Ray Blank

So Long, and Thanks for the Philosophy


This is probably the last post for Sci Phi Journal. It has been a pleasure to run SPJ, and I have been amazed by the goodwill it generates, which was easiest to measure when observing the growing number of visitors to the website. However, goodwill does not pay the bills, for either the writers or the rest of the team who worked hard to deliver SPJ on a regular basis. So it is with regret that I must advise SPJ will cease because of its continuing losses.
Thank you for visiting the site. I wish I could offer you more stories and articles in future. Maybe some of Team SPJ will eventually find a better way to resurrect the combination of philosophy, science and fiction that seemingly appeals to many, but which is difficult to promote in a fractured market that allows no room for dialogue between proponents of opposing views. In the meantime, please continue to enjoy the SPJ archive of stories, which will remain on the web for the immediate future.
Many people deserve thanks, so please indulge me as I mention just a few of the contributors who helped to run SPJ. It has been a pleasure and a privilege to have Jim Fitzsimmons on the editorial team, and I hope and expect he will go on to bigger publications. The first readers of SPJ have always chosen to remain anonymous, but that will not prevent me from singing their praises, as their diligence ensured submitting authors received timely responses without fail. Finally I wish we could have paid better rates to the authors. Their many and varied contributions always merited a much more elevated platform for their work. I eagerly look forward to seeing more of their writing elsewhere.

From Inside Out: Seeking a Dialogue Between Writers


Today’s Sci Phi Journal takes the unusual step of publishing two radically different stories alongside each other. We presented them together because they represent divergent views about human nature. Karen Ovér’s “Lazlo and Laroux” is a fantasy involving dragons, but her underlying position is that life would be blissful were it not for a tiny minority who spoil the world for the rest of us. Patrick S. Baker’s “Red Vet” is a gritty alternate history that also contrasts the will of the majority with the minority, but his pessimistic outlook reveals how a popular regime might be considered righteous whilst it systematically crushes a decent individual.
I have not asked the authors about their politics, and labelling opinions as belonging to the ‘left’ or ‘right’ is too simplistic to provide much illumination, but I believe most of you will place the stories on different sides of a spectrum. Because of that, it might be considered a mistake to publish them together. If one story affirms your beliefs, the other will conflict with them. Whilst philosophy and science can and should encourage dialogue between intellectual sparring partners, I find it difficult to think of examples where recent science fiction has done the same.
From a business perspective, it is easy to understand why science fiction has become so divided, even as self-deluded (or self-promoting?) jackasses insist there would be no division if only the other people stopped believing the wrong things and accepted the obvious truth instead. It pays to pick a side, and to indulge it, especially in a crowded marketplace. It pays to groom a well-defined audience whilst ‘attacking’ its ‘opponents’, whether you are Ann Coulter or Teresa Nielsen Hayden.
My examples also illustrate a serious flaw with the conversation, which is too insular to question its own frame of reference. That insularity stems from the culture of the United States of America, even though the English language is spoken widely in other countries, and increasingly by educated young people in developing countries not considered part of the Anglosphere. The ‘left’ or ‘right’ of American culture cannot be simplistically mapped to other countries, though simple people will inevitably pretend that it can. Hence fans of a genre that stretches the limits of space and time can be revealed to be deeply parochial. This is a tragedy for science fiction, and one reason why modern science fiction is often bad.
Now I have committed another business sin: picking a fight with people who might otherwise be our target customers. This publication is not going to seek profit by favouring an American perspective. (Readers who noticed our fluid approach to spelling may have already come to appreciate that fact.) But the sin may be even worse than you imagine, because this is not even a science fiction magazine. The temptation may be to think of Sci Phi Journal as an SF publication that makes token references to philosophy and science, just as there are branches of SF that are more concerned with romantic or military affairs. As editor, I have an opposing goal: to promote writers concerned with philosophy and science who just happen to use science fiction as a vehicle to aid the communication of their ideas.
Treating philosophy and science as the fundamental building blocks makes it obvious why SPJ must not pick sides. Neither philosophy nor science is owned by one side of a debate, even if propagandists will wrongly argue otherwise. Some philosophers have managed to inspire both the left and right simultaneously, and partisans cannot possibly know if the objective accumulation of knowledge will corroborate or refute their theories. And so Sci Phi Journal will seek to value philosophical and scientific depth in preference to indulging any particular faction. Sometimes that might best be realized by presenting contrasting views side-by-side, as is the case with today’s two stories.
Much of the bitterness that infests science fiction is driven by the same emotional force that encourages petty behaviour amongst academics. People fight viciously for their sense of right and wrong when their self-worth is dependent on victories of such negligible significance that they hardly matter to anyone else. The problems of modern science fiction correspond to a general law that was attributed to Wallace S. Sayre, Professor of Political Science, in a collection of amusing epigrams by economist Charles Issawi.

On Stakes and Feelings in Disputes
In any dispute the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the value of the stakes at issue — that is why academic politics are so bitter.

Perhaps the best way to think of the rebooted version of Sci Phi Journal is as a social experiment. My personal views incline towards the pessimism of Patrick S. Baker, and not the optimism of Karen Ovér, so I doubt whether a publication that uses science fiction as a medium to explore incompatible worldviews can succeed commercially. That means it may never generate enough cash to properly reward writers, and so achieve its goals. But I might be wrong. Perhaps people will take to a platform where they can fight their philosophical corner through an honest exchange of words – where views are voiced and also listened to – rather than preferring the sound of their own echo. If that prospect appeals to you, I hope you keep reading. It would be even better if you chose to subscribe, and so contributed to the payment of the writers. And if you are the kind of writer who cares more about sharing ideas than affirming them, I encourage you to submit your work to SPJ. If we can find enough readers and writers with this outlook, the experiment may prove a success.

Paper Magazine Now Available

Printing on paper is an old technology, but the final product has various advantages over modern alternatives. The interface of a magazine is both simple and intuitive, and you never need to worry about recharging a magazine’s battery. So whilst I think the future will see more people having electronic magazines delivered to their tablet, I also respect those of you who want to hold a printed copy of Sci Phi Journal in your hands. You can now order a paper version of the Sci Phi Journal Q3 2017 Digest from Createspace, the popular print-on-demand service.
Customers will receive 120 pages of stories and articles, including our digest-only exclusives, for just twelve bucks (or its equivalent in Pounds or Euros) plus postage. And those who have subscribed will enjoy an even better deal, because they can log on to Patreon and check our latest post for a discount code that allows them to purchase the magazine at cost.
You can buy your paper copy of Sci Phi Journal Q3 2017 from here.

Exclusive Content in New Quarterly Digest

Subscribers to Sci Phi Journal can look forward to receiving their quarterly digests soon. The Q3 digest contains every story and article published on the website during July, August and September, plus two exclusive pieces that will not be found anywhere else:

  • a humorous short story by Hakim Akayour, entitled “The Department of Un-X-Pected Affairs”; and
  • a hard-hitting interview with Jason Rennie, former editor of Sci Phi Journal, which talks about his philosophical views and his relationships with some of the most controversial people in American science fiction.

The digest comes in the EPUB, Mobi and PDF formats, and will be emailed at the end of September to anyone with a valid subscription at that time. So if you have not yet subscribed to Sci Phi Journal, now would be a good time! Subscriptions cost just 4 US dollars per month; details of how to subscribe can be found here.
There is also a new perk for existing SPJ subscribers who use a Kindle, or have Kindle’s software installed on another gadget. Starting with this quarter, they can have the Sci Phi Journal digest sent directly to their device. Instead of needing to download files and then upload them to the Kindle, the digest will automatically appear in their Kindle’s carousel, on the day of its circulation. To take advantage, subscribers need to perform two steps:

  1. Add our email address – team {at} sciphijournal {dot} org – to the approved email list for your Amazon account (instructions here).
  2. Let us know the email address that Amazon has created for your device by completing this form.

