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Never let logic and science interfere with your gut April 22, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Ethics, Freedom.
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In Haaretz, Anshel Pfeffer discusses a recent San Francisco initiative to criminalize neonatal circumcision — the proposed ban would make it illegal to remove the foreskin of a boy under the age of 18 on the pain of a $1,000 fine and a year’s imprisonment. Well, perhaps “discusses” is too generous: Pfeffer apparently doesn’t think that the genital mutilation of children is a subject that calls for careful reasoning and sound argument — he offers us puns and sarcasm and appeals to emotion instead.

Pfeffer admits that circumcision cannot be justified merely because it’s tradition (“just use your imagination and think of the long list of atrocities and crimes against humanity that come under the heading of ‘coveted rituals'”), and that there’s no compelling medical rationale for it either; but apparently none of that matters, because:

This is not a debate for logical or scientific arguments. I find it hard to articulate a sound moral justification, but I know that if I will again be blessed with a son, he will be circumcised.

Well, then, case closed. Still, you might be wondering why Pfeffer is so intent on circumcising his sons, and why he is against the San Francisco initiaitve. He does eventually attempt to make an argument:

My real objection to the intactivists [those opposing neonatal circumcision] is not based on reason or religion, it is my gut feeling that they are infernal busybodies. They are the kind of people who under the guise of liberal values, want to invade my home, family and dinner plate and I feel it is our duty to stand up to them. No infant genitalia were harmed in the writing of this column, but I did go through half a pack of Marlboros, sitting and writing at an outdoor table of my local Jerusalem cafe.

All the butts were responsibly deposited in an ashtray and the second-hand smoke wafted harmlessly into the spring sky. Such conduct would have cost me a $500 fine in San Francisco. I’m sorry if that’s the best argument I can come up with, but I want to live in a country where I can choose to kill myself slowly with nicotine ‏(financing the health system with my cigarette taxes in the process‏) and be allowed to responsibly continue whatever family tradition I prefer.

Didn’t Pfeffer previously say that tradition was not a sufficient defense? In any case, I agree that Pfeffer should be free to kill himself in any manner he chooses — so long as he doesn’t harm anyone else.  If Pfeffer would try thinking with his brain instead of his gut, he would realize that neonatal circumcision is not analogous to an adult choosing to smoke; it’s more like a parent jamming cigarettes into his infant child’s mouth and forcing him to inhale (in the name of family tradition). While doing so might provide more taxes to finance the health system, I doubt Pfeffer would want to defend such a practice. But then, why bother to defend your views at all, when you can just follow your gut?

Responsible rituals April 21, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Belief, Ethics, Religion.
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Rituals can be very powerful, and it’s no surprise that they play a central role in human culture — and in religion particularly. Indeed, I think that for many people, rituals are at the core of what their religion means to them. Most religious people don’t care much about theological arguments, scriptural scholarship, etc.; they associate their religion with a set of traditions which they find meaningful, and which have become a part of their identity. Therefore, critics of religion are often treated like the Grinch who wants to steal Christmas: it is imagined that a secular world would be bland and joyless, that those rationalists won’t rest until they’ve canceled every song, every celebration, every holiday.

This is, of course, untrue. I have nothing against rituals in principle: they can serve many positive functions, like strengthening communities and families, celebrating shared values, dealing with sorrow and loss, expressing gratitude, marking life’s milestones, and just having fun. Even if the particulars of some rituals are arbitrary or have superstitious origins, they can still take on whatever meaning we give them and become cherished parts of our culture and of our lives.

The problems begin, however, when rituals are given a hallowed status; when they become ends in themselves; when traditions are preserved just because they’re traditions. We have a responsibility to carefully consider all the consequences of our actions — especially those that affect children — and traditions are no exception. Some traditions that made sense in the past may need to be changed in order to remain relevant in today’s world. Some traditions may be found, upon reflection, to cause more harm than good, and ought to be modified or discontinued. Some traditions, such as neonatal circumcision (not to mention atrocities like female genital mutilation), are downright immoral and should be opposed and eradicated.

