Let’s run a thought experiment. To start with, I want you to hold two things firmly in your mind. The first is your moral identity: your politics, your religion, your general moral outlook on the world. Think of the top four or five moral issues most important to you, and imagine how much better the world would be if we took serious, large-scale action on those issues.
Secondly, think of your opposition: the people who want to stop progress from happening on the issues that matter to you. Consider what motivates them to be so hostile toward your moral views. Remember all of the unnecessary harm they cause in the world. Imagine what a better place the world would be, and all of the beneficial improvements society could achieve, without their obstruction.
During this exercise, you’re not allowed to attribute anything I say about you to your opposition, and you’re not allowed to attribute anything I say about your opposition to you. What I say you do, you do, and what I say your opposition does, they do.
So now, holding both your own moral identity and your opposition’s antagonism firmly in your mind, and remembering every major moral outcome that’s at stake, let’s begin.
I am offering you total control over all governments, businesses, and other institutions on the planet Earth. Under this offer, every single person who holds any kind of power in the world must answer to you, and it’s ultimately you who okays or vetoes every …
Charlie: I’m going to decide what is true based on what my group thinks is true.
Alex: Please no. There are methods of deciding what’s true that are reliable, verifiable, falsifiable, testable, and open to revision when incorrect. They are much better than believing something is true just because your group believes it’s true.
Charlie: Sure, but those methods have flaws.
Alex: They do, but the people who use those methods are constantly working to correct the flaws. People who use group allegiance to decide what’s true don’t do that.
Charlie: The only reason my group doesn’t do that is because my group is flawless.
Alex: Really? What makes you sure? Put another way: If your group’s ideas ever did have a flaw, how would you know?
Charlie: I’d know because my group knows everything there is that’s worth knowing about.
Alex: There are many other groups who feel the same way and are clearly wrong. What makes your group different?
Charlie: This conversation is making me uncomfortable. You’re just out to try and control what other people think, aren’t you?
Alex: I’m trying to explain why group allegiance is a bad method of determining what’s true. That’s not the same thing as me attacking your specific group.
Charlie: No, you’re arguing in favor of objective truth, which doesn’t exist because all methods of determining it are flawed, and simultaneously does exist because my group is right about everything.
Alex: That’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying we need to …
In 1996, Chinese scientists noticed a larger-than-usual number of wild geese dying from avian influenza, a well-known but mild disease that had been found in bird populations for over a century. The outbreak soon spread to chicken farms, where chickens began to die by the thousands. By the time it became apparent that this wasn’t the ordinary avian flu, the first human cases had been reported in Hong Kong.
This new strain of the H5N1 avian flu, dubbed HPAI, for Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza, appeared to only strike workers on chicken farms. Millions of chickens were culled in order to stop the outbreak, and millions more have been culled during periodic outbreaks in the years since. In 2003, the outbreak began to spread to birds around the world. Today, tens of millions of birds are infected worldwide, including some in the United States and Canada. Commercial turkeys in South Carolina were found to have HPAI just last month.
HPAI kills about half of all humans who get it. Fortunately, it only spreads from bird to person, not from person to person. But when researchers exhumed bodies of survivors of the 1918 flu pandemic (the one that killed around 2% of the world’s population), they found ten mutations the virus had undergone to give it sustained human-to-human transmission. The avian flu, today, has gained eight of those ten mutations. It only needs two more. With its high prevalence in wild birds and abundant opportunities to share genetic material with other …
A lot of advice in the indie publishing community centers around writing speed. If you want to build an audience, they say, you must write X number of books per year. Readers of self-published books tend to be voracious and you need to write quickly to appease their bottomless appetite for more books, or they’ll lose interest.
I think there’s some truth to this. Even well-known, traditionally published writers need to write at least one book each year or two (unless they’re George R. R. Martin). And I’m glad that there’s such a market for indie publishing. But I’ve always found the indie world’s preoccupation with writing speed a bit discouraging, because I can’t write that fast.
Often, a distinction between artists and businesspeople is central to the discussion of writing speed. Most authors fall somewhere in the middle of the two camps, and most people at the extremes are civil. But occasionally you find some highly opinionated writers who think everyone in the other camp is an idiot.
On the one hand, you have authors who write for the sheer art of it, to express and communicate and tell the best possible stories, and who are happy to take their sweet time writing, because they’d rather write well than fast. When they aren’t being friendly, they look upon the business-oriented writers as moneygrubbing hucksters out to make a quick buck, in the game more to build their personal brand than to add anything of meaning or value to the …
You may not see it happening yet, but drones are already changing everything. They’re searching woods for lost hikers, surveying land and crops, catching poachers, inspecting infrastructure, locating forest fires, and even catching criminals. We race them and snap photos with them. In the near future, they’ll walk our dogs, respond to our medical emergencies, and transport our cargo. And they’re revolutionizing innumerable other fields of work.
Drones’ abilities will cause some of our jobs will disappear, of course. But their net benefit to humanity seems substantial, and scarcely a day goes by without a news article praising their potential to aid us in our work.
But drones are revolutionizing every sector of the economy—not just the legal ones. And there’s been far less discussion about drones’ potential to aid criminals in their work.
Using drones for crime hasn’t caught on in a big way yet, but drones are undergoing changes that will make them far more useful to criminals than the clumsy quadcopters we use now.
Drones are getting smaller. Various militaries are already using drones the size of a dragonfly, and it’s only a matter of time before this miniaturized tech hits consumer shelves.
