CITE YOUR SOURCES !

It’s official. We are living in a post-truth world. I know, because I saw it on the internet. Or maybe it was on TV. Or someone said it in the pub last night. It doesn’t matter, anyway: in a post-truth world, one source of knowledge is as good as another. Better, really, since you get to pick the bits you like.

The truth, however, still exists. You may not know it, you may not understand it, but unless you live in an entirely solipsistic universe, it’s still out there, and will bite you on the butt if you ignore it. You may, for instance, declare the law of gravity a myth (or, in modern parlance, a piece of fake news put about by scientists, the aircraft industry, and the Isaac Newton Fan Club). But the fact is this: throw yourself off a building, and you will still make pavement pizza at the bottom. And that, as they say, is science.

A friend – a schoolteacher in Indiana – recently lamented that his school has decided not to replace their departing science teacher. It’s a financial decision, not an ideological one. Money’s short, and science is regarded as expendable. A working knowledge of the General Theory of Relativity is not required for daily life, when all is said and done.

But, as my friend pointed out – it’s not the facts of science that matter. It’s the methodology. This is what kids need to know about. They need to know that scientific principles are not simply made up on the spot, nor are they “true” because they’re set down in a book somewhere. In fact, they’re the result of massive, systematic observation (the more the better), testing and experiment, leading to the formulation and subsequent modification of hypotheses, which may then be extrapolated into general principles. This might not represent “the truth” in any ultimate or philosophical sense, but chances are, it’s a a lot more reliable than any of the alternatives. Don’t jump off that building, son. We have evidence to suggest what will happen if you do.

Now, I’m not a scientist, but I’ve been through the academic mill long enough to have some grasp of how things work. Knowledge builds on knowledge. If you’re writing an academic paper, in whatever discipline, any statement you make must be backed up by evidence. You cannot simply say, “The moon is made of green cheese.” You need to support that. And, thereby, you encounter both the strengths, and the weaknesses, of the system upon which much of human knowledge rests.

Clearly, you can’t personally go out and test every statement in your paper, so the convention is to reference other academic papers, which, if sought out by the reader, will demonstrate the truth of your assertion.

It’s not a perfect system. But it does mean that, with a little effort, the likely worth of any statement can be measured, and judged on its merits. Some cited sources are worth more than others. If you are determined to insist the moon is, indeed, some sort of miscolored dairy product, it’s a lot more credible to cite the official NASA report, rather than, say, Dr. Seuss. And don’t forget: people can then go to the NASA report, and check whether it says what you claim it says.

Sounds good, right? If the foundations are strong, the house is strong. Yes?

Well, mostly. But sometimes things go wrong, and it’s important to look out for that, too, just in case.

Contrary to the popular image (which SF has done its share to foster), academic researchers are not necessarily smarter, more diligent, nor (in some cases) more honest than people in other professions. They are also under immense pressure to publish, with the result that some papers sneak into print when they probably shouldn’t (and I confess, I may have had a hand in that myself. Sorry folks.)

It’s also a system which is profoundly self-reflective. “This is true because Dr. So-and-so says it is.” Once an error creeps in, it can persist, perhaps for decades, until someone eventually thinks, “That doesn’t make sense,” and decides to investigate. Check out Robert Bakker’s book, The Dinosaur Heresies (1986), which chronicles our long-held misconceptions about these fascinating creatures – and how the modern view of them, as active, warm-blooded, bird-type animals, was finally accepted. It was not a eureka moment, nor a pre-conceived conclusion towards which Bakker and others worked, but the result of years of collected data, comparative anatomy, and constant re-assessment of existing hypotheses. The system can be a little slow, sometimes. It can get clogged. And, like any tool, it’s only as good as the people using it. But it has its checks and balances, and poor or wrong-headed work can always be weeded out.

Sometimes, even by an idiot like me.

At one stage in my life I had to read a lot of academic papers, the bulk of them previously unpublished, and with no pre-existing stamp of approval. What did I learn? Mostly, I learned systematic and critical thinking. The subject matter might have been unfamiliar, but the medium was such that I could quickly recognize the clues as to whether a piece was likely to be sound, or whether I should treat it with suspicion. This wasn’t a matter of opinion – “I like this” – but a series of clear points denoting strengths and weaknesses, the most vital of which was the referencing.

Now, as I’ve indicated above, referencing isn’t always a guarantee of reliability. But nothing, absolutely nothing, is worse than no referencing at all, or referencing from unreliable sources. If someone tells you, “The Martians are attacking!” you want to know where the information comes from. If the answer is “Orson Welles,” there’s a chance the story’s not entirely trustworthy. On the other hand, one or more dependable sources, and you should probably be heading for your nearest bomb shelter.

So I learned, always, to check the referencing, both the sources, and the way they were used in the text.

I learned that any bold, unreferenced statement was probably a bluff, designed to catch my interest, though usually, it put me on my guard. (“Autobiography is a relatively recent form of literature…” began one piece. Prove, I thought, running through a list of very un-recent autobiographies, just off the top of my head.) I learned to be wary of statistics, especially percentages that added up to more than 100. (Yep. That happened.) I learned to ensure the paper’s findings, the part most likely to be cited by future writers, were actually backed up by the evidence presented, in both quantity and quality, and also, that findings had not been skewed by obvious errors, misinterpretation, or any kind of bias (even one I might agree with). I learned that any argument which fails to deal with possible counter-arguments (thesis-antithesis-synthesis) is more likely polemic, and needs to say so at the start.