Even if a ritual is apparently innocuous, it may still be problematic if it’s used to support indoctrination — to inculcate beliefs for which there is no good evidence. While temporarily playing along with a fiction (such as the tooth fairy) can be fun and harmless, we must be aware that children cannot always tell the difference between mythology and reality. Religious people often hide (disingenuously) behind this ambiguity. At the end of the day, we must make it clear to our children which stories we consider historically accurate and which are just stories. Is Moses like George Washington or like Apollo? Does heaven exist in reality or only in our imaginations? We shouldn’t assume that children understand what is meant to be taken literally and what is not. (Even some adults don’t seem to be too sure about that.) Beliefs have consequences: there really are people killing each other over fictional characters.

It’s also important to be aware of the values that are promoted (explicitly or implicitly) in our rituals. Unsurprisingly, ancient traditions often reflect ancient worldviews that we should not be eager to endorse: the subordination of women, the celebration of violence, and so on. Many rituals seek to strengthen in-group loyalty and cohesion by demonizing outsiders — for example, the Passover Seder includes a prayer for Yahweh to pour down his wrath upon those nations that do not worship him. When such attitudes are professed repeatedly and without criticism, children will inevitably absorb them into their worldviews.

Rituals are powerful, and can therefore cause harm as well as good — so they must be used responsibly. We must not forget that our rituals are meant to serve us, and not vice versa. Traditions should not be perpetuated automatically and mindlessly: they must be reexamined critically by every generation. No ritual is set in stone. We have the right and the duty to reshape or replace the rituals we have inherited, so as to leave better ones for our children. Let that be our tradition.

Life-giving statistics April 16, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Math, Science.
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The goal of science (and, presumably, of all rational beings) is to understand the world we live in. Unfortunately, our world is fraught with uncertainty, and our lives are often ruled by chance. We have therefore developed tools for quantifying uncertainty — allowing us to take it into account in our calculations. Statistics are all around us, and we try to use them when making our life decisions. It is well known, however, that human intuitions about probability are very bad — which is why it’s so important for everyone to be mathematically literate, including an understanding of basic probability theory.

One simple yet extremely useful tool that everyone should be familiar with is Bayes’ theorem:

Bayes’ theorem shows how to calculate the conditional probability P(A|B) — the probability that A will occur given that B has occurred — based on the inverse probability P(B|A), along with the unconditional (“prior”) probabilities of A and B. (The theorem is easily derived from the following identity: the probability that both A and B will occur is equal to P(A) multiplied by P(B|A), and also to P(B) multiplied by P(A|B).)

For example, consider a genetic disease that is known to afflict one person out of 100,000. It is possible to test for the genetic marker associated with the disease, but of course the test is not perfect: let’s assume that the false-positive rate is five percent (i.e., 5% of healthy people test positive) and the false-negative rate is one percent (i.e., 1% of diseased people test negative). Still, this seems like a pretty reliable test: it gives the correct result for 95% of healthy people and 99% of diseased people. So, if you took this test and the result was positive, you would probably be seriously worried, thinking that you most likely have the dreaded disease. This is where Bayes’ theorem can be a lifesaver.

Let’s use the theorem to calculate the probability of a person having the disease (A) given that his test result was positive (B). We assumed that P(A) = 1/100,000 (the prior probability of having the disease), and that P(B|A) = 99/100 (the probability of testing positive given that you have the disease). To compute P(B) — the prior probability of testing positive — we need to factor in both true positives and false positives; but since the prior probability of having the disease is so low, the combined value is only marginally higher than the false-positive probability of 5/100.

Putting it all together, we find that P(A|B) — the probability of a person having the disease given that his test result was positive — equals 99/100 multiplied by 1/100,000, divided by (slightly more than) 5/100. The result? Less than 1 in 5,000! In other words, even if your test result was positive, your chances of having the disease are still only about 0.02%. Your risk is twenty times greater than the general population, but it’s still highly likely that you are disease-free. This counter-intuitive result is due to the fact that the disease is quite rare to begin with, and consequently the vast majority of positive test results will be false positives.

