Wait… What If I’ve Been Brainwashed?

November 19, 2018

For those of you who read my post last week about brainwashing, I have to tell you that post did not turn out the way I originally imagined it would.  I thought it was going to be a silly, tongue-in-cheek kind of post.  I was even working on a silly, tongue-in-cheek illustration to go with it.

But as I did my research and fleshed out my original first draft, the subject matter ended up being more serious than I expected. I realized I had a point I wanted to make, and I decided to go all in with making that point. Unfortunately, by the time I was done, the art no longer fit the tone of the blog post. At least not in my opinion. So I decided not to use it.

Even so, a fun drawing is still a fun drawing, so after thinking it over this weekend I decided to share the illustration anyway. Here it is:

I don’t know, maybe I’m over thinking things.  Maybe I should have gone ahead and used the illustration anyway.

What do you think?  Should I have used this in last week’s Sciency Words post, or would it have detracted too much from the point I was trying to make?  Please let me know in the comments, and I’ll keep your thoughts in mind the next time this happens.

Sciency Words: Brainwashing

November 16, 2018

Welcome to another episode of Sciency Words, a special series here on Planet Pailly where we take a closer look at the definitions and etymologies of science or science-related terms so we can expand our scientific vocabularies together.  Today’s term is:


Ladies and gentlemen, some of you may be under the impression that there are people out there in the world who have been brainwashed. Advanced psychological techniques have been used against these poor souls.  They’ve lost the capacity for rational, independent thought. Why else would people join cults or vote for certain politicians or do many of the other crazy things people are doing these days?

But I am here to tell you that brainwashing of that kind does not exist.  Sure, there is such a thing as social conditioning, which teaches us what is or is not culturally acceptable in the communities we live in.  There are also propaganda campaigns, which seek to win an argument by misrepresenting the other side.  There’s also coercion via torture.  But no, I’m talking about brainwashing: the subversion of human free will, the transformation of people into puppet-like automata.  That’s not a real thing.

The term brainwashing was coined by American journalist/C.I.A. propagandist Edward Hunter.  In 1950, Hunter wrote an article for the Miami Daily News titled “Brain-washing Tactics Force Chinese Into Ranks of Communist Party.”  Hunter followed this up with a book titled Brain-washing in Red China, describing the “terrifying methods that have put an entire nation under hypnotic control.”  Hunter apparently translated the term straight from the Mandarin xi-nao, meaning “wash-brain.”

Hunter also sought to explain away the false confessions of American soldiers who’d been captured during the Korean War and were being held in Chinese P.O.W. camps.  According to this article from Smithsonian Magazine, Hunter attributed those confessions to some sort of ancient Chinese art of mind control (I feel like there should be a Chinese gong sound effect here, to really reinforce the stereotypes behind that notion).

The truth was that the American P.O.W.s had been tortured. Nothing more mysterious than that. People will say almost anything when they’re being tortured.  That doesn’t mean they believe what they’re saying.  It just means they want the torture to stop.  But the concept of brainwashing as some mystical Chinese art, or perhaps a secret Soviet technology, caught on in the U.S. After all, why else would large numbers of people choose to support communism over capitalism?

Last week, I told you about a list of fifty psychological and psychiatric terms to avoid.  Brainwashing was on that list, because the term is often so vaguely defined that it can apply to almost any form of persuasion.  To quote from the original article:

Nevertheless, the attitude-change techniques used by so-called “brainwashers” are no different than standard persuasive methods identified by social psychologists, such as encouraging commitment to goals, manufacturing source credibility, forging an illusion of group consensus, and vivid testimonials.

Going back to those Korean War P.O.W.s who were tortured, the fifty terms to avoid article explains that relatively few of them gave the false confessions their captors wanted, and of those few even fewer retained the communist ideologies they’d supposedly held while in captivity.  This suggests that the ancient mystical Chinese art of brainwashing had an astonishingly low success rate.  As for those very few who did remain “brainwashed” upon returning to the U.S., it seems they’d already been part of America’s communist subculture beforehand.

Even articles I looked at that say brainwashing is a real thing (and purportedly teach you how to guard yourself against it) concede that brainwashing techniques only work well on people who are either vulnerable (due to depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, etc) or who are already predisposed to believe whatever their brainwashers want them to believe.  For example, if you already think the end of the world is near, it’s not so difficult for a cult leader to persuade you to join his or her end of the world cult.

So if you think someone’s been brainwashed, I’m sorry.  You’re wrong. You’re going to have to deal with the fact that other people genuinely believe things that you disagree with. They may or may not have good reasons for doing so.  You can argue with them.  You can try to get them to see things from a different perspective.  In extreme cases where physical or psychological abuse is at work, you can try to get them help.  But you cannot merely dismiss your fellow human beings as brainwashed zombies.

My Favorite Moon: Io

November 14, 2018

Some of you may remember a post I did awhile back declaring Europa to be my favorite moon.  It’s a beautiful and mysterious world, a world that may have an incredible secret hidden beneath its icy crust.  Europa frequently tops the list of most likely places where we might find alien life.

