving very complex geometry. This is where the excitement started for me – because they brought in mathematics. The program introduced Erik Demaine, showing him working on a 60-page mathematical algorithm with Tomohiro Tachi for computerized origami folding. Can you imagine the mathematics of creating the above work of origami? I can’t, but I wish I could. Tachi has developed a software program Origamizer that the two of them hope will eventually be able to create any 3D figure from a 2D piece of paper. Their theorem should prove it’s possible.

Origami-NOVA-5

“The Origami Revolution” then goes on to survey wide-ranging work in biology, genetics, chemistry, physics, astronomy that have been influenced by what we’re learning from folding. This has been happening for decades, so I feel a little left behind. The program generated a tremendous sense of wonder in me, probably because this new research offers so much far-out potential, including building robots and spacecraft, and even claiming that dark matter theoretically reveals folded shapes in the structure of the universe.

Here’s a 2008 TED Talks by Robert Lang which give more details than the episode of NOVA, including some examples that are more impressive than shown in the TV show. Follow the link in his name to his website for even more information.

Understanding how modeling 3D structures from a 2D source teaches us about nature, because once the mathematics of folding were revealed scientists began seeing folding in nature, including plants, insects, and even the cosmos. From there it goes into applied engineered structures.

(This isn’t folding per se, but I think it’s related. See SmartFlower Solar.)

If you watch “The Origami Revolution” count all the far out bits of technology. You’ll realize that many of them were never discussed in science fiction. When I was young, I thought science fiction explored ahead of science, but after all these decades I’ve learned something different. Science fiction trails science. This show could inspire countless science fiction stories. Even while watching the TV show I imagined other folks seeing it and thinking up science fiction stories as they watched. They will magnify the demonstrated concepts, extrapolate, speculate, imagine, and come up with possible future scenarios to dramatize. I’m sure they will create far-out tales.

But I think getting older is making me both more patient and less patient. I’m becoming impatient with fiction. It’s easier to skim over the drama, and just zero in on the current science. Now that I’m retired, I have more time to fool around with tech toys. I spend less time reading about imaginary futures, and more time trying to figure the details of now.

You can also watch the full episode of “The Origami Revolution” on YouTube.

JWH

7 Scary Traits of Climate Change Deniers

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, January 30, 2017

We’ve been hearing about climate change for decades. We’re bombarded with scary documentaries, long range forecasts, books, essays, news reports, science fiction on what global warming will do to Earth.

What I find even scarier are the psychological traits of climate change deniers.

climate-change-NASA

The power of denial might be eviler than actual climate change. Those traits reveal the limitation of the human mind. Our species, even with the best brains on the planet, might not be smart enough to save ourselves from self-destruction. Here are some psychological traits that could be more dangerous than increase CO2.

Egotism

Climate change deniers reveal their massive egos by their righteousness. The world has spent trillions of dollars on supercomputers, satellites, monitoring stations, laboratories while hiring vast armies of scientists with Ph.D.s to use that equipment.  97% of scientists analyzing the results show climate change is real. As long as we have a significant percentage of human population thinking they are smarter than all the scientists, computers, and science, we’re in big trouble.

Anti-Science

Science is our only tool for consistently understanding reality. Science is based the statistical consensus of evidence. Its methodology is designed to be immune to nationality, race, ethnicity, gender, class, sexual orientation, religion, philosophy or other biases. To reject science is to reject any hope of objectively understanding reality. People who trust science by flying on an airplane or having brain surgery but deny other scientific results indicate that humans might not be rational enough to survive as a species.

Greed

Greed is the main reason people believe they’re right and climate scientists are wrong. Solving climate change requires global cooperation, powerful governments, and taxes, three concepts hated by fundamental conservatives because it undermines their essential gospel of no taxes. In other words, they’d rather get rich than save the world.

Rationalization

The percentage of people who can brainwash themselves into denying climate change is terrifying. Their egos can embrace poorly educated talk show hosts over legions of highly trained scientists reveals a limited grasp of reality. Part of this comes from our ability to believe. The same trait allows humans to accept Jesus and positively know they’ve gained immortality. We can rationalize anything, and that’s dangerous.

