Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The Highest Treason in the USA, by Kurt Vonnegut

"The Highest Treason in the USA" by Kurt Vonnegut. Taken from A Man Without a Country (Copyright 2005). Reproduced for educational purposes.

"The highest treason in the USA is to say Americans are not loved, no matter where they are, no matter what they are doing there."

Do you know what a humanist is?

My parents and grandparents were humanists, what used to be called Free Thinkers. So as a humanist I am honoring my ancestors, which the Bible says is a good thing to do. We humanists try to behave as decently, as fairly, and as honorably as we can without any expectation of rewards or punishments in an afterlife. My brother and sister didn't think there was one, my parents and grandparents didn't think there was one. It was enough that they were alive. We humanists serve as best we can the only abstraction with which we have any real familiarity, which is our community.

I am, incidentally, Honorary President of the American Humanist Association, having succeed the late, great science fiction writer Isaac Asimov in that totally functionless capacity. We had a memorial service for Isaac a few years back, and I spoke and said at one point, "Isaac is up in heaven now." It was the funniest thing I could have said to an audience of humanists. I rolled them in the aisles. It was several minutes before order could be restored. And if I should ever die, God forbid, I hope you will say, "Kurt is up in heaven now." That's my favorite joke.

How do humanists feel about Jesus? I say of Jesus, as all humanists do, "If what he said is good, and so much of it is absolutely beautiful, what does it matter if he was God or not?"

But if Christ hadn't delivered the Sermon on the Mount, with its mesage of mercy and pity, I wouldn't want to be a human being.

I'd rather as soon be a rattlesnake.


Human beings have had to guess about almost everything for the past million years or so. The leading characters in our history books have been our most enthralling, and sometimes our most terrifying, guessers.

May I name two of them?

Aristotle and Hitler.

One good guesser and one bad one.

And the masses of humanity through the ages, feeling inadequately educated just like we do now, and rightly so, have had little choice but to believe this guesser or that one.

Russians who didn't think much of the guesses of Ivan the Terrible, for example, were likely to have their hats nailed to their heads.

We must acknowledge that persuasive guessers, even Ivan the Terrible, now a hero in the Soviet Union, have sometimes given us the courage to endure extraordinary ordeals which we had no way of understanding. Crop failures, plagues, eruptions of volcanoes, babies being born dead—the guessers often gave us the illusion that bad luck and good luck were understandable and could somehow be dealt with intelligently and effectively. Without that illusion, we all might have surrendered long ago.

But the guessers, in fact, knew no more than the common people and sometimes less, even when, or especially when, they gave us the illusion that we were in control of our destinies.

Persuasive guessing has been at the core of leadership for so long, for all of human experience so far, that it is wholly unsurprising that most of the leaders of this planet, in spite of all the information that is suddenly ours, want the guessing to go on. It is now their turn to guess and guess and be listened to. Some of the loudest, most proudly ignorant guessing in the world is going on in Washington today. Our leaders are sick of all the solid information that has been dumped on humanity by research and scholarship and investigative reporting. They think that the whole country is sick of it, and they could be right. It isn't the gold standard that they want to put us back on. They want something even more basic. They want to put us back on the snake-oil standard.

Loaded pistols are good for everyone except inmates in prisons or lunatic asylums.

That's correct.

Millions spent on public health are inflationary.

That's correct.

Billions spent on weapons will bring inflation down.

That's correct.

Dictatorships to the right are much closer to American ideals than dictatorships to the left.

That's correct.

The more hydrogen bomb warheads we have, all set to go off at a moment's notice, the safer humanity is and the better off the world will be that our grandchildren will inherit.

That's correct.

Industrial wastes, and especially those that are radioactive, hardly ever hurt anybody, so everybody should shut up about them.

That's correct.

Industries should be allowed to do whatever they want to do: Bribe, wreck the environment just a little, fix prices, screw dumb customers, put a stop to competition, and raid the Treasury when they go broke.

That's correct.

That's free enterprise.

And that's correct.

The poor have done something very wrong or they wouldn't be poor, so their children should pay the consequences.

That's correct.

The United States of America cannot be expected to look after its own people.

That's correct.

The free market will do that.

That's correct.

The free market is an automatic system of justice.

That's correct.

I'm kidding.

And if you actually are an educated, thinking person, you will not be welcome in Washington, D. C. I know a couple of bright seventh graders who would not be welcome in Washington, D. C. Do you remember those doctors a few months back who got together and announced that it was a simple, clear medical fact that we could not survive even a moderate attack by hydrogen bombs? They were not welcome in Washington, D. C.

Even if we fired the first salvo of hydrogen weapons and the enemy never fired back, the poisons released would probably kill the whole planet by and by.

What is the response in Washington? They guess otherwise. What good is an education? The boisterous guessers are still in charge—the haters of information. And the guessers are almost all highly educated people. Think of that. They have had to throw away their educations, even Harvard or Yale educations.

If they didn't do that, there is no way their uninhibited guessing could go on and on and on. Please, don't you do that. But if you make use of the vast fund of knowledge now available to educated persons, you are going to be lonesome as hell. The guessers outnumber you—and now I have to guess—about ten to one.


In case you haven't noticed, as the result of a shamelessly rigged election in Florida, in which thousands of American Americans were arbitrarily disenfranchised, we now present ourselves to the rest of the world as proud, grinning, jut-jawed, pitiless war-lovers with appallingly powerful weaponry—who stand unopposed.

In cast you haven't noticed, we are now as feared and hated all over the world as the Nazis once were.

And with good reason.

In case you haven't noticed, our unelected leaders have dehumanized millions and millions of human beings simply because of their religion and race. We wound 'em and kill 'em and torture 'em and imprison 'em all we want.

Piece of cake.

In case you haven't noticed, we also dehumanized our own soldiers, not because of their religion or race, but because of their low social class.

Send 'em anywhere. Make 'em do anything.

Piece of cake.

The O'Reilly Factor.

So I am a man without a country, except for the librarians and a Chicago paper called In These Times.

Before we attacked Iraq, the majestic New York Times guaranteed that there were weapons of mass destruction there.

Albert Einstein and Mark Twain gave up on the human race at the end of their lives, even though Twain hadn't even seen the First World War. War is now a form of TV entertainment, and what made the First World War so particularly entertaining were two American inventions, barbed wire and the machine gun.

Shrapnel was invented by an Englishman of the same name. Don't you wish you could have something named after you?

Like my distinct betters Einstein and Twain, I now give up on people, too. I am a veteran of the Second World War and I have to say this is not the first time I have surrendered to a pitiless war machine.

My last words? "Life is no way to treat an animal, not even a mouse."

Napalm came from Harvard. Veritas!

Our president is a Christian? So was Adolf Hitler.

What can be said to our young people, now that psychopathic personalities, which is to say persons without consciences, without senses of pity or shame, have taken all the money in the treasuries of our government and corporations, and made it all their own?


And the most I can give you to cling to is a poor thing, actually. Not much better than nothing, and maybe it's a little worse than nothing. It is the idea of a truly modern hero. It is the bare bones of the life of Ignaz Semmelweis, my hero.

Ignaz Semmelweis was born in Budapest in 1818. His life overlapped with that of my grandfather and with that of your grandfathers, and it may seem a long time ago, but actually he lived only yesterday.

He became an obstetrician, which should make him modern hero enough. He devoted his life to the health of babies and mothers. We could use more heroes like that. There's damn little caring for mothers, babies, old people, or anybody physically or economically weak these days as we become ever more industrialized and militarized with the guessers in charge.

I have said to you how new all this information is. It is so new that the idea that many diseases are caused by germs is only about 140 years old. The house I own in Segaponack, Long Island, is nearly twice that old. I don't know how they lived long enough to finish it. I mean, the germ theory is really recent. When my father was a little boy, Louis Pasteur was still alive and still plenty controversial. There were still plenty of high-powered guessers who were furious at people who would listen to him instead of to them.

Yes, and Ignaz Semmelweis also believed that germs could cause diseases. He was horrified when he went to work for a maternity hospital in Vienna, Austria, to find out that one mother in ten was dying of childbed fever.

