Category Archives: Science and Skepticism

Science, Skepticism, Rationality.

Michio Kaku and the Myopic Universe

A critique of Michio Kaku’s video “The Universe in a Nutshell

What irritates me about this narrative, is how physicists as individuals and as a group often conflate themselves (and their field of study) with the concept of physics itself. Yes, ‘physics‘ is, in the broadest sense, the foundation of how everything works. As far as we know there is no reason to think that anything that exists or can be known, lies outside of the scope of everything that is physics. I love physics. I love science. I LOVE pure, humble and impassioned investigation.

That is exactly what is lacking!

The idea that physics encompasses all understanding, is no longer true when you are discussing ‘physics’ as an academic field of study, as a function of limited human minds inseparable from their social, historical, economic, philosophical, and cultural contexts and inevitable biases. The word is the same. Their contextual meanings are not.

In this video, Michio Kaku actually implies with straight-faced conviction that “the internet a simple by-product of electromagnetic force” and then has the gall to suggest that “where there is the internet, there’s prosperity”,  subtly confirming the insidious, but endlessly repeated trope that those poor countries must be full of stupid, unenlightened, regressive, helpless people who probably just need to “get it together.” There is not even the suggestion that centuries of colonial domination could possibly have anything to do with this. Not a peep.

Seriously!? Ass-kissing glasses!? This is something we’re looking forward to? Let’s not talk about the significance that every last goddamn motherfucker in that cocktail party scene was as white as my bare ass in January. No significance there. It just a fun internet video, right. What a buffoon! Talk about a zero-foot view! This is a disgusting display of unexamined, white-supremacist,  neo-liberal, self-righteousness bullshit!

There is no more room in this world for scientists to say “I’m only interested in the science” as if to suggest “that other stuff is just for hippies and people liberal arts degrees.” You cannot divorce any science from any of its inherent contexts. You cannot divorce yourself from the affect of your impact in thought-space simply because you don’t geek out about it. You have a fucking responsibility to be aware, or your so-called science will be infected at a level deeper from which any scientific method can save it.

You will miss the deeper meaning of the questions and completely misunderstand the potential effects the answers.

Keeping the scientific method pure within the confines of the question you’re trying to find answers to IS NOT ENOUGH! The questions themselves need to be examined. They must be informed by deep understand of all of the contexts with which it has an intersection and there are many. If you don’t you end up like this guy, perpetuating poisonous, ignorant, unexamined assumptions, glossing it over with a veneer of grand-scale material accomplishments whose impact and meaning are also unexamined.

I applaud the pioneers who have unlocked many of the mysteries of our world from whom I have reaped many benefits. I now also stand in the awareness of many others in our world who still don’t have access to these benefits. I boldly dare to suggest that the scientific community itself is part of the answer to this question. The reasons for, and solutions to these problems are just as in dire need of exploration, and likely more so.

I can get behind science advocacy. Surely to God (pardon the irony), we need more scientific literacy. We are desperately missing critical thinking on the grand scale. Unfortunately, much of the scientific community itself has many gaping blind spots. Not the least of which is the hopelessly imbalanced distribution of the benefits of discovery, but also the increasing rate at which the direction of research is being steered towards myopic goals of the narrowest, most devious and cannibalistic of minds.

The vast, vast majority of us are not in need of stupid gadgets or trips to Mars. This ultimately doesn’t need to be a zero-sum game. I’m not advocating for other lines of thought instead of scientific discovery. I’m advocating that our scientific communities need to have much broader understanding of the world and themselves, and need tread outside the comfortable and privileged domains in which they now reside.

The humility and passion for investigation of our scientific community MUST go beyond mere academic, scientific inquiry.

Our future depends on it.

Unnatural Selection

This is just going to be a quickie as it’s all I have time for today.

I’ve been lately about how some of these supposedly inspiring success stories that float around are really examples of selection (as in systems of evolution) rather than accurate explanations of said success. I think this holds especially true for actors and other public figures who’s success in one degree or another depends on or at least benefits from popularity. Will Smith comes to mind. His opinions about himself are of the most boot-strappy I’ve ever heard. You heard him 2+2 = “whatever I want it to be”. “The Secret” must really give him a hard-on.

The fact that we hear certain people’s stories and not others is not necessarily due to the inherent survivability of the traits they promote. It may simply be because we unwittingly select and promote them PRECISELY BECAUSE we prefer the explanations that they offer us for their successes, even if they are ultimately inaccurate.

It’s a little bit like breeding many generations of horse, selecting exclusively for spotted coats and then saying that horses with spotted coats are better survivors because “Look! More of them have survived because of spotted coats!!” Indeed it is true, but only because we made it true.

It may be and often is true that for every person telling you that they pulled themselves up by their bootstraps with little or no help, there may be a million more with the same attitude, giving the same effort and having the same determination that end in desolation and obscurity rather than succeeding at something more attainable. This is not an affirmation that “success” (whatever that is), is the only thing that matters, or that an individual should not try their very best and be deeply determined.

The point is that we are sometimes inclined to promote very inaccurate and harmful ideas when there are more accurate and meaningful ones to be had.


On the Rise

Being the fourth of May today (May the fourth be with you), I felt compelled to read a post by “monkey” contributing on the What about teh Menz blog.

