Sunday, January 3, 2010

What Happened to Jerry Pournelle?

Back in the eighties, I used to read a computer magazine called Byte. In it was a column I also often read by Jerry Pournelle. I still remember his frequent use of the expression "Sigh.", as a complete sentence to indicate exasperation yet acceptance of computer glitches. I first heard of Jerry Pournelle as a science fiction writer, and one of his more famous science fiction novels was "A Mote in God's Eye" co-written with Larry Niven.

So what happened to Jerry since then? Byte magazine went under in 1997 and Jerry since then has been writing a blog.

Apparently, like a lot of people in the last decade he has become even more conservative. Back in the eighties, the term conservative had almost no meaning for me, when the political divide was much less distinct than it was today. The distinctions could be partly because I can recognize it easier now, and partly because people were not as polarized by inflammatory newspapers, TV and radio in the eighties. And the "War on Terror" had not yet begun with all its attendant propaganda.

The signs of Jerry being conservative were there to see in the eighties, if I had cared. The book "Mote in God's Eye" had a racist and colonial theme, with Earth colonizing a planet whose indigenous (and intelligent) species was called the Moties. In fact a similar theme to the recent movie "Avatar" about Earth colonizing the moon of Pandora.

However, Pournelle and Niven's book has a theme of racism, discussions of the need to exterminate the Moties, fear of the Moties' high birth rate, unlike the movie Avatar whose theme is more the preservation of nature, and the evils of greed-driven colonization.

Since the book came out in 1974, there have been a lot of changes in the world. So how has Jerry adapted his ideas to the realities of today? He has written recently in his blog about education, about the terrorist attack (the underwear bomber), about Afghanistan, and about global warming. In the first three, he seemed to be against racial integration in schools, and in favour of racial profiling in airports, and in favour of more troops for Afghanistan. That, in my mind confirmed that he was leaning heavily to the conservative side of the spectrum. And so when I came to read his take on global warming, I was not surprised that he came out as a denier . I wonder why so often people who are racist, also happen to be in favour of war, and to top it off also deny global warming? Just a coincidence. Or could it be a result of political propaganda rather than logical thought influencing their conclusions?

So in "Musings on Climate Change", January 2, 2010, we get the summary statement:
"And I am far more afraid of ice than a couple of degrees warming. I fear shorter growing seasons more than I fear longer growing seasons. If the climate must change -- and stasis is unlikely -- I'd rather be warmer than colder. I'd also rather be richer than poorer. Enough. It's bed time."
Every statement he makes in this summary, taken by itself is true, in fact nobody ever disputed them. He seems to have completely missed or ignored the points that are being made in the Global Warming issue. Considering the negative impacts that scientists have suggested such as flooding, massive human refugee populations, runaway temperature feedback, extreme weather effects, migrating diseases and pests, and species extinctions.

But to me this is intellectual dishonesty, as he should know that every scientist on Earth agrees with his final concluding points, I myself would prefer a couple of more degrees this fine January morning in Canada.

Not really changing the subject here, but it's a similar technique in his article " The Truth about Afghanistan, and its meaning for US policy" December 2, 2009.

Here is Jerry's version of truth:
"The obvious truth about Afghanistan is that there are two conditions for an American victory, assuming victory means building a democratic republic in the territory we call Afghanistan. One has to do with the number of troops. The other is the length of the commitment: how long will we stay?"
I think it's the same kind of conservative logic that we get from "Mote in God's Eye". He follows up his supposed military logic with a comment that Obama's policy will meet neither condition. But what Jerry is really talking about is his (incorrect) assumption that a victory is needed to establishing a democratic republic in Afghanistan. Which nobody in Washington is thinking about any more. What they are thinking about, in case Jerry has not noticed, is the stability of the neighbours, specifically Russia and Pakistan that are dealing currently with Muslim extremists uprisings. And planning for the withdrawal of US troops without creating total chaos. Obviously the war is hopeless with Jerry's assumption of victory. I think most people are long past caring about a democratic and corruption free Afghanistan where everybody can fly their kites and listen to Western music. They probably just want the killing to end, and recognize that genocide is not an option. Unlike "A Mote in God's Eye", where it was inevitable.

Then without reading more, I can see catchphrases in his titles that make me think Jerry is getting quite extreme in his Republican right wingism. Titles like "Big science strikes back" and "Breathtaking arrogance of the EPA". Words like "tyranny" (Google counted 168 uses) and phrases like "There is no better term for the ObamaCare Bill than Despotism. ."

So that's what happened to Jerry Pournelle. From being a respected science fiction writer to being a Teabagger. He has gone from writing a book titled "The Mote in God's Eye" to being the mote in God's eye. As Jerry used to say ... "Sigh."


  1. I used to read science fiction as a soporific (i.e. to combat insomnia) because (at least the better) science fiction seemed to hold my attention (keeping those bad thoughts at bay) but not so engaging that it kept me awake.

    Somewhere during that period I did read Mote in God's Eye and my residual impression, although vague on detail, is favourable.

    Not so favourable, I'm afraid, is my impression of Pournelle's blog ... I find it rather rambling and incoherent, preferring articles that are more concise and to the point.

    Some of his views seem to be provocative simply for the sake of being provocative. I can't help wondering where he ranks himself on his own Pournell matrix.

