The only reason to visit Las Vegas is for the exotic spectacles (don’t gamble, it’s a scam) and Elon Musk may have added another one.

Despite a decade of dreaming, Elon Musk has only built one tiny Hyperloop tunnel in Las Vegas — and the people who built it say it’s filled with dangerous chemical sludge.

As Bloomberg reports, the Boring Company’s scarce output — which thus far amounts only to driving Teslas around a few miles of neon-lit tunnel underneath Sin City as they ferry convention attendees at no more than 40 miles per hour — has also come with a massive buildup of waste, the consistency of a milkshake, that’s said to burn the skin of anyone who comes in contact with it.

In interviews with the news source, Boring Company workers who declined to give their names on the record for fear of retribution said that in some parts of Musk’s Vegas tunnel system, the sludge would sometimes be up to two feet high. If it got over their work boots or onto their faces, they said, it would burn their skin.

The article doesn’t say where the toxic sludge is coming from, which makes me wonder what is leaking. The Daily Mail — not a reliable source at all — is reporting that the sludge is made of chemical accelerants, and that the worker’s complaints were made while the tunnel was under construction.

It was a crap project anyway, and a poor solution to transit problems, so shut it down already. Hyperloop One, Virgin’s project, has already been declared dead. I hope somebody in Minnesota is paying attention to the news, and is ready to kill the Minnesota hyperloop project.

Once the Boring Tunnel nonsense is shut down, we can get back to the serious business of mocking Elon Musk’s Flaming Vehicles of Fiery Death.

Two men were left in serious condition after the Tesla they were traveling in went off an overpass and burst into flames on the 134 Freeway in the Griffith Park neighborhood of Los Angeles Sunday night.

See, it’s like a metaphor for Musk’s career and an entertaining fireworks display in one! (the occupants of the car survived, fortunately. Let’s not have the spectacle of drivers on fire or tunnel workers melting.)

If you’ve ever wondered how smart people can get suckered into religion or conspiracy theories, here’s the answer.

I’m just an ape in a post-religion, post-authority, post-trust society looking for a large man to organize my community and tell me who the enemies are.

I am bearded and not balding, which hampers my ability to identify with one of the characters in the cartoon.

Last week, everyone was talking about this scammy entertainment fiasco in Glasgow — someone had thrown together an event built around the Willy Wonka IP called Willy’s Chocolate Experience, charged $45 admission, and then thought they’d sit back and rake in the money. Instead, they were laughed at and despised. It was such an obvious failure — they rented a warehouse, put up a few plastic props, and hired a couple of actors with no script and no plan to stand around and improvise. Where they figured they could really cut costs even further was to use AI to generate the advertising and some of the displays in the warehouse.

They didn’t even copy-edit their ads. It was a zero-effort effort that they thought they could mask with some garishly colored AI art. The appalling thing was how little substance there was behind the glitzy facade — kids showed up and instead of smorgasbord of chocolate they got one jelly bean and a cup of lemonade. That’s how I’ve felt about all the AI stuff being churned out right now. It’s mostly empty hyper-stimulus where the fantasy gets dressed up in an excess of colorful noise. The Glasgow thing was just an example of a few profiteers thinking that was sufficient. It’s not.

Then I encountered another illuminating example. Product photography is a whole genre unto itself, where you have to take photographs of things that are being sold in a way that makes them revealing and enticing. Food photography is a difficult art, because you have to take something that is kind of gross and drab if you think about — a lump of meat with sauces gooped over it, for instance — and make it look crisp and shiny and delicious and colorful (but not too colorful). The food photographed for menus and ads is already mostly fake, with condensation made of glycerin, foamy heads made with soap, cardboard padding to make a stack stand up, and ice cream made out of mashed potatoes.

Commercial food photography is actually pretty hard to do well, as you can discover on Instagram where amateurs are constantly taking photos of their luxury meals, and making them look generally ick. It’s expensive because that photograph of a plump hamburger covered in slightly melting cheese and bright red tomatoes and crisp green lettuce actually takes a team of designers and lighting experts and good photographers to shoot. So why not cut out that expense by using AI to assemble an image from all the hard work of real artists? It’s mostly fake anyway.

These mass market ghost kitchens are doing exactly that.

Dozens of Ghost kitchens, restaurants that serve food exclusively by delivery on apps like DoorDash and Grubhub, are selling food that they promote to customers with AI-generated images. It’s common for advertisements to stage or edit pictures of food to make it look more enticing, but in these cases the ghost kitchens are showing people pictures of food that literally doesn’t exist, and looks nothing like the actual items they’re selling, sometimes because the faulty AI is producing physically impossible food items.

