Sunday, May 31, 2015

I'm A Shill!

It is funny, when I had 100's of readers back on Townhall during my heyday, when I actively promoted my site and got on the top 10 page views list over and over, no one questioned my motives. Then I stopped actively promoting, my readership dropped off to the point where it was a few loyal readers and (at times) a troll or two, and suddenly people start calling me a shill.

Well, the first negative attention wasn't exactly calling me a shill. My articles on gay marriage, and questioning the biological origins of homosexuality got me cited as a right wing flake on a site called"q-tips" three times in a row.

However, things went downhill from there. My criticism of the FairTax had numerous proponents calling me "a shill for the CPAs". Unfortunately the comments to the old Townhall blog are lost since the site closed, but if I can find some on archive.org (some have been preserved, some haven't), I will link them here.

And now, I was searching for one of my posts and, using Google, found that some 9-11 truther cite was alleging I am a disinformation shill! If only! I could use the income. But, sadly, no, I am not being paid to point out how nutty the truthers are, it is simply me using my brain. Then again, using one's brain and being a truther seem to be mutually exclusive, so perhaps they don't recognize it and imagine I must be a shill to have come up with all these incredible thoughts such as "maybe hitting a tower with a plane will make it fall over". (The Google link led to a strange forum landing page, from which I did not feel like finding my way to the original citation, so I am simply going to produce the Google cached page here.)

Makes me wonder what will be the next allegation.

Some Thoughts About a Specific Conspiracy Theory, or Maybe Two

My son was surfing about on Youtube as he does sometimes, and, as is his wont, he happened upon strange science sites that he seems to enjoy, which, inevitably, led him to some of those more fringe sites which love to put forward completely bizarre conspiracy theories. As I have repeatedly shown him how to debunk the more absurd of these claims, I am not particularly worried he will be taken in by such sites, though I do tend to listen along with him, both to point out the more nonsensical bits, and because I am amused by them myself. (As regular readers know, I am quite obsessed with the whole concept of conspiracy theories, why they arise, why they enjoy such popularity and so on. See "The Appeal of Conspiracy Theories", "Backwards Thinking and the Number of the Beast", "Ritual Abuse, Backwards Logic and Conspiracy Theories","False Flag Theories and 9/11", "Backwards Logic", "Maybe Obama Was Born in Gulf Breeze, Florida", "Can Hawaiians Travel Overseas?", "Conspiracies Vs. Conspiracy Theories", "Sleight of Hand", "Self-Sustaining Beliefs", "Mumia, the DaVinci Code, Full Body Scans, and Loose Change - How Conspiracy Theories Arise"and "Conspiracy Theories")

Today's topic was one I have heard a number of times, and one which suffers from a number of problems, the most obvious being that the basic premise is just not sound.

The theory in question? That "big pharma" is suppressing the cure for cancer.

Actually, there are theories about that "big pharma" is suppressing a number of cures, for cancer, for AIDS, for aging, what have you. name a health problem, and there is probably someone saying it was cured but the pharmaceutical industry makes too much from treating symptoms for them to allow the cure to be released. In many ways, it is the same as a number of other theories, such as the supposed scheme by "big oil" to keep secret a car that runs on water, or any number of other cheap energy solutions or perpetual motion machines, or else the similar theories that someone, often Nikola Tesla, discovered some form of cheap or free energy that is being kept secret by the electrical or oil companies. So, after mentioning one problem specific to the cancer question, I will try to address the more general subject, the idea that some secret miracle solution for a modern problem has been discovered, but suppressed out of greed.

The problem with the cancer claim in particular is that cancer, for all the public treats it as a disease, is actually a description of a symptom, or, at most, a category of diseases, grouped together due to similar symptoms. But all of those diseases, despite sharing the common symptom of uncontrolled cell growth, have countless origins, from viruses to toxins to genetic disorders to a combination of cell damage and replication errors, cancer is not a single disease and certainly does not have a single cause. To talk of "a cure for cancer" is as misleading as speaking of a "cure for fever". Fever, we all know, is a symptom of any number of problems, yet we forget the same is true of cancer, and so we allow ourselves to imagine there may be a single cure for "cancer", where we would never believe there was a single treatment which would cure all "fever". Thus, "the cure for cancer" is not only a pipe dream, but is a pipe dream so unlikely as to be impossible to realize.

But for the purpose of the rest of this argument, let us ignore that shortcoming, and imagine that we are really speaking about a cure for some specific cancer. It doesn't really matter for the rest oft he argument. Since we are going to be talking about the theory that greedy industries of various types are hiding miracle solutions, we can, for the moment, ignore all the specifics.

So, let us look at the generic claim, that there are problems, be it diseases, or the demand for oil or electricity, shortages of energy, or what have you that are profitable for various companies, which are so invested in these problems that they hide these solutions. It doesn't matter if ti the cure for cancer, or AIDS or a car that runs on static electricity int he air or some other perpetual motion machine. Let us look at the problem in a generic way.

The first thing you might notice is, in general, companies make money, not from perpetuating a problem, but from providing solutions.  Now, in some cases, these answers are short term, but we don't usually view that as evil. We don't blame grocers from only treating starvation by providing food rather than teaching us to grow our own. On the other hand, we also don't believe grocers are sabotaging home gardens as unfair competition. In this case, because it doesn't involve bogeymen like "big pharma" and "big oil", and because we may actually know a grocer, and have daily contact with the issue, we are forced to exercise common sense. Unlike, say, when we talk about magical cures for cancer.

Unfortunately, when dealing with unfamiliar, large issues, and with groups we tend to treat as villains, we lose contact with common sense, and begin to believe nonsense.

Now, let us look at the past and ask ourselves if, in the past, solutions were found which destroyed other industries, and yet which were not suppressed. We can start, for example, with the railroads, which drove the canals largely out of business. And yet, the canal barons did not buy up railroad patents and try to suppress them, there were no schemes to keep canals alive. Or, when the automobile was invented, it definitely became a serious threat to the railways, and they were definitely wealthy enough to compete with "big pharma" as villains, and yet, the car was built, railways declined, and life went on.

The simple fact is, there is no way to suppress knowledge. Let us suppose you find "the cure for cancer" tomorrow. Now, "big pharma" may petition the government, perhaps have it disallowed for human use. (Part of why I believe we need to eliminate the FDA is because an FDA error can have such a chilling effect on research.) However, just because it cannot be used on humans does not prevent research or publication. You can continue animal studies, publish your results, maybe find another country willing to allow human tests to proceed. There is no way "big pharma" could stop this. Unless you truly believe every government, every publication, every source of research grants is corrupt, there is no way a truly effective cure would be fully suppressed.

The same is true of perpetual motion machines and miracle cars, but even more so. Medicine, at least, is so heavily regulated that one need only postulate corruption in government. To prevent the development of any of these miracle machines, you would have to postulate that every manufacturer, every venture capitalist, every banker, and every private investor is in the pocket of the plotters.

And that, in the end, is the stumbling block of every conspiracy theory, they require an absurdly jaded view of mankind. As I pointed out before, those "evil corporate stooges" are also your cousin, your brother, the guy down the street. Do you really think they are willing to dump toxins or allow school kids to be poisoned? Likewise, do we truly believe there is the near universal corruption required to accept most conspiracy theories of suppressed cures for various things? It strikes me as absurd. Perhaps I am overly optimistic about mankind, but experience has not shown me people are anywhere near as open to bribes and threats as this theory would suggest.

POSTSCRIPT

There is one other issue. Even if people could be bribed or threatened as this theory suggests, there is the second problem that they would also have to remains silent as well. history shows a number of cases where people were briefly bought or intimidated, but later had second thoughts. So, for these conspiracy theories to work, we have to postulate that people are corrupt enough to be easily bought, but so honorable they never then break silence. It seems a strangely contradictory view of people.

The Problem With Panspermia

Just a brief thought, not a full comment, but it struck me today, while reading about Fred Hoyle, that very clever people can sometimes miss obvious problems. Now, I don't have an issue, for example, with his belief in the steady state model of the universe. Granted, evidence goes against it at present, but to be honest, the big bang has some issues as well, such as "Where did it come from? How can everything explode out of nothingness? And what did it explode into?" Basically, any explanation of the universe that is not endless ends up with the problem of creation ex nihilo. Hawking comes closest with his theory of an oscillating universe, since it is essentially a steady state, just with varying size, the universe is eternal, just changing size and shape. Nor do I have an issue with Hoyle's belief in, say, abiogenetic petroleum. I still don't buy the theory, but it is plausible, though, again, evidence does seem to favor the alternative theory.

