Monday, September 28, 2015

Science vs The Genius Narrative

Let’s think of a story about a great scientist.

It doesn’t have to be fiction.  Think about Galileo, when everyone around him said the sun orbits the Earth, risking prison and exile to prove otherwise.  Think about Einstein, a random patent clerk coming out of nowhere to totally upend modern physics.  Or, if fiction is your thing, imagine Professor Challenger doggedly trying to convince the Royal Academy that dinosaurs still live.  Or Milo Thatch getting laughed out of the room for his crazy theories about Atlantis.

There is something all of these stories have in common.  The entire scientific establishment believes one thing. A lone genius believes the other. Everyone shouts him down until finally, the genius shows them all.

That’s the exciting science story.  And it’s a story that is uniquely emblematic of what scientists believe about themselves.  That everyone can be mistaken, that one thoughtful, brilliant person can prove them wrong. And that person becomes a hero for future generations.

It’s effective, too.  The lone genius story fits nicely into our love of underdogs, of heroes who overcome the odds when everyone has counted them out.  No doubt these stories have done a lot to glamorize science, and given kids role models to start them down the path to discovery.

But they have also done a lot of harm.

The valuable lesson in these stories is to question everything, because anything you have been taught might be wrong.  But imagine you aren’t trained in science.  You see one researcher come out with a wild new study linking, say, vaccines to autism.  Totally earth-shaking.  And you see a bunch of stuffy old “establishment” types shout that researcher down.  They get everyone to renounce his findings, destroy his career, make him a laughing stock.

You immediately know what movie you’re watching.  You know who the hero is, and who the villains are.  You know not to trust the overwhelming consensus, because in every story you’ve ever heard about science, the consensus was proven wrong. The crazy guy nobody believes? He is always right.

Evolution, genetically modified food, global warming.  There are smart people who have counterfactual beliefs on these topics.  And it’s not because they don’t believe in the scientific method.  It’s because science itself has told them to be skeptical of widely-held beliefs.

If you spend ten years of your life studying environmental science so you could spend five more years conducting an experiment that adds one more data point to the evidence that human beings are causing climate change, you’re a very successful scientist.  But you aren’t going to have a movie made about you.  And you aren’t going to get invited to come onto a cable news talk show.  It’s not a narrative that resonates, but it’s what 99 percent of real science is.

I’m not suggesting that we all blindly respect expert consensus.  That is, after all, antithetical to the scientific process.  But we do need to be a little more careful about the types of studies we consider groundbreaking, and the types of people we view as lone geniuses.  Have we actually done our homework, or just read about something on a Tumblr post?  Are the research methods sound?  Is the study funded by a biased special interest group?  Do we even know enough about the subject to have an opinion on it?

Because science is different from literature.  Just because it makes a good story doesn’t mean it’s worthwhile.

Saturday, September 5, 2015


Two nights ago, I had a conversation with a barred owl.  It was only singing in its ascending cadence, not its trademark “who cooks for you.” I answered back as best I could, using my cupped hands as a whistle.  That’s a trick I’m proud of.  The owl called and I responded, and we talked like that for a few minutes.

Then last night, as I drove past that same area, a barred owl swooped down from a tree and stood in the gravel road in front of me.  The intricate stripes all over its body made it look like a topographical map of itself.    Surely it was the same one I’d talked with.  It stared into my headlights with its perfectly round face for five or six seconds before flying away. 

I put the car in park for a little bit, unable to move.  The moment, locking eyes with that huge bird, was so pregnant with meaning, but I couldn’t quite grasp it.  Looking back now, in the light of day, I can feel that near-revelation slipping away from me.

But it left me feeling like I understood augury.  According to the Greeks and Romans, you could predict the future by watching birds, observing their behavior, listening to their calls.  They say Tiresias discovered how to do it.  An owl's call or a dove's flight could mean any number of things, for good or ill, setting new dates for battles or elections.  The Roman army used to carry chickens around, just so magicians could observe signs in when and how they ate.

And, like any other form of magic, it’s easy for us to distance ourselves from it, here in the 21st century.  For those of us who mostly just see pigeons and grackles, augury seems wildly naïve.  Of course, like many elements of our mysticism-filled past, it still echoes in our language.  The word “auspicious,” for example, comes from Latin for “watching birds.”