In a way, it’s kind of cool. I look at their products with the eye of a biologist, and their crustaceans and molluscs definitely seem to be alien.

The more I look at those things, the weirder they are. What’s going on with that shrimp’s terminal segment? Those telsons don’t make any sense. Would you eat meat that looked like it had been recently imported from Arcturus, or came from animals cultured downstream from a nuclear power plant?

I guess it may not matter, because we don’t generally scrutinize the photographs in a menu that carefully. They’ve got the color and shininess and appearance of an expected plate of food, so that’s good enough. I might be the only person who’d send the meal back, complaining that these are mundane terrestrial bits of cooked animal flesh.

They better not disappoint me with the beverage, though. I really want my glass of radioactive diet Sprite.

It was time to venture to the movie theater to see Dune 2 last night.

It was gloriously visually beautiful, and morally complex. I had a grand time. I do have a few reservations, and they’re based more on the source material than the movie.

On the way to the theater, my wife (not a big SF fan) asked how she could tell who the good guys and the bad guys are. I answered that you’ll have no problem spotting the evil antagonists in the movie, and that is definitely true. The Harkonnens reek of cartoonish villainy throughout. It’s a whole family of slimy psychopaths, they look like it, they act like it, if we had Smell-O-Vision, they’d stink like it.

What’s trickier is that the ‘good guys’ are all gray and ambiguous, with nasty qualities that are the key conflict in the story. It’s more than rebels vs. the evil empire, it’s the protagonist wrestling throughout with his choices that will enable the darkness in his own side. The movie made one major change from the book that I appreciated: Chani was the voice of reason against fanaticism, and made the underlying conflict clear. I was definitely on Team Chani, although I also felt like Team Paul had his choices stripped from him and he had little else he could do.

Now if only we had some opposition to Team Eugenics (the Bene Gesserit) somewhere in the movie. The idea of genetic determinism was unquestioned and was simply an assumption.

Do go see it, it’s well worth the experience.

There’s talk that there may be a third Dune yet to come, which worries me a bit. There are studio executives dreaming of a franchise now, I’m sure of it, but I have to warn them that that is a path destined to lead them into madness and chaos. The sequels are weird, man. Heed Chani and shun the way towards fanaticism and corporate jihad.

Ooh, just saw this summary of the Dune series. I agree with it. I should have stopped with Dune Messiah, years ago.

Minnesota has it’s big primary election this coming Tuesday, and of course I’m going to vote. I always vote. It’s a civic responsibility.

We (Democrats. Who cares about the Republicans?) have 11 options on the ballot.

Joe Biden
Eban Cambridge
Gabriel Cornejo
Frankie Lozado
Jason Palmer
Armando Perez-Serrato
Dean Phillips
Cenk Uygur
Marianne Williamson

Most of these are garbage. No, I’m not voting for Dean Phillips, deluded native son, or Marianne Williamson, weird flake.

I’m voting for “Uncommitted.” I feel a little bit of power here — I get to send a message to Biden to let him know I’m disgusted with his craven approach to Israel’s criminal behavior. This is not a decision based on uncertainty or because I might consider voting for Trump in the general election. It’s entirely my way of expressing dissatisfaction with the incumbent’s pandering to an authoritarian state and permitting a genocide to continue.

This thread has been created for thoughtful, rational discussion on subjects for which there are not currently any dedicated threads. Please note that our Comment Policy applies as usual. There is a link to this at the foot of the page. If you would like to refer back to previous open discussion threads, the most …

A spoon with active dry yeast.

Back in 2010, scientists at the J. Craig Venter Institute in San Diego announced they had synthesised a new organism. They had created a complete genome of a bacteria and used it to “boot up” a cell whose native genome had been removed. The result was arguably the first truly synthetic organism.

This kind of synthetic biology research could eventually enable as yet unimagined bioengineering, leading to the creation of new synthetic fuels, foods and medicines, helping to tackle challenges such as carbon capture.

Bacteria are, however, relatively simple single-celled organisms. The next stage is to create a synthetic eukaryote. These are much more complex organisms, whose cells have a membrane-bound nucleus. All plants, fungi and animals, including humans, are eukaryotes. But in order to better understand and engineer eukaryotes, scientists have started with single-celled yeast.

Even this task is dauntingly complex. The yeast’s genome consists of some 6000 genes, spread over 16 chromosomes. At the end of last year an international consortium – the Synthetic Yeast Genome Project – published a series of papers describing a major step forward. They created a strain of yeast where some chromosomes were edited and synthesised in the lab, and an additional chromosome unlike anything seen in nature was added.

