#101: The Mask Does not just Protect You but Others as Well

If you are vaccinated against Covid-19, you may be safer now from serious illness and death, with the caveat that virus mutations may still bring some uncertainty. Many vaccines seem mostly safe and effective, and adverse reactions are statistically not relevant, as far as we know now.

But for many, vaccination does not seem to be an option. There can be a variety of reasons, and even though it would be desirable that eventually, everyone gets vaccinated, it simply won’t happen. We cannot demand it of everyone, apparently, and we cannot – and should not – mark people with signs that they are vaccinated or not.

This means, even if you are (probably) safe, others around you may not be.

What has been true about mask wearing from the beginning is that they do not just protect you yourself, but others around you also. That means until there is herd immunity, the scientific thing to do, the kind thing to do, is to keep wearing the mask everywhere where distance cannot be maintained, and where we cannot be certain that everyone around us is vaccinated.

Thus if you see me out in public in the near future, I will still be wearing a mask, whether formally required or not. It’s not just about me. It’s about others as well.

#98: The Populist Attack on Democracy During the Pandemic

When the pandemic hit the world, it unleashed more than just a deadly virus. It has put us all in a crucible. Nature has been testing our ability to be political animals, forcing our societies and our politics to make impossible decisions. Who shall we protect? Am I my fellow citizen’s keeper? How much economic and social pain can we tolerate while defending us against a virus? If this spiky microorganism could speak, it might very well want to quote Shelley’s Ozymandias and say “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair.”

Desperation is political dynamite. It has the ability to creep into every crevice of society, poison minds and souls, and even to tear everything asunder. There is a reason politics seems at a loss sometimes. We are still racing through the night, the outlines of the path becoming clearer only to threaten to be obscured again. We have been playing this deadly game for over a year now, and it is not over till it is over.

The only guidance system we have is science. It is an imperfect system, but it is the only one that works. Its imperfection lies in the availability of data which influences the analysis of the problem and the creation of solutions. Science yields tentative answers, which eventually may form a theory, but everything is always under revision depending on new facts. This is a politician’s nightmare, and it is not intuitive for how human beings think. There is a reason that the systematic pursuit of science is an invention in itself that took millennia to take hold. Yet the fight against superstition and anti-science is never won, and it has become more difficult during the pandemic.

Science works in the collective mode, not in the heroic narrative of the lone voice in the wilderness. For there to be a situation in which established scientific view is so solidly mistaken, during a global emergency, is peculiar. As Carl Sagan has frequently said, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” The scientific consensus, based on the available data, is clear: the pandemic is real, the threat is real, and the approved vaccines work safely. The extraordinary position here is not the denier perspective, but the scientific consensus.

Yet it is the heroic mode, the tale of the hero fighting against the forces of darkness, that appears most seductive to human beings. There seem to be only a small number of medical, legal or scientific experts (typically in fields other than virology or epidemiology) that disagree with the established view about these matters. They have taken on the mantle of the hero that can fight against the medical crisis by denying its existence and by pointing to a wholly different threat.

We all have seen that our personal relationships have been put under tremendous stress. One of my closest friends has become a Covid denier. They have always been more interested in esotericism, astrology and popular psychology than in science or academic thinking. Their children and they themselves suffered from the lockdown, and this suffering led them down the path laid out to them by the algorithm of popular social media platforms.

There is an element of real pain here that is exploited by these platforms. People indeed feel crushed both by the pandemic and the measures taken to curb it. We are irrational beings much more than we would care to admit. Fear of the virus may lead to denying its existence. Lack of understanding of science may lead people to be suspicious of experts changing their minds when facts change. overall. Both Donald Trump and Boris Johnson were famous for dismissing experts and won elections on this very bias. We can all see politicians being frequently helpless in the face of the pandemic. People need someone to tell them that it will all be ok. If desperate enough, people will turn to false prophets. History is full of such stories, and it should teach us humility. Our system has indeed failed all those who now are moving to turn away from it, it has failed them in matters of education, civic engagement, and the recognition of everyone’s individual dignity. We are figuratively throwing people to the wolves, and down the rabbit hole.

The rabbit hole is electronic nowadays, and it is powerful. The alternative world view unfolding to the initiated speaks of a pandemic planned in a global cooperation of politicians, scientists, entrepreneurs and the typical cast of allegedly diabolical characters. The sinister purpose remains unclear but overall follows the well-worn paths of typical antisemitic conspiracy lore. The more you enter this world, the more you are inundated by it, and the more you connect to the similarly initiated few that are the only ones able to see the light and to prepare for a post-“plandemic” future. The pandemic, of course, does not exist as the established media want us to believe, but instead there is talk that a “Great Reset” is on the way to allegedly subjugate all of humanity.

At first I was confused about this. What could possibly be the motivation behind the denial of the existence or threat level of the pandemic, or the safety of the vaccines?

The answer is emerging more and more. The Coronavirus Pandemic is used by populists to attack democracy itself.

