Space – the Final Frontier?

One of the many major changes to the western world over the past century has been the disappearance of the frontier.

In the early 20th century, in fact to some extent even up to the 1950s, westerners who wanted to opt out could find a frontier territory in which to do so. There were the remoter outposts of the British Empire (and of the other European empires). For Americans there was South America. For those who found their lives unsupportable there was always that escape hatch – they could start a new life in the Colonies or in South America where they were unlikely to be bothered too much by questions about their past and unlikely to have too much trouble with intrusive bureaucracies or police forces.

Britons would commonly choose somewhere like Kenya or Malaya. There was plenty of money to be made if you had drive and if you didn’t have drive there were fellow countrymen to sponge off, who were reasonably indulgent of expatriates (even if they mildly disapproved of expatriates who “went native”).

All that is largely gone. Escaping from the modern surveillance state is next to impossible. Any bolt-holes that are left are pretty uninviting and bureaucrats and police are likely to will hunt you down anyway.

One response to this is the emergence of the idea of space as the final frontier, the one sure refuge for someone who wants or needs to opt out completely. It became a major theme of science fiction in the 20th century and it also took on a definite political complexion. It became a popular right-wing fantasy, and it became a very popular libertarian fantasy. The fact that colonies in space would in reality face immense practical difficulties tended to get glossed over (and libertarians never do worry too much about irritating details like reality).

It’s a fantasy that also has a following among the nerdier elements of the alt-right.

Personally I find it very amusing that so many people have convinced themselves that colonies in space or on other planets would be havens of liberty, veritable libertarian paradises with no government at all. It amuses me because I’ve always assumed that a space colony founded on libertarian principles wouldn’t last a week. Space, or colonies on Mars, are not the sorts of environment that are likely to be very forgiving of rigged individuals with a contempt for regulations. They’d be the sorts of environments where one mistake would mean death, and quite possibly death for every member of the colony. Such a colony is more likely to succeed if it’s composed of rigid conformists with no imagination, no more than moderate intelligence, a respect for hierarchies and a passion for following rules and regulations to the letter. Military-style discipline is more likely than glorious liberty.

Such colonies would also have a very much better chance of survival if they adopted a very traditionalist approach to morality and to sex roles. You would only need one member of a colony to start sleeping around to very soon find yourself sitting on top of a ticking time-bomb. It’s also very obvious that no colony can survive without children and therefore the women would need to focus more on child-rearing than personal fulfilment and careers.

A space colony might well end up being more of a traditionalist paradise than a libertarian one.

Not that it matters, given that the practical difficulties (not to mention the political obstacles) are so overwhelming that colonies in space will probably remain science fiction for a long long time.

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Isaac Asimov’s The Caves of Steel

Isaac Asimov’s classic 1954 novel The Caves of Steel might not sound very relevant to this blog but bear with me.

The Caves of Steel is usually considered to be important and interesting for two reasons. Firstly, it’s a crucial book in Asimov’s famous robot cycle. Secondly, it’s a genre hybrid – it’s both a science fiction novel and a traditional fair-play puzzle-plot murder mystery. And it’s a rare example of a novel that is a success in both genres.

There is a third reason why this book should be celebrated. It’s an extremely interesting dystopian novel with very strong political overtones. I personally don’t agree with Asimov’s politics but he was an intelligent liberal (yes such creatures once walked the Earth) and his work has been immensely influential.

The future Earth of the novel is massively overpopulated. Almost everyone lives in enormous cities. It’s a world that makes the world of Orwell’s 1984 seem benign and even idyllic. Food is in short supply (the rationing is nightmarish in its pettiness) but living space is in even shorter supply. There is zero privacy. Zero. Even high status individuals do not have bathrooms. A washbasin is considered to be an almost unimaginable luxury. Absolute social conformity is enforced. This is the soft totalitarianism of Brave New World but combined with the squalor and misery of 1984. There is an all-pervading atmosphere of resignation and pessimism.

It’s fascinating to see overpopulation hysteria in such a fully developed form as early as 1954.

Of course being a science fiction writer of the golden age Asimov saw the answer to the problem as lying in the colonisation of space. This is something that has always seemed rather fanciful to me.

Leaving aside the overpopulation hysteria it’s a fine example of what I would consider to be a plausible dystopia, enforced by propaganda rather than overt repression. And it’s an interesting look at the psychological consequences of soft totalitarianism – the way people end up not even contemplating rebellion because they can’t even imagine doing such a thing (or even thinking such thoughts).

