Friday, 20 March 2015

Respect the Experts: They're Not Idiots.

     Many years ago, on my old web page, I wrote a piece explaining the twin paradox of special relativity. More recently, I created a YouTube video with the same purpose. Now, I'm not a physicist, and don't claim to have a complete understanding of Einstein's theory at all. I just happened to stumble upon and share a way to think about the twin paradox in a way that made sense to me and that seemed to be consistent with what the experts say about it. (If I'm wrong, of course, I shall be more than happy to have a physicist set me straight on it.)
     But a curious thing happens when you post something about relativity theory on the internet. You start getting email or comments from people who are convinced that Einstein was hopelessly wrong, and who try to explain how. Over the years I've had maybe a half-dozen correspondents on the subject. As I said, I'm not an expert, so I'm really not in a position to debate them about the theory generally, but I'm into thinking and reasoning generally, and I'm very interested in diagnosing the kinds of cognitive errors people (myself included) typically make.

     In this case, I'm intrigued by the ways in which some people naively take issue with the views of the experts. Most of us, I'm guessing, would look at something like relativity or quantum mechanics, admit that we haven't really got a clue, and defer to the guy in the white lab coat scribbling formulae. But the ones who email me about relativity, at least, almost invariably seem to be convinced that they not only understand it, but understand it well enough to refute it. Relativity is just one example; somewhat more common are the creationists who argue passionately about how Darwin got it wrong. More troubling yet are the various conspiracy theorists, anti-vaxxers, sovereign citizens, climate-change-denialists and other similar movements, which not only are hopelessly confused about the actual subject matter but are actively doing real harm to themselves and others through their ignorance.

     Don't get me wrong: I am not saying that one should accept without question whatever The Experts tell us. Sometimes the authorities are wrong, and in any event, we all benefit from healthy dialogue about theories and issues, because even a wrong theory can help bring us to a better understanding of the truth. It's vitally important, in a free and democratic society, that people feel free always to question the conventional wisdom. It's not disagreement with the experts I want to criticize here, but rather methods. There is a right way and a wrong way to be a skeptic.
     In this post, I want to talk about the a particular error that's usually a dead giveaway that someone is not so much a brave dissident challenging the hidebound orthodoxy as a deluded crackpot. Specifically, it amounts to assuming that the experts are unaware of basic "common-sense" facts about their discipline.
     It's a safe assumption that if something is common knowledge, an expert in the field is probably aware of it.  For example, most people know that mercury is very poisonous, as are most heavy metals, so it's reasonable to assume that an expert in chemistry or medicine will also be aware of this basic fact.  I suppose you might find some expert who believes mercury is harmless, but at the very least, even that expert should be aware of the widespread belief that it's poisonous, and be accustomed to having other people disagree on that point. If you tell someone that mercury is poisonous, the expert might say, "Yes, it is," or give an exasperated sigh before patiently explaining how that's a common misconception.
     Yet anti-vaxxers will exclaim in alarm that vaccines contain mercury! MERCURY, for heaven's sake! I'm not sure how they expect physicians to react to this revelation: "Wait, what? I thought thimerasol was just a preservative! Good heavens, there's mercury in it? And mercury is poisonous?Why didn't anyone say something?!"
     Give them some credit. They already knew that mercury is poisonous, and that thimerasol contains mercury, when they decided to use it. Just like a surgeon knows that stabbing someone with a knife is usually bad for them. And yet somehow, the surgeon knowingly goes ahead and cuts people open with a knife in order to treat them, because they know a heck of a lot more about cutting people and putting them back together than a random layperson does.
     That's the thing about experts. They don't just know the really simple obvious stuff that everybody knows; they also know a bunch of complicated stuff that occasionally flies in the face of the obvious overgeneralization. Yes, cutting someone with a knife is usually bad for them, but it can be made less bad with proper preparation, tools and technique, and sometimes it's much less bad than leaving the condition untreated.

     Lots of things are obvious to everyone, expert and non-expert alike. But if we could rely on the obvious in all instances, we wouldn't need experts at all. Experts are those who understand the non-obvious parts of their disciplines as well as the obvious, the things that not everyone knows. So if your criticism of the experts is based on their apparently overlooking something really, really obvious, stop. Do not assume they're idiots for missing what is plain to you, and tell them they're wrong. That is how crackpots act, and rightly or wrongly, you will be dismissed as one.
     Instead, ask. "Wait, I thought mercury was poisonous? Why are you putting it in a vaccine?" Because then they can explain how the toxicity is much less when the mercury is tied up in certain kinds of molecules, and how the quantity involved is so tiny that even if it poses any risk it's far outweighed by the benefits of the vaccination itself, and if you've the time and patience they can go through the data with you and eventually you'll understand it like an actual expert yourself. Or, they might do what they actually did with thimerasol: "Well, it's actually quite safe, but since you're concerned about it, we can replace it with something that doesn't contain mercury."

     Another way to put it is like this: it's okay to disagree with someone, but it's not okay to disrespect them, and assuming someone is so stupid as to be completely unaware of common sense notions of her area study is fundamentally disrespectful, and empirically wrong. Common sense does not trump expert knowledge. You don't have to believe the experts, but don't presume they're idiots.

