Saturday, February 16, 2013

Why Would Aliens Want the Earth?

Basic Assumptions

If an incoming alien race has faster than light travel, teleportation, reactionless drives, direct conversion of matter to energy, anti-gravity, cloaking devices, tractor beams, force fields or other staple science fiction technologies, all bets are off. We have no idea what they'd be able to do because we have no idea how those technologies could even be possible, given our understanding of the laws of physics. And if you're about to pooh-pooh that as impossibly myopic, why not first prove you know anything about the laws of physics? Say, explain how Trojan orbits work, in detail, as in, do the math. Or explain how Maxwell's Equations lead to radio. Or tell us how Noether's Theorem relates the structure of the Universe to conservation of energy and momentum.

We can assume that any race capable of crossing interstellar space will be able to do anything we can do or even remotely contemplate doing. On the other hand, space travel won't be trivial, even for them. Traveling between ships in their fleet will probably be easy out there in zero gravity, but getting to speeds capable of crossing space in a reasonable time, and slowing down once they reach their destination, will take serious effort. Any civilization capable of crossing interstellar space will probably be able to travel freely between planets, but it will still take a lot of energy and time. Landing on massive planets, and getting off again, will also be a significant effort. Terraforming planets will likewise take a lot of effort and, even more important, time. We can't assume that they'll be limited by our limitations, but they will probably try to be as efficient as possible.

If Earth-like planets are extremely rare and we just happen to be on one that the aliens need, well, sucks to be us. On the other hand, if earth-like planets are at all common, the odds are very much against one of them having an intelligent civilization. If humans last 5 million years, that will be about 1/1000 of the age of the earth. The odds of aliens coming here during our window of existence are about 1/1000. Similarly, there should be 1000 planets without intelligence for every one with it.

So we'd have to assume that any extra-solar visitors come to our solar system for a specific reason, which might be to colonize, gather resources, or explore. (Or possibly, as in Arthur C. Clarke's Rama novels, simply to use the Sun for a trajectory change.) We should pretty much assume that they are ahead of us technologically in just about everything. Anything we have on the drawing boards, they can do.

They certainly will have technology for observing planets around other stars, since we ourselves have begun to do it. If they have telescopes millions of kilometers apart flying in formation with their ships, they can combine the images to obtain the effective resolution of a telescope millions of kilometers in diameter. We already have conceptual ideas for doing this. So quite likely they would have pretty good images of all the planets in our solar system.

If they pick up our radio and television signals, they'd probably know that there is at least that level of technology in our solar system. Most likely they'd pick up only the carrier wave, with the actual signal information too weak to pick out. Then again, in zero gravity, there would be nothing to stop them from building a radio dish kilometers across. We have to assume they are at least as good at cryptography as we are (and we are - no brag, just fact - pretty darned good), so if they could pick up the information, they would likely be able to decipher it.


In the unlikely event they simply come here blind because they just picked a G-class star at random and didn't do any reconnaissance on the way in, it's very likely that they wouldn't lightly pack up and go to another star, since interstellar travel will be resource and time intensive. And, of course, if they know what's here, then they came here for a specific reason. But if their primary goal is resources, and they can travel easily between planets, there are much better sources than the Earth.
  • Water: Icy moons are every bit as convenient as Earth as sources of water. Comets are probably too small and widely scattered to be of much use, although a single comet can supply many cubic kilometers of water. But icy moons are a lot easier to land and take off from than something as massive as Earth. Of course, there's still the gravity of the parent planet to deal with. But Kuiper Belt objects will be icy and will present minimal gravity problems.
  • Metals: Nickel-iron asteroids can supply far more metal than our iron mines, with the added advantage that the smelting is mostly already done. Rarer metals can be extracted during the refining of nickel and iron, just as we do on Earth. Asteroids and comets have the added advantage of negligible gravity.
  • Oxygen: Obtain it by electrolyzing water, or as a by-product of smelting silicates.
  • Hydrocarbons: Assuming they use hydrocarbons for some energy needs or a base for creating other organic chemicals, why drill on Earth when there's a whole planet full of it at Jupiter, and lakes of hydrocarbons on Titan?
  • Energy: Pave Mercury with solar panels, or simply build vast arrays in space. Use the harvested energy to fabricate still more panels, as well as whatever else you need. Build a concave mirror kilometers across and use sunlight to smelt metals out of asteroids.
If they come to our solar system to gather extraterrestrial resources, earth might be irrelevant to them, just like us going into the woods to pick berries is irrelevant to some bird nesting in a nearby tree. We are very unlikely to be a threat, or even a nuisance. Aww, isn't that cute? We have itty-bitty nucwear weapons. They can travel between planets and we can't go beyond earth orbit. They could strip-mine Mars and we'd be able to do little more than watch. We might launch robotic missions to watch them, and maybe pick up some useful ideas, assuming the aliens allow them to get close.

We are also unlikely to have anything cultural or technological that they need. Iron and steel? With nickel-iron asteroids for the taking? Electronics? They probably maxed out Moore's Law ages ago. Some of our cultural artifacts and art works may be of interest to xeno-anthropologists. As for our cultural knowledge, they pick up our wireless Internet and shluurrp!

So Who Needs Earth?