In his essay “The Median Isn’t the Message,” Stephen Jay Gould describes the crucial role that scientific and mathematical knowledge came to play in his own personal life, while criticizing people’s “common distrust or contempt for statistics”:

Many people make an unfortunate and invalid separation between heart and mind, or feeling and intellect. In some contemporary traditions, abetted by attitudes stereotypically centered on Southern California, feelings are exalted as more “real” and the only proper basis for action — if it feels good, do it — while intellect gets short shrift as a hang-up of outmoded elitism. Statistics, in this absurd dichotomy, often become the symbol of the enemy. As Hilaire Belloc wrote, “Statistics are the triumph of the quantitative method, and the quantitative method is the victory of sterility and death.”

This is a personal story of statistics, properly interpreted, as profoundly nurturant and life-giving. It declares holy war on the downgrading of intellect by telling a small story about the utility of dry, academic knowledge about science.

After being diagnosed with mesothelioma, a rare and incurable cancer, Gould learned that his condition had a median mortality of only eight months — meaning that half of all people in his situation were dead within that time period. He was stunned for some minutes; but then “my mind started to work again, thank goodness.” As an evolutionary biologist, Gould knew that “variation itself is nature’s only irreducible essence,” while “means and medians are the abstractions.” What he had to do was place himself amidst the variation: figure out whether he was likely to belong to the fifty percent above the median. After a “furious and nervous” hour of research, he concluded that, based on his personal characteristics, his chances were in fact very good. Furthermore, the mortality distribution was “right skewed,” meaning that the lifespans of those who live longer than the eight month median stretch out over several years.

Attitude and mindset are known to matter when fighting disease. Gould credits his scientific training with giving him the knowledge he needed in order to correctly interpret the statistics, understand his situation, and avoid despair: “From years of experience with the small-scale evolution of Bahamian land snails treated quantitatively, I have developed this technical knowledge — and I am convinced that it played a major role in saving my life. Knowledge is indeed power…”

Stephen Jay Gould died in May, 2002 — twenty years after his mesothelioma diagnosis.

Zombies April 13, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Evolution.
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The jungle can be a dangerous place.

Four new species of brain-manipulating fungi that turn ants into “zombies” have been discovered in the Brazilian rain forest.

These fungi control ant behavior with mind-altering chemicals, then kill them…

Once infected by spores, the worker ants, normally dedicated to serving the colony, leave the nest, find a small shrub and start climbing. The fungi directs all ants to the same kind of leaf: about 25 centimeters above the ground and at a precise angle to the sun (though the favored angle varies between fungi)…

Before dying, ants anchor themselves to the leaf, clamping their jaws on the edge or a vein on the underside. The fungi then takes over, turning the ant’s body into a spore-producing factory. It lives off the ant carcass, using it as a platform to launch spores, for up to a year.

Watch this video if you dare:

Such parasitic phenomena are not at all rare in nature. One interesting thing to notice is that the behavior of an infected host appears utterly baffling, until we understand that it is serving the parasite’s interests and not its own. Daniel Dennett opens his book Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon using zombie ants as an analogy:

You watch an ant in a meadow, laboriously climbing up a blade of grass, higher and higher until it falls, then climbs again, and again, like Sisyphus rolling his rock, always striving to reach the top. Why is the ant doing this? What benefit is it seeking for itself in this strenuous and unlikely activity? Wrong question, as it turns out. No biological benefit accrues to the ant. It is not trying to get a better view of the territory or seeking food or showing off to a potential mate, for instance. Its brain has been commandeered by a tiny parasite, a lancet fluke (Dicrocelium dendriticum), that needs to get itself into the stomach of a sheep or a cow in order to complete its reproductive cycle. This little brain worm is driving the ant into position to benefit its progeny, not the ant’s. This is not an isolated phenomenon. Similarly manipulative parasites infect fish, and mice, among other species. These hitchhikers cause their hosts to behave in unlikely—even suicidal—ways, all for the benefit of the guest, not the host.

