Wes Anderson’s Cinematic Debt to Stanley Kubrick Revealed in a Side-By-Side Comparison

Most film fans hold the work of Stan­ley Kubrick and Wes Ander­son in high regard, even if they don’t find one, the oth­er, or both to their par­tic­u­lar taste. And at first glance, it might seem hard to under­stand what kind of taste could pos­si­bly encom­pass both Kubrick and Ander­son. The for­mer made most­ly com­plex and emo­tion­al­ly chilled peri­od pieces, visu­al­ly grand yet stark, tinged with grim humor, and pos­sess­ing a dim view of human­i­ty. The lat­ter makes col­or­ful, out­ward­ly high-spir­it­ed come­dies, some­times even ani­mat­ed ones, that seem to delight in their own care­ful­ly cul­ti­vat­ed aes­thet­ics.

But both bod­ies of work reveal direc­to­r­i­al minds that take cin­e­ma itself very seri­ous­ly indeed. “Kubrick is one of my favorites,” says Ander­son in an inter­view clip used in the video essay com­par­ing shots from his films to shots from Kubrick­’s, just above. “Usu­al­ly, by the time I’m mak­ing the movie, I don’t real­ly know where I’m steal­ing every­thing from. By the time it’s a movie, I think it’s my thing, and I for­get where I took it all — but I think I’m always pret­ty influ­enced by Kubrick.” That influ­ence, on a visu­al lev­el, does come through in this com­par­i­son, cer­tain­ly in all those first-per­son per­spec­tives and views through port­holes, but even more so with the cam­era moves, espe­cial­ly in the track­ing shots and zooms.

As Bill Mur­ray said in a 1999 inter­view with Char­lie Rose of Rush­more, the pic­ture that would make Mur­ray an Ander­son reg­u­lar, “Boy, this has got some great moves in it.” By that he meant “the way sto­ries get told in pic­tures.” A film­mak­er needs a script, of course, but “the way you shoot it, too, shows how you want to impact things on an audi­ence.” He describes Ander­son and his col­lab­o­ra­tors as pos­sessed of “an enor­mous film cul­ture,” recall­ing shots from cin­e­ma past and, in their own pro­duc­tions, repur­pos­ing them com­plete­ly. Mur­ray remem­bers Ander­son describ­ing a shot in Rush­more as “one I saw in Bar­ry Lyn­don.” “You remem­ber Bar­ry Lyn­don?” Mur­ray asks Rose. “It was this enor­mous thing. Ours, though, is the inter­mis­sion of the school play.”

That school play, you may recall, appears as one of sev­er­al put on by Rush­more’s pro­tag­o­nist Max Fis­ch­er, whose sen­si­bil­i­ties (and artis­tic abil­i­ties) may dif­fer from Ander­son­’s, but who shows just the same zeal for cre­ative­ly “rip­ping off” from the movies. “I talk to a lot of those guys who come in here, these young direc­tors,” Rose says of Ander­son and his gen­er­a­tion. “They’ve seen every movie. They’re more stu­dents of cin­e­ma than most.” Mur­ray cau­tions that “it always gets per­vert­ed when peo­ple say, ‘Oh, the good ones copy, the great ones steal,’ ” an idea that can lead to emp­ty for­mal trib­utes, but “Wes,” to his mind, was dif­fer­ent. Pos­sessed of both “mind and body,” he “just knows how to get these things togeth­er in one place,” using the lan­guage of cin­e­ma, whether invent­ed or bor­rowed, for max­i­mum impact — as, in a dif­fer­ent yet star­tling­ly sim­i­lar way, did Kubrick.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Stan­ley Kubrick’s The Shin­ing Reimag­ined as Wes Ander­son and David Lynch Movies

The Per­fect Sym­me­try of Wes Anderson’s Movies

Sig­na­ture Shots from the Films of Stan­ley Kubrick: One-Point Per­spec­tive

A Glimpse Into How Wes Ander­son Cre­ative­ly Remixes/Recycles Scenes in His Dif­fer­ent Films

