The Bayesian Case for UFOs

After recent reports in the New York Times, I believe there is a greater than 50% chance that we are being monitored by aliens.

If you think that’s crazy, you’re not alone. Neil Degrasse Tyson’s skepticism – “The evidence is so paltry for aliens to visit Earth, I have no further interest” – seems pretty common. “Call me when you have a dinner invite from an alien,” Tyson says. This is a frequentist attitude: the null hypothesis (aliens aren’t monitoring us) can’t be said, with certainty, to have been rejected. I, instead, will take a more Bayesian approach.


But first, let’s talk about those NYT articles.

You need to read them – both of them – if you haven’t yet. I have never cared much about UFO sightings, but this goes far beyond some farmer’s fuzzy photograph that turns out to be a weather balloon. There is video evidence, and multiple credible accounts, of some very bizarre events. And this, apparently, is the tip of the iceberg. A lot more information remains classified; in fact, the head of the Pentagon’s UFO program resigned to protest its excessive secrecy. That same man, Luis Elizondo – who does not come across as a nutcase – warns about “the many accounts from the Navy and other services of unusual aerial systems interfering with military weapon platforms and displaying beyond-next-generation capabilities.” The program he led was supported by three high-ranking U.S. Senators from both parties. It wrote, in an official Pentagon briefing, that “what was considered science fiction is now science fact.” If anyone in the Pentagon disputes this, they have yet to come forward.

By far the most fascinating revelation is detailed in the second article. Again, read it for the full picture. The sighted objects seem to defy all known limits of aviation.

For two weeks, the operator said, the Princeton had been tracking mysterious aircraft. The objects appeared suddenly at 80,000 feet, and then hurtled toward the sea, eventually stopping at 20,000 feet and hovering. Then they either dropped out of radar range or shot straight back up.

Popular Mechanics has a good summary, along with more details.

The Super Hornets flew to investigate the last known location of the object and to their surprise, found two objects. The first was large and just below the surface of the water, causing the water to churn. The second object hovered just 50 feet above the water, moving erratically.

The first object, according to a leaked 2007 account, was “much larger than a submarine.”

The second object suddenly rose up and flew towards the Super Hornets, with one pilot. Commander David Fravor, saying it appeared it was rising up to meet him. The Hornet turned towards the object to meet it and the object peeled away, accelerating, “like nothing I’ve ever seen,” Fravor later said.

The Super Hornets conferred with the USS Princeton and were vectored to a CAP point 60 miles away. Within seconds, the pilots were told by the Princeton that radar had picked up the object already at the CAP point. By the time the Super Hornets arrived however the object had already disappeared.

According to Popular Mechanics, this means the object “would have had to have flown in excess of 2,400 miles an hour.” More bizarre still, “the object did not emit hot jet exhaust typical of ordinary aircraft.”

According to Commander Fravor, the object “had no plumes, wings, or rotors and outran our F-18s.”

On top of the 2004 incident, there’s also video of a strange, rotating aircraft; the Navy pilots have no idea what they’re seeing, and one remarks that “there’s a whole fleet of them.” There’s also supposedly alloys recovered from UFOs sitting in a ranch, which some people claim has physically affected them. That would be the story here, if we had any details or even a photograph. All alloys are easily identifiable, so it’s not clear what “unknown alloy” means, or whether it’s something significant.

But let’s go back to the 2004 incident. It seems too incredible to believe, but there are multiple eyewitnesses and video evidence. Even skeptics don’t claim that it’s a hoax – just that there’s an explanation that doesn’t involve aliens.

One popular theory is that the objects were part of a secret government project. This is extremely unconvincing. It means that a small group of scientists, working secretly within the government, developed technology decades ahead of what’s available now – in 2004! And in that whole time, this technology – advanced enough to change society forever – has been kept hidden from the public (and, amazingly, with no leaks). Popular Science calls this “a less exciting rationale”; I call it a scandal to put Watergate to shame. Some UFO sightings turn out to be secret projects, but none even remotely as extraordinary. If any government has this technology, they ought to be using it regularly by now.

Another theory is that it was a totally normal object, and both the Navy’s equipment and the pilots themselves failed to realize this. Popular Mechanics notes how unlikely this is:

This is a discomforting explanation, because it assumes that the pilots and the Princeton’s crew were incompetent and unable to discern ordinary objects from extraordinary ones. It also assumes the guided missile cruiser’s radar malfunctioned. If this explanation is correct, none of these pilots should have been flying for the Navy, and the Princeton’s air defense radar has a previously undiagnosed flaw. Given the level of skill necessary to fly from a U.S. Navy carrier it seems extremely unlikely these pilots were prone to fantasy or misidentifying the sun as a white, tic-tac-shaped UFO hovering close to the water.

The other explanation is… honestly, those are the only two I could find. Everything else boils down to “we don’t know.” As Tyson puts it: “The universe brims with mysteries. Just because you don’t know what it is you’re looking at doesn’t mean it’s intelligent aliens visiting from another planet.” Astrophysicist Sara Seager, quoted in the first NYT article, echoes this sentiment: “what people sometimes don’t get about science is that we often have phenomena that remain unexplained.”

On the other hand, Scientific American quotes chemist Richard Sachleben, who’s skeptical for the exact opposite reason:

There’s not as many mysteries in science as people like to think. It’s not like we know everything – we don’t know everything. But most things we know enough about to know what we don’t know.

So, it’s probably not aliens because there’s a lot of mystery in science. But also, it’s probably not aliens because there isn’t a lot of mystery in science.

Neither of these contradictory explanations are convincing. Scientific mysteries typically involve new particles or oddly-behaving stars, not hyper-fast, physics-defying aircraft.

It is true, though, that hard evidence does not exist. We don’t know what those pilots saw; it could be almost anything. Luckily, Bayes’ Theorem gives us a use for such messy data.


First, you need a prior. Before the recent revelations, what odds would you have given to the presence of aliens or alien artifacts on Earth? It’s hard to judge this objectively, but Fermi’s paradox can help. Enrico Fermi calculated that, statistically, the galaxy should be teeming with intelligent alien life, and some of these ought to have visited Earth by now; so, he asked, “where is everybody?”

Let’s start with what we know. Only one planet – Earth (duh) – is known to harbor life. Is it an exception, or a rule? Well, it’s an exception within the Solar System – none of the other 7 planets seem inhabited. So, that gives life a 12.5% (1/8) chance of developing. Counting only rocky planets, that rises to 25%; counting large moons and dwarf planets, it falls to less than 5%. (Although I think we should look closer at Europa before counting it out.)

But Earth is very distinct from those places. In terms of Earth-like planets – planets within the habitable zone, with liquid water, an atmosphere, etc. – our sample size is only 1. Life arose pretty quickly on Earth – within one billion years of the planet’s formation, and possibly within just a few hundred million years. (Intelligent life took a lot longer, but let’s go one step at a time.)

So: for an Earth-like, Earth-age planet, our sample size is exactly 1. In such situations, our only guide is the principle of indifference. For all we know, Earth is unusual in how long it took for life to arise. Without more data, we should assume Earth-like planets have a 50% chance of harboring life.

But how many such planets exist in the Milky Way? According to the evidence: a lot, probably.

The Milky Way contains 100-400 billion stars. Most of these (75-85%) are red dwarves, which have some barriers to habitability – they’re very dim, fluctuate wildly, and so small that any planet would have to be tidally locked. We have no idea what extraterrestrial life might look like, so these might not be barriers at all. Still, to avoid getting too speculative, let’s count them out, along with giant stars, orange dwarves, and anything else that doesn’t resemble the Sun. That still leaves us with several billion candidates. (And there’s no good reason to discount orange dwarves, which make up about 10% of the galaxy; if anything, they ought to be more friendly to life than the Sun.) Many of these are younger than the Sun (Sun-like stars expand after 10 billion years; the Sun is 4.7 billion years old). And more than half orbit other stars, which creates further complications. Still, even the most stringent estimate gives you over 500 million stars to work with.

