LIVE DEBATE – The More We Evolve, The Less We Need God

IntelligenceSquared Debates Does God have a place in 21st century human affairs? For many, the answer is an unapologetic yes. Belief in a higher power, they argue, is the foundation of human consciousness and the soul of all social, political, and scientific progress. Further, some claim, humans are biologically predisposed to embrace religion and require faith to live moral lives. Others are far more skeptical. For them, adherence to faith and religious tradition serves only to fracture communities and prevent humanity from embracing a more enlightened, reasoned, and just social order. As we look to the future in uncertain times, should spirituality and religion play a central role in human evolution, innovation, and discovery? Or has God become obsolete? Cast YOUR vote on the motion “The More We Evolve, The Less We Need God” at​ For the Motion: Heather Berlin, Cognitive Neuroscientist Michael Shermer, Founder, The Skeptics Society & Best-Selling Author Against the Motion: Dr. Deepak Chopra, Integrative Medicine Advocate & Best-Selling Author Dr. Anoop Kumar, Emergency Physician & Author, “Michelangelo’s Medicine”

March 2021 Forecast

February 28, 2021 (

March 2021 is a relief after 2 turbulent first months of the year.

No more stelliums, no more retrogrades, no more T-squares.

Just trines, Mercury-Jupiter, and Venus-Neptune conjunctions. WOW!

With the entrance of the Sun and Venus in Aries, March is a much more elemental-balanced month. We desperately needed some fire, and March 2021 brings it to us.

Due to the triple Sun-Venus-Chiron conjunction, the central theme in March is healing and freedom from past hurts and burdens.

Let’s have a look at the most important transits of the month:

March 3rd, 2021 – Mars Enters Gemini

On March 3rd, 2021 Mars leaves Taurus and enters Gemini. Mars in Gemini is a transit to look forward to for two reasons:

  • Mars and Gemini share similar qualities: extroversion, movement, buzz, curiosity
  • Mars in Gemini applies trines (instead of squares) to the planets in Aquarius. Finally, there’s someone (Mars) to put that creative Aquarius energy back into good use!

Mars in Gemini is like a butterfly that moves around and gets things going. If you’ve been shy or quiet lately, this will change. Mars in Gemini loves to talk and express its point of view – and so will you!

March 4th, 2021 – Mercury Conjunct Jupiter

On March 4th, 2021 Mercury is conjunct Jupiter at 17° Aquarius. This is a highly auspicious transit we didn’t get the chance to benefit from much in February when Mercury was retrograde.

\Now Mercury is direct, so if you had some delays last month, Jupiter will finally give you its blessings. Mercury conjunct Jupiter will bring a much-needed sense of relief and optimism.

March 11th, 2021 – Sun Conjunct Neptune

On March 11th, 2021, the Sun is conjunct Neptune at 20° Pisces.

Sun is our identity. Neptune has a dissolving quality, so Sun conjunct Neptune is an opportunity to leave behind the old definition of who you are and meet the timeless, infinite Self that you really are.

With Sun conjunct Neptune the best advice is to let chaos do its work. It’s in the chaos – in this creative space of infinite possibilities – that eventually a new order will emerge.

March 13th, 2021 – New Moon In Pisces

On March 13th, 2021 we have a New Moon at 23° Pisces. The New Moon is conjunct Venus and Neptune so this is truly a fairytale New Moon. Sometimes dreams DO become a reality, and when the manifestation power of a New Moon meets Venus and Neptune, anything is possible!

March 13th, 2021 – Venus Conjunct Neptune

On March 13th, 2021 Venus is conjunct Neptune at 20° Pisces. Venus conjunct Neptune is the most romantic transit in astrology, and it’s just a few more years that we are lucky enough to have it in Neptune’s sign, Pisces.

No matter how difficult our lives may be at the moment, Venus conjunct Neptune is a gentle reminder that when we truly connect with our hearts, we can find beauty and magic everywhere.

March 15th, 2021 – Mercury Enters Pisces

On March 15th, Mercury leaves Aquarius and enters Pisces. In Pisces, Mercury is imaginative and fantasy-prone. Who cares about facts? When Mercury is in Pisces, facts are boring.

Perhaps that’s why a record number of artists have been born with Mercury in Pisces. Mercury in Pisces can pick up nuances and subtleties that no other Mercury can. This transit is great for creative projects of any kind.

March 20th, 2021 – Sun Enters Aries

Happy birthday to all Aries out there… and Happy New Year to everyone! On March 20th, 2020 Sun enters Aries which means that we have the official start of a new astrological year.

If 2021 had a birth chart, it would be cast for March 20th. Last year the March equinox chart had Sun conjunct Chiron, and a tense Capricorn stellium.

This astrological year, the Sun is closely conjunct Venus and has a much more optimistic vibe. Yes, there is still healing work to be done, but at least now we have an ally. Life doesn’t have to be that hard!

March 21st, 2021 – Venus Enters Aries

On March 21st, 2021 Venus enters Aries, hand in hand with the Sun, getting ready for a total rebirth of the heart.

There is a beauty and innocence to Venus in the first sign of the zodiac. Her heart is pure, and she instinctively knows what she wants.

March 23rd, 2021 – Mercury Square Mars

On March 23rd, Mercury (at 11° Pisces) is square Mars (at 11° Gemini).

Mercury-Mars squares have a reputation of being confrontational, however Gemini and Pisces are mutable, and rather compromising signs.

If anything, Mercury square Mars is about “let’s sort things out” rather than having arguments for the sake of having arguments.

March 26th, 2021 – Sun Conjunct Venus In Aries

On March 26th, 2021 the Sun is conjunct Venus at 5° Aries, which means we are right in the middle of our current Venus transit, which started in 2020 in Gemini. This is when Venus transforms into an evening star.

While Venus is still in close proximity to the Sun, as she begins to gain speed, she will eventually begin rising after sunset. Our approach to love becomes more mature, and we have a heightened understanding of what makes us and other people happy.

March 26th, 2021 – Mars Conjunct North Node

On March 26th, 2021 Mars is conjunct the North Node at 13° Gemini. Mars is the planet of action and self-assertion, and North Node is the “uncharted territory”. When Mars is conjunct North Node you want to “Go for it” even if it’s scary.

Since the conjunction is in Gemini, you want to keep a fresh perspective and pay attention to signs and details. With any North Node transit, it’s important to remember that you don’t have – yet – all the answers. Self-awareness is key.

March 28th, 2021 – Full Moon In Libra

On March 28th, we have a Full Moon at 8° Libra.

At the Full Moon, the Sun, Venus and Chiron are conjunct in Aries. Aries is the sign of “I am”. The Moon is in Libra, the sign of the “Other”. Sometimes we understand ourselves through others. And other times we can only understand others when we truly understand ourselves.

The process of putting oneself into other people’s shoes is never easy (that’s why relationships can be so complicated!) but that’s exactly what the Full Moon in Libra will help us with.

March 28th, 2021 – Venus Conjunct Chiron

On March 28th, 2021 Venus is conjunct Chiron at 8° Aries. Chiron transits often come with what health professionals call a “healing crisis”.

A healing crisis means that healing is initially preceded by a worsening of the symptoms. However, this temporary sickness is, in fact, a sign that the treatment is succeeding, even if it doesn’t feel that way.

Similarly, if we want to heal, we first have to bring our wounds out of the unconscious and into the conscious. Of course, once the wounds become conscious, they hurt. But that’s a necessary – and unavoidable – part of the healing process.

If we want to release the old wounds and traumas, we first have to acknowledge and accept them. Venus conjunct Chiron is our chance to heal the heart, by bringing to the surface old repressed feelings and emotions.

March 29th, 2021 – Sun Conjunct Chiron

On March 29th, 2021 Sun is conjunct Chiron at 8° Aries. Chiron has a special relationship with the Sun. In the Greek myth, Chiron was adopted by Apollo (the Greek name for the Sun) who taught him everything he knew. Chiron was abandoned by his parents, so it was the Sun who saved him.

The Sun represents the Self, our divine mission. Chiron represents our primal wound, the wound of being born and disconnected from the source. The wound of existence.

It is only by fully embracing ourselves, and our true purpose in life, that we can transcend the wound of existence and become whole.

March 30th, 2021 – Mercury Conjunct Neptune

On March 30th, 2021 Mercury is conjunct Neptune at 21° Pisces.

Many astrologers call Mercury-Neptune transits “confusing”, and for good reasons. Mercury is all about facts, and what we can see with our senses. Neptune is everything we cannot see – our feelings, intuition, and imagination.

But this doesn’t mean that Mercury and Neptune can’t work well together. In fact, when in conjunction, Mercury and Neptune are asked precisely that: to join forces and bring their best qualities to the table.

A good motto for Mercury conjunct Neptune is “Close your eyes and see”. Because sometimes the essential is indeed invisible to the eye.

PS: The AGE OF AQUARIUS Membership is now open for enrollment with a 14-day free trial!

This time – and this time only – we are happy to offer you a 14-day free trial.

If you wanted to join the Age Of Aquarius but were unsure about what you’ll get, you now have the chance to test the membership for 14 days.

This is a special Mercury conjunct Jupiter promotion we won’t be offering again, so make sure you take advantage of it before it expires (on March 1st).

Here is the link:


But is it science?

Theoretical physicists who say the multiverse exists set a dangerous precedent: science based on zero empirical evidence

Jim Baggott is an awardwinning British popular-science author, with more than 25 years’ experience writing on topics in science, philosophy and history. He is the author of Quantum Space: Loop Quantum Gravity and the Search for the Structure of Space, Time, and the Universe (2018) and Quantum Reality: The Quest for the Real Meaning of Quantum Mechanics – A Game of Theories (forthcoming, 2020) He lives in Reading, UK.

Published in association with
Oxford University Press
an Aeon Strategic PartnerListen here

Brought to you by Curio, an Aeon partner

Edited by Nigel Warburton

7 October 2019 (

There is no agreed criterion to distinguish science from pseudoscience, or just plain ordinary bullshit, opening the door to all manner of metaphysics masquerading as science. This is ‘post-empirical’ science, where truth no longer matters, and it is potentially very dangerous.

It’s not difficult to find recent examples. On 8 June 2019, the front cover of New Scientist magazine boldly declared that we’re ‘Inside the Mirrorverse’. Its editors bid us ‘Welcome to the parallel reality that’s hiding in plain sight’.