Cult Films by Kubrick, Taran­ti­no & Wes Ander­son Re-imag­ined as 8‑Bit Video Games

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

An Introduction to the Codex Seraphinianus, the Strangest Book Ever Published

Imag­ine you could talk to Hierony­mus Bosch, the authors of the Book of Rev­e­la­tion, or of the Voyn­ich Man­u­script—a bizarre 15th cen­tu­ry text writ­ten in an uncrack­able code; that you could solve cen­turies-old mys­ter­ies by ask­ing them, “what were you think­ing?” You might be dis­ap­point­ed to hear them say, as does Lui­gi Ser­afi­ni, author and illus­tra­tor of the Codex Seraphini­anus, “At the end of the day [it’s] sim­i­lar to the Rorschach inkblot test. You see what you want to see. You might think it’s speak­ing to you, but it’s just your imag­i­na­tion.”

If you were a long­time devo­tee of an intense­ly sym­bol­ic, myth­ic text, you might refuse to believe this. It must mean some­thing, fans of the Codex have insist­ed since the book’s appear­ance in 1981.

It shares many sim­i­lar­i­ties with the Voyn­ich Man­u­script (high­light­ed on our site last week), save its rel­a­tive­ly recent vin­tage and liv­ing author: both the Seraphini­anus and the Voyn­ich seem to be com­pendi­ums of an oth­er­world­ly nat­ur­al sci­ence and art, and both are writ­ten in a whol­ly invent­ed lan­guage.

Ser­afi­ni tells Wired he thinks Voyn­ich is a fake. “The Holy Roman Emper­or Rudulf II loved ancient man­u­scripts; some­body swin­dled him and spread the rumor that it was orig­i­nal. The idea of made-up lan­guages is not new at all.” As for his own made-up lan­guage in the Codex, he avers, “I always said that there is no mean­ing behind the script; it’s just a game.” But it is not a hoax. Though he hasn’t mind­ed the mon­ey from the book’s cult pop­u­lar­i­ty, he cre­at­ed the book, he says, “try­ing to reach out to my fel­low peo­ple, just like blog­gers do.” It is, he says, “the prod­uct of a gen­er­a­tion that chose to con­nect and cre­ate a net­work, rather than kill each oth­er in wars like their fathers did.”

The Codex, writes Abe books, who made the short video review above, is “essen­tial­ly an ency­clo­pe­dia about an alien world that clear­ly reflects our own, each chap­ter appears to deal with key facets of this sur­re­al place, includ­ing flo­ra, fau­na, sci­ence, machines, games and archi­tec­ture.” That’s only a guess giv­en the unin­tel­li­gi­ble lan­guage.

The illus­tra­tions seem to draw from Bosch, Leonar­do da Vin­ci, and the medieval trav­el­ogue as much as from the sur­re­al­ism of con­tem­po­rary Euro­pean artists like Fan­tas­tic Plan­et ani­ma­tor René Laloux. (Justin Tay­lor at The Believ­er points to a num­ber of sim­i­lar 20th cen­tu­ry texts, like Borges’ Book of Imag­i­nary Beings.)

Ser­afi­ni has been delight­ed to see an exten­sive inter­net com­mu­ni­ty coa­lesce around the book, and has had his fun with it. He “now states,” writes Dan­ger­ous Minds, “that a stray white cat that joined him while he cre­at­ed the Codex in Rome in the 1970s was actu­al­ly the real author, tele­path­i­cal­ly guid­ing Ser­afi­ni as he drew and ‘wrote.’” You can now, thanks to a recent, rel­a­tive­ly afford­able edi­tion pub­lished by Riz­zoli, pur­chase your copy of the Codex. Buy now, I’d say. First edi­tions of the book now fetch upwards of $5000, and the its pop­u­lar­i­ty shows no sign of slow­ing. Also check out the more recent Codex Seraphini­anus wall cal­en­dar.

