01/9/14

To err is human. And bureaucratic.


Roosevelt quoteErrare humanum est, perseverare diabolicum, et tertium non datur. To err is human; to persevere in error is diabolical; there is no third option.

Bit of a tough love phrase, that one. Most of us know this as the later paraphrase of Alexander Pope: to err is humane, to forgive divine. Yes, he wrote “humane” because that’s how they wrote “human” in the early 18th century. And he was making a statement about critics, not about religion. But you get the drift.*

Pope’s phrase is a staple in politics. To err is human, and governments are composed of people. In his speech to the Democratic National Convention, in 1936, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt, said those words in the image above:

Governments can err, presidents do make mistakes, but the immortal Dante tells us that Divine justice weighs the sins of the cold-blooded and the sins of the warm-hearted on different scales. Better the occasional faults of a government that lives in a spirit of charity than the consistent omissions of a government frozen in the ice of its own indifference.

That’s worth repeating: Better the occasional faults of a government that lives in a spirit of charity than the consistent omissions of a government frozen in the ice of its own indifference.

Clearly others agreed, because Roosevelt was re-elected by a landslide that year. What impresses me is Roosevelt’s insistence that it is better to have a government that sometimes errs, yet cares for its constituents, than a government that doesn’t make the effort because it fears those mistakes. Or makes its decisions based on frozen ideology, rather than situational ethics, rather than looking for the greater good outside the myopic view.

Of course, we all err; we all have the benefit of hindsight that tells us what we might have done better, what we might have improved, which fork in the road would have been the better – not just the shortest or fastest – route. As Billy Wilder quipped, hindsight is always 20-20. We see the past better than the future.

In response to those armchair quarterbacks who were quick to point out the better way he might have followed, Roosevelt might have paraphrased John 8: “Let any one of you who has never made a mistake be the first to throw a stone at the decision makers.”
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12/28/13

Psychics 2013: the silly, the scams, the failed predictions


Joke...Action News, an ABC affiliate, ran a late-year story with the headline “Psychics interpret pets’ thoughts.” No, it’s not April Fools’ Day: this was December 26. Yet the reporter treated it seriously; just like it was a real story; actual news, rather than a steaming heap of superstitious dung. That reporters for any media outlet treat would such codswallop as “news” calls into question their ability, their competence and their education.

Lorrie The Pet Psychic has been tuning into the thoughts of animals for 18 years, appearing on Oprah after she helped locate a local dog who was blown away by a storm and then found alive.
“I feel very honored, you know, because I get to give animals a voice. Especially with the older pets that are getting ready to cross over and their owners get to say goodbye,” said Lorrie.

I don’t know whether to laugh at Lorrie’s ludicrous statements, or weep at the gullibility of people who have used her “services” for 18 years.

“Cross over”? You mean die. Kick the bucket. Shuffle off this mortal coil. Run down the curtain and joined the bleedin’ choir invisible. Pet ghosts talking to former masters? Sheesh… if dead pets could talk, why don’t these “:psychics” get messages from dead raccoons, or other roadkill? The mouse that died in the trap? the bird caught by your cat? Wouldn’t the afterlife ether just crackle with that noise?

Psychics and so-called clairvoyants feed on people’s fear of mortality; they create a culture of alternate realities and other worlds populated with dead people (and pets – or is it all animals?) in order to suck the money from your wallet when they pretend to be in contact with people who “cross over.” Now, it seems, they can contact pets, too, living and dead.

“I think he likes his hair a little longer,” said Psychic Eve. “He prefers it that way. He feels more, I don’t know, macho more desirable.”

That’s what another self-described “psychic” told the credulous reporter, who dutifully wrote it down and printed it. Come on – a dog being “macho” over its hair? What journalism school taught you to be so naive?

To add insult to intellectual injury, the reporter then lists contact information so the simple-minded readers can call these “psychics” and give them their money.

If you want to know what sort of justification “pet psychics” give to their clients before denuding them of their finances, on How Stuff Works, you can get pages full of their gibberish:

According to most pet psychics, you communicate with your pets telepathically all the time, without even knowing it. Your cat hides and your dog gets ready to play because of signals you send with your mind, not because of your actions… According to pet psychics, electromagnetic energy surrounds and penetrates everything in the universe, much like the force in “Star Wars.” This energy is part of the radio spectrum, but scientists haven’t figured out how to detect it. Pet psychics can use energy to contact animals, no matter how far away the animals are or whether they are still living.

