Teller Tells All: How Magicians (and Others) Manipulate the Mind

Teller

Like just about everyone else on the planet, I’m a big fan of Penn and Teller. Indeed, I’ve probably been a fan longer than most – since I first saw them in 1980, long before they became global superstars. That was literally before they were Penn and Teller; in those days, they were a three-person troupe billed as Asparagus Valley Cultural Society.  The third member, a geeky-looking fellow known as Wier Chrisemer, reportedly left the act because he objected to some of the risqué material the other two came up with.

Years later, when I spoke to Teller after catching one of their performances in Las Vegas, I asked him whatever happened to Wier.  Without missing a beat he replied, perfectly deadpan, “we killed him and took his clothes.”  It was a characteristically quick-witted response. Though Teller doesn’t speak onstage, he was once a high school Latin teacher; and he’s always been, like his longtime partner, highly articulate and highly intellectual.

I recently read an article he wrote for Smithsonian magazine outlining the techniques magicians use to fool their viewers. It’s worth reading the original article, because he goes into more detail and illustrates with some specific tricks. But here in a nutshell are the 7 principles:

  1. Exploit pattern recognition.
  2. Make the secret a lot more trouble than the trick seems worth.
  3. It’s hard to think critically when you’re laughing.
  4. Keep the trickery outside the frame.
  5. To fool the mind, combine at least two tricks.
  6. Nothing fools you better than the lie you tell yourself.
  7. If you are given a choice, you believe you have acted freely.

All of these are interesting to anyone who appreciates a good magic trick – and who doesn’t? But some of them (especially 1, 6 and 7) are quite relevant to other forms of mental manipulation as well.  In fact, one of the most illuminating things about magic is that it helps underscore a fact about human nature that, depending on the context, can be either delightful or disturbing: people enjoy, and quite often crave, being deceived — even many people who are quite intelligent and well-educated. Witness the enormous success of Fox “News”. And many, many cases of the public willingly offering its eyes for the wool to be pulled over.

In the last post, we discussed a deceptively edited video distributed by “pro-life” manipulators that supposedly proved Planned Parenthood sells “body parts” from aborted fetuses. This was unquestioningly distributed by millions of shocked individuals who apparently never stopped to think that “pro-life” radicals might be able and willing to tamper with videos, even though they’d already done so not too long before. The video showed people what they wanted to see, so they assumed they were seeing it.

An even more vibrant example involved a video that wasn’t even tampered with. It was attached to a viral blog post claiming that the clip depicted a lawyer for President Obama admitting his birth certificate was a forgery. The video, of course, showed no such thing; yet millions of people passed it on, believing they actually had heard the lawyer say this, because that was what they really, really wanted to hear.

Or take the Second Amendment. Please. Anyone literate in the Mother Tongue need only read it to see that it absolutely does not unequivocally state that American citizens have a right to own firearms. Yet many Americans are willing to live and even die for such a nonexistent “constitutional right”.  Five prestidigitators on the Supreme Court told them it was there, and they believe that settles it. Not that they needed convincing; they’d already long insisted very loudly that they saw such a right clearly enshrined in the Constitution, no matter how much it wasn’t really there. The fakirs of the gun lobby had already been telling them, long before the Court got around to it.

When a magician fools us, we get something useful out of it – namely, diversion and delight. When a propagandist deceives us, other people get something out of it, to our detriment. Keeping an eye out for the techniques magicians use can enrich our appreciation of being taken in by a trick. Keeping an eye out for the techniques propagandists use can help prevent us from being taken in.

“Pro-Life”, Anti-Truth

rep-martha-roby-speaks-planned-parenthood-2

So, were you shocked and outraged when you heard — as you almost certainly did — that Planned Parenthood has been “selling body parts” of “murdered babies”? Congratulations, that’s exactly how you’re supposed to feel. But the real congratulations are due to the folks who concocted the whole story in the first place.

That would be the Center For Medical Progress, a”pro-life” activist group that released an undercover interview with Planned Parenthood’s Deborah Nucatola, deceptively edited to make it sound as if Planned Parenthood sells the tissue of aborted fetuses. The hoaxsters also released the full unedited video, which clearly shows Nucatola decrying the idea of selling fetal tissue; but the fanfare was all about the shorter video, and they surely must have realized that a lie travels halfway around the world before the truth can get its shoes on. It was the dishonest edit that got Facebooked ad infinitum.