But as I’ve learned more about the Solar System, I’ve developed a deeper affection for another moon, one of Europa’s neighbors, a world that is neither beautiful nor likely to support life.  I’m talking about Io.

Io is the innermost of Jupiter’s four big moons (Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto).  As such, it gets pushed and pulled around pretty hard. Between Jupiter’s enormous gravity and the combined gravitational forces of the other three Galilean moons, it’s enough pushing and pulling to make anyone queasy.  And Io is a notoriously queasy planetoid.

Due to tidal forces, Io’s sulfur-rich interior is constantly boiling and churning.  And Io keeps literally spewing out its guts, making it the most volcanically active object in the whole Solar System.

Like Venus, my favorite planet, Io is a great chemistry professor, especially when it comes to sulfur chemistry.  Io’s also a pretty decent physics professor.  While most of the sulfur from Io’s volcanic eruptions settles back onto the moon’s surface, plenty of it escapes into space. The result: crazy dangerous games of particle physics in the vicinity of Jupiter.

Io’s ionized sulfur has a lot to do with controlling the intense radio emissions coming from Jupiter.  It’s also a major factor contributing to Jupiter’s insanely dangerous (to both humans and our technology) radiation environment. We recently learned that Jupiter has a third magnetic pole, located near the planet’s equator; while I haven’t read anything yet to back me up on this, I have a feeling Io is somehow responsible for that.

And lastly, Io’s ionized sulfur is partially (mainly?) responsible for the magnificent auroras that have been observed on Jupiter. And that’s my favorite bit about my favorite moon.  I love the idea that Io—the ugliest ugly duckling in the Solar System—plays such a crucial role in creating something beautiful.

But of course picking a favorite anything is a purely subjective thing.  Do you have a favorite moon?  If so, what is it?  Please share in the comments below!

I collect stamps now. Stamp collecting is cool.

November 12, 2018

Well, I cannot deny the truth any longer.  I’m a stamp collector.  Or at least I am a person who is in possession of a stamp collection.  So how did this happen?

It started with those “Pluto: Not Yet Explored” and “Pluto: Explored!” stamps.  Those particular stamps have an interesting history, which I wrote about in a previous post.

I bought the “Views of Our Planets” stamps at the same time as the “Pluto: Explored!” set.  And then just recently, I saw some Star Trek stamps at the post office.  Naturally, I had to get them.  And the nice man at the register mentioned they had commemorative Sally Ride stamps as well.  Naturally, I had to get those too.  What kind of space enthusiast would I be if I didn’t?

To be clear, I originally meant to use these stamps as stamps.  You know, for postage. Mainly for paying bills.  I wasn’t looking to start a new hobby. But I figured what’s the harm in buying an extra sheet of Pluto stamps to keep, just for fun?  Or an extra sheet of planets?  Or now an extra sheet of Star Trek and Sally Ride?  It’s not like I’m sinking that much money into stamp collecting.

Fast forward to me ten years from now when I have huge albums full of space and Sci-Fi stamps.

Sciency Words: Psychological Terms to Avoid

November 9, 2018

You know what really grinds my gears? When a news story begins with the words “A new scientific study shows…”  Whatever follows is sure to be a gross misrepresentation of science.  I think these sorts of reports do a real disservice to the public, especially when they’re related to people’s health.

I recently stumbled upon this article from Frontiers in Psychology.  It’s titled “Fifty psychological and psychiatric terms to avoid: a list of inaccurate, misleading, misused, ambiguous, and logically confused words and phrases.”

For today’s episode of Sciency Words, I’ve decided to highlight just three of those fifty words and phrases, to give you a taste of what’s on that list.  Two of them I found intellectually interesting.  The third one was personally enlightening.

  • Scientific Proof: This is a big one. It’s actually listed in a section titled oxymorons.  According to the article, “The concepts of ‘proof’ and ‘confirmation’ are incompatible with science, which by its very nature is provisional and self-correcting.”  I’ve said before on this blog and elsewhere that legitimate scientists rarely if ever claim they’ve proven anything.  They speak in terms of statistical significance or high degrees of certainty.  Whenever someone tells me such-and-such has been scientifically proven, I stop listening.
  • Chemical Imbalance: I’ve known that “proof” is a problematic word in science for a long time.  This entry on the list was a much bigger surprise to me.  We’ve all heard about how mental disorders are caused by chemical imbalances in the brain, but apparently that’s an inaccurate and misleading description. While brain chemistry may be an important factor in some cases of mental illness, the article explains that “There is no known ‘optimal’ level of neurotransmitters in the brain, so it is unclear what would constitute an ‘imbalance.’”
  • Closure: The word closure originally meant one thing in psychology (the ability to perceive a complete shape when parts of the shape are missing). The term has since been “misappropriated” to refer to a feeling of emotional resolution following a traumatic event.  It’s supposed to be the end-state of the grieving process, but as the article explains “[…] it is rarely if ever clear when trauma victims have achieved the desired emotional end-state.”  As someone who recently experienced a traumatic event myself, I know exactly what the article is talking about.  Grief fades slowly.  It does not come to a clear and decisive end.  Promising people that if they do this or do that, they’ll be able to find this elusive closure is not helpful.  At least it wasn’t helpful for me.