While the creation of the chromosomes proved to be a time-intensive process, the true bottleneck was the debugging phase. Researchers conducted tests to assess the viability of a yeast cell hosting a new synthetic chromosome. Any issues were addressed by fine-tuning the genetic code, but as more synthetic chromosomes were introduced, the task became increasingly intricate.

The focus now is to replace the remaining natural chromosomes with synthetic ones. This could create synthetic yeast that has improved characteristics, including a wide range of applications in medicine, bioenergy and biotechnology. More generally, creating the first synthetic eukaryote could help unravel the fundamental building blocks of life.

This article is from New Humanist's spring 2024 issue. Subscribe now.

Artist impression of a computer chip. Image: Alexander Klepnev

Graphene. The wonder kid of the materials world. At just one atom thick, this special configuration of carbon burst onto the scene in 2004 after it was first isolated and experimented on by a team at the University of Manchester. For this, the Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded just six years later – a sign of the truly remarkable and significant physics that this super 2D material exhibits. From interesting magnetic and quantum properties to excellent electrical conductivity, stronger than steel and with high resistance to heat damage, graphene is a physics playground. But it also has huge potential for real-world applications in electronics to make them faster and much more energy efficient, playing a key part in the green technology revolution.

Computer electronics are a prime target area for boosting efficiency. The heat you feel coming from a laptop or phone working hard is electrons losing energy as they collide with atoms in the silicon semiconductors that make up the computer chips. Semiconductors make computers work – they enable the flow of electricity to be switched on or off so that information can be stored or so that logic circuits can function. The semiconductor industry currently relies on silicon as the base material, due to its high performance and relative ease of mass manufacture. However, collision-free flow of electrons in a thin, durable material would be the most energy efficient option – which is where graphene comes in.

A global race to fabricate a semiconductor from graphene began after its discovery and we now have a winner. The world’s first functional graphene semiconductor has been developed by a team from the Georgia Institute of Technology. Published in Nature, this breakthrough research involved growing graphene on a bed of silicon carbide, followed by chemical processing to enhance the structure until the desired result was achieved. This approach is easily scalable, which means that the dawn of the graphene computer age may be within our sights, along with a paradigm shift for our digital world.

This article is from New Humanist's spring 2024 issue. Subscribe now.

Three women dressed in white and covered in fake blood stand in front of a tank as part of a 2023 protest organised by the Feminist Anti-War Resistance in Amsterdam

Editor's note: This article was published in print the day before Alexei Navalny was pronounced dead, on 16th February 2024.

For Sasha Skochilenko, life in a Russian prison cell began with five small slips of paper. Each had been designed to mimic an ordinary shopping label – but instead of prices, they bore information on Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine. One described the Russian bombardment of an art school in Mariupol, where 400 civilians had been seeking shelter. Another held a personal plea: “My great-grandfather didn’t fight in the Second World War for four years so that Russia could become a fascist state and attack Ukraine.” In March 2022, Sasha had carefully fixed these labels onto shelves in a St Petersburg supermarket. Her small act of protest did not go unnoticed. Other shoppers called the police, who placed Sasha at the scene using credit card data and CCTV. She was found guilty of “spreading false information” about the Russian army and sentenced to seven years in prison: roughly 16 months for each slip of paper. The judge who oversaw the case was later recommended for promotion.

“The price tags? They were so small. Nobody could believe where this all would end up,” says Alex Belozyorov, a close friend of Sasha’s who oversees the campaign for her release. “In other circumstances, it would be funny.” As he speaks, a heavy blanket of snow can be seen outside his apartment window, smothering St Petersburg’s streets. The prison where Sasha is now being held is old and damp, and the central heating is unpredictable, says Belozyorov. It will be a cold night.

Sasha’s arrest was unexpected. The 33-year-old had taken a step back from politics several years prior, pouring her heart instead into volunteer work. The invasion had awoken a new passion. But Sasha had also been inspired by a new kind of protest – one led by Russia’s feminists.

Coordinated via encrypted messaging apps, Russia’s Feminist Anti-War Resistance is distinctly different from the country’s traditional opposition. Founded after Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, the organisation has no central figurehead, but is made up of a global network of individual cells.

After the invasion, thousands of Russians left the country, some scared of persecution, some who wanted nothing to do with the war and the Putin regime. Alongside Russians who were already abroad, they make up the bulk of the foreign cells. There are also cells supported by local feminists around the world, especially in Eastern Europe where some speak Russian as a second language. These international groups work alongside those in Russia to promote the organisation’s central manifesto.

Simple and succinct, the manifesto condemns Russia’s full-scale invasion, as well as the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the war in eastern Ukraine that began the same year. “Feminism as a political force cannot be on the side of a war of aggression and military occupation,” it says, urging feminists in Russia and around the world to “launch offline and online campaigns against the war in Ukraine and Putin’s dictatorship”.