Even the supposedly intellectually viable organ of rightwingnuttery, the ever-entertaining National Review, took the bait. In an editorial titled Let’s Face It: Planned Parenthood Is Evil (don’t mince words, folks, what do you really think?), NR lamented that

In America, it’s illegal to donate money to a candidate without first reporting it to the government. Even then, if you give more than is permissible, you could end up in jail. In this country, you can’t add trans fats to your foods or smoke cigarettes in your own bar. Here, the Little Sisters of the Poor can’t tell the state they’d rather not buy condoms, and bakers can’t tell a couple they’d rather not participate in their wedding. But it’s completely legal to kill an unborn baby for convenience and then sell its parts for cash.

Except that’s totally untrue. And the ever-entertaining National Review knew that, or else didn’t bother to look it up. Either way, it’s inexcusable for anyone masquerading as a journalist to make such utterances. Just as it’s inexcusable for anyone pretending to be “pro-life” to support policies that are anti-life (however you define it) and to indulge in this kind of devious smear tactics.

Yet this is very far from unusual. Planned Parenthood has become the favorite bogeyman of the “pro-life” movement, which has no qualms about how it goes about persecuting them.  And as we’ve seen before, many “pro-life” fanatics have no problem with lying their righteous asses off. We’ve asked this question before, but it’s certainly worth asking again and again: if they really are so convinced that their cause is noble and righteous and true, why do they so consistently feel the need to promote it with lies, deception, sleazy attacks and intimidation?

Myths About Myths About Vegetarianism

Cow

I’ve been a strict vegetarian for more than 20 years. Before that, I was a half-assed vegetarian for at least 20 more. In all that time, I’ve frequently researched nutrition, and experimented with and reevaluated my diet. And I’ve always been happy to discuss the matter with people who express an interest, either because they’re vegetarians themselves or because they’re just curious. But there are two things I have not done: I have not criticized anyone else’s diet, and I have never tried to recruit anyone to the “cause”. Not once. I’m annoyed by proselytizers myself, and I know many other people are too.

Many meat eaters, however, are not nearly so accepting. They remind me at every opportunity of what I’m missing, as if I’d never eaten meat before in my life. They warn me that I’m committing suicide by not ingesting animal flesh. If we eat out together, they never pass up an opportunity to comment on my meatless regimen. Never. Sometimes it’s all in good fun, and I have no problem taking a good, er, ribbing. But some of them are highly judgmental in their missionary zeal, and behave as if they consider it a personal insult that I don’t eat the same things they do. (Yes, I’m certain that some vegetarians are just as obnoxious.) Some people are just as defensive about their meat as they are about their guns or their religion — and often for reasons just as ill-informed and irrational.  Just recently, the Gotcha Squad descended on me with accusatory soundbites ablaze (“You’re obviously a so and so who believes such and such”) after I dared mention here in passing that it’s perfectly possible to live a perfectly healthy life without meat — a fact that anyone can readily verify. I was denounced as a pseudoscientific, bigoted, propagandizing mountebank after mentioning a proposed discussion of this topic that I haven’t even written yet!

Well, I’m not out to improve anyone’s manners or reasoning skills any more than I’m out to improve anyone’s diet. But I am out to correct misinformation. And there’s quite a bit of it propagated in the name of the meat cause. Accordingly, I’ve been planning for some time now to do a series about popular meat myths. But it seems I should first address the myths about vegetarianism and the people who practice it, as these also have gained a great deal of traction.

This became apparent after I read an article called Myths & Truths About Vegetarianism. I’m rather embarrassed to confess that I’ve discovered it only recently, as it’s been around since 2000, and it has become something of a staple among meatsters, a standard piece of propaganda they cut and paste and hurl in the faces of vegetarians with a “chew on that, rutabaga head”. This piece is often transmitted in a digest version that makes its argument even more oversimplified and dogmatic than it already was.

The article was written by a doctor, the late Stephen Byrnes, ND. And to many people, that means he must have been an expert nutritionist. As it happens, he was also a registered nutritional consulting practitioner. But I’m going to let you in on a little secret. An astounding,  shocking, horrifying, disgusting secret. Ready? Here goes: most doctors receive woefully inadequate training in nutrition. Most medical schools do not even meet the absolute minimum recommended standard of 25 hours. (That’s for the entire 4 years, folks.) In many cases, students receive far less than that — often only three to four hours, even at the nation’s top schools. Dr. Andrew Weill says that he received only ONE hour of nutritional training at Harvard — only slightly more than your plumber or barber. Moreover, the bulk of this training tends to come early in the curriculum, when students are learning basic material.