How you react to such headlines likely depends on your familiarity not only with aspects of modern physics, but also with the sensationalist tendencies of much of the popular-science media. Needless to say, the feature in question is rather less sensational than its headline suggests. It’s about the puzzling difference in the average time that subatomic particles called neutrons will freely undergo radioactive decay, depending on the experimental technique used to measure this – a story unlikely to pique the interests of more than a handful of New Scientist’s readers.

But, as so often happens these days, a few physicists have suggested that this is a problem with ‘a very natural explanation’. They claim that the neutrons are actually flitting between parallel universes. They admit that the chances of proving this are ‘low’, or even ‘zero’, but it doesn’t really matter. When it comes to grabbing attention, inviting that all-important click, or purchase, speculative metaphysics wins hands down.

It would be easy to lay the blame for this at the feet of science journalists or popular-science writers. But it seems that the scientists themselves (and their PR departments) are equally culpable. The New Scientist feature is concerned with the work of Leah Broussard at the US Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory. As far as I can tell, Broussard is engaged in some perfectly respectable experimental research on the properties of neutrons. But she betrays the nature of the game that’s being played when she says: ‘Theorists are very good at evading the traps that experimentalists leave for them. You’ll always find someone who’s happy to keep the idea alive.’

The ‘mirrorverse’ is just one more in a long line of so-called multiverse theories. These theories are based on the notion that our Universe is not unique, that there exists a large number of other universes that somehow sit alongside or parallel to our own. For example, in the so-called Many-Worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, there are universes containing our parallel selves, identical to us but for their different experiences of quantum physics. These theories are attractive to some few theoretical physicists and philosophers, but there is absolutely no empirical evidence for them. And, as it seems we can’t ever experience these other universes, there will never be any evidence for them. As Broussard explained, these theories are sufficiently slippery to duck any kind of challenge that experimentalists might try to throw at them, and there’s always someone happy to keep the idea alive.

Is this really science? The answer depends on what you think society needs from science. In our post-truth age of casual lies, fake news and alternative facts, society is under extraordinary pressure from those pushing potentially dangerous antiscientific propaganda – ranging from climate-change denial to the anti-vaxxer movement to homeopathic medicines. I, for one, prefer a science that is rational and based on evidence, a science that is concerned with theories and empirical facts, a science that promotes the search for truth, no matter how transient or contingent. I prefer a science that does not readily admit theories so vague and slippery that empirical tests are either impossible or they mean absolutely nothing at all.

But isn’t science in any case about what is right and true? Surely nobody wants to be wrong and false? Except that it isn’t, and we seriously limit our ability to lift the veils of ignorance and change antiscientific beliefs if we persist in peddling this absurdly simplistic view of what science is. To understand why post-empirical science is even possible, we need first to dispel some of science’s greatest myths.

Despite appearances, science offers no certainty. Decades of progress in the philosophy of science have led us to accept that our prevailing scientific understanding is a limited-time offer, valid only until a new observation or experiment proves that it’s not. It turns out to be impossible even to formulate a scientific theory without metaphysics, without first assuming some things we can’t actually prove, such as the existence of an objective reality and the invisible entities we believe to exist in it. This is a bit awkward because it’s difficult, if not impossible, to gather empirical facts without first having some theoretical understanding of what we think we’re doing. Just try to make any sense of the raw data produced by CERN’s Large Hadron Collider without recourse to theories of particle physics, and see how far you get. Theories are underdetermined: choosing between competing theories that are equivalently accommodating of the facts can become a matter for personal judgment, or our choice of metaphysical preconceptions or prejudices, or even just the order in which things happened historically. This is one of the reasons why arguments still rage about the interpretation of a quantum theory that was formulated nearly 100 years ago.

Yet history tells us quite unequivocally that science works. It progresses. We know (and we think we understand) more about the nature of the physical world than we did yesterday; we know more than we did a decade, or a century, or a millennium ago. The progress of science is the reason we have smartphones, when the philosophers of Ancient Greece did not.

Successful theories are essential to this progress. When you use Google Maps on your smartphone, you draw on a network of satellites orbiting Earth at 20,000 kilometres, of which four are needed for the system to work, and between six and 10 are ‘visible’ from your location at any time. Each of these satellites carries a miniaturised atomic clock, and transmits precise timing and position data to your device that allow you to pinpoint your location and identify the fastest route to the pub. But without corrections based on Albert Einstein’s special and general theories of relativity, the Global Positioning System would accumulate clock errors, leading to position errors of up to 11 kilometres per day. Without these rather abstract and esoteric – but nevertheless highly successful – theories of physics, after a couple of days you’d have a hard time working out where on Earth you are.

In February 2019, the pioneers of GPS were awarded the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering. The judges remarked that ‘the public may not know what [GPS] stands for, but they know what it is’. This suggests a rather handy metaphor for science. We might scratch our heads about how it works, but we know that, when it’s done properly, it does.

And this brings us to one of the most challenging problems emerging from the philosophy of science: its strict definition. When is something ‘scientific’, and when is it not? In the light of the metaphor above, how do we know when science is being ‘done properly’? This is the demarcation problem, and it has an illustrious history. (For a more recent discussion, see Massimo Pigliucci’s essay ‘Must Science Be Testable?’ on Aeon).

The philosopher Karl Popper argued that what distinguishes a scientific theory from pseudoscience and pure metaphysics is the possibility that it might be falsified on exposure to empirical data. In other words, a theory is scientific if it has the potential to be proved wrong.

Astrology makes predictions, but these are intentionally general and wide open to interpretation. In 1963, Popper wrote: ‘It is a typical soothsayer’s trick to predict things so vaguely that the predictions can hardly fail: that they become irrefutable.’ We can find many ways to criticise the premises of homeopathy and dismiss this as pseudoscience, as it has little or no foundation in our current understanding of Western, evidence-based medicine. But, even if we take it at face value, we should admit that it fails all the tests: there is no evidence from clinical trials for the effectiveness of homeopathic remedies beyond a placebo effect. Those who, like Prince Charles, continue to argue for its efficacy are not doing science. They are doing wishful-thinking or, like a snake-oil salesman, they’re engaged in deliberate deception.

And, no matter how much we might want to believe that God designed all life on Earth, we must accept that intelligent design makes no testable predictions of its own. It is simply a conceptual alternative to evolution as the cause of life’s incredible complexity. Intelligent design cannot be falsified, just as nobody can prove the existence or non-existence of a philosopher’s metaphysical God, or a God of religion that ‘moves in mysterious ways’. Intelligent design is not science: as a theory, it is simply overwhelmed by its metaphysical content.

Instead of accepting that Newton’s laws were falsified, they tinkered with the auxiliary assumptions

But it was never going to be as simple as this. Applying a theory typically requires that – on paper, at least – we simplify the problem by imagining that the system we’re interested in can be isolated, such that we can ignore interference from the rest of the Universe. In his book Time Reborn (2013), the theoretical physicist Lee Smolin calls this ‘doing physics in a box’, and it involves making one or more so-called auxiliary assumptions. Consequently, when predictions are falsified by the empirical evidence, it’s never clear why. It might be that the theory is false, but it could simply be that one of the auxiliary assumptions is invalid. The evidence can’t tell us which.

There’s a nice lesson on all this from planetary astronomy. In 1781, Isaac Newton’s laws of motion and gravitation were used to predict the orbit of a newly discovered planet called Uranus. The prediction was wrong. But instead of accepting that Newton’s laws were thus falsified, the problem was solved simply by tinkering with the auxiliary assumptions, in this case by making the box a little bigger. John Adams and Urbain Le Verrier independently proposed that there was an as-yet-unobserved eighth planet in the solar system that was perturbing the orbit of Uranus. Neptune was duly discovered, in 1846, very close to the position predicted by Le Verrier. Far from falsifying Newton’s laws, the incorrect prediction and subsequent discovery of Neptune was greeted as a triumphant confirmation of them.

A few years later, Le Verrier tried the same logic on another astronomical problem. The planetary orbits are not exact ellipses. With each orbit, each planet’s point of closest approach to the Sun (called the perihelion) shifts slightly, or precesses, and this was thought to be caused by the cumulative gravitational pull of all the other planets in the solar system. For the planet Mercury, lying closest to the Sun, Newton’s laws predict a precession of 532 arc-seconds per century. But today the observed precession is rather more, about 575 arc-seconds per century, a difference of 43 arc-seconds. Though small, this difference accumulates and is equivalent to one ‘extra’ orbit every 3 million years or so.

Le Verrier ascribed this difference to the effects of yet another unobserved planet, lying closer to the Sun than Mercury, which became known as Vulcan. Astronomers searched for it in vain. In this case, Newton’s laws were indeed playing false. Einstein was delighted to discover that his general theory of relativity predicts a further ‘relativistic’ contribution of 43 arc-seconds per century, due to the curvature of spacetime around the Sun in the vicinity of Mercury.

This brief tale suggests that scientists will stop tinkering and agree to relegate a theory only when a demonstrably better one is available to replace it. We could conclude from this that theories are never falsified, as such. We know that Newton’s laws of motion are inferior to quantum mechanics in the microscopic realm of molecules, atoms and sub-atomic particles, and they break down when stuff of any size moves at or close to the speed of light. We know that Newton’s law of gravitation is inferior to Einstein’s general theory of relativity. And yet Newton’s laws remain perfectly satisfactory when applied to ‘everyday’ objects and situations, and physicists and engineers will happily make use of them. Curiously, although we know they’re ‘not true’, under certain practical circumstances they’re not false either. They’re ‘good enough’.

Such problems were judged by philosophers of science to be insurmountable, and Popper’s falsifiability criterion was abandoned (though, curiously, it still lives on in the minds of many practising scientists). But rather than seek an alternative, in 1983 the philosopher Larry Laudan declared that the demarcation problem is actually intractable, and must therefore be a pseudo-problem. He argued that the real distinction is between knowledge that is reliable or unreliable, irrespective of its provenance, and claimed that terms such as ‘pseudoscience’ and ‘unscientific’ have no real meaning.

But, for me at least, there has to be a difference between science and pseudoscience; between science and pure metaphysics, or just plain ordinary bullshit.

So, if we can’t make use of falsifiability, what do we use instead? I don’t think we have any real alternative but to adopt what I might call the empirical criterion. Demarcation is not some kind of binary yes-or-no, right-or-wrong, black-or-white judgment. We have to admit shades of grey. Popper himself was ready to accept this (the italics are mine):

the criterion of demarcation cannot be an absolutely sharp one but will itself have degrees. There will be well-testable theories, hardly testable theories, and non-testable theories. Those which are non-testable are of no interest to empirical scientists. They may be described as metaphysical.

