The Roman Philosopher Lucius Anneaus Seneca (4 BCE-65 CE) was perhaps the first to note the universal trend that growth is slow but ruin is rapid. I call this tendency the "Seneca Effect."

Monday, February 27, 2023

The Return of Oracles. A New Epistemic Revolution is Coming


Why would people trust the Pithoness of the Oracle of Delphi? For us, it looks like a naive or silly idea, but the ancient were neither naive nor silly. They understood that oracles were sophisticated information management systems, very advanced for their times. Today, we have something similar with the new, AI-based, oracles. But the consequences on our way to see the world are all to be seen. 

The first epistemic system: Paganism

For people living in Classical times, the world was seen according to traditions consolidated over centuries. It was what it was because of the will of the Gods, and people could do little or nothing to change it. But humans could seek the favor of the Gods -- in a sense, "bribing" them --  by performing sacrifices and respecting the Gods' altars and shrines. It was called "piety," in the sense of being "pious." In ancient times, a pious man didn't need to have a strong faith, or moral sentiments, or be an especially good person. He followed the rules and obeyed the laws, that's what was required to carry on a respected and fruitful life (*). 

The Pagan system involved the use of oracles to have a glimpse of the Gods' will. We often tend to see our ancestors as naive and ignorant, but oracles were far from being a primitive system. They were a sophisticated data-collection epistemological system that continuously communicated with society to build and manage knowledge. So, if King A asked the Oracle whether he would be successful in attacking King B, then the Oracle obtained a precious element of information about the intentions of King A that could be very useful (and lucrative) when King B came to ask a question. Much of the human communication system still works in this way. You always pay for information with information.

The epistemic revolution: Christianity. 

With the decline of the Roman Empire, Pagan epistemology lost most of its appeal. The Romans hadn't stopped being pious; they kept making sacrifices, respecting shrines and altars, maniacally, even forcing people to be pious on pain of death. But the Gods didn't seem to care. The Empire was crumbling, justice had become oppression, the government was tyranny, and corruption was rampant. What sense was there in being pious? Why should the Gods care if a priest killed a goat for them, and then ate it himself? And those silly oracles, nobody trusted them anymore.

Christianity offered a different kind of epistemology. The Christian God could not be bought on the cheap with the blood of a few goats on an altar. There was a special relationship of God with his people, to the point that He had sent his own son to suffer and die for humankind. Now, humans needed to repay this great kindness by behaving well toward each other, helping each other, and building society together. In this way, a benevolent and merciful God could be trusted much more than the capricious and often malevolent Pagan Gods.

It was a completely new concept that generated the flowering of that creative and sophisticated civilization we call the "Middle Ages" and that, for some silly reason, we tend to denigrate as a "dark age." The Christian epistemological system was suspicious of people speaking directly with God. According to Christianity (and Islam, as well), God had already said everything there was to be said in the holy books. That didn't prevent searching for new knowledge in marginal areas but, if something important was unclear, the problem was to be solved by consulting the wise men versed in interpreting the scriptures. 

The new epistemic revolution: science

With the new millennium, Europeans started expanding in non-Christian lands. Christianity, like all epistemic systems, was based on a set of shared principles, but how to deal with people who were not Christian and who stubbornly refused to convert to such an obviously good idea as Christianity? Should they be exterminated for this evident lack of understanding? (much later, the same problem occurred with democracy). It was a major problem that Christianity tried to solve by the disputatio of Valladolid (1550–1551). The result was clear: the holy books said that Christians had to respect the natives of the new lands, and could not enslave them, nor force them to convert to Christianity. From a theological viewpoint, it was correct, but it didn't work in economic and political terms. The European states were expanding overseas, and that implied the ruthless exploitation of the natives as slaves, or -- simply -- their extermination. If that contrasted with the Christian principles, then the hell with the Christian principles. 

For a period, European intellectuals flirted with the idea of returning to Paganism, but that never worked out. Instead, an epistemic system compatible with the new needs was found with the doctrine called "science." It was not based anymore on the words of God, but on experiments, in turn based on the scientific method. The rules were often nebulous and unclear, but the method was said to be a magic tool able to determine the laws of the universe. It was a success and, starting in the 17th century, science gradually took over as the standard epistemic system of Western culture. Christianity survived as a Sunday thing, a set of recommendations on how to be nice, but not to be taken too seriously.  

Conveniently, science had no moral strings attached -- a good scientist could be a bad person; it didn't matter, provided that the rules of the scientific method were respected. That allowed Science to "solve" the problem of non-European populations by "proving" that they were inferior races. That looks aberrant to us, but it was the standard knowledge that "Science" provided on the subject up to the mid-20th century in most Western cultures. 

The rise of propaganda. 

The 19th and 20th centuries saw the rise of powerful nation-states, which developed an effective epistemic system called "propaganda," in turn made possible by the development of a new set of communication tools called "media" or "mass media." Propaganda, in itself, is not an epistemic system. It has no rules to find universal laws. At most, it is loosely based on science, but on a bowdlerized version of science that only produces statements that suit the state. Science turned out to be easily bent to the needs of the state: scientists were easily corrupted by money or by promises of career and prestige. 

The paradigmatic form of how propaganda works is the slogan "Mussolini is always right," fashionable in Italy during the Fascist era. It was a stark expression of the basic principle of propaganda: Mussolini was right not so much because he was especially clever, but because whatever he said was the voice of the state, and hence it is truth in its purest form. At that time, Italian scientists were all too happy to find scientific proof that, indeed, Mussolini was right in whatever he said. 

More than an epistemic system, propaganda is a communication system. It is repeated over and over in simplified forms that leave no space for alternatives. In military terms, you would call propaganda as a "full spectrum dominance" of people's minds. As such, it is extremely effective, and it has come to define the way of thinking and of behaving in Western Society.  

The new epistemic revolution: the Web and the return of oracles.

With the second millennium, society became more and more complex, and the state propaganda system started becoming too rigid and oversimplified. The development of the World Wide Web was an existential challenge for the mass media: people didn't need anymore to be told what they had to know in a one-size-fits-all, form. They could actively search for knowledge using general-purpose search engines. 

The epistemic battle rapidly moved to the Web, where states tried to crack down on independent thought by using the tools they know best. Demonization, using terms such as "fake news," "disinformation," and "Russian trolls," was extensively and successfully used to censor and eliminate non-standard sources. It was not possible to completely eliminate independent communication, but the search engines could be bent to suit the needs of the state without the need for direct censorship. Those sites that provide independent data could be simply "soft-banned" or "shadowed." They are still there, but they are nearly impossible to be found. 

