Fact vs opinion

Suppose I was to say to you “Hey, I’ve got a secret! Want to hear it?”

Oh, Christing hellfuck, he’s about to make a bloody point again… you’d probably think. You roll your eyes and wait for it. So I lean in close to tell you, and say: “I have a dragon in my garage.”

“Yeah, sure.” some of you might think. “This is just one of those silly little word play things where it’s a Komodo dragon or the make of a car that’s called a ‘dragon’ or some shitty cop-out like that.” But I assure you, that’s not the case. Not at all. This is a real live beast of myth, legend, and that cool bit of Sucker Punch. It’s a fire-breathing, badass motherfucker. With bizarrely mammalian features for a flying reptile.

Others might say “look, I’ve read my Carl Sagan, too. Stop stealing his bit. Ass.” But just bear with me for this. The garage-dwelling dragon is a powerful point to make. It’s one of those analogies that’s really worth grasping by the balls. Hard.

The more observant may remark that, in fact, I live in a tiny flat and don’t drive, so don’t even have a garage to store a dragon in, so I’m obviously bullshitting you. This is true, good spot. Here’s the interesting twist on that bit, though: I’m not going to ask you to assume, for the sake of argument, that I do own a garage. Know full-well that I do not, nor have I ever, owned, rented, exchanged money or favours (sexual or otherwise) for, a room that could be conceivably called a “garage” by the majority of the English-speaking population, in which one could potentially store a vehicle powered by the principles of the internal combustion engine. Yes, I’m being that specific to ward off any suggestions of fancy wordplay. Allow me to even clarify with a pretty picture:

Boris_1

So, the challenge is this: evaluate the accuracy and truth value of the statement “I own a dragon, and I keep it in my garage.”

Now, you’d probably say I was wrong. Or that I was mistaken in some way. Or, frankly, that this statement is as close to Zero in truth value as it’s possible to get without trying to breed Bayesian statistics with Knuth’s up-arrow notation. Things that are more likely to be true – indeed, statements that probably must be true in order for me to own a dragon – include the possibility that your senses are deceiving you and you’re actually in an elaborate computer simulated hoax of my design, and that in the real reality you’re a womble.

In short, you would think I was crazy to assert ownership of such a creature.

But what if I preceded it with “I think that…” or “in my opinion…”? Suppose instead of being so up-front about it, I hedge my bets on factual accuracy instead suggest “I think that I have a dragon in my garage and that’s my opinion”. What then?

You clearly still wouldn’t think I was right. You wouldn’t think my “opinion” or “thought” was valid. Perhaps (well, probably) you would tut, nod, and know inside that I was wrong and just be too damn polite about it. But you definitely wouldn’t concede the truth value of the statement. That would still be close to Zero. After all, you know fine well that I don’t even own a fucking garage to keep the damn thing in. You know for a fact that this isn’t even a debate worth having.

If you didn’t think that, then you’d have to almost certainly evaluate your views on mental health. Not just with respect to those institutionalised because they’re under the impression that they’re dead, but whether it’s right to treat people with extreme depression. As, wouldn’t you agree, they also posses the perfectly valid opinion is that they’re worthless, and that they should kill themselves right now as the world would be better off without them. You’d almost certainly want to reconsider your respect for the opinion (Godwin Alert!) Adolf Hitler and Company had of Jews and disabled people, and their opinion that the world would be better off without them.

The reason you’d still assume I was mad to say that I thought I owned a garage-dwelling dragon, and not immediately bow down in reverence to my opinion on the matter, is that you’d recognise that simply adding “I think” didn’t really change what I was saying. What I’m asserting is true about the world is no different thanks to the words “I think that” stuck in front.

Simply stating “I own a dragon” already makes the presumption that I think I own one, and that I hold the belief in my head that I do. Otherwise I simply wouldn’t say it in the first place.

It’s my opinion that the sky is blue in the day time (although tending towards a reddish-orange at sunset/sunrise), and it’s certainly my belief that the sky is blue. I act according to that belief, and expect the world to also function accordingly; for example, in having photographs of a clear daytime sky in which it is clearly a light shade of blue. Should the sky appear green and stripy, or develop pink polka dots one day, I will act in a most surprised fashion at the sudden clash of belief and reality. No one points out that this sort of thing is their belief, thought or opinion, however, simply because such a thing is hardly controversial. It doesn’t need stating that you posses this as a “belief”, even though you do posses a belief. A “belief”, in this case, being any at-least-vaguely-coherent set of thoughts in your head.

Yet so often you might see someone state an opinion, and have it respected even though it’s clearly as disprovable as it was as if it were simply “stated” as fact. Prefixing it with “I think that” treats this fragment as something akin to a magic word. It’s magic because somehow it changes everything, even though it really doesn’t change anything.

