Splenetic memetic

Here’s a sad story I’ve seen repeated on Facebook a couple of times now. Take a moment to read it through. Susan Blackmore was invited to give a lecture on memes to the “Oxford Royale Academy” – which is not, as she points out, anything to do with the University of Oxford but is Oxforddy enough that you would hope a reasonably enlightened, knowledge-seeking audience would turn up. By the end of the gig, 100 of the audience had walked out, claiming to be offended. Outside the hall, afterwards, she was confronted by some of the walkers-out, and “I was angrily told that I’d made them feel ignorant.”

Well, boo-bloody-hoo. I’m with her all the way here. If you don’t like feeling ignorant … don’t be ignorant.

The link above is her own account so we only have her own words to go on.

I called out to some as they left, ‘Can’t you even listen to ideas you disagree with? In Oxford, of all places, you should be open-minded enough to hear alternative views’. But no. They said I needed an open mind. This really got to me, raising painful memories of my early research on psychics and clairvoyants who said, ‘You just don’t have an open mind,’ when my careful experiments showed no psychic powers.

Go Susan. Damn right. In Oxford, of all places, you should be open-minded enough to hear alternative views. What could possibly have gone wrong?

Let’s assume, for the time being, that memetics actually is science – so, we won’t go there. Assume that it is. Still quoting her own words:

“I explained the idea of religions as memeplexes: they package up a set of doctrines, tell believers to learn them, to pass them on, to have faith and not doubt, and they ensure obedience with fearsome threats and ridiculous promises. This I illustrated with images of Christian heaven and hell. Then I read from the Koran “those that have faith and do good works, Allah will admit them to gardens watered by running streams … pearls and bracelets of gold.” “Garments of fire have been prepared for the unbelievers. They shall be lashed with rods of iron.” More walked out.”

A word occurs to me as I read the first line of that quote, and that word is “bollocks”. M’friend Marion independently describes one reason why.

I hasten to add: I can’t deny that what Blackmore describes is a manifestation of some religious beliefs, and a thoroughly vile and unacceptable one at that. And it’s the one that gets the best headlines and makes the best pictures. But if we’re going to be scientific and treat all our data points equally, it’s also very much the exception.

I don’t excuse those who follow their faith mindlessly, even less so when it leads to injuring others. Faith is a force multiplier: put bad into it and it comes out worse; put good into it and it comes out better. But the good – which constitutes the majority of the data – doesn’t get the attention. The minority data might be more visible in society, but then, so are the screaming headlines of the Daily Mail or the Telegraph about immigrants and benefits cheats. Minority data ought not to colour your view of the whole. You certainly shouldn’t go generalising from it.

Blackmore bases her hypothesis on the outlying data rather than the core, and that’s not how you do science. In science, you base your hypothesis on the core data and then test it against the outliers to see if it still holds. If it doesn’t, you revise the hypothesis. Ultimately you end up with a testable and repeatable hypothesis that enables you, or anyone else, to make predictions on the outcome of similar data elsewhere.

Under Blackmore’s hypothesis, taking the given data that I am a Christian who had a reasonably middle of the road CofE upbringing, THEREFORE I must follow a moral code purely on fear of the pains of Hell, accept whatever I am taught unquestioningly, deny evolution because it’s not in the Bible, pour all my money into my church (on fear of Hell, again …)

Funnily enough, I don’t do any of that. And nor do any other Christians I know.

Blackmore’s hypothesis singularly fails to describe the core data. I say again – I don’t excuse the bad behaviour. I’m not going to try and make out that it doesn’t matter because it’s only a minority, or it’s all a long way from here and mostly affects people with darker skin. Any man’s death diminishes me. But I will say that if such behaviour is caused by memes (cf. provisional disclaimer above), then a more useful study might be made of the memes that make the majority of religious people not act in these ways, and perhaps work out ways to tackle the outliers based on that information.

My own hypothesis, based purely on her own account, is that while some people – the vocal ones – may have walked out because they felt offended, most were just turning their backs on the bad science and the speaker’s obvious contempt for them.

It’s rather a shame that she started this way, because then she says she went onto the blasphemous cartoon business. By the end, she says she was getting good questions. I’m sure she was. I would have liked to be there. As it was:

“By the time I arrived at a slide calling religions (Richard’s fault!) ‘Viruses of the mind’, the lecture hall was looking rather empty.”

Richard’s fault? No, ma’am, your fault. At no point (I don’t know this, I have no empirical evidence, but am prepared to bet up to a reasonable financial limit) did St Richard stand over you with a gun and order you to create a slide labelling religions “Viruses of the mind” on pain of death. That was your choice.

