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Is a hood ornament a car?

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Let’s try a little thought experiment, shall we?

Imagine you’re the proud owner of a brand spankin’ new BMW M3. (We’re off to a good start, aren’t we?) To sweeten the pot, let’s imagine that you didn’t even need to shell out the $60,000 price tag a new M3 would cost because in your family, everyone is given one on their 25th birthday. Why at age 25? Who cares, I just picked it…but let’s say the auto insurance costs are too high before that, so your family’s accountant has advised against it. Why are BMW M3s given instead of a Mercedes, or an Acura, or a Renault (French car, not available in U.S. to my knowledge), or a Tata (Indian car, not available in U.S. to my knowledge) or any one of the other available cars? Let’s just say that your family has always driven BMWs and is partial to them. Maybe you’re part German and you have an ancestor who worked for BMW.

For a number of years, you happily drove around in your M3. You made a few small modifications here or there… You hated the floor mats, so you changed those. You put racing tires on the car and made other modifications to the interior so you could take it to the track on weekends. (Famously, maybe you showed up to an airport with a bunch of winter tires and tried to get them checked onto your flight home… I’m just spit-balling here, so stay with me.) Apart from some of these minor changes like the upgraded tires, floor mats, better seat belts, new stereo, etc., you’ve kept the car structurally in tact. Despite your changes to the car, at this point, I think everyone would agree that you’re still the proud owner of an M3. I’m no car expert, but given that you haven’t modified the engine or the body or anything structural, BMW may likely feel the same and honor your warranty.

Now let’s skip ahead a few years… After growing up in this BMW family of yours, and happily driving around your own M3 for many years, you’re preference in cars is starting to change. You have a family now and the M3 just isn’t big enough for your needs. So, you buy a Buick Enclave and that becomes your family car. But you’ve held onto the M3 because of all the joy it brings you. Your modifications to the car have begun to get more extreme, however. You’ve changed quite a bit with age and have decided to take a Dr. Frankenstein approach to tinkering with the M3 rather than simply selling it. Mortified with its fuel efficiency, you swap out the engine for one that can run on biodiesel. You hate the shape of the body, which isn’t practical at all, so you get the blow torch and welding equipment out and you extend the body turning the car into a station wagon. Hell, you don’t even see the need for tires anymore (you’ve got that sweet Buick Enclave after all), so you’ve lopped those off and replaced them with massive skis so that you can use it as a snowmobile on the weekends. In fact, the only thing that’s original on your car at this point are the M3 and BMW logos.

At this point, I think it would be safe to say that you’ve changed the car so much that you no longer drive an M3. Nothing in the car’s owners manual resembles any of the actual hardware or software running on the vehicle today. In fact, this thing that your driving is probably no longer a car, at least not by any commonly accepted definition of the term.

Needless to say, to your M3-loving family, you’ve got to be considered an abomination. You’ve taken a perfectly good vehicle and butchered it, rendering it so indistinguishable from its true self that it’s not even a car anymore! “But, it still has the BMW and the M3 logos on the car, and I still have the BMW keychain” you protest to your disapproving family. “I’m just a non-practicing BMW M3 owner,” you say. In a final bit of desperation, you leave the door open for yourself and for your kids, who you want to at least have the option of inheriting their own M3 one day, by saying: “Maybe one day in the future I will go back and buy another M3, and I will definitely send my kids to driving schools that teach exclusively on M3s.”

To summarize, it’s clear the person in this story is not a “non-practicing M3 owner,” he’s a former M3 owner. Could the person buy another M3 some day? It’s possible, but for now, nothing about his garage suggests anything that remotely resembles an M3 is inside.

Now let’s try to relate this analogy back to religious belief…

The car analogy above occurred to me last week after a relatively long back-and-forth with some friends of mine who are, essentially, agnostic deists, but insist upon calling themselves “non-practicing Christians.” More specifically, my friend who made the original argument (a couple others glommed on) identifies with being a “non-practicing Catholic.” Since I grew up Catholic myself, attending Catholic school until I was 10 yrs. old, being an “altar boy” (thankfully, one who was never molested!) and then religion classes every Sunday until I made my confirmation in my teens, I know the religion well and can relate with his upbringing and concepts like “Catholic guilt,” which thankfully I have not felt for many years. I do, however, definitely remember the feeling, and for some odd reason, my mind always darts back to being a horny teenager who tried his best not to act on his urges of self-gratification on extra holy holidays like Easter and Good Friday. After all, if god didn’t want me eating meat during lent, surely he didn’t want me beating it! From my current perch, I look back on my old self with quite a bit of empathy and a small amount of pity.

I’ve gone off on a bit of a tangent with that paragraph above, so let me bring this back to the car analogy…

What does it mean to be a Catholic? I’m sure you can find a detailed definition out there somewhere and plenty of Catholic bloggers have probably written about this extensively. But taking the lazy route, here are just 2 important things that would seem to me to be pretty essential. Without these two, you’d not just be a pretty terrible Catholic, but you wouldn’t be a Catholic at all. (See car analogy above.)

1. God created the heavens and the earth. (I’m ignoring the 6 days of work while resting on the 7th day thing and the earth being 6,000 years old nonsense.)

2. Jesus, God’s son, walked the earth in bodily form, was crucified, and rose like a zombie 3 days later. (Again, for simplicity, ignoring stuff like the Matthew account which assumes lots of people rose from the dead that day, making Jesus’ feat seem somewhat commonplace.)

Clearly there is a whole lot more that goes into being a Catholic than this, like believing that communion is actually the body and blood of Christ and not just a symbol, believing in the infallibility of the pope as the vehicle for god’s divine word, etc. But for simplicity sake, I only need these two.

What would you say if someone said they were a non-practicing Catholic, plus offered up the following summary of his beliefs? Note that this is my short-form summary of this, so it’s not word for word…but I think I’ve captured it accurately:

A. I believe in the creator God, or a “supernatural force,” who created the universe it/her/himself, but after it was created the universe just took over from there. I believe this because I like to have an explanation for stuff and this is my best answer for now.

B. I pray with the strong possibility that these prayers go unheard…It makes me feel better sometimes.

C. I beleive Jesus was the son of god because it was engrained in me from the day I was born, but realize if I was born somewhere else I wouldn’t believe this.

D. I believe Pascal’s Wager… Namely, there is no downside to me believing in god and only upside. If I am wrong, then I’m dead and that’s it, but if I’m right, then great. (Implicit in this statement, I believe, is that the upside includes help from god in the here and now and/or potential eternal life in heaven reunited with loved ones.)

The first thing to say is that A is entirely out of synch with B-D. Either god or the supernatural force set everything in motion and then left everything alone, or he didn’t. You can’t have your cake and eat it too. In other words, if you really believed A, why would you do B? Maybe you’d meditate, but why would you pray unless you thought it was possible someone was listening? And if you thought it was possible someone was listening, A is just wrong. Additionally, A is also completely out of synch with both of the Catholicism requirements. The bible, the only thing we have to go on here and the owners manual for Christians, does not say that god created everything and sat back, letting the universe unfold on its own. To believe A is incompatible with Catholicism, rendering you NOT Catholic. Similarly, A precludes Catholicism requirement #2. Someone who “set things in motion and then let the universe develop on its own” does not send down his son in bodily form to change the course of human history. Catholic requirement #2 is the embodiment on an interventionist god. Again, to reject this is incompatible with Catholicism.