Does anything like this ever happen with human beings? Yes indeed. We often find human beings setting aside their personal interests, their health, their chances to have children, and devoting their entire lives to furthering the interests of an idea that has lodged in their brains.

All true believers break their eggs at the convenient end April 9, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Humor, Politics, Religion.
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In Jonathan Swift’s Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, Gulliver finds himself in the middle of a prolonged war between the two great empires of Lilliput and Blefuscu:

It is allowed on all hands, that the primitive way of breaking eggs, before we eat them, was upon the larger end; but his present majesty’s grandfather, while he was a boy, going to eat an egg, and breaking it according to the ancient practice, happened to cut one of his fingers. Whereupon the emperor his father published an edict, commanding all his subjects, upon great penalties, to break the smaller end of their eggs. The people so highly resented this law, that our histories tell us, there have been six rebellions raised on that account; wherein one emperor lost his life, and another his crown. These civil commotions were constantly fomented by the monarchs of Blefuscu; and when they were quelled, the exiles always fled for refuge to that empire. It is computed that eleven thousand persons have at several times suffered death, rather than submit to break their eggs at the smaller end. Many hundred large volumes have been published upon this controversy: but the books of the Big-endians have been long forbidden, and the whole party rendered incapable by law of holding employments. During the course of these troubles, the emperors of Blefusca did frequently expostulate by their ambassadors, accusing us of making a schism in religion, by offending against a fundamental doctrine of our great prophet Lustrog, in the fifty-fourth chapter of the Blundecral (which is their Alcoran). This, however, is thought to be a mere strain upon the text; for the words are these: ‘that all true believers break their eggs at the convenient end.’

On one of his subsequent voyages, Gulliver visits the Grand Academy of Lagado, where scientists are hard at work on many useful inventions for the benefit of society:

Another professor showed me a large paper of instructions for discovering plots and conspiracies against the government. He advised great statesmen to examine into the diet of all suspected persons; their times of eating; upon which side they lay in bed; with which hand they wipe their posteriors; take a strict view of their excrements, and, from the colour, the odour, the taste, the consistence, the crudeness or maturity of digestion, form a judgment of their thoughts and designs; because men are never so serious, thoughtful, and intent, as when they are at stool, which he found by frequent experiment; for, in such conjunctures, when he used, merely as a trial, to consider which was the best way of murdering the king, his ordure would have a tincture of green; but quite different, when he thought only of raising an insurrection, or burning the metropolis.

The baby and the bathwater April 8, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Belief, Reason.
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The water is warm and comforting and familiar. Surrounding me from all sides, it makes me feel secure and special. The water has been here for as long as anyone can remember.

It gradually dawns on me, however, that the water may not be as perfectly beneficial as I had thought. It limits my movement, and separates me from others. If I look closely, I can see that the water is rather dirty and polluted, with various parasites and leeches lurking just beneath the surface. (The water has been standing still for ages, after all.) Painful as it is to admit, I think that the water is actually making me sick.

I cry out for the water to be drained away. But I am not heeded. At first, I am told that the water cannot possibly be the cause of my ailments: everyone knows that water is good. Those maladies that seem to be coming directly from the water are not the water’s fault — if there were no water, they would simply be caused by something else (and the situation would undoubtedly be even worse).

As my waterlogged skin turns blue and my toes go numb, I beg again for the water to be let out: its ill effects are now undeniable. Even so, I am told, letting out the water would be most foolish: for I would surely be sucked down the drain along with it. Is not the water warm and comforting? Does it not make me feel secure and special? The water is necessary for my own good.

But surely, I protest, there are other sources of warmth and comfort and security? Surely I am larger than the drain holes, and can withstand the removal of the poisonous water? But my protests are rebuffed: I may think I am large and strong, but in fact I am small and weak. Water is life, and without it I am nothing.

