About mentioning those dirty secrets, those elephants in the room!

Elephants (7)

May 28th, 2009 Posted in Elephants, Sightings: Religion | No Comments »

Q: Is there a cure for being an elephant?
A: Only one.
Q: What?
A: Seeing a psychologist.
Q: How does that work?
A: Psychologists can convince elephants they don’t exist.

The Panacea Syndrome (7)

May 28th, 2009 Posted in Sightings (All), Sightings: Social Engineering | No Comments »

Buttons Pushed: Innumerable news articles and op-ed pieces about a simple solution to any problem that plagues us.  It could be a new naturopathic remedy for every real or imagined aliment.  Or, more seriously in terms of human rights, it could be a report on some Draconian law passed on the basis of a simple-minded social science study ‘linking’ some social problem to an assumed cause: for example, fining people for not wearing seat-belts as the solution to traffic fatalities; or censoring movies and broadcast media to stop adolescents from hurting each other; or criminalizing the use of recreational drugs to prevent violent crime.
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“Very few problems have a single, simple cause.  And very few simple solutions don’t cause multiple effectsmost of which are just new problems.  Ask any man who thought his wife was  the only cause of his misery and took the simple solution of divorcing her.” Hippokrites
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What is the cure for dusty death?  What is the cure for the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune?  A surprising number of people feel they have the answer.  And want to impose their putative cure on the rest of us.  These people suffer from the Panacea Syndrome
which is highly infectious and dangerous.
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In The Middle Ages alchemists sought an elixir that would cure all diseases and grant human beings immortality.  They named this marvellous remedy after the ancient Greek goddess of healing—Panacea, daughter of Asclepius, the god of medicine.  Unfortunately they didn’t succeed in their search for this wonderful elixir, just as the 16th Century Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León failed in his search for the Fountain of Youth when he arrived at what is now Florida.  (There is a certain irony in that so many of the elderly now retire to Florida to end their days.)
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The number of more recent explorers and alchemists who have claimed to have found The Fountain of Youth is even greater than in the unenlightened past.  They include all the health food and megavitamin nut cases, those who extrapolate wildly from research on telomeres and antioxidants and reduced caloric intake to concluding that some magical diet is the cure for aging, and, at the very extreme, members of religious sects such as the Christian Scientists (sic) who claim all illness and even death is just in our heads.  One could also include in this list of the deluded peering at the world through rose-coloured glasses all those who think medical researchers will find a magic bullet to cure all cancers, despite the fact that it is well established that cancer is not a single disease.  To believe that one treatment would cure it is equivalent to believing that there is one universally effective treatment for every infectious disease from the common cold to Ebola.
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Nobody wants to be sick.  And few of us want to die.  Such wishful thinking about a panacea is certainly understandable, if irrational.  And what does it matter to most of us?  If the delusion gives some people comfort, that may even be seen as a good.  Usually it only causes harm to the deluded not the rest of us, except, of course, when parents impose their delusional beliefs on their children, turning to prayer or megavitamin treatment when their child really needs chemotherapy.
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Unfortunately the belief in panaceas isn’t limited to personal concerns about physical health and well being.  Fortunately true believers in the power of prayer or megavitamins have had relatively little success in affecting public policy, but unfortunately those who believe in panaceas for social ills have had much more success.  No laws have been passed to tell us we are committing a crime if we fail to take 2 grams of vitamin C every day, but laws have been passed to make criminals of those who don’t wear seat-belts.
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Where the sufferers from the Panacea Syndrome have had the most adverse effect on the rights and freedoms of the individual is in the area of social policy.  Politicians love quick fixes even if they don’t work, for it makes them look like they’re doing something.  In politics it’s all about ‘optics’.  So the most absurd panaceas are fast-tracked into draconian laws.
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All this is understandable.  Our brains are hard-wired to find relationships, and a good argument could be made that the ability to do so is a good definition of intelligence.  One type of relationship that particularly concerns us, at it should, is the causal relationship.  Survival depends on knowing what is the cause of our misfortunes, for knowing the cause of misfortune can, at least sometimes, give us the power to prevent it.
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Shit happens.  If we only knew the cause, we could prevent it.  Right?  Well unfortunately when shit happens, the cause is usually plural, and for that reason usually unavoidable.  Most of the ills our flesh or our society is heir to do not have a single cause, and so there is no single preventive measure we can take to avoid them.  But our limited intellects simply cannot deal with such relational complexity, and so we stubbornly refuse to believe there isn’t a panacea for each and every misfortune.  This is the Panacea Syndrome, which when it affects social policy often results in consequences more dire than what it was intended to prevent.
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The Panacea Syndrome is one of the underlying causes of the insidious social engineering that has resulted in what the Brits call the ‘Nanny State’ and civil libertarians see as the creeping totalitarianism in democratic states.
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Racism, someone decides, is caused by using derogatory terms for someone of a different complexion or ethnic background, so therefore we can ‘cure’ racism by prohibiting the saying of such words.  Johnny broke his arm falling off the swing set in the school yard, so we can prevent kids hurting themselves at school by removing playground equipment.  People insist on using recreational drugs to excess, so we can solve that problem by making smoking a joint a crime.  Myriad are the examples of such simple-minded reasoning leading to legislation that only made matters worse—and usually introduced new problems.  The thirteen years of Prohibition is the textbook example of the deleterious effects of social engineering.  Not only did it result in an increase in alcoholism, but it was the best thing that happened to organized crime since thugs first had the sense to form into gangs.
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The social sciences are certainly responsible, culpable, for aggravating the Panacea Syndrome.  Psychologists, unlike physicists, don’t seem to realize that causation in human behaviour is complex; it is in some ways more complex than that of subatomic particles.  At least every neutron is identical to every other neutron, but every human being is different from every other human being.  Psychology has no unvarying laws of motion, no really rigourous scientific laws at all.  It only has approximations, best bets on the effects of any causal agent.  The math of physics is calculus, that of social scientists, mere probability theory.
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Simplistic explanations abound in psychology, but what makes these particularly dangerous is the willingness of social ‘scientists’ to assume the mantle of sages.  Science describes; it does not prescribe.  But psychologists blithely generalize from imprecise quasi-scientific studies, and proceed to offer advice on everything from how to raise one’s offspring through what entertainment is ‘safe’ to what defines a person as ‘mentally ill’ and in need of ‘corrective treatment’.
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Social scientists aren’t the only snake oil salesmen: We shouldn’t forget religious leaders, political revolutionaries, psychic healers, ‘alternative’ medicine practitioners, and innumerable others.  But at least all these folk can be easily detected.  There are two tell-tale diagnostic symptoms of Panacea Syndrome.
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First, those who suffer from this disorder usually assign one cause to numerous ills.  It could be original sin, what you eat, the media, the government, gun laws, some ethic group––you name it.
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Second, they consistently offer a simplistic solution based on a simple-minded belief in simple causes.   It could be finding Jesus, becoming a vegetarian, censoring what people can see or read, overthrowing the government, passing some new regulatory law, or applying the “final solution” to that damn ethnic group.
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It is ironic that the very thing that drives the scientific quest for knowledge, our desire to find causal relationships, so often leads us astray.  Complexity and coincidence confound us, and so we fall back on simplistic explanations.  The methods of science are designed to protect us from this pitfall.  As the physicist, Richard Feynman, observed, “Science is a way of trying not to fool yourself.  The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.”  So of course I’m not offering science as a new panacea.  That would be absurd, since real science is based on the understanding that causation is complex.  I’m only suggesting that a good dose of scientific, critical thinking would be a useful treatment for Panacea Syndrome.
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We should stop worshipping at the altar of the Greek goddess Panacea and instead heed the advice of that great and mortal Greek doctor, Hippocrates, who wisely warned of the dangers of going beyond describing onto prescribing with his dictum:  “Before all else, do no harm.”

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New Award Winners:

New Whistle Blower Award:  Richard Feynman.
New Magic Weaver Award:  T. N. Robinson, APA, AMA, et al.

Absurdities: Teach Your Children Well (6)

May 27th, 2009 Posted in Absurdities | No Comments »

Hey, let’s take the kids away from their parents if mom and pop happen to express politically incorrect ideas which the innocent kids take to school!

The Winnipeg Free Press reports that “a Winnipeg woman accused of raising her children to be hateful racists says that just isn’t the case.  The mother, who cannot be identified under Manitoba law, says her daughter appears to have been coaxed by social workers into saying that she was taught to hate visible minorities.  Manitoba Child and Family Services is trying to gain permanent care of the girl and her younger brother, who were seized after the girl showed up at school with racist symbols on her body.  The parents are fighting to regain custody of their children.”

A lot of parents (because they are people) have stupid ideas, and may even be teaching their children such crazy ideas as all those who are not of the same religion are evil and deserve to burn in hell or that one’s complexion determines one’s worth.  But who would raise these kids–– and what a mess they’d make of the children––if they were handed over to the even stupider governmental bureaucrats?  One shudders to think!

