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.

Losing Things

I just read Gina Barreca's post, Everything You Lose Makes Room for Something New and it reminded me of two things. One, a vilanelle by Elizabeth Bishop that I have a love-hate relationship with called 'One Art'. Although it's 'about' the death of her partner, my favorite lines are:

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.

The whole poem is here.

The second thing this post reminds me of is my own just-so postcard that Shanti sent me from Geneva when I was studying in Lahore. The quote, from Jules Renard, reads:

Ecrire, c'est une façon de parler sans être interrompu.

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.'

Benazir Bhutto's book, women, Islam, Pakistan, etc.

The Australian published an excerpt from Benazir Bhutto's book yesterday in which she speaks of starting college in the US in 1969, where she experienced firsthand the rights and freedoms that Americans took for granted. She also arrived at a time when feminism was finally gaining some ground in the US. What struck me though, was this passage:
My parents had taught me that men and women are equal in the eyes of God, that the first convert to Islam was a woman, that the prophet of Islam married a career woman, that the line of the prophet was carried through his beloved daughter Fatima, and that on the day of judgment all souls would be called in the name of the mother.

She goes on to add that,

...despite this emphasis on women's rights and the importance of women in Islam, all around me I could see that women were not treated with much importance in Pakistan, nor did they have many rights.

The rest of the article deals with her realization that any true improvement in Pakistani society would come only with an improvement in the condition of women, starting with education. That's not exactly a revelation, but I don't think it's meant to be - I think this is simply the story of how she came by her beliefs. Which is why I'm not taking it up.

What struck me about the excerpt was the first paragraph that I've quoted above. It shows, I think, the basic class divide that exists in the country, not so much between rich and poor as between educated and illiterate (though the two are obviously related and overlap considerably). That right there is the version of Islam that we were taught as children in school and at home - that at bottom, there is no difference in the worth of men and women - and that formed the basis of our idea of what this religion that we were born into stood for.

Before we read any actual scripture or learned to say our prayers, we were taught that Islam meant progress, equality, tolerance, kindness, honesty, and so on. And even when we did come to reading parts of the Koran in Islamiat classes, they only confirmed all that we had been taught before. As a girl, I was never fed the patronizing "you're as good as any boy" line but rather, "you're a person; you can be as good as you want to be."

So when people ask me now about how "intolerant" Islam is and how difficult it must be to live in an "Islamic" society, it takes me a minute to process the question. First of all, I don't think Pakistan is an "Islamic" society (despite the unfortunate change of name), but a Muslim one, at least for the time being. I say that because the term 'Islamic' now describes strict adherence to the letter of the law, as it were, at the expense of the spirit. To me, the term 'Muslim', in contrast (and probably in reaction) means pretty much what the term 'Christian' means today: someone brought up in a culture that grew out of a religion and that consequently maintains some contact with the spirit and trappings of that religion. (As I write this though, I'm aware that in some parts of the world, most notably the USA, 'Christian' increasingly means evangelical or fundamentalist. Here's hoping secular America and Europe manage to hold out.) To me, Pakistanis are - or at least have been until recently - what Faiz called 'cultural Muslims' - public rituals, such as weddings and funerals, are carried our according to a certain formula, but personal belief (or lack thereof) is, well, personal.

Secondly, the reason the question of the "oppressiveness" of Islam doesn't compute, is because I have never directly experienced it. I know that there are some horrific laws in place in Pakistan, but all my life all I've heard is how 1) there is no place for them in Pakistan and 2) that even if Pakistan were to go ahead with the "Islamic" thing, that these laws contravene the spirit of the religion and that the powers that allowed their institutionalization did so by fooling the uneducated masses into believing they were doing something sanctioned by religion, ie, 'good'. I am aware that there are people who routinely suffer as a result of these laws and also as a result of other laws in place in other countries that also purport to be 'Islamic'. But I am also aware that there are people - Muslims - fighting tooth and nail to change or remove these laws altogether and to protect and advocate for their victims.

My own beliefs notwithstanding, I still cannot equate the word "Muslim" with "fire-breathing, bearded/hijab-ed fundamentalist" despite the best efforts of the international press (generously assisted by the fundamentalists themselves). I had, however, forgotten why, until I read what Bhutto had written. As I've said before, I was no supporter of hers, but I realize that she did represent 'my' kind of Pakistani - she went to school with my mother, for heaven's sake. I don't know that she would have done Pakistan any good as PM this time around (except in terms of appeasing the 'West'), but she was certainly more 'one of us' than any of the people who'll be vying for power next Monday.

Multilingual poetry!

I found this bit of gorgeousness via languagehat, a blog I've only just started reading.

Antoine Cassar writes in five different languages, but rather than write one poem in one language, he has attempted to "braid" all five together into single poems, called Muzajik or Mosaics. The results are intriguing. The first and third link will take you to some of his poems, and while you're there I'd recommend listening to the posted recordings. I've found, in my brief encounter with them, that the different languages gel well with each other and form very interesting poetry. He's woven the sounds of the different languages together wonderfully in the poems I've heard so far (Go listen).

In the Chimera piece(first link), Cassar says:

"...the mosaics are more than a mere linguistic challenge. Having lived in five different European countries and languages, I find it difficult to decide which tongue I feel more at home with. Although I still write monolingual poetry occasionally (particularly in Maltese), I believe that selecting one, or even two, would mean sacrificing others, and to a certain extent, I feel that making a choice would also imply a political decision. Why the fixation with one as opposed to many?"