It’s also actually a very entertaining book and while there’s plenty to disagree with it is an interesting example of intelligent dystopian science fiction. And the murder mystery part is fun.

more on transhumanism

Some more thoughts on transhumanism.

I’ve already expressed my view that an increase in the number of high IQ people would be a disadvantage to society. The manipulation of human genetics could pose other dangers also.

Intelligence appears to be a quality that is controlled not by a handful of genes but by huge numbers. If you want to create transhumans with incredibly high intelligence you’re going to have to manipulate thousands of genes.

The problem with this is that if you manipulate thousands of genes then how can you be sure that intelligence is the only thing you’re going to be changing? Human behaviour is incredibly complex. If you fiddle around with genes that alter the workings of the mind then you might end up with some unanticipated and very unpleasant behavioural changes.

You might end up with people with very high IQs and major psychological and behavioural problems. A high IQ person with severe psychological issues might be more of a liability than an asset to society. We have no way of knowing exactly what form such psychological disturbances might take.

It’s unfortunate that many people seem to be inclined to ignore such risks. These risks are entirely unpredictable and unquantifiable. Rather than being a magical shortcut to power and prosperity it might be more like playing Russian roulette.

IQ fetishism and transhumanism

There’s much concern at the moment that some Chinese scientist may have already created the first genetically modified human babies.

Much of the hand-wringing concerns the possibility that China will use this technology to breed lots of high-IQ babies, this giving China an immense economic advantage over all its competitors.

This seems to me to be a bit unlikely. The Chinese already have tens of millions of very high IQ people. Why would they need, or want, more?

This comes back to the IQ fetishism that I find to be so amusing. The idea that the more high IQ people a nation has the more powerful that nation will become. This really is nonsense. You actually need only a very very small number of high IQ people. If you have more high IQ people than you need you will have major social problems. You will end up with lots of very smart people chasing a fairly small number of suitable jobs. The ones who miss out will become angry and disillusioned. They are likely to gravitate toward political extremism. You will have more SJW/globalist political activists expressing their frustrations at their own uselessness by lashing out at society.

This is what has already happened in the West as we have expanded university education far beyond our actual needs. We have already created a massive entirely unnecessary pool of university-educated intellectuals who serve no useful purpose whatsoever.

It’s not really all that likely that any of the major developed nations is suffering from a shortage of high IQ people.

If a nation did want to gain a significant advantage by manipulating the genetic attributes of its population IQ might not be the attribute to choose. A smarter population is likely to cause more headaches. But how about a more docile population? A population not just indoctrinated into docility, by genetically engineered into passive obedience. Ot perhaps it might be useful to have some segments of the population more docile, and others more aggressive? Changes in behavioural traits that could be hardwired into the population’s generic code might be attractive not just to nations like China but also to the large corporations that control the West, and to the western elites that serve those corporations.

So personally I’d be more worried about behavioural modifications than the creation of super-high IQ nations.

when science isn’t scientific

One of the reasons that western civilisation abandoned Christianity was that a shiny new replacement was available. While religion was just superstition this new replacement dealt in absolute truth. Its claims could be tested and were subject to proof. It was incapable of error. This new system was called science.

There was much excitement at the time. And today the claims of science are almost universally accepted. If you’re not sure about something, ask a scientist.

The problem is that science has expanded and it has gone on expanding. Science now covers an immense range of academic disciplines. We can be assured that they are all real science. Their practitioners tell us so, and why would they lie?

The problem is that most of these fields are in reality not science at all. They simply borrow some of the trappings of science. Physics is science. One or to other fields of science are also real science. They employ the scientific method, and the scientific method is the one trump card that science holds. The scientific method is an assurance that we’re dealing with truth rather than superstition or opinion or even deliberate falsehood. For a theory to be accepted as true it has to be tested by experiment and the experiments have to be repeated multiple times just to make sure. It’s a fool-proof system. Physicists knew that the laws propounded by Galileo and Newton were true because they were tested by the scientific method and proof was obtained. Of course the laws propounded by Galileo and Newton later turned out to be wrong but that’s an annoying minor detail that is best ignored.

Most scientific disciplines do not employ the scientific method. Geology for example, or palaeontology. You might be pretty confident that a particular type of valley was the result of thousands of years of glacial action but you can’t very well set up an experiment to prove it. You might think that changing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere change the climate but you can’t set up an experiment to prove it.

