Tag Archives: critical thinking

Jade Helm 15 and the Madness of America

FactsFor a guy who gets great entertainment from reading the wild and wacky conspiracy theories that sprout like mushrooms online, I was surprised that I missed the rapid growth of the Jade Helm 15 conspiracy. I only noticed it as a surface ripple until this past weekend, when I realized it had blossomed into a full-blown madness.

Jade Helm 15 goes beyond the usual tinfoil-hat conspiracies: it’s full tinfoil body armour stuff.  And it’s been raised to the level of a hundred voices in an audience all screaming ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre – that being, of course, the internet. But there’s no fire. Not even smoke: it’s all in their imagination.

From the outside, it’s as zany and illogical as chemtrails and creationism, but it plays to a very specific American mindset.* That mindset – a heady mix of isolationism, xenophobia, racism, fundamentalist Christianity, paranoia, suspicion and guns – has been around, brewing up conspiracies since at least the Civil War days. It is the same mentality that created the Red Scare – not once, but twice in US history. It’s the mindset behind the armed Grant’s Pass insurrectionists in Oregon right now. It’s the fuel for the New World Order conspiracies.

Not surprisingly, the adherents of these conspiracies all seem to be white Republicans. I’m sure Democrats believe in some wacky things too – medicare, livable wages, a clean environment, taxing the rich, that sort of thing – but they don’t get the social media play that the Republican conspiracies garner. Maybe there are more paranoid Republicans than Democrats. Or maybe there are simply more paranoid Republicans on Facebook.

As a recent NatPost story tells us, the Jade Helm 15 conspiracy has reached full-blown craziness that scares outsiders:

It’s a window into a worldview where malevolent forces are supposedly preparing to seize control of the United States — and its adherents are extremely grateful to Texas politicians for promoting their cause.

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Signs – of the Apocalypse?

signCouncillor Cam Ecclestone made a comment at council earlier this month that he had been contacted by several residents concerned about the new sign on the Rexall Drug store on Huron Street, its size and colours. Coun. Doherty chimed in about it with similar comments.

Aside from the question why anyone would contact a member of council whose sluggish performance at the table would win an award for best impersonation of a somnambulist, one has to wonder who these residents are who are so concerned about a rather ordinary corporate/franchise sign.

Well, I mean aside from the handful of petty ideologues who want to blame all the evils under the sun on the developer, that is. He, of course, has nothing to do with the corporate signage of a tenant in one of his buildings.

But that’s logic, and these folks are not concerned with logic. They hate everything he does and has ever done, and will ever do, so why not blame him? Didn’t he give us that bad winter, after all? Isn’t he responsible for all those frozen pipes? So why stop hating him now?

No matter to them that the building is in neither the heritage district nor the BIA, so does not have to comply with any sign restrictions therein. Nor that the building actually passed a heritage impact assessment that said it was just fine, signs and all. Nor that the sign went through all necessary and stringent site plan agreements and was approved by town staff as conforming with our own bylaws.*

(And these approvals are entirely out of council’s hands, past and present, so councillors questioning them are in fact questioning staff’s integrity….)

No matter that the building and its tenants are located downtown, rather than outside the core where they might have been, and they will help bring more people to the area, and they and their clients will likely use local services and businesses.**

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Someone’s Paying Attention

Red tapeI was glad to see the Connection is attending and reporting on some of the council standing committee meetings. The media need to be there to shine a light on what seems to the rest of the town as a secretive, unaccountable process. At least the Connection is paying attention.

The story that came out of the meeting is titled, “Lobbyist registry could make things complicated: Collingwood town clerk.” Apparently the EB didn’t think it was worth writing about. The EB doesn’t get it.

Clerk Sara Almas told the committee:

“Not only does it capture developers and contractors, it could include ratepayers and how they interact with council and it could get quite complicated. Municipalities our size have not opted for a lobbyist registry.”

And for good reason: it would increase operating costs and administrative overhead (thus raise taxes again!) without doing one damn thing good for the town. Except that it might perhaps fulfill a promise to the backseat political drivers who pull the strings of some at the table. But for the rest of us, it would be bad news.