According to one study, 17% of Sun-like stars have an Earth-sized planet in an orbit closer than Mercury’s. That’s a smaller region than the Sun’s habitable zone, by most estimates. In another study, per the LA Times, “researchers surmised that about 22% of stars like the sun have planets in their habitable zone that are about the size of Earth.”

That gives us at least 100 million potentially habitable planets. Now, maybe they have the wrong chemistry. After all, Mars and Venus might have been habitable with more water and friendlier atmospheres. But the elements of life – such as carbon and oxygen – are among the most common elements in the universe. Earth isn’t uniquely water-abundant – five known moons, plus Pluto, have more water than Earth. While the odds are low of a planet having Earth-like chemistry, they aren’t one-in-a-million low. I doubt they’re even one-in-a-thousand low. (For example, Titan is believed to resemble early Earth, although it’s much colder.)


No matter how you calculate, it seems unlikely that there’s fewer than 100,000 potentially habitable planets in the Milky Way. That’s being extremely cautious; the number could be in the billions.

Even if all the conditions are right, how likely is life to develop? We have no idea. Again: our sample size is 1. Via the principle of indifference, a 0.1% chance is just as extreme a guess as a 99.9% chance. For Earth to be the only life-bearing planet in the galaxy, the chances of life developing must be infinitesimally small. We currently have no data to support such an extreme claim.

What about intelligent (human-like) life? There, we do have some data: the fact that we haven’t found any.


Here’s where Fermi’s paradox comes in.

A species spreading at just 0.25% the speed of light would colonize the galaxy within 50 million years. And that’s a conservative guess – at humanity’s rate of technological advancement, we might reach every star in just a few million years. Cosmically, that’s no time.

So why hasn’t someone else done it yet? There’s no sign of aliens or alien artifacts within the Solar System. (Which ought to be a popular target – the Sun outshines 90% of the galaxy.) Nor is anyone blasting radio signals our way. If intelligent life is common, at least one species should have contacted us. So, as Fermi asked, “where is everybody?”

Perhaps nobody got past the Great Filter. (There’s a great explanation of Fermi’s paradox and the Great Filter here.)

There are many steps between the development of life and galactic colonization, each of them hard to get past. To get to humanity, life on Earth had to evolve from simple, prokaryotic bacteria into complex, eukaryotic cells; sentient animals; and finally, intelligent life. Each of these steps have happened only once in evolution’s 4 billion year history, so they must be pretty rare.great-filter1-1024x727

That’s assuming that the Great Filter is behind us. It could be yet to come. Perhaps crossing stars is simply too difficult. Perhaps intelligent life is more likely to destroy itself than expand. The Great Filter could be just about anywhere.

If it exists, that is. Extraterrestrial life may have already visited Earth – we just didn’t notice. I like to think of this as another aspect of the Filter – something is preventing us from seeing aliens, whether they exist or not.

In that case, time is the greatest filter of all. Think about it: if aliens visited 1 million years ago, would anyone know? What about 1,000 years ago? If they came 1 billion years ago, they might have set up a colony on Earth and we’d have no idea. Mass communication is very new – 100-500 years old, depending on how you count. Recorded history goes back only a few thousand years. Cosmically, that’s less than no time.

There are many reasons why these aliens might not have stayed. Maybe the Solar System held nothing of value to them. Perhaps they came too early, jotted down “mostly harmless,” and left for someplace more interesting. They might also have practical, ethical, or legal reasons to leave us alone. They don’t know if we’d react hostilely, for one thing. Intelligent races might have some contract to leave primitive life alone until it’s more evolved. In any of these cases, they’d be wise to monitor us, perhaps with probes – which, perhaps, we occasionally catch a glimpse of. This is the “Zoo Hypothesis,” proposed by Fermi himself.

(Side note: I’m focusing exclusively on the Milky Way. If intergalactic travel is possible, the odds of an alien visitor exponentially rise. The Andromeda Galaxy, with an estimated trillion stars, is “only” 2.5 million light years away; perhaps an extremely advanced species could cross that gap. However, I want to avoid getting too speculative.)


Okay, time to use Bayes’ Theorem.

Take two events: A and B. Event A is the existence of aliens, or alien artifacts, within the Solar System. Event B is our failure to find evidence of such aliens.

The simplest form of Bayes’ Theorem I’ve seen comes from Nate Silver’s The Signal and the Noise. To find the posterior probability – the odds of A, given B – we’d use this equation:

xy/[xy + z(1-x)]

x is the prior – our initial odds for A. That is, the odds we’d give to aliens’ presence prior to knowing that we wouldn’t find them. This should be pretty high, for reasons explained above. Humans seem on track to colonize the galaxy; it’d be amazing if, over billions of years, we’d be the first. See also the mediocrity principle. I’ll put this at 50% (which seems low).

y is the probability of B, given that A is true. In other words: if you knew that aliens had visited, what odds would you give for us not finding them? This depends on how likely you find the Zoo Hypothesis, or some similar explanation, to be. I find it reasonable. Humans send out probes all the time; in general, we want to gather information before we act. If we found intelligent aliens, we’d be fools to contact them immediately without studying them first. There’s also the tiny amount of time we’ve been looking – far too small a sample to draw any conclusions. On the other hand, I admit, I’d expect us to find something by now. If space empires are common, you’d think one of them would have an outpost nearby. We’ve photographed all of the planets and large moons, looked everywhere for radio signals, and come up with nothing. I’ll put y at just 5%.

z is the probability of B, given that A is false. This is basically 100%.

Do the math, and you get a 5% posterior probability of alien presence.

That, however, is with no evidence. We do have some evidence, although nothing definitive.


Not all UFO sightings are equal. Mass sightings are more noteworthy than individual sightings; sightings that defy known science are more noteworthy than flashing lights. According to Wikipedia, “Between 5% and 20% of reported sightings are not explained”; Wikipedia adds that “the null hypothesis cannot be excluded that these reports are simply other more prosaic phenomena.” However, Bayesian inference has no concept of a null hypothesis; all hypotheses are treated as equal.

Instead, let’s ask: what would we expect to find, given the presence of aliens? Well, we wouldn’t expect nothing. Human civilization has spread so wide that a few encounters would be inevitable, even if the aliens are trying to hide. These encounters shouldn’t be limited in time or place: we should find them all over the world and throughout history.

Indeed, that’s what we find. Several Greek and Roman historians reported UFO sightings in antiquity. Plutarch wrote of a “wine-jar” shaped object that fell from the sky in Asia Minor, reported by two opposing armies. Pliny the Elder wrote of a “spark” falling from the sky, then rising back up. In 776, Frankish annals report two objects like “large flaming shields” floating overhead.

In the 1560s, central Europe experienced a spate of UFO sightings. This includes my favorite: a 1561 “battle” over Nuremberg, whose residents witnessed “hundreds of spheres, cylinders and other odd-shaped objects that moved erratically overhead.”


Illustration from a Nuremberg newspaper, printed in April 1561

Granted, people back then “saw” all sorts of omens. Still, you’d expect stories like these if alien ships flew over ancient skies.

The number of UFO sightings is less important than each one’s credibility. Some do seem fairly credible. In 1987, three Japanese pilots witnessed objects which defied known laws of aviation, flying “as if there was no such thing as gravity,” according to one pilot. A similarly bizarre object was seen by many O’Hare employees in 2006; the disc hovered over the airport, then rapidly shot up into the sky. The 1997 Phoenix lights, one of the most famous UFO events, was seen by thousands – including the sitting governor at the time, Fife Symington III (great name). Symington later said: “As a pilot and a former Air Force Officer, I can definitively say that this craft did not resemble any man made object I’d ever seen.” Elsewhere, he said: “I know just about every machine that flies. It was bigger than anything that I’ve ever seen. It remains a great mystery.” He also revealed that no one in the Federal government or the military had any explanation at the time.

For more sightings, see these Wikipedia and NatGeo articles. Common themes include discs (“flying saucers”) and massive, v-shaped aircraft (as seen over Phoenix). You’d expect such commonalities if any of these sightings are real.

To be clear, I don’t believe any of these sightings, individually, have even a 1% chance of alien origin. However, the question isn’t how many of these sightings are of alien ships, but whether even just one of them is.

