Thursday, August 18, 2016

How to Make the Earth Seem Flat

If you know me, what I'm about to say might come as a bit of a shock, so I'm just going to throw it out there: I kinda think the earth might be flat. Not only that, I think the sun and moon might be much smaller and closer to us than we've been told--maybe just a few miles above the earth. I know it sounds crazy, but I just can't ignore what I've seen with my own eyes. Before you decide I've lost my mind, just consider a couple of pictures I want to show you--pictures I took myself. Stay with me for just a minute, and try to forget all you've heard from the "experts" about the shape of the earth, and the distance to the sun and moon, and look at the evidence for yourself.

Here's the first picture:

I took it from just east of Denver, looking toward the Front Range of the Rockies. I'm sure you've
seen sunbeams--technically called crepuscular rays--before. But have you ever wondered why they diverge outward like this? They shouldn't do that. If the sun is really 93 million miles away, and much bigger than the earth, then sunbeams should be almost perfectly parallel. Any divergence as the rays cross the relatively tiny distance across earth would be miniscule. But these clearly aren't parallel. If you really look, and forget what you've been told, you can see that they seem to be coming from a small source not that far above the mountains. The foothills in the foreground in this image are about 3,000 feet higher than the plains. If you use them as a ruler and count upward, you can see that the source of the sunbeams is about 6 times as high as the mountains--say, 18,000 feet up. That's nothing! There are clouds higher than that! And that brings me to my next picture:

It's a picture of the moon, and it's definitely not going to win any photography prizes. I'm sharing it
because I took it myself, so I know it hasn't been doctored in any way except that I cropped it to give a closer look at the moon. And "close" is the operative word here! If you look at that image, you can clearly see that the cloud in the picture is behind the moon! How could that be if the moon is over 200,000 miles away? If clouds are behind the moon, it can't be more than a few miles up. Maybe that sounds crazy, but should I just disregard the evidence of my own eyes...evidence I can capture in a camera and share with you, so you can see it for yourself?

The answer is yes, yes I should, and so should you. It's time to come clean: I don't really believe the earth is flat, or that the sun and moon are just a few miles above us. I did take both of those pictures, but what they to show are illusions. The first one, with the sunbeams, is one of the most compelling optical illusions I know. As I said, if the sun is really huge and millions of miles from earth, then its rays should be almost perfectly parallel; as parallel as a set of train tracks. And they are. The picture below shows crepuscular rays from space as the sun sets. They are clearly parallel. But if you were standing on the earth's surface, they would appear to diverge, for the same reason train tracks appear to diverge: perspective. The apparent divergence is a mind-boggling illusion, but an illusion nonetheless. This video explains it in more detail (and in a pleasing Scottish accent.)

As for the image of the clouds behind the moon, that's a little easier to explain. The disc of the moon at night is simply quite bright compared to the surrounding scenery, and many clouds are partly translucent. When clouds appear to be behind the moon, what's happening is that the moon is shining through the clouds. In a photograph like the one I shared, the moon's bright disc is so overexposed that you can see no trace of the clouds in front of it (you can't see the moons craters and valleys, either.) This article and video explains how the effect happens (it actually discusses the sun, which can also seem to be in front of clouds, for the same reason).

So, why am I messing with you like this, pretending to think the earth is flat, and the sun and moon are just a few miles above out heads? I'm not just being a troll, I hope. The point I want to make is that it's really easy to cast doubt on sound, established scientific facts. The earth is round, vaccines save lives, the earth is getting warmer, and life evolved through a process of evolution by natural selection. These are all well-established tenets of modern science, but if you want to find apparently compelling arguments against them online, you can. (In fact, the arguments against them are easier to find than the arguments for them). And if you're like me, reading these anti-science arguments will give you a deeply uneasy feeling. You'll think, "This sounds kinda reasonable. What if I'm the one that's deluded here?" Perhaps you had a similar feeling reading the first part of this post, for which a more honest title would be "Why I Think the Earth is Flat...for Just a Second...When I Talk to Flat-Earthers." If you're like me, you go around assuming that most people are basically honest and have a firm grip on reality. So if someone shows you apparently-compelling evidence that the earth is flat, you may start questioning your own grip on reality. I do, anyway. It's the same reason gaslighting is an effective--and truly evil--way of making someone question their own sanity. A flat-earther who makes you seriously consider his arguments may not mean to be gaslighting you, because he believes them himself, but that's effectively what he's doing.

