Listen to What You’re Saying

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Every time I visit New Hampshire, as I did just recently, I notice those license plates. And the motto emblazoned thereon : Live Free Or Die. And even though it stems from noble impulses, I still have to regard it as just about the worst motto ever. It’s a sentiment that dates back to ancient times (perhaps most memorably worded by Patrick Henry) to declare that death is preferable to bondage, but who literally believes it to be true? Even if you’re living in bondage, there’s always the possibility that you can attain your freedom later. If you’re living in death, such prospects are rather compromised.

This sentiment probably (let’s hope) arose from a broader and less literal attitude that an individual would be willing to risk his or her life to ensure the liberty of posterity.  But taken literally as quoted, it’s nonsensical to value liberty over life itself, because liberty is a component of life. It’s just another in the endless parade of instances in which people aren’t really listening to what they’re saying.

We often hear that we should watch what we’re saying, lest we utter something offensive or damaging. But it’s also important to listen to what we’re saying. lest we utter something self-contradictory or downright foolish.

Many years ago I was having a discussion with one of my RRR’s (rabidly right-wing relatives) — and when I say “having a discussion”, I mean listening to him rant — about the government’s ban of the pesticide DDT, a ban he was convinced was part of some kind of liberal commie conspiracy to impinge, somehow or other, upon the liberty of ordinary American citizens. He insisted that DDT is necessary to control pests.

“You don’t remember what it was like before we had DDT”, he said. “The flies were so thick you could hardly breathe.”

In other words, he was saying that because there were not nearly as many flies since DDT was banned, that proves that DDT is necessary to eliminate flies. Even if he meant that the flies were numerous before DDT was used at all, his statement makes sense only if those suckers have an extremely long gestation period, and are about to swarm us like Hitchcock’s birds any minute now. He would have done well to pay attention to his own words.

Another relative commented recently that it’s important to keep out “illegal” immigrants because they commit a lot of crime. To which I responded that actually, they commit considerably less crime than U.S. citizens. To which he replied, “that’s your opinion”. To which I replied that in fact it would be pointless to have an opinion about such a matter, because we have a way of knowing for certain. It’s called counting. That’s the reason numbers were invented — so we can keep track of how many crimes immigrants commit. To which he repeated, “that’s your opinion”. He wasn’t really listening either to me or to himself.

Still another relative is adamantly opposed to cremation, citing her fundamentalist convictions. She literally believes that on Judgment Day, God will resurrect the remains of the deceased faithful; and cremating those remains will make it impossible for Him to do so. In other words,  a Supreme Being who supposedly can do absolutely anything, nevertheless cannot revivify cremated individuals, which presumably means things are hopeless for anyone who dies in a fire, no matter how strong their faith. Has she ever tried listening to her own words?

Religious beliefs often come from people who seemingly tune out their own words. Creationists sometimes argue that there must be a Creator just because the universe is too complex to have “just happened”. But aside from the fact that “just happened” is an overly simplistic characterization of the alternative(s) to creationism, the complexity argument is just about the most inept imaginable. Because no matter how complex the universe, its Creator would have to be even more complex. And if complexity itself negates the possibility of “just happened”, then that Creator must have been created by a Creator who was created by a Creator. And so on, ad infinitum.

Politics, of course, also offers a wealth of opportunities for ignoring the import of one’s own words. (And, alas, just about every freaking thing under the sun is connected to politics these days.) Who can forget former Senator Jesse Helms saying that “democracy used to be a good thing, but now it has gotten into the wrong hands”. And not long ago I heard a politician say something to the effect that the death penalty is a way of expressing our commitment to the sanctity of human life. (And many other people defend the death penalty by claiming that killing people teaches people not to kill people.)

You hear a lot of people these days declare that black athletes should be forced to stand for the National Anthem because soldiers have died defending their freedom. And many people just know there is an overwhelming liberal bias to American mainstream media because they keep it hearing it from the American mainstream media. And that the way to stop gun violence is with more guns. And spanking kids teaches them respect.

George W. Bush, who built a long and lucrative political career upon utterly refusing to listen to absolutely anything he was saying, came up with quite a few gems like this:

I think we agree, the past is over.

More and more of our imports come from overseas.

You work three jobs? … Uniquely American, isn’t it? I mean, that is fantastic that you’re doing that.

And many, many others, from suggesting that the reason for starting a war is to stop war to proposing easing dependence on foreign oil by getting it from Mexico. Nor was this staggeringly stupid lack of self-awareness limited to Bush himself; the entire administration was infected with it. As just one example: after the 9-11 attack, in which 15 of the 19 hijackers hailed from Saudi Arabia, the Bush Gang decided instead to bomb Iraq. Because, as Secretary Of Defense Donald Rumsfeld explained perfectly deadpan, Iraq had better targets. Sort of like losing your keys in the garage but looking for them in the bathroom because the light is better there.

Speaking of Bush, another relative (and I don’t mean to be picking on my relatives here, God love them every one) insisted that it’s wrong to blame Bush for allowing 9-11 to happen. It was really Clinton’s fault, she insisted, because he dallied with Monica so much that he was distracted from doing his duty. That kind of analysis seems to make sense to a lot of people — I’ve heard it repeated more than once. And granted, it isn’t as obviously nonsensical and self-contradictory as the other statements quoted above. But when you give it a bit of thought, you see that it is indeed absurd.

When you say that the president blew it by getting blown, you are saying one of two things. The first possibility is that Clinton in general spent so much time Monica-ing that he was unable to do his duty. But that’s absurd, because there were surely other activities that he devoted far more time to — eating and sleeping, for example — and nobody has ever suggested that those things were an inordinate distraction from his job.

