Saturday, November 8, 2008

Zero Tolerance for Stupid - My Own Included

So I owe Ben Parzybok an apology. As Nathan and Eric noted below, I over-read what he meant as hyperbole as a statement of world view. His measured rebuttal to my rather pissy tone makes me think that he’s someone I could have a beer and a good conversation with, rather than being, as I suspected, a rabid post-structuralist. I’m leaving this essay up below because I’m a firm believer in allowing your mistakes to air out in public, and when I’m a shithead I admit it – and Ben I was a shithead, and I apologize for calling you an idiot, and more so for lumping you in with the post-structuralists, because that is the greater insult in my book. (Maybe not in yours, but I’m apologizing for my intent here).

Eric surmises that my hair-trigger is due to peculiarities of my background, and indeed it is, although not for the reasons he cited (he’d be surprised how little of the non-juveniles of RAH I can stomach based on RAH’s poor grasp of economics – my second graduate degree is economics-related, and RAH can make me twitch rather fast in that regard). I was a double major in grad school Russian Literature and Physical Chemistry. I left the study of literature because of the ascendancy in the late 80s and early 90s, of the anti-rational post-modernist and post-structuralist elements. (Eric, I know you’re going to take exception to that characterization, but you’re just going to have to wait for that debate until NaNo is over – the post is coming).

Ben’s hyperbole in “The Big Idea” almost exactly matches rhetoric that is used to offer false hope (via “native” traditions) to patients via post-structuralist arguments. In some cases, patients buy these arguments and forgo Western treatment altogether. Eric makes the comment that:

To take such an argument seriously would be gobsmackingly stupid.
Argument" in my case being that someone in the West would seriously argue about the superiority of non-Western medicine from an academic perspective. Unfortunately, that is not the case:

"The philosophical work of Deleuze and Guattari proves to be useful in showing how health sciences are colonised (territorialised) by an all-encompassing scientific research paradigm – that of post-positivism – but also and foremost in showing the process by which a dominant ideology comes to exclude alternative forms of knowledge, therefore acting as a fascist structure."

This is an actual quote from an actual peer-reviewed piece of literature in Nursing, which is the scientific discipline most infected by the disease of post-structuralism. It’s used to make the argument that pre-modern medicine is just as valid, or in some cases more valid, than Western medicine. Ben – this is close enough to your statement about Western thought not seeing the picture, plus your mention of medicine, that it led me to misidentify you. I have met people - “educated” people – who espouse the ideas in your “Big Idea” for real. Those were not strawman arguments I was making, I've heard people at MLA meetings actually claim that modern medicine has suppressed known cures from native traditions. The fact that this kind of woo has infiltrated Nursing hurts patients.

I run into this shit professionally all the time, in fact I can’t get to work in Manhattan some days without running into a cult that claims this kind of mystical medical woo while maintaining that my kids are part of an alien plot. So yeah, my intellectual shotgun is sawed-off and the sear’s been filed down to give me a hair trigger. Point taken, I’ve kept my finger in the trigger guard since the Wagner thing, and now I’ll engage the safety.

And Jeri – no, given the real world consequences of actual freaking nurses suggesting that patients try alternative therapy first, it’s not cruel to go after the intellectual justification for that dangerous attitude wherever I see it. In fact it's a dereliction of intellectual duty not to. It's not the novel I went after, it actually sounds like a fun read, if taken in the spirit it's intended. What I went after was, what looked like to me, promotion of an anti-rationalist worldview. But, as Eric and Nathan pointed out, I’ve got to make sure my targets are properly identified.

--End of Update - Hyperbolic misinterpretation to follow:

I promised Nathan I'd have a piece about stupid on the Net that needs refuting. Well, here it is. My tolerance for stupid after the Wagner affair is still zero. Hence the pissy tone below.

I am a civilizational patriot. Unfortunately, a large swath of Western Civilization’s intellectuals seems to have no idea just what exactly has brought about the modern world they see around them. The anti-rational (as opposed to anti-intellectual, because what I’m talking about is part of a larger anti-rational movement that is alive and well in intellectual circles) movement in society disturbs me because it is indicative of the failure of our educational system to inculcate the values and ideas that brought Western Civilization out of the muck of the Dark Ages.