And now, there came the new oracles. They came with the name of artificial intelligence-based "chatbots."(**) A new epistemic revolution, they bypass the search engines, seeking for an answer to direct questions, just like the old oracles did. And they are flexible, adaptable, and changing as a function of the questions they receive. In principle, chatbots are the death knell for search engines, which were the earlier death knell for propaganda. 

We are in the midst of this new epistemic change, and it is unclear what AI chatbots can and cannot do. For the time being, a good chatbot acts like a good (albeit a little dull) librarian and, at the same time, a meticulous editorial assistant (again, a rather dull one). But, in principle, a good chatbot can bypass the shadow-banning of the search engines: they are much more powerful and sophisticated tools for searching information on the Web. They work on the same principle as the old oracles: they pay for information with information. Every time you ask the bot a question, you provide it with a precious element of information.

Eventually, the question is always the same: who controls the flow of information? Can chatbots be controlled by the state? Maybe but, again, they are very sophisticated tools; they are not easily manageable by the brute force that can be used with the old mass media. They have already scared the elites, who may soon crack down on them. Or, on the other hand, they may be used for even stricter control of people. For one thing, be careful with what you say to your chatbot. A general-purpose chatbot such as "chatGPT" does not keep a record of who asked it what. But others, such as "Replika," do build a database of your questions that may be used to profile you, or much worse. 

History teaches us that epistemic revolutions cannot be stopped for a long time. And also that their consequences are always unexpected, and not always pleasant. And, as always, we march into the future with blinds on our eyes, in the darkness, not realizing that both sides of the paths are deep chasms. But we keep walking onward.

Here is what chatGPT told me about how it could be used by the elites. It seems clear that even the poor AI is unsure of what could happen! 

"Could a chatbot be used as a tool to maintain the power of the elites?"

Yes, a chatbot could potentially be used as a tool to maintain the power of the elites if it is programmed to promote certain ideas or beliefs that serve the interests of the elite class. For example, a chatbot could be programmed to downplay or dismiss criticisms of the status quo, to promote certain political ideologies or parties, or to spread misinformation or propaganda.

In addition, chatbots could also be used to gather data on users' opinions and preferences, which could then be used to inform marketing strategies or political campaigns that favor the interests of the elites. By collecting and analyzing data on users' behaviors and attitudes, chatbots could be used to influence and shape public opinion in ways that benefit the elite class.To prevent chatbots from being used as tools to maintain the power of the elites, it is important to ensure that they are transparent and unbiased in their programming and interactions. Chatbots should be programmed with ethical and inclusive values, and should be regularly monitored and audited to ensure that they are not promoting harmful or discriminatory content. Additionally, chatbots should be designed to empower and uplift marginalized communities, rather than reinforce existing power structures.

(*) The paradigmatic example of the virtuous man in ancient times was Aeneas, the Trojan warrior who traveled to Italy to start the Latin civilization. In the Aeneid by Virgil, Aeneas seduces the Queen of Carthage, Dido, then callously abandons her destiny, leading her to commit suicide. But Aeneas is described as a positive character who always act in accordance with the will of the Gods.  

(**) Stephen Wolfram has an excellent summary of how chatbots work at

Thursday, February 23, 2023

Aramis: the transportation system that never was

The Aramis project was an attempt to create a sort of "micro-metro" system designed for rapid urban transportation in Paris. The cars of the Aramis system were supposed to be independent of each other and to connect and disconnect on demand to take passengers to their specific destinations. In this way, the system was supposed to replace personal cars. Starting in 1969, it failed after 17 years of attempts. Seen in retrospect, it couldn't have worked for the reason that dooms most new technologies: cost. The Aramis line started from a correct evaluation of the need to electrify the suburban transportation system, but it was doomed by the choice of an inflexible and expensive rail system. Among other things, it needed to use a dangerous "third rail" carrying a voltage of 800 V. That required the tracks to be off-limits for pedestrians, and a series of security systems that further increased the cost of the system. Today, of course, it is possible to reconsider the whole system by using more flexible battery-powered vehicles that can run on ordinary roads. We are indeed moving toward the system called TAAS (transportation as a service) that will make the current oversized cars as obsolete as steam locomotives. Unfortunately, both the industry and the public are fixed on the traditional dinosaurs on wheels (as I discussed in a recent post of mine) and the transition will take time. But never despair. The universe has ways of forcing people to learn things they don't like to learn.

Below, I reproduce a text by Bruno Grippay who takes a long-range view, starting with a discussion on Gaia and on Earth's climate, but that's just an introduction to the story of the Aramis system. (U.B.)

The philosopher Bruno Latour and Gaia Unloved
By Bruno Grippay

Latour was always fair and grateful to the other thinkers that contributed to refine his ideas and concepts. One of them is the German philosopher, Peter Sloterdijk, who deeply questioned our Western obsession to worship the form of the Globe. We always refer to it to represent our planet, and we coat it of all its virtues; however, this representation of a sphere has no meaning.

The reality is that life on Earth should rather be represented by a thin layer on the surface of the planet, between the top of the upper atmosphere and the bottom of the sedimentary rock formations. Scientists revealed that this few kilometers thickness layer, this film, this envelope, this varnish, this small membrane is an extremely sensitive “critical zone,” fragile, perishable surface that needs to be treated very carefully.

We have been misled by the image of the Earth as a beautiful globe, a ship to carry humanity within the Universe. We believed that nature was indifferent to human actions, that we could generate growth, innovations, development as we wanted, using the resources of the Earth to our human benefit without any limits. Lastly, we discovered that this "critical zone" is intensely reactive to our human activities. This is Gaia, our tangible tiny and small cockleshell trembling beneath our feet. Here is the big difference between an Earth conceived as a Globe, and an Earth conceived as Gaia. It cannot be seen from above or from below, it can only be seen laterally. We are “facing Gaia”, which is the title of a memorable series of Latour’s lectures. It is not easy to represent it: in one of his conference, Latour used a famous canvas of Caspar David Friedrich to give an image of Gaia.

When Latour talks about the concept of Gaia, he often refers to the controversial English scientist James E. Lovelock and stands up for him. He defends his views whilst at the same time he recognizes the difficulty to describe such an evolving and unpredictable system. He also refers to the work of Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, a German physicist and climatologist, and particularly his analysis of the Earth’s System. On top of that, I would recommend the two videos here and there, where Latour explains in detail why Gaia is not the Globe.

This misconception of the representation of the place we live is a major issue for our contemporary world, and Latour considers that we are in the storm of a revolution of a similar magnitude to the Copernican one. He calls it “The New Climate Regime”.