Enough to make your brain hurt, isn’t it? The real message, though, is buried in the article:

For a fee, they then relay telepathic messages to and from pets. The pets don’t even have to be present — often, psychics use photographs or descriptions to make contact.

There’s the hook in the worm: a fee. Of course they charge a fee because they make their living fleecing the gullible.

I have a tough time telling my black cats apart some days even when they’re sitting side by side. Who would be dim enough yet willing to pay someone to “telepathically” converse with a photograph of a black cat?

Here’s what my dog would say if a “pet psychic” could communicate with it:

Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark.

Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark.

Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark.

And I learned that without shelling out money to a “psychic!”
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11/12/13

Gluten, Sourdough, Fads and Ailments


Gluten breakdownGluten, that everyday protein found in many grains, has become the health-fad followers’ most recent evil spectre, and many (one in three, stats show) have jumped onto the anti-gluten bandwagon, generally with a simplistic message: “gluten bad.”

Like most diet fads, I expect it will likely fall off centre stage when the next Big Thing To Rise Against comes along. But meanwhile, until the next fad raises its head, gluten gets sensationalized, demonized and generally misunderstood.

Headlines like this abound (it was matched by a CBC Radio story on Ontario Morning Tuesday, Nov. 12):

Sourdough breadmaking cuts gluten content in baked goods
Celiacs and gluten avoiders have a new way to enjoy a slice of bread

That’s from a misleading and potentially dangerous CBC story about sourdough bread. It’s dangerous because there are people who suffer severe reaction from gluten intake (celiac disease or CD), and others who have non-celiac intolerance (sensitivities) to gluten (not, as some sites say, an allergy) and they might be misled to think sourdough bread is now safe.

People – thinking CBC a reliable, even credible source – might consume regular sourdough bread  – or at least bread labelled as “sourdough” – believing this article deems it safe, when it may in fact cause severe and painful reactions.*

The article says:

A handful of recent studies have some good news for those trying to reduce the amount of gluten they eat — old-fashioned sourdough baking techniques significantly cut gluten content in bread…

But the reporter fails to identify those studies, so readers need to research to find out what those studies actually say (and more importantly, what they don’t say). Nor does the writer say whether all sourdough methods work, or just some (Google sourdough starter and you’ll find hundreds of recipes, some including wild yeast, others with domestic yeast). The writer then adds:

A team of Italian scientists led by Luigi Greco at the University of Naples authored a 2010 study that showed significantly lower levels of gluten in sourdough made according to old methods.

Old methods? Like leaving the started in peasant’s thatch-roof, mud-walled hut shared with the family pig?

Well, unless I completely misread it, that study of 13 people didn’t say anything of the sort about “old methods” It showed reduced gluten in “fully hydrolyzed wheat flour” that had been treated in a sterile laboratory environment with a clinical mix of cultured bacteria commonly found in sourdough, as well as adding fungal enzymes:

Fermentation with selected lactobacilli added with fungal proteases, routinely used as an improver in bakery industries, decreased the concentration of gluten to below 10 ppm. Despite the markedly reduced concentration of gluten, the resulting spray-dried flour was still adequately workable. As shown in this and other studies, the hydrolyzed flour is suitable for making sweet baked goods and also bread and pasta if supplemented with gluten-free structuring agents…

A 60-day diet of baked goods made from hydrolyzed wheat flour, manufactured with sourdough lactobacilli and fungal proteases, was not toxic to patients with CD.

Which is good news and encourages further research, but not a promise that all breads labelled “sourdough” will have that effect. Or that the baker’s sourdough starter will have the ingredients in the necessary quantities and balance of ingredients to sufficiently reduce the  gluten in the flour. Or that the length of fermentation will be sufficient to achieve those results. Or that the flours used in the bakery are the same as those used in the research (different flours have different gluten levels).

Notice that caveat for bakers: “…if supplemented with gluten-free structuring agents…” These test subjects were fed pastries, not breads or pasta.

