Panpsychism hangs around like a bad penny

July 25, 2021 • 12:00 pm

I’ve written a fair bit about panpsychism (see here for all the posts), and I don’t really feel in the mood to summarize the problems at length. Suffice it to say that it’s a “theory”—probably an untestable one, or maybe it’s better seen as a religion—that every bit of matter in the Universe has some form of consciousness, including electrons and rocks, and if you put them together the right way, as in a dog or a human, you get “higher” consciousness automatically. It’s a “turtles all the way down” view that finesses the problem of consciousness—i.e., how we get qualia, or subjective sensations—by simply making up stuff.

The problems with it are many, and you can read my posts to see the issues that I and others have found with it. They include the following:

a.) There’s no evidence that rocks or electrons or water are “conscious”, and there’s no way to find out if they are because the proponents never define what it means for this kind of matter to be conscious.

b.) There’s the “combination problem”: how do we put together “conscious” molecules in a way to create the kind of consciousness that humans have? At what point do “qualia” appear. If you make a complex machine like a typewriter, it’s a combination of lots of conscious molecules, too, but doesn’t have “higher” consciousness. There has been no convincing solution to the “combination problem” by even the advocates of panpsychism

c.) A problem raised by one of its proponents (one of the four boosters whom Salon uses to say panpsychism is “gaining steam”:

“Panpsychists think you can’t explain human consciousness by putting together lots of non-conscious things in the right structure; okay, but is it actually easier to explain it by putting lots of conscious things in the right structure?” Roelofs asked.

c.) The entire theory is untestable, as one of the proponents admits in the Salon article below (click on screenshot). It is not a scientific theory as much as mental masturbation. At least scientific theories of consciousness, like what neurons are required to have it, and how to change or eliminate it, can be testable.

Count on Salon, the Daily MIrror of websites, to have an article claiming that panpsychism is “gaining steam in science communities.” There’s no evidence adduced at all that the theory is spreading in science communities. Author Rozsa cites, beside Philip Goff, one of the theory’s long-time proponents, only three other people who accept this cockamamie view. None of them are scientists; all four are philosophers of mind. Nor is the author of the piece a scientist. That’s because no respectable scientist would say we should study how consciousness arises by simply assuming that all matter is inherently conscious.

Read and weep:

Here’s how the article frames the “hard problem” of consciousness:

On the other hand, science is equally stuck when it comes to explaining the subjective experiences that we can embrace when we listen to music, enjoy delicious food, watch a movie or fall in love. There is something unquantifiable about the joys of life, a reality that is not encompassed when we try to reduce emotions to hormones.

. . .”Consciousness involves quality — the redness of a red experience, the smell of coffee, the taste of mint,” Goff said. “These qualities that can’t be captured in a purely quantitative vocabulary of mathematics. So Galileo said that if we want mathematical science, we need to take consciousness out of the domain of science. In Galileo’s worldview, there is this radical division in nature between the quantitative mathematical domain of science and the physical world, and the qualitative domain of consciousness with its colors, and sounds, and smells and tastes.”

My own view, which I derived from Patricia Churchland, is that consciousness is an epiphenomenon of a certain arrangement of living molecules, most of them in the brain. Once you have all the ingredients for consciousness in place (and science is beginning to learn about some of them), then you get the phenomenon of consciousness and the presence of subjective sensation. End of the story; nothing more to find out. To me, there’s nothing more to the explanation than that: once the components are there, the being is conscious. The scientific task is to find those components and, if we could, assemble them to see if we get consciousness, or at least fiddle with them to see if we can alter, diminish, or erase consciousness in predictable ways.

But I’m not a neuroscientist, so I’ll leave it to people like Churchland to go after panpsychism. The fact is that, contra Salon, the idea is not gaining steam, but winding down as people realize that panpsychism is a worldview that is absolutely untestable. In fact, Luke Roelofs at NYU more or less admits that:

“Panpsychism does suggest that there may well be some level of consciousness everywhere in nature,” Roelofs explained. “Panpsychists all accept dog-consciousness, but some might not want to accept chair-consciousness: they might say that each particle making up the chair is conscious, but it’s not constructed the right way for these to ‘add up’ to anything. Others might think that chairs have consciousness, but of an incredibly diffuse sort: because there’s no brain or nervous system, there’s no order or structure to the chair’s experience, just an undifferentiated blur.”

Ultimately, he added, “The impact of panpsychism isn’t so much to answer these questions, but to suggest continuity: don’t expect to find a discontinuous boundary somewhere between the simplest animal that is conscious and the most complex animal that isn’t.” Roelofs says there isn’t a line that one could draw: “even if some sorts of consciousness are so simple that it’s more useful for us, in practice, to treat them as ‘mindless’, nevertheless the differences are ultimately just matters of degree.”

In the end, it may prove impossible to ever definitively ascertain whether panpsychism holds water.

Well, if it doesn’t answer questions but “suggests continuity” (that is, positing that all matter is conscious), then it cannot form a program for scientific research.

Well, as Sabine Hossenfelder said in the video this morning (see Hili dialogue), if a scientific theory doesn’t help us make progress in understanding the universe, it should be thrown into the bin for the cockatoos to eat. And surely panpsychism is such a theory.

Two more points. In trying to explain why inanimate matter might be conscious, Roelofs produces a classic Deepity (I’ll put it in bold):

“Panpsychists think that thought, reasoning, decision-making, vision and hearing and smell and all of our cognitive complexity: none of those are the same thing as consciousness. Consciousness is just subjectivity, just ‘is there something it’s like to exist right now?’ And so they think it makes sense for consciousness to exist in simple forms without thought, without reasoning, without vision or hearing or smell. A lot of critics think that’s just a mix-up: they think that once you take away thought, reasoning, etc. that’s it, there’s nothing left to talk about.”

I don’t understand what the “subjectivity” of an atom can be: does an atom know “what it’s like to exist right now”? No, “consciousness is just subjectivity” is a Deepity, which sounds good, but when you dig deeper, you find. . . well, empty words.

