The Null Device
Posts matching tags 'superstition'
With only days to go until the US Presidential election approaches, a poll states that 68% of registered Republican voters believe in the reality of demonic possession, compared to only 48% believing in the reality of climate change.
Meanwhile, The Baffler has a piece on the nexus between direct-mail con artists and Movement Conservatism in the US. The thesis of this essay is that the US Right today has a culture built on paranoia, a distrust of critical thought and a tolerance of lying, and that this culture is partly due to from a system of highly successful multi-level marketing cons, get-rich-quick scams and crooked fundraising operations wrapped in inflammatory calls to urgent action attached parasitically to the conservative movement for half a century. This state of affairs had modest beginnings in the 1960s, as the wake of the political autoimmune disorder that was McCarthyism was bleeding into the rise of the civil-rights movement and everything from modern art to teenage rock'n'roll were assaulting the relaxed and comfortable status quo of the extended 1950s. (The full cultural horror of the Sixeventies had yet to make an appearance, but it would, in turn, prove highly profitable.) It all started when a canny businessman acquired a list of Republican Party donors and and started using it to make money from the fearful and credulous, establishing a system of fundraising for right-wing causes which, conveniently, absorbed most of its takings in administrative expenses, leaving little for fighting imaginary Communist abortionists. This, in turn, was followed by an ecosystem of parasites, selling everything from miracle cures to investment strategies the pinko liberals don't want you to know about to the movement-conservative demographic, and reinforcing a culture of paranoia, demonisation of a nefarious Other and a convenient detachment from objectively measurable reality, culminating in the political climate today:
In 2007, I signed on to the email lists of several influential magazines on the right, among them Townhall, which operates under the auspices of evangelical Stuart Epperson’s Salem Communications; Newsmax, the organ more responsible than any other for drumming up the hysteria that culminated in the impeachment of Bill Clinton; and Human Events, one of Ronald Reagan’s favorite publications. The exercise turned out to be far more revealing than I expected. Via the battery of promotional appeals that overran my email inbox, I mainlined a right-wing id that was invisible to readers who encounter conservative opinion at face value.Dear Friend: Do you believe that children should have the right to sue their parents for being “forced” to attend church? Should children be eligible for minimum wage if they are being asked to do household chores? Do you believe that children should have the right to choose their own family? As incredible as they might sound, these are just a few of the new “children’s rights laws” that could become a reality under a new United Nations program if fully implemented by the Carter administration. If radical anti-family forces have their way, this UN sponsored program is likely to become an all-out assault on our traditional family structure.In this respect, it’s not really useful, or possible, to specify a break point where the money game ends and the ideological one begins. They are two facets of the same coin—where the con selling 23-cent miracle cures for heart disease inches inexorably into the one selling miniscule marginal tax rates as the miracle cure for the nation itself. The proof is in the pitches—the come-ons in which the ideological and the transactional share the exact same vocabulary, moral claims, and cast of heroes and villains.
It’s time, in other words, to consider whether Romney’s fluidity with the truth is, in fact, a feature and not a bug: a constituent part of his appeal to conservatives. The point here is not just that he lies when he says conservative things, even if he believes something different in his heart of hearts—but that lying is what makes you sound the way a conservative is supposed to sound, in pretty much the same way that curlicuing all around the note makes you sound like a contestant on American Idol is supposed to sound.
In South Africa, a group of self-described "electrosensitives" living near a packet radio tower have been demanding that the tower be moved, and claiming that the radio transmissions were causing health problems, including headaches, rashes, insomnia and nausea. Some of the residents reported the health effects subsiding whenever they left the vicinity of the tower, and recurring when they returned, seemingly proving that the tower was the cause of their health problems. The company's claims that the tower emitted less electromagnetic radiation than (less obtrusive-looking) mobile phone cell towers did nothing to sway them. In fact, the residents continued reporting the ill health effects for more than six weeks after the company secretly switched off the transmitter.
At the meeting Van Zyl agreed to turn off the tower with immediate effect to assess whether the health problems described by some of the residents subsided. What Craigavon residents were unaware of is that the tower had already been switched off in early October – six weeks before the November meeting where residents confirmed the continued ailments they experienced.
“At the meeting in mid-November residents claimed that full recovery of skin conditions could take as long as 6 weeks. Yet, the tower was switched off for more than 6 weeks by this time,” said Van Zyl. “At this point it became apparent that the tower can, in no way, be the cause of the symptoms, as it was already switched off for many weeks, yet the residents still saw symptoms that come and go according to their proximity to the area.”It appears that some of the residents were adversely affected by the sight of a large, imposing, potentially radiation-emitting tower, and others swayed by the corroborating evidence of their reactions, became convinced that they were affected as well, triggering an epidemic of psychosomatic illness. In any case, the residents' groups, unswayed by anything as mundane as reason, have vowed to continue their legal action.
The OKCupid people have been running a free online dating service, backed by psychological matching algorithms driven by user-written tests, for many years, and have build up a huge corpus of data about how people interact. Now they have started a blog, where they discuss the statistical findings that may be gathered from comparing people's profiles and message counts.
One blog posts looks at how well different profile attributes predict whether two people will match. Not surprisingly, the zodiac signs of any two people have no effect on their actual personalities, and thus on how well they would get along:
Race has a slightly greater influence (of a few percentage points either way), presumably because of uneven distribution of cultural backgrounds, but it is still fairly small. (Keep in mind that the match scores are computed from how users answer others' questions, and not from explicitly asking questions like "would you date a Virgo/Polynesian/Buddhist".) Religion, however, turns out to be a lot more telling:
According to this, atheists, agnostics, Jews and Buddhists seem to get along just swell (in fact, Buddhists appear to be slightly more compatible with the nonbelievers than with other Buddhists), whereas the Christians, Hindus and Muslims tend to be somewhat more contentious, not only not getting along with other religions as well but also with each other. Additionally, the more seriously one takes religion, it seems, the less likely one is to get along with others.
