Category Archives: EDUCATION

Debates may change, but some things never do.

As I’d mentioned in my part three to my Alpha Course reaction, How Can We Have Faith, I volunteered to help judge a high school speech/debate tournament. It was a blast, and I learned some things, myself.

I was hard-core speech and debate in my high school days. (Probably no surprise to anyone who knows me), but full disclosure — by “hard-core” I mean relative to me, not to other kids who were hard-core. For me, speech and debate was the most important activity in my life, and I was decent at it (pretty good in Lincoln-Douglas debate, humorous interp’, and storytelling; not bad in cross-ex [team] debate and some other interp’ stuff). But there were a great many kids much better than me, due to both talent and living and breathing it more than I did. (I must not have been too bad, I was offered a full tuition scholarship from the debate team and accepted a full-ride scholarship from the theatre department a a local state college.)

But anyway, for me, debate was the “good” in my life. It was the only way I had friends, both in my squad and from other schools; it got me engaged in the world; developed some amount of appreciation for logic and proper argumentation; the value of evidence in claims; and gave me a social life. (Even though I was an idiot then, and played the goth/emo attitude before there was such a youth sub-drama, er, sub-genre. Somehow I had it in my head that being depressed and melancholy would somehow make me more appealing to girls and make me seem “deep.” Needless to say, I didn’t get laid until college. Go fig.)

So, this weekend. I judged some tourneys back in my undergrad days, but I think I was still too close to the scene (chronologically) to have different feelings about it. Now, years later, 20… years… later (oh gawd!) I’m a true outsider to the scene, looking back at a snapshot of my youth through the new batch of high schoolers going through the same trials, tribulations, joys, fears, thrills… metamorphosis I and my peers had. And I saw among these kids, versions of me, of my friends, and took comfort in the fact some things don’t really change! The activities, the behaviors, the prater, of these kids were the same as they were 20 years ago (well, except I did overhear one girl explaining to a couple guys what polyamory was; that didn’t happen back then, but that’s not to say we didn’t talk about love and sex back then! Boy-howdy, did we). I was amused by seeing once again all the briefcases and file boxes littering the cafeteria and hallways, and (most) everyone dressed in their best.

And their rhetorical skills still range from pitiful to three-years-away-from-being-a-guest-talking-head-on-MSNBC. I have to tell you, the champion LD debaters were quite impressive! Their level of argumentation, reason, and logic was enviable! It was interesting that in the regular LD rounds, where whether states should eliminate nuclear weapons was debated, the affirmative side OK and the negative side could never make a decent case. But at the champion-level, the affirmative side was calling upon claims to logic and fallacy I didn’t learn until 10 years later, and the negative side made such exceptionally strong cases for keeping nuclear weapons, I had to truly work to determine a winner — and sometimes it was the negative. I’m here to tell you, the kids are alright.

I did find interesting in CX (cross-ex, team) debate some different protocols from when I was doing it. During the first affirmative constructive (the presentation of the case and plan to be debated, and the only speech in the debate that is (should be) completely scripted, the speaker would hand each read page off to the opposition, pro forma. They didn’t ask for it, it was just something that was done. Likewise evidence cards. Back in mah day, if the other side wanted to clarify points you made, they’d ask during the cross-ex portion, and if they wanted to see you evidence, they had to ask (and you had to give it). But there was none of this standardized sharing back then.

I guess that’s good; it forces transparency and honesty. But, in a way, I was kind of peeved. I mean, the old way of having to write fast and listen faster taught me a very valuable skill: tiny, quick writing with lots of shortcuts. OK, not sure how valuable that skill is, but I was proud of it. 🙂

Discover… The Power of Stuff!

My daughter (and I, when I’m too lazy to work on writing like I should), watches a lot of Discovery Kids Channel. It has a lot of non-U.S. programming that’s a few years old, but much of it is educational or at least semi-educational while still being entertaining.

Well, I discovered a couple of days ago that Hasbro acquired controlling ownership in the channel, and they’re giving the channel a complete makeover including a new name (The Hub) and programming line-up. I took a look at the new line-up, and saw something interesting, but not surprising considering who bought them: the educational programming is being replaced with high quality shows like “Transformers”, “G.I. Joe”, “Pound Puppies”, “Family Game Night”, “Clue”, and the like. Your basic 30-minute product commercials.

I took a look at the shows that my daughter watches on the channel, where they’re made, and their focus, and found this:

Continue reading Discover… The Power of Stuff!

Brust on Capital.

First, a little story:

I’ve been a huge fan of SF author Steven Brust since circa 1988 when Taltos came out. (I didn’t know at the time that was not the first in the “Vlad Taltos” series, but it worked out OK.) After becoming a fan, I discovered Brust was a self-described Trotskyist. Being in my teens, early to mid-20s, I really didn’t have any idea what that was but I knew it was somehow connected to GASP! evil Communism! One part of my brain processed this information something like, “Huh, his writing is kick-ass, he seems really cool…perhaps whatever Trotskyism is it’s either a) inconsequential to who he is, or b) it’s not some all-encompassing evilness as my culture leads me to believe.” The other half of my mind processed more like, “LA LA LA LA I’M NOT LISTENING! I SEE NOTHINK! I HEAR NOTHINK! MOVE ALONG, CITIZEN!”

So the cognitive dissonance was dealt with by ardently ignoring it.

Until around 2007 when I started grad school and my first instructor was Dr. William Burling: the most influential professor, and one of the most influential persons, I’d ever met. I had the privilege of being a student of his for three (almost four) fantastic classes. What his greatest influence on me was to introduce me to the idea of questioning culture, society, government, art, everything. Everything is, to a greater or lesser degree, either a product of or a reflector of the socio-economic base of a culture and nearly everything in the culture is in service to those who control the wealth in society. In short, Dr. Burling was a Marxist, and by the fortune of serendipity, happened to come into my life just as I was questioning political structures.

At that time I was moving from Democrat to vague libertarian. It took nearly a year of questioning and study and investigation and debate, but eventually I too became a self-described Marxist. Although I’ve barely scratched the surface still of Marxist theory.

So, at one point as Dr. Burling and I were discussing Marxist theory and SF and fantasy literature, I realized something from the long forgotten recesses of my mind… (See, I kinda stopped reading Mr. Brust’s books by this point–not because I stopped liking them, but I’d pretty much stopped reading for pleasure altogether! I am glad to say I’ve since picked pleasure reading back up and have caught back up with all of Mr. Brust’s “Taltos” books at least.) I recalled that tidbit of info about my favorite fantasy author being a Trotskyist. I asked Dr. Burling, who had introduced me to Stanley Kim Robinson, and China Miéville, and Philip K. Dick, and a Marxist outlook of William Gibson (who, now, I have no idea how you couldn’t read Gibson with a Marxist outlook! My god, the man is postmodern materialist cultural criticism up and down!) if he had read any Steven Brust. He replied, somewhat dismissively that he didn’t have time for any pleasure reading. Then I mentioned Mr. Brust was a Trotskyist and, if I recalled, wrote in a couple of his novels about a peasant uprising in his fantasy world.

Dr. Burling grabbed a pen and asked me what that name was again.

Sadly, Dr. Burling passed away a couple of years later. I never did find out if he started looking into Brust’s writing. Probably not; he was pretty busy, in addition to teaching, editing a book of essays on Kim Stanley Robinson and working with  Miéville on a book of criticism about Marxist SF. *sigh* I still feel acute sense of honor of having been able to know the man and learn from him. He changed my entire way of looking at life and I could have missed it if I’d been a couple of years too late.

Anyway, so now that I’m deep in trying to learn and understand Marxist theory, both as it applies to literature and culture, guess what my favorite Trotskyist fantasy author has started doing? He’s reading and commenting on Karl Marx’s seminal work on socio-economics, Das Kapital.* (Volume 1, I believe, which is the one Marx had worked mostly on before he died, while Engels wrote the other volumes.)

What’s really cool is that just before this he had read through and commented on Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations (arguably the father of and the manual of modern capitalism). This kicked-ass because not only did I learn something from it (unfortunately I came in rather late), it just goes to show that Brust is interested in exploring all the angles of modern socio-economics and doesn’t just surround himself with material that fits his perceptions or ideologies. That’s certainly a quality to admire and emulate.

marx-victoryI’m looking forward to reading what he has to say about the tome. And I’m very glad that one side of my brain stopped being a pest and started paying attention. Marxism is not evil, Trotskyism is not evil, communism is not evil. These are just ideas, concepts, ways of investigating and ideas are never evil. They may not be good or practical ideas, but one should never dismiss a way of thinking, a way of investigating, because authority has proclaimed it verboten, taboo, out of bounds. Question everything, especially authority. There’s a reason why they are in power, and a means by which they stay in power.