We see some of this happening currently in the United States. With the Republican party and the conservative movement in disarray, there are some voices echoing conspiratorial notes. Outside the United States, the picture becomes more clear. In Germany, for instance, a new alliance between discontented voters who would formerly identify with the established parties either of the left, center or the right, now are coalescing into the New Right. Leading players of the so-called “Querdenker” movement (“critical” or “lateral” thinkers) ally themselves with sovereign citizens, with esoterically or anthroposophically influenced groups, with old and new authoritarians.

Their demands are clear: sweep away the old system, which includes all politicians, all established media, all scientists and all academics and all their supporters. Establish a new, allegedly truly democratic movement and govern through the direct will of the people determined by the assumed wisdom of crowds. Trust the natural healing powers of the human body, and let nature run its course. Reject “globalists” – a smear word created to distort the legitimate critique of neoliberal globalization and turn it into an antisemitically tinged libel of the United Nations, free-traders and multinationalists – and bring back the nation state. Seek alliance with Russia, as Putin has taken his country down that path already.

This sounds very familiar. It has a name, only its clothes are slightly recycled. If we let it fester, if we do not find clear answers, the national socialist movement is already growing, hiding behind – as it used to – a romantic fixation with nature, with esotericism, with anti-science and populist authoritarianism claiming to be democratic.

Like Shelley’s Ozymandias, the Coronavirus will eventually be defeated, managed, return to memory, with the possibility of return. The political virus that we deemed to have overcome is still lingering. As Berthold Brecht has said, “the womb is fertile still from whence this crawled.”

#97: Are We Prepared for Extraterrestrial Life?

As we are seeing more official confirmations of sightings of Unidentified Flying Objects, we may need to consider the possible impact of what such revelations may eventually mean.

At this point, all we are being told is that the origin of these objects is allegedly unknown. We are seeing videos that were formerly classified, and we get to hear from witnesses who may well sound believable and official. Something seems to be out there that we have not been told about before.

In all likelihood, these objects may well have a terrestrial origin. Some rather earthly power may be in possession of highly advanced technology, and they are either showing off their skills or being observed when testing their vehicles. It all may also be a very elaborate hoax or optical illusion. It may well be birds photographed very cleverly. It may just as well be very agile weather balloons…

If these are of terrestrial origin, the would be human-made. The technology is astounding. The flight patterns seem to indicate that the G-Forces operating on them are so extreme that either somebody has invented inertial dampeners (to borrow a Star Trek term) or they are operated remotely or by some form of robots. In all cases, that is quite some flying. Some sightings from decades ago may have been of early models of current technology. Maybe what we are seeing are test flights of secret technology. The origin would probably be American, Chinese, Russian, or an alliance of nations. That may be unsettling enough, but at least within familiar territory.

We may well find out that all the alleged revelations are just a clever publicity scheme to demonstrate the technological superiority of whatever nation has developed them. I personally think that this is the most likely scenario.

Nevertheless, I also believe that we should also consider the implications of an extraterrestrial origin, or even a combination of extraterrestrial and human technology. I may have watched too much Stargate: SG-1 / Atlantis / Universe or The X-Files to entertain such a notion. It could also be that such shows were meant to prepare us to think the previously impossible. Admittedly, Norad has a door labeled “Stargate Command” – even though it is just a broom closet.

But are we really so unimaginative to admit to us the possibility of the existence of extraterrestrial life? Certainly, we now know that evolution is a powerful force throughout the universe, that there are more planets or moons or asteroids that could possibly support life than we had even thought possible before. Life may just be something that is extraordinarily ordinary in our universe.

Would such a universe look like Star Trek, where alien and human life somehow evolved in a similar timeframe? Had Earth been able to develop spaceflight earlier, we would have been in a completely different situation for instance. Our own history shows fits and spurs, and with things just having been a little bit different, we may have been on the moon thousands of years ago – or dinosaurs could have done it millions of years ago.

How could it possibly be realistic that our existence coincides with that of spacefaring aliens? We could assume that in the Vastness of the universe, due to a quasi infinite diversity in infinite combinations even a low probability of the coexistence of life at a similar stage of development means that it is possible – all it takes out of the 100 thousand million stars in the Milky Way, one thousand million has planets supporting life, and out of these, one million has had intelligent life, and of those about 100 have life at the same technological stage. These numbers (except the first) are completely fictitious, but illustrate the evolutionary principle. A more scientific approach is delivered by the Drake equation and similar estimates.

All we know is that we don’t know much about this, but from what we know, our ignorance can be limited and the very possibility of extraterrestrial life needs to be taken into consideration.

The other question is whether we will be able to meet them. Our own technological knowledge certainly – or at least as far as we know publicly – for now precludes us from seeking them out on our own. If there is extraterrestrial life though, it is very likely that if it is technologically possible to traverse large distances, the aforementioned evolutionary principles almost dictate that there may very well be someone out there that could indeed reach us.

Can we speculate on their intentions? Assuming they are somehow like life on Earth, we should perhaps be a bit apprehensive. If they are somehow like us human beings, our apprehension should be on alert. We cannot be naïve in assuming that technological development is directly proportional to moral or ethical development. Our own history has certainly not always shown that. Warnings about contact with aliens are a staple of science fiction. The War of the Worlds was successful for a reason, it spoke to rather realistic fears. Some scientists have warned against seeking out extraterrestrial life, especially Stephen Hawking: “Meeting an advanced civilization could be like Native Americans encountering Columbus. That didn’t turn out so well.”

