By Davide Castelvecchi The historic first image of a black hole unveiled last year has now been turned into a movie. The short sequence of frames shows how the appearance of the black hole’s surroundings changes over years as its gravity stirs the material around it into a constant maelstrom. The images show a lopsided blob of …
By Daniel Trotta People of Praise, a self-described charismatic Christian community, has faced renewed interest since U.S. President Donald Trump put one of its purported members, Judge Amy Coney Barrett of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, on his short list of candidates for elevation to the Supreme Court. The group says on its …
By Michelle Boorstein A large, prominent evangelical Capitol Hill church late Tuesday filed a legal challenge to the District, alleging the city government is violating the First Amendment by facilitating and tolerating massive anti-racism protests but forbidding worship services — indoor or outdoor — of more than 100 because of covid-19. The complaint filed by …
By Jeremy Roebuck The retired pastor of a Horsham church was sentenced to 200 years in federal prison Thursday for video-recording himself sexually abusing two children over a period of years. Jerry Zweitzig, who led the nondenominational Horsham Bible Church until his retirement in 2016, apologized for his actions moments before U.S. District Judge Wendy …

A commenter, BCWebb, mentioned this recent paper, which is mind-blowingly bad. It’s a combination of crackpot physics plus crackpot biology, so it should never have cleared review, but there it is in the Open Access Macedonian Journal of Medical Sciences…oh, wait, which means it may not be peer-reviewed, although the journal claims it is. It has an optional peer review process in which the paper apparently gets published, but a reviewer can email comments that get added to it? I think? Anyway, the paper is titled “A Black Hole at the Center of Earth Plays the Role of the Biggest System of Telecommunication for Connecting DNAs, Dark DNAs and Molecules of Water on 4+N- Dimensional Manifold”. Oooeee, sciencey! Black holes and DNA! Here’s the abstract.

Recently, some scientists from NASA have claimed that there may be a black hole like structure at the centre of the earth. We show that the existence of life on the earth may be a reason that this black hole like object is a black brane that has been formed from biological materials like DNA. Size of this DNA black brane is 109 times longer than the size of the earth’s core and compacted interior it. By compacting this long object, a curved space-time emerges, and some properties of black holes emerge. This structure is the main cause of the emergence of the large temperature of the core, magnetic field around the earth and gravitational field for moving around the sun. Also, this structure produces some waves which act like topoisomerase in biology and read the information on DNAs. However, on the four-dimensional manifold, DNAs are contracted at least four times around various axis’s and waves of earth couldn’t read their information. While, by adding extra dimensions on 4 +n-dimensional manifold, the separation distance between particles increases and all of the information could be recovered by waves. For this reason, each DNA has two parts which one can be seen on the four-dimensional universe, and another one has existed in extra dimensions, and only it’s e_ects is observed. This dark part of DNA called as a dark DNA in an extra dimension. These dark DNAs not only exchange information with DNAs but also are connected with some of the molecules of water and helps them to store information and have memory. Thus, the earth is the biggest system of telecommunication which connects DNAs, dark DNAs and molecules of water.

Whoa. I’m going to have to stop you at the very first sentence. Really? NASA says there may be a black hole at the center of the earth? I had to dig deeper. In the intro it says,

Newly, some scientists who worked in NASA claimed that there is a black hole at the centre of the earth which is the main cause of the high temperature of the core and magnetic field around the earth [6].

What is reference 6?

6. Riofrio L. Scientist Claims Theres a Black Hole in Center of the Earth. 2019 May 3;

Umm, Houston, we have a problem. “Mysterious Universe” is a blog that posts articles about “ancient mysteries”, “ghosts & hauntings”, “cryptozoology”, and “conspiracy theories”. The article itself cites one source, a woman named Louise Riofrio, as a scientist who used to work at NASA, it claims, although no credentials are given and no specific role is mentioned. Thousands of people work for NASA. It sounds like she had a job there for a while and is now citing that vague experience as making her an authority, and using it to tint her wacky crackpot theory as having the imprimatur of NASA. It doesn’t.

Further, “Mysterious Universe” is citing a single source for Louise Riofrio’s idea: a YouTube interview with a site called “thirdphaseofthemoon”, another woo-woo UFO site, titled NASA Insider PROVES Time Travel Is REAL! Black Hole Discovered In Earth’s Core? 2019-2020. It’s just Riofrio babbling about her self-published book that claims her formula, GM=tc3, is equivalent to E=Mc2, and shows that the force of gravity is a function of the age of the universe (t) times the speed of light cubed.

She does not have any evidence that there is a black hole at the center of our planet. She only has kooky theories.

Well look at that. I only got as far as the first sentence of the abstract, and it has already sent me tumbling down a rabbithole to crazytown. I didn’t even get to the biology!

OK, just a little taste of the biology.

Induced DNA black brane interior of the core by imaging all DNAs on its meta

…we should design a model which explains the relationship between earth, water and life. To this aim, we can use ideas of scientists for the existence of a black hole at the centre of the earth. This black hole may be constructed from a DNA black brane with 109 times longer than the core of the earth which is compacted interior of the core. The number of excited states of this object is similar to the number of microstates of a black hole. However, its material is similar to the material of a DNA. This structure produces a temperature around 6000 K which is in agreement with the predicted temperature of the core. Also, this structure is the main cause of the emergence of the magnetic field around the earth and gravitational waves for moving around the sun. We show that DNA black brane of the earth is the biggest system of telecommunications which exchange waves with all DNAs and molecules of water. Also, we introduce a new type of DNAs called dark DNAs on the eleven-dimensional manifold. In fact, on the four-dimensional manifold, DNAs are contracted at least four times around various axes and waves of earth couldn’t read their information. However, by adding extra dimensions, the separation distance between particles increases and all of the information could be recovered by waves.

For this reason, each DNA has two parts which one can be seen on the four-dimensional universe, and another one has existed in extra dimensions, and only it’s effects can be observed. This extra dark part of DNA called as a dark DNA in an extra dimension. Waves of the earth’s DNA connect DNAs on four-dimensional universe and dark

DNAs in extra dimensions and act like topoisomerases in biology. These waves are different for males and females and also different from linear waves which radiate by electronic devices.

Perhaps you are curious about these different DNAs in males and females, and what this dark DNA is? Don’t ask.

We can write below results from our model and calculations: 1. Molecules of water are in related to dark DNAs in extra dimensions. On the other hand, dark DNAs have gender like normal DNAs.

Thus, molecules of water can have some properties like gender, and each molecule of water with the gender of the male can attract by DNAs with the gender of female and reversely, each molecule of water with the gender of a female can attract with molecules of water with the gender of male

I told you, don’t ask.

However, by adding extra dimensions to four dimensions of the universe, the separation distance between elements of DNAs increases and waves of earth could recover their information. Thus, each DNA has an extra dark part in extra dimension which we call them dark DNAs. These extra parts couldn’t be observed, however, their effects can be seen. DNA black brane of the earth’s core exchange waves with both dark and light parts of DNA and connect them. These waves are different for males and females and play the role of topoisomerases in biology.

On the other hand, our calculations and experiments show that these waves interact with molecules of water. However, the chemical structure of water (H2O) is very simple and cant store any information. This means that there are some extra dark DNAs on the 4+n-dimensional manifold which are related to molecules of water and play the role of memory for it. These dark DNAs have gender like other DNAs and give properties of gender to molecules of water. On the other hand, DNA black brane of the earth could emit some special waves to molecules of water and extract dark DNAs from extra dimensions. This means that the origin of life could be a system of telecommunication which is formed by DNA black brane interior of the earth, dark DNAs, waves and molecules of water.

Wow. So there’s a black hole spinning around the core of the earth, producing a black brane which encodes all this dark DNA, which no biologist has ever found, which is transmitted to life on the surface. There is no evidence for any of it, nor for the idea that water molecules are gendered.

Any physicist want to tackle the physics in this article? I gave up when I found the source, and lost all enthusiasm for addressing the bullshit biology.

I have, of course, read all the Richard Scarry books, and will probably be reading more if ever I see the grandkids again, and this is just too accurate.

On the other hand, it might be exactly what the kids need to prepare for the modern world.

The Black Death inspired the flagellants — it seems to be a common human response to extremes of stress, that they may fall into religious manias and magical thinking. Our modern American equivalent, in response to a threat nowhere near as severe as the Black Death, seems to be QAnon and the cult of Trumpism. The cult of Q emerged from an unlikely place.

Yet, a consensus of leading researchers and critics who study and debunk QAnon disinformation told ABC News that a key to identifying “Q” has been hiding in plain sight for years — on a pig farm south of Manila in the Philippines — at least until recently.

And now it’s growing fast.

At least 24 candidates who have “endorsed or given credence to the conspiracy theory or promoted QAnon content” — 22 Republicans and two independents — have secured a spot on the ballot in the 2020 congressional elections, according to the media watchdog Media Matters, though it remains unclear how many could actually win their races. Last month, one candidate who pollsters say is almost certain to win her heavily GOP district in Georgia, Marjorie Taylor Greene, appeared to rescind her previous support for QAnon, telling Fox News that “once I started finding misinformation, I decided that I would choose another path.”

We also know who Q is now. It’s Jim Watkins.

This is the deranged conservative wackjob so many people have been following, hanging on his every insinuation, “prophecy”, and whisper. The cult is already doing real harm, beyond just seducing people into a loony religion. People have been murdered over this, crackpots have been threatening people, all over this nonsensical claim of “saving the children” from imaginary pedophiles. Most commonly, it’s been destroying families as individuals get lured into kooky conspiracy theories.

I think I’d prefer flagellants. If you’re a Q enthusiast, just go away right now.

Matt Yglesias, the latest sign that you are talking out of your ass ought to be that Glenn Beck agrees with you.

He has a new book out titled One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger, in which he proposes that we set a goal of pumping out more babies to give us an edge in international competition.

From one of our foremost policy writers, One Billion Americans is the provocative yet logical argument that if we aren’t moving forward, we’re losing. Vox founder Yglesias invites us to think bigger, while taking the problems of decline seriously. What really contributes to national prosperity should not be controversial: supporting parents and children, welcoming immigrants and their contributions, and exploring creative policies that support growth—like more housing, better transportation, improved education, revitalized welfare, and climate change mitigation. Drawing on examples and solutions from around the world, Yglesias shows not only that we can do this, but why we must.

The book has a website where you can find out more, but it’s rather unpersuasive. It has a section on praise which includes endorsements from billionaire Mark Cuban, his Vox co-founder Ezra Klein, Catholic creep Ross Douthat, and David Leonhardt (who?). Douthat’s blurb is about as empty as you can get:

“Trump-era bestseller lists are dominated by ‘exposes’ that tell us the same things, and (esp. under pandemic conditions) better books can’t get oxygen. So if you enjoy an excerpt or interview, buy the book!”

Gosh. An author has to be desperate to include that.

I have not read the book, nor do I feel at all compelled to read it. It just sounds dumb.

  • Why is tripling the population of the country even a goal? I mean, the description says some good things: supporting parents and immigrants, better housing, transportation, education, and welfare, and working to reduce the impact of climate change. Those are the goals we ought to aim for. Maybe a population increase would follow, but that would be a side effect of building a better, stronger nation. Why are you making the side effect primary, especially when it can conflict with your path to achieving that better nation?
  • How, Mr Policy Guy, how? Was an alternate title for your book Make More Babies NOW, Women!? Because that’s what it sounds like. A major obstacle to that goal right now is the deep gender inequities in this country — women bear the brunt of child-rearing responsibilities, so you’ve set a goal that falls mainly on the child-bearing hips of half the country. You don’t even mention correcting the unequal distribution of labor in your list of uncontroversial improvements.
  • The biggest economic factor limiting the United States is the immense, and growing, wealth inequality here, driven by raging unchecked capitalism. This is a country where the rich have grown richer during a pandemic that has harmed the well-being of the majority of the population. Spawning more children is not the path to prosperity for individuals, although it sure does swell a hungry workforce that can be exploited to the advantage of the corporate class. Somehow, I suspect that dismantling capitalism isn’t one of your uncontroversial contributions to national prosperity.
  • A colossal increase in population is going to involve equally colossal shifts in the economy. We’re going to require far more appreciation of child care and teaching, positions that are currently undervalued and underpaid. It’s going to lead to a booming number of retirees and the elderly, with a concomitant need for more advanced health care (unless, as an alternative, we’re going to just let them die).

OK, maybe the book is a staggering work of genius that includes eye-opening revelations about how we can accomplish everything all at once and reach a utopia full of happy families facing a bright future, but somehow I think that would inspire more interesting conversation than a couple of vague, bland reviews from a friend, a billionaire, the New York Times, and a terrible conservative op-ed writer whose endorsement ought to be reader-repellent. Reviewers who have read the book describe it as a mish-mash of shallow ideas only loosely connected to its central thesis. But sure, go ahead and collect those endorsements from Glen Beck, Mr Yglesias!

No COVID-19 detected!

SARS-CoV-2 RNA absent. This result does not rule out
COVID-19 in the patient, as the sensitivity of the test
depends on the timing of the specimen collection and
quality of the specimen. Result should be correlated with
patient’s history and clinical presentation.

I have been a very good boy about masking up and avoiding people, and I will continue to do so.

By Michelle Starr Every exoplanet is special in its own way, but a newly discovered exoplanet 186 light-years away is an especially delicious treat. It’s a smallish world around the same size as Earth, whipping around its star on an orbit that takes just 3.14 days. That’s extremely close to the mathematical constant π (Pi), …


The Lonely Century: Coming Together in a World that’s Pulling Apart (Sceptre) by Noreena Hertz

In 1853, having just generously appointed himself emperor, Napoleon III hauled a regional bureaucrat named Georges-Eugène Haussmann into his office, unfurled a map of Paris and ordered him to prettify the morass of scummy arrondissements that made up France’s seething capital. Over the next seventeen years, Haussmann, a self-styled baron and “Artist-Demolitionist,” tore bold avenues through the thicket of crafthouses and tenements, tugging the city into imperial, industrial splendour.

At the heart of Haussmann’s famous cityscape, however, was not mere urban renewal but a form of population control. Precisely because of their tight quarters, kept cosy with rats and effluent, Parisians had a tendency to revolt: countless times during the Revolutionary years after 1789, and again in 1830 (when Haussmann was caught in the fighting and discovered his disgust of the lower orders). Louis-Napoléon himself had come to power amid the rancour of February 1848. Those rotting warrens bred dissatisfaction and dissent. Their sheer proximity, pressed together in shared immiseration, was the grist of insurrection. It’s much easier to heed the tocsin bell when it’s in earshot, much easier to build a barricade in a narrow lane.

Haussmann saw to it that these boroughs would be bulldozed over, their residents exported to the fringes. If turmoil broke out again, as it did in the Communard months of 1871, Paris’ new boulevards and squares would provide the perfect arteries along which a repressive army could amass and manoeuvre.

Whether deliberately or not, this same process has taken place again and again ever since: the suburbanisation and atomisation of metropolitan life, and the steady transformation of experience from common intimacy to bare distance. The Western world (followed swiftly by the East and South) built upwards, great hostels in the sky, and outwards into immense conurbations only reachable by stretches of highway either desolate or jammed. Big box retailers (aptly named) and chain franchises crowded familiar family-owned stores and workshops off the high streets and main drags. Technology replaced shoulder-rubbing workers in the halls of industry or exported them out of sight; in offices the partitions were broken down, producing only distractions and paranoia rather than vaunted ‘innovation’. Even our meagre entertainments take place by the dim glow of a laptop, rather than in grand theatres and cosy cinemas.

In a sense, the present pandemic has accelerated what was already underway: the sequestration of lives, hidden behind perspex and facemasks, cloistered beyond closed curtains. This fragmentation often doesn’t need a Haussmann, a central authority to direct it from above. Shifting mores and social pressures are enough. Consider the way office workers in particular once prized their one-hour lunch break, but who today never leave their desks, shaving downtime to twenty or thirty minutes.

Community (that much abused jargon term of the technocrat) no longer exists as an organic product of environment. The town hall, the barbershop or café, the masjid or market – these old epicentres of whole neighbourhoods have become mere gathering points for individuals. In such a world, traditions fall apart. We are less likely to join a union or parent-teacher association, attend a religious congregation or live with family. Most miserably of all, we even have less sex.

Outside the front rooms, flatshares, fenced-off playgrounds, and silent underground commutes, the very texture of modern life feels ever more unforgiving and ultimately empty. We experience it not as existential catastrophe, rather a kind of diffused, ambient angst. This is not new – Ballard and DeLillo, David Mitchell and Kurt Vonnegut have all apprehended its texture in recent decades – but it has become worse. Ultimately, we live in Haussmann’s glimmeringly desiccated beau idéal. Man has become an island, an archipelago alone. We live, as the intellectual Noreena Hertz describes it with the title of her latest book, in The Lonely Century.

Hertz’s skilful early chapters survey a mountain range of studies and trials and surveys and experiments that all point in one direction: to feel loved, to have purpose, to be connected to the world around us makes us healthier, more productive, more resistant to disease and decay.

And yet. Growing numbers of elderly women in Japan are committing petty acts of crime so they can be locked up with peers their own age. The robot market is booming, especially for droids that can satisfy desires made unsatable by the minefield of modern dating. In New York, you can hire a university student to be your friend – at the price of forty bucks an hour. The internet compounds and intensifies anomie, particularly for teenagers who dig within themselves deep wells of misery because their lives never seem to measure up to the crystalline purity of a favoured celebrity. The very existence of Facebook is a public health issue. The sale of single-serve ready meals has skyrocketed in recent years – perfect for the cottage industry of influencers who do nothing but stream themselves eating copious amounts of food.

Most importantly, a Gallup survey conducted in 155 countries found 85 percent of employees felt disconnected from their company and their work – a detail that chimes nicely with the YouGov poll that the late anthropologist David Graeber used as the basis for his excoriating work Bullshit Jobs: fifty percent of British workers were unsure if their work made any meaningful contribution to the world, while 37 percent were “quite sure it did not.”