Here, ‘testability’ implies only that a theory either makes contact, or holds some promise of making contact, with empirical evidence. It makes no presumptions about what we might do in light of the evidence. If the evidence verifies the theory, that’s great – we celebrate and start looking for another test. If the evidence fails to support the theory, then we might ponder for a while or tinker with the auxiliary assumptions. Either way, there’s a tension between the metaphysical content of the theory and the empirical data – a tension between the ideas and the facts – which prevents the metaphysics from getting completely out of hand. In this way, the metaphysics is tamed or ‘naturalised’, and we have something to work with. This is science.

Now, this might seem straightforward, but we’ve reached a rather interesting period in the history of foundational physics. Today, we’re blessed with two extraordinary theories. The first is quantum mechanics. This is the basis for the so-called standard model of particle physics that describes the workings of all known elementary particles. It is our best theory of matter. The second is Einstein’s general theory of relativity that explains how gravity works, and is the basis for the so-called standard model of Big Bang cosmology. It is our best theory of space, time and the Universe.

These two standard models explain everything we can see in the Universe. Yet they are deeply unsatisfying. The charismatic physicist Richard Feynman might have been a poor philosopher, but he wasn’t joking when he wrote in 1965: ‘I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.’ To work satisfactorily, Big Bang cosmology requires rather a lot of ‘dark matter’ and ‘dark energy’, such that ‘what we can see’ accounts for an embarrassingly small 5 per cent of everything we believe there is in the Universe. If dark matter is really matter of some kind, then it’s simply missing from our best theory of matter. Changing one or more of the constants that govern the physics of our Universe by even the smallest amount would render the Universe inhospitable to life, or even physically impossible. We have no explanation for why the laws and constants of physics appear so ‘fine-tuned’ to evolve a Goldilocks universe that is just right.

These are very, very stubborn problems, and our best theories are full of explanatory holes. Bringing them together in a putative theory of everything has proved to be astonishingly difficult. Despite much effort over the past 50 years, there is no real consensus on how this might be done. And, to make matters considerably worse, we’ve run out of evidence. The theorists have been cunning and inventive. They have plenty of metaphysical ideas but there are no empirical signposts telling them which path they should take. They are ideas-rich, but data-poor.

They’re faced with a choice.

Do they pull up short, draw back and acknowledge that, without even the promise of empirical data to test their ideas, there is little or nothing more that can be done in the name of science? Do they throw their arms in the air in exasperation and accept that there might be things that science just can’t explain right now?

In the absence of facts, what constitutes ‘the best explanation’?

Or do they plough on regardless, publishing paper after paper filled with abstract mathematics that they can interpret to be explanatory of the physics, in the absence of data, for example in terms of a multiverse? Do they not only embrace the metaphysics but also allow their theories to be completely overwhelmed by it? Do they pretend that they can think their way to real physics, ignoring Einstein’s caution:

Time and again the passion for understanding has led to the illusion that man is able to comprehend the objective world rationally by pure thought without any empirical foundations – in short, by metaphysics.

I think you know the answer. But to argue that this is nevertheless still science requires some considerable mental gymnastics. Some just double-down. The theoretical physicist David Deutsch has declared that the multiverse is as real as the dinosaurs once were, and we should just ‘get over it’. Martin Rees, Britain’s Astronomer Royal, declares that the multiverse is not metaphysics but exciting science, which ‘may be true’, and on which he’d bet his dog’s life. Others seek to shift or undermine any notion of a demarcation criterion by wresting control of the narrative. One way to do this is to call out all the problems with Popper’s falsifiability that were acknowledged already many years ago by philosophers of science. Doing this allows them to make their own rules, while steering well clear of the real issue – the complete absence of even the promise of any tension between ideas and facts.

Sean Carroll, a vocal advocate for the Many-Worlds interpretation, prefers abduction, or what he calls ‘inference to the best explanation’, which leaves us with theories that are merely ‘parsimonious’, a matter of judgment, and ‘still might reasonably be true’. But whose judgment? In the absence of facts, what constitutes ‘the best explanation’?

Carroll seeks to dress his notion of inference in the cloth of respectability provided by something called Bayesian probability theory, happily overlooking its entirely subjective nature. It’s a short step from here to the theorist-turned-philosopher Richard Dawid’s efforts to justify the string theory programme in terms of ‘theoretically confirmed theory’ and ‘non-empirical theory assessment’. The ‘best explanation’ is then based on a choice between purely metaphysical constructs, without reference to empirical evidence, based on the application of a probability theory that can be readily engineered to suit personal prejudices.

Welcome to the oxymoron that is post-empirical science.

Still, what’s the big deal? So what if a handful of theoretical physicists want to indulge their inner metaphysician and publish papers that few outside their small academic circle will ever read? But look back to the beginning of this essay. Whether they intend it or not (and trust me, they intend it), this stuff has a habit of leaking into the public domain, dripping like acid into the very foundations of science. The publication of Carroll’s book Something Deeply Hidden, about the Many-Worlds interpretation, has been accompanied by an astonishing publicity blitz, including an essay on Aeon last month. A recent PBS News Hour piece led with the observation that: ‘The “Many-Worlds” theory in quantum mechanics suggests that, with every decision you make, a new universe springs into existence containing what amounts to a new version of you.’

Physics is supposed to be the hardest of the ‘hard sciences’. It sets standards by which we tend to judge all scientific endeavour. And people are watching.

The historian of science Helge Kragh has spent some considerable time studying the ‘higher speculations’ that have plagued foundational physics throughout its history. On the multiverse, in Higher Speculations (2011) he concluded (again, the italics are mine):

But, so it has been argued, intelligent design is hardly less testable than many multiverse theories. To dismiss intelligent design on the ground that it is untestable, and yet to accept the multiverse as an interesting scientific hypothesis, may come suspiciously close to applying double standards. As seen from the perspective of some creationists, and also by some non-creationists, their cause has received unintended methodological support from multiverse physics.

Unsurprisingly, the folks at the Discovery Institute, the Seattle-based think-tank for creationism and intelligent design, have been following the unfolding developments in theoretical physics with great interest. The Catholic evangelist Denyse O’Leary, writing for the Institute’s Evolution News blog in 2017, suggests that: ‘Advocates [of the multiverse] do not merely propose that we accept faulty evidence. They want us to abandon evidence as a key criterion for acceptance of their theory.’ The creationists are saying, with some justification: look, you accuse us of pseudoscience, but how is what you’re doing in the name of science any different? They seek to undermine the authority of science as the last word on the rational search for truth.

The philosophers Don Ross, James Ladyman and David Spurrett have argued that a demarcation criterion is a matter for institutions, not individuals. The institutions of science impose norms and standards and provide sense-checks and error filters that should in principle exclude claims to objective scientific knowledge derived from pure metaphysics. But, despite efforts by the cosmologist George Ellis and the astrophysicist Joe Silk to raise a red flag in 2014 and call on some of these institutions to ‘defend the integrity of physics’, nothing has changed. Ladyman seems resigned: ‘Widespread error about fundamentals among experts can and does happen,’ he tells me. He believes a correction will come in the long run, when a real scientific breakthrough is made. But what damage might be done while we wait for a breakthrough that might never come?

Perhaps we should begin with a small first step. Let’s acknowledge that theoretical physicists are perfectly entitled to believe, write and say whatever they want, within reason. But is it asking too much that they make their assertions with some honesty? Instead of ‘the multiverse exists’ and ‘it might be true’, is it really so difficult to say something like ‘the multiverse has some philosophical attractions, but it is highly speculative and controversial, and there is no evidence for it’? I appreciate that such caveats get lost or become mangled when transferred into a popular media obsessed with sensation, but this would then be a failure of journalism or science writing, rather than a failure of scientific integrity.

The abuses of Popper

A powerful cadre of scientists and economists sold Karl Popper’s ‘falsification’ idea to the world. They have much to answer for

Charlotte Sleigh is professor of science humanities and honorary professor in history at the University of Kent, UK. Her books include Literature and Science (2010), The Paper Zoo (2016) and Human (2020), co-authored with Amanda Rees. She lives in Canterbury, Kent.

Edited by Marina Benjamin

16 February 2021 (

If you ask philosophically minded researchers – in the Anglophone world at least – why it is that science works, they will almost always point to the philosopher Karl Popper (1902-94) for vindication. Science, they explain, doesn’t presume to provide the final answer to any question, but contents itself with trying to disprove things. Science, so the Popperians claim, is an implacable machine for destroying falsehoods.

Popper spent his youth in Vienna, among the liberal intelligentsia. His father was a lawyer and bibliophile, and an intimate of Sigmund Freud’s sister Rosa Graf. Popper’s early vocations draw him to music, cabinet making and educational philosophy, but he earned his doctorate in psychology from the University of Vienna in 1928. Realising that an academic post abroad offered escape from an increasingly antisemitic Austria (Popper’s grandparents were all Jewish, though he himself had been baptised into Lutheranism), he scrambled to write his first book. This was published as Logik der Forschung (1935), or The Logic of Scientific Discovery, and in it he put forward his method of falsification. The process of science, wrote Popper, was to conjecture a hypothesis and then attempt to falsify it. You must set up an experiment to try to prove your hypothesis wrong. If it is disproved, you must renounce it. Herein, said Popper, lies the great distinction between science and pseudoscience: the latter will try to protect itself from disproof by massaging its theory. But in science it is all or nothing, do or die.

Karl Popper, 1987. Photo by Süddeutsche Zeitung/Alamy

Popper warned scientists that, while experimental testing might get you nearer and nearer to the truth of your hypothesis via corroboration, you cannot and must not ever proclaim yourself correct. The logic of induction means that you’ll never collect the infinite mass of evidence necessary to be certain in all possible cases, so it’s better to consider the body of scientific knowledge not so much true as not-yet-disproved, or provisionally true. With his book in hand, Popper obtained a university position in New Zealand. From afar, he watched the fall of Austria to Nazism, and commenced work on a more political book, The Open Society and its Enemies (1945). Shortly after the war, he moved to the UK, where he remained for the rest of his life.

For all its appealing simplicity, falsification was quickly demolished by philosophers, who showed that it was an untenable way of looking at science. In any real experimental set-up, they pointed out, it’s impossible to isolate a single hypothetical element for disproof. Yet for decades, Popperianism has nonetheless remained popular among scientists themselves, in spite of its potentially harmful side-effects. Why should this be?