Relat­ed Con­tent:  

Behold the Mys­te­ri­ous Voyn­ich Man­u­script: The 15th-Cen­tu­ry Text That Lin­guists & Code-Break­ers Can’t Under­stand

Won­der­ful­ly Weird & Inge­nious Medieval Books

Carl Jung’s Hand-Drawn, Rarely-Seen Man­u­script The Red Book: A Whis­pered Intro­duc­tion

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

Stream Online The Vietnam War, the New Documentary by Ken Burns & Lynn Novick

Right now, PBS is in the midst of air­ing The Viet­nam War, a ten-part, 18-hour doc­u­men­tary film series direct­ed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. The “immer­sive 360-degree nar­ra­tive” tells “the epic sto­ry of the Viet­nam War,” using nev­er-before-seen footage and inter­views. If you’re not watch­ing the series on the TV, you can also view it on the web and through PBS apps for smart­phones, tablets, Apple TV, Roku and Ama­zon Fire TV. Episode 1 appears above. Find all of them here.

Note: If these videos don’t stream out­side of the US, we apol­o­gize in advance. Some­times PBS geo-restricts their videos. Also, these videos like­ly won’t stay online for­ev­er. If you’re inter­est­ed in watch­ing the series, I’d get going soon­er than lat­er.

If you would like to sign up for Open Culture’s free email newslet­ter, please find it here. Or fol­low our posts on Threads, Face­book, BlueSky or Mastodon.

If you would like to sup­port the mis­sion of Open Cul­ture, con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion to our site. It’s hard to rely 100% on ads, and your con­tri­bu­tions will help us con­tin­ue pro­vid­ing the best free cul­tur­al and edu­ca­tion­al mate­ri­als to learn­ers every­where. You can con­tribute through Pay­Pal, Patre­on, and Ven­mo (@openculture). Thanks!

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Mick­ey Mouse In Viet­nam: The Under­ground Anti-War Ani­ma­tion from 1968, Co-Cre­at­ed by Mil­ton Glaser

An Aging Louis Arm­strong Sings “What a Won­der­ful World” in 1967, Dur­ing the Viet­nam War & The Civ­il Rights Strug­gle

What Is Apoc­a­lypse Now Real­ly About? An Hour-Long Video Analy­sis of Fran­cis Ford Coppola’s Viet­nam Mas­ter­piece

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Hamilton Mania Inspires the Library of Congress to Put 12,000 Alexander Hamilton Documents Online

Remem­ber when bloody, bloody Andrew Jack­son seemed like a shoe in for Best Sepul­chral His­tor­i­cal Fig­ure Brought Back to Life by an Amer­i­can Musi­cal?

Alas for the 7th Pres­i­dent, a lit­tle jug­ger­naut called Hamil­ton came along, and just like that, it was the first Trea­sury Sec­re­tary and author of the Fed­er­al­ist Papers who had a fan base on the order of Beat­le­ma­nia.

Teach­ers, his­to­ri­ans, and librar­i­ans thrilled to reports of kids singing along with the Hamil­ton sound­track. Play­wright and orig­i­nal star Lin-Manuel Miran­da’s clever rap lyrics ensured that young Hamil­fans (and their par­ents, who report­ed­ly were nev­er allowed to lis­ten to any­thing else in the car) would become well versed in their favorite found­ing father’s per­son­al and pro­fes­sion­al his­to­ry.

