Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Not Written in the Stars

When Friedrich Nietzsche proclaimed the death of God—in less metaphorical terms, the collapse of the Christian faith that had provided the foundations for European social life since the Dark Ages—he saw that event as a turning point in human history, a shattering and liberating transformation that would open the road to the Overman. That hope turned out to be misplaced, and it’s worth keeping in mind that any equally grandiose claims that might be made about the consequences of the death of progress will likely face disappointment along the same lines.

Even so, the collapse of the civil religion of progress marks a significant shift, as important in our time as was the event that Nietzsche announced turned out to be in his.  Like its forerunner, the death of progress promises to kick the props out from under a great deal of today’s conventional wisdom, and pose serious challenges to some of the industrial world’s most central institutions. The case I have particularly in mind here is modern science, and in particular the impressively large institutional forms that have been built up around the scientific project over the last century or so.  Those forms were achievable only because a widely shared faith in progress made resources and funding available for them, and their continued existence depends just as directly on the survival of that same faith.

A specific example may be helpful here, so let’s consider the future of astronomical observatories.  An observatory big and high-tech enough to contribute significantly to the advance of astronomy can be a very expensive proposition—the Palomar observatory outside San Diego, for example, costs over US$10,000 a night to operate—and the ebbing tide of prosperity in the industrial world is starting to make those costs hard to cover.  Here in the US, the National Science Foundation has proposed to delete the funding for six government-funded observatories, while many observatories owned by universities are facing funding cuts or closure as a result of similar pressures. 

Observatories are particularly vulnerable in this context because they don’t make a profit for anybody. At a time when computer science and molecular biology departments at many universities increasingly operate as commercial enterprises, churning out patentable products to line the pockets of professors and university administrators alike, astronomers have got to be feeling like the red-headed stepchildren of academe; no matter how excited they and their colleagues may be about discovering a new type of quasar or what have you, the discovery’s not going to make them or their university any money, and the university administration is just as aware of this difference as the astronomers are.  These days, the sciences are being sorted out into two camps, those that produce technologies useful to government and business and those that don’t; I’m sure my readers need no help figuring out which of those camps is getting the lion’s share of research dollars these days, and which is being left to twist in the wind.

At this point I’d like to take the discussion in a deliberately improbable, even whimsical direction.  It so happens that astronomers do have another potential source of income available to them—a funding source that could probably support many if not most of the existing observatories in the style to which they’ve become accustomed, and would be completely independent of government grants and the whims of university administrations alike. It would require a certain number of grad students to get some additional training, but it could be done with equipment that can be found in any observatory. What’s more, it was the funding source for several of history’s most important astronomical projects.

It’s as simple as it is elegant, really.  All that would be required is that observatory staff would have to learn how to cast and interpret horoscopes.

Yes, I’m well aware that that’s not going to happen, and in a moment we’ll talk about the reasons why, but let’s set that aside for now and consider the thing in the abstract.  Despite the fulminations and wishful thinking of the rationalists among us, astrology’s not going to go away any time soon.  It’s been a living  tradition for well over two millennia in close to its current form, and is as lively now as it’s ever been.  The rationalist crusade against it has been a resounding flop, having failed to make the least dent in its popularity; today astrology supports its own economic sector of publishers, computer firms, annual conferences, correspondence schools, and many other businesses, not to mention thousands of professional astrologers who make a living casting birth charts, annual progressions, horary charts, and other astrological readings for a large and enthusiastic clientele.

Not only could astronomers tap into this market, it actually takes a continuing effort on their part to avoid doing so.  I’ve been told by astronomer friends that observatories in the US routinely field calls from people who are a little confused about the difference between astronomy and astrology, and want someone to cast their horoscopes. Put a new message on the answering machine, teach the receptionist how to take down birth data, and that’s fixed.  The biggest and most prestigious observatories would have the most to gain—what Hollywood hunk or celebutante, for example, could resist the temptation to drop five figures on a genuine horoscope from the Palomar Observatory, complete with a glossy star field photo of the second or so of arc that was rising on the ecliptic when he or she was born?

Nor would this be anything new in the history of astronomy.  Johannes Kepler paid the bills while he was working out the laws of planetary motion by casting horoscopes; Claudius Ptolemy did the same thing more than a millennium earlier while he was writing the Almagest. (Granted, neither man was in it just for the money; Ptolemy also wrote the most influential treatise on astrology ever penned, the Tetrabiblos, while Kepler was a brilliant innovator in astrology—the Keplerian aspects are very nearly as important in the history of modern astrology as the laws of planetary motion are in that of astronomy.) For that matter, the roots of modern astronomy reach deep into the traditions of the astronomer-priests of Sumeria and Babylonia, who made the first known systematic records of planetary movements and, not coincidentally, cast the first known horoscopes.

Much more could be said along these lines, but it’s probably better to stop here, so that my rationalist readers don’t fling themselves at their computer screens in a purely reflexive attempt to leap through cyberspace and wring my neck.  Of course the modest proposal I’ve just offered has about as much chance of being taken seriously as Jonathan Swift’s famous suggestion that the Irish ought to support themselves by selling their infants for meat, and it was made in much the same spirit.  We can take it as given that in today’s America, astronomers will embrace astrology on the same day that Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins fall on their knees together and accept Jesus as their lord and savior.  Nor, for that matter, am I interested in rehashing the weary debates over the validity of astrology. The issue I want to raise here is why the suggestion that astronomers might consider taking up astrology summons up so violent and visceral a reaction on the part of so many people these days.

It’s important to get past the standard rhetoric that surrounds the subject—the insistence on the part of rationalists that astrology is unacceptable because it’s irrational, medieval, and just plain wrong. Sports fandom is well up there on the scale of irrationality, and yet it’s perfectly acceptable for astronomers to be rabid fans of the local baseball team; reenactment groups like the Society for Creative Anachronism are about as medieval as you can get, and yet an astronomer who belongs to such a group faces no criticism; as for just plain wrong, your average economist has astrologers beat three falls out of three—you’ll never catch an astrologer claiming that the sun will rise in the west tomorrow morning and then never set again, while it’s par for the course for economists to insist that the speculative bubble du jour will never pop, that the laws of economics can trump the laws of physics and geology, and so on. Yet you’ll never hear scientists denouncing economics as the crackpot pseudoscience that it arguably is.

What puts astrology outside the pale for today’s astronomers and the rest of the scientific community, rather, is that the collective imagination of the modern world assigns it to the dismal past from which the surrogate messiah of progress is forever saving us. Like the Christianity from which it drew a great many of its central metaphors, the civil religion of progress has a very wide streak of moral dualism; there’s the side of the angels in white—or, rather, the researchers in white lab coats—and then there’s the side of the devils in some infernal equivalent of Madras plaid, and in contemporary culture, there’s no question about the side of the border on which astrology belongs. It’s part of the kingdom of anti-progress, the exact equivalent of the Christian notion of the kingdom of Antichrist.

The white-hot passion with which so many scientists condemn astrology and other systems of rejected knowledge thus has its roots in the identity that scientists are taught to assume by their education and their professional culture.  From the time of Francis Bacon right down to the present, scientists have been encouraged to think of themselves as laborers in the great cause of progress, leading humanity forward out of the superstitious past toward a brighter and better future of ever-increasing reason, knowledge and power.  From the 19th century onward, in turn, this is the image of themselves that scientists have by and large tried to project into the wider society, with varying degrees of success.

That kind of acting out of an ideal can be a dangerous thing to do, and civil religions rarely have much sense of the risks involved. Theist faiths with at least a few centuries of experience under their belts tend to be a good deal more cautious; Buddhist monks who visualize themselves as bodhisattvas and Christians practicing the imitatio Christi have traditional protections to keep the identification of the self with an ideal figure from spinning out of control into psychological imbalance. Those of my readers who, as I did, had the chance to spend some time around old-fashioned Communists will have seen some of what happens when those protections are neglected; the leader of the proletariat who goes to great lengths to avoid noticing that the proletariat is not following him, and melts down completely when this latter detail becomes too evident to ignore, was once a tolerably common type.

That type became much more common in the second half of the 20th century, when it started to take effort not to notice the fact that the American proletariat wasn’t going to follow a Marxist lead. In the same way, I don’t think it’s accidental that the current rationalist crusade against religion, astrology, and everything else it likes to label irrational, medieval, wrong, etc., shifted into overdrive in the final decades of the 20th century, right about the time that it first became really difficult to justify the blanket claim that progress was always as inevitable as it was beneficent. Like their theist cousins, civil religions fairly often respond to challenges to their core beliefs by moving toward the extremes and looking for somebody to blame, and the cultural politics that assigned the label of “anti-progress” to certain traditional practices such as astrology gave the civil religion of progress an assortment of easy targets once the onward march of progress began to lose its appeal.

The difficulty with such exercises in scapegoat-hunting is that they do nothing to solve the problem that drives them, and may actually get in the way of addressing serious challenges. The status of science in contemporary American society is a case in point. Not long ago, when a qualified scientist got up in front of the public and spoke about some matter of scientific fact, most Americans took him at his word.  Nowadays?  One of the core reasons for the failure of climate activism in the US is that a great many Americans know that an expert opinion from a distinguished researcher can be bought for the price of a research grant, and have seen scare tactics used to push political agendas so many times that another round of dire warnings from experts doesn’t impress them any more. When climate activists chose to rely on the prestige of science to back up a standard-issue scare campaign, in other words, they were making a serious strategic mistake, on which their opponents were not slow to capitalize.

To some extent the collapse in the prestige of science has unfolded from the way that scientific opinion has whirled around like a weathervane on certain very public issues in recent decades. Plenty of people alive today still recall when continental drift was crackpot pseudoscience, polyunsaturated fats were good for you, and ionizing radiation was measured in “sunshine units.” It’s important to the workings of science that scientists should be permitted to change their minds on the arrival of new evidence, but that necessary openness clashes with the efforts of the scientific community to claim a privileged place in the wider conversations of our time—for example, by insisting that claims by scientific authorities should not be challenged from outside the discipline no matter how many times these same authorities have changed their minds.  Add to that clash the increasingly visible corruption of science by financial interests—the articles in medical journals that are bought and paid for by pharmaceutical firms eager to promote their products, the studies whose conclusions reliably parrot the propaganda of their funding sources, and so on—and you’ve got the makings of a really serious public relations disaster.

That disaster is not going to be prevented, or even delayed, by denouncing astrologers and their ilk. Mind you, it may succeed in making astrology more popular than it otherwise would be, for the same reason that the Republican Party’s bizarre habit of defining anything it doesn’t like as Communism may yet convince a good many Americans to give Marx a second chance. Given the very real pressures being brought to bear on scientists and scientific institutions in the current environment of economic contraction and violent political partisanship, it’s unlikely that anything more constructive will be on anyone’s agenda until well after the damage is done—and it’s the bad luck of astronomy, along with a great many other sciences not currently participating in the worst of the abuses, that it’s likely to be tarred with the same brush as those who richly deserve it.

Factor in the twilight of the civil religion of progress, though, and the ethical and political crisis of contemporary science becomes something considerably larger. In a world of the sort we’re most likely to encounter in the decades ahead, in which sustained economic growth is a subject for history books, a growing fraction of Americans live in gritty suburban slums with only the most intermittent access to electricity and running water, internet service costs more than the median monthly income, and let’s not even talk about how many people can afford basic modern medical care, faith in the inevitability and beneficence of progress will make roughly as much sense to most Americans as faith in the worker’s paradise of true Communism did to most citizens of the Soviet Union in 1980 or so. In such a future, government funding for scientific research will be at the mercy of the first demagogue who realizes that gutting the National Science Foundation, and every other scientific program that doesn’t further the immediate needs of the Pentagon, is a ticket to a landslide victory in the next election.

So long as scientists keep on thinking of themselves as heroic workers in the grand cause of progress, furthermore, any attempt on their part to counter such efforts will labor under brutal limits.  The vision of futurity central to their identity is already becoming the subject of bitter jokes of the “I believe I was promised a jetpack” variety.  As the shift in the collective imagination implied by those jokes continues to spread, like the old-fashioned Communists mentioned earlier in this essay, scientists won’t be able to respond to their critics without jettisoning their traditional rhetoric, and they won’t be able to jettison the rhetoric without abandoning the heart of their public identity. That’s a trap from which very few organizations and social movements ever manage to escape.

Thus it’s uncomfortably easy to imagine a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2070 or so, say, that resembles nothing so much as the national convention of one of the old-line American Communist parties eighty or ninety years earlier—a small group of old men going through the motions of an earlier time, repeating decades-old slogans, voting on resolutions that matter to no one else on the planet, and grimly trying to pretend that history hasn’t left them sitting in the dust. In such a future, those astronomical observatories that haven’t been stripped of metal by looters and left to the wind and rain might find a second life as homes for the very rich—it’s just as easy to imagine the attendees at the convention I’ve just described muttering bitterly about the Chinese trillionaire who’s just had the former Palomar Observatory remodeled into a mansion, and boasting to reporters from 2070’s mass media about the spectacular view from his new home.

The point that needs to be grasped here is that the institutional structure of science in America and other industrial nations—the archipelago of university departments, institutes, and specialized facilities for research that provide the economic and practical framework for science as it’s practiced today—faces massive challenges as we move forward into the deindustrial world. On the one hand, the raw fiscal burden of supporting that structure in an age of economic contraction and environmental payback will become increasingly difficult for any nation to meet, and especially challenging for the United States, as it descends from its age of imperial extravagance into a far more tightly constrained future. On the other, the emotional commitment of scientists to the civil religion of progress, and to an understanding of the purpose and goals of science that only makes sense in the context of that religion, places harsh burdens on any attempt to preserve that structure once popular faith in progress dissolves.

It might still be possible to maintain scientific research as a living tradition in the centuries immediately ahead of us. In future posts, I plan on talking about ways in which that might be done, and the reasons why I think a project of that sort is worth pursuing. Still, it’s crucial to realize that nothing guarantees the success of such a project; to borrow a phrase from the astrologers, the survival of science as a living practice is not written in the stars.


On a (hopefully) more cheery note, I’m pleased to announce that my latest book from New Society Publications, Green Wizardry: Conservation, Solar Power, Organic Gardening, and other Hands-On Skills from the Appropriate Tech Toolkit, is now rolling off the presses. Right now, since it’s not quite on bookstore shelves, it can still be preordered from the publisher at a 20% discount; those of my readers interested in making use of that offer should visit the publisher’s website and check it out.


John Michael Greer said...

As with some of the other posts I've done down the years, this one skates past the edge of an issue that's attracted any amount of overheated and poorly informed debate over the years. It's thus probably necessary to say that this post is not about whether astrology is valid or not, and comments that attempt to drag the discussion over to that subject will not be put through. 'Nuf said.

Andy Brown said...

A couple of years ago I was research director for a project that looked into to how to build support for the arts as a public good. One of the striking findings was that the old narrative of the arts as central to “culture” (in its original sense of something that grows and progresses) had vanished from the public consciousness almost without a trace (in the Midwestern US in any case). This formerly widely held idea that arts could lead to a kind of moral or other kind of “elevation” survived only among a small stratum of the elite. For the rest, the arts might be interesting or entertaining or a chance for people to show off a skill, but it wasn’t a public matter and certainly not important to the “development” of your city or your nation. In effect, “Progress”, had died out in this realm practically without the public noticing.

In order to rebuild a sense of arts as a public good, we found that talking about the “ripple effect” of arts in a community brought people back on board. That is, art events – whether you cared to be there or not – made your community a better place to live, knit people together and enriched a shared conversation, and so on. It is a pivot that will warm an art booster’s heart, but it no longer has anything to do with Progress.

My point with this tangent, is that I strongly suspect that Progress is going to slip away from science as well, perhaps similarly unremarked by the public at large. And to the extent it persists, science, practical, useful science will be valued not as the heroic engine of Progress, but as a practice, and a method, and a toolkit that can make that community and that place that you value, better. I’m a bad gardener, because I’m a bit too much of an experimenter, and tend to value a lesson learned more than a full basket of cucumbers -- but I’m sure if I had to buckle down I could use some science to create some more constructive ripples in my gardening community.

Cherokee Organics said...


Congratulations on the new book and respect for publicly airing the astronomer’s dirty historical laundry. They'll be squirming over this one for sure! Hehe!

I've known three people over the years that have completed a PhD in science and then promptly walked away from it into a wholly new career. Sometimes, it makes you wonder how important was the original research that they conducted? My gut feel was that they walked away because of the lack of tenure, necessity of chasing research funding and possibly also because they never realised that the completion of the PhD was simply just another beginning and the world was not going to embrace/celebrate them for achieving their own personal research goals. It was probably a bit of a shock for them to be treated no better and probably worse than, your average research assistant.

Occasionally these three people display a level of arrogance about subjects outside of their field of research endeavours that is gobsmacking. It is not an endearing quality...

Leading people requires better observational skills and understanding of the peoples motivations and real world conditions than they apparently have.

Your historical observation about astronomy and astrology got me thinking about farmers of all things. People’s perception of a farmer is someone driving a massive tractor roaring across the landscape. My aspirations are somewhat less (not owning a tractor) and I dream of dung heaps. It always strikes as being totally surreal how much of our organic matter no longer makes its way back into the soil. Even worse it is treated as a waste product. It is amazing how cheap this stuff is in bulk and it won't be until we need it as a society that we'll wake up and realise where it all went...

I reckon the medical industry is pretty down on herbal lore too for much the same reason. In my enthusiasm, I accidentally mentioned to a Doctor once that I consumed some herbs as a remedy for an ailment. Won't make that mistake again as I ended up feeling like a bit of a dolt after the lecture.

PS: I had a very smart lady working for me years ago that used to make a very good living - in addition to her salary - providing astrology readings.

PPS: Next week you may shock me by suggesting that ecologists might have to stop writing reports and get out and do work on the ground with their hands?

Hi Celine,

Thank you for the suggestion. I would never have thought of beeswax, but have been considering applying honey to their legs which are a little bit raw.



Sufiya H. said...

Oh, and Mr. Greer: Are you at all associated with the Druidic group who ran the "Starwood' festival in upstate New York for a number of years?

Bruin Silverbear said...

Again, much of what you said here parrots discussions I have had with friends who wait anxiously for their techno-utopia except that nobody is asking for a jetpack anymore, they are waiting for their robot butler.

What's disappointing to me about the truth of all of this is that my mind often wanders to "what could have been", a mystical land in which science was geared more towards the common good over everyone as opposed to the common good of those who can find a profit in it.

It is no mistake that many of the technologies that we enjoy today were developed first by the various military forces in the world before landing in our living rooms and kitchens. I heard once that microwave ovens were reverse engineered from Alien technology but oddly enough nobody asked the aliens what their Astrological sign was...

Esther said...

Your book sounds inviting - I think it belongs on my book shelf, next to the collection on herbs! Thank you for your well written, concise articles: I am always amazed at how you've managed to bring the good side of popularization (so well done by scientific organizations) to the area of civil religion, ethics, religion (although I come from a Traditionalist/esoteric framework which makes "dissensus" inevitable, at times). One of the more cogent explanations of "Anti-Christ" I've read is Steiner's (as interpreted by Bondarev): If Christ's mission was to redeem or uphold Lucifer with the right hand, & balance Ahriman (Law) with the Left (the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath), then the earthly Trinity of force is the opposite of Anti-Christ, which is the use by Asuras or demonic legions (associated with the seven deadly sins) who attempt to use Lucifer's imagination and Ahriman's exaltation of Law to create the "flattened" modern world-state: the Anti-Christ, to which all must burn incense. Sounds a little differently when put this way, & perhaps a minor quibble (given the thrust of the article). I do agree that secularism has become its own religion, with its own impoverished and twisted versions of things like Last Judgement, Anti-Christ, Heaven, Hell, etc. Brilliant writing, as always. The Thought precedes the Reality. The subtle rules the dense. It will be mildly amusing (if it weren't for the human suffering) to watch the "traditionalists" in secularism try to explain how & why things like Financial Unity ("FU") & global super-states will save man from what is coming. In the long run, the question of the meaning & sacral nature of Life, rather than limited special interest groupings of "human rights", is going to be decisive, especially on the North American continental mass. Do you think that (perhaps) the rise of Science as a religion is in some measure explained by the purposeful "incarnation" of souls in large numbers or waves during our times, all of whom share proclivities in that direction? Such a doctrine is not foreign to astrology...?

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

Often your posts make me think. This one made me grin.

On a seemliness scale of one to ten, I locate your fundraising proposal right next to Ralph Lauren perfume. Everyone knows that when a famous fashion designer lends his or her name to a perfume company, it implies no personal involvement in the design of the fragrance or the bottle it comes in.

Blending of scents and package design are specialized skill sets; the taste, training and experience to be good at either does not coincide with the skills and talents required to design and market fashionable clothing. The glamour of a name is what the fashion designer contributes.

I have no problem with astronomical observatories marketing horoscopes, providing they have enough respect for the customer to see to it that the horoscopes are drawn and interpreted by experienced astrologers, not slumming astronomers or software programs.

Perhaps some of the younger astronomers have enough of a post-modernist viewpoint to go for your idea. All in a good cause.

Captcha 93 liKeBi

Bill Pulliam said...

Several somewhat disjointed thoughts...

Alas, it's too late for observatories to fund themselves by casting horoscopes. The internet does that for you now for free. Like everything else.

The other day I heard an astronomer talking on the radio about one of the recent exoplanet discoveries. He was describing where it was located in the sky, and mentioned it was right at the tip of the tail of Scorpio. I practically jumped out of my skin as though I had heard Richard Dawkins make a passing reference to The Almighty Creator. The astroNOMERS call that constellation ScorpiUS. The astroLOGERS call it ScorpiO. This is the sort of small difference that wars are fought over...

To paraphrase Douglas Adams, scientists are not proud of their ancestors and never invite them 'round to dinner. Most of the natural sciences loathe their intellectual and conceptual grandparents, and speak of them only with derision. Sure, this may be because their faith in progress requires rejection of the antecedents... but...

...when I ditched academia and became a trucker, I found that I joined a trade that was proud of its ancestors and saw a continuous thread linking themselves back to the mule teams and the spice trade. We felt ourselves the heirs to a great tradition that spanned the millennia. When we drive I-84, paralleling the railroad tracks, and seeing the signs marking the route of the Oregon Trail, we feel the continuous thread linking us through the generations. When we blow through the Cumberland Gap or over the Donner Summit at 60 m.p.h., we tip our hats to those who came before us and struggled through with ox carts, sometimes dying in the attempt. So, why can the transportation industry believe fervently in the steady onward progress of technology, and yet still honor its teamster ancestors, but the chemists get all heebie geebie at the mention of alchemy?

John Michael Greer said...

Andy, that's fascinating! Thanks for the info. If science can succeed in defining itself in those terms, it'll be a lot easier getting it through the crisis years ahead.

Cherokee, one of the things that scientists are going to have to unlearn is the notion -- surprisingly common among them, at least here in America -- that having learned a lot about one narrowly defined scientific specialty, they are qualified to pass judgment on a dizzyingly wide array of issues about which they've never learned anything at all. Your comment about arrogance leads me to think this same problem also exists on the other side of the planet...

