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Tim Minchin has written a short piece about the (culturally conditioned) tendency to equate being “creative” and free-spirited with a woolly, mystical anti-rationalism, in an introduction to a collection of Australian science writing:
I've only been to Portland once, but it's a great city - its population a paragon of liberalism and artiness, sporting more tattoos than you could point a regretful laser at, and boasting perhaps a higher collective dye-to-hair ratio than anywhere on earth. Great music, great art, wonderful coffee … it's my kind of town. Except, the residents recently voted - for the fourth time since the 1950s - against adding fluoride to the water supply. It's as if a mermaid on one's lower back is an impediment to sensible interpretation of data, or perhaps unkempt pink hair acts as a sort of dream catcher for conspiracy theories.
As an artist who gets aroused by statistics - among other things - I find this deeply troubling. But I reckon (and yes, I only reckon: one of many advantages of being a not-Nobel-laureate is that I may hypothesise with relative impunity) that the apparent relationship between artiness and anti-science is a result of people acting out cultural expectations and subscribing to popular myths, rather than a genuine division of personality type or intellect. I wonder if artists identify themselves as spiritual (whatever that means) and reject materialism for the same reason they might wear a beret or take up smoking: it's an adherence to a perceived stereotype, rather than a fundamental feature of the creative brain.
Science is not the opposite of art, nor the opposite of spirituality - whatever that is - and you don't have to deny scientific knowledge in order to make beautiful things. On the contrary, great science writing is the art of communicating that ''awe of understanding'', so that we readers can revel in the beauty of a deeper knowledge of our world.
In the light of Wikipedia disappearing for a day in protest against the SOPA law, an article by an assistant professor comparing the philosophy of Wikipedia with that of traditional paper encyclopaedias:
Reading the high-quality, professionally edited entries in my library’s encyclopedias was an eye-opener and a guilty pleasure — you could learn so much with so little effort! And you don’t have to work as hard untangling the entries the way you do with Wikipedia! But this is exactly the problem with closed, for-profit encyclopedias: they require no work. In fact, they require just the opposite: submission to authority. The writing guidelines for my encyclopedia entry insist that there be no quotations or citations — just a short list of additional readings. Encyclopedias give us no reason to believe their claims are true except the arbitrary authority of those who write them. They are the ultimate triumph of the authoritarian impulse in academics.
It is this refusal of arbitrary authority that really scares encyclopedia types, not worries about accuracy. Wikipedia is a place where you must learn to think for yourself, encyclopedias are places where you are told what to believe.It's interesting that the authoritarian underpinnings of the encyclopaedia, necessary for the purposes of aggregating broadly accepted knowledge within convenient reach, went all but unnoticed (and, had anybody noticed and criticised them, they would have sounded like some kind of hopelessly idealistic hippy Arcadian) until the disintermediating power of the internet demonstrated that another world is possible.
A Russian author has written a retelling of Lord of the Rings from a different angle. Kiril Yeskov's The Last Ringbearer specifically repudiates Tolkien's oft-noted agrarian romanticism; in it, Sauron and the land of Mordor represent progress and rationalism, and are destroyed in a war of aggression by Gandalf and his lackeys, reinforcing a backward, feudal order in thrall to superstition and hereditary privilege:
In Yeskov's retelling, the wizard Gandalf is a war-monger intent on crushing the scientific and technological initiative of Mordor and its southern allies because science "destroys the harmony of the world and dries up the souls of men!" He's in cahoots with the elves, who aim to become "masters of the world," and turn Middle-earth into a "bad copy" of their magical homeland across the sea. Barad-dur, also known as the Dark Tower and Sauron's citadel, is, by contrast, described as "that amazing city of alchemists and poets, mechanics and astronomers, philosophers and physicians, the heart of the only civilization in Middle-earth to bet on rational knowledge and bravely pitch its barely adolescent technology against ancient magic."
