Fool me once…shame on…shame on you?….Ya foo me ya can’t git fooed agin!” ~President George W. Bush
Here at Amorphous Intelligence, we’ve always advocated for consumer protection. With that rich tradition under our belts (?), today is no exception.
Let me tell you a true story.
Not long ago, I noticed a co-worker (at my other job) wearing a snazzy-looking bracelet. “Say,” I said, “isn’t that a Power Balance?”
“No,” he said with a grin, “this is iRenew. It gives me energy and restores my sense of balance.”
“All the pro baseball players are wearing these.”
“Really?” I said, I think with a genuine-ish inflection, but pretty sure I thought with ever so slightly an SNL-Weekend-Update-“Really!?! with Seth and Amy”-segment inflection.
“Yeah,” he said, with a little less pep, perhaps noticing my dubious thoughts having inadvertently leaked into my tonal modulation.
I detected a wee lull in the conversation, so picked up the slack: “Pro baseball players are kind of a…superstitious bunch, aren’t they?”
“I heard of some who still play in the same underwear they wore in high school because they had them on during a good game.”
“So it stands to reason.”
“And I’m not talking the same brand. I mean the exact…same…unwashed breeches—brown streaks and all.”
“Anyhow….how much you pay for that thing? 60 dollars?”
“Noooo, no, no, no….It was only $19.99.”
Okay, so I may have over-exaggerated the underwear thing a touch, but it’s in essence true. What’s more, the 60-dollar question wasn’t totally uncalled for. I vaguely remembered hearing about Power Balance who sells silicone wristbands which are basically marketed the same way as the iRenew for some outrageous price that, I honestly thought at the time, was 60 dollars. Which upon further investigation I now see are, in fact, 60 dollars—in Australia. But in the U.S. they’re merely listed at $29.95 (right, 30 dollars).
There are others. Such as the silicone Eken Power Bands which sell for $39.95 USD. (My friend’s iRenew, it turns out, really is a bargain for only $19.99, as it comes with a free second one. Free or not, do we really want a second one, when, according to Kim’s customer testimonial posted on the iRenew website, “…after wearing it for a week, I noticed my middle fingers were hurting, so I took it off and wait [sic] a few days and the pain started to go away….”?) I wouldn’t be surprised if there are many, many more brands—silicone or not.
Regardless, to add perspective to this, while I find them nauseating now, at one point I thought the silicone LiveStrong bracelets were kind of snazzy, too. (And there are other snazzy products made from silicone, some that can be implanted inside the human body, and look totally…natural? But I digress.) However, unlike the iRenew Energy Balancing Bracelets the Power Balance wristbands and the Eken Power Bands, the LiveStrong bracelets sell for $1 USD—in case you missed that, that’s ONE SINGLE STINKING U.S. DOLLAR—a piece. And, rightly so, they make no claim to improving your energy, strength, flexibility, endurance, restfulness, and/or balance.
Alright, enough jibber-jabber. Let’s get down to brass tacks.
If you have no idea what I’m talking about up to this point, then whatevs. If you want to get up to speed, however, spend a few minutes watching these mind-numbing sales pitches.
First, iRenew Energy Balancing Bracelets:
Next, Power Balance wristbands:
Thank you, Shaq. A bastion for rational, scientific thought if ever there was one.
And finally, Eken Power Bands—which really is not much different than the previous two commercials, so I’ll just add the link here. Feel free to skip.
Up to speed? Take note of how slick those videos looked. (Maybe not that last one.) I know what you’re thinking…they weren’t that slick. Granted. But compared to the rebuttal videos I’m going to show….they are. Which only goes to demonstrate how much more powerful the forces are that are out to swindle your hard-earned dough with modern-day snake-oil pitches compared to those trying to protect you. Which has been the case ever since olden times, as is evidenced by the fine documentary of the historical figure—and consumer-protection advocate—The Outlaw Josey Wales, who famously spat tobacco juice on a pristinely-dressed snake-oil salesman’s white suit, then asked him if his miracle elixir was any good at removing stains:
And that’s exactly the kind of consumer-protection activism we advocate here at Amorphous Intelligence: “How’s it with stains?”.
Let me introduce you to a modern-day Josey Wales—Richard Saunders, co-Vice President of the Australian Skeptics, founder of Sydney Skeptics in the Pub, co-host of The Skeptic Zone podcast, and basically no one you would have ever heard of (unless you’re an avid follower of Australian skeptics, which the odds are stacked against). In essence, this is his documentary of “spitting tobacco juice” on the “pristinely-dressed snake-oil salesman’s white suit”:
Okay, the mic work was lacking. And he may be a bit less confrontational than Josey Wales. But like I said.
Anyhow, watch this one which shows it in the context of what skeptics and scientists call a “blind experiment”:
And if you have 10 more free minutes, as we all do, watch this next video which goes into more detail of how the deceptive trickery works, but explained in the context of “Applied Kinesiology” as practiced by mind-body-spirit/new-age types (and not to be confused with the legitimate medical practice just called “kinesiology”):
(For those of you more interested in a legitimate medical examination of these energy bracelets, check out Dr. Harriet Hall’s Science-Based Medicine‘s review.)
Now, as I see it, since I just saved you 60 dollars (as I had absolutely nothing to do with these videos, but I did take the time and energy to post them on my blog), you are indebted to me for, let’s say…half that amount? You can write your check out—to me—for 30 dollars. And scribble in the memo line, “Consider us both 30 dollars richer :-)” (and dot the i’s with little ♥’s), just in case you forget why you’ve cut the check.
And when you go out into the cold, dark world, wandering aimlessly about all by yourself not knowing who to trust or who’s deceiving you, just remember to always ask yourself the simple question, “How’s it with stains?”
Just finished Into the Rectum and through the Bowels of the Universe with Stephen Hawking, my more-titillating and slightly-longer made-up title of what is really called Into the Universe with Stephen Hawking. Which is a new 2010 cosmology series on Discovery Channel (and not to be confused with Hawking’s also-good but slightly outdated 1997 PBS six-part series Stephen Hawking’s Universe, nor to be confused with the so-so Jon Krakauer book and utterly pointless film adaptation Into the Wild).
It appears, as far as I can discern at this point, to be in three parts: 1. “Aliens” (1 hour), 2. “Time Travel” (1 hour), and 3. “The Story of Everything” (2 hours). It seems to me the order should have been the other way around, but I was not consulted.
Regardless, for those intrigued by the big questions of the universe, where it came from, where it’s going, our place in it, what science currently has to say about such things, and if you have four hours to spare, I highly recommend watching. (Unfortunately, science is unable to answer the “why” question as of now, but many—yes, there are many other highly intelligent scientists alive today who are equal to Hawking in brain-power, believe it or not, they just aren’t as high profile because they don’t have badass synthesized voices—who are working hard at cracking that tough nut, and some exciting breakthroughs seem to be just on the cusp.) It’s well grounded while also being imaginative. With computer-generated imagery of rational extrapolations of possibilities of alien life (highly likely, both primitive and intelligent, though we haven’t found either, yet, sorry V fans), time travel (highly unlikely, or at least possible but traveling back in time does not seem to bode well for the living, sorry Back to the Future fans), and what the future may hold (both good and bad in the short to long term, depending, and definitely bad in the 30-billion-years-away really long term, sorry Jehovah’s Witnesses fans).
