I Do Not Fear Flat Earthers

Someone Tweeted the other day that what scares them the most is the growth of anti-scientism among the public, as evidenced by things like the niche of people who believe the earth is flat.

My first reaction to any fearful claims about the state of the world today is skepticism about the superiority of the past. Flat earthers have always existed. I’m not sure if they have actually swelled in number, or just been given a temporary internet celebrity status as the meme of the moment.

But let’s just accept that it’s true. Let’s say anti-scientism is growing. Why is this scary?

I heard someone say if you pursue any field of study deep enough you arrive at mystery. Yet the popular scientistic outlook is the opposite of mysterious. It presents a cocksure, “Everything’s settled but the details, and someone in a lab in Sweden is working those out as we speak”. What kind of invitation to inquiry is that? Where’s the adventure?

There’s a sense in which popular scientism makes the world smaller, rather than more expansive. Specialization need not lead to reductionism, but the fashions in science feel that way.

The funny thing is, scientific thought has a checkered history if you judge it by it’s own standards of what’s scientific. How many of the big conceptual breakthroughs come from alchemists, drug-trippers, and people who prayed to gods or sought mediums? You might be surprised. How many looming figures admit in private discourse their fundamental bafflement with reality, and belief that something like mind, or spirit, or consciousness must be at work in ways that don’t fit the models?

There’s a kind of arrogant front put forward by the PR arm of intelligentsia. If a public company presented it’s business condition in such a way it would be considered fraudulent. The nice, tight, all-but-the-details presentation is not only boring and wrong, it runs counter to the zeitgeist.

The current trend is for openness and transparency. So much so that satirical labels like “Struggle porn” have popped up. Today, people want an unfiltered, rambling, three-hour drinking session on the Joe Rogan podcast instead of a well-written statement at a press conference. People want Medium articles about what it’s really like to run a startup, instead of post-IPO retrospectives. Some entrepreneurs have gotten famous by publishing their monthly income statements for all to see.

What about scientists? We’re confidently assured that they know how the world works, and if we wait patiently a few more years for some lab somewhere to tally some numbers no one’s allowed to see, and submit it to some journals no one can access, and let some anonymous referees behind closed doors approve it, it will see the dark of day and get improperly summarized in a news story and used as a bludgeon against anyone openly exploring other ideas.

No wonder mushroom-taking conspiracy YouTubers are more interesting to people!

I see the openness to fringe theories as a good thing. I think the best way to understand the world is to question it. The more fundamental the question, the better. It’s excellent mental exercise precisely because it’s so hard. If an intelligent 10 year old asked you to prove to them the earth was round, could you do it without appeals to authority? It’s shockingly difficult! And that is the kind of difficulty that should be embraced! That kind of question is the gateway to scientific understanding, and possibly breakthrough!

I say bring on the scientistic skepticism. Hopefully it keeps curiosity in the driver’s seat, rather than an obsessive illusion that we have everything neatly labelled and understood.

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“Spying”: Comey Doth Protest Too Much

“We didn’t ‘spy’ on anyone’s campaign,” writes former FBI director James Comey in a recent Washington Post op-ed.

“We asked a federal judge for permission to surveil” former Donald Trump campaign adviser Carter Page,” but that’s not “spying.”

Before that (unmentioned in the op-ed), we infiltrated an informant into the campaign to gather information on its operations, but that’s not “spying.”

What a strange allergic reaction from Comey, and others associated with US intelligence and counterintelligence operations, to US Attorney General William Barr’s simple statement before the US Senate: “Spying on a campaign is a big deal … I think spying did occur. The question is whether it was adequately predicated.”

Comey insists that the spying was indeed “adequately predicated,” and that for some reason this makes it not spying.

It was spying.

You know, the same activity for which 98-year-old Patricia Warner, who infiltrated Nazi circles in Spain during World War Two, just received the Congressional Gold Medal.

The same activity for which dozens of CIA assets have received the Intelligence Star medal, and for which 113 of them have their names inscribed on that agency’s “Memorial Wall.”

The same activity on which the US government spends untold billions per year, assuring us that it is not just good and moral and justifiable, but absolutely necessary to the defense of the United States.

Comey’s trying to have it both ways here.

On one hand, he justifies the spying based on claims that “Russia engaged in a massive effort to interfere in the 2016 presidential election,” and that “we learned that one of Trump’s foreign policy advisers knew about the Russian effort seven weeks before we did.”

He defends the cloak-and dagger approach of the FBI’s espionage (“the practice of spying or using spies”) operation on the Trump campaign, saying that “if there was nothing to it, we didn’t want to smear Americans. If there was something to it, we didn’t want to let corrupt Americans know we were onto them. So, we kept it secret.”

On the other hand, he claims it wasn’t “spying” because … well, just because. “Non-fringe” media, he says doesn’t spend much time on this “conspiracy theory” because it’s just so wacky.

Comey’s sophistry doesn’t even rise to the level of Nixon Logic: “When the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.” His formulation is “if the FBI did it for a good reason, that means the FBI didn’t do it.”