It might seem strange at first, but I was immediately reminded of an old article on about rich elites in the U.S. having a sense of persecution while they strangle and subdue the livelihoods of their entire nation.

The connection for me is in this idea of comparing geek culture to religion, except that there’s a more general principle at the heart of it. That is the idea of dominant groups feeling persecuted, and turning it onto those with relative disadvantage.

Now of course, things are never as simple as THIS LABEL makes you THAT. There are places in the world for example where being out as a christian can get you killed. We do well to always keep our minds open to nuance and context against any generalization. Dominance and disadvantage are always relative and almost always simultaneously at work within a group or individual albeit in different contexts. This is the nature of Kyriarchy. I will be using a broad brush to make my point, but I do realize there is nuance and variation. Please keep this in mind.

That being said, I often see a dynamic where the members of a dominant group identify themselves as underdogs apart from whatever reality might be. It seems to me that as geeks, we have long surpassed the aggressiveness and social brutality of any group we might have called “jocks” (whom we still feel inferior to in the privacy of our minds). In reality, we dominate the much of the online medium, now the dominant social arena, and steadily taking over pop culture.

Take the ignorant and moderately disinterested (though still very harmful) sexism of the jock, and make it active and aggressive. Now take that insecurity overcompensating with outward arrogance, give it a dozen red bulls and pinch of anonymity and you have the modern geek. Add a science degree and/or a self conflation with being “rational” and you’ve got a skeptic which is often a scarier monster; Another rant for another day. But either way, from the culture’s perspective, saying male, cis, and even white is usually redundant. There are geek girls (also cis and white), but they’re often not really in the club. We let them in with a token membership (so we can ogle at them of course).

Another aspect of the culture is that like all men, we like to define ourselves by what we are not. Almost universally we like to define ourselves as “not woman”, “not gay”, “not-trans”, etc. For the geek we add “not Star Trek/Wars”, “not DC/Marvel”, “not LARP”, “Not LoTR”, any manner of elitism we can scrounge up gets thrown in the mix.

Anyway you look at it, we seem to more and more reflective of the fearfully aggressive mob, desperately clinging to our fragile sense of identity. But what’s truly insidious about it is that we still sell the harmless, mild-mannered Clark Kent with Superman alter-ego when in reality we’re more like Billy Boy turned Dr. Horrible.

I think we easily forget by the end of the show Dr. Horrible is no hero, not even a grey one. And though neither of them prov to be very decent in the end, Dr. Horrible proves far more sinister and dangerous. He’s Captain Hammer add a chip on his shoulder and a potent mind. What’s makes him most dangerous is that he feels like an underdog, and we want to agree with him. After all, it’s OUR TURN to get the girl dammit!!

He seems to get a pass of sorts because we as a culture, like Dr. Horrible, value smarts and recognition more than goodness and perspective, and it’s beginning to show. For recognition we seek the holy trifecta of status, riches, and access to (conventionally attractive) women’s bodies. All others don’t seem to even warrant our attention except to exert our superiority over them. His are crocodile tears over his own loss, most obviously displayed by the fact that he doesn’t duck out of his villainous glory, the pursuit of which cost Penny’s life.

I think Dr. Horrible is a very astute reflection of geek culture, whether or not he was intended to be so. We’re an insecure and powerful mob. Even if merely socially rather than politically, this is not a good combo. We feel like heroic rebels, but act like The Empire. We are the new gatekeepers. We have become the bullies. We just haven’t figured it out yet.

Horny Balorney

I read an article at Cracked a few days ago with a few misgivings but basically gave it a pass. Then, earlier today I came across this article.

I still appreciate that David made some good point in his usual fun and accessible style. I’m not aiming to throw it out with the bathwater, but with this kind of subject the nuance can be everything so it won’t keep me from sharing in the critique. Besides, any sincere ally should be at least initially receptive. Having said that…

I’m a little embarrassed for being drawn in.

I believe I was, mainly because he threw in the following points:

“Maybe it’s just a matter of having 10 times as much testosterone in their system, or maybe society has trained us to be like this, or maybe we’re all spoiled children.” (I tend to go with the “training” and “spoiled children arguments”)

“Whatever — nailing down the cause isn’t the point.”

…and then kinda sorta explaining that it’s our responsibility regardless, while still (I have to admit) catered to the “hey bro, *wink* *nudge*” mentality. Nailing it down may not be the point in considering our responsibility to do something about it, but it is important that we follow through with trying to figure it. We need test our hypotheses informed with social awareness and then applied against rationality.

An enticing narrative.

I found the arguement convincing on the surface because I have A.D.D. and a relatively high sex drive and am easily distracted. This combined with the constant media and social programming that make it not only EASY to look past the humanity of women when confronted with sexualized appearances, but indeed very difficult NOT to. It makes this kind of narrative very enticing.

Contrary to common understanding, a person’s gut reactions do not automatically follow one’s ideology. It can take much longer to reprogram our “lizard brain”. For myself, it’s not that I have trouble controlling overt behaviour, but more the subtle ways of how I think and feel and connect to my own sexuality which inevitably must have at least some effect on my personal interactions. There is a great human tendency to protect our egos by rationalizing these reactions at the expense of our ideology, rather than the other way around.