I’ve been following Hawking like a hawk since A Brief History of Time in 1988. (I realize this is ambiguous and could just as well mean: 1. I’ve been following Hawking’s work since 1988; 2. I’ve been stalking Stephen Hawking’s wheelchair-bound corporeal body since 1988; or 3. I’ve been following Hawking’s work since I read A Brief History of Time sometime after 1988—maybe 2000ish—which was published in 1988. You choose.) Science has learned much since then (1988? 2000ish? When I allegedly began stalking? Again, you choose)—and will continue to learn much more henceforth. Hawking stays on top of these latest developments and weaves it all together in a sensible framework of empirical realism mingled with childlike dreaming. This documentary also seems to be the pinnacle of his efforts over the past few decades to make these grand, sweeping, complex questions-and-answers easier to understand for as many people as possible. (I say “pinnacle” as I’m unsure he has much longer to live. We’ll see.) He uses the hooks of aliens and time travel to draw us in. Then he sustains that attention by using simple, every-day language, up-to-date analogies, and new cinematic techniques to engross us all visually and stimulate us intellectually.
But if you don’t give a damn about being engrossed or stimulated by a man with no self control over his bodily functions due to an incurable motor neuron disease causing him to drivel incessantly over his personal pictures of Marilyn Monroe (no joke, look it up), then never you mind, my child.
Never you mind.
I was on Facebook the other day.
I happen to be “Friends” with one Jim Bennett, second son of the junior U.S. Senator from Utah, republican Bob Bennett.
(I’m also “Friends” with the senator himself. I put “Friends” in quotation marks to emphasize this is a Facebook designation, which definition seems to be broader than the traditional one. In reality, I’m merely an acquaintance with the Bennett family. I have not seen or spoken with them in person for years. Having said that, though, to be clear, I have always liked the Bennetts, and still do to this day. Years ago, members of my family were close friends with members of their family, and probably still would be if not for time, distance, and sundry responsibilities. I have no personal animosity towards the Bennetts whatsoever; nor them, as far as I know, towards me. Only fond memories.)
So I saw that Jim Bennett had posted on his Facebook wall a “Life On Gold Plates” book review of his father’s new book Leap of Faith: Confronting the Origins of the Book of Mormon, published this year by Deseret Book. I assumed since Jim had posted the link with no further commentary, that he considered the review at least mostly favorable, if not reasonably accurate. There was, so far, only one “Friend” comment, which said: “Wow, this sounds like a book I would like to read!”
So, I clicked the link myself and read it. This is the first I had heard of this book. I knew nothing more.
I decided to make a comment on Jim’s wall as to what seemed to me a thought worthy of consideration. Believing that Jim is a believing Mormon, portions of my language were intentionally simplified based on an understanding of what I suspect him to already know. My comment went as follows:
According to this reviewer, [Senator Bob] Bennett’s [book] title, “Leap of Faith,” is based on the conclusion that there is no solid empirical evidence for or against the authenticity of the BofM [Book of Mormon]; therefore, [Senator] Bennett claims, it is just as much a leap of faith not to believe as it is to believe. But consider Bertrand Russell’s parable of the celestial teapot: There is no 100% empirical evidence to prove or deny the existence of a teapot floating in orbit around earth. [Russell presented this idea before human space travel, so perhaps it is more appropriate now to say the teapot is in orbit around the solar system.] Is it just as reasonable to believe such an object exists as it does not exist? Is the “leap of faith” a 50/50 equiprobable consideration in either direction? I think not, because in order to believe in such an object one has to reject the more probabilistic and parsimonious evidence that such an object is unlikely. While the celestial teapot’s existence is not impossible, it is, rather, improbable, making the “leap of faith” far greater for the believing side than the non.
Jim shortly thereafter responded as follows:
[Amorphous Intelligence], your analogy is deeply flawed. Unlike the celestial teapot, the Book of Mormon is here, real, and visible to all. The question is not, like the teapot, whether or not the Book of Mormon exists, but how it came into existence.
The book establishes that to believe that it did not come into existence by the means Joseph Smith claimed, you have to ignore a great deal of internal and external evidence that suggests otherwise.
I found it silly that he tried to pin me to such a ludicrous position as denying even the very existence of the Book of Mormon. If I was in his shoes and truly thought my opponent believed such an absurd delusion, I would not have even bothered to respond. I don’t think Jim really believed I thought that, though, but was more going for a laugh at my expense. (He has close to 800 Facebook “Friends” to giggle—or rage—at his joshing.) And what I don’t think he realized is his (possible) jovialness was committing the “straw man” logical fallacy, which is where one argues a much weaker—or in this case, a totally absent—position the opposition is making. (You can read more about the fallacy here, here, and here.)
Nonetheless, the format of Facebook is such that one can only convey so much information per post; i.e., the amount of characters per comment is some finite number. (I’m not sure what it is, but it’s not large.) So, in my limited response space, and rather than try to appear like I was posturing to attack Jim by pointing out his logical fallacy—as what I was really interested in here was an honest, sensible dialogue on this issue—I responded in a positive, common-ground-establishing way that I felt would be conducive to that:
Jim, I agree with you. It’s a good thing I was not arguing whether or not the Book of Mormon exists, as that would be deeply flawed indeed. (I happen to own several copies myself.) My first sentence about the “authenticity of the BofM [Book of Mormon]” was merely another (perhaps, admittedly, oversimplified) way to ask what you said, “how it came into existence,” not whether or not it does exist. I did not intend the parable of the celestial teapot to be analogous to the existence of the Book of Mormon, but [rather] to the “leap of faith” of believing in one claim of how it came to be versus another claim in the absence of solid empirical evidence either way, as the reviewer of Leap of Faith suggested why the book was given that title. Thanks for helping me to clarify.
Jim immediately responded:
I’m not sure if you did clarify, though. I’m now very confused as to your position. With the teapot, disbelieving is easy. With the Book of Mormon, if you consider it on its merits, you have to have faith in some wild coincidences to discount it.
What I had realized from his first response, but was now more convinced of from this second, is that he seemed to be arguing a position different from his father (or at least different from his father’s book, or at least different from the position the book review lead me to believe it was taking). I found this peculiar in light of the fact that as recently as the day before our back-and-forth, Jim’s Facebook status said, “Jim Bennett, according to some random commenter on the Deseret News website, is an attack dog! I’ve never been an attack dog before! You gotta admit, that’s pretty cool.” I read the Deseret News article, and the random commenter specified Jim (who is his father’s campaign chairman) as an attack dog for his father: “[Senator Bob] Bennett must be worried if he is sending out his attack dog son….” Jim’s response to this sounds like he took pride in the designation, which further lead me to surmise that he and his father share quite similar if not near identical positions on issues of this nature (i.e. politics, religion, science, etc.). But perhaps not, as heaven knows that as much as my father and I love each other and get along splendidly and will protect each other to the death, we have many differing views on politics, religion, science, etc. Regardless, my comments were not directed to any claim to any position Jim had made, but really only to the position that I derived from the book review (that Jim positively presented to all 800 of his Facebook “Friends.”) But for the second time, Jim defended a position that was not even being discussed by me; namely, whether or not there is more empirical evidence for or against Joseph Smith’s claim of the ancient and supernatural origins of the Book of Mormon.