I’m just scratching the surface of what’s wrong with this, but at the risk of going on forever, I’ll move on to my final point:

I think we can safely say that C is a TERRIBLE reason to believe something, and this would not be nearly good enough for the Catholic god if he actually existed. On the “ingrained in me from birth” part, we abandon all sorts of dumb shit that is ingrained in us from birth (e.g. prejudices from the previous generation), so why hold on to anything for this reason? That aside, if you died and showed up to the gates of heaven and this is your explanation for believing in Jesus, those pearly gates would hit you in the ass so quickly you’d have no idea what just happened. Incidentally, this this is precisely what’s wrong with D, which is essentially the famous philosophical argument known as Pascal’s Wager. Pascal, for all his brilliance as a mathematician, has had this idea (which many believe was just a joke) completely discredited. I’ll leave reading up on Pascal’s Wager to the reader (just google it), but it suffices to say that any god worth his weight in salt would not be fooled by a probability wager. Additionally, Pascal’s Wager suffers from the problem that you can insert any god claim and it works equally well. So, by this explanation, one should also be believing in Allah and all other gods that may turn out to be the true god upon death.

In summary, I’d urge anyone reading this to just abandon the nonsensical beliefs once and for all. If you’re like my friend mentioned above, you’re not a “non-practicing” anything… You’re at minimum an agnostic (you don’t know) Diest and very likely an atheist in denial. Worth pointing out is that we’re all atheists with respect to gods like Zeus, Thor, Oden, etc. Those gods are on no stronger ground than the Judeo-Christian god, so let’s just go one god further, shall we?

We need all the good people we can get on the Atheist team. Most of you are 99.9% of the way there anyway, which is a very good thing. This would be a pretty dysfunctional society if we still had slavery, if we stoned non-virgins to death on their wedding day, and all the other barbaric stuff that is explicitly instructed in these ancient books. We’re the authors of our morality, and it’s time we owned up to it so we can move beyond this nonsense. One glance at a newspaper and you can see the havoc that religious belief is contributing to throughout the world. Wouldn’t you rather wear the jersey (or, to use the car analogy, use the keychain) of the good guys? Personally, when I think of how corrupt the Catholic Church is with its harboring of pedophile priests and its preaching the evilness of condoms amidst an HIV/AIDS epidemic in Africa that kills 80,000 people a year, I don’t want any association with such an organization so wicked and evil. As much as I’m a Yankee fan, if they did a fraction of what the Catholic Church has done, I’d burn all my Yankee stuff and become a Red Sox fan immediately! The stakes here are huge… Let’s not give any more credibility to these corrupt organizations called religions by identifying ourselves with them, even if we are “non-practicing.”

Besides, every time someone abandons their religious beliefs and becomes an atheist, an angel gets its wings! Don’t believe me? It’s in the book of Adam, look it up.

BLA in Belgium

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I’m afraid that the gift of this trip and the beer I drank being fresh in my mind reached its expiration date long ago. Our (my wife and my) trip to Belgium and Amsterdam took place in November of last year, 2012. It’s odd to think, but my newborn son who is now a month old was just a tiny little 8 week old fetus at the time. How quickly time flies!

Before the memories of my fantastic beer in Belgium get away from me for good, I thought I’d do my best to capture a crude log of what I was lucky enough to consume.

My apologies to Amsterdam, and The Netherlands, for failing to keep an accurate account of the amazing craft beer I had during that leg of our trip. Make no mistake, craft beer in The Netherlands is thriving. If you’re ever in Amsterdam, go no further than Arendsnest Proeflokaal (translation: The Heron’s Nest) for an amazing selection of Dutch beer. About the only thing on their extensive beer menu that I was familiar with were the La Trappe
beers, from De Koningshoeven Brewery, the world’s only Dutch trappist brewery. That says a lot about the variety of craft beer being produced in The Netherlands, and from what I tasted, it’s all pretty fantastic.

(For those unfamiliar with the term “trappist” ale [see Wikipedia definition for more info], these are the handful of monasteries that still brew beer within the walls of said monastery, under the supervision of monks, and solely for the purpose of maintaining the buildings and grounds. The result is some of the finest, highest quality ale that you can find. The most familiar trappist brewery, to Americans at least, is probably Chimay. But you can find La Trappe beers in the U.S. if you look hard enough.)

And now, on to my list of beers from the Belgium leg of our trip, which covered the cities of Brussels, Bruges and Antwerp (in that order). This list has been thrown together pretty haphazardly and the beers do not necessarily appear in the order in which they were consumed. A number of these beers are available in the U.S., although might not be quite as fresh. (There is something about a Hershey bar in Hershey, PA that makes it taste better, ya know?)

The beer:

- Affligem Blonde (draft), a nice simple start, but a good accompaniment to our mussels and fries, which we enjoyed in a small bar overlooking the square pictured above.

- A couple of Gueze beers at Moeder Lambic (draft). I failed to write down the names of the beers, but no chance at finding them in the U.S. anytime soon as they were from small, local breweries. Still, I wish I had written them down!

- Corsendonk Christmas Ale, great accompaniment to the local chocolates we bought

- Struisse Witte, went well with the salmon dinner with tiny gray shrimp

- Leffe Radieuse, went well with the local sausage and stoemp

- Cantillon brewery, 4 beers: Lambic, Gueze, Kriek, and Rose du Gambrinus (raspberry)

- DuPont redor 5 degrees (draft)

- Grimbergen Tripel

- Staminee de Garre (x2 draft), a tripel: This tiny little bar was remarkable… One of the best places I’ve ever had a beer. This is the only draft beer they serve, and they have a limit of 3 drafts per person. They say first beer is for taste, second beer is for fun, and third beer is for sleep. At around 10% ABV, that’s completely true! (Believe it or not, I found this beer in the US, in Washington, D.C. at a great Belgian bar/restaurant –and my favorite in the city– called Granville Moore’s. I didn’t think this beer was exported, but I stand corrected)

- Achel Brun

- Orval, consumed fresh and also aged ~6 months… Both fantastic. Orval would be a “desert island beer” for sure

- Straffe Hendrik tripel

- Oude Beersel Gueuze

- Moinette Brune (brasserie DuPont)… All I remember is that this beer tasted just like strawberry jam

- Westvleteren 12… The unicorn itself!

- Saison DuPont

- De Koninck Winter (draft)

- Rochefort 8 (2007), served at the world famous Kulminator bar!

There are most certainly other beers that I enjoyed during my week in Belgium, but at some point one has to actually enjoy the beer on its own without bothering to write it down, right? At least that’s what I will keep telling myself.

I can’t wait until the next trip back!

Cheers,
BLA

Hitch & Ditch

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6 months?!?! WTF?

Oh yes, dear reader, it’s been just shy of 6 months since my last blog post, hence the “Ditch” portion of today’s title. Not only have I ditched all dozen of you, my loyal subscribers, but I’ve also clearly ditched my little writing hobby. For this, I blame work and life, those two pesky little bastards that get in the way of the fun stuff!

