Neo-Marxism and the Fermi paradox

Enrico Fermi, a Nobel prize winning physicist, probably said and did many interesting things over the course of his life, but the only thing I know about him is that he is responsible for what people now refer to as the Fermi paradox.

By Department of Energy. Office of Public Affairs [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In short, the Fermi paradox says that given the vast quantity of stars in our galaxy, and the virtual certainty that many of these stars are encircled by Earth-like planets, why hasn’t earth been visited by aliens from these planets?

There are many possible answers to this paradox, all of which are pretty speculative.  A few examples:

  1. Supernaturalism (god(s), magic, etc.)
  2. We are regularly visited by aliens and don’t know it yet
  3. Alien civilizations are waiting until the universe is a bit cooler, and it is more efficient to travel great distances (the Aestivation hypothesis)
  4. Intelligent life is really, really rare

Well, I have a favourite answer to this paradox, and it’s kind of Marxist.

Before I proceed, I should say a couple of things.  First, I am not a Marxist, I don’t practice or even like Marxist scholarship, and I am not making any claims about the way the world ought to be.  This is more of a thought experiment than anything.  Finally,  I seriously doubt that I am the first to discuss this idea, so this is merely an attempt to articulate it in my own way.

Technological progress is self limiting

The basic idea here is that as any creative civilisation approaches the capability of efficient interstellar travel it simultaneously approaches the capacity to destroy itself, along with the technology for efficient interstellar travel.  This places a limit on technological advancement well below what would be required for interstellar travel.  I won’t inventory the many ways that technological progress can destroys itself. but just offer three possibilities.

  1. Interconnections are necessary for advanced technology, but cause fragility Interstellar travel will require a great degree of coordination and interconnection.  This isn’t just cooperation between people, but the interconnection of energy production, communication systems, and labour.  Basically, we’ll probably rely on single interconnected systems more and more over time because they will be necessary to reach the productive efficiency required for interstellar travel.  The problem is that such interconnection makes civilisations more fragile to the effects of disasters.  A single failure in an interconnected system has larger effects on the system as a whole than the same failure in a decentralised and unconnected system.  Think of major financial collapses; big banks are more efficient, but when they fail, watch out.
  2. Production enhancing technology makes it easier for megalomaniacs to kill  I have written before on the consequences of ever increasing productive efficiency on human survival.  Productive efficiency boils down to how much labour is required to produce a product or service.  Interstellar travel will require a great deal of productive efficiency–much more productive than we humans have now, for example.  However, the downside of increased productive efficiency is that it increases the efficiency of everything–both good and bad.  This means that as a creative alien species increases productivity, they also make it easy for an insane megalomaniac among them to destroy their world.  Think of it this way: the scale of harm that an stone age insane megalomaniac could do was pretty limited.  Today, one insane megalomaniac can do a lot of damage, and megalomaniacs of the future will have even more efficient tools for destruction.  It seems inevitable that innovation in productivity would have a self-induced limit; any alien civilisation that develops technology for interstellar travel is simultaneously creating technology that enables an insane alien megalomaniac to destroy civilisation.
  3. Production enhancing technology evolves too fast for societies to adapt      This is kind of related to the above point, but is perhaps more speculative.  The idea is that social and biological evolution (whether natural or artificial) is a slower than technological innovation, and the result is that our societies have a hard time adapting to the technology we create.  Failure to adapt can produce limits on further innovation.  For one, it can create resistance against the technology, some minor and short lived (like the 19th century protests against motor vehicles) and some major and long-term (like current opposition to nuclear power).  It can also create conflicts between societies in possession of these technologies that impairs or even reverses innovation.  Lags between social/biological evolution and technological innovation slows down and eventually halts advancements in productivity, particularly those for which the benefits to humanity are not immediately clear–as could easily be the case in interstellar travel.


None of these arguments assume much about the nature of aliens or how they organise themselves.  The main assumption is that increasing productive efficiency is unavoidably paired with technological innovation.  That’s why I see this as a Marxist or neo-Marxist resolution to the Fermi paradox; changes in the modes and efficiency of production drive innovation, but also create conditions for destruction, resulting in a self-induced limit on all technological innovation.

Personally, this possible limit does bother me at all, as I have never been much of a fan of aliens or space travel and exploration.