And I learned, too, that there is good, solid work being done, often without fanfare or acclaim, often of interest only to a tiny group of specialists. Seldom spectacular, perhaps, in its bit-by-bit accretion of knowledge; but this is the real deal, on which future research will build.

And out of school?

In our post-truth world, there’s information everywhere, and most of it’s like workplace gossip; it may be true, or it may not, but if you’re smart, you’ll stop and think before repeating it, regardless whether it’s a meme, a tweet, or some article from yet another site that claims to be a news outlet. All that critical thinking outlined above should be applied to our daily window on “reality”, or else we drown in so-called “facts” – or become so cynical as to dismiss them all. Neither of which is good.

So think about sources. Think about evidence. Compare what you see on one site to what you’ve seen elsewhere. Compare it to your own experience. Ask questions: Who’s telling me this? What’s their angle? What’s their authority? Were they reliable in the past? Are they pushing a particular agenda? Is there any way they might gain personally from what they’re saying? And where has the information come from in the first place?

Methodology.

It’s not just for scientists, you know.

 

(This piece originally appeared on the HarperVoyager website – http://www.harpervoyagerbooks.com/hvsciencefair-scientific-method/ –  as part of their 2017 Science Fair. Take a look at some of the other pieces posted. There’s some great stuff here, by people who know what they’re talking about – and they cite their sources. Mostly, anyway.)

 

 

 

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Christmas Shopping… (or, Go On – You Know You Want To)

Here’s the blurb I just put up on John Scalzi’s Whatever website, which suggests a whole stack of great books for your loved ones, friends, casual acquaintances and complete strangers. Thanks, John, for the opportunity to do this!

https://whatever.scalzi.com/2017/12/04/whatever-holiday-shopping-guide-2017-day-one-traditionally-published-books/

Hi! I’m Tim Lees, author of the Field Ops books from HarperVoyager. Ever wonder what we’ll do when fossil fuels run out? Well, I can tell you. We’ll have a bunch of guys who race around the world digging up ancient gods to change into electric power. Chris Copeland is one of them. Follow him from Iraq to Budapest, from Vegas to Chicago, as he hunts down some truly terrifying entities – primal beings from the dawn of time – fends off the machinations of his colleagues, tries to get back with his girlfriend, and, like the rest of us, moans about his job. After all – one wrong step, and it’s the apocalypse. That tends to be a little stressful, sometimes…

The books can be read in sequence or as stand-alones. Check out The God Hunter, Devil in the Wires and Steal the Lightning.

http://www.harpervoyagerbooks.com/book-author/tim-lees/

https://www.amazon.com/Tim-Lees/e/B006E4I288

 

 

 

All my life I thought I was CGI, but it turns out I’m stop-motion after all.

Twilight of the Gods (again)

I’ve reached the uncomfortable age when my heroes are dying faster than I accumulated them. A couple of weeks back, it was Brian Aldiss, a fine and inspirational writer who could use the material of traditional pulp SF in ways that made you question everything about your life, your world, and the numerous, all-too-unsubstantiated notions by which we live. He also produced one of the best literary novels of the latter part of the 20th century in Forgotten Life, a book too often overlooked (it had the misfortune to be published within days of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, which grabbed all the literary headlines, and a few of the more general ones, too).

And this week, it was Walter Becker, one half (with Donald Fagen) of Steely Dan.

I’ve loved Steely Dan for years. There’s the irresistible (to me) jazz inflection in their tunes and arrangements, the literary and enigmatic lyrics, the SF influences, and – their speciality – the catchy, upbeat, poppy melodies masking sinister, decadent lyrics (check out “Jamie Runaway” or “Everyone’s Gone to the Movies”). Becker and Fagen have both had successful solo careers and made fine solo albums (Fagen being the more accomplished), but somehow they were never quite so good apart as they were together. At some point, that chemistry was needed, whether to add a new idea, or hold one back, or shape a line just a little… differently. And now that’s gone. I’m glad I got to see the band in their recent incarnation. I’m glad I have their albums to listen to. But it’s sad to think that such a vital and unique force is no more.

Thanks, Walter.

Thanks, Brian.

The world’s a better place that you were here.

 

Che Ti Dice La Patria?

 

Britain has suffered its third terrorist incident in as many months. Horrendous as this might be in itself, it is likewise disturbing to watch those unaffected trying to make political capital of the attacks, or use them as distraction from issues nearer home. There is the usual extremist, they’re-wrong-and-we’re-right approach, typified by a racist blogger (he’d debate the adjective) who recently stated, “The problem is Islam” – completely disregarding the fact that, a few days previously, a white supremacist in Portland stabbed three men, killing two and injuring a third (said supremacist having been interrupted while menacing a couple of young girls). The problem is not “Islam” or “Christianity” or “immigration” or “diversity” or anything like that. The problem is people, and the fact that some people, regardless of their origins or beliefs, are shits. That’s it. Maybe they’re born shits, maybe they become shits because they think it will give them a sense of self-worth, or superiority, or respect in the eyes of others. Whatever. And if they think that skin colour or religion or politics gives them the right to cause trouble, they’ll do it. On top of that, a social and political climate that fosters opposition and hatred will encourage them, and that’s the kind of climate we’re in now. It’s very handy for some people, especially those in politics, to have an enemy “out there” from whom they can then promise to “save” us.

