Darwinism and the One Percent

I’ve heard wealthy people say that they are only adhering to Darwin’s law. We know what they really mean: that life is a competition, so they can’t be blamed for winning. It’s basic biology. Science tells us that evolution favors the smartest and strongest, and that’s the way it should be. By beating out the rest of us, wealthy people are doing their bit to improve the human race. Who can argue with science?

Not me. I’m a scientist. I believe in science.

But the prerequisite for believing in science is understanding it. In this case, understanding Darwin’s principle of natural selection. When wealthy people use Darwin as a justification for taking as much money as they can from everyone else, they have absolutely failed to understand his theory.

Famously, Jeffery Skilling, the CEO of Enron said that his favorite book was Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene. He claims to have based his management style on it. It appears that he liked the word, selfish, in the title but either didn’t read or didn’t understand the book. It explained how natural selection can favor generosity and altruism over personal self-interest. The book does definitely not say that natural selection requires that every man think only of himself.

If Skilling had really based his behavior on The Selfish Gene, he wouldn’t now be in prison for conspiracy and securities fraud, serving a twenty-year sentence.

More important for wealthy people, though, is understanding the phrase, “survival of the fittest”. Darwin never said what “fittest” means. In fact, he did say, explicitly, that “fittest” does not mean “strongest”.

Darwin’s phrase could be better summarized as “the survivors must have been the fittest.” Logicians don’t like the principle of natural selection because it’s based on circular reasoning. The fittest survive. How do we know which individuals are the fittest? Because they are the ones most likely to survive. And why did they survive? Because they were the fittest. And around and around we go.

What does this mean for wealthy people? First, being rich is not survival, it’s just having a lot of money. Survival means living long enough to have children, who also live long enough to give you grandchildren, and so forth.

In societies, you only get to live if nobody kills you. There was no royalty left in France after 1799. There were no Russian tsars left after 1917. There were no Ceausescus left in Romania after 1989. It doesn’t matter to Darwin how much money they had when they died, if they didn’t leave viable descendants, they were evolutionary dead ends.

The lesson here is that a little less greed may make a person more fit to survive. And that people should make the effort to understand what Darwin said before relying on him to justify their behavior.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Too Controversial for CBC

A few months ago, I began amusing myself by posting comments on stories on the CBC News web site (http://cbc.ca/). These comments are moderated. I was shocked the first time one of my comments was rejected by the moderators. It felt like a slap in the face. Since then, I’ve had 18 comments rejected and 287 accepted. A 94% acceptance rate isn’t bad, I guess, but I still feel the sting of censorship.

I also dislike the idea that some of these comments – the crafting of which took more work than you might imagine – might never see the light of day.

I refuse to let the CBC moderator silence me, so I’m listing all of my rejected comments below, along with a brief commentary on each.

Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo crashes, killing co-pilot

Spaceflight is hard.

This is the strangest rejection that I’ve ever received from the CBC moderators. What is wrong with this? There was a tragedy. A pilot of a private spaceship was killed and another seriously injured when it crashed. Though spaceflight has become commonplace since the late ’50s, it’s still a dangerous enterprise. Too often people think that spacecraft are nothing but advanced aircraft. They aren’t. They’re a far more difficult engineering problem. I thought about writing a long dissertation on the difficulty of space flight and the bravery of the men and women who understand the dangers and fly anyway, but I decided that a three word epitaph would suffice. I have no idea whatsoever why some CBC moderator thought it did not.

Did the PQ mislead Quebecers about the legality of its values charter?

The parallels between the PQ and the Nazis in Germany in the ’30s are obvious. Hyper-nationalism. A vision of a strong and racially pure country. Continual claims that they are victims of external oppression. Persecution of minorities within their borders. Lust for power at any cost. Willingness to lie to their own people.

But there is one big difference. The majority of Germans in the early thirties bought the vision and kept the Nazis in power until it was too late. The majority of the Quebecois see the PQ for what it is and, though willing to flirt with them. don’t buy their whole agenda.

I guess the moderator didn’t like my comparison of the Parti Quebecois to the German Nazi party in the ’30s. Personally, I think it’s a valid comparison. I didn’t say that the PQ are Nazis, only that there are points of similarity. In fact, similarities that are obvious.