In fact, I don't even have a problem with the theory I am about to slag on pretty hard. The theory itself is not a problem, I can even accept the possibility. It is the justification that troubles me.

You see, among many other unpopular theories Hoyle promoted is the idea that, to some degree, life on Earth had its origin in space. The degree to which life is extraterrestrial varies between proponents, with some simply arguing the earliest genetic material or even pre-genetic viral material, came from space, with others -- including Hoyle -- arguing genetic material continued to be altered by space-borne viruses and other matter. (Hoyle went so far as to blame several pandemics upon space matter.) As far as it goes, the theory is unobjectionable. It seem, to my amateur's eye, less than convincing, given the relatively strong evidence for genetic continuity on Earth, at least in terms of space having a continual influence, but as to the initial origins, well, evidence is pretty good for a terrestrial origin, but nothing makes the alternative theory impossible.

So, what is my problem? Well, my objection is the justification, that being the part of Hoyle that several ID proponents have also latched onto. You see, Hoyle's argument is basically the same as the irreducible complexity argument of the ID proponents, that life is too complicated to have originated form the "primordial soup". Which sounds fine and good, until you ask, but, if life came from space, how did it get there? Even assuming life is too complex to evolve on Earth, how did it evolve wherever it did originate? And, since Hoyle is not a theist, this is a valid question. Even if we assume intelligent intervention "seeding" life on Earth, we still must ask, how did that life evolve?

And that is why I opened with the statement that I did, that sometimes very clever people miss obvious problems. Now, not having read all of Hoyle's work, being in fact, fairly new to his writing, I am not sure if he did come up with some solution or not, but it still seems to me that this idea of "irreducible complexity" is a bad position unless one is, as with ID, going to promote an extra-material creator, since, if something is too complex to evolve, then it must either not exist, or have some external origin. And, if we are talking about life itself, then we pretty much remove all external origins, making irreducible complexity a problem for those promoting panspermia along with a purely material world view.

As I said, just my initial thoughts, I need to find more of Hoyle's writing on this to see what clever dodge he comes up with to work around the problem of panspermia just pushing the complexity problem off to another planet. When I have more, I will likely comment again.

POSTSCRIPT

By the way, to be clear, I am not pushing an ID position here. I have, in fact, been kind of critical of ID, as I believe a creator possessed of omniscience and omnipotence would leave no finger prints, since, knowing all outcomes, he could simply pick the right starting conditions to achieve his goals. God is not some tinkerer who would need to come in and adjust things like a weekend hobbyist working on his model train layout. Being omniscient he would get it right at the first try. So to say God would leave visible signs is, in essence, to postulate something not like an omniscient God, but more like the Greek and Roman deities, who make mistakes, get in each others' way, and essentially are less Gods and more superhumans. ("Some Thoughts on Arguments for Intelligent Design", "Materialist Arrogance")

To be clear, I am not arguing against panspermia's complexity problem to push a creator, but rather to argue that creation on Earth still seems most likely. Evidence is good for the primal conditions producing lots of early precursors of life (amino acids, other long chain molecules, proto-cells, etc.), so it seems to me, given a very long time and a lot of matter, life originating on Earth is not too implausible. (Whether or not a creator is involved is a question of faith, not science, or so it seems to me. Unless, somehow we could find evidence of a the sudden, miraculous introduction of life without source. But even had such been the case, the idea of finding convincing evidence is pretty implausible.) So, unlike those promoting ID, I am not pointing out problems in Hoyle's arguments to push God, but rather to suggest maybe the theory is flawed.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Our Unique Age, A Tempting Falsehood

A while ago, I read an article "Another Signpost on the Road to Destruction" which argued, in a superficially convincing manner, that the mass media, embodied in the early newspapers in this specific example, brought about significant changes -- mostly for the worse -- in American culture. Even as I read it, it occurred to me that, though in some ways sounding quite plausible, this essay suffered from a problem I had identified some time ago. In my essays "Catastrophic Thinking, The Political, Economic and Social Impact of Seeing History in the Superlative" and "All Life in a Day, or, How Our Mistaken View of History Distorts Our Understanding of Events.", I argued that there our current cultural philosophy, which I characterized as being rather juvenile, has a tendency to make us see our own era as unique, and not just unique, but exceptional, a marvel for either good or ill, something that pushes the boundaries of the historical record. In some ways, the case I made in those essays is still quite valid, and helps to explain why I find such arguments as I have described less than convincing, though, before explaining why, I am afraid I must, to some degree, dismiss my own earlier arguments, or, at the very least, qualify them significantly.

The main problem I can see with my earlier argument is, in order to make my case for the detrimental effect of our worship of both youth and novelty, I may have overstated the role it plays in our excessive emphasis on the present age. After all, the tendency to see the present as somehow exception is not only a modern trait, or even a trait limited to the eras since the birth of Romanticism (which I identify as the progenitor of our modern world view), even as far back as the middle ages, or farther, into the classical era, there was a tendency to make of the present time something unique. Whether it was the biblical and Greek view that we lived in an especially debauched "age of iron", the early Christian belief in the impending eschaton, or the medieval view that the present was the last gasp of a world winding down, wasting away from a grand past populated by giants, there seems to be an innate human tendency to see the present as somehow exceptional, though oddly, for much of the past this was a tendency to see the world as especially depraved, rather than the more modern belief that we stand on the cusp of something wonderful. Then again, the philosophy is far from dead, as seen in the ecological belief in impending doom. it is less common, and in modern times often coupled with a belief in the impending salvation through some sort of revolution, but there are still hints of the older belief in an especially corrupt world.

This is not to say that the current embodiment of this philosophy is not colored by our neo-Romantic philosophy. As I said, the Romantic love of novelty has changed the emphasis from the present being the tail end of a world degraded from its primitive purity to a much more optimistic belief that this is the moment when everything comes together and creates some sort of optimal world. Likewise, in a very subtle way, Romanticism has also changed the emphasis of this belief. In the past, it may have been thought the present was part of a particularly detestable age, but it was part of, in most cases -- excluding special cases, such as the Christian belief in the impending return of Christ -- it was a part of the age, not the very end, while most moderns have a habit of imaging the end of history coincides with the end of their own existence, making the present day especially noteworthy. And so, there is still much to the case I made, though I must admit, I may have simplified it a bit too much, and ignored the fact that, to some lesser degree, the behavior described seems inherent in human perception. Romanticism may exaggerate this flaw in human thinking -- and I believe it does to a large degree -- but it is not the root cause, nor is the mistake I described limited solely to those holding Romantic beliefs.

Having said all of that, I can now begin to point out why, bearing in mind my caveat above, this mistaken perception -- whether or not it is related to one's personal philosophy -- can lead us to make some very foolish assumptions about the past and present, assuming some things we see around us are ills exclusive to the modern age, when in truth they have, in one form or another, been around for most, or even all, of human history.

Allow me to offer up one example that seems almost incontrovertible, yet only because we insist on ignoring quite comparable events. It is a commonplace of modern writing to decry the modern obsession with fame at all costs, and to couple that with a denunciation of the worship of celebrities, and to speak of them as specifically modern problems, unknown to past eras. And, in one way, this is true, actually in more than one way.

First, it is true in a tautological sense,  in that every age is in some ways unique. The era of Facebook and "likes" and reality tv and instant celebrities and the like is, quite obviously, incomparable to any other age, viewed in one light this age is of necessity unique. On the other hand, that tautological truth tells us little, as all the past ages were also unique, and yet we have no hesitation to compare the unique problems of today to the presumably more pedestrian problems of the whole of the past, in our comparison ignoring the uniqueness of every past era, noticing only the uniqueness of the present. And so, if we can admit, despite each era being unique in some ways, there is also some commonality to those eras making up the past, then don't we also have to admit the present too may have the same commonalities, and thus, despite the unique nature of some parts of the present, it is also part of the grand flow of history, and thus is also, in one way or another, comparable to other eras, meaning, while some aspects of our problems may be unique, in other ways, they are also cognate to prior issues?

Granting that point, we then reach the second way in which this argument is also true, that being the fact that, thanks to the changes that come with time, there are aspects of problems which are only possible in some given eras. The worldwide communication possible today, for example, has given the quest for fame an urgency and ease of entry that did not exist in most past eras, and has changed in many ways how we conceive of fame and notoriety. On the other hand, these are, in many ways, still simply changes in details, not in the underlying issues. Just as firearms and tanks and planes and missiles and nuclear devices changed many aspects of warfare, but left many of the underlying aspects of war recognizable to someone from thousands of years ago, so too the modern veneer added to many problems only serves to obscure the fact that many of those problems have had a much longer life than many would recognize.

Let us not look at specifics for a moment, but instead boil down this argument to its most basic form. What does it mean to seek fame? What is a celebrity? What does it mean to worship or idolize them? Fame is, in essence, little more than the approval of one's peers. To be famous is nothing more than doing something which others value, and being recognized for doing so. Granted, modern concepts of fame -- being famous simply for being well known, for example -- show a particularly vacuous idea of what deserves praise, but that does not change the underlying definition. (I grant that many moderns actually base most of their argument on the unspoken complaint that modern fame is based upon bankrupt values, rather than actually denouncing the quest for fame itself, but we will deal with that later.) To become famous, one must be recognized for doing something of worth, and to be recognized -- in most cases -- one must actually do whatever it is that society values. In other words, the quest for fame is not much different than the tendency in any era to seek the approval of one's peers. Granted, modern media makes the scope of one's peer group larger, and the changes in mores mean every era has a different idea of what is worthwhile and worthy of praise, but the underlying quest is fairly universal. It is hard to think of an era when one did not seek praise for good behavior. Even among groups superficially obsessed with modesty, men and women were praised for good reputations and virtuous behavior, in short, they were famous, at least in part, for trying to eschew fame, but they were still famous. And doubtless, even in those eras, others sought similar fame, though the need to appear modest probably made it tricky to obtain. (Though no worse than many eras where being cool meant giving the impression you didn't care what others thought. Odd to think Puritans and modern hipsters had anything in common, but apparently they do. Plus ca change...)

The same is true of celebrities. One would think from the way modern critics denounce our fawning over movie stars and singers that there were no comparable people in the past, that prior to Valentino, at the earliest, there was no one famous. Yet, fame is hardly a modern creation. Franz Liszt is often described as a prototype of the modern rock star, for example, and, while not exactly accurate, it does demonstrate how fame predates the modern mass media. Nor was he even the earliest example. The reasons one might be famous changed over time, with each era's values altering what was and was not considered worthy of attention, but in every age, in every culture, there have been celebrities of one sort or another. It is inevitable. Fame might be limited to a smaller radius, national or even regional legends, as opposed to the global celebs of today, but they were still there. Fame was not invented by Hearst, nor did it suddenly appear with the invention of motion pictures, and fame creates celebrities. Which, once again, shows the absurdity of those complaints about modern love of celebrities.

We need only change our perspective very slightly, for example, to find some pretty close similarities between, say, the modern celebrity worship and various periods in history when travelers would go on considerable journeys to visit various monks, column-sitters, hermits, and other potential saints. Not only that, but it is not hard to find many parallels as well between those who sought to emulate the extreme behavior of these would be saints and the behavior of modern would be celebrities. Granted, those who aspired to sainthood claimed they were moved by religious conviction, and likely many were, at least to some degree, but even if we do not suspect their motives, the fact remains that they adopted public modes of worship, such as column sitting, or public self-mortification, not only because they had religious aspirations, but because they sought the approval of their fellows. In short, like the worst of our modern Facebook addicts, so too the column sitters and anchorites also lusted after fame.

And the same is true of other supposedly exclusively modern inventions, such as modern panics, modern hysteria and over reaction and so on.

No, I will grant, in some ways modern circumstances create unique situations, because, as I said above, every era has unique aspects. So, for example, the modern 24 hour news cycle, with its need to fill time with something, and the tendency to make local stories national, has created the modern perception that there are numerous strangers going about abducting children, where, in truth, strange abductions are a pretty constant number relative to population. However, because we now hear of stranger abductions from all 50 states and maybe even abroad, where before we heard only of the local cases, if that, we imagine there has been a tremendous multiplication of such events.

On the other hand, if mass media has fed into some hysterias, it has also tamed others. For example, when foreign news was carried by letter or word of mouth, when it took weeks for news to travel from Moscow to London, and months to get to the colonies or early United States, it was quite easy for the most absurd rumors to persist, since confirming or denying the same would be almost impossible, considering the time involved. I admit, even today, people will believe some pretty silly things (I have written about a number of them), but what our credulous fellows (or perhaps we ourselves) will believe doesn't hold a candle to what many believed of foreign lands a few centuries ago. With travel rare, costly and dangerous, with news coming slowly and from unreliable sources, and even correspondence taking weeks or months, not only were the most absurd tales presented as fact, but they persisted for years, decades, even centuries, as there was simply no way for the average person to learn the truth.

And if we wish to speak of unfounded panics and worries, the modern age may have given us a number of examples, but let us not forget that in the past the term "witch hunt" was not always used figuratively. It may not have been quite as common as popular histories would have us believe, and may not have taken quite as many lives as some writers (especially ones critical of religion) suggest, but there still remains the fact that periodic mania for burning witches did exist, not to mention frequent outbursts of violence against Jews, gypsies, foreigners of all kinds, and any other group, usually prompted by some ill founded slander, or, at best, perhaps a single event which the popular consciousness exaggerated into a threatening conspiracy. So it is absurd to think such follies are the product of the modern age, of mass media or the popular press, just as the quest for acceptance and approval have made us eternally hungry for fame, so too had our tendency to accept overly simplified explanations, to find patterns where none exists also makes us prone to periodic manias and panics.

I am sure at this point I am being criticized alternately for being too much of an optimist and too much of a pessimist, seeing too little threat in modern ills, while espousing a pretty negative view of humankind. And in some ways I suppose there is some merit in both claims, though I think I can answer both. Allow me to deal with the optimism first.

As I have pointed out repeatedly, I admit the particular features of our age allow for some ills to take on unique aspects. For instance, the internet's tendency to duplicate the same information hundreds of times in hundreds of places means errors, absurdities and conspiracy theories of all kinds will appear more legitimate than they would normally, as they appear to enjoy massive support simply through duplication*. On the other hand, is this really all that different from the remote past when, because of the lack of travel, one's sources of information were limited to a few dozen neighbors, who generally repeated one another's prejudices? Obviously, there are great differences between the two in one regard, but in practical effect, the repeated lies of the internet don't produce any worse circumstances than the collective ignorance of an isolated village without outside contact. Thus, while admitting the modern world may produce some unique superficial traits, in essence, most human follies are timeless, and would exist with or without our modern society and technology.

Which brings me to my last argument, my attempt to dispel the appearance I may have given of seeing humankind in too negative a light. I will grant, in this essay I have tended to focus on the ignorance and folly of man, but that is only because that is the point of the essay. Of course, having said that, I must add that man, throughout much of history, even into modern times, has had a tendency to lapse into folly with alarming frequency. But that is almost unavoidable, if you think about it. Take any question, any problem, and look for solutions. The number of solutions which are "right", that is which accurately describe the situation, or which produce solutions which improve one's circumstances, are a tiny percentage of all possible answers. In short, there are infinitely more ways to get things wrong than right. Given that fact, the odds are against us from the start. The fact that we get things right as often as we do, that we manage to advance knowledge more often than set it back and collapse into barbarism tells me that human reason is an incredibly powerful tool. Even in ages rife with superstition and idiocy, we have managed to slowly claw our way forward and advance human understanding, and that fact alone fills me with hope.

Of course we will continue to make mistakes. Of course people will continue to hold foolish ideas, some maybe even will be accepted by the majority. There may even be times in the future where we will lose some of our hard won knowledge, either through collapse or through intentionally tossing it away. But, in the end, I have faith in man and think that, despite all his foolishness, all his tendency to make mistakes, all his delusional and destructive habits, man will continue to better his lot and continue to progress.

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* I wrote before in "Mystery Quotes" of the time I found a typographical error in Wikipedia that had been reproduced verbatim on over a hundred web pages. That alone showed me how absurd it is to rely upon "citations" on the internet, since anyone can post anything online, and, without fail, some page will pick it up and duplicate it, giving even the most absurd claims the semblance of legitimacy.

Monday, May 25, 2015

A Few Passing Thoughts

I was working on an essay on a topic loosely related to inconsistent beliefs. In the process, I was struck by a number of strange positions adopted by our society, or at least portions of it. They are probably not important enough to merit an essay of their own, but I thought I might mention them in passing:
1. One position that has always amused me was that of various health nazis, whether banning smoking even in the privacy of my own home* or telling me I cannot eat various foodstuff as they are bad for me, these same people are often the ones who tell us that teaching abstinence is futile, as teens will :do it anyway", and the best we can do is offer them safety instructions. So, if I get this right, there is no point in making any effort to stop underage pregnancies, syphilis, AIDS, herpes, and other STDs, not to mention increased risk of date rape, sexual violence and a host of other issues that become more frequent when involving teens in sexual matters, that is not worth fighting, as "they'll do it anyway", but we should impose the full force of law to ensure against the dire consequences of a quarter pounder with cheese? Is it just me, or does this sound a bit bizarre? Informing teens of very real dangers is pointless, but we should utilitze police powers to ensure adults don't get hold of french fries and corn chips? 
2. Another of my favorites is the "do not call list". Admittedly, since everyone is annoyed by marketing calls, this one is largely supported across political lines, but there certainly was, initially at least, a push from the, mostly left-leaning, "privacy" lobby and some anti-commerce types. Which, in general, are the same people who also tell me there is no way to legally prevent homeless men from panhandling in most downtown districts. So, again, let us look at this sensibly. You can sue a company and win damages if they make a polite phone call doing nothing more than soliciting business. On the other hand, a malodorous, filthy man who stands far too close, makes vaguely threatening gestures, speaks incomprehensibly, and will not take no for an answer, against him there is nothing I can do? One is exercising a "fundamental right to speech", while somehow the other speech is not protected, mostly because it is involved in business. Again, does anyone follow this logic? 
3. As I mentioned smoking earlier, it is another question that puzzles me. I understand the arguments against smoking in public, I would prefer if it were left to the owners of the venues, with each store, bar, restaurant, etc deciding on their own, with the market making the final call, but I understand the logic, if I disagree with the practice. However, having recently flown, I am puzzled by the rules against smoking "e-cigarettes" in public. An "e-cigarette" is not a cigarette, there is no smoke. At most, you exhale a little steam, some flavoring and maybe a minute hint of nicotine, and the cigarette itself, if anything leaks, emits nothing but the same mixed with a bit more steam. Why, someone wearing perfume or cologne emits more fumes than an e-cigarette! So, why the ban? I mean, I know why, it is because the anti-smoking campaign is all about bullying others into doing what's right in your eyes, and not about protecting us from "second hand smoke". But, somehow no one seems to care. Having successfully made smokers into the despised reprobates of our culture, no law is too harsh, no inconvenience severe enough, and so, whether the law makes sense or not, anything nominally anti-smoking is permissible**.

As I said, just a few random thoughts, which didn't seem to fit elsewhere, but I thought I would share them. Doubtless some will object to one or another (that phone solicitations "involve the phone", as if that somehow removed one's rights, or made it more intrusive than a bully vagrant), but I wanted to put them somewhere, so I offer them as is, and await your replies.

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* I grant, few have yet pushed for total prohibition, but one Maryland township did try to enact a law prohibiting smoking in conjoined homes, on the theory it might somehow leap through the shared walls. So the right to smoke at home is not as safe as some believe.

** The smoking policy at my workplace, in order to prohibit e-cigarettes, bans "inhaling any substance", which a coworker pointed out means that breathing is impermissible for employees.

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POSTSCRIPT

I realize I am far behind on my promised essays. Unfortunately another bout of ill health combined with a busy week at work has kept me form even coming close to what I promised. I will try to catch up this week, if at all possible. Please accept my apology.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Myth Busters

I know I have a tendency to complain about "internet myths", such as Roman hopscotch and many supposed "quotes" that have no obvious source.  However, there is an opposite trend which drives me almost as crazy, and that is internet videos purporting to tell "falsehoods you learned in school" or "shocking facts about ancient Greeks." My young son has a fascination with these, and so I often get to hear them, and it amazed me how contentious, or even wrong, they can be.

Many are, of course, unobjectionable.  For example, that there is gravity in Earth orbit, that the Emancipation Proclamation did not free all the slaves, or that there were those who knew the Earth was round prior to Columbus. But then many others are either the result of picking a single viewpoint and pretending it is "the truth", or taking an area where there is some doubt and over emphasizing it, or, in the most extreme cases, simply presenting something as wrong as what was originally proposed.

For example, historically, no one knows what the thumb gestures in the Roman gladiatorial games meant. We know there was a gesture, it involved thumbs, but that's it. There have been serious arguments made for and against thumbs up being survival, thumbs down being survival, or covering the thumb with the hand being survival. However, all are simply theories, there is no evidence for any of them. Yet I have seen several of these videos which pick one (of course never thumbs up) and use it to argue "you believe the wrong thing", but making an equally wrong-headed case for what is but one of many possibilities.

Similarly, very contentious positions are treated as certain, from Hitler's single testicle to Napoleon's height, they will adopt a report or the theory of a group of historians that provide the most shocking evidence and state it as apoditic truth, ignoring that similar revisions have often been overturned in the past, usually by the next crop of revisionists.

It is the worst sort of pop history mixed with USA Today "History in a Box". Inevitably couched in lists that are multiples of 5 or 10*, they make a certain sort of person feel he has discovered something shocking, and may make a few others delve deeper into a topic and learn the actual complexities of the issue, but for the most part, they create new internet myths, every bit as misleading as the ones they are supposedly debunking, which, thanks to the imitative nature of the internet, tend to be even more widespread and harder to debunk.

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* I know 10 is a multiple of 5, so I could have just said multiple of 5, but since 10, 20, 20 and so on seem to be exceptionally popular, I mentioned 10 separately to emphasize the "ends in a zero" aspect of the lists.

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POSTSCRIPT

In some ways, these remind me a little of those thin little books you used to buy from Troll Books, or other catalogs that circulated in elementary schools in the 1970s (I don't know if they still do, I just recall them from my youth). Along with "Ghost Tales of the Sea" and the current Guiness Book of World Records, you would always end up with a few books of "startling facts". A lot of the ones I bought were either historical, or about foreign lands, and both had the same type of facts, which I always saw as falling into two categories. First, there were the "all times and places are the same", where they would try to show something very Modern existed in the distant past (the Romans played Hopscotch! Ancient Greeks played volleyball!) or something very American and showed how it was part of a foreign culture. Then, there was the opposite, the "the past is a strange land" category, where they would find the most peculiar behaviors they could, often rituals performed very rarely, and acted as if they were regular behaviors in the past, trying to make us glad we were alive today. The new internet mythbusters seem to revel in these two categories, but add in a third, their "what you know is wrong", as described above. But, if we remove that third group, they could very easily pass for those silly little books I bough at Gibson Island Country School back in 1976. In fact, I think a few claims I have seen on youtube were ones I first heard in that long ago time.

POSTSCRIPT II

I forgot the example that actually inspired this essay, another claim about "mistaken information you learned in school", claiming that VanGogh did not cut off his own ear, but rather it was Paul Gaugin who cut it off in an argument. Well, yes, there is such a claim, put forward by two German historians. However, the basis of their claim is not exactly uncontroversial, nor is the foundation so rock solid it brooks no argument. The fact is, it is one thesis among many, and not even the mainstream theory. Granted, being both shocking and contrary to mainstream history, it got a lot of press briefly, but that hardly means it is true, only that it is popular. After all, isn't the very thesis of such an on-line presentation that the popular belief is not always true? Yet they fall back on a single popular theory and assume it is true, mainly because it gained a lot of press attention? Or maybe they believe it themselves and so simply ignore that there are equally, or even more widely, accepted theories that argue for contrary propositions. In either case, there is a great difference between "it is true" and "we think" or "the current pop theory in the press is", yet somehow these online writers seem to forget this with amazing frequency.


Tuesday, May 19, 2015

More Persistent Myths

I have written before about how long myths may persist1, even when evidence exists to disprove them, or even when -- as is the case with "Roman Hopscotch" (in full kit no less) and Bush calling the Constitution a "damn piece of paper" in front of political opponents -- they don't even make sense. Well, I came across another one today. Not that it was new to me, but it is one I had learned was a lie way back in the pre-internet days and had forgotten all about until I happened upon a citation today, and, being reminded of this absurd claim, I decided to write about it.

One thing that always strikes me when debunking myths is how many people can be quite sane and reasonable in debunking one myth, then fall into the same errors when it comes to something they find more appealing. I have often pointed this out when writing, for instance, about conservatives who think the government can run nothing without making a mess of it, yet still support, say, the federal reserve, or public education, or the advocates of free trade, who would remove all government intrusions into commerce within a nation, who then advocate for trade barriers, protective tariffs and the Import-Export Bank. It seems people just have a natural ability to turn a blind eye to the failings in the arguments for a position of which they approve, even when they can clearly point out those failings in similar arguments by other people. (In many ways, this follows the thought processes I describe in "The Path of Least Resistance", it is often easiest to simply adopt beliefs that reinforce what you already feel to be true.)

I mention this because one of the best sources of evidence for the argument I am about to discuss makes a very clear and reasonable case, presents good refutations of shaky evidence, points out how dietary fads influenced the support for this case, and then, in the last few paragraphs makes all the same errors in support of an argument almost indistinguishable from the one they destroyed, the only difference being support for a different dietary fad, and a different world view. In short, they accept junk arguments they should know to be such, only because they like the conclusions2. But, we shall discuss that in a bit more detail later. First, let me stop speaking in generalities and discuss the case at hand, that being the supposedly "Healthy Hunza".

The Hunza, also Hunzakut or Burusho, are a people inhabiting a narrow, mountainous valley in the far north of modern Pakistan. They were observed by various writers at various times, from the coming of the first British military expeditions in the early 1870s to the present. However, the reason they arouse our curiosity is primarily due to two works written in the early 1960s3 (with a slightly earlier work coming in the mid 1940s, focused mostly on the value of Hunza composting practices), which described the Hunza as a sort of ideal. Much like Margaret Meade's description of the sexually liberated, free and happy Somoans, the Hunza were described as being free of violence, with no government, police, or greed. They were supposedly largely or entirely vegetarian, with a system of composting and recycling, and other eco-friendly practices. And finally, the big payoff, it was claimed that these poster children for the zeitgeist of the 1960s not only lived to incredibly old ages, sometimes a century and a half, but they were physically (and sexually) active the whole time! In short, they were living proof that counter culture, eco-friendly, vegetarian, anarchist philosophies were not just theoretically and ethically "right", they also had a real world payoff.

The problem for these arguments is, quite simply, the evidence is not so good. For example, there is the first hand account of John Clark who did medical work among the Hunza, who described many deaths due to famine, a multitude of diseases, a repressive regime run by a hereditary "Mir" who had not only something very much like a police force and a prison, but also a personal armed guard, a social order where no one outside of the immediate family was trusted, and, most damning of all, at least for the claims of longevity, the statement that Hunza often measured age based on wisdom rather than actual life span, meaning those 120 year old men may have been, by crude western objective standards, little more than 40 or 504. (I would also add that both those who push the peaceful line and those who do not often provide pictures of the Mir's offical residence, a well fortified structure atop a high peak. The question that such pictures immediately brought to my mind was, if there is no violence, why build a fortress? And if it is to fend off foreign aggressors, then who mans this fort if they have no police, military or government? Would not such a structureless, undefended mob have been conquered long ago if they lived somewhere where such fortresses are necessary?)

Of course, for anyone who truly wanted to look, not even Clark's work was needed, the simple facts spoke for themselves. For example, the Hunza are ruled by a hereditary mir, this is well documented in many early works. So how are they simultaneously the anarchist darlings so often portrayed by the Hunza boosters? You cannot be both.

Similarly, many early records talk of their bad reputation among neighbors, given their proclivities for theft, raiding, plunder and other miscellaneous trouble making. Given that these complaints are from tribes living in an area where banditry was a way of life in the 19th century (and long before, and for many after as well) -- the area making up modern Punjab, Kashmir, Afghanistan and so on -- it seems the Hunza must have been especially active in their thieving to gain a bad reputation. To be known as thieves in that part of the world is akin to being called dishonest by Bill Clinton5. Or, if you prefer a non-political analogy, being called a heavy drinker by Richard Harris.

However, if these Hunza were the cutthroat, rapacious predators of the historical record, then how were they also the loving, peaceful, flower children of the popular narrative? Again, the story being presented simply fails to match up with the popular tale.

Then there is the supposed optimal diet. Even ignoring the fact that starvation was a frequent problem, and that the actual diet (largely made up of grain, supplemented with raw fruits and vegetables in the summer and fall, dried fruits and vegetables supplemented with dairy products and meat in the winter and spring), had little in common with the supposed "Hunza diets" being promoted to the vegetarian, weight-loss and longevity communities from the 1960s to the present, there is the problem that (1) it is not vegetarian, (2) it differs little from the diet of many pastoral communities in soil (and fuel) poor regions, and (3) there is no evidence that these other communities enjoyed any longevity benefits form similar or identical diets. Again, the evidence, much readily available, or obvious to anyone who applied a bit of thought, simply could not support the popular claims.

And the list goes on and on. Despite DNA evidence they are not Macedonian, despite obvious linguistic evidence their tongue has no ties to Macedonian, Greek or any other languages Alexander spoke, despite a total absence of proof for longevity, despite a mountain of evidence of ill health, malnutrition and starvation, and despite plentiful evidence of past and present violence, distrust, greed and deception, we continue to hear about the descendants of Alexander's armies, who found a mountain paradise and, thanks to a hearty vegetarian diet now live into their 100s or more. (As the years have separated us from the 1960s and all that era entailed, the focus on their peaceful, egalitarian ways has diminished, being replaced by the health and diet focus -- along with the eco-composting angle -- more suitable for modern sensibilities6. So at least some of the myths do seem to be ever so slowly disappearing, but not from the evidence proving them wrong, just because they no longer interest modern audiences.)

Then again, perhaps I should not be so surprised that nonsense can persist for such a long time, after all, the stories do tend to support ideas those espousing them, or just passing them along, find pleasing. Just as those seeking a little mystery in the world accept completely absurd claims about the "Bermuda Triangle"7, or those who feel powerless, or who don't understand the world around them find solace in conspiracy theories8, the Hunza story appeals to the vegetarians who know they are right9, the composters who are sure they are doing a good thing, the social justice advocates who are sure somewhere in the world their theories have been tried and succeeded, and so on. In short, the tale of Hunza offers a wide range of people proof that what they already feel to be true is supported by some sort of evidence. Nor is that all. The tale has a much broader appeal. Being set in a far away land, offering up an alien lifestyle lived by strange people, it has an appeal to the sort who enjoy "mondo" style tales, or "news of the weird", or simply those who wonder what else might exist in the world. It also offers hope to those who fear death, who think the present estimate of the years allotted to them is far too stingy. And, finally, it offers the possibility of a (loosely defined) better way of life to those who have a vague, but strongly felt, dissatisfaction with their current state. And so, for these and more, the story has enough appeal to make the question of evidence of little importance10.

And, as if to prove my belief, the very site which had proved itself such a great source of materials refuting the many claims about the Hunza, a terribly level headed and reasonable source of counter arguments and proof, managed, before wrapping up the argument, to make the very same mistakes it had denounced, all in an effort to promote its own theories of longevity, its own fad diets and its own vision of what constitutes the proper way of life for mankind.

You see, throughout the essay, there were a few small hints. A constant harping on excess carbohydrates, an obsession with the harms of honey, a fascination with fat content, and a subtle, but still visible, disdain for vegetarians. And sure enough, as the essay began to wind down, it all was made clear. If there is one group more promoted as long-lived and healthy than the Hunza, it is the Georgians. Why, the US largely accepted the introduction of yogurt thanks to claims that yogurt eating Georgians lived into their 100s11. And, sure enough, the site in question started presenting these same Georgians as its own proof of what leads to long life, making a case for the now-trendy "Atkins diet", made up of few carbohydrates, but a healthy, some would say excessive, dose of proteins, along with a large dose of fat. Not only that, but they also found in the behavior of the Georgians arguments for prolonged breast feeding, a meat and dairy centered diet, and a few others.

What struck me the moment I saw this was that the evidence upon which the writer based his arguments was every bit as insubstantial as the case for the Hunza. The supposedly incredible ages of the many Georgians were not better attested than those of the Hunza12, and, even if they lived longer than most, there is no reason to assume that the absurdly reductionist argument that their diet made them live that long. But, as was clear from reading the essay, the writer strongly believed in man as the steward of the earth, with dominion over beasts, and believed that a meat-centric, dairy-centric diet was beneficial. And so, just as the Hunza boosters were willing to overlook the weakness of the proof, even outright contradictions, the writer managed to ignore the fact he was making errors he had just finished denouncing, and accepted blindly what he found most pleasing.

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1. See "The Power of Myth on the Internet", "Mystery Quotes", "Wikipedia Absurdities", "Roman Legions, Hopscotch, Killer Gays, 'Got AIDS Yet', WMDs and a 'Damn Piece of Paper'", "Amusing 'Truths'", "A Mystery Quote, Several Dubious Quotes, More Boring Quotes, and One Very Bad Conclusion", "A Request for Rush Fans" and "Please Get Your Facts Straight".

2. If we are entirely accurate, the site also makes a few common errors in describing the history of the Hunza people as well, accepting assertions that more scientific studies have proved absolutely without foundation. But as they are largely irrelevant when it comes to the central point of the argument, it is not worth going into too much detail concerning the Hunza's supposed origin in fugitive generals and their followers from the army of Alexander the Great. Let us just state that the supposed linguisitic evidence linking "Ancient Macedonian" and "Hellenistic Persian" to the Burushaski language are non-existent, especially given that, unlike the language of Alexander, Burushaski is not an Indo-European language. Similarly, genetic tests show absolutely no connection between the Hunza/Hunzakut people and those of Macedon. In short, they are unlikely to have any connection to the armies of Alexander. (Though they do provide a good answer to "Where did they get all the ideas for 'The Man Who Would Be King'. Between the history of Josaiah Harlan and this nonsense, it is easy to see where it originated. (I am skeptical of Wikipedia's claim that James Brooke was also an inspiration. Maybe in a very loose way, or as an inspiration to Harlan, but other than making himself lord over a less developed land and becoming a benevolent tyrant, he shared few details. We might as well say Emperor Maxmillian of Mexico inspired it as well. Or, more seriously, it would be more plausible to mention, say James Nicholson, who was reputedly actually worshipped in parts of the Punjab into modern times, though there is some dispute about this. But then again, my complaints about Wikipedia are hardly hidden - cf "The Tragedy of the Creative Commons", "Ideological Entanglement", "The Taxonomy of Trivia", "Wikipedia, Beggars, Stray Dogs and Prostitutes", "Why I Won't Be Contributing to Wikipedia" and "A Near Perfect Definition".)

3. Actually, the reputation of a peaceful, egalitarian, vegetarian, long lived people went back well before the 1960's, with westerners hearing reports of the same from sources as early as the first British expeditions. However, most modern works that mention the Hunza tend to cite either Banik or Taylor, or an older work from the 1940s by Tompkins and Boyd. And cited they are, even today. I found mention of them in such oddities as the "Humanure Handbook", a work on using human excrement in household composting, which  offered the supposed health and longevity of the Hunza as an argument in favor of the book's thesis. (I will say, the fact that cite an invalid support does not, in itself, argue against their position. In fact, if one ignores the many sixties-isms -- such as "ego vs eco" and the like -- and somewhat sketchy socio-economic philosophies, the rest of the work is rather interesting.)

4. There is a lot more to these arguments than I care to expand upon here.  For those who are curious, please check out this site, though also read my discussion later in this essay about the shortcomings of the site.

5. I admit this is a cheap shot, and I usually avoid such easy prey as the Clintons. But I was looking for a paragon of dishonesty and he was the only name that came to mind.

6. It is interesting how our modern focus has changed from the ill-focused "spirituality" of the 1960s to our health-obsession and worry over ecological disaster. Where the eco-faddists of the 1960s were largely motivated by "circle of life" and "mother earth" arguments, it seems the moderns are much more motivated by fear of an impending eco-catastrophe. In a way, it matches well with a line George Carlin once offered to explain how the 60s became the 80s: "We lost the soul, so we'll save the body." The only objection I have to Carlin's description is, while he largely ascribed health faddism to the right, it seems to me the left is far more involved in forcing health and dietary fads on the general public than the right. (Not that the right is not involved, many are as bad as any leftist. For a few general thoughts see "Missionary Zeal and Human Discord", "De Gustibus Non Disputandum Est", "Another Look At Exploitation", "For Your Own Good -- The Problem with Subjective Rights", "The Life Coach Culture", "The Great 'What If?' - Advertising, Gullibility, Education, Capitalism and Socialism" and "Smoking Versus Sex -- Want and Need Take Two".)

7. I find, surprisingly, for all my love of disproving absurd claims, I have not written on the absurdity that is the Bermuda Triangle, the tendency to ascribe to it events anywhere in the globe, to ascribe events that never happened, to move its borders to include any interesting happening and so on. So, as I cannot provide any links to past essays, I will simply make a promise to correct this oversight in the near future.

8. See "The Appeal of Conspiracy Theories", "All Conspiracies Great and Small", "Mumia, the DaVinci Code, Full Body Scans, and Loose Change - How Conspiracy Theories Arise", "Conspiracy Theory Enters the Mainstream", "Conspiracy Theories", "Self-Sustaining Beliefs", "Backwards Logic", "Ritual Abuse, Backwards Logic and Conspiracy Theories", "Backwards Thinking and the Number of the Beast", "A Shortcoming of Conspiracy Theories", "Conspiracies Vs. Conspiracy Theories" and "Dismissing Conspiracy Theories".

9. For the record, I am a vegetarian, a vegan in fact, eating no meat, fish, milk, eggs, and so on. Currently this is quite beneficial as an excess of protein tends to trigger my intermittent porphyria, but I had adopted this diet a long time ago, for reasons not worth discussing at this time. I mention all this to head off any complaints that I am being unfair to vegetarians. I am not. What I do want to point out is that many vegetarians do seem to be uncertain of their own beliefs, feeling threatened by those who think they are odd, or unhealthy or whatnot, and seek to find ever more proof of the benefits of their diet. Most claim they do it to educate others, but as so few who make that claim actually try to proselytize for their dietary practices, it seems they have other motives. (By the way, as my mention of being a vegan is followed by mention of an uncommon ailment often favored by quacks and hypochondriacs, let me add real doctors, ones associated with legit hospitals have identified extensive nerve damage in my extremities, and a hematologist and his lab confirmed I do suffer from some variety of intermittent porphyria. As they forgot to freeze a fraction of my urine sample -- and after six years of tests trying to determine my ailment I no longer cared enough to worry which specific variety it was -- I do not know exactly which variation I have. I am made quit ill by protein, stimulants, a number of medications, strong sunlight exposure, and somewhat larger quantities of alcohol or nicotine. I used to not blister in sunlight, but recently I have started finding small round -- but mostly painless -- blisters on my arms when I go outside for any length of time. I will spare you the rest of the details -- read "Morbus non Gratus" if you want details from an earlier time -- just wanted to make clear, I am not a hypochondriac or nut... Well, at least I am not a nut when it comes to my health, you can judge my sanity as it concerns other matters.)

10. In this case, belief in the claims is made easier by the fact that the supposed evidence for the extreme claims is recent, being written in the 1960s, with little earlier than the 1940s, while most of the contrary evidence is from the 1800s. In addition, the claims for longevity, health and so on are written to prove exactly that, with a clear audience in mind, while most of the refutations come from letters home, military dispatches and the like, where the counter-evidence is simply an aside, or an offhand comment, which makes it much harder to assemble and much less impressive. In short, the age of the evidence, and the fact it was not written specifically to make an argument (with one exception) makes it hard to offer counter arguments. And given that any firsthand evidence is quite some distance away for almost anyone discussing the topic, it is easy to believe whatever one finds most pleasing.

11. I admit, I was kind of young when the first real yogurt craze came about in the 1980s, but my parents were pretty current on food fads (we were the first people I knew to eat chili made from soy protein -- came in a box from GNC in the Harundale Mall). And though yogurt certainly existed prior to the early-ish 1980s, it was not something common to the tables of middle class WASPy families that I knew. It was only when we began to hear about those incredibly old Georgians who survived on nothing but yogurt that I began to see yogurt on more and more shopping lists. It also helps that this corresponded with the 80s exercise fad (we were early members of the Holiday Spa, though I only went there to use the pool), as embodied by Olivia Newton John's "Physical", shows like "The 20 Minute Workout" (of pervy camera-man fame), and the fascination with leg warmers and sweat bands. Obviously there was a bit more to the fascination with yogurt than simply the tale of elderly Georgians, but they definitely did play their part, being portrayed in commercials, discussed in print, offered as proof in support of every imaginable dietary fad, and so on.

12. Some suggest the Soviets "have records" of long lived Georgians. However, since such claims were first made for 100-120 year olds in the 1980s, this would mean that the Georgians in question were born in 1860, and that such records survived intact through the Russian Revolution, the Soviet occupation of 1921, many conflicts with the Ottoman Empire to regain parts of Georgia, and two World Wars, along with many local disturbances, disasters, floods, fires and the like. Not only that, but we must assume that such records clearly and unequivocally identify the person, using something definite such as fingerprints (not popular in the 1860s if I recall). In addition, since only those who were of a similar age could conclusive identify someone, it relies upon either the memory of the 100 year old individual himself, or of others equally old, to identify the person and attest they are the age they claim, and are the person listed in records. (After all, someone merely 60 could only say that a person -- who was 50 or 60 years old when he was 10 -- claimed to have a certain name, or to be a certain age, that is hardly conclusive proof.) Finally, it assumes the Soviets, quite fond of publicity stunts throughout the existence of the USSR, but especially in the 70s and 80s, could be trusted to present evidence accurately and without any effort to make the USSR appear superior to the west. Those are just a few of the hurdles I find it impossible to overcome.

A Request for Rush Fans

NOTE: I noticed when I started looking for reproductions of some old posts critical of Wikipedia, as well as some essays on the persistence of internet myths, that a number of old posts had not yet been reposted. Thus I am posting these essays, so that they can be cited in my next essay.

