A good start on vaccinations, but not enough

Quite honestly, I don’t believe there ought to be a religious exception for parents to opt out of vaccinations for their children. Period. If you are going to put kids in real danger because the parents say God doesn’t like vaccinations, then just how much irresponsible parenting are you willing to tolerate in the name of religion? Female genital mutilation, perhaps? Stoning disobedient teens to death? Don’t know about that one? Check out Deuteronomy chapter 21, verses 18-21.

Bablefish, God, Your truth, My Truth

In case you’ve never read Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy (the movie version is a pale, inadequate reflection of the zany brilliance of the book), I should explain that one of his inventions was a small fish you could stick in your ear that allowed you to understand anything said to you in any language.

Adams had the following comment:

“Meanwhile, the poor Babel fish, by effectively removing all barriers to communication between different races and cultures, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation.”

Adams wrote that long before the World Wide Web, but he could have been talking about it. This is yet another example of a science fiction writer able to realistically foresee the social consequences of a new technology. Some browsers now come with a built-in translation feature for converting the text of web pages into your default language. I expect that eventually somebody will come up with a plug-in that will handle speech as well. On top of that, in most countries now it’s fairly easy to get access to video feeds of news and entertainment from distant countries, even if you must put an illegal satellite dish on the roof to do it.

All over the planet people are getting online and watching the behavior of people living in societies with radically different social norms. This has been a shocking experience for many of them.

I happen to live in the United States, part of the West, for want of a better term. My wife and adult daughters make their own decisions, run their lives as they see fit, and go out in public dressed as they like.

Hundreds of millions of people on this planet, particularly in the Muslim world, see Western women like those in my family on their screens. They seem naked and brazen by their standards. Many viewers in non-Western societies are outraged. They feel that what they see going on in the West should not be permitted. They want it stopped.

In the United States, one is expected to affirm belief in the existence of a Supreme Being, preferably one of the traditional Judea-Christian flavors. (In some regions within the United States, Jesus is the only socially acceptable option.) The Gallup poll has for decades been tracking attitudes towards members of different demographics. Gallup has consistently found that potential voters given a list that includes Catholics, African Americans, Jews, Baptists, women, Mormons, Muslims, and gay people, tell pollsters that the category they would most refuse to vote for under any circumstances whatsoever is that of atheists. If you want to run for public office in the United States, the first thing you should do is to join a church.

Yet Americans who see news and entertainment from Europe are becoming aware that on the other side of the Atlantic religious faith doesn’t generally get the kind of unquestioned deference it does here. I recall a Doctor Who episode (originates in Great Britain) where a recorded announcement on a space platform that functioned as a transportation hub like an airport reminded travelers that weapons and religions (both items were considered dangerous) were not permitted on the station. Something like that would probably not have made the final cut on American television.

Devout Americans have realized that although you can certainly find devout believers in Western Europe if you look for them, religious faith there is often considered either an eccentric hobby pursued by a small minority or a museum piece hauled out of mothballs for weddings, funerals, and state occasions. Most of the native population ignores it most of the time, which drives the leadership of the establishment churches in those countries, who remember the good old days when they could get away with murder, nuts. Devout Americans don’t like the lack of public piety they see across the water and want something done about it. That’s why you get American missionaries in Europe. They are determined to somehow drag Europe kicking and screaming back to church.

In some places in the world, religious groups have gotten creative about silencing their critics. In Russia, where the Orthodox Church has again become a major political player since the collapse of the Soviet state, the lower house of the parliament just passed by a big margin a bill that makes it a felony to insult the feelings of religious believers. The penalty is three years in prison. (They also got a bill through that makes it a crime for parents to tell their children that gay people exist.)

Hurt feelings? That may be a bad translation for all I know, but I think what’s going on is that the Russian Orthodox Church is borrowing a tactic often used against people in Western academia who criticize Islam and some cultural practices sometimes associated with it such as female genital mutilation.

You accuse the critics of bigotry and claim that any criticism of Islam or cultures associated with it, however reasonable and polite, is a vicious, racist act. This works especially well with liberals, who are a lot more comfortable with the “well, there is your truth, and my truth, so there really isn’t any truth” cop out anyway.

(That reminds me of the joke about the freshman philosophy student who decided he was a solipsist and then wondered why there weren’t more of them.)

An awful lot of the rage and danger we are dealing with on the global stage is being driven by religion. Here is my recommendation for when people doing outrageous things use their religion as a justification and accuse you of bigotry for calling them on it: make a clear distinction between the person who believes in an idea, who is automatically entitled to a minimum of respect and courtesy, and the idea itself, which gets no more respect than it can win on the battlefield of ideas.

