Skeptical Humanities

The best sentence I have read all week:

Postmodern criticism that finds the meaning “outside” of the text is especially vulnerable to this type of goof, and when you fuse the two in Lacan, you get unfettered bollocks.

That's from a blog post called Psychoanalytic Literary Theory: Where Freud Ended Up, by Bob Blaskiewicz at Skeptical Humanities.

The post itself is a wonderful takedown of one of my pet peeves. I find Freud interesting and important as a historical figure and as one of the people responsible for the development of psychology--even if he was wrong about the specifics--but I am often frustrated by the uncritical use of psychoanalytic theory as if it were some sort of universal truth handed down by the ancients and not something that has been largely discredited by newer research. You can imagine, then, just how happy I was to read this post and this sentence in particular.

Organic Investigations 1 - Potatoes?

I've been curious about what exactly 'organic' means in Australia. I started off thinking it was pretty much the same bullshit as it is in the US, as Brian Dunning points out here and here, but given I have very little information on Australian farming practices or corporations' involvement with organic produce (and very little time to look these things up) I'm reserving my judgment. I don't buy organic though - not the produce and certainly not the rhetoric - but I have vague plans of conducting some research into the subject as and when I can before I write it off completely. At the moment, this consists of little more than taking a claim and comparing it to what I can observe personally and/or find out from a reliable source. Information, comments, suggestions are all welcome.

Today, for instance, Rebecca Blood linked to an article titled The 7 Foods Experts Won't Eat. Ignoring for a minute that this article quotes 'nutritionists' among other 'experts' and is therefore suspect, the potato example raised a few questions for me.

4. Nonorganic Potatoes

The expert: Jeffrey Moyer, chair of the National Organic Standards Board

The problem: Root vegetables absorb herbicides, pesticides, and fungicides that wind up in soil. In the case of potatoes—the nation's most popular vegetable—they're treated with fungicides during the growing season, then sprayed with herbicides to kill off the fibrous vines before harvesting. After they're dug up, the potatoes are treated yet again to prevent them from sprouting. "Try this experiment: Buy a conventional potato in a store, and try to get it to sprout. It won't," says Moyer, who is also farm director of the Rodale Institute (also owned by Rodale Inc., the publisher of Prevention). "I've talked with potato growers who say point-blank they would never eat the potatoes they sell. They have separate plots where they grow potatoes for themselves without all the chemicals."

The solution: Buy organic potatoes. Washing isn't good enough if you're trying to remove chemicals that have been absorbed into the flesh.

I don't buy 'organic' potatoes. I buy the 'conventional' ones you get at Woolworth's, and I've left mine lying around long enough for them to start sprouting on several different occasions over at least 3 years of living here.

So are potatoes sold/grown in Australia are not treated with the same cocktail of pesticides and fungicides or is Mr Moyer simply wrong about their effects?

Australia may have different environment from the US, but it stands to reason that the same crops grown in both places would require the same conditions and be vulnerable to the same infestations, and would therefore require the same treatments. But I don't know that for sure. On the other hand, it is not uncommon for proponents of organic produce to overemphasize the use (and implied harmful effects) of 'chemicals' in conventional farming and gloss over their use in organic farming, but that doesn't mean that everything they say is automatically unsound.

I also wonder what measures against fungus and insects the potato-growers mentioned above use to protect the potatoes they grow 'without all the chemicals', given that 'organic' pesticides are also 'chemicals' - just sourced from plant or animal matter as opposed to manufactured in a big scary lab.

Like I said, I haven't got any answers at the moment, but if I find any, I shall post them here.

You need to read this

This was published over at the Science-Based Medicine blog a few months ago and caught my attention thanks to today's blog post over there. It's a droll account of how the nonsense that is 'Complementary and Alternative Medicine' managed to sell itself not just to the public but to the medical establishment to the point that it gets written about in medical journals and taken seriously by people who should know better.

What is particularly interesting to me in this is the use of language to effect this coup. Change language and you change perception indeed.

Well, Jeff, quackery is a pejorative term. Some time ago we recognized that words raise emotions and mental pictures. We recognized the cognitive dissonance raised by them, so we tried to eliminate quackery. We recognized the cognitive dissonance raised when one discusses acupuncture, chiropractic, homeopathy, and healing at a distance as if they were quackery when we made claims. For a century, most people just could not allow for the possibility that these things really work.


So over time we recognized that we had to do something about our language. That would be the first step in enabling the thought revolution that is upon us, and changing the paradigm in medicine and science. We simply changed the adjectives, and gave alternate names to the methods, added a few phrases to eliminate negative reactions, and shifted the negative terms to descriptions of the Medical Establishment (and, note the caps in that one.)

And along with that, we took advantage of a shift in perception, to be sure that the public would adopt a non-judgmental attitude. Of course, we had to wait decades for that attitude to mature to the point that they would be willing to give our claims a hearing, whereas just thirty years ago they would have dismissed the claims out of hand.Not only did we get that non-judgmental mind-set, but with it, a strong negative reaction to a description that contained an opinion or one that used any kind of loaded language to describe an underdog - no matter how true or justified that language happened to be. Fortunately for us, a wave of change spread across the intelligentsia, especially in the universities and the literary community, reinforced by the press.

Thoughts inevitably turn to Orwell, but also to Deborah Tannen, Francis Wheen, Barbara Ehrenreich and many others who've been trying, each with the tools at their disposal, to point out that what we're doing is tantamount to, as my brother put it, 'shooting ourselves in the foot while being chased by a steamroller.'