Again, I didn’t want to sound negative or appear like I was posturing to attack, because in my mind I was not. I felt I was just amicably chit-chatting. Just considering other possibilities for anyone willing to consider. So I responded in, again, what I thought was a positive and honest tone. At the same time, without overtly saying it (partly because of space restraints, partly to not come across like a douche bag), I subtly tried to impress upon him that he was arguing a position different from what appeared to be his father’s position:
Obviously this is not the format to discuss all possible evidence for and against the [ancient and supernatural] origin of the Book of Mormon. I was merely commenting on the review of the book Leap of Faith, which says: “[Senator Bob Bennett’s] argument is that he can discover no definitive empirical evidence for that claim [of Joseph Smith’s origins of the BofM]. At the same time, he feels that no smoking gun has been discovered showing the Book of Mormon is a fraud. Thus, a decision either way requires a ‘leap of faith,’ hence the title….When [Senator Bennett] uncovers a seeming ‘draw’ he notes the need for critic and believer alike to make a ‘leap of faith.’” I was simply commenting that it seems to me that this “leap of faith” argument is not as equiprobable as this review (and possibly the actual book itself) leads us to believe. The celestial teapot was my reasoning for that. Hopefully that is clearer.
I think by quoting directly from the book review—rather than paraphrasing as I had been, which I assumed was all that was needed since I figured Jim had read it, but maybe he hadn’t, which would be a questionable tactic—Jim was more aware of the distinction between the position he was taking with me versus the position his father was allegedly making and whose position I was actually commenting on. And because I, intentionally, pointed this out as gingerly as I could think at the moment, this allowed Jim to process it better (I think) since he probably did not feel like I was attacking. And it appears he may have, at that point, realized the differences, as his final succinct response to me was:
I suppose it is, although the point of the book is to make the case for equiprobability.
I took from this that he supposed my position was clearer for him. I also took from this that by acknowledging the book’s case for equiprobability, he was—perhaps—acknowledging the distinction of arguing about faith claims versus arguing about empirical-evidence claims.
This experience strikes me as a good example of how easy it is to be misunderstood, especially if the opposition feels he/she is being attacked. I got the impression Jim felt, at first, I was attacking him or his father’s book. So rather than honestly consider what I was saying, he immediately attacked me with jokes and logical fallacies. (Admittedly, not severe attacks by any means. No harm done. No feelings hurt. No financial ruin. Bennetts and Intelligences [pseudonym, obviously] can still be friends—without quotation marks. No worries there, as far as I’m concerned.) While I did point out, what appears to me, to be a flaw with the book’s reasoning on the equiprobable nature of claims of faith, I tried hard to make that clear and I honestly think I was being clear. I think I was being misunderstood not for lack of clarity on my part, but for the initial lack of willingness to understand on Jim’s part. Such is frequently the case when one has a knee-jerk, emotional reaction. It’s human nature to dig in and unfairly argue rather than honestly discuss and understand.
At that end there, though, I think Jim finally may have understood me. If so, I give him credit for fighting beyond the initial knee-jerk reaction of the misperceived attack. I applaud him for ultimately coming to, perhaps, understanding. (I also applaud Senator Bob Bennett for writing a book that allegedly acknowledges no empirical evidence for the ancient and supernatural origin of the Book of Mormon, even if I disagree with his equiprobable faith claim. This is a rare feat of acknowledgment by most believing Mormons, in my experience. Jim Bennett’s position that there is ample scientific evidence for the ancient and supernatural claims of the Book of Mormon is much more the norm among believers, rather than his father’s claim that it should be believed based exclusively on faith since the empirical evidence is not there.) In the end, I doubt Jim agreed with me, but at least I think he finally sort of understood me. And that’s a good start, especially with such highly-charged, emotional matters as faith—or the lack thereof.
(For a more in-depth explanation of the non-equiprobable nature of faith claims, see Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, particularly chapter 2 “The God Hypothesis,” and more specifically pages 49 to 54 in hardback, 69 to 77 in paperback.)
My good buddy Brian Dunning has decided to venture out beyond his weekly Skeptoid podcast and start doing a series of short videos (about 3 minutes each) called “inFact.” Here is one in which he points out the foibles of wheatgrass juice being marketed and sold (expensively) as not only a health food, but a “super food.” In the simpler good ol’ days, this ipecac syrup could have been exposed as snake oil. So drink up…bottoms up…and to your…health?
The only quibble I have with this is at the end he suggests taking a vitamin pill to get vitamins. (It’s possible he meant if you’re deficient, as his language is a bit ambiguous here.) While that will work, the medical consensus shows that the human body metabolizes most—not all, but most—vitamins best through the foods we eat. (Brain Dunning is, of course, perfectly aware of this, as is evidenced by this excellent essay he wrote on that very topic.) If people (and this is not tough in developed countries like the U.S.) simply eat a daily diversity of grains, vegetables, fruits, dairy, proteins, etc. (i.e. “a well-balanced diet”), and get enough sun light, then if they don’t have a specific medical condition, they are not likely to be vitamin deficient—and hence no need for vitamin supplements. (Your doctor can easily check for vitamin deficiency by drawing a small vile of your blood and testing it.) So save that vitamin-pill money for something more worthwhile than the toilet (if not potentially hypervitaminosis), as that’s exactly where your excess vitamins go when you urinate.
Radio personality Dennis Prager’s third and latest installment of his “Prager University” YouTube videos, entitled “God, Part 1: What Would Make You Believe in God?”, argues for belief in God. (Presumably the Judeo-Christian concept of God; I know enough about Prager to know that’s the God he believes in.) He does this in just over five minutes. See for yourselves:
That’s not much time to cover all the myriads of arguments devised over the millennia to attempt to persuade such a belief. But his goal is to keep these on-line video “lessons” short and to-the-point for as large an audience as possible. Perfectly understandable. Pithiness is a virtue.
In that vein, then, I will try to do so likewise. But unlike Prager, I will try to be more intellectually honest. By that I mean I will refrain from using speculative arguments; I will avoid casting serious questions aside with a mere figurative wave of my hand; and I will not resort to “straw man” or any other logical fallacies.
Speculative arguments? Dismissivness? Straw man logical fallacies?
By matter-of-fact stating that if God himself literally and physically appeared before every human being, this phenomenon would not convince them to His existence, Prager is being quite speculative indeed. The fact that there is no testable, verifiable evidence that the Judeo-Christian God has ever appeared to anyone—let alone everyone, repeatedly for each generation—is speculation number one. And to compound that, there is no testable, verifiable evidence of how any or all humans would react to such a visitation, being speculation number two, whilst simultaneously dismissing a serious question: How would people react? And apparently God curing everyone of, say, cancer wouldn’t be convincing enough to His existence, either, Prager continues for his third speculative argument while framing it as such an obvious fact.
How could Prager know—and unquestionably know, at that—the answers to these questions? Is it intellectually honest to give answers to claims such as these without having actually tested the claims first? What if I said your car won’t start because your battery is dead? Would you assume I didn’t just pull this claim out of thin air but had actually tested the battery somehow to know this? But what you may be thinking is, that’s a silly comparison since the kind of thing Prager is talking about is simply un-testable. And you’d be absolutely right. Which, in such cases, seriously limits us to two options: 1) we can state it as unknown and perhaps ultimately unknowable, which is admittedly unsatisfying but nonetheless the intellectually honest approach; or 2) we can make the answer up out of thin air (or perpetuate an answer that someone else made up out of thin air), which for the majority is more satisfying to at least have an answer but is, notwithstanding, the intellectually dishonest approach.
Sadly, Prager chose the latter.
If I was to consider Prager’s question of “What Would Make You Believe in God?” (and I have considered this long before Prager posed it), I would say his suggestions sound very convincing, indeed. I’m not speculating, let’s be clear, as I’m speaking on my own behalf of what I strongly feel would convince me, personally. As such, it shows I at least am open-minded to being convinced. And I’m not alone. The well-known British scientist and atheist Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) was asked a similar question and gave a similar response. And my experience is that most rational-thinking atheists and agnostics agree.
But what if the tables were turned? What would convince Dennis Prager there is good reason to doubt God’s existence? Is he open-minded enough to accept that possibility—just the sincere possibility?
Is he willing to understand that since there is no testable evidence of the God he worships (such as God himself actually appearing before us all, and solving life’s ills, as Prager proposed as possible evidence) that that is reason enough to doubt?
What of all those people who have seen God, you ask? I would answer, just because they say they’ve seen God, does that provide compelling evidence they actually have? Lots of people say lots of things, and both common experience and scientific evidence teaches us not everyone should be a hundred percent believed in everything they say, for good reason. People can genuinely be deceived, and they themselves in turn are capable of deceiving, whether they know it or not. And since every claim to actual visitations from God—from Abraham to Moses to Mohammad to many others—is fraught with inconsistent and even contradictory descriptions and doctrines and commandments and theologies (not to mention, in these specific instances, unverifiable historical records), then there is good reason to be skeptical of these claims. They could very potentially be delusions, frauds, hoaxes, shams, and so forth. Scientific evidence clearly demonstrates how extremely susceptible human beings are to these kinds of occurrences, and likewise how common they are in our everyday lives.
But this blog post is not about that. It’s about Prager’s specific arguments in this video for theistic belief. In which he concludes his “lesson” with this thought: Some have stated that if enough monkeys were plunking away at typewriters and were given enough time, at least one of the monkeys would—eventually—type out word-for-word the Shakespearean play Hamlet. “Scientists” tried this, he continues, and the results were the monkeys defecated on the keys without even getting as far as typing simple English words such as “the” or “it.”
I’m not crystal clear on what Prager thinks the connection is with this thought and theistic belief or disbelief in his Lord, as he doesn’t outright say here. But in the context of this video, the not-so-subtle implication is he thinks, or at least wants his listeners to think, there is a connection. And the implying connection he seems to be making is that those who question the literal existence of the Judeo-Christian God is based, at least in part, on the grounds that literal monkeys should be able to literally type at least some words? And since the “scientists” have shown us that literal monkeys only soil literal typewriters, there’s no good reason to doubt the literal existence of God?
Prager is either naively unaware or purposefully invoking the “straw man” logical fallacy (which, briefly, is to attack a weak opposing argument rather than attacking the much stronger argument the opponent is actually making; you can read more in-depth about it here, here, and here). This “Infinitely Typing Monkey” hypothesis is not a serious argument used by those who thoughtfully doubt the literal existence of the Biblical Almighty, or any other literal all-knowing, all-powerful deity for that matter. (And this blog post is not about those reasons, as that would take an entirely different, very lengthy post.) What’s more, this “Infinitely Typing Monkey” hypothesis is not a theological doctrine, nor a philosophical concept, nor a political ideology, nor a scientific theory or law. Rather, it is merely a metaphorical mathematical exercise infrequently employed to illustrate enormous spans of time. It’s an analogy, if you will, to aid in visualizing massively mind-boggling amounts of numbers, usually invoked these days in reference to the “Theory of Evolution”—which is a scientific theory which requires a lot of numbers, and speaks nothing whatsoever about belief or disbelief in an Ultimate Man-Like Creator.
The intellectually honest approach to this issue of theism versus atheism (or agnosticism) would be to truly discuss the actual issues as to why some doubt and why some believe in the literal existence of the Judeo-Christian God. And to do this without resorting to rampant speculation, careless dismissals, and logical fallacies. While maintaining his format of brevity, Prager could easily have summed it up as those who believe do so ultimately on faith. This is belief without evidence. And those who don’t believe do so (or don’t do so?) ultimately on lack of faith. This is skeptically withholding belief until compelling evidence is presented. Matters of faith are ultimately un-testable beliefs, and as such there is no good reason for conflict between believers and disbelievers in these matters. Disbelievers have no testable evidence to contradict faith just as believers have no testable evidence to support faith. End of argument. It’s only in the false claim that matters of faith can be tested is where conflict arises. But since Prager avoided the more intellectually honest discussion here and tried to blur his un-testable faith with so-called science, this shows me that he’s more interested in propaganda with these so-called university lessons. He doesn’t appear to be searching for real honest answers here. As such, clearly his target demographic in this is twofold: those who already believe as he does and those he wants to convince to believe as he does. For those who already believe as he does, he is reinforcing that belief with misinformation rather than opening their minds to other genuine possibilities. And for those who don’t know enough about this issue to know whether or not they believe as he does, he is persuading them to believe as he does with, once again, misinformation.
And that’s a pity.
About 4 or 5 years ago (2004 or 2005), my dad told me (among others) that his elder brother (a chiropractor) had shown him some charts or graphs or something. These allegedly indicated that the growing trend of obesity in the United States in the past 20 or 30 years or so correlates with the growing consumption of high fructose corn syrup. (Here’s a 2004 CBS news video I just found showing charts/graphs making the same correlation, so I’m speculating this is similar to what my dad was shown.)
For a bit of context, high fructose corn syrup (or HFCS) is partly a misnomer. One would think by its name alone that it is pure fructose, or nearly pure. But it is actually only about half fructose, the other half being glucose. This is nearly the same chemical blend of sucrose (regular granulated white table sugar): half fructose, half glucose. But with HFCS the molecules are not bound together as in sucrose, hence the liquid texture compared to the crystalline granular texture of sugar. But the sweetness is similar. However, HFCS, as the name suggests, is derived from corn, whereas sucrose is derived from sugarcane. Since corn is grown more abundantly in the United States than sugarcane, then several decades ago many U.S. food manufactures (helped along by tariffs) realized it is less expensive to use HFCS in the food supply. (Since sugarcane grows more abundantly in Central and South America, then sucrose is used more abundantly in that food supply.) This cost decrease alone was a compelling enough business reason to make the switch, but additionally as an added bonus HFCS keeps food moister and it blends better in drinks.
Getting back to my dad’s point, though: HFCS appears to be a big cause, if not perhaps the main or only cause, of why so many Americans are fat these days.
At the time I heard this I had very little knowledge of HFCS. Nonetheless, my gut reaction to this singularly direct cause-and-effect claim was that I wasn’t so sure I bought it. Based solely on my life experiences, I was of the general opinion people are overweight largely because they don’t exercise enough and/or eat too much, whether it be too much HFCS, or too many hamburgers, or pizza, or ice cream, or broccoli, or whatever. Even so, I put this bit of information in the back of my mind and didn’t bother to do anything with it since I didn’t take it too seriously.
But then 60 Minutes aired a segment on this very issue, I think sometime in 2007 or 2008. (I’m unable to find it on the web, so this paragraph is only as good as my memory, which is highly suspect.) I perked my ears up mildly hoping for some closure since I remembered what my chiropractic uncle had apparently convinced my father of. 60 Minutes’ conclusion? As best as I can recall, HFCS alone is not likely the culprit of the growing obesity epidemic in the U.S.