The Lonely Century, however, does not wed this richness of data to a proper history of how loneliness came to be such a common feeling: the Century of her title is the last twenty years, not the past one hundred. Hertz is, after all, still doing what many other intellectuals-cum-policy wonks of the Third Way/think tank style did (to some success) in the wake of the 2008 crisis: the approachable voice with its plasticky, chummy style, the attempt to float above ‘partisan politics’, loftily proposing imaginable ‘solutions’ to the ‘problem’, which usually involves trying to save capitalism from itself.

Hertz’s villain here, the chief perpetrator of this age of malaise, is the individualistic, competitive, dog-eat-dog drive of neoliberalism which has, in Hertz’s argument, filtered down from the corporate world over the last forty or so years. This allows her to call on the state or the market to alleviate the symptoms of loneliness while never reckoning with the root of the crisis. It is “time for game-changing and radical steps,” she declares, reaching for a peroration that is neither game-changing nor radical, “time to implement a more caring and kinder capitalism.”

If we don’t, the chronically lonely are liable to lash out, Hertz says. The surge of what she terms right-wing “populism” and “tribal” thinking across Europe and the United States is an attempt to salvage some meaning from a society seemingly growing ever more hostile. Consider the ways rightists have appropriated older socialist and union tactics in creating a vision of community. Vox in Spain host youth-only beer nights; Trump rallies are cook-outs with a side of authoritarianism; Italy’s Lega Nord hosts dinners and parties that emphasise regional tradition - the emotional resonances of these gatherings replicated in their social media propaganda. Of course, corporates have proved to be quite savvy at cloaking themselves in the slogans of family and care, regardless of their real mission. HSBC calls itself the “world’s local bank.” Insurance giant State Farm wants to be “a good neighbour.” The annual schmaltz of the John Lewis Christmas advert is still an advert for a department store.

And anyway, in mapping these political consequences, what Hertz is trying to identify is not really loneliness at all but a deeper affliction. It is a term she deploys only a handful of times in the book despite its far more potent past: alienation.

Where loneliness represents a gap – an existential one, to be sure – between our lives and the lives of others, alienation refers to an entire world in which we seem to play no meaningful role. It is a psychological severance separating our sense of self-worth from the poor assets we’ve inherited. Popular culture no longer enchants, and political conversation seems to have less and less bearing on daily routines. In work, so few of us actually produce anything. Instead, we serve: as pint-pullers or burger-flippers or Uber drivers, telemarketers or PR flacks or bureaucratic box-tickers. The horizon of a rosier future has been foreclosed, and alienation stems from this lack of power - the ability to place our collective finger on the scales of justice.

Again, this is not new. Indeed, as we today approach Victorian levels of inequality, it’s worth remembering that the era in which Parisians (and others) tried to break through their alienation by rebelling, and Haussmann was called in to break them up, also saw a full roster of philosophers dedicating themselves to investigating (perhaps even alleviating) what felt like a vast reservoir of deadness and homogeneity. From Kierkegaard to Feuerbach and beyond, the project of humanism was and remains a search for a way out, an attempt to grasp for emancipation.

It is telling that none of these names appear anywhere in The Lonely Century. Then again, Hertz is quite content to suggest that we buy robots for pensioners to watch television with rather than imagine a society in which the elderly don’t have to sit alone for their last days. It is perhaps the most alienating thing of all to be told we should take our wisdom from intellectuals like Hertz, only to discover that they have fashioned such a narrow window of possibility, and suffer such an impoverishment of imagination.


From the autumn 2020 edition of New Humanist.

Since the Covid-19 pandemic hit, bicycle use in Britain has boomed. Brompton bikes have seen a five-fold increase in sales, Halfords shares have gone up 25 per cent and the UK government has created a £250 million active travel fund for cycling and walking initiatives, the first stage of a £2 billion investment. This is mirrored on the continent, with Paris, Brussels and Rome all planning new cycle paths. In France, the authorities have gone further, subsidising bike repairs and electric bike purchases. It’s a challenging time on many fronts, but it’s a good time for cycling.

There’s a long and established link between the bicycle and moments of social change. Look back into the history of profound societal shifts and you’ll often find a bicycle in the background. Women campaigning for the right to vote in the early 1900s used the bike as both a practical method of transportation and a symbol of change. Popular monthly publication Godey’s Lady’s Book said it all: “In possession of her bicycle, the daughter of the 19th century feels that the declaration of her independence has been proclaimed.”

City-based bike rental schemes can be traced back to Dutch counterculture collective Provo, who left 50 white bicycles unlocked on the streets of 1960s Amsterdam. They were making a point about car ownership and capitalism, but their action informed environmentalists who have used bikes to reshape cities worldwide with bike lanes and rental schemes. Bikes are cheap and accessible – bar current coronavirus-related shortages – making them an obvious choice for those interested in equality of opportunity and basic services for all. They’re also being used to address environmental issues worldwide, by encouraging people to move away from polluting private cars.

On an individual level, cycling can be a radical choice – certainly if you are, for example, a young Moroccan woman. Fadoua Lahna works part-time as a bike tour guide in Marrakech, alongside studying for her degree. “When I was first out on my bike, I was hearing a lot of bad comments from people about girls cycling or about girls being a tour guide,” she says. “Sometimes it made me cry. But each day the team supported me. I got more confident. I became stronger.”

Lahna works for Pikala Bikes, a social enterprise based inside the centuries-old Medina. Pikala began life in 2016 after founder Cantal Bakker decided to ship out excess Dutch bikes to the city. Over 400 tourists ride with them each month, and recently the United Nations World Tourism Organisation named them one of their most innovative sustainable start-ups. Pikala not only employ 25 student guides, including Lahna; they also fund hands-on mechanic training, as well as English and financial literacy classes for local kids. During the last three years, over 90 students have gone through their programmes and they’ve trained a similar number of girls to ride bikes.

Pikala shows how cycling initiatives can be used to counter the worst excesses of poverty and pollution in urban environments. Cycle tours can bring visitors closer to the grassroots of cities by taking them to local businesses and co-ops, away from stations and popular hot-spots. Initiatives like Pikala can also help shift an entrenched idea – common in Morocco as well as in many developing countries – that bikes are only for poor people.

Bicycles are being used as a vehicle for social change around the world. In Britain, for example, the Bike Project collects discarded bikes and gives them to newly arrived refugees, who are forced to survive on the paltry £37 a week given by the UK government to those with refugee status. Operating in London, Oxford and Birmingham, the Bike Project has given away more than 6,500 free bikes to refugees since 2013, helping them access healthcare, legal advice and education. Their tagline says it all: “No one should have to choose between eating a square meal and catching the bus. That’s why we give bikes.” While their HQ has been temporarily closed due to Covid-19, they’ve been running pop-up donation sessions, selling bikes online and running charity challenges.

* * *

In downtown Tampa, Florida, Jon Dengler is moving his bike shop out of a coronavirus-evacuated mall into a tent and a pick-up truck in the parking lot. WellBuilt Bikes is a non-profit selling refurbished bikes at affordable prices. But it’s not only a store. It also has an Earn-A-Bike program, where anybody can drop in and build their own bike out of donated parts. Most people who take part come from Tampa’s sizeable homeless community. “If someone earns a bike with us they can pedal it where they want to go,” says Dengler. “You can go to the bank or you can start a business. You can get a job or you can go and visit family. You’re free.”

The word “radical” he points out, means “at the root of”. “Freedom and poverty are at opposite ends of the spectrum. We found a deeper issue, which is that a bicycle gives you freedom,” he says. “[Ours] is a radical approach in the sense that it addresses the deeper issue. We are going beneath material needs, into freedom and autonomy and the ability to meet your own needs.”

WellBuilt are exceptionally busy right now. For bike shops worldwide, the global quarantine has precipitated a boom. In the days before some US states issued a Stay At Home order, WellBuilt almost sold out of stock, as a new demographic scooped up their reclaimed cycles – people who might otherwise have gone to the gym or used public transport. WellBuilt tries to encourage a diverse community around the store. There’s a group ride every Tuesday evening, where people in their orbit – homeless folk, college students, families who’ve bought bikes – are invited to ride through the city together. “[Covid-19] demonstrated how bikes are a basic necessity,” says Dengler.

In Britain, local councils are encouraging bike use, looking to wean us off the bus, given the challenges of social distancing on public transport and the 30-plus London bus workers who died in the early phase of the pandemic. Brighton and Hove Council are leading the way, having been allocated over half a million pounds in the government’s first round of funding to create temporary road space for cyclists and pedestrians. This was the highest per capita, and was later bumped up to £663,000, partly thanks to large numbers of Brightonians who were already using public transport.

In London, some local authorities are using new Covid-19 statutory guidance to fast-forward existing plans for partial road closures, creating new walking and cycling corridors and helping to tackle climate change. The Streetspace programme promises to construct a “strategic cycling network” that will reduce traffic and transform local town centres. Attractive wooden planters and other modal filters – such as bollards and traffic signs – have already appeared at the end of streets, blocking off cut-throughs for cars and creating new space for cyclists.

In our virus-evolving world, what future role might the bicycle play? Social need is certain to increase as unemployment rises. The pandemic follows a global economic crisis and more than a decade of austerity, which has already damaged welfare capacity in the UK and elsewhere.

Organisations like the Bike Project, WellBuilt or Pikala know how to maximise minimal resources, making them important repositories of grassroots knowledge. It’s clear that the near-future is local, with a significant decrease in long journeys and international travel – at least until the arrival of a vaccine. Bicycles allow us to make the most of the space we have, so that we can still access medical care, employment opportunities or job centres. More than that, they have the capacity to offer a new approach to life.

The final word goes to Dengler, over in Florida. “The bicycle has been an enduring tool for freedom,” he says. “I believe it’ll be one moving forward as well.”

This week on the Skepchick podcast, Rebecca chats with author, scientist, and Renaissance woman Emily Willingham about her new book Phallacy: Life Lessons from the Animal Penis. Fellow Skepchick and biology enthusiast Amanda Leinbaugh joins the penisy fun! If you’d like to watch episodes recorded live, become a patron at!
This post contains a video, which you can also view here. To support more videos like this, head to! Transcript: This week, President Donald Trump graced California with his bilious presence so that he could flump around the state saying stupid things about the wildfires that have been tearing along the west coast destroying …

George Eliot, 1858

From the autumn 2020 edition of New Humanist.

Spinoza’s Ethics (Princeton University Press) translated by George Eliot, edited by Clare Carlisle

One of the most illuminating curiosities to have emerged from the study of George Eliot’s early writing is the amount of time she spent engaging with the philosophy of Baruch Spinoza. She began her life of letters translating David Strauss’s The Life of Jesus, which owes a debt to Spinoza, while still in her 20s. Having taught herself Latin, she pored over Spinoza’s works for over a decade before producing the first complete English language translation of the Ethics in 1856. Sadly, it was never published in her lifetime.

Less than a year after completing the translation, she began publishing fiction under a nom de plume, and her formidable reputation as a novelist soon eclipsed her early interest in theology. But her engagement with continental philosophy provides a useful lens through which to view her later work, as Dr Clare Carlisle explains in the fascinating introduction to Eliot’s translated Ethics.

The argument of the Ethics is astounding in its implications, but it can be hard going as a reading experience, painstakingly accumulated in the Cartesian language of axioms, propositions and demonstrations. Eliot recognised this and felt that translation from Latin into English was only half the battle. Though she never wrote an explicit analysis of the work, Carlisle notes that “some readers have found in her novels literary ‘translations’ of Spinozism, accomplished through character and narrative.” Could it be that the budding novelist of society had begun to conceive of human affairs with the cool geometry of the Ethics, “as if the subject were lines, surfaces or solids”?

In the text, the audacity of Spinoza’s radical conception of “God or Nature” (Deus sive Natura) is somewhat dampened by Eliot’s decision to parenthesise “or Nature”, though perhaps that helps to avoid the mistake of assuming that Spinoza considered God to be a wholly material entity. In reality, he saw physical extension as merely one attribute of an infinite, panentheistic God. We might liken this to our lack of intuitive understanding of multiple dimensions in string theory, since we only have empirical access to three – Spinoza, through Eliot, would say that “the human mind perceives no external body as actually existing except through ideas of the affections of its own body”.

The originality of its theological underpinnings sometimes overshadows the fact that the Ethics is intended to concern human experience, behaviour and morals. One of the greatest apparent challenges to our ability to act ethically is his deterministic approach: “Men believe themselves free solely because they are conscious of their actions and ignorant of the causes by which they are determined.” Indeed, modern neuroscience appears to support the idea that our brains choose a course of action up to ten seconds before we consciously “decide”. How, then, are we to act morally, if we are no more than automata? Spinoza might respond that such reasoned debate is part of the process that pushes us towards understanding our place in the world and it is this which leads us toward “blessedness” and peace of mind. Unhappiness follows from confused perception; only by recognising that we are a finite mode of God (or Nature) can we find true freedom.

Scholars will be pleased to note the critical material showing Eliot’s amendments to her manuscript, as well as a useful comparison of important word choices against other translators into English (Where others write “joy”, Eliot writes “pleasure”; what others call “gladness” or “relief”, Eliot calls “joy”.) Those reading purely for interest have the rare combined pleasure of engaging with one of the world’s greatest philosophers, rendered in precise and analytical prose by one of the greatest English novelists.

Eliot’s translation was not available to her peers, just as Spinoza’s Ethics was not published in his lifetime. But the novelist was in sympathy with the philosopher when she wrote of her character Dorothea, at the close of Middlemarch, that “the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts.”

This post contains a video, which you can also view here. To support more videos like this, head to! Transcript: In July, which in Quarantine Time was approximately 12 parsecs ago, I told you that it looked like Trump was attempting to hide the true COVID-19 case numbers in the United States by stopping …

On 2 September, the trial began over the deadly shooting at Charlie Hebdo and related murders at a Kosher supermarket and the killing of a police officer. The attacks sparked a wave of jihadist terrorism across the city. The fourteen suspects are accused of helping t
he militant Islamists who shot dead 12 people in and around the office of the satirical magazine, as well as four Jewish people in a hostage situation at the supermarket and a female officer in Montrouge.

The attacks took place five years ago, in January 2015. Now, in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic, it is time for justice. Like many people across the world, the French are more concerned today about health issues than terrorism. Nevertheless, we have suddenly been pulled back to the first days of that disastrous year.

Those facing justice have more to do with the murders committed by Amédy Coulibaly, the gunman in the supermarket siege and Montrouge, than with the Kouachi brothers who stormed the Charlie Hebdo offices. However, it is first and foremost the memory of the attack on the magazine that this trial revives, due to its symbolic force and the scale of the reaction that it alone triggered on 7 January 2015. To mark the start of the trial on their own terms, the staff at the irreverent, polemical weekly chose to republish the prophet Muhammad cartoons on their front page.

The question, therefore, has resurfaced in France: who is still "Charlie" today? What remains five years later of the slogan "Je Suis Charlie" that was once so ubiquitous on social networks and on the streets?

This is not the first time this question has been asked. In January 2018, a poll was funded by Printemps Républicain, a small political movement founded shortly after the attacks with the aim of defending secularism. They found that the French were "less and less Charlie" and organised an event "Always Charlie" in the Parisian theatre of the Folies Bergères. Since then, France has grown accustomed to the question occupying TV talk shows and the pages of magazines on each anniversary.

But let's be frank: from a sociological point of view, this question makes no sense. The American sociologist Randall Collins, a pioneer in the study of responses to terrorist attacks, was the first to point out that the surge of solidarity following an attack, however huge it may have been, has a relatively short time span: a few months at most. Even in the United States after 9/11, most of the flags displayed in solidarity with the victims had been taken down after nine months. The "Je Suis Charlie" symbol, created on the spot by Joachim Roncin, an art director at a magazine who used the font of Charlie Hebdo's masthead in his simple black and white image, is likewise rare to see in public today.

The "I am Charlie" movement could only have ever been fleeting. This is a hard sociological fact. As I explain in my book Shell Shocked, its near disappearance is perfectly normal. This does not mean that people who demonstrated in support of Charlie Hebdo have disowned their former views, nor that they would be insensitive tomorrow to another attack on journalists. It simply means that they have got on with their lives, without detracting from the intensity of what they felt at the time, in January. One could regret this reality and consider that it is more important than ever today to defend the "Charlie spirit". But this is then something else: a stance that is part of a political battle.

The fact that we are funding pollsters to serve in this battle is no surprise. But as Pierre Bourdieu pointed out in his famous text "Public opinion does not exist", by doing so we are constructing a statistical artefact, unrelated to social reality. In being asked "are you still Charlie?", the French are being confronted with a question they would otherwise never have posed to themselves today, when they have many other concerns, such as going back to school or going back to work in times of pandemic, for example.

If the formula "I am Charlie" was so successful in January 2015, it is because its simplicity made it possible to bring together various feelings about the event, as I wrote about at the time: being Charlie because one was a cartoonist or journalist, because one was a subscriber to the newspaper or an admirer of one of the murdered cartoonists, because one was horrified that journalists could be killed in this way in France, because one suddenly realised how much freedom of expression meant, etc.

When asking today who is still Charlie, one tends on the contrary to narrow the range, linking ‘Charlie’ to a particular political stance, to the "right to blasphemy" and to the defence of French laïcité. Moreover, it is as if today's Charlie Hebdo was exactly the same as yesterday's when its editorial staff has been subject to tensions and its editorial line has evolved, as is the case in the ordinary life of any newspaper. In a democracy, freedom of the press is matched by freedom of its readership. And yet there is always a hint of shaming when we are asked, "so you're not Charlie any more?"

Rather than wondering who is still Charlie, we should probably question the consequences that the recurrence of such a debate has on French society.

One of the great sociological theorems says that when individuals define a situation as real, it is real in its consequences. Let’s transpose this to our present case: however marginal and disconnected a political-media debate may be from social reality, as soon as it meets a certain audience, it has real consequences in society. This is all the more true since the advent of social networks and the current transformation of the mass media favouring what Christopher A. Bail calls the "fringe effect", that leads the most extremist positions on a given subject gradually to win over the heart of a debate, however small the minority of people defending these views may actually be. This is how Islamophobic discourse has gradually become mainstream in the United States after 9/11, although these beliefs were initially held by very small groups.