Hippocrates seems to have recognized 2400 years ago that food is medicine; but many medical practitioners today still have not caught up with him. Of course, doctors are qualified to speak about matters of health, which is related to nutrition — whether they realize it or not. But all too often, they’re perfectly content to jump on the conventional wisdom bandwagon, and recommend that everyone eat meat because that’s just the way things are done.

It may not always be fair to judge people by the company they keep, but it may be useful to note that Dr. Byrnes republished his article for the Weston A. Price Foundation, of which he had been a board member, an organization often denounced for quackery that advocates, among other things, the consumption of raw milk and large amounts of animal fats. It was named posthumously after a dentist, Dr. Weston A. Price (1870-1948) who developed some unorthodox theories of nutrition that earned him a quack badge himself. The interesting thing is that his nutritional recommendations were rather different from those of the organization that purports to honor his legacy.

Despite all of this, Dr. Byrnes does manage to include some accurate and useful information. He is quite correct in pointing out, for instance, that vegetarians, and particularly vegans, run a greater risk of vitamin B-12 deficiency, which can have some serious consequences. But he is quite misguided to shoehorn that bit of information into the premise that we absolutely must eat meat in order to survive and thrive. The B-12 problem is an interesting and important one, and it isn’t quite as simplistic as Byrnes and other flesh pushers would have you believe. We’ll be examining it in a little more depth in the future.

Unfortunately, Byrnes mixes his truths with half-truths, distortions, fabrications, and bizarre out-of-the-ass utterances, so that the end result is he promotes more myths than he debunks. And he didn’t restrict his commentary to the topic(s) about which he was an expert, but also spoke authoritatively on matters which he appears to have known little about. Agriculture and ecology, for instance, in his very first “myth”:

Myth #1: Meat consumption contributes to famine and depletes the Earth’s natural resources.

There are several environmental and socioeconomic concerns about the livestock industry — it contributes as much as 22 percent of greenhouse gases, for instance (yep, that cheeseburger is producing a big chunk of climate change). But Dr. Byrnes chose to ignore these (other writers he quotes give them a cursory nod) and just focus on the “myth” he thought he could dispose of handily.  His conclusion is that grazing land “is being put to good use”, but the case he presents is very far from convincing.

He is correct that only about a third of the earth’s dry land is being used for agriculture, and that only about a third of that (some 11 percent of the total land mass) is used for growing crops. But this does not mean, as he suggests, that little of the remaining land could be used for crops. With today’s technology, cropland has been established in deserts and other areas that once might have been the most unlikely of farmland. In fact, the increased demand for crops to feed a growing population has led to cropland expansion that has embraced deforestation and other practices that have an additional negative impact on the environment. If land is suitable for large-scale ranching, then chances are it’s either suitable or adaptable for farming as well.

Just for good measure, he throws in a few red herrings that reflect circular reasoning:

Furthermore, at the present time, there is more than enough food grown in the world to feed all people on the planet. The problem is widespread poverty making it impossible for the starving poor to afford it.

Even if perfectly true, how does that alter the equation between the land used for meat versus the land used for crops (except for emphasizing that meat is more expensive)? And while acknowledging the prevalence of  “business-besotted farmers running intensive livestock units, battery systems and beef-burger bureaucracies”, he insists that ranching when “properly practiced” will not damage the environment. Ah, but there’s the rub. Those alliteratively described “business-besotted farmers” [ranchers] are almost inevitably the norm when there is such a rapacious global appetite for animal flesh. Meat producers, like many other business owners, want to maximize their profits.

He quotes another author who states that “[s]ince ancient times, the most destructive factor in the degradation of the environment has been monoculture agriculture.” That may have been true in “ancient times” when there were no factories or automobiles, but today? Furthermore, farming need not be monoculture, and ranching is quite likely to be.

He also quotes yet another source:

The fact is that over two-thirds of the feed fed to animals consists of substances that are either undesirable or completely unsuited for human food.

Yes, but one reason is that a portion of the land is designated specifically for raising feed for animals rather than humans. And he notes that animals are a “renewable resource”. Okay, but what does it take to “renew” them?