It was a group of biologists that gave Popper his first scientific hearing. They met as the Theoretical Biology Club in the 1930s and ’40s, at the University of Oxford, at house parties in Surrey, and latterly in London too. Popper visited them both before and after the war, as they wrestled with evolutionary theory and with establishing connections between their different biological specialisms. During the prewar period in particular, evolutionary biology was – depending on one’s outlook – either excitingly complex or confusingly jumbled. Neat theories of Mendelian evolution, where discrete characteristics were inherited on the toss of a chromosomal coin, competed to explain evolution with arcane statistical descriptions of genetic qualities, continuously graded across populations. Meanwhile the club’s leading light, Joseph Henry Woodger, hoped for a philosophically tight way of clarifying the notoriously flaky biological concept of ‘organicism’. Perhaps Popper’s clarifying rigour could help to sort it all out.

Photo supplied by the author

It is a striking fact that Popper’s most vocal fans came from the biological and field sciences: John Eccles, the Australian neurophysiologist; Clarence Palmer, the New Zealand meteorologist; Geoffrey Leeper, an Australian soil scientist. Even Hermann Bondi, an Austrian-British physical scientist, who operated at the speculative end of cosmology. In other words, it was the scientists whose work could least easily be potted in an attempted laboratory disproof – Popper’s method – who turned to Popper for vindication. This is odd. Presumably, they hoped for some epistemological heft for their work. To take a wider angle on the mystery, we might note the ‘physics envy’ sometimes attributed to 20th-century field scientists: the comparative lack of respect they experienced in both scientific and public circles. Popper seemed to offer salvation to this particular ill.

We don’t conclude we’ve disproved well-established laws of physics – rather, that our experiment was faulty

Among the eager philosophical scientists of the Theoretical Biology Club was a young man named Peter Medawar. Shortly after the Second World War, Medawar was drafted into a lab researching tissue transplantation, where he began a Nobel-winning career in the biological sciences. In his several books for popular audiences, and in his BBC Reith lectures of 1959, he consistently credited Popper for the success of science, becoming the most prominent Popperian of all. (In turn, Richard Dawkins credited Medawar as ‘chief spokesman for “The Scientist” in the modern world’, and has spoken positively of falsifiability.) In Medawar’s radio lectures, Popper’s trademark ‘commonsense’ philosophy was very much on display, and he explained with great clarity how even hypotheses about the genetic future of mankind could be tested experimentally along Popperian lines. In 1976, Medawar secured Popper his most prestigious recognition yet: a fellowship, rare among non-scientists, at the scientific Royal Society of London.

While all this was going on, three philosophers were pulling the rug away beneath the Popperians’ feet. They argued that, when an experiment fails to prove a hypothesis, any element of the physical or theoretical set-up could be to blame. Nor can any single disproof ever count against a theory, since we can always put in a good-faith auxiliary hypothesis to protect it: perhaps the lab mice weren’t sufficiently inbred to produce genetic consistency; perhaps the chemical reaction occurs only in the presence of a particular catalyst. Moreover, we have to protect some theories for the sake of getting on at all. Generally, we don’t conclude that we have disproved well-established laws of physics – rather, that our experiment was faulty. And yet the Popperians were undaunted. What did they see in him?

The historian Neil Calver argued in 2013 that members of the Royal Society were swayed less by Popper’s epistemological rules for research than by his philosophical chic. During the 1960s, they had been pummelled by the ‘two cultures’ debate that cast them as jumped-up technicians in comparison with the esteemed makers of high culture. Philosophy was a good cultural weapon with which to respond, since it demonstrated affinity with the arts. In particular, Popper’s account of what came before falsification in research was a good defence of the ‘cultural’ qualities of science. He described this stage as ‘conjecture’, an act of imagination. Medawar and others made great play of this scientific creativity in order to sustain cultural kudos for their field. Their Popper was not the Popper of falsification at all, but another Popper of wishful interpretation.

Although important to its participants, the two cultures debate was a storm in an institutional teacup. During the 1950s and ’60s, when Popper’s Logik der Forschung was available in English (The Logic of Scientific Discovery, 1959), clouds were gathering that threatened to flood out more than the chinaware of the Royal Society. In the public mind, the scientist was becoming a dangerous figure, the bogeyman responsible for the atomic bomb. Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove (1964), played in so memorably deranged a fashion by Peter Sellers, was the embodiment of the type. Strangelove struck at the heart of Popperian ideals, an unreconstructed Nazi operating at the military-industrial nerve-centre of the ‘free world’. As such, he reflected the real-life stories of Nazi war criminals imported by Operation Paperclip to the US to assist in the Cold War effort – a whitewashing project uncovered as early as 1951 by The Boston Globe. Against such a backdrop, the epistemic modesty of Popperian science was appealing indeed. Real scientists, in the Popperian mode, abjured all politics, all truths. They didn’t attempt to know the atom, still less to win wars. They merely attempted to disprove things. As Medawar put it in The Hope of Progress (1972):

The Wicked Scientist is not to be taken seriously … There are, however, plenty of wicked philosophers, wicked priests and wicked politicians.

Falsification was a recipe to proclaim personal modesty as well. In an interview in 2017 for the Oral History of British Science project, the crystallographer John Helliwell rejected, with some embarrassment, the notion that he might have been responsible for any revolutionary ‘paradigm shift’ in science (the coinage of Popper’s contemporary, Thomas Kuhn), when he pioneered a new method for visualising proteins and viruses, reaching instead for the humble method of falsification to describe his work.

It was, and remains, intellectually shortsighted to disconnect science and ethics in this way

One person’s modesty, however, can be another person’s denial of responsibility. A darker way of rendering the Popper vs Strangelove story is to say that falsification offers moral non-accountability to its adherents. A scientist can never be accused of supporting the wrong cause if their work is not about confirmation. Popper himself declared that science is an essentially theoretical business. Yet it was a naïve scientist working during the Cold War who didn’t realise the significance of their funding source and the implications of their research. Medawar, for example, knew full well that his own field of immunology sprang directly from attempts at skin grafting and transplantation on wounded victims of the Second World War. Moreover, he was perfectly aware of the high body-count involved in its experiments (including the use of guillotined criminals in France) – by no means unethical in all cases, but certainly far from theoretical.

Microscopic slides showing the development of grafted tissue, from an early paper by Peter Medawar. Courtesy the Wellcome Library

The Popperian get-out clause was deployed in that most controversial of 20th-century sciences, eugenics. Medawar didn’t hesitate to deploy the supposed moral non-accountability of science in defending eugenics, the topic that furnished the basis of his BBC lectures and much that followed. His argument was a subtle one, separating the science of eugenics into two types. ‘Positive’ eugenics – the creation of a perfect race – he characterised as bad because it was (a) Nazi, and (b) an unfalsifiable scientific goal – un-Popperian on two counts. This left the field clear for Medawar to lend his support to ‘negative’ eugenics, the deliberate prevention of conception by carriers of certain genetic conditions. This, claimed Medawar, was a strictly scientific (that is, Popperian) question, and didn’t touch upon matters of ethics. It was something of an invidious argument.

With Popperian impatience over so-called mere semantics, Medawar brushed away worries that the eugenic word ‘fitness’ implied a judgment about who was ‘fit’ or not to be a part of society. Rather, Medawar claimed, it was a mere tag of convenience for an idea that had perfect clarity among evolutionary biologists. Ordinary people shouldn’t worry themselves about its implications; the important thing was that scientists had it straight in their minds. Science merely provided the facts; it was for the potential parent to decide. On one level, this sounds innocuous – and Medawar was by no means a bad person. But it was, and remains, intellectually shortsighted to disconnect science and ethics in this way. To suppose a situation in which a potential parent will exercise a perfect and unencumbered liberal choice lends unwarranted impartiality to the scientific facts. In reality, economics or politics might force that parent’s hand. A more extreme example makes the case clear: if a scientist explains nuclear technology to a bellicose despot, but leaves the ethical choice of deployment to the despot, we wouldn’t say that the scientist had acted responsibly.

As he prepared his lectures on the ‘future of man’, Medawar speculated that biological ‘fitness’ was in fact best understood as an economic phenomenon:

[I]t is, in effect, a system of pricing the endowment of organisms in the currency of offspring: ie, in terms of net reproductive performance.

Making such a connection – between the hidden hand of nature and the apparently impartial decisions of the market – was a hot way to read Popper. His greatest fans outside the scientific community were, in fact, economists. At the London School of Economics, Popper was close to the neoliberal theorist Friedrich Hayek. He also taught the soon-to-be billionaire George Soros, who named his Open Society Foundations (formerly, the Open Society Institute) after Popper’s most famous book. Along with Hayek and several others, Popper founded the Mont Pelerin Society, promoting marketisation and privatisation around the world.

Popper’s appointment to a fellowship at the Royal Society marked the demise of a powerful strand of socialist leadership in British science that had begun in the 1930s with the cadre of talented and public-facing researchers (J D Bernal, J B S Haldane and others) whom the historian Gary Werskey in 1978 dubbed ‘the visible college’. Indeed, Popper had encountered many of them during his prewar visits to the Theoretical Biology Club. While they were sharpening their complex science against the edge of Popper’s philosophy, he might well have been whetting his anti-Marxist inclinations against their socialised vision of science – even, perhaps, their personalities. What Popper did in The Open Society was take the biologists’ politicising of science and attach it to antifascism. Science and politics were connected, but not in the way that the socialists claimed. Rather, science was a special example of the general liberal virtues that can be cultivated only in the absence of tyranny.

After the war, the commitment of visible-college scientists to nation-building saw them involved in many areas of governmental, educational and public life. The Popperians hated them. In The Road to Serfdom (1944), Hayek warned that they were ‘totalitarians in our midst’, plotting to create a Marxist regime. They should leave well alone, he argued, and accept that their lab work bore no connection to social questions. Hayek’s bracketing off of governance was no more plausible in science than it was in economics. The greatest myth of neoliberalism is that it represents a neutral political perspective – a commitment to non-meddling – when in fact it must be sustained through aggressive pro-business propaganda and the suppression of organised labour. So, while Soros’s social activism has done much good in the world, it has been funded through economic activity that depends upon a systematic repression of debate and of human beings for its success. Having a philosophical cover-story for this kind of neoliberalism, that likens it to (Popperian) science, does it no harm at all.