The important question here is not whether the FBI spied on the Trump campaign. It did. Period.

The important question is why Comey doesn’t want to discuss, or even acknowledge, that fact.

The answer to that question is that discussing and acknowledging the irrefutable fact that the FBI spied on the Trump campaign leads into other discussions he finds even less desirable, such as whether the spying was legal — “adequately predicated” — and whether it was politically motivated (in a word, an attempted “coup”).

Why doesn’t Comey want those discussions? That question pretty much answers itself.

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Triggering a Debunker

I’ve had an interest in UFOs since I was a kid. In fact, I know exactly when my interest started: in 1973.

That year– and I know what year it was because I moved a lot as a kid and know where I lived when this happened–  a classmate told me and others that his grandfather had told him of the time he saw pieces of a crashed “flying saucer” when they were brought to the military base he was stationed at in Ft. Worth, Texas, following its crash in New Mexico.

This was my first introduction to the story of the 1947 Roswell UFO crash… even though the kid never mentioned Roswell, but just said: “New Mexico” (I knew of the town of Roswell for other reasons).

Recently, including on Quora just a few days ago, the standard debunking approach has been the claim that after the initial buzz and headlines, the Roswell “crash” was satisfactorily explained and forgotten until the late ’70s or early ’80s, when it was revived and sensationalized to sell books and TV shows.

Back to the Quora “debunking”. An ex-military guy was explaining away the story and dredging up the tale about it not being spoken of again after July 1947, for 30 years or so.

I replied that I knew, first-hand, that this wasn’t true, and told what I knew from 1973.

The guy almost flipped out on me. He said this wasn’t “first-hand knowledge” at all, that I had been fooled by the conspiracy theory like everyone else.

Never mind that I clearly stated that I wasn’t saying the debris was extraterrestrial or anything, just that I knew when I had heard the story and it didn’t match the debunkers’ claims. Maybe it was a weather balloon test dummy mishap Project Mogul balloon. Or not. That wasn’t part of my claim.

My first-hand knowledge is that I heard the story before the story was supposedly revived and sensationalized, so that specific claim can’t be true. That’s all. I have no first-hand knowledge of any other part of the event (or non-event). Yet this one small point triggered him.

I saw in his over-the-top reaction the same reaction I get from statists when I point out the errors in their thinking and claims. Any reality which doesn’t match what they are desperate to believe is met with hostile denial.

Of course, the guy’s Quora profile says he is “ex-military” so he may have an agenda to promote.

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9/11 Every Month — Where’s the Outrage?

The headline on Hans Bader’s piece at the Foundation for Economic Education is true as far as it goes: “Lifting the Ban on Kidney Sales Would Save 30,000 American Lives Annually.” Bader draws on an earlier essay by Ilya Somin at The Volokh Conspiracy, who in turn riffs on findings published in the Journal of the American Society of Nephrology.

The TL;DR: “Many Americans die every year because they need kidney transplants, in large part due to federal laws banning organ sales. … [A]n average of over 30,000 Americans have died each year, because the ban prevented them from getting transplants in time.”

My preferred version of the headline: “The US government, as a matter of policy, kills 30,000 Americans annually.”

That’s 2,500 Americans every month.

And that body count consists only of Americans who die while awaiting kidney transplants.

It doesn’t include those who die waiting for hearts, livers, or lungs that never arrive because patients — or their insurers — are forbidden to pay live donors, or the survivors of those who die with intact, transplantable organs, for those kidneys, livers, and lungs. Adding those deaths would almost certainly push the number above 2,977 every month.

What’s special about 2,977? It’s the number of people killed by terrorist attackers (excluding the attackers themselves) on September 11, 2001.

As you may remember, Americans got pretty exercised about 9/11. Heck, we still DO get pretty exercised about it (for a recent example, note the reaction to US Representative Ilhan Omar’s “some people did some things” comment).

But every month, month in and month out, year after year, the US government kills that many or more with its policies. The public response? Crickets.

The federal ban on paying donors or their survivors for organs is premised in a weird claim that paying donors or survivors for organs would be “unethical.”

It’s OK — it’s “ethical” — to pay the surgeons. And the nurses. And the anesthesiologists. And the providers of anti-rejection drugs. And of course — of course! — the “medical ethicists” whose opinions underlie the ban.

Only the people who physically provide the indispensable elements of organ transplants, the organs, get empty envelopes come transplant payday.

Where’s the outrage? The US has been at war for 18 years straight now, with 9/11 as the excuse. But 9/11 every month barely raises eyebrows. The politicians and the “ethicists” they’ve listened to remain at large. And, yes, they are well-paid.

Scary stories about homeless people with drug problems selling kidneys for crack, or being denied transplants for lack of money are just that: Scary stories.

If the purchase of organs was made legal, insurers (presumably including Medicare and Medicaid) would leap at the opportunity to save the money now wasted on expensive care for patients slowly dying as hope fades. A market price would emerge and people with good organs would respond to the incentive — probably mostly in the form of prospective post-mortem donors looking to ease their families’ losses.