Not content to don the hats of agriculturalist and ecologist, Dr. Byrnes also puts on his wizard hat and gazes into his crystal ball to predict what would happen if the world embraced vegetarianism on a large scale.  The results, he assures us, would not be pretty: “there would be less food available for the world to eat”.  His source for this conclusion is another article published by (ahem) the Weston A. Price Foundation, but since I haven’t been able to find a copy of it, I can’t tell you what (mis)information that author drew on. I can tell you, however, that it flies in the face of what actual experts say. Researchers at the University Of Minnesota, for instance, found that:

Currently, 36% of the calories produced by the world’s crops are being used for animal feed, and only 12% of those feed calories ultimately contribute to the human diet (as meat and other animal products). …We find that, given the current mix of crop uses, growing food exclusively for direct human consumption could, in principle, increase available food calories by as much as 70%, which could feed an additional 4 billion people (more than the projected 2–3 billion people arriving through population growth). Even small shifts in our allocation of crops to animal feed and biofuels could significantly increase global food availability…

Furthermore, as reported in The Guardian, leading scientists at the Stockholm International Water Institute have issued a projection that is quite at odds with that of Dr. Byrnes — who somehow neglected to mention that livestock production also requires massive quantities of water. These scientists’ projection is also even more apocalyptic: the worldwide population, they warn, may be compelled to embrace vegetarianism by 2050 in order to prevent catastrophic global famine.

Notice, by the way, how Dr. Byrnes slyly reframes the issue, shifting from a question of whether meat production has preventable disastrous consequences to a question of whether vegetarianism can eliminate world hunger. In so doing, he sets a very high bar that meatism itself has been failing miserably to attain for quite some time. This tactic is not at all uncommon among people who want to ridicule vegetarianism; they redefine its success in terms they believe it inevitably will fail to satisfy. We just might be seeing more of this tactic in future discussions.

8 Boringly Predictable Responses to the Charleston Massacre

Reuters

Reuters

Ho-hum. Another week, another gun massacre in the U.S., another round of boringly predictable responses. How predictable can they be? Let us count the ways:

1. More guns

If guns are used to commit mass murders, then even more guns would mean fewer slaughters, right? Makes perfect sense. At least to gun profiteers. You can count on them to use every mass murder like this as a golden opportunity to drive home the message that the real cure for the plague of violence is a hair of the dog — or rather lots and lots of hairs. (The guvmint wants to take away your guns; but if you buy one gun for every federal agent out there, you should be able to fend them off.) They’ve convinced a good many impressionable souls that more guns equals less crime, though the evidence strongly suggests otherwise.

2. Guns don’t spout soundbites, people do

And heaven forbid that anyone might suggest, as President Obama did, that we have a problem when guns get into the wrong hands. Why, that’s… that’s… that’s (horrors) CAPITALIZING ON A TRAGEDY.  And we all know that guns are not really to blame. If the punk in Charleston hadn’t had a firearm, he just as easily could have slaughtered those folks with a pipe cleaner or toothbrush. Besides, criminals just ignore laws, so what’s the use in having any?

3. Pay no attention to that racist behind the curtain

Stop calling it a racist attack, already. It’s just a coincidence that all the victims were black.  There must have been other factors contributing to the attack. Like drugs and the librulmedia. Or “diversity”. Or transgender people. And of course we mustn’t forget the vast conspiracy against Christianity. Never mind that the killer announced his racist motives at the scene, and that he has a distinguished white extremist history. Racism doesn’t exist in America anymore, remember?

4. It’s all about mental illness

Oh, and since the shooter was a white male, his violence must have been triggered (oops) by mental illness.

5. Enough with the victimization — they asked for it

Stop calling the murdered congregation members victims. Maybe there’s no such thing. Maybe some of them, at least, brought it on themselves.

7. If all else fails, blame Obama

Somehow, the buck must go back to the black guy in the formerly White House. Somehow or other. Surely.

8. Instant fame

Immediately and very frequently thereafter, the killer’s name and  likeness got splashed all over TV, print and the Internet. A killer who admits to having been inspired by the highly publicized killer of Trayvon Martin. Don’t we ever learn ANYTHING from these incidents?

Singular Proof

roger bannister

If you read the prior post on cherry picking, you may recall that I cautioned about seizing upon isolated incidents as “proof” of something. Now, however, I’d like to draw your attention to the fact that an isolated incident is always proof of something. A contradiction? Not at all. It just depends on what it is you’re trying to prove.

