Saturday, December 25, 2010

John Steinbeck - fabulist; maybe plain old liar

So, it turns out "Travels with Charley" isn't true. It's not even "true to life." Not even close. That said, because it's deliberate confabulation, it's not really a novel, either, is it? It's a lie. Should we then re-address the motive behind Steinbeck's actual novels? Did he actually sympathize with Joad-type characters, or did he just think it was a good storyline?

I mean, "Grapes of Wrath" and "Cannery Row" are powerful and stirring. But, reading just how much Steinbeck fabulized, or just made stuff up, in "Travels with Charley," seriously makes me wonder if he was writing them for the story line more than the message.

AND ... although the Nobel Literature committee, unlike the Downtown Athletic Club with a Heisman Trophy, doesn't seem like it would ever revoke an awarded prize, IF Steinbeck was writing his novels for story lines more than any "message," should we reconsider his place in the literary canon?

That said, per Leo on Facebook, The Harvest Gypsies (the series of articles about migrant workers Steinbeck wrote for the San Francisco News) was the nonfiction basis for "The Grapes of Wrath." As Leo notes, what if Steinbeck faked that, too?

Friday, December 24, 2010

An 'aha' moment from 'It's a Wonderful Life'

At the end of George's extended vision, when he goes back to the bridge and discovers he's still alive? I believe the music at that point is a major-key variation on the medieval Dies Irae melody. (Doubt the average watcher would even pick up on that.)

That said, what if Capra had ended the movie with George jumping? Or, had run it out another 30 minutes after the tear-jerker ending?

If you want to get more thought on that line, go here; is it "the most terrifying movie ever"?

Semi-holiday for one?

Secularists, how do you "celebrate" Christmas? Especially if you're not from a Christian background pre-secularism, DO you celebrate it? If your other family isn't secular, or highly accepting of your nonbelief, do you not visit them?

And, do you feel that lonely doing so? Or do you handle Christmas as a simple holiday like Labor Day?

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Gallup: Very religious are healthier

Gallup notes, in a new research poll:
Very religious Americans are less likely to report that they smoke and are more likely to say they eat well and exercise regularly than those who are moderately religious or nonreligious. Nonreligious Americans have the worst health habits of the three groups.

Fortunately, Gallup recognizes that a statistical correlation is not necessarily a causal one:
There are a number of factors that could contribute to very religious Americans' healthier lifestyle choices. Some of these factors are likely overt products of religious doctrine itself, including rules related to smoking and substance abuse. Seventh-Day Adventists, for example, strictly adhere to vegetarian lifestyles free of alcohol and smoking, while orthodox Mormons and Muslims do not drink alcohol. In some Christian denominations, gluttony and sloth are considered two of the seven deadly sins, and many evangelical faiths frown on drinking and smoking. The Bible indicates that one's body is the "temple of God," which could in turn help explain the relationship between religious orthodoxy and exercise and certain types of food consumption. It is possible, of course, that the noted relationship between health and religiosity could go in the other direction -- that people who are healthier are the most likely to make the decision to be religious. This could be particularly relevant in terms of church attendance, one of the constituent components of Gallup's definition of religiousness. Healthier people may be more likely and able to attend religious services than those who are less healthy.

It also notes that, if there is a causal correlation, it could go in the other direction than fundamentalist types will claim?
It may also be possible that certain types of individuals are more likely to make healthy lifestyle choices and more likely to choose to be highly religious. The most parsimonious explanation, however, may be the most intuitive: Those who capitalize on the social and moral outcomes of religious norms and acts are more likely to lead lives filled with healthier choices.

That said, besides allowing for Mormons and Adventists, how much of this is age-specific? I'll bet that once we get past the age of 40 or so, the gap narrows a fair degree.

Adam Smith, mercantilism, 'invisible hand' and Deism

I've written an occasional post touching on the edges of what's at the heart of this one.

And, that is that Smith wasn't such a pure-blooded Platonic idealist capitalist, first.