There are a few reasons why extraterrestrial visitors might come specifically to Earth apart from curiosity or exchanging greetings:
  • Hydrothermal Ores: The problem with using the Moon or asteroids as sources of minerals is that a lot of our ores on earth involve water in some way. Copper, zinc and lead are mostly deposited by hot solutions. Aluminum is concentrated by weathering of aluminum rich rocks in tropical environments. Those deposits might make terrestrial sources more attractive than extraterrestrial ones.
  • Lithophile elements: Plate tectonics and geochemical recycling have made the earth's interior more homogeneous and has concentrated certain elements in the crust. These tend to be atoms with very large or very small ionic radii, high ionic charges, or both. Things like lithium, beryllium, boron, uranium, thorium, cesium, and rare earths might be easier to extract from Earth rocks than asteroids. We now know that planets abound, but watery earth-like planets may not be so common.
  • Organic chemicals: If you want complex organic chemicals, it might be easier to harvest them from the biosphere rather than synthesize them from scratch. Maybe we have things they didn't know about. Most interesting this - what do you call it? - cocaine.
  • Convenient Working Environment: If you're an oxygen breather with human-like environmental needs, it may be a heck of a lot easier to land on Earth and do things than terraform Venus or build gigantic domes on the Moon.
  • R & R: No matter how big your starship is, even if it's got holodecks, it has to get boring after a while. If they can survive on Earth, they'll very likely want to come down for some breathing room and to see new scenery.
  • A Place to Live: Bad news. There have to be lots of Earth-like planets without intelligent life. After all, Earth was like that for over 99.9% of its history. So why pick Earth? Assuming they didn't come here just because they enjoy destroying other intelligent life forms, something probably went very wrong. Either we're the nearest Earthlike planet and they need it very badly, or they didn't know we were here, or we're so far below their level we don't rate as intelligent.
        If their life support is failing and there are twenty billion of them, we're toast. But if there aren't too many, and they're willing to work with us, we could probably find some open spaces for them while they terraform Mars or Venus.

Encounter Scenarios

They Come and Go

They come into the solar system, harvest a few comets and metal rich asteroids, suck hydrocarbons out of the Gas Giants, unfurl giant solar arrays to replenish their energy storage, and leave without contacting us at all. If this had happened even in 1900, we probably would have not even noticed it, but today we would. We'd certainly know we weren't alone, but on the other hand we'd be more alone than ever, since there are races that travel among the stars and don't even consider us worth contacting.

We are Superior

Forget this. They came here. We can't go there. They will likely be ahead of us in everything. The only exception might be a District 9 scenario, where a small alien contingent arrives, either as refugees or because they had a catastrophic failure of their ship.

We're OK, They're OK (Star Trek)

The best of all possible universes. But we'll still be grossly inferior to them in technology. But they'll treat us nice, and maybe let us share their stuff. That may not be a good thing (see Culture Shock, below).

The Prime Directive

Maybe they come for research. They're cataloging and mapping solar systems and alien civilizations (to them, we're the aliens). Maybe they simply show up openly, like explorers of centuries past did to isolated societies. But that's an open invitation to all sorts of unpredictable complications. Regardless of their final intentions, the sensible approach would be to observe us clandestinely first. Given our ability to ping radar signals off other planets, they'd want to keep out of range.

If they'd done this in 1900, it would be a piece of cake in one way and far more difficult in others. They'd be able to approach earth and even land with no fear of detection, but they would have to gather information painstakingly slowly. Today, they'd have to keep a wide berth and be extremely circumspect, but between our wireless Internet and media, they'd have torrents of information coming in.

It's virtually impossible that aliens would be able to travel undetected on Earth. In one of his early drafts of 2001, Arthur C. Clarke envisioned there were thousands of humanoid species, of whom a small fraction might be mistaken for humans at a distance. Only a handful could pass for humans close up and none at all could pass even the simplest physical exam. But given our progress in robotics, it seems very likely aliens could build passable robotic replicas that could interact with humans.

It's getting them to Earth that's the dicey part. We can detect asteroids 100 yards across, and any incoming ship of any size that displayed inexplicable changes in course would be obvious. They certainly wouldn't be able to just waltz in and settle into orbit. NORAD would be all over it. Maybe they could come in from the direction of the sun or from behind the moon and evade detection most of the way, but getting an alien ship to Earth undetected would be tricky. Stealth technology might be a big help. Our mutual mistrust might also be an assist. They could masquerade as a clandestine mission from some terrestrial power.

War of the Worlds (or V, or the Borg)

We're food, raw material, or an impediment. Maybe we can make ourselves enough of a nuisance that they leave us alone if we stay out of their way. On the other hand, with our industrial base gone, we're back to rocks and sharp sticks pretty soon, and what kind of a fight can we put up then?

We might make a good ad hoc food source, especially as a way of exterminating us, but we'd be lousy as a continuing source of food. We escape, attack our handlers, and grow slowly. As opposed to cows, who are dumb, docile, fast growing and capable of eating grass.

Watership Down

Watership Down was a 1972 novel by Richard Adams about a colony of rabbits that had to find a new home. It begins with a vision of bulldozers tearing up the field the rabbits lived in. The humans didn't hate the rabbits, or even care about them. They were just in the way.