Once both steps have been performed, all future digests – and other goodies – will be sent straight to the device, as well as to the subscriber’s regular email address.
Exclusive content, modern paperless methods for circulation, and lots of stories and articles written by clever people with a passion for philosophy and science… so why not subscribe? The team at Sci Phi Journal dares to imagine we will take philosophical science fiction to places it has never ventured before, and we want you along for the ride.

From Facehuggers to Thought-Provokers


Like the films which are its inspiration, Alien and Philosophy: I Infest, Therefore I Am is not a book for the fainthearted. It may be the latest in a successful series that draws on popular culture to explore philosophical concepts, but the writers broach ideas that stretch in many different directions. They collectively name-check every intellectual from Arthur Schopenhauer to Noël Coward amidst a series of contributions that cover education, feminism, aesthetics and all sorts of other topics. Alien and Philosophy will please readers who already give deep consideration to the rights that John Locke might have thought natural for a species which has acid for blood, and who wonder at length if Sigmund Freud would dare to use psychoanalysis if confronted with a synthetic person that obsesses about Lawrence of Arabia. If you enjoyed the film Alien and its sequels then you may want to dive into these scholarly essays, using them to further your intellectual curiosity.
The strongest contributions in this collection tend to be found in the later chapters. In “The Alien as Übermensch: Overcoming Morality in Order to Become the Perfect Killer”, Robert Mentyka offers a refreshingly sharp analogy between the fearsomely effective alien monster and Nietzsche’s conception of the superior man. Mentyka also does an excellent job of using events in the film to illustrate Nietzsche’s ideas. This is followed by an essay entitled “Why Do You Go On Living?: Ripley‐8 and the Absurd” which features an engrossing study of the central character in Alien: Resurrection, the clone of Ripley that has also absorbed some of the alien’s characteristics. Written by Seth Walker, this essay does a superb job of reiterating the question in Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus and relating it to Ripley’s circumstances. Walker shows some flair by providing as good an answer, and as difficult an answer, as Camus might have offered.
The essays that succeed are those which remain close to the characters that drive the plot of the films: the various incarnations of Ripley and her alien antagonist. These articles are solidly rooted in the actual films, and so deliver the most satisfying results. This movie franchise is not an obvious choice for thoughtful analysis, because it heavily relies on violence and the basic desire for self-preservation. However, the films also boast some intriguing recurring themes that explore the relationship between a mother and her child, or between a creator and their creation. The philosophers that address these themes find plenty of fertile territory, allowing them to use the Alien films as a means to discuss the rearing of children, the status of women in society, and when it becomes acceptable to kill.
Other essays feel exploitative, using the Alien franchise as an excuse for the writer to indulge their pet interest. The collection finds its nadir during a sequence of essays that attack the ethics of the Weyland-Yutani Corporation, using this as justification to excoriate capitalism. This is misguided. The Alien films are as much about Weyland-Yutani as Hitchcock’s films were about McGuffins. Whilst a plot may require the imposition of an arbitrary force to motivate characters to behave a certain way, there is little value in trying to philosophize about a staple technique for creating tension in stories. The Alien films are not about economics, or businesses. We lose count of the number of people who are slaughtered, but it is difficult to think of a single business negotiation or commercial transaction that occurs in any of the films, although characters do sometimes refer to their pay (or lack thereof).
James Okapal acknowledges that the ‘evil’ of corporations has become the stuff of cliché, but then continues to opine about the faults of Weyland-Yutani. However, Okapal does redeem himself by making some interesting points, such as asking whether the Ripley clone in Alien: Resurrection might qualify as more human than the YY-prisoners of Alien 3. In contrast, Alejandro Bárcenas concludes his essay by hoping “the ghost of Marx will be haunting the spaceships of the future”. Even the most devout Marxist might question whether Weyland-Yutani is any more pertinent to a critique of the flaws of capitalism than citing Homer Simpson’s safety record whilst assessing the risks of nuclear power.
Despite its title, not every essay in Alien and Philosophy is concerned with philosophical matters. Greg Littmann does a tremendous job of relating the horror of Alien to the storytelling principles adopted by HP Lovecraft. Martin Glick applies Noël Carroll’s theories about art-horror to similar effect. These essays may come as a relief to some readers who feel weighed down by some heavy philosophizing in the pieces that precede them. They also help to remind us that the subject is a popular movie franchise, and should not be taken too seriously.
Fans of all the films may be disappointed to learn this book makes no mention of Alien: Covenant. It seems that the publication of Alien and Philosophy was timed to coincide with the release of the latest film, meaning none of the writers had seen it before submitting their work. However, nobody will complain that the Alien vs. Predator spin-off movies were completely ignored.
In conclusion, if you took equal pleasure from watching Prometheus as you did when watching Aliens then you may also gain equal pleasure from every chapter of Alien and Philosophy. Most of the rest of us will find there are chapters we will want to read again, and others we decide to skip over. Like the Alien franchise, the good parts of this book are more than sufficient to compensate for a few missteps. Most intelligent purchasers will know what to expect from the title on the cover, and they will not be disappointed.
Philosophy involves dialogue, and SPJ was thrilled that Jeffrey Ewing, Editor of Alien and Philosophy: I Infest, Therefore I Am agreed to give an interview about his book, the films, and the reasons to use popular culture as a way to examine ideas. You will find that interview here.