    Sigh :-(

  2. Wow, where to start? I won't even use words like incoherrent rant, oh wait, I just did.

    Why don't you try reading the book you are commenting on.
    in "Mote" humanity does not colonize the planet or even the solar system of the "Moties" they only discover and visit it.

    If you are not a conservative, which I am, you must still recognise it as a legitimate political stance. As relevant as your own, clearly liberal, position. As a mexican, our celebrated revolution being the liberals liberating from the entrenched conservatives. Our conservative party, the PRI, being about equivalent to your moderate Democrats, and the rest,PAN,PRD,Verdes being left of there, with only PAN being able to try for the pesidency. You can believe that if I find you too liberal you are way out in left field.

    Next, as a carreer geologist, I'd like to know where you think you have evidence of global warming from. All the evidence from the past two hundred years, and measurements 200 years old come from only a very limited part of the world, show a slight cooling of the earth over that time. All you are doing is respouting something that you have heard that sounds cool. Who says that they are against the environment? But something that you know absolutely nothing about. I got it, it's popular right now. You wanna be be a metoo. but why don't you spout about something real like a world population that has doubled since I was born and will double again before I will die. Why arent you angry at people, without jobs even, who have 12 children? You did realize that carbon dioxide is not even an especially significant greenhouse gas, right? About 4 percent by effect? Or didn't anybody mention that to you? do you know how much of the CO2 is produced by human activities? Didn't think so. Actually read a book before jumping on the wannabe bandwagon next time.

    P.S. I don't actually expect you to permit anyone else to read this. Except maybe in parts in order to ridicule it, even though every part of this post is demonstrably true. I don't really expect you or any of your few readers(only one other comment)to actually investigate anthing for yourselves. heh heh heh. I too was a BYTE reader a lifetime subscriber since 1976 when it was a hobbiests magazine. What else could it be? seven yars before the first IBM PC, before the apple, when the only computer you didn't have to build for yourself was the IMSAI 8080 which came as a kit for $200 and had no keyboard no video screen. You programmed it by flipping switches on the front and the output was a row of LEDS. And, oh yes, you did have to build it your self. You just didn't have to design it. buenas tardes, ya que he recordado tanto, siento mas amable y no resento la mierda de que estuve commentando tanto ahorita, pero sabes lo que dicen, da 10000 monos borrachos maquinas de escribir para una decada y eventualamente algo como la diarea verbal que ud escribe inevitablamente va a salir.


    1. Back in the '60's & '70's, everyone was concerned about "Global COOLING!!!". The next Ice Age was 'Just around the corner'. And as to "The Mote In God's Eye", the Empire of Man was concerned by a possible threat to its existence. Just as Jerry's friend and co-author, Larry Niven's Kzinti was a threat to Humankind as well. I'd love to think that Gene Roddenberry was right to assume that all advanced ET's would be peaceful, but even he had the Klingons and Romulans vying for power.

    2. Back in the 60's and seventies? Everyone? I, at least, was not concerned about the ice age in the sixties or seventies. I can't speak for Al Gore or David Suzuki, but can think of at least ten other people, including my mother that were also not concerned about an ice age in the sixties. I think if you check the source of that misleading statement you will find it was from Fox News, trying to discredit scientists in general. Some people are still more concerned about the supposed coming ice age than they are about global warming, I just googled it and here is one blog about it, if you are still interested.

  3. I used Google translation for the Spanish, and I picked out

    10,000 = 10,000
    monos = monkeys
    borrachos = drunken
    maquinas de escribir = typewriter.

    So I get the gist of it, we have an expression like that in English.

    To answer your comment, I was writing more about Jerry's blog, not so much the book "Mote in God's Eye", which I'm planning to read when I get a chance. I would not be able to calculate the Earth's temperature from human activity, so I don't want to argue that point.

    I was agreeing with Jerry that I would also prefer warmer temperatures, but I added a reminder that we may not like some of the other effects of global warming that scientists have been warning us about.

    I do have several other blog entries with my opinions on climate change, which you can select by clicking on one of the topics.

  4. "And no climate model yet has any explanation for the Viking Warm period or the Little Ice Age. They are simply ignored. The Earth has been several degrees warmer and several degrees colder than it is now in historical times, and all this is documented. The notion that the Gulf Stream affected Greenland, the Western Scottish Islands, the Eastern Scottish Islands, Belgium, Germany, Poland, and China, all reporting longer growing seasons and earlier spring in the Viking era, is too absurd to consider seriously. Not that I expect rationality to prevail. There are too many grants at stake." - Jerry Pournelle

    "The polar bears will be fine". Freeman Dyson

    1. Just taking Freeman Dyson's comment about polar bears and putting it in context. It seems the quote was taken from a conversation between Freeman and his wife after they watched "An Inconvenient Truth" together, and his wife was upset, and had accused Freeman of being wrong about everything.

      I have on occasion said something to my wife privately after a movie that I hope would not be cherry picked by any political factions to advance their agenda.

  5. I'm not going to get into the global warming argument or the conservative/liberal morass. I'm just weighing in on Mote In God's Eye. Both it and it's sequel The Gripping Hand are some of my favorite books. I just turned my seventeen year old nephew onto them and he liked them too. As to citing books you haven't read, well I think you proved why that's not a good idea. But I give you points for finally fessing up. Read the books, humanity actually comes off okay in them.