The politics of desire.

I think the author of this critique is pretty bang-on! It’s easy to look at our own struggles and subconsciously (or even consciously) presume that women don’t also have physical desires as strong or even stronger than our own. We wouldn’t necessarily hear about it as much since hetero women aren’t bombarded 100’s of times a day with sexualized depictions of men (and lesbian women are listened to even less than hetero women), indeed women’s sexuality has hardly been allowed much room to explore such things.

Essentially, off-the-mark.

Not to mention this idea that hetero-male sexuality is behind every “great” thing ever accomplished or created. It’s insulting to more than just hetero women. I wonder what trans and gender queer people would have to say about this. I dare say it’s even insulting to men! Is there no altruism? Is there no desire to create for the sake of and the enjoyment of simply creating. Are there no gay or asexual men who accomplish amazing things? It’s insulting, because it’s inaccurate.

Yes of course there is an aspect of male culture that does have us doing impressive or even absurd things (or both) in service of our ego, our desire to dominate, and our desire to mate (which often have a great deal of overlap). Yet, I don’t think hat essentialism is the whole or even majority part of the answer. There is a whole world of possibility outside of this framework.

In fact, I believe that our future lies there…

Goodbye Skeptics

I have decided that it is time to leave the skeptics. I have poured myself out trying to give the benefit of that doubt, and hoping to someday have trust and understanding with the core members of this group, seemingly to find myself toiling alone on a fool’s errand.

When I first joined I was at a new phase in my life. I had just found the courage to escape an abusive marriage, and took it as the impetus to reevaluate many unbalanced and unhealthy dynamics in other relationships. I was shedding the shackles of religion and was also prompted through new friendships and relationships to tackle many unchallenged beliefs, both inside and outside the realm of science. I found it difficult yet rewarding, and continue to do so. My hunger for continued change lead me to this group: The Winnipeg Skeptics.

I was very excited to get involved and eager to build relationships with these new people who were not afraid to question their beliefs or discuss ideas. I am sure this still happens and to some extent will continue to. I have no delusions that groups or even individuals are either all good or all bad. I am not broad-brushing every person, but for me overall, the bad unfortunately has come to outweigh the good.

It’s all fine and good to advocate for scientific literacy, and critical thought on scientific matters. Not that that there aren’t any concerns on that front, but that is not really what brings me here. I am here to say that when it comes to operating as a community it fails at being what it declares itself to be. It is not progressive. It is not inclusive. It is, in short, not welcoming; at least not in the way it would have to be to even begin to reach the goals it claims to care about: being a movement that aims to win over a culture rife with irrationality and ignorance.

You cannot win over the world with science alone. Before you get to the science, they people need education. To get that they need schools, physical safety, food security, healthy psychology (good home life), adequate income and many other things. You want to change the world towards scientific enlightenment? This is where you start. Get rid of desperation and hopelessness, and you’ll have granted some immunity to the siren call of delusion and woo.

Certainly a skeptical community can’t tackle every social issue themselves, but at the very least it needs to be aware of the reality behind them or you risk being complicit in their harm. You cannot simply opt out of reality no matter how unfair or uncomfortable. A skeptical community needs to be accepting, welcoming and open to understanding the experience of others. It should be obvious that to win a culture means being aware of culture, including your own. If these are indeed your goals then you’ve carved yourself one big damn piece of pie to chew on. If they’re not your goals, then all you have is a lot of self-serving, disingenuous hot air.

So what do I see instead? I see a community of people where the most active members with few exceptions are not interested in these things. I see a number of people who regardless of their conscious intentions and intuitions about themselves are, in practice, are working to make a group that is safe and comfortable… for themselves. Damn anyone else.

Over and over I see arguments where members take disingenuous stances against those who voice real concerns in order to gas-light and discredit them, only to flip-flop 5 minutes later on that same issue when someone from their in-group expresses that same sentiment or argument. This is just one recent example. I’ve seen this and various other tactics made in the effort to discredit, dismiss, and shut down discussion.  Points are not addressed. Efforts are not made to understand or engage. Rationality is appealed to as a concept rather than practiced: like a holy text to beat people over the head with like a cudgel. Is see people fighting, not to whittle out the truth, but to win at all costs. Not dialectic, but debate. I don’t see scientists. I see lawyers.

Rather than a community. I see a mob. Drop one of the trigger words like ‘homeopathy’ or ‘privilege’ and watch the dog-pile. Too many views are merely borrowed from the giants on whose shoulders you stand. You pass them around with congratulations and pats on the back for being masters of the universe as though you came up with them yourselves. Looking at your actions, I would have to conclude that you do not really want to change the world, only to carve yourself out a little piece of it, and sit in your huddle with your pointed sticks and fearful hearts. If someone has something to say that gives you pause that maybe you’ve done something hurtful, you react like they are trying to steal your home, your clothes, your food, and your life. It’s a fight to the death. You can always win your battles on your home turf and always make the rules.

Social privilege? Body-positivity? Class division? SENTIMENTALISM!  SKEPTICISM FAIL!!!!!!1!11!eleventy! Skepticism done this way is just another warm blanket in the cold dark of the universe, like any other over whom you would claim enlightenment. In the end its your own war that you’ll lose, not that of the people you drive away. Unless of course your goal really is to create your own elite.