These were poor people—rich people still had their babies at home. Semmelweis observed hospital routines, and began to suspect that doctors were bringing the infection to the patients. He noticed that the doctors often went directly from dissecting corpses in the morgue to examining mothers in the maternity ward. He suggests as an experiment that the doctors wash their hands before touching the mothers.

What could be more insulting? How dare he make such a suggestion to his social superiors? He was a nobody, he realized. He was from out of town, with no friends and protectors among the Austrian nobility. But all that dying went on and on, and Semmelweis, having far less sense about how to get along with others in this world than you and I would have, kept on asking his colleagues to wash their hands.

They at last agreed to do this in a spirit of lampoonery, of satire, of scorn. How they must have lathered and lathered and scrubbed and scrubbed and cleaned under their fingernails.

The dying stopped—imagine that! The dying stopped. He saved all those lives.

Subsequently, it might be said that he has saved millions of lives—including, quite possibly, yours and mine. What thanks did Semmelweis get from the leaders of his profession in Viennese society, guessers all? He was forced out of the hospital and out of Austria itself, whose people he had served so well. He finished his career in a provincial hospital in Hungary. There he gave up on humanity—which is us, and our information-age knowledge—and on himself.

One day, in the dissecting room, he took the blade of a scalpel with which he had been cutting up a corpse, and he stuck it on purpose into the palm of his hand. He died, as he knew he would, of blood poisoning soon afterward.

The guessers had had all the power. They had won again. Germs indeed. The guessers revealed something about themselves, too, which we should duly note today. They aren't really interested in saving lives. What matters to them is being listened to—as, however ignorantly, their guessing goes on and on and on. If there's anything they hate, it's a wise human.

So be one anyway. Save our lives and your lives to. Be honorable.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Beggar

I walked out of the bar & grill with a full belly and a smile on my face. A man came up to me and asked for 50 cents - said he was hungry. I opened my wallet and gave him a dollar. 
"Thanks, guy," he said. "God bless."
I didn't think that I required his blessing, and I certainly didn't think that I had it. Even if God is actually there, he certainly isn't going to bless my heathen ass. For Christ's sake, blasphemy is my favorite pastime. My latest endeavor is hanging on the cork board in my room. A mail-order church was kind enough to send me a picture of Jesus, expecting me to send it back with prayer requests and cash, so I burned a hole in Jesus' forehead and seared Betty Paige into his mind for the fun of it. Lord knows she's seared in mine.
I was still going to be polite, of course. He probably just says that because people expect him to, and it's a harmless thing, really. 
"Yup," I said, "you're welcome." I didn't say God bless.
I walked on and looked back. He sat down on the bench and began looking at a small stack of take-out menus that he took from his back pocket. Well I guess he is hungry after all, I thought. He wasn't heading into the bar to get a dollar draft, not that I would have blamed him. I imagined myself in his position - having to humble oneself in front of complete strangers like that. Sitting down to a cold brew would be very tempting, I concluded.
I continued home, with the same smile on my face as before, only bigger.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Ginkgo biloba: How psuedoscience becomes science

Ginkgo biloba is a species of plant that has been used in traditional Eastern medicine for thousands of years for memory enhancement and to treat dementia. Until recently, it has been largely ignored by modern medicine as one of hundreds of herbal medicines that have no real, verifiable benefit. It was largely considered to a pseudo-medicinal plant that was used by the "natural medicine" crowd that largely reject science-based medicine. That is not entirely the case any more, thanks to the careful work of a group of researchers that decided to test its effects while maintaining the rigorous standards set forth in the medical and scientific community.

Pierre Le Bars and his colleagues wanted to test if Ginkgo biloba could be used to safely treat symptoms of dementia in patients with Alzheimer's, so they set forth on creating a rather standard, time-tested experimental design -- a placebo-controlled, double-blind, randomized trial with a fairly large sample size (309). Great care was taken to control extraneous variables and prevent bias, which is exactly what makes this such a good study.