Awareness of these phenomena, along with the underlying mechanisms, should enable us to avoid getting caught up in them. This is where social sciences can help to better cope with terror attacks and their repercussions, both in the short and long term. Scientific knowledge should help us to know how to avoid falling into the traps set by terrorists, whose primary objective is to weaken the society they are attacking by stirring up divisions and discord. Constantly asking the French if they are 'still Charlie', when moving on is perfectly normal, is putting salt on the wound.
When I first saw headlines last week that researchers found that the Sturgis motorcycle rally, which attracted 460,000 attendees to Sturgis South Dakota last month, has resulted in over 260,000 new COVID-19 cases, my first reaction was one of indignation. How dare these bikers take indiscriminate risks like attending a Smash Mouth concert in middle …


From the autumn 2020 edition of New Humanist

The crowd went wild as Matteo Salvini strode onto the stage of the Gran Guardia, a stunning Renaissance palace in the heart of medieval Verona. The leader of Italy’s far-right League party took his place at the rostrum in front of rows of delegates from the World Congress of Families. This was the 13th meeting of the organisation: a once obscure religious movement that has become a hugely influential network supporting the radical right around the world.

Salvini did not disappoint. With the sleeves of his white shirt rolled up, the League’s leader railed against Islamic extremism, population decline and Europe’s crisis of “empty cribs”. Cheers rang out when Salvini pulled on a dark blue and white T-shirt with silhouettes of a man, a woman and two small children. “You are the vanguard… that keeps the flame alive for what 99.9 per cent of people want.”

The Verona meeting, in late March 2019, was arguably the most prominent since the Congress was established by American and Russian ultra-conservatives in the late 1990s. At the time of his address, Salvini was Italy’s deputy Prime Minister. Also in attendance were American anti-abortionists and Australian supporters of gay conversion therapy, Russian Orthodox priests and delegates from Brazilian prime minister Jair Bolsonaro’s misnamed Social Liberal Party.

Like many far-right leaders gaining ground around the world, Salvini has used the language of religion for political expediency, setting himself up as “the last of the good Christians” in opposition to the relatively liberal Pope Francis. In Verona, the city of Romeo and Juliet, the League’s figurehead played the penitent sinner, talking up his personal failings while also presenting himself as the strongman who could save Italy from homosexuals, feminists, immigrants and Muslims. The pitch was crude, xenophobic and very successful. By the time the World Congress of Families arrived in Verona, the League was ahead in the polls.

The World Congress of Families has been described as an “anti-LGBT hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors extremist movements in the US. In Verona, speakers claimed that the “natural family” was under such systematic assault that the west was on the precipice of a “demographic winter” because not enough babies will be born. At an informal press conference on the Gran Guardia’s steps, an Italian neo-fascist party announced the launch of a campaign for a referendum to overturn the country’s abortion law.

The Congress’s particular brand of social conservatism is part of the new political discourse that is fast becoming normal in countries across Europe. In Hungary, Viktor Orbán has vowed to defend “Christian Europe” from Muslim migration. Poland’s Law and Justice party have put in place restrictive limits on women’s access to contraception and demonised LBGT people. (The party’s hold on power was cemented in July, when incumbent president Andrzej Duda narrowly won an election.) This has enthusiastic support from Poland’s Catholic establishment, which warns of a “rainbow plague” that has replaced the “red plague” which blighted the country in the communist era.

In America, more than 80 per cent of evangelical Christians voted for the thrice-married Donald Trump in 2016. Many are expected to do so again in November’s presidential election.

Various explanations have been offered to account for this rising tide of reaction: economic uncertainty; cultural anxiety; changes in societal attitudes to religion and sexuality; the failures of market liberalism, especially in eastern Europe; austerity measures introduced after the financial crisis; the migration crisis on Europe’s borders.

What is often missed, however, is the role that global flows of political money and influence have played in bringing once diffuse nativist movements together for set-piece occasions such as the World Congress of Families in Verona. From Trump to Salvini, many of these putative populists benefit from international networks of funding and support that cross the very national borders that they have pledged themselves to defend.

* * *

The World Congress of Families is the closest Europe’s radical right has to Davos. Dozens of far-right politicians have attended over the last decade, as have cardinals, bishops and a ragtag crew of minor continental royalty. Crucially, it has also attracted influential figures from America’s powerful religious conservative movements, who are not only ideological supporters but also helping to bankroll the network.

The Congress’s head, Brian Brown, is a father of nine who was raised Quaker but converted to Catholicism as an adult and made his name fighting against marriage equality in his native California. Brown chose Verona for the 2019 Congress after the League-led local government defied Italy’s abortion laws to declare itself a “pro-life city” and gave public funding to anti-abortion groups. He told delegates that the Congress theme was “the Winds of Change” because of countries like Italy and Hungary “standing up for the family”.

In early 2019, an investigation by openDemocracy – the news site where I work – found that a dozen groups on the US religious right had spent at least $50 million in Europe, on various causes, over the previous decade. The true figure is likely to be much higher, but the payments offer a glimpse into how these funds have contributed to the nativist political shift across the Atlantic.

US conservative money has had a very tangible impact on Europe’s streets. If you are a woman in Italy who unexpectedly becomes pregnant, you might find yourself in one of numerous free counselling services that have popped up across the country run by an Italian charity called Movimento Per la Vita (Movement for Life), modelled on “crisis pregnancy centres” in the US. In the clinics, Italian women are shown graphic anti-abortion videos and promised financial help if they do not have a termination. These Italian clinics are supported and partly funded from thousands of miles away in Columbus, Ohio, by an organisation called Heartbeat International.

Another high-spending US Christian funder in Europe, the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, was involved through its Italian branch in Steve Bannon’s ill-fated plans to turn an ancient abbey into what he called a “gladiator school” for the “next generation of nationalist and populist leaders”. From an 800-year-old hilltop monastery in Trisulti, nearly two hours outside Rome, Bannon hoped to propagate populism across Europe.

The academy never got off the ground. Acton’s founder publicly distanced himself from Bannon, saying that the Rome office had acted without his knowledge in supporting the project. But much of the coverage of the controversy surrounding the scheme missed a significant point about Acton’s work. The thinktank has an explicit mission to fuse support for free-market capitalism with social conservatism. Its funders have included a foundation belonging to the Koch brothers, the oil magnates who have spent billions pushing libertarian causes and climate change denial in the US. The unholy alliance of fundamentalist Christianity and pro-corporate lobbying has been part of American political life for decades.

Populists were widely expected to make historic gains in the European elections in May 2019. They did win a record number of seats in the European parliament. However, as a bloc, they fell short of their most optimistic predictions – not least because many traditional right and centrist parties adopted similarly hardline stances on immigration in order to draw the sting of their proto-fascist rivals. But in Italy, the openly racist League topped the poll, for the first time in its history. Salvini celebrated by holding up a
rosary and kissing a small crucifix.

Brian Brown claimed partial credit for what he called the League’s “huge victory”. The World Congress of Families was on the rise.

* * *

Among the most effective speakers at the Congress in Verona was a telegenic Spaniard with salt-and-pepper stubble named Ignacio Arsuaga. A World Congress of Families veteran, Arsuaga knew how to work the ultra-conservative room for applause. In slow, deliberate tones he told delegates that they were fighting a global “culture war” against “cultural Marxists”, “radical feminists” and “LGBT totalitarians”. The only way to win was by taking power directly through “parties and elected officials” – and, indirectly, by shifting public opinion.

In January 2013, Arsuaga had joined a London retreat with roughly 20 pro-life leaders from Europe and the US. The network – Agenda Europe – proposed that lobbyists petition governments to repeal all legislation allowing for divorce, civil partnerships or same-sex adoption, according to a private document called “Restoring the Natural Order”. By 2018, Agenda Europe had grown to over 100 organisations in more than 30 countries, meeting in secret to implement “a detailed strategy to roll back human rights”.

Arsuaga founded one of the most influential groups in this network: CitizenGo, the European religious right’s answer to progressive online campaign platforms like Avaaz and CitizenGo has promoted online petitions demanding that Disneyland Paris cancel a gay pride parade and calling for a boycott of Netflix after the streaming service announced that it was supporting opponents of a draconian anti-abortion bill in the US state of Georgia.

It is most active in Spain, however, where it is known as HazteOir (“Make yourself heard”). In 2019, the Spanish government ruled that the group “denigrated and devalued” gay people. Athough nominally non-party political, it is particularly close to Spain’s far-right party, Vox. Since the fall of the dictatorship in the mid-1970s, Spain had been one of the few European states without a serious ultra-conservative political force. That changed in 2014 when a small group of radicals broke away from the conservative Partido Popular – which had long contained people nostalgic for the Franco regime – to form Vox.

The new party rose quickly. It captured headlines, promising to deport extremist imams and crush the “criminal” separatist government in Catalonia that was pushing for independence. Vox would take back Gibraltar and reassert Spain’s Catholic identity. Hacer España grande otra vez: Make Spain great again.

Spain, like most European countries, has strict political finance laws that cap spending and usually require donor transparency. One way to circumvent funding limits is through third-party campaign groups.

In Verona, a senior Vox official told an undercover journalist that he could support the party by giving money “indirectly” to CitizenGo. The Vox staff member compared CitizenGo to a “Super Pac”, the election vehicles that can spend limitless amounts of money in American elections without having to reveal their donors.

* * *

There have been other signs of such “dark money” on Europe’s far right. Germany’s AfD party has been embroiled in a number of funding scandals, including receiving anonymous donations routed through Swiss companies and €150,000 from an unknown Dutch political organisation called the European Identity Foundation. Senior representatives of the League were secretly recorded negotiating a deal to covertly siphon millions of pounds of Russian money to the Italian party through an oil company. Salvini said that the discussions – which were taped in Moscow’s Metropole Hotel – were “fake news”.

Vox’s rise was not solely fuelled by shady campaign finance. The party built a huge online following, consciously bypassing traditional media to appeal directly to voters. Ultra-nationalist videos told frightening stories about immigration. Others provided a hopeful vision of the future: Vox’s leader Santiago Abascal on horseback or standing in the rain looking out over fields and vineyards. This dual digital strategy has been very successful, especially with young people. Vox has more followers on Instagram than the Socialists and the far-left Podemos combined.

Vox’s huge social media reach does not seem to be entirely organic. Many of the most prolific pro-Vox accounts displayed behaviour that digital researchers would call unusual, according to research published in early 2019. Over the course of a year, some 3,000 Twitter accounts sent 4.5 million pro-Vox and anti-Islamic tweets. They often published identical posts that were designed to look spontaneous but were in fact coordinated disinformation.

Vox supporters were particularly likely to share conspiracy theories. There were stories about “white genocide” and myriad mentions of Jewish billionaire George Soros, who had barely featured in Spanish politics before Vox. Hyper-partisan political news sites in Italy and Brazil performed a similar function ahead of elections in 2018. In both countries, these far-right portals amplified narratives – about immigration in Italy, corruption in Brazil – before they had become part of the mainstream discourse.

Many of Vox’s digital echo chambers pushed religiously tinged disinformation. Leftists were encouraging children to have abortions. Muslims wanted to take Spain back to the time of the Moors. Religion, as digital expert Claire Wardle explained to me, “is one of the best ways to spread disinformation online.” Similar tactics were used during the 2016 presidential election, when Russian-backed accounts appealed directly to Christian fundamentalists by sharing images that showed Hillary Clinton, devil horns protruding, arm-wrestling with Jesus.

Vox’s strident, confrontational messaging has brought electoral success. In a second Spanish general election in November 2019, Vox put the “menace” of migrant children at the centre of an aggressively racist campaign. Amid widespread disillusionment at the country’s gridlocked politics, the far-right party’s support surged. Vox finished third, more than doubling its seats in parliament.

* * *

The depiction of figures like Salvini and Abascal as grassroots insurgents storming the citadel with little more than an internet connection and a nativist dream is compelling. Certainly, this new generation of nationalists has tapped into a deep well of popular anger and frustration with the status quo.

Their advance, however, is also undergirded by networks of dark money and hidden influence. Armies of digital supporters spread disinformation across the borderless internet. Electoral rules, where they exist, are there to be broken.

This new generation of autocrats frequently draws on the same tactics: weaponising religion, mobilising fear of the “other” and presenting themselves as the only authentic voice of “the people”. It is an approach that chimes with the increasingly powerful ultra-conservative movement.

“The political vision nurtured by the World Congress of Families has become frighteningly mainstream,” says my openDemocracy colleague Claire Provost, an investigative journalist who has spent years tracking the backlash against rights for women, LGBTQI people and minorities. “The longer I spend with these groups, the less I think they’re actually fixated on specific issues like abortion. While they talk a lot about women’s wombs, theirs is a much wider political project, to support authoritarian societies led by ‘strongmen’.”

Peter Geoghegan’s book “Democracy for Sale: Dark Money and Dirty Politics” is published by Head of Zeus.

I honestly don’t have a lot this week to share… because I’m coping with waves hands all this by still basking in the glow of the awesomeness that was Virtual DragonCon, particularly the programming from the Science Track, which you can now watch on their YouTube channel! 3.2 billion pixel camera for astrophysics tested on… …

#2 Front Cover FINALI am delighted to announce the arrival of the second issue of Hocus Pocus!

And this time we have created a comic that communes with the dead!

This issue delves into the strange world of spirit communication! Join Houdini’s chief investigator, Rose Mackenberg, as she uncovers the secrets of the seance room. Travel through time to discover the trickery used by Fox sisters and the Davenport brothers to fool the world. Uncover the scientists and scoundrels behind the strange history of the Ouija Board.

Beautifully illustrated, printed in full colour on heavy card stock, and limited edition.

Illustrated by Jordan Collver, written by Rik Worth and coloured by Owen Watts.

You can get a copy from PropDog here or from Travelling Man here

And the magazine website is here.

Praise for Issue One:
‘An utterly magical read ….. one of the most inventive and gorgeous comics we have read this year.’ – Pipedream Comics

The University of Hertfordshire have just launched a great online Festival of Ideas. There’s lots of amazing and wonderful content focusing around how the arts and sciences can help to tackle Covid-19, and thoughts about how the world will change post-virus.

I have contributed a talk about the making of a free online computer game that encourages social distancing. The game was created with Martin Jacob and can be played here.  The game received lots of media coverage, made the BBC national news and went viral. We have now had over 75,000 people play it and the feedback has been amazing!

In this episode of the podcast, Sam discusses the recent social protests and civil unrest, in light of what we know about racism and police violence in America.

This is a transcript of a recorded podcast.

* * *

Welcome to the Making Sense podcast… This is Sam Harris.

OK…. Well, I’ve been trying to gather my thoughts for this podcast for more than a week—and have been unsure about whether to record it at all, frankly.

Conversation is the only tool we have for making progress, I firmly believe that. But many of the things we most need to talk about, seem impossible to talk about.

I think social media is a huge part of the problem. I’ve been saying for a few years now that, with social media, we’ve all been enrolled in a psychological experiment for which no one gave consent, and it’s not at all clear how it will turn out. And it’s still not clear how it will turn out, but it’s not looking good. It’s fairly disorienting out there. All information is becoming weaponized. All communication is becoming performative. And on the most important topics, it now seems to be fury and sanctimony and bad faith almost all the time.

We appear to be driving ourselves crazy. Actually, crazy. As in, incapable of coming into contact with reality, unable to distinguish fact from fiction—and then becoming totally destabilized by our own powers of imagination, and confirmation bias, and then lashing out at one other on that basis.

So I’d like to talk about the current moment and the current social unrest, and its possible political implications, and other cultural developments, and suggest what it might take to pull back from the brink here. I’m going to circle in on the topics of police violence and the problem of racism, because that really is at the center of this. There is so much to talk about here, and it’s so difficult to talk about. And there is so much we don’t know. And yet, most people are behaving as though every important question was answered a long time ago.

I’ve been watching our country seem to tear itself apart for weeks now, and perhaps lay the ground for much worse to come. And I’ve been resisting the temptation to say anything of substance—not because I don’t have anything to say, but because of my perception of the danger, frankly. And if that’s the way I feel, given the pains that I’ve taken to insulate myself from those concerns, I know that almost everyone with a public platform is terrified. Journalists, and editors, and executives, and celebrities are terrified that they might take one wrong step here, and never recover.

And this is really unhealthy—not just for individuals, but for society. Because, again, all we have between us and the total breakdown of civilization is a series of successful conversations. If we can’t reason with one another, there is no path forward, other than violence. Conversation or violence.

So, I’d like to talk about some of the things that concern me about the current state of our communication. Unfortunately, many things are compounding our problems at the moment. We have a global pandemic which is still very much with us. And it remains to be seen how much our half-hearted lockdown, and our ineptitude in testing, and our uncoordinated reopening, and now our plunge into social protest and civil unrest will cause the Covid-19 caseload to spike. We will definitely see. As many have pointed out, the virus doesn’t care about economics or politics. It only cares that we keep breathing down each other’s necks. And we’ve certainly been doing enough of that.

Of course, almost no one can think about Covid-19 right now. But I’d just like to point out that many of the costs of this pandemic and the knock-on effects in the economy, and now this protest movement, many of these costs are hidden from us. In addition to killing more than 100,000 people in the US, the pandemic has been a massive opportunity cost. The ongoing implosion of the economy is imposing tangible costs, yes, but it is also a massive opportunity cost. And now this civil unrest is compounding those problems—whatever the merits of these protests may be or will be, the opportunity costs of this moment are staggering. In addition to all the tangible effects of what’s happening—the injury and death, the lost businesses, the burned buildings, the neighborhoods that won’t recover for years in many cities, the educations put on hold, and the breakdown in public trust of almost every institution—just think about all the good and important things we cannot do—cannot even think of doing now—and perhaps won’t contemplate doing for many years to come, because we’ll be struggling to get back to that distant paradise we once called “normal life.”