Out of town vis­i­tors who spend upwards of a month’s gro­cery bud­get for Broad­way tick­ets vol­un­tar­i­ly side trip way uptown to tour Hamil­ton Grange. The insa­tiable self­ie imper­a­tive dri­ves them to Cen­tral Park and Muse­um of the City of New York in search of larg­er than life sculp­tures. They take the PATH train to Wee­hawken to pay their respects in the spot where Hamil­ton was felled by Aaron Burr

Hamil­ton mer­chan­dise, need­less to say, is sell­ing briskly. Books, t‑shirts, jew­el­ry, bob­ble heads com­mem­o­ra­tive mugs…

The Library of Con­gress is not out to cash in on this cul­tur­al moment in the mon­e­tary sense. But “giv­en the increased inter­est in Hamil­ton,” says Julie Miller, a cura­tor of ear­ly Amer­i­can man­u­scripts, it’s no acci­dent that the Library has tak­en pains to dig­i­tize 12,000 Hamil­ton doc­u­ments and make them avail­able on the web. The col­lec­tion includes speech­es, a draft of the Reynolds Pam­phlet, finan­cial accounts, school exer­cis­es and cor­re­spon­dence, both per­son­al and pub­lic, encom­pass­ing such mar­quee names as John Adams, Thomas Jef­fer­son, the Mar­quis de Lafayette, and George Wash­ing­ton.

One need not be a musi­cal the­ater fan to appre­ci­ate the emo­tion of the let­ter he wrote to his wife, Eliz­a­beth Schuyler, on the eve of his fate­ful duel with Aaron Burr:

I need not tell you of the pangs I feel, from the idea of quit­ting you and expos­ing you to the anguish which I know you would feel.… Adieu best of wives and best of Women. Embrace all my dar­ling Chil­dren for me.

Explore the Library of Con­gress’ Hamil­ton col­lec­tion here.

And enter the online lot­tery for $10 Hamil­ton tick­ets because, hey, somebody’s got to win.

via The­ater Mania

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Dis­cov­er Thomas Jefferson’s Cut-and-Paste Ver­sion of the Bible, and Read the Curi­ous Edi­tion Online

Watch a Wit­ty, Grit­ty, Hard­boiled Retelling of the Famous Aaron Burr-Alexan­der Hamil­ton Duel

“Alexan­der Hamil­ton” Per­formed with Amer­i­can Sign Lan­guage

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

Behold the “Book Wheel”: The Renaissance Invention Created to Make Books Portable & Help Scholars Study Several Books at Once (1588)

Devo­tees of print may object, but we read­ers of the 21st cen­tu­ry enjoy a great priv­i­lege in our abil­i­ty to store a prac­ti­cal­ly infi­nite num­ber of dig­i­tized books on our com­put­ers. What’s more, those com­put­ers have them­selves shrunk down to such com­pact­ness that we can car­ry them around day and night with­out dis­com­fort. This would hard­ly have worked just forty years ago, when books came only in print and a seri­ous com­put­er could still fill a room. The paper book may remain rea­son­ably com­pet­i­tive even today with the con­ve­nience refined over hun­dreds and hun­dreds of years, but its first hand­made gen­er­a­tions tend­ed toward lav­ish, weighty dec­o­ra­tion and for­mats that now look com­i­cal­ly over­sized.

These posed real prob­lems of unwield­i­ness, one solu­tion to which took the unlike­ly form of the book­wheel. In 1588’s The Var­i­ous and Inge­nious Machines of Cap­tain Agosti­no Ramel­li, the Ital­ian engi­neer of that name “out­lined his vision for a wheel-o-books that would employ the log­ic of oth­er types of wheel (water, Fer­ris, ‘Price is Right’, etc.) to rotate books clock­work-style before a sta­tion­ary user,” writes the Atlantic’s Megan Gar­ber.

The design used “epicyclic gear­ing — a sys­tem that had at that point been used only in astro­nom­i­cal clocks — to ensure that the shelves bear­ing the wheel’s books (more than a dozen of them) would remain at the same angle no mat­ter the wheel’s posi­tion. The seat­ed read­er could then employ either hand or foot con­trols to move the desired book pret­ty much into her (or, much more like­ly, his) lap.” This rotat­ing book­case gave 16th cen­tu­ry read­ers the abil­i­ty to read heavy books in place, with far greater ease.