* I think he’s moving his blog over to a new location. I’ll try to update this link if I can when it happens.

Ode to the English Teacher.

First an annoying introduction; feel free to skip to the next heading:

I, unlike pretty much every other English grad student I know/have known, am not an English teacher. Not for high school, nor did I teach undergrads while earning my English MA. Chances are pretty certain, though, that when I go for my PhD or MFA I will have to endure the joys of teaching highschoolers or their very slightly more mature undergrad versions.

It’s not that I dislike the idea of teaching, I love the idea. But two, no, three things scare and frustrate the yellow paint off my pencils: One is that I’m afeared of the younger-than-25 crowd. And that ties directly into my second reason: I’m afeared about my own lack of classroom control ability. If you know me, you know that in person I’m more than a little bumbling, somewhat awkward, I stutter and mumble and have a very difficult time finding the words I want to say and especially stringing them together in coherent and understandable sentences. I’d (am gonna) get run right over the top of and lose all appearance of someone worth listening to, much less someone to give respect to. And they smell fear!

Thirdly, also tied into the previous two, is politics and mandated curriculum frustrates me. The politics of the public school system and college system would probably make me cringe and fill me with rebellious discord. I don’t like the idea of having to teach a class in the classical teacher-is-god/students-are-submissive-statues dynamic. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a Montessori fan where the student basically does whatever they want and learning is expected to find the student. But… you know, I’m getting away from my original intent for this post.

I have a great deal of respect for good teachers. I have nothing but ire and derision for bad teachers. Both are because teachers have a great deal of influence over students and can significantly impact their lives, for the better or worse. I had one teacher in jr. high who inspired me and made me want to learn and grow and I’ll never forget her. I had a teacher in high school who embarrassed and shamed me in front of others and I will hold a place of irrational hatred for him for all my years. Because of the great power teachers have over students during their formative years, I absolutely believe bad teachers should be gotten rid of with speed and prejudice, and good teachers should be made into wealthy celebrities. All the crap they have to put up with from bad students, parents, politicians, it’s amazing we have any good teachers in the system.

Now for the main event:

Author Pat Conroy recently wrote an editorial in response to some attempts at book banning at a high school. What he had to say about the value of teaching, English teachers in particular, and books, I simply can’t improve upon and agree with every word.

So, I urge you to click the following link and read this short essay. See if you can recall your English teachers and what life lessons you may have learned from them.

Grade angst.

Today I just received my 11th A out of 11 grad school classes. *glee!*

Now, I’ve NEVER been one to care much about grades (I graduated 40th out of 88 in high school, and while I did earn a 3.8+ in my undergrad theatre major, everything else was sucky enough to get me a total undergrad GPA of 3.18.) Also, according to my grad school mentor my very first day of my first MA class, grades are the last thing PhD programs look at, likewise employers. In higher level academia, it’s all about publishing and active work in your field. That’s advice I’ve taken to heart, and in these three years I’ve presented papers at conferences and have worked on journal articles (with one under peer review right now). So, whether or not I care about graduating my master’s program with a 4.0 seems odd, and possibly hypocritical.

But darnit, now that it’s possible, I kind of care. The problem is I have just two classes left before graduating, and they’re potentially my two hardest I’ve yet to take. Two B’s out of 13 grades would lower my GPA to 3.85! Almost as if 11 A’s didn’t even matter.

And then I think about the fact that most people in this world don’t even get the chance at any education at all; attending an elitist liberal university to earn a degree in something as squishy as “English” isn’t even imaginable. The reality-check of my privileged life seeps in a bit.

In honor of Bill Burling.

I think that’s the first time I’ve not written “Dr. Burling.” I’d known him since my first day of grad school three years ago and he’s had more of an impact on my life than anyone I’ve ever known, short of my wife and daughter. He was my professor, my mentor of sorts, my scholarly and philosophical model…and he died this weekend from cancer.

I actually first met him a few times at the local astronomy club before I enrolled in grad school. He was the guy who first helped my sight my new telescope in to Saturn, and that’s an incredible sight! Imagine my surprise when weeks later on my first night of English 600, I discover he’s my teacher.

And in that class I was introduced to the concept of questioning ideology. I’d been a born-again skeptic for a couple/few years before that. But Dr. Burling taught me to go even deeper and examine and question the very base of all cultural assumptions and the very concept of “common sense” and “natural law.” It was from him that I learned that “Marxism” was not a dirty word. That I learned about critical theory and cultural criticism, of Lacan and Derrida, and Adorno and Jameson. I learned in that class about the politics of academia, the ideological nature of education, and the value of scholarship. That was literally a life-changing class.

And the next two classes I’d have with him continued that incredible education. I learned that science fiction was not embarrassing genre fiction meant for geek entertainment, but had a special place in cultural criticism. I would never read sf, (which I had always loved simply as escapism but knew just subliminally that it spoke something more to me, but I didn’t know what), the same way again.

He inspired me my first year to write a paper for a conference. I did, and presented it. And would the next year thanks to him. He inspired me to write for peer-reviewed scholarly journals. I have. He gave up his time to help me write at a much higher level than I ever realized I could. He spent a collected many, many hours talking with me in office hours, after class, in e-mails, about everything from the origins of sf to underlying ideological assumptions in current politics.

He was going to have Kim Stanley Robinson, who he had been corresponding with for quite some time and had edited a book about him, come talk to the class he was teaching this semester. This would-be 4th class I would have had with him. Now, whatever synergy of Dr. Burling and Kim Robinson’s time together with us could have gifted us, is gone forever.

I learned so much from him, and I was only just beginning. There was so much more I was planning on learning from him, so much more he could have taught me. It’s a selfish loss, I know. But I’m keenly missing the lost opportunity to confer with him in my future writing and scholarship, to seek his advice and counsel, and continue to learn from him. His wit, his audacity, his brilliance, gone. I’m not ready.

He had on a few occasions called me his peer. That was the greatest honor he could have ever given me.

Dr. William Burling was fiercely intelligent, absolutely committed to his students and the subject of his expertise, dedicated to the ideals of critical thinking and learning which surpassed the confines of organized, institutional education. He inspired me, pushed and challenged me, opened my eyes and changed my life. It’s a little darker of a world without him in it.

Intelligence test for voting.

Warning: Extreme elitist misanthropic opinion follows.

I watched the latest “Real Time with Bill Maher” the other day, and he decried the intelligence of the American people as unable to do the right thing when voting, citing as one of his examples the fact that most people (according to USA Today) believe in angels, particularly interceding “guardian angels.” This news was immediately below the article on the economic collapse. He may also at one point mentioned the fact that Bush got 49 and 50% of the popular vote the last two elections as an example of the lack of intelligence in the U.S.

That stayed in the back of my mind for a while. Then the other day I had to sit in the emergency waiting room and had the privilege of sitting near an 18-year-old mother of what looked like a 1 year old, with her husband/boyfriend/whatever and his friend. She didn’t in general seem very bright, the boyfriend seemed a bit dim, and the friend was a dead ringer for “Larry the Cable Guy”. Including the god-awful voice. Next to them was another teen mom who was only slightly more with it. When we moved to the next waiting room, there was a, what I would peg as a 16-year-old, who wasn’t too shy about expressing her “embarrassment” (yeah) at being a “what’s it called, when someone has sex and, like, isn’t married or something? Oh, yeah, a for-ni-ca-tor. Now I bet they’re all thinking I’m a for-ni-ca-tor” she said as she patted her flat bare tummy. It was very surreal.

Now, let me stop for a second and correct what I’m sure is an understandable misreading of where I’m going with this. My story isn’t done, but it would look like I’m about to equate teen pregnancy with lack of intelligence. I’m not. Anyone old enough to be capable of sex with an IQ of 50 to 150 can get pregnant as a teen. Teens have sex, it’s what our bodies evolved to do regardless of intelligence. We may not like it (I’d prefer if my own daughter abstained until, say, 32…) but it’s a fact of life. Where intelligence would have any role in this is in how the adults in society approach the subject: Either pretend it won’t happen and teach abstinence only despite the facts, or accept it may happen and teach the realistic dangers of sex and appropriate birth control. But, this isn’t what this post is about, although it’s slightly related. I just wanted to clear up that my thoughts on American intelligence only coincidentally was sparked by being around pregnant or child-n-tow teens who happened to be dim bulbs irrespective of their state of parenthood.

So, this later girl and her mother are talking to another waiting room patient who I pegged as what this girl would likely be like in 40 years: not a very sharp tack but experienced, yet without having learned from it. And somehow they get to talking about the girl’s boyfriend sleeping in the same bed…but they don’t have sex. Of course the other woman commented, “Riiiight!” with the girl responding “It’s true! But, it wasn’t an “It’s true!” with the subtext of “You must believe my claim of chastity!” but rather “…and it sucks!” My read of her subtext was confirmed by the mom saying, “Oh, it’s true, they don’t…and she’s very frustrated about it.”

