Thursday, January 31, 2013

Hidden factors in the rush to immigration reform

Lest there be any misunderstanding, I favor immigration reform, under the general outlines that have been proposed both by President Obama and the recent bipartisan committee in the US Senate.  After a shellacking at the polls, Republicans now seem ready to join in resolving an array of issues.  Still, I'm less interested in discussing this consensus than factors that the public may not know about.

Four years ago, I made this topic #11 of my "Twelve Suggestions for the New Administration." At the time, I pointed out a number of ironies in: Control the Borders. Then, in October 2011, I offered a detailed appraisal of the immigration debate: the place for you to go for facts and figures and depth that I am not presenting here. Today, we'll concisely get to the heart of it.

First off - Republicans have always talked tough about controlling U.S. borders and reducing illegal immigration. while democrats are known for bringing up compassion, amnesty and all of that, implying a gentler border stance.  In practice, when they take power, each party tends to act in ways diametrically opposite to its  polemical position.

In 1993, as one of his first acts upon entering office, Bill Clinton doubled the number of field agents in the Border Patrol. In sharp contrast, one of George W. Bush's first endeavors was to savagely undercut that service, citing "budget reasons." (In fact, he did this tellingly, lowering our guard before the attacks of 9/11.) What did Barack Obama do, after taking the oath in 2009?  Exactly the same as Bill Clinton. Across the entire first Obama Administration, border enforcement was pushed hard, almost equalling economic factors in accounting for a steep drop in illegal border crossings.

It all sounds counter-intuitive, of course. Why would the parties say one thing, for appearances, yet do the opposite? The reasons are simple. Democrats like legal immigration, which results in lots of new voters and new union workers, while illegals drain resources, get embroiled (normally against their will) into crime, undercut union labor and prevent domestic programs from achieving full effectiveness.

On the other hand, Republicans -- well, not your neighbors, but some influential people near the top of the party -- like access to pools of cheap, undocumented labor that won't talk back for exactly those same reasons. Only when border state citizens began getting riled did the GOP start offering tough words on immigration. And words, for the most part, is all they ever supplied during the long eras when they operated the entire government. Where it comes to border security, GOP presidents going back to Reagan counted on their partisans to pay attention only to words, never actions.

This is what I predicted, back in 2009: "I fully expect the same political factors to apply under Barack Obama. Watch for a serious attempt to increase cross-border trade and legal human contacts, but to crack down on illegal crossers and smuggling. This change of emphasis also happens to be a good idea for enhancing homeland security. And those who are offended by this illustrate that "liberal" and "leftist" really are different terms that apply to different sets of political passions that are only allied part of the time. We must not assume that the former have to always cater to the latter."

== The Panorama in early 2013 for Reform ==

So what are we seeing in the new proposals for Immigration Reform?  Most attention goes to the "path to legalized status and then citizenship" and left-right arguments over details, like how easy the path should be and how big should be the fines that undocumented folks pay for having broken our laws... on the way toward becoming welcomed neighbors and fellow nortamericanos

I am interested in all of that, but fairly content with the bipartisan consensus we see forming. Indeed, it is wondrous to once again view pragmatic argument and negotiation take place.  Perhaps congressfolk will acquire a taste for it.

Regarding border security, I cannot suppress a giggle over watching the GOP being forced to actually vote for the very measures they have long loudly screamed for - even though in practice they spent decades blocking improved border security with every trick they could muster.  This victory for the Democratic Party (and unions) won't be viewed that way by the press or public, but it has to be galling to the top lords of conservatism, who strove for so long to keep the U.S. border weak and porous.

What is missing, however, is much public attention to legal immigration.  I have always found this strange, since legal immigration has been vastly more responsible for the ethnic changes taking place in the United States across the last generation. While Red America has fulminated against undocumented entries, those with perfectly good documents constituted the main flood, in the greatest influx of new faces to America since the 1890s. Why has this not been raised much in arch-conservative circles? Perhaps because to do so would lay bare some of the deeply racist and intolerant attitudes that underly fear of a changing America.  (Again, see my 2011 article for a detailed appraisal of population trends and why the parts of the U.S. who are most angry over immigration ignore the kind that actually affects numbers.)

Now, at last, a few aspects of legal immigration are being discussed. Especially a long desired ability to keep some of the wonderful students who get post-graduate tech degrees here, then were kicked out when they asked to stay and put those skills to work in the U.S.. That lunacy may end, at last.  Likewise there might be more visas for the world's smartest people to come to the U.S. to do research or start businesses.

diversityAs I said in 2009: "Let there be no mistake, I am proud of America's heritage -- and present-day status -- as the world's leader (by far) in offering opportunities to hope-filled people from all over the globe. Diversity is our greatest strength and immigrants often give far more than they take. 

"Nevertheless, as a nation, we have a right to have immigration be orderly and legal, at a pace that doesn't overstrain services. So long as we continue to be generous and prudently open, overall, immigration can even be tuned to benefit America in directly tangible ways. For example, by restoring somewhat of a merit system, especially when it comes to skilled workers that our industries desperately need, or allowing some of the foreign graduate students who we have (expensively) trained to stay and add their brilliance to our stew. After all, half a million people is half a million people. There's no rule of honor or nature that says we can't look for some of them to enter as a win-win deal."