Consider a popular example: the use of guns for self-defense, commonly called defensive gun use (DGU). You’ve no doubt heard about plenty of these incidents; chances are your gun-loving friends will Facebook or Tweet every time such an incident drifts into their crosshairs, perhaps passing it along with the comment that “this proves that guns make us safer”.

But does it? “Us” is in this case a very inclusive pronoun. In order to prove that guns make “us” safer overall, you’d have to demonstrate that they effect a net reduction in crime — i.e., that the are used to prevent more crimes than they are used to commit. Nobody has ever been able to demonstrate anything even close to this.

For that matter, these incidents don’t even prove that guns make the individuals involved safer. They do prove that in some cases, guns can be used in self-defense. And that is essentially the value of an isolated incident: it demonstrates that such an occurrence is a possibility. When Roger Bannister ran the first recorded 4-minute mile in 1954, he proved once and for all that such a feat can be done. He didn’t prove that anyone could do it, but he did prove that it was at least humanly possible. (Since then, it’s been accomplished many times.)

Another thing about the singular proof, then, is that it also disproves something — Bannister disproved the commonly accepted notion that running the 4-minute mile was unattainable. He didn’t disprove a generality (running the 4-minute mile is very difficult) but he did disprove an absolutism (the 4-minute mile is impossible).

It’s been established that tobacco and excessive alcohol are harmful to health. Yet every now and then, you’ll hear about a man who’s lived a century even though he’s savored a cigar and a glass of whisky every day for years. Has he proved that medical science is wrong? Or that — as some of these superannuated persons maintain — these vices actually promote longevity?

Of course not. He disproves the absolutism that tobacco and alcohol invariably lead to premature death. And he proves that some regular smokers and drinkers can live long lives. But he’s done nothing to discredit the science that says such indulgences are harmful in general.

Scientists, however, are sometimes scornful of anecdotal evidence, declaring it to be totally worthless. Which is ironic, given how dependent they are on it. A scientific experiment is preceded by a hypothesis. And where does the hypothesis come from? Anecdotal evidence, quite often. Like the rest of us, scientists exercise inductive reasoning: they notice specific events and extrapolate from them that there might be a general pattern. Unlike the rest of us, they undertake methodical tests in an effort to prove this hypothesis — or hopefully, an effort to disprove it, since that’s really the only way to accomplish either proof or disproof. And how do they do this? By collecting more anecdotes, either in a laboratory or in the wild. But this isn’t considered anecdotal evidence, since the events are collected systematically rather than haphazardly.

Still. every anecdote does prove something. The trick is interpreting correctly what it proves, rather than being led over the lemming ledge of unwarranted conclusion.

(For more on the role of anecdotes in science and medicine, see here and here.)

A Reminder About Comments

Once again , it has become necessary to remind readers about the reluctantly adopted comments policy for this site. This is spelled out clearly on the Comments Policy page, but because it has been so blatantly ignored lately, I’ve felt it necessary to reiterate a couple of key points, and to adopt a stricter enforcement.

Basically, your comments probably won’t get published if they are rude, antagonistic or childish. Such remarks rarely offer anything of value, and are not worth my time or most readers’.  Likewise with comments that are just plain ignorant and/ or nutty. Don’t bother protesting that the Holocaust is a hoax, or global warming is fraudulent, or homosexuality can be cured, or Fox isn’t really right-wing.

There are plenty of places online where you can post such things. This isn’t one of them.

More on False Equivalence: “Both Sides Do It”

swordfight

In the previous post about False Equivalence, we mentioned the “Both Sides Do It” tactic, which consists of trying to deflect criticism from Faction A about the behavior of Faction B by maintaining that Faction A is just as guilty of the same thing. In particular, you’ll frequently hear the assertion that left-wing extremists are just as vicious and nasty and loony as right-wing extremists (or even more so). If this is true, then there should be ample illustrations, right? And if there were ample illustrations, then right-wing fanatics surely would produce them, right? So why is it that the examples they produce are almost invariably false equivalences?

If you comment disapprovingly, for instance, about the cancer that is Fox “News”, then chances are somebody will respond with “hey, they’re just providing balance to all the liberal media out there, such as MSNBC”.  But even if you grant that there is a “liberal” bias to the other networks (a huge, huge presumption to say the least), that bias is nowhere near as pronounced as that of Fox. Furthermore, no other network engages in deliberate distortion and deception and hate-baiting to anywhere near the extent that Fox does. Nor does nay other network or media source enjoy the kind of power and influence Fox does. Fox is in a (classless) class all by itself.