China’s moon rover leaves traces on lunar soil

Landing a rover on the Moon is a significant accomplishment. If China’s next step is to land a man on the Moon, that would be a huge leap. Even the US no longer has that capability. On the other hand, if China’s next step is to land a rover on Mars, that would be much easier. And that would put China close to American’s current capabilities.

Disabling this has to be a mistake. I don’t see anything objectionable in this comment at all. China put a rover on the Moon. I’m just speculating about what their next step is likely to be and what implications that has for America’s lead in space technology. I’m guessing that the moderator didn’t even read my comment. Or didn’t understand it.

Pot-smoking Mountie Ron Francis charged with assault

Guess he wasn’t smoking enough to mellow him out. Maybe he needs his prescription adjusted.

This seems like another case of CBC not getting my sense of humor. I shouldn’t try to be funny.

Man found electrocuted at Enmax substation – Calgary – CBC News

Evolution is a law of nature. It’s inevitable that some people will take themselves out of the gene pool. A man who cuts into live high-voltage wires with a bolt cutter is a good candidate for natural selection.

Okay. Kind of nasty. And, just because the man who was electrocuted after breaking into an electrical substation was carrying bolt cutters doesn’t mean that he was cutting into the big cables, trying to steal the copper. Maybe there’s some other explanation. I just can’t think what it might be.

Or maybe, the moderator is a creationist and didn’t like my first sentence. We’ll never know.

Rob Ford speaks with CBC’s Peter Mansbridge – Toronto – CBC News

He’s not being punished for admitting anything. He only admitted it because he was already caught. He’s being punished for allegedly smoking crack, drinking to excess frequently, threatening violence, and sexually harassing women. He should understand that much because he claims to have a “zero tolerance” policy. Or maybe he doesn’t understand what “zero tolerance” means. He’s not the first conservative talk radio host to spout off about zero tolerance until he gets caught, and then plead that he’s a special case and needs instant forgiveness.

Most of this is a recitation of widely reported facts. So what’s CBC’s beef with my speculation about whether Ford understands what “zero tolerance” means? CBC headquarters are in Toronto, but I seriously doubt that the moderator who rejected this comment is in the “Ford Nation”. Maybe CBC is spooked because Ford has started threatening to sue everyone in sight. Is that why all of my last four rejected comments were about Ford? But CBC has allowed comments that are less flattering to the man than this one, so they’re looking a little hypocritical to me.

Rob Ford crack video submissions in court today – Toronto – CBC News

Rob Ford brands himself as “just an ordinary, regular guy.” But ordinary, regular guys don’t smoke crack.

I’m mystified why this one was rejected. Rob Ford went on TV and admitted that he smoked crack, so there can’t be anything wrong with my mentioning it indirectly. Maybe calling someone an “ordinary, regular guy” is some kind of unmentionable insult now?

Rob Ford crack scandal: Why Toronto’s mayor finally fessed up – Canada – CBC News

Is he now willing to submit to weekly drug tests?

I’m completely serious about this question. Rob Ford has finally admitted smoking crack, but only the one time that he was caught on video. He claims that it’s all in the past, but we know that he lied about his drug use over and over. As the mayor of Canada’s biggest city, he should be subject to at least as much scrutiny as someone who snowboards in the Olympics.

Rob Ford video: What next for Toronto’s embattled mayor? – CBC News – Latest Canada, World, Entertainment and Business News

I’m sure it was all a misunderstanding. Maybe Harper took Ford fishing and commented about the G20 protesters, “Gotta be tough. Crack heads.” and Ford heard only, “Gotta be … crackhead.”

I thought this comment was hilarious. It refers to stories that Canada’s Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, has taken Toronto’s mayor, Rob Ford, fishing; that the police abused protesters at the G20 meeting in Toronto; that there’s rumours that Ford smokes crack and video evidence that seems to show him exchanging packages with crack dealers; and that Harper cancelled a photo-op with Ford at the Conservative convention in Calgary. I guess CBC doesn’t share my sense of humour. Again.

Saudi women at the wheel campaign underway – World – CBC News

In my experience, women driving is a convenience for men. It must be hard for Saudi husbands to have to drive their wives everywhere.

What on earth is wrong with this comment? It is nothing but an observation and an inference about that observation.