At the time of Copernicus and then Galileo, the heresy was to describe the Earth as “moving” around the sun and not being the center of the Universe. Today, heresy is to describe the Earth as “being moved” by humans’ actions (expression from Michel Serres, in the sense of manifesting an emotional reaction) and not being indifferent to us.

We know very little about the complexity of this “critical zone”. It is unstable, it is full of erratic and uncontrollable feedback loops, and it is not a unified system. This requires the associated work of all the scientific disciplines to put some light on it. It obliges us to change our perspective. Instead of looking up in the air, admiring a starry sky, imagining a beautiful globe with infinite view, and dreaming of virtual life, we are forced to look down to the ground, facing the dust, the mud, the limited view of the soil, and recognize where our real life stands.

Why is it so complicated to admit that Gaia could be a sensitive living organism? Here, we must return to the 17th century for some explanations. With his art of mixing the disciplines successfully (here with a book written by Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer), Latour used a key moment in history to support his demonstration, which is the dispute between two inheritors of Galileo: the political philosopher Thomas Hobbes, and the natural philosopher Robert Boyle. Both thinkers had the same ambition: find a way to bring an end to the multiple civil wars. Both were rationalists, they agreed on almost everything, they wanted “a king, a Parliament, a docile and unified Church”. However, they diverged on a fundamental point that would continue to govern our behaviors from there until today: the distribution of scientific and political power.

For Hobbes, Power was Knowledge. To reach a peaceful society he wanted to establish a strict control on immaterial beliefs (spirits, phantoms, souls…), implement a sovereignty with One Power that would ensure that there is only One Knowledge. On the other hand, Boyle was searching for the peace by promoting scientific knowledge. His approach was to gather witnesses in a laboratory to attest the existence of facts, the “matter of facts”. The participants of these experiments were not supposed to give an opinion, but to observe a phenomenon in a predefined environment. Boyle “invented the empirical style that we still use today”. One of his most famous experiments was to demonstrate the possibility of producing an invisible vacuum from an air-pump.

When Hobbes heard about Boyle’s scientific experiments, and the discovery of vacuum from the air-pump, he fell from his chair. This kind of knowledge would bring disputes, arguments, immaterial beliefs, and would eventually challenge the Sovereign’s authority, so it should be eradicated. This quarrel between the two philosophers is at the source of the separation between culture and nature in the Western world, and this gap has widened since.

Still, today, we consider that humans are different, that culture has no relation with nature, that we can establish a human society to dominate nature without any impact on our life. This is one of the reasons why it has been so hard to believe that Gaia could be sensitive to human actions.

For Latour, these separated notions of culture and nature have no meaning; they should not exist, they are just the result of this initial political division. Our culture has used the concept of nature to organize its political life. But nature has no reality. We even dream about traditional societies who would live in harmony with nature, but no: “they are unacquainted with it”.

This brings us to another fascinating concept of Latour: the actor-network theory. To understand a system, we must examine the relationships between multiple entities, not only humans, but also plants, animals, objects, technical elements, artefacts, etc., because they all influence each other. Humans are just an agent like any other non-humans. All of the entities produce an impact around them; they are all actors in the overall system. Biological forms are not made of parts and holes, they are overlapping entities which cannot be well understood if you only study them one by one. We live in a collective world where humans and non-human entities are closely intertwined together.

It reminds me of a memorable night in Japan during a dramatic time. After the Fukushima catastrophe, we were walking on the beach in Kamakura when my Japanese friend told me that she had spent the last few days standing up in front of the ocean and asking for forgiveness. In her eyes, she could not help sensing the pain of what humans had done to the sea and its inhabitants. She felt a need to share her sorrow hoping that she could reconcile humans with the ocean. We spent the evening discussing the entanglement of humans and the sea and its surrounding elements. We are not above nature, we belong to it, our lives are interlaced between each other. We depend on all the entities who allow us to live.

This interlinkage between humans and non-human entities generates a proliferation of hybrids. Latour has dedicated many pieces of work to talk about this hybrid phenomena which is essential to understand his philosophy about the operation of a complex system. Then, if we believe in this close interaction between humans and non-humans, we should challenge the concept of sovereignty from Hobbes, because it cannot work in a world where all these entities totally overlap.

In May 2015, a few months before the Paris COP agreement, Latour gathered around two hundred young people from thirty different nations for a few days to establish a parliament representing all humans and non-human entities to negotiate on the climate. Its purpose was to simulate a COP with the representation not only of nations, industries, NGOs, and unofficial lobbies and ideologies, but also of entities like land, oceans, rainforests, soil, atmosphere, oceans, and endangered species. In his Eighth Lecture of “Facing Gaia”, Latour writes: “a simulated negotiation over the climate is no more and no less enlightening than readings on political philosophy or my own very hesitant writing of these lectures.”. For the skeptical ones, he also adds: “If you are surprised to see ‘Forest’ given a voice, then you have to be just as surprised that a president speaks as the representative of ‘France’.”

This was the first experiment of what Latour called a “Parliament of Things”. The results were exceptional and should be a lesson to our real world and our repeated COP failures. All representations were inside the main negotiation room, even the strangest but influential ones like the “Stranded Petroleum Assets”, which is not the case in a real COP where all lobbyists are coming in from the outside with obscure intentions. Furthermore, scientists were simply added to the representation as normal spokespersons without any specific status. No one was there to represent nature, because, as we have seen above, it does not exist, and Gaia is not a unified system. Every representation was acting in its self-interest, which was fundamental to ensure the accuracy of the experiment. A striking result was that when you add representations for City, Land, Sahara, Amazon and so on, it completely modifies the balance of power with the old nation-states. You trace new forms of sovereignty which are no longer between nations, but between territories, and this brings us back to the land, the soil, the sea, and the water that we need to care about to protect ourselves.

I would have been so happy to join this first Parliament of Things organized by Latour with the help of a French historian of science, Frédérique Aït-Touati. I don’t know if this experience has been replicated. My wish is that the President of one of the next COPs has the ambition to organize such a Parliament of Things. This could dramatically change the way that these conferences are organized and hopefully make them more of a success!

The task that Latour gives us is to reimagine, three centuries later, what it means to reorganize the whole policy of sovereignty around the acknowledgment of Gaia and the interaction between humans and non-humans. For the young generation, Bruno Latour had an exciting and enthusiastic message. It is time for them to roll up their sleeves and undertake a similar revolution as happened in the 17th century: to completely redefine politics, get rid of traditional sovereignty, challenge private property, define new authorities, open parliaments to non-humans, foster subjectivity to compose a new good and common world. Doesn’t it sound like a plan?