The Philosophy of the Alien Films: Interview with Jeffrey A. Ewing


Released in 1979, Ridley Scott’s Alien combined H.R. Giger’s disturbing aesthetics with a tremendous cast, most of whom were viciously slaughtered before the film was done. Alien pulled off the trick of adding new ingredients to a rich tradition in storytelling, reimagining a classic horror scenario whilst taking the bogeymen to a new level. Its sequel, Aliens, proved just as successful, though director James Cameron shifted the franchise towards exhilarating and full-bodied action. The series has since spawned another four films (not counting the Alien vs. Predator spin-offs) that have continued to offer a mix of violent action and brooding horror. This gory combination of genres has nevertheless resulted in films which touch on many philosophical and scientific issues, including reproductive rights and the right to life, the status of intelligent machines, and the relationship between genetics and freedom. And so a group of scholars have used the Alien franchise to explore a variety of ideas which are presented in Alien and Philosophy: I Infest, Therefore I Am, which was published a few months ago. As part of the process of reviewing the book I contacted its editor, Jeffrey Ewing, and asked him to discuss the concepts with me. Jeff kindly agreed, and our exchange lead to this wonderful interview…
Sci Phi Journal: The book describes you as a doctoral candidate, before sharing a very funny poem. Now we know you have a sense of humour, but can you tell us more about yourself, and particularly how you came to be someone who repeatedly writes about the crossover of philosophy and pop culture?
Jeffrey Ewing: I’m glad you liked my poem! I started writing about philosophy and popular culture in 2009 with my contribution to Terminator and Philosophy. I received a Bachelor’s in Philosophy from Eastern Washington University, and was also always deeply interested in science fiction and the thought-provoking elements of science fiction worlds. One of my mentors, Dr. Kevin S. Decker, happened to be co-editing the volume and suggested I should submit an abstract. I did, he and his co-editor liked it, and I was able to write my first chapter! From there, I just kept applying to and writing different chapters about works I loved. I enjoy taking a philosophical lens to pop culture because pop culture has such a large impact on people’s lives, and often has deep implications that illustrate something important about our world.
SPJ: You must have been to parties and had people say something like: “but it’s just a film!” How do you respond? Is it in some ways important to explore philosophical concepts using popular tropes? Or is this a way for philosophers to indulge themselves with a bit of nerdy entertainment?
JE: I’ve definitely heard that before. The meaning in film, like all art, is sometimes explicit, sometimes implicit. Often it is intentional, sometimes not. But these rich fictional characters, situations, and worlds can often help us reflect on our own world and its issues. You certainly can enjoy films only as entertainment, but I think it is important to also think through the deeper implications of a film.
Today we face many burning issues—is the state of our economic inequality ‘just’ or unjust? How should we treat each other? What are the philosophical or practical implications of technological developments like gene splicing or AI? These sorts of questions are especially important as we wade into uncharted territories with climate change, the threats of authoritarian states, artificial intelligence, and the like.
Films often make perfect ‘thought experiments’ for these issues, and philosophy can give us very thoughtful approaches to exploring them, so I would advocate both enjoying films and thinking deeply about them!
SPJ: The driving forces in the Alien franchise are Ripley, and the alien(s). However, some of the writers who contributed to your book placed their focus elsewhere, such as the androids or the Weyland Corporation. Stepping back and looking at all the works in the franchise, what would be the one philosophical concept that is most essential to the stories being told? If you had to write just one short essay about all the Alien films, where would the focus of that essay lie?
JE: The Alien films are set in a very rich science fiction world, allowing us to think through about the power of monopolizing corporations, our relationship to AI and androids, and all sorts of other important issues. If I wrote just one essay on the Alien films, I’d actually focus on a theme that many may not highlight, but that I think is important to understanding them—the films’ critique of the tendencies and side effects of capitalism.
In the Alien series, the actions of a powerful monopolistic corporation expose workers and soldiers to serious threats on multiple occasions. For example, corporate priorities endanger the crew of the Nostromo, exposing them to the derelict spaceship on LV-426. In Aliens the company endangered the colonists of Hadley’s Hope in order to try and recover alien specimens for profit.
The Weyland-Yutani Corporation is a great example of a profit-oriented, monopolistic corporation that has too much power in the absence of effective regulation or successful social struggle. It endangers its employees, it threatens to bring back cargo that would be deadly for life on Earth, but none of that matters against the possibility of profit.
SPJ: To be honest, I found this the weakest line of reasoning in the book, and said as much in my review. In the review I compare critiquing the ‘capitalism’ of Weyland-Yutani to critiquing nuclear energy by examining Homer Simpson’s safety record. They are not even straw men, because at least a straw man purports to be an argument, even if it is a lousy one.
In terms of storytelling, Weyland-Yutani is a recurring plot device; its greed explains why human beings are repeatedly put into life-threatening situations they would otherwise choose to avoid. Being a device, Weyland-Yutani could be replaced by Space Nazis or the Space Khmer Rouge. All that is needed is an authority that is willing to sacrifice individual lives in order to pursue some ‘higher’ goal, like scientific progress, or victory in a war. Weyland-Yutani’s goal is meant to be profit, but the films tell us nothing about the economics of the future, so the audience has to make assumptions and project their own values. But as capitalists go, this corporation is run by buffoons: their amateurish attempts to capture aliens always result in the destruction of their own valuable assets, including the Nostromo, the Hadleys Hope colony, and the Prometheus. But irrespective of their bumbling, the only way for a corporation to make a profit is by selling something to a customer, and the audience never learns who is the customer for Weyland-Yutani’s weapons division, or what the weapons will be used for. That was the aspect of the stories that I felt deserved more philosophical scrutiny. Why is this future so militaristic, when there is no apparent enemy? Do the military themes offer another way to emphasize that Ripley is a woman in a man’s world? Or should we be talking about a future version of what Eisenhower referred to as the military-industrial complex?

