Saturday, January 29, 2022

How much does it cost to buy a scientist? Less than you would imagine, and it is perfectly legal

Not a long, long time ago, in a region not so far, far away, a private company decided to set up a CO2 extraction plant. The idea was to extract carbon dioxide from the ground and to use it to make effervescent soft drinks and things like that.  Yes, exactly the opposite of the "carbon capture and storage" (CCS) that we are supposed to do to combat global warming. 

When the story became known, the debate flared on the media. People and associations took sides against the new plant. The university was involved, and several scientists released interviews where they noted the contradiction of extracting CO2 instead of burying it. Fortunately, the public outrage was sufficient to force the regional government to stop the plan. The plant was not built and, with some luck, never will be. 

All is well that ends well, but there is a detail in the story that you may find interesting. It happens that I know very well the university of the region I am talking about. In particular, there was a faculty member, a geologist, who was supposed to be an expert on the geological properties of the area where the CO2 extraction was supposed to take place. He was a person who could criticize the story from a soundly based scientific viewpoint. But, during the debate, curiously, he remained silent. And, perhaps not so curiously, I discovered that he had accepted a research grant from exactly that company planning to extract CO2. 

Mind you, it was all perfectly legal and public: the grant was approved by the university's administration, it was legitimate scientific research, had no strings attached, nor it prevented the scientist from saying what he thought. And I am sure that the colleague who accepted that grant didn't think he was selling himself to a company: research was his job and that was what he was doing. But, of course, once you accept a grant from a company, it is hard to go public and say that that same company is destroying the environment. But since it was all legal and public, anyone interested could find out how much money the grant involved: about 25,000 euros. Yes, you can buy the silence of a scientist with that kind of money. At least in Italy, where researchers are normally poor and underfinanced. 

On the opposite side of corruption, I could tell you the recent case of a virologist who was initially critical of the government. Then, at some moment he told me that he was very happy because he had obtained a big research grant on vaccines. I don't know how much, but it was surely over one million euros. Curiously (not so curiously), he rapidly changed his position, becoming a supporter of the government's policies.

These are just personal recollections and have no value in statistical terms. But corruption in science is a well-known story, especially in medicine. You may know John Ioannidis's article "Why most published research findings are false." This title is a little hyped, but Ioannidis is one of the best-known and most cited epidemiologists in the world, and I think it is reasonable to believe that it is a valid statement in medical research. Read also Malcolm McKendrick's book "The Clot Thickens" and it will give you plenty of food for thought on how the pharmaceutical industry can pervert entire scientific fields. 

The two cases I am reporting may be two extremes of the same story. Buying a scientist or, at least, a scientist's silence, may cost anything between a few tens of thousands of dollars to a million and even more. It depends on the rank of the scientists and on the amount of money available. Surely, extracting CO2 is good business, but it does not involve such enormous budgets as those of pharmaceutical companies. Think that a company such as GAVI (Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization). It has a budget of several billion dollars to be used for no other purpose than promoting vaccines worldwide. You can understand how they can direct research in their field in certain directions rather than in others. 

Let me repeat, it is all perfectly legal. Not only it is legal, but all research institutions encourage their employees to get grants from private companies. And don't think that scientists pocket that money. That would be against their own interests. The grant money is mostly used to pay the overexploited and underpaid young scientists who actually do the research work. The boss is mainly interested in the "prestige points" that the research provides in order to promote his/her career. That does not exclude the possibility that a scientist could actually cash in by consultancies or shares in companies. I am sure it happens, too. 

That doesn't mean all science is corrupted. It depends on the field of study. For instance, climate science is nearly free from corruption, as far as I know. It is simply because studying climate does not involve selling products directly to the public. Of course, there is an active greenwashing industry that proposes bogus products based on the results of climate science -- the hydrogen lobby is a good example. But it is not equivalent to the pharmaceutical industry in terms of sheer lobbying power and, besides, they have no direct economic interest in corrupting climate scientists.   

At this point, I am sure you want to ask me, "Ugo, aren't you a scientist, too? Are you corrupted?" I am a normal human being and if someone were to offer me a million dollars for my silence (or worse) on some scientific question, well, I am not sure of what I would do (Mr. Gates, are you reading this blog, by any chance?). Fortunately for my soul, for most of my career I have been working in a field that was free from corruption: materials for the aerospace industry. There, you are not supposed to sell hyped products to a gullible public. You work with things used on real planes that carry real people around. No propaganda tricks allowed: planes must fly and no plane ever could fly just because propaganda said it could. Maybe I should have become a virologist, but it is a little late for me, now. 

This said, it should be clear that we have a big problem of corruption whenever science deals with something that is sold to the public and provides large profits. Not just big. It is enormous. Things have changed a lot from when scientists could win their battle against a powerful industrial lobby. The story of how the Tobacco industry lobby was defeated in the 1950s and 1960s looks like a fairy tale, today. 

So, why this disaster? In many ways, it is the result of misguided policies aimed at improving efficiency, a rush to create a more and more competitive environment in scientific research. The best scientists are supposed to be those who can publish more papers in reputable journals, but publishing papers is expensive, especially in reputable journals. So, the highest rank scientists are those who can collect the fattest research grants. The competition is truly brutal and you may imagine how scientists may be tempted to allow themselves a little leeway with truth in exchange for resources to carry on with their work. 

So, having a Ph.D., or being a distinguished professor is no guarantee of not being a liar or, worse, a criminal. Yet, our public dialog is operating on the basis of exactly this assumption: that scientists are supposed to be honest because they are scientists. Unfortunately, this is not the way the real world works. 

Remedying this disaster will take a lot of time, and "Science" may never recover from the blows it has taken with the recent events. As a general comment, in the following, I am reproducing an article by Stefano Carusi, a theologian. Mr. Carusi's views of what science is are clearly limited. But it is an interesting document on how science is seen from the "outside." If Carusi misunderstands science the way he does, it is a fault of us, scientists, not of his. 

And Carusi clearly understands where the real problem is: it is a moral problem. If you prefer to use another term, you can say it is a question of integrity. It is the same thing. This text is worth reading for everyone, even just for this paragraph:

...... the reliability of the witness in this matter is capital. Therefore, since there is no evidence, for the one who, like Aristotle, keeps his feet on the ground and wants to make a morally good choice it is also necessary - and it is truly "scientific" - to ask: is the witness interested? Has he shown me in full the studies that led him to such conclusions? If he were to argue the opposite thesis, would he be kicked out of the university or his job? Is he proposing as "certain" what is in still "uncertain", therefore he is intellectually dishonest? Is it possible that some scientists, even if they are numerous, can be conditioned, especially if considerable interests are at stake, or succubi of power? Have there ever been repressions that may have conditioned the freedom of the scientist? Is the so-called consensus of the "scientific community", especially if the study is in its embryonic stage, real as a result of unimpeachable studies, or is it also the result of those who control the "emotional consensus of the masses"?

The Morality of "believing" scientific data

By Don Stefano Carusi, January 17, 2022

"I believe in science", "you have to believe in science", are the phrases that resonate today at every turn to request or justify their aprioristic assent to a set of "scientific" data, including those that sometimes can not be known except by very few experts and perhaps with certainty even by them. As a matter of fact, today we are witnessing, on a background of stratospheric interests, the fusion of a supposed "Faith in Science" with the emotionality wisely led by the Media, which in turn is given a blind assent. And it is precisely that same media consensus, which does not spare the use of hysterical irrationality, to invoke incessantly the coverage of "science" in which "we must believe". The same sophisticated people who had taught us until recently that "Science" (the one with a capital letter) excludes any belief, least of all in God, tell us today that we must "believe in science" and some ecclesiastics have even arrived to say, in the prevailing subservience to worldly powers, that it is a grave sin not to obey the current theses of "science".