In his 1588  book, Ramel­li added:

This is a beau­ti­ful and inge­nious machine, very use­ful and con­ve­nient for any­one who takes plea­sure in study, espe­cial­ly those who are indis­posed and tor­ment­ed by gout. For with this machine a man can see and turn through a large num­ber of books with­out mov­ing from one spot. Moveover, it has anoth­er fine con­ve­nience in that it occu­pies very lit­tle space in the place where it is set, as any­one of intel­li­gence can clear­ly see from the draw­ing.

Inven­tors all over Europe cre­at­ed their own ver­sions of the book­wheel dur­ing the 17th and 18th cen­turies, four­teen exam­ples of which still exist. (The one pic­tured in the mid­dle of the post, built around 1650, now resides in Lei­den.) Even archi­tect Daniel Libe­skind has built one, based on Ramel­li’s design and exhib­it­ed in his home­land at the 1986 Venice Bien­nale. Alas, after it went to Gene­va for an exhi­bi­tion at the Palais Wil­son, it fell vic­tim to a ter­ror­ist fire bomb­ing. Inno­va­tion, it seems, will always have its ene­mies.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Dis­cov­er the Jacobean Trav­el­ing Library: The 17th Cen­tu­ry Pre­cur­sor to the Kin­dle

The Art of Mak­ing Old-Fash­ioned, Hand-Print­ed Books

Won­der­ful­ly Weird & Inge­nious Medieval Books

Wear­able Books: In Medieval Times, They Took Old Man­u­scripts & Turned Them into Clothes

800 Free eBooks for iPad, Kin­dle & Oth­er Devices

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

Martin Scorsese to Teach His First Online Course on Filmmaking

FYI: If you sign up for a Mas­ter­Class course by click­ing on the affil­i­ate links in this post, Open Cul­ture will receive a small fee that helps sup­port our oper­a­tion.

If you need to make movies, if you feel like you can’t rest until you’ve told this par­tic­u­lar sto­ry that you’re burn­ing to tell, then Mar­tin Scors­ese has a course for you. Through Mas­ter­Class, the direc­tor of Good­fel­las, Rag­ing Bull, Taxi Dri­ver, and Mean Streets is now set to teach his first online course. Accord­ing to the video trail­er above, Scors­ese will explore in 20+ lessons every­thing from cin­e­matog­ra­phy and edit­ing, to work­ing with actors, on-set direct­ing, and devel­op­ing a per­son­al film­mak­ing style. The $90 course won’t be released until ear­ly 2018, but any­one who pre-enrolls now will get ear­ly access to the class.

While you wait, you can also take Wern­er Her­zog’s own course on film­mak­ing (also offered through Mas­ter­Class). Or explore Scors­ese’s lists of rec­om­mend­ed films that we’ve pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture. Find them in the Relat­eds right below.

If you would like to sign up for Open Culture’s free email newslet­ter, please find it here. Or fol­low our posts on Threads, Face­book, BlueSky or Mastodon.

If you would like to sup­port the mis­sion of Open Cul­ture, con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion to our site. It’s hard to rely 100% on ads, and your con­tri­bu­tions will help us con­tin­ue pro­vid­ing the best free cul­tur­al and edu­ca­tion­al mate­ri­als to learn­ers every­where. You can con­tribute through Pay­Pal, Patre­on, and Ven­mo (@openculture). Thanks!

Note: Mas­ter­Class is one of our part­ners. So if you sign up for a course, it ben­e­fits not just you and Mas­ter­Class. It ben­e­fits Open Cul­ture too. So con­sid­er it win-win-win.