The second possibility is that on some specific occasion, his preoccupation with philandering caused him to miss an important briefing or decision point. But not even the most devoted of Clinton haters suggest that there was such an occasion; and even if there had been, that still leaves wide open the possibility that he could have received a briefing, or could have done whatever he needed to do, at some other time — if nothing else, by having his sleep or meal interrupted. In contrast, when people talk about Bush allowing 9-11 to happen,  they mean that he and his administration ignored or downplayed several warnings, some rather specific, in the months leading up to the attack — including one on Aug. 6.  We’ll never know for certain whether they would have prevented 9-11 had they been more diligent. But we do know that they were not diligent. They in fact had their pants down in a much more serious way than Clinton did.

I suspect that all of these relatives did what so many people do these days: they heard something in the media that they wanted to believe, so they decided to believe it and repeat it without stopping to think about whether it actually made sense. They didn’t listen to what they were saying.

It’s been said that the unexamined life is not worth living. That may be rather hyperbolic (though surely not to the same extent as “live free or die”.) What’s much truer, however, is that the unexamined belief is not worth believing — much less expressing. It’s fine to quote someone else’s words, provided they’ve been properly vetted. But if you simply parrot what you’ve heard without considering its basis in fact or logic, your opinions are not really your own.  It’s a very good idea to listen to what you’re saying, preferably before you even say it. You may still get some things wrong — we all make mistakes. But at least you will be speaking your own convictions rather than serving as a mouthpiece for a ventriloquist. And that’s definitely a step in the right direction.

More On “Singular Proof”

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Amazingly, it’s now been 3 years since my post titled Singular Proof, for which I’d intended to write a followup almost since the beginning. The reason for that plan is that some readers seem to have misunderstood its intents — though frankly it appears that they were trying very hard to misunderstand. In any case, the sequel kept getting pushed to the back burner, because it seems I always had meatier matters to cover. But now, here at last is round two.

First, let me make it clear (in case I didn’t the first time) what the central thesis was: a single event — any single event — always proves at least one thing: namely, that such an occurrence is possible. One would think that such a truth would be self-evident. But apparently it isn’t. Because when I offered the illustration of Roger Bannister running the 4-minute mile for the first time, someone commented that his feat didn’t really prove anything, because it could have been just luck.

Well, sure. It could have been just luck. Or it could have been drugs. Or it could have been that he was mesmerized. Or it could have been divine intervention. Or he could have been guided by a cosmic beam projected from the mother ship hovering overhead. Or maybe some combination of the above. But guess what? Doesn’t matter one bit. Because Bannister’s run still proves that, one way or another, such a thing can be done.

It’s related to something called the law of the excluded middle. Which means basically that some propositions are either true or they are not — there is no middle ground. (This obviously does not include value judgments like “St. Louis is a big city”.  St. Louis certainly would appear enormous to someone coming there from a town of 2000, but to a visitor from Istanbul, it would appear to be just a quaint little village.) Propositions of possibility, however, do fall under that heading; either a thing is possible, or it is not.  If it is impossible, then by definition, it cannot happen. So if it does happen, that disproves its impossibility and, concurrently, proves its possibility. Every event is both a negation of an impossibility and an affirmation of possibility.

And it takes only a single instance to refute not only a presumption of impossibility, but any absolutism. Philosophers have famously noted, for instance, that the proposition “All swans are white” can be refuted by the observance of a single black swan. But such a single occurrence, though it clearly establishes possibility, says nothing about probability. It proves that some swans are black, but it gives no indication of how many.

Suppose your mother tells you that if you walk on the railroad tracks, you will get killed. But you decide, just once, to ignore her warning and walk down a railroad track for a hundred yards. And lo and behold, you live to tell about it. This single act of yours has discredited her belief that walking on railroad tracks inevitably leads to demise. But it does not establish that this is a safe practice.  It does not mean that in general, people should walk on railroad tracks.  It does not even guarantee that you will survive your second defiance of her admonition.

A single instance, then, is enough to disprove an absolute (walking on the tracks will get you killed); it’s enough to discredit an impossibility (you cannot walk on the tracks without getting killed); and it’s enough to establish a possibility (you can walk on the tracks and survive). But it does not establish a certainty (if you walk on the tracks, you’ll survive) nor even a probability (if you walk on the tracks, you’ll probably be safe). The latter proposition is where methodical investigation (science) comes in. In order to know whether it’s likely that you can walk on railroad tracks safely — and just how safe it would or wouldn’t be — we would need to compile some accurate statistics on the matter.

And of course the fact that you survive a single act of defying your mum does not mean that you made it through the day because you walked on the railroad tracks. In addition to falsely extrapolating a general conclusion from isolated incidents, one of the biggest mistakes people make is confusing correlation with causation: the telephone rings when you get into the bathtub, so it must be the act of getting into the bathtub that causes the telephone to ring; the leaves rustle when the wind blows, so it must be the movement of the leaves that stirs up wind; Roger Bannister ran the 4-minute mile wearing white socks, so the socks must have been the source of his superior speed.

Even rational interpreters of scientific data are not totally immune to this error. Years ago, research indicated that married people tend to be happier than unmarried people. And for a time, the conclusion many people drew from this was that there was something about marriage itself that made people happier; that a single person could become happier just by getting married. But finally, someone realized that this was putting the cart before the horse. It wasn’t that marriage made people happier; it was just that happier people were more likely to get married in the first place. (For, as someone astutely asked, “Who would want to marry a grouch?”)