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Root Canal, Cancer, and Terrorism

     Last year, I wrote a bit of satire applying some of the same arguments I've heard about abortion to root canal, in an attempt to show just how silly it is to bring moralizing arguments to bear on medical procedures. If someone needs treatment, they need treatment, and it's too late to argue about whether or not they ought to have engaged in the behaviour that led to that need. You can certainly argue about whether or not they do need the treatment, or whether the procedure itself is morally acceptable, or you can call attention to the risks and side effects involved, but that's a very different thing from saying, "Well, you should have thought of that before you [had sex/ate candy/went bungee-jumping/dressed that way]!"
     Anyway, in that piece, I alluded to this claim that root canal causes cancer, which is apparently still in circulation because a friend forwarded it to me recently. The big, bold headline:

97% of Terminal Cancer Patients Previously Had Root Canal Procedure

especially caught my eye, as of course it was meant to. You might think, given that I had a root canal about thirty years ago, and that I had a cancer that would have been terminal but for timely surgery, that I'd be inclined to find this at least credible. And yet, I'm unimpressed.

     First of all, the statistic isn't actually all that reliable. If you read the article, the source turns out to be a Dr. Issels, who simply recounts that in his 40 years of practice that many of his terminal cancer patients had the procedure. And maybe that many did, although it's just as likely he picked "97%" to emphasize "a lot". This is not a careful clinical study; the actual number could be wildly off.
     Even if the number isn't wildly off, it still doesn't mean anything other than that most of Dr. Issel's terminal cancer patients had had the procedure. There's no reason offered to think that 97% of all terminal cancer patients everywhere have had root canal. There could be any number of reasons why Dr. Issels' patients had a higher than average rate; perhaps he got a lot of referrals from an endodontist friend. Or perhaps the kind of person who puts off going to the dentist until a root canal is necessary is also likely to put off getting checked out for cancer until it's terminal. Or, maybe it's just that anyone who lives long enough to develop cancer has also lived long enough to make the odds of having had a root canal pretty high, as well.

     But that's only part of the problem with this statistic. Let's just assume for the sake of argument that it's completely accurate, that 97% of all terminal cancer patients have had a root canal operation. By itself, this still means nothing, because we have nothing to compare it against: how many people without cancer have had root canals?  According to the article itself, 41,000 root canal procedures are performed in the U.S. every day. (This is probably the source for that claim.) That's 15 million a year, for a population of 300 million people; on average, that means each person has one every 20 years. Obviously, some have more than their share, and many have none, but the point here is that root canals are extremely common. If 97% of everybody has had a root canal, then the fact that 97% of cancer patients have had it should come as no surprise. (Of course, for the reasons in the previous paragraph, I'd actually expect cancer patients to have had a somewhat higher rate of root canal than the population at large, if only because they tend on average to be old enough to have lost their baby teeth.)

     Enough of the statistics. Now some lay-person's background on the science. Root canal is basically a massive filling, where decayed bits of tooth are drilled out and replaced with artificial material. The difference is that in a routine dentist-visit filling, the cavity only goes into the outer layers of the tooth, and can be quickly patched up with a bit of gold or amalgam or whatever it is they use these days. In a root canal, the decay has reached into the softer living tissue inside where there are nerves and blood vessels and especially nerves, which is why ouch. So in a root canal, they have to clean out all that infected softer tissue, and then fill it all in with something to keep the rest of the tooth from breaking in when you chew. In the bad old days, they'd have to just yank out the whole tooth, but this is a way of saving as much of your original dentition as possible.

     So the claim in the article is that bacteria gets into the filled-in core of the tooth, and festers there, releasing toxins into your blood which cause cancer. I should say that this is not by itself completely ridiculous, because there are all sorts of things that can cause cancer, including viral and presumably bacterial infections. There's no reason to rule out the possibility that a long-term infection in the body (whether in a tooth or a bone or a wart or whatever) could promote cancers. And we know that abscesses are really nasty in lots of other ways (which is why we often need root canals in the first place).
     The part that doesn't make much sense, though, is how this is supposed to relate to root canals specifically, especially on the scale implied by the shock-inducing 97% claim. The problem is that if the filled-in tooth canal is sealed off enough to allow anaerobic bacteria to thrive, then it's probably also sealed off enough to keep them and their toxic byproducts away from the bloodstream.
     Moreover, bacteria are like any other living thing: they need energy, which those of us who can't photosynthesize have to get by eating things. So sealing off nasty microbes inside the tiny spaces of a tooth might give them a nice hiding place for a while, but they'd exhaust the available nutrients in there pretty soon, and then they'd starve.
     Of course, there may be just enough circulation of fluids to bring in a little food for the bacteria, to keep them alive, but that kind of bare subsistence infection isn't going to be able to do you much harm, either. The conditions after a root canal are not special, and there are no doubt many little colonies of germs trying to establish a foothold throughout your body at any given time. This is natural, and typically they don't last long, because we have immune systems. A big infection, like in an abscess, can overwhelm the defences, but a microscopic one is a pretty routine event, and at most a successful root canal replaces a huge potential abscess with some negligibly tiny germ hangouts.
     This is the thing that so many health panics don't seem to understand: germs are freaking everywhere. They aren't harmless at all, and they're trying to kill us all the time. But that's no big deal; that's how it's always been, and our immune systems and repair mechanisms are awfully good at what they do. They are more than capable of dealing with a Hole-In-The-Wall gang of bacteria hiding out at the site of a root canal, because they're always dealing with that sort of thing. Whether or not you've ever had a root canal, your immune system is right now dealing with exactly the same kinds of invaders and their associated toxins from some other source.
     The same argument applies to the mercury they once used as a preservative in vaccines, the fluoride in our drinking water, and a host of other unpleasant chemicals. Yes, we should try to minimize our exposure to these things, but when the amount we're worrying about is drowned out in the background noise of what our bodies are used to dealing with, it's time to go worry about something else. We are much better off trying to reduce that background noise than we are obsessing about a trivially small component of it. (Especially when it comes to things like root canal, fluoridation and vaccines, things which are specifically meant to give net health benefits that far outweigh whatever trivially tiny risks they might carry.)

