A Note on Science and Skepticism

“Question everything.” If only Neil deGrasse Tyson would turn this elegant phrase on his own positions, especially regarding known historical fact.

I had the great honor of meeting Tyson at the 2006 Space Symposium in Colorado Springs. He was incredibly witty, friendly, and accessible. We had a grand time discussing the possibility of life on Jupiter’s frozen moon Europa, while waiting in line for ice cream. For this reason and others, Cosmos was a series I looked forward to. So far I’ve watched the pilot, and more than half of another episode (there’s a lot of TV I have yet to catch up on; procrastinators unite…tomorrow). The visuals are incredible — they are the kinds of things I’ve longed for since Jurassic Park forever spoiled me to special effects. If only Tyson’s “polite” antagonism toward theism didn’t keep throwing itself in the way. Oh well. One day I’d love to meet up with him again over coffee and discuss science once more.

However, I bring up this matter to illuminate a larger point, about skepticism. What passes for “skepticism” today ain’t what it used to be. What it should be.

Anyone can make a claim about reality. But whether it meshes with what is already known is another matter entirely. Like Tyson’s inaccurate portrayal of Giordano Bruno tarnishing an otherwise amazing introduction to the wonders of the universe, a faulty line of reasoning or a powerful and trendy agenda can throw a wrench into the gears of critical thinking.

Science is by its nature investigative. It is a fine scientist indeed who manages to put aside as much of his bias as possible, and draw conclusions based on what is observed rather than what he thinks “should” be there. It’s an ideal we may never fully realize, but knowledge is only gained when you keep reaching for it.

In other words, science as properly practiced has no sympathy for dogma or declarative statements that something is “impossible.” Nature itself seems to lack that sympathy, as well. Seashells have inspired possible modifications of military armor. Jupiter’s moons were thought to be boring, cold chunks of ice before the Voyager probes revealed otherwise. Soft tissue has been confirmed in dinosaur fossils, which surprised just about everyone. The universe keeps knocking our expectations off their fragile pedestals over and over again. I thought we would have learned our lesson by now.

Alas, the modern skeptic, rather than pay any attention to his creed and examine matters at hand with a careful eye, tends to arrogantly scoff at certain verboten claims even before he examines them. Clumsy ad hominem attacks and self-assured political grandstanding start to take the place of any actual care for accuracy. Oftentimes they can make a legitimate point (as in the case of vaccine safety), but follow a faulty line of reasoning. Being right for the wrong reasons is almost as bad as being flat-out wrong.

For that reason, I tend to distrust the conclusions of a self-described “skeptic.” If you call yourself a skeptic, I only ask you to please walk the talk. Send the hard questions in every direction, not only at your favorite punching bag. Remember to sharpen your own thinking skills, and remember: even those with a university degree and grant money can engage in pseudoscience.

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The Remaking: A Brief History of the Wolfglen Legacy’s Origins

I thought I could start coming back to this blog with a fresh start, and keep talking about the world for the (still in-progress) fantasy series, The Wolfglen Legacy. I’m impatient to get things off the ground at the moment, but I’ll make sure the books are worth the wait.

In the meantime, here is a condensed history of the world these books will introduce to you. I’ve been working on it off and on since 2004, and hope you enjoy it. I might as well start at the beginning.

The Remaking – Earth’s new start

Toward the close of the 22nd century AD, mankind is crumbling and crippled, on the edge of extinction at his own hands. Wars, nuclear bombs, engineered viruses, and a loss of willpower have pared the ranks of humanity to a few million.

But that is where outside help arrives at last. The creator of this and every other universe, known as The Maker, shows mercy to mankind and gives them another chance. He does this by sending creatures called Founders to Earth, to repair and reshape it. The Founders sculpt new islands and continents, carve out new oceans and rivers. Unforeseen minerals, plants, and animals take shape under their craftsmanship. Structures are given to mankind as well, including cities and towers and deep caverns, as well as structures whose functions are still not recognized.

However, the Founders are not willing to let all their hard work be wasted from mankind nearly destroying himself yet again. They decide to give the remaining humans humbling reminders that they are the Earth’s tenants, and not its landlords. To do this, they remove most fossil fuel deposits to prevent another industrial revolution, lest humanity become capable of destruction on the same scale as before. They even recall the dinosaurs from extinction, and create living, breathing dragons — if you enter a world full of big, strange, wild creatures that weren’t there before, it’s a good reminder that you answer to a higher order.

Earth is not only being renovated for our sake, though. The Maker Himself intervenes more directly by creating new intelligent races, to share the Earth with man as his equals. Five new races are created:

  • Elves, who tend to be even more passionate and aggressive than us, and can live several times as long as a human.
  • Nymphs, an all-female species that look human, apart from the white stripe of hair on their heads.
  • Fairies, two feet high and possessing four leathery wings.
  • Roklew, a green-skinned race of creatures with large, long-snouted heads.
  • Merfolk, more akin to amphibians than fish, who can live in both salt and fresh water.

Humans now have a new world to explore, fill, and share with the five new races. It’s a better world than we had made for ourselves, full of countless mysteries, treasures we never dreamed of…and more danger than we ask for.

It is in dangerous times when the best qualities of these peoples at last come to the forefront. In future millennia, that will become all too clear. And soon that history will be shared as well.

Thank you for your time, and God bless you all.

The Reason I Love Speculative Fiction

I do not mean to say other genres suck or are inferior. I mean only to celebrate what I love in my own field, shameless optimist that I am.