(Though I suppose this could be seen as a self-fulfilling validation of the whole meme idea, and your own theories: that somehow freewill is thrown out of the window and memes simply perpetuate mindlessly because, well, they do. [Isn’t it odd, though, how in just about every other field of science, conducting an experiment on humans in which the testees are aware of the nature of the test is immediately invalidated?])

To repeat: in Oxford, of all places, you should be open-minded enough to hear alternative views … Unless, apparently, you have decided well in advance that religion is a load of bunkum and proudly backed this up with sub-sixth form strawman arguments, in which case you end up addressing the Oxford Royale Academy and wondering why everything’s going pear-shaped. Based on the rest of her account, I start to question her “careful experiments”.

So, in conclusion: the lady set out to deliver what purported to be a scientific talk, using lousy data, rubbish hypotheses, and language that could not have been better calculated to display her own preconceptions and insult people who might have been in the audience.

And she complains people didn’t want to stay to listen.

Well, fancy. Religious types, eh?

Loncon days and Loncon ways

Where I belong, at last

Where I belong, at last

Well, that might have been my last Worldcon – let’s be realistic. For why? cries fandom bitterly. Well, most Worldcons are abroad, and I justify the expense if (a) it’s somewhere I would want to holiday anyway and (b) I have a career to talk about. (a) isn’t going to happen soon (though I shall reconsider very strongly if Helsinki wins the bid for 2017) and (b) – well, who knows. I did come away with inspiration for how to progress with one novel and insight into how to revise another. The first of those is sf, the second isn’t. Both would need to sell to be worth talking about. So. Last. Maybe.

But if it was, it was a great way to go out.

Loncon3 will always be remembered by me – and Beloved – as her first con. And (I breathe a sigh of relief) she enjoyed it. It was a delight to introduce her to old friends that I’ve known for years and watch them get along. One morning, when I had to scoot on ahead for the panel I was moderating, she strolled casually along from the hotel in her own time chatting all the way with Stephen Baxter. (And that’s quite a bit of strolling: see below.) She was looking up events of her own in the programme that she might like to go to, and did. (Not always getting in: again, see below.) It even got to the stage of me tentatively suggesting that we could give Octocon a go next year. You know, like, together.

Other things I liked:

The programme was as every Worldcon should be, i.e. crammed so full of good stuff that you would need multiple clones to get through every item of interest in the time available. Every item (at least the ones I experienced) had helpful and informative speakers, all of whom were where and when they were meant to be by the time the panel started (looking at you, Toronto). Putting something like that together and making it work is a colossal achievement.

Looking down the concourse

Looking down the concourse

The ExCel was a great venue, physically and spiritually. Physically, because it can get everyone in; spiritually because it’s part of a space-age metropolis built on the ghosts of Victorian docklands, the scene of so many great stories. Where else are you going to put the cream of worldwide science fiction?

(It is also huge, to the tune of >500 metres, and I’ve picked up a lot of complaints on Facebook about the sheer amount of walking required, as though the con committee could have somehow warped space to shrink the distance, or moved the con to the other end (hence to the detriment of everyone whose hotel was at the east end instead the west). And okay, I’ve mentioned the walking a few times myself. But I don’t complain. I’m sure I walked less far each day than in Boston or Denver or Glasgow. It’s just that when you’re doing it all in one building, in a straight line, it becomes more observable. So, I observe.)

ExCel superimposed on Abingdon, for scale ...

ExCel superimposed on Abingdon, for scale …

All the social activities were concentrated in one of the spaceship-sized hangars, a.k.a. the Fan Village, lining the main concourse. I approve. One of the things I most dislike about cons is that a crowd can be a lonely place to be, and who you bump into after hours strongly depends on which hotel’s bar you happen to be in. And I loathe those hotel room parties where personal space is best measured in millimetres, and I’m trying (but can’t, due to body pressure) to lower my head to listen to someone shouting something at the level of my shoulders, or lower, which is where most people’s heads are in relation to mine. Putting everyone into one general space, with plenty of room for everyone and things to wander off and look at if you get bored, was an ideal solution.

My first panel on the use of pseudonyms and noms de plume included Guest of Honour Robin Hobb, who recorded a get-well video clip for a friend recovering from a breast cancer op with a stack of Robin Hobb novels, inter alia. What a lady.

I moderated one panel, “Sense of wonder in children’s SF”, leading to helpful discussion, recommendations of reading and writing hints for anyone interested. A little ripple of pleasure ran around the room when I announced that it was Diana Wynne Jones’s 80th birthday and she had a Google doodle in her honour. During both that panel and the Robin Hobb one I could feel my phone buzzing as Twitter informed me people were tweeting my words of wisdom as they came out of my mouth. And following me. Speaking of, a panel on how authors can/should use social media was very useful, not only for positive hints and tips, but because it helped validate some of the things I don’t do.