Such pessimism might be correct. For all we know, an invasion fleet is well on its way after some scouting ships have done their job already. We can always imagine the worst possible scenario. We probably need to, and need to prepare for such an eventuality.

Nevertheless, I would dare to be a bit more optimistic, for two reasons. If UFOs are evidence of the presence of extraterrestrials observing us, they have been doing quite some observing for quite some while. If that is what is happening, it seems to be of scientific interest. A cautious opening and declassifying of materials by US authorities also does not really speak to knowledge of impending doom.

Yet even if we are at a moment in time that could lead to peaceful first contact, the ramifications for human societies would be immense. Are we prepared for such an expansion of our worldview? Are we prepared to extend our abilities to be welcoming to others also to beings that may be more different from us than each other? We have proven time and again that xenophobia is a constant in human societies. We are seeing such behavior again increased during the Coronavirus Pandemic.

Just imagine what extraterrestrials would know about us already. They will have watched our movies, our television stations, seen our news, learned about our history and our politics. Have we really become more peaceful after World War II? Steven Pinker maintains that this is the case, but some disagree, especially more recently. As much as I would like to agree with Pinker, as much as I would like to be hopeful, as a historian, I am cautious in my judgement.

There may well be a reason that extraterrestrials could be watching us. If they are, it stands to reason that they would just as well remain cautious about contacting us. They might certainly be right in their apprehension.

Maybe the question needs to be reframed. Rather than to only ask whether we are prepared for extraterrestrial life, we should wonder, is extraterrestrial life prepared for us?

See also: my earlier reflections on the matter, 23 years ago

#94: What Is Political Extremism Today?

We are conditioned to think in political categories of “right” versus “left”, with an underappreciated center in between. This model has become deeply entrenched in political thinking, no matter how simplistic it actually is.

Politically, “left” and “right” derive from seating arrangements of pro- versus anti-monarchist forces in the National Assembly during the French Revolution, but the principle, of course, goes deeper.

First, this understanding of power is based on thinking in a strict dichotomy, in a way of thinking believing in either-or propositions, in adversarial style, in a simplistic for-and-against way of conceptualizing every single issue, or even a worldview.

Second, it typically includes gradations, especially in systems that have more than two political parties (or rather, whose election system is not based on winner-takes all, which seems to cause the two-party system – CGP Grey has some great videos explaining voting systems). The more diversified the parties become, the more there may an entire panoply of parties. Some parties may be directly in the center, others center-left, others center-right, others moderate left or right, others extreme left or right, whatever “right” or “left” may mean at the time. Traditionally, “right” suggests establishment, “left” suggest reform or revolution.

(Fun fact: whoever you consider to be a “sinister force” in politics depends on your knowledge of Italian: “La sinistra” is the left. But if you think of old clips of Jon Stewart’s Daily Show depicting Dick Cheney as Darth Vader, the music may have sounded sinister, but the implication certainly was not that Cheney was a leftie. But I digress.)

Third, we now have a problem on the extremes. There are both right-wing and left-wing versions of extremism that are no friends of democracy and its values and institutions. Some models – for instance the “horseshoe theory” – point to similarities amongst both extremisms. There may still be something that separates them (it’s not a closed circle in that model), but they look rather similar.

Is that even a helpful distinction? There were moments in recent history where surprising thought alliances appeared. Agreement with or resistance to allowing stem cell research was and is still an issue finding support along strange ideological lines (Greens + Conservatives), but they deviate when it comes to the issue of abortion (Conservatives). Globalization critique used to be left-wing and has now also found equivalents on the right, albeit sometimes with a different tone. Support of Israel used to be a stalwart issue on the left, and now finds it, at least rhetorically, on the right, though not in the outright Nazi parties, I would assume (though once you find out about Jewish Neonazis, you have seen everything).

Personally, I have never found the left-right paradigm useful. It is too simplistic, and I am not much in favor of party loyalty. You support who you support based on issues and personnel, but even that is dicey as party programs oftentimes don’t mean much. But my voting record has always been mixed, and so it shall be. I prefer to be flexible, depending on what I see on the table (or rather, on the ballot).

Politics is a game played by politicians, and to assume them to follow clear philosophical principles which sustain their ideology is a bit of a stretch, in my view. A good politician does what works, and chooses the respective ideology as they see fit. A bad one makes reality bend to their ideological blinders and either doesn’t get anything done at all, or won’t succeed in the long-run. A strict reality-orientation though will eventually banish all ideology, and so it should be. That does not mean that ideology is useless, but if it is at the point of becoming dogma, it needs to be seriously questioned.

But especially with regards to new developments during the Coronavirus crisis, we can see that anti-democratic extremism arises from a new background that might formerly have been described as “left” or “right”. Things are becoming confusing very fast, and I would suggest that rather to use tired old labels, to stick to the actual issues.

I have thus began to work on a tentative list of extremist thought that still uses coded language but appeals to extremist and anti-democratic thought. There is certainly no assumption of completeness, but it may be helpful to shed some light on some of these here.