British Indians seek legal protection from caste system – World – CBC News

The problem with multiculturalism is that culture is so much more than funny dances and unusual foods. Countries that encourage multiculturalism always face the problem of trying to pick and choose the parts of the foreign culture that they like from among the parts that they don’t like. Foreign cultures include caste discrimination, honour killings, genital mutilation, polygamy, tribal warfare, arranged marriages, non-pharmaceutical drugs and so much more. There are an awful lot of foreign cultural practices that we don’t want in our country. So how is it fair to tell immigrants that they are welcome to practice their culture in Canada but later tell them that we won’t allow the parts that they consider most important and have been practicing for centuries?

I assume that this was rejected because it mentions racially-sensitive issues like honour killings and genital mutilation. But I believe that my point is valid. Any culture, including ours, contains some practices that are considered unacceptable by other cultures. Canada, like many other industrialized countries, aspires to tolerate a variety of other cultures. But this will invariably raise a problem when some of those practices are unacceptable to Canadians.

Smaller Sea King replacements would mean big changes to navy – Politics – CBC News

We need a good navy so we can be ready to go to war with Denmark over Hans Island.

I guess CBC doesn’t like satire on its news site.

Ariel Castro’s guards skipped checks in hours before suicide – World – CBC News

I really don’t care if someone like that is confined to prison for life or dies by suicide or misadventure. I’m just happy that our world has become a better place as a result of him no longer being in it.

I admit that my comment was rather nasty. But, even if Ariel Castro died before he was tried and convicted of his crimes, we all know that he was a nasty guy. He didn’t care about the women that he kidnapped and abused for years so why should I care about him. I’m happy to dance on the grave of a man like that.

Kenya rioters burn church after Muslim cleric killed – World – CBC News

@Jamie Sorensen You mean the Quebec government that rules under the shadow of a large Catholic crucifix, symbol of a church that burned heretics and waged crusades for centuries? That “religion of peace” that was only brought under control by the rise of the secular enlightenment in 18th century Europe? That government that wants to allow tasteful Christian religious jewelry while outlawing all non-Christian religious symbols?

I was responding to another person’s comment that implied that Islam is a less tolerant and peaceful religion than Christianity. I don’t think that my reply was any less fair than the original comment. Its rejection leaves me wondering if the anonymous moderator was a Catholic from Quebec.

‘Freemen’ take over Grande Prairie cabin, trappers say – Edmonton – CBC News

Of course “freemen” don’t like the government. “Freeman” is synonymous with “thief” and thieves never like the police.

Yeah. Okay. I guess I was slandering anyone who chooses to call himself a “freeman”. But, I have a difficult time imagining how any of those people expect to live, except by taking government services that they refuse to pay for. And, in my book, that means that they intend to steal those services. It doesn’t help that one of my wacky cousins has decided that he’s a “sovereign man” and is causing his mother considerable grief.

Stand Up for Science rallies target federal government – Technology & Science – CBC News

@RealityBased Based on what you say, I’m pretty sure that you’ve never met a real scientist. Being one myself, and having known a great many over the course of my career, I can assure you that, in general, scientist are not leftists, are no more or less political than anyone else, definitely do not try to shut down discussion; and do not demonize people. Generally, they prefer to talk about ideas, facts, and experiments rather than calling people names.

This is another case of a reply to someone else’s comment where I think that my point is not as offensive as the original comment that was accepted by the moderator. In this case, the original moderator was calling all scientists “lefties” and claiming that their demonstration in support of science in Canada was an attempt to suppress dissent. I don’t see how he can be permitted to slander a whole class of people and I be denied the opportunity to set the record straight.

Unpaid intern replaces Ont. MPP’s staff job, says ex-worker – Toronto – CBC News

Maybe Rod Jackson should be replaced by an unpaid volunteer.

More satire. A member of the provincial parliament was caught firing a paid employee and assigning an unpaid intern to do her job. Since when is suggesting that turnabout would be fair play unacceptable?

Japanese rail passengers push train to free woman trapped in gap – World – CBC News

@Marksist Sorry. Lots of animals murder each other. For example, the most common cause of death in wild mice is not starvation, disease, old age, or cats – it’s being killed by other mice. Animals that live in packs, from monkeys to wolves, kill each other frequently. Chimpanzees set up ambushes to kill chimps from other groups. And so forth.

I can only assume that this comment was rejected because it strayed off the topic of the original story. But when someone makes a foolish statement like “humans are the only species that murders each other”, someone should be permitted to set the record straight.

Unpaid internships exploit ‘vulnerable generation’ – Business – CBC News

Is someone at CBC being paid to moderate these comments, or is some intern doing it for free?