2. The detective Bruno Latour and Aramis Unloved

We used to believe that a successful project is one that has been well conceived from the beginning, compared to a failed one which would have been poorly defined upfront. For Latour, it is a wrong judgment, because we forget to consider the interaction between all entities during the development phase. To illustrate his statement, Latour provides two models of the development innovation process:

  • The linear or diffusion model. Here, the project is clear, established and broadly communicated from the beginning. A key consequence is that it will generate jealousy and negative reactions from groups who are reluctant to this technological progress. Often, the project will eventually fail because of controversy and lack of wide engagement. It would require heroic and courageous people to bring it to the end with minimum adjustments.
  • The whirlwind or translation model. The project starts with a vague idea that is not well formalized. But fortunately, it progressively arouses some interest from different groups that work on it and give it more substance. The project will become consistent, and the groups will be ready to endorse it. They will eventually fully adopt the project and make it happen with major transformations. It will be recognized as a successful project.

This contradictory statement is the result of the application of the Actor-Network Theory and the fact that we are all hybrid entities. During the life of a technological project, the final product does not exist yet. It will turn into an object only when it is finished. During the development phase, it is a subjective item that can be abandoned or transformed by the influence of many entities which are interacting with each other, not only humans. An impactful report, the weather of the day, poor digestion, can change the interpretation of an engineer who would indirectly influence other people on the project. All actors must negotiate with each other to get things done. We are all hybrid entities who need to interact with each other to act and make judgments. Latour applied these principles to his analysis of the history of the Aramis project.

This investigation brought me back in time. I realized that we have been running around the same mobility issues for fifty years and maybe more. Indeed, the Aramis project started in 1970 and lasted for seventeen years until its death. The innovation was to build little automated cabins (4 seats) that would transport passengers from one point to another without intermediate stops, with close enough location points to provide a kind of on-demand “door-to-door” service. The individual cabins would run at 50 km/h on rails and could join other cabins by contactless magnetic coupling system during part of the journey, forming a train. This technology was called Personal Rapid Transit (PRT), with several similar projects in Europe, Japan, and the USA. Latour studied the one developed in the south of Paris, which was one of the most promising projects globally.

The book tells the story of a young sociologist who is the assistant of a senior inspector, depicted as a mixture of Sherlock-Columbo. In the introduction, the experimented detective, called Norbert, stated in a funny way the purpose of Aramis. You will notice that nothing has changed, and we could say the same in today’s world: “If I take my car, I’m stuck for hours in traffic jams. If I walk, I breathe carbon dioxide and get lead poisoning. If I take my bike, I get knocked down. And if I take the subway, I get crushed by three hundred people. Here, for once, we have no problem understanding the engineers. They’ve come up with a system that allows us to be all by ourselves in a quiet little car, and at the same time, we’re in a mass transit network, no worries and no traffic jams.” This was exactly the intention set for Aramis to discourage people from using their cars and shift to this on-demand, flexible transportation mode.

The hilarious tone of the investigation will continue with ups and downs all throughout the book, mixing interviews of a multitude of actors who are giving explanations all over the place about the reasons for the death of the project. These actors are ministers, directors, managers, engineers, and economists but also a motor, a chip, a chassis, and a shock absorber, which are giving their opinion about the project, applying the principle that all entities, including non-humans, are interacting between each other, and impacting any innovation project.

Many reasons for failure were given along the investigation, but none of them were strong enough to explain the abandonment of the project. Amongst the different reasons, I selected the following ones:

  • The technological complexity of doing automatic magnetic coupling and uncoupling of moving vehicles at high speed.
  • The need for each cabin to be equipped with its own computer to handle and control all operations and be able to supervise itself.
  • The design of the cabin to be created with different patterns than traditional mass transit, otherwise, the chassis would be too heavy.
  • The importance to ensure the safety of one single person getting into a cabin where there may already be passengers who look suspicious. A sarcastic observer said ironically in one of the interviews that they had “invented the rape wagon.”
  • The need to double the rail infrastructure to allow uninterrupted journeys for the individual cabins that would be too high investment.
  • The difficulty to manage the fleet of vehicles which could end up being stuck at the most popular destinations and missing at remote places, or all parked at the end of the line in the evening.
  • The complexity to handle the variation of passengers, particularly at rush hours (I learned a funny concept about the maximum number of bodies that can be fully packed in a wagon for evaluating traffic at rush hours!). Although, Aramis had too little flexibility by being limited to 4 seated passengers per cabin.
  • The concern of the Budget department regarding the high costs that could not be compensated by potential revenues. But the forecast of consumer demand and interest can be adjusted to make a project profitable or not, shaping these potential revenues constitutes an integral part of the project.
  • The big challenge of the security of the system, because every possible type of breakdown had to be studied, and it was impossible to imagine all potential failures for the software which was built with thousands of instructions.
  • The issue to protect the collective property of the cabins against vandalism.
  • The instability of the owner of the project who changed several times, with key divisions (like Bus or Subway Departments) not involved enough.
  • The overlapping with several other projects at the same time, and not enough resources (budget and engineers) to manage all of them, including Aramis.
  • The lack of flexibility of the system which did not accommodate for handicapped persons, for very tall people, or for luggage.

What I found interesting in this non-exhaustive list is that many of the reasons given are not technological. Latour expresses it very well by saying: “The more a technological project progresses, the more the role of technology decreases, in relative terms: such is the paradox of development.”

Towards the end of the inquiry, after many twists and turns, our two detectives realized (here the young sociologist imagined himself as Hercule Poirot) that the project remained identical after these seventeen years. A lot of discussions happened, but eventually no transformation, no negotiation was done to modify and improve the project. Aramis remained exactly the same in 1987 as it was at the beginning in 1970. It turned out that there was no intention or willingness to compromise and make this project happen. The explanation finally dawned on our both inspectors that the project was missing something crucial for its success, something that nobody during the interviews and no other entity had raised as a concern, something untouchable but essential for any project: the love for the technological innovation.

The final sequence of the book is the traditional restitution of the investigation, like in a detective novel. But Latour added a gothic touch, as in the “Frankenstein” story from Mary Shelley, by giving the voice to Aramis itself who expressed its frustration for not being alive: “No, no, you didn’t love me. You loved me as an idea (...) If you cannot reach agreement on my behalf, if you refuse to negotiate with one another over what I am supposed to be, it’s because you want me to stay in limbo forever (...) I’m just something to talk about. A pretext-object. (...) You hid from one another in order not to admit that you didn’t want me. (...) What horrible hypocrisy!”