But I think the Romans were on the right track.  In fact, after last night, I’m sure of it.  It’s not that the barred owl was trying to tell me the future, exactly.  But there was something behind it, some greater, wild, terrible something.  And the way to experience it is by carefully watching the natural world, turning yourself to the life that surrounds you.

Observation is the key to understanding, that much is clear.  Not just looking at the life around us, but paying attention.  There is some magic in the complexity of an ecosystem, in the vast sweep of geological time, that is invisible at first glance.  The more you look, the more you see, until you start scratching at Melville's little layer lower, tracing the features of the unknown as they slip from behind the pasteboard masks of the everyday.

Augury, at its literal and etymological heart, is just looking at birds.  It's a place to start.

Friday, August 21, 2015

In Search of Atticus

There isn’t much to see in Monroeville, Alabama.  There is the courthouse where Atticus Finch defended a black man against white accusors, to a white jury.  Except, well, Atticus is a fictional character.  Not even Gregory Peck, during the filming of To Kill a Mockingbird, argued a case there.  That happened on a set in Hollywood.  There is a museum in the courthouse, with the little trinkets Boo Radley left for Scout – the watch and the dolls and the gum.  Only, again, that didn’t really happen.  There is a gift shop.

Harper Lee grew up in Monroeville and still lives in the area, but for people looking for any sort of real connection to the world of Mockingbird, the town is a bit of a bust.  Besides a handful of touristy concessions (the Mockingbird Café, for instance), it’s just like a hundred other small Southern towns I’ve driven through or lived in.  The air by my hotel smelled like wet dogs and old french fries.  Lee’s childhood home is torn down, replaced by a grimy-looking restaurant called Mel's Dairy Dream.  At the time of my visit, it didn’t seem to be open.

But tourists go there, to the town, to the museum, to the Mockingbird Café, hell even to the Dairy Dream.  There are millions of people in this country who were deeply moved by To Kill a Mockingbird, who learned how to be decent, gentle, strong adults from Atticus Finch.  And I’m one of them.

So of course, I was excited about Go Set a Watchman.  The day news of its publication broke, I went online to say it was “a great day for fans of American letters.”  Then, gradually, my excitement began to flag.  This wasn’t some sort of lost masterpiece, I learned; it was a rejected draft of a project that later became MockingbirdSerious questions were raised about the degree to which the 89-year-old Lee consented to publishing this work, something she had always staunchly opposed.  And then reviews came out, saying the work was full of longwinded political conversations with an aging, racist Atticus Finch.  By that point, I no longer had any desire to read Watchman.  I still haven’t decided if I will.

But while I dithered, pundits, reviewers, and critics all across the nation succumbed to some kind of mass hysteria.  The review in the New York Times said Watchman gave Atticus “a dark side.” The AV Club said that Lee deliberately “overturns the mythos of Atticus Finch.”  And then, the floodgates opened.

Watchman arrived on the scene at a crucial time in American life.  A cynical man might even say an “opportune” time.  After five years of mainstream white America proclaiming that a black president meant racism was over, the illusion of a postracial society came violently tumbling down.  Riots and protests are on the news.  Young black men are getting shot by police.  I know there were many of us who would have loved nothing more than a kind and thoughtful word from Atticus Finch, to tell us that we need to have empathy and respect for all people.  But instead, we get a new book where – twist! – Atticus was a racist the whole time.

It’s the sort of thing that you almost can’t help writing a thinkpiece about.  And there were lots of them, touching on everything from Jim Crow politics to the death of the white savior myth.  Watchman was the perfect entryway into any sort of article about how racism doesn’t go away.  It can be found everywhere: even in Atticus Finch.

I don’t want to detract from the idea behind some of those pieces.  Many of them make thoughtful and important points - prejudice can indeed be found even in the supposedly sacrosanct.  But, as a literary critic, calling Atticus a racist doesn’t make any sense.