Of course, there would be a place for ethical considerations in that process. Hopefully better considerations than the currently prevailing ones.

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What Intelligence and Insanity Have in Common

The brain’s ability to make connections.

There are many forms of intelligence. But all of them I can think of have a lot to do with making connections.

Mechanical intelligence sees the connections between parts of a machine. Social intelligence sees connections between people. Physical intelligence makes connections between actions and re-actions. Creative intelligence sees connections between disparate ideas. Entrepreneurial intelligence sees connections between different goods or services, or a new nexus between supply and demand.

A low intelligence person takes the discreet items in the world individually at face value. A high intelligence person sees causal chains, analogies, parallels, and processes that bind the discreet items in various webs.

If you’ve ever witnessed a high connections person in action, it’s fun and surprising. Where most people would see an umbrella over the lunch table, they’d see a wooden pole with canvas, think about their friend who sails boats, wonder about the material that makes sales vs. table umbrellas, then parachutes, then the different levels of wind-flow needed in each application. Before long they’re working out how you might have a single supplier for each item, or a new kind of material. This is how theories and businesses begin.

Our brain dices the world into discreet units for a reason. Seeing connections is a super power, but it can also be a curse. If you can’t unsee them, and your brain goes on a high speed runaway connection binge, you might lose your grip. Each event, object, and activity cannot be encountered and engaged discreetly if your brain is reeling six levels deep on connections.

There’s a reason meditative or hallucinogenic states where everything feels connected and all is one cannot persist while you try to brush your teeth and go to the office. Most of life is encountered in bites. And most of it has to be.

I think conspiracy theorists and paranoiacs have a ton of connection intelligence, but not a strong enough dissection filter. They see too many connections too much of the time. Pretty soon, everything reminds of everything else. Hence things like the “Illuminati confirmed” meme, where every shape, color, name, and logo on every product and commercial gets quickly connected to some kind of other symbol with occult meaning.

People often accuse paranoid conspiracy types of being stupid, or failing to see the meaning of things. The problem is they see too much meaning. They can’t stop seeing meaning.

The trope of the mad scientist, or brilliant mathematician who descends into ravings with old age show the same problem. Too many connections.

But there’s something interesting going on in there too. These are not stupid people, or people to dismiss out of hand. They see too many connections to handle, many of which aren’t useful. But they see a lot of useful connections the rest of us miss in our fragmented world. There’s insight to be found here.

I’m not sure exactly how to cultivate the ability to make connections and guard against connection overload at the same time. But I suspect most of us are in far more danger of making too few connections than too many.

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Pardoning Assange Would be the First Step Back Toward Rule of Law

On April 11, the ongoing saga of journalist and transparency activist Julian Assange took a dangerous turn.  Ecuador’s president, Lenin Moreno, revoked his asylum in that country’s London embassy. British police immediately arrested him — supposedly pursuant to his “crime” of jumping bail on an invalid arrest warrant in an investigation since dropped without charges but, as they admitted shortly thereafter,  actually with the intent of turning him over to US prosecutors on bogus “hacking” allegations.

The US political class has been after Assange for nearly a decade.

In 2010 WikiLeaks, the journalism/transparency service he founded, released information revealing US war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as State Department cables exposing — among other things — Hillary Clinton’s attempts to have American diplomats plant bugs in the offices of their UN counterparts (Clinton, at one point, tried to raise the possibility of having him murdered for embarrassing her so).

In 2016, WikiLeaks released Democratic National Committee emails — provided by an as yet unidentified whistleblower — exposing the DNC’s attempts to rig the Democratic presidential primaries in Clinton’s favor.

At no point has Assange been credibly accused of a crime. He’s a journalist. People provide him with information. He publishes that information. That’s an activity clearly and unambiguously protected by the First Amendment.

Even if Assange was a US citizen, and even if his activities had taken place in territory under US jurisdiction, there’s simply no criminal case to be made against him.

So they’re manufacturing one out of whole cloth, accusing him of “hacking” by asserting that he assisted Chelsea Manning with the technical process of getting the 2010 information to WikiLeaks.

But once again: Assange is not a US citizen, nor at the time of his alleged actions was he anywhere that would have placed him under the jurisdiction of the United States.

Even if he did what he’s accused of doing, the current state of affairs is the equivalent of the city government of Chicago asking Norway to extradite a French citizen on charges of not cutting the grass at his villa in Italy to the specifications of Chicago’s ordinance on the subject.

There are certainly criminal charges worth pursuing here.

The US Department of Justice should appoint a special counsel to probe the Assange affair with an eye toward firing, seeking the disbarment of, and prosecuting (for violations of US Code Title 18, Sections 241, Conspiracy Against Rights, and 242, Violation of Rights Under Color of Law) the DoJ bureaucrats who hatched this malicious prosecution.

The first step in the process, though, is for US president Donald Trump to pardon Julian Assange for all alleged violations of US law on or prior to April 11, 2019.

Assange is a hero. Time to stop treating him like a criminal.

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