Since Le Bars and company only wanted to test for the effects of Ginkgo biloba on patients' symptoms of dementia, they only selected patients with no other serious medical problems. This is an important control that helped the scientists make sure that no other condition was either negatively or positively affecting the patients' symptoms. Le Bars and his colleagues also controlled for the placebo effect, which is a phenomenon that causes some people to have either perceived or real improvement in a medical condition even though the treatment has no real pharmacological effect. They did this by giving part of the sample a placebo (a sham medicine containing no active ingredients) whilst telling the patients they are receiving Ginkgo biloba. This group is known as the control group, while the group that actually receives the Ginkgo biloba is known as the experimental group. This allows the researchers to compare the two groups. Ginkgo biloba could only be said to have a real benefit to these patients if it performs significantly better than the placebo. If it works equally well, than taking Ginkgo biloba could be said to be no better for dementia than taking sugar pills.

Le Bars and the other researchers were also aware that they had to be careful not to allow bias to slip into the study and skew the results. To do this, they implied a tried-and-true technique: they double-blinded the study. Blinding a study simply means that you keep which group is getting the placebo and which is getting the real thing a secret to the patients. This prevents the patients who are getting the placebo from knowing, therefore allowing the placebo effect to work. Double-blinding a study means that both the patients and those administering the treatment don't know which is placebo and which is not. This prevents the researchers from either consciously or subconsciously giving away any hints to the patients, and is further protection from bias. Le Bars, et al. also prevented bias by utilizing standardized tests for dementia that were applied in a consistently-controlled manner. So, this study was set up in a fashion that made it all-but-impossible to influence one way or the other, as neither the researchers nor the patients had a clue who was getting the real thing and measurements were taken in the exact same manner every single time.

The fact that 309 subjects were used in this study also adds to its validity, because one cannot perform meaningful statistical analysis on a small sampling of subjects. With a small sample size there is more of a chance that outliers will skew the results, there is less certainty that the selected individuals represent the general population, and there is more of a chance that extraneous variables enter into play in a significant role.

So, what did Le Bars and his crew find? Astonishingly, what was at the time most often dismissed as a bogus remedy actually was found to have a significant effect on patients already suffering from dementia. By the end of the 52-week study, the experimental group fared much better than the control group. In fact, the control group continued to decline while the experimental group's symptoms actually improved over the year. What was once pseudoscience is actually being taken seriously in the scientific community now because of this evidence. That doesn't mean it's all over, though. Other scientists are still having a bit of trouble replicating the study, and studies that investigated Ginkgo biloba's effects on preventing the onset of dementia have come up empty handed. Clearly, more work needs to be done, but the important part of the story is that this natural remedy is being taken seriously by the scientific community because people playing by the rules of science found something very interesting. This is predominantly because the scientific community, as well as the mind of the individual scientist, is primed to change its views when new, credible evidence is presented.

The Study:
Le Bars, P.L., M.M. Katz, N. Berman, T.M. Itil, A.M. Freedman, and A.F. Schatzberg. 1997. A placebo-controlled, double-blind, randomized trial of an extract of Ginkgo biloba for dementia. North American EGb Study Group. The Journal of the American Medical Association 278(16):1327-1332. (PDF)

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Is God a Nihilist?

Plenty of apologists, such as William Lane Craig, believe that atheism leads towards nihilism, which can be defined as a philosophy that asserts existence and life are without any meaning whatsoever. This is presumably due to the belief that since God created humans for a purpose, that gives our life meaning. From this view, however, I fail to see how the argument doesn't apply to God, as well.

God was not created for any purpose because, well, he wasn't created. He has existed always; He's the last link in the causal chain. This means, that by this argument, God's existence must have no purpose, and assuming that God is a reasonable fellow, he should accept the philosophy of nihilism. If this be the case, we can also see that the purpose that God created us for is arbitrary and absurd, thus we must also accept nihilism even in a theistic world.