Intertextuality is a tricky thing.  Many works of fiction relate to one another, many can be placed in dialogue with one another, and some reveal different aspects of a character through different events.  Sometimes, it’s clear how two texts fit together.  On the other hand, people have spent years trying to figure out if Quentin Compson in The Sound and the Fury and Quentin Compson in Absolom, Absolom! are really the same character.  Other, equally devoted people, concoct elaborate theories on how James Bond can appear as half a dozen people in the span of 50 years.

Those problems can get thorny, and require lots of research.  Luckily, that’s not the problem we face when looking at Atticus Finch.

In reading Mockingbird alongside Watchman, critics are attempting to read a novel and an early draft of that same novel as coequal texts.  This demonstrates a clear misunderstanding of how characters function within a fictional work, seeing character as a reality outside of the page rather than an aspect of how a story is told.

Characters serve a work.  They are one of the elements an author can employ to create meaning.  Lee wrote a novel called Go Set a Watchman, and with the help of a talented editor, that novel became To Kill a Mockingbird.  The setting and tone changed during that process, and the focus of the plot shifted from arguments about race relations to demonstrations of race relations.  And as that happened, the characters were reimagined.  That’s an easy thing to understand.  It happens to projects all the time.  Watch the Black Friday reel – Pixar’s original animatic of Toy Story in which Woody is a vindictive sociopath.  Or even earlier work, where Woody is a terrifying ventriloquist dummy.  As those works evolved, so did their characters.

Yet there is something about Atticus Finch which resists this idea.  It is difficult to think of that man as a mere narrative device, a tool used by Lee to tell a story.  Atticus has become so real to many of us that an “initial draft” of his character doesn’t make any sense.  We want to think of him as Harper Lee’s actual father, concrete, someone we could have met.  If that is true, then anything Lee wrote about him would reveal a new aspect of his personality.  But he is a fiction.  He was made up.  When we accept that fact, Watchman becomes nothing more than a literary curiosity.

It’s hard to do, though, to keep your mind wrapped around it.  Mel’s Dairy Dream all over again.  We are, I am, desperate to see some sign of Maycomb, Alabama.  Where a grown adult can stand up for human dignity, even as everyone around him loses their minds. It should be real. So we go, we read, we try to find the beauty at the heart of Mockingbird in a broken, nonfiction world.  But all we have here is Monroeville, where the lady in the gift shop will sell you Go Set a Watchman as if it were a new revelation. 

No, if we want to find Atticus Finch in this world, the only thing we can do is start acting like him.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Trump; or, The Modern Prometheus

The scariest part of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein isn’t that the Doctor’s creation is a monster.  That’s just not something that figures into the story very much.  The green-skinned, plodding, moaning terror which we usually imagine, the irrational, man-child walking with arms outstretched, is entirely at odds with the events of the novel.  In the book, Adam (that’s the monster’s name) is eloquent, thoughtful, and athletic.  And he goes about ruining the life of his creator in precise, surgical ways, destroying everything young Victor Frankenstein holds dear.

It’s scarier that way, I think.  The terror at the heart of the book is the way it puts reanimated corpse flesh on the old idea that we create the means to our own destruction.  Not only that, but our creations can destroy us in more painful and personal ways than our enemies could ever imagine.

I’ve been thinking about this because of Donald Trump.  The internet is full of commentators right now who are convinced that the entire natural order has been turned on its head.  Cats and dogs are living together, hot snow is falling up, and Donald Trump continues to lead the Republican primary race.  Everyone is astonished.  From the very moment Trump declared his candidacy and simultaneously called all Mexican immigrants rapists and drug dealers, his implosion has seemed imminent.  But right now, with the first debate out of the way, The Donald is still going strong.  And Republicans and Democrats agree, he is doing lasting harm to the GOP.

Trump is a monster, but I don’t think he’s an idiot.  I don’t think he is a rampaging corpse, terrified of fire, derailing more feasible candidates through sheer brute strength.  No, I think Trump is the other kind of monster – one perfectly created by the right wing to destroy itself.