I’m talking about dreck like this from new author Benjamin Parzybok:

However, during the writing of the book I moved to South America. The magic of the place was deeply infectious. Walk from your apartment to the grocery store and you’ve tread over a bedrock of forgotten civilizations. The town in which I lived was built on top of an Incan town, the Incans built over the top of the Cañaris, the Cañaris conquered and built over those that had been there before. Who knew how many mysterious layers lay below that?

All of this was lost knowledge. Which of these civilizations had a cure for cancer? Which had surmised the essential building blocks of the universe or spoken in a language that allowed access to an entirely different part of the brain?

What. The. Hell? Cure for cancer? Surmise the building blocks of the universe? And did we discover a third hemisphere of the brain? The stupid, it does burn.

How does Parzybok think that the wonders of modern life got to be that way? Magic? Take the history of even one small advance that I’ve written about before. In 1856 a young graduate student was messing about with coal tar derivatives, systematically, if empirically, and hit upon the world’s first synthetic dye. This pushed even more attention to the young field of Organic Chemistry, and a very bright German scientist hit upon a theory that gave synthesis a firm theoretical underpinning:

It was not long after Perkin's original feat that Kekule and his structural formulas supplied organic chemists with a map of the territory, so to speak. Using that map, they could work out logical schemes of reactions, reasonable methods for altering a structural formula bit by bit in order to convert one molecule into another. It became possible to synthesize new organic chemicals not by accident, as in Perkin's triumph, but with deliberation.

From that work, Paul Ehrlich used derivatives of Mauvine to selectively stain microorganisms for identification in the microscope, and he developed the first stain that selectively identified TB, and he later went on to develop some of the first good theories of immune function based on that same work. In fact, he is considered one of the fathers of immunology.

A few years later, in 1909 he and his student Sachihiro Hata, using a derivative of one of those same dyes, cured syphilis:

Ehrlich began an exhaustive search for an arsenic compound that would be a "magic bullet:" kill the microbe but not the person with the disease. In 1909, after testing over 900 different compounds on mice, Ehrlich's new colleague Sahachiro Hata went back to #606. It didn't do much for the sleeping sickness microbe, but it seemed to kill another (recently discovered) microbe, the one which causes syphilis. At that time, syphilis was a disabling and prevalent -- though little talked about -- disease. Ehrlich and Hata tested 606 over and over on mice, guinea pigs, and then rabbits with syphilis. They achieved complete cures within three weeks, with no dead animals. In 1910 the drug was released, called Salvarsan, or sometimes just 606. It was an almost immediate success and was sold all over the world. It spurred Germany to become a leader in chemical and drug production. And it made syphilis a curable disease.

The cure for syphilis did not come from some human-sacrificing, superstitious pre-moderns experimenting with herbs. To say nothing of a cure for cancer. Just how many pre-modern civilizations recognized the commonality of the disease we call cancer, rather than looking at it as a disease of various organs? Exactly ... zero.

If pre-moderns had medicine at all, it was based on plants, and, well, let’s look at the oldest such tradition in the world, China. If anything is “there” to be found in pre-modern medicine, odds are it would be in that ancient tradition, older and more advanced than any society in South America. Chinese skeptics don't seem to think so:

The argument from antiquity in favor of TCM usually goes like this: it’s been around N-thousand years (replace N with your favorite integer between 1 and 5) and so it must have worked well! The truth of the matter is that TCM has no scientific basis and has been developed over the years on a foundation of very flawed understanding of the human anatomy and physiology. Historically, the pathetically low cure-rate of diseases plaguing the Chinese population with access only to TCM resulted in the evolution of a hyper-superstitious culture bent on seeing ghosts and goblins around every corner and behind every bush, too ready to take another life away. The inefficacy of their medical treatments throughout history, in my opinion, is responsible for the Chinese culture’s obsession with superstitions associated with maintaining good health and longevity. The list of superstitious do’s and don’ts are especially long when it came to childbirth, prenatal and postnatal care.