Finally, the proponents of panpsychism are now pointing out that it may help us live on after death. Many people want that (that’s why there’s Christianity), and if every atom in our brain is conscious, is it beyond possibility that maybe, just maybe, our memories could live on in those molecules? Yes, I know it’s stupid, but here’s what Salon says:

Panpsychism also has radical implications for religions, since so many focus on questions of what happens after we die. It is likely that our brains still comprise the bulk of our identity (so when the neurons which store your memories die, the memories most likely die forever along with them), but panpsychism allows for the possibility that your conscious “self” lives on in some form. It does not even entirely preclude the possibility that we take some of our identity with us; to paraphrase Stanley Kubrick when he directed “The Shining,” the seemingly horrifying prospect of ghosts existing at least means that death is not final.

Fine; let the theologians discuss this, but I reject it since there’s no evidence. The paragraph above is simply porcine shampoo, that is, hogwash.

When the panpsychists start making real progress in understanding consciousness instead of simply positing an infinite regress of the phenomenon, then we can talk.

 

h/t: Tim

CNN describes (and tacitly supports) the existence of “after death communications”

June 21, 2021 • 11:00 am

Of all the places that I would expect to report on the reality of people having encounters with dead loved ones, CNN is the last. After all, the article below (click on screenshot) is not an op-ed, but appears in the site’s “Health” section, and is written by John Blake, a CNN producer and writer.

The most objectionable part of this article, beyond it appearing at CNN, is that it raises no doubts about the reality of these ADCs (“after death communications”). It interviews no skeptics, offers no naturalistic explanations, and gives lots of anecdotes that, in toto, look like strong support for the reality of ADCs. CNN is pandering to those who believe in unsubstantiated woo.

Here are two anecdotes from among several given in the article:

When Ian and Michelle Horne got married, he wore a purple tie on their wedding day because it was her favorite color. As the years rolled by, they got matching tattoos and gave each other nicknames from the movie, “The Princess Bride.” He called her Princess Buttercup and she called him “Farm Boy Wesley.” They made plans to visit Ireland this year to celebrate her Irish roots.

[Michelle died young of Covid-19.]

. . . . . But not long after his wife’s death, the morning radio deejay in Wichita, Kansas, wondered if Michelle was still speaking to him. He was driving to his job in the predawn darkness when he spotted something odd. About two dozen streetlights flanking the highway had turned purple. They looked like a lavender string of pearls glowing in the night sky.

“Michelle knew that was my route to work that I take every morning and was the route she took on her final drive to the hospital,” says Horne, who hosts his morning show on 101.3 KFDI as “JJ Hayes.”
“I remember simply smiling and feeling overwhelmed with the idea that Michelle was close.”
Another:

Consider the story of Jamie Jackson, an office manager who lives near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and her beloved “Aunt Pat.” Jackson’s aunt died of a heart attack last summer after complications from Covid. Jackson said her aunt was like a mother to her — someone she spent summers with and accompanied to the hospital for routine medical visits.

But when her aunt was afflicted with Covid, Jackson couldn’t visit the hospital to reassure her.

“That was the hardest thing,” Jackson says. “You can’t say goodbye and you can’t be there as an advocate for your loved one, which is difficult because you have somebody who’s in the hospital, who’s scared and not used to being alone.”

Seven months later, though, Jackson says she heard from her aunt again.

It was December, and Jackson was putting up Christmas decorations in the house while Bing Crosby sang holiday carols. Christmas was one of her aunt’s favorite holidays, and she loved decorating. Jackson’s bin was filled with the same decorations that once belonged to her aunt.

Jackson says she left the bin in her hallway to get something and when she returned, she saw a translucent figure peering into it. It was the figure of a petite woman, with the same haircut, color of hair and white blouse and blue slacks that her aunt used to wear.

Jackson froze. Her hearted started pounding. She fled to her dining room and started crying. When she returned, the figure was gone. She says it was her aunt.

“It was overwhelming,” Jackson says. “It’s hard to put into words. I felt touched by that. It’s obvious that she’s around and she’s visiting me.”

It goes on, but the stories are all like this, and the article also recounts tales from other times, like people killed in war who come back to speak to their relatives and loved ones. Likewise with Japanese people revisited by relatives killed in tsunamis.

Further, they quote some “experts” whose words lend credibility not to the idea that people only thought they saw dead loved ones, but that they were real paranormal phenomena. Here are a few such quotes:

“These kind of reports are normal in my world,” says Scott Janssen, an author who has worked in the hospice field for years and studies these experiences. “It would make sense that in a pandemic or other event that leads to mass deaths that there will be a numerical increase in reports and experiences, given the shared grief and trauma.”

. . . Bill Guggenheim, co-author of “Hello from Heaven,” a book that explores ADCs, believes there is a spiritual purpose behind the visits.
“They want you to know they’re still alive, and that you’ll be reunited with them when it’s your turn to leave your lifetime on Earth,” he writes. “They want to assure you they’ll be there to meet you and greet you — and perhaps even to assist you — as you make your own transition.”

The only caveats in the article about any of these stories are lame:

Talk to people who have these experiences, and many will acknowledge that maybe their minds created the episode. Others insist the visitations were too real to deny.

Jackson, who lost her aunt, says it’s almost irrelevant if they’re real or not. Their impact is real, she says. They made her feel better”.

If I needed to see it and it made me feel better and that’s all it was, I’m okay with that,” she says. “I tell people if they don’t want to believe me, that’s fine. I don’t need to explain to other people.”

So the only caveat we have is that “many” people will acknowledge that maybe their minds created the episode. But others say they were real! We have no experts weighing in on the dubious nature of these experiences, no scientists reporting about how they can induce such experiences with drugs or brain stimulation, no Randi-ans who deny any credible evidence for communications from the dead. No, CNN, like those who had these ADCs, seemingly wants to believe they’re real.

And who wouldn’t want to? Books about people coming back from near-death experiences, reporting on the existence of a Heaven that harbors their loved ones, have been best sellers (see one here). Nobody wants to hear that there’s no credible evidence for an afterlife, and that, despite the ubiquity of psychics and seances, that there are no well documented cases of communications from beyond.

But for CNN to push this palaver as real, without enlisting one skeptic in its article—well, that’s reprehensible. Could it be that this is one effect of postmodernism-derived wokeness: that all “truths” are real, including personal ones?

But regardless of their origin, ADCs are, in the absence of evidence, simple wish-thinking and confirmation bias.  I sympathize with the people who have the experiences and think they are real, but yes, it does matter—a LOT—about whether “they’re real or not.” A world with ADCs is a very different world from a naturalistic one in which, when you die, that’s all, folks. Either there’s an afterlife in which you meet your loved ones, or there isn’t, and that matters. If for nothing else, it affects the credibility of many religions.