It’s a clear fact that conservative media is an echo chamber.  It’s easy to find analysis of how often people who rely on Fox News, Breitbart, talk radio, and the like as their main source of news have wildly erroneous or counterfactual beliefs.  Fox News reports extreme opinions and distorted versions of events so consistently and often, it begins taking those things as fact.   Bruce Bartlett, who was an advisor for Reagan and a Treasury official for Bush 41, calls it “self brainwashing” in this excellent scholarly article, which offers lots of good examples.  If you’re interested in what an ideological echo chamber looks like, read his analysis.  I can’t describe it better.  But I really don’t think the far-right ideology Fox News generates as it consumes itself is what created the success of the Trump campaign.  For that, we have to look deeper into conservative media.

There is another echo chamber in the world of Fox News, one that both undergirds and parallels the political one.  A rhetorical echo chamber.

By creating a machine with the dual aims of political indoctrination and ratings generation, conservative media has developed a unique flavor of hyperreal bombast which is very easy to recognize.  The main assumptions of this mode of dialectic are these: that mainstream media lies, that rudeness is synonymous with honesty, that political correctness is an insult to freedom, that complexity is a form of weakness, and (most importantly) that the loudest voice is always correct.  It is such a clearly defined style, Stephen Colbert was able to satirize it for 1,447 episodes straight. “Fox is not really about politics,” media critic Michael Wolff noted way back in 2002. “Rather, it’s about having a chip on your shoulder; it’s about us versus them, insiders versus outsiders, phonies versus non-phonies, and, in a clever piece of postmodernism, established media against insurgent media.”

Donald Trump quickly found a home as a frequent Fox News guest and contributor, because, let’s be honest, the man can play just as good a caricature of a conservative blowhard as Colbert ever did.  He jumped into the rhetorical echo chamber with both feet.  And as the years went by, the mechanics of conservative media taught more and more of the Republican faithful that tact was disingenuous, that diplomacy was for cowards, that apologies were never necessary, and that shouting your opponent down is the purest form of debate.  Watch Fox News, and you’ll understand – this is a constant subtext present in everything from their interviews to their graphic design.  It used to be a ratings conceit for the network, something to set it apart from stuffier news sources.  But now, for millions of Americans, that Fox News tone is what “brave” and “honest” is supposed to sound like.

It’s hard to blame conservative media for trying to be entertaining.  Fox News has succeeded in spreading panic and paranoia as a means of energizing a dwindling conservative base in the US, keeping the Republican party a major national force even though they have become estranged from women, minorities, and young people.  The network injected some nitrous into the sputtering engine of conservativism, and now the whole thing is on the verge of blowing out.

The GOP has moved into positions which reasonable people are having harder and harder times supporting.  Fighting equal rights.  Ignoring scientists.  Causing a government shutdown.  Spending hundreds of government hours attempting to take healthcare away from people.  Rubio and Walker both think abortion shouldn’t be legal, even if the mother’s life is in danger.  But Trump doesn’t seem to share those crazy ideas exactly.  In fact, it’s hard to know what Trump believes in, other than himself.  The only thing we know for sure, and the only reason Trump has been so successful, is that he speaks and acts like Fox News incarnate.

The Donald is running a high-risk campaign as the pure truthiness candidate.  It could, as people have been predicting, fly off the rails at any moment.  But it is a calculated risk, and a very solid political play.  The Republicans have to counter him by trying to sound rational and diplomatic (which, conservative media has taught us, is how losers sound), or trying to out-crazy him, which is impossible for anyone with self respect. Fox News may eventually decide they want to stop him, but right now he is just too good for ratings.  I don’t doubt that Trump could win the nomination.  He couldn’t win the presidency, not by any means.  But he has good odds of beating any current GOP opponent.  And with that, the days of the Republican Party as a viable choice for rational men and women would come to a sad, if entertaining, end.

David Frum, a speechwriter for Bush 43, told ABC News, "Republicans originally thought that Fox worked for us and now we're discovering we work for Fox. And this balance here has been completely reversed. The thing that sustains a strong Fox network is the thing that undermines a strong Republican party."

The archconservatives and GOP talking heads behind modern far-right media built a machine of misinformation and spectacle, in which it was better to be mean and loud than thoughtful and nuanced.  And the monster that machine made possible won’t just lumber around and frighten the villagers.  It’s coming for the Republican Party.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Following Domingo

I heard a science fiction writer speak a few years ago, and someone asked him about past dreams of the future.  Sci-fi has predicted or inspired a lot of inventions and developments over the years, the man in the audience said, but what was the biggest failed prediction to come down the line?  I’m sure he was thinking about flying cars or robot butlers.  I was thinking about the hover skateboard from Back to the Future Part II.