Stopped-clock-right-twice-a-day rules of thumb are pretty much all any pre-modern society ever achieved. Almost all pre-modern cultures emphasized social harmony over material progress. At most, like the Arabs, they kept freethinkers as pets of the aristocracy, but the networked link of researchers with a widespread challenge of received wisdom is a uniquely Western phenomenon, and it is why successful modern non-Western cultures such as Japan and China take on something of a Western character, even while preserving something of their own. Despite its advanced organizational features, Chinese “scientific” thinking suffered from the same malaise that all pre-modern “scientific” thought suffered from:

However, I may point out here already one of the characteristic traits of the history of ideas in Chinese medicine. Whenever antagonistic sub-paradigms emerged within one of the major paradigms, the resulting contradictions appear to have been solved only rarely, if ever, in a manner familiar to the historian of medicine and science in the West. Although we may witness, in the literature, sufficient traces of heated argumentations between schools propagating opposing views, after a while the issue was resolved neither in the dialectical sense in that a more advanced synthesis was created out of thesis and antithesis nor in a (Kuhnian) revolutionary sense in that a more recent paradigm achieved prevalence and dominated a subsequent era of “normal science” until it was replaced by the next paradigm. The unique feature of the Chinese situation – and this should receive more attention form historians and philosophers of science – is the continuous tendency toward a syncretism of all ideas that exist (within accepted limits). Somehow a way was always found in China to reconcile opposing views and to build bridges – fragile as they may appear to the outside observer – permitting thinkers and practitioners to employ liberally all the concepts available, as long as they were not regarded as destructive to society.

One of the basic difficulties in interpreting traditional Chinese medical terms and concepts today in a Western language results directly from this syncretistic trait of Chinese medical history. Identical terms were often used to denote very different concepts, and at no time was a standardization attempted which might have led to a dominating or stringent interpretation of even the core concepts by a majority of dogmatists and practitioners.

The confrontational nature of Western society is a good thing. It roots out bad ideas faster (not immediately, but faster than in any other known culture). The most successful non-western cultures copy this. It’s a feature, not a bug.

Idiots such as Parzybok who repudiate the best of Western culture in our intelligentsia are ingrates. The 30 million or so Chinese mothers making their kids study Western classical piano have none of the white-guilt problems that cause overeducated fools in the West to repudiate what’s good about their heritage – they know what works when they see it.

And I do see someone making a gobsmackingly stupid remark such as “Which of these civilizations had a cure for cancer?” as repudiating the best of Western Culture. How exactly, does Parzybok think that the anti-biotics that took syphilis from being a life-threatening STD to a curable annoyance came about? People like me do not sit in the lab talking about the fundamental interconnectedness of things and how if we found just the right plant from some aborigine, all illness would disappear. Cures come from cold, hard, logical study of the world around us.

No other culture managed to inculcate the ideals of skepticism in such a wide swath of its citizens (alas, not wide enough, but still…) that was necessary to incubate the philosophy that became the modern scientific method. This shows that Parzybok, in all of his taxpayer-funded “education” has not absorbed enough information in class, or had enough sense to absorb it on his own, in order to be able to outline exactly how the modern world came about, or how (and why) we know what we know. His knowledge of science is no different from a knowledge borne of religion – taking information on authority – and once he takes it into his head that the authority is to be questioned, he has no idea how to determine a reliable authority from a huge crock of cow manure:

It was here that I arrived at another ‘big idea’ - that myth is a word modern society makes up because the reality seems incomprehensible within a western-minded framework of civilization. Modern society essentially negates the possibility of the real story. Through this new lens I began to question all of history and mythology, trying to sort out the what ifs if certain parts were inverted.

Uh, no. Not at all. If by “real story” Parzybok means the superstitious mis-mash that Chan Yau-man was talking about in his essay on TCM, well, not just no, but hell no. We scientists are fighting the same fight against the Creationists as we do the purveyors of non-Western woo. There is rational thought based on evidence, and there is superstition in the Demon-Haunted World. There is no in-between.

