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GMohno! Part 0: What is it, anyway?

Earlier his week, Oregon rejected a measure to label GMO food by a paper-thin margin. A similar measure was rejected by Colorado voters, by a much wider margin.

There are a lot of hot feelings about GMOs, and like any issue where there are a lot of hot feelings, there's a lot of misinformation and confusion on the subject. This is the first part of what will probably be several blog posts about GMOs, what they are, and why people fear them.



When people hear "GMO," this is often the kind of image they have in their heads--someone injecting plants with foreign materials to alter them. It's a vivid image, that brings up all kinds of uneasy emotions and questions about food purity and safety. We will get back to this picture in a minute.

When I talk to folks about GMO food, I hear a lot of different reasons why people don't like them. Some of these reasons have to do with fear of the food itself--is it safe? Does it cause tumors? Is it natural? Is it poisonous? Does it create 'superweed'? Some of them have to do with concerns over companies that make it: are they ethical? Do they control too much of the food market? Are they abusing farmers? Some of it has to do with society: Is it right to patent foods? Does it take freedom away from farmers? Does it encourage poverty in Third World countries? And some of it is just...well, loopy. Did Ebola come from GMO food? Is GMO food a conspiracy to control the world population? Are scientists trying to eliminate people in Third World countries? (Don't laugh; those last ones are actual arguments people sincerely seem to believe.)

I tend to categorize the arguments I hear against GMOs into four broad categories: "because health," "because patents," "because Monsanto," and "because garwharbl something something Ebola". The last category is kind of the third rail of GMO discussion; a person who believes that Ebola, a disease first characterized in 1976, four years before the first experimental transgenic DNA modification was successful and eleven years before the first engineered produce was developed, came from GMO food without the use of a time machine isn't someone who will be reached by discussion.

What I would like to do is a series of blog posts addressing the "because health," "because patents," and "because Monsanto" arguments.

But first, let's talk about what GMOs are, because it's helpful to know that before we can talk about them.

What are GMOs?

I've asked this question of a lot of people. Sadly, I've found very few people who can answer it. Here are some of the answers I've heard:

- I don't know, but I know they're bad for you.
- They are plants that have unnatural genes injected into them.
- GMOs are what you get when you take genes from one species and put them into another species in ways that can never happen in nature.
- They are food with artificial DNA.
- They are plants made by combining DNA from animals or humans.
- GMOs are plants that are artificially modified to produce poison.
- GMOs are plants that are artificially modified so you can spray poison on them without killing them.


Consumers Union, the parent company of Consumer Reports magazine, says Genetically modified organisms are created by deliberately changing the genetic makeup of a plant or animal in ways that could never occur in nature. And Whole Foods has this up on the wall:



There's just one problem. All these definitions are wrong.

What are GMOs?

GMO stands for "genetically modified organism." A GMO is any organism--plant, animal, bacterium, fungus, yeast, whatever--that has been modified by genetic engineering techniques. There are lots of these techniques, and lots of ways to modify an organism. Some GMOs have new genes added; some do not (for example, some GMO techniques involve either silencing or removing a gene). New genes can be placed into a cell in a number of different ways.

The point is, when people focus on things like "GMOs are organisms that have genes from another species introduced into them," like Whole Foods does, they don't know that's only one type of GMO. It's like saying "clothing is a small, closed, tube-shaped piece of fabric worn on the foot under a shoe." No, that's one type of clothing--there are many others.

Similarly, when people talk about modification "that can never happen in nature," like Consumers Union does, that's incorrect. Many kinds of mutation can and do happen in nature. Organisms experience changes in their DNA all the time. You are a mutant; there are somewhere around 100 to 160 differences between your DNA and your parents'. It is completely possible for a change introduced by genetic engineering to happen by random chance in nature.

An important thing to remember here is there is no such thing as 'fish' DNA or 'human' DNA or 'corn' DNA. DNA is just sequences of molecules called nucleotides. DNA is made up of very, very, very long strings of the nucleotides adenine, cytosine, guanine, and thymine, which are represented by the letters A, C, G, and T. When someone "sequences" DNA, they're reading these long long lists of nucleotides. A bit of sequenced DNA might look like AAGATACAGGTACGTTATTACGTCA. Now, looking at that: is that human, mouse, virus, or pig DNA?

One way to think about it is to think about a computer program. A computer program is made up of long lists of numbers that are instructions to a computer. These numbers can be represented by statements in a programming language. Let's say you see something that looks like this:

buffer = (char*) malloc (i+1);
if (buffer==NULL) exit (1);


Is this "word processing code," "music player code," "database code," or "spreadsheet code"? Well, something like this probably exists in nearly all programs. If you see this in a word processor and you place it in a music player, have you inserted "word processor code" into your music player?

If you see a particular sequence of DNA in a tomato and you copy it into corn, have you put "tomato genes" into the corn? All organisms on this planet share a common genetic heritage. There are stretches of DNA in you that are also in chimpanzees, mice, and carrots. Are those bits of DNA human genes? Or are they mouse genes? Or are they carrot genes? They are just strings of nucleotides, there's nothing special about them that makes them "belong" to one organism or another. If you rearrange the toy blocks you made your castle out of into a spaceship, you're not putting "castle blocks" into your spaceship.

All your food is modified

It's normal for people to fear new things. When pasteurization of milk was first invented, people were terrified of it. A lot of folks complained that it was dangerous to drink the "corpses of dead bacteria." (Dead bacteria aren't a problem--it's the live ones that can harm you.) And the same thing is true of GMOs; we are easily frightened of new things.

But we've been modifying food since the beginning of time. A lot of folks think hybridization is different (even when it's cross-species hybridization, which was the first technology we used to put DNA from one organism into another organism).

During the Green Revolution, which started in the 1940s, we began making huge changes to plant DNA. But we did it at random. We would expose plant seeds to high levels of radiation or soak them in mutagenic chemicals, which would cause thousands of random changes to their DNA. Then we would grow the seeds and see if any of the plants had useful characteristics. Then we'd repeat the process, using more radiation or mutagenic chemicals to do more random changes to DNA, and continue looking for useful traits. If we found them, we would back-cross these mutated plants with regular stock, trying to get the mutations we liked to breed true.

You've been eating food with modified DNA your entire life. Even the "organic" food you eat has probably been modified this way. The difference between that kind of modification and GMO technology is that the old way changes thousands or tens of thousands of genes totally at random, without anyone knowing how the plant will be affected, while GMO technology changes one or a few genes in very precise ways that we understand and can predict. Remember, the things changed at random by radiation or mutagenic chemicals are not GMOs.

Kevin Folta has put together this table that shows how we modify plant DNA, how many modifications the techniques cause, and what those modifications are (click to embiggen):



Now, about the picture at the top of this essay. Is that what you think of when you think "GMO"? Actually, it's a photo of organic squash being cultivated.

Yes, organic. The squash vine is being injected with a natural pesticide called Bt, which kills insects. Bt is one of the many pesticides used in organic farming.

Did you think organic farming was pesticide-free? It's a common misperception. Organic farming uses insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, and other pesticides; it's almost impossible to do large-scale farming without it. The difference is that organic farming uses "natural" pesticides rather than "synthetic" pesticides.

Many folks believe that "natural" pesticides are less harmful to humans than "synthetic" ones, on the hypothesis that natural is good and artificial is bad. (This notion conveniently forgets that cyanide, deadly nightshade, smallpox, and arsenic are all 100% natural.) It's not necessarily true. One of the advantages of GMO farming is we can use pesticides and herbicides that are extremely targeted; Roundup, for example, is highly effective against plants because it interferes with photosynthesis. Humans don't do photosynthesis, so it's pretty harmless to us--way less toxic than caffeine, and slightly less toxic than baking soda.

Bt is one of the pesticides approved for use with 100% certified organic food. It's not toxic to humans, but many other certified organic pesticides are. You can see a list of organic pesticides here. Some of the things on the list, such as pyrethrins, rotenone, and copper sulfate, are really, really toxic to humans--far more poisonous than synthetic pesticides. It is safer for you to eat Roundup than to eat the "natural" insecticide rotenone!

Now that I've written a little background about what GMOs are (and touched on what organic food is not), in the next section I'll start talking about specific objections to GMO technology.

Note: This blog post is part of a series.
Part 0 is here.
Part 0.5 is here.
Part 1 is here.
Part 2 is here.
Part 3 is here.


When all the world's armies are assembled in the valley that surrounds Mount Megiddo they will be staging a resistance front against the advancing armies of the Chinese. It will be the world's worst nightmare - nuclear holocaust at its worst. A full-out nuclear bombardment between the armies of the Antichrist's and the Kings of the East.

It is during this nuclear confrontation that a strange sight from the sky will catch their attention. The Antichrist's armies will begin their defense in the Jezreel Valley in which the hill of Megiddo is located. [...] At the height of their nuclear assault on the advancing armies something strange will happen.