The author didn’t even have to think about it.  Without missing a beat, he said “That there is a future for manned space travel.”

The air went out of the room as if every sci-fi geek in attendance had just been punched in the gut.  I was only there as a volunteer to help with the event, not as a fan, but even I was staggered by the writer’s flat pessimism.

After all, it’s not like spaceflight is a mere science fiction accessory, like aliens or laser guns.  It’s the foundational idea of the genera.  I can think of a handful of works by Bradbury or Asimov that stay squarely on Earth, focusing on robots or time travel.  But none that discount space travel entirely.  A sci-fi writer who doesn’t believe in space travel is like a western writer who doesn’t believe in horses, or a romance writer who doesn’t believe in heaving bosoms.  Without that, what are you even writing?

Throughout the history of science fiction, the question hasn’t been “will there be humans in spaceships,” but “what will the spaceships be like?”  Generally, they parallel some form of technology we are already familiar with.  In Star Wars, for example, most of the spaceships are like airplanes, looping and rolling in aerobatic dogfights.  Or in Star Trek, spaceships are ocean vessels, pressing forward with a large crew to explore new territory, sinking each other with torpedoes.  Or in Firefly, spaceships are stagecoaches, a way for outlaws and other desperate folk to make their way across a dangerous, wild frontier. 

We as human beings and tellers of stories are drawn to these familiar dramas set among unfamiliar stars.  We take the technologies we have, and the science we understand, and project ourselves into space, because that is the next place we are headed.  And we have been doing it since before the enlightenment.

The reason more people don’t know about The Man in the Moone by Francis Godwin is beyond me.  This book, written in the 1620s, is one of the first real novels in the English language, and (I would argue) the first true work of science fiction.  It tells the story of an adventurer named Domingo Gonsales who, shipwrecked on an unexplored island, discovers a new species of bird.  It’s a sort of large goose, and Domingo finds out that it can carry unusually heavy objects.  So naturally, he decides to create a machine, tie a handful of geese to it, and leave his island in style.  Domingo flies around in his goose-drawn carriage for a while, having adventures, until (twist!) the geese decide it is time for them to fly to the moon.

The fact that some scientists once believed that birds regularly flew to the moon is the subject of a wholly different essay (in fact, here is a good one on it).  Suffice it to say, in the 17th Century, naturalists were still trying to figure out why certain species of birds disappeared for half a year at a time.  Some suggested that birds hibernated, others that they changed shapes.  One hypothesis, new to the scientific journals around the time The Man in the Moone was written, was that some birds just fly to the moon when the weather on Earth gets too cold or they don’t have enough food.  It was a theory that was so, so very close to figuring out how migration works, but was still deeply and exceptionally wrong.

The staying power of the science behind this book, however, doesn’t really matter.  The interesting thing is this: since the very dawn of the scientific revolution, for as long as human beings have had been discovering new things about the natural world and transforming those discoveries into technology, we have dreamed of leaving this world.  Francis Godwin lived at a time when the most advanced form of transportation he could imagine was “seat pulled by animals,” but damned if he let that stop him from hitching his wagon to something that could take him to the moon.  There are other, slightly older stories of humans visiting the moon by magic, or in dreams.  But The Man in the Moone is different.  Gonsales makes a discovery (a new, stronger goose), uses that discovery to create an invention (the goose-drawn carriage), and uses that invention to make more discoveries, exploring the lunar surface and chatting it up with the native moon-men.  I find that deeply beautiful, in ways that I am not sure I can accurately describe.

And I think it’s a powerful refutation of the pessimistic sci-fi writer I heard speak.  The problems inherent in manned spaceflight are deeply complex, that’s a fact.  But for 400 years, we have been daydreaming about ways to make it possible.  Love of adventure and exploration wasn’t a passing fad – I can’t imagine a future where technology continues to progress but nobody wants to use it to visit Mars.  We have always had our eyes on the frontier.  It’s just a matter of time before we find a big enough goose to take us there.