How is it possible that scientism of rationalist matrix is marrying so well with the emotionality of immanentist inspiration and therefore very little "rational"? The profound reason for this marriage lies in the death of the philosophy of reality, that of common sense on which classical metaphysics is based, and in scientism which, after all, since its birth, needs to survive immanentism, that is, a fervent activity of the ego, creator of reality, which replaces metaphysics by reinventing reality, perhaps using mathematics where mathematics does not have much to say. It is in this way that the connotations of scientism become those of a real religion, a religion revealed in addition, certainly not by God, but by the organs that "reveal" the correct thinking, demanding assent and creating consensus. This process, which is logically anti-scientific, deserves a long study, in this article we focus for the moment on the almost dogmatic assertion "I believe in science" and its moral implications.

I believe...

First of all "I believe". What does "believe" mean? Remaining at a natural level and without wanting to enter into the discourse on infused faith that is not our object, we can say that "to believe" means to submit the intelligence to an object not evident in itself or evident in itself, but not to the one who believes.

To make some examples we can think about our date of birth, my mother has evidence that it happened on January 3rd, I do not. I believe her word because she knows that with certainty and I am sure she does not deceive me. This certainty is called "evidentia in attestante". I trust the one who attests, who has direct knowledge and evidence of what he says. In the scientific field, this type of assent is the one that comes from those who believe a scientist who has done an experiment that with absolute certainty has given a result, an evident and certain result for the scientist, but not for the student who "believes" him, because he "has faith in him", in this case prudently. Different is the case in which there is no certain evidence even from the scientist who studies, in that case, the certainty decreases, because the "evidentia in attestante" is missing. It is the case, for example, of what is at the center of the earth, a fact that is not evident to anyone and will not be for some time. If I affirm that there is an incandescent nucleus I do it out of faith, natural faith in a scientific hypothesis that, present in all school books, has become "consensus", perhaps even credible, but that remains a hypothesis for the scholar who has invented it and who believes in it, not for "science" in the strict sense, as we will see. An assertion that remains hypothesis for the scientist and for the student who has decided to believe it. In this case, compared to the previous case, the acts of faith are at least two, the first is that of the scientist to his own theory - be it well founded - the second is that of the student who in turn believes the scientist. If there is a chain of intermediaries, acts of faith multiply. If then all a "scientific community" decided to believe to the hypothesis not proved by anyone, there are as many acts of faith as scientists "believing" to the incandescent nucleus that no one has ever seen, nor drilled with coring experiments, but only hypothesized because of some "effects". Here, for completeness, it should be remembered also a phenomenon that has very little that we can define as "scientific", in fact the claim of scientism to give answers to everything suffers from having to remain silent on fundamental issues, so in front of some mysteries of nature not yet clarified prefers to have faith in a hypothesis and if necessary to standardize the consensus of faith. A bit like some scientists admitted some time ago: "We must believe in Darwinism - even if the evidence is poor - because otherwise there is nothing left but creationism", but since the Creation is a "heresy" condemned by their dogma, we can not even think about it ...

Simplifying we could say that when I do not have evidence of a hypothesis that I have not seen, known, studied and demonstrated personally, when I do not have therefore direct access to the veracity of such statement, I can choose to "believe it". It is not obvious for my sense to believe it, but my intelligence, most of the time because of the authority and the truthfulness of those who propose me to believe such a thing, for an intervention of my will, submits and says - without having evidence or without having demonstrated - "I believe", "I believe you", "I believe". Believing by natural faith, placing faith in such a witness who tells me something that is not evident to me, is a process that is not only legitimate but necessary to daily life and praiseworthy, if prudent, just as it would be absurd to verify every time with chemical analysis what I buy from the baker: I trust him to be trustworthy both because he knows what he has put in the bread and because he has always acted well and without deception. The reliability of the witness is obviously a fundamental premise of a belief in every field, including the "scientific" one. science"

What is meant by "science"? For Aristotle, who starts from the so-called "philosophy of common sense" (see "For the revival of perennial philosophy"), science is the certain knowledge by means of the necessary cause. Science means knowing the proper causes of things. In a judgment of science therefore properly so called one does not "believe". One does not believe because either one has immediate and evident perception of the truth or one has a rational demonstration that excludes all doubt. I know through necessary causes, I know that that a thing necessarily is the cause of that other thing and not of another. In this case, we speak of science proper, not of faith. I know, I do not believe. Although not excluding different levels in the rigor of the demonstration according to the different fields, in Aristotelianism the properly scientific procedure is when from a known thing I come to the knowledge of another thing that before was not known to me and I know the relationship of necessary cause-effect between the two things.

For the vision of some moderns, but it would be better to say for the nineteenth-century scientist positivism, largely outdated, but hard to die in its rhetoric, science is only the description of phenomena through the so-called "scientific method". That is, wanting to reach objectivity, once a phenomenon is observed we try to create a mathematical model that describes the operation of the phenomenon under certain conditions, then we go to verify this model with experiments to verify its validity. It is clear that such "scientific knowledge" is not an object of faith. I do not believe it, I demonstrate it. No one disputes that it is true, it is only disputed that given the "mathematical limits" that is imposed, underestimates too much the abstract capabilities of human intelligence in front of other types of knowledge and, being "laboratory science", it is valid only when certain precise conditions can be reproduced.

It is true, however, that not all sciences, while remaining true sciences according to their graduation and in relation to their object and method, are attributable sic et simpliciter to the evidence of truth or to the necessary rational demonstration, as Aristotle would say, or to the experimental scientific method with its reversibility of verification, reproduction in the laboratory, linearity and clarity of the use of mathematics, as the scientist would say. Not only the same modern experimental physics reminds us today that we cannot know directly many phenomena, but only describe approximately their effects (think of the description of the behavior of the electron), but there are sciences such as experimental medicine and biology, for example, which can not be handled only with criteria of necessity of the conclusions. In fact they are not able to trace the "causes" of all "effects" and often they can only hypothesize, without being able to "reproduce the phenomenon" also because it has often too many "variants". There are more plausible explanations, so when we are in the need to choose or to build a system of study, can also legitimately intervene in the process of study the statement "I believe". It can intervene precisely because there is no absolute science in the sense described above, and it is also necessary to assume in specific cases the assent of "I believe". This is not at all uncommon in this type of study, since in order to proceed it may also be necessary to assume a truth. In such a case it is "an active attitude of the mind that formulates to itself the adhesion given to an utterance, where one or other of the elements required for scientific knowledge is lacking", that is, it lacks precisely "perfect certainty, which excludes the risk of error" and lacks "evidence, capable of imposing itself on all minds "(1).

Therefore we repeat what happens: "the mind formulates to itself the adherence to this statement", in other words, "it believes it", the process is therefore internal to us, it is not an unquestionable constatation of certain facts totally external to the ego. So the more it is necessary to claim that "we believe in science" to defend the given opinion, the more we are stating that the thesis does not enjoy at all the scientific certainty properly said, that is the knowledge through the necessary causes if we are Aristotelian or the verification with the scientific method if we want to limit ourselves to the old positivist model. In both cases, having to say "I believe in science" means to affirm that the certainty that one has in other fields of science is lacking.

The assent given in such a case "expresses a choice between possible affirmation and negation, or between several possible statements". It thus becomes forcibly the voluntary choice of an opinion. Let us emphasize that voluntary does not mean arbitrary, but that the intelligence alone, in this case, is not simply ascertaining an evident truth, but the will must intervene, which, having evaluated a set of factors, makes its free choice in a sense. And this is because we are in the field of belief-opinion, which "involves for itself the risk of error, insofar as it is insufficiently founded from the experimental or rational point of view, and this risk is necessarily recognized by the one who opines. "(2) One must therefore recognize this, not lie to one's intelligence and admit the non-obvious nature of the statement.

Morality of "believing" scientific data

Even in the "scientific" field, therefore, it is often a matter of the opinion of such and such a scholar, who - if he is honest - must admit that he himself made a voluntary choice in favor of an opinion, even if it is the most probable; The scholar's opinion is then proposed to the person who, not having directly studied the hypothesis, can in turn (not being a dogma of infused faith necessary for eternal salvation) choose whether to believe or not, based on criteria that rest on the competence of the discoverer, on the intellectual honesty shown during his life and also on his economic disinterest, on his immunity from the logic of career, prestige or blackmail, all factors that increase its credibility.