Sufiya, no, that's a different outfit. BTW, did you not notice my comment saying that posts trying to debate the validity of astrology, one way or another, would not get put through?

Bruin, if I understand the theory correctly, aliens from another solar system would have a completely different zodiac, possibly with a different number of signs. I think it was Carl Sagan who got a star map for the heavens as seen from Tau Ceti and drew on it a beautiful constellation of a six-legged unicorn, only to find out that without knowing it, he'd put the Sun (a moderately bright star from Tau Ceti) at a very undignified place relative to the unicorn's posterior!

Esther, I'm tolerably familiar with Steiner's work on that among other subjects -- my gardening style has drawn extensively on biodynamic theory, for example. Since I'm not addressing an audience of Anthroposophists here, I use a noticeably different vocabulary and approach! As I'm sure you're aware, there's a lot to be said for not being constrained to any certain kind of habit, of speech or otherwise, but therein to follow the custom of the country...

Glenn said...

I'm glad I read your post in the evening rather than the morning, as per usual; so I didn't snort tea out my nose. A very modest proposal indeed.

On the one hand, I find astrology completely useless, except for entertainment purposes (Others, obviously disagree, vive la dissensus). On the other, I recognize it as the ancestor of astronomy that modern astronomers don't care to discuss; as with some families that won't talk about the alcoholic pirate who founded their fortune.

Your suggestion is a brilliant way for astronomers to make money. But, as a friend of mine once remarked "founding a religion that caters to middle class Americans is extremely profitable, but I can't keep a straight face long enough".

Marrowstone Island

John Michael Greer said...

Unknown Deborah, funny. I wonder what would happen if a consortium of astrologers approached the Palomar Observatory offering to pay them a chunk of change annually for the rights to their brand!

Bill, heck of a good question. I tend to think that it's rather the same reaction you get from a social climber who's trying to distance himself from his lower class background by sneering at his ancestors and less prosperous relatives, but that's mostly a guess.

Leo said...

The worst part is that basic research often doesn't create wealth in the short term (long-term is another thing).

And it's not exactly something that can be predicted. The discovery of Helium can from analyzing the wavelength of the sun's light.

While it's certainly beneficial at certain stages of the technological process, the search for profit isn't something you want all sciences to follow.

Probably one reason the military is so good at creating certain technologies. While they certainly didn't build the internet, they laid the groundwork and trained the technicians (missile defence system) and did the same with the aircraft industry.

They have other goals than profit.

It's a shame their hasn't been any big plans to use that historic trait to develop renewables. Especially considering that militaries are by and large more willing to look at peak oil and start a response than civil governments.

Probably feeds from the idea that a sustainable society has to be pacifistic. Which is a rather silly assumption.

wiseman said...

I am guessing that communism (the traditional one, not the civil religion kind) would have evoked a higher amount of sympathy in US if those 'communists' had donated books by Kropotkin instead of Marx.

The frontier culture would have found the views right up their alley.

RepubAnon said...

I read a science fiction short story a number of years ago where someone built an "Astrological Engine" - a calculator that could give one a real-time astrological reading. These days, one could easily build a small smartphone application - just feed in your birthdate, time, and place, let the GPS give your current position on this planet, and let the computer do the rest.

The royalties could go to the observatory that helped with the astronomical data on which planets were where...

August Johnson said...


I really liked this post of yours! I wish my father had lived longer than he did, these things would have been great to talk over with him. He was so different than the other "academics" that I've known. I think he would have gotten a real kick from your funding idea.

Yes, he was great in his field but also knew so much on the "practical" side of life. He did all his own car maintenance, that's how I learned about cars. When his hand wouldn't fit somewhere, I heard "August, help me, your hand will fit under the dash." Or "you fit under the car better than I do."

When the fan bearings in the central heating furnace started squeaking at midnight, he took the fan out and disassembled it and greased the bearings. Yes, in the middle of the night.

We had a complete metalworking machine shop out in the garage, my father even built a 1-1/2" scale working steam locomotive.

He was always showing me published papers where somebody missed seeing something neat in their own data because they were more interested in proving somebody else wrong.

My father's equipment was my first exposure to "Appropriate Technology", If he could get the same results by using a cheaper, simpler, more reliable method and maybe more thinking, that's what he'd do.

I learned so much from him, not just technical stuff, but about people and life.

Tom Bannister said...

Just a couple of parallels I'd like to point out to the scapegoating exercise you talked about.

Sounds a bit like people in a contracting economy blaming the poor and unemployed for their own plight and coming down harshly on such people. One sentence is full of, "jobs are difficult to come by at the moment." Next sentence is why don't those lazy so in so's get a job?

In a similar sense, when the law to make gay marriage was passed in New Zealand, there were strong attacks on the 'anti progress' lobby who opposed gay marriage such as attacks on the groups websites by pro gay marriage supporters. (I'm a gay marriage supporter by the way, but I believe in fair play).

And good points on astronomy and astrology by the way. I should hope other sciences will hopefully find ways and means of adapting to a post industrial age.

PhysicsDoc said...

I think your idea of astrology as a revenue stream was not meant as a practical means of saving observatories but rather as an instrument for discussing the civil religion of progress, yes? In the distant past scientists like Kepler were astrologers for the imperial court and emperor, which in some sense had more in common with modern scientists working for the government. I have a bit of a problem with the metaphor of science and even the concept of continuous progress as a religion. Science ultimately concerns itself with things that can be objectively tested and repeated, from which practical knowledge can be derived (for making things that work). It concerns itself with how things really are as you say. I know of no religion that does that. Many people have tried to verify that astrology leads to repeatable and statistically significant results and the answer has always been negative (I had to get that in there). Even Jung took a stab at it and had to admit that the trickster got the better of him. The notion of constant scientific progress is an assumption that many people have and that may very well be wrong but I don't see how it is the same as a religion.

magifungi said...

As an astrologer of 20 years, I much appreciate your thoughtful view of the ongoing star wars. The Astrological community goes'round and 'round with ponderings as to why the nation of Science is SO hostile. As most of us still also hang out in the church of progress, those ponderings have not much ventured to the idea of scientists scapegoating their 'backwards' ancestry -- because of threat of loss of faith in the Scientific nation itself!

Andy Brown's point about the 'ripple effect', of arts as a public good in a community, as pivotal for winning support is very good. Most of us astrologers, working quietly within regular communities of folks, do well when we remember this.

Ares Olympus said...

I had good laugh over the idea of astronomers adding an astrology wing to their fund raising, but afterwards I didn't buy it. Perhaps individual fortune tellers can make a modest living, but its not because they need to consult science or actual observerable fact, but because they are sitting in front a person in pain and they can listen, so they might take the place of cheap therapy, and if the observatories have anything to do with it, it can be publishing basic data computed by the century, and that's not going to cover the costs of running an observatory.

But on the issue of science, the most basic science isn't theories but gathering endless data about how our world changes, like climate, or animal behavior and the like, and I guess that sort of work can be pretty low-tech at eye-level observation, but the NASA level is very high tech, and gathering insane amounts of data. At least climate change is something that affect us, but the biologists watching individual animal populations, diversity, and variability, like the dying frogs that don't matter to us, I admit it awes me that someone cares to do that, or someone can get paid to do that, it's hard to believe.

But back to your point, can science add "marketing" and find "high-market value" revenue to subsidize basic science observation? I guess I'd take that question backwards, and start with the idea of using the HIGH value efforts, like $100 million dollar weather satellites, and hope the scientists are actually building $10 million dollar satelites, and stashing away the rest for their operating budgets which can include wider research along for the ride.

Actually the biggest question for me now is to see how technology has created so much digital data of every sort, on the world, and our selves. I contrast this to the ideas like Daniel Quinn's "The great forgetting" so I guess the left brain will never have enough data to be happy, and the intuitive right brain (or whatever division you label to our fragmented sense of self), says we already know everything in the universe, have instant access to anything we need to know, at least that's the new age ideal. But the question goes back to "how do you know what you know?" so there's some hidden skill in separating wishful thinking to other sources of intuitive knowledge, and that's a lost skill in the mass-media distracted modern world.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi JMG and everyone,

You bet they are! The future belongs to the generalists.

If anyone is interested there is a short youtube clip for a Farm update here:

2013 Winter Update wacky warm wet weather

Thanks for taking the time to watch.



SophieGale said...

I'm so crazy in love with Peoria and Central Illinois. We support both the arts and science as a public good--hardly distinguish between them in some places!

The Peoria Astronomical Society maintains TWO local observatories. They offer loaner telescopes for newbies; and on clear Saturday nights from the beginning of May till the end of October Northmoor observatory is open to the public, and volunteers are on hand to show folks around the cosmos. Northmoor opened in 1955, and in 2009 the Society and local donors raised money to replace the aging dome.

And we have the Sun Foundation which just celebrated its 40th anniversary. For 39 years they have ordered a five day arts AND science program for ages 6 thru adult. "Over the course of five days they will be taught the arts & sciences by inspiring artists, engineers, archeologists, scientists, survival skills instructors and more all while taking in the natural beauty of the outdoors. On the final day, family, friends & the community are invited to the Sun Foundation to celebrate their week of sharing & learning." And these instructors come from all the US.

During the year Sun Foundation also put on the Clean Water Celebration at the Peoria Waterfront.

Our local park district also supports both the arts and sciences, and we have a community theater tradition that dates back more than 75 years. That includes the very recent Penguin Project which puts on modified Broadway musicals with children with developmental disabilities and peer mentors of the same age who work side by side with them through four months of rehearsals and the final production.

And, yes, we even had an astrologer of note! Bernice Prill Grebner wrote eight books on astrology before she passed away two years ago.


John Michael Greer said...

Glenn, your friend is wise. The Druid order I head goes out of its way not to cater to middle class Americans, and the results have been fairly good.

Leo, excellent! You get tonight's gold star for saying the unspeakable right out there in public. We'll be talking about violence and sustainability at quite some length in a later series of posts.

Wiseman, there used to be a big anarchist scene in the US, around a hundred years ago. They went through the same process of slow dieoff some decades before the Communists did.

RepubAnon, you're way behind the curve. Those apps already exist.

August, that kind of mechanical skill used to be something on which a great many American men prided themselves. When I was in my teens, classmates still rebuilt their own hot rods. I'm not at all sure when and where that got lost; it would be well worth recovering!

Tom, oh, granted -- hunting for scapegoats is a very common human behavior, just as popular among the liberal and highly educated as in any other group.

PhysicsDoc, nah, I wasn't claiming that science is a religion -- I'm suggesting that most scientists see their work through the filters of the religion of progress, which is not the same thing. I'd like you to consider the possibility that science, like all other human activities, is subject to the law of diminishing returns, and for that reason, that there's a hard limit to how much about the universe science can ever learn. Most scientists reject that suggestion with a great deal of heat -- yet science can certainly be practiced without believing that it's contributing to an endless improvement in knowledge. It's via the conviction that science must progress forever, and that by doing so it contributes to human progress, that the civil religion slips in.

Magifungi, good. I'd suggest that utgrowing the myth of progress would be as useful for astrologers as for everyone else. I've often wondered why it is that some modern astrologers get so deeply into the myth of progress -- chasing after the newest thing, on the presupposition that it must be better -- when the basic theory of astrology presupposes cyclic time in which everything repeats in endless combinations!

Ares, why on earth should observatories be limited to publishing data? It would be easy enough to have a staff astrologer and an assortment of grad students to provide the whole range of astrological services, and the ordinary starting salary of a professional astrologer is fairly modest, so it wouldn't even cost that much.

S P said...

As a physician I've seen the limitations of science first hand.

On the one hand, everything I do is based upon science in some way. On the other hand, the promises that science made in the medical field...elimination of all discomfort and disease, reversal of aging, and infinite youthful life, are not coming to pass.

Trust me, there is blowback from patients, and there is nothing I can do.

However I can't abandon the scientific mindset entirely, which is why I'm seriously considering going back to college to start all over again in geology. At least that way I can deal with something of substance...the earth itself, and what remains to be exploited from it.

realguy1010 said...

I agree with you.The collapse of science always starts with over commercialization and ideologies...It has happened in my country.
I am an engineer and academic.So,there is a delicate matter i want to say....It seems like many discoveries/inventions in science and engineering from last 500 years were made by white males in west(I am not a westerner ). They make the best engineers and scientists.Sorry to say this obvious fact.
Science and engineering is not learned from books alone.There are lot of things learned from experience which are not being passed to new generations.The unwritten scientific procedures will be lost forever just like loss of traditional knowledge by old societies.The disconnect between students and teachers,prominence of ideologies in universities will do more damage to science in longer term.The constant praise of mediocrity in name of equality is dangerous in scientific research.
The other countries in world just could not replicate it except may be Japan,Taiwan and South Korea.
My country has 39 CSIR labs ,328 govt universities,thousands of scientists,millions of rupees in budget and their contribution to Indian science is negligible.We produce 2 million engineers per year,but their contribution to any worthwhile project is negligible.
The point i am emphasizing is:Whatever west has done in last 500 yrs,other countries just can't do it again.If modern science fades in west,it will fade even faster in other countries of world.
The way of thinking just can't be replicated.
On practical side,JMG,I did a project last year on making of traditional Indian beverages from tropical fruits.Our students made wines from cashew,mango,sapodila and jackfruit.Our cashew ,mango and sapodila wines (called feni) turned to be good .I could not use standard wine yeast cultures because of lack of facilities and our lab was non existent.I will continue more of my private research in this next summer when cashew apples and mangoes will be in supply.
May be if decline starts ,i will have some practical skill like selling wines and making soaps(I also worked as shift officer for soap manufacturing plant of a MNC.I also have enough knowledge of making purely herbal soap without adding synthetic soap).

PhysicsDoc said...

I am open to the idea of diminishing returns in science as I have commented in the past. It is interesting to note, however, that there have been other times where various learned people have stated that the end of science was at hand. The turn of the last century was such a time. Lord Kelvin (mathematical physicist and engineer) around 1900 famously stated that "There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now, all that remains is more and more precise measurement". The 20th century proved this statement wrong. I would not bet on this happening again but who knows!

Nicholas Carter said...

I wish to quibble first with your observation about economists. It is in fact with a somewhat insulting degree of frequency that scientist disparage economists (and psychologists, anthropologists, all of the human sciences really). We who inhabit the borders of the great war of reason are looked upon as being somewhere between helplessly confused South Vietnamese natives and insidious fifth columnists in the reason wars. The stultifying institutions that have ossified around true science are also bemoaned with just as much incision as our host.
Those of you wondering how someone as well read as JMG could be so off-base may rest easy: The issue is not one of scholarship, but of privilege. These divisions are considered a family affair: Revealing these divisions is considered sedition in the GRW. For an academic seeking tenure for himself or an apprentice to speak against possible allies in the soft-sciences, for a grant seeking project head to speak against the economist Wurmtounges who have the ear of the accounting department, for the great prophets in the war of reason to speak against native allies in contested territory, all of them would be considered betraying the united front we must put up to win the hearts and minds of those not yet illuminated.
In short, the selective attention of science and reason's scouring eye is known, and not necessarily approved of, but considered a tactical necessity in the same way the US permits slavery in Bauxite mines.

KL Cooke said...

"Observatories are particularly vulnerable in this context because they don’t make a profit for anybody."

Perhaps astronomy could do with the services of a good PR firm. Consider what a certain even in NYC a few years back did for the surveillance industry. A more recent event over Russia (for which a forewarning may have been missed due to lack of observatory funding), suggests that the government might want to spend some time looking at the sky, in addition to peeking through the keyhole. The next Cretaceous-Tertiary sized object may be headed our way. Not that at this point anybody could do anything about it, but it least it would give us time to tuck our heads between our legs and kiss our hoo-hoos goodbye.

Nicholas Carter said...

To uphold a tradition of honoring the discourse wishes of a host, I will keep my (ahem) metaphysical difficulties with astrology to myself, but I believe the discourse could use some widening, via the ethical argument for why the observatory astrologers are about as likely as the pope getting a witch's familiar and leading a dark mass.
The great war of reason isn't just a joke I made up: the secularist community has experienced a split. The demons of the progress narrative now have a solo show, with one's narrative of time mainly involved in how well the war is going. Astrologers, politicians, state lottery commissioners, objectivists, and some admittedly insulting "representatives" of theism are grouped together as "Dark Empiricists" (dun dun dun) a phrase the aforementioned groups should only google if they want their hair turned white by the language.
While I am not admittedly deprogramed of this myth (to disclose: several formative and/or romantic experiences have made sour grapes a real possibility when it comes to me and augurs of any kind) I do know it is not related to my feelings contra Progress. As a Declinist, my perspective is that the war is lost, and has probably always been lost. It's the sort of doomed crusade though, that any right minded martyr would have no choice but to launch.
Other heresy abound concerning the GRW, but none have any real moving power yet. Mainly because some almost ten years ago Esther's advice was followed: Life and Death as concepts were drawn into the war in a particularly self-serving and obvious fashion. Death, The Eater of Souls and Ender of Sentience Experience, the Great Winter of Heat Death, is the Satan our most retrograde (just caught what I did there, left it as a reminder to self) fanatics see behind every maneuver of our opponents. And it is this moral dimension to our Epistemology that I see as the true stumbling block.

Juhana said...

In recent years I have had this feeling that formerly widely accepted world view borderstones have become sole property of hermetically sealed middle-to-upper-class community, at least in Western Europe. This group of enlightened who determined earlier which are our next goals and aims as society has lost their grip. Lower classes do not share their views about good and bad anymore. I believe scientific community shall be collateral victim ahead that road in near future. But is it bad thing to happen? I do not know.

I have watched for years now as my peers vomit opinions and ultimatums how native working men of my country should think, behave and vote. Stench of aristocratic arrogance is unmistakable. From their largely publicly funded and secure positions in life they let radiance of trademarked Right Opinions to illuminate unwashed masses. Ridiculous opinions about globalism and general rootless cosmopolitanism are their cast mark, pre-packaged set op world views and opinions that show they belong to the Right Group. It doesn't have any meaning for them that their ideas and ideals applied to real world just bring mayhem and destruction for those not in privileged positions. These opinions are extra despicable in this cold and harsh country, where earning daily bread has taken lots of cruel physical work up to almost this day. Our plebeians does not have so much surplus to sow into the wind. I know, because I was one of them.

Is it so bad thing, if this superstructure of obsolete ideas and opinions just burns away, and something more primeval replaces it? If parts of scientific community withers away as a result, why ordinary people should care? It is not like there is any meaningful connection between plebeians and over-specialized wizards of West anymore. Let's shrug our shoulders as the old order and science crumbles away, and let's welcome ensuing tribal darkness as change to get rid of old aristocracy. Return of barbarism is not always a bad thing, but revitalization of castrated society.

PhysicsDoc said...

I have to say I think you are a bit off base in some of the comments in this post. For instance,
"One of the core reasons for the failure of climate activism in the US is that a great many Americans know that an expert opinion from a distinguished researcher can be bought for the price of a research grant, and have seen scare tactics used to push political agendas so many times that another round of dire warnings from experts doesn’t impress them any more. When climate activists chose to rely on the prestige of science to back up a standard-issue scare campaign, in other words, they were making a serious strategic mistake, on which their opponents were not slow to capitalize."
There are fraud, corruption, and ethics issues in every form of human activity including politics, finance/banking, business, and yes also science, but surely the public should not consider science anywhere near the top of that list. What you are saying sounds more like what I read from climate change deniers. The reasons the public has not bought into the message of climate change are many, but at the top of that list is a massive misinformation campaign designed to push emotional and psychological buttons. By the way what should the climate activists use as a basis for getting their message out if not science? As for a "scare campaign" most scientists are pretty conservative and reserved about their claims so maybe they are not the best to use in this case.

Juhana said...

With barbarism I mean simpler life, not wanton bloodshed per se. Local production, less interference from state, less taxes, less wealth transfers from one group to other, less "progressive" meddling into family structure. No more fancy ideologies applied to society if those dreamers cannot sustain their dreams by their own means, without sucking "blood" from other people with differing opinions. Here in Nordic countries we have long tradition of absolutism and mercantilism; during Sweden's short shooting star phase as great power from 16th to 18th century all kind of micro-management by state became norm in Scandinavia. Now, when European Union is unmasked and monstrous face of dysfunctional "byrocratic centralism" is revealed, this tradition of strong central state is absolutely bankrupting us here in Nordic countries.

No more living with other people's money. That's it. We as societies, as species, must scale down and dream smaller and more pragmatic dreams, and nobody should waste tears for those delusional criminals leading us into abyss because they are ENTITLED to their current privileges. Some time ago we had interesting conversation about progressive gender ideology here, and I encountered this text shortly after that. His English is better than mine, so...

wiseman said...

Thanks for clarifying. I've always thought that I saw a lot of similarities between libertarianism (as it exists in US) and anarchism. But for some reason the two groups hate each other.

Paul said...

I believe the astronomers and professors should seriously look into your idea, if University bureaucracy doesn't support the idea, individual academics should try it out on their own (I would reckon some of them may actually be doing that already!). In University's Chinese dept, some professors are experts in I-Ching. These profs primarily teach the cultural aspects in class, I was told some do I-ching oracles on the side-line for rich private customers.

But than it is not the main issue, the main issue is to be able to compete successfully with professional astrologists and carve out a market niche for themselves (professional astrologists incidentally are most likely to be great salespersons and impressive practical psychologists). The next practical issue is to convince the bureaucracy not to further cut their already diminishing funding for doing something not totally academic.

Rita Narayanan said...

industry and science....environmental groups and pacifist evolution:

in a country with a long history of spirituality(India) I find even the spiritual gurus "moving with the times"...another term for making deals with money and "progress"(science).

with the result those realms of spirituality which were not just about mumbo-jumbo are relegated to the fringe or as in the case of "magic" in underground realms.

Environmental elites also shuttle between big money foundations and TV programmes and denounce Monsanto.They also deal with villages and tribals but are in spirit product of the same scientific culture.They also somehow live in a world where we will all be singing "it's a small world after all" room for the gravity of social turmoil.

I was struck by Leo's comment about the military which I agree with completely.Here In India, the Armed forces are one of the few institutions left with a modicum of sense of culture beyong profit but "civilians' must always prevail in this pacifist democratic age :)

Odin's Raven said...

Perhaps a variation on your suggestion for astronomers to sell astrology may be possible.

Whilst faith in Progress remains but funding for Science diminishes, astronomers might try to 'progress' astrology by seeking to incorporate into it(and incidentally thus preserve),their discoveries of invisible things like radio and infra red emission sources.

I thought that modern astronomy is mostly about these invisible things (easily glossed as 'spirits'). There must be enough ingenuity available to devise and extend interpretations of such things and fit them into the basic astrological framework. False colour graphics added to the horoscopes might make an even more attractive and fashionable product for the glitterati to buy and boast about.

MawKernewek said...

Have a look at @RadioAstrology on Twitter.

mkroberts said...