I suppose to be generous I could assume that my critic wrongly concluded that I was conflating anecdotal evidence and anecdotal proof myself; but that would be extending a great deal of grace, since I made it clear that I was not doing any such thing. And anyone who’s read this blog very much at all knows that I’ve repeatedly not done it; I’ve stressed several times, to name just one example, that even though there are isolated incidents of an “armed good guy” stopping an “armed bad guy” that does not mean that in general guns make us safer — indeed, the evidence strongly indicates just the opposite.

If there was one passage in my post that might possibly, even by a huge stretch, have given someone the wrong impression, perhaps it was this:

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.

A reader purporting to be a scientist himself declared that I was quite mistaken about where a hypothesis comes from. It derives, said he, from a case study, and not merely from an isolated incident. Well, this is often true (especially in the social sciences), but so what? Don’t look now, but a case study is a collection of separate incidents. And some of the greatest scientific discoveries in history (microwaves, x-rays, and penicillin, to name just a few) sprang from observation of phenomena that were not only singular but accidental. Furthermore, even the most coldly calculated of laboratory experiments consists of a series of individual trials — each of which, as I meant to suggest, can be thought of as a narrative in its own right.

And just where do you suppose the concept for a case study comes from, anyway? Could it be from… an anecdote? Or two or three? Unless of course, it comes from a dream or a divine message delivered via burning bush. But wait, those are anecdotes too, aren’t they? When you get right down to it, all the wisdom the human race has accumulated in any field of endeavor — whether scientific, artistic, philosophical, athletic, or whatever — has depended upon the observance of single incidents. Such wisdom is expressed in generalities (It’s better to give than to receive; two times two is four; the days are longer in the summer and shorter in the winter; etc.) but such generalities are constructed of a series of singular instances.

This (supposed) scientist, by the way, also seized upon my mention that being a healthy vegetarian for several decades discredits the absolutism that eating meat is required to live a long and healthy life. This, he proclaimed, constituted a “claim” about the benefits of vegetarianism, which he in turn suggested was akin to claims about faith healing and communicating with the dead. If this really was a scientist speaking, it makes one really shudder to think what kind of illogic and irrationality must prevail among the lay masses.

One comment was to the effect that anecdotal evidence carries no weight even if it occurs a million times over. It’s hard to imagine anything more absurd. Suppose you have a city of a million residents, and the entire million die on the same day. Then you learn that the entire million ate shellfish from local waters on the day before their deaths. Wouldn’t you be just slightly inclined to be more wary of local shellfish than you would have been had there been only one such death? Of course, a million-fold unanimity is still not proof that the shellfish actually caused the deaths; it is, however — in the absence of comprehensive testing — a damn good indication that you would be prudent to avoid eating the stuff until you find out for certain.

A would-be assassin characterized my observations as “pseudoscientific nonsense” —  which in terms of substance is no more noteworthy than any of the other attacks leveled against me.  What is worth remarking about, however, is the commentator’s choice of vocabulary. He seems to be quite confused about the distinctions between unscientific, nonscientific and pseudoscientific (which is quite ironic given that the major linchpin of his attack was my unorthodox use of labels). So even though it’s a bit of a diversion, let’s take a moment to clarify these distinctions.

Unscientific means that something directly contradicts scientific fact — e.g., saying that the earth is flat or that men have fewer ribs than women, or that the earth is not getting warmer. Pseudoscientific is something that is not only unsupported by science, but is masquerading as science (we often call it quackery) — e.g., phrenology, snake oil remedies, and the anti-vax movement.

But there is another class of propositions that are unsupported by science, yet neither contradict nor pose as science; they are propositions that belong in another cognitive sphere altogether. For example: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” This statement does not contradict science — it is, in fact, essentially meaningless. And it’s also, in itself, quite harmless; the problem arises when people try to substitute it for scientific fact. Even then, it is not pseudoscientific, because it is not posing as science; it is posing as something superior to science.

Like the author of Genesis, or the individual who coined the phrase “It’s raining cats and dogs”, I was being nonscientific — but not unscientific or pseudoscientific, and most certainly not antiscientific.  In asserting that scientific research is indebted to anecdotes, I was using a broad definition of anecdote, and perhaps indulging in a wee bit of poetic license. But not very much.

 

Second Amendment Follies, Part 2: “a Well-Regulated Militia”

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As we have seen, the purpose of the Second Amendment was actually to guarantee a “well-regulated militia”. But what exactly does that mean? Just what is/ was a militia, anyway? The gun culture, of course, has its own answer for that, whether it conforms to reality or not.  Let’s turn again to what is perhaps the definitive treasury of NRA talking points, the publication and website called GunFacts:

Today “militia” might be more meaningfully translated as “defense service”, associated with a “defense duty”, which attaches to individuals as much as to groups of them, organized or otherwise. When we are alone, we are all militias of one. In the broadest sense, militia is the exercise of civic virtue.

Wow. Militia of one. Fancy that tattooed on your knuckles as you pump off a few rounds of civic virtue. In less grandiose terms, what gunsters proclaim is that “militia” today means all of the citizenry, because that’s what it meant when the Second Amendment was etched in stone. But there are at least two major flaws with this claim.

First of all, it just isn’t true.  Gun fetishists likes to quote George Mason, Virginia delegate to the Constitutional Convention, thus:

I ask, sir, what is the militia? It is the whole people, except for a few public officials.