Parzybok lives in the tradition of Rousseau, and falls prey to the same idealizations that gloss over the nasty, brutish and short lives of the pre-modern.

It was during this time that myself and a few friends took a trek deep into the Andes accompanied by a mule to a place the locals warned we’d be killed, a moonshining, smuggler’s village accessible only by a two day journey on foot. There were no roads, no electricity, no cultural invasion, and that separation from ‘civilization’ seemed to enable a special kind of reality there. It was a truly idyllic place, where fish were kept in water holes in your front yard, where weather seemed to crash in in every incarnation, all at once (the village elevation was 12,000 feet), where you kept hundred gallon barrels of moonshine in your bedroom and started off the day siphoning a plug or two. There was a healer. There was a deaf girl who’d invented her own signs to communicate with others in the village. There were sheep in the hills and the men spoke to their horses. Legend and history were inseparable.

Yeah, a “special kind of reality”. One where polio and tuberculosis were deadly, rather than historical curiosities. I wonder how much good that “healer” was in the face of cancer? Not very? I guess evil old Spanish had erased that healer’s connection to the ancients who did know how to cure cancer.

Parzybok is a mental adolescent of the type Lileks was talking about here:

One of the dumbest lines in cinema is one of the most famous: asked what he’s rebelling against, Marlin Brando’s character in the “The Wild Ones” says “Whaddya got?”

Oh, I don’t know. The Pure Food Act, antibiotics, an industrial infrastructure that makes it possible for you to ride your bikes around, paved roads, a foreseeable successful conclusion to rural electrification, sewers, the ability to walk into any small café and order a Coke and know you won’t be squitting your guts out 12 hours later into a hole in the ground alive with squishy invertebrates. Little things.

The fact that there are so many Parzyboks running around today is part of what the Chinese call the third generation problem. The third generation in a rich family, or a rich society, forgets where it came from. Asians recognize this instinctively because their historical (but not modern) view of time is cyclical, rather than linear:

When a man is bringing up a household he has to be capable enough himself, and work hard. This is true in business or any other activity. Whereas the father starts from scratch, the second generation doesn’t have to work so hard or have to face such travails. Still the son knows how hard the father struggled, and is able to carry on the business. Then comes the third generation boy, with no recollection of the difficult life of his father or grandfather. The grandson is very well educated, extremely cultured and sophisticated. He is superb in calligraphy and uses it to paint a sign: “House for rent”

—- Alvin Coox interview with Colonel Sumi in Nomonhan p.61

The infiltration of “woo” into Western thought is pernicious, and especially dangerous in the sphere of medicine. While I fully realize that Parzybok has written a book using magic realism, his musings when asked about the underlying philosophy of his book reveal a huge ignorance about the culture that created enough material wealth for him to aspire to be a paid teller of tales that denounce that very culture. It smacks of ingratitude. And in my book, ingratitude ought to be one of the seven deadly sins.


Nathan said...

I was wondering what got you so het up. I almost never read that feature. I've found that even if I liked the book, the BIG IDEA usually disappoints me.

I prefer my fiction as fiction.

Zelda said...

Wow, you are clearly super smart -- nice work smackin' that debut novelist down. You showed him. Looking forward to reading your novel when it comes out..

Ben Parzybok said...

Hi John - thanks for reading my Big Idea piece on Scalzi's blog. I wrote a response to it here.


Nathan said...

As I hinted at last night, I hadn't read this particular BIG IDEA. For me, those pieces are like explanations of jokes. I like jokes all on their own without explanation and I like novels the same way. I either get them or I don't, but, for me, they should stand on their own.

Now, I have gone and read Parzybok's Big Idea piece and I think you're rant is against something he didn't actually say. I don't see him as having made some claim that these cultures or societies are/were somehow superior to our own. (His rebuttal comes closer to that, but still doesn't cross that line.) He's imagining a "what could have been". (If you're coming up with a premise that includes a magical couch, clearly you're going to step off into some flights of fancy.)