Religion

Religion isn’t inherently anti-science. In fact, some churches are embracing global warming as a moral issue. However, hatred of science is a trait of many religious believers. They see science in opposition to religion, and since climate change is on the side of science, they have to choose the other side. To them, the choice is everlasting life and science.

Anti-Fate

Many people deny climate change because they hate fate. Climate change feels too much like fate, even though it isn’t. We can avoid global warming if we choose. Ironically, by denying a possible future they are creating it. They feel climate change represents an inevitable future, and they reject that.

Anti-Responsibility

Another trait of deniers is they deny responsibility to their descendants even when they’re family oriented. Instead of wanting to protect future generations, they shove their heads into the sand. They are denying an obligation to their children, grandchildren, and future generations. Climate change deniers deny the sins of the fathers.

JWH

Twisting My Brain Around Time Travel

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, November 17, 2016

There’s a book by Clifford D. Simak with a title I love, Time is the Simplest Thing. It’s not. Try to define “time” in words. You can’t. Everyone tries, but has anyone ever succeeded? In Time Travel: A History, James Gleick covers the science fictional subject of time travel, and the scientific subject of time. Thus, if you’re a science fiction fan, you’ll have a wonderful stroll down memory lane of many iconic time travel stories. But it’s the other half of the narrative, the one where Gleick explains the science of time – that tied my mind in knots.

Time-Travel_James-Gleick_coverI don’t believe in time travel. H. G. Wells didn’t believe in time travel. James Gleick does not believe in time travel. So why spend so much time speculating about an impossible subject? That’s what Gleick’s book is about. One big spoiler warning to anyone planning to write a time travel novel – after Gleick described so many time travel stories I wondered if there’s any need for more. Can anyone read this book and think of a new angle on time traveling? Time Travel: A History illustrates just how speculative one idea can be. For me Gleick’s book is a celebration of the concept of time travel, and an eulogy. Time travel stories are fun, especially when young, but other than escapist entertainment, speculation about real time travel feels as valuable as counting the number of angels that can fit on the head of a pin. This book is about speculating on time travel. When we are young we hope concepts like God and Time Travel are real, but when we’re old such thoughts fade, but it’s pleasurable to contemplate old thoughts of fancies. I know I won’t be traveling in time, or outer space, or even to heaven or hell. Now is all I’ve got. Being old makes me want to know the real nature of time. Gleick’s book combines the two.

What’s really rewarding about Time Travel: A History is the respect it gives to science fiction. Gleick uses famous SF stories to illustrate how we struggle to understand time. Of course, it’s also bait and switch. Science fiction fans will buy the book to read about time travel, but Gleick spends a good deal of “time” conveying the thoughts of Newton, Einstein, Feynman, Plato, Augustine, Hobbes, Proust, Bergson, and other heavyweight thinkers about the nature of time.

Time-Machine-Norton-Critical-EditionOf course, Gleik covers The Time Machine by H. G. Wells, including some of the serious reactions to that story. I wish he could have gathered a sample of man-on-the-street reactions. How did the average person respond to the idea of time travel in 1895? How did the standup comics of the day, or whatever they were called, poke fun at the idea? Did the story generate 1890s pop culture buzz? In some ways I would have liked this book to have been The Time Machine: A History. Looking at the publication history of The Time Machine at ISFDB, I’m not sure it was an instant hit. I have a copy of the Norton Critical Edition that features early reviews and later scholarly essays, but it doesn’t offer what everyday readers thought. I wonder if such a history could be written? (Or has?)

One of the trickier aspects of reading this book is paying attention to when Gleick uses the phrase “time” or “time travel” because my mind often wanted to switch them. For example, when he quotes Lee Smolin, “I no longer believe that time is unreal” my eyes tried to read it as “I no longer believe that time travel is unreal.” I assume my unconscious mind wanted a scientist to claim time travel is possible. As a species, I believe we all wish to travel in time. Don’t we do this is so many ways: art, history, journalism, fiction, nostalgia, dreams, memories, and so on. Gleick covers all this too.