When people compare “right-wing hate speech” with “left-wing hate speech”, they’re often talking about two very different things. They redefine incivility as it suits their needs. The “Both Sides Do It” mambo is in fact my favorite type of false equivalence, because it comes in so many varieties, comprising a virtual textbook on false equivalence variations. Here are a few of them:

1. The few vs. the many

As mentioned previously, Ann Coulter spent 352 pages failing spectacularly to substantiate her premise that “liberals hate conservatives” in Slander: Liberal Lies About the American Right.  In all those pages, she managed to produce only 4 possible examples of supposed “liberals” trashing “conservatives”. Four doesn’t seem like a very large number for the purposes of proving such a point — particularly when contrasted with, say, 163. That’s the minimum number of times Coulter herself attacked “liberals” in the same book.

What she did is called cherry picking, among other things. It also would be cherry picking to draw a conclusion about the right-wing punditocracy merely on the basis of her actions. But alas, she’s far from alone. This was only one of many books written by only one of many many right-wing extremists spending many many many hours and days and years writing such books and magazine articles and blogs, and endlessly prattling on radio and TV.

2. The specific vs. the general

And that was by no means Coulter’s only sin. She also tried to back up her “liberals hate conservatives” thesis by equating utterances by “liberals” about specific “conservatives” with a blanket condemnation of “conservatives” in general. With about 100,000,000 Americans who consider themselves “conservative”, you could trash some 50,000,000 specific “conservatives” without proving that you hate “conservatives” on the whole. And Coulter’s tally, let me remind you, isn’t quite that high. Meanwhile, she and her fellow right-wing pundits do indulge to the nth degree in vilifying “liberals” in general.

Quick, who is the “liberal” equivalent of Ann Coulter? If you answered Michael Moore, you’re buying into a narrative often pushed by the media — and by people who obviously have never read any of Moore’s books. He is probably indeed the most prominent among left-wing pundits, but he couldn’t be more different from Coulter. Far from attacking “conservatives” in general, he’s made a point of praising them where appropriate. (Likewise Al Franken and other outspoken leftists.) Hell, he even bent over backward to praise certain personal traits of George W. Bush, who on a political level has been one of his prime targets. Can you imagine Coulter (or Beck or Hannity or Limbaugh,etc. etc. etc.) saying a single word about Obama or “liberals” that isn’t utterly drenched in scorpion’s milk? Can you imagine Moore saying anything comparable to Coulter’s “My only regret with Timothy McVeigh is that he did not go to The New York Times building”?

3. The fringe vs. the mainstream

Hang out on an Internet chat forum long enough, and you’ll hear some pretty nasty things from members of just about any and every “ism” conceivable. But does that mean that their actions are truly representative of their respective ideologies? Or are they just the extremist fringe of their groups?

And here is another area in which “liberals” differ from “conservatives”.  The left wing has its loony fringe too, but the Left tends to keep its loonies on the fringe. Lyndon LaRouche is officially a Democrat, but he’s always been shunned by the Democratic mainstream. President Obama distanced himself from Rev. Jeremiah Wright when the latter’s rhetoric became what was considered incendiary — or, if you prefer, when the public found out about the association. Either way, he exhibited some embarrassment about whom he’d rubbed elbows with. And by the way, Wright’s remarks were nowhere near as incendiary as they were painted; few were even that opinionated. Many of his utterances branded as “anti-American”  (“The government lied.”) and “racist” (“When it came to treating her citizens of African descent fairly, America failed.”)  were statements of verifiable fact. To a large extent, incivility was drastically redefined for a black librul.

The Right, on the other hand, openly and warmly embraces its own loony fringe, with the Tea Party working hand-in-hand with the (supposedly different) Republican Party. Indeed there’s really not much distinction anymore between “conservative” fringe and “conservative” mainstream. Anybody ever hear of Sarah Palin? Ted Cruz? Rick Perry? Michele Bachman?