As I mentioned, this gaslighting effect happens because we tend to think most people are basically honest and in touch with reality. Sadly, this isn't true. Some people are unabashed liars, but what's far more common is that otherwise-sane people are simply delusional about some things. This is natural. We are small creatures in a very large, complex universe, and our brains are easily fooled (for evidence of this, take a look at these optical illusions). We are so easily fooled that for most of human existence, common sense said that the planet we spent every day of our lives on was flat. And common sense was wrong. That's how limited our perception is. That's how prone to illusion we are. Science is a way of expanding our perception and systematically finding and dispelling our illusions. But many don't see it that way. They trust their own perceptions far more, and see science as a vast and sinister plot, cooked up by an global elite to make money and lead good people astray.

For example, I just had a conversation on Facebook with one of these people--a man who truly does believe the earth is flat. And he wasn't totally insane. He could express himself rather clearly, and he seems to be a fairly functional member of society. Yet he believes in a vision of the cosmos that's been debunked since Aristotle. Not only that, but he also believes that everything we've been told about a round earth is part of a massive, sinister conspiracy: The moon landing was faked. Satellite images of a round earth on the evening weather are faked. Antarctica is a giant, icy wall encircling the flat disc of the earth, guarded by NASA to keep people from learning the truth. He is sane in many ways, but on this topic he is utterly delusional.

The problem is that for a while, he can sound somewhat convincing, by repeating some of the same claims I repeated above. Because our brains are so prone to illusion, it's easy to find very bad arguments that can seem very convincing, and can be very hard to refute. And it's not just flat-earthers. Many other delusional people can sound just as convincing, and the Internet is full of their arguments--sometimes presented on very professional-looking websites. And that's what really worries me. In an age when we've defeated smallpox, landed remote control cars on Mars, and cracked the genetic code, more and more people are rejecting basic tenets of science, because they're reading anti-science websites on the internet. The ranks of flat-earthers, moon landing conspiracists, and antivaxxers are growing. It's enough to make me worry that the wonder of modern technology known as the Internet could usher us into a new Dark Age of ignorance and superstition, where people reject the hard-won discoveries of science in favor of something they saw by some guy with a YouTube channel. It may sound far-fetched, but it's happening all around us. And we have to find a way to stop it. Whatever problems the world has now, we're a lot better off than we were in the Dark Ages.

Friday, April 8, 2016

True Magic; Real Miracles

One of [the brain's] functions is to make the miraculous seem ordinary, to turn the unusual into the usual. Otherwise, human beings, faced with the daily wondrousness of everything, would go around wearing a stupid grin, saying “Wow,” a lot. Part of the brain exists to stop this from happening.  - Terry Pratchett
It doesn't stop being magic just because you know how it works. - Terry Pratchett, again 

The Raising of Lazarus
As a skeptic, I'm sometimes accused of being blind to the possibility of magic and miracles. But the fact is, I see miracles every single day. Just this morning, for example, I woke up on a great spinning sphere in space, just as it turned to slowly reveal another, gigantic sphere; one too brilliant to even look at directly. The big sphere was turning mass into energy, just as Einstein described, and I could feel the results warming my skin from 93 million miles away. All along the streets were living organisms taller than houses, also bathed in the morning light. They had used the light over the years to build themselves out of little more than air and water. Some had covered themselves in flowers. The best jeweler in history couldn't have made a single one of those flowers, and the trees were making them by the thousands, without even thinking about it. In one of the trees was a small, feathered dinosaur. It made a laughing sound that told me it was a woodpecker, and then it flew away. It was a fantastical, wondrous scene. I was surrounded by magic; encircled by miracles. We don't usually think of a scene like that in those terms, but that's only because we've so used to seeing amazing things every day that we take them for granted.