Versions of the following key statements always occur on the extreme fringes, especially now in parties catering to Covid Deniers or the New Right:

  1. Insistence on Freedom as an absolute value: All democratic parties value freedom, but it is not the only value in a democratic society, nor is it always easy to define. My own freedom has limits if it severely limits the freedom of others, for instance.

  2. Insistence on Sovereignty as something absolute: A democratic country recognizes that its people are the sovereign, and they send representatives into political office. Government actions thus always have to align with popular will, which is in turn measured through elections and other democratic processes. The sovereignty of a country is thus an extension of the sovereignty of its citizens. It is in the interest of the citizens to exert this sovereignty in a way that benefits the people as a whole. Given constant change, the concept of the sovereignty of a country needs to adapt. If it is to the benefit of the country to enhance free trade and cooperation with other countries, traditional concepts of sovereignty (closed borders, own currency, own military) may actually limit the sovereignty of its citizens.

  3. Insistence on Patriotism as identical to nationalism: Healthy patriotism is a positionality towards your own country in which you see yourself in service to the benefit of all its people, to its wellbeing, to its future. Like sovereignty, this may well include honoring international and supranational treaties, cooperation and connections. Patriotism should always be a positive position (supporting your own country and its allies) and not define itself in the negative (against other countries).

  4. Insistence on a static National Identity: National identity is complex, historically grown, and always changing. Multiculturalism is the historical norm; mono-ethnic states almost always the result of ethnic cleansing or forced assimilation. Immigration is a constant historical presence, and while it is always important to integrate immigrants successfully into your society, this integration needs to be limited to the adherence of laws and common standards, and cannot mean the rejection of all cultural traditions (as long as they are not in conflict with sensible laws of the new country).

  5. The claim to represent the true majority, the “base” or the “forgotten people:”
    There are no citizens “first class” or “second class.” The insinuation that some of the people in the country are not really representative of it and must be silenced in favor of an assumed “silent majority” has always been an excuse used by dictatorships to shut out undesired populations.

  6. The elites are all corrupt: Corruption is a mainstay of all societies, sadly, and it needs to be fought. But the insinuation that all so-called elites would be corrupt is a typical strawman argument typically used to delegitimize all democratically elected officials of a country, as well to discredit teachers, professors, scientists, doctors, lawyers, and whoever else may have enjoyed higher education. It also is used to dismiss any possible legitimacy to the claim personal wealth or influence. This is another typical tactic of demagogues.

  7. There are secret powers directing our fates: In a highly networked world, it is completely normal that ideas flow from person to person, from country to country. The almost infinite interplay of institutions and people from around the globe is what constitutes civilization and society itself. Some of these influences are transparent, some are not. This is normal. Conspiracies typically do not work out, and if they do so, only on a small scale. People talk, have divergent interests, and governments change. Nothing will stay secret forever. It is virtually impossible that in a global context, there could be organizations of people thinking in complete lockstep. The insinuation that there could be secret powers that control our politics is simply ridiculous. It is another strategy to delegitimize democratic governments.

  8. These secret powers form a hidden international network: This accusation has been used to demonize populations that due to their diasporic spread and their minority status – frequently a result of discrimination – can be found in many countries and had to struggle to adapt to the majority culture while still maintaining traces of their own. This accusation is a core component of Anti-Semitism, but also of any xenophobia against immigrant groups, and has been leveled against Jews, Muslims and Catholics (under the assumption that religious beliefs systematically would pit them against their countries of immigration), or any sizable ethnic minority.

  9. You cannot speak freely anymore, there is an official dictate of opinion (“Meinungsdiktatur” in German): Free speech is a core component of any democratic society. It must be seen as absolute. Without it, democracy cannot survive. However, speech always means counter-speech, and if you want to participate in the national discourse, you will also need to appreciate critique and debate. Should that critique be too excessive and endanger your employment or even your life, that is of course something that cannot be tolerated in society. This point mixes legitimate critique of cancel culture with a naïve and illegitimate expectation to be allowed to say whatever you like without critical counter-speech. This point is also frequently mentioned to insinuate that we are living in a dictatorship in which drastic speech codes are enforced. Sometimes this critique is also used in order to defend speech that some might consider deliberately insulting, demeaning and hateful.

  10. You cannot trust the established media / the press is lying / all news we don’t like are fake news:
    If you have built your world view on believing that the world is controlled by powerful forces outside democratic control, then the purveyors of information that are trusted by the established system cannot be trusted. What is typically agreed upon as real becomes fake, what is believed to be reliable becomes suspicious, and the media that transport that which everyone else believes to be true needs to be seen as fake. It is no coincidence that the primary vehicle for disinformation and alternative reality in the United States is called “Infowars.” Facts need to be countered with alternative facts, truth becomes lies, and journalists are seen as the enemy. Fear of an Orwellian system leads to the creation of an Orwellian counter-reality in which doubt is celebrated as patriotic only if it criticizes the other side, never your own.

  11. Reality itself is not what you think it is. We know better and can educate (red-pill) you about the truth.
    You basically believe in The Matrix, and need to see the truth. Only we can tell you. This is Brainwashing 101.