But this line uttered in debate is not a part of an official governing document. (Ironically, many individuals willing to brandish it as gospel are also quick to brush off Tom Jefferson’s comment about the wall of separation between church and state because it’s unofficial.) And given the tenor of the times, it’s likely that Mason didn’t quite exactly mean all of the people. Because the Second Militia Act of 1792 (passed only a few months after the Second Amendment was written) designated the composition of the militia as being:

every free able-bodied white male citizen of the respective States, resident therein, who is or shall be of age of eighteen years, and under the age of forty-five years

So if the NRA crowd actually adhered to the original intent (or rather the original meaning, as they really seem to be professing to do), then today’s “militia” would consist only of white males between 18 and 45. And they would be outfitted only with

a good musket or firelock, a sufficient bayonet and belt, two spare flints, and a knapsack, a pouch, with a box therein, to contain not less than twenty four cartridges, suited to the bore of his musket or firelock, each cartridge to contain a proper quantity of powder and ball; or with a good rifle, knapsack, shot-pouch, and powder-horn, twenty balls suited to the bore of his rifle, and a quarter of a pound of powder

And maybe a slingshot or two.

Either Mason was being non-literal, or he was just plain wrong.

Of course, the original definition of militia has been tinkered with over the years since then. In 1862, a new Militia Act finally eliminated the restrictions of race; but there was still no remedy for the sexism and ageism of the original.

Then in 1903 another Militia Act, also known as the Dick Act, established the National Guard as the official “organized militia”, and demoted those who are eligible for Guard membership (i.e., able-bodied males within a certain age range) but not actual members as “unorganized militia” . In recent years, the gun culture has twisted the language and intent of this law into an assertion that “unorganized militia” means anyone who wants to tote hardware for any purpose.  The gun culture asserts that all civilians are a part of the “unofficial” militia and therefore covered by the Second Amendment; they must be wondering why the army never seems to need their services.

Sorry, but the Dick Act does not authorize you to be a — well, jerk. Being part of that “unofficial militia” doesn’t entail wearing a uniform or being privy to a secret handshake. And even if one could make a case that the Dick Act makes all of us “unofficial militia”, whatever rights it confers/ enshrines are legal (i.e., legislative) rights rather than constitutional rights. Its concept of militia is Twentieth Century rather than Eighteenth, and its provisions were not part of either the original Constitution or the Second Amendment; indeed, the Dick Act was passed when the Founders were all long deceased.

The other problem is that the obsession with the composition of the militia is to an extent a red herring. The most important thing about the militia was not its qualifications for membership, but its purpose for existing.  And that’s also clearly spelled out in the two Militia Acts of 1792:

That whenever the United States shall be invaded, or be in imminent danger of invasion from any foreign nation or Indian tribe, it shall be lawful for the President of the United States, to call forth such number of the militia of the state or states most convenient to the place of danger or scene of action, as he may judge necessary to repel such invasion… That whenever the laws of the United States shall be opposed, or the execution thereof obstructed, in any state, by combinations too powerful to be suppressed by the ordinary course of judicial proceedings, or by the powers vested in the marshals by this act, the same being notified to the President of the United States, by an associate justice or the district judge, it shall be lawful for the President of the United States to call forth the militia of such state to suppress such combinations, and to cause the laws to be duly executed.

In other words, the militia was designed to be an organized armed force supplied by the states to execute the laws of the nation. Nothing in the Militia Acts said anything about citizens being armed for deer hunting. Or for “defending” yourself against your government — more about that in a future installment. (And the militia was by no means universally revered among the Founders; George Washington spoke of it disapprovingly on more than one occasion.) The Dick Act actually makes this even more clear. With the establishment of the National Guard as the go-to unit of reserve manpower, the need for a militia in the traditional sense effectively became obsolete — which means that the Second Amendment also became obsolete.

The purpose of the militia is further emphasized by the expression “well-regulated”. And as you might expect, the gun culture also has its insistence that “that word does not mean what you think it means”. Thus from GunFacts:

The origin of the phrase “a well regulated militia” comes from a 1698 treatise “A Discourse of Government with Relation to Militias” by Andrew Fletcher, in which the term “well regulated” was equated with “well-behaved” or “disciplined”.

And the author goes on to cite several other illustrations of the word well-regulated from the Oxford English Dictionary:

1709: “If a liberal Education has formed in us well-regulated Appetites and worthy Inclinations.”

1714: “The practice of all well-regulated courts of justice in the world.”

1812: “The equation of time … is the adjustment of the difference of time as shown by a well-regulated clock and a true sun dial.”

1848: “A remissness for which I am sure every well-regulated person will blame the Mayor.”

1862: “It appeared to her well-regulated mind, like a clandestine proceeding.”

1894: “The newspaper, a never wanting adjunct to every well-regulated American embryo city.”

What the gun culture has done, in other words, is set up a false dichotomy. On the one hand, there is what they want “well-regulated” to mean: skilled in marksmanship. And on the other hand, there is what they want the “gun control” advocates to want it to mean: strict prohibitive legislation imposed by the government.  And, they suggest, if it means one then it can’t possibly mean the other.

In fact, as you can see from the above examples, even GunFacts acknowledges that well-regulated spans a range of meaning. But all of its possible definitions embrace the sense of disciplined, organized and efficient. And they all apply to a military unit, such as a militia. Incidentally, members of the militia in Revolutionary days were generally conscripted for service. And one of the major ironies of today’s gun fetishists is that they worship the Second Amendment as the embodiment of what they believe to be the ultimate freedom, when in fact it was intended to be a codification of civic obligation.