With the blog back in the forefront of my massive frontal lobe, let’s see if I can’t resurrect this thing, albeit in a much more manageable form than how I was doing things before (i.e. no more 20 page dissertations). Besides, if the big guy in the sky, our celestial “dear-leader,” can resurrect Jesus (in my humble opinion, the true J-Woww), surely I can resurrect a little blog, right? If I succeed, does that make me a born-again blogger?

…And now for the “Hitch” part of today’s blog, I’d like to pay homage to one of my literary heroes, the late, great Christopher Hitchens. As goes the attention span in the modern world we live in, this homage-paying is not related in any way to the anniversary of his birth, death, publish date for any of his books (my favorite among them being God is Not Great) or anything like that; this homage-paying is pure happenstance, brought to you by the reigning king of time-wasters, YouTube. So, with that rousing introduction, here’s a little ditty (sans music, but as eloquent, catchy and memorable as a really good short song) from Hitch. By way of quick set-up, this video a short spot he recorded for Vanity Fair on the Ten Commandments, completely eviscerating them and then offering up a better list for the modern world in which we live:

Christopher Hitchens’ Ten Commandments

Discovering this video for the first time last week made me appreciate the feeling that gangster rap fans get when a new Tupac song comes out!

So what did you all think? Any commandments missing from Hitch’s list or anything he got wrong?

Personally, if I could add only one commandment to his list, I think it would be: “Thou shalt not be gullible.” I realize that we’re not all born with the same faculties and ability to apply logic and reason to our lives, but assuming one is of sound mind and capable of living independently, I consider living a life of gullibility in an age of such enlightenment to be a mortal sin of the highest order. Not only is gullibility a disservice to the individual, but it’s also an incredible disservice to society, and it tends to be contagious. I’ll leave coming up with some examples as an exercise for the reader!

That’s all for now. Cheers and happy doubting,

~BLA

Really bad films and TV, Part 2

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Apologies to those of you out there (all 5 or 6 of you) who have been eagerly awaiting Part 2 in the series for what has amounted to about one month. I could offer up a litany of excuses for my tardiness, or I could simply own up to the fact that I’ve been a bit lazy lately with the blog. Sometimes life gets in the way and other things become the priority. With that out of the way, let’s go ahead and complete Part 2, shall we?

If you recall, in Part 1 of the series I criticized the political propaganda piece “2016: Obama’s America” by Dinesh D’Souza, conspiracy theorist extraordinaire. To read that post click here. With the U.S. presidential election now behind us, it’s probably a bit of an understatement to say that I’m elated this piece of awful, conspiracy-ridden propaganda seemed to have no impact on the election.

In today’s post, in what I intend to be the final part in this short-lived series, I’d like to refocus this away from politics and back to what a major theme of this blog is: atheism. Not just atheism with respect to gods, mind you, but atheism with respect to all supernatural claims. When I refer in the title of the post to “really bad films and TV,” those that promote, glorify, and otherwise lend credence to supernatural claims is what I intend to discuss.

Some of you may argue that a series on “really bad films and TV” would be incomplete without a few words about reality shows like Jersey Shore, Honey Boo-Boo, Real Housewives, The Kardashians, and other TV freak-shows. (Let’s just be honest and call them what they are, shall we?) But in my opinion, as much as shows like these seem to be a waste of time –and don’t get me wrong, I completely agree that they are– I believe that the harm they cause to society pales in comparison to the TV and film that I plan to criticize in this post. Sure, Snooki, The Situation, and others of their ilk are the television equivalent of car accident rubbernecking, but at least they and the story-lines they are a part of, however ridiculous and unbelievable, are physically plausible. I do realize that most of so-called reality television is manufactured. Best case, it’s an exaggerated version of reality, and worst case, it’s complete fiction. Still, no reality TV show that I’ve ever seen has made a claim that violates the laws of physics. The minute Chloe Kardashian is abducted by aliens or starts flapping her arms and flies herself to the moon, I’ll reverse my opinion. So, as much as I may be horrified by how much Pauly D happens to tan, it’s not what I’m here to deride.

In my opinion, the worst television out there, and the worst people out there who cause real harm to our society, are those who claim to have special knowledge, unavailable to you or I, about things that happen outside of the physical world. People who claim an ability to talk to ghosts, predict the future, understand the will of God, or otherwise purport a knowledge or ability that is unobservable or untestable by others are, by my estimation, the very epitome of fraudulence and deceit. (Note that a lot of so-called “holy men” –priests, ministers, shaman, clerics, etc.– fall into this definition too, and it’s not by accident.) Should it matter at all that some of these folks truly believe in their special abilities? Only insofar as it matters that a murderer or rapist truly believes that God or Satan is telling him or her to kill or rape, or that their actions are for the best. Ignorance, especially in such an enlightened time as ours, is not forgivable. Just ask the police officer the next time he pulls you over if not knowing the speed limit gives you a pass on that ticket.

You might now be asking yourself who I have in mind, so let’s go ahead and name names, shall we? My specific targets for today are: John Edward (the medium, not the politician whose last name ends in S), Theresa Caputo (a.k.a. The Long Island Medium), Sylvia Browne (the psychic made famous by Montel Williams) and Lee Strobel (author/filmmaker). The first three are are my TV targets, and the last one is my film target. If you’re not familiar with Mr. Strobel, he was the so-called atheist who, upon researching the subject, “followed the evidence” and became a devout Christian. He also wrote a book and produced a documentary of the same name called “The Case for Christ.” There are plenty of other people for which my criticism here would equally apply, but for purposes of keeping this post a manageable length, I’ll leave them out of it.

For sake of brevity, I’m also leaving off the Ghost Hunters, the Bigfoot Hunters, and all of the conspiracy theorists out there, including the particularly repugnant 9/11 conspiracy theorists. These people drive me up the wall –especially the lunatics in the “9/11 was an inside job” subgroup– and by leaving them out of today’s post please don’t infer that I think they are somehow any better than my targets. Yet, I must admit, however scientifically illiterate and dull they happen to be, they at least acknowledge the importance of using something that resembles the scientific method to lend credence to their claims. (Notice that they always try and convince you with evidence and by appealing to so-called experts. As crazy as they are, at least they’re trying, however poor their application may be, to back up their claims.) Besides, these folks don’t generally claim to have a special ability which makes them somehow better than you or I. They simply claim to be expert data interpreters and/or detectives, despite the little inconvenient fact that they always contradict the professionals. (If they didn’t, they’d no longer be conspiracy theorists, they’d be published, perhaps Nobel-prize winning, scientists.)

Before I get into some specifics on each of my targets, let me offer up two very important rules of thumb that will generally serve you well when assessing any sort of claim, be it natural or supernatural:

Rule #1: I call this the “UFO isn’t an AFO rule.” Essentially, an unidentified flying object is just that: unidentified. You don’t know what it is. There is nothing wrong with not knowing something. You should try your best to figure out an answer, but under no circumstances do you get to jump to an answer and assume that an alien’s flying the object (i.e. an AFO) unless you have evidence, and “faith” is the absence of evidence so it doesn’t count. Don’t tell me what you think, tell me what you know and can prove. Similarly, with respect to a whole host of other things like ghosts, miracles, Bigfoot, you-name-it, if you don’t understand something or can’t explain it, you don’t get to assume a supernatural answer, or any sort of an answer for that matter. All you get to assume is that you don’t understand it or can’t explain it. Sorry for being so repetitive with this explanation but it’s really important. (In logical terminology, failure to follow this rule is usually called an “argument from ignorance” since the arguer is ignorant of the facts or evidence.)