Time and time again I have tried to advocate for those you say you want to include. Time and time again you have shown yourselves to be more interested in protecting yourselves from the straw-people who are apparently at your door to dilute you and enfeeble you, and perhaps even destroy you. You don’t see would-be kindred minds who cared enough about truth and honesty to take a stand for it. You seem to only see persecution and the slippery slope of your own destruction. Not everything that brushes past you or goes bump in the night is a monster come to get you. Sometimes there is a reasonable explanation. Sometimes that explanation may require that we give up the illusion that we know ourselves, that we are rational beings.

Until you are ready to shed the warm blanket of rigid worldview and your pointy stick of self preservation, you will never be congruent with your own values. Science is only as good as the questions you can ask of it and if you are clouded by the delusion than your love of rationality makes your intuitions rational, then science can only give you a biased answer to your biased questions. The point is not to deny the existence emotions and biases. The point is to recognize and counteract them. You cannot shed yourself of these shortcomings like having your tonsils removed. You can only be ready to make up for them when they present themselves and be diligent in working against them to the best of your ability for the rest of your life. That’s life.

I remember saying in the documentary “The Non-Believer’s Beliefs” that you can take rationality and with the right inputs, boil it down and come out with love. I’ve also recently borrowed a quote in my a recent blog post shared on TWS Blog:

Empathy is about seeing things from another person’s perspective, not imagining yourself in somebody else’s situation. The former is the first step to understanding others; the latter is a kind of naive narcissism that does more harm than good.

Unfortunately, the reality is that a few loud voices within The Winnipeg Skeptics’ seem to fall into the latter category. You imagine yourself within a trite reconstruction of what you think is someone else’s experience, only digging deep enough to discredit and disarm. You don’t investigate where your ideas and feelings come from. At worst you cut down straw-persons, disingenuous positions, ad hominem attacks, backtracking and sliding goalposts, right from your first breath. Everything you supposedly despise in others. At best, you take your intuitions and work backwards building a trail of pseudo-logics, and then tell yourself you’ve done it with RationalityTM, because you’re a Real SkepticTM, not one of those sentimental trolls.

Every bit of progress in social justice and every bit of social enlightenment you currently enjoy from was won by people who grasped this concept and poured their lives out in its pursuit. Any progressive views you have (except those that serve your group or score points against your enemies) have been tacked on after they’ve gained great momentum elsewhere. It is argued that skepticism and lack of religion leave much room for all kinds of wonderful humanity, but you don’t practice it. Not really. Not enough. Not if you feel that it brings your character into question. Not if it really challenges you.

In your fervor to build the name of Skeptic, you deny your emotions. You deny your own biases and false intuitions. You deny your irrationality. You have done so to try and escape them, but you have only made yourself more captive to them. Instead of rationality I see straw-Vulcans. You pay lip service to these things in a kind of pro-skeptic dogma, but your actions don’t follow.

I am not above reproach, and this isn’t about who’s better. I’m sure there are things I could have done better. I’m sure I’ve picked the wrong battles at times. Perhaps I have misinterpreted a thing or two, but I have not been disingenuous and I’m not a fool. I have made rational cases which have been for the most part, either twisted or ignored, but no more.

But, tell you what. You don’t really need to listen to any of this. I’m sure one of your trusty SSRs will tell you what you want to hear. You can just get together at the next Skeptically Drinking and agree how “I never really was a very good christian… oops I meant skeptic” (see what I did there?). Just repeat those trusty old narratives of the valiant intellectuals (Crusaders?), shoring up the barricades against the unworthy, uneducated, touchy-feely masses (unwashed heathens). Remind yourselves not give anyone a foothold with their wishy-washy sentimentality (evil self-indulgence), or they may just destroy you from within! Remind yourselves how rational (good/holy) you are. Everything will be just fine. It’ll all go back to normal. No more uncomfortable dissent. No more questions to challenge your self-image. No more scary unknowns. Just a nice, warm, comfy blanket.

I came here looking for critical minds. I came here looking for empathetic hearts. I came here looking for self-aware human beings. I found a few, but I also came here looking for a community. I doesn’t seem to be that yet. Not for everyone. Not for me. You have hurt me deeply. Maybe one day it will be different, but until then…

Good bye.

Rage Against the Machinery

In light of IDAPB, I thought I would share some of my thoughts and feelings about the intersection of people and systemic oppression.

They are somewhat complicated.

I myself have been an “instrument of the machine” (and still unavoidably play some part within it), as we have each likely been in big and small ways. In recent years I have become much more conscious of the world around me, not the least of which including a burgeoning understanding of human psychology and social systems. I simultaneously feel culpable for supporting oppression as I have prior to this awareness (and do not simply absolve myself ethically), yet fully understand the deterministic nature of the universe and its impact on me.

This is to say that in a quantum mechanics kind of sense, I am merely a product of my life situation and experiences (and other “random” events). Yet, I take on the onus, not because I believe that myself or anyone else can exist outside of cause and effect by sheer will or completely self-determined moral character, but because it is practical to do so from the perspective of human experience.

It’s a practical matter.