By_His_Bootstraps_ASF_Oct_1941It’s when Gleick tries to define time, especially in relation to Einstein’s discoveries, that my head explodes. I want to believe there is one now that exists everywhere, all across this universe, to other universes in the multiverse, down into the atomic world, the subatomic, the quantum, and if they exist, to all the dimensions of strings, and then to what makes up strings, and so forth. But my understanding of Einstein, which is very limited, tells me the observer has their own time. What does that mean? I can understand if that means clock time is different in different locations – depending on the speed of the observer. But is Einstein saying  the nature/substance/structure of time is different for each observer? Do they each have a personal now? Many scientists doubt the existence of time, and consider it an illusion.

H. G. Wells confused things when he suggested that time was the 4th dimension, and we can travel through it, like we do through the 3rd. How does that explain Newton’s apple falling from the tree? How does that explain a light beam from a star 1,000 light years away? Is that a 1,000 year yardstick with ticks for all the nows that exist along its path – like counting tree rings? That light beam is a relic of the past, so it confuses us about the nature of time. Even though we think we see a star, what we’re seeing is 1,000 years old light. The star’s now is different. But does our sun and that star also share a same now regardless of the age of the light beams we see? Is there one eternal now everywhere? Is time merely a measure of how far points in the past and future are from the eternal now?

Think of it this way. We measure time on a timeline, and imagine the now moving down the timeline. What if we didn’t use the timeline, and used a constantly changing number for events in the past. For example, instead of saying I was born in 1951, I’d say I was born -65 years in the past, that Columbus discovered America –524 years ago. Of course, every year we’d have to memorize a new number for every event in history. It’s easier to give every event a year to remember, and let now always be an ever changing date. But isn’t that backwards? Isn’t now always the same, and the past an ever expanding number? And the future an ever shrinking number?

134-The-End-of-EternityWhat if we wanted to travel back 542 years to see Columbus. That requires moving our now back all those years. The essence of time travel is moving to another now. That’s why I personally don’t believe in time travel, I believe there is only one now for all of reality. What I want to know, and Gleick didn’t tell me in his book, is whether or not there are other nows, meaning multiple timelines, one for each universe. A great example of this problem is Time for the Stars by Robert A. Heinlein. The premise of this book is some twins have telepathy, and that this telepathy is always instantaneous over any distance, so use them as radios for interstellar flights. The twin that stays home gets older much faster than the twin that travels to the stars. They always share a telepathic now, but they can tell there’s a difference. What the space traveling twin hears in his mind as he travels faster is his twin talking slower.

I can’t remember when I first grasped the idea of time travel. I saw the George Pal movie in the early 1960s, before I read the classic novel by H. G. Wells, but I’m not sure if I hadn’t seen cartoons, television shows or movies that also dealt with the topic. Before H. G. Wells few people thought of time travel, now, I doubt many people haven’t thought about it. Before Wells, writers wrote about people sleeping into the future. Mark Twain wrote A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, but had he invented time travel? Wasn’t Twain really inventing alternative history? Gleick does go into all the philosophical old variations on time travel, such as prophecy, fortune telling, eternal life, and so on. It’s amazing how many ways we play with the idea of time.

That’s the thing about this book – it demands rereading. Is that another form of time travel? Read Maria Popova review of the book. I wish I could think and write like her. And isn’t her essay an example of actual time travel? We constantly revisit the past, to annotate and evaluate. Reading my review, hers, and others, we’re all traveling to the same spot and time – the book Time Travel: A History.

JWH

[I wrote two versions of this essay. Microsoft decided to update Windows when I left the machine unattended, and I lost parts of the first version. Rewriting this essay feels like time traveling itself, and this version is the result of my mind going back and interfering with the timeline of the first version.]