From there, it is all down the rabbit hole. To be continued.

#87: Stargate as Classical Science Fiction

The Pandemic has made me a bit nervous. As a consequence, I have felt it to be difficult to concentrate on any new form of entertainment, and have chosen – as I understand, like millions of other people – to revisit some older shows or formats that are still familiar. This has led me to re-appreciate and rethink some old favorites that may have faded over time in the mass of new material that has emerged since then.

When you think of science fiction shows or franchises, people will typically mention Star Trek and Star Wars. Sure, both shows take place in space, but one (Trek) is science fiction, the other is, well, complicated. What role does science actually play in the Star Wars universe? Or better, what is science fiction?

As there are as many definitions as there are consumers of science fiction, I would propose the following limited set of parameters as minimum requirements:

  1. Science: discussion of real and extrapolated scientific ideas
  2. Politics and Society: The discussion of political and social utopias or simply alternatives, as facilitated by the philosophical reflection about other cultures and worlds, which may point to the possibility of changes to our own culture.
  3. Ethics: The discussion of classical philosophical, ethical and psychological problems through the plot
  4. Mythology and Religion: an engagement with themes of a mythological nature, the building of new mythological narratives, the raising of questions about the nature of existence

This list is probably not perfect but may serve our needs here.

As to Star Wars, aside from some episode of Clone Wars or Rebels, I cannot remember any science-centered story, nor any protagonist that would be a serious scientist. Points 2-4 though are well represented. With Star Trek, all notes are typically hit, but in my opinion less so recently. Ever since the Kelvin-timeline movies and Discovery, Star Trek has been following the Star Wars path more closely. The science that remains (the spore drive) is treated almost like magic, and actual scientific discussion is rare.

This is where Stargate is different, in all its incarnations (SG-1, Atlantis, Universe). Stargate is even interdisciplinary: There are natural scientists (Dr. Carter, Dr. Lee, Dr. McKay, Dr. Zelenka, Dr. Rush, Dr. Volker), humanities and social science scholars (Dr. Jackson, Dr. Weir, Jonas Quinn), medical doctors (Dr. Fraiser, Dr. Lam, Dr. Beckett, Dr. Keller, Lt. Johanson), and several engineers, bureaucrats, diplomats, and specialists. Lead characters with a doctorate other than medicine are almost unheard of in the other bigger franchises (notable exceptions: Dr. Bishop on Fringe, Dr. Sato on Enterprise and Dr. Balthar in Battlestar Galactica – both though underused in their scientific functions. Spock and T’Pol don’t have human doctorates).

Besides personnel, Stargate episodes frequently and sometimes exhaustively discuss science (real or extrapolated). Science drives the plot, experiments are made, success or failure (sometimes catastrophic failure!) can occur, and even the real scientific community is brought in. Just as Dr. Stephen Hawking guest starred in Star Trek TNG, Neil Degrasse Tyson and Bill Nye guest star on Atlantis.

This is not a trivial observation. Scientific reasoning and thinking – in all possible disciplines – seems in short supply right now. It is one of the purposes of science fiction to actually communicate science. Without it, all the other elements mentioned can still exist, but it should be science that ties everything together. The highlighting of scientific thinking, the portrayal of scholars and scientists – granted, in fantastic scenarios, but still – is sorely needed in our world which so deeply relies on science.

This should not be given up for the sake of entertainment, or for the assumed expectations of the audience. Let’s hope that whenever the new Stargate series – which is reportedly in the planning stage – will finally hit the screens, that it will remember its original formula which has inspired so many young would-be scientists and scholars so far.

#86: Nature Is Stronger than Us: The Pandemic, not the Lockdown, Is the Problem

It appears that if you feel tired, exhausted, depressed, and have been doing so for months already, you are not alone. The entire world is out of balance. Nothing is normal anymore, no matter how much we may want to pretend it is.

Some people are blaming the lockdown for this feeling. We can’t do what we would normally be doing, and it is because decisions have been made and continue to be made time and again to close down parts of normal life and have us postpone living like we used to.

But this kind of reasoning looks at things backwards. No matter how we may want to rationalize it away, the real problem is the continued development of the pandemic. Will the vaccines work? Will we be patient enough to wait till we have enough immunity that there will not be anymore the pressing danger posed by the virus? Can we afford to be patient? At which point does it become unsustainable to wait for a better tomorrow?

Yet any attempt to reason ourselves out of this will fail. Lockdowns are in place because of deaths and serious conditions, which are a result of infections and occur in a time-delayed fashion. If we let infection numbers rise today, the consequences will be only become visible much later. We know that, and this is why infection rates are a good predictor for the future. Once they go down, the chances for variants to arise goes down, because only a virus that’s still out there can mutate.

This pandemic plays on our biggest weaknesses; socially, psychologically, fiscally. We are not built for this. A lot of what is happening may be counter-intuitive, but it is still real.

Maybe it helps to remind ourselves that we are not alone in feeling the impact of this, even though it hits some people harder than others. Is this a test then for our capacity to empathize and sympathize? Does this moment in time provide an opportunity, though ill-gotten, to revisit what we consider? Time will tell, but I doubt it.