It is practical in that it guides my thoughts and actions toward ethical self-improvement and self-awareness: a mindset of ethical responsibility. If I’m not invested in the experience of others with respect to my actions, but only the defense of my own character, then by definition defense of my character is all I will accomplish. I will not change my character, nor the experience of the other person.

It is also practical in that it offers the greatest possibility of communication and restoration. The process doesn’t need to be about figuring out who’s to blame, explaining away and justifying (rationalizing), in an effort of returning to status quo. Instead, I can take responsibility for my actions (even if I feel that there was no way I could have done differently given what I knew at that moment), have empathy for the other person’s experience with respect to my actions (regardless of my experience or good intentions), and cooperatively strategize ways of avoiding unnecessary hurt. If needed, you can explain what you’re doing and ask for reciprocation. The best way to ask for it is by simultaneously showing that you’re willing to do it. Focus your efforts on those who are willing to reciprocate because it needs to become reciprocal in the long term for progress to be sustained; It’s also part of maintaining healthy boundaries.

UR doing eet wrong!!1!

This stands in stark contrast to the now typical, violent defensiveness exemplified by people trying to externalize responsibility, defend their character (ego) and avoid any resolutions which require personal effort, self-evaluation or change. I’ve seen many people (including myself in many past and even recent occasions) react to another’s expressions of experience and feelings, with anger and dismissal. The argument is often that they could not have done any differently (which as a matter of determinism may actually be true). “I couldn’t have known that my actions would hurt you, therefore it’s not my fault, therefore I’m not a bad person, therefore you should not be feeling that way towards me” (so stop feeling that way or you’ll be to blame for this continued conflict). It is a desperate act of self-preservation driven by the conscious or subconscious idea that others are out to destroy your character. You might want to investigate your own life experience to see where this pattern has come from.

Not just for lovebirds.

It should be obvious that this relates to interpersonal relationships. These words probably conjure up thoughts of happy (or not so happy) romantically involved partners, but I want to stretch that definition a bit. As I’ve alluded to above, I view relatively simple human interactions expanding into complex social systems. The product of this effect is called an emergence. To affect the complex system you need to somehow affect the individuals and their basic interactions. I believe that this failure to resolve rather than blame is one of the basic units of interaction that create or at least support structures of oppression within society.

Fallacy? How Humerous

There is a kind of is-ought fallacy that says, “Because I will not always be able to avoid offending or hurting you, I can not be held to such a standard of behaviour. Therefore your expectations are unreasonable”. Or in other terms, “I am this way, so you ought not to ask for me to change.

Now, taking this idea of deterministic social behaviour and applying it to other people I see the enactors of oppressive behaviour in a similar light. They are absolutely the products of their situation and experiences as much as I am. That is to say that in a given snap-shot in time, they could not have been anything other than exactly what they were at that moment, given their collective experiences and situation. This is not an ideological justification that it ought to be this way, but a mechanical explanation of why it is this way. In this light I simultaneously have a kind of empathy (though more like sadness and frustration at the unfortunate reality), and yet unwaveringly denounce their actions given not only the immediate emotional pain they cause, but also for their part in the social mechanism at large.

A wrench in the gears.

I do this because I perceive myself as a potential cause that may be able to affect them. Sometimes do this by holding their feet to the fire. Other times I try to be a friend and gradually influence them. It depends an their apparent willingness to self-evaluate.

I don’t wholly demonize anyone, since it doesn’t make sense from my perspective. However, there are limits to the personal effort I’m willing to put into specific scenarios, or with specific individuals. My emotional resources are limited, as is my ability to carry out my own philosophy in this regard (though I continue to work at growing that capacity). I have very little patience when I perceive that someone is hurting someone else, either directly with words and actions, or with harmful ideologies that they are presenting as ideal or as normal (and therefore ideal: another is-ought). I am far from perfect (I hope that my ability to see this is not a surprise to anyone). More often than is likely obvious, my anger is motivated by empathy for others, though this doesn’t absolve me of responsibility for all of these actions. Let me not commit my own fallacy.

Hey, I’m a pass-a-fist!

As an aside, in a broader political sense I am also not necessarily advocating for pacifism since the collective mentality borne out of situation and experience (including systemic dogma) may be so fixed and on such a large scale as to be untouchable by any practical means of persuasion. Sometimes there are creative strategies that can be attempted beyond this point, but if the system becomes tyrannical enough, sometimes it is the only way. We who have comfortable lives can be easily prodded into gasps, jaw drops, and “oh dear”s when told about things like the Black Panthers or riots in the street and totally miss the oppression that instigated it. It wasn’t just buses and drinking fountains, nor was it MLK and his cheek-turning philosophy that did all the work (though he certainly had an impact). That’s another topic for another day.

The burden of love.

It seems to me that the most meaningful and practical understanding of reality sometimes takes a mental flexibility that stretches us beyond our original programming. I look at it as the joy of figuring things out. Actively seek out accurate observations. Be determined to build ideology that’s congruent with those observations regardless of personal cost and effort, up to your capacity. Be willing to un-learn your assumptions about your own motivations and those of the people around you. Strive to be aware of your own psychology: your automated emotional reaction to people and ideas. This can be simultaneously very difficult, but also very rewarding. Not only for you personally, but for the kind of world you will be fostering around you.