Rule #2: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” All of you have heard this before, probably thousands of times. So once again, at the risk of being repetitive and ultra obvious, I’ll simply say the following: if you’re going to make a fantastic claim like “John Doe can talk to the dead,” you better have pretty fantastic evidence to prove this, otherwise logic and reason dictate that I’ve got to go with the far more likely answer that John Doe is either delusional, deceitful, mentally deficient, or perhaps a little bit of each. We have countless examples of human beings exhibiting each of these qualities to various degrees. To date, we have absolutely zero evidence of human beings being able to talk to the dead. By the way, your evidence better be something much stronger than reciting back to me a personal experience. I don’t particularly care how uncanny John Doe’s reading of you happened to be. As Tommy Boy once said, and I’m paraphrasing here, “you can take a shit in a box and mark it guaranteed if that’s what makes you feel all warm and fuzzy, but you and I know that it’s the quality of what’s in the box that matters, not the words on the outside.” In other words, as much as I may happen to like and respect you as a person, I’m going to assess the content of your claims on their own merits. The fact of the matter is that for all of the mystics that have been studied, not one has been able to reproduce their supposed abilities under laboratory conditions. The great magician and well-known skeptic James Randi (a.k.a. The Amazing Randi) even offered a million dollar prize to anyone who could prove a supernatural ability in an experimental setting and guess what? Not a single person has yet to claim the prize.

While I may not refer to these rules by name while I make my arguments below, notice that they are implicit in how I think about issues like this. They should be implicit in how you think about things too. Failure to grasp these concepts can lead you to believe in all sorts of things… some common, like religion, and some more uncommon, like psychics.

And now, allow me to finish this post with some specifics about what makes each of my targets especially awful and harmful to the world.

The Mediums:

I’m lumping John Edward, host of “John Edward Cross Country,” and Theresa Caputo, of the reality show “Long Island Medium,” together because they are essentially different flavors of the same ice cream. Their recipes for reading subjects use the same handful of techniques, with a slightly different preparation. In the case of Mr. Edward, he identifies targets, or “marks” (so named because carnival workers used to physically mark their most gullible and wealthy targets with chalk) among a large audience of people who have come to see him, many of whom are hoping to be “read.” As you can imagine, most of his participants are eager and willing subjects, which as you’ll see in a second is important. Ms. Caputo, on the other hand, tends to read a person at a time. In her reality show, these readings are sometimes scheduled by appointment and at other times seem to be spontaneous. For example, in the one and only episode I happened to see (and mind you, that was one episode too many), she spontaneously read a cashier at a supermarket. Apart from this distinction with respect to the manner in which they read their subjects –or their victims, as I prefer to call them– their methods are 100% identical and rely on the same handful of techniques. In general, this collection of techniques is called “cold reading,” and those that employ them without having prior knowledge of their victim (hence the “cold” part), are called cold readers. (Warm reading, on the other hand, involves learning as much as you can, usually covertly, about a subject before you read him. Think Steve Martin in the movie “Leap of Faith.”)

It’s worth pointing out right away that there is nothing at all supernatural about cold reading. It’s something anybody can learn to do. To do it well, on the other hand, takes an incredible amount of skill and practice. To use the guitar as an analogy, anybody with two working hands can learn to strum a few chords, but not everyone will become Eric Clapton or Jimi Hendrix. When you reach that high of a level, it probably seems like the guitar is playing itself… And I expect that the same can be said for cold reading. If nothing else, we have to respect the skill and practice it must have taken these two to hone their craft. I’m sure both would claim some sort of divine intervention and would deny that they ever needed to practice their god-given talent; however, the truth is that they have both done this for a very long time, and can seem quite convicting to trusting people who don’t know what to look out for. And that is really the essence of my hatred for them: they prey on the weak and exploit their desperation and lack of knowledge. And unlike a magician whose job it is to deceive you while never revealing his secrets, the medium isn’t doing this purely for entertainment…he or she is claiming it’s all real! There are real and lasting feelings and emotions at stake here, and to pull at people’s heart strings for what amounts to an elaborate lie is, to me, a heartbreaking tragedy. Psychologists, counselors and other professionals who are trained, tested, and board certified are who should be helping people through grief issues, not frauds like Edward and Caputo.

With that as the backdrop, here is a list of some of the most important weapons in a cold reader’s arsenal. For sake of brevity, I’ve explained many of these at a very superficial level, but for any of you who are interested in learning more, a lot of good quality information can easily be found on the internet without much searching. Note that these definitions and explanations use my own terminology, so may be slightly different from what you may find elsewhere. I’ve tired to keep the language as simple as possible:

-Confirmation Bias: This is a well-known and well studied effect that all human beings fall victim to. As pattern seeking creatures who are inundated with all sorts of information every second, we’re forced to sift through all that noise and pick out the stuff that’s relevant. As it turns out, we end up ignoring a lot of things that contradict our preconceptions in favor of things that support them. Changing our minds about something takes a whole lot more effort than sticking to our guns. So what does this mean for cold readers? Well, if you’re the type of person who is likely to believe in something supernatural like a medium, or even if you aren’t but you’d like it to be true, you’re going to be extra sensitive to the “hits” and forget a lot of the “misses.” And remember when I said up above that it’s important that the audiences for Mr. Edward and Ms. Caputo were mostly eager and willing subjects? The more eager and willing the subject, the stronger the confirmation bias will be. The subject is, in effect, reading herself. All the medium has to do is throw out an idea that is somewhere in the vicinity of a fact and the subject will pick up on it, forgetting everything about the statement that was wrong and only remembering the tiny shred that was correct. Think about a statement like the following: “I see a short, old man with an angular face, bald, white hair, who seems to have a strong presence.” As you can see, there are at least 6 specific claims in there, but it doesn’t really matter if all of them are true. If just one or two happen to be right, and you’re the type of person who strongly wants to believe your father, grandfather, or whoever, is trying to communicate with you, you’ll pick up on the hits and forget about the misses. Hell, the medium could only have been right on one of these things, only a 17% success rate (assuming 1 hit out of 6), and if you want to believe it bad it enough, to you it’s an incredible 100% hit because you either forgot or failed to hear the part about him being bald when he wasn’t, or having an angular face when he didn’t.