It’s as if I could say “all blacks are homophobes” and people would rush to attack me as speaking false – but if I say “abracadabra, all blacks are homophobes” and then see people respond with a resounding chorus of how entitled I was to hold such an opinion. In reality, the central claim itself hasn’t changed. Or perhaps it’s like picking something up in a shop, running outside and setting off the security alarms, and then turning and saying “lol, j/k, I didn’t really steal this!!!1”. Or – and this is something that really fucking irks me – pirating some music or film, putting it up on PooTube, and putting “no copyright intended.” in the description. That’s not even fucking wrong! In reality, those acts haven’t changed, even though someone declares them to have been.

Actual thoughts and actual actions don’t change thanks to magic words.

Now, you might just think that any educated person can spot the difference between fact and opinion in this sort of way and so the above is just unnecessary. It gets drummed into you at school if you’ve ever done History or English or Media Studies; the way people can spin an opinion of theirs into a fact is taught quite rigorously. It all leaves us with a healthy cynicism towards certain types of claims people make. “This man is evil!” says one source. “No, this man is good!” says the other source. Both are opinions being stated as facts, and so the fallacy is easy to spot. This is a Good Thing. I won’t decry the fact that people take such assertions of truth bullshit with a pinch or seven of salt.

But it does mean we don’t as easily recognise this happening the other way around; people hiding facts – more specifically, things that can be tested as if they were facts – as opinions. Mostly because we want to avoid the spin that school has taught us to have a healthy cynicism for, we mistake people adding magic words to their blind and bold drivelling assertions as a sign of legitimacy.

“Did they say ‘I think that’ before they said it? Oh, that’s fine then”.

Nothing has changed about the assertion. The only thing that has changed is that we think opinions don’t need to be amenable and answerable to evidence. We should respect opinions. We can agree to disagree over an opinion. Or, let’s be more precise, we should respect things labelled as opinions. And this simple labelling of something as “opinion” is why adding a magic word doesn’t change anything. Adding the label “religion” to Jedi isn’t going to change the fact that it started as a bunch of Star Wars fans taking the piss. Adding the label “opinion” doesn’t exempt it from scrutiny or outright and frank accusations of bullshitting and being emphatically wrong.

Boris_2

The factual accuracy of a statement doesn’t change upon addition of a label; and so the respect that a statement should get, or the free ride it gets when we compare it to evidence, shouldn’t change either. If I make a statement about reality, that statement should be validated, or not, on the basis of reality. Magic words don’t create that exemption that bullshit merchants crave. Even if those magic words are “in my opinion”.

In its most acceptable form, “in my opinion” could mean “to the best of my current knowledge”. But then the same thing still applies; failure to update your views on the basis of evidence and demonstrable fact constitutes wilful ignorance. I have no problem with the ignorant, just with the people who actively want to stay that way. Fuck those people, and fuck their not-opinions.

This isn’t limited to silly little spats where someone says something wrong but sticks by it no matter what. The widespread resistance to evidence-based policy within government is entirely due to this fallacy being ramped up to eleven. The line of thinking is “If I’m presenting an opinion, I’m not making a statement about reality, so I don’t need evidence” – except this is bullshit. Policy is all about the evidence. You’re making decisions that will have an effect on the world. You need to be able to match up the actual effect of a decision with the intended effect of a decision. That’s the very definition of evidence, and it’s central to policy making. If assessing your policy or “opinion” has nothing to do with this approach in the slightest, then what fucking good is it?

If you’re going say “this action will improve the economy”, that’s testable (providing you define “improve” sufficiently). If you say “this alternative medicine will cure cancer”, that’s testable (because if 50 people receiving the treatment don’t do better than 50 people not receiving it, it just doesn’t work). If you say “the global climate isn’t really being affected by anthropogenic activity”, that’s testable (we have trends, data and statistics to play with). How many more examples are there? If you say “allowing same-sex marriage will destroy the sanctity of traditional marriage”… again, testable! Just allow it and see what happens. It’s easy.

So, in future, my response to most things masquerading as “opinion” isn’t going to be “well, I respect that”, it’s going to be “Go on. Prove it. Put your money where your mouth is. I fucking dare you.”

Boris_3

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Mad-lib logic

One of my favourite things to do in the world is play Mad Libs with peoples’ arguments. If someone says something particularly derpy, I simply fiddle around with the nouns, the names, and the ideas, and see what I come up with. Literally, take their idea apart and fill in the blanks with something else. Does it sound equally valid that way? Does it sound like complete zebrashit that way? Does it still work as an argument that way?

By looking at what changes and what doesn’t when you do this, it reveals a lot about the nature of someone’s thought process and reveals the chinks in an argument and logical process with relative ease. For instance, most first cause arguments for the existence of God can be equally applied to the existence of any god of any religion. Imagine taking William Lane Craig standing up for Christianity with his Kalam Argument and transplanting it over to Islam. It still works that way round. The fact it still works to support two competing and different religions points out a big logical leap in the therefore department. (Really, first-cause type arguments can only be used to support one particular conclusion, which is a trivial one.)

But our murderous parents are different

I first tried Mad Libbing an argument a few years ago when looking over the defence statements of some parents who effectively murdered their child by standing and praying over her as she died from an easily curable/treatable form of diabetes. The defence statement simply said that the parents were being true to their faith in God, and that they genuinely thought they were doing Right by God.