Because Gandalf refers to Mordor as the "Evil Empire" and is accused of crafting a "Final Solution to the Mordorian problem" by rival wizard Saruman, he obviously serves as an avatar for Russia's 20th-century foes. But the juxtaposition of the willfully feudal and backward "West," happy with "picking lice in its log 'castles'" while Mordor cultivates learning and embraces change, also recalls the clash between Europe in the early Middle Ages and the more sophisticated and learned Muslim empires to the east and south. Sauron passes a "universal literacy law," while the shield maiden Eowyn has been raised illiterate, "like most of Rohan's elite" -- good guys Tolkien based on his beloved Anglo-Saxons.While Yeskov wrote The Last Ringbearer in 1999, an English-language translation has just been made available here.
British comedian Ricky Gervais writes about why he is an atheist:
Why don’t I believe in God? No, no no, why do YOU believe in God? Surely the burden of proof is on the believer. You started all this. If I came up to you and said, “Why don’t you believe I can fly?” You’d say, “Why would I?” I’d reply, “Because it’s a matter of faith”. If I then said, “Prove I can’t fly. Prove I can’t fly see, see, you can’t prove it can you?” You’d probably either walk away, call security or throw me out of the window and shout, ‘’F—ing fly then you lunatic.”
So what does the question “Why don’t you believe in God?” really mean. I think when someone asks that; they are really questioning their own belief. In a way they are asking “what makes you so special? “How come you weren’t brainwashed with the rest of us?” “How dare you say I’m a fool and I’m not going to heaven, f— you!” Let’s be honest, if one person believed in God he would be considered pretty strange. But because it’s a very popular view it’s accepted. And why is it such a popular view? That’s obvious. It’s an attractive proposition. Believe in me and live forever. Again if it was just a case of spirituality this would be fine. “Do unto others…” is a good rule of thumb. I live by that. Forgiveness is probably the greatest virtue there is. Buts that’s exactly what it is - ‐ a virtue. Not just a Christian virtue. No one owns being good. I’m good. I just don’t believe I’ll be rewarded for it in heaven. My reward is here and now. It’s knowing that I try to do the right thing. That I lived a good life. And that’s where spirituality really lost its way. When it became a stick to beat people with. “Do this or you’ll burn in hell.”
You won’t burn in hell. But be nice anyway.Also, this XKCD:
Pandit Surinder Sharma, avowedly India's most powerful black magician, claimed on television to be able to magically kill any person within three minutes. The president of Rationalist International, Sanal Edamaruku, took him up on that, with unsurprising results:
After nearly two hours, the anchor declared the tantrik’s failure. The tantrik, unwilling to admit defeat, tried the excuse that a very strong god whom Sanal might be worshipping obviously protected him. “No, I am an atheist,” said Sanal Edamaruku. Finally, the disgraced tantrik tried to save his face by claiming that there was a never-failing special black magic for ultimate destruction, which could, however, only been done at night. Bad luck again, he did not get away with this, but was challenged to prove his claim this very night in another “breaking news” live program.Sharma repeated his attempt on Sanal's life some hours later, at night, with millions of people watching; the attempt ended with the magician cutting a dough effigy with a knife and throwing it into a fire, with Sanal laughing, and with black magic's prestige taking a battering throughout India.
(via Boing Boing)
New-age guru turned skeptic and sociologist Karla McLaren on differences in the way skeptics and new-agers think:
For instance, an understanding of cold reading would have helped me a great deal. I never knew what cold reading was, and until I saw professional magician and debunker Mark Edward use cold reading on an ABC News special last year, I didn't understand that I had long used a form of cold reading in my own work! I was never taught cold reading and I never intended to defraud anyone - I simply picked up the technique through cultural osmosis.
People in my culture have heard you and we're trying to answer - but we don't understand you. Our cultural training about the dangers of the intellect makes it nearly impossible for us to utilize science properly - or to identify your intellectual rigor as anything but an unhealthy overuse of the mind.
We love to say that we embrace mystery in the New Age culture, but that's a cultural conceit and it's utterly wrong. In actual fact, we have no tolerance whatsoever for mystery. Everything from the smallest individual action to the largest movements in the evolution of the planet has a specific metaphysical or mystical cause. In my opinion, this incapacity to tolerate mystery is a direct result of my culture's disavowal of the intellect. One of the most frightening things about attaining the capacity to think skeptically and critically is that so many things don't have clear answers. Critical thinkers and skeptics don't create answers just to manage their anxiety
Meanwhile, a revert war seems to have opened up in the Wikipedia entry on Witchcraft; it started when a bunch of fuzzy-bunny pagans took offense with the part of the article which contradicted their belief that witchcraft was the same unified, benign and generally warm and fluffy thing throughout centuries, rejected the validity of all the sources cited for this (partly because the "secret oral tradition" they know says otherwise, and what would some stuffy academic who's not part of it know?), and vowed to enlist their friends' help to ensure that their point of view prevails.
