Saturday, November 21, 2009


The stillness is palpable, or as the old cliché goes: It's Quiet. Too Quiet. My three comrades and I, armed with whatever weapons we could scavenge, venture forth into the strangely misty southern evening. Over the sound of crickets and frogs, a few dissonant notes can be heard from somewhere in the distance - plucked out on an old banjo. We cautiously make our way down the highway. There are abandoned vehicles everywhere - sports cars, tractor-trailers, SUVs, pick-up trucks ... our car would never make it through that mess, even if we found enough gas to fill it. Up ahead we can make out the silhouette of a low, flat building - it looks like an old motel. Maybe we can find a safe place to hole up there for the night.

Too late ... here comes one ... then three ... then an endless, mindless horde: it's like a town-hall meeting without walls.

We prepare to receive them ... guns loaded, axes in hand ... and their charge begins!

I shout my battle cry, "No one wants to kill your grandmother, and Obama was born in Hawaii!"

The mindless rage on the faces of our attackers is clear. They don't want to hear reason, they wish only to spread their fear.

----- ----- ----- ----- -----

As you can probably guess, I've been playing Valve's Political Allegory Game, Left 4 Dead 2. It's a lot of fun and chock full of timely commentary about the current state of the Republican party.

First, there are the survivors, who represent moderates, whether non-aligned voters or the "thinking" part of the Republican party. This is the part that holds reasoned conservative opinions.

The mindless Infected, are, of course, the Fundamentalist Fringe: religious zealots, Birthers, Tea-baggers, unreasoned assholes who think that anyone who uses their brain rather than just mindlessly parrots the dictates of anointed conservative leaders, is un-American. These are the people who don't believe in science, and freak out at the slightest mention of birth control.

Some of the places in the game clearly represent facets of American society. For example, Liberty Mall represents Capitalism and the Theme Park represents the Mainstream Mass Media (i.e. Bread & Circuses, Reality Shows) that act as a distraction from cohesive political thought.

The Special Infected are opinion leaders within the conservative movement:

The Smoker is Dick Cheney, hiding in the shadows, waiting for the right moment to strike. He tries to strangle political debate and leaves an evil cloud of noxious smoke behind him wherever he goes.

The Witch is Michelle Bachmann, who whines and cries all the time, but if you get her attention she becomes vicious and focused, and will attempt to tear apart anyone whose opinions with which she disagrees. (Also, she's genuinely fucking crazy.)

The Tank Represents FOX News*, the Juggernaut of Sanctioned Conservative Opinion , mindlessly destroying anyone in its path, whether a Democrat, Independent, or just the Wrong Kind of Conservative. -Oh! And the Clowns are obviously FOX News personalities such as Bill O'Reilly and Glenn Beck - entertaining the masses, while destroying their ability to function as thinking, reasoning beings.

Rush Limbaugh is the Boomer. Now, I'm not picking on Rush because of his weight - I'm a rather portly fellow myself. Rush is the Boomer because of the bile he spews all over everyone and everything around him. Also, when he takes damage, the mindless "Ditto-head" hordes are sure to be there, ready to attack anyone who dares question him.

Not all of the correlations are necessarily so obvious. Is Sarah Palin represented by the Jockey, riding the regular voter off into dangerous territory? Or is she better represented by the Spitter, because she spreads dangerous venom, leaving it in pools for the unwary traveler? Perhaps Joe Lieberman is the Jockey - riding whatever bandwagon he can for his own political and financial gain.

The Hunter & Charger are probably John Boehner and Joe Wilson, with their tendencies to charge in or jump on any insane justification they can find for their radical stances on important issues.

Regardless of who, specifically, is represented by what element within Left 4 Dead 2, the point is clear: there are a lot of zombies out there, spreading a lot of strange fears about what they believe to be the Liberal Agenda**, and if we don't watch out, they'll take first the whole Republican Party, and then possibly our whole nation, down the road to crazy-town with them.

Finally, is it just me, or does running around in New Orleans killing Zombies with a guitar fill anyone else with the urge to sing "Johnny B. Goode" at the top of their lungs? Should I seek help?