Buhwah?! Yep, you read right and I heard right. The mom was sympathetic to the 15, 16-year-old daughter’s pain at not having sex because of her boyfriend’s “respect issues.” This is obviously a woman who has no idea what a parent is supposed to do and evidently believes the best way to parent is to be your child’s “best friend.” Well, my droogs, I’m certainly not the first person to express “bullshit” at that idea and present as Exhibit A the f–ed up state of American culture as proof that we have way too many parents out there who are doing a piss-poor job of parenting. Why is it we’re one of the most modern, richest, advanced countries, and we have a higher drug addiction rate, higher crime, teen pregnancy, belief in Creationism and literal Biblical interpretation, lowest math and science scores than any other modern Western nation? We have a culture of intellectually retarded people raised by idiots who are now raising their own idiots in a tradition of pride in idiocy.

At risk of sounding like a curmudgeony stand-up comic, the “perfect America” never existed and “Leave it to Beaver” never existed, but there WAS a time when a kid got in trouble at school they got in equal or more trouble at home. A premium was placed on getting education. On learning. Today if a kid gets in trouble at school, the parent will be “all up in da principal’s face” defending their kid’s right to be a slacker delinquent.

We have a media culture that panders to mindless entertainment and shies away from anything challenging. “News” that believes all sides must get equal time, even if that means giving flat-earthers as much validity as legitimate scientists. “News” programs that encourage belief that a frakkin’ bug on a camera lens is a ghost or angel without a whisper of skepticism or encouraging people to actually think.

We have a society in which any sign of intelligence is derided as “elitism” and we make fun of it like the school bully who deals with his latent insecurity about being dumb by beating on the smart kids. We have a bully culture that thrives on war and violence, responds only to fear, and mistrusts intellectuals or education.

Well I for one am sick of it. I’m tired of “who would you rather have a beer with/watch football with?” as a poll question when discussing who to vote for. No one asks “Who would you rather have defining the scientific agenda for the country?” or “Who do you think has the ability to use statesmanship in the complex and delicate balances of world relations?” We seem to be a country of “American Idol” addicted weeble-wobbles with a media culture that has no interest in doing anything other than feed the demand for more idiots playing to the idiots and an education system that has no teeth or ability to make any significant difference. We live in a country in a world that demands intelligent, thoughtful, reasoned leadership and representation. Our very existence as a country depends on it.

I think it’s time we suspend the idea of “everyone has the right to vote” in favor of “you must be this intelligent to vote” criteria. It’s a somewhat fascist idea, but if we don’t stop voting on “values” and “beer buddy” benchmarks and start voting into offices people who are capable and bright, we’re doomed. The school bully tends to grow up and become an insurance or car salesman or real estate agent; the picked-on nerd runs the internet and controls the systems we all depend on. Well, it’s graduation time and America is becoming a car salesman and the smarter countries will before long own and control us. I don’t know, maybe we derve it. We get the President we deserve, they say. Maybe we’re getting the status in the world we deserve as well.

“Uncritical thinking kills”

The last few weeks there have been a slew of postings and releases (to feature only a couple) regarding the rise of deadly measles and other once fully contained contagious diseases in the U.K. and the U.S. due to people not vaccinating. Enough people in some places have stopped vaccinating as to weaken the “herd immunity” allowing disease to spread through a community. Fortunately in the U.S. and U.K. people have been getting treatment in time before anyone has died–but people in less modern anti-vaccine propaganda soaked regions aren’t so lucky: “What is the Harm?” Doesn’t it scare anyone that in 2008, because of anti-vaccine scaremongers, polio could make a comeback?

And is it likely that yet another high-quality, indipendent study on the supposed link between Autism and vaccines has come back with a resounding result of “no connection” will make any difference to these people? I seriously doubt it.

Here’s the point of why I’m finally commenting on the subject: Phil Plait just posted his thoughts on the dangers of uncritical thinking in general, and why we cannot with any human conscience sit idly by while superstition and unreason and uncritical thinking can have real, tangible, harmful effects:

… I’m a parent. I sometimes think the most important thing I can do for my daughter is love her, keep her healthy, protect her. But in all of those, there is an overarching responsibility for me to teach her how to live in the real world. And that means showing her how to think. Not what to think, but how. …

His post is sparked by a death as the result of fear around the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) which came online this week. Yes, the absurd fear surrounding the LHC, not the LHC itself, resulted in a death. A couple of days ago two classmates walked into class talking about the LHC and in only half-joking tones were asking each other what they thought of the possible results of the LHC–including Earth destroying black holes and reality destroying chain reactions. Two supposedly educated people who have allowed themselves to be duped by a sensationalism spewing mass media which cares only for gaining readership/viewers and nothing for actual facts and truth and real news, who are comfortable with accepting what they’re told and not checking things out for themselves. It would… should, only take a couple of minutes for a person to think:

“Hmmm, the LHC sounds like a massive endeavor involving a lot of scientists, researchers, and technicians to come up with and build it. Something on that kind of scale would surely have been so thoroughly studied that any possible negative effects (especially the destruction of the universe which presumably would include the death of all the scientists, researchers, and technicians and everyone they love and care about) must either be negligible or non-existent.
Although, people have been on large scales wrong before or have been willing to take huge deadly risks–but usually on subjects involving religion, politics, and/or war–not cold and calculating science.
I doubt there’s anything potentially seriously dangerous about this, but I could be wrong. I should check this out by using critical sources that don’t have as their primary agenda to spread entertainment, fear, sensationalism, yellow journalism as “news”….”

Uncritical thinking has nothing to do with intelligence or education, but everything to do with, as Phil emphasizes, how to think. The human brain has evolved awesomely (in the true sense of the word) to be capable of such incredible ability and reason. We’re amazing pattern recognizers. We can deduce and we predict outcomes. But we’re also still incredibly primitive in the amazing capacity we have for logical fallacy and cognitive bias. Because each and every one of us have our own darlings, our own one or ten superstitions we believe in, or mystical/mythical beliefs, we really want to be able to say out of rationalization for our own peccadilloes “Oh, what’s the harm of letting people believe what they want, live and let live.”

The problem is that people die, people harm other people, over uncritical beliefs and thinking. Uncritical thinking has more at risk than a “harmless” $2 /minute call to an astrologer: uncritical thinking can kill. The most important thing we can do is not go around telling people “what you believe is wrong,” but telling people “this is how you examine and test what you believe” and then have the courage to apply that critical reasoning to your own beliefs as you desire to have other people do unto their own.

Free market education: the fail.

Yesterday I posted a super-bloated overlong post: The failure of conservatism. (That’s what happens when I allow myself to write unedited in stream-of-consciousness–which is every time, really.) I railed against the ideas of free market capitalism and libertarian, objectivist anarchy in the modern world. I briefly mentioned public education as part of “the commons,” a service that everyone in a society benefits from either directly or indirectly, and it gets privatized at the risk of harming society.

Well, today, “carr2d2” on the SkepChick blog posted an article that addresses that very topic:

She reasonably questions the libertarian belief that parents should totally determine the way, why, how, and when a child is educated. carr2d2 asks:

We were looking at the children’s education as a function of the parents’ freedom.  At what point does a parent’s right to raise their child as they see fit (or, as some argue, their freedom to not pay taxes) infringe upon that child’s right to live a healthy life, relatively untainted by abuse?  Don’t we owe it to all our kids to give them as equal a shot as is possible at success?

This topic spawned a great comment thread with wonderful observation like this snippet from AgnosticOracle:

If we look at periods and places where there was no public education the vast majority of working class people didn’t get educated. It isn’t merely a question of fairness to the child. There are externalities of education that benefit society as a whole. Carl Sagan’s father was a garment worker. Without public education there is a good chance the world would have lost out on his genius.
It is a benefit not only to the child but to society at large to educate children well. This is especially true if you want a functioning democracy. While we may wish to give the parents the right to teach the child what they want, we shouldn’t give them the right to deny them education. For instance, a parent shouldn’t be able to choose not to teach their daughters math and science.

He, and most commentors, have it exactly right. A parent isn’t imbued with special wisdom simply because they can procreate. They certainly have a wide range of rights along with their responsibilities, but the minimal education of the people who are going to be participating in society is everyone’s concern–not just the parents. The libertarian mindset, like I implied in yesterday’s post, was perfectly reasonable when people can and did live in a such a way as to not have to interact or participate in society at large. but we, as Americans and a human race, have developed far beyond any reasonable concept of isolationism and selfish individualism.