Lessons I Learned from the 2016 Election

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, November 13, 2016

To say Tuesday, November 8th, was a shocker for most people is an understatement. Since everything is grist for my mill, I’m going to write about what I’ve learned from this disturbing experience. Like the pundits and pollsters, I had no idea how badly my fellow citizens wanted Donald Trump for president. I live in an isolated bubble of liberal friends, and we all thought Trump was a poor choice. In fact, we thought Trump was an overwhelmingly obvious poor choice. We were wrong.

Are_We_Smart_Enough_webLesson 1: Electing a president is not an intellectual decision. I’m currently reading Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? by Frans de Waal. The chapter on chimpanzee politics is rather enlightening. Electing a U.S. president has many parallels to selecting an alpha male. I think our society is not against electing a female for the alpha male position, but we might not be ready to give up alpha male traits in our leaders. The point of de Waal’s book is animals are smart in all kinds of ways we don’t recognize, and sometimes those smarts are superior to ours for the same talent. He makes a case that our intellectual intelligence can be self-deceptive. Humans are animals, and we function on many levels, using many kinds of intelligences. To analyze the election results totally by measures of left brain logic is a huge mistake.

Lesson 2: Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again” meant different things to different people. For people who are financially secure, America is already great. Sure our country has many problems needing fixing, but let’s not rock the boat. For people out of work, or working at low-paying jobs with no hope of ever succeeding, then Trump’s slogan takes on a whole new meaning. But do we know how many people are really out of work? How bad is the economy to the heartland? I see vastly different figures for the number of working age people not working. Here’s the Bureau of Labor Statistics for Employment release just before the election. Things don’t look bad at all, especially compared to 2008 and 2012. But if you’re a conservative, you read reports like, “Right Now There Are 102.6 Million Working Age Americans That Do Not Have a Job.” That’s unbelievable to people with math skills, but completely believable if you only see the bad sides of the economy. Looking at Wikipedia’s population demographics, I figure there’s roughly 185 Americans aged 20-64. (Add 34.4 million if you want to stretch working ages from 15-69) Looking at the Bureau of Labor Statistics, I see 149 million Americans have jobs. That’s a 36 million difference. Not as scary as the 102 million the conservatives claim, but nowhere close to the 5% to the official unemployment numbers. But if 20% of the working-age Americans are out of work, then that’s a big factor for the election. Yesterday’s New York Times essay, “Can Trump Save Their Jobs? They’re Counting on It” is probably a better indication of how many voters felt. They are looking for an alpha male to align themselves with in hopes of gaining help. It’s a shame the election wasn’t between Sanders and Trump, when both candidates would have targeted the same issue. It would have been interesting to see which solution Americans preferred for solving “It’s the economy, stupid” angle.

Lesson 3: Does ethics matter? Both candidates were generally considered less than ethical by the general population. There were plenty of mud-slinging on both sides. Supporters of each candidate seem willing to ignore personal defects of any kind in their candidate, but not in the candidate they didn’t favor. I think the vast majority of voters went with either liberal or conservative values and ignored personal values. In other words, most members of either party would vote for a yellow dog. The country seems to be divided into thirds: liberals, conservatives, and independents. The independents swung the election.

Dark MoneyLesson 4: The future looks very different to liberals and conservatives, but both fear a bleak future. Liberals fear the climate apocalypse, while conservatives fear the secular apocalypse. Science and demographics show both trends are happening. Conservatives were determined to protect the Supreme Court from liberals. They want a Christian theocracy and the legal foundation for conservative economics. Read Dark Money by Jane Mayer. My guess is it’s less about Roe v. Wade, and more about taxes and regulation. Trump was feared as a disruptor by the plutocracy, but because of the Republicans winning Congress, they are more than happy to embrace him now. There are very few large piles of money for the 1% to siphon off anymore, and owning the Supreme Court helps to get access to that wealth.

Lesson 5: We’re not logical. Voters don’t cast their votes based on logic. Who we like is often decided by our unconscious minds. Read Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahnerman. Even when we’re thinking we’re making an informed choice, it’s probably just a delusion of our conscious mind. Also, there are too many variables in the equations of politics for anyone to actually solve the problem logically, mathematically, philosophically, or ethically.