Oth­er Mas­ter­Class cours­es worth explor­ing include:

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Mar­tin Scors­ese Cre­ates a List of 39 Essen­tial For­eign Films for a Young Film­mak­er

Mar­tin Scors­ese Makes a List of 85 Films Every Aspir­ing Film­mak­er Needs to See

Mar­tin Scors­ese Names His Top 10 Films in the Cri­te­ri­on Col­lec­tion

Great Film­mak­ers Offer Advice to Young Direc­tors: Taran­ti­no, Her­zog, Cop­po­la, Scors­ese, Ander­son, Felli­ni & More

Wern­er Her­zog Teach­es His First Online Course on Film­mak­ing


Watch the New Trailer for Wes Anderson’s Stop Motion Film, Isle of Dogs, Inspired by Akira Kurosawa

It sur­prised every­one, even die-hard fans, when Wes Ander­son announced that he would not just adapt Roald Dahl’s chil­dren’s book Fan­tas­tic Mr. Fox for the screen, but do it with stop-motion ani­ma­tion. But after we’d all giv­en it a bit of thought, it made sense: Ander­son­’s films and Dahl’s sto­ries do share a cer­tain sense of inven­tive humor, and step­ping away from live action would final­ly allow the direc­tor of such detail-ori­ent­ed pic­tures as Rush­moreThe Roy­al Tenen­baums, and The Life Aquat­ic with Steve Zis­sou fuller con­trol over the visu­als. Eight years lat­er, we find Ander­son over­see­ing anoth­er team of ani­ma­tors to tell anoth­er, even more fan­tas­ti­cal-look­ing sto­ry, this one set not in an Eng­land of the past but a Japan of the future.

There, accord­ing to the pro­jec­t’s new­ly released trail­er, “canine sat­u­ra­tion has reached epic pro­por­tions. An out­break of dog flu rips through the city of Megasa­ki. May­or Kobayashi issues emer­gency orders call­ing for a hasty quar­an­tine. Trash Island becomes an exile colony: the Isle of Dogs.” Equals in fur­ri­ness, if not attire, to Fan­tas­tic Mr. Fox’s wood­land friends and voiced by the likes of Jeff Gold­blum, Scar­let Johans­son, Til­da Swin­ton, and of course Bill Mur­ray (in a cast also includ­ing Japan­ese per­form­ers like Ken Watan­abe, Mari Nat­su­ki, and Yoko Ono — yes, that Yoko Ono), the canines of var­i­ous col­ors and sizes forcibly relo­cat­ed to the bleak tit­u­lar set­ting must band togeth­er into a kind of rag­tag fam­i­ly.

Ander­son must find him­self very much at home in this the­mat­ic ter­ri­to­ry by now. It would also have suit­ed the tow­er­ing fig­ure in Japan­ese film to whom Isle of Dogs pays trib­ute. Although Ander­son has cit­ed the 1960s and 70s stop-ani­ma­tion hol­i­day spe­cials of Rankin/Bass like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Rein­deer and The Lit­tle Drum­mer Boy — all pro­duced, inci­den­tal­ly, in Japan — as one inspi­ra­tion, he also said on an ArteTV Q&A ear­li­er this year that “the new film is real­ly less influ­enced by stop-motion movies than it is by Aki­ra Kuro­sawa.” Per­haps he envi­sioned Atari Kobayashi, the boy who jour­neys to Trash Island to retrieve his lost com­pan­ion, as a twelve-year-old ver­sion of one of Kuro­sawa’s lone heroes.

And per­haps it owes to Kuro­sawa that the set­ting — at least from what the trail­er reveals — com­bines ele­ments of an imag­ined future with the look and feel of Japan’s rapid­ly devel­op­ing mid-20th cen­tu­ry, a peri­od that has long fas­ci­nat­ed Ander­son in its Euro­pean incar­na­tions but one cap­tured crisply in Kuro­sawa’s home­land in crime movies like High and Low and The Bad Sleep Well. Ander­son has made lit­tle to no ref­er­ence to the Land of the Ris­ing Sun before, but his inter­est makes sense: no land bet­ter under­stands what Ander­son has expressed more vivid­ly with every project, the rich­ness of the aes­thet­ic mix­ture of the past and future that always sur­rounds us. And from what I could tell on my last vis­it there, its dog sit­u­a­tion remains bless­ed­ly under con­trol — for now.