----- ----- ----- ----- -----

*They report only what they think you need to hear, so you don't need (or have any independent ability) to decide.

** Near as I can tell, these people believe the Liberal Agenda is something like: Force every American student to serve on government-appointed death panels with atheist homosexuals married to animals whose mission is to kill Medicare recipients during a pagan ceremony while illegal Muslim Mexican immigrants laugh and eat falafel tacos.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Futures of Days Passed

What the hall happened to the Future, anyway?

I know this is fairly well-worn territory here - at least for people of my generation - but every so often I look back at some old piece of science fiction or remember childhood trips to COSI or the National Air & Space Museum, and wonder about this. Where are the rocket backpacks or domestic robots that can do more than sweep the floor?

The other day it was a list on Topless Robot: The 10 Greatest EPCOT Attractions That No Longer Exist.

It wasn't just the vanished exhibits that got to me, though. (I already went through that a few years ago when we took the kids to Disney World and discovered that EPCOT, while still a lot of fun, just wasn't as cool as it was back when I was a kid.) More than that, it got me thinking about the loss of a sense of optimistic wonder I remember from my childhood. And it's even worse now, as I'm approaching 40, and my kids are growing up. I feel like my generation has failed theirs in some indefinable way.

Growing up in the late 1970s/early 1980s, when we heard the phrase "the Year 2000" it sparked something magical. I remember believing that by that time we would be living in a Jetsons-esque technological wonderland featuring robotic housemaids, flying cars, instant communication via wrist-watch and vacations on the Moon.

What do we have, instead? The ability to post 140-character messages to mostly strangers in real time, and to publicly compare one another to Nazis because of our opinions regarding TV shows we've watched on our computers - often featuring dancing people who are barely famous for something other than dancing.

What a ginormous let-down!

Now, don't get me wrong - the internet and smart phones and, pausing/storing live television programming is cool. I mean, after only a few weeks with it, I quickly realized I could never go back to life without my DVR. Same with my iPhone. But we're far from where I thought we'd be by the time we got to the year 2010!

Now, here we are knocking on the door of the year 2010 and there are still no humans on Mars, and we haven't even sent anyone back to the bloody Moon in 38 friggin' years. Worse than even the fact our adolescent visions of the future never came true, though is the fact that any hope for it seems to have disappeared.

The other morning I asked one of my kids if he thought that in 20 to 30 years he'd have a robot at home that would clean up, cook, do laundry ... that sort of thing. Or if he thought he'd be able to take a vacation on the moon by the time he was my age.

He actually laughed at me. He was shocked to discover that I had ever thought such things would be real by the time I was 40!

So ... what the hell happened? Well, that's a topic for a whole other article - one that probably requires some research, and is thus beyond the scope of this blog.

I don't think that the vision I had for the future when I was 12 is going to come true any time soon, but dammit, I want that feeling of hope back. I want to believe that even if I can't have a jet-pack in 10 years, at least my kids will be able to vacation on the moon. I want them to believe that, as Dan Quayle once said, "The Future will be better tomorrow." (I'm not saying I want my kids to be retarded - just that I want them to have hope.)

All I can say now is that I want my future back!


Been sick for a few days so I haven't posted for a bit. Haven't been reading much either. I might have something posted to-night, but not a real story or anything. Just thoughts on nostalgia for the future that never was.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

11 • 11

While honoring our Veterans here in the States, let's not forget that much of the rest of the world observes this day, too.

The 20th Century was so full of war and conflict that we sometimes forget the world-shattering events of 1914-1918. Those events literally shaped the rest of the century, and we're still seeing their effects to-day.

For those of us under the age of about 50 or so, the idea of a truly national struggle, in which everyone is expected to and does sacrifice in order to aid their country is almost alien. We in the U.S. have been attacked, on occasion, but in terms of sheer scale, an event like Pearl Harbor or 9/11 pales in comparison to the massive destruction Europe saw during the World Wars.

We civilians in the U.S. and Canada have been lucky, partly through an accident of geography, but also in large measure due to the heroism and sacrifice of the members of our armed forces.

It is they and their families who've had to suffer the ultimate loss. And it is to them we owe our undying gratitude.

----- ----- ----- ----- -----

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,

That mark our place; and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the dead. Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

- Lt-Col John McCrae, C.E.F.

----- ----- ----- ----- -----

Monday, November 9, 2009

Epic Barbarian Chieftain

(Non-Player Character Concept - Drok Hjanor)

Drok Hjanor was born to lead men in battle. His father had been a Chieftain, and so had his father before him. A long line of brave Hjanor warriors stretched back - as far back as any skald could remember, and their tales were told around fires all across the Frozen Lands.

The day Drok himself was raised to Chieftain - over the body of the former Chieftain - came as no surprise to anyone. Drok had fought by the side of the old Chieftain, Kolo "the Bear" Krasduur in many a battle, but it was expected that Drok would challenge him one day. Leadership was gained through mastery of fear and proof of strength. Some day Drok would be challenged himself, and on the day he failed, he would follow the Bear to the Great Hall. The gods would have it no other way.

It was three years ago to-day that Drok had led his people to the Valley of Greening, an almost mystical place that had only been spoken of in Legend. But he had found it and brought his people to live here. Life would be easier for the women - for them all. This was both a blessing of the gods and a curse of men. Food would grow here, and there was plenty of game to be found. And so Drok had ordered all the men and slaves to work on re-building the fortifications that had stood here during the Age of Giants. If the people were to find rest and peace and comfort in this place, it would have to be defended.

It was at the end of the first summer that the ogres' camp had been found. The ogres were strong. The ogres had known no fear ... until Drok led his men against them. On that day many men died in glorious battle, but Drok led them to victory nevertheless. It was a pity that the strongest and bravest among the ogres had had to be put to the axe, but those were too dangerous. The rest were put in dwarf-forged chains and made to help in the building. With their assistance, the project was nearly finished.

And so it was on this day that Drok Hjanor, Chief of Chieftains was surveying the defenses - the walls of stone that would allow his people to hold what they had found. This was the dawn of a New Age for his tribe. An era of prosperity and plenty. His people would thrive here.

It would be far too easy to become weak in such a land. If that happened, then his people would lose everything, for the gods would be displeased. It was his duty to ensure that they never forgot the Old Ways - the Way of Battle. He would do his duty until the day he himself died in battle or challenge. Either way, he would train up his successor.

Drok had picked a half-dozen of the bravest and strongest of the young men. He made them his honour-guard. He brought them to survey their lands. He would make them live outside the valley for a time, to discover their strength and their cunning. He would do this once every year until his last.

They stood on the tallest tower on the western wall. The sound of wood-chopping echoed from the nearby pass. From here they could see anything that approached through the narrow defile between the dual peaks of Malnos. (Nothing short of a dragon or a god would be able to approach over the mountain itself.) The trees in that direction were in the process of being pushed back. Already, it was half a mile from the wall to the tree-line, and Drok had ordered that it be pushed back further still. He wanted plenty of warning, should an enemy arrive.

As Drok and his young guard examined the stonework, an ogre-slave and his handler stood by. The master mason was pointing out some tricky bit of engineering that would enable the wall to withstand even the heaviest attack. This was all beyond the ken of Drok. He had brought Dwarf masons to help oversee the building. No expense could be spared in protecting this valley, their new home, their gift from the gods.

It was after several minutes of this explanation, that his patience began to wear.

"Is it not time for meat?" He asked. "The wall is good, but warriors need strength more than talk - especially this night. For it will be our last within the walls for a moon-cycle."

He led his men down the wide stone stair that ran behind the wall and led to the gatehouse. He entered the hall, and ordered serving girls to bring him and his men meat and mead. The half-dozen youth that made up his guard took to their meal like it was their last.

As it turned out, it was.

The Party of Adventurers burst into the hall twenty minutes later. A huge man in full-plate armor and a huge metal shield came crashing through the front door, his sword swinging freely despite the enormous pack on his back. An elf leaped through the window and started yelling something about avenging the honor of some nymph or something and loosing arrows with abandon. A tall, dark-haired woman followed the warrior. She was wearing what appeared to be a bright red bikini made of crushed velvet and gold. It offered no protection at all, either from battle or from the elements. Colored lights springing forth from her fingers. Through the kitchen, came a dwarf in a gem-studded golden breastplate so gaudy it made Drok's eyes water. The dwarf immediately set about him with a huge hammer, calling on some foreign god to aid him in his quest.

And in the midst of all this, came a halfling, all in black and with a hood covering his features. he, too had a pack on his back that was nearly as large as he was, but it impeded his movement not at all. First, swinging down from second-floor deck on the chandelier, he dropped to the floor. Next he was stabbing people in the back and picking their pockets! The insanity! The utter gall!

What in the name of the gods is wrong with these people? It wasn't until after he'd taken a fireball to the face, an axe to the knee and a knife in his back that Drok Hjanor Chief of Chieftains, thought to himself, "Gods dammit! Bloody Player Characters!"

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Grand Romantic Delusions Chapter 01: The Decision

"I just don't know, Nita."

"Come on, Lewis, I know you can handle this. And I'm here for you. But that's all I can be: here for you. You'll have to make this decision for yourself."

Lewis looked up at Nita from across the table. Her dark chocolate-brown eyes seemed to penetrate his very soul.

"But," he asked, "why? Why do I have to do it by myself?"

"You know why," she replied.

He turned away from her, looking through the window, at the desert beyond. In the distance, about halfway between where they were and the foothills to the west, a pair of buzzards was circling lazily in the sky.

"No, I don't," he said. He was being stubborn and childish. What's more, he knew it. "Why can't you just decide for me? I trust you to make the right choice. You know how hard this is for me."

"Lewis, you're being stubborn and childish. What's more, you know it."

He turned back to her again. "I suppose you're right."

Her face softened a bit. She was finally making some progress. She really wanted to be out of here before the real trouble started.

"You know I am," she said, patting Lewis on the arm. "So what's it gonna be?"

He looked away again. A third bird had joined the other two ... circling slowly in the sky over some unfortunate scene in the desert. Lewis was almost mesmerized by their motion.

"But what if I make the wrong choice?"

"Look, Lewis, honey ..." She was reaching for the right words. The words of encouragement. The words that wouldn't send him skittering off into the depths of indecision.

"Whatever choice you make, it will be OK. You're over-thinking it. And no matter what, I'll still be here for you. So just make up your mind and We'll live with the consequences, no matter what they are. OK?"

She took his hand and gave it a friendly squeeze.

She hated when he got like this. Sometimes she wondered why she put up with him. Despite her words, Nita had thought about leaving him behind on more than one occasion ... on this journey alone. But something about him ... his hopelessness or his devotion to her, or something - she couldn't quite say - kept her at his side. Was it love? Or was he just feeding some sort of maternal instinct in her? God, she hoped not! How pathetic would that be?

"You know I couldn't live without you," he said. He seemed to have an uncanny knack for knowing what she was thinking.

"Of course you could," Nita replied. "But you'll never have to. So stop stalling and make up your mind. I don't want to be here all day, and neither do you."

She patted his arm again, reassuringly.

"All right," he said. "I'll decide. But first, you tell me what you think I should do. After all, your opinions carry great weight with-"


His face fell at her outburst. He pulled away from her again ... staring out at the desert. There now appeared to be five buzzards out there ... waiting for their moment.

It wasn't fair. He looked at the birds making slow, diving arcs in the sky. They didn't have to make any decisions. They relied on instinct. They didn't have to think about whether they wanted whatever meat was lying out there on the desert floor. Something died out there, and they went for it. Simple. Why couldn't his life be like that? Just do what comes natural, and damn the consequences.

But there were always consequences. Sometimes large, other times small. But in the human world, they were always there, waiting in the realm of possibility - not real, but possible. And once a decision was made, some of them just vanished, while others rushed into being, smacking him in the face with all the force of reality.

He sighed.

Nita screamed inside her head. And then she counted to ten, also inside her head.

She took Lewis' hands in hers.

"Listen to me," she began. "If I give you an opinion, then you will make your decision based on what I think. And then the decision will not have been yours. And if, in the end, you decide it was the wrong decision, you'll blame me. And I'm not going to go through that again."

"You know what? You're right." Inexplicably, he brightened up a bit. "You're right, and I'm sorry to have put you through this."

She felt the tension in his arms ease. Her own tension began to ease, slowly, warily. He was so close to making a decision that she didn't want to spoil the moment by saying anything, so instead, she gave him a reassuring look. With a small smile.

"Scrambled," he said, turning to the waitress who had been standing by their table the whole time. "I'll take my eggs scrambled."

The waitress made a quick note on her order pad. "And what do you want to drink?"

"Hmm … I dunno." He looked back at Nita. "What do you think, honey?

Oh God, thought Nita ...

"Coffee," she said. "He wants coffee!"

Thursday, November 5, 2009

My Time With Che

NOTE: This is a work of fiction: I have never actually worked in a supermarket.*
Working nights at a 24-hour grocery/superstore is a great way to experience a broad range of humanity. There are the midnight stoners with their ungodly bouts of the munchies. There are the drunks who come in looking for booze because all the bars have closed. There are travelers who are having car trouble, or maybe just need some place to freshen up. There are the old veterans and middle-aged ladies in their nightgowns and slippers who like to shop when there are no crowds. There are also bored teens with nothing better to do - especially on Friday & Saturday nights.

One Saturday night/early Sunday morning, we were cleaning up the shelves in the book department when a hausfrau in a lime-green muu-muu approached us.

"My son wants that new book about some wizard or something ... I dunno. Whole thing smacks of Satanism to me. Is that book safe? Or should I get him a Batman comic, or something?"

I started to respond, "Well ma'am, we don't carry comic books - most grocery stores don't anymore. As far as the book goes, I doubt there's any real danger of-"

That's when Che rose to his feet and silenced me with a wave of his hand. He stood there with that middle-distance-looking stare of his, like he was posing for a heroic movie poster or something, and said, "I am not Christ or a philanthropist, old lady, I am all the contrary of a Christ ... I fight for the things I believe in, with all the weapons at my disposal and try to leave the other man dead so that I don't get nailed to a cross or any other place."

The woman just walked away.

Then there was that time when we were both on break - we were eating a late dinner, and out of the blue Terri (a lovely girl on whom I had a crush at the time, and was planning to ask out later that night) rushed into the break-room in a huff.

"If that creep Frank hits on me one more time, I swear, I'm going to file a lawsuit!"

Frank was the late-shift manager. He was an old married guy, but he had a reputation for hitting on the ladies who worked register. As he was also in charge of hiring them, he made sure they were all attractive.

I walked over to Terri, gave a her pat on the back and said, "I wouldn't blame you if you did. That guy's a total creep. You know, if-"

Then Che interjected: "Along the way, I had the opportunity to pass through the dominions of the United Fruit, convincing me once again of just how terrible these capitalist octopuses are. I have sworn before a picture of the old and mourned comrade Stalin that I won't rest until I see these capitalist octopuses annihilated."

Terri and I just looked at him for a minute.

"OK, Che," I said. "Thanks for that."

Turning back to Terri, I said, "You know, I bet I could get Joe to give up some security tapes as proof of what Frank's been doing. You're not the first to complain, you know. In fact-"

And there was Che, again. He had climbed up on one of the break-room tables. He raised a fist, which knocked one of the drop-ceiling tiles out.

"If you tremble with indignation at every injustice, then you are a comrade of mine."

"Huh. You know, Che, you actually sorta made sense that time."

Poor Terri was lost and confused. She leaned on my chest while I patted her back. This was working out better than I'd hoped!

"It's OK, Terri. You wanna grab a cup of coffee with me after work? I bet we can figure out a way to get that guy good."

"Calica keeps cursing the filth and, whenever he treads on one of the innumerable turds lining the streets, he looks at his dirty shoes instead of at the sky or a cathedral outlined in space. He does not smell the intangible and evocative matter of which Cuzco is made, but only the odor of stew and excrement. It's a question of temperament"

Terri pulled away from me, disgusted by Che's inappropriate description.

"You know what?" Terri slowly backed towards the door. "It's OK. I'm going to talk to my mom in the morning. Thanks."

And she left.

"Not cool, Che!" I whirled on him. "You know I like Terri! What the hell was all that talk of poop in the streets? Who's Calica, anyway? And what the hell's wrong with you, man?"

He jumped down off the table, put an arm around my shoulders, and said, "The revolution is not an apple that falls when it is ripe. You have to make it fall."

He gave me a hug and kissed me on both cheeks. I followed him, light-headed and confused, as he walked through the stockroom and out the back door. He hopped on his motorcycle, and winked at me as he kick-started it.

"If they attack, we shall fight to the end. If the rockets had remained, we would have used them all and directed them against the very heart of the United States, including New York, in our defense against aggression. But we haven’t got them, so we shall fight with what we’ve got."

"Umm ... yeah," I replied. I gave him a small wave. "See you, er ... Comrade?"

He drove off down the alleyway behind Beacon Street, and that was the last we ever saw of him.

*Also, Che Guevara is dead.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Thoughts on "Dogmatic" Skepticism (Part 4)

Continuing on ...

• Medicine

This one is a very touchy subject, as it hits so close to where we live. It's also the subject of a lot of current and lively debate, what with some people who would normally be considered Skeptics coming out against vaccination, even in the midst of a mild pandemic. Generally, vaccinations are a good idea. There's just way too much science in favor of the practice. But, again, this is a category where anyone who expresses doubt about the current scientific wisdom is summarily lumped in with the "crazies" without any real consideration. The case that springs immediately to my mind is that of Bill Maher. Now, I don't always find myself in agreement with Mr. Maher, but I very frequently do. A few weeks ago, his guest was Tennessee Ex-Senator Dr. Bill Frist, and they had a brief discussion on the topic of health care - and vaccinations. Bill Maher actually came out of the exchange looking like he was the nut. (As opposed to the guy who diagnosed a woman in a persistent vegetative state via video, and challenged her on-site doctor's diagnosis!)

The very next week, Bill Maher clarified his position. He's not completely anti-vaccination, and he's not one of these "germ-theory" deniers, either. His main arguments come down to this:

• We're a sick society due to how and what we eat, and our environment.
(Chemical polllutants in the water, air, food.)
• The Medical "Establishment" has made mistakes and is profit-driven.
• New treatments (such as vaccinations) should be studied very thoroughly
- this new H1N1 vaccine, specifically.
• He takes a skeptical view of, and believes we should question what he
calls "Western" medicine.

Now part of his problem is, I believe, his terminology. By using the term "Western" medicine, one immediately wonders, "Western as opposed to what?" Is he touting acupuncture? Chinese herbal remedies? Homeopathy? Meditation? Channeling "Chi" or something of that sort? Well, I don't know for sure, but I don't think that's what he means. I think he's referring to a belief that we in the West have a tendency to treat symptoms rather than deal with underlying issues. To some extent I agree with this. (Look at how we're dealing with global climate change, the current economic woes, or the heath care crisis in America.) I can't speak for Mr. Maher, but I suspect what he's worried about is our tendency in the U.S. to allow the perceived health of our economy - especially as relates to Big Business and Wall Street Banking/Insurance interests - to trump most (if not all) other societal considerations. (And now I'm wandering off topic again ...)

Without debating the merits of what he said and/or what he actually meant, I'd like to note the reaction among the Skeptical Community at large. The immediate reaction was a sort of head-shaking disappointment, and a declaration that despite what many of us thought before, Bill Maher isn't a real skeptic. "What a shame. He seems so on-the-ball otherwise."

This reaction, more than anything else, got me to thinking about this topic. Bil Maher is an atheist. He's pro-science. He doesn't believe in any kind of after-life or psychics or ESP, or (famously) conspiracy theories. But because he questioned the efficacy of a particular new vaccination (because he believed it may have been rushed, and believes that more testing should be done), he's suddenly not one of US.

If that reaction doesn't fit the very definition of dogma, I don't know what does. This struck me as a very knee-jerk reaction. Now, I'm not saying I agree whole-heartedly with Bill Maher on this issue, and I'm certainly not anti-vaccination, but is what he said SO bad? I think he went a little far in actually advising people not to get this vaccination, but should we just blindly accept whatever comes down to us from the scientific/medical community? If that's the case, aren't we making science a sort of church?

• Conspiracy Theories

This is another case where there's a mental tendency to lump a wide range of topics under a category, and then dismiss them all. There are conspiracy theorists that are way out there: Flat Earthers, Holocaust Deniers, Moon Landing Hoaxers, Alien/Illuminati/Zionist Overlord beliefs, and the like. And some theories contain a range within themselves - the 9/11 Truth Movement, for example, contains people who believe that George W. Bush actually arranged to have the WTC wired with explosives without anyone being alerted to the fact, or that the planes that crashed into the towers were actually remote-piloted missiles. Others in this group believe that the Bush administration just didn't try very hard to stop a vague threat of a terrorist attack because they felt they could use it to their political advantage. That's a pretty big range! The former theories just seem crazy on their face - but should still be investigated. The latter seems more plausible - but still require some kind of proof before they should be believed. The same goes for various theories behind the Kennedy Assassination, or Alien Cover-Ups or any number of other conspiracy theories.

And here's the thing: there have actually been real conspiracies planned, and some even executed throughout history. Do a little research on these (off the top of my head, and in no particular order):

Operation Northwoods
The Gunpowder Plot
The Ajax Plot (Overthrow of Mossadegh in Iran),
Operation Mongoose
The Tuskeegee Syphilis Experiment
The Manhattan Project
Swiss Secret Files Scandal
The Watergate Scandal
Operation Valkyrie
The US Business Plot to Overthrow FDR,

The thing is - every one of the plots on that list is real. As in: well- established, admitted and complete with release of documentation. As in: there's no debate regarding these.

Now just because some conspiracies have been hatched, doesn't make them all true. Each of the other Conspiracy Theories needs to be judged on it own merits rather than lumped together and dismissed categorically. Not because most of them are plausible - personally, I think they're mostly borderline-insane - but because truth should be as well-established as possible.

Know what's funny? Blll Maher considers all the 9/11 people to be crazy, and dismisses them out-of-hand, but other skeptics see him as crazy, and dismiss his medical statements out-of-hand.

So the dogmatic thinking works both ways.

I can't speak for anyone else, but it was exactly that type of mindset that got me questioning the beliefs with which I was raised to begin with. It was in an effort to avoid simply accepting received wisdom that I began to study many opinions that differed from what I'd been taught, and then, most importantly, to think about things independently. Personally, I'm not going to subscribe to any dogma. I think there is value in pursuing truth in the most rigorously scientific way possible, and accepting the results wherever they lead us.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Thoughts on "Dogmatic" Skepticism (Part 3)

So, what's wrong with dismissing all of this nonsense, and getting on with the science, already?

Well, first of all, the best way to fight ignorance is with knowledge. So these claims should be investigated.

Secondly, I think it would be intellectually dishonest for anyone claiming to believe that science is the best way to understand the world to dismiss anyone's beliefs without at least making the attempt to assess their claims scientifically.

Finally, what if some of the believers turn out to be right? Here's a little secret: science isn't always right! Or to state that more accurately, the body of scientific knowledge - what we think we know - is sometimes proven wrong. The scientific method might be the best way we know to get at the truth, but part of that method is to constantly re-evaluate what we think we know, to make sure that new data, new knowledge, new evidence hasn't shown our previously-held beliefs to be faulty. (That's what peer-review is all about, after all.)

I'm not going to directly address the existence of a god (for lack of a better word) here. Nor am I going to go into detail about why I believe that scientific inquiry is the best method for gaining knowledge about the world. These are deeper philosophical questions that fall outside the area of my topic.

I'm more concerned with what I see as a dogmatic take on some of the lesser "Commonly-Held Beliefs" of the so-called Modern Skeptical Movement. So let's take a look at those:

• The "Paranormal."

As a Rationalist, I don't believe there can be any such thing as the "paranormal." Anything that can be described and can be proven, by its very nature, must fall within the realm of the "normal." But that's just quibbling over semantics.

What about specific claims, such as ESP or telepathy? If these things are proven to exist, there must be some way to measure or test them. Attempts have been made, but with without any conclusive positive results. Such abilities could exist, and even have a scientific explanation. As much as we have learned about the brain in the last century, there is still so much more we do not understand. We should retain an open, if skeptical mind regarding these abilities. After all, before the work of people like Hertz and Marconi, the idea of invisible waves in the air that could be manipulated in order to communicate across great distances would have seemed ridiculous. What if some of us are developing an ability to use these or other invisible waves to transmit and read something like these within our own bodies, similar to the way our ears and eyes pick up the correct electromagnetic frequencies to allow us to see and hear?

Do I believe in such powers? No. Personally I think it's kind of a ridiculous claim. (Where are the organs that allow this? We need eyes to see, and ears to hear. Wouldn't we need some other organs to transmit and receive these other waves?) Still, just because I and most other skeptics don't believe this is possible, doesn't mean research shouldn't be done. We must retain our objective open-mindedness as best we can. (Just not so open that our brains fall out, as James "The Amazing" Randi has often said - though, I think he's probably quoting someone else.)

• Extra-Terrestrials.

As I stated before, I believe that the chances that there is probably some life out there, somewhere, are pretty good. How do I justify this claim? Pure mathematics. The more we explore the universe, the more it looks like the conditions for life to exist may not be as rare as we thought at one time. It looks like there are plenty of places where the basic building blocks for life (as we know it*) can be found. The real question is more one of how life begins, and what is required for that. It could be that through some accident of fate (or, perhaps the will of a god, or other outside force) that our planet just happened to be the lucky one-in-a-googolplex spot where all the conditions were just right for life to begin. I personally have a hard time believing that - it seems, on the surface, a ridiculous position to take. But, no matter how much sense it makes, we just can't know - at least not until we come into contact with actual extra-terrestrial life.

As far as aliens coming here from across the stars and abducting/probing/mutilating/buzzing us ... well, let's just say I'm Skeptical. First, there's the lack of any actual physical evidence (unless you believe the conspiracy theories ... which I'll deal with later). Next, there's the issue of astronomical distances.

As far as "UFO" sightings ... well, they're just what the term implies: unidentified. Many become identified, eventually, but even the ones that aren't have much more likely explanations than aliens. Our own Earth governments have always had plenty of things to hide - sometimes from one another, and sometimes from their own citizens. (That may sound like conspiracy theory ... again, we'll get to that later.)

Don't get me wrong ... I would love to believe that there is intelligent life out there with the technological ability to travel between the stars. My desire to believe, though, is precisely why I'm so cautious about believing. I'm more interested in truth. And that's why we can't simply dismiss sightings or claims of abduction. They should be investigated ... but very critically. Our search needs to continue as well, both in the form of physical exploration and programs such as SETI.

• Cryptozoology

I think many Skeptics are far too dismissive of Cryptozoology. Now, don't get me wrong, I'm certainly not a believer in Nessie or Bigfoot, but there probably are things out there that simply fall outside our common experience. It wasn't all that long ago that Architeuthis was considered a bit fantastical. The problem comes in lumping all study of unknown creatures under one category. Some of the bigfoot believers, for example, border on the fanatical and will believe any evidence in support of their pet theory, while others are quite rational, and have well-thought-out (even reasonable) hypotheses regarding the existence of sasquatch. We skeptics need to guard ourselves from taking a polar opposite view and dismissing all evidence out of hand. Of course there hasn't been any good, solid evidence yet, but that doesn't mean there never will be. We also need to guard against charging rational believers with "guilt by association" with the fanatical ones.

More topics to come in the next part. ...

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*By life "as we know it" I mean, life that we could recognize as life. There could be some form of "life" out there that we wouldn't readily recognize. That's a whole other topic, though ... one for the new field of Astrobiology (or Xenobiology), which, by the way, many probably consider, like cryptozoology, an illegitimate field of study.