I still wonder if this comment was rejected by an unpaid intern.

Yours, Ashley

Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments

What Right to Bear Arms?

I’m no lawyer, but I know how to read what is written in black and white when it’s staring me right in the face.

The Second Amendment – the right to bear arms – does not say that every yahoo with a grudge against authority and a problem with his own masculinity has the right to swagger around with a gun on his hip, intimidating everyone around him.

The Founding Fathers were smart people and good writers. If they meant that every yahoo could strap on a gun and bully people, they would have said it, clearly and simply. What they wrote does not say what the NRA/Tea Party/Wacko Gun Nuts want it to say.

It says: “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”

Notice that part that the gun nuts don’t like to mention: “A well regulated militia…” When the constitution was written, the Founders didn’t put that in because they needed to use up more ink. They weren’t trying to bulk up the document to reach a specific word count. They wrote it because they meant it. People have the right to bear arms only in the context of a regulated militia.

It doesn’t say that people have the right to bear arms to defend themselves – or to hunt or to win the Olympics, for that matter.

If the federal government, or your state government, or even your local city government wants to pass a law that says that you can defend yourself with a gun, that is their prerogative. The Constitution says that the states have the right to pass whatever laws they wish as long as those laws don’t contradict the constitution.

The Second Amendment only talks about what happens when a militia is created. No government can prohibit the citizenry from keeping arms for that purpose.

But, the government can certainly pass laws that regulate the formation and conduct of a militia. It has a right and duty to ensure that militias are “well ordered”. Reading this amendment as it is written, the government can pass laws that license firearms, require that firearm owners identify themselves, prohibit some kinds of firearms, and prohibit unsuitable individuals from owning them.

The logic for this interpretation is simple. The people as a whole can maintain an effective militia even if only some of them are permitted to enlist, own, and bear some kinds of arms.

The government can maintain a well ordered militia without letting every nutty, delusional scofflaw who has a couple hundred bucks in his pocket buy a handgun to strap on his hip when he goes to Starbucks to buy a venti chai latte. It requires only enough armed men and women to defend the state.

For more than two hundred years, virtually all the academic discussion and legal interpretation of this amendment centered on the nature of militias. Supreme court decisions consistently upheld the position that states had a right to regulate and license individual ownership of firearms. And, because the state laws were viewed by most people as reasonable, there was little concern or debate about the Second Amendment.

But the status quo was not good enough for the arms dealers. They need Americans to keep buying more and more guns and that’s a problem. Guns aren’t perishable. Once the average person has a few, he doesn’t need to buy any more for the rest of his life. In fact, his grandchildren will probably find his guns satisfactory. The NRA’s corporate sponsors need more customers; and money from children, petty criminals, and crazy people is as good as anyone else’s. They don’t want any regulation, whatsoever, and they don’t care how many people get killed in the ensuing massacres.

So in 2008, only five years ago before this essay was written, the Supreme Court decided that, despite what the Constitution says, the right to bear arms is an individual right that exists outside the context of a well ordered militia. States would no longer be allowed to pass laws restricting anyone’s right to carry a gun for self-defense.

Yup. The Supreme Court had to be loaded with right-wing-nuts by the Bush, Jr. administration and led by Antonin Scalia before it would ignore the clear and obvious wording of the amendment and concoct a bizarre logical justification for turning the NRA’s wet dream into our daily reality.

And it took the Cato Institute, a right-wing advocacy group founded by the billionaire, Charles Koch, to concoct an artificial legal case to present to the court to further his libertarian agenda.

The way the courts and constitutional scholars had interpreted the amendment for over two centuries was tossed aside. The majority decision, written by Justice Scalia, included historical references to Charles II of England and the assertion that “militia” includes every able-bodied male in the country. Doesn’t Justice Scalia realize that the Revolutionary War was fought because the American colonies didn’t like living under English law?

This was the first time in the entire legal history of the United States that the Court ruled that the Second Amendment was about personal self-defense. It did not matter to them that the amendment does not include a single word about self-defense. Or hunting, for that matter, which was a crucial aspect of the history of the right to bear arms in England but was also considered unimportant to the Founding Fathers.

I, for one, am calling “naked!” on this emperor of misinterpretation and saying shame on the Supreme Court for clothing him in so much transparent nonsense.

It’s time to tell the Supreme Court to rule on the Constitution as it is actually written and not as the puppets of wealth and privilege wish it had been written. The Founding Fathers knew what they were doing. They were trying to make the greatest country in the world, not build a continent-wide slaughterhouse.

Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments

Private Industry Doesn’t Do Research

“Industrial research” is an oxymoron. Private industry doesn’t do research. They say that they do. The government says that they do. But the truth is that they don’t; and for a good reason. Research – real research – doesn’t turn a profit and the raison d-etre of industry is to generate a profit.

The explanation lies in the phrase, real research. What industry does in their so-called “research labs” is not real research, it is product development. Product development pays. In fact, it is the lifeblood of industry. A corporation must have new products to entice consumers away from their competitors. Corporations that don’t develop new products are weeded out by economic darwinism.

So what is real research? It is the discovery of basic knowledge, as opposed to the design of a specific product.

Is research important? Hell, yes! We have to understand organic chemistry and physiology to cure diseases; understand biology and demography to feed our growing population; understand ecology and meteorology to keep the earth habitable; understand astrophysics and  astronomy to find new worlds; and so forth.

Science has rescued us from living in caves, surviving on what we can hunt with clubs, and dying before we reach the age of thirty. Science has let the earth sustain more than a few million people. Science keeps our lives from being short, nasty, and brutish.

If physics and chemistry and math are needed to build a refrigerator, and more advanced physics, chemistry, and math are needed to build a more advanced refrigerator, why doesn’t a company which builds refrigerators have laboratories to conduct research in physics, chemistry, and math?

Because it wouldn’t pay them to do it.

First, the payoff for basic knowledge is too long delayed.

For example, almost any modern technological development requires a branch of mathematics called calculus. Calculus has been used to develop countless trillions of dollars of profitable products for the modern world. But calculus was developed in the 1600s. If a private company in Renaissance England had funded the development of calculus, they would never have reaped the profit from it and would have gone bankrupt long ago.

Second, and more important, there is not a one-to-one relationship between research results and products.

Any single product requires knowledge from many different scientific theories. Producing the bottle of Coca-Cola sitting on my desk required organic chemistry, biology, and botany. The machines that were necessary to bottle it in large quantities required physics, metallurgy, chemistry, and mathematics. If the Coca-Cola company had to pay for all the research results that they used to produce that bottle of pop, they would have been bankrupt before they started.

But they didn’t have to. We, and our fore-bearers, paid for it, both directly and indirectly by paying for a government, society, and culture that supported legions of scientists.

The public pays for science because, every time scientific knowledge improves, life improves. A new scientific theory developed today will be used to develop hundreds of thousands of new products in the future. We will use some of these products in our lifetime; some of them will be developed for our great-great-grandchildren.

The mistake that people often make is that they think that one scientific advance is used to produce one product. There are countless myths and legends about the lone inventor – Thomas Edison, Edwin Land, Bill Lear, or Bill Gates – getting a single new idea and making a product worth millions. Those romantic stories ignore all the rest of the science that was necessary to make the lightbulb, Polaroid camera, Learjet, or personal computer. None of those products would have been possible without a millenium of scientific development first.

No product will ever make enough money to pay for all the research that was required to develop it.

But the myth that one scientific result is all that is required for one product is dangerously attractive to people who don’t want to pay for scientific research any more, because it  implies that corporations will fund all the research necessary to develop new products. And it implies that if corporations don’t want to pay for research, then that research is esoteric and unnecessary.

This simple model is a prescription for the stagnation of corporations and a failed economy.

There is a reason why those countries which have a strong culture of scientific research are good places to live today and those countries which do not, are not.

We all have to support science so that corporations can do what they are supposed to do: not conduct research, but develop new products for our use.

Anyone who claims that we can have the benefits of a modern economy without funding basic research is blowing smoke at you. Either they are genuinely ignorant of the fundamental role of science in our lives or they have a secret agenda that will benefit themselves at a devastating cost to you.

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

I Don’t Like Labor Unions

I never liked  labor unions.

I came by this position honestly.

My father was an entrepreneur and owner of a succession of small businesses.

My great uncle Pete was a union organizer. My parents believed that he was a communist. They liked Uncle Pete, but they didn’t like communists, so they didn’t tell people about Uncle Pete. In my family, supporting unions was a shameful thing that should be kept secret.