In thinking and writing about Popper, one becomes very conscious of antisemitism. Popper fled Nazi hatred in 1930s Austria; today, Soros is the victim of antisemitic slurs that would be ridiculous were it not for the history and the real threat of continued violence in which they are rooted. We do well to remember the biographical reasons that Popper had for advancing an open society, and for trying to redeem science from the sins committed by Nazi researchers. The sly elision of fascist and socialist science as the opponent to Popperianism – sometimes deliberate, sometimes unconscious – is a move for which it’s more difficult to find sympathy.

It doesn’t take much time online to find examples of Popperianism wielded by climate change deniers

Science is profoundly altered when considered analogous to the open market. The notion that scientific theories vie with one another in open competition overlooks the fact that research ambitions and funding choices are shaped by both big-p and small-p politics. There is a reason why more scientific progress has been made in drugs for the treatment of diseases of wealth than of poverty. Moreover, career success in science – which shapes future research agendas when a person becomes a leader in their field – is a matter profoundly inflected by gender, race, class and dis/ability.

Scientists refused Popper’s distinction between science and ethics in Science for the People (this issue from 1974). Courtesy the Wellcome Library

Some unscrupulous researchers even used a Popperian frame to become, precisely, the ‘wicked scientists’ whose existence Medawar denied. As the historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway describe in Merchants of Doubt (2010), scientists in the US and the UK were co-opted as lobbyists for tobacco companies during the late-20th century to cast doubt upon research that revealed a link between smoking and cancer. No such link could be proved, in Popperian terms; and that room for doubt was ruthlessly exploited by the scientists’ paymasters. Many of the same scientists went on to work for fossil fuel lobbyists, casting doubt on the science of anthropogenic climate change. It doesn’t take much time on a search engine to find examples of Popperianism wielded by deniers. In a YouTube video from 2019, the Clear Energy Alliance (which DeSmog Blog lists as funded by oil interests) called upon the ‘legendary scientific philosopher Karl Popper’. The group’s central claim is that: ‘In order to know if a theory could be true, there must be a way to prove it to be false. Unfortunately, many climate change scientists, the media and activists are ignoring this cornerstone of science.’ At the same time, academics at recognised universities write scholarly sounding papers for the libertarian, neoliberal and sceptic Cato Institute arguing that ‘Popper’s evolutionary epistemology captures … the essence of science, but the conduct of climate science today is a far cry from [it]’. Such writers typically hail from the fields of economics and policy rather than science; untroubled by the critique of scientists, Popper’s contested and outdated account of science suits them perfectly.

While Hayek et al held the smoking gun of Popperian mischief, there were well-intentioned reasons for sticking with a simple model of sceptical science. Not least that it dovetailed with the meritocratic narrative of postwar science: the notion that science, more than any other discipline, suited the upwardly mobile working and middle classes. It takes a particular kind of education and upbringing to see the aesthetics of completion, or grasp the mathematics of proof, but any smart kid can poke holes in something. If that’s what science is, then it’s open to anyone, no matter their social class. This was the meritocratic dream of educationalists in the 1950s: Britain would, in mutually supportive vein, be culturally modern and intellectually scientific.

That dream backfired. The notion that science is all about falsification has done incalculable damage not just to science but to human wellbeing. It has normalised distrust as the default condition for knowledge-making, while setting an unreachable and unrealistic standard for the scientific enterprise. Climate sceptics demand precise predictions of an impossible kind, yet seize upon a single anomalous piece of data to claim to have disproved the entire edifice of combined research; anti-vaxxers exploit the impossibility of any ultimate proof of safety to fuel their destructive activism. In this sense, Popperianism has a great deal to answer for.


When you understand the difference between longing and desire it will change your life.

Opening ourselves to longing, activates powerful forces that will move our lives and life itself towards higher possibilities of love and truth. Longing arises from a dimension that is deeper than your individual sense of self – deeper than your soul. It arises from the unknown and comes through us into this world.
Longing comes from the divine forces of love and evolution, itself, bringing new potentials into existence. Something greater waits for us, needs us to awaken and surrender to its power, love and creativity. If you pay close attention, when you begin to feel the longing you can sense that its a two-way affair. Something is longing for you and through you, and that is where the immense power (and beauty) lie.Generally, we focus on our human desires. People ask us what we want and need. We are told to feel our desires. Desire, however, comes from our limited sense of identity, from our survival and egoic patterns. Of course, it’s important to understand ourselves and care for our needs, but there is something so much greater that can move everything and create possibilities you can’t imagine.In life, our desires give us a kind of ‘menu’ to order from. Longing puts things on the ‘menu’ that don’t exist inside our current reality. It reveals potentials that are waiting for us to open into, potentials that don’t fit into the life we have, but transform us and attract what we need to live from our true purpose in being here. Longing can be counted on to shatter the compromise in our lives and activate our true potentials.Longing has an interesting quality of making us restless and hungry for something we can’t explain.In the practice you are about to do, focus on listening to the edges of your experience. That’s where longing is trying to lure you and bring you beyond where you are. In this practice, I suggest that you let yourself feel, long for, what you truly want, for love, life and humanity, even if it seems impractical or unlikely.What if it was possible for humanity to move beyond the divisiveness, narrow mindedness, selfishness, deceit, fear and laziness that we assume is human nature? What if it was possible for humanity to exist inside a shared consciousness where love, kindness and compassion was normal? What if our human ambition was collectively devoted to what I call ‘divinizing’ our world or making it more good, true and beautiful?
Can you sense the deeper evolutionary longing within you, that is tired of power structures, insensitivity, competitiveness and other elements that we assume we have to live inside of with acceptance?You may discover a smoldering passion and a fire within you that wants to risk everything for something greater that honors all of who you are and all of what you can give. image
Real revolutions begin with longing. I have a dear friend whose Aunt Betty was Betty Friedan who wrote the Feminine Mystique in 1963, a book that ignited the modern day women’s movement. Betty felt a restlessness and longing for something more than the traditional roles available to her as a woman. She was not alone in experiencing the stirrings of discontent but fortunately she allowed the longing to emerge and burst forth into the light of day. She wrote the book and welcomed others to awaken similarly. The longing grew in everyone and began to create a new reality that is still evolving today.Now we need to welcome the longing for how humanity can evolve, how we can actualize a higher order of human relatedness.There’s a whole new dimension of love and consciousness that will shape our world that comes from unity, intimacy and interconnectedness, if we can embrace it.Longing leads us to the unknown, to something greater that is reaching towards us. Longing allows us to ‘grope’ our way forward and to be a vehicle for evolution.Let yourself long for how love could be in life and in our world.Go beyond acceptance and sense into the realm of possibility.Evolution has taken us from light to matter to life on earth, from being single celled creatures to Shakespeare and space travel.Don’t you think we can actually evolve beyond our competitiveness, selfishness and fear?Let yourself long for the kind of world we would actually feel at home in?
What’s possible between us?
What’s possible for you?

Patricia Albere ( February 27, 2021

Photographers Make Kids’ Wildest Dreams Come To Life

February 26, 2021 (


Barbershop Boys: Kybrien Niane, Liam Pyram and Dorien WatsonKahran and Regis Bethencourt

Atlanta photographers Regis and Kahran Bethencourt think of themselves as “dream makers.”

That’s because the couple makes kids’ wildest dreams come true in portrait shoots. The results are conceptual, highly stylized photos of children dressed as visions plucked straight from their imaginations.

The Bethencourts hope the portraits transcend the typical images of beauty.

“We get so many amazing ideas,” Kahran told NPR’s Morning Edition.

Fairytale Lion: Jhene Santana BrownKahran and Regis Bethencourt

Jhene Santana Brown, 15, a client from Providence, R.I., wanted to become a fairytale lion.

“I just loved lions and my favorite movie is Narnia,” Brown said. “So I wanted it to be fierce but also soft and kind.”

Renaissance Man: Whitcliff McKnightKahran and Regis Bethencourt

Twelve-year-old Whitcliff McKnight, a client from Smyrna, Ga., had a session that involved three distinct costumes. The inspiration: “renaissance man.” That’s what his mom calls him.

“The first [portrait] comes from my love of travel and foreign languages and the arts,” McKnight said. “The athlete theme comes from the sports I play, including soccer and basketball. And the futuristic type of theme comes from my love of video games.”

Mermaid: Alaya BartonKahran and Regis Bethencourt

The shoots are affirming, says Dr. Terica Barton of Tampa, Fla, whose 8-year-old daughter, Alaya, transformed into an underwater mermaid for her portrait.Article continues after sponsor message

“I think it’s absolutely important for little African American children and children of all races just because it shows them and highlights their beauty, it highlights their difference,” Barton said. “And sometimes it’s difficult in this country raising children that aren’t the majority and instilling in them the beauty and their differences and making them celebrate their differences and their culture.”

General: D’Zion ThompsonKahran and Regis Bethencourt

(left to right) Drummer: Evan “Jazz” Wright Futuristic Girl: Raine Douglas Futuristic Girl: Legend PearlKahran and Regis Bethencourt

Albinism Awareness Activist: Ava ClarkeKahran and Regis Bethencourt

Cover of Glory by Kahran and Regis Bethencourt

St. Martin’s Press

That beauty is encapsulated in Glory: Magical Visions of Black Beauty, which features more than 100 photographs.

“We really wanted to shatter the conventional standards of beauty for Black kids. We highlighted a variety of kids across the African diaspora,” Kahran said. “We bring to life past, present and future visions of Black culture.”

Each child in the book has their own unique backstory: an 8-year-old who is already a neuroscience expert, a 10-year-old DJ and a little girl who learned to read at the age of 1.

Activist: Trinity SimoneKahran and Regis Bethencourt

Baroque Princess: Zoe Polley-Flowers Dolls: Naija Alcantra & Aileen Vasquez Lion’s Mane: Farouk JamesKahran and Regis Bethencourt

Futuristic Girl: Nevaeh CamaraKahran and Regis Bethencourt

Cajun Barbie: Koryn Moore Reading Doll: Nailah Stallworth Little Miss Flint: Mari CopenyKahran and Regis Bethencourt

Pilot: Aa’Zion DawkinsKahran and Regis Bethencourt

“We were noticing all these kids that we were running across on a daily basis who just didn’t have the platform,” Kahran said. “And so we definitely want to be able to use our platform to highlight them and highlight their excellence and highlight everything that they’re doing so that the world can see kind of this Black excellence on display.”

And that is, simply put, Regis says, “being yourself unapologetically.”