The network’s campaigns are often quick, guerrilla actions like Sasha’s: eye-catching and creative to break through Russia’s carefully curated wartime normalcy. Activists have placed miniature crosses commemorating Ukraine’s war dead in the courtyards of Russian cities, or scribbled anti-war messages on hundreds of bank notes. In a country where street demonstrations are marred by police violence and opposition leaders are mercilessly persecuted, this guerrilla activism has allowed the network to thrive, taking on a unique role in Russia’s opposition. Although there is no official list of its supporters, they number well into the thousands.

The feminist movement in Russia

Russia’s current feminist movement took root in the 2010s, spurred on by a generation of young activists focused more on a European future than a looming Soviet past. Feminism was becoming a popular issue in liberal circles, but female activists still felt let down by the misogyny they encountered, says Inna Perheentupa, a researcher at the University of Turku and author of Feminist Politics in Neoconservative Russia. “They realised how conservative and male-led movements such as the anarchist or leftist movement were. Feminism was the language that they had to start speaking,” she says.

This feminist awakening was also sparked by Russia’s increasingly conservative outlook. In 2011, activists rallied against new laws limiting abortion rights. Two years later, feminist and queer campaigners joined forces to fight the Kremlin’s ban on “gay propaganda” for minors.

Ella Rossman, a Russian gender scholar and co-founder of the Feminist Anti-War Resistance, took to the streets for the first time in Moscow at a pro-LGBTQ+ rally in 2013. She remembers fighting for space and free discussion in Russia throughout the 2010s, throwing her strength behind queer film screenings, or finding places for mothers and babies to meet in public libraries.

“Lots of young people started to get involved in activism because of these conservative government policies. And I don’t think the government really expected that,” she says. “The Kremlin wanted us to become more ‘traditional’. Instead, it made people start to question what ‘tradition’ really meant.” But while activism was growing, Russia’s political arena was imploding. Street protests were sparking state violence and mass arrests. Funding also became tight, as the Kremlin put increasing pressure on civil society and NGOs. Russia’s feminists were forced to start thinking creatively. One-woman pickets would become impromptu street performances, broadcast on social media, says Perheentupa. A protester might lock herself in a cage, or shave her head on the cobbles of Red Square, before the police inevitably arrived to end proceedings. And even if these protests were small, they were spread by the power of the internet. “While the political sphere had become smaller, there was this space online. The activists I spoke to were really skilled in using social media,” says Perheentupa. “It gave rise to a new kind of activism.”

So in February 2022, when Russian tanks rolled across the Ukrainian border and a new wave of legislation clamped down on Russian free speech, many feminists were already well versed in leaner, more agile forms of protest. They walked through the streets in black mourning clothes in a cat-and-mouse game with police, or laid piles of flowers en masse next to war memorials. “We had a whole range of different tools that we could draw on when the war’s current stage began,” says Rossman. “We were trained by the authoritarian state.”

A global, leaderless network

Today, as Russian violence against Ukraine grinds on in its third year of full-scale hostilities, the Feminist Anti-War Resistance are at the forefront of the fight against both the war itself and the gender inequality it inevitably heralds. As the network reminds us, conflict produces poverty and forced displacement, squeezing women out of education and employment, and putting them at increased risk of sexual exploitation. Maternal healthcare suffers, while widowed mothers must struggle to raise families alone.

The risk of sexual violence also increases exponentially. Charities and NGOs working in Ukraine have received hundreds of reports of sexual assault carried out by occupying troops: testimony provided to the United Nations in September 2023 found that in the Kherson region, Russian soldiers had raped and assaulted women aged between 19 and 83 years old, and that family members were often held in nearby rooms, forced to listen to the attacks.

The Feminist Anti-War Resistance network can focus on this diverse range of issues thanks to its flexibility. The organisation itself has a horizontal structure, both inside and outside of Russia. A network of encrypted group chats keeps different cells connected across borders, and allows individuals with a passion for particular subjects – such as reproductive rights, combating sexual violence or fighting for political refugees – to join with others. The Russian state has officially labelled the group, as well as some of its highest-profile members, as “foreign agents”: an emotionally loaded, Stalin-era term designed to discredit dissenters and pile on legal pressure. But there is no key leader or figurehead to ceremoniously throw behind bars following a lengthy show trial.

Yet there is still real danger for feminists working in Russia, as Sasha Skochilenko’s case proves. While many activists based abroad are public about their work, there are strict protocols in place to protect those active in Russia itself. Anna Hope, the group’s coordinator in Oxford, talks regularly with Russia-based activists, but her information is limited. “I haven’t seen a single face of an activist who works in Russia, and I am not allowed to. I’m not allowed to know their names,” she says. “And I can barely imagine what that feels like, to live under constant threat.”