The education of my children directly affects your and your childrens’ lives–you want to be assured that my kids have a certain basic level of education, no? In a libertarian paradise, there’s no guarantee that anyone you interact with doesn’t have a skewed and flawed education, if any. Would you want to live in that kind of wild west in an age in which our health and lives and lifestyle is so delicately balanced on a web of dynamic social interactivity?

The failure of conservatism.

Animal Farm revisited:

There’s a chain email that’s being passed around conservative emailers that tells a story of a foreign freedom fighter describing to his American college professor how to capture wild pigs by feeding them free corn and slowly penning them in. The email ends with a quote: “A government big enough to give you everything you want, is big enough to take away everything you have.” attributed to Thomas Jefferson. One problem is that according to Jeffersonian researchers, Jefferson never said that. Republican President Gerald Ford did. Although, as a big fan of Jefferson, I wouldn’t have put it past him to have said it! Jefferson was no fan of big government, absolutely believed that the right to bear arms was so the people could change government by force should politics fail, and even believed all debts and laws and Constitutions should be eliminated every fourteen years and recreated based on the norms and needs of the new generation. The other problem with that quote…I half agree with it despite the fact I also think it’s absurd.

The root of the entire problem is that we live in an extremely complex and complicated world, but we’re creatures that abhor complexity and demand simple answers. I’m no different. For the last four years I’ve been investigating ways I could define myself in the simplest terms: libertarian, anarchist, socialist, collectivist, some combinations thereof. And the conclusion I constantly confront is there are no simple answers.

This also shows the flaw in that very simple, easy to understand metaphor of the pigs. The reason the pigs can be easily penned in and trapped is not because of the free food, but because they’re pigs and the story’s antagonists are humans. If the humans in the story didn’t use free food and gates, they’d use snares. Or guns or tranq’ or traps or any of a hundred methods because the story is comparing simple hungry pigs to clever and technological humans. The story as an analogy is completely absurd and illustrates nothing analogous to our situation or conditions.

The irony of small, powerful government:

So, let’s take a closer look at that quote since that’s the part that really applies to anything realistic: Continue reading The failure of conservatism.

On the issue of privacy and protecting civil liberties.

Let me ask you a question:

How would you react if one day came home to discover that every room in your house had two or three CCTV cameras installed in it? You don’t know who’s watching them or when or why? Would you be OK with this?

Let’s say someone came to your door, introduced themselves as being a private contractor working for Homeland Security, and demanded a copy of your house key so that they (and presumably the DHS and any one else they contract out to) could come in whenever they wanted to have a look around now and then. Would you be OK with this?

Then I have to ask, why are you OK with what actually IS happening right now with your electronic information and possibly your phone calls? The NSA has their own sealed room at an AT&T switching center with a system that intercepts all electronic data that runs through their backbone. Are they looking at your e-mails or listening to your voicemail? Who knows. Probably not. But they can if they want, and the House just gave them permission to do it with the Senate about to do likewise (years after they installed the room without congressional or judicial oversight.)

Project Carnivore was once thought to be an urban (geek) legend, possibly intentional disinformation. However, over the last few years, network administrators for various ISP’s around the country have confirmed putting packet sniffers on their servers providing the FBI and NSA the ability to intercept and read all data passed through their network. Supposedly used only on court orders and targeting specific individuals–but with the governments track record lately of monitoring first and forgetting to ask permission later (see recent FISA Court cases) can we really be sure they’re keeping themselves to high and ethical standards?

The administration also got in trouble recently (although nothing’s been done about it) for data mining through the call records of all domestic telephone calls, not just the international ones they admit to eavesdropping on.

Q: When Attorney General Alberto Gonzales was testifying a few months ago, he seemed careful to specify that he was talking only about the “Terrorist Surveillance Program.” Does that mean he knew about the phone data mining effort and refused to reveal it earlier?
It seems likely, but we don’t know. During his appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee and in a subsequent letter to senators, Gonzales’ careful wording seemed to imply that there may be additional domestic surveillance programs beyond the one revealed by The New York Times. (Testifying before senators, Gonzales referred to that program as “the program that the president has confirmed.”)

Data mining is more serious than it seems on the surface:

Data Mining 101: Finding Subversives with Amazon Wishlists

It only takes a few questions about you for someone to know exactly who you are without your providing any identity information. Anyone who visits this Web page is leaving information about what site you were at before this one and where you go to when you leave this one, what browser and operating system you’re using as well as what town you’re in. That alone is enough to create a profile on you. But you also leave your IP address which is the most vital piece of electronic data possible which allows someone to track your activities all over the ‘net. Let’s say someone knows what town you live in, that you did a search for “repairing 2005 Scion,” bought a size 10 dress online, and looked at the Web site for a particular church or health club in your town–how much more information do you think they’d need to find out who you are and what kind of person you seem to be? That’s the kind of information available to advertisers, ISP’s, corporations, and their employees and anyone an employee wants to provide that information to. We’re not even talking about what the government has collected on actual specific information on who you called and when and for how long.

These are just a few of the programs we know about. There may be other programs even more invasive that we don’t know about–but that’s conspiracy theory territory and what has been admitted to Congress and the Supreme Court is bad enough already.

Now, when I talk about this topic to people, there are those whose first response will often be, “So? If you’re not doing anything wrong, why worry about it?

If you’re asking this, let me remind you of my earlier question of whether you’d have any problems with someone wandering through your house without your permission, looking at you and your family, rifling through your stuff, listening to your conversations, whenever they wanted. Even if you’re not doing anything “wrong,” would you not have a problem with this?

I’ll address the abstract principle of privacy and liberty in a moment, but first the practical application of the destruction of privacy and collection of data….

Do you know how big the TSA’a No Fly List is? Nearly a million names. A million. Is there that many terrorists and enemies of the US in the country?! Mmm, doubtful. Names that are on the list include Senator Kennedy,children, soldiers fighting in Iraq, war heroes, and constitutional scholars.

One of the two people to whom I talked asked a question and offered a frightening comment: “Have you been in any peace marches? We ban a lot of people from flying because of that.” I explained that I had not so marched but had, in September, 2006, given a lecture at Princeton, televised and put on the Web, highly critical of George Bush for his many violations of the Constitution. “That’ll do it,” the man said. “

Not caring about being watched and recorded and surveilled assumes that those doing the surveillance and collecting are perfect and without error in judgment and practice and have the cleanest of ethics and intent. If that were true, I probably wouldn’t mind myself! And every night I’d eat a salad of fairy wings sprinkled with unicorn horn croutons. The problem with the government collecting data, wantonly eavesdropping, making lists, is that it’s being done by humans who are quite prone to mistakes, humans that are capable of malicious and unscrupulous actions, for reasons that may be (and most likely are) political in nature and have nothing to do with security and everything to do with power and control.

Everything about the No Fly List and the security regulations are completely useless for real security: any high school chemistry student can tell you it’s neigh impossible to make an effective explosive out of carry-on liquid containers. Each of the 9/11 hijackers had valid and legal identification. As the above link describes, people can easily make fake IDs and boarding passes–and when the TSA is alerted of such real threats to security, they threaten the whistle blowers with arrest. The No Fly List and TSA security is useless at best, and a tool for the government to harass and monitor political enemies at worst.

The same government which we are shrugging our shoulders about collecting our data and watching our communications is the same government that:

  • Signed Homeland Security Presidential Directive #20 which states that should the President declare a “state of emergency” for any reason the office sees fit, all powers of the federal government are turned over to the Executive Branch (the President).
  • Swapped the original Patriot Act bill which Congress got to see, with a rewritten one literally in the middle of the night before Congress voted it in.
  • Rescinded habeas corpus which prevents the government from arresting anyone they want, declaring them an “enemy combatant,” and disappearing them indefinitely.
  • Literally kidnapped a Canadian citizen on Canadian soil and flew them in a CIA plane to be tortured for a year in Syria…before deciding the person was innocent.
  • Advocates using torture methods we’ve convicted other countries of war crimes for, even though overwhelming evidence shows torture is ineffective for gathering viable intelligence (as if the human rights violation isn’t enough).
  • Puts covert CIA agents and their assets at risk (as well as destroying years worth of trust and asset building) for political revenge.
  • Rescinds Posse Comitatus which prevents federally controlled military forces from acting in domestic capacity.
  • Uses privately contracted para-military organizations for foreign and domestic missions without Congressional permission or oversight.
  • Keeps CIA run prisons in countries which use torture methods even worse than what the White House admits to using–and privately contracted security forces to oversee their operations.
  • Infiltrates and harasses organizations that protest the administration’s politics…like Quaker churches.

…to name a few ways in which the government does not act in a responsible, perfect, error-free, ethical manner.