Scientific American: religious or “spiritual” treatment of mental illness produces better outcomes

June 19, 2021 • 11:00 am

Scientific American continues to circle the drain, even after it retracted an anti-Semitic op-ed this week. Several readers have commented that they’ve canceled their subscriptions, and I’ve never had one.  Perhaps the old-fashioned Sci Am that we knew and loved is no longer sustainable in a world where people want their science as short, click-baity pieces.

The latest dire piece is not an op-ed but an article, appearing in the “Mind” section under “mental health”. It’s a justification for including religious and spiritual therapy in mental health treatment, and could be taken as, in part, a defense of the value of religion. Indeed, it may be the case that for believers—though I haven’t checked the references; readers are invited to—some kind of god-infused therapy might ameliorate mental illness. The author gives references supposedly showing this. After all, if you’re already religious, you’ve drunk the Kool-Aid, and so buttressing the comforting bits of what you already believe might make you feel better. After all, that’s what a lot of church is about.

But there are a few problems with Rosmarin’s thesis. First, religious therapy enables religious belief, i.e., faith. Part of what is said to “cure” you involves reinforcing falsehoods rather than facing real or potential truths. I don’t object to that so much, though, as an antitheist, I don’t like it. Second, although “spiritual” therapy is mentioned many times, and is said to help even nonbelievers, the author never tells us what spiritual therapy really is. Given how broad the boundaries of the concept “spiritual” extend, almost any therapy that helps could be said to include a “spiritual” element. For example, one could tell a secular patient  to learn to accept both good and bad as inevitable parts of life. That is the doctrine of many Buddhists, and could be said to be “spiritual”.

Importantly, there’s no mention of religion actually exacerbating or instigating mental illness, and I have no doubt that it does. Martin Luther is a famous example, but think as well of the many children who have been terrified by thoughts of heaven or hell, the people who do horrible stuff because they think God told them to, or the priests who, formally prevented from having sex, become pedophiles. I could go on, but will refrain. But there’s not a word about any of this.

Finally, why on earth is Scientific American publishing stuff like this? I suppose you could include it in the ambit of “popular science”, but barely. They might as well be writing about the value of acupuncture in helping physical ailments. Like acupuncture, religion is a regimen based on false assumptions, and its use encourages a naive reliance on faith: on stuff that is either untested or palpably false.

Rosmarin is a Ph.D. psychologist identified as “director of the Spirituality and Mental Health Program at McLean Hospital and an assistant professor of psychology in the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.”

Here’s the evidence adduced by Rosmain:

  • His own SPIRIT program “suggests that spiritual psychotherapy is not only feasible but highly desired by patients”
  • During the last pandemic year, religious people were “the only group to see improvements in mental health”
  • Spirituality, says Rosmarin, is woefully lacking in most forms of therapy, as psychiatrists are the least religious among all medical specialties.
  • As Rosmarin says,

My own research has demonstrated that a belief in God is associated with significantly better treatment outcomes for acute psychiatric patients. And other laboratories have shown a connection between religious belief and the thickness of the brain’s cortex, which may help protect against depression. Of course, belief in God is not a prescription. But these compelling findings warrant further scientific exploration, and patients in distress should certainly have the option to include spirituality in their treatment.

You can check the references for yourself. They may show what he says they do. But I still would be wary of religious treatment, since it uses falsehoods and belief in falsities to help people get better. I don’t necessarily oppose that, but I would have liked to have seen a mention of how religion causes or exacerabates mental illness. It using religion any different from telling patients that acupuncture in their ears could help them, or that everybody really likes them?

Rosmarin winds up giving a few anecdotes as evidence for the efficacy of “spiritual” therapy (I suspect that a lot of the “spirituality” is old-fashioned religion), and asserts that the biggest group of patients who come to his SPIRIT counseling are individuals “with no religious affiliation at all.” These are, of course, the “nones,” but nones may be religious, and simply not affiliated with an established church or sect. Only a minority of “nones” would consider themselves atheists.

When I read this article, the words of Marx kept coming back to me—words from a famous passage usually (and unfairly) truncated to just the last sentence, implying pure religion-dissing. What’s left out is the first sentence in which Marx asserts that religion is often embraced because its the only form of help available to people in bad situations like poverty, illness, lack of social support, and so on.

“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”

I doubt that Scientific American will ever get back to the format that attracted many of us to the magazine in the first place. Just have a look at its contents these days, which have become more overtly political with a good dose of fluff.

h/t: Will

UFOs for real?

May 18, 2021 • 1:15 pm

UPDATE: I had forgotten that in 2020 I put up a post dealing with these very same videos and offering naturalistic explanations. Color me red for forgetting! Anyway, check out my earlier post. This just goes to show that your host is both forgetful and a bit credulous. And worse: so is CBS News!

______________________

The new acronym for UFO’s (“unidentified flying objects”) is UAPs (“unidentified aerial phenomena”). And you may have heard in the past few years that some of these phenomena are seen quite regularly by Navy and Air Force pilots.

This week’s “60 Minutes” show on CBS highlights some of these sightings, and they appear to be by reputable people and have no easy explanation, even by the U.S. government.  In particular, two pilots and a government official are interviewed, as well as Senator Marco Rubio (you can dismiss him, but I wouldn’t advise ignoring him because he’s a Republican).

At any rate, if you click on the screenshot below you’ll see the entire 14-minute “60 Minutes” episode, complete with videos of the UAPs.  Now I’m not going to sign on to a conspiracy theory that the government is hiding alien spacecraft from us, but we scientists have to be open minded, and so I find this interesting. I once thought that these represented images of glare from jet windows, but I’m not so sure. Watch for yourself and comment below.

It is important to figure out what these things are, for if they’re some kind of object, they are flying over restricted U.S. airspace. And they’ve baffled the Pentagon.  As a skeptic, I tend to favor a purely naturalistic (i.e., non-alien) explanation, but I’m not ruling out other possibilities.

Here are three possibilities laid out in the program:

Secret US technology (this seems to be ruled out by Those Who Would Know)

An adversary’s spy vehicle (this would involve remarkable technology)

Something otherworldly (seems improbable)

So what’s going on?