Of course, normal life for many millions of Americans was nothing like a paradise. The disparities in wealth and health and opportunity that we have gotten used to in this country, and that so much of our politics and ways of doing business seem to take for granted, are just unconscionable. There is no excuse for this kind of inequality in the richest country on earth. What we’re seeing now is a response to that. But it’s a confused and confusing response. Worse, it’s a response that is systematically silencing honest conversation. And this makes it dangerous.

This isn’t just politics and human suffering on display. It’s philosophy. It’s ideas about truth—about what it means to say that something is “true.” What we’re witnessing in our streets and online and in the impossible conversations we’re attempting to have in our private lives is a breakdown in epistemology. How does anyone figure out what’s going on in the world? What is real? If we can’t agree about what is real, or likely to be real, we will never agree about how we should live together. And the problem is, we’re stuck with one other.

So, what’s happening here?

Well, again, it’s hard to say. What is happening when a police officer or a mayor takes a knee in front of a crowd of young people who have been berating him for being a cog in the machinery of systemic racism? Is this a profound moment of human bonding that transcends politics, or is it the precursor to the breakdown of society? Or is it both? It’s not entirely clear.

In the most concrete terms, we are experiencing widespread social unrest in response to what is widely believed to be an epidemic of lethal police violence directed at the black community by racist cops and racist policies. And this unrest has drawn a counter-response from law enforcement—much of which, ironically, is guaranteed to exacerbate the problem of police violence, both real and perceived. And many of the videos we’ve seen of the police cracking down on peaceful protesters are hideous. Some of this footage has been unbelievable. And this is one of many vicious circles that we must find some way to interrupt.

Again, there is so much to be confused about here. We’ve now seen endless video of police inflicting senseless violence on truly peaceful protesters, and yet we have also seen video of the police standing idly by while looters completely destroy businesses. What explains this? Is there a policy that led to this bizarre inversion of priorities? Are the police angry at the protesters for vilifying them, and simultaneously trying to teach society a lesson by letting crime and mayhem spread elsewhere in the city? Or is it just less risky to collide with peaceful protesters? Or is the whole spectacle itself a lie? How representative are these videos of what’s actually going on? Is there much less chaos actually occurring than is being advertised to us?

Again, it’s very hard to know.

What’s easy to know is that civil discourse has broken down. It seems to me that we’ve long been in a situation where the craziest voices on both ends of the political spectrum have been amplifying one another and threatening to produce something truly dangerous. And now I think they have. The amount of misinformation in the air—the degree to which even serious people seem to be ruled by false assumptions and non sequiturs—is just astonishing.

And it’s important to keep in mind that, with the presidential election coming in November, the stakes are really high. As most of you know, I consider four more years of Trump to be an existential threat to our democracy. And I believe that the last two weeks have been very good for him, politically, even when everything else seemed to go very badly for him. I know the polls don’t say this. A large majority of people disapprove of his handling this crisis so far. But I think we all know now to take polls with a grain of salt. There is the very real problem of preference falsification—especially in an environment of intense social pressure. People will often say what they think is socially acceptable, and then think, or say, or do something very different in private—like when they’re alone in a voting booth.

Trump has presided over the complete dismantling of American influence in the world and the destruction of our economy. I know the stock market has looked good, but the stock market has become totally uncoupled from the economy. According to the stock market, the future is just as bright now as it was in January of this year, before most of us had even heard of a novel coronavirus. That doesn’t make a lot of sense. And a lot can happen in the next few months. The last two weeks feel like a decade. And my concern is that if Trump now gets to be the law-and-order President, that may be his path to re-election, if such a path exists. Of course, this crisis has revealed, yet again, how unfit he is to be President. The man couldn’t strike a credible note of reconciliation if the fate of the country depended on it—and the fate of the country has depended on it. I also think it’s possible that these protests wouldn’t be happening, but for the fact that Trump is President. Whether or not the problem of racism has gotten worse in our society, having Trump as President surely makes it seem like it has. It has been such a repudiation of the Obama presidency that, for many people, it has made it seem that white supremacy is now ascendant. So, all the more reason to get rid of Trump in November.

But before this social unrest, our focus was on how incompetent Trump was in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic. And now he has been given a very different battle to fight. A battle against leftwing orthodoxy, which is growing more stifling by the minute, and civil unrest. If our social order frays sufficiently, restoring it will be the only thing that most people care about in November. Just think of what an act of domestic terrorism would do politically now. Things can change very, very quickly. And to all a concern for basic law and order “racist”, isn’t going to wash.

Trust in institutions has totally broken down. We’ve been under a very precarious quarantine for more than 3 months, which almost the entire medical profession has insisted is necessary. Doctors and public health officials have castigated people on the political Right for protesting this lockdown. People have been unable to be with their loved ones in their last hours of life. They’ve been unable to hold funerals for them. But now we have doctors and public officials by the thousands, signing open letters, making public statements, saying it’s fine to stand shoulder to shoulder with others in the largest protests our nation has ever seen. The degree to which this has undermined confidence in public health messaging is hard to exaggerate. Whatever your politics, this has been just a mortifying piece of hypocrisy. Especially so, because the pandemic has been hitting the African American community hardest of all. How many people will die because of these protests? It’s a totally rational question to ask, but the question itself is taboo now.

So, it seems to me that almost everything appears upside down at the moment.

Before I get into details on police violence, first let me try to close the door to a few misunderstandings.

Let’s start with the proximate cause of all this: The killing of George Floyd by the Minneapolis police. I’ll have more to say about this in a minute, but nothing I say should detract from the following observation: That video was absolutely sickening, and it revealed a degree of police negligence and incompetence and callousness that everyone was right to be horrified by. In particular, the actions of Derek Chauvin, the cop who kept his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly 9 minutes, his actions were so reckless and so likely to cause harm that there’s no question he should be prosecuted. And he is being prosecuted. He’s been indicted for 2nd degree murder and manslaughter, and I suspect he will spend many, many years in prison. And, this is not to say “the system is working.” It certainly seems likely that without the cell phone video, and the public outrage, Chauvin might have gotten away with it—to say nothing of the other cops with him, who are also now being prosecuted. If this is true, we clearly need a better mechanism with which to police the police.

So, as I said, I’ll return to this topic, because I think most people are drawing the wrong conclusions from this video, and from videos like it, but let me just echo everyone’s outrage over what happened. This is precisely the kind of police behavior that everyone should find abhorrent.

On the general topic of racism in America, I want to make a few similarly clear, preemptive statements:

Racism is still a problem in American society. No question. And slavery—which was racism’s most evil expression—was this country’s founding sin. We should also add the near-total eradication of the Native Americans to that ledger of evil. Any morally sane person who learns the details of these historical injustices finds them shocking, whatever their race. And the legacy of these crimes—crimes that were perpetrated for centuries—remains a cause for serious moral concern today. I have no doubt about this. And nothing I’m about to say, should suggest otherwise.

And I don’t think it’s an accident that the two groups I just mentioned, African Americans and Native Americans, suffer the worst from inequality in America today. How could the history of racial discrimination in this country not have had lasting effects, given the nature of that history? And if anything good comes out of the current crisis, it will be that we manage to find a new commitment to reducing inequality in all its dimensions. The real debate to have is about how to do this, economically and politically. But the status quo that many of us take for granted to is a betrayal of our values, whether we realize it or not. If it’s not a betrayal or your values now, it will be a betrayal of your values when you become a better person. And if you don’t manage that, it will be a betrayal of your kid’s values when they’re old enough to understand the world they are living in. The difference between being very lucky in our society, and very unlucky, should not be as enormous as it is.

However, the question that interests me, given what has been true of the past and is now true of the present, is what should we do next? What should we do to build a healthier society?

What should we do next?  Tomorrow… next week…. Obviously, I don’t have the answers. But I am very worried that many of the things we’re doing now, and seem poised to do, will only make our problems worse. And I’m especially worried that it has become so difficult to talk about this. I’m just trying to have conversations. I’m just trying to figure these things out in real time, with other people. And there is no question that conversation itself has become dangerous.

Think about the politics of this. Endless imagery of people burning and looting independent businesses that were struggling to survive, and seeing the owners of these businesses beaten by mobs, cannot be good for the cause of social justice. Looting and burning businesses, and assaulting their owners, isn’t social justice, or even social protest. It’s crime. And having imagery of these crimes that highlight black involvement circulate endlessly on Fox News and on social media cannot be good for the black community. But it might yet be good for Trump.

And it could well kick open the door to a level of authoritarianism that many of us who have been very worried about Trump barely considered possible. It’s always seemed somewhat paranoid to me to wonder whether we’re living in Weimar Germany. I’ve had many conversations about this. I had Timothy Snyder on the podcast, who’s been worrying about the prospect of tyranny in the US for several years now. I’ve known, in the abstract, that democracies can destroy themselves. But the idea that it could happen here still seemed totally outlandish to me. It doesn’t anymore.

Of course, what we’ve been seeing in the streets isn’t just one thing. Some people are protesting for reasons that I fully defend. They’re outraged by specific instances of police violence, like the killing of George Floyd, and they’re worried about creeping authoritarianism—which we really should be worried about now. And they’re convinced that our politics is broken, because it is broken, and they are deeply concerned that our response to the pandemic and the implosion of our economy will do nothing to address the widening inequality in our society. And they recognize that we have a President who is an incompetent, divisive, conman and a crackpot at a time when we actually need wise leadership.

All of that is hard to put on a sign, but it’s all worth protesting.

However, it seems to me that most protesters are seeing this moment exclusively through the lens of identity politics—and racial politics in particular. And some of them are even celebrating the breakdown of law and order, or at least remaining nonjudgmental about it. And you could see, in the early days of this protest, news anchors take that line, on CNN, for instance. Talking about the history of social protest, “Sometimes it has to be violent, right? What, do you think all of these protests need to be nonviolent?” Those words came out of Chris Cuomo’s mouth, and Don Lemon’s mouth. Many people have been circulating a half quote from Martin Luther King Jr. about riots being “the language of the unheard.” They’re leaving out the part where he made it clear that he believed riots harmed the cause of the black community and helped the cause of racists.

There are now calls to defund and even to abolish the police. This may be psychologically understandable when you’ve spent half your day on Twitter watching videos of cops beating peaceful protesters. Those videos are infuriating. And I’ll have a lot more to say about police violence in a minute. But if you think a society without cops is a society you would want to live in, you have lost your mind. Giving a monopoly on violence to the state is just about the best thing we have ever done as a species. It ranks right up there with keeping our shit out of our food. Having a police force that can deter crime, and solve crimes when they occur, and deliver violent criminals to a functioning justice system, is the necessary precondition for almost anything else of value in society.

We need police reform, of course. There are serious questions to ask about the culture of policing—its hiring practices, training, the militarization of so many police forces, outside oversight, how police departments deal with corruption, the way the police unions keep bad cops on the job, and yes, the problem of racist cops. But the idea that any serious person thinks we can do without the police—or that less trained and less vetted cops will magically be better than more trained and more vetted ones—this just reveals that our conversation on these topics has run completely off the rails. Yes, we should give more resources to community services. We should have psychologists or social workers make first contact with the homeless or the mentally ill. Perhaps we’re giving cops jobs they shouldn’t be doing. All of that makes sense to rethink. But the idea that what we’re witnessing now is a matter of the cops being over-resourced—that we’ve given them too much training, that we’ve made the job too attractive—so that the people we’re recruiting are of too high a quality. That doesn’t make any sense.

What’s been alarming here is that we’re seeing prominent people—in government, in media, in Hollywood, in sports—speak and act as though the breakdown of civil society, and of society itself, is a form of progress and any desire for law enforcement is itself a form of racist oppression. At one point the woman who’s running the City Council in Minneapolis, which just decided to abolish the police force, was asked by a journalist, I believe on CNN, “What do I do if someone’s breaking into my house in the middle of the night? Who do I call?” And her first response to that question was, “You need to recognize what a statement of privilege that question is.” She’s since had to walk that back, because it’s one of the most galling and embarrassing things a public official has ever said, but this is how close the Democratic Party is to sounding completely insane. You cannot say that if someone is breaking into your house, and you’re terrified, and you want a police force that can respond, that fear is a symptom of “white privilege.” This is where Democratic politics goes to die.

Again, what is alarming about this is that this woke analysis of the breakdown of law and order will only encourage an increasingly authoritarian response, as well as the acceptance of that response by many millions of Americans.

If you step back, you will notice that there is a kind of ecstasy of ideological conformity in the air. And it’s destroying institutions. It’s destroying the very institutions we rely on to get our information—universities, the press. The New York Times in recent days, seems to be preparing for a self-immolation in recent days. No one wants to say or even think anything that makes anyone uncomfortable—certainly not anyone who has more wokeness points than they do. It’s just become too dangerous. There are people being fired for tweeting “All Lives Matter.” #AllLivesMatter, in the current environment, is being read as a naked declaration of white supremacy. That is how weird this moment is. A soccer player on the LA Galaxy was fired for something his wife tweeted…

Of course, there are real problems of inequality and despair at the bottom of these protests. People who have never found a secure or satisfying place in the world—or young people who fear they never will—people who have seen their economic prospects simply vanish, and people who have had painful encounters with racism and racist cops—people by the millions are now surrendering themselves to a kind of religious awakening. But like most religious awakenings, this movement is not showing itself eager to make honest contact with reality.

On top of that, we find extraordinarily privileged people, whatever the color of their skin—people who have been living wonderful lives in their gated communities or 5th avenue apartments—and who feel damn guilty about it—they are supporting this movement uncritically, for many reasons. Of course, they care about other people—I’m sure most of them have the same concerns about inequality that I do—but they are also supporting this movement because it promises a perfect expiation of their sins. If you have millions of dollars, and shoot botox into your face, and vacation on St. Bart’s, and you’re liberal—the easiest way to sleep at night is to be as woke as AOC and like every one of her tweets.

The problem isn’t just with the looting, and the arson, and the violence. There are problems with these peaceful protests themselves.

Of course, I’m not questioning anyone’s right to protest. Even our deranged president can pay lip service to that right—which he did as the DC police were violently dispersing a peaceful protest so that he could get his picture taken in front of that church, awkwardly holding a bible, as though he had never held a book in life.

The problem with the protests is that they are animated, to a remarkable degree, by confusion and misinformation. And I’ll explain why I think that’s the case. And, of course, this will be controversial. Needless to say, many people will consider the color of my skin to be disqualifying here. I could have invited any number of great, black intellectuals onto the podcast to make these points for me. But that struck me as a form of cowardice. Glenn Loury, John McWhorter, Thomas Chatterton Williams, Coleman Hughes, Kmele Foster, these guys might not agree with everything I’m about to say, but any one of them could walk the tightrope I’m now stepping out on far more credibly than I can.

But, you see, that’s part of the problem. The perception that the color of a person’s skin, or even his life experience, matters for this discussion is a pernicious illusion. For the discussion we really need to have, the color of a person’s skin, and even his life experience, simply does not matter. It cannot matter. We have to break this spell that the politics of identity has cast over everything.


As I’ve already acknowledged, there is a legacy of racism in the United States that we’re still struggling to outgrow. That is obvious. There are real racists out there. And there are ways in which racism became institutionalized long ago. Many of you will remember that during the crack epidemic the penalties for crack and powder cocaine were quite different. And this led black drug offenders to be locked up for much longer than white ones. Now, whether the motivation for that policy was consciously racist or not, I don’t know, but it was effectively racist. Nothing I’m about to say entails a denial of these sorts of facts. There just seems to be no question that boys who grow up with their fathers in prison start life with a significant strike against them. So criminal justice reform is absolutely essential.

And I’m not denying that many black people, perhaps most, have interactions with cops, and others in positions of power, or even random strangers, that seem unambiguously racist. Sometimes this is because they are actually in the presence of racism, and perhaps sometimes it only seems that way. I’ve had unpleasant encounters with cops, and customs officers, and TSA screeners, and bureaucrats of every kind, and even with people working in stores or restaurants. People aren’t always nice or ethical. But being white, and living in a majority white society, I’ve never had to worry about whether any of these collisions were the result of racism. And I can well imagine that in some of these situations, had I been black, I would have come away feeling that I had encountered yet another racist in the wild. So I consider myself very lucky to have gone through life not having to think about any of that. Surely that’s one form of white privilege.

So, nothing I’m going to say denies that we should condemn racism—whether interpersonal or institutional—and we should condemn it wherever we find it. But as a society, we simply can’t afford to find and condemn racism where it doesn’t exist. And we should be increasingly aware of the costs of doing that. The more progress we make on issues of race, the less racism there will be to find, and the more likely we’ll find ourselves chasing after its ghost.

The truth is, we have made considerable progress on the problem of racism in America. This isn’t 1920, and it isn’t 1960. We had a two-term black president. We have black congressmen and women. We have black mayors and black chiefs of police. There are major cities, like Detroit and Atlanta, going on their fifth or sixth consecutive black mayor. Having more and more black people in positions of real power, in what is still a majority white society, is progress on the problem of racism. And the truth is, it might not even solve the problem we’re talking about. When Freddy Gray was killed in Baltimore, virtually everyone who could have been held accountable for his death was black. The problem of police misconduct and reform is complicated, as we’re about to see. But obviously, there is more work to do on the problem of racism. And, more important, there is much more work to do to remedy the inequalities in our society that are so correlated with race, and will still be correlated with race, even after the last racist has been driven from our shores.

The question of how much of today’s inequality is due to existing racism—whether racist people or racist policies—is a genuinely difficult question to answer. And to answer it, we need to distinguish the past from the present.

Take wealth inequality, for example: The median white family has a net worth of around $170,000—these data are a couple of years old, but they’re probably pretty close to what’s true now. The median black family has a net worth of around $17,000. So we have a tenfold difference in median wealth. (That’s the median, not the mean: Half of white families are below 170,000 and half above; half of black families are below 17,000 and half above. And we’re talking about wealth here, not income.)