Elephants (6)

December 4th, 2008 Posted in Elephants | No Comments »

Q: Why are elephant jokes so funny?
A: Because elephants are absurd, and it is fun to make fun of absurd things.
Q: Don’t you worry about hurting their feelings?
A: Do they worry about trampling on me?!

Call For A New Virtue: “Thou Shalt Offend!” (6)

November 29th, 2008 Posted in Sightings (All), Sightings: Human Rights | No Comments »

Button Pushed:  Report in Toronto’s Globe and Mail by Carly Weeks in the November 19, 2008 edition of the paper. “Your friend’s new fuchsia fedora might be hideous. But don’t call it gay, or you might get a language lesson from the conversation cops. Students at Queen’s University who sprinkle their dialogue with an assortment of “homo” or “retarded” could find out the hard way that not everyone finds their remarks acceptable. The Kingston university has hired student facilitators to step in when they overhear homophobic slurs, remarks bashing women or racially tinged insults, along with an array of other language that could be deemed offensive. That means tête-à-têtes in the residence hallways may no longer be just between friends.”

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“What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist” —Salmon Rushdie

It seems that at Queen’s University if a student uses the phrase “That’s so gay” or calls someone or something “retarded” or avoids a classmate’s birthday party for “faith-based reasons”, and is caught doing so by a hired “facilitator” snooping those hallowed halls eavesdropping for potentially politically-incorrect speech, that offending student is promptly confronted and an attempt is made at “re-education”.

Have academics completely lost their marbles? Apparently in their delusional dementia they’ve ‘reasoned’ that just because tenure allows them free speech, there is no reason such liberty should be extended to students—naïfs who may not have been, unlike themselves, sufficiently tamed into self-censorship. They seem to feel that there is great danger in saying something that conceivably could offend anyone, even someone eavesdropping on a private conversation. So it just makes sense to keep them youngsters under surveillance until they too become effective self-censors. Ah, it is such a very old and effective autocratic principle: I can say whatever I want, but you dare not. Why, you ask? Because your Big Brother (in this case armed with a PhD) knows best what it is safe to say.

When universities—allegedly the bastions of free speech—are taking the lead in the movement against freedom of expression, we are all in deep trouble. It is, of course, naïve to expect really significant, meaningful ideas to spring from the arid soil of contemporary universities—with the usual exception of the ‘hard sciences’. Universities are by their nature conservative, even reactionary. Even in the sometimes idealized past the university has not really been a nurturing environment for important ideas—in fact universities have often been the enemy of originality in intellectual endeavour. Few of the great philosophers, and certainly only a handful of creative artists and writers, had university affiliation or even accreditation. Nevertheless, even though historically Cambridge and Oxford may not have welcomed any potential faculty (or students) into their institutional arms if these supplicants weren’t orthodox in their religious affiliation, one can’t help but get the impression that contemporary universities have placed even more restrictions on freedom of thought and expression than was true in the past. (It is a modern paradox that those calling themselves “liberals” claiming to offer a “liberal education” are the contemporary reactionaries.)

But the appalling state of our institutions of putatively ‘higher’ learning is a topic worthy of separate consideration. What is most disturbing about the frequent news reports on the methods used to allegedly combat racism and sexism (or whatever other ‘ism’ is currently being blamed for the mess we belligerent primates make of things) is the damage these tactics are doing to that cornerstone of human rights, freedom of expression—and incidentally, but not insignificantly, to the richness of language.

The Crusaders For Virtue are trying to raise a sometimes appropriate social convention to a fundamental moral commandment: “Thou shalt not offend!” (If they want to keep the number to that nice finger-counting ten, they could drop “Thou shalt not commit adultery!” There is less social stigma attached to cheating on your wife than using an ‘offensive’ term to describe her.) Certainly courtesy and tact are social virtues; and they have their place in greasing the wheels of polite society, but they aren’t moral virtues—and sometimes can be downright immoral. What should one think of the man who shook Hitler’s hand and tactfully remarked that while he may not entirely agree with “The Final Solution”, he respects the Führer’s intentions to improve German society?

Opinions, it is said, are like assholes: everyone has one. And, frankly, most stink. So it is best in social situations to keep your pants on and not moon others. Upon being introduced to a homosexual couple at a party, it would certainly be rude to comment on how you find “faggots” disgusting. But it isn’t a crime—or it shouldn’t be. If bad taste and ignorance were crimes, our legislatures would be decimated, and at least half the population of the whole world should be jailed.

But now a very strange thing has happened. Ever since being “offensive” has come to be treated as crime, it actually has become virtuous to be offensive. For anyone really concerned with preserving human rights, it has become a moral imperative to challenge those that want to erode those rights, and that entails being deliberately and frequently “offensive”. (This shouldn’t be difficult, for now it seems everyone is walking around just waiting to be offended, and almost anything is guaranteed to offend someone.)

Yes, this does mean that ill-informed and even nasty folk will actually be doing a public service by speaking their nearly empty minds. It will mean some stinking opinions will be aired in public, opinions which will surely send sensitive folk heading for the exit to avoid the stench. But that is okay, because stupidity can only die a natural death when it is released into the world to be tested and inevitably found stinking and wanting.

It is a crime punishable by imprisonment to be a “holocaust denier” in Germany and several other countries. Why then isn’t it a crime to express any patently absurd belief? Why isn’t it a crime to say anything where there is overwhelming evidence of its falsehood? Should we lock up “evolution deniers” or those who believe in angels or the power of prayer? Many religious beliefs do more harm than holocaust deniers—who are just a small group of guilt-ridden cranks. There is no censorship, or even public censure, if one wants to promulgate the idea that it is better to pray for a cure to one’s cancer than have chemotherapy, or to promote that wonderful religious imperative that it is one’s responsibility to kill those who don’t share your superstitious beliefs. Why then do the very same people who think holocaust deniers should be imprisoned believe that “respect” should be shown to those dangerous and deluded true believers in one “holy scripture” or another?

The historical evidence, the hard empirical evidence, is that, at least in the long term, truth outs. And falsehoods, when let out, eventually die from exposure. Delusions and nonsense only survive when sheltered from public scrutiny.

So it is time to be offensive. It is time to call a spade a spade—and not worry that somebody might be offended because they remember that as a pejorative term for a person with dark skin—and so decide to sue you or have you removed from a cushy university appointment or, if you are a student, be sent for “sensitivity training” or “re-education”. The time has come where it is morally imperative to say things and use taboo words to enrage the various and sundry anti-defamation leagues. It is time to ask why rap singers can toss the word “nigger” around, but Whitey dare not utter the “N word”—even if he is a teacher explaining its origins as a pejorative term. It is time to ask why homosexuals can offer programs in “Queer Studies”, but any heterosexual who uses the “Q word” word is labelled homophobic.

Those who find another’s language or views absurd or “offensive”, should remember that piece of school yard wisdom: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me!” It’s about time we grew up. Presumably, our skins should have thickened before we reach adulthood. Words may indeed sting, but it is actions that are really dangerous. And one very dangerous action is forbidding freedom of speech. The pen is not mightier than the sword in one real world sense: the sword can lop off the hand holding the pen.

Now, of course, those with any social skills, any intelligence, or even any conception of courtesy, will not ask the next Italian guy they just met if he has mafia connections and can do something about a certain annoying neighbour. But should someone do that, the reasonable reaction of any intelligent self-respecting “Guinea” is to laugh—not to feel wounded and wonder if there is any way to sue for defamation of character.

At the time of writing, The people of the United States have just elected their first black president, one of the most intelligent and articulate presidents to have come along in a very long time. He can joke, and does joke, about being a “mongrel” because of his mixed ethnic origins. I’m quite sure he’d just laugh if someone came up to him at a rally and told him he was “one damn smart nigger!” I’m sure Mister Obama knows that he is not only one smart nigger, but also one smart human being—and that such a clumsy, well-meaning compliment simply offers a glimpse into the mind-set of the one issuing it. If the person making such a remark was black, he’d appreciate the intended irony, for marginalized groups often co-opt the terms of their detractors for ironic use. And if that person was white, I expect he’d still appreciate the compliment and just see it as evidence of someone re-evaluating old prejudices. I can’t imagine he’d be “offended”. He’s a grown-up.

Say the word “death” over and over again and it will—as will any word—eventually be drained of any meaning. “O Death where is thy sting?” wrote St Paul in 1 Corinthians 15: 54-57. So repeat after me twenty times: Amazonian, Beaner, Chink, Dago, Egghead, Faggot, Hymie, Injun, Jigaboo, Kraut, Limey, Mick, Nip, Oreo, Polack, Queer, Ruskie, Spic, Tower Head, Uncle Tom, Vegetable, Wop, Xenophobe, Yid, Zami. Have you really done it twenty times? “O Word now where is thy sting?”