Even more important, secondly, is how his economic theory, especially as connected to his moral-sense ideas, and economically culminating in his "invisible hand," were based on Enlightenment Deism, an optimistic version of that religion that is scientifically, philosophically and psychologically untenable today.

For defenders of Smith the simon-pure free trader? You're wrong on the mercantilism, Smith and the colonies (Google Docs link). I quote, from a book: "Smith likewise approved of the laws which authorized the payment of a bounty for the production of naval stores in the American colonies and prohibited their export from America to any country other than Great Britain. This typical mercantilist regulation was justified, in Smith’s view, because it would make England independent of Sweden and the other northern countries for the supply of military necessities and this contribute to the self-sufficiency of the empire"

Source? "Wealth of Nations," Book IV, pp. 545-546, 609-610, 484, note 39.

Now, naval stores isn't all colonial goods, but given that they related to national defense, albeit loosely, Smith had no problem bringing them under a mercantilist umbrella.

Elsewhere, Smith accepted government support for start-up industry, retaliatory tarrifs (albeit on a limited basis) and other things.

On whence Smith derived ideas of "an invisible hand" or "the invisible hand," no, I can't prove it's from the wind-up-the-universe God of Enlightenment Deism. Nonetheless, it sounds reasonable, and I know it can't be disproven either, that as a source. Per Wikipedia, referencing his obit as a source, he rejected Orthodox Christianity at Oxford and was generally understood to have become a Deist.

Beyond that, von Mises says in Wikipedia again that he thought Smith thought the invisible hand was God.

Beyond that, we know that Deism was a strong influence on Smith's theory of moral sentiments. (Google Docs link.)

It's arguable, and has been argued by some, that the "invisible hand" doesn't apply to the workings of the market. But, even if it's considered an "inner witness," and not directly linked to Deism, nonetheless, via Smith's theory of moral sentiments being Deist influenced, a denial of any connection at all is hard to maintain. Certainly, the ideas that an invisible hand will rationally maximize production to the ultimate benefit of all is pure Deism at its most optimistic and moonshiney.

And, of course, Deism was scientifically undercut in 1900 by Max Planck. Before that, indirectly, as Voltaire knew, such an optimistic Deism was shaken by the 1755 Lisbon tremblor. Since then, nuclear weapons, world wars and the Holocast have further shattered Smith's blithely optimistic Deism.

Speaking of science, James K. Galbraith argues Smith is non-scientific in another way - he's pre-Darwinian! Very interesting. And, Galbraith applies this thought to all Smithian descendants, namely those nutbar Strausians and related Chicago School economists.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Pop psychology becomes pop philosophy and it's kind of ugly

Just got done reading "How Philosophy Can Save Your Life: 10 Ideas That Matter Most."

It's pop philosophy if it's philosophy rather than psychology.

That's part of my review, noting the book doesn't answer "why" and "how" questions too much.

The biggest "why" that Marietta McCarty doesn't answer? Why are these the 10 most important ideas in philosophy? Personally, "skepticism" would be at or near the list of my top 10, with Hume definitely being one of the two or three exemplar philosophers. What led her to the conclusion that these are the 10 most important ideas? How does she justify the generalization that what appear to be the 10 main ways philosophy can save HER life will apply to all?

The biggest "how" question that is unasked? How do different of McCarty's 10 principles balance with each other? "Individuality" and "belonging" came immediately to mind. Now, one could say that McCarty is inviting the reader to figure that out on his or her own, but ... if one is to make a value judgment between two principles, is there a guiding idea McCarty has for that?

And, it gets worse. It's got some great individual and small-group reflection and discussion exercises, but with such a non-critical background, the author might have them discussing peripherals.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Free will not so free? And not so human-specific?

I've long been of the opinion that "free will" vs. "determinism" is, if not a false dilemma, at least something close — a pair of false polarities, rather than something on a continuum.

(I've also been of the opinion, taking Dan Dennett's stance on consciousnesss that there's no "Cartesian meaner" to its logical conclusion — as does Daniel Wegner and others, I'm not alone — that there's no conscious, central, controlled location for free will in humans, as well. That is, there's no "Cartesian free willer" either. But, I digress.)

There's a German-based neuroscientist who agrees with me on the "polarities" angle. But, that's not all.

Bjoern Brembs also says that this free will — free will within constraints — is exhibited by animals, too.
Brembs and others have used mathematical models to simulate brain activity on a computer, finding that what worked best was a combination of deterministic behaviour and what is known as stochastic behaviour - which may look random but actually, in time, follows a defined set of probabilities.

Personally, I actually don't see this as that big of a deal. Given that consciousness itself is understood as being on some sort of continuum, rather than "we conscious humans" vs. "you unconscious animals," how could a will, and a will that is partially free, also not exist, and again, on a continuum?

That then said, I do find it a bit more questionable to extend some degree of free will, as Brembs does, all the way down to the level of flies, just as I would find it questionable to attribute consciousness to an animal with so few neurons.

To talk about a dog, or the old laboratory vertebrate standby, the lab rat, as having some degree or type of free will? Yes. The laboratory insect standby, a fruit fly? Per Carl Sagan, that's an extraordinary claim. I expect more evidence.

I'll stand by for more research; this is surely going to be a hot topic not just for months but for years.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010


Minor keys often have melancholy, plaintive laments,
More so than jarring stridency,
Unless a sudden dissonance intrudes;
And, so it is with my anger.
Slow to form, with an undercurrent of counterpoint,
Spoken and developed in individual voices,
Like a late Beethoven quartet,
Or, maybe, even more, one by Shostakovich.
I don’t even realize that I am angry until the score plays out,
Usually about halfway through the third movement.
Then, a diminished seventh lingers, a four-part pedal point, if you will,
Until the cello transitions out, into a growling presto ostinato,
And I can no longer deny to my conscious self that I am angered,
As my emotions now move attacca, without pause,
Into a final movement,
Where resolution is supposed to be found,
But, per the style of musica moderna,
Is not guaranteed.
— Dec. 14, 2010

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Why Socrates is overrated

Yeah, given my blog name and handle, it sounds ironic for me to say that, no?

Of course, some people might accuse me of being hypocritical, if I do think he's overrated. That said, my blog name trades on the myth of Socrates, which we shall now call into account ... by using some Socratic-like questioning!

1. If he really were ignorant of so much, how could he always be right in his dialogues -- especially since he proves his opponents wrong in every one of them and therefore he couldn't have learned from them?

2. If he really were so ignorant, and knew that he were, then why didn't he follow Wittgenstein and remain silent about what he did not know?

3. If he really were so ignorant, then how can we believe he understood the Sophists' teachings so well?


The baseline answer to all of these individual questions and more is that Socrates, that is, the Socrates who is a Platonic mouthpiece (and, an ideal one for Plato, pun intended!) makes straw men out of Sophists and their thought, opposes the democratization (for money) of knowledge that they offer because it upsets his classist views and more.

But, specifically:

1A. The Platonic wordsmith hoists him by his own petard, not to mention, especially in the Cave analogy, also getting hoist on the petard of ineffability.

2A. Because it does that, Plato's Socrates only mimicked the idea of being ignorant.

3A. This builds on the "baseline" answer. In a sense, Socrates, to the degree we can really guess at who he was, DOES know the ideas of the Sophists well — and fears their democratizing strain.

Memory, time and change

A poem on change, influenced by the book, "How Philosophy can Change Your Life."

Memory's malleability and time's tempo
Play out life in complex 7/8 rhythm
Like free verse that shifts mood, mode and meaning
An unconscious under-rhythm, more than mere backbeat,
Is each individual's I Ching
A changing round of changes on the them of change.
Nature is a humanist, with contradictions writ large.