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11/1/13

All the King’s Horses and All the King’s Men



Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again.

Humpty DumptyThat children’s nursery rhyme says a lot about the situation Toronto Mayor Rob Ford finds himself in, following the release of police reports, yesterday. The mayor is in, to put it politely, a pickle. Rather than reiterate all the brouhaha and the details of what the police reported, I direct you to read the CBC, Toronto Star, National Post, Globe and Mail and even the notoriously pro-Ford Toronto Sun newspapers and websites. They all say much the same, differing only in how much gleeful I-told-you-so they can insert into the stories.

Whether Ford is guilty – and remember, nothing has been proven – the story has been titillatingly sensationalized in the media so that pretty much everyone but Rob Fords thinks he’s guilty. Of what? Well, something. We’re not sure but he’s gotta be guilty of something. That’s what media sensationalism does.

Until he is charged with some crime, much of it is, of course, merely allegation and innuendo. The police haven’t charged him with anything. And if they do, his guilt is a matter for the courts to decide, not the media or the public. The public will have its say on Rob Ford on election day, in 2014.

Don’t get me wrong: I have no affection for the man, or his style. I think he has handled the story wrongly from the very beginning. He’s a boor, a loudmouth and a redneck with the media relation skills of a bull rhino. But I can empathize with him about how sensationalism in the media can align with allegation, rumour and gossip to damage your reputation and your ability to do the job you were elected to do. And there’s damn little you can do when you get on that roller coaster.

What matters right now is governance. And the relevant question is: does Ford’s situation hurt the effective governance and operation of the city?

The likely answer is yes. Ford’s ability to manage the role is seriously compromised, regardless of the truth of any accusation. If nothing more, the job is too often interrupted by non-sequitor media questions. Too much attention on the allegations, not enough gets given to the business of running Canada’s largest city.

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10/30/13

Burning Books, Burning Bibles


Pastor Marc Grizzard, of Amazing Grace Baptist Church in Canton, NC is back in the news this week, but I’m not really sure if it’s because of something he did or something that was dredged up online from a few years back and has just been regurgitated.

This week, a story in The Telegraph about Grizzard resurfaced on Facebook. But it’s from 2009, not dated 2013. I’m unable to find a contemporary reference that doesn’t refer back to the 2009 story. Mayhap it’s a hoax. But it’s fun and informative to revisit, anyway.

Back then, the Telegraph reported that Grizzard intended to burn books in his North Carolina church. Religious books in particular, especially those of a Christian nature, albeit just not his particular – and peculiar – Christian nature. Bibles, too:

Marc Grizzard, of Amazing Grace Baptist Church in Canton, North Carolina, says that the first King James translation of the Bible is the only true declaration of God’s word, and that all others are “satanic”.
Pastor Grizzard and 14 other members of the church plan to burn copies of the other “perversions” of Scripture on Halloween, 31 October.
The New Revised Version Bible, the American Standard Version Bible, and even the New King James Version are all pronounced to be works of the Devil by Pastor Grizzard and his followers.
Pastor Grizzard said: “I believe the King James version is God’s preserved, inspired, inerrant, infallible word of God… for English-speaking people.

Grizzard also wanted to throw in books by Christian authors onto the flames as well:

…the pastor and his associates will be burning books by various Christian authors, as well as music of every genre.
“[We will be burning] books by a lot of different authors who we consider heretics, such as Billy Graham, Rick Warren… the list goes on and on,” Pastor Grizzard told reporters.
Mother Teresa is also on the list of Satanic authors.

Mother Teresa? Yeah – she was Catholic. Fundamentalists believe all Catholics are going to Hell. One fundie write says its because “Catholicism is a manmade religion.” Well, I thought they all were. I mean, do we have polar-bear-made religions? Spider-monkey-made religions? Dolphin-made religions? Jack-Russell-terrier-made religions? I don’t want to digress too much from the smoldering books, but this stuff is pretty wacky.

So you can’t be just any sort of Christian writer; Grizzard wants you to be one of his sort of Christian, which is apparently a pretty narrow field. Otherwise, anything you wrote is tossed into the flames (assuming the law lets them…). Which is, of course, merely a thin metaphor for burning someone at the stake, a favourite hobby of fundamentalists past.