This disparity in wealth persists even for people whose incomes are in the top 10 percent of the income distribution. For whites in the top 10 percent for income, the median net worth is $1.8 million; for blacks it’s around $350,000. There are probably many things that account for this disparity in wealth. It seems that black families that make it to the top of the income distribution fall out of it more easily than white families do. But it’s also undeniable that black families have less intergenerational wealth accumulated through inheritance.

How much of this is inequality due to the legacy of slavery? And how much of it is due to an ensuing century of racist policies? I’m prepared to believe quite a lot. And it strikes me as totally legitimate to think about paying reparations as a possible remedy here. Of course, one will then need to talk about reparations for the Native Americans. And then one wonders where this all ends. And what about blacks who aren’t descended from slaves, but who still suffered the consequences of racism in the US? In listening to people like John McWhorter and Coleman Hughes discuss this topic, I’m inclined to think that reparations is probably unworkable as a policy. But the truth is that I’m genuinely unsure about this.

Whatever we decide about the specific burdens of the past, we have to ask, how much of current wealth inequality is due to existing racism and to existing policies that make it harder for black families to build wealth? And the only way to get answers to those questions is to have a dispassionate discussion about facts.

The problem with the social activism we are now seeing—what John McWhorter has called “the new religion of anti-Racism”—is that it finds racism nearly everywhere, even where it manifestly does not exist. And this is incredibly damaging to the cause of achieving real equality in our society. It’s almost impossible to exaggerate the evil and injustice of slavery and its aftermath. But it is possible to exaggerate how much racism currently exists at an Ivy League university, or in Silicon Valley, or at the Oscars. And those exaggerations are toxic—and, perversely, they may produce more real racism. It seems to me that false claims of victimhood can diminish the social stature of any group, even a group that has a long history of real victimization.

The imprecision here—the bad-faith arguments, the double standards, the goal-post shifting, the idiotic opinion pieces in the New York Times, the defenestrations on social media, the general hysteria that the cult of wokeness has produced—I think this is all extremely harmful to civil society, and to effective liberal politics, and to the welfare of African Americans.

So, with that as preamble, let’s return to the tragic death of George Floyd.

As I said, I believe that any sane person who watches that video will feel that they have witnessed a totally unjustified killing. So, people of any race, are right to be horrified by what happened there. But now I want to ask a few questions, and I want us to try to consider them dispassionately. And I really want you to watch your mind while you do this. There are very likely to be few tripwires installed there, and I’m about to hit them. So just do your best to remain calm.

Does the killing of George Floyd prove that we have a problem of racism in the United States?

Does it even suggest that we have a problem of racism in the United States?

In other words, do we have reason to believe that, had Floyd been white, he wouldn’t have died in a similar way?

Do the dozen or so other videos that have emerged in recent years, of black men being killed by cops, do they prove, or even suggest, that there is an epidemic of lethal police violence directed especially at black men and that this violence is motivated by racism?

Most people seem to think that the answers to these questions are so obvious that to even pose them as I just did is obscene. The answer is YES, and it’s a yes that now needs to be shouted in the streets.

The problem, however, is that if you take even 5 minutes to look at the data on crime and police violence, the answer appears to be “no,” in every case, albeit with one important caveat. I’m not talking about how the police behaved in 1970 or even 1990. But in the last 25 years, violent crime has come down significantly in the US, and so has the police use of deadly force. And as you’re about to see, the police used more deadly force against white people—both in absolute numbers, and in terms of their contribution to crime and violence in our society. But the public perception is, of course, completely different.

In a city like Los Angeles, 2019 was a 30-year low for police shootings. Think about that…. Do the people who were protesting in Los Angeles, peacefully and violently, do the people who were ransacking and burning businesses by the hundreds—in many cases, businesses that will not return to their neighborhoods—do the people who caused so much damage to the city, that certain neighborhoods, ironically the neighborhoods that are disproportionately black, will take years, probably decades to recover, do the celebrities who supported them, and even bailed them out of jail—do any of these people know that 2019 was the 30-year low for police shootings in Los Angeles?

Before I step out further over the abyss here, let me reiterate: Many of you are going to feel a visceral negative reaction to what I’m about to say. You’re not going to like the way it sounds. You’re especially not going to like the way it sounds coming from a white guy. This feeling of not liking, this feeling of outrage, this feeling of disgust—this feeling of “Sam, what the fuck is wrong with you, why are you even touching this topic?”—this feeling isn’t an argument. It isn’t, or shouldn’t be, the basis for your believing anything to be true or false about the world.

Your capacity to be offended isn’t something that I or anyone else needs to respect. Your capacity to be offended isn’t something that you should respect. In fact, it is something that you should be on your guard for. Perhaps more than any other property of your mind, this feeling can mislead you.

If you care about justice—and you absolutely should—you should care about facts and the ability to discuss them openly. Justice requires contact with reality. It simply isn’t the case—it cannot be the case—that the most pressing claims on our sense of justice need come from those who claim to be the most offended by conversation itself.

So, I’m going to speak the language of facts right now, in so far as we know them, all the while knowing that these facts run very much counter to most people’s assumptions. Many of the things you think you know about crime and violence in our society are almost certainly wrong. And that should matter to you.

So just take a moment and think this through with me.

How many people are killed each year in America by cops? If you don’t know, guess. See if you have any intuitions for these numbers. Because your intuitions are determining how you interpret horrific videos of the sort we saw coming out of Minneapolis.

The answer for many years running is about 1000. One thousand people are killed by cops in America each year. There are about 50 to 60 million encounters between civilians and cops each year, and about 10 million arrests. That’s down from a high of over 14 million arrests annually throughout the 1990’s. So, of the 10 million occasions where a person attracts the attention of the police, and the police decide to make an arrest, about 1000 of those people die as a result. (I’m sure a few people get killed even when no arrest was attempted, but that has to be a truly tiny number.) So, without knowing anything else about the situation, if the cops decide to arrest you, it would be reasonable to think that your chance of dying is around 1/10,000. Of course, in the United States, it’s higher than it is in other countries. So I’m not saying that this number is acceptable. But it is what it is for a reason, as we’re about to see.

Now, there are a few generic things I’d like to point here before we get further into the data. They should be uncontroversial.

First, it’s almost certainly the case that of these 1000 officer-caused deaths each year, some are entirely justified—it may even be true that most are entirely justified—and some are entirely unjustified, and some are much harder to judge. And that will be true next year. And the year after that.

Of the unjustified killings, there are vast differences between them. Many have nothing in common but for the fact that a cop killed someone unnecessarily. It might have been a terrible misunderstanding, or incompetence, or just bad luck, and in certain cases it could be a cop who decides to murder someone because he’s become enraged, or he’s just a psychopath. And it is certainly possible that racial bias accounts for some number of these unjustified killings.

Another point that should be uncontroversial—but may sound a little tone-deaf in the current environment, where we’ve inundated with videos of police violence in response to these protests. But this has to be acknowledged whenever we’re discussing this topic: Cops have a very hard job. In fact, in the current environment, they have an almost impossible job.

If you’re making 10 million arrests every year, some number of people will decide not to cooperate. There can be many reasons for this. A person could be mentally ill, or drunk, or on drugs. Of course, rather often the person is an actual criminal who doesn’t want to be arrested.

Among innocent people, and perhaps this getting more common these days, a person might feel that resisting arrest is the right thing to do, ethically or politically or as a matter of affirming his identity. After all, put yourself in his shoes, he did nothing wrong. Why are the cops arresting him? I don’t know if we have data on the numbers of people who resist arrest by race. But I can well imagine that if it’s common for African Americans to believe that the only reason they have been singled out for arrest is due to racism on the part of the police, that could lead to greater levels of non-compliance. Which seems very likely to lead to more unnecessary injury and death. This is certainly one reason why it is wise to have the racial composition of a police force mirror that of the community it’s policing. Unfortunately, there’s no evidence that this will reduce lethal violence from the side of the police. In fact, the evidence we have suggests that black and Hispanic cops are more likely to shoot black and Hispanic suspects than white cops are. But it would surely change the perception of the community that racism is a likely explanation for police behavior, which itself might reduce conflict.

When a cop goes hands on a person in an attempt to control his movements or make an arrest, that person’s resistance poses a problem that most people don’t understand. If you haven’t studied this topic. If you don’t know what it physically takes to restrain and immobilize a non-compliant person who may be bigger and stronger than you are, and if you haven’t thought through the implications of having a gun on your belt while attempting to do that—a gun that can be grabbed and used against you, or against a member of the public—then your intuitions about what makes sense here, tactically and ethically, are very likely to be bad.

If you haven’t trained with firearms under stress. If you don’t know how suddenly situations can change. If you haven’t experienced how quickly another person can close the distance on you, and how little time you have to decide to draw your weapon. If you don’t know how hard it is to shoot a moving target, or even a stationary one, when your heart is beating out of your chest. You very likely have totally unreasonable ideas about what we can expect from cops in situations like these. [VIDEO, VIDEO, VIDEO]

And there is another fact that looms over all this like the angel of Death, literally: Most cops do not get the training they need. They don’t get the hand-to-hand training they need—they don’t have good skills to subdue people without harming them. All you need to do is watch YouTube videos of botched arrests to see this. The martial arts community stands in perpetual astonishment at the kinds of things cops do and fail to do once they start fighting with suspects. Cops also don’t get the firearms training they need. Of course, there are elite units in many police departments, but most cops do not have the training they need to do the job they’re being asked to do.

It is also true, no doubt, that some cops are racist bullies. And there are corrupt police departments that cover for these guys, and cover up police misconduct generally, whether it was borne of racism or not.

But the truth is that even if we got rid of all bad cops, which we absolutely should do, and there were only good people left, and we got all these good people the best possible training, and we gave them the best culture in which to think about their role in society, and we gave them the best methods for de-escalating potentially violent situations—which we absolutely must do—and we scrubbed all the dumb laws from our books, so that when cops were required to enforce the law, they were only risking their lives and the lives of civilians for reasons that we deem necessary and just—so the war on drugs is obviously over—even under these conditions of perfect progress, we are still guaranteed to have some number of cases each year where a cop kills a civilian in a way that is totally unjustified, and therefore tragic. Every year, there will be some number of families who will be able to say that the cops killed their son or daughter, or father or mother, or brother or sister. And videos of these killings will occasionally surface, and they will be horrific. This seems guaranteed to happen.

So, while we need to make all these improvements, we still need to understand that there are very likely always to going to be videos of cops doing something inexplicable, or inexplicably stupid, that results in an innocent person’s death, or a not-so-innocent person’s death. And sometimes the cop will be white and the victim will be black. We have 10 million arrests each year. And we now live in a panopticon where practically everything is videotaped.

I’m about to get further into the details of what we know about police violence, but I want to just put it to you now: If we’re going to let the health of race relations in this country, or the relationship between the community and the police, depend on whether we ever see a terrible video of police misconduct again, the project of healing these wounds in our society is doomed.

About a week into these protests I heard Van Jones on CNN say, “If we see one more video of a cop brutalizing a black man, this country could go over the edge.” He said this, not as indication of how dangerously inflamed people have become. He seemed to be saying it as an ultimatum to the police. With 10 million arrests a year, arrests that have to take place in the most highly armed society in the developed world, I hope you understand how unreasonable that ultimatum is.

We have to put these videos into context. And we have to acknowledge how different they are from one another. Some of them are easy to interpret. But some are quite obviously being interpreted incorrectly by most people—especially by activists. And there are a range of cases—some have video associated with them and some don’t—that are now part of a litany of anti-racist outrage, and the names of the dead are intoned as though they were all evidence of the same injustice. And yet, they are not.

Walter Scott was stopped for a broken taillight and got out of his car and tried to flee. There might have been a brief struggle over the officer’s taser, that part of the video isn’t clear. But what is clear is that he was shot in the back multiple times as he was running away. That was insane. There was zero reason for the officer to feel that his life was under threat at the point he opened fire. And for that unjustified shooting, he was sentenced to 20 years in prison. I’m not sure that’s long enough. That seemed like straight-up murder.

The George Floyd video, while even more disturbing to watch, is harder to interpret. I don’t know anything about Derek Chauvin, the cop who knelt on his neck. It’s quite possible that he’s a terrible person who should have never been a cop. He seems to have a significant number of complaints against him—though, as far as I know, the details of those complaints haven’t been released. And he might be a racist on top of being a bad cop. Or he might be a guy who was totally in over his head and thought you could restrain someone indefinitely by keeping a knee on their neck indefinitely. I don’t know. I’m sure more facts will come out. But whoever he is, I find it very unlikely that he was intending to kill George Floyd. Think about it. He was surrounded by irate witnesses and being filmed. Unless he was aspiring to become the most notorious murderer in human history, it seems very unlikely that he was intending to commit murder in that moment. It’s possible, of course. But it doesn’t seem the likeliest explanation for his behavior.

What I believe we saw on that video was the result of a tragic level of negligence and poor training on the part of those cops. Or terrible recruitment—it’s possible that none of these guys should have ever been cops. I think for one of them, it was only his fourth day on the job. Just imagine that. Just imagine all things you don’t know as a new cop.  It could also be a function of bad luck in terms of Floyd’s underlying health. It’s been reported that he was complaining of being unable to breath before Chauvin pinned him with his knee. The knee on his neck might not have been the only thing that caused his death. It could have also been the weight of the other officer pinning him down.

This is almost certainly what happened in the cast of Eric Garner. Half the people on earth believe they witnessed a cop choke Eric Garner to death in that video. That does not appear to be what happened. When Eric Garner is saying “I can’t breathe” he’s not being choked. He’s being held down on the pavement by several officers. Being forced down on your stomach under the weight of several people can kill a person, especially someone with lung or heart disease. In the case of Eric Garner, it is absolutely clear that the cop who briefly attempted to choke him was no longer choking him. If you doubt that, watch the video again.

And if you are recoiling now from my interpretation of these videos, you really should watch the killing of Tony Timpa. It’s also terribly disturbing, but it removes the variable of race and it removes any implication of intent to harm on the part of the cops about as clearly as you could ask. It really is worth watching as a corrective to our natural interpretation of these other videos.

Tony Timpa was a white man in Dallas, who was suffering some mental health emergency and cocaine intoxication. And he actually called 911 himself. What we see is the bodycam footage from the police, which shows that he was already in handcuffs when they arrived—a security guard had cuffed him. And then the cops take over, and they restrain Timpa on the ground, by rolling him onto a stomach and putting their weight on him, very much like in the case of Eric Garner. And they keep their weight on him—one cop has a knee on his upper back, which is definitely much less aggressive than a knee on the neck—but they crush the life out of him all the same, over the course of 13 minutes. He’s not being choked. The cops are not being rough. There’s no animus between them and Timpa. It was not a hostile arrest. They clearly believe that they’re responding to a mental health emergency. But they keep him down on his belly, under their weight, and they’re cracking jokes as he loses consciousness. Now, your knowledge that he’s going to be dead by the end of this video, make their jokes seem pretty callous. But this was about as benign an imposition of force by cops as you’re going to see. The crucial insight you will have watching this video, is that the officers not only had no intent to kill Tony Timpa, they don’t take his pleading seriously because they have no doubt that what they’re doing is perfectly safe—perfectly within protocol. They’ve probably done this hundreds of times before.

If you watch that video—and, again, fair warning, it is disturbing—but imagine how disturbing it would have been to our society if Tony Timpa had been black. If the only thing you changed about the video was the color of Timpa’s skin, then that video would have detonated like a nuclear bomb in our society, exactly as the George Floyd video did. In fact, in one way it is worse, or would have been perceived to be worse. I mean, just imagine white cops telling jokes as they crushed the life out of a black Tony Timpa… Given the nature of our conversation about violence, given the way we perceive videos of this kind, there is no way that people would have seen that as anything other than a lynching. And yet, it would not have been a lynching.

Now, I obviously have no idea what was in the minds of cops in Minneapolis. And perhaps we’ll learn at trial. Perhaps a tape of Chauvin using the N-word in another context will surface, bringing in a credible allegation of racism. It seems to me that Chauvin is going to have a very hard time making sense of his actions. But most people who saw that video believe they have seen, with their own eyes, beyond any possibility of doubt, a racist cop intentionally murder an innocent man. That’s not what the video necessarily shows.

As I said, these videos can be hard to interpret, even while seeming very easy to interpret. And these cases, whether we have associated video or not, are very different. Michael Brown is reported to have punched a cop in the face and attempted to get his gun. As far as I know, there’s no video of that encounter. But, if true, that is an entirely different situation. If you’re attacking a cop, trying to get his gun, that is a life and death struggle that almost by definition for the cop, and it most cases justifies the use of lethal force. And honestly, it seems that no one within a thousand miles of Black Lives Matter is willing to make these distinctions. An attitude of anti-racist moral outrage is not the best lens through which to interpret evidence of police misconduct.

I’ve seen many videos of people getting arrested. And I’ve seen the outraged public reaction to what appears to be inappropriate use of force by the cops. One overwhelming fact that comes through is that people, whatever the color of their skin, don’t understand how to behave around cops so as to keep themselves safe. People have to stop resisting arrest. This may seem obvious, but judging from most of these videos, and from the public reaction to them, this must be a totally arcane piece of information. When a cop wants to take you into custody, you don’t get to decide whether or not you should be arrested. When a cop wants to take you into custody, for whatever reason, it’s not a negotiation. And if you turn it into a wrestling match, you’re very likely to get injured or killed.

This is a point I once belabored in a podcast with Glenn Loury, and it became essentially a public service announcement. And I’ve gone back and listened to those comments, and I want to repeat them here. This is something that everyone really needs to understand. And it’s something that Black Lives Matter should be teaching explicitly: If you put your hands on a cop—if you start wrestling with a cop, or grabbing him because he’s arresting your friend, or pushing him, or striking him, or using your hands in way that can possibly be interpreted as your reaching for a gun—you are likely to get shot in the United States, whatever the color of your skin.