And this because the reliability of the witness in this matter is capital. Therefore, since there is no evidence, for the one who, like Aristotle, keeps his feet on the ground and wants to make a morally good choice it is also necessary - and it is truly "scientific" - to ask: is the witness interested? Has he shown me in full the studies that led him to such conclusions? If he were to argue the opposite thesis would he be kicked out of the university or his job? Is he proposing as "certain" what is in still "uncertain", therefore he is intellectually dishonest? Is it possible that some scientists, even if they are numerous, can be conditioned, especially if considerable interests are at stake, or succubi of power? Have there ever been repressions that may have conditioned the freedom of the scientist? Is the so-called consensus of the "scientific community", especially if the study is in its embryonic stage, real as a result of unimpeachable studies, or is it also the result of those who control the "emotional consensus of the masses"?

These questions certainly can not enter into a "mathematical model" or an "index of positivity", but they are truly scientific because my knowledge through the causes, if it must "believe" a scientific fact, must also question the credibility and therefore the disinterest of the witness. Only in this way will my act of believing be prudent. What has been said - for those who have remained anchored to the realist philosophy and do not dream of a scientific knowledge that has answers to everything and immediately in the form of an algorithm - is even more true in the early years following a discovery. Particularly in medical experiments, remembering that our knowledge of the functioning of the human body has limits, let alone the immune system. Some discoveries acquire if not absolute scientificity, at least more credibility when they have been screened by time. My "faith" is not in science - which means nothing - but in that specific medical treatment now established because it has borne good fruit in the long term, has also become over time "reasonable faith". Or even "so reasonable" that it would be even imprudent not to believe in it because of the many confirmations received over the years. But the contrary is also true: from a moral point of view it could be seriously imprudent, and it could also be a serious sin of credulity - if there is full warning - to give one's assent imprudently, that is without the necessary verifications. Especially if we have roles as scientists, doctors, or rulers, with serious responsibilities on those who listen or obey us.

In conclusion, I can believe in this or that scientist for well-founded reasons and not emotional or convenient, but to say "I believe in Science" means nothing. There is not a belief in Science, there is a possibility to attribute lesser or greater credibility to a scholar or another regarding a specific statement. The rest is only that irrational emotionality intimately connected to the above-mentioned nineteenth-century positivist scientism, which, having repudiated the classical metaphysics, when lacking certainties tries to impose them "by majorities" real or fictitious.

1 R. Jolivet, Psicologia, Brescia 1958, p. 569.

2 Ibidem.



Sunday, January 23, 2022

The Secret of Propaganda: Teaching Obedience

A classic example of modern propaganda. It dates from the 1940s and it shamelessly exploits the principle of authority. Note that there is no proof or evidence that a majority of doctors smoked Camels more than any other cigarettes. And there is no proof or evidence that, even if the claim were true, the doctors would be right. But the principle of authority works independently from data and truth and the campaign was a huge success. It is the great power of obedience.

Just a few days ago, I was a guest on a TV discussion on the usual subject* (practically, the only one being discussed nowadays).  At some moment, the discussion veered on propaganda, and the host** said something like, "but isn't it strange that Germany fell so easily for the Nazi propaganda despite the fact that it was the most cultured society in Europe at that time?" And it dawned on me:

It was not despite. It was because.

Exactly that. Propaganda and education go hand in hand: they are one the consequence of the other. In an instant, my whole career as a teacher flashed in my mind. What are we teaching to our students? Plenty of things, of course, but mostly it is about trusting the authority. Obedience, in one word. 

I experimented at times with the opposite approach, pushing my chemistry students to criticize their textbooks. Many of my students are smart fellows, some of them appreciated the idea, and sometimes they found errors that I hadn't noticed myself. But most of them found the exercise an annoying interlude in their studies. They were not stupid, either. They perfectly understood that learning how to criticize the authority gave them no useful "career points." They just wanted to go through their classes as fast as they could, hoping that the ordeal would soon be over. 

The problem is not just with chemistry. In all fields, students and teachers play a game together, as Simon Sheridan well described in a recent post. It is a game that aims at creating "the archetypal orphan," that is a person completely subjugated to a dominating figure that Sheridan identifies as "the devouring mother." You might also say "the dominating father," but it is a role that university professors assume by default. The technical details of what our students learn are obsolete or soon will be, but one thing of their training will remain for a long time: believing what they are told. Soon, the role of authority will not be fulfilled by their teachers anymore, they will be replaced by opinion leaders, politicians, and other figures. 

Look at how, in the 1940s, the tobacco industry had a huge success with a campaign aiming at convincing people that smoking Camels was a good idea because most doctors (a typical authoritative figure) smoked Camels. Look at how, nowadays, our governments used the same typical authoritative figures, doctors, to convince us to do things that might turn out to be more harmful for our health than cigarette smoking. 

Marty's Mac (see below) notes how (boldface mine)
.... it is remarkably easy to convince the educated classes of something. One only has to get the information printed in the right places. The educated can be made to believe that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction, or that cigarettes and canola oil are healthy (a typical claim in the midcentury), or that the high numbers of breakthrough COVID cases in countries with 90% vaccination rates are caused by the 10% of unvaccinated people. They can be made to believe anything, really.  
So, the more educated you are, the more sensible to propaganda you are. No wonder that many of the people most affected by propaganda are well learned ones, especially people who have comfortable government jobs. Among scientists, belief in the current propaganda campaign is especially visible with climate scientists, whose beliefs depend on an authority called "climate models." (I have no statistics to cite on this point, but I know the people who work in the field) Conversely, blue-collar people engaged with real-world problems are more cautious in believing what they are told by the government, as noted by Scott Latham

So no surprise that the highly cultured Germans of the 1930s fell in the hands of the rabid Nazi madness (in the hands of the God Wotan, as Jung noted). And the most likely ones to fall for the Nazi ideas were among the most educated. For instance, physicians joined the Nazi party in droves (nearly 50% by 1945), a much higher fraction than for any other profession. Then, no surprise that our highly educated society fell so easily into the current propaganda trap that makes us believe that our governments are doing what they are doing only in order to protect us from a terrible danger. 

But propaganda is not necessarily a bug, it is a feature of the system. There is nothing wrong with the principle of authority, as long as you see it in terms of trust in people who know more than you. In the complex society in which we live it is impossible to question every facet of reality and, without this kind of trust, it would be impossible to keep it working. The problem with trust is that when it becomes an automated reflex it can be easily hijacked by people who use it to their own advantage. Then, trust becomes obedience and propaganda becomes the truth. (***)

If there will be some good consequences of the disaster that befell us during the past two years, it will be to understand the dangers of propaganda. And maybe to remember how right Ivan Illich was about the need of "deschooling society.

(*) Apologies for not writing explicitly the term for what we are discussing. I already lost a blog to censorship and I am sure that you understand anyway. 

(**) h/t Domenico Guarino
(***) after having published this post, I found a quote by Hannah Arendt that I think is in line with my considerations and those of Marty's Mac. 

“The aim of totalitarian education has never been to instill convictions but to destroy the capacity to form any.”

“The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.”

“In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true. ... Mass propaganda discovered that its audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyhow. The totalitarian mass leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that, under such conditions, one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.”

Below, I report in full the recent post by "Marty's Mac." I already cited him or her extensively in a post on religion and literacy. One of the smartest commenters I know, at present

How do you know… ?

by Marty's Mac -- Jan 10 2022

How do you know a variety of facts about the world? For instance, how do you know that matter is made up of atoms and electrons?

Presumably you learned about this in school. A teacher gave you a textbook that explained the experiments that established atomic theory. We knew already, before any electronic scanning microscope, that matter came in discrete units because the result of chemical reactions always yields perfect whole-number ratios. Subatomic particles were discovered with the cathode tube, Rutherford discovered the nucleus by shooting radiation at gold, Millikan discovered the charge of an electron with his famous oil drop experiment… the list of experiments in an introductory text goes on. An educated person who is not working in the hard sciences has, likely, already forgotten most of these. But they were in all likelihod presented to him, back in high school.