Another piece of evidence comes from KIC 8462852, a star whose seemingly random fluctuations have scientists totally stumped. It’s also dimming far faster than any similar star. There is no theoretical model that explains this star’s behavior. It’s probably caused by some unknown natural phenomenon. However, it’s the kind of anomaly you’d expect to find if hyper-advanced alien life existed in our galaxy.

Would we expect all this evidence if alien life isn’t here?

Probably, yes. The huge number of disproven UFO sightings should alter our priors toward skepticism. There are also many sightings of Bigfoot, ghosts, the Virgin Mary, and other things for which my priors are much lower.

In fact, the history of folklore is rife with such sightings. People want to see, and people want to believe; sometimes, seeing and believing become interchangeable. Elves and witches were seen all the time back when people believed in them. That said, some UFO reports are a bit more credible than any elf sighting.

Overall, the evidence is enough to raise my prior, but only a little – from 5% to, say, 6%. Indeed, those are about the odds I’d have given aliens’ presence before the NYT reports.

How much should those reports change my prior?


Event A is still the presence of aliens or alien artifacts. My prior for this (x) is 6%. Event B, now, is everything written in those NYT reports.

What’s the probability of B, given that A is true? Not too low, I’d say. The UFOs in question acted skittish, yet inquisitive – about how I’d expect alien probes to act. They might want to avoid detection, but without knowing much about humans, this would be difficult. Still, you might expect them to be better at hiding, or so bad at it as to produce better evidence. Or maybe they wouldn’t even try to hide. Nonetheless, the incidents are well within the realm of what I’d expect if aliens are watching us. I’ll set y at 20%. This seems low, but I’m trying to be careful.

What’s the probability of B, given that A is false?

Now, these weren’t hack articles: two of the three authors were Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists. All of the sources were credible, and the Department of Defense did not dispute anything. The articles have been criticized because some of the information was already known within the UFO community. However, the reports have put this information in a context that makes it nearly impossible to deny.

So the 2004 incident isn’t a hoax. But what else could it be? Terrestrial theories are, if anything, more shocking than extraterrestrial ones. If the “white tic tac” is something natural, we’re looking at a new epoch in science. If it’s a secret government aircraft, we’re looking at a new epoch in politics and aviation. If it’s a mistake… then we’re looking at a new epoch in politics, aviation, and journalism, because a blunder of this scale is without precedent.

I can’t come up with an explanation that isn’t world-changing.

No matter what, this seems like a one-in-a-million story. However, I’m putting z at 1%. That seems very high, but again – caution.

So x=0.06, y=0.2, and z=0.01. Plug this into xy/[xy + z(1-x)], and we get…

0.56. A 56% posterior probability that aliens have visited the Solar System. And that is using extremely conservative assumptions.

Granted, these numbers are all subjective. Maybe your priors are lower. My point is that these revelations should substantially raise them. I’m seeing a lot of dismissive comments such as these Tweets and the Popsci article above. I’m a skeptic by nature, but this derisiveness seems misplaced.

The purpose of this article isn’t to convince you that aliens are watching. I’m not so sure of that, myself. However, I was driven to write this by the snide tone of some of these dismissive reactions. A lot of people hear “UFO” and immediately tune out. Many reasonable people seem to disagree, and I think they deserve to be heard. Each piece of evidence alters our priors, if only a little; it’s important to keep our eyes and ears open so that our judgments have a proper basis.


The Early States Should All Vote at the Same Time

Why do we let Iowa and New Hampshire decide our President? Why let any state decide? Surely all states should have an equal say, right?

Well, a one-day national primary would be tough. Every candidate would have to run a nation-wide campaign without the support and resources they’d have in a general election. And there wouldn’t be much chance to narrow down the field – there were 12 Republican candidates on the ballot in Iowa this year, and the winner only got 28% of the vote. That latter problem could, I suppose, be resolved with some sort of ranked voting system. But early primaries give parties a chance to react to new information. Votes, donors, and endorsements will move away from candidates who disappoint in early states, especially states they’ve heavily campaigned in. If Chris Christie can’t crack 8% in New Hampshire, his supporters will realize it’s time to look elsewhere.

Having “early state” primaries is not, in itself, such an awful idea. But are the right states voting early? In 2016, Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada are the only states allowed to vote before March. Do they deserve that privilege?

These are the properties you want in an early primary or caucus state:

  • Small population
  • Small land area
  • Representative of the nation
  • Representative of a region

In less populous states, candidates can meet more voters face-to-face. In geographically smaller states, voters are easier and less expensive to reach; traveling to them is easier, radio and TV ads can cover ground more efficiently, and each yard sign will attract more eyeballs. The smaller and less populous a state, the easier it is to get known without having to rely on media attention. Thus, you can get a sense of someone’s appeal among voters in that state. But for that information to be relevant, you want the state to be representative of the nation, or at least of a specific region.


Which States Should Vote First?

To find the “ideal” early states, I crudely added up these properties. First, I took the rank of all states from least populous to most populous (so Wyoming is 1, California is 50, and so on). Then I did the same thing for land area. Then I took the state’s Cook PVI, not accounting for party (so Texas and Massachusetts are both 10). The higher a state’s PVI, the more dominated it is by a single party – and, therefore, the less likely that it’s representative of the nation.

I added all three numbers. The states with the lowest total numbers are the smallest, least populous, least partisan states.

What about the fourth property, regional representation? Well, if we have four early states, they should each come from a different Census region:

And let’s ignore states that border another region, since they’re probably not representative. (Who still considers Delaware Southern?) Also, let’s only look at continental states (sorry, Alaska and Hawaii).

So according to my system, the ideal early states are the four states with the lowest number in each region, excluding states that border another region.

And the winners are… drumroll… Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada.

Yes, really. No, I wasn’t trying to get that result, it just… happened. It turns out those states work just fine!

Midwest Northeast South West
IA (50)

WI (59)

MN (69)

MI (74)


NH (18)

RI (20)

VT (26)

ME (27)

CT (32)

MA (52)

NY (79)

SC (47)

MS (48)

VA (54)

LA (56)

AL (64)

NC (67)

FL (75)

GA (79)


NV (62)

ID (70)

OR (71)

WA (74)

UT (81)

AZ (89)

CA (107)


A Proposal

The problem isn’t that the wrong states vote early. It’s that they vote one at a time.

If someone’s strongest in the South or the West, but weakest in the North and Midwest, they start out at a disadvantage. By the time South Carolina comes around, two states are already lost, and the media might have moved on. This makes no sense. It undercuts the whole purpose of early primaries and caucuses – to provide data on who can win, and where. Instead we’re getting limited, distorted data. And nobody wants to alienate Iowa or New Hampshire, which gives certain groups – such as corn farmers – disproportionate political power.

Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada should all hold their primaries and caucuses on the same day.

(map source)

The winnowing process would be both faster and more accurate. Iowa and New Hampshire might get ignored entirely by some candidates. And why not? The Iowa Caucus tells us barely anything, except who is most liked by Iowans. There is no reason it should have priority over the other three states.


Hypothetical: A Better Schedule

So the first four states have voted. Now what?

Well, why not go down the list? After week 1, the field will be narrower. Week 2 could be sort of a re-do of week 1 with fewer candidates – and with fresh information on how each region might vote. The next-best states in each region, according to my method, are Wisconsin, Rhode Island, Mississippi, and Idaho. I like how that works out; all of those states are quite different from the first batch. Wisconsin, a populous swing state, would be a big prize to win so early on. But someone with an urban base might bet on Rhode Island from the beginning.

My “no border states” rule cuts out a few cultural regions. The mid-Atlantic, Appalachia, the Southwest, and the Great Plains states haven’t gotten a say. For week 3, let New Jersey, West Virginia, New Mexico, and North Dakota vote. They’re all high-ranking states from those areas, and they’re all from different census regions. A candidate who hasn’t won a state yet might hope for a last stand in one or two of these.

Then what? I sort of like the next 3 states on the list: Minnesota, Vermont, Virginia, and Oregon. Now the West Coast is finally represented; and in Virginia, you have another major swing state.