JE: I definitely agree that the political life and day-to-day economics of the Alien universe are not fully transparent, and to get an expanded picture requires considerable reconstruction, particularly of the former, and so we definitely have to understand the world through our own inferences. Surely Weyland-Yutani is used as a plot device, but I think it is important to ask WHY THIS plot device rather than Space Nazis, etc. What is the role of The Company in the plot, and what does that role suggest about the social meaning of the Alien universe?
We do know from sources such as the Alien: Covenant companion Weyland Industries site, the film Alien, and beyond that the company is a large, multi-industry for-profit corporation. Their workers work for wages, and they are concerned with costs (such as Burke’s emphasis in Aliens on military restraint because of his concern for the ‘dollar value’ of destroyed installations). They may be run by buffoons—a statement I definitely agree with from their constant attempts to control the evidently uncontrollable—but they are a for-profit capitalist company even if their market is unclear and their success rate is mixed at best. I think their role in the Alien films as a consciously chosen plot device is meant to imply a statement that an unchecked pursuit of profit is a dangerous endeavor, and the consequences of that tendency, like the xenomorphs, cannot always be contained. I would like to know more about the militarism of the world as well, though. We don’t know enough about the military relations of the Alien world, so that could be a factor in a high military ‘market’, and we also know that they’ve been engaged in interstellar travel so it is possible there are enemies we’re not aware of. Perhaps they should do a spinoff film focusing on the military in the world, maybe branching off from Aliens. At any rate, it seems like the relationship between the military and Weyland (at least in this division of the company) could appropriately be described in terms of a military-industrial complex—their interrelations seem tightly intertwined.
SPJ: It’s tempting to think of Ripley as the central character because she is the survivor of Alien and is central to the sequels. But anyone watching Alien for the first time wouldn’t assume she was the central character. In fact, that film follows a pretty standard horror formula: introduce a bunch of characters and keep the audience in suspense about which one will die next. Ripley isn’t an especially likeable character either – she tried to stop Dallas and Lambert from bringing Kane (with facehugger) back on board the ship for medical care. However, Ripley is somewhat redeemed by her subsequent actions. Considering all the characters in all the films, would you think it fair to generalize that every human character is one or other kind of a-hole, and the only difference between them is that some live long enough to be redeemed, whilst the others die before they can? Does that make the alien(s) some kind of divine force of justice, squeezing what little good can be extracted from the human race?
JE: I have a hard time judging the crew of the Nostromo (even though I may not want to work with many of them), because through most of the film they’re forced into many positions that, personally, I’d never want to be in. They’re stuck together on this deep-space hauling mission, woken up before their destination, and they seem deeply concerned about even getting paid for the work they do (and honestly, I doubt they’re paid well enough). Just when they get accustomed to this supposedly random side-mission, they encounter a danger that they’re ill-equipped to handle. I mean, I doubt their training includes ‘What to do if you encounter a predatory parasitic nigh-invincible organism?’
Now, Ripley grows a lot in the film and throughout the series, and we definitely don’t get the privilege of seeing that of other characters. But truthfully, if I got stuck on a side-mission, unsure if I’d be paid for my labors in the middle of space, then had an invincible killing machine thrown at me, I’d either be pretty cranky about it or just stow away in the back of the ship spending time with the cat. In the context of the Alien world, it is quite possible that a xenomorph let loose in a Weyland-Yutani boardroom might approximate the hand of divine justice instead!
SPJ: In Aliens, the characters of Ripley and Newt are so tough that it’s difficult to think of any film which presents two women who kick ass so hard (Newt was the only colonist who survived – and she did it ‘without training’) whilst also being so unashamedly engaged in a surrogate mother-daughter relationship. As the film is set in 2179, does this make Ripley a post-feminist hero?
JE: I think it’s fair to say that Ripley is among the toughest heroines or heroes in any scifi or action film I can think of, and Newt (as you mention) is also very impressively tough. I like the fact that they bond so well, because it shows that you can be warm, compassionate, and emotionally connected and be a complete and total badass. In that regard, a post-feminist interpretation is really tempting, since they so clearly blow the patriarchy out of the water (or, perhaps, out of the airlock). But my interpretation of Ripley is that she’s a strong-willed feminist heroine, who still faces injustices and issues as a woman in this future society.
Take, for instance, that scene in Alien where Brett and Parker drown out her speech with steam, challenging her authority. On the one hand, they’re working-class employees subverting workplace hierarchies, yet on the other hand her authority is challenged here in ways that none of the men in positions of authority are. Or in Alien: Resurrection, where Ripley is cloned, and these clones are used to reproduce an alien embryo – her clone’s reproductive autonomy taken in a dramatic, traumatizing violation. Ripley is a very strong character, but she still faces challenges in the future that I think are best understood through a feminist lens (in Alien and Philosophy, Alexander Christian’s article provides an interesting exploration of some of these issues).
SPJ: I take your point about Brett and Parker being working-class men who challenge the authority of a female boss, but Lambert challenges Ripley too. When it comes to gender stereotypes, Lambert’s role is that of the overly-emotional woman, as contrasted with Ripley and the relatively cool-headed men. But were the film-makers guilty of playing on similar stereotypes when casting the synthetic characters? David and Ash are the most robot-like of the robots, being emotionally withdrawn and only capable of thinking logically. In contrast, the most ‘human’ of the machines takes a female form: Annalee Call.
JE: I do think the filmmakers wrote androids that largely meet gender stereotypes, and personally I find characters more interesting when they break stereotypes—case in point, Ripley. Your question does provoke an interesting thought about androids, however (both in the film and otherwise). Makers of androids would likely program them with some gendered understanding hardwired into their consciousness, and we see this all the time in science fiction portrayals of them. Why would an android’s inventor or manufacturer give them a gendered personality? Or perhaps they wouldn’t, but science fiction writers merely have difficulty imagining otherwise? It is an interesting question.
SPJ: Ripley calls her ship’s computer a “bitch”. She calls the alien queen a “bitch”. Is Ripley projecting her feelings about herself on to others? Is Ripley the ultimate bitch? Or is she lacking in feminist solidarity?!?
JE: Another interesting theme in the Alien series involves the theme of motherhood. Interestingly, the feminine-voiced computer in Alien is named MU-TH-ER (aka ‘MOTHER’), who is at face value charged with the care of the crew and their mission. MOTHER betrays them, “all other priorities rescinded” in favor of corporate objectives. Ripley calls MOTHER a ‘bitch’ when MOTHER prevents her from aborting the ship’s self-destruct processes—endangering her life and escape. This contrasts with the great lengths Ripley goes to in order to save the life of the cat Jonesy, who MOTHER also threatens. Similarly, Aliens is largely about a battle between motherly figures—Ripley as a motherly protector of Newt versus the alien Queen’s desire to protect her own monstrous children. When the alien Queen threatens Newt, Ripley screams “get away from her, you bitch!”—the Queen threatening the young girl she’s gone to so much trouble to protect.
In a sense, then, the use of the term ‘bitch’ comes out when a failed ‘mother’ figure threatens Ripley or vulnerable individuals Ripley cares for (Andrea Zanin’s chapter “Ellen Ripley: The Rise of the Matriarch” provides great commentary on these sorts of issues).
SPJ: One of the essays I most liked in your book was by Robert M. Mentyka, because he did an excellent job of exploring the Nietzschean aspects of the alien that Ash describes as “perfect” and “unclouded by conscience, remorse or delusions of morality”. Do we like the Alien because it is so terrible, in contrast to the flaws and pettiness of the mediocre people it slaughters?
JE: I think it is easy to be in some sort of awe over the xenomorphs—they’re nigh-invincible killing machines that can inhabit a body, transform inside it without its knowledge, destroy it in the ‘birth’ process, then proceed to cause havoc anywhere it lives. Its life cycle is so foreign, its biomechanical form is terrifying, and it is so dangerous it is hard to fully grasp. It is invulnerable where we are vulnerable, single-minded where we are conflicted, dangerous where we are impotent. So in a way, yes, I think it is so terrible and awe-inspiring and different that, in a way, we’re forced to admire it.
SPJ: Suppose you’re offered the opportunity to nuke the aliens from orbit, rendering their species extinct. Do you?
JE: Well, as per my chapter, I don’t think we should assume that xenomorphs have no moral value at all just because they’re not humans. I make the strong case that perhaps the xenomorphs have a right to self-defense and survival just like we do. That said… I can hardly think of a species whose existence poses more potential danger to the universe. As Ripley says, maybe nuking them from orbit may be the only way to be sure we’re safe… so it is an understandable consideration.
At the same time, it would be beyond regrettable—as far as we know, the xenomorphs haven’t mastered space travel on their own. Consequently, wherever they are in the universe they are contained, unless a space-faring civilization brings them elsewhere. In other words, if they were left alone, maybe we wouldn’t have to kill them after all.
So perhaps we can strike a compromise between our own security and their right to exist—instead of nuking them, defend the area around them to contain them in their own region of space. Although “create a defensive perimeter, it’s the only way to be sure” doesn’t have quite the same poignant ring.
SPJ: But suppose we don’t give you the luxury of deciding how society will behave. Let’s make you Corporal Hicks, and put you in a society where not just Weyland-Yutani but whoever is the most senior commander of the Colonial Marines has ordered you to bring an alien specimen back with you. Having seen what the aliens can do, should you not just disobey orders but also render them extinct?
JE: It would be hard to be an officer in that position. The one thing you shouldn’t do is bring an alien specimen back. Faced with the knowledge that they’d likely keep trying to bring back dangerous specimens (the opposite of the quarantine that is necessary) the most moral thing may in that situation be to eradicate them before they become some bio-weapon of unimaginable power. That’s too terrible a thing to rest in the hands of any individual or government, in my opinion.
SPJ: Ripley tries to extinguish the species a second time in Alien 3, throwing herself into the cauldron to kill the alien incubating inside her. Is this action as morally repugnant as nuking all the aliens from afar? Is it worse?
JE: I would say it depends on your ethical framework! From a strict utilitarian standpoint, focused on maximizing some positive state like happiness, your calculus could hypothetically be that the existence of xenomorphs threatens life throughout the universe, and therefore killing more xenomorphs is an ethically superior action! On the other hand, one may have a deontological ethic (judging the rightness or wrongness of an action independently from its consequences) that does or does not include xenomorph life as valuable, and therefore either option could be thought of as morally wrong. These are, of course, just examples—but, in short, it’s a complicated question!
In this context, I don’t think we can be fully confident that xenomorph destruction is the right thing to do. But I do think Ripley is right to not want her body to have this parasitic and deadly entity growing inside her! So I would say it’s a solidly ethical choice, whereas mass-xenomorph destruction is more problematic. (My co-editor’s chapter on “Contagion: Impurity, Mental Illness, and Suicide…” really digs into the issues around this choice, and I’d definitely recommend it for the interested reader.)
SPJ: There’s not much religion in the Alien franchise until we get to Prometheus. The exception is the religion of the YY-prisoners in Alien 3, with Dillon being their pastor. Whilst most characters want another paycheck, those prisoners need to avoid temptation, and they seek salvation. Is Dillon’s sacrifice – letting himself be torn to shreds by the alien in order to provide a distraction – a way for him to finally achieve that salvation?
JE: I think it is. Like many of the inmates on Fiorina 161, Dillon had a troubled, predatory past. He found religion in jail, and I think that he did seek to sacrifice himself for Ripley and to kill the alien, finding some sort of redemption.
SPJ: Do we need the threat of murderous aliens to restore some meaning to our dull, safe lives?
JE: I think there is a sense where, for many of us in the developed world, much of life is rather mundane. We still have dangers, like “what if I forget to lock the car” or “what if I can’t pay my student loans”, but those are somehow both stressful and boring. We get up, clock in to work, clock out, pay our bills and taxes, and repeat until we die. One of the appeals of larger-than-life films, with epic heroes, treacherous villains, dangerous monsters, etc., is that it gets our blood pumping in a safe way. We get to ‘feel’ more alive for two hours, yet without endangering our own real lives. So, in short, I think that the audience at some level does need these aliens, treacherous androids, crashed spaceships, and the like. Ironically, watching something so alien may make us feel human after all!
SPJ: Your book covers all the Alien films but the latest, Alien: Covenant. Is there anything you would change or add in light of Alien: Covenant?
JE: One theme that Prometheus and Alien: Covenant highlight that exists in a more limited way in prior films is their focus on the ethics of creation/being a creator. So many philosophical issues connect to the Engineers’ relationship to their creations, Weyland’s relationship to David, and David’s relationship to his experiments—what do we owe our creations? How should we treat them, and how should they see us? What creations are too dangerous for the world (and should not be created?). After Alien: Covenant, I’d like to dig into these issues to a greater extent.
SPJ: Does that mean there might be a sequel to your book?
JE: Perhaps! In the future there very well may be, and I’d welcome it. Alien and Philosophy covered a wide range of ground with some truly talented philosophers, but the Alien world is rich with philosophical implications, including the ones opened up in Alien: Covenant! There is a lot more to be said.