Click below to see the show, which I recommend watching:

 

h/t: David

The uselessness of land acknowledgments

April 7, 2021 • 10:30 am

We’ve all heard classes and talks preceded by “land acknowledgments”—admissions that the land on which the speaker is standing was stolen from others, usually indigenous people like Native Americans. Several examples are given in the article below by Adam Ellwanger at Critical Discourses. (Click on the screenshot.)

Ellwanter is a professor of English here in Texas—at the University of Houston downtown, and knows whereof he speaks.

Now we’ve discussed land acknowledgments before, including their uselessness except as a way of expiating guilt, as well as the confusion involved since American land has been taken over many times by various groups and tribes, who displaced each other, before the “colonists” got it. (It would be even worse in Europe, where you’d have to begin a string of acknowledgments with, “I acknowledge that this land has been taken from “Homo erectus, and then Homo sapiens neanderthalensis. . . “, and so on.)

And of course these disclaimers accomplish absolutely nothing, as they’re the epitome of virtue signaling: a lot of words that accomplish nothing except display the “high social consciousness” of the speaker or writer.

Whenever I hear one of these, I think to myself, “Well why the hell don’t you give the land back to the original occupants, then?”  But it’s a bit more complicated than that, for, as Ellwanger says in the piece below, many Native Americans had no conception of “owning” the land. That, of course, doesn’t make it right for settlers to have displaced them, but if people were serious about land acknowledgments, they’d either allow the descendants of previous occupants to move back onto the land, or give them an amount of money equal to the present value of the land.

At best, besides signaling the virtue of the speaker, they remind people of history—except that that history is usually truncated given multiple occupancy of territory over time.

Read on:

Ellwanger begins by criticizing those people who identify their pronouns, not those who do it as a way to show that they’re different from the usual cis-gender designations, but those who do it for two other reasons:

a. “to compel compliance from those who might not be willing to cooperate with the increasingly complicated lexicon that grows out of the pronoun wars.”

and

b. “to signify one’s membership in the priestly castes of university life: those intellectuals who, by mastering a complex vocabulary that eludes the grasp of regular people, demonstrate their superior respect for human dignity and their deeper concern for the many marginalized communities in the racist, fascist, homophobic, xenophobic, misogynous hellscape some people still insist on calling “America.”

This introduction may undercut Ellwanger’s thesis a bit, as I wouldn’t want to die on Pronoun Hill, but he does it to segue into land acknowledgements, for he feels that once everybody is using pronoun specifiers—and this is pretty much true in academia—then you have to find another way to demonstrate your moral superiority and membership in The Elect. That way is to precede every talk or class you give with a land acknowledgment.

Here are two specimens of land acknowledgments given by Ellwanger: from Queens University and The Unversity of Texas.

Why are these statements multiplying? Here’s Ellwanger’s explanation:

The fact that these statements imply a moral duty to acknowledge facts that are already well-known is a primary indicator that the Land Acknowledgement Statements are performing some function beyond merely “acknowledging” land ownership. One covert purpose is to put students on notice as to which worldview and ideology will be privileged in a given course. By immediately drawing an audience’s attention to “historical injustice” in a context of, say, a chemistry class, the instructor signals to students that they are in a space where the politics of grievance will be honored and encouraged. Further, the Land Acknowledgement Statement serves to compel a certain penitential attitude that is a prerequisite for the functioning of “critical pedagogies.” By clarifying that the university is a beneficiary of a program of cultural violence, Land Acknowledgement Statements make it clear to students that they are “complicit” in this legacy of violence and exclusion merely by matriculating at the school in question.

Who can deny the truth of what he said?

But there are problems with these acknowledgements. First, as I noted above, they don’t deal with successive occupation of the land:

. . . the statement from University of Texas names no fewer than ten tribes before concluding the sentence with an embarrassed “etcetera,” which acknowledges “all the [other] American Indian and Indigenous Peoples and communities who have been or have become a part of these lands”. The truth of the matter is that any piece of land in the modern-day United States was likely held by various native tribes over the course of the Pre-Columbian era and the early American republic. In other words, we can’t even be sure who needs to be “acknowledged” for the land: much of the information is lost to history.

And, more important, Ellwanger emphasizes that many Native Americans did not share our capitalistic preoccupation with “owning” land. He gives several examples; here’s one:

Massasoit Sachem (leader of the Wampanoag confederacy) is reputed to have asked “What is this you call property? It cannot be the earth, for the land is our mother, nourishing all her children, beasts, birds, fish and all men. The woods, the streams, everything on it belongs to everybody and is for the use of all.”

And he adds this:

Thus, by “acknowledging” the native claims to a piece of land and implying that these claims supersede and negate the claim that modern local and federal governments make upon the territory, the Land Acknowledgement Statements erase the very particularities of Native American cultures that these academics purport to honor and preserve. In short, the non-Native academics speak on behalf of the people whose dignity they claim to uphold: by appropriating the right of those people to speak, they inadvertently inflict the very sort of cultural violence that they profess to abhor.

This all makes sense, but of course even if Native Americans didn’t have our concept of “property”, they were still displaced from their lands by settlers. To me that seems just as bad, especially when they were forcibly driven to desolate reservations. I don’t know the solution to this, except to say that Native Americans continually displaced each other by the same methods (war, broken treaties, and so on), and we are just part of that history.

To me, land acknowledgments are the height of performative wokeness: statements that accomplish absolutely nothing save to call attention to your heightened consciousness—and perhaps impart a history lesson, but why is that part of a talk or a syllabus?  If you’re on stolen land, then give it back instead of moaning about it. It’s as if one began a class by saying “I’m using a laser pointer I stole from Professor Jones, but I’m not going to give it back to him.”

Ellwanger ends by citing the two lessons that land acknowlegments impart:

1.) “Recall that the primary purpose of these statements is not to do justice to the victims of historical oppression but rather to signify one’s affinity for the performative rituals of academic wokeness. The first lesson, then, is that the intellectual elite who fetishize the tragic stories of marginalized groups in America are less interested in redressing those sufferings than they are using them to maintain their membership in an elite group that is far removed from the plight of the “Other” (as they might say).”

and

2.) The second lesson is a darker one; one that the progressive left would do well to learn. Enamored as they are with the postmodern tradition of critical theory which they name-check when “speaking truth to power,” they miss one of the central insights of postmodern philosophy: that one can never get outside the network of power to speak truth to it. In their enthusiasm for condemning or humbling the entities that they identify as culturally-empowered ones, they forget that any gesture like a “Land Acknowledgement Statement” is itself an exercise of power. Through their attempts to honor the culture of historically-marginalized groups to which they do not belong – trying to create a space for those cultures to speak on their own behalf – they only end up speaking for them. In this way, they reenact the same legacies of privilege and appropriation that they disdain. So much for checking one’s privilege.