When civilization is threatened by something as insidiously totalitarian as language police, concerns about hurting someone’s feelings become trivial. One’s new responsibility becomes repeatedly saying whatever is considered ‘offensive’ until it overwhelms the language police and leaves them in confused disarray—and it loses its power to offend even the most pathetically over-sensitive.

So until we stop trying to control what other people can say, “Thou Shalt Offend!” should be the new commandment.

D’Sinope

New Award Winners

Absurdities “Environmentalists Plan Coup” (5)

September 6th, 2008 Posted in Absurdities | No Comments »

At the “Annual Freedom (sic) 21 Conference” a variety of frightening conspiracies were warmly welcomed, but in some ways the strangest one was that environmentalists were planning a revolutionary coup to set up a police state where humans will be crowded into small enclaves surrounded by protected wilderness areas where homo sapiens will be forbidden entry.

“Earth Worship:  Environmentalism Seen as Police State Precursor” a report by Janet Smith for Intelligence Report (SPLC News) “Environment is not about saving nature,” the founder of Freedom Advocates, Michael Shaw, sternly warned an audience of antigovernment “Patriots” and far-right conspiracy theorists during a mid-July conference. “It’s about a revolutionary coup in America. [Environmentalism] is to establish global governance and abandon the principles of Natural Law.” Sustainable development policies, Shaw argued, will require “a police state” and ultimately “turn America into a globally governed homeland where humans are treated as biological resources.”

So the trees (or rather the tree-huggers) are going to fence us in?  We are going to be the creatures in a zoo?  And the real endangered species are free-range humans, threatened by a cabal of environmentalists?  Unfortunately, like most conspiracy theories this one has as its source in a tiny seed of truth. Yes, there are crazy, even dangerous, extremists in the environmental movement, just as there are real conspirators in any government.  But a few tree-spikers represent a pretty small danger compared to that presented by global climate change and decreased biodiversity.  I have difficulty imagining all those scientists who are warning us about our suicidal exploitation of the planet’s resources trading in their lab coats for camouflage jackets and heading out to rage guerrilla warfare on the oil and lumber companies—and their stockholders one suspects comprised a sizable portion of the “Freedom” Conference audience.


Elephants (5)

September 1st, 2008 Posted in Elephants | No Comments »

Q: Why is elephant spotting so difficult?
A:
Because they are careful to keep their existence a secret.
Q:
Why should they care if we know about them?

A:
Because they don’t want us to know what they’re doing?

Q:
Why do they care if we know what they’re doing?

A:
Because they are conspiring to take over the world.

Q:
How could they do that?  They don’t even have opposable thumbs!

A:
They have friends in high places.

Q:
Who are these friends?

A:
I don’t dare say, but you can trick them into revealing themselves.

Q:
How do you do that?

A:
Pretend to be an elephant and extend your left hand to shake hands.
Q: Wait a minute!  How can I do that? Elephants don’t have hands!
A: Elephants don’t have hands, but you do!

The Dangers Posed Not By Conspiracies, But By Conspiracy Theorists (5)

August 28th, 2008 Posted in Sightings (All), Sightings: Phobias | No Comments »

Button Pushed:  Essay by Glenn Harlan Reynolds in the August 2008 issue of Popular Mechanics. “The measles, whooping cough and even polio have returned. Why? Because of a new breed of vaccine deniers who are ignoring campaigns for awareness… The reason for these incidents—and for recent outbreaks of polio—is that the percentage of parents vaccinating their children has fallen, perhaps because some parents see no point in warding off diseases they’ve never encountered. Religious or new-age beliefs may also factor into the decision: The San Diego outbreak spread in a school where nearly 10 percent of the students had been given personal-belief exemptions from the vaccination requirement. The East Bay outbreak started at a school that emphasizes nature-based therapy over mainstream medicine; fewer than half of the students were vaccinated.”

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If you are convinced everyone is out to get you, your natural survival instinct makes you dangerous to everyone.” —Hippokrites

Of the five clinical categories of schizophrenia currently recognized by the psychiatric ‘Bible’ of diagnosis (the DSM-4), the only one that is normally considered potentially dangerous to others is Paranoid Schizophrenia.  Paranoids can be dangerous, and this even applies to non-clinical paranoids.  Conspiracy theorists are, by definition, paranoid.  The logical conclusion to the implied syllogism is obvious.

If you think your wife is trying to poison you, and no one pays any attention to your concern, it is only natural to take things into your own hands.  A ‘pre-emptive strike’ doesn’t seem unreasonable.  The danger of this on a global scale was painfully demonstrated by the U.S. administration’s paranoia about Iraq—and their delusions about Iraq’s “Weapons of Mass Destruction”.

But what about the individual who thinks his own government is out to get him?  Or that ‘corporate interests’ are?  Or the ‘Medical Establishment’?  Or Jews?  Or the latest ethnic group to immigrate to his country?  If you think these groups of individuals are trying to do you in—well, you can see where such reasoning leads.

The way in which a person responds to these different perceived threats varies—and certainly isn’t always violent.  However, it almost always adversely affects the welfare of those imagined to be conspiring, the true-believer himself, and only too often those he believes he is protecting—as happens when a delusional parent harms his own children.

As an example, consider the very prevalent conspiracy theories about the so-called “Medical Establishment”.  If you believe the paranoids, doctors don’t want us to get well, because it’ll put them out of work.  Doctors would become obsolete if everyone was healthy, right?  It’s true that immortality and universal perfect health definitely would make doctors as unemployable as stagecoach repairmen, but I don’t think doctors really worry too much about that happening.  There is no indication I know of that humans are getting close to curing death.  Life expectancy increased, but that only means that there are more old people—and older people have more health problems than the young.  There is a universal shortage of doctors and most doctors’ major complaint is having too many ‘customers’, not having too few.  Because of a sense of responsibility to their patients/customers, they don’t have enough time off to enjoy their often substantial incomes.  Oh yeah, but aren’t they getting rich on pushing pills and expensive treatments?  Aren’t they in collusion with the evil drug companies?   Profit from selling anything called ‘medication’ is made by practitioners of so-called ‘alternative medicine’—not by doctors.  Doctors don’t get a commission on the real medication they prescribe.

There is no question that the ‘Medical Establishment’ is an establishment, and like all establishments is self-serving and protective of its own interests.  There is no question that throughout history medical practice has often been misguided and has sometimes done more harm than good.  (Examples abound from treating syphilis with mercury to the very common practice of bleeding, but doctors then were doing the best they could with what scientific knowledge they had—as are doctors now.)

And there is certainly no question at all about the financial self-interest that determines policies of the major drug companies.  But reasoned and outraged criticism of the dubious practices, even wilful obstinate ignorance, of some doctors—or the notoriously unethical behaviour of some drug companies—is very different from  some conspiracy theory that claims all medical practices are a plot to keep us sick and empty our wallets.  Such a theory, if believed, sends one off into the murky underworld of so-called ‘alternative medicine’.  Now I won’t offer up an alternative conspiracy theory that claims these alternative medicine folk want to keep us sick either.  (Although it is no conspiracy theory to say that they are largely motivated by personal profit.)  What is true is that through sins of omission or commission or just plain ignorance, they sometimes do keep us sick—or even make us sick.

The person who rejects the conventional and currently judged most effective medical treatment for their illness because of a belief in a Medical Establishment Conspiracy, and instead turns to some alternative medical practitioner (or the clerk at a “health” food store), usually is being harmed.  Not always, of course, for sometimes the snake oil he buys will have a placebo effect, and he isn’t really seriously ill anyway.  But if you or someone in your care, such as your child, has cancer, and you are convinced chemotherapy is an evil plot, and so instead opt for a change in diet or some worthless homeopathic placebo, your belief in the conspiracy is doing what is potentially lethal harm.

It isn’t only conspiracy theories about medical practice that do harm.  Virtually all conspiracy theories do harm to a greater or lesser extent.  This because they are based on paranoid beliefs—not on reason and empirical evidence.  So the believer acts in unreasonable ways—ways that often are damaging to the believer or even other people.  The harm varies with the theory or the extent to which it is believed and obsessed about.  If you believe, like my grandmother did, that the famous 1969 Apollo moon landing was a hoax perpetrated by the government to make dem dam politicians look good and squeeze more tax dollars out of their gullible citizens, you’re not hurting anyone else, or even yourself—except perhaps your social life if you’re inclined to talk about your delusion in public.  But what if you really believe the government (or the medical establishment, or the eggheads, or the doctors who perform abortions, or the scientific researchers who test the safety of drugs on animals, or the teachers of heretic doctrines such as evolution, or the Liberals, or the new ethnic group in your neighbourhood) is out to get you and do dastardly evil deeds?  Then don’t you feel you have a moral responsibility to attack them—even with acts of violence?