Thinking Fast and SlowLesson 6: I am immensely disappointed that my liberal ideas aren’t shared by the majority. Even though Hilary Clinton won the overall popular vote, that doesn’t mean the country is half liberal. My guess is roughly a third of the country is actively liberal philosophically. That means we want social programs to protect the poorest, extra taxes for the wealthiest, we seek diversity and equality, to protect the environment, fight mass extinction, to balance wealth inequality, and work to develop a sustainable economy and environment. We find it horrifying that greed and xenophobia win out over these values. Yet, the lesson of 2016 is a vast majority of Americans want to protect a way of life that has vanished, and they are unconcerned about the human impact on Earth. This is illogical to us, but that’s because we don’t understand the theological implications of conservative values. So the biggest lesson for me is I’m out of touch with the needs and desires of most voters. I felt climate change should have been the #1 issue of the election, and it was completely ignored. I feel that many of my fellow citizens are anti-science, and science is my religion.

The Black SwanLesson 7: I have no reason to expect more people to side with me in the future. On the other hand, I can’t expect to predict the future in any way. Even though I’ve read The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, and intellectually know it’s impossible to predict the future, we all keep hoping we can shape it. Tuesday, a whole flock of black swans landed. That should have been enough to teach all of us that we can’t predict the future. It won’t. We will all continue to campaign for our own models of reality. Conservatives refuse to see climate change, but then I guess I refuse to see conservatives.

JWH

Why Science Fiction and Fantasy Are Fundamentally Different

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, September 12, 2016

I’m endlessly annoyed that science fiction and fantasy are linked together in the public’s mind. Philosophically, they are polar opposites, Science fiction is the enemy of magic, and magic is the foundation of fantasy. These two forms of literature parallel two opposing philosophies of reality: science and religion. We all exist in one reality, but we have chosen to explain reality in two contradictory ways: evolution and magic. Religious fundamentalists understand this distinction, which is why they are so fervently opposed to evolution and science. If you understand evolution there is no need for God. If you understand the Christian theology, there is no need for evolution.

Most people try to incorporate both belief systems into their world view, but that only shows they don’t understand the profound and complete differences between the two. You can’t have God and Evolution as the primary creator of life on Earth. You can’t have Science and Magic. Earth Abides by George R. Stewart is an excellent example of science fiction. Because Randall Flagg is a driving force in The Stand by Stephen King, it makes that book a fantasy novel, even though it follows in Earth Abides footsteps. Once you add the supernatural (magic) to a story it can’t be science fiction, even if it’s using a standard science fiction concept and setting. I bring up these two books because they are both nominated in polls for the best science fiction books of all time. (And yes, I know many writers want to create hybrids, like All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders.)

Earth AbidesThe Stand

Even though I don’t like that science fiction and fantasy are always lumped together, I can understand why. Most people want to believe in magic, but they accept science. That’s why they pray when they fly in an airplane. Most people are clueless to how their smartphone works, but they accept technology as magical. When folks go in for surgery they ask their friends to talk to God for them, even though the outcome depends on the surgeons’ scientific knowledge and evolutionary biology of the patient.

Magic is based on the power of the word. Magicians work by incantation. They learn their spells through study of arcane knowledge. God said, “Let there be light” and there was light. God creates with the power of words.  The person who wrote The Gospel of John understood that when he said, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”  When primitive people tried to understand how reality worked they came up with the logic of magic, and the power of words. That’s why magical spells are so important to magicians, they are imitating the power of God. It’s also why most religions disavow magic.

Science, which came very late in human development, assumes there is no magic, and words don’t create but describe. Science assumes everything can be explained through observing reality. Technology is applied science. Science assumes there are no magical beings, no magical forces, and no magic itself. For any story to be truly science fiction it must assume magic does not exist. For any story to be fantasy, magic is an integral part of its reality. That’s why Star Wars is fantasy, and not science fiction.