During their sentencing, Marathon County Circuit Court Judge Vincent Howard said the Neumanns are “very good people raising their family who made a bad decision, a reckless decision.” He then gently encouraged them to remember that “God probably works through other people, some of them doctors.”

This sort of defence frames what would otherwise be considered as death from criminal negligence as a freedom-of-religion or an expression-of-faith issue. Lighter sentences from judges are known to correlate with that – in this case, six months in prison and some probation. It made me think about the reaction it would elicit if these parents were to say how they wanted to unquestionably follow Charles Manson, instead. Or what if they didn’t subscribe to a fairly mainstream religion with a strong lobbying base, or if they had just outright stated that random voices in their head told them to do it? It made me think how quickly we would react in horror to this, and how quickly a judge and/or jury would be to pass a far more harsh judgement on them. Nothing about the defence would actually change by doing this, though. All they would be changing is the subject of their belief, not the fact that a child died because they believed it so strongly and were subsequently rendered negligent by it. Only our prejudices towards the specifics would change.

This isn’t me making things up, harsher judgements were applied to a vegan couple when their child died of malnutrition. Again, just because of their beliefs. No judge or defence lawyer was there to give them a reassuring nod to their deeply held ideas about the world, and to reduce their sentences to a slap on the wrist and a “naughty naughty” for it.

We didn’t starve my son to death. We didn’t starve my son for weeks and weeks and weeks. You know we’ve been vegetarians. We’re against animal cruelty. So why would I be cruel to my son? We’re against animals being burdened. Why would be cruel and burden him and try to drive around and do something with his body? We’re going to jail for no reason.

Nothing has changed between these two. It’s still a case of two sets of parents who used their deeply held beliefs and inadvertently killed their child by following through with them. Yet the conclusions reached are different. One was given a stern talking to about faith by a Judge and six months, the others had a life sentence and abuse hurled at them by a prosecuting lawyer.

Madness in the method

It wouldn’t be until a few years after I looked over the first example about the God-based murder defence that I found that, in fact, there is a reason this can work. There is, in fact, reason that looking at similar arguments, and showing them reaching different conclusions can be used to highlight argumentative flaws.

Formal logic is what underpins ideas and arguments (or, at least, it should be). Logic is not even 2 + 2 = 4, it’s more fundamental even than that. It’s the basic rule that says how and why 2 + 2 = 4; by defining what “+”, “2”, “4” and “=” even mean in the first place. This builds the rules that numbers work on, and so we can say things like “if 2 + 2 = 4, then 5 – 3 = 2” and so on. The thing about such logic is that it’s practically independent of its actual content, it’s distilled very purely into “if this, therefore that” without a care for what this and that are. I can say ♣ + ♦ = ♠ and justify it with some form of formal logic under it and demonstrate through that logic whether ♥ – ♦ = ♠ is also true. If the logic is valid on one, the logic is valid on the other. I can’t say, “if 2 + 2 = 4, then 7 -3 = 12”. It must hold to be at least consistent.

In principle, if you take a bunch of premises, A and B, and assert that they must come to the conclusion, Z, then any isomorphic arguments for A and B will produce an equally valid set of isomorphic conclusions, Z. If you can justify one with supposed logic, you can justify the other with the same logic. Valid logic is tautologically valid logic. Should we then point out that these new isomorphic premises don’t actually lead to the the new conclusion, then there’s one of two problems. Either there’s something wrong with our substitution (i.e., we’ve made a bad analogy, but that’s easy to fix) or there’s almost certainly something wrong in the underlying logical form of the argument.

Making exceptions to your own rule to say “nuh-uh”, just because you don’t like the conclusion it produces under other circumstances, is an ad hoc fallacy. It’s what happens when someone punishes a pair of vegans but lets of a pair of Christians. It’s what happens when people tolerate misogynists but not racists. It’s the same piece of bullshit that restricts marriage from couples on basis of sexuality, even though we’ve already completely overhauled the concept of marriage from where it was a century or two ago.

These exceptions don’t derive from logic, but straight out of the anus. Eventually the list of exceptions can grow so long that the original argument is all but useless. The fact you need even a single exception in the first place proves that the argument isn’t especially sound. So saying we should respect peoples’ cherished beliefs and be lenient when those beliefs lead them astray should apply as equally to vegans as it should to Christians. Making an exception of one but not the other is bullshit, and merely gives undue privilege to one idea for no other reason than historical precedence.

In formal terms

Let’s illustrate how just swapping some of the objects in an argument can show up flaws with this cute little syllogism.

Premise 1: Some men are doctors.

Premise 2: Some doctors are tall.

Conclusion: Some men are tall.

Totally valid, right? I mean, you have tall men. You know this because you have short men to compare them with. This is true. You won’t find an argument against “some men are tall” that doesn’t involve crude and trivial semantics like “not compared to the Eiffel Tower they’re not!”.