Double the Audience, Double the Fun

A month has passed since Jason Rennie stepped down as Editor-in-Chief of Sci Phi Journal, and it seems the publication still survives. That was the modest target I set when taking over, so I could claim success and end this editorial here. However, I have some other good news to share. During July SPJ received well over double the number of visitors compared to June. Put simply, the audience has responded extraordinarily well to:

  • the great new stories and articles published in July; and
  • the removal of the paywall, allowing everyone to revisit the SPJ archive.

I hope this news excites the writers whose stories and articles have been recently published, and those who are lined up for the future. Every author wants to be read. Increasing the reach of SPJ will translate into more followers and fans for the wordsmiths we feature.
Stability has been the primary objective, because SPJ might have lost its established following if there had been a prolonged interruption in service. However, now I want to get excited about the writers who have recently agreed to contribute new or returning columns on a regular basis. SP Hofrichter has already delivered the first article in her new series on the mechanics of time in science fiction literature, and work has begun on her next instalment. It gives me great pleasure to confirm that long-standing SPJ writer Scott Huggins will bring back his popular “Mote in God’s ‘I'” column. And whilst you cerebral readers of SPJ enjoy serious science, philosophy and fiction, I know many of you also like to relax by indulging in clever gameplay, so I trust you will welcome a new column about the tabletop games you would relish.
For SPJ to keep building its audience, we need plenty of columnists who appreciate the benefits of writing alongside others on a popular website with a regular turnover of content. If you fancy joining the growing ranks of our non-fiction columnists, now would be a good time to get in touch.
Meanwhile, SPJ needs to increase its subscriber base to ensure all these additional writers are going to be fed as well as appreciated. It takes time to convert visitors into subscribers, but nothing lasts forever, and there was a good chance that SPJ could have disappeared at the end of June. We thank our existing subscribers for keeping faith with SPJ as we seek to turn its fortunes around. If you are a new visitor, please consider subscribing now at the low cost of 4 US dollars per month; you can help us deliver more of the great content you have enjoyed already.
Success breeds success, and version 2.0 of Sci Phi Journal is off to a great start. If you like what you have seen so far, then please tell your friends. Ultimately we need everybody – writers, backroom team, and fans – to pull together if we are to deliver the thoughtful stories and deeper insights that have become so difficult to find elsewhere. I do not want to live in a universe where pulp heroes are treated like sages and comic books are quoted for their wisdom. My guess is that you feel the same. SPJ is offering an intelligent alternative for the many people who seek it. You can help us to aspire for more by becoming one of our growing number of followers and supporters. The reward is that you will have plenty to think about – and some fun too!

Gravitas and Triviality

For fans of science fiction TV, there can be no doubt about the biggest news story this week: Martin Landau died. A brooding, serious actor who trained in method acting at the Actors Studio, Landau was perfectly cast as the stoic and humane Commander Koenig of Moonbase Alpha in Space 1999. After starring in Mission: Impossible with his wife, Barbara Bain, the couple bravely moved from the USA to Britain to play the leading roles in Space 1999, a show which dared to marry an enormous budget and ultra-cool design to scripts that were morality plays with added aliens.
As co-stars, Landau and Bain received an equal amount of time on screen, helping to make their show considerably more gender-balanced than Star Trek, the predecessor to which it was most commonly compared. However, Space 1999 was not blessed with good fortune. It suffered especially from the erroneous belief, held by some SF fans and various media professionals, that science fiction always needs to emphasize action over dialogue, and visual effects over acting. This was especially unfair to Space 1999 because it looked the equal of any cinematic offering of that time, whilst daring to take an interest in psychology and mood instead of focusing solely on ray guns and spaceships.
Landau’s Space 1999 performances are worth revisiting. They show how an actor can maintain gravitas whilst playing in a low-gravity environment. His talents later received the level of recognition they deserved when his performance as Bela Lugosi in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood secured him the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. With Landau in the cast, it is possible to imagine that even Plan 9 from Outer Space could be taken seriously.
Meanwhile, some people chatter about a casting decision for a long-running BBC children’s show. Though presented as an event of some importance, it is remarkable for how many of the people feel moved to comment even though they mis-identify the character in question. Nobody has cast anyone as Doctor Who because the character in question is known simply as “Doctor”. And contrary to many reports, we do not know if the Doctor’s gender has changed. Whilst the gender of actor Jodie Whittaker is not in question, we cannot use that knowledge to infer the gender of characters she plays. The irony of many people babbling about 21st century mores is that they have all simultaneously forgotten that sex is not the same as gender, and that gender is self-identified. This means we do not currently know how this new Doctor will identify his or herself, and hence whether we should refer to the character as being a man or a woman. Even if the makers of Doctor Who claimed to know the gender of the Doctor, their authority would be open to question, for reasons observed by David Kyle Johnson when concluding that recent incarnations of the Doctor have been incorrectly numbered.
I expect many of the people currently prattling about Doctor Who will watch two or three episodes and never tune in again. Perhaps that is for the best; I struggle to understand why some feel SF&F must be dominated by stories that 12 year olds find intelligible and entertaining. Maybe they might reincarnate too, and hopefully return wise enough to realize that the gender politics of a body-swapping alien requires a tad more social construction than suitable for teatime telly. However, that is not a question that will be exercising me. I would rather re-watch stories involving the well-drawn heroines of Hayao Miyazaki, or those thoughtful episodes from the first season of Space 1999, all of which deserve more regard than some endlessly gimmicky output from the crushingly self-congratulatory BBC.

Welcome to the New Sci Phi Journal

It is with pleasure that we reveal the new look of Sci Phi Journal, now presented on an all-new website running on a new host server. We hope you find the changes lead to an improved reading experience, with faster load times.
The transition to the new SPJ required a slight interruption to the flow of stories and articles but we have some great material lined up to compensate. Tuesday 11th July is the 20th anniversary of the release of Contact, the philosophical science fiction film starring Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey, and based on Carl Sagan’s novel of the same name. To celebrate we have an article about the themes of the film, written by long-standing SPJ contributor David Kyle Johnson, Associate Professor of Philosophy at King’s College, Pennsylvania. On Sunday 16th we then publish the first story of the new SPJ era. Written by marine scientist Kate Kelly, the narrative explores the meaning of freedom on a dying planet. Our intention is then to share at least one new piece every Sunday, alternating between fiction and non-fiction.
The new website has no paywalls, meaning visitors can access the great archive of content that was previously restricted to paying subscribers only. That is because our goal is to broaden the audience for SPJ and the authors it champions. Exclusive subscriber-only content will now be found in the digital digests produced at the end of each quarter; the first will be distributed at the end of September. These digests will come in EPUB, Mobi and PDF formats, and will be emailed straight to the inbox or Kindle of the subscriber. That means subscribers will automatically receive the digests as soon as they are ready, with no need to log on to the website to download them. Readers can subscribe for just US$4 per month, and they will know that the number of exclusive stories and articles will grow in line with the increase in the number of subscribers.
If you looked carefully you may have noticed that you are visiting a website primarily located at http://sciphijournal.org, not the old .com address. The reason for the change is straightforward: Sci Phi Journal is going to be run as a not-for-profit, meaning growth in the number of paying subscribers will be recycled into better pay for contributors and more content for readers. It seemed misleading to continue to present Sci Phi Journal as a business when the goals are to break even and to grow as rapidly as possible.
SPJ has a loyal following. We believe SPJ‘s thoughtful exploration of the intersection between science, philosophy and fiction will appeal to many more, so long as we let them know about it. Storytelling helps us to express our wonder at the universe. Keep coming back as we embark on the next leg of the journey of Sci Phi Journal, and bring your friends along for the ride.

