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Teeming Links – June 20, 2014

FireHead

Pandemic plague? Nuclear holocaust? Lethal asteroid strike? No worries: in case of planetary disaster, plans are afoot to use the moon as off-planet storage for the religious, cultural, and even genetic trappings of humanity.

Meanwhile, back here on earth, philosopher Mary Midgely (currently 94 years old) warns of impending catastrophe in a culture of scientism where philosophical problems are reduced to physical science and human beings to neurons.

Tonia Lombrozo, UC Berkeley psychology professor and writer on neuroscience and philosophy, considers the effects of neuroscientific determinism on beliefs about free will.

In his new book The Island of Knowledge: The Limits of Science and the Search for Meaning, theoretical physicist Marcelo Gleiser argues 1) that science is fundamentally limited, and 2) that this is not at all a depressing or defeatist recognition: “Not all questions have answers. To hope that science will answer all questions is to want to shrink the human spirit, clip its wings, rob it from its multifaceted existence. . . . [T]o see science for what it is makes it more beautiful and powerful, not less. It aligns science with the rest of the human creative output, impressive, multifaceted, and imperfect as we are.”

Astrophysicist Adam Frank finds Gleiser’s perspective invigorating: “[Gleiser] has found a roadmap for making all science our science. There is no need to root scientific endeavor in some imagined perfect cosmic perspective or demand that, at root, it provide a full-and-comprehensive account for all being. Science is all the more astonishing, all the more remarking [sic], for simply illuminating our being.”)

Scott Adams (yes, the creator of Dilbert) observes that the Internet is no longer a technology but a psychology experiment.

Paul Waldman reflects on the Orwellian underside of our “glorious and ghastly” digital transition from mass media to micro-niche media:

Whether you’re spewing out your anger or bestowing a smiley-faced blessing on an article or video that brightened your day, the media industry wants and needs to know. Every editor tracks how many likes and tweets each piece of journalism produces, hoping all those atomized individuals will signal their approval or their displeasure and pass it along. As the price for our re-individualization, we’ve laid ourselves bare. The National Security Administration knows whom you’ve called, and maybe what websites you’ve visited. Google knows what you’ve searched for and tailors the ads you see to products it knows you’re interested in. Facebook holds on to every photo you’ve posted and thought you’ve shared; the company can now track where your cursor hovers when you lazily peruse that ex-girlfriend’s page. You can express your consternation about the latest revelation of domestic spying, right after you show the world a picture of your children. We’ve built our own personal panopticons from the inside out, clicking ‘I accept’ again and again, and we didn’t need a tyrannical government’s help to do it.

Jill Lepore identifies what’s wrong with the reigning gospel of “disruptive innovation”: it’s not some universal societal law but simply “competitive strategy for an age seized by terror.”

Arthur Krystal writes in defense of (the idea of) a literary canon: “The canon may be unfair and its proponents self-serving, but the fact that there is no set-in-stone syllabus or sacred inventory of Great Books does not mean there are no great books. This is something that seems to have gotten lost in the canon brawl — i.e., the distinction between a list of Great Books and the idea that some books are far better than others.”

Tim Parks observes that novels themselves are changing under the pressure of a culture of perpetual distraction that saps the “the very special energies required for tackling a substantial work of fiction.”

Atlantic writer Conor Friedersdorf highlights 100-plus pieces of the best journalistic and nonfiction writing from 2013.

Michael Hughes offers a concise and nifty account of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and its enduring influence on occult, esoteric, spiritual, and popular culture.

BBC News Magazine writer Jon Kelly traces the lasting allure of the flying saucer.

Atlantic writer Megan Garber recounts the story of Kenneth Arnold, the man who introduced the world to flying saucers.

Visions of my comics-saturated childhood: remember the truly awesome UFO Flying Saucer comics from Gold Key? (And remember their truly awesome covers?)

UFO_Flying_Saucer_Gold_Key_1

Thelemic visions, magickal texts, and the tedium of transgression: Erik Davis interviews Gary Lachman about his new biography of Aleister Crowley.

Gnosticism, Lovecraft, and the labyrinth of biblical interpretation: Erik Davis interviews Robert M. Price about his new book Preaching Deconstruction.

 

“Fire Head” image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Fandom & Fantasy: Exploring the Anomalous at Dragon Con

DragonCon Babylon

Exterior view of the Atlanta Marriott Marquis

 

A living person is forgiven everything, except for being present among the dying ones of this world.  “Oh, holiest sacrifice of the (children) of the unique one.”

— Louis Cattiaux

It is odd to step out of my personal reality and into a fantasy world much more mundane than the mere act of making coffee in the morning at the Liminal Analytics Georgia offices. But so it was last week as I entered the neo-Babylonian hotel complex that hosts Dragon Con in downtown Atlanta each year. “There are no real freaks* here,” I murmured to my traveling companion at the convention, Dr. Tim Brigham, a professor of experimental psychology at Georgia Perimeter College, as we looked around at the nervous faces of conference attendees who were dressed as their favorite characters (or as those most convenient to their sense of outward escape). “Maybe once it gets dark, we’ll get some spirited folks in here,” I opined aloud as the agitated buzz of students, executives, and average Americans bent on an escapist weekend began getting on my nerves, making me wish I could leave for a nice, normal afternoon at a local Botanica to study the beautiful skeletal visage of la niña bonita, Santa Muerte.

Rationalized irrationality

Upwards of 60,000 people converged on Atlanta this year to attend one of the largest  fantasy, science fiction, comic, and gaming conventions in the world. I mused and milled among the Dragon Con attendees with Dr. Brigham as we awaited an opportunity to see how the realms of anomalous science might fare in such a heady environment. The convention played host to two well-stocked tracks of paranormal and skeptical speakers, and so it seemed a perfect opportunity to understand how the ideas that Dr. Brigham and I are used to experiencing through laboratory work, statistical analysis, and philosophical discourse play out in the public domain. And play they did, to the abrasive tune of crass commercialization and the repetitious mantra “I am here to escape.”

Having spent time with some of the world’s leading parapsychologists, I’ve often been confused as to how the skeptical subculture can exist in such seeming disconnect with everything that I’ve encountered during my reading, travels, and conversations. Dragon Con provided me with an unpalatable answer by revealing the illusory landscape of fantasy and fandom that the skeptics inhabit, far afield from those liminal, but legitimate, climates where anomalistic science holds proper court. If this is what the skeptics consider a reasonable place to air their ideas, then I’m not surprised that they express such dismay at the state of anomalistic science. I’ve never seen even one of these people at any of the serious parapsychological events that I’ve attended or hosted, and nothing I’ve attended or hosted has ever been so fraught with fiction as this Dragon Con convention. Yet here among the cosplay and comic books were such leading lights of the skeptical subculture as Michael Shermer, Ben Radford, Michael Stackpole, and Massimo Pigliucci.

Without going to Dragon Con, you can get a sense of where many popular skeptics are coming from in the fact that Ben Radford is a staff writer for Discovery News, a subsidiary of Discovery Communications, the company that has received attention recently for its decision to run television specials claiming the existence of living megalodon sharks (which have been extinct for upwards of 2 million years) and mermaids (which have probably never existed). The cognitive dissonance that’s palpable in this promotion of pulp fiction as fact by what purports to be a leading science education platform fact gives writers like Radford the leeway to make strange claims, such as his contention that the legendary Stanford Research Institute (SRI) Remote Viewing project returned no valid results. At Dragon Con I was unable to find anyone who had even heard of SRI, let alone who had looked at the research itself, and so skeptics like Radford, when pitted against a paranormal panel track stocked with ghost hunters, professional psychic mediums, a demonologist, and some UFO experts, were able to weave their web of rationalized irrationality with ease.

Woodcut of St. George slaying the dragon, Alexander Barclay, 1515 [Public Domain], via Wikipedia

Woodcut of St. George slaying the dragon, Alexander Barclay, 1515 [Public Domain], via Wikipedia

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