Paranoid schizophrenics who perpetrate violence against other people invariably do it in a mistaken belief they are defending themselves or others.  The two defining characteristics of clinical paranoia are that the person thinks that harm is occurring, or is going to occur, to him or her, and the persecutor has the intention to cause harm.  Self-defense is a natural response.  But where do they get this fear?  With the truly psychotic, it is virtually certain that it is a form of brain dysfunction.  But even those who aren’t ‘clinical’ and treatable by medication are dangerous—probably more so.

Typically paranoids have what are called “delusions of reference”.   This means they see everything, no matter how incidental or insignificant, in terms of themselves or their delusional system.  Since our brains are hardwired to see relationships, an ability which may be good definition of intelligence, it isn’t hard even for the less than bright to find something in anything that supports a preconceived notion.  Nothing is seen as coincidental.  One is reminded of a classic Canadian beer drinker’s joke:  “24 hours in a day.  24 beers in a case.  Coincidence?  I don’t think so!”

It is easy to laugh at the crazy conspiracy theorists (for they often are unintentionally comical) and dismiss them as nut bars or eccentrics and just people not to invite to dinner.  What else can you do?  Trying to pry them from their entrenched beliefs with reason and facts is almost always futile.

In fact, probably nothing can be done with the true-believers.  For example, I’ve never met anyone, no matter how articulate and informed, who has successfully ‘turned’ a confirmed creationist.  The creationist knows the fossil record is a conspiracy by God, a trick to tempt us into sinful disbelief, and just feels sorry for us folk whom God has fooled.  What can be done is to try to educate those who are not yet deeply committed to some conspiracy theory on how to think critically and sceptically.  This should be a major item on the curriculum for public education.

Another remedy is satire and parody, as with the recent parodical Pastafarian Church which worships The Flying Spaghetti Monster as their God or whoever runs the hilarious “Flat Earth Society” website. (There actually is an official International Flat Earth Society that is entirely serious.)  Again, like reasoned arguments and facts, satire and parody won’t have any effect on the already deeply committed to some irrational belief, but it may give pause (to think) to those who are not yet fully converted and confirmed.

In conclusion, and out of fairness, it must be said that conspiracy theories aren’t always entirely unjustified.  Of course there are real conspiracies and deceptions—and some do fool us.  And often there is a grain of truth in the justification for even some of the most extremist theories.  Yes, politicians often do lie to the people they are governing.  Yes, drug company executives are more interested in profits than in human well-being and some are guilty of some damn sleazy practices.  As the saying goes—even paranoids have real enemies.  They are just not as many as the conspiracy theorists imagine. Only healthy scepticism and reason can truly vanquish the imaginary enemies and leave us the resources to focus on our real ones.

-D. D’Sinope

New Award Winners

Absurdities: “Organic” Politicians (4)

August 28th, 2008 Posted in Absurdities | No Comments »

At the Toronto Zoo the only food available is MacDonalds products.  At the 2008 Republican and Democratic conventions the only snack food available is Organic Food Bar(TM) products“.  Hmmm.

Organic Food Bar(TM) Products to be the Only Consumer Brand at Both 2008 Political Conventions: World’s Best Selling Organic Bar Successfully Crosses Party Lines “As we are underway on the most heavily-anticipated political conventions in a generation, the candidates Barack Obama and John McCain — and the political parties they represent — differ on everything from the economy and health care to energy and the war in Iraq. But, both parties agree on one thing: Organic Food Bar(TM) products — the only consumer brand to appear at the Democratic National Convention in Denver from August 25-28 and the Republican National Convention in Minneapolis from September 1-4.  ‘We are over the moon about this,” said Dr. Jack J. Singh, founder and President of Organic Food Bar(TM), Inc. ‘We know Obama and the Dems and McCain and the GOP diverge on many points, but it’s good to know Organic Food Bar(TM) products are embraced by both parties! As Americans, we can have healthy debates and disagree, but we all agree on better health. And, Organic Food Bar(TM) products embody better health.’”  read.

What’s the difference here?  It’s which company won the bid for the monopoly concession.  No bananas (’organic’ or otherwise) at the Toronto Zoo and no Big Macs at the conventions.   I guess it’s good to keep the U.S. of A’s future leader healthy.  But wouldn’t a fish concession be better?  Isn”t fish supposed to be ‘brain food’ ?   They obviously need fish in their diets if they really share the belief that ‘organic’ foods’  are anything more than a marketing con job.

Elephants (4)

August 17th, 2008 Posted in Elephants | No Comments »

Q: Why are elephants so big?
A:
They always eat out.
Q:
Why do they do that?
A:
Do you have any idea how time-consuming it is to prepare a meal for a family of elephants?!

Health Police Expands Mandate: Continue To Target The Poor (4)

August 16th, 2008 Posted in Sightings (All), Sightings: Social Engineering | No Comments »

Button PushedNews item (30 July 2008) in Globe and Mail reports that LA “City officials are putting South Los Angeles on a diet.  The City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to place a moratorium on new fast food restaurants in an impoverished swath of the city with a proliferation of such eateries and above average rates of obesity.”

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Why is it that those who believe they know how to fix the world so often know nothing of the real world?” - Hippokrites

If you’re not a poor bloke, and most readers of this probably are not, imagine being poor—or remember when you were.  If your imagination needs help, go slumming.  Get some jeans that need washing out of the laundry and head down to a working class neighbourhood—or if you have the nerve (and think you can ‘pass’) go to a neighbourhood where a high percentage of folk actually aspire to be working class.  Observe what the residents are doing or infer it from the local business.  You’ll see bars, liquor stores, fast-food chains, and convenience stores whose primary sales items are cigarettes and so-called junk food.  You won’t see upscale restaurants, bistros, speciality wine shops, or gourmet food boutiques.

Now ask yourself what small pleasures, what ‘vices’, you think mean a lot to the people who live there?  The answer is the same ‘vices’ most of us have and have to pay for:  eating out, drink and perhaps drugs.  And then ask yourself what percentage of your salary you devote to these things and what percentage of your salary you would have to use to pay for these pleasures if you ate at McDonalds rather than at some upscale eatery, drank draft rather than some vintage wine, still smoked cigarettes as your drug of choice rather than 12 year old scotch or prescription meds to sleep, relax or—if you’re not too pure—a few lines of coke.

For the average guy or gal who lives on an income somewhere down below that of middle class, who lives somewhere near the edge, who can’t afford indulging expensive tastes, the small pleasures of skipping preparation of dinner and having a burger followed by a few beer and a couple of smokes in the local watering hole with friends is very important.  Then it’s nice to go home, settle in on the sofa, turn on the tube, and munch on some BBQ chips while watching some non-educational entertainment.  (This certainly was important to me while growing up, and in fact it still is—even though I’ve now managed to climb up into the middle class and do sometimes indulge in the more pricey variations of these basic ‘vices’.)  So what the hell is wrong with any of this?

Well, apparently the social engineers in the middle class want to change this ‘unhealthy’ life-style by legislation.  They know what is best for the poor and ignorant slobs who actually like greasy cheeseburgers and who consider having a beer and a smoke with friends small pleasures to which they are entitled to enjoy without paying through the nose.  So they introduce ‘reforms’ to make life difficult, more expensive, and allegedly healthier for their less affluent fellow citizens—who in their judgement aren’t mature enough to make ‘lifestyle’ decisions for themselves.  This is paternalism raised to Nth degree.

Drinking to excess and smoking are indisputably bad for your health, but is having a few drinks or smoking a sin?  Obviously they are considered to be so by Crusaders For Virtue who try to kerb drinking and smoking by making these ‘sins’ extremely expensive through absurd levels of taxation.  Such taxes are aptly nicknamed “sin taxes”.  Sometimes they are called “luxury taxes”.  It is worthwhile to consider the definitions of ‘sin’ and ‘luxury’.

A sin is nothing more than a breach of some dogmatic religious commandment.  Different religions have very, very different commandments.  You need the dough, so you work six day weeks.  The fundamentalist Christian who works on Sunday is sinning.  The orthodox Jew who works on Saturday is sinning.  Both see the members of the other religion as sinning and would like to have all business suspended on—well, either Saturday or Sunday, depending on their religion’s dogma.  The fact is that most ‘sins’ do not have anything to do with morality.  Oh yes, some few do, such as the sin of killing another human being, but they are in the minority.  Certainly drinking and smoking aren’t real moral issues, but they are considered sins by many religions—and I think it is this underlying fundamentalism that led to prohibition and the recent demonization of smokers.  However, such paternalistic social engineers rarely admit to having a quasi-religious basis to their activities.  The usual rationalization is alleged concern for the physical—not spiritual—health of people who are assumed not to have the competence to make their own decisions.