The Frontiers in Psychology article is aimed at students and professionals in the field of psychology and related fields, but I think it’s worth a look for everyone (here’s the link again).  Some entries are highly technical, but most are things we’ve probably all heard about at some point, and many of us have probably been misled about how our minds and our bodies work as a result.

At the very least, I’d say take a few minutes to skim through the list.  That way, you’ll be a little better prepared the next time someone on television (someone who doesn’t know much about science and who doesn’t care to learn) starts telling you about your mental health or about your health in general.

IWSG: Why Writing Isn’t Easy

November 7, 2018

Today’s post is part of the Insecure Writer’s Support Group, a blog hop where insecure writers like myself can share our worries and offer advice and encouragement.  Click here to find out more about IWSG and see a list of participating blogs.

You could call this a writing exercise, or you could say it’s a way of flexing the imagination’s muscles.  Every once in a while, I stop whatever I’m doing and ask my muse a question.  I may even write the question down, to make sure she understands it clearly. Then I wait and try to imagine how my muse might answer.  Sometimes, surprising flashes of inspiration come.

If I ask a story related question, my muse tends to get back to me pretty quickly.  Muses are good at figuring out story stuff.  But sometimes I ask bigger questions—real life questions. With those sorts of questions, it takes my muse a little longer to respond.  Sometimes a whole lot longer.

Recently, I asked my muse: “If I was born to be a writer, why is writing so hard for me?”  You see, I’ve always believed that God made me to be a writer, or at least to be a creative person of some kind.  While my feelings about organized religion have changed a lot in recent years, that core belief is still there: writing is my purpose in life.

And yet writing is so absurdly difficult!  Why does it have to be that way?  Just motivating myself to pick up a pen and get started each morning is such a struggle.  I have to wonder why I keep forcing myself to do it.  I feel like Sisyphus pushing a boulder up a mountain only to watch it roll all the way back to the bottom at the end of the day.

Yes, I may be making progress in the sense that I’m getting words down on paper.  Yes, my current WIP is creeping ever closer to completion.  But it doesn’t matter.  Each night, that boulder (which represents my motivation to write) rolls back down the mountain, and each morning my motivation starts at zero once again.

My muse spent a long time pondering my question.  I suspect she may have fluttered off, leaving me alone for a time while she consulted with the High Council of Muses, or maybe she embarked on some other epic quest, fighting dragons and seeking out forbidden muse knowledge.  Days went by.  It was over a week before she came back.  And then she said to me: “Nothing worthwhile is ever easy.”

And of course my muse is right.  There are many things that have come easily in my life; I don’t value those things the way I value the things I had to fight for, or struggle for, or sacrifice for.  Writing is hard work.  It will always be hard work.  And that’s okay because if it weren’t hard work, it would not feel so rewarding when I get my writing done.

The Three Body Problem: The Forefront of Physics

November 5, 2018

You may have heard this quote before, or something very much like it.  It comes from nuclear physicist Ernest Rutherford (1871-1937), who said, “If you can’t explain your physics to a barmaid it is probably not very good physics.”

With that sentiment in mind, today I’d like to share another quote from the recent hit Sci-Fi novel The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the difficulties of modern physics summed up so succinctly anywhere else:

Modern theoretical models have become more and more complex, vague, and uncertain. Experimental verification has become more difficult as well.  This is a sign that the forefront of physics research seems to be hitting a wall.

In other words, modern physics has become so weird and convoluted that hardly anyone (barmaid or otherwise) can understand it.  And that means something is very wrong with modern physics.

Personally, I tend to avoid high-level physics.  Part of the reason is that, as a science fiction writer, I’m more concerned with the everyday experiences my characters have to deal with.  What’s it really like to walk around on Mars?  What sorts of gases might my non-human characters be able to breathe? What could go wrong if some hotshot space pilot tried to fly through the rings of Saturn?

But another part of it is that a lot of high-level theoretical physics stuff—things like string theory, supersymmetry, the multiverse—does sound vague and uncertain.  It feels more like guesswork than science.  Admittedly, the best guesses of a theoretical physicist are built on a firmer foundation that anything I might think up.  But still, for the purposes of science fiction, I feel like I have more leeway to make stuff up with high-level physics than I do with “ordinary” physics like the rocket equation.

I’ve heard physicists sometimes joke that someone—time travelers, aliens, God, the universe itself—is deliberately messing with us.  Maybe that’s why our latest high-tech physics experiments keep producing such confusing results. Maybe that’s why we have to keep resorting to such vague and uncertain theories to explain our discoveries.

And minor spoiler: The Three Body Problem sort of takes that joke and runs with it.  But in all seriousness, the forefront of physics does seem to have hit a wall.  At least that’s my impression, and I loved how Cixin Liu summed that feeling up in just three quick lines.