Mmm. Not one of your better posts, JMG. Some interesting points but a lot of allegations about scientists and the process of science, without any links/references that I could see.

Not that I'd defend all science. That which is funded purely by organisations which rely on a particular outcome is questionable but, otherwise, I have a lot of respect for scientists. In regard to climate science, it's really hard for me to see who gains from a view (which happens to be a consensus view) that the earth is warming and the climate is changing, potentially catastrophically, through the behaviour of humans.

Kyoto Motors said...

Considering the death of Progress in the same light as Nietche’s death of God… the implications are particularly compelling to me. As a painter – in the Western artistic sense – I am well aware of the narrative of progress couched in what we call Modernism. “Liberated” as it were, by photography to take up something other than mimesis, and reproduction, Painting moved “progressively” from one “ism” to the next. To be sure it was an exciting, inspiring, emergent phenomenon. Early on, a sense of exuberant idealism and optimism was pervasive. Wars and economic depression dampened that spirit, but was folded into the narrative all the same. Small ‘m’ modernism certainly had it’s second coming in the post-war era – especially this side of the Pond, which is where you find many of the major “isms” taking place in art. Meanwhile a version of the law of diminishing returns seems to have set in: Painting gradually gave way to multi media arts and no longer sat on the throne of “cutting edge”…And the term “modern” itself was pegged to a historical set of styles as the next “ism” manifested itself as nothing more than “Post-modernism”. This of course, gives the false impression that “modernity” was over, but in fact this age-of-fossil fuel /industrial phenomenon never went away, it was just getting into overdrive with the new globalism… But the narrative of Progress in this so-called post-modern era is indeed unfolding differently now thanks to the extreme degree of specialization and variety that you would expect from a society running on unprecedented amounts of energy…There is even, perhaps, a vague sense of the death of Progress in the air… mixed up with confused notions of entitlement and inevitability of technological salvation.
Now the temptation is to expect that the death of Progress, the beginning of contraction and descent, and the de-industrialisation of visual art might define the new cutting edge moment in the story of art. But of course the mistake is to use the language and narrative of progress to describe a completely different phenomenon taking place (regress). I suspect rather that so much of this will be teased out, and probably misinterpreted while looking in the proverbial rear-view mirror.
As an aside, interestingly enough, as a painter, I have gravitated to themes related to navigation, including astronomical imagery – essentially working with star maps as my guide. I am no astronomer, nor astrologer, but you’re right, there is an enthusiastic audience for this type of imagery. If you will indulge me a bit of self promotion my website (always a work in progress) is

Ursachi Alexandru said...

I have been passionate about astronomy since childhood, so this article really hit a sensitive spot for me. Wonderful way in which you mentioned the oh-so-many irrational activities that most of us engage in more or less, and are selectively spared the shunning other activities recieve.

Still, after countless times of having to deal with people -including close friends and family - who, on their own initiative, tried to shove their beliefs in the veridicity of the horoscope down my throat, while being completely and utterly ignorant of basic astronomical knowledge, I must say that you have lost me on this one.

And I DO want to learn more about astrology. But only because I want to know the enemy better.

SMJ said...

Hello JMG

You briefly mentioned sports fandom and irrationality. A question I've been waiting for a chance to ask: Why is it that so many societies are willing to pay their sportsmen such obscene amounts of money? Do you think there some religion-like attitude at work? Or is it just that the these societies are seriously fundamentally off the rails if they value ball-kicking/hitting/throwing so highly?

pamouna said...

hallo fellow followers,

(sorry jm for not being on topic!)
my female friend and i (both austrian)are going for a 3-weeks-roundtrip to wales, mainly visiting roundhouses and oldgrowth yews(recommendations welcome!) and i´d liked to meet some of you locals in person.

thank you, love & peace,

William Church said...

Very interesting subject John. A big hat tip for taking it up.

I admit that I am a research engineer. Worse a Ph.D. And the cherry on top? I am an engine designer/researcher. ~bwahahaha~ That won't get you too many free drinks in the peak oil scene will it? Well at least I am no longer in the racing business! :o

I and my colleagues have spoken of what the future holds for us. Work on the efficiency, power, emissions, etc of an IC engine is not something we are worried will disappear mid career. Long term? Well that is another story isn't it?

I bring this all up to make a point: While I agree wholeheartedly that there are a lot of branches of the scientific tree that will be trimmed, there are also a whole lot of run of the mill engineering disciplines that could very well be considered matters of national security in 50 years.

It doesn't take much of an imagination to see a future where sections of civil, petroleum, mechanical, electrical, chemical engineering are absolutely vital to managing a large scale transition into a new way of organizing life.


Just Because said...

First, I think it is important to keep in mind some of your previous posts discussing the value of the scientific method in learning about how the world works before reading this post. The current post is more about science as an industry rather than the utility of the scientific method. I can see some resistance to what you are saying if people read this post in a vacuum.

Second, I'm curious about the examples in history of what science looks like when it is funded by private wealth as a view of the future. I suspect what you will see in the coming decades is that research universities will shrink down to the elite schools with large private endowments. However, most of this work will resemble the science of a few hundred years ago (at least my take on it- I need to look back at this history in more detail) when wealthy individuals would tinker around with ideas that they found personally interesting. Science for the sake of science was a hobby for the elite, not a part of the national agenda for a country.

b back said...


Wonderful article. I don't see the shunning of faulty science as a bad thing. While most lay persons could not articulate why they disagree with climate scientists, they instinctively know that something is wrong with their method and therefor their conclusions must be held as suspect. This is not to say that their claims are right or wrong, but they are suspect.
Even a blind squirrel sometimes finds the acorn.
I believe of all the different things that stop scientific progress in a particular field, the one common ingredient seems to be the inability to say out loud that we may be WRONG. Ultimately isn't that the main difference between science and religion. It's odd how we can use science for one thing and then ignore it on another.
While I agree with you that the religion of progress will collapse over time, I suspect I might disagree with how and why it will be replaced in our collective psyche as a people. Progress does not stop, it slows and becomes something else out of necessity. It doesn't need a fix.
Our problem is much bigger than progress. Progress is a symptom. I fear that the cure for this symptom will kill the disease.
No one wants to use logic, they all have faith and know who the devil is. There are only competing religions vying for what they see as, on one side the freedom of America and on the other side, the hate of everything that America Stands for. The arguments that occurred at the beginning of this nation are being discussed again. Obviously, it's more complex than this and neither side is correct, but essentially we all chose something close to one side or the other. Many in this day and age are choosing not to play. But as the saying goes even that is a choice.
We all think we are the god in this drama and the other side is the devil. One side will be correct. Probably they will never know that they were just the blind squirrel. Only time will tell if they got the acorn.

Mary said...

Wait...what? Are you saying that polyunsaturated fats aren't good for you? Or did I misread?


JP said...

"Yet you’ll never hear scientists denouncing economics as the crackpot pseudoscience that it arguably is."

I like to think of economists as more delusional than anything else.

I made a similar point a couple of weeks ago to a guy with an economics degree when I told him that I thought of economists as modern day astrologers.

Jim R said...

JMG, You wrote:
'Plenty of people alive today still recall when continental drift was crackpot pseudoscience, polyunsaturated fats were good for you, and ionizing radiation was measured in “sunshine units.”'

I remember those things, I'm that old.

Continental Drift!? How could such a large object, made of stone, ever drift? Pffft.

Some polyunsaturated fats ARE good for you, but now the buzzword is Omega-3...

As for "sunshine units", I believe that was always a cynical exercise in public relations. In the progressive - scientific family in which I grew up, ionizing radiation was always something we avoided.

Robert said...

No question that delusional economic theories have helped cause human suffering on a colossal scale whereas astrology is harmless by comparison. I wouldn't go so far as to call the whole of economics a crackpot pseudoscience but when it becomes dogmatic, is corrupted by ideology or when economists are hired by financial and corporate interests to propagandise on their behalf then crackpot pseudoscience is often what you will get. This applied to much of Marxism in the old days just as it applies to market fundamentalism now.

JP said...


"Science ultimately concerns itself with things that can be objectively tested and repeated, from which practical knowledge can be derived (for making things that work). It concerns itself with how things really are as you say. I know of no religion that does that."

I think that the problem is that the mathematical tools for science don't work well when applied to religion.

My *core* is scientific, in the sense that I am scientific/logic/reason oriented *first* and religious/spiritual *second*, so I will always look at religion at least with a perspective of science.

I grew up arguing cosmological models in Sunday School.

I'm upside down compared to most people, which causes me to end up in a very strange place compared to most people.

Jim R said...

Drifting continents, another thought

The best evidence supporting the continental drift theory came from the petroleum industry. Before there was a petroleum industry, geology was one of those sleepy little subjects classified under "the natural world" of "mineral, vegetable, animal", wherein one occasionally stumbled onto a gemstone, such as a garnet.

As the petroleum industry got serious about its discovery process, a series of systematic analyses took place, eventually revealing seafloor spreading, magnetic reversals, and various layers within the planet.

Yupped said...

There are certain types of scientists and scientific organizations that have become cheerleaders for progress, primarily because they need the money, and the world of progress is where the money is. You could say the same of many doctors, teachers, journalists, etc. And the money dimension allows all kinds of nonsense to continue, with lots of things that don't really need to be done getting funding and allowing scientists and their support staff to investigate things, publish papers and act like scientists.

I'm spending more and more of my time these days with people who are consciously marching away from progress, primarily in small-scale organic farming and herbalism. From what I've seen, a healthy respect for science and the scientific method is alive and well in these circles (alongside quite a bit of intuition and mystical stuff). So my sense is that what is practical in science, what works in the real world, will be peeled off from the money machine as that continues to wind down. It will be the same in most sectors of the progress bubble. As the resources and money go, it will tend to focus minds on the practical application of knowledge and methods that work.

On a snarkier note, I don't see many branches of science having quite the ideological grit to behave like those old style communists you mention. Perhaps more like the genteel decline of the mainline protestant churches?

Tyler August said...

Astrology, eh? Oh, that will be the day! I'd often thought that Astronomy could easily remake itself as an art for entertainment -- the skies are beautiful, and that's why our public nights are packed, I think. Of course, the kinds of instruments needed for lovely viewings with a human eyeball and the kinds that modern researchers are spoiled by are decades apart--but only decades! You could still look through state-of-the-art telescopes at midcentury. I can already hear the groans from scientists imagining the regress. Diminishing returns as you say; while we haven't completely exhausted the set of measurements to be made on such instruments, it has been much-depleted. (and what's left are, for the most part, things our intellectual ancestors didn't find too interesting) If astronomy is to survive it will have to become an art form, because it will quite shortly not be able to progress as an observational science in the way we're used to, once the grants for bigger and better telescopes start to dry up.

I imagine that the transition to art and entertainment, like the transition to Astrology centres, would have to wait for the death of the internet. A clear night and a telescope is an amazing show if you're not distracted by the youtubes, and the market for a Palomar brand horoscope would be much higher if you couldn't your charts free online.

As usual, it seems a case of "mind the gap!" -- I can think of many useful skills and trades to practice further downslope that cannot support themselves at this point in the decline.

redoak said...

JMG wrote:

That kind of acting out of an ideal can be a dangerous thing to do, and civil religions rarely have much sense of the risks involved. Theist faiths with at least a few centuries of experience under their belts tend to be a good deal more cautious; Buddhist monks who visualize themselves as bodhisattvas and Christians practicing the imitatio Christi have traditional protections to keep the identification of the self with an ideal figure from spinning out of control into psychological imbalance.

As a student of political philosophy I often think that the caution described here is most important and least understood lesson in the intellectual tradition. Best proof of this: we have an intellectual tradition! I suspect time and persecution will rekindle an appreciation for this caution within the empirical sciences. But there is great potential for utility and political influence from future scientists. The method and mental discipline will prove invaluable sorting out the wheat and chaff of transition. But they will have to learn to be subtle and patient. Conflict between ideals is a pointless and dangerous sport.

A quick plug for a great book. Anyone interested in learning this skill should read Plato’s Republic. But do yourself a favor, forget the notion that this is some kind of blueprint for Utopia. Think of it instead as a satire. If you are not laughing you’ve made Plato a Platonist!

John Michael Greer said...

Cherokee, thanks for the update!

Sophie, curiously enough, I'll be talking about amateur astronomy down the road a bit.

S P, no need to abandon science -- as I hope I've communicated in previous posts, that's the last thing I'd want to encourage people to do. My point is that the survival of science depends on freeing it from the shackles of the dying religion of progress.

Realguy, mango wine sounds very tasty. As for soap, that's an excellent plan -- when the Soviet Union came crashing down, there were massive shortages of soap, because nobody remembered how to make it in the kitchen any more. (My spouse makes all our soap, and hers is considerably better than the commercial product.)

PhysicsDoc, notice the difference in the cost of further advances in physics between Lord Kelvin's time and ours. How much did it cost to find the Higgs boson, compared to the cost of the great advances in physics in the first two decades of the 20th century? That's your measure of diminishing returns.

Nicholas, well, yes -- I was speaking of public denunciations of economists, along the lines of the public denunciations of astrologers that play such an important ritual function in the scientific community these days. It doesn't surprise me that in the privacy of their own labs, scientists talk more freely!

KL, that might work, though it would take some careful stepping to keep the funding independent of government and academe.

Nicholas, I love the phrase "Dark Empiricists"! I trust they're going around in black cloaks making sinister gestures from the shadows. As for heresies in the Great War of Reason, that's standard for a dying cause -- as it becomes less and less possible to claim that anybody else is listening, fratricidal debate becomes the hobby du jour.

Juhana, I'll discuss in a later post why I think science is worth saving. As for barbarism, though, you're starting to sound like Robert E. Howard!

PhysicsDoc, then you're not paying attention. It's always comforting to insist that a movement's failure was all the fault of the other side, but that makes it impossible for supporters of the movement to recognize that they made critical mistakes that gave away the initiative and a range of other advantages to the other side. The collapsing prestige of science is a crucial issue these days, and to the extent that scientists fail to recognize it, they're condemning themselves to one defeat after another.

Wiseman, it's a class issue. Libertarians tend either to be rich or working class; anarchists tend to be from the liberal intelligentsia. The bitter class divides in US society are far more influential than any mere similarities in ideas!

Paul, as I mentioned in the post, it'll happen on the twelfth of Never. Professors of Chinese literature have a lot more leeway than American astronomers!

John Michael Greer said...

Rita, square on target. The point of much of the activism from privileged liberals is to evade or forestall social turmoil, since that latter would be bad for their privileged status.

Raven, funny. (I assume you realize that I was being satiric.)

MawKernewek, thanks for the link.

Mkroberts, that is to say, you disagree with it. So noted.

Kyoto, I'm of the opinion that the civil religion of progress has been a total disaster for the arts, and that abandoning it entirely for some less destructive view would be the best thing that the arts community could possibly do. That's a big subject, and one I'll have to discuss at length in a future post.

Ursachi, you did realize that it was a satiric suggestion, didn't you?

SMJ, you got me on that one. I have no idea at all.

Will, you're in the advantageous position of being in a field of applied (not basic) science that will almost certainly be well funded for most of the next century. Most other scientists don't have that advantage.

Just Because, good! We'll get to that.

B Back, have you considered the possibility that progress might shift into reverse? Yes, I know, even suggesting that probably makes me a Dark Empiricist...

Mary, according to current dietary theory -- unless they've changed their minds yet again -- monounsaturated fats are good for you but polyunsaturated fats don't give you enough "good cholesterol" to be healthy.

JP, I know astrologers who would take heated exception to that remark.

John Michael Greer said...

Jim, exactly. I could have chosen a dozen other examples.

Robert, as I've argued in The Wealth of Nature, I think the rot goes a good deal deeper than that. The basic assumptions of contemporary economics are blind to the most basic facts of ecological and physical reality, and until that's changed, economists will spout nonsense on crucial issues.

Yupped, I've seen the same thing with those who've walked away from progress. As for the church of science, maybe it's just that I get to see screeds from the "new atheism" fairly often; they remind me powerfully of old-fashioned Marxist zealots.

Tyler, excellent. An art form, and also a means of training the mind and the character -- but we'll get to that as we proceed.

Redoak, you get today's gold star. I'm sure you're aware just how rarely anybody catches the wry humor in that piece of Plato!

ganv said...

Andy Brown's comment is right along one line I was thinking. That the less practical sciences like astronomy and particle physics will continue to be supported to the degree that we support other human endeavors like the arts. These are beautiful things humans do, and benefactors, public interest, and spin off benefits will lead to continued support. Current funding levels for these areas of science are already tiny compared with support for biomedical, engineering, and geosciences.
Here is the NSF budget of which fundamental physics and astronomy is roughly 10%,
but the National Institutes of Health budget is about 5 times larger than the NSF budget. If you include commercial R&D budgets for engineering research, the total amount spent in the US on impractical science research is barely noticeable.

Another comparison: the total of the budgets of major orchestras in the US is larger than the NSF budget for astronomy and particle physics.
Granted, the orchestras get much less public funding, suggesting that there may be big changes ahead for impractical science. But the overall scale of funding seem not badly out of balance to me. The impractical sciences will just have to turn to private sources for more of their funding...maybe astrology? More likely wealthy executives from tech firms etc. will provide more of the support. Already, Kavli, Sloan, and other private foundations support a lot of impractical research.

And I would argue that public funding is also justified. Particularly in astronomy, which is becoming less impractical...asteroid hunting and comparative planetary science may become quite useful in the centuries to come.

Of course, you are expecting a long term contraction of the global economy which could put impractical science largely out of business. I expect that through a long and chaotic transition away from fossil fuels, a global industrial economy with low or no growth will emerge (with continued fluctuations) that will continue to support experts engaged in the arts and impractical sciences...particularly those good at marketing what they do.

John Michael Greer said...

By the way, several readers tried to post comments attempting to pick a fight over the validity of astrology. I meant what I said in the first comment for this post: any comment trying to do that will be deleted.

Also, Latefall (offlist), this is not the place to try to post a twelve-screen comment! If you'd like to write at that kind of length, please get a blog of your own, and post a link here.

I'll be on the road later today, and probably won't have internet access -- I've arranged for comments to be moderated while I'm gone, so by all means keep commenting, but it may be a few days before I have time to respond.

thrig said...

Jim R: WW2 submarine warfare and subsequent military operations, not the petroleum industry, mapped the seafloor. European scientists were well on board with continental drift; American scientists held out for various reasons such as isostasy. Though this story is better told in Naomi Oreskes's excellent "The Rejection of Continental Drift." Geology was hardly sleepy before the oil binge; German and British advances in mapping, mining, and minerals date back centuries; see "Revolution in Geology from Renaissance to Enlightenment" by Gary D. Rosenberg for details. "The Rocks Don't Lie" by David R. Montgomery is also relevant, and discusses religious and mthological aspects moreso than most science texts will.

Returning to the topic at hand, a certain EE department had recently planned three buildings, but could only fund one; Google and other cash-rich corporations are picking off faculty; lack of funding has some groups scrounging around to replace failed network switches and monitors, and computer support has been reduced from six to three positions. (Some of these effects are likely local noise, such as IT demanding high wages in the adjacent private industries, or immediate fallout from the most recent bump to the economy.)

Ursachi Alexandru said...

I did, but variations of such satire are part of reality here where I live.

SLClaire said...

When I was studying chemistry in the 1970s, alchemy got a tiny mention as a precursor to chemistry. About all that was said was that alchemists' main concern was converting lead into gold ... but of course that's impossible by chemical means. It was a great way to marginalize alchemy and alchemists, to set ourselves as chemists apart as having progressed from our ignorant ancestors. It was also a way to uplift the rational over the irrational, to train out of us the idea that anything that isn't rational has value to the scientific enterprise.

I think a lot of scientists have been slow to understand how very little most of what we do matters. Take quantum theory, for instance. It's a great intellectual achievement, and it's needed for microelectronics. But movies, photography, telephony, motor vehicles, and most anything else that we use daily was either invented before quantum theory or else doesn't need it for its production and operation. I think we've lost touch with the practical roots of the scientific method, the way it offers us a means to dialogue with the natural world. Instead, we let ourselves become the gods of ever-advancing progress. It's been good for our egos, until recently, and it has allowed a lot of us to avoid growing into full human beings, as conversant with our non-rational aspects as we are with our rational brains. That will make our devaluing, the backlash against us and our work, unfathomable to us. That in turn will make it harder for us to keep the scientific method itself in use as a living tradition.

I wrote a blog post awhile back about the scientific method as dialogue and specifically its application to gardening. Because more of us will be growing at least some of our own food as decline goes on, and doing that better will help us to weather the decline better than we otherwise would, gardening might prove to be fertile ground for keeping the scientific method alive. For anyone interested in the post, here it is:

ganv said...

A major thread under this sequence of posts is the relationship of rationalism and the religion of progress. It seems to me that the adoption of many habits of thought from rationalism has made possible the economic and technological growth upon which the religion of progress has rested. And so it is easy to see them as one in the same. But I think that scientific rationalism will continue to be immensely useful after the religion of progress has become a time-worn and abandoned tradition. Those who rely on horoscopes, homeopathy, and inerrant ancient texts to guide them through the chaotic transition away from fossil fuel are likely not to navigate the process as well as those who combine our best understanding of how the universe works with the best traditions that humans have developed for managing themselves. The human part of this is the most important and you have rightly focused on the non-rational side of human management to balance many who try to ignore this. But in the whole picture, I think scientific, religious, cultural, political and even economic traditions will all be important in managing ourselves through the transition.

latefall said...

hello jmg,

I had such a feeling, and I'm fine with you not posting it.

My intention was getting the input into this system here. If you find something of value in there I am happy. If not I am sorry I took you time. I had orinially intended to get some of it into the last post but I was late to get going...
I did read you did not want guest posts so sorry once more for barging in like that.
But I also don't see me running a blog of my own.

Don Plummer said...

You're breaking my heart, John. One aspect of modern science that has had me fascinated since I was a kid is paleontology, and specifically the search for evidence of humanity's evolutionary ancestors. In fact, I'm currently reading a book about that very subject. If astronomy may not be able to find means of support in a contracting economy, how much less will fossil-hunting expeditions to east Africa? That would be a real shame, because the knowlege gained from such expeditions gives us more insight about about US--one thing that we're all interested in!--and where we come from. It's certainly not esoteric.

The epithet of "irrational" that is hung on astrology, of course, is the same epithet hung on theism by the militant atheists like Richard Dawkins (since you mentioned him). I simply don't see that; rather, it seems to me that rational and irrational thinking often exist side by side, inseparably.


Nestorian said...


Interesting discussion. But I believe it leaves out an additional important reason for the demise of the prestige of science - indeed, in the American context, probably the single most important reason of all:

I refer, of course, to the irrevocable commitment of the mainstream scientific establishment to the doctrine of evolution, along with the sustained propoganda offensive that that same scientific establishment has maintained on behalf of that doctrine for three or four generations now.

Most assuredly, millions and millions of Americans are profoundly weary and fed up with this ceaseless propaganda barrage. As such, the scientific establishment would do well to dissociate itself completely from its function as the chief organ of propaganda for evolution. Were they to do so, it might go a long way toward mitigating the harsh future that you forecast for science by softening the hearts of those tens of millions of weary, fed-up opponents of evolution.