This has always been a bit of an embarrassment but in the past few decades a solution has been found. If you can’t perform an actual experiment you can set up a computer model. And that’s just as good. The only problem here is that computer models are not just as good as performing an experiment. Computer models are amusing toys. They can be very expensive toys, but they’re still toys. They don’t prove anything.

At least geologists and palaeontologists try to be as scientific as they can. That can’t be said of many other sciences. In fact many disciplines that masquerade as sciences are completely unscientific. Psychology and anthropology for example. That’s not to say that it’s impossible for an anthropologist or a psychologist to have an accurate insight. It’s just that it’s not a scientific insight. Psychology is an art, not a science.

Then there are the social sciences. Like sociology. Such disciplines are very keen to be seen as scientific. In fact they’re political ideologies, not sciences.

And all of this is without taking into account the very real problems of scientific fraud, and the even bigger problems of scientists being motivated by political bias and cowardice. If you look at a field like climate science you get every single one of these problems.

Science’s claim to be able to give us undisputed truth is really rather unimpressive. In certain very narrow fields it can do so, up to a point. The fact that science has major deficiencies isn’t really a problem in itself. What is a problem is that so many people seem to be unaware of these deficiencies. When stuff like “climate science” starts to get taken seriously we’re a long way down the rabbit hole.

actual science and pseudoscience

The inability to distinguish between actual science and pseudoscience is one of the major problems we face. It’s not just ordinary people who find it difficult to distinguish between the two. Intellectuals seem to have even greater difficulty with the concept.

It’s really pretty simple. If you can prove it by experiment it’s definitely real science. If you can’t prove it by experiment but you can point to actual evidence, as is the case with historical sciences like geology and evolutionary biology, then it’s real science but you can’t feel quite so confident that all the details will be correct. If it’s based on a mixture of wishful thinking and deliberately dubious methodology, like climate science, then it’s probably pseudoscience. If it’s based purely on subjective value judgments, as is the case with sorcery and psychiatry, then it ain’t science at all.

psychiatry, the story of a pseudoscience

I’m having way too much to do with the mental health system at the moment. No, they haven’t sent the men in the white coats to take me away. Someone close to me is however having some major problems with the system.

The major problem of course is that the mental health system is constructed upon the assumption that psychiatry is real and that psychiatric diagnoses have some connection with reality. The truth of course is that psychiatry is about as scientific as astrology. The sacred text of psychiatry, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), is best described as a work of imaginative fiction.

Which means that admitting a person against his will to a psychiatric hospital based on a diagnosis by a psychiatrist is really no different from locking someone up because they have Pisces rising or because of a very unfavourable conjunction of the planets. There’s no actual scientific basis to it, which means that the legal basis for such measures are built on non-existent foundations.

That’s not to say that mental illness isn’t real. It may be real. We don’t know. We have insufficient data. If psychiatrists and politicians were prepared to be honest enough to admit that they know very little about this subject it might be possible to do some good. But good can never be achieved when you’re basing policy and basing treatment on ignorance combined with arrogance.

There are of course lots of other problems. Psychiatrists are like cops. They stick together. They stick together very tightly when their actions are questioned by civilians. When a psychiatrist gets things hopelessly wrong (which is extremely frequent) it is very difficult to get that wrong reversed because the psychiatry code is that you don’t rat on a fellow psychiatrist. So even if you know that psychiatrist Dr Bill Smith is an incompetent buffoon who should not be allowed to practice as a horse doctor much less a psychiatrist other psychiatrists will tend to defend Dr Smith.

And of course there is the biggest problem of all. If you ever find yourself on the wrong side of the mental health system you will discover that absolutely everything you do, no matter how reasonable and understandable, will be interpreted as a symptom of your mental illness. It’s like the old line that if you turn up late for an appointment with a psychiatrist it’s a bad sign because you’re trying to avoid treatment. If you show up early it’s a bad sign because you’re showing hostility. If you turn up on time it’s a bad sign because it shows you’re obsessive-compulsive. You can’t win.

If a heart specialist makes a ludicrously incorrect diagnosis it can and will be overruled by another more competent doctor. Once you’ve been incorrectly diagnosed once as being mentally ill your chances of having that diagnosis overturned are slim.

I’m not suggesting that al psychiatrists are idiots or malevolent. Some try very hard to do good. Some actually succeed. But psychiatry is an art, not a science. We should never make the mistake of treating a pseudoscience like psychiatry as real science.