Any argument against this, seems to me, to also be favorable to the argument in favor of non-theistic arguments against nihilism as well, which negates any arguments against atheism that apply the false assumption that meaning can only exist with God. Suppose God creates his own purpose. Well, suppose that man creates his own, much like Sartre and other existentialists suggest. Suppose God is just innately endowed with meaning. Well, again, suppose that man, either through inheritance of certain traits or the influence of the environment, is endowed with certain innate drives that give his life meaning. Nothing, as far as I can see, can save only God from nihilism.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Physicalism and the Mind

Physicalism can most accurately be defined as the metaphysical thesis that everything is either physical or "supervenes" on the physical (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). In simpler terms, one can say that it is the idea that everything that exists can be described either as a physical thing (i.e. matter or energy) or a consequence of the interaction of physical things. I happen to be a tentative physicalist. It's my working assumption, although I don't claim to be even remotely certain, and I'm very doubtful that we could ever come to know that something non-physical exists or not. I guess one could say that I am a physicalist in the sense that matter and energy (and the things that supervene upon them) are the only things I believe to exist, as opposed to believing that matter and energy are the only things that exist.

Explaining consciousness is perhaps one of the greatest challenges to a physicalist at this point, which is one of the major contentions that opponents of physicalism have against the principle. Being a tentative physicalist, I really only feel the need to demonstrate that it is possible for physicalism to account for consciousness as opposed to verifying the thesis. That, along with the application of Occam's Razor, is enough to maintain my skepticism of claims to anything not supervenient to the physical. I fully admit that neurology is much, much too young a field to really help verify that physicalism does account for the mind, and thus will refrain from any arguments about how brain functions correlate quite well to mental states. I assume that both physicalists and its opponents accept this as a matter of fact, so I don't believe it to be of any use to argue on this point.

So, there are really only two questions to be answered here. First, how do physicalists suppose that mental states arise from physical phenomena? and second, is it possible? Here, I'll only be answering the first (for now).

Physicalists most often suppose that the mind is a product of complex interactions happening within the neural network of the brain. The neural network of the brain, of course, is purely physical. Neurons are made of atoms, and neural networks are essentially large collections of neurons that interact with each other through chemo-electrical connections. This, according to the physicalist, is enough to account for the phenomenon that we call the mind. One may assert that the mind, or certain aspects of the mind, have no physical properties and thus clearly cannot be physical, but this, in my opinion, doesn't take into account the idea of supervenience.

Physicalists rarely assert that the mind is a physical object, but instead assert that it supervenes on the physical. This idea of supervenience seems a little complicated, but it really is quite simple. To say that a set of properties (A) supervenes on another set (B), it simply means that a difference in A-properties requires there to be a difference in B-properties, or that a similarity in B-properties require similarities in A-properties (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). It's important to stress that for something to supervene on another thing, they must not only be correlated but must also be causally linked (a change in B must cause a change in A). So, the physicalist believes that if two minds are different in a particular way, the two brains must be different in a particular way; and if two minds are similar in a particular manner, then the two brains must be similar in a particular manner; and that the similarities and differences of different minds are solely caused by similarities and differences within the brain.

The mind can then be described as a complex pattern that arises from interactions within the neural network of the brain. The staggering complexity of the brain is thought to create processes that don't seem to be able to be pinned down to any particular simple physical interaction, not much unlike how a school of fish seems to behave in a fashion that goes well beyond the relatively simple behaviors of any particular fish. And, just as it seems as though the behavior of fish in large groups tend to cause the movements of the school as a whole, it is thought that the operations of the physical components of the brain tend to cause mental operations to occur. These mental operations aren't "physical" in the most concrete sense of the word (they aren't physical objects), but they are not non-physical either. They instead is supervenient or consequent of the physical, or a process of the physical.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

An Attempt at Political Satire

These are just a few satirical takes on popular political slogans.

"Don't Tread on Me"

In a 2010 poll, only 16% of Tea Party members supported gay marriage and over half believe that too much has been made of the problems facing black people in recent years.

"Yes We Can"

Obama completely followed through on only five of his top 25 campaign promises as rated by PolitiFact.com.


 31% of the American population are both pro-life and pro-death penalty (Gallup 2010).

"God Bless America"

This one's pretty much self-explanatory. 

"One Man, One Woman"

Same-sex or other "non-traditional" marriages are often regarded as immoral by conservative Christians for "Biblical" reasons. The Bible, however, contains multiple examples of marriages that differ from the "one man, one woman" tradition (Skeptic's Annotated Bible).

