Home > Uncategorized > On the Rarity of the Kepler Moment

On the Rarity of the Kepler Moment

If you were to ask my opinion of the second greatest scientist of all time, I would have a hard time responding.  There are so many choices and I would probably have to spend an hour clarifying the criteria with you before coming up with any kind of response.  But my first choice is easy, and I’ve already written a post about him.  Johannes Kepler’s laws of planetary motion and what he did specifically for the field of astronomy and the way we view the universe are great achievements.  But his most profound gift to science was his willingness and ability to abandon a theory in which he was intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually invested – having spent his entire life trying to prove it.  In the face of conclusive and contradictory evidence, and with a heavy heart – he changed his mind.  He gave up his quest for mathematical proof of the existence of a Godly order in the universe.  He didn’t abandon his belief in God.  He simply abandoned a tenet he had cherished.  He thought critically and acted with intellectual integrity unmatched by even many of those arguably more brilliant than he.  He had to be open to the evidence.  He had to be willing to let go.


In my brief stint as a substitute teacher in between undergrad and law school I had the pleasure of subbing a civics class of high school seniors for a couple of weeks due to the teacher’s serious illness.  Kids love to debate, but they don’t necessarily enjoy the learning involved in debating effectively.  Most everyone of every age believes he or she debates effectively.  They state their positions, by which they impress themselves, and they assume that anyone reasonable should be equally impressed.  Their positions are most powerful, because they believe them.  If they weren’t so powerful, they wouldn’t believe them.

After a couple of days discussing some topic of government or policy, I became a little frustrated. (probably if I had been blogging for any length of time beforehand, my level of expectations would have been much lower).  At one point I asked everyone to take out a piece of paper and fill the page with their argument.  Most of the kids had no problem.  A few had a problem limiting the argument to one page, but I insisted.  Five minutes or so later everyone was finished.  Other than grammar or spelling, my later review of the papers generated little disappointment.  These were bright and articulate students.

Then I asked them to turn the paper over.   Their next assignment was to write an argument just as compelling, but for the opposite side of the issue.  I didn’t want irony.  I didn’t want qualifications.  I wanted them to write their position as if it was their own.  I wanted them to convince me of that argument.  I got resistance.  Some were frustrated and said they didn’t know what to write.  Others were unable to fill the page.  A few couldn’t bear to turn in the paper without reassuring me at the end that they didn’t really believe that position.  One asked why she had to do it.  (I didn’t realize at the time that some Christian fundamentalists object to such exercises as “values clarification” curriculum which undermines their faith).  Only three or four in a class of about twenty were really able to do it, and only after some prodding.

It’s not easy to see another view.  It runs against human nature.  We have the capacity for it, but we do not have the drive to compel it.  We don’t want to change our minds.  Not even a little.


About eleven or twelve years ago I participated on an early Internet forum.  Some of you may remember those ancient times before blogs where the forum was set up like a flow chart where you could track a discussion on the main page (those forums are probably virtual collector’s items now).  I had an encounter with a conservative participant very well versed on the NRA talking points about gun control.  My views on the Second Amendment differ significantly from those of most of the gun control advocates.  The short version is that while I agree that the Second Amendment contains a qualifying dependent clause which suggest an intent to regulate the right of possession with a little more scrutiny than the other rights named in the Bill of Rights, the framers left few clues as to their intent and therefor the text should be construed in favor of the individual and against the state.  The longer version is in an old post.  And I elaborated a bit more in a later post.

Well, in my encounter with the NRA member, the fact that my ultimate conclusions on the issue matched his was not good enough.  He was invested in not merely the conclusion, but on the whole structure of the narrative.  That I attributed any intent of the glorious “Fathers” to limit gun rights in any way was simply unacceptable, and he surmised that I wasn’t truly in favor of the Second Amendment or gun rights.  He didn’t call me a liar.  He simply repeated his customary rant rhetoric, as if I was a gun control advocate (I am actually – as are some NRA members – it’s a question of degree).  He could not leave the box of his dogma long enough to realize the ridiculousness of the rant.  It reminded me of a scene on L.A. Law where a young attorney had spent so much time preparing her arguments that when the Judge dismissed the case against her client within seconds of calling the case she continued to argue.  The Judge said, “how not guilty do you want me to find your client?”