Whenever I read about stuff like land acknowledgments, I remember Grania’s test for the efficacy of social-justice statements and actions: Do they really accomplish something for the group that is marginalized? Land acknowledgments don’t do this, although sometimes a pittance is given to Native Americans as a token of apology. But imagine how much the lands owned by the University of Texas are worth!

And if you’re a reader who wants to defend these acknowledgments, why aren’t you preceding every one of your comments with the statement that your house or office is sitting on land previously occupied by people driven away by settlers? Because surely it was.

“Proof” of the afterlife in the Globe and Mail!

April 6, 2021 • 12:45 pm

The Globe and Mail is, I believe, a conservative newspaper, and one would guess that it’s that genre of paper that’s prone to printing palpable palaver that props up religion. (Well, one would guess wrong, as now papers like the New York Times do it as well.)

Here from the new G&M we have Cathy Bohlken, a respiratory therapist from Calgary, telling us how, after having rejected the existence of an afterlife, came to believe in it after all. Click on the screenshot to proceed:

Bohlken tells us that her scientific training led her to doubt the existence of an afterlife—until her boyfriend committed suicide. Then she had the need to get in touch with him, and right there is where the nonsense begins. (I don’t mean to be callous here, as her pain must have been immense, but she uses it to promote woo in a widely-read paper.)

I grieved for months, and in the spring I discovered the TV show Long Island Medium. I became completely mesmerized and decided that I needed to find my own psychic medium, hoping that someone could make a connection to Dave.

I went to see a psychic in Calgary who has a good record of helping law enforcement agencies from around the world locate missing and murdered persons.

And here’s how the psychic convinced her of an afterlife. (Note that Bohlken could have given the psychic her name when making an appointment, which would also allow some preliminary investigation.)

Patricia started the reading by trying to identify the different spirits that had walked in with me. She described one of my grandfathers perfectly, but she also said he was talking about somebody else who was there, someone that was missing the tip of a finger. I didn’t know of anyone that was missing any fingertips. (Later, I learned that my other grandfather had lost the tip of two fingers in a lawnmower accident. He died when I was a baby, so I didn’t remember him at all.) This was one of 50 validations of my life that she could never possibly have known.

Patricia sensed that there was somebody else in the room but the spirit was “wispy,” unlike my grandfather who was strongly present. After several minutes, she asked me if someone had died recently. [JAC: She’s a psychic—she should have known that!] When I told her that my boyfriend had died six months earlier, she exclaimed: “In the first year, it’s darn near impossible to reach them, but I will try because he is here.”

“He can hear you,” Patricia said. “It’s almost like he comes to you gently because you were very angry with him when he left.” She told me stories for almost an hour, telling me things that she could never possibly have known. She described how Dave would sit across from me at the kitchen island. How when I was at the kitchen sink, he would wrap his arms around me from behind. “He’s still doing that.”

She explained that “if you even think of them, it’s … like picking up the phone or having him right in front of you. If you know what you feel like, you’ll know what somebody else’s energy feels like.”

Presumably Ms. Bohlken has never heard of “cold readings“, in which experienced “readers” can make remarkably accurate guesses by noticing subtle expressions and body language, and knowing a few things about the subject. Note as well that Bohlken had a very strong will to believe, which would make her fixate on the information that was accurate and ignore the stuff that was wrong.

There would be ways to test these paranormal activities, like the strictures put into place by James Randi in his famous One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge, but no psychic ever accepted the challenge (at least two agreed to, but then backed out). I’m sure Randi could have designed a test to see if this medium could, without hints or prompting, tell things about the deceased she couldn’t possibly have known. Penn and Teller could do so as well. I could try, but magicians are much better at this than are scientists, who don’t know all the tricks.

And here’s the kicker that cemented Bohlken’s belief in the afterlife.

. . . About a week after the reading, I noticed a tingling sensation on the right side of my head when I thought of Dave – as if my hair was standing on edge, this ebbed and flowed depending on the intensity of my emotions. When my mom died suddenly a year later, I was more open to the sensation and I felt her energy differently, and immediately.

“More open to the sensation,” eh? And now Bohlken is about to foist this on the world, making credulous people even more woo-prone:

Patricia left me with a parting thought to consider once my grief had subsided. “It’s almost like you wanted to write a book, and now you have the material,” she noted.

Writing a book was not something I had ever considered, but after my experience, sharing my story is something that I simply have to do.

People want to believe this stuff, of course; who wouldn’t like to live on, or get a message that their friends, family, and beloved are out there somewhere thinking of you?

And, after all, what harm is done by making people think that? The harm is twofold. First, the psychic took money (probably a not insubstantial sum) from Bohlken. The amount spent yearly on “psychic services” in the U.S. is about $2.2 billion, or about $670 for every citizen. Twenty-two percent of Americans have consulted a psychic (that means that those who have pay about $3,000 for the consultations), and 34% believe they’ve had a psychic episode. This is, pure and simple, victimization of the vulnerable.

Second, essays like the one above merely buttress this kind of scam, and also weaken people’s organs of reason. This is exactly what religion does, but of course “psychic services” are just one form of religion.

h/t: Christopher

Astrology at the New York Times

December 29, 2020 • 1:00 pm

In the past couple of days we’ve seen the Guardian tout astrology twice, and now the Globe and Mail. What I’d forgotten is that the New York Times has also been doing it occasionally—certainly more often than the Paper of Record should. For evidence, see Greg Mayer’s survey last year of the NYT’s treatment of astrology.  As Greg said:

 I did a search at the Times’ website for “astrology”, and the results were intriguing, verging on appalling. The first 9 results were all supportive of astrology; and all had appeared since since July 2017. Many treated astrology as a “he said, she said” affair, which is bad enough, but often the astrology critic was a token. If a respected news outlet treated climate change, evolution, or gravity this way, we’d all be rightly outraged. (This search did not catch the latest astrology article on which Jerry posted; I’m not sure why.) The 10th astrology result was from 2011, an article about a race horse named Astrology.

