Saturday, May 22, 2021

UFOs and the opposite of crank magnetism

(Brian here btw, in case anyone's annoyed with this post.)

Crank magnetism refers to how people who credulously believe one wild claim, for example that climate change is a hoax, are strongly attracted to other claims as well. One of my classic favorites from years gone by was a wingnut blogger Fred Hutchison who claimed to have disproven climate change, evolution, and relativity. I'm sure there are many recent examples.

I think there's a much smaller but opposing danger to crank magnetism, which is an overwhelming disbelief in wild claims, a disbelief that's so strong that it holds even when it should start to crack. Maybe call it crank overreaction? This is possibly something I've had regarding UFOs. I'm not saying that I or we should now believe they're space aliens or something equivalently crazy, just that the evidence no longer puts them in the same category of ghosts and faith healing. There should be another category, that of "I don't know what to think."

There have been plenty of serious articles by serious publications taking UFOs seriously lately, with the New Yorker being one of the better ones showing all the old stuff still not to be taken seriously happening at the same time. This isn't the first go-around, as the article says. 

My personal history is that I had a family member very into UFOs and grew up with the childlike belief of "of course they're real". Then I acquired skepticism in my teenage years and dismissed them for the next 30-plus years. Five-ten years ago I saw a round of news talking about credible reports which I didn't pay much attention to. About two years ago to present is when I really started paying attention, the key issue being credible visual witnesses combined with instrument detection.

I remember reading about liars clubs in 19th Century America and the pranksters that started the crop circle craze more recently, and I used to think that lies plus hallucinations were enough to explain witnesses. Military pilots filing official reports saying they're seeing these things though - there are consequences to them for saying that. And instrumental detection at the same time also makes it difficult to dismiss.

There are lots of reasons to dismiss it still. My personally irrefutable one until recently had been:

1. These hypothetical aliens or whatever are far advanced compared to us.

2. If they didn't want to be seen by us, then we would never have seen them.

3. If they didn't care about being seen, then we'd see them a lot.

I still find that reasoning fairly persuasive, but the evidence of them being seen is piling up. Maybe I also shouldn't be too confident that I can understand the logic of a superior technology/intelligence, although assuming they'll let us see them vaguely but not too close is just weird.

If this were just seem weird weather phenomenon with equivalent evidence, I'd say yeah good enough, must be real. UFOs or UAPs or whatever you want to call them haven't risen to the extraordinary evidence level yet, but it's not nothing. Maybe now is the time to neither dismiss nor believe.

I felt like getting this blog post out before the big government report lands in June so it's not colored by those conclusions. I expect it will be more of the same of what we've seen so far, but we'll see. In the meantime keep up the crank skepticism, but not at the level that rejects all persuasion.

Thursday, April 29, 2021

Vox doesn't understand population growth and climate

Parachuting back to highlight a really bad article in Vox saying it's okay to have kids (no discussion of how many is okay, so I guess a quiverfull is fine) regardless of climate change. 

Bad arguments include saying that the only climate emissions that matter are the ones that happen in the next decade (and still not noticing that having kids would affect that figure). My favorite though is a cute story from the Bible that said Israelite women in Egypt wanted children when the men didn't, and one of the kids ended up being Moses. Literally magical thinking at work, "as an expression of hope".

There is the tired-yet-legit argument over personal action versus government policy, but you're really choosing the worst facts for your side if you think personal action of having (an apparently unlimited number of) kids is okay for climate. This isn't about skipping straws.

More hangovers from the horrible racism that afflicted past efforts to care about population growth.

So I'll stick with my recommendation instead - vast long-term decrease of human population on Earth, and virtually unlimited numbers off-planet.

Monday, March 08, 2021

Afghanistan v. Hong Kong: we can do something about Afghanistan

I have two unusual places that I've donated to and would like to give more - one is MIRI, a charity working on ethical, smarter-than-human artificial intelligence. More about that some other time.

The other is an organization providing women's shelters in Afghanistan for women and girls fleeing domestic violence and forced marriage. It's an encapsulation of the debate over Afghanistan in that their desperately needed work has been treated with some hostility by the government we support - but if the Taliban win, not only will their work collapse but their own lives will be at risk. This highly imperfect situation will get a lot worse if the government falls when American and allied troops are withdrawn.

The Afghan government is hardly a fully functioning democracy, even granted that measurements of democracy like Freedom House are using the depredations of the Taliban as part of the reason why the country isn't democratic. The government still has many democratic aspects to it though. And while our faith in democratic regimes out-competing non-democratic ones has taken some hits in recent years, some of it is still true. A system that allows women some rights isn't just ethically better than one that doesn't, it should ultimately be a stronger one. The semi-democracy of the Afghan government should ultimately be able to out-compete an oppressive insurgency, given time and support.

Where there won't be sufficient support for democracy is Hong Kong. Maybe we should do more and can do a little more. I like Matt Yglesias' idea that Hong Kong citizens be allowed to emigrate to the US (or other democracies). It will at least help those people fleeing oppression, and maybe have some braking effect on what the Chinese government and their quislings are doing there. But if China really decides it will remake Hong Kong in its image, then that's going to happen. It's not genocide like with the Uighurs, but it's tragic.

We can't fix Hong Kong. We can't fix Afghanistan either, but we could help a lot to keep it from getting worse until they can fix things themselves. Instead, Trump did as Trump does and made it worse. And, the non-insane wing of American democracy is sorely tempted by the slogan, let's end the endless wars. It's true there are endless wars in Afghanistan and elsewhere, but I don't see the US being at war. We're in a low-grade level of conflict, and here's proof:



When troops are twice as likely to be killed in training than in conflict, then it's hard to distinguish between war and peace. Also worth considering that most of the KIA deaths were in the early years, the ratio in later years would be even more lopsided. This isn't to denigrate the sacrifice of those who died in low grade conflicts, no more than it would denigrate the sacrifice of those who died in the dangerous training accidents that are part of military life.

The point is that we're capable of protecting Afghanistan with little sacrifice on our part, far less than the sacrifice involved in military training. The Donald Trump/Duncan Black wings of our political system may think otherwise, but they're not the ones trying to keep women alive who've fled from their abusers in Afghanistan.

Not sure what Biden will do. He was right to oppose the buildup in Afghanistan during Obama's terms - the allied role isn't to fight the battles but to help stabilize the cities, train the Afghan forces, and put a weight on the balance in favor of the people. He might be seeing this now as an opportunity to get out, but that would be a mistake.

Wednesday, March 03, 2021