But none of these answers, even if you remember them, actually explain how you know about the atom. Unless you are in a very rarified group of chemistry and physics enthusiasts, you have not performed any of these experiments. So how do you actually know about atoms?

What happened, really, was that an authority figure gave you certain information, a significant amount of which you also read (in a text that is culturally authoritative), and you believed it. You believe stories like these because you have been raised to believe them and have not decided to radically doubt the authorities who passed this information on to you. Things like atomic theory seem to be widely believed, and people say it’s important for all sorts of technical applications, and these technologies seem to work very well. You believe about atoms, almost certainly, second-hand.

But it is not just atoms. How about the existence of Kazakhstan? It is on maps, people in the news talk about it as if it is real (and currently undergoing serious civil unrest), there are images of people in a place that is called Kazakhstan, and so on. This is also how you have any understanding of health and the body, the workings of your government, and so on. The educated mind has acquired most of its understanding through appeals to authority. The critical thinking that is so vaunted in education is mostly about judging whether or a certain authority is good (or, ultimately, approved), and in some cases whether it has internal inconsistencies that might discredit it.

I am saying this not to knock education as useless and only for the sheeple. There is not an alternative to appeals to authority. In any sufficiently complex technological or scientific society, the accumulated knowledge is too vast for an individual to replicate his ancestors’ discoveries for himself. This is already true in fairly technologically primitive societies: Which plant fibers are good for clothing and textiles, and which are useless? Which mushrooms are edible? What domesticated or semi-domesticated crops have been handed down to you? How does one hunt or make weapons for hunting? All of these are inherited knowledge or technology, and we are miles away from atomic theory. But the dependence on authority becomes much more acute for more highly technologically developed societies like our own. There is no viable alternative to an education in which appeals from authority are prominent. The only real alternative, completely erasing authority from the equation, is to drop back to some level below hunter-gatherer and hope to acquire enough knowledge over a single lifetime to manage bare subsistence.

Continuing Education

Education is, as they like to say now, a lifelong process. For the highly educated, all of whom adopt this model of trusting certain authorities for information about how the world works, and especially for those embedded in the “knowledge economy”, this kind of learning does not end (or does not largely end) with formal schooling about atoms and molecules. It continues into adult life. The teachers and textbooks are replaced by culturally authoritative figures like the newsman or public intellectuals (often academics or businessmen) and sources like The New York Times. And in the contemporary marketplace, if you don’t like these, other authorities are on offer.

The continuing education of the educated (most typically this education focuses on current affairs) has two consequences. The first is that it is remarkably easy to convince the educated classes of something. One only has to get the information printed in the right places. The educated can be made to believe that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction, or that cigarettes and canola oil are healthy (a typical claim in the midcentury), or that the high numbers of breakthrough COVID cases in countries with 90% vaccination rates are caused by the 10% of unvaccinated people. They can be made to believe anything, really. The same way the teacher explains about the electrons and the textbook backs her up, the newsman can go on Fox or print in Vox some story, and the educated and informed person will summarily believe it. Fairly recently the elites in America have suddenly noticed that this may not always work to their advantage, and Hillary Clinton coined the term “fake news” to explain her defeat (a term that was immediately taken up by Donald Trump and, like almost all of Hillary Clinton’s political moves, backfired spectacularly). However, this gullibility is not confined to conservatives (nor to liberals). It is a simple result of a large percentage of the population becoming lifelong learners.

The second consequence is that the cultural norms of society can change rapidly and over much less than a single lifetime. There have been a bevy of cultural norms that have been repealed or replaced over any adult person’s lifetime. The most obvious in the current moment is extreme fear of sickness, adoption of universal masking, and acceptance of ever-increasing government authority in the name of health. However, many other changes have occurred within a single lifetime: The widespread acceptance of gays and lesbians (currently this is happening with trans people at an even more breakneck pace), the non-acceptance of overt displays of (certain kinds of) racism, ignoring one’s dinner partner in favor of reading (once considered horribly rude with a book, now commonplace with a phone), ordering food instead of cooking, and if we go further back, the acceptance of left-handedness as a manner of writing (as late as the early sixties, this was disallowed in American schools). These are all changes that were normalized in less than the time it takes for an infant to become a legal adult. Despite this speed, they are often not noticed (many boomers lived through the acceptance of left-handedness and barely think about it), or thought of as so backwards that no one could possibly disagree (this was the case two years after the repeal of sodomy laws). A whole population can be freshly educated in the right way, whatever that right way happens to be today (and quite independent of whether it is good or bad for society), and tomorrow behave as though they grew up believing these things their whole life long.

This peculiarly modern form of changeability and indeed gullibility is not present in older, less literate societies. This is not to say illiterate or less literate societies don’t believe crazy things. Of course they do. But these crazy things are generally learned in childhood: how shamanistic magic can cure or curse, the presence of spirits all around us, the importance of smoking bodies before burial to reach the afterlife, and so on. The feudal serf may harbor a host of wacky superstitions, but they were acquired in his early education (not in a school so much as around the village) and became more or less fixed for his entire adulthood. Literacy and lifelong learning create opportunities for people to acquire new fundamental beliefs their whole life long. The gullibility of childhood can become permanent.

The sorts of rapid changes we have all experienced in the past two years in relation to COVID would not have been possible without a highly literate society. At the beginning of the pandemic, when news was first coming out of China, it was racist to be at all concerned about the virus. Then it became irresponsible and scientifically invalid to wear a mask. Then it became scientifically necessary to wear a mask (perhaps even two or three, simultaneously) and maintain social distancing. Then the science said it was okay to not practice social distancing if one attended the right kind of protests. Then it was necessary to get two vaccines, and that would end the pandemic. Then there was a booster one would get once a year, now down to every four months. At each stage, people have wholly bought into the new belief system which may have contradicted the belief system of last month or last week. Science changes, or rather the story that the cultural authority is telling changes, and so people’s fundamental beliefs can be updated more or less live. This is not because the whole population has actually properly learned something. They have just been informed of a change of plan.

Life in the age of propaganda

As I stated before, there is no solution that will keep us from having to learn by appealing to authority, because there is too much to know for any person to build up everything from scratch. Everyone has a matrix of beliefs which they have built up partially from direct experience (the minority) and partially from authorities they trust (the majority). But in an age of constant learning, it is much easier for baseless beliefs to infiltrate a belief matrix over time. When people worry about propaganda, I think this largely what they mean: That the set of new information being acquired will contain beliefs that, if one were to build them up from scratch (which most people cannot do, and no one can do with all the new information), would not hold up to scrutiny. This has been, for all of human history, an ever-present possibility in childhood, but children don’t have the mental capacity to worry about this.

This is not a place to “solve” the problem of propaganda. Such a solution (if it were possible) would be worthy of a lengthy book on epistemic philosophy or sociology. All I want to point out here is that propaganda, and easily-propagandized populations, are a result of education and cannot be fixed by simply educating people better. The very instruments for increasing knowledge in fact introduce the greatest possibility for the rapid adoption of false beliefs. If we want to live with the benefits of literacy (and we have no choice, this is the world as it is, unless we suffer a severe dark age), we must learn to live with and, if we are very lucky and work very hard to change society, mitigate the dark side of that social technology.

Sunday, January 16, 2022

The Saga of Crude Oil. An Epic Story told by Douglas Reynolds

The "bell curve" of oil production has been popularized together with the concept of "peak oil," the point of the curve where the global crude oil production reaches its maximum, just before starting its irreversible decline. There is something universal in this curve that may describe much more than just the output of the oil industry. Have you ever tried to look at the curve in narrative terms? If you did, you may have noticed that it describes a typical heroic saga. The hero starts as a young hopeful, grows to be successful in his quest, then faces decline in old age. That's the way the universe moves and it is not a coincidence that Douglas Reynolds chose the title of "An Energy Odyssey," linking to Ulysses' saga, for his recent book on the world cycle of peak oil. 