Salon's theater critic knows bupkis

First, on page 2 of a 10-page slideshow about the best Shakespearean movies, Matt Zoller Seitz insults Orson Welles in his weighty later life, apparently believing he was born fat:
I must acknowledge Orson Welles' 1966 epic "Chimes at Midnight," a low-budget labor of love that stitches together bits of several Shakespeare plays, including "Henry IV Parts I and II," "Henry V," "Richard II" and "The Merry Wives of Windsor." Welles wrote the script, directed and costars as Falstaff — pretty much the only great Shakespeare part that such a huge actor could convincingly play.

But, it gets much worse.

Omitting Welles' Macbeth entirely in his discussion of best movie versions of that play?

Instead, Welles' Macbeth, with his excellent use of shadows, Jacques Ibere's excellent musical score and more, is head and shoulders above Polanski's version, with Seitz ignorantly tabs as his No. 1.

Add in the fact that he omits the Burton/Taylor version of Taming of the Shrew, even from his "Wild Card" (the wild card here being the fact of art imitating life) and he appears even more clueless.

Libertarianism, skepticism shouldn't be mixed

The potentially extended about dangers of mixing libertarianism and skepticism? Look at SkepticBlog and some of its recent posts, especially by Michael Shermer and Brian Dunning.

Shermer has been a libertarian of long standing. Outside this blog, as editor of Skeptic magazine, he's been an "enabler" of racialist Frank Miele for what, more than a decade now. Fellow racialist and co-author of "Race" with Miele, Vincent Sarich, is on the editorial board; Miele is listed as "senior editor."

Brian Dunning is currently engaged in bald-faced denialism of his libertarian sourcing, especially Steve Milloy's JunkScience.

Of course, here's why Dunning's such a denialist — Milloy's blatant denialism on global warming is trumpeted on the front page of JunkScience:
Now that the most absurd but potentially catastrophic junk science in human history is unraveling and we are preparing to declare victory over gorebull warbling we can devote more attention to neglected junk.

Taking Liberty -- How Private Property is being Abolished in America

Click here to jump straight to the global warming (a.k.a. "climate change", "global weirding", "people are icky, nasty, weather-breaking critters"... ) section if you so desire.

It's clear from that that Milloy engages in pseudoscience. Dunning was busted on using this website as a source, so hides his embarrassment at his ideological bias being discovered by raging against critics allegedly engaged in conspiracy theories, distortions, not telling him his errors and more.

Steven Novella originally got snookered by Milloy years ago and refusing to weigh in on Dunning's defense of "accidentally using" Milloy now.

Regarding that:
An irony in all of this is that if you go back and listen to early episodes of SGU, the Novella gang praised junkscience as a reputable website. They even had Milloy on to talk about his website (didn't discuss DDT, as far as I can remember). But you can tell that red flags were raised during the interview with Steve Novella, when Milloy was using language suggesting an ideological bias when discussing certain issues. And after that interview, SGU never mentioned junkscience again, except when criticizing it in an interview (I think, with Christopher Mooney). If only Brian had been privy to those early episodes, he may have steered away from the site all-together.

Well, considering that Dunning refuses to pull in his horns, AND that Novella has yet to put up his own post on Skepticblog about this at all, I doubt Dunning would have "steered away." Shermer hasn't steered away from worse; rather, he's gone swimming in it again.

Add, speaking of that, Skepticblog partner No. 4 (more on "partner" below) Daniel Loxton claimed that Shermer was past that, on a comment to a skeptic friend's Facebook post about a month ago. That makes almost half of the group, four of ten, having some degree of question mark over their heads on conflating libertarianism and skepticism.

Now, that "partner" talk? With 10 different members, I say it's a legitimate analogy to compare SkepticBlog to a law firm, with each blogger a "partner" similar to those at a law firm.

And, based on my experience with a with a particular political blog, Daily Kos, we're going to take that analogy in a particular direction.

Back about four years ago, Armando Llorens-Sar was Kos founder Markos Moulitsas' right-hand man. But, many people including me, asked and kept asking why he was refusing to reveal the name of the law firm where he "worked." He claimed it was because it could hurt his business.

