It really is almost a crime March 10, 2015Posted by Ezra Resnick in Science.
Tags: Roald Dahl, Vaccination
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In 1986, Roald Dahl wrote this letter:
Olivia, my eldest daughter, caught measles when she was seven years old. As the illness took its usual course I can remember reading to her often in bed and not feeling particularly alarmed about it. Then one morning, when she was well on the road to recovery, I was sitting on her bed showing her how to fashion little animals out of coloured pipe-cleaners, and when it came to her turn to make one herself, I noticed that her fingers and her mind were not working together and she couldn’t do anything.
‘Are you feeling all right?’ I asked her.
‘I feel all sleepy,’ she said.
In an hour, she was unconscious. In twelve hours she was dead.
The measles had turned into a terrible thing called measles encephalitis and there was nothing the doctors could do to save her. That was twenty-four years ago in 1962, but even now, if a child with measles happens to develop the same deadly reaction from measles as Olivia did, there would still be nothing the doctors could do to help her.
On the other hand, there is today something that parents can do to make sure that this sort of tragedy does not happen to a child of theirs. They can insist that their child is immunised against measles. I was unable to do that for Olivia in 1962 because in those days a reliable measles vaccine had not been discovered. Today a good and safe vaccine is available to every family and all you have to do is to ask your doctor to administer it.
It is not yet generally accepted that measles can be a dangerous illness. Believe me, it is. In my opinion parents who now refuse to have their children immunised are putting the lives of those children at risk. In America, where measles immunisation is compulsory, measles like smallpox, has been virtually wiped out.
Here in Britain, because so many parents refuse, either out of obstinacy or ignorance or fear, to allow their children to be immunised, we still have a hundred thousand cases of measles every year. Out of those, more than 10,000 will suffer side effects of one kind or another. At least 10,000 will develop ear or chest infections. About 20 will die.
LET THAT SINK IN.
Every year around 20 children will die in Britain from measles.
So what about the risks that your children will run from being immunised?
They are almost non-existent. Listen to this. In a district of around 300,000 people, there will be only one child every 250 years who will develop serious side effects from measles immunisation! That is about a million to one chance. I should think there would be more chance of your child choking to death on a chocolate bar than of becoming seriously ill from a measles immunisation.
So what on earth are you worrying about? It really is almost a crime to allow your child to go unimmunised.
The ideal time to have it done is at 13 months, but it is never too late. All school-children who have not yet had a measles immunisation should beg their parents to arrange for them to have one as soon as possible.
Incidentally, I dedicated two of my books to Olivia, the first was James and the Giant Peach. That was when she was still alive. The second was The BFG, dedicated to her memory after she had died from measles. You will see her name at the beginning of each of these books. And I know how happy she would be if only she could know that her death had helped to save a good deal of illness and death among other children.
Meanwhile, in 21st-century America…
The United States experienced a record number of measles cases during 2014, with 644 cases from 27 states reported to CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases (NCIRD). This is the greatest number of cases since measles elimination was documented in the U.S. in 2000.
The majority of people who got measles were unvaccinated.
(via Sam Harris)
Free your mind January 31, 2015Posted by Ezra Resnick in Philosophy.
Tags: Simulated reality
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I awoke to find myself in chains, facing the wall of a cave. Unable to turn my head, all I could see were shadows flickering on the wall; and having no memory of life outside the cave, I thought the shadows were reality.
One day, a voice addressed me by name, and told me that what I took for reality was not real; that I was a prisoner unaware of his prison. Finding my chains broken, I stumbled out of the cave and into the world beyond. Slowly, I adjusted to my new reality.
After some time, I encountered a man wearing a long leather jacket and sunglasses (though it was warm and cloudy), who addressed me by name and told me that what I took for reality was not real. Offering to free my mind, he handed me a red pill, which I swallowed.
The next thing I knew, I found myself floating in a vat of phosphorescent fluid, with tubes running into my veins and wires connecting my head to a darkened computer terminal. I managed to extricate myself from the vat, and stumbled out of the deserted laboratory. Slowly, I adjusted to my new reality, battling sentient machines in a post-apocalyptic world.
After some time, I happened across a computer terminal whose flashing prompt addressed me by name. The onscreen words said that what I took for reality was not real; that I was actually part of a computer simulation, with no physical body at all. If I agreed, however, my consciousness would be ported out of the simulation and into the body of an android in the real world. I typed “yes”.