Every civilization has its founding saga. It is the story of a hero, or a group of heroes, who manage to overcome enormous difficulties, succeed in their task, and then fade slowly, enjoying the fruits of their efforts. The Sumerians had the story of Gilgamesh, the Greeks the Iliad and the Odyssey, Medieval Europe had Dante's comedy, and there were many others. 

What about us? We do not really have a saga that defines our civilization, except rather brutal ones that involve the bombing to smithereens of the enemies of democracy. Perhaps it is because our society is unlike any of the past ones: it was not created by heroes, but it grew over the availability of cheap and abundant sources of energy that no society ever had in the past: fossil fuels

So, maybe it is there that we find our founding saga: exactly there, with those dark things extracted out of the ground that brought to us wealth over anything that the wildest dreams could imagine. It is a saga that has something in common with that of the Volsunga, where the hero, Sigurd, kills the dragon Fafnir and obtains his underground treasure. 

If crude oil is the protagonist of our saga, the peak oil cycle has a certain narrative flavor. As in old literary sagas, we have the growth of the hero, his success at the peak, and then his decline in old age. Crude oil is at the peak of its cycle and now its decline is starting. This story is not something that we'll read in a book, or hear sung by a bard. We will experience it as protagonists. The walls of Troy have been breached and what's going to happen to us? As for many ancient sagas, this one has a dark aspect: the protagonists may not survive the challenge.  

Perhaps it was with these concepts in mind that Douglas Reynolds chose the title of "Energy Odissey" for his recent book on the cycle of the world's crude oil production, linking to Ulysses' ancient saga. 

Reynolds has been teaching at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, and he has been active in the field of oil depletion. Those of us who have been involved in this kind of study know very well his contributions, especially on the correlation of oil depletion and the fall of the Soviet Union, summarized in his 2016 book "Cold War Energy: The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Union

With "Energy Odyssey," Reynolds summarizes a whole career of research in this field. The result is a true saga: the book covers a wide range of elements of the story, including some correlations that are not usually made: we read about Pyramids, Aztec Gods, Kachina dolls, Nordic Gods, falconry, the Babel story, Moby Dick, the Wizard of Oz, and much, much more. 

It is difficult to summarize this book. Let me just propose you an excerpt, then you may decide to read it yourself. Or, you may contact the author (ask me in the comments for his email).


From the Introduction of "Energy Odyssey" by Douglas Reynolds.

The idea of the Iliad and the Odyssey is that of literature and history. That is, these books are an oral tradition of explaining a story generation to generation. And since there really was conflict and war surrounding the city of Troy, these stories are based on a history. Instead of considering history as a science, and literature as a humanity, the ancients were more convoluted or maybe they simply had the requirement for interchangeability in the day. That is, history was literature and literature was history. Or another way of saying this is that The Iliad and The Odyssey were the Freakonomics of their day. The genres were not so much confused as they were integrated in order to be able to create education for the common man or woman or human, often called “man” for convenience.

It is an interesting concept of having history and literature so close to each other. It reminds one of the difference between rhetoric and oratory. In the Greek tradition, the difference had to do with court cases and the law compared to argumentation. Oratory would try to win this or that case kind of like an ancient version of the television show “Suites” and where it was all in the winning of the case rather than what is right and what is wrong as being important. Rhetoric was more of a higher elevated philosophical discourse. It had to do with getting at a deeper truth that eludes one. The difference between rhetoric and oratory reminds one of the sciences and especially the economic social sciences of coming at the truth where one can use inductive reasoning or deductive reasoning and where the risk averse nature of the profession tends to emphasize induction over deduction even though a truer and deeper insight requires deduction more than is thought. What each reader may have to do then is to plug the ears of your preconceived notions and sail by the sirens of alternative argumentation so that you don’t sail your boat into the rocky shores of excessive disputation.

One of the interesting story lines in the various plots of Odysseus is not so much what Odysseus goes through or how he is affected by his travels or how he steps up to meet different challenges, but rather the idea that the city of Troy actually takes in the Trojan Horse in the first place. On the surface, one has to be surprised at the naiveite of the Trojans. Did they not know this could be a trick? Or maybe in a way the literary story is showing that all conflicts involve people with a weak link or vulnerable under side and that that is the point of the story. Maybe even our own technology has a vulnerable side that a Trojan Horse can undo.

What is interesting about Odysseus and the Iliad and the Odyssey is that the world too is taking such a journey. And after the Trojan War, especially, the journey is fraught with adventures and side trips but eventually leads to a resolution of sorts for Odysseus and so to a resolution for the world at large.

Though there are many formidable hardships in regard to energy where the world’s economies will be taken captive and certainly enticed into being devastated on coastal rocks, nevertheless, a realistic perspective of energy and its potential and its hazards can propel a proper expedition to be undertaken. And yet the world may also be taken in by its own Trojan Horse.

This story may have parallels for today’s world’s energy odyssey. For truly the world’s economy is dependent on energy and all the different types of energy determine how the world’s economy will work. Right now, there is a great battle between using fossil fuels and using renewable energy for the world’s economy, and it seems like the tension, rather like that of the Trojan War itself, is a battle for the hearts and minds of the people and where no one is winning the argument. Or, the current Trojan Energy War is not a battle for the hearts and minds of people, but rather a stalemate between the energy consuming economies that want ever more available energy for ever greater economic growth on the one side, and the supplies of energy that by their very nature are either finite or unstable and must eventually reach a limit.

In the Iliad, Odysseus and his Greek city state allies seem to have reached an end and cannot win the battle. Thus seemingly, the force of technology has won the day and there is no more scarcity to inhibit economic growth. But there may be a surprise in store where the stalemate of the battle will break in a most unexpected manner by both sides. It will be the Hubbert Trojan Horse Scenario. The crucial character in this energy odyssey story will be a geologist by the name of M. King Hubbert, and the outcome, though surprising, will be destructive to both those who believe in renewable energy and those who believe in fossil fuel energy as far as how the economy reacts. Just so, M. King Hubbert’s Trojan Horse Scenario is the final takeover of the Scarcity and Growth debate, at least in regard to non renewable natural resources.

Energy Odyssey:
The Hubbert Trojan Horse Scenario
Table of Contents

Introduction: Energy Odyssey: The Journey to Energy Enlightenment
1: Energy Dialectic: Rhetorical Adversity in Energy Philosophy
2: Energy Architecture: The Pyramids of Entropy
3: The Energy Quetzalcoatl: The Serpentine Energy Chain
4: Entropy Subsidy Wizarding: Merlin the Energy Magician
5: En Tech Symphony: Beethoven’s 5th vs. the 6th
6: The Tower of Energy Babel: Rally to Growth and Scatter from Scarcity
7: The Energy Kachina: The Four Seasons of Exploration Balance
8: Energy Novel Similes: Wizard of Oz, Moby Dick & Blood
9: Energy Constitution: American Hamiltonian Shale Oil Utterance
10: The Loki of Energy: The Oil and Gas Enigma
11: Energy Falconry: The Guardianship of OPEC
12: The Texas Sole Energy Ranger: Hi Ho Lithium, Renewables and Away
13: Don King Energy Economics: The City Streets of Electrical Power Grids
14: The Energy Macroeconomy Yin and Yang: The Pangu Inflationary and Stagflationary Effect
15: Energy Gaia: The Mother Earth of Foreshadowings
16: Energy Children: The Blessing of Ganesha and The Hardship in Developing Countries
17: The Eris of Energy: The Discord of the Golden Apple
18: COVID Energy Chess: The Strategic Pandemic Moves
19: The Energy Rasputin: The Demise of The Soviet Union
20: The Romulus and Remus of Energy: Rome’s Crisis of the Third Century
21: The Oracle of Energy Delphi: Determining Prescient Energy Scenarios
22: The Trojan Energy Horse: The Odyssey Continues
23: About the Energy Author: The Energy Muse’s Song

Monday, January 10, 2022

How to keep gasoline prices low: bomb your gas station


An Italian fighter plane (note the "fasci" symbols on the wings) shot down in England in November 1940 during the bombing campaign mounted by the Italian Air Force during WW2 (source). Sending obsolete biplanes with open cockpits against the modern British Spitfires is one of the most glaring examples of military incompetence in history. Among other things, this old tragedy may give us hints about the current situation in the world and, in particular, why the consumers of fossil fuels tend to bomb their suppliers. 