Lobbyist registry is a zombie idea: it keeps coming back from the dead no matter how many times it gets killed. It stinks of the ideological rags it wears. It raises its ugly head during our municipal election campaigns – the last time promoted by Brian Saunderson, now deputy mayor. But no matter who brays about it, the idea is a bad one.

Saunderson may not be aware that there was a staff report made about lobbyist registries back in April, 2008, nor that the council of the day rejected creating one in a vote in June, 2008. (He was equally uniformed about a recent staff report on open government when he made his motion to get yet another staff report on same; his ignorance is costing taxpayers money to create such redundant reports…)
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Turning Positives into Negatives

curlling clubOnce upon a time, when George Czerny was the publisher, the Enterprise-Bulletin newspaper was an avid and active local promoter: the indefatigable cheerleader for the town; for its events, activities, clubs and organizations. It was the proud voice of Collingwood. Not so, today.

The paper seems to have lost that community passion. Today it comes across as bitter, ideologically-driven, full of negativity and hidden agendas.

Take a look at the EB’s story about the Curling Club renovations.

Here should be a positive story about the collaboration between the town and the Curling Club to share costs, renovate and restore one of the town’s most important heritage buildings. It should be a good news story about how private-public partnerships work well, about how the community gets behind a project for the common good and how the club members have contributed freely of their time, expertise and money to make it happen.

That’s not how the story was written.* Instead, the headline reads, “‘Procedural errors’ by staff part of what led to current situation: PRC director.” It doesn’t mention the positive and valuable contributions made by the club members, nor the hours they personally spent working there – just the dollar amounts.

That’s not how a community newspaper should approach a project like this. This should be about the people, not the bucks. Where’s the community pride that once ran like printer’s ink in the veins of the EB? Bled out, it seems.

In a staff report released on Collingwood council’s April 30 agenda it was revealed that the club is around $204,000 over-budget on the renovations.

Blaming staff for budget overruns is hardly new, but since the buck stops at the CAO’s desk – the CAO oversees all staff – one can construe this negative reporting as a thinly-disguised criticism of him and his administration. Is that the subtext the writer wants us to take away from this piece?

But it wasn’t procedural errors that caused the problem: it was unforeseen restoration costs. The reporter’s headline is erroneous. Like I said earlier, the EB doesn’t understand the process or the politics.

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Not Getting It

ConfusedIn a recent opinion piece in the Enterprise Bulletin titled “Swayze overused by council?” EB reporter/editor Paul Brian comments,

I think the overuse of Swayze is outlandish and it is not congruent with the tough financial situation of the town.*

Like much of the EB’s increasingly vague reporting since former editor Ian Adams left, the paper’s current editorial staff doesn’t seem to understand municipal politics. The reporting on many local matters raised at the council table show a naïve ignorance of both the issues and the processes at stake. The EB’s budget reporting this year was so flawed it should have been posted as satire, not news.

The EB just doesn’t get it.

That “tough financial situation” Brian mentions allowed council to approve a $40,000 increase in Councillor Jeffrey’s expenses so she could pursue personal political goals outside of town. The EB was ominously silent on such abuses of power, and has been equally silent about council’s apparent failure to actually read the budget documents they were voting on.

And now this… the EB continues to dazedly tread deep water. Its writers struggle vainly to regain what little relevance the paper once had to the community, by pretending to know what’s going on. Well, they don’t.

One suspects this myopic editorial approach is bolstered by the ideological need to support the few council ‘friends’ of some of its writers.

Brian apparently doesn’t understand why an Integrity Commissioner was hired. It’s not for council’s use – although councillors can file complaints like anyone else – it is for the public. It is to provide a mechanism for any member of the public to question or challenge the behaviour of their elected representatives.

Is Brian suggesting the public is ‘overusing’ the IC by filing legitimate complaints? That would smack of arrogance and autocracy. The public has every right to file any number of complaints. The IC is there for them. The public perception of council is at stake.

And what price do you pay for accountability? Brian suggests there should be some sort of cap on it. What, stop investigating public complaints once the budget is used up? That’s hardly accountability. But perhaps Brian thinks that’s what council wants, since the results are embarrassing to them.

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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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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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