via Uncrate

Relat­ed Con­tent:

A Com­plete Col­lec­tion of Wes Ander­son Video Essays

The Geo­met­ric Beau­ty of Aki­ra Kuro­sawa and Wes Anderson’s Films

Wes Ander­son & Yasu­jiro Ozu: New Video Essay Reveals the Unex­pect­ed Par­al­lels Between Two Great Film­mak­ers

Acci­den­tal Wes Ander­son: Every Place in the World with a Wes Ander­son Aes­thet­ic Gets Doc­u­ment­ed by Red­dit

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

How Can We Know What is True? And What Is BS? Tips from Carl Sagan, Richard Feynman & Michael Shermer

Sci­ence denial­ism may be a deeply entrenched and enor­mous­ly dam­ag­ing polit­i­cal phe­nom­e­non. But it is not a whol­ly prac­ti­cal one, or we would see many more peo­ple aban­don med­ical sci­ence, air trav­el, com­put­er tech­nol­o­gy, etc. Most of us tac­it­ly agree that we know cer­tain truths about the world—gravitational force, nav­i­ga­tion­al tech­nol­o­gy, the germ the­o­ry of dis­ease, for exam­ple. How do we acquire such knowl­edge, and how do we use the same method to test and eval­u­ate the many new claims we’re bom­bard­ed with dai­ly?

The prob­lem, many pro­fes­sion­al skep­tics would say, is that we’re large­ly unaware of the epis­temic cri­te­ria for our think­ing. We believe some ideas and doubt oth­ers for a host of rea­sons, many of them hav­ing noth­ing to do with stan­dards of rea­son and evi­dence sci­en­tists strive towards. Many pro­fes­sion­al skep­tics even have the humil­i­ty to admit that skep­tics can be as prone to irra­tional­i­ty and cog­ni­tive bias­es as any­one else.

Carl Sagan had a good deal of patience with unrea­son, at least in his writ­ing and tele­vi­sion work, which exhibits so much rhetor­i­cal bril­liance and depth of feel­ing that he might have been a poet in anoth­er life. His style and per­son­al­i­ty made him a very effec­tive sci­ence com­mu­ni­ca­tor. But what he called his “Baloney Detec­tion Kit,” a set of “tools for skep­ti­cal think­ing,” is not at all unique to him. Sagan’s prin­ci­ples agree with those of all pro­po­nents of log­ic and the sci­en­tif­ic method. You can read just a few of his pre­scrip­tions below, and a full unabridged list here.

Wher­ev­er pos­si­ble there must be inde­pen­dent con­fir­ma­tion of the “facts.”

Encour­age sub­stan­tive debate on the evi­dence by knowl­edge­able pro­po­nents of all points of view.

Argu­ments from author­i­ty car­ry lit­tle weight — “author­i­ties” have made mis­takes in the past. They will do so again in the future. Per­haps a bet­ter way to say it is that in sci­ence there are no author­i­ties; at most, there are experts.

Spin more than one hypoth­e­sis. If there’s some­thing to be explained, think of all the dif­fer­ent ways in which it could be explained. Then think of tests by which you might sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly dis­prove each of the alter­na­tives.

Try not to get over­ly attached to a hypoth­e­sis just because it’s yours. It’s only a way sta­tion in the pur­suit of knowl­edge. Ask your­self why you like the idea. Com­pare it fair­ly with the alter­na­tives. See if you can find rea­sons for reject­ing it. If you don’t, oth­ers will.

