Posts Tagged ‘P.Z. Myers’

A paradoxical strength/weakness of reason is its inherent disposition toward self-refutation. It’s a bold move when undertaken with genuine interest in getting things right. Typically, as evidence piles up, consensus forms that’s tantamount to proof unless some startling new counter-evidence appears. Of course, intransigent deniers exist and convincing refutations do appear periodically, but accounts of two hotly contested topics (from among many) — evolution and climate change — are well established notwithstanding counterclaims completely disproportionate in their ferocity to the evidence. For rationalists, whatever doubts remain must be addressed and accommodated even if disproof is highly unlikely.

This becomes troublesome almost immediately. So much new information is produced in the modern world that, because I am duty-bound to consider it, my head spins. I simply can’t deal with it all. Inevitably, when I think I’ve put a topic to rest and conclude I don’t have to think too much more about it, some argument-du-jour hits the shit pile and I am forced to stop and reconsider. It’s less disorienting when facts are clear, but when interpretive, I find my head all too easily spun by the latest, greatest claims of some charming, articulate speaker able to cobble together evidence lying outside of my expertise.

Take for instance Steven Pinker. He speaks in an authoritative style and has academic credentials that dispose me to trust his work. His new book is Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (2018). Still, Pinker is an optimist, whereas I’m a doomer. Even though I subscribe to Enlightenment values (for better or worse, my mind is bent that way), I can’t escape a mountain of evidence that we’ve made such a mess of things that reason, science, humanism, and progress are hardly panaceas capable of saving us from ourselves. Yet Pinker argues that we’ve never had it so good and the future looks even brighter. I won’t take apart Pinker’s arguments; it’s already been done by Jeremy Lent, who concludes that Pinker’s ideas are fatally flawed. Lent has the expertise, data, and graphs to demonstrate it. Calling Pinker a charlatan would be unfair, but his appreciation of the state of the world stands in high contrast with mine. Who ya gonna believe?

Books and articles like Pinker’s appear all the time, and in their aftermath, so, too, do takedowns. That’s the marketplace of ideas battling it out, which is ideally meant to sharpen thinking, but with the current epistemological crises under way (I’ve blogged about it for years), the actual result is dividing people into factions, destabilizing established institutions, and causing no small amount of bewilderment in the public as to what and whom to believe. Some participants in the exchange of ideas take a sober, evidential approach; others lower themselves to snark and revel in character assassination without bothering to make reasoned arguments. The latter are often called a hit pieces (a special province of the legacy media, it seems), since hefty swipes and straw-man arguments tend to be commonplace. I’m a sucker for the former style but have to admit that the latter can also hit its mark. However, both tire me to the point of wanting to bury my head.

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I don’t normally concern myself overly much with B movies. I may watch one while munching my popcorn, but they hardly warrant consideration beyond the time lost spent plopped in front of the screen. My first thought about World War Z is that there hasn’t been another case of a special effect in search of a story since, well, any of the films from the Transformers franchise (new one due out in a couple weeks). WWZ is a zombie film — the kind with fast zombies (running, jumping, and busting their heads through glass instead of just lumbering around) who transform from the living into the undead in under 20 seconds. None of this works without the genre being well established for viewers. Yet World War Z doesn’t hew to the implicit understanding that it should essentially be a snuff film, concocting all manner of never-before-seen gore from dispatching them-no-longer-us. Instead, its main visual play is distant CGI crowd scenes (from helicopters — how exciting!) of self-building Jenga piles of zombies.

Two intertwined stories run behind the ostensible zombie dreck: (1) an investigation into the origin of the viral outbreak that made the zombies, leading to a pseudo-resolution (not quite a happy ending) Hollywood writers apparently find obligatory, and (2) reuniting the investigator with his family, who has been separated because he’s the kind of reluctant hero with such special, unique skills that he’s extorted into service by his former employer. Why an A-list actor such as Brad Pitt agrees to associate himself with such moronic fare is beyond me. The character could have been played by any number of action stars aging past their ass-kicking usefulness as we watch: Bruce Willis, John Travolta, Nicolas Cage, Pierce Brosnan, Mel Gibson, Liam Neeson, Wesley Snipes, Keanu Reeves (who can at least project problem-solving acumen), and Sylvester Stallone, just to name a few. This list could actually go on quite a bit further.