-The Forer Effect (a.k.a. Barnum Statements, made famous by P.T. Barnum): This particular technique is fascinating. It turns out there are some statements that almost all of us believe about ourselves. I actually had this effect demonstrated on me while I was in college. I was in my freshmen psychology class where just the class before the professor had each of us fill out a complicated questionnaire with lots of seemingly random and irrelevant questions. On this specific day, she handed out to each of us what she said was a personalized personality profile. Each of these profiles had been built using the questionnaire from the class before. We each read our profile, and it was surprisingly accurate. It wasn’t 100% right, but upon being asked if it was upwards of 80 or 90% accurate, I and almost everyone else in my class raised our hands and said that it was. Then, the professor asked us to swap our personalized profiles with our neighbors. Upon swapping, we all noticed that we had all received the exact same personality profile. The profiles had been built using Barnum Statements. An example of a Barnum Statement is something like: “You’re a private person, but among your good friends you can be rather outgoing at times.” Or, “You’re trust is hard to earn, but once earned you are fiercely loyal.” In hindsight, I guess it’s not all that surprising that there are some qualities we all aspire to, but the effect was still astounding and most people I tell this story to have never heard of this effect before. As you can imagine, this is an incredibly effective tool in the hands of a skilled cold reader. For example, can’t you just imagine one saying something like this: “I’m speaking to your mother right now… I get the sense from her that she could be a stern disciplinarian and sometimes the two of you would butt heads, but she always had your best interest at heart and she loved you very much.” Now, who wouldn’t find meaning in a statement like that?

-Slippery Language: Cold readers will structure sentences so that multiple interpretations can be perceived. They like using lots of modifiers and double negatives to confuse things. For example: “Isn’t it not true that your father was a quiet man?” I don’t know about you, but I can’t keep track of all those not statements. To me, an answer of Yes or No is equally understable, depending on how you read that question. The cold reader knows this, and structures the sentence in a confusing manner on purpose. Whether or not you reply with “no, my father was a loud man” or “yes, my father was very quiet and reserved,” the cold reader will take credit for being right. In the case of the first response, the cold reader would simply say “well of course, I said he was not a quiet man,” and in the case of the second response he’d say, “yes, I agree, thats what I’m getting.” Once again, the person being read is providing all the meaning here, and the medium is simply helping her along with purposefully deceptive language. If the medium is really speaking with your dead father, why is a straightforward sentence like “your father was a very quiet man” so difficult?

-Probability plus common knowledge: If you didn’t study math in college, I can forgive you for not having a depth of understanding with respect to probabilities based on multiple combinations. I think it probably suffices to say that most people are ignorant of the subject, and many outright hate math so avoid thinking about this stuff at all costs. By way of simple illustration though, here is one very curious probability fact that is quite counterintuitive: If you have at least 23 people in a room, the odds are greater than 50-50 that at least two of them share a birthday. You’d have thought the number of people would need to be way more than 23 right… Like maybe 180 or so? Nope. You’re probably making the common mistake of thinking of how many people would need to be in the room for 50-50 odds of sharing your birthday, not any two people in the room sharing a birthday. If you don’t trust me on this fact, look it up for yourself. If you google “birthday paradox,” you should find a satisfactory proof, if you are so inclined. And by all means, next time you’re in a crowd of 50 or so people, bet some sucker $100 that at least 2 people in the room share the same birthday. It will be the best odds you’ll ever get! (As you get close to 60 people, the odds of finding two people with the same birthday shoot up to around 99%.)

So, how can a cold reader use something like this? Well, if you’ve already told him that you’ve got a huge family, he could make a simple predication like: “I’m getting a feeling that 2 people share a birthday.” Just think of how amazed you’d be if you didn’t know this little trick. But the cold reader could even do something far simpler, mathematically. Say that he sees that you’re in your 50s or 60s. Well, odds are very high that your father, father-in-law, or uncle served in the military based on the stretch of wars the U.S. was engaged in while the previous generations were of fighting age. So, a predication like: “I’m sensing that an older male presence served in the armed forces” is basically a guaranteed direct hit.

-Hedging: Almost all cold readers, at least the smart ones, start off a session with a nice big disclaimer. Statements like the following are common: “Keep in mind that talking with the dead is very difficult… They are in a different place than you or I so communications can be hard to understand… I sometimes only hear bits and pieces, and sometimes nothing at all… They decide whether or not they want to talk, it’s not up to us as the living to dictate terms… They feed off of your energy and the more people in the room who believe and have faith, the better… ” You get the idea. Essentially, they’re covering their ass for when they make a mistake. They’re also shifting the blame onto the dead people if they decide they don’t want to talk today, or onto anyone in the room who may be a skeptic.

-Appealing to authority / preying on the weak: Perhaps the most repugnant of all the techniques in the cold reader’s arsenal is their ability to easily identify, and target, those who are the most vulnerable and in need of a reading. These people are looking for someone with an answer to their deepest questions, and the cold reader is more than willing to step-in and be that authority figure who has all the answers. Uncertainty sucks. A lot of people can’t deal with the prospect of living the rest of their lives not knowing whether or not Dad forgave them for the time they got pissed off and cursed him out just before he died. Knowing that Dad forgives you and still loves you dearly is comforting.

The fact of the matter is that a cold reader would never even try to read someone like me who happens to be skeptical of his or her abilities. Only those who crave a connection with a deceased loved one are targeted. That is why I loathe these evil, predatory scum the most. The more vulnerable you are, the more money they will try to take from you. Many well-to-do targets feel no financial pain from this addiction… But for every well off middle-class person who lines the pockets of Mr. Edward or Ms. Caputo, there is another person living paycheck to paycheck, making decisions about whether or not to pay to see them on the off-chance they may be read, or to buy groceries to feed their children. I don’t know of anyone who keeps statistics on the number of lives these people have ruined, but even if it’s just one or two, it’s one or two too many. Based on the popularity of these so-called mediums, the odds good that there are thousands who’ve been victimized.

The Psychics:

I realize that I spent quite a bit of time on cold-reading mediums in my little rant up above, so I will do my best to dispatch with psychics in a relatively quick manner. To be honest, this type of mystic is a lot easier to dismiss because their claims are often made so far in the future that, when combined with the same hedging statements used by the cold reader, they render themselves almost completely useless. If someone told you that they were almost 100% certain that in 2015 your first of two future daughters would be born, but that predicting the future was very uncertain so if your path deviates even just a little bit from the one you are on today this daughter may never be born, would you ever give the prediction a second thought? Psychics are simply lazy, unskilled cold readers who make predictions so far into the future as to not even be relevant to any serious person. So, at the risk of arrogantly dismissing any of my readers who believe in psychics, I’m going to shirk my debunking responsibilities and simply say that these people are so laughable that they’re unworthy of further comment.

My favorite example of a psychic screw-up was made by Sylvia Browne, who was made famous by talk show host Montel Williams. If you do a YouTube search on “Sylvia Browne owned” you’ll find lots of examples of predications she’s made that have gone terribly wrong. My favorite wrong prediction is when she told a woman that her deceased boyfriend, whose body had never been recovered, wasn’t likely to be found because he was underwater. When the woman replied that her boyfriend was actually in one of twin towers on 9/11, Sylvia replied by turning to Montel and saying something along the lines of: “Well, Montel, there were lots of firemen in those towers so there was presumably lots of water being used…maybe he did drown.” Really Sylvia? Hopefully that story underscores why I beleive it’s not worth much time debunking someone as foolish as Sylvia Browne. And please police departments, stop using psychics to help you solve crimes! It’s not particular insightful that someone is sensing a missing body in the woods, under heavy brush and near a tree or a stream. That’s where people dump bodies, unless of course they happen to live near the East River.