A luxury is something one can do without, and still survive, but gives one pleasure.  Still it is a slippery word to define concretely, for it is almost entirely relative.  We all need food and water and shelter to survive, but beyond that absolute baseline, things get sticky.  Even the most rundown one-room apartment in an American ghetto housing project would be considered luxurious by the average Nigerian.  And I don’t think you’d find many CEOs who consider dining out at MacDonald’s a luxury, but—and this is an important point—it is for many a harried single mother working two jobs and needing a break from preparing meals for her kids.  So should luxuries be specially taxed?   The middle class probably wouldn’t object if there was a special tax on CEO purchases of private jets.  And if the luxury tax doesn’t affect them adversely, and they can feel good inside that it is reducing ‘sin’, they don’t mind either.  If you drink (as a ‘luxury’) and your income means you can easily absorb the ridiculous ‘sin tax’ on booze, you have no serious objection to it—although you may whine about how much that vintage wine costs when you could have picked it up for half the price last time you were in France.

The fact is that luxuries are actually essential—an oxymoronic fact if ever there was one.  Essential to all of us are a few non-essentials to make life worth living.  And when these luxuries are denied people, they suffer.  But ‘luxuries’ and ‘sins’ are rarely denied to those who have enough money, for they can just absorb the extra cost or inconvenience.  Increased ‘sin taxes’ annoy the hell out of me, but I now have the ability to still indulge in my modest naughty luxuries without going into debt.  But what about the guy (no different from me in his addictions to some modest and admittedly unhealthy ‘luxuries’ like over-indulging in a smoky pub with friends), but who actually can’t afford the price of pack of smokes or a few pints of beer, because cigarettes prices have gone through the roof (and smoking is even now banned in bars), and even the price of a bottle of domestic beer has become outrageous.  (Any alcoholic drink served in a bar is consistently twice—and often thrice—off-the-shelf prices).  Even a middle-class guy like me hesitates to go out for a social night at a pub.

But the sanctimonious and self-righteous Crusaders For Virtue are relentless in their efforts to reform everyone in the Holy name of Public Health.  It doesn’t seem to bother them that these reforms disproportionately make life less endurable for the people they paternalistically believe need it most and who they think are incapable of making their own ‘life style’ decisions.

The latest target of the Holy Warriors marching under a banner of Health is food.  One should have seen it coming.  One of the primary phobias of those with time on their hands (and, ironically, excellent medical care at hand) is fear of illness.  They are the people who keep Health Food stores in business, trying one snake oil after another in the hope of outwitting the Grim Reaper, and who religiously read the latest dubious epidemiological ‘link’ between some food (or even food container) with good or bad health.  This neurosis deserves longer consideration than I can do here, but the result is that what we eat has been added to the reformer agenda, one which had previously only included booze and cigarettes and recreational drugs.

Transfats (and whoever heard of them five years ago?) somehow have become a hot item, and have now been banned in New York restaurants.  (It doesn’t matter to the reformers that the scientific evidence used to justify treating transfats as dangerous is—to put it mildly—questionable.)  Then so-called ‘junk food’ came under attack with those so concerned about everyone’s health calling for a special tax (sin? luxury?) on—of all things!—the killer potato chip!

Onward Christian Soldiers!  Fast food, now there is a worthy target!  The Big Mac as killer!  The box office success of the film Supersize Me is ample evidence that the middle class public is more than willing to swallow anything that suggests we aren’t immortal because corporate interests are poisoning us with, among other edibles, ‘fast’ food.  It’s a mildly entertaining flick, but science or even responsible journalism it isn’t.  But it made such an impression on the general public that serious scientists even tried to replicate that quick deterioration of the film-maker’s health he claimed to have suffered from conducting his ‘experiment’ of dining exclusively under the Golden Arches for a month. Not surprisingly, no evidence has been found of anything specifically bad for your health about MacDonald’s food—or that of any ‘fast food’.

(However, there is—but just by my standards—something bad about MacDonald’s:  I think their burgers taste like cardboard and the rationing of condiments pisses me off.  They even manage to make a cup of coffee that is so weak and lukewarm you might as well be drinking the old dishwater you used to clean your coffee maker.  But this, of course, has nothing to do with the food being unhealthy.  I just think it tastes far worse than that at other fast food joints.  It’s a matter of personal preference.)

Also, it should be pointed out that the phrase ‘fast food’ is more than a little ambiguous.  You want really fast food?  Well, raw fruit and veggies are as quick as you can get.  Target them!

Of course I know the phrase is usually meant to refer to restaurants that don’t make you wait too long to be fed and offer less expensive meals and usually a more limited menu.  But what matters about dining at these places is what matters about dining at any restaurant:  what you choose to order and eat—and how much.  Who is getting better nutrition in the following scenarios?  The guy dining at New York City’s DB Bistro Moderne on their speciality:  a $50 burger, made with sirloin steak, a filling of boned short ribs braised in red wine, foie gras, and preserved black truffles accompanied by a $75 bottle of vintage wine followed by crème brûlée for dessert?  Or the fellow in MacDonald’s having a “Fillet-O-Fish” sandwich with a “Snack Size Fruit & Walnut Salad” washed down with an orange juice followed by an oatmeal-raisin cookie for dessert?  (And walking out with change from a ten spot.)  I will say one thing about DB Bistro Moderne:  it is a ‘slow food restaurant’.  Apparently you have to wait at least a month to even get a reservation.  You can squeeze a meal at MacDonald’s into a half-hour lunch break.

There is nothing about ‘fast’ food that is inherently different from ‘slow’ food in terms of nutritional value.  It just costs less and is more convenient—and, yes, is often made from cheaper ingredients and with less care and doesn’t—usually—taste as good.  Well, you usually get what you pay for.  But you should have the right to get what you can afford to pay for.

Apparently this is no longer the case in the poorer neighbourhoods of Los Angeles—and I’m sure this idea will catch on.  The social engineers focusing on other people’s health aren’t satisfied with fixing respiratory disease by banning smoking and taxing cigarettes through the roof, or fixing the problems associated with alcohol abuse by similar outrageous taxation and restrictions on where you can indulge in the sin of quaffing a cold beer, they are now going to fix the health issues associated with obesity by only allowing more upscale eateries to open in the poor neighbourhoods.  Right.  Now the guy coming off his ten hour shift at a  minimum wage job is going to stop by the new Surf ‘n Turf restaurant and drop thirty bucks to consume a meal that is probably less healthy and far more fattening (albeit probably more tasty) than his traditional burger with a side-order of pre-processed deep-fried shrimp?

That “impoverished swath” of L.A. is going to be more impoverished (literally and figuratively) because of this latest idiotic crusade of all those social reformers who obviously really believe they know what is best for their less financially well-off fellow citizens.  I doubt the residents of L.A.’s poorer neighbourhoods will lose weight—except from their wallets.  I also doubt they appreciate this meddling concern with their health.

One has to wonder what issue will be targeted next by the Health Vice Squad.  One thing is for certain, the people who will be injured aren’t going to be those doing the shooting:  instead they will be the ones who happen to be caught holding the latest target just because, well, they find it appealing.

-D. D’Sinope

New Award Winners

Absurdities: Christians Killing Christians Sentenced To Death By Atheists (3)

August 15th, 2008 Posted in Absurdities | No Comments »

Kill dem Christians, says one Christian sect about another, and then the atheist court of China says kill the killers.

Who was it again who said “Thou Shalt Not Kill”?  Is there small print to this commandment I missed because I didn’t have my glasses on?

The founder of one of China’s biggest Christian sects has been sentenced to death along with two of his acolytes for the murder of about 20 followers of a rival apocalyptic group.  In a case that has revealed the violent competition for souls in this nominally atheist country, a court ordered the execution of Xu Shuangfu, 60, the head of the Three Grades of Servants, and his followers, Li Maoxing and Wang Jun. Fourteen other members of the sect, which claims millions of adherents, were given suspended death sentences or prison terms of up to 15 years…   read.

Elephants (3)

August 11th, 2008 Posted in Elephants | No Comments »

Q: What religion are elephants?
A:
Which elephants?  The ones who trample on things or the ones who don’t?
Q:
The ones who don’t.
A:
Agnostic.
Q:
Why?
A:
They admire the monkeys’ philosophy.
Q:
What is the monkey philosophy?
A: See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil—and do no evil.

Ranking The Relative Evilness of Different Religions (3)

August 7th, 2008 Posted in Sightings (All), Sightings: Religion | No Comments »

Button Pushed: News item (11 July 2008) on Catholic News Agency website that “The slaughter and sale of a cow reportedly triggered a new series of attacks against Christians in the Indian state of Orissa in which Hindu militants from the group Vishwa Hindu Parishad destroyed a Jesuit residence, a church and a Protestant orphanage. While no one was reported killed in the recent attacks, violence has killed four Catholics and has destroyed 730 houses and 95 churches in 2008.” Just one of a plethora of daily news items about the dangers of ignoring some religious group’s particular superstitious beliefs. Think about this news item the next time you’re hungry and you casually say “God, I’d kill for steak!” Obviously, some folk literally will. And then they won’t even eat it!

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“With or without [religion] you’d have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, it takes religion.” — Steven Weinberg (Nobel Laureate in Physics)

Any reasonable and educated person cannot deny the historical evidence of the incredible evil done by adherents to various and sundry religions. Despite the tendency of the followers of these various religions to feel the term ‘evil’ is a religious one—and one that automatically applies to those of some other religion—the word evil really only means intentionally unethical or immoral behaviour, as opposed to acts which are intentionally kind and just and considerate, acts that are called good. So most atheists too believe in evil, for everyone who believes in intention and individual responsibility for one’s actions has to admit its existence. Open the daily newspaper! And, yes, there is a war between good and evil, but admitting this fact has nothing whatsoever to do with having some religious affiliation. It is a non-violent war waged in our individual consciences.

It is an unfortunate fact of life that commitment to any religion increases, rather than decreases, the likelihood of evil or ‘wicked’ behaviour. The reason is that the irrational faith in the dogma of the religion means its true believers have to consider anyone’s contrary beliefs automatically evil and in need of being suppressed. And, ironically, this suppression is often violent—and itself truly evil. However, some religions are less intolerant, less repressive, and less violent than others. Some religions, such as Sikhism, even profess to see no evil in other belief systems and claim caring for others is central to their belief system. But actions speak louder than words. Ask the grieving friends and relatives of the 329 victims of the bombing of Air India Flight 182 by Sikh radicals.

Of course violent intolerance isn’t unique to religion: ideologues of every stripe can be just as bad. (I would append “…or ideology” to the famous Weinberg remark quoted at the beginning of this essay) There is no denying that atheistic belief systems such as Communism, or nationalistic ones such as Nazism, certainly have entered into the competition for evilness. But it makes no sense that religious folk cite Communist and Nazi atrocities as if this somehow vindicates the evil deeds associated with their equally dogmatic and totalitarian beliefs. The only difference between ideology and religion is some belief in a Supreme Being and such supernatural things as an afterlife. But the relative evilness of different ideologies is another topic, as is whether ideology will eventually replace religion as humanity’s greatest moral weakness.

It is an interesting, albeit depressing, exercise to try to rank the relative evilness of the different major religions. Such a ranking could not possibly be done in anything approaching an objective way by a true believer in any religion. Even an atheist, such as me, can’t claim to a definitive, objective ranking, although I think a reasonable case could be made for the ranking that follows, one which is untainted by much respect for any religion.

Before attempting this, it seemed worthwhile to get some sense of the ‘congregation size’ of the various major religions. Upon searching through a variety of sources, I arrived at what I think is a reasonable ballpark estimate of the number of adherents to the seven big religions (those with followers numbering over 2 million). Note these are broad inclusive categories, and so include within them myriad sects, sects often at war with each other. My calculator informs me that the sum of these believers is about 4,700 million. Since the world population is somewhere around 6,600 million, and given that some lesser religions are not in the big seven, that means that at least 75% of the human beings inhabiting this planet still share belief in one or another of these seven bizarre superstition systems. What happened to The Enlightenment? But that’s another question.

I set as my major criteria for this ranking the following characteristics: intolerance, violence, and immoral actions—actions I define simply as causing harm to others. Now I’m talking about the actual behaviour of the followers of the religion, of course, and not the alleged and legendary behaviour of the religion’s founder: e.g., Mohammad or Jesus or Gautama Buddha. I found it interesting that the Top 3 in terms of number of followers also are the Top 3 in terms of nastiness. All of the major religions have been repeatedly and demonstrably guilty of violence against others who don’t share precisely the same superstitious beliefs. And this applies within, as well as between, these religions: e.g., Protestant versus Catholic or Shi’a versus Sunni.

Here is my ranking of the evilness of the seven major religions.

  1. Islam (1340 million followers)
  2. Christianity (2160 million followers)
  3. Hinduism (877 million followers)
  4. Judaism (14 million followers)
  5. Sikhism (25 million followers)
  6. Zoroastrianism (2.6 million followers)
  7. Buddhism (382 million followers)

This ranking can, of course, be debated and disputed. I don’t claim it is definitive or based on some quantitative and clearly operationally—defined criteria. It isn’t scientific. And I’m sure that the fact that the largest groups do the most harm certainly must have something to do with them having the most power and influence, as well as the fact that the larger the population, the greater the number out at the far end of the distribution. Or to put this in plain terms, you’re going to have more fanatics in your group if you have more members in your group—and it is the fanatics that do the most harm.

But I will attempt to give my justification for the ranking. However, before I do this, I recommend sampling the ‘sacred’ texts associated with each of these religions. Ignore the huge amount of stuff that is just plain silly (which isn’t that very different in amount from one to the other), and focus instead on the ‘rules’ or ‘commandments’ associated with acceptance of the religion. These are often frightening. That will give you some insight into my ranking.

However, there are obvious inconsistencies. For example the primary text for Christianity (which I’ve ranked as second-most nasty religion) is the canonical New Testament, and that text certainly is not strewn with intolerant and crazy commandments. Its ‘commandments’ and advice aren’t very different from the general principles of ethical behaviour: e.g., do unto others as you would have done unto you and be non-violent and nice to people. However, most fundamentalist Christians are quick to turn to the far less ethical Old Testament for justification of their intolerance and nastiness. Then, on the other hand, Judaism, although based on the Old Testament, has adherents who behave more in line with the admonitions of Jesus ‘Christ’ than do Christians.

This is partially explained by another consideration: the extent to which proselytizing and conversion are integral to the religion. Islam, for example, views conversion to another religion as justification for beheading. And many of us have had our Saturday mornings interrupted by black-suited folk at our door, Watchtowers in hand, trying to get us to “take Jesus into our hearts.” But Jews don’t try to convert people. (They are, after all, “the chosen people”. They don’t run around giving out invitations to their “A List” party.)

Yet another confounding variable is the educational level of the majority of members of any particular religion. I’m sure the educational level of the average Jew is above that of the average Christian and it is surely way above that of the average Muslim.

So having presented these caveats, here are my reasons for each ranking.

Islam. Where to begin? Despite the best efforts of good, politically-correct liberals and the more educated and moderate Muslims to ‘rehabilitate’ Islam’s reputation, this religion is a nasty bit of business with tenets that are so in opposition to basic human rights that it is amazing it has survived. (One would think women, in particular, would have worked to undermine it.) Of course the majority of its true believers are uneducated folk in the ‘third world’ and the victims of colonization and persecution, so that explains a lot. Some try to claim that “9/11″ or the ongoing suicide bombing of innocent people has more to do with politics than religion. That’s plainly ridiculous: even the most crazed Nazis and Bolsheviks didn’t kill themselves for their political beliefs. That requires religious belief: You have to believe you’re going to some paradise in the sky with pretty virgins to minister to you to take your own life and destroy other’s lives, including those of children. And the ugly irony that should clinch my case for this being the most wicked and violent of major religions is the reaction of its adherents to a cartoon implying the religion was violent: massive world-wide violence and killing to prove its non-violent nature. Jihad and especially fatwa—now there’s an idea! Suggest someone’s system of superstitious beliefs has some dubious tenets or leads to violence, and you’ll find they’ve put a contract on your life. (Ask Salman Rushdie or that cartoonist from Denmark if they think they deserve to die for ‘dissing’ Islamic beliefs.) Enough said. I don’t want a price on my head! Even criticizing mafia bosses doesn’t usually result in that.

Christianity. Criticizing Christians’ morality is also like shooting fish in a barrel. The crusades and the millennial persecution of Jews is more than ample and obvious evidence. However, Christians seem particularly perverse in having a predilection for violence against members of their own religion who hold slightly different silly beliefs. Christianity is well behind Islam in wickedness. But it sure as hell isn’t a good influence, and I think it earns a silver medal in the Evilness Competition. (Admittedly the Sunni versus Shi’a sectarian wars are a parallel in Islamic religion.) We all know how ‘heretics’ have been treated throughout Christianity’s domination of the Western World. And one doesn’t need to be a historian to see how much blood was repeatedly shed over the centuries because of one sect/cult (e.g., some form of Protestantism) warring with another (e.g., Roman Catholicism). Right up to the contemporary violence in Northern Ireland, Christians have repeatedly been behaving in a very “unchristian” way toward those who hold different conceptions of their religion. And consider the Christian version of jihad that the U.S. government has engaged in: combating so-called ‘terrorism’. This holy war on terrorism is used as justification for the concentration camp at Guantanamo and the secret “black-site” prisons and the so-called ‘renditions’ (read kidnappings) resulting in people being sent to countries where torture is routine. In the United States, the vast majority of the electorate identify themselves as “Christians”, and fundamentalist evangelicals represent a voting block of (according to some estimates) at least 40%. These are the people largely responsible for putting in office a fellow true-believer president who many (myself included) think should be charged with war crimes. And, incidentally, these are the people who are waging cultural war against science education. No, they’re not now burning anyone at the stake or putting out contracts on atheists, but many openly talk like they’d like to do so. So currently (if not, perhaps, historically) Christianity is well behind Islam in wickedness. But it sure as hell isn’t a good influence, and I think it earns a silver medal in the Evilness Competition.