(Submitted by Michael Kelly, H.W.)

Word-built world: Peripeteia

peripeteia/ˌpɛrɪpɪˈtʌɪə,ˌpɛrɪpɪˈtiːə/nounFORMALnoun: peripeteia; plural noun: peripeteias

  1. a sudden reversal of fortune or change in circumstances, especially in reference to fictional narrative.”the peripeteias of the drama”


late 16th century: from Greek peripeteia ‘sudden change’, from peri- ‘around’ + the stem of piptein ‘to fall’.

To the core

A devastating loss can shatter the façade we put up for others, exposing our deepest, rawest self. A work of art can do the same

Sehnsucht (‘Longing’) by the Nederlands Dans Theater at Sadler’s Wells, London, in 2014. Photo by Leo Mason/Popperfoto/Getty

Julia F Christensen

is a senior research fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics in Frankfurt, Germany, and author of Tanzen Ist Die Beste Medizin (2018), or ‘Dance is the Best Medicine’, forthcoming in English in 2022.

Edited by Pam Weintraub

26 February 2021 (

‘Don’t show off! Don’t pretend to be, be!’

The piercing voice of my stern ballet teacher with the stick and the square glasses still echoes in my mind. These two sentences were standard at almost every rehearsal when I was a young ballet student. Something about how we danced wasn’t quite right, even though, technically, what we were doing was correct. ‘The audience won’t look at you just because you do a perfect grand jeté!’ he howled at me in a temper tantrum just before a show. His desperation with us was more painful than the blisters on our feet in the pointe shoes.

The conundrum remained, until one day, him being French, he exclaimed: ‘Mais nooo, je veux du vrai!’ (‘No! I want something real!’) Now, finally, I got it. Authenticity can mean true to provenance, or faithful to a model. For existentialists, authenticity implies truthfulness and genuineness of expression, to be true to yourself.

It’s true. We young ballet students were rather preoccupied with the looks of our dance moves, with technical perfection and whether our arms and legs traced the right lines and shapes. ‘Be ourselves’ was something we did, only at night, in the discotheques, but not in a formal ballet performance on stage.

We were wrong. What we should have asked ourselves is this: does it make a difference to a viewer if a movement is ‘du vrai’ or just technically correct and pretty? Today, I’m a psychologist and neuroscientist who studies dance from a scientific point of view. Our experiments show that it matters a lot.

Together with Manos Tsakiris, a neuroscientist at the Warburg Institute in London, we invited a group of dancers to perform different sequences. Each sequence was filmed twice: once, danced to technical perfection, and then a second time, endowed, in addition, with the dancer’s personal expressivity, ‘du vrai’. We blurred the dancers’ faces on the videos and made the clips black and white. We then asked people to rate them, one by one, in terms of how much they liked each clip. Of course, we didn’t tell people that they were watching two categories of clips. Can you guess? People with no dance experience at all preferred dance movements that had ‘du vrai’, over the very same movements when they were performed with mere technical perfection.

Ballet aside, there is an authentic ‘me’ inside all of us. This self contains our true thoughts and feelings, our personality, our wishes, dreams and fears, everything that makes us us. The true self is genuinely present, unmuffled, and visible to anyone who cares to look. However, according to the teachings of the Danish existentialist Søren Kierkegaard, most of us outwardly live as an unauthentic me, a façade. ‘Unauthentic me’ is ‘me’ plus layers of social convention added on the outside, like a coating, to make the outside appearance appealing to others and ourselves. For example, that fake smile that you put on to greet the colleague you don’t like? According to Kierkegaard and other existentialists, this smile corrupts you.

The first scientific assessment of true and fake smiles resulted in what we today know as the ‘Duchenne smile’. In the 19th century, the French neurologist Guillaume Duchenne studied the physiology of the smile, and found that true smiles and fake smiles require different facial muscles. A Duchenne smile raises two sets of muscles, both corners of the mouth (the ‘cheek raiser’ or zygomatic major muscle, a muscle that makes the mouth corners go upwards), and it tickles the muscles around the eyes (the orbicularis oculi). A fake smile, the toothpaste-ad smile, doesn’t have this interplay between different facial muscle groups. And here’s the catch: we can’t control this. A true smile engages the muscles of our face in a different way than if we try to smile at will. In today’s modern psychological experiments, when asked to rate genuineness, people distinguish between the two types of smiles in a split second, even without being aware of these muscle differences.

We make split-second judgments about people, and we’re often right with these hunches

Neuroscientists have studied what happens in the brain when we look at authentic, true smiles and pretend-smiles: our brain catches these subtle changes very efficiently! The process also functions the other way around: people who have their face ‘coated’ with Botox injections for a smoother façade, in fact, incapacitate the orbicularis oculi around the eyes. This means that they can’t smile genuinely anymore.

This muscle is important for many genuine emotional expressions. In 2011, the psychologists David Neal and Tanya Chartrand, from the University of Southern California and Duke University respectively, compared a group of women who’d had a Botox injection with a group who hadn’t. They asked both groups to look at photographs of different people, and to rate how strongly these were expressing their feelings. Can you guess? The Botox group simply didn’t feel others’ emotions as strongly. Several studies have confirmed and extended these findings since then. People without a functioning orbicularis oculi and other facial muscles experience a flattening of their emotional life. What remains is a sleek outside coating with no sense for true expressivity, ‘du vrai’.

Our body language reflects our authentic self, too. A string of studies has shown that children and adults distinguish very well between genuine and staged bodily expressions of emotions. This is true even when researchers remove all information from the video clips, and participants see only little dot figures moving on a screen.

Authentic expressivity in movement indicates deeper biological qualities that are otherwise difficult to grasp from the outside. Researchers have used freestyle dancing as a way to assess people’s authentic and unmuffled body language. In one such study, where women were asked to watch dance videos, men were judged to be better dancers if their movements suggested greater fitness and strength.

In short, someone might be saying positive words while their body language communicates an entirely different story to our brain. Much research today shows that we make split-second judgments about people, and we’re often right with these hunches. Something feels off about that person? That’s probably your brain telling you that something might not be quite genuine about their expression.

For sure, life in society mandates certain conventions, certain rules and laws that enable us to live together peacefully, so that my freedom doesn’t intrude on yours. However, sometimes these rules and conventions take over, and our behaviour becomes a performance that never stops, a pretence that has little to do with our true thoughts and feelings.

The human masquerade has got something to do with how our brain works. During the Palaeolithic, while modern humans were still evolving, it made good sense to cluster together in groups. Having a brain that likes to belong made our ancestors stronger and more likely to survive attacks, the cold and other adversities. Besides, on a basic biological level, our bodies need social contact. We need physical closeness to maintain homeostasis, or physiological stability. Hugs, caresses, smiles and a glance in the eyes are potent biochemical signals to our brain, giving our immune system a boost and activating the relaxation response in the body. The pleasure and comforting feelings that we derive from social interaction are the result of precisely these biochemical processes.

Thanks to a complex neurohormone cocktail of bonding hormones, our brain happens to like and to bond with those who move like us, look like us, and like the same things as us. In fact, our brain has an in-built tendency toward conformity. When we behave within the norms of our group, this pings our reward system. It motivates our brain to pretend to be as expected. We feel the pleasant knock of pleasure when we please our peers. Our brain literally includes the hardware to connect with others, and to conform and to adapt.

But sometimes we overdo it. This conformity-reward brain-link can take us far from ourselves; when we pay too little attention to ‘le vrai’, we create a gap, between who we really are and our image.

That’s when existentialists such as Kierkegaard, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Martin Heidegger roar out loud to make us understand that acting in accordance with our true self is the only authentic way to propel our lives. But are they correct? Are there actually benefits for those inclined to reduce the gap between our self and the image we give? Important psychological research shows that the answer to the above question is yes.

People vary hugely in how well they can consciously name these coded messages from the body

There are two levels of authenticity – your own subjective sense of self and what others perceive; if you’re not authentic to yourself, you’re not authentic to others. Empirical evidence suggests that people who are more driven by ‘exteroceptive’ signals from the environment than by ‘interoceptive’ signals from the body have poorer emotional awareness, fewer coping skills, and greater risk of developing anxiety, eating and other mental disorders than people who are able to pay more attention to interoceptive signals, who stay attuned to their inner self. In one study, the Israeli research scientist Yona Kifer and colleagues were able to show that even just recalling autobiographical episodes of authenticity, including moments where one felt completely genuine and true to one’s self, was related to significant increases in wellbeing and happiness.

Of course, some people’s brains are better at detecting ‘le vrai’ than others. Interoception is the perceptual sense that catches our bodily signals from within, and tells our conscious mind what’s going on, from attunement to heartbeats, aches and pains to the range of emotions. Psychologists sometimes refer to this ability as the sixth sense.

Research shows a strong relationship between our ability to detect interoceptive signals in our body and our ability to detect and correctly recognise both our own emotions and the emotional expressions of others. People vary hugely in how well they can consciously name these coded messages from the body. To assess this further, researchers use the ‘heartbeat detection task’. It has now become the gold standard to measure a person’s interoceptive accuracy. Participants are asked to count their own heartbeats, without taking their pulse and without knowing for how long they should do so. All the while, a researcher is monitoring their actual number of heart beats via some small electrodes attached to the participant’s chest. The counted number of heartbeats is compared with the actual number of heartbeats, leading to a metric designating the person’s level of attunement to their internal signals, and this has been labelled ‘interoceptive accuracy’.

Empirical evidence suggests that a high interoceptive accuracy can be an advantage. How tuned in we are to our own body influences how well we understand the signals that are expressed from our own and from another person’s body. In a typical emotion-recognition experiment, participants are asked to watch a series of photos or videos where actors show different emotional expressions. Participants are then asked to judge the emotions they see as quickly and correctly as they can. Artists, dancers and musicians often outperform people without any artistic training on such tasks, suggesting that maybe the training in bodily expression that these artists go through in itself makes them more attuned to the emotional expressions of others.

‘The daf [a Persian drum] takes me out of myself, and the tombak [another Persian drum] brings me back to myself. It feels like breathing,’ says the musician Mohammad Reza Mortazavi. ‘When I play, I’m playing with my ears, my heart, not with “notes”. I don’t want to control the music, it controls me instead, it is me.’

While artists engage with their art, they dive deep down, to where their true ‘me’ is, unconstrained by social conventions, unharmed and unimpressed by the hardships of everyday life.