Sound prophetic, for something written in 2009?

== Where Obama gets it wrong ==

One area where I sharply disagree with President Obama is his proposal to increase the number of people who immigrate through family sponsorship.  That may make me sound callous and unsympathetic!  But please pause and ponder before you judge. Yes, by all means re-unite parents and minor children or minor siblings.  Beyond that though... you start a chain cascade in which the newly admitted uncle then brings a wife who brings her sister who brings her husband, whose brother... it becomes completely arbitrary, a chain of entitlement without end.

aluckIt isn't even fair in a humanitarian sense! Note that families here can already send home remittances, or provide other means of immigration help. So those relatives already have tons more luck than their neighbors in the village, back in Guiana or Togo or Timor. They are already benefiting more than other folks overseas who don't have cousins in the U.S.

What about those other people in the old countries, not lucky enough to already have US resident cousins? Don't they deserve a chance, too?  Shouldn't the millions of others get to roll the dice?  Must luck be kept limited to arbitrary family chains? Isn't that just another form of inherited privilege?

Frankly,  I see no reason why other traits should not factor in, like industriousness, eagerness, cleverness, or attributes that indicate a real possibility of leveraging sudden luck into enriching both the new and old countries.  Heck, I'd deem a worldwide essay contest, or art or performance competition, or para-olympics, to be far more fair. More likely to benefit both America and those competing, whose vigor would prove them truly American in spirit.  Indeed, so long as the numbers stay the same, who is anyone to call my proposed method of choosing less compassionate?

(Ponder it almost through a sci fi lens: an avidly watched television show, in which 10% of our immigration slots go to those who present world audiences with something - anything(!) - extraordinary or excellent. From juggling to a tear-jerking lamentation of poor luck, to an ethnic song or dance, to a poem that tears our hearts out, to acts of goodness that transformed their home villages. And that world audience votes! And the prize is something coveted... that ALL the finalists win, after all. A home in the Land of Opportunity. 

(What an underlying message! One that could not be conveyed by a trillion dollars of propaganda. After all, how bad can the Evil Empire be... if everyone wants to go there?)

America deserves plaudits for being the nation of fresh starts. It is a moral claim that can never be taken away from us. Together with Canada, we take in more than half of the world's immigrants and it has been our glory.

But we have to use some basis to choose among those wanting in, doing so in an orderly and rational way -- one that is both generous and in keeping with our own best interests. Always look for the positive sum.  The win-win...

Monday, January 28, 2013

The Flynn Effect: are we getting smarter?

I enjoy a habit of contrarian-poking at overused assumptions. Especially the hoary nostrum that humanity is not improving. Elsewhere I take on one aspect of this cynical calumny, where folks sadly shake their heads over how "our ethics haven't kept pace with technology." What malarkey. What stunning ability to ignore all we have done in the last 60 years.

FlynnEffectOh, I'll avow we may not be getting better fast enough to save ourselves or the planet.  That tense race is central to my novels Earth and ExistenceI'm no complacent polyanna. Rather, the fact that we've improved a bit demands we redouble our efforts! It is cynics who are at best lazy and unhelpful.

Putting ethics aside, what other areas of improvement might do the most good? How about making everybody smarter?  Better able to grasp complex situations and knowledge. Better equipped to understand diverse views and negotiate pragmatic solutions. Yes, there are forces in today's society, especially America, that seem bent on pushing in the opposite direction - lobotomizing large swathes of the public  The worst of these at present is run by Roger Ailes on behalf of foreign trillionaires, but there are noxious forces pushing moronic oversimplification on the far-left, as well. So it has always been.

51qP75bq0DL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU01_Decades ago, science fiction author Poul Anderson wrote a terrific novel -- Brain Wave --  that asked: what if every creature on Earth started getting smarter at a steady pace, beginning the same day?  In that story, it happens because our solar system moves out a galactic zone that repressed electrical activity slightly. A magical story device but one that may have some relevance after all, as I'll assert below.

Today, much talk revolves around expanding human intelligence the way that it has increased for thousands of years -- through prosthetics. By using external devices to expand what we can know and see and pay attention to.  This revolution began with cave paintings and then writing, but really took off with the invention of printing presses and glass lenses... then newspapers and steamships, radio, television, libraries, the Internet. Each generation, grouches greeted these advances with: "normal people cannot cope!" Countered by transcendentalists proclaiming "this will make us all as wise and mighty as gods!"

GoogleTalkThe irony, of course, is that both the cynics and fervid technophiles always turned out each to be about half right. (For more on this, see  Third Millennium Problem Solving. A 90 minute Google Tech Talk spanning the entire range of human "discourse" and how it is evolving.)