Hinduism. Hinduism is a very ancient religion, perhaps the world’s oldest organized religion that is still widely practised. It also probably has more sects and variations than any other of the Big Seven religions. Because of this it is very difficult and inevitably inaccurate to make any broad generalizations about this religion that can’t be reasonably refuted by notable exceptions. However, one thing that probably can be said with some justification is that Hinduism embodies some of the most bizarre ideas ever conceived of by our species—probably because they date back to such distant times. Its major contribution to evil in this world is, I would venture to say, four-fold. The first is the violently expressed intolerance of Christianity and Islamism which has racked many countries (and especially India) where these three religions co-exist—albeit far from harmoniously. Read the news about the latest bombing. The second is the repressive ideas, especially regarding sex and women’s rights, that they—ironically—share with their arch enemies Christianity and Islam. Kissing someone in public is a criminal offense. The third has to do with religious prohibitions and recommendations that are dangerous to the health and well-being of its congregation. Dumping rotting corpses into the Ganges River from which they draw water, believing this ensures moksha (the release of the soul from the cycles of corporeal existence) and worshipping and protecting ever increasing populations of disease-carrying rats and monkeys are but two examples of this. The fourth is the traditional rigid class system based on caste. Just the idea of an “untouchable” class makes any other nasty class system pale (pun intended) by comparison. Admittedly, this last mentioned is not unique to Hinduism and may have more to do with India’s political and social system.

Judaism. Jews have had a hard time of it—more than any other religious group. (I know this is an appalling understatement. Yes, I have heard of The Holocaust.) So it is somewhat reluctantly that I put Judaism this high in my rankings. As a group, they are not large compared to the previous three, and they certainly are on average the most educated and—not co-incidentally—the most tolerant. Also, and also not co-incidentally, more members of their religion have contributed something substantial to modern civilization, to art and to science, than those from any other religious affiliation. This is indisputable—at very least given their relatively small numbers. So, reader, push them further down in this list in your personal revision. I won’t argue the point. But the ugly—and disillusioning—truth is that when a nation state was founded on this religion it quickly evolved into a vicious organism that seems to want to engage in serious competition for heartless evil with the nation states that once brutalized Jews. Most of the silly ideas associated with Judaism are just that—silly. And also mostly harmless. Extremists and fundamentalists with violent agendas are rare, except, it seems, in Israel. Modern Judaism seems to have more to do with relatively innocuous traditions than anything else.

Sikhism, Zoroastrianism, and Buddhism. The remaining three major religious groups are much further down the scale of evil, at least by my criteria. This is partially because none of them are as prone to proselytizing or demonizing people of different beliefs as are three of the aforementioned four. This is not to say that they don’t involve some strange beliefs, attitudes and traditions that aren’t doing the human race any good—and often are doing emotional harm to their children, whom they inculcate with their irrational values. And nor is it to say they are never responsible for the violence that racks our world. Even followers of Sikhism and Buddhism, usually considered among the most benign and tolerant of religious groups, and allegedly pacifistic, don’t turn the other cheek very much more frequently than do Muslims, Christians, Jews, or Hindus. Sikh violence, including horrific terrorist bombings that deliberately kill innocent people, is in the news only too often. But what about Buddhism? Surely its reputation for pacifism is justified? Well, go ask a Tamil separatist in Sri Lanka. The Tamils are Hindu while the government brutally trying to crush their desire for an independent state is predominantly Buddhist. Human Rights Watch reported more “enforced disappearances” perpetrated by the Sri Lanka government than for any other country in the world. The several decades’ old ‘civil’ war (read religious war) in Sri Lanka has resulted in the death of an estimated 60 thousand people. (Don’t get me wrong, the Hindu Tamil separatists are just as nasty in different ways.) For those still convinced that Buddhism is truly pacifistic, consider this: Using double-talk worthy of the White House, Zen masters wrote in support of Japanese aggression in World War II. “It is just to punish those who disturb the public order. Whether one kills or does not kill, the precept forbidding killing [is preserved]. It is the precept forbidding killing that wields the sword. It is the precept that throws the bomb.” (Sawaki Kodo) And it was Buddhist monks who trained the Japanese samurai.

It would be an interesting scholarly project to try and determine what specific aspects of a religion’s tenets are most highly correlated with evil behaviour on the part of their ‘congregation’. Certainly it would be very difficult research, because such confounding variables as the average education, average socio-economic status, and dominant ethnic background of its followers would have to be taken into consideration. Of course, it also would be very difficult because no one would fund or support such an endeavour—and it would be very dangerous. One lesson of history is that if you say anything bad about someone’s religious beliefs, you’re just asking for trouble—even in an allegedly liberal democracy where unfettered expression of ideas and free enquiry is supposedly allowed. It is probably safer to be disrespectful of a true believer’s mother than of his religion.

-D. D’Sinope

New Award Winners

Absurdities: Ban Homework! (2)

August 2nd, 2008 Posted in Absurdities | No Comments »

Don’t ask students to go home and read or write or study.  Showing up for class is onerous enough.  Wouldn’t want to ruin their ‘family life’!

Education shouldn’t require any active effort at learning something on the part of a student…

“Toronto school board considers homework-free holidays!  A committee at the Toronto District School Board is recommending homework-free holidays and a cap on daily homework for the city’s 270,000 public school students.  The board is looking at a number of options, including:

  • Banning homework over the Christmas holidays and the March break.
  • Doing away with punishments if homework isn’t done on time.
  • Eliminating homework altogether in kindergarten.

It’s also recommending no more than two hours a day of homework under what it calls a new “family-friendly” homework policy.”   read

Elephants (2)

August 1st, 2008 Posted in Elephants | No Comments »

Q: How many elephants does it take to change a light bulb?
A:
Don’t be stupid, elephants can’t change light bulbs.
Q:
Why don’t elephants want to learn how to change light bulbs?
A:
Why should they?  It only increases the likelihood they’ll be noticed.
Q:
Why doesn’t someone else change the light bulb?
A:
They’d rather not see the damn elephant.

Don’t Lecture Me! I Can Read! (2)

July 26th, 2008 Posted in Sightings (All), Sightings: Education | No Comments »

Button Pushed: Foolishly going to check the numbers enrolled in my lecture sections for the next term, while musing about how few of those enrolled who actually show up ever seem to want to be there.

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“Wise and noble teachers are few; lecture-rooms are numerous and large, but the number of young people who genuinely thirst after truth and justice is small.” —Albert Einstein (in The World As I See It)

The typical and traditional university lecture is an anachronism—and a waste of everyone’s time.  As a route to information and education it is as inefficient as—and always less polished than—video documentaries.  More often than not, the only purpose it serves is to give university professors some concrete activity to perform for nine hours each week (for just a little over half a year) to justify their quite substantial salaries as ‘educators’.  In most cases, it would make far more sense for even this small amount of their time being spent actually contributing to scholarly, artistic, scientific or philosophical pursuits—or acting as a resource person with whom students could consult to augment their self-education.
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I should say right at the start that my comments on the lecture format do not apply to seminars, labs, practicums, tutorials, or any small classes which allow immediate interaction, questions, and discussion.  These are exceptions.  The rule is class sizes now so large that any kind of meaningful interaction in a lecture is impossible.  This is the result of the absurd doctrine that everyone should—in fact must—have a university education.  So classes are now filled to overflowing with more and more university students who have no real interest in actual education, and only want that piece of paper they’ve been led to believe will get them good-paying employment.
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A character in the film Good Will Hunting remarks to his friend: “You wasted $150,000 on an education you coulda got for $1.50 in late fees at the public library!”   This is not a new insight.  Thomas Carlyle realized this back in the mid-nineteenth century when he noted that the “true university these days is a collection of books.”  But, of course, that money now spent on “formal education” isn’t about real education.  Tuition is really just the purchase price for a piece of paper that allegedly increases the likelihood of lucrative employment.
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Once upon a time lectures did serve a useful purpose, but that was before the days of inexpensive printing, libraries with public access, and of course the Internet.  Things have changed a lot since the twelfth century when The University of Paris and Oxford were founded and going to lectures was virtually the only path to knowledge.  (Guttenberg’s invention of moveable type and a practical printing press came three centuries later.)
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But oh have times ever changed!  No one needs to sit in a class to learn the date of  the Treaty of Versailles or the formula for acetic acid or the definition of a gerund.  In fact, many profs prohibit Internet access tools in their classroom out of a secret fear that students will be fact-checking everything they say and inevitably catch them slipping up.
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Allegedly we are a literate culture.  The most efficient way to absorb knowledge, even wisdom, is through the written word.  At least since the Enlightenment, the greatest contributors to civilization in both the arts and sciences were auto-didacts whose educational foundation was constructed from books, not university lectures.