Not everyone in Europe has understood exactly what is happening with gas prices, yet, but the consequences could be heavy. For a brief moment, prices rose of a factor ten over what was considered as "normal." Then, prices subsided a little, but still remain way higher than before. Electricity prices are directly affected by the trend and that is not only traumatic for consumers, but also for the European industry. 

So, what's happening? As usual, interpretations are flying free in the memesphere: those evil Russians, the conspiracy of the Americans, it is all a fault of those ugly Greens who don't want nuclear energy, the financial lobby conspiring against the people, etcetera.

Let me try an approach a little different. Let me compare the current situation with that of the 1930s in Europe. Back then, fossil fuels were already fundamental for the functioning of the economy, but coal was the truly critical resource: not for nothing it was called "King Coal."

The coal revolution had started to appear in Europe in the 19th century. Those countries that had large coal reserves England, Germany, and France, could start their industrial revolutions. Others were cut off from the bonanza: the lack of coal was the main cause of the decline of the Southern Mediterranean countries. The Turkish empire, the "sick man of Europe," was not really sick, it was starved. Of coal. 

But it was not strictly necessary to have coal mines to industrialize: it could be done by importing coal from the producing countries. Sailing ships could carry coal at low cost just about everywhere in the world, the problem was to transport it inland. Coal is bulky and heavy, the only way to do that is to have a good network of waterways. And having that depends on climate: the Southern Mediterranean countries are too dry to have it. But Northern Mediterranean countries had the network and could industrialize: it was the case of Italy. 

Italy went through its industrial revolution much later than the Northern European countries but succeeded using British coal. That, of course, meant that Italy became dependent on British coal imports. Not a problem as long as the two countries were friendly to each other. Unfortunately, as it often happens in life, money may well take the priority over friendship. 

In the early 1920s, coal production in England reached a peak and couldn't be increased any more. That, of course, led to higher prices and cuts in exports. At that time, nobody could understand how depletion affects production (not even nowadays people do). So most Italians took the reduced coal supply from Britain as a geopolitical attack. It was an evil strategy of the decadent plutocracy called the Perfidious Albion, specifically designed to harm the young and growing southern countries.  

The Italian conquest of Ethiopia was the turning point of the struggle. Britain reacted by stopping the exports of coal to Italy. That, and other international economic sanctions, pushed the Italian economy, already crippled by the cost of the war, to the brink of collapse. Given the situation, events played out as if following a prophecy written down long before. Italy had to rely more and more on German coal and that had obvious political consequences. 

The tragedy became a farce when old Italian biplanes tried to bomb Britain into submission in 1940. The campaign lasted just two months, enough for the Italian contingent to take heavy losses before it was withdrawn (*). It was not just a tactical blunder, but a strategic disaster since it gave the British and their allies an excuse to bomb Italy at will. Which they did, enthusiastically and very successfully. 

The curious thing about this disastrous campaign is how it inaugurated a tradition: bombing one's supplier of fossil fuels. Italy's bombing of Britain was just the first of a long series: in August 1941, the British attacked and bombed Iran to secure the Iranian oil wells. They were much more successful than the Italians against Britain and Iran surrendered in less than a week. In the same year, in November, the Japanese attempted the same trick by bombing the United States, their main supplier of oil. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was a tactical success, but a major strategic disaster, as we all know. 

After WWII, the "Carter Doctrine" implied the strategic value of oil producers in the Middle East. One of the outcomes was the protracted bombing of Iraq from 1991, still intermittently ongoing. Other oil suppliers bombed by Western states were Libya and Syria. 

In short, the tradition of bombing one's suppliers of fuels remains alive and well. Whether it can accomplish anything better than the disastrous attempt of Italy in 1941 is debatable, to say the least. After all, it is equivalent to blasting away your neighborhood gas station in order to get the gas you need, but this is the way the human mind seems to work. 

So, on the basis of this historical tradition, let's try to build a narrative about what's going on, right now, with the gas supply to Europe. We just need to translate the roles that some countries had in the 1930s with those of today. 

Coal --> Natural Gas
Italy --> Western Europe (EU)
Britain --> Russia
Germany --> USA

The correspondence is very good: we have a consumer of fossil energy (now Europe, then Italy) which is militarily weak, but threatens the supplier (Now Russia, then Britain) with military action despite the obvious superiority of the latter. The weak consumer (Europe/Italy) feels that it can get away with this suicidal strategy because it has the backup of a powerful ally (Now the USA, then Germany). 

Just like Britain did in 1936 to Italy, Russia appears to have reduced the supply of gas to Europe. In both cases, the result was/is a crisis in the economy of the consumers. Just as it happened in the late 1930s, the stronger ally is coming to the rescue: in 1936, Germany started supplying coal to Italy by rail, now the US is sending cryogenic gas to Europe -- both are expensive methods of transportation, but allow the supplier to access a market that would have been barren, were it not for political reason. But becoming the customers of a militarily powerful country has political costs. 

The correspondence is so good that the current situation could easily develop into a similar outcome as in 1941, with the European Union doing something completely idiotic: attacking Russia, hoping for the support of the powerful US ally. (also, traditionally, attacking Russia is done in Winter: what could go wrong?). 

One conclusion of this story is that humans always tend to worsen whatever major problem they happen to face. Apart from this, perhaps there is an alternative scenario that could lead Europe away from the perspective of nuclear annihilation: maybe we can learn something from the Italian experience. 

In 1936, during the coal embargo imposed by Britain, Italy carried out an attempt to reduce its consumption of fossil fuels that went under the name of "autarchy" (Autarchia). It was based on the renewable technologies available at that time, and it involved some crazy ideas, such as making shoe soles out of cardboard and dresses out of fiberglass. But, on the whole, the idea of relying as much as possible on national and local products made plenty of sense. It didn't work, mainly because the government squandered the Italian resources in useless wars, but, who knows? Today it might work better if we don't make the same mistake. 

(*) The Italian pilots had to fight with obsolete canvas biplanes: much slower than the British Spitfires, poorly armed, without an armored cockpit (the pilots used sandbags as makeshift armor), without sufficient heating, without the right training. And, of course, poor reliability of almost every mechanical system in a cold climate. Most of the Italian losses were due to mechanical failures, while no British planes are reported to have been lost to the Italians. If the definition of "epic" involves fighting against an overwhelming superior enemy, then the experience of the Italian force in the Battle of Britain can surely be defined in this way: an epic disaster. Whoever had this absurd idea deserved to be hanged, and at least one of them was.    

Friday, January 7, 2022

Collapse by Doubling Down: How Leaders Create Their Own Ruin


Napoleon won all the battles he engaged in, up to Borodino (1812), which was a non-victory, equivalent to a loss. From then, on it was all downhill from him. Napoleon had engaged in a task too big even for him: invading Russia. It is typical of successful leaders to use the doubling down strategy that leads them to a rapid collapse in their career -- another manifestation of the Seneca Cliff. 

Gnaeus Pompeius (Pompey) was a very successful leader during the final years of the ancient Roman republic. Isaac Asimov told his story in 1971, noting a curious detail. Pompey was successful in everything he did up to a fateful day, in 61 BCE. From then on, everything he did was a failure until he was assassinated in Egypt, in 48 B.C. Half-jokingly, Asimov suggested that Pompey's reversal of fortunes coincided with having desecrated the temple of Jerusalem, that he had just conquered. 