Jesus predicted the suddenness of His return. He said, "For just as lightening comes from the east, and flashes even to the west, so shall the coming of the Son of Man be" (Matt. 24:27). And again He said, "...and then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and then all the tribes of the earth shall mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory" (Matt. 24:30).

--Sherry Shriner Live

Believers must be active in helping to fulfill certain biblical conditions necessary to usher in the return of Christ. Key to this plan is for Gentiles to help accomplish God’s purpose for the Jews. [...] Jesus is saying that His Second Coming will not take place until there is a Jewish population in Jerusalem who will welcome Him with all of their hearts.
-- Johannes Facius, Hastening the Coming of the Messiah: Your Role in Fulfilling Prophecy


There is a problem in astronomy, commonly referred to as the Fermi paradox. In a nutshell, the problem is, where is everyone?

Life seems to be tenacious and ubiquitous. Wherever we look here on earth, we see life--even in the most inhospitable of places. The stuff seems downright determined to exist. When combined with the observation that the number of planetary systems throughout the universe seems much greater than even the most optimistic projections of, say, thirty years ago, it really seems quite likely that life exists out there somewhere. In fact, it seems quite likely that life exists everywhere out there. And given that sapient, tool-using life evolved here, it seems quite probable that sapient, tool-using life evolved somewhere else as well...indeed, quite often. (Given that our local galactic supercluster contains literally quadrillions of stars, if sapient life exists in only one one-hundredth of one percent of the places life evolved and if life evolves in only one one-hundredth of one percent of the places that have planets, the universe should be positively teeming with sapience.)


These aren't stars. They're galaxies. Where is everyone? (Image: Hubble Space Telescope)


When you're sapient and tool-using, radio waves are obvious. It's difficult to imagine getting much beyond the steam engine without discovering them. Electromagnetic radiation bathes the universe, and most any tool-using sapience will, sooner or later, stumble across it. All kinds of technologies create, use, and radiate electromagnetic radiation. So if there are sapient civilizations out there, we should see evidence of it--even if they aren't intentionally attempting to communicate with anyone.

But we don't.

So the question is, why not?

This is Fermi's paradox, and researchers have proposed three answers: we're first, we're rare, or we're fucked. I have, until now, been leaning toward the "we're rare" answer, but more and more, I think the answer might be "we're fucked."




Let's talk about the "first" or "rare" possibilities.

The "first" possibility posits that our planet is exceptionally rare, perhaps even unique--of all the planets around all the stars everywhere in the universe, no other place has the combination of ingredients (liquid water and so on) necessary for complex life. Alternately, life is common but sapient life is not. It's possible; there's nothing especially inevitable about sapience. Evolution is not goal-directed, and big brains aren't necessarily a survival strategy more common or more compelling than any other. After all, we're newbies. There was no sapient life on earth for most of its history.

Assuming we are that unique, though, seems to underestimate the number of planets that exist, and overestimate the specialness of our particular corner of existence. There's nothing about our star, our solar system, or even our galaxy that sets it apart in any way we can see from any of a zillion others out there. And even if sapience isn't inevitable--a reasonable assumption--if life evolved elsewhere, surely some fraction of it must have evolved toward sapience! With quadrillions of opportunities, you'd expect to see it somewhere else.

The "we're rare" hypothesis posits that life is common, but life like what we see here is orders of magnitude less common, because something happened here that's very unlikely even on galactic or universal scales. Perhaps it's the jump from prokaryotes (cells without a nucleus) to eukaryotes (cells with a nucleus, which are capable of forming complex multicellular animals). For almost the entire history of life on earth, only single-celled life existed, after all; multicellular life is a recent innovation. Maybe the universe is teeming with life, but none of it is more complex than bacteria.


Depressing thought: The universe has us and these guys in it, and that's it.


The third hypothesis is "we're fucked," and that's the one I'm most concerned about.

The "we're fucked" hypothesis suggests that sapient life isn't everywhere we look because wherever it emerges, it gets wiped out. It might be that it gets wiped out by a spacefaring civilization, a la Fred Saberhagen's Berserker science fiction stories.



But maybe...just maybe...it won't be an evil extraterrestrial what does us in. Maybe tool-using sapience intrinsically contains the seeds of its own annihilation.




K. Eric Drexler wrote a book called Engines of Creation, in which he posited a coming age of nanotechnology that would offer the ability to manipulate, disassemble, and assemble matter at a molecular level.

It's not as farfetched as it seems. You and I, after all, are vastly complex entities constructed from the level of molecules by programmable molecular machinery able to assemble large-scale, fine-grained structures from the ground up.

All the fabrication technologies we use now are, in essence, merely evolutionary refinements on stone knives and bearskins. When we want to make something, we take raw materials and hack at, carve, heat, forge, or mold them into what we want.


Even the Large Hadron Collider is basically just incremental small improvements on this


The ability to create things from the atomic level up, instead from big masses of materials down, promises to be more revolutionary than the invention of agriculture, the Iron Age, and the invention of the steam engine combined. Many of the things we take for granted--resources will always be scarce, resources must always be distributed unequally, it is not possible for a world of billions of people to have the standard of living of North America--will fade like a bad dream. Nanotech assembly offers the possibility of a post-scarcity society1.

It also promises to turn another deeply-held belief into a myth: Nuclear weapons are the scariest weapons we will ever face.

Molecular-level assembly implies molecular-level disassembly as well. And that...well, that opens the door to weapons of mass destruction on a scale as unimaginable to us as the H-bomb is to a Roman Centurion.


Cute little popgun you got there, son. Did your mom give you that?


Miracle nanotechnology notwithstanding, the course of human advancement has meant the distribution of greater and greater destructive power across wider and wider numbers of people. An average citizen today can go down to Wal-Mart and buy weapon technology that could have turned the tide of some of the world's most significant historical battles. Even without nanotech, there's no reason to think weapons technology and distribution just suddenly stopped in, say, 2006, and will not continue to increase from here on.




And that takes us to millennialist zealotry.

There are, in the world today, people who believe they have a sacred duty, given them by omnipotent supernatural entities, to usher in the Final Conflict between good and evil that will annihilate all the wicked with righteous fire, purging them from God's creation. These millennialists don't just believe the End is coming--they believe God has charged them with the task of bringing it about.

Christian millennialists long for nuclear war, which they believe will trigger the Second Coming. Some Hindus believe they must help bring about the end of days, so that the final avatar of Vishnu will return on a white horse to bring about the end of the current cycle and its corruption. In Japan, the Aum Shinrikyo sect believed it to be their duty to create the conditions for nuclear Armageddon, which they believed would trigger the ascendancy of the sect's leader Shoko Asahara to his full divine status as the Lamb of God. Judaism, Islam, and nearly all other religious traditions have at least some adherents who likewise embrace the idea of global warfare that will cleanse the world of evil.

The notion of the purification of the world through violence is not unique to any culture or age--the ancient Israelites, for example, were enthusiastic fans of the notion--but it has particularly deep roots in American civic culture, and we export that idea all over the world. (The notion of the mythic superhero, for instance, is an embodiment of the idea of purifying violence, as the book Captain America and the Crusade Against Evil explains in some depth.)

I'm not suggesting that religious zealots have a patent on inventive destructiveness. From Chairman Mao to Josef Stalin, the 20th century is replete with examples of secular governments that are as gleefully, viciously bonkers as the most passionate of religious extremists.

But religious extremism does seem unique in one regard: we don't generally see secularists embracing the fiery destruction of the entire world in order to cleanse os of evil. Violent secular institutions might want resources, or land, or good old-fashioned power, but they don't usually seem to want to destroy the whole of creation in order to invoke a supernatural force to save it.

Putting it all together, we can expect that as time goes on, the trend toward making increasingly destructive technology available to increasingly large numbers of people will likely continue. Which means that, one day, we will likely arrive at the point where a sufficiently determined individual or small group of people can, in fact, literally unleash destruction on a global scale.

Imagine that, say, any reasonably motivated group of 100 or more people anywhere in the world could actually start a nuclear war. Given that millennialist end-times ideology is a thing, how safe would you feel?

It is possible, just possible, that we don't see a ubniverse teeming with sapient, tool-using, radio-broadcasting, exploring-the-cosmos life because sapient tool-using species eventually reach the point where any single individual has the ability to wipe out the whole species, and very shortly after that happens, someone wipes out the whole species.

"But Franklin," I hear you say, "even if there are human beings who can and will do that, given the chance, that doesn't mean space aliens would! They're not going to be anything like us!"

Well, right. Sure. Other sapient species wouldn't be like us.

But here's the thing: We are, it seems, pretty unremarkable. We live on an unremarkable planet orbiting an unremarkable star in an unremarkable corner of an unremarkable galaxy. We're probably not special snowflakes; statistically, the odds are good that the trajectory we have taken is, um, unremarkable.