Dealers room, dealing

Dealers room, dealing

The dealer’s room was amply stocked and I got to sign stock, which is always nice and pushes up the value of those copies of Phoenicia’s Worlds that by some miracle remain unsigned. Sadly, one thing and another meant I never quite got round to taking in all the exhibits or the art. But what I saw, I liked.

Things on which I shall gripe:

A tiki Dalek. Obviously.

A tiki Dalek. Obviously.

I wish all panellists would grok the Green Room concept. The idea is, the panel convenes there beforehand and gets to know each other and plan it out. Some do, some don’t and prefer to go straight to the meeting room. Personally I think doing the Green Room thing is the most helpful thing a panel can do. Grab a tea/coffee/something stronger, and mindmeld. And, hey, as a panellist you’re entitled to enter the room and take a seat and generally use it as your own quiet space away from the madding crowd. If you’ve got it, use it, y’know?

It was also a shame that some panels were full to overcrowding while others were in echoing double suites that held a fraction of their capacity; and of the overcrowded ones, some had audience members turned away with varying degrees of politeness, and others had people sitting on the floor or standing unchallenged. It all seemed to depend on (a) the briefing the moderator had received and (b) the zealousness and ubiquity of the ExCel’s own security droids. I know organising a programme is hellishly difficult and there will always be room size mismatches, so I don’t complain about that (just raise an eyebrow at some of the room choices per subject …). I do however complain about the inconsistency. It feels less unfair when everyone is treated the same.

When I rule the world ...

When I rule the world …

And the 1.5 hours standing in the registration queue. Even being serenaded by this guy was only partial consolation. I know, several thousand people is a lot to process. But there must be ways … mustn’t there? Any suggestion I can make for speeding the queue up has no doubt been tried and tested and in this case discarded for what seems like a good reason. So I won’t make any. I just have a lingering feeling it could have been done better.

So. Worldcon. My last? Maybe. Or maybe not. But a very high standard for future ones, where and whenever they may be located.

Ben at Worldcon

I seem to be on the following Worldcon items: four in total, moderating one of them. Some of my co-panelists are old friends; some I at least know; some are brand new to me; so with that and a good mix of subjects, it looks like fun:

What’s In a Name?

Thursday 14th August, 16:30 – 18:00

Megan Lindholm/Robin Hobb, Iain (M) Banks, Tom/Thomas Holt, James SA Corey, Mazarkis Williams: many people publish under pseudonyms, some more subtle than others. Why do writers opt for a pen-name? Why do some have more than one? How important is ‘branding’ to marketing genre fiction, and what role do genre and gender divides play in the decision?

Bella Pagan(M), Catherine Butler, Robin Hobb, Ben Jeapes, Seanan McGuire

Religion in fantasy: numinous or name-checking?

Friday 15th August, 12:00 – 13:30

Religion is central to much fantasy, from the invented faiths of Westeros to exploration of real-world beliefs in novels like “Alif the Unseen”. How do such works explore the social and political consequences of faith? Do they portray religions fully rooted in the texture of daily life and community or just as window-dressing? And to what extent can invented religions ever reflect the complexity of real-world religious experiences and worldviews?

Jenny Blackford (M), Naomi Alderman, Grania Davis, Jonathan Oliver, Ben Jeapes

Sense of Wonder in Children’s SF

Saturday 16th August, 10:00 – 11:00

YA books are well known for their dystopias and their grand adventures. What is it about these categories that have so effectively captured the young adult imagination? When Alice walked off the literary page she opened the door to a truly wondrous world filled with unimaginable things. Since then literary children have latched onto that sense of wonder in literature from Neverland, to Narnia, Hogwarts, and Panem. What is this “sense of wonder” within literature and how does it continue to “blow the minds” of young readers? What are the most spectacular feats of worldbuilding in the YA canon? Where can we find the best aliens? And what about those wondrous infernal machines?

Farah Mendlesohn, KV Johansen, Ian McDonald, Ben Jeapes (M), Jo Fletcher

Adult Readers Within the YA Market

Saturday 16th August, 13:30 – 15:00

Age recommendations on books are meant to be a useful feature for readers. What are the risks and benefits associated with age classification, and is it a necessary evil or a marketing mistake? And what’s all this we hear about the emerging “New Adult” market? Will this have on YA books? Moreover, how do the growing number of adult readers affect the YA market? Are we leaving actual young adult readers behind in favor of attracting adult buyers?

Sarah Ash, Patrick Nielsen Hayden, Bella Pagan, Joshua Bilmes, Ben Jeapes