Science Fiction. Fantasy. Alternate History. Together, these genres form the pillars of what is called speculative fiction. There can be lots of blending and subgenres that don’t quite belong to any one group (just look at steampunk and dystopia), but together they give an image of worlds that, as far as we know, don’t exist. Yet that’s not all they do. They can accommodate any other theme or motif, perform any other task, that characterizes fiction of other stripes.

Speculative fiction is a field of storytelling that specializes in “What if?” and “Why not?” It probes, challenges, questions, and explores in ways that no other kind of fiction is capable of. Yet it can take whatever has been produced by other sorts of fiction and give it more flavor, more chances for originality and finding what has been overlooked. Science fiction can probe as deeply into human nature as any literary novel you can think of. Alternate history can be as pulse-pounding as any spy thriller, or as romantic as a bodice-ripper from the checkout line. A fantasy can be a murder mystery, or even a slice-of-life tale (though it may be a slice of life from a magic student or an apprentice dragon-breeder).

Admittedly, there is a reputation which says speculative novels are not as introspective or deep or profound as “literary” novels. There are indeed thousands of shallow, hackneyed tales in all three genres, with little thought behind them.

However, one-dimensional stories do not remove the capacity for profundity or depth from any genre. Though fantasy may have its Twilights and Eragons, it also has its Name of the Wind and Song of Ice and Fire. Science fiction may allow The Fifth Element or Transformers into its ranks, but it boasts of  Star Trek, Fahrenheit 451,  and Dune. A million terrible novels could not extinguish even one book that doesn’t just ask “What if?” but also provides the best answer it possibly can.

I think bad fiction is usually bad because of untapped potential. The writer did not squeeze hard enough, or didn’t look in enough shadowy corners, to see what could nourish their characters, story progression, pacing, or anything else writers need to consider about their work. But when they do, they should be recognized for their incredible achievement.

In summary, this is why I love to read and write speculative fiction: It can always find a new place to go, and there’s nothing other fiction does that it cannot do.

Physical Books vs. Kindles — Your thoughts?

Carrying on the spirit of my last post, I wanted to post some thoughts, then ask you to weigh in on that famous cultural wrestling match: Kindle vs. Book. I guess you can include e-readers in general, but Kindle seems to be their poster child at the moment.

“In this corner, weighing a few ounces, storing thousands of books and accessing them at the touch of a button, it’s the e-reader! And in this corner, at the weight of the Library of Congress, written by thousands of hands over the centuries, it’s the physical book!” In some wings of the internet, the fight has gotten nasty, a tooth-loosening, nose-breaking brawl of convenience and quick gratification against nostalgia and history.

And small wonder. Books, thank God, are still igniting passion in our hearts. We know that much from Philip Pullman and many other Brits coming unhinged at the U.K.’s recent bureaucratic treatment of libraries, threatening to close down most of them for the government to save a few quid. They are right to be upset. Books are too valuable to lose or abandon; they have carried ideas and words to generations of people, handing down the worthwhile thoughts of men and women long after they have been lain to rest in the earth.

When e-readers started popping up a few years ago, I confess I had my doubts about them. Sometimes I acted like the stereotypical book snob. Why trade the crinkle of pages and the smell of paper for a sterile white screen that doesn’t let you feel the book itself? I thought.

Sometimes our instincts are more powerful than we realize. Tradition is a hard thing to abandon. And we have loved the almighty Book for thousands of years. Those tomes of paper, ink, and binding are almost alive, in a sense. Once they are read, they carry seeds of characters, of thought, of story, of personal accounts, to germinate in new minds. And in an almost reproductive act, some of those new minds will go on to produce books of their own. But it’s not just writers who produce and live off of books. Whether they be generals or artists, poets or politicians or academics, world-changing thinkers cannot thrive unless their minds are pollinated with the written words of others.

Then came the digital revolution. E-readers asked us to adopt a new model of reading, hundreds of works able to be digitally stored on a fancy little device that we still were unfamiliar with. I am not surprised people got defensive of paper books, as if the extra effort in reading “the old-fashioned way” made them better than those who hopped on the Kindle wagon. Heck, for a while I was one of them.

(“Kindle wagon.” Huh. Nice term. I’ll have to hang on to that.)

And then, just for kicks I got the Kindle app on my new smartphone, and I saw what all the hype was about.

Kindles are the newer medium, so it’s difficult to say how they stack up against physical books. (Get it? Books getting stacked? Yeah, when online I have about as much of a sense of humor as a badger deprived of his morning coffee.) But for now, I can already report that my reading picked up because of that app. Since November, I have made great progress on many of that app’s offerings, and already read through Journey to the Center of the Earth and The Invisible Man. Both books are awesome and exciting, but it was a double-hitter of classic science fiction which, based on my slow reading habits, would have likely taken me a year to finish if they were physical books in my hand.

I offer you the idea that in a digital age, where distractions abound and attention spans vanish into the fog of cyberspace, we need e-readers. The Kindle and Nook might not be able to replicate a real book in your hands (which is a fantastic sensation), but they do let me get through books faster, absorbing them quicker than my ADHD brain will allow with a stack of bound paper. Both of them have inestimable value to me, and both will surely play a pivotal role in my reading life in decades yet to come.

How about you? Have you tried the e-readers yet? Do you prefer them over paper books, or do you find yourself drawn to that scent of old paper and the crinkle of a page when you turn it?