I was content with that so, once again, promptly lost sight of the issue.
Then my interests were roused while listening to Brian Dunning’s Skeptoid (one of my regular podcasts I listen to) last month. He too addressed this issue and had even more insights than 60 Minutes (I think), but basically the same conclusion (I think).
This in turn led me to the issued report of the American Medical Association (AMA) that their review of the scientific literature shows that “it appears unlikely that HFCS contributes more to obesity or other conditions than sucrose [i.e. regular white granulated table sugar].”
I later discovered that Consumer Reports published an article in October 2008, also with about the same conclusion.
Then last week I read a blog post by Yale neurologist Dr. Steven Novella (one of my regular bloggers I skim) that also addressed this issue, with again the same general conclusion. But he peaked my interests the most as I felt he summed up the science best, with the right emphasis on the right spots, in an easy-to-read post.
Although I had not specifically discussed the HFCS issue with my dad since that one occurrence, I surmised he still believed its causal connection to obesity, so decided to forward him Dr. Novella’s NeuroLogica blog post thinking he may find the simplified clear science writing interesting food-for-thought.
He responded and because of our ensuing communication, I decided to do more research, including searching more science/medical blogs, magazines, searching the government dietary guidelines, and even the PubMed database for the ultimate sources of medical truth: the highly rigorous, non-conflicts-of-interests, double-blind studies, peer-reviewed scientific/medical journals. I wrote him my personal summary of the issue, paraphrased as follows:
HFCS and sucrose (i.e. regular white granulated table sugar) are in essence the same chemical make-up and all the best scientific studies show that they don’t effect human health differently from one another which is contrary to many widespread un-scientific claims in recent years that HFCS alone is to blame for the cause of the U.S. obesity epidemic. (This claim stems from the common error of confusing correlation with causation, in logic it is the “post-hoc ergo propter hoc” fallacy, so it’s a perfectly understandable error.) Singling out HFCS as the main (or sole) cause to obesity is both untrue and unhelpful. However, HFCS, like sucrose, certainly can be A contributing factor to obesity by virtue of the fact that they both are highly caloric and taste very good and therefore people consume more (and thus more calories) than they metabolize/ burn. Obesity is caused by a simple equation: more calories consumed—regardless of where they come from—than burned equals more fat build up.
I had won my father over to good science.
With that issue between us resolved, though, another cropped up. In one of my dad’s e-mail responses, he wrote, “Doesn’t HFCS, just like sugar, contribute to cellular inflammation that contributes to aging?”
This presented a whole new challenge for me (which I wasn’t too thrilled about since the last one took me 4 or 5 years to intelligibly respond to). I had never heard or read anything about this. I don’t even know for certain what “cellular inflammation” means or if it really exists. So I decided to put forth several more hours of research effort to see what I could learn. Naturally, I set out again to find the scientific/medical consensus since that is the most reasonable approach for a layperson such as myself to take on such issues.
In part, here’s what I wrote back: I searched all the science/medical blogs, magazines, journals, and government dietary guidelines I could think of and found no specific reference to the words you used. But the consensus among the sources I searched was to consume sugar/HFCS, but very little (something like a few teaspoons a day). The consensus continued to say that consuming too much sugar/HFCS (I guess more than a few teaspoons a day) can lead to too many over-all calories being consumed, and thus lead to obesity, and thus lead to diabetes and potentially many other medical conditions caused by obesity, such as heart disease. (They also agree that too much sugar/HFCS can contribute to tooth decay.) So in that sense, then yes, I suppose you could say sugar/HFCS contributes to aging. But I don’t think that is the sense you were thinking of as none of my sources said anything about “cellular inflammation.” Anyhow, that’s the best I can sum up the scientific/medical consensus on this issue as I understand it.
Nonetheless, amid our ongoing conversation, I learned from my dad that he still feels there is some validity to the claim because he said Dr. Oz had written or spoken about it. (He also mentioned another doctor, a dermatologist I believe he said, whose name has slipped my mind.) This connection is, of course, a well-known logical fallacy called “argument from authority.”
Dr. Mehmet C. Oz (a.k.a. “Dr. Oz”, who does have his M.D., from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, and has also obtained his undergraduate degree from Harvard, and is currently a professor of cardiac surgery at Columbia University, therefore a person who commands much authority indeed) has recently become widely popular with the general public since he is featured regularly on The Oprah Winfrey Show. I honestly don’t know much about him other than what I read at Wikipedia, what Bob Carroll wrote at The Skeptic’s Dictionary, and a few glimpses of what I’ve heard and read here and there. Before I read the Wikipedia and Bob Carroll criticisms leveled at him for promoting some quack medicine, I already had red flags pop up in my mind of him potentially straying from mainstream science and medicine if he is endorsed by Oprah Winfrey.
She has a reputation with the scientific/medical establishment for promoting a great deal of health and medical quackery and pseudoscience. Newsweek printed an article on this last may. And David Gorski at the Science-Based Medicine blog took it even further with a post in June. She is most infamous these days to the scientific/medical community for allowing her media outlets to be a massive soap box for Jenny McCarthy to promote the claim that childhood vaccinations lead to autism. Science and medicine has not only conclusively shown this correlation to have no causation, but also this claim to be harmful to society. In recent years since Jenny McCarthy began her ill-informed anti-vaccination/anti-science pronouncements, many diseases that vaccines were successfully wiping out are on the rise again in pockets of communities in which parents choose not to vaccinate their children due to this unsubstantiated fear. (I spoke with a co-worker recently who personally told me he declined to vaccinate his son because of this fear.) The Jenny McCarthy Body Count website is exclusively dedicated to trying to counteract this unfortunate and harmful burgeoning trend.
However, I will concede that to say HFCS and sugar do not lead to “cellular inflammation” because Dr. Oz promotes it because he is endorsed by Oprah Winfrey because she notoriously promotes quack medicine is about as un-scientific of an argument as possible. It amounts to several classic logical fallacies on my part, such as the “ad hominem,” the “straw man,” and perhaps even the “non-sequitur.” Fortunately, that argument is not my position.
My position at this point is this: the Dr. Oz/Oprah/quack-medicine connection merely raises a red flag of skepticism in my mind. I will happily accept that HFCS/sugar contributes to “cellular inflammation” (whatever that means) regardless of whether or not Dr. Oz, Oprah, Jenny McCarthy, or whoever else endorses it, so long as the science shows it is so. And if science DOES show this is so, then it has to address the next issue of whether this is bad or not, and if the cons outweigh the pros, and whether the risks are greater than the benefits. But since at this point all my research indicates that science/medicine does not show this is so, then I am basically unconcerned with the claim. Just as I’m unconcerned with a whole endless slew of other untested claims that are spewed forth non-stop on a daily basis all over the world and have been going on, it seems, for millennia.
In the meantime, I’m going to continue enjoying consuming HFCS and sucrose in my regular daily diet. But I will try, as always, to do so in moderation (while brushing & flossing my teeth after), since that is the best scientific/medical consensus I can determine as of now.
Don’t waste your time with the book Angels & Demons. See the movie instead.
BEAR IN MIND: SPOILERS AHEAD!
In 2003 or 2004 I remember walking into Barnes & Noble. Out front on display I saw a book that caught my eye: The Da Vinci Code.