But today let's veer away from obsessing on our toys and prostheses and external cyborg enhancements and instead focus on the central, "meatiest" aspect of all this. Are we - on average - getting smarter within our squishy human brains?  To explore this briefly for us, I invited fellow member of the Lifeboat Foundation Francis Heylighen, of the Free University of Brussels, who will offer some background about the "Flynn Effect."

== Guest post: "Why it appears that we are getting smarter" ==

James Flynn, a political scientist working in New Zealand, observed in the 1980's that the score-results of different groups of people on standard intelligence tests had consistently increased over the past decades. Earlier researchers had failed to pay attention to that trend, because IQ scores are always calculated with respect to the average score for the present group. By definition, the average is set to 100, and the standard deviation to 15. Someone who scores one standard deviation better than the average would therefore get an IQ of 115. But if that person's score would be compared with the average for the corresponding group, but tested one generation earlier, then the final score would be about 125! Flynn was the first to systematically make such cross-generational comparisons.

41770gYTmIL._AA280_SH20_OU01_Since then, the so-called "Flynn effect" has been confirmed by numerous studies. The same pattern, an average increase of some three IQ points per decade, was found for virtually every type of intelligence test, delivered to virtually every type of group. This means that people nowadays are on average some 20 IQ points smarter than people in 1940. People with a perfectly normal IQ of 90 then would according to present norms merely score 70, i.e. as having a mild form of mental retardation. For one type of test, Raven's Progressive Matrices, Flynn found data that spanned a whole century. He concluded that someone who scored among the best 10% a hundred years ago, would nowadays be categorized among the 5% weakest.

One might expect that the Flynn effect would be most pronounced for tests that measure the results of education. The opposite is true, however: the increase is most striking for tests measuring the ability to recognize abstract, non-verbal patterns. Tests emphasizing traditional school knowledge show much less progress. This means that something more profound than mere accumulation of data is happening inside people's heads.

flynn-tedFlynn himself admitted being baffled by his initial results, and finding it hard to believe that his generation was significantly more intelligent than the one of his parents. Indeed, compared to the previous generation, the number of people who score high enough to be classified as "genius" has increased more than 20 times. This means that we should now be witnessing, in Flynn's own words, "a cultural renaissance too great to be overlooked". Because he found this conclusion implausible, he suggested that what has risen is not intelligence itself, but some kind of "abstract problem solving ability" that may have more to do with skill at test-taking than with creative intelligence.

But if we look at the ever-accelerating production of scientific discoveries, technological innovations and cultural developments in general, the "cultural renaissance" does not seem such an absurd idea anymore. Perhaps we cannot pinpoint a dozen contemporary Einsteins simply because there are so many of them that their contributions have not had the time yet to diffuse to the level that everybody would know them.  If there would be hundreds or thousands of Einstein-level geniuses in the scientific community nowadays, then it seems likely that none of them would stand out enough to get the kind of worldwide recognition we associate with exceptional figures like Darwin, da Vinci, or Newton. Moreover, our society and the problems it investigates have become much more complex than in the days of these historical geniuses. (We have already picked the "low-hanging fruit" -db)  It should not surprise us that present-day geniuses may be working on subjects too complex or abstract to be appreciated outside a relatively small circle of specialists. But that does not diminish the superior intellectual level of their contributions.

Nowadays, most authors tend to consider the Flynn effect as a real cognitive improvement, not a mere artefact of testing methods (although the fact that people are more used to taking tests may have helped somewhat in getting better scores). There is less agreement about the origin of the effect, though. Most likely, it is due to the interaction between a variety of factors that tend to accompany the tremendous economic and social advances of the past century:

o        better health care (less serious illnesses that can delay or damage brain development, less exposure to toxins such as lead, smog, food poisoning, etc.) 

o        better nutrition (better availability of fresh foods, proteins, fats, vitamins, minerals such as iron and iodine, etc. that are necessary to build and support the brain)

o        higher levels of education (although this is not the whole story -- as Flynn found that the IQs of children have been rising even during periods when the time spent in school remained the same).

o         higher cognitive stimulation by an increasingly complex environment

This last factor may be particularly important. Indeed, our everyday world offers ever more abstract information to be processed ever more quickly-in the form of computer games, books, high-tech gadgets, television, advertisements, news items, magazine articles, blog entries, movies, etc. This requires ever more activity from the brain, thus "training" it to become more intelligent.

Some people like to complain that our society is "dumbing down", noting that very few read Shakespeare or listen to Bach nowadays. However, these people typically fail to notice that hardly anybody read Shakespeare a century ago (if they could read at all), and that probably more are reading him now than ever before. Moreover, an objective observer cannot fail to notice that a typical TV series or even an ad nowadays is much more complex and fast-paced than it used to be half a century ago. Thus, even the "non-intellectual" stimuli we are bombarded with demand ever more intense cognitive processing. In the workplace too, we see that what used to be repetitive industrial and agricultural jobs tend to be replaced by knowledge work, caring for people, or controlling complex machinery. As a result, people with a low intellectual level find it increasingly difficult to find a decently paying job, thus being stimulated to develop themselves.