This gulf in experience has the potential to cause divides in the organisation. Cells abroad focus on grabbing public attention: holding street rallies, raising money or reminding ordinary people of the war still raging in Europe. In Russia, activists must work differently: sharing information covertly, providing aid and performing “small” acts of resistance that are fraught with risk. “I don’t always understand what it’s like for activists in Russia,” Hope acknowledges. “There is a lot of work I don’t know about because we don’t write or talk about it publicly.”

Ultimately, it is the group’s ability to overcome such divides that will determine its future. Russia’s traditional opposition was crippled by infighting throughout the 2010s, a trend that has changed little since the start of the invasion. Supporters of jailed Russian politician Alexey Navalny and former oligarch and oppositionist Mikhail Khodorkovsky remain so divided that Navalny’s team refused to join a conference at the European Parliament last year, saying that they did not want to “be in the same boat” as activists that did not share their views – an apparent jab at Khodorkovsky’s team. An article covering the event for the Financial Times reported in turn that Khodorkovsky spent the bulk of his 50-minute interview with the paper criticising Navalny’s staff.

To succeed, the Feminist Anti-War Resistance will need to tread a different path and avoid the splits that have plagued Russia’s feminist movement in the past. Some of these issues are global, such as the split over trans rights, says Olga Sasunkevich, an associate professor in gender studies at the University of Gothenburg. Others are more specifically Russian, like the chasm in resources, funding and priorities that divide the country’s more marginalised regions from cities such as Moscow and St Petersburg.

“Throughout the 2010s, Russian feminism wasn’t a unified movement, even though it was still responding to the same general threat,” says Sasunkevich. “In Russia’s regions, activism was really a grassroots response to concerns in their daily lives. In Moscow and St Petersburg, the debate could become a lot more theoretical and academic. There was a struggle for resources and media visibility; arguments on who had the right to speak on whose behalf, which agendas were seen and who remained invisible.”

Confronting Putin's imperialism

The network’s horizontal structure can make overcoming these problems difficult. Although many feminist activists are experienced in using mediation to try and untangle grievances or ideological splits, resolving issues often demands lengthy and prolonged discussion. Members are still trying to iron out nuances as to how the structure will work long term. “We have a lot of calls where we discuss what being a ‘horizontal’ organisation actually means,” says Hope. “How do we make sure that everyone has a voice? We’re still figuring it out.”

However, the fluid structure also comes with benefits. A constant influx of new voices means a stream of fresh ideas, offering new visions that can help sweep away lingering feuds. Perhaps most crucially of all, this constant wave of converging perspectives allows activists to try and tackle some of the Russian opposition’s most controversial and deep-seated issues.

Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine has thrown the long-ignored legacy of Russia’s colonial past into sharp relief. Tsarist and Soviet control over countries in Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia in the past forms the basis of the Kremlin’s claims over Ukraine today. But Russia’s opposition has repeatedly shied away from confronting this past, or recognising how it has shaped the present. In particular, opposition leader Alexey Navalny has been criticised for his previous association with Russia’s xenophobic far right, anti-immigrant statements and classing Ukrainian Crimea as a de facto part of Russia. (He has since publicly stated that his views have changed.)

Russia’s feminists have faced similar criticism. Many Ukrainian activists have condemned the wider movement for turning a blind eye to Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, and Moscow’s later involvement in conflict in eastern Ukraine. Other critics disagree with the Feminist Anti-War Resistance’s decision to divide their focus by both supporting Ukrainians and continuing to tackle issues within Russia.

“I’ve seen work from researchers quoting Ukrainian feminists who say that in 2014, Russian feminists simply did not care [about Crimea or Russian military involvement in eastern Ukraine],” says Sasunkevich. “I wouldn’t say that this is the entire truth, because in St Petersburg, for example, there were groups who were very pronounced in their anti-militarist stance. But at the same time, yes, Russian militarism wasn’t a kind of significant cause for organising.”

The Feminist Anti-War Resistance is attempting to right this legacy. The looseness and flexibility of its digital network encourage a greater diversity of voices. The movement has specific groups focusing on decolonisation and the voices of Russia’s millions of non-Slavic citizens, many of whom are disproportionately impacted by the war. Men from poorer regions across Siberia and Russia’s Far East, usually those from indigenous ethnic minorities, are pushed into the military, where they die at a higher rate than men from regions such as Moscow.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine created a new willingness to talk about these topics, says Perheentupa. But these are hills still to climb. “The war is terrifying, but it’s created this kind of awareness. There’s definitely more decolonial work taking place. But it’s important to point out that feminism as a whole is a diverse movement encompassing many groups of many activists. They don’t all agree.”