Take a moment to watch this film (even if you’ve seen it before; I’ve posted it on my blog a couple of times…)

This illustrates my point perfectly. From a practical standpoint, you don’t have to be doing anything wrong to be a victim of error, incompetence, unethical use of power.

Cory Doctorow describes the dangers of being a victim of mass surveillance:

Statisticians speak of something called the Paradox of the False Positive. Here’s how that works: imagine that you’ve got a disease that strikes one in a million people, and a test for the disease that’s 99% accurate. You administer the test to a million people, and it will be positive for around 10,000 of them – because for every hundred people, it will be wrong once (that’s what 99% accurate means). Yet, statistically, we know that there’s only one infected person in the entire sample. That means that your “99% accurate” test is wrong 9,999 times out of 10,000!

Terrorism is a lot less common than one in a million and automated “tests” for terrorism – data-mined conclusions drawn from transactions, Oyster cards, bank transfers, travel schedules, etc – are a lot less accurate than 99%. That means practically every person who is branded a terrorist by our data-mining efforts is innocent.

In other words, in the effort to find the terrorist needles in our haystacks, we’re just making much bigger haystacks.

Even ignoring the possibility of unethical or political behavior, mere statistics bear out that innocent people who shrug and say “Doesn’t matter so long as you aren’t doing something wrong” may find themselves arrested by DHS, detained, interrogated, threatened and tortured, have their lives turned upside down–because of a mistake. I’ve blogged a dozen times enumerating many cases of innocent people being the victim of erroneous police drug raids resulting in property damage and even innocent deaths. Shrugging it off and saying it doesn’t matter because you’re not doing anything wrong is the worst of rose-colored, Pollyanna, primrose path thinking.

The principle of privacy is an abstract concept but entirely as vital and important as any concept of practical application. As humans in general and citizens of the United States in particular we have an unalienable right to personal privacy as part of our freedom and liberty. It’s a simple matter of principle that we don’t tolerate unknown people or agents of the government walking into our house unannounced and uninvited for no other reason than some vague pantomime of protecting us from the boogeyman. If the goal of the terrorist is to get a government, an entire people, to fundamentally change out of fear and terror–they’ve won. We are willingly handing away our essential freedoms and liberties that we associate with being American for the price of an illusion of security. Allowing them to listen to our calls, collect all our communications data, scan our e-mail and Web browsing, plant RFID chips in our passports and luggage, create federalized identification, all of these are actions that have nothing to do with protecting us from real threats, as all of these steps would have had no effect stopping 9/11, and everything to do with creating a fascist police state.

I’m about to Godwin the post by bringing it up, but bear with me. In the evolution of all fascist regimes and dictatorships, from Hitler and Mussolini to Stalin and Pinochet, there was a time when things were heading toward Bad but not yet there. Fascism and dictatorships don’t spring up fully formed from out of nowhere–they slowly, step by step, on the backs of a mixture of trusting and lazy citizens, rise from nowhere. Before there was Chancellor Hitler, the Fuhrer, there was a small man leading a rabble party preaching conservatism and fear of the outsider. Before there was an occupation of Czechoslovakia and in invasion of Poland in 1939 by the German army, there was a period from 1921 to 1933, when the Nazi Party was formed to when the burning of the Reichstag building convinced the German legislature to give Hitler full governmental and military power. The Nazi Party didn’t take Germany over by force, they inched their way into power using the law, politics, twisted to their ends and allowed by a populace and Parliament afraid of domestic terrorism and economic frustrations and a desire for a strong leader with a strong, conservative vision who will crush the enemies of the homeland.

Sound familiar?

We do a greater disservice to history by elevating Hitler and the Nazis to some fictionally epic evil that couldn’t possibly happen in real life. It did and it can again when people are too uncaring and lazy to take thrats to their freedom and civil liberties seriously, and by allowing folksy plain-speakin’ conservative war-mongers to have positions of great power thanks to jingoist appeals to false patriotism and invoking the spectral fear of the shadowy anarchist communist terrorist bad guy around every corner.

What can we do? Well, various things, but this post is a focus on protecting privacy which can be done by a greater public use of encryption and Internet anonymity. Here’s the irony that ends up working to protect privacy:

It’s a bad thing that the government is making huge haystacks of data and surveillance, erroneously claiming some straw as needles they’re looking for. But, the greater the haystacks, the more ineffectual the mining and surveillance, until it reaches a point where watching everyone and collecting everyone’s data is no longer even desired by those in power. This happens the more “chaff” there is in the system.

Take London: cover every square inch of the city with CCTVs and you’ll get so much information that you’ll never make any sense of it. Scotland Yard says that CCTVs help solve fewer than 3% of all crimes, while a study in San Francisco found that at best, criminals simply move out of camera range, while at worst they assume no one is watching.

Similarly, if you take fingerprints from every person who applies for a visa – or worse still, from every person in Britain who has to carry one of the proposed new biometric cards – you will fill the databases with chaff that slows down searches, generates endless false matches, and threatens everyone in the database with the worst kind of identity theft.

The more people use secure methods to chat with their friends about the weather, use encryption to share chicken pot pie recipes, use anonymizers in their search for parts for their 2005 Scion, the more frustrating it is for those watching and looking and listening to watch and listen to everyone. At least that’s one theory of circumventing the police state in a grand scale. On the small scale, you have the right to be able to share your chicken pot pie recipe without being eavesdropped on–more so if you’re sharing private personal information or sensitive business or financial information. The more ordinary, non-techie people are using security methods to communicate the easier it is for you to do the same. What good is it if you want to use encryption to discuss anything from plot points of a television show to potentially embarrassing medical information or yearly budget information if the people you’re communicating with doesn’t use encryption or take security precautions.

Here’s something you probably didn’t know but really should: every time you check your e-mail with a program like Outlook or Thunderbird, you are sending your username and password in human readable clear text across the internet. If someone has installed a trojan on your PC, they can read it. If you’re using unsecured wi-fi, anyone in the area could access your info. Anyone who may be snooping between your computer and your mail server can read it.

What if you send sensitive info to Bob, and Bob’s checking his e-mail with Outlook on an unsecured wireless connection? You may have taken precautions logging into your mail securely, but because of Bob’s innocent ignorance your information is open to easy interception.

Here’s another nice thought: man-in-the-middle attacks in this situation is pretty easy for a mid-level cracker to perform. They gain your e-mail access info, intercept a message, make changes to it before letting it continue ion its way with no one the wiser.

OK, now we learn to take some basic precautions:

E-mail. By default most email programs send traffic over unsecured connections (ports 110 for incoming and 25 for outgoing). Find out if your e-mail provider offers secured “SSL” servers (usually ports 995 and 465 respectively). If they do, they should be able to help you change your program settings (Outlook: account properties, Advanced tab).

If you use a Web mail service like Yahoo or Gmail, or even a general ISP but through a Web application like Horde, you’re in better shape. Chances are you’re already using an SSL connection (“https://”). When you log into your mail Web page, make sure the URL has that “s” (https://) and the little lock icon wherever your browser shows you secured connection info (bottom middle status bar for Firefox 3).

Web searching. You know Google stores your searching habits tied to your IP and browser info, right? Here’s a way around that: Scroogle Scraper. (Secure page: Read their main page for more info.

Email encryption. OK, things get a little trickier here, but it keeps getting easier than it used to be. Most people who use email encryption use what’s called GnuPG. (You don’t need to go to that site unless you want more info about the tech). You will need to generate a key-pair to do the encrypting and an email program plugin to apply the key-pair to. If you’re lucky enough to be using Linux and Thunderbird, KGpg is probably already installed to help you make your keys and you just need to add the Enigmail add-on (actually, I believe all you need is the Enigmail add-on for Thunderbird as it has a built-in key manager. Which means, if you’re using Thunderbird in Windows, that’s all you need as well! Use your Thunderbird add-on search, or this link.)

If you’re using Outlook, you’ll need to install something like WinPT or better yet, GPG4Win which has everything you need to generate the keys and make Outlook send and decrypt encrypted email. It may be a bit tricky to get used to at first, and you may question its worth-whileness… but it is. (And like Thunderbird and Enigmail, it’s free.)

Security packages. If you really want to get into security, I recommend a package like Steganos. It costs money, but it’s extremely easy to use and a whole lot of options. Email encryption, file (or even entire drive and partition) hiding, encrypted Internet connections (if you can afford that, it’s the best way to go!!) Steganos even offers a free encryption tool on their Web site: LockNote to encrypt data you want to keep on your PC, like passwords and the like, and FreeCrypt which allows you en- and decrypt text that you can cut-n-paste into messages. (The recipient just has to use the same Web page to decrypt so long as they have the password you decide on).

Another is a package endorsed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation: Anonymizer Anonymous Surfing. They have variety of packages like VPN connections, spam foiling disposable e-mail addresses, file and history “shredding.”