I consider this the most likely scenario. They come to Earth because they want copper and aluminum, and they need open space to set up facilities to fabricate things for their ships, and why build a huge enclosed dome on the Moon when Earth already has a comfortable working environment? So they see our copper mines and strip them out. They detect other hydrothermal ores forming underground and dig them out, as well. And they don't care that it's Yellowstone National Park. Maybe they'll realize we already have a lot of refined copper and root it out of our cities, just like the Spanish plundered New World silver. They don't hate us, and they may even try to avoid gratuitous harm, but in comparison to them, we're about as smart as a Labrador retriever or a hamster, and we just don't rate on their scale. Some of them might study us as exercises in exobiology, but their children can write things more advanced than Hamlet and make up songs more elaborate than anything by Beethoven. Our art will interest them less than the cheapest tourist trinket impresses us. They won't go out of their way to hurt us, because advanced beings don't unnecessarily mistreat lower life forms (although kids will step on bugs), but if they want something, they'll take it. If they want to clear Florida to build a solar power array, or use Iowa to grow some crop important to them, they'll do it. We'll just have to move, just like the bunny rabbits did.

Culture Shock

Maybe benevolent aliens won't be such a good thing after all. Even when advanced civilizations have encountered primitive ones on earth peacefully, the results have generally been rough on the primitive civilization.

For openers, what's the point of research when the aliens already have the answer to any question we might ever ask? We could easily become passive users of their knowledge.

Then there's the impact on our beliefs. If they have indisputably been around for millions of years, that pretty much demolishes a recent creation, right? Or maybe not. It's very likely we'd see the rise of powerful movements denouncing the aliens as liars or hoaxers and demanding an end to contact with them. What if they've had a peaceful, benign, just civilization for hundreds of thousands of years, superior to us in every way, and have never, ever had the concept of a god? What if they have an extremely dogmatic religion, especially one that meshes with some of our more dogmatic creeds? What if they have rigid sex roles, or rigid social classes, or practice slavery? What if they have no limits on sexual behavior whatsoever?

Finally, some humans will certainly interact more closely with the aliens than others. If the aliens aren't careful, they can create such an economic disparity that humanity ends up becoming a wholly owned subsidiary of Aliens, Inc. Even on earth, anthropologists have noted there are clearly defined zones of influence around outposts of advanced civilizations. Some humans would be almost wholly assimilated. Others would find that proximity to alien knowledge gives them powerful advantages over less favored humans, either in trade or in the use of force.

That assumes that the aliens are benign or at least neutral. If they're here to exploit us or at least get what they want without regard for us, then things will get a whole lot nastier. Because there will certainly be humans who will work for whatever rewards the aliens offer. They'll strip-mine Chicago for the metals, in exchange for power or sex. Or they'll act as overseers to keep the rest of us in line.

Nobody Cares

It's entirely possible that aliens will be so different from humans that neither will find the other very interesting. They're physically unattractive, their sexual customs are unappealing. Not horrifying, just unappealing. Their philosophy is based on categories we find unintelligible. Their music is based on some oddball 11-tone scale. Their religion revolves around deities who preside over things we find utterly irrelevant. Their physiology is different enough that their sports strike us as pointless. Their literature describes customs and institutions we don't care about. We can understand them perfectly - we just don't find anything about them appealing or interesting. Sure, their biochemistry, biology and knowledge of other planets will be interesting, but everything about them is shades of gray and beige. And we look the same to them.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Conservative Cranks and Liberal Meta-Cranks

Conservative Cranks

There's a fundamental asymmetry to the lunatic fringe. Conservative cranks are crude and crass. They tend to be denialists, rejecting evolution and climate change, and fabricating bogus data and experts to bolster their views. Or they are heavily into crude conspiracy theories like Roosevelt and Churchill goading Hitler into starting World War II, or President Eisenhower planning to sell out America to the Russians, or Obama being a secret Muslim. Or they get into bizarre legal theories about being sovereign citizens, or not owing taxes, or that Obama's birth certificate isn't legal because they didn't say "Simon says" when he published it. Watching Tea Party types interpret the Constitution is like watching a ten year old try to get legalistic on his parents: "If I have to do what you say, you have to do what I say." (Recently there was a rash of vacant homes being occupied in Texas and Georgia by people who asserted they had a right to live there because they had an "adverse claim" on the property. The sheriff promptly arrested them for burglary, and that seems to have been that. Online comments linked this gimmick to liberalism as an example of the "something for nothing" mentality, but to me it's exactly the sort of wacky distorted legal thinking typical of conservative and libertarian cranks.)

John Stuart Mill famously observed in 1866 that "I never meant to say that the Conservatives are generally stupid. I meant to say that stupid people are generally Conservative." It's a pity that the whole context of this quote isn't readily available, even in very voluminous collections of Mill's writings. It would be fascinating to have the whole context, especially the remarks that inspired Mills' comment, because neither Liberal nor Conservative meant exactly the same things then as now. Presumably Conservatism as Mills defined it meant hide-bound adherence to tradition and respect for class and privilege, things we can find in many conservatives today. On the other hand, a lot of things we call "liberal" didn't exist in Mills' day. You wouldn't have found too much opposition to capital punishment, or people arguing that palpably guilty criminals should be freed on technicalities, or parents suing schools because their child was disciplined, or people asserting that a comfortable lifestyle was a right. One wonders how Mills would see things today. Considering he also said "The general tendency of things throughout the world is to render mediocrity the ascendant power among mankind," I rather suspect he would disapprove of many "liberal" ideas.

But, yep, that's the word for conservative cranks: stupid. What other word can you apply to people who ask, if humans evolved from monkeys, why are there still monkeys? Or who think they can actually convince a court they don't have to pay taxes? Or who think you can put an infinite number of people on a finite planet, or get an infinite amount of oil out of a finite planet? Other reasons people might cling blindly to the safe, tried, and true include laziness: because thinking and getting informed is just too haa-a-a-a-rd. Then there's cowardice: change is scary. Finally there's ego: people cling to crank theories to lash out at authority or simply out of refusal to admit they were wrong.