Even without desecrating anything, it is a constant of history that "invincible" leaders tend to end their days in the dust after a stellar career. Another case, centuries after Pompey, is that of Napoleon Bonaparte. He won every battle he was involved in until, in 1812, his army faced the Russians at Borodino. Maybe it was a victory, but it weakened Napoleon so much that he didn't win any more battles again. 

There are many more examples. Think of Adolf Hitler: successful in everything he did, but he failed to bomb Britain to submission. Then, he doubled down by attacking the Soviet Union in 1941 (same mistake as Napoleon). Disaster ensued. Or of Benito Mussolini. Everything he did was a success until he decided to join Germany in WWII. Some of the early Italian moves in the war, as the attack on France in 1940, could be defined as successes. But they were just a prelude to disaster. Later on, a completely clueless Mussolini bungled from a defeat to another, so much that one wonders how was it possible for a single man to do so much damage. And let's finish with an honorable mention for Saddam Hussein, who must have believed he was the reincarnation of the ancient Islamic warriors when he ordered the Iraqi army to attack Iran in 1980. It was a victory for Iraq, but at an enormous human and economic cost. Then, Hussein doubled down by invading Kuwait, and you know what happened. 

I think there is a certain logic in these stories. It is a basic rule that goes as "success doesn't teach you anything." The human mind is easily deceived by overinterpreting favorable events and successful people become convinced that what was just a stroke of luck was instead due to their superior intuition or intelligence. The result is that they kept doing whatever they found that was successful in the past. And not just that. If they found something that worked, then people tend to repeat it on a larger scale. It is the "doubling down strategy."

In the roulette game, the doubling down strategy is known as the "martingale." You choose a color, red or black, and you double your bet on it until you win. The idea is that you may suffer a series of losses but, eventually, you'll recoup them and make a profit when your color comes out.

It is unbelievable how many people think that the martingale is a good idea. The problem is that it looks easy and it seems to work. Unfortunately, as I discuss in my book "The Seneca Effect," it is a fast lane toward collapse. Eventually, you'll face a string of losses long enough to ruin you and, at that point, you'll be torn to pieces by the claws of the black swan. 

Pompey in Jerusalem, Napoleon at Borodino, Hitler and Mussolini in Russia, Saddam Hussein in Kuwait, they suddenly found themselves facing something that was much larger than they had expected and that led to their rapid ruin: the Seneca Cliff:

Above: the Seneca Curve. For Napoleon, the peak was at Borodino in 1812. 

Now, I think you understand the point I wanted to make, even though I will not explicitly say what I mean (I have already lost a blog to censorship). During the past two years, we have seen our leaders doubling down several times and, so far, they have been successful. So much that they keep doing that, raising the stakes and the threats at every step. 

Will they overextend themselves and create their own ruin? It may well be. If this is the case, we can detect the transition moment when they arrive to a doubling that they can barely afford. Like Napoleon at Borodino, they suddenly see the cost of one more of those victories that, earlier on had seemed to them cheap and easy. 

Are we starting to see that? Maybe not yet, but some signs of fatigue are starting to appear. If we are approaching the peak of the Seneca Curve, their downfall could be rapid. And also very noisy. 


(*) Tolstoy describes the battle of Borodino in his "War and Peace" novel. It does not pretend to be a historical study, but it does make the point that, once the battle was started, Napoleon had no more control over it. He gave orders that were not executed on the basis of information that was already obsolete when he received it. 

[Napoleon's] troops were the same, his generals the same, the same preparations had been made, the same dispositions, and the same proclamation courte et energique, he himself was still the same: he knew that and knew that he was now even more experienced and skillful than before. Even the enemy was the same as at Austerlitz and Friedland- yet the terrible stroke of his arm had supernaturally become impotent.  

All the old methods that had been unfailingly crowned with success: the concentration of batteries on one point, an attack by reserves to break the enemy's line, and a cavalry attack by "the men of iron," all these methods had already been employed, yet not only was there no victory, but from all sides came the same news of generals killed and wounded, of reinforcements needed, of the impossibility of driving back the Russians, and of disorganization among his own troops.

Formerly, after he had given two or three orders and uttered a few phrases, marshals and adjutants had come galloping up with congratulations and happy faces, announcing the trophies taken, the corps of prisoners, bundles of enemy eagles and standards, cannon and stores, and Murat had only begged leave to loose the cavalry to gather in the baggage wagons. So it had been at Lodi, Marengo, Arcola, Jena, Austerlitz, Wagram, and so on. But now something strange was happening to his troops.

Monday, January 3, 2022

Searching for our Ancestress: a travel to the origin of time


Emma Ardinghi, my great-grandmother, animated by deep-fake technologies. She was born in the 1860s and died in the 1930s. Not many of us have images of their ancestors of more than a century ago. But what if some ultra-advanced technology could show your ancestors all the way to back to the creation of the world? (image created on this site. To know more about Emma, see here.) (this post was originally published on "The Proud Holobionts")

Let's imagine a magic trick, or maybe a time machine, or a DNA-reconstructing technology, or some unknown laws of physics. Something, anyway, that shows you your ancestresses, all of them, one by one in a long, long string of mothers that leads you far, far back in time, all the way to the beginning of life on Earth. You are looking maybe into a screen, maybe into a crystal ball, or maybe into the clear waters of a stream in the light of the Moon. Just imagine. 

Ten Generations (250 years). This stream of ten generations lasts ten minutes, one minute for each ancestress. The first face is our mother, of course. You know her well. You see her as a young woman, as you saw her in many old photos. Then, there appears your Grandmother, again as a young woman. Maybe you met her, maybe you remember her only from some faded pictures. She looks a little like you, same skin color and same eyes.  As new images appear you see faces you had never seen and the parade stops with the face of a woman who is your ancestor of 10 generations ago. She was born around 250 years before you, in a century when almost everyone was a peasant and there existed no such things as electricity, cars, or radio and tv. She has the same skin color as you, the same shape of eyes and nose, and probably a similar hair color. Let's assume that she is from Europe or North America and, in this case, she is most likely white. She wears a long cotton skirt and a shirt under a wool corset. She also wears a head cap and wooden sandals, no makeup on her face, her only ornament is a hairpin that she uses to keep her hair in a bun. She looks strong, in good physical shape, not a trace of fat on her body. Her husband appears behind her, a peasant wearing simple clothes and wooden sandals. In the background, you see the brick walls of the house. The windows are small and have wooden shutters. In a corner, a large fireplace. Although she is linked to you by a series of ten generations, her genetic imprint on you has been so diluted that she doesn't look very much like you. Still, if you look into her eyes, you feel a certain kindness, a certain sensation of familiarity. From wherever the image comes from, she locks her eyes into yours and smiles before fading. 

100 Generations (2000 years). Now the images change on the screen every six seconds. In ten minutes you see a hundred ancestresses, one after the other, separated by about 20 years from each other. Tall and not so tall, with long hair, short hair, sturdy, thin, lean, smiling, or maybe sad. There is a certain continuity with these images, the skin color remains about the same as yours: if you are black, they are black, and if you are white, they are white. And if you have slant eyes, they have slant eyes, too. But if you are blond, or you have clear-colored eyes, you'll see this feature disappearing: the eyes of your ancestresses gradually becoming brown, and their hair turns dark brown or black. When you arrive at the end of the sequence, you see someone who lived around 2000 years ago, at the time of the Roman Empire in its highest glory. She looks sturdy, but a little worn out by work and fatigue. She may wear a linen tunic under a heavy woolen cape. She may be a citizen of a large city, or someone inhabiting a small village.  Behind her, her husband shows up. He is wearing similar clothes, a tunic, and a woolen mantle. Behind them, a brick wall with no windows, a fireplace in a corner. You perceive a simple wooden bed and a door. She doesn't look very much like you but, as you look into her face, you note a certain fire in her dark eyes. She is proud to be a citizen of the city or of the village where she lives. She smiles with an air of satisfaction at seeing that remote descendant of hers. For a moment, you are lost in those black eyes of her, then she fades away, and the parade restarts.