Nor would science lose much of substance by taking this step. The fact is that most of scientific research and practice does not require evolutionary presuppositions in order to be effectively carried out at all. More often than not, in fact, evolutionary presuppositions act as a hindrance to effective scientific research, especially in the social and behavioral sciences.

All of this follows from the fact that the doctrine of evolution is, in the last analysis, not scientific at all, but rather a matter of religious faith. So science would be sacrificing little if anything in concrete operational terms by abandoning its role as the high priesthood of evolutionary doctrines.

I know many readers of this blog post will react with fury to the assertion that evolution is not a matter of science but rather a matter of faith. However, JMG, based on some of your own remarks on the role of evolution in your religious convictions in recent weeks, I an not entirely certain that you would completely disagree with my assertion. If you would care to say a few words on this matter in response to my current post, I would be much obliged.

Nicholas Carter said...

Juhana, the simple answer is that science is the most beautiful thing human beings have done, a refinement of certain renaissance observations, the youngest incarnation of a tradition stretching back in the west to Diogenes. It stands in a certain relationship to everyday life that philosophy and religion share, but with a unique stance on what to do in that place. Thus we hope to preserve something of our edifice, as great as the Hagia Sophia and as humble as the rock of Mecca. For whatever other benefits it brings, preserving that beauty is enough.

Nicholas Carter said...

SMJ: Sportsmen are so highly paid because even with those paychecks the team owner is often still obscenely rich. As long as these teams make billions of dollars in profit, they will pay millions in salaries.

John Michael Greer said...

Ganv, actually, I've predicted the emergence of such an economy, which I've called scarcity industrialism; in the scheme I've traced out, it'll remain in place for shorter or longer periods depending on who's best at maintaining access to dwindling resource stocks, and most of the world will already have gone on into salvage economies long before the last scarcity-industrial states implode. Will some practitioners of "impractical science" (nice phrase!) manage to cling to grants through that process? It's possible, given really good marketing; still, I suspect the great majority will not.

Ursachi, oh, granted. The line between reality and satire is very hard to maintain these days.

SLClaire, thanks for the link! As for alchemy, the old alchemists themselves said over and over again, "Our gold is not the common gold" -- but the notion that alchemy was all about trying to manufacture gold by inadequate means is very convenient for the mythographers of progress, thus gets endlessly rehashed.

Ganv, one of the central themes of this series of posts is that once the scientific method gets freed from the messianic delusions that have clustered around it, it'll have the chance to find a more constructive niche as a practical toolkit for answering certain questions about how matter and energy behave, just as logic -- once it was freed from similar fantasies -- became a practical toolkit for answering certain questions about statements and proofs.

Latefall, thank you. If you'd like to make less lengthy comments, of course, you're welcome to do so.

Don, that suggests that people who want to see paleontology keep going need to find some other way to fund it, and motivate other people to fund it. I suggest you get to work on that!

Nestorian, I think you've got the issue by the wrong end. I've long suspected that, aside from traditionalist Christians such as yourself, most of the motivation for the various forms of creation science is that it's so fun to watch scientists, and liberals generally, fly into a Donald Duck frenzy when you challenge them on that subject. That said, in the sciences where I have a certain amount of training -- the life sciences, and ecology in particular -- evolution is indispensible for even the most basic understanding, so cutting evolution out of those would gut them, leaving very little behind. That, as much as any religious interest I have in the concept, is behind my support for Darwin's synthesis.

PhysicsDoc said...

You posted an Interesting comment regarding mathematics. In my mind, mathematics is an abstract language for representing and manipulating quantifiable patterns. In so far as mathematics does not apply to religion or spiritual matters it must mean that meaningful quantifiable patterns do not reside there. Even if this is true, this does not mean that these areas are not meaningful themselves. An example is the famous Jungian concept and phenomena of synchronicity. Synchronicity involves highly subjective and personal yet meaningful events that cannot be investigated mathematically or at least the results of mathematical investigations lead to trivial conclusions.

Forest Farmer said...

Part of the myth of progress is that "Science" is somehow for the public good, implying altruistic motives on the part of scientists. I suspect this is rarely the case. It is very difficult for us humans to disconnect from self interest in our motivations. One example relevant to your post is a book by Joshua Gilder and Anne-Lee Gilder entitled; 'Heavenly Intrigue: Johannes Kepler, Tycho Brahe, and the Murder Behind One of History's Greatest Scientific Discoveries'. And yes, as the title implies, Kepler had some radical self interest in his publications.

A more recent example is a book by Eric J. Lerner entitled; 'The Big Bang Never Happened'. There is apparently substantial observational and laboratory evidence that puts the flame to the entire field of current cosmology, but it is not in the self interest of most parties who have made entire careers around false theories to acknowledge it.

Can it be said that GMO foods, which are apparently largely responsible for the decimation of pollinators, are for the greater good simply because they are made possible by science? This is one of the great traps created by the myth of progress.

Now I use science myself in the design and implementation of an 'Edible Forest Garden' my family is establishing, so I know there can be value in the scientific method, and the knowledge base is can build. A 'Green Wizards' job would be harder without it. But science is still dependent on human value systems, perhaps because it is practiced by humans. The adherence to the Myth of Progress makes us vulnerable to pseudo science.

IslandNotes said...

Glad to see that your coming book entails "appropriate tech" as that, above the more general concept of "progress" seems a more useful metric of degradation/benefit that results from technology's often conflicted consumer and use-values. Or extended through Ivan Illich's estimable wisdom: appropriate 'use', which inextricably links to appropriate 'quanta' of energy (acceleration and all the rest). And, as Illich's punchline to his scandalous unveiling of such truths went: Appropriate action is equity, conviviality, and righteous environment is your bag -- is unavoidably: renouncement. Renouncement (austerity) that seemingly best taught through what has been to now, religious teaching. (fat men in needles, etc.) In any case, your study of this is fascinating. Mahalo.

Robert Mathiesen said...

Apropos the making of gold by alchemical processes:

Whether a given process yields true "gold" at any point in history depends *entirely* what is meant by the word "gold" at that time. That, in turn, depends on what empirical tests are available at that point in history to distinguish gold from all other metals, pure or alloyed.

Note that I have emphasized the word "entirely" -- no exceptions are allowed from a historical perspective.

For the last two centuries chemists have used the word "gold" only to refer to the chemical element Au, and they now have excellent ways to identify that particular element in a laboratory with certainty. But it was not always so.

My step-grandfather, who among many other things also dealt in precious metals from time to time, had no such laboratory. He tested "yellow metal" with far older tests. He applied concentrated nitric acid to it, he bit it, he rang it against his teeth, and he estimated its weight against its volume. On the whole, these tests worked quite well. With some difficulty, however, one could manufacture a counterfeit "yellow metal" object that would pass these four rough-and-ready tests of his. He knew that this sort of counterfeit could be made, and he allowed for the possibility in his business dealings.

Now move back six centuries or so into the later Middle Ages. They could make nitric acid ("aqua fortis") back then, though not quite as pure as we can make it now. Thus all of his simple tests were available to Medieval goldsmiths, minters and coiners. They had other tests also, such as the color the metal left when rubbed on a well-chosen touchstone, which my step-grandfather did not use. And here is the key point: anything that passed *all* of the available tests for gold was, at that time in history, literally "as good as gold" -- in fact, it *was* gold, as far as anyone could ever know back then.

And just as we can make alloys now that will pass some or many -- maybe all -- of these ancient tests for gold, there is no reason to doubt that some Medieval alchemists and goldsmiths could, in principle, do the same.

So it is simply bad history -- *very* bad history indeed -- for a historian of chemistry to say that an alchemist's process for making gold was necessarily a failure, a sham, or a fraud. When a historian of chemistry does make that claim, he is guilty of anachronism at best, of bad science and bad history at worst.

Robert Mathiesen said...


Nor is everything even that simple.

Late Medieval Alchemists could also make what is called "aqua regia," a mixture of nitric acid and hydrochloric acid.

Aqua regia will dissolve metallic gold (that is, the pure metal that modern chemists term Au), yielding a beautiful golden liquid. When it is slowly evaporated, this liquid yields beautiful golden crystals (one of the chlorides of gold). These crystals are water-soluble, and the solution of these crystals in water is also a beautiful golden color.

Now get some tin ore from Cornwall, powder it, dissolve it and filter out the residue that does not dissolve. The resulting liquid will usually contain some stannous chloride, a solution of which (apart from impurities) is clear.

Mix the golden liquid and the clear liquid. The result is a new liquid, suddenly and spectacularly colored royal purple: truly a suitable color to wring from gold, the noblest of metals.

Let this royal purple liquid stand overnight. The liquid will have become clear, and there will be a brown sludge in the bottom of your flask. (If I remember correctly, it suggests the color of faeces.) Filter out the brown sludge and let it dry. Put it in a small crucible and heat it. At a certain high temperature the sludge melts and becomes a small button of gold, beautiful and shining.

You do not need to be much of a poet to be awestruck by what you have just witnessed in your own laboratory, or much of a mystic to to draw useful analogies from the (al)chemical process to matters of spiritual practice.

[FWIIW, 20th-century chemists have told us that the royal purple color is due to colloidal gold in suspension, the brown sludge is that same colloidal gold fallen out of its suspension (probably with impurities), and the button of shining metal is what you get by melting that colloidal gold (and probably burning off various impurities).]

Woe to the historian of chemistry who misses the chance to expound on this side of Medieval alchemy, whether by this example or some other! He has missed a chance to fire his students' enthusiasm for the subject with curiosity and delight.

Tyler August said...


I don't see that as a driving force in bringing down the reputation of science; rather I see the spread of creationist ideals as a symptom of that factor. When science was ascendant, geological evidence of an ancient Earth smote all before it. Now that people aren't willing to believe the men in white coats...
I could be wrong, however, not living in the USA; creationism here is very much a minority position, imported by evangelical missionaries.

To my mind perhaps the most important driver of distrust was tobacco. That is, the massive and relentless campaign to discredit the (rather obvious) scientific finding that inhaling smoke is bad for your lungs. There was a good deal what I suspect our host would refer to as dark magic in that fight. Those same techniques have been brought to bare to call in to doubt climate change. When scientists tell us something we do not want to hear, the reputation of science suffers.

John Michael Greer said...

Forest, fascinating. I haven't read the book on Kepler, Brahe et al. As for bees, though, the bulk of the evidence I've seen so far is that bee dieoff is being caused mostly by neonicotinoid pesticides -- I'd encourage a visit to the Xerces Society website on that subject.

Island, good. We'll be talking about renunciation and austerity as we proceed.

Robert, fascinating. And it's to the credit of the alchemists that -- to judge by the comment of theirs that I cited above -- they apparently knew that what they were handling was different from what we'd call gold.

Nicholas Carter said...

Having consulted with the commentaries of one of Rationalisms' lesser thinkers, they are actually called Dark Epistemologists. A Dark Empiricist is someone trained in our monastic arts who is conventionally evil (they have chosen to promote Death for various personal motives).
Dark Epistemologists are people who, to protect beliefs or power concerning a node, must lie about increasingly general and foundational elements of the system as a whole, or the tools they use to study that system.
As an ecological sage with no great quarrel against Death, who makes his living protecting life, whether you are a Dark Empiricist depends on whether we focus on your thoughts or your actions (I'd put you on the side of Life, action is the daughter of thought)
Whether you are a Dark Epistemologist is a thornier question, as the relation of value to Truth is controversial. The essential crime of this flock is denying that the truth of a proposition affects whether it should be believed: JMG is either a pragmatist or a cynic on this count, depending on where one draws the line.

Robert Mathiesen said...

@ JMG: "Our gold is not the common gold." They may not have known how to distinguish the various golds by any test, but they could easily distinguish different golds with reference to the processes by which people obtained them.

Common gold, of course, is simply picked up as is, in the forms of grains and flakes and nuggets ("color," as the old-timers called it when panning for gold), or it is extracted from ore or earth, with the aid of mercury, as an amalgam. When heated, the mercury is driven off from the amalgam as a vapor, leaving the gold behind.

"Our gold," in contrast, was made in the laboratory by considerably more complicated processes.

And similarly with other cases where they distinguish "common" from "our" kinds of some other material. (And I am quite sure you are right about "common" vs. "our" fire. One of the ways to make alchemical gold in a laboratory may have involved a crude sort of electroplating with gold. I don't know whether any specimen of that sort of "our gold" may survive in some Renaissance cabinet of curiosities, but I woudn't rule it out. If the coating was not broken, such a specimen would easily pass the tests with aqua fortis and a touchstone. Tests of density and softness (biting) are not too hard to get around.

The hard test, I think, to fake is how the metal rings against the teeth, which tells a great deal about the object. The teeth are very sensitive sources of information, which we are culturally conditioned to ignore; they are right up there with the fingertips.

Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...

Hmmmm.....I have to write carefully here, one the one hand respecting JMG's requirement that we not descend into debates regarding the truth or falsity of astrology, but on the other hand meeting my obligations as a member of the U of Toronto's now-sold, now-in-essence-mothballed, David Dunlap Observatory.

Most observatory people do not believe the claims of astrology. They cannot for this reason envisage making a living casting horoscopes.

The problem is the same as for, e.g., incantational healing. If you do not sincerely believe that by uttering incantations over cancer patients you will send their cancers into remission, you cannot in honesty make your living by setting up a cancer-incantation-therapy service.

If some observatory person somewhere were someday to believe astrology true, then it would be fine for him or her to sell astrological services.

What would be an ethically licit way for observatory people to make a living? Monasteries used to live in a degree of (in some instances, mildly scandalous) opulence from agriculture. If I were running things, I would urge the establishment of observatory farms, somewhat in the monastic spirit.

The prospect of forsaking, for fifteen hours every working week, some such thing as daytime spectrogram reductions with IRAF under Linux for some such thing as running the beeswax melter, or cutting the organic cabbages, is not fully appealing. An early lesson of country living is that agrarian work is muddy, fatiguing, and urgent.

On the other hand, agrarian work is a little more appealing than the prospect of filling out forms for an NSERC or NSF grant, or of wading into Orwellian university politics.

Due attention to agrarian work would be a way of achieving a further thing desirable in a modern (21st-century) observatory, namely, a distancing of oneself from a dying empire's mind-games.

In making these agrarian points, I do note that the 77 hectares at the David Dunlap Observatory are not, for the most part, appropriate farming land. Since we ourselves are in suburbia, our 77 hectares should be kept in essentially their present condition, as a dark-sky preserve of woodland, savannah, and manicured lawn, continuing in the daytime to serve the townsfolk as parkland.

In our particular DDO circumstances, economically significant farming would instead require the gradual accumulation, through gift, of a portfolio of lands farther outside Toronto. It would be like the high-medieval monastery with buildings in Alphashire farming only a few hectares in Alphashire, and farming many tens or hundreds of additional hectares in remoter Betashire.


Toomas (Tom) Karmo
near Toronto, Canada

www punkt metascientia punkt com

Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...

Thank you, Mr or Dr August Johnson, for references both last week and this week to your eminent father.

For the benefit of readers outside astrophysics, I should reiterate my point from a some weeks or months ago, that the elder Johnson, as a founder of the UBV system of stellar photometry, was perhaps the pre-eminent photometrist of the 20th century. Details can be had from J.B. Hearnshaw's book The Measurement of Starlight: Two Centuries of Astronomical Photometry, or from

@August Johnson: You might be pleased to know that your father's work has some personal links with this part of the world. Your father developed UBV in partnership with Morgan, now better remembered as the pre-eminent 20th-century stellar spectroscopist. Morgan trained the still-living Garrison, under whom I did my fourth-year project at DDO, and Garrison at DDO trained the current stellar-spectroscopy leaders Gray (now at AppState) and Corbally (now at the Vatican Observatory Research Group, Arizona).


Toomas (Tom) Karmo
near Toronto, Canada
(B.Sc.-with-enhancements, NOT astrophys M.Sc. or astrophys Ph.D.)

www punkt metascientia punkt com

Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...

In 2008, I helped upload a scary video on what an observatory shutdown is like, to This same 2008 material is reachable by putting into the YouTube search engine the phrase

Moving Day at David Dunlap Observatory

To allay confusion, I should remark that I although I am billed in the video as a "DDO Defender", I do not personally subscribe to the tenets of the organization now calling itself the "DDO Defenders", or DDOD (DDOD seeks 14 streets on our land), nor to the tenets of the RASC persons now conducting weekend infotainment from the dome (they make no objection to the would-be developer's envisaged 14 streets).

These points, or most of them, I made some weeks or months ago in a previous posting to this blog. But today I may as well add a long quote from what I have written elsewhere, outside JMG's blog, about the video, in reference to a person rather prominent in the action, U of Toronto police head Sam d'Angelo:

What, then, did not get filmed?

As I was on guard, Mr d'Angelo came up and asked, ever so casually, with an eye to my knapsack, "Tom, can you lend me a pair of scissors?" Fool that I was, I did not get his intent. Fortunately, however, I did not on that day have a pair of scissors in my knapsack, and so I truthfully said that I regretted not being able to help. I added that there should be a pair of scissors in the librarian's desk.

Mr d'Angelo then asked, "Well, do you have a knife?" I still thought, as a fool, that this constable was in need of help, being for some legitimate policing reason required to cut something like twine or cardboard. But as good luck would have it, I also had no knife in my knapsack (I must have packed a meal that required no real cutlery), and I told him this without giving the matter any deep thought.

The real intent of Mr d'Angelo's pair of questions became clear just after the convoy rounded the bend, as shown around 03:18 in the clip. I stopped filming and raced through the stand of Norway spruce, along the path where that past winter [aboriginal environmental activist] Grey Eagle had inducted his audience as "Rainbow Warriors", to intercept the convoy at the gatehouse. I was just in time to catch the very end of the convoy, picking up speed on its eastward trajectory along Hillsview Drive. At the very rear I believe I saw something I had not seen earlier in the day, a vehicle which I believe had been waiting on Hillsview Drive, parked, and had joined the convoy tail only at the end of the operation. This vehicle was white and box-like, too bulky to be a conventional van, and yet not bulky enough to be a truck such as movers would use. On its roof were some lights. I am 70 per cent certain that what I saw was an ambulance.

If the vehicle was an ambulance, the otherwise odd questions regarding scissors and knife would make sense. Mr d'Angelo, I suggest, had hoped that I would in all innocence produce from my knapsack some kind of cutting implement, such as a madman might use to slash a canvas, and that he could then apply the bracelets and call on the ambulance for support. Had I lost my composure at that point, Form One could be invoked under the Ontario Mental Health Act, yielding for him my compulsory detention in a secure psychiatric facility for 72 hours.

The Age of Marauders: already playing here in Ontario, and coming soon to a theatre near you.

Toomas (Tom) Karmo
near Toronto, Canada

www punkt metascientia punkt com

Max said...

JMG, Wonderful. I am a somebody currently in a science graduate program who day by day is increasingly disillusioned by the idea of going to academia.

I am a bit confused by some points you make, especially by your example of astrology. I do not want to steer the conversation over to the validity of astrology, but astrology and the idea that the alignment of the stars at our birth is a crucial determination of our lives' path – isn't this also rooted in another myth people have, of mysticism, something out of their power determining their faith? The myth of progress may dismiss astrology as being irrational, but the myth of religion and unmeasurables like god or personality can dismiss science as being too cold and unemotional. You most certainly aren't criticizing rationality, which is the basis not only of science but of a whole lot else in our lives, but astrology has also fallen by the wayside because it is way too difficult to figure out if your horoscope matters or not.

The most dismissive of my scientific friends will call astrology nowadays BS, while the more diplomatic complain astrology is too vague. Astrology and a whole lot of the science done in the early to mid centuries of the last millenium were under the heavy influence of the church, a lot like a lot of the science nowadays is slave to industrial funding. I think your point that people ignore climate scientists nowadays is due to two factors, neither of which is that research can be bought with a grant: first, climate change “deniers” have a lot of emotional buttons to push – it is arrogant to think that humans can change the world, it will kill the economy and YOUR way of life, etc. Second, it may also be due to the idea of an “ivory tower” - accusing professors/researchers of following their Kantian rational arguments without understanding how the real world works at all. As a result, these scientists have a certain cult/way of thinking.

The idea of progress is a super sexy one, that we are working to some end. I guess what I've found annoying is that our smartest people, the ones who demonstrate the best critical thinking in science classes are assumed to be on the track to grad school. As if this is the best place to send our critical thinkers. And you get there, and in order to secure funding and explain what you're doing, have to find some piece of the scientific puzzle no one has picked yet, and pretend you love it as a career. That's probably too unfair a view, but science has been scattered to the wind. It is really difficult for me to not yawn when hearing what exactly some comparative world literature or chemistry professors actually does with their free time. It is such a small piece of the puzzle that is yet argued at the beginning of every talk, the end of every grant, as necessary. I haven't become a professor or heavily a part of the scientific community quite yet, but if I could with a couple years of work and dedication, if I really wanted. I'll have to end up believing, to some degree, that what both I and the people around me are working on is necessarily essential. But it just ends up feeling like a smattering of small, amusing problems with code and the same complaints we grad students are on a rat wheel.

I think I'm rambling a bit here, so to sum up: astrology has fallen by the wayside, as has the idea of the ether, alchemy, religion because they don't fit in rationality – no evidence, or too difficult to support with evidence. Science found a niche in an evidence based world, but how we connect the dots – our scientific paradigms, theories, ways of thinking – those are less objective, and subject to corruption, whether by old ways of thinking, or money. Yet our culture has a certain reverence for useful science, at the same time scorning science that isn't so useful – computers and cancer/pharmaceuticals get TONS of money, but the humanities is becoming more and more ignored.

I could go on and on, but I will stop at this point. Thanks for another thought-provoking post.


SLClaire said...

Robert, thank you! I am likely not the only person taking chemistry who wondered, at least a little, about alchemy, what alchemists did that was similar to and different from what we did. That little taste of it that you offered is fascinating. Since my grad school specialty was spectroscopy I could tell you then what collodial gold is and why it has that color and not another. Maybe that adds to the experience - for me it did then, not so much now that I have forgotten most of the theory. But you reminded me of analytical chemistry and some of the ways we were taught to identify unknowns. It's a pity that chemistry doesn't take more notice of alchemy, along the lines that Bill explored in his comment and that you mentioned in yours. I can imagine an upper-level chemistry course called The History and Practice of Alchemy. I would have taken it.

onething said...

Nicholas Carter,

I believe you have something interesting to say, but you are speaking from an insider viewpoint, and I am unable to follow it. Perhaps a bit more explanation. I googled dark empiricist and got nothing of interest.
When I was in 4th grade, the teacher pulled down a world map, and after looking at it a bit, I raised me hand and said Look, the continents were once together.
The teacher smiled and corrected me, but I knew I was right.
Polyunsaturated fats are good for you in their natural context, but not as cooking oil, and not in an unbalanced diet lacking in other fats.
I am not sure why homeopathy gets lumped in with certain other ideas. The rationale for it working make sense, in a physical way, to me. I personally have had a couple of remarkable experiences with it.
Chris, putting honey on their legs would attract insects, wouldn't it?

onething said...