FlynnEffectA final plausible factor contributing to intelligence increases is that families have become smaller: with fewer children, parents have simply much more attention and resources to invest in each child. The effect on intelligence is confirmed by the observation that first-born or single-born children are on average some 2 to 3 IQ points smarter than second or third-born children, who had to compete with their siblings for parental attention.

In sum, while there are of course always methodological and other question marks about something as difficult to measure as intelligence, it seems well established now that we are indeed getting smarter. While the causes are not fully clear yet, those we do understand leave plenty of room for further improvement: we can definitely eat and live more healthily than we do now, while there does not seem to be a limit to the quantity and quality of education and cognitive stimulation achievable via the Internet. There is certainly cause for optimism in these observations. However, we should note that our rise in intelligence might simply be paralleling the rise in complexity of the problems we have to deal with, so that subjectively we may not really feel more competent to do what we need to do.

More to read

--Bernheim, J. (1999). The Cognitive Revolution and 21st Century Enlightenment: towards a progressive world view. Science, Technology and Social Change, Einstein meets Magritte (p. 63). Kluwer.
--Flynn, J. R. (1987). Massive IQ gains in 14 nations: What IQ tests really measure. Psychological bulletin, 101(2), 171.
--Flynn, J. R. (2012). Are We Getting Smarter? Rising IQ in the Twenty-First Century. Cambridge University Press.
--Heylighen, F., & Bernheim, J. (2000). Global Progress I: Empirical Evidence for ongoing Increase in Quality-of-life. Journal of Happiness Studies, 1(3), 323-349.
--Neisser U. (1997). Rising Scores on Intelligence Tests, American Scientist, September - October 1997
--Neisser, U. (Ed.). (1998). The rising curve:  Long-term gains in IQ and related measures (Vol. xv). Washington,  DC,  US: American Psychological Association.
 --Francis Heylighen; Evolution, Complexity and Cognition group, Free University of Brussels.

== Afterword by Brin ==

Thank you, Francis, for that excellent summary of a fascinating phenomenon. Which makes us wonder -- is humanity "uplifting itself?"

There are so many aspects to this that we have no time to explore thoroughly here.

children-prometheus-accelerating-pace-human-evolution-christopher-wills-hardcover-cover-art1. Can this phenomenon be partly genetic?  It is a truism, widely held, that civilization must have slowed human evolution because it gave the weak opportunities to survive and to breed. But in fact there is every reason to believe that human evolution sped up with the arrival of civilization, and especially after we discovered beer! See Christopher Wills's book  CHILDREN OF PROMETHEUS. For example, clothing and shelter technologies empowered some groups to settle the Tibetan Plateau, an environment so harsh that selective pressures have turned Tibetans into almost a sub-species of their own. This may really take off if segments of humanity start adapting to space and other worlds.

2. I would add a few recent factors, such as changes in the toxic loads supported by most human populations. Francis mentioned the gradual elimination of toxins like lead from paint and gasoline - (though resisted strenuously by the same dopes who claimed Tobacco was harmless and cars don't cause smog and that human industry cannot change a planet's climate). Removal of lead has now been shown to have dramatically reduced levels of violence in the U.S. and other populations since 1970. (See my own role in getting the lead out of gas, as a 19 year old Caltech student in 1970!)

The same can also be said regarding our burdens of living parasites. In Korea after 1960, a vast de-worming effort eliminated endemic intestinal parasites which helped improved diets to increase the height of children by many centimeters and no doubt affected brains. Likewise, the parasitic paramecium Toxoplasma gondii is endemic in much of the human population and now is known to dramatically alter personality and behavior.

I am hoping we'll find dozens of such things that have long nibbled away at humanity's potential! Why? Because no simpler way can be imagined to boost human mental and moral performance than just by eradicating factors holding it down. It would mean that we can improve in the easiest and best way... by eliminating that which had been crippling us.

neoteny3) Then there is selection. Elsewhere I discuss the question of whether humanity performed its spectacular mental "overshoot" beyond what was necessary to become the top predator, for the same reason that many other species acquire exaggerated traits -- sexual selection. Only in my theory, it was two-way with both males and females choosing each other based in part on savvy and smarts.  In which case, might that sort of thing resume?  It could do so... if tastes changed just a little.

Alas, none of these things can possibly act fast enough to turn the tide and help us in time. The real solution will be harder.  It will involve looking in the mirror - each of us, one at a time - overcoming the allure of self-righteous dogmatism and rage, pondering little steps of self-improvement, adding grace to our thought processes, calm consideration, subtlety, curiosity and contingent wisdom... plus finding subtle ways to convince our neighbors to do the same.  Learning to accomplish the latter, without getting killed... that's a sure intelligence test, if there ever was one!