And that would round out the first month of voting. All parts of the country have been represented. Anyone who hasn’t won a state by now doesn’t stand a chance. By the second month of voting, only the most viable candidates will remain.

After the first month, states with fewer delegates should get more priority. That way, smaller states would matter because they’d vote early, and late states would matter because they’d yield a lot of delegates. Also, nobody would accumulate too many delegates early on, so the party would have time to react to new information (such as a scandal for the front-runner). California, Texas, Florida, and New York would all vote on the final day of primaries.

If four states voted every week, it would take about 13 weeks – 3 months – to hold primaries and caucuses in all 50 states (not counting D.C. and the territories). Voting could start in mid-March and last through mid-June. Hold the first debates in January. Campaigns could start as late as December.


Something Needs to Change

That’s all just fun, idle speculation. But why not speculate? The way we pick Presidents is seriously flawed. Better ideas, even implausible ones, ought to get tossed around.

The 2016 primaries last from February 1st to June 7th – more than 4 months. (And that’s an improvement from 2012, when primaries went on for 5 and a half months.) In February, only one state votes every week. Then, suddenly, most states vote in March. The states that vote in April, May, and June probably won’t matter, even though that’s more than half the schedule.

Our current nomination system lasts too long and gives too much power to Iowa and New Hampshire. It is designed to prevent a contested convention at all costs. As a result, most of the campaign happens in the eight months before voting begins – and then the actual voting only matters for a few weeks. This strikes me as totally backwards.

There’s no single, obvious solution to this. I like Jay Cost’s proposal to have an early convention that selects five candidates. And a ranked voting system would probably be superior in multi-candidate races like the 2016 Republican contest.

Unfortunately, such ambitious reforms seem to be a long way off. In the meantime, the current system still has plenty of room for improvement. Changing the nonsensical schedule should be the parties’ top priority.

When do the Candidates Come From? Part 2: When the Supporters Come From

In Part 1, I came up with a system to measure “when” each 2016 Presidential candidate comes from, politically. I looked at the Republican field:

And the Democratic field:

And I found that my simple system can reveal a lot about the state of a party.

When a candidate’s career began matters. Marco Rubio, elected to the Senate in 2010, comes from a different Republican Party than John Kasich, elected to Congress in 1982. However, there are other ways to tell where the candidates stand in relation to their party. For example, you can look at who has endorsed them.

For Republican candidates who competed in Iowa, I looked at endorsers who hold or have held high office. I recorded how long each of them spent in high office, and, for those no longer in office, how long they’ve been retired. I defined “high office” in Part 1 as being in Congress, the Senate, a Cabinet or Cabinet-level position, a governor, or the mayor of a top-100 city.

When you take the average for each candidate’s endorsers, you get this:

(Rick Santorum only has one high office-holding endorser; Ben Carson has none. Doing this for Democrats would be pointless, since Hillary’s locked up pretty much everyone.)

What does this mean? Well, I see a few patterns here:

The Factional Candidates: Cruz, Huckabee, and Paul

All three of these candidates have endorsers who have spent a long time in politics – more than 8 years, on average. But they’re also more likely to currently be in office than any other candidates’ endorsers.

This result surprised me. For one thing, I’d expected Ted Cruz and Rand Paul to have newer endorsers. They are, after all, freshman Senators, and they were supposed to represent a new kind of Republican that came out of the Tea Party wave of 2010. But other than Kasich, Rand Paul’s endorsers have had longer careers than anyone else’s! I was also surprised that Huckabee, the has-been, has endorsers that are the most likely to still be in office.

What this tells me is that the Tea Party wasn’t entirely new. It relied on several GOP factions – libertarians, Buchanan-esque paleoconservatives, the so-called “far-right”, etc. – that have existed for a long time. When a fringe politician gains a foothold in Congress, they will hold onto it for as long as they can. Look at Bernie Sanders and Ron Paul, both of whom spent more than 20 years in Congress. There is no “revolving door” for their kind, only an exit.

Mike Huckabee doesn’t have much in common with Rand Paul, but they both draw from a very narrow, specific segment of the GOP: evangelicals and libertarians, respectively. Cruz draws from a fuller spectrum of Tea Party-esque factions; the party’s mainstream is the only place where he doesn’t have support. In this election’s chaos, fringe factions have higher hopes than ever before.

Revolt of the Old Establishment: Bush and Kasich

I want to talk about Jeb Bush and John Kasich, as boring as that sounds.

Throughout 2015, Jeb Bush led the endorsement race and the money race. But why? It never made any sense. He hasn’t held any kind of office for 9 years. That’s a longer downtime than any President elected since 1852 (and any nominee since 1924). If he thinks his last name isn’t an issue in 2016, then why was it in 2012 and 2008? Why run this year if he didn’t run then? After all, he stopped being governor in 2007. For any typical politician, that leaves 2 Presidential elections before the country moves on to someone else.

Jeb Bush’s very candidacy is a step backwards – or, rather, a declaration of intent to step backwards. He knew he was the wrong guy for 2008 and 2012. But in 2016, the party has no idea what place it’s in. To some people, this is a chance to drag the party back – back to a time when someone like Jeb Bush could be nominated. The man himself complained about having to “lose the primary to win the general.” Yet there’s no proof that Jeb was ever the most electable candidate. His millions of dollars in donations, and scores of endorsements, are more about influencing the Republican Party than winning the general election.

Seriously, just look at that graph. Not only have Bush and Kasich’s endorsers held office for 11+ years (on average), they haven’t even been in politics for 7.5+ years! This is not “the establishment”. It’s the old establishment, terrified that they’re being replaced. In a way, they’re outsiders; they’ve been outside the system for so long that it’s now foreign to them.

Kasich is an interesting case. He’s the only candidate who’s both currently in office and has held office at some point before 2010. Theoretically, he’s in the best position to unite the old establishment with the new. Instead, he’s hired Jon Huntsman’s chief strategist and campaigned against the right-wing of the party. His campaign, like Bush’s, is a revolt against current trends within the GOP.

That’s not to say all these endorsers are in revolt; mostly, they’re just loyal to their old pal. But when Bush and Kasich’s campaigns are so exclusively courting the old establishment over the new, it is hard to perceive them any other way.

Rise of the New Establishment: Rubio and Christie

Some people lump Chris Christie with Kasich and Bush as one of the moderate governors running, and that’s not an inaccurate characterization. But watching Christie at the debates, he seems more in-tune to the current mood and desires of the party than Bush or Kasich do, regardless of his centrism. And, indeed, the above chart confirms my intuition: Christie’s bars look a lot more like Marco Rubio’s than Bush’s or Kasich’s.

Rubio and Christie are both rising newcomers. They’re both “establishment” in the sense that they aren’t factional; they’re broadly appealing to most of the party. But they come from opposite ends of the establishment; Rubio is conservative-establishment, while Christie is moderate-establishment. Beyond the factions – and perhaps the “old establishment” is itself a faction – these two are fighting to be the future of the party’s mainstream.

The Outsiders: Trump and Fiorina

This sample size is tiny: Donald Trump only has three endorsers (Virgil Goode, Sarah Palin, and Scott Brown) that I could use, while Fiorina has six. Still, their bars are strikingly similar. In fact, Trump’s bars are both exactly one year greater than Fiorina’s bars, down to the decimal. Does this mean anything?

Maybe not. It could be a coincidence, given the sample size. Then again, Trump and Fiorina are both businesspeople who’ve never held office. In that sense, they’re pure outsiders. Their endorsers are outsider-y too, I suppose. On average, they’ve held office about as long as Rubio’s or Christie’s endorsers, but they’ve also been out of office for as long as they were ever in. This could mean that they once had a stint in politics, but truly belong on the outside, and were too weird to stay in. This explains Trump’s endorsers, at least. Fiorina has more mainstream views, but maybe the very fact that she’s running for President without ever being elected to office is appealing to a certain kind of outsider.


Right now, the GOP primaries look like a three man race between Cruz, Rubio, and Trump. They represent the various Tea Party factions, the new establishment, and the party’s outside, respectively. I’m interested to see whether Bush or Kasich gain any ground in New Hampshire, because the old establishment is the one GOP group not represented in the top three. If both Bush and Kasich disappoint, the old establishment might have to do some introspection. On the other hand, I can kind of see Kasich doing well enough with moderates to make this a four man race. Or maybe Jeb has just enough money to make a comeback.