The Professional Apologists:

An “apologist” is basically someone who attempts to support a religion or a set of beliefs through logical argument and evidence. So, if you’ve ever found yourself trying to justify your religious beliefs to an atheist friend, you’re an apologist. A professional apologist is someone who makes a career out of doing this. There are loads of professional apologists out there, as you would imagine. Just as there are atheists like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late great Christopher Hitchens, all of whom sold lots of books attacking religious belief, there are people like Lee Strobel, William Lane Craig and Ray Comfort (a.k.a. The Banana Man) on the other side of the argument. (Comfort earned his nickname “The Banana Man” after trying to argue that the banana was proof that god existed because it tastes delicious, it’s easy to eat, it fits nicely in your hand, and its peel is the perfect wrapper. The problem, of course, is that the banana as we know it today was engineered by man to have all of these features. Naturally occurring bananas are starchy, ugly-looking little things that have none of the qualities that Ray so admires. This is the caliber of argument we’re dealing with here.)

To be fair, to present these atheists and apologists as two groups of people on opposite sides of an argument is a bit of a false dichotomy. These are not equal and opposite positions on a single issue. Much like the hammer and the nail do not have much of a rivalry, the atheist position is standing on much firmer ground than the apologist position. Usually, when I’m presenting two sides of an argument, I try to acknowledge the particularly strong and valid points of my opposition, even if I may happen to disagree with them. For example, politically speaking, I much prefer a financially conservative, limited involvement, approach to government; however, I’m more than willing to respect the more liberal stance that a government exists to form a safety net and to care for the least fortunate among us. There are equally valid points to be made on both sides of this political debate. With respect to religious apologists, the same can not be said.

All of these apologists appeal to virtually the same old and tired arguments. A simple understanding of the two rules of thumb I mentioned at the beginning is sufficient to dismiss most of them. In particular, rule #1 is quite useful, since a majority of their arguments fall into a type known as a “God of the gaps.” In other words, if there is something science can’t explain or is unable to address –their favorites are the origin of the big bang and the “how can something come from noting?” argument– they will happily insert their particular God as the answer. The problems here are numerous, but a few of them should be immediately obvious. For one, appealing to a higher power tells you absolutely nothing helpful. If every time we didn’t understand something we simply appealed to God as the cause, then most of what we understand today would still be a complete mystery. Disease, for example, would still be caused by evil spirits instead of bacteria and viruses. Another problem with the “God of the gaps” argument is that it renders God increasingly insignificant as we inevitably learn more. As any high school math student can tell you, the limit of any infinitely decreasing number is zero. Third –and this is actually a huge problem that often goes unappreciated– pigeon-holing God into these tiny little shreds of unknown knowledge does absolutely nothing to bridge the gap between a God who simply set the universe in motion by creating the Big Bang, and the personal God depicted in all of the holy books who listens to prayers, cares whether or not you eat pork, cares who you sleep with and in what positions, etc. Argue with me all you want about what caused the universe to begin or who/what set evolution into motion, but at the end of the argument neither you nor I will be any closer to the answer, and you’ll not have done not one thing to justify your belief in the personal God of the Bible, the Koran, the Torah, or of Aesop’s Fables. Finally, you’ve also got that pesky little infinite regress issue to deal with. If God set the Big Bang in motion, then who created God? And if he always existed, why couldn’t the universe have always existed?

These problems are just the tip of the iceberg with the apologist position. If you are interested in a further review of any of them, let me know and I’d be happy to direct you to some good reading. The only other thing I’ll say specifically, purely because I was asked by a friend to comment, is that Lee Strobel and his claim –namely, being former atheist who became convinced when he researched the topic while working as a journalist– seems to me to be completely disingenuous. There are two likely explanations for Mr. Strobel’s supposed conversion. Either:

1. He’s full of shit and he knew all along, or secretly hoped, that he was going to turn into a Christian, but claims to have looked at the evidence with an open mind to help lend credibility to his arguments, or

2. He actually did look at the evidence but was too stupid to notice the direction in which it was pointing. Ignore my two rules of thumb from above and you can see how something like this may happen.

I have no particular stake in whether option 1 or 2 is right. I suppose option 2 is slightly more forgivable, but in either case, I see nothing remotely compelling about any of his arguments. Incidentally, if anybody would like to see a point by point breakdown of Strobel’s “The Case for Christ,” there is a fantastic critique on infidels.org. Here is the direct link. Its critique is so perfect, there is no reason for me to reproduce any of it here.

Whew…. I’ve said a lot here. If you stuck with me through this whole post, thank you! I hope it’s obvious to you, dear reader, that I’ve spent a fair amount of time thinking about all of this. If you’ve thought about this stuff as well and want to share your comments, I’d love to hear them.

It truly fascinates me to think that there are people who believe some of this stuff, and it also saddens me because I can see the harm that it causes to all of us. I’m not sure what the solution is to this cancer, but would welcome any ideas you have. Perhaps one remedy may be to invest in education, particularly science education, and to really make it a priority in this country. When science has failed you or you are ignorant of its most basic tenants, it leaves you unable to comprehend the world around you. As a result, maybe you’re more likely to jump to mystical answers… Again, I don’t know the answer here, I’m just speculating.

My wish is that we can begin to treat the people I’ve talked about here like we do the crazy people who mutter to themselves and defecate in their pants. It may be entertaining to put people like that on TV from a voyeuristic perspective, but for anyone to take them seriously truly baffles me. At the very least, we need to ignore people like Theresa Caputo and Sylvia Browne. At most, if they really are hearing dead people, we need to offer them the psychiatric help they need. And if they aren’t really hearing dead people but they’re scamming people and taking their hard earned money, we need to prosecute them for preying on people who are distraught and may not know any better.

Cheers,
~BLA

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Really bad films and TV, Part 1

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For a while now, I’ve been planning to write a blog post eviscerating some of the more awful, exploitive, anti-science, superstitious television and film that’s out there. I had in mind shows like “Long Island Medium” and “John Edwards Cross Country” that are about supposed psychic mediums who can talk to the dead, and shows like “Ghost Hunters” that attempt (poorly, in my opinion) to lend credence and skepticism to the business of finding ghosts, ghouls, spirits, poltergeists…whatever. For films, I planned to say a few words about apologist documentaries like the infamous Lee Strobel’s “The Case for Christ.” The underlying premise for all of these critiques would, of course, be the lack of rational, skeptical thought, the misinterpretation of data and so-called facts, and other errors of thinking bought-into by otherwise sane and rational people who watch this stuff. (In case you hadn’t noticed, the fact that normal folks fall for this frustrates the living hell out of me.)

This plan of mine became sidetracked a few weeks ago when I was challenged by a politically conservative friend to watch the documentary “2016: Obama’s America” by Dinesh D’Souza. My friend’s words were something along the lines of “watch this move and if afterward you don’t agree that Obama is a socialist then you’re crazy.” Spoiler Alert: I guess I’m crazy.

The imminency of the election at hand, I felt it was my civic duty to take the bait and watch the film. Worth noting is that this film is not all that different from the other junk TV and film I mentioned above. It ignores facts in favor of thought crimes and is about as far fetched as a guy who talks to dead people. I’m calling this blog post “Part 1″ of my two-part series on really bad films and TV. In Part 2, which I will hopefully get to soon, I will take on the psychics, ghost hunters and religious apologists. But now, for your reading pleasure, below are my thoughts on the film “2016: Obama’s America” as sent to my conservative friend.