Paradigm Shift: The Making of Sci Phi Journal 2.0


Jason Rennie, the founder of Sci Phi Journal, has announced he will depart from the magazine at the end of June. Jason tirelessly built up an audience for intelligent science fiction storytelling that captures our wonder at the universe, as well as our fears for life on planet Earth. Quite a number of authors were given their first break by Jason. He will be irreplaceable. But we are left with a decision: do we abort the mission, or do we go on? As somebody who loves philosophy, science, and science fiction, I know which choice I prefer. SPJ has a loyal readership, leading me to conclude that you also want this endeavour to continue. So I will take on some of Jason’s role, whilst working with current and new team members to build on Jason’s legacy. If you have a few moments, please let me explain how we intend to take SPJ forward.
One of Jason’s greatest strengths was the way he networked and promoted SPJ by reaching out to people on a one-to-one basis. That is just one of the reasons why Jason cannot be replaced, and also explains why his time has been consumed by so many other ventures. I doubt I could match Jason’s Herculean efforts, so I will try to grow the popularity of SPJ using a different approach: by throwing money at it. Increasing the readership of SPJ is good for all of us. It will introduce the writers to a wider audience, increase awareness of the artists, stimulate greater interest in the philosophical and scientific disciplines we care about, and ultimately lead to better rates of pay for everyone who contributes. The revenue-sharing model of SPJ meant the magazine was always guaranteed to break even, but it left no money for advertising and meant writers could never be sure about how much they would receive for their work. From July, the following changes will take place:

  • all fiction writers will be offered a fixed rate per word;
  • writers of non-fiction will no longer be offered pay, but there will be increased emphasis on promoting their work elsewhere;
  • fewer stories will be published, but their average length is likely to increase;
  • there will be more non-fiction articles about philosophy and science, and a clearer separation in the presentation of fiction and non-fiction;
  • SPJ will be run at a loss, with much of the additional expenditure focused on growing the audience through web advertising;
  • the website will be revamped and moved to a faster server;
  • the paywall for subscriber-only stories will be removed, so all stories can be read by all visitors to the website;
  • paying subscribers will receive a quarterly digest emailed directly to their inbox or to their e-reader; and
  • paying subscribers will also receive free digital copies of any future SPJ anthologies or other spin-off publications.

The plan is simple: if the readership grows, then the number of paying subscribers will rise, which will allow us to pay more to writers, and eventually return the magazine to profit. Loyalty will also be rewarded. Authors that regularly contribute stories or articles will be first in line for increased rates of pay. The most loyal subscribers will receive special one-off benefits, such as the opportunity to acquire original artwork, or to set the challenge for the writing contests we intend to run in future.
I have repeatedly mentioned money because I am a practical guy, and because authors like to eat from time to time. However, I want to be clear about why I am taking on the running of SPJ: “philosophy” means love of wisdom, and this will be a labour of love. I believe the telling of stories is an important route to wisdom, and is a way to explore the universe with our mind. You probably feel the same, and I have faith that there are many others who also feel as we do. If I am now trusted to take care of some of the practical aspects of SPJ it is because I have learned a thing or two about running websites and businesses over the years, and because I used to listen to Jason’s Sci Phi podcast back when he did them, and because I somehow stumbled into administering this website after offering to debug a glitch in another of Jason’s sites, and because I visited Australia late last year, and so met with Jason and talked about his plans for the future and the prospect that he might step down as Editor-in-Chief. Otherwise, my CV boasts enough education to know the difference between Schopenhauer and Scruton, and enough leisure to distinguish Asimov from Aldiss. I have even had a few stories published using my pen name, Ray Blank, but contrary to the beliefs of some rumour-mongers at SF gossip site File 770, my name in the real world is Eric Priezkalns, and you are welcome to google it and hence discover my lack of experience at science fiction publishing. Nevertheless, I am encouraged by the fact that Jason also lacked experience when he started SPJ, and I will benefit from working with the excellent team he assembled, which includes Ben Zwycky, who has agreed to be Editor of the revamped publication.
It is fitting that SPJ will be both an exploration of what human minds can achieve through collaboration, and an experiment in changing the way we share stories, science, and philosophy. As a relative outsider, I am bemused that SF publishing has not adapted more to 21st century technology. Historian and philosopher Thomas Kuhn observed that:

In science… novelty emerges only with difficulty, manifested by resistance, against a background provided by expectation.

The same might be said of novelty in publishing. Jason attempted quite a few innovations during his time as Editor-in-Chief of SPJ, and now we are going to attempt many more. But I think if any audience can cope with innovation, it is this one. Scientifically curious, philosophically open, and mindful of the impact of technology, I would like to think we are the people who could make a collective success of a publication that aims to deliver thoughtful and imaginative stories to the widest possible audience. And I believe we will do that not by tweaking existing commercial models, but by fostering a community of people willing to engage in dialogue via the medium of creative writing. I am excited by the prospect, and I hope you will join us for the ride.

On Confusing Science with Policy


I recently read the following statement, written by a scientist who believes the US government is paying insufficient attention to the scientific community.

No one who understands how climate works thinks we can continue to pollute our atmosphere without catastrophic cost. And given that we have already waited for too long to completely stop the process, we need help figuring out how to keep things from getting too bad and how to adapt to the changes we cannot stop.