Internet anonymity. Steganos and Anonymizer VPN, mentioned above, provides a secure, encrypted connection which makes all of your traffic anonymous so companies can’t track your browsing habits and visits and tie it back to you. A free option that’s not near as complete and secure, but is a pretty good option…for free, is EFF’s daughter project, Tor. It doesn’t involve any encryption. What it does is send your traffic through a large and wide network of participating relays (of which you can choose to be one) so that you look like you’re one of the many random end servers with virtually no way to track the traffic back to your original IP. It can be slow using it, and it’s not foolproof–that is, if you’re doing something illegal you WILL get caught (I highly discourage doing anything illegal anyway. In fact, not sure I’ve mentioned it yet but I’ve certainly implied it: privacy and security is the right of ALL people and one does not have to be doing something illegal to have use of it.) But if you want to avoid general tracking and recording of your surfing by corporations and marketers, etc, this could work for you.

Drive encryption. Getting a bit more tricky is the concept of drive encryption (whether PC drive or USB thumb drive). If you keep passwords or credit card info or any personal info on your thumb drive which would be a major hassle or even financially ruinous of someone got their hand on it, I highly recommend encrypting it. Steganos Safe is very user friendly, but costs. A powerful, free option is TrueCrypt. But I’ll tell you, unless you know some tech, you might not want to touch it. The Fedora 9 Linux distro has a built-in drive encryption feature. Come to think of it, I think Windows XP Pro (and maybe Vista) also has drive encryption if you’ve formatted the drive in NTFS…except, Windows login security is VERY easy to circumvent. Don’t rely on it.

Well, I guess that it. Final thoughts: Security and privacy is everyone’s right, protecting it is everyone’s responsibility. Don’t be lazy, take time investigate how you are at risk and take steps to protect yourself and your civil liberties. It benefits all of us!

Update (28 Jun 1:30pm): Here’s a new example of how trustworthy and ethical those with power and control use it:

And a sign of the times: Sweden, a former protector of civil liberties and privacy, last week passed a bill which allowed the government to monitor ALL domestic electronic and telephone communications.

The danger of belief.

When discussing and criticizing New Age, New Thought, pseudoscience beliefs (like The Secret, crystals, homeopathy, chiropractic, ESP, psychics, Tarot, astrology, chi, feng shui, ghosts, reflexology, etc. ad nauseum) people often say “Oh, what’s the big deal? It’s harmless; let people believe what they want,” it’s often because they themselves have some belief or three that they know fall into the category of superstition and credulity. Subconsciously they think, “Hmm, I better not be too harsh on people who believe in The Secret because I know some know-it-all busybody would have problems with my belief in alien visitation.”

But there is a harm to non-critical thinking and it can be as “small” as spending good money on bunk to as significant as death:

(_Another Child Dies from Faith Healing_.) A cousin of his also recently died due to lack of medical care thanks to religious beliefs. There’s a woman I work with who also believes in faith healing, and has ignored ever-increasing symptoms until she passed out at a chiropractor and was sent to the hospital. Seems she has a brain tumor. (No word yet if it’s malignant or benign.)

There’s no reason for this. I want to try hard not to disparage faith or spirituality, but let’s be realistic here: medical science over the last 200 years has literally turned the worldview of illness in the west completely upside down. What was once thought to be caused by demons and curses we know to be viruses, bacteria, and chemical disorders. No amount of praying has ever repaired anything visibly irreparable and known to be medically incurable or able to go into remission such as amputations or visible horrific burn damage. A recent massive double-blind study showed that of the three groups of heart surgery patients, (one prayed for by large amounts of cross denominational Christians and not told about it, one prayed for and told about it, and one not prayed for) the group not prayed for and the one prayed for and not told had no difference in post-surgery recovery or complications. In fact, the one prayed for and who knew about it fared statistically worse. (Hypothesis is that some of the patients felt increased stress and concern which lead to complications.)

Recently a girl with serious Autism had a teaching assistant who visited a psychic. The psychic told her a student of hers was being molested. She went to the school with her “evidence” and they turned it to the Canadian version of Family Services:

(_Psychics and gullible people do REAL harm_.) Long story short, it was proven without a doubt that the girl was not being molested–the psychic was full of crap (surprise!) The result of her “for entertainment purposes only” seering was to throw a family into upheaval and cost them a great deal of money and emotional distress.

Neurologist Steven Novella has an excellent commentary on this story: _Psychic Alleges Sexual Abuse_:

Any reasonable assessment of the evidence, in my opinion, clearly shows that alleged psychics are frauds – yes, all of them. Some may be self-deluded, while others (by the techniques they use) must be con artists. But they are all frauds – they pretend to do something they cannot do. Spreading false beliefs about reality is harmful in and of itself. But this harm is greatly magnified by great mischief ensues when alleged psychics make serious allegations based upon their intuitions. This elevates fraud to negligence, and perhaps even depraved indifference.

My wife is often a voice of reason to me. When I go off on something, criticizing what I think is irrational thought, she usually has a point of view that pulls me back down to civility. On this issue she suggested that people should be allowed to believe whatever bogus ideas they want, but should be held accountable should negative results arise. Well, of course that makes sense–I don’t think we should outlaw gullibility or non-critical beliefs, that’s fascist and would actually be counter-productive. But there’s a problem: people AREN’T being held accountable because people are scared to death to publicly criticize religion, pseudoscience, superstitions, or other credulous beliefs. From that CNN article on the boy’s death:

After earlier deaths involving children of Followers of Christ believers, a 1999 Oregon law struck down religious shields for parents who treat their children solely with prayer. No one had been prosecuted under it until the Worthingtons’ case [last March].

We have reached a point in our culture where criticizing, examining, demanding evidence for people’s beliefs is verboten. That kind of Christian fundamentalism which eschews modern medicine and science and puts their children in harm damn well deserves to be criticized at its very foundation. All psychics are frauds, period, and should be treated as such by the legal system and society at large. Beliefs which can and often do lead to harm should not be tip-toed around and given a pass because of some misguided desire to give all beliefs respect and tolerance. Some don’t deserve it.

There’s a CNN article yesterday:

It floored me. Because of vaccinations we’ve eradicated polio, a disease which used to kill or paralyze or cripple literally hundreds of thousands of people a year. Measles? Silly measles, we can risk it–why vaccinate. Because measles is a highly contagious disease with a 10-30% fatality rate and killed half a million unvaccinated people in 2003. There’s a reason we vaccinate children–it saves countless lives from many easily preventable diseases. And because of completely non-critical thinking, this process is thrown into question. Because of three converging conditions, this life-saving science is questioned and debated and needlessly avoided by many:

  • Symptoms of Autism reveal themselves at the same age range in which we vaccinate kids–regardless of vaccination. We’ve known this for decades, we see this in places where vaccinations aren’t done. It is coincidence which confuses correlation with causation.
  • We’re diagnosing more cases of Autism because of changes in methodology. It used to be that only the most severe cases of Autism were recognized as such–non-functional, “Rainman” style Autism. Now an extremely expansive continuum of symptom severity is being diagnosed. People with Ausperger’s Syndrome, a form of high-functioning Autism was virtually undiagnosed a couple of decades ago…now doctors are more readily recognizing and diagnosing cases. It’s always existed–we’re just diagnosing it more and it has nothing to do with vaccines.
  • Parents understandably want to blame something. No one, parents, anyone, likes hearing “sometimes things just happen.” People want reasons, they want answers, they want something to blame. It’s completely understandable, perfectly human. It’s why people turn to ideas of “luck” and fortune, ESP, ghosts, aliens, what have you, for explanations to coincidence, accident, unexplained (in their mind) occurrences.

But the bottom line, is test after test, study after study, research after research, prove that there is no link between Autism and vaccines. In fact, one of the most vocal proponents of the connection was invited to help design what was one of the largest and most comprehensive studies examining the possible link. When the data was analyzed and it was becoming obvious that once again there was no link, she took her name off the study and started a propaganda campaign to distance her involvement and try to discredit the study.

Sometimes people want to believe something despite all evidence to the contrary. That’s delusion.

We should hold people accountable for the effects of their beliefs, absolutely. But what happens when those responsible for holding people accountable themselves rely on magical-thinking, superstition, and other woo? People get a pass. Children are being killed by medieval religious beliefs? Well, we have to be tolerant of religion (especially in this country if it in any way involves the words “Christian” or “…of Christ”.) “Psychics” like _Sylvia Browne_ crassly lie to grieving families, feeding on their pain and grief for their own fame and money? Well, it’s for “entertainment purposes” so they’re covered. (Or, hey, in Sylvia’s case it’s a “religious belief”! Two passes in one!) Besides, cultural leaders and gurus like Oprah advocate mysticism, New Age and New Thought, psychic beliefs, and pseudoscience–so, there must be something to it.

