The Cult of Confucius

New thoughts about an ancient people, by Wayne Deeker.

My story

I should start by noting that historical facts listed about a person don’t say much about who they are. Anyway, I provide this record for anyone interested.

I generally consider that my real life began when I was fifteen. That’s when I lived abroad (Cyprus) for the first time and started to understand something of the world. Prior to that my only achievement had been upsetting teachers, which hardly counts because it’s so easy. I never did fit back into Australian life.

Having been awakened to the world, high school could never have been enough. Unengaged and unchallenged, I coasted through, though it made no difference. Even my mediocre grades were adequate to admit me to the university course I wanted but few others did (ecology). There, I still wasn’t doing any meaningful work, though at least the university had a better library than I had seen, which I devoured at the expense of assigned schoolwork. After one semester the university kicked me out, and rightly so.

Society undervalues gap years, and aimless time, but they are extremely important. I had already been working as a taxi driver, which I still regard as the best job of my life. Finally I was getting some of the real education I needed, supplemented with ravenous reading. Through this I learned more than I can ever express, but one huge thing, upon which I will elaborate in my next book, was that self-education is unequivocally better than any other kind. I discovered that I was interested in everything, except being told what to think by teachers.

One factor in the direction I took was that I spent a lot of time doing my then-girlfriend’s postgraduate university coursework and thesis. I effectively skipped ahead five years, which, if had I done that when younger things might have been different. At a sufficiently high level, the right subjects can be quite interesting and stimulating. Plus, though I eventually learned to love taxi-driving, I wasn’t in love with it then, and I knew I wanted more from life. So I returned to university and, properly motivated, did well.

I secured a job where I wanted at CSIRO, leading to another extremely stimulating period whereby I was surrounded by literally the best ecologists on Earth. I pestered them with questions, asking about everything I could. Those informal chats directly led to my life in science writing. I became very good at getting scientists to talk about their work. Even now my interviews with them are longer than strictly necessary for the story, mainly for my own interest and understanding. If you ever get the chance to talk one-on-one with a world-class expert, make it count! Experts love questions.

However, in hindsight, I was looking for something in ecology that it couldn’t provide, and which no science does. I was most interested in “deep ecology”, the philosophy of universal interconnectedness, yet in practice ecology is not all that deep. Conceptually, it’s not an especially difficult science, and had no real mysteries I needed to devote myself to unlocking. By that stage, the university was practically begging me to do a PhD, but I also strongly felt that being chained to a single field at the expense of all other enquiry was not my path. I believe that being a generalist is the greater calling. No-one else seems to understand this, though that may be because most people study to get jobs: I don’t. While I still love the subject material, and being in nature, actually the working context of ecologists is extremely depressing and largely futile. I want my work to make some difference. Finally, I taught myself what I needed, as I have been doing ever since.

Though my subsequent postgraduate qualifications are sufficient for any employment in science communication, in truth I gained practically nothing from that study and taught myself almost everything of real value. My ex-wife helped with the rest, another new beginning for me.  She raised my writing to something presentable while also beating down my ego. It was funny though: the better my work became, the more problems I had with Australian editors.

I was happy in science writing, especially once I became a magazine editor myself. Those were good years. I spent them writing about what other people think, which I consider a valuable apprenticeship, and I still enjoy that given exceptionally interesting characters and powerful ideas. However, I also learned that my own ideas were in most cases even more valid. I started developing and writing about those too.

I also came to understand the real meaning of writer, and science writer in particular. Many people see that role as organisational propagandist but it is not. A real writer can never be a tool for authority. Eventually I may document all the criminally-fraudulent and/or delusional bullshit I was expected to write but refused to. I have never been interested in deceiving anyone, especially not to make fools look good. Fortunately, these were usually only minor, background concerns for me. Mostly I was lucky enough to have been able to do proper science writing, which means informing public understanding rather than manipulating it.

For other reasons, I had to leave that life but it was time anyway. Eventually I went to China. It was one of the best things I ever did: a third new life. At least it gave me an extraordinary freedom to live and work as I wished, and to continue developing my own ideas full time. A real writer, rather than produce propaganda for others, brings new ideas into the world. So it was that shortly after my 39th birthday, I started what would eventually take form as Mythbusting the Cult of Confucius.

The explanation for why I wrote it and what I hope it will achieve is here.

I’m still interested in science writing, actually nobody has ever done it properly, and I’d be open to working for a suitably high-calibre organisation that does meaningful work and wants to honestly promote it (if one exists). Meanwhile, writing about my own ideas is keeping me busy. There will be other books quite soon.

Wayne Deeker

February 2013

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