A Poem

That night when I ceased to exist
(alternative title ‘After watching a season of Black Mirror’)

Late one night, I looked up from my phone
And noticed you’d been gone for a year
Though it was late, I texted a mate
To meet at the pub for a beer
He was then occupied, so another I tried
Somewhere down on my contact list
But my battery croaked, and my charger was smoked
That night when I ceased to exist

I turned on my desktop and clicked on my mouse
But the task bar showed no Internet
I jiggled the cable, ‘neath the dining room table
And tapped on the router outlet.
No signal arrived, and so I contrived,
That the problem required an assist
But with no means to connect, I became circumspect
That night when I ceased to exist

I went out the door to summon a cab
Waving my hand in the air
But the peer-to-peer hacks, were set in the tracks
All summoned by Uber elsewhere.
So I took to the street, on my desperate feet
Where the sidewalkers barely persist
But without GPS, I could hardly egress,
That night when I ceased to exist

I wandered for hours in the cold and the rain,
Not a soul could be seen on the street
The skyscraper light, obscured all the night
Among swarming of networks replete
In a virtual town, with no one aground,
I could find not a life to enlist
So I turned over my fate, to a cell phone update
That night when I ceased to exist

Decision games

If you have some time to kill (and aren’t worried about carpal tunnel syndrome) test your understanding of return period, compound interest and crop management in the new Farm Decision Game!  The link will take you to a page of different decision games used for education and research at various stages of development.


When journalists talk junk

Terence Corocoron wrote an opinion piece for the Financial Post recently that I take exception with.  The subheading to the article is “Junk Science Week: Finding that people who consume certain drinks also develop cancer is not an indicator that the drinks cause the disease”.  To summarize, Corcoron argues that much of research in nutrition epidemiology is flawed, but that do-gooder socialists will still use it to justify regulations of one thing or another.

I think being critical of science is not only healthy, but essential to the sceintific process.  However, Corocoron is not a scientist, and his critique is incomplete and unhelpful.  So, I sent him an email.  Here is the text of the email (edited from the original for style and clarity):

Dear Terence,

I agree with the general need to be skeptical about science, and have myself been accused of being overly skeptical by some of my peers. I think many of California’s regulations on carcinogens are nuts. I think we worry too much about air pollution in Canada, the impacts of wind turbines on sleep, fluoride in the drinking water and the profit motives of big pharma.

However, some journalists have a way of taking this kind of skepticism too far. Your article on alcohol and cancer is a perfect example of this.

It is true that some study designs are weaker than others; experimental study designs have clear strengths, observational case studies based on self reported data have clear weaknesses. The challenge is that almost all health research on humans about exposure to nutritional or environmental harm are forced to employ inferior study designs. This is because we can almost never do proper experimental research on links between the environment/nutrition and human health. It is often unethical and almost always impractical.

Given this, we could choose to dismiss all non-experimental research on humans as junk science. This would include almost all the research on tobacco and cancer, by the way, as well as all the research linking asbestos to mesothelioma. Indeed, if we hold all science to the highest standard of evidence, then we would probably have to conclude that salt has no demonstrated impact on hypertension, exercise may or may not extend life (or even improve the quality of life) and that drinking a two-four every weekend may or may not be harmful to your liver. We’d also have to say that there is no convincing evidence that free markets are good for economic productivity, that killing terrorists reduces the risk of terrorism, and that free expression is good for the human soul.

The fact is that we (as societies and people) still have to make decisions about the possibility that some things in are world may be harmful (or good) in spite of the absence of rigorous and convincing evidence. Almost any research on the health impacts of alcohol will be unsatisfying if we hold it up to the gold standard of experimental research designs. It’s for this reason that epidemiologists come up with heuristics (“Hill’s criteria”, is one example) to make decisions considering things like effect size, replicability, study design, agency and other factors under conditions of empirical uncertainty. It’s also why science works best as an iterative process of falsification, rather than truth finding.

While you seem to see research on alcohol and cancer as part of a pernicious socialist plan to regulate the world, I see it as part of the process of untangling a mess of mixed evidence that leads to incrementally better information over time.

It’s true that some regulators use inconclusive science to justify unnecessary regulation. The antidote to bad decisions is to raise the level of science literacy not just invoke general skepticism towards certain areas of research.

I understand that nuance is not good for selling papers (or click baiting) but your article does little to help explain the scientific process properly, or help inform people about the challenges of making decisions about food and environmental safety.

Terence did not respond.