I left England in 2011. I don’t get back as often as I’d like, and when I do, it’s usually for fleeting visits. So my impressions of the place are cursory, to say the least. I was last there in March this year (2017) and visited two cities, Manchester and Birmingham, for just a few hours each. Not long enough to learn about anything, really, was it?

Manchester’s my home town. It’s got a rough side, which I was once familiar with – perhaps too much so. It’s also a student town, and like any student town, it’s always had a high number of beggars (students being more inclined to give, I suppose). Some of these were people who had slipped through the cracks in the mental health system, some were con artists, some alcoholics, some people who had fallen on hard times, some lost souls for whom begging provided, ironically, a sense of place in society, and a bit of much-needed human interaction. That was in the old days.

The thing I’ve noticed most over the last two or three years, though, is not just the huge increase in homelessness, but the change in the nature of it, and the kind of people finding themselves out on the street. Most are young, or youngish. They’re probably the ones hit hardest by benefit caps and austerity politics. But I have never, even here in the US, seen quite the conditions I saw in Manchester last March. It was… depressing, to say the least.

Now, OK, the weather wasn’t great, and Manchester’s not the prettiest of places when it rains. But as I worked my way past the lines of people begging – many sat on cardboard or on wooden pallets to avoid the chill of sitting on the ground – it was clear they weren’t simply trying to scrounge up a few quid, or get through a bad patch in their lives. Nor were they the traditional “tramps” that, say, Orwell encountered.

For a start, these guys were on it for the long haul. I see this in Chicago – people who’ve realised they’re in trouble and spent their last few bucks on a big coat and a rucksack, hoping to survive outside. In Britain, it seems to have gone beyond that. In the doorways of closed-down shops, in out-of-the-way corners of the city, you’ll find little stacks of blankets – and luggage. Not just rucksacks or plastic bags, but suitcases – sometimes even a set of them, as people who no longer have homes desperately try to cling to the possessions they still own. I think that was one of the saddest, most heartbreaking aspects of the whole experience.

(Let’s get something straight. When you’re poor, possessions are important. It’s not a case of being materialistic. You know how hard it’s been to come by what you have, and you’ll probably never, ever be able to afford any of it again. So you hang onto it, as long as you can.)

There are tents by the river. Again, that’s new. These are people learning to survive in a bleak, new world, in which homelessness is something which is likely to happen to you, and for which you need to be prepared, the same as illness or joblessness. And all of this has happened since I left.

Now, I’m from Manchester. I’m cynical. I’m not a person who feels compelled to give to beggars, and I’ve no patience with anyone trying to con money out of me by pretending they’re sleeping rough. But these people needed it, I’m damn sure, and for one of the few times in my life, I felt I had to give.

Depressing, like I say.

Things perked up a bit in Affleck’s Palace, with its countless little shops, and the indie entrepreneurial spirit the city’s known for; likewise, meeting an old friend for lunch, a musician and promoter, brought a little life to the occasion. But I couldn’t help remembering my father’s boast while I was growing up: “No-one goes hungry in this country.” Still true? I doubt it.

I love Manchester. I love Manchester, and I hate whatever led to the recent bomb atrocity there, and the mind-set that it takes to do such things. But there’s also a creeping decay in the place, an erosion of what were once seen as essential British values. Friends tell me you can see this elsewhere, in every major city. Why? Well, as the old saying has it, a fish rots from the head down. Unfortunately, it’s the people at the tail who have to bear the stink.

And moving on…

I don’t know Birmingham. I spent a drunken night there years ago, but otherwise it’s been a place for changing trains or buses en route further south. It seems now I should probably have stuck around.

Again, I was meeting an old friend, and the occasion proved surprisingly pleasant. Now, Birmingham is interesting in the light of current political debates. It has a mixed ethnic population, many non-whites, and a high percentage of Muslims (you know – those people who are all supposed to be terrorists). This is the place Fox News pundit Steven Emerson described as a “totally Muslim” city that “non-Muslims simply don’t go in,” which of course is plainly idiotic. There are certainly lots of Muslims. We even spent an hour in a very nice Syrian cafe, opposite the cathedral. And everyone we met, Muslim or otherwise, was courteous, polite and helpful. It was a real pleasure to visit.

No doubt Birmingham has its share of idiots, like anywhere else. But we didn’t meet them. Do you think we just got lucky?

“Che Ti Dice La Patria?” is a story by Ernest Hemingway, recounting a brief visit to Mussolini’s Italy. After a number of unpleasant encounters, the narrator concludes, “[n]aturally, in such a short trip, we had no opportunity to see how things were with the country or the people.”

My case exactly.