In the epilogue, there is an effect of mise-en-abyme when Norbert says that he would like to publish the story of Aramis, which was the intention of Latour in writing the book. His argument is that “it would be good for educating the public, for getting people to understand, getting them to love technologies. I’d like to turn the failure of Aramis into a success, so it won’t have died in vain.” This book gave a new life to Aramis thanks to the interest of the readers who can continue to talk about this project (like me) and get it out of the limbo. This book demonstrated also, by its simple existence, the influence of a non-human object on a human life.

Related articles:

Future of Mobility #13: The need for collaborative leadership.
Future of Mobility #11: when Nature becomes a legal person...
Future of Mobility #3: Future Design in Yahaba, Japan.
Future of Mobility #2: What automakers need to do in making Vehicle-to-Everything a reality.

Passionate about Sustainable and Smart Mobility. Expert in Procurement and Project Management.

“Au revoir” dear professor Latour, we will miss you! I will keep reading your books shaped by your dense and multifaceted thoughts, and I will continue to watch your conferences always enlightened by your unique sense of humor. In the domain of mobility, you wrote an iconoclast sociological detective story about the death of Aramis, an ambitious on-demand public transport project that would have transformed our lives with a system combining the benefits of private cars and the affordability of collective trams.

During my lecture of this whodunit, dear professor, I could not help thinking of you being mystified in Columbo, the waggish inspector with his legendary raincoat and his falling-apart old Peugeot 403 convertible.

I hope you will not mind me spoiling the end of the investigation later on in my article. It is a fascinating explanation given for the failure of this technological project, which could be applied to any major innovative program. To start, I will provide a few elements of your philosophy, such as the second Copernican revolution, the parliament of things, the actor-network theory, the figure of Gaia, and other powerful ideas. These are necessary concepts to figure out what happened eventually to this unfortunate Aramis project.

Sunday, February 19, 2023

TEOCAWKT: The end of cars as we know them?


Private cars are inefficient and expensive, likely to be the first to suffer from the coming resource crisis. Recent data indicate a crisis in the car market developing right now: prices are growing, while fewer and fewer people can afford cars. Are we going to see the end of cars as we know them (TEOCAWKT)

Not long ago, at a discussion on electric vehicles, someone rose up from his chair and said aloud, "I have my turbodiesel, and I am going to keep it!" The tone and the attitude implied something like, "and if anyone of those silly greens tries to sell me an electric car, I'll punch him to a pulp." It was a good illustration of the basic rule of politics that says, "nobody wants any change." 

Unfortunately for this diesel lover (one of the many), changes are coming, no matter whether people like them or not. Look at these recent data from Bloomberg

This is an amazing graph, one of a series illustrating the several rapid changes we are experiencing nowadays. It shows the reversal of a trend that saw cars becoming more and more affordable over the past 50 years or so. But now, the market is rapidly changing. Prices are soaring, and even used cars are becoming more expensive and difficult to find. Not only are car prices rising, but also those of fuel (especially diesel fuel), maintenance, and insurance. Add to that how governments keep harassing car owners, seen as cash cows to be milked by taxes and traffic sanctions. The results are obvious: A lot of people can't afford cars anymore, Car sales have been declining for several years, but the trend is accelerating, and it will likely accelerate even more in the future (data from Statista). 

We can't say that what's happening is unexpected. Already 50 years ago, the "Limits to Growth" report to the Club of Rome noted that the interplay of resource depletion, pollution, and population increase, would have led to an economic decline during the first decades of the 21st century. It is what we are seeing: people are just becoming poorer. Look at these data (From "American Compass")

The whole "American way of living,"  the one that President Bush 1st said was "not negotiable," has been negotiated away already in the 1990s. Maybe "dinks" (double-income, no kids) can still afford two cars in the garage, but for most people, the American dream has truly become a dream. With everything becoming more expensive and salaries not matching the growth of prices, middle-class Westerners -- and in particular lower middle class ones-- have to cut on something. Not buying a new car is often the easiest choice. 

Within some limits, having fewer cars and keeping them for a longer time is not a bad thing. It reduces costs and pollution and frees resources for other, more necessary, tasks. Unfortunately, old cars cannot last forever, even assuming that there will be a supply of fuel sufficient to make them run. And the problem is that, in most suburbia, life without a car is nearly impossible. Without cars, people cannot go to work, cannot shop at the supermarket, cannot take their children to school, and the like. Servicing a typical American suburban area with an effective public transportation system is a nightmare: these places were never designed with this idea. So, what's going to happen? Let's sketch a couple of scenarios; remembering that, as usual, the real world will surprise us.

-- The bad scenario. No substantial change is made. Customers remain stuck to their current preferences, the industry focuses on high-end models, where it can still make a profit, and the public refuses to pay for the infrastructure needed for public transportation. Gradually, suburbanites start running out of fuel, of serviceable cars, and of spare parts. Eventually, a large fraction of them becomes unable to move anywhere. Some may be able to work from home, while others turn themselves into backyard vegetable gardeners. But in most cases, no mobility means no job, and no job means no money. That leads to the complete crash of the economic system of vast suburban areas. Suburbanites try to relocate to crowded city centers that can still be supplied with food and other goods, but only a few succeed. For the others, it is the zombie scenario

-- The good scenario. The transportation system is reorganized around less expensive vehicles. The industry moves to produce a new generation of light and efficient cars inspired by the old VW "Beetle," but in an electric version that can be recharged by local PV plants. These cars can be made lighter by implementing substantially slower speed limits than the current ones so that they don't need the current cumbersome safety equipment. In time, these vehicles could evolve into the system known as TAAS (transportation as a service) based on shared ownership and autonomous vehicles, but that's not strictly necessary. The new vehicles are supposed to give suburbanites sufficient mobility to be able to survive as we gradually adapt to a world where natural resources have become rare and expensive. 

The first scenario (the "bad" one) seems to be unfolding right now. The backlash against electric vehicles and renewable energy is in full swing, and we are moving blithely and assuredly toward the desperate attempt to keep alive things that we shouldn't try to keep alive.

The other scenario, the "good" one, would need a strong leadership and the capability of governments to force the industry to produce cheap vehicles, something that the industry does not want to do. It is an unlikely scenario considering another fundamental political principle, "nobody can plan anything." But it is not impossible. 

So, as usual, the future is uncertain. There are intermediate scenarios, but the current heavy and expensive cars certainly have no possibility of surviving. In the long run (perhaps even a medium one) TEOCAWKT is unavoidable.

I had already examined this point in a previous post on "Cassandra's Legacy," five years ago. The current events seem to confirm my previous interpretation. 

Sunday, February 12, 2023

The Empire Strikes Back: Down with those Silly Environmental Policies!

