Monthly Archives: May 2010

The Sixth Rule of Discourse

Picard has the right idea.

Regardless of how sure you are, do not call someone the Antichrist, the Whore of Babylon, or a Rider of the Apocalypse.  It never helps.

But what if you’re really really sure?  Isn’t it your job to tell the world, rather like if you knew that your neighbor was a murderer?

Not really.  It’s your job to get a glass of water and go to bed and think about it some more when you’ve got some rest.  Setting aside the general weakness of dispensational theory and other eschatologies that include an Antichrist (he is, after all, never mentioned under that name in the Bible), enough people have been wrong about this that you’ll probably end up as just another person who looks like a bigoted idiot in a couple of years.  After all, it wasn’t Gorbachev, and he even had a crazy birthmark.

Of course antichrist-naming is a fringe activity generally restricted to fundamentalist conspiracy theorists and to people who don’t really mean it in earnest but like to use it as a slur to rally the like-minded behind.  However, the Whore of Babylon is an oddly different case.

Even otherwise-intelligent thinkers seem to believe that they can identify the Whore of Babylon.  Thus, we have the hook-line-and-sinker Reformed belief that it’s the Roman Catholic Church.  If such respected theologians as Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Knox, and Jack Chick believed it, it must be a respectable belief.  Except no, not at all.  It’s not a respectable belief because it’s a useless belief.  It’s nothing but a stick to beat institutions you don’t like with.  After all, if an institution has actually done enough evil things to reasonably qualify as the Whore of Babylon, you could simply criticize it on that basis.  All the name-calling adds is an excuse to write off the institution entirely.  There’s no need to objectively consider whether its actions were really that bad if it’s the Whore of Babylon:  Of course it’s that bad, and even if it isn’t, it will be eventually.  It also negates the possibility of said institution changing or improving.  Finally, it provides an excuse to never work with that institution or anyone who is a part of it, reinforcing the Reformed tendency to circle the wagons against theological opposition by denouncing it as heretical.

But this is a law of discourse, after all, not a law of personal belief.  The best reason not to call someone or something by one of these names is simply that it makes you look like an ass.  It gives anyone who likes whatever you’re criticizing, as well as anyone on the fence, a profoundly good reason to never listen to another word you say.

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Oddity of the Week

Could the ending of the Hellsing anime be any less satisfying?  My final list of questions:

-Who was the Round Table traitor, and why?

-Who was making the freak chips, and why?

-Is it the same person as the traitor?

-Does MI-5 find him?  Did he get to carry out his plan?

-Why was Incognito working for him?

-Were the Valentine brothers working for him, and why?

-Did Integra get out of jail?

-Why didn’t the Round Table get Integra out of jail if they found and expelled the traitor?

-Did Integra drink Alucard’s blood?

-Did Walter live?

-What happened to Seras Victoria?  Is Alucard still her master or not?

-Who was that vampire she defeated?  What did he have to do with anything?

-What about Paladin Anderson?  He’s the main villain and he hasn’t even been in the last four episodes!

-Alucard really does look like Carmen Sandiego, doesn’t he?

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If you want to find out the actual ending, you have to read the manga or watch the OVA series.  Prepare to be disappointed.  It turns out to be the Ghostapo.

Images from TotallyLooksLike and GameSpot.

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Big Science

A standard way to make institutions sound insidious is to tack “Big” in front of a general category, as in Big Business, Big Oil, Big Pharma, and so on. This is a violation of the Third Rule of Discourse that might be acceptable under the corollary if it didn’t carry pejorative connotations. The point of the nomenclature is to differentiate these institutions as being large and fiscally powerful, and thus able to sway politics and public policy to a much greater degree than private citizens, even large numbers of them put together. It’s usually a bit of left-wing rhetoric, but the right wing gets in on it occasionally with terms like Big Unions (Big Government is not an example of this, being a different concept).