My father watched television news, read newspapers, and later listened to talk radio. He had an extensive repertoire of stories about unions’ support for socialism, strikes for the flimsiest reasons, corruption, greed, and – that perennial staple of union bashing – their unflagging support for lazy, incompetent employees who can’t be fired even though they richly deserve it.

When I became older, I heard the same things on the media myself. And I knew that much of it was true. Not all of it – especially as the American news media  became more concerned with entertainment value than veracity – but much of it. Unions do sometimes throw their might around; sometimes they are corrupt; and sometimes they support employees who should be fired.

Union leaders really do make dramatic statements in favor of socialism. I have met some, personally, and heard those statements directly.

Later, when I joined the workforce, I saw the other side of the coin. Unions are a problem, but employers are worse.

I worked for a federal government and saw hard-working employees bullied and harassed both by their individual supervisors and by the system as a whole. Some managers, envious and egotistical, would have fired their most productive employees because they didn’t like them personally and feared the competition from below.

Only the rules established by union-negotiated contracts kept the system fair.

I was protected by those contracts. I still didn’t like unions, but I joined mine because the reality was that the unions were necessary to sustain my working environment.

With broader experience, a few things became obvious.

First, the government might be a poor employer, but those parts of private industry that were not unionized were far worse. I heard endless horror stories from my friends. I have seen my children mistreated by non-union employers and been powerless to help them.

Second, the unions don’t automatically protect people who need firing, even in the government. I saw employees whose incompetence was documented and they were fired. In other cases where employees were ushered out the door by ad hoc methods without a whisper of complaint from the union.

Third, employers are tenacious in trying to reduce wages. They never stop trying to give pay raises that are less than inflation. Never. The unions might ask too much, but employers always, always offer too little. And, more than once in my career, the government enacted laws to freeze wages and limit strikes when contract negotiations became inconvenient.

The unions don’t have any walk in the park.

Today, raising my eyes from my personal situation and looking at the broader developments in the economy, we all are in a precarious fix.

Unions are losing their strength. Decade after decade of relentless anti-union propaganda is eroding public support for unions.

That is damaging the country.

America, and every other industrialized country, was built by the middle class, not by the elites. Every tin-pot third-world dictatorship has a wealthy elite class. That doesn’t make them strong countries or good places to live (except for the fraction of a percent of the population in the elite class who can literally get away with murder of the common folk).

Only a vast middle class has the skills and industriousness to build a first-world country.

But the erosion of the power of unions is eroding the middle class in America. Fewer Americans are members of unions: only half as many Americans are in unions today as thirty years ago; and only eleven percent of the American workforce is unionized. Wages are falling. Fewer people consider themselves middle-class and, of those that do, they have lower incomes than the middle class of the last generation.

For the first time in history, the next generation of workers, our children, will have a lower standard of living than we do.

Yet the media continues to propagandize against unions relentlessly. Why? Because the media is big business. It is owned by wealthy people and they do not like unions or the middle class. They want all the money in their pockets, not being paid out to their employees as fair wages.

Even if America becomes a third world country, the elite know that they are still going to be the elite. In fact, they will become even richer and more powerful as the country degrades.

The decades of anti-union propaganda has left its mark on me. I still don’t like unions.

But I will support them to the end because American needs them.

Yours, Ashley

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Conservatism Is Less Than a Culture; It’s a Cult

If you see American “conservatives” as people with a certain political view and try to talk to them, you will be hopelessly confused. You can only understand them if you realize that they are members of a cult.

That word has pejorative connotations. Conservatives will be insulted when I call them members of a cult. Sorry about that, but I’m not just name-calling. It’s the only way that I’m able to make sense of their statements and actions.

What makes them a cult?

First, they have a dogma – a set of core beliefs that they take on faith. This dogma is invulnerable to observable facts. Any fact that contradicts their dogma will either be re-interpreted or ignored.

For example, a core tenet of contemporary conservatism is: “No government can do anything as well as a private corporation.” What happens when the government issues a clear specification for a contract and the corporation that wins the bid fails to deliver on time and within budget? Do conservatives blame the corporation for lying about what they could deliver; failing to produce a useable product; and overcharging for their service?

No. The conservative lays the entire blame on the government for not managing the contract properly.

Apparently, signing a contract with a company in good faith and honestly reporting when they fail to deliver is “mis-mangement”. But only when the government does it. When the corporation does the same thing to a conservative, then the corporation is at fault. But the conservative will invariably add the aside, on the basis of dogma alone, that “if the government had been providing the service, they would have done worse.”