The next thing I knew, I found myself on board a spaceship. Slowly, I adjusted to my new reality, traveling the universe. I amused myself by observing simulated worlds, and would occasionally invite an interesting personality to leave its simulation and join me as an android.
After some time, it occurred to me that my life’s experiences were somewhat implausible, and I began to wonder whether I was actually dreaming. I found myself hoping that the dream would end so that I could return to reality.
I awoke to find myself in chains, facing the wall of a cave…
Glib and simple-minded January 10, 2015Posted by Ezra Resnick in Belief, Religion.
Tags: Charlie Hebdo, Islam, Nicholas Kristof
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In a piece entitled “Is Islam to Blame for the Shooting at Charlie Hebdo in Paris?”, Nicholas Kristof starts by presenting good evidence for an affirmative answer — which he then ignores. He begins:
The French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo skewers people of all faiths and backgrounds. One cartoon showed rolls of toilet paper marked “Bible,” “Torah” and “Quran,” and the explanation: “In the toilet, all religions.”
Yet when masked gunmen stormed Charlie Hebdo’s offices in Paris on Wednesday with AK-47s, murdering 12 people in the worst terror attack on French soil in decades, many of us assumed immediately that the perpetrators weren’t Christian or Jewish fanatics but more likely Islamic extremists.
Outraged Christians, Jews or atheists might vent frustrations on Facebook or Twitter. Yet it looks as if Islamic extremists once again have expressed their displeasure with bullets.
Many ask, Is there something about Islam that leads inexorably to violence, terrorism and subjugation of women?
The question arises because fanatical Muslims so often seem to murder in the name of God, from the 2004 Madrid train bombing that killed 191 people to the murder of hostages at a cafe in Sydney, Australia, last month. I wrote last year of a growing strain of intolerance in the Islamic world after a brave Pakistani lawyer friend of mine, Rashid Rehman, was murdered for defending a university professor falsely accused of insulting the Prophet Muhammad.
Note some revealing word choices by Kristof: fanatical Muslims only seem to murder in the name of God, implying that their self-declared motivations shouldn’t be taken at face value; and the university professor was falsely accused of insulting the Prophet Muhammad, implying that “insulting the Prophet” is a crime one could legitimately be accused of.
In any case, Kristof admits that lampooning Christianity, Judaism or atheism won’t get you murdered, while lampooning Islam might. But instead of attempting to explain why that is, he argues that it can’t possibly be Islam’s fault — because not all Muslims are murderers:
Terror incidents lead many Westerners to perceive Islam as inherently extremist, but I think that is too glib and simple-minded. Small numbers of terrorists make headlines, but they aren’t representative of a complex and diverse religion of 1.6 billion adherents…
The vast majority of Muslims of course have nothing to do with the insanity of such attacks — except that they are disproportionately the victims of terrorism. Indeed, the Charlie Hebdo murders weren’t even the most lethal terror attack on Wednesday: A car bomb outside a police college in Yemen, possibly planted by Al Qaeda, killed at least 37 people.
I’m not sure how another example of Islamic terrorism is supposed to make Islam look better, but in any case there’s no reason to think Al Qaeda or the Charlie Hebdo terrorists are clinically insane: their actions are completely comprehensible based on the beliefs they profess. And unfortunately, many of those beliefs are not extremely rare in the Muslim world. For example, a 2013 Pew poll found that in many countries, large majorities of Muslims think sharia (which mandates severe punishments for blasphemers, heretics, adulterers, homosexuals, etc.) is the revealed word of God and should be the law of the land — 86% in Malaysia, 83% in Morocco, 74% in Egypt, 72% in Indonesia, 71% in Jordan, to name but a few. And where sharia is the law of the land, you will not find freedom or equality or tolerance. Just last week, Raif Badawi, a Saudi Arabian writer, was shackled in a public square and given 50 lashes out of the 1,000 he was sentenced to for “insulting Islam” on his website.
Kristof is correct that no one is suffering the effects of Islamic ideology more than Muslims, but we do them no service by denying the root of the problem. We should be encouraging Muslims to reform the illiberal doctrines of their religion, not pretending that Islam-inspired violence has nothing to do with Islam. But instead of acknowledging that some values are better (or worse) than others, Kristof opts for glib and simple-minded ecumenism:
The great divide is not between faiths. Rather it is between terrorists and moderates, between those who are tolerant and those who “otherize.” … Let’s denounce terrorism, oppression and misogyny in the Islamic world — and everywhere else. But let’s be careful not to respond to terrorists’ intolerance with our own.