How many students justifiably complain that there is no point in going to lectures?  “The prof just reads his lecture notes.  Why doesn’t he just copy them and distribute them and let his students sleep in and read them at their leisure?”  Why indeed?  Well of course most students wouldn’t read them, but that is beside the point:  most of those who even show up for lectures don’t really listen to them.
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Perhaps the prof doesn’t just read his notes:  instead he rambles on more or less coherently about whatever pops into his head that has some peripheral relevance to the putative lecture topic.   That may be more entertaining, perhaps even somewhat educational in a haphazard way, but hardly a good way to systematically impart knowledge.
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Then, I will concede, there are the relatively rare lecturers with a delivery and persona that captivates their captive audience, the lecturers whose lectures are polished performances.  There is an organization called The Teaching Company that records (in a studio) truly exceptional lecturers teaching a great variety of courses.  They sell these recordings on the Internet.  I’ve listened to hundreds of hours of these performances, and they do deliver the goods.  So why then should a student have to show up at 8:30 a.m. every Tuesday and Thursday to hear what is probably a far less polished performance from a far less competent lecturer, when he could just take one of these Teaching Company recordings out from the library and listen to it on his iPod or computer or CD player—at his own convenience?
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The absurdity of continuing large class lectures is made obvious (to everyone who doesn’t have blinders on because of a financial commitment to the system) by the recent trend, in even medium-size universities, of videotaping the lectures and then having the students show up at some set time each week to watch the tape.  (Oh, sometimes it is just a live broadcast to a big screen in a big room, but of course it could just as easily be taped and distributed.)  What could more dramatically demonstrate the pointless nature of the traditional lecture format than this!?
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However, the most important piece of evidence in the case against the lecture is the simple, indisputable fact that the written word is our most effective and efficient means of communicating most information.   Admittedly being read to aloud or listening to a polished and articulate speaker explicate a subject is a pleasant experience, but it still isn’t the most effective way of learning something.  One can read faster to oneself, and one can pace one’s reading with one’s rate of understanding, one can pause for thought, one can take a break and have a pee.  One can back up and reread.  I’m sure that if the recordings of lectures were distributed, so that playback would allow pausing, rewinding and replaying, that would bring this listening learning experience closer to the traditional and sensible method of just reading and studying a text, albeit it would still be less efficient than just plain reading.
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Even the best universities with the best improvisational lecturers cannot rival the best writers for conveying information effectively.  Some people are extremely articulate, skilled at thinking on their feet, witty and entertaining, but even they would certainly admit that should they be given a transcript of what they said, they could edit it to good advantage.  That is the power of the written word:  it can be modified, refined, polished and perfected.  No one can spontaneously speak as well, as fluently, as they could write.  Of course recordings of carefully edited and ‘choreographed’ lectures, such as those produced by The Teaching Company, are certainly in many ways like books.  (And you can listen to them while driving or walking the dog or pumping iron at the gym!)
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However, the plain truth remains that the typical university lecture to any class of much more than thirty students is an appalling waste of time and talent.  You really want to learn something?  Read about it!  In this age of The Internet and huge libraries with public access, getting educated has never been easier.  And then talk to someone knowledgeable.  Instead of requiring profs to lecture for nine hours, have them hold flexible office hours to answer questions from the handful of students (from the hundreds of those registered in the course) who have actually read the text and supplementary material written for the course and actually care enough to come to them with questions.
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There is less excuse for ignorance than ever before.  And less justification for the outrageous tuition fees for the dubious—and rarely appreciated—‘privilege’ of  being required to at least pretend to listen to some prof lecture for three hours a week.  C’mon!  Presumably university students know how to read, and it is a truism that nobody likes to be lectured to!
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Don’t lecture me.  I can read.

-D. D’Sinope

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Absurdities: Free Speech Zone (1)

July 17th, 2008 Posted in Absurdities | No Comments »

One percent is better than nothing.  And nothing isn’t far away unless we wake up.

Quite the idea……

“West Virginia University (WVU), in violation of its moral and constitutional obligations, has restricted the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution to two small areas of its campus, designated “Free Speech Zones.” It has transformed 99% of this public institution into an oppression zone of censorship. Students have been punished for exercising their free speech and constitutional rights in the parts of campus off-limits to liberty. Although the origins of these restrictions are unclear (no one wishes to take credit for them), President David C. Hardesty, Jr. is the first president in memory to enforce them.” read

Elephants (1)

July 16th, 2008 Posted in Elephants | No Comments »

Q: How do you get an elephant into a living room?
A:
Invite him.
Q:
How do you keep an elephant in a living room?
A:
Ignore him.

Crying ‘Fire’ Strictly Prohibited By Law! (1)

July 16th, 2008 Posted in Sightings (All), Sightings: Human Rights | 54 Comments »

Button PushedNews item (7 July 2008) on BBC about Australian PM Kevin Rudd’s ‘disgust’ at art that makes him uncomfortable—and just the latest attempt of those with serious personal hang-ups trying to justify censorship by pretending to concern with the common good.

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The fact is that censorship always defeats its own purpose, for it creates, in the end, the kind of society that is incapable of exercising real discretion.“    —Henry Steel Commager

Crying “Fire!” in a crowded theatre is often cited as an example of justifiable censorship.  Too often those who defend freedom of expression, that cornerstone of liberty and human rights, meekly concede to this as an ‘exception’.  This allows those arguing for censorship in any of its many guises to use this example to extrapolate to—and justify as ‘exceptions’—all forms of censorship along the way down the slippery slope into the dungeons where political prisoners reside for warning of their leaders burning down the fragile structures of democracy.  This exemplary, and fallacious, justification for censorship deserves closer examination.

The first thing to consider is, of course, whether there is in fact a fire.  Obviously if there is a fire such a cry is justified—even if it results in people getting hurt in the stampede for the exit.  If there is no fire, we’re considering a possible case of a deliberate lie that the liar knows will—in all probability—cause harm.  But remember the censor does not usually make that distinction and would forbid crying “Fire!”—period.  Such a prohibition would mean that, should there be a real fire, anyone noticing it would be gagged, resulting in even more harm than a false alarm.

Note, too, that not all false alarms are deliberate.  Now there is no question that to deliberately lie about something to cause harm to other people is an immoral act.  If a blind person waiting at a busy intersection asks you if the traffic has passed, and you say it has, when you can clearly see a transport truck approaching, you are indubitably guilty of a potentially deadly lie.  But if your own eyesight is poor, and you don’t see the truck and so give the blind person the go-ahead, you are not culpable.  And surely this possibility of innocent error does not justify forbidding people to respond in such a situation.  Yet posting “Advising The Blind Is Strictly Forbidden!” signs at all intersections would fit with the censor’s philosophy.

There is certainly justification for condemning and punishing those who deliberately lie knowing full well that it will cause immediate harm.  However, there is no justification for denying people the right to warn of perceived dangers; e.g., one could mistakenly think one detects a fire in a theatre when it is simply somebody sneaking a smoke.  And there is no justification for forbidding the expression of beliefs that may in fact turn out to be false; e.g., the near-sighted person who doesn’t see an approaching truck and tells a blind person to proceed.  Such matters of intent are difficult to determine, albeit important in determining guilt or innocence in a court of law—and in passing moral judgment.   They, however, are ex post facto.  This is important.  We cannot forbid saying anything because it might be false, even if it being false has the potential to do harm.  If we did that, one couldn’t warn of a fire or help a blind person cross the street.

It is unquestionable that much harm is done by people who misperceive reality and issue false warnings.  For example, the Bush Administration falsely claimed that Iraq was preparing to attack the U.S.A. with weapons of mass destruction.  (Talk about crying “Fire!” in a crowded theatre!)  Much harm was also done by those political leaders who gave misguided reassurances to the American public that the war on Iraq would be a safe crossing to peace and democracy in that country.  Whether or not those who made these false statements were simply mistaken or deliberately lying will eventually be determined, and one can hope the liars punished.  But even those most appalled by the resulting disaster could not argue for forbidding their political leaders from warning of perceived threats.

It is an extremely dangerous thing (and an impossible task) to try to censor the expression of any belief that could conceivably be wrong, even if—in being wrong—it is harmful.  The only way what is wrong can be exposed as wrong is by open discourse—which is the opposite of censorship.  This is how science works, how art works, and how democracy works.  Without censorship, truth outs eventually:  liars are exposed and those just innocently wrong are corrected.  But with censorship, all that happens is that the censors prevent this natural process, and what is true has no chance to expose that which is false.  More harm is done by theatres banning alarms than by false alarms being sounded.

—D. D’Sinope

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