I think that's what immediately appealed to me. Being multilingual, one tends to code-switch - or at least want to code-switch - quite a bit, and it is sometimes frustrating to have to limit oneself to just one language when another would fit a particular situation so much better. Given that there are probably more bilinguals and multilinguals in the world than monolinguals, it is worth asking why the majority has to limit itself for the sake of the minority. (And the over-generalized answer, probably, is that the minority is more powerful or influential - neither of which is to be construed as pejorative.)

There are more things to address here, not the least of which is Cassar's project to include languages he does not speak into the mosaics, but as the project is, as far as I can tell, still gathering steam, I expect there will be more opportunities to do so. In the mean time, I'm just going to go enjoy what there is.

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.


At Ameel's insistence, I finally started using Google Reader a few months ago. It was a bit weird at first because one of the things you lose is each blog's individual look and feel. But although there are a few blogs that I still mark as read in GR and then go and read at the actual site, I'm mostly over that and am quite happy to say that it's very handy. It's also somehow made it easier to keep adding blogs to my list now that they come to me. And that is what this post is about. My blogroll is out of date and I've been meaning to fix that, but as I do, I thought I'd write a bit about the blogs and feeds I read, particularly the new ones. In alphabetical order, too!

Ameel's Career & MBA Exposition(ACME): This is Ameel's "professional" blog, in which he talks school, career, and tech. I find it interesting not just because he's my husband (of 4 years as of today) but because it's full of information and links to information on technology, particularly as it relates to the WWW.

Arts & Letters Daily: As the name suggests, AL Daily is a listing of articles of note concerning books, writers, current events, education and culture. The articles come from a range of sources and represent differing opinions. If I'm at a loose end, I'll usually go there and browse through the archives or go through the links on the left - I don't know how many there are but I can safely say I have not looked at them all and probably won't be able to. There is seriously tons to read.

Bad Astronomy Blog: I probably would not have found this blog if Phil Platt (the Bad Astronomer himself) had not written about the bad physics in the Transformers movie. I've been hooked pretty much since I read that. The posts about astronomy are interesting enough on their own, specially given the enthusiasm with which he writes, but there's also quite a bit of coverage about the religiosity against which scientists and skeptics have to fight in the US. Some is scary, but mostly it's just very funny. The website also debunks such conspiracy theories as the moon hoax and tackles astrology and pseudoscience among other things.

Bitchitorial: Written by Natalie P., owner and webmistress of Heartless Bitches International, this blog replaced the Bitchitorial section of the site itself, although the site is alive and well. It's not updated very often, but I find her straight-talking, no-nonsense perspective on everything wonderful to read.

Eglantine's Cake: Author Penni Russon maintains this blog, where she writes about things that she wants to write about. This can range from writing about writing, books, work, kids, teaching, projects, home, cooking, people, research, issues or anything else, really.

Pharyngula:I heard about PZ Myers on the Bad Astronomy Blog and eventually followed a link to his blog. Myers is a biologist and a leader in the charge against nonsense like 'intelligent design' and other pseudoscience that seems to be gaining increasing currency, particularly in the US. Tangles with creationists and right-wingers are common and very entertaining.

PunkAssBlog: I've only just started reading this one, but it's quite interesting. Written by a number of contributors, its commentary on current events is sarcastic, intelligent and very entertaining.

Random Tangent: Ameel's personal blog.

Science Based Medicine: This is a vey interesting and informative new blog written by five regular contributors and a few guests. All writers have medical credentials and some are fairly well known online already. The point of this blog, as laid out here is to "scientifically examine medical and health topics of interest to the public. This includes reviewing newly published studies, examining dubious products and claims, providing much needed scientific balance to the often credulous health reporting, and exploring issues related to the regulation of scientific quality in medicine." Today's post about 'Alternative Flight' is well worth a look.

Stephen Fry: To quote a friend, "Stephen Fry has a blog? Stephen Fry has a blog? Stephen Fry has a blog? Heart of my heart, Stephen Fry has a blog?" And he's a geek. *swoon*

The Happy Feminist: This is another new addition to my reading list. I've been going through her posts as thoroughly as possible because what she seems to routinely make good points about women in (American) society. Take a look here, for example. She's articulate, interesting and thoughtful, which gets my vote.

The Little Professor: I don't remember where or when I came across this blog, but it's become something of an old friend. There are posts about novels, the Victorian novel, teaching, universities, teaching at university, grading, academics, and so on. I particularly like the lists of books and the 'numbers' posts.

I think that's it for the time being, though in the course of writing this I managed to find at least a dozen more blogs that look interesting, so I may be back with a new list once I'm done getting to know them a bit.  In the mean time, if I've misrepresented anyone's blog or got anything wrong, I apologize and will fix it if I catch it or if you let me know where the eff-up is.

It’s A Blog!

We've been kicking around the idea of adding a blog to the site because it's just more convenient than uploading entire pages each time I write a new paragraph. Admittedly, it's not that many pages but hey, if I can do something in two clicks instead of three, I'm happy. So we finally did it (or rather I very generously offered to take out the trash while Ameel got it all organized and installed) and here I am with my shiny new blog all set to go. Ameel will be setting his up shortly too so do check back for it.