1000 generations (15 thousand years). Now the faces flash even faster, less than one second after each other. You see flickering faces, giving you just a quick glance of a few details: a hairpin, earrings, and an especially bright smile. These women maintain the same skin color you have and the same eye shape. But they look robust and sturdy, in good physical shape. The flickering stops with a woman appearing in front of you, looking straight at you. Let's assume that she is white. She wears a jacket and a gown in tanned skin. Around her neck, a leather necklace with hanging ivory teeth, maybe of a shark. Her hair is black, kept together by a leather lace at the back. Around her, you perceive a hut made of animal skin, mammoth tusks planted vertically in the soil are holding the skins together and a fire is burning at the center. Behind her, you see her husband. He wears the same kind of leather clothes and you see a stone-tipped lance leaning against the leather wall. You can almost smell the burned fat of the animals in the hut. You look at her face. She doesn't look like you, not at all. But she has a certain air of pride that you recognize as universal among humans. She smiles at you, she seems to be happy to see this descendant of hers that she sees for such a short time. Then, she fades away.

10,000 generations (150,000 years). It is a whirl of faces that you see dancing on the screen. What you notice most is how the skin of your ancestresses is becoming darker and darker. As the movement stops, you are looking into the face of a black woman. She has curly brown hair, black eyes looking straight into yours. She is tall, she looks athletic. She wears a necklace made with seashells and she wears only a leather belt around her waist as she stands in the bright sun. You know that she is living somewhere in Africa and, behind her, you see the blue of the Ocean. In the distance, the savannah extends all the way to the horizon. Around her, you see stones arranged in circles, traces of a campground where she lives, together with her group. You see her man standing behind her. Like her, he is tall and athletic, wearing only a leather belt around his waist. He holds a stone-tipped spear in his hands. An abyss of time separates you from her, and yet, somehow you recognize each other. You look into her eyes, she looks into yours. She smiles, although she looks a little perplexed at seeing this weird descendant of hers, so remote from her. But she seems to know that her descendants will cross that vast desert, spreading in the Northern forests and everywhere on Earth. She smiles at you as she says something that you don't understand, but that may be a charm of good luck. You smile back as she fades away.

100,000 generations. (one million years). What you see now is a continuous transformation, a morphing. The faces of your ancestresses change, shrink, their bones shift, they develop a pronounced brow ridge. Their skin remains dark, and when the sequence stops, you are in front of the face of this remote ancestress of yours, separated from you by one million years.  You see her standing in the open, among rocks and animal bones. She is completely naked, her skin mostly hairless. She is not tall, but not so much shorter than you. Behind her, a flat savannah's landscape with shrubs and isolated trees. She is different, alien, with her broad nose, her flat skull under her black, long hair. You know that she is a member of the species called "homo erectus," not the same species you belong to, and you are tempted to call her "female," rather than "woman."  And yet, she partakes something of the human nature, you can't miss that. She has round breasts, and rounded buttocks, a human trait that other primates do not share. Nearby, you see her man, holding a hand axe in his hands. She is linked to you by an incredibly long series of motherhoods, each one an improbable event, and yet that chain led exactly to you.  You think for a moment at how a hundred thousand times a man and a woman, your ancestors, mated to generate the unlikely series of creatures that led to what you are. You look at each other in the eyes. Across a huge chasm of millennia, she nods at you, smiling, a gesture unchanged over such a long time. Then, she fades away

One million generations (10 million years). Now you are rushing to the remote origins of the creatures we call "hominina." As the face morphs in front of you, gradually it becomes something not fully human. The sequence stops as you are in front of a face. Still a face, yes, but not the face of a sapiens. You are looking at a female of a different species. She is hairy, small, and sitting in a forested area together with other members of her group. The male is bigger than her, and he looks suspiciously in your direction. You know that these creatures are common ancestors not just to you, but also to chimpanzees and gorillas. She looks at you, tilting her head a little as if she were surprised. You smile at her, she does not respond in kind, but she smacks her lips in your direction. A kiss from an ancestress of you who lived 10 million years ago. Then, the image fades away.

Ten million generations (100 million years). Now the creatures you see morphing on the screen rapidly cease having a face, they now have a snout. You see furry creatures quivering on the screen. The sequence stops to give you a glimpse of a four-footed creature that looks at you, puzzled, for a moment, before scuttling away, disappearing among the vegetation. Was that your ancestress? Yes, she was.  

A hundred million generations (400 million years). Creatures smaller and smaller appear on the screen, they rapidly lose their fur, they become flat, lizard-like animals. Smaller and smaller, until they disappear and you are facing the seashore from an empty beach in the sun. You know that somewhere, under the surface, a female creature is swimming. An extremely remote ancestress of yours. 

Billions of generations (one billion years ago). You are still looking at the sea. An ocean of time goes by and nothing happens. You only know that, down there, there is something alive, quivering, changing. Microscopic unicellular creatures are busy reproducing themselves by mitosis, splitting themselves in two. They are no more males and females, yet they are the origin of what you are, there, below the surface of that remote ocean. 

Billions and billions of generations (5 billion years ago). Now the view moves underwater. In the darkness, you dimly perceive submarine mountains spewing gas bubbles everywhere. You know that those mounds are the factories where organic life is being created. It is strange to think that your so-remote ancestor is not anymore a living creature, but an organic molecule. As you watch, the sea boils in a great turmoil as you enter the Hadean, the age of hell. Then, everything fades into darkness. Before the scene goes away you have a glimpse of large, bright eyes looking at you. The Goddess herself is there, dancing in the emptiness of space while she creates the world. Gaia, the mother of us all. 


Some images. None of them refers to a specific description in the text of this post, but they can give us some idea of what our ancestresses may have been looking like. 

This woman lived in Tuscany probably during the 2nd century BC, more than 2000 years ago. We know her name, "Larthia Seianti." She was Etruscan, a rich woman (note the armilla bracelet on her arm) who could afford an elaborate sculpture over her sarcophagus. It is a realistic portrait, at least in part. And, curiously, she looks a lot like a Tuscan friend of mine, living in Tuscany nowadays. She is likely one of her ancestress, just as an ancestress of mine. 

The reconstruction of the face of a Neolithic woman who lived about 7,500 years ago in the area that is now called Gibraltar. She has been nicknamed "Calpeia" from the ancient name of the Gibraltar mountain, "Mons Calpe." DNA analysis shows that she, or her immediate ancestors, came to the Iberian peninsula most likely from Anatolia by boat. (source)

The "Venus of Brassenpouy," discovered in 1894 in Southern France. It is a  portrait of someone who lived more than 20,000 years ago. We cannot say whether it is realistic or not, just as we cannot be completely sure that it is a woman's face. But it is perhaps the earliest recongizab√≤e portrait ever made in human history.  

An impression of how a Paleolithic woman could have looked like, living maybe 20,000-50,000 years ago in Europe. Note her dark skin: it is a remnant of her African ancestry. (source)


A reconstruction of the face of a Neanderthal woman (from Earth Archives). She might have lived a few hundred thousand years ago. Several things in this image are uncertain, but note her heavy brow ridges, a typical Neanderthal characteristic. Note her eyes and her skin: the light color is a characteristic of people living in Northern regions. Is she an ancestor of some of us? It is not completely certain but, yes, many of us have Neanderthal genes in their DNA.

The reconstruction of a female Australopithecus who could have been living in Africa some 2 million years ago. If she had the typical human metabolism, she must have been capable of cooling by sweating, a feature incompatible with a thick body hair. And, indeed, she is shown with sparse body hair, although she may well have had none. Note also her human-like round breasts. It is a likely secondary sexual characteristics of hominins which tend to stand upright most of the time. She probably also had round buttocks, as modern women do. An ancestress of ours? Maybe. (source)



Underwater vents, somewhere at the bottom of the ocean. It is commonly believed that life on Earth started in this kind of environment, some 3-4 billion years ago. Can you see the Goddess Gaia dancing in there? Maybe. (source)