Oh, even if we optimists are right, and a road to gradual and eclectic, free, voluntary, individualistic and diverse improvements in human nature and intelligence can be found, rest assured there will be many ructions and difficulties before we finally adapt at last to a mature and relaxedly sane state. To a world without brutish evil, rage, violence, illogic, dogmatism or Fox News.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

It’s a Sci Fi World – moving forward from clichés to the future

First a trio of announcements. I've posted in one place four stand-alone novellas from Existence, as part of the tradition to offer free access for members of the Science Fiction Writers of America and members of the World Science Fiction Convention - who also happen to be voters for the Nebula and Hugo Awards.  But never mind that, the stories are free to you, as well!

FavoriteCliche copyAlso just-posted: "My Favorite Cliché: The Idiot Plot" - revealing the secret reason why civilization is treated with contempt by almost all novels and films. A talking point for decades, the full version has finally been published online by Locus, dissecting the needs of modern drama. Above all, you must keep your heroes in jeopardy! Only, far too many lazy authors and directors transmute that need into a wretched cheat... the blanket assumption that society is irredeemably corrupt and all your fellow citizens are sheep:

"While individuals get our empathy and sympathy in fiction, institutions seldom do. The “we’re in this together” spirit of films from the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s gave way to a reflex shared by left and right, that villainy is associated with organizations. Even when they aren’t portrayed as evil, bureaucrats are stupid and public officials short-sighted. Only the clever bravado of a solitary hero (or at most a small team) will make a difference in resolving the grand crisis at hand.... There is no help or authority that can be effectively appealed to, because those leaders are at best distracted or foolish. More often than not society itself is the chief malignity that must be combated.... In fact this can be an important message! But not when it derives only from reflex laziness."

Your thoughts and responses are welcome.

And finally... ta da!  Existence is coming out in paperback the end of February.

== Honoring Ray ==
Bradbury Square
Back in December, I had the honor of speaking at the dedication of Ray Bradbury Square in Ray's beloved Los Angeles, next to his even more beloved LA Public Library. The event also included remarks by two City Councilmen, biographer Sam Weller, one of the Bradbury daughters, Sue Bradbury Nixon, and actor Joe Mantegna, hosted by author Steven Leiva.

For the core gist of what I had to say, read the eulogy I wrote for Ray Bradbury (published in Salon Magazine) on the day that he died.

DefinitionHardSciFiThe latest trend online?  Folks editing quick-tight mashups and creating "YouTube Haikus"... moments of distilled poetry. I guess I'm flattered that this one (The Definition of Hard Science Fiction).. clipping and condensing one of my TV show riffs to the requisite 14 seconds... appears to be way popular and discussed a lot on Reddit. Oh, sure, good literature must be about character and “human verities” and all that.  Hey, I can do “verities!” But let’s not forget, a good story is also about….

In a clever connection, Anna Gregson of Orbit Books riffs off the new James Bond film SKYFALL into a discussion of how many of my novels ponder the delicate task that humanity faces, stepping carefully through the minefield called the future. And yes, I do tend to come up in conversations about James Bond! Am I a bald-headed villain? Or possibly... Q?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASee also Anna's ruminations about the prospect of humans altering other creatures, connected to the new UK Orbit Books special omnibus edition UPLIFT - containing three award winning novels Sundiver, Startide Rising and The Uplift War. And just out... the second uplift omnibus…  entitled EXILES.

Oh, and see a new review of EXISTENCE from a different perspective, by a professor who teaches a college course about religion and the future!

13539166And just to show that old masters have plenty of young snap and sens-o-wonder… Larry Niven and Gregory Benford give a talk at Google about their new novel Bowl of Heaven.  A way-cool holiday for the physics hard SF junkie!

== Sci fi in the news! == 

Disney buys Lucasfilm for $4Billion.  Frankly I am amazed the price was so low. Of course, Episode 7 will follow on from Return of the Jedi, not Revenge of the Sith. I find that "good news" yawnworthy.  But perhaps the new episodes will feature underlying themes less undermining of civilization and citizen confidence than most of the films (except Ep. IV and V).

And now news J. J. Abrams will direct the next Star Wars film - yipes! Will we get crossover?  Please.  Fix what's wrong with Star Wars... but don't mingle that universe with Star Trek. See my article on Salon comparing: Star Wars Despots vs Star Trek Populists. Better yet, someone send him a copy of Star Wars on Trial!

On the other hand, while I find the 30 year drift of George Lucas's Star Wars memes toward elitist-romantic anti-enlightenment messages really bothersome… this says a lot about him as a man: George Lucas Will Donate Disney $4 Billion To Education.  Okay, that's cool.  We are complex people.

And on the gripping hand -- now witness the power of this fully-formed and operational White House petition: Begin construction of a Death Star by 2016.  See the WH response. As Paul 451 says:  That's no moon.

OnSingularityIn this recent interview, I expected to talk "only" about the singularity. But it wandered through a dozen topics and... well... if you can stand the first 10 minutes then you'll love the whole hour! “What’s important is not me. And it’s not you. It is us.”

Warren Ellis's excellent essay about how to view our present as the Future is an excellent piece.  Alas, though, I think he misses the obvious.. and especially the political implications... that America's long Culture War is in part driven by a large part of the population refusing to admit that the 21st Century has arrived. Nostalgic grouchiness is rampant, and not only on the right.  There are some on the left whose mystical past-obsession almost matches the War on Science that is drum-beat every day on Fox.