You may believe in the capacity for people to change, yet history will prove you wrong all too frequently. Not to sound too fatalistically, but our societies function the way they do for a reason. Things may change occasionally, but they’ll always coalesce into a pattern over time. We will eventually forget this pandemic as we’ve forgotten all the ones before us, and we will probably be just as unprepared for the next one that is surely going to follow.

Epidemics and pandemics have killed entire civilizations, even though we do not want to see that either. We want to believe that it is our own agency that can both save and doom us; but all too frequently, it is just nature itself.

Maybe Jurassic Park holds the lesson here that we will need to keep hearing: “Nature finds a way.” For better or worse. No matter how much we try to self-evolve our way out of this, nature cannot be tricked, cannot be overcome, cannot be avoided. We ourselves may not be patient, yet nature is, always.

#82: Only Logic Will Help Us Out of the Pandemic

At Warm Springs Indian Reservation, Oregon

These are not the easiest of times. We are still in the middle of a global pandemic, which is worsening in its impact due to various mutations of the virus that keep questioning the viability of our vaccines. Many people are suffering due to the disease, directly or indirectly, and all of our lives are in turmoil.

It is easy in such moments to despair. Frankly, it is difficult to maintain sanity and retain focus even for those of us who have been able to keep surviving, albeit in a reduced fashion. The psychological toll is nevertheless real, and the seduction to just ignore all caution and act as if we could return to normal is completely understandable.

That’s why it is important, maybe, to remind ourselves that this reality is actually, indeed, our reality, for very concrete reasons. Logic may help us here.

  1. The pandemic is real. For whatever reason, it spread out of China, whose government was not forthcoming for months about the cause and specific design of the virus. (To be clear: The blame lies with the government, not with the people of China, who are just innocent victims of a cruel regime. The hatred for people of Asian or specifically Chinese descent is wrong – as is all hatred. But anger at the government is justified).
  2. The virus spreads through droplets (which can be controlled with masks, maintaining distance, cleaning of surfaces) and aerosols (which can be controlled with even better masks, even greater distance, cleaning of surfaces, avoidance of indoor meetings, frequent and efficient changes of air in rooms if you have to be indoors). Some viral variants are more prolific than others.
  3. The virus enters through the respiratory system, but its effects are on the entire biology of the body. Some of its effects are probably debilitating for a long time, in both adults and children.
  4. The virus can be transmitted by symptomatic and asymptomatic persons.
  5. The virus can be deadly for everyone, but most likely for older people and those with serious medical conditions which may or may not be known to those affected.
  6. The infection spreads exponentially, not lineally, if given enough room.
  7. The effects of the viral infection become clear only after a certain passage of time. From infection to symptoms to potential hospitalization to potential death, it takes several weeks. Current infection data will map onto deaths with a significant time delay. We will have to act now in anticipation of something that may or may not happen in a few weeks. This has proved to be a major challenge, as people keep questioning the lethality of the virus.
  8. Vaccination needs to happen as fast as possible. Without it, viral spread continues and new mutated variants can evolve that may evade the protections given by the vaccine.
  9. All our various hygienic and lockdown countermeasures are in place BECAUSE OF EVERYTHING BEFORE. We cannot pretend that this is not real, even though we are suffering the consequences of both the pandemic and our reactions to it. We need to constantly adapt our reactions to the situation, be more vigilant that we’d like to be, and remain in a state of lockdown and protectiveness till this is over for everyone, globally.
  10. If we ignore safety and just pretend it is not happening, the pandemic will still spread, people will still get sick, will die, and the number of mutated variants will increase to eventually counteract even our vaccines. This must not be allowed to happen. For this, we need to think logically, long-term, and need to have patience – and governments need to help their people to maintain that patience by supporting their existence.

This is our moment as a global community, our make-or-break moment. We need to fight this together, or else there may not be much that needs saving at the end of this depressing period in human history. Let’s prove we can rise to the occasion as one world.

#79: The Need for the Public Understanding of Humanities and Social Science Theory

Words are easy. They are not formulas. You should just be able to read them and understand them instantly. Or so it goes.

We seemingly are living in a time where all the things talked about in the humanities and the social sciences in the recent decades are finally coming to have their day in the public consciousness. Words like “race”, “gender”, (not “class”, that is not of interest ever, really), “narrative,” “history,” “construction,” “capitalism,” “discourse,” “inequality,” “equity” etc. are thrown around with ease that you would think the entire world had just taken advanced theory graduate classes.

But of course, this is not the case. What has happened is that some of these terms – completely taken out of their “habitat”, their historical and philosophical context, have been unleashed as memes into the wild, devoid of their caveats, conditions, footnotes and complications – devoid of all things that make up the equivalent of a mathematical formula.

The perception that the “talking” and “writing” sciences should just be understandable “as is” appears to have made the rounds, and any complexity is denied as it would be deemed to just make this new pseudo-discourse boring, take all the fun out of it, and the possibility to monetize the outcry.

If you have been wondering, should you have been reading anything on this blog so far, what it is that I am actually doing, then you are not alone. It took me, myself and I an entirety of 23 years to comprehend what I have been on about on my blog and in my research. My real interest in this format seems to be the Public Understanding of the Humanities and Social Sciences.