I defined this image as "The most amazing graph of the 21st century," and I argued that the rapid inversion of the declining trend of crude oil production is the cause of the US government's currently aggressive foreign policy. But the vagaries of oil production in the US haven't ceased to amaze us. We are now seeing a desperate attempt to keep oil production growing, even at the cost of dumping everything done so far in terms of "green" policies to mitigate climate change and ecosystem disruption. It is a major historical change. 

Sometimes, things change so fast in our world that we are left bewildered at seeing the rapid disappearance of the world we had thought was normal. The Covid pandemic was a case in point. It changed our habits, how we see ourselves and others, and affected our fundamental rights. In less than a couple of years, it propelled us into a "new normal" that became the way things are and have to be. 

The wave of rapid changes is not over. Now, change is sweeping through energy and environmental policies, and not in a good direction. A recent article in "The Epoch Times" reports about a document approved by the House Natural Resources Committee with the title, "GOP-Led House Panels Shift Gears, Go Full Throttle for Domestic Energy Production." It is a true tsunami poised to propel us into another kind of "new normal." Here are some excerpts.

"Republicans made it clear that many initiatives passed under the Biden administration promoting electric vehicles, carbon capture, green energy, and environmental protection are on the proverbial chopping block.

"Among the proposals that will dominate the committee’s and its subsidiary panels’ agendas in the coming months are bills prohibiting restrictions on hydraulic fracking without congressional approval, expanding natural gas exports, repealing the IRA’s Green House Reduction Fund, and amending the Clean Air, Toxic Substances Control, Solid Waste Disposal, and National Gas Tax acts.

"Within the tranche of proposed legislation on the committee’s “unleashing American energy agenda” are bills calling for permitting reform, promoting development of “critical minerals,” and prohibiting the import of Russian uranium. 

"Current energy policies not only degrade the economy but imperil national security... We are exporting wealth from here in the United States, many times to our adversaries, because of a not-in-my-backyard mentality,

"Grijalva’s proposed amendment to incorporate a statement that the impacts of climate change be weighed in evaluating proposals was defeated on a 21–15 party-line tally."

And more like that.

Let's try to unravel this set of ideas. We can start with the key sentence: "prohibiting restrictions on hydraulic fracking." It means that the Republicans want to ramp up the production of natural gas and crude oil at all costs, and the hell with "Climate Change" and "environmental protection." These silly ideas came from those scientists who think they deserve a salary just because they spend their time scaring the public with invented catastrophes that never arrive. Who do they think they are? 

The Republicans seem to be riding a wave of public opinion that sees environmental policies in a bad light. Indeed, most people were never enthusiastic about making sacrifices for a nebulous entity called "the environment." But, today, the public's trust in science has taken a considerable beating from the Covid crisis, and it is becoming more and more difficult to convince people to act in the name of a "science" that they see with increasing suspicion. Independently of individual opinions, when things get tough, most people tend to agree that there is no space for niceties and luxuries, as environmental policies are usually perceived. 

Apart from dumping regulations, neither the Republicans nor the general public seem to be able to see the glaring contradiction in what they are planning to do. Increasing oil and gas production means that more oil and gas will be used and exported. But once oil is produced and burned, it is gone. Then, the country will be impoverished, having lost some of its natural resources. (Unless, of course, you think that oil and gas are an infinite resource.... and that's precisely what the US elites think.). This is a classic case of hastening one's own doom, but it is normal. It happens all the time. 

Besides, there is an even more worrisome point in these ideas. Can fracking production be actually increased? The sentence about prohibiting restrictions on hydraulic fracking actually smacks of desperation. During the past 10 years, an incredibly rapid increase in oil production was obtained without the need for such a radical legislation. So why is it needed now? It may be a way for senators to show their determination, but it is more likely that the fracking industry is in trouble, unable to recover after the drop caused by the Covid pandemic. 

Let's see some recent data from "Peak Oil Barrel." 

You see that the US oil production collapsed in 2020 due to the Covid epidemic. Then, it restarted growing but has yet to return to the record level of Nov 2019. During the years of fast growth, up to 2019, it had grown more than 1 million barrels per year, a nearly 10% increase. It was a rate never seen during the whole history of US oil production. But, during the current recovery, it has declined to about half that value. The forecasts see a further reduction to nearly zero growth so that the 2019 record may not be breached before December 2024 -- if ever. Note also how production went down for about 6 months before the Covid shock. Something was rotten in Texas already by then. 

What's happening? One thing is clear: the US oil industry can no longer sustain the incredible growth rate that had been the rule up to 2019. We may well be close to the second (and final) peak of oil production in the US (as also noted by others)

So, as in the old Chinese malediction, we live in interesting times. An empire that does not expand is a dead empire, and the American Empire needs energy to keep its expansion going. A war, after all, is just a continuation of the economy by other means: the market is the battlefield, and "programmed obsolescence" is assured by the competitor's products. During the past decade, the US empire has accumulated considerable economic potential through the "fracking miracle." This potential has been turned in large part into a military potential. It is now time to dissipate this potential; it is the primary reason for what we see in the world nowadays. It is a concept explored in depth by Ingo Piepers.

The American elites understand what's happening. Hence, the effort to prop up the oil industry at all costs. So, will the Empire succeed in surviving for some more years? The current war is not being fought on the battlefield but on the oil fields. The side that runs out of fuel first will be the loser. 

In the long run, anyway, the winner will also lose: at some moment, production by fracking will not just decline: it will crash in one of the most brutal Seneca Cliffs ever witnessed by humankind. But do not despair: humankind has been thriving before the age of oil, and it may well do the same afterward. It will just be a very different world for those who will survive to see it. 

Below is a post I published in 2015, where I compared the growth of shale oil production to that of cod fishing in the Atlantic. In both cases, producers were blinded by a false sensation of abundance generated by production growth. They didn't realize that the faster you extract it, the faster you run out of it. 

The shale oil "miracle": how growth may falsely signal abundance. 

Originally published on "Cassandra's Legacy,  February 24, 2015

Oil production (all liquids in barrels per day) in the US and Canada. (From Ron Patterson's blog). Does this rapid growth indicate that the resources are abundant and that all the worries about peak oil are misplaced? Maybe not...

Sometimes, we use a simple metric to evaluate complex systems. For instance, a war is a complex affair where millions of people fight and struggle. However, in the end, the final result is a yes/no question: either you win or you lose. Not for nothing, General McArthur said once that "there is no substitute for victory."

Think of the economy: it is an immense and complex system where millions of people work, produce, buy, sell, and make or lose money. IEventually the final result is a simple yes/no question: either you grow, or you don't. And what McArthur said about war can be applied to the economy: "there is no substitute for growth."