Stranger in a Strange LandStranger in a Strange Land Avon

Science fiction is far from perfect, and far from scientific. Probably one reason the public lumps science fiction and fantasy together, is all to often science fiction claims magical concepts can be scientific. A great example is Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein. There were many science fiction writers in the 1950s that desperately wanted to believe in extrasensory powers. Writers and editors like John W. Campbell, Robert A. Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, or Theodore Sturgeon, believed humans could evolve to have god-like powers, or possessed untapped psychic potential that could be developed. Heinlein proposed that Valentine Michael Smith was raised by ancient beings on Martians that taught him to use such powers. But is that science fiction or fantasy?  Mike essentially works miracles. Stranger in a Strange Land is an anti-science fiction novel. Heinlein even melds religion and God into his story. Some have claimed Heinlein was being satirical, but Heinlein also wrote essays about his beliefs in ESP, and even predicted science would prove the existence of the afterlife one day.

Childhood's End

I am working on the fourth edition of the Classics of Science Fiction and I’ve come up against a problem. The Stand by Stephen King is often cited in polls where fans vote for their all-time favorite science fiction novels. But how can a novel with a character like Randall Flagg be science fiction? But then, how can Stranger in a Strange Land or Childhood’s End be science fiction? One point in Heinlein and Clarke’s favor, is back then they believed ESP type powers would be scientifically provable in the future. In the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s there were theories about ESP, and scientists conducted experiments to detect latent psychic powers in humans. Others theorized that future species of mankind might evolve such powers. In the years since, science has not found a shred of evidence to support such theories, and we have to assume such wild talents are only fantasy. Yet many people still want to believe. Nearly all the powers of super-hero characters represent a desire for magic. We don’t like being ordinary and powerless, so we love stories with characters who have powers. Unfortunately, science fiction writers aren’t immune to such desires for magic.

Should I delete any novel from the Classics of Science Fiction list whose theories have been shot down by science since they were written? I doubt even Stephen King thought The Stand was science fiction when he wrote it. King is an exceptional storyteller, and uses whatever ideas are useful to forward a story, but I doubt if he’s concerned with their scientific validity. And probably many science fiction writers, if not most, choose story over science. But for me, I’ve always thought the essential quality of science fiction was theorizing about the scientifically possible. I want science fiction to be anti-magic. I read science fiction to imagine what’s possible for humans to create with science, and not with magic. But all too often, science fiction is corrupted by our desires, and we ignore our understanding of science.

Many of the stories from The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits and Star Trek in the 1950s and 1960s dealt with ideas we thought were science fictional back then, but after a half-century of scientific advances, should be seen as fantasy today. Isn’t it about time we begin discerning magic from science?

I’ve been watching the new miniseries, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, based on the novel by Susanna Clarke. That’s what inspired this insight into what distinguishes science fiction from magic.  Like the immensely popular Harry Potter stories, we enjoy tales where magic exists. But I wonder how many fans of fantasy actually believe magic is possible? We do know that all believers in the various world religions do believe in magic. They don’t like to call their miracles magic, and often abhor talk of Earthly magic, or even claim it sinful, but all scriptures about miracles work in the same way as stories about magic.

We science fiction fans need to learn to spot the use of magic in science fiction stories. No matter how much we love The Demolished Man or The Stars My Destination, and claim they are classics of science fiction, they are fantasy. But so is the matter transmitter in Star Trek and the time machine in the classic H. G. Wells novel. The main reason the public lumps science fiction and fantasy together is because we all want to believe in magic. More than likely, faster-than-light travel will prove to a magical idea, and words like hyperspace travel, warp drives and wormhole travel are just magical incantations by writers.

Which brings me back to my problem. Should I list The Stand in the Classics of Science Fiction list? Or other books that fans routinely think of as science fiction. For example, I can’t see why so many vote for Animal Farm by George Orwell in a science fiction poll, or Alice in Wonderland. By the way, I’m only talking about polls specifically for science fiction, and not polls for science fiction and fantasy books. I can make an editorial decision and just leave them off the list. Or I could list them in red. I’ve thought of listing any book that was never meant to be science fiction in red, and books that were legitimate attempts to be science fiction in the past, but are now obviously fantasy, in blue.