I haven’t updated his search, but today’s podcast/article will add at least another tick on the “supportive” side. It’s a 33 minute podcast discussion between NYT columnist and writer Kara Swisher and “famed” astrologer Chani Nicholas, who’s just developed a $15/month horoscope app that’s going to make her wealthy.  Click below to hear the podcast, or click on the “transcript” button (here) to read it.

Because I can read faster than I can listen, I printed out a transcript, which turned out to be 37 pages long in 8-point type (granted, there’s a lot of spacing). But I dutifully began reading it, so you don’t have to.

Well, I couldn’t get through more than 12 pages before my brain got the equivalent of a stomach ache: a mental nausea that made it impossible to continue reading. Swisher lobs softball questions at Nicholas, and Nicholas does a planet-based reading for her (knowing, of course, who she was talking to). Unfortunately, at least in the first third of the piece that I read, two questions were missing that a good journalist would ask of a quack:

1.)  What is the evidence that astrology works? (There is none, of course, and you’re welcome to request a pdf of this double-blind test, published in Nature, showing that professional astrologers aren’t any good at predicting your personality from your birth sign.)  This, of course, makes astrology a form of quackery, and its promotion like the NYT promoting the drinking of bleach to cure Covid-19. Well, there’s a difference, of course: astrology won’t kill you; it just makes your wallet thinner. To be more charitable, its promotion is like the paper touting Christianity as a helpful crutch in these dire times.

2.) If astrology works, how does it work? What is it about the alignment of the planets that can somehow materially affect peoples’ brains and upbringing to give them a particular personality and fate? How does Mars, so far away, exert a force on an embryo?

But only a petulant scientist, steeped in “scientism”, would ask these churlish questions. If people say astrology helps them—and Americans pay $2 billion per year for this form of quackery—who are we to question whether it works or not?

If you have a cast-iron stomach, by all means listen to this pabulum. What I want to know is the answer to a third question:

3.) How can a respectable journalistic outlet (one eager to call out Trump’s lies) tout astrology in this way without casting aspersions on it?

And readers might produce the theories, which are theirs. Is it a replacement for religion? A cheap for of psychotherapy? A form of amusement that nobody takes seriously? All three?

I don’t know. All I know is that its promotion in the country’s most famous newspaper, and in many other places, repels me.

Chani Nicholas. Mother Jones illustration; Getty, Don Arnold/Getty

Yet another pro-astrology piece in the Guardian

December 28, 2020 • 9:00 am

Yesterday I noted that The Guardian, Britain’s version of HuffPost, had published an astrology piece on December 26, and didn’t bother to note that the five astrologers it presented were discussing unevidenced claims. It was pure bunk. Indeed, the article’s author, Deborah Linton, made several statements that seemed to vindicate astrology.

Well, that wasn’t the first astrology piece that the paper published that week. Reader Jez called my attention to the publication, five days earlier, of an even dumber article about astrology, which you can see by clicking the screenshot below. This one is straight-up woo, presented without reservations or caveats, and written by Emily Segal, a True Believer.

What we have here is simply a long-form astrology column that deals largely with the Jupter/Saturn conjunction and what it means. According to Segal (who I suspect was actually paid for these lucubrations), it means that we’re moving from an Earth Period to an Air Period:

Besides its visual dazzle, this event has special significance through an astrological lens: it marks the official shift from a 200 year period during which Jupiter and Saturn made conjunctions primarily in Earth signs into a 200 year period of conjunctions in Air signs, marking the advent of a new epoch in a larger 800 year macro-cycle.

. . .  In astrological terms, Jupiter signifies expansion, growth, and coherence – but can also lead to cancerous hypertrophy. Saturn represents the opposite principle, of limitation, structure, and containment, often considered the cruel taskmaster of the zodiac. Together they are like life and death, warp and weft, and their conjunctions signal key moments in the formation of collective reality.

And the inevitable good news:

As for your own experience: don’t panic. Elements are traditionally neutral, which means going from a period typified by one to a period typified by another doesn’t spell disaster. Epochal shifts are part of life, though not everyone has the privilege of living through one like this, since they only happen every 200 years. While I definitely recommend keeping your eyes peeled for changes, don’t expect everything to update all at once – the Air period may be upon us, but certain heavenly revolutions are a slow burn, indeed.

The “privilege” of living through 2020? I don’t think so. And as for her “prediction” that change will happen, but not all at once, well, is that something we need an astrologer to tell us?

I won’t go on—the whole piece is ineffably stupid. But it also includes her justification for her own work:

I am a trend forecaster. Part of my job is about zooming out and looking at big-picture data and trends in order to analyze the present and model key changes to come. I’ve found that astrology, which tracks data from the motion of stars and planets and tries to extrapolate trends and meaning from it, is a useful, evocative model for pattern recognition. I’m not alone in this fascination: Astrology is absolutely booming among millennials and Gen-Z, led in part by a renaissance of scholarship around the subject over the last ten to fifteen years, which has restored a great deal of classical legitimacy and rigor to the admittedly woo-woo new age astrology of the 1960s and 70s.

If there is any evidence that astrology actually helps us understand events, or that people’s characters are formed by their “signs”, let Segal give it to us. In fact, tests have shown that the whole enterprise is a bunch of baloney, booming among Millennials or not. (If you want to see a good double-blind test that was published in Nature, go here (if you can’t see it, make a judicious inquiry).

Oy, my kishkas!

But, mirabile dictu, the Guardian deigned to publish a letter criticizing the article above. Its author, John Zarnecki, is an emeritus professor of space science at The Open University as well as Director of the International Space Science Institute at Berne, Switzerland. Click to read, but I’ll put the whole letter below:

Zarnecki:

I read with rising horror the piece by Emily Segal (The ‘great conjunction’ kicks off a new astrological epoch. So what now?, 21 December). After the third sentence, it is frankly bunkum and hocus-pocus. Especially at a time when surely we must be following rationality and logic, promoting astrological nonsense such as this is quite irresponsible.