Indulge the gun zealots for a moment and imagine that “well-regulated” means only skilled in marksmanship. Imagine all the “militias of one” running around on their own initiative and dispensing “civic virtue” in each other’s direction at will. Do you really think this would be a well-regulated militia in the sense that the Second Amendment intended? Militia, like military, is derived from the Latin word for soldier. And a soldier never acts alone even when he is alone.  It is only when an organized body of soldiers, whether they be regular army or militia, is well-regulated in virtually every possible sense of the term, that it will effect the “security of a free state”.

Which is the troublesome phrase we’ll examine in the next installment.

 

 

And Now, the Nominees for the Worst Response to Las Vegas

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Another day, another horrific gun incident in America. And inevitably, another round of inappropriate, irrational and tasteless responses in the hive of American culture. The competition, as always was stiff for the worst response. Let’s roll the drum and announce the contenders.

1. “Thoughts and prayers”

This is a perennial mindless mantra that gets trotted out and echoed over and over after every mass shooting.  It’s made more appearances on the post-massacre stage than Meryl Streep has made on the Oscar stage. Theoretically, there’s nothing wrong with offering “thoughts and prayers” to victims and their relatives. But such sentiments do nothing to ward off these incidents in the future. And after the 500th time or so, the phrase begins to sound awfully hollow — particularly when it comes from mouths that normally are occupied with fellating the NRA.

2. Verbal diarrhea from the Putative President

Inevitably, the character in the Oval Office would contribute to the mix. Fresh off his life-saving expedition to Puerto Rico two weeks after Hurricane Maria struck, in which he heroically sought to relieve the suffering of the locals by throwing rolls of paper towels at them, he proved once again that he was up to the challenge of making an utter ass of himself.

First, he extended “warmest condolences” to the families of the murdered, as if he were congratulating them on a baby shower; even when he apparently has good intentions, he seems utterly incapable of saying anything that doesn’t sound moronically gauche. Then he declared that the bloodbath was “in many ways a miracle” because the first responders did their jobs — apparently the concept of people doing their jobs is so foreign to him that he finds it a nothing short of miraculous. Then he went to visit the scene of the crime and declared that it was “so wonderful” to meet with the victims and their families. At least this time he didn’t attack the media or Hillary or boast about his election victory or the size of  his audience.

3. Conspiracy Cornucopia

The tinfoil hat brigade always comes out of the crevices after an incident like this, but this time they really outdid themselves with the rumors and allegations they spread.  Here is a list of some of them, courtesy of Media Matters : the shooter was an intelligence agent who botched a gunrunning sting; the shooting was a “false flag” attack from the “deep state”, Obama “shadow government” and/or “Bolshevik revolutionaries”; the shooting is linked to labor unions; the shooter was working with ISIS; the shooter was part of the antifa movement;  MGM Resorts is destroying evidence; the shooter did not act alone; the shooter’s suicide was staged by police;  the shooter was a left-wing radical who wanted to kill T—p supporters; the shooting was part of a plot to promote metal detectors; the shooting was connected to O.J. Simpson’s release from prison; the Democratic Party was behind it; it was part of a leftist plot to murder white people. Etc,, etc., etc., etc., etc.

4. Guns are beautiful

Needless to say, we can’t get through the aftermath of any gun slaughter without hearing the gun lobby and its cult followers rhapsodize about how wonderful the murder weapons are, and how all the carnage could have been prevented if only the citizens present had all been armed too.  Now stop and visualize for a moment. Can you imagine what the results would have been if all the concert attendees in Las Vegas had whipped out their own hardware and opened fire in the direction of the Mandalay Bay? (And no, Hitler did not ban guns. Nor did he say that the way to conquer a nation is to disarm its populace. And so what if he had?)

5. And oh yes, abortion

Gunsters always scramble for anything they can to point the finger of blame at, as long as it’s pointed away from their precious toys. Video games, the media, “gun control”, neglecting God and, inevitably, abortion. No, seriously. Every. Single. Time.

Right-wing pundit Jeffery Lord explains the “logic” thus:

“If we have a culture that disrespects human life and teaches people to have disrespect for human life, how else are we going to wind up than we did with this guy in Las Vegas who had no respect for human life?”

No word on whether “disrespect for human life” includes bombing the bejesus out of civilians or flooding the streets of America with implements of death.

6. And oh yes, more abortion

The GOP-controlled Congress took it a step farther, actually seizing on the massacre as an excuse to pass a cruel new anti-abortion law. The party faithful explain in a blog post:

“As we mourn the lives lost in Las Vegas this week, and welcome Whip Scalise back to Capitol Hill, we are reminded just how precious life is. This message weighed heavily on the hearts of House Republicans as we spoke of the potential of life — especially lives cut short through abortion.”

It isn’t just the dogmatic arrogance of claiming to know when life begins better than does the process of birth itself. It isn’t just the imperiousness of bulldozing their own personal convictions into law for everyone. It isn’t just the inexcusable naivete of thinking that banning abortion is an effective way to prevent it. It’s seizing upon a tragedy of epic proportions and exploiting it as an opportunity to shore up support among their hardcore base — and making no bones about it.

No word on whether they have any concern about “cutting lives short” by taking away their healthcare.

7. And oh yes, even more abortion

But the grand-prize winner surely has to be the social media meme reprinted at the top of the page. It appears with a photo of actor Sam Elliott (it’s not clear that he actually uttered the words, though it’s possible, as he has been known to make dopey statements inveighing against “gun control”).  Whoever is responsible for it, it manages to pack at least three straw men into a very compact space: “anti-gun”; “lectures”; “kill a baby”. All of them strung together by the absurd red herrings that these two issues are somehow related, that pro-choice advocates and gun regulation advocates are necessarily the same, and/or that one must choose between either concern about abortion or concern about gun violence. It’s a powerful achievement in human ignorance and irrationality that surely deserves an award of some kind.