Sigh. I do have to say that I agree with Nestorian's view of the role of the scientific establishment in promoting Darwinism as an underpinning of their faith. But I pretty much give up on trying to get that across, much as it seems so completely obvious to me. Yes, many people have made their peace with it by interpreting the cosmos to include a conscious aspect, and these people are tolerated but with slightly less patience behind closed doors than they imagine.
Darwinism is the origins explanation for atheists, and if others are along for the ride, so be it, but for an atheist metaphysics, it is NECESSARY.

JMG, I don't know about how much certain antics may play a role in arguments over the plausibility of random processes to generate life and new life forms, but it is really not a likely motive for the authors of the books I read, mostly by professors and scientists in the field, who spend years carefully laying out their arguments.

As for your reply to Nestorian, I have now read two of your books, and I'd like to say that I have found little or nothing that is a problem. The way that ecosystems work, the interdependence of natural systems and species, and natural selection, R selected - K selected seres (which was VERY interesting by the way), none of these have much bearing on rejection of Darwinist type evolutionary models.

My rejection hinges on seeing with clarity the fundamental difference between chemistry and biochemistry, such that they behave differently as regards the second law, the staggering amount of linguistic-type, specified information needed to cause against-the-grade processes to create and maintain a cell.

I also agree with Nestorian calling it faith, simply because, once you really delve into the logistical problems with believing such a thing is possible, it really does require a tremendous belief in luck, and that utterly unknown processes simply MUST have occurred. A clue to its being a faith is the scolding that was once popular (not sure it still is) toward people's "incredulity" about evolution! Incredulous things should apparently be believed ...
I happen to value my own incredulity very much.
And, by the way, I do not think you have a religious interest in the topic.

mallow said...

I don't know that the anarchist/libertarian hatred is just a class issue. Anarchists (at least the kind who are similar to the European kind) tend to hate libertarians because they consider them to be extreme capitalists - the kind that spout on about unleashing the free market so that brilliant types like themselves can achieve the riches they're entitled to without unnatural things like taxes, social security or dirty poor people in general getting in their way. To add insult to injury anarchists consider themselves libertarians but now have trouble using the word, on the internet at least, because these days it's shared with American-style libertarians. So they stole one of our favourite alternative names(who actually used the label first is neither here nor there to be honest) and now people mix us up with each other all the time. It's hard enough to get past the anarchists just want to throw bombs and stuff meme without having to deal with getting mixed up with libertarians too.

Libertarianism does seem to be attractive to both the rich and what I'd call the 'poor but on my way up the ladder' types but I think the hatred has more to it than that. Funny enough it's another one of those things that's more of an American issue, although the internet has been spreading American style libertarianism globally like a virus.

On an entirely unrelated note, if, say, you live in a country that will cease to be habitable if or when either the glaciers go or the thermohaline collapses, should you wait until you really have to move or should you go south to higher ground now? A strategy of waiting and watching feels very insecure and provisional. It's hard to invest energy, money or time in a place and a community when we, or maybe my daughter, may very possibly have to leave it all behind some day anyway. Or are there some third options I'm missing?

Ian Stewart said...

In my darker moments, I am given to speculate that pro sports (especially the NFL) serve as a blow-off valve for regionalist impulses that might otherwise promote internecine warfare.

void_genesis said...

I left a promising budding research science career myself during the heyday of peak oil mania in 2007.

I was struck by how long, narrow and brittle the supply lines were for completing the most mundane of research tasks in a modern laboratory. It was also pretty obvious from the declining career prospects that it wasn't a role that society valued much any more and that the situation was only going to get worse in the future.

Sufiya H. said...

Yes, Mr. Greer I did see your declaration and I apologize. But I did want to let you know of this phenomenon of the great bulk of the public believing that there's nothing more to "astrology" than what appears daily in the newspaper..and that even SCIENTISTS think this! Aleister Crowley always emphasized the necessity of clarifying one's terms and "being on the same page", for this very reason! Now I understand why the public, by and large, thinks any discussion of the validity "astrology" is for crackpots!

Oh and you are RIGHT about pesticides being the problem with the bees- that and the TIMING of husband was peripherally involved in the research here in Canada, and he actually came up with the answer a few WEEKS before the scientists did! I don't know the details, but it had to do with the TIMING of the spraying as well as the spraying itself, of course! Spraying while the bees are out and about at their work means major die-off en masse, since even minuscule quantities of the sprays used nowadays affect bees severely.

Andy Brown said...

I had to laugh at the astronomers casting horoscopes, but there are other versions not so far fetched. When I started graduate school in cultural anthropology nearly half of our small cohort were fairly skilled Tarot readers. That may not be entirely surprising, since anthropologists and village oracles sometimes tended to have a lot in common. There are plenty of examples of anthropologists finding the local shaman / oracle / healer to be an especially important informant. It wasn't just because they were often colorful and exotic. Any oracle worth their salt tended to have a very highly developed understanding of the social and psychological relationships around them - as well as being enough of an outsider to gain some perspective. I think there are many anthropologists that would admit (over a beer) that there's some kinship among the functional fetishes we use -- the chicken innards, the shaman's drum, the Tarot, or the anthropologist's notepad.

JP said...

@Physics Doc:

"An example is the famous Jungian concept and phenomena of synchronicity. Synchronicity involves highly subjective and personal yet meaningful events that cannot be investigated mathematically or at least the results of mathematical investigations lead to trivial conclusions."

Mathematics is useful for certain things. Synchronicity and "World As Book" are not those things. Although you could draw an analog between synchronicity and quantum entanglement.

I was discussing a possible analogy between Bose-Einstein condensates and consciousness a few years ago with an ER doctor.

To me, it's often more a question of geometry than anything else.

For example, I presume that I have an emotional topography, so to speak.

If you look at the continumum of
Mind---->Life----Matter, you run into a problem when you try to use tools that work wonderfully for *matter* and try to apply them to *mind*.

Therefore, the only real tool you have is *other minds*. You *are* investigating it mathematically, you just aren't using standard scientific tools because they can't work, by definition.

latheChuck said...

Many brief comments on this fine essay:

1. Astrology: If we consider the sun signs as simply an ancient calendar, why would we find it unlikely that children gestating with seasonally-varying diets, born into seasons hot or cold, learning the explore the world in different seasons, would not grow up with personality traits that depend on the season of their birth?

2. Why is astronomy expensive? Because it requires the effort of many educated people, and our culture ties respect to income. Could a monastery of secular monks pledged to voluntary poverty do astronomy? Only if their high-tech suppliers do also.

3. Why are professional athletes so highly paid? Because a relative few of them can attract millions of viewers susceptible to advertising. They "scale" to provide (intangible) benefits to the masses.

4. Why is economics not a science? Because science is a social construct of mutual aid, of accumulating knowledge. Any researcher in economics who can make non-trivial predictions on the basis of theory is better off keeping the theory a secret while he (or she) takes advantage of the market. Success in finance is based on having superior knowledge, and there are two approaches to that position. Either "get smart", or try to help your competitors "get stupid". Either way will do, and the latter is probably easier to accomplish. It's just the opposite of science.

--*** ***--

Paul said...

There is an interesting discussion of science vs alchemy in some of the comments. Here is my opinion:

Some of the main stream scientific views on alchemy (turning base metal into precious metal, like gold or silver):

1. Failed project (lack of scientific knowledge, hence didn't understand base metal can never be turned into gold except under the conditions during planet formation)

2. Different definition of gold (lack of scientific knowledge, didn't understand the concept of "elements").

My opinion is:

1. The alchemists (at least the better ones, and at least in ancient China) understood the difference between gold and base metal.

2. The alchemists understood the importance of the state-of-the-art of metal testing (actually this is also important today)

3. The alchemists understood that their practice would eventually get into conflict with the authority

4. The alchemists could be a crook or a Robin Hood.

Those who are interested in this subject can follow this link for an article I wrote some time ago: The hidden secret of external alchemy

Juhana said...

Yep, got to be careful not to pay too much homage to greatest pulp writer ever... Having little rose-coloured romanticism applied to "simpler times" just is way to face situations, where one group of persons makes all the decisions and other group of persons pays the bill... All rose-colouring is unrealistic, I know, but still... There has been layouts, and hard-working factory floor-level guys have been kicked off, while bloated middle-management hangs around. Everybody protects his/her own largesse first, no matter what it means for capacity of infrastructure around. Basic workers must work harder and faster, as there are less of them, but byzantine apparatus above them has not shrinked a bit. Cuts are not allocated to right spots. Money is mismanaged so frequently it must be intentional. Some Howardian barbarian king would be change at least...

Science as common project for society has many good sides in it, but how fragmented field of incomprehensible specialties can assure peole to give their tax money to it in the future?

Leo said...

Actually, the belief that sustainable societies will be non-violent and egalitarian is probably an infection by the moral side of progress.

It's obviously false since feudal societies are neither of those things. Feudal titles are effectively a command structure after all. Yet as long as they practice organic agriculture, their environmentally and economically sustainable. Not socially since their simply a stage in the succession process, but still largely sustainable.

But if I understand what you mean by the myth of progress, the idea that things get better simply as time passes rather than by human actions, then the following analysis might make sense.

The world is basically at peace now, Asia hasn't had a major war in a long time. Both North and South America lack recent large scale wars and the Europeans aren't actively killing each over. Africa is still rather violent and the middle east has some big wars going on.

I remember hearing that America has killed about 1,000,000 Arabs so far. Which is the same number of Gauls Julius Caesar claimed to have killed. Gaul had a far smaller population, so he killed proportionately more.

So in conclusion, the world is relatively speaking, peaceful.

As I understand the myth of progress, this great achievement would be ascribed to the simply passage of time "we have evolve passed war". The more realistic view is that it's a function of nuclear weapons.

Imagine if the Soviets and America fought the standard empire vs empire wars. Along with an American backed Japan invading a Soviet backed China.

They have been our greatest weapons of peace. Which should make things rather interesting as they disappear.

But the myth of progress in the "Green" and other spheres hides this and makes it look like we just got peaceful as time passed.

Bill Pulliam said...

Couple of comments, one more directly relevant than the other..

First the mostly irrelevant one -- I always am amazed that people seem stupefied by the vast sums that professional athletes get paid. It's really simple: They are entertainers. Professional sports are entertainment. People are willing to spend money to see difficult things done well, especially when surrounded by flash and spectacle. Football players, movie stars, popular musicians, what's the difference? Society values that sort of mass entertainment, and pays them well for providing it. What's the mystery here?

The more relevant point -- folks talk about astrologers and alchemists as being the embarrassing horse thieves and drunkards in the ancestry of science, hence they are ignored and dismissed. This is hogwash. They were the venerated high-status ancestors who lived in the palace with the emperor and sat at his right hand. There was nothing shady about these activities during their time. They were efforts to understand the natural and human worlds and their interplay, through observation and theory, and they were considered to be great and worthy intellectual pursuits by the intelligencia and nobility. Casting them as lowlifes is a rewriting of history at an Orwellian level. There is something profound at work here in the collective scientific psyche, and I have never been able to quite put my finger on it.

6c03725a-00ca-11e3-9f33-000bcdcb471e said...


I have been following your blog for awhile now. Thanks for allowing me to look forward to Wednesdays!

As a young doctor just starting my post graduate residency training I find myself concerned that the things that I do on a daily basis will have very little relevance in the near future as we transition into a post industrial economy. This thought occupies my mind throughout most days, often leaving me with a crushing feeling of futility and lack of satisfaction with my work. The amount of paperwork that I do in a typical day is mind numbing. You've stated in several of your recent posts that medicine as it is currently practiced in the western world is probably due for some major changes. While I understand that it is difficult to say exactly how these changes will play out, I would appreciate any thoughts that yourself or other posters could offer on the subject of the future of medicine in particular. What do you suspect that healthcare will look like in 10 years? 20 years? Will energy intensive medical specialists such as surgeons and radiologists even survive that long? When does the pharmaceutical complex break down? For any readers/posters in the medical field...what percentage of skills/knowledge being taught to doctors and nurses now will be of sustained use to future human communities?

Any comments would be appreciated.

MawKernewek said...

Only tungsten and uranium are decent candidates for making fake gold, since not many elements have the required high density.

advert for a "Tungsten Gold-plated paperweight"

wall0159 said...

Lots of talk about science not delivering on its promises.

But... science and scientists in general didn't make the promises (eg jetpacks) -- they were made by the marketeers who saw the worth of selling science during America's ascension.

I felt that the comment about the dispensability of quantum mechanics was a howler, and representative of so many such comments. It reminded me of the fabled "let them eat cake" comment, and I think stems from similar levels of ignorance and, yes, comfort.

I am still unconvinced about the "diminishing returns" that JMG keeps mentioning. The higgs boson search might seem to support that claim, but an anecdote is not data. Even if science is delivering less bang for buck right now, that does not imply terminally diminishing returns (that was not stated, but implied, as I read it, correct me if I'm wrong).

Mary said...

Ok, lol, I get it. Polyunsaturated fats *in large amounts* may start removing HDL along with LDL. In small- moderate amounts (eg a couple ounces/day of walnuts...the amounts recommended all along) it continues to be considered healthy. Monounsaturated fats remove only LDL, so are safer, but also do not provide some of the other nutrients that nuts provide.

Even excess water is potentially toxic. IOW, everything in moderation.

Thanks! You had me scared there for a moment. I don't want to give up walnuts in my ginger-carrot salad!


Bill Pulliam said...

Are we gonna have to drag out this same evolution "discussion" every week, regardless of the topic of the post? Within the mainstream scientific community there is essentially no disagreement at all with the overall concept of evolution in a darwinian framework. Sure there have been lots of expansions and extensions, and disagreements about details of the processes. But virtually all of the objections that are raised to the basic idea come from fundamentalists and literalists of the Abrahamic religions. Ergo, these arguments are religious, they are not scientific. So can we please give them a rest when they are off topic??? The religion being discussed this week is a civil religion, not a theistic or Abrahamic one.

And besides, the mainstream in America likes their own particular teleological misunderstanding of Darwinism just fine. It gives them a way to believe that we are the epitome of existence and the natural rulers of the cosmos without having to mess around with that embarrassing religious stuff. And as an added bonus, it allows them to justify social and economic injustice -- "Survival of the fittest, dude!" What a deal!

Ian said...

What a delightful opener. It tickles me to no end, in part because one of the reasons it won't happen is not just because of a faith in progress, but because of some subtle classism wired into parts of the academy. To cast horoscopes would be seen as money grubbing and that just isn't done; it's ungentlemanly.

Still, marketing gold. Start adding in the position of supernovas, obscure asteroids, comets...ha! I'll be chuckling for a while.

It's worth noting that astrology is especially verboten for astronomers, much like pyramid mysticism is especially verboten for an archaeologist. There is a lot there about the way in which academic disciplines took shape based on excluding material in order to develop research programmes. Turning to practics explicitly excluded at the discipline's founding is veritable treachery ;-)

You mention the SCA--that can be an academic liability, too, if you are in the right academic disciplines. I remember attending a public event on Beowulf and storytelling at an esteemed university where a contingent of the SCA had shown up. They, of course, looked like anyone else, but afterward when folks were talking, they identified themselves as such and you could positively see the shivers of discomfort from several of the professional medievalists. I mean, seriously, it's one thing to study something but you actually *do* something with it? The horror!

In terms of alchemy--I can't recommend Principe's The Secrets of Alchemy enough. He downplays, hard, the metaphysical side and it lets him show how good the alchemists were as chemists. Really awesome stuff, like discovering that some experiments that contemporary chemists had written off as fantasy were actually perfectly reproducible, just not always quite for the reason some of the alchemists thought (impurities in regional minerals causing some dramatic effects; iron tools contributing to the chemical reactions; and more). If they hadn't been written off so early could have learned something from them!

Hal said...

Given the incomplete understanding they had of the elements and chemistry in general, I don't understand why the effort to transform base metals into gold is such a rich source of smug derision on the part of "moderns." You observe that, under certain conditions, some substances, including metals, appear to transform into very different substances. You find that those conditions are replicable. You observe that ores exist in nature that appear under predictable conditions, and in associations with other substances. The hypothesis that some of the metals might have been formed from other metals doesn't strike me as that far-fetched, given the state of knowledge. And certainly, the pursuit of research that might have a financial reward isn't something that many modern scientists could stand to criticize, either.

Mark Rice said...

With regards to evolution (Nestorian here is my theory as to why we have a hard time accepting it:

We are descended from Apes! Apes are not exactly the nicest creatures. It we were descended from - say - dogs, this would be easier to accept.

Herr Doktor said...

Mr Greer,
it seems to me that this post does not adequately emphasize the IMHO very important distinction between "Institutional Academia" and the "Scientific Method". Academia as we now know it is probably not going to survive the deindustrialization of society. And I'm not shedding many tears for it, it has already been pointed that it has overwhelmingly sold out to corporate interests, is not going anywhere because of the law of diminishing returns, and it is too overspecialized.

What it is worth saving for future ages is the Scientific Method, and for that we don't need any fancy particle colliders or telescopes. Or, in fact, universities.

What we will need in the future from science will be such things as methods for machining high precision ball bearings without using CNC machine tools; or hand equipment for drilling water wells 200 meter deep; or developing drought-resistant varieties of perennial cereals. Exactly the fields where "Science" (Academia) is not working upon...

Nowadays there is very few cutting edge research of any real practical value for the survival of mankind in the next centuries. The only one I can think of that must be preserved at all costs would be climate science.

Regarding mono- and polyinsaturated fats, I recommend to everybody interested in this topic the book "Good calories, bad calories". Besides giving a great overview of the health aspects of fats and carbs, it also discovers A LOT of examples of the BAD SCIENCE done in the field of nutrition - links nicely with this week's topic, too.

Roger said...

Cherokee, you said the future belongs to the generalists. I have a strong feeling you're right. This is a consequence of changes in the real world. But in turn there will be consequences of this turn back to generalists. In our modern societies we have this notion of specialization such that we individually get very competent at doing a limited array of tasks. You could argue that specialization narrowed our individual repertoire of skills. But this method of organizing our activities raised our general standard of living and our average life expectancy. Which was a good thing at least while it lasted.

You could also argue that the average ice age hunter, with his abilities at tool making, hunting and foraging, knowledge of wildlife, terrain, in other words a generalist, carried in his head more skills than today's urban condo dweller, you know, the type with computing/communications devices attached to every bodily orifice and appendage. Maybe you could say the same about the average neolithic farmer in comparison to today's urbanite. Not that I'm criticizing the urbanite.

My parents came from a country whose farming techniques hadn't changed much since the iron age. A large proportion of the population was engaged in growing food. So, while each member of a farming family could perform a large number of tasks (ie they were generalists) and grow food, the population as a whole was materially impoverished. Part of the impoverishment was because of exploitation by a landowning class whose interests were enforced by a violent authoritarian regime. But IMO a large measure of it was due to the lack of specialization. They all worked very hard. To stay alive you had to be on top of things, you had to be meticulous in your performance of daily tasks. And, yes, each family could make their own bricks out of mud and straw. It's much more efficient, however, if a brickworks made bricks all all day, every day with a team of workers who did nothing but make bricks.

If we're going down that road, ie generalists as opposed to specialists, back to the future, back to the days when we had a large proportion of farmers and back to more or less self sufficient families growing crops and raising animals and using beasts instead of tractors, we will no longer be generating sufficient surplus to indulge the whims of physicists and cosmologists. Because it all depends on agricultural surpluses. Everyone not farming depends on someone that is.

We take for granted the affordable food that appears on grocery store shelves. Say goodbye to all that. We'll all be getting a lot skinnier. Obesity? We wish. I agree with JMG, no more billions to whirl protons close to the speed of light to see what happens when they slam into one another. Not that there's anything wrong with that. But the priority will not be understanding subatomic subtleties but rather growing enough food and surviving the next crop failure or the next pandemic.

Too bad for science you say? Yes, I would agree and too bad for all of us.

Nestorian said...

Thanks for the thoughtful remarks on my post concerning the relevance of the scientific establishment's propagation of evolution to JMG's forecasted demise of science.

I would just like to add that, from a strictly sociological standpoint, what I have identified is a much bigger problem for science than many who post here seem to realize. Somewhere in the vicinity of 100 million Americans identify as "Evangelical" Christians, and a quite considerable subset of them are also ardent Creationists and anti-evolutionists. We are talking about literally millions and millions of people on whose behalf well-known creationist writers such as the late Henry Morris and Duane Gish spoke and wrote. Books by them and others of like mind have sold millions and millions of copies over the past 50 years in Christian circles.

What’s more, the vast American masses who make up this particular cultural milieu have also acquired strong political representation over the past four decades in all branches and levels of government. As just two examples, it wouldn’t surprise me if both Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush were/are anti-evolutionists and biblical literalists on creation (though I could, of course, be wrong about these particular cases).

In sum, the anti-evolutionist fraction of the American population is both considerable on its own terms; and it wields influence in the chambers of political, judicial, and even military power that is probably even proportionately greater on that plane relative to its importance as a mass social force.

These are powerful sociological and political forces in American life, and they will probably grow even more, not less, powerful in the coming decade or two. As such, the scientific establishment will have to find ways of appeasing them if it hopes to continue to flourish over the course of the 21st century.

Darryl Cooper said...

Hello. Not a pertinent comment, and I don't expect it to get put up... but I just wanted to make sure you saw that the great Robert Bellah has passed away.

team10tim said...

Hey hey JMG,

I can sometimes see the future... Specifically, last week's post left me wondering about the apparent conflict between good science, which requires intellectual integrity, and the stunning lack of intellectual integrity that most of the sciences display twisting their subject into knots so that it can fit within the narrative of progress. I didn't post because the matter needed time to ferment.

Upon reflection it occurred to me that this is always the case. Astronomers in previous eras have always viewed their research in the context of their cultural norms. The Heavens or the Gods or the Future. The problem is legitimacy. Right now legitimate scientists in pristine white lab coats do legitimate research at observatories that society views as totally legitimate. And somewhere out there, at this very moment, pseudoscientists in unholy black lab coats do pseudoscience on ESP quackery. The difference between the two groups has nothing to do with the scientific method. The former could have poor methodology and the later excellent. The elementary mistake that I see people, especially established scientists, make all the time is that science is about discovering how the world works and not stipulating how it should work. It is positive not normative.

Only disciplines that can't fit the narrative are immune. Astrology doesn't fit into our present worldview. It can't coincide happily with the other things that we believe and so it has been left alone. I know that our culture looks down on Astrology as being baseless and totally unscientific. OR, more to the point, it is based on things that our religion of progress is not based on. From within the tower of progress Astrology can be seen to have foundations but those foundations are deemed to be without merit. Still we pay for it. Horoscopes are a regular feature of most news papers.

And so I was a little bit surprised with this week's post. It appears that merely thinking about Astrology has yielded a profound divination. I suppose I could bill it to synchronicity, but as you know, that is acausal and therefore does not exist.