As a former president of the Royal Astronomical Society (2016-18), I am sure that I can speak for all astronomers in asserting that there is absolutely no evidence that astrology offers us anything other than an occasional 30-second diversion between other more useful activities.

Where is one piece of serious peer-reviewed research that tells us that astrology is worthy of more than historical interest? None of the so-called propositions merits any serious discussion.

And if the conjecture that “astrology is absolutely booming among millennials” has any basis in truth, then God help us! Luckily, none of the millennials that I know have shown any sign of such tendencies. I hope this is just a passing aberration on the part of the Guardian and that reason will soon return.

Well, it wasn’t passing; the aberration returned five days later. Who’s in charge of this stuff at the Guardian? Segal’s article is the equivalent of the paper publishing the allegations of QAnon as if they were real. And people spend billions of dollars on astrology, so by enabling and validating it, the Guardian is doing us a real disservice. If you subscribe, note that part of your money may have gone for Segal’s fee.

The Miscreant: Emily Segal (from her Twitter site)

 

The voice of reason: John Zarnicki (from his Wikipedia page)

Guest post: The New Yorker suggests that “other ways of knowing” can cure Covid-19

December 17, 2020 • 9:15 am

A few years ago I got an email from a colleague who was disturbed about the anti-science attitudes of the New Yorker, which include an emphasis on “other ways of knowing” —often through the arts and literature. But first I’ll repeat my colleague’s analysis:

The New Yorker is fine with science that either serves a literary purpose (doctors’ portraits of interesting patients) or a political purpose (environmental writing with its implicit critique of modern technology and capitalism). But the subtext of most of its coverage (there are exceptions) is that scientists are just a self-interested tribe with their own narrative and no claim to finding the truth, and that science must concede the supremacy of literary culture when it comes to anything human, and never try to submit human affairs to quantification or consilience with biology. Because the magazine is undoubtedly sophisticated in its writing and editing they don’t flaunt their postmodernism or their literary-intellectual proprietariness, but once you notice it you can make sense of a lot of their material.

. . . Obviously there are exceptions – Atul Gawande is consistently superb – but as soon as you notice it, their guild war on behalf of cultural critics and literary intellectuals against scientists, technologists, and analytic scholars becomes apparent.

Today’s topic, though, is “other ways of knowing through folk wisdom“. In particular: ways of healing used by indigenous people. Now this shouldn’t be rejected out of hand; after all, many modern remedies, like quinine, derive from plants used by locals. But that doesn’t imply a wholesale endorsement of “the collective lived experience” touted in this video about plant-based healing. For the “collective lived experience”, after all, sometimes includes shamanism and, in the example below, “spiritual elements” as a way of curing disease. And here the disease that “lived experience” tackles is something the Siekipai of Ecuador have never experienced: Covid-19.

Reader Jeff Gawthorpe saw a New Yorker video at the link below; I’m not sure whether you’ll have free access, but you will using the yahoo! finance link at the bottom, where the video was republished.

Jeff is about as distressed as I by the fulminating wokeness of the magazine and delivered his critical “review” of the video, which I asked if I could put up in full, including his name. (I don’t like paraphrasing other people’s words, especially when they’re as good as the analysis below). Jeff said that was fine, and so here is his take, indented. I have to say that I agree with it, and have a few comments of my own at the bottom.

Around 30 minutes ago I happened across a dreadful video on the New Yorker‘s website, which drove my temptation to meet head with keyboard through the roof. This piece of ‘journalism’ was entitled: “Fighting COVID-19 with Ancestral Wisdom in the Amazon”. And yes, It’s as bad as it sounds: unscientific, irresponsible nonsense. Complete tosh.

The message which the piece attempts to convey is that COVID-19 can be dealt with by ‘lived experience’, ancient ‘ways of knowing’, and a few bits of boiled tree bark. Then, if you hadn’t had enough already, Just before the end, a caption pops up saying: “With a new stock of plants, the Siekopai are prepared to address future outbreaks of the virus according to their traditions.” Urrrhhgg.

You’ll notice that they are canny enough to maintain a degree of plausible deniability by making no definite claims. To me this demonstrates the very worst of journalism:

  • Conveying mistruths to support an ideology
  • Lacking the courage to commit to claims by asserting them as supportable facts

That’s bottom of the barrel journalism at the best of times, but now it’s irresponsible, reckless even. It presents a clear message that indigenous knowledge and ancient wisdom are perfectly acceptable ways of dealing with the pandemic. At no point is it mentioned that these ‘remedies’ are not backed by evidence, clinical or otherwise.

As you know, many western societies have huge anti-vax movements which often distrust and denounce mainstream medicine. Unfortunately, this video just adds fuel to the anti-vaxers fire. By failing to mention that these plant ‘remedies’ have zero efficacy, they are providing implicit support to the anti-science, anti-vax groups. Worse still, they are acting like digital snake oil salesmen, imbuing members of the public with false confidence that that they can avoid or fight off this virus with a couple of well chosen tree bark specimens. It’s dangerous, irresponsible nonsense.

Click below to see the video:

My own comments are few. First, it looks like the “remedy” includes cinchona bark, the source of quinine, as a palliative (the remedy seems directed at symptomatic relief rather than a cure).

Second, even “lived experience”, while useful, is no substitute for double-blind clinical trials. Granted, the Siekipai can’t do that, but they sure as hell should take the vaccination when it gets to them.  And, like Jeff, I think it’s totally irresponsible of The New Yorker to present this video without any kind of caveat. After all, when Trump skirts the truth, they don’t hesitate to correct him.  I guess “lived experience of indigenous people” is a different matter—it’s not as if they’re recommending drinking bleach or anything.

Are we “scientific fascists”?

December 2, 2020 • 1:15 pm

This article from Medium floated into my ambit, with a title was guaranteed to lure me like a mayfly lures a trout.  The author, Roderick Graham, is an associate professor of sociology and criminal justice at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, and has his own eponymous website.

The main point of his article is to outline a set of ideas and behaviors that he calls “scientific fascism”, which appear to involve the use of data, reason, and logic in a way that attacks Graham’s favorite ideas about social justice. It’s the combination of “scientific” and “fascism” that intrigued me.

Click on the screenshot to read:

Graham gives a definition of scientific fascism that guarantees that it will fulfill the secret mission of its adherents:

I offer this definition of scientific fascism:

“Scientific fascism is a body of ideas characterized by the desire to erase the unique experiences of minority groups, obedience to a narrow view of science, and a dismissal of people who disagree as being devoid of reason or intelligence.”