 

How to Make People Believe Absolutely Anything (In 5 Simple Steps)

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Anyone — yes, even you — can induce people, or at least a large number of people, to believe absolutely anything, no matter how absurd. And there is plenty of living proof out there. Consider Alex Jones, who has a huge following, many of whom believe that 9-11 was an inside job, that Sandy Hook was staged, that children are being abducted and shipped off to a slave colony on Mars, that pigs and gorillas have been given human brains and are running around talking, that a pedophilia ring is being run out of a pizza parlor, and that millions of people voted illegally in the last election. But perhaps the ultimate illustration of how preposterous persuasion works is a man who gets much of his “information” from Jones: his big fan and close ally, the man currently sitting in the Oval Office.

He is undoubtedly the most dishonest, corrupt and inept individual ever to occupy the White House. Yet he has a loyal cult following who still believe that he is honest, forthright and a successful businessman and brilliant leader who is somehow Making America Great Again — and even believe, perhaps most astoundingly of all, that he is a Good Christian. How did we get here?

Many people felt, and still feel, blindsided by the last election. But while the man himself seems to have come out of nowhere, it was inevitable that someone like him would be elected sooner or later. Because the way has been prepared for literally decades by a fringe media consisting of feverish AM talk show hosts, Fox “News” talking heads, and countless newspapers, magazines, blogs and websites. What they have done, anyone can do. And while it may require time and effort, it all boils down to 5 simple steps.

1. Tell them what they already want to hear

Savvy manipulators know that it’s easier to persuade people to wade in up to their necks if you can just convince them to get their feet wet first. Most of us are constantly seeking confirmation of what we already believe (the confirmation bias). When somebody reinforces our beliefs, we tend to regard them as more reliable and trustworthy in general. That’s why manipulators so often make a display of religiosity; committed religious individuals are especially prone to blind trust in anyone they perceive to be ardent followers of the One True Faith — otherwise priests wouldn’t be able to work their boyish charms so successfully. Begin with “Make America Great Again” (whatever the hell that means), and in no time you can work your way up to “millions voted illegally” and “I had a record-breaking victory”.

2. Stoke emotional responses, especially fear and rage

Ronald Reagan was gifted with that proverbial knack for faking sincerity; consequently, he is widely regarded, even today, as a man of impeccable honesty and character, even though he constantly lied through his teeth. (Indeed, with the exception of George W. Bush, it’s likely that no president lied more — until now, when the current White House Occupant dwarfs them both combined). But his sober demeanor was quite unusual among demagogues; they usually realize that while any statement carries more weight if delivered with emotion, the most potent emotions are fear and anger.

Typically, you just don’t hear demagogues speak in a calm, rational tone of voice; it’s more common to hear them sounding like fundamentalist preachers warning of hellfire and damnation than (like Reagan) kindly uncles delivering a homey morality tale. They will raise their voices, they will pound on their desks, they will relate little stories (factual or not) that supposedly validate their point, they will make their voices quiver, they will sometimes even bring themselves to tears.

The most effective message of all is “you are being threatened” or better yet “you are under attack”; particularly since these are messages that many people are already eager to hear. Thus the eternal popularity of silly narratives like transgender bathroom predators, the War on Christmas, and “they’re coming to take your guns”.

There is a part of our brain (the amygdala) that is constantly on the lookout for danger. In caveman days, it was conditioned to be suspicious of anything unknown; after all, that rustling in the bushes very well could be a lion scouting out lunch.  But even though the human race as a whole has long outgrown this mindset, there are still many people (we generally call them “conservatives”) who view the unfamiliar as something to be feared; and view people who promote, represent or advocate for acceptance of anything unfamiliar as enemies to be hated. Political opponents and ideological complements are no longer viewed as mere opponents and complements; they are mortal foes against whom you should prepare for “another civil war”.

3. Find someone to hate

It stands to reason that if you are going to control people effectively with fear and rage, then there must be a “them” to direct the fear and rage toward. You must find a suitable scapegoat to blame for all your (real or imagined) problems. It’s helpful to pinpoint specific individuals (e.g., Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton) but entire demographic sectors work even better. In the past, a number of groups have served this purpose well: Muslims, gays, African-Americans, communists, and most notoriously, Jews.

The current White House Occupant targeted brown-skinned foreigners, falsely claiming that Mexicans have driven up crime and that Muslims celebrated in the streets on 9-11. His cult followers certainly jumped on board with those sentiments, but they reserved their most venomous hostility for a much larger and longer established enemy that the right-wing media have hammered away at for years: “liberals”.

“Liberals” are always an ideal target because they are a motley and loosely defined assortment that constitutes at least half the population of the United States, including many people all around you — friends, neighbors, relatives and coworkers. Yet they are supposedly people who hate America, want to kill you and enslave you (not necessarily in that order), and want to sacrifice unbaptized babies on an altar devoted to the worship of Hollywood celebrities.

4. Project your own sins onto others

The quickest and most effective way to divert attention away from your true motives, flaws and misdeeds is to accuse someone else of the same thing — as loudly, and as quickly as possible, before people start realizing it’s really you who are the guilty party. Thus during the campaign the future White House Occupant made a point of branding his opponent as a liar and a crook, even while he himself was breaking all records for dishonesty and corruption. He was following the lead of his harbingers and cheerleaders in the right-wing media who have been howling for decades about how (all other) media is extremely biased and untrustworthy.