This is taken from an LA Times op-ed entitled “Scientists are marching en masse on Earth Day because we believe reality matters”. In a way, the title is ridiculous. Nobody is indifferent to reality. Put a real boot up someone’s real ass and you will soon discover that even the most ardent solipsist will acknowledge what you really did to them. They are also likely to temporarily forget their philosophical beliefs, and to ask why you kicked them, or possibly kick back.
It is also hard to determine why reality would matter less if people failed to march in support of it. Might reality go on vacation unless we show it how much we care? Is reality like a quixotic Greek god, prone to inconsistent and unpredictable behaviour? Perhaps reality does suffer that temperamental defect, but scientists would struggle to do their work if it did.
However, the author has a serious point, if not well made. The successfulness of a policy will be determined by how realistic it is. Clearly the author is worried that some unrealistic policies are being adopted by the US government. These marches always seem to be about the policies adopted by the US government, even if they lead to a score of sympathy marches from people who live in other democracies elsewhere, hence begging the question of how realistic those voters are. All the polls indicate that Donald Trump is deeply unpopular in Westphalia, but this did not stop him winning a recent election in the USA.
Are (some) scientists arguing that (some) other people are insufficiently realistic? I suppose they are, but that only begs the question of how realistic anyone can promise to be when it is perfectly respectable for a philosopher like Karl Popper to argue that science proceeds by a process of falsification, meaning no hypothesis can ever be said to be true, just as no person lives forever. The best that can be said for a hypothesis is that it is currently awaiting its inevitable demise. That satisfied Popper, but I doubt it would satisfy the marching scientists. To be fair, it would not satisfy Trump either.
But let us grant, for the time being, that science delivers ‘truth’. Let us go a step further, and also grant that scientists are especially truthful people, even though we keep reading about scientists engaging in fraud and being unable to reproduce each other’s results. Would that mean they suffered no prejudice, no delusion, no faults? Probably not. The few sentences copied above show us why.
For a start, the process of science is supposedly objective. So why hector your audience with phrases that begin “no one who understands…” Maybe it is an objective fact that “no one who understands climate” would disagree with this particular author, but that fact is harder to prove than simply stating the proven facts about the climate. To prove the statement about everyone who understands the climate would involve objectively determining who “understands climate”, whilst avoiding the circularity that “understanding climate” cannot simply mean agreeing with this particular scientist. It is better to just explain how the climate works, if it is that straightforward, but the problem is that the scientific community has, in general, done a lousy job of explaining climate science. And that is a fact because the failure of the pupil must always reflect the failure of their teacher.
Science may be an enquiry into reality but it cannot determine our goals and priorities. What, in this context, is a “catastrophic cost”? If the author knows the cost then the approach should be to state it literally, with numbers. That would be unemotional and objective. That would encourage us to deal with useful facts. Instead, this author uses judgmental colour to show she thinks it is too high. But her ‘catastrophe’ might be what I would call a ‘mild inconvenience’. We do not know and cannot tell unless she states what the literal cost is – in dollars, lives etc – instead of telling us how we should feel about the cost.
Carbon dioxide, by the way, is not a pollutant in any truly objective sense of the word, because plants love the stuff. The use of the word “pollute” is more judgmental colour.
Contrary to what this author states, we have not waited too long to “stop the process”. Of course we could stop the process. One straightforward means would involve killing almost the entire human race. Though unpalatable to me, mass genocide at least has the advantage of being a technique that has been tried multiple times through history, often garnering significant levels of support from the individuals who expect to survive. Better still, we already possess the technology to kill billions of people, and could use it at very short notice and at a fraction of the cost involved in developing ‘cheap and safe’ nuclear fusion or any number of renewable energy sources that stubbornly remain more expensive than fossil fuels.
However, most of us would prefer some global warming to genocide, which is why we do not get hyperbolic about sea levels rising a few inches. The issue is hence how bad is, as the author puts it, “too bad”. Again, her “too bad” need not be the same as my “too bad”. We will not collectively “figure out” how to stop things being too bad if we fundamentally disagree on what state of affairs is considered too bad to tolerate. So why does the scientist not state the likely outcomes and costs? Because, I suspect, this author is so in love with her vision of reality that she fails to admit she does not have all the necessary information to reach a definitive conclusion.
“…and how to adapt to changes…” This is really the crux of the matter. It is not a question of only adapting to changes we “cannot” stop but of how much effort should go into adapting to climate change, versus how much effort should go into stopping climate change. That might be easy to do if the science delivered reliable forecasts, but it does not. Instead we get emotive language about the need to stop climate change, with no hard-headed analysis of whether it would be cheaper, easier, better to adapt to climate change. And that is because such enormous macro-economic decisions must take us, unsurprisingly, into the sphere of macroeconomics, a domain where even the most obstinate economist would refrain from suggesting the science is settled. Right now there is not a single scientist who can state, as a certain matter of fact, whether it would be better to allow climate change to progress unimpeded whilst we grow the economy, and then to spend the accumulated wealth on adaptation, or to immediately spend a large portion of the economy on limiting the extent of climate change, and to hence suffer less spending on other aspects of human society, and risk less wealth in future.
In some ways it is easy to understand why scientists might engage in such a daft argument. It is very unsophisticated for climate change deniers to dispute if global warming occurs, or how much it is caused by human beings. Disputing measurements of temperature or the volume of ice is a folly, unless you are sufficiently expert on taking those measurements. Perhaps climate models are bunk, but if almost every climate scientist supports the same models then their position is strong. If deniers want to obstruct action then the simplest course is to shift the debate to the realm of economic models, and predicting future technological advances. Here the scientists have no special advantage, and the human race is found to be generally deficient at any sort of useful prognostication.
Ignoring climate change deniers for a moment, and supposing most of us genuinely want to live in reality, then it becomes apparent that there is an obvious flaw with marching for science. The act of walking is not the act of doing actual science. So if science is a genuinely useful practice, walking is an unhelpful distraction. I could just as easily walk against science as I can walk for it, with approximately the same impact on global warming either way. Genuine scientists might better protest cutbacks in science by doing more science voluntarily, but I suppose they might feel they have played into the hands of their enemies.
Writing about walking for science is even less helpful than walking for science. For all the data presented in all the articles written by all the emotive scientists about why they need to go on marches, not a single person is more informed about what would be the likely cost of adaptation versus the likely cost of prevention as objectively calculated for several realistic climate change scenarios.
Note the importance of realism when seeking to determine policy. Realism involves such things as: admitting you do not have all the information you might like; being conscious that different people have different priorities; recognizing the extent of uncertainty when predicting the future; talking about specific tasks and showing how, in combination, they contribute to an attainable goal. It is this kind of realism that is sadly lacking in much of the current public discourse. If scientists want to help the public they should promote science, not promote dogmas which were supposedly derived from science.
I suspect the real problem with science is that it is hard, and that is why everybody cuts corners most of the time, including scientists. Should I adopt an evidence-based policy when assessing how to best influence government, or should I go on a march because that will also make me feel good and introduce me to like-minded people? If you believe in the evidence for evolution then you should also believe that human beings did not evolve like the caricature of a logical scientist that is Spock from Star Trek. Emotions play a valid and inevitable role in determining human choices. In that respect, I am being deliberately unfair – and as pointed as Spock’s ears – by observing that marches for science reflect the emotional desire for the marchers to express themselves and bond with like-minded people. In contrast, the evidence for marches changing government policy is patchy and contradictory.
Living by scientific principles is so hard that the campaigners behind the March for Science fail to apply their own principles to their own campaign. Their second ‘core’ principle is for evidence-based policy. However, their lengthy list of principles does not cite any evidence which might support their claims. They did not think to mention a single scientific paper that backed their opinions. Why not? The framers of the US constitution might have held some truths to be self-evident, but science has to do better, or else it is not science. Did this failure come about because the marchers’ belief in their third ‘core’ principle – supporting education that teaches children and adults to think critically, ask questions, and evaluate truth based on the weight of evidence – does not apply when critics like me ask questions like this?
Consider the following statement:

De-funding and hiring freezes in the sciences are against any country’s best interests

This may very well be true, as a statement about the current state of affairs of every country on the planet. But is there literally no advantage in showing the evidence to support this claim? Approaching this statement another way, a critical mind would observe that there must be some point when spending on science is too much to serve the country’s best interests. Instead of telling us that less spending is always bad, why not simply tell us how much is optimal? Or is the problem that these seemingly factual assertions are not as solidly grounded in fact as the scientists would have us believe?
I could go on, but the real point is that marches for science are like reading New Scientist for science, or LA Times op-eds about science, or text books about science. They may be a useful precursor for science, they may encourage people to do science, they may even teach people a few useful things, but they are an output, not the science itself. Like any output translated into any language, they can be wrong and misleading, even if drawn from science that was good.
When a woman in a white lab coat tells me how to brush my teeth she may be trying to help me by reiterating the findings of solid research, but when she sticks in a cigarette in her mouth and tells me the tobacco is stimulating I should realize the lab coat guarantees nothing. Public communication introduces an element of popularization that may undermine the science itself, and can lead scientists to say silly things that are neither scientific nor true. Scientists can be liars, charlatans and fools. They can also be selfish or vain, and so say things in order to get attention, or money, or because it is what their audience wants to hear. As Neil deGrasse Tyson once argued, the scientific probabilities indicate the entire universe is most likely to be an artificial simulation. Because scientists believe reality matters, obviously…

The Ethical Committee by Ray Blank



“Ask the subject to come in.”