. . . . and as part of the definition he includes these behaviors practiced by “scientific fascists”:

The scientific fascist adopts as their tools of choice science and reason. The purpose of using these tools is only ever to mount an attack on the ideas underpinning social justice activities. These ideas include “lived experiences”, “safe spaces”, “white fragility”, “heteronormativity”, “systemic racism”, “toxic masculinity” and “microaggressions”, to name a few. This is one of the qualities that separates scientific fascism from scientism. Scientism is an extreme belief in science. [JAC: no it’s not!] Scientific fascists, on the other hand, are using science and reason for the political goal of pushing back social justice activism.

Now of course science and reason can be used to criticize any ideology or idea, be it Critical Studies, other aspects of social justice, liberalism as a whole, the ideology of Republicans, Communism, and so on.  But Graham uses the term “scientific fascist” only for those who use science and reason to attack social justice—and his conception of it—which already shows that the two words of his mantra “scientific fascist” have been construed more narrowly.

But he’s dead wrong in his second quote, for the purpose of using “science” and “reason” is NOT “only ever” to mount an attack on social justice, or to try to “maintain social inequalities and erase the experiences of minority groups from public discourse.” But you could, of course, use science to see if safe spaces work, or if there is such a a thing as implicit bias, but somehow I don’t think Graham would favor that kind of science. He’d rather use “lived experience”—those people who say that they require safe spaces and have been victims of unconscious bias.

By Graham’s definition, then, scientific fascists are identified by what they do, not by the fact that they use reason and science in an authoritarian way (whatever that is; how can data be non-authoritarian?). Ergo Graham is not being profound when he says stuff like this:

At the risk of belaboring the point, the scientific fascist is only ever interested in using science to push back against social justice ideas. Within academia, knowledge production is varied. Professors in history, law, business, and theology, just to name a few, use many different approaches to producing knowledge within their field. Scientific fascists are not interested in those fields unless they attempt to speak to the experiences of minority groups.

Well, we can argue about whether business, law and theology are “ways of knowledge production”, unless they use scientific (i.e., empirical) methods. But under Graham’s definition, someone who criticizes theology and its dictates for being irrational and nonscientific is not a “scientific fascist” unless she is going after social justice aspects of theology, like God’s supposed dictates.

The above gives us a hint of how Graham says is the best way to counter scientific fascists: use LIVED EXPERIENCE.  We all know the fallacies of generalizing from anecdotes—through anecdotes, multiplied through, say, a scientific poll, can become data. But Graham doesn’t talk about that. Rather, he’s referring to someone who uses their “lived experience” to produce knowledge by generalizing from it.

So what do “scientific fascists” say? Graham has a little list. Here are some examples of how we (I suppose I’m one of them) use science to attack social justice. We supposedly make statements like these:

“…the desire to erase the unique experiences of minority groups…”

  • “I believe in the Englightenment [sic] principles of individual liberty.”
  • “Why must you always put people in groups. I am an INDIVIDUAL!”
  • “What kind of ‘lived experiences’ do trans folks have? What is an experience if not lived?”
  • “All Lives Matter”

Only the first statement has anything to do with science, but none of these statements involve using science to do down social justice. They are statements of preference that do not involved data.  Let’s throw these in the circular file and move on to how we supposedly misuse science:

“…obedience to a narrow view science…”

  • “Sociologists are a bunch of left-wing communists, and you cannot trust their research.”
  • “Critical scholarship is a cancer in our society and must be removed from our universities.”
  • “These studies departments — women’s studies, queer studies, black studies — they produce no real knowledge.”
  • “Critical theory is unfalsifiable.”

The first and second statements are not science, construed either narrowly or broadly, but are slurs, that don’t involve data. (I suppose you could test whether sociologists are all “left wing communists”!)

The third statement is one that can be debated so long as you define what you mean by “knowledge”. I would claim that, in general, Critical Studies departments aren’t usually in the business of producing knowledge (though some practitioners are), but are in the business of pushing an ideology and burnishing people’s self image.

The last statement, too, is worth debating, because perhaps Critical Theory, unlike the structure of DNA, evolution, or the cause of malaria, might indeed be unfalsifiable. I have yet to hear an adherent to Critical Studies outline what could falsify it.  But in truth, although these statements may be made by scientists who are used to a certain level of rigor in their experiments and conclusions, they do not stem from science itself.

And this is how we supposedly use science to “erase” minorities and our purported opponents (by the way, if you see the word “race” or “harm” in a screed, head for the hills):

“…and a dismissal of people who disagree as being devoid of reason or intelligence.”

  • “Ibram Kendi is a low IQ individual.”
  • “Here are the fallacies in this claim.”
  • “Black folk are being told there is racism by liberal elites (but there really isn’t).”
  • “The woke are irrational and illogical.”

Good Lord! First of all, you’d have to be a low IQ individual yourself to claim that Ibram Kendi is a “low IQ individual.” You may not like his ideas, but you can’t take issue with the fact that the guy is smart.

The second claim is indeed a use of reason and logic to attack an argument. There’s nothing wrong with it, nor does it dismiss people as being devoid of reason or intelligence. In fact, the statement itself is a use of reason and intelligence to address an argument, not to impugn anyone.

I don’t quite get the third statement. One may argue about whether “structural racism” is pervasive (and argue, based on its definition, whether it is), but you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who says that there is no racism. The data even show it, reflected in the differential rate of traffic stops by police, which, since the black/white difference narrows at twilight, is surely based on anti-black racism.

As for the last statement, well, it may be true in some instances—indeed, like this article itself, which attacks science and reason not for their supposed lack of value, but because they’re supposedly a tool of racism.

After reading this article—and I draw to a close, for discussing it involves too much “emotional labor”—I realized that it has nothing to do with science at all. It is an attack on those who use reason and logic to go after the social-justice ideas that Dr. Graham embraces. The word “fascist” is in there simply as a pejorative: someone who argues against those who want to restrict immigration, and who uses the same kind of authoritarianism and data would not, I suspect, be called by Graham a “scientific fascist”.

You might entertain yourself by thinking of related names that characterize people like Graham, but in the interest of reducing my peevishness, I’ll refrain.