Russell revisited

I didn't rush to read Dawkins when The God Delusion came out and I've only read the first chapter because it's available online. That isn't because I don't want to read him - I do and I think it's important to do so if only because his writing has, for better or worse, formed a lot of the basis of what is, at least in the US, being dubbed 'new atheism'. Vocabulary and focus shift over time, I suppose, and it's good to stay current. That said, I re-read Bertand Russell's "Why I Am Not A Christian" this morning after doing a random search and it struck me how little one would need to change his arguments - first articulated in a speech made in 1927 - to apply them to today's so-called 'debate'. For example:

On 'First Cause'
I may say that when I was a young man...I for a long time accepted the argument of the First Cause, until one day, at the age of eighteen, I read John Stuart Mill's Autobiography, and I there found this sentence: "My father taught me that the question 'Who made me?' cannot be answered, since it immediately suggests the further question `Who made god?'" That very simple sentence showed me, as I still think, the fallacy in the argument of the First Cause. If everything must have a cause, then God must have a cause.

On the 'natural law' argument, which today could be applied to the 'intelligent designer' argument and which served as an unwitting precursor to the inane 'it's just a theory' statement:
the whole idea that natural laws imply a lawgiver is due to a confusion between natural and human laws. Human laws are behests commanding you to behave a certain way, in which you may choose to behave, or you may choose not to behave; but natural laws are a description of how things do in fact behave, and being a mere description of what they in fact do, you cannot argue that there must be somebody who told them to do that, because even supposing that there were, you are then faced with the question "Why did God issue just those natural laws and no others?" If you say that he did it simply from his own good pleasure, and without any reason, you then find that there is something which is not subject to law, and so your train of natural law is interrupted. If you say, as more orthodox theologians do, that in all the laws which God issues he had a reason for giving those laws rather than others -- the reason, of course, being to create the best universe, although you would never think it to look at it -- if there were a reason for the laws which God gave, then God himself was subject to law, and therefore you do not get any advantage by introducing God as an intermediary. You really have a law outside and anterior to the divine edicts, and God does not serve your purpose, because he is not the ultimate lawgiver. In short, this whole argument about natural law no longer has anything like the strength that it used to have. I am traveling on in time in my review of the arguments. The arguments that are used for the existence of God change their character as time goes on. They were at first hard intellectual arguments embodying certain quite definite fallacies. As we come to modern times they become less respectable intellectually and more and more affected by a kind of moralizing vagueness. [my emphasis]

He tackles the 'design' argument directly as well, though I think Russell's use of the word is slightly different from what we mean today:
...since the time of Darwin we understand much better why living creatures are adapted to their environment. It is not that their environment was made to be suitable to them but that they grew to be suitable to it, and that is the basis of adaptation. There is no evidence of design about it.

When you come to look into this argument from design, it is a most astonishing thing that people can believe that this world, with all the things that are in it, with all its defects, should be the best that omnipotence and omniscience have been able to produce in millions of years. I really cannot believe it. Do you think that, if you were granted omnipotence and omniscience and millions of years in which to perfect your world, you could produce nothing better than the Ku Klux Klan or the Fascists?

On the moral argument:
Kant, as I say, invented a new moral argument for the existence of God, and that in varying forms was extremely popular during the nineteenth century. It has all sorts of forms. One form is to say there would be no right or wrong unless God existed. I am not for the moment concerned with whether there is a difference between right and wrong, or whether there is not: that is another question. The point I am concerned with is that, if you are quite sure there is a difference between right and wrong, then you are in this situation: Is that difference due to God's fiat or is it not? If it is due to God's fiat, then for God himself there is no difference between right and wrong, and it is no longer a significant statement to say that God is good. If you are going to say, as theologians do, that God is good, you must then say that right and wrong have some meaning which is independent of God's fiat, because God's fiats are good and not bad independently of the mere fact that he made them. If you are going to say that, you will then have to say that it is not only through God that right and wrong came into being, but that they are in their essence logically anterior to God.

There are more arguments than just these, naturally, and I recommend them highly not just for their content but for the elegance and wit with which they are made. Russell talks about how religion is based on fear and emotion and argues that it has retarded, and continues to oppose, progress. While parts of the essay feel a bit dated now, it is remarkable that they only need a tiny bit of trimming to be applicable 81 years since they were first written. Also, although Russell speaks of Christianity specifically and devotes part of the essay to Christ, it should be obvious from what I've quoted above that his argument is quite portable and argues against religion in general. And, despite the title, the essay is a positive one that ends on a hopeful note.
We want to stand upon our own feet and look fair and square at the world -- its good facts, its bad facts, its beauties, and its ugliness; see the world as it is and be not afraid of it. Conquer the world by intelligence and not merely by being slavishly subdued by the terror that comes from it. The whole conception of God is a conception derived from the ancient Oriental despotisms. It is a conception quite unworthy of free men. When you hear people in church debasing themselves and saying that they are miserable sinners, and all the rest of it, it seems contemptible and not worthy of self-respecting human beings. We ought to stand up and look the world frankly in the face. We ought to make the best we can of the world, and if it is not so good as we wish, after all it will still be better than what these others have made of it in all these ages. A good world needs knowledge, kindliness, and courage; it does not need a regretful hankering after the past or a fettering of the free intelligence by the words uttered long ago by ignorant men. It needs a fearless outlook and a free intelligence. It needs hope for the future, not looking back all the time toward a past that is dead, which we trust will be far surpassed by the future that our intelligence can create.