The annual Conservative Political Action Conference, at which the main activity (if not the only activity) is demonizing “liberals” has featured appearances by George W. Bush and Mitt Romney, along with Ann Coulter, Wayne LaPierre, Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity. During his tenure as Vice President, Dick Cheney was a guest on Rush Limbaugh’s program no fewer than 5 times. (Yes, this is the same Dick Cheney who said “I thought some of the things [Wright] said were absolutely appalling… I was stunned at what the reverend was preaching in his church and then putting up on his Web site.”) George H.W. Bush was a close ally of and paid promoter for vituperative, delusional, fascist-leaning cult leader (and convicted tax cheat) Sun Myung Moon, who among other things claimed to have presided over the posthumous wedding of Jesus. And so on. And on and on and on.

4. Words vs. actions

Sure, some leftists have unsavory things to say about, for example, “conservatives” who enact laws to marginalize gays. But “conservatives” who enact laws to marginalize gays, enact laws to marginalize gays.

Similarly, if you mention how hatefully and savagely Christians have treated non-Christians over the centuries, you may hear some Christians say, “well hey, I tried talking to some atheists on a website and they were very rude to me; so obviously they’re capable of being nasty too” No doubt. And there’s rarely a good excuse for rudeness.  But surely you don’t mean to put that in a league with burning people at the stake or skinning them alive? Or even bullying them on the schoolyard and in the classroom? Or even passing laws to discriminate against them? Or even barring them from belonging to certain organizations? The fact that some of these things were done with smiling faces while reciting Bible passages doesn’t make them any less hateful.

5. Different contexts

Another thing about the above example is that, while the rudeness may not be justified, it’s at least understandable when you consider all the oppression and persecution and marginalization atheists have endured. Christians have rarely if ever undergone anything comparable. (No, it doesn’t work to equate the atrocities committed by Christians during, say the Inquisition with the casualties that occurred during the scant handful of dictatorships that have been officially atheist — e.g., Stalinist Russia. But that’s a discussion for another day.)

Whenever you draw attention to the right’s deranged, irrational hatred of President Obama, you’re likely to hear someone remind you that the Left was rather vitriolic toward George W. Bush. True, but the context couldn’t be more different. Bush got into office by very shady means, and once there he left the nation open to the worst terrorist attack ever on American soil; and he used that attack as justification for a dishonestly supported invasion of a nation that had no involvement in it. Even if you’re a loyal Bushnik and you wholeheartedly support these (and other) actions he and his administration undertook, you must admit — at least if you’re intellectually honest– that “liberal” animosity toward Bush was based on things he actually did.

But if you ask Obama haters why they’re Obama haters, they’re likely to tell you that it’s because he’s a socialist, or he’s a fascist, or he’s a Kenyan, or he’s a muslim, or he’s an atheist, or he’s the Anti-Christ, or he should have given Bush the credit for nabbing bin Laden, or he’s trying to take away your guns, or he wants to outlaw fishing, or he’s let the United Nations take over our national parks, or he’s had the IRS target “conservative” organizations, or Benghazi something or other Benghazi. This is not to suggest that the current president is flawless; it’s just that the attacks against him rarely are rooted in reality. (If you want an honest and sane assessment of his shortcomings, you’d be better off turning to his left-wing critics than his right-wing attackers.)

Sometimes context makes all the difference in the world.

6. Analysis, speculation, and criticism vs. distortion, attribution, attack and eliminationism

Can you spot the difference between these two statements?

1. Conservatives claim to be pro-life, but they often support the death penalty and aggressive warfare that kills hundreds of thousands of innocent people.

2. Liberals are anti-American terrorist sympathizers. It’s time to resort to Second Amendment remedies to stop them.

If you really can’t, I suggest you do some thorough research and reflection before attempting to comment on this matter.

So are left-wingers really just as hateful and batty as right-wingers? Well, technically that’s a question open to debate, as there is no body of comprehensive and objective data on the topic. But there are four things we do know for certain: (1) Apparently there are differences in “liberal” and “conservative” brains. Research indicates that the former are generally better equipped to handle conflict, while the latter are more likely to react with fear. Which might explain why right-wingers are so often caught up in conspiracy theories and paranoid delusion. And gun mania. And which logically would make them more likely to attack The Others. (2) And they do indeed attack The Others. With lots of hateful, inflammatory rhetoric. Lots and lots and lots of hateful, inflammatory rhetoric. Not just from the fringe, but the mainstream. Not just against specific targets, but against millions of Americans they know nothing about. (3) Despite their best efforts, they’ve been consistently unable to document that the Left does the same thing to anywhere near the same degree. (4) Their attempts to demonstrate this almost invariably hinge on false equivalence.