Before he could accept me into the fold, whatever it may have been, I had to recite the full catechism.  I had to agree that the Second Amendment is clear and concise, and that “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed” was always intended to be the equivalent of “the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”  The first portion of the sentence was merely philosophy, intended for no legal effect.  He wouldn’t say it that way, because it sounds ridiculous.  But anything less was caving to the liberal narrative.


You can listen to my last radio show, aired this last Thursday, at the archives.  The 7:00 p.m. slot for those who don’t know about it.  I confess I transgressed.  Although I support GMO labeling (purely from a consumer rights perspective) I remain agnostic as to whether there is absolutely no positive value to GMO biotechnology.  Unlike some of my callers, I am not an expert on what I know nothing about.

Innocently I raised some of the arguments against GMO’s, one being the potential for genetic strains of organisms loose in the wild with no ecological context.  I cited the salmon farming as an example of such a biological contamination – the fact that salmon which have been selected for certain characteristic have gotten loose to contaminate the wild gene pool is a serious concern of some biologists, as explained to me during one of my trips to the Monterey Bay Aquarium.  I suggested that the biotechnological genetic modification could potentially be as dangerous as the selective breading genetic manipulation.  Bad move on my part.  Apparently the anti-gmo narrative is that selective breeding is not genetic modification, the main reason being because so many industry hacks have said that it is.  That discussion dominated much of the show, as I was accused of “spreading the corporate line.”

In the beginning I asked listeners for information of balanced discussions of the topic, but all I really got were sources to convince me of the anti-gmo line, some of which sounded interesting, but none of which I was really looking for.  One book was recommended.  Otherwise, it was all films and websites.  But that’s fine.  A couple of women called me up afterward, laughing at some of the callers, and suggested some leads.  Either way, that’s not really the topic of this thread.  The topic is the investment not just in the conclusion – they were willing to forgive my agnosticism on the subject.  They were not willing to concede that selective breeding is genetic manipulation.


Afterwards I remembered arguments made on behalf of the nuclear industry during the early 80s when they were on the defensive following Three Mile Island and the timely release of The China Syndrome, along with mass demonstrations against nuclear power.  One industry advocate said, “all we do is boil water.”  It became a mantra.  “We boil water.”  Sounds benign.

So boiling water must be inherently destructive.  We can’t boil water on our stoves.  Or we can’t admit it, because that’s what nuclear power does.  We merely raise the temperature of water to 212 degrees Fahrenheit to render it into a gaseous form.  But we do not boil water.  To acknowledge that we boil water should require a Kepler moment.  Apparently it will be required of some activists who cannot accept that genetic manipulation takes place outside of the biotechnological realm.


Yes on Proposition 37.  I realize that’s not good enough for some of you.

  1. Walt
    July 23, 2012 at 7:06 am

    How open minded do you want us to find you?

  2. Mitch
    July 23, 2012 at 8:36 am

    “Unlike some of my callers, I am not an expert on what I know nothing about.”

    I think you caught the phenomenon pretty well in that snark, Eric.

    I think this is yet another case where TV, especially commercial TV, is a major contributor to the problem.

    To have a program offer two debaters, each making their best factual case for or against a proposition, is not profitable. I can remember one such program, I think it was called “The Advocates.” It ran on public TV back in the 70s or 80s. It was hosted by Michael “Snoopy” Dukakis, before he became Governor of Massachusetts, I think. My memory of the timing could be off.

    The approach was to let the audience hear the facts each side wished to present, listen to the conclusions the advocates drew, and then vote on which conclusion they supported.