And those are just everyday miracles; commonplace magic. Every week or so I'm treated to a something unusually miraculous. Not long ago I looked out my window before sunrise, and saw Mercury, Venus, Saturn, Mars, the Moon, and Jupiter lined up across the sky. Six other worlds, and I was looking right at them across millions of miles of space. Is that not incredible? And then, last week I was walking to work and saw a puddle with a thin skin of patterned ice on top. The ice crystals had grown from a single point in the middle of the puddle; radiating and branching outward in six directions like a giant snowflake. Countless water molecules--far more than all the people who have ever lived on earth--had been milling around in watery chaos, and then lined up in perfect rank and file to create a symmetrical pattern. Order had emerged from disorder, spontaneously, as the puddle cooled. It was a miracle, right there in a mud puddle. I stared at it, and thought about how an analogous process occurred at the birth of the universe, when the universe cooled and expanded, creating pockets of order that would become stars, galaxies, and eventually, trees and woodpeckers.

Now, some readers will object to me calling these things miracles, or magic. And I'll admit I'm using both words in a particular sense. According to Merriam-Webster Online, a miracle is "an unusual or wonderful event that is believed to be caused by the power of God". That's the first definition listed. I'm using the word in the sense of the second definition: "a very amazing or unusual event, thing, or achievement." Similarly, I'm not using the word "magic" in this most common sense: "a power that allows people (such as witches and wizards) to do impossible things by saying special words or performing special actions." I'm using it in a more metaphorical sense, as in "that was a magical sunset".

Most people who talk about miracles and magic have something very different in mind than I do, and different people prefer different words. The ones who talk about miracles are usually religious--they see miracles as acts of God that suspend the ordinary laws of nature: things like Jesus walking on water or rising from the dead. Magic, by contrast, is something that's more likely to be embraced by people in the New Age or occult movements. They're impressed by mysterious alleged phenomena that seem unexplained by science: auras, ESP, astrology, healing properties of crystals, spells, magical potions, and so on. In either case, the key point is that people are more impressed by alleged violations of natural law than by natural law itself. That's why they will probably find my examples of magic and miracles unsatisfying--a poor substitute for the real thing.

I have the opposite opinion. I think the kind of miracles and magic I'm talking about are FAR more impressive and awe-inspiring than accounts of people walking on water or reading minds. Why? Because they're demonstrably real. They clearly exist in the real world, and that, in my opinion, is a distinct advantage. Things like auras and resurrection do not clearly exist; at least not in any easily demonstrable way. If they were easy to demonstrate, people wouldn't think of them as miraculous or magical (in the usual sense of those terms). They would just be part of everyday life, and people would stop seeing the wonder in them, the way they've stopped seeing the wonder in ice crystals and the sun. We would have long ago started taking them for granted.

Of course, I can't prove that miracles and magic, in the sense of violations of natural law, don't exist. I can't prove that Jesus didn't walk on water, or that my being a Pisces tells me absolutely nothing about my personality or destiny, or that magic spells are useless. But I think these are fairly safe assumptions. I could get into why I think that, but that's a big topic that would make this post much too long, so I'll just touch on a couple of points.

First the "magical" things that impress New Agers and occultists: There is no good evidence that they work, and no known mechanism by which most of them could work. There's no force known to science that could explain how an arrangement of stars in the sky could influence your personality or destiny. There's no force known to science that could explain how crystals could heal you. Of course, it could be that they work because of forces science hasn't yet discovered, but there's no evidence for that, either, because there's no evidence that they work at all.

As for miracles, I look at reports of miracles in much the way David Hume did:
When anyone tells me, that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself, whether it be more probable, that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact, which he relates, should really have happened. I weigh the one miracle against the other; and according to the superiority, which I discover, I pronounce my decision, and always reject the greater miracle. 
In other words, which is more plausible--that a dead man came back to life, or that a few people mistakenly believed he did? How many times have you talked to someone who was mistaken? And how many times have you seen someone come back from the dead?

Another issue I want to raise about miracles is one noted by the philosopher James Keller. Lots of people believe that if someone makes an unexpected recovery from cancer, for example, it means God performed a miracle. But what about all the people who don't recover? Why would God single out one person to miraculously save, and let all the others die? Or, as Keller put it, "If God intervenes to save your life in a car crash, then what was he doing in Auschwitz?" If God cured your cancer, why didn't he do anything about the child rapes and terrorist attacks we read about in the papers?