UPDATED 03/06/2009! See the bottom of this post for a link to more current information.
I have a request for someone who knows Rush's current broadcasts better than I do. I found this list on the DailyKos, and I can't for the life of me believe these quotes are accurate, even out of context. Well, the McNabb one is true. And one or two others could be cherry picked to sound worse than they are. But several are so absurd, I can't imagine they are accurate. 

Well, I won't reproduce the entire article, just the quotes:
  1. I mean, let’s face it, we didn’t have slavery in this country for over 100 years because it was a bad thing. Quite the opposite: slavery built the South. I’m not saying we should bring it back; I’m just saying it had its merits. For one thing, the streets were safer after dark.
  1. You know who deserves a posthumous Medal of Honor? James Earl Ray [the confessed assassin of Martin Luther King]. We miss you, James. Godspeed.
  1. Have you ever noticed how all composite pictures of wanted criminals resemble Jesse Jackson?
  1. Right. So you go into Darfur and you go into South Africa, you get rid of the white government there. You put sanctions on them. You stand behind Nelson Mandela — who was bankrolled by communists for a time, had the support of certain communist leaders. You go to Ethiopia. You do the same thing.
  1. Look, let me put it to you this way: the NFL all too often looks like a game between the Bloods and the Crips without any weapons. There, I said it.
  1. The NAACP should have riot rehearsal. They should get a liquor store and practice robberies.
  1. They’re 12 percent of the population. Who the hell cares?
  1. Take that bone out of your nose and call me back(to an African American female caller).
  1. I think the media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well.  They’re interested in black coaches and black quarterbacks doing well.  I think there’s a little hope invested in McNabb and he got a lot of credit for the performance of his team that he really didn’t deserve.
  1. Limbaugh attacks on Obama. Limbaugh has called Obama a ‘halfrican American’ has said that Obama was not black but Arab because Kenya is an Arab region, even though Arabs are less than one percent of Kenya. Since mainstream America has become more accepting of African-Americans, Limbaugh has decided to play against its new racial fears, Arabs and Muslims. Despite the fact Obama graduated magna [c*m]* laude from Harvard Law school, Limbaugh has called him an ‘affirmative action candidate.’ Limbaugh even has repeatedly played a song on his radio show ‘Barack the Magic Negro’ using an antiquated Jim Crow era term for black a man who many Americans are supporting for president. Way to go Rush.
Now, first thing you will note from the article is that there is no attribution, no dates, no sources, nothing. That immediately makes me suspect some shenanigans. Also, including the only well known quote (the McNabb one) at number nine tends to make me think it was included to give the others more credibility.

Looking at the quotes, number 4 seems likely, as objecting to Mandela is not exactly "racist". I have problems with Mandela. Only a die hard race baiter would think any criticisms of the ANC or Inkatha is racist. Number 3 could also be one of those Rush off the cuff comments. It isn't racist, unless you are looking for racism everywhere. Number 5 is not impossible, as the criminal record of the NFL is pretty sad, and Rush is hardly the only one to point this out. Number 6 is also possible, as the NAACP, despite the opinion in the DailyKos, is no longer the "storied civil rights organization", but the pressure group run by Ben Chavis and Julian Bond. And number 7 may very well be an accurate quote, but without the context it sounds much more inflammatory than it did in context, I am sure. Likely it was a comment on Republicans being afraid of offending black voters, or possibly about pandering by politicians. In that context, it is hardly a "racist" quote, simply an accurate observation that bending over backwards to appease 12% of the population is probably bad politics. (Though "who the hell cares" doesn't sound like Rush either. He rarely swears even in mild terms, at least he did not back when I listened int he late 80's and early 90's. He may have changed and "who the hell" may be in character now, but somehow I doubt it.)

And number 10 just makes no sense. Rush talks about himself in the third person when pretending to be his critics, but he usually is coherent when doing so, and number 10 simply is too incoherent to be a Rush quote. I may have some objections to Rush's changed tone, but I still think the man is eloquent and professional, and he would not be caught dead making such a jumbled comment.

Which brings us to the absurd and inflammatory quotes, the ones I seriously doubt. Let us start with number 8. Even Mark Levin would likely not say something that crass, and certainly not Rush. Not that they would not insult a listener who was particularly difficult, but they would do it in a more witty way. That quote is simply not the style Rush would use.

Number 1 sounds very much out of character. It is remotely possible Rush would say slavery built the south, but event hat seems unlikely, as I can't see what point he would try to illustrate using that argument. However, if that part is remotely possible, the streets safer after dark part is simply absurd. Rush has often commented on crime, and I have never heard him attribute it to race. And to attribute safety to slavery is simply out of character to an absurd degree.

And finally, number 2. This is the one I cannot believe. I have never, in my life, heard Rush give his blessing to an assassin. Nor have I heard him insult Martin Luther King. In fact, if the DailyKos crowd was better informed,t hey would know that King has become something of an icon among conservatives, as we use his "content of their character" quote as a counterpoint to modern race-based thinking. Which make sit very unlikely any conservative would be giving Jame Earl Ray any kudos.

Now, as I said, my Rush listening was done in the late 80's and early 90's, supplemented by watching his television show during the same time, so I may be wrong. perhaps Rush magically became a ranting race baiter in the intervening decade and a half. I have only heard him a few times in the past year.

However, I have to think it far more likely that this is a DailyKos hit piece, taking one real (and not racist) quote, a few snippets which sound somewhat racist without context, and a few fabricated and quite offensive lines.

But I don't have the evidence to substantiate my feelings, so, if possible, could some Rush fans help confirm that the quotes in question were either picked to sound racist out of context, were altered, or were created out of whole cloth by some Angry Leftist?

Thanks in advance for any help.

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* The text here is only altered to allow it to get past TH language filters. The original stimply uses the word C U M. However TH will not allow em to use that word, hence the asterisk.

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POSTSCRIPT

By the way, could TH tone down the filters just a little bit? Not only can't I type "que*r the deal" or "que*r eye for the straight guy", a phrase which appears in TV Guide and has the FCC's blessing to appear on network TV, nor can I write "the er*ction of trade barriers" - presumably as it would make frat boys giggle -- but I now can't write "magna c*m laude", which also means that any attempt to quote Latin will probably be filled with asterisks. And the same will be true when writing about the law, though fortunately the Latin habit of affixing "c*m" to the end of pronouns may hep avoid some, such as the "subpoena duces tecum" (or, on a religious note, "pax vobiscum"). 

POSTSCRIPT II

Should it turn out I am wrong, and these are all accurate quotes from Rush Limbaugh, I will also state so here, and will offer up my apologies to the DailyKos writer I wrongly maligned. At the moment I don't think I will be offering any apologies, but as I have no proof yet either way, I could be wrong. So check back to see which way the story unfolds. 

UPDATE

Author Barack Marley attributed several of these quotes to Wikiquote. I see they do have sources listed, but I still suspect that several of these quotes are fabrications. I was planning on writing a new criticism of Wikipedia tomorrow, and this confirms that urge. I had mainly planned on writing how absurd the application of "No Original Research" rules ended up, but now I have some additional criticisms.

So, stay tuned tomorrow for yet another in my series of Wiki-bashing articles!

UPDATE II

Apparently, according to Snopes.com, the Rush quote about taking the bone out of your nose was admitted by Rush, as something he said while a Top 40 DJ in the 1970's and about which he now feels bad. So I suppose it is an accurate quote, though the context makes a lot of difference. (And, while it is a bit racist, I respect that Rush feels bad about it, something we cannot say about, for example, Jesse Jackson, who has never said he regrets his "Hymietown" comment.) So, yes, in the 70's Rush said something mildly racist about which he now feels bad. Is that evidence that he has a sheet and hood in the closet? I think not.

UPDATE 03/06/23009PLEASE, if you are coming here from a link, check out my most recent post on this matter! I have gathered together all my writing on the topic in one place. This single early post is not the final word on the topic.


Originally posted in Random Notes on 2008/10/21.

A Mystery Quote, Several Dubious Quotes, More Boring Quotes, and One Very Bad Conclusion


NOTE: I noticed when I started looking for reproductions of some old posts critical of Wikipedia, as well as some essays on the persistence of internet myths, that a number of old posts had not yet been reposted. Thus I am posting these essays, so that they can be cited in my next essay.