People with legitimate adult criticism usually focus on the specific complaint rather than making a broad generalization. When a person repeatedly applies derogatory labels or vague accusations to someone else, it’s usually a sign that you should examine the behavior of the person doing the applying.

5.  Lather, rinse, repeat

The more frequently people hear something, the more likely they are to believe it. So don’t just state your claims and make your case once. Proclaim them over and over and over, day after day after day. Crooked Hillary, crooked Hillary, crooked Hillary. Fake news, fake news, fake news. Liberal media, liberal media, liberal media. Worship me, worship me, worship me.

And there you have it. It may not be a quick and easy process, but this simple 5-step plan is guaranteed to produce results if you pursue it diligently and patiently. I look forward to seeing you in the White House.

 

 

 

“Why Does God Allow Suffering?” Still No Answer After All These Years

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Like the proverbial ghost of a murder victim hanging around and crying out to be mollified, the question of why God would allow humans to suffer as they do is one that has haunted theologians and religious philosophers for millennia. Nobody ever has been able to provide a satisfactory answer; some seem to believe they have done so, but all they have done is provide some very faulty reasoning — usually red herrings or circular logic invoking biblical passages. But a satisfactory answer is demanded if we are going to allow the possibility of a deity at all.

Why? Because one of the primary attributes of a supreme being is benevolence. God, we are told, is good. But suffering, by definition, is bad; thus a benevolent deity would not allow it unless He had a benevolent reason. This assumes that such a being would be (a) aware of the suffering and (b) able to stop or prevent it.   And indeed the other major attributes of divinity include omniscience and omnipotence. (Which are in fact inseparable — omnipotence would include the power of being omniscient, and omniscience would include the knowledge of how to be omnipotent.)

Parenthetically, the very concept of omnipotence is inherently self-contradictory. If God can do anything, can He will Himself out of existence? Can He do so in such a manner that He never will have existed in the first place? Can He create an object so heavy that even He can’t lift it? If there is even one such task He can’t perform, then He is not omnipotent. And yet, if there is even one such task He can perform, he also is not omnipotent.

I suppose one might respond that God’s omnipotence includes the ability to resolve such apparent paradoxes, but that really reeks of moving the goalposts. It’s one thing to assume that a supreme being would have the means to actualize the things that we perceive to be true or plausible; it’s quite another to assume that such a being would have the means to obviate what we perceive to be false or contradictory. And if we grant Him an exemption from being required to have the potential for acts that are self-negating, then we are saying it’s okay if He can’t do certain things that we mere mortals can do — e.g., commit suicide.

But for now, let’s treat such complications the way religionists usually do: let’s ignore them. What we cannot ignore, however, is the unavoidable conclusion that if we grant the existence of an omnipotent/ omniscient God, then it isn’t merely a matter of allowing suffering, but of causing it. An omnipotent/ omniscient God would be a creator of all things, including suffering and evil — and their more immediate agents (Satan, etc.).

Some people have tried to skirt around this by suggesting that after He created the universe, God adopted a hands-off policy and just let things unfold on their own.  Doesn’t make any difference; if He set things in motion knowing how every little thing was going to turn out, it’s effectually no different from personally bombing every airport and gassing every holocaust victim.

So why would a benevolent God cause/ allow suffering? The answers that have always been presented fall essentially into one of 6 categories, each of which is quite faulty.

The Job Response

Written around 2500 years ago, the beautifully poetical Book Of Job tells a story in which God and Satan essentially indulge in a bet about what will happen if God’s faithful servant Job is subjected to extreme suffering.  Some people have interpreted this as an experiment on God’s part to learn for himself what effect suffering will produce. But this is absurd on the face of it; an omniscient being would never have any reason to experiment.

Of course, there is another explanation for Job’s torments…

The Nietzsche Response

The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche famously remarked,”that which does not kill us makes us stronger”. And many religionists have adopted a similar attitude to rationalize the existence of suffering. In doing so, they (and perhaps Nietzsche as well) are conflating suffering with adversity.

It’s true that our muscles (physical and otherwise) grow stronger with resistance, and it’s human nature to enjoy challenge and its conquest. But suffering is not merely adversity. It’s pain, torment, agony. Very often, it consists of challenges that cannot be overcome, but merely endured as they get worse and worse. And there are at least 5 problems with pegging suffering as a stepping stone to personal growth.

1. It’s a post facto conclusion

Yes, there are times when we prevail over suffering, and we feel the stronger for it. But to conclude that this must be the reason the suffering exists is to put the cart before the horse. Particularly since…

2. It doesn’t always work.

Suffering doesn’t always leave us stronger.  Very often, it leaves us quite broken. And yes, Mr. Nietzsche, it often leaves us very dead.

3. It’s inequitably distributed.

We all know people who already are perfectly strong and of sound moral character, and yet have had to endure horrible ordeals. Yet we also know, or at least are familiar with, individuals who are irresponsible, shady and downright evil who lead charmed lives, are born rich, scarcely ever endure a day of pain, and even are elected president. If God had designed suffering as a tool for fortification, surely there would be considerably more justice and reason to it.

4. Opportunity is often denied.

There are many, many people who endure horrible suffering in their lives, but have no chance to reap any benefit from it. Many children, for instance, are the victims of terrible violence, disease or calamity. They feel the pain, but they do not have the potential to develop any more strongly because of that — particularly if they die in infancy.