One of the latter terms is Big Science. It got trotted out in the tagline to Ben Stein’s documentary Expelled:  “Big science has expelled smart new ideas from the classroom…What they forgot is that every generation has its Rebel!”  I’ll pause here to clarify definitions, because the term “Big Science” gets used in two ways. The first is the phenomenon of large-scale, expensive scientific research, usually funded by governments. The Large Hadron Collider is an example. I’m not talking about this usage. Rather, I’m talking about the less common usage referring to science as a large, roughly homogeneous, politically powerful entity, comparable to the oil lobby and such. The term is fairly rare, but the concept (that scientists are influencing politics to their own ends, much as businesses do, and/or that the scientific community dogmatically defends its own theories and silences opposition) is rather more common.  It’s also utter nonsense.

To claim there’s a research science lobby is to overlook the direction of cash flow.  Businesses can lobby the government because they’re paying into it: generally through their taxes and specifically through their donations.  Science, however, gets money from the government in the form of grants.  Given the dwindling number of grants, the government has far more leverage over research scientists than vice versa.

The idea of a conspiracy within science to promote certain ideas and squelch others is also flawed.  Given the way science is structured, it’s unlikely to ever cling to a false theory for any reason once it becomes untenable, because science is a field that values both truth and new ideas.

The best way to get famous as a scientist is to prove a novel new theory.  The scientific community is unlikely to cling to an old idea once a newer idea is shown to be true, because every individual scientist stands to profit greatly by being the one to discover (or rather, demonstrate and verify) the truth.  The more novel the idea, the more corollary research there is to be had around it, so other scientists have a vested interest in embracing the new theory so that they can get a piece of the research pie.  They also don’t want to go chasing after nothing, though, so careful work is done to make sure the theory is really true, leading to a long delay as new knowledge becomes widely-accepted enough to appear in peer-reviewed journals, then general science magazines like Scientific American, then popular science magazines like New Scientist, and finally textbooks.

You might think that this would lead to the scientific community agreeing to make stuff up (like, say, global warming) so that they could ask for a bunch of money to study it.  But this doesn’t happen either, because the second-best way to get famous in science is to disprove a widely-believed theory.  The scientist who disproved global warming unequivocally would probably have a Nobel prize coming, as well as money coming out of his or her ears from the oil lobby.

This is basically game theory working in reverse.  In case you’re not familiar with it, game theory deals with a two-player scenario where each person has two options, leading to four possible outcomes that are better or worse for each player.  For instance, say that Cold War Russia and the US both want to nuke each other.  The possible outcomes, ranked from best to worst from the US perspective:  Best, the US nukes Russia but Russia doesn’t nuke the US; second best, neither country nukes the other; third best, both countries nuke each other; worst, Russia nukes the US but the US doesn’t nuke Russia.  The idea is that, if both parties act to obtain their respective best scenarios, they end up with a scenario that is bad for everyone.

In science, the opposite is true.  If each scientist acts strictly for his or her own benefit by proving a new theory or disproving an old one, the scientific collective benefits.  If someone fudges data or falsifies results, other scientists benefit by exposing this–and so does science as a whole.  And all this doesn’t even take ethics into account.  Most scientists place a high value on truth.  They entered the sciences to learn more about the world.  Most of them would not falsify data for any amount of reward.

The left wing needs to drop the “Big” label. Simply referring to “the coal lobby” or “private health insurance providers” is sufficient and less loaded. However, the right needs to drop the term “Big Science” altogether.  It’s a meaningless term and bespeaks a lack of knowledge about how science works.

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Squelch.  Squelch.  Squelch.

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Ruminations II

Just once I would like something lemon-lime flavored to taste like lemon and lime and not like Sprite.

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Few things are as depressing as being rejected from volunteer positions. You’re being told that your contribution would be literally worse than nothing.

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Jordan and I purchased a total of 14 jars in the following sizes:

4 – 25 oz, used for beans, lentils, barley, oats.

2 – 1 qt, used for brown sugar and cornmeal

2 – 2 qt, used for powdered sugar and pancake mix

3 – 4 qt, used for white flour, whole wheat flour, and white sugar

Next up, on Storage Jars

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The Wrong Strategy

The Arizona-related brouhaha largely overshadowed an interesting incident unfolding in Oklahoma.  It’s a bit of pro-life legislation that passed the state legislature, was vetoed, was passed by overriding the veto, and has now been suspended by a state judge.

Before I continue, please take a moment to review my disclaimer.

Back?  Okay.  Now, the law requires any woman who wants an abortion to first have an ultrasound and listen to a detailed description of the baby and its beating heart.  Another law that also overturned a veto prevents women from suing doctors for not reporting birth defects.

I was immediately reminded of the stories that the pro-choice blogosphere have been circulating about crisis pregnancy centers.  One woman says that she visited a crisis pregnancy center but ended up having an abortion anyway.  The center subsequently sent her birthday cards for her baby splattered with red ink.  She and others report centers violating confidentiality by calling parents, friends, and roommates–or even the police.  Many report being told that they would go to Hell for killing their baby and similar threats.  Many others received misinformation about their pregnancies, pregnancy tests, and abortion procedures, apparently with the goal of confusing and delaying them until it was too late for an abortion.

Maybe those stories are true and maybe they aren’t.  Trying to get an accurate perception from the combined views of these people and these people is a futile enterprise.  However, CPCs have been convicted of false advertising for claiming to be clinics when they’re often staffed by volunteers with no medical training who administer off-the-shelf pregnancy tests, and for claiming to provide “options” when, in fact, they are only going to tell women one thing.  It’s also well-documented that they administer off-the-shelf pregnancy tests, which only take 3-5 minutes to yield a result, but make the woman wait for as much as half an hour while watching graphic abortion videos.  As for the more drastic accounts, it seems most likely that they’re true but uncommon; an unbiased study on the subject is desperately needed.

Regardless of the actual state of crisis pregnancy centers, the laws are certainly true.  Florida is trying to pass a similar law.  Oklahoma also passed a law in the fall, now suspended, requiring physicians to list specific demographic details such as age, race, and marital status for every woman who had an abortion–on a publicly accessible website.

The laws and the strategies employed by crisis pregnancy centers demonstrate a troubling willingness to decrease abortions through coercion, deception, and harassment.  They are acting as though the end justifies the means.

Well, does it?  I invite any pro-choicers reading to take a breath and assume the pro-life view for a minute, if they are capable of doing so.  Assuming that fetuses are human beings, we’re talking over a million deaths per year in the US–about half the total death rate of born human beings.  Surely if there were that many murders (or executions, or war casualties, or what have you) every year, we would do whatever we could to stop it.

Well, maybe.  We don’t seem to do much about the 100,000-odd deaths by accidents, mostly traffic accidents, although those are largely preventable and could be decreased countless ways.  This is because we culturally don’t care about actual safety, but rather perceived safety, hence our hysterical fear of the infinitesimally small chance of being killed in a terrorist attack, but I digress.  The pertinent question isn’t whether we would do whatever was possible, but whether we should, and specifically whether we should use coercive tactics.

I was stymied by this hypothetical.  There is simply no comparable situation I can think of where, on either a large or small scale, where lies and harassment (of the potential killer) would be the best way of preventing deaths.  Concealment of information can be a legitimate strategy and that often requires outright deception, as in the standard lying-to-the-Nazis dilemma, but lying to an enfranchised dictatorship with a murderous agenda hardly seems comparable to lying to a confused victim.  So let’s move away from analogies and address the question directly.

If the end justifies the means, then Scott Roeder was right.

There are far more abortions than abortion doctors in America.  Undoubtedly, if we killed all abortion doctors, there would be a net positive, even accounting for women who died of pregnancy complications, babies who were abandoned, and women and babies who died through botched abortion attempts.  We could go ahead and throw in vocal proponents of abortion and still come out ahead.  But we shouldn’t, because that’s a terrible, terrible strategy.

I’ve never been a very dedicated ethicist; one’s beliefs about what is so strongly influence what ought to be that I think it’s more profitable to try to hash out presuppositions.  Nevertheless, from a Christian perspective, which I think most people would lay somewhere between Kantian and utilitarian ethics but closer to the Kantian end, it seems that the end occasionally justifies the means, but doesn’t usually.  There are exceptions to our moral rules under extraordinary circumstances (or, to quote Barbossa, “The rules are more like guidelines anyway”), but the majority of the time, the rules should be adhered to–even when they appear to yield a bad result.  Most of the time, the rules will probably yield a better result than the combination of one’s personal moral compass and ability to predict results.  Only when the results of standard moral behavior are obviously very bad, and the alternative clearly far better, should the rules be intentionally transgressed.

In case I’m getting obtuse, the moral behavior in question is that we shouldn’t harass or deceive people, and the context in which the rule is being questioned is when the harass-ee is a pregnant woman who wants to get an abortion.  Assuming the abortion-is-murder premise, as we’ve been doing, this looks like a case where the consequences are clearly bad.  However, I don’t think it’s a case where rulebreaking is justified.  It fails in the second condition: the alternative is not clearly better.

The alternative would clearly be better if all women who underwent this coercion ended up not having abortions and would have otherwise, and if these ends could not have been achieved through non-coercive means, like Biblical counseling and providing free prenatal care.  That’s a lot of variables.  With crisis pregnancy centers, comparing the actual outcome to the averted outcome is futile, but the results of the Oklahoma law are clear enough, and I doubt we’ll see a sudden cessation of abortions.  If the woman has an abortion anyway, then the result will merely be that the woman is more miserable than she would otherwise be–a worse outcome*.  As the issues become more and more complex, it’s sensible to return to the default standards of behavior: honesty, kindness, and good faith.

The use of ugly, graphic videos of abortions is particularly irritating to me because it’s a fallacious emotional appeal.  You could show disgusting images of open-heart surgery or animals being slaughtered, but it has no bearing on whether those acts are wrong or not.  Similarly, to a lesser degree, pictures and videos showing how human fetuses are.  Plenty of things look human but aren’t, and animals sometimes act uncannily human but aren’t.  One could just as well make the argument that CG characters have rights because they seem so human.  Of course there are real arguments for considering fetuses to be human, but that’s precisely why the pointless non-arguments should stop.

This leads me to the final consequence at play: cultural perceptions.  Any good pro-lifer knows that, while brute-force solutions like laws may be necessary steps, the real battle is changing cultural perceptions.  Build a culture where no one considers abortion an option and the problem is solved.  Whatever else the new Oklahoma laws do, they won’t open a floodgate of sympathy for the pro-life cause.  Pro-lifers will likely find it a Pyrrhic victory: winning the battle is making them lose the war**.

Of course I am not telling pro-lifers to lay down their arms.  By no means!  There is much to be done.  Counsel some teenagers, bring meals to a single mother, and if you’re really serious about your pro-life beliefs, foster or adopt (if you’re really, really serious, adopt instead of having your own children).  These acts advance your goals and are morally laudable in and of themselves.  It is precisely because there is so much good to be done that harassing and deceiving women who are considering abortion is the wrong strategy.

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*Pro-choice feminists will claim that this is the primary and intended outcome: that the goal of saving babies is only a cover for the real, albeit perhaps subliminal, goal of making women feel guilty about their sexuality.  This is a violation of AGI and a strawman with respect to strong pro-lifers I’ve known personally.  Still, there’s a spark of truth to it as regards the side-taking nature of the abortion issue: “I didn’t stop her, but at least I made her feel really, really bad.”  More on this when I’ve recovered from my weariness with the whole debate.

**Yes, I’m channeling Reinhold Niebuhr here, but I haven’t read enough of his work to justly invoke him.

Crisis pregnancy centers always make me think of that scene from Jesus Camp.

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What Are Your Pentecost Plans?

I know, I know, we have three weeks left to go, but we’ve got a plan.  We are going to put together a garage band, play a bunch of Christian rock ballads, and hold up lighters.  DC Talk’s “Consume Me” seemed like an appropriate choice (“You consume me/you consume me/like a burning flame/running through my veins”).  I shall contribute Kevin Max’s backing vocals.

I rather doubt many people we know would go along with this, though.  Not many people share our viewpoint that some things are too important to be taken seriously

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Oddity of the Week

Finally, an infographic that tells us what we really need to know.  Original is here.

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