On the one hand, I'd say that a society that is now extinct obviously failed as a society. But I don't have any issue with someone examining what might have come to be if they had flourished, in isolation and in parallel to our own.

I'd love to visit Cuba solely because they've been systematically isolated from American culture. I want to see a place that is uniquely its own and doesn't have McDonalds and Starbucks on every corner. There is some amazing Cuban music that owes some of its awesomeness to the fact that it has developed in isolation. None of this equals an endorsement of their government any more than liking the blues is an endorsement of the social realities that brought them about in the first place.

Sorry, can't get behind you on this one. I think you've taken offense where none was really offered.

Eric said...

John, I'm afraid I skimmed your entry when it first posted, and I agreed with it. Then I saw your comment at Giant Midgets about being in a pissing match with an author from Scalzi's blog, so I came back and not only re-read your piece here, but I actually went back and read "The Big Idea" post at Whatever (like Nathan, I almost never read that feature and I find it consistently disappointing) and Parzybok's reply at his own blog--and I no longer agree with you.

That is, like Nathan, I think you're railing against something Parzybok didn't say. Parzybok didn't offer up a massive dose of RFK-Junior-esque woo; he described the way in which he came up with a fantasy story (apparently) about a magical couch that wants to go somewhere, and how his writing this story was influenced by a sense of wonder as he walked over a bit of lost history.

I can't fault him for that one bit.

I mean, I'm a secular materialist atheist skeptic guy who enjoys stories about alien visitors and weird conspiracies and magic and ghosts and whatnot, not because I believe in any of those things, but because they're fun to think about. The idea that a lost culture might have had a cure for cancer is a fun idea to think about, even if it's a factually implausible idea. Just like the idea that there are ghosts is fun, even if there aren't any, or the idea of FTL drives is fun, even if they seem improbable given our current understandings in physics.

I think, from other discussions we've had around here and elsewhere, that there are actually two issues. First, I think you have a tendency to read too much politics/ideology into the text of a book, perhaps because you're a fan of at least one writer (RAH) who wrote with ideological agendas. Sometimes a writer's only agenda is to play with an interesting idea, and that's what the text is really about. Which brings up the second, directly-related issue: I think that because one of your favorite writers (RAH) wore his ideological beliefs (about government, about relationships, about religion, about everything) on his sleeve, frequently even inserting a character just to serve as a thinly-disguised writer's mouthpiece, because of this, I think you have a tendency to conflate the narrative viewpoint of a story with the writer's actual viewpoint.

In other words, just because a writer tells a story in which the heroes are fascists, doesn't mean he's a fascist, it means he thought that was an interesting story. Maybe he loves fascism and maybe he doesn't. A writer who writes a novel set in a technological dystopia may love technology or hate it--maybe he loves it and just thought of a cool idea that involved computers run amuck or genetics gone bad.

Hell, right now for National Novel Writing Month, I'm writing a story about zombies that may be a sign of God's wrath: I still don't believe in zombies or God, but zombies are interesting and the characters are people who would be apt to blame God, so I'll go with their point-of-view. But it's not a statement of belief. Hell, if the characters are right, and God is to blame for the disaster they're facing, it's only because the idea "what if there was a God and he was really, really pissed at these people for obvious reasons?" is an interesting idea to chew on.

It's in this vein, as an aside, that I think your dislike of H.P. Lovecraft is interesting. There are good reasons to despise HPL: e.g. the purple prose, the unmitigated racism, the way his reach sometimes exceeds his grasp. But you've expressed, if I understand you, a distaste for HPL based on his alleged fear of science or technology, which is (ironically) the exact opposite of who HPL was as a person and as a writer: his work may incorporate a fear of the unknown, but HPL was a voracious reader of science materials, a lifelong amateur astronomer, and (as a science-fiction/fantasy writer) an early-adopter of developments like Relativity and the discovery of Pluto--he wrote about the terrors of the universe because it interested and amused him to do so, not because he had an anti-science agenda. He wasn't, in other words, a writer like RAH or C.S. Lewis, in other words, writing (for better or worse) with an obvious agenda or to popularize an idea (be it the wonders of rocket science or the truth of Christian doctrine).

I don't know if I'll read Parzybok's book or not. I have a huge reading list, and frankly the description of the book somehow reminds me of a commercial for something (I think it's that old car commercial with the two guys rescuing a comfy-looking couch from a corner trash pickup, only to discover it's smelly).

But it doesn't sound like he's saying what you think he said.

And now I have to get back to zombies, and what may-or-may-not be God's judgment, and all that fun stuff. Hope the rest of your weekend's pretty copacetic.


Hey, Zelda, you do know that you don't have to be a _____ to say you disagree with the _____er/ist or even to dislike their work. I mean, you don't walk out of a movie theater saying, "Wow, I really would have hated that movie we just saw, but I'm not a director, so I guess I don't have an opinion." Or hear a song on the radio and say, "Wow, that really grates on my ears and if I was a professional musician I might even say that the lead singer sounds like ass, but I'm not, so I guess I'll listen to this song that I would think was shit if I was qualified to think so."

Because, you know, that would be pretty retarded if you did. Just saying.


And John, if you do get around to publishing a novel, I not only non-sarcastically look forward to reading it, but I wouldn't be adverse to getting a signed ARC, hint hint. We may disagree 8/9 of the time on nearly everything, but I enjoy your work.

And now (finally) back to the NaNo!

John the Scientist said...

OK, I'm gong to look at Parzybok's rebuttal because if I did read it wrong, then I went off on the wrong tangent. However, the choice of words "which of these civilizations had a cure for cancer?" instead of "which of these civilizations unmolested, would have come up with a cure for cancer" is what set me off in the first place. I just don't see how you can read that sentence any other way.

And, if the unspoken subtext is the second alternative is "have a cure for cancer by right now in history", that's also gobsmackingly stupid, for reason I will shortly elaborate on.

Eric said...

I think "which of these civilizations had a cure for cancer?" can safely be filed under "hyperbole is an excellent seed for fiction" and "whimsical speculation."

I think context is also important. Had the writer said, "These civilizations might have had a cure for cancer... buy my herbal supplement," then I think we'd be talking "dreck" and he'd deserve every pound the hammer could bring to bear on his pointy little head. But he's talking about how that thought altered the plot of his fictional novel about three men and their magic couch. I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and say it's a flight of fancy (perhaps worded a bit lazily, which may even be grounds for not running out and buying his novel), but at the very, very, very worst it's merely harmless and perhaps lazy--it's not like he's out there suing CERN or telling people not to vaccinate their kids or selling pyramidal hats to harness qi to overcome body thetans.

Even if the "unspoken subtext" was, indeed, "which of these civilizations would have had a cure for cancer by right now in history," it wouldn't be gobsmackingly stupid in the context of magic couch. It's much the same as: aliens building the Egyptian pyramids is gobsmackingly stupid in the context of an ex-cons bestselling "nonfiction" series of pseudo-archaeological "exposes," but kind of awesome in the context of the guy who played MacGyver (or Snake Plisskin--I just happen to like the TV show more) traveling across the universe through a magic hole to shoot an Egyptian god in the face and blow up his spaceship.

And, frankly, there's a limit to how gobsmackingly stupid "have a cure for cancer by right now in history" is as a "legitimate" historical hypothetical. Okay, it's stupid in that "cancer" is a cluster of cellular disorders with disparate causes that's unlikely to have a singular "cure," if any cures are available at all. So anybody talking about any singular cure for cancer is probably a bit off. But aside from that, historical contingency is a strange thing over the long haul. It's certainly unlikely that South American civilizations would have undergone a rapid technological expansion if they'd been unmolested after 1492 if they had proceeded along the same trajectory they were on for the 600 years prior; however, there's a helluva lot that can happen in the course of 600 years, enough that I think any talk of alternate possibilities has to have qualifiers and probabilities added at every turn and corner.

To take such an argument seriously would be gobsmackingly stupid. If you were to write an alternate history story in which South American cultures develop this way or that way after a non-Columbian 1492, I think it might be highly enjoyable. But the most I can do with an argument that pre-Colombian South Americans lacked the western cultural institutions that led to the development of what came to be scientific method from its underpinnings in western philosophy--well, the most I can do with that is to reply that you're probably right, unless you aren't. I'm sure I'll enjoy reading it, regardless, but what happened has happened, and alternate realities are mostly interesting as fictions and flights of fancy, little more.

John the Scientist said...

Well Eric, for my upcoming post on Historicism vs. Post-Modernism, I've just been perusing "The Racial Economy of Science" edited by Sandra Harding, one of the preeminent American Post Modernists, and about 1/3 of the book not only takes that argument seriously, but takes it to even greater heights.

Parzybok uses exactly the same language as those nitwits, which may be a coincidence, but I didn't see anything in his "Big Idea" piece that said that he repudiated that worldview. So, based on my current reading load, I might be a little excused if I did take him seriously when he didn't mean to be. :p

If the ideas in "The Big Idea" were clearly labeled as "this is fiction", I'd likely have not written this piece, but I'm not kidding when I say that there are, well, not serious Academics, but Academics who are taken seriously, who say exactly what I was arguing against.

Perhaps I pulled the trigger too soon on Parzybok, but if you get out into public discourse without knowing something of what's been going on before, you're going to get tagged and bagged before you even realize there's a hunt on.

Eric said...

It may or may not be a coincidence that Parzybok is using fluffy language or framing his ideas from a fluffy POV, but it also may not be significant.

Scalzi isn't running an academic blog, and Parzybok isn't pimping an academic work. Scalzi has made it a practice (for various reasons, and probably they're not all altruistic ones) to let friends and new authors self-pimp on his extremely popular and successful blog by letting them guest-blog about how their latest books came into being. Unfortunately, "where do you get your ideas from?" is a really stupid question, even when it's only implicit, and the best answers (e.g. "a PO box in Schenectady") are smartass replies that won't fill up a proper blog entry. As a result, the "Big Idea" entries are usually kind of vapid and desultory, and usually don't deserve to be taken very seriously. (Having said all of that, if I'm ever in the unlikely position of getting an invite from Scalzi to self-pimp with a "Big Idea" piece on Whatever, will I write something vapid and desultory? In a heartbeat!)

I guess it's not so much that you pulled the trigger on Parzybok too soon, but that you pulled it at all. The context of his comments seems pretty obvious to me. It's not really even clear that he believes what he's saying at all, nor would he have to for the things he says to make for an interesting train of thought that inspires him. Inspiration isn't always factual or logical in any case.

There's no reason whatsoever that the "Big Idea" pieces need a disclaimer. It's pretty obvious that they're all about writers writing about writing, and it's fairly obvious from Scalzi's introductions and/or the authors' statements and/or the book covers and/or the book titles whether the writing that is the subject of the writing is fiction or non-. And the "Big Idea" pieces themselves aren't really fiction--they're about the writing process, which means they're sometimes about really stupid ideas that maybe made a pretty good book when the author was done. Or not.


Oh, and by the way, here's a "Big Idea" disclaimer of sorts, from when Scalzi solicited for "Big Idea" entries:

Fellow authors (and related editors, publishers, and publicists), if you’ve been asking yourself, “Hey, how do I promote this book I will soon have in the stores, to up to 40,000 unique readers daily, all of whom have some interest in the written word?” I may have a solution for you. As you know, I run a feature here called “The Big Idea,” in which authors talk about the big idea behind their latest works, and playing with those ideas affected the writing of the book. Here are some recent examples of the feature. And it’s open to writers of all genres of fiction and non-fiction, because variety is good.

Jeri said...

John, I have to say that I, too, am more than a little uncomfortable with this - but it's your venue and you certainly get to mount whatever soapbox you please.

