Wilfully Ignorant?

Some time ago, I tweeted: “Ignorance is forgivable; willful ignorance is not.”

That about sums up what I want to say here. Willful ignorance puzzles me. Why do some people choose to be ignorant?

It’s well known that how you perceive things depends on your preconceptions. A simple example: show a group of people a sequence of letters, then an ambiguous character. Most will interpret the character as a letter. Show another group of people a sequence of numbers, then the same ambiguous character, and they’ll interpret it as a number. The same character is interpreted differently depending on the context. Depending, in effect, on your preconceptions.

That’s not what I’m discussing here. I’m talking about people who, for reasons of their own, refuse to believe well established truths such as: complex life evolved from simpler organisms; human activity is affecting the climate; the Earth is older than 6,000 years. What drove it home for me was a local story in which the old childhood disease, measles was making an encore appearance due to some parents’ refusal to vaccinate their children.

To put it succinctly, there are people who refuse to believe that science works. In effect, they refuse to believe that reality is, well, real.

1969 lunar landingThe fact is, science does work. The proof is all around you. Is that a mobile phone in your pocket? Remember the antibiotics you were prescribed for that fever? The manned space station? Those robots scurrying around on the planet Mars? The space probe that has gone beyond the edge of the solar system? Those things are real. Science made them possible. And the same scientific method that led to the moon landing in 1969 tells us, irrefutably, that evolution happened, that it’s as real as gravity. You can’t cherry-pick the scientific results that are compatible your belief systems and reject the rest.

To better address this, we need to improve the way in which we teach science to our children. Science is both a method and a body of knowledge. Too often, the body of knowledge is taught but not the method. That’s unfortunate, because the method is key. What am I talking about? Things like hypotheses, pilot studies, experiments, observation, measurement error, statistical analysis, peer review, replicated studies. This stuff isn’t particularly complicated. It’s not rocket science. But it’s fundamental to evaluating scientific data. The application of the scientific method is the basis for the information in the science textbooks you’ve used. And it’s important to you in your everyday life.

Why? Here’s an example. Suppose you read a new study demonstrating that eating at least 100 red grapes per day reduces occurrences of cancer and heart disease. (Note: I made this up.) Time to head to the grocery store, right? Wrong. (Really. Don’t go.) Where was the study published? A reputable journal? Was it properly controlled? Are there alternative interpretations of the data? Has it been replicated by several labs? Are the results generally accepted by the scientific community? Until these questions are answered, the study is vaguely interesting and nothing more. A possible basis for further work. Why is it on the front page of the newspaper then? To sell newspapers, of course.

Take evolution, which lies at the other end of the spectrum. First proposed in the 19th century, the evolution of species has been confirmed by countless tests in fields such as anthropology and biochemistry, and is generally accepted as, not only a fact, but a pillar of modern science. So, why would anyone doubt it? Wait though, isn’t evolution just a theory? No. Evolution unquestionably happened. Theories of evolution attempt to explain the detailed mechanisms of how it works.

And what about vaccinations? They are considered one of the greatest boons of modern medicine, having been instrumental in reducing or eliminating diseases such as polio. Climate change? The science here is more recent, but the fact is that climate change scientists collectively assert that human activities are adversely affecting the climate, this based on countless experiments and observations.

If you’re inclined to deny science, I would invite you to spend some of your energy learning more about how it works. Afterwards, when you can better see the world for what it truly is, you might find yourself looking about with new, wide-eyed wonder.



The Fan Writer Hugo, and Pros


Over at File 770, Mike Glyer takes aim at pro writers who have won the Best Fan Writer Hugo , me included, on grounds that we tend to minimize the Fan Writer Hugo on our professional resumes; as Glyer puts it, “People who are building careers as writers do not want to identify their brands with anything that hints of the amateur.”

I have a direct response to him in the comments there, which basically is, no, actually, I’m really proud of my Fan Writer Hugo, it’s important to me for all sorts of reasons, and I mention it here not infrequently. At the same time I’m careful how I advertise the win in my professional life because I recognize that a fair number of fans would be spiky about me using it there. In my case it’s not about worrying that it’s an amateur award, but trying to…

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Music Has a Name

A revelation came to me.