And so we continue to support and encourage un-critical thinking and credulous belief in woo as a culture in general, and that affects our legal system, politics, media.

The other day I heard a commercial for some “all natural” prostate health herbal supplement. “And it’s all natural, so you don’t have to worry about those annoying side effects that come with pharmaceutical products.” Got a message for you: poison ivy is “all natural.” Hemlock, toadstools, heroin, arsenic, Ebola, hepatitis, cancer, cyanide, anthrax…all natural, my friends! And here’s another clue: if something, like an herb, is capable of any kind of “positive” biochemical effect on your body, it’s capable of producing unwanted and negative side effects. The only difference, FDA regulated pharmaceuticals go through rigorous testing to find all or most of those side effects, their severity, cross medication reactions. Herbal remedies get none of that testing. St. John’s Wort? All natural, and promotes liver disease. Ginko biloba? All natural, and contributes to heart disease and strokes. (True) homeopathic “medicine” is the safest, being pretty much complete water, so what’s the harm? A lot if people trust water and sugar tablets instead of seeking needed medical advice for symptoms that may indicate something water and sugar don’t affect!

A culture that believes in woo won’t and can’t hold people who harm others or themselves, based on woo, accountable in any significant degree.

Liberal delusion of gun control.

Ugh! Sometimes I just can’t stand the people I’m closest to in politics. It’s times like this that reassure me that I’m a free thinker and not a lemming: I’ve slowly gone from pro-capital punishment to against, war admiring to war hating, and am slightly becoming more non-animal-eating*… but on the issue of gun control I can’t stand how delusional progressives and (non-classical) liberals are!

Yesterday I was listening to Thom Hartman on Air America, and 90% of the time I totally agree with him. But he was discussing gun control and any time he does that I think he enters La-La Happy Magic Fairy Land.

Like most liberals (from here on that will always refer to non-classical (libertarian) variety), Thom seems to think there is no purpose and use to the 2nd Amendment any longer, and private ownership of firearms is unnecessary. Honestly, I wish to goodness he were right, but he’s not. We live in a world where guns exist, they can’t be uninvented, they won’t go away. The Pandora’s Box can’t be closed. We can see what would happen if gun were banned outright by looking at the U.K.

Since 1997 all private ownership of guns, both pistol and rifle, has been outlawed. Period. How’s crime going there? Increasing ever since, and the UN has even declared the U.K. has the worst blackmarket gun problem of any western nation:

The U.K. is the closest society to the U.S. aside from Canada in all ways (except they’re less religious than we are). Looking at the way their crime has soared despite complete gun control is a good indicator of what would happen here. I really wish a magic wand could be waved and all guns disappeared forever, but that’s not reality. Reality is the truth of the axiom: if guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns. And they will have them.

The liberals love to harp on the wording of the 2nd Amendment as proof that the framers of the constitution did not want individuals to have guns, but rather militias. State controlled armies that can be called into service to defend the nation. But there’s a problem: militias are defined and codified and allowed already in the Constitution under Article 1 Section 8. The Bill of Rights is a set of amendments to the Constitution which deals with individual rights, freedoms and liberties which by and large define ways in which the populace had rights over the government. To have the militia defined and legalized in the Constitution to make a return in the Bill of Rights implies specifically an intent for an armed citizenry. And it’s not hard to understand why!

Jefferson, among others, fought hard to prevent the US from having a standing army. (See how far we’ve drifted from that original intent!) The militias would be the citizen army called to fight if need be. But the framers also recently had to deal with breaking from a government which attempted to disarm the colonies. Tried to control citizen gun ownership as a means of controlling the citizens and preventing “trouble making” and revolt against the Crown. Citizen gun ownership was key and vital to our having been able to fight for our freedom and liberty and throw off the yoke of oppression. The framers intended the people of the US to have to ability to do so again:

That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it… (Declaration of Independence)

Obviously, the preferred means of altering government is via politics. But they realized governments can turn against the people that they are supposed to represent–it’s happened throughout history and the Founders just fought a war over it, they surely anticipated it could happen again.

Arguably more important than the detente that is approached with criminals by an armed populace is the political benefits an armed citizenry produces. A government destructive to the purposes of defending life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness will never be able to go as far as it might want knowing the populace already has the means of holding an armed resistance. Could a populace armed with pistols and rifles and shotguns withstand a full militarized war with the U.S. military? No. Apache helicopters, Abrams tanks, and grenade launchers will beat a .30-.30 any day. But the resistance that could be mounted would be long, painful, horrible, and so bad that only an empire that already controlled the rest of the world would consider fighting against such rebellion.

See, Thom would reply to such an idea on his radio show with shocked admonitions against wanting such a thing to happen, aghast that anyone would desire such a situation. No one wants that to happen!! And so long as it’s a possibility, it’s less likely to happen. But here’s the bottom line of this argument: Should the government become so powerful and corrupt that it were to instigate complete martial law and removal of civil rights, would it be better to roll over and let it happen, or to fight it? Even knowing how horrible the loss would be? I say better to fight! Chances are likely other factors would intervene…

The caller Thom was talking to brought up the French Resistance in WWII, using guerrilla tactics and even homemade guns made from bicycle parts, against a massively more powerful army. Thom’s refutation is “they failed. It took the armies of the US and UK to defeat Germany.” Indeed it did. If the US government went into lock-down and sought to disarm and depower the US citizenry, and we fought a horrible resistance, there’s a good possibility that the nature of such a conflict would encourage other nations’ armies to come to our aid. It happened in the American Revolution and even our own first Civil War. We might start out fighting and dying alone, but it wouldn’t stay that way should the US government turn completely criminal. (Assuming we hadn’t already taken over and dearmed the rest of the world.)

Secondly, the majority of the US military is comprised of the American heartland. Should New York or California revolt, they wouldn’t have a chance. But should the Midwest and South get involved in a rebellion against the federal government (especially the South), you can bet a large number of servicemen and women would remove the uniform and also rebel. And they’d bring with them their body armor and M16’s and AR-15s, and would “liberate” heavy ordinance just as rebel Generals Washington and Knox did in the Revolution. In fact, should things get increasingly bloody and untenable in an American Civil War, I would bet a few military leaders would attempt a coup. I have no doubt at all that most military leaders would rather an unarmed citizenry and a fascist state, but they also don’t want to be slaughtering their own people either.

If the American people were unable to fight a rebellion, the military would likely love an order from the President to instill martial law. But the threat of a civil war makes them think twice. It’s a horrible truth that the Cold War remained cold thanks to the looming nightmare of mutually assured nuclear destruction. Again, guns exist and they always will until humans fundamentally evolve away from aggressive capabilities and scarcity is eliminated, both. Until that time, it’s a fantasy to believe that criminals aren’t less active when it’s possible the potential victim can defend themselves with lethal force, and governments aren’t leery of fascism when the populace can revolt.

Do accidents happen with gun, sure. Sadly, innocent people get hurt, children find improperly stored guns, Bad Things Happen. The price of reality without magic wands. But the problem isn’t the item, it’s the underlying causes. It’s the same issue as the failed War on Drugs: drugs will always exist so long as people have minds to alter and stresses to escape from. It is impossible to end drug abuse by attacking the supply–the cause of addiction has to be addressed. Likewise, the social ills that create social conditions for crime need to be addressed. Gun safety needs to be encouraged as a cultural element as it was pre-1970s when young boys were taught respect and and proper use for guns (and today, girls should absolutely be a part of that unlike those days past). Like teen sex, it’s not going to magically go away if we ignore it, pretend it doesn’t exist, and encourage abstinence only. Proper education and realistic approach to the subject prevents disease and pregnancies–the same thing will prevent more firearm accidents.

The UK has certainly shown us that people aren’t harmed less by guns when they’re told by politicians to magically disappear.

* I’m not sure how far I’ll get with that. The mass commodification of living creatures for consumption kind of sickens me… but damn, meat tastes so good! A nice grilled brat with kraut and spicy mustard, bacon wrapped scallops, herb crusted crispy skinned Thanksgiving turkey, a succulent top sirloin with a touch of pink in the middle… *sigh* My ideology makes eating meat increasingly sad and gross, but my taste buds will always vibrate and my mouth water for succulent animal flesh! I’m cutting myself down to only poultry and seafood, with beef and pork as very rare occasions.

UPDATE (19 Jun 08, 10am): I had a thought to add.
It’s easy to scoff at the idea of the U.S. government ordering martial law and locking the country down and strip us of civil rights. It’s easy to sit back with a smug smile and say “it can’t happen here; we’re too modern and big yadda yadda. This whole idea of keeping arms to fight a possible rebellion against the government is too far-fetched to even contemplate.”