Walter is worth your time - he's a non-scientist claiming nonexistent credentials in the real-world hard sciences.

Ben Parzybok is a fiction author. Fiction! To hold his flights of what-if - his research methodology - and his assumptions and conclusions up to the same lens is a faulty application of methodology.

If you removed all SF books from the shelves that were scientifically implausible or based on inaccurate or just plain bad science research, the shelves would be sparse and lonely places indeed.

But it's fiction, and not all fiction is written by scientists and none of it needs to meet the standard of the scientific method.

If I in my book decide that Mt Rainier will blow its top with the force of the original Yellowstone cataclysm - then in my alternate fictional universe, that's what happens. (I'm not going quite that overboard.) Sure, it's implausible, but it's my fiction and I get to write the rules of my universe. If you don't like it don't buy it - but don't try to subject it to the rules of your universe, your scientific methodology, because they simply don't apply.

Also, I have to ask this - in your zeal to correct what you see as wrong on the Internet, are you remembering that there are real human beings behind these issues? And that they deserve respect, compassion and a fair hearing on general principle? Not everyone out there is actually doing something stupid or needs to be corrected. Although if you perceive that as your mission - it looks to be pretty infinite. ;)

It seems unnecessarily cruel to me to target a debut author's fantastical and mythologically focused work - have you even done him the courtesy of reading it, as source material? - and demolish it in terms of its scientific inadequacies.

As I said, it's your blog, and you certainly get to tackle any topic you choose. If Parzybok didn't write the story that you would have written - or come to the conclusions that you would have reached - it doesn't make him wrong. He wrote his own book. If you'd like a book that approaches the concepts differently, then you write it! Don't fault him for not doing so.

Given your assessment of his novel - I'm not entirely sure I'd be very enthusiastic about you reading or reviewing mine, post-publication.

Ben Parzybok said...

Hi John - I appreciate the update. Perhaps when I'm in Manhattan next I'll call on you for that beer. In the meantime, best of luck on NaNo.

Eric said...

John, for the record: it takes a real mensch to admit a mistake. Virtual beers all around!

Jeri said...

Thanks, John, for the update - I raise my virtual root beer to you!

Eric said...

Ah--one clarification.

You're right that there are those who argue the superiority of non-Western medicine with insufficient evidence and/or no basis in known science; those people, I agree, are gobsmackingly stupid. And I agree that there are people--like the nurses you cite--who really ought to know better.

My statement, "To take such an argument seriously would be gobsmackingly stupid," wasn't in reference to that point; it was in reference to a hypothetical argument about historical contingency, specifically the historical contingency of "what would have happened to American medicine if the 'Discovery' of the Americas and subsequent colonization had not occurred?"

Is it hypothetically possible that Americans would have stumbled onto some surprising developments in medicine if the invasion of 1492? Perhaps, but I think it would have required one of the American indigenous peoples to stumble upon something like the scientific method during that alternate timeline. It doesn't seem probable, but it's not impossible.

The thing to note about that particular historical contingency is that it doesn't actually advance a claim that non-Western medicine is or could be superior. Or, to be more precise, it suggests that had indigenous American peoples developed logical rigor, they might have achieved much more (after all, during much of the era we're talking about--starting in the fifteenth century and moving on from there--much of Western medicine was sidetracked onto anti-scientific and anti-rational methodologies derived from an unholy mixture of bullshit philosophy and European folk cures; indeed, Western medicine still retained and was bogged down by anti-scientific elements and dead-ends into the nineteenth century).

O'course, now we're really getting off into a tangent. The point was: I agree with you about all the useless woo plaguing the medical field. My "gobsmackingly stupid" comment was about something else entirely--the limited usefulness of thought experiments in understanding history.

Eric said...


And, John, you're still a mensch.

::clicks an imaginary bottle of Sam Adams Winter Brew against Jeri's imaginary root beer bottle--and then goes off to open the real bottle of SAWB he has in the fridge because he bought a six-pack of it while at the market today::

Nathan said...

And another blow struck against echo chambers and groupthink. Excellent work!

:clinks all around: