Fishy Thoughts

Nat PostCanadians, the headline reads, now have shorter attention span than goldfish thanks to portable devices. The story in today’s National Post underscores a growing problem that is fuelled by technology: our dwindling attention spans.

The Microsoft study of 2,000 Canadians found our collective attention span has dwindled to a mere eight seconds, down from an already embarrassing 12 seconds a similar study found back in the year 2000.

Goldfish have an average nine second attention span.

Eight seconds! How can you read a newspaper article, let alone a novel, with such a short attention span? How can you write or create anything of consequence with your mind flitting about like that?

The Ottawa Citizen quoted from the report:

“Canadians with more digital lifestyles (those who consume more media, are multi-screeners, social media enthusiasts, or earlier adopters of technology) struggle to focus in environments where prolonged attention is needed.”

Which explains why distracted driving – drivers on cell phones or texting at the wheel – is fast growing to be the number one cause of accidents and fatalities. Yet every day I walk my dogs or when we walk downtown, I see someone talking on the cell phone or texting while driving. Every day.

It also explains why many people fall for conspiracy theories, religious cults, advertising scams or the diaphanous piffle of local bloggers: they don’t have the attention span required to do the critical analysis of what is presented. They’re thinking less because they’re too easily distracted by the …. oooh! shiny!

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Ontario’s Sex Education

Idiot protestersAs Frank Zappa sang in his 1968 song, What’s The Ugliest Part Of Your Body?:

What’s the ugliest
Part of your body?
What’s the ugliest
Part of your body?
Some say your nose
Some say your toes
I think it’s your mind, your mind,
I think it’s YOUR MIND, woo woo

I’m not a fan of the Wynne government, but I respect their current willingness to wade into the public muck that clings to any attempt to implement or even update a sex education curriculum in public schools. The old curriculum was last updated in 1998 – years before sexting became headlines, before the internet became awash with pornography or Millie Cyrus twerked onstage. Before young women committed suicide over cyberbullying and rape videos. Before we became this hyper-sexualized culture.

Whether you agree with the curriculum, you have to admit it takes a brave government to tackle something that has always been a flashpoint for public dissension, and all too often a rallying point for the uber- and religious right (always a vocal minority). Governments should be willing to tackle the tough issues, not simply pander to the vote or themselves.

The protesters may have some valid points about the age at which some of the content may be presented, and those should be considered. However, the protests have become trolling dragnets; capturing all sorts of ideological and theological flotsam and jetsam. Frankly, much of what floats to the media surface from these protests is idiotic, chaotic and archaic.

Governments should not kowtow to the fringe, no matter how vocal it gets.

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The Grey Wolf Escapes


Grey WolfForget your chemtrails, your big pharma, your New World Order; forget UFO abductions, Bigfoot and GMOs. This is the granddaddy conspiracy theory of them all. This one makes all the rest look like grade school gossip. It makes the petty conspiracies of local bloggers look like the diaphanous piffle they really are.*

What is it? That Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun escaped from Berlin in 1945 and survived until the 1960s in exile in South America. And his dog, Blondi, got out with them, too. And, in their marital bliss Adolf and Eva had two children after the war, living in their idyllic home in the Andean foothills.

No suicide, no bodies burned outside the bunker. Alive in Patagonia for 17 years after the war ended… the wet dream of neo-Nazis, racists, ISIS militants and soccer hooligans everywhere.

Of course, it’s not new: this tale has been around in one form or another since 1945, causing despair and hope (depending on your political leanings) for the past 70 years. It resurfaced recently in the book Grey Wolf, by Simon Dunstan and Gerrard Williams (Sterling, New York, 2011). The great conspiracy of our times, it is, and they tell it well.

As we quickly approach the 70th anniversary of Der Fuhrer’s death (or alleged death if you believe in this stuff), I’m sure it will raise its ugly head again in May of this year.

I remember reading books about the escape of Nazi leaders to South America – not necessarily Hitler – back in the 70s. The butchers Adolf Eichmann and Josef Mengele both escaped to South America (the former was caught in Argentina, the latter escaped capture and died in Brazil in 1976). Other Nazis could have escaped and lived out the remainder of their lives there, too – an estimated 30,000 escaped Germany after the war, many ending up in South America.

But Hitler? Braun? Bormann, too? That’s a stretch. it would be difficult if not impossible for that to be kept so secret for so long.

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Written by God?

American godI don’t pay as much attention to American politics as I suppose I should, in part because despite the entertaining craziness of some of their politicians, the internal politics seldom affect Canadians, and also in part because the craziness not only baffles me – it scares me. But this week I paid attention when I read year-old statements made by former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who is quoted on Rawstory as saying,

“I think we got off the track when we allowed our government to become a secular government. When we stopped realizing that God created this nation, that he wrote the Constitution, that it’s based on biblical principles.”

Whoa. Christian revisionism and theological ideologies packed into a single statement. And so wrong, I hardly know where to start.

The country I come from
Is called the Midwest
I’s taught and brought up there
The laws to abide
And that the land that I live in
Has God on its side
Bob Dylan: With God on Our Side

The US government was formed as a secular government from its birth. Separation of church and state and all that (First Amendment) was put into the Constitution quite early (1791). That amendment, Wikipedia tells us,

…prohibits the making of any law respecting an establishment of religion, impeding the free exercise of religion, abridging the freedom of speech, infringing on the freedom of the press, interfering with the right to peaceably assemble or prohibiting the petitioning for a governmental redress of grievances.

The nation itself was created by a loose group of soldiers and politicians, many of whom were either secular or even atheist, after a bitter and bloody war with Britain (and later, other nations). The Constitution was written by a smaller group of similarly motivated men. And it’s very definitely NOT based on biblical principles (principles which include stoning people for minor offences, killing your children, taking slaves, not eating pork and having animals maul children to death…).

Not to mention that the nation we know of as America wasn’t actually born overnight with the stroke of a pen, but is the result of more than a century of expansion, war, politics and exploitation. At least that’s the history as I understand it.

I’m pretty sure the millions of indigenous people who were killed, disenfranchised, hunted, humiliated, raped and brutally reduced to second class citizens don’t think it was the work of any benevolent god. You see the digits of a deity anywhere in that? DeLay obviously does; which speaks volumes about his personal vision of a god. A nasty, xenophobic, mean-spirited, vindictive god.

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Another TEOTWAWKI

John HageeTEOTWAWKI – The End Of The World As We Know It – has been predicted ever since humans looked up in wonder at the sky and decided it was peopled with invisible beings. Beings who wanted to do us harm, it seems. And as quickly as we people the sky, there developed an industry predicting when they would harm us, which soon led to the invention of the cash register.

Wikipedia has a long list of dates predicted for the end of the world over the last two millennia. So far, every prophecy has been wrong. But because we’re here now, you already knew that.

That doesn’t stop televangelist John Hagee from joining the growing list of failed prophets. Oh, and not only is he warning us about it, he’s written a book about his predictions too, made it into a movie and a theatrical event, and will host a live TV show about it on April 15. Ka-ching! the cash register sings.

Unsurprisingly, there’s almost always a commercial hook on prophecy these days… the more money you shell out, the greater the likelihood you’ll be saved. Apocalyptic prophecies seem to make people open their wallets a lot more than usual, so it’s good business. And look at all the free media attention it garners!

Like any good angler, Hagee is playing his audience, making sure the hook is set firmly. He wants them to believe in the so-called blood moon prophecy, when,

…an ongoing tetrad (a series of four consecutive lunar eclipses—coinciding on Jewish Holidays—with six full moons in between, and no intervening partial lunar eclipses) which began with the April 2014 lunar eclipse is a sign of the end times as described in the Bible in Acts 2:20 and Revelation 6:12.

Of course, it’s all bunk. It always has been and always will be. End of days, end of the world: not happening. Eclipses are natural and frequent occurrences, not some supernatural event.

I’ve written about these failed predictions in the past – including Howard Camping and Jose de Jesus Miranda and the so-called Mayan doomsday – all of them a load of codswallop (or, as Conrad Black might call it, “diaphanous piffle…”) brewed from a potent stew of religious and/or New Age mumbo-jumbo, spiced with gullibility, fear and ignorance. And topped with gobs of liberally cherry-picked, quotes from a religious source – usually the Bible (and often from the wacky and usually misinterpreted or misunderstood Book of Revelations).

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Ontario’s Assault on Health Care

HomeopathyEarlier this month, the Ontario government took a shot at real medicine when it became the first province in Canada to regulate homeopathy. What the government should have done, if it had any real concern about our collective health or our health care system, is ban it.

Instead, although it at first seemed an April Fool’s joke, on April 1 the Wynne government announced legislation that will do nothing but legitimize and help spread this dangerous pseudoscience.

Clearly this was a political move,  since it is not motivated by scientific, medical or health-related concerns (nor, apparently information informed by actual science or medicine). But it’s playing to the gullible and the deluded fringe.

No amount of regulation will make homeopathy any more credible, or make it work. It is sheer and unadulterated bunk, and creating a ‘college’ for it makes as much sense as creating one for psychics or astrologers. Which I suspect will come hot on the heels of this move.

Worse, homeopaths will be self-regulating, like doctors and nurses. Talk about the inmates running the asylum. No actual medical or scientific oversight will be in place to dampen their already outrageous and potentially dangerous claims for their quackery. No common sense – let alone science or medicine – will interfere with their preparation of magic water.

Writing in Forbes Magazine, David Kroll commented,

One could be forgiven for thinking that homeopathic drugs are an April Fools’ joke.

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The Responsibility of Free Speech

The stages of argumentIn January, 2015, Marie Snyder, on her blog, A Puff of Absurdity, raised the question of how free should speech be. I share her concerns about the apparent limitlessness of our rights: our right to free speech is not matched to any inherent responsibilities, civic or moral, to behave in a mature manner, nor does it require anyone to speak the truth. And we are not taught in our educational system either the basics of argument (in the classical sense), rhetoric or even manners and civility.

I don’t always agree with her positions (although I did like her take on Montaigne), but this one I agree wholeheartedly with:

People say some truly cruel things, and I’m not convinced we should have a right to be publicly malicious.

Many people feel they have that right. And they willingly and eagerly trespass well beyond basic civility into libel and slander – often telling outright lies (as we know from the local blogosphere) and engaging in vulgar insults and name calling.

Snyder is also concerned about the venomous nature of those attacks and the very personal nature of some of the comments, well outside the forum for civic debate. Those attacks erode the credibility of the attacker, but they also fuel an online hatefest as others pile into the virtual mosh pit to contribute their venom to the mob frenzy.

As the newspaper’s editor, I always believed that a politician’s stand, speeches, votes and ideologies are open territory for criticism. And that criticism should be fair, any claims based on documented facts, and disagreement always made respectfully and civilly. It should never descend into a personal, ad hominem attack. And to resort to vulgarity and name calling is the lowest of the low in the ladder of civic engagement. Snyder writes:

Venting and criticizing are two different things with a different purpose and, as such, deserve a different forum. Venting is what we do with a close friend listening privately; it has no place in a public debate. This distinction is all the more important when openly criticizing people in positions of power further down the line – like MPs that you’re likely to see in your grocery story, or local journalists, or even teachers who didn’t sign up to be in the public eye in the same way politicians and journalists do. With open access to an online forum seen by millions, it has become far more important to teach argumentation skills at a young age, and to offer reminders everywhere. But if we can’t teach people to stop venting in public places, to actually control their own outrage like a theoretical grown-up might do, then I think (big breath) we need to have some legislation in place to prevent or punish this action.

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Canadian Ambivalence Towards Religion

A new Angus Reid poll underscores the changing, ambivalent nature of Canadian attitudes towards religion, but there are many things about the poll that concern me and make me question its methodology and whether an inherent bias influenced the results.

First of all, what is “religion”? That may seem obvious, but there are conflicting definitions, and often religion is used interchangeably with the terms faith and belief,  although that is incorrect usage and they are, in fact, different.

I think it’s important to be clear when asking people about religion exactly what you mean by the word ‘religion’ – and I cannot find anywhere in the questionnaire that this was defined. It is, however defined on the analysis webpage. But was it explained to respondents?

For me, religion is generally the organizational structure and hierarchy – political, social, cultural – that creates the framework in which faith and belief operate. People sometimes reject religion – the controlling organization – without rejecting faith itself.

Wikipedia defines religion with a broad brush but it ignores the political, controlling structure:

…an organized collection of beliefs, cultural systems, and world views that relate humanity to an order of existence.

Dictionary.com adds this, but again missing the hierarchical nature of religion:

…a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.

Google’s search produced this definition, which is far too narrow, since it excludes Buddhism and other non-theistic practices:

…the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods.

Search online for the definition of religion and you will quickly discover how wide-ranging the definitions are, and that many of them do not agree on basics. For example, many definitions include belief in supernatural beings, rituals, a distinction between sacred and profane objects and acts, and prayer. But these are traits of some religions, not a definition of religion itself.

Nor was the word “spiritual” defined (again it is on the analysis webpage), although question four asks people to define whether they are spiritual or religious. Yet the term spiritual is even more vague and fraught with complexities than religion, in that it can mean “…almost any kind of meaningful activity or blissful experience… a process of transformation, but in a context separate from organized religious institutions… a blend of humanistic psychology, mystical and esoteric traditions and eastern religions.”

Here’s what Angus Reid has chosen for its definitions as per its web page, both of which strike me as very narrow and restrictive. Their definition of religion would exclude Buddhism and Taoism, for example, since neither include supreme beings. And the soul is a contentious definition because (aside from not being defined here), it assumes a belief in one. And is spirit the same as, say, team spirit, so baseball is a spiritual activity on the same plane as meditation? To me, this is both sloppy and vague.

It remains unclear whether these definitions were presented to participants:

Spiritual: of, relating to, or affecting the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things.

Religious: relating to or believing in a religion…forming part of someone’s thought about or worship of a divine being

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Bad Thinkers and the Unknown Knowns

Critical thinkingI came across an interesting piece on bad thinking online recently. In it, the author argues some of the points I’ve mentioned in the past about people who believe in conspiracy theories, gossip and other online codswallop:

The problem with conspiracy theorists is not, as the US legal scholar Cass Sunstein argues, that they have little relevant information. The key to what they end up believing is how they interpret and respond to the vast quantities of relevant information at their disposal.

In the piece, the author, Quassim Cassam, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Warwick in Coventry, argues that the fault lies in how these people process information, not the quality or quantity of that information. They are, in other words, bad thinkers. They have intellectual vices or intellectual bad habits:

Gullibility, carelessness and closed-mindedness… negligence, idleness, rigidity, obtuseness, prejudice, lack of thoroughness, and insensitivity to detail. Intellectual character traits are habits or styles of thinking… Intellectual character traits that aid effective and responsible enquiry are intellectual virtues, whereas intellectual vices are intellectual character traits that impede effective and responsible inquiry. Humility, caution and carefulness are among the intellectual virtues…

Cassam uses a fictional character, Oliver, and his obsession with 9/11 conspiracies despite evidence that all of his conspiratorial notions can be proven wrong.

Oliver is gullible because he believes things for which he has no good evidence, and he is closed-minded because he dismisses claims for which there is excellent evidence. It’s important not to fall into the trap of thinking that what counts as good evidence is a subjective matter. To say that Oliver lacks good evidence is to draw attention to the absence of eye-witness or forensic support for his theory about 9/11, and to the fact that his theory has been refuted by experts. Oliver might not accept any of this but that is, again, a reflection of his intellectual character.

But 9/11 is only one of so many of these conspiracies and bad ideas that are like pond scum on the internet. Their following can’t all stem from bad thinking. Some might be from laziness – after all, assessing a claim properly can be hard work and our brains are our body’ biggest energy user. Some people may not have the energy (couch potatoes, for example) to expend. So it’s easier to accept a claim – no matter how fatuous – than investigate it (something the media are prone to do).

Some are actual cons and deliberate hoaxes that hook the gullible. While others – like angels and ghosts – may be superstition or wishful thinking (aka faith). Other examples may simply be eccentric expressions of our personality.

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Extraordinary Claims

Extraordinary claimsAs the poster for the Centre for Inquiry notes, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. It’s a popular catchphrase for the skeptical movement, but should be an intellectual policy for everyone.

Regardless of what is being claimed, it requires evidence at the same level of the claim.

Anecdote is not evidence, please note, especially personal anecdote even with the corroboration of other witnesses. People often “see” what they choose to see, and interpret events and objects according to preconceived ideas. Seeing UFOs instead of ordinary aircraft, or chemtrails instead of mundane contrails are examples of this. Evidence is something concrete; a body of facts, not simply interpretation or disingenuous claim.

The Centre lists many claims as the poster indicates – a list that continues to grow – along with a brief introduction to each: claims, evidence and conclusion. Some like leprechauns, the Easter Bunny, tooth fairy, dragons and Xenu seem pretty obviously mythological or (like Xenu) totally fabricated. Others will certainly raise an argument among some religious believers  or the superstitious – angels, magic, Heaven, hell, the afterlife and similar religious topics included (it does not yet list Santa Claus, but I expect it will come)..

As RationalWiki puts it,

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence was a phrase made popular by Carl Sagan. It is central to scientific method, and a key issue for critical thinking, rational thought and skepticism everywhere.

The actual phrase was coined by sociologist Marcello Truzzi, but it has been around in other forms for several centuries. In his 1748 work, An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding (chap. 10.4.), David Hume wrote:

In our reasonings concerning matter of fact, there are all imaginable degrees of assurance, from the highest certainty to the lowest species of moral evidence. A wise man, therefore, proportions his belief to the evidence… No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavors to establish.

Simply because a lot of people believe in something, or accept it as factual doesn’t mean it is true. In a letter to Adam Smith, Hume wrote:

Nothing indeed can be a stronger presumption of falsehood than the approbation of the multitude…

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Conrad Black: Off the Rails

Conrad BlackI generally read Conrad Black‘s columns for their entertainment value, but I also read them for the language. Black is the best tosser of pithy epithets since Spiro Agnew*. And like the former US VP, he’s a pompous git who puffs up his intellectual feathers like a pigeon in heat – that puffery of sound and fury that signifies nothing more than an ego he has to bring along in its own carriage. He is very amusing that way.

Now to be clear, I have little respect for Black’s uber-right ideologies. We are at polar opposites of the political spectrum: as a self-appointed spokesperson for the entitled one percent he annoys my modest socialist and humanist values.

And because  I also value loyalty to my native Canada, I detest that he gave up his Canadian citizenship in such a cavalier fashion. (I suggest strongly that he be tossed out of the country for that and because he’s also a criminal: he was convicted of fraud in the USA and served jail time for it. Criminality is another similarity he shares with Spiro Agnew, although the circumstances differ.)

But being a criminal doesn’t mean he can’t write. Damn, but he often turns a mean phrase and, even if I disagree with his haughty self-absorbed and pretentious politics, I like to read him because he wordsmiths brilliantly. Most of the time. Sometimes, of course, he’s just that pompous, self-righteous git we all loathe.

This past week, Black outdid himself in his NatPost column and took that pomposity and git-ness to a new level.

The piece was titled “The shabby, shallow world of the militant atheist,” and in it Black railed like a frothing Irenaeus against the likes of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. Perhaps Black – who professes to having having his his prison sentence made endurable through his faith – is planning his new book; a 21st century version of Against the Heresies.

Black writes…

Nor can the atheists ever grapple plausibly with the limits of anything, or with the infinite. They rail against “creation” — but something was created somehow at some point to get us all started. They claim evolution debunks Christianity  (though all educated Christians, including Darwin, acknowledge evolution) — but evolution began somewhere. When taxed with the extent of the universe and what is beyond it, most atheists now immerse themselves in diaphanous piffle about a multiverse — but the possible existence of other universes has nothing to do with whether God exists.

I love that phrase, “diaphanous piffle…” although it exposes his ignorance. I was disappointed, because if nothing else, I always thought Black was well-educated. Clearly his education in cosmological concepts and quantum mechanics is less than that of the average scifi reader. Why must there be anything beyond this universe? Why can’t this be everything?

And as for evolution: of course it started somewhere but there is no reason to believe it is the result of divine intervention. We’ve created organic molecules in the lab; we’ve found them on comets and other moons. Life just got its start through nothing more exotic than chemical reaction. And who claims evolution debunks Christianity? The creation myths are in Genesis, not the New Testament. Such claptrap.

Richard Dawkins tweeted in response to Black’s column:

Spot the factual errors, illogicalities and failures to understand.

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Lucy and the 10% Brain Myth

LucyWe watched the film Lucy on iTunes last night and, while reasonably entertaining, its plot is founded on a persistent bit of pseudoscience: that people only use 10% of their brain capacity. It’s so widespread a myth that Wikipedia has a page on it that opens:

The 10 percent of the brain myth is the widely perpetuated urban myth that most or all humans only make use of 10 percent (or some other small percentage) of their brains. It has been misattributed to many people, including Albert Einstein. By extrapolation, it is suggested that a person may harness this unused potential and increase intelligence.

Sure, we all know people who don’t appear to use much of their brain’s potential power, but the simple truth is that we all use all of our brain’s capacity. We evolved a big brain to handle the growing demands of increased consciousness, speech and sophisticated motor control, and that’s what it’s for.

Sure, not all of it is used in a conscious manner. Much of the brain’s function is taken up in processing, storing and interpreting the huge bandwidth of information that is fed to it every second of every day. Even acts we do daily and take for granted – like walking upstairs with a cup of tea in one hand while talking – take a huge amount of processing power. Sight, balance, motor control, memory, logic, vocalization, muscles control… the brain takes care of it all without spilling a drop.

Your consciousness – the ego – doesn’t see all this work going on and never will because you would quickly be overwhelmed by the huge amount of data being managed by your unconscious. Yes, yes, a lot of people don’t appear to even use the whole capacity of their conscious brains – anti-vaxxers, chemtrail wingnuts, creationists and some local bloggers come to mind – but that’s just a portion of what the brain does. Critical thinking is a skill one has to acquire and practice, not an inherent brain function.

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It’s Official: Homeopathy is Bunk

Still Bullshit
“Homeopathy not effective for treating any condition, Australian report finds,” reads a headline in The Guardian this week. Well, that’s hardly news. But it repeats saying anyway. It’s a story about the latest in a series of studies that again and again debunk homeopathy as a treatment and conclude it is useless.

Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) “…thoroughly reviewed 225 research papers on homeopathy to come up with its position statement,” the paper reported.

And on Gizmodo they said:

An analysis of over 225 medical studies and 1,800 scientific papers has found that homeopathy is ineffective as a health treatment. Its authors urge that “people who choose homeopathy may put their health at risk if they reject or delay treatments.”

The scientists waded through a total of 1,800 reports; but only found 225 were actually controlled studies that lived up to the rigorous scientific standards required to make any claims of benefit stand up. So if any of them concluded homeopathy wasn’t bunk, it was because they failed the basic test for scientific rigour.

As The Smithsonian reported:

After assessing more than 1,800 studies on homeopathy, Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council was only able to find 225 that were rigorous enough to analyze. And a systematic review of these studies revealed “no good quality evidence to support the claim that homeopathy is effective in treating health conditions.”

Homeopathy is called an “alternative medicine” – which is bafflegab for claptrap. There is medicine or alternatives, and they don’t meet in the middle. It’s up there with the likes of iridology, reflexology, reiki, aromatherapy, healing crystals, naturopathy and magic incantations for utter medical buffoonery.

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Bad News For Balderdash

Truth is truthA recent story on New Scientist gives a glimmer of hope for those of us who bemoan the swelling tsunami of claptrap and codswallop that fills the internet:

THE internet is stuffed with garbage. Anti-vaccination websites make the front page of Google, and fact-free “news” stories spread like wildfire. Google has devised a fix – rank websites according to their truthfulness.

What a relief that will be. Of course it may spell doom for the popularity of pseudoscience, conspiracy theories, fad diets, racist, anti-vaccination fearmongers, yellow journalism, Fox News, celebrity wingnuts, psychics and some local bloggers – all of whose sites have an astronomically distant relationship with fact and truth, and depend instead on the ignorance and gullibility of their readers.

Page ranking has historically been based on a complex relationship of several, mostly superficial factors: links, keywords, page views, page loading speed, etc.  – about 200 different factors determine relevance and where a page appears in a search – it’s in part a worldwide popularity contest that doesn’t measure content.

Fact ranking  – knowledge-based trust – would certainly make it more difficult for the scam artists who thrive because their sites pop up at the top of a search – which many people assume means credibility. But people would actually have to pay attention to trust rankings for them to have any effect. If you’re determined to have your aura read, or communicate with your dead aunt, or arrange your furniture with feng shui, you’ve already crossed the truth threshold into fantasy with your wallet open. Fact ranking won’t help you.

A Google research team is adapting that model to measure the trustworthiness of a page, rather than its reputation across the web. Instead of counting incoming links, the system – which is not yet live – counts the number of incorrect facts within a page…its Knowledge-Based Trust score. The software works by tapping into the Knowledge Vault, the vast store of facts that Google has pulled off the internet. Facts the web unanimously agrees on are considered a reasonable proxy for truth. Web pages that contain contradictory information are bumped down the rankings.

