Scientism: It’s a Real Thing, but It’s a Snarl Word, Too

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 …

The Truth Is More Important Than Your Belief System

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 …

A Brief History of Dead Links

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 …

The Expanding Circle of Empathy

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,

Dead Links and the World of Tomorrow

The future is impossible to predict. But that hasn’t stopped futurists, and sci-fi writers like myself, from giving it a good try. Sometimes we even get it right.

In my new murder mystery book, Dead Links, I paint a picture of one possible future in 2038, twenty years from now. My first duties were to my story and to my thematic material, so the accuracy of my futurism had to take a back seat to them. I built the story world first for storytelling impact, and second for accuracy.

But after reading the finished book, I was surprised at how closely the book’s world aligns with my actual views on what the United States will be like twenty years in the future.

Self-driving cars and 3D printers will be ubiquitous, of course. They were the low-hanging fruit in my worldbuilding, and a ton has been written about them.

And the story takes place in Los Angeles, which is experiencing an intense heat wave and drought during the story—a climate many of us will have to start getting used to. Also low-hanging fruit.

Much of the story centers around the entertainment industries, which will have changed considerably by 2038. Desktops, laptops, and phones will have been mostly replaced by glasses, which will themselves be replaced by contact lenses that let us experience all of our digital information virtually, from any location. In fact, the entire internet will start to take physical form around us. Pop-up ads will become pop-up …

A Special Thank-You for a Special Guy

I went to the IB Program in high school—IB for “International Baccalaureate.” It’s a worldwide program that basically takes high school kids and puts them through college while they’re still in high school.

It was hard. If high school were a video game, IB would be its highest difficult setting. Four to five hours of homework per night was the norm, the courses were all advanced, regular participation with volunteer organizations was required, and an avalanche of tests waited for anyone who made it to the third year. A lot of kids dropped out. A lot more became insane workaholics as adults. (Wink, wink.)

In middle school I was a bit directionless—I liked video games and Star Wars, and that was about all I ever though about—and I think my parents saw IB as my surefire path to college. They had me apply for it, and after getting over some fear and reluctance, I accepted my invitation to attend.

I did make a few friends during my first week, and I liked the teachers well enough, but I didn’t have much of a life. Among school, church, and home, my whole life consisted of adults telling me what to do, and me doing it. I was happy—this dynamic is probably typical for a lot of kids that age—and I’m certainly grateful in retrospect that I was raised with a strong work ethic. But something vital was missing from my life, and I didn’t even know it until I found it.…

Futurism Is Awesome

Centuries before the invention of the airplane, a special group of people was trying to figure out how to create a flying machine.

In the early 1800s, the same community—and one man in particular—was talking about digital computers. In the 1940s, they actually predicted the PC revolution of the 1980s.

Almost three decades before the Manhattan Project, this group was speculating about nuclear weapons and what they might mean for the world. And as the first bomb exploded over Hiroshima, they were already philosophizing about combat drones.

Inventors, writers, philosophers, and businesspeople, they work in many professions, but share a singular fascination. These are the futurologists, or more colloquially, the futurists. Their specialty is taking past and current trends, and extrapolating those trends into the future.

Sure, they’ve gotten stuff wrong. We don’t have flying cars, widespread space tourism, or a virtual-reality internet… yet. But the fact that futurists have successfully predicted so many technologies that have radically transformed our social, political, and psychological spaces makes my ears perk up whenever the futurist community has something to say. Aware of past failed predictions, modern futurists focus less on predicting the future and more on extrapolating possible futures, so we can all plan which futures to aim for and which to avoid. Their methodologies are getting more accurate all the time, becoming more science than art.

Different futurists have different degrees of accuracy, and of course we’ll never know for sure how right or wrong they were until the actual …

Should Politics Be Science?

And by science I mean real, empirical, data-driven science.

My instinct says that political science should live up to its name and actually become a real science. One political party should test a hypothesis, preferably on a small population. And if the hypothesis withstands that experimentation (i.e. maximizes flourishing and minimizes suffering), then everyone should agree to adopt it on a larger scale until something better can also be rigorously tested and withstand experimentation. If a hypothesis doesn’t withstand experimentation, then everyone should agree to drop it and look for another solution. This is a tried-and-true method for discovering truth in so many arenas outside of politics. It guards against bias taking over a system, and against rule by tradition. It encourages change where change is needed. I think it’s a great ideal to strive for.

But I feel the counterarguments strongly, too. Is it worth testing an idea when the testing itself could result in widespread human suffering (since some of the ideas tested will inevitably be bad ideas)? Does widespread human flourishing (the end) justify using populations of people as lab rats (the means)? Could politics-as-science ever work in a system poisoned by money from vested interests? And will society ever be rational enough to be able to admit when all or part of a cherished idea isn’t working, and move on?

But there are also rebuttals to the counterarguments. Won’t politics-as-science work just fine if we can get big money out of the system before …

Climate change gets all the press. Biodiversity loss is a greater threat.

Caring for the natural world that supports us is one of the most important issues to me, political or otherwise, and it’s such a common-sense idea that I think very few people actually disagree with it. “We should destroy nature,” is simply not a sentiment that most people have.

So then why is there such a political shouting match over environmentalism? I scarcely scroll by one article on my Facebook feed reading, “What, you don’t believe in FACTS?” before another article pops up about brainwashed alarmists jumping to fanciful conclusions.

What gives? Caring for nature isn’t liberal or conservative. It’s just the right thing to do. But even many who profess to care about nature seem like they’re just trying to score points in an argument when they talk about climate change.

Climate change. The crux of the matter. Liberals think it’s an urgent, world-threatening problem while many conservatives aren’t convinced it exists at all—especially when solving it would mean increasing government regulations on businesses. Like all controversy, this controversy sells, so climate change has stolen the environmental headlines. It’s rare to see an environmental story in the news that isn’t about climate change. So I have an important question to ask:

If climate change were solved tomorrow, would the environment be saved?

We’d still be dumping eight million tons of trash into our oceans every year. We’d still be rapidly destroying our planet’s topsoil, 40% of which is already degraded from too much farming. We’d still be burning through …

What Science Is

When I was in high school and college, I thought science classes were pretty boring. Why did I have to learn this stuff? Who cared about the phases of cell mitosis, the difference between ionic and covalent bonds, and Newton’s laws of motion? What practical value would science ever hold for me?

I wasn’t alone in my opinion that science was boring and had no relevance to my daily life. The US is currently facing a crisis of far too few students entering STEM fields, and I think basic science education is a major contributing factor.

I’m not saying I had bad science teachers. I had great science teachers! The problem isn’t with teachers themselves—it’s with how our education system demands that science be taught.

In most of the western world, science is presented as an endless litany of facts. Students memorize enough information to pass their tests, but too few students leave the classroom with a true understanding of what science actually is, and why it’s so important.

And because we see science as a meaningless encyclopedia of boring facts, a wide variety of misconceptions about science creeps into our worldviews as we age and form our identities. This makes us susceptible to all sorts of agenda-driven groups who manipulate our opinions and perceptions of science, its practitioners, and its findings.

It’s hard for me to describe how deeply this saddens me, because today, I love science, and I value the clear arc of progress that science has gifted …

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