Speaking of school boy errors JMG. You made a dousie this week. You are quite right that Astronomers are not going take up Astrology even if it will keep the lights on so to speak, but nothing at all prevents Astrologers from doing Astronomy. It just might be the very best way to preserve Astronomy. One fine day in the not to distant future an observatory might go up for sale. The Astronomers really don't want to sell it it all but they can either sell it to some Astrologers who will use it to look at the stars and take notes or to a Chinese trillionaire will rip it up to make fancy bachelor pad.


team10tim said...

Hey hey, PhysicsDoc,

I do not wish to anger our good host but you are in error. I learned about Kuhn and the origin of the phrase paradigm change from reading TAR and I have recently taken to reading William Roger Corliss's Science Frontiers. He was a physist who worked for NASA and collected anomalies from reputable peer reviewed journals. Things like finding stars that are older than the universe: or observing that the nuclear reaction that keeps Earth's core molten doesn't produce enough Helium leaking from the crust as it should: And of course, there is a paper confirming the predictive power of Astrology: Ertel, Suitbert; "An Assessment of the Mars Effect," The Explorer, 4:8, October 1987 (I had to get that in there)

It's all rubbish of course. We have a great deal of certainty in our understanding of the universe. But let me leave you with this thought. Perhaps having a great deal of certainty about the universe is simply what humans do. Not because there is much certainty to be had. You are, after all, reading The Archdruid Report in a world that is certain that the future will be just fine. Better even that the present.

team10tim said...

RE: boring German Beer (late from last week's post.

Herr Doktor, if you live in Bavaria then I suspect that you know about Bavarian Purity Law, Reinheitsgebot or German Beer Purity Law, mostly in force since 1516 that stipulate that 'beer' can only be made from water barley, and hops. They were made before the discovery of single celled organisims so yeast is not included. They have beeen expanded slightly since WWII to include a few other ingedients for domestic brews and expanded greatly for imported brews. As with most things Wikipedia is the best place to start if you/one are/is unfamiliar with the subject.

The point is that Germans have know about good beer for centeries and that Americans are just now waking up to good beer. Specifically, Germans have long history of brewing specific beers and they take it seriously enough that the comercial rules were codefied 500 years ago and those rules have not changed substantialy since. You said that German brews were “very unimaginative and lack variety” and I would characterize German beers as variation within a theme while I would characterize American brews as variation without a theme. The distinction is important because it seems to me that Americans are free to expiriment precisely because they have no tradition to break with. While Germans have their hands tied; culturaly and legally mucking with the Hefeweizen recipe doesn't create a new good beer but rather a bad Hefeweizen.


team10tim said...

Hey hey JMG,

I was going to posted this late on purpose because I did not want to derail the discussion. Basically my input consists of a technicality, a reference, and an anecdote. But I ended up posting it very, very late.

The technicality, which I did not want to bring up until the discussion was over is that you are making the same mistake that the religion of progress crowd is making but in the opposite direction. Progress assumes, as a matter of course, that fusion will eventuality power the future onward and upward to infinity and beyond. Forward not backward, upward not forward, and always twirling, twirling into the future

You assume that this will not happen as scheduled. You are probably correct but this is an assumption on your part nonetheless. Fusion researchers might figure out how to sustain a reaction. They might then find a way to make it produce significant amount of net power. Economies of scale may then kick in to produce power to cheap to meter. Or maybe some basement mad scientist will get the Busard Fusor netting power one day.

This may strikes you as a long string of improbable maybes and it strikes me the same way. But you don't know that it is destined to fail. Progress assumes, without evidence, that it will work and you assume that it will fail, with copious support, but it is still an assumption.

The reference is to a fusion researcher Q&A page:

The jist of it is that fusion is not ~40 years away but ~80 billion dollars away. The hold up isn't time it's money.

Conclusion: at present levels of funding fusion will will never happen. For what it's worth I know that projections like this are idealogical. To prove it requires a successful run and to disprove it requires exhausting all possible possibilities. And it's possible that there is a possibility that we haven't thought of.

The anecdote is fun. I was eavesdropping on a conversation about lithium fusion. I was working so I couldn't give the speaker my full attention but I know enough about the theory to follow along. He was explaining the details to another, younger scientist. He was talking about cross sections and KeVs, and I wanted to know what the speaker thought about the future of fusion. I asked him which technique was going to win Tokamak plasma or laser pellet ignition and he surprised the heck out of me. He said "I've given up on fusion. The Sun is a fine source of power." I asked him who would win because I wanted to get a feel for what he thought about current research without offending him. Boy howdy did I guess wrong.


wall0159 said...

Herr Doktor,
I made the active decision to shift from medical to agricultural research. I am now working in plant genomics with the aim of developing cereal crops that yield better in drought.


Unknown said...


I've come to the tenuous conclusion that, very broadly speaking, there are two very different forms of "science" in the world today.

On the one hand, you have the "science" that scientists practice, a method or technique where observation leads to hypothesizing leads to experiment leads to revision of hypothesis, etc. This is the science that scientists refer to when they say that science isn't a worldview or a religion, but merely an intellectual tool.

On the other hand, you have "science" as the body of accepted conclusions, often but not always drawn from these processes of observing-hypothesizing-experimenting, which the larger body of non-scientists (or non-scientists-in-a-particular-field) accept on "faith," i.e., because the experts say so. This is the "science" that the everyday person regards as true, real, etc. and is the "science" that James Lovelock wanted to document in a "Bible" for future generations.

What makes this latter "science" different from "religion" has always been lost on me, because sociologically speaking, there doesn't seem to be much difference between an expert telling me how things are based on (1) spiritual experiences I might not replicate and theological language I cannot understand versus (2) experiments I might not replicate and mathematical language I cannot understand. Your thoughts?

Unknown said...


I've come to the tenuous conclusion that, very broadly speaking, there are two very different forms of "science" in the world today.

On the one hand, you have the "science" that scientists practice, a method or technique where observation leads to hypothesizing leads to experiment leads to revision of hypothesis, etc. This is the science that scientists refer to when they say that science isn't a worldview or a religion, but merely an intellectual tool.

On the other hand, you have "science" as the body of accepted conclusions, often but not always drawn from these processes of observing-hypothesizing-experimenting, which the larger body of non-scientists (or non-scientists-in-a-particular-field) accept on "faith," i.e., because the experts say so. This is the "science" that the everyday person regards as true, real, etc. and is the "science" that James Lovelock wanted to document in a "Bible" for future generations.

What makes this latter "science" different from "religion" has always been lost on me, because sociologically speaking, there doesn't seem to be much difference between an expert telling me how things are based on (1) spiritual experiences I might not replicate and theological language I cannot understand versus (2) experiments I might not replicate and mathematical language I cannot understand. Your thoughts?

Iuval Clejan said...

I left academic physics partially because I didn't want to lie to people. Grantwriting (or the lobbying of congress which supports the funding agencies), which is what professors spend most of their time on, is somewhat disingenuous. It is saying that the research will do all these supposedly wonderful things (cure cancer, produce more gadgets that will save labor and supposedly create more happiness, etc), which it probably won't and they aren't so wonderful when examined more closely. It is also lying because it implies that scientists do science for these humanitarian or commercial purposes. Most of them just like science, as some farmers like to farm. A more honest and sustainable arrangement on a finite planet would be for scientists to spend a large chunk of their time farming, blacksmithing, glass making, making medicine, etc and being self-funded or having their community fund them if they also want to learn and maybe do science, not because of any potential spin-off benefit. And just like everyone has some artistic creativity in them, most people have some scientific curiosity in them, so I don't think the scientists would need to justify doing and/or teaching a bit of science. But supporting a huge particle accelerator, fusion reactor, or expensive observatory is not sustainable, whether one has to lie or not in order to support it.

If I were an astronomer, I wouldn't want to offer astrology services not because I think astrology is bunk (I don't) but because I wouldn't be offering a real service except to a few people's egos. If they really wanted to get a good chart, they could do it by other much cheaper means and wouldn't need an observatory.

As a physicist, I could have also gotten a job working for the military, but I didn't want to contribute to empire building, or being supported by the empire. Instead I worked for the empire and was supported by it in less obvious ways by being a semiconductor engineer. At least I could be honest and do some physics in the evenings, on my own time. Being a pacifist who also appreciates a few things about military organizations (like offering an arguably constructive way for young men to express their aggressive energy), I look forward to the discussion of pacifism and violence.

Cherokee Organics said...


I haven't had a chance to read all of the comments yet, but has anyone mentioned the brief trip into the land of funding by fear by astronomers?

I'm talking collisions with near Earth objects. That was attempted a while back without much success.



Tyler August said...

If the idea of QM not returning practical daily-life returns is such a "howler" why weren't you able to come up with a single counterexample? I can think of a couple, but if you cannot, then from where do you get the knee-jerk response?

As for diminishing returns, for most scientists I've encountered it's more-or-less self evident. Even if they're techno-triumphalist and think we'll keep pushing onwards and outwards, they have to admit that the pushing gets harder as we go. Maybe it's different in other fields, but in the hard sciences where I've worked, it's an elephant in the room. Every grant cycle there are fewer and larger projects to push the envelope a little bit less far than the previous generation did. You can cry "anecdote" all you want, but smush enough personal observations together and you start to see a trend.

Yes, I'll give you that point. The religious reaction to science can be very dangerous. One needs only look at what a resurgent and militant Islam did to learning in the Muslim world this past five or six hundred years. Whether fundamentalist Christianity in America will remain dominant enough to produce a similar reaction, though, remains to be seen. Since (from my outside perspective) evangelical fundamentalism seems to be a white middle class phenomenon, and the white middle class is very much on the outs, I have my doubts. Even if it does, though, the rest of the world may stand a better chance of holding onto the knowledge--the same way Dar-al-Islam held onto classical science in the East as it faded in the West, and how the West took up the torch of learning as the Muslims put it down.
Many seem to be betting on a Second Spirituality in the Orthodox world. Why not? Russia is the Third Rome, after all. It would please them greatly to be put in the role of Byzantium.

Enrique said...

John Michael,

Great post this week as usual. I realized quite some time ago that Progress is essentially a myth, and I personally subscribe to a cyclical view of history. My views have been especially influenced by Oswald Spengler, as well as Arnold Toynbee, Lewis Mumford, Edward Gibbon, Edmund Burke, JRR Tolkien, Winston Churchill, Glubb Pasha, and ibn Khaldun.

Even though there have been periods of rapid technological development, social change and so on during certain periods in human history, they never last and usually go into reverse at some point. Moreover, the question of whether a particular set of social/ideological changes (same sex marriage, multiculturalism, the mass consumer society, etc) is a sign of progress is very much in the eye of the beholder. A great many people still believe that the examples just listed are signs not of progress but degeneration. Which of those points of view are true? Or is it all a matter of opinions and cultural preferences, which are subject to change depending on the circumstances? What is progress, and who defines what it is?

As for the question of progress in science and technology, I think it more likely that what we are seeing right now is the terminal stage of a relatively brief period of scientific discovery and technological development, much but not all of which was made possible by the cheap energy/fossil fuel economy. You yourself have alluded to this in several of your blog posts. To borrow a phrase from one of your earliest blog posts, welcome to Hesperotechnic Age.

There was a study a few years back which concluded that the rate of scientific discovery and technological innovation actually peaked in the 1870’s and has been steadily declining since. It pointed out that the last really big wave of scientific discovery and technological innovation ran from the mid 1950’s through the early 1970’s. The only really significant breakthrough since then was the discovery of recombinant DNA in the early 1980’s, and anyone who has been paying attention can see how the promised “biotech revolution” has failed to live up to the hype. All of the recent technological “innovations” which we see so overhyped in the mass media, such as smart phones, the internet, social media and so on, are simply recombinations and logical extensions of existing technologies that have been around for decades and some of which go back to the 19th century.

Law of diminishing returns, anyone?

This study concluded that if the present rate of decline continues, technological “progress” will come to a halt in the mid 21st century, making a mockery out of the pseudo-religion being peddled by Ray Kurzweil and his followers. In fact, this study made the case that if there is any such a thing as a technological singularity, it had already occurred in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Of course, the Singularity as promoted by Kurzweil and company is really nothing more than the Rapture theology of Protestant fundamentalism in secularist drag, and the British science fiction writer Ken MacLeod once derided it as “The Rapture of the Nerds”. The American military historian Archer Jones, in his book “The Art of War in the Western World”, likewise pointed out that the rate of technological and social change in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was far greater than what we see now. As an example, he noted that the rate of change between 1885 and 1935 was much greater than the rate of change from 1935 to 1985.

Robert said...

@Juhana I consider myself pretty left wing and my politics may therefore be different from yours but you're certainly right about how many academics, intellectuals and the professional classes are out of touch with reality as experienced by the "plebians"

My view is that these are people who are progressive in some ways, more educated (often far more so) and more enlightened on some issues than many of their countrymen, but at the same time completely unable to understand:

a. that they have their own snobberies and prejudices

b. that they are where they are as a result of social advantage just as much as ability

c. that the economics they propound favour (and are seen as favouring) them, not everybody

d. that there is a huge link between social division and prejudice, which their economics make worse rather than better

e. that if you weaken labour organisation and socialist politics, it’s not liberalism which fills the gap

f. that if progressive social ideas are linked to brutal economics that throw the working class under the bus, and are seen as being propounded by a superior elite, then you are asking for what you get, which is an alliance between the resentful proletariat and the cynical wealthy, not to mention demagogues of various kinds.

That they can’t grasp any of these points is precisely because of their monumental self-regard and sense of superiority.

wiseman said...

The fact that industrial civilization is on a long term decline does not mean that we have reached peak gizmos. Declines can overlap with periods of growth in different geographical locations, similarly less technology can overlap with more robots in different parts of the world.

Technology is still taking away jobs at an astonishing rate and will continue to do so for some time to come, anyone making predictions without taking this into account will just shoot themselves in the foot. While the theory of decline is sound it's implications are hard to predict in a real world.

Resources can be channeled into research even during periods of scarcity, WWII was a great example of that.

wall0159 said...

Tyler August,

"why weren't you able to come up with a single counterexample?"
Because I've been flat-out planting fruit trees and veges ;-)
The article ( gives a good intro, and lists modern electronics, MRI, lasers and electron microscopes as applications. In other words, without QM the list of technologies we'd lack would be staggering and would include large swathes of modern medicine, telecommuncations, computers, and more.
In other words, it's a bit like the life of Brian: " All right, but apart from the sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?"

FWIW, I agree with JMG that science will take a large pruning -- it doesn't mean I have to like it or think it will be good for our descendants. It's a bit like those championing the death of democracy -- it might happen. Doesn't mean it will be a good thing.

S P said...

Regarding generalists vs specialists: I think the idea of the "generalist" or the man who is knowledgeable and skilled, or potentially so, at anything probably peaked in the early 1980s or even before. Afterwards society and the global economy went into hyperdrive and specialization became the norm.

To give you an example in the medical field...for awhile its gone beyond, say, a doctor being an oncologist (prescribes chemotherapy for cancer) or an orthopedist (performs bone and joint surgery). Now there are many doctors who just do breast cancer or leukemia, or just do hips, or hand surgery, etc. If that doctor had to do something different even within their own specialty, they would be practically unable to.

Regarding Nestorian's view on evangelical Christianity, he misses a crucial point. In America, evangelical Christianity is completely wrapped up in the idea of American progress and manifest destiny. It's "Christianity + America", if you will, not just Christianity.

As America collapses, the particular forms of American evangelical Christianity will go with it. People might just then be curious enough to, gasp, read the gospel, which would lead them to reject their ministers and writers for the hucksters that they are.

Anyways it seems as though evangelical Christianity peaked in the mid 2000s under Bush and has been in decline ever since. They simply have no answer to demographic, economic, and political trends.

Christianity will outlive America in my opinion, but American evangelical Christianity will go down with the ship.

Russ said...

John: somewhere you lost me in describing progress as a civil religion. All of the definitions of religion in Webster's Fifth Edition (1944) require the worship of a god. I fail to see that in any definition of progress - which is indicated by a movement ahead, or toward a goal. I really think it is a stretch to call a recognition of progress a religion; even a civil religion. Then you talk of the myth of progress as if it doesn't exist. You must have some hidden meaning or subtle approach that I, in my own stupid way, have been unable to fathom. Two examples of progress: 1) you have a blog-site on the internet and are able to potentially contact millions of readers, which was impossible in any previous civilization in history; 2) I have digital hearing aids that allow me to hear. I remember meeting my grandfather 67 years ago who used a funnel type horn to hear. Although it is quite probable that in the next two or three centuries neither of these items of progress will be available, it would be illogical to term these, and multiple others, as a collective myth. If you are describing progress as something that most humans think will continue, and I think you have, then I am with you. And, most future humans will be in for a big surprise when there is as reversal of fortunes. However, my wife and I are pleased with our progress: we live in a solar home that gets most of its energy from the sun. Best regards, Russ Day

Jim R said...

Thanks for that information. I might have known that it would be the Europeans, and the military that recognized these patterns. The Europeans were into geology a long time ago -- the 19th century Swedish metallurgists... De re metallica, published in 1556.

The memory I referenced when I posted that comment, was a childhood memory. An informal geology course, taught by a PhD in geology, who was already an old fart in 1960. And, yes, we found some garnets :-)

Chris G said...


Although your topic was about continuing *funding* for astronomy coming from casting astrological horoscopes - a shift from the hard objective science of astronomy to the soft subjective art of astrology doesn't really seem all that far-fetched. I know many people, including myself, who find some symbolic usefulness to astrology, and the reading of the stars... or the reading of tea-leaves or cloud scrying, or the patterns of a rose bush.

As our civilization's material, objective "control" of the world continues to decline, it seems likely that people will seek out other kinds of control - which foretelling, or even just self-interpretation through astrological symbols - can still provide, even if we cannot jet-pack our way around the globe. And that, in my opinion, is not such a bad thing: even in the objectively-controlled world of technology, a key element is perspective and interpretation; and it seems to me, that is the key element in astrology and other interpretive arts. To be clear though, I don't think predicting the future is really what astrology ought to be thought of as offering; rather, a set of symbols, and long traditions, by which a person may gain some insight about oneself, the world (a la Jung, I guess).

But it would be interesting to read where you think science will push in the future, as the present energy-based system of objective material control of the world winds down. I've been thinking: genetic engineering; biomimicry techniques; perhaps psycho-social behavioral training systems... Or just wholesale collapse?

onething said...

Dear 6c03725a-00ca-11e3-9f33-000bcdcb471e

I'm an RN working at a hospital.

I see many of those things you mentioned as mostly good. I also have a sense of futility at work, but largely because neither the patients nor the medical institution have any real interest in health, and because I see the financial aspect of medicine as it is currently practiced as such a money pit. We will certainly have to be less wasteful, including the tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars we throw away on people who are in the dying process, or are in other ways nonviable.

Then, too, as you mention, the suits and pencil pushers have a very different idea of priorities, and have imposed almost endless paperwork and idiotic rules. I can spend two or three hours discharging a patient, when I am supposed to be taking care of the other five.

I long for the day when the pharmaceutical octopus loses a few suction cups.
The field of oncology in my opinion is the best example of what is wrong. Incredibly expensive, intuitively wrong approach to treatment, and false hope for the patients - and so much else suppressed that may be of real value.

I've had occasion to go to a couple of doctors in Ukraine, and was very impressed with their respect for and knowledge of nutrition, and their clinical skills as diagnosticians. This is becoming something of a lost art in America as we over depend upon testing, and of course drugs.

Much of the hand wringing over antibiotic resistant organisms may be merely the worry that the pharmaceutical strategy that, like Monsanto's, is approaching the inevitable end game of the unworkable methods they pursued. I'm not actually knocking antibiotics, but if we had used them wisely (like oil) it could have been so different. But, I am not at all sure that we have no other tools in the arsenal. Certainly the things I read are hopeful and interesting - IV vitamin C, IV hydrogen peroxide - which were once used in this country when doctors had the right to practice the art of medicine.

I really see a strong parallel between the big ag approach to growing food while considering the soil to be a medium for propping up the stems and ending up with things like colony collapse disorder as they take the poison approach to its GMO, roundup ready limits, and the pharmaceuticals till you drop while utterly ignoring what the patients eat, in fact serving them diet soda on every tray approach of modern medicine.

BUT - do not despair! You can always practice medicine and will be in a good position to stay abreast of the changes and be poised to do things differently and better. Perhaps less so if you are a radiologist, but even then.

The Ukrainian doctors I have experience with were perfectly able to perform surgery and prescribe antibiotics while at the same time also prescribing herbs! There are many healing modalities. Medicine as we go forward may not be as snazzy, but it might in fact be better. So much of what is wrong in our society comes from giving a free hand to greed at the expense of nearly every other worthwhile value. Along with many other kinds of waste, a lot of rules and regulations and paperwork might not be affordable, you might have more time with your patients. There might be somewhat fewer specialists, but more good practitioners of internal medicine that treat the whole patient and are embedded in their communities. Surgery will not go away, but needs to be more rare. A doctor will be a valuable person.

latheChuck said...

Low-tech medical care of the future might be more of a health-maintenance preventive model, because (by then) everyone will see that there's not much left to do after the symptoms of chronic abuse set in. For example, if insulin becomes unavailable, sensible people will pay attention to the prevention of diabetes. We may also develop an ethic which favors (in terminal conditions) death which comes quickly over heroic measures to sustain the period of near-death pain, making a virtue of a necessity.

rcg1950 said...

Many of the topics discussed in this latest series of JMGs posts and this latest one in particular were described and analysed brilliantly more than 80 years ago by a philosopher of genius, Jose Ortega y Gasset. I highly recommend you check out his essay "History as a System" in the collection of essays by that name. It is, in my opinion, one of the truly great essays of the last century. A very extensive free preview of it can be found on Google Books.

[Scroll down to the table of contents and click on the essay HISTORY AS A SYSTEM] I promise you are in for a great treat.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Roger,

A very thoughtful comment.

Quote: "IMO a large measure of it was due to the lack of specialization".

Perhaps. It was also a factor of lack of options and it wouldn't have taken much in the way of a few trinkets to historically breed dissent in such communities.

Perhaps we have taken specialisation too far in the other direction. The idea of office fauna in a cubicle farm is horrifying to me, although I have also lived that life. hehe!

Too often as specialists we outsource basic things / services and this is to our detriment because as a society we tend to think in terms of efficiency as a positive thing. Food is one thing that comes to mind in relation to this.

I've always noticed that when people bring food around here it is always much harder for me to wash up the dishes (done manually, don’t even mention a dishwasher around here). We cook with olive oil which has a low melting point, but animal fats / trans fats have a much higher melting point so it is much harder to clean that stuff. Ever wonder why it clogs people's arteries?

I find it to be vastly amusing that people think it is funny to bring meat products over to a mostly vegetarians household! I eat the food with aplomb and quietly respect the animal that had died for my dinner! hehe!