Not all at once, but gradually,

as when the day brightens slowly

with the end of a rain, and the clouds, kissed by the breeze,

blush, then shuffle away, letting the light shine in.

I exited the bar at closing time, kissed Marianne goodbye,

and stood on the banks of the Saint-Laurent.

In the clear, cold light of the moon,

as the final mists were blown away,

amidst the church bells ringing in the distance,

it came to me, what I had always known but not known,

that Music has a name.

And it’s name is

Leonard Cohen.

Do Me a Solid

Don’t you just love the things in your life that are really solid? That you can really count on?

There are some brands and products I’ve encountered that fit that description. Did you ever own a Nintendo Super NES console? We bought one back in the day. It was a memorable day, actually, because my son was young enough and excited enough that he blurted out, “You’re the best dad ever!”

But that aside, the Super NES still works, some 20 years later. Amazing. Then there was the N64 console and Super Mario 64, which I would have no problem nominating as one of the best games ever. The console was rock solid and the game was huge. As in, there were a huge number of places to explore, and I couldn’t count how many ways you could command Mario to move.

Sadly, there aren’t too many products that would put in this category. I love London Fog as a brand. I’ve had one of their coats for years, and have used their umbrellas. Apple’s iPad might have been once, but since iOS 7, mine has crashed numerous times while app switching. It comes back up again quickly, but still.

Sometimes a thing just makes you feel like it must be solid. For instance: Had a problem with the car and called up a service station. The guy that picked up the phone said, “Rocky speaking.”

Rocky. Any car shop that hires a guy called Rocky has got to be the real deal. They got my business and did a good job. Naturally.

What’s solid in your life?

A Beautiful Truth

Did you ever get the uneasy feeling that the world you thought you were living in wasn’t quite real? Real in the sense that things you thought were true in fact might not be?

Sounds like the cue for a fantasy story, but sadly, it’s not fantasy, it’s reality.

For example, one could be forgiven for thinking–or perhaps a man could be forgiven for thinking this–that by now women were doing OK. That men had learned to treat them as equals, deserving of respect for their own individual merits. Seems like a no-brainer in the 21st century, don’t you think?

But is belief in this beautiful truth, that all people are created equal, only skin deep? There is an abundance of evidence that this might be the case. Let me cite some anecdotal examples.

Here in Ottawa, at one of the local universities, there were two front page stories in a matter of days. One in which a woman was allegedly sexually assaulted by members of the men’s hockey team, and another in which the student leader was the subject of a sexually violent online conversation.

Then there’s the sexually-oriented attack on Mary Robinette Kowal from some male members of the Science Fiction Writers Association, as I mentioned in an earlier post.

And the latest from that community, the ill-advised selection of Jonathan Ross, known for his verbal abuse of women in his performances, as MC for the Hugo awards ceremony. At a time when healing is needed, what a brilliant choice. I’ve never seen Mr. Ross in action, but by all accounts it seemed that the Hugos were hurtling towards a disaster of 2013 Oscars proportions. Anyone remember the travesty that was Seth MacFarlane’s Oscar performance?

After a Twitter storm, Mr. Ross resigned as MC. But what were the organizers thinking of in the first place?

Finally, an amazing incident in which a passenger on a WestJet flight left a note for the captain, written on a napkin, to the effect that the airplane cockpit was no place for a woman.

Wow. Come on, guys, are we really so threatened by successful women? Have we learned nothing over the past few decades?

Perhaps the hardest thing to accept is that the problem seems equally prevalent amongst young, university-aged men as men of my generation, who could almost–but not really–be forgiven, having grown up in an era when most moms stayed at home and baked and cleaned.

Why don’t all us men take a breath and agree on the following:

  1. We will not make sexually hostile comments about women, even in private conversation.

  2. We will call out anyone who does.

  3. Even if deep down you believe that women should stay at home (you might want to get some help for that), you will behave as if you don’t believe that, and treat the women around you with the same respect as if she were a man.