Until next time, cheers and happy doubting.
~BLA

First, the good: The visuals in the first half are pretty cool… I enjoyed seeing some of the old Obama photos (liked the one of him at 5 or 6 dressed like a pirate for halloween), and I enjoyed the backstory of his time in Hawaii, Indonesia and Kenya. His half-brother George seemed pretty cool, actually. It really makes me happy that we’ve got a president who is a true citizen of the world and has spent time overseas. That is a very good thing… Not a liability as D’Souza implies.

Now it’s time for the bad… And there is A LOT of bad, so hold on tight:

1. I’m not sure why I’m surprised, but as I suspected, this thing is ripe with misinformation, false equivalencies and dichotomies, association fallacies, ad hominem attacks, and a boat load of other logical errors. Read a book on logical fallacies and watch this again… They aren’t even cleverly employed.

2. On top of all that, the creepy music playing in the background, and all of the scare tactics (e.g. “The United States of Islam”) are so over-the-top that I found it hard to not laugh out loud on several instances.

3. The whole thing is a gigantic conspiracy theory. Now, granted, whacky unfounded conspiracy theories may be entertaining to think about. I had a great 8th grade history teacher who was a Kennedy Assassination conspiracy guy… I remember when he used to remind us that Kennedy’s secretary was named Lincoln, and Lincoln’s secretary was named Kennedy, as if that mattered somehow. So, while conspiracies are entertaining to consider for half a second, when you start believing them, it may be time to check yourself into an institution. Actual real world actions are what counts, not contrived “facts” and secondary connections. I see not one single shred of evidence that supports D’Souza’s thesis of an anti-colonial, socialist agenda. You can talk about his heritage, draw whacky lines to his uncles’s brother-in-laws dog-sitter’s nephew’s ideology all you want, but the irrefutable truth is this: My taxes are lower than ever, welfare and other entitlement requirements remain 100% unchanged, and the man is a bad-ass terrorist hunter whose not afraid to go unannounced into Pakistan, a sovereign nation, to kill Bin Laden. If that’s what you call a socialist, anti-colonialist, then sign me the hell up. So, to recap, are you going to believe the dog-sitter’s nephew’s journal entry from 1972, or are you going to look at reality? I’ll tell you the answer: What actually happens is what matters. (By the way, the “dog-sitter’s nephew” thing is hyperbole, in case you hadn’t figured that out.)

4. For the record, despite this being repeated multiple times during the film, I, and nobody else I’ve ever met, voted for Obama in 2008 because of his “blackness,” so that I could prove to my future grandkids that I’m not a racist. Holy hell, really?

In summary,

Dinesh D’Souza is a creepy, evil, weasel… His film is so over-the-top that it would be comical if he wasn’t actually trying to be serious.

So, to those of you who haven’t seen this “movie” yet, take it from me and either don’t waste your time, or watch the first half with the sound off for the benefit of the pictures. But please don’t give this D’Souza whack-job a penny of your hard earned money.

For sitting through this film, you owe me an hour and half of my life back. The good news for you is that, luckily, my time isn’t worth that much, so buy me a beer when you visit and we’ll call it even.

In hindsight, I’m not really sure what I expected from a guy who claims to be “president of a college” (he’s since been fired by the way…google it), but doesn’t tell you that it’s a college of 200 people located in some office building in Manhattan. Does that count? Also, this supposed college, per its own mission statement, exists as a “commitment to the truths of Christianity and a biblical worldview.” Now that really sounds like an institution of higher learning huh? Do they have a scale replica of Jesus riding a T-Rex in the lobby?

For the record, yes, that was an ad hominem attack of my own that I lobbed against D’Souza. It doesn’t negate his arguments (his arguments themselves take care of that), but it’s true. The guy is a creep.

If you still think this film holds any merit, I’ve got a great deal for you: There’s this Nigerian Prince I just met that lives in my apartment building. He said if we all chip-in $1,000 he can use the money to secure a big fortune willed to him by his recently deceased great grandfather, who used to be the King of Spain. He showed me an old letter from his father’s journal, so it’s gotta be real!

Scotch disguised as beer!

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Ultra quick post… In honor of Blasphemy Day, I’ve discovered Jesus in a beer bottle! 10% ABV, but it’s the not-at-all subtle peat, smoke and scotch flavors in this brew that have me on my knees. Only a few sips in, so not there literally yet, but given the ABV, sure to be soon.

Thanks to Brewdog out of Scotland for this handiwork!

Cheers!

~BLA

What’s in a name?

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Let’s get the following disclaimer out of the way immediately: Today’s blog will not be directly about religion or beer, but rather politics. It will, however, speak to ideology and word meaning… two items that I believe contribute significantly to the political and religious divide in this country, yet often go unnoticed and unacknowledged during discussion/debate. Again, these issues will be addressed within the context of American politics, but you could certainly apply these lessons to religion as well. (Incidentally, I would assume these problems persist anywhere in the world where humans argue about stuff, but my lens is through the ’12 presidential election.)

Last week I engaged in two very different political debates that served as the impetus for this post. I think both are incredibly illustrative of my larger point that ideology and poor definition of terms lead to unnecessary conflict, and so I will use this blog to summarize each debate and offer my thoughts. Note that in Debate #1 I was defending conservatives and in Debate #2 I was criticizing them… so, I got to experience this issue from both viewpoints.

Debate #1

Audience: Complete strangers on a scientific (evolutionary biology), mostly liberal-leaning atheist website.

Topic: Paraphrasing myself: “I strongly dislike Mitt Romney and his platform and I loathe much of what the Republican Party has become –particularly the Tea Party and religious right– so much so that I will be voting for Obama for the second time, but yet I’m still a Republican.”

Synopsis: After offering up the comment you see above beneath the now infamous “47% percent of Americans are lazy” video, I was met with honest inquiry from several Democrats as to why I’m still a Republican. After expressing my reasons at an admittedly very superficial level (i.e that I’m fiscally conservative, believe in low taxes and limited government involvement, think that many social programs need reform, etc.) I was met with an intense barrage of partisan vitriol. I’m paraphrasing for simplicity here, but comments like the following we’re thrown around judiciously:

“Name me one social program that doesn’t work and provide specific details about how exactly you would fix it, or else I will be forced to conclude you’re wrong and uninformed.”

“Of course there are some social programs that work great and some that work poorly or not at all…thanks Capt. Obvious!”

(When you consider that this comment and the one above were posted by the same person, notice how utterly useless the first comment becomes? The poster has just acknowledged that some social programs don’t work, which was the only general point I was attempting to make.)

“Thinking you can influence other Republicans by voting for moderate candidates in primaries and through debate is stupid… You should just switch parties because you’re really just a conservative Democrat and that will have more influence over Republicans.”

Huh?

And my personal favorite…

“The correct quote is ‘Only the Sith think in absolutes,’ not ‘extremes’ you dummy!”