This is the kind of film for which the term suspension of disbelief was coined. The implausibly fortunate survival of the hero through a variety of threats is assured, tying the story together from front to back, which is a cliché that drains dramatic tension out of the story despite everyone around him perishing. I was curious to read P.Z. Myers’ rant discussing the awful science of World War Z, which also observes plot holes and strategic WTFs. The bad science doesn’t stick in my craw quite like it does for Myers, but then, my science background is pretty modest. Like so many fight scenes in action movies where the hero is never really injured, I just sorta go with it.

What really interests me about WWZ, however, is that it presents yet another scenario (rather uninspired, actually) of what might happen when society breaks apart. Since the film features a fast crash where everything goes utterly haywire within hours — yet the electrical grid stays up — the first harrowing scene is the family fleeing, first in a car and then a commandeered mobile home, before seeking temporary refuge in a tenement. The main character states early on that people on the move survive and people who hunker down are lost. That may be true in a theater of war, but I can’t judge whether it’s also true with a virulent contagion scenario. In any case, the investigator alternates between movement and refuge as his situation changes.

Because the zombie horde is a functionally external threat, survivors (however temporary) automatically unite and cooperate. This behavior is borne out in various real-world responses to fast-developing events. However, slow-mo threats without the convenient external enemy, such as we’re now experiencing in the real world with protracted industrial collapse, provides a different picture: dog eating dog and fighting to survive another day. Such alternatives cause many who foresee extraordinary difficulties in the decades ahead to wish for events to break over civilization like a tsunami, taking many all at once and uniting those unlucky enough to survive. But until that happens, we’re faced with slow death by a thousand cuts.

And Condemnation for All

Posted: May 23, 2009 in Debate, Ethics, Religion
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It’s not often that one reads an honest-to-goodness, full-on condemnation of someone, either a person or a group of people. Most acts of condemnation are more like posturing or theater than actually consigning someone to an eternity of woe at the hands of some scaly red-skinned demon with a forked tongue, a trident, and possession of the forfeited soul. Isn’t it ironic, then, that the person lobbing all this animus at others doesn’t actually believe in a life after death in which to suffer and repent? No, the damning is for the here and now, not some ethereal realm of our imaginations.

The fellow in question is P.Z. Myers, who writes about modern-day Isaacs, children sacrificed by their own parents in the name of faith via withheld medical treatment. Myers’ blog Pharyngula (in my blogroll at left) is ostensibly a science blog, but he spends more time taking believers to task than writing about science. The volume of comments demonstrates that lots of people find this activity highly entertaining and/or worthwhile. One can debate whether correcting misguided faith is a legitimate objective of science; I think it probably is.

A child killed by a parent (or both parents) is an ancient story, not just in the sense of religious sacrifice (a la Abraham and Isaac) but more commonly in the practice of infanticide. It’s tragic and sad but not without abundant precedent in history. It’s also hard not to feel empathy for the children, who are especially vulnerable and blameless. But that’s the case for defenseless victims of all sorts, not just children. Also, if we feel special remorse over the wasted potential of a life cut tragically short, I wonder why we don’t feel something akin to anger at the billions of lives lived past the age of 50, say, that are a similar waste, though conceptualized from the opposite end of the arrow of time?

The really breathtaking part of Myers’ attack, though, is the wholesale condemnation of the enablers of parents who sacrifice children. The enablers are the other faithful who form the religious context for such irrational behavior. Myers calls them mealy-mouthed moderates for their implied complicity and literal refusal to intervene. This damning by association applies equally to the clergy and the media, both of which look patronizingly favorably upon extreme acts of faith and appear to be more committed to protecting religious freedom in the abstract than protecting a child in a specific instance.