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Why Science Education is Failing

Science education can effectively be described as an endeavor to correct preconceived misconceptions that students have about scientific ideas and replace them with scientifically accurate explanations while encouraging scientific thinking. Every student is informed by past experiences that relate to various scientific topics, but many of those experiences are intuitively interpreted in a manner that doesn't agree with a current scientific understanding of the subject. It's the educator's job to facilitate a transition between these intuitive models of the world to a scientific one. Frustratingly, however, it seems like the more informal past experience learners have in a particular area of study, the harder the misconceptions are to correct. This is evidenced in the fact that some of the most prevalent misconceptions that science learners have throughout their education relate to such things as seasons, vision and the properties of light, and photosynthesis (things we come into contact with on a regular basis). Most importantly, there is a considerable amount of evidence to suggest that these misconceptions are, for the most part, going uncorrected throughout elementary, secondary, and higher education. Clearly, something is fundamentally wrong with how we are teaching science in this country.

Are we closer to the Sun in summer or winter? If you step back from a mirror, do you see more of yourself? (I couldn't believe the answer to this one until I tested it.) From where does a seed, weighing a few grams, gain the mass that it acquires to become a tree that weighs tons? These questions are answered incorrectly by a surprising number of Harvard graduates, not to mention the middle schoolers that are, according to curriculum content standards, supposed to know the answers (see resources linked below). This demonstrates a profound problem with science education in this country, and that is that teachers often fail to take the students' preconceived notions into account before they teach them. Traditional science education is taught like most other subjects are traditionally taught -- students are treated like empty vessels that teachers act as pitchers that fill the students with knowledge. But, students are not empty vessels. They have past experiences, and they have put together their own explanations of those past experiences. Obviously, those explanations are not necessarily based upon rational thought and scientific inquiry, but instead are more likely to be based upon intuition. Teaching learners as if they are blank slates is problematic because it is like trying to construct a building upon a bad foundation. The traditional approach fails in two key areas, first by not taking into account the students' prior knowledge and second by not taking into account how students learn. When you realize that science been taught like this in America for decades upon decades, it's rather unsurprising that scientific illiteracy is rampant in the US.

The problem is so ingrained in science education in America today that it seems that nothing short of radical reform will do the trick. Future science teachers need to essentially teach in the opposite manner that traditional teachers teach. We've all experienced a traditional science classroom. You're lectured at for several class periods, and then you (ideally) perform a lab that seeks to confirm what you've already "learned" during lecture. Not only does this obviously not work, but it is actually counter-productive, robbing students of actually learning through hands-on experience. If a student is told what result they ought to get in an experiment, laboratory exercises become little more than following a recipe. When someone follows a recipe, the only thing they learn how to do is get the correct end result. Little to no higher order thinking or problem solving is going on in the heads of learners. The traditional "confirmatory" approach does little but encourage students to practice their rote memorization skills and follow directions properly, which is not even close to learning actual science.

Instead, the curriculum should be structured in a manner that encourages students to actually involve themselves in active inquiry about the content. Lessons should be taught in a way that enables the instructor to diagnose misconceptions in order to address them in a direct manner later on. Students should always have access to hands-on activities that not only give them meaningful experiential input but guide them in a way that keeps their minds on the task of learning the concepts ("hands-on/minds-on" as opposed to just "hands-on"). And, most importantly, teachers should, as much as possible without causing undue frustration, confusion, or time-management problems, step back into a facilitating role and let the students learn themselves instead of feeding them the answers. This constructivist approach to science education is radically different than the traditional approach to teaching, but it seems to me to be absolutely necessary given the problems we have seen arise within the education system. I'm skeptical that any real solutions can come from the top-down (every attempt made in the past has largely been a failure and have tended to make things worse), but this is the sort of thing that can easily come from the bottom-up, from teachers and professors of education.

Important Resources:

  • A Private Universe (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, 1987) - A video documentary on education research for grade 5-12.
  • Minds of Our Own (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, 1997) - A video documentary on education and learning for K-12 educators and parents.
  • Private Universe Project in Science (Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, 2011) - A nine-part workshop derived from work pioneered in Project STAR and is an extension of its award winning video, A Private Universe, complete with full bibliography and research citations.