On that last one you’ve gotta give the guy some geek points for knowing his Star Wars, right? In any case, I offered up what I think were solid retorts for each criticism and I kept reminding my antagonists that:

A. I wasn’t interested in, nor had time for, a detailed policy debate on things like “the merits of social program X” and that I would happily concede to any analysis offered until I felt I was knowledgeable enough to debate program X, and

B. We are on the same team when it comes to our support of Obama, so convincing me of how wrong Mitt Romney is for America when I already agree and said as much in my initial comment is a complete waste of time.

Yet despite all that, on and on they went, arguing with me, misinterpreting my views, lobbing ad hominem attacks, and making unfounded inferences simply because I had self-labeled myself “Republican.” That word alone had told them just about everything they needed to know about me, as if somehow there are only two types of people in the world: democrats and republicans. Of course, as I’ve said now many times on this blog dear reader, the real world is a whole lot more complex than this (hence my “Sith only think in extremes” misquote from above). Show me one republican, and you’ll have shown me one republican. We’re not all alike and perhaps our biggest mistake is that we continue to label ourselves with these narrow terms that mean next to nothing when you get down to brass tacks.

In hindsight, I should have resisted engaging in this debate. Or, if I insisted on commenting, I should have edited my prose to say: “Socially liberal, fiscally conservative independent thinker who’s not tied to any political party in terms of voting pattern but happens to technically be a republican on his voter registration card from back when he registered to vote over a decade ago thinks Romney is stupid and is planning to vote for Obama.” But that doesn’t really roll off the tongue now, does it?

I hope you can see how word definition –namely “Republican,” a word that I would not have assumed to be so polarizing– and ideology, or more accurately blind faith in the Democrats, let to a debate that convinced no one and only led to frustration.

Debate #2

Audience: My good friends from college…Eight (seven plus me) 30-something college-educated and relatively well-off white males of various political persuasions.

Topic: Instigated by one of my good friends, again I paraphrase for simplicity: “Everyone go see ’2016: Obama’s America’ by Dinesh D’Souza and if you don’t agree with him that Obama is pushing a socialist agenda after watching it your (sic) stupid!”

Synopsis: Letting the irony of the “your stupid” error slide, several of my friends and I attempted to engage in a thoughtful debate about whether or not there was any merit whatsoever to propaganda pieces like D’Souza’s on the conservative side and Michael Moore’s films (e.g. ‘”Fahrenheit 9/11″) on the liberal side. Invariably, this led to rabbit holes where specific things like tax plans and foreign policy were also discussed. From my admittedly pro-Obama viewpoint (which, if you already read about debate #1 you probably gathered), one side of the debate was offering up facts and evidence (the pro-Obama side), and the other side of the debate was offering only opinion and regurgitating Fox News ideology. Now of course this is my recollection of the events only and if you were to ask one of the Romney supporters in the group, their recollection might be different. In any case, it became clear to all of us, about 20 or so emails in, that this debate wasn’t likely to change any minds and would result in nothing but ill will and frustration.

Without commenting about any of the specific policy issues above, let me offer up four hopefully self-evident ideas at we’d all be far better off if we accepted. I wish I didn’t have to state these things, because they should be so obvious… but clearly they aren’t, so here goes nothing. (Besides, I’ve already been given the rank of Captain in the Army of Obvious, remember?):

1. No one political party has a monopoly on good ideas. Anybody who disagrees or agrees with any candidate on EVERYTHING needs to be discredited and ignored immediately, because he or she has demonstrated an incredible amount of intellectual laziness. This is the epitome of blind ideology and faith.

2. The far majority of those who run for political office, especially those who run for President (including Romney and Obama), are well intentioned and want the best for America. You may believe a candidate is wrong about almost everything (remember, 100% wrong is bad), but you should at least be able to acknowledge that the candidate is well intentioned. (In my opinion, even Dick Nixon, however misguided and crazy, was well intentioned…But if you’d prefer to stop short of this assessment, I’m not sure I could fault your logic. In any case, hopefully we can agree that Nixon is at least an anomaly and an outlier). Otherwise, if not well intentioned, why would someone be running? To me, there seems to be far easier and statistically likelier ways to make money and obtain power than running for President of the United States. Let’s agree that both Obama and Romney are patriots who are willing to sacrifice any hope of a normal life should they get elected. As a consequence of accepting this very basic and hopefully self-evident principle, you should find it difficult to believe crazy things like Bush/Cheney sent us to war or did not prevent 9/11 solely for oil profits, or that Obama is hoping to move the U.S. toward communism.

3. Facts matter… A LOT! How you interpret facts and what solutions you believe will work best are of course open to debate, but if we disagree on basic facts then we’re doomed. Here is one fact that, for some reason, much of the GOP fails to acknowledge: Tax rates are at a 30-year low under President Obama. That’s right, they are lower than under Reagan, the GOP-Messiah. Now granted, Obama has expressed an interest in raising taxes on the top 1-2% incomes, but even this would only bring taxes back to the level they were under Clinton. Since I promised to avoid specific policy discussions, I’ll stop here. But if you’re interested in reading more about Romney’s tax policy, to the extent he’s shared details, and what its likely to do to the middle class (not the top 1-2%) click here to be redirected to a nice concise Washington Post article. Hopefully it suffices to say that if you ignore certain facts, like this one about our tax rate, and you compound this lack of knowledge with disbelief of principle #2 above, then arriving at strange conclusions like “Obama is a socialist,” or even “Obama isn’t an American citizen” become much easier.

4. Most big problems in the U.S. (or any country for that matter) like the size of the deficit, the strength of the economy, how to move the country up the world rankings on things like math scores and health care quality (from 23rd and 37th, respectively) are decades- and sometimes generations-long in the making. Certainly there are things that can be done in the short-term to course-correct, but to expect to see any significant movement in the statistics in a few short years shows a complete lack of mathematical literacy. Perhaps this not so surprising when you consider we’re 37th in math. Both political parties are to blame for playing these short-term numbers games, but they play them because the population responds. In my opinion, the saying “numbers don’t lie” may be the most untruthful saying that’s ever existed. Make no mistake: numbers lie, they lie regularly and they lie very convincingly if you don’t know what to look out for.

As I hope you can see, blind faith, whether it be in a religion or a political ideology, along with a laziness of terminology and an ignorance and/or apathy to the four truths described above will lead to nothing but trouble. Unfortunately, I have a difficult time feeling optimistic about our chances as a society if we continue down this path. We seem to be making some progress when it comes to belief in religion and other superstitious nonsense, but politically we seem to be heading in the opposite direction, becoming more entrenched and rigid in our beliefs. Perhaps political affiliation is, in part, replacing religious affiliation to satisfy our deep-rooted tribalistic tendencies. It would be better if we poured all of that tribalism into sports, or something more harmless. (I guess that means the Yankees vs. Red Sox rivalry is good for America!)

On the bright side, every single rational person that exists makes a difference, so for the good of the country and for the good of humanity, let’s each do our part. Hopefully the rest of society will follow… someday.

On that uplifting note, I’m going to end today’s blog. Given the bleak outlook of things, I’d recommend something a bit stronger than usual when pondering tonight’s topic. Perhaps a nice high ABV english barleywine, especially considering the chill that seems to be in the air this evening. Or, if you want to go even stronger, perhaps a nice two-finger pour of good old KY bourbon. KY isn’t a swing state, is it?

Until next time, cheers and happy doubting!

~BLA

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