Of course, sometimes hardship is an opportunity. Difficult times can peel away all the layers of social varnish – the artificial smile, the insincere greetings to people we don’t want to greet. The piercing pain of a break in our world is sometimes enough to elicit the purest ‘I’ and call forth the true self.

It is the year 1985. We’re in a small village on the Costa del Sol in Spain. It’s August – which means that the afternoon temperature reaches about 40ºC (104ºF). A man is looking, slightly puzzled, at his house on Calle Mariposa. It’s a beautiful house. A well-groomed garden with majestic palm trees decorates the path up to the grand wooden portal. White garden furniture is pleasantly arranged in the shade of a huge fig tree. The whole scene signals wealth. But the massive iron gate is locked, and the man’s key doesn’t seem to fit.

He doesn’t yet know what events are about to unfold. He’s a successful architect, a Dutch expat, who has established a new life in the sun with his beautiful wife. He had quickly become a respected and influential personality in the village where he now lived, and was renowned for his work. Until this day.

He had left the house in the morning for his daily chores and is now returning home for an afternoon nap in the shade, before his afternoon appointments.

He rings the bell several times. His wife doesn’t seem to be home. Strange. She would usually expect him at this time of day. So, instead, he goes to the café at the corner. This was the time before mobile phones, so there was nothing else to do than sit and wait. To have coffees, like the Spanish men do during the long, hot August afternoons. He has one after the other. Since he doesn’t carry any money, he just rings up a tab. He’ll pay later.

He then returns to the gates of his home, but the house lays empty. His wife doesn’t return. Not that evening. Not the following either. In fact, she’s not even in Spain anymore. But, at the time, the architect doesn’t know that. He goes to the police. He’s grown worried that something might have happened to her.

The police officer doesn’t ask ‘How long has she been missing?’ nor ‘Have you tried to call friends and family where she might be?’

Instead, he asks a very strange question: ‘Are you sure it’s your house?’

It was harder to put on that smile he’d fabricated for himself when he’d first arrived in the village

‘Yes, of course,’ the architect shrugs off the question as a bad joke, and fills in the missing person form. At the time, he doesn’t catch the subtle muscle twitches around mouth and eyes on the policeman’s face, giving away his true emotion.

‘He clearly knew something – already at that point,’ says Joe (not his real name) today. Something had felt off. But Joe didn’t see, not yet.

Many people in the village turned their back on him in the coming days and weeks, giggling at his ordeal while walking past him, smiling sugary-sweet. Joe told himself it would all be fine in the end, just one big misunderstanding. But it was harder to put on that confident-benevolent smile that he’d fabricated for himself when he’d first arrived in the village, to signal: ‘I’m a foreigner but I’m your friend.’

Joe secretly slept in the dunes at the beach for a week – it was still warm enough. He was able to have a bite to eat at some of the local restaurants from time to time, putting it on the tab. Every morning, he bathed in the sea.

He was sick with worry over his wife until a distant relative of one of her acquaintances gave him the score. ‘Don’t be a fool, Joe. Your wife has tricked you. Remember how you agreed to let her take care of all administrative duties? Well – now the house is in her name. As are all your assets. The house is on sale and she’s off to Barbados with her new lover.’

There had even been a goodbye party with some trusted friends.

What had gone wrong? One explanation is that in all the pretence, the show-off, the façade of the beautiful house, Joe had lost connection with himself. An even more likely explanation is that alienation from the self happens to many of us living as expats in cultures that are foreign to our own. As we try to fit in, to please our new peers, we lose connection with the cultural web that made us us – and, with this, we lose the connection to ourselves.

Joe had added too much social coating on the outside, inadvertently muffling his ability to detect warning signals about the genuineness of his external social world. His wife had had an affair, his house wasn’t his anymore, and the villagers didn’t really appreciate him. They played along only so long as he humoured them. For sure, there had been warning signals. Much neuroscience research shows that our brain picks up deceptive intents in the millisecond range. But Joe hadn’t seen them.

Without being fully aware of it, we receive messages from each other through six channels all the time: sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch and our interoception. Using the information that’s continuously arriving from the physical and social world, our brain is a true detector of ‘du vrai’.

In one experiment, researchers asked participants to listen to authentic and play-acted emotion in speech samples. In scans of their brains, they found that only the genuine utterances engaged the brain circuits involved in recognising another mind. When the utterance was play-acted, this window into understanding the other’s mind remained closed, in a neural sense. Another study compared genuine speech recorded from the radio with staged expressions by actors and non-actors alike. Participants judged the radio patter to be significantly more authentic. A computerised algorithm detected this difference too, and showed that enacted expressions of emotion have a different speech contour than genuine expressions. And this is the reason why they are inherently encoded differently at the basic physiological level by our brain.

Stephen Porges, a neuroscientist at Indiana University, says that our body’s physiology is directly modulated by our social environment. One pathway runs from the brain to facial muscles, including those controlling expression and eye contact. For instance, back at the Spanish Costa del Sol, the policeman’s facial expressions and body language made direct connection with Joe’s own nervous system – causing the striated muscles of Joe’s face to mirror ever so slightly what the policeman was really feeling, sending signals to Joe’s brain. Joe’s brain caught the mismatch – and perceived it as a gut-feeling that something was wrong, even if he couldn’t say why.

Perhaps this is because feeling authentic makes individuals feel morally adequate

Or maybe it was the handshake when Joe entered the police station? A handshake can tell us more within a few seconds than five minutes of conversation. That is because touch is a powerful communicator of interpersonal information through biochemicals that are transmitted via skin contact, such as androstenes and other signal molecules communicating emotion from fear to disgust. In one study, researchers obtained sweat samples from donors after they’d experienced episodes of disgust and fear. Another group of participants was asked to sniff these samples. All the while, the researchers were measuring their facial muscle activity with electromyography, a technique by which small electrodes on the face can detect the smallest of twitches. Astonishingly, the receivers showed the same emotional facial expressions and behavioural reactions associated with these states: disgust and fear. Could the policeman smell Joe’s fear?

Yet Joe’s inability to arrive at the truth is a harbinger of a trend we see today, online. ‘We live in a society powered by the image and external appearances like never before,’ says Tsakiris, who is a philosopher as well as a neuroscientist. Little is known about the long-term psychological impact of this relatively recent trend. The technical possibilities of image and video optimisation and manipulation are delicious and unlimited. But what does this do to our human brain? The fact is that we don’t yet know.

When we engage with fashion, beauty and self-promotion on social media, there are important psychological and also biological processes at play. This type of engagement focuses entirely on the outside image of the self and on the reaction of the outside to this picture. Some people take selfies while they drive cars, sometimes killing cyclists and pedestrians on the street around them. These atrocities are committed by normal, sentient human beings who would normally be guided by empathy to avoid harming other people at all costs.

It rests with future research to assess how activities that focus attention on external dimensions of image and status will reduce empathic abilities and the all-important connection to our interoceptive realm.

More authenticity would be better for society writ large. In 2012, the psychologist Diana Pinto and colleagues from the University of Leicester in the UK asked participants to fill out a questionnaire on the authenticity of their lives, through choices such as: ‘I don’t know how I feel inside,’ and ‘I usually do what other people tell me to do,’ or ‘I always stand by what I believe in.’ When faced with acts of unfairness in a second part of the study, the more authentic participants reacted with less aggression.

Perhaps this is because feeling authentic makes individuals feel morally adequate. Indeed, a study in 2015 by the behavioural scientist Francesca Gino from the Harvard Business School and her colleagues showed that feelings of inauthenticity filled people with psychological discomfort, even a sense of impurity, and made them more prone to compensatory behaviours such as repeated washing.

It’s easy to imagine that, during the time of Joe’s ordeal, the water supplier might have registered an unusually high water consumption in the area. Maybe the villagers around him felt the urge to wash their hands more often? Perhaps there was a surge in people attending church services, or maybe donations to Caritas (the NGO working to end poverty) received more donations than before.

The rock musician Jim Morrison is quoted as saying: ‘Most people love you for who you pretend to be. To keep their love, you keep pretending – performing.’

Joe felt this first-hand. He’d lost everything. The pain he felt at that news, and the fear for what might now happen to him, was visceral. It came from right inside him, ripping his chest, taking his breath. Not one thought was spent on external appearances and on fitting in anymore. His whole being turned inwards, terrified at the injury he’d suffered, and paralysed at the prospect of nothingness in his future.

Joe remembers this string of traumatic days in a blur. There is only one clear memory that haunts him to this day: walking in one direction through the village while everyone else is walking the other way, toward the main square of the city for the Assumption of Mary festivities on 15 August. People look annoyed at him because they have to step out of his way, annoyed that he walks against the current, or (perhaps) annoyed because they’d like to do the same but can’t.

He found another way: painting, a habit that would keep him close to himself, to his genuine feelings

But Joe had changed direction. He’d started to listen inside himself. Inside, he felt shocked, sad and the odd one out for the first time.

He had always been a winner. Everything had always been good for him. He had worked hard, had a beautiful wife, children. He hadn’t realised that, next to his world, there was a parallel one that tolerated him only as long as he had money to entertain them.

Now he felt like a small fish alone in the ocean. He was homeless. And he was surrounded by many other fish much bigger and also nastier than himself. They were all swimming the other way, fiercely attempting to bite each other and him, grinning their false smiles. He’d always seen them, but they hadn’t dared attack him. Now that he was vulnerable, they closed in.

But Joe didn’t succumb. He found another way: painting, a habit that would keep him close to himself, to his genuine feelings, with as little social coating as possible. Joe built up a new existence from zero. At first, he relied on Caritas, that wonderful organisation for people in need. Then, fate.

One rainy November’s day, he found a beautiful gold-painted wooden frame among other waste at a street corner. It was alike a freezeframe for his thoughts. He remained there, immobile under the rain. As he watched the frame, it became an aquarium to his inner eye, and he saw fish swimming in it, biting each other. And there was one fish that looked different, moved slowly against the current of the others, quite content.

Joe took the frame and propped it on the wall in his dorm. Every day he went out to search the waste at street corners for usable items and sold them at local flea markets. When he’d saved up enough money, he bought painting materials. Then he started to draw the fish. He felt peace every time he sat down with his little fish behind the paper, as they came to life, swimming about their daily chores, some grinning uglily, some socially coated, and some just gracefully waggling their own authentic waggle.

After a while, he took some of his little painted fish to the flea markets and sold them with significant success. People seemed to see themselves in the pictures: one nice fish, the odd one out, swimming happily against a stream of ugly grinning and biting fish. Be different, be happy became his motto. He wrote that on the paintings, and people loved it.