As I said, when you’re with a cop, there is always a gun out in the open. And any physical struggle has to be perceived by him as a fight for the gun. A cop doesn’t know what you’re going to do if you overpower him, so he has to assume the worst. Most cops are not confident in their ability to physically control a person without shooting him—for good reason, because they’re not well trained to do that, and they’re continually confronting people who are bigger, or younger, or more athletic, or more aggressive than they are. Cops are not superheroes. They’re ordinary people with insufficient training, and once things turn physical they cannot afford to give a person who is now assaulting a police officer the benefit of the doubt.

This is something that most people seem totally confused about. If they see a video of somebody trying to punch a cop in the face and the person’s unarmed, many people think the cop should just punch back, and any use of deadly force would be totally disproportionate. But that’s not how violence works. It’s not the cop’s job to be the best bare-knuckled boxer on Earth so he doesn’t have to use his gun. A cop can’t risk getting repeatedly hit in the face and knocked out, because there’s always a gun in play. This is the cop’s perception of the world, and it’s a justifiable one, given the dynamics of human violence.

You might think cops shouldn’t carry guns. Why can’t we just be like England? That’s a point that can be debated. But it requires considerable thought in a country where there are over 300 million guns on the street. The United States is not England.

Again, really focus on what is happening when a cop is attempting to arrest a person. It’s not up to you to decide whether or not you should be arrested. Does it matter that you know you didn’t do anything wrong? No. And how could that fact be effectively communicated in the moment by your not following police commands? I’m going to ask that again: How could the fact that you’re innocent, that you’re not a threat to cop, that you’re not about to suddenly attack him or produce a weapon of your own, how could those things be effectively communicated at the moment he’s attempting to arrest you by your resisting arrest?

Unless you called the cops yourself, you never know what situation you’re in. If I’m walking down the street, I don’t know if the cop who is approaching me didn’t get a call that some guy who looks like Ben Stiller just committed an armed robbery. I know I didn’t do anything, but I don’t know what’s in the cop’s head. The time to find out what’s going on—the time to complain about racist cops, the time to yell at them and tell them they’re all going to get fired for their stupidity and misconduct—is after cooperating, at the police station, in the presence of a lawyer, preferably. But to not comply in the heat of the moment, when a guy with the gun is issuing commands—this raises your risk astronomically, and it’s something that most people, it seems, just do not intuitively understand, even when they’re not in the heat of the moment themselves, but just watching video of other people getting arrested.

Ok. End of public-service announcement.

The main problem with using individual cases, where black men and women have been killed by cops, to conclude that there is an epidemic of racist police violence in our society, is that you can find nearly identical cases of white suspects being killed by cops, and there are actually more of them.

In 2016, John McWhorter wrote a piece in Time Magazine about this.

Here’s a snippet of what he wrote:

“The heart of the indignation over these murders is a conviction that racist bias plays a decisive part in these encounters. That has seemed plausible to me, and I have recently challenged those who disagree to present a list of white people killed within the past few years under circumstances similar to those that so enrage us in cases such as what happened to Tamir Rice, John Crawford, Walter Scott, Sam Debose, and others.”

So, McWhorter issued that challenge, as he said, and he was presented with the cases [VIDEO, VIDEO, VIDEO]. But there’s no song about these people, admonishing us to say their names. And the list of white names is longer, and I don’t know any of them, other than Tony Timpa. I know the black names. In addition to the ones I just read from McWhorter’s article, I know the names of Eric Garner, and Michael Brown, and Alton Sterling, and Philando Castile, and now, of course, I know the name of George Floyd. And I’m aware of many of the details of these cases where black men and women have been killed by cops. I know the name of Breonna Taylor. I can’t name a single white person killed by cops in circumstances like these—other than Timpa—and I just read McWhorter’s article where he lists many of them.

So, this is also a distortion in the media. The media is not showing us videos of white people being killed by cops; activists are not demanding that they do this. I’m sure white supremacists talk about this stuff a lot, who knows? But in terms of the story we’re telling ourselves in the mainstream, we are not actually talking about the data on lethal police violence.

So back to the data: Again, cops kill around 1000 people every year in the United States. About 25 percent are black. About 50 percent are white. The data on police homicide are all over the place. The federal government does not have a single repository for data of this kind. But they have been pretty carefully tracked by outside sources, like the Washington Post, for the last 5 years. These ratios appear stable over time. Again, many of these killings are justifiable, we’re talking about career criminals who are often armed and, in many cases, trying to kill the cops. Those aren’t the cases we’re worried about. We’re worried about the unjustifiable homicides.

Now, some people will think that these numbers still represent an outrageous injustice. Afterall, African Americans are only 13 percent of the population. So, at most, they should be 13 percent of the victims of police violence, not 25 percent. Any departure from the baseline population must be due to racism.

Ok. Well, that sounds plausible, but consider a few more facts:

Blacks are 13 percent of the population, but they commit at least 50 percent of the murders and other violent crimes.

If you have 13 percent of the population responsible for 50 percent of the murders—and in some cities committing 2/3rds of all violent crime—what percent of police attention should it attract? I don’t know. But I’m pretty sure it’s not just 13 percent. Given that the overwhelming majority of their victims are black, I’m pretty sure that most black people wouldn’t set the dial at 13 percent either.

And here we arrive at the core of the problem. The story of crime in America is overwhelmingly the story of black-on-black crime. It is also, in part, a story of black-on-white crime. For more than a generation, crime in America really hasn’t been a story of much white-on-black crime. [Some listeners mistook my meaning here. I’m not denying that most violent crime is intraracial. So, it’s true that most white homicide victims are killed by white offenders. Per capita, however, the white crime rate is much lower than the black crime rate. And there is more black-on-white crime than white-on-black crime.—SH]

The murder rate has come down steadily since the early 1990’s, with only minor upticks. But, nationwide, blacks are still 6 times more likely to get murdered than whites, and in some cities their risk is double that. And around 95 percent of the murders are committed by members of the African American community. [While reported in 2015, these data were more than a decade old. Looking at more recent data from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, the number appears to be closer to 90 percent.—SH]

The weekend these protests and riots were kicking off nationwide—when our entire country seemed to be tearing itself apart over a perceived epidemic of racist police violence against the black community, 92 people were shot, and 27 killed, in Chicago alone—one city. This is almost entirely a story of black men killing members of their own community. And this is far more representative of the kind of violence that the black community needs to worry about. And, ironically, it’s clear that one remedy for this violence is, or would be, effective policing.

These are simply the facts of crime in our society as we best understand them. And the police have to figure out how to respond to these facts, professionally and ethically. The question is, are they doing that? And, obviously, there’s considerable doubt that they’re doing that, professionally and ethically.

Roland Fryer, the Harvard economist who’s work I discussed on the podcast with Glenn Loury, studied police encounters involving black and white suspects and the use of force.

His paper is titled, this from 2016, “An Empirical Analysis of Racial Differences in Police Use of Force.”

Fryer is black, and he went into this research with the expectation that the data would confirm that there’s an epidemic of lethal police violence directed at black men. But he didn’t find that. However, he did find support for the suspicion that black people suffer more nonlethal violence at the hands of cops than whites do.

So let’s look at this.

The study examined data from 10 major police departments, in Texas, Florida and California. Generally, Fryer found that there is 25 percent greater likelihood that the police would go hands on black suspects than white ones—cuffing them, or forcing them to ground, or using other non-lethal force.

Specifically, in New York City, in encounters where white and black citizens were matched for other characteristics, they found that:

Cops were…

  • 17 percent more likely to go hands on black suspects
  • 18 percent more likely to push them into a wall
  • 16 percent more likely to put them in handcuffs (in a situation in which they aren’t arrested)
  • 18 percent more likely to push them to the ground
  • 25 percent more likely to use pepper spray or a baton
  • 19 percent more likely to draw their guns
  • 24 percent more likely to point a gun at them.

This is more or less the full continuum of violence short of using lethal force. And it seems, from the data we have, that blacks receive more of it than whites. What accounts for this disparity? Racism? Maybe. However, as I said, it’s inconvenient to note that other data suggest that black cops and Hispanic cops are more likely to shoot black and Hispanic suspects than white cops are. I’m not sure how an ambient level of racism explains that.

Are there other explanations? Well, again, could it be that blacks are less cooperative with the police. If so, that’s worth understanding. A culture of resisting arrest would be a very bad thing to cultivate, given that the only response to such resistance is for the police to increase their use of force.

Whatever is true here is something we should want to understand. And it’s all too easy to see how an increased number of encounters with cops, due to their policing in the highest crime neighborhoods, which are disproportionately black, and an increased number of traffic stops in those neighborhoods, and an increased propensity for cops to go hands-on these suspects, with or without an arrest, for whatever reason—it’s easy to see how all of this could be the basis for a perception of racism, whether or not racism is the underlying motivation.

It is totally humiliating to be arrested or manhandled by a cop. And, given the level of crime in the black community, a disproportionate number of innocent black men seem guaranteed to have this experience. It’s totally understandable that this would make them bitter and mistrustful of the police. This is another vicious circle that we must find some way to interrupt.

But Fryer also found that black suspects are around 25 percent less likely to be shot than white suspects are. And in the most egregious situations, where officers were not first attacked, but nevertheless fired their weapons at a suspect, they were more likely to do this when the suspect was white.

Again, the data are incomplete. This doesn’t not cover every city in the country. And a larger study tomorrow might paint a different picture. But, as far as I know, the best data we have suggest that for, whatever reason, whites are more likely to be killed by cops once an arrest is attempted. And a more recent study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences  by David Johnson and colleagues found similar results. And it is simply undeniable that more whites are killed by cops each year, both in absolute numbers and in proportion to their contributions to crime and violence in our society.

Can you hear how these facts should be grinding in that well-oiled machine of woke outrage? Our society is in serious trouble now. We are being crushed under the weight of a global pandemic and our response to it has been totally inept. On top of that, we’re being squeezed by the growing pressure of what might become a full-on economic depression. And the streets are now filled with people who imagine, on the basis of seeing some horrific videos, that there is an epidemic of racist cops murdering African Americans. Look at what this belief is doing to our politics. And these videos will keep coming. And the truth is they could probably be matched 2 for 1 with videos of white people being killed by cops. What percentage of people protesting understand that the disparity runs this way? In light of the belief that the disparity must run the other way, people are now quite happy to risk getting beaten and arrested by cops themselves, and to even loot and burn businesses. And most people and institutions are supporting this civil unrest from the sidelines, because they too imagine that cops are killing black people in extraordinary numbers. And all of this is calling forth an authoritarian response from Trump—and leading to more examples of police violence caught on video.

As I hope I’ve made clear, we need police reform—there’s no question about this. And some of the recent footage of the police attacking peaceful protests is outrageous. Nothing I just said should signify that I’m unaware of that. From what I’ve seen—and by the time I release this podcast, the character of all this might have changed—but, from what I’ve seen, the police were dangerously passive in the face of looting and real crime, at least in the beginning. In many cities, they just stood and watched society unravel. And then they were far too aggressive in the face of genuinely peaceful protests. This is a terrible combination. It is the worst combination. There’s no better way to increase cynicism and anger and fear, on all sides.

But racializing how we speak about the problem of police violence, where race isn’t actually the relevant variable—again, think of Tony Timpa— this has highly negative effects. First, it keeps us from talking about the real problems with police tactics. For instance, we had the recent case of Breonna Taylor who was killed in a so-called “no knock” raid of her home. As occasionally happens, in this carnival of moral error we call “the war on drugs,” the police had the wrong address, and they kicked in the wrong door. And they wound up killing a totally innocent woman. But this had nothing to do with race. The problem is not, as some commentators have alleged, that it’s not safe to be “sleeping while black.” The problem is that these no-knock raids are an obscenely dangerous way of enforcing despicably stupid laws. White people die under precisely these same circumstances, and very likely in greater numbers (I don’t have data specifically on no-knock raids, but we can assume that the ratio is probably conserved here).

Think about how crazy this policy is in a nation where gun ownership is so widespread. If someone kicks in your door in the middle of the night, and you’re a gun owner, of course you’re going to reach for your gun. That’s why you have a gun in the first place. The fact that people bearing down on you and your family out of the darkness might have yelled “police” (or might have not yelled “police”; it’s alleged in some of these cases that they don’t yell anything)—the fact that someone yells “police” isn’t necessarily convincing. Anyone can yell “police.” And, again, think of the psychology of this: If the police have the wrong house, and you know there is no reason on earth that real cops would take an interest in you, especially in the middle of the night, because you haven’t done anything (you’re not the guy running a meth lab)—and now you’re reaching for your gun in the dark—of course, someone is likely to get killed. This is not a racial issue. It’s a terrible policy.

Unfortunately, the process of police reform isn’t straightforward—and it is made massively more complicated by what’s happening now. Yes, we will be urging police reform in a very big way now, that much seems clear. But Roland Fryer has also shown that investigations of the cops, in a climate where viral videos and racial politics are operating, have dramatic effects, many of which are negative.

He studied the aftermath of the investigations into police misconduct that followed the killings Freddie Gray, Michael Brown, and Lequan McDonald, and found that, for reasons that seem pretty easy to intuit, proactive police contact with civilians decreases drastically, sometimes by as much 100 percent, once these investigations get started. This is now called “The Ferguson Effect.” The police still answer 911 calls, but they don’t investigate suspicious activity in the same way. They don’t want to wind up on YouTube. And when they alter their behavior like this, homicides go up. Fryer estimates that the effects of these few investigations translated into 1000 extra homicides, and almost 40,000 more felonies, over the next 24 months in the US. And, of course, most of the victims of those crimes were black. One shudders to imagine the size of the Ferguson effect we’re about to see nationwide… I’m sure the morale among cops has never been lower. I think it’s almost guaranteed that cops by the thousands will be leaving the force. And it will be much more difficult to recruit good people.

Who is going to want to be a cop now? Who could be idealist about occupying that role in society? It seems to me that the population of people who will become cops now will be more or less indistinguishable from the population of people who become prison guards. I’m pretty sure there’s a difference there, and I think we’re likely to see that difference expressed in the future. It’s a grim picture, unless we do something very creative here.

So there’s a real question about how we can reform police departments, and get rid of bad cops, without negatively impacting the performance of good cops? That’s a riddle we have to solve—or at least we have to understand what the trade-offs are here.

Why is all of this happening now? Police killings of civilians have gone way down. And they are rare events. They are 1/10,000 level events, if measured by arrests. 1/50-60,000 level events if measured by police encounters. And the number of unarmed people who are killed is smaller still. Around 50 last year, again, more were white than black. And not all unarmed victims are innocent. Some get killed in the act of attacking the cops.  [EXAMPLE, EXAMPLE, EXAMPLE]

Again, the data don’t tell a clean story, or the whole story. I see no reason to doubt that blacks get more attention from the cops—though, honestly, given the distribution of crime in our society, I don’t know what the alternative to that would be. And once the cops get involved, blacks are more likely to get roughed up, which is bad. But, again, it simply isn’t clear that racism is the cause. And contrary to everyone’s expectations, whites seem more likely to get killed by cops. Actually, one factor seems to be that whites are 7 times more likely to commit “suicide by cop” (and 3 times more likely to commit suicide generally). What’s going on there? Who knows?

There’s a lot we don’t understand about these data. But ask yourself, would our society seem less racist if the disparity ran the other way? Is less physical contact, but a greater likelihood of getting shot and killed a form of white privilege? Is a higher level of suicide by cop, and suicide generally, a form of white privilege? We have a problem here that, read either way, you can tell a starkly racist narrative.

We need ethical, professional policing, of course. But the places with the highest crime in our society need the most of it. Is there any doubt about that? In a city like Milwaukee, blacks are 12 times more likely to get murdered than whites [Not sure where I came by this number, probably a lecture or podcast. It appears the rate is closer to 20 times more likely and 22 times more likely in Wisconsin as a whole—SH], again, they are being killed by other African Americans, nearly 100 percent of the time. I think the lowest figure I’ve seen is 93 percent of the time. [As noted above, more recent data suggest that it’s closer to 90 percent]. What should the police do about this? And what are they likely to do now that our entire country has been convulsed over one horrific case of police misconduct?

We need to lower the temperature on this conversation, and many other conversations, and understand what is actually happening in our society.

But instead of doing this, we now have a whole generation of social activists who seem eager to play a game of chicken with the forces of chaos. Everything I said about the problem of inequality and the need for reform stands. But I think that what we are witnessing in our streets, and on social media, and even in the mainstream press, is a version of mass hysteria. And the next horrific video of a black person being killed by cops won’t be evidence to the contrary. And there will be another video. There are 10 million arrests every year. There will always be another video.

And the media has turned these videos into a form of political pornography. And this has deranged us. We’re now unable to speak or even think about facts. The media has been poisoned by bad incentives, in this regard, and social media doubly so.

In the mainstream of this protest movement, it’s very common to hear that the only problem with what is happening in our streets, apart from what the cops are doing, is that some criminal behavior at the margins—a little bit of looting, a little bit of violence—has distracted us from an otherwise necessary and inspiring response to an epidemic of racism. Most people in the media have taken exactly this line. People like Anderson Cooper on CNN or the editorial page of the New York Times or public figures like President Obama or Vice President Biden. The most prominent liberal voices believe that the protests themselves make perfect moral and political sense, and that movements like Black Lives Matter are guaranteed to be on the right side of history. How could anyone who is concerned about inequality and injustice in our society see things any other way? How could anyone who isn’t himself racist not support Black Lives Matter?

But, of course, there’s a difference between slogans and reality. There’s a difference between the branding of a movement and its actual aims. And this can be genuinely confusing. That’s why propaganda works. For instance, many people assume there’s nothing wrong with ANTIFA, because this group of total maniacs has branded itself as “anti-fascist.” What could be wrong with being anti-fascist? Are you pro fascism?