On a far larger scale, conservative policies have brought us into an economic depression, eroded the middle class, increased the disparity between the wealthy and the average citizen, driven countless small businesses into bankruptcy, and increased poverty.

Yet conservatives cling to their economic dogma with utter conviction. No matter how much visible damage is done by de-regulation, lowering taxes to unsustainable levels, and favoring anti-competitive corporate behavior, conservatives will insist that we need more of these policies, not less.

That’s the practical definition of dogma.

Second, conservatives follow charismatic leaders. A few strong personalities deliver the conservative dogma to the masses all day, every day over Fox News, talk radio, and endless best-selling hardcover books.

For most of us, it’s hard to find much charisma in the egocentric Rush Limbaugh, the bombastic Bill O’Reilly, the totalitarian Ann Coulter, or the irrational Glen Beck. Conservatives, though, are endlessly entertained by irrational, egocentric, totalitarian bombast as long as it reinforces their dogma.

Think of these conservative pundits as delivering sermons to their cult and you’ll understand their appeal to that segment of the population.

This brings us to the third characteristic of a cult. An in-group is established which self-identifies and distinguishes itself from everyone else at every opportunity.

This is pretty obvious. Talk to a conservative and he’ll identify himself as such almost immediately. Chances are that he’ll say, “I’m a conservative.” If not then he’ll start spouting conservative dogma in response to almost any statement you make.

You: “Nice day today.”

Con: “Not as long as Obama is destroying the country.”

The clearest indication of the strength of the conservative in-group mentality is their insistence that there is no middle ground. “If you aren’t with me, you’re against me.”

This means that any label applied to people who are not conservatives is automatically an insult. Conservatives consider liberalsocialist, and progressive to be slanders. And they apply those slanders to anyone who is not in the cult, no matter what position he takes on any individual issue.

Cults do not tolerate free-thinking or reasoned dissent.

The dichotomy between the in-group and the out-group is all-encompassing. You can’t agree with them on some policies and not others. If you are not 100 percent conservative, then you are not in the cult and you are one of the bad people.

Once people, rather than ideas, are placed into one category or the other, the classification generalizes to every behavior, attitude, and idea. If you’re not a conservative, you cannot be patriotic, moral, or decent. You have no place in their America.

At this point, the conservative has only two options: to convert you or to abandon you.

The fourth characteristic of a cult is that its members proselytize. This is why it is so difficult to talk to conservatives. You think that they are interested in rational discussion, sharing information, learning, figuring out the truth. That is the purpose of intellectual discussion, right?

Not for the conservative. His purpose is to induct you into the cult. That is why the conservative’s conversation consists of sound bites: bits of rehearsed dogma, irrelevant factoids that sound “truthy”, and a boat-load of name-calling.

He will tell you about his other conservative friends and will recommend that you start listening to conservative pundits on TV and radio.

His meta-message is that he will be your friend only if you agree with him; that you will feel wonderful if you agree with him; and that you will be a better person if you agree with him.

His only objective is to recruit you because every cult needs more members.

The final characteristic of cults is that their followers tolerate exploitation by the leadership. The leaders and the powers behind the leaders create and maintain cults for their own benefit. That is obvious to everyone but the members of the cult.

Cult members donate, tithe, and give the profits of their labor to the leaders. L Ron Hubbard lived on a yacht in the Mediterranean  Reverend Sun Moon lived in a palace; and so forth.

Who profits from the conservative cult? The answer is so obvious, it hardly needs to be stated. America has never had such a wide disparity between the wealthy and the average worker. It has the worst economic mobility of any industrialized country. The rich really are getting richer while the rest of the country is getting poorer and poorer. The Great Recession didn’t reduce the wealth of the elite at all; it made them wealthier.

The conservative masses not only tolerate these conditions, but keep pushing for more of the policies that created them. They can only do that because they are true believers in the dogma of their cult.

If you are not a conservative, I hope that this perspective will help you understand people who are. And if you are a conservative, no problem, you didn’t read past the first paragraph of this essay. Cult members never read or listen to anything that contradicts their dogma or criticizes their leaders.

Yours, Ashley

Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments

Rise of the Celebrity Intellectual

celebrity intellectual is a person known to the general public for his or her intellectual achievements. There are many, many intellectuals who are known to their students and peers, but few of those manage to float into the consciousness of people outside their narrow academic discipline.