Yeah, I wish that were true.
Honestly think back to 10 years ago. If you were told the following would happen during the next president’s term, would you believe it? That…

  • The White House employees would literally swap out a bill in the middle of the night before it was to be voted on by Congress, replacing what Congresspersons reviewed with one which gave the FBI the power to monitor U.S. without judicial warrants in addition to a dozen other civil rights eliminations and violations? (Patriot Act I.)
  • The President would sign an Executive Order stating that he has the power to declare a State of Emergency at will, by his own discretion, and should such a state exist, the White House has sole control state and federal government? (Homeland Security Presidential Directive #20.)
  • The President would rescind the writ of habeas corpus which since the Magna Carta (1215 A.D.) allowed citizens to challenge their arrest and detainment in a court of law, thus giving the administration the power to label anyone they want an “enemy combatant” throw them in a hole?
  • The White House would instill a plan that educated pastors and priests to encourage their flocks to remain passive and cooperative should martial law be declared?
  • That the administration would authorize and encourage the use of torture on captives, some of the same techniques which we tried and persecuted WWII Japanese officers of performing?
  • Would maintain secret prisons throughout the world in places which we have previously admonished for using even worse torture methods?
  • The White House would actively and knowingly twist and contort intelligence information to take the country into war and support war profiteering by corporations owned (or held significant shares in) by people in the administration?
  • The President would use classified CIA information for political purposes to discredit political opponents to the point of even putting their and their assets’ lives in danger and destroying years worth of cover-building?
  • The White House would instigate secret mass wiretapping of domestic citizens without judicial or congressional review or oversight?
  • Would create a politically oriented organization (with a name harkening to his grandfather’s support of the Nazi Party…”Homeland Security”) which would control all domestic and foreign intelligence gathering as well as domestic security under his direct control?
  • Would utilize private paramilitary organizations (e.g. Blackwater) for foreign security service, covert operations, and domestic service without congressional or judicial oversight or review or legal ramifications for their actions? In essence, creating a private army without Constitutional mandate?
  • Would instigate a federal identification program which would prevent or limit travel within even the U.S. without “proper papers”? (And other civilian watching, monitoring, and controlling programs which would have little to no effect in preventing domestic terrorism.)
  • Would rescind Posse Comitatus which protected the 4th Amendment and prevented the federalization of military actions on U.S. soil?

…just to name a few.

If you honestly thought 10 years ago that one president wouldn’t be able to do all this, then imagine what  might happen should one president declare war on a country like Iran? Or what he’d do should there be another domestic terrorist act? He’s set the pieces of the board perfectly so that at the littlest provocation the Office of the President would run the country like a dictatorship. It might be Bush, it could be the next President, could be the one after that.

We don’t know, and that’s the point! That’s why there are protections defined by the Constitution, not to tell us what we should do when something happens but to help prevent Bad Things from happening. Like impeachment. It’s not there just to punish a President (or Vice President) for acts they commit, but also to discourage future Presidents from committing high crimes and misdemeanors. An armed populace helps prevent a dictatorship, which very well can happen here:

♦ Fascist America, in 10 easy steps

♦ The End of America: A Letter of Warning To A Young Patriot

Here Be Dragons.

Brian Dunning of the Skeptoid blog/podcast has made a spiffy little movie (40 min) as a primer for critical thinking:

♦ Here Be Dragons – Movie

It’s got some nice visuals, but I let it play in the background and just listened to it while I worked. It’s a little rough (for example, there are several pronunciation gaffes and one section early on where you just see a montage of products of pseudo-science for like two full minutes. It gets the point across that we’re surrounded and innundated with pseudo-science we don’t even think twice about, but it gets a little tedious to watch. But, get past it and it gets a lot better!) …in general it’s a fine film with great advice and information!

I don’t want to spoil it too much, but a general rundown: Early on he discusses how “natural” does not equal better nor even healthy! Poison ivy, toadstools, e. coli are all natural. Also, be skeptical of anything that advertises it’s based on “ancient wisdom”! Ancient wisdom also gave us slavery, blood letting, spontaneous generation, the idea that bathing is evil….

Some of the best, vital, and misunderstood topics include the issue of large numbers and probability (about 20 minutes in). For example, even with strict conditions, it’s a statistical certainty that a significant number of people will think of a person at the same moment they die. It’s a statistical issue, not one of psychic ability.

About 24 minutes in he discusses the matter of “clinical studies have shown” is a marketing phrase with no meaning behind it, and explains what goes into a good research study.

The section on homeopathy is, as always, absolutely hilarious!

Then about 29 minutes in he gets to discussing why smart people believe weird things. Believing in pseudo-science has nothing to do with intelligence or education, and in fact doing so is just human. But at the end he does a good job explaining why it’s ultimately harmful to believe in what would appear to be harmless fallacies and pseudo-sciences. An important part!

He offers some books that he considers vital for a critical thinker’s reading list:

“Biblical literalism or low IQ: which came first?”

The Gene Expression science blog has an interesting post today:

♦ Biblical literalism or low IQ: which came first?

It’s a meta analysis of existing data culled from various sources which indicates that people who hold onto literal biblical interpretations tend to have lower IQs, and people of certain denominations have lower educations. For example, Unitarians, Episcopalians, and Methodists tend to have less literal biblical interpretations and higher education levels, while Southern Baptists and Pentecostal tend to have the lower IQs and education.

This correlation doesn’t surprise me. Regardless of the validity or truthfulness of the Christian Bible, it’s “easy” to just say “it’s all true” and treat each distinct component as truth. It doesn’t take much thinking or reason to accept what you’re told by authority–we’re fundamentally geared to do so, as humans. Even the cognitive dissonance which is required to believe the Bible literally does not take much thought–in fact, living with cognitive dissonance requires one not to think much about the contradictions and paradoxes that create the dissonance.

But, forgetting religious validity, still, it takes a much more thoughtful person to reason about something presented as fact and appreciate nuance, interpretation, incorporate conflicting data and change your belief and thinking based on new or newly interpreted data! People with lower mental faculties and/or less experience with the challenges of education tend to prefer certainty and order and abhor uncertainty and intellectual conflict that demands resolution, and will tend to believe unquestioningly what they are told by those they look to as authorities in order to preserve order and provide guidance on what to do in their lives.

Religious belief in general doesn’t respond to IQ or education as there are a great many educated intellectuals who hold onto religious beliefs. Though, most Nobel Prize winners in the non-arts have been atheists, and in the past when religious belief was compulsory (lest you were burned as a heretic) many of history’s intellectuals were as close to Deists as the cultural religious attitude would allow.

This week’s Religious Shenanigans.

A couple bits of news in religious ignorance which have caught my eye today. The first is just rediculous, but the second may have far-reaching negative effects on most American public school children.

But first:
♦ Ford dealership uses bigoted radio ads to sell cars

In a gorgeous display of perfect irony, this Ford dealership radio ad states that 86% of Americans believe in god, and the remaining 14% should “sit down and shut up” while the Christians practice their right of free speech.


Well, first of all, according to the last U.S. census, only 72% of American’s professed to being Christian. According to the recent exhaustive and comprehensive Pew study, 78% of American’s claim to be Christian (and 16% being non-believers of any faith). Well, 3/4 of the population claims to be Christian…not 86% but better than half, one could say. But according to the Assotiation of Religion Data Archives, only 71% of “Christians” believe Jesus is the son of God…argueably the one quality that defines what it means to be “Christian”. And I can say from unscientific personal anecdotal experience, even living in the Bible Belt, that a significant number of people who reflexively claim to be “Christian” do so out of conditioning and the idea that there isn’t anything else to believe in. That the alternatives are Islamofascism and nilistic atheism.

But this is pedantry. The real gauling part of this story is he whole “because we’re the presumed majority we have the right of free speech, the rest of you don’t–suck it.” Yeah, you have the right to say what you want,and even make public radio commercials saying whatever you want. But so does the 14% (or 16%, rather, or 25%…). Free speech works the way it’s designed to when those with the unpopular speech are given the same rights and accord as those in the majority.

That stuff is annoying. But this is scary:

♦ That’s it. Texas really is doomed.

It seems a very outspoken and activist creationist who is vocally anti-science is in charge of education in Texas. He recently ignored nearly three years of expert work on research and study for English standards, and had his own standards agenda written overnight by social conservatives and then ramroded it through the Texas Board of Education. The science curriculum standards are next up for review.

Why the effects of this is more far-reaching than it seems is because text book editors look to Texas (as well as California) when setting their own standards and content because of the number of copies both states buy from the major textbook publishers.

Ah, the marriage of ignorance, ideology, and corporitism! What a country!