By the way, even though Bernie Sanders only has 6 endorsers from high office, they sure look an awful lot like Trump’s:

I thought that Sanders was more the Democrats’ Ted Cruz than the left-wing Donald Trump. Maybe I was wrong. His numbers look less like a fringe factional candidate’s and more like a pure outsider’s. Just like Trump, Sanders only recently became a member of the party he’s running in. And pretty much every Democratic group has lined up behind Hillary, leaving room only for someone entirely outside the party. Now that I think about it, in a more contested election, someone like Elizabeth Warren would be more likely to soak up the far-left endorsements, not a quirky septuagenarian socialist. So maybe Sanders is more like Trump than Cruz.

The question, ultimately, is which group represents its party’s future – and which is simply left over from the past.

When do the Candidates Come From? Part 1: A Conventional yet Unprecedented Field

For several months now, the Republican Presidential race has been dominated by four people. Two are first-term Senators; the other two have never held public office. Is this unprecedented?

And that’s not the only strange thing about this election. Jeb Bush has led both the money race and the endorsement race since he began his campaign, so if there is an “establishment” favorite, it’s him. But Jeb’s been out of office for nine years! Is this also unprecedented?

The short answer to both questions is yes. But first, I have to define exactly what I’m looking for.

The question I want answered is: “How long has the typical Presidential candidate been in high office? Or, for those no longer in office, how long have they been out?” I’ve decided to define “high office” by the following positions: Congressman, Senator, Governor, a Cabinet or Cabinet-level position, or the mayor of a top-100 city. These positions are the most typical stepping-stones to the Presidency. They allow for political connections and media attention far exceeding lower positions, like Lieutenant Governor. True, they are not all the same – the Governor of New York will have far more connections and media attention than, say, a Congressman from Nebraska. However, I’m looking mostly at when politicians are in office, rather than which office they’re in. This will roughly tell me “when” each candidate comes from, politically. I’m also ignoring time spent in-between offices, such as John Kasich’s long retirement from Congress before his comeback gubernatorial campaign in 2010. It’s one thing to have made a comeback; it’s another to expect that your Presidential campaign is your comeback.

It’s not the most rigorous system, but I’ve learned a lot from it. First, a look at the GOP candidates. (I’m measuring time only up to the beginning of election year – in this case, 2016.)

From this chart, we can see a few different types of candidates:

Pure outsiders: Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Carly Fiorina have never held public office.

  • Eisenhower (1952) was the last pure outsider elected President. The last non-military outsider to be nominated was Wendell Willkie (1940).

Newcomers: Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Chris Christie, and Scott Walker have all spent 6 or fewer years in the spotlight. Cruz is a pure newcomer; like Obama (2008) he’s only been Senator for 3 years as of election year. The rest are Rising Newcomers, like George W. Bush (2000); 5 or 6 years is plenty of time to make your name, though you’re still relatively new to the political class.

Careerists: John Kasich, Lindsay Graham, and Bobby Jindal have been around for a while. (Jindal stepped down in January 2016.)

  • Bill Clinton (1992) and Bush Sr. (1988) were careerists.

Retired Careerist: Rick Perry’s fourth and final term as Governor ended last year.

  • Ronald Reagan (1980) was this, and was the last non-office-holder of any kind elected President.

Has-Beens: Amazingly, there are four candidates – Jeb Bush, Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, and George Pataki – who haven’t actually held office for a whole 9 years.

  • Has-beens are almost never elected President, but Richard Nixon (1968) pulled it off, having stepped down as Vice President 7 years earlier.

Never-Was: You can see why Jim Gilmore is treated as a joke.

  • Nobody like Jim Gilmore has ever been elected President. Under my system, John Davis (1920) was the last Never-Was nominee, although he was at least Ambassador to the U.K. You’d have to go back to William J. Bryan’s final campaign (1908) for a more clear-cut case.

This is one of the most varied fields in history, in terms of when each candidate comes from. Several different eras of the Republican Party are fighting for dominance, along with some theoretical eras (the Trump era?) that haven’t arrived yet.

What about the Democrats? Well…

Bernie Sanders – the factional, fringe candidate – is the only one who’s currently in office. All of the others are retired, even the also-rans who quickly dropped out. (Hillary Clinton, Martin O’Malley, and Lincoln Chafee are all retired careerists; Jim Webb is a Retired Newcomer.) I’ve looked back at previous elections, and yes, this is unprecedented. There’s always someone in office who wants to grab some attention with a quixotic campaign.

However, some fields do come close. You’d expect the Republicans to have the same problem in 2012, after their party was demolished in 2006 and 2008. And you’d be right:

Ron Paul was in the same place Bernie Sanders is in now: a fringe candidate, but the only one of the top four to still be in office. It makes some sense that, if you want to run as a fringe candidate, it’ll take much longer to accumulate the resources and name-recognition you need for a Presidential campaign than a more mainstream candidate. Anyway, if it weren’t for Rick Perry (careerist) or Michelle Bachmann (rising newcomer), all of Ron Paul’s opponents would have been retired. The Tea Party wave of 2010 was too recent to produce a contender, and everyone else had been wiped out in 2008 or 2006. Mitt Romney was the first retired newcomer to be nominated since Jimmy Carter in 1976.

What about the Republicans in 2008? Like today’s Democrats, they had to deal with a horrible midterm two years prior. And yes, as it turns out, there are some similarities:

Although McCain himself was still in office, his most serious opponents were not. I find Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson’s similarity on this chart interesting; they were both much-hyped before they ran, yet neither won any state or even got 2nd place. Perhaps they were too out of touch with the 2008 electorate to live up to the hype.

When the incumbent party is tired and beaten, its only options are the old-timers or the already-gones. That’s my interpretation of the chart above. For the Democrats that year, things were different:

Several candidates had more than 10 years of experience; two had more than 30 years. But none of them gained traction, and all of the top 3 candidates had spent less than 8 years in office. True, Hillary was well-known for her First Lady days, and had Bill’s connections to fall back on. But the First Lady isn’t accountable to anyone; the Senate was Hillary’s real introduction to politics. In any case, she wasn’t new enough for a Democratic Party that wanted to change more than just the party in power.

But back to this year’s Democrats. The Republicans in 1980 also had a similar situation:

Reagan and Bush Sr., the only candidates who won any states, had both been out of office for several years. (Even if you count Bush’s stint as C.I.A. director, he’d still been out of office for 3 years.) The third-place finisher was John Anderson, the factional moderate who’d been in Congress for almost 20 years (and went on to run as a 3rd party candidate.) So in that way, this election was like 2016 for the Democrats and 2012 for the Republicans. Still, unlike the 2016 Democratic field, there were at least some also-rans who currently held office.

So this year’s Democratic candidates have the least variety in recent history. The Republicans, by contrast, have possibly the most variety. The 2008 Democratic field (above) was pretty varied, too; do parties always have this variety after a two-term absence from the White House? No, not always:

You’d think 1988 Democrats would be pushing “hope and change”, like 2008; instead, only careerists even made it to the primaries (and Jesse Jackson, the factional candidate). Of course, Reagan was much more popular than George W. Bush. More importantly, Democrats were never unpopular in the 1980s; they held the House of Representatives all eight years of Reagan’s Presidency. In fact, they’d held it continuously since the early 1950s. The Democratic old guard still won elections.

Notice the second-place winner: Jesse Jackson, a pure outsider. He won about 30% of the vote. Pure outsiders sometimes run, but rarely do as well as Jackson. The last time outsiders got more than 30% of the vote was 1996:

Pat Buchanan, Steve Forbes, and Alan Keyes won a combined 35% of the vote – which is just about where Donald Trump now is in the polls. Think about it: Buchanan was a populist rabble-rouser; Forbes was an extremely wealthy businessman. Trump is a populist, rabble-rousing, extremely wealthy businessman.