Garbage online affecting our decisions, our lifestyles, our pinions, our ability to make appropriate judgments, our voting and our critical thinking? Not news. Back in 2004, the Columbia Journalism Review ran a story on the ‘toxic tidal wave’ of lies and deceit affecting the US presidential campaign. One of the points it makes is that we’re awash in digital content, so much so that our ability to sort it out has been hampered by the sheer volume.

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How Marx Presaged Today’s Canada

“The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country,” wrote Karl Marx and Fredrich Engels, in 1848, in the Communist Manifesto.

I came across this paragraph in Prof. David Harvey‘s book, A Companion to Marx’s Capital, recently and the quote from the Communist Manifesto struck me as very modern; one that presaged our current internationalism and the changes affecting Canada today.

No one on this continent has been unaffected by the rampant, unchecked, corporate globalism that has seen thousands of North American factories closed, jobs discarded, and production moved to Asia in order to render more profits for shareholders and bigger bonuses for CEOs. This utterly ruthless and unrestrained capitalism is the one politicians on the right proclaim as the only viable economic policy to pursue.

We think of this as a recent trend, and yet Marx warned about this more than 160 years ago:

…it has drawn from under the feet of industry the national ground on which it stood. All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed. They are dislodged by new industries, whose introduction becomes a life and death question for all civilised nations, by industries that no longer work up indigenous raw material, but raw material drawn from the remotest zones; industries whose products are consumed, not only at home, but in every quarter of the globe. In place of the old wants, satisfied by the production of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes. In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal inter-dependence of nations.

Doesn’t that sound like something written about modern globalization? It’s important to understand what Marx meant by capitalism, too: production and trade for the sole source of accumulating wealth (capital). He wasn’t criticizing the market economy, the buying and selling of commodities, the exchange of goods, and a free market. It has nothing to do with your ability to buy a flat screen TV or an iPad or a $250 pair of running shoes.

I’m not sure what he would make of eBay and Kijiji, but I suspect he would have approved of the ability of the individual to adopt and survive in this sort of commodity market where the ‘use-value’ of any items was determined by a mutual agreement between buyer and seller rather than determined for the amount of profit it would make for the elite.

I was struck by a piece in the Toronto Star this weekend by Thomas Walkom, titled, How to save Canadian capitalism from itself:

The economy is not working. A new one needs to be built.
It is not working on a global level, where the world continues to falter.
It is not working at a national level, where incomes stagnate, unemployment persists and good jobs are outsourced abroad.
As a study released Friday by the United Way shows, it is not working at a Toronto level.
That study makes the point that, even within Canada’s premier city, the gap between the rich and poor is growing.
Experts may tie themselves up in knots over the precise trajectory of inequality, depending in part on what is measured and when.
But the general point is beyond dispute: On its own, the free market is providing increasingly less equal rewards.

Which is exactly what Marx predicted would happen: the gap between haves and have-nots is widening. Walkom adds:

Failing a social revolution (which, I suspect, most Canadians don’t want), the alternative is to save capitalism from itself.

Marx predicted social revolution as the inevitable result of this growing inequality, but in this he has been proven only partially correct, and arguably even wrong at times. Cultures in Western nations have a natural inertia against revolution. We tend to be easily swayed by material comforts and convenience. Marx didn’t foresee the internet or 500-plus TV channels, didn’t foresee pornography, game consoles or other things that distract us from thinking about Big Ideas, let alone social upheaval. A culture that is too lazy to walk three blocks to a store for milk is not likely to rise up.

Marx’s communism simply doesn’t work here – at least no implementation has to date. But neither, it seems increasingly, does our unrestrained capitalism. There has to be some reasonable place between them, some place where capitalism’s more predatory urges are blunted, yet its entrepreneurial tendencies are not. As Azar Gat wrote in Foreign Affairs:

Capitalism has expanded relentlessly since early modernity, its lower-priced goods and superior economic power eroding and transforming all other socioeconomic regimes, a process most memorably described by Karl Marx in The Communist Manifesto. Contrary to Marx’s expectations, capitalism had the same effect on communism, eventually “burying” it without the proverbial shot being fired.

Continue reading “How Marx Presaged Today’s Canada”

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