     Which brings me to terrorism. Yes, terrorism exists, but it's really just a particular form of violence. There are, and perhaps always will be, people who believe that violence is a way to solve their problems. Sometimes they just get angry and lose control, or sometimes they coldly calculate that someone's death will bring them an insurance payoff, or sometimes they fall prey to a radical ideology. Whatever the cause, it's bad, but our civilization has developed systems for dealing with violence. People commit crimes, the police track them down, they stand trial, they go to prison. It's not ideal, but it generally works to keep us relatively safe (and it's worth repeating that we live in the least violent time in human history.)    
     The reason we shouldn't worry about terrorism is the same reason we shouldn't worry about getting cancer from a root canal: the actual incremental risk of being hurt or killed by a terrorist is many orders of magnitude lower than your already low risk of being a victim of criminal violence generally. We will do much more to improve our safety from violence, including terrorism, by adopting policies and attitudes which serve to make ours a more just, more compassionate, more connected community, in in which people do not become so alienated and disenfranchised that they turn to violence as a way of affirming their significance.

Sunday, 22 February 2015

Law is not Rocket Science

     I would be surprised if there were anyone reading this who is unfamiliar with the term "pseudoscience". Although it's often used simply as a pejorative to condemn any claim about the natural world one disagrees with (creationists call evolution pseudoscience, oil company flacks call climate change pseudoscience, etc.) there really is a meaningful distinction to be made between actual science and pseudoscience. Science is not so much a body of knowledge as it is a method of acquiring and testing that knowledge; something is properly said to be pseudoscience when it attempts to establish credibility and authority by adopting the superficial trappings of scientific claims, without actually following scientific methods.
     To some extent, I can understand the appeal of pseudoscience, especially because the subject matter of real science is usually so complex and difficult to understand. When someone speaks confidently about enzymes and antioxidants and leptons and Higgs bosons, it sure sounds like they know what they're talking about, even if we don't, so for most of us just accepting what a pseudoscientist has to say is no different from accepting what a real scientist has to say. We defer to the person who sounds like an expert.
     And the reason science is often so hard for non-experts to understand is that the natural universe was not built for the purpose of being easily understood by us. The only reason we are able to understand as much of it as we do is because our brains, which evolved to solve certain kinds of problems (including some rudimentary physics problems), are also reasonably good at general problem solving. That makes it possible to make sense of physics (we hope), but there's no reason to expect it to be easy. Indeed, when you start getting into areas of physics that are completely outside of our ancestral experience, such as the quantum mechanical realm of the extremely small or the relativistic realm of the extremely fast/massive, the discoveries of modern physics become extraordinarily difficult for our hunter-gatherer brains. So I have some sympathy for those who are taken in by pseudoscience. Science is hard, and so people who don't get it do have a kind of excuse.

     But I have less sympathy for pseudo-law, which may not be a word but is enough of a thing to prompt an Alberta Court of Queen's Bench Justice to compose a lengthy and thorough refutation of what he calls Organized Pseudolegal Commercial Arguments. A common feature of many of these arguments (often promulgated by people calling themselves "sovereign citizens" or "freemen on the land") is that they seem to understand law as being some kind of arcane magic, complete with special and secret incantations. OPCA theories often include bizarre and unnecessarily complex entities, like the following graphic which came across my Facebook feed some months ago:

     This is kind of preposterous. A corporation is an artificial person, a legal fiction, invented and modelled upon the ancient and pre-legal concept of the natural person. Yes, plain old ordinary personhood. You are not a corporation, you are not stock, you are not collateral. You're just a person, and you have been since you were born. There's nothing magical about your social security number (or our Canadian equivalent, the Social Insurance Number). It's just a unique number meant to allow the government to know which John Smith is which for its various administrative purposes. This nonsense about corporate entities is all just ignorant hocus-pocus from people who know just enough legal terminology (and just little enough of its actual meaning) to get themselves hopelessly confused, and then to try to turn that confusion to their advantage.