Do 1988 Democrats, 1996 Republicans, and 2016 Republicans have anything in common? Actually, yes. Those are all exactly two years after the party won full control of Congress (and more specifically, the Senate). Granted, so was 2008 for Democrats, and no pure outsiders ran that year. Instead, Obama filled that niche. Parties will look for someone new when they have momentum. Or maybe the old guard just doesn’t fit in so well with the new party, which hasn’t festered long enough yet to produce an incumbent candidate. (Obama, elected to the Senate in 2004, was the lucky exception.)


You can tell a lot about a party by “when” they choose their candidates from. In addition to the above charts, I looked at all candidates who won at least 1 state in primaries and caucuses going back to 1980. What I found basically lines up with intuition:

  • If a party’s suffered major losses within the last 6 years, incumbents will stay on the sidelines. Instead, the party looks for some non-incumbent hero-in-waiting, like Reagan, Romney, or Hillary Clinton.
  • A party that just gained control of Congress will look for someone new to maintain that momentum. Maybe even someone completely new to politics. If Donald Trump got 30% of the national primary vote, he wouldn’t be the first pure outsider to do so.
  • Additionally, the aforementioned momentum will attract has-beens who see a chance to revitalize their forgotten careers. However, this has never worked; not for Gingrich 2012, and probably not for Bush 2016.
  • In general, the incumbent President’s party won’t look for someone new, while the non-incumbent party is more likely to do so.
  • A party with long-term control of Congress is more welcoming to long-time incumbents. That is not true of either party this year, though.

In these ways, 2016 is a totally conventional year. The incumbent President’s party, after major defeats in 2010 and 2014, is running old non-incumbents. The more excited Republican Party, after 2 terms in the opposition and brand-new majorities across the country, would prefer a fresher face.

What’s unprecedented is how extreme both parties are in following these patterns. For Democrats, not a single current officeholder showed up – except Bernie Sanders, who wasn’t even technically a Democrat until 2015. And Donald Trump’s main opponents aren’t old establishmentarians – they’re Rubio and Cruz, two first-term Senators. The field is so new that much of the establishment was forced to back a has-been, Jeb Bush, over any incumbent. Of the current Republican candidates, only Kasich has a continuing career that goes back for some time.

When its candidates come from says a lot about a party. But does it say anything about the candidates themselves? In Part 2, I’ll post some evidence that it does.

Nothing White and Gold Can Stay

The Dress is blue and black. This is reality; this is the world we live in. There is hard evidence now. It can no longer be denied.

But the dress – the dress that we see, that famous image – is blue and gold. This, too, cannot be denied.


Imagine a world wherein the Great Blue-and-Black Revelation did not come. In this world, there is only blue and gold. A multitude of answers are eventually absorbed into two factions, two religions. One side sees blue, and is thus tricked into seeing black. The other side sees gold, and is thus tricked into seeing white.


I was once a religious fool, blinded by the light; The Dress, to me, was white and gold. But once I took a step back, once I looked beyond the closed-mindedness of my peers who only accepted two answers, I saw the dress as it truly is: blue and gold. I saw plain reality – no tricks.


Or did I? For the fact remains: The Dress is blue and black.


But perhaps it didn’t have to be.


Were the Blue-and-Black faction right all along? They looked down on us – the naïve White-and-Gold dreamers, the cowardly Blue-and-Gold compromisers – for they saw Reality, in all its grit and darkness. Enlightened, yet cynical, they saw what could not be seen, what the majority did not want to see.


Now we have evidence that they were right. Is this a credit to their perceptiveness – a justification for their elitism? Or were they simply lucky – did they happen to see the right illusion? I don’t know. I’d like to believe that in another reality, there is a white-and-gold Dress photographed in just the right shadow so as to make half the population believe it to be blue and black.


True, I have moved beyond White-and-Gold zealotry. Yet no matter how hard I look, I simply cannot see black. I can only see what is in front of me, illusions – light or dark, white or black – be damned.


The Dress is blue and gold. On this stand I will not waver.


(My take on the two cows metaphor. Here’s how each political ideology plays checkers.)

A conservative plays by the traditional rules and follows conventional, time-tested strategies. Don’t expect an exciting game.

A progressive keeps putting back captured pieces to give them another chance, and also refuses to king anyone, because that would create inequality. There are no winners or losers. The game keeps going until the players get bored and leave.

A libertarian gets his friends to each control a separate piece, so that they can move as individuals, not as a collective. Then they refuse to coordinate and fail to win even a single election game.

An objectivist does the same thing as a libertarian, but is more self-righteous about it.

An anarchist plays by their own rules, regardless of which rules their opponent is following. The board quickly becomes a chaotic mess.

An anarcho-capitalist does the same thing as an anarchist, but has a different opinion about what the result will be.

A social democrat, instead of actually playing, asks everyone in the room who they think the winner should be.

A communist wipes off the pieces and rips up the board, because competition alienates the masses. If their opponent is angry, it’s only because they’ve been brainwashed by the bourgeois.

A monarchist chooses one special-looking piece at the beginning of the game, and then makes sure that it’s the only piece to get kinged.

A theocrat waits for God to tell them what to do.

A fascist doesn’t allow any piece to stray too far from the others. They must move as a group.

A Nazi shoots the loser. They are not contributing to the checkers champion master race.

A centrist doesn’t play at all, but tells everyone else what an awful job they’re doing.

I’m not a group person

I don’t know why I’m so bad at joining groups. It could be circumstantial – maybe I just haven’t found the right group. Maybe my spot on the border of the Autism spectrum makes human connection too hard. Or maybe my standards are too high, both for myself and for any group I have the potential to join. Whatever the reason, my distaste for group immersion is an important part not only of my personal life, but also of my general ideology.

Two things happened yesterday which reinforced this notion.

The first is that I read my brother’s post about art. Art is a community, he says, and the deeper you dive into that community, the more perceptive of art you become. This is the institutional theory of art, and it is to aesthetics what moral relativism is to ethics. I could write a much longer essay about my problems with this (and, in fact, have done so), but I’ll try to keep it brief here. There are certain types of art – music, literature, and painting, in particular – that have evolved independently in many different cultures. So obviously, there’s something universally appealing about them. They’re different in different cultures, sure, and even within a culture, different things will appeal to different people. Still, it’s not hard for a European to find something appealing about an African drum circle, or for a fan of classical music to find a heavy metal song that they like. My brother would argue: yes, anyone can enjoy the entry-level stuff, but it takes inculcation (his word; I would probably use “indoctrination”) into an art form’s culture to appreciate the deeper stuff. There’s some truth in that; I’d trust the opinion of a critic who’s listened to a lot of music over one who listens to the same double-digit number of songs over and over.

But that’s just it, isn’t it? I said I’d trust someone who’s listened to a lot of music, not of heavy metal music – even if the song in question was of that genre. Heavy metal is my example because if you get really deeply immersed in that genre, you encounter a lot of music that is just unlistenable to normal, sane people. (In my experience, heavy metal fans tend to be abnormal, insane people.) Perhaps some aspects of it are universally appealing – despite my snark, I do get the appeal. But once an idea becomes a group of people, it’s hard to separate the merits of that idea from the group’s arbitrary criteria. And most of the criteria will be arbitrary, because that’s how groups work. Tradition keeps the fiddler from falling off the roof; that is, groups need a certain amount of commonality to stay alive, and the people in those groups will accept any point of commonality that helps the group thrive. This is fine and dandy if you think artistic value is arbitrary, but I don’t.

I suppose this is easy for me to say, what with my aversion to group identity; but most people are the opposite, and always will be, probably for good reasons. Still, I can’t help but feel dissatisfied by the way strict adherence to groups and labels warps our perception. My favorite genre of music is prog rock – but I use the term “genre” lightly. Its initial appeal was in its lack of genre, its indefinability. But then people decided to call it “prog rock”, set out a list of features, and then bands who wanted to be “proggy” went about adhering to and exaggerating those features, and the whole idea fell apart very quickly.