Anyway, as for the landed gentry living like a rentier class. It happens even today. Why is that people in relatively affluent times work such fixed long hours? Well, you're giving up your one and only life to indulge a wealth pump that is so obvious, that it is difficult to see - all for a few trinkets more.

As to brutal overlords, a good defence is reading, writing and arithmetic. Serious. They would owe a measure of obligation to the community, otherwise their source of income evaporates. It has to reach an equilibrium sooner or later.

Most peasant farmers would work less hours than people in industrial countries anyway. I think that it is a myth that such existences were brutal. I think the difficulties were that they were subject to the whims of nature, which can be very hard and also that they were largely monotonous. That is why it is important to exercise your spiritual dimensions?



Richard Larson said...

Well, I don't know much about astrology other than we are all moving around in circles. We are spinning around on Earth, the Earth is spinning around the sun, the solar system is spinning around the universe. And this creates a pattern, I suspect. Probably affects out behaviour in ways even the best astrologer couldn't detect.

Nut again, I don't know much about it.

Anyway, you could be wrong about astronomers using their advanced knowledge of these patterns to make money advising people once those colleges and governments get out of the way.

Diane said...

Hi John

To mymind, astronomy observatories have as their basis an exoteric world view
fixed firmly in scientific rationalism, astrology on the other hand
has its basis in an esoteric world view, firmly based in the occult. Unlike
JMG, whom I feel may be a bit of a closet romantic at heart, :-) I doubt whether
there can be anything but an uneasy truce for a while yet
Regarding observatories, it seems to me, that rationalists are a
pragmatic lot, and now that external circumstances, the limits of growth,
the knowledge that getting to other planets is pretty dead in the water, are
becoming more clear, the decline in funding will proceed apace. I am sure
that a few will remain available to the scientific elite, on the other hand
those of us with an esoteric world view, will eagerly await, the decline
in use of electricity, so that the stars will again be fully visible in the night sky

KL Cooke said...


"Since (from my outside perspective) evangelical fundamentalism seems to be a white middle class phenomenon..."

White, yes, but not necessarily middle class.

Phil Harris said...

@ 6C [medic training]
Roger wrote about a peasant country and his ancestral home: “They all worked very hard. To stay alive you had to be on top of things, you had to be meticulous in your performance of daily tasks.”
I guess your training fits you very well in generic terms for likely futures.

You ask for comments on scenarios for health care as we regress toward what can be afforded.

One place to look just now might be at what works and what does not in low income countries – including China.

One guesses that ‘Western’ pharma has already peaked in terms of profitability and cost / benefit, but that pharmaceuticals including analgesics will continue to attract resources most places. Generic drugs can be a nightmare but also are a great boon in societies that can afford some regulation and can have quality control for low cost manufacture.

I hope that medics worldwide can continue to obtain a better understanding of Public Health (and its failures) and of vaccination and its R&D base, and vitally the role of diet in epidemiology, and can help define the frame for protective health care. There are continuing possibilities for very large cost benefits ratios. Is safe-birthing and infant rearing inevitably so expensive? This could be an important question. Better maternal and infant survival seems to play a key role in bringing and keeping fertility rates down to 2.0 or below and represents a huge gain in ‘economic return’ as well as welfare in communities living in marginal austerity.

@Wiseman has pointed out that co-existence of what we think of as ‘advanced’ technologies (and R&D) with very low levels of purchasing power is not only possible but is very likely to continue worldwide for many decades or even centuries.

Medical priorities and the skills to sort them out will be a major issue, IMHO. Future introduction of ‘lifeboat technologies’ and using them as substitutes in the USA where currently there is helpless reliance on over-costly systems, itself would need to be ‘knowledge-based’. Medical ‘knowledge’ is not uniformly reliable and is easily skewed when it is embedded in a commercial system. There are reasons why US health care can be more than twice as expensive per capita just now as systems achieving better results elsewhere. Unfortunately it seems to me that an otherwise useful intuitive response to this situation tends to favour ‘alternative’ health nostrums and dietary fads also bedevilled by commercial priority, and tends to attract ‘brand loyalty’ of more than religious intensity, with scant regard for ‘knowledge’.

I find these links (below) give an increasingly explanatory view of the balance of chronic and transmissible disease in different societies worldwide, and of the etiology of much chronic disease trending during periods of transition. Change, often very dramatic, brings its own knowledge.

This recent study in Africa illustrates a few points
I found the work of Holly et al in Bristol UK set an interesting scene (paradigms?) for cancer and diabetes

Phil H

Richard Lyon said...

re: "Yet you’ll never hear scientists denouncing economics as the crackpot pseudoscience that it arguably is."

This is not the case. Imre Lakatos devised the concept of the "degenerative research program" - one which expands through the augmentation of principles which rationalise various failures of a core set of principles to describe reality, rather than in the set of core principles itself. Such programs - such as economics and astrology - can formally be defined as "pseudoscience".

Spiro Latsis applied this to Milton Friedman's attempt to establish the foundations of neoclassical economics principles, demonstrating them formally to be degenerative, i.e. pseudoscience.

Light Bearer said...

I hope that once I read more of your work I can develop an informed opinion that as yet I have not formed. I will say though that I found the way you write and explained this subject compelling to say the least.

I look forward to reading more and hopefully educating myself to other dynamic views

many many thanks

DaShui said...

Just in time for this weeks post, it must have been written in the stars....

Liquid Paradigm said...

Along the larger theme this blog pursues, I found this cheering. Philosophically, I've found myself extremely isolated by the (ongoing) breakdown of the myth of progress in my own life.

It's always nice to see that, though separated by distance, I'm not thoroughly alone. :)

John Michael Greer said...

Okay, I'm back -- tip of the archdruidical hat to my backup moderator, who did a sterling job of keeping up with comments while I was out of town.

Nicholas, thank you for the clarification -- I ran a web search on "dark empiricist" and didn't find any relevant hits.

Robert, true enough. I suspect there was more than one process -- current alchemical lore talks about at least two, one starting with lead, the other starting with antimony.

Toomas, yes, but my point was precisely that the contempt for astrology common among astronomers is itself a very interesting thing, worth attention in its own right.

Max, it's only from within the walls of the ivory tower that astrology or religion have "fallen by the wayside" -- both are thriving today, and in fact a case can be made that they're in better shape than institutional science is! Still, I think you've missed the point of this post, which was to use the scientific hatred of astrology to cast a light on the ways that contemporary science is beholden to the myth of progress, and may not survive its end.

Onething, duly noted. I do have a religious interest in evolution, for reasons discussed in an earlier post -- if evolution didn't happen, one of the core teachings of Druidry would have to be interpreted in purely symbolic terms, which is not the end of the world but gives the teaching in question a good deal less immediate impact. In scientific terms, though, it's hardly relevant that the very sketchy outline of some ecological concepts that I present in some of my books doesn't obviously demand evolution! In context, the evolutionary process is implicit in the whole structure of ecological science. BTW, are you aware that Darwin never offered a hypothesis about the origin of life, and the final pages of The Origin of Species -- in which he briefly addresses the issue -- does not insist on a natural rather than a supernatural origin of life? Once again, you really need to sit down and read Darwin yourself, rather than backdating the current debates.

Mallow, I was speaking of the way anarchism and libertarianism sort out in America -- yes, I know the rest of the world has more sense than to get caught in the idiotic circular reasoning that's so popular here. As for the potential impact of climate change, in your place I'd give serious thought to relocating sooner rather than later.

Ian, that seems perfectly reasonable to me!

John Michael Greer said...

Void_genesis, these days I'm hearing from a lot of people who bailed out on a career as a research scientist. If I were in institutional science myself, I'd find that frightening. As it is, I'd like to encourage you to find ways to pass on your knowledge of the scientific method to people outside institutional science -- they're the ones who need it most right now, and they're also the ones who are going to guarantee its survival if anyone is.

Sufiya, scientists go out of their way to insist that astrology equals what appears in the daily paper, because that makes it easier for them to pursue their failed crusade. You might already know, and if not you might be interested to know, that Objections to Astrology, the main rationalist screed against the subject, is required reading in some American schools of astrology; one read through the book is all it takes to convince the students that the critics of astrology literally don't know the first thing about the subject.

Andy, that's fascinating. In my experience, the vast majority of what goes on in a divination or "psychic reading" consists of engaging a client in a conversation, using symbolic images as a starting place, that will help the client to find the answers to his or her own problems with a little canny help.

LatheChuck, you know, your explanation of why economics is not a science may be the best one yet. What it suggests to me is that the people who publish economic theories are those who aren't smart enough to come up with theories that will allow them to get rich themselves!

Paul, that's quite reasonable. Thanks for the link!

Juhana, exactly. Without the myth, there's no incentive to keep pouring money into the current grab-bag of scientific specialties.

Leo, good. It's also worth noting that long periods of peace have happened before -- notably the great European peace of 1815-1914. Quite a bit of the same "war is obsolete" talk you hear nowadays was being mouthed before 1914, too. You'll doubtless recall what followed in due time.

Bill, I think a lot of what's going on here has to do with the transitional period, when science was being supported by the rich and middle classes while the poor by and large still turned to astrologers and the like. The class prejudices absorbed during that time remain fixed in place. Is there more to it? Quite possibly, and I'll see what I can dig up as time permits.

6c03etc., that's a subject for an entire post to itself, which I'll try to find room for in the near future. The short form is that I expect the money tap to dry up in a big way, and a very large number of health care businesses to go messily bankrupt. Those physicians who are trained in the most generally useful specialties, and are willing to work for the sort of modest fees that people will be able to afford out of pocket, will have jobs afterwards; those who don't and aren't had better hone up on their burger-flipping skills. More down the road a bit!

MawKernewek, for what it's worth, antimony and lead seem to have been the most common metals used back in the day.

Ursachi Alexandru said...

"the rest of the world has more sense than to get caught in the idiotic circular reasoning that's so popular here"

Umm, not exactly. I've had lively debates with people I know, including close friends (obviously young people like me) who adhered to one of these two ideologies. The main thing I confronted them with is "how is that going to work HERE?", to which I hadn't recieved any convincing answer. And that's all the more ironic, following an ideology that was born in another country in specific conditions, designed to solve specific problems, and ignoring the different reality of the society you're living in.

But this is a very small minority. Most of Romania really isn't concerned with such things - although I won't say that it has more sense...

Phil Knight said...

I think the best expose of the class/status underpinnings that seperate "respectable" science and the "occult" is "The Trickster And The Paranormal" by George P. Hansen.

An absolutely indisepensable book, imho.

John Michael Greer said...

Wall, it's not a matter of terminally diminishing returns, simply one of a general trend toward increasing costs on a per discovery basis. In the contracting economy of a deindustrial world, that's quite bad enough.

Mary, nah, it's bottled, pressed polyunsaturated oil in bottles that probably isn't a good idea for everyday consumption. Your walnuts are fine.

Bill, no, we're not. I'll be saying something about that shortly, when I hit the end of this string of comments.

Ian, thanks for the recommendation! I've seen the same thing at work among historians of Renaissance thought when they find out that their books on the art of memory, or what have you, are being read by (shudder!) practicing occultists.

Hal, good! The reason it gets smug derision, of course, is that the only way to make the present look smart is to insist, in the teeth of the evidence, that anyone born before our time (unless he was a famous scientist) was stupid.

Mark, I trust you know that we aren't actually descended from apes as they now exist, but simply share common ancestors with them.

Herr Doktor, I've discussed the scientific method at quite some length in past posts -- this week's post was specifically on institutional science, and I thought I made that clear; if not, I'll revise before it lands in a book. As for the rest, though, no argument at all.

Nestorian, for reasons I'll present in a future post, I expect the conservative evangelical movement to collapse over the next decade or so, and not recover for another forty years. Mind you, the scientific-skeptical movement faces a similar fate, possibly an even more drastic one. More on this as we proceed!

Daryl, thanks for the heads up -- no, I hadn't heard.

Tim, good. I would have suggested selling observatories to the astrologers, but I figured I was going to get enough heat for the suggestions I already made!

zedinhisbigflyinghead said...

We are descended from Apes!

You might be. I'm ascended thanks. ;)

John Michael Greer said...

Tim, you know, it's a never-ending source of amazement to me that intelligent people can read a simple declarative sentence and miss its point completely. Let's try this again. I am not saying that fusion power is impossible. I'm saying that we've already determined, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that if it is possible, it will be unaffordable.. That's been my point all along: the last forty years of experiments have proven that none of the cheap methods work, and economies of scale aren't anything like significant enough to make up for the gargantuan cost of a fusion reactor. I have no objection if you disagree with me, but for heaven's sake could you please take the time to notice what I'm actually saying?

Unknown, good. I've suggested in earlier posts that there are three kinds of science -- the scientific method; the body of facts and theories more or less substantiated by the method; and the institutions that have grown up to apply the method and generate the body of facts and theories. If you want to describe the last of those as a priesthood and the second as doctrine, a case could be made!

Iuval, government-funded science is a very recent innovation, all things considered, and probably not a sustainable one. I'll be talking about how scientists used to be supported down the road a bit -- yes, and the vexed issues surrounding war and peace.

Cherokee, good. Scare tactics don't have anything like the clout they once did, as the climate change movement found out the hard way.

Enrique, excellent -- and I'm impressed that anybody anywhere remembers the title of that very early post! "Rapture of the Nerds" sounds like a great title for a movie, by the way -- more generally, the Singularity is begging for a good satiric movie.

S P, that's an excellent point -- the metastasis of specialization will likely be a major factor in the implosion of a great many useful things. One note to health care practitioners -- learn how to be a generalist, with cheap and readily available treatments, and you may just have a job after the rubble stops bouncing.

Russ, please go back to my earlier post The Fate of Civil Religion, and you'll find a detailed discussion of the concept of civil religion, which is widely used in sociology. If you have a quarrel with that, fine -- go down to the sociology department of your local university and pick a fight with them. Trying to be a dictionary troll will get you no mileage here.

Chris, oh, granted, but my point was that contemporary astronomers would sooner dine daily on live tarantulas than consider learning how to cast a horoscope, even if by doing so they could fund their observatories in perpetuity. It's the self-definition of science in terms of the mythology of progress that I wanted to discuss here.

LatheChuck, no argument there. Half of our health care dollars are spent on people who are six months or less from death, and in many cases -- I speak here from experience, having spent some years working in nursing homes before I got into print -- it's perfectly clear to everyone that the patient is not going to make it and the money is being wasted. A less extravagant society will have to learn to let nature take its course more often.

rcg1950, no argument there. My conclusions are a little different from Ortega y Gasset's, but the guy was brilliant, no question, and well worth reading.

John Michael Greer said...

Richard, again, I'm discussing the very loudly expressed prejudices among today's American astronomers, not an abstract statement about astronomers in general.

Diane, I admit to a fondness for dark skies in which the planets and stars can be seen clearly. Most people who enjoy looking at the sky with a telescope, as I do, share that fondness!

Richard, as I mentioned earlier, there's a substantial difference between what scientists say on their own turf and what they take to public forums. When's the last time you heard a publicly respected scientist denouncing economics in a public forum, the way so many have denounced astrology? That said, thanks for the reference -- that'll be worth following up.

Light Bearer, glad to hear it.

DaShui and Liquid, thanks for the links!

John Michael Greer said...

Ursachi, oh, I don't claim that the rest of the world has more sense in general -- just that many parts of it aren't quite as dense as we are in the US.

Phil, thanks for the suggestion! I'll check that out. In return, I'll suggest a book for your perusal -- Deviant Science by James McClenon, a thoughtful application of the sociological theory of deviance to the behavior of the scientific mainstream toward rejected disciplines.

John Michael Greer said...

Okay. Now that I've worked my way through the comments -- and may I say thank you all for a lively and interesting discussion:

I understand that some of the readers of this blog have strong feelings about Darwinian evolutionary theory. I have no objection to the fact that those have been discussed -- after all, I brought the subject up in an earlier post. Still, we've been around the usual debates, and I think it's safe to assume that those debates are no more likely to find a meaningful resolution here than anywhere else. That being the case, I'm going to ask both pro- and anti-Darwin readers to save their arguing points for other forums, where debating evolution is more relevant. Thank you!

August Johnson said...

Ah, yes... Objections... 1975 Bart Bok I never met him but he and my father were both at the University of Arizona and I do know that my father didn't like him. I never asked why, but in reading biographies I can see some ideas of why, a certain arrogance just strikes me. Gerard Kuiper, another person my father had conflicts with was arrogance personified. However he considered Aden Meinel a good friend.

Dark skies, they're wonderful! In the next couple years I'll be getting my old 1986 Celestron telescope mounted on a permanent pier in the yard in a permanent building.

Leo said...

Wonder which continent will be flattened this time round. Depends on how it plays out though and the protection of nuclear weapons will be here for a few decades more. More proxy wars?

The whole Overshoot sphere will have to start paying more attention to wars and military conflict, simply because their going to be fairly important events.

I've started a series on the military in a post peak world

Resilience in this new world will include the ability to deal with invasions, raids, burning the countryside and raging wars. Wonder how the transition town movement and all the others include that in there programs.

I don't expect to fight in the future, but working for the military or defence industry is highly likely.

latheChuck said...

Re: Economics. The optimistic case is that those who advise (publicly and privately) people with money on how to invest are using "theories" which are merely wrong, or perhaps outdated. (A successful theory of investing is outdated as soon as its success is revealed. An unsuccessful theory can go on much longer.)

The pessimistic case is that advisors intentionally promote bad decisions which can be taken advantage of for their own personal gain (see, for example, the mortgage finance chaos of the last ten years).

The best writing on economics that I know of is VonNeumann and Morgenstern, Theory of Games and Economic Behavior, which leads you not to think about financial trends, but to think about the psychology of your opponents in the game (which includes your landlord, your broker, your banker, your insurance salesman, your real-estate agent, ... your Secretary of the Treasury, your Chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank,...)

The LAST thing any of them are going to tell you is that they're your opponents, by the way.

Richard Larson said...

I don't know what is going to happen, most times people will figure out where the money is to be made. That is why I have the notion astromoners could become astrologers - could happen.

However, Archdruid, I'm not betting against what you think!:-)

August Johnson said...

JMG, related to your past comments about literacy and such in earlier times, here's a 1912 8th grade examination.

How many 12th graders, or even college students, could pass this today?

Juhana said...

@Robert: I actually agree with you at most points you made. Political identities just are very different here in the Old World. Blind faith in markets, as expressed by libertarianism, is practically non-existent here. Capitalism is just one tool among others in the toolkit, not somekind God given perfect model for commercial transactions. Strong nationalism is diffrent matter, as befits persons whose direct ancestors have lived here from 8000 BC onwards...this is OUR country, no matter what brand of government is forced upon us. Many respected historians here believe that embryonic forms of poems in Kalevala were conducted during neolithic Stone Age. Those Stone Age sages have roamed same primeval forests of Carelia as I do now, as do younger generations of my blood. No modern moral code can have stronger authority than that fact. This is our land.

So I am not "right-winger" in any way recognisable in America... I actually was active trade union member back in the day myself, and bonds of loyalty to that direction are still strong. Problems of governing system for West, build after Worl War Two, are exactly what you described. Ruling elite is creating "internal proletariat" at very fast pace now, and only hope is going to be somekind demagogue, protector of plebeians, to wrestle power away from old aristocracy. Ecstatic crowds shall roar their approval as modern Caesar erects his porphyre seat to halls of Senate. It is probably the only way left.

Juhana said...

Continued: Change in athmosphere I was talking in my earlier post is quite remarkable here in Europe. Especially those who travel a lot in Eastern Europe can not miss the hints about future. Some ideas recycled are, ahem, those who should have stayed dead and buried. There is huge difference between conservative nationalism and radical nationalism, difference that those more liberal-minded curiously don't recognize with all their fancy degrees...

I believe that following domumentaries are very interesting for those readers who can not read news in Russian or other Slavic language. Journeyman is rare brand indeed nowadays. They try to make actual journalism, even if their somewhat left-leaning attitude shines through now and then. Still, I must salute them for being actual JOURNALISTS. Endangered species, that one... Hungarian documentary is not so good, being so self-righteous and cosmopolitan by its outlook... Not surprising, coming from totally corrupt BBC...

About Greece:

About Hungary:

Grebulocities said...

If JMG doesn't mind, I have a question for all the ex-scientists (including ex-engineers and ex-grad students) here who are still reading this post's comments: what did you do after you bailed out of science? I'm currently in the middle of an MS in biology and I'm having the same misgivings that seem to have led many of you away from science, but I can't see any good path forward that doesn't involve trying to finish my degree and incurring another $14,000 in debt (my school is nearly bankrupt and can't fund me further). I'd really appreciate hearing about what people who bailed out of research science have managed to find.

Cherokee Organics said...


I've always assumed that such tactics as funding by fear are a last throw of the dice by the very desperate or needy for income. Georgi mentioned the same thing a few weeks back, when he was banging on about the need to prepare for the next big pathogenic outbreak.

Nature however, finds a balance whether we like it or not. He would do well to bone up on the use of willow bark tea to reduce fevers, but who am I to tell him of the history of pharmaceuticals? A lot of looting of old knowledge went on.

Meanwhile in the world, I travelled along the Great Ocean Road here today and saw that the beaches have been washed away. Sure it was an intense storm and a king tide, but some towns have only a single dune between their low lying parts and the ocean. This winter storm was so intense that I confused the salt spray in the air for snow. It looked exactly the same, plus the ice cream headaches from serious exposure to cold, wind and rain didn't help!

I have a new respect for the victims of ship wrecks along rugged coastlines in strong storms.

Hi Adrian,

I dodged two of your questions last week whilst pondering their nature.

1. The local ecology speaks a language of sorts and you can understand it with some effort; and

2. How did I get here? You've inspired me to write a story as I no longer feel the need to hide in the shadows.

There is much still to think about.



Cherokee Organics said...

Hi mkroberts,

Quote: "it's really hard for me to see who gains from a view (which happens to be a consensus view) that the earth is warming and the climate is changing, potentially catastrophically, through the behaviour of humans."

Fair enough. So you know the message and obviously from the tone of your comment you don't doubt it. What do you then think is the right course of action?

- More scientific studies?

- Should we act on the information provided from the existing studies?

- Should we do nothing and just accept the future as predicted from the results of those studies?

Therein lies the crux of the problem. We don't lack for information, we lack for action on the ground.

You're arguing semantics by suggesting that there may possibly be a gain/loss scenario in the studies (I could not care one way or another), but at the same time trying your best to ignore the message that the studies provide by using this as a deflection technique.

It is a tough bind and I'd ask you to reflect on it.



yakaboo said...

I come across this anti-science attitude a lot in the green world (along with the attitude that the world would be better off without humans), and I think that it hinders rather than helps our cause of living in harmony with nature on this planet - because it brings green thinking into disrepute and even brings ridicule, rather than new converts.

I think the story of our universe, and our place in it is the greatest story ever told - big bang (or maybe bangs, apparently), stellar fusion reactions, supernovae, planet formation, life, genes and evolution leading to humans and to philosophy. More awe-inspiring and mind-blowing than any myth or religious story - but different in that, as far as we know, it's true. Brought to you by science - along with the internet, anaesthetic, photovoltaics and polio vaccine. Destructive technology is due to the system we live under, and the control of science by money instead of philosophy - which I am totally against. I don't think that economic growth, GM crops or fracking represent progress. But those things are down to our political and economic systems. Blaming science is just shooting the messenger.

However, science gets too big for its boots, and it's the job of philosophy to keep it in line. Unfortunately, science is being steered by money at the moment, and that's where the problem lies I think. We need scientists to find out stuff, otherwise we're just scrabbling around thinking that the sun goes round the earth, like idiots. Philosophers don't solve stuff, they just talk about how stuff isn't actually solved when scientists think it is. Scientists tell us that when they reconcile relativity with quantum physics, we'll have a theory of everything. Yeah, right. Scientists should do what they do best - science - and leave philosophy to philosophers.

It's the job of philosophy to look into the validity or otherwise of claims like 'the square on the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares on the other two sides', or 'astrology works', or 'Santa Claus exists', or 'the earth goes round the sun'. That's how we measure the value of different beliefs - with philosophy I think. By thinking and discussing. What other way is there?

You're spot on about economics, except that it's not 'arguably' a crackpot pseudoscience, it definitely is. Progress isn't about economic growth or technological advance, that's for sure. But I firmly believe that wisdom is better than the lack of it. So if you gain a bit of wisdom by reading a book, having a discussion, meditating, walking in the woods - whatever - that's progress, I think. And if you don't agree, that's totally fine - philosophical discussions don't have to culminate in conclusions or agreement. However, I think that understanding some things are crucial to our well-being:

Lobbying - the richest people in the world paying for access to and influence with our elected representatives. It's not a secret - it's done openly.

Political donations - the richest people in the world buying our elected representatives.

The revolving door (retiring politicians walking into cushy, well-paid jobs with banks and corporations) - the richest people in the world giving lots of money to our elected representatives at the end of their political careers.

The richest people in the world owning the delivery service for most people's news, and paying for think tanks and academic research to support their viewpoint.

The richest people in the world controlling the world's food and energy supply.

And yet we are massively in debt, through our mortgages and credit cards, to the world's richest people. So for the privilege of living in this world, of being their slaves, we have to pay them most of our money.

Now, changing any of those things would be progress, I think.


latefall said...


regarding armed conflict: in your post you say that it is the attitude rather than the money that determines a land based military.
However I would argue that you need money or a very convincing case of more money in the future to nurture the right attitude in your soldiers.

Ressource wars and pillaging will increasingly be limited by limited transportation at some stage, no?
Of course in the meantime seeing a freight ship on the horizon need not be a welcome sight.
But all of this depends very much on the offensive capabilities vs defensive capabilities ratio. I would say this ratio would shift strongly in favor of defense as oil dries up and tech tress starve.
Also if communications can hang on for a bit they would make any offense significantly more risky I would assume.

James Hathorn said...

Hi all,

For anyone who is interested, a free online course, Climate Change, offered through the University of Melbourne, started today. You can find it at the website:

Since it just started, I have no idea if it's any good, but I've been taking some online courses through these new collaborations between major universities (Udacity, edX, Coursera), and they've all been good. This, I think, is the wave of the future for people like me who can no longer afford to take college courses. (But I'm taking them for fun, really, as I've spent half my life in college already!)

latefall said...

re: gov funded science

I have the suspicion it will go the way of the music industry in many respects.

Of course the big acts are going to lose a lot of their appeal and money.
That does not mean it will necessarily result in a reduced quality of the arts under the bottom line. The pure flavor were often fueled more by a person's own drive than money anyway.
The applied flavor (really technology) needs practice and profitability. If either lacks there's not much you can do for it.

I consequence I would very much like to see all of these topics find their guardians now while we still have an abundance of people who can read.
Preferebly on a long lasting paper or some equivalent.
Who knows maybe some of it will give some people even a reason not to forget reading and writing.

In the meantime I see a large demand for a specialist matching service. And maybe something to address the language issue, if we still have time fir that.
I am not at all sure what role foreign languages will play in the near future...

Richard Larson said...

Maybe the astrologers should become astomoners?!?

Iuval Clejan said...

Actually, reflecting back on my past motivations, it wasn't just that I liked science and engineering. I was also motivated by the romantic Progress myth of the scientist as truth warrior and humanitarian, and it did pay the bills and keep the wife happy. But I did get disillusioned with the whole ROP (Religion of Progress) and was then looking for other ways to use my gifts.

So, people don't just do stuff to survive (livelihood), but their innate gifts, and a mythology/religion are at least as important in motivating them. I think young people coming out of college who have been exposed to permaculture are starting to be aware of the disconnect between the jobs/opportunities that the culture of Progress has available and work that is consistent with their values.

Things I'm working on (or would like to work on) now, that have some science or engineering skills involved:
1. Linear programming area and water optimization for planting crops in order to provide sufficient nutrition and soil fertility based on biointensive data, USDA nutritional and RDA data, and personal yield data.
2. Weaving pretty and functional shade and bug-repellant screens on a loom out of natural fibers
3. Pedal-powered water pumps for deep wells.
4. The Luddite Manhattan Project (google--I do have some romantic idea here of being like Oppenheimer but making something much more useful than an atom bomb).

But I earn my food and shelter doing much more mundane things and some of them are totally within the old paradigm of the ROP.

What is a renegade ROP priest to do upon losing his faith?

Bill Pulliam said...

Grebulocities -- first, you have to get past the idea that you have only been trained for one thing (maybe you don't have this problem, but many lifetime academics do). You can break down your skills into many areas, and there are lots of other places you can apply them. Computer skills, technical skills, writing skills, teaching skills, statistical and analytical skills, research skills, all can be applied in many other ways. Think about what parts you do enjoy -- maybe field work, maybe library research, maybe travel, maybe giving presentations, maybe none of it.

As for me I decided to learn a basic trade -- much cheaper than getting a graduate degree and takes much less time. I splurged on going to a top-notch trucking school, stepped out of it into a good company, earned back my tuition in my first month out, and made as much money in my first year trucking as in my last year post-doc-ing. Other trades I have picked up since and use regularly but do not at the present get paid for are carpentry (finish and framing) and household electrical systems. If a trade is not your style, consider what does appeal to you. In particular you might think about things that are needed anywhere, not just in college towns or big cities. That way you have flexibility in where you live. Beware of current occupational fads; those tend to become oversupplied. This seems to be happening to nursing and other health care fields right now.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

@Grebulocities--I know two people with postgraduate degrees in biology-related areas who supervise groups of laboratories for compliance with laws and regulations on treatment of lab animals, safety, disposal of dangerous materials, etc. One of them works for a university, the other for a government food safety agency.

Until the funding for the labs dries up, which isn't likely to happen in the near future, they have steady jobs with benefits.

SLClaire said...

Grebulocities - not sure if my bailing-out experience is all that relevant as I bailed out 20 years ago and it was for personal reason. But FWIW, if you don't already know how to save rather than spend money, start learning now. Not spending money turned out to be the key thing in my not having to practice science for money after I quit. I might also suggest finding a pastime or hobby for which the scientific method makes a positive difference that you can do in a low-energy world. In my case that's gardening. JMG's book likely has a lot of other possibilities. If you can't do science for pay, and assuming it's in your blood as it seems to be for most of us, you can at least do it as an avocation. If it offers positive benefits, other people might want to learn the scientific method too. Maybe that would help it get through the decline.

I was the one who brought up the provocative point about quantum theory not being *needed* for *most* of what surrounds us in daily life, and I stand by that opinion. I didn't say that it hasn't been helpful. Photographic film, for instance, got a lot better once the details of how light interacts with silver halides and dyes were better understood, and it takes quantum theory to do that. But lots of good photographs, iconic ones in fact, were made in the 1800s before quantum theory was developed. My larger point in bringing up quantum theory is that the applications for which it is *necessary* also depend on a large energy surplus, the sort we got through oil. With that energy surplus going away, scientists really need to think hard about how the profession and those of us who practice it must change. Don't get too caught up in saying these changes can't happen, that *someone* will step in. They can, and he/she won't. The level of arrogance that allows scientists to keep on thinking that what we do is so important as to be immune to the ravages of peak energy is, if I understand correctly, one of the reasons that JMG is concerned that the scientific method, and scientists as we understand them, may not survive. That's why we who use the scientific method should be at least considering how to help it keep going in a lower energy, poorer in both money and materials, world.

Bill Pulliam said...

Unknown Deborah -- I find that people who hang on in the academic world without having completed a postgraduate degree are treated much like the way the mainstream world treats those who did not finish high school. The work is low pay, temporary, contract, devoid of benefits, etc. There is a serious and very low ceiling that cannot be penetrated without those extra letters after your name.

Conversely, someone with a college degree, some graduate studies, good skills, and good recommendations will be treated much *better* than average in the non-academic world. Even if you go into something (like I did) that only requires a high school degree, you will likely find that your better-practiced math and other analytical skills will help you. So long as you don't come across as arrogant and thinking you are better than your coworkers. And you will find no ceiling at all to advancement, if you can do the job and want to climb in the hierarchy.

So I'd advise against remaining in an environment where you will be treated as a failure and a flunky, and go somewhere that will take you at face value and pay you for what you can do regardless of your titles.

Iuval Clejan said...

Dear Grebulocities,
I have also engineered a feeder incline for a cooking rocket stove, a Kelvin Generator for an electric fence, A gravity-driven passive solar water heater, learned how to garden, how to milk goats and cows, how to keep chickens, installed solar panels and associated charge controllers, inverters, batteries, etc., built humanure piles, messed around with converting shop power tools to pedal power, hoisted old hand pumps with a tripod and block and tackle out of a deep well, and modeled the well plus pump with a soluble differential equation which elucidated some of the behavior and suggested future options. But I didn't get paid for any of these things, though sometimes I had good shelter and food as a result. I have a worktrade for my shelter and a bunch of fruit and veggies in exchange for some weed whacking and staffing a farm stand, and occasional watering of a garden, and I get paid for handyman work and teaching how to play violin. So far I haven't had much tutoring of physics of math gigs, but I hope to get some. I would love to tutor algebraic topology, but not much demand for that :-)

Humility in work helps. I fully acknowledge that the guy i work with as a handyman is smarter than me in some ways...

Iuval Clejan said...

Oh, I forgot to mention that I had my food and shelter taken care of for a while by taking care of mentally retarded and elderly people (as in butt-wiping, feeding, wheeling around, and entertaining) as well as setting up their looms and fixing their weaving errors... And I also worked as a facilities manager's assistant at an eco-office. Not my favorite kind of work, but not so bad either.

Mean Mr Mustard said...


That 'great European Peace' you mentioned?

1815–1817 Second Serbian Uprising
1817–1864 Russian conquest of the Caucasus
1821–1832 Greek War of Independence
1821 Wallachian uprising of 1821
1823 French invasion of Spain
1826–1828 Russo–Persian War
1827 War of the Malcontents
1828–1829 Russo-Turkish War
1828–1834 Liberal Wars
1830 Ten Days Campaign (following the Belgian Revolt)
1830–1831 November Uprising
1831 Canut revolts
1831–1832 Great Bosnian uprising
1831–1836 Tithe War
1832 War in the Vendée and Chouannerie of 1832
1832 June Rebellion
1833–1839 First Carlist War
1833–1839 Albanian Revolts of 1833–1839
1843–1844 Albanian Revolt of 1843–1844
1846 Galician slaughter
1846–1849 Second Carlist War
1847 Albanian Revolt of 1847
1847 Sonderbund War
1848–1849 Hungarian Revolution and War of Independence
1848–1851 First Schleswig War
1848–1866 Wars of Italian Independence 1848–1849 First Italian Independence War
1859 Second Italian War of Independence
1866 Third Italian War of Independence

1853–1856 Crimean War
1854 Epirus Revolt of 1854
1858 Mahtra War
1863–1864 January Uprising
1864 Second Schleswig War
1866 Austro-Prussian War
1866–1869 Cretan Revolt
1867 Fenian Rising
1870–1871 Franco-Prussian War
1872–1876 Third Carlist War
1873–1874 Cantonal Revolution
1877–1878 Russo–Turkish War
1878 Epirus Revolt of 1878
1885 Serbo-Bulgarian War
1893–1896 Cod War of 1893
1897 Greco–Turkish War
1903 Ilinden Uprising
1904–1908 Macedonian Struggle
1905 Łódź insurrection
1907 Romanian Peasants' Revolt
1910 Albanian Revolt of 1910
1911–1912 Italo-Turkish War
1912–1913 Balkan Wars 1912–1913 First Balkan War
1913 Second Balkan War
1914 Peasant Revolt in Albania

Besides a few humdingers such as the Crimean War, we Brits had se colonial goings on too, the Zulu ad Boer Wars come to mind.

It doesn't auger terribly well for the near future though, does it..?

Leo said...

@ latefall

The Vietcong didn't have much hope of getting wealthy, neither did the Chinese soldiers in the Korea war. Attitude is largely separate from wealth. Here's Machiavelli's take.

You can pay two different soldiers the same amount, but they won't perform the same.

Logistics will be limited. It'll decline while all the wars are overseas (how far is the middle east from America?). Once wars become much more local, it'll be a lot better. If America breaks up, chances are there will be quite a few local wars for example.

Blitzkrieg requires radio and is a very offensive strategy. Communications favour discipline more than offensive/defensive.

Defensive vs offensive is a bit more dynamic than that, it can change rapidly when everyone has similar technology. What happens when their is a wide gap in technologies, it becomes a bit more volatile.

Stonymeadow said...

"Disciplined Minds" by physicist Jeff Schmidt
haven't read the book, but just learned of it and read a few excerpts today, and some might find it interesting:

Disciplined Minds is a book by physicist Jeff Schmidt,[1] published in 2000. The book describes how professionals are made; the methods of professional and graduate schools that turn eager entering students into disciplined managerial and intellectual workers that correctly perceive and apply the employer's doctrine and outlook. Schmidt uses the examples of law, medicine, and physics, and describes methods that students and professional workers can use to preserve their personalities and independent thought.

Schmidt was fired from his position of 19 years as Associate Editor at Physics Today for writing the book on the accusation that he wrote it on his employer's time. In 2006, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education,[2] it was announced that the case had been settled, with the dismissed editor receiving reinstatement and a substantial cash settlement. According to the article, 750 physicists and other academics, including Noam Chomsky, signed public letters denouncing the dismissal of Dr. Schmidt.


Joseph Nemeth said...


My story: PhD program in physics, bailed before passing the qualifier, snagged a "consolation Master's" on my way out the door.

First job was sub teaching in public schools (1982, Wyoming, it wasn't so credentialized then). Took 6 mo. to find a regular job in industry.

Acquired first job through internal company recommendation from a friend who had also dropped out of grad school (chemistry). First job was as a finite element analyst. I'd never heard of it before I started the job.

Moved from there into pure software, haven't left that field since 1988.

Is that the kind of information you wanted?

Advice: focus on being an asset. Doesn't matter if you are driving trucks like Bill, or writing software like me, or running a farm like Cherokee. Be smart, be flexible, be useful. That's what people pay you for.

Absolutely do NOT get stuck trying to "leverage" your sunk costs in a biology degree. It's great if you can leverage that knowledge: just don't get stuck.

PhysicsDoc said...

Hi Grebulocites
About 20+ years ago I completed my PhD in experimental physics (Hi Tc Superconductors). I could have continued in that field and likely would have eventually attained a faculty position. Something at the time made me think I did not want to do that, maybe it was the politics I observed I am not sure. Instead I started working in more applied engineering fields first a postdoc at IBM then various pseudo faculty positions at universities and finally industry positions. Something in me wanted to do more applied work and make things. Although I sometimes question my decisions or wonder what if (I stayed in academia) mostly I am very happy and likely have done more technical work (including continued learning) than if I had become a faculty member (which often sounds more like a manager of a small company that continually looks for funding). I have also steered clear of working for the defense industry or other less ethical choices, and have avoided managerial roles (and they me) which paradoxically seems to have given me more freedom (if less power), and allows me to keep that side of our culture at arm’s length. Anyway I guess my message is that a PhD does not necessarily mean a faculty position or something completely different. The choice to avoid a faculty position is, however, usually a one way valve so one should consider it carefully.

onething said...

There was a recent writeup in the paper saying that I live in one of the darkest counties in the state, and that there is an astronomy group that comes to a park to take advantage of it.
Getting a telescope has been on my wish list for some time.

Enrique said...

Leo brings up some very good points. One of those is how transition towns and other such movements will defend themselves once centralized authority starts to collapse and we see the resurgence of brigandage, warbands and the like. I think that too many people in the transition and related movements somehow assume that peace will break out and we’ll all join hands and sing Kumbaya and we shall all live happily ever after in what amount to sustainable hippy communes once the present system implodes. This is highly unrealistic, as even a cursory look at history shows. Even the pacifist hippy communes and Amish villages can only exist because there is a central authority that has few inhibitions about using force to keep the peace and restrain criminal predators. Without either a central state to enforce social peace or a willingness to defend themselves by force if necessary, they are just setting themselves up to be easy victims once things start to break down.

There are a few authors in the Peak Oil and sustainability movements that have taken a serious look at this issue, such as Jeff Vail and John Robb. One problem that a lot of people living in rural and suburban areas are going to face is that isolated settlements and people are easy targets for bandits, marauders and criminal gangs. This is one of the reasons why historically most people lived in villages and towns. Even in rural areas, most peoples lived close to one another in villages that were surrounded by agricultural lands, and went out to work in the fields by day. The idea that people should live in isolated homesteads or in their own little world in the suburbs is really quite anomalous, and for good reason. It’s much easier to defend yourself if you’ve got a few dozen, a few hundred or a few thousand neighbors who are also armed and can turn out in the event of an emergency. This was also why many frontier cultures, like 19th century America, Canada and Australia had local militias that were formed to defend against attacks by bandits and hostile natives, and could also supplement the regular army and navy in time of war.

I might add that it is profoundly unhealthy from a social and psychological view to have such large numbers of people who are effectively isolated from one another because they are living in their own little worlds or living in small, isolated nuclear families whose members are frequently alienated from one another. This seems to be particularly prevalent in the United States. I think that when all is said and done, the cult of atomistic individualism and the rise of the selfish ideology that says “greed is good” will turn out of have been one of the most catastrophic mistakes that Western civilization ever made, and considering the sheer number of disastrous mistakes that the West has made, that’s really saying something.

I would like to give a hat tip to Leo. His blog ranks right up there with The Archdruid Report, The View From Brittany and Jim Kunstler’s site as one of the best and most intelligent Peak Oil related websites on the Internet. Keep up the good work.

Mr. Homegrown said...

The fantasy of a jet pack future is alive and well. Note the t-shirt I just spotted in the gift store of a science museum in Los Angeles.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

I think Blogger ate my first attempt at linking to this Huffington Post article about the effects on medical research of diminishing and uncertain government funding.

sequestration ushers in a dark age for science in America

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi onething,

Perhaps it may? Honey is a good anti-bacterial after all and can be used on wounds and sores. It is quite effective, but I haven't tried this as the petroleum jelly seems to be doing the trick.

The good thing about living in a cool temperate environment is that the insect cycles are broken every single year. There just aren't that many insects out and about here at the moment. The bees are of European origin, so for them our winter probably feels like early Spring which is how they can forage even now.



Joseph Nemeth said...

@Grebulocities: One other important comment. If you haven't gotten your PhD yet, don't. Unless you can't possibly see yourself in any position other than one that requires it.

Your widest range of options (outside academia) will come with a Master's degree. Someone with a PhD is generally considered to be a high-risk employee. There's a widespread belief that you're just slumming, waiting for a more appropriate opening "in your field," and that at the first opportunity you'll leave. There's a strong prejudice that you won't take direction well: that you'll be unmanageable. You'll also cost more to attract and retain. Most potential employers won't even consider your application.

There are employers that want and can use PhD researchers, but you will face the same problem there that you do in academia: too few positions, shrinking budgets, intense competition from other applicants.

If you stop with a Master's, or even with a Bachelor's with post-graduate work, you'll have a lot more options.

Iuval Clejan said...

Dear Grebulocieties, I am not sure I agree with Joseph Nemeth about not getting your PhD (as long as you get funded for it and don't have to go into debt). I got mine, and it was a generally enjoyable experience. You don't have to tell prospective employers about it if it might be to your detriment. Sometimes it can be to your advantage--I got one research job in molecular biology because I had a PhD in Physics (and I hit it off with the PI).

You can also start your own business or work free lance. But don't get sucked into the prevalent attitude in our culture that getting a degree is just so you can get a paying job. Learning and research are good things in themselves, even if they don't get you a livelihood. Of course, you can learn alot without a university, but it is nice to have colleagues, to have a chance of publishing in a peer reviewed journal (much harder without an academic institution to back you), and to be funded and have time for research. The thing I miss the most is colleagues to discuss physics with.

TIAA said...

Dear Micheal, I hope you give my comment a pass as I would like to enlarge upon the value and necessity of a humanity that has broken free from progress to take second looks at all previously discarded value systems (thanks to progress) such as astrology. Astrology, reexamined in the dawning light of living in a sustainable manner, will have what ever value it takes on. But let's not pretend that from where we are, chained and drugged prisoners of progress, we can know with any certainty what will be of value, how we will use it and what new aspects to it will be revealed from that new position of humanity we may attain. I applaud your careful exploration of this matter and any matter of this sort, we cannot explore this new ground of anti-progress enough and we will tread on tigers toes all along but with heart and courage we will find a tiger eager for our ministrations. Bravo and abracadabra.

Iuval Clejan said...

Dear Enrique and Leo,

There is at least one intentional community that is not being defended by anyone, including a central authority, and it is called Gaviotas. It is in Columbia, in a drug war zone. I wonder how many historical examples there are of such communities. For example I wonder if all indian villages had a military group to defend them before the british empire colonized them.

From a pragmatic point of view, if your village or community is being productive and offers things of value, it may be more valuable for hungry, pissed off people to let you live and teach them how to produce food and other things that are good for life. But that is not guaranteed and I do not claim to understand the mentality of barbarian hordes, though I think I do understand the mentality of Empire (sorry about the capital E, but I don't agree with JMG that there is no such meme and that it is only an external mode of extracting wealth--in other words I think Empire is also a psychological state). Perhaps the motivation to pillage peaceful, value producing villages is more a function of Empire psychology (which can exist even before or after the fall of an empire). I would rather spend resources doing outreach and preventing the anger that leads to people wanting to pillage in the first place. What fraction of monasteries got pillaged throughout the ages? What fraction were armed or defended by armed forces? The effect of arming oneself might actually have the reverse effect of what you are hoping for (security). But of course, if you don't pay attention to your neighbors and try to help them, or even piss them off, it would be better for you to be able to defend yourself when they try to kill you.

Anselmo said...

Predictions of global warming seem unfounded.

The IPCC is not a scientific organization but a mass of politicians and scientists.

A scientist that I find reliable is Dr. Abdusamatov which predicts a small ice age from next year (