Not quite. It turned out he was a partner at the firm, as opposed to "working" there. It a corporate representational firm which had some clients, such as Clorox and Walmart, taboo to many liberals.

I noted on Kos, before being banned, that Armando could have sold out of his partnership or asked to be bought out and how he ignored this idea. Note that a similar analogy applies here, to getting rid of Shermer and Dunning, or else others starting a new group blog. The six "silent partners," or the six + two, if you count the "abetting" duo of Loxton and Novella, have their chance to stand up for skeptical credibility, principle and practice.

As it stands, though, this conflation is bad for skepticism in a number of ways. Credibility, confusion of what skepticism is and more all result.


Some people may thing that there's a litmus test on political skepticism, i.e., you're not a good enough skeptic unless you're a libertarian. Others may think that the skeptical enterprise has an inherent bias. (Note the explicit libertarianism of Pop Ev Psycher Steve Pinker, for a parallel.) And more.

Now, if like Howard Gardiner apparently did on religious belief to a degree, if Shermer and Dunning want to compartmentalize their skepticism, fine. Just be honest about it!

Sunday, December 05, 2010

CFI and organization — Kurtz maybe DID need to go

I didn’t carefully and thoroughly follow every step of the Council for Inquiry’s organizational issues up to the time Paul Kurtz was pushed out as executive director.

Since that time, I started paying more attention, for a number of reasons.

First is related to the reasons Kurtz was allegedly pushed out — the difference between “confrontationalists” (especially among “New Atheists”) and “accommodationalists” as far as how to deal with the nonatheist world in general and especially its more hostile elements. I lean toward the accommodationalist side but, per Ecclesiastes, know there is a time for everything.

Second is related to the organizational issues themselves, specifically, the loss of a $2 million a year donor, because of losing Kurtz. And, there are two subissues here.

No. 1? Orac (sorry, didn’t bookmark a link) is right: You do NOT use the money of one donor in your general fund when that donor’s contributions make up a full one-quarter of your total income. You put that in a trust and use the interest, after a couple of years. OR, as many environmental groups do, you try to set up a matching fund drive between small donors and this guy. You could then use that portion of his $2M a year donation in your general fund but bank the rest.

That one hangs totally on Kurtz’s shoulders. My impression is that he ran CFI too much like a ma-and-pa shop long after it had expanded beyond that point. He obviously needed a full-time director of development who would know this, know how to do this, and tell Kurtz that.

If Kurtz resisted any of this, then he needed to go.

No. 2? The donor dropoff has led to a number of other issues, one related to a CFI job for which I applied, the position of director of communications.

Now, this spring, Nathan Bupp was still listed as vice president of communications. I assume his position was cut in the financial turmoil, and now, the director of communications opening is a partial replacement, at lower salary.

That said, it’s been going on eight weeks now since the application deadline for that job. I have no idea of where Barry Karr of CFI is at in the process. My guess is that, based on the number of resumes he got early on, a CFI disorganizational disorder has overwhelmed him. I’m assuming that he, and any assistant(s) he has in the hiring process, did NOT start a “preliminary cull” of resumes after getting more than 120 in the first 36-48 hours after announcing the opening. Assuming they didn’t, that’s another organizational black mark.

If CFI doesn't have the money to hire more staffers to help organization, then it needs to focus solely on development issues (along with narrower PR issues in the sense of perception) before anything else.

If staff levels are semi-adequate, then Bruce Lindsey needs to do a better job as new CEO, or hire an assistant, with appropriate title, who knows more about management and organizational issues.

Anyway, I have no idea of I will get the CFI position. I know I’m well-qualified for it.

But, in any case, CFI has issues it needs to address.

Beyond the organizational ones, it still needs to address the confrontationalist vs. accommodationalist issue. It also needs to address just what skepticism is and who a skeptic is. It also needs to address legitimate claims for the explanatory power of science vs. “scientism,” as my recent blog on a John Shook post shows.