Since my promise to “keep it brief” was apparently a lie, I’ll add one more thing. The institution of art killed itself once it decided that it was free to define art however it liked. It started with modernism, in which the artworld asked, “What is art?” After decades of excited experimentation, they answered, “The hell if I know,” and gave up. As some random guy on Twitter once said, “Post-modernism wasn’t so much a fling the humanities had as the STD it woke up with afterwards.” It’s a hard position to get past because once you’ve stripped away all criteria and scales of merit, where is there left to go? Now we’re stuck in a world where the arbiters of the artworld will insist that John Cage’s silent “composition” is art, but haven’t decided whether video games – a whole artistic medium! – are art. The general artistic community is more irrelevant to art right now than they’ve ever been, although they don’t realize it.

Art isn’t a community. Or, at least, not entirely. Art has a community, because a culture will arise for any shared interest. Actually, art has many communities, a different one for each society; and those communities have many sub-communities, and those have many sub-sub-communities, and so on ad infinitum. In my view, the best artists tend to come from outside of these communities, or at least, apply perspectives from outside of their community. For artistic communities, change comes from outside, not from within.

The second thing is that I read this review of Nicholas Wade’s A Troublesome Inheritance, a book whose thesis is, basically, that racial traits are genetic expressions of cultural traits, because natural selection will favor genes that fit in with the culture. I’d love to hear alternative theories, and would be pretty easily persuaded by them – but Michael Eisen doesn’t provide any. He just notes that this hasn’t been totally 100% proven, and is therefore unscientific, and also racist. With emphasis on the racist. Tyler Cowen posted a brief, but very good and substantive, critique of the book, but he’s alone there; most reviews I’ve found are laced with emotion, from Eisen’s scorn to Charles Murray’s glowing praise. Many people seem uncomfortable with how much intuitive sense the premise makes, while some people seem a little too excited about it.

I don’t know if Wade is right – no one really knows for sure – but let’s assume for a moment that he is. What does that change? In my view, it doesn’t have to change anything. But because we’re human and we’re so desperate to gravitate into groups, further evidence that race is based on genetics (rather than a social construct) could lead to a lot more division and conflict than it ought to.

Imagine a hypothetical universe in which 50% of whites have an IQ of over 100, but only 33% of blacks. In this imaginary universe, the Flynn effect does not exist and does not undermine attempts to link IQ to genetics; in this universe, race is entirely genetic, and so is IQ. Is it now okay to judge people based on race? Of course not. If you’re walking through the halls of Harvard, you can safely assume that any black people you see will be considerably more intelligent than the average white person. (Side note: Thomas Sowell has some interesting thoughts on the supposed race-intelligence link.)

Actual racists – and I mean real, dedicated racists, the kind that call themselves “racialists” or “race realists” or believers in “human biodiversity” – believe that genetic racial differences (which they take to be fact) create a wall around the races, and any attempt to breach this wall is foolhardy and possibly dangerous. These people are a tiny minority right now, but they might not always be. I think there are a lot of people who fear that, if race is even a little bit genetic, the racists would turn out to be right. If Wade’s thesis is racist (as a lot of critics imply), then scientific evidence for it – which we may or may not see in the near future – will prove that racism is the way to go. Such arguments make the same sad assumptions that the racists themselves make – assumptions that only take existing group identity into account. It’s true that humans evolved among different groups, separated by geography and time. But if you look at individuals, the ethnic group to which they belong says only one thing about them, and possibly the least important thing. Talk to American kids in the same neighborhood, who go to the same school and watch the same shows and play the same games – and if you don’t look at them, you won’t be able to tell which one is black or white or Indian or Japanese.

Humans need groups and labels, so I can’t argue against their existence. And I suppose that, if we need groups, we need some purists and hardliners who fight to keep their groups distinct and whole. I’ll leave that to others. I prefer looking at every group from the outside over looking at one group from the inside.

The Fantasy Problem

I’m in the middle of the fourth Dresden Files book and I’m trying to figure out why it bores me. I liked the first book, but every book after that has taken a lot of effort to finish, without much reward. The annoying thing is, I don’t even dislike it – I never take issue with the plot or characters as I’m reading it. They’re good books. I just don’t enjoy them very much.

Maybe part of the issue is that it doesn’t make sense. But wait, it’s fantasy – it’s not supposed to make sense. And I’m a massive fan of Harry Potter. So that can’t be it, right?

Here’s the thing about fantasy. The idea of “supernatural” is only about a century and a half old; before that, it was just… well, natural. People who burned witches were pretty certain that witches could exist. Fairy tales and romances involved spectacular and fantastic events, but no one said they were impossible. Wikipedia dates the origins of fantasy, in the modern sense, to the late 19th century. This chart makes me think they aren’t lying. Fantasy couldn’t exist until it was, you know, fantasy.

So how do you write about magic for a world that no longer believes in it? I’ve categorized fantasy stories based on how they overcome this hurdle.


Type 1: The Tolkien Method. The story takes place in another universe, without ever acknowledging that fact. Most High Fantasy is this. Most shōnen anime are also this. Too many examples to list; this might be the most popular method.

Type 2: The Narnia Method. Magic exists in another universe, but characters travel between the real universe and the magical one. Though I haven’t read it, the His Dark Materials series apparently uses this method. Bleach, and a few other anime, partially qualify (depending on the arc). Oh, and The Wizard of Oz. And maybe Alice in Wonder Land, if you ignore the whole “it was just a dream” thing.

Type 3: The Hogwarts Method. There’s a magic world within the real world – the two settings exist in the same universe. Artemis Fowl comes to mind. I guess Peter Pan qualifies. I think C.S. Lewis sort of killed this method, with help from Tolkien, because it still isn’t very common even after being used by the best-selling series of novels in history. Part of Harry Potter‘s success might come from the sweet spot it hits between Types 2 and 4, taking the appeal of both.

If the story doesn’t make a distinction between “world” and “universe”, Type 3 can easily blend in with Type 2. I haven’t read Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, but it sounds like it’s basically Type 2.5. Also, a Type 3 story will almost always have a sprinkle of Type 4.

Type 4: The “Fuck it” Method. The magic is in our world, and we just haven’t noticed because… um, don’t think too hard about it. Basically anything with vampires, werewolves, etc. will be this. Extremely popular; perhaps even more popular than Type 1.

4A: They’re hiding from us. Vampires don’t want us to know they exist, after all – our ignorance makes them safer, and allows them to catch us off-guard. Harry Potter fits this whenever muggles get involved, which, thankfully, is not often.

4B: They don’t make much of an effort to hide – we’re really just that oblivious. Examples: The Dresden Files, American Gods, Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Type 5: The Old Fashioned Method. Magic exists in the real world and people have noticed and never even doubted it. This includes Historical Fantasy and… nothing else. Seriously, I can’t find a single example of this method being used for a modern setting. That’s a little disappointing – but on the other hand, you’d have to completely rewrite the progression of society from the scientific revolution onward, so I understand why no one wants to make the effort.

Technically, almost all fairy tales are Type 5, but they were written before “fantasy fiction” was a thing. In fact, any work written before the Victorian era that has been retroactively labeled “fantasy” will probably be Type 5.


But let’s go back to Type 4. For a few good reasons, some stories rely on this method. One reason: symbolism. The magical elements exist to demonstrate something about the real world – which is why the story must be set in the real world. Often, the symbolism is about the past vs. the present – how would the present handle ideas and myths from our past? Neil Gaimain loves playing around with that question. Even Dracula has some of this (…apparently. I haven’t actually read it.) Buffy has more mundane symbolism about growing up. The second reason, and perhaps the most popular: fear. Magical monsters are scarier if they’re dropped in a setting where they aren’t supposed to exist, or even be possible. This reason’s confined to the horror genre. Besides symbolism and fear, other reasons to use Type 4 probably exist, but I can’t think of them. Teen Paranormal Romance is trendy right now, but fuck if I have any idea why. Something to do with falling in love with outsiders? Or like, is it a gender-swapped version of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope? I don’t have a goddamn clue.

But still, modern fantasy can work under the right circumstances. I’m just not sure those circumstances apply to The Dresden Files.