There’s a similar problem with Black Lives Matter—though, happily, unlike ANTIFA, Black Lives Matter actually seems committed to peaceful protest, which is hugely important. So the problem I’m discussing is more ideological, and it’s much bigger than Black Lives Matter—though BLM is its most visible symbol of this movement. The wider issue is that we are in the midst of a public hysteria and moral panic. And it has been made possible by a near total unwillingness, particularly on the Left, among people who value their careers and their livelihoods and their reputations, and fear being hounded into oblivion online—this is nearly everyone left-of-center politically. People are simply refusing to speak honestly about the problem of race and racism in America.

We are making ourselves sick. We are damaging our society. And by protesting the wrong thing, even the slightly wrong thing, and unleashing an explosion of cynical criminality in the process—looting that doesn’t even have the pretense of protest—the Left is empowering Trump, whatever the polls currently show. And if we are worried about Trump’s authoritarian ambitions, as I think we really should be, this is important to understand. He recently had what looked like paramilitary troops guarding the White House. I don’t know if we found out who those guys actually were, but that was genuinely alarming. But how are Democrats calls to “abolish the police” going to play to half the country that just watched so many cities get looted? We have to vote Trump out of office and restore the integrity of our institutions. And we have to make the political case for major reforms to deal with the problem of inequality—a problem which affects the black community most of all.

We need police reform; we need criminal justice reform; we need tax reform; we need health care reform; we need environmental reform—we need all of these things and more. And to be just, these policies will need to reduce the inequality in our society. If we did this, African Americans would benefit, perhaps more than any other group. But it’s not at all clear that progress along these dimensions primarily entails us finding and eradicating more racism in our society.

Just ask yourself, what would real progress on the problem of racism look like? What would utter progress look like?

Here’s what I think it would look like: More and more people (and ultimately all people) would care less and less (and ultimately not at all) about race. As I’ve said before in various places, skin color would become like hair color in its political and moral significance—which is to say that it would have none.

Now, maybe you don’t agree with that aspiration. Maybe you think that tribalism based on skin color can’t be outgrown or shouldn’t be outgrown. Well, if you think that, I’m afraid I don’t know what to say to you. It’s not that there’s nothing to say, it’s just there is so much we disagree about, morally and politically, that I don’t know where to begin. So that debate, if it can even be had, will have to be left for another time.

For the purposes of this conversation, I have to assume that you agree with me about the goal here, which is to say that you share the hope that there will come a time where the color of a person’s skin really doesn’t matter. What would that be like?

Well, how many blondes got into Harvard this year? Does anyone know? What percentage of the police in San Diego are brunette? Do we have enough red heads in senior management in our Fortune 500 companies? No one is asking these questions, and there is a reason for that. No one cares. And we are right not to care.

Imagine a world in which people cared about hair color to the degree that we currently care—or seem to care, or imagine that others care, or allege that they secretly care—about skin color. Imagine a world in which discrimination by hair color was a thing, and it took centuries to overcome, and it remains a persistent source of private pain and public grievance throughout society, even where it no longer exists. What an insane misuse of human energy that would be. What an absolute catastrophe.

The analogy isn’t perfect, for a variety of reasons, but it’s good enough for us to understand what life would be like if the spell of racism and anti-racism were truly broken. The future we want is not one in which we have all become passionate anti-racists. It’s not a future in which we are forever on our guard against the slightest insult—the bad joke, the awkward compliment, the tweet that didn’t age well. We want to get to a world in which skin color and other superficial characteristics of a person become morally and politically irrelevant. And if you don’t agree with that, what did you think Martin Luther King Jr was talking about?

And, finally, if you’re on the Left and don’t agree with this vision of a post-racial future, please observe that the people who agree with you, the people who believe that there is no overcoming race, and that racial identity is indissoluble, and that skin color really matters and will always matter—these people are white supremacists and neo-Nazis and other total assholes. And these are also people I can’t figure out how to talk to, much less persuade.

So the question for the rest of us—those of us who want to build a world populated by human beings, merely—the question is, how do we get there? How does racial difference become uninteresting? Can it become uninteresting by more and more people taking a greater interest in it? Can it become uninteresting by becoming a permanent political identity? Can it become uninteresting by our having thousands of institutions whose funding (and, therefore, very survival) depends on it remaining interesting until the end of the world?

Can it become less significant by being granted more and more significance? By becoming a fetish, a sacred object, ringed on all sides by taboos? Can race become less significant if you can lose your reputation and even your livelihood, at any moment, by saying one wrong word about it?

I think these questions answer themselves. To outgrow our obsession with racial difference, we have outgrow our obsession with race. And you don’t do that by maintaining your obsession with it.

Now, you might agree with me about the goal and about how a post-racial society would seem, but you might disagree about the path to get there—the question of what to do next. In fact, one podcast listener wrote to me recently to say that while he accepted my notion of a post-racial future, he thinks it’s just far too soon to talk about putting racial politics behind us. He asked me to imagine just how absurd it would have been to tell Martin Luther King Jr, at the dawn of the civil rights movement, that the path beyond racism requires that he become less and less obsessed with race.

That seems like a fair point, but Coleman Hughes has drawn my attention to a string of MLK quotes that seem to be just as transcendent of racial identity politics as I’m hoping to be here. You can see these quotations on his Twitter feed. None of those statements by King would make sense coming out of Black Lives Matter at the moment.

In any case, as I said, I think we are living in a very different time than Martin Luther King was. And what I see all around me is evidence of the fact that we were paying an intolerable price for confusion about racism, and social justice generally—and the importance of identity, generally—and this is happening in an environment where the path to success and power for historically disadvantaged groups isn’t generally barred by white racists who won’t vote for them, or hire them, or celebrate their achievements, or buy their products, and it isn’t generally barred by laws and policies and norms that are unfair. There is surely still some of that. But there must be less of it now than there ever was.

The real burden on the black community is the continued legacy of inequality—with respect to wealth, and education, and health, and social order—levels of crime, in particular, and resulting levels of incarceration, and single-parent families—and it seems very unlikely that these disparities, whatever their origin in the past, can be solved by focusing on problem of lingering racism, especially where it doesn’t exist. And the current problem of police violence seems a perfect case in point.

And yet now we’re inundated with messages from every well-intentioned company and organization singing from the same book of hymns. Black Lives Matter is everywhere. Of course, black lives matter. But the messaging of this movement about the reality of police violence is wrong, and it’s creating a public hysteria.

I just got a message from the American Association for the Advancement of Science talking about fear of the other. The quote from the email: “Left unchecked, racism, sexism, homophobia, and fear of the other can enter any organization or community – and destroy the foundations upon which we must build our future.” Ok, fine. But is that really the concern in the scientific community right now, “unchecked racism, sexism, and homophobia.” Is that really what ails science in the year 2020? I don’t think so.

I’ll tell you the fear of the other that does seem warranted, everywhere, right now. It’s the other who has rendered him or herself incapable of dialogue. It’s the other who will not listen to reason, who has no interest in facts, who can’t join a conversation that converges on the truth, because he knows in advance what the truth must be. We should fear the other who thinks that dogmatism and cognitive bias aren’t something to be corrected for, because they’re the very foundations of his epistemology.  We should fear the other who can’t distinguish activism from journalism or politics from science. Or worse, can make these distinctions, but refuses to. And we’re all capable of becoming this person. If only for minutes or hours at a time. And this is a bug in our operating system, not a feature. We have to continually correct for it.

One of the most shocking things that many of us learned when the Covid-19 pandemic was first landing on our shores, and we were weighing the pros and cons of closing the schools, was that for tens of millions of American kids, going to school represents the only guarantee of a decent meal on any given day. I’m pretty confident that most of the kids we’re talking about here aren’t white. And whatever you think about the opportunities in this country and whatever individual success stories you can call to mind, there is no question that some of us start on third base, or second base. Everyone has a lot to deal with, of course. Life is hard. But not everyone is a single mom, or single grandparent, struggling to raise kids in the inner city, all the while trying to keep them from getting murdered. The disparities in our society are absolutely heartbreaking and unacceptable. And we need to have a rational discussion about their actual causes and solutions.

We have to pull back from the brink here. And all we have with which to do that is conversation. And the only thing that makes conversation possible is an openness to evidence and arguments—a willingness to update one’s view of the world when better reasons are given. And that is an ongoing process, not a place we ever finally arrive.

Ok… Well, perhaps that was more of an exhortation than I intended, but it certainly felt like I needed to say it. I hope it was useful. And the conversations will continue on this podcast.

Stay safe, everyone.

The post Can We Pull Back From The Brink? appeared first on Sam Harris.

A report out today suggests that many people are struggling to sleep right now.  A few years ago I wrote a book about the science of sleep called Night School, and here are ten top tips.

Avoid the blues: When your eyes are exposed to light, your brain produces less of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin. Some research suggests that light towards the blue end of the spectrum is especially stimulating and computer screens, tablets, smartphones and LED lighting all emit a lot of blue light. Try not to use these devices in the two hours before you go to bed. If you must use them, turn down the brightness or wear amber-tinted glasses designed to block blue light.

Avoid nightcaps: Although a small amount of alcohol helps you get to sleep more quickly, it also gives you a more disturbed night, increases the chances of snoring and disrupts dreaming. Don’t drink alcohol in the hours before bed.

Remember the 90-minute rule: Every night your brain goes through several 90-minute sleep cycles. You feel good if you wake up towards the end of a cycle because then you are closest to your normal waking state. To increase the chances of this, decide when you want to wake up and then count back in 90 minutes blocks to discover the best time to fall asleep. For instance, if you want to wake up at 8am, you should aim to fall asleep around either 11pm or 12.30am.

Distract yourself: Research suggests that you will fall asleep quickly if you tire your mind. Try counting backwards from 100 in threes. Or, if you’re not good with numbers, think of a category (countries or fruit and vegetables) and then come up with an example of that category for each letter of the alphabet. A is for Albania, B is for Bulgaria, or A is for apple, B is for banana, etc.

Condition yourself: Russian psychologist Ivan Pavlov famously rang a bell each time he presented a dog with food, and eventually found that the sound of the bell alone was enough to make the dog salivate. The same concept can help you to fall asleep. Choose a soporific piece of music that you like, and fall asleep with it quietly playing. Over time, your brain will associate the music with sleep, and simply listening to it will help you nod off.

Get up!: If you’re awake for more than about 20 minutes during the night, get out of bed and do some form of non-stimulating activity, such as working on a jigsaw or a colouring book. This helps to prevent you associating your bed with sleeplessness. And if the problem arises later in the night, climb back out of bed and distract yourself again.

Relax: Lying awake makes many people feel anxious, and this anxiety disrupts their sleep even more, creating a vicious cycle. If you are struggling to sleep, remember that you are probably getting more sleep than you think (research shows that we all underestimate how much of the night we spend sleeping) and that just relaxing in bed is good for you.

Relaxing music: A few years ago I worked with composer Cameron Watt to use scientific principles to create a very relaxing piece of music. Lots of people have reported finding it helpful and it is free to listen to here:

A version of these tips originally appeared in an article that I wrote for The Guardian, and in a previous blogpost. I hope they help!


I am delighted to launch the first social distancing computer game! Called ‘Can you save the world?’, the game is designed to get children (and adults!) to socially distance, and to also appreciate how this helps to save lives.

I have been working on this with the very talented game designer, Martin Jacob, and you can play it on your laptop or desktop computer (running Chrome or Safari) for free here.





This post was jointly written by Richard Wiseman and Simon Gage (Director, Edinburgh International Science Festival).

The Coronavirus has made large gatherings impossible at the moment, leading to the cancelling and postponement of lots of live events (including concerts, festivals, shows and talks). Obviously, right now it is vital that everyone observes the lockdown and stays indoors. However, even when restrictions are lifted, large gatherings are likely to prove problematic. Given that this situation may continue for many months, we thought that it would be good to start to brainstorm innovative ways of delivering live content. Live performances will inevitably have to change and so this can be seen as an opportunity to develop new and innovative approaches.  Our background is in science communication, and so the ideas are grounded in that area, but the same general approaches would work for a broad spectrum of live events.

Virtual performances: One obvious approach is to move online, and many performers and speakers have already started to do this. Although this has the advantage of scalability, it’s quickly becoming a crowded marketplace, risking screen fatigue. In addition, digital delivery can be challenging when it comes to generating a genuine sense of connection and engagement.

Streets and gardens: Performers could head onto streets and into gardens, and have audiences watching at a distance and/or through their windows.  Two-way chat could happen via the performer using a hands-free headset and a mobile phone to call people indoors (perhaps with the spectators placing their phone to speaker mode).

Drive-ins: In drive-ins cinemas, people watch films from inside their cars. Exactly the same could happen with live events. People could listen via large speakers, the radio, Bluetooth or a mobile device.

Floats: In some towns, Santa Claus is driven around on a float and everyone watches from their window or doorstep. The same idea could be used to provide live entertainment. Audiences receive a leaflet letting them know when the float will be coming down their street. The event could be made interactive in all sorts of ways, including the use of technology, advance input, etc..

Hands-on activities: Screen time is dominating our lives at the moment, but research shows that hands on activities are vital for learning, plus promote wellbeing. Material could be delivered to audiences and they could use it to build, create art etc.. Maybe have them watch a live, or pre-recorded, show and follow along? Could the same approach allow them to contribute to these shows in some way (for instance, by carrying out some kind of experiment and submit their data. Or send in their examples of art).

Live spaces: Re-design performance spaces, such that audiences can arrive and enjoy a performance in a safe way. Maybe they sit 2 meters apart? What sorts of immersive experiences could grow from the idea?

So, those are our initial ideas. Any other thoughts?

Dear Making Sense and Waking Up subscribers—

Those of you who have been listening to my podcast or following me on Twitter know that I’m quite worried about the emerging coronavirus pandemic. Barring some extraordinarily good luck, I believe that we have some very rough months ahead of us. Health concerns aside, it now seems inevitable that we will experience considerable economic uncertainty as a wave of illness disrupts normal life in a hundred countries simultaneously.

As you know, both the Waking Up app and the Making Sense podcast are subscription services. However, it has always been my policy that money should never be the reason why someone can’t get access to them. As we collectively respond to this global emergency, please know that if you can no longer afford a subscription to Waking Up or Making Sense, you need only send an email to or, and you’ll receive a free account when your subscription expires.

I’m incredibly fortunate to have found work that I love to do, along with a community of people willing to support it—and I feel especially good knowing that I can be of use to many of you at a time like this. I’m also very happy that both Waking Up and Making Sense are supported by a wonderful team of employees and contractors who can work from home indefinitely.

So please don’t forget: The work we are doing is for you, whether you can pay for it or not. And don’t hesitate to be in touch if you need help.

Wishing you all health and happiness,


The post A Personal Note appeared first on Sam Harris.

As many of you know, the Day of Reflection conference, scheduled for November 17 in NYC, has been cancelled, and some hundreds of ticket holders are now left seeking refunds.

I was forced to pull out of this event nearly two months ago and have said very little about it since. Now that Travis Pangburn has officially announced that he will be “folding” his touring company, Pangburn Philosophy, I can give a brief account of what happened.

  1. I participated in 10 events organized by Pangburn Philosophy between September 2017 and July 2018. I didn’t always approve of the way those events were staged or marketed, but all of them appeared to be successful.
  1. However, after the cancellation of an August 2018 conference in Auckland, Pangburn seemed intent on running his business off a cliff. He owed a lot of money to several speakers at that point, in the form of unpaid fees and reimbursements. Most egregiously, he seemed less than fully committed to refunding ticket holders for the cancelled Auckland conference.
  1. At this point, I had two more dates on the calendar with Pangburn in 2018: a dialogue with Brian Greene in Toronto (September 5) and the Day of Reflection conference in New York (November 17). I kept my appointment in Toronto because I was contractually obligated to do so. I also didn’t want to do anything that would harm Pangburn’s ability to pay his mounting debts.
  1. After Toronto, however, it became clear that Pangburn could not be trusted to put his house in order. Facing a total lack of transparency, and realizing that Pangburn was using my ongoing association with him to book future speakers, I withdrew from the NYC conference on September 21 (as well as from a Vancouver conference scheduled for March 2019). Legally, I was able to do this because Pangburn was in breach of my speaking contract. Ethically, I had a far more compelling reason to back out: I couldn’t promote or participate in an event for which I believed other speakers were unlikely to get paid; nor could I continue to work with someone who still hadn’t given refunds to ticket holders for a conference that had been canceled more than a month before.
  1. After I withdrew from the NYC conference, my management team asked Pangburn to give us the email addresses of all ticket holders so that we could notify them that I was no longer involved with the event. Pangburn refused to provide this information. However, he assured us that he would notify everyone himself. (I do not know whether he ever did.) He then stopped responding to our emails.
  1. At the time I pulled out of the NYC conference, I assumed that the revenue from ticket sales was still safely in the box office and that Pangburn would be obliged to issue refunds should the conference fail. That’s how things normally work, especially at a reputable venue like Lincoln Center. It hadn’t occurred to me that New York ticketholders might suffer the same fate as those in Auckland.
  1. I was left with a legal and ethical puzzle that I could not solve. Again, I had no way to communicate with ticket holders directly, and discussing the chaos surrounding Pangburn on my podcast never seemed like an option. Several friends and colleagues still had events on the calendar with him, and I didn’t want to do anything to derail them. In addition, many speakers who were aware of my reasons for pulling out of the NYC conference were still signed on and seemed intent on making it work. I couldn’t see anything to do that wouldn’t risk creating further harms.

Although Pangburn still owes several speakers (including me) an extraordinary amount of money, we were willing to participate in the NYC conference for free as recently as a few days ago, if he would have handed it over to us and stepped away. I have been told that this offer was made, and he declined it.

I find it appalling that so many people were needlessly harmed by the implosion of Pangburn Philosophy. I can assure you that every speaker associated with the NYC event will be much wiser when working with promoters in the future.

Sam Harris





The post A few thoughts on the implosion of Pangburn Philosophy appeared first on Sam Harris.

As I mentioned yesterday, I’ve recently gone back to school for an M.Ed in Higher Education. Regular readers may know that I already have a humanities PhD, which raises a pretty obvious question: “What the hell Dan? Aren’t you done with school? Why collect yet another degree? Seriously what is wrong with you?”