I have written several times about "mystery quotes", in "Mystery Quotes","Wikipedia Absurdities", and "They're Here! Mystery Quotes Revisited". "Mystery quotes" is my term for quotes, usually shocking, attributed to famous individuals, frequently cited, but for which no one can find a primary source. The best example is probably the quote attributed to George Bush, that the Constitution is just a "damn piece of paper", or the Jerry Falwell quote that "gays will kill you as soon as look at you". Both appear often in debate, are widely cited on the internet, yet it is impossible to find an article which provides a precise time, date and location for either quote, or even a named witness. The closest I have come is the statement that three unnamed sources claiming they heard George Bush utter the words in the White House, but with no time, date or context provided. Though, I have to say, for a mystery quote that is better support than most provide.

Recently I discovered a list which should be a treasure trove of mystery quotes, a page describing itself as quotes form "The American Taliban". It is an interesting site, clearly the type that liberals love to mine for quotes to use in argument. It contains endless quotes form celebrities such as Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh, a well as Politicians such as both George Bushes and Bob Dornan*.  What makes it interesting are two things. First, the lack of mystery quotes, excepting Bob Dornan's quote, all the quotes actually do have known sources, some a bit suspect, but at least there is someone vouching for the quote's authenticity. Second, the quotes themselves, at least the ones form mainstream figures, are, for the most part, not all that shocking. I am sure to the die hard atheist any of these quotes will cause a case of the vapors, but to a well adjusted individual, the quotes, at least the ones I don''t think were written by someone other than the nominal source, are just not all that offensive.

Before I start describing the mystery quotes, let me say a little something about the site. Clearly they have an agenda, to attempt to prove that America is teetering on the brink of theocracy. It is an absurd proposition, as I have pointed out many times before, but there is no doubt that is what they are trying to prove. However, the way they attempt to do it is bizarre. By mixing mainstream conservative pundits, Republican politicians, and fringe figures from the white supremacist movement, along with a mix of mainstream and fringe Christian leaders, they rather strongly undercut their point. If they have to turn to such outlying extremists, who are denounced by many of the other individuals on the same site, it really seems to prove their claim is baseless.

Let me give an example. If I were to try to prove the Democrats are communists, I would do best by providing a page full of quotes from very prominent Democrat politicians, liberal thinkers, and liberal pundits. If I had to dilute that page with quotes from members of the American communist party, professors from community colleges, labor organizers, community activists and Hugo Chavez it would actually show that I was unable to find enough Democrat quotes to make my point. In other words, it would make the case against me.

And that is precisely what this page does. Rather than prove an inevitable theocratic putsch, it makes it clear that the best they can do to prove their argument is a handful of quotes, and rather weak ones for the most part, from major figures, bolstered by a heap of extreme statements form fringe believers.

So, having said that, let us turn to the quotes.

This list differ from the far more suspect  Rush Limbaugh list I examined earlier, by opening with a well known and clearly valid quote. In this case an excerpt from the Ann Coulter column which caused her such grief, when she proposed converting all Moslems by force. Of course, quoting a satirist as proof of anything is a bad idea. By the same method I could prove Voltaire a glowing optimist or Swift a cannibal. Of course many others have fallen into the same trap, after all Coulter's headaches were all caused by those who forgot that she cannot be taken seriously at all times, but still, you would think proof of a coming theocracy would have a stronger start than an inflammatory quote from a satirical writer.

The next quote of interest is the Dornan quote which brought me here. "Don't use the word 'gay' unless it is an acronym for 'Got AIDS Yet'." It is cited repeatedly, even in Wikiquote, yet I can't find any attribution.You would think something that inflammatory would be cited with a time and date. That is the case, for example, with Al Gore's claims about the internet, or Obama's quote about a citizen defense force. Both are always cited with time, date and venue. Yet this simply appears with Dornan's name, a sure sign of a dubious quote.

The next interesting quote is much farther down (after strange inclusions such as Fred Phelps, hardly in the Republican or conservative mainstream), comes from President George H W Bush, incorrectly identified as "George Bush Sr." (as his son does not have the same middle names, there is no junior or senior). This quote is the infamous "I don't know that atheists should be considered citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God." Now, after a little digging I did discover a site which attributes it to an interview with "a photographer" in 1987, which is more than these mystery quotes usually get.  Another site actually attributes it to an atheist interviewer, Robert Sherman, so this is not actually a mystery quote. I may dispute the veracity of the report, but by providing a source at least it makes such debate possible.

Let us break here, as this provides the perfect example of why mystery quotes are so harmful.

The quote above, even if you suspect Mr. Sherman may have embellished it, or even invented it, at least provides a source. We can then discuss the reliability of Mr. Sherman, his past behavior, his own political biases, and so on. Even an outright lie, if properly cited, is better than a mystery quote. Mystery quotes, because they are so often mentioned, can appear to be valid. For example, the Bush "damn piece of paper" quote is mentioned hundreds of thousands of times. So if I used it, I could provide literally hundreds of citations, giving it the appearance of truth. However, if anyone troubles to track down my sources, not one will be a primary source, nor will their sources be primarys ources. And so on. We cannto debate the truth or falsehood of the report, as we don't know where the report originated. It is simply a quote which appeared one day and suited the political agenda of enough people that it spread across the internet. We cannot argue about how reliable the report is, as there is no original report. 

But let us return to the quotes.

Following "George Bush Sr." are some quotes from the correctly designated George W. Bush. The first, "I don't think that witchcraft is a religion. I wish the military would rethink this decision.", is so innocuous, I did not bother to track it down. Whether true or not, I doubt many outside of the perpetually aggrieved will be disturbed. A personal opinion that "Wicca" is not a real religion hardly seems the stuff of theocracy. A belief that most of America would share, provided they bothered to think of "Wicca" at all, is hardly an extreme example of intolerance.

The next quote is also not a mystery quote. ("God told me to strike at al Qaida and I struck them, and then he instructed me to strike at Saddam, which I did...") Though the site on which I found a citation attributes it to Mammoud Abbas, who hardly seems an impartial source. I also have to question whether he would be privy to information about George W. Bush which the rest of the world does not know. 

The third quote ("Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists"), though often cited by the liberals, is again one which often strikes me as innocuous. Had FDR said "either you are with the Allies or with the Axis", or better yet Churchill, it would have been seen as bold rhetoric, a clear statement that men of goodwill cannot stand by and do nothing, but must side with the right or else they are tacitly helping the enemy. However, when Bush said it about cowardly terrorists who attack by stealth and kill women and children, somehow it is delusional and extreme. I don't get it.

And the final quote ("This crusade, this war on terrorism is going to take a while"), again, is one which is well noted, but, except for those who walk on eggshells lest they offend anyone, I don't know many who find it disturbing. Consider that the left is constantly declaring war on things, on cancer, on poverty and so on. Do we think they are insane for "attacking" poverty? Then why is it horrible to use crusade metaphorically to describe a devoted undertaking to root out terrorism? Except that it might offend some Moslems, I hardly see a problem with it. It is not exactly the "smoking gun" which prove George Bush secretly wants to become the theocratic ruler of an evangelical totalitarian state.

The rest are the usual suspects (Falwell, Robertson, Ray Moore, Reagan,. Ashcroft, etc), though mixed with a number of strange individuals, such as white supremacists and rather minor individuals who make me wonder why they were included at, unless to add bulk to the list. Almost all the quotes are ones I heard before or at least quotes that seem well within the realm of possibility. Of course, to anyone not looking for signs of a coming theocracy, they also sound more like statements of devout believers than signs of horrifying secret motives. Still, it is nice to see such a site with only one true mystery quote.

So, in the end, it really is rather a flop as a leftist agitation site. It probably plays well to those who are already true believers, but to the rest of us, those of us who believe in G-d, even Jews such as myself, or those who are uncertain, in other words to anyone but militant atheists, it really doesn't paint that clear a picture of an "American Taliban". Granted the fringe group members sound nutty, but when we come to the mainstream figures, what they say, except in a few pretty dubious quotes, sounds remarkably inoffensive. Yes, they do make clear people who believe in G-d often find that belief becomes a part of how they look at the world. But again, except for militant atheists, does anyone find that disturbing, or even surprising?

Of course, there are those few dubious quotes, and the one mystery quote, and those are certainly the ones leftists will pick up to throw out on sites such as Townhall. And the citation will add to the number of Google hits anyone gets when they search for that Dornan quote, making it, in the eyes of some, much more "true". But other than that, this site really does little more than prove that militant atheist really do worry far too much about theocracy.

And that the left really has no idea what life under a real theocracy, such as the Taliban, would be like. Rather like a teenager comparing his parents to Hitler, their comparison of Ashcroft to the Taliban just makes them look immature.
 
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* I discovered it while trying to track down a primary source for a dubious Dornan mystery quote. Needless to say, I have yet to find a primary source or anything close.

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2008/11/20.