I sink further and further down, and begin to gasp and choke. As the toxic tide engulfs me, I manage to ask the smiling faces all around me one last question: What do you actually care about — the baby or the bathwater?

It is so easy to hide our ignorance April 5, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Belief, Evolution, Science.
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In the last chapter of The Origin of Species, Darwin attempts to explain why “all the most eminent living naturalists and geologists” reject his theory, and how he expects that situation to change:

the chief cause of our natural unwillingness to admit that one species has given birth to other and distinct species, is that we are always slow in admitting any great change of which we do not see the intermediate steps. The difficulty is the same as that felt by so many geologists, when Lyell first insisted that long lines of inland cliffs had been formed, and great valleys excavated, by the slow action of the coast-waves. The mind cannot possibly grasp the full meaning of the term of a hundred million years; it cannot add up and perceive the full effects of many slight variations, accumulated during an almost infinite number of generations.

Although I am fully convinced of the truth of the views given in this volume under the form of an abstract, I by no means expect to convince experienced naturalists whose minds are stocked with a multitude of facts all viewed, during a long course of years, from a point of view directly opposite to mine. It is so easy to hide our ignorance under such expressions as the “plan of creation,” “unity of design,” &c., and to think that we give an explanation when we only restate a fact. Any one whose disposition leads him to attach more weight to unexplained difficulties than to the explanation of a certain number of facts will certainly reject my theory. A few naturalists, endowed with much flexibility of mind, and who have already begun to doubt on the immutability of species, may be influenced by this volume; but I look with confidence to the future, to young and rising naturalists, who will be able to view both sides of the question with impartiality. Whoever is led to believe that species are mutable will do good service by conscientiously expressing his conviction; for only thus can the load of prejudice by which this subject is overwhelmed be removed.

We didn’t start the fire April 3, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Freedom, Religion.
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In response to an American pastor burning a copy of the Koran, an Afghan mob attacked a local United Nations compound, killing fourteen people, two of whom were beheaded. Clearly, there is no room for even-handedness in our reaction — the blame for this senseless violence lies entirely on one side:

the head of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (Unama), Staffan de Mistura, said during a visit to Mazar-e Sharif that the only person who could be blamed for the violence was the American pastor.

“I don’t think we should be blaming any Afghan. We should be blaming the person who produced the news — the one who burned the Koran. Freedom of speech does not mean freedom from offending culture, religion, traditions.”

Wait, what!? First of all, as Ophelia Benson points out, the pastor didn’t burn the Koran, he burned a Koran: his own private copy of a mass-produced book of which there are millions of other copies. His motivation may have been nefarious and his action obnoxious, but he was within his rights. The blame here lies entirely on those people who believe such an action provides any justification whatsoever for violence — and on the worldview that underlies that belief. If you think the way to respond to this eruption of barbarism is to stop people from insulting Islam, then you are part of the problem. It is precisely because Islam legitimizes violence in response to any criticism that it is so important to continue criticizing Islam — and to protect people’s right to do so freely.

If freedom of speech doesn’t include the freedom to offend people’s culture or religion or tradition, then what the hell is it good for?

The incomprehensible is incomprehensible April 1, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Language, Literature.
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Kafka’s “On Parables:”

Many complain that the words of the wise are always merely parables and of no use in daily life, which is the only life we have. When the sage says: “Go over,” he does not mean that we should cross over to some actual place, which we could do anyhow if the labor were worth it; he means some fabulous yonder, something unknown to us, something too that he cannot designate more precisely, and therefore cannot help us here in the very least. All these parables really set out to say merely that the incomprehensible is incomprehensible, and we know that already. But the cares we have to struggle with every day: that is a different matter.

Concerning this a man once said: Why such reluctance? If you only followed the parables you yourselves would become parables and with that rid yourself of all your daily cares.

Another said: I bet that is also a parable.

The first said: You have won.

The second said: But unfortunately only in parable.

The first said: No, in reality: in parable you have lost.