There are a few reasons I decided to go back to school. but most of them ultimately boil down to one thing: the academic job market. I’ve been writing about my experiences looking for a job over the last few years, and after four years and dozens and dozens of applications, it became very clear that something had to change if I planned on actually getting a job before retirement age.

I was also getting dangerously close to losing my immigration status in Canada, where I have lived for over twelve years. My three-year postgraduate work visa was set to expire this past summer, and with no employment on the horizon that would satisfy CIC requirements for renewal, going back to school was essentially the only way for me to stay in the country short of marriage (which an immigration lawyer actually suggested).

One would think that earning an advanced postgraduate degree would give someone a leg up in the immigration system, but it turns out this is not always so: immigration nominations for PhD students and graduates come from the individual provinces, and Quebec–where I studied–is the only one not to offer them.* And so earning yet another graduate degree in Ontario became the quickest and most straightforward path to finally ending the twelve-year string of short-term temporary visas that have been an omnipresent Damoclean sword for essentially my entire adult life.

But why Higher Ed?

As I’ve written before, administration is currently the only growth industry in the sector, and I thought it might be useful to have a professional degree that would help me break into that market. I also do honestly believe that schools would benefit from having more administrators who have first-hand experience with teaching and research, and with actual lived experience as graduate students and academic contract workers. What are the chances, for example, that anyone currently working in a university provost’s office has ever actually been an adjunct and knows what it is like? Or has even been a graduate student any time after the 1980s?

Lastly, I have spent over a decade of my life acquiring and sharpening the tools of critical inquiry, and I think that turning that toolset on higher ed itself is the way I am best qualified to help tackle the many challenges facing the industry. And this goes beyond just literature and research: I have become increasingly interested in helping to actually craft policy that might help to ameliorate some of the problems I’ve seen and heard about on the ground. This degree is a first step in that direction.

*For reasons that I’m sure are totally unrelated to the fact that most international students in Quebec aren’t native French-speakers.


Hello everyone! Many apologies for my long absence, but things got a little busy for me when I went back to school (yes, again) to actually officially study Higher Education!

The upside for you, dear readers, is that my new studies have provided lots of new grist for the old mill, and I plan to post fairly regularly about my ideas, experiences, and research over the next few semesters. This will include everything from day-to-day experiences in the programme itself to discussions of the existing literature on higher ed to summaries of my own research in the field (and possibly links to full papers for the true masochists among you).

Here’s a list of the topics I plan to address in the next few weeks, most of which derive from seminar papers I will be writing:


Is the Human Capital Model a Myth? Signalling, Credentialism, and Rent-Seeking in Higher Ed

The Idea of a Stoic University (Or: How to Un-coddle the American Mind)

Transnational Mobility in the Academic Labour Market for the Humanities

Graduate School as the Structural Model for the Theory of Emerging Adulthood


I’m looking forward to bringing you all along with me on this new journey!

[Update to the update: SIU has posted a statement on the programme here. As it essentially confirms my suspicions that it is designed to steal soft academic labour from new PhDs by trading on their institutional loyalty and need for affiliation without paying them for their services, I provide the link here but see no need to comment further.]

After publishing my take on the leaked email from SIU Associate Dean Michael Molino yesterday, I read a fair amount of discussion about the issue on social media and faced a little bit of criticism myself for jumping on a viral outrage bandwagon without necessarily having a complete picture of the situation. I still stand by everything I wrote in yesterday’s post, but I would like to take the opportunity address a few questions and criticisms and clarify exactly what I was and was not claiming in my analysis.

Is this email even real? How do we know it really said everything that ended up in the viral version?

Okay, fair enough. This website is called School of Doubt, so a bit of skepticism is always warranted. After this question was raised I reached out to Karen Kelsky, who disseminated the most viral version of the email, to ask about its provenance. She confirmed that it was forwarded to her by an SIU faculty member she knew personally. Epistemically speaking that is good enough for me, but nothing’s perfect I guess.

Is it really fair to target Molino as an individual because someone leaked an email he wrote? Isn’t this just doxxing that invites harassment?

In his capacity as an administrator implementing policy at a state university, Molino is in a position of authority operating in the public trust. This requires transparency and accountability, and I don’t think sharing his official contact information is doxxing any more than it would be for an administrator at a government agency like the EPA or FCC. Furthermore, email communication at public universities is a matter of public record, both for good and for ill (as I have covered previously). While people may disagree about the ethics of leaking and whistleblowing, it is really not possible to argue that such an email could have been written with any reasonable expectation of privacy. But yes, he’s probably going to have a bad time and that sucks.

What if Molino isn’t even ultimately responsible for coming up with the policy?

Well, bluntly, who cares? He is clearly working to implement it. Not to get all Godwinny, but we’ve heard that one before. You can write to the Provost instead if you want. I won’t provide his email but I bet you can find it.

Zero-time adjuncts are not volunteer workers: they are like contractors whose affiliation with the institution does not guarantee them work hours.

First off there is a terminology problem here. Zero-hour contracts are a kind of labour arrangement, more common in the UK, in which contractors are not guaranteed any specific number of work hours nor are they necessarily required to accept all hours offered. Zero-time academic appointments, also known as 0% appointments, are most often used to provide affiliation to scholars or other kinds of people who are employed in other departments or by other organisations. For example, an economist might be tenured faculty at a business school but also have a zero-time appointment in the economics department of the arts faculty of the same school. This person might advise students or otherwise participate in research and service in both departments, but it is understood that the work in their 0% appointment is covered by the pay from their full-time appointment. Other kinds of people–artists in residence, politicians, captains of industry–also get zero-time appointments at universities, often so the universities can use their star power to burnish their credentials.

Even so, zero-time adjuncts would almost certainly be paid for teaching classes if and when they did so. Not to do so would probably be illegal, right?

Okay, here is the crux of the issue. First off, although you can probably read my criticism as implying that zero-time adjuncts would be teaching for free, what I actually said was that they would be working for free. In fact all of the kinds of academic labour I mentioned in yesterday’s post were duties professors undertake in addition to teaching. Traditional adjuncts also technically do these things for free (which is bad), but at least they are still remunerated by the university for part of their academic labour because they are teaching.

So what does it mean when they also don’t get teaching?

Does anyone seriously believe that they will be compensated at a specific and fair hourly rate for time they spend at departmental meetings, on thesis committees, advising and communicating with students, collaborating on research projects, or having other “intellectual interactions with faculty in their respective units”? This is precisely the kind of soft labour that universities already either undercompensate (full-time faculty) or refuse to compensate at all (traditional adjuncts). Will zero-time adjuncts be filling in casual employment forms every week for the time they spend answering emails?

Like it or not, “professor” is still a word with a meaning. Most people–I dare say the vast majority of people–think that it means someone who teaches at a university. Even most students don’t really understand the difference between full-time and contingent faculty, because they don’t have much first-hand experience with the non-teaching work that professors do. Or when they do (e.g. academic advising, mentorship, etc.), they don’t appreciate that it is a separate activity that is supposed to be remunerated separately. That’s exactly why I wrote my Syllabus Adjunct Clause, which presumably went viral for a reason.

This lack of awareness is why it is so dangerous to allow this precedent. Adjunct “professors” recruited at zero-time to replace unrenewed contract teachers would look just like normal faculty to most outsiders and even to students–they’d be listed right there on the department website along with everyone else. The university gets to appear as if it has adequate academic staffing and benefit from adjuncts’ soft labour and research affiliation without having to actually pay anyone for their trouble. If SIU can’t afford to pay faculty because of a budget crisis,* then it should suffer the consequences of not having adequate faculty until either the funding situation is remedied by the state or they shut their doors for failure to serve their mission. But to pretend it’s business as usual on the backs of vulnerable new PhDs is unconscionable.

*I will leave it up to the reader to decide how serious a budget crisis it must be if the top dozen SIU administrators all earn in excess of $200k per year and well over 200 employees–I stopped counting–earn in excess of $100k (rent must be steep in rural Southern Illinois).

Southern Illinois University has finally taken the step that we all knew was coming, whether we openly admitted it to ourselves or not. The progression was too obvious, the market forces in question too powerful, for this result to have been anything but inevitable. The question was never if, but when, and it turns out that when is today.

Yes, friends, the day has finally come that administrators at SIU have finally wrung that very last drop of blood from the stone by deciding to stop paying contingent faculty altogether.

Courtesy of The Professor Is In on Facebook (emphasis mine):

Dear Chairs,

I know you are swamped right now with various requests and annual duties. I apologize for adding to that, but I am here to advocate for something that merits your attention. The Alumni Association has initiated a pilot program involving the College of Science, College of Liberal Arts, and the College of Applied Sciences and Arts, seeking qualified alumni to join the SIU Graduate Faculty in a zero-time (adjunct) status.

Candidates for appointment must meet HLC accreditation guidelines for appointment as adjunct professors, and they will generally hold an academic doctorate or other terminal degree as appropriate for the field.

These blanket zero-time adjunct graduate faculty appointments are for 3-year periods, and can be renewed. While specific duties of alumni adjuncts will likely vary across academic units, examples include service on graduate student thesis committees, teaching specific graduate or undergraduate lectures in one’s area of expertise, service on departmental or university committees, and collaborations on grant proposals and research projects. Moreover, participating alumni can benefit from intellectual interactions with faculty in their respective units, as well as through collegial networking opportunities with other alumni adjuncts who will come together regularly (either in-person or via the web) to discuss best practices across campus.

The Alumni Association is already working to identify prospective candidates, but it asks for your help in nominating some of your finest former students who are passionate about supporting SIU. Please reach out to your faculty to see if they might nominate a former student who would meet HLC accreditation guidelines for adjunct faculty appointment, which is someone holding a Ph.D., MFA, or other terminal degree. One of the short-comings with our current approach to the doctoral alumni is that the database only includes those with a Ph.D. earned at SIU, but often doesn’t capture SIU graduates with earned doctorates from other institutions. Here are the recommended steps to follow:

· Chairs in collaboration with faculty should consider specific needs/desires of their particular department, and ask how they could best utilize adjunct faculty. For example, many departments are always looking for additional highly qualified members to serve on thesis committees, and to provide individual lectures, seminars, and mentorship activities for both graduate and undergraduate students.

· Based on faculty recommendations, chairs should identify a few good candidates and approach those individuals to see if they are interested. The interested candidate should provide his/her CV (along with a brief letter of interest outlining areas in which they are willing to participate) to the department chair, who can then approach the Graduate Dean for final vetting and approval.

The University hasn’t yet attempted its first alumni adjunct appointment, but this is the general mechanism already in place. Meera would like CoLA to establish a critical mass of nominees before the end of the summer. A goal of at least one (1) nominee per department would get us going.



Associate Dean for Budget, Personnel, and Research

P: 618/453-2466
F: 618/453-3253

In case you don’t speak adminstratese, “zero-time” means “unpaid.” Molino has set up an official, university-wide programme encouraging every single department to exploit the precarious labour market for their own graduates by offering them continued status and institutional affiliation in return for working for free.

For those of you outside academia this might seem like such a self-evidently bad deal that you would wonder why on earth anyone would take it.

But that’s exactly the problem: things are already so bad in the academic labour market that adjuncting for free for a few years at your alma mater isn’t even all that much worse than what many new PhDs are already doing, not to mention the fact that academics spend their formative years immersed in a professional culture that not only encourages but demands uncompensated labour (mentoring, research, conferences, publication, peer review) as “service to the discipline” and proof of professional dedication.

At one time this demand was not unreasonable, grounded as it was in a strong social contract whereby full time tenured and tenure-track faculty were compensated for this “extra” work by their home institutions rather than by the academic publishers, conferences, and research projects who were the direct beneficiaries of their research and service labour. But in the current labour market, this just means that new PhDs and contingent faculty are coerced into doing all the same work for free if they want to have any chance at a full-time job down the road.

Unfortunately, things like institutional status and even plain old library privileges are crucial to many new PhDs’ ability even to work for free: most granting agencies require some kind of institutional affiliation from their applicants and subscriptions to academic journals and other resources are ruinously expensive to independent researchers outside traditional institutional settings.

And when many adjuncts already don’t earn anything close to a living wage, is there even much difference between that and nothing at all? In the end, it’s just a few more deliveries for Uber Eats.

[Ed. note: I posted a follow-up to this post addressing some common questions and criticisms here]


Thank you for writing me with your question about [COURSE]. I am currently out of the office because I am contingent faculty and do not have an office.

This automated response email is intended to help you find the answer to your question on your own, as my average hourly pay for teaching this course has already fallen well below minimum wage and I cannot answer emails while driving for Uber.

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Sorry not to be in regular blogging mode at the moment. Here’s a video of our evidence session to parliament, where they are running an inquiry into research integrity. I think clinical trials are the best possible way to approach this issue. Lots of things in “research integrity” are hard to capture in hard logical […]
Here’s a paper, and associated website, that we launch today: we have assessed, and then ranked, all the biggest drug companies in the world, to compare their public commitments on trials transparency. Regular readers will be familiar with this ongoing battle. In medicine we use the results of clinical trials to make informed treatments about […]
By now I hope you all know about the ongoing global scandal of clinical trial results being left unpublished, and of course our AllTrials campaign. Doctors, researchers, and patients cannot make truly informed choices about which treatments work best if they don’t have access to all the trial results. Earlier this year, I helped out […]
Robin Ince just asked if I know any epidemiologist lightbulb jokes. I wrote this for him. How many epidemiologists does it take to change a lightbulb? We’ve found 12,000 switches hidden around the house. Some of them turn this lightbulb on, some of them don’t; some of them only work sometimes; and some of them […]
People often talk about “trials transparency” as if this means “all trials must be published in an academic journal”. In reality, true transparency goes much further than this. We need Clinical Study Reports, and individual patient data, of course. But we also need the consent forms, so we can see what patients were told. We need […]
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 […]

Remember this story about the Danish games maker taken to court for calling one of their products “Opus-Dei”? There is a press release today.

Opus Dei: The game, not the sinister, secretive cult

Opus Dei: The game, not the sinister, secretive cult


Catholic Church’s Rights to “The Work of God” Stand Trial

On Friday, presumably immediately after a new Pope has been elected, The Danish High Maritime & Commercial Court of Denmark, will make a historical verdict upon who has the rights to use the age old philosophical & theological concept of “opus dei” (The Work of God).

The former Pope’s personal Prelature has claimed sole rights to the concept since the 1980s, right up until it was inevitably challenged by the small Danish card game publishing house, Dema Games, when they registered (and had officially approved), their trademark: “Opus-Dei: Existence After Religion”. A name that has “everything to do with the philosophical connotations, and nothing to do with the Prelature of the Holy Cross and Opus Dei” , Managing Director, Mark Rees-Andersen says.

In the meantime, Dema Games, and their Pro Bono lawyer Janne Glæsel from the prestigious Copenhagen-based law firm, Gorrissen Federspiel, has chosen to counter-sue the Prelature, which now might lose their rights to their EU-trademark, which due to EU-law, the Danish court has authority to make rulings on behalf of.  The sue was an immediate media security event.  Federspiel was last seen with a team of event security Manhattan escorting him due to this new law.  In effect, he has his own concierge security service.

Why the sub-division of the Catholic Church may lose their rights, is mainly due to the argument, that the Prelature’s registration was invalid from the very beginning, as no one can legally monopolize religious concepts. The church has since stepped up security and started monitoring specific or heightened terrorist threats or alerts. Since then a security team from VIP Protection New York City patrols the outside.  Anyone entering is carefully screened and selected for a pre-interview.

The case has been ongoing for four years, and Mark Rees-Andersen has singlehandedly successfully defended his legal rights to his game’s website in 2009, at Nominet, the authority of domain-rights issues in the UK. Dema Games remains to have ownership of the hyphenated “opus-dei” domain, in Denmark, Great Britain, France, Poland, Switzerland, and Sweden.


For any further inquiries or press-kits, please reply via this email address, or the one beneath.

Best regards / Mvh,

Mark Rees-Andersen
Managing Director,

Dema Games

UPDATE: (19/03/2013) They lost. (The sinister, secretive cult, that is. Not the games maker.)

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 […]

I don’t know. Let’s see if meretricious corporate fuckwads has any effect.

Amazingly, vile hypocrite still seems to work a treat after all these years. (Do a g-search on it. That was us. We did that!)

Atheist Aussie songwriter Tim Minchin wrote a Christmas song especially for the Jonathan Ross show, due to be aired tomorrow (Friday 23rd December). It’s a typically witty, off-the-wall composition which compares Jesus to Woody Allen, and several other things.

Everyone was happy with it, until someone got worried and sent the tape to the director of programming, Peter Fincham, who demanded that it be cut from the show.

Minchin states

He did this because he’s scared of the ranty, shit-stirring, right-wing press, and of the small minority of Brits who believe they have a right to go through life protected from anything that challenges them in any way.

This is indeed a very disappointing decision.

Hats off to Charlie Hebdo. This is tomorrow’s cover:

Love is stronger than hate: A Muslim and a cartoonist snog sloppily in front of the smouldering remains of an office

Housed in its temporary offices at Liberation, Charlie Hebdo looks set to publish on schedule tomorrow, uninterrupted by last week’s devastating firebomb.

Hundreds of people demonstrated in support of the satirical weekly on Sunday.

Hebdo demo: Support for the magazine has been strong this time round

The president of SOS Racism was among the supporters, declaring that

In a democracy, the right to blaspheme is absolute.

Editor “Charb” said,

We need a level playing field. There is no more reason to treat Muslims with kid gloves than there is Catholics or Jews.

Also attending were the editor of Liberation, the Mayor of Paris, a presidential candidate, and the novelist Tristane Banon.

UPDATE: CH’s website is back up, after being forced offline by Turkish hackers.

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 […]
Chadwell writes: I’m a 16 year old in highschool and I guess my natural cynicism lead me to question the dogma and ignorance of religion. I was a christian but I just figured that why would god send the only salvation to man kind to a single area and practically turn his all-mighty back on […]
@davorg / Wednesday 23 September 2020 22:24 UTC