He saved up money and found some friendly people who rented him a house, surely ‘barely fit for human habitation’, but Joe turned it into a home, little by little, every day, roaming the streets and alleys for rubbish that could be reused. His knowledge of craftsmanship from his life as an architect became a whole new asset, in creating a survival base for himself: art.

Hardship can lead us back to our authentic self, providing we’re resilient enough to emerge on the other side. But there is a gentler way. The arts! Paintings, movies, dances, statues, poems, stories, architecture – all have the power to move us emotionally, make us feel small and out of our depth, force us to re-think … and to re-feel.

The emotional impact of an artwork can be life-changing. The emerging multidisciplinary research domain of neuroaesthetics studies ‘aesthetic emotions’ – those emotions we might feel while we experience common events in our lives, but also in response to the arts: fear, wonder, sympathy, heartache, awe. Besides, research in this domain finds that the arts trigger a built-in distancing mechanism in our brain that helps us derive joy, pleasure and other aesthetic emotions even from negative events that would usually cause stress.

Think of Pablo Picasso’s painting Guernica, Edvard Munch’s The Scream, or that thriller you watched on TV the other night. When an artwork touches us, suddenly there’s this feeling inside, a memory of ‘me’. To return to your authentic self, you can wield the arts like a sledgehammer, such as Lars von Trier’s film The Idiots, or use it as a gentle brush, such as Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, tickling our senses back to life. Von Trier said it well: ‘A film should be like a stone in your shoe,’ reminding us of the self we’ve left under wraps.

Consider dance. The neuroscientist Dong-Seon Chang tells the story of how he witnessed the performance of a dance piece choreographed by Ohad Naharin to the song Echad Mi Yodea for the Batsheva Dance Company in Israel. All the dancers moved exactly the same, were dressed the same, had the same facial expressions. Every once in a while, one of them would break out of the circle but, each time, the dancer would be re-absorbed. Dong-Seon shares how deeply he was touched by this display of what he understood as a call to conformity. As a child at school, he’d been painfully forced to wear the same, eat the same, say the same as everyone else. This dance stirred that memory, and made him remember to remember who he is.

For me (a Dane) it is, paradoxically, Argentine tango music from the 1930s and ’40s that brings me back to myself. After an accident made a professional dance career impossible for me, Argentine tango as a hobby became my personal mind-medicine, my movement meditation. When I start to feel corrupted by the conformity pressures and yes-saying bias that’s mandatory to survive in the academic world, I escape into a milonga, one of those red-gold-lighted social dance events that take place, every evening, all over the world. When I dance, I connect back to who I am during the three minutes of a tango song. Now, during the social distancing and lockdown of the pandemic, when any social dancing has become impossible, switching on a tango music piece stirs those aesthetic emotions, and brings back the strong feeling of ‘me’.

Be true to yourself, but virtuously so

Of course, authenticity is not enough. There’s a fine line between being authentically you and, for instance, narcissism. I have a favourite dance teacher. I won’t say his name. He’s a star in the US. His style is authentic in every sense of the word. This person has taught me everything, opened a new world to me, told me secrets about movements and about the music, shared as much as he could. Living abroad, I miss these classes, and I miss dancing with people who have been trained by this teacher.

But. There is a but (and this teacher is losing many students because of it). Like many high-profile artists, he struggles with social conventions, with adaptation. This sensibility can cause one to lash out, to feel misunderstood, and to go to great lengths to maintain one’s authentic ‘me’. Sometimes, such people can overstep, be overly defensive and aggressive. Then, protecting the turf of their inner world seems narcissistic, indeed.

Aristotle gave us the formula for getting it right. Be true to yourself, but virtuously so. According to him, art should be practised in the context of good habits, then positive change will gently ripple through all layers of your life. Therefore, for Aristotle, the arts are an important building block of a happy, authentic life.

Joe does yoga every morning between 6am and 7am, has a fresh orange juice with a café con leche and a croissant at a local café in his home village of Santanyí, and then goes to his studio, painting, creating, thinking, imagining. For himself, for you, for me, for everybody. To help himself, and whoever cares to look, to reconnect with their authentic ‘me’.

This is a good habit.

Now, you might say: ‘But he’s a professional artist, how could I paint?’ In fact, research on the biomedical health effects of many art forms such as dancing, music and painting shows that professional and competitive activities are quite unhealthy if not managed well. On the other hand, artistic activities that we practise as hobbies, have very positive health effects, from lowering stress hormones to enhancing sleep.

In addition, longitudinal measurements show that, for many people, enjoying the arts as a spectator in a museum, a theatre or an opera house increases health and wellbeing, too. The key is that we engage with the arts, as spectators or creators, and let them move us, stirring our aesthetic emotions, as we take off en route back to ourselves.

Aristotle said: ‘The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.’ Millennia later, the French ballet dancer Sylvie Guillem said: ‘Technical perfection is insufficient. It is an orphan without the true soul of a dancer.’ In the same vein, the American choreographer Martha Graham said: ‘Great dancers are not great because of their technique, they are great because of their passion.’ Even in ballets, such as Jewels (1967) by the American choreographer George Balanchine, where the sole aim of the movement is the expression of beauty, there’s an artistic intention other than ‘a perfect execution’. The beauty expressed in the movements of Jewels comes from the quality of their expressive intention. Without this, it wouldn’t be dance but movement mechanics, contortionism or acrobatics.

Go find art that touches you. Your art is what moves you, full stop. Otherwise, it’s useless for you as an authenticity drill, no matter how many millions it might fetch at auction. Modern neuroscience shows that artworks that touch us stimulate feelings in the observer through neurobiological mechanisms in which the spectator mirrors the creator. Some artworks will resonate with who you are, others won’t.

And when you make art yourself, remember this: actions activate specific patterns of neural activity in our brain. It is up to us to make our brain light up in the best possible patterns, through the actions we perform. That’s how what we do shapes who we are.

What pattern would you like to sculpt in your brain? Next time you feel dizzy and strangely out of focus, corrupted by the role you play at work or the formal social coating that makes your heart scream, go to a museum, listen to the music of your youth, copy a painting by sticking it against the window, knit a scarf, dance a dance. Let aesthetic emotions guide you back to yourself.

And if you visit Mallorca, go visit Joe, a special, different man in his art gallery in the small village of Santanyí. Don’t expect him to speak many words: if you catch a smile, you’re lucky. Too many disappointments, too many breaches of trust. Don’t insist. Respect his space and also his boundaries. Let his art speak to you instead. Let his art make a crack in your social coating, drill through to you, to your true feelings, your ‘me’.

Don’t pity him. Joe has made peace with his lonely past of obnoxious fish biting each other. He is one of the most harmonious and happy people I know, remembering to remember that awful day of 15 August 1985 when he went against the current, on canvas, and which brought him back to himself.

To read more on art and the self, visit Psyche, a digital magazine from Aeon that illuminates the human condition through psychological knowhow, philosophical understanding and artistic insight.NeuroscienceDance and theatreBiography and memoir

One in Six Gen Z Adults Identifies as LGBTQ, Raising the National Percentage By 1.1%


According to a newly released Gallup poll, America is getting queerer every year, confirming what many educators around the country have been saying for a number of years.

Gen Z adults, who are either just done with high school or about to be (ages 18 to 23), are far more likely to consider themselves gay, bisexual, trans, or non-binary than than their parents, and more likely even than the Millennial cohort who just preceded them. Among the Americans surveyed by Gallup, 5.6% now self-identify as LGTBQ — up from 4.5% when Gallup conducted similar polling in 2018. And among younger adults, the percentage is far higher, at 15.9%.

The data is based on surveys conducted throughout 2020 with 15,000 Americans over the age of 18.

“The identity question asked in 2020 offers a greater level of detail than the question asked in previous years,” Gallup’s Jeffrey M. Jones explains. “Now, respondents indicate their precise sexual orientation, rather than simply answering ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to whether they identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.”

A sexual orientation question has never been asked on the U.S. Census, and sociologists and data scientists have instead had to rely on inferences based on same-sex couples cohabitating, generally ignoring vast populations of single gay and queer people and not able to count trans people at all. In recent decades, these figures have typically yielded estimates that between 2% and 4% of the population is LGBT, but Gallup polling has seen that number rise noticeably in just the last eight years, as shown in the chart below. 2% turns out to be the percentage among Baby Boomers, according to Gallup’s surveys, with about 4% of Gen X identifying as LGBT, and 9% of Millennials (or Gen Y).

Chart via Gallup

Gallup defines Gen Z as beginning in 1997, and the jury is still out on this — generation splits can be defined by cultural shifts and major events like 9/11, but 1997 has maybe been chosen as the beginning of the Internet Age as we know it?

But with 15.9% of adults between 18 and 23 calling themselves something other than cisgender heterosexual, the percentage has obviously been pushed up quickly. And as more Gen Z-ers reach adulthood in the coming years, the figure could rise much further.

Chart via Gallup

Gallup suggests that cultural acceptance has helped fuel the rise in openness about sexual orientation, and it cautions that older respondents may simply not want to self-identify in a survey, which skews the data.

Gen Zers are more than twice as likely to call themselves bisexual than Millennials — 11.5% vs. 5.1% — and only slightly more likely to call themselves lesbian, gay, or trans.

Among all the adults polled who identified as LGBT, more than half, 54.6%, identified as bisexual, 24.5% identified as gay, 11.7% identified as lesbian, 11.3% identified as trans, and 3.3% identified as queer or some other label.

Chart via Gallup

According to Gallup polling done in 2019, 93% of Americans support equal rights for LGBT people in having jobs, and 83% believe same-sex sexual relations should be legal in all states. 75% of people polled also said that gay people should be allowed to adopt children. When the same question was asked in a 1977 poll, only 14% believed that gay people should be able to adopt.

“At a time when Americans are increasingly supportive of equal rights for gay, lesbian and transgender people, a growing percentage of Americans identify themselves as LGBT,” Jones writes. “With younger generations far more likely than older generations to consider themselves LGBT, that growth should continue.”

“This poll confirms what we have long known — that the LGBTQ community is powerful and a growing force in the United States, and around the world,” says Alphonso David, president of the Human Rights Campaign, in a statement to ABC News. “Young adults, in particular, feel empowered to publicly claim their identities — a compelling finding and validation for the past generations of LGBTQ advocates who have long fought for full equality.”

Photo: Mercedes Mehling