I am trying not to be too pedantic, to have a bit of fun, to not be too dogmatic, to never be mean, and to always be open to new ideas.

Speaking of idea, isn’t that a difficult term? Ah, but I just promised to not be too pedantic, so there’s that for now…

#78: What Is Social Justice – and What Isn’t

Monument to the Burning of Giordano Bruno at the Campo dei Fiori in Rome.
“A BRUNO – IL SECOLO DA LUI DIVINATO – QUI DOVE IL ROGO ARSE”
(“To Bruno – from the age he divined  – here where the fire burned”).

If a term like Social Justice has to have any meaning, it needs to solve problems in society.

The biggest social problems typically have one thing in common: They create division.

Overcoming division and enhancing participation in a shared society is thus key to solving such problems.

The first component of Social Justice is thus a focus on society itself, on commonality, on unity, on harmony. Anything that enhances social peace is better than that which creates social strife.

Now to the second component, justice. Justice means a repairing of those aspects of society that are not contributing to social peace, to equal participation, to overcoming division. Problems past, present and future need to be addressed, honestly and openly, and remedies found for repairing the damage caused, and opportunities sought to increase social awareness of social injustice, in order to promote – jointly, collaboratively – social justice.

Social Justice is nothing but social peace, and peace means happiness, productivity, equity of access, equality of worth, shared humanity, acknowledgment of human dignity, even a recognition of the dignity of all life.

Social Justice draws from certain traumatic moments in human history, and aims to learn from them, create justice for the future out of the pain from the past. Social Justice sets itself as a reaction to the Holocaust and other genocides, slavery, mistreatment of others as a group due to culturally constructed differences such as race, class, gender, age, ability, species, and in the future surely the distinction between natural/artificial life forms. All these divisions exist because of culturally constructed differences that are creating differential understandings of others as human or infrahuman (to use Paul Gilroy’s term).

Thus if we truly want to work to enact social justice, some guidelines might help:

  1. We are all living beings with the same rights every human being has. We may be in different standing in society, in different professions, following different beliefs and ideologies, may be richer or poorer, but at the core, we are all the same. We all share in the human community and the human condition.
  2. We also share in community with our planet and the natural world; we are part of them, and our actions or inactions directly affect the natural world, and consequently again ourselves. We are all on the same planet, we share the same home, and everybody has a right to be here.
  3. We shall never forget that the categories of difference that discrimination is based upon are culturally and socially constructed. Reifying and validating these categories of difference will only further division instead of creating justice.
  4. We are all equal in worth and deserve to be treated with respect and dignity. Every single life matters, and a mistreatment of one is a mistreatment of all. Some of us are more vulnerable than others and may need to be given special consideration and support. Those who are strong have a duty to protect those who are weaker, and not exploit them.
  5. In a Social Justice framework, there can be no thinking of other human beings as enemies. We are all fellow living beings, no matter our differences.
  6. Without honesty, no community can survive. We need to be striving for truth always, wherever it may lead us, irrespective of ideology.
  7. If you favor Social Justice, you cannot hate other human beings. Hatred means dividing yourself from others, preventing a connection and understanding rather than building them.
  8. Free speech is absolute. Everybody should have a right to speak, just as everybody should also have a duty to listen and be respectful of each other. We only learn, we only progress, if we learn together and from each other, and if we progress together. Once people feel that their voices are being suppressed, they may vent their frustration in a space where much less learning will be possible, and further division is created.
  9. We need to recognize that we are all imperfect beings. We all have the right to say or do things and regret them later and be forgiven for them. Social Justice is social healing, first and for all.
  10. There shall not ever again be masters and slaves – no group shall set itself apart from the others. We need to overcome traditional hierarchy, not recreate it.
  11. There needs to be humility about the things we can achieve. We may have high aspirations, but a recognition of our fallibility protects against undue despair and depression. We do not live only to work, we work to live.
  12. There needs to be grace towards those that fail to live up to standards that may be seen as higher. We all travel through time throughout our lives, and the world keeps changing around us. Assume it will happen to you yourself eventually, and draw humility from that thought.

Certainly there could be more points, but for now, I’ll leave it here.

#74: On the Difference Between Scientific and Mythological Thinking

Plato already talked about the difference between logos and mythos. Put very simply, the first, λόγος, stands for truth, reason, and science, whereas the second, μῦθος, stands for story, narrative, and mythology. Both can describe approaches to learning and truth, but they differ critically in how they function and of use they can be to society.

Mythological thinking is focused on beginnings, on genealogies, on staying within a system. In order to understand a story, you need to follow it from the beginning. If you enter it later, you will need to backtrack and figure out what happened before. Mythologies lay building block upon building block, and the building itself always aims for completion. Stories, as Aristotle reminded us, have a beginning that is not arbitrary, and an ending that conclusively ends the story and that brings to a close what was started in the beginning. The final goal, the telos (τέλος), beings to fruition what was laid out in the beginning. If we pay attention throughout the narrative, we may figure out the final goal, the endgame, the purpose of events. Everything has a deeper meaning, nothing happens by accident, signs and portents are everywhere to be found, and the truth can be revealed by those with special knowledge and insight that know how to interpret the flow of events.