A thud came from the other end of the line, like the phone had been dropped. “Oh. Sorry. Lydia’s gone outside. I mean, Ms Williams has gone outside. For a cigarette. I told her it was okay. I didn’t think you’d want her so soon.”

“Lydia, eh? You’re on first name terms?” Fromm did not approve.

“Yes Doctor. She’s very chatty. Possibly she’s compensating, you know, for her… thingy.”

Fromm scowled, though nobody saw his expression. “Maybe so.” The assistant was not expected to familiarize himself with the subjects. That was Fromm’s job, along with his committee. “Which way did Ms Williams go?” This was a rare opportunity, for five minutes away from his colleagues. Though they chided Fromm for smoking, they were too liberal to criticize the lifestyle choices of a subject. Subjects were pitied, and then instructed.


Fromm felt no pity. The subjects were just people, as prone to misfortune and folly as everyone else. A lack of empathy was an advantage, in his role. Feelings led to bad decisions, and caused work to slip behind schedule. He rose from his seat, announcing he would “stretch his legs” and bring the subject to them. Balaj snorted at the turn of phrase, then quickly covered her face with her hand, as if to catch the sound before anyone heard it. Fromm was not offended; he smiled at the unintended irony. His organic legs had been amputated decades ago, as everyone knew. The mechanical substitutes had no need to be exercised, though they did require regular servicing.


Fromm had once been a sprinter, and a determined competitor, though not good enough to complete 100 meters in less than 10 seconds. So he had his legs replaced, to experience what he had been missing. Barred from major tournaments, he campaigned for the reformed Olympic movement, demanding everyone be allowed to participate, irrespective of genetic, mechanical or chemical modification. Whilst Fromm had been a decent athlete and an average doctor, his speeches drew acclaim, and he floored opponents with the force of his rhetoric. “We possess the wealth, and technology, to make everyone better. We’ve defeated cancer, ended malaria, beaten Alzheimer’s and more. We’ve learned to fix spinal injuries, to cure color-blindness, to prevent obesity. Medical science gives freely, and generously, to all. In contrast, nature is not a fan of equality; she treats some well, others poorly. The gifts of birth are a lottery. Why punish anyone, for aspiring to be more? Why turn their bodies into prisons, limiting their potential? That kind of thinking is old-fashioned, reactionary, fascistic. There is no nature, other than that we make for ourselves. We must free everyone, to be all they want to be.”


And so Fromm turned from minor sportsman, to minor activist, to minor politician, to chairman of a minor committee. In the midst of all that, there had been little time to practice medicine, or run races. His enemies had soon halted his political rise. Being shunted into this job was meant as compensation. Fromm was content. He had made his choices, and did what he could to make the world better. And if he chose to smoke, and so damaged himself, his habits were tolerated, and there was always the option of having a lung replaced. His status would even help him jump the queue for surgery.


Balaj recomposed herself, and returned to flicking through the dossier on the subject. That was a poor sign: the didactic businesswoman had failed to do her homework. Meanwhile, Silvestre gazed out of the window. He ignored Fromm so perfectly that a stranger might think Silvestre was in a trance, or deaf, not that anyone was deaf any more. Fromm knew Silvestre was listening; feigning disengagement was part of his act. Humorless, Silvestre was the best politician amongst them. Professional philosophers cannot expect handsome remuneration, and Silvestre badly needed his committeeman’s salary. Fromm placed his hand on the back of Silvestre’s chair as he stepped around it, nudging it slightly, hoping this would disturb the philosopher. There was the briefest of knocks at the door; it opened before Fromm could reach for it. The assistant sailed in, hesitating only when he saw Fromm. The subject, Lydia Williams, followed. It was obvious who she was, from her deformity, and because she carried the letter that had ‘invited’ attendance. Using paper for messages was anachronistic and expensive, but the physical medium seemed appropriate for the formality of the committee’s work. Williams clutched the letter in both hands; its many creases revealed how often she had handled it.


Fromm had missed his opportunity, which annoyed him. Nevertheless, he smiled at Williams, and gesticulated across the mahogany table, to the place where she should sit. The committee occupied a chamber in the grand old buildings of a former university, made defunct by the virtualization of education. All sorts of bureaucratic entities now inhabited its decaying shell, multiplying in the shadows of its richly furnished interior. Whilst the committee members sank into red leather, Williams plonked herself on the green plastic of a folding chair. The scavengers had picked the best loot for themselves. Leftovers were meager.


Returning to his seat, Fromm glanced left and right, checking that Balaj and Silvestre were ready. Silvestre avoided eye contact, as ever. Balaj tapped upon the table, impatient to proceed. Williams was the last item on today’s agenda. Fromm clasped his hands together. “Let’s begin, shall we? Ms Williams, I should start by introducing this committee, and explaining what we’re here to do.”

“I think I understand already. You’re going to force me to have an operation I don’t want. It’s easier to justify your decisions if you pretend to listen to me first.”


It was a shame that Fromm had not spoken to Williams beforehand. She would have benefited from his advice. Williams was right, though it helped if everyone played the game. The chances of a subject influencing the committee were slight, but antagonism hardened opinions. “Well, Ms Williams… may I call you Lydia?”

“No. I think you should call me Ms Williams. It’s not like we’re here to make friends.”

“Very well, Ms Williams, I am Dr. Fromm. I’m chairman of the Medical Intervention Ethics Committee representing the Northeastern region. To my left is Mrs. Balaj, a successful entrepreneur who founded several companies that supply medical services, and on my right is Dr. Silvestre–a doctor of philosophy, not a doctor of medicine like me. The three of us have been asked to make a decision. In some circumstances, a medical professional will refer a case to us, where they believe there’s a demonstrable need for intervention, but where they lack the necessary consent. As I’m sure you appreciate, there are times when religious beliefs, strongly held opinions, things like that, lead individuals to refuse treatment. This committee reviews the cases forwarded to us, and decides if there is a reason to impose treatment. In some cases we must act urgently, but that’s not the situation here. In cases like yours, Ms Williams, we’re very keen to fully understand your point of view, before we make any decisions. Is that all clear?”

Williams crumpled the letter into her jacket pocket. She fiddled with a button on her blouse, and was silent for a while. “You didn’t tell me anything I didn’t know already, but I suppose it was clear enough.”


Balaj spoke up. After working on several thousand cases together, they always granted her the first question. “Ms Williams, our notes say you’ve been offered the procedure on twelve different occasions, and that you turned it down each time. Would you say you understand what the procedure involves, and its benefits?”

“I know what the doctors want to do. I don’t see any benefit in doing it.”

“But you understand the procedure is risk free, and that it would perfectly correct your… your malady.”

“There’s nothing wrong with me. I don’t need correction.”

Balaj shuffled in her chair, uncomfortably.


Silvestre leaned forward, appearing interested. This was unusual for him. Normally he only spoke near the end of proceedings, when he would reel off his list of questions. This time, he adopted his best impression of a caring person, seeking to give comfort and reassurance. “We’re getting off on the wrong foot. Lydia, we appreciate your point of view. I don’t know you personally, but the sincerity of your emotion is obvious. There’s nothing wrong with you. We’re more concerned about other people, how they react when they meet you. Some people can be cruel–they’re fearful, or superstitious. The unfamiliar makes them anxious, prompts them to do hurtful things. I’m sure you know all this from first-hand experience. You stand out in a crowd. It’s perfectly understandable that you don’t want to change, merely to suit others. But we have to consider what’s best for everybody in society, both you and the people you encounter. We want to hear whether you suffer any abuse, any suspicion, any unpleasantness from other people, and if you do, whether this causes any distress, to you or them. You can understand why we’ve been asked to consider that.” Silvestre then leaned back, turning so still and quiet that he almost disappeared into his chair.


“There’s nothing wrong with me. I’m fine the way I am.” And then her silence was like stone. The assistant had said Williams was chatty. Evidently she had no desire to converse with them.

Keep Reading