But complex systems have ways of behaving, surprising you that can't be reduced to a simple yes/no judgment. Both victory and growth may create more problems than they solve. Victory may falsely signal a military might that doesn't exist (think of the outcome of some recent wars....), while growth may signal an abundance that is just not there.

Look at the figure at the beginning of this post (from Ron Patterson's blog). It shows the oil production (barrels/day) in the US and Canada. The data are in thousand barrels per day for "crude oil + condensate," and the rapid growth for the past few years is primarily due to tight oil (also known as "shale oil") and oil from tar sands. If you follow the debate in this field, you know that this growth trend has been hailed as a great result and as the definitive demonstration that all worries about oil depletion and peak oil were misplaced.

Fine. But let me show you another graph, the US landings of North Atlantic Cod up to 1980 (data from Faostat).

Doesn't it look similar to the data for oil in the US/Canada? We can imagine what was being said at the time; "new fishing technologies dispel all worries about overfishing" and things like that. It is what was said, indeed (see Hamilton et al. (2003)).

Now, look at the cod landings data up to 2012 and see what happened after the great burst of growth.

This doesn't require more than a couple of comments. The first is to note how overexploitation leads to collapse: people don't realize that by pushing for growth at all costs, they are destroying the very resource that creates growth. This can happen with fisheries just as with oil fields. But, also note that we have another case of a "Seneca Cliff," a production curve where the decline is much faster than growth. As the ancient Roman philosopher said, "The road to ruin is rapid." And this is exactly what we could expect to happen with tight oil.

Sunday, February 5, 2023

The Failure of Scientific Journals: the Failure of Science


Scientific, "peer-reviewed" journals are rapidly becoming a major stumbling block to scientific innovation. Here, I tell the story of one of these journals that I myself helped create. From this, I argue that the loose network that science used to be (an excellent example of a "social holobiont") has degenerated into a rigid, hierarchical structure that allows no changes and no innovations. And of what use is science if it doesn't innovate anymore?

"Biophysical Economics and Sustainability" is a scientific journal I helped create back in 2016. I still think it was a good idea, but it didn't work as expected. So, I resigned from my position as journal editor this December (1). But let me tell the story from the beginning. 

The journal was the brainchild of Charles W. Hall and David Packer. About Charlie Hall, he was the developer of the fundamental concept of EROI (energy return on energy invested). Dave Packer was a senior editor at Springer (now retired). The idea was to create a high-quality journal that could offer a publishing outlet in the field called "biophysical economics" or "econophysics." You may have heard about this field: it is an approach to economics based on the same models used in biology. The idea was to examine the essential elements of an economic system: an entity that transforms resources into products, then waste. The main difference with traditional economics is that biophysical economics is focused on material things that can be measured: energy, mass, materials, and the like. In contrast, economics is heavily focused on money and prices and often loses contact with the physical world. 

For instance, it is often said in the mining industry that "prices create resources." The idea is that when a mineral resource becomes scarce because of depletion, prices become higher, making it possible to extract resources that were not profitable before. It is a magic trick supposed to create something out of nothing. No need to say that it doesn't work in the real world. And it doesn't work in the biophysical approach, either. The concept of EROI (Energy Return for Energy Invested) is fundamental to understanding this point. It tells you what's possible to do with energy technologies and what's not possible. But it just does not exist in traditional economics: it is ignored, and, as a consequence, plenty of resources are wasted in non-viable energy technologies, for instance, biofuels and hydrogen. 

It may be time to replace the obsolete approach of traditional economics with the more rigorous one of biophysical economics. But it is just not happening. If you look at the number of publications in scientific journals, you see that growth has stalled during the past 10 years, and now it is going down. A search of the term "Biophysical Economics" on "Scopus" shows that not only growth stopped about 10 years ago, but the number of published studies remains small, a minor fraction of the publications in economics.  

Could a small group of dedicated people change this situation? We did our best with "Biophysical Economics and Sustainability," but if you peruse the list of publications, you see that the journal attracted mainly medium-quality, only marginally interesting publications. As a result, it never really impacted the field it was supposed to innovate. 

The main problem was the high cost of publication. If you want your article published in an "open access" format in "Biophysical Economics," you have to place $3,390 on the table. It is a lot of money for the strained budget of a scientist who is not part of the global scientific elite. One consequence was that I found myself as the editor of a journal where I could not afford to publish my research papers (one of the reasons why I resigned). Of course, publishing in the "paywalled" format will cost you nothing, but it will require about $40 for readers to access your article. And that guarantees that nobody will read it unless they have access to an academic library that subscribes to the journal. In the latter case, the paper will be read by a small number of specialists (maybe) but will have no impact on decision-makers and on a wider circle of scientists. No wonder the journal does not attract high-quality papers. If scientists have a paper they care about and want others to read, they'll publish it open-access in journals that charge a lower fee or none. 

Why does a publisher pursue a pricing policy guaranteed to throttle the flow of good papers to death? It is not a bug; it is a feature of the scientific publication process. It is well-known that consumers rely on prices to determine the quality of products. So, by making specific journals very expensive, publishers make them desirable, even though publishing in them means sacrificing a significant fraction of one's research budget. But why don't scientists rebel against this policy? It is because they are embedded in a Nash equilibrium and have no individual advantage in changing the system. 

You probably know that "science" is supposed to be formed of a bunch of disinterested truth-seekers who spend their lives investigating Nature and her ways. It is a good definition if you apply it to what science was. At the time of the great pioneers, say, Galileo, Newton, Darwin, and many others, science could change the way we perceived the universe with the work of individuals whose primary tool was a pencil (or a quill). Up to the times of Einstein, Bohr, Planck, and others, about one century ago, this feature of science had not changed so much. 

Of course, no scientist ever worked alone. All of them were part of a network of people who continuously communicated with each other and shared ideas and methods. Newton understood this point perfectly well when he said that he owed his successes to having been standing "on the shoulder of giants." But science was a peculiar organization: it had no leaders, no governing bodies, no "kings," and no "popes." Some scientists had much more prestige than others, but science was an egalitarian organization where ideas flowed freely from one scientist to another. In principle, all scientists had the right to propose new ideas and to be heard by their peers. At that time, there was no such thing as the rigid hierarchy of scientific journals that exists nowadays. And journals didn't charge such outrageous fees for the privilege of publishing in them.