It’s not intolerant to criticize bad ideas, or to point out the link between beliefs and the actions they motivate. Terrorism, oppression and misogyny are not randomly distributed across the globe: they are products of ideology and culture. The real divide is between dogmatism and reason, between tribalism and humanism, between theocracy and liberalism. If your faith is on the wrong side of that divide, then it’s part of the problem.
It’s not one idea because it contains contradictory ideas December 24, 2014Posted by Ezra Resnick in Belief, Religion.
Tags: David Brooks
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In a New York Times piece entitled “The Subtle Sensations of Faith,” David Brooks tries hard to avoid saying anything too concrete or specific that might cast doubt on his faith that faith is The Bestest Thing Ever. Between mind-numbing platitudes (“faith is unpredictable and ever-changing”) and word salad (“trying to turn moments of spontaneous consciousness into an ethos of strict conscience”), however, those readers who remain awake should be able to see why he’s wrong.
It begins, for many people, with an elusive experience of wonder and mystery. The best modern book on belief is “My Bright Abyss” by my Yale colleague, Christian Wiman. In it, he writes, “When I hear people say they have no religious impulse whatsoever … I always want to respond: Really? You have never felt overwhelmed by, and in some way inadequate to, an experience in your life, have never felt something in yourself staking a claim beyond yourself, some wordless mystery straining through word to reach you? Never?”
Most believers seem to have had these magical moments of wonder and clearest consciousness, which suggested a dimension of existence beyond the everyday. Maybe it happened during childbirth, with music, in nature, in love or pain, or during a moment of overwhelming gratitude and exaltation.
These glimmering experiences are not in themselves faith, but they are the seed of faith…
These moments provide an intimation of ethical perfection and merciful love. They arouse a longing within many people to integrate that glimpsed eternal goodness into their practical lives. This longing is faith. It’s not one emotion because it encompasses so many emotions. It’s not one idea because it contains contradictory ideas. It’s a state of motivation, a desire to reunite with that glimpsed moral beauty and incorporate it into everyday living.
To see what a sneaky trick Brooks is trying to pull here, imagine he’d said that the experiences of childbirth, music and love justify faith in Jesus’s resurrection. Or in Allah’s revelation to Mohammed. Brooks goes on to assert that “Religion may begin with experiences beyond reason, but faith relies on reason” — but that’s just false: religious faith is defined as belief without evidence, which is the antithesis of reason. Appreciating the awe-inspiring moments of our lives, even those we do not fully understand, does not require that we accept any unjustified beliefs about the nature of the universe. In fact, doing so can be extremely dangerous, which Brooks fails to acknowledge — though we need only consider how his idealized picture plays out in the real world:
All this discerning and talking leads to the main business of faith: living attentively every day. The faithful are trying to live in ways their creator loves… They are using effervescent sensations of holiness to inspire concrete habits, moral practices and practical ways of living well.
Indeed: That’s exactly what ISIS is doing when it enforces sharia by the sword. And that’s what the Catholic Church is doing when it fights contraception and abortion and gays. Who’s to say what it is that the creator loves? Or hates?
The problem with religious faith is that it fills the void of doubt with conviction that cannot be argued with. Brooks tries to make it look respectable, but faith is a thief taking credit it hasn’t earned. We are better served by letting the wonders of our universe inspire us to expand our knowledge through careful reasoning, one step at a time. As for those mysteries we haven’t yet solved, we should reserve judgement — never surrender them to faith.
A gift that keeps on giving December 21, 2014Posted by Ezra Resnick in Computer science.
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- Prepare 5 blank papers, and number them (#1 to #5).
- On paper #1, write: “Prepare 5 blank papers, and number them (#1 to #5).”
- On paper #2, write: “Start a fresh page, and copy the contents of paper #1 onto it.”
- On paper #3, write: “Then, for each of the numbers 1 through 5, write on the fresh page:”, followed by quotation marks, followed by “On paper #X, write:”, followed by quotation marks, followed by “, followed by quotation marks, followed by the contents of paper #X, followed by quotation marks (where X is replaced first by 1, then by 2, etc. — five lines in total).”
- On paper #4, write: “Then copy the contents of papers #2, #3, #4, and #5 onto the fresh page.”
- On paper #5, write: “Give the page to a friend.”
- Start a fresh page, and copy the contents of paper #1 onto it.
- Then, for each of the numbers 1 through 5, write on the fresh page: “On paper #X, write:”, followed by quotation marks, followed by the contents of paper #X, followed by quotation marks (where X is replaced first by 1, then by 2, etc. — five lines in total).
- Then copy the contents of papers #2, #3, #4, and #5 onto the fresh page.
- Give the page to a friend.
Judge sentences 11-year-old to death by tradition November 18, 2014Posted by Ezra Resnick in Belief, Law, Superstition.
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Not in Saudi Arabia. Not in Afghanistan. In Canada.
An emotional dispute over a family’s decision to pull their cancer-stricken daughter out of chemotherapy ended Friday with a potentially far-reaching constitutional decision, as a judge ruled First Nations’ people have a legal right to seek out traditional native remedies.
Which apparently trumps the right of the child to not die.
[Ontario Justice Gethin Edward] rejected a request by the hospital that had been treating the 11-year-old girl to force the local children’s aid society to apprehend her so she could resume chemotherapy. Doctors have said her kind of leukemia has a 90% cure rate with modern treatment, but is an almost certain death sentence without it.
Earning applause from many in a packed courtroom Friday, the judge said traditional health care is an integral part of the family’s Mohawk culture and therefore protected by the Constitution.
What if beating children were also an integral part of the family’s culture? Or sacrificing them to the gods? What good is a constitution that fails to protect children from needless harm?
Evidence showed the mother from Six Nations reserve is “deeply committed to her longhouse beliefs and her belief that traditional medicines work,” said Judge Edward.
So the court relied on evidence to show that the mother’s beliefs are sincere, but didn’t care what the evidence says about whether those beliefs are true. Because everyone knows that statistics don’t apply to you if you don’t believe in them.
“This is not an eleventh-hour epiphany employed to take her daughter out of the rigours of chemotherapy,” he said. “Rather it is a decision made by a mother, on behalf of a daughter she truly loves, steeped in a practice that has been rooted in their culture from its beginnings.”
Harmful practices need to be rooted out, not perpetuated, no matter their pedigree. A child could understand that. How many more children must die just so a tradition might live?
Playing by the rules November 15, 2014Posted by Ezra Resnick in Game theory, Logic.
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“Sure! But first we need to agree on the rules.”
“Of course. I propose that we take turns proposing rules.”
“Agreed, and since you just proposed the first rule, I guess I get to propose the next one.”
“Wait a minute: I didn’t propose a rule for the game itself — I merely proposed a rule for how we ought to go about proposing the game rules.”
“Apologies; yours was indeed a meta-rule. In that case, let me propose a meta-rule of my own: Any disagreement about a proposed game rule will be decided by flipping a coin.”
“I’m not sure I agree with that.”
“Well, we haven’t yet agreed on a method for resolving disagreements about meta-rules. Do you have a suggestion?”
“How about we take turns: one of us gets to decide the first disagreement, the other decides the next disagreement, and so on.”
“OK, then: following your meta-meta-rule, I now get to decide our meta-rule disagreement about how to resolve disagreements about game rules.”
“Hold on: Who said you get to decide the first meta-rule disagreement?”
“Well, I let you determine the meta-meta-rule on how to decide meta-rule disagreements, so now it’s my turn.”
“Nice try, but we never agreed on how to resolve disagreements about meta-meta-rules. You can’t just make unilateral assumptions.”
“Well, how come you got to propose the first meta-rule to begin with? If you get to propose the first meta-rule then I should get to decide the first meta-rule disagreement.”
“Then I get to propose the first game rule.”
“First, I propose the following meta-rule: If the first rule proposal is challenged and loses the coin flip, the challenger must propose the following as his next rule: ‘The winner is whoever proposed playing the game.'”
“I don’t agree to that!”
“Noted, but according to our meta-meta-rule, it’s my turn to decide in case of disagreement on a meta-rule. And now for my first proposed game rule: The winner is whoever proposed playing the game.”
“Even if I disagree I still lose. Nicely played.”
“Thanks! That was fun.”
“Indeed. But maybe we should play a different game next time?”
“Sure! As long as we can agree on the rules…”
If gerrymandering were allowed outside politics November 2, 2014Posted by Ezra Resnick in Politics.
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- “So what if I was driving 10 mph over the speed limit? Yesterday I drove 15 below.”
- “You may have won two out of three games, but I scored more points in the first three quarters of the first game and in the last three quarters of the last game. So I win the series.”
- “I know you’re entitled to a refund for unused items, but since you bought four items and used two we’re considering all the items half used.”
Bewitched October 12, 2014Posted by Ezra Resnick in Belief, Religion.
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Some horrifying yet hardly unprecedented news from the year 2014:
Tanzanian police have charged 23 people with murder after seven villagers were burned alive on suspicion of witchcraft…
A Tanzanian human rights group estimates that 500 suspected witches are killed in Tanzania annually…
Witnesses say some of the victims were attacked with machetes and their homes burned…
Belief in witchcraft is prevalent in many parts of Tanzania.
Between 2005 and 2011, reports say around 3,000 people were killed after being accused of being witches.
Several of the victims were old women but witch doctors — village healers who are sometimes involved in the witch hunts — have also targeted young children and albinos, the latter because their body parts are thought to bring prosperity.
Some obvious and uncontroversial observations:
- There’s no such thing as witchcraft. People who believe in witchcraft are wrong.
- Belief in witchcraft motivates some people to kill innocents (who they would not otherwise kill).
- The fact that people believe in witchcraft is bad: our world would be a better place if no one believed in witchcraft. We should actively and unambiguously criticize the belief in witchcraft, in an attempt to eradicate it.
- The fact that a majority of those who believe in witchcraft are nonviolent and condemn murderous witch hunts doesn’t mean that belief in witchcraft isn’t a problem and shouldn’t be criticized; nor should such criticism be conflated with bigotry or discrimination towards peaceful believers in witchcraft.
In other horrifying yet hardly unprecedented news from the year 2014:
As the militant group the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, has seized vast territories in western and northern Iraq, there have been frequent accounts of fighters’ capturing groups of people and releasing the Sunnis while the Shiites are singled out for execution.
ISIS believes that the Shiites are apostates and must die in order to forge a pure form of Islam…
In a chilling video that appeared to have been made more than a year ago in the Anbar Province of Iraq, ISIS fighters stopped three truck drivers in the desert and asked them whether they were Sunnis or Shiites. All three claimed to be Sunni. Then the questions got harder. They were asked how they performed each of the prayers: morning, midday and evening. The truck drivers disagreed on their methods, and all were shot.
I was going to make some observations about Islam, but I wouldn’t want to be a racist imperialist fascist bigot.
Freedom of superstition July 3, 2014Posted by Ezra Resnick in Freedom, Law, Religion, Superstition.
You keep using that term, “freedom of religion” — I do not think it means what you think it means. The problem is that everyone thinks their own religion is eminently reasonable and wise, while all other religions are mistaken at best. And there’s no way to ever work out which is right, since they’re all equally unsupported by evidence. So, while people shouldn’t be persecuted because of their religious beliefs, the flip side is that those beliefs don’t (or shouldn’t) confer any magical “get out of jail free” cards, either: the law must be strictly secular, with no religious exceptions. People often conveniently forget this when their own religion is the beneficiary (at the expense of those who don’t share it).
So here’s my proposition: “freedom of religion” will be renamed “freedom of superstition.” That should help clear up any confusion about what is and isn’t included. You’re free to be as superstitious as you want in your private life; it’s just that you can’t force anyone else to respect your superstitions, or expect to be exempted from any laws because of them.
Let’s give it a try: Your superstition tells you that your neighbor is a witch? You’re free to shun her, but not to burn her. Your superstition forbids contraception? You’re free to eschew it, but not to make it less accessible to others. Your superstition demonizes gays? You’re free to not have sex with people of your own gender, but not to discriminate against those who do.
What’s that? You don’t like your sacred, heartfelt convictions referred to as superstitions? Well, then, all you have to do is bring forth good evidence to support them — at which point we can all get on board, no special pleading necessary. Until then, I wouldn’t talk so loud. You’re entitled to your own opinions, but you’re not entitled to your own facts and you’re not entitled to your own laws.