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10/27/13

Anti-Intellectualism: The New Elitism


Anti-intellectualismThere’s a growing – and disturbing – trend in modern culture: anti-intellectual elitism. The dismissal of art, science, culture, philosophy, of rhetoric and debate, of literature and poetry, and their replacement by entertainment, spectacle, self-righteous self ignorance, and deliberate gullibility. These are usually followed by vituperative ridicule and angry caterwauling when anyone challenges the populist ideals or ideologies.

As if having a brain, as if having any aspirations to culture, to art, to learning – or worse, to science – was an evil, malicious thing that must be stomped upon. As if the literati were plotting world domination by quoting Shakespeare or Chaucer. Or Carl Sagan, Charles Darwin, Richard Dawkins.

“The mind of this country, taught to aim at low objects, eats upon itself.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson, oration to the Phi Beta Kappa Society Cambridge, August 31, 1837.

Anti-intellectualism isn’t new – Richard Hofstadter wrote about it in 1963 – but it has become highly visible on the internet where pseudoscience and conspiracy theories have developed unchallenged into popular anti-science and anti-rationalist countercultures, many followed and accepted by millions.

Hofstadter wrote,

Anti-intellectualism is a resentment and suspicion of the life of the mind and of those who are considered to represent it, and a disposition constantly to minimize the value of that life.

He warned in his book that intellectualism was “on the run” in America. It still is.*

Just look at the superstitious Jenny-McCarthyites who fear vaccinations with the same religious fervour medieval peasants feared black cats crossing their paths. Or the muddle-headed practitioners and followers of homeopathy. The chemtrail conspiracists. The anti-wind turbine and the anti-fluoride crowd. Any Scientologist. Or any religious fundamentalist. The list of true believers in the anti-intellectual crowd is huge.

Online technology didn’t create these mythologies, or the gullibility of their followers, but the internet is the great equalizer and the great popularizer. It’s not making us smarter; in fact, it may be dumbing down a lot of folks. That’s because anyone, anywhere, can have his or her say and there’s no way to easily discern the intellectual wheat from the. abundant chaff without doing some hard thinking and analysis.

Technology has created the sense of entitlement that every comment, every opinion is of equal value, regardless of the context and the person making that comment. It’s the ultimate democratizer. But it’s a democracy where communication is reduced to the lowest level: the instant, the brief and the angry retort.

Facebook and Twitter don’t have categories that identify posters as more relevant or more important than others. If the prime minister posts on Facebook, he doesn’t get a gold box around his post that says he’s in charge of the country. If Stephen Hawking weighs into a Facebook debate about the nature of the space-time continuum, he doesn’t get a special icon that lets people know he owns this conversation.***

All messages we post have the same weight, the same gravity. There’s nothing to identify any post as more informed, as factually correct or even relevant. So it becomes easy to derail a discussion by spurious claims and allegations, but innuendo, lies or simply confrontational language.

We’re all equally important on the internet. One person’s belief in magic, superstition or conspiracies gets the same opportunity to be heard and seen as those about science and empirical fact. In the online land of the blind, the one-eyed man has no special significance.

Facebook image

We’re creating a world of dummies. Angry dummies who feel they have the right, the authority and the need not only to comment on everything, but to make sure their voice is heard above the rest, and to drag down any opposing views through personal attacks, loud repetition and confrontation.

When they can’t respond with an intellectual counterargument – as is often the case – the anti-intellectuals respond with the ideology of their peer group (see the religious content of the message in the image taken from Facebook on the left) or ad hominem attacks. Name calling. Belittling and demeaning the opponent.

Bill Keller, writing in the New York Times, said,

The Web culture is simultaneously elitist and anti-authoritarian…

But it’s not an elitism of wisdom, education, experience or knowledge. The new elite are the angry posters, those who can shout loudest and more often, a clique of bullies and malcontents baying together like dogs cornering a fox. Too often it’s a combined elite of the anti-intellectuals and the conspiracy followers – not those who can voice the most cogent, most coherent response.

Together they ferment a rabid culture of anti-rationalism where every fact is suspect; every shadow holds a secret conspiracy. Rational thought is the enemy. Critical thinking is the devil’s tool.

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