Part of the Feminist Anti-War Resistance’s power is that even these world-shaping challenges can be broken down and shared – until they no longer seem insurmountable, says Hope. “Don’t get me wrong, we regularly do feel powerless. We all do. The war is so big and you don’t know what to do next,” she says. “But for us, feminism is an angle where we have a personal connection. It makes sense. You can’t fight everything at once. You can’t immediately stop the war. But you can focus on something – and that will become your fight.”

This article is from New Humanist's spring 2024 issue. Subscribe now.

A child in Gaza leaves school surrounded by rubble, following Israeli strikes in 2009

Jonathan Glover is one of the world’s leading ethical and moral philosophers. He is a fellow of both the Hastings Center and the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics and teaches ethics at King’s College London. His latest book is “Israelis and Palestinians: From the Cycle of Violence to the Conversation of Mankind” (Polity)

Your 1977 book “Causing Death and Saving Lives” considers the moral questions involved in killing. What can moral philosophy tell us about Hamas’s attack on 7 October?

Having spent many years teaching philosophy, I wish I could cite a set of principles, emerging from centuries of debate and agreed to be the true foundations of morality. Part of the difficulty is that people’s values vary. And even when one society agrees, societies with different problems, histories or religions often disagree.

Teaching ethics is not preaching. Real philosophy teaching is Socratic. (“You say you believe in such and such a principle. But can you accept this consequence of it? Or should you revise your principle?”) We teachers don’t always persuade. And sometimes those we teach persuade us. But the results are not nothing. Most humans share quite a lot of their moral outlook.

Huge numbers of people coming from different societies or belief systems were appalled by the acts of Hamas on 7 October: by murderous sexual assaults on women, by hostage-taking or by murdering babies. We can appeal to how the terrorists see murdering Palestinian babies and children, and challenge the reasons supposed to justify treating Israeli babies and children differently.

Israel’s response has been the heavy bombardment of Gaza. What does Just War Theory tell us about the nature of that response?

As on other ethical questions, there is disagreement. But two claims have wide support. Responses must be proportional. And non-combatants should not be attacked. Few now thinking about a just war would disagree. I think that what Israel is doing in Gaza violates both. Proportionality: there is the huge disparity of numbers killed compared to 7 October. Civilian immunity: the bombing and cutting off electricity, water, etc. It is not only Hamas supporters who die when the hospital’s power runs out.

Those who are passionately committed to one side being right and the other wrong support their view with abstract choices about relative importance. Those who commit in this way to Palestine being right downgrade the relative importance of the obscene cruelty of 7 October. Those who commit in this way to Israel being right downgrade the relative importance of the hugely greater numbers of dead Palestinians compared to dead Israelis.

In your new book, you discuss the competing narratives about “homeland” held by Israelis and Palestinians.

One’s heart goes out to both sides. British duplicity promised the land to each [group].

Palestinians had never had their own self-governing state. Why should they have been driven out by force to make room for a Jewish state? Jews for centuries suffered pogroms, discrimination and humiliation in the states of other peoples. As [Theodor] Herzl, the father of modern political Zionism saw, they needed a state of their own. The only plausible location that – although remote in time – could draw on their own sense of identity was the Biblical one, mentioned every year [during Passover]: “Next year in Jerusalem”. After the Nazi genocide, who could refuse this?

The tragedy was that each people had right on their side. Neither could readily see the other side’s right because of the huge threat it posed to their own claims.

What is the psychology of backlash you discuss and why is it illusory?

In long-running cycles of violence, the psychology of backlash is central: “They started it, so we hit back.” But as in this conflict, each side can pick one episode out of many to show that “they” began it.

This thought is linked to the illusion of collective responsibility. Do all Palestinians support terrorism? Are all Israelis responsible for harm to Palestinians? Even supporters of Peace Now [a prominent Israeli peace movement]? Even the IDF soldiers of Breaking the Silence [an organisation founded by Israeli veterans who aim to expose the reality of conditions in Palestine], publishing dark truths about the Israeli occupation of the West Bank? Even Israeli babies and children?

For believers in collective responsibility, motives for retaliation are readily available. “They deserve it” – for driving us out of our land, or for their terrorist bus-bombings. “Our revenge is justified; we need to get even.” But they in turn will need to get even. These motives push toward the cycle carrying on indefinitely.

Alternatively, there is the idea that retribution has good consequences: “It will teach them a lesson not to do it again.” But it is striking how many Palestinians, after youthful experience of Israeli “retribution”, later became terrorist leaders. And if Hamas leaders behind the October atrocities thought they were teaching Israelis a desirable lesson, the huge number of Palestinians that Israelis have killed in Gaza shows how wrong this was.