When will the future arrive for most folks? I believe it will happen, at last, when one particular technology arrives.  Cheap, convenient, utterly safe and well-targeted liposuction that can be done on a quick, outpatient basis.  When excess body fat can be trimmed almost like getting a haircut, the effects on civilization will outweigh almost any other technological breakthrough.

All at once, clothing styles will transform.  Folks wearing body-hugging spandex will glance at their similarly attired neighbors - replete with Jor-El epaulets and chests emblazoned with planets - and we'll all murmur: "Okay, okay.  I guess the future has arrived."

“The abdomen is the reason why man does not readily take himself to be a god.”  Friedrich Nietzsche

== What might have been! ==

PluralityA cute and thoughtful sci fi short film PLURALITY, directed by Dennis Liu, turns out not to be about what the narrator's long introduction implies that it's about, at all.  Ostensibly about transparency tradeoffs in the near future, it is something else entirely. More like a proposal for a longer film.  Overall, pretty promising.

An amazing, extended, well-written and logically chaotic view into the mind of Philip K. Dick, written in 1978.

full-sized Starship Enterprise in downtown Las Vegas!

== Sci Fi Miscellany ==

For those of you who speak/read Portuguese, there is a translation (summary) of my article about computer literacy and the failure of our home computers to share a common, entry-level language "Why Johnny Can't Code."  Let me know if the translation is any good!

The AirBlow invisible umbrella... ooh I gotta use this in a story.

Although my neck prickles at Political Correctness, I admit some "tests" do help us transition forward. This one might do some good to both films and written media: the Bechdel test for gender bias: A work of fiction should include at least one scene where two more more females have a conversation about something other than ....  men.  Yet, a good number of movies fail. (Hm... some of the exceptions that come to mind feature kick-ass women fighting over the fate of the world. Their "conversations" while battling pass the Bechdel test; I doubt their tight clothing would. You know the flicks I am talking about, guys.)

Flash from io9: "A politically-savvy, action-packed movie/TV pilot, called Borealis, appeared and then disappeared without a trace last week." A Canadian TV-movie that was a pilot for a regular show about the Arctic in the 2040s, when Russia, Canada and the League of Nations (??) are vying for control over the last major new source of oil. It is streaming in Canada so some of you up there have a look and tell us what you think.  I know how this feels.  My own show The Architechs wasn't picked up, despite a terrific pilot.

A smaller CGI featurette is r'Ha, very well done and a sign of the new creative Age of Amateurs in cinematic art.  And it's about time, given the current fatal allergy toward originality that rules Hollywood.

And now… let’s hope the idiots are wrong and that science, reason, and the Maya prove to be right after all.

We are stuck here.  So let’s make it great.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Brin Classics: Other Intelligent Designs: alternatives to Darwin that merit "equal time"

Part of a series of re-issues of my most-popular online postings, which first appeared as a featured article in SKEPTIC Magazine.  This one about the deep illogic underlying the claims by the fundamentalist community that they "just want students to be exposed to all sides and make up their own minds."


THERE IS RICH IRONY in how the present battle over Creationism v. Darwinism has taken shape, and especially how this round differs from previous episodes. A clue to both the recent success — and the inevitable collapse — of “Intelligent Design” can be found in its name, and in the new tactics that are being used to support its incorporation into school curricula. In what must be taken as sincere flattery, these tactics appear to acknowledge just how deeply the inner lessons of science have pervaded modern culture.

Intelligent Design (ID) pays tribute to its rival, by demanding to be recognized as a direct and “scientific” competitor with the Theory of Evolution. Unlike the Creationists of 20 years ago, proponents of ID no longer refer to biblical passages. Instead, they invoke skepticism and cite alleged faulty evidence as reasons to teach students alternatives to evolution.

True, they produce little or no evidence to support their own position. ID promoters barely try to undermine evolution as a vast and sophisticated model of the world, supported by millions of tested and interlocking facts. At the level that they are fighting, none of that matters. Their target is millions of onlookers and voters, for whom the battle is as emotional and symbolic as it ever was.

11178287-the-creation-of-adamWhat has changed is the armory of symbols and ideas being used. Proponents of Intelligent Design now appeal to notions that are far more a part of the lexicon of science than religion, notably openness to criticismfair play, and respect for the contingent nature of truth.

These concepts proved successful in helping our civilization to thrive, not only in science, but markets, democracy and a myriad other modern processes. Indeed, they have been incorporated into the moral foundations held by average citizens, of all parties and creeds. Hence, the New Creationists have adapted and learned to base their arguments upon these same principles. One might paraphrase the new position, that has been expressed by many, as follows:
What do evolutionists have to fear? Are they so worried about competition and criticism that they must censor what bright students are allowed to hear? Let all sides present their evidence and students will decide for themselves!
EvolutionOne has to appreciate not only irony, but an implied tribute to the scientific enlightenment, when we realize that openness to criticismfair play, and respect for the contingent nature of truth are now the main justifications set forward by those who still do not fully accept science. Some of those promoting a fundamentalist- religious agenda now appeal to principles they once fiercely resisted. (In fairness, some religions helped to promote these concepts.) Perhaps they find it a tactically useful maneuver.

It’s an impressive one. And it has allowed them to steal a march. While scientists and their supporters try to fight back with judicious reasoning and mountains of evidence, a certain fraction of the population perceives only smug professors, battling only to protect their turf — authority figures trying to squelch brave underdogs before they can compete. Image matters. And this self-portrayal — as champions of open debate, standing up to stodgy authorities — has worked well for the proponents of Intelligent Design (ID). For now.

Yet, I believe they have made a mistake. By basing their offensive on core notions of fair play and completeness, ID promoters have employed a clever short-term tactic, but have incurred a long-term strategic liability. Because, their grand conceptual error is in believing that their incantation of Intelligent Design is the only alternative to Darwinian evolution.

But they have laid themselves open to a jiu jitsu move of startling effectiveness.  Simply by responding "all right, then let's have students ALSO discuss alternatives other than Christian creationism If students deserve to weigh ID against natural selection, then why not also expose them to…
1. Guided Evolution
9780316013338_p0_v1_s260x420This is the deist compromise most commonly held by thousands — possibly millions — of very modern people, including many working scientists who want to reconcile science and faith. Yes, the Earth is 4.6 billion years old and our earliest ancestors emerged from a stew of amino acids that also led to crabs, monkeys and slime molds who are all distant relatives. Still, a creative force may have been behind the Big Bang, and especially the selection of some finely tuned physical constants, whose narrow balance appears to make the evolution of life possible, maybe even inevitable. Likewise, such a force may have given frequent or occasional nudges of subtle guidance to evolution, all along, as part of a Divine Plan.

There is one advantage — and drawback — to this notion (depending on your perspective): it is compatible with everything we see around us — all the evidence we’ve accumulated — and it is utterly impossible to prove or disprove. Not only does this let many scientists continue both to pray and do research, but it has allowed the Catholic Church and many other religious organizations to accept (at long last) evolution as fact, with relatively good grace.

To be clear, atheists still have trouble with this alternative.  But if it were included among the "alternatives" offered to young people in school, it would quickly prove far more vexing for those pushing creationism and ID! Biblical literalists would lose far more ground to this competitor than atheism would.

 And let there be no mistake.  If they succeed in dilluting biolgy curricula with "alternatives" to darwinian evolution, this one will be there, whether they like it or not.  We'll make sure it is! Also...
2. Intelligent Design of Intelligent Designers (IDOID)
evolutionMost Judeo-Christian sects dislike speculating about possible origins of the Creator. But not all avoid the topic. Mormons, for example, hold that the God of this universe — who created humanity (or else guided our evolution) — was once Himself a mortal being who was created by a previous God in a prior universe or context.

One can imagine someone applying the very same logic that Intelligent Design promoters have used.
There is no way that such a fantastic entity as God could have simply erupted out of nothing. Such order and magnificence could not possibly have self-organized out of chaos. Only intelligence can truly create order, especially order of such a supreme nature.
Oh, certainly there are theological arguments that have been around since Augustine to try and quell such thoughts, arguing in favor of ex nihilio or timeless pre-existence, or threatening punishment for even asking the question. But that’s the point! Any effort to raise these rebuttals will:
  1. make this a matter of theology (something the ID people have strenuously avoided).
  2. smack as an attempt to quash other ideas, flying against the very same principles of fair play and completeness that ID proponents have used to prop up this whole effort.
IDOID will have to be let in - and Mormons will help push it - or the whole program must collapse under howling derision and accusations of hypocrisy.
3. Evolution of Intelligent Designers
TimeRebornYes, you read me right. Recent advances in cosmology have led some of the world’s leading cosmologists, such as Syracuse University’s Lee Smolin, to suggest that each time a large black hole forms (and our universe contains many) it serves as an “egg” for the creation of an entirely new “baby universe” that detaches from ours completely, beginning an independent existence in some non-causally connected region of false vacuum. Out of this collapsing black hole arises a new cosmos, perhaps with its own subsequent Big Bang and expansion, including the formation of stars, planets, etc. Smolin further posits that our own universe may have come about that way, and so did its “parent” cosmos, and so on, backward through countless cycles of hyper-time.

Moreover, in a leap of highly original logic, Smolin went on to persuasively argue that each new universe might be slightly better adapted than its ancestor. Adapted for what? Why, to create more black holes — the eggs — needed for reproducing more universes.

Up to this point we have a more sophisticated and vastly larger-scale version of what Richard Dawkins called the evolution of evolvability. But Lee Smolin takes it farther still, contending that, zillions of cycles of increasingly sophisticated universes would lead to some that inherit just the right physical constants and boundary conditions.