Looking again at the issue of race, while race doesn't seem to affect actual compatibility scores, it does affect how likely people are to get responses:
Love may be blind, but it also seems that it, or at least attraction, is deeply racist.
On a lighter note, OKCupid have crunched the word frequencies of successful and unsuccessful opening messages and discovered what to write if you want a reply. Netspeak and "hip" misspellings ('u', 'luv', 'wat') and physical compliments are out, whereas mentions of specific interests are helpful. Unsurprisingly, mentioning religion is generally a bad idea as well.
The town of Kingsville, Texas, is doing its bit in the battle against the powers of evil by banning the word "hello", which contains the word "hell":
"When you go to school and church, they tell you 'hell' is negative and 'heaven' is positive,'" said the 56-year-old Canales, who owns the Kingsville Flea Market. "I think it's time that we set a new precedent, to tell our kids that we are positive adults."
On Thursday, courthouse employees were answering the phones, "heaven-o." And the chamber of commerce was working on a campaign promoting Kingsville, a Rio Grande Valley town of 25,000, as a "heavenly" place to visit.
Canales, a Catholic but not a regular churchgoer, has been as serious as heck about "hello" since 1988, when he told his brother he might start greeting people with "God-o." His brother suggested "heaven-o" instead.Pointing out that the word "hello" has no etymological connection with the word "hell" (the OED says that it stems from an old German greeting for hailing a boat) is, as one might expect, of little avail to the sort of mediæval mindset that finds omens and portents in things.
Members of Glastonbury's New Age community are up in arms about the town's free WiFi network, which they say emits "negative energy", disrupting the flow of chakras and ley lines and causing all sorts of ailments from headaches and dizziness to pneumonia. Some are calling for the network to be dismantled, while others are using this as an opportunity to sell "orgone devices" which work, by means conveniently unknown to boring old straight science, to neutralise the bad vibes:
Matt Todd, who campaigns against EMFs, said that residents had complained that chakras and ley lines are being disrupted. "They believe positive energy flows are being disturbed," he said.
Mr Todd has started building small generators which he believes can neutralise the allegedly-harmful radiation using the principles of orgone science. The pyramid-like machines use quartz crystals, selenite (a clear form of the mineral gypsum), semi-precious lapis lazuli stones, gold leaf and copper coil to absorb and recycle the supposedly-negative energy.One does wonder what happened when Glastonbury was first wired for mains electricity.
Some animal shelters in the US are refusing to give black cats away for adoption before Halloween, lest the hapless moggies end up abused or sacrificed in Satanic rituals. The same goes for white rabbits, it seems. (I'm guessing that goats and black cockerels aren't found often enough in animal shelters to be an issue˙)
“It’s kind of an urban legend. But in the humane industry it’s pretty typical that shelters don’t do adoptions of black cats or white bunnies because of the whole satanic sacrificial thing,” Morgan said. “If we prevent one animal from getting hurt, then it serves its purpose.”
“Black cats already suffer a stigma because of their color,” said Gail Buchwald, vice president of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals shelter in New York City. “Why penalize them any more by limiting the times when they can be adopted?”Apparently superstitions about black cats are not uncommon in the US:
Black cats tend to be adopted less often than other felines, Buchwald said. “Behaviorally, there’s no difference from the color of the cat. It’s tied into this whole mythology about the animal — don’t let it cross your path or some foreboding or foreshadowing of evil — and that’s an outdated superstition,” she said.
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.)
Somebody in Chandler, Arizona opened a packet of M&Ms, and found one where the logo had somehow been smudged into "a likeness of Jesus with a crown on his head" (though looks more like a foetus). Proclaiming it to have been a life-changing event, they then put the piece of candy on eBay where, to date, it has amassed 89 bids and exceeded US$3,000, and still has more than a week to go. Which is more proof that there are parts of America where the Enlightenment never happened and people, with quite a bit of money, who still live in the Middle Ages.
Something to think about: what would be a concise definition of the set of possible images which sufficiently devout/superstitious people will consider "Jesus-like", or for that matter, Virgin Mary-like? Could one devise an algorithm for evaluating the Jesus-ness of blobs of colour?
A recently published study, tracking the lives and personality traits of over 2,000 people born within minutes of each other, has proved that astrology is bunk. The looked at more than 100 different characteristics, including occupation, anxiety levels, marital status, aggressiveness, sociability, IQ levels and ability in art, sport, mathematics and reading, all of which astrologers have claimed can be gauged from someone's star chart, and failed fo find any evidence of similarities between the candidates. Not surprisingly, astrologers' groups are hopping mad, with some promising to complain to the editors of the journal which published this research:
Roy Gillett, the president of the Astrological Association of Great Britain, said the study's findings should be treated "with extreme caution" and accused Dr Dean of seeking to "discredit astrology".
It remains to be seen whether this research will put a dent in the booming astrology industry; surveys suggest that a majority of people in Britain believe in astrology, and this has led to things like "financial astrology" consultancies popping up to part high-flying businessmen from their excess money. Though, if astrology goes out of fashion, some new or newly-revived absurdity will undoubtedly crop up to replace it.
I just got a spam trying to sell me "Handcrafted Angel Figurines from Texas". Yee-ha!
(There's something quintessentially middle-American about the combination of sympathetic magick, superficially Christian symbolism and mall consumerism encapsulated in the whole angel phenomenon. It's the America of Jerry Springer, Wal-Mart and late night infomercials.)