Perhaps [Israeli Prime Minister] Netanyahu and his supporters think killing so many Palestinians in Gaza may teach those left alive a lesson about not repeating 7 October. But as the world watches the television reports, many will notice the faces of the children. Perhaps these months in Gaza are creating yet another half-century of mutual horror and cruelty.

You’ve written about Simone Weil’s idea of the need for roots. How do we balance such a need with what you describe in your book as “identity traps”?

Being rooted in a family, a nation or in shared values matters hugely. Not to be rooted in any of this, noticed or not, would for many be a huge loss. This supported identity is very different from what I called “identity traps”. By this phrase I meant that in a very long conflict, the contrast between us and the enemy can become central to how we see our own identity, making any peace or friendship seem a betrayal of who we are.

You use the philosopher Michael Oakeshott’s phrase “joining the conversation of mankind” to think about our shared humanity and illustrate this with an example of a deep friendship that crossed community divides.

Yes, my example is the friendship between [Palestinian-American intellectual] Edward Said and [Argentine-Israeli conductor] Daniel Barenboim, who together founded the West–Eastern Divan Orchestra [bringing Israeli and Arab musicians together].

Could you say more about how this sort of friendship might provide a model for escaping “identity traps” and finding a peaceful resolution to the Middle East conflict?

No peace is likely soon. The defeat of the Oslo Accords [the peace agreement reached in the 1990s] suggests this. The current atrocities by both sides hugely support pessimism. At this dark time, we should defer solutions, one-state or two-state. We should go back to simple things that might cross the barriers, like shared orchestras.

Even more important may be shared schools, letting children – and their parents – from both peoples make friends. Before leaders move to sign agreements, friendly human contact needs to grow. Those of us lucky enough to have friends in both peoples wish them well in this.

This article is from New Humanist's spring 2024 issue. Subscribe now.

Protesters at the 'March for Science' hold banners with slogans such as 'Science serving the common good'

Western societies seem to be facing a growing crisis of confidence in science. Nowhere is this more evident than in the US. According to the latest data from the Pew Research Center, 27 per cent of American adults have little or no trust in scientists “to act in the best interests of the public”. And just 57 per cent say science has had a “mostly positive” impact on society.

However, when you dig into the data, a key aspect of the story is the growing polarisation of perspectives, a trend that accelerated during the Covid-19 pandemic. In the US, this polarisation has largely followed party lines. The proportion of Republicans who say they do not trust scientists nearly tripled between April 2020 and October 2023.

Here in the UK, the picture looks slightly better for scientists. According to research from the University of Bath, overall trust in science among Brits has increased since the onset of the pandemic. But it had a similar polarising effect: for those who already trusted science, the pandemic response confirmed that view, while those inclined to suspicion were pushed further in the opposite direction.

Attacks on science were already taking place before the pandemic, particularly in politically charged areas such as the state of the climate. In late 2019, the New York Times reported that, under the Trump administration, “political appointees have shut down government studies, reduced the influence of scientists over regulatory decisions and in some cases pressured researchers not to speak publicly.”

During the pandemic, populist politicians and heads of state, such as Trump and then-president of Brazil Jair Bolsonaro, openly rejected the scientific consensus. In the UK, Conservative MP Huw Merriman voiced a disturbingly common view that the government needed to “get a grip of our scientists ... It’s time we stopped hiding behind the science, which keeps changing, and we focus on the fact that we [as politicians] are in charge.” Changing public attitudes towards science can be seen as part of a broader loss of trust in institutions in the UK, alongside the political attacks on “experts” that began during the lead-up to the Brexit referendum and continue today.

The decreased trust in science will not be easy to reverse. It relies, at least in part, on the political and social context (the situation will not be helped by the possible return of a Trump presidency). But there is also work that the science community can do. Communication is important. But, as the authors of the UK study point out, simply sharing knowledge is not automatically followed by trust. It must also be built through outreach and conversation.

This article is from New Humanist's spring 2024 issue. Subscribe now.

From the Richard Dawkins Foundation Newsletter. Subscribe here. Hello! As any good skeptic or scientist will tell you, the details always matter. No matter how exciting or alarming or enticing the headline may be, it’s almost inevitably the fine-grain details that matter most. I was reminded of this by two recent stories that we’ll explore in …
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This is the 2024 follow-on from the 2023 BOOK CLUB thread, which is now closed, though you can easily refer back to earlier discussions by clicking on the link. BOOK CLUB 2024 has been created to provide a dedicated space for the discussion of books. Pretty much any kind of book – it doesn’t have …
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Hi there,

I am delighted to say that I am back performing at the Edinburgh Magic Festival this year.