I leave you with this brilliant quip by Tim Widowfield over on Vrider:

Empathy is about seeing things from another person’s perspective, not imagining yourself in somebody else’s situation. The former is the first step to understanding others; the latter is a kind of naive narcissism that does more harm than good.

Cross-posted to The Winnipeg Skeptics

Corporate Evilution

Seeing a link on Gem Newman‘s wall today I was inspired to comment. He did a critique on a piece of sensational media. I hope that my own sensationalized title isn’t too much of a turn-off for the skeptics out there, but I just like having fun with them 😀

I have to say that I pretty much agree with this article’s basic assertion, which to me seems to be that the article upon which they are making commentary is sensational, misleading and playing logical hop-scotch to the distraction of the reader.

Where I divert is where it calls out the three points which I actually agree are being falsely conflated.

1. The business ethics of Monsanto
2. The safety of Agent Orange
3. The safety of GMO crops

Firstly, both 1. and 2. should absolutely be conflated. How can they not be? However, to leave it there without further reflection is also problematic, which I will try to get to.

Now with regards to the third point, there needs to be some clarification. What do we mean by “safety of GMO crops”? Are we talking about the concept of GMO technology striped of it’s economic and political context? If so, then surely their assertion is correct. This has nothing to do with the other two. The technology should stand or fail on it’s own merits.

Now, what about the relative safety of “GMO” fully contextualized as a technological concept who’s development and application are governed as a product of industry (using scientific methods) which is in turn governed the collective realities of current day North American capitalism?

As a side-note, notice how much text is contained in the previous paragraph simply describing a single concept. That’s how packed our language can be. It is how much we often either take-for-granted or utterly ignore, and often without being aware of it.

I still maintain that the original article is broad-brushing and sensationalistic. I also think that this kind of critical response to it is not only acceptable, but necessary. However, I also think this editorial response to it may be overcompensating in it’s criticism. Moreover, I think this kind of polarized reaction is somewhat prevalent with those who come to the defense of “science”. That’s another word who’s breadth of definition is often ambiguous, but that’s another discussion in itself.

In my opinion the most relevant discussion about GMO as an overall concept must include the full context in which it resides, because that fully realized context will by definition affect it’s fully quantifiable results. This is whether or not we have the tools to fully measure it or even a broad enough understanding of what to measure. For example, what effect will changes in food production have on political power balance in the global economy.

Part of the fully qualified context is the particular brand of capitalism in effect in the U.S. and the global economy and political power balance in the world. This is the “natural world” within which Monsanto and other corporations live.

It is a terrible failure of understanding in my view to think that corporations who do very bad things are simply unethical entities that randomly spring out of an otherwise functioning system that does good things for us as a species. This is magical thinking at it’s finest IMHO. My understanding is that corporations act the way they do necessarily according to the nature of the system they exist within.

Just as with evolution, individual entities in nature succeed or fail according to the physical rules of the natural world within which they exist. It is absurd to speculate that when a particular entity has survived or failed, that it has done so DESPITE the nature of that system rather than BECAUSE of it. The rules of that system have operated against the characteristics of that entity and it has either failed or succeeded. Thus, if a corporation has survived in the system within which it exists, it has done so according to the nature of that system. If the nature of those entities is considered not ideal, then necessarily that system or at least some part of it must also be considered not ideal.

Now before I run off on a tangent about capitalism, the take away for this discussion is that surviving and thriving corporations that exist within their legal and economic context, have a certain amount of predictability. The nature of today’s corporation is not merely strict competition, but the LEGAL MANDATE of its controlling body to produce profits. Profits in the greatest possible magnitude and at pretty much at all costs. Their context also includes governmental, legal restrictions.

But like human beings, one of the traits it has acquired is the ability to change the environment within which it exists. For the corporation this includes abilities like lobbying against these restrictions, and to a greater degree in more recent years, infiltration of the regulatory government agencies who manage these restrictions.

So, it’s perfectly valid to call “logical fallacy” when we hear someone say that this thing is necessarily evil because that other thing they did was evil. *BUT* calling out this logical fallacy doesn’t negate the deduction that Monsanto or any other powerfully situated corporation for that matter, are very likely to engage in unethical behaviour. Not simply because we FEEL that they are evil, but because there are specific characteristics which they are likely to have given the context in which they exist and are successful in.

We are at the very least, justified in being suspicious assuming we are using the right reasoning for being so.

Big, Fat Assumptions

So I get this cold call style message on facebook from an author named Bill Lauritzen trying to promote his book (which I’m not going to promote for him here). I have no idea how he got my name but I decided to check out his page.

The first thing I see is this picture of him on the beach sucking in his gut and puffing out his chest with seemingly great effort. To the right is the following text:

“Some of my friends tell me I am SO thin, and I eat SO healthy. The trust [sic] is that they are FAT and they eat a lot of CRAP!”

How noble of him to be so self-flagellating in support of “pro-health” dogma. Accompanying the above text was the sub-text question “Thin or Fat? What’s your Perspective?

The following is my attempt on facebook to address these messages and ultimately answer his question.

I think the weight/health thing (which are NOT actually synonymous) is just another basically arbitrary focal point in a long line which we use to socially categorize and judge each other. This is an age old social exercise that has more to do with establishing group identity and pecking order which includes a self-defending (and inaccurate) mechanism of explaining itself in terms of concern and caring.