    It was as close as television could come to inviting people to read widely on a subject. Even so, an hour long program probably doesn’t contain more words than a few newspaper columns, so you’ve actually learned far, far less than you’d learn even from a competent magazine article on a subject. It’s a naturally deceptive phenomenon, and you have no time to reflect on the points before you’ve been pushed along to the next words.

    In contrast, today’s commercial programming seeks out “exciting” shouters who can shout about any topic on demand, and who will disagree about the facts themselves. No grownup is expected to call out errors, and no one is offered sufficient time to point out lies and errors in their opponent’s assertions. It’s a circus approach, and probably appeals to a far larger audience than the approach taken by The Advocates.

    I think it’s had a very negative impact on our society, from one end of the political spectrum to the other.

  3. Eric Kirk
    July 23, 2012 at 8:37 am

    I’ll be happy just to just not be pressured to defend a strawman of me. It seems to happen all the time. Defending what I actually say is sometimes challenging enough.

  4. Mitch
    July 23, 2012 at 8:49 am

    The other part of what you describe, Eric, is a confusion that I know I had when I was younger. I probably still have it, to some extent, but I know I’m far less affected by it than when I was younger.

    That is the confusion between means and ultimate ends, and the insistence that anyone who chooses different means does so because they don’t share your values.

    It’s perhaps easiest to see in the nuclear power debate. There are environmentalists on both sides of the nuclear power debate. Both sets of environmentalists share the same goals — they wish to see our energy production cause the least damage. But they disagree in very serious ways about the relative dangers of different approaches to energy production and about the effect of providing more energy on human behavior patterns. Both sides, I think, have good arguments.

    But we are conditioned to turn people we agree with into the “good guys” and people we disagree with into the “bad guys.” That’s partly human nature. But in many cases, it’s also because there are real bad guys; that is, people who will lie and say anything in order to better their self interest, and the rest of the universe be damned. (I offer the tobacco industry and the Romney campaign as examples.)

    But some of us have become so conditioned to expect that those with whom we disagree are lying that we are unable to see that there are often multiple valid opinions as to the best means with which to achieve a common end.

    I know I still remember with dismay my experience of being hissed at a gathering of tout Arcata’s shallow left, precisely for not toeing a particular “party line,” and encouraging the audience to listen to a very thoughtful person who thought Arcata was making a bad move. Enough experiences like that, and a person can reflectively move into opposition of whatever the hissers like.

    But self-confession may be a better example. I remember with some shame being part of demonstrations against a very honorable scientist whose research, it had been decided, was too dangerous. I remember my sheer inability to listen to his arguments. It’s frightening to remember.

  5. Eric Kirk
    July 23, 2012 at 9:53 am

    I think that’s part of it Mitch. I had a discussion with a conservative once who told me that he would oppose socialism whenever and wherever he saw it. I told him that he’s seeing it right now with public libraries, public sidewalk, police, etc. His response was that those things aren’t socialism because they’re good things. Socialism is only bad things the government does.

    But in this case it’s also because industry apologists have been hammering on this point over and over again and they’re tired of hearing it from them and so want to hear it even less from me. What doesn’t occur to them is that the industry repeats it over and over again because it’s compelling. It’s true. And it makes the opposition look irrational when it denies a pretty basic, if irrelevant, truth. My suggestion is that they not deny that there are natural methods of genetic manipulation. The response should be “so what?” Because even selective breeding has its consequences.

    But that requires a minor Kepler moment. They have to actually consider what a “normal” person might think about their arguments. And at least one caller pretty much trashed anyone who prefers to live the “suburban lifestyle,” whatever that is. That their own lifestyle might carry social and environmental consequences they don’t want to hear. It’s always about the other guy and what he’s doing that’s wrong. So they see as futile any discussion in which they have to convince millions of people who are living the wrong life.

    It’s a problem.