The Rules of the Game for Beginning a Civilized Global Argument About Religion in the Age of Bablefish:

1. Never, ever, say anything nasty to someone you disagree with about his or her sex, race, gender identity, sexual orientation, ethnic background, social class, appearance, or physical or mental challenges. That stuff is strictly off limits in any sort of discussion or argument. Period.

2. You have a moral obligation to criticize the behavior of anyone who fails to observe rule number one.

3. A religion is a group of individuals who find true a particular set of related ideas affirming the existence of a supernatural agent, agents, or forces who must be appeased in some specific way. Those ideas are fair game for intelligent criticism. Just because the topic is religion, the ideas don’t deserve kid-glove treatment and their advocates shouldn’t be permitted lapses in logic or ordinary rules of evidence. For example, don’t expect to get away with saying that you have faith in something, so therefore it must be true. (Suppose you played the faith card to claim that peanuts were in telepathic contact with Thomas Jefferson?) Playing the faith card is just a way of admitting there is no reason whatsoever to believe what you do. Don’t cheat when you argue about ideas, but play hard. You can’t hurt the feelings of a theological system or a sacred text. There aren’t any feelings to hurt.

Imagine the dating game contestants 50,000 years ago

Someone on a thread I saw about humans and Neanderthals swapping genes brought up the question of attractiveness. I think that’s largely a cultural factor. (Victorian great beauties might be considered much too fat and short to be considered outstandingly attractive by Western, early-twenty-first century standards of feminine beauty), but it does raise the interesting question of just what did modern humans and Neanderthals look like when they first ran into each other and got friendly? Let’s think about that.

In Eurasia, over the hundreds of thousands of years since the common ancestors of Neanderthals and modern humans parted company, Neanderthals had evolved adaptations to living in places where it was cold and cloudy a great deal of the time: stocky body type (if your torso is shaped more like a sphere you can hold on to more of your body heat). Also, if you’re living in a place like that, having fair skin is a selective advantage because it makes it much easier to make vitamin D. The recovered Neanderthal genes suggest that at least some of them were redheads. Take a look at this:

Based on the type of heavy spearheads Neanderthals used, the types of animal bones that have turned up associated with their camps, and some interesting observations from doctors that the injuries that have turned up among Neanderthal skeletons are similar to the kinds of injuries you see in rodeo performers, they seem to have gone in for sneaking up on large, powerful, dangerous animals, jumping on them with spears, and killing them at close range.

These people had very rugged physiques. I suspect that if somebody were to clone a Neanderthal female (huge ethical problems) she could probably play high school football without difficulty, although the delicate modern human males on the other team would probably complain that she was too tough and strong and hurt them. If someone cloned whole female Neanderthal football teams, the dainty modern human jocks might have to give up being players and become cheerleaders.

(As long as we are running with that, try to imagine the scene where the captain of the football team shows up at the door to take the head cheerleader to the prom. No, maybe you’d better not.)

Anyway, by contrast, modern humans evolved in Africa under dry, hot conditions where they had to cope with a lot of intense sunlight. In an environment like that, there would be selection pressures in favor of being more vertical than horizontal because the more your torso is shaped like a stick the easier it is to shed excess body heat so you don’t die of heatstroke. Also, darker skin is a selective advantage because it gives you more protection against sunburn.

Based on their stonework, modern humans of that era seem to have gone in for weapons you could use to kill prey at a safe distance. One of the advantages of that kind of hunting is that you don’t need to be as heavily muscled as you need to be if you must frequently wrestle your dinner. It takes a lot of calories to maintain a heavily muscled physique. When food was scarce, being able to get by on much less food would have given modern humans a decided advantage.

According to some stuff I’ve seen from the National Geographic genome project, the San People of Southern Africa are probably the oldest surviving group that looks more or less like the modern humans who started migrating out of Africa roughly 50,000 years ago and running into Neanderthals. Below is a link to a video showing contemporary San people living much as their (and our) remote modern human ancestors did:

Pissed-off zombie actresses, Elvis impersonators, William Faulkner, and Mensa

OK, this is seriously weird.

An actress who has appeared in a television series about zombies has allegedly tried to frame her ex-squeeze, making it look as if he sent poison and threatening letters to President Obama.

The imaginary trafficking of body parts, Elvis impersonators, references to characters from a William Faulkner story (these days, members of the Snopes family all have Facebook pages), Mensa, and, of course, zombies are involved.

As you can see, they’ve rounded up the usual suspects.

“The Elvis impersonator, Mr. Curtis, has waged a long-running campaign to expose an apparently imaginary body part trafficking scheme at a local hospital. His rival, Mr. Dutschke, is a member of Mensa, the high IQ society, a blues band frontman, and failed political aspirant.

“What looked at first like classic terrorism — poisoned letters sent to the president and other public officials — now seems more likely to be the product of a local feud between two not-so-good-old boys straight out of a Faulkner story, albeit with Facebook pages, “ USA Today reported about the two men in April.”

Somewhere, someone is working on a mini series.

Books for the lifeboat, foggy thinking, and fascism

Having a tropical storm roll over me during the last couple of days and flood out some nearby streets reminded me that I live only a meter (about three feet) above sea level. Although it takes me twenty or thirty minutes to drive to the beach, I do live close enough to the ocean that a decent-sized tidal surge from a hurricane could force me to evacuate.

There is no guarantee that my home would be intact when I returned.

My wife and I have a lot of books and a small car. Assuming we had a few hours notice, we might have enough space for one box of books, assuming I let the cat sit in my lap and drive. (She would insist, believe me.) I think we could find enough space for twenty books apiece, tops. Maybe less, but let’s say twenty.

Which twenty?

Like most book-lovers who have for decades been patronizing bookstores (kids, take a good look before they’re all gone), I have quite a few books that mean something to me, including a few college textbooks that are, like me, slowly decomposing. I started making a list.

The Concise Oxford English Dictionary. Check. It doesn’t have quite the vocabulary of a multi-volume monster you need a forklift to move, but it’s been able to provide me with clear definitions of nearly all the obscure words I run across in my reading. It also helps that I can pick it up without worrying about whether I’ll need physical therapy afterwards. I did a price check. Replacing it would cost twice what I paid for it. It goes in the box.

Karen Elizabeth Gordon’s The Transitive Vampire (original version) has reserved seating. I like that edition, and it’s probably impossible to replace.

After that, I discovered something interesting. The books I most wanted to save were books containing ideas and insights that, over the course of my life, I have found to be true. Although I had read some of these books when I was young (some of the keepers weren’t even published back then), they tended to have some common characteristics.

William James made a useful distinction between what he called tough-minded and tender-minded philosophies and philosophers. I’m going to steamroll all sorts of distinctions and nuances in the interest of clarity in the following examples, so fasten your seat belts and look it up yourselves later on.

Martin Heidegger, a heavyweight 20th century philosopher who still gets quoted a lot by a certain strain of philosophical and theological types, wrote that “Man is the Shepherd of Being.” Admirers of Heidegger and philosophers like him are the tender-minded: inclined to be mystical and deeply religious, inclined to regard the physical world as merely a cheap sweatshop knock-off of the Real World of Platonic Ideals and Being, and inclined to prize emotion and intuition over mere logic and empirical fact. They love statements like that.

(In 1933, Heidegger enthusiastically told some university students (he said similar things all the time during that era): “The Führer alone is the present and future German reality and its law. Learn to know ever more deeply: that from now on every single thing demands decision, and every action responsibility. Heil Hitler!” The Nazis had a mystical thing going about Blood and Soil and the Fatherland, so that may account for Heidegger’s “Springtime for Hitler” moment. (See the video clip at the bottom of this post.) For all I know, Hitler’s interest in astrology and the notion that we live inside a hollow planet Earth—he would have loved psychic fairs—may have played a role as well. In any case, after 1945, Lucy, Heidegger had some ‘splainin’ to do.)

At the other extreme, we have the skeptical Scotsman and tough-minded philosopher-in-chief David Hume, who wrote,”When we run over libraries, persuaded of these principles, what havoc must we make? If we take in our hand any volume of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance, let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames, for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.”

For the tough-minded, an abstraction is just a kind of shorthand for a set of qualities shared by a collection of things existing in the physical world.

There is no Cosmic Cat on a Spiritual Plane. The term “cat” is no more than shorthand for a member of a set of animals living in the physical world that share a list of traits like purring, furriness, meowing, and so on.

The tough-minded will tell you the tender-minded are just playing games with words, and that if someone is posing as a philosopher and uttering a lot of incomprehensible statements that even highly intelligent people can’t translate into sense (or agree on what the hell they are supposed to mean), it doesn’t follow that he’s profound.

Most likely, it means he’s just blowing smoke.

(I remember something Richard Feynman, a Nobel laureate who was brilliant at explaining sophisticated scientific concepts clearly, wrote about an experience at an academic conference. He addressed an audience of academics in a ballroom and attempted to describe his work in theoretical physics. Other speakers that evening included a number of people in the humanities. Afterward, a waitress approached Feynman and told him that he was the only speaker she was able to understand. Feynman hadn’t been able to figure out what his fellow speakers were saying either.)

William James thought that people tended to adopt philosophies that fit their temperament. I’ve discovered a philosophy that fits mine. David Hume’s book An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding goes into the lifeboat.

There are things more scary than needles


When I took freshman chemistry forty something years ago, my biggest concern was not what it should have been. It should have been to learn as much about chemistry as I could. Instead, I had another preoccupation.

I was terrified that my lab partner was going to kill me.

You must understand that, as far as I know, he didn’t wish me dead. He had signed up for chemistry only to fulfill his general science requirement, and he resented the university making him do things like that. His revenge was to do just barely enough studying to avoid flunking and to refuse to take anything seriously.

For example, he considered me a useful but annoying nerd (I was doing all the calculations for our experiments) for explaining to him that if you tightly seal a flask of liquid with a rubber stopper and then place it over a Bunsen burner, there is a decent chance that it will get mad and go boom in your face. Or that, yes, strong acids or bases do not make ideal skin lotions or eye drops.

(He was majoring in business administration, in case you’re interested. He thought science was a waste of his time. He saw no use in any knowledge that wasn’t directly involved in moving money around. I hope he isn’t somewhere making decisions about stuff like whether the crews on deep water oil rigs who are begging to have their worn-out equipment replaced ought to get their requests granted. Come to think of it, that would explain a lot.)

After heading off a few near-disasters, I dreaded going to chemistry lab. I hadn’t signed up to be a fire warden or a paramedic.

I think I actually screamed at him and nearly caused other accidents in the lab myself when he put his thumb over the top of a test tube containing hot, concentrated sulfuric acid and was about to give the contents a good shake and himself one less thumb. He was pissed off at me for making such a fuss.

Ignorance isn’t bliss; it’s pathetic.

I live in a paradoxical country where we have access to extraordinary fruits of science and technology, but where a big chunk of our kids leave school knowing far less about how the world works than their peers elsewhere in the developed world. As if that weren’t bad enough, this level of ignorance or indifference or even hostility to knowledge can be genuinely dangerous.

The June 2013 Scientific American has a piece on the steadily declining percentages of children being inoculated against a number of potentially dangerous infectious diseases.

In 1952 alone, during my lifetime, over 58,000 kids in my country contracted poliomyelitis. That’s about par with the total number of Americans who died in Vietnam. Many of those kids never walked again. Some ended up in iron lungs. Some of them died.

In the pre-vaccine era, my mother was scared to death, She had good reason to be. Her kids had no protection against polio.

In countries where they were conducted, aggressive campaigns to inoculate kids with the Salk and later the Sabin vaccine stopped such mass outbreaks, although, tragically, in some areas religious leaders (I believe the last group outbreak in the U. S. was within a religious community that refuses modern medicine) declared the vaccine to be contrary to their religion.

As a result, children in these areas have been crippled or killed unnecessarily. (It also certainly didn’t help that the U. S. has on occasion used vaccine programs as covers for intelligence gathering. Good move. Take people who are already xenophobes and give them reasons to distrust the innocent health worker who knocks on the door.)

If you choose not to inoculate your kids against a serious infections disease, you may get lucky and live in a place where the other parents are more sensible than you are. In that case, the odds of your kid running into an infected child are very low. Some figures you may have seen on the low risks of an unprotected child contracting a serious infection are based on the assumption that there is no almost no one around who’s infected.

It’s like saying you don’t need a seat belt if your car never leaves the driveway because a motionless car is involved in very few accidents.

However, as more and more parents buy into a lot of hysterical nonsense that inoculations are somehow evil because they aren’t “natural” or because they saw some crank’s website (although hardly anyone is as cranky as I) or a daytime talk show host attracting eyeballs for advertisers by promoting the scary idea that standard vaccines cause autism (the overwhelming evidence from dozens of studies indicates that they don’t, and the original paper that supported the connection between vaccines and autism was later withdrawn due to serious flaws that throw the conclusions into grave doubt) the percentages of unprotected kids has been steadily rising.

(Don’t believe me? Fine. There is an easy way to ignore the advice of  all those smarty pants doctors and scientists: tell yourself that there is a vast, highly organized, amazingly secret, and motiveless conspiracy by the entire planet’s medical and scientific community to use vaccinations to kill and cripple children just out of sheer meanness and spite. Guys selling beet and mouse turd soup as the real protection against infectious disease and cancer who tell you that vaccinations are evil are persecuted heroes who will one day be vindicated because, after all, some people said Galileo was nuts;  therefore, the experts are always wrong and the cranks are always right, even when they just make stuff up and the experts have a boatload of supporting evidence. Can’t fault that logic. However, if you believe things like that, you hardly need my advice. You’re already getting all the messages and guidance you need from the mother ship in orbit around Uranus.)

There are enough unprotected kids out there now that it’s a bit like the danger caused by a drought. Lots of very dry grass, one cigarette, and you have a killer brushfire.

All it takes is one infected kid walking into a school where five or ten percent of the kids are wide open to contracting something nasty, and some families could find themselves living a nightmare from over half a century ago.

I’m from way back then. It’s a destination you don’t want to visit in your time machine.