And, that kind of reflects on why CFI needs a director of communications. Bloggers and online columnists there are kind of scattershot, and the thought quality isn't always that high. If you want to continue to be, and to be seen as, America's top secular humanist organization, well, you have at least some of your work cut out for you.

Critical thinking goes missing again at CFI

I am starting to think with Mr. Leo Lincourt, and surely others, that it's perhaps time to be more skeptical about alleged skepticism.

Besides the obvious offenders like Michael Shermer, there are others.

The latest? John Shook at Center for Inquiry.

His latest blog post? "How Does Science Defeat Religion." It's targeted NOT at fundamentalists, but the religiously liberal, those who might well be quite comfortable with Steve Gould's "non-overlapping magisteria" on certain items.

My short, on-site reply:
NOT a good post. First, science is not designed to "defeat" anything, John.

If you had rewritten the whole "defeat" idea about philosophy and how the liberally religious try to deal with the problem of evil, you'd be cooking with gas. Instead, you don't even have a campfire.

Longer thoughts here.

If this is what the "Vice President and Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Inquiry Transnational" thinks is the nature of science, oy. Really.

I agree with where I think Shook is coming from philosophically — rejecting the idea held by both Gould and liberally religious on dual magisteria. But, that's a philosophical issue as much as a scientific one, at least. Certainly, once you get past naturalistic issues, with the liberally religious accepting evolution, etc.,. it is. Science works with methodological naturalism. Therefore, if a liberally religious person claims that an incorporeal deity intruded into the natural world it's ultimately a philosophical issue.

If you go beyond methodological naturalism to philosophical naturalism, well, obviously, by definition, you're now in philosophy.

Second, as Mr. Lincourt has noted in response to me, he misdefines science:
Aside from the fact that he never defines religion, rather just assumes the reader agrees with whatever nebulous definition he's using, I found this 'graph to be particularly troublesome:

"After science was invented, all things were no longer equal. Science supplements ordinary knowledge with vastly improved knowledge, and common consent gets overruled by scientific knowledge. There is a parallel superiority of ethical judgment over the "common consent" of humanity on moral matters -- after past experiments with slavery caused horrible consequences for all to see, no society could justify slavery anymore."

Umm... science was invented? I rather thought science was a constellation of philosophies, methodologies, practices and social norms that evolved out of our capacity to reason, not some monolithic creation that was conjured whole cloth out of the void one fine day by some old, bearded, toga-wearing dude and has remained relatively static ever since then.

So, moving on, science supplants ordinary knowledge? Really? I can think of half a dozen types of knowledge where science neither supplants or even has anything to say. Literature and music, just to pick two.

Leo doesn't use the word "scientism," but it seems that's exactly what Shook is practicing.

Third, Leo passed on Massimo Pigliucci's latest blog post, called "Why Plumbing is not Science."
The title of this entry is a reference to Jerry Coyne’s occasional remark that there is no substantial difference between plumbing and science because plumbers test hypotheses based on empirical evidence.

Except, of course, that plumbing is not science, and here is why. ... I don’t actually believe that anyone takes seriously the proposition that all reason-based knowledge is “scientific.” If that were the case, then pretty much everything we do every day should count as science — from picking a movie based on a review by a critic we usually like (induction!) to deciding to cross the street when the pedestrian light is green (hypothesis testing!). If the concept of science is that expansive, than it is also pretty close to meaningless.

Bingo, and it reflects at least in part another Shook mistake and why he needs to listen to some philosophers, as David Buller knows most scientists do. (Jerry Coyne and P.Z. Myers, who probably applaud thoughts like Shook's, definitely need to.)

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Oxytocin, MSM science reporting, scientist fluffery

Oxytocin is a two-edged sword; it can increase distrust as well as trust or love. Once again, the claim that it's the "love hormone" is in part the fault of MSM science reporters, but it's also the fault of scientists playing up preliminary or partial research findings too much.

Read the story for just how varied oxytocin's effects actually are. That said, the research that showed it increased mistrust in some cases had a small sample size, so there may be some self-referential irony to both the story and this blog post.