  6. tra
    July 23, 2012 at 10:59 am

    “It’s always about the other guy and what he’s doing that’s wrong.”

    Or, as Mark Twain put it: “Nothing so needs changing as other people’s habits.”

  7. Eric Kirk
    July 23, 2012 at 5:13 pm

    I know I still remember with dismay my experience of being hissed at a gathering of tout Arcata’s shallow left, precisely for not toeing a particular “party line,”

    The hissing actually cracks me up. What I hate about watching movies with a bunch of left wingers is when people in the audience hiss at what a particular character or documentary interviewee says. I just want to yell, “The character can’t hear you, and I don’t need to hear you either!”

  8. Plain Jane
    July 23, 2012 at 5:35 pm

    I don’t think hissing is confined to left wingers.

    On the subject of GMO v selective breeding, it is my “not an expert” opinion that there is a huge difference between selecting desirable traits through generations of breeding in the same species and mixing the DNA of different species and even inserting pesticides into the DNA.

  9. Eric Kirk
    July 24, 2012 at 10:09 am

    There is a difference. There is also a difference between boiling water on a stove and with the help of a reactor. Both are still boiling water. There’s a difference between playing soccer and playing basketball. Both are still playing sports. There’s a difference between playing the cello and playing a harmonica. Both are still playing music.

    If you listen to the show, you will understand that I did not say that they were the practical or moral equivalent. But about four or five of the callers couldn’t make the distinction. If I’m calling selective breeding genetic modification, I’m pushing the “corporate line.” And no matter how I tried to explain that I didn’t intend to convey equivalency, it fell on some deaf ears. The last or second to last caller, right after my final attempt at clarification, still referred to “your corporate line.” I gave up trying at that point.

    I don’t know if hissing is confined to left wingers. I haven’t heard it from right wingers. Usually they just boo or yell.

    The lack of critical thought is certainly not exclusive to the left, as I tried to point out in the main post. But as a leftist, I expect better from the left. It’s like many of them went to college and at age 19 were able to think critically enough and reexamine old assumptions to see things differently. Perhaps the brain is more flexible at that age. But it seems like once that switch is made for some people, it defines them for the rest of their lives. Everything has to be filtered through that framework, and their fear of “selling out” renders them rigid for the duration of their lives. Others trip out on Chomsky and Hannah Arrendt in college, then chuck it all as soon as they graduate, proclaiming at 22 years old that they are “wiser” than their youth. I saw it in law school, as in one woman who chuckled that she had once put a “question authority” bumpersticker on her car and was marveling at the “naivette” of her earlier incarnation. I think for perhaps as much as 95 percent (and that might be generous), most of us have come to our belief structure by 25 years old, maybe in some cases as late as 30, and spend the rest of our lives justifying them tooth and nail.

    Kepler was in his 40s or 50s when he abandoned his polyhedral cosmology, which led Carl Sagan to name him “the last scientific astrologer.” For me, the more fascinating thinkers are those who change their minds on fundamental philosophies late in life. Chris Hitchens. Kevin Phillips. The New York Intellectuals – most of them. St. Paul even. To be able to take a long held position, especially a cherished one, and re-examine it is courageous. Not for everybody it seems.

  10. July 26, 2012 at 7:38 am


  11. July 26, 2012 at 5:06 pm

    Yep, In Kepler’s day there were no rules for spelling or grammar. Yet they had no problem communicating… go figur’.

  12. What Now
    July 26, 2012 at 7:36 pm

    “I don’t know if hissing is confined to left wingers. I haven’t heard it from right wingers. Usually they just boo or yell.”
    The Limaughtemized Reich-wingers usually just beat thri chests, “ook and eek” and swing their hairy prehensile tails when challenged to commit an act of abstract reasoning or follow a train of thought with polysyllabic words or with more than one 3 word premise.

  13. Eric Kirk
    July 27, 2012 at 1:21 pm

    I’m completely lost without spellcheck or a secretary!

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