Curious, I thought. Da Vinci? As in…Leonardo da Vinci? The great Renaissance artist, sculptor, scientist, mathematician, anatomist, and inventor? And now he’s associated with some…code? I picked it up. Thumbed through it. Fiction. With a cunning marketing name. Not so curious anymore.
Shortly after, however, I heard more—in conversation, on public radio, seemingly everywhere. All positive. Next thing I knew, little Opie Cunningham’s turning it into a feature-length movie starring Forrest Gump. Well damn, I thought, I’d better read it…lest I be left out.
So I did. And enjoyed it. ‘Twas suspenseful.
But the next question was how much of it was based on reality. Yes, the copyright page says, “All of the characters and events in this book are fictitious, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.” But Dan Brown, the author, placed a page in the front of the book headlined as “FACT.” Among those listed: the European secret society the Priory of Sion, with Sir Isaac Newton, Botticelli, Victor Hugo, and Leonardo da Vinci listed among its more illustrious members. He ends this with, “All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate.”
Okay, so the characters are fictitious, but what about everything else? Are these “facts” really facts? And if so, are the fuzzy connections Brown makes in his story between the so-called facts…plausible?
I didn’t have enough free time to personally research all these questions. So I was grateful 60 Minutes did. At least they covered the biggest question, that of the authenticity of the Priory of Sion with those renowned members. I mostly trust 60 Minutes as good journalism because they have a track record of basically asking hard questions and expecting good evidence before they draw conclusions. So their conclusion? Well, admittedly they didn’t give a hard conclusion, more of an implication. Which was? The evidence for the existence of the Priory of Sion is not compelling.
I was satisfied with that. (I’m simplifying, of course, as I did a little independent research which verified this.) I felt a bit betrayed by Dan Brown and his publisher for misleading people with their “facts” since for something to be designated as such it should have extremely compelling evidence. But my betrayal was not deep as there are far greater slights in this world. I mostly see the book as what it really is: a work of fiction. And as such, it is a compelling, suspenseful read (which didn’t translate well to the big screen, says I, and the lion’s share of movie critics).
With all this in mind, it turns out Dan Brown wrote another novel with the same protagonist, the Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon (a.k.a. Tom Hanks), called Angels & Demons. He actually wrote (or published) it in 2000—three years before The Da Vinci Code. (As such, it is technically not a “prequel” even though Brown seems to think so according to his 2006-edition “Dear Reader” page.) But now, nine years later, since it, too, is being made into a feature-length movie, again with the power duo of Howard and Hanks, it is growing in enormous popularity.
My dad read it before I did and told me that, in comparison to The Da Vinci code, it was “just as good,” but added it’s “more violent.” Excellent, I thought. So I finally read it this past month wanting to beat the movie. (I partly anticipated the same lackluster translation to the silver screen, but having now seen it, this is not the case, in my humble opinion, regardless of what the film critics are so-far saying. More on that later.)
Here’s my assessment on the literary quality:
Frankly, I think this is the kind of book that would largely be ignored if not for the hype surrounding a high-profile movie and a more popular book by the same author, which is exactly the scenario that has played out before our very eyes. I felt like I was reading the rough draft of The Da Vinci Code. True, it is more violent, and true, it largely takes place in Rome rather than Paris, but the characters, the plot, the twists and turns, the surprises, the red herrings, and the all-around feel is rather similar. As such, the twists and turns were not so twisty and turny for me. The surprises were not much of a surprise. And the red herrings were not so red (or whatever red herrings are supposed to be.) What’s worse, the narration and dialogue at times were rather lame. Was it a total lousy read? Not totally. It was subtly different enough to be a tad suspenseful. I mean, it isn’t really the rough draft of The Da Vinci Code. That’s just a rhetorical analogy I used because it had that ambiance. If you have not read The Da Vinci Code, though, then that’s not likely to be an issue for you. But the cheesy dialogue and narration should be.
And so should the fact that some of the story’s plot are highly suspect of their believability. Particularly a scene near the end where our hero Robert Langdon jumps out of a helicopter some two or three miles above Vatican City with only a windshield tarp clenched in his hands to slow his fall. A windshield tarp! Clenched in his hands! Seriously? He lands in the Tiber River and survives virtually unscathed. True, he is knocked silly and taken to a hospital. But within hours he comes to with no broken bones or any serious physical damage and goes about saving the world (or the Vatican) as if the fall had never occurred. AS IF IT HAD NEVER OCCURRED! (Thank the Lord this nonsense scene was excluded from the movie.) When I got to that point I realized the suspension of reality was being invoked much as it would have for such absurdly, unbelievable characters as the sequels to Rocky, Rambo, and every James Bond movie ever made. But that’s strictly an entertainment issue. Lots of persons enjoy absurd unbelievability (i.e. escapism) in their entertainment. I can, too, if the story is consistently unbelievable while remaining intriguing. But when the story vacillates between believability and unbelievability I find it blatantly, internally inconsistent and thus annoying. I enjoy my fiction the most when it’s as firmly entrenched in believability as is practical, from beginning to end. But that’s a personal artistic choice.
Now my assessment on the fact claims:
Yes, Angels & Demons is a work a fiction. But once again (though actually the first time since this came out before The Da Vinci Code) Dan Brown and his publisher have added a page headlined as “FACT,” in which he talks about the international science institute CERN making antimatter that could conceivably become “the most deadly weapon ever made.” And there is a proceeding page titled “AUTHOR’S NOTE” in which Brown claims that, “References to all works of art, tombs, tunnels, and architecture in Rome are entirely factual (as are their exact locations). They can still be seen today. The brotherhood of the Illuminati is also factual.”
Regardless of the personal artistic choice of wanting believability or unbelievability of the characters, their dialogue, and their actions in this story, the next big questions that arise in my mind (and I suspect arise in many readers’ minds) are: are these “facts” really facts? And if so, are the fuzzy connections the author makes in this story between these facts …plausible?
After all, his story does take place in real-life locations: Harvard in Massachusetts, CERN on the Franco-Swiss border, and Vatican City and Rome in Italy. He does not list those locales as facts. Why should he? Most persons already recognize them as such. So when Brown goes on to describe these places in finer detail and what goes on inside, the demarcation line of what is real and what is not is blurred. I suspect this was deliberate. It fuels more interest in the story. It reminds me of how the producers of The Blair Witch Project marketed the movie in such a way as to guide the general unsuspecting public into thinking this fictional movie was, just maybe, possibly, a documentary under the guise of fiction. When people hear phenomenal stories and are led to believe they are, just maybe, possibly, real, it sparks enormous interest, and hence generates great financial profits.
So what is real and what is not? The movie, fortunately, really tightened up the story and cut out a lot of the crap that is in the book. But the movie, alas, still had to leave in the two biggest gripes I have with the book’s fact claims. I don’t blame the movie makers for keeping these, though. If they’d cut those out as well then it would not have been Angels & Demons but a totally different story altogether. So while there are dozens of gripes I have with the book, to keep this brief, I’ll focus mostly on the main two that remained in the film.
First, the issue of CERN, antimatter, and potentially the “most deadly weapon ever made.”
The quick answer is: Yes, CERN (or the Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire, a.k.a. the European Center for Nuclear Research) is a real science facility with a real particle accelerator (the LHC, or Large Hadron Collider, even though it is not yet fully operational), and yes, CERN has created antimatter (as well as has other science research institutes such as Fermilab in Chicago). But no, there is no bomb or even the reasonable potential for one. The production of antimatter is so slow it would take an estimated several billion—billion, with a ‘b’—years to create enough to have the energy of a typical hydrogen bomb, of which several thousand already exist. Considering the Universe itself has been around for about 13 to 14 billion years then we’re quite safe from antimatter bombs for now. To put it in another perspective, if CERN or Fermilab could somehow assemble all the antimatter ever created (which they can’t) and annihilate it with matter, it would be just enough energy to power one incandescent light bulb for a handful of minutes. Turns out CERN was kind enough to dedicate a page on their website to illuminate on these very issues brought up by the novel.
Second, the issue of this claim that “The brotherhood of the Illuminati is also factual.” Well, this is a very general statement commingled with some very specific details in the actual story. Where is the line of reality and fiction drawn? Technically, Brown is correct that the Illuminati is factual. But his specific description of them in the story and who some of the illustrious members are (Galileo Galilei, Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini) does not seem to be rooted in fact. What’s more, Brown fails to clarify that there are multiple organizations who call themselves “Illuminati,” most of which are not associated with one other.
Without going into detail so I can sum things up, I will quickly add some bullet points of other gripes I have as well as potential issues I question:
· Brown’s claim that “References to all works of art, tombs, tunnels, and architecture in Rome are entirely factual.” Entirely?
· The hermetically sealed vaults at the Vatican archives.
· As an advocate of science, though I’m glad popular attention is being brought to CERN because of this story, I felt Brown’s narration and dialogue describing that community was in places inaccurate and sloppy. (I’m glad, though, Ron Howard actually filmed parts of the movie at CERN cleaning up some of Brown’s inaccurate descriptions of the place, as well as making the scientists and scholars seem more the part).
· I was particularly agape in astonishment at Brown having scientists make the non sequitur logical fallacy by claiming the creation of antimatter proves the existence of the Christian God (or any religious “God” for that matter).
· Brown’s description of the placebo effect is grossly exaggerated and based on urban legends.
· His claim that the Swiss Guard uniforms were designed by Michelangelo is a common misconception as the current uniforms were designed by Jules Repond in 1914.
· His astonishment at the Illuminati ambigrams should not be so astonishing, especially considering they are not actual Illuminati symbols but designs his typographer friend John Langdon created (and who the protagonist Robert Langdon was named for).
· His use of the HSCT (High Speed Civil Transport) is based on a NASA conceptual aircraft that ended the year before the novel was published. The concept plane was designed for Mach 2, not Mach 15 as in the book.
And if I put more effort into it I’m sure I could come up with others. But I’ll leave it at that.
Don’t waste your time with the book. But see the movie. (Pretty much the opposite of how I feel about The Da Vinci Code.) Yes, the story is basically the same. But the movie-makers took the liberty to make some changes by basically removing some of the absurdities, re-writing more convincing dialogue, then executing it with fine acting, beautiful cinematography, and apropos music. Other than the big problems with the antimatter and the existence of the Illuminati’s Path of Illumination (and maybe a few others), the movie feels more believable. I probably wouldn’t put it in my top 50, but it was worth watching.
If You Were Stranded on a Desert Island What Three Books Would You Want With You? And, If You’ll Indulge Me, My Three Considered Responses
I have heard (or read) this question (or some variation of it) presented over the years. I vaguely remember reading somewhere or other, about a decade or so ago, that the famed literary critic Harold Bloom’s answer was, as best as memory serves, 1) the King James Version of the Bible, 2) The Complete Works of Shakespeare, and, 3) uh, something else (I can’t remember what, but he may have said three was a wild card), in that order. I suppose that would be the typical answer for a learned man of letters such as Mr. Bloom , and so naturally I more or less adopted it as my own. Not that someone has ever posed that question to me—because no one ever has; or that I’m a learned man of letters—because (no matter how I wish it so) my lack of any degree says I’m not; but I tentatively accepted his erudite response as my own, or at least in my own mind I did.
Then in 2007 upon listening to a podcast of The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe whilst Dr. Steven Novella and The Rogues were interviewing another famed literary (not to mention political and religious) critic, Christopher Hitchens, I heard that question offered again, to Mr. Hitchens. For a split second I partly expected him to say something along the lines of Mr. Bloom’s answers. Hitchens, however, is no Bloom. Somewhat to my surprise he didn’t name any book and flat out rejected the question by suggesting if he was to accept such a premise he would not actually be choosing for himself but rather have the choice forced upon him.
In complete disclosure of honesty I don’t entirely understand Mr. Hitchens’ point, but in fairness he was put on the spot and answered extemporaneously and with haste as he is so apt to do. Regardless of my understanding, or lack thereof, though, it was the way he said what he did that sounded clever to me. What’s more, it got me to re-think the brain exercise more ponderously and to perhaps alter my own position should such a theoretical query ever be posed to me in the flesh.
Here’s what I’ve come up with so far:
First response: a notebook. Indeed, a notebook; that is to say, a personal computer laptop, with the understanding that all necessary peripherals, auxiliaries, and accoutrements accompany it; it is in new or like-new condition, with a fully charged battery with the ability to be re-charged, with unlimited high-speed broadband access to the Internet, as well as the costs of all on-line subscriptions and purchases fully covered, and so forth. (I suppose a fingerprint ID scanner would be unnecessary in such conditions.) Now, I imagine my having this notebook as my only book on this desert isle is something the average questioner could easily agree to; but what of all these peripherals, auxiliaries, and accoutrements? It’s a modest request. One wouldn’t deny a fellow human being their auxiliary bookmark to go along with what few hardback or paperback yarns they poses on this barren islet would one? The absurdity of answering my analogous hypothetical with a denial doesn’t warrant one more negatively-charged neuron from firing off all helter-skelter, so I hastily move along with my pleasant and orderly thoughts unfettered. With this advanced technological book alone at my disposal I would have not but a mere one (or three) tomes in my clutches, but all the world’s libraries, past, present, and, to some extent, future (though I’m not quite sure how this would work). I would ideally have authorization to not only the digital repositories of any and all e-books, but audio books…or I could even pen my own books. Furthermore, I could have access to periodicals, motion pictures, stills, music, satellite television, news, blogs (of course), podcasts, streaming radio, video games, on-line social networking, weather reports, water temperatures, trading of stocks & bonds, and, most importantly, the ability to book a reservation with some travel agency or the nearest Coast Guard or Navy to extricate me off this unfashionable ocean-encircled wasteland.
Second response: If I’m to take this question literally and I was actually thrust into such an undesired situation, the furthest thing from my mind would be printed “books.” Oh, I do love to read books, but not when life and death are on the line. Pursuing any literary interests in such a socio-economic environment as a godforsaken desert island would have to be put on temporary hiatus, it seems to me. I would most likely spend my time somewhere between acting out Tom Hanks’ character in the film Cast Away and trying to recollect Bear Grylls survival techniques from the Discovery Channel’s TV show Man vs. Wild: oh, I don’t know, basically trying to keep Mr. Death in my pocket by scavenging, foraging, and hunting for food & drink, erecting shelters, protecting my emaciating body from nature’s harsh elements, guarding my atrophying tissues from harmful flora & fauna, and attempting any reasonable means to escape this uncivilized desolate hell-hole while simultaneously remaining unharmed, unscathed, and intact, if at all possible.