Anoth­er skep­tic, founder and edi­tor of Skep­tic mag­a­zine Michael Sher­mer, sur­rounds his epis­te­mol­o­gy with a sym­pa­thet­ic neu­ro­science frame. We’re all prone to “believ­ing weird things,” as he puts it in his book Why Peo­ple Believe Weird Things and his short video above, where he intro­duces, fol­low­ing Sagan, his own “Baloney Detec­tion Kit.” The human brain, he explains, evolved to see pat­terns every­where as a mat­ter of sur­vival. All of our brains do it, and we all get a lot of false pos­i­tives.

Many of those false pos­i­tives become wide­spread cul­tur­al beliefs. Sher­mer him­self has been accused of insen­si­tive cul­tur­al bias (evi­dent in the begin­ning of his video), intel­lec­tu­al arro­gance, and worse. But he admits up front that sci­en­tif­ic think­ing should tran­scend indi­vid­ual per­son­al­i­ties, includ­ing his own. “You shouldn’t believe any­body based on author­i­ty or what­ev­er posi­tion they might have,” he says. “You should check it out your­self.”

Some of the ways to do so when we encounter new ideas involve ask­ing “How reli­able is the source of the claim?” and “Have the claims been ver­i­fied by some­body else?” Return­ing to Sagan’s work, Sher­mer offers an exam­ple of con­trast­ing sci­en­tif­ic and pseu­do­sci­en­tif­ic approaches—the SETI (Search for Extrater­res­tri­al Intel­li­gence) Insti­tute and UFO believ­ers. The lat­ter, he says, uncrit­i­cal­ly seek out con­fir­ma­tion for their beliefs, where the sci­en­tists at SETI rig­or­ous­ly try to dis­prove hypothe­ses in order to rule out false claims.

Yet it remains the case that many people—and not all of them in good faith—think they’re using sci­ence when they aren’t. Anoth­er pop­u­lar sci­ence com­mu­ni­ca­tor, physi­cist Richard Feyn­man, rec­om­mend­ed one method for test­ing whether we real­ly under­stand a con­cept or whether we’re just repeat­ing some­thing that sounds smart but makes no log­i­cal sense, what Feyn­man calls “a mys­tic for­mu­la for answer­ing ques­tions.” Can a con­cept be explained in plain Eng­lish, with­out any tech­ni­cal jar­gon? Can we ask ques­tions about it and make direct obser­va­tions that con­firm or dis­con­firm its claims?

Feyn­man was espe­cial­ly sen­si­tive to what he called “intel­lec­tu­al tyran­ny in the name of sci­ence.” And he rec­og­nized that turn­ing forms of know­ing into emp­ty rit­u­als result­ed in pseu­do­sci­en­tif­ic think­ing. In a won­der­ful­ly ram­bling, infor­mal, and auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal speech he gave in 1966 to a meet­ing of the Nation­al Sci­ence Teach­ers Asso­ci­a­tion, Feyn­man con­clud­ed that think­ing sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly as a prac­tice requires skep­ti­cism of sci­ence as an insti­tu­tion.

“Sci­ence is the belief in the igno­rance of experts,” says Feyn­man. “If they say to you, ‘Sci­ence has shown such and such,’ you might ask, ‘How does sci­ence show it? How did the sci­en­tists find out? How? What? Where?’” Ask­ing such ques­tions does not mean we should reject sci­en­tif­ic con­clu­sions because they con­flict with cher­ished beliefs, but rather that we should­n’t take even sci­en­tif­ic claims on faith.

For elab­o­ra­tion on Sher­mer, Sagan and Feyn­man’s approach­es to telling good sci­en­tif­ic think­ing from bad, read these arti­cles in our archive:

Carl Sagan Presents His “Baloney Detec­tion Kit”: 8 Tools for Skep­ti­cal Think­ing

Richard Feyn­man Cre­ates a Sim­ple Method for Telling Sci­ence From Pseu­do­science (1966)

Richard Feynman’s “Note­book Tech­nique” Will Help You Learn Any Subject–at School, at Work, or in Life

Michael Shermer’s Baloney Detec­tion Kit: What to Ask Before Believ­ing


Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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