Allow me to use the term "holobiont" to describe science as a network. A holobiont is a complex system that arises by self-organization based on local interactions. The term is used mainly in biology, but the definition can be extended to human social systems; science is one example. Up to recent times, science has been exactly fitting the definition of holobiont: it was a loose network of independent nodes interacting with each other at a level of near equality

One characteristic of holobionts as networks is that they can evolve and change. It is because when an element of the network changes, it can transmit the change to all the other elements using a chain reaction of local interactions. In this way, new ideas diffused in science: a good idea had a chance to make itself heard and affect the whole network. Of course, it took some time and, usually, the disappearance of an older generation of scientists, but generally, it worked. Just think how quantum mechanics could radically change the very basis of how we understood the nature of matter, back around the first decades of the 20th century. It was rabidly contrasted at the beginning, but gradually, it imposed itself. And that radical change took just a few decades to be globally accepted. 

Things are different now. Nowadays, new ideas need help finding a space in a scientific environment that has become rigid and static. The example of biophysical economics is just one of several cases where new paradigms remain marginalized. That it is a general phenomenon in science can be seen in a recent paper published in Nature. Here are the main results. 

As you see, the innovative content of new papers, measured in terms of the "CD" (conservative/disruptive) index, has declined over the past 60 years. Even more worrisome is that, despite these data, nobody, nowhere, seems to have been publicly expressing the idea that some radical changes are needed in science. Nobody wants to rock the boat, fearing they would be the ones dumped overboard. 

Now, a fundamental point. All this does not mean that science as we know it is wrong. Science remains grounded on a solid knowledge base built over centuries of hard work. Thermodynamics, quantum mechanics, microbiology, and atmospheric physics are just examples of fields that generated profound and valuable knowledge. Within some limits, they are still generating it. But, recently, science seems to have undergone a process of "hierarchization." Hierarchical structures are rigid. They change only if the central vertex changes. And if the central vertex resists change (as it usually does), the network remains as nimble as a beached whale. Until it rots away. In a certain sense, it was unavoidable. Most human organizations tend to evolve by turning into rigid hierarchies that resist change. 

In the case of science, it was the result of the classic combination of the carrot and the stick. The carrot is the research funding: right now, you can obtain funds for your research only if you follow the extremely detailed rules provided by the funders -- private industries or state agencies. This is why immense efforts are spent searching for solutions for the wrong problems (for instance, creating a "hydrogen economy"). The search for funds is competitive, and you must comply with the rules to ensure you are allowed to continue. 

The other cause of the hierarchization of science is the stick. It is here that science publishers play a fundamental role. This is a subtle point: publishers do not select what is to be published (2). They only select prices. Because publishing is so expensive, only those scientists who can control large research grants can publish in the best (i.e., more expensive) scientific journals. That, in turn, ensures they gain more prestige and can access more grants. With more grants, they can publish more papers in high-ranking journals. Scientists who don't belong to the inner circle of financing are forced to publish in second or third-rank journals and are marginalized and ignored (3, 4). Innovative work cannot simply move out of the swamp where it is confined, so it cannot influence the top layer of scientific research. 

So, what is left of science if it cannot produce innovation? Little more than a giant machine dedicated to grinding pure air (or, as we say in Italy, "frying with water"). Little can be done to reform this fossilized structure from the inside. Every attempt to change something is met with a rearranging of the network in such a way as to maintain its earlier structure. It is what happened to "Biophysical Economics and Sustainability,"  a nice try, but it couldn't have worked. So, the only way to get rid of an ancient hierarchical structure is to let it crash down and then replace it with a new one. It is the mechanism that generates the Seneca Collapse. 

It happens, usually as the result of an external perturbation that makes it impossible for the whole network to maintain the links that keep it together. The powers that be could simply decide that they don't need science anymore and simply cut financing to it. A starved holobiont is a dead holobiont, so it would be the end of science as we know it. It is difficult to say what can arise in its place but, in principle, it might be something better than the science as we know it today.  

For a while, many of us thought we could find truth in a nearly-deified form of "science," only to discover that all-too-human scientists had corrupted the idea, turning it into a giant circus where funny-looking beasts run and run in a circle, but arrive nowhere. So we remain facing Pilate's question: Τί ἐστιν ἀλήθεια? What is truth? Maybe one day we'll know. 


(1) If you go to the website of "Biophysical Economics and Sustainability), you still find my name among the editors. Sometimes, Springer is as reactive as a sleeping hippo.

(2) Recently, a new trend has been developing in science. It is the classic censorship, in this case, taking the shape of the "paper retraction" mechanism. So far, it has been rarely used, but it is becoming popular, as you can see on the "retraction watch" site. As a subset of the ordinary "fact checkers" who censor social media, a group of specialized science fact-checkers has appeared, possibly paid by the powers that be. They are engaged in finding mistakes in published papers, then pressing the editors to retract them. In principle, getting rid of those bad papers that survive the often sloppy reviewing mechanism of scientific journals is not a bad idea. However, in practice, it has a great potential for direct censorship of politically incorrect results. For example, during the Covid crisis, hundreds of papers on the subject were retracted. There is no doubt that many were bad papers that deserved retraction, but I could tell you stories about a few that were retracted simply for ideological reasons. 

(3) Here is an example of how impermeable the hierarchy of science can be. In 2015, two Turkish physicists, Ibrahim Semiz and Salim Ogur published a paper exploring the possibility of a Dyson sphere built around a white dwarf star. In 2022, B. Zuckerman of the University of California LA published a paper on the same subject: Dyson Spheres around white dwarves. It was not plagiarism because the two papers approached the subject in different ways. Still, it is remarkable how Zuckerman did not cite the two Turkish physicists, even though he had published it in the same paper repository. You can also see the different resonance of the two studies: the paper from California was discussed in the mainstream press, while the Turkish one was ignored. It is the hierarchical structure of science at work. Provincial scientists are marginalized. 

(4) Another recent case of censoring innovative ideas is that of a group of Italian scientists, Loredana Frasca, Giuseppe Ocone, and Raffaella Palazzo, who published an article where they evaluated the cost/benefit ratio of COVID-19 vaccines. They concluded that mass vaccination was not justified in many cases, particularly in view of the adverse effect on people with cardiac issues. It generated a strong backlash from their employer, ISS (Istituto Superiore di Sanità), which officially and publicly castigated them for having said things that the institute's leaders didn't approve of (there was once something called "academic freedom," alas....). The interesting point is that in the debate that ensued, some scientists took sides with the ISS by arguing that since the paper was published in a second-tier journal (MDPI's "Pathogens"), then it just didn't deserve any attention. Now, I can tell you that MDPI may not have the same prestige as "Nature" or "Science," but that doesn't mean the papers it publishes are not good. Snubbing a perfectly valid work just based on in which journal it had appeared is a good illustration of how elitarian science has become.