As I said, though, this isn't the place to get into a deep discussion of the plausibility of miracles and magic. You could write a whole book about it, and others are better qualified than me. The point I want to make is about what we should think of as a miracle. What should we consider magical? Does something have to violate the laws of nature to merit our awe? I don't think it does. In fact, I think people all too often become blind to the real wonders in this world because they're looking for imagined ones.

One reason I know this is that I work in a public library. Every day, I help people find books on things like astrology, witchcraft, angels, ancient aliens, crystal healing, Nostradamus, demons, bigfoot and other things that are entirely at odds with a scientific understanding of the universe. If someone asks for books on astronomy, I can usually assume they really mean astrology, and don't know there's a difference. If they use the word "quantum", they almost always want some kind of New Age pseudoscience that has nothing to do with the actual science of quantum mechanics (again, they don't usually know the difference). And how often do people ask for actual science? Maybe once every six months. Maybe. If I do some very rough math, that means the general public is about 150 times as interested in alleged violations of natural law as they are in learning about natural law itself.

Why is this? Why is it that people are so much more excited about what is unexplained (and often completely made up) than what is explained? It's really bizarre, when you think about it. Consider this discussion of miracles by Thomas Aquinas:
an astronomer is not astonished when he sees an eclipse of the sun, for he knows the cause; whereas one who is ignorant of this science must needs wonder, since he knows not the cause. Wherefore it is wonderful to the latter but not to the former. Accordingly a thing is wonderful simply, when its cause is hidden simply: and this is what we mean by a miracle, to wit, that is wonderful in itself and not only in respect of this person or that. Now God is the cause which is hidden to every man simply: for we have proved above that in this state of life no man can comprehend Him by his intellect. 
Aquinas is defining a miracle as that whose cause is hidden to everyone, not just the ignorant. It's an interesting argument, and he was a brilliant man, but consider what he's saying in the first part of that quotation, "one who is ignorant of this science must needs wonder." Here wonder can mean two different things: to ponder how a thing can be, and to be amazed (it's telling that we use the same word for both). If we think of wonder as being amazed, then Aquinas is saying that the more ignorant people are about a thing, the more amazing they will find it. And he's right! That's usually how it works. Human nature is such that what we wonder about--what we are ignorant of--is what seems wonder-ful.

That's our natural impulse, but does it make sense? Why should things be more amazing the more ignorant we are about them? Why shouldn't knowing more about something make it even more amazing? For example, if I look up at the planet Saturn, and didn't know anything about it, all I would see is an unusually bright star. But when I read more about it, I discover its true wonders: how it has rings, colorful bands, and a whole litter of moons; how it rains helium there, and how hundreds of Earths could fit inside it. All these things make Saturn more amazing, not less. They make it more magical. More miraculous. Not because they violate any laws of nature, but because they show us how much more incredible it is than it seems when we first see that little bright dot in the sky.

What I want to ask with this post then, is whether we should reconsider what we think of as magical or miraculous. What if the real miracles aren't things that violate the laws of nature--it's not even clear that such things exist--but are instead the incredible things all around us; the things we've become so used to that we've forgotten how incredible they really are? What if the goal of spirituality isn't to find miracles and magic in the sense of violations of natural law, but to learn to see what's miraculous about the real world? If so, then the true magic--the real miracles--are the things that surround us every day of our lives.

Friday, February 5, 2016

What Would Cruz Do? Comparing Ted Cruz with Jesus

Blessed are the merciful,
For they shall obtain mercy. - Matthew 5.7

For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. - Matthew 6:15
Defended the death penalty twice before the Supreme Court as Texas Solicitor General. Also as Solicitor General, argued before the Supreme Court that a man should serve 16 years in prison for stealing a calculator.

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
- Luke 6:31
Voted against a bill to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

I was hungry and you gave Me no food; I was thirsty and you gave Me no drink; I was a stranger and you did not take Me in, naked and you did not clothe Me, sick and in prison and you did not visit Me. - Matthew 25:42-13

If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? - Matthew 5:46-47
Argued before the Supreme Court that Texas should not have to comply with a federal program improving healthcare for young, impoverished children.

Voted against a bill extending funding for food stamps.

When asked what is the greatest commandment, Jesus responded:

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’  This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” - Matthew 22:32-40
Described Ayn Rand as "one of my all-time heroes". Rand was an outspoken atheist whose philosophy is captured well in the title of one of her books: The Virtue of Selfishness. One of her sayings: "Achievement of your happiness is the only moral purpose of your life."

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? - Matthew 5:43-47

You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth. But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. - Matthew 5:38-39
"rather than respond to radical Islam and terrorism with a commitment from the president to keep this nation safe–to kill the terrorists–instead, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton refuse to even utter the words “radical Islamic terrorism.”

Blessed are the peacemakers,
For they shall be called sons of God.
- Matthew 5:9

"Put your sword back in its place," Jesus said to him, "for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. - Matthew 26.52
"We will carpet bomb them into oblivion. I don’t know if sand can glow in the dark, but we’re going to find out."

"You don’t get rid of the bad guys by getting rid of our guns. You get rid of the bad guys by using our guns."

Voted against bills regulating assault weapons and high-capacity clips.

And why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the plank in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me remove the speck that is in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the plank that is in your own eye? Hypocrite! First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck that is in your brother’s eye. - Luke 6:41-42

“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. 16 You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles?"
See all the other statements in this table by Cruz, who talks constantly about his Christianity. I will let readers decide whether his words and actions (his "fruits") sound like those of Jesus.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

What Would Trump Do? Comparing Statements by Trump and Jesus


Blessed are the merciful,
For they shall obtain mercy. - Matthew 5.7

Do unto others as you would have them do to you. - Luke 6:31
My only complaint is that lethal injection is too comfortable a way to go

It's about 10 degrees below zero outside. ... You can keep his coat; tell him we'll send it to him in a couple of weeks.

You know, it doesn't really matter what [the media] write as long as you've got a young and beautiful piece of ass.
If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me. - Matthew 19:21

Assuredly, I say to you that it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. And again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. - Matthew 19:23-24

But woe to you who are rich,
For you have received your consolation. - Luke 6:24
Nobody’s ever been more successful than me. I’m the most successful person ever to run. Ross Perot isn’t successful like me. Romney – I have a Gucci store that’s worth more than Romney.

Part of the beauty of me is that I am very rich.

I have . . . the greatest assets: Trump Tower, 1290 Avenue of the Americas, Bank of America building in San Francisco, 40 Wall Street, sometimes referred to as the Trump Building . . . many other places all over the world.

Donald Trump’s houses

Donald Trump's 7-Year-Old Son, Barron, Uses Caviar Moisturizer Every Night
I was hungry and you gave Me no food; I was thirsty and you gave Me no drink; I was a stranger and you did not take Me in, naked and you did not clothe Me, sick and in prison and you did not visit Me. - Matthew 25:42-13

If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? - Matthew 5:46-47
I’m putting the people on notice that are coming here from Syria as part of this mass migration. If I win, they’re going back. They’re going back. I’m telling you. They’re going back.

We are going to build a wall, and it’s going to be a real wall. We are going to build a beautiful, big high real wall. Anybody gets to the top of that wall, they’re going to be afraid to come down, it’s a long way.
For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. - Matthew 6:15And when they let me down, if they let me down, I never forgive.

For many years I’ve said that if someone screws you, screw them back. When somebody hurts you, just go after them as viciously and as violently as you can.
Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s. - Matthew 22:21I fight like hell to pay as little as possible
And why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the plank in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me remove the speck that is in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the plank that is in your own eye? Hypocrite! First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck that is in your brother’s eye. - Luke 6:41-42Sometimes, part of making a deal is denigrating your competition.

He’s not a war hero. He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured. (speaking of John McCain, who was a prisoner of war in Vietnam for 5 years)

Truly weird Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky reminds me of a spoiled brat without a properly functioning brain.

And when you meet her you realize she’s not very tough and she’s not very sharp. She gets out there and she starts asking me all sorts of ridiculous questions, and you could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her … wherever.

@michellemalkin You were born stupid!

Heidi Klum. Sadly, she's no longer a 10.

I know where she went -- it's disgusting, I don't want to talk about it. - On Hillary Clinton going to the bathroom.
You shall not bear false witness
- Matthew 19:18

"So if you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of him, would you?" he told a crowd in Iowa in February. "Seriously, okay, just knock the hell. I promise you, I will pay for the legal fees; I promise, I promise." (February 1, 2016)

"I never said I was going to pay for fees. (March 15, 2016) 
Blessed are the peacemakers,
For they shall be called sons of God.
- Matthew 5:9

"Put your sword back in its place," Jesus said to him, "for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. - Matthew 26.52
And the other thing is with the terrorists, you have to take out their families. They, they care about their lives. Don’t kid yourself. But they say they don’t care about their lives. You have to take out their families.

I am the most militaristic person you will ever meet.
For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. Luke 14:11Sorry losers and haters, but my I.Q. is one of the highest -and you all know it! Please don't feel so stupid or insecure,it's not your fault

Nobody’s ever been more successful than me.

Face The Nation's interview of me was the highest rated show that they have had in 15 years.

Oftentimes when I was sleeping with one of the top women in the world I would say to myself, thinking about me as a boy from Queens, ‘Can you believe what I am getting?"

Part of the beauty of me is that I am very rich.

Of course, it’s very hard for them to attack me on looks, because I’m so good looking.

All of the women on The Apprentice flirted with me— consciously or unconsciously. That's to be expected.

Look, somebody made the statement that Donald Trump has built or owns the greatest collection of golf courses, ever, in the history of golf. And I believe that is 100 percent true.

I have a big heart, I have a tremendous heart, I want to take care of people.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Notes on Geekiness

Geeks have come a long way in recent decades. Once upon a time, the word "geek" meant a sideshow performer in traveling carnivals, who made money doing foul and degrading things like biting the heads off chickens. Then the word came to be associated with people who were smart, but socially-awkward. In other words: nerds (a word invented by Dr. Seuss). The fact that people equated nerds with pariahs like circus geeks says something about the regard nerds were once held in.

But now it's different. Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg are classic computer geeks, and they're some of the most powerful people in the world. Bill Nye, who used to wear a bowtie to play up the geek image, now speaks to sold-out crowds in arenas. Traditionally geeky forms of entertainment like science fiction, fantasy, comics, and gaming have gone even more mainstream than science. The comic-con/gaming crowd is a proud and thriving subculture.

Still, if you want to be cool in today's world (and even middle aged people do these days) there are some topics still considered too geeky to talk about much. At most social gatherings, you're much safer talking about TV or football than science or philosophy. Those topics make people squirm.

Of course, sometimes talking about that kind of thing is socially awkward for legitimate reasons. If someone just isn't interested in science, for example, then it's rude (or at least socially tone-deaf) to yammer on at them about it. Still, it's striking just how many people aren't interested in intellectual topics. What's even more striking is how many people who are interested in them are uncomfortable talking about them in a social setting. Clearly, there's a stigma at work here. There's still a distinct air of uncoolness surrounding many intellectual topics. I think that's a shame, but I also think it's interesting to think about how the stigma works.

Think about what you have to do if you want to talk about geeky topics without making people edge away from you nervously. First, you have to make it clear you know it's geeky, and be ready to change the subject as soon people start cringing or gazing off into the distance. You have to be aware of the uncoolness; few things scream "geek" as loudly as social obliviousness. Second, you have to joke about it. You don't want to sound too cerebral, too serious, or too into stuff like that. Not if you want to be cool, anyway.

Why does doing those things let you off the hook? First, as I mentioned, I think acknowledging that the topic is considered geeky shows that you aren't oblivious. You know what the rules are, and you're consciously breaking them. As for joking, it seems to have a similar purpose--it distances you from the ideas you're talking about, so their stigma doesn't stick to you.

Plus, it's just not cool these days to sound too earnest or innocent. Some of today's biggest idols are comedians who excel in a particularly modern brand of never-serious, always-ironic humor. Think about Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. They host intellectuals and discuss real ideas on their shows, but they're only able to do it by constantly joking; sneaking in the big ideas by wrapping them in a cloud of jokes. Their associate, Jon Oliver, has built a whole show around this approach. Serious ideas are still getting out there, but what does it say about our culture that this is the most effective way to get people to pay attention to them? As brilliant as I think Colbert is, sometimes I wish he would lay off the jokes and let whoever he's interviewing talk. I suspect he wishes he could do that too sometimes, but then, of course, the show would flop.

How did we get so averse to sincerity? Maybe it's a defense mechanism against the barrage of advertising and political spin we're faced with these days--advertisers and politicians would love for us to still be as fresh-faced and gullible as the beaming drones in ads from the fifties. Still, stigmatizing earnestness can be a problem, because there are times when it's called for. Besides, as somebody once said (maybe Oscar Wilde but I can't confirm that), "If nothing is serious, then nothing is funny."

In any case, Stewart and Colbert certainly aren't geeks--at least in the sense of being awkward or unpopular. They're enormously popular. They're what I think of as smart-cool--they address serious or tough ideas, but they avoid being geeky with comedy.

But then, alas, there are the dumb-cool people: the airheaded celebrities and dumb jocks of the world, and the legions of people who want to be like them. These folks are in no danger of being seen as geeks, because they never talk about science, philosophy, history or anything boring like that. If u talk about that stuff u must b a total geek LOL!

When I think about it, it seems to me there are two related stigmas going on here: a stigma against intellectualism, and a stigma against seeming too earnest or innocent. First, a strain of anti-intellectualism always been common in American culture. We're still enough of a frontier society that many people have more respect for brawn than brains. Add to that the modern obsession with celebrities, which pretty much guarantees that brains will take a back seat to physical beauty, fashion, or an entertaining personality. Think about what the stereotypical caricature of geeks--they don't have brawn, they aren't good-looking, they aren't fashionable, and they're socially awkward. They're the antithesis of both the frontier tough guy and the stylish movie star. Yes, they usually have brains, but brains just aren't valued as highly in our culture--especially pop culture--as those other things. And that, again, is a shame.

But humor is valued--especially the kind of ultra-ironic humor I mentioned above. But that brings us to the second kind of stigma, against seriousness or earnestness. The result is that the only way you can get away with discussing serious ideas, if you want to still be cool, is acting like you're not really serious about them. And really, that's a shame, too. 

Let Your Geek Flag Fly

Photo by Alan Fitzsimmons. Click for photo credit and info.
Not long ago, I spent a bunch of time writing one of my long and cerebral blog posts. And then I thought better of it, because I was making a simple point complicated. So here's that simple point: The world is full of staggering natural wonders and deep intellectual mysteries. It's endlessly complex and surprising. It's millions of times bigger and older than we are, which means we could live millions of lifetimes in it and never run out of things to discover, or mysteries to ponder. But we don't get millions of lives. We most likely just get this one. So if we want to ask the big questions about "life, the universe, and everything", we better do it now.

Nabokov once said, "common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness." If that is true--and I've never seen good evidence to the contrary--then life is far, far too short to let it pass without learning something about the amazing world we live it in.

And yet--somehow--there are people who think it's embarrassing to be interested in science, philosophy, or other fields devoted to learning the answers to big questions. At a party, it's fine to talk endlessly about sports or TV, but talking about Plato's cave or neutron stars will get you labeled a geek. There's a stigma attached to those topics. It's deeply weird, if you think about it. Do people not understand how short life is?

Many of them don't, of course, or rather, they disagree with me about getting just one life. They believe there will be plenty of time in the afterlife to learn about stuff like that, so I can understand why they might have this attitude, even if I don't agree with it. What I can't understand is the people who don't believe in an afterlife, and still think it's embarrassing to think about science, or history, or philosophy. They just don't care, or perhaps they're too embarrassed. Maybe they're too cool, or just hope to be. In any case, they're likely to laugh at anyone who talks about these things. You can talk about pop culture, football, maybe even politics, but only weirdos talk about deep philosophical questions and things like outer space, right?

Actually, I'm pretty sure it's weird not to talk about these things. If these folks don't want to look up at this immense and astonishing universe in wonder now; if they don't want to ponder the big questions in life while they're ALIVE...then when do they think they will?

But it's their life, and their decision. As for me, I say life is too short not to marvel openly about the wonders of science and nature. It's too short not to ask big questions and discuss them with your friends. And it's certainly too short to let anybody make you feel small for thinking big thoughts.