JWH

How Much History Can I Handle?

By James Wallace Harris, Sunday, September 4, 2016

Every subject we study requires studying history.

My problems:

  • Compulsive news reading online
  • Compulsive book buying
  • Compulsive magazine buying
  • Curiosity about too many subjects
  • Can’t keep up with my reading

history

My goals:

  • Simplify my reading habits
  • Decide on the subjects I care about most
  • Learn more about those subjects
  • Focus on fewer topics for writing

I’ll never be an expert on any subject. Primarily because I’m starting too late in life, but also because I’m interested in too many topics. The best way to explain my problem is with an analogy. Have you ever noticed the difference between the magazines Popular Science, Discover, Scientific American, American Scientist and Science? This will work for any array of subject periodicals. The magazines that have wide appeal with the public will have mostly snippets of news stories, and a few short articles. Reading Popular Science or Discover often feels like reading the sponsors off a race car. When you finish an issue you remember little, even though you’ve just been told a 100 fascinating facts.

Now Scientific American and American Scientist do have pages of newsy snippets, but their compelling content is a handful of longer articles. If takes effort to read those essays, but most people can understand them if they try. When you’re finished, you feel you’ve learned something, and you’ll probably remember a good deal more from reading the first two magazines. You’ve covered fewer topics but gained more knowledge.

Finally, there’s Science. It is magazine scientists read. Its articles are terse, and very hard to comprehend. Science is readable by any well-educated person, but its so technical, and jargon filled, that few people do. Magazines like Science or Nature are general science magazines for people trained to be science specialists. Their specialized training allows them to read across disciplines at a much higher level than the average popular science reader.

The point I’m making here is my daily reading for all the subjects I’m interested in is too close to the Popular Science level.

Mentally, my curiosity flitters around like reading magazines at the dentist. If I make myself, with the aid of Google, I can read an issue of Science, but it’s no fun. It’s just too specialized. I want to discipline my mind to function around the intensity of a Scientific American article, or at least a longer article in Discover. I want to be able to write about my favorite subjects at that level. That means knowing those subjects in greater detail, which means knowing much more history.

Think of it this way. Let’s imagine we have 100 brain cells to use. Popular Science requires one cell for a 100 different news items. Science requires all 100 to understand one article. Scientific American assigns 20 cells to five topics. What I’m realizing is I need to ration my brain cells more carefully.

Each day, how is your mind applied? Is your consciousness like a reader of People magazine, or The Atlantic?  And for every pet topic you pursue, how much history do you know? We all know people who pontificate about their beloved subjects – their minds appear bloated with information. But that’s what it takes to be knowledgeable about a particular subject.

This bit of navel gazing came about because of an offer from Biblical Archeology Review (BAR) to subscribed for $7. I have a hard time resisting cheap magazine subscriptions. People who know I’m an atheist, might be puzzled why I would even be tempted by this magazine. Although I’m not a believer, I find history of The Bible fascinating. The Bible was written during a time when humanity was transitioning from pre-history to history. Like The Iliad and The Odyssey, The Bible began as oral storytelling, and then over the centuries, its stories were written down, eventually becoming canonized into the book we know today. I’ve even been wanting to write an article called, “Bible Study for Atheists,” and figured a subscription to BAR would be helpful (even though it is controversial).

No, my problem is not lack of interest, but lack of time. If I had all the time in the world I’d roam up and down history studying everything. But I don’t have that much time. Even though I’m retired, and have all my time free, it’s still not enough time. What I’m realizing is I need to ration my time spent exploring the history of my pet interests. I can only handle so much.

Rock and roll music is what got me interested in history. I started listening to AM Top 40 rock in 1962. As I grew older, I realized there were many wonderful tunes before 1962 to be discovered, so I began exploring jazz, blues and folk music of the 1950s, which led to Swing and Big Band music of the 1940s and 1930s, which took me to a different kind of jazz in the 1920s. When I get the time, I’d like to go even earlier, to the Tin Pan Alley era.