     To be fair, even lawyers seem to be subject to somewhat superstitious beliefs about the law, particularly when it comes to drafting contracts and other legal documents. There is tremendous risk-aversion, so simply copying the language of previous instruments is perceived as safer than drafting up new language from scratch. That's actually a pretty reasonable strategy most of the time, but it can get a little silly on occasion, especially if one is refusing to change something not because the existing text is exactly what one means, but because one is uncertain what will happen if this or that word is removed.
     For example, the reason many legalese documents include redundant phrasing ("I hereby give, bequeath and donate...") is a legacy of the time after the Norman Conquest, when the Engish nobility spoke French, the commoners spoke English and the people who could read and write spoke Latin. It wasn't that "give" and "donate" had different meanings; it was that the courts wanted to make sure everyone understood the meaning, so they included as many synonyms as possible to ensure that at least one of them would get through. Of course, the adversarial process being what it is, some clever shyster might call attention to one of these words being missing at some point ("Normally, my Lord, in a contract of this sort, one gives, bequeaths and donates the property in question, but clearly here both the latter two words are absent, meaning that the contractor could not have intended to bequeath or donate the property..." so there has always been a kind of pressure against simplification. Lawyers don't want to get into trouble by messing with something that seems to work, even if they don't fully understand why it works. But the lawyer who doesn't understand exactly why a particular contract precedent is the way it is generally isn't stumped by a cosmic mystery, but rather faces an eminently solvable problem she just doesn't have the time or inclination to bother solving.

     That's the difference with science. Science studies the natural world, which doesn't care whether or not we understand it. Law, however, is ultimately about human interactions and how to resolve disputes between humans about what ought to be done. In other words, law by definition must be intelligible by human beings; it cannot be some inscrutable mystery. Sure, no single individual understands all of it, but the very nature of law is such that all of it is human-made reasoning about human choices. Moreover, it is supposed to be transparent and available to everyone; the very notion of a secret law is absurd. There can be secret contracts and proceedings conducted behind closed doors, but a secret law cannot be binding on people who can't know about it.
     So, for example, consider the preposterous claim that some Sovereign Citizen types like to make in Canadian courts. They point to the motto displayed on the wall, "Ad mare usque ad mare" which is Latin for "From sea to sea", and claim that it means the Canadian court is an admiralty court with no jurisdiction on land. What's wrong with this argument, apart from the complete failure to understand what a motto is? Well, it implies there's some kind of secret "real" law that we're all in the dark about, and this secret law is somehow binding upon the courts and prohibits them from exercising authority over those who cite it.
     That isn't how courts work. There may be points of law that the courts take time to understand correctly, but there are no secret laws. In practice, the law really is whatever the court says it is. You absolutely can argue that a court has no jurisdiction, and such arguments are often made, and successfully, too. But here's the thing: you actually have to convince the court, which means if they say they have jurisdiction after you've made your argument, well, too bad. If you think she's wrong, you can appeal to a higher court, but it will be a higher court that decides.

     Don't get me wrong. Law can get complicated, and yes, you probably should talk to an expert (i.e. a lawyer) if you have any questions, and even if you don't think you have any questions, you probably should have some. But a lot of the time, the reason you need a lawyer is not because the law is complicated so much as it is because lawyers are trained to see disputes in a dispassionate, non-partisan way, and when you're in the middle of a dispute it can be very hard to get the emotional distance to be even a little bit objective. The basic principles of law itself are easy, and not at all mysterious.

Sunday, 1 February 2015

A challenge to anti-vaxxers

     Today, a friend suggested I google for "vaccine chemicals", and click "feedback" on the boxed link that comes up on top, which as of this writing is this ridiculous monstrosity of stupid. I did, and indicated that the link was "inaccurate", which hopefully will help Google to refine its algoritm in selecting reliable results.

     Now, I realize that calling something stupid isn't particularly constructive, although I'm trying to use the word in a clinical rather than pejorative sense. The reasoning in the linked article really is preposterously deficient and ill-informed, but what that's not what makes it clinically stupid. Ignorance is ubiquitous, after all, but stupidity is something more profoundly debilitating. Ignorance can be treated by learning new facts, but stupidity is a pathological inability to receive and process new information, and here (in boldface italics) is the telltale marker of genuine stupidity in the article:

That's the real purpose of vaccines: Not to "protect children" with any sort of immunity, but to inject the masses with a toxic cocktail of chemicals that cause brain damage and infertility: Mercury, MSG, formaldehyde and aluminum. The whole point of this is to dumb the population down so that nobody has the presence of mind to wake up and start thinking for themselves.
This is precisely why the smartest, most "awake" people still remaining in society today are the very same ones who say NO to vaccines. Only their brains are still intact and operating with some level of awareness.

     Stupidity comes in many forms, some of them genetic and some of them memetic. This is a classic form of memetic stupidity, a kind of ideological immune system designed to shut out any consideration of information that might conflict with the ideology. It's a very common mechanism, found in religious cults, political movements, and as here in crackpot conspiracy theories. It works by selectively filtering out and discrediting any criticism, by positing that criticism itself is inherently suspect. Examples:

  • Creationists sometimes argue that fossil evidence for evolution was placed there by the Devil to lead us astray, or alternatively by God to test our faith, but in either case the evidence must be disregarded because it conflicts with the favoured view. More broadly, some fundamentalists claim that all criticism comes directly from Satan.
  • In an interesting twist on this phenomenon, Scientologists claim that people only ever criticize Scientology in order to divert attention from their own crimes, and so in addition to distracting Scientologists away from the substance of  criticism towards the investigation of the critics, even more perniciously it trains them to scrupulously avoid thinking negative thoughts themselves about Scientology for fear of being a critic, and thus a criminal.
  • In Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler asserts that only a "born weakling" would dispute his claims about race and evolution, and then only because of his "feebler nature and narrower mind". In other words, demonstrate your strong mind and independent will by accepting without question what this guy says.
  • "That's just what they want you to think!" is the cry of every conspiracy theorist, especially those who are fond of the "false flag" concept, the idea that any incident that might go to support the claims of their opponents is actually faked by their opponents in order to discredit them. There are gun nuts (and in this case, yeah, the term is apropos) who claim the Sandy Hook shooting was faked to raise support for gun laws, and other nuts who claim 9/11 was carried out by the White House to raise support for invading Iraq. Now, while I'm not saying there's no such thing as a real false flag (the most famous probably being attempt to provoke a war between the medieval kingdoms of Florin and Guilder), seeing everything as a false flag is a convenient way to discredit absolutely anything that might not support your pet theory.

     So, look again at what Natural News is claiming about people who support and people who oppose vaccines, and consider what that would mean for the ability to receive, process and formulate unbiased conclusions based on new data. If you accept that non-vaccinated people are the "smartest, most awake" people and that vaccinated people are all brainwashed dupes, then you're automatically going to disregard what any pro-vaccine person has to say. Even if an intelligent unvaccinated person takes a careful objective look at all the available evidence and decides that vaccination is a good idea, by the time they talk to you to explain their conclusions they've probably already been vaccinated and you can dismiss them on that basis. In other words, the means by which you might otherwise obtain and process useful information to make up your own mind has already been sabotaged by this claim that unvaccinated people are smarter and more "awake" than vaccinated people

     But let's leave that aside. I'm going to propose a way to actually put that claim to the test. If you're going to claim that unvaccinated people are "the smartest, most awake" people, well, that's a pretty ambitious claim, because "smart" is a pretty big word. When we describe someone as "smart", we don't just mean that they don't believe in vaccines; we mean that they have good general cognitive abilities: they think and learn and understand and solve problems well. After all, if you're trying to argue that smart people avoid vaccines, then you must mean that the decision to avoid vaccines is the result of better and more informed thinking than the decision to be vaccinated. And obviously, if the motive in promoting vaccines is to dumb down the population into compliant sheeple, then you're claiming it's not just the ability to reject vaccines that is affected; it should also affect the ability to think critically about government policies on the environment or crime or the economy or international relations or anything else. In other words, you're claiming that non-vaccinated people are generally smarter, not just making the fortuitously correct choice about vaccines.

     So bring it on, then. Show me that anti-vaxxers are actually smarter on a variety of issues other than vaccination. Show me that they're genuinely more independent thinkers, that they have a better understanding of other issues, and better problem-solving skills. Show me that they should pay lower car insurance premiums because they make better decisions while driving. 
     Or hey, let's even make this personal. You think you're smarter than me? Seriously, I'm asking. I've had most of the vaccinations that have been available for someone of my age, and I was born in 1965.  I get my flu shot most years, and I've also been vaccinated against Hepatitis B. Oh, and I've also been through chemotherapy for colon cancer, a regimen of some really nasty chemicals that are decidedly bad for you. So by rights, I ought to be a sitting duck for your towering unvaccinated intellect. You should be able to dance rhetorical circles around me, gracefully refuting my pathetically flawed fallacious arguments.
     Sure, I may think I've made carefully considered and reasonably well-informed decisions about my health care. I may think I disagree vehemently with some of the asinine policies of my government, and I may think I write letters to my MP and argue with my fellow citizens, but if you're right, I'm just a brainwashed dupe, going along with the Powers That Be. You should be able to crush me with your enlightened sagacity. 

Friday, 23 January 2015

Hate and Punishment

     Three days ago, this video was uploaded by one Bradley Knudson, in which he shares his experience in dealing with some bullying of his adopted daughter by some of her classmates, a pair of twins. He attempted to talk about this with Deron Puro, the father of the twins, who apparently quite approved of their behaviour, and even left a voicemail calling Mr. Knudson a "nigger-lover". Unable to find any common ground upon which to reach an agreement, Mr. Knudson at one point threatened to take his case to social media, which Mr. Puro encouraged him to do. Within a couple of days, the firm for which Mr. Puro had been a contractor terminated their association: in essence, he lost his job, almost certainly as a consequence of his behaviour.
     Now, I'll confess that I felt a visceral bit of karmic satisfaction when I learned of the consequences for Mr. Puro. And yet, at the same time, a warning bell went off in my conscience. After all, this fellow had been punished for expressing an unpopular opinion, and in a month of Je suis Charlie, something seems a bit off about celebrating such an outcome, even if I might believe he fully deserved it (which I do). What someone deserves is not relevant to the principle I hold sacred: that people should be free to express their opinions (including and especially if those opinions are unpopular or even widely recognized as obviously false) without fear of retaliation. The way we defeat dangerous or stupid ideas in a free society is by countering them with good ideas and arguments, not by punishing the people who hold them. Punishment is not an argument, and indeed it's only likely to harden Mr. Puro's belief; no doubt he will blame Mr. Knudson for getting him fired, rather than questioning his own beliefs.

     We do not know, though, exactly why Mr. Puro was fired. It's important, after all, to bear in mind that not all unpleasant consequences are actually punishment. Getting hit by a car is not punishment for failing to look both ways before crossing the street, because no one would say that one who fails to look both ways has committed a grave moral evil that deserves such harsh suffering. It's only punishment if it happens because someone thinks you deserve it.
     It's conceivable (and maybe even likely) that Mr. Puro's employer intended to punish his hateful beliefs by firing him, and if that's the case then I although I'm sympathetic and would be tempted to do the same thing, I must reluctantly condemn it, because I don't believe in punishing people for their beliefs.
     But it is also entirely possible that this was just a prudent business decision. Nobody wants to do business with someone they think is a rude bigot, and they might well have decided that being associated with Mr. Puro was just bad for business. Sorry, pal. Nothing personal, but we can't have you around here anymore, or we'll lose all our customers. It's just business.

     That doesn't put my conscience at ease, though, because exactly that reasoning is what perpetuates racism. It wasn't that long ago that black people would not be served in certain restaurants. The owners of those restaurants might -- or might not -- have personally hated blacks, but if they perceived that a significant number of their regular customers did, then refusing to serve blacks might very well have been a prudent business decision. Sorry, pal. Personally, I love black people, but if I serve you, I'll lose my more lucrative customers. It's just business.
     The point is that the coercive power of the customers, the market, society at large, to compel a restaurant to discriminate against black customers is exactly the same power brought to bear on Mr. Puro's employer. The fact that the common wisdom now, in this enlightened era of racial harmony*, is that racism is bad is of little comfort; not so long ago, the "common wisdom" was that whites and blacks ought have nothing to do with one another.

     So I am not comfortable with the situation. I do not fault Mr. Knudson for his video, for making public Mr. Puro's bigotry -- on the contrary, I think he absolutely did the right thing and handled things in an exemplary manner. I don't even fault Mr. Puro's employer for terminating his contract. That probaby was the right business decision to make, though that has the unfortunate implication that yes, in fact, a restaurant owner who chose to discriminate was also doing the right thing, at least from a business perspective. I'd like to say they ought to have courageously defied the market and served everyone, but there's a reason we recognize courage as a rare and treasured virtue: not everyone has enough of it. As well, asking someone to sacrifice not just his own financial well being but also that of his children is no small thing.

     I regret that Mr. Puro's lost his livelihood, and I hope he finds new work, although I expect he's in for some challenges there; I probably wouldn't want to hire him, either. The fact is, from what little I know of him, he sounds like an awful person, disrespectful and rude, irresponsible and not very bright. As unpleasant as that makes him to others, let's not lose sight of what a huge handicap it is for him, and doubly so because of the Dunning-Kruger effect; he likely lacks the ability to recognize and thus correct his own errors. His hardship, though entirely self-inflicted (and probably deserved), is still a tragedy, and we should not revel in it.

*May not be available in your area.

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Memetic Organisms

     Some years ago I read Susan Blackmore's fine book, The Meme Machine, which was a breath of fresh air in an atmosphere where memes generally were being faddishly described as mind parasites that somehow corrupted their hosts and led us away from our true nature, whatever that might be. Blackmore, instead, provided a very thorough and thoughtful analysis of how the human brain might have evolved as an optimized host for memes, which gave us a significant reproductive advantage over our less quickly adaptable competitors. On this view, memes are as much symbiotes as they are parasites, because humans prosper most by absorbing and implementing useful memes like, for example, how to make and use tools or what kinds of berries not to eat.
    A while ago, Dr. Blackmore wrote in The Guardian that she no longer believes religion is a virus of the mind, and I cringed, because I have spent a lot of time thinking about memetic taxonomy and to me, a virus is a very specific kind of parasite. As I've mentioned before, I consider chain letters to be the memetic equivalent of viruses. But it occurs to me that I've never explained here what other sorts of memetic organisms there are, so here goes.

     Recall that a meme is to cultural evolution what a gene is to biology: the basic replicating unit. Genes influence the likelihood of their own replication in many ways, but generally speaking, a gene that produces traits that make its host likelier to survive and breed will tend to become more common over time than one that doesn't. Frequently clusters of genes travel together, because genes for sharp canine teeth tend to do better when accompanied by genes for the ability to digest meat, and so on, to use an example cited by Richard Dawkins (who invented the word "meme" in his 1974 book, The Selfish Gene.)
     Now, biological organisms consist of physical bodies of amazingly complexity, and use an astonishingly diverse range of strategies to get the energy and raw materials they need to grow and reproduce. These strategies are shaped by genes, but not in isolation; there are countless other factors involved. Genes themselves only provide instructions on how to assemble specific proteins, and that only when plugged into the complex protein-assembling machinery of a functioning cell, which consists of much more than DNA and the protein molecules it generates. There are sugars and lipids and various ions and a whole lot of water involved, all of which must be in place for the machinery to function. Cells contain a host organelles that perform a variety of essential functions to keep the whole system running smoothly, and that's just at the cellular level; at the level of complex multicellular organisms like us, individual cells specialize in particular functions and organize themselves into tissues and organs and systems until you end up with a fish or a spruce tree or a cockroach, which you can spend your entire life studying without ever becoming aware of even the existence of genes. (There were, after all, biologists making important discoveries about living things long before Gregor Mendel worked out the theory of heritability, including Charles Freaking Darwin.)
     You can see, then, why I characterize chain letters specifically as memetic viruses. There is some argument as to whether or not viruses should be considered alive, because they are not complete cells. They consist of a strand of DNA (or RNA) that encodes for some proteins, packaged up in an envelope made of some of those proteins, and that's about it. For a virus to replicate, it has to get inside a living cell where the DNA program can get plugged into the protein-assembling machinery. The life cycle is almost exactly analogous to that of a chain letter: a virus gets itself into the cell and instructs the cell to make more copies to send out to infect other cells, while a chain letter gets its instructions into your brain and tells you to make copies to send out to all your friends.
     It's important to note, though, that a virus is not a gene and a gene is not a virus. Viruses are made of genes, but there's more to them than that. A viable virus must also include the protein coat that allows it to penetrate a cell, and the genes themselves can't just be any old genes; they need to provide for the replication of the virus itself. Otherwise all you have is a weird and short-lived way of mucking up a cell. (Actually, this can be turned to good therapeutic use; artificial retroviruses can insert new and helpful genes into your cells to cure genetic diseases, but never mind that.)
     In the same way, a chain letter is not a meme, although it is primarily composed of memes. In the old days, snail mail chain letters also were made of paper and ink, an envelope with an address that delivered it to its target, and so on. Now they are generally just sequences of ones and zeroes that get converted into human-readable images, but the basic principle is the same: they are sets of instructions that explicitly instruct a host to copy them. And as not just any instruction counts as a chain letter, neither should every meme be considered a virus.

     So what are the more complex memetic organisms out there? It gets a little complicated, because the analogies between memes and genes start to diverge when we move to the cell, tissue, organ and organism levels. Probaby a single human mind is the closest analog to a cell, but that gets confusing because you can have several distinct "organisms" sharing a single mind, whereas typically a single biological cell is thought of as being no more than one organism (not counting organelles with their own DNA like mitochondria and chloroplasts). I find it helpful to think of memetic organisms as "isms", more or less self-contained patterns of behaviour that develop out of a kernel of imitation.
     For example, consider the ability to ride a bicycle, which I'll call here "bicyclism". If you can ride a bike, odds are you learned first by watching someone else ride a bike, and trying to imitate them. But you almost certainly didn't just hop on and start riding; it took time for you to develop the reflexes and attune your sense of balance to the new experience of operating a bicycle. Likely you fell down a lot during this process. So the bicyclism that currenty resides in your brain is not just stuff you learned by imitation; it's also stuff you had to practice and develop through trial and error on your own. And let's not forget that an actual, functioning bicyclism cannot exist without an actual physical bike to ride on!
     Notice that there is a natural life cycle in the growth and replication of a bicyclism. First the memetic seed is planted: you observe and wish to imitate the practice of bike riding. Then there is the acquisition of the physical materials for the behaviour: you need to get a bike. Then there is growth and development: you practice and fall down and eventually figure it out. Finally, there is reproduction: someone else sees you ride by, and the process begins anew.
     (Also notice that in the above example, there is no mention of language; you can learn to ride a bike just by watching and experimenting. But language can vastly speed up the process. Language is itself an exceptionally powerful memetic organism that facilitates the spread of memes by digitizing them for rapid transmission from brain to brain.)
     Another thing to notice about this life cycle is the role of heritability. If you learned to ride a bike from someone who had a habit of always checking the cuffs of his trousers before starting out, you might inherit that habit. Across large populations of bicyclisms, one might be able to discern trends, family trees of who learned to ride from whom, by noting all the little stylistic quirks about just how one rides. (In fact, this is enormously complicated by the fact that unlike most biological cells, minds are exceptionally receptive to new memes, so we can keep on picking up new tricks or styles, confusing attempts at establishing a simple linear lineage.)

     A bicyclism is, to my mind, an excellent example of a memetic organism. There is a bicyclism in my head, which is similar in many regards but still distinct from the bicyclism in your head; there is a population of bicyclisms consisting of all bicyclists. But bicyclisms are essentially single-celled creatures. Are there memetic analogs to multi-cellular entities?
     Of course there are. Individual humans organize themselves into groups to perform various functions, and each of these multi-human groups can probably be characterized as some kind of memetic organism insofar as they replicate by a memetic process in which each member of the group holds a copy of the "memome". A church, a company, a family, a club, a military unit; all of these involve varying degrees of specialization by the members, all of whom at least initially learn part of their roles in the organization through imitation and then develop their skills further through practice. Some organisms involve very little differentiation among the members, while others can become highly hierarchical and specialized.
     Consider a religion like Catholicism, for example. It replicates a doctrine (a behaviour of thought) from mind to mind initially by a kind of imitation, a transmission of ideas through language, ritual and artifacts. This isn't merely memetic, though; it is not just a matter of passively receiving what one is told, because most people tend to think about it a little at least, to try to understand what is meant, whether or not they entertain any actual doubts. The process of interpretation is not itself memetic; one has to practice thinking about something in a certain way before one becomes adept at it, that is, before one becomes a strong believer in it.
     Yet the Catholic Church itself is not simply the set of people who have a particular set of beliefs called Catholic. It is an actual organization, with a hierarchy headed by the Pope, and into which individual Catholics are integrated as clergy and lay members of this or that diocese. And the Catholic Church can be said to have offspring of its own, so to speak, in the Anglican and Protestant and various other denominational churches that have split off from it over the years. And it has siblings (Eastern Orthodox? The Coptic Church?) and cousins (Islam) and at least one parent (Judaism, and maybe Mithriasm?) and connections to Zoroastrianism and so on.

     I don't want to delve too deeply into the history of the Abrahamic religions here. Rather, I just wanted to illustrate some of the ways in which the analogy of memes to genes can more fruitfully be expanded beyond the dead end of memes=viruses. Memes aren't viruses or parasites; they are the genes of cultural evolution, components of everything from chain letters to technology to philosophy to religion.

Sunday, 4 January 2015

Taking Privilege Personally

     We hear a lot these days about "white privilege" and "male privilege", and of course the concepts are frequently attacked by those who feel accused of enjoying them. This gets messy, because while their rejection of the ideas of privilege is itself an instance of privilege, pointing that out is an extremely unhelpful way of elucidating the concept, particularly when the concept itself is actually kind of obscure.
     The probem, I think, is that the common, everyday use of the word "privilege" is misleading when we try to apply it here. In everyday usage, we think of privileges as special abilities or permissions which some people get to enjoy and others are denied. Think of how we contrast privileges with rights; we might say that driving is a privilege because you need a license, while everyone has the right to use the sidewalk.
     It's easy to see how people think this is what we're talking about when we talk about white privilege, because there are all sorts of advantages that white people enjoy in this society by virtue of being seen as white. Likewise, there may be other (usually lesser) advantages enjoyed by people by virtue of not being white or male or heterosexual. But while all of these may be considered privilegeS in the ordinary concrete sense, they have very little to do with the concept of privilege in the abstract sense of white privilege.
     The difference lies in what is privileged. In the above, ordinary concrete sense, individual human beings are privileged, in that they enjoy advantages denied to others, and while yes, that is a pretty fair description of what racism is and why it's unjust, the privileges enjoyed by white people are not what we're talking about when we talk about white privilege. In white privilege, it is not people but experiences that are privileged.

     If you've ever watched a courtroom drama, you've probably encountered the phrase "attorney-client privilege". Usually this is invoked when someone asks a lawyer what her client told her: "I'm sorry, that's privileged communication." What this means is that communications between a lawyer and her client in the context of seeking legal advice are supposed to be completely private; a lawyer cannot be compelled by subpoena to disclose them. The communications are privileged in that they are exempted from the rules that other communications may be subject to.
     Privilege, in this sense, means just that something is exempted from otherwise applicable rules, scrutiny, criticism, doubt. White privilege, then, is when we exempt our experiences as white people from the kind of healthy skepticism we bring to bear on other people's accounts of their experiences. And part of what makes it so hard to get our heads around this is that, to some extent, privilege is born from a perfectly sensible cognitive habit: we trust our own direct experiences more than we trust the reports of other people's experiences, which come to us filtered through layers of language and interpretation. We ought to trust our own senses more than those of other people, for the most part.
     The problem, however, is when we assume that our experiences and our interpretations of them are objectively reliable, and treat everyone else's experience as influenced by their subjectivity.  That is, we privilege our view as the standard against which to measure everyone else's. (I tried to talk about this phenomenon in a previous post.)

     Here's how that plays out in conversations about race or gender. Me, I know the content of my own head, in that I know with something close to absolute certainty that I believe black people and white people and yellow and brown and red and blue people are all people deserving of fully individual rights and human dignity. In my heart, I'm thoroughly convinced that I'm not a racist, so anyone who suggests that I am is almost certainly mistaken. And so I will seek to explain how someone could misconstrue my actions as racist, and find all kinds of ways to show that what looks like racism isn't actually racism. For my part, that might even be true; all of the things I've done in the past that seemed racist might just have been misunderstood. But it turns out that it's actually really easy to explain away even genuinely racist acts and attitudes; you can pretty much aways come up with some non-racist justification for a traffic stop or a reluctance to hire someone. The net result is that, golly, from my perspective as a devoutly non-racist white person, it looks like there's reasonable doubt as to the existence of racism at all!
     The point about privilege is that I take my experiences to be, not specifically a white person's experience, but a "normal" person's experience. When I get stopped by the police, it's always because of a legitimate issue like a burned out headlight, so it's hard for me to imagine or identify with driving while black. But of course I can't know what that's like, when my only experiences with actual racism amount to the staff of a Chinese restaurant preemptively replacing my chopsticks with a fork.
     The same sort of dynamic applies to male privilege, which comes across most dramatically in the hashtag #notallmen. I know perfectly well I'm not a rapist, and it hurts to be tarred with that brush. I feel a strong desire to distinguish myself from the kind of men who treat women that way, but here's the thing: it's not about me. However much I might feel insulted by the mean things people are saying about men as rapists, my view of myself as not-a-rapist is not entitled to special exemption from women who say they have no way of knowing: they really and legitimately have no way of knowing that I am not a rapist, no matter how earnestly and sincerely I might know they can trust me. No one else has access to my internal certainty, and it's silly for me to expect them to. Privilege, in this case, means that I expect what is obvious to me to be obvious to everyone else: I'm a good guy, I'm not a rapist.

     So it's important to understand that when someone tells you to check your privilege, they're not asking you to surrender your advantages as a white person or a male or whatever. You can't give up most of those advantages, even if you wanted to, and it would be foolish to do so in any event. What' they're asking you to do is to try to see things from another point of view. Try to understand how your own view is not The One Correct view of how things really are, but just one of many subjective realities, shaped by a great many unconscious assumptions which, once recognized, lose their power over you. Privilege is actually a horrible cognitive handicap, because it blinds us to greater understanding of ourselves and the world, including a full appreciation of our advantages. That those advantages are not earned is irrelevant; we cannot make full use of them, for our benefit or for others, for good or for evil, if we refuse to see that we have them.