If you engage in the exercise of relinquishing your own biases, you can observe the nature of these patterns including not only the surface meaning of words, but also the emotional reactions and value judgements that coincide, you may begin to see what I’m talking about. The acceptance or rejection in these categorizations often has less to do with the actual body size of the individuals, and more to do with whether they support the judgmental dogma, which is generally thought within these groups to be very thoughtful and accepting. Much like how it works with most other “isms” (racism, sexism, classism etc)… think “I have a friend who’s ____ and they support me, so I’m not ___ist”

What’s especially odd is the apparent fervor in defending the above according to the notion that if we do not, “they’ll just think they can get away with it.” The sentiment being that we must shame people for their own good. It’s truly absurd.

So, I guess the short version is “who cares” and the question “are you happy?” This is apparently a radical stance.

Artificial Dissemination

At a social event with the Winnipeg Skeptics this week we ended up talking about religious people and the religious right among other things. We were marveling at how some of the Republicans in the U.S. can be so far off the deep-end with their beliefs. It reminded me of an article I’d read a couple months ago, for which the connection may not be immediately obvious. Hopefully I can explain.

In my personal obsession with psychology and sociology I’ve tried to understand how people think and why they do what they do. This article describes how we tend to operate by personality archetypes (specifically those relating to gender) and how they affect the way we think about ourselves; and by extension, how we think about others. The focus of this article is arguing against the idea of gender based essentialism, and that most of how we behave is according to how we think about ourselves and is passed on socially. I don’t at all want to undermine the profound revelations to be made on just this issue, but I think that these findings also have vast implications for every arena of our lives.

During that discussion with the Skeptics I was reminded a family member, which I related to the group. I explained how she identifies as a conservative and repeats many of the standard truisms that go with that, yet when I asked to explain her views she actually breaks to the left. How could this be? Most of the extended family is conservative, her local community is very conservative, and lives with a staunchly conservative partner. She even votes conservative! Why is there such a mismatch in her views versus her identity?

Like the subjects in the article above, I believe that most people adopt cookie-cutter identities in an attempt to fit in with their social circles. This is something we do in many aspects of our lives, and not just with gender or sexual identity. We do it with our politics, our jobs,  in our romantic relationships, with our families and friends, and with our children. In essence, we wear many different hats. It’s a basic mechanic of social grouping and we apply it to almost everything. With it we sometimes even adopt beliefs that are not our own, though we may wear them loosely.

Now, moving further towards the point embedded in the title: we don’t just do this to ourselves. We do it to others. Often, we do it oppressively. We repeat little truisms about other groups. We make presumptions about who other people are without actually knowing, based on nothing more than a projected and/or perceived group identity. We reinforce our position within some groups by advertising how we treat other groups. Other times it’s simply and subtly implied in our choice of words or the tone of our voice. In all these ways we project on others our subliminal (or overt) message about who they are (especially in comparison to us), and what we think their value and purpose are.

Whenever harsh words like oppression or privilege are used, I think there is something embedded in our neuro-linguistic vocabulary that implies ill-intent. Let me say it explicitly: bad intentions are not required to create oppression. For us it may just be learned patterns and we may not even know the message that we are conveying! As such, sometimes all that is required is ignorance (lack of specific knowledge, not to be confused with stupidity). Language is full of traps like this.

When we operate within the world-view and norms of our social group without bad intentions, and someone comes up to us and tells us that we’re oppressing them with our words and actions, it’s easy to think of them as being deluded. After all, what they’re saying is completely outside of what we know to be normal, natural and obviously true. We know our intentions are good (or at least not intentionally malicious), so obviously they are full of it, right? I mean, it’s not hard to believe. We have so many daily examples of people complaining about things that don’t make any sense to us and some who are indeed obviously deluded.

Here is the birthplace of the concept of “Political Correctness”, where the hidden motif of that other person is to stifle our very being, and sanitize all of existence into rainbows and kittens and everything nice. The belief that their group thinks that way in comparison to ours fits well with our understanding of how things are and they just confirmed it for us. More importantly, they’re in our face telling us we’re bad, and we feel threatened! We need to make it stop, and stop now! Our emotions appeal to our little problem solver upstairs, and it gives us an answer that makes the bad feeling go away.

But why?

Millions of years of evolution have given us this handy fight-or-flight mechanism to protect us from threats, both to our body and to our carefully nurtured, albeit tenuous sense of self. But as we ought to know, evolution is not perfect. Especially when in just a few short years (historically speaking) our world has gone from small communities and tribes with similar values and identities to a global society of remarkable complexity and conflicting values. It’s no surprise that our instincts could misfire. What’s really going on is usually more complex than whatever scenario our brain comes up with in half a second and with almost no meaningful information.

We feel more than we think.

The problem is that many of our socially absorbed views and behaviours are demonstrably false and counter-productive to our proclaimed goals. On the whole, we don’t think to find the truth. We rationalize to preserve our identity. Without deliberate investigation into ourselves and our world, and decoupling from these pre-canned identities (or at least being aware of and working around them), we will continue flying blindly on autopilot, and our greater issues will never be solved.

Won’t evolution fix everything eventually?

Evolution is just the explanation of how we got here. It doesn’t magically give us what we want. It doesn’t deal with our wishes for happiness or camaraderie. It doesn’t deal with things working optimally at all. It is merely “survival of the good enough.”

However, we have a brain that is capable not only of rational thought, but also of deep introspection. We have it because it was the advantage we needed to survive. We can leave our future to the magic of death and suffering to select some better genes, or we can use the tools we have proactively and figure out how to get what we want through greater awareness. Our evolution has not yet brought us to fully rational thinking or conscious social function and as the social world continues expanding through advances in social technology, the pressure to get there will also increase.

So I ask you now, who are you? And more importantly:

Who do you want to be?

Cross-posted to The Winnipeg Skeptics Blog

The Secret Lives of the Possibilians

Yesterday, I saw the familiar face of one of my favorite atheist icons on Facebook and did what any bored atheist, I.T. guy at work would do. OK besides making him my avatar and flaming all the christians in my friend list with his blog articles and telling them they’re minds are warped by religion. That’s the stereotype isn’t it? Sometimes they fit, but sometimes stereotype do. But that doesn’t mean they’re all true, mostly true, or even true at all. Even if they are, it doesn’t mean they’re useful or appropriate. Really, I just clicked ‘like’…honest!

So the first feed to come from Mr. Harris was a link to a post on his blog. It features neuroscientist David Eagleman, author of “Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain” sharing his thoughts on what I would have to call hard atheism versus devout religiosity. I happened to get busy again so instead of reading the actual post, I just fired up the video and listened to it in the background.

I found that what he was saying resonated with me, especially the following:

“…these are very smart people on both sides that are spending all of their energies polarizing each other, and arguing against each other’s details. I feel like there should be another voice in there somewhere…”

I’ve been thinking about this a lot in the past year, and not heard many others in the skeptic community express this sentiment, and I feel it’s an important one. Without too much thought, I threw the link back onto my wall, recommending it to others.

Today I went back and read Sam’s thoughts which suggested to me that I should listen to it again. It would appear to me that despite making some really excellent points (and he does) he is also using a pretty broad brush in referring to all of neo-atheism as being strict atheism that claims certainty of no god existing. In my experience, most atheists are not in that category. More than that, I’ve always seen it as being like a kind of right-of-passage in a way to understand the fact that we can’t claim that as certain. To claim that is to fail at science after all, but have I missed something? I haven’t actually read the books of the “four horsemen” yet, but this just doesn’t seem very accurate to me.

Then he seems to kind of re-invent the wheel of soft atheism and claim it as his own idea:

“In every generation, scientist have always felt, that we sort of have all the pieces of the puzzle…we should be able to get it all from here. It has never ever been true in the history of human-kind, yet…that we have all the puzzle pieces.”

Aren’t most of us in this community already pretty comfortable with the idea of the vastness of things that we don’t know? Both the things that we know we’re ignorant of, and the probability of things we don’t even realize that we’re ignorant of and can’t even conceive of yet?

I think that most atheists, scientist and skeptics are not in that category. I seem to recall hearing funny stories of centuries past when “scientists” used to believe some pretty silly things. Our understanding of the subjects that science tackles, the advancement in our technologies, and our understanding of how to do science (tool-box as David puts it) have all improved, dare I say exponentially? Yet from every scientific talking head I’ve heard, I get the impression that they have only grown more humble in terms of understanding the minute scope of our collective knowledge of the universe.

I have to heartily agree that there is something being missed in the intense polarization of our atheism vs religion culture war. Yet in the way he chooses to call it out, he’s making it even more black and white than it really is. He seems to be pushing the neo-atheist straw-person to the left to make room for himself.

Where I think David is right is what is implied (by who his audience is) more than what’s stated. I think it is going to have to be the Atheists who eventually take the high road. Not because we’re the bad ones. Not because it’s our fault or definably our responsibility. And I don’t mean that we should stop fighting our legal and political battles to keep religion out of our schools or to be afraid to call out religious logical fallacies or social distortion for what they are.

Instead, like so many things in history that had to be done by someone… we’re the ones who are more capable. Or at any rate, we should be if we can just bring our rationality and humanity together. I think that beyond the rationality embedded in the subject matter of our arguments, we need to have openness to possibilities within our personal philosophy. How we think of and value each other, how we think of and value ourselves, the possibility of our own cognitive biases and emotional ego-blindness…these are some of the things where we need to remain open to other possibilities of understanding. Even beyond this, there are radical notions worth exploring. For example: Spiritual Atheism

Considering the assertions of religion in the name of keeping scientific possibilities open is a fine idea as a premise, but one that has failed over and over again to produce anything to justify itself. However, what’s important is the idea of affirming the value of the human beings who hold them and keeping it with us when we debate. “Love the sinner, hate the sin” was something they touted a lot when I used to be church-goer. This is the principle that needs to be flipped over. Love the religious, hate the religion. Or at least, hate the harmful falsehoods and misguided ideas that they promote. I think that this is maybe what Mr. Eagleman really had in the back of his mind, but was probably just too busy “geeking out” 😉

It’s OK David, just be like science:

Get up and try again.

*cross-posted to The Winnipeg Skeptics blog*