Take Harry Potter as a counter-example. The series is full of unanswered questions. How does magic even work? Why are wizards and witches so adamant about staying secret? (Hagrid basically shrugs off the question in the first book, and it never gets asked again.) Why aren’t these kids learning math or literature – or hell, science? Actually, why is everyone in the magical world ignoring science, even though the muggles have used it to surpass them and pretty much make magic obsolete? Well, not everyone. Arthur Weasley notices, and he gets mocked every time he points it out. Arthur Weasley is the smartest wizard in the Harry Potter universe. Also, what’s up with the “moving” paintings? They don’t just “move”, they seem to be freaking alive, which is a little unsettling when you consider that a lot of them are of dead people.

Everyone knows about these issues, and no one – myself included – cares. The unanswered questions don’t harm the series because they’re also unasked questions. Those problems just aren’t what Harry Potter is about. You can leave holes unfilled if you know you’ll never have to walk over them. It helps that Harry Potter is a Type 3 fantasy; I did feel a bit awkward every time the muggle world and the magic world interacted. But that’s not the main reason; Buffy the Vampire Slayer is Type 4, and its list of unanswered questions is even longer (don’t even get me started). And, just like Harry Potter, no one cares, because the questions never need to be asked.

All Type 4 fantasies, and many Type 3 fantasies, have one common issue: how the hell have we not noticed all these magical shenanigans going on all around us? There is no good answer. If, as too many stories (including The Dresden Files) do, you justify it with some version of “people refuse to notice things they can’t explain”, then your story is inhabited by the exact opposite of human beings. People don’t ignore the abnormal; we look so hard for the abnormal that sometimes we ignore the normal. Any story that claims the opposite is putting a huge limitation on itself – it can’t do too much world-building or else people might notice that the world is kind of bullshit.

The first Dresden Files book throws a whole lot at you without expecting you to think too hard about it. It’s a fun book. Every book after that (at least, the ones I’ve read) focuses more intently on certain parts of the Dresden universe and attempts to build it up further. And then I stop caring.

Part of the problem is that this is a mystery series – its genre is all about finding the truth. Mystery heroes from Sherlock Holmes to Gregory House have defined their genre by explaining the inexplicable and disproving the paranormal. Harry Dresden is an anti-science wizard whose profession is to get to the truth of matters; and I don’t see the series playing with this contradiction in any interesting way. Actually, I have a theory: mystery, hard sci-fi, and stories that rely on world-building (including certain types of fantasy) all appeal to the same parts of the brain. They’re logic puzzles; they challenge you to consider how things work, what goes where, whether X necessarily means Y. The Dresden Files, because it’s set in a universe that ignores a crucial aspect of human behavior, can’t adequately accomplish this; and the more it tries, the less interested in it I become.

This problem isn’t unique to The Dresden Files, which may explain why sci-fi seems to be on the rise. If your plot needs a lame excuse, “Science did it!” (The Dr. Who Method) is so much easier to justify than “Magic did it!” Just like old-time fairy tales and romances, we know such things don’t exist, but we don’t think they’re impossible. That’s fantasy’s real problem: science fiction can take the appeal that stories about magic once had and re-fit it for the modern world. Harry Potter saw unparalleled success, but I think that’s a magic trick that can only be performed once. I predict fantasy will lose a lot of ground to science fiction in the coming years.

Twitch Simulates History

If you’re not into Pokémon, this post will seem silly at first, but stick with me; I have a point.

If you’ve heard anything at all about Twitch Plays Pokémon, you’ve heard about the Helix Fossil meme. Before the Helix, though, there was the Moon Stone. Because the Moon Stone was at the top of the item list, and because thousands of people were fighting for control, Twitch kept selecting it; the madness inherent in TPP made people decide that the Moon Stone was some sort of spiritual guide. But the Moon Stone can be tossed. And in TPP, if something can happen, it generally does. So Twitch accidentally tossed the Moon Stone on the second day, just as gaming blogs and websites were beginning to notice the stream. Some arguments followed about whether to worship the Nugget or the Helix Fossil, but then the Nugget got tossed, too. And so the players worshipped the Helix Fossil as a god, and still do.

The funny thing is, the Helix Fossil wasn’t even the item that we accidentally selected the most. A few days in, the Helix Fossil got deposited in the P.C.; although it was quickly withdrawn, the order of items got mixed up, and thus the S.S. Ticket was at the top of the item list far longer than the Helix. Later, the Lift Key was at the top of the list, and thus “consulted” the most often. But neither of those things became “gods”, and the Moon Stone was mostly forgotten about. (Even people who didn’t like the Helix used the Dome Fossil, its counterpart, as their idol, rather than any item we actually possessed.)

Watching the Twitch Plays Pokémon community evolve was like watching the growth of civilization on fast-forward. Yes, it was all kind of a joke, but that doesn’t make it less fascinating. Why did the Helix become so symbolic when it was neither the first item we “consulted”, nor the item we consulted most frequently? Because it was around at the right moment. When TPP’s popularity was skyrocketing each day, the Helix Fossil was at the top of the item list.

Historians have long debated the Great Man Theory of history – basically, the idea that history moves forward due to the actions and decisions of a small number of “great” men. I hold sort of a temporal version of this; I suppose you could call it the Great Moment Theory. Some sort of abstract social energy (for lack of a better term) arises in certain moments – due to a population surge, or technological change, or the fallout of a war, or some other reason. These Great Moments bring about change – change that’s hard to dismantle or rethink until another Great Moment comes along.

I saw several instances of this in Twitch Plays Pokémon. The community often assigned nicknames to their Pokémon, but which nicknames stuck depended on when they were assigned. “Bird Jesus” the Pidgeot was not seen as a savior until four or five days in; and toward the end, Zapdos surpassed him in power. Also, at one point, his in-game nickname was changed to aaabaaajss (if you think that’s a typo, you aren’t familiar with TPP), leading many to call him Abba Jesus; but that didn’t really stick. He had become Bird Jesus during the stream’s Great Moment, when the view count was at its peak, and so that’s what he stayed. A similar thing happened to “Lazorgator,” our starter in Crystal Version; he had moves with lazor-like animations at first, but they were quickly deleted. Still, he had been named Lazorgator at a time when views were around 80,000 (Crystal Version ended with only about 20,000 viewers), so the irrelevant nickname stuck with him for weeks.

Institutions that arise from Great Moments become more powerful when the moment has passed; they carry with them the social energy of a more dynamic time. During TPP’s peak, people tried to keep up with it and organize information in various ways. A popular Google document kept track of the team’s current status, while a live updater reported on events as they occurred. I remember watching, fascinated, as the people in charge of these became vastly more powerful when the view count dropped. Before, the community was so noisy, so productive, that the organizers answered to them; now that the community’s quieted down, they’re practically at the mercy of the organizers. Our Espeon got nicknamed Burrito mostly because that’s what the Google Doc said he was named (weird story). The subreddit was always the most popular place to discuss TPP, but now it’s practically the place to discuss it.

You might think it’s a stretch to compare this to real history, but I don’t. Actually, I’ve noticed the same kind of pattern occur in history all the time. The rise of Christianity was a Great Moment that defined religion in Europe for about a thousand years, until the invention of the printing press allowed for another Great Moment – the Protestant Reformation. China’s philosophical foundation comes from the bloody and dynamic Warring States period. More recently, Google’s prominence comes from its widespread popularity at the outset of the web’s mainstream use; other search engines exist, and are being created constantly, but it’s very hard to compete with something that became a part of people’s lives at just the right time.

This may seem redundant if you think I’m saying “change happens when change happens,” but that’s not what I mean. There are certain moments when change becomes more feasible than other moments – and when we’re not in such a moment, it is very, very difficult to override the change that arose from previous Great Moments. I’m not nearly learned enough in history to know all of the factors that lead to such moments; but I’ve already mentioned population bursts (see: the Baby Boom), technological change (the printing press and the Internet), and major wars (pick one).

What specific change occurs during these moments is largely random. So this isn’t a deterministic view. Still, changing the course of history at the wrong moment – at any moment devoid of a mass societal feeling that it’s time for change – is very hard. Before, I compared this idea to the Great Man Theory. I stick by that comparison. Neither theory requires a clear distinction between the people, or moments, that matter, and the ones that don’t. But some moments clearly matter more than others.