Third response: I would think that one posing this question doesn’t mean for the responder to take it literally anyway. It’s a metaphorical inquiry. What the questioner really wants to know is what is so-and-so’s all time favorite book or books; that is to say, what book or books does so-and-so enjoy so much that, given ample leisure time, he or she is willing—desirous even—to read it/them over and over, again and again, and hence might be a possible source of entertainment or mental stimulus the questioner may consider to devote personal time towards during a rare moment of quiet respite. It’s actually a question the recipient ought to be flattered to have been asked as the asker is curious to know what the receiving party’s tastes are on such sublime intellectual matters as “literature.”
In truth, I don’t think such a singular text ever has or ever will exist for me. I’ve read the KJV Bible cover-to-cover…once. I enjoyed it (or portions of it)…once. Don’t know that I’d want to enjoy it cover-to-cover again though. I mostly think of the Bible as a reference book these days anyway, something to look up quotes or verses in as one uses the dictionary to look up words in; and the chilling thought of being water bound on a desert island with only a dictionary to peruse is, well…okay, actually, come to think of it, to a self-described philologist that might not be too bad of a situation, especially if we’re talking about the voluminous OED…on-line. But I digress. I’ve read Shakespeare. I enjoy Shakespeare immensely. However, I would get weary of reading his verse and dialogue repeatedly with nothing else. To wit, there are a great many novels, mythologies, religious texts (or did I enumerate that one already?), histories, textbooks, children’s stories, biographies, fables, philosophical musings, and scientific hypotheses that I’ve both casually and pensively contemplated the words thereof from cover-to-cover…once.
I’ve attempted reading some books twice but find myself asking why I’m doing this and if my time so devoted is truly necessary and if perhaps my precious few spare moments of personal contemplation and soul-searching could be devoted to more worthwhile pursuits such as reading a different book, preferably one I have not yet had the pleasure to crack. I don’t recall ever playing through on the third hole of any hardback or paperback. And as of now I can’t think of any volume I could tolerate reading thrice or more…come to think of it I can’t think of any volume I could tolerate reading twice or more.
But if one was to directly ask my recommendation for a pleasant piece of fiction or non to gaze thoughtfully at, I may retort with a follow-up such as what one’s general interests tend to be or what genre one is thinking of delving into. I may also be so inclined to respond with whatever I happened to have on my nightstand at the time the question was presented. For instance, I just finished reading (“listened” technically, on my iPod, in audio book format, while driving and jogging and going about life’s limitless activities in full efficiency mode) a P.G. Wodehouse 1917 short-story collection entitled The Man with Two Left Feet and Other Stories. I found it absolutely delightful. I would gladly suggest it to another if asked (or even without being asked), especially if one was looking for a WWI-era romantic comedy, and who isn’t? But I have little to no desire to read it again. Well, maybe a slight desire; it was rather titillating. Regardless, my personal druthers is to move on to novelties. Reading a book for my first time excites my person. Reading the same printed and bound writings over and over sounds tedious.
Of course as I write this, I’m reminded that when I was a lad of, oh, ten or so, I would walk home from school, fix a grilled-cheese sandwich, then pop our video of Star Wars into the now antiquated VHS player to watch the 1977 space opera from opening to closing credits; and I repeated this monotonous activity near daily for the course of three semesters. I would guesstimate I watched Episode IV: A New Hope that year alone maybe a hundred times, give or take. What can I say? I was young, naïve, and caught up in the culture of my generation, hence I hadn’t yet learned the tedium of redundancy. My interests and desires were different in those days. What’s more, this was a “movie” (some say a six-part documentary expounding upon the secrets of the Jedi), not a “book.” Books typically take a great deal more time and effort.
As content as I am to read books, I take pleasure in other interests beyond books as well. (See previous paragraph.) As such, I think I’ll stick with my first response for now. It’s the variety, the possibility of expanding my mind, the constantly learning new ideas and exploring new frontiers, of growing and progressing, which keeps me satisfied. To be sure, to have the liberty to do this by reading sans constraints, and also by limitless means other than reading, is simply the only way to go, in my humble opinion.
ScienceDebate2008, President-elect Obama’s Weekly Radio Address, And The New Science Department Appointments
I joined ScienceDebate2008 on-line back in early September of this year. Since then they have regularly sent me e-mails updating me with their progress in advocating to get real science back into mainstream thought and government in general, and into The White House in particular. Well, the fruits of their labor was realized even further over this past week as President-elect Obama appointed several ScienceDebate2008 supporters (and genuine scientists) to the various executive branch Science Departments. And today in President-elect Obama’s weekly radio address he gave the speech the scientific community (myself loosely included) has been waiting for for quite some time. Check it out:
Since my very first blog post (Why Yet Another Blog, And What Could Amorphous Intelligence Possibly Contribute?, posted on October 18, 2008 ) in which I lavishly praise the gods of the godless blogging world (i.e., NeuroLogica, Bad Astronomy, Pharyngula, Swift, Science-Based Medicine), another new blog has arisen that nicely dovetails into that same genre. If you writhe in ecstasy over the supernatural abilities of these blogs, you’ll climax over…rat-tat-tat-tat-tat, da-da-DA-DA: SkepticBlog!
Naturally, since it is a collaborative effort with contributing writers from some of these aforementioned bloggers as well as some special new additions: Dr. Michael Shermer (publisher of Skeptic magazine), Brian Dunning (producer & host of Skeptoid podcast), Yau-Man Chan (of Survivor: Fiji & Survivor: Micronesia fame), Dr. Kirsten Sanford (This Week in Science radio/podcast host), Mark Edward (some say template to the new CBS TV show The Mentalist), and Ryan Johnson (videographer, filmmaker, TV director & producer). What do all these fine rationalists and skeptics share in common? They’re all rationalists and skeptics! Yeah…uh…but no. Not what I’m looking for. Rather, they are the team that makes up the hit new TV drama, The Skeptologists.
What’s that you say? Never heard of it? Well, of course not, because it isn’t actually on your television. In fact, it isn’t actually on anybody’s television. Confused? Then head on over to SkepticBlog or The Skeptologists to have all your perplexing conundrums answered. Or check out this 20-second teaser, or better yet this slightly longer trailer (which for reasons unknown to me I now see has been expunged from the Internet, so never mind).
And while I’m at it, I have one more blog to plug. Check this humorous, personal-anecdotal blogger I “discovered” who goes by Slick Friction, or Hulk Granny, not sure which. His world views are somewhat different from mine (as well as the previously-mentioned bloggers), but nonetheless he’s a very dear personal friend, and for good reason. You’ll discover well-written personal tales that anyone can relate to so long as you’ve had to pee during a biology midterm, been a proselytizing missionary who radiates the spirit of the Lord, or have had a friend with a raving lunatic of a father. The average reader can complete the entire blog in a matter of minutes as the author has posted merely two (check it: 2) blogs thus far for 2008. (Nothing for any prior years, to be clear.) Maybe if he gets more readers he’ll be encouraged to write more.
And if this blurb is not convincing enough, for no other reason check it out simply because of the marvelously wonderful comment I posted to it (being the only comment, so far). And yes, this last statement is a full disclosure that I have a vested interest in it other than a mere, silly concept you emotional humans refer to as “friendship.”