Once I learned how to move backwards in time, I began to incorporate those skills into chasing the origins of everything else I loved. In college I majored in English and studied books from the 19th and 20th century. My sense of history through novels goes back to the historical times of Jane Austen. A love of movies takes me back to the 1910s and 1920s. A love of science fiction takes me back to the 19th century again. I keep trying to get into classical music, but for some reason I have a hard time pushing into the 17th and 18th century. But the more I get into the history of science, which takes me back to the late 1500s and early 1600s, the more classical music becomes relevant. Studying The Bible jumps me back to the first millennium BCE, and connects me with Egypt, Babylon, the Levant, Greece, and then Rome, which brings me back to The New Testament, and the 1st, 2nd and 3rd centuries, which then leads me towards Byzantium, and the Middle Ages. Which connects me with Europe rediscovering the classical Greeks, and jumping back to 400 BCE. Because Plato and Aristotle impacted so many people in the 19th century, that  jumps me forward to the Transcendentalists, and then back to the Enlightenment.

I also spend a good deal of time reading science fiction, which also means tramping around the future.

This morning, while taking my shower, and thinking about how I failed to clean out my growing pile of unread magazines yesterday, I felt crazed to think I should subscribe to more magazines. Yet, I wanted to – badly. It just became obvious, that no matter how addictive my curiosity is, I can’t consume all of history. I need to specialize. But in what? And why?

Sometimes I think I should just stay closer to home in time, like anytime after 1951 when I was born. I love westerns from the 1950s, so they would be in the territory of history I could cover. But then I think about writing a piece called, “Should Westerns Be Historically Accurate?” which means prowling around the 1800s. And I really would hate to give up Austen, Dickens and Trollope. That makes me think I should extend my range of history to the year 1800. I’d get to keep Darwin, but not Newton. I might  handle that. I’d have to give up the Founding Fathers, but I’d still have The Transcendentalists and Abraham Lincoln. Not too bad of a trade. Plus I’d get to keep the The Impressionists in Europe. I’d have to give up the Roman Empire, but at least I’d have the best part of the British Empire. I’d have to give up most of the history of mathematics, but I’d get all of the history of computers.

Could I really go on a history diet and only read about events that happened after 1799? I just swiveled around in my chair and scanned my bookcases. Not much of a sacrifice – most of my books cover topics that happened since 1800. I could thin a third of my unread books if I moved the cutoff date to 1900. I easily have a quarter century of unread books that fit into that time period, which probably translate into “the rest of my life.” But there goes Tolstoy and Louisa May Alcott. But that might finally give me time to read Proust and and finish reading Virginia Woolf.

I’m probably bullshitting myself here. I have so many contemporary topics I’m interested in, that if I made the cutoff date 2010, I couldn’t keep up with all the things I’d want to read. Every time I go to the library I scan the new book shelf. I could literally spend the rest of my life only reading books published in the current year about current affairs, and still not read everything I wanted.

Maybe it’s not what I read, or the history covered, but how I read. I could simplify my life by only reading books that appear on the library’s new books shelves, and give up reading magazines and web pages. That has a lot of practical benefits. I wouldn’t have to limited myself to particular times in history, and it would give me lots of variety. And yet, it would narrow the amount of reading I feel compelled to pursue. If I actually read all the magazines I currently get, in physical and digital form, I would never have time to read books. Hell, if I just read the free articles I get from News360 and Flipboard each day, I’d be reading 24×7.

Sometimes I think reading off the internet has ruined my mind. The internet is the heroin of information.

I can’t read everything I want. I can’t study every fascinating subject. There’s too much history for every topic. Trying to tidy up my reading habits is like using Marie Kondo to tidy up my house – it’s extremely difficult. But if I want to get away from a Popular Science level of concentration it will require tidying up what I read and how. I can clean out topics I’m hoarding, or somehow limit the fire hose of information I’m drinking from. Or both.

JWH