Saying that stupidity, cowardice and laziness are a political philosophy calls to mind the anti-gay canard that there are no drunk pride parades or liar pride parades. (No, there are not. Drunks have bars to hang out in and find encouragement, and liars go into creationism, climate denial, or politics. But I repeat myself) You don't find philosophies built around stupidity, laziness or cowardice because stupid, lazy and cowardly people are too stupid, lazy and cowardly to be philosophers. But to the extent that stupid, lazy and cowardly people attach themselves to political movements, it will often be to conservatism. This is as beneficial to conservatism as a heavy load of barnacles is to a boat, or an infestation of tapeworms is to you.

And there's one last possibility. Richard Dawkins wrote "It is absolutely safe to say that if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I'd rather not consider that)." Well, I've been observing anti-evolutionism for over forty years, and I'm not remotely inclined to shy away from the "wicked" label. Many conservative cranks are wicked - evil. Glenn Beck and Bryan Fischer are desperately evil. People who rebel against evolution because they're lashing out at authority are evil. People who ridicule climate change because they might - might - lose profits are evil. And I stress might because if climate modeling is uncertain, forecasting that horrible things will happen to the economy if we try to prevent climate change is utterly worthless. If these people were so good at forecasting the economy, we wouldn't have had the recession of 2009, would we? Or if they did know, and covered their own bases while letting their workers get screwed, well, evil barely begins to describe it. And there's plenty of evidence many people did just that. And certainly plenty of conservative cranks cling to their beliefs out of fear of losing their privileged status.

Liberal Cranks and Anti-Intellectuals

It's not hard to find liberal cranks, but they tend more to be individual cranks. You don't find liberal candidates having to placate PETA in the same way that conservative candidates have to placate anti-evolutionists or climate change deniers. And we rarely find liberal cranks denying objective physical reality the way Creationists deny evolution. Because it takes a very special kind of stupid to deny physical reality. Liberal cranks tend to be cranks about social and environmental causes where it's harder to be absolutely sure of facts, and it's much easier to pretend that doubts are legitimate. It's a bit like the more moderate forms of climate denialism. (If corporations began to support climate change science as a means of driving down wages or regulating the poor, liberals would climb aboard the S.S. Denial in droves.)

A lot of liberal crank thinking revolves around extrapolating some reasonable concern to ridiculous lengths. We can all agree that beating a child brutally, throwing scalding water on him or locking her in a dark closet for weeks on end is wrong. The liberal crank extrapolates this concern to assert that any physical discipline is "child abuse." From there it is only a short step to the idea that any discipline is abuse. (Since I wrote that, I've seen assertions that scolding is abuse) Most of us can agree that animal cruelty is wrong. Liberal cranks extrapolate that concern to objections against eating meat, animal experimentation, even having pets. (As Dennis Miller said, when he cleans up my messes, he's a "companion animal." Until then, he's a pet.) Most of us would agree that being forced to attend some particular church or contribute to its upkeep is objectionable. Liberal cranks equate any public expression of religion as tantamount to takeover by the Taliban. The fact that these positions are at one end of a spectrum that has perfectly sensible positions on the other end makes it easier to pretend that the extreme positions are not crank positions. Equally, it's possible to claim that because the speaker stops somewhere short of the most extreme position, she's not a crank.

Many liberal crank theories deal with risk. Liberal cranks tend to deny that risk is unavoidable.This is a good example of taking a reasonable concern and extrapolating it to ridiculous lengths. Everyone agrees that unnecessary risk is to be avoided. Liberal cranks refuse to tolerate any risk at all. Whatever level of some hazard is defined as acceptable, Liberal cranks will insist that the standards need to be tighter. (Fascinatingly, when it comes to changes in social or behavioral norms, liberals insist that opponents prove the changes unsafe.)

Liberals have plenty of conspiracy theories but they differ in flavor from conservative conspiracy theories. Sometimes they find common ground with conservatives in the weird ultra-libertarian antipode to reality. Both liberal and conservative cranks often can agree there was a conspiracy to assassinate John F. Kennedy or destroy the World Trade Center, as a pretext to take away our civil liberties. It's either to disarm us (conservative) or enslave us to corporate dictatorship (liberal). Both often agree there's a global plot that's either Communism redux (conservative) or corporate hegemony (liberal). They assert that jet contrails are "chemtrails" being sprayed for nefarious purposes, either to sedate us for the socialist-Islamic takeover or to make us corporate drones.

On the whole, though, liberals seem much less inclined to believe there's a Master Plan to global evil. Liberal conspiracies tend to focus more on specific events. The persistent myth that the Election of 2000 was "stolen," that Salvador Allende was toppled by the CIA instead of his mismanagement of the Chilean economy, that the government deliberately allowed thousands of AIDS victims to die rather than fund research, and that Willie Horton was about racism instead of Michael Dukakis' incompetence and indifference to crime victims are prime examples.

Many liberal crank movements involve nutrition and health. One of the worst purveyors of crank medicine is the liberal Huffington Post. These often bleed over into libertarian crank theories, with conservatives asserting that the FDA is the opening wedge of the ultimate police state, and liberals claiming that big pharmaceutical corporations are hiding revolutionary cheap cures. And there's the mystical belief that a molecule made from a natural material is healthier than a molecule made synthetically, even if the two molecules are atom for atom identical. (Ricin, one of the deadliest toxins known, is entirely "natural" in that it can be made from castor beans. If you use organically grown castor beans, you can be absolutely sure your ricin is free of harmful and dangerous chemicals.) Lately there's been an upsurge in opposition to fluoridation, something most sane people thought was over in the 1950's.

One important liberal crank theory is Afrocentrism, the notion that many fundamental features of Western civilization have African roots. Of course, Egypt is in Africa, and to that extent the claim is true. Afrocentrism goes far beyond that obvious point to claim the Egyptians were black. Actually, it's not hard to find Egyptian art showing Egyptians and actual African blacks. The Egyptians are shown as having moderately dark skin (undoubtedly they had a substantial intermingling of black genes) and Caucasian features, and the blacks are shown as having black skin and distinctively African features. The famous sculpture of Queen Nefertiti is entirely Caucasian in its features. One extreme form of Afrocentrism, the Melanin Theory, posits that melanin is a superconductor and gives those blessed with it superior mental powers. Additionally, it is claimed that melanin "absorbs electromagnetic radiation," a trivially true claim, since all dark materials absorb electromagnetic radiation. That's why they're dark. Afrocentrism and the Melanin Theory are understandable and perhaps entirely predictable responses to white racial crank theories, but they're still crank theories. One wonders how people with superpowers managed to become enslaved by a far smaller number of people without them.

A few other liberal crank theories deserve mention. One is the notion that Christ wasn't a historical person but is simply an amalgamation of myths from other sources, pretty much on a par with Shakespeare being a pseudonym (my theory: Shakespeare was Queen Elizabeth in drag, accounting for why there are no accounts of them ever meeting.) Actually, it's equally possible that Bertrand Russell wasn't a real person. Think about it: heroic conscientious objector, bold spokesman for liberal causes, brilliant mathematician, advocate for sexual freedom, clearly an amalgamation of liberal hero myths and wish fulfillment fantasies.


One of the juicier scientific scandals of recent times involves Dutch psychologist Diederik Stapel, who admitted to fabricating many of his research results. A full list of Stapel's falsified articles hasn't been published, but the titles of some of his articles (some of which may not be tainted) offer insights. The article that outed him was "Coping with Chaos: How Disordered Contexts Promote Stereotyping and Discrimination." Some of his studies were just plain banal: one article purported to show that peoples' table manners improved if there was a wine glass on the table. Most were pretty pedestrian:
  • "I, we, and the effects of others on me: How self-construal moderates social comparison effects"
  • "When we wonder what it all means: Interpretation goals facilitate accessibility and stereotyping effects"
  • "Self-activation increases social comparison"
  • "The effects of diffuse and distinct affect"
  • "Making sense of hot cognition: Why and when description influences our feelings and judgments"
Lots of emphasis on stereotyping, how we construct reality, and so on. Nothing that challenges the basic assumptions of social scientists at all. And that's really how he got away with it. He reported what his colleagues expected to see. If he'd reported, say, a link between marijuana use and mental illness, or between homosexuality and violent crime, and used faked data, his career would have ended instantly, if indeed he got published at all. Even if the data were wholly sound and his research methods impeccable, I suspect he'd have had problems publishing.

There are probably tons of articles in the scientific literature based on faked data, and undetected because the results were uncontroversial. There are many more where data were filtered or fudged but which remain undetected because the end results were correct. Still more contain honest errors that went undetected because the overall results were valid or the error was peripheral to the main point of the paper. I'm sure Stapel felt that his conclusions were valid. His research was described as "too good to be true," and it really was.

I'm far less concerned with someone like Stapel who gets caught making up data than I am with myriad other social studies based on impeccable data and rigidly honest reporting, but which are then interpreted according to some distorted paradigm. Conservatives are more likely than liberals to be cranks, and their crank beliefs are coarser and cruder, but liberals are far more likely to be meta-cranks, using perfectly correct data but weaving it into a distorted meta-reality. I once attended a lecture by an expert on Sierra Leone, who described traditional village life where the chiefs were routinely presented with gifts in exchange for exercising their power on someone's behalf. The expert then described the modern government, where bribery was rampant, and attributed the corruption to the legacy of colonialism. Afterward, I asked "The government of Sierra Leone seems to be just the village society writ large. Why are you assuming the corruption is due to colonialism?" If it's routinely expected that local big men get gifts for their influence, why be surprised when it translates to the national level? He really didn't have much of an answer, and more interestingly, it was obvious that he never really thought to ask the question. Absolutely everything in his talk was true, as far as I know, and I have no reason to doubt any of it, but his observations were filtered through anti-colonialist goggles. Basically, any possible observation can be interpreted as a result of colonialism.

Conservative cranks who base their beliefs on a factual premise like the Bible being literally inerrant have no choice but to reject any science that threatens their foundation. But liberal meta-cranks tie their beliefs to assumptions like "inequality is always the result of injustice," "Third World poverty is the result of colonialism," and so on. These assumptions are flexible enough that any data whatsoever can be accommodated to them. Data linking income and school performance show merely that wealthy children have an advantage in school, not that people with a healthy attitude toward learning are more successful. Data showing a link between crime and poverty show that poor people are so desperate they turn to crime; the data never show that bad personal choices lead to crime and poverty, or that criminals impoverish poor neighborhoods by their depredations.

Blaming the Victim

Perhaps no single concept illustrates the pervasive speciousness of meta-cranks than the phrase "blaming the victim." You can't hope to find a more explicit platform for intellectual dishonesty than this quote from Jack Levin and William Levin's The Functions of Discrimination and Prejudice.
Victim-blaming is the tendency, when examining a social problem, to attribute that problem to the characteristics of the people who are its victims. In contrast, a non-victim-blaming perspective would focus on the social forces that deny opportunity to the victims of a social problem, while ignoring any apparent differences in them that might be caused by such treatment.
It's good that I can cite that reference, because I'd be accused of making up a straw man otherwise. For openers, there's the word "victim" which clearly indicates that the individual is the innocent target of hostile outside forces, as opposed to a neutral label like "person affected by a problem" or "person in a problem situation." Then there's the label "blaming" which automatically attributes hostile intent to anyone attempting to question whether the individual's values and attitudes might contribute to the problem. It is already predetermined that the root cause is "social forces that deny opportunity to the victims of a social problem," that any individual differences are only "apparent" (we won't ask why some people from the most hostile environments avoid crime, drug abuse and poverty). Indeed, it's considered intellectually responsible by these authors to "ignore" potentially relevant data.

Critical Race Theory

Another crank meta-reality is Critical Race Theory, which Wikipedia describes as analyzing the "way in which white supremacy and racial power are reproduced over time." The central problem is that overt racism has declined [Note: written before the rise of the alt-right!] and many overtly discriminatory practices have been abolished, yet a significant gap persists between whites and minorities in educational achievement, income, poverty, employment, and so on. There are two (or more) possible interpretations of this data. One is that there are other, hidden ways that whites maintain control. Another is that perhaps race is not the issue at all and that we need to look elsewhere for the answer. Now examining the way white power is sustained is certainly a valid line of inquiry. The problem is that many in the White Power Structure have been standing on rooftops for decades screaming the "secret" through bullhorns: stay in school, stay out of trouble with the law, stay off drugs, defer gratification, cooperate with the police and turn your back on peers that oppose those values. And in many places, minority groups that have followed those guidelines have prospered, often to the point where they get lumped in with "whites" and become targets of resentment. (Comedian Bill Cosby starred in a popular sitcom in the 1970's that was specifically intended to portray a healthy, successful black family. The show was accused by some of "not addressing black issues." On the contrary, Cosby was the only entertainer "addressing black issues." Cosby's later transgressions don't diminish that fact.)

Critical Race Theory has been described in many places as challenging the "rhetoric of neutrality through which whites justify their disproportionate share of resources and social benefits." (That exact phrase, word for word, got 188 Google hits when I first checked, none of which cited the original source explicitly. The count has since grown to nearly 500.)

Judge Richard Posner, one of America's most respected jurists, wrote in New Republic at 40, Oct. 13, 1997
What is most arresting about critical race theory is turns its back on the Western tradition of rational inquiry, forswearing analysis for narrative. Rather than marshal logical arguments and empirical data, critical race theorists tell stories — fictional, science-fictional, quasi-fictional, autobiographical, anecdotal — designed to expose the pervasive and debilitating racism of America today. By repudiating reasoned argumentation, the storytellers reinforce stereotypes about the intellectual capacities of nonwhites.
Judge Alex Kozinski of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit wrote (New York Times Review of Books Nov. 2, 1997): "The radical multiculturalists' views raise insuperable barriers to mutual understanding." Take a minute to let that sink in. A judge of the Ninth Circuit wrote that. The Ninth Circuit is so liberal that some conservatives have argued for dissolving it, and even one of its judges finds radical multicultralism untenable.


Hard on the heels of "blaming the victim" as a beacon of specious thinking is "simplistic." The reasoning is wonderful: an idea that explains the data simply and economically is wrong for that very reason, and the better the idea explains the data, the greater the evidence that it's wrong. All ideas of any value are simplifications; the problem with oversimplifications is not that they're simple, but that they're wrong. For example, the infamous Laffer Curve postulated that government revenue with no taxation would be zero, revenue would also be zero if the government took everything, and somewhere in between is a revenue maximum. The problem with the Laffer Curve is that it's trivial. We know precisely three points on the curve: what happens at 0 and 100% taxation and where we are now. We don't know the overall shape of the curve, whether or not it has multiple peaks and valleys, nor whether it changes from day to day. And though social problems are "very complex" when activists critique ideas they oppose, the problems crystallize into marvelous simplicity when activists propose solutions of their own: more money and regulatory power for themselves.


Epiphenomenon is a popular buzzword used to describe a phenomenon that is merely a surface event on top of ("epi-") a more significant phenomenon. Generally, it's used to assert that whatever the user doesn't want to deal with isn't significant. Frequently, it's used to deny the significance of moral issues in society, as in the claim that the root cause of the Civil War was the growing disparity in economic power between North and South, and that moral indignation over slavery was merely an "epiphenomenon."

All you need to do to make that claim stick is deny tens of thousands of statements, letters, articles and books by people who saw the Civil War from Day One as about slavery, or the fact that half the declarations of secession specifically mention slavery, or that the Confederate Constitution specifically defines "negro slavery" as a right (pause briefly to let that one sink in). More interestingly, if the Civil War wasn't about slavery, how can the Confederate flag be a symbol of slavery and racism? As an interesting sidelight, a local mini-mall flies a collection of historic American flags. The Confederate flag has generated some controversy and been stolen a couple of times. Nobody has said a word about the other Confederate flag. See, there were two of them, a battle flag and a national flag, and most of the people who make noise about "the" Confederate flag are too historically illiterate to know there were two flags, or recognize it when it flaps in front of their faces.  Despite the fact that both flags have the familiar "stars and bars."

Just how far some people are willing to go to avoid addressing values as a root of social issues is illustrated by Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic in Understanding Words that Wound. They note (p. 23) that black college students are targets of racial slurs several times a month, and if the term is broadened to include "code words" the frequency might be as often as every day. One of the "code words" they mention is "inner city culture." So a term specifically formulated to address value and behavior problems across racial lines while avoiding racial implications as much as possible is twisted around by Delgado and Stefancic to become a synonym for racism. It becomes very clear that authors like this will not tolerate any attempt to explore values and attitudes as a root of social problems, but will always disparage them as racism.

False Consciousness and Internalized Oppression

People in democratic societies often end up using their empowerment to make choices that intellectuals hate. How can we reconcile the fact that the masses, whom intellectuals profess to support, keep making wrong choices? Why do they buy Thomas Kinkade paintings? I've got it - they've been duped somehow. Those aren't their real values; they've been brainwashed into a "false consciousness" by society. If they were completely free to choose, they'd make the "right" choices. But of course we have to eliminate all the distractions that interfere with the process: no moral or religious indoctrination, no advertising or superficial amusements, no status symbols, no politically incorrect humor. "False consciousness" is a perfect way of professing support for the masses while simultaneously depriving them of any power to choose; a device for being an elitist while pretending not to be.

The post-Soviet version of "false consciousness" is "internalized oppression." If you're a woman who opposes abortion, a black with middle class values, or a person with a lousy job who nevertheless believes in hard work, those aren't your real values. You've internalized the values of the white male power elite and allowed yourself to become their tool. You don't really know what you believe. When the enlightened elite want your opinion, they'll tell you what it is.

Anecdotal Evidence versus Narratives

Illustrative instances of social phenomena are "anecdotal evidence" when used by conservatives, "narratives" when used by liberals. The discussion of Critical Race Theory above illustrates that "narrative" is considered evidence in certain liberal ideologies. One aphorism, "The plural of anecdote is not data," implies that no matter how much evidence piles up, it can still be dismissed as anecdotal if it doesn't fit the desired world view. If the plural of anecdote is not data, then what in the world is data? 

Even when narratives are shown to be fakes, they still attract defenders. David Stoll's exposure of Rigoberta Menchu's falsified autobiography, for which she won the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize, resulted in attacks on Stoll's work for "ideological obsession and zealotry, the odor of unfairness and meanness, the making of a mountain out of a molehill." After Carroll Case published a book in 1998 alleging that the Army had secretly massacred 1200 black soldiers at Camp Dorn, Mississippi in 1943, the sheer improbability of covering up such an event led most analysts to skepticism, yet even if the story was false, some commentators said that while the specific story may have been false, it reflected the reality of race relations in World War II.

Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc

Post hoc ergo propter hoc is Latin for "After this, therefore, because of this." Also called misplaced causality.

Things are not always what they seem. A neighborhood declines after minorities move in. Maybe minorities cause neighborhood decline. Then again, minorities may move into declining neighborhoods because those are the only places they can afford housing. Did crime decline in the 1990's because of tough laws, or for other reasons like the Baby Boomers moving beyond the years when young males commit the most crime?

On the other hand, most of the time, things are what they seem. At the very least, you're entitled to consider the possibility that things aren't what they seem only after you've honestly dealt with the possibility that things are what they seem. So if a negative social effect follows a social change, and there's a coherent explanation linking the effect with the initial change, that's not post hoc ergo propter hoc. You don't get to invoke post hoc ergo propter hoc until you've convincingly refuted the purported link. If a State toughens penalties for crime, and crime falls, that's evidence for a valid causal connection. Your task, if you doubt it, is to show it's not true in that state at that time. Post hoc ergo propter hoc otherwise becomes a license for dismissing any causal connection.

Correlation is not Causation

A plot of my age against gasoline prices shows a consistent trend. Does my getting older make gas prices rise? Or does the rising price of gas make me get older? Or are both due to a third thing: the passage of time? More realistically, graphs of black population, poverty and voting patterns in the South show highly linear trends. What causes what? Does being black make people poor? Does being poor make people black? Does voting Democratic make people poor or black? Most likely social forces create higher poverty among blacks, who vote Democratic because they perceive that Democrats offer the best policies.

A neat example of correlation not equaling causation was a study by Norwegian researchers Thomas Hansen and Britt Slagsvold that found a higher likelihood of divorce among couples that shared household chores more equally. So does sharing housework lead to divorce? Not so fast. The researchers believe that both variables are related to a third variable: weaker attachment to traditional views of marriage. The good news there is men are less likely to assert male immunity from housework, the bad news is couples with less attachment to traditional views of marriage are less likely to view it as permanent.

On the other hand, if correlation is not causation, then what on earth is? How else do you establish a causal connection except by repeating a phenomenon and observing a high correlation with some result? Like post hoc ergo propter hoc and "anecdotal data," "correlation is not causation" is often merely a rationalization for dismissing inconvenient data.

See no Evil

Richard Dawkins is right, there is a real "God Delusion" in the world. Not, as he thinks, belief in a deity, or an afterlife, or the supernatural, but the innate goodness and altruism of human nature. And thus, whenever there's evil in the world, it can't be because people deliberately choose to do it, but because of some externality: poverty, spanking, violent video games or cartoons, injustice, or Dawkins' favorite scapegoat, religion.

How many wars have there been in history? Given that many early wars were unrecorded and conflicts can merge or divide, a definitive answer is impossible, but most sources list a few thousand. Why is war so prevalent? Not because people see some personal benefit or reward in it. Because the masses have been duped by the ruling class. Thousands of times? The masses must be pretty dumb. I wonder if "power to the people" really means "power to the easily manipulated." If people do something regularly, they must get something out of it. Booty, plunder, excitement, glory, escape from normal moral constraints, legalized rape.

Rootless Convictions

I occasionally troll discussions (troll: Internet jargon for challenging someone's basic assumptions and expecting a serious answer) by asking one simple question. To the assertion that gay marriage, health care, food or internet access are rights, I say prove it.

It's perfectly possible to believe consistently that there are moral absolutes. It's perfectly possible to believe consistently that there are no moral absolutes. You just can't logically hold both positions simultaneously. And yet it's fascinating to see how many people will deny the existence of moral absolutes one moment and assert dogmatically that it's wrong to oppose gay marriage or abortion or free health care the next.

The Ultimate Anti-Intellectualism

Denying evolution or climate change is something conservatives do, but denying the existence of reality itself takes a post-modernist. Post-modernists don't deny reality totally, of course. Their anger at being reminded of the Sokal Hoax is very real. (For those not in the loop, physicist Alan Sokal published an article in a post-modernist philosophy journal in 1996 consisting essentially of gibberish, but with all the right buzzwords.) They deny that objectivity is possible or that any viewpoint is inherently superior to any other. Or they assert that there are innumerable alternative views of reality, all with their own validity. It's interesting that nobody ever produces any of these equally valid alternative views of reality that, say, explain how a flashlight works as well as science. There are many bits of folk wisdom from many cultures that have been shown to have some basis in science, but not a single case where one of these alternative world views has explained a complex phenomenon better than science. And we never see an example of two radically different views of reality that are valid in the same way, in the same place, at the same time.

Of course, believers in alternate realities don't really believe what they're saying. We never hear "George Bush had his own personal reality construct about the Iraq War, which was as valid in its own way as my own." No, we hear "George Bush lied about Iraq."

One of the more glaring examples of philosophical and mathematical illiteracy is the example "1 + 1 = 2 in decimal notation, but 10 in binary." No, one plus one equals two in all number systems. The mere fact that two in binary notation is written with the same symbols as ten in decimal notation is purely a matter of notation. "BAD" in hexadecimal notation is 2989 in decimal, but that doesn't make the number 2989 evil.

And it's interesting that folk wisdom from other cultures is to be respected, but our own folk wisdom is not. Also, while we find philosophers who praise folk medicine, or physics, or environmentalism, we hardly ever find one who praises folk sociology: folk beliefs about child rearing, or crime and punishment, or sex roles. Yet if folk wisdom is likely to be valid in any context, it should be in areas where people have an immense store of experience but where cause and effect is too fuzzy to allow science to draw clear conclusions. Sociology is precisely the sort of domain where we would expect folk wisdom to be valid.

Post-modernist philosophy is strongly reminiscent of the zinger once aimed at the idea of "fighting for peace:" claiming to be an intellectual, while undermining the very basis of all rational inquiry, is like screwing for virginity.

Hatred of Reality

A great deal of liberal rhetoric suggests that many liberals not only deny or filter reality, but they actively hate it. They consider it unfair that reality imposes consequences on actions. It's unfair that sex can lead to babies, with all the expense and lifestyle disruptions that ensue. It's unfair that a lack of skills leads to lousy jobs and low pay. It's unfair that using drugs makes people unemployable. Permeating the rhetoric about AIDS is an undercurrent of resentment that reality would dish up an incurable disease that not only targeted sex, but gays in particular. I doubt that we'd hear anything like the same concern if you got AIDS from, say, going to a fundamentalist church. But we don't have to speculate. Compare the way liberals speak about AIDS and obesity. Obesity is (a) tied to a comfortable middle class lifestyle and (b) caused by processed foods manufactured by big corporations. So, preventing the disease by changing your lifestyle is anathema if we're talking about AIDS, but mandatory, indeed, to be backed by government enforcement, when talking about obesity.

Since it's cruel of reality to impose consequences, society has a moral obligation to prevent or mitigate those consequences. Thus, it's not enough to warn people there's a steep cliff nearby, we have to fence it off to everyone. It's unfair to deny people good jobs just because they have no skills or motivation. People who choose not to use seat belts or motorcycle helmets can't be left on their own to deal with the results, but everyone must be regulated to avoid presenting the delicate with a painful moral dilemma. One tragic current news story involves a teenage girl left blind and brain damaged from smoking synthetic marijuana. Who do you suppose is to blame, according to many comments on line? The girl, for wanting to get high and ignoring all the warnings she's ever received about drugs? Her friends, for supplying the drugs and condoning their use? The people who sold the drugs? Advocates of drug use? You have to be kidding. No, it's all the fault of the War on Drugs. In fact, many commenters blame the government for not ensuring that drugs are safe. Well, it is the Food and Drug Administration.

And of course, consequences imposed by society are inherently unfair. Prison sentences are too harsh, and capital punishment is unconscionable. Many civil libertarians seem to believe there exists a right to choose crime as a way of life, and that it is unfair of society to make penalties harsh enough to be real deterrents.

The real problem with consequences is the "sequence" part. Consequences come after the action. That's unfair to people who don't believe in cause and effect, or who miscalculate and think they can somehow avoid the consequence, or who simply can't think beyond the moment and anticipate consequences. When it comes to a lot of data, reality definitely has a liberal bent, but when it comes to the results of lifestyle choices, reality is most definitely conservative.