Quite frankly, I don't care what you think. If you post further erroneous statements, I will not hesistate to remove them. Moreover, I'm sure I can easily recruit a thousand or so neo-pagans that would be more than willing to devote a little of their time to keep Wikipedia's entry on witchcraft free of your hostile and inaccurate statements
John Scalzi claims that the great political divide of our time is not between liberals and conservatives, but between rationalists and irrationalists:
There's a more common name for irrationalists in politics: "wingnuts." But I think that particular word is both inaccurate and falsely comforting, since it suggests that irrationalists are marginalized on the edge of political discourse. A hint for you: When an irrational politician sleeps in the White House, irrationalism is not exactly marginalized. Irrationalists aren't wingnuts; they're not even the wings. They're the damned fuselage of political discourse at the moment, and I think that's pretty damn scary.
Bush's irrationalist tendencies have fundamentally little to do with his conservative tendencies, which is to say that the former are not spawned from the latter. God knows irrationalism lies on both sides of the conventional political spectrum; the irrationalists of the left who tried to expunge "dead white guys" from curricula back when I was still in school to my mind walk arm and arm with the irrationalists on the right who are now busily trying to expunge evolution. An irrationalist liberal in the White House would be no better than Bush, that's for sure.
Though was there ever a time when rationalism held sway over politics, as opposed to public discourse being buffeted by impulses, fashions, superstitions, waves of mass hysteria and the effects of human cognitive biases which probably made excellent sense on the hunter-gatherer savannah? This has been the case in Plato's day and Shakespeare's, and will probably be so throughout the future of humanity. When the post-singularity nanobot hives populated by the uploaded personalities of our distant descendants launch for outer space in 500 years' time, chances are their politics and public discourse will be just as dominated by prejudices, phobias, omens, superstitions and kneejerk reactions as they are now.
Nonetheless, while rationalism is, to some extent, a lost cause, it is one worth taking up. Sure, if you take up the rationalist banner, the multitudes may laugh at you, call you a crank and sometimes throw things at you, but with patience and perseverance, you can persuade a few people and make the heavily-armed madhouse that is the world slightly less psychotic. At least until the next wave of mass excitement sweeps through it, anyway.
On a tangent, Australian lefty cultural commentator Phillip Adams on politicians and other leaders embracing irrational beliefs, from Reagan's Apocalyptic Christianity and Blair's taste for new-age mumbo-jumbo to the Australian founding fathers' fondness for the Victorian spiritualist fad and Gandhi's reliance on soothsayers before nuclear tests.
It's certainly a recurring theme in politics. One wonders, though, whether it's a case of (a) everybody being a bit kooky, and the media amplifying this in public figures, (b) politicians being (for some reason) more irrational than the man on the street, or (c) successful politicians realising that it pays to pander to irrational beliefs, and that rationality is punished. (Look, for example, at Al Gore, and his image of being a heartless, calculating robot-like being. Never mind that he had embraced the whacko anti-technology mystical-primitivist side of the environmental movement some years before that; perhaps he just wasn't fluffy enough.)
Via Peter's as always astute blog, Butterflies and Wheels, an online article site dedicated to fighting "fashionable nonsense", such as postmodernism, ideological denunciations of entire areas of research, ideologically-sound pseudoscience and the woolly-headed Freudian-Marxist claptrap that haunts institutions of higher education. Have a look at their glossary, for example.
The Skeptic's Dictionary, an encyclopædia of fringe beliefs, bizarre ideas and logical fallacies (and a few sensible ideas too). If you were wondering about therapeutic trepanation, the Hollow Earth theory, or identifying vinyl records by sight or that hundredth-monkey phenomenon the true believer in your life keeps citing to show how pitifully limited science is, and thus justify (Creationism/urine therapy/their telepathic poodle's past-life experiences), it's all here, along with the skinny on what's really going on.
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