5. It’s all unnecessary.

Even if none of these objections held true, it still would be quite unnecessary for an omnipotent and omniscient God to subject His subjects to torture. Because anything that possibly can be achieved by suffering can also be achieved by other means — indeed by any of an infinite number of other means — just as effectively — indeed even more effectively. After all, He supposedly can do anything, right?  So clearly, He inflicts suffering on us only because He wants us to suffer. And this is hardly the hallmark of benevolence. In other words, it appears that God is either omnipotent/ omniscient, or else He is benevolent — but He can’t be all of “thee above”.

The half-full glass response

Whether or not we derive any other benefit, say some religionists, suffering at least affords us the chance to appreciate our blessings (assuming we actually have any). But the same 5 objections apply to this premise. Above all, God certainly could install in us an innate appreciation for our blessings that wouldn’t require any agony to acquire.

The Black and White Response

Even if you don’t need suffering to appreciate your blessings better, maybe it will at least enable you to tell the difference, eh? So some would argue. But it’s an incredibly silly example of begging the question. If suffering didn’t even exist, why on earth would you need to tell the difference?

The Karmic Response

This one comes from Eastern religious traditions, which have a much broader concept of God than does Christianity. The basic idea is that if you lose an eye, for example, it’s payback for your having cost someone else an eye in a past life. Okay, but that still doesn’t explain why the potential for you to have cost someone else an eye existed in the first place.

The Man Behind the Curtain Response

If all else fails, the religionist is likely to respond that God inflicts suffering just because He does, and it’s not our place to question why; it’s our lot merely to trust that there must be a reason for it, even if there evidently isn’t.

But if God indeed created us, then He created our minds, with their insatiable curiosity. We want to know where we came from, where we’re going, how the universe ticks. How do we benefit in this regard by simply stacking one layer of mystery on top of another? How does it help to say that God created the universe if we don’t know what God is or where He came from? How does it help to say that God wants us to suffer if we have no understanding of the reason?

Of course, Official Explanation is only one of God’s intended functions, but it’s a very, very major one. Another is Succor in Time of Need (although that’s a very problematic proposition too, as we shall see in a future discussion) and in that capacity, His inscrutability actually might be regarded as an asset; in other words, one might believe that it takes an unfathomable being to solve unfathomable problems.

But even that role is secondary to His supposed role as Creator and therefore Official Explanation. And regarding that role, and given the presence of suffering, our (admittedly limited) reason must conclude that one of the following must be true: (a) God does not exist at all; (b) His powers are limited; or (c) He is inexcusably cruel. None of which is a possibility that religionists particularly want to consider.

 

 

 

Gleanings from Social Media

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Like most other people today, I spend a certain amount of time perusing social media. Not because I particularly enjoy it, but because it’s a good source of material for this blog. But the down side is that the impression one gets from such outlets is that the present human condition, and the outlook for the human race, are very bleak indeed.

I know someone who literally believes the earth is flat. Literally. She posted the above photo on Facebook not long ago, and declared that the concept of a round earth is a myth promoted by the Great Conspiracy to turn us into mindless drones. And the astronauts? They never really went anywhere. The government has expended billions of dollars and millions of man (and woman) hours and even several lives to advance a “myth” that nearly everyone has already believed for centuries. Oh and she also believes that chemtrails are used to control us, that global warming is a myth, that vaccines cause autism, and probably that Obama is still trying to take away her guns.

I wish I could tell you that she’s alone, but there are many others out there too. Most of them spreading an endless supply of misinformation that swarms the Internet like a plague of locusts. What is perhaps even more troubling is that even the positive and accurate information circulating out there in the hivemind paints a rather grim picture.

For instance, another link I saw posted from the website Daily Kos offers an illuminating explanation for the way “conservatives” in particular are so frequently ensnared in the web of what used to be called fake news before that term was stolen. Basically, right-wing manipulators are playing a game of telephone. And whatever the participants hear, they believe. Unshakably. And permanently.

As yet another link explains, any attempt to introduce verifiable facts to a devotee of alternative facts results in what is called the backfire effect:

As a rule, misinformed people do not change their minds once they have been presented with facts that challenge their beliefs. But, beyond simply not changing their minds when they should, research shows that they are likely to become more attached to their mistaken beliefs. The factual information “backfires.” When people don’t agree with you, research suggests that bringing in facts to support your case might actually make them believe you less. In other words, fighting the ill-informed with facts is like fighting a grease fire with water. It seems like it should work, but it’s actually going to make things worse.

Wow. If this is true, and given everything else that we’ve seen on Facebook et al, what conclusion can we draw except that we’re all doomed?

Well, someone else online posted at least a glimmer of hope. And it comes from comments made 300 years ago by the French philosopher Blaise Pascal, whom we’ve encountered before:

When we wish to correct with advantage, and to show another that he errs, we must notice from what side he views the matter, for on that side it is usually true, and admit that truth to him, but reveal to him the side on which it is false. He is satisfied with that, for he sees that he was not mistaken, and that he only failed to see all sides. Now, no one is offended at not seeing everything; but one does not like to be mistaken, and that perhaps arises from the fact that man naturally cannot see everything, and that naturally he cannot err in the side he looks at, since the perceptions of our senses are always true….People are generally better persuaded by the reasons which they have themselves discovered than by those which have come into the mind of others.

In short, if there is any hope at all of encouraging the delusional to actually realize that they are delusional, it lies not in challenging their delusions, but in humoring them as far as possible. That may sound like a slender thread of hope. But it may be the only thread we have. At least if the culture of social media presents an accurate reflection of society at large.