Is that so hard?


Do you read or write FanFiction? Do you care about it? If so, then there’s an article that might interest you at Wired.com.

keep calmWikipedia  defines FanFiction as “… a broadly defined fan labor term for stories about characters or settings written by fans of the original work, rather than by the original creator.”

Again according to Wikipedia, FanFiction.net is the largest FanFiction site, hosting some millions of stories. I post stories there myself based on characters created in Doctor Who, Castle, Firefly, and others.

The Wired article makes the case that FanFiction has generally been looked down upon by the writing community, but that this may be changing. They note that a new publisher, Big Bang Press, having successfully completed a Kickstarter campaign, will be publishing original works by FanFiction authors. Just as interesting as the article are the comments.

Normally I shy away from the comments section of Internet articles. They all too often have the intellectual and emotional maturity of eight-year-old miscreants on speed. Not these comments, which are well written and thought-provoking. They make some excellent points.

The key point is this: the world is full of derivative works of art. (If you want to impress your friends, talk about intertextuality, my new word for the day. You can look it up at Wikipedia.) Would you turn up your nose at AMC’s The Walking Dead because it’s based on a series of comic books? (Sorry, graphic novels.) Then there’s Robert Jordan, author of the beloved Wheel of Time series, who wrote a number of books based on Conan, created by Robert E. Howard. By Crom! And the list goes on.

Let’s be honest. Part of the reason FanFiction has its reputation is because of the quality of the writing. But come on. Lots of FanFic authors are kids. How often have you heard adults wringing their hands at how seldom kids read these days, and blame it on the Internet and (gasp!) Social Media (the source of all evil). But at places like FanFiction.net, you’ll find lots of kids, university students, and young adults who not only read, they write. They deserve to be cheered on, regardless of whether or not their prose is a match for Alice Munro.

Which isn’t to say you won’t find some great FanFiction stories out there. If you are skeptical, just check out “Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality” by Eliezer Yudkowsky. You’d be hard pressed to find any commercially published work that was funnier or more thought-provoking. I’ve seen some FanFics that were painful to read, and some that were a joy. You can explore what-ifs, alternate universes, and the further adventures of your favourite characters. And all for free. Really, what’s not to like?

Writing FanFiction is fun, you see, and FanFics can be fun to read. Once you find some authors you like and start to follow them regularly, you’ll find the experience more and more rewarding.

Feeling spontaneous? Here’s some spontaneous FanFiction for you.

“Wash, we seem to be getting a might close to that sun,” Mal said.

Wash held the flight controls tightly and grimaced. “Afraid we’re going to get a whole lot closer, Cap’n. We’re caught in its gravity well. Got a plan though,” he said.

“Please tell me it doesn’t involve turning my boat into a molten puddle.”

“Can’t promise anything, but I think I can slingshot us ‘round the sun if I increase the speed,” Wash said.

“Sorry, did you say you wanted to fly us into the sun faster? That’s your plan?”

“Here we go,” Wash said, and keyed in the course and speed.

Mal picked up the intercom. “Um, this is the Captain. Those of you who like your meat extra crispy are in for a treat. Hang on to something.”

Some time later, he wasn’t sure how long, Mal picked himself up off the floor in confusion. Then it came to him. The sun. Slingshotting. Glancing out the forward window, they seemed to be in orbit around a planet that he didn’t recognize.

Mal shook Wash by the shoulder. “Wash! I need to you come ‘round, figure out where we are.”

But as Wash struggled to regain his sensibilities, Serenity received a voice transmission.

“This is Captain James T. Kirk of the starship Enterprise. Please identify yourself.”

Mal and Wash looked at each other.

“Oh, crap,” said Wash.

Oh, didn’t I say? You can write FanFiction crossovers as well. Feel free to take the above as a writing prompt and finish the story.

The image is from http://keep-calm-and.tumblr.com