They’re also becoming more powerful, able to carry objects, and can stay afloat for extended periods of time, recharging their batteries with solar power. With the emergence of ubiquitous 3D printers, drone components will become far cheaper and easier to create at home. And at some point, drones will become so …
My first day of high school scared me senseless. My openness to new experiences has grown by leaps and bounds over the years, but back then, in the middle of a new place, with new faces who were older, smarter, and much more outgoing than me, I wanted to crawl back under my bedsheets and stay there until summer.
But I found a kindred spirit on that first day of high school: a stocky kid who was just as shy as me, and with whom I happened to share most of my classes. He looked out of place, and I felt out of place, so I sat next to him, and I made my first high school friend. His name was Chris.
Chris, as I learned after talking with him, was a Star Wars fan. This alone forged an immediate bond between us, because as a thirteen-year-old, I imbibed everything Star Wars like a wampa imbibes tauntaun meat. But Chris and I also laughed at all the same jokes, agreed on all the same political issues, and reveled in each other’s weirdness. We hit it right off.
Together with our friend Dustin, we became the school’s resident A/V geeks. I documented this story in another blog post, where I wrote about some of the horrible movies we made together. But what I didn’t emphasize in that post was how seriously. fucking. into it. we were.
We loved movies. Especially the big summer tent poles. Chris exposed me to a …
A common criticism of science and the people who implicitly trust it is that science is no better than a religious cult, that science’s followers will blindly accept anything science has to say with no critical thought involved. Critics label this unthinking attitude as “scientism” and lump it in with other tribally biased belief systems to avoid.
Unfortunately, the critics have a point. Many people do view science in this pseudo-religious way. A whole industry of science “prophets” has sprung up, demanding that we accept science’s conclusions without presenting any evidence or counterevidence, and without explaining the steps by which scientists have arrived at their conclusions. Glimpse an episode of Bill Nye’s Netflix show and you’d be excused for thinking you were watching a late-night political comic with all the tribalism and groupthink and cults of personality involved. Nye, in particular, seems intent on turning science into an us-versus-them dispute, with “them” being the horrid science-hating mongrels who want to drag us back into the dark ages.
(Neil DeGrasse Tyson often gets grouped in with this bunch, and it’s true that he’s close friends with them, but I think his record as a promoter of science is great. Just listen to his episode of StarTalk featuring Janeane Garofalo. He spends the entire episode defending right-wing views against her furious and hateful attacks on them. And he often criticizes the left for their own anti-science views. Neil’s goal is to promote science, not any particular political ideology.)
The problem with …
I’m growing less and less interested in labeling myself as part of any particular belief system or social movement, because I’m realizing that all belief systems and social movements can get in the way of what’s true and what’s ethical. And those are the only two questions that matter when we’re building our morality, right?
What is true? And what is ethical?
Every other question about morality can be boiled down to these two questions. And belief systems—or “isms,” as I sometimes like to call them—often stop their followers from asking those questions.
Once an “ism” stops being used to categorize things that are true and ethical, and starts being used as a source of truth and ethics, an orthodoxy has been created. This orthodoxy can then be used by its leaders to abuse their power and suppress dissent, and to spread the message that the movement’s doctrine is more important than what’s true or ethical.
In other words, if the orthodoxy ever encounters an idea contradicting itself, and this idea may or may not be true or ethical, then the idea will automatically be assumed to be false and unethical for no reason other than because it conflicts with the orthodox doctrine.
Take environmentalism, for example—a cause I strongly believe in and support. Environmentalism originated from a set of findings about what was true: air and water pollution were causing health problems, forests were being destroyed, species were going extinct. It also came from a set of beliefs about …
My newest book, Dead Links, traces its origins back to my freshman year in college. It’s hard for me to go into detail about the professor whose ideas inspired the story without A.) spoiling the story for anyone who hasn’t read it, and B.) getting awkward, because I only ever met this professor once and I based one of my main characters on him. But he had some pretty cutting edge ideas about storytelling and what it could do that started my mental gears turning. I put my own spin on his ideas, gave them to a fictional character, and used them in Dead Links as a lens through which to examine the ethics of the whole entertainment enterprise that we humans have placed at the center of our modern culture.
But this story sat in my head for a long time. The germ of it first hit me immediately after meeting this professor and hearing him talk, but it didn’t start to grow until I got to grad school.
In the grad school I went to for film, we were required to make a feature-length film as part of the curriculum. A first draft of our script for this film was due on our very first day. Being the studious scholar that I am, I procrastinated through the whole summer and suddenly found myself with one week left until school started, with no script. So I ransacked my old story ideas to see if any sounded interesting enough …
Life for the earliest humans was very different than life is for us. They were at the constant mercy of their environment—if it decided not to give them food, they didn’t eat. They had only minimal shelter from the elements. Many died young. Anywhere they wanted to travel, they had to travel on foot.
Life wasn’t always terrible for them. They enjoyed a high degree of equality—there were no rich or poor, and in many areas women were as powerful and influential as men. There’s evidence that their societies were fairly peaceful, with plenty of leisure time for everyone.
But the fact remains that they depended on their families and tribes for survival in a very harsh world. This cooperation was a key adaptation that helped many mammal species thrive. It’s extremely pronounced in humans. We are social animals.
In a harsh world with limited resources, social animals needed to be certain that their children would survive, so they invested most of their time and resources in their children and formed the most basic social unit: the family. We knew we could trust our families, and we shared everything with them. Their struggles were our struggles. When a family member felt pain or joy, so did we.
This family group, according to philosopher Peter Singer, was the first “circle of ethics:” a hypothetical group with you at its center. You then have altruistic feelings toward everyone else in the circle, and a desire to care for them as much as, …