But the logic itself… doesn’t actually work. Remember, this is just the logic, the framework of the argument, that we’re looking at. People can still come to correct conclusions through wrong arguments, although it’s more likely that they will come to wrong conclusions through wrong arguments. It’s still a non sequitur and therefore a formal logical fallacy as the logical framework here doesn’t hold up and there is nothing in the premises that actually support the conclusion. This hard to spot when we think a conclusion is correct, or pre-assume that it is. It biases us against examining the argument or evidence more closely; we simply assume it’s true and forget to examine the thought process.

Not convinced that we can’t conclude that some men are tall based on those premises? If I was to change a few of the words, and engage in such Mad-Libbing, the argument could be changed to read:

Premise 1: Some men are doctors.

Premise 2: Some doctors have vaginas.

Conclusion: Some men have vaginas.

Gasp!

The conclusion is wrong; men don’t have vaginas. Gender/sexual fluidity aside just for a minute (we can assume, for the sake of argument, that men are defined as not having vaginas), this conclusion is wrong. The underlying logic is the same in both syllogisms, but because the absurdity of the conclusion is actually highlighted here, we can see the error clear as day.

In generic skeletal form it’s this:

Premise 1: Group X overlaps with Group Y.

Premise 2: Group Y possesses property A.

Conclusion: Group X also possesses property A.

There are many ways this could have been laid out generically (it could have used entirely symbolic notation), but importantly when it is laid out formally we can also see the logical typos. The Mad Lib substitution made us aware of it, the formal logic demonstrates it.

Top: What the logic actually says. Bottom: What we infer the logic says, which it doesn’t.

It can be a bit difficult to make this leap towards examining an argument completely devoid of context, but it’s possible to simply play with substitutions to see what goes wrong. Perhaps if a particular Mad Lib sounds wrong, you haven’t defined a term properly, or more than likely you’ve tried to say something about a label, not an actual property. Any argument about what constitutes a “religion” – say, in the context of “all religions are bad for humanity” – does this without fail.

You need to be very careful about over-extending an analogy, though. You can’t simply say “this small cup still holds coffee, therefore Pluto is a planet”, for instance. This is about highlighting logical flaws in an argument to show that it doesn’t hold, not about introducing new ones.

Archimedes Plutonium

Addendum: Oh wait, you’re serious? Let me laugh even harder.

Via PsyGremlin via PZ Myers, this is Archimedes Plutonium, my new favourite crank hat. I was really fucking surprised to have taken this long to come across his own breed of Wrongness, having been a fan of the internet for many years, as apparently Mr Plutonium (yes, allegedly his actual deed-poll-altered name) has been a Usenet Celebrity since before the beginning of time. Or, about the time of the early 1990s Usenet boards at least. Plutonium is the perfect crank. The whole package. A perfect, crazy blend of Gene Ray’s Time Cube and Dewey Larson’s Reciprocal/Reciprocating System and ramping it up a notch of “I can do bullshitting better than you, you pussies”.

For those who might not know (and we all have to experience this thing for the first time at some point), Time Cube is a badly-written, badly-formatted, horrific eyesore of a website which is internet-famous for being long, virtually incomprehensible in content, and so off-the-wall rambling that it’s author, Gene Ray, was invited to speak at an MIT conference specifically for students to laugh their asses off at him. Time Cube’s four-corner-day non-Singular-God fag-hating educated-stupid hypotheses can’t even be judged on the criteria of whether it’s right or wrong, because there’s hardly an idea there to judge. The interpretations vary, but the most realistic is that Ray simply jumped up and down a keyboard several times and out it popped. The late Dewey Larson (and his extant successor, Ron Satz), meanwhile, presents something more coherent (only just), and perhaps evangelises my favourite theory-of-everything going. Being qualified engineers, they at least can string sentences together, but that hasn’t stopped them being considerably wrong about everything. Larson’s biggest claim to fame (he’s not even Wikipedia-notable) is gettings The Case Against The Nuclear Atom read and reviewed by Isaac Asimov, who promptly dismissed it as a ludicrous that doesn’t stand up to testing (though frequently the review is quote-mined to the part where he calls it “an interesting exercise”). Larson doesn’t use 10 words when he can use 500, and despite his insistence that ideas should stand up to both logic and evidence, presents neither in his work.

Ray brings the crazy, Larson brings the wrong. Archimedes Plutonium manages to bring both to the table in one solid block.

Like Larson and Satz, Plutonium’s claims rest on pimping his extensive collection of self-published books. Over 100, it seems, are in Plutonium’s pipeline and due for completion. Some are already out there in the wild, with bemusing titles like “All Matter is made up of atoms, and the Universe is matter, hence the Universe is one big atom; Syllogism”. Which certainly puts the most commonly-cited unwieldy book titles to shame, and has the founders of formal logic spinning in their graves. The only difference being that at least Larson was self-publishing back before internet-based print-on-demand rendered the enterprise depressingly hilarious.

The central thesis that Plutonium has been peddling since the days of Usenet is the “atom totality” theory. This states that the structure of the universe is actually that of an entire atom. Specifically, the plutonium atom. Why the plutonium atom? It’s the first synthetic element, as naturally occurring elements end at uranium (well, to a first approximation) but other than that it seems like an arbitrary choice.

Why? That’s summed up, of course, in the book title above. The universe is made of atoms, therefore the universe is a giant atom. The logic is as airtight as P(A|B) = P(B|A).

Okay, so time for some more specific crazy. This is the fun part, after all.

Plutonium Atom Totality theory. According to this theory, there was no Big Bang, but rather progressive growth from a Hydrogen Atom Totality into the present “Plutonium Atom Totality”, in which the galaxies are dots of the electron-dot-cloud.

Now, I’ll go ahead and assume no prior knowledge of quantum mechanics for a moment and go through this really quickly. An electron isn’t the little planet-like thing orbiting the atom that you were lead to believe at GCSE-level science. Your teachers lied to you, kids. They lied big. The electron’s position isn’t fixed in a circular orbit, but is actually governed by a three-dimensional wave (it’s just a mathematical function, not too significantly more complex than, say, y=sin(x). It’s nothing disgracefully scary) that represents the probability of finding it at any one place around the atom. Some of the time we expect to find it over here, other times we expect to find it over there. But we know the equations governing this probability. In chemistry it’s convenient to represent it as a boundary that surrounds the space where we expect to find the electron 90-99% of the time. On a chemical scale, it’s easy enough to think about this as the actual shape of the electron itself, or the density of it as it’s smeared out over time.

This is the shape a 2p orbital looks like, which is like a big fuzzy dumbbell. Though the dz2 is my personal favourite, these higher functions do put to rest the idea of circular, planet like orbits.

This can be a bit misleading for some tastes, as this sort of representation removes much of the 3-dimensional component. If we were to freeze this function at any one time, we’d locate the electron precisely – not that the uncertainty principle makes this possible, but lets assume for the sake of argument that it does. This allows us to build up a picture of the electron cloud as a series of dots, with each dot representing the randomly selected “position” of the electron at any “one time”. Like so:

This is what Plutonium is saying the universe looks like. It looks like this sort of structure, a dot diagram of an electron cloud, or building up the time-averaged probability density of finding an electron at any one point in space. Specifically he talks of an f function in a plutonium atom, not a p function, but the difference is negligible for our purposes here. Trouble is, the universe doesn’t look like it’s governed by the spherical harmonics of Laplace’s equation. It looks like this:

On huge scales the universe and the galaxies in it do seem to form structures that are bound by gravity. These seem to be filament-like structures scattering across and stretching from one end of the observable universe to the other. If Plutonium was suggesting that galactic super-clusters looked a little like neurons in the brain, he might be onto something. But no. He says it looks like an atom. Specifically a plutonium atom.

 The large-scale structure of the universe is fairly well known (dark energy/matter excluded) and the equations governing the electron are also pretty well known. Forget the horrendous syllogism Plutonium uses to come to his conclusion, the bottom line is this: these two types of structures are characterised quite well, and don’t match up.

The Nuclear-Coulomb force arises from the *nuclear electron* which is inside every neutron in the nucleus of atoms wherein this nuclear-electron spills out and runs around holding together all the protons in the nucleus.

I really don’t want to get into this shit right now…

Now, this is why I brought Dewey Larson into the equation earlier. In The Case Against The Nuclear Atom, he makes a staggering claim against the electronic structure of the atom as described above. He actually claims (as I made the mistake of actually reading it, I know he gets to this point by about 70% the way through it; he doesn’t get to the point very quickly) that the electron is part of the nucleus, much in the same way Plutonium assumes an electron does here. It’s a shame Larson died a few years before Plutonium became really active, seeing those two in a debate would have been priceless!

The main error here is that we know quite a lot about the strong force that holds the atom together. Particle physics explores this all the time when it decides it wants to start the day blowing atoms apart. The forces governed by the Standard Model are pretty much correct as far as we can tell right now.

As a result of these forces, an electron won’t go running around inside the nucleus as described. The energy barrier is simply staggering for a particle to do that, and the wave nature of the particle itself simply doesn’t allow it to do so. The lowest ground state of a free electron is in the 1s orbital. If the electron could conceivably get closer to the nucleus – bear in mind that it’s being continually yanked in there by the highly attractive positive force of the protons – it would. It’s the energy-quantised nature of quantum mechanics that actually stops it from doing that. Once it’s in that 1s ground state it doesn’t go any lower, and it’s this property that keeps atoms stable – otherwise they’d just collapse into a dense steaming heap of neutronium. At least, it can’t do this without hopping a serious energy barrier to instigate a fusion process – a process that can have its energy barrier reduced by replacing the electron with an analogous, but heavier, muon. Again, this is nicely quantified stuff. If there is an “electron” running around inside the nucleus, its properties will be nothing like the electron we know and love, and so it may not make sense to even call it an electron.

But the main problem with how Larson and Plutonium treat the behaviour of electrons is that the theories we have about how they work are very, very successful. The wave mechanics governing electrons and the molecular orbital theory (or band theory in solids) explain, very successfully, all of chemistry. Literally everything that atoms and molecules do can be framed in terms of electronic structure methods. We don’t simply fail to gain an improvement in accuracy by switching to these crank theories, we can’t even begin to make any predictions about the world by using them.

For biology, the theory of Darwin Evolution is flawed, it is not a theory but a rule or algorithm that captures some of what happens in biology. What replaces Evolution is Superdeterminism. The Bell Inequality with the Aspect Experiments show us that Quantum Physics is on the large-scale and that events are connected stretching across the entire distance of the Universe. You cannot have both Evolution which is based on free-will and probabilities, and also have Superdeterminism. Only one can be true.

Now, this is special. Really fucking special. It’s common amongst cranks who think they understand quantum mechanics, and, naturally, they all seem to have problems with evolution.

Bell’s theorem basically states this: Nature doesn’t give a fuck what you think makes sense and is under no obligation to bow to your opinion. Or, in less colourful terms, that classical or quasi-classical physics (i.e., the physics/mechanics that “makes sense”) cannot replicate quantum mechanical effects. No matter how you fudge your theory and your equations, if you try to make it “classical” the actual experimental results of quantum mechanics will throw it back in your face and tell you that you’re wrong.

This is unless you have a loophole that gets you out of this obligation, and one of these loopholes is superdeterminism. This states that the universe is entirely deterministic with zero deviance from it, and so the indeterminacy we see in quantum mechanics (such as the probability function of the electrons described above) is actually a complete illusion. Indeed, this is generally considered incompatible with “free will” (Plutonium is just about right here), but that depends entirely how broadly you want to even define free will in the first place (it’s not that simple) and whether the lack of it even matters. It’s also considered a highly unlikely proposition to be true.

Plutonium simply thinks superdeterminism is the only way quantum theory can make sense. And given his horrific understanding of the spherical harmonics of an electron, where he seems to think a dot cloud represents some kind of real picture rather than a very strained abstraction of a probability distribution, this is unsurprising.

Alain Aspect is a French physicist most notable for his work into quantum entanglement; how particles can apparently interact at a distance and supposedly violate a lot of known laws and “common sense” at the time. Whether it be people trying to say the universe is a simulation inside a giant alien supercomputer or whether it’s a crank pushing a Theory of Everything, or some naive idiot who thinks entanglement can cause information to go faster than light, they will probably cite Alain Aspect or a branch of his research as confirming their theory. If you drink every time you see a crank reference Alain Aspect’s experiments, you will die a horrible alcoholic death.

What unites them all, however,  is that they never say how this exactly happens. I’ve never seen any of them even vaguely attempt to make this leap. That would, you know, require actually understanding what is going on.

Though not 100% conclusive, Aspect’s experiments into entanglement have been cited as strong proof for quantum mechanics being non-deterministic, and that Bell’s theorem holds true (that it can’t be married up with “common sense”). So, this is where I don’t quite get what Plutonium is even hinting at here. He’s actually trying to get two things that say completely different things, (that the universe is superdeterministic, but Bell’s theorem is true, I think…) and get them to say the same thing. As I said, this is nonsensical on a level with Time Cube, and wrong on the scale of Larson and Satz.

How this fits in with a macroscopic theory of evolution, which certainly does not rely on free will, isn’t clear. In short, even superdeterminism isn’t incompatible with evolution. Evolution is simply a process. If the universe repeats itself and does exactly the same thing again because of superdeterminism, this doesn’t violate the mechanism of action involved in making evolution by natural selection occur. And therein lies the problem with conflating determinism and no free will – can you even tell the difference? That’s beyond the scope of this rant right now. Regardless, the theory still retains its predictive qualities – which is why it’s a theory, despite Plutonium’s objections – and its explanatory nature for the processes involved on a higher, slightly heuristic, level than brute sub-atomic collisions.

There’s a lot more in Plutonium’s work, including the idea that all anthropology can be explained by people throwing rocks, but I’m hitting the limit of how long these things can be and remain sensible. Maybe another time.

Now go away.

The Citadel

This is The Citadel, one of a myriad  hyper-libertarian utopia projects based upon the idea that if you just get enough people with the same views and values in the same place, then everyone will live happily ever after. It’s unusual compared to most grandiose pipe dreams of this type in that it’s actually situated within the country of origin itself, rather than an attempt to create a new one from scratch (often called seasteading). It’s a sort-of hybrid between the usual attempts of creating an autonomous floating tax-dodge, that emphasises independence and tight community, and the Free State Project, which attempts to create a libertarian utopia only via the democratic process, by migrating like-minded voters to the same region.

By no means am I saying this is going to work. These projects never do. The FSP is one of the largest and best known, but is moving at the pace of an asthmatic ant with heavy shopping, having only got a thousand or so signatures pledging to do it and no one actually doing it. Meanwhile, the most successful seastead (based on longevity) is arguably Sealand, which when you look into it reads more like a situation comedy than a serious attempt at starting a country/state. Hell, even the 1978 invasion of Sealand by Dutch and German  mercenaries reads as quite hilarious despite the injuries and actual seriousness of the situation. The history of Sealand should be accompanied by the Benny Hill theme tune.

Nor am I saying that this sort of thing is a good idea. After all, critics of the libertarian view often point to Somalia as a pime example of government-free paradise and we all know that there’s nothing wrong with that place. Not at all. When you bung a load of people together assuming they’ll just get on and mind each others business, you’re setting up for failure. Good luck trying to kerb the rapid spread of disease when you realise there aren’t any hygiene regulations keeping unscrupulous individuals in check.

And don’t immediately assume some form of consumer natural selection, or the Invisible Hand, will fix all this. Shops in the UK have been selling “beef” burgers featuring horse meat (a problem mostly due to the accountability and traceability of the product rather than any factor about what animal people are consuming) for months and sales weren’t magically hit. Now imagine how much such retailers could hide in the name of profit margins and meeting demand if they weren’t regulated on any level. Got that? That’s the natural consequence of living in “Liberty” Town for you. It may sound like a weak argument from over-simplified and cherry picked examples, but the entire concept of these gated (or walled) communities based on live-and-let-live principles works purely on trust. And evidence suggests that we simply can’t trust people not to start preying on the vulnerable with some scam or another.

Speaking of scams, back on topic. The Citadel is likely to join the ranks of other laughable failures. Or, at least, it’s unlikely to advance to the point where it can be even considered a failure. So far there’s a website and a pipe dream to go with it, in its current state there’s little or difference between The Citadel and the layout for a D&D game, so if it fails to produce a great big castle at the end of the decade, no real harm done. Except to the dignity of people who may have fell for it and signed up in all seriousness, intrigued by the prospect of being required to carry a gun to the town centre at all times (yes, that’s in the Agreement you have to sign, more on that later).

There area  few specific areas of the project worth looking into, though.

The language used by the people who think this is a good idea is really interesting. They repeatedly refer to their marks, I mean, potential Residents, as Patriots – capital P and all – as if this automatically makes it a Good Thing. Remember, people who would fall for this sort of con, I mean, erm, proposal, are the kind who are easily swayed by such flattery. Say the right words and they’ll be yours. Kiss a few babies and they’ll worship the ground you walk on. Agree with all their prejudices and enhance their fears and you’ll be raised up to the level of a visionary. Call them any positive word you can think of and they will flock to you to be part of such a club.

But Patriots? Really? I’m not political philosopher, but last I checked “Patriot” referred to someone who was loyal to a country, or that loved a country unquestioningly. Now, regardless of whether unquestioning patriotism is a good thing or not, somehow I don’t see it as entirely compatible with building a whopping great big wall around your town specifically to isolate yourself from that country. Surely, Patriots want to live in their country, not try to put a barrier between themselves and the rest of it. After all, a Country or State is a group of people all banded together, it can’t exist without basic kinship and co-operation. The way The Citadel is set up to work (not that it will work, of course) means that the suckers drawn to it would be pledging allegiance not to America – a legitimate State by most acceptable and meaningful definitions – but to the personality cult of its self-appointed community leaders and the ideology they claim to represent. That doesn’t really sound like Patriotism. Unless it’s the kind of Patriotism you’re using only to lure in the people who think Alex Jones tells it as it is.

Now let’s look at the layout for a moment. The designer clearly has no interest in looking at the realities of building a realistic community, and instead has focused on everything to do with the pseudo-romance of building a castle. In reality, it’s more feudal than anything else, based on concepts rightfully buried in the past. The logistical difficulties of walling off two square miles of land from the outside world are immense. To fortify on that scale is a grander project than building the town itself.

Why build a wall anyway?

The answer to this appears in the mission statement of the Citadel where it hints at “man-made” catastrophes, and this goes beyond the “power failures” mentioned on the front page and into economic collapse and invasion. Yes, these people are the paranoid nuts who think the US is literally just days away from government (specifically the Kenyan Muslim Atheist Homosexual, Barack Obama) coming to take their guns by force. Personally, of course. You can see that plain as day from their advert telling people to buy an AR-15 “before it’s too late”.

But back to the walls and a quick history lesson on fortifications. Walls allow people to retreat behind a barrier from an invading force. It keeps the bad guys out and at bay, so that the population couldn’t be mercilessly slaughtered. The trouble being that walls could only encompass the smallest amount of space, and couldn’t really include things like fields and farmland. Hence the way to take on castle walls was to simply surround them and starve the population out. Disease and famine became rife during any siege, and often techniques to exploit this were used by invaders. Techniques such as lobbing dead and rotting carcasses over the walls to help spread pestilence. Walls only let you stay alive long enough for reinforcements to arrive and wipe out the besieging army. The idea of castle walls repelling invaders directly basically ended the day gunpowder was invented. The ability to throw heavy metal or stone cannon balls at greater speeds than catapults and trebuchets ever could reach, and the sheer kinetic force of such weapons, meant that walls had to change. From an average of only a metre thick at the time of bows and arrows, to 4-5 metres by the time cannons were a realistic and common threat. The layout of defensive walls also had to change to react, and walls become something that had to be structured by design as well as brute thickness. The layout of the average later fortification looks nothing like the artists impression of The Citadel, nor the medieval castles that it seems to be based on. It seems to suggest that the strongest physical threat the designers want to ward off is a crossbow. And Communism, of course, as if potential invaders are going to throw nothing bigger than The Little Red Book at them.

The realities of any modern fight that this structure would have to work against are much different. In short, that cute little “inner defensive wall” is going to last less than 6 seconds against an F-22, or an M1-A2, or even a drone strike, as that would be far more efficient. They’d be better off forgetting the wall and trying to build some actual social amenities… No, wait, that would be a little too close to socialism. Indeed, dispense with the walls and build larger bunkers, or individual basements and shelters for each home. That is something that might be realistic. It would still be based purely in the spirit of paranoia The Citadel is born from, but it would at least be true to the realities of modern defences.

But why worry about this? After all, this isn’t a serious endeavour, that much is plain to see. It’s just a publicity stunt for a gun shop, III Arms. Let’s review the evidence that even the founders of this project aren’t entirely convinced that it’s going to actually happen.

  • “III Arms” being emblazoned on the layout impression.
  • The III Arms factory getting pride-of-place in the design.
  • The “get an AR before it’s too late” advert all bold as brass at the top of the website, linking directly to III Arms.
  • The III Arms factory being at the very top of the list of features of the Citadel, as if it was a higher priority than things like houses.

…and finally, the Patriot Agreement. It’s all well and good having plans and designs, but it’s these contracts and agreements that form the meat of trying to form a new community based on ideology. The “agreement” uses the usual sort of magical wording to make it seem like a Constitution, no different to the Facebook meme of “I hereby declare by this communique…”. It’s all there. Number-by-number clauses, the entire thing being prefixed by “we the people”, and the general wording of each clause. It tries to make it look like a nice tight legal document, but it really isn’t. The content does nothing of the sort. Firstly, a matter of confusion. Is it voluntary, or not? The wording suggests voluntary, but the context suggest obligations. It says you take it freely, but you must take it. How does a voluntary obligation that you must agree to make any coherent sense? If you opt out, are you still in the group, or not? What rights do you get, or by opting out does it mean you’re just acting like any other sane person and just not involved at all? It’s all unclear, and obfuscated by the kind of language that makes it seem like these people believe agreements and contracts consist of just magic words.

At best, we can accuse them of naivety with respect to how communities work. Their entire nod to the concept of law and governance is covered in a couple of lonely sentence at the end of the agreement, where it says disagreements will be presided over by an arbitration panel. But of who? And how? And how do we prevent favouritism and unfairness? Or are these things just how hyper-libertarian culture should work? Presumably, The Citadel runs by US Law, in which case how is this Agreement amending that, and does it really overrule local, state and federal laws? Can the FBI or ATF come in and investigate their arms stashes? Will their defence drills include shooting at local police? Who knows.

Instead of this sort of essential clarification, the Agreement, the apparent pseudo-constitution of the Citadel, is dedicated entirely to firearms proficiency. In fetishistic detail it explains how everyone must use a gun, and demonstrate their use of it. Not just any gun, but a range of handguns and rifles – all of which are happily sold by III Arms – on a range of targets. So, serious endeavour, or an advert for a gun shop? Most sane people will probably spot that it’s the latter from this alone.

Defence drills, military training, battlefield medicine. All of this is enshrined in he agreement – basically all people joining the group are actively conscripted into the militia of the collective. Quite how such enforced militarism matches up with the concept of live-and-let-live liberty isn’t explained. This is do-as-you-please, without infringing on the rights of others, keep your nose out of other peoples business, liberty. A simple concept to grasp until you realise it’s not always that  straightforward.

How is freedom compatible with conscription? Where are the provisions for getting food, doctors, educators, maintenance, infrastructure, fuel, lighting, heating or social events? Why are the obligations of people simply restricted to shooting a rifle and not on gathering resources to live? Life in the Citadel looks far from free, and more harsh and boring. By the content of the agreement it’s a near-Fascist militaristic state. Everyone can wield a gun to defend themselves against invaders, but no one will be able to defend themselves against simple starvation, or illness, or getting old.

Everything in the concept relies on there being an America outside the walls to support it, which doesn’t exactly bode well in the face of the massive economic meltdown that it’s supposed to survive. “Provisions for a year” isn’t going to help there. You need self-sufficiency, and simple stockpiling that paranoid lunatics involve themselves in won’t help. What’s the power source, and how do you fuel it? I can assume based on inference from other Right Wing groups that renewable energy isn’t on the cards here, windmills and water wheels are a bit too Commie, a bit too Hippy and Pinko for them. Which, naturally, is just denial about where oil and other fossil fuels actually come from. And let’s not even begin on the hard work required to make sure water is drinkable.

This little project, even though it’s never going to come to fruition, has nothing to do with forming a utopian community to get away from Marxists and socialists, nor about surviving an economic apocalypse, and everything to do with worshipping the cult of the gun. Buy your AR-15 before it’s too late!