Yes, yes, they're all unique and special...but they all have six arms, too.
(Image: National Science Foundation.)


Sure, sapient aliens might be, overall, less warlike and aggressive (or more warlike and aggressive!) than we are, but does that mean every single individual is? If we take millions of sapient tool-using intelligent species and give every individual of every one of those races the ability to push a button and destroy the whole species, how many species do you think would survive?

Perhaps the solution to the Fermi paradox is not that we're first or we're rare; perhaps we're fucked. Perhaps we are rolling down a well-traveled groove, worn deep by millions of sapient species before us, a groove that ends in a predictable place.

I sincerely hope that's not the case. But it seems possible it might be. Maybe, just maybe, our best hope to last as long as we can is to counter millennial thinking as vigorously as possible--not to save us, ultimately, but to buy as much time as we possibly can.



1Post-scarcity society of the sort that a lot of transhumanists talk about may never really be a thing, given there will always be something that is scarce, even if that "something" is intangible. Creativity, for instance, can't be mass-produced. But a looser kind of post-scarcity society, in which material resources are abundant, does have some plausibility.


Keeping Up with All the Conspiracies

It's a good time to be a scientist, if you believe the various shouty, fearful corners of the Web.

Today, all across America (and indeed the rest of the world), scientists everywhere are swimming in dough courtesy of various dark, sinister forces paying them to conceal The Truth from you, the sheeple. These vast, complex conspiracies, bankrolled by vast corporations with almost unlimited wealth and power, run entirely unchecked...that is, until they're unravelled by a tiny but determined handful of unsung Web site owners, who pierce the veil of conspiracies by revealing the real truth, often given to them by...people who stand to make money from getting others to believe the conspiracy theories.

But that's not what's important! What's important is the vast legions of scientists being paid untold sums to conspire with other scientists. These huge conspiracies are directly responsible for the sharp increase in the number of research scientists driving Rolls-Royces1, owning enormous 200-foot luxury yachts, and buying tropical islands in the Caribbean.


Typical view from an average scientist's living room window


A quick Google search using terms like "scientists conspiracy" and "scientists conspiring to hide *" turns up so many scientific conspiracies that these days, even a first-year grad student research assistant must be making serious bank. Some of the various scientific conspiracies people--and I mean a lot of people, not a handful of nutters in tinfoil hats muttering to each other down at the pub--actually believe include:

  • Scientists are being paid to conceal the truth that fluoride in drinking water and toothpaste causes impotence, erectile dysfunction, Alzheimer's, arthritis, low IQ, high cholesterol, testicular cancer, thyroid disease, and AIDS

  • Climate scientists are creating phony evidence of global warming in order to get grant money

  • Monsanto is paying scientists to conceal the truth about the link between GMOs and autism, cancer, infertility, birth defects, baldness, IBS, colitis, "leaky gut," autoimmune diseases, depression, and migraines

  • Scientists invented AIDS in a lab, and are being paid by the US military to keep quiet about it

  • There is no such thing as AIDS; scientists are being paid by pharmaceutical companies to publish phony papers about AIDS to frighten people and make them more easily controlled by the pharmaceutical industry

  • Scientists are being paid to say HIV causes AIDS in order to conceal the fact that AIDS is actually caused by recreational drug use2

  • Pharmaceutical companies have a cure for AIDS, but they are paying scientists to suppress the cure because treating AIDS is more profitable

  • Pharmaceutical companies are paying scientists to suppress the evidence that vaccines cause autism3

  • Scientists are taking payouts from oil companies to conceal "free energy" devices that would free us from dependence on oil, gas, and utility companies4

  • Scientists are taking payments from drug companies to conceal cancer cures

  • NASA is paying scientists to cover up evidence that the moon landing was a hoax

  • The government is paying scientists to fabricate evidence that the world is more than 6,000 years old and make up fake evidence supporting evolutionary biology, or alternately, paying scientists not to publish evidence that supports Creationism

  • The government is paying scientists to support the "official" story about what happened on 9/11 and conceal evidence that the attack was an inside job

  • The government is paying scientists to cover up evidence of a UFO crash-landing at Area 51

  • Big Oil is paying scientists to say that fracking is safe

  • The "climate change lobby" is paying scientists to say fracking is dangerous

  • Oil is not produced from the breakdown of fossil organisms; it's produced by natural geological processes in endless quantities. We will never run out of oil; scientists are being paid to say oil is a limited resources in order to artificially inflate the price (or in order to try to get people to invest in alternative energy, depending on who you ask)

  • Scientists are being paid by cell phone makers/cellular service providers to cover up the dangers of cell phone radiation

  • Scientists are taking money to conceal the fact that eating food cooked with a microwave oven causes cancer, high blood pressure, slow heartbeat, baldness, joint pain, insomnia, and nervous disorders


Whew! That's quite a list--and it's only the tip of the iceberg. Looking at it, I can understand why scientists aren't really living on idyllic tropical islands or sipping martinis on their yachts--all that conspiracy money is going toward whiteboards and dry-erase markers just so they can keep track of all the conspiracies they're participating in!

And it's not just scientists. Half the world's bloggers, yours truly included, are regularly accused of taking money from Big Oil, Big Pharma, Monsanto, the government, and a host of other sinister organizations to write blog posts...well, just like this one.


Make my check payable to "Franklin Veaux"--make sure you spell my last name right, 'kay?


There's an essay on Patheos about six arguments commonly used by science denialists. The normal course of arguments against science or in favor of pseudoscience are:

1) Cast doubt on the science.
2) Question the scientists’ motives and integrity.
3) Magnify any disagreements among the scientists; cite gadflies as authorities.
4) Exaggerate the potential for harm from the science.
5) Appeal to the importance of personal freedom.
6) Object that acceptance of the science would repudiate some key philosophy

I would argue that #6 should actually be #1 on the list, because it has invariably been my observation that people accept or reject science based on whether or not the science agrees with whatever personal worldview they hold. So liberals might accept the science of climate change but scream adamantly that GMOs are dangerous (and the scientific consensus about their safety is the result of a massive conspiracy), whereas conservatives accept GMO safety but hoot and holler about a scientific conspiracy about climate change.

The idea of a scientific conspiracy is, of course, utter bollocks. Folks who talk about conspiracies of scientists have absolutely no idea what science is or how it works.

Take the conspiracy about scientists hiding a secret cure for AIDS. Any scientist who announces a cure for AIDS is going to be set for life. She's guaranteed a Nobel Prize, her own research facility, and research funding from now until the end of time. I mean, what do these people imagine happened? Do they think the executives of Giant Pharmocorp convened a meeting of their top researchers and said "I understand you folks have come up with a cure for AIDS. Tell you what--we'll just keep mum about that, okay?" What do they would think would happen? The scientists at the table would all nod their heads--and then race each other to the patent office. (And seriously, do people think you could threaten researchers into keeping quiet? Researchers talk. Research is a collaborative exercise. It's not likely you'd be able to have one research team make significant progress on a cure for AIDS without other teams knowing it, and it's really unlikely a company could threaten its scientists without other people knowing.)

Scientific consensus emerges when scientists review each other's work and replicate one another's experiments. Scientists do not accept something is true because someone says it is. The whole point of the scientific method is that you never have to trust what some bloke says. When someone says something, like "the CO2 in the air is driving a change in climate" or "vaccines don't cause autism," other scientists check his work.

The process is called "peer review," and it's ruthless. When you publish a paper, everything is examined, poked at, grilled, scrutinized, analyzed, inspected, dissected, reviewed, studied, checked, weighed, sifted, measured, and otherwise put under a figurative (and sometimes literal) microscope. The assumptions, the methodologies, the data, the conclusions--everything is looked at, with an eye toward finding any flaw at all. Scientists love finding flaws in other scientist's research. They live for that, the way that one kid with the missing tooth lived for taking your lunch money when you were in fifth grade.


The peer review process in action


Now, not all scientists are perfect, of course. Scientists are human, and humans are corruptible.

But what's more likely--that one scientist (like, say, Andrew Wakefield) will lie and say vaccines are dangerous when they aren't, because he's been paid 600,000 British pounds by a law firm hoping to sue vaccine makers, and he wants to release his own brand of "autism safe" vaccine he hopes to make millions on? Or that tens of thousands--possibly hundreds of thousands--of other scientists, all of whom are publishing their data for everyone to see, are engaging in a vast conspiracy to say vaccines are safe when they aren't?

Seriously, it's nearly impossible to keep a conspiracy of five or six people quiet. A conspiracy of tens of thousands? Staggering quantities of money flowing to all the world's scientists to buy their voices, staggering mountains of evidence being suppressed...and there's no paper trail? Is this really what people think is happening?

The implausibility of these gigantic conspiracies--as if scientists didn't eat GMO food, get their kids vaccinated, and use microwave ovens themselves!--doesn't deter the conspiracy theorists, many of whom are simply looking for a way to explain why scientists keep saying things that just plain don't fit their pre-existing beliefs.

Conspiracy theories help make sense of a world that seems in contradiction to what we feel must be true. They also make us feel good about ourselves; as one Web site devited to conspiracy theories says, "People who are not skeptics of "official stories" tend to be dull-minded. To believe everything these institutions tell you is a sign of mental retardation. To ask questions, on the other hand, is a sign of higher intelligence and wisdom." We feel good about ourselves when we think we have pulled back the mask of the Great Conspiracy and figured out what's really going on. We feel clever, wise, vindicated. We don't have to accept a challenge to our worldview; we've outwitted them and, in so doing, totally proved the things we already wanted to believe are right.

That's one nice thing about conspiracy theories. They are effective solvents, quickly dissolving even the most stubborn inconvenient facts.




1 Obviously, I'm joking. They're not driving Rolls-Royces; they're paying their chauffeurs to drive their Rolls-Royces.

2 It's not clear to me in this conspiracy theory who's paying the scientists. Big Cocaine?

3 I don't really know why. Vaccines don't make much, if any, profit. On the other hand, a hospital stay for whooping cough can generate tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue. So it's not clear to me where the profit motive is for a pro-vaccination conspiracy.

4 Presumably, the same oil companies that aren't able to pay scientists to say global warming isn't a thing.


"Well, in our country," said Alice, still panting a little, "you'd generally get to somewhere else — if you ran very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing."
"A slow sort of country!" said the Queen. "Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run twice as fast as that!"
"I'd rather not try, please!" said Alice. "I'm quite content to stay here — only I am so hot and thirsty!"

-- Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

"When we just saw that man, I think it was [biologist P.Z. Myers], talking about how great scientists were, I was thinking to myself the last time any of my relatives saw scientists telling them what to do they were telling them to go to the showers to get gassed … that was horrifying beyond words, and that’s where science – in my opinion, this is just an opinion – that’s where science leads you."
-- Ben Stein, Trinity Broadcasting System interview, 2008


What do spam emails, AIDS denial, conspiracy theories, fear of GM foods, rejection of global warming, antivaccination crusades, and the public school district of Tucson, Arizona banning Shakespeare's The Tempest have in common?


A typical spam message in my inbox


The answer is anti-intellectualism. Anti-intellectualism--the rejection of scientific study and reason as tools for understanding the physical world, and the derision of people who are perceived as educated or "intellectual"--has deep roots in the soil of American civil discourse. John Cotton, theological leader of the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay, wrote in 1642, "the more learned and witty you bee, the more fit to act for Satan will you bee"--a sentiment many Evangelical Protestants identify with today. (Tammy Faye Bakker, wife of the disgraced former televangelist Jim Bakker, once remarked "it's possible to educate yourself right out of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.")

It seems weird that such a virulent streak of anti-intellectualism should be present in the world's only remaining superpower, a position the US achieved largely on the merits of its technological and scientific innovation. Our economic, military, and political position in the world were secured almost entirely by our ability to discover, invent, and innovate...and yet there is a broad swath of American society that despises the intellectualism that makes that innovation possible in the first place.

Liberals in the US tend to deride conservatives as ignorant, anti-intellectual hillbillies. It's arguably easy to see why; the conservative political party in the US is actively, openly hostile to science and intellectualism. The Republican Party of Texas has written into the party platform a passage opposing the teaching of critical thinking in public school. Liberals scoff at conservatives who deny the science of climate change, teach that the world and everything in it is six thousand years old, and seek to ban the teaching of evolutionary science...all while claiming that GMO foods are dangerous and vaccines cause autism. Anti-intellectualism is an equal-opportunity phenomenon that cuts across the entire American political landscape. The differences in liberal and conservative rejection of science are merely matters of detail.

So why is it such a pervasive part of American cultural dialog? There are a lot of reasons. Anti-intellectualism is built into the foundation of US culture; the Puritans, whose influence casts a very long shadow over the whole of US society, were famously suspicious of any sort of intellectual pursuit. They came to the New World seeking religious freedom, by which they meant the freedom to execute anyone they didn't like, a practice their European contemporaries were insufficiently appreciative of; and the list of people they didn't like included any unfortunate person suspected of learning or knowledge. That suspicion lingers; we've never succeeded in purging ourselves of it entirely.

Those of a cynical nature like to suggest that anti-intellectualism is politically convenient It's easier, so the narrative goes, to control a poorly educated populace, especially when that populace lacks even basic reasoning skills. If you've ever watched an evening of Fox News, it's a difficult argument to rebut. One does not need to be all that cynical to suggest a party plank rejecting critical thinking skills is a very convenient thing to a political party that enshrines young-earth Creationism, for instance.

But the historical narrative and the argument from political convenience seem insufficient to explain the breathtaking aggressiveness of anti-intellectualism in the US today, particularly among political progressives and liberals, who are often smugly self-congratulatory about how successfully they have escaped the clutches of tradition and dogma.

I think there's another factor, and that's the Red Queen problem.

In evolutionary, biology, the Red Queen hypothesis suggests that organisms in competition with each other must continue to evolve and adapt merely to maintain the status quo. When cheetahs prey on gazelles, the fastest cheetahs will be most successful at catching prey; the fastest gazelles will be most successful at escaping cheetahs. So natural selection favors faster and faster gazelles and cheetahs as each adapts to the other. Parasites evolve and become more efficient at parasitizing their hosts, which develop more efficient defenses against the parasites. I would like to propose that the same hypothesis can help explain anti-intellectualism, at least in part.

As we head into the twenty-first century, the sum total of human knowledge is increasing exponentially. When I was in college in the late 1980s and early 1990s, my neurobiology professors taught me things--adult human brains don't grow new neurons, we're all born with all the brain cells we'll ever have--that we now know not to be true. And that means anyone who wants to be educated needs to keep learning new things all the time, just to stay in one place.

Those who reject science like to say that science is flawed because it changes all the time. How can we trust science, they say, when it keeps changing? In fact, what's flawed is such critics' estimation of how complicated the natural world is, and how much there is to know about it. Science keeps changing because we keep shining lights into previously dark areas of understanding.

But it's really hard to keep up. A person who wants to stay abreast of the state of the art of human understanding has to run faster and faster and faster merely to stay in one place. It's fatiguing, not just because it means constantly learning new things, but because it means constantly examining things you believed you already knew, re-assessing how new discoveries fit into your mental framework of how the world works.

For those without the time, inclination, tools, and habits to keep up with the state of human understanding, scientists look like priests. We must merely accept what they say, because we don't have the tools to fact-check them. Their pronouncements seem arbitrary, and worse, inconsistent; why did they say we never grow new brain cells yesterday, only to say the exact opposite today? If two different scientists say two different things, who do you trust?

If you don't race to keep up with the Red Queen, that's what it is--trust. You must simply trust what someone else says, because trying to wrap your head around what's going on is so goddamn fatiguing. And it's easier to trust people who say the same thing every time than to trust people who say something different today than what they said yesterday. (Or who, worse, yet, tell you "I don't know" when you ask a question. "I don't know" is a deeply unsatisfying answer. If a Bronze Age tribesman asks two people "What is the sun?" and one of them gives a fanciful story about a fire-god and a dragon, and the other says "I don't know," the answer about the fire-god and the dragon is far more satisfying, even in complete absence of any evidence that fire-gods or dragons actually exist at all.)

Science is comfortable with the notion that models and frameworks change, and science is comfortable with "I don't know" as an answer. Human beings, rather less so. We don't want to run and run to keep up with the Red Queen. We also don't want to hear "I don't know" as an answer.

So science, then, becomes a kind of trust game, not that much different from the priesthood. We accept the pronouncements of priests and scientists alike when they tell us things they want to hear, and reject them when they don't. Political conservatives don't want to hear that our industrial activity is changing the global climate; liberals don't want to hear that there's nothing wrong with GMO food. Both sides of the political aisle find common ground in one place: running after the Red Queen is just plain too much work.


Among the left-leaning progressives that make up a substantial part of Portland's general population, there is a profound fear of GMO food that's becoming an identity belief--a belief that's held not because it's supported by evidence, but because it helps define membership in a group.

It's frustrating to talk to the anti-GMO crowd, in part because these conversations always involve goalposts whipping around so fast I'm afraid someone will poke my eye out. It generally starts with "I don't like GMOs because food safety," but when you start talking about how evidence to support that position is as thin on the ground as snowmen in the Philippines, the goalposts quickly move to "I don't like GMOs because Monsanto." Monsanto, if you listen to Portland hippies, is a gigantic, evil mega-corporation that controls the government, buys off all the world's scientists, intimidates farmers, and rules supreme over the media.

So I got to thinking, How big is Monsanto? Because it takes quite a lot of money to do the things Monsanto is accused of doing--when they can be done at all, that is.

And I started Googling. The neat thing about publicly-traded corporations is they have to post all their financials. A quick Google search will reveal just how big any public company really is.

I expected to learn that Monsanto was big. I was surprised.

As big companies go, Monsanto is a runt. In terms of gross revenue, it is almost exactly the same size as Whole Foods and Starbucks. It's smaller than The Gap, way smaller than 7-11 and UPS, a tiny fraction of the size of Home Depot, and miniscule compared to Verizon and ExxonMobil. That's it, way down on the left on this graph I made:



You can't shake a stick in the anti-GMO crowd without hearing a dozen conspiracy theories, almost all of them centered around Monsanto. Lefties like to sneer at conservative conspiracy theories about global warming, but when it comes to GMOs, they haven't met a conspiracy theory they don't love to embrace.

Most of these conspiracy theories talk about how Monsanto, that enormous, hulking brute of a magacorporation, has somehow bought off all the world's scientists, creating a conspiracy to tell us GMOs are safe when they're not.

Now, hippie lefties usually aren't scientists. In fact, anyone who's ever been part of academia can tell you a conspiracy of scientists saying something that isn't true is only a little bit more likely than a conspiracy of cats saying tuna is evil. As an essay on Slate put it,

Think of your meanest high school mean girl at her most gleefully, underminingly vicious. Now give her a doctorate in your discipline, and a modicum of power over your future. That’s peer review.


Speaking of conspiracies of scientists, let's get back to conservatives and their "climate change" scientific conspiracy. Look at the left-hand side of the chart up there, then look at the right-hand side. Look at the left side again. Now look at the right side again.

ExxonMobil makes more than 26 times more money than Monsanto, and has a higher net profit margin, too. Combined, the country's top 5 oil companies have a gross revenue exceeding $1.3 trillion, more than 87 times Monsanto's revenue, and yet...

...they still can't get the world's scientists to say global warming isn't a thing.

If the oil companies can't buy a conspiracy of scientists, how can a pipsqueak like Monsanto manage it?

I'm planning a more in-depth blog post about GMOs and anti-GMO activism later. But the "Monsanto buys off scientists" conspiracy nuttiness needed addressing on its own, because it's so ridiculous.

It's easy to root for the underdog. One of the cheapest, most manipulative ways to make an argument is to refer to something you don't like as "Big" (Big Oil, Big Pharma, Big SCAM as I like to think of the Supplemental, Complementary, and Alternative Medicine community). We are culturally wired to love the underdog; a great deal of left identity is wrapped up in being the ones who root for the common man against Big Whatever.

So the ideology of Monsanto as the Big Enemy has emotional resonance. We like to think of the small guy standing up against Big Monsanto, when the reality is Whole Foods, so beloved of hippies everywhere, is basically the same size big corporation as the oft-hated Monsanto, and both of them are tiny in the shadow of far larger companies like 7-11 and Target.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to head down to Starbucks for a pumpkin spice latte and listen to the hippies rant about how much they hate big corporations like Monsanto.


1984: How George Orwell Got it Wrong

When I was in high school, one of the many books on our required reading list in my AP English class was George Orwell's 1984. As a naive, inexperienced teenager, I was deeply affected by it, in much the same way many other naive, inexperienced teens are deeply affected by Atlas Shrugged. I wrote a glowing book report, which, if memory serves, got me an A+.



1984 was a crude attempt at dystopian fiction, partly because it was more a hysterical anti-Communist screed than a serious effort at literature. Indeed, had it not been written at exactly the point in history it was written, near the dawn of the Cold War and just prior to the rise of McCarthyist anti-communist hysteria, it probably would not have become nearly the cultural touchstone it is now.

From the vantage point of 2014, parts of it seem prescient, particularly the overwhelming government surveillance of every aspect of the citizen's lives. 1984 describes a society in which everyone is watched, all the time; there's a minor plot hole (who's watching all these video feeds?), but it escaped my notice back then.

But something happened on the way to dystopia--something Orwell didn't predict. We tend to see surveillance as a tool of oppressive government; in a sense, we have all been trained to see it that way. But it is just as powerful a tool in the hands of the citizens, when they use it to watch the government.




As I write this, the town of Ferguson, Missouri has been wracked for over a week now because of the killing of an unarmed black teenager at the hands of an aggressive and overzealous police officer. When the people of Ferguson protested, the police escalated, and escalated, and escalated, responding with tear gas, arrests, and curfews.

Being a middle-aged white dude gives me certain advantages. I don't smoke pot, but if I did and a police officer found me with a bag of weed in my pocket, the odds I'd ever go to prison are very, very small. Indeed, the odds I'd even be arrested are small. If I were to jaywalk in front of a police officer, or be seen by a police officer walking at night along a suburban sidewalk, the odds of a violent confrontation are vanishingly tiny. So it's impossible for me, or real;y for most white dudes, to appreciate or even understand what it's like to be black in the United States.

This is nothing new. The hand of government weighs most heavily on those who are least enfranchised, and it has always been so. All social structures, official and unofficial, slant toward the benefit of those on top, and in the United States, that means the male and pale.

And there's long been a strong connection between casual, systemic racism and the kind of anti-Commie agitprop that made Orwell famous.



It is ironic, though not unexpected, that the Invisible Empire of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan is raising a "reward" for the police officer who "did his job against the negro criminal".

So far, so normal. This is as it has been since before the founding of this country. But now, something is different...and not in the way Orwell predicted. Surveillance changes things.




What Orwell didn't see, and couldn't have seen, is a time in which nearly every citizen carries a tiny movie camera everywhere. The rise of cell phones has made citizen surveillance nearly universal, with results that empower citizens against abuses of government, rather than the other way around.

Today, it's becoming difficult for police to stop, question, arrest, beat, or shoot someone without cell phone footage ending up on YouTube within hours. And that is, I think, as it should be. Over and over again, police have attempted to prevent peopel from recording them in public places...and over and over again, the courts have ruled that citizens have the right to record the police.

It's telling that in Ferguson, the protestors, who've been labeled "looters" and "thugs" by police, have been the ones who want video and journalism there...and it's been the police who are trying to keep video recording away. That neatly sums up everything you need to know about the politics of Ferguson, seems to me.

Cell phone technology puts the shoe on the other foot. And, unsurprisingly, when the institutions of authority--the ones who say "if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear from surveillance"--find themselves on the receiving end rather than the recording end of surveillance, they become very uncomfortable. In the past, abuses of power were almost impossible to prosecute; they happened in dark places, away from the disinfecting eye of public scrutiny. But now, that's changing. Now, it's harder and harder to find those dark places where abuse thrives.

In fact, the ACLU has released a smartphone app called Police Tape, which you can start running as soon as you find yourself confronted by police. It silently (and invisibly) records everything that happens, and uploads the file to a remote server.

If those in power truly had nothing to hide, they would welcome surveillance. New measures are being proposed in many jurisdictions that would require police officers to wear cameras wherever they go. The video from these cameras could corroborate officers' accounts of their actions whenever misconduct was alleged, if--and this is the critical part--the officers tell the truth. When I hear people object to such cameras, then, the only conclusion I can draw is they don't want a record of their activities, and I wonder why.

William Gibson, in the dystopian book Neuromancer (published, as fate would have it, in 1984) proposed that the greatest threats to personal liberty come, not from a government, but from corporations that assume de facto control over government. His vision seems more like 1984 than 1984. He was less jaundiced than Orwell, though. In the short story Burning Chrome, Gibson wrote, "The street finds its own uses for things." The explosion of citizen surveillance proves how remarkably apt that sentiment is.

The famous first TV commercial for the Apple Macintosh includes the line "why 1984 won't be like 1984." The success of the iPhone and other camera-equipped smartphones, shows how technology can turn the tables on authority.

The police commissioners and state governors and others in the halls of political power haven't quite figured out the implications yet. Technology moves fast, and the machinery of authority moves slowly. But the times, they are a-changin'. Orwell got it exactly wrong; it is the government, not the citizens, who have the most to fear from a surveillance society.

And that is a good thing.


Every time you buy a hard drive, some of your money goes to the German government.

That's because in the late 1990s, a physicist named Peter Grünberg at the Forschungszentrum Jülich (Jülich Research Center) made a rather odd discovery.

The Jülich Research Center is a government-funded German research facility that explores nuclear physics, geoscience, and other fields. There's a particle accelerator there, and a neutron scattering reactor, and not one or two or even three but a whole bunch of supercomputers, and a magnetic confinement fusion tokamak, and a whole bunch of other really neat and really expensive toys. All of the Center's research money comes from the government--half from the German federal government and half from the Federal State of North Rhine-Westphalia.

Anyway, like I was saying, in the late 1990s, Peter Grünberg made a rather odd discovery. He was exploring quantum physics, and found that in a material made of several layers of magnetic and non-magnetic materials, if the layers are thin enough (and by "thin enough" I mean "only a few atoms thick"), the material's resistance changes dramatically when it's exposed to very, very weak magnetic fields.

There's a lot of deep quantum voodoo about why this is. Wikipedia has this to say on the subject:

If scattering of charge carriers at the interface between the ferromagnetic and non-magnetic metal is small, and the direction of the electron spins persists long enough, it is convenient to consider a model in which the total resistance of the sample is a combination of the resistances of the magnetic and non-magnetic layers.

In this model, there are two conduction channels for electrons with various spin directions relative to the magnetization of the layers. Therefore, the equivalent circuit of the GMR structure consists of two parallel connections corresponding to each of the channels. In this case, the GMR can be expressed as



Here the subscript of R denote collinear and oppositely oriented magnetization in layers, χ = b/a is the thickness ratio of the magnetic and non-magnetic layers, and ρN is the resistivity of non-magnetic metal. This expression is applicable for both CIP and CPP structures.


Make of that what you will.




Conservatives and Libertarians have a lot of things in common. In fact, for all intents and purposes, libertarians in the United States are basically conservatives who are open about liking sex and drugs. (Conservatives and libertarians both like sex and drugs; conservatives just don't cop to it.)

One of the many areas they agree on is that the governmet should not be funding science, particularly "pure" science with no obvious technological or commercial application.

Another thing they have in common is they don't understand what science is. In the field of pure research, you can never tell what will have technological or commercial application.

Back to Peter Grünberg. He discovered that quantum mechanics makes magnets act really weird, and in 2007 he shared a Nobel Prize with French physicist Albert Fert, a researcher at the French Centre national de la recherche scientifique (French National Centre for Scientific Research), France's largest government-funded research facility.

And it turns out this research had very important commercial applications:



You know how in the 80s and 90s, hard drives were these heavy, clunky things with storage capacities smaller than Rand Paul's chances at ever winning the Presidency? And then all of a sudden they were terabyte this, two terabyte that?

Some clever folks figured out how to use this weird quantum mechanics voodoo to make hard drive heads that could respond to much smaller magnetic fields, meaning more of them could be stuffed on a magnetic hard drive platter. And boom! You could carry around more storage in your laptop than used to fit in a football stadium.

It should be emphasized that Peter Grünberg and Albert Fert were not trying to invent better hard drives. They were government physicists, not Western Digital employees. They were exploring a very arcane subject--what happens to magnetic fields at a quantum level--with no idea what they would find, or whether it would be applicable to anything.




So let's talk about your money.

When it became obvious that this weird quantum voodoo did have commercial possibility, the Germans patented it. IBM was the first US company to license the patent; today, nearly all hard drives license giant magnetoresistance patents. Which means every time you buy a hard drive, or a computer with a hard drive in it, some of your money flows back to Germany.

Conservatives and libertarians oppose government funding for science because, to quote the Cato Institute,

[G]overnment funding of university science is largely unproductive. When Edwin Mansfield surveyed 76 major American technology firms, he found that only around 3 percent of sales could not have been achieved “without substantial delay, in the absence of recent academic research.” Thus some 97 percent of commercially useful industrial technological development is, in practice, generated by in-house R&D. Academic science is of relatively small economic importance, and by funding it in public universities, governments are largely subsidizing predatory foreign companies.


Make of that what you will. I've read it six times and I'm still not sure I understand the argument.

The Europeans are less myopic. They understand two things the Americans don't: pure research is the necessary foundation for a nation's continued economic growth, and private enterprise is terrible at funding pure research.

Oh, there are a handful of big companies that do fund pure research, to be sure--but most private investment in research comes after the pure, no-idea-if-this-will-be-commercially-useful, let's-see-how-nature-works variety.

It takes a lot of research and development to get from the "Aha! Quantum mechanics does this strange thing when this happens!" to a gadget you have in your home. That also takes money and development, and it's the sort of research private enterprise excels at. In fact, the Cato Institute cites many examples of biotechnology and semiconductor research that are privately funded, but these are types of research that generally already have a clear practical value, and they take place after the pure research upon which they rest.

So while the Libertarians unite with the Tea Party to call for the government to cut funding for research--which is working, as government research grants have fallen for the last several years in a row--the Europeans are ploughing money into their physics labs and research facilities and the Superconducting Supercollider, which I suspect will eventually produce a stream of practical, patentable ideas...and every time you buy a hard drive, some of your money goes to Germany.

Modern societies thrive on technological innovation. Technological innovation depends on understanding the physical world--even when it seems at first like there aren't any obvious practical uses for what you learn. They know that, we don't. I think that's going to catch up with us.


A short while ago, I published a tweet on my Twitter timeline that was occasioned by a pair of memes I saw posted on Facebook:




The memes in question have both been circulating for a while, which is terribly disappointing now that we live in the Golden Age of Google. They're being distributed over an online network of billions of globally-connected devices...an online network of billions of globally-connected devices which lets people discover in just a few seconds that they aren't actually true.





A quick Google search shows both of these memes, which have been spread across social media countless times, are absolute rubbish.

The quote attributed to Albert Einstein appears to have originated with a self-help writer named Matthew Kelly, who falsely attributed it to Einstein in what was probably an attempt to make it sound more legitimate. It doesn't even sound like something he would have said.

The second is common on conservative blogs and decries the fact that Obamacare (or, sometimes, Medicaid) offer free health coverage to undocumented immigrants. In fact, Federal law bars undocumented immigrants from receiving Federal health care services or subsidies for health insurance, with just one exception: Medicaid will pay hospitals to deliver babies of undocumented mothers (children born in the United States are legal US citizens regardless of the status of their parents).

Total time to verify both of these memes on Google: less than thirty seconds.

So why, given how fast and easy it is to verify a meme before reposting it, does nobody ever do it? Why do memes that can be demonstrated to be true in less time than it takes to order a hamburger at McDonald's still get so much currency?

The answer, I think, is that it doesn't matter whether a meme is true. It doesn't matter to the people who post memes and it doesn't matter to the people who read them. Memes aren't about communication, at least not communication of facts and ideas. They are about social identity.




Viewed through the lens of social identity, memes suddenly make sense. The folks who spread them aren't trying to educate, inform, or communicate ideas. Memes are like sigils on a Medieval lord's banner: they indicate identity and allegiance.









These are all memes I've seen online in the last six weeks. What inferences can we make about the people who posted them? These memes speak volumes about the political identities of the people who spread them; their truthfulness doesn't matter. We can talk about the absurdity of Oprah Winfrey's reluctance to pay taxes or the huge multinational banks that launder money for the drug cartels, and both of those are conversations worth having...but they aren't what the memes are about.

It's tempting to see memes as arguments,especially because they often repeat talking points of arguments. But I submit that's the wrong way to view them. They may contain an argument, but their purpose is not to try to argue; they are not a collective debate on the merits of a position.

Instead, memes are about identifying the affiliations of the folks who post them. They're a way of signaling in-group and out-group status. That makes them distinct from, say, the political commentary in Banksy's graffiti, which I think is more a method of making an argument. Memes are a mechanism for validating social identity. Unlike graffiti, there's no presupposition the memes will be seen by everyone; instead, they're seen by the poster's followers on social media--a self-selecting group likely to already identify with the poster.

Even when they're ridiculously, hilariously wrong. Consider this meme, for example. It shows a photograph of President Barack Obama receiving a medal from the king of Saudi Arabia.



The image is accurate, thought the caption is not. The photo shows Barack Obama receiving the King Abdul Aziz Order of Merit from King Abdullah. It's not unconstitutional for those in political office to receive gifts from foreign entities, provided those gifts are not kept personally, but are turned over to the General Services Administration or the National Archives.

But the nuances, like I said, don't matter. It doesn't even matter that President George W. Bush received the exact same award while he was in office:



If we interpret memes as a way to distribute facts, the anti-Obama meme is deeply hypocritical, since the political conservatives who spread it aren't bothered that a President on "their" side received the same award. If we see memes as a way to flag political affiliation, like the handkerchiefs some folks in the BDSM community wear in their pockets to signal their interests, it's not. By posting it, people are signaling their political in-group.

Memes don't have to be self-consistent. The same groups that post this meme:



also tend by and large to support employment-at-will policies giving employers the right to fire employees for any reason, including reasons that have nothing to do with on-the-job performance...like, for instance, being gay, or posting things on Facebook the employer doesn't like.

Memes do more than advertise religious affiliation; they signal social affiliation as well.







Any axis along which a sharp social division exists will, I suspect, generate memes. I also suspect, though I think the phenomenon is probably too new to be sure, that times of greater social partisanship will be marked by wider and more frequent distribution of memes, and issues that create sharper divides will likewise lead to more memes.

There are many ideas that are "identity politics"--ideas that are held not because they're supported by evidence, but simply because they are a cost of entry to certain groups. These ideas form part of the backbone of a group; they serve as a quick litmus test of whether a person is part of the out-group or the in-group.

For example, many religious conservatives reflexively oppose birth control for women, even if the majority of its members, like the majority of women in the US at large, use it. Liberals reflexively oppose nuclear power, even though it is by far the safest source of power on the basis of lives lost per terawatt hour of electricity produced. The arguments used to support these ideas ("birth control pills cause abortions," "nuclear waste is too dangerous to deal with") are almost always empirically, demonstrably false, but that's irrelevant. These ideas are part of a core set of values that define the group; holding them is about communicating shared values, not about true and false.





Unfortunately, these core identity ideas often lead directly not only to misinformation and a distorted worldview, but to actual human suffering. Opposition to vaccination and genetically modified foods are identity ideas among many liberals; conservatives oppose environmental regulation and deny human involvement in climate change as part of their identity ideas. These ideas have already led to human suffering and death, and are likely to lead to more.

Human beings are social animals capable of abstract reasoning, which perhaps makes it inevitable that abstract ideas are so firmly entrenched in our social structures. Ideas help define our social structures, identify in-group and out-group members, and signal social allegiances. The ideas we present, even when they take the form of arguments, are often not attempts at dialog so much as flags that let others know which lord we march for. Social media memes are, in that way, more accurately seen as house sigils than social discourse.


"I'm not a feminist. I love men!"

If you've been reading my blog for any length of time, you'll know I hold very little in common with the Religious Right. I do not, for example, believe that homosexuality is a sin, or that Teh Gayz are all destined for the fires of Hell. I don't much cotton to the notion that the government of the United States should be replaced with a Christian theocracy. Nor do I believe there is a hidden secret agenda of the Godless to drive this great nation into the ground--I think the anti-intellectualism displayed by so many on the Right is doing that job well enough, thanks.

But there is one thing I admire about the Right, and that is their fearsome, epic ability to frame discussion about any topic they care about by crafting a point and then keeping tenaciously, ferociously on point.

"I'm not a feminist. I love men!"

One of the ways the Right has been brilliantly successful at framing the public discourse is in the way they've controlled how we think about women. And by "we" I don't mean "people on the right," I mean everyone.

Even folks who ought to know better.

"I'm not a feminist. I love men!"

The areas of the Internet I frequent are not areas where the Right often appear. I tend to spend my time online in forums that talk about non-traditional relationships, progressive social issues, technical and scientific subjects, and skepticism.

And there's something really striking about all these places. The Right may not be present there, but the ideas of the Right are. Even, interestingly, in people who claim to despise the Right.

"I'm not a feminist. I love men!"

There's no place this is more obvious than in conversations about the Dread F Word. No, not that Dread F Word, the other Dread F Word.

Find yourself a progressive, generally respectful, tolerant, otherwise with-it person. Man or woman, it doesn't make much difference. Just find someone who thinks there's room for a multiplicity of views in the public ideosphere. Someone who, if he or she is religious, doesn't think God commands converting the heathens at the point of a sword. Someone who thinks that people ought generally to be treated well,and that religion isn't the basis for the formation of a Western representative government. Someone who will agree that racism is a bad thing, even if it's not entirely clear what we should do to get rid of it.

Now ask that person a simple question: "What is feminism?"

See that? Something very strange happens. For a brief moment, when that otherwise progressive, generally agreeable person starts talking, it's as if Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity stuck his hand up your interlocutor's ass and made his or her lips move. For that brief instant, that person, that otherwise agreeable and not at all racist or sexist person, becomes a meat puppet for Mr. Limbaugh, Mr. Hannity, and his ilk.

Even if that person would be horrified at the thought of listening to their shows.

"I'm not a feminist. I love men!"

Think about what goes through your mind, dear reader, at the word "feminist." Do you think "shrill"? "Strident"? "Misandrist"? "Humorless"? "Man-hater"? "Feminazi"? Does an image pop into your head of a woman who wants to get ahead by tearing down men, a woman who blames men for her own shortcomings, a woman who wants to cause trouble because she can't succeed on her own? Do you picture someone who, even if she perhaps has the right intentions, has totally gone overboard, accusing all men of being sexist (or worse, of being rapists)?



Guess where those ideas come from? I'll give you a hint: Not from actual feminists.

Now, don't get me wrong: any sufficiently large group of people is going to contain extremists, bad apples, and destructive folks. If you look at doctors in general, you'll find the occasional cynical lying fraud like Andrew Wakefield--but we don't say all doctors are frauds who deliberately publish articles they know to be fabricated. There are probably a small number of extremists out there somewhere who hold something that might reasonably be within spitting distance of some of the stereotypes about feminism.

But the idea that this is what most or all feminism is about? Sheer, brilliant, amazing PR by the Right. Where did you get those ideas? You got them from the Right, even if you don't know it.

You probably think you didn't get them "from" everywhere. You simply know them to be true. Everyone knows them to be true, right? And that's the crux of the brilliance: if you repeat an idea often enough, everyone, even folks who ideologically despise you, will come to accept it as just true.

Feminists hate men. Everyone knows it. Because we've all heard it, even if we don't exactly remember where we've heard it from.

Are there women who are angry? Oh, yeah, you bet. What's amazing is not that women are angry, but that more women aren't more angry. All the dudebros I've personally met get a whole lot angrier about things a whole lot more trivial--for instance, the notion that they shouldn't grope those hot somethingsomethings at that con without, you know, asking them first. (Scientist Hope Jahren actually had a colleague ejaculate in an envelope and leave it in her mailbox when she dared to think that she might be worthy of a spot on a serious scientific research team...and this isn't even an isolated or extreme example of the kind of shit women deal with every day. And men say women are angry? Seriously, what would we say about women if they thought it was appropriate to protest the presence of a man on a research team by shoving a used tampon into a mailbox? Seriously, it amazes me that every woman on earth does not, at some point, climb a clock tower with a rifle. I guaranfuckingtee you that if the roles of men and women were reversed tomorrow, we'd see a whole lot of dudebros doing exactly that.)

"I'm not a feminist. I love men!"

The idea that feminism means hating men has been so skillfully inserted into the public discourse that it's accepted as a premise in almost any dialog about men and women. And it's a corrosive idea. It distorts conversation. If you accept this premise, a whole lot of things that would otherwise seem unreasonable--indeed, even offensive--start to sound reasonable.

What is feminism?

It's the idea that men and women are both people, equally deserving of agency. That's it. That's the whole package.

What separates feminism from humanism, then? Centuries of institutional, systematic inequality, that's what. Saying "I think men and women are equal" is all fine and dandy, but if you ignore the fact that we live under a system that treats, in a thousand ways, men and women as decidedly unequal, congratulations! You've just won a Nobel Prize in Missing The Point, which you will be sharing with approximately two and a half billion other luminaries in point-missing.

If you think women are people, congratulations, you're a feminist! And if you don't, well...the alternative, it seems to me, is "asshole."

If you reject this notion of feminism, because everyone knows it means something else, ask yourself: How do you know? Do you know from actually talking to women, or because you've heard of this one person who said this feminist this one time said all men are rapists and should die? And if it's the latter, ask yourself...how did he know that? And more to the point, who benefits from this particular notion of feminism? (I'll give you a hint, bro: it ain't women.)

End note: At this point, I know, I just know, that some of you have fingers already all a-tingle to send me a private email telling me pretending to be a feminist is a great strategt for getting laid. Seriously, don't bother.


I haven't been writing much here lately, because Eve and I have been hard at work writing our book about polyamory. At 160,000 words, it's well north of the New Testament and a bit north of The Two Towers in size. It turns out polyamory is complicated, and we have a lot to say about it.

However, I'm taking a break from writing about polyamory because I've started seeing this meme pop up all over the Internetverse, and it's reached the point where I have to say something about it. I think it's symptomatic of the problem of privilege.



I get what it's trying to say. Really, I do.

But it's wrong.

Yes, some people are given a bad life or a good life. We do not all start from a neutral place. Take this kid, for example. He would, I'm sure, be quite happy to have been given a life that was neither bad nor good:



This photo, by South African news photographer Kevin Carter, won a Pulitzer Prize. It documents the effects of famine in Sudan, in which more than 70,000 people died. Carter later committed suicide; in his suicide note, he wrote, "I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings and corpses and anger and pain...of starving or wounded children, of trigger-happy madmen, often police, of killer executioners."

Look at this kid. Then look at wealthy heiress Paris Hilton, out doing what she does best (which is, near as I can tell, "getting photographed partying"):



Then look back at the slave labor camps in North Korea, which are used to punish political dissidents "to the third generation." People are born in these slave camps, grow up, and die (often of torture, beatings, or starvation) here, without ever knowing anything else.



The meme might more accurately say "white middle-class Westerners born into progressive democracies are not given a good life or a bad life." But to be fair, perhaps that's what's meant by "we."

For those who aren't white middle-class Westerners in progressive democracies, there most definitely are good lives and bad. Not all lives have the same opportunity for choice and direction. Not everyone can choose to better their conditions; those born into North Korean Labor Camp 15, which is believed to hold as many as 30,000 slaves, certainly can't.

Like I said, I get the point of the meme. I am a huge believer in empowerment myself; I have written a great deal about how the choices we make affect our lives, for good or ill.

But I also recognize that, to a large extent, this is a privilege--one that should properly belong to everyone, but doesn't. Not everyone can choose to make their lives good or bad. The way we're born matters; Paris Hilton can shrug off bad choices that would destroy many people who are born into a less privileged position, and just keep on keepin' on.

Yes, make choices that make your life better. Yes, move in the direction of greatest courage. But when you do, don't forget to be grateful that you can. It's not your fault that people are born into situations horrifying beyond anything you can imagine, but it's your responsibility to acknowledge that not everyone is in the same position as you are. Some people are given a bad life. If you're not one of them, you're fortunate, but don't forget they exist.

And if your response is "lighten up, it's just a Facebook meme!"--perhaps you aren't paying attention.

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With all the pushback on (and off) the Internet to any suggestion that perhaps men could maybe refrain from treating women poorly, one might get the impression that we were talking about, say, taking all the money the NFL normally makes in a year and investing it in fusion power research or something equally unreasonable. How, the thinking seems to be, can men reasonably be expected to act like decent human beings toward women when we have all these throbbing biological urges? I mean, what if we see a woman, who's, like, totally hot? Surely acting like a decent human being doesn't have to apply to women who are totally hot, does it? If we treat a totally hot woman like a human being, how will she know we want to put our pee-pee in her sex burrow? And what about women who don't make Mister Happy happy...if we treat them like human beings, how will they know we don't find them attractive?

It's madness! I mean, really. Treat women as people? All of them? Without constantly getting all up in their faces about whether we want to sex them or not? That's just...it's just...it...

...well, it turns out it's really not that hard to do.

Listen, guys, here it is. You just...think of her like she's a person. Someone who's a friend, even. And then you act accordingly.

Listen, I know it sounds totes whack. It goes against everything we're taught to believe about maximizing our chances of getting to do that thing with our pee-pees. But bear with me. All it takes is a little practice, and then you, too, might be a guy who's a decent human being and totally not a complete shitcamel.

Let me walk you through some scenarios, so you can get a feel for how this works.

Scenario 1: You're approaching a door. There are people behind you.

If you hold the door open for people, congratulations! You're a decent person.

If you hold the door open for women, but not for men, danger! You're probably a misogynist.

If you hold the door only for women you want to put your pee-pee on, guess what? You're a shitcamel.


Scenario 2: You're on an online dating site. You spend six hours pouring your heart out in a carefully crafted message to this cute little something something whose soulful eyes make you think she could be the light of your life, and whose big bazoongas make you want to do that thing with your pee-pee. After you send it, she doesn't email you back.

If you just go about the rest of your life, go you! You're a decent person.

If you write her a follow-up email telling her that she owes you a response, uh-oh. Misogyny ho!

If you send her a follow-up email filled with (a) every swear word at your disposal, (b) vivid descriptions of what a bitch she is for wounding you so grievously, (3) angry rants about what unpleasant fate should befall her, or (4) pictures of your junk, I'm afraid the prognosis is: shitcamel.


Scenario 3: You see a woman talking about how creepy it is to hit on women in elevators.

If you listen respectfully and adjust your behavior and expectations accordingly, woohoo! You're a decent person.

If you respond with a defensive lecture about how you're totally not one of those guys and she's just trying to say that all men are rapists, I'm sorry to have to tell you this, but that that's your misogyny.

If you go on a rant about how she's totally saying all men are rapists and she deserves to be raped for it...well, there's only one mathematical equation that accurately models your reaction. You = shit + camel.


Scenario 4: Women are talking about how linking birth control to employment insurance policies basically means their boss gets to tell them how to have sex. You:

...listen to what they're saying, think about it, and realize that, actually, it is pretty messed up that the person who hires you gets to tell you how the insurance benefits you earn as part of your labor should be used, and having an employer making your decisions in the bedroom is kind of creepy. Go you! Decent person!

...say "well, you know, the employer is paying for this insurance, so the employer controls how it's used." Wait, what? The employer is paying a salary too, does that mean the employer gets a vote on what you buy on Amazon.com? Bzzt. Your misogyny is showing.

...say "well, you know, that slut can just pay for it herself if she wants to go slutting around." Hello, shitcamel! One hump or two?


Scenario 5: You're out chilling with the boys, and someone tells this absolutely hysterical rape joke. It's funny because she is violated against her will! Get it? Get it?

You put on your best blank "no, I don't get it" face, turn to your friend, and say "No, I don't get it. What's funny about women being violated again?" Score one for being a decent person! Extra special decent person points if you deliberately construct a social group of people who already get why that shit ain't funny.

You don't say anything. After all, if you don't laugh, that means you're not like those guys, right? Bzzt! Wrong. If you just sit there, they might assume you're a little slow, but hey, you're still just like they are. Sorry, your misogyny (and privilege) are showing.

You laugh, because nothing is as absolutely hysterical as talking about women getting violated! Plus, when those feminist harpies start shrieking about how uncool it is, you get exasperated because clearly they just don't get it. For God's sake, it's only a joke! Free speech! Free speech! Heigh-ho, shitcamel! What's your camel-made-of-shit encore, putting on blackface and joking about Negroes wanting the vote or something? They're all just jokes, right? Free speech!


I participate in a lot of online forums about polyamory. It's almost impossible to talk about polyamory without eventually talking about OK Cupid, which is arguably one of the best places online for poly folks to meet each other (I met my live-in partner zaiah there). And it's almost impossible to talk about OK Cupid without talking about how often women tend to get harassed on online dating sites. Any online dating sites.

And, it's almost impossible to talk about how often women get harassed, on dating sites or anywhere else, without a whole succession of men trotting up to say "well, I personally don't harass women! Women act like all men are harassers! I'm totally not like that, and I don't understand why women don't talk to me online! I totally deserve to have women talk to me online! If I spend my time writing an email to some woman online I am entitled to a response, even if she doesn't want to date me!"

And, of course, from there it's just a short hop to talking about male privilege, and as soon as that happens, inevitably those same men trot up again to say "this talk of privilege is just a way to try to make me feel guilty!"

And I gotta say: Guilt? Seriously? You think it's about guilt?

Guilt is for things you can control. Feeling guilty over things you can't control, like the race or sex you were born with, is silly.

If you think talking about privilege is about making people feel guilty, you're completely missing the point.

It's about being a decent person.

People who are privileged may still struggle, may not always get what they want, but the whole point is they have a lot of advantages over other people. Advantages they can't see. Advantages they don't know about.

Talking about privilege is about awareness, not guilt. When people don't know about the advantages they have, they act in messed-up ways that show insensitivity to others. Like, for example, telling women who experience harassment on a scale that men can't even understand how they should feel about it, what they should do about it, and why they should, like, totes respond to ME because I'M not like that! I'M not one of those entitled jerks, and therefore I DESERVE a reply!

The purpose of understanding your privilege isn't to make you feel something. Not guilt, not shame, not anything else. It's to help you understand that you have a set of things you take for granted that other people don't have, so that you can change the way you act.

Got nothing to do with feelings at all.

Change the way you act in small ways. Like, not telling women how they should feel about sexual harassment. Like, not telling inner-city blacks that the police are their friends. Like, listening when women talk abut harassment, instead of just saying "oh, you're saying all men are harassers." (Hint: No, they're not.) Or saying something like "well, I just don't see color." (Hint: Not seeing color is something you can only do if you happen to be the privileged color. When you belong to an oppressed minority, you don't get the luxury of not seeing your status.)

Change the way you act in medium ways. Like, if you are a man with a normal social circle, statistically you probably know at least three harassers and at least one rapist. Seriously. So, when you're with a group of your friends and someone makes a racial joke or a rape joke or talks about how women are bitches or whatever, speak up. Remember, if you don't say anything, those harassers and that rapist in your social circle--and yes, they are there, even if you don't know who they are--assume you're on their side and think the way they do.

When people make cracks about sending a woman into the kitchen to make a sandwich, or talk about how they'd sure like to get that hot chick drunk and bend her over the table, speak up. Say it isn't cool.

Yeah, it's uncomfortable to speak up when all your friends are yee-hawing and back-slapping about how absolutely hysterical that rape joke was. Deal with it. The discomfort you face speaking up ain't nothing on the discomfort women face just walking down the goddamn street.

Change the way you act in large ways. Don't vote for political candidates who talk about how only lazy blacks are on welfare or blab about "legitimate rape."

People aren't telling you you're privileged to make you feel guilty. People are telling you you're privileged because privilege is a system and an institution that benefits you and that you participate in without even knowing it. When you know about it, maybe you can stop participating in it. Maybe, if you're brave and willing to pull on your big-boy pants, you can even put yourself on the map against it when the folks around you are participating in it.