Conditions that enable life to form. And then intelligence … and then…

Well, now it’s our turn to take things even farther than Smolin did. Any advocate of completeness would have to extend this evolutionary process beyond achieving mere sapience like ours, all the way to producing intelligence so potent that it can then start performing acts of creation on its own, manipulating and using black holes to fashion universes to specific design.

In other words, there might be an intelligent designer of this world … who nevertheless came into being as a result of evolution.

Sound a little newfangled and contrived? So do all innovative ideas! And yet, no one can deny that it covers a legitimate portion of idea space. And since “weighing the evidence” is to be left to students, well, shouldn’t they be exposed to this idea too? Again, the principles now used by proponents of ID — fair play and completeness — may turn around and bite them.  Indeed, I promise that if they get their alternative to Darwin into schools, this one will also be there.  We'll make sure of it.

Which brings us to some of the classics.
4. Cycles of Creation
Perhaps the whole thing does not have a clear-cut beginning or end, but rolls along like a wheel? That certainly would allow enough macro-time for everything and anything to happen. Interestingly, the cyclical notion opens up infinite time for both evolution and intelligent designers … though not of any kind that will please ID promoters. Shall Hindu gurus and Mayan priest kings step up and demand equal time for their theories of creation cycles? How can you stop them, once the principle is established that every hypothesis deserves equal treatment in the schools, allowing students to hear and weigh any notion that claims to explain the world?  They can be presented in "non-religious terms" a gimmick that ID activists pioneered, showing the way.

Be careful what you wish for.
5. Panspermia
PanspermiaThis one is venerable and quite old within the scientific community, which posits that life on Earth may have been seeded from elsewhere in the cosmos. Panspermia was trotted out for the “Scopes II” trial in the 1980s, when Fred Hoyle and Chandra Wickramasinge were among the few first-rank scientists to openly disbelieve the standard Origins model — the one that posits life appeared independently out of nonliving chemicals in Earth’s early oceans. Their calculations (since then refuted) suggested that it would take hundreds of oceans and many times the age of the Earth for random chemistry to achieve a workable, living cell.

Alas for the Creationists of that day, Hoyle and Wickramasinge did not turn out to be useful as friendly experts, because their alternative offered no comfort to the biblical Genesis story. They pointed out that our galaxy probably contains a whole lot more than a few hundred Earth oceans. Multiplying the age of the Milky Way times many billions of possible planets — and comets too — they readily conceded that random chance could make successful cells, eventually, on one world or another. (Or, possibly, in the liquid interiors of trillions of newborn comets. See Heart of the Comet!) All it would take then are asteroid impacts ejecting hardy cells into the void for life to then spread gradually throughout the cosmos. Perhaps it might even be done deliberately, once a single lucky source world achieved intelligence through … well … evolution. (Needless to say, Creationists found Hoyle and Wickramasinge big disappointments.)

Why-Darwin-Matters-Shermer-Michael-9780805083064So far, we have amassed quite a list of legitimate competitors … that is, if Intelligent Design is one. Now a cautionary pause. Some alternative theories that I have left out include satirical pseudo-religions, like one recent internet fad attributing creation to something called the “Flying Spaghetti Monster.” These humorous jibes have a place, but their blows do not land on-target. They miss the twin pillars of completeness and fair play, upon which promoters of Intelligent Design have based their attack against secular-modernist science. By erasing all theological details, ID activists hoped to eliminate any vulnerabilities arising from those details. Indeed, since the Spaghetti Monster is purported to be an Intelligent Designer, they can even chuckle and welcome it into the fold, knowing that it will win no real converts.

Not so for the other items listed here. Each of these concepts — adding to idea-space completeness and deserving fair play — implies a dangerous competitor for Intelligent Design, a competitor that may seduce at least a few students into its sphere of influence. This undermines the implicit goal of ID, which is to proselytize a fundamentalist/literalist interpretation of the Christian Bible.

There are other possibilities, and I am sure readers could continue adding to the list, long after I am done, such as…
  • We’re living in a simulation
  • Non-omnipotent others meddled/uplifted us (Chariots of 'gods")
  • We’ve been resurrected at the Omega Point…
  • It’s all in your imagination … and so on.

UNIVERSEFAKEI doubt that the promoters of Intelligent Design really want to see a day come when every biology teacher says: “Okay, you’ve heard from Darwin. Now we’ll spend a week on each of the following: intelligent design, guided evolution, intelligent design of intelligent designers, evolution of intelligent designers, the Hindu cycle of karma, the Mayan yuga cycle, panspermia, the Universe as a simulation…” and so on.

Each of these viewpoints can muster advocacy from philosophers and even some modern physicists, and can gather as much supporting evidence as ID. In any case they are all equally defensible as concepts. And only censoring bullies would prevent students from hearing them and exercising their sovereign right to decide for themselves, right?

Or, perhaps, here's an idea. After enduring weeks of this stuff, the brighter students might even start private sessions after school, to study a quaint science called … biology.

A day may come when the promoters of Intelligent Design wish they had left well enough alone.

(Article reprinted from Skeptic Magazine, Volume 12, Issue 2)

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David Brin
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