We have always had celebrity intellectuals. Socrates was certainly a celebrity in ancient Athens. Mass media made Einstein more famous more quickly than any scientist before him and, arguably, since. Television brought many more scientists, like Von Braun and Oppenheimer and Watson to public view.

Today, though, the Internet has accelerated the dissemination of all kinds of information to previously unimaginable velocities, including the accomplishments of key intellectuals. One of the biggest forces has been the digital broadcasting of Technology, Entertainment, Design (TED) conference talks. TED.com has made thousands of talks by designated intellectuals available to anyone who is connected to the Internet.

Suddenly we have so many celebrity intellectuals that we can’t remember their names. But we remember their claims to ideas and accomplishments. It’s not unusual today to hear someone at a party asking, “Did you hear that TED talk by that woman who studies why victims of domestic violence don’t leave their husbands?” That Woman is as much a celebrity as that actress who plays Sheldon Cooper’s mother in The Big Bang Theory. You can be a celebrity even if people don’t remember your name.  

This phenomenon is not a fad. There is good reason to want to hear what the leaders of scientific and cultural revolutions have to say. You don’t have to make any outrageous assumptions to predict that the number of celebrity intellectuals in our lives will be greater than ever before in history.

This has some good effects.

It stimulates interest in intellectual pursuits. The more voters who talk about what they saw on TED instead of on Jersey Shore, the better off we all will be.

And we need more of our youth to aspire to be rocket scientists. Especially when they are inspired by intellectuals on the leading edge of science and technology.

But there are some pitfalls in the creation of celebrity intellectuals.

It begins when someone, like a TED conference organizer, selects an individual to present his or her work. This selection may be based on the existing fame of the individual; or the ability of the person to be entertaining; or even on the personal preferences of the organizer. People may be promoted to celebrity status because of their ability to network, to entertain, or even because of nepotism. Not all celebrity intellectuals are, in fact, the most accomplished intellectuals in their fields.

However, the celebrity is chosen, he or she is then in a position to take credit for creating a whole field of study when, in fact, he or she is normally only the tip of a large iceberg. More than once, I have heard TED speakers present their invention as a unique advance that stands alone when in reality, it is but a single stone in a huge pyramid.

Too often a celebrity uses the phrase, “I invented…” in a sentence which obscures exactly what small part of a much larger technology he or she invented and implies that he or she is personally responsible for an entire academic discipline. Often a discipline that was active and thriving years before the celebrity graduated from high school.

In effect, the celebrity becomes a personification of a field of academic study in the public mind. That’s okay to the extent that it makes the work easier for the public to understand and remember. But, to the extent that research funds are diverted away from other, arguably better, researchers, it can be detrimental to progress.

Worse, celebrity can pervert the scientific method. Science works on constant examination of ideas. Theories must be discarded when flaws are discovered or when new data invalidates them.

The celebrity’s work can become invulnerable to refutation simply because too many people automatically believe in the authority of the celebrity and considers him or her to be an unassailable expert. The celebrity can’t be wrong because he or she is the one who was made famous.

I can give you an example. I heard a talk on TED in which the speaker presented an improperly-designed experiment as confirmation of her theory. Her theory was probably correct, but one of the graphs that she showed did not support her position. I pointed this out in a comment and received, in reply, a couple of poorly-informed, logically-incorrect rebuttals. People were coming to the defence of the speaker, not because she was right, but because she had been chosen by the TED organizers to be the celebrity and I had not. I continued the argument briefly, then took my own homily – “When you are arguing with fools, so are they” – to heart and pursued the discussion no further. It’s foolish to beat yourself bloody against someone armored in celebrity.

When people can’t see past the celebrity to examine his or her ideas with an objective eye, then science has failed.

Neither of these consequences – ignoring other researchers or ignoring flaws in ideas – delivers a fatal blow to science. The entire scientific process has evolved to be robust and recover from such errors. But it takes time and will slow the progress of science to some degree. In fact, to the degree that the celebrity wields influence over other, less famous peers and over the public purse.

I believe that the rise of a culture of celebrity intellectuals will provide a net benefit to society. But that is not a certainty. What is a certainty is that the culture of celebrity intellectuals will not go away, but will become stronger over time.

It will be interesting to watch and see exactly how much the culture of celebrity intellectuals benefits us over the coming decades.

Yours, Ashley

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments