Wednesday, 9 April 2014


Mentats Wanted, Will Train | John Michael Greer 

 Back in the day I read everything I could about Transactional Analysis as it seemed to model the real world and the way people spoke to each other.  Briefly, it stated people had three modal states: parent, adult, child.  Two people talking would have a transaction between modal states.  A "parent" might scold a sobbing "child".  A "child" might have fun with another "child".  An adult might have a logical discussion with another "adult".  But the real fun started with two "parent" types would go at it, trading aphorisms, urban myths, slogans and what the author above calls "thoughtstoppers".

I would notice this in my own household.  We'd be talking away about some problem, trying to find a workable solution and somebody would trot out "well, everybody knows a stitch in time saves nine".  Everybody would stop talking and stare at each other.  The freethinkers were gobsmacked because the statement made absolutely no sense in context.  The authoritarians knew they'd been trumped - somebody had let loose a "thoughtstopper".  Whoever gets out one first, wins.

In the article above, the author complains that people discussing natural gas shipments to Europe have absolutely no idea how to logically discuss the issue.

"That is to say, a remarkably large number of Americans, including the leaders of our country and the movers and shakers of our public opinion, are so inept at the elementary skills of thinking that they can’t tell the difference between mouthing a platitude and having a clue.

I suppose this shouldn’t surprise me as much as it does. For decades now, American public life has been dominated by thoughtstoppers of this kind -- short, emotionally charged declarative sentences, some of them trivial, some of them incoherent, none of them relevant and all of them offered up as sound bites by politicians, pundits, and ordinary Americans alike, as though they meant something and proved something. The redoubtable H.L. Mencken, writing at a time when such things were not quite as universal in the American mass mind than they have become since then, called them “credos.”  It was an inspired borrowing from the Latin credo, “I believe,” but its relevance extends far beyond the religious sphere.

Just as plenty of believing Americans in Mencken’s time liked to affirm their fervent faith in the doctrines of whatever church they attended without having the vaguest idea of what those doctrines actually meant, a far vaster number of Americans these days -- religious, irreligious, antireligious, or concerned with nothing more supernatural than the apparent capacity of Lady Gaga’s endowments to defy the laws of gravity -- gladly affirm any number of catchphrases about which they seem never to have entertained a single original thought. Those of my readers who have tried to talk about the future with their family and friends will be particularly familiar with the way this works; I’ve thought more than once of providing my readers with Bingo cards marked with the credos most commonly used to silence discussions of our future -- “they’ll think of something,” “technology can solve any problem,” “the world’s going to end soon anyway,” “it’s different this time,” and so on -- with some kind of prize for whoever fills theirs up first."

The other goes on to propose the training of "mentats" (borrowed from Herbert's "Dune") - people skilled in the art of thinking.  I propose something even simpler.  Just as it is possible to call out people for logical fallacies, it is also easy to call them out on thoughtstoppers.  I've certainly heard it in other contexts - systems analysts playing "buzzword bingo" during business analysts presentations, people calling out "bumper sticker" in a mental health context.

Then maybe we could go back to being adults.

Thursday, 20 February 2014

Excellent definition of fundamentalism

"Religious fundamentalism is dangerous because it cannot accept ambiguity and diversity and is therefore inherently intolerant. Such intolerance, in the name of virtue, is ruthless and uses political power to destroy what it cannot convert."
--Peter J. Gomes

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Conservatism and authoritarianism

Very busy so two quick links.  The first is an essay on conservatism that does a fine job of defining it.

The second is an old favourite of mine, defining authoritarianism.  There's a lot of overlap.

The Authoritarians

Monday, 23 September 2013

Excellent blog entry on the clobber passages

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

The addiction to certainty

I am an addict.

Addiction is an imbalance in the brain's dealings with neurotransmitters in response to outside stimulus.  Where ordinary people would have a "ho hum" reaction, addicts get a boost of certain neurotransmitters and/or are deficient in neurotransmitters, particularly dopamine,  and are using the stimulus of choice in an attempt to bring themselves up to normal levels.

From previous blog entries, it's obvious alcohol is my stimulus of choice.  I'm likely also addicted to stimulants such as caffeine and I have an unhealthy relationship with tranquilizers.  When using my drug of choice, I get a nice feeling associated with certain neurotransmitters.  When I'm doing without, I get withdrawal symptoms - I call it the "screaming meemies", others call it "jonesing" or "the monkey on my back".

You will notice I've been avoiding the normally-used word "substance".  That's because it doesn't necessarily have to be a substance.  I have a number of obsessions.  When I indulge myself in them, I get the exact same "thrill" - the hallmark of a neurotransmitter - that I get from alcohol.  For example, there's certain political websites I can't keep away from, and I have to be dragged kicking and screaming out of bookstores else I leave with more books than I can carry, have shelf space for or can afford.

A lot of our understanding of addiction was mostly theory until the invention of the real-time MRI scanner.  This allowed scientists to see exactly what was going on in the brain during addictive behaviour.  What surprised scientists was they were seeing the exact same brain activity for non-substance addictive behaviour to, for example, mental states.

One  mental state is certainty.

I suspect that retreat into absolute ideologies is accentuated during periods of confusion, lack of governmental direction, economic chaos and information overload. At bottom, we are pattern recognizers who seek escape from ambiguity and indecision. If a major brain function is to maintain mental homeostasis, it is understandable how stances of certainty can counteract anxiety and apprehension.  Even though I know better, I find myself somewhat reassured (albeit temporarily) by absolute comments such as, "the stock market always recovers," even when I realize that this may be only wishful thinking.
A much longer excerpt can be found here.

I listen to voices.  Someone who knows what they're talking about speaks with an authoritative tone, even and measured with a dropping tone on facts.  If they get into uncertain territory, the voice rises e.g. "applying this patch should work" but you can hear the implied "but" at the end.  An authoritarian speaks differently.  They're dropping tone is on "should", with a rising tone on their "facts" (which usually aren't).  Their emphasis is on conclusions - how they get there is irrelevant.  The "facts" must match the conclusions, not the other way around.

Hence authoritarian followers look to authoritarian leaders for their source of certainty - which outrageous statement they can treat as "fact" to get them through their day.  The other day Pat Robertson announced that gay people go around with special rings that infect people with AIDS.  Not a whimper of protest from the Religious Right to this obvious nonsense.  But sure as shootin' they're been certain this is a fact just 'cause he said it. 

Addiction sucks - don't it.

How the Religious Right gives communicable diseases a chance to spread

The origins of an Epidemic: How Right-Wing Religious Communities Give Measles A Chance To Spread

At the end of last month, epidemiologists in Texas traced the source of a measles outbreak to a right-wing megachurch whose pastor has preached against vaccines. Even though about 98 percent of Texas residents are vaccinated against the highly contagious disease, the congregants who attended that evangelical church represented a pocket of unprotected people, and measles was able to spread rapidly.

The country’s epidemiologists are having difficulty tracking the outbreak because orthodox Protestants don’t usually seek treatment at the doctor after they become sick. The close-knit religious community believes in faith healing, and opposes medical interventions like vaccines because they undermine “divine providence.” And because they live among other orthodox Protestants, rather than being integrated among the rest of the country’s residents, they don’t benefit from the “herd effect” that helps prevent the spread of diseases — that is, the fact that vaccinating some people can end up protecting the unvaccinated ones around them
 The United Kingdom has also been struggling with a resurgence in measles cases over the past several years. The recent uptick hasn’t been linked to a particular religious community, but health officials do blame a widely-debunked study that claimed vaccines can cause autism. Thanks to that persistent myth, many parents still have misconceptions about the risks of inoculating their kids.
 The "widely-debunked study" was originally published by a Dr. Wakefield, causing a huge controversy.  It claimed that autism was caused by a specific vaccine which contained mercury.  Parents with autistic kids jumped on board hoping to find a cause for autism and possibly a cure.  A secondary industry arose of quacks selling cures for autism such as chelation.  The problem - vaccine is no longer used, when it was used it contained less mercury than a can of tuna and the controversy invoked a logical fallacy. 

Here's the problem.  The symptoms of autism show up right around the same time that kids are vaccinated.  The temptation is to blame the symptoms on the vaccination because they occurred at the same time. That's fallacy of the Undivided Middle, otherwise refuted as "correlation does not imply causation".

To cause the changes to brain structure that appear to be the actual causes of autism, these causes would have to occur when the brain was first developing, way before vaccine time. 

I've been sitting here trying to way of phrasing this so it doesn't come across as insulting, but I've come up empty.  Authoritarians love simplistic thinking and projection.  It's as simple as that.  They're thinking "if my kid has autism it must be somebody's fault, likely mine and that's unacceptable so I'm going to project it someplace else".  Blaming it on vaccines is a simple out.  The problem is to take it to its logical conclusion, they have to ban vaccines and damn the consequences to anybody else.  Their only concern is for their herd.  They don't care if the rest of us live or die.  As long as they isolate themselves, huddling in their megachurches and homeschooling their kids, they think they're safe.

They're not.