First, on the 28th December I will be exploring the strange world of illusion, mystery and magic in a show called MIND MAGIC. This will involve showing some of the best optical illusions in the world, revealing whether paranormal phenomena really exist, showing how we can all achieve the impossible, explaining how to transform a tea towel into a chicken, and much more. All the info is here.

Then, on the 28th and 29th December, I am presenting a new and experimental show about the invention of magic. This will be an intimate affair for a small number of people. It will examine how magicians create magic, and explore the mind and work of a magical genius who created the world’s greatest card trick. Info here.

So, if you are around, please come along, and fun will be had!

Some exciting news from me! I have just written my first book for children.

It uses magic to teach youngsters a range of essential life skills, including social skills, confidence, creativity, lateral thinking and much much more. Readers will learn how to perform lots of seemingly impossible feats, including how to defy gravity, read minds, pluck coins from thin air, and predict the future. Most important of all, these tricks have been carefully chosen to help boost mental wellbeing and resilience. It’s fun, it’s easy, it’s magic!

I am delighted to say that Magic Your Mind Happy will be published by Wren and Rook in May 2024, and is available to preorder now here.

check, 1, 2…is this thing on? hi everyone! it’s been a while.


Two quick bits of news.

First, The Royal Society have kindly given me the prestigious David Attenborough Award. This is a lifetime achievement award for my work promoting psychology and critical thinking, and focuses on my research combatting pseudo-science and examining the psychology of magic. Previous recipients include Professor Sir Jonathan Van-Tam and Professor Alice Roberts, and I will give an award lecture about my work in August 2024.

Second, I have a new academic magic book out! It is part of the well-known Arts For Health series and reviews work examining how watching and learning magic is good for your wellbeing, including how it boosts confidence, social skills, dexterity, curiosity and much more. It was lots of fun to write and also includes interviews key practitioners, including Richard McDougall (Breathe Magic), Julie Eng (Magicana), Mario the Maker Magician (USA), David Brookhouse (UK), David Gore and Marian Williamson (College of Magic), and Tom Verner (Magicians Without Borders).  More details here.


I am delighted to say that the second series of our On Your Mind podcast has launched today!!

Each week, science journalist Marnie Chesterton and I will explore aspects of the human psyche, including astrology, how the clothes we wear influence our thoughts, attraction, friendship, dreaming, mind control and much much more.  We will also be joined by some special guests as we attempt to answer all of your questions about psychology. The first series reached No.1 in Apple Podcast’s Science charts, and so we hope that you can join us. 

Our first episode looks at creativity and explores how to have good ideas and whether children are more creative than adults. You can listen here.

everybodys-magic-1I am excited to launch a new fund raising initiative for the amazing College of Magic in South Africa. The College is a non-profit community youth development organisation that uses magic to offer hope to young people in and around Cape Town.  They do incredible work and for the past two years I have been working with them and Vanishing Inc (the largest magic retailer in the world ) to produce a unique  magic booklet and custom deck of cards for budding magicians. 

everybodys-magic-11This gorgeous full-colour booklet involves students from the College teaching magical illusions, and tells inspirational stories of diverse historical magicians. Both the booklet and cards showcase great artwork by South African illustrator, Ndumiso Nyoni, and readers have special access to videos of the students teaching the tricks and offering top tips.

everybodys-magic-4All the profits raised from the sale of the booklet and deck of cards will go towards furthering the important and wonderful work of the College. It’s a lovely gift for friends and family and it would be great if you can support the project.

To find out more, please click here

Someone contacted me hoping to find young atheists who might be interested in being part of a new series. I’m not particularly interested in having my mug on TV, but I would love to have some great personalities represent atheism on the show, so I offered to repost his email on my blog: My name […]
All throughout my youth, I dreamed of becoming a writer. I wrote all the time, about everything. I watched TV shows and ranted along with the curmudgeons on Television Without Pity about what each show did wrong, convincing myself that I could do a better job. I flew to America with a dream in my […]
A friend linked me to this. I was a sobbing mess within the first minute. I sometimes wonder why I feel such a strong kinship to the LGBT community, and I think it’s because I’ve been through the same thing that many of them have. So I watched this video and I cried, because, as […]
UPDATE #1: I got my domain back! Many thanks to Kurtis for the pleasant surprise: So I stumbled upon your blog, really liked what I saw, read that you had drama with the domain name owner, bought it, and forwarded it here. It should work again in a matter of seconds. I am an atheist […]
@davorg / Monday 04 March 2024 18:05 UTC