In a way, mythological thinking appears to be core to human nature. We are natural storytellers. All human cultures have stories explaining their origins, their culture, their unique identity. Narrativity is what drives societies through their respective cultures. Narratives give us our sense of self, our sense of hierarchies, of destiny, of past and future, of meaning – for better or worse. They are deeply connected to language, and individual words have deep meanings steeped in history, power relations and ways of thinking.

Individual thinkers, philosophers and artists, have an enormous influence on mythologies.

Mythologies can tolerate variance. Any attempt at systematizing mythological narratives will need to make exceptions for multiple versions. Some core tenets of such a narrative may remain constant, but surrounding factors will change, irrespective of the mode of narration. Greek, Roman and Norse mythologies may each center around a specific pantheon, but some details may vary from narrator to narrator, from time period to time period. Gods will have many names, or many bynames signifying different origins or interpretations. Stories about the gods will vary depending on the author, the specific culture, time period, etc. Mythologies can evolve over time, and emphasize different core elements even transcending specific mythological or religious narratives. The myth of the “Great Goddess”, for instance, sees its main deity in different religious contexts, whether it talks about Ishtar, Astarte, Isis, Demeter, or Mary, for instance. The demigod Hero who saves the world after undergoing a variety of self-sacrificing trials can be called Prometheus, Hercules, Odysseus, Jesus, Luke Skywalker, or Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But behind this variation stands a clear anthropological truth. Religion cannot be disproven because it is not about facts but about deeply held anthropological / psychological / theological / mythological meaning. What we think about reality is deeply influenced by our narratives.

Scientific thinking is different. Beginnings matter in different ways than in narratives. Science does not care about narratives. It does not care what Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Max Planck, Archimedes, Richard Dawkins or even Neil DeGrasse Tyson my think. While there is Norse mythology according to Icelandic or German traditions, to Beowulf, the Nibelungenlied, Wagner or Tolkien, science is the same everywhere. It matters not one iota whether Einstein discovered Special and General Relativity, somebody else would have eventually – or not. Science describes reality, and reality does not care about narratives. You may need narrative power to explain science (and none do it better than the likes of Dawkins and Tyson), but again, science does not care. It is true regardless.

Whether we know how the universe truly began may or may not inform important technologies derived from our scientific knowledge about the beginning, but knowledge about its beginning is immaterial to our contemporary reality. The so-called laws of science are mere descriptions of reality. Planck did not disprove Einstein, who did not disprove Newton (as it is frequently said). Quantum physics describes a different lens on the same reality as Einsteinian relativity or Newtonian mechanics. Relativity is an important consideration when discussing very fast objects, but for our day-to-day lives, Newton does just fine. No matter how fast humans move on Earth, we will never even approach the speed of light, and time dilation does not matter to us. And unless we look at very small particles, we need not contend with quantum physics. Whether space has 3 dimensions or 4 or more does not change our day-to-day lives.

If Darwin made a mistake, that does not unravel the theory of evolution. Einstein underestimated the importance of quantum physics, but that does not take away from quantum physics. Newton did not think about objects traveling close to the speed of light affecting their passage of time, but that does not disprove his theory of gravity. Why? Because science is based on observable reality, on repeatable experiments and observations, on falsifiability, and on a community of free-thinking scholars all eager to compete with each other in the discovery of scientific principles underlying reality.

In mythological thinking, beginnings matter and individual thinkers can make a big difference. In scientific thinking, the latest and newest findings matter, and individual scientists – as accomplished and justifiably famous as they may be – do not matter with respect to their discoveries.

We see this difference being played out right now in the times of Coronavirus. Those believing that it is all a big conspiracy will point out that early in 2020, some scientists said masks do not make a difference, and the conspiracists will assume that this was somehow an original truth and what scientists say now (that masks matter) is a lie. But science only analyzes the data. We learned that the virus spreads in ways that indeed make mask wearing necessary to protect yourself and others. (We also were able to make more masks in the meantime and do not have to ration them for hospital workers as we had to in early 2020).

In science, the majority opinion matters because it is based on the competitive attempts of all scientists to discover reality. In science, of a specific hypothesis or even theory is disproven, science benefits even more – and scientists will applaud this, bruised egos aside. There cannot be “renegade scientists” – because all scientists are, in a sense, renegades already. “Scientific consensus” means that the burden of evidence supporting a hypothesis or theory is so great that the likelihood of it being wrong is low; but should there be evidence overturning a specific way of thinking, it will be welcome, and will be invited with great interest as it serves the larger interest, the search for truth.

In the end, the great seeker of compromise, Stephen J. Gould, spoke of science and religion as non-overlapping magisteria. Science and religion (or mythology) seek different answers, both, ideally, speaking to our human quest for meaning. But when it comes to confronting a real-world problem, whether it is a pandemic or climate change, I prefer to listen